New year, new school. On making a good start.

I started at a new school today. New timetable. New students. New policies, new rules and new ways of doing things. Having done this only once in the last ten years without a position of responsibility, I am a bit nervous. It is a useful and necessary nervousness though, in that it has me thinking about how to make the best start with children who do not know me, in a context where I can’t rely on the artificial gravitas a leadership position provides.

As a teacher, I will have to be at my sharpest.

In this post I am going to describe my strategy for opening my first lesson, mostly as a way of clarifying my own thoughts, and partially because I hope this will be useful to those who, for whatever reason, are in a similar position. Before going on it’s important to acknowledge there can never be a ‘right’ way to do this, and I anticipate plenty of great teachers will disagree with my way of doing things. Some will find this a bit draconian, others too soft; I hope that those who do disagree will at least trust my care for my pupils is genuine.

Disagreement is fine. Although I have my own views I am quite happy to accept that for some, in some contexts, another approach might be better and I would love to hear from others about what they do to make successful starts.

Before taking over a class I deliberately avoid anything, aside from relevant SEND information, that might make me form prejudices about behaviour. Although wanting to get a sort of heads-up of how children might act is tempting such information can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although we would never consciously treat a child differently because of what we have heard about their actions in the past, in practice it is very difficult to avoid doing so. If, for example, we have heard that “Darren is really rude”, then we are far more likely to interpret an ambiguous comment as disrespectful than the same comment made by a  child we have heard is unfailingly polite. Instead I try to treat everyone the same way and if a child is rude find out whether this is typical or not once it has become established as a clear pattern.

I will also make sure I understand the school strategy for removing child who refuse to follow instructions. This is extremely important as much of my opening routine is based on immediate compliance, and if a child is seen to get away with disobedience, then the whole thing falls apart.

In the first lesson I direct children to the back of the room as they come through the door and ask them to wait in silence until everyone has arrived. Generally, I try to stay away from lining children up in the corridor because this can make the ritual a bit of a show, which can lead to some children acting up. If any child leans against a wall, or talks, or touches another child I challenge this politely but directly, for example, saying “I asked you to stand up straight. Please do not lean against the wall.”

Once the whole class has arrived and is waiting in silence, I very briefly introduce myself (just my name) and tell them as everything will be made clear soon, I will not be taking any questions until I am ready. Then I direct children into a seating plan, boy-girl but random beyond that. I think this works because it makes it clear the plan is not a personal attack based on secret information. If a child talks while others are moving into seats I tell them to stop, but find at this stage, when children are generally still trying to suss me out, doing more is rarely necessary.

Once all children are seated in silence I ask two children, one boy and one girl, to hand out exercise books. If it is the start of the year I will model how I want them to fill in their personal details on the front. If it is midway through, as is the case for me, I will move them straight onto the next task, which is to copy out a brief list of rules in their neatest writing on the next clean page of their exercise book. These rules, concise and always containing “follow instructions first time without arguing”, are displayed on a simple PowerPoint slide with a plain white background.

I make something of a fuss about how much I value good presentation and emphasise that I care more about neat work than speed. While the children work on this in I circulate around the room acknowledging but not over-praising careful work. My praise is focused on effort, not just the neatest writers and use this to gather some informal data on handwriting standards, which allows me to be sure I am am being fair if I want to criticise untidy work in the future.

Once everything is calm and settled, and most children have completed at least two or three of the rules (depending on time), I ask the class to finish the rule they are on, and then to put their pen down and sit up straight. While they finish I continue to circulate, continuing to praise and reminding them to underline titles with a ruler.

When all pens are down I smile for the first time and thank the class for the smooth start. I also apologise, in a tone that makes it clear this is a courtesy and not an acknowledgement of fault, that I have not yet introduced myself and do so. I keep my introduction short but always emphasise that I am strict because I care deeply about my subject and their learning. I promise that they can expect me to work hard, and tell them that I expect the same.

Then I run through my rules, explaining the reason for each and being  as clear, concise and logical as I can be. For example, I may say “it is important you don’t talk when I do, because if you do it means you aren’t listening. We can’t learn when we don’t listen.” I always tell them that they have the right to disagree with my decisions and, inevitably as all teachers do, I will make mistakes. If this happens, I say, stay behind after the class and tell me what you think I got wrong and I will listen. The same is true if they come to me at break, lunch or after school. I promise not to be angry, to take them seriously and to remedy matters if appropriate. I do, however, say that challenging me openly in the classroom is wrong and, even if they are right about the perceived injustice, they will be punished for it.

At the end of my explanation I will ask anyone who thinks my rules are unreasonable to come and speak to me about it after the lesson, or if they feel uncomfortable doing this in person to write it in a note. Not once, in my entire career, has anyone done this.

Finally, before going on to teach my first lesson, which I keep as straightforward and lean as possible, I apologise again, for not yet knowing their names (again as a courtesy not an admission of fault), and promise that I will learn them quickly.

“For now,” I say, “I’ll have to point if I want to speak to you. I know that’s ordinarily rude, but I know you understand why I have to for the time being. Please say your name before speaking so I can start to learn them.”

Generally, I find this works but I know its only a base on which to build. To sustain a meaningful and purposeful classroom I must make sure I follow through on what I’ve said. I am teaching areas of my subject I never have before and whole subjects I haven’t taught for years, so there is lots to do. I’ll have to follow the advice I’ve given those I manage; ask for help, work with the team and to be kind. It is time to practice what I preach. I must work hard and I must care.

I will. I do. I can’t wait.


The means are the end


Philosophically, if that does not sound too pretentious, it has been a challenging year for me. Until a few months ago, I derived my sense of purpose from a belief that my work as a teacher changed lives and contributed to social mobility. My thinking went that by teaching poorer children better than someone else might, I would get them better grades. This would lead to them having more opportunities so they would get ‘better’ jobs and move up the social hierarchy. My reading, research and thinking was, as a consequence, predominantly orientated towards how to help my students perform better in examinations. I believed my value as a teacher could be measured by the outcomes of my students and that these were the result of my work; if grades went up I was doing a good job, if they went down I was not.

