1. 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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  2. 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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  3. '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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  4. 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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  5. Amanda Spielman, yesterday

    An advisory vote was taken recently where an expected outcome was surprisingly rejected. Not Brexit, but the Education Select Committee’s recent decision not to approve Amanda Spielman’s appointment as HMCI. I think that’s unfortunate, mainly because I think Spielman is exactly what the education sector needs right now.

    Ofsted’s role with schools isn’t to tell teachers how to teach. That misapprehension has rightly been binned in the last 5 or 6 years. Indeed, one of the principal achievements of Wilshaw’s reign on the Iron Throne was to dislocate the infamous ‘preferred teaching style’ of Ofsted that was never formally enshrined but still existed in the gaps between statutes (which is why it took so long to identify and eradicate; it needed a campaign of whistle-blowing through the similarly informal forum of social media to expose it. No mechanism existed within its own structure to collate these concerns, much less address them.) There’s precedent for an HMCI not having taught in schools- Stewart Sutherland was a lecturer for example- but that misses the point.

    Spielman is one of the most qualified people I know to run a hydra like Ofsted. I’d probably agree that the inspectorate covers too broad a remit, and should be split in some way, but the suggestion that Spielman is less capable than previous incumbents is unsustainable. Her CV reads like Genghis Khan’s to-do list: start-up impossibly successful academy chain transforming the lives of thousands of children? Check. Chair Ofqual through some of its most challenging times? Check. What am I missing here? Where in her resume does it say anything other than ‘runs enormous educational organisations like an army of ninjas’?

    Could you just reach into your ribcage and tear out your heart please?

    The strangest charge against her is ‘lacks passion.’ For a start, passion is demonstrated by action, not wept in a monologue across an interview bench. It bleeds out of everything she’s done. I’m forever telling my sixth formers to can that weasel word from their personal statements to UCAS, because it’s an empty claim to make. Poor old Emily Davison; how on earth will we ever know she was passionate about women’s suffrage? I mean, she threw herself in front of King George V’s horse, but she never mentioned she felt ‘passionately’ about it so we’ll never know, I guess. Maybe candidates should thump the tables a little more, or roar at Head Teachers’ conferences in Brighton College.

    I’ve met Spielman on many occasions; she’s spoken at several researchED conferences. She knows an extraordinary amount about the realities of schools, the gauntlet of disadvantage and opportunity that they represent, and possesses one of the five best minds in UK education. And I believe she understands exactly what kind of inspectorate my profession now needs. Not one that will attempt to be the arbiter of what good teaching is- that should be a conversation the teaching profession drives for itself, in partnership with other communities like ITT, research, and professional bodies. Ofsted can get the Hell out of that frankly. The biggest problem we had with Ofsted was that it crashed into the profession’s own sense of agency and self-analysis. Never mind what we thought, you better second-guess what the inspector wants otherwise *draws finger across throat*.

    Spielman has already drawn attention to the perverse disruption of the observer effect. (‘In science, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner.’) She’s also spoken about the possibly of jettisoning the Outstanding judgement, on the grounds that Ofsted’s role might not be to define excellence (which perversely might have the effect of codifying, mortifying and therefore ossifying its generation). This is an HMCI-in-waiting who really appears to understand that the next phase in its development is a gear shift away from being a GREAT BIG SCARY BEAR towards something more supportive.

    And as for the claim that she may struggle building bridges with the sector, well, irony was just found at the bottom of Loch Lomond, with iron bars in its pockets. I’m watching my social media streams right now and can barely see anything other than support for Spielman, and wonder that her capacities could possibly be overlooked. I’ve never met a more popular choice. Anyone who claims that ‘the profession doesn’t trust her’ hasn’t been talking to the fairly large part of the profession I engage with. Perhaps some of the disapproval has come about because she’s perceived as being on the ‘wrong team’ in education, someone who won’t rock the boat. Well, anyone who thinks Spielman is some kind of Secretary of State poodle, doesn’t know her very well at all. She’s fiercely independent. And remember that Wilshaw was brought in as a Goveian ubermensch, but as the years passed he stirred on the slab and reminded everyone that while the HMCI role may appear to be a grace-and-favour appointment, it can be more akin to animating Frankenstein’s monster.

