Skillz

A rainy winter’s night. A shabby office at the DfE. Somewhere near Watford. 

Sir John: We’re thinking of rebranding knowledge post Brexit.

Jasper: [splutters] Rebranding knowledge? John, surely you’re not serious?

Rupert: Not enough workers, Jasper. No one wants to pick the fruit anyone. It’s rotting on the trees. We don’t need knowledge anymore. We need skillz.

Jasper: [takes a large swig of whisky] Skillz?

Sir John: We did it once before, when we rebranded skills to knowledge back in the day. No reason why we shouldn’t do it again. [he lights a cigar]

Jasper: [coughing] I don’t remember that, Sir John. I’m only 25. But, but skills? Aren’t those a bit common?

Rupert: Jasper, Jasper, remind me. When you had a burst pipe last year, who was it who came out to mend it?

Jasper: Well obviously it was that fabulous Polish builder that we had … before … well, you know what. [mutters under his breath] sodding Brexit

Rupert: We just need the kids to understand that all the knowledge in the world is no use if you can’t put it into action. Is that so bad?

Jasper: Well, since you put it that way, I guess I can get into the Skillz agenda. Raising the bar and all that. Hit the reboot button.

Sir John: Good lad. Good lad. So, we were thinking, Jasper. That you wouldn’t mind doing something for us.

Rupert: We’re sure it’ll be no problem. And if it is, stiff upper lip, jolly good show and all that.

Jasper: [shaking slightly] What do you need me to do?

Sir John and Rupert: Tell Nick.

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Posted in Knowledge, Skills | Leave a comment

Complicit

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good (wo)men to do nothing.”
Edmund Burke

As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader of this blog, I’m quite happy to give Ofsted a hard time when I think it’s due. And the DfE for that matter. I’m not trying to make any friends in high places by writing what I write. But things that I’ve read and heard this week have reminded me that we all have a role to play in letting bad things happen. Of course, there are some groups of people who have very little say in the face of bad education policies – the children, for instance – although sometimes they rise up and make their voices heard. Parents are hardly listened to in the current system (choice is a fallacy for many of us), so if what we get isn’t what we wanted, we are left to express our opinions via the ballot box or to vote with our feet and home educate. (From the conversations I have with other parents, I can’t help but think that the approach at the moment is based on a false impression of what we want, rather than on the reality of it.) Some CEOs and SLT have a lot to answer for, for where we are at, especially when they dance to the DfE’s tune. But someone had to agree to pin that badge on the child’s blazer; someone had to agree to go along with something this awful.

I completely understand how difficult it is to fight against the system when you’re trapped inside it – when your livelihood depends on doing what you’re told. When all you want is to do the best for your children and your own family. History teachers could tell us a story or two about how powerless people feel when they’re at the bottom of the ladder. But there comes a point at which we just have to shout “NO!” And that’s when we are complicit in doing things that might damage children’s mental health (not just our own children, but other people’s as well). So I swear that I will never ever give any child a “most able” badge, no matter what. Because I can’t be complicit in this.

Posted in Children, Mental Health, Testing | 3 Comments

The Blame Game

When Michael Wilshaw was HMCI, he had a very bad habit of announcing his opinions in The Sunday Times. One particularly striking moment was when he called for a “Renaissance of Respect” in the nation’s schools, which first of all made me laugh, and which then made me so cross that I found myself using the words “a tidal wave of tripe” in a blog for the first and hopefully the last time. The new HMCI, Amanda Spielman, has been a lot quieter than her predecessor since she took up her post. Some might feel that this is evidence that she is thinking things through. Being of a cynical nature, I suspect that it is more because she has been too busy wondering how on earth the DfE made such an almighty mess of the accountability system, and trying to figure out what the hell she can do to fix it, to have time to sound off in the Sunday press. Clearly, she has been taking a different approach to Mr Wilshaw’s combative one (which let’s face it, isn’t hard.) And then today’s ‘commentary‘ brought an abrupt end to her silence.

The ‘commentary’ was a strangely robotic sounding piece that used phrases such as “Exams are our best measure of what has been successfully transmitted to the pupil’s cognition” and “the new SATs at the end of key stage 2 … are set an appropriate level of rigour.” (This despite Ofqual telling us a week ago that the 2016 reading test was “unduly hard“.) No one would dispute most of her findings – that accountability has led to a narrowing of the curriculum. (I was going to call this blog “Stating the Bleeding Obvious”.) Clearly, there is an issue with schools putting ethics to one side, to focus on getting good test results, as I explored here. This is not okay. We’ve all been shouting about this for years. But the problem is not with her findings, the problem is with the way she skates over the role of the DfE and Ofsted in creating the situation that schools find themselves in (particularly those schools in areas of disadvantage). There are a few hints that Ofsted might have had something to do with it, but effectively it is an exercise in passing the buck.

