Who are schools for?

Big systems are compromises.

Our road network is a good example – the one I used to get here today.

Some cars are safer at higher speeds. It’s more important for some people to be on time than it is for others, but saying “all cars produced before 2015 must drive ten mph slower than those produced after” would be unworkable and unfair – as would saying people should be able to speed if they are late for an important appointment but must stick to the limit if they are on time.

Although everyone’s circumstances are unique, everyone has the same speed limit.

What’s best for everyone individually isn’t what’s best for us as a group – we must compromise.

Education is a big system in which there must be compromises too.

The system is not designed to meet the needs of any one child. It can’t be.

This is often poorly understood.

Parents of privileged children might not see why they shouldn’t take their daughter out of school one day a week for museum and art gallery visits and other enriching activities.

It’s hard for them to see why this isn’t permitted.

To understand why the needs of other children in the school must be considered too – the disruptive effects of allowing planned absence would be significant and detrimental to the cohort. While allowing this for one child may be of benefit to them, allowing it for all would make it harder to plan and implement a cohesive curriculum and this would affect all children.

It’s impossible to appreciate this through the lens of just one child or by looking at schools only as places of education. Much of how schools operate isn’t about learning at all – an important purpose of schools is childcare for working parents.

From a purely educational perspective arranging children into classes of thirty by their age, locating them in one big building from 8.30 until 3.30 and placing their learning in the hands of one person at a time isn’t ideal.

Perhaps a better pure education model for each individual child would be the Royal Academy at Macedon, with polymaths like Aristotle tutoring three or four children for years and years in everything on the curriculum.

Easy right?

We just need thousands and thousands of Aristoteles and funding to pay them all.

Good luck with that – Jack Worth will have some things to say later about why it’s hard enough to get teachers as it is, and services such as the NHS would have something to say about the budgetary implications if I were seriously proposing this.

Compromises are necessary. Failing to accept these traps us in passivity.

If we want things to be perfect for everyone before we move, then we will never move.

Thoughtful compromises deliver benefits to very large groups even if nobody gets exactly what they need.

Our road system is a modern miracle – it’s never been more efficient or safer – we slip into our cars confident we’ll arrive where we want to go without mishap at around the time we expect to.

And our mass education system is a miracle too – establishing the right for every child regardless of background to education and finding a way of making the commitment work for a minimum of eleven years is a remarkable achievement.

So far so comfortable.

But we shouldn’t be too comfortable.

Compromises are never neutral.

There are always winners and there are always losers.

The interests of some outweigh the interests of others.

It appears to many that our education system makes compromises in favour of those that find learning hardest – those often labelled with SEND, or learning difficulty, or learning disability or all and more of these terms.

“There’s loads of funding for children with SEND.”

“Children with SEND get loads of extra help.”

“Daisy in Mya’s class has a one-to-one TA to help her.”

“The teacher always gives help to the kids with the EHCPs first.”

It isn’t silly to think children with SEND get more help than those without.

Consider the time spent identifying, supporting, and tracking the progress of children identified as having SEND – consider the degree of systemic attention and intervention – all the time and effort that’s gone into the recent SEND Green Paper and the recent SEND and AP implementation plan – just the latest expression of a stream that’s run through education for decades.

The numbers are striking.

Between 2019-2020 and 2022-2023 there has been a 40% increase in high needs funding and the number of children with Education and Health Care Plans is nearly double the number of children who had statements prior to the 2015 reforms.

All this costs a lot of money.

Sadly though – even if it were true that we make compromises in favour of our most vulnerable – this multigenerational debate and intervention cycle has achieved little.

The outcomes for children identified as having SEND – those that often find school and learning a struggle – remain dreadful.

These children often grow up into troubled lives too. They are more likely to be excluded from school, more likely to be involved in crime and less likely to find stable and secure employment.

For children with a learning disability – like my daughter – life outcomes are terrifying. Only 5.1% of people with learning disability in England are in paid employment. Men with learning disability die on average 14 years before those without. For women it’s even worse with life expectancy 17 years lower.

It’s no surprise that people with learning disability are more likely to be anxious and depressed than those without.


Why – if it’s true that those who find learning tough get the most help – is this the case?

A useful place to begin is by asking ourselves why there isn’t a credible or serious argument for men’s rights movements – a question Laura McInerny began with once when she was getting me to think about why corrective bolt on SEND strategies don’t really work.

Men like me live in a world with rules, systems and routines that facilitate success to a degree it doesn’t for women.

While this isn’t to say no men experience systemic hardship there is little need for organised campaigns around “men’s rights.”

This is also true for the most academically able children in our education system, which has been constructed and is maintained primarily in the interests of those who find learning easy.

My contention is the reason SEND interventions are often ineffective is because any impact they have are strangled by the meritocratic presumption those who fly highest should be the most rewarded.

Despite what it might look like on the surface our big compromises – those that matter most – have always been made in the favour of the academically brightest.

Look at the structure of primary and secondary education.

At primary most children are taught be one teacher in one class most of the time. This helps both younger pupils and those who struggle because there’s lots of consistency and predictability.

A lot of time and expertise is focused on literacy and numeracy. While there are many other things on the curriculum –many primary teachers feel far too much – the aligning of accountability to English and Maths means this – quite rightly – remains its main aim.

Once children have achieved a satisfactory standard in the basics what they need to know moves beyond one person – we don’t have thousands of Aristotles – so they transition to secondary school where they can be taught by many subject specialists.

The system level assumption is once they finish primary, children have sufficient mastery of literacy to access a secondary more specialist curriculum.

This is true for many – perhaps most – but it certainly isn’t true for all.

Large numbers of children leave primary school unable to read well enough to fully access the secondary curriculum and then go into a system set up on the assumption they can.

This isn’t a big reveal. It’s coded into the language we use – when we talk of an “expected standard” we acknowledge the secondary phase of education will be based on an expectation children have learned what they need at primary to follow specialist lessons.

While there have been improvements this isn’t true for lots of children.

In 2018 25% of children did not achieve the expected standard in reading and 24% didn’t in maths.

Those children furthest behind in reading are torn from the places with the greatest expertise in teaching them and thrown into environments working on a systemic assumption they have mastered them already.

For some this is very difficult – for some it’s awful – for some it’s a disaster.

In this compromise they are the losers and we all know it. I think every primary teacher worries about the most vulnerable children in their classes – those they know are getting on well enough with them but are likely to crash when they transition into Year 7.

Expert and caring secondaries do their best – for example synthetic phonics instruction and even the hiring of primary experts has become more common, but such strategies and interventions go against the grain not with it.

Wider accountability often doesn’t help.

I’ve heard too many stories of Ofsted inspectors implying schools that remove children from language lessons for extra synthetic phonics instruction narrow curriculum to dismiss such instances as anomalous – the issue isn’t inspectors aren’t well intentioned but that they’re operating in a paradigm that assumes what’s best for all children is what’s only best for most of them.

The division between primary and secondary is a compromise and this compromise isn’t in the interests of those who struggle most.

Let’s go further – into secondary.

GCSE history specifications are much too big.

The course I teach has almost 300 directly identified teachable pieces of content – using a methodology I took from Alex Ford’s work I counted them.

Assuming three lessons a week for two years – and in practice it’s usually significantly less – this works out at as one explicitly identified examinable piece of content around once ever twenty minutes.

For a student to be certain they can answer every question over four topics they need to remember all of it.

For all but the very most academically able this is unrealistic.

The implications on classroom practice are startling, being opposed to many established features of high-quality teaching.

Take Rosenshine’s Principles, which have been adopted by many schools in recent years as a helpful heuristic for what good teaching should look like:

  1. Daily review.
  2. Present new material using small steps.
  3. Ask questions.
  4. Provide models.
  5. Guide Student practice.
  6. Check for student understanding.
  7. Obtain a high success rate.
  8. Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.
  9. Independent practice.
  10. Weekly and monthly review.

How is it possible to do any of this properly if you’re moving onto something new every twenty minutes?

It isn’t and the harder a child finds learning the more damaging being deprived of good teaching become to them – the faster they lose the thread and become bewildered and lost.

Teachers could even things out a bit by not attempting to teach the whole specification and spending more time on less of it. This might be corrective but it isn’t practically realistic given the harsh professional penalties for not finishing a course and the volume of complaints this would get from the most advantaged children and families.

Here compromise means listening to these voices more than we do of those who struggle.

We know they do. They say things like “the teacher goes too fast” and “they can’t keep up” and “they don’t get it.”

But on we plough.

TeacherTapp data suggests most teachers prefer teaching clever children.

This might be because these children are more similar in character to their teacher – more on this a bit later – but it might be because the size of curricula makes it easier and therefore more rewarding to teach well with groups that grasp things quickly – if the curriculum were more accessible to those who find learning tough perhaps teaching them would feel more rewarding.