Such beliefs are not idiosyncratic. Indeed it can feel as if our whole education system is built on them. Schools are held accountable by Ofsted for results and , in turn, Head Teachers hold their teachers accountable for the results of the children they teach. Great teachers, as everyone knows, make a difference and, rightly or wrongly, we use examination results to measure this difference.

I now believe things are not as clear as this. Richard Selfridge’s writing (@Jack_Marwood), among others, has convinced me that I have probably greatly overstated my contribution to the results of my students. Children have enormously complicated, varied lives and their eventual results simply cannot be explained by any one factor. Believing that by teaching three hours of history per week I can override all other influences is egotistical and naïve, especially as this is also based on the belief I must be more effective than talented colleagues who work just as hard.

The dominant drivers of educational success and failure are not teachers or schools. Parental income and education, along with many other factors, have more influence.

Even if teachers and schools could become dominant drivers it is far from certain this would lead to social mobility anyway. As Martin Robinson pointed out in his wise, kind talk at London ResearchED on Growth Mindset, exam grades and social mobility are zero sum games; there are a finite number of top grades, a finite number of places at ‘elite’ universities and a finite number of high-earning, high status jobs. For poorer children to get into these, some richer children have to miss out. Evidence that this is happening any more than it did in the past is scant. So, depressingly, it appears that I had also overstated the link between educational success and upwards social mobility.

Michael Merrick’s thinking on what social mobility actually means has also, in the best possible way, troubled me. This year Michael said explicitly what I had sort of thought (in a half-formed, vague way) for a while but never dared allow myself to explore, let alone voice; when we talk about social mobility we are usually talking about a sort of social engineering. We are, in effect, trying to make poorer children less like their parents and more like ‘us’. I am not certain that this is always wrong in every circumstance, but it does make me very uneasy. If we are to do this we must think carefully and intentionally about whether this is ethical, and at the moment I worry that we haven’t spent nearly enough time doing this.

This line of thinking cast me, for a while, into a sort of mini-existential crisis. If the means do not lead to the ends, what is the point in them? If great classroom teaching does not result in positive social change is there any point in teaching at all? If the means are morally suspect then how can I be sure I am not inadvertently doing harm?

The search for answers to these questions, in effect a search for meaning, turned me towards philosophy. Here I have been helped by Bernard Andrews (@bernywern) whose post on fideism has probably been the blog that has most influenced me this year. I now have a renewed sense of purpose, found in the belief that teaching is a moral duty, regardless of the outcome of it. Instead of teaching history so my students will be rewarded by top marks I should teach it because, in itself, it is right they learn it. While exam results, of course, are important these should not be the only purpose of education because if we make them so, beyond being the low-water mark against which the success of cleverer children is measured, educating those who fail becomes pointless and this would be immoral.

By over-emphasising the result we devalue the process, which should actually be the whole point.

While letting go of our egos means we can no longer reward ourselves for the achievements of the children we teach, it also frees us from the pointless and often paralysing guilt we feel when they do not do as well. Accepting the influence of our roles is limited frees us from an exhausting cycle of self-congratulation and self-flagellation on things over which we have little control because it, quite rightly, subordinates results to our moral obligation to teach as well as we can regardless of apparent success or failure.

To use this as an excuse for fatalism or passivity would be very wrong. Viewing teaching as a moral rather than just a professional duty actually makes it a much more serious, profound responsibility. It makes ignoring research on the most effective ways to teach a moral error rather than just a professional one. It makes giving up on a child because we know they will fail the exam, or because they ‘don’t count’ on P8 figures or because they are unpleasant, actual ethical failures. It means the moral implications of a three year KS4 must be discussed as well as what this will do to results. It means accepting that regardless of how small or large our influence and how successful or unsuccessful we are, our moral obligation remains a constant that cannot be ignored.

With this new sense of responsibility comes a renewed sense of privilege. While teaching has many frustrations, some inevitable and some infuriatingly unnecessary, being engaged in this important work should fill those of us engaged in it with great pride. While we may argue about the best way to do it, or what it is fundamentally for, we agree that is right to educate children in schools. While sometimes we will enjoy it more than others, and we may doubt our ability, or understandably decide the personal sacrifices are too much and leave the profession, we will never reach the end of our working lives and wonder whether the time we spent teaching was wasted on something that did not really matter. In almost every country in the world, schools breathe in children in the morning and breathe them out in the afternoon hoping that between the bells they will have learned to be more.

Being a part of this noble enterprise is a wonderful thing.

So, while it has been a challenging year it has also been one in which I think I have grown. In January I am back in a classroom again and can hardly wait. As always I will be doing my absolute best for each child in front of me but it will not be because I expect to be rewarded if they do well or to avoid punishment if they do not.

It will be because it is the right thing to do.

Happy Christmas everybody. Enjoy the holidays. See you here in the new year.


Where did textbooks go?


Before my five years abroad, textbooks were used extensively in all the schools  I had worked in. With the odd, typically ill-judged creative exception I used them in all KS3 lessons. At KS4 children paid a deposit and were signed out one of their own. One of the irritations early in my career was children forgetting to bring them, and having to provide spares so there was always at least one between two. Another drawback was the annoying attrition, with new textbooks having to be bought each year to replace lost or damaged copies. This was something I thought my Head of Department was comically obsessed by though now, having done the same job, it seems less funny.

Despite the petty logistical issues, there was no debate whatsoever over whether we needed textbooks or not. Indeed, I think we would have said they were self-evidently essential. Without them how could students do homework? How could they catch up on work they had missed? How could they complete work they had not finished in lessons? How could they revise previous topics? If you told my department to teach without them we would have been baffled.

At the international school at which I worked for three years textbooks were even more important. Most of our students were from African backgrounds where education was strikingly traditional and parents, relaxed about many issues, absolutely insisted their children were issued with ‘The Book’ at the beginning of the year. The school was one of the least costly in the city and, in my administrative capacity, one of the most significant challenges was sourcing these. Sometimes I got so stressed about it I half wondered whether the universe was taking cosmic revenge for the pleasure I had taken in the struggles of the poor Head of Department at my first school.