    Oh God not the buck

    Cersei Lannister, Queen of Kings Landing
    Finally, there was concern that she claimed the buck didn’t stop with Ofsted. Of course it doesn’t. Anyone who thinks that responsibility for any event can be easily reduced to something so simple as a single ‘buck’ shouldn’t criticise anyone clever enough to understand that responsibility is diffuse. Schools, for example, need to take personal ownership over some of their actions too. If you want Ofsted to continue to be the universal arbiter of all standards, fine: believe in mono bucks and get Wilshaw’s big brother. If you want partnerships and autonomy, then defy that.

    In case I’m not being clear enough, I think Spielman would be a terrific HMCI; I think she’s exactly the right shape for the role as it stands now; the time for Pale Riders is passed. I hope the Select Committee, wise as it is, reconsiders its support. These are turbulent times; we need stability, professional administration of governance, and someone who will navigate calmly and sensibly through emergent challenges such as the roles of MATs and RSCs. And we need it yesterday.

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  6. They say you don’t miss what you have ’til it’s gone. Last Monday morning, I lost the use of my hands. The full Double-Skywalker. At 6am I woke with my organic alarm clock baby Benjamin, and could barely lift him from his crib. Over breakfast we competed for who dropped most porridge. By noon I couldn’t fasten a button; by two I wasn’t capable of turning a key or a driving wheel without every crumb of my concentration. By three I was in hospital undergoing tests, bloods, X-Rays and ECGs; I could touch my nose but not scratch it; I could walk a straight line but not draw one. By six I could no longer sign my name, and when they released me at seven I only made it back in the car by treating my hands as spades rather than a prehensile Swiss Army knife.

    Before that I’d gone far enough up the tree to meet the NHS end-of-level boss consultant, who puzzled over my symptoms before ordering a MRI. When I asked what diagnoses they were considering, they didn’t sugar coat it. 
    ‘MS, possibly; or muscular dystrophy. Maybe a stroke.’ 

    I know- good times, right? I’m almost carelessly optimistic, but there is an abyss in such moments from which it is quite impossible to entirely extricate oneself. I’m 44 and have three people at home I would not bear to see hurt in any way. Nothing at that point offered any kind of positive angle; there was little to make the most of there. From a day where I was expecting to plan some lessons and pick up my kids, I was now considering the best ways to spare my family any further hardship. They sent me home with a caution to return if things got worse. 

    Next day they got worse. I could barely hold a tissue, and I had to be driven to hospital this time, where they brought the MRI forward to the next day. By now I couldn’t pick up my ten month old boy without using my arms like chopsticks. With a lot of time on my hands but no hands with which to spend it, I was glad of social media, and big screen buttons I could tap with a claw, as I could no longer use a keyboard. I had to shower like a bear standing in a stream, and I slept that night in dread.

    Thursday I checked in early for the MRI. If you’ve never been for one then I can only describe it as the worst theme park ride ever. On House it looks like a bed in a 25th century travel Lodge. In reality it involved headphones, a neck and face brace to keep you still so you feel locked in, before you were loaded into the white plastic chamber like a flesh bullet into an enormous six-gun. ‘Would you like some music?’ asked the radiographer. ‘We have Youtube.’ I declined, on the grounds that if things went badly I would not only end up in a wheelchair, but I’d ruin a perfectly loved song in the process. 

    An hour and a half inside a tubular coffin listening to what I can only describe as the Philip Glass and Brian Eno having a knife-fight in the BBC sound effects cabinet; as Koyaanisqatsi raged around me ninety minutes crawled by, and the machine clattered and crackled and I clenched my teeth in case my crowns flew out, no matter what the radiographer said. My mind wandered to a childhood certainty that I had swallowed a five pence piece that never saw daylight. I wondered if it would tear itself through my navel like Geiger’s homunculus. 

    Another three hours waiting for a neuro consult to tell me if I needed to get ramps installed, and how long I had before they made an inspirational movie out of my life. I’m joking, but then, I was shaking. 