The result of such diverse cohorts sitting one exam on a specification designed predominantly for the cleverest children is chaos in the lower grades.

For candidates on the bottom half of the bell curve the exam becomes a crapshoot.

It isn’t possible for these children to learn and remember everything so they and their teachers must make blind bets about what might and might not come up in terminal exams.

Students who get lucky find they can do more questions and get higher grades than the unlucky who can do fewer.

This isn’t OK.

In history for students nearer the bottom it’s hard to see a bigger picture, which can easily make the whole endeavour feel a mess of dates, facts and events divorced from meaning and purpose.

This compromises the spirit of history as a discipline for the many children unable to learn a meaningful part of the specification.

And there’s more.

Discourse around GCSE grades in all subjects constructs anything less than a Grade 4 as a fail.

This devalues lower grade and leads to an uncomfortable sense they exist only to prop up and add value to the higher ones.

But there are those who feel it is right more intelligent children are afforded greater advantage by our education system – that we should spend time and resource on finding those of great talent so we can help them fly faster and further. It’s the well-intentioned driving force behind charities provide academic mentoring, scholarships, and visits and residentials to clever poor children who would not otherwise have such opportunities. It’s so part of the way we do things we don’t see the oddity of giving more privileges to groups of children who are already more advantaged than those they grow up with. While apparently logical – children who struggle get SEND support and those near the top get extra too this doesn’t acknowledge the whole system is in the interests of the high fliers.

So again, this is compromise tilts in the favour of the already most advantaged.

Where are the charities to help poor children who aren’t doing well in school? Wouldn’t it be more equitable if we focused on these rather than those who have comparatively more advantage already.?

“An education system that allows people to go as far as their talents will take them” – phrases like these are deployed by politicians as vote-winning slogans, but what does the silence between the lines about those who don’t have talents that will take them very far say about who we think is and who isn’t deserving of help?

It’s the meritocracy speaking – the idea those who are already successful deserve greater benefits than those who are not. It argues that there are Elis and Morlocks, and that the job of Morlocks is to live underground hidden from sight doing dirty work that allows their betters to live lives of beauty and greater meaning.

Morlocks should not get in the way of Elis and if they do it’s a wrong to be righted.

There’s an argument this is exactly what many so-called inclusion systems do.

Take Teaching Assistants assigned to individual children.

For many familiar with the SEND world this is gold standard provision – a one-to-one helper whose job is to act as a bridge between the rest of the class and a student who wouldn’t be able to be part of the lesson at all if it weren’t for them – a sort of lesson interpreter.

In the Inclusion Illusion, Rob Webster finds this is often not the case.

He argues one-to-one TA support can often be a feature of an exclusionary system that places a child in a class without being of the class.

The point is not to include the child but to contain them so more able children aren’t impacted by the challenges the struggling child faces.

Webster makes it very clear this is not the fault of TAs who he found often concerned about their lack of training and confidence.

Our mainstream professional hierarchy is upside-down with the least trained, lowest paid, least secure and lowest status given responsibility for educating the children for which learning is hardest with little formal appreciation, guidance or help.

This is not an argument there isn’t value in the work of TAs – our education system has been constructed in a way that can make just getting through it a real success for those who find learning toughest, and when a ship is in trouble we don’t throw away lifeboats because we think we shouldn’t need them.

Those who assist with this survival – our lifeboats – deserve respect.

Many TAs give up their own time and money to better help children nobody in the system cares more about. They know their limitations and they also know they’re all some children have – pragmatic improvement would do well to begin by recognising and valuing these people.

Webster finds what often emerges is not an inclusion system but a containment system with some of those he interviewed explicit they thought this was their purpose.

Webster even found this belief in some parents.

One said “but they’ve got like 30-odd kids to take care of and they can’t be expected to just pay attention to Kai all the time.”[1]

This – in its acceptance of poor provision for the good of others – is the saddest thing I’ve read about any of this.

Here – as in GCSE curriculum – we see how education is set up to benefit those who find learning easiest – while TA support may appear an example of how compromise is slanted towards those who struggle, the balance often tips the other way.

It shouldn’t surprise us that things are set up like this, and why we all find it so hard to imagine up ways in which things could be different.

Firstly we – I certainly, probably most of us here – have done well out of the way the education system is set up.

It exists for us and for people like us.

We are the winners.

When we look around at each other we are mostly the top set aren’t we?

I’m not going to stop and spend twenty minutes going over what I’ve said so far.

I’m assuming you’ve kept up.

I hope you won’t walk away going “no idea what he was on about and that was boring and pointless, four sessions to go until we can leave.”

Lots of compromises have been made in our favour and when we go back to work and talk to our colleagues and friends there aren’t likely to be many who feel their education was a waste of time.

This makes it hard for us to understand the experiences of those who struggled at school.

There is no easy way to get it.

When I was training to be a teacher my PGCE provider tried by making us all sit through a postgraduate level physics lecture and then asking us afterwards how we found it. It was partially successful. Most of us found ourselves daydreaming, doodling and even passing notes but it could only ever get us part of the way there, because we were people who found learning easy just playing make-believe we weren’t for an hour.

While this sort of role-play might have given us an insight into what a lesson pitched beyond us felt, the awful cumulative effect of experiencing this for days, weeks, months and years was an experience we were mercifully spared.

Not all children who find learning easy enjoy school.

If they did there would be no need for us to compel education and we do. This isn’t the time or place to get into debates around this, so I’ll just say I agree completely children must be educated whether they want to be or not.

For those wanting a more nuanced take I’d recommend having a look at how the Quakers have wrestled with this. In a nutshell they reckon compelling education is deeply problematic but the consequences of not doing so are even worse – a sensible “least bad” position.

Some Quakers reckon one of the strongest arguments for compelling education is that in the long run it is of benefit to the people it is imposed upon. This is well explained in Francis E Pollard’s 1932 Swarthmore Lecture on Education and the Spirit of Man[2].

This seems fair and I think it’s true for a lot of children.

But not all and this exposes yet another way in which compromises are made most in favour of those who find learning easiest and why we find it hard to understand.

As Chris Baker put it recently on twitter – “Not enough people are using the library. The future of the library will be discussed in the library by people who use the library. The librarian will chair it.”

For these children – children who grow up to people like me– the benefits of school are clear.

If we work hard and do as our teachers say we’re more likely to find what we’re taught interesting, and we’re also much more likely to be rewarded than classmates who struggle.

Higher grades lead to more prestigious destinations, more choice and more prestigious careers and lives.

But it’s fair for those who aren’t on this path to question what the point of their education was – especially if their experiences have been impoverished by compromises made in the favour of others.

Education is not just a transitory state between infancy and adulthood.

It is a complete life stage that lasts a long time.

Children do not spend their school years suspended in cocoons – they are sentient beings, fully aware of what’s happening to them. They have emotions and opinions about what is done to them.

We can understand why those who struggle – those who end up without a clutch of “strong passes” at the end of it all – may feel angry and resentful at a system that’s made them feel inadequate for a very long time to no obvious end.

We can understand why they feel education wasn’t ever really for them.

We can understand why they become even angrier when they emerge from school and find what they’d been led to believe wasn’t true and it was possible to be happy and fulfilled in life that didn’t demand academic success all along – that all the years of struggle and humiliation hadn’t been necessary – had not given them either instrumentally useful credentials or an appreciation of our rich culture.

This should not be taken as one of those anti-curricular, anti-knowledge, futurist takes that so annoy us all.

I am pro-knowledge, pro-curricular and broadly philosophically traditional. I believe the first thing schools should do to help children who find things hard is to sort behaviour so it’s calm, predictable and well organised.

I am not saying I think progressivism is the answer. Instead, I am pointing out traditional positions for many children are not compatible with structures designed predominantly for those who are already most advantaged.

My concern is structural ability bias makes it less likely those who find learning hard will be inducted into traditional disciplines, because it’s resulted in lessons that go so fast, they leave behind many children.

I think on the most part people do like to learn – they do want to know things about the world around them regardless of whether it leads to greater instrumental reward. They want to feel successful at things that matter.

The problem isn’t that they don’t want knowledge but that the way things are structured means they don’t get it.

I am not cross about GCSE history specifications because they contain lots of knowledge.

I am cross because they make it harder for me to teach history well to children I care about very much – they make it harder for huge numbers of children to really understand what the discipline is all about – to get a sense of meaning and purpose from what they learn.

I’m angry because our compromises make it easier for me to be a good teacher of children who find things easier than it is for me to be a good teacher of children who find things hard.

People who feel they were generally unsuccessful at school can better understand the real worth and power of education when it’s done right.

One of my neighbours failed his eleven plus.

Forty years on he still talks about it.