In both contexts teaching was not limited to only the use of textbooks, but it was heavily reliant on them. If a textbook was poor, debate was over what to replace it with and how to afford it, not over whether a textbook should be used at all or not.

When I returned to England and took up a Head of Faculty role, it became quickly clear that things had changed. At the school to which I had been appointed there were no class sets of textbooks. Although there was an dusty store cupboard full of remnants, and in some classrooms there were a few half-sets used for exam classes, the neat stacks (spines all facing in the same direction, please) I was used to were completely absent.

I asked why and was told by those on my team that they used PowerPoint and their own resources instead. A couple seemed concerned about this but most did not, and some seemed positively proud. I trod carefully, aware that things change and that perhaps I was out-of-date. Nonetheless, with the support of SLT, I could not stop myself ordering full class sets for the History Department. The longer I was in the role the more clear it became that resistance to textbooks had become quite widespread, and this got me wondering how such a massive change had happened so abruptly.

Now, with attention back on textbooks following the controversial recent speech in favour of them by Nick Gibb, I would like to suggest some reasons for the decline in their use and the negative consequences of this, before finishing by briefly explaining why I think a move back towards textbooks, so long as they are good ones, should be welcomed.


In many contexts, whether rightly or wrongly, differentiation was interpreted as multiple activities and resources to meet the needs of individual children. As a textbook can only ever be one resource, teachers and school leaders came to believe that using them meant the needs of some learners were not being met. The only way round this was to produce multiple resources. Those that did not were seen as not caring, which contributed towards ‘competitive martyr syndrome’, (a phrase explaining so much of what goes wrong in many schools, coined by @terraglowach), as teachers sought to outdo each other by demonstrating they had spent longer than their colleagues resourcing their lessons.

There is always a very narrow line between providing children with work they can access but still moves them forward, and giving them work they can already do. A good textbook can help teachers avoid this by providing an appropriately challenging anchor point. Without this anchor point it is easy, especially for less experienced teachers, or teachers who aren’t experts in an area of the course, to end up giving children work that is too easy. In the attempt to produce engaging resources for individual children too much attention is often placed on drawing misleading parallels with what they are already interested in. I know this because, to my shame, I have been guilty of it; for example producing a worksheet comparing the succession crisis of 1066 to choosing a new manager for the England football team. This is misguided. It is important to remember that ultimately, the aim of education is to skilfully and incrementally adapt children to allow them to authentically access the subjects they study, not to twist these disciplines into things they are not.

The belief that good teachers produce their own original resources seems to have become a pervasive one and, in some schools, almost a de facto Teacher Standard. Comments on a Twitter poll I ran suggested lots and lots of teachers would feel nervous using a textbook in an observed lesson for this reason. This has resulted in a proliferation of amateur educational publishers, and, for every teacher capable of resourcing originally and well, there are many spending hours making material no better or even inferior to that made commercially by experts. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect teachers to be as skilled at writing resource material as those whose job it is to do it. This is not to say, of course, that everything on the market is of a high standard, but before reinventing wheels we should at least consider the possibility we might not need to.

Teachers who choose to produce all their own resources probably should not complain about being overworked and school leaders who, for whatever reason, forbid or even discourage the use of textbooks should recognise that such policies have enormous workload implications and must drastically reduce load in other areas.

Skills based curriculum.

The extent skills based curriculums were adopted has been robustly debated, and it is important to recognise that not all schools implemented these wholescale. That said, for a while in many places transferrable skills were fashionable. Even today, skills based descriptor success criteria and mark-schemes remain commonplace. For skills based curriculums textbooks can easily appear to be peripheral because they predominantly contain knowledge and the learning of this was often viewed as ‘low order’, and so not a priority. I myself, early in my career, picked up the belief that the actual knowledge we taught children in history was just a vehicle for the teaching of skills and in itself was of lesser importance. For these reasons, textbooks fell further out of fashion.

It is now pretty well understood that the acquisition of broad and deep knowledge is of fundamental importance because without it children are not capable of doing anything much at all. While a lovely idea, it seems to be becoming increasingly clear that ‘skills’, if indeed these exist at all, are domain specific, non-transferrable and completely dependent on knowledge. Failing to provide a textbook, which forms a permanent record of what has been studied, makes it tougher for children to retain and reinforce the knowledge on which sophisticated thinking relies. While it could be argued that this information is now readily available on the internet, finding it this way is comparably time-consuming and full of distraction, especially for novices who lack the ability to discern the difference between the wheat and the chaff. It is likely that children from less educationally privileged backgrounds are affected by this more than their more advantaged peers, as they are less likely to have support to help them find the right material at home.

This is not to say that all textbooks are adequate – some are terrible and some schools effectively produce their own. This, however, is not a rejection of textbooks in principle.

Textbooks are boring.

This is quite the silliest justification for not using textbooks. In my experience, those who say this sort of things usually mean that text presented in a formal, academic style is boring and that interactive child-pleasing activities are preferable. This view, in effect a sort of bait and switch, is flawed because trying to engage a child in something by giving them something different to do is plain illogical. Sadly, even some textbooks do this by making embarrassing supposedly child centred references in the misguided belief this will make children interested in what, by association, is assumed not to be interesting. Examples of this in history include comparing the Battle of Hastings to a football match, or in geography this task, which asks children to imagine they are a panda.

A badly written textbook is as depressing as any badly written book, but the solution to this is to get a better textbook, not to abandon them altogether.

Boring, fascinating or plain silly; textbooks can be a lot of things. The issue is not the medium but the quality of the writing and production. Saying textbooks are boring is just as ridiculous as saying novels or poems are.

The arrival of the Interactive Whiteboard.

Interactive whiteboards have changed day-to-day teaching more than any other development in the last twenty years, but not in the way they were originally meant to.

When these first arrived the point was their interactivity; children were supposed to use them as much as their teachers and a whole raft of software was developed to facilitate this. Teachers were sent on whizzy courses and, for a while, there was real buzz around the all the fancy whistles, tricks and bells that these screens could do.