    Finally, the neurologist, who asked me to sit down in what I’m sure was a gesture of civility, but to me foreshadowed nothing but doom. He passed me a piece of paper:

    MRI Head
    MRI Spine whole
    The brain is normal
    The spinal cord is normal with no cord compression

    ‘All clear,’ Mr Bennett. ‘How do you feel?’ How did I feel? Like I’d just been handed my whole future back; like a piano hit the spot next to me on the pavement; like the luckiest son of a bitch ever. I felt alive. Alive, when I thought I was staring down the barrel of a gun for the next twenty years, withering before my family’s eyes. 

    He couldn’t say what caused it- a virus possibly, or an electrolyte imbalance, but whatever it was, it was lifting, and had started to recede that morning slightly. In the hospital cafe I tried to dent a can in my grip; I still couldn’t, but I could hold it. I could hold it. 

    By now I can type again, although my fingers feel like someone tied a roll of pound coins to each knuckle. My signature looks like my wife made my kid sign a father’s day card. I can shave again. I got my hands back.

    Few things grieve us more by their absence than by the loss of something simultaneously vital and monotonously reliable; the metronome of your heart; a parent; a place to sleep, a stable job. We take so much for granted, and it’s no revelation to say that our health is overlooked every second until it starts to elude us. Until this week, the question of the United Kingdom’s place in Europe, or even it’s own constituent parts, was of no concern to me; now it feels like a trunk full of rubies hanging over a smelting pit. 

    I returned to work today for the first time in almost a week, a wall of catching up circling around me like sandbags, things to be done, emails teeming and squawking to be released and fed. None of that mattered, at least for that moment, at least until I forgot what I had almost lost again and life got in the way of appreciating life’s bounty. I think that is one of the great pivotal lenses of adulthood: the ability to appreciate what you have at every point, which is one of the palpable lessons that being in the moment attempts to teach us. As children, we know only the baselines of our own culture and privilege. I never understood what my parents gave me until I tried to give it to someone else, for example. Sometimes we have to lose something, or risk losing it, to value it. It’s a hard lesson to teach students but we must, or they’ll squander riches they assume are indestructible and eternal, like freedom of speech, or the right to travel, or learning. 

    Ask any pilgrim how it feels to find a shower and a bed after three weeks on the road to Santiago. 

    That’s how I feel today. I feel grateful. And, I feel alive. 

    As a token of that gratitude, I made an offering to the Gods of Hubris via this website, and if you were so inclined feel free to do so too. You will have your own pilgrimage. 

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  7. Would you Adam and Eve it? Hollywood is flirting with the Bible again. In a culture where the salons of mainstream media are devoutly secular, religion finds it hard to get traction. But there is undoubtedly still a huge market in the temple: Gibson’s Passion of the Christ turned water into Cristal by marrying two audiences: those looking for powerful, operatic narrative, and those for whom attendance is a form of worship. To date, it’s grossed over $600 million, which is a lot to render unto Caesar. 

    Gone are the days when sword and sandals epics like The Robe and Ben Hur could rattle their rosaries with impunity; post modernism demands that we now deconstruct religious films in a way that satisfies the impulse to rationalise. There is an almost absurd tension in a cinematic culture where giant robots can wrestle metadimensional alien conquerors without examination, but any film that depicts say, the miracles of the Talmud has to have its papers stamped and wear its piety round its neck as it waves a bell, warning the unwary.

    So, to Noah. Russell Crowe is, by now, the master of these kinds of muscular patriarchs, part Liam Neeson, part Maximus Decimus. He occupies the role beautifully. Darron Aronofsky, one of Hollywood’s most interesting directors, wields the megaphone. His The Fountain  (one of my favourite films in the last decade, and I suspect I may be alone in the world when I say this) showed he could do mystical transcendentalism. The Wrestler showed he could do brawn and blood and burly men out of step with their times.  I don't know what Black Swan showed. This is film with, really, four actors: Crowe, agonising, and sawing, and submitting in sequence; Ray Winstone playing Tubal-Cain, the serial villain; Anthony Hopkins, playing Methuselah as a senile Welsh Gandalf, a role he has been contractually obliged to play since 1993; and the Ark, in a welcome return to our theatres since Evan Almighty.