He resents the way he was “funnelled” into a life he didn’t choose. But when he talks about his history teacher at his secondary modern, he lights up – a man who taught him history even though there was no chance of him doing A Levels or going to university and by so doing opened a world to him he’s never left – a world of model making and re-enactment, of books and documentaries and museums.

This hero the odds with Steve – he beat selection and humiliation, instrumentalism and the meritocracy and gave him a life of meaning.

I hope his teacher knew what he achieved.

A life of meaning– an aim we should have for all children and not just those who find learning easy.

What should we do?

I get how hard it is, and while I would love to see some system level changes – for example, more thoughtful transition for struggling primary pupils – there’s lots to learn from Eric Kalanze’s What the Academy Taught Us here – and examination specifications that are more designed to account for the needs of those who find learning tough – wise friends of mine have taught me how wrong it is to remain passive while we wait for change.

As is often and rightly said kids get one shot of education. For some kids – some of those that have had terrible hands dealt to them – it’s the only life they’ll ever have.

What can we do for them now?

It’s hard.

It’s much easier for me to point out all the problems than it is for me to develop a plan that solves all of this in a way that doesn’t cause worse problems, and something else I’m learning is as bad as things are it’s usually possible for them to be worse.

I’m pretty sure it’d be a mistake to make big top-down changes very suddenly.

Education systems are calibrated to the value systems of the societies they are developed in.

There are also good arguments as to why things are structured as they are – for example the importance of growing economies and how there are probably greater economic benefits on concentrating resources on more able children, and that greater prosperity create conditions in which there are more resources to support our most vulnerable.

Is this true? Maybe – although I’m cynical about anything that sounds like “trickle down”, especially given how dire life outcomes have been for learning disabled people for generations and generations and the regular steam of awful news about what happens to them in homes and institutions.

But in addition to the inequities between those who find learning easy and those who find learning hard there are inequities between those who are rich and those who are poor. It’s tough to see how changing accountability measures wouldn’t risk making these even wider to their detriment and after all a clever poor child is just as deserving as a poor child who struggles.

Children have entitlements and these aren’t contingent on how fast they learn.

If they were they wouldn’t be entitlements.

Abruptly moving away from concept of “special” and dismantling our SEND system – an idea I have explored before- would delete the only system we have to channel resource away from the brightest to those who find things hardest of all.

It could damage the lives of thousands – recently I’ve been convinced of this by Doctor Neil Gilbride who’s here today – his most recent blog caringly and pragmatically shows the harm this might do.

But any solution must start with understanding the problem properly.

Big systems must be compromises.

The big compromises in education aren’t in the interests of those who find learning hardest – that while it might seem sensible to make decisions on the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number this leaves space for very many to have a poor time and a minority to have dreadful experiences.

Facing this is the start. By doing that we can at least distance ourselves from the damaging fiction everyone starts from the same place and ends up where they deserve to.

Then perhaps we can pay proper attention to our most disadvantaged –listen to their voices and sympathise – perhaps create more bridges to rich and fulfilling lives outside school for those who struggle with education if we find we can’t solve this within education.

And there are compromises in our control.

Think about how and to who the most effective teachers in your school are deployed. Who teaches those who find things hardest? Think about behaviour – is the way you manage it in the interests of those who find things easy or have you thought about how those that struggle probably need calmer, quieter and more predictable environments than those who don’t?

Do you keep abreast of the best evidence available for children who struggle?

Do you know the evidence base behind your interventions?

When you see something odd and suspect unhelpful do you challenge it in the same way you would if you thought a program or strategy for a top set was of no use?

How are TAs recruited, trained and valued? Do they have time to work properly with teachers and to learn what it is that is most helpful?

Is there time for teachers to learn about SEND and how certain are you that the training they get is robust and evidence informed?

Does your SENDCO have time to teach the children who most need their expertise?

Are they the most research-informed teacher in the school? Do they have time to be?

Where are the opportunities to celebrate the success of children who work hard but don’t finish at the top?

This all takes a lot of time and resource. To do it well compromises will have to be made – compromises in favour of our most vulnerable children and perhaps against the interests of those who find things easier.

It’s by making these compromises we show we are serious. By making more in favour of those that might otherwise fall quickly behind we can check the hubris of our highest flyers – show them they are no more special or deserving than people like my daughter who will never grasp things as quickly as they do – that they are no more special or deserving than a young man who will never talk.

Perhaps we can foster senses of obligation and collective responsibility – a belief those who win at this great fixed game have a responsibility to those who lose.

If you don’t like this framing, fine – instead see it as the charitable duty of the winners to be magnanimous to the losers – to make more space at the table so more can eat the delicious things on it.

Either way you want to see it, if enough of us – the people in this room and others- come to understand and recognise this responsibility, then what ways of meeting it might our clever brains arrive at?

If we all made provision for children who find learning tough a priority for us then how far down the road might we go?

A hero of mine – Paul Farmer – was an American medical anthropologist and the founder of Partners in Health. This was an organisation designed to provide direct health care services to some of the most marginalised and poverty-stricken communities and people in the world.

He said this:

“I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory. … You know, people from our background-like you, like most PIH-ers, like me-we’re used to being on a victory team, and actually what we’re really trying to do in PIH is to make common cause with the losers. Those are two very different things. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.”

I’m no Paul Farmer.

I do understand what he’s saying here though.

Perhaps there’s not much that can be done for those who find learning hardest. The history of all this isn’t pretty and perhaps my belief things might be better is naïve.

But I have hope. I really do. I can’t help it.

When I first began thinking and working in this space it was very personal to me and I expected little interest. I thought people would say “Ben used to be quite interesting and used to talk about Relevant Significant Big Things but then his daughter got diagnosed with Williams Syndrome and what he says now is pretty niche. Bless him.”

But there has been interest – huge interest. I’m looking at twitter and I’m having conversations with people in schools and I’m seeing work done by big players like Ambition Institute and the Confederation of School Trusts and there is attention and there seems a desire to work at this and get it right. It’s work of humility – reaching out and connecting with and learning from the people this directly affects and those who’ve dedicated their professional lives to serve children they know should get much more than they get. There’s been so much thinking and learning and doing – it’s been happening for decades in the shadows by people who should have been listened to more a long time ago. We should all make up for lost time and listen to them now.

It feels like there’s an imperative to try and make schools work for all children not just the lucky clever ones. Not just the ones it’s easy to teach.

To do it right in a way that means genuinely high standards and high ambition – in a way that includes children and doesn’t just contain them,

Maybe one day soon this long defeat can turn into a victory parade – a joyful parade that ends in schools in which more children learn. In which more feel belonging and find meaning and feel seen and valued.

But if we can’t win – if there’s never a parade – if attention moves away and the debate is pushed back into the shadows, I’ll still be here.

I’m committed. I can’t unsee what I’ve seen. I can’t unlearn what I’ve learned. I don’t want to.

Too many people who were in this fight long before me have shared too much and worked too hard to help me get it and I’m awed by the work they’ve done long before any of this meant anything to me – awed by and grateful for work they’ve been doing for children like my daughter, Bessie, before I even knew there would be a Bessie.

Teachers, TAs, SENDCOs, leaders, parents – thank you all for getting this before I did and helping me understand.

You know who you are.

Win or lose I’m proud to stand with them.

I don’t dislike winning – I think we might – but if can’t I’ll fight the long defeat.

Long defeat or victory parade – I invite you to join us.

Thank you.

[1] The Inclusion Illusion Rob Webster P63

[2] Francis E Pollard. Swathmore Lecture. Education and the Spirit of Man. 1932.


The teaching life

Once – when I was about fourteen – a teacher told a class she thought I would become one too.

I was mortified.

For me education was only the means to more exciting ends. Going to school was uncool, and voluntarily being there when there was so much other stuff you could do was worse.

At university I failed to recognise my privileges and coasted.

I put most of my effort into working in pubs as a barman, chef, and then a supervisor.

The responsibility astonishes me now – at twenty there I was in charge of a nightclub with nearly five hundred drunken people in it.

For a while I loved it.

It felt dirty and alive and real.

I liked pretending I hated setting my alarm for three to take beer deliveries. I liked having lots of keys, cashing up and being trusted to do the bank run, carrying thousands of pounds in a Gola holdall slung faux-casually over my shoulder so Bad Guys would think I was going to football practice.

I liked the sense I was someone on whom others relied – a link in a chain.

Some of my fondest memories are from this time – walking home in spring as dawn broke over the streets, legs aching, stinking of beer, jeans streaked white by line cleaner, watching early morning commuters in their suits and ties, living in a sense while we were in the same space we were as far as each other as it was possible to be.

I liked that what I did was offbeat and strange to most people.

I thought this is what I would do – I would learn the craft of running bars and then one day I would have my own.

But the scene went bad.

More fights. Drugs. People I knew beaten up.

I heard a story about a landlord I liked pushing a harmless homeless man down a flight of stairs.

