Blog Archives

Education: The Political Football

Gove has gone. Long gone it seems like now, although whilst he was in office as Minister for Education it seemed interminable. His replacement Nicky Morgan cut little ice with me; principally because she voted against marriage for people who are non hetero, and then, to make it worse, went back on her nay vote when trying to make herself more palatable to non-religious liberal general humanist types like me. At least she’s not Esther McVey – that’s probably the best I can say for her at the moment.

Yesterday she was reported in the press with the usual blah blah blah about raising standards in schools. And today the mighty Spam himself, her boss, the PM more or less rehashed her words for, perhaps, a wider audience.

I am all for the no kid gets left behind approach, but the fact is, that some kids, some adults, take longer to reach their destination. And none of us, nary a one, are taking the choo choo train to the same destination. All of us are unique (thank goodness), and our lives unfold quite differently.

Yes, we’d all love it if the rules of grammar and the times table (up to 12) were stuffed in perpetuity into our brains in a seamless process before we hit secondary school, but life ain’t like that. And outgoing government ministers can pop up on their hind legs in the countdown to an election as much as they like, to make bold statements about all children this and all children that but this much I know: saying doesn’t make it so.

And when you say it, I know it ain’t about no kids. It’s all about hoofing the football up the field in a vain attempt to salvage a front bench career.

Education, education etc.

A lot easier said, than done. I hope one Michael Gove comes to realise this at some point, although I realise that this will probably not be before his time is up in the Department of Education.

It is not science alone. It is not just a process, or even a set of processes. Sometimes it might be called an art. And an intuition, a value, a judgement…

Despite Mr Gove’s best efforts towards reductionism, it is not just about a curriculum on paper either, but rather one defined such as this:

Anything and everything that teaches a lesson, planned or otherwise. Humans are born learning, thus the learned curriculum actually encompasses a combination of all of the below — the hidden, null, written, political and societal etc.. Since students learn all the time through exposure and modeled behaviors, this means that they learn important social and emotional lessons from everyone who inhabits a school — from the janitorial staff, the secretary, the cafeteria workers, their peers, as well as from the deportment, conduct and attitudes expressed and modeled by their teachers. Many educators are unaware of the strong lessons imparted to youth by these everyday contacts. (Wilson, 1990)

So when I met a lady I am acquainted with in school today, who said her job was ‘only’ cleaning – I said not ‘only’. And when I recently met another man I am also acquainted with, who also cleans in a different school, who picks up on a academic hierarchy with his cleaning colleagues at the bottom of it, I was glad to hear him say that there wouldn’t be much teaching and learning without the cleaners…

So it seems that we all can teach lessons, but perhaps it’s the unassuming ones that are delivered with quiet dignity that are the most powerful. I am going to try and remember that for this year. And the next, etc. Like I said, easy to say, harder to do.

But you just never know.

By Gove he thinks he’s got it

Michael Gove and his cronies are unleashing a ‘world-class curriculum’ on 5 – 14 year olds from September 2014. My children will be caught in the eye of the storm, although the oldest will hopefully only have to put up with it for two years…

Although every curriculum needs regular review, to ensure it is fit for purpose in a fast-changing world, I seriously would like to know who Gove thinks his overhauled monstrosity of a baby meets the needs of: him, or the country’s children? With its heavy emphasis on old school facts and figures, it’s not unlike the education I received when I was sufficiently compliant to be given it – and therein lies a problem. Teaching is not just the mere transmission of facts and an ‘education’ is not the summative testing of those facts at the exit point.

Like Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, we now have the almighty Minister for Education descending into the midst of the mucky proletariat – tasked, nay obsessed, with giving us guttersnipes a ‘proper’ education, like wot he had. We will, he says, learn some fractions at the age of 5. There are plenty of 5 year olds who know what half an apple looks like already, believe me. Then we must have history! Yes, British, and lots of it. Of course he’s already had the book thrown back at him on that one for his backyard vision of the world. Between the ages of 11 and 14 pupils should have studied at least two of Shakespeare’s plays. Now I am a fan of Will with the quill, but really? The language is so rich and complex, it’s made to be performed. I would worry that for a lot of children at that age it would simply go over their heads, unless they are able to engage with the plot. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet anyone? Then, of course, being the taskmaster that he is, Gove is going to push accurate spelling. Rhthym anyone? I teach English and I still can’t spell the damn word. Now, I can look it up – rhythm – or I can get it right second or even fourth time around with a bit of thought, but the reason I’m not too fussed is because I don’t have to write it too often. Learning to spell words you aren’t going to use seems such a waste of precious time to me. Yes you might use them one day, you might need them a lot if you take up jazz composition and want to write a syncopated rythym – in which case, learn it then!

