Falling Out of Love

I was working in Athens when the General Election results came through. Walking out to meet my colleagues in the lobby of our hotel, I burst into tears. It wasn’t a great day. And in the inevitable aftermath of accusation and navel gazing, a narrative emerged that just didn’t ring true in terms of the people I had met and talked to during the campaign. The media told me that the electorate didn’t trust the Labour party on the economy or on immigration and welfare. The party needed to move towards the right. And then Labour supporters I knew on twitter retweeted their articles so it felt that everyone believed that this was the reason.

At a party, I endured conversation with one man who spent an interminably long time name dropping all the people he knew in political and media circles, using this to declare as a universal truth the ‘fact’ that “Unless we move to the right, we’re finished. The country has moved to the right and we need to follow.” And I politely sipped my wine, pointed out that only 24% of the electorate had actually voted Tory and perhaps we ought to focus on the vast majority who didn’t vote at all. Or at least I started to say that but he interrupted for the 50th time. I gave the secret wink to my husband that means he has 30 seconds to whisk me away before I thump somebody. Obviously I’ll never be a politician.

During the campaign those I spoke to simply said they didn’t know what the party stood for. They couldn’t tell the difference between them on policy and so better the devil you know. They didn’t have much time for Ed Miliband – not because he was too far left, but because they felt he was insipid and he had a stuffy voice like his nose was blocked. Shallow? Yes, but that was what I heard. And I had some sympathy with the view that politics was more like a celebrity reality show. Witnessing a dearth of regional accents and career experience, people just seemed tired with being told what to do by people who had gone from closeted schooling to closeted higher education to a career so closeted that they have their own door straight into the office from the Tube station. They were bored and politics seemed irrelevant.

When Corbyn entered the leadership contest, I had never heard of him. I was drawn to Andy Burnham – at least the lad has an accent and a state education behind him. But I got caught up in the Corbyn campaign – people I knew who had never even bothered to vote were sharing pictures of him getting the bus home, and his expense account details saying “here is someone worth our attention”. I liked his policies – I’ve never really considered myself very left wing, but I really can’t see the sense in Trident. I thought I was aligned with Michael Portillo on that score. Here was a man who would visit constituents rather than take VIP tickets to national sporting events. I liked him. So did my Mum – he was the first politician she’s liked since Margaret Thatcher. She said she might vote for him.

When the result was announced, I felt a sense of hopefulness and optimism that I hadn’t felt about politics in a while. And I wasn’t alone. My phone started beeping and my social media streams were full of people literally tweeting for joy. Now this isn’t ordinary. I don’t remember ever greeting a leadership result with anything other than mild interest. And I don’t remember social media going so wild. Many of the people feeling so joyful were young – lots of them ex students of mine. They had ‘discovered’ politics and were over the moon. Ok, perhaps there was the underdog effect, but there was also hope for a new beginning – genuinely a new politics. So it’s doubly disappointing to see people so determined to crush that new hope before it’s even had time to find a voice. Not only for me, but for all those young people who were engaging with politics for the first time. I see many of them walking away, angry that their votes are being dismissed and disparaged.

Just before Christmas, I found myself sitting around a dinner table in Manchester after an event I’d taken part in. Most of the people there were Labour supporters – a couple of them had been unsuccessful Labour candidates in the last election. But as we went around the table and introduced ourselves, there emerged that enigmatic creature – the floating voter. He told us he had voted Conservative in the last election, but that he liked Corbyn and would consider voting for him in the next. He thought he had integrity. To my shock, the next hour was spent listening to Labour supporters telling this man, considering switching from Tory to Labour, why he was wrong. Their antipathy to Corbyn was so strong, it seemed, that they would rather lose voters than see him supported. I was stunned.

I’ve followed, with interest, the conversations about Corbyn on twitter and beyond. And the nastiest, sneeriest comments come from people claiming to be Labour supporters. It is a misnomer to me. I didn’t like Tony Blair particularly, nor Ed Miliband, but I loved the party and I supported and campaigned for them both. Now I find myself behind a leader and falling out of love with the party. I don’t think I want to be part of a group of people who can’t get behind a democratically elected leader with a mandate to lead. Or who would rather see the media rub their hands with glee, lining them up for quotes, than show unity: who would rather hand the next general election to the Tories, than roll up their sleeves and fight for greater equality, exposing the shocking impact that Tory policies are having on our poorest and weakest. Why on earth would you rather blog (and I know it’s ironic), about how little chance the leader has of winning an election while at the very same time, reducing his chances of doing so? Because I tell you, if he can win my Mum over by being nice, he can win over all those people who wouldn’t vote for a man with a stuffy nose.