It felt scary. Not me. And I noticed people around me were moving on – that it wasn’t the same place anymore and never would be again.

For the only time in my life I changed career.

I decided I’d be a writer but needed something that brought in money while I wrote the novel that would make me famous.

Long holidays to write in; tuition free teacher training; a grant of nearly £7000 to train; a qualification for free.

That’s why I became a teacher.

Far from noble. Not a calling. A sort of pragmatic cynicism and luck.

And I count myself lucky.

Twenty years on and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

It’s hard to understand if you aren’t in it.

My wife can’t keep up. I can’t keep up.

Some days I’m coiled on the couch ranting about how hard it is and how nobody gets it, and the next I’m exploding into the house, sweeping my kids into my arms and declaring I hope I’ll never retire.

Things change lesson by lesson – minute by minute.

A class comes in rowdy from break, and I’m tense and annoyed as I work at order when I feel I shouldn’t have to. Then Jennifer asks something nuanced about Question 2 – something that shows she’s listened – and my bad mood is a cobweb broken in a breeze. Then it’s the best job in the world until the last lesson when there’s three without pens even though they know the system.

It’s so up and down because it matters.

Children learning things is a mark of a civilization. Being part of it is a privilege.

The job – every hour of every day – is to wrestle disparate minds and exterior intrusions to a focus that means kids leave our rooms knowing more than they did when they came in – important and beautiful stuff they would not know were it not for us.

It’s stressful because it’s important – because when it goes right it feels sacred and when it goes wrong it feels like defeat, and that this defeat often isn’t our fault makes no difference to how dreadful it feels.

We’re right to be angry now. About falling funding and wages, about hunger, poor sleep and cramped cold houses with mould on the walls.

We’re right to be angry about parents so consumed by The Rent they can’t listen to their child read or not there for homework because they’re out doing a second job they hate.

We’re angry because we care about children but – just as importantly – because these things mean we can’t do our job as well.

We’re angry because our aims matter.

Sometimes we’re so angry and sad we think it’d be better to throw it all up and get out.

When wages drop again, and we’re insulted by an offer that shows our government doesn’t care as much as we do – that it might not even understand.

When the powers above us make staggeringly damaging decisions and we see the impact but there’s not a thing we can do about it.

When it’s cold at home and school and nobody can afford to put the heating on. When it seems everyone except us is working online for more money, drinking coffee and posting comments on the internet about how lazy we all are and then we see there are politicians joining in.

When we’ve been teaching twenty years and there’s a buzzy new initiative that’s bound to wash out, and suddenly we look round and realise with a jolt we’re one of the only ones old enough to know it.

It’s little wonder more of us are leaving and fewer people want our jobs.

But I don’t think I will go anywhere.

I’m too far in.

Doing anything else would feel like exile.

I don’t want to be anywhere else. I haven’t since first I stepped into a classroom as a teacher and realised it’s a craft.

If you work hard at it, you get better.

You develop expertise in something that matters – an ability to look at something interesting and without even realising what you’re doing to distil, prioritise and sequence. To look at a vast swathe of material and see the links, what you’ll foreshadow and link back to, what you’ll spend more time on, what you’ll pick up later and how you’ll make sure the embers haven’t died by the time you get to them again.

Eventually no class will scare you.

Some you’ll think “this is going to be hard work and will take a bit of time to sort” but you’ll know you can – you’ll know what to do. You’ll see the problem in the same way mechanics see tricky repairs – something to tut at to begin with, but then you’ll make a start and when it’s done, you’ll feel satisfaction – pride in a job well done.

It’ll change you – you’ll develop a professional eye that has you nodding in approval at a well-crafted explanation on Match of the Day and silently internally tutting at poor instruction at a swimming lesson. It’s an annoying habit but as a price of expertise you won’t wish it away.

Some classes will fly– most likely the ones you’ve taught over years. With these there will be moments when one child says something and then another adds on, and another says something else and then you’ll read the work of a quiet child and be just blown away. If you’re hardworking and lucky there might be a moment that you see a set of results that you know is a proper reflection of what you and your students have done together and it’ll take your breath away.

In an otherwise unremarkable week you’ll get an email from a name that makes you smile, telling you that you’re the reason they are where they are doing what they are doing and – although you’ll know it isn’t really true – you’ll still burn with pride.

In those moments there won’t be anything else you’d rather be doing or anywhere else you’d rather be.

You’ll see all humanity at its best and worst.

You might be there the first time am eleven-year-old refugee says something in an English classroom after months of sometimes tearful silence. You might watch a girl who finds peer relationships hard being swept into an embrace by her form tutor as she wins the 800m on Sports Day and see her face break into a smile so real and rare you’ll swear it actually flashed in the June sun.

You might be eating your lunch one nameless Tuesday when a boy you’ve come to care about very much tells you it’s really happening – that he’s here to say goodbye because his foster family is adopting him, and he’s moving school because he wants to be at one that knows him only as child with a proper family.

After he’s gone on his happy way you might find yourself crying into your lunchbox knowing you’ll never be quite the same again – that this is a moment you’ll turn over and over in your mind as long as you live.

It’s all life and that means sometimes it will be hard.

It might fall to you to interrupt a child’s lunch and take them to reception where you know terrible news waits. It might fall to you to break it to a form group that one of their number won’t be coming back this year or any year.

You’ll make friends and sometimes that’ll be a joy – sharing their happy news; promotions, engagements, births and new houses.

But there will be sadness too.

A colleague you’ve worked with years might – with no fuss over a hot drink on break duty- tell you they’re stopping the IVF now, or that the test results were even worse than they feared, or that it turns out the person they planned to grow old with doesn’t feel the same about them and they don’t know how to even begin telling the kids.

It won’t all be serious either – there’ll times like the one a child gets stuck in a manhole cover after bouncing on it to see it wobble, and you’ll worry that he’ll be embarrassed about it and then find out – in a delighted tea sputtering hiccup of pure joy- that he actually took selfies of the fire-brigade rescuing him and posted them all over the social media he’s not supposed to have. There might be a time an implausibly tiny Y7’s implausibly huge dog follows her to school, and you get to watch besuited SLT chasing it around the playground while reception desperately Calls Home.

The ups, the down, the easy, the hard – it’s life and you’ll see it all.

There’s no denying teaching is hard now.

Made harder by tough circumstances and those who should know better.

Made hard by worrying attendance rates that can only widen the disadvantage gap, by terrifying increases in adolescent mental illness, by a fraying instrumentalist social contract around the purpose of school, all made harder to deal with by declining funding and services that can make deciding what to do paralysing.

And in the midst of it all this feeling there’s fewer of us to do more work – that we’re too little butter over too much bread.

There’s lots of reasons why many of us want out and it feels few want in, but I hope we’ll get through this bit and the next bit is better because when it’s good it’s good and even when it isn’t, it’s still important.

I hope look back at this able to see it as a bad period because it’s got better and things are saner, and we’ve had space to get perspective.

Society needs schools and it needs us to be happy to teach in them.

Is it a happy life? For me? Sometimes? Mainly? It’s impossible to say. I don’t think it’s even the right way to frame things.

Nobody really gets to happiness by aiming directly at it anyway.

People need meaning and purpose. These aren’t sufficient but they are necessary. Teaching offers good odds at them and what we do has never been more important than now.

For me it’s been good enough– so far, sometimes despite it all, for all the peaks and troughs my hand’s been a winner.

I wouldn’t trade it in.

I’m still glad I’m here – in the teaching life.

Even in the worst times I’ve been glad.

Although I know I’m lucky to be able to say it, that this might only be true for me, I’m glad I’m doing it even now.

I’m pleased I’ve been teaching this long, hopeful there’s even more to come – I’m glad I’m getting a little better at something that matters each year.

I’m proud to be part of it. It’s a proper life. A life that matters.

Perhaps if I’d become a pub landlord I’d feel the same. Perhaps I wouldn’t.

I can only know what I know. It’s been twenty years and this scene hasn’t gone bad.


Take down the SEND umbrella

In my last post I argued there is so little shared meaning around the SEND term “learning difficulty” we’d be better off abandoning it altogether.

I was being sneaky.

I have greater misgivings and this is an argument there’s so little shared understanding around the term SEND it isn’t useful.

I’m also arguing the increase in the number of children being added to SEND registers isn’t because more children are “special” but because more children are finding school tough.

The term “SEND” does a lot of work.

So much must nestle under the umbrella.

Children with physical disabilities who find academic work easy and get great grades; children with profound learning disabilities; children so mentally unwell they must be educated in hospital; children who just find learning harder than some other children; children who can’t always manage their emotions and get into fights; timid children so anxious about some lessons it makes them feel ill.

And so many more.

An enormous, enormously diverse group of children whose only real commonality is a “K” next to their name on a school information system.

