Monday, 28 February 2011

Atten-HUT! Troops to Teachers sees battlefield promotions lauded- but is the science solid?

 I enjoyed Panorama tonight; I always do. There's something so intuitively respectable about the BBC's venerable investigative magazine that I would default to unqualified admiration even if it were to tell me that spaghetti grew on trees. This week: Troops To Teachers (TTT)- Michael Gove's drive to inject a bit of military discipline back into classrooms by aggressively recruiting and retraining ex-military servicemen. It apes the Troops to Teachers program in the US, launched 18 years ago after the first Gulf War, and since then it's seen over 15,000 men and women swap green berets for cardigans with leather patches (or whatever the symbolic equivalent is in America).

If you watched the program you would be forgiven for assuming the the program is an unqualified success; we were treated to the example of Lordswood Boys' School in England, which entertains no less than 1 in 12 staff from  military backgrounds, which shouldn't really be a surprise seeing as how the smallish Birmingham comprehensive has an assistant head who used to be in the Infantry, an ex-Sergeant from the Territorials, and a former sergeant major acting as a shooting instructor. Quite. Still, variety is the spice of life, and one thing that schools have to be praised for is diversity of strategies, trying different things, and adapting tactics to meet the needs of the local community. Looking at the prospectus and the Ofsted report, it seems a bit of a success story. Students like Hakeem Nawas spoke proudly of how it had transformed his self-esteem and motivation to be involved in Cadet activities, and Neil Macintosh, the aforementioned Assistant Head proposed that ex-military were 'more resilient...less down-hearted...and more robust.' As Mandy Rice Davies, said, 'Well, he would, wouldn't he.'

Actually I have no issue with this: in fact I admire many of the principles that inspire it. I particularly liked how the servicemen spoke about how they maintained order- they didn't have to raise their voices, they said. The students agreed. 'They just look at you,' one said. I know what he means. Screaming your head off is usually a sign that you've blown your stack, and for most kids it's better than telly. Speak silently, they say, and carry a big stick. I couldn't agree more. Who do you respect more- the small dog with the big bark, or the silent dog with the claw hammer behind his back? Exactly.

Troops to Hogwarts
Then we were off to Huntingdon Middle School, in Virginia's Newport News City (honestly- I wouldn't make up a name like that because you wouldn't believe it), where a clutch of ex-military had taken over their classes like Desert Storm. The story here was the same, it seemed- lines of biddable, disciplined and enthusiastic students queued up to enter classrooms, and we were presented with crocodiles of marching students who were noticeably not selling crack pipes to grandmothers or auditioning for The Wire. Glee, maybe.

Geoff Lloyd, the poster boy for this school's TTT project spoke proudly about bringing 'discipline into an undisciplined world,' and frankly, I couldn't agree more. His robust, direct attitude to being a responsible adult in a classroom full of students who need clear boundaries and someone they can rely on was more inspirational than a dozen Dead Poets' Societies or Dangerous Minds. I would put him on my fictional Heroes of Education list, but unfortunately he's a real person, so he'll have to content himself with a notional award instead.

So far, so good. As I say, I actually applaud many of the aims of this program. I think that what many of the ex-servicemen said made perfect sense- courage, responsibility, discipline and carrying your own water. Amen to that, brother.

And then- with the inevitability of the Sun rising- came the research. Because that's what we do whenever we want to justify something: we wheel out the academics who biddably endorse whatever is being flogged to us. And that's when it got interesting for me. William Owings of the Old Dominion University sat in an agreeable, respectable setting and enthusiastically waved the flag for the TTT program, his eyes twinkling as he did so. He twinkled a lot. 'Ex-military stay in the profession twice as long as non-servicemen,' we were told. 'Troops in the T2T program outscore all other teachers,' it was said. Owings also provided my favourite quote of the show- T2T had provided a 'stellar performance,' he said. Twinkle, twinkle.

Now that didn't strike me as the careful, cool, neutral perspective of the scientist, I thought. And as soon as someone starts to mention educational research, my spider sense starts to tingle, and frankly I start to sweat a bit. Because, as regulars to this blog will be painfully aware, I'm allergic to the way that some educational research is used to hustle strategies and big ideas that are composed, it is eventually seen, of equal parts moonshine and optimism. As a teacher of some years, I've been making a list of the Initiatives and Great Ideas that the hucksters of education try to flog us, and my hackles start to mambo whenever someone calls along and says, 'Hey, you guys! I have a great new idea for turning schools around! I just need your credit card number and your uncritical commitment...' I'm just funny like that.

So I did a bit of, rooting around on t'interweb. Just what IS the Old Dominion University, anyway? It sounds awfully grand. And it is, I am sure, a paragon of academic vigour, rigour and propriety, even if its mission statement does say that 'Our philosophy is simple: Knowledge should be productive. Research-driven solutions that make sound business sense.' Which isn't really a philosophy, is it? More of an admission that if something is worth something, it has to be worth money. Ah, it brings a tear to your eye, doesn't it? .

As I say, I'm sure it has the noblest intentions. It also has an interesting link to the Troops to Teachers program, as its website says: 'The state office for Virginia TTT is located on the ODU campus.' That's the state office. Of course, that doesn't suggest that the Old Dominion University might be a less than partial witness to the efficiency of the TTT program. I'm just saying, that's all. Isn't that a marvellous coincidence, though?

So I did what few civilians have done before: I had a peek at a couple of the papers quoted on their website as showing terrific, supportive data that confirmed the TTT program as a winner, and the ones that William Owings was quoting so freely on Panorama. You can find two of them here and here. They are, as most social science papers are, a thrill a minute, and I heartily recommend you print them off and read them on the way to work tomorrow. Unless you drive. Or listen to Coldplay while you read them.

The 2005 study was, broadly speaking, a survey of Teachers who had gone through the program, and of their supervisors. It asked if they felt that they had been appropriately trained to approved standards. It also asked supervisors of these teachers if they felt they were as good as, or better than teachers of similar experience who hadn't come through the program. The answer was strongly in favour in both cases. How many were surveyed? A fair few. Over 2000 teachers and their supervisors were sent surveys. That's not a bad study by any standards. Except that the response rate was 65%. We don't know why the other third didn't reply. We don't know what attempts were made to convert those no-shows. We don't know on what basis the surveys were sent. We can probably assume that surveys weren't sent, or at least answered, by teachers who had dropped out of the program.

And it's details like that, that make this kind of research so hard to value meaningfully. Big numbers are good, but without transparency about who answered, what their motives were, and show inaccuracies were avoided, the purity and reliability of this kind of data is always going to be hard to measure, let alone accept. I'm certainly not impugning William Owings, or any of his co-writers, but these are substantial, significant impediments to the development of social scientific research credibility.