Let’s stop this nonsense now. Because while we all bicker among ourselves, our NHS, education system, safety nets for the poor and vulnerable, mental health services and care services are all being decimated by a government that simply can’t believe its luck.


Nurture 15/16


I ended last year vowing to spend more time with my family. And promptly shot off to work in Hong Kong and Shanghai for two weeks. So I failed on that score. But being freelance, bonkers as it is, does mean that there are sometimes days where I get to walk my child to school and pick him up. Or, can you believe it, have a weekend!

In March, I had the blessed good fortune to travel to Kakuma refugee camp with the World Wide Education Project and the wonderful Jane Hewitt, to work with South Sudanese children and their teachers in Hope School – a school with 7006 children crammed into just 26 classrooms. It was the most eye opening experience of my life – you can read one of the posts I wrote there, here – it’s almost impossible to imagine the conditions those people were living in. Jane and I set out to raise funds for more classrooms as soon as we returned. Within a month, we had one – amazing contributions from across the twitter sphere. I swam 100 miles in 50 days and we appealed to Northern Rockers to take us towards a second – and with the help of the Pye Bank, Darton and Diggle primary schools, we got there. And then The Dearne School – a school with a population with very little money themselves showed that it is often those with the least who give the most. A monumental effort meant that this one school alone raised the £5600 required for the third classroom. An incredible achievement.


Northern Rocks also raised enough money to sponsor the young teacher I wrote about while I was there, to leave the camp and train formally at a university in Kampala. Nancy has just successfully completed her first semester and is working hard to make sure she qualifies and is able to help other refugees in the future. I’m so proud of her, my throat hurts.


Being there takes its toll. When you return, nothing you do feels like it’s enough. But you do what you can. Working with the International School of London this year, we’ll be running an Arts project raising awareness of the difficulties refugees face, and at the same time, raising more funds for Kakuma. And we have to accept that while we can’t change the world, we can do our bit to make it a little more bearable.

I think the experience made me a little less tolerant of some of the carping on twitter – I’ve been more liberal with the mute button and life has felt more peaceful as a result. When people tell me I’m a coward for refusing to engage with debate, I think of little Obama in Kenya and think that perhaps there are more important things to worry about. Not that I’ll stop arguing altogether. It’s in my blood.

I also spent much of the year guiltily avoiding tweets and direct messages about #teacher5aday. I wasn’t doing too well on the wellbeing front and felt really guilty about it. But I did get a lot fitter. The swimming set me off on a bit of a fitness challenge and I started running. At first I couldn’t do more than 60 seconds at a time, but with encouragement from people like Tom Starkey and Sarah Ledger, I completed a small triathlon in September and a 10k race in December. Proud as punch.


A second book came out, a third is being written, I wrote a regular column for Teach Primary, Northern Rocks was another great success and I worked with and met some amazing teachers and kids in schools across the country as well as in China, Russia and Greece. It was a pretty incredible year.

But I’ve also learned I need to slow down. I need to make sure I don’t say yes to everything. I need to learn I can’t be in Edinburgh one day, Sussex the next and Athens the next and not get ill. I’m learning that without my family I’m untethered and a little bit wild and so I need to make sure I’m with them more. And so, for the second time, my resolution this year is to be a little more of a homebird – even if I am off to Hong Kong again in a couple of weeks!

Thank you to anyone who supported our work in Kakuma this year. And to all those of you who every day support me on twitter and in real life. A very happy new year to you all xx








The problem with Bandwagons.

Way back in the early noughties, we had an Inset day on Assessment for Learning. Except, looking back on it, there was nothing really in there about assessment. Or really about learning. It was all about these new fangled learning styles – neatly compressed into VAK. We were given questionnaires – oooh, narcissistic tick boxes. Who doesn’t love a tick box all about themselves? And I found out that I was fairly equally split across all three. My friend, she was a VK. But that wasn’t allowed – we were supposed to just be one. We were asked to look again and identify our “dominant style”. It was like choosing a favourite colour – some have one, I have many depending on mood. It felt a bit confusing. And I felt suspicious. I didn’t really question the idea of learning styles at that stage – a senior leader had just said the words “the research shows” and so I assumed that the theory at least was sound. But the implementation seemed to me to be a little bit suspect.

As heads of department, we were asked to feed back how we were differentiating for the needs of the VAK variances in our groups. And as head of Drama, there was only really one answer. We move, we talk, we listen, we read, we write, we perform, we design, we watch, we evaluate. We all have to do all of them, or we won’t be covering the syllabus. Simples. But no, that wasn’t good enough. In the end we did what we usually did when faced with stupid requests. We ignored them. The head of Maths on the other hand, made all the KS3 students do VAK questionnaires and streamed them accordingly. She was quickly promoted to Assistant Head.

