Mastering teaching for mastery

A comprehensive school’s approach three years on…

I very rarely blog about mathematics teaching but we’ve had numerous visits asking about mastery teaching recently so I thought perhaps people may like to see what it looks like in our school and what our journey has looked like along the way. There are much better people in our department to talk about this like our Acting HOD or our Mastery Coordinator (@MrMoMaths), as well as many other contributors like @MrHayhurstMaths but they tell me they’re way too busy to blog so you’re stuck with me! Here are some of the most important things to consider if you’re thinking of developing teaching for mastery at your school.

1. Mastery teaching is not a quick fix

If you’re looking to rapidly improve your GCSE results this year then stop reading now. We are over three years into our work on mastery and we know that we’ll only see the results as scores on doors with current Year 9 (& 10 to an extent) but we know that it’s having an impact on developing our students as mathematicians.

2. Mastery is an ideology not a scheme of work

When it was suggested that we start looking at mastery nearly five years ago, our then KS 3 Coordinator went with our Lead for T&L to the White Rose Maths Hub (a superb place to start). He came back bursting with excitement (and free resources), deciding that he was going to implement the SOW he had been given the next day. Our Lead for T&L was not as convinced. He was more experienced in both teaching and leading people and he knew that trying to take something off the shelf from another school and place it into a different setting was a recipe for disaster. It was. Things went pear shaped very quickly and our KS 3 Coordinator wanted to throw it out as quickly as he’d put it in. We knew mastery teaching was right for the journey we were on as a school so we sat down together reflected and did more research, tweaking a few things to better suit our students’ needs. Staffing changes gave us the opportunity to appoint a Mastery Coordinator – someone with experience of seeing mastery teaching in another setting. This time the whole department began to look in depth at SOWs and resources together, they began to spend a lot of time discussing approaches to teaching and key subject pedagogy.

3. Don’t assume teachers understand

We have an extremely talented group of teachers at our school, the majority of whom are also brilliant mathematicians. However, it is an error to assume that because someone looks good in a classroom that they completely understand the pedagogical approaches to teaching. Subject knowledge is an over-riding factor here but even that doesn’t automatically translate into good explanations and learning in the classroom. The best example of this I can give is using myself. In my previous setting, I was considered to be an “outstanding practitioner” (whatever that means) because students behaved and did well relative to other colleagues. I used to teach expanding brackets using claw methods. Every year I’d religiously teach this way, if students got it then great, if they didn’t then they were doing something wrong. I never considered that there could be a different approach because other colleagues assumed I knew these other approaches whilst I myself didn’t know what I didn’t know. In schools where behaviour is an issue or where there are copious amounts of unnecessary systems in place subject pedagogy discussions are often overlooked. The team I work with now are always talking about pedagogical approaches so teachers are armed with a variety of approaches and an understanding which underpins them. There are many aspects of teaching for mastery which need to be discussed, clarified and reviewed – this can only happen if opportunities for continual dialogue are in place. If you talk to a group of maths teachers about bar modelling for example, they’ll nod in agreement. Chances are 5% will fully understand and use in their day-to-day practice, 30% will have come across this concept before and use it to a limited extent, a further 20% will have heard of it and the rest will be nodding so as not to look stupid. The truth is, 95% of maths teachers (not just the biased sample we see on Twitter and social media) will need the time and conversation to develop understanding and practice. Don’t assume that just because you (or your best teachers) are doing/getting it, that everyone is.

4. Agree some minimum expectations

I know this goes without saying but as a team you need to decide what you’re all going to set out to do, and you need to continually revisit it to review planned versus enacted curriculum. There is no blanket one size fits all approach to teaching in our school but all maths lessons have a similar feel to them, not because we all use the same resources, textbooks or teaching styles but because everyone tries to include key features of good teaching in their lessons. These include:

  • Repetition and drill to develop fluency
  • Direct instruction to introduce concepts/topics
  • Strategies to reduce cognitive load when working with novice learners
  • Deliberate intelligent practice
  • Deliberate incremental practice
  • Standard and non-standard examples
  • Exposure to concepts across settings and revisiting them at every opportunity
  • An emphasis on strong questioning
  • An appreciation of multiple approaches to teaching a concept (teachers who are experts)
  • Interleaving of topics
  • Spaced retrieval as an integral part of homework
  • Feedback which is minimal but diagnostic and specific
  • Expectation of high effort from students with extended periods of silent, independent work in lessons

This isn’t exhaustive and it doesn’t happen every lesson, in every classroom, every day of the week but teachers are working on improving their own approaches to improve learning in the classroom.

5. Be brave

When you first introduce anything, there’s always a degree of resistance. It might be from staff, students, parents or leadership so it’s important to have given it full consideration and have a clear understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing. Mastery take 1 was introduced in a hurry – without thought, at a time when the department’s results weren’t great; the fallout from this was resistance from staff and students but mainly from parents. I was asked to step in and line-manage the team from an SLT perspective at this time and was met with a whole host of fire-fighting. We did a lot of work with parents to explain our rationale behind teaching for mastery (once we’d talked at great length as a department and agreed why we would continue with it). We explained the difference between learning versus performance and we used evidence to support our argument – most of the complaints were from parents who felt that their children were repeating work they’d done in Year 6 but when we showed them internal tests and the diagnostics which accompanied them they began to understand. We communicated effectively and explained that this was something which we believed in and it wasn’t going away. Very quickly they saw that generally teaching was improving as was the confidence and attitude of students with regard to maths. This was the case with reluctant staff too (of which there were very few).

6. Organisation is very important

Thankfully, we have a lot of organised people in the Mathematics department. As students have to “pass” a module to move on, coordinating testing and grouping is quite a job! This is where you need to consider staffing (and over-staffing – a luxury I know) to make it work. We’ve spent three years now tweaking as we go to achieve a structure which works for us but it’s important to think what will work in your setting and what the constraints are, some of these you’ll only find out as you implement it.

7. Testing, toughness and knowing when to call it a day

We are selective about testing, we encourage formative testing throughout but students’ progress is primarily based on our assessments at the end of each module and their end of year tests. We place an emphasis on the importance of preparation for tests and that if students don’t meet a minimum expectation they will revisit a module again. Here you have to be tough and objective. I found that teacher bias (both positive and negative) is often damaging to children’s learning. How often have we kept the nice, quiet student in our group because we want to save them when perhaps they’d have been better supported elsewhere? So we set an expectation and we stick to it (on the whole) and this means that sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind. Surprisingly we’ve found it has had a positive impact in terms of student confidence, achievement and esteem, we’ve also found that students are more determined to succeed. One school of thought towards mastery in mathematics in its purest sense is not to move on until everyone has fully “mastered” a concept. We don’t subscribe to this both on a philosophical and practical level, which will create quite a stir with the puritans out there. The team don’t apologise for this as we agree that it’s a balancing act. We give groups who don’t pass two attempts at a module (which can equate to about 16 weeks covering the same content) and then if they still don’t pass we move on (very few students don’t pass on the second attempt). Teachers who have students who don’t pass work with those students outside of maths lessons to intervene in areas where those students are struggling, since our teaching and assessment is very diagnostic, teachers know exactly where to plug the gaps. Students then have to sit the resits when they are ready whilst continuing with new content in class. Intervention at KS 3 is much more effective than fire-fighting at KS 4 in my opinion.

8. Look outside your own setting

There’s some amazing stuff out there on mastery teaching so don’t just be tempted to buy a SOW and a load of textbooks without looking at what Mark McCourt has to say on the matter here or seeing what lots of great contributors like White Rose Maths on TES have to offer for free. Although these guys differ in ideology to one another, both have brilliant contributions to make. Also, if you’re intent on buying off the shelf SOWs and textbooks, proceed with caution. Approaches to teaching for mastery are still evolving so talk to schools who are using your prospective purchase and maybe order some sample copies before rushing in spending money which schools don’t have much of these days. Visit schools like ours and see what it looks like in practice. We are not a perfect example by any means but we are keen to collaborate and help colleagues along the way so ask your SLT for a couple of days in another school (cheaper than an external course and a much more sound investment than £10000 on textbooks and SOW which might be ineffective).