Oddly, for a speech that claims to be about the substance that knowledge can bring, it is hard to find much that is substantive in this piece. I have to admit that I smiled at the obligatory paragraph on how skills are killing off knowledge – this is such an oft visited trope that no speech on education emanating from the government can do without it. There are some strangely political sounding claims that “the new SATs at the end of key stage 2 and revised GCSE and A-level qualifications are a marked improvement on their predecessors” and that schools should be “fulfilling the promise and potential of the 2014 national curriculum”. (I was under the impression that Ofsted was meant to be apolitical.) The DfE seems to get off scot-free, and despite a couple of admissions that Ofsted might just possibly have had some role to play in the problems we face, the underlying message of the speech is that it’s all the fault of schools and teachers.

No matter how much I wish that some schools wouldn’t game the exams system, no matter how much it infuriates me when school leaders narrow the curriculum and focus on endless mock tests, I cannot bring myself to lay the blame more than partly at the door of the worst offenders. No matter how much it pains me to see writing being taught as an exercise in naming the parts, or how much I hate the thought that some children’s last year of primary is little more than getting ready for and hopefully passing SATs, there is no way that I can lay the majority of the fault at the feet of hard pressed school staff. And this is because I know for a fact that they would not be in this position in the first place if it was not for Ofsted and the DfE. So they can state what the problem is all they like, but unless they change the way that schools are held accountable, they are never going to find a solution. And if Ofsted want to play the blame game, I know exactly where they should start. By taking a long hard look in the mirror.

Posted in Accountability, Ofsted, Testing | 1 Comment

A Tale of Two Cities

Once upon a time there were two cities, which sat on either side of a wide river plain, with a yellow river running like a cross of gold between them. The city on the south side of the river was the first to develop, in the time when we first landed on this planet. That city has been around for hundreds of years – it is the original settlement, the one where we first made land fall in this strange new place. We grwmps were in charge of the settlement. We had to be, because we got here first, so we had to survive. Luckily, there were grwmps who knew how everything worked. We knew how to mend a broken fusion reactor and we quickly learned how to grow crops in the harsh astral winds that scoured the planet. We brought with us Earth knowledge. We knew about the old ways, the ways that we had left behind when we set off from Earth but that we needed to pass into the future of this colony. Most every Grwmp thought that this was an excellent plan.

The hard bit was when we came across the yununs, a fluffy round species that was native to this planet. (No one had told us that we would encounter fluffy round aliens here.) The yununs weren’t aggressive (mostly) but they were certainly hard work. We decided to corral the yununs into temporary schools, so that we could keep a lid on them and maybe pass on the Earth ways to them if we were lucky. We were pretty sure that we knew what the yununs needed. but unfortunately some of the yununs didn’t take to things quite as we had hoped. Being in charge of the yununs involved a lot of skill and determination (and a fair few painful bites). Most grwmps didn’t want this job. They wanted to be out setting up the institutions for the new planet, making the laws or working the fields. The yununs were liable to make a mess and throw green slime around the place (this stuff grew everywhere on the new planet but at least it was nutritious).

One day not so long ago, some of the older yununs were standing by the yellow river. They were forbidden to dip even in a toe into it, on pain of they didn’t even want to know what. They had been told that the water would burn their feet off if they so much as went near. Since they were native to this planet and yunun history told them that this wasn’t true, I’d guess they found their grwmp teachers very confusing. They probably didn’t get why we wouldn’t use the planet’s technology, it had been around for what felt like millenia, but some grwmps didn’t take kindly to being told. Anyway, this group of yununs had a feeling that if someone wanted to swim one way or the other over the yellow cross shaped river, or perhaps even fly across to go and make a town of their own, like this one, but not quite, then they could. Of course it was important for them to remember that the river was fast flowing and dangerous for swimmers, and that vicious gusts of winds sent up whirlwinds of sand that would down a space hopper, but surely it wasn’t impossible?

As time passed, the yununs wondered how much right anyone (aka ‘the grwmps’) should have to say about how things should be for them. Especially since it wasn’t their planet. They started to think about whether they couldn’t just be treated almost exactly like us grwmps (apart from the passing on of Earth knowledge bit, they found that bit very useful). They spoke to their teachers, and some of the grwmp teachers agreed with them. Not all by any means but definitely a lot. And then they just kind of got together and agreed that there should be equity in how the grwmps treated yununs. It wasn’t their fault after all that they were smaller and fluffier. (Plus the yununs had found a document called the “UNCRC” on an ancient grwmp device, and some grwmps looked very shifty every time they mentioned it.) This story doesn’t have a dramatic ending. There is no happily ever after. Just a slow drip, drip, drip like the green slime on which we all feed. If you look across the river, you can see the new city, although it’s only half built and it’s shaky in parts. But the yunyuns and grwmps who went aren’t planning to come back, and as time passes more of us think that we might follow. Especially since they put up their new flag, which reminds us of something from Earth. Although we can’t yet quite place exactly what.