That year, I embarked on a Masters course and came across Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory. Here, it seemed to me, was the VAK idea placed into a more rigorous theoretical framework. Gardner distinguishes MIT from learning styles, accusing the latter of lacking coherence, but it seemed that his theory expanded, in a useful way, the conversations to be had about intelligence. I didn’t really have concerns about the theory. It was an idea – an interesting one, but just an idea. But the way that the idea was leaped upon in education to create rigid practices was really worrying. There was an assumption that since (not an ‘if’ to be seen anywhere)  we could now be one of 7 or 8 intelligences, we ought to teach to that intelligence. And that seemed illogical to me. It also seemed illogical to Howard Gardner who berated the ways in which his idea had been misconstrued – not that that small detail bothers the people who seem to enjoy ridiculing him at the moment. Anyway, back to the implementation point – I argued that we wouldn’t, for example, only teach a child a subject they liked and dump all the rest would we? So why on earth would we target a single intelligence or learning style? Or, as Willingham prefers to call them, learning ability? I mean, by all means, make the content of your lessons and assessments as varied as possible, but why narrow activities down to target single areas? This seemed like dumbing down to me. And a waste of time.

It didn’t take long for the school to dump VAK. Eternally resourceful kids, standing outside their classrooms in corridors, found it was useful to blame VAK for their misdemeanours.

“Not my fault, Miss, they’re writing in there and I’m a kinaesthetic learner!”

And by then, papers debunking VAK were starting to make their way into schools too. So I was a little horrified to start a new job in ITT and find that all the lesson plan pro-formas for our trainees had a box on them where they had to write how they were catering for VAK. I advised mine to use school and not university versions. But some of the school versions had it on too. So we invited Jonathan Sharples in to run a session with staff on debunking neuro-myths, which he duly did. But he did so with a caveat. He pointed out that there was no evidence to suggest that teaching to a specific learning style was beneficial to students or even that there was a meaningful way of categorising modes of learning, but he added that “even if learning styles do exist, it could equally be argued that we should strengthen the less developed areas rather than simply teach to the strongest.”It seemed clear that among the neuroscientist community, it was not so much the proposed existence of learning styles that was controversial, but the practices emerging from the idea of them.

No-one was happier than me when VAK practices started to be exposed and debunked on twitter, several years later. But then I started to get confused again. Because it seemed that along with VAK, other unconnected ideas were being lumped in and the trend for debunking seemed to be creating another, equally damaging Bandwagon. Anyone even mentioning the words Learning Styles on twitter now risks hounding and humiliation. And Group Work? Pupil Voice? My God. Yet what is the difference between a learning style and a learning ability? Because when Willingham writes that of course children have different learning “abilities” – for example spacial ability or musical ability, I struggle to see the difference between that statement and the idea that children might have musical intelligence or kinaesthetic intelligence. I keep asking and no-one seems to be able to tell me anything other than Gardner = Charlatan, Willingham = God.

If we do look at research (bearing in mind that it is all emergent and offers a still incomplete picture of the very complex matter of learning), we find that certain things seem to be important in terms of laying down memory. Emotion matters. Relationships matter. A variety of activities and ways of testing matter. Practice matters. A certain level of automaticity matters. Multi-sensory activities matter. Narrative and stories matter….In the midst of all this mattering, it seems sensible to say that we learn and remember in many different ways. Not that we all learn differently, but that we each need multiple ways of encountering knowledge in order to meaningfully learn and apply it.

It seems to me that we need to be as careful about shedding ideas as we are about embracing them. We need to ask ourselves “what is potentially useful here? How might we look at this differently? How might we connect to other things we know?” Instead of sneering and jeering, we should be peering, examining, questioning. We really should be refusing to lump and dump – taking one discredited idea, attaching it to others we don’t like and then dumping the lot without critiquing the individual elements. And maybe then, instead of running around in endless circles, we would set out on a journey in which we could map out constructive information and build a genuine overview of what (might) work.

Thank you to Logical Incrementalism for writing the blog post that made feel I wouldn’t be stoned to death for writing this one.


Whose Book is it Anyway?

When my eldest was 12, he read Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. I found the copies a few years later when I was passing them onto his younger brother and saw a little note he’d written in the back of the last book:-

“This book broke my heart.”

The spines of all three were broken he’d read them so often. I can safely say he loved them.

Middle son loved Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness books. He read all seven of them fifteen times. He quoted ad infinitum. I’d buy him new books but they’d remain unread. Eventually he tired of them and moved on.

Both boys went on to study English Literature at A Level, one went on to continue studying it at University. Thankfully he’s managed to get a job afterwards and not thrown his life away as Nicky Morgan predicted. They love reading and have slowly discovered the classics as their tastes have developed. And now I watch my little one reading Michael Morpurgo with tears running down his face, getting to the end and starting again and I know that something is precious is happening. What Vincent Lien, in his lovely account of his own reading, called catharsis.