My fear is that in piling on the pressure to make young children become little fact regurgitators we are going to simply turn them off the whole damn thing. Turn them off the beauties of language, the amazing things that we can do with maths, turn history into dust-dry dates and places. And that, Henry Higgins, is when you will have lost them forever. When you overload children and make them shut down. With this curriculum you will shut off children’s natural abilities for divergent thinking – that creative state from where Einstein reached for the theory of relativity. The same Einstein that flunked maths at school. Prescriptive learning is anathema for many. Learning is a voyage of discovery, where you row your little boat up interesting creeks and across wild raging oceans. Learning, Gove-style, is a cruise round fixed points on the map. You never venture off the map because there might lie dragons.

I leave you with this. Gove wants all nine year olds to learn their 12 x table. I have one nearly nine year old who very well might anyway, in class as the teacher stretches her and engages her interest. I have an eleven year old who never will because if you can know your 10 x and 2 x table you can work it out anyway through partitioning. (That’s a method they didn’t teach when we were at school Mr Gove). When you think about it: why up to 12? it seems quite arbitrary – why not 13 or 15 for example. Here’s the answer from the BBC news website from The_Teacher.

As a secondary teacher I am ecstatic that we now have a wonderful, forward-thinking curriculum which will prepare our children for the modern world.

I particularly like making nine year olds study the 12 times table so they can easily work out the number of shillings and pence they will get in change from a pound.

Wait a minute..

Now tell me you are preparing our kids for the modern world?

Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait!


The Commons Education Committee are calling for the public to tweet questions and ideas for their oral evidence session with the Minister of State for Education next week.

You have until Friday 27th January at 11.00 a.m. to submit your question using the #askgove hashtag

Graham Stuart MP, who chairs the committee said

“This is a good way of breaking down the seemingly vast gap between the governed and the governing. We are always looking at ways of reaching out and making sure people can use our services to help us hold the government to account.” More on the story here

I’ll start the ball rolling

Why does the Minister feel it necessary to impose his own personal curriculum likes on the children of the 21st century? #askgove

How will the Minister rebalance the curriculum to ensure that the value of education lies in the process and not in the production of league tables? #askgove

Does the Minister feel it would a good idea for him to shadow some teachers to get a real feel for the scale of the task the profession faces in today’s test-mad culture #askgove

I could go on…

The Northern Lights, Cresswell Beach, Northumberland by Lee Jennings

What does learning look like?

Ragged School Doll

Well, it can look like anything I suppose. Do we know it when we see it? Well, we often think we do. I have been given cause to reflect on this over the last few days and what I have realised is that as a culture, as a society, we are conditioned to recognise learning when it is attached to external achievement, not intrinsic reward. A sort of buying into the talent myth, where we celebrate reaching certain recognisable points in prescribed learning (SATS, GCSEs, A levels, Degrees etc.), not the effort that was put in to get there. And as for learning that happens outside the education ‘system’ – where do we see the value in that?

The last part could lead me into another post where I wrote about the learning that might have the most impact on people’s lives is valued the least and therefore funded, if at all, on a shoestring, but that is not quite the point of this post, so I’ll leave that bone half-excavated, for now…

For me the effort is the thing. We systematically measure the achievement (arrival at a destination) but I think we should be measuring the effort involved to get there.

Effortless learning is an ideal and sometimes it happens, we serenely take in the thing, almost by osmosis. It’s what we do as babies. We learn: we learn to speak and to listen, and sometimes it’s in the listening that the problems begin… And after a while the learning doesn’t look like what babies do, that fascination with learning to interact with the world, to make their own meaning of things. People grow and, for some, their learning might start to look like something else altogether.

