Thursday, 27 October 2016

Washington DC part 1: What schools can learn from America

Unless you’re in a chemically induced coma it is impossible not to see how America creates itself constantly. It does it so, so habitually that I imagine most of the time it doesn't even know it’s doing it. People have often commented on the palpable and very visible culture of civic responsibility that exists in America, certainly compared to, say the UK. Participation, citizenship, are very live, livid concepts.

One one hand this is unremarkable considering the circumstances of its birth. A former colony that had to pull itself out of the womb, bite the umbilica and tie its own knot, you can understand how that violence, that conscious act of rebellion and self-discovery leads to an equally conscious ambition to celebrate its identity. America does democracy like Apple does iPhones: better than anyone else. The UK may enjoy the Mother of Parliaments, but come to Washington and see Parliament 2.0. It’s impossible not to be a little in awe of this re-invented Leviathan, this custom-built, nuclear powered democracy, like someone looked at Rome at its height and said, ‘I’ll take one of them, but brand new please.’

Four-score lessons ago

My bucket list got a few wishes lighter today when I visited the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and National Archive where, under Lovecraftian lighting, I could view The Declaration of Independence; the Constitution; the Bill of Rights (I have no idea how Nicholas Cage was supposed to burgle the things; a poor boy there nearly saw the business end of Boot Hill when he tried to take a picture). Next to them, the Reader’s Digest narrative of their histories. Visitors leave with no ambiguity about what these documents are, what they represent, and what they do.

Ask an American about the Gettysburg address, and even the most politically disengaged will probably run off the first line or two for you, recalling school plays with stove pipe hats and beards glued on with gum. Wars of Independence, of Federal versus Slave state, of expansion, annexing and absorption are imprinted on the national consciousness. Wedged between Hallowe’en and Christmas we find Thanksgiving, a national celebration of national memory. Ask any Brit to recite the Magna Carta and you’ll have enough time to memorise the Ramayana and boil an egg before anyone comes up with two words in the right order. Then ask them to define what being British means. Or ask them to list any significant events in the history of the UK’s inception. You’ll have time to learn Japanese with an indigenous accent and discover anti-gravity.

The bloggers are coming

America has, in 200 years plus change, invented itself. The Constitution was written in just over 100 days and contains 4543 words, or to put it another way, 5 times what you're reading. The Bill of Rights is 462 words. 462. But currently 319 million people cleave to it. People from the Mississippi Delta to the port of Anchorage sing the Star-Spangled banner. In the UK half the population think the national anthem is the theme from Hawaii 5-0. We’ve had 1500 years to work out that we have no idea what we have in common with one another. No wonder all it took was a cough at the Dispatch Box for wheels to start falling off Britain like a clown’s car.

The motto of the United States is E pluribus unum- Out of many, one. And while Texas keeps looking at the door, and a few survivalist eschatologists kept getting their hopes up, that culture endures. Because they have a story they can tell about themselves. Some of that story is composed of myth, and some of it is yarns, and a lot of it is faith. And some of it is true. It’s Paul Revere and Tea Parties and Mount Rushmore and Sic semper tyrannis and apples trees cut down, honestly and Miranda and Brown vs the Board of Education. But what matters is that these stories are shared, over and over and over. They aren’t told once and forgotten. They’re memorised and eulogised and argued over and disputed. Flags may be burned or folded carefully over coffins. Arms may be borne or beaten into ploughshares, but the 1st and 2nd Amendments are in little danger of becoming obscure.

Schools that don't try to have a culture get one anyway

I’ve visited a lot of schools, particularly over the last year and half in my role as independent advisor to the Department for Education on behaviour management. One of the things that has been frequently, almost indivisibly associated with the schools who enjoy the highest average levels of civil and academic conduct, is the sense that the school has a powerful, robust, and most of all explicit culture. Culture’s a will o’ the wisp to nail down, but ‘the way we do things around here’ has yet to be beaten for me as a definition. And schools where there exists a sense of communal identity centred around kind conduct, altruism, service, dignity and industry are often ones where behaviour is at its most impressive. And these schools don’t let leave their cultures to chance, because even if you don’t invest in a culture, one will exist anyway. And good luck with that. Instead they hammer them out on a forge built on mottos that lie on the lips of every pupil and staff member; values that are lived, not just printed on school crest. Rules and boundaries that hum like electric fences and, when broken, are done with conscious intent and the aim of a greater good. Everything is conscious, everything coheres, and everyone understands what the shared stories are.