I’m not sure how it has happened, but there now seems to be a disparaging set of voices arguing that children must be reading the classics or they’re not really reading. That reading children’s literature is an “opportunity cost”. I find that a bit alarming. For the classics were all written for educated adults, not children. And it worries me that forcing a diet intended for another reader altogether on them too early might put them off reading for life. When is the ‘right’ time to introduce children to classics? And which ones?

I’ve had classes that have loved some classic texts – Beowulf (translated by Seamus Heaney), The Iliad (translated by Christopher Logue), Hecuba (translated by Tony Harrison) – all as dependent on the skill of the modern translator as the original writer. I’ve seen Year 4 completely captivated by Shakespeare. But none of the kids I’ve taught have been so keen on Dickens. If I’m honest, I find Dickens’ style turgid and heavy. But the stories are great and the characters well drawn. Is it a sin to say I think he was born for televised adaptations? When I’ve introduced Dickens I’ve had to come at him obliquely – through Jamila Gavin’s wonderful Coram Boy for example. In this text, the inequalities of society are writ large; the children can access the Georgian context preceding Dickens’ Victorian period – they can link the text to music, encountering Handel along the way. And there’s a perfect segue into William Blake. They love him. They love the Ancient Mariner too – “all that just for a bird?” they cry and we enter a discussion about justice, the sanctity of life and philosophy.

Books are portals. Portals to historical, philosophical and cultural contexts, yes. But they are also portals to other books. Let’s embrace children’s literature and see it as a valid genre in its own right with some wonderful authors weaving stories that capture the hearts of children. For when we have avid readers on our hands, we have clay that can be moulded and guided. We can lead them to the classics. But we have a great responsibility here to find the right texts. The ones that will make hearts race either with their plot lines or with the beauty of their style. And here we need to make way for personal choices.

I remember Jane Eyre left me cold, but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had me desperately wanting more. It’s a shame Anne died leaving only two books behind. My classmates felt differently. But we had a clever teacher – one who wouldn’t give us all the same book, but gave us different ones and asked us to talk about them afterwards. I got Far From The Madding Crowd in our Hardy fortnight – it remains one of my favourite books to date. My friend had the Mayor of Casterbridge. She loves it still. But we were sixteen. Raised on Enid Blyton, then Danielle Steele and Stephen King to become avid if not discerning readers. We met the classics when we were ready to delve more deeply. Perhaps a year earlier would have been good, but before that? I’d have switched off.

If we want to entice readers into a world of reading that will continue for their whole lives we need to value their choices; to entice – not force – them into new areas of exploration and most of all, we need to know them, their tastes and interests. If we don’t do this, there is a significant danger that they’ll have encountered classic literature and only learned to hate it.



Stuff and Nonsense : Why The Phonics Test Should Worry All Teachers

I like phonics. I think it’s an important aspect of learning to read. Hopefully I’ve got that out of the way so that we can avoid another “phonics denialist” accusation. I was teaching phonics before we were told we had to because it worked. So let’s move on.

What I really, really object to, is spending time in the classroom teaching children nonsense words in preparation for the phonics screening test. I know the arguments in favour. They are very well rehearsed. The nonsense words test decoding over meaning so that children can’t be guessing words. They don’t harm children – they can be fun and lots of authors (Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Roald Dahl, Shakespeare) made up words. Those arguments would be fine if the curriculum was empty of other content and we had all the time in the world. We don’t.

One of the biggest barriers to achievement in school is vocabulary. Reception class teachers report that some children are arriving at school with hardly any language at all – in one case, a child was reported as having the speech development of an 8 month old baby. That’s an extreme case, but it is well documented that children arriving at school can have differences in their vocabulary of several thousand words. David Didau recounts his frustration at his Year 11 pupils failing to answer a question on a GCSE paper that he knew they were well prepared for because the question contained the word ‘futile’ and they didn’t know what it meant. Many other teachers can recall similar situations.

Teaching children vocabulary is one of the most important elements of learning not only to read, but to be able to succeed in all areas of school life. So why on earth would we spend time with young children, deliberately teaching them to read nonsense?

Our language is incredibly rich. Look at the following list of words that really exist and think how much more enriched a child’s experience would be if they decoded these then learned what they meant. Children love new words – they love to test drive them, to sound them out, to share them, to write them into their stories. Why not give them the power of real words?

abask – in genial warmth

abear – to behave or to bear

adit – an opening into a mine

alfet – a boiling cauldron of water used at a trial by ordeal

armet – a rounded, iron helmet

I could go on, there are literally hundreds of these words on the web site The Phrontistery – an incredible source of vocabulary that I’ve dipped into for all kinds of reasons before. How much more exciting for children to learn real, new words that they can implement into their writing, than to encounter something that no-one will ever understand and which will have no use ever, except to help them to pass a test.