Another problem is that this paper relies on perceptions- 'how well do you feel ...' questions. These questions fall short, IMO of the clinical precision and neutrality of the genuinely inquisitive, and stray into the territory of market research. When did you stop beating your wife? Who's to say that the TTT candidates were actually trained properly? What's to prevent the supervisors betraying their own inclinations, preferences and prejudices through their own opinions. Nothing. Nothing at all. This isn't the same as measuring the temperature at which mercury boils- it's like interviewing a series of marathon runners at the finishing line and asking if they feel out of breath.

The paper does acknowledge some of this. Actually, it seems to acknowledge all of this:

'the study does not provide evidence of T3’s self-reported or actual teaching behaviours. Neither does it provide empirical observations of school administrators watching T3s’ actual teaching behaviours. Nor does it provide evidence of students’ learning gains as a result of working for a period of defined time with T3s as compared with other teachers of similar experience. Further study of the actual teaching practices from T3 self-report or assessment of their students’ measured achievement, although very complex and difficult studies to undertake, would provide important information about T3s’ quality as well as feedback about how to strengthen T3 preparation.'

In other words, we know it's all just opinion and self analysis. But we don't think it's a problem. Of course, opinion and subjective experience have a place in analysis; but it's not the same place as objective, viewer-independent data. It doesn't prove anything more than the people who responded felt the way they felt. It's not corroboration that these teachers are better: it is what it is.

The other paper I looked at, from 2010 (and also by our hero from Panorama), focused on TTT candidates who went on to become Principals. This time it was 107 subjects; ah, boo, much smaller. Their supervisors (I didn't even know Heads had supervisors) overwhelmingly (90% plus) said that they thought such principals were better on a variety of scales than similar, non TTT Principals. Yes, you may also find it unsurprising that supervisors, who I assume are involved in the selection and support of these principals, overwhelmingly thought that they were doing a jolly good job, and hadn't they made excellent decisions hiring them? Again, we don't know the conversion rate, the response rate etc.. I'm sure it was fabulous, given that 107 is a very small number. Still, the data comes out rather well, doesn't it?

So is there nothing concrete at all to support the view that TTT candidates have a, if you will, tactical advantage over their civilian counterparts? Not a bit of it. Here it is:

'In a 2008 Florida study comparing measured academic achievement of elementary,
middle, and high school students taught by TTTs, results indicate that compared to all
teachers, students served by Troops teachers performed about equally well in Reading and
achieved a small but statistically significant advantage in Mathematics. In comparisons
where each Troop teacher was individually matched to another teacher, teaching the same
subject in the same school, with approximately the same amount of teaching experience,
students served by Troops teachers achieved substantially and statistically significantly
higher in both Reading and Mathematics (Nunnery,, 2008; Nunnery, et. al., 2009).'

Call me a gutless limey cynic, but 'equally well in Reading' and 'a small but statistically significant advantage' in Maths doesn't exactly strike me as cause to start popping the champagne for the cause yet. Incidentally, the Nunnery paper mentioned above by Owings is co-written by.....yes, William Owings. And it wasn't published in an academic journal, but, as the report says, 'submitted to 'Educational Administration Quarterly
October 2008'. I can submit a poem written on bog paper to the Sunday Times. Does that mean I can say it was printed?   Have a look at the front page. It's got a lovely 'Troops to Teachers' logo all over the front. I'm don't have a Ph.D. in this exact subject, but I suspect that means they might have something to do with the report....

(I stopped reading it at that point, because I don't believe in an afterlife, and I value every precious minute I possess.)

In fact, so do the previous two papers I mentioned, both of which are prefaced by the sentence, 'A Report Prepared for Mike Melo, Director, Virginia Office of Troops to Teachers,' and 'Report to Dr. William McAleer, Executive Director, Troops to Teachers, Pensacola, Florida.' So all of the reports mentioned were written for (can I presume commissioned?) the TTT itself. Hey, waitaminute.....

It's not that I'm against the idea of ex-military training for schools: good luck to 'em, I say. And I think that there might be something in the idea that men and women who have experience with leadership, developing self-discipline and oiling rifles might have something useful to teach children (sniping, for instance). But it doesn't do anyone any good to use research like this that seeks to support proposals with empirical claims that can at the very least be contested as meaningful or verifiable in any real sense. Michael Gove needs to look elsewhere for better arguments, and maybe we might start to take research based policy more seriously.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

TES Behaviour Advice Training Seminar- bookings open again

After doing a few seminars last month with the lovely people of the Times Educational Supplement, I've been asked back to take a few more. They last about 2 1/2 hours, and I focus entirely on what teachers need to be doing to run a well behaved classroom. The last few seminars went really well, and the feedback was pleasingly, reassuring optimistic. It's a concentrated session, with no time wasted, no sugar paper, no waffle; just straight talking, practical advice and, I'm delighted to confirm, tea and biscuits.

It's held at the TES headquarters (elegantly named TES Towers, which I find fabulous), in facilities that I can only describe as 'well-appointed', like the boardroom in 'The Apprentice' (UK version, not Trump's old-money torture chamber). There are two sessions, on Saturday the 19th of March; one in the afternoon and one in the morning, in order to cater to people who may not live in London. Some of the previous attendees made a weekend of it in the West End, although I can't be held responsible for the quality of Les Mis, or anything...

To book, click on the link here.

Feedback from previous sessions:

'A very useful session which has made me think about strategies and ways of dealing with classes.'
'Fantastic tips, much I can apply to my lessons, thank you.'
'Tom is great, he is "safe blud" as my little monkeys would say.'
'Very useful content and a speaker who was easy to relate to.  Good to talk with someone who has experienced the same difficulties as me.'

In other news, I'll also be at TES Towers on Tuesday the 1st March between 5 and 6:30 hosting a live webchat on marking, reports and paperwork, for anyone looking for tips on how to climb up the paper mountain in schools. Look forward to, as Frazier Crane would say, taking your calls. Posts? I don't know. I'll be there, anyway.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

What's red and green and pointless? The endless, anxious debate about the colour of marking.

What's got two thumbs and couldn't give a damn what colour his marking pen was?
*points two thumbs at chest*

The meme de jour of horror flicks is to have the  final frame hinting at the imminent return of the hellish antagonist- see: Carrie; Saw; Freddy; Jason, ad nauseum. Well here's another teaching myth that I thought had been staked a long time ago, but apparently keeps rising from the grave with  the certainty of sunrise. Does it matter in what colour you mark students' books?