It is impossible for such an umbrella term to be useful because when we try to describe children with SEND we are talking about everyone and nobody simultaneously, and this is made worse by a lack of standardisation and consistency around how SEND designation is made.

Even if SEND exists as something with meaning we don’t know who the children with SEND are.

The system won’t allow us to say this.

It demands identification, generalisation, tracking and intervention but trying to do this for a group without an identity can only do harm.

The first issue how the one term – SEND – implicitly homogenises those assigned to it and how this creates and then propagates a sort of “SEND” identity and off-the-peg generalist SEND strategies and interventions.

If you want to know how this works get together a group of parents with children identified as having SEND and ask them about “social stories”, “zones of regulation” or “visual timetables.”

The point here isn’t that there is something inherently wrong with any of these strategies but the perception they’re applied to children not because of an individual need but because the child “has SEND” and these are “SEND strategies.”

This isn’t just supposition. Even the Education Endowment Foundation propagates it.

Here’s one of their blog posts that offers five suggestions to “support high-quality teaching for pupils with SEND.”

While the advice isn’t bad it’s assumption of a distinct SEND identity shows how integrated such generalisations have become.

But how can we avoid generalisation when accountability measures around outcomes and Ofsted makes the same generalisation?

Analysis of results and other indicators of success compare “SEND” pupils against those without SEND, incentivising everyone to see things this way and disincentivising more sophisticated thinking and conclusions.

This creeping genericism makes it difficult for those working with “children with SEND” to build knowledge and become expert in specific learning needs. There just isn’t time or space to do it. Instead, expertise often means expertise in securing resource and navigating the byzantine systems and structures that have evolved to maintain predominantly generalist ways of doing things.

Generalisations and categories are not always bad.

While they always hide nuance, they can be useful to allocate resources wisely and make system level bets around what to prioritise and focus on – but for these to have a chance of being helpful they must have some validity – if they have none then no associated analysis, strategy or intervention can be of use.

If the don’t then they can do real harm.

I’ll return to J L Austin’s “Performative Utterances” here.

Austin points out that descriptors are not just neutral reflections of a reality that already exists – they change and create new realities.

When a child is identified as “having SEND” we transform them into a “child with SEND” and this has lots of associated effects.

Even when we have more specific and secure designations – such as autism or dyslexia – we risk something akin to “diagnostic overshadowing”, when one identified and formerly assigned characteristic becomes a hinderance in seeing a person as more than this diagnosis.

This is bad enough when identities have meaning and a disaster when they do not.

Here’s a provocation based on a hunch.

Often when the term “child with SEND” is used there’s a caricature that comes to mind.

It doesn’t mean a child in a wheelchair or a visually impaired child. It doesn’t mean a child like my daughter with an identified genetic condition and associated learning disability.

Rather than these it means a child who struggles in school. Probably has a low reading age. Probably has lower attendance than their peers. Probably behaves poorly. Probably has handwriting that’s hard to read.

They have designations like “learning difficulty” or “cognition and learning”.

This is a lot of children and a group that probably overlaps considerably with the 30 or so percent of children who don’t get GCSEs at Grade 4 and above.  

They aren’t special.

They are children who sit on a perfectly normal spread of human characteristics. The need to construct them as different says far more about the values of our society than it does about them as people.

The problem is not them – it’s us.

Our problem is we find these children hard to teach within our established parameters and constraints.

By designating them as somehow “special” we locate the problem within them and allow space for the implication these children are the responsibility of the school’s SEND department or even an alternative more specialist setting.

I know this isn’t how anyone wants things to be.

It isn’t the fault of teachers or schools – meritocratic societal norms and associated accountability measures privilege those who find learning easiest and at worse can make schools hostile environments for those who struggle. Take – as an example I know well – GCSE history specifications.

They are massive.

It isn’t possible for a teacher to support children who struggle in learning, mastering and overlearning it because if they do, they won’t finish the course and there are harsh professional penalties for this.

But a child who struggles to master such a bloated curriculum isn’t special – they are entirely normal.

It’s also a problem for children who can’t read well transitioning from primary to secondary school, which work on a general assumption Y7 pupils will be able to access the curriculum. Many can’t and the general structures of education aren’t set up for these children who often find themselves very quickly lost. This isn’t inevitable – the best secondary schools recognise this and do teach reading explicitly and an encouraging recent trend has seen secondaries hiring primary teachers to help – but those that do this are going against and not with established structures and modes of practice.

Those that don’t do this are more incentivised to add the child to the SEND register.

And these grow and grow – since 2016 the percentage of children on SEND support and with EHCPs has risen year on year. Every year we spend more money on a system nobody thinks is working well.

My contention is this is because we’re feeling the impact of austerity, recession, Covid lockdowns, the cost-of-living crisis and associated increases in child poverty and a general deterioration in adolescent mental health.

It’s implausible these things have no effect on education and logical to think this means more and more children are finding school tough, which is leading to more and more being identified as having SEND.

This problem is being made worse by a decline in specific support for specific needs. While most working in education will be familiar with the disgraceful state of children’s mental health services the effect of the pandemic on things like speech and language therapy is probably less well known, and the great pressure on the NHS and social services places such support at even greater risk.

This drop in specific provision is likely to drive greater “SEND” identification as failure to meet these needs leads to more children struggling at school.

If all this is true adding more children to SEND registers will do no good because the problem isn’t caused by what’s happening in schools and can’t be solved with any simple generic strategy.

Adding names to a list is just more names on a list.

We’re problematising more and more people. We’re enlarging a group that already has no identity and encroaching on space we need to think and talk about how society can better support education and how schools in general might be better set up for more children – and here it’s vital to strongly emphasise this post is not an argument schools need fewer resources or that budgets allocated to children identified as having SEND can be cut.

We need more money but spending it on small-scale strategies and interventions to help more and more disparate struggling individual children is finger-in-dam thinking.

It’s also clear more money and expertise is required on things outside education that support education and we can’t expect schools to pick up the tab for wider societal failure.

We are identifying more and more children as having SEND when there is no such thing.

It’s a problem and we must stop.

Take down the SEND umbrella.

There are too many holes. It isn’t keeping anyone dry.


  1. Replace the term “SEND” with the specific need the child has.
  2. Build knowledge and expertise in specific needs children have.
  3. Adjust accountability measures to incentivise the education system to value the needs of those who find learning difficult as highly as it values the needs of those who find it easy.
  4. Provide greater funding and support for services that support children with specific needs.
  5. Provide greater funding and support for children and families in poverty or at risk of poverty.

The Difficulty with Learning Difficulty

Learning disability is not the same as learning difficulty.

This isn’t well enough understood and it’s a problem.

While controversial in how it privileges one disputed aspect of intelligence, there is shared meaning and understanding around learning disability – defined by Mencap as “a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities.. which affects someone for their whole life.”

Learning disabilities pose real challenges to the people who live with them, which are exacerbated by ableist societal attitudes and structures. Despite the issues, in a compromised world, a shared understanding is necessary to identify and then afford resources to the people living with them.

For a long time I was surprised at how many children in mainstream schools had SEND designations of SLD and MLD, assuming from reading about my daughter’s Williams Syndrome this meant they had a learning disability.

I was confused because I’d read a very large proportion – indeed most – of those with learning disabilities were educated in special not mainstream schools.

My mistake was in assuming children with this label had been identified as having learning disabilities when in fact they had been identified as having something different – a learning difficulty.

The misunderstanding was understandable.

Having two terms so alike to describe things that at least superficially look so similar is bound to create misunderstanding.

A look over at our health system offers little further clarity.

Even the NHS data-dictionary appears confused.

It tries to resolve this by attempting to map one to the other – here’s an example:

“Mild Learning disability (roughly equivalent to an IQ if fifty to seventy) is comparable to the educational term ‘Moderate Learning Difficulty.’

The first implication here is while the terms might be different the scale used must be the same and this scale must be standardised and consistent.

It isn’t true.

Most children identified as having learning difficulties have never had a formal intelligence test.

There is no standardisation around how this designation is made – the terms are different, assessment methods are different and the scale is not standardised or consistent.

Research by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) published in 2021 found which primary a school a child attends makes more of a difference to their chances of being identified as SEND than anything else about them as an individual. While this research is broader in scope than children identified as having learning difficulties the overall point remains the same; schools are free to identify learning difficulty however they choose to with no systemic oversight as to how this is done whatsoever.

Is this something to be concerned about?

Standardisation brings its own risks. Perhaps identifying children who need more help than others so they can be supported isn’t something we should get in the way of.

But there are serious problems. Identifying children as having a learning difficulty is not benign by default.  

The lack of standardisation around how children are labelled means there can’t be any shared understanding or meaning of the term. This makes a mess of the figures used to track the progress, achievement and wellbeing of children with this label because we don’t know who these children are and what – in indeed anything – they have in common.