As for the richness of the made-up words in Jabberwocky and the like, what makes those poems and stories so exciting for children is the way they fire the imagination to fill the gaps. They use cues in the text and existing knowledge to create meaning. These texts are aimed at readers who can already decode, who are ready to play the game of meaning making. I have taught Jabberwocky more times that I can remember. We start by creating the meanings of those nonsense words “brillig”, “slithy”, “borogoves”, “vorpal”….and we discuss, at length, how the children are using their existing knowledge of spelling patterns to encode the words we just heard (I read it out first). How they use their grammatical knowledge to figure out whether the word is a noun, an adjective, an adverb or verb and how this existing knowledge allows them to create definitions that set the scene for our story.

We spend weeks on Jabberwocky, filling in the gaps in the poem with the reasons why the boy leaves his village in search of the monster. We map the environment, we write adventure stories about his encounters with Jub Jub birds and Bandersnatches. We explore Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Journey narrative. We create an epic. Then we welcome him home. We throw a party. We create a hero’s ritual. It all takes a while. Then in the middle of the party, they receive a visitor. A message from another tribe declaring war and demanding that our hero is handed over to face the death penalty. For in their society, the Jabberwock is a sacred creature and slaying it, a heinous crime. And the children have to decide what to do. We enter the worlds of war and diplomacy.

Yes, the children encounter nonsense words. But they encounter them in a meaningful way having already acquired the spelling and grammar skills to be able to make something of them. They don’t encounter the words in isolation – the poem is not read in isolation. It is steeped in the curriculum, from mapping to narrative structure, they learn other things along the way. This is how we can extend and expand curriculum to make it richer and deeper.

The nonsense words are not nonsense when meaning is made of them. When they fire the imagination and link to real words. When they enrich and enhance our lives. Those crafted contributions of poets cannot possibly be compared with the banality of sitting children on the carpet and asking them to decode nonsense words with no further purpose than to spit out the sounds. It doesn’t matter if you have a puppet on your knee to make it more fun.

Children will be every bit as well prepared for the phonics check if they are taught unusual words that they have never encountered before. They will be better writers afterwards too. And most importantly, they will be primed to build vocabulary for the rest of their lives – a skill that every teacher of every subject should welcome.


When “High Expectations” are a poor excuse for callousness.

There are many forms of poverty – we tend to group them into “absolute” and “relative”. Absolute poverty offers immediate threat to life – it is where people lack the basics they need to survive in the short term – we see this type of poverty on our television screens all the time from drought or war torn countries. It is terrible. But relative poverty is also terrible – more of a terminal illness than a sudden death threat. People suffering from relative poverty live in prosperous nations and yet struggle to maintain what anyone might call a reasonable standard of living. They are more likely to get cancer, to die young, to end up in prison and suffer from abuse or violence.

Even within the realm of relative poverty, there are sub groups – the main two being generational and situational poverty. In situational poverty, circumstances have conspired to send the person or family into financial straits. This could be unemployment, long term sickness, immigration or the break up of a marriage. Parents who find themselves in situational poverty can often offer ways out for their children. They remember a better life and can shape a vision of what a better future might look like. They are more likely to value education and to sacrifice basics to ensure that their children are in correct uniform and have their equipment. They are more likely to understand how to make tiny budgets stretch and to know where to turn to for help. The children of these parents carry the same label as other children in poverty, but their chances of success are vastly improved.

Generational poverty, on the other hand, is far more tricky. In homes where there has been persistent poverty and sometimes worklessness over a number of generations, it is hard for any adult to be able to offer a child a vision of a different or a better life. Education is less likely to be valued. In this group there are higher levels of substance abuse, a higher chance of chaotic home lives and a sense of hopelessness. High levels of chronic stress are common in these environments and it is well documented that the production of cortisol in response to persistent stress inhibits cognitive function and memory. A perfect storm for any child.

Of course, both of these categories are roughly drawn and there are overlaps and grey areas. But they offer us an interesting question. To what extent are those schools claiming that their zero tolerance behaviour policies, their perfect uniforms, their insistence that every child should have the proper equipment with them, simply enacting a  form of social cleansing? They claim that their policies lead to higher outcomes for FSM children but I wonder if they simply filter out the problem kids and leave themselves with those most likely to succeed. The poor children of aspirational immigrant families. Or the poor children of those in situational poverty. The others can be permanently excluded in the name of high expectations. And that simply exacerbates the underlying social problem. Throwing these children out of school, or refusing to accept that they might need equity more than equality, is an abdication of responsibility.

