Waiting for Chloe


A couple of weeks ago I dropped in on my parents. They weren’t there.  With a couple of hours to kill I ended up poking around stuff that had been salvaged from my old room when they’d moved. By the guest bed I found a stack of Calvin and Hobbes comic books. During our teens my parents had given my brother and I these as rewards and the reasons were always written neatly in the front of each. It was these comments, not the books themselves, I found myself most interested in.

“To Ben on the completion of his brilliant Xanadu English project.”

“To Tom on his great 1994 school report.”

I was struck but just how many of these books there were. It seemed that every time my brother or I did well at anything my parents noticed and made a fuss. We were lucky to have them and it’s impossible to know how we’d have turned out if it hadn’t been for their  encouragement.

Many young people don’t have what my brother and I had at home. Nobody really cares how they do and when they do well nobody celebrates with them.  I find it difficult to get my head round the extent this must restrict some young people.

Two days ago at 3.30pm one such child appeared at my classroom door. Her name’s Chloe and she’d just finished an exam. She hovered around, smiling. I looked up and asked how I could help. Chloe shrugged and said nothing. Her class teacher, who was with me in the room, asked “how did your exam go Chloe?”

Chloe grinned so wide I thought her foundation might crack. “Really well! I answered all the questions!”

As she sat down and began to babble happily away about how hard she’d studied and everything she’d written my heart broke a little. She’d been waiting outside because she needed us to do for her what my parents did for me and my brother. She needed adults to make a fuss because when she got home there would be no Calvin and Hobbes book with her name on it. I’m not sure if anyone even knew she’d had an exam at all.

After she’d gone her teacher and I had a sad chat about the unfairness of it all. Then, after agreeing that we wouldn’t have done half as well in our lives had it not been for our parents we realised there was really only one option. So, for a while, Chloe we’ll be your parents. You tell us about how well that exam went. Whatever we’re doing isn’t as important as you are. We’ll be waiting for you so make sure you drop by. Sit down. Drink your coke, eat your biscuits and tell us all about it. We promise we’ll listen. We promise that when there’s nobody else to do it, we’ll make a fuss of you.


Is bad behaviour inevitable?

bash street

Most people working in schools regard a certain level of bad behaviour as inevitable.

Of course, to some extent, this is true. Some children, particularly those diagnosed with some SEND needs, will always find it more difficult to adhere to rules than others. These children have the same entitlement to education as any other, which means unless there is unethical practice there will always be some undesirable behaviour in most school buildings.

Some go further, suggesting that ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘no excuses’ schools must be acting unethically because they set the bar too high for children with SEND. Invariably such schools respond by explaining that they do make adjustments when necessary and appropriate.

Yet hostility towards these schools remains, and I’m wondering whether this is because uneasiness about how reasonable it is to expect children to behave well at all times spreads much further than those with SEND.

If we, one hundred per cent style, asked adults to write a list of words to describe the positive personality characteristics of children in general I think it would contain lots of words like this: Creative. Enthusiastic. Imaginative. Curious. Questioning. Energetic. In contrast I’m pretty