    The Genesis account of Noah is spartan to say the least. Aronofsky’s used it as the napkin script for the IMDB Noah. The contrast is interesting. In the non-CGI Flood Narrative, Lamech, Noah's father, fathers him when he is 182 years old. You heard me. And far from being couponed by Ray Winstone’s Mespotomian gangster Tubal, he somehow struggled on for a mere 595 more years. Barely enough time to boil a pomegranate. And Noah, as the last of the antediluvian ubermensche, begat his three kids when he was 500. You also heard that right. I know some couples have a honeymoon period between getting married and starting a family, but that's positively lethargic, him and Mrs Noah (never named in the Bible, natch) gettin’ busy for half a millennia.

    The film swivels and hinges on a theme that is suggested by the Spartan Mosaic account but rarely developed: environmentalism. Noah appears on the screen as the world’s first Greenpeace activist, almost Hindu in his reverence for every thing that creeps, grows and respires in any form. He even scolds his son Shem for picking a Daisy, which in a world parched and blasted by sin, seems pretty small beer to get anxious about. And he’s vegetarian! This sits uneasily with Genesis Noah, who not only filled his Ark with animals two by two (except for fish, dinosaurs and unicorns- they could fuck off) but actually brought in pairs of animals that were not clean to eat and seven of the ones that were good to eat. It wasn’t an Ark, it was a goddamn larder. But I liked Soya Noah. I wonder if he, too, had allergies, and caused problems when everyone split  the restaurant bill?

    I have to mention the Watchers. The Watchers are very odd. It’s like the Never Ending Story met The Seventh Seal. In the Bible, the ‘sons of God’ (angels) ‘saw the daughters of man and saw that they were fair’ (comedy whistle effect) ‘and they took them wives of all they chose.’ AMIRIGHT, ANGELS?. The children of this controversial system of matrimony were ‘giants of the earth’, although after that there’s no mention, which seems a bit remiss. The film doesn't miss the same chance, making them, essentially, giant stone ents, hroom-hrooming around the script, teaching men how to build steam engines and iPads, supplying cheap immigrant labour for ark-building (they come here, taking our women, doing all our jobs for free) and giving Aronofsky a chance to add the Battle for Helm’s Deep into the Flood narrative. Initially they capture and threaten Noah Then they join forces with him against the evil king. And I realised where I'd seen this before: Flash Gordon. Hroom. 

    Emma Watson acted rather than inhabited her invented role of Ila, presumably created to prevent audiences wondering, as primary children automatically have since time began, if everyone in the Bible had incest for dessert (fundamentalist answer: yes). Barren land, barren wombs: the theme of fertility grew ripe throughout the film, as the sterile Watson anguished about her infertility (which was touching), and the eco-theme hammered home the idea that humanity had poisoned the earth with the sin of their industry and avarice, and old Noah determined that God had decided all humanity should perish for its wickedness…EVEN THOUGH HE MADE NOAH BUILD AN ENORMOUS  GODDAMN ARK THAT WOULD SAVE HIM.

    This led to one of the most difficult and almost successful inventions of the story: Noah becomes Bad, Red Kryptonite Noah, determined that Humanity shouldn’t  survive past his family’s life spans (which would only be, oh, 900 years or so, probably. Hardly worth getting out of bed for, really). It’s a dangerous gambit, to turn your protagonist into a monster in the third act. That’s fine for a plot twist in Scream VII, but less so if you want to bring your audience on the character journey. By the middle of the third act, I, and probably many others, was checking out on Noah and rooting for Winstone’s cruel, arrogant tyrannical- but specifically, not infanticidal- Tubal to bury Crowe. 

    It works…just. But only because Crowe follows in the Biblical  tradition where God instructs that Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of faith. The God of the Old Testament, it has to be said, does not mess about with cuddles. In fact, Genesis begins with one of my favourite lines in the Bible, Genesis 6:6- ‘And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.’ Let that settle in: God repented. He regretted something he had done. That’s an astonishing quality to ascribe to a perfect, and therefore changeless being. 

    And then, in a moment of ghastly tension that was difficult to watch, Noah goes to butcher the children that he believes represent a defiance of God’s genocidal will….and fails. Or rather he succeeds, feeling only love as he looks at their wee faces. I was watching through my fingers. Even Abraham didn't have t go through with it in the end (with the Angel Michael jumping out at the last moment shouting PUNKED at Abraham, and I bet he and Isaac laughed about it all the way home, right before Sarah his wife turned his balls into a purse. Watson's final scene with Crowe was unexpectedly touching, and the whole character arc, and plot, rested on that gentle moment of mercy.