A child in one school might be designated as having a learning difficulty for reasons that would not lead to any action at all in another.

At system level this is a problem as it makes it hard to find examples of good and poor practice or to evaluate overall effectiveness.

For individuals, while it’s reasonable to assume those originally designating a child as having a learning difficulty had good reasons for doing so the term often follows children for the rest of their school life.

The original context is lost and professionals working with them are vulnerable to making assumptions about the child never meant by the person or people who made the original designation. The same is true of strategies to help the child – those doing the original labelling might well know how best to support them but those who see the term on SEND register years later will probably lack this knowledge even if it remains relevant after so much time.

It’s worth looking at J L Austin’s “performative utterances”.

Austin argues that sentences do not just describe a given reality but also change the social reality they are describing.

A classic example is a vicar saying “I pronounce you man and wife.”

Here the nature of this sentence is not a description- it has changed reality – the vicar has created a married couple.

This is relevant because any label or designation can change reality.

When we identify a child as “high ability” or having a “mild learning difficulty” we give them that identity.

This is not always a bad thing. If the utterance has a legitimacy it can be really helpful – the creation of a person with cancer as a cancer patient allows them access to resources that might save their life. However, if the utterance lacks legitimacy, then any identity created won’t be valid and associated actions will be invalid too. The lack of shared meaning around “learning difficulty” means there is danger in assigning this label to children.

A second issue is the lack of specificity in terms like “learning difficulty” locates the problem within individual children and offers no support as to how this child might be helped to progress. Combined with inconsistency around how identifications are made this can easily lead to a lowering of expectations and generic “SEND interventions.”

At worse this could even lead to passivity and fatalism – the idea that there are lots of children who simply can’t learn things other children can.

As Rob Webster demonstrates in The Inclusion Illusion, being identified as having a special educational need is no guarantee of better provision. It can actually lead to children who need the most expert help spending more time with less qualified adults.

Labelling a child as having a “learning difficulty” might be a disincentive to working at improving the experience of a children who – for lots of reasons – don’t find learning easy. By describing them as having a “learning difficulty” we create an implication they are “special” and “separate”, and that meeting their needs means additional or extra provision outside responsibility of classroom teachers.

This has been a known problem for decades.

In 1974 W K Brennan wrote of children who find learning hard but have no particular special need:

“the problem can only be resolved by the provision of adequate facilities for slow learning pupils within the ordinary schools. That is why the education of slow-learning pupils is, and must remain, a responsibility to be accepted within the ordinary schools.” (Brennan’s emphasis)

If we look beyond the jarring language we can see Brennan is driving at the idea that finding learning hard makes a child a part of a perfectly normal spread of human characteristics. Those that do shouldn’t be problematised or designated as being special or different. This idea remains unchallenged, and we should be wary of anything suggesting a child who finds learning tough requires support that can’t be provided by teachers in mainstream schools.  

Giving schools total freedom to designate a child as having a learning difficulty means there is no safeguard against children who have no real trouble learning being identified as those that do because they are missing key knowledge or skills.

At secondary school, for example, many teachers do not have expertise in the teaching of reading and a child with a weak grasp of the phonic code might be wrongly identified as having a learning difficulty, leading to the real issues being missed and left unaddressed.

Finally – and perhaps most seriously – identifying children as having learning difficulties in terms so similar to those used to define learning disability risks a conflation of two different things to the detriment of both.

This leads to SEND genericism and its associated problems – the idea that children identified as having special educational needs share an identity when the umbrella has become so huge those beneath it are too disparate for the term to be much use at all anymore.

But that’s a topic for another blog post.

It can also lead to inefficient allocation of resources as children and parents are incentivised to believe they or their child has a disability demanding separate, special provision when they would be better served by effective teaching in a class with their peers.

The term “learning difficulty” comes from the 1978 Warnock Report (Special Educational Needs) from which the it was intended as a more dignified descriptor for children previously described as “educationally sub-normal”.

The point was the same as W K Brennan’s – the majority of children who find learning tough could – and should – follow the same curriculum in the same classrooms as their peers most of the time.

The term was designed to lead to greater inclusivity – I think it’s authors would be disappointed in how it has mutated.  


  • Improve professional knowledge on the difference between learning difficulty and disability.
  • Consider the removal of “learning difficulty” as an option on school SEND registers OR develop a shared understanding of what this means and hold schools accountable for how any why children are assigned this label.
  • Greater specificity around discrete areas of curriculum children with in order to offer more targeted support with children who struggle.  

Can you be bothered?

“David Beckham is one of the best free-kick taker ever and it not because of a talent sent by god. It’s because he trained with a tireless dedication that the vast majority of less gifted players would not even imagine.”

Sir Alex Ferguson on right—sided midfielder David Beckham.

“I don’t care. I was listening. It’s good enough. Why are you bothered? Leave me alone.”

Pupil to teacher.

The long hours teachers work is an often-cited reason for why teachers are tired and unhappy, and why schools have a recruitment and retention problem.

There is usually pushback with people pointing out many roles require lots of work, and that opening up a laptop in the evenings and weekends is hardly an affront to anyone’s human rights.

This is true. Teachers should be mindful of the offensive assumption other roles are all thirty-five-hours a week on comfortable salaries.

The most informed perspective comes from those who have worked in both demanding roles in teaching and outside it. Most seem to feel while the hours worked might be comparable, they’ve never felt more tired and stretched than they have done while working in schools.

This is because it’s is the type and intensity of work that’s most relevant – not how long it takes.

Teaching is tiring.

Those not engaged in it struggle to understand – or even remember if they once did it – just how intense it is.

A five-lesson day means five one-hour interactive presentations to a large group of young people, and many would prefer to be doing something else.

In each hour hundreds of tiny but important decisions are made. Getting just one wrong can cause a cascade of events that batter emotions and impede judgement.

Random factors and issues well beyond the control of an individual teacher can swing a wrecking ball through a carefully planned sequence and at the end of each hour – good or bad – the teacher has seconds to recentre themselves before it all begins again.

When things are going well this is exhilarating but when it doesn’t it can be dreadful.

Whether you’re on top of the wave or drowning in it it’s exhausting.

Matthew Hood now of Oak National worked this out a long time ago when he identified teachers – like athletes, actors and musicians – as being part of performance professions.   

Nobody goes to see a band and then complains on the way out they only played for two hours – we understand it isn’t easier than cooking for five hours with the radio on.

In teaching we have a performance profession without the support structures to facilitate elite performance; we don’t expect a footballer to play in the afternoon and then attend a long meeting afterwards, yet this is a common expectation of those who teach.

Teachers are also expected to keep on top of emails, track data, assess, contribute to extra-curricular activities, do duties – where they must performatively care about things like coats and tucked shirts – and a thousand other tasks before they leave work where most have other jobs to do before they can relax.

Or open up their laptop.

It’s very tough and teachers manage it all extraordinarily well in very difficult circumstances.

While our teaching might not always be elite we should be kind to ourselves and mindful we lack advantages elite performers enjoy.

I’ve been prompted to think about this by this outstanding blog post by Adam Boxer.

Adam identifies a foundational problem – many children simply don’t listen in lessons – and then proposes simple things teachers can do to fix this issue.

These things will work but teachers have to apply them consistently until they become habitual and then continue to apply them relentlessly if they are to prevent a regression to the mean.

What struck me most strongly was just how motivated teachers have to be.

Without Adam’s attention to detail and his iterative dogged botheredness his solutions can’t have much impact, and his suggestions -brilliant as they are – will make teachers more tired.

They mean working more intensively without strengthened systems to meet the increased effort.

It means the same long hours but properly looking not just being seen looking. It means circulating and intervening and holding to account and – to begin with – eye rolling and annoyance on the part of students not used to this level of intervention and feeling it unfair.

It means breaking an unspoken but powerful social contract which allows children not to give 100% so long as they don’t misbehave too much – a system which allows teachers to catch up on emails, take a micro-breather, or finish planning for P5 while kids answer a question.

Given this paradox – the virtues of having teachers constantly engaged in actively listening and ratio against the constraints teaching exists in – what’s best?

Firstly, we should reject simple binaries.

There isn’t a model ‘bad’ classroom in which nobody is listening and a model ‘good’ classroom in which everyone is.

Instead, there are times children listen well and times they don’t. There are times teachers have the energy and capacity to care more and times they find it hard to.

While there are some classrooms in which children generally listen and attend more than in others there is an ebb and flow in all.

And we can’t force teachers to make children listen. It requires an attention to detail that can’t be grafted onto someone else.

Instead, we should be clear about why we need all children to listen properly, build teaching expertise so they know how, then create conditions that make it more likely teachers can be as bothered as Adam is.

I know many are and I think most would be if they could.

I think some would like to be if they knew they could be but work in environments where there’s so much to do it’s too hard.