No it doesn't  
I only mention this because someone emailed me this question recently, and I had to rub my eyes and pinch myself (not easy) to check if I was dreaming. Are people still asking this? Apparently, yes. Dracula has returned. So it's time to dip my crossbow bolts in holy water and bless my silver candelabra, and get ready to knock the brains out of this one, although believe me, it won't take much.

When I started teaching, this was received wisdom; it was dogma; it was part of the catechisms of the Church of Progressive Teaching: do not mark in red ink, I was told. When I asked why, I was solemnly told that it was 'bad'. Which is great, because for a minute I thought they were going to be vague about it. I doubted it then, because it just seemed so counter-intuitive. How could it matter in any real sense what colour I used? But, like many axioms absorbed in the infancy of one's education, I complied, and dutifully stocked up on soothing, somehow more supportive shades of emerald. I wondered then which shade in particular was supposed to have the best effect? I think more work needs to be done.

But let's settle this. There is no research whatsoever to support the view that marking should be done in green ink, purple, vermilion, or a thousand other shades of the spectrum, as a preference to red. Let me repeat that: there is none. So why do so many people think it's true? I've investigated, so you don't have to. Jus' doing my job, ma'am.

Well, what there has been is an enormous amount of psychological investigation into colour preferences in an enormous number of groups. There's also been a lot of studies that have looked into the symbolic associations that people have towards certain colours. This is nothing new: people have always attached meaning to just about everything: black has connotations of mystery, magic, fear, fascism; blue connotes to calm, the ocean, etc. You can add your own. There are recurring themes that reflect the cultural expectations of the group investigated. Within each group there will be understandable variations ascribed to any particular colour- I find Sunflower Yellow irritating (mainly because I associate it with one of the companies I used to work for), whereas I'm told by SENCOs that autistic children apparently fall into soporific calm at the sight of it. I have no idea.

This kind of thing can be studied quite easily- get a sample, ask them what they associate with each colour, collate the data. Or perhaps be even more clever and do it a bit more 'blind'- don't tell them what you're investigating, and show them pictures of people wearing different shades and hues and ask them to express their thoughts towards them, that sort of thing. The point is that this kind of data is easy to gather, and assuredly marketing people have been doing this since dinosaurs walked the Earth and they wanted to know what colour of loincloth sold best to AB1 Hunter/ Gatherers.

Of course, the idea that the colour of your marking pen matters goes beyond even this: the idea seems to be that people associate the colour red with aggression, threat, danger and negativity. People- seemingly quite sensible ones- have expressed the opinion that they remember  their own books being 'covered with red ink,' in a process that they describe as traumatic. Ergo, we should stop using red ink and get busy with shades more arborial.

Show me the research

Well, quite. So what research is there to support this? I'm happy to report that the answer is 'bugger all'. Curious, I decided to do a bit of digging, and I was amazed to see that nothing on paper could explicitly support this theory at all. In fact, even the most recent research seems to struggle to prop it up, or barely offers any insight into the question except in the most tangential way. To give one example,  a 2010 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology by Rutchick, Slepian (of the gorgeously named Tufts University) and Ferris offers the cutting edge of research into this area, and frankly, it's a hoot. It shows, or attempts to, that using red ink can prime markers (not students) to tackle papers more aggressively, more critically. Its central premise is that just seeing red (ah, such a loaded term) is enough to make markers...well, see red. Those using red pens in the research seemed to grade papers lower, and notice a higher level of mistakes than the other, non-red-ink group. They also seemed to indicate that, when confronted with word stems to complete, they usually went with more negative, aggressive ones over the altogether more harmonious, Scandinavian alternatives.Let me give you some examples; see how you do. Finish these words:

MIN_ _.
WRO_ _.

Now, I don't know about you, but I went straight for 'fail', 'minus', 'flunk' and 'wrong'. And so did more of the red ink group. It's results like these that convinced the researchers that they were on to something with their red-ink bad hypothesis. The blueys, incidentally, had higher proportions of 'fair', 'minty', 'clunk' and 'wrote' apparently. You can't argue with science.

Except that you can certainly argue with this science. For a start, what's to say that the 'negative' connoting words weren't simply more common idiom? "Minty' isn't exactly something that trips off my tongue regularly, but then, I don't sell toothpaste. And what's to say that there weren't fewer toothpaste salespeople (for example) in this group than in the other? It's these kind of uncontrolled variables that knock the guts out of a piece of research, because without reassurances that one group isn't unfairly weighted with certain types of respondents there's no way of knowing if your analysis is statistically significant.

What about the other part of the research- that the red inkers were more stringent/ harsher/ more negative in the number of mistakes they corrected? Again, we need to know if there was any meaningful way of making sure that one group wasn't unfairly (or should that be unfailly?) loaded with pedants, grammar Nazis and careful essayists. I checked the paper to see how the group was selected. It says, and I quote:

'The current findings are qualified by additional limitations, primarily concerning the participants in the studies. Due to time constraints associated with conducting the experiments in a realistic setting, little was known about the participants beyond their presence in the university environment; their age, ethnic background, level of education, and other factors were not assessed. Several of these individual differences, such as verbal ability, educational background, and field of study, could influence participants’ ability to detect errors, their propensity to mark them, and the harshness with which they make evaluations.'

You don't say. So in essence, we have a bunch of people marking with red pens, and a bunch of people marking with blue pens, but we don't know if there are any factors in each group that could produce the results that we found. But we think it's got something to do with the pens. In fact, it's not just the pens, it's the fact that the 'we propose that the red pen effect is driven by increased accessibility of the concepts of errors, poor performance, and evaluative harshness.'

Or, if I can reformulate that again, 'we don't know why, out of all the possible differences between the two groups, there should be a statistical difference in such things as number of errors recorded etc, but we've decided it's the colour of the pen ink, because that's what we're investigating.' Ladies and gentlemen, it's research like this that makes your line manager tell you with an air of authority to ditch all your crimson ballpoints and go green in the classroom

So what do the authors think of this inability to account for the variations in the participants? 'However, these uncontrolled differences should manifest as random variability, and thus make it more difficult to detect the effects we report.' In other words, 'We don't know if they have any factors that could affect the experiment, but because we don't know we reckon it should all work out jess' fine, than 'ee.' Give me strength.

I often blow pretty hard about social science, for reasons just like this: although I don't necessarily believe that all social science should be circumscribed by the methodology of the natural sciences, I do think that whenever it makes a specific empirical claim about the way people think and routinely act, that there should be some kind of empirical method to show that this is the case, and that the experiment can be meaningfully reproduced in other situations, tested and confirmed. If all you want your paper to do is to start a conversation, or to add to a debate, then by all means keep it anecdotal, or unrepresentative, or subjective. But when you start trying to prove something predictive, or worse, start telling others to change their behaviour on the basis of your research, then you need to turn up to the fancy dress party with more than a fig leaf, saying you've come as Adam.