    It’s a film that divides, of course. Many Christians still believe in the literal truth of the Flood narrative (although ti’s worth remembering that most churches, including the Catholic and Anglican churches, long ago accepted evolution and the Old Earth theory of the Big Bang as the most probably stories of creation), and in America (of course) there were accusations of impiety and blasphemy (most amusingly, by several Christian groups that hadn't actually seen it yet. WHAT DO WE WANT? WE HAVE NO IDEA. WHEN DO WE WANT IT? etc). Aronofsky sneakily slips in the six day Creation of Genesis 1 in a CGI sequence that clearly apes the Big Bang and the evolution of the species in a way that would make the History Channel proud. 

    It’s been banned in several of the Muslim states, although that’s hardly remarkable when you remember that the depiction of any prophets in film or picture is considered sacrilege. And it has coined it in, already making almost $350 million at the Bronze Age box offices. Noah has made his Ark deposit back.

    It’s a triumph for many reasons, despite its Biblical length and supporting actors so arboreal you could make a mast of them. For one, it’s something that Aronofsky does well that few Big Tent movies do in the popcorn shops: it drags creation themes, religion, faith, mercy, sin, stewardship and dominion into what is in turns an action movie, a family saga, a getaway, a history narrative and a parable. It’s not often Hollywood does Big Ideas like that. And it does so in a way that mimics Cameron’s ability to tell vast, cosmic stories through the lens of a few characters. Noah the film is like the Ark itself: improbable, vast, heaving under its own weight. But it floats. Better, it sails. 

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  8. I really should have done this a while ago. Last year the TES decided to do the decent thing and make us legal, and now I blog on their website once, sometimes twice a week here. The same swears, the same cant and rhetoric, the same excruciating application of metaphor, the same tiresome pop culture- it's all there.

    You can leave comments underneath each blog, just like you could here, although you might have to sign in- like stabbing, it takes a second. I'll blog about non-educational stuff here from time to time, in preparation for the launch of my new website in March 2014.

    Best wishes




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  9. If you're a Twitter user in the UK, you can't help have noticed that it's Troliday today. This is the latest crest of a wave of protest currently ebbing and rising in response to a particularly grisly series of high-profile misogynistic attacks on, among others Mary Beard, and many other women who have the temerity to be too high profile and successful.

    The aim of Troliday is for users to spend 24 hours away from Twitter in an act of solidarity and as an attempt to persuade Twitter to police its badlands more carefully, both of which are perfectly noble goals. But I can't find enthusiasm for Troliday. I think it's self-defeating. I think it's a good cause but a bad strategy. Many of my reasons have been exhaustively described already throughout the day, so I'll reiterate briefly:

    1. To paraphrase the NRA, if we silence ourselves, then the only people left who get to say anything are the ones with the complicated and unresolved childhoods.
    2. A boycott only works when withholding your services or goods actually hurts the organisation targeted. If a handful of people in the media decide to withhold their Sunday sermons, life very much proceeds as it was.
    3. When you battle an idea, you need bigger ideas to win.

    Memes, and the battle for the bigger idea

    I'll explain. For most people, a meme is a recurrent internet funny, like the scowling cat, the Facepalm of Picard, or Gandalf telling some unlucky high-schoolers that they shall indeed, not pass. But the term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book the Selfish Gene. As opposed to the gene, which was a unit of genetic inheritance, a meme was a unit of cultural or intellectual capital that could be passed on to other members of the species. The important thing was that memes acted like genes: if they offered a survival advantage or some kind of utility, they would replicate successfully and propagate. For example, the habit of washing ones hands before eating has a benefit, and so survives, whereas the practice of trepanning does not.

    What excites those who study memes is that it's a model that can usefully describe all kinds of cultural processes. Communism is a collection of memes, as is Capitalism. So is Coca Cola, and Apple, and Hula-Hoops, and social networking, and ... anything that we do. Gangnam Style is a meme that acted like a virus before exhausting itself, having consumed its host, gratefully.

