1. 'You're live'

    I love social media. This will surprise no one with the misfortune to follow me. If they ever taxed it, I'd be pawning my kidneys on the Dark Web for screen time. I also love free speech, debate, and the potential for teaching to re-energise itself from within, from the ground up by international and powerful conversations you can have online. I like being able to criticise things. I also like suggestions about what to do next. I like dragon slaying and myth busting, even if I’m the dragon. It might be painful, but like going to the gym, you never regret it afterwards.

    Is Twitter the last great salon of free speech? I sometimes wonder. Open to anyone with access to the internet, free, instant and international, it smashes borders and levels access in ways unimaginable just fifteen years ago. From nothing, I used it to make connections with minds great and grand and groovy around the world. Without it, researchED would have been nearly impossible. Tweets can girdle the earth far faster than Ariel’s forty minutes

    But for every force, there is another equal and opposite; some don't embrace this new paradigm; who resent change, or its harbinger, discussion.

    You can say anything you like as long as we agree with you

    It's important to remember how far we've come at least in the UK. When I first started howling into the void, many things were dogma. It was practically inconceivable to write openly in dispute of the public wisdom of, among other things, universal group work, 21st century skills, learning styles, skills-based curriculums and so on. I’ve heard people speak forlornly about how lovely it was then, and how it were all handshakes and cheeky winks when social media were t’lad.

    I had a very different experience. It was lovely if you jogged along with the orthodoxy, but very intimidating if you disagreed. Happily what we see now is the creation of a space where dispute is a dependable part of the conversation. Tribes form in these digital spaces, just like they do in real life, and multiple viewpoints are presented, pilloried, paraded and prodded, just as they should be.

    Your mileage will vary about what you consider acceptable or unacceptable criticism. When I started teaching I was told to accept school paradigms because 'back to work, rookie'. When I wrote Teacher Proof I received emails from academics who told me I was quite wrong and didn’t really understand the science anyway. When I started researchEd I was told that teachers should be the recipients of the divine wisdom of Mosaic Tablets of academia, and our role was to deliver the exciting and yet strangely unworkable projects of novelty and vanity I often encountered in classrooms. As a writer I have seen people who should know better write that the current crop of online teacher authors should ‘be very careful because they were being watched,’ and that we were ‘wielding too much power. This, about people sitting at their kitchen tables blogging in their sweat pants and tweeting.

    That just makes me want to screw my eyes up and imagine these aristo gatekeepers naked, playing a trombone. In any pluralist society we enjoy and endure a magazine of belief systems. Crucial to the success of that system is that we permit the expression of those views. 'I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it' remains as true now as when-people first misattributed it to Voltaire.

    Twitter yesterday
    The irony of course is that education institutions are created to be furious furnaces for molten minds, hot and fluid, but in times of turbulence they often seem the most thin skinned and resistant to challenge. The double irony is that many in education who would call themselves disrupters and game changers and crusaders are the ones who enjoy being disrupted least, or having their own games changed, their own cheese moved an inch.

    I've seen many in the traditional priest class  grimace and rail against this new model army of volunteers and expendables, unable to endure the mildest of criticism. But those who have status rarely willingly vote for the redistribution of their capital.

    School bullies: How schools can suppress professional conversations

    I've written, tweeted, blogged for around a decade and been lucky enough to escape nearly any heat from the institutions within which I taught. I think this was a combination of two things: broad minded management who rightly saw my opinions as personal, and a careful policy of never speaking about my children, my classes, my school, unless it was uncritical and supportive. I write about policies, strategies, ideas, not 'Man, that observation I just had blew and sucked simultaneously.' Others appear not to be so fortunate. I know of many schools who have a 'no social media' policy in their school policies, and few are the teachers so unencumbered by financial demands that they can bite their thumb at a salary for the sake of tweeting a few dank memes about Minecraft.

    There is a class system, a caste system of who is and who isn't allowed to have an opinion in any hierarchy.  Now, I’ve rarely been a victim of anyone trying to close me down, but I've been complained about twice to my schools for blogs I've written. I've been reported to the DfE, the TES, for holding opinions the complainants found objectionable. Since I started writing a couple of reports on behaviour for the DfE I’ve started to get sniffy comments along the lines of ‘Should someone in your position be making such statements?’ None of this concerns me. I am happy to be inappropriate, if being appropriate means being so anodyne that no offence could possibly be taken, The Hell with that.

    You're paid to teach, not think 

    Worse, when talking to teachers both here and abroad I’ve found out some are told explicitly that any form of social media presence that discusses teaching will result in disciplinary action. Where is this grisly and anti-intellectual cowardice coming from? What are they scared of? By doing so they close down a profession's ability to self critique, argue, grow and learn from itself. Joining Twitter is like Chewie punching it from the co-pilot’s seat. The ideas just keep coming, faster and faster.

    Crucially, what is being lost is more valuable than the perceived gain. I follow a lot of teachers, and in my experience the vast, vast majority of those who tweet and blog and engage are massive, massive nerds for their jobs, love teaching, love working with children, and want to swap ideas, research, stories and experiences. It certainly isn't a prerequisite to be a good teacher but by God it's a healthy quality for one to have, I'd say. The voices I follow teach me, enrich my understanding, and, yes, challenge me to reconsider my biases. Twitter is an enormous source of fresh ideas; it's also a beautiful ally of empowerment if you're on the margins of authority. Here, if someone reads you, you matter as much as any minister or magistrate. No wonder some people don't want you on it.

    Confident, mature minds welcome criticism. Those who believe they hold strong positions are comfortable to argue them. Famously if you want to know who really holds power in society, ask what you aren't permitted to talk about. Who tries to shut down your conversations, rather than tackle what you said with counter argument? Who tries to get you sacked, and who tries to tell your employer you're a terrible person? Who goes low when you go high? Who doesn't have an argument?

    I hope I've been able to be a small part of a conversation over the last decade that has helped normalise a more open discourse about what may or may not be discussed. And I hope social media never loses its power to surprise, agitate and animate.