Surely there's more evidence?

Hang on, I hear you say, is that all the evidence there is? Well, yes, at least on this specific topic. Oh to be sure there are many studies that show that certain colours have certain connotations amongst certain people. And there are many other studies that show that certain colours can 'prime' us to respond in a variety of unconscious ways. But nothing- and I believe I'm throwing my perfumed gauntlet out here- NOTHING to suggest any clear link between the use of the red pen and...well, what is it the critics say is happening anyway? For one thing, the claims they make are maddeningly vague: red ink is 'negative'; it's 'discouraging'. Oh really? And how would you even go about measuring that kind of thing? How on Earth could you control for it? Do we ask 1000 children aged 14 to describe their feelings towards corrections in their books? And another 1000 to say how they would have felt if it had been in mauve rather than vermilion? *slaps forehead at the boneheaded nonsense of it all*
But hang on: our heroes have something to say about the claimed 'effect' of red ink on students:

'To our knowledge, this demoralization has not been empirically demonstrated, and would be an important complement to the current findings.'

That might just be the understatement of the red-inked century. Let me just repeat that:' no empirical evidence'. No studies. None. No proof whatsoever other than a gut feeling in educators that when kids look at a book covered in red ink corrections, they get a funny feeling in their tummies, and perhaps it's the red ink that's to blame? As many people have commented, it would seem perhaps more intuitively likely that people brought negative associations to the fact that they were corrections rather than the fact that it was red. After all, red can have millions of associations: danger, certainly- the red of a wound - but also thrills, passion, romance-  the blood racing in your veins because you're alive, for example.
Finally I would like to make one point: maybe I WANT kids to feel a little bit alert when they see red on their books? Maybe the connotations aren't exclusively negative, but rather represent a state of heightened alertness corresponding to increased attention paid to corrections. Maybe, just maybe. The point is that, as Ben Goldacre famously repeats, 'things are a bit more complex than that.'

And I sincerely hope that I haven't offended anyone by typing in black ink. Click here for a more soothing draft in magenta.

Finally, I think what particularly offends me about this subject  is that, were it relating to an aspirin, or a new technique for removing surgical stitches, it would be subjected to an enormous level of scrutiny before it could be released, as it were, into the wild. Not so in the field of educational science, where mutants, hybrids and sickly, runtish ideas are set free to breed and settle where they will. If this was an aspirin, it would have been laughed at; in education, it's adopted as a mantra. It would be laughable were it not so ubiquitous, or so representative of the slavish manner in which teachers are expected to assume a new position, no matter how servile, or follow any fashion, no matter how impractical, if their masters demand it.

I haven't been able to track down exactly when this idea escaped the laboratory from which it spawned, or how, or by whom. I can find reports of schools in the UK (primaries at first, then secondaries, Australia (Queensland) and America (loads of places) adopting the abolition of scarlet scribing dating back to 2003, in this report from the BBC. To quote:

'Penny Penn-Howard, head of school improvement for Sandwell Council, said: "The colour of the pen used for marking is not greatly significant except that the red pen has negative connotations and can be seen as a negative approach to improving pupils' work. Therefore, it is quite legitimate for a school to have a consistent policy that it uses a different colour."'

Which is another example of why I'll be glad to see the back of some people who claim to be employed to 'improve schools'.  If it isn't significant, why have a policy? How does red connote 'negatively' etc? Does that mean that tomato sauce and Christmas have negative associations? Blimey, someone better call the head of marketing at Coca Cola and tell them they've been getting it all wrong. Penny Penn-Howard has the answers.

My Stella Challenge to the red-ink flat-earthers

I'm not James Randi, and I don't have a million dollars, but I bet anyone a pint that they can't produce meaningful research that shows that the colour of the pen has any significant effect at all. I suspect my pint jar is safe from the toffee hammer for some time. In the meantime, I'll be choosing to mark in red as much as humanly possible, more in spite of the apparently still current dogma than for any other reason. Mind you, it stands out nicely against all the black ink of my student's work.  
Plus of course I tend to write in human blood. I like the connotations. It shows I care.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Grow a pair: leadership in schools, and childhood heroes are back in the news

Draper: unconcerned by Value Added.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Hackney's celebrated Mossbourne Academy has been making headlines by suggesting that school leaders need to be just that- leaders, rather than democratic pansies more interested in harmony and coalition than decisions and actions. True dat: schools are ravenous beasts, bubbling with hundreds of agendas (the kids, the staff, the LEA, the parents, the governors), and if there's one thing I learned running night clubs in the Wild West of Soho, it was that if you want to lead people you need to actually want to lead them. It meant that, even if you had reservations about one's right to dictate to another, there it was- that was your job, and if you felt uncomfortable with it then there were plenty of other people who would be happy to oblige. Or worse, you could just hang on and try to ride every wave that surged beneath you. You could do that for quite a while, actually. You would never achieve very much of what you set out to do, and by the time you left things would be how they panned out, rather than where you wanted them. But if you were happy with that kind of existence then it was possible.

Or you could try to be a leader. Which meant discovering what your views were, and deciding that was what you would pursue. I learned to my cost that if you didn't have strong views about how they should be, then you would never create anything worth while. Schools are bodies made up of hundreds of sentient cells, all with their own views about how the world should work. They can't all win. And if you try to keep as many people as possible happy, all you create are the conditions where the unhappiness is maximised. I liken it to a classroom: can you imagine how it would look if you said that every student could do what they wanted? Of course you can- some classes are like that already.

'Hello, OfSTED. Let's get you out of that dress.'
The point is that the teacher has to set the agenda for the benefit of the majority. I think that ever since the invention of democracy we have somehow absorbed the belief that democracy is the best and only way to run every institution, at any level. That may be true at a national and international level, but the closer to the private sphere we get the poorer that paradigm looks- it's like using telescopes to examine tissue samples. No parental relationship can run by the single transferable vote; no first-past-the-post can govern the workings of a factory. And governance by committee doesn't work in a school, or as I like to describe them, 'dream factories'.

The ironic thing is that when presented by strong leadership, people often complain about it; but when it vanishes, everyone realises that they miss the good old days, and can the grown-ups come back? That doesn't always translate to the national theatre, but there are echoes. And something that always strikes me about leadership is that I'm not entirely sure that it can be taught in any meaningful way. Oh, I know there are courses and INSETS and colleges and expensive three day residential coaching clubs where you can drop a month's salary on some hard-on with a clip-on microphone telling you how to Awaken the Giant Within. I've been on some. But did anyone come away with anything other than a vague sense that being a leader somehow meant walking up to people and telling them how awesome you were?