It looks like not coming to class regularly, if at all. It looks like being late, it looks like making mistakes and getting frustrated and angry. It looks like cursing and chucking things, clashing with the teacher or the others in class. It looks like distraction replacing interaction. It looks like getting up and storming out.

And which learner are we, as a culture, more likely to reward? Reward with opportunity, options, status and the experience of success? And which learners are most likely to find themselves outside, looking in, watching the land of opportunity through a misted glass wall?

This week is about standing up for those challenging learners; the people for whom learning is an ongoing battle. A battle they sometimes win, sometimes lose, but who keep going in the face of endless conflict. The inner conflict where the story in their head, the stories others have given them is about failure and difficulty and limitation.

This post is about myself, and others like me. It’s about including the people who make your life the hardest. Transformative learning can be a low-down, difficult, dirty business and, it turns out, it’s the passion of my life.

‘Educating Essex’

I am slightly allergic to institutions, especially these factory farms for teenagers called secondary schools; so it’s been a bit of a trauma over the last few weeks visiting some of the secondary schools round here for their open evenings. We still have the 11+ in Essex, but it’s not compulsory. Sounds ok, but actually it means that in the year your child turns 10 you have to start thinking about whether they want to take it, or not. And that’s a pressure in itself, especially when (regrettably) the word from the playground hasn’t changed in the 30 years since I did the 11+

Grammar school = good
Comprehensive = bad

Rubbish of course. Try telling that to a 9 year old… That’s why we’ve been visiting the schools, so the 9 year old can make her own judgements with her parents, rather than listen to other 9 year olds.

We visited a High School this week; it gave me the heeby-jeebies. Built in the 1930s it was like a carbon copy of my own school. The Head Teacher’s speech was a thinly-veiled message I can summarise as:

If your kid isn’t a super-geek from a wealthy family, don’t bloody bother.

More worryingly, everyone was sooo serious, no-one smiled – least of all the teachers. It’s no good telling me you are welcoming on the one hand, when there’s none of it in evidence on the other. Additionally, the head mentioned that all girls did PE ‘hockey, netball’ before drifting off into an non-commital ‘etc…’ and all girls we expected to ‘enjoy it!’. I did exceptionally well not to flee the hall screaming.

This school boasted 100% success in 5 GCSEs A-C grades including English and Maths, but they start them a year early, on their accelerated curriculum. In one classroom I heard a teacher referring to ‘accelerating the learners’ *shudders*. This is a top 100 school and it boldly claims to send your children out into the world at 18 ‘set for life’, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of life. A fairly serious one I would think…

I can’t decide if this is worse than the comprehensive that has the highest exclusion rate locally, a ‘behaviour modification programme’ and the best exam results in the borough, outside the grammar schools. I can’t help but think that comes at the cost of the excluded learners the behaviour modification didn’t work for.

It was, therefore, a rebalancing experience to watch the actual C4 #EducatingEssex programme from Passmores Academy in Harlow. I especially enjoyed the senior management team meetings where they had been edited to look as if they were permanently in hysterics. You can sometimes measure the gravity of your occupation by the regular need to laugh so hard you fall off your bar stool. It’s an exercise in grounding.

The show also neatly summed up my main objection to how we organise secondary education in this country. This was done through following the Deputy Head, Mr Drew. Mr Drew is a history teacher and spends just one hour a day teaching his subject. Mr Drew was forthright, outspoken some might say, but his views, at least, seemed to come from the heart as well as the mind. He seemed to respect the kids in school as individuals and have enthusiasm for his subject. He believed that permanent exclusion of children from school is morally wrong, he promoted the idea that bad behaviour is just a manifestation of some deeper confusion or pain. But it seems that despite having all that sound ideology, Mr Drew spent much of his working life being a faux-policeman: enforcing uniform and behaviour policies and apparently (from their perspective) making a nuisance of himself to the kids he was purporting to educate.

