Gary Whitehead and why grammar schools are the wrong answer.

I have a twenty-year-old memory that makes me burn with particular shame.  After a night out, my friends and I went for a curry.  Tipsy and slightly maudlin after making a string of failed passes at women five years older than himself, Gary Whitehead made an emotional confession.  “One day,” he said, “I want a really classy bird.  I’d treat her well, I’d take her to a proper classy restaurant like Harry Ramsden’s.”
Oh, how I hooted with laughter “Haw! Haw! Harry Ramsden’s!  Fish and chips!  You think fish and chips are classy!”Gary smiled and laughed along, but went very quiet.
Once, he invited me to his house to eat lunch and it was there I began to realise how different my world was to his.At around noon his dad, in shorts, a T-shirt and a dressing gown, was already drinking cheerfully from a can of lager.  He offered us both one.  Gary didn’t have one but I did.  A joyful riot of preschool children ran unsupervised through the half-painted living room.  “Shut the fuck up!”  Gary’s mum yelled happily, “we got guests!”“You’re a bit posh you are!”  Gary’s dad commented and, seduced by the glamour of it all I exaggerated my accent and drank a second can to better fit in.
I hate that version of my sixteen year old self.  Entitled.  Smug.  Ignorant.  Judgemental.  But I wasn’t too thick to get it and after that day I didn’t make any more jokes about Harry Ramsden’s.I stayed friends with Gary in sixth form.  I sat next to him in ‘A’ Level geography and we did Bradford’s pubs and clubs together at the weekend.
Gary and I both did fairly well in our final exams.  We went to different universities and lost touch until I ran into him at a train station years later.  We talked about mutual acquaintances and caught up.  I’d been a teacher for three years by then and was just about to begin a VSO placement.   I talked too much about myself and by the time Gary had a chance to tell me what he’d done since leaving school there were only five minutes left before my train.“I work for Barclay’s,” he told me.“That’s great, Gary,” I said, checking my watch, “whereabouts?”“All over really,” he said, “I’ve just finished a master’s and I’m training to be a regional manager.”
And that was the last time I saw him.I’ve thought about him often since then, marvelling at a myopia that meant I went to a school for six years without ever realising the extent to which it was changing lives and transforming communities.  Somehow, I managed to coast through my secondary education without realising that the outstanding results being achieved by my poorer classmates weren’t normal.  When the school published a list of names of hundreds of young people who were the first from their families to go to university I didn’t get it.  “So what?  I thought.  How’s that any different to me going to university?  We sat the same exam!”
But I get it now.  My school knew what it was doing.  It neither made nor accepted excuse.  I was treated, the child of two doctors, in exactly the same way Gary was, whose dad didn’t work and drank.  I mocked Gary and his Harry Ramsden’s because I didn’t know he’d been brought up any differently.  The school had the same standards for both of us and never wavered, never let Gary off homework because he had no desk to work at, never let him swear because his mother did and punished us equally for having a sneaky lunchtime pint before our General Studies lesson.
We were both lucky enough to exist in a system where children weren’t divided by their privilege or the results of tests we took at eleven.  Grammars will change that.
The comprehensive system is why Gary, with disadvantages I didn’t have, earns more money than I do, takes holidays twice a year, has separate rooms for his children and will send them to university.  That’s why, as a teacher, my expectations are neither negotiable nor differentiated.
And, in the years before it became an awful franchise, Harry Ramsden’s was classy.  What a prig I was to not recognise that.

Just tell ’em

Earlier this academic year I was at the Micheala “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers” book launch event and saw Olivia Dyer, their charismatic Head of Science, coin the phrase ‘just tell ‘em.”

Since then #JustTellThem has developed into something of a fracture point and has been used as a convenient short-cut for the familiar traditional progressive debate; traditional teachers just tell ’em and the more progressive use what they see as more imaginative approaches.

My feeling is that Olivia’s phrase has been, either accidentally or willfully, misunderstood particularly by those suspicious of traditional educational methods.  I’m pretty sure most of those at the book launch recognised that when Olivia said ‘just tell ‘em’ she did not mean simply reading a list of facts from a list in the dry monotone made famous by THAT teacher in Ferris Bueller’s day off.  Olivia’s proudly didactic speech was well planned, logical, passionate and utterly compelling, and I’m sure her students don’t get bored.

As a pretty didactic teacher myself, I do a lot of just tell ‘em.  But, of course, it doesn’t mean ‘just’ tell ‘em.  It means the banging of imaginary swords on imaginary shields while shouting “Out! Out! Out!” so loudly that teachers come in in from other rooms to check everything’s all right.  It means the decapitation of deposed kings with metre-long rulers. It means swooping around classrooms with arms outstretched as a Spitfire dog-fighting a BF-109 and it means carefully planned and illustrated mini-lectures supported by thoughtful board-work that takes me hours to plan and draw.

Nobody who believes in ‘Just tell ‘em’ thinks it means just tell ‘em. Giving students a knowledge organiser, reading it to them and then telling them to learn it off by heart would be, of course, terrible teaching, but nobody is advocating that.  I take issue with the idea styles like mine are just “an excuse for ****  teachers who are devoid of better ideas” and am grateful to open minded practitioners such as the author of the linked article for not being dismissive of styles different to their own.


Why Target Grades Miss Their Mark

When I left the UK in 2006, there were no Target Grades.  When I returned five years later they were everywhere, screaming out from SIMS and multi-coloured Excel spreadsheets, and shouting mindlessly on the front of exercise books.

They were all over lessons too.  Outcomes, written carefully on every board, were often tagged with the different target grades of students in that particular class.  For example:

Describe the Night of the Long Knives (C)

Explain the causes of the Night of the Long Knives (B)

Evaluate the significance of these causes (A).

It seemed that the expectation was in the very best lessons, students should have individual target grades and given different tasks to do, which multiplied planning by three.  This came as something as a shock.  On a training day I heard a consultant ask “why should the higher ability start at the same point the lower ability do?” and saw people around me nod sagely.  I was baffled. “How could a student explain what caused the Night of the Long Knives if they didn’t know what happened in the first place?” I thought, “Describing the fire would only take a student with a C target a few minutes.  Should I just get them to repeat that in different ways until the end of the lesson?  Should I stop them moving onto explaining?”