9. Create a coherent and continuous curriculum

Something that the Acting HOD and myself constantly revisit (often provoked by the naive should we adopt the mastery curriculum for KS 4 debate which comes up every now and then both inside and beyond the department) is this idea of mastery versus teaching for mastery. This comes back to philosophy. If you look at mastery superficially as a scheme of work or the latest fix in mathematics education you’ll never really fully understand its purpose. Our curriculum in the mathematics is a 9 year journey – we look at what is going on in primary schools (specifically Year 5 and 6) and we ask ourselves what do we want a student leaving our 6th Form to look like? We think about the most able mathematicians who will hopefully go on to study mathematics at a higher level, we consider the least able mathematicians who need a certain level of mathematics to get by and we think about everyone in between – which I think is the beauty of an 11 -18 school with great links with their feeder primaries. We do follow our Mastery SOW at KS 3 but we make sure our KS 4 curriculum dovetails into it and then builds on the skills that students have acquired whilst forming a solid basis for KS 5. We aren’t constantly looking at the GCSE examinations, instead we focus on planning rich curricula which teach knowledge, enact this in a focused and deliberate way, test what students have learned and what has stuck (changes in long-term memory) whilst developing their ability to communicate this in an articulate and fluent way. This means a continual dialogue between the staff responsible for leading the department and the teachers within it, with our Lead for T&L supporting teachers’ understanding of what it looks like in practice along the way – the time investment is worth it. Teaching for mastery is about understanding and empowering teachers to support students learning of mathematics in a deep and concrete way.

10. Whatever you do, do it well

Finally, I want to leave you with a couple of thoughts from Daisy Christodoulou and Mark McCourt. At ResearchEd last year Daisy talked about assessment and grades in isolation (available here), she explained that a grade on its own tells us very little about what a child can and can’t do, additionally when we focus of grades as targets for measures (e.g. the old 5 A* – C measures) we lose sense of what learning is all about. We have a duty of care to teach children not just so that they can pass a test to achieve a certain grade but so that within the grade they have a level of understanding and competency to build on. We must develop students who understand, can articulate and retain knowledge, not just ones who pass tests then forget. And in Mark’s recent blog on setting versus mixed ability (here) he suggests that it doesn’t matter what approach you choose to take as long as you do it well, I wholeheartedly agree with this and would echo his sentiments entirely. Whatever approach you take with regard to your planned and enacted curriculum do your research, think it through thoroughly, develop it collaboratively and review regularly but most of all deliver it well with clarity.

 

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On why we are failing the disadvantaged… (part 3)

Some thoughts on possible solutions

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about why I feel that education is failing our most disadvantaged students. The former focused on the possible problems facing schools  and the latter identified the limitations of the current strategies which were being used to address those problems. In this third installment I plan to suggest some alternative approaches which could make a difference to the students who need education the most. I’m sure nothing that I write will be revolutionary or perhaps unique to the thoughts of others but my suggestions may be contentious and perhaps haven’t been said aloud before for fear of upsetting the apple cart.

Funding is the biggest priority for schools and is something which I feel that the government does not do enough about. This is a no-brainer and something that has been said by millions of people before. You’re right but we’re not saying it loud enough and we shouldn’t be accepting the answers that we are being given. Fundamentally, we are continually being sold an austerity myth – when the gap is clearly widening between the haves and have-nots. The concept of a finite pot of money is something which we can all identify with but the pot does tend to differ in size depending of the government’s priority at the time. Remember when the Conservatives believed their strangle-hold on power hung in the balance during the last general election? Suddenly, a billion pounds was acquired to buy the support of the DUP, money that previously wasn’t available to support the NHS, education or any of our other public services. Many economists would argue that Britain’s approach to austerity is actually doing far more harm to the country than it is good, a view which I am inclined to agree with.

In addition to the disappointing amount of money that is given to education, the distribution of this funding is also somewhat dubious. There is an emphasis on the latest government fad rather than on sustainable long-term solutions to problems which will outlive any political party agenda. If the money given was more consistent, with a five year projection that was honoured would go a long way in addressing the hand-to-mouth situation that many schools find themselves in year-on-year. I agree that pupil premium funding should be ring-fenced but additional funding given to schools in areas of deprivation to increase recruitment and retention of good teachers. Furthermore, money should be given to all schools to fund the professional development of all teachers, to encourage further subject specific study at a higher level and to give schools and their teachers time to do this during their working day.

In schools where behaviour management is a priority, subject specific pedagogy tends to suffer. This situation is exacerbated in schools which find themselves in Ofsted category 3 or 4, more time spent justifying what is being done rather than doing things that will actually make the difference. Having taught in a tough school (mentioned recently as one of the fifty worst in the country) for over a decade, I can honestly say that none of the INSET I received was ever about developing me as a mathematician, there was a lot of hoop-jumping (and they thought Ofsted wanted) but never anything that would improve my teaching of mathematics. If teachers don’t have the necessary subject knowledge in these schools then what chance will their students have of getting to Russell Group universities?

The solution to my last point seems clear – Teach First I hear you cry! Top class graduates with excellent subject knowledge teaching in the most deprived areas to address the disadvantage gap. This makes absolute sense except for the fact that generally TF graduates struggle to identify with the children they are trying to teach (as I explained in my previous blog). And excellent subject knowledge is not excellent subject pedagogy. Subject pedagogy is something which must be developed over time, it was suggested recently that this was at least five years – I’d go as far as to suggest that it’s much longer than that, with the environment being absolutely vital too. Teach First graduates in schools that don’t focus on subject pedagogy as part of their ongoing professional development will be as limited in their growth as teachers as their non-Teach First colleagues. Teach First graduates don’t often stay in the schools they train in. Furthermore, they are fed the expectation to progress into leadership quickly, sometimes being promoted beyond their competence (too much, too soon) by schools who are keen to keep them which ultimately benefits no one.

I’d take a different approach to teacher training (and indeed Teach First), all graduates would be paid to train and incentivised with housing schemes in the towns where they were training. Instead of trainees being in the cities, there would be hubs of teachers living in the locality, fully immersing themselves in the local culture. This would help them to develop an understanding of the people they were working with as well as build relationships with the local communities. The presence of more graduates within the community would ultimately improve the socio-economic situation and aspirations of these towns, a longer investment in a place would build the trust of students. Once qualified, teachers could be given subsidised accommodation for as long as they served in the community or mortgage support if they chose to stay in the local area. Also, teachers could earn professional development credits every year, which would give them financial support towards further academic study thus improving subject knowledge along with many other aspects of professional practice. There would be a move away from incentives in the form of lump sums and towards the expectation of continued commitment to working in education.

An alternative to Teach First could be a programme to spot talented students in areas of deprivation who have a passion for education and a desire to become teachers. These students could be supported through A levels, university and ITT on the proviso that they came back to their local area (or an area of similar deprivation) to teach. These young people would act as excellent role models and raise the aspirations of students with whom they could identify.

Aspiration is vital too, something which we need to address through a sustained approach. Using curriculum which address gaps in cultural capital and have high expectations. Exposure to possibilities is also key: working class students don’t know what they don’t know. My first experience of Oxbridge was when we dropped my step-daughter off for her first day, bless her. Leonie had gone through the whole open days, application process and interview alone (thanks to a great sixth form college she didn’t need us). When I visited Cambridge to deliver her on her first day, I was overwhelmed by the sense of wonder and the sheer magic of opportunities. Visits need to happen in Year 5 and 6 not Year 12, students need to be enveloped in the environment from an early age so that they are captivated by and not intimidated by the majesty of Russell Group institutions. If the seed of opportunity is planted early enough then students will have the determination to achieve academic success, it’s then our job to help get them there.

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When I was discussing the importance of academic achievement with Michael Merrick recently I received this response from Ed Cadwallader. He makes a very good point. Is academic success available to all? Well, it is clear that Oxbridge is not going to be for everyone but it does raise the point of success and the importance of giving students the opportunity to be successful. We can do this at school by offering routes which are going to be of benefit to them. In our race to be top of the league tables we exclude many students by giving them unattainable/undesirable definitions of success which can make less-moral routes of earning money more attractive to some. The options that we think are best in education often don’t suit the needs of the young people or the communities in which they live. We need to offer university routes for those students who want to follow that type of path but we also need to champion the benefits of a skills based route for those students who are better suited to trades. Encouraging all students into university routes can be quite damaging, often students go into higher education obtaining mediocre degrees whilst acquiring tens of thousands of pounds of debt along the way. This devalues degree qualifications for the majority whilst ensuring that the working classes are locked in long-term debt. It can also disaffect students who could be easily led into crime as an alternative, whereas a truly comprehensive education would offer all students the opportunity to access HE should they want to pursue it whilst catering for less-academic students. This would address the disaffection and probably keep certain groups of students in education because they would feel that there was a chance of success for them.

And finally, on that note – league tables. They need to go. League tables create division and competition, they often exacerbate the situation for schools in difficult areas adding unnecessary pressure. The recent publication of the fifty worst schools in the country which was callously reported in The Mirror here is a glaring example of the damage that is done through league tables. I know of a number of these schools and they do a brilliant job working in some of the most deprived areas with some of the most disadvantaged students. The teachers in those schools are dedicated professionals who regularly go above and beyond the call of duty. How is public shaming going to make those teachers or their students feel? Is it going to help solve the recruitment and retention problem or is it going to make it a whole lot worse? Would this type of reporting make you want to send your child to one of those schools? In truth, the reality of what goes on in these schools is very different from the picture that league tables and reckless journalism creates. So why not get rid of them altogether and develop a culture of school-to-school support?