Leadership, like status, is one of those metaphysical entities that exists in a non-materialist way; it's a relationship, a subjective state that exists between two people. If you possess an official rank of some sort it helps, particularly with adults who acknowledge that rank. Being possessed of a certain character is enormously helpful- stubborn, single minded, confident are three qualities that spring to mind. It possibly also helps if you're a bit unbalanced too, maybe slightly scary or unusually charismatic in a fashion that usually masks enormous insecurity or enormous levels of self-possession. But I think I might side with Nietzsche when he said that character isn't a quality you possess; it's a description of how you acted, thereby making it a retrospective assessment of your career and character, rather than something that can be obviously emulated.

Plato and Plutarch saw leadership as a list of virtues one had to possess; in the 50s Stogdill and Mann believed that people who were leaders in one circumstance might fail to be leaders in another- witness the modern attempt to describe some PMs and Presidents as good at war, bad at peace, for example. Apparently identifying virtues is now fashionable again in leadership theory, which is nice.

I wish all the Neo-Caesars seeking the Big Chair could just can the reflective mind maps, and stop fretting about whether they're autocratic, democratic, authoritarian, narcissistic or laissez faire, or whether or not they meet the emotional appetites of the people that work for them, and just bloody get on with it. Just bloody lead. Dare to be wrong, and make some sodding decisions. Life isn't a committee. You may make an arse of yourself. That's why you're paid the big bucks. Oh, and grow a pair.

Celebrity Free School
Jamie Oliver's at it again.
Not happy with his earlier campaign to harpoon the kamikaze attitude that some of our kids (and let's face the truth, their well-meaning/ unpleasant and red-faced parents) have towards brightly coloured yoghurts and breakfast cereals with the word 'Coco' in them, he's going for the White Whale this time: inspirational teachers. While you could quibble with the authenticity of anything made for television, I can't help but wish him luck as he assembles an all star cast to try to re-engage disaffected kids back into education by using field leaders (and inexplicably Cherie Blair. I'm unaware that they had made a GCSE out of 'Being Ghastly' yet) to seduce the NEETs back into the classroom. Of course, it's possible to suggest some slightly dodgy assumptions behind this all- that teaching is something anyone can do, and all they need is expertise in a field, which in my experience is far, far from the truth- teaching is a skill and a character set separate from the discipline you teach, and it's why new teachers have a hard time for a few years before the kids have a war council and say, yeah, she's had enough, allow it.

But you have to admire his guts, and I wish him all the best. Frankly if Daley Thompson had been my PE teacher I might have done a bit more jogging, but that's mainly because I assume he wouldn't have amused himself by calling me a poof and jeering at me as I missed passes like most of my teachers did.

Floella Benjamin is making  a stand!
The former Playschool presenter turned politician (typical- Italy gets Cicciolina, we get Floella Benjamin) is standing in the wilderness wearing sackcloth and ashes, living on a diet of wild honey and crickets, and warning us of the dangers of...childrens' television. Apparently some parents use it as a child minder. How about that? Strange: I seem to recall a childhood sitting in front of the test card, waiting for the girl to make her move at tic-tac-toe before I sat down to an unguided, parent-free hour of...Playschool. It must have been an invented memory.

It is unlikely your teacher will look like this.
Saw The Children's Hour at the Comedy Theatre last week, Lillian Hellman's powerful drama about two teachers destroyed by the false accusations of one of their students. Although the star wattage sometimes threatens to overcast everything else (Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss act the stage off, although it was nothing compared to the dumbstruck sensation I felt when I realised I was in standing right behind Christina Hendricks, who turned round and met my eyes with what I'm sure was a moment when she thought to herself, 'Don Draper? Here?'), it's a fine story that feels like The Crucible set in a boarding school, or the McCarthy Trials, as insinuation and allegation become just as damaging as the truth could ever have been.

It reminded me that at present teachers aren't guaranteed anonymity when allegations are made against them, although the new Education Bill promises to remedy that comic state of affairs. But many teachers still suffer with suspension 'while matters are being investigated', something which by itself can be seen as mortally shaming, and indicative of guilt in the eyes of others. It also reminds me that in many cases, one teacher's word is simply not enough to substantiate a claim. A colleague of mine used to work in another school, where one of the pupils told him to 'Go f*** himself sideways,' or some similar Wildean barb. The teacher took it to the Head who told him, 'Ah, it's one word against another. Nothing we can do.'

Grow. A. Pair.

This is why I read books.
Ball: legend of mathematics.
Finally, I see that Johnny Ball's getting aggro from climate change enthusiasts over his views about the scientific reliability of same. Now without wishing to wade into the rights and wrongs, I'd just like to confirm that Johnny Ball was, at the same time as I was singing about bus wheels along with Floella Benjamin, like unto Jehoshaphat in mine childish eyes, and frankly he could go postal in the Lakeside Thurrock shopping mall and I'd be tempted to fund his legal defence. Johnny, I salute you, and your controversial views, because the more people get engaged with scientific analysis, the more immunised we all become to bullshit and cant. You, Tony Hart and Tom Baker did more to teach me how to love learning  (Think of a Number/ Take Hart/ The Book Tower) than a host of drippy educationalists, some of whom mocked my lack of affinity with matters athletic, as I indicated before). May your elbows be empowered.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

New study shows that something is possibly true but it might not be: the Fog of Social Science.

'Kill me.'
These are apocalyptic days for many school schemes; in the present age of neo-austerity, it seems like anything not related to life support and child protection is being pared down to the marrow. I'm not sure people are aware yet of how much is on the way out, thanks to a cartel of financial hucksters and their sub-prime lending habits that made the lifestyles of termites seem modest and restrained. Some of the things on their way out were definitely dirty bathwater: the GTC, for example. But some were babies. As the FT comments:

'The schools resource budget, which covers day-to-day running costs, will rise in real terms by 0.4 per cent. But a rise in the number of pupils will mean current spending per pupil will be cut by 2.25 per cent...The education department’s budget for buildings, which is almost entirely spent on schools, will be cut from £7.6bn to £3.4bn – a real terms cut of 60 per cent....Michael Gove, education secretary, admits that many schools will enter a tough period.'

Which means we'll be holding wet hankies on the platform as we watch many extra-curricular schemes, clubs and so on  wave at us through the steam from the train now leaving the platform. This, to be fair, isn't news any more, although many in schools still have to adjust to this reality: if it can go, it will. I've been reading professional Dear John letters from LEA consultants and liaisons all week, wishing me well as they pack their belongings into  red handkerchiefs tied to sticks as they set out for London with their little black cats.