School vision statements, like a constitution, don’t have to be long; they have to be lived. In a world where data is king and bureaucracy chokes the heartiest of ambitions, it’s worth remembering that no school- no community- ever thrived because the paperwork was perfect, and nothing else. Paperwork is great. But words that only live on a page have no meaning.

Tom Bennett is in Washington for researchED Washington- tickets and details here

Saturday, 15 October 2016

It's your time you're wasting; why schools should stop drowning teachers in marking

Of course, it's optional
One does not simply walk into Mordor, and one does not simply pop into IKEA for a packet of napkins and an Ottoman. The Scandinavian elves play a voodoo on your flimsy aspirations of frugality, and by the time you're supping on a hot dog in the car park of Valhalla you're dragging a caravan of Billy bookcases, tea candles, picture frames and a rug that doubles as a shoe tidy. And you forgot the Ottoman.

We've all done it; started out with one plan and ended up with another. That's fine when Plan B is also something you want (cf: Professor Mickey Flanagan's seminal  'Out/ OUT-out theory of organic incremental decision decay' for details). But not if you put your hand in your pocket for a Swiss knife and pull out a Swiss roll. And not if you planned on teaching kids, but ended up doing something else that looked a bit like teaching, but wasn't really.

I was reminded of this recently when I heard of a colleague's experience in a struggling school in the Midlands. The school was staring down the barrel of Special Measures; its previous visit from MiniLearn saw their pockets picked of their previous Good rating, downgraded to RI. Alarms bells they no longer knew they possessed blew like Louis and the walls came tumbling down. Action Stations. Dust blew off the Burgundy book. Steam Engine Time. Something must be done was the whole of the law.

But what? Sadly, the answer was 'triple marking', because as we know, nothing animates and activates deep, deep learning like spending all day on one piece of work, endlessly batted between the teacher and the taught in a show trial of pedagogy, with as much measurable impact on progress as a fruit fly trying to push the Moon out its orbit. And homework; reams and reams of it, marked to a metronome in a fool’s rubric. Never mind that this simple edict suddenly took up around a third of the teacher's total- not free- time. That' s gross, not net. Imagine if I said to you that a third of your career would now be spent, not teaching, or having meaningful conversations with students, or reading up on your subject, but flicking, ticking and wondering when Morpheus was going to show up so you could scarf both pills.

At a previous school I taught humanities to 10 or 11 classes of approximately 25 kids apiece. So let's say 250 pupils. Then they announced the expectation was weekly homework set, with marking. Even a speedy romp with a red pen would easily see that converted into 250 minutes per week- if all I did was turn the pages and make a mark to say 'I was here.' Anything more than that meant 5 minutes a book, or 1250 minutes. A sixth form essay with comments? Christ, you need a Tardis and a magic lamp to get that polished off

Not waving, but marking

250 pupils flick and tick- 250 minutes, or 4 hours 10 minutes
250 pupils flick and an end comment- 500 minutes, or 8 hours, 20 minutes
250 pupils with substantive comments- 1250 minutes, or 20 hours and 50 minutes
250 pupils with substantive comments and spelling/ grammar correction- haha you're kidding mate who do you think I am, Ali Bongo?

And I've seen teachers try to match this, because schools ask them to. Bye-bye weekend and every evening and your marbles.

All that time has to come from either you, or the students. Now the standard response from anyone foolish enough to demand this in the first place, is 'Set homework that doesn't need much marking; or can be marked by peers.' And I would agree, which is why we now see rainbows of pen colours indicating 'marked by a peer/ marked by myself/ marked by a unicorn with a lisp' etc. Problem solved? No, problem shifted, because that kind of marking doesn't really show progress, or the Holy Grail of book marking: progress as a result of teacher intervention. So, you have no option but to triple, quadruple, octuple mark, or devise tortuous exercises where children fill out sheets designed to capture comments like 'I now understand this activity because.....and I have achieved this by....' Ghastly.

I have a simple attitude towards time management in an enclosed system: the investment has to be worth the dividend. If I'm asked to spend a third of my time on activity x then I expect that activity x should account for an equivalent third of their learning. In a school, opportunity cost is all; if we're doing one thing, we're prevented from doing another. And time, like land, is the one thing they aren't making any more of. Triple marking simply doesn't produce anything like a result that can match its cost. In fact, I'll argue that most homework has the same problem, especially if it entails marking.