If we had an agreed purpose for education irrespective of political agenda perhaps this may go some way towards supporting the long term solutions necessary to achieve equity for all. Approaches which focussed on the highest quality of education. I guess I’m asking for a call to arms, a total rethink in how we view education as teachers. Regardless of our own political views, we need to stand together and unite in order to encourage the government to do what’s right for all and not just the privileged few.

On why we are failing our disadvantaged… (part 2)

Understanding the limitations of current interventions

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the public sector who isn’t passionate about improving the life chances of the most vulnerable. By nature of their vocation, people who choose this path want to make a difference. Many initiatives and interventions across every aspect of the public sector are doing admirable work, but unfortunately not all are having the desired impact. It’s important that we consider why.

The biggest limiting factor when it comes to addressing disadvantage in education is funding. There is never enough money set aside for education (or the NHS, welfare or policing). However, the money we have is not always spent wisely; often being apportioned frivolously and not to the areas in which it will have the biggest long-term impact. Each government favours a quick-fix approach to promote a fallacy of success rather than a cross-party effort focussed on lasting improvement. Understandably there’s a limited pot so if we increase funding in one area, there’s another that will lose out. In 2011 the coalition government introduced the Pupil Premium, a fund to support the education of disadvantaged students, a much needed helping hand. About the same time, local and central government funding changes created a drain on schools which the PP coffers could not offset. It would be naïve to think that this deficit hasn’t caused some schools to be creative in their spending of the Pupil Premium money; you only need to look at the information on school websites to see this. Underfunded schools are often forced to redirect funds in order to avoid losing staff – after all, not to do so would mean disadvantage to all pupils – and it is difficult for us to judge them for that.

The nature of how Pupil Premium money is given can influence how it is spent. Variations from year to year mean that long-term provision for students is a risky business, creating a “sticking plaster” approach rather than a sense of ongoing investment. This situation can be exacerbated for schools in more affluent areas as income from Pupil Premium is more difficult to predict, with student numbers varying significantly each year and making long term planning almost impossible. Additionally, when there are small numbers of disadvantaged students in a school, this in itself can create social barriers which inhibit the impact of interventions. If students are aware that they are a minority a sense of alienation can quite easily develop resulting in a lack of engagement with intervention. This is a similar mindset to that described in my previous blog. That said, there are schools which address this issue extremely well and do fantastic work to create equity among their students. It is heartening to see that Justine Greening recognises this in her social mobility plan, Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential.  She highlights the need to share the work of such schools in order to improve the provision for disadvantaged students. Sadly, Justine Greening’s future as Secretary for Education hangs in the balance and a change in personnel will no doubt mean a refocus of priorities. Let’s hope that the disadvantaged don’t get lost along the way.

Pupil Premium spending and its impact are high profile in the media; schools and government ministers are acutely aware of the need to show results. However, there are a group of students who tread a path just above the PP/FSM breadline – these are the people who often slip through the net. Schools have neither the staff, funding, nor resources to support those students missed amid the Pupil Premium outcry. The size of this cohort is substantial, as is their impact on a school’s culture and results. Teachers know who these children are, yet still they lose out because of a lack of financial or academic support at home. These are often the children of low-income working families (the traditional working-class) whose parents are unable to support at home due to working long hours in order to keep food on the table. The sad reality is that there is insufficient funding left in school budgets to address the inequality which these students suffer.

Teacher recruitment and retention is a significant issue in education but for schools in areas of high deprivation it is a much more serious concern. This is a high profile media story and appears to be at the top of the government’s list of priorities, but we might question who benefits from the solutions currently in place. Back to Teach First. Participants reap financial reward and the prospect of accelerated career progression whilst their schools get a knowledgeable graduate in front of students. It is a very intense programme where trainees have less in-class supervision than they would following a traditional ITT route. That an unqualified teacher is a much cheaper option for struggling schools is clear, but a more serious appraisal needs to be made of the long term effects on both the graduates and the children they are teaching.

When TF graduates are placed in deprived schools close to major cities they generally opt to live in the cities rather than the towns. Northern towns are insular (a trip to Liverpool from St Helens is like a journey to Middle Earth) and they are all quite unique. Are teachers really going to understand or engage with a community if they don’t experience what it is actually like to live there or spend enough time serving in a school? If a TF graduate only stays in a school for two years their impact is extremely limited. If they progress quickly into leadership their impact in the classroom is limited, and it could be argued that this limited experience of the classroom is insufficient to support their leadership of others. Ultimately, could the huge financial burden of Teach First be better spent on other ITT routes which might boost local economies with greater success?

I’m going to put it out there: I have my concerns about Teach First and I feel that educational discourse becomes The Emperor’s New Clothes where it is concerned. I am not denigrating the thousands of teachers who have come into education via this route nor am I disparaging the intentions of its ethos – however, I am concerned that it does more to ease the conscience of the middle classes than improve the life chances of the proletariat. The benefits to its graduates and figureheads are clear, with fast tracks to school leadership positions, prominent government jobs and honours from the Queen in the offing. But where does that leave the children? We have a moral obligation to ensure that educational policy is driven by those it serves, and that it has a sustainable impact. I’ve alluded to the fact that I feel there is a better way and I’m happy to share my thoughts on this in part 3.

Initiatives like Sure Start and CLCs were introduced to develop hubs within communities. The idea to bring communities closer with a holistic approach was a move in the right direction. However, the execution of the plan was somewhat flawed with the removal of funding a catastrophically backwards step for the cultural and economic development of disadvantaged communities. Comprehensive schools which house a number of public services under one roof are hives within communities. They can reach out to children, families and other key groups much more effectively than any of these services alone. Some academy chains have made excellent attempts to become providers for the whole community (as have some maintained schools) – engaging parents and carers, and offering opportunities for adults to benefit from their services as well as students. Yet providing such assistance is costly, limiting the extent to which schools can fulfil this role. The implications reach much wider if we consider the impact on social mobility and cultural capital. Developing parental engagement and nurturing trust by improving communities can have overwhelming results on raising the aspirations and esteem of a whole community. Would it not make more financial sense to streamline the many routes into ITT and reinvest any money saved into lasting socioeconomic enterprises? And would there be a reduction in the number of graduates undertaking initial teacher training if there were less routes available, or is recruitment a victim of too much choice and services being spread too thinly?

The reality is that the gap between the haves and the have nots is widening and we have to take a look at why our interventions are failing. Funding is key but approach is also paramount. Ministers need to begin looking beyond their term of office (which can be shorter than that of an England football manager these days) and work towards giving schools and charities the financial security to implement lasting, holistic interventions which can raise the prospects of communities. There needs, moreover, to be some serious soul-searching about the motivation behind our “charitable actions”; we need to ask ourselves if we’re actually making a difference or just making ourselves feel better. And, finally, we must consider whether certain routes into teaching are fit for purpose or whether the costs outweigh their impact – in short, do they provide long term solutions or merely quick fixes? Things have to change, on every level. In part three I’d like to suggest how I think we can improve not only the chances for disadvantaged students but also the opportunity for whole communities.

 

 

On why we are failing our disadvantaged… (part 1)

Understanding the problem

It’s fitting that I write this from the living room of my Mum’s two-up two-down on the council estate where I was brought up. Out of the back window I can see the industrial landscape of a forgotten working-class town that could be anywhere in the North of England. If I look beyond the common land that can’t be built on (because of the chemicals pumped into it in years gone by), I can see a skyline of factory chimneys filling the air with smoke, interspersed with silhouettes of gas towers and the sewage treatment plant. Dad would always say “You can tell it’s going to be a nice day in St Helens when you can smell the muck works.” A positive outlook despite my protestations as a child.

The view from the rear window is an improvement on what Mum is faced with on a daily basis if she looks onto the dreary community within which she lives. It is a grey, tired estate, a picture of exhaustion underpinned by a conflict of ideology between the traditional working class and the precariat, the poorest group as defined by Great British Class Survey (2013). There is a contempt for the precariat held by their established working-class neighbours; a most definite judgement about their perceived lack of adherence to traditional values, an apathy or resistance to hard work and a deficit in their aspirations. This perceived under-class share a similar resentment of their peers, borne out of feelings of alienation, insecurity and anger – a belief that they are not valued nor understood, even by their own tribe. Herein lies what I believe to be the biggest indicator of a larger problem: the working classes are more divided than ever. When my Mum looks out of her window, seeing houses and gardens that are not maintained, children playing in the street who look dishevelled and unloved, or anti-social behaviour and drug-dealing in front of her house; she just cannot understand or conceive why this would take place on an estate built for the welfare of others. This is a view held by many of her age group – they feel estranged from a significant proportion of their community. Equally, her less privileged neighbours struggle to understand the frustration of this group, divided by generation and ideals. If there is such a separation and lack of understanding among the working classes then what hope is there of any insight or common-ground the more we look across the macro of social (and economic) divide?