Anxious to catch up on what I’d missed while away, I read lots and asked lots of questions, but didn’t find the answers I got particularly illuminating.

I learned that Target Grades were generated from tests children sat at the end of their primary education in English and Maths.  From an average of these three grades an acceptable level of progress had been decided on, and this was used to set a target for other subjects.  The success of the child and, by association, their teachers and school, was assessed on whether they failed to meet, achieved or exceeded this target.

My mind boggled a bit.  How could the average attainment of a child in two subjects be used to predict their attainment in completely different disciplines?  Most children I taught in Year 7 had never really studied history meaningfully but, as I understood it, I was supposed to assume that they were already as good at it as they were the subjects they had learned.  When I raised this I was told “just be glad you don’t teach music, art or PE.  At least in history they do read and write.”

I asked more questions and got myself even more confused.  I heard that the results of these KS2 tests were used as an assessment of the child’s intelligence and capacity to learn; if they had reached a certain standard in one subject it was assumed they could do so in others. To me this made no sense at all.  The KS2 tests tested aptitude in discrete subjects and weren’t designed to test intelligence.  The outcome could be the result of any one or combination of a huge number of variables including the ability of the teacher, the level or parental support and the degree to which a primary school taught directly to the test.  The assessments weren’t intelligence tests and I didn’t think they should be used as a general indicator of a child’s capacity to learn.

When I brought this up I got a different answer.  I was told that I’d misunderstood and these tests were actually used to assess the level of different generic skills a child had reached.  Seeing English and Maths as the trunk of a tree with the other subjects as branches initially seemed quite neat.  In this conception, children had developed different generic competencies.  If a child could describe well in English, as demonstrated on their KS2 test, they would be able to describe well in history too.  This helped explain the very Bloom’s influenced learning outcomes that had also mushroomed while I was away.

I allowed myself to be satisfied with this for a while but it didn’t fit quite right and nagged at me.  The first problem was that the various skills that students were assumed to have were very different in history to how they were in other subjects; what I regarded as a good descriptive paragraph was different to the sort of paragraph their English teacher wanted them to write.  Even more worrying was how the most important part of my subject of all, knowledge, barely got a look in.  It seemed it was assumed that a child who wrote good historical descriptions of one thing should be able to do so on something they’d never learned about before.

This approach to differentiation, based on target grades, continues to cause big problems in history teaching.  In a recently blogged about lesson, judged highly by Ofsted, students were given one of three different versions of a worksheet according to their target grade.  Each child was told they could choose a worksheet that was aimed higher than their target but not lower.  This doesn’t make sense.  If a student is capable of doing work they should do it and allowing them to choose exposes an important flaw in lessons that use this approach.  Even if this model was effective in supporting progress from different starting points, by its very nature it will never close gaps between students; higher ability students do harder work and learn more, lower ability do easier work and learn less.  In classrooms and schools that work like this the weak can’t ever hope to catch up with the strong.  Gaps between students are consolidated and never close.

This system casts a shadow half a decade long.  In her book “Making Good Progress” Daisy Christodoulou points out that teachers often unwittingly underscore disadvantaged children and it is plausible that something similar happens as a result of averaged KS2 scores.  Less is expected of a child who performs comparatively poorly in their KS2 tests, for whatever reason, than of one who performs well. They are generated a lower target grade, likely to be put in lower sets and almost certainly given easier work to do.  Teachers working with subjective mark schemes suffering cognitive overload may unconsciously look for short-cuts when grading work.  A target grade provides this short cut, and means they are more likely to give lower grades to students with lower KS2 data even if the work is of the same standard as that produced by a child with a higher KS2 test score. If the child wasn’t really low ability to begin with they can soon become so as they internalise the message that they aren’t one of the smart kids, drop further behind and become demoralised.

JL Austin’s work around the transformative effect of language gives a compelling explanation as to why this might happen.  Austin finds that there are many things that people say that don’t just describe the world but have an impact on it. For example, in a Church of England marriage ceremony when a vicar says “I now pronounce you man and wife” they aren’t simply describing something that exists but changing reality itself.  We can extend his insight beyond just what people say to things, like the KS2 tests. Those that advocate for these exams and scores might well say that they know that they are intending to change reality. They might say that this is the point. However, the issue is the mismatch between reality that is described in the test and its performativity. It is here that we need to be especially careful. While it might be argued that these grades are appropriate for the subjects in which the child actually took tests (Maths and English), clearly we are on much shakier ground when we start using this non-specific data to guide the teaching of students in other subjects. After all, a vicar announces the banns of marriage before the ceremony and so can be confident in its legitimacy.

Good schools and caring teachers always stress that targets can be beaten and some children do rise through the sets to dramatically exceed their target, but such instances are rare. Handing out high targets to some children and lower to others, in front of their peers based on the results of test data that might be four years old can be a traumatic experience for some children.  By giving a target, we imply there is a ceiling on a child’s potential and may well create the low aspirations and low confidence we are trying to tackle in using them.  Some schools try to mitigate the disheartening effect of low KS2 scores by artificially inflating the target grades of weaker students, but this can be just as unkind.  In history, a child with an old L3 at KS2 had only a 6% chance of achieving a ‘B’ grade target in 2015, which leads to odds on year on year failure, demoralisation and de-motivation.  For all students, from the most to least able, it’s better to have high expectations and to focus on meaningful step-by-step improvements from the subject specific point they’ve reached.  Generic target grades are a distraction.

Target grades can wreak havoc at KS4 where they can easily result in teachers focusing on the wrong things, when they are inappropriately combined with mark schemes.  A scheme for an old style 8 mark question may say that students can get 6 marks for a one sided argument.  It may appear logical to translate this to a ‘B,’ and by doing so assume that a good target to set for a student with a ‘B’ grade target would be to “either agree or disagree with an interpretation and support with evidence.”   But that 6/8 does not mean a ‘B’.  It means 6 out of 8 marks on a paper carrying over 80 marks in total, which in itself holds only 50% of the total.  A quick look through the past exam scripts of my students show what a dangerous misconception this is.  Of all my students who have got ‘Cs’, hardly any have achieved the percentile equivalent of a ‘C’ consistently on every question. In almost every case, they’ve got very high marks on some questions and less than half on others.  The problem was not that they hadn’t grasped a ‘B’ grade ‘skill’ as assumed by the target system, but that they had inconsistent knowledge over the breadth of the course.  The target for these students should have been more focused revision, not teaching them to meet self-limiting criteria.  A further implication of this is that if a child is capable of getting full marks on one question, then they are capable of doing the same on all of them, which makes the idea of a generic or skills based target grade even more absurd.