There are catastrophic events in some children’s lives which most of us can barely even imagine. In this Youtube clip, Chris Kilkenny speaks of what it was like to move from council flat to rehabilitation centres with his addicted mother, to care homes while trying to “hide in plain sight” at school. When you listen to him, you must surely realise that punishing a child living under this level of stress for not having a pencil is not a sign of having high expectations, but of having an almost inhuman lack of empathy and understanding. What would it cost us to have a pot of pens in the middle of the table and to focus on the business of learning? Not a lot.

A Cautionary Tale of Setting

This is about the power of belief. My friend has twins. One boy and one girl. By some miracle of time travel, they seem to have accelerated from babes in incubators to Year 10 pupils in the blink of an eye. One moment I was stroking them through a plastic porthole, the next I was discussing their GCSE options with them. Sigh.

Anyway, one twin, the girl, has always struggled with her literacy. She’s had some private tutoring and has worked really hard and come a long way, but it’s been a struggle. The other learned to read quickly, is fluent and has not struggled in that area at all. Nor has he had to try very hard. So imagine their surprise and different reactions when she is placed in Set One for English and he in Set Three.

A tale of growth mindsets we might conclude. Or of hard work paying off. But no. It was simply a case of mistaken identity. The school meant them to be placed the other way round.

The thing is, she’s thriving in Set One.

At parents’ evening, my friend asked why the children were in those sets and it wasn’t until then that anyone realised there had been an error. She held her own. He produced work consistent of that expected and asked of him in Set Three. The initial response was to simply swap them back. But what would that have done for the girl? She’s worked her socks off to keep up in Set One. She’s doing ok and understanding the content. Most of all, she thinks she deserves it – that she’s worked for it. And so, rightly in my opinion, Mum says no. It’s too late now. So they are now both in the same class and both doing well.

Why do we have sets at all? None of the evidence suggests it benefits children – in fact most studies show a detrimental impact on most. I think we do it because it makes it easier for us to ‘differentiate’. But differentiation is not hard – the answer to differentiation is to teach everyone to A* standard (and beyond) and put in safety nets and scaffolds for those who might not quite make it that far. They’ll have leaped further than if we had given them C grade content.

Many years ago, when I was a young teacher, a senior manager came to me and said “Your value added results are off the scale – would you be willing to come and talk to staff about what you’re doing in order to have that impact?” I told her that what I did contradicted their policy and they might not like it. I told her that I never looked at target grades – something we were supposed to do religiously. I assumed every student was capable of an A and I used the evidence of my own eyes to judge what kind of support they needed. I said that in my view target grades were the quickest way to demotivate and to put lids on learning. I didn’t get invited to speak to staff after all, but my students continued to thrive. They didn’t all get As. But almost all of them beat so called targets.

We cannot seriously claim to support the idea of growth mindsets as long as we set children and give them ‘target’ grades based on past performance. And the fact that there is a girl in Set One, pushing past her so called limits is evidence in my book.

Dilemma Led Learning

I spend a lot of my time travelling up and down the country banging on about the power of dilemma led learning, and sometimes a school will ask me to come in, put it into action with some children and let the staff watch. It’s like being observed by Ofsted for six hours straight. But with smiles.

Last Friday I worked with Year 6 in a primary school in Bury. They were about to start a unit of work on the Ancient Greeks and it seemed sensible to combine their History with Literacy work on Myths. I chose the myth of Perseus – it’s a great story – offers opportunities to explore the ancient geography of the Peloponnese as well as the role of religion in Ancient Greek culture, in particular the importance of the Oracle. But more than that, there are two dilemma led pivots in the story that lend themselves to some serious moral considerations.

If you don’t know the backstories to Perseus and Medusa and have only ever focused on the monster slaying elements of the tale, you’re missing two tricks. The first is the role of Perseus’ grandfather King Acrisius of Argos. On hearing a prophesy from the Oracle that his grandchild will grow to kill him, he locks his daughter up to keep her away from men. Of course, his attempt to cheat fate fails – Zeus impregnates the princess and Perseus is born. Foiled, he tries again to end the life of his grandchild. The princess Danae and her newborn son are tossed into a trunk and thrown out to sea, just as a storm is beginning. The gods intervene, however, mother and child are washed up safely onto shore and Perseus becomes a hero. After his encounter with Medusa, he returns to Argos to take part in some games. His grandfather, fearing that the prophesy will now come true, hides in the crowd as a beggar. And as Perseus takes aim with his weapon (the weapon varies in different versions of the tale), a strange wind blows up, taking the arrow/discus off course and into the heart of an old beggar man in the crowd….