Image result for 7 division of class from great british class survey
Taken from the BBC Great British Class Survey

By the BBC’s definition, I would fall into the technical middle class category. This is a classification which leaves me with my own turmoil. I still perceive myself as working class, yet by educational, social and economic standards I am not. This is a view which I seem to share with Sonia Blandford, author of the brilliant Born to Fail (available from Amazon here – well worth a read) and a key stimulus for this blog. There are many points that Sonia makes on which I would agree, the evidence which she uses to support her opinions is compelling and the work of the many organisations that she is associated with is nothing short of inspiring. She raises very salient points about the importance of curriculum, the flaws in how we measure the success of the working classes and how pupil premium spending interventions at the early years stage are imperative.

Whether we like it or not, we as teachers are viewed with a degree of uncertainty by the children we teach and the families they come from. This is something we need to address by investing time into communities we serve, as Sonia quite rightly points out. Working class communities need to feel as though they are understood, that they matter and that the people leading their schools are like them. In my opinion, the fundamental flaw of schemes like Teach First is the naivety that knowledge alone will be the saviour of disadvantaged children. Often, young middle-class graduates are plonked into communities which they have no experience or understanding of, and their attitude towards education is a world away from the children who sit before them. Unfamiliar situations create an emotional powder keg, which can lead to challenging behaviours that Teach First graduates have neither the experience nor understanding to negotiate, and this can lead to disengagement from both parties. There are significant numbers of talented graduates who don’t complete the Teach First programme, 60% leave the profession within the first five years, and many move away from deprived areas once their two-year probationary period has been completed. Although these people are still in teaching they are often not serving the very students they were recruited to help – a worrying trend, given that the financial cost of training Teach First graduates compared to other ITT routes is significant (£60000 for TF in first five years versus £24000 – £44000, IFS via Schools Week July 2016). Though the intentions of such charities are honourable, I’d like to suggest a modified approach to this investment in raising the achievement of disadvantaged students (to be explored in another post).

The working class have a funny relationship with “success”. When we see someone from our ranks breaking through barriers of any kind our kinship fills us with a collective admiration and a sense of hope. More often than not, success is measured by wealth and academic achievement – ironically, two factors which ultimately cause a migration away from the community. With an increased distance (be it physical or metaphorical) grows a suspicion; we are all guilty of uncertainty when something becomes alien to us. If this is not monitored carefully, it can quite quickly grow into resentment.

When I graduated from university, my parents received cards from the far reaches of their estate, from people I hadn’t seen since childhood. My degree from The University of Liverpool felt like an achievement for the community. They felt proud. That was nearly twenty years ago. I stayed in St Helens, teaching at my local school for ten years after my PGCE. Recently, I had a conversation with my Mum’s neighbour where I challenged comments she’d made about teachers at that local school, and she responded by likening me to Hyacinth Bucket (of Keeping Up Appearances fame), suggesting that because I had a degree and no longer lived on a council estate, I thought I was somehow better than the people I’d grown up with. This angered me at the time (for those who know me, I’m living proof that whilst you can take the girl out of Blackbrook there’s no taking the Blackbrook out of the girl) but upon reflection, I can see that this is an attitude that develops with estrangement – an attitude which might help us to understand why initiatives like Teach First have limited impact.

Both Sonia Blandford in Born to Fail and James Bloodworth in The Myth of Meritocracy (this book is a wake up call – available from Amazon here) highlight the problem of perceived social mobility: it does happen, but only within certain strands of the class system and to a limited extent. Chances are that if you’re reading this as someone who is proof of social mobility you no longer live in an area of deprivation, your exposure (both through social media and in physical social interactions) to working class environments is limited and the people you surround yourself with have had a similar experience to you. If I look at my Facebook friends, I could be in danger of thinking that out of my school year group there was a lot of social mobility in the class of ’95, around 33% (10/30) but I don’t have my whole year group on FB (there were 150 of them) and the omissions would probably give a much more accurate picture of the actual opportunity for social mobility in St Helens than my biased and unreliable sample. I’d argue that my Facebook friends are all students who were of similar ability to myself and who were in the higher sets, which in itself would suggest that the chances of the other 120 students accessing higher education were reduced and, in turn, their opportunities for social mobility. 7% (10/150) seems a much more disheartening figure than 33%. Of those ten, only two still live in St Helens (and they’re in the posh bit).

This leads me to why we are failing our disadvantaged. Just as Sonia expresses, how we measure success is fit for political purpose not that of the proletariat. From our position we don’t fully understand the problem and we see education alone as the solution when clearly it’s not. The approach must be much more subtle than imparting knowledge alone. We need to build trust; among communities, schools and collective groups. We need to spend the money targeted at addressing disadvantage more wisely and we need to find a balance between what we think is best for the most vulnerable in society and what they feel they actually need. This can only be done if we invest time to make meaningful connections and build mutually beneficial relationships using holistic approaches where all aspects of the public services work together with the communities they serve and are supported by a government that cares.

 

On gratitude…

Not many people will know the name Patsy Wolstenholme but to a fourteen year old me she’ll always be a scary dragon whom I feared and disliked in equal measure. To Patsy, I was always the child that needed correcting, the one whose upbringing hadn’t prepared her for life within the traditions and expectations of a middle class world of golf. I dreaded seeing Patsy, the smiling assassin, who very rarely opened her mouth without chastising at least one of us. Tuck your shirt in, take that jumper from around your waist, stand up properly, sit up properly, not that knife, napkin on your knee, have your parents not taught you anything? I don’t know what you’re allowed to do at home but we don’t do that here. 

Sometimes I close my eyes and can see her stood there, a look of sheer disapproval on her face, no taller than 4′ 11 but a force to be reckoned with. One to be feared and whose instructions were to be followed to the letter. Since my parents had taught me to respect my elders, I resentfully took on board her caustic words of wisdom and adapted my behaviours accordingly. Patsy was one of a number of adults who were charged with our care and development. Most adopted an approach more akin to Margaret Thatcher than Mary Poppins. We were entrenched in rules: conduct, etiquette and of course the game itself. So much to learn and abide by, some useful and some ridiculous (in my adolescent opinion), but all had to be followed.

Contrast this with my home life. I grew up on a council estate with a mum who worked three jobs and a dad who couldn’t work any. We were poor by comparison to most and I was the free school meal poster girl. Any opportunities (including golf) were provided by my kind aunt and uncle. They acted as my benefactors when my parents couldn’t. I am eternally grateful for the kindness and love shown to me by my extended (and immediate) family. I’m also thankful for the lessons that I learned from my parents. Mum modelled the importance of working hard and taking pride in whatever you do, she taught me to be driven and committed, to be resilient and accept whatever comes your way. She never did this through explicit instruction, just through constant, continual modelling. She continues to teach me lessons about kindness and stoicism on a daily basis just by being a role model. Dad taught me about perseverance and showing kindness to strangers – a little bit of love goes a long way. There was no rule book in our house, there were unwritten rules which I learned through my family’s practised behaviours and the occasional correctional whack from my dad but no ten commandments. We rarely ate at the table and although my clothes were always clean, I didn’t wear them with the care my mother would want me to. I hadn’t learned to speak and listen appropriately because I’d never had to think about waiting my turn. These aspects of my character would have remained unchallenged and would not have been corrected had it not been for Patsy and her pals. Arguably, my parents prepared me for a life that they had lived, a life which they knew, they valued education and encouraged me to work hard. However, they couldn’t prepare me for were the subtleties required to achieve social mobility. They didn’t know what they didn’t know. 

I didn’t agree with the Patsy attitude to correction and I’m pretty sure neither did my parents although they would never criticise or question it. Nor did Patsy ever explicitly express her disdain for my working class roots. There was an acceptance that both approaches had a part to play in my development. On reflection, I benefitted from the formal, harsh words as much as I did from the modelling of my parents (as well as all the other people who nurtured me along the way). I didn’t need to be explicitly taught to show gratitude but there are plenty of other things I did need to be taught which my parents didn’t have the capacity to do. They didn’t take issue with others filling the gaps, they recognised their limitations and understood that in order for me to be able to get on in life I would need variety. 