I think if they knew quite how wonderful it is to have a day with truly engaged active students for five lessons and then going home at a reasonable hour tired but happy they’d want it.

Where this isn’t common schools should think about how tired teachers are, what can be done about this and why staff feel they have to do admin, like getting on top of emails during their teaching hours. They should consider teacher energy as an opportunity cost to everything they do.

Data analysis might be important but if it takes hours and makes people tired is it worth it especially when balanced among something as high-leverage as impact in a classroom? Has the potential impact of outside hours interventions been considered alongside the effect it might have on the botherdnessof teaching in school?

Here school leaders should be really wary of just how hard it is to understand how busy full-time teachers are, how exhausting it is.

Having dipped in and out of full-time teaching over the last few years I know how fast memories of the intensity of fades once you’re on less than fifteen hours a week teaching time. This isn’t to say school leaders don’t work hard – I know they do – but it isn’t as tiring or exhausting hour to hour. Forgetting this is natural so it’s important to be conscious about it to avoid horrors like “no sitting at desk” policies or worse. It’s why school leaders are foolish if they tot up their hours, see they do more than a teacher and then make uncharitable judgements.

Finally schools shouldn’t aim for perfection.

As Adam points out children not listening is a common – perhaps even typical feature of most lessons.

Instead of making children listening all the time the sort of meaningless non-negotiable that does nothing at all we should aim to get children listening more – to push things on – to develop teachers who want children to listen, know how to and then have leaders cultivate environments in which teachers have enough energy to care about details in the way Adam inspires us to.

Can you be bothered? Are you able to be?


Twitter has fallen

If you are here you then perhaps Twitter has fallen and your edu friends and contacts have melted into the electronic ether leaving you frightened and alone.

While there are no guarantees you’ll see them again you are in the right place.

Use the comments section of this blog post to post where you can be found on other social media and any other contact details you feel comfortable sharing publicly.

You can also use the comments section to post requests in helping find someone lost to you.

Share this space.

God bless us all. We’ll meet again.



Years ago, I and a group of my top set friends shocked a teacher by telling them the best grade on a school report was A/4.

This meant you’d attained the top grade while barely trying.

To us this was self-evidently impressive.

It showed you were so naturally gifted you needn’t apply yourself to excel. The worst grade was F/1 because it meant while you’d tried your best you’d made little progress. We thought this embarrassing and a bit pathetic.

I feel ashamed now; of my smugness and entitlement, of my conflation of worth with an ability to do well academically that was – for me at least – an unearned gift.

I feel sad too. How limited and unimaginative and narrow my view of achievement was. How exclusionary. How much did I miss in the years I spent missing the point?

I’m coming more and more to the view effort is the most important thing and what schools should emphasise most. My contention is focusing on effort in serious and well conceptualised ways would have a beneficial effect on attainment for far more children than emphasising marks and grades.

Of course lots of schools do provide children with effort grades – but in the most part these are a poor relation to attainment scores.

Typically there is far more quality assurance and joined up thinking around attainment grades than there is to assessing how hard a child is trying. While attainment scores are analysed closely how hard children are trying rarely receive anywhere near the same degree of attention. This lack of attention and rigour undermines lots of well-meaning attempts to convince children to apply themselves because it implies if you don’t succeed the effort is wasted.

This is a missed opportunity. High attainment grades are exclusionary to many children. This is is realistic not a demonstration of low expectations.

Grading at all levels happens on a curve – for one candidate to do well another must do proportionally worse. Even if clever models allow adjustments for particularly strong cohorts we can’t get away from the fact high grades only have value because there are lower grades.

Attainment grades are not pure expressions of merit. They represent many variables including genetics, privilege, teaching quality and effort. Children only really have any agency over how hard they try. Even the control a child has of their own effort is moderated and mediated by exterior factors.

But emphasising effort is still fairer than emphasising raw attainment because while imperfect children do have more agency over it than they do the other variables.

So why don’t we do this routinely – or at least why do many young people and their families feel that effort isn’t recognised to the degree attainment is?

The first reason is we live in a meritocracy.

Meritocracies derive legitimacy from the idea attainment – whether fat salary packets or great grades – are well-earned rewards for hard work.

It’s how we allow ourselves to feel pride in our success and part of the explanation for why attitudes to the poor and unfortunate can be so harsh. It means higher achievers must be more worthy than lower achievers. Meritocracy would have us believe all children start at the same place and the effort they put into their work is purely expressed by their grade, which makes a discrete effort score of very secondary importance.

But this argument isn’t true and is no reason not to emphasise effort over attainment.

A second issue is effort grades are messy.

What counts as trying hard for one teacher – for example doing all the work in lessons but nothing more – might be insufficient to another who expects lots of homework. Some differences in interpretation are even more subtle. Should a teacher who uses lots of hands up questions in their class give a higher effort score to a child whose arm shoots up at the end of all their sentences than to a quiet student who never puts their hand up but completes all the work?

While this is a legitimate thing to be concerned about it isn’t a reason not to be serious about effort because it overlooks how messy attainment grades are even when there’s lots more moderation and control around how they are assigned.

Tests only sample parts of large domains and the great variability in marking in many subjects means identical test scripts are routinely given different grades by different markers in the highest stakes public exams.

Challenging an emphasis of effort marks over attainment marks because of inconsistent application overlooks both are imperfect.

I suspect the main reason schools don’t emphasise effort as highly as they do attainment is because while it may be unfair, the world is meritocratic and fundamentally all of us – including our children – are judged and rewarded on the extent to which we instrumentally achieve.

This can make placing emphasis on effort feel disingenuous – hiding children from the stark truth that how they do at school will have a material affect on their quality of life. We are rightly fearful of sending out a message it doesn’t matter how well you do so long as you try when we all know how well you do matters a lot.

This is a fair challenge, but it can be met.

Issues with rewarding effort come predominately from a poorly conceptualised understanding of what it means to try hard and how ridiculous it can seem when it doesn’t result in any success. What could be more pointless than trying and trying at something you fail at again and again?

But trying hard at something you don’t succeed at isn’t pointless. It’s wrong to say it is.

Simone Weil gets this well.

In her paper “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” she argues students should not motivate themselves by thinking about the mark or grade the wish to attain. She argues doing this is actually an impediment to real learning because it encourages students to game, scheme and hide their limitations rather than working on them:

“All wrong translations, all absurdities in geometry problems, all clumsiness of style and all faulty connection of ideas in compositions and essays, all such things are due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea too hastily and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth.”

There are real world results of this in our education system. A maths teacher told me of an issue he experienced at his selective sixth form. Here A Level students sometimes had Grade 9s at GCSE but still had huge gaps in their knowledge that impeded their ability to access the more advanced material. The reason for this was they’d been taught to master what they needed to achieve a grade but not the underlying structures. These students found this very hard to accept and no wonder.

It is very difficult to excel at something and then be told you aren’t as good as you think you are.

This is a result of chasing grades for their own sake.

Weil instead thinks the purpose of study should be to improve our capacity to properly pay attention to something by subsuming ourselves to it and making the point the humble, genuine work towards it. If this is the case then finding something difficult becomes an advantage because you have to try harder:

“If we have no aptitude or natural taste for geometry this does not mean that our faculty for attention will not be developed by wrestling with a problem or studying a theorem. On the contrary it is almost an advantage. It does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so.”

This conception of effort is a thousand miles away from the sort of huffing and puffing to no end that so often comes to mind when we think of ‘trying hard’. It means shedding arrogance and hubris and responding carefully to feedback and working on material not because it is something to be used to show off but because it is challenging and requires us to acknowledge and confront our own limitations and shortcomings.

This sort of effort is hard to do – Weil argues most of us never do it –  but it is open to us all and it is a very worthy ambition.

All can access this sort of reward from a boy working an equation that nobody else in their school even understands to a girl with a learning disability struggling hard to remember her letter sounds.

In their effort both are equal in virtue and equal in honour.

It schools used Weil’s frame to understand, recognise and reward our young people what might be achieved? How better motivated might many be knowing that their failure to achieve what others might doesn’t mean they are any less?

While I’m sure the meritocratic organising principles that bind us all probably mean we can’t ever escape instrumental reward as a motivator – and indeed perhaps this would be unwise anyway – schools focusing on the process – as Weil argues they should – could at as a powerful counternarrative that might check the hubris of those who find work easiest while dignifying those of us who struggle most.

This wouldn’t mean ignoring or dismissing high academic achievement but focusing on the work students did to do so well rather than a grade most of us know we won’t get.

I started with a story. I’ll finish with one too.

Years ago I read the reflections of an aging elite runner in – I think – the Guardian’s “What I’m Really Thinking” series. In this he talked of his disdain for lyrca clad posers like me with smartwatches and Strava maps. He found us ridiculous as we tore past him totally unaware the person we overtook once took part in elite athletics meetings and possessed national records

But he respected the really unfit ones.