'Just a couple more sets to mark lads!'
Three are many other displacement activities we could do without: poem tasks when the subject isn't poetry; art and design tasks when we're studying religious food laws; colouring in; making volcanos.; puppet shows and role plays. I know many teachers are prepared to fight to their last breath defending these things, and they may at times have merit as pace-regulators or pauses between content. But too often they represent a disproportionate investment of time in a system where time is a treasure chest. And when workload is the lash, the goad and the rack of possibility, spending each second wisely is no longer a luxury.

These damnable chronophages are designed to make teachers  prance on command for fear of a real or imagined Grendel. I once wrote that the best thing to do on the day of an Ofsted inspection was to get your Free School Meal kids to perform 'Consider Yourself' from Oliver! With their target grades painted on flat caps. I didn't know that in a few years reality would render my satire useless.

Mungo just pawn in great game of life

Just as teachers wind up- if their nerve isn't strong or their hearts true and pure- teaching to the test rather than teaching brilliantly and letting the test discover it, schools can easily fall into a pit where the appearance of progress becomes more important than the progress itself. I see many, many schools where the directed activity of the teacher has nothing to do with actual learning, and everything to do with showboating. There’s a wonderful scene in Mel Brooks's genre opus Blazing Saddles where the Sheriff and the Waco Kid animate a moribund citizenry of beleaguered settlers to stand up to a pack of desperadoes by building a fake town for them to plunder instead. I think this is how many schools approach an inspection; see our beautiful data and our books of interventions and can we interest you in a jelly baby? Look how we've grown since last we spoke!

Enough. Enough. Ofsted have been quite clear that they don't require any particular scheme of marking, any preferred assessment regime, any particular liturgy of when, how often and how books are marked. There is no activity or strategy or teaching style beloved or scorned to which teachers should aspire. Wilshaw, the present Prospero of Ofsted, is quite clear on this. And yes, I understand why schools do this. In desperation, a rat will chew through it's leg to escape a trap, and dogs will bark at cars. But that shouldn’t be policy. The inspection regime is partly responsible for this of course. But if we ever want to be seen as a profession and not an army of complainants, it’s time we took action at a level we can affect.

We've found so many lovely ways to fill our time that we've forgotten what we came to do. The tragedy is that sometimes we can forget there ever was anything else we did, and the tragedy squared is when kids start to think like that too.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Sympathy for the Devil: my day at Michaela

Just out of shot: children hanging from their ankles for breathing too loudly
A couple of days ago I was chatting to a builder friend. He had a client who worried him. ‘Thinks that people are breaking into his house and moving things,’ he told me. ‘Showed me a tiny crack under the stairs. ‘That was them,’ he told me. ‘They drilled into that.’ But when I said that no drill could reach down there, he said, ‘Ah but they got special drills.’ When I asks them how they got into the house, he said, ‘They’ve got a master key.’’ And so on and so on. This guy never left the house, and no matter how you disputed his theories, he always had an answer. His beliefs were evidence proof. Nothing you could say would change his mind, and any evidence for against the premise would be enlisted as further proof. 

Which brings me nicely to the Michaela Community School in Wembley, where I spent a day this week once again boggling at their systems, their kids, and its buccaneer warlord, Katherine Birbalsingh, who makes Javert seem weak willed and forgiving. The title of this blog post, according to some, should be 'Joyless child factory crushes dreams like tin cans.' Michaela School is so famous that it even manages to grind the gears of people who haven’t heard of it.  Birbalsingh, is feted and berated by different constituencies; she is the avatar of a style that has some people hooting and genuflecting like acolytes, and others reaching for their epi-pens and biting hard on their bridles. The motto on the poster outside is ‘Knowledge is Power.’ Uniforms and rules are enforced like a divine liturgy. You know where you are with Michaela. There is little chance you would mistake it for Summerhill.

But it’s a school of surprises. Michaela was named, not after a character from a Dickens novel, but after a teacher from St Lucia, who died of cancer and 2011. Her example so inspired Birbalsingh, that she ‘wanted to see Michaela’s name on every blazer.’

Jars of children's tears

The behaviour is extraordinary, and I’ve seen a lot of schools to calibrate that opinion. Every class I visited worked monkishly as the teacher led the activities; pupils tracked the teacher carefully; they started work promptly and with gusto; they glided from room to room as quietly as canoes on a current. Put it like that you can hear people grinding axes already, and racing for their quills so they can draft open letters. Surely demanding silent acquiescence is an act of tyranny to the natural state of the child, they say, which should default to lively, jocular and demonstrative. 