Martin Seligman investigates the concept of gratitude in his book Flourish. He introduces it as something which can be  beneficial both to its provider and its recipient. He suggests activities to develop a sense of thankfulness in oneself, these include writing a letter of appreciation to someone who has had a significant impact on your life and completing a gratitude journal. Simply practising these pursuits will develop habits which are eventually learned and become autonomous behaviours. Happily, habits which result in positive outcomes for everyone. 

To believe that gratitude comes instinctively to us all is quite a naive and dangerous position to take. One wouldn’t expect to play the piano without some instruction or modeling yet we often assume that children (and adults) possess qualities such as kindness, humility and gratitude innately. To criticise the teaching of such attributes, in my opinion, shows a lack of insight into the needs of others and can damage an individual’s social mobility through a misguided desire for compassion. Often these are views held by the liberal middle classes, those fortunate and educated enough to experience a comfortable lifestyle as well as a degree of social mobility which suits their needs and political ideals. This issue makes me feel the way I did over Brexit. Everyone I surrounded myself with were remainers, all of the media I read suggested that we would remain. When the fateful day came, Brexit broke the heart of many, including mine and the majority of my liberal left friends. We simply hadn’t considered that there was another perspective which was either uneducated or selfish or that of people who simply didn’t care. In assuming that everyone was informed and understood the implications of a Brexit vote we were hubristic in our beliefs. To presume that everyone has the same understanding of gratitude and such like is equally as naive. 

As teachers, we have a duty to plug the gaps, whether they be knowledge based, developmental, social or emotional. And, as we acknowledge that when teaching our subjects, there should be no prescribed methodology, it’s equally the case that there are many different approaches to teaching the social and emotional skills we desire in well-rounded individuals. Whilst the Patsy slant would not be my desired vehicle for the delivery of softer attributes, I recognise the importance of the lessons she taught me and how my opportunities in life were increased by the knowledge she gave me. I also learned a great deal from the way my parents accepted the corrections of people like Patsy, they taught me to listen to criticism and take whatever lesson you could find in it. Their humility and ability to recognise their limitations taught me never to assume I had all the answers. 

The reality is that Patsy was a kind and caring woman who was guiding a group of teenagers in the best way she knew how. Her expectations were high and her words were cruel at times but I’m thankful for the outcomes of her actions, the gaps she filled and the lessons I learned. 

My thoughts on researchED

 

I thought that with the tough time researchED has had in the last few weeks together with the fact that there’s a few more international conferences coming up, it would be useful to share a cynic’s experience of the conference. Admittedly this is going to be one of those blogs that detractors of the researchED movement will probably hate because it will be unashamedly depicting what an excellent experience I had at this year’s National Conference so apologies in advance.

I went to last Saturday’s event full of cynicism, a sceptic and admittedly not a huge fan of a number of its presenters. I’m laying my cards on the table because I feel that far too often we criticise aspects of education under the guise of a balanced and well-evidenced argument when actually we have a personal dislike for the ethos/attitude driving it. We simply can’t bring ourselves to admit this, so instead, we collect evidence that will support the case we choose to build, the cloak within which we hide our personal prejudices. I started to realise this about myself whilst reading David Didau’s What if everything you knew about education was wrong? David’s views and attitudes about education can infuriate me but often he is right. His claims about cherry-picking evidence to support your own personal bias are bang on the money. So I try to be aware of my personal biased and not act on them, not an easy thing to do when you have a strong sense of what you think is right or wrong!

Since joining Twitter I have always had the utmost respect for Tom Bennett and Helene Galdin-O’Shea and the work that they do, both in the social media staffroom of tweeting and blogging and in the real world too. What they have created and the way which they go about developing their work is something to be admired. Similarly to the wonderful work that Debra Kidd and Emma Hardy have done with their grass-roots movement, Northern Rocks, Tom and Helene have created an event for people passionate about education. Whilst looking at the line-ups from previous researchED conferences I perceived a bias in what would be represented there and in the audience that would be attending, it was reassuring to read Debra’s blog in defence of researchED in the days leading up to the event itself. Unfortunately, researchED had been a victim of being guilty by association in the weeks leading up to its national conference. One of its regular speakers had naively made claims in a blog that were ill-thought out and suddenly this became the tag-line for the researchED movement. Everyone associated with said speaker was tarred. An ideal opportunity for the detractors of the researched movement to jump on the band wagon, efforts to unsettle the Canadian event and to infer that researchED was Tom’s alternative ticket to winning the lottery ensued, along with a number of academics passing criticism about how teachers conduct research etc, etc.

There’s a number of things I struggle with here. First of all, the so-called divide between HEIs and the rest of the world, I just don’t see it despite what some try to create. I don’t buy the picture the dusty academics stuck in the ivory towers of education yesteryear, shielding their work from the outside world whilst a grass-roots movement of teachers at the chalkface are using research to trail-blaze a path for classroom practice (and never the twain shall meet). We have an excellent working relationship with our HEI, Liverpool John Moores University and indeed all of the HEIs that we have worked with over the years. Jan Rowe, who is the Head of Teacher Education at LJMU, is part of a network of teachers and academics collaborating on research projects, our ITT programme is an innovative School Direct model in which everything is delivered on site, Jan and her team have been a driving force in making this happen. University staff are part of the furniture at our school. There is collaboration never condescension. Again, I guess this is anecdotal, my experience. However, we went to LJMU looking for this, asking what could we learn from them and what could we do to help them to develop their programmes. We often tend to get the answers we’re looking for so if you’re looking for conflict I’m sure somewhere there’s someone who will meet your needs. Myself, I’m much happier to find collaboration and to see what I can learn. The other issue is the mud-slinging about financial matters and perceived conflicts of interest. Tom has done well for himself, he’s a voice that is listened to in many circles. Though I don’t always necessarily agree with his viewpoint, you can’t argue that the boy has done good. He’s also got to earn a living and as a behaviour tsar I’m guessing his main crust will be made in this field. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t question financial matters to do with researchED or that Tom is beyond reproach but there are ways and means of doing this (in my opinion). The whole public airing of other people’s laundry seems to be a popular blood-sport on Twitter and the timing of such suggestions seemed an attempt to discredit the event, not ok in my book.

From a personal perspective, my own main concern was the balance of themes, perhaps they wouldn’t be my cup of tea? It was great to see Tom address this in his blog here. To make something like researchED work, a great deal of favours are called upon, you ask favours of people you know, they’re generally within the circles you move in hence the bias. This made sense to me. Still I thought I may be struggling to choose sessions that would be of interest to me. How wrong I was…

What I experienced within the first twenty minutes was to diminish all prejudices I had about researchED. As I walked through the doors into the expanse of the school, I was greeted with a crowd the size of a pop concert, not just teachers, professors and consultants, the whole spectrum of people involved in education was right in front of me. Every category of professional you could think of was there. From government, HEIs, FEIs, secondary sector, primary sector, private sector, headteachers, classroom teachers, union representatives, trads, progs, those who don’t like to be labelled, NQTs, RQTs, OAPs (like me), the list goes on. The only people who weren’t represented were those people who choose to let their prejudice prevent them from hearing a cacophony of varied, informed and enlightening voices who had given up their time to contribute.

So many sessions, it was like a Netflix dilemma

Do you ever find yourself spending so much time browsing through Netflix that you don’t get to watch anything? What feels like an infinite choice of programmes means you’re scared of selecting anything because you’re overwhelmed and don’t want to miss out? ResearchED is in danger of giving you that feeling, with so much to choose from you get a little bit overloaded. Fortunately, I came away from every session with something to think about, admittedly some sessions were more useful than others. For every session I did choose, there were at least three others in that slot I would have liked to attend. How good is that?! I was glad of the live streaming so that I could revisit the talks I missed, although I was particularly gutted to lose out on Ben Newmark’s talk on target grades (which clashed with the great Dr Gary Jones) and Oliver Caviglioli’s Dual Coding workshop at the end of the day the most. There is a definite argument for a two-day event here. ResearchED could run exactly the same sessions on both days or perhaps give less choice – people would still go away happy bunnies. It might also give the opportunity for a slower pace or reflection time, with so much information and so many perspectives to consider a little quiet contemplation wouldn’t go amiss!

Variety is the menu du jour

From what I can gather, previous line-ups have appeared to be a little “trad” heavy (if you subscribe to those types of label) so there has been criticism levelled at the event. Similarly, the opposite criticism was given to Northern Rocks. As I mentioned earlier, Tom has explained the reasons behind this and having been to both researchED and Northern Rocks, I would say that this perspective is unfounded. The full spectrum of philosophies and approaches are catered for. What is missed in the condemnation by some is the fact that it is important to hear different views, theories and evidence to those thoughts of your own. The ability to hold two (or many) perspectives in your mind leads to wisdom and this is a wonderful thing for both us as individuals, the schools in which we teach and the children which our profession serves.