One of many, many schemes teetering on the end of the gangplank is Sing Up, (click on the link while you still can), an organisation that, unsurprisingly, believes that 'Every child deserves the chance to sing every day.' While you could greedily take issue with the origins of this alleged right (is it intrinsic? Divine? Legally prescribed?), I would never antagonise such a well-meant, noble cause. If I were Educational King for a Day (it keeps me awake at night sometimes, plotting and dreaming...) this is the kind of group I would give money to; I want schools with choirs; I want schools with voice coaches and singing lessons; I want parents to set up Papparazi Nests on Talent Nights, weeping and filming, weeping and filming. This is the world I want.

But for Sing Up, it's the last scene in Casablanca, Braveheart, Butch and Sundance, Angels with Dirty Faces. It's curtains; the scheme will be funded up until 2012, and after that, all is silence. (I presume that after everyone has gone home from the Olympics, Britain will dramatically revert to Blitz-sepia, rationing will be reintroduced, and Park Lane will become a gated community. I suggest you buy bottled water and plenty of tinned goods otherwise you'll be eating your hands or something.) From looking through their website, this appears to be an event we should genuinely regret. Plus ├ža change.

Do not approach these men.
But where there's a cause, there's a claim. In this case, a report was released this week by the Institute of education, which claimed that projects like Sing Up were enormously beneficial to the well being of children.
This was reported on the BBC, presumably from a news release via agencies such as the Press Association,  and was obviously proudly trailed on the Sing Up website. Now I don't wish to put the boot into what, to me, appears to be a fine and meaningful project. But the way in which this research has been positioned has a lot more to do with marketing and a lot less to do with authentic science. And incidentally, I'm not taking issue with the people who conducted the survey, either, and least of all with Sing Up. But it's a perfect example of how social science is misused to justify values and interests in education.

For a start, the report was commissioned by Sing Up themselves:

'The Institute of Education's independent three-year study, commissioned by the Sing Up programme, is based on data collected from 9,979 children at 177 primary schools in England.'

The words 'independent' and 'commissioned by the Sing Up programme' placed together in such close proximity must indicate some new, alternative meaning of the phrase independent that I haven't yet heard of, unless they mean something else.This by itself doesn't exclude the research from the realms of credibility, but it should at the very least allow us to reposition the findings in a different context. In much the same way that homoeopaths and cigarette manufacturers are fond of quoting from research that supports their products, it trips alarms when you find out that research has been carried out by vested interests. ('Getting up early is dangerous', a new report commissioned by the National Union of Students warned today. That kind of thing.) This doesn't mean that there is actual researcher bias in this case, simply that the choice to publish or not publish becomes a political decision based on a utilitarian assessment of benefits.

Go on- I dare you.

Secondly, there's the issue of the report itself:  try as I might  I can't see it anywhere. And the only  link from the Sing Up website to an IOE  report takes us to a paper published on the their website, in which I can't find any specific reference to the Sing Up program at all. Oh, there's plenty about singing, and lots of claims for the benefits of a musical education. Which means that either I'm looking at an old report, or it hasn't been published yet. Or maybe I just can't find it. Like I say, I might be wrong, but that suggests to me that it hasn't been published in a journal and exposed to peer review and assessment by the academic community. And if that's the case, then mere mortals like myself have no purchase on the information- we rely, of course, on the weight of a community assessment to judge if such material meets the standards of rigour and academic ethics. Until that happens, it's about as authoritative as an opinion piece.

Again (and I know I'm stressing this a lot, but this isn't meant to be a criticism of the report itself, or the project, and I'm at pains to be civil), for research to be meaningful in a public sphere, it has to be subject to public scrutiny. There are a lot of people out there with PhDs. Some of them are Gillian McKeith. One of the first thing I learned at university was that there are plenty of opinions out there, and none of them have a guaranteed  copyright on certainty.

Then there are the claims, or at least the claims as reported.

a) Singing in school can make children feel more positive about themselves and build a sense of community I bet it can. So can chess clubs, being in a gang and joining a cult. So can just about any other activity in the right context.

b) There is 'a clear link between singing and well-being'. Could you define clear? Can you define well being? Pupils that sing feel better about themselves; even assuming we have overcome the definitional challenges of such a subjective term, how on earth can one draw a clear causal relationship between the two, and disentangle that relationship from a million other factors that could accompany the proposed cause and effect? Perhaps being part of a group promotes well being, and the singing is incidental. Perhaps if you're the sort of person who likes to sing then you'll also be the type of person on average, feels better about yourself. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. I'm still not getting a causal relationship here.

c) 'Children who took part in the programme had a strong sense of being part of a community.' I don't wish to be churlish here, but the idea that people who participate in communities feel like they're in a community doesn't exactly sound like headline shattering stuff. But thank you, science. I look forward to your assessment of what the effect of punching myself in the pipes feels like.

d) "A clear inference may be drawn that children with experience of Sing Up are more likely... to have a positive self-concept,"  What's your point caller? It sounds like this means that x causes y, when in fact it shows no such thing, at least by itself. They may be more likely for other reasons. Maybe y causes x, and having a positive self concept causes people to join Glee clubs, I don't know. But that's the point. I don't know. Nobody does.

e) 'Sing Up children were up to two years ahead in their singing development than those of the same age who did not take part in the programme'. Sorry, I thought we had finished with tautologies. Are they seriously implying that children who are involved in singing practise actually improve at singing? You'll be telling me that people who climb ladders get higher up, next. Honestly, it's an open goal.

This may sound petty, because at least on the surface, who can disagree with the idea that singing lessons are a great thing for children to be exposed to, and to made available for as many as want or need them to flourish? I enjoyed singing at school. Others hated it, in much the same way I didn't enjoy the ritual humiliation of rugby in December, where your alleged friends would barrel into you at full tilt in a manner that would provoke charges were they to be repeated off the field. And I certainly would mourn the loss of any scheme that promoted such activities (singing, not assault).

Helen Goddard. Not an ideal role model, to be fair.
But this story nicely summarises many things that are wrong with the use of scientific research in education, and especially social science. Humanities research is commonly used to promote a myriad of causes and interest in schools, and almost always in the advocacy of a new initiative or in an attempt to convince headmasters and teachers that they should be teaching in a particular way, or running a school to a particular model. And that has led to a suffocating number of ideas and initiatives drowning the practise of teaching for decades, each one justified by a clutch of optimistic, hand-picked research and statistics.

