Back to Nonsense.

My friend’s little boy was born in July. Soon he will do his phonics check along with the children who are almost a year older than him. He likes books a lot but he has less time to read at the moment because he’s spending a lot of time doing his Phonics Check homework. For example, last night he had a sheet of 40 words. Forgive me, not words. I’m not quite sure what to call them because most of them aren’t real words. Anyway, having sounded them out, he had to then underline all those he thought were not real words. He was mostly successful. His Mum, not familiar with the processes of primary education, asks me “what is the point of this?” I open a bottle of wine…

There are thousands of words in the English language that would be unfamiliar to most six year olds. Imagine how much more fruitful it would be to tell them that all the words on the list are real. To ask them to identify instead which were familiar and unfamiliar? To then go on to choose five or more, find out their definitions and try to use them in conversation? One of the biggest barriers for children educationally is vocabulary. An unfamiliar word on an exam question can throw a student into panic. And it was well documented this year how familiarity with words like ancestor became synonymous with success on the reading test.

While I don’t support the notion of a core knowledge curriculum as such, I do very much believe that children should have access in school to a rich range of knowledge and vocabulary in order to build up their cultural capital. The nonsense words on the phonics check distract teachers, parents and pupils away from this much greater and more important goal. It’s time we moved away from single minded, silver bullet thinking, and consider instead how a pedagogical process can achieve multiple aims which ultimately benefit the child and not, as Nick Gibb admitted recently, simply hold a school to account.


Ofqual: Shameful and Shambolic.

So we hear from Ofqual today that in future it will be more difficult for young people to have their marks changed on appeal after sitting an exam. It’s one of the worst examples I’ve ever seen of an organisation moving to protect its interests at the expense of the purpose for which it was set up. Ofqual was established to ensure the fairness and consistency of the exam system. In today’s decision, it shows itself to be simply a protector of the interests of the examination boards.

At a point in time where a student’s ability to show resilience by re-sitting examinations and demonstrating improvement has not only been shut down by the Secretary of State, but positively hailed as a triumph, Ofqual put the boot in to say that even if you have been unfairly marked, there will be little course for redress. It’s a pincer movement which removes hope from the lives of young people who are increasingly being written off by a flawed and failing system.

As long ago as 1996, Wilmot et al showed in their research that marking even from the same examiner was inconsistent and flawed. Ofqual claim that if the marking criteria has been applied more harshly by one examiner than another, then the student should not have their mark altered. Under this rule, my son’s mark for an English Literature paper would have been left as a D. Yet when we appealed it, it went up to a B, giving him an A overall. It should not be even possible for the marking criteria to be so vague that one marker can see a D where another sees a B. Yet as any of us who have ever attended a standardisation meeting will attest, it is. This is not a fault of the student or their teacher, but of the examination criteria. Yet, it would seem that Ofqual are more interested in protecting this flawed system than ensuring that it works. Had these new rules applied, he would have missed out on his place at Oxford, where he went on to thrive and achieve a high 2:1. How many students under this new ruling will find their lives ruined as a result?

None of this even takes into consideration the extreme range of capability and experience of the examiners themselves. Last year, the major examination boards were recruiting markers who were not teachers and had no experience of the syllabus at all. Some were undergraduates. A chief examiner told me that she had been sent papers to mark on RESULTS DAY as a result of examiner shortages and that the students had been sent preliminary results instead based on predicted grades. When the quality of markers is as disparate as this and when the exam boards are so desperate for markers that they are offering already overloaded examiners double money plus bonuses for taking on extra, it is no wonder that mistakes are made. Yet instead of tackling this problem head on, Ofqual chooses instead to throw a shabby blanket over the mess and to make it harder for anyone to lift it up and see what’s underneath.

It has long been the principle of remarking that papers will be viewed by someone with experience within the board. This means that even if your paper was marked by a hungover second year student, in the event of a remark, it would be seen by a team leader with many years of experience of marking. This right has now been removed under the assumption that all examiners are equal. They are not.

Let’s not forget that the GCSE is in an ongoing state of flux, that AS levels are newly decapitated from A Level and no-one knows how that’s all going to work in terms of marking. Even the most seasoned examiners are in new territory so this decision seems even more insane. Surely in a period of unprecedented change across the whole system, it’s better to keep an open mind on re-marks?

If we had a strong body of examiners, well trained, well paid and who were given time to mark with careful consideration, things might be different. But we don’t. If we had a balance between examination and coursework, it might be different, but that’s gone. If we built in opportunities for children to resit exams (as many times as it takes to get to the standard expected – isn’t that the very definition of resilience?), it might be different. But we took that away too.

If there was ever an example of how rotten our reliance on exams has become, it is this. Last year saw the highest number of requests for remarks ever. A student was more likely to have their mark altered if they got their request in early – within a few weeks, the boards were moving to protect themselves. And now they’re shielded from all responsibility. It is a sham. And a whole generation of young people will pay the price for the rest of their lives.



Northern Workhouse

There’s been another North/South divide report out today pointing out that children do worse in the North than in London. Well except in primary. Primary kids do quite well. And in Warrington and Trafford. The report pauses here to consider how it might be that these two boroughs do better than, say Oldham. I could have saved them a bit of time. Two words. House prices. Cheshire is posh innit? I mean there are, as there are anywhere, pockets of poverty. But in Oldham, the trousers are made out of poverty with a couple of pockets of affluence up there in Saddleworth.