In conclusion…

I had an illuminating and informative time at researchED and as much as I hate to admit it, I really enjoyed getting my geek on! Personally, I think it would be really hard to improve on what was such a fantastic event but maybe a few tweaks might open it up to a wider audience.

  • A two-day event or moving the location around the country, even holding the same event in two locations (you’d be more than welcome to use our school for a researchED National Conference up North).
  • More time between sessions to digest what has been said. I always walk away with a headache from these events, I’m not sure whether that’s from thinking, rushing, not enough water, excitement or a mixture.
  • Publicising researchED beyond social media to hit the pockets of people who don’t engage.
  • More involvement from HEIs and people who hold views/research in opposition to the regular speaker list.

I make these points a little tongue-in-cheek as I’m sure the first three are already being considered and are just a matter of logistics. I feel that the responsibility of addressing my final point is more that of the audience than Tom’s. You see, researchED is a grass-roots movement so it is owned by everyone, it is also our responsibility to influence it. If people feel that there is under-representation at researchED or similar conferences then it is our responsibility to make that change. Although Tom is the gatekeeper for these conferences, I have never had an exchange with him (either via social media or in person) where he has been anything but willing to listen and welcoming of both ideas and challenge. There often feels too much of the standing on the side-lines hurling negativity attitude on Twitter but in reality this is not the profession I know, it is one of collaboration and support which is what came across last Saturday. If you’re not happy with what researchED stands for then you need to be proactive rather than reactive. If you think that there’s too many “trads” presenting then submit a proposal to Tom, if you think that there’s too many of one demographic making up the audience then don’t complain, buy a ticket and address the balance. I for one am no longer going to be or entertain the BMWs of this world, I’m going to try and be part of the change. Five years ago, we had nothing like this in the profession, the only opportunities to talk to other professionals were if you got the golden ticket to an expensive course with a posh lunch. Now we have the opportunity to hear many ideas, research and evidence-based practice all in one place, we have movements like Northern Rocks and researchED to thank for that.

 

 

 

 

 

Twas the night before results day

Twas the night before results day, when all through the school

No head teacher was stirring to break exam embargo rules.

Achievements were printed and addressed with great care

For the students whose hard work had gotten them there.

Who would be asleep, all snug in their beds,

With no such luxury afforded to secondary heads.

Instead lots of worry, a restless night for schools would ensue

And measures of progress obscuring what students may do.

Competition amongst colleagues and neighbouring institutions

Will ultimately destroy our collective solutions.

The reforms may be useful in making testing fair,

But schools must work together to help education arrive there.

How can this happen with our total trust?

As one school’s success comes at another one’s cost?

So tomorrow no matter what your school’s results may be,

Remember that your children and teachers could not more dedicated be.

And if your neighbours do well you should congratulate

But equally failures let’s commiserate.

Always in our minds we should foremostly see,

The children themselves whose results they will be.

Too much of a good thing?

Social media and I have been on a break for one reason or another this past six months. This has included Twitter and blogging which I love dearly but thought it best to rest from since there are only so many hours in the day and with increasing demands from both work and home, something had to give. The respite has been an interesting time for me as it has allowed me to reflect on a world that I had immersed myself in so willingly and has given me the opportunity for perspective.

Having time away from the cut and thrust of the EduTwitter showcase has taught me a few things. Firstly, all the world’s a stage and Twitter is a most definite example of this. Heroes and villains, protagonists and antagonists, self-publicists and cheerleaders, egos and politics all hard at work every day. Those waiting for the next shocking headline to drop a Donald Trump-style emotional hand grenade into the ether giving them another bandwagon to take their popularity for a ride on. There’s also a more admirable, hardworking side of Twitter, one filled with altruism and teamwork, sharing and networking for the greater good. This aspect of social media, whilst filled with debate and different perspectives is one which is based on the premise of developing understanding and quite often gets overlooked among the many spectacular sparring matches of the EduTwitter A listers. I personally have a great deal to thank these worker-bees for, I’ve learned such a great deal more than I had in my entire career pre-Twitter, developed so much of my own practice and the practice of others because of the brilliant work people have shared freely and bravely. Today I thank those people and the light bringers who have shone the spotlight on the fantastic network of talented individuals who simply want to make education better.

The second thing that I’ve noticed from being somewhat removed from Twitter is that you become more selective. You don’t get as bogged down with the “banter” as the kids would call it and you just take away the good stuff, the core. You can see the benefits of both sides of an argument (or the many sides) and you look for the facts rather than swaying to the side of the most popular Tweeter, let’s face it we all have our favourites, don’t we?! You look beyond the magic beans and the plugs for the next book, the genuine individuals put most of their content in blogs anyway and tend to display their own merits through interesting and purposeful work rather than discrediting other individuals with catty, sarcastic comments. In cutting out the partisan, I’ve saved myself so much time and energy. It’s also given me the impetus to learn more, more about aspects of research I wouldn’t necessarily warm to or that offer a perspective contrary to my own personal biases. In taking out the heat of the debate, I’m more willing to take notice of the content and take the piece on face-value, applying critique fairly without prejudice.

Having a healthy distance from debate has opened up the opportunity to put ideas and research into my own classroom practice, to conduct my own evidence-based enquiry. It’s been refreshing to see what has worked and what hasn’t. I have probably thought about my own classroom practice more in the last few years than I ever have and education-based social media has been the catalyst to this. It’s also been a gateway into a new network of like-minds, people who want to develop their own practice and to move their schools forward in a similar direction to the one which we are moving in. This has been the most rewarding kind of collaboration. From working with these brilliant people, who are just quietly getting on and doing the job and in conducting my own evidence-based research I’m coming to the conclusion that too much of anything is not good for anyone. The most effective and integrity-ran schools seem to take the best aspects of research from all ends of the spectrum and see how it looks/works in their environment. They see what works for them and what needs to be tweaked in order for it to work. They don’t subscribe to a doctrine, they don’t profess to be progressive or traditional, they just do what they think is right for their children. There are schools who put their foot firmly in one camp or another, they have my admiration and respect too. They’ve chosen a vision which they believe will work for their students in their setting and they passionately implement it. Perhaps what makes these schools effective is the same characteristic which makes their non-labelled peers effective, their commitment to a collective approach. Teamwork. The highest functioning teams in any aspect of business, sport or public-sector work are those who “row together” for a common purpose.

Controversially, I’m beginning to think this whole progressive-traditional debate to education is damaging. Furthermore, it seems to be a small, quite vocal sector of educationalists that share a mutually exclusive, you’re either in or you’re out attitude which appears to have the ear of the “higher powers” in government. Having recently read Susan Cain’s Quiet, I feel that the author raises some very salient points about how introverts get overlooked. If we apply this logic to what we see on our timelines, there is a whole demographic of people whose contributions are not shared or not considered. Often, these will be the people who feel that they are not one or the other, these will be the people who see the merits of both philosophies and who will take the best aspects of practice from both to use in their own teaching. Due to the nature of my age and experience, I was a product of a secondary school education and a significant majority of my teaching career that focussed mainly on methods championing a progressive philosophy. Thankfully, my own education was not from a prescriptive era and I did experience a rich tapestry of philosophies and approaches to learning. The danger of our education system is that we swing from one end of the spectrum to the other depending on which camp is in favour. An approach which has primarily favoured a progressive approach for the last twenty or so years has been detrimental to the education of our children. So the traditionalists have been jumping for joy with the recent U-turn over the last few years. Their celebrations are somewhat naïve and also incredibly premature because a move towards an education system solely based on a traditional philosophy will be equally as damaging to the next generation. When policy is played out blindly as the next thing to do in schools and doctrine is applied without consideration, critique or a reasoned implementation, the progressives will be waiting for the bell to ring and change to come yet again. At the end of it all is yet another generation (or number of generations) who are at the whim of a petty argument, not a debate with the intent to understand and make things better, an argument with winners and losers. An argument where not every voice is heard and vital perspectives are not considered because they are the view of the quiet ones, the introverts.

The reality is that there are merits to both philosophies that children can benefit from. Students in my classes have most certainly benefitted from direct instruction, and solo deliberate practice which I have implemented with much vigour and enthusiasm this year. Equally, they have had success from their receipt of teaching methods more akin to progressive methodologies. A picture which I’m sure mirrors classrooms throughout the country, no labels here please.

In the successful Scandinavian countries which we revere and admire so much, the prog-trad debate is insignificant and education is a-political since the purpose of education was agreed by all parties who have subscribed to support teachers in delivering the best for the children. Perhaps we should take note of their lead and not let the debate be dominated by the progressive versus traditional philosophies, it should be focussed on enabling teachers to use evidence to inform what works in their own classrooms and in giving them the freedom as professionals to use what is best rather than have a particular philosophy forced upon them. Steak is one of my favourite dishes but if it was the only meal I ate it would not only lose its appeal but its abundance would create a deficiency in other areas, whether traditional approaches are your steak or your chips, too much of them can be hazardous to your health, furthermore too much time on social media could have the same effect!