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  2. 'Are you on Twitter again? Tom. We've spoken about this.'
    Before me, on my writing desk, are three things: a plaster bust of Socrates, one of Lincoln, and a small pewter Stonehenge. Unremarkable choices- the salariat equivalent of a lava lamp maybe, or the moulded plastic Buddhas beloved of garden centre grottos- but they are mine. It became a shrine by accident. I didn’t plan their purchase or position deliberately. The subliminal architecture of my world threw them together, and they are currently employed as mandalas, or muses, or mementos by default.

    Socrates pursued truth beyond all else, for its own sake and, according to Plato, drank Hemlock rather than betray his philosophy. Lincoln is an equally easy inspiration: the great orator, thinker, writer and wrangler for social justice. And I regard Stonehenge with a childish awe, hypnotised by its ancient enigma, a time machine from another planet, speaking of transience and permanence and industry in one brutal monument. It invokes mystery and mysticism and the marvel at the work of human hands.

    These physical objects are trivial compared to the mental objects they represent- the ideal form of our aspirations, however far we fall from them, or ridicule ourselves in their pursuit. In Browning’s Andrea del Sarto, the poet writes ‘Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp -- or what's a heaven for?’

    If it wasn't for bad luck, we'd have no luck at all

    In a year that has already acquired a reputation for withering hope faster than we can gather it, we need all the inspiration we can get. Geopolitical earthquakes send tsunamis of uncertainty around the world in dark and uncharted currents and we are reminded that periods of stability and peace are probably the exception to a violent and less perfect norm. For most of us, these forces rage at a height so high that they may as well be wars in Heaven, and we wait for what chance and the tides wash up.

    That’s why we need, more than ever, reasons to believe that things can get better as well as worse. Hope, as someone said, can never be false. If you were to ask most people what century they would like to live in, had they but a time machine, many people’s first answers- Rome at its height, La Belle Époque, the Renaissance, Jane Austen’s 19th century theme park- are usually followed by the qualifier ‘and rich, of course’, because being poor has throughout history been a universal shitstorm. Even then these fantasies are usually discarded after a moment’s consideration, for the less glamorous but more pragmatic ‘Now’ with its medicine and comforts and social progress. Mileage varies internationally, but progress is irrefutable, however non-linear it appears up close.

    In education, my own small pond, the news is often wearying, as we read of illiteracy, incompetence, venality and lack every time we open our phones. You do not have to work with children for long to realise that in every room, students carry bruises under their uniforms, physical, emotional, and historical. That for some, progress is measured on a metronome, skipping along, and for others you need a microscope and holy water to see it. Workload buries many teachers; the lash of the inspection and the goad of high-stakes, irrelevant performance management makes many in schools wonder what it was they loved about the job in the first place.

    And yet. We all find our own wells of hope. There is good news with the bad. Like the recent clarification from Ofsted that clarifies- at last- that schools need not display extraordinary levels of deep or arcane marking:

    Unless of course schools choose to have marking policies that decimate their staff. And why would they want to do that? This page should be nailed to the front door of every school like the Luther's 95 theses. Marking levels has become abusive in many schools, as they panic to show progress once lesson observations were binned as a metric. This one announcement could, should, be an earthquake in schools practice. I wonder how long it will take to reach every governor and leader in England and Wales?

    The Passion of Amanda Spielman

    Then there was the mellifluous sound of the Chief Inspector-elect, Amanda Spielman publicly acknowledging that schools in poorer areas were more likely to receive lower grading because of their circumstances, and therefore the assessment of a head teacher’s performance in that context was less likely to be a fair reflection of their competency or efforts.

    ‘Ofsted's incoming chief inspector has said that the watchdog's overall judgements on schools are not a "fair way" of assessing headteachers' performance. Speaking today, Amanda Spielman said that this was because schools in poorer areas were less likely to get top inspection ratings because they were "harder to run". She said that recent research suggesting schools with disadvantaged intakes are less likely to be rated “outstanding” than those with more privileged pupils, was in part probably a reflection of “reality, whether we like that or not”.’

    This is a fantastic sign that Spielman understands the impact Ofsted has, and more importantly will think deeply about how to turn the institution from a sword into a ploughshare. If anyone can, I hope she will. 

    Michaela School Choir Practice
    What have the Michaeleans done for us?

    Finally few educators on social media could have failed to notice that the Michaela Community School/ Factory For Turning Children Into Glue and Tears (delete as your ideology dictates) ran a book launch that doubled as a rally for their unconventional blend of traditional teaching and 21st century learning- ultra trads, if you will. Live streamed, tweeted in real time, and punching so far above its weight that David and Goliath look like a fair fight, it represents a new model for how schools face the world. Scorned by people who have never visited, and often admired by those who have, I have yet to see an institution that, in the face of such antipathy, exposes itself so candidly to scrutiny, challenge and frontal attack. It’s almost as if they knew they were doing something extraordinary. Twitter sizzled with their battle cries, and it was inspiring to see so much positivity for a school that has worked hard to earn it. All credit to their head teacher Katherine Birbalsingh, who has two settings, as far as I can see: combine harvester, and dead.

    Green shoots, and good news. Maybe even ideas that will bear fruit in the future. Who knows? When all the troubles of the world escaped from Pandora’s box, the last thing left there was Hope. I’ll finish by referring to the beautiful close to the recent masterpiece series True Detective (in an idea possibly borrowed from Alan Moore). The two heroes, Rust and Marty, are discussing good and evil (Spoiler Alert, incidentally):

    ‘After describing his near-death experience, Rust tells Marty he's been thinking about the stars and how they've reminded him that there's an eternal battle going on between light and darkness. Marty's pessimistic about light's chances:
     RUST: It's just one story, the oldest.
    MARTY: What's that?
    RUST: Light versus dark.
    MARTY: I know we ain't in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.
     After Rust convinces Marty to haul him out of the hospital, Rust presents a counterargument, offering the final dialogue of the season:
     RUST: Y'know, you're looking at it wrong, the sky thing.
    MARTY: How's that?
    RUST: Once, there was only dark. You ask me, the light's winning.


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  3. 'Hello we're Ofsted'
    If you want to know how to upset the maximum number of people in the shortest possible time, I can recommend saying- when asked- that you think using games like Minecraft in the classroom is a bit gimmicky and you can’t see much of a point to it. Cue: Boss level carnage on my inbox all day. And what it reveals about education is itself revealing.