As Ancient Architects, our Year 6s are asked by the King to construct a tower, built so securely and guarded so well that no man could enter and no princess escape. They are asked to sign a contract swearing them to secrecy and conceding that if one of them should talk, none will survive. Six children refuse to sign it and a debate ensues in which the power and morality of the king is considered. The children speak of “then time” and “now time”, admitting that they would be unlikely to say no to a king in those times (to be clear, we create a timeline – most of the myths of ancient Greece emerge from the Minoan and Mycenaean times – when were they?). They speak of how wrong it is to lock the princess away against her will and when they realise that they have a stark choice – to sign or to die – they try to think about how they can make the imprisonment as bearable as possible for her. They research leisure and entertainment in Ancient Greece. They interview the princess to find out what her favourite foods and colours are (figs and blue) and they design her tower to make it as comfortable as possible. But when the king hears a newborn cry in the middle of the night, the architects are in trouble. He accuses them of treachery. He orders them to take the princess and the baby and throw them into the sea….several refuse. But enough agree:-

“It’s either them or us.”

Later, at the point at which Perseus is about to take the head of Medusa, we freeze the action. One child is Perseus. One child is Medusa. The rest are frozen statues – all the men in the past who have tried and failed to kill her. I thought-track them and ask them to speak their thoughts in response to the question “why were you here?”

“I wanted to be known as the bravest of them all…”

“I thought killing her would make me rich…”

“Athena sent me here…”

And then we switch to the story of Medusa – a beautiful, but vain girl cursed by a jealous and angry God. Turned into a monster so hideous that her two loyal sisters begged to be turned into monsters too so that they could care for her. Three gorgons, so shamed they hide in a remote cave in Ethiopia hoping never to be seen, but hunted forever by men seeking them as trophies….

“Is she a monster?”

The room erupts into discussion.

We end the day in Argos, an old man lying bleeding in the dirt…what questions do we have?

“Is fate real?”

“Do we have any control over our lives?”

“Should God be good?”

“What is a monster?”

“Is Perseus really a hero? What IS a hero?”

We learned a lot about Ancient Greek society, beliefs, geography and over the course of the unit, they’ll learn much more. But much, much more importantly, we looked at some deeply philosophical questions and grappled with what it is to be human. And for, me, that is the essence of good education – working at the edges of morality and figuring out where we sit when the going gets tough.

Horses for Courses

I must have been mad answering a tweet on a Sunday morning in bed. Instead of enjoying the breakfast my husband had brought for me and reading the paper, I ended up in a twitter fight about posters. My egg went cold. And then today, faced with a to-do list as long as Pinocchio’s nose, I ended up doing it all again. So I thought, in the interests of procrastination, that I would blog. Not just about posters. Frankly, I rarely used them myself; I just take issue at being told what I can and can’t do. No, this is about the increasing misuse of what people like to call “the real world” in justifying practices in school life.

Let’s start with uniform. My eldest son was one of those kids who looked like he’d been dragged across a rugby field, face down, with the entire scrum stamping on his back. Every day. Even as he stepped out of a shower. Clothes were ripped in seconds. Hair grew in all directions. Mud stuck. He was constantly in trouble at school for uniform misdemeanours. His nickname was “Tramp”. I’m not proud. Second son is pristine – it just seems to be the way they were. Anyway. He was told time and again that his appearance would be a problem “in the real world”. He would have to wear a tie. His shoes would have to be polished. No-one would employ anyone who looked “like that”.

He went to Oxford where suddenly it seemed de rigour to turn up to your lectures and ‘tutes’ in a onesie. I guess when you can stagger from your bed to your tutor’s office in less than ten seconds, there seems little point in getting dressed. No-one cared. The tutors were interested in their students’ minds not their dress. Still – that was not “real world” was it? The tie was coming. And there were days where he had to wear gowns. Not dressing gowns.

So he graduated. And got a job. In one of the biggest media agencies, working on a team representing two of the most famous companies in the world. I met him for a drink on Monday night. He stumbled out of his swanky office door in jeans, a t-shirt and converse.

“Don’t you have to wear a suit?” I asked, thinking of the money his grandparents had spent kitting him out for “real world of work”.

“Nah – no-one wears suits,” he said. And I looked around at the commuters pouring out of offices all around us and I saw he was a liar. Some people wore suits. But to be fair, most did not.

Why do we tell children that they must wear uniform because this will be expected of them in “the real world” when it is quite clearly a lie? They may. They may not. There may be other good reasons to insist that children wear uniform, but let’s not pretend that it is in preparation for adult life.