But what else can Mr Drew do? If you have a school of around a thousand kids there have to be rules, and when they get broken someone has to ensure there are consequences. It’s just a damn shame that it’s the teachers who actually like kids and are effective in the classroom that have to spend so much of their time doing it.

I had the opportunity to teach (cover for one session) a class of teenagers last week. It was a small class, one where ennui seemed de rigueur. What do you do with that boulder of disaffection and negativity when it’s landed on your foot? Well like Sisyphus of Greek myth you can push it up the hill yourself, watch it roll back to the bottom, and begin the task again, or you can get creative.

You can look at the boulder, you can talk about it, you can give it a name and make it your friend. You can ask the disengaged to give you a hand with the interminable rolling thereof. What I wouldn’t do is ask it to do is straighten its *tie.

My old school's logo 'Not for ourselves alone' I don't remember the logo or the mermaids. I would've remembered mermaids, surely?

And finally, because writing this didn’t quite annoy me enough, I took this gem from my old school’s current website


Poverty of speech
Delusions of grandeur

So wrong on so many levels, grammatically for a start. Plus it’s from the ‘psychology quiz’ and it’s a psychiatric question. Oh, and we don’t tend to term people as mental illness sufferers either these days. Perhaps the super-geek school where they accelerate the girls and they all love PE because the male head said so is not so bad…

*If you are of the strict uniform persuasion I recommend you consider the selective High school I visited this week. £26 for a name-embroidered ON THE BREAST POCKET science lab, £50+ for a blazer.

The Waste

Yesterday I tried to write something about Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, and his statement that he would ‘not tolerate’ primary school children going on to secondary education without the basic skills in literacy and numeracy.

I said something like: that’s all very well but how are you going to achieve that? An authoritarian stance and set of words is not quite enough. And then I noted that he was going to turn some of the primary schools into academies to presumably address this. By the end of the day, I had about 800 words but not much cohesion and quite a lot of crossness. Today I’ve got a little less crossness and fewer words (my mother will love that sentence!).

I started off down the road of the language of education. How I wince when I hear people (professionals and learners themselves) refer to people or groups as bright. What, I think, is the inference for those people without the label. Do you think they don’t pick this up? What is the effect of this?

And then today I got a helping hand to hang my thoughts on. This report from the OECD shows how bad the UK is at developing the self-confidence and resilience in our children that enables those from tough backgrounds to achieve and progress.

Our views and language of people is part of this picture. So much of how I work is not about people’s skills and abilities, but their deep-seated beliefs about their skills and abilities. What they think they can and can’t do is a powerful motivation or barrier to any kind of achievement.

Getting to the bottom of this cannot be forced in an adult. It can take nearly a year before a learner gains an insight into where some of their ideas about their abilities may have come from. Sadly, I have to report it comes usually from indifferent teaching and the language of labels. Support from parents also plays a role, but most parents have been through the same system and been inculcated in the same way. As we believe what we were told (or inferred) about ourselves, so we believe the views that are held about our children. And how many parents have the confidence to challenge the teaching and learning?

Here is my own story. It has become evident my own 9 year old is not progressing in numeracy. She is becoming an avoider. She has worked out that she does not, at this point, have the same skills as many has her peers. She is, to be frank, developing classroom strategies to get by, whilst judging herself unable to ‘do maths’. The teacher must be aware of this, because I have sent in a note. Have I followed this up – no. Why? Because – she is the teacher. Instead I am looking for some extra help for my daughter. And the help is a very particular sort of help. It is the kind that believes that every child can succeed, providing the teacher is prepared to take the responsibility of building the child’s self-confidence by teaching as many different ways as are needed to build those skills.

A curriculum is all very well, but to build the resilience and self-confidence the OECD report talks about, we need a wider discourse and curriculum. One which is not just intent on delivering the same curriculum to all children at the same time and tough if they don’t get it, but one that is founded on the belief that every child deserves a more than equal chance to develop a strong sense of their intrinsic value and worth.

Handing Stuff In

to academic institutions makes me think, a lot.

Specifically, yesterday, it made me feel sick to think that whatever, and however, I regurgitate the received wisdom and body of knowledge from a prescribed list I am essentially being taught to think backwards and not forwards.