And the problem with this is that social science research just doesn't provide anything like the level of probability that the physical sciences, however problematically, offer. If someone asserts that water boils at 100 degrees at sea level, then I can comfortably and easily assess that theory by testing it to my heart's delight. But if someone then claims that they have shown that children learn best with a three part lesson then I run into an enormous number of problems:

1. How do I check that their progress wasn't down to some other factor? Isolating a causal point of origin is almost impossible in an environment as wild and complicated as human interaction, with its plethora of reasons, internal causes, external, invisible factors, and unknowns.
2. How do I create a control to provide the above?
3. How do I know I'm not biasing my own research with my own intentions, however implicit?
4. How do I know my participants aren't skewing the data by some form of bias on their part?

And so on. Social science is not, and never can, offer predictive powers. The pursuit of certainty in the Humanities is a fool's errand, because we can barely claim such a principle in the natural sciences. That isn't to discount social scientific research, but merely to contextualise it appropriately. As the MMR non-scandal showed, even the biological sciences can be subject to misinterpretation, especially when an arbitrary bundle of studies are offered as representative when in fact they are not. Social science is an invaluable commentary on how we live, who we are, and the exploration of meaning in the human sphere. But what it isn't, is science, at least not as Joe Public knows it.

And that's the shame of it: that education has been drowned in pseudo science, in the name of progress, when what it really represents is the justification of the values of the educational policy makers. The policy is decided for a thousand reasons, and then research is selected or created that justifies the decision.

If you want to say that singing programs should be exempt from deletion in the next rounds of cuts, then you should do so by dwelling on the intrinsic value of the activity itself- singing is an art form, a pleasure and one of the ways in which we express ourselves as humans. You value it or you don't. But what you shouldn't do is try to justify its value by reference to an extrinsic factor- 'it improves well being' and so on. That's the argument of the boardroom and the abacus ('What use is singing?'), and should have no place in our consideration of what is and isn't a valuable part of a child's education. (But of course I get the feeling that the values have already been decided: what does the economy need?) And we certainly shouldn't rely on one piece of social science research to provide justification for a proposal, no matter how well intentioned. Because as teachers, I think we've had quite enough of that.

Friday, 11 February 2011

'Nation stunned as top two universities in Europe charge 'money' for degrees.'

'It's the workhouse for us!'
 The entire population of Britain was last night reeling in amazement and disbelief after the surprise news that Oxford and Cambridge Universities would probably charge the maximum amount allowed for student degrees. Poundstretchers and branches of Argos were closed all day today, as staff workers struggled to get in due to a combination of grief and shock.

'I can't believe it,' said Cristal Bludgen, a fourteen year old trainee beauty therapist from Dagenham. 'This is the end for me. As it was, my chances of going to one of the two top ten world universities was slim, what with my forty-hour-a-week exfoliating and cyberbullying commitments. The decisions of the two senate houses has now priced a world class degree in Cyrillic languages completely out of my grasp. It looks like it's the Lottery and Holby City for me now. Oh well, aut viam inveniam aut faciam, I always say.'

Others took it even harder. 'This has come out of nowhere,' said Tarquin Vespa, the owner of two high-end discount leather goods stalls in Roman Road Market, Bethnal Green. 'Like everyone else, I had somehow assumed that Oxbridge would have voluntarily offered degrees as some kind of charity commitment to the economically unfortunate. After all, the coalition specifically threatened them that they would have to provide evidence of a consistent outreach effort. Who knew that they would be so cavalier as to take no notice of so stiff a sanction?'

'Now as far as I'm concerned, you could tell me that black was white and I might believe you. It's a grey day for carefully nurtured prejudices based on intuition and stupidity, and no mistake.'

'I'm home-tutoring my Kyle.'
The Dean of the University of Lewisham High street was unavailable for comment, but it is thought he will announce on Monday a new fee system designed to attract those unavailable to pay the Oxbridge fees. Dubbed the 'Wheel of Learning', the application process will disregard applicant's qualifications and hobbies indicative of social enthusiasm, and instead choose successful students at random after they have called a premium-rate telephone number. 'It's as fair as many and as good as any,' said the porter of Lewisham Lodge, in between his second and third jobs in a kebab shop and an off license. 'And they can just keep phoning and eventually they'll get in. I'd say that was pretty fair. Sorry, the phone's ringing.'

Sir Keith Joseph is 55..

Saturday, 5 February 2011

If you build it, they will behave: the great behaviour myth of teaching and learning

'That lesson was bare differentiated.'
Because I don't get out much, I have a favourite false (or possibly just invalid) syllogism, and it's from Yes Minister, the satirical political sit-com precursor to The Thick of It that now seems like a Golden Age of propriety and civic integrity. It goes like this:

P1: We must do something
P2: This is something
C: Therefore we must do this.

I mention this because there seems to be many government ministers and policy formers who apparently see this as the last word in logic. These are interesting times in Education; the Curriculum is being shaken down, sorry, up; Ofsted are being retrained to hunt different prey (presumably using the bloody undergarments of teachers who don't value Geography as scent-markers). It's all a bit up in the air again, and education has the atmosphere of the Museum of Baghdad after the liberation of Iraq. No one really knows what's going on, and schools are feeling sore about the new baccalaureate because everyone looks like they do nothing but teach kids how to fail exams. In many ways it's a great time to be a teacher.

And in other ways it's business as usual. The Education Committee of the House of Commons has just reported back the following conclusions:

1. The curriculum should be designed to meet the needs of all children

'The report by the cross-party committee concluded: "Ministers should bear in mind that if the future curriculum is to have a beneficial effect on standards of behaviour in the classroom, it will need to meet the needs of all pupils and contain a mix of academic and vocational subjects, while being differentiated and enjoyable"'

Says who? Says Graham Stuart, MP and committee chairman. You would hope that, as Mr Stuart has brought the tablets down from the mountain that he would have some kind of solid experience in classrooms to back up these claims. A brief search of his web page reveals...well, a career in publishing, which is nice, and presumably where he learned all that classroom management stuff he's so good at. Give me strength.

'Er, sums and Homer and that, innit.'
What other profession would have to endure such uninformed micro-management? It's a topic I've visited before, but I'm happy to drop in again: can you imagine the neurosurgeon just about to perform a cerebrospinal fluid leak repair, when some enthusiastic Sir Humphrey chips in that he should be wearing opera glasses and using a judge's gavel if he wants to minimise post-operative infection? (On second thoughts, I shouldn't give them any ideas.)