Still, let’s not be picky. The North does worse than London. London used to be shocking apparently, but now things have improved. Two words. House prices. Have you seen those images of how the demographic of London has shifted due to rising rental and property prices? It’s shocking. Move the poorest out, educational outcomes go up. Teach First claim credit.

Then there’s the immigration factor. People say those words like they’re obvious. Hmm, yes the ‘immigration factor’. Thing is Oldham has plenty of immigrants. But like any aspect of human life, race isn’t a straightforward issue. Class impacts on race. London has more educated, highly aspirational immigrants and refugees who value education. They may be poor, but theirs is situational poverty – a form of poverty that sees a potential future which is more affluent. For them, education is part of the journey to that future. That’s not to say poor white or immigrant families do not value education, but first generation immigrant communities who risked a great deal to leave home and travel to the UK for a better life, are far more likely to push their children than second or third generation immigrant communities dealing with generational poverty, disaffection and racial tensions. In these largely Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, Islamaphobia is a real and present danger. It’s hard to trust an education system in a society that seems to view your religion as a form of radicalisation. Barriers build up between communities and schools and these make learning harder for children. As one 8 year old Muslim child told my son in an ‘intercultural’ visit between their two schools:-

“People ask me if I have a bomb in my back pack. They don’t like us.”

Then of course, there’s the issue of funding. The IPPR report rightly points out that London schools get more money than those in the North. This in spite of the fact that for the kids in London, public transport is free. Here, kids have to pay £5 just for the right to get a pass that entitles them to child fares. And even then, the fares are extortionate. Ask a teacher in the North why they take so few school trips and they’ll point to the cost of transport. In London, that’s not an issue. Nor is access to a plethora of free cultural experiences and an enriching array of architecture and history on the doorstep.

Still, the report is upbeat about the answers. More CPD for teachers and more TeachFirst. Now I can see, even in a recruitment crisis, young graduates beating a door to work in London for a couple of years before getting a job in a bank. But Oldham? Don’t get me wrong. I live here and love it. But it’s not a big draw for a 21 year old with a first in Maths from Oxford is it? Not even the brass bands contest can pull them in. Instead, why don’t we look at what we already have here? The existing teachers who have worked here for years, dealing with every funding cut, every shifting goalpost, every increase in child mental health issues, every hideous situation arising from poverty and disaffection you can imagine…why not invest in those who are here and who already know? Those who say “what we need are more resources, the freedom to take these kids out of their field of experience and show them how amazing other places, times, cultures can be. What we need is time to embed change before the next one swoops in. What we need is a recognition that contacts matter, that aspiration can only occur when role models are present.”

For a child growing up in London in particular, where the classes are unusually integrated, it is not unusual to see someone in a suit walk down your street. In some parts of the North, only the bailiff wears a suit. It’s hard to imagine being a doctor or a lawyer or a rocket scientist if you never meet one. It’s why I love the work of the Opportunity Network in New York. Established by Jessica Pliska, it recognises that the biggest barriers for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, are not academic success, but contacts and confidence. The network arranges placements, internships, visits to universities and work places, mentoring, work shadowing, mock interviews and a whole host of other opportunities to young people. It’s incredibly successful. It’s what we need. A Northern Role Model and Mentoring House.

The gap here is not simply in education. It’s in town planning. In infrastructure. In housing. In the jobs market. In networking. If we can get those right, education will be able to do its job. With the people already there, in schools, doing it but having the road to success finally cleared for them. We really are in this together if we want it to work.


White Working Class Boys

There has been noise today about the data that suggests that white children are not doing as well as children from ethnic minorities in school. Of course, the reality of this data is that it is white working class boys who are not doing as well in school. And this has been known for some time. It’s a difficult and complex issue to address, tied into a web of biology, culture, gender representation and educational philosophies, but there are some things we really should know about as teachers and parents that might help move some of these issues forward.

I mentioned in a previous post on poverty the role of hormones on learning – particularly that of cortisol. Cortisol is known as the ‘stress’ hormone for a reason and in short, sharp bursts, it can focus concentration. But over time, children living under constant stress, are significantly impacted. Cortisol affects the immune system, meaning that children living in stressful environments are more likely to suffer illness and miss school. It also affects memory, making learning so much harder. And in boys, who don’t have oxytocin to offset the effects of cortisol on emotions, it makes for less empathy and more social withdrawal. This, in combination with the presence of testosterone makes it more likely that boys under stress will react with aggression and show less empathy towards those they disagree with. A recipe for punishments and exclusions, and indeed, if we look at the figures, boys are far, far more likely than girls to be excluded.

Getting into trouble, being ill and forgetting stuff does not make for effective learning. But surely, one would then say, ALL boys under the stress of poverty would do badly not just the white ones. And when one accounts for class, this is also true. But white boys do worse. So we have to move on to cultural factors too. And this is much trickier without starting to head into the territory of making huge assumptions about different ethnic groups. For example, we might say that women from ethnic communities are more likely to stay at home with their children. But is this true of all ethnic communities? No. And does staying at home make for a better learning environment than high quality EYFS provision? We’d have to surely say “it depends”. We might say that the capacity to speak more than one language strengthens cognitive function and so makes learning easier. But are all children from ethnic backgrounds EAL learners? No. We might say that people who have made the effort to migrate for a better life value education more and are more likely to push their children to make that “better life” a reality. The truth is probably a combination of these and many other factors.