And we’re not much better when it comes to classroom practices. Postergate seemed to centre around the pointlessness of making posters. A lazy time wasting activity for losers. One blogger wrote that “real” historians didn’t make posters so he wouldn’t get children to make them in his classroom. Another complained that posters were “ubiquitous” and “on walls”. I’m not sure where else I’d put them to be honest. The thing is, in the “real world” posters are everywhere. They tell us which tube station to get to. They sell us stuff. They inform us about the exhibit we are seeing. They can even change our minds and make us do things we don’t want to. Like joining the army. The power of the poster to communicate is so widely accepted in “real world” that billions of pounds are spent on producing them. Academics have to make them to take to conferences. Shouldn’t children have an opportunity to examine the role of the poster in our “real world” communication systems? Isn’t this a form of literacy?

When I was doing my O Level, in the “good old days” – one of the tasks on the paper was to take a long passage of text and to precis it into a limited word count. It was a difficult skill to master. It seems to me that effective posters ask exactly this of children. They force a condensing of language to its essential elements, while also perhaps asking that it is memorable and creative. That’s a pretty tough set of skills. Indeed, the old AQA English Language A Level course had a paper that asked students to do exactly this. To take a large amount of textual information and to re-present it in a new form for a specific audience. Sometimes that new form involved making a poster, or leaflet. It was not an easy task and required careful thinking and selection; an ability to know what was relevant, to reword and to summarise with the needs of a particular audience in mind.

I have some sympathy with the view that giving children a glue stick and some sugar paper and telling them to go away, find out and make a poster, is a lazy task. But to frame that task with audience and purpose in mind; to think about intention and effect – these are important “real world” skills. As with any teaching and learning task, it is purpose and quality that matters.

And while I used posters rarely myself, one of the best wall displays I ever had in my room was created by Year 8s. It was a jigsaw of posters, making up a comprehensive view of Elizabethan society in preparation for studying Shakespeare. Each group had a different focus – The Role of Women, The Role of the Monarchy, Poverty and Wealth, The Arts, Religion, Foreign Affairs and so on. Together they gave an overview of some of the issues underpinning the contexts of the texts we would read. It was not frivolous work.

Perhaps it’s time for us to stop trying to control everyone else by imposing our own prejudices on them. And let’s stop trying to justify our attempts to control children by feeding them stories about life in “the real world”, especially if we went straight into teaching from college. Instead let’s focus on the quality of what we do. That we make sure that whatever choices we make, they have integrity and purpose to them and we can explain why we are doing what we do. And that these decisions are always in the best interests of the child. That’s “real” enough for me.

Bringing out the best?

I did a little triathlon this weekend. Six weeks ago I couldn’t run for two minutes without stopping. I think we can say that’s rapid and sustained progress. But there were some problems. I swim a lot. I was confident, getting into the lake that the swim would be the easiest part. I’m used to swimming up to 2 miles at a time and this was a measly 250 metres. I set off, powering close to the front when something odd happened. My breathing was off. The effort of lifting my arms in a wet suit seemed greater than it had ever done before. I was gaspy (and in swimming, breathing is everything). I started to panic. If I struggled with the swim, what was the rest of it going to be like? The last 50 metres were a blur of panting, taking in water and worry. I got out knees trembling and realised that I had completely underestimated the impact of fear and nerves on performance. The rest of the event was fine and I finished, but it made me think.

I was ready. I was fit. But I underperformed because of anxiety. Every year, thousands of children are ready. They are fit and prepared. They walk into an exam hall and fall apart. Maybe only for part of the exam, maybe for all of it. But they crumble and the consequences stay with them for life. What are we really testing in an exam situation? I don’t think it’s knowledge – even for a confident candidate, there isn’t enough time to demonstrate a really good range of knowledge. And given the move to linearity, it’s not resilience – we’ve removed the ideal of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” and replaced it with “one chance, don’t mess it up”. So we must conclude that exams are there to weed out the anxious and to place them on a scrapheap. Why?

I can see that in competitive sport, you need to be able to hold your nerve. But in the workplace? Are there really that many high risk jobs that require people to have strong nerves under pressure? Where is the line between brave and foolhardy? Look at the risks taken in the banking industry by people who could hold their nerve while making transactions worth billions in a matter of seconds. They brought the economic world to the brink of collapse. Are these the character traits we really want in society?

When we seek to assess a child, we need to ask whether or not the assessment model is there for the convenience of the system, or to meet the needs of society as a whole. I don’t think our current system meets the needs of society or the needs of individual children. There has to be a better way. A system that offers a balance of examination, creative portfolio based assessment, work experience with character references, volunteer work…. this kinds of assessment package would allow all kinds of human traits to thrive and be recognised. It would offer us a real set of skills applicable to all kinds of future situations. It would be more humane. And so, if the swim went belly up – there would be other events to offset it. It’s worth a tri – surely?