These serious concerns got me wondering where this all began and why it became so widespread.  I did some digging.

Widespread target setting in English schools began with the Fischer Family Trust.  The Trust compiled a wide range of data, including prior attainment (not ability) and socio-economic variables to make statistical links between them and the outcomes of individuals and groups of students.  This information could be used by schools to assess how well their pupils were doing compared to children at other schools.  This could be extremely useful and powerful information, allowing schools to see when their expectations were too low.  Some schools began to use this information to set targets for their pupils and some began sticking these targets to the front of their pupils’ exercise books to give them something to aim for.  Schools were in control as to what these should be and most, as a result of a ‘my expectations are higher than yours’ arms race, set targets at the very top end of what was statistically possible.  Many schools set targets that, should all students achieve them, would place the school in the top 5% of those in the country.

The Fischer Family Trust never advocated this.  Their original advice was that schools and students use the data as a starting point to begin discussions that would result in an agreed expected grade.  To understand how it turned into what it did we need to look at wider political factors.

School league tables and ranking played a big role.  Schools in disadvantaged areas realised that the raw attainment of their students would not compare well to those in more affluent schools so sought a measure that would demonstrate their pupils had made progress from lower starting points.  FFT data offered this opportunity; a child who’d arrived in Year 7 on lower grades and from a more socially disadvantaged background was less likely to get as high a grade as one who arrived on higher ones from a more advantaged one and it seemed fairer to judge them on the progress they’d made since joining the school and against other pupils with similar contexts.

Target Grades and data tracking became inseparably linked, enshrined in the Teacher Standards, and encoded in the very DNA of English schools.  After 2010 most schools stopped using FFT, which did try to recognise the effect of demographic on attainment, and began to form targets based purely on raw KS2 scores.  This was partially because the DFE, under Michael Gove’s well-intentioned instruction, got rid of Contextual Value Added (CVA), believing taking into account demographics meant accepting differentiated standards by advantage and the inevitable failure of the poor.  Most schools now disregard context completely and simply add three or four levels to a child’s averaged KS2 data to make this their target.  As well-meaning as this is, outside of English and Maths, it is wrongheaded because the point from which each child is supposed to be progressing has very little, if anything at all, to do with the subject they are studying.  Transition models in most subjects support this with few children at the lower end making the three levels of progress they are supposed to. In history, for example, in 2015 only 33% of children on a KS2 4c average reached or bettered the standard the DFE expected.

Ofsted inspections embedded this.  While they have never officially required schools to share targets or put them on exercise books schools that did were praised and other schools, predictably, followed suit.  Head Teachers working between 2008 and 2012 remember the practice spreading like a virus at local and national conferences as the idea that this was what Ofsted wanted took hold.   As  Alex Ford pointed out in his important post on how inspection regimes promoted extensive marking, praise or condemnation from Ofsted can very quickly become an important driver of school policy even when there is no evidence that the policy is effective.

A trawl through fifteen of the most recent Ofsted Reports for schools I’ve either worked at or know reasonably well suggests this is still fairly common.  Of the fifteen I looked at eight mentioned Target Grades explicitly.  In all these instances comments were approving, either praising their use or recommending that targets be made more challenging.  No Ofsted Reports questioned the use of Target Grades or the data on which they were based which, of course, would make it seem logical for SLTs in struggling schools to insist on their use.  Some reports included Target Grades in material on teacher appraisal and performance management.  One team reported of one school that “teachers are aware they may not get a pay rise if students do not achieve their Target Grades.”  The implications of this are worth thinking through.  As I’ve already mentioned targets in school are no longer typically based on FFT data and are more commonly based on a simple numerical value (either 3 or 4 levels depending on the school) being added to each child’s mean KS2 score.  This means that the targets of students in a class in a socially disadvantaged area may actually be those achieved by only a very small percentage of children from similar demographics nationally.  To successfully meet their appraisal targets teachers at some schools have to achieve this with every one of the children in every one of their classes.  Failure is inevitable and such performance management systems has meant that employment at the most disadvantaged of England’s schools is perceived as a real career risk, which may well be making the recruitment and retention crisis more acute in the disadvantaged schools where good teachers and leaders are most needed.

Despite all these issues, schools often continue to require teachers know the target of all the children in their classes and that children be able to parrot off these grades at the drop of a hat.  Of course, students are also expected to know what they should do to reach their target but, because of the problems surrounding subject specificity outside Maths and English, such action points are often vague, non-specific and completely unhelpful.  In history, I’ve seen ‘describe in more detail,’ ‘explain your points’ and ‘analyse the sources you use,’ which, while they may satisfy a school’s marking and reporting policy, are all pretty meaningless.  Daisy Christodoulou has interesting things to say about other reasons for this in Making Good Progress.

So to summarise, the Fischer Family Trust gathered data on the grades students were statistically likely to get and schools turned these into targets for subjects students hadn’t get studied. Schools used FFT data to take into account context but in 2010 the DFE said they couldn’t, so instead schools started adding either 3 or 4L of progress to raw KS2 data.  This has generated targets that some students are statistically highly unlikely to ever achieve.  Ofsted didn’t tell anyone to put these target grades onto books or share them but somewhere, at sometime around 2008 a school did.  Inspectors reported approvingly on this policy and soon most schools were doing it.  Some schools have tied this to Performance Related Pay, which has made meeting appraisal targets all but impossible for some teachers.  If this sounds a confused mess it’s because it is.  Target Grades are an answer to a question nobody asked.  The result was a decade long multi-vehicle wreck of which only happened because nobody was driving. It is difficult to see any positive impacts on the learning of children in English schools.

There will be those who seek to defend the policy both within their own schools and across England as a whole.  I anticipate the most common will be that they lead to faster progress and, of course, if there is convincing evidence they do result in better outcomes then the policy, for all its flaws, might be worth continuing with.