    Friday. I get a message from the Sunday Times asking if I had any views on Minecraft, the popular Microsoft world-building game, as an educational tool (the hook being that a special educational version was being launched. Every story needs a relevance hook). You bet I do, I said. I thought it was a bit gimmicky. I’d seen a few classes use them, and I wasn’t inspired. Students seemed to be as occupied with the mechanics of playing Minecraft as they were with the content of the lesson. To me, that seemed like displacement; rather than drilling down deeply into a topic, time in the classroom, and attention space in the students’ heads appeared to be spent on playing the game. Some content was covered, but it seemed a huge faff to get there. And there didn’t seem to be much evidence that it was more useful than cheaper, simpler alternatives, like just teaching them. I wrote a few chapters about this in my last book Teacher Proof.

    And I said that. I think there are a lot of activities we use in classrooms that share this problem. Superficially they seem to interest pupils, but it’s more because they act as a seductive distraction rather than a supplement to the lesson, like turning the Gettysburg address into a Manga strip or something. Kids might spend happy hours (or not) drawing Abe Lincoln as a Japanese hero, but that’s a long road indeed to learn about the 16th President.

    I have no issue with hooks; I use hooks all the time- culturally relevant landmarks that act as seasoning for the meat of what we’re covering. In my philosophy class I used to show 30 seconds from X-factor or similar, then use it as way to discuss Virtue Ethics or Kant. But that was a heartbeat. Activities that invite students to think for an extended period about something other than what is being learned- and I mean something trivial, like the workings of a computer game- is time wasted.

    This matters. This really matters. Because I’m used to teaching students who don’t get a second chance at education; who (whether they know it or not) rely on education as their lifeline into alternate futures. Into literacy, jobs, opportunities. I take that seriously. Anything that wastes that opportunity is a crime against a child, against their options. And theft from the already poor is a felony. Many of them can’t afford tutors or catch-up classes, or bags of cultural capital. For them, education is their life boat.

    A level Philosophy, 2046
    So that’s something in my opinion I observed with many gaming platforms. I’m not anti-tech in education. I’ve seen many uses front and back of house, that help schools and classrooms operate. But this appears to me to be a serious issue. There are some brilliant tech writers in this field. Read Donald Clarke, a UK educationalist who is both passionate about tech integration but rigorous in his quest for evidence bases to back it up. Or in the US, Larry Cuban, who is a similar mix of enthusiasm and scepticism. Both are excellent and simultaneously Cassandras and Pollyannas to the tech sphere.

    Secondly, there’s the issue of evidence bases. I run researchED, an organisation dedicated to the better use of research and evidence in all levels of education. And one thing that repeatedly strikes me about the ed-tech sector, is how, often, products are sold on the basis of claims of extraordinary efficacy. Remember Brain Training games? All the rage a few years back, with claims they would keep your brain healthy or something. No evidence for it, but get those units shifted boys. They often get caught our when they make claims that are too specific, so many instead move onto intangibles that people also want. Things like ‘engagement.’

    Engagement is great. Every teacher wants their students engaged, focussing hard on what is being taught. We know that focus is a big part of learning. But engagement by itself is a poor proxy for learning. As Daniel Willingham says, ‘Memory is the residue of thought.’ Which means, we remember that which we think about. Which is a problem if you’re teaching, say, the Tudor Kings, but for half the time in the classroom your students are thinking about collecting digital rings and power-ups, or building a pyramid with blocks. They might look fascinated, but what are they thinking about- Henry VIII, or blocks?

    From Willingham:

    ‘Anticipate what your lesson will lead students to think about. The direct relationship between thought and memory is so important that it could be used as a self-check for a teacher preparing virtually any assignment: Always try to anticipate what students will be thinking when they are doing the assignment. Doing so may make it clear that some assignments designed with one purpose in mind will achieve another. For example, a teacher once told me that, as part of a unit on the Underground Railroad, he had his students bake biscuits so that they would appreciate what escaped slaves ate most nights. He asked what I thought of the assignment and my reply was that his students will remember baking biscuits. In other words, his students probably thought for 30 seconds about the relation of the baking to the course material, and then spent 30 minutes thinking about measuring flour, mixing dough, and so on.
     Another example comes from my recent observation of my nephew as he completed a book report. The teacher asked the students to draw a poster that depicted all of the events of the book. The purpose of the assignment was to have students think of the book as a whole, and to consider how the separate events related to one another. This purpose got lost in the execution. My nephew spent a lot more time thinking about how to draw a good castle than he did about the plot of the book.’

    And from Professor Rob Coe from Durham University:

    'Poor Proxies for Learning:
    • Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work)
    • Students are engaged, interested, motivated• Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations
    • Classroom is ordered, calm, under control
    • Curriculum has been ‘covered’ (ie presented to students in some form)
    • (At least some) students have supplied correct answers (whether or not they really understood them or could reproduce them independently)'

    In other words, these things might be desirable in themselves, but by themselves they don't tell us if students are learning.

    So we should select our activities with care. If we use a game platform we need to ask ‘Will this benefit my students in a tangible way that can be measured?’ Grade increase, attendance, something. If the answer is ‘no’ then how do you know it’s working? The second question, just as important is, ‘Even if something is happening, is it worth the time spent on it that could be spent doing something else?’ In other words, maybe your students all leave the lesson knowing the Tudor Kings off by heart. But if it took a whole term to get there and you could have done it through other methods, then the cosy may outweigh the benefits.

    I spent a lot of time being told by people that ‘This works you idiot! Go back to the 1950s!’ but very little time being directed to evidence beyond ‘I say so.’ But the burden of proof lies with the claimants.

    Show me the Bit Coin

    And as far as I can see, there just isn’t a solid evidence base to substantiate the claims that many of these platforms make. Saying ‘My kids love it though’ isn’t nothing, but it’s not substantive proof either. When I was a rookie teacher, I had a brainwave: when we were studying Mandalas (a religious symbol or art piece designed to be impermanent), their homework would be to go home and make one. Some would come back with cakes shaped like Jesus and Buddha and so on. Delicious, and they adored doing it, but terrible, terrible homework, a complete waste of their time. Just because they love it, doesn’t mean they’re learning. It’s fine to have strong gut feelings about what is and isn’t working in your classroom, but in order to avoid these biases, we need scalable, replicable research to guide us. 

