Boycott Baseline

There has to be a baseline test
Your school must outdo all the rest
No matter that they’re only four
No time to waste, we must do more.

There has to be a baseline test
For only some can be the best
Life’s one big race towards the top
Can’t ever let our standards drop.

There has to be a baseline test
To fill the giant data chest
In seven years we’ll open wide
And from the data we’ll decide.

There has to be a baseline test
We’re not sure why, but if we’re pressed
We’ll claim a test’s the only way
For this is not the time to play.

There has to be a baseline test
Ten million pounds we must invest
For in the future, far from now
We must compare your schools somehow.

There has to be a baseline test
We hope you will be most impressed
When we can make the numbers say
What 4 year olds should do each day.

Today I stood in the morning sun
And watched the children laugh and run
Each one of them a different person
Their time with us is just rehearsing

The grown up that they’ll be some day
When they have no more time to play
But at this point they’re only young
Their lives have barely just begun.

Stop rushing on to a future point
Saying for now they disappoint
Take a moment to stop and think
Join the dots and make the link.

These are children, not things to test
Please listen to those who know them best
But if you won’t, be in no doubt
#Boycottbaseline is what we’ll shout.

Posted in Baseline, Children, Testing | 1 Comment

A Critical Friend

It’s very interesting to see feedback getting so much attention as a concept in education at the moment. It’s lovely to see so many examples of teachers using critique in such complex and intelligent ways. Unfortunately for me, though, the word feedback always makes me think of that moment when you go too close to a speaker with a microphone, and you hear that awful whine of sounds being bent out of shape. Feedback has the potential to be positive, but it also has the habit of being negative. We should take care not to forget, in all the talk about feedback, that critique can be hurtful. If you look around yourself on the Internet you will often see adults upset because someone said that something they did wasn’t good enough, or true enough, or worth the words it was written with. When feedback turns into pure criticism, it has the power to destroy. So I reckon we need to be really careful about how specific our feedback is to individuals in front of a whole class. Not everyone in the world wants their work put on the stage.

One of the things I think about writing is that you need a bit of space to do it badly. To figure out how to do it by yourself by making mistakes and then repairing them. For sure, you need a teacher to pick you up on technique, and accuracy, but you also need time to understand what you want to throw away and what you want to keep. If you are going to be a writer, eventually you have to find your own voice, rather than having one given to you. Writing is both deeply personal and horribly public – it takes courage to put your words out into the world where people might not like them. And feedback can be the thing that makes the difference. Years and years and years ago, I wrote a story called Palomino, Little Horse. My teacher wrote a comment on my story that made me feel that she liked my writing. I liked it too, and I still have the exercise book. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that feedback doesn’t have to be a loud noise, in a public place, with immediate impact. It can be a moment between child and teacher – a moment when one is a writer, and the other is a reader. Because maybe what you most needed just at that point wasn’t someone to critique you publicly, maybe what you needed was a critical friend.

Posted in Feedback, Writing | Leave a comment

Kindness is Power

Power is a funny old thing. It’s thrilling to have, but I definitely wouldn’t want too much of it. As a writer I love it when the words that I use turn out to have power. If I’m lucky they have the power to engage, to inspire, to amuse. If I’m unlucky they’re a damp squib. Power is fickle like that. Power thrives on networks, word of mouth, and confidence. The more powerful people you know, the more powerful you tend to get. The more confident you are, the more people believe that you know what you’re talking about. The big problem with power, though, is how easily people can abuse it. The news at the moment is full of people who drunk too deeply on the elixir of power and did the wrong thing with it. I’d imagine there are a lot of people currently thinking “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The theme du jour in education is that “knowledge is power”. That school is about “making kids cleverer”. That we should get children to memorise stuff, pass lots of tests and then the keys to the kingdom will be theirs. It’s interesting to pick this idea apart. To ask what the power we’re talking about actually consists of, and to what extent people want it. To consider whether power is truly available to everyone who gets a good set of exam results. And to think about whether knowledge does end up being power and whether education should be framed in terms of IQ or income anyway. (Thanks to Nancy Gedge for getting me thinking about all this.) We need to ask what different people’s values are, before we start to make grand statements about ‘what really matters’. Given the state of the world we live in, the political problems we face, and the nature of the people who have caused those problems, I can’t help but think that maybe education shouldn’t be about making people cleverer. Maybe it should be about making them kinder instead.

Posted in Learning | 5 Comments

An Attitude of Mind

I mostly let debates about creativity wash over me, because these days this is one bit of learning where I’d rather be doing the thing, than discussing how it works. I mainly want to know how it happens for me. Creativity is pretty much impossible to define anyway, and it’s very difficult to predict which people will achieve it. Who can say where the genius of Van Gogh or Einstein came from? Who can tell you how to get a Harry Potter on the page? So I reckon my best bet to figure all this out is by trying to be creative myself, or aiming to inspire creativity in other people, rather than spending time debating how it might or might not work. That way I can think about how it happens to me, when and if it does. How do I learn to do it? What conditions do I need to have in place? Maybe metacognition will help me work this out, and also how other people could get there as well. And having thought long and hard, here are some things that seem to offer a path to creativity for me.

Something to Think About
If you’re going to be creative, you need experience, information, knowledge, whatever you want to call it. It’s not so much about memorising stuff, as about imbibing ideas and sensory responses until you’re full, and then letting them bounce around in your head.

Something to Think With
Next you need a form for your thoughts. That form can be anything – it can be plants, or paints, or cardboard boxes, or a guitar, or equations, or all of them simultaneously. It’s great fun to mix up forms – often the breakthroughs lie in weird combinations.

Top of your Game
Technique is a funny old thing. The better I can do something, the more I can ignore the process of doing it. I was a dancer before I became a writer, and my best creative moments could happen when I was able to forget about technique and focus on expressing the idea.

A Room with a View
It’s strange how places and spaces can help you harness your creativity. The artist’s studio. The view from a bridge. The shadows thrown by cork oaks in the late afternoon sunshine. Creative inspiration often strikes when you’re in nature. The world is wonderful like that.

International Mud Day
It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be muddy. You just have to accept that. Experimenting is part of the deal. You have to throw away 99% of what you come up with. And then you have to work tirelessly to make the 1% worth keeping.

Tie your Leg to the Desk
The most annoying yet amazing thing about creativity is that the more you do it, the better you get at it. I once wrote a blog about how this works, and I honestly don’t think I can better it, so I’ll shut up already about that.

Skin in the Game
You can talk about creativity all you want, but if you’re not actually being creative, I reckon you need to do that first. Get some skin in the game, see how scary it feels in reality, then wonder how on earth it is that kids find it so easy, but adults don’t. (See below.)

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway
The reason more people are not creative is not because they lack knowledge, but because they’re scared of what other people will say if they are. (See above.) I have a great (if rude) motto for such occasions: I think you’re mistaking me for someone who gives a shit.

The most important thing to remember about creativity is that it is open to everyone. Anyone can be creative, in any form. It’s not something that is confined to a small elite. Creativity is fun, and life affirming, and a great way to express yourself. I reckon more people should do more of it, rather than less. Most of us will be rubbish at being creative at first, but no one got any better at it by talking about it. We have to DO IT. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But right now. Most especially if we’re children. Because all creativity really is, is an attitude of mind. And there ain’t no one who can tell you how to have that.




Posted in Creativity | 7 Comments


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.

Posted in Knowledge, Skills | Leave a comment


“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