But there isn’t.

The evidence base on the impact of GCSE target grades based on KS2 data of any type is pretty much non-existent.  To be blunt, to my knowledge, nobody at all has done any work on it.  Given how widespread it is and the impact it has on the day-to-day working lives of both students and their teachers, this is quite staggering.  Of course, this also makes it impossible to say it has no positive impact in individual contexts but given such a confused birth and the many problems I hope I’ve demonstrated it causes, we must do better than that.  Clearly, it would be very helpful if someone was to do a proper study of the impact of Target Grades on outcomes and if I’ve missed a study that has been done I’d be grateful to anyone who could point me to it.  In preparation for speaking on this at ResearchED Rugby, I’m going to be looking at examples of target setting in other domains to see if there is evidence of either positive or negative impact, while being acutely aware of the irony of this given the problems I’ve identified with non-specific target grades.

If we accept that target grades have a powerful effect on children (and here some research would be useful), then we need to be really, really careful about how we get those grades. Nobody would expect your PB for a 100m sprint to form your target for a marathon. Most of us would laugh at the absurdity of this but this is all the more reason to be careful about using non-specific tests scores to generate targets in other subjects even if they seem similar. The differences between the disciplines may be more subtle than those between race distances but they are no less important.

Until there is evidence that Target Grades based on KS2 data do have a positive impact on student progress I’d like Ofsted to tell inspectors not to ask students or teachers for them outside Maths and English.  I’d like them to insist that inspection teams refrain from making comments on students making progress, or not making progress because of either the presence or absence of Target Grades outside Maths and English.  I think schools should stop using achievement of Target Grades, outside English and Maths, as a way of directly assessing the effectiveness of their teachers and that schools should not use them to make decisions around career and pay progression.  Of course, schools actually don’t have much choice because of the nature of the accountability measures used to judge their effectiveness.  The issues I’ve discussed have huge implications on the validity of the Progress 8 measure outside English and Maths because when children arrive in Y7 there is no evidence whatsoever that they’ve reached any standard at all in any other subject.  It is simply wrong to assume they are progressing from the same standard they reached in the subjects in which they did take tests.

Given their confused origins and self-limiting nature I strongly suspect that any future research done into the effect of Target Grades will not find they have a positive impact.  The data they are based on has been misunderstood, misapplied and used inappropriately.  Using it in the way we do just isn’t safe and has negative consequences.  Of course if positive research emerges, or it turns out I’ve got the wrong end of the stick, I’ll happily change my position but my belief is that that any serious study will cause the whole house of cards to come crashing down.

Nb.  This is very much a work in progress.  I’m aware I missed a lot while I was away and may have misunderstood some important things.  I very much welcome critique and would be grateful to anyone pointing out factual mistakes, errors in my logic, relevant research or important things I’ve completely missed.  Thanks to Lee Donaghy, Alex Ford, Jude Hunton and Tom Neumark for helping me with this.

Anything I’ve got wrong is, of course, my fault,


Use fewer sources

I introduce sources to my Year 7 classes the same way every year.  I look forward to it.  It’s become a bit of a thing.

It happens when we do the death of Harold at Hastings.  We begin with reading an account of the battle that acknowledges the controversy around the way he died, explaining that he could have been hacked to death by William’s knights, killed by an arrow or struck by the arrow and then finished off by the Norman cavalry.

This always bothers at least some members of the class. “But how did he die really?” they ask, full of confidence in my infallibility as a history oracle.

I shake my head sorrowfully.  “It happened nearly a thousand years ago,” I say.  “Everyone who was there is dead.  We just don’t know for sure.  If only we had a time machine that we could use to go transport something from the time into our classroom that told us what happened.  Wouldn’t that be cool?”

There is generally a strong agreement this would indeed be very cool.

I pause, for dramatic effect, for a moment or two.  “Hang on,” I say, “we don’t need a time machine.  Some stuff from around that time, from nearly one thousand years ago, still exists.  There’s something in this classroom.  Shall we have a look?”

“Yes!  Yes!  Yes!” They chorus, bouncing up and down like adorable meerkats.

“Hold on,” I say.  “Are we just going to look at it like it was made yesterday?  Shouldn’t we show something nearly a thousand years old a bit more respect?  Don’t you think we should know who made it, and why they did, and where it is from?  That’d be better wouldn’t it?”

They always agree.

And then we look at my book of the Bayeux Tapestry. By the time we’ve finished they don’t even mind that, of course, the tapestry isn’t much help in working out how Harold did in fact meet his end.

Of course it’s all a bit cutesy and affected but it is for eleven-year-olds and it does what it’s supposed to.  Too often in history I think we thoughtlessly overuse sources and don’t treat them with enough reverence.  By throwing snippets of sources at children in every lesson we imply they are commonplace and mundane.  This divorces the bricks of history from those who carved them and makes it tough for children to see just how incredible what they are looking at is.  Sometimes I am awestruck by the material in front of me.  The beautiful drawings and notes in my treasured copy of “The Fabric of the Human Body” were assembled by Vesalius close to five hundred years ago.  Skilled, long dead artists ran quill pens over parchment while Vesalius, in my mind, feverishly whispered the findings of his shocking semi-legal dissections into their ears.  The beautiful drawings were carved into woodblocks and taken on carts all the way to Switzerland where they were pressed by the world’s leading printer.  As they spread they changed the world.  And sitting on a shelf in my classroom, somehow magically transported almost intact through half a century, is a faithful copy of that very book.

At a charity shop in the Peak District I found a treasure trove of books from the 1929 Modern Teaching series.  There is much that jars with modern values in the history volume, but the way in which it describes the teaching of sources stopped my sneering and made me think.  The guide doesn’t advise teaching sources at all until children reach the Elizabethan chapter, which includes a three page extract from a graduate of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, describing life in Elizabethan London.  Before a very long and respectful paragraph on the provenance, the book says:

 “It is very important to remember that extracts from original sources give the real historical and literary atmosphere of the time.  They present the view of the period as the men of that particular day saw it, and it must thereby gain in vividness and accuracy. 

This extract should be read straight through at first.  It will be found to make an appeal by the quaintness of its language, and if the class is informed beforehand that this is the description of an eye-witness, it will awaken enthusiasm and command closer attention.”