The self-conscious and embarrassed in ill-fitting loose tracksuits, plodding slowly up hills in the dawn light aware they were no good at running but doing it anyway.

 “That’s hard” he said. “They get a nod and a smile from me. They’re the ones who get it. The ones who know what it means to really try.”

This is something we can all learn from.


What’s the problem?

There’s been lots on twitter recently about how best to check for understanding with the merits and limitations of cold call, hands up, checking work and mini-whiteboards all covered.

I’ve learned a lot but sometimes found discussion limited because much of what makes anything effective is down to context.

The prior knowledge and ability of a group, the standard of behaviour in a school and how often work is checked all have mediating and moderating effects on the techniques teachers use, and these are often invisible to outsiders.  

We should be grateful to people like Adam Boxer and David Didau who are skilled at breaking the invisible and mysterious into clear actions that can be effortfully worked at. I’ve found their recent work on mini-white-boards inspiring. While I have lots of questions about how and why they might not work for me it wouldn’t be right to dismiss the possibility they might enhance my teaching and I plan to spend time properly trying them out to see.

Checking for understanding is a pre-requisite of good teaching and it’s great so many people are thinking hard about how to be better at it.

But it isn’t easily separable from other stuff that happens in a lessons and I worry things can be lost when we stare down the microscope for too long without a break.

Often what goes wrong in checking for understanding sessions isn’t to do with checking for understanding.

This insightful tweet from @1917AndAllThat nails it where he describes what often goes wrong as an ‘upstream error’ which is a description I just love.

Checking for understanding sessions go wrong not just because of errors in technique or in selecting the wrong technique but also because of what happened ‘upstream’ before the session began. Sessions are moderated and mediated by how much children know about what they’re being asked, which is a product of the quality of instruction.

I’ve seen this in the practice of less experienced teachers and when I find myself teaching something I don’t know well I see it in myself wincing in real time at comments like “So what do you think..”, “that’s not quite what I meant..,” and “can you say something else about..”

When things go very wrong teachers sometimes find themselves trying to prop up and clarify substandard initial instruction through a vague series of questions cast out in the hope one will catch a point the teacher hadn’t taught clearly to begin with.

No technique can compensate for this and a danger in seeing each aspect of a lesson as a distinct from other aspects is taking symptoms for causes and looking for solutions in the wrong places.

It leads to carts being put before horses and privileges off-peg solutions over actual problems – for example a blanket focus on checking for understanding might lead to these strategies being emphasised over other higher leverage actions.

There’s broader lessons here too.

While teaching can be broken down into smaller components, these combine and interact with each other.

Each moment of a lesson is a cog or wheel and these turn other cogs and wheels. All are part of a greater whole. A danger in focusing too much on each cog without stepping back to look at the whole machine is forgetting how it fits together and suddenly finding what seems an obvious and fixable issue is not the real cause of the problem at all.

Those falling to this may develop slick questioning techniques but still find the children in their lessons at a permanent loss for words.

Nothing in teaching is easy and getting better at it isn’t always simple.

Finding real solutions – whether this is to issues in checking for understanding or anything else – the nature and origin of the problem must be properly understood before we decide on the tools.  


“The kids are alright” On how medical frames and models fail children who find learning hard.

In early 1941 Albert Alexander was admitted to Oxford’s Radcliffe Infirmary with abscesses around his face. This infection was caused either by the scratch of a rose thorn or an injury he sustained in a German bombing raid – accounts vary.

There was no way to stop the infection and it spread rapidly to the rest of his head. Soon he lost an eye.  

With death imminent and nothing to lose Albert accepted an experimental drug called penicillin. The results were miraculous. Within 24 hours his fever was down, his sores were healing and beginning to close up.

But there wasn’t enough of the drug to completely cure him. He relapsed and died on 15th March, 1941.

While the new drug had failed to heal him this unsuccessful trial marked the beginning of a new era.

Infections that had been death sentences could now be cured with relative ease. Today billions of people live free of a fear that had stalked humans for hundreds of thousands of years.

Penicillin is just one example of how medicine has transformed life on earth for the better.

Medical science and the medical model are simple yet powerful frames. They identify clear problems and then use recognised scientific methods and procedures to find solutions.

It is a very successful tool – a powerful hammer.

But a problem for those with hammers and those who admire the work done by the people who wield them is how tempting it becomes to use them inappropriately. The medical model is such a hammer and should not be routinely applied to the education of children.

All human populations encompass a wide range of characteristics. A few find learning easy, a few find it difficult and most are somewhere between the two extremes. Finding learning hard does not make anyone a deficient human and it doesn’t mean they are special or that something has gone wrong.

Applied to education the medical model rejects this.

It draws lines distinguishing those who learn quickly from those who are learn slowly and incorrectly labels slower learners as somehow deficient. It then seeks to intervene like a doctor or drug to fix the problem. In practice a SEND register can easily become a list of the supposedly unwell with their disease next to their name and suggested treatments on associated documentation.

For some this might be practically useful. A child who is hard of hearing may have this issue in a classroom largely resolved through a hearing aid and sitting them close to the teacher. A child who is struggling to read because they have not mastered the phonic code will benefit from having this identified and then receiving instruction to fill this gap.

Things are more problematic when the reasons a child struggles to learn is because of an aspect of their identity rather than a specific need or problem that can be fixed – and given the bell curve distribution this is a lot of people.

Some children – for example – have specific genetic conditions which result in smaller than average working memories making learning a huge challenge. Many children without any condition will find learning harder than others simply because of their position on the bell curve of normal human intelligence.

For these children the medical model is disastrous because it snares them in a trap they cannot escape and constructs them as failures regardless of what they do. To escape the trap – perhaps through hypothetical brain-boosting therapy to increase working memory or insert ‘missing’ genes – these children would have to be transformed, and they would not emerge from this process intact as the people they are.

While this is not yet possible the medical model does indeed inform the way children who struggle to learn in lots of well-intentioned ways. The comparative simplicity of the medical method – diagnose – prescribe – treat – is beguiling. This can very easily create an oversimplified and consequently inaccurate view of why a child hasn’t learned something. Still worse it can lead to children being labelled with medical, scientific, pseudo-medical and pseudo-scientific conditions that try to explain normal variation in rates of learning by conceptualising them as diseases.

This leads to back-to-front assumptions learning slowly means there must be something wrong and provides an incentive to medicalise perfectly healthy children – to attempt to explain and justify a failure to get high enough marks by saying this must be down to disorder or condition. Children who don’t learn as fast as some peers or can’t learn something because they haven’t got the prerequisite knowledge can quickly come to believe they have an illness that prevents them progressing unless very specific and sometimes dubious conditions are met. These – for example a belief in Irlen’s Syndrome and coloured lenses as a cure – can then become lifelong obstacles.

The success of the medical model in its own field can dazzle those working in education into using what they think are medical frames and methods to try and get equally revealing and transformative results. Sometimes this is done appropriately and properly but often it isn’t, and this can lead to unsafe conclusions and associated actions. It can also lead to shaky diagnosis made by people unqualified to do so. It is worrying how little oversight there is over non-medically trained professionals diagnosing conditions such as dyslexia and ADHD, and how common phrases such as “he’s clearly on the spectrum” have become.

Medicalising normal human distributions is dangerous. It problematises lots of human behaviour and constructs many people as unwell, different to, less than or worse than an equally constructed and artificial conception of healthy and normal. It leads to the misidentification of issues that slow learning and strategies that at best do no good and is inadvertently humiliating.

The model frames slower learners as ‘special’ (The S of SEND) which implies they require ‘additional’ and ‘different’ curriculum and pedagogy. This is almost inherently othering in application in the implication it means someone who learns slowly learns in a different way to others. In some cases this is true – for example there is evidence children with Williams Syndrome may benefit from some instruction through music – but often it just isn’t. A child who learning to read more slowly than another is far more likely to need greater quality and quantity of what works for the majority of children than they are something different.  

Children are human and while rates of learning vary humans usually learn in similar ways – believing large numbers of children are ‘special’ in the ‘special case’ sense just isn’t logical – the more there are the less possible it is for the term to have any useful value.

I hope to explore this in the next of this series of blog posts.

What proportion of children can be assigned a SEND diagnosis before it becomes meaningless? How many people can we say are ‘special’ for how many different reasons before the definition collapses? Is this more or less than the 39% of the Y11 2016 cohort who were identified as having SEND at some point in their schooling?

Suggested actions:

  • Challenge the assumption a failure to achieve academically is the result of a special educational need.
  • Interrogate and challenge medical/pseudo-medical diagnosis – both formally and informally – made by those not properly trained to make such diagnosis.
  • Introduce more rigour and oversight in policies and procedures that result in children being added to SEND registers.