    I might be wrong. Minecraft might be the saving of our kids. They might all go out and colonise Mars with their mad Minecraft skills. But until there’s any evidence base to suggest it, it’s wise to be sceptical. And I thought my scepticism was pretty measured. I wouldn’t  ban it in classrooms, had I even such a Genie-like power, but I think teachers need to have these kinds of conversations, otherwise we don’t deserve to be called a profession.

    Digital Dummies and Cyber Prams

    The online reaction was extraordinary though. For the second time this week I’ve been struck by how passionately some people cling to their beliefs, and how viciously they’ll defend them from the slightest scrutiny. The kick back was breath taking from where I sat, I assure, you. ‘You must be a fucking moron’ was the general (and in some cases literal) thrust. Once again, people were ‘reporting me’ to the DfE, even though I don’t work for them (their hotline staff must be getting pretty sanguine about it. ‘Yeah hello DfE? No….no he doesn’t work here….noo…’). ‘Unfit to work with children’ ‘Completely out of touch’ ‘Gradgrindian bollockry’ etc. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them, like a ticker tape of people demonstrating the 21st century maxim of ‘I disagree with you so I am entitled to speak to you like dog shit.’

    It made me pretty sad, again. Most of the worst comments were from non-teachers (am I surprised any more?), gaming enthusiasts who had a strangely robust confidence in their opinions about teaching and learning, and people with kind of scary avatars. Fair enough; I used to read a lot of comics and play Dungeons and Dragons, I get geek subculture. Even a childhood hero, Ian Livingstone (legend of Warlock on Firetop Mountain fame) had a pop, which marks, I think, the last leaf falling from the tree of my innocence. Journalists for gaming magazines, CEOs of edtech firms, edupreneur digital gurus, a huge, apparently infinite conga line of people who love both computer games and calling me an idiot for disagreeing with them.

    Well it works for me

    I had a lot more time for the teachers who used Minecraft and told me how useful they found it. I had even more time for people who told me how much impact it had on their autistic pupils or family members. It’s still personal anecdote but it least it suggests areas of enquiry, possibilities for the future. I was pretty clear: I’m not anti- all uses of this kind of tech, and I’d be delighted to see it help people. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence as either Hume or Hitchens used to say, and claims made for these kinds of platforms are often extraordinary.

    I’ve often felt that you know you’ve touched on a real problem when nobody wants to discuss it, or wants to let you criticise the status quo. And that’s what I found here. Some tech claims are so wild, so naïve, so radical, that people are scared to contest them. The ever-increasing integration of tech into classrooms is assumed. And I think teachers need to query that; need to say ‘where’s the evidence?’ a lot more. That shouldn’t be controversial. But it was. It really was. I stood in a wind tunnel of scorn today that made Storm Angus seem like a squall. Just for saying that we needed to be more sceptical of yet another platform that promises big and costs dollar. I wonder why that is?

    There is a lot of money in education. Tech firms would like some of it. And that’s not entirely a bad thing- if they can come up with products with utility that are efficient and appropriate. But I won’t apologise to anyone for asking for better evidence, and for a better deal for teachers and students in the classroom. I hope we can have this conversation without such pointless controversy and pearl clutching. I think it's a debate worth having, because I think what teachers do is valuable, I think children's lives are priceless, and it matters what we do to make a difference to them. 

    Game Over. 

    Further reading:

    Here's an interesting blog from Greg Ashman to suggest some ways why it might not work as well as its proponents hope: https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2016/11/22/why-microsofts-minecraft-probably-isnt-the-solution/


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  4. What do children need? With today’s annual BBC charity jamboree looming large over playground and supermarket, it feels appropriate to talk about the children in our own schools, and what they need, and how we can help them get it.

    I believe every child needs, and is entitled to an education- wherever possible- with their peers in a mainstream setting. I believe that where possible, reasonable adjustments must be made to allow children to access education; that could mean wheelchair ramps, or translators, or extra time in exams, and so on.  I don’t think that’s controversial.

    I also believe that they need wherever possible, classrooms run on reasonable rules that set a standard of civil behaviour and social norms, and those standards and norms should be aspirational. They should be based, not merely on compliance, but on the desire to help children learn powerful, useful habits of thought, self-regulation, work and civic participation.

    These needs, like many things we need, need careful consideration in order to maximise both. Sadly, sometimes the discussion around these crucial points falls short.

    Will no one think of the children?

    There was a minor flap on social media last night as some people wildly misunderstood something I said on this matter on a short video I made for the TES last year as part of an experiment in behaviour vidcasting. If you want to know how long it takes to upset people I can set my own personal best: Two minutes fifty. In it I mentioned that consistency was very important for creating a calm, safe classroom. What upset some was that I mentioned that some pupils who had IEPs (individual education plans) that allowed them to break these rules might be better served by requiring them to meet them.

    Some responses were calm, collegiate and inquisitive. Strangely (or perhaps not- I’ve been on Twitter some time) some people practically herniated. What was saddest of all was how some people read their own shock/ horror stories into it. Among the odd things I was accused of were:

    Breaking the law
    Encouraging teachers to break the law
    Telling people to ignore their SENCO
    Hating children

    None of which I said, but that didn’t stop some people. They may as well have laid Ebola and Trump’s razor-thin majority in Wisconsin at my door. For suggesting that maybe some children might benefit from focusing on the whole-class expectations was too much for some. In an odd whirlwind I was called vile, cruel, unfit to teach, contemptuous of autism (?) and on and on. Someone said I should be 'flung into an abyss'. Another accused me of 'chasing million dollar prizes' and of course the standard 'I hope this never happens to his kids' (but thanks for bringing them up). This, over cocoa. I love social media, but it’s a strange place at time. Some of it was from people who, curiously, had the words ‘compassion’ and ‘kindness’ in their bios. Someone contacted the DfE to complain about me. Someone contacted the TES. O tempora, o mores.