And there is also diet – something we hugely underestimate when it comes to learning. White working class children are more likely to consume a high sugar diet with processed carbohydrates than those eating Mediterranean, Asian or African foods at home. And those foods inhibit concentration considerably when there is no opportunity to burn off the energy they produce. Is it possible that diet might impact? What about access to alcohol? Are white working class boys more likely to drink, smoke, take drugs? Why?

I don’t have answers. I’m asking questions. But the point is that this is a hugely complex issue. None of which will be remotely addressed by switching all schools to academy status, bringing textbooks into the classroom or having zero tolerance discipline policies. All that will do is lead to more exclusions for this most vulnerable of groups.

We must stop using data to feed a failure narrative that focuses on a narrow spectrum of society. Education is a factor not THE factor. An integrated approach to health, wealth, access to cultural and artistic experiences, diet, attitudes and gender representations is required if we’re really going to impact on this group of kids. Anything less is an abdication of responsibility.

A Compassionate Education

DSCN0541Since I returned from Kakuma refugee camp last year, I’ve been preoccupied with the question of how we educate young people to care about and be equipped with the skills to find solutions to the complex issues of population movements in the world. For what is the purpose of education, if not to make the world a better place? In order to achieve that, we need to move beyond a knowledge rich curriculum to one that places moral, social and global issues at its heart, with a pedagogy that encourages deep thinking, empathy, autonomy and problem solving. Knowledge has a role to play in such a curriculum, but it is not the end point: it is a part of the journey.

When I returned from Kakuma, I had a Skype conversation with the head of an International School in Hong Kong, Richard Parker. He was about to move to take up a new post at the International School of London (Woking campus), and moved by the Kakuma blogs, he wanted to work with me to develop an event at his school to advocate for the rights of refugees. We planned a three day experience for students called “Forced to Flee” and yesterday they performed their learning in a moving and thoughtful presentation in front of the refugees who had helped them to understand what it was to have no choice but to leave everything you’ve ever known behind.


Ahmed told the children his harrowing story, showing them images of his devastated home town. Coming from a middle class family, he’d had a great life in Syria, with a bright future. Then the Arab Spring started to bubble up and young people in Syria, disillusioned with their government, started to protest, peacefully, for democracy. Their protests were put down quickly and brutally. He recalled a day where 35 young people were gathered in the square at the insistence of the authorities, in front of their parents and neighbours and were executed as an example of what would happen to any protesters in future. Their heads were hung around the city and anyone who attempted to remove them was shot. Quickly, war broke out. He found himself standing between radicals, rebels and regime, damned if he joined one, damned if he didn’t. For many young men, under pressure to choose a side, the only way to stay alive was to get out. He began to volunteer with the UN as his city collapsed into rubble and eventually made his way, with thousands of other Kurdish Syrian refugees, to Iraq where he volunteered for the UNHCR to help with new arrivals. Then one day, ISIS attacked them, forcing the refugee population and Iraqi Kurdish Yazidis up into the mountains.

Starving with no water, people began to die. Mothers, giving birth to still born babies, or newborns that survived just hours or days, had nowhere to bury them. The ground was too hard and stony. The only option was to throw the bodies of the dead off the mountainside. It was weeks before the UN started dropping emergency food supplies. And even then, the parcels fell on the people, killing them as others scrambled for their contents.

Ahmed returned to Syria, but the war had escalated even more – life was impossible and so he decided to try to cross the border into Turkey. It was closely guarded by Assad’s troops who had orders to shoot anyone trying to cross. Only for ten minutes, around midnight, was passage possible when, for some reason, the lights were out. The crossing involved a river – you had to be fast. At the ten minute point, the lights would come on and snipers would pick off the refugees still trying to cross. Mostly women and children, because they were slower.

He had not realised, as a Kurdish Syrian, how hostile the Turks would be to him. Attacked again, he became increasingly desperate to get as far away as possible. He continued to work with the UN helping as many people as possible while he waited for his opportunity. Elsewhere, ISIS were taking young women and girls and imprisoning them as sex slaves. He recounted how in one rescue operation, a 12 year old girl had been smuggled over the border into Turkey and the German authorities had agreed to take her in as part of a deal with the UNHCR. Ahmed had helped the girl, arranging her flight and putting her up in a hotel the night before she was due to go to start her new life. She had been taken by ISIS two years before after her parents had been killed in front of her eyes. Then 10 years old, she had been repeatedly raped. Now she was safe. But she committed suicide in her hotel room before her flight. She couldn’t trust anyone.

Ahmed was distraught. Turkey was a dangerous place for Kurdish people. Refugees lived in terror of ISIS raids over the border into neighbouring counties. Nowhere felt safe. His only other language was English – he had heard that the UK was a kind and tolerant society. His language skills were good. It made sense to come here. He had money – his family had been wealthy enough for him to be able to pay smugglers to get him across to Greece. A terrifying boat ride with 88 people in a dinghy designed for 20, and he was there. And there were no shortage of smugglers on the other side willing to take his money for fake documentation. The trick was to tell them only that you wanted to stay in Greece. If they thought you wanted to go further, they would assume you had more money, kill you and take your remaining cash and possessions. Every step is fraught with danger.