A teacher at Michaela, crushing another child's dreams
To be sure, the extraordinary contrast the school presents to most of its peers is indeed initially quite alienating. ‘This is too strict’ you think, as children file in one column between lessons and into class. But the transitions, my God. One lesson ends, and another begins, in about 2 minutes, max, from packing away to pen on the next task. The whole school, over four floors. There are synchronised swimming teams that couldn’t match that. The goal is to maximise the learning time; the rationale is that children in private schools have advantages they never will, but one thing they have is a Spartan approach to learning. Work hard, never give up, practice. 

One common complaint you often hear from people who have never visited the school (but  still have very strong opinions about it) is that this kind of regime crushes enthusiasm, curbs the love of learning, and reduces education to a giant quiz. But every child I spoke to, from lesson to lesson told me how much they loved it. When I asked them what their previous schools were like, the were unanimous. ‘Alright,’ said one girl,’ But it was really noisy and there was too much mucking about to get much done. Here we learn loads and the teachers really care about us.’

Don't Care Bears

Care? This is a strange word to hear in a school where children are galley slaves to rote learning, or so Cassandras would prefer to believe. It might suit people who disagree with its philosophy to demonise its exponents, but the truth refutes the easy slur. There’s a whole section in the school training manual on kindness. The school motto on the outside is ‘Knowledge is power’ might make opponents clutch their pearls, but the real school motto is ‘Work hard, be kind,’ something you see sign posted a lot inside the building.  

‘If we mess about then we’re being selfish to other people,’ said one of my guides, which was echoed by another boy I spoke to at lunch, and others. They were all explicitly concerned that being civil to others was an act of community, both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable.

Children were 'forced to be kind to one another'
Ah, lunch; now there’s something that has to be seen to be believed. Lunch (or family lunch as they call it here) is like nothing you’ll have experienced before outside of the SAS. Children enter at 12:30 (on the dot of course) and- and this is where you feel the medication start to kick in- are led by a teacher in a poetry battle chant as everyone files in. You have to be there to experience 120 children all howling Kipling’s ‘If’ or Henley’s ‘Invictus’ and absolutely nailing every line. Some critics claim memorising poetry is crude and utilitarian, take it up with Benjamin Zephaniah, who is in no doubt: memorising texts is essential to understanding them in action. 

Once you drop down this rabbit hole, you don’t get out. Pupils sit in groups, at tables named after universities. Each pupil at  the table has a role: hand out water, serve food, collect plates…one of them is even designated to talk to guests (‘Can you tell me more about what a Tsar does please?’) and it’s terribly civil. There’s a topic of the day and each table sticks to it pretty well. Service is communal, and runs to the clock like they’re defusing a bomb. Food is vegetarian and halal so everyone can eat together. If Navy Seals ran a langar it would be like this. 

Then it’s back to silence and suddenly pupils and staff are asked to give thanks to people in their lives in short dedications (‘appreciations’), which is quite something. ‘I’d like to thank my mother for helping me cope with the weekend. On the count of three….’ and everyone claps twice, neatly, simultaneously. Then onto the next one. Students were straining their arms in the air to be picked to do this, across the whole dining room. Then, like a Busby Berkely musical, the cohort streams out and the next one lands, and the process reboots. It is a far cry from an average lunch where, according to one of my old dinner lady colleagues, ‘the kids catch up with who fancies who in between telling us our food is shit.’

Lessons are intense. The students have all been habituated in how to behave in such microscopic detail that each room feels like a Holiday Inn: every one feels like the last. This is deliberate. The norms that permeate the school are reinforced in every circumstance. In many schools you see different rules for different rooms, and zones, and teachers; here, there is a calm understanding that there is a school culture, commonly understood. 

Why so serious? Challenge. The more civil the behaviour, the greater the focus, the more they learn. I never forget attending an INSTED on gifted children and asking how to implement their lovely ideas in a challenging class. ‘Oh, you can’t do this kind of stuff if the class is noisy or challenging,’ I was told. Of course not. If you’re firefighting all the time, not only do you lose time, but if you can’t rely on all students to behave to a certain degree, your palette of activity options is reduced, and your lesson is diminished, length and breadth. The point of good behaviour isn’t to build robots; the point of good behaviour is to do beautiful, wonderful things in the classroom, to expose children to challenge and possibilities they would never encounter otherwise. 

And that’s what I saw here. The difficulty setting was high. The school writes its own textbooks, on the grounds that many textbooks are stuffed with patronising, time-wasting infantilising material (and I’d agree incidentally). No pictures or wacky cut’n’paste activities here. In fact, not a glue stick anywhere, as they decided what the hell did gluing something into a book have to do with learning anyway? Instead I saw exercise book after exercise book bulging with fulsome paragraphs and detail. Book after book after book. Even children with learning difficulties showed great progress. The philosophy, I was told, was to focus on what they were capable of, not their incapability; to appreciate the learning need but not to fixate on it as a maximum. I have no problem with that.  