If we want the children in our classes to feel the same sublime wonder we do, they need to be taught how and why they should respect what they have at their fingertips.  An out of context snippet caged in a box and labelled Source A makes it hard to see the alchemy.

I’m planning to use less sources in my lessons.  I want to more carefully choose the ones I do use and I want to show these sources the respect they deserve.


Some textbooks make this easier than others do.The new Anglo-Saxon and Norman England textbook by Ian Dawson, Esther Arnott and Libby Merritt, which is published by Hodder, gives a real sense of the scarcity and value of the sources that exist and make this seem exciting rather than intimidating.


Gimmicks and the danger of bait and switch.

When I trained as a history teacher more than a decade ago I thought the highest compliment I could be given by a child was “we don’t feel like we’re learning in your lessons, but we do.”  Nobody needed to spell this out because it was in the very air I breathed.

I believed the very best lessons were those in which students were tricked into learning.  The role of the teacher was to sugar the pill by wrapping the unpleasantness of learning up in fun activities in the same way my mum used to disguise paracetamol by crushing it and mixing it in jam.  The aim of Outstanding ™ teachers were lessons in which the learning only became apparent in Road to Damascus moments.  “Aw shucks, you got us again Sir!” The children should exclaim.  “We’ve learned the entire feudal system perfectly and we thought we were doing rhythmic gymnastics!”  Under this conception of teaching something as simple as telling a student something seemed like cheating.

The aim, of course, was to ‘hook’ children into learning; fun tasks mean happier children and happy children learn faster.

The first problem with this approach was just how fiendishly difficult it was. In effect I was trying to teach my subject by not teaching my subject.  This meant hours of work planning fun gimmicks to graft the learning on to.  For years I taught a starter in which children chose who they thought should be the next England football manager to hook them into thinking about contenders to Edward the Confessor’s throne in 1066.

It just didn’t work.  Expecting children to get better at something by doing something else is illogical.  Children who spend time making models of castles or painting posters get better at making models of castles and painting posters. Any history learned is incidental.   The difference between tasks like these and real history is so vast that such approaches amount to nothing more than an elaborate bait and switch trick which, sooner or later, causes resentment.

Even some old stalwarts of KS3 teaching can be very problematic.  For many years, as a Year 9 assessment, I asked students to write a ‘letter from the trenches’.  Such letters usually did contain some accurate historical detail but were often incoherent, ridden with anachronisms and full of woolly creative flourishes that had no historical value whatsoever.  A common sign off was “and then..” followed by a squiggly line to represent that the author had died mid-sentence.  The task was further compromised by its inherent inauthenticity.  World War One soldiers knew their letters would be censored and so wouldn’t have included much of the detail for which I awarded marks.  The standard extension to this task, asking children to censor their own letters, was misguided given that the soldiers knew not to include upsetting details and were probably as concerned with keeping up the morale of their families as their generals were.  The assessment failed as history because children came away with the false impression that soldiers wrote their letters freely, did not self-censor and were in opposition to a government they were actually more likely to support.

The ongoing technological revolution is, for all the benefits it brings, providing even more opportunities for confused and anachronistic teaching.  Tasks in which children are expected to complete Facebook profiles for historical figures or send fictional tweets worry me.  Of course, such activities might be defended by saying that anachronisms are explicitly articulated, but this misses the point.  140 character tweets are, at least in part, a product of modern attitudes towards communication and asking students to tweet as a historical personality is to invite misunderstanding and presentism.  Worse, by clothing the past in modern garb we rob historical periods of their rich distinctiveness and can easily obliterate any sense of period.

An example of this might be a lesson in which Y9 students are asked to send a tweet from Karl Marx.  The first issue with this is the complexity of the task.  In effect, children are being asked to summarise his very complex views, rooted in the 19th century, in a characteristically 21st century method, for an audience he never had.  Presentism is inevitable, which undermines the task itself.  The image of a tweeting Karl Marx, while admittedly hilarious, is particularly inappropriate because it side-lines his notorious verbosity and so creates a distortion in the minds of the children studying him.

Approaches like this are based on an assumption that, at least for younger children, creative, active tasks are fun but reading and writing history is boring, but this is as wrong-headed as it is self-fulfilling.

And it isn’t necessary.  Dressing up history as something it is not in order to make it interesting demonstrates low expectations of both the subject and the students who study it.  History in itself is engaging.  It’s the story of massive power struggles, colourful personalities and world changing events.  Mounting it in a gaudy frame of inauthentic activity masks profundity and makes it tough for students to appreciate the significance of what they learn.  Disguising history as something else also patronises students.  Children want to be serious about things that are serious, and like to get better at things that are meaningful.  Substituting this for fun for its own sake does students a great disservice.  Of course, some will find the subject more stimulating than others, but the answer to engaging a motivating a disengaged child shouldn’t be twisting history into something it isn’t.  It’s pointless and misleading because a child engaged in activities that aren’t historical is not doing history.

Curriculums and teachers that proceed down this rabbit-hole make a rod for their own backs.  Children learn what is worthwhile and meaningful from the adults around them.  My baby daughter is unlikely to grow up with a natural taste for broccoli, but she is more likely to come to enjoy it if she sees my wife and I eating it with relish. If it is implied that writing is boring students come to believe it, making it harder for teachers to get them to do it.  This is why a personal bug-bear of mine in observations is when teachers apologise to students for making them do an exam question.  “I know, guys, this is boring but we have to do it.”  Of course they will hate it and find it boring if well tell them it is!  If we are positive and unashamed about the importance of writing extended answers and the satisfaction that is derived from producing them, children are far more likely to enjoy them.

I’m seeing encouraging signs that this approach is working with my own classes.  In a recent Year 8 lesson on the execution of Charles I, we spent time discussing the unhistorical nature of the question “Should Charles be executed?” as opposed to “Why was Charles executed?”  Following this discussion the children in the class took great delight in hunting down inappropriate activities in their textbook and were particularly outraged by a task in which students were asked to imagine they were a modern day journalist investigating Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.  “Henry VIII would never have allowed that!”  Jack almost shouted.  The children in this class didn’t arrive at this point on their own; they’d been taught why such activities were inappropriate, accepted the logic found applying this new understanding thrilling.