Because if you think forwards too much, no-one can mark it against the already determined learning outcomes…

Then I thought to charge people 9 grand a year for what’s already out there is a bit of a damn liberty and hardly a democratic education. And then I went home and told my kids to try and remember that their best learning is out in the world in the people they meet, and in the things they read, and the experiences they have and please not to think the only, or best, place for an education is in some ivory tower where you pay through the nose for the approved reading list.

And they said, Mum, you are random. And I suppose that is true. But I have learned for free that no-one ever looks their best in hammock.

Styling it out

If you have children: watch this

And if you don’t, watch it anyway. If you are Michael Gove, you should take a look too. This came by way of my Chase & Status friend and colleague, Fay, for which many thanks. I am seeing her shortly and we will be discussing our revolution (as usual).

It caused me to shout Yes! quite loudly a couple of times: ADHD, Sausage Factories, Limiting Potential with Labels, Divergent Thinking, Teaching our Kids not to Think – it’s got it all.

Of course, I can’t force it on you, but I am going to take a liberty and be prescriptive: dunromin, enkunalma, finkywink – you must watch.

If you’ve no interest in education I can also recommend it on the basis of some rather excellent scribbling…

Education, education, education…

My mother, who worked in education for her whole life, always used to say that it was a political football; what I never quite grasped was that education is the first knackered old ball a new government reach for when they want a kickabout.

I spoke to the deputy at the kids’ school the other week. The subject of the new government saw her slump in her chair, her face fell. My words in her mouth are that education in schools is just a merry-go-round and there is little new thinking. Instead a sense of: oh here we go… we’ve all get to get out of the red teacup and into that blue teacup on the roundabout and spin round until we are dizzy and sick.

All the news is about cutting funding to our universities and allowing them to raise their fees. Certainly that’s going to make a lot more families think twice about the cost of a degree. Maybe it will put it out of reach of some them. It is a devastatingly efficacious way for the “progressive” coalition to begin to reverse the effective Labour policy of many more young people getting a university education, thereby restoring the natural, elitist order of things. Keeping the majority of people in their place, whilst ensuring we all know that the poor smelly kids will get extra help from a caring regime.

And that’s a problem isn’t it? It’s patriarchal munificence – like chucking a penny in the beggar’s hat. It might help the odd young person follow their dreams and aspirations, but most of them will be left as they are. The Tories may believe in a meritocracy where the Sir Alan Sugars will rise to the top regardless, able to flourish as individuals in a market economy, but actually aren’t they banking on keeping just enough of the electorate in the style to which they are accustomed and not worrying too much about the rest?

I think the main problem, at the root of many ills, is that education in schools has been designed to meet the needs of the market place. Do we really teach kids what they need to be fully-functioning human beings or are we educating future worker bees, drones if I want to be really negative? So many adults I meet don’t know how to think independently and believe what they read, see or hear whilst absorbing capitalist and government messages by osmosis. If people are not taught as children how to learn and think for themselves, what use is school?

Yet the government are in there like Flint, tinkering around at the edges and cutting budgets, because they know best. Schools are factories, and the product is mainly people who conform without challenging the status quo. How can they not be when they are dealing with the quantity of kids that they do. Of course not all schools are equal, some teachers are gifted and inspire children, but even gifted teachers must surely become bowed under the sheer weight of the unequal task, wrapped as it is in unremitting bureaucracy and in a perjorative political climate.

David Cameron and his crew misunderstand humans because primarily they are marketeers selling a product. Today he is going to tell parents who don’t get on with each other that their children are going to be poor, and probably criminal when they grow up. Don’t worry though, Dave is going to fix your problems with the Family Champion scheme. The help offered is of the Victorian kind, where they keep the power and influence entirely for themselves and the effluent is the oppression of others. Until schools are free to produce adults that know that learning is their lifelong right and that their independent thought is vital to resist the pervasive influence of the market, nothing much will change.

43 students went to hospital yesterday, maybe some of them were what the media will brand troublemakers, but I know in my heart there will be at least one brave and independent thinker amongst them. Hope is not quite dead.

George Loveless, Tolpuddle Martyr