    And that's why it's important not to stay silent. Unlike World WarII, this isn't a battle against an enemy with clear ideological and geographical boundaries. This is a contest of ideas. On one side (and I abhor the linear description of two poles, but it'll do for explanation) is the idea that women are objects that exist as a helpmeet to man; on the other, the idea that they are not, that they deserve every privilege and consideration that their male counterparts enjoy. On the first side we have the glass ceiling, the male gaze, patria potestas, feet binding, and the fear of weak men who cannot sustain a reasonable erection without constructing women as vile whores. These are ideas.

    On the other side, we have universal suffrage, No means No, Dworkin, Wollstonecraft, Greer, the Equal Rights Movement and JS goddamn Mill if you please. These are other ideas. These ideas are in constant battle with each other, in abstract or concrete battlefields, shifting every day, taking place in new theatres every moment. Justice of any sort will not appear by itself, unless you believe that it exists as a natural commodity, which I do not. It must be constructed. It must be created, constantly, from the atoms of chaos and disorder that constitute our moral universe.

    So I cannot conceive of silence in this context. Silence is an abdication of responsibility from wrestling with other ideas. Other than the idea behind the silence, which isn't entirely without merit, the silence itself is a vacuum of ideas. It is the absence of ideas. It is shadow. It is darkness. The only ideas that are left to replicate are the ideas of unhappy and fearful men, cupping their timid viscera and congratulating each other.

    How should we conduct ourselves in this arena? By speaking. The internet has bred courage in men who would previously have lived lives of desperate anonymity. The cure for their candour is exposure; confrontation; the spotlight of infamy. Mary Beard so deftly demonstrated this when she was party to the exposure of one such braveheart, whose bawdy boldness stopped at the point his mother found out.

    By all means, let Twitter design methods that ease the process of exposure and reporting; they profit from our participation, and should be held responsible for good governance. I couldn't organise a car boot sale without making sure my participants were reasonably safe from harm, so let them spend some money on their algorithms and customer care advisers.

    And culture needs to start catching up with technology. When people start to realise that a threat to kill and rape becomes a published artefact once you press send, and redress can be legally sought against it, then they might think twice before airing their vile opinions beyond the pool tables and bars of privacy.

    But the biggest weapon against these cruel, selfish and exploitative ideas, is better ideas. Police are essential, but it isn't only police that make out streets safe. We have to reclaim the streets ourselves, police our own corridors too. I cannot change the whole world- no matter what some journalists with odd ideas of their importance think- but I can do something about the spot right in front of me. Any garbage that appears in my timeline gets questioned, just the same way that I'd cross the street to help if an old lady was being hassled. That's something we can all do.

    So I can't condone silence. It isn't the non compliance of Rosa Parks, or the Salt Marches. It's cargo-cult activism; it apes activism, but it does nothing. It's activism with no calories. Worse, because it temporarily satisfies the pang for justice, it actually denies justice the opportunity to be performed.

    Finally it hasn't been helped by the slightly smug way in which a few of its proponents have implied that their absence would somehow end Twitter.  In fact, for that alone, perhaps the silence served at least some small purpose. Self important, self-elected salons are another idea entirely.

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  10. So, I have a book out.

    It's been a long time coming. Since I started teaching, I knew there was something suspicious about what I was being told worked in classrooms, and what actually happened. It started in teacher training, as well-meaning lecturers and reading lists advocated apparently cast-iron guarantees that this method of educating children, or that way of directing behaviour, would be efficient. It continued on DfE sponsored training programs where I was taught how to use NLP, Brain Gym, Learning Styles and soft persuasion techniques akin to hypnosis.

    Then I began teaching, guided by mentors who assured me that other contemporary orthodoxies were the way to win hearts and minds. It took me years to realise that thing I could smell was a bunch of rats wearing lab coats. And why should any new teacher question what they are told? Establishment orthodoxies carried the authority of scripture. And often it was justified with a common phrase- ‘the research shows this.’

    I remember reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, and being amused and horrified by the cavalier ways in which science could be hijacked by  hustlers. His harrowing of Brain Gym led me to wonder what else, like Descartes, I needed to question. What I discovered led me to write Teacher Proof.