My final issue with the tasks and activities I’ve described is the problems they create for KS3-4 transition.  In many schools, it is accepted that such tasks have no, or at least a significantly reduced, role to play at GCSE.  This can lead to students being hoodwinked into choosing history at KS4, because they’ve, quite understandably, picked up the impression that the subject something it really isn’t.  This often causes enormous resentment.  “It wasn’t like this in Year 9!  I wouldn’t have chosen it if I knew it was going to be like this,” is a refrain I’ve heard far too many times in my career.  This often makes teaching KS4, especially to less literate students, a real battle.

This issue cuts across even the traditional-progressive debate and I feel deep sympathy for thoughtful progressively minded teachers who are often too quickly and often wrongly assumed to support some of the approaches I’ve described.  For example, a thoughtful, well planned knowledge based, immersive and carefully structured role-play to deepen historical understanding on the Norman Invasion is in no way comparable to, say, planning a lesson on Henry VIII and his wives based on the format of the Jerry Springer show.  In my view the first isn’t a gimmick, the second is.  Those interested in creative activities that steer well clear of gimmickry could do a lot worse than look here:

Ian Dawson/Dale Banham: Je Suis le Roi

I haven’t always felt this way.  When I first joined twitter, I came across a tweet by Michael Fordham in which he described one of his typical lessons.  It went something along the lines of “we read two pages, discussed them, and then answered some questions.”  Knowing nothing about Michael or his work I sneered, “that might work at some posh ivory tower school” I thought, “but just try doing that here.”  When I myself began blogging it was because I thought that teaching history in challenging schools would be inevitably different to teaching in a more privileged one.  But the more of Michael (@mfordhamhistory) and too many others to mention I read, the more I realised the misunderstanding was all mine.  The way we teach history shouldn’t be influenced by our contexts if this means distorting history into something it isn’t.  Instead of shaking our fists at ivory towers we need to build them in all our schools.  I think we can. As my teaching has changed I’ve found that students don’t need the engaging crutches and gimmicks I once assumed they did.  So now, I imagine a typical Newmark lesson isn’t a million miles away from a Fordham one.  Planning is quicker.  Learning is faster and I’m glad I’ve come to this realisation with most of my career still in front of me.


Teaching Intepretations

Children find learning interpretations really hard.  From birth they are taught the importance of honesty and when they are introduced to different views of the past, many come to feel that someone, somewhere is lying.  This impression is, regrettably, reinforced by a misleading conception of history in wider culture.  Horrible Histories for children, and even serious documentaries for adults, commonly deal with history as an accepted and unchallenged narrative.  I suspect this is because, as Sam Wineburg points out, history is an unnatural act.  Intuitively as humans we find security in consensus. Stepping away from the pack is scary because it often means challenging prized aspects of the heritage from which we construct our identity.

This can be seen in the popular British perception of World War Two.  Many, perhaps most, British people would confidently say that Britain and America were the victors.  This is unsurprising given the lack of attention given to the Eastern compared to the Western Front in many curriculums, but it is also an unforgivably limited interpretation, given German casualties on the Eastern Front dwarf those in the West. Of course, casting the Soviet Union as the victor with Britain and America as bit-players is also an interpretation that could be challenged, but curriculums not teaching the importance of the Eastern Front not only mislead children but also store up difficulties in understanding the development of the Cold War.

Teaching history as a coherent, unchallenged narrative is suggests a disciplinary consensus that doesn’t really exist.  This can lead children into believing that the significance of the events they study in lessons are accepted by all, and that everyone believes the same things about what happened in the past.  The simplicity of the purely narrative approach is dangerously seductive because it provides certainty, which children find reassuring.

History teachers and curriculums must resist being seduced. KS3 curriculum that allows children to believe history to be one unquestioned story fails for three reasons.

Firstly, and most seriously, such curriculums are dangerous and open to political manipulation.  Dictatorial, oppressive regimes invariably change history curriculums in this fashion; they create one interpretation of history which supports their own beliefs to the exclusion of all others.  Even implying that there is one accepted ‘right’ version of history means students finishing KS3 with a one-sided and limited view of the events in the past.  They will, in effect, have been indoctrinated.  Most history teachers know this implicitly and would never teach, for example, just one interpretation on the British Empire, or one interpretation of the reasons for the abolition of slavery within it.

Secondly, curriculums that do not teach different interpretations misrepresent history as an academic discipline  “Doing history” is not just learning what happened; it is also understanding that historians arrive at different opinions by looking at different sources and that historians arrive at different opinions even when they have used the same sources.  These differences in opinion are part of the reason events that happened long ago remain relevant and discussed today.

Finally if we accept the importance of KS3 in preparing students for GCSE, it is important interpretations are taught well.  Always an important part of GCSE Assessment Objectives, the new specifications have, quite rightly in my view, put even more emphasis on them.  Students in departments that don’t teach interpretations well before starting these courses will struggle.

While teaching interpretations is necessary it is also extremely challenging. Curriculums that teach interpretations poorly experience all sorts of problems.  They muddle children by chipping away at the narrative, which falls into the gaps created in confusion about what actually happened.  They demoralise students, who can easily come to feel that if nobody knows what happened, or why it did, there is little point in studying it at all.

But, given the fundamental importance of different interpretations to history and the ethical issues of not teaching them, none of this can be used as an excuse.  Integrating interpretations into a coherent narrative framework is possible if planned into a KS3 curriculum thoughtfully.

A mistake made quite commonly in KS3 curriculums is to teach in a purely narrative style in the lower years under the mistaken assumption that younger students can’t cope with the complexities of looking at different perspectives.  Even putting aside ethical issues with this, it is still wrong because it simply puts off the issue, which grows in severity the longer it is ignored.  Students taught that history is the story of what really happened in Year 7 internalise this and then react defensively when taught that what they know might not be true.

I find it best to be brutally honest right from the get go.  History has happened.  It’s over. It’s gone. It’s, quite literally, history.  In the absence of the wonderful Magic Time Travelling Helmet from the Usborne series of books so beloved by generations of children, we simply can’t be certain about what really happened.  No one is.  Everything learned in history lessons is someone’s interpretation based on the study of historical sources.  I misquote Indy; “if it’s truth you want, Mr Shipman’s maths class is right down the hall.”