Light bringers and Christmas crackers

I still feel relatively new to Twitter. Currently navigating my way through my second year on the social media phenomena, I am constantly in awe at the daily enlightenment and joy it brings. I must admit that even though there have been countless tweets and blogs which have inspired and influenced my practice as a professional, that I have also found in equal measure tweeters queueing to rain on one anothers’ parades in grand fashion. There’s a lot of people who spew out venom under the guise of debate I’m sad to say. So with it being Christmas and all, I thought I’d sprinkle a bit of love across the blogosphere by sharing a few thank yous to some absolute stars who have both educated and inspired me. Some will be well-known to you, some maybe not so well known but all are worth your time and interest. I’ve taken the liberty of linking you to their Twitter pages, blogs, books etc just in case I’m telling you anything you didn’t already know. So here are my chips with lashings of salt and vinegar, unashamedly laid bare for you to sample, appreciate or pee on – the choice is yours but I personally cannot begin to express the gratitude to which I owe these people who have given me a view through different eyes. 

Martin Robinson (@Trivium21c)

Martin is the reason I decided to discover Twitter after he visited our school roughly a couple of years ago. His work, Trivium 21c was instrumental in a shift in my own personal view of education. Through his book, blogs and conversations I began to realise that our school was not a lone voice in educational philosophy. Martin quietly encouraged me to pursue other avenues and perspectives, in doing so I feel I’ve developed both as a teacher and a leader. My curiousity was sparked and my eyes opened, thanks to Martin there’s no going back.

Debra Kidd (@debrakidd)

Like Martin, Debra was one of the first educationalists I came across. I’m happy to say that I feel I hit jackpot! Teaching: notes from the front line is one of the most emotive books I have read about the current state of education and the need for (r)evolution. Her work was timely as we are in the midst of huge change within education. Debra’s words are a health warning, advice to all that we need to make the right decisions for the right reasons. A self-confessed progressive, Debra is always happy to debate our purpose as educators, she’s a passionate advocate for change as well as a tremendous speaker and activist. Her work alongside Emma Hardy to develop and grow the Northern Rocks movement is a lesson in determination to us all. The now yearly event is quickly becoming the stuff of legend. It embodies everything that Debra is: quirky, fun, thought provoking, witty and purposeful but above all a voice for the classroom teacher. Debra shines a light on the great work that teachers do, she passes it on. Debra is one of the light bringers.

Tom Bennett (@tombennett71)

Tom’s probably at the opposite end of the spectrum to Debra when we consider the progressive versus traditional debate but nonetheless an exceptionally brilliant character. His achievements in changing political views of our education system are simply astounding. Tom has united academics, teachers and politicians through the omniscient being that is ResearchEd. Charming and articulate, Tom always manages to get his point across with inimitable humour and candour. Despite his countless achievements, Tom has maintained his humility and pays much attention to sharing the work of others. He has been dubbed our leading behaviour tsar for his work influencing policy and practice on a very grand scale, ResearchEd spans continents and he’s a fan of Duran Duran too so Tom’s a rock star in my book! 

Sean Harford (@HarfordSean)

Again, another character who has been instrumental in the sea shift which is currently being enacted in the educational climate. Sean’s activity both on social media and in the public sphere has been ground breaking. He has dispelled many myths about Ofsted policies in practice and clarified many messages that can sometimes be lost in translation. Sean has empowered teachers. His reputation as the voice of reason is well-deserved, he listens to those at the chalkface and is working tirelessly to evolve and reinvent Ofsted making it no longer something which schools fear but a body willing to listen and work with teachers. Anyone having been through inspections recently should have noticed the shift in the way they are conducted, with diligence, intelligence and a dialogue. I think that Sean has been a huge catalyst in this change in attitude that a lot of schools have experienced and for that teachers across the country are eternally grateful. 

Joe Kirby (@joe_kirby)

I have a lot to thank my Marmite pals at Michaela for. Whether you love of hate them, Katharine Birbalsingh and the team have certainly added spice to the recipe of educational debate. I’ve had some highly intellectually stimulating experiences and met many great people thanks to the events that the Tiger Teachers have organised. I’ve written about Michaela previously here and here (with another one in the pipeline), there is a lot to be admired in their teamwork, unrelenting drive and articulate presentation of their beliefs as well as much to be learned from their approach. It seems to be working for them and I wish them every success. Joe however gets a personal mention because despite our differences in belief about how education should be delivered, I can’t help but find myself agreeing with almost every word that he writes. He is excellent at what he does and I find his blogs influencing my everyday practice in the classroom. The CPD I’ve received as a result of reading his words has undoubtedly added value to my teaching and the practice of those around me. Joe is a very kind and caring man, he takes time to listen to different perspectives and is a great sounding board for ideas. He is a leader within a very controversial school but primarily he is a teacher. His blogs do more than tip their hat to the work within the classroom, they celebrate, enrich and influence it on an exponential scale. 

Rhian Davies (@_rhi_rhi)

If I look at people who have influenced my own practice Rhian and her colleagues at Marple Hall are definitely up there. As someone who is passionate about mathematical education, I felt like I got lucky when I met Rhian. I learned more about pedagogy from one day at Marple Hall than I have done in all the subject specific CPD I had experienced in my career. I came across Rhian through Twitter as I was particularly astounded by her work as an advocate for the sharing of good practice of our subject. I got myself an invite (or maybe I invited myself over) and the rest is history. It is through Rhian that I met the wonderful Ana Martinez and discovered TeachMeets  (no I hadn’t been living under a rock). I have so much to thank those lovely ladies for. Beyond that, I’ve found myself two new friends which is a blessing in itself. 

Chris Hunt (@chuculchethhigh)

A great headteacher who is out there just quietly getting on with doing a fantastic job, Chris is a breath of fresh air. Our school prides itself on taking the moral and ethical path to achieve the best education for our students. This is the right thing to do but sometimes it can make the journey lonely so meeting Chris felt like coming home. He is a beacon of constant support and encouragement, a great source of counsel. Chris has a completely can do attitude which is infectious. I have many things to thank him for in my own personal growth. Both Chris and his leadership team are dynamic and person-centred, there is an overwhelming sense of team which emanates from everything the school does and that comes from the top. If you cut Chris in half you’d find Culcheth running through him and as a result of that the school is a great place to be. Like they say, headteachers make the weather and the sun always shines in Warrington! 

Hannah Wilson (@Miss_Wilsey)

When we talk about light bringers Hannah is one of those people who just radiate. She spends almost all of her time on social media sharing good practice, building teachers up and spreading a positive message. Her relentless optimism and determination has ensured that the WomenEd movement is really gathering momentum, truly something to admire. All of this done whilst continuing to work as a senior leader and now as a head! Well done Hannah, you are an inspiration to us all. 

Jill Berry (@jillberry102)

Wow, if I get started about Dr Jill perhaps I won’t be able to stop! Jill’s probably the single biggest reason I thought about writing this (lengthy) blog (I apologise profusely but you can see I’ve been suitably inspired). Jill came across me or rather my blog about 18 months ago and it’s only then I began to learn about the woman she is. Having had a remarkable career teaching across phases and sectors, Jill spends her time now spreading good practice and developing future leaders in such a way that they have a strong moral purpose. Jill is how the light gets in, she is a ball of energy and positivity. She looks for the spots of excellence, leaving no stone unturned which often means she discovers little-known pockets of brilliance. Most recently, her book Making the Leap has inspired and given me the confidence (along with Mary Myatt, my own headteacher Sam Gorse, Chris Hunt and David Jones of Meols Cop High School) to one day lead a school. It won’t be for a while yet but Jill (among others) has shown me that a brave person can lead a successful school in a person-centred way. Jill is a sage, she’s an inspiration and I could never tire of hearing what she has to say. 

Mary Myatt  (@MaryMyatt)

Alongside Jill, Mary has had the biggest impact on me as a female senior leader in education. Mary is like chicken soup for the soul. She is the light bringer, just being in her presence is an uplifting experience. Through High Challenge Low Threat and most recently Hopeful Schools, Mary proves that there is another way to leadership than countless systems and bureaucracy. When I read her words I feel energised and committed to being a better leader. Her kind and caring nature come through every page of her writing. Mary is playful and intelligent, sophisticated yet fun. Most of all, Mary is a quietly determined driving force in the future of educational leadership. Her words are a source of timely brilliance and lesson for us all. 