That common sense prevailed and the buzz faded almost as quickly as it arrived was probably a good thing. Most of these screens are now used for nothing more demanding than projecting PowerPoint presentations and showing video clips. While a few teachers have turned their back on it, using PowerPoint has become almost ubiquitous in most schools. This is quite understandable. Interactive whiteboards are very expensive and not using them for anything at all would appear to be a terrible waste of money.

It is difficult to overstate just how much PowerPoint has changed the planning and delivery of lessons. Before projectors and PowerPoint it was only possible to project images or texts overhead via fiddly OHTs, which meant what a teacher wanted students to work on had to be physically present. This created demand for textbooks because, without them, teachers would have to spend time finding or producing lots of standalone sheets or labour intensive transparencies. With the advent of interactive whiteboards teachers, because it was easy to do, began placing more and more on slides and there was a subtle but significant shift; before them children looked down at books whereas after them, children began looking up at big screens. As the importance of PowerPoint grew so too did the perceived importance of being good at making attractive presentations, which further increased workload.

The rise of PowerPoint, uninterrupted aside from the great Prezi bubble of five or so years ago, was not intentional. Interactive Whiteboards were not introduced so teachers could make presentations for their classes. It happened mainly because it was easy to use and preinstalled on school computers, and the fancy new screens obviously had to be used for something. So, the decline of textbook use, at least partially a consequence of this, was not planned either.

The consensus of research, helpfully collated and summarised here by Daniel Willingham, seems to be that, generally, we do not read as well off screens, particularly in comprehension, as we do off paper. While this research is focused on e-readers it seems at least plausible that these findings would hold true of bigger screens too. These findings are supported by this fascinating article from The Scientific American, which makes a convincing case for why reading long pieces of text from a screen may be more difficult than reading the same text from paper.

While PowerPoint, used thoughtfully as written about by Robert Peal here, is probably not in itself a bad thing, the implications of research is worrying for lessons in which content has effectively been typed from a textbook and into a presentation. The shift from textbook to PowerPoint may well have been to the detriment of learning. While we may be showing more information than ever before, the children in our classrooms could well be understanding less of it.

It is also instructive to remember that a PowerPoint presentation, unless it is printed thus negating much of the point, is not available to children outside of a classroom in the same way a textbook should be. This may well have contributed to the fetishisation of the standalone lesson, which caused so many problems in the recent past.

Schools for the Future.

Perhaps the most annoying untrue truism said about schools is that they should be preparing children for  workplaces that do not yet exist, by guessing what these will be and modelling themselves on them.

Back in the mid-2000s this meant going paperless.

Paperless meant no books, which meant no need for cupboards or shelves. This meant when schools did buy textbooks it was difficult to find places to keep them, which helped reinforce the impression that they no longer really had a place in schools. Without proper places to store them, those that were purchased deteriorated far faster than they had before and needed replacing more often, which made them seem more expensive than they had been.

While wise voices like Laura McInerney’s saw the danger and spoke out against it, such concerns were ignored.

Like jetpacks and hover scooters, paperless offices have still not arrived yet we are stuck with schools designed on the understanding everyone would soon be working in them. Many are now not easy places in which to use textbooks, which has made them logistically more unattractive than they were before.

Textbooks seem expensive

While the price of textbooks has not changed much, the range of items on which schools feel compelled to spend money has expanded dramatically. When I began teaching my history department spent money on books, stationary, the odd video or new-fangled DVD, and subsidising trips for children who would not be able to afford them otherwise. Now, in addition, departments can also spend money on, amongst other things, software packages, tablet computers and cameras. This has made textbooks appear less affordable than they used to be and, in addition, in some schools spending on such ‘old fashioned’ resources can feel like it is either implicitly or even explicitly discouraged. Even when textbooks are purchased, their perceived greater expense has made it less common to sign these out to students or to allow them to take them home, which was once typical practice. This is a real shame, as not making these available for children at home is to miss part of the point.

Ironically, day-to-day logistics mean that in many schools paper-based resources are not actually used significantly less than they used to be, which has increased photocopying bills and placed already squeezed budgets under even more pressure. These paper based resources are, inevitably, of varying quality and this is something Ofsted raised as a concern in 2015.

Changing specifications

Of all the reasons for the decline in the use of textbooks this is the one with which I have the most sympathy. Since returning from abroad five years ago, I have had to teach three different GCSE History specifications. Each has required new textbooks and other resources with no extra funding for this provided by government. My school purchased these books centrally, so while it did not affect our departmental budget, this was money that could not be spent elsewhere. I know many departments in other schools have not been so lucky and for these, ordering whole sets of new books every couple of years can understandably seem a very poor economy.

The big problem here is that most textbooks, unavoidably, are actually specification books which contain assessment criteria, mark schemes and sample answers. Not using up-to-date versions or using materials created in house, even if the substantive content is the same, puts children at a real disadvantage unless a lot of work is done producing extra resources to meet the demands of the examiners. As an old RE colleague once said to me, “God may not change but exam boards do.”

There are only really two ways to solve this problem; the first and most realistic, is for government to leave specifications as they are for a while. This, I have reasonable faith, is now quite likely. The uncertainty around 1-9 and the ensuing changes mean any significant alterations in the near future would be, to put it mildly, unwise.

This solution, as much as it will be understandably welcomed by teachers, is a depressingly reductionist one; ideally a good textbook should only go out of date if the content has to be revised because of developments in the scholastic field. The only real reason textbooks have a shelf-life is because of changes to course structures and if it were possible to avoid teaching to tests a good one could, theoretically at least, last forever. Good textbooks should have the potential to become classics used by generation after generation irrespective of changing fashions.

The only way to achieve this would be to, as Michael Fordham and Daisy Christodoulou have advocated, abandon set exam questions altogether and use Comparative Judgement instead of descriptor based mark-schemes. Aside from any impact this might have on the longevity of textbooks, this might well be wise given the unresolved issues around criteria based marking reliability.

In the meantime, while we wait for the arrival of this promised land, avoiding the use of textbooks is not a solution; in many cases, failing to provide them is to do our students a disservice.


Getting to the bottom of the reasons for the decline in textbook use has taken me far more time and words than I had expected when I began. It has been complicated and, just like the rise of target grades, largely unintentional. While the decline has created some winners (mainly ed. tech. companies), no one person, group or agency ever sat down and decided textbooks were A Bad Thing and ordered their elimination.