By clearing this up early we can be reasonably confident that students won’t unthinkingly accept the narratives and stories we teach to give curriculums a coherent, narrative framework.

Curriculums should usually begin with the most accepted, interpretations of the events covered in the lesson.  These culturally pervasive interpretations are almost invariably those on which the narratives in textbooks and other resources produced for schools are based.  Teachers should regularly reinforce that this version is an interpretation, not the definitive version, and that there are historians who disagree with it.   Really good departments may also teach students where these interpretations are drawn from and why they are so commonly accepted, referencing named historians and their work, and making explicit why their views have assumed cultural dominance.  This allows students to gain a clear sense of narrative and the knowledge they need to access wider historical discourse and dialogue.

Once students have a robust knowledge of one interpretation it should, when and where appropriate, be challenged.  Challenging interpretations should also, where appropriate and possible, be explicitly taught using named historians.  Children should also be taught why and how the historian arrived at this different interpretation, whether it was through the use of different sources, a different reading of the same sources or a combination of both.  A teacher may want to demonstrate that this second interpretation has also been opposed or revised, to illustrate the dynamic nature of history scholarship.

This could, for example, be done when teaching the causes of World War Two.  The lesson could begin with the interpretation that Hitler was responsible, using Trevor Hugh-Roper’s work.  Students might be taught why historians from the winning countries could have arrived at this view before going on to examine how and why it was challenged by A J P Taylor and other revisionists.  The lesson could conclude with students considering Alan Bullock’s synthesis of both views.

By teaching opposing interpretations explicitly curriculums can efficiently demonstrate how and why perspectives on the past shift over time and accurately represent history as an academic discipline.  Emphasising interpretations also prepares KS3 students for the new GCSE courses.

Teaching an opposing interpretation for every event is not necessary, or even desirable.  Doing this takes up a great deal of time, precluding the study of some important events that could otherwise be covered.  In addition, for some events one interpretation is so widely accepted that the teaching of an alternative is somewhat contrived.  An example of this might be seen in the teaching of the Nazi terror state to Year 9.  While, of course, there will be subtle disagreements between historians as to which elements were most frightening, almost all would agree that terror was a significant method of control for the Nazis.  A focus on why people were so terrified is more appropriate than trying to examine whether or not they were.  I’m comfortable with the idea that students may not be aware of an alternative interpretation of every event they’ve studied so long as they know that there will, inevitably, be lots of clever people who disagree with the one they’re taught, for good reason.

When teaching interpretations less is more.  Better meaningful, robust work done on a limited number of significant historical disagreements than an alternative interpretation thrown in superficially for every topic.  That this still happens is partially the result of unfortunate misunderstandings of Blooms Taxonomy which continue to cause some schools to insist on evaluative ‘higher order’ tasks in all lessons even where the content is inappropriate.  Such approaches also run the risk of creating the impression that all interpretations are equal and that it’s acceptable to disagree with something you don’t really understand.  One of my pet peeves is students believing that because we can’t be certain about what happened, an opinion, no matter how ridiculously unsupported, is equal to one based on years of careful, diligent work.

Trying to get students to form their own interpretations before they’ve been explicitly taught those formed by others is usually a mistake.   A typical example of this, which I’ve done in the past, would be giving students sources and pieces of information about the bombing of Hiroshima and asking them to try and work out what different historians believe about why it happened.  Such approaches are, at best, very inefficient.   Asking children to do this is, in effect, asking them to independently form opinions on an event expert historians have conducted years of research on and written books about. To even make a half decent stab at this takes even very able students a long time and the less able are often left completely at sea until their teacher explains it to them afterwards.  Students are set up to fail.  More efficient is to directly teach the interpretations and then ask students to use evidence to support and refute them.


Teaching KS3: Telling the story.

This is a lengthy blog and I’m grateful, in advance, to those who persevere.  In an attempt to break the cycle of throwing huge amounts at KS4 because of deficiencies in our KS3 curriculum I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how best to teach our younger students.  This post goes after my shorter one, on why I don’t think it’s a good idea to begin Year 7 with the “What Is History?” unit.

Apologies for the somewhat bossy tone.  If I sound like I’m being a know-it-all it’s only because I’m trying to be as clear as I can be with myself.  I’m very open to robust critique.  This post is supposed to be the beginning of my thoughts on this, not the end.  I will, I know, have make mistakes and oversights and welcome comments and responses that point out where I’ve gone wrong.

I’ve deliberately left out dealing with how different interpretations of narrative should be taught as I’m working on a distinct post on this.  Suffice to say that I am well aware of the dangers of teaching history as a narrative of accepted truths.


KS3 history courses should teach children chronologically.  This makes it easier for students to see links and recurrent themes and is clearer.  Curriculums that move between different time periods in a non-linear fashion can be confusing and can lead children into seeing Spitfires strafing William’s Knights in ‘The Mysterious Land of Long Ago’, which makes misunderstandings and anachronisms more likely.

So if KS3 is not to begin with “What is History?” then where should it start?  The Palaeolithic?  Celtic?  Roman?  Anglo-Saxon?  Normans?  Cases could be made for or against any of these, but with limited time decisions must be made.  Some schools, especially those with close links to primary feeders, consult with KS2 teachers to develop one integrated curriculum that avoids repetition.  While the ideal, in my experience, such close links are regrettably rare.  Most secondary school students arrive at very different starting points.  Some may have completed a project on Ancient Egypt, while others may have spent time learning about Victorian schools.  Some may have done both and more.  Where there is inconsistency in what children have studied at primary school, KS3 history shouldn’t be too informed by it, especially as even children who attend the same primary are likely to remember different amounts of what they studied.  That said, good departments should create and maintain links with primaries to avoid unnecessary repetition.

Where schools choose to start will vary according to the amount of time available.  Schools in which KS3 is two years will usually want to start later than those in which there are three years to play with.  Schools teaching  a three year KS3 course many want to begin with Roman Britain but those changing to a two year KS3, as a response to the more content heavy new GCSEs, may decide to start with the Norman Invasion with an overview lesson before it to set the topic in its historical context.

Once a department has decided where the course should begin, they should decide where it should end.  That this differs between schools is not bad thing so long as some careful thought has gone into why the course finishes where it does.  At my school, KS3 finishes with a thematic study of terrorism as we feel this to be a defining feature of the modern world.