It was in Calais that he almost lost hope. It seemed impossible to get across the channel. Conditions in the jungle were horrendous. Smugglers were ruthless – they knew that these people, having made it so far, were going to do anything and pay whatever they had, to make the crossing. Why? Some had family in the UK. Others thought that being able to speak English would make building a new life easier. Most believed that the UK was a kind and decent society. That they would finally feel safe. Eventually, he found someone prepared to take him, in a truck full of flour with six other people. They quickly realised that they were in danger. The flour came up to their chins and they started to choke and suffocate. The driver refused to let them out, ignoring their cries that they were dying. He drove off and hours later, dumped their unconscious bodies on the Italian border. He was alive, barely, but miles from where he had hoped to be. When, months later, he finally made it into the UK and his phone lit up with the message “welcome to the UK” he fell to his knees with gratitude and relief. Now he has to fight to stay.

Hearing his testimony and seeing this beautiful, witty, engaging and kind human being unfold tales of unimaginable horror had a profound effect on the students. These are fairly privileged pupils – international schools are private schools and the other participants were from Wellington College. The two state schools who had signed up to take part pulled out the day before. They were unwilling to release staff to accompany children in one case, and in the other, realised that some of the pupils who wanted to come had a mock exam on Monday. They wouldn’t allow them to participate – they wouldn’t have missed the test, but the school felt they ought to be revising over the weekend for this pretend test. Sigh. Nevertheless, the remaining students there were shocked and appalled at the treatment of this man and wanted to find a way of communicating their understanding. They had also heard from a teacher who had fled the siege of Sarajevo in 1992 and whose tales of inhumanity and suffering were equally troubling. They talked and explored ideas and created a piece of theatre to communicate their message to a packed audience (forced to sit, crowded onto mats the size of the average dinghy crossing the Med). Being a refugee is not a choice. Caring for refugees is a responsibility. It was that simple. But they found a myriad of beautiful ways to communicate it. Through the design of their set:


To the songs and poems they wrote and the movement sequences they performed. Their parents were blown away.

And it doesn’t end here. The pupils have committed to return to school and run assemblies and fund raisers. To spread their message far and wide. They will stay in touch with Ahmed and other refugees in the local community to work out what they can do to help. They’ll return for a bigger and better event next year – hopefully one that will draw in the state sector. So if you’re in the London/Woking area and are interested in becoming involved, get in touch. This is education. Not mock exams.


10 Ways SLT can Reduce Teacher Workload

I’ve talked to some senior leaders recently about teacher workload and received less sympathy that I expected in response to the idea that teachers are breaking under the strain. While most are deeply worried about their staff, some seem less concerned. I think that when human beings are under stress they are less able to empathise with others and that’s one reason for this, but also I sometimes feel frustrated by a lack of will and imagination. Even where leaders seem concerned, they sometimes throw out red herrings in dealing with the issues. Here are three things I’ve heard in response to tales of teacher stress and breakdown:-

“She’s her own worst enemy – she’s too much of a perfectionist” (this of a teacher repeatedly asked to share her best practice with others as an exemplar).

“They’ll get a shock if they move on – conditions are far worse elsewhere.”

“It’s the cuts – we just can’t do anything to ease their workload.”

But it is possible to make life a whole lot better for teachers. One way to start is to accept that the working day of a mainstream, full time teacher might not be the same as it was when you were one. Even just in the past three years, the marking frenzy sparked by those immortal words “progress over time” has made the experience of anyone who hasn’t had to deal with a full timetable more or less obsolete. That’s not a criticism – it’s a reality. A good starting point, when a member of staff says they’re cracking under the strain, is to believe them and accept that it’s not their fault. Then, as a school consider what you might do to help. I know that most of the suggestions below are more applicable to secondary schools. But then I think staff are generally less isolated in primaries and isolation is a really big problem when dealing with stress. In fact, before I go on, think about what you can do to get teachers into the staffroom, talk to each other and take breaks! (Clue: Cake).