John Tomsett (@johntomsett)

I’m not going to lie, John is one of my eduheroes so he had a great deal to live up to when I first heard him speak at last year’s Michaela debate. True to form, John didn’t disappoint, his behaviour only further proved why his is such a remarkable man. The work that John does both inside his school and on a much wider scale is one of servitude. His school and the children they teach, the research arm of Huntington and his work on social media ensure evidence based practice along with the kind and caring ethos with which it is delivered spreads far and wide. I watched John and Alex as an educational Morecambe and Wise at last year’s Northern Rocks. They introduced me to the notion of a premortem which is one of the best ideas I have been shown in my teaching career and thankfully something I use in my everyday strategic practice as a leader. John is another voice that reminds headteachers and SLTs to lead their schools in a person-centred way. He is a beacon of hope

Daisy Christodoulou (@daisychristo)

My last thank you has got to go to Daisy. Have you ever come across someone who just blows you away instantly because they’re so brilliant yet completely unassuming? Well that’s Daisy. She’s a gem. Her work, her blogs and her talks are so insightful, so thought out and so well researched that they make absolute sense. Beyond her own writing, Daisy shares the best research from around the world. She is incredibly well-read and passionate about passing on the best of what is out there. Daisy has set me on a path that I would have never ever considered before and I’m a much better teacher for the journey. Surprisingly enough, I started out as a cynic but with such compelling arguments I had no choice but to rethink my opinion on many things, especially the knowledge versus skills debate. Daisy has thoroughly convinced me and thousands like me to consider another perspective. Through her blogs, research and beautifully written book Seven Myths (which I wrote about here) Daisy is changing education as we know it. Having met her on a number of occasions now I can undoubtedly say that Daisy is as kind-hearted as she is brilliant. She has a good soul and the unique attribute of being able to make everyone’s contributions feel worthwhile. She listens, she encourages and she supports even when she may not share your opinion. Despite what critics would describe as relative inexperience in the profession, she provides unrivalled insight into the most significant aspects of education. Her work on curriculum and assessment will influence the policy and practice of generations to come. She has given new voice to the likes of E. D. Hirsch Jr and has encouraged a different approach that is very much called for, which in itself is somewhat amazing. I am excited about what lies ahead for Daisy, her new book which is out very soon and the debate which will follow.  

I’m lucky to have been inspired by so many great people in the last two years thanks to the power of social media but I have also been privileged to work with some truly magnificent teachers and leaders. There are too many to mention and I can never thank those people enough for the impact that they have had on my outlook and who I am as a teacher. This blog has given me the opportunity to consider just how important we are as role models, not just to the students we teach but also to the colleagues we work with. I’m lucky to work under great leadership in an environment that inspires but I know it’s not the case for everyone. For this reason it’s important that we are the light bringers. This blog has been an opportunity to look back and see how far I’ve come in my own professional growth and who has helped me along the way. It fills me with excitement to consider the opportunities that lie ahead in 2017 to further my own learning as well as the chance to support and encourage others in their own voyage of discovery.

Finding an antidote for Michaela’s Marmite effect

I’m not a fan of Marmite, I find the horrible tar-like gloop somewhat repulsive. And, among friends I’m not afraid to air my views about the substance vociferously. I’m sure that for every Marmite hater like myself there’s an equal number of passionate yeast lovers loudly sharing their support for the brown jar of doom to whoever will listen. Love it or hate it, there’s no room for indifference. Michaela is a bit like Marmite, there appears to be no room for inbetween. I’ve written about my previous experiences of Michaela events here and my thoughts on their approach to a good education here, today I turn my attentions to their attitude towards publicity, their book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers and its launch event which I was lucky enough to attend. 

I’m a cynic, a sceptic. I don’t feel 100% comfortable with the Michaela way so events like last weekend are a chance to challenge my views. After their last event at City Hall I was much more open to listening to the perspective of Katharine and the team since I felt that Debating Michaela offered a balanced argument, an event which presented an image of Michaela that was a far cry from portrayal many opponents of Michaela would have the internet believe. The team were approachable, willing to listen to other perspectives and not at all cult-like! I enjoyed it so much that as soon as Tiger Teachers was publicised I booked my ticket and excitedly waited for the big day to arrive. 

On the day visitors were greeted with an incredibly warm welcome from the team just as before with the vivacious Barry Smith and the enchanting Joe Kirby (among others) on the door setting the audience up for the day. The hospitality was probably the only similarity that this and their previous event shared for this was a book launch not a debate. The presenters, though eloquent in their rhetoric gave the Michaela view through and through, passionate and unequivocal in their completely biased traditional approach to education. My niavely constructed preconception from the previous event meant that I was in danger of being disappointed. Balanced this wouldn’t be, propaganda perhaps? However, I’d travelled two hundred miles to hear what the team had to say so the least I could do was listen. 

I’d be lying if I said that the day didn’t unsettle me, it completely took me out of my comfort zone. There were speeches which annoyed me, ideas that I vehemently disagreed with, snippets which challenged my thinking and soundbites which I hate to admit that I found myself agreeing with. The most discomforting aspect of the day though was the kind of purgatory I experienced between the two worlds of reality and virtuality. Physically, I was in a room of proponents of the traditional approach to education which at times felt like an evangelical meeting of the Church of St Katharine Birbalsingh. Contrary to this, my Twitter timeline was going wild with mockery and disdain for the event that was being streamed live.

And then came the closing of the gates and the grape crushing….

I was sad to read that Michaela had closed its doors to visitors but not surprised. Obviously the anti-Michaela rants that I was seeing on my timeline were the tip of a very vicious iceberg. The behaviour of certain individuals toward the school and its staff was saddening. Michaela has been completely divisive and even from someone who is willing to hear Katharine and the team out, I can see the part that they themselves have played in tugging on the tail of a tiger. However, there is no justification for the treatment the school, its children and staff have received from some desperate individuals wanting to highlight the “evils” of Michaela. Grapegate as it is known has become a case in point, I’m guessing that what meant is not necessarily what was said but the justification and retaliation that followed, really? Guys, it’s time to build a bridge and get other it! Yes some students in schools will protest if you ask them to pick food or rubbish up but it doesn’t make them horrible, it makes them human. And surely it’s our job to get students to understand why it’s appropriate to keep standards high not just comply to instruction? Katherine’s right though, we are who we continually practice to be. It’s important to consider that when we’re engaging in any interaction: professionally, publically and personally. 

Purpose is important

I look at Katharine and the team and ask myself what is your purpose, is your purpose now different from in the beginning and do you all share the same ethos, purpose, vision and values? More increasingly I’m concerned that Michaela may be losing its way. At first, what struck me about the school and in particular Katharine was the passionate belief that they were doing something different from the norm because the children of the district needed something different than what our current system was giving them. There was a strong moral purpose to what they were doing which you could appreciate whether you agreed or disagreed with its delivery. There was a lot of sense in what Michaela had to say. My concerned is that this is being lost in the media furore which surrounds the school. A lot of this created by what is said on interviews and in newspaper articles. Sadly the fame that Michaela is finding may be its undoing. Anecdotally, support for the Michaela way appears to be dwindling on social media and it’s critics becoming more vociferous, coupled with some statements from the Michaela camp being hard to defend. Katharine had significant support from many a classroom teacher but in building her school at the expense of the reputation of every other child and school in Britain she may have just bitten the hand that was feeding her. What is being lost is the sense of balance and understanding. Find me a school where the headteacher doesn’t think their students are brilliant and their staff are devoted to doing the best job they can? This will be the reality for almost every single headteacher out there, many quietly getting on, doing their daily best, wanting success for their school but never at the detriment of any other school or colleague because we know that the job is hard enough. As a leader, I’ve often found that a few foolishly chosen words can undo any amount of good work you do. I’ve learned that when something is said that shouldn’t have been it’s better to hold your hands up and admit wrongdoing than to try and justify it. Embarrassing at first but better in the long run. 

If the team at Michaela want to make their school a success (which I’m sure it will be) then perhaps it’s time to fly under the radar for a while and let the students’ actions put paid to the critics? If the motivation for Michaela is fame then the school is certainly on that track but there is always a price to pay and who is going to pay for the infamy of the Tiger Teachers? If the desire of the team is to influence policy and practice then surely it is better to win over your sceptics than to cause a divide? To what end will having two distinct camps serve our education system? There is lots of great stuff going on at Michaela as there is in every other school in the country. Surely it is much more productive to take the best bits for one another to improve education for everyone than taking a with us or against us approach? It’s important to appreciate all sides of an argument before forming a conclusion. It is also very useful to bare in mind that ethos, pathos and logos are important components in rhetoric, when trying to deliver your case remember you’ve got to win hearts as well as minds.