 

 

Posted in Behaviour, Children | Leave a comment

Astroturf

Grass is an amazing plant. It thrives in the toughest of conditions, it doesn’t mind if you step on it, or if you cut it once a week, or even if you ignore it and let it grow into a tangle. (Although if you do let it grow into a tangle, you are going to regret it, because you will have to go through a lot of ripping up of long grass before you can actually cut it, otherwise it will tangle itself all around your mower or strimmer.) There are hundreds of varieties of grass – from the lawn grasses that are so familiar, to tall grasses with fluffy plumes at the top, such as Miscanthus. When you dig up the land to make an allotment, one of the most important things to do is to get rid of any grass, because it competes with everything and it always wins. Couch grass is a particular nuisance because of the long, fibrous roots. Most of what I had to clear to start making an allotment was clumps and long roots of grass. And as I dug out my allotment into formal rectangles, taking out all the grass and covering it with gravel paths, I finally got to a bit in the far right hand corner that I knew would be my seating area. It catches the late afternoon sun, it’s next to the pond, I can see my house and the valley that it sits in. It’s a lovely, secluded spot (especially with a cutting flower garden all around it). The main thing I didn’t want to do, though, was to sit in my quiet corner and look at weeds, and especially not grass. I wanted a break from reality.

Luckily for me, a friend had some spare astroturf. I’ve tried to recycle as many materials as I can, so I grabbed a few pieces, and an hour and a lot of cutting later, I had made a small, clean, weed free, intimate and low maintenance seating space. Now, everything is perfect where the astroturf lays. No weeds can get through the thick synthetic layer to find the sunshine. The reality of couch grass can be forgotten, for a time. I have placed my table, so I can drink my tea, sit for a while and forget the truth of growing things. But as I sit there, relaxing in a brief moment of autumn sunshine, and I look out at the open ground where nigella, marigolds, verbena bonariensis and foxgloves all self seed in abundance, I know that the place I am sitting is sterile ground. For all its clean look and its apparent benefits, nothing can grow under a blanket of astroturf. And what I really want is to plunge my hands into the dirty muddy soil of life. Because that is where the flowers grow.

Posted in Allotment, Gardening | 1 Comment

Faultlines

The subject of the relationship between teaching and learning, and behaviour, is so fraught, tangled and complex that I hesitate even to talk about it. Notions of blame and responsibility quickly get wound up together, and before you know it, if you even dare to talk about this subject you are accused of saying that it is ‘the teacher’s fault if the children misbehave’. Logically, if we stop to think for a moment, it cannot possibly be a teacher’s fault when a student misbehaves, because the behaviour is not situated in the teacher, it is situated in the child. The behaviour belongs to the child, not to the teacher. If a student stumbles into your room, ten minutes late, firing off a volley of swear words as though they are bullets, this cannot possibly have anything to do with your lesson. If a student refuses to do some work, despite your perfectly reasonable request, this is nothing to do with you, and everything to do with them. But at the same time, this does not mean that you are completely powerless. That you cannot examine your own approaches and consider whether you might adapt what you do in order to get a better outcome for everyone concerned. Because, when it comes down to it, the teaching and learning is the thing over which teachers have most control.

Consider this. When a new term begins, there will often be a flurry of tweets complaining about poor quality INSET. Stories of sitting in a room, wasting precious preparation time listening to someone read out a series of powerpoint slides that had no relevance to anything you might want to do in your classroom that year. Although as an adult you probably won’t directly disrupt the session (especially if SLT are in the room), it could be the case that you lose focus and drift off, send a few sneaky emails on your phone under the desk, or get out your planner and start to organise your lessons, on the pretext of pretending to make notes. For sure, you’re not firing off swear words, or being deliberately defiant, but you are behaving in a way that we would not accept from a student in a classroom. Although your behaviour belongs entirely to you, to say that there is no link between how you are behaving and the quality of the INSET session is not correct. Your behaviour in this situation is (at least in part) a response to the way you are being taught. If I notice that the teachers in one of my INSET sessions are losing concentration, or if they are not finding what I am doing with them to be useful, it is up to me to reflect on it to make it better. The behaviour is not my fault, but I share an element of responsibility.

Some commentators take the position that children should ‘just behave’ – that there should be no link at all between the way that the teacher teaches, and the way that the children react to that teaching. That the school should have a system that ensures behaviour, and that the teacher does not bear any responsibility at all for this aspect of the job. (This does rather ignore the existence of the Teachers’ Standards, but that is probably a subject for another time.) For me, though, this not only misunderstands how human beings operate, but it puts a higher expectation on children than we hold for adults. And it also negates and under estimates my role in the process of teaching and learning. For sure, it is not my fault if the children mess around, but if I hold up my hands and claim that nothing I do has any influence on how the people in front of me behave, and that I should therefore take no responsibility at all for it, I am effectively saying that anyone could do my job, so long as they had the requisite subject knowledge. I absolve myself of any responsibility, but at the same time I absolve myself of any skill.