  1. Think about timetabling. Several schools I’m working with have increased the length of lessons to between 90 and 100 minutes. It’s a bit of a shock at first – you have to plan differently to fill that amount of time in a meaningful way, but it means that some staff see more of fewer pupils, reducing marking. And even for those who don’t feel that benefit, once in the mindset of planning for extended periods of time (which allows pupils time to produce extended pieces of work), there is actually less planning and the day feels less packed. In a day with three 100 minute lessons, there is a break on either side – no dashing from lesson to lesson without time to pee. And the reduction in changeover, registration and settling time means the pupils get more genuine contact time. It also means that when staff get a “free”, they have a substantial amount of time to get something meaningful done.
  2. Think about timetabling so that at least two groups of the same subject/year group are on at the same time and encourage a culture of team teaching. This means that teachers can put groups together for periods of time for lecture style sessions, freeing up the other from time to time. While I wouldn’t overuse this, some short, lecture style activities are appropriate and part of a broad academic diet – it also prepares pupils for university style learning. In addition, teachers can plan together, share the burden of producing resources, swap classes and expertise and switch children between classes as appropriate. It also means that subjects who may feel that filling 100 minutes is difficult ( a common argument from MFL for example), teachers can co-plan much more activities and swap groups around, mixing lectures, supported independent learning and seminar style learning.
  3. Consider the point of parent’s evenings. We dropped them altogether and replaced them with a more open door ethos – children presenting their learning to parents at end of year review; open lessons that parents could drop in to; drop-in “ask the personal tutor” occasionally during term time. Attention was paid to where conversations needed to take place – more phone calls home at times that were relevant and pertinent to the issue as it arose, and an automated system of praise post cards generated by a quick online click and sent out by admin staff.
  4. Drop the ridiculous expectations about marking and evidence in books that have arisen from the fear that Ofsted will complain about a lack of work. Ofsted have been clear that they don’t expect every piece of work to be marked, certainly not triple marked. Learning happens in brains, not in books and if the children are not given time to process, discuss and articulate their learning, it is rarely retained. The fear of not having extended pieces of work in books is reducing the time children spend talking in class. This is not a good thing. Encourage your staff to allow children to evidence their learning in all kinds of ways and let them take responsibility for evidencing it when the inspectors call – by talking to them.
  5. Use some of the brilliant resources online to reduce marking time – coding, peer assessment, targeted marking etc can cut down a teacher’s workload while also making the pupils more agentive and responsible for their learning – enhancing their understanding along the way.
  6. If you can say it in an email, don’t set up a meeting for it. Never use your CPD time for information giving. Never send emails to staff after 5.30pm and don’t expect immediate replies.
  7. Let your staff decide what their CPD priorities are and give them time and scope to explore them. If they want to redesign resources/planning/assessments, let them use CPD time to do so – it’s ridiculous to expect everyone, regardless of their level of experience and expertise, to sit in the same PD session when many of them are learning stuff they already knew or things that have little relevance to them or their subject. It’s great to have moment of inspiration, but let staff learn from each other, co-plan and link that to a chance to engage with some wider reading. Why not give at least half of your PD time to planning great lessons, team teaching or co-observing? All will reduce teachers working in isolation at home and create a more collaborative working environment.
  8. On that note, accept that twilights are probably the worst possible times to engage anyone in deep thinking about learning. Your whole staff are wiped out at that stage in the day. What about having one morning or afternoon a week where the pupils are off timetable and staff are engaged in meetings/PD? Sounds mad? It’s doable if you slightly extend the days on the other four days – start at 8.45 now and finish at 3.15? Start at 8.35 and finish at 3.30. Over the course of the other four days you have made up the lesson time lost by finishing at 1pm on the Friday or Wednesday. You’ve also reduced after school meeting slots meaning staff have more time to plan and mark before they go home.
  9. Train your middle leaders and yourselves to always think about the time implications of a request. Ask the member of staff how long the request will take to action and when, realistically they think they can have it done by. Work to the realities of their timetables, not your expectations. If you needed it yesterday, you’re at fault for not planning ahead.
  10. You will, no doubt, have to deal with members of staff from time to time who are lazy, uncaring or unwilling to work in the best interests of pupils. But they are rare. In the same way we teachers have to step back sometimes from our perception that a whole class is “terrible” until we recognise that it’s just a couple of difficult pupils creating ripples, managers have to do the same with staff.  In the words of Mary Myatt, “no-one sets out to do a rubbish job”. Plan your structures and routines around the expectation that everyone is doing their best and deal with the ones who aren’t as outliers. Never moan about “the staff”. It’s not fair to the majority. Could you apply the new Ofsted ethos to your staff? If proven good, you treat them as remaining so unless evidence points to the contrary. Is it really necessary to observe everyone? To go on learning walks (you can’t see learning, by the way)? Would learning walks be better conducted by people wanting to witness and learn from good practice – i.e. as a PD opportunity for staff rather than a quality check for management? Could you cover some lessons to make this happen?

Oh and one more…

11. If, as a school, you have a policy of setting detentions for misdemeanours, have the children given detentions come to a central location after school and arrange a rota for supervision so that there is one member of teaching and one member of support or senior staff taking the detention rather than many members of staff, all over the school, monitoring and supervising the same thing. If managed well, each teacher would only have to supervise one or two DTs per year. Make your processes for logging and recording misbehaviour as streamlined as possible – writing in planners is extremely time consuming for a teacher at the end of a lesson – how might this simply involve the click of a button?

I’m not saying these changes would make the lives of teachers completely better, but they’d mark a shift away from deficit thinking towards a more collaborative and trusting culture. I’m not saying these are perfect solutions – I’m thinking off the top of my head. But something needs to be done and if we wait for that something to come from government, we’ll be lucky if there are any staff in our schools left at all.

Beautiful Work, Beautifully Done

Some schools blow your mind. You go in and never want to come out again – that’s School 21 in Stratford, London. It’s a free school. Squirm. But like, it’s a FREE school. In that it hasn’t set itself up to protect the interests of the children of a few middle class people. Or to rescue a mediocre private school losing fee paying students. Or to conform to the norm with little imagination just for a bit of extra cash. This is a school that said “if we could start from scratch, what could we achieve”? And believe me, that’s rare.