It is time to grasp the bull by the horns and make well-considered intentional decisions. If schools, departments or teachers really disagree with the points I have made here and decide that textbooks are undesirable in their context then, I suppose, not using them might make sense. If, however, schools are not using them simply because of the unintended consequences of unrelated changes and trends then this is, to me, not good enough.

So while we may well disagree over their content, I am in agreement with Minister Gibb.

More textbooks in schools would be a good thing.


History: the Ghost at the Feast


The year after I left university, while working as a supervisor for a local bar and nightclub, I applied to a graduate fast-track scheme for a large recruitment consultancy.

The scheme offered good money, benefits and prospects. The process was competitive. I had to go through two local interviews and a regional one. Suited and slick, I must have done well. After a couple of weeks, I was asked to attend a final national level interview with the CEO of the company. I was told that although the panel would be seeing a couple of other candidates the general view was I had, bar unexpected disaster, done enough to be appointed and was told to begin looking for housing in London.

The night before the final interview I ironed my shirt, shined my shoes and went to bed early. The next morning I had a proper breakfast, set off with plenty of time to spare and arrived promptly.

The interview went well, being more of a getting to know each other chat than an in depth interrogation, and from the sort of questions I was asked it became clear I had the job.

And with the certainty came a totally unexpected emotion. Panic. In the eyes of those in front of me I suddenly saw an infinite procession of grey office days. On Target Earnings. Bonuses. Sweaty Christmas parties. Company Car. Private Healthcare. BMW. Tuxedos. Golf Clubs. And all for what? Profits for nameless shareholders and the hope of one day being able spend half the day on fairways and greens.

I wanted my life to mean more.

“I am so, so sorry,” I found myself saying. “I’ve made a mistake. I don’t want to be a recruitment consultant.”

Nobody said a word. The silence lasted hours.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I’m going to go.” And I did. I still remember the screech of the chair legs on the lino floor as I pushed it back. Nobody said anything. A few seconds later, past the receptionist and her potted plants and I was out in the sunshine. Half way home I realised I had left my coat but never went back for it. I ignored phone-calls from the company for a couple of days and that was that. Less than a year later I was training to be teacher. Three years after that I was in Ethiopia with VSO. Fifteen years later here I am.

Good story isn’t it? It should be. After all, I have been telling it for years. I love it. It shows me exactly how I want to be seen; competent, clever and talented enough to have got a hot-shot city job but principled enough to make a scene turning it down. It shows me as reflective and thoughtful. It suggests that my decision was a wise one. It makes sense. It is part of my history.

Of course, it is only partly true. The factual bits are; I did pass the earlier interviews and I did walk out of the final one in the way I described. When linked to later events, it does make a convincing narrative. But this narrative has been constructed retrospectively. At the time, my twenty-one-year old self did not know he was going to become a teacher, or go to Ethiopia, or anything else. Yes, he did not want to work in an office but this was probably because he thought it would be really boring. Twenty-one-year old Ben was also young and arrogant enough to think he would have infinite opportunities and so turning this one down was no big deal. Twenty-one-year old Ben was also having a great time living with his friends and working in a nightclub with girls he fancied, and didn’t really want to move to London.

More true. Less noble. A much less satisfying narrative.

Real life very rarely supplies us with strong, convincing narratives so we create our own in order to give ourselves a sense of purpose and meaning. Real life is messy and random and when looked at dispassionately usually does not make much sense. Working out why we did things, let alone why other people did things, is very hard. So we create stories we like.

As a society we do this on a larger scale too. We mythologise past events and weave them into a story. We call it history. And if we are not careful, we teach these stories to the children in our schools.

There isn’t a term for this sort of “Ye Olde Payst Tymes” history, but it is everywhere. It is a land in which Gandhi and Martin Luther King are secular saints with no human flaws. It is a land in which Churchill won World War Two with his cigar and V for victory sign. Here the Suffragettes are solely responsible for getting women the vote and Ring-a-ring a roses is an ancient rhyme about the Black Death. Henry VIII is forever the fat ogre who composed Greensleeves and Reformed the Church just so he could divorce his first wife.

This sort of history is the history of ‘everyone knows’. It is the history of ‘the man in the pub says’. It is the history of Philipa Gregory and the sexy Tudors on TV. It is Horrible Histories at the theatre. It is the history of Catherine the Great and the Horse. It is a story in which one thing clearly leads to another, which leads to another and then to another again and now here we are. It is a land in which, so long as events are set in the past, anything is acceptable.  For most of us, particularly those of us sharing a common heritage and culture, “Ye Olde Payst Tymes” is a nice, comfortable place. It is safe and warm. It is a party of familiar guests who all agree.

There is not much we can do about what happens outside our schools, but such nonsense can easily slip into our classrooms. This happens when the popular societal view of history is confused with the scholarly discipline schools are actually responsible for teaching. When this happens anything goes because what is being represented is seen as self-evidently true.

This is wrong and dangerous. It is wrong because any proper study of anything in history reveals nothing is simple. There is no uncontested narrative. History as Jim Carroll, has so effectively pointed out, is by its nature an argumentative discipline. The USSR won World War Two. Women got the vote because of their contribution in World War One. There is no record of “Ring-A-Ring-A-Roses” anywhere until the 19th century. Henry VIII was athletic most of his life, wanted an annulment not a divorce and the only reason the Pope didn’t grant it was that Catherine of Aragorn’s family had him besiged. Nobody ever died having sex with a horse.  It turns out that what everyone thinks happened is, very often, not what really happened at all and even when there is agreement on what there is valid scholarly disagreement on why and how.

Pointing this out does not make us popular. At the Olde Payst Tymes feast the historian is the ghost who mutters “well not really,” and “yes sort of but not in the way you mean”, and “there really isn’t any evidence for that you know.” True history is the weighing and shifting of evidence to support what is claimed even (perhaps especially) if it makes the world less immediately satisfying, less superficially logical and more difficult to understand. History is more a verb than it is a noun and the teaching of it in schools ought to reflect this. It should be tentative and uncertain and full of provisos. Children should know that almost everything they learn is disputed and that they too might, once they have enough knowledge of the events and what has been written about them, contribute meaningfully to the conversation.