    I also love discussion, but equally strangely this was a useful example of how people can create a drama based on cognitive biases, strongly felt opinions, and innate triggers. It felt like a very fragile discussion space, where people were defending their own deeply held beliefs and taking any challenge personally. And that’s very sad, because this is a serious debate, and I take it seriously. And children- all children, need us to take it seriously, because the stakes for them are as high as it gets: the ability to access an education or not; a chance to flourish because of school, rather than despite it.

    Compassion Wars

    Children need calm, safe spaces in which to learn. And because of that, children need consistency of rules, standards and expectations. Now I don’t believe in zero tolerance classroom management, because I think almost every rule permits exceptions.

    And exceptions must be exceptional. Access to education is an issue of rights. It’s also an issue of utility; how best do we achieve it? One way to express that answer is ‘as best we can’. Hence, standards and norms, held up as much as possible. Where children can’t possibly reasonably meet that- a disability, a neurological condition etc- then we break sweat to make allowances. And children are quite good at understanding that. I worked with a class where one pupil had Tourette’s. Nobody cared, which was great because it meant that everybody cared.

    But what pupils can’t manage to absorb so easily is when a pupil who is choosing to disrupt lessons, is allowed to do so. And there are many pupils I have seen who have behaviour statements that were granted, not on the basis of a diagnosed condition, but retrospectively, as a description of behaviour rather than a diagnosis. This leads to a bizarre scenario where children who behave badly are then given a statement which attempts to provide them with less reasons not to. And I believe that is actively harmful to that child.

    And this is crucial. I believe that when a child misbehaves because they’re bored, or feeling a bit cheeky, or want to get a rise out of the teacher or amuse their mates, then they need to be reminded that isn’t good enough, through sanctions, or calls home, or conversations, or a million other things. But they need to be helped to learn better habits.  They need us to help them get there. That's our job.

    The land of do-as-you-please?

    And here’s an ironic thing; every great PRU and special provision school I’ve visited would agree. If you think PRUs are Bacchanalian riots of do-as-you-please, then you should visit a good one, where routine, structure and high expectations are even more important. The children need structure they don’t get elsewhere.

    And sometimes a classroom teacher can’t manage extreme needs, or repeated, extreme behaviour properly or very well, when they have a room full of other children, who also all need them. There might be other children with disproportionate needs in the room. And sometimes a pupil needs to have their needs met outside the classroom. It might be just down the hall, or next door, but they need space.

    If your answer is ‘keep them in the classroom, no matter what’ then I dispute that; in fact I call that terribly short-sighted. I say that when you need help you go where the help is. I’ve seen many wonderful schools who have terrific internal units run with compassion, dignity and rigour, to meet the needs of children who struggle in mainstream classes. The goal should always be to return to the mainstream classroom, because socialisation is a key goal of education, or schools at least. This isn’t chucking them out, or binning them. It’s the opposite. It’s bringing the child to the healing.

    Not doing that is real cruelty. Not doing that doesn’t help with what the child needs, although it might make some people who need to feel like crusaders to feel better. But they are not my concern. The classroom is not, intrinsically, the ideal vehicle of all succour. At times children need nurture groups, or one-to-one help, or extra-school programs, or special schools. Needs vary. But one-size-fits-all-in-the-classroom-no-matter-how-overloaded-the-teacher-is? That’s utopianism. I sometimes think that whenever someone hears the word 'exclusion' they instead hear 'thrown off a cliff'. But that's a terribly one-sided view of reality; what about internal exclusions, temporary ones, ones that nurture rather than attempt to punish?

    We need to talk about Tom

    We need to have a more mature discussion about how we provide for our most vulnerable. I’m damned sure we need to talk about how schools can genuinely include rather than simply keep in a holding pattern, in classrooms where everyone loses. We need to look at funding this. We need to look at special provision, PRUs and how we can work together. We need to be able to discuss ideas with SENCOs, rather than be commanded by them (and what SENCO would  say otherwise?). We need to be able to argue about what is and isn’t appropriate IEP practice, rather than face a howl of Twitchforks for even the mildest dispute.

    And children need to know we won’t give up on them. That’s what children need.


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  5. The recent publication by the EEF of their report into Project Based Learning (PBL) [click here] made troubling reading for anyone who enjoys throwing traditional syllabuses in a blender and making a wish. PBL, if you’ve missed is, is:

    ‘…driven by an essential question which has significant educational content. The projects encouraged pupils to create an ‘excellent’ product through drafting and redrafting and then to exhibit their work to an ‘authentic’ audience.’

    So far, so groovy baby. Rather than learn a subject through the clearly bonkers route of 'lessons about it', delivered by a 'subject specialist' in an incremental way, students are invited/ empowered/ inspired/ hugged to death to answer a question through self-guided investigation, to create a ‘product’ that could be ‘exhibited.’ It was recommended that this would take 20% -50% of the entire curriculum for one year. Fortunately we have loads of time spare for this kind of thing in year 7. Wait

    What were the findings? Anyone looking for evidence to substantiate PBL would come back with empty pockets from this. The headlines were bleak indeed:

    1. Adopting PBL had no clear impact on either literacy…or student engagement with school and learning.

    This is pretty damning. Advocates of PBL often start by claiming that it imbeds subject learning more substantially than traditional methods. When that fails to bear fruit. they often turn to less concrete proxies of success such as engagement. If that fails…..As the EEF paper says:

    ‘It is argued that the freedom and challenge that pupils experience as a result of solving the problems that arise in designing and building their projects result in high levels of student engagement (Wurdinger et al., 2007)’


    2. The impact evaluation indicated that PBL may have had a negative impact on the literacy attainment of pupils entitled to free school meals. However, as no negative impact was found for low-attaining pupils, considerable caution should be applied to this finding.

    Not encouraging. But caveat emptor- an odd inconsistency between the two, and a sign that the data might be weak.

    3. The amount of data lost from the project (schools dropping out and lost to follow-up) particularly from the intervention schools, as well as the adoption of PBL or similar approaches by a number of control group schools, further limits the strength of any impact finding.

    This is a huge hole in the bow; so many schools dropped out that the project loses most of its value.

    4. From our observations and feedback from schools, we found that PBL was considered to be worthwhile and may enhance pupils' skills including oracy, communication, teamwork, and self-directed study skills.

    That word ‘may’ is working harder than James Brown on a kibbutz here.