I’d rather a free school had an ideology I disagreed with that no ideology at all. And what I saw here was a beautiful combination of rigour and creativity; of collective responsibility and individuality; of freedom and responsibility. I always say to teachers when I’m working with them “know why you do what you do.” Here, not only the teachers know why they do what they do but so do the pupils. On my way round, I’m encouraged to find chinks. To critique. And while I know there must be some, I couldn’t find them. What I found was wall after wall crammed full of truly beautiful work. What I heard were murmurs of purposeful talk. No silent corridors. But calm, happy chatter.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m tired of the false dichotomy of traditional versus progressive – it seems to me to only apply to those determined to reject any child centred approach at all. But here, there is absolute discipline. There is a commitment to excellence – to drafting, redrafting and being held accountable. There is a commitment to outcome and to knowledge. But everything is framed in a “so what?” attitude. What is the point of learning if no-one hears you? What is the point of academic success if you can’t interview successfully? What is the point of knowledge if you don’t use it to change the world? The mission statement says it all:-

“To create beautiful work that makes a difference to the world.”

Ron Berger’s Ethics of Excellence are not simply talked about in this school, but they are plastered all over the walls in the drafts and redrafts of children’s work – right through from reception. Displays matter.

School21 portraits

In the hall there is a zone labelled the “War and Conflict Zone” and inside it are two huge chess tables. Each piece of the chess game is a sculpture created by Year 9 pupils exploring the Cold War. In project based learning, they have examined the key players in the Cold War, researched them and created a chess piece to represent them. They have then argued, debated and reached a consensus about who was who. What was the King? A Pawn? A Castle? Why? Their understanding is extraordinarily sophisticated.


Head of project based learning, Joe Pardoe, explains that he feels our education system is predicated on an assumption that children don’t know until we tell them – a preemptive system. He gives several examples of where this has been shaken by his pupils – those who could already speak Russian for example who brought so much to a project on the Russian Revolution. Or one who brought in prior knowledge of Rousseau when exploring the French revolution.

“It’s so much better to start with what they already know and work from there,” he says. Simple and obvious. Why don’t we all do that? Well, you need three things – time, structure and purpose.

On the walls of the project based learning area are clear targets, deadlines and goals.

“Creativity operates within constraints,” he explains “deadlines, briefs, obstacles…” And so the children are given creative briefs, but within tight and demanding constraints.

The structure of how the sessions operate is made explicit. They start each 100 minute session with a 20 minute lecture – “there is a place for the didactic and for teacher talk.” On the board is written “University style lecture.” It’s clear that the routines of Higher Education are writ large in the minds of everyone involved. Underneath it says “University style seminars” and during the lesson, pupils will be withdrawn, 12 at a time, to work with a member of staff in response to a text they were given to read in advance. Flipped learning, you might call it. The rest of the time is given over to individual project work, with Joe circulating and offering feedback to pupils.

“In an average lesson, I probably get to spend 3 minutes one to one with each pupil – it’s not much” he shrugs. But it’s more than most teachers can say.

The results are evident in the levels of focus and commitment from the pupils – there’s a concentrated level of engagement across the group. It’s really impressive. How do they get this in older pupils? They develop it in the younger ones – it’s part of the DNA of the school.

We walk into a Year 7 Oracy class. Yes, an Oracy class. Led by the charismatic Mr Ahmet, the pupils enter the space in silence. They stand in neutral position, legs hip width apart, the atmosphere enhanced by calming music, a clear sense of “this is how we do things” in that everyone knows exactly where to be, how to be. Talking them through a list of visualisation exercises that I recognise as a drama teacher, he moves them into the key elements of the oracy curriculum – they have prepared poems for performance. They are led through tasks that take them into the physical, emotional, linguistic and cognitive realms of oracy. They know each one by heart. They are focused. It’s almost cultish, but performative and the calm, concentrated contentment of the group is palpable. When it’s time to move on, I want to cling to the door shouting “include me, include me”… The power of the collective is strong.

What struck me more than anything else when I walked around this school is that they were not offering a challenge to the knowledge-led, disciplined vision of more traditional schools, like Michaela. But saying that we too have the same aims. We too believe in discipline, in rigour, in knowledge. We too aspire for our pupils to succeed academically. But in addition, we want them to thrive, to become leaders in the world, to have the confidence to know that they are agentive, able to meet challenge, solve problems, interact and integrate. We want more than the common denominator of examination success – exams are part of, not the end all of an education.

The oldest pupils in the school are now in Year 10. Everyone waits with baited breath to see if the GCSE results will stand firm – not in terms of excelling, but in terms of supporting what is far more holistic than test results. If they do, we’ll have a very exciting model of education indeed. I’m already scouting for a site for a School21North. Anyone in?


Minded to Matter

I work a lot with schools on curriculum development – in fact last week, I was really delighted to be working in a school in Hong Kong which is pushing the boundaries of what learning might look like for their pupils. The problem is that a curriculum is just a gift bag. It can be a fairly functional paper version or a designer model with all sorts of added bling, but it’s a bag nonetheless: empty without pedagogy. And pedagogy is the gift no-one wants if it’s offered without purpose. What do we mean by purpose? For me it is about offering children their learning experience in such a way that it has emotional value for them. To make the matter, matter.