    First of all I discovered that a lot of what was considered to be absolute dogma by many teachers, was built on quicksand.  Learning Styles, for example, were almost universally accepted by every teacher who trained me. It was a Damascan epiphany to find out that there was hardly a scrap of evidence to substantiate it, that the serious academic  community had washed its hands of it long ago. But it lingered on, a zombie theory, staggering from classroom to classroom, mauling lesson plans.

    Once I had peeled one strip of paper from the wall, I could do nothing else but keep pulling, and see how much came off. Much, much more, it turned out. First of all, I entered the world of pseudo-education, where optimistic internet sites boasted of Olympian gains to made by the adoption of this pill (often Omega 3), that smell (sometimes Lavender, sometimes not) or even this sound (the Mozart Effect, for instance). These, at least, seemed to be obvious pigs in pokes. Other companies sold hats- literally, thinking hats- of various colours, or exercises that promised to boost brain power. But they asked customers to gamble a lot more than a stamp, as Charles Atlas innocently proposed.

    Unfortunately, it was often just as bad when I progressed to the realms of alleged propriety; I found that a lot of what was practically contemporary catechism, was merely cant. Group work, three-part lessons, thinking skills, multiple intelligences, hierarchies of thinking like Bloom’s, all- at least to my poor eyes- appeared to rely on opinion and rhetoric as much as data. Delving deeper, I found that this was an affliction that affected the social sciences as badly as the natural sciences- perhaps worse, as natural sciences are at least readily amenable to verification. But any social science- from economics to sociology- is subject to inherent methodological restrictions that makes any claims to predictive or explanatory powers intrinsically difficult.

    Which isn’t to say that social science isn’t’ a powerful and urgent device with which to accrue an understanding of the human condition. But merely to require that its claims be interpreted appropriately. It is a very different proposition to claim, for example, that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius at sea level, than it is to say that children learn best in groups. The first can be at least disputed immediately, or not, by testing. The latter requires a plethora of causal factors to be adjusted and  accounted for. And to confound matters further, humans are notoriously hard to fit on a microscope slide. Nor are we always the most reliable of subjects.

    Sometimes this was the faulty of those writing the research; sometimes the research was, as Richard Feynman describes, Cargo Cult Science; sometimes the writers appeared to have no idea what the scientific method was, believing it to be some kind of fancy dress with which one clothed a piece of journalism; sometimes allegedly sober pieces of research were simply misinterpreted by a willing media; sometimes it was the teachers themselves that had misappropriated the findings; sometimes it was the policy makers who were hungry for a magic bullet and had already made their minds up about what they were buying.

    Whatever the reasons, it was clear: the educational research we were asked to assimilate in schools was often more like magic beans than magic bullets. That’s unhealthy. There are armies of earnest, dedicated professionals working in educational research who are horrified by some of the fantastical or flimsy claims made by the hustlers and their PRs. If educators want to get past this unhealthy  system of intellectual bondage, we need to become more informed about what the research actually says, and what good research actually means; about how hard it is to say anything for certain in education, and when claims can be ignored, and when they should be listened to.

    So I wrote Teacher Proof. It’s aimed primarily at people who work in schools, but it’s also for anyone involved in education, research and policy. I am, unashamedly, a teacher. I admit I have entered a world- of educational research- in which I am only a guest. I am aware that in my travels I may be more of a tourist than a native. But I have tried to write as honestly and as plainly as I can, about matters that affect me deeply- the education of children. If I have made any errors- and I’m sure that I have- I welcome correction, and discussion. I can’t shake the feeling that teachers would do well to make research more of their business, get involved, participate in studies, and perhaps even conduct some of their own, with guidance. I’d also like to think that researchers would be well advised to ensure their theories are tested objectively, with an eye to disproving them, in classrooms with meaningful sample sizes. There is a great deal of good that the two communities can do together.

    Perhaps then teachers can look forward to hearing the latest research, and run towards it; and researchers can see classrooms not as awkward inconveniences between data sampling and publication. There’s an awful lot of good research out there, but it gets drowned out by the bad.

    Good ideas, like decent whisky, need time to settle and mature. I suspect that we need to develop more of a critical faculty to sift the ideal from the merely idealistic. Maybe then we’ll be immune to novelty and fashion in pedagogy. Or, as I call it, Teacher Proof.
    Buy Teacher Proof HERE

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