    5. PBL was generally delivered with fidelity but requires substantial management support and organisational change. 

    Translation: this took a lot of effort. Which means you better be sure of a significant pay-off to justify the full spent on take-off.

    This report was transparent about the project’s shortcomings, and to me exemplifies good practice in educational research communication: here’s what we did, here’s what happened, here’s what we think happened, here's why we’re not sure. If more research presented itself so openly, the field of ed research would be much healthier.

    And speaking of the evidence base for PBL, what did there EEF literature review uncover?

    ‘The existing evidence for a causal link between PBL and attainment outcomes seems to be weak. Most of the reviewed studies did not involve random allocation of participants to control and experimental groups and, as a result, a causal link between project based learning instruction and positive student outcomes has not been established. The majority of studies were based on a quasi- experimental pre-test/post-test design with some baseline equivalence established for the outcomes measured at the classroom level. ‘

     You'll never find me lucky charms

    Project based learning, yesterday
    So what conclusions can we draw? At the very least, it offers no support for PBL as a viable strategy, at best. And the evidence base for it is pretty thin- being generous. Given the enormous upheaval it costs a curriculum, the material generation, the training investment required, you would hope to see a high probability of leprechaun treasure at the end of that particular rainbow. But Irish Gold there is none.

    And at worst? A suggestion that the least able lose out the most, and for no perceptible gain elsewhere. This data isn’t strong enough to substantiate that. But one has to wonder why schools dropped out so significantly. In my experience schools often do this when they feel a project runs contrary to schools needs, it obstructs improvement, or there are signs of engine failure mid-flight. Or they were promised magic beans and realised they just bought a cow.

    My experience tells me that these kinds of educational approaches aren't without value, but frequently work best with the most able, independent and informed students. Those struggling already, behind in content knowledge, dealing with challenging habits, fall further back than they otherwise would in a more structured environment. And if we’re designing schools and syllabus for the real word, that means teaching everyone well, not just a fraction of the lucky sperm club. So until we start finding out that PBL miraculously adds value to the school experience rather than robbing it, I;d give it five minutes if I were you.

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  6. 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

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  7. 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.

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  8. 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.  

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  9. 'What do we want? WEE TASSELS'

    Like Flying Ant Week or Ed Balls Day, School News Reporting follows an annual cycle, and this week (the first term for most) usually has a story which can charitably be summarised as ‘School has rule and sticks to it.’  I’ve worked at schools where police came to the gates so often the playground was nicknamed Scotland Yard. And kids get sent home all the time for school uniform, for rucks, for health reasons. So a story about police breaking up a scuffle outside a school because the Head teacher was enforcing a strict new uniform code wouldn’t get outside local news, right?

    Wrong. ‘Riots outside Margate School’ headlines ran, about Hartsdown Academy in Margate, Kent, where parents were less than pleased to be told their children would have to go home for being improperly dressed for school. And they were prepared to vent that fury to the poor staff at the school, and any camera nearby. ‘This is disgusting,’ somebody said to me online. ‘This school has gone downhill.’

    Really? This is a school where in 2014 the GCSE 5 A*-C pass rate was 19%, which to put it in perspective is probably less than if the mafia had paid students to throw the exam. I think the school had more substantial concerns than whether or not the dress code was too narrow. This is a school where, figuratively speaking, parents should have been rioting a long time ago, only to demand better results.

    Taters gonna Tate

    And change has come, in the shape of a new Head Teacher, Matthew Tate, who is my latest Educational Hero of the Week. On one corner, thousands of outraged, instant experts who suddenly knew more than an experienced head how to run a school, camera crews from Newcastle to Narnia, and newspapers all fighting over the last bean of news in the tin; in the other, a school trying to start a new term, facing down the barrel of inspection and expectations. Good luck trying to do your job in that melee. Parents at the gate probably seem the least of it.

    One thing that angers me about the coverage and subsequent pearl-clutching is that this kind of trial-by-stoning sets a tyrannical precedent. Will future heads, considering taking a hard line on a big task, demur, knowing that they might have to endure the auto-da-fé of the commentariat? I hope not. I hope not. Running a school is hard enough.

    So, to Margate, where we lay our bloody scene. What are the rights and wrongs of this school’s actions? I’ll try to answer most of the points I’ve seen made today. And bear in mind, that unless you actually work at this school, there could be a lot of context we simply don’t know about. So I’ll try to generalise where I can.

    Uniformgate Q&A 

    What does research tell us about using uniforms as a whole school strategy?

    Know your enemy
    Not a lot. The best we can say is that it often points both ways, with some studies claiming positive results and others the opposite. I found a worrying amount of positive results published by uniform manufacturers, for example, which are undoubtedly the last word in scrutiny and rigour. But this is to be expected; merely having uniform is no indicator of how uniform is enforced, or if it is at all. I’ve been to many schools that claimed a strict code that clearly weren’t.

    Uniforms don’t matter; plenty of countries don't have them and do better than us

    Of course they do; Finland and Canada are pretty uniform free, for example. But this isn't surprising. Schools can achieve (or possess) great learning and sociable habits without uniforms. But that’s because they’ve used other methods to create cultures of high expectation and civility.

    Uniforms don’t matter; they have nothing to do with learning

    Lots of things have little to do with learning but we value them regardless. Would you be happy with students telling you to go take a flying fox to yourself? Should you ignore it, as long as they kept working and didn't disturb anyone? We don't just teach them lessons in their subjects. We help to teach them good conduct, habits of character, civility, cooperation, community. These kinds of things are an invisible curriculum. If you want to create an atmosphere where people feel included, equal, and shared an identity, then uniforms are one way of getting there. They help reduce label-based class systems, poverty-shaming, and prematurely sexualised outfits. Some pupils are proud to be part of the fleet that wears their colours. The local community can see where students come from. There are a host of potential benefits.

    I say potential. There are many ways of achieving these objectives, and this is one way. It has obvious possible advantages.

    Uniforms have no value. 

    Oh they do. There’s a reason why the police who showed up wore a uniform; why the army, nurses, doctors and pretty much every professional has a dress code. They denote status, group membership, identity. You can have these things without uniforms of course, but you can also have them with uniforms. You may not like uniforms. You may find them vehicles of conformity. Fine. That’s not the argument here.