When I think back twenty five years or so, to my first teaching practice, I can remember completely misjudging the conceptual complexity of some work that I did with a group of children. I wanted to talk about ‘the world’ using a globe; the children didn’t have any concept of ‘the world’ because they had never been outside the town where they lived. At first the children simply looked puzzled, but then they began to shuffle around and fidget. Before long they were losing focus completely. They certainly didn’t learn anything from the time they spent with me that day. If, after that lesson, I had decided that the problem behaviour was entirely the fault of the children, and that my planning had not contributed to the situation in any shape or form, then I would have learned nothing as a teacher. Last school year I did a lesson in which I managed to get the children completely over excited, and then had to claw back the situation before it got unsafe. Their over excited behaviour might not have been my fault, but I certainly felt a measure of responsibility for it. When people say that part of the job of a teacher is to ensure well structured, carefully paced and suitably pitched lessons, that is not the same thing as saying that it is their fault when the children mess around. Yes, the behaviour definitely belongs to the children, but the magic of making them forget to misbehave? Well, I’m perfectly happy to take the credit for that.

Posted in Behaviour, Teaching and learning | 3 Comments

Do What They Told Ya

“And now you do what they told ya, now you’re under control”
Killing In The Name
Rage Against the Machine

It must be very frustrating for the DfE (and its ‘behaviour tsar’) to find that teachers still “argue … whether or not children should behave“. But, but, wait a second, I hear you say, who on earth are these teachers who think that children should be allowed to misbehave in class? And, perhaps even more to the point, what the hell are they doing in a classroom? In over fifteen years of working with teachers and schools on behaviour, I’ve never met a single person who believed such a thing. (Clue: this is because no one does.) The debate is categorically not about whether or not children should behave in school; the debate is about what their behaviour should look like, what ‘good behaviour’ means, and how we should go about getting it. Frankly, I find the idea that behaviour is not political amusing. For sure, it’s not necessarily party political (although beliefs do tend to vary according to which side of the political spectrum you are on). But to suggest that this is not a political as well as a practical discussion, is to deny the truth of the matter. The personal is very much political, it cannot be anything but.

If I try to empathise for a moment with the DfE – to put myself in their shoes, as is my wont – I can see how a simple solution to behaviour would be very attractive. Surely, our civil servant friends must wonder, the answer should be straightfoward? If only those (damn leftie?) teachers would have no excuses, maintain extremely high expectations, and then punish any child who dared to breach them, then we could get this behaviour thing sorted and out of the way, once and for all? If only we would just get all the kids to shut up and do as they are told, then we could get on with filling them full of the ‘right kind’ of knowledge. If only we would stop making excuses for them, all would be fine and dandy. On days when I’m feeling particularly cynical, I imagine I can hear the whispers in the corridors of the DfE about whether it might not just be possible to reintroduce corporal punishment, this being the ultimate in punitive consequences. Surely that way we could get back to the ‘good old days’ when children knew their place and understood exactly who was in charge?

The problem though (or perhaps it’s the solution?) is that we live in the twenty first century now, not the nineteenth one. Children have rights. People generally don’t believe that the harsh and constant punishment of children is the best solution anymore; many of us don’t even believe that it is ethical, given the legal duty of inclusion, the statistics around the number of children with SEND who are excluded from schools, and what the data tells us about the young people who end up in prisons. Our liberal sensibilities make us wonder whether there might not just be a better answer, one that involves building relationships, working with young people to help them learn how to behave well, as far as we possibly can. Not just to control them, and get them to conform and obey, but to encourage them to think about their behaviour and its effect on the rest of the community. And if that’s not political, I don’t know what is.

Given all the above, it is interesting to consider why it might be that the narrative coming out of the DfE is about teachers who don’t want children to behave. These presumably being the same ‘progressive’ teachers of ‘the Blob’ against whom Michael Gove was so given to railing. Ask parents how they actually feel about the teachers who work with their children, and they will typically tell you tales of admiration, of trust, of support and of approval. (Ask them how they actually feel about politicians, if you dare!) The vast majority of parents feel that their children are being loved, and cared for, and guided in the right direction by a hard working and dedicated teaching workforce, often against all the odds. And this is why I can only believe that this is an example of ‘gas lighting‘ – a way of making anyone who dares to question the ‘do what we told ya’ narrative feel like they are saying something strange, and wrong, and odd. But we are not. And we must continue to refuse do what they tell us, to refuse to conform with this narrative, if we feel that what they are telling us to do is not the right thing for our kids.

Posted in Behaviour | 3 Comments