I spent a lot of time with the teachers and leaders in Hong Kong last week working on this – finding ways of infusing what was good structure in terms of offering a balance of knowledge and skills with something more than a set of criteria and tasks – to pull in the heart to drive the learning forward. We were getting somewhere and were excited. We’d gone from thinking about how one might make a small bedroom feel more spacious, to immersing the children into inquiry – “what do we mean by ‘fit for human habitation?’ – what do human beings really need?” taking them through a learning journey in which they would have to really consider and FEEL the question by walking in the shoes of others – from their bedrooms to caged migrant housing and back. Then I moved on…


I went to another school, also in Hong Kong. They have a beautiful building in an exquisite location with views so expansive and gorgeous from the staffroom window, that I’m amazed anyone makes it to their classes at all. But the school doesn’t sit back on its privileged position and coast. They reach out. They’ve partnered with local charities, set up a Matrix Club that brings in refugee children to learn and play with and among the school community, providing food, learning opportunities and support. It’s a school with a heart and last weekend, they were hosting an ISTA Connect Festival.


ISTA is the International School’s Theatre Association and I’ve worked with them all over the world, helping young people to bring theatre into their lives. But this festival aimed to do more than just create art. It was about creating heart. They began with live testimony from the refugee community in Hong Kong. Human rights lawyers exiled from their homes with only two hours’ notice to leave; law students forced to flee to avoid voodoo initiations that threatened their lives, middle class citizens facing the trauma of their loved ones being massacred for asking questions that offended: each story unique and heart wrenching. But it was not the reason they left that made the biggest impression, but their treatment on arrival in what they dreamed was a safe place. No clothing, no food, no shelter, no right to work or even volunteer. These was the first problems they faced. But worse – being spat on, abused, avoided, humiliated, shunned….having people move away from them holding their noses, shaking their heads, averting their eyes. These were the wounds still bleeding.


We can’t begin to understand the terror of having to flee. Or the grief of losing loved ones or leaving them behind. But we can surely show compassion? This was the question the children were left with. How do we show compassion? How do we raise awareness? How do we make sure we work with sensitivity without falling prey to the sensationalism of trauma tourism? This was the challenge for the artistic team and the kids they worked with over the weekend.

Creating theatre is hard work – once the ideas are generated and developed, there is rote learning, repetition, practice to be done to hone the idea into a product. And at that point children usually start to wane. We are, at one point, standing in the theatre, going over the song they have written, over and over. Nailing diction, rhythm, projection. They are starting to slump. The musical director plays the introduction slowly and he speaks…

“Remember the people who came to talk to you. Remember their faces, their words, the promises we made….”

The children stand tall, they respond, they sing with the whole of their souls.

We can’t underestimate the power of an emotional connection to learning. The human being in a dilemma is a starting point that we can begin almost any area of the curriculum with. And such starting points don’t just hook kids in – it’s not just about engagement. It’s about investment – investment in someone other than yourself, in the world, in the future. A curriculum and pedagogy that offers this as a purpose is a gift worth having. And we can all shape our work in this way, whether we’re artists or not.


Rigour + Creativity = Wow.

Yesterday there was a bit of a commotion in the corridor. Four Yr 4 children were discovering that their careful measurements might be out by a couple of centimetres. They couldn’t decide whether to check again or get back to class – it was nearly dinner time after all, and there was clearing up to do. But having come this far, they really wanted to get it right, so they decided to check, one last time. As one explained, it might be alright in centimetres, but it’s a lot more in miles.

They had with them two circles they had cut out of paper, one much larger than the other.

“We found out the radius of the moon and of the earth,” they explained “and then we drew them to scale.”

They told me the exact measurements and the ratio they had used, but I can’t remember – my memory is not as good as theirs was. Then, their task completed, they decided they’d like to do something else – to use their knowledge of ratio and scale to work out the distance between them, relative to their size, and place them in the corridor. Just to see. So they did. Because in this school, children keen to go the extra mile, can.

Along the corridor, in the Year 6 classroom, a teacher showed us some snowflakes the children had designed.

“We’ve been exploring rotational symmetry” one child explained, “and the uniqueness of nature.”

Their inquiry question was “Is Antarctica Worth Protecting?” and under the principles of a Harmony curriculum, the children are exploring the idea of interdependence in nature. In fact every inquiry topic is underpinned by a Harmony principle, devised (to my surprise) by the Prince of Wales. Interdependence is one, along with Health, Beauty, Cycles, Diversity and Oneness. The children’s topics link to one of these concepts and the overarching aim of the curriculum is to produce agentive, responsible children who understand their place in the world, their connections to others and their responsibility to each other and the planet.

Before you sneer about knitting yoghurt, consider the impact that these ideas are having on the children’s mathematical and wider language. It’s highly unusual to walk into a classroom, ask a child what they are doing and to receive an answer like “we’re exploring rotational symmetry and the uniqueness of nature.” Most children would answer the question what are you doing with “making a snowflake.” The connectedness of mathematical and natural knowledge is not usually the first response of a child, unless they really GET what they are doing.

In Year 5, the children are looking at the rich imagery of India – the patterns and colours and festivals. Under the principle of Beauty, they are creating their own kites in response to the kite flying season there. But when I ask the children what they are doing, one says

“Well I’m creating a tetrahedron first of all….”