    Does having a uniform policy lead to better outcomes?

    It’s not that simple. Nobody is claiming that uniforms directly lead to better results. The research is ambiguous. So why have them? Because schools don't achieve great things with students by accident. School leaders need to create a school culture, built on social norms that help to optimise the types of behaviours conducive to great learning. This kind of culture doesn't happen by itself. It takes care, craft and constant reinforcement. Uniforms are one tool to achieve this. Other tools are available. I’ve seen great schools with no uniform, and terrible ones with long lists of kit. It’s a tool, and like all tools can be misused or misunderstood.

    Surely having the wrong socks isn't more important than education?

    We mustn’t get trapped in the details of this. Details are what make a culture. Any one of them might seem trivial, but collectively they define the social norms of the school. It’s like promising to give up smoking but looking at the cigarette and thinking ‘Yeah, but this one's my mate- you won't kill me, will you little fella?’ Jaffa cakes seem angelic, but a sack of them will turn your waist line to porridge. If you want to lose weight, bin the Kit Kats. If you're building a culture, sweat the small stuff.

    Why send children home?

    Have a uniform policy or don’t have one. But if you’re going to have one, have one. Don’t have a policy in name only. If a school claims that students must do X but then blatantly allows Y, then children are adept in working out that Y is the real rule of the school. If X, then X, otherwise you just push your boundaries back somewhere else and the battleground for what is permissible moves with it. If the uniform policy is ignored or broken, then there needs to be some form of consequence.

    But sending them home?

    This was the thing that stoked the most fury, with claims it was disproportionate. But why? Pupils have been sent home since time began to get the right gym kit or lunch. It’s an inconvenience, sure, but it’s hardly water boarding. It’s certainly a memorable consequence, and you’ll find that many students’ uniform is remarkably closer to the policy than before the next day.

    Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to give them a detention at lunch or similar? 

    It’s certainly an option, and it might have the impact you want. But it seems a lot closer to a punishment for a parent’s behaviour than sending home to get the right uniform (and I know from social media how many people approve of that). If you just give a warning, or allow them to spend a normal day at school, you reinforce the idea that rules can be broken and they didn’t really matter. Watch how many pupils would turn up in exactly the same uniform the next day unless a bold statement was made to them.

    But FIFTY pupils! That should show how wrong it is

    One or fifty, if there's a rule, there's a rule for them all. That's what fair means. We wouldn't let a recidivist burglar off his last spree because there had been so many others, or dispute Mo Farrah his last medal because he already has so many.

    What if students had a genuine reason for the wrong uniform?

    There are always reasonable exceptions to every rule. If a school doesn't make allowances for extreme context, then it sets itself up to accusations of genuine inflexibility. But exemptions must be exceptional.

    This is outrageous! The Head teacher should resign!

    No he shouldn’t. He should be given an OBE for services to children. In my opinion, and from my experience and observation of scores of successful schools, I think he’s absolutely in the right. I think a small band of protesters have made his job of turning round a school in difficulty much, much harder. I hear there is strong support from within the school for the new Head’s general approach. It’s easy to find talking heads of glum pupils and parents to cry foul for the camera. I bet there are hundreds of pupils, staff and parents who welcome the revolution.

    Instant results with no effort

    What really grinds my gears is how much this reveals about our dysfunctional attitude towards good behaviour. We applaud standards but often decry the methods used to achieve them. We value grit and self regulation and self discipline, but balk at the exercises needed to obtain them. Have we became so sensitised to discomfort that being sent home for a tie, or to change out of trainers, is seen as an assault on our dignity? Have we lost sight so much of the causal chain between effort, struggle, persistence and success that a school doing its best to raise the Titanic is torpedoed for trying?

    Good behaviour isn't just ‘not mucking around.’ Good behaviour is a complex package of habits, reactions and inclinations that take a long time to accumulate or encourage. Its creation is akin to writing a book;  a succession of thousands, millions of keystrokes that accumulate into something beautiful and valuable.

    So good luck to the hard working staff- and students- of Hartsdown Academy, and to the parents who are supporting this new chapter in everyone’s lives. As is usual in these media harrowings, the school has the least ability to respond publicly, being bound by confidentiality and discretion and professionalism. unlike many of their detractors. I hope everyone goes away and leaves them to get on with their job. And I hope the next time people rush for their Twitch forks and Bows of Burning Gold, they consider the children who suffer by proxy in this faux battlefield.


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  10. The other day I was filming a behaviour management training video. Our cunning strategy was to use talented students on a BTEC drama course to help demonstrate the practical ways that students and teachers can interact. They were terrific, and one of them made a comment that cut to the heart of a problem we have in teaching. ‘But don’t you get this kind of stuff before you become a teacher?’ she said. And the honest answer I had to give was, ‘Er...sometimes. Some of it.’

    The missing jigsaw piece

    After many months of debate, interview, advice, consultation and collaboration, the report into behaviour management in ITT was launched. I’m so proud of the finished product. The working party were all agreed that we needed to write something succinct, practical and targeted at the needs of teachers at the beginning of their careers. There is still a disappointing deficit in behaviour management training in the UK (and abroad- I haven’t found any Shangri-Las in this sector). Too many teachers still enter the infancy of their careers with little structured support in running a classroom. Now this strikes me as a catastrophic omission in a role which requires such a substantial element of encouraging and directing the activities of others. This is no bolt-on, to be stapled onto teacher training; this is one leg of a tripod which along with pedagogy and subject knowledge, are essential for secure, efficient and productive teaching.

    I’ll stress: there are many good ITT providers who do well in this area, in both HE and SCITT routes; but there’s a quilt of good and less good practice, and it’s impossible to say that a robust training in this area is a guaranteed entitlement. One problem is that many providers still see behaviour management as something that will be picked up in placement schools, and their role is only to provide a short outline to the topic. The main problem with this approach is that it leaves the trainee at the mercy of their placement school’s capacities. And learning how to run a room isn't something you pick up by mere repetition, any more than you learn who to play piano by standing next to one. As many people have pointed out, Malcolm Gladwell's '10,000 hour rule to expertise' is mistaken. True mastery is only acquired through structured, deliberate learning, not proximity.