Of course this can feel like it spoils a bit of the fun. It means not spending time in lessons designing shields for a Battle of Hastings reconstruction. It means less dressing up as Tudors and performing in plays. It means no to stories, poems and diaries and yes to lots of essays. It means no to posters commemorating the Battle of Britain pilots and yes to extended writing on the contested significance of the Battle itself. It means saying no to cross curricular links with English if they are studying “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” and more reading historical scholarship alongside good textbooks.

This does not mean that creative activities designed to help students think hard have no place in the classroom, but these should be carefully and judiciously planned and should be a formative not final stage. Such activities can be inspirational and powerful, but should never be a simple celebration of a culturally dominant interpretation for its own sake.

This view is not shared by everyone. I know a history teacher who was told by an Ofsted inspector and History specialist after a lesson on interpretations of the Norman Conquest, “they don’t need this sort of thing in Year 7; just do the Horrible Histories stuff and get them excited.” It is really tempting to capitulate and join the fun at ye Olde Payst Tymes party but it is really, really important that history teachers do not because when we do we create the impression that there is only one interpretation of our past, which invalidates all others. It replaces nuance with black and white certainty, which is a betrayal of history in its purest disciplinary sense. Teachers who allow this to happen are not really teaching history at all.

It is dangerous too. If we create heroes then we must have villains. For every triumphant historical goody there must be a nasty historical baddy for them to defeat. This makes history a moral fable, which is fine as long as we agree with the moral but suddenly scary when those we disagree with create fables radically different to our own.

It isn’t right. The truth, almost all the time, is that history, like life, is painted in shades of grey. Those who lived before we do were no better or worse than we are, and to suggest otherwise is to paint in false colour.


Great Explainers: Gary Neville.


This is the final part of a three part series started by Adam Boxer (@adamboxer1) on ‘Great Explainers’. Following Adam’s excellent appraisal of Richard Feynman and Mark Enser’s on the Met Office, I am going to be explaining why football pundit and former player Gary Neville deserves recognition. Although he is almost always very good indeed this outstanding fifteen minute clip, on diving in professional football, is worth close attention.

For a history teacher the thesis/antithesis format is familiar. He begins with the widely held view that players that dive in football are cheats and should be punished, and then challenges it with the idea those with the opportunity to dive but choose not to are naïve. The controversial, challenging second interpretation is deliberately and dramatically set up when Neville says, at 1 minute 20 seconds, “penalty yes, diving yes” The statement, superficially completely counterintuitive establishes interest in the argument that will follow and, becoming more convincing each time, is repeated numerous times throughout his explanation. Rooted in the subject, this is a hook in the best, truest possible sense.

Neville then goes on the problematise the concept of diving. Before watching this clip I, as am sure many football fans did, saw this as straightforward; diving is the deliberate attempt to simulate a foul in order to gain an unfair advantage and undeniably immoral. Neville, using multiple examples, shows what an unsophisticated view this is. He moves clearly and logically through a number of sequential points:

  1. The line between a deliberate fakery and honest reaction is blurred.
  2. That it is widespread among almost all players of all positions.
  3. It is accepted as part of the game by those actually involved in it.
  4. That players who do not dive when touched by an opponent put their teams at a great disadvantage.

Each of the examples is clear and unambiguous, and explained enthusiastically, using self-deprecation and humour, which makes the challenging message far easier to absorb. His delivery is impassioned and deliberately confrontational. At one point he even leaps to his feet to demonstrate a mistake made by a defender. Neville also uses his own expertise and past experience as a player to shed more light on each example, firmly establishing a sense of credibility. This is an important point; if we are to use this video to guide forming good explanations we must acknowledge it at least very unlikely that Gary Neville could explain something outside his area of expertise to such a high standard.  The teaching parallel is clear – Neville takes what his audience thinks they know and then connects what he is explaining to it, using his own expertise of what he knows about football from both a player’s and a supporter’s perspective to carve away layers of ignorance and misconception.

The effect, for me and for many others, was dramatic. It became clear that moralistic naivety had blinded me to an entire aspect of a game I thought I knew inside out. Every time I watched a match in the past I had missed significant aspects of strategy and tactics, and the nuance in the micro-battles that occur all over the pitch. What I had regarded as simple and easy faded away, replaced by a far more intricate, subtle reality that suddenly made football make more sense.

“Ah, that’s why!” I thought.

But old, engrained ideas die hard and, of course, part of me still hung on to the idea that this might not be as widespread as Neville makes out. Surely, I thought, the most honest and upstanding players do not dive? But, as the skilled teacher he is, Neville has anticipated this misconception and hammers his message home by going through examples of such players and showing them diving too; Stephen Gerrard, Frank Lampard and the acknowledged best player in the world, Lionel Messi all appear in his rogues gallery. But, of course, his point is that they are not rogues or cheats; the best man at his own wedding, David Beckham, appears diving near the end of the clip to make it absolutely clear his message is not a personal attack on those he dislikes.

Finally, Gary Neville acknowledges that diving is an issue and poses new questions; when did it start? What are the downsides of the various solutions that have been suggested? Are these worth the price or do we have to accept it as inevitable? Having navigated us past our ignorance he then points to the real problems ahead, encouraging us to keep thinking.

His explanation leaves his interlocuter floored. For the audience the experience is revelatory and transformative; we leave both knowing more, and wanting to know more. We come away empowered; the next time we hear a crowd boo or shout ‘cheat’ (or worse) at a diving footballer we are less likely to join in, more likely to shake our head knowingly and look round for someone to share our greater knowledge and understanding with.

After all, one of the hallmarks of great explanations is that we want to pass them on.


Nothing new, it’s a review – on why I killed my starters.


When I trained to be a teacher lessons were supposed to come, like a meal in a fancy restaurant, in three parts – starter, main and plenary. The concept of a ‘starter’ became fetishised and developed into a systematic obsession. INSET courses on starters seemed to happen every week. They were a common focus for lesson observations and producing resources for them clogged up reprographics departments for months on end. Huge, huge amounts of time and effort for a part of the lesson which, although it expanded as time went on, was initially only supposed to last five or so minutes. It was as if we had all come to believe that if our starter was whizbangy, engaging and differentiated everything else would just fall into place.