It’s a small school, and scaling up is their short, mid and long term challenge. The curious thing is that it gets torn apart by commentators, most of whom, i can only presume, have never been to the school, spoken to the children or seen the impact their extraordinary approach to rigour and following through creates. 

The proposed new site
I left, as I have before, impressed. The kids are happy, and totally loyal to the school. Parents for the most part love it. Every staff member is so down with the ethos I wouldn’t be surprised if they all had tattoos (or micro chips in their neck). There’s even a member of staff who left teaching but returned to the profession to work there. The achievements of the kids- measured in book work, attitude, behaviour, enthusiasm and engagement (yeah I said it) is remarkable. Critics of the school have to process and explain away these facts before they can ride off on high horses.

Would I want every school to copy Michaela? No, of course not- they have to find their own way. It’s not to everyone’s tastes, and many prefer schools to be a little more groovy and chilled out. And that’s fine too, if that; what you want for your kids. I value plurality in our system, and nature demonstrates that mutations are often desirable for a species’ success. Michaela has caused a stir because, I think, it confronts many people’s preconceptions about what is possible with inner city kids. But it would be a shame to bash a school because it wasn’t the same as every other one. 

I wish it well. And I wish more people would go to Michalea to see what the fuss is about before they join in with the Twitchforks and synthetic outrage. 


I can’t leave this without a brief reference to #lunchgate. Because people will just read the preceding and say, ‘Ah, but #fruitgate.’ There was a Twitter storm a few months back because allegedly a pupil had been given detention because their parents couldn’t afford a catering fee. Veins in foreheads popped everywhere as people raced each other to virtue signal. To compound the apparent calamity of it, there were typos in the letter. What followed was a dreadful demonstration of instant experts, town square mob justice, and public shaming like the Salem Witch Trials. The media did what it often did and printed one side of the story verbatim, while the school- understandably- couldn’t respond in detail without breaching professional confidences. 

So I’ll mention that:

  • It wasn’t a punishment. Kids miss paid-for activities all the time in other schools, like trips.
  • A long process had been followed before that point was reached
  • No pupil or family entitled to FSM was involved in this
  • The Family Lunch breaks down unless every pupil participates
  • The pupil was fed. Every pupil in that school is guaranteed to have a lunch. I reckon in most schools you’ll see dozens of kids go hungry, but no one notices. I prefer the system that feeds kids even when it doesn't have to, and makes sure of it. 
  • All families are made aware of the deal when they start school
  • Families who, even if not FSM, still struggle, are offered assistance. 

I know schools where kids arrive hungry and leave hungry. I know schools where injustices happen all the time- where children have their educations hobbled or robbed by bad behaviour that isn’t confronted; where students are permitted to sit through a lesson without working; where days and weeks are blown on building polystyrene pyramids in history lessons, and the last three days of December is a series of DVDs  and free lessons. You tell me where the real scandals lie in education. Ask yourself why we don’t get angry about this enormous theft of opportunity- wasted time, misspent resources. And if you judge a school by one instance where you disagree with policy, but don’t understand the whole culture going on behind it, then I fear you judge in haste. 

No school is perfect, so even if you still disagree with their policy on this, it's a one event against a backdrop of astonishing opportunities being built with children from low-income families. If your bar is 'never stumbles once' then you'll spend your life being very disappointed with people. 

The school received hundreds and hundreds of hate tweets, emails, DMS, Facebook messages, because if the public exposure this brought. The teacher involved was subject to the vilest threats and promises of violence. The public shaming gathered pace, and a school was battered, and staff who do nothing but sweat and toil for the good of children, were looking over their shoulders on the bus and avoiding social media. But as long as everyone had a good vent, eh? 

Oh, and the teacher involved in #fruitgate, Barry? He’s one of the best teachers of MFL I’ve ever seen. His kids love him. They have a command of French that is stunning; I’ve never seen anything like it in my career- they spoke with better vocabulary, accent and confidence than most undergraduates I’ve heard. The sight of the social media salon banging keyboards like bombs at him, was terrible. I expected more solidarity than that from teachers. I expect it from below the line trolls and sofa jockeys. But if we start screaming SACK THEM the minute we meet a school philosophy we don’t understand or disagree with, then we have lost the capacity to tolerate differences of opinion. Most teachers I know are better than that, thank God.