So why does teaching have to routinely endure the armchair wisdom of so many hapless, uninformed desk-jockeys? Because everyone has been to school, I suppose, therefore everyone has an opinion on it, in much the same way that because I've got a mobile phone I have an expert opinion on quadrature amplitude modulation.(I do incidentally; apparently they're taking all our jobs and living twenty five to a flat. I mean I'm not racist, but they're not like us are they?)

There's a recurrent theme here: education is an open field; anyone can have a crack at it. I suspect that this is part of the problem with the Free School idea, but only time will tell. What's obvious is that education wobbles under the weight of the legion values and judgements of battalions of nosey Norahs who have never set foot in a classroom unless they were learning Latin. The teaching 'profession' can barely call itself such any more; the juice has been squeezed from our lemons until these days we're not much more than vending machines for the latest fashionable ideology or dubious international success story.

2. Good teaching causes good behaviour

'Behaviour is one of the four key areas to be examined by schools inspectors Ofsted under changes announced.
Ofsted's last annual report found that in schools where teaching was good or outstanding, behaviour was also almost always good or outstanding.'

Philosophy lovers everywhere can have this one for free: devotees of empirical science will be all over it like hungry dogs. Can you spot the (presumably deliberate) mistake in this reasoning?

P1: Some schools have outstanding or good teaching.
P2: Many of these schools have good or outstanding behaviour.
C: Therefore good teaching leads to good behaviour.

'One can do it like the man'dem, man'dem..'
Does it? Does it really? As Hume would say, this is an invalid deductive argument. It's barely even an inductive one. Why not just as easily conclude that good behaviour leads to good teaching? Because that's exactly what I have observed in my teaching career. If the class won't behave for you, then you can plan a lesson to the millisecond, involve tumbling dwarves and the Dalai Lama, plan a different activity for every child, have rewards, have them waving traffic light cards and pumping them with SEAL, but you ain't got a thing if they won't behave for you. Good behaviour is prior to good learning. If they don't want to learn, if the class is even remotely challenging, then you can plan your little heart out, but you might as well try to teach a colony of seals on the beaches of Shapinsay.

That's not to say that good lesson planning doesn't help the situation, or that interesting activities and well-structured tasks that involve variety and challenge aren't part of your behaviour management arsenal- in fact they should be- but the suggestion that what teachers really need to be focusing on is high quality teaching activities isn't just wrong, it's destructive.

Why? Because on the TES Behaviour Forum I chair, I deal with complaints every bloody day from new teachers who are broken men and women, having been fed this snake oil as the remedy to their classroom woes. When they find it doesn't work with many kids, they do one thing- they blame themselves.

I learned this the hard way, like many teachers; I went into the profession brimming with enthusiasm and ingenuity, but found that to my new classes, I may as well have been talking in Swahili, as they listened in Armenian, because they couldn't give a monkeys. It was only when I realised that the focus needed to be the behaviour first and de Bono's Learning Hats second (and believe me, it's a very, very distant second) that I made headway. Then, when I had tamed them to a satisfactory level, I could restore creativity and subtlety to the lesson.

These things are never completely separate of course; but the emphasis in the early days needs to be getting the classes under control first. As the control deepens, so too can challenge and intricacy. Putting them the other way around does nothing but break the hearts of those new to the profession.

This myth is cultured in other political Petri dishes:

'Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: "An appropriate, relevant and broad curriculum that keeps pupils engaged is absolutely fundamental to good behaviour.'

Again, there is some truth in this, but misplacing the emphasis can lead to teacher training disaster:  'absolutely fundamental' means, to me, 'cannot exist without it'. This is demonstrably untrue: I know scores of experienced teachers who could sit a class down with an open book and tell them to work through 100 maths questions, and not hear a peep for fifty minutes. Not exactly what you might be looking for in a class necessarily, but it proves the point.

I want lessons to be interesting, challenging, fun and inspirational- who doesn't? I would love it if they were all like that. But just because something is desirable doesn't mean that it is a necessary component, or even that it is possible. Put simply, much of the work that needs to be done in order to achieve a good education is boring. (Just saying that makes me feel like Ofsted will burst down from the ceiling on static climbing ropes like Harry Tuttle in Brazil.) But it's true; it's not all interesting; in fact I'll go further- a lot of learning is a bit dull, and takes effort and resilience to complete. That's not an excuse for all lessons to be boring, but a admission that education sometimes requires repetition, rote learning and routine. To be frank, that shouldn't even be a controversial statement, unless you think that the suggestion that 'building up your quadriceps will require exercise' is controversial.

Somewhere along the line we picked up the assumption that all learning can be fun. Oh really? A big shout going out right now to every single one of the children I have taught who studied and worked hard even when my lessons weren't based on quiz shows or involved human pyramids or playing at Rock Stars. Nothing hard ever happens without hard work. If we demand that all lessons engage then we are making an electric rod bristling with broken glass for our backs. What we demand is that all pupils try, that they behave. Then it's up to us to make it as engaging as possible. But I won't apologise for some lessons that bore even me. that's the nature of learning sometimes. To accept that lessons must all be engaging simply shifts blame to the teacher when children misbehave. 'It's your fault- the lesson didn't engage,' the argument goes, which is about as logical as the proposition that people get burgled because their homes aren't secure enough, or look too affluent.

Free Schools led to unusual sponsors.
The Shadow Education Secretary, Andy Burnham doesn't want to be left out, either. The curriculum revamp is 'narrow and restrictive' he says, and could lead to children behaving badly. Oh aye, they'll all be out on the streets with burning torches and pitchforks when they have to do Geography and French, won't they? (Presumably Citizenship and BTECs do nothing but soothe the savage breast. Oh that's right. They don't.) Andy Burnham is well placed to talk about the effects of the curriculum on education, having spent a few years as a researcher for Tessa Jowell before entering politics, so he knows exactly how these things work. And next week he'll be redesigning the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, because he saw Horizon once.

While I have my sopabox out, there are a few observations I'd like to make about the new education Bill:

1.Pornography and mobile phones added to the list of items schools can search for.

Fabulous. The power we've all been waiting for. Actually, if my biggest worry at school was the possession of a few mouldy Jazz mags, my life would be a lot easier. And frankly I'd be more surprised to not find pornography on the average adolescent's mobile phone, but there you go, it's nice to know we can.

2. Schools told they can search for anything they have banned 

Brilliant. So to that list I've just mentioned you can add, 'anything else you can think of.' Actually this is a rather good idea. I vote for 'existentialist literature' and 'unhappy thoughts.'

'Nah mate, it's the fan belt.'
3.Appeals panels are no longer allowed to tell schools to reinstate a pupil who has been expelled, but they can ask them to reconsider their decision.

And we'll say 'F*ck off, thanks.'