Mathematical language is internalised within these kids. Not because they have to learn it for SATs, but because they have learned that Maths is everywhere. They examine the golden ratio in Year One, looking for patterns in flowers and in fruit. They grow their own food. They monitor the energy the school is using and how much is being recycled. They look at cycles of nature through daily geometry sessions. And in the hall, I see a small group of Year 4 children dragging bins to weighing scales and making careful notes of their weight in a notebook.

“We weigh the waste every day before it goes to the compost heap.”

“We’re trying to keep it under 15kg per day.”

The head, Richard Dunne, explains that the children then discuss the waste with catering staff to see if adjustments to the menus or portion sizes might help to cut down food waste even more. Maths is everywhere.

These are children who are fully aware of their place in the world and their interconnectedness with others. They are agentive and full of vim and vigour about how to make things better. They speak of Year 6 about being a year in which their learning is about developing the leadership skills they’ll need for the future. They go to Chamonix and explore, first hand, the impact of climate change on The Alps. And they speak of sustainability being the most important element of their learning in Year 6. Not a word about SATs. And yet they pass the SATs with flying colours. No wonder. They are flying.

This is Slow Education. Education that allows children the time and independence to thrive, to think, to synthesis their knowledge and their experiences. The Slow Education network doesn’t tell schools that one method is better than another, but it seeks to link schools who are minded to allow children to grow – to stretch them to be active, engaged learners in a complex world, together. If you’d like to see these children and their teachers from Ashley school talk about their work in more detail, you can find the link here. I was blown away.


The Great Aspiration Myth.

Last year, my then seven year old son came home from school looking like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. I asked him what the matter was.

“I’m worried I won’t be successful.”

I did that mother thing – frowning with concern while stifling laughter.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m worried that when I grow up, I won’t get a good job and won’t be able to support a family.”

To be fair, he is a bit of a worry bean. But his concerns are echoed by children all over the country. Often, they start with innocuous comments from parents and teachers along the lines of

“If you don’t work hard at school, you won’t get a good job when you’re older.”

It sounds harmless enough, but add that to the bombardment of advertising showing children that being able to buy stuff brings love and happiness and you have a recipe for disaster. And the worst thing of all is he’s probably right.

We tell our children that education = success. We don’t tell them that in order to be able to afford what the government terms an “affordable home”, they’ll need to be earning almost six times the national average wage outside of London and a staggering 15 times more in London itself. We don’t tell them that 50% of graduates leave university burdened with debt to find themselves in jobs that didn’t require a degree in the first place. We don’t tell them that the University course most likely to secure employment after Medicine, is actually Media Studies.

They hear a great deal about facilitating subjects. About the importance of academic success. About the prestige of Russell Group Universities. But what happens when they get there? At the other end of my family’s age spectrum is a 23 year old. He went to a state school, a state sixth form college and on to Oxford. Hurrah! A success. But when he left it took him a year to find work. And when he did, the job came through a friend of his Uncle. Offered two weeks’ work experience as a favour, he managed to secure a job. Contacts counted for way more than qualification. In fact, although he loved his time at Oxford, he started to feel that the fact he’d been there was a hindrance. Some potential employers told him – off the record – that they worried that employing Oxbridge graduates would lead to accusations of elitism. It is a great injustice for a state educated child to beats the odds and get into Oxbridge, only to meet inverted snobbery at the end of it. Still, happy ending….sort of.

His lovely, articulate and clever girlfriend, with a science degree, also from Oxford, is still unemployed. She has taken on voluntary project after voluntary project – clearing brambles in parks, taking on ecological and environmental work for nothing in the hope that something will lead to paid work. The reality of austerity, however, is that these kinds of services are now done by volunteers and charities. There is no public funding and so the jobs associated with conservation are gone. It seems ironic, given Nicky Morgan’s insistence that the Arts lead nowhere, that in this partnership, it is the Scientist struggling for work. Where she applies for work in the area she is most interested in, she is told she is overqualified. When she applies for graduate positions, she is told she is under experienced. It is a frustrating and depressing position to be in as a young adult who was told, like so many others, that her string of Grade As would lead to work. She will find work, I know. And she’ll look back and all this will be a blip. But what then?

He is on a decent starting salary for a graduate – almost at national average. Yet they have no money. They pay £1000 per month to live in London. This buys them a studio flat so small that the sofa sits beneath a bunk bed. They have to share a bathroom with other flats. After rent, travel to work, bills and student loans are paid, there is nothing left for him. Should they even want to start a family, it’s hard to know what they’ll do. Staying in London will clearly be impossible. But this is where his work is.

All of this is personal and anecdotal, but their experience is mirrored all over the country. Adults returning to live at home with parents, or living in rented accommodation barely fit for habitation. These are the successes. The ones who worked hard and did well. What of the others? There can be no future for this generation of young people that consists of the things we once considered basics – a decent home with outdoor space in which one could raise a family – as long as house prices remain at their current level. We have reached a point where one generation is dependent on the death of another in order to have any hope of that goal. How awful.

I look at my little one and tell him that of course he’ll be successful. Of course, things will turn out well. And then I open the TES and look at jobs in international schools. Because I fear that for him, that future might not be possible in the UK.