These two bookends, the beginning and the end, provide a frame within which to plan the rest of the curriculum.  It may be helpful to keep the questions “how did we get from there to here?” in mind while planning, as this can help with threading a coherent narrative through the course.

Next, those responsible for planning KS3 history should decide which events in history are significant enough to warrant a place on the curriculum.  This is a big responsibility, especially given that for some children, KS3 will be the only time in which they meaningfully learn history.  Anything they don’t know at the end, they may never know, and not knowing aspects of our shared heritage excludes people from important aspects of our culture.

Allowing just one person to decide what will be studied is usually ill judged.  Doing so runs the risk of creating an unbalanced curriculum.  For example, should the Head of Department be fascinated by military history, their personal bias could mean that battles and wars are over-emphasised.  It is far healthier is to allow all members of the department a voice.  This is more likely to result in a well balanced course that reflects pluralistic perspectives.  An added benefit is that teachers who’ve had a hand in designing curriculum are more likely to teach it well because of their greater investment in it.  All those responsible for deciding what will be studied should be aware of the dangers of being too partisan, contrary or overly idiosyncratic.  Teachers may be experts in fields not considered mainstream and feel passionately that these areas deserve great attention.  While this passion is of course not in itself a bad thing it is important to recognise that including more left-field topics has an opportunity cost and if this results in children failing to know things considered culturally significant by wider society, they may well be disadvantaged by their teacher’s personal peccadilloes.

Those planning KS3 curriculums should be sensitive to the needs of their student demographic.  If, for example, the school has a large proportion of children from an East Asian background it would make sense to teach the East India Company, the Raj and the Indian Independence Movement.  This approach allows children from diverse backgrounds to see how their own stories fit into England and make it the country it is today.  If a school has a large number of students with a Caribbean heritage and less with an Indian one, it would probably be more sensible to teach some lessons, at the appropriate chronological time, on post World War Two immigration from Empire countries.  There are many similarities in this approach to how local history should be included in a KS3 curriculum which means, ironically, for some schools local studies could also be international ones.

Tellin’ stories

Once a department has decided the events to be studied it should then decide which stories it wishes to tell, and which themes and factors will be emphasised.  Stories are important.  They give meaning to events that appear otherwise unconnected and make history easier to remember.

These stories and themes should be influenced by those in the KS4 course but shouldn’t be dictated by them.  For example, if students are to learn the Anglo-Saxon and Norman Invasion topic at GCSE, it might make sense to tell the story of how political power and control has changed in KS3.  This could be done by looking at the way in which England was controlled changed under its kings and queens and then how monarchical power declined during and after the Stuart period.   However, KS3 curriculums should not slavishly follow the themes in the GCSE course.  Doing this is likely to mean distorting events to artificially meet narratives that don’t really fit and will confuse students.  Such an approach can also lead to important stories specific to events in KS3 not being told.  For example, changes in the level of influence of religion in England might not be particularly relevant to GCSE but is fundamentally important to understanding England between 1066 and the features of the present day Church of England.  Not teaching this story would be a mistake.

The stories and themes that a department decides to tell and emphasise at KS3 should be explicitly communicated and regularly revisited.  It should be clear to children that the events they learn about fit into overall narratives and link together, building a sense of causality and preventing children seeing past events as islands unconnected to anything else.  Deciding on the stories and themes also makes deciding on the amount of time to spend on each topic easier.

Thematic studies

While KS3 history should be taught in a predominantly chronologically it’s a good idea to also teach a thematic study before the GCSE years.  This is desirable, firstly because it gives students a more nuanced understanding of what history as a discipline is.  Historians do not just write on specific, defined eras.  For example, Roy Porter’s tremendously enjoyable work on medicine is thematic and to not give children an opportunity to understand approaches like this one is to limit their understanding of the subject itself.  Not doing so also runs the risk of teaching narratives that imply history is the story of an upward march from the depths of depravity to the sunny uplands of modern civilization.  Departments eyeing good exam grades may also teach a thematic study in KS3 so that students choosing GCSE history have experience of working this way before embarking on the development study component of the new KS4 courses.

How much history is enough?

History teachers are generally more comfortable with the idea of depth studies than they are examining events in less detail over a longer period of time.  This is understandable.  Historians have produced lengthy books on every imaginable topic appearing on the KS3 curriculum and this makes teachers uneasy with what could appear to be skimming over hugely significant events and eras.  GCSE courses which, quite rightly, drive much of the way in which KS3 is planned compound this issue by focussing in more detail on comparatively shorter periods of times.  Of course, some courses contain elements that deal with very long time periods (e. g the wonderful Medicine Through Time course) but these thematic studies are, unfortunately, less commonly taught to KS3.

While there is apparent security in teaching a limited number of topics in depth such approaches come at a price.  If more time is spent on less, less time can be spent on more.  Very significant events can be left out altogether and the events that are included assume significance in the eyes of students that they might not always warrant.  This can create the impression history began with the Norman Invasion, and then moved to the Tudors, who turned into the Victorians who fought the world wars. A reason for this can be seen in the way World War Two is taught in many schools.  Such units are often huge, including some or often all of the following as individual lessons; Appeasement, The Phony War, Dunkirk, Battle of Britain, The Blitz, the Home Front, The Eastern Front, VE Day, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the effect on Empire and the origins of Remembrance Sunday.  This is not to say that World War Two is insignificant, but it is worth having a look at the long list of important topics which usually aren’t taught at KS3 and considering whether such a focus on one, admittedly extremely important, event is justified in a wider context.

I’ve recently come across what seems a very helpful approach to balancing breadth with depth in Jim Carroll’s work.  Teaching a broad ‘framework’ of history and then studying carefully chosen events in detail within this seems to me a fundamentally sensible strategy and will be one I’m going to be thinking hard about as we continue to revise our own KS3 curriculum.

While certain carefully selected topics should be taught in depth, history teachers should not be scared of covering more in less detail.  Breadth should not be a dirty word.  A lot can be learned in two or three years and if we see history as “drinking an ocean but peeing a cupful” as Gustave Flaubert did, it makes sense to me that we show our children how wide the ocean is before descending into its depths