And make no mistake, ‘starters’ were supposed to be whizzbangy. Laminated card sorts were good. Putting a laminated card sort in an envelope and labelling it “TOP SECRET” was even better. Using police tape to make a classroom look like a crime scene was best practice.

I would love to say that as a younger teacher I was wiser than my peers, standing back and seeing this for the nonsense it was but, of course, I did not. I could fill a blog with creative starter activities that now fill me with as much shame as they once did pride. Although I have spent years weeding them out of my planning they occasionally still jump out at me, lurking forgotten on dusty old hard-drives. Only recently an awful old starter I once created, which used choosing the next England football manager as a metaphor for the succession crisis of 1066, exploded out of a folder called ‘1066 and stuff’ like a malevolent, mocking Jack in the Box.

As time went by and I became more experienced my ‘starters’ did become more rigorous,  historically authentic and considerably less effort to plan. A couple of years ago they typically involved responding to a historical source linked to the content of the main part of the lesson. What they had in common with my old style of ‘starter’ was they usually looked forward and not back, which meant that while they were certainly better than they had been, the work produced by students was inevitably of limited quality – they couldn’t complete it to a higher standard simply because they did not yet know the content on which it was based.

I developed a sneaking sense that the time would probably be better spent testing my students on what they had learned in the past and, indeed, with my KS4 students this is what I did as exam dates drew closer. However, still to a point indoctrinated by the ‘hook ‘em in’ philosophy, I lacked the courage to unashamedly roll this out to all my classes; after all, what could be less engaging than beginning a lesson with a test?

Two years ago I finally plucked up the courage to stand by my convictions and, as a matter of routine, replaced all my ‘starters’ with ‘reviews’. Fifteen short questions, read out by me, completed in silence, to be self-marked by each student. Five on the previous lesson. Five on the topic. Five on anything they might have learned about since they had started history at secondary school. A doddle to plan, and homework suddenly became much simpler than it had been too – children were simply told to take exercise books and knowledge organisers home and learn them, using the read/cover/recite/write/check method we taught them in Year 7.

As I had expected, work improved. Extended writing and essays became more detailed and discussions in lessons more nuanced as children referenced previously covered material with greater confidence and fluency. What I had not anticipated was the enthusiasm with which children adapted to the change. Any fears I had about sullen resentment were soon dispelled. To my pleased surprise, students looked forward to these tests. They hissed ‘yesss” and even fist-pumped when I read out answers and they got it right. They groaned when they got answers wrong that they just knew they should have known. One boy even exploded out of his chair and shouted “GET IN!” the first time he got full marks. I found children testing each other in the corridor at break. Two girls who sat next to each other drew tables in the back of their books to keep track of their scores. What I had one believed would be miserable drudgery turned out to be full of fun and joy. Scores, overall, steadily rose.

I will never return to ‘starters’. I am sorry I persevered with them for so long. I should have known better.

So welcome to my lesson. Pens out. One to fifteen in your margins. Nothing new, it’s a review. Question one..


Ten principles for leading change from below.


As an unpromoted teacher, or even middle leader, it is easy to feel powerless. It can appear that the big, important decisions are made in higher orbits with any downward consultation, if it happens at all, more tokenistic than meaningful. It often seems that those above expect us to steadfastly enact central diktats whether we agree with them or not.

Engaging with research and the wider educational community, perhaps the teaching equivalent of taking the red pill, can actually makes this much worse. It is, after all, far easier go along with nonsense when you don’t know it has been exposed as such, or that there are sensible alternatives. But once out of the Matrix there is no going back – policies that once elicited no reaction or at worse were irritating, become infuriating.

It often feels as if there aren’t very many of us. Most teachers are not on edu-twitter. Most do not attend weekend conferences, read research or pedagogy books. And who can blame them? Expecting education to be everyone’s hobby as well as profession is a very big ask, especially as pay continues to decline and punishing workloads remain a cause of stress and even depression for many teachers.

This gloomy landscape makes it very easy for us to experience a sense of futility and helplessness. Although great beacons of hope (DON’T LOOK DIRECTLY AT MICHAELA, IT WILL BLIND YOU) burn on the horizon these can dispirit us further, making our own nascent campfires seem mean and pathetic by comparison. But, cold and alone, at least we are warmed by our righteousness.

And here lies a great danger. This righteous feeling is seductive and addictive. We can too quickly come to define ourselves by it. Convincing ourselves that change is not possible in our own contexts we may come to revel in our outsider status, sneering privately at the outdated use of double-marking, VAK, brain gym or the mindless application of growth mind-set. This is understandable, of course, but is also cowardly and unprofessional; if we know something is not right we have an ethical duty to challenge it. This process can be at best uncomfortable and, at worse, frightening.

This post aims to offer some advice on how to do this.

  1. Remember you and your SLT are on the same side.

“Let’s knowingly enforce policies that we know don’t work so our kids do worse, we get put in special measures and loads of people, including us, get fired.” Said no SLT ever. SLTs do not meet at midnight on stormy moors to plot ways in which to mess up children. Nor, although it may sometimes appear that way, are members of leadership teams generally selected for their idiocy. It is helpful to remember, before challenging an idea, that SLTS want the same things we do; better behaviour, better teaching, better outcomes, happy children and alumni with a wide range of options. It is also worth remembering that they are likely to be as busy, to the point of being overloaded, as we are and that they too have families and lives beyond the school gates. If they are not on the vanguard of the educational zeitgeist it is more likely to be because they are exhausted by endless changes and rounds of meetings than it is they don’t care. We should also remember that any mistakes they have made have been well-intentioned and that they, being human, are just as likely to react defensively to criticism as we do to consultants barging into our classrooms to tell us we are teaching wrong.

To establish conditions in which challenging but professional conversations can happen we need to be mindful of all this and think in terms of ‘we’ rather than ‘you.’ Going in like a bull in a china shop and shouting the odds is always counterproductive.