    WWW, EBI

    So we decided that there were two substantial areas of behaviour management training that needed to be addressed: content, and training methodology

    1. Content. It was obvious that some strategies used to run rooms work in some contexts but not in others; that some strategies work very well for many or most children, and some strategies were more boutique. The obvious recommendation to make is that teachers need to be exposed to a broad cocktail of possible strategies along with their suggested uses. The teacher then has the option of selecting which arrow in their quiver to employ, instead of wondering what one is needed from scratch. This sidesteps any accusation that teachers are trained in a stupidly one-size-fits-all strategy. At present, many teachers are at the mercy of the strategies their few mentors might provide. This broadens their range.

    We broke the behaviour curriculum content into a pleasingly alliterative triptych: routines, responses, and relationships. Routines are the best way to create structure in the classroom, create communal expectations of behaviour, and build habits. The great thing about routines is that once internalised, they reduce the cognitive load on the agent, who acts instinctively rather than processing it consciously. Responses, because once behaviour breaks down, it’s essential to know how to respond and restore calm. And Relationships, because understanding one’s own state as well the students’ is a powerful way to understand how to deal with classes, from SEND awareness, to appreciating how the human mind learns, remembers, focuses, as well as handling stress and processing an emotionally draining job.

    2. Methodology. Just as important as being formally instructed in a range of strategies was the way in which new teachers were trained in them. At one extreme, we see some courses deliver a forty five minute lecture to anxious rows of trainees, then a wave from the dock as their ship leaves port. They might as well be shot from a clown’s cannon into a bear cage. But even in courses where behaviour training was intended to be accrued from the classroom, it was often akin to the expectation of osmosis. We wouldn’t expect someone to learn how to drive from the Highway Code manual, nor would we pass them the driver's wheel while caning it at 100 mph against the traffic on the M1.

    Please don't panic, but can anyone on board fly a plane?

    So we focused on methods that aspired to the maximised, structured understanding of the practical matter of running a room: coaching; role plays; filmed teaching immersed in reflective conversations, feedback, and incremental improvements. This currently is an enormously fertile field for improvement. By physically enacting the movements and methods of good teachers, new colleagues learn the micro-behaviours of their profession in a low stakes, high value environment. We even nodded aspirationally to those courses that provided structured environments like this prior to the beginning of the school training year (eg Summer schools, where candidates could practice role playing common scenarios with one another). It’s amazing how much these techniques help with the practice of teaching.

    The situations we encounter as teachers are varied and complex; but they are not infinite, and most of them can be anticipated and placed in a taxonomy (eg lateness, children cussing one another); why not prepare teachers for these situations so that their response is practiced rather than created ad hoc? Routines, and language scripts can be of immense help in reducing the cognitive load of a high-pressure emotionally challenging and intellectually taxing role such as teaching.

    Practical magic

    We found other things that made good sense: tutors, mentors and trainees in behaviour management should, as much as possible, have demonstrated and fairly recent classroom experience. This was in order to reduce as much as possible the curious situation that sometimes occurs when such matters are trained by someone who themselves may not have optimal skills in this area, or believes that an academic qualification alone entitles them to train others. Classroom management has an enormous practical and experiential component. No carpenter would learn their trade by studying at the feet of a dendrologist alone (although such people may still have valuable lessons to impart in other areas related to this field). We also emphasised that students should be taught these techniques throughout their course, threaded through everything else, as well as discretely, and that skills in this area should be formally assessed and examined by the production of eg a digital portfolio of filmed lessons.

    This raised a few eyebrows, but we supported it because it provided evidence that training had actually happened for one thing (avoiding the ‘here’s a hand out on behaviour, now you’re trained’ problem) plus it built a portfolio that was actually useful- the sessions could be reviewed and reflected upon. Any data protection issues could be sensibly decided in advance of the course, and recording is now a cheap and practical possibility for everyone in this age of phone cameras.

    You're not even a real teacher *kisses teeth*

    The ministerial response was very positive (‘this is a recommendation with which we strongly agree, and we would encourage all providers to ensure that their programmes are structured accordingly’). While they stopped short of making our recommendations mandatory (which was itself one of our recommendations- we strongly believe that what we’ve put together is a clear, sensible and flexible model for all providers, to interpret in their own contexts), we expect it to be promoted in other ways:

    ‘Our recent White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, published in March 2016, set out plans to develop a new set of quality criteria that will in future be applied when training places are being allocated to providers. We will therefore consider how best the new framework of content can be used to inform those criteria, with a view to ensuring that all providers who are allocated training places are clearly demonstrating the quality of content in their courses. Further detail of how we intend to apply the new criteria to the allocation of ITT places from 2017/18 onwards will be published shortly.’
    Nick Gibb, writing in Initial Teacher Training:Written statement - HCWS83 

    There is more than one lever in education, and if- as we hope- the above commitment is carried through, then we would be proud and delighted to see these recommendations absorbed into mainstream practice in ITT.

    Improving behaviour management training is one of the biggest opportunities we have for transforming education, the professional experience of teaching, and the life chances of children. The beauty of this is that there are experts in behaviour in every school; all we seek to do is unify and disseminate the best of what we already know about running a room. That’s why I’m perfectly happy for some people to say that much of what lies in this report is uncontroversial; that’s exactly right. It shouldn’t be. But so many teachers aren't even getting these basics imparted to them in a structured, conscious, habitual way. And many teachers couldn't consciously express what it is they do well, because it's often such an intuitive process.

    It’s time to end that anomaly. Teachers deserve a guarantee that before, during and after they pass through the ITT hatchery, they will be exposed to the very best training in managing and optimising the behaviour available. It’s one of the biggest fears of trainee teachers; it puts people off applying; it’s one of the most commonly cited reasons for leaving the profession; it’s one of the chief training needs according to Head Teachers.

    We hope that this report will help to support the ITT sector in building their own programs of excellence. And incidentally it was a huge pleasure putting this together; the responses from the sectors were fantastic- hundreds of people, institutions and groups readily supplied evidence and experience to our discussions. It reminds me, if I needed it, that teaching is still one of the best sectors in our public space. Let's make it even better.


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