  1. Play the ball not the man – question your own motives.

As I have written about here, many schools are peculiarly hierarchical and this can create unspoken grievance and resentment. When we feel we have been badly treated in the past, it can be tempting to try to take revenge on a perpetrator by attacking their work. We are more likely to find fault in a policy when we dislike the person responsible for it. Before proceeding it is worth questioning our own motives – if what we really want is a personal victory for its own sake it would be wise to think again. By going ahead we are likely to make all sorts of mistakes and even if we succeed, we may end up with a policy no better than the one it replaces. Still worse, we may end up contributing or even creating a negative professional climate in which meaningful change in the future actually becomes more difficult.

  1. Consider whether it is the right time.

Just because an idea is a good one does not mean it is always the right time for it. The day after a disappointing Ofsted is probably not the best time to volunteer advice. Before pitching something be sure that the environment is receptive.

  1. Be sure you are right – do your research.

A couple of years ago, right in thinking that a major obstacle to progress for my school’s students was their failure to work enough outside lessons, I got very excited about Flipped Learning. Off the back of a couple of blogs and articles I’d read, I went for it hard. I found extra reading and videos and encouraged those I worked with to do the same. Some promising initial evidence, primarily lesson observations, suggested it was having a positive impact and I shared what I was doing with the whole school. Unfortunately, before very long, it turned out that most children in my lessons were not retaining enough of what they were taught in regular lessons to benefit from any extra material. What they really needed was more regular retrieval practise and interleaving. While I had correctly diagnosed the problem, I had prescribed the wrong treatment. But, by the time I realised the idea was flawed, at least in the context of my own teaching, it was too late – the horse was out of the stable.

If I had waited just a little longer, read a little more widely and asked the right people the right questions I would have avoided the embarrassment of having to row back on a lot of what I had been advocating. I might also have avoided creating an impression that I could be somewhat mercurial, which would have made it easier for me to convince SLT that ideas I had later, which were actually much more solid, were worth taking a punt on. Fortunately, I did work in a school that gave me the benefit of any doubt but if I had encountered more resistance in the future, I would have understood.

Put simply, make sure you are right before pushing an idea forward; don’t open the oven door until you are sure your puddings have risen.

  1. Share and summarise what you have read.

SLT are busy. Expecting them to have read everything out there is, in many cases, unrealistic. Giving them a reading list in its entirety does not make them any extra time and they are unlikely to wade through the whole of E D Hirsch’s bibliography just because we think they should. Better to give summaries, focused on the change you want to make. Even better, provide summaries that already exist, be they blogs, short journal articles or Oliver Caviglioli’s excellent pictorial representations. By showing how you reached the point you have, you are far more likely to convince SLT that your idea is serious and worth considering. Try to make this a dialogue and be ready to field questions and critique – although this can be frustrating and can feel like going back over old ground, it helps create a sense of joint ownership, which might be helpful in the future. Don’t be afraid to be politely pushy – ask for a convenient time to discuss the reading and follow up if other things get in the way. Provide tea.

  1. Offer solutions.

A big mistake made when complaining about something, in outside life as much as in teaching, is not deciding on what should change as a result of the complaint. Moaning about a policy is very unlikely to end it if something else is not proposed in its stead. Failing to do this very easily creates an impression of irritating negativity, especially if it looks like a pattern. SLT are much more likely to be open to change if it is worded as “we should stop doing X and do Y,” rather than “X is stupid and we should just stop”, which is very easily interpreted as “X is stupid and so are you for doing it.”

  1. Start small.

Asking SLT to abandon a whole-school policy and immediately change to what you propose just because you did some reading is, charitably, naïve. Indeed, any SLT working like this would be ineffective. Rather than ask for this ask for permission to run a small-scale trial, perhaps with just one or two classes you teach. Carefully record results and share these with anyone who wants to see them. Done cleverly, this can actually bring SLT onside, moving the “I” to “we” and creating a shared sense of ownership over the idea. This bonding effect can be further strengthened by asking for help and advice and acting upon it when appropriate. Ideally, you want to get any SLT member you work with you to be as excited about your (our) idea as you are. And, as excited as you may be, remember ethical considerations and do not be disingenuous – if there are problems in your trial be open about them and don’t be tempted to massage or spin results. If you find yourself even tempted to do this then, again, it may be wise to consider your own motivations.

  1. Be stubborn.

For SLTs introducing a new  policy is far less frightening than terminating one. This is because, in the absence of concrete data on what works and what doesn’t, it is often impossible to prove empirically that any policy has no benefit, which means stopping anything can feel like it carries risk. This is one of the reasons workloads spiral – changes in schools are more commonly additions than replacements. We often hear ‘we’d also like you to do X” but rarely hear “Y did not work so we are stopping it and replacing it with X.” Because, no matter how much we might wish otherwise, there will only ever be twenty four hours in a day, this leads to the watering down of good ideas to make everything fit in. A nervous SLT may see the benefit of predominantly verbal feedback but, should they introduce it as an add-on to an existing double-marking policy it will, inevitably, lead to dilution and poor implementation. Plus, our colleagues will hate us for increasing workload should we go along with what might seem, to begin with, an acceptable compromise.

It might be necessary to be stubborn. If an SLT has gone far enough with an idea to consider adopting it beyond the classroom in which it was first trialled, then they must be made aware that any revisions of it, or adopting parts but not all, might well mean that any positive effects do not replicate.

  1. Scale up slowly.

Many really good ideas fail when they are scaled up because they are implemented too hastily with too little oversight. Even a sound idea can be scuppered by poor application, which is likely when those involved do not really understand how it is supposed to work. This is even more likely if those supposed to apply the change feel it to be imposed on them, which results in half-hearted efforts and invariably poorer results. This can easily lead to the idea itself being written off as a bad one.

To avoid this scale up incrementally. Start small and expand slow enough to be sure that the policy you end up with is the same one you began with.

  1. Share the credit.

When an idea we are responsible for is successful it can be tempting to take all the credit. As understandable as this it is counterproductive because not allowing everyone involved to celebrate excludes key players from a feeling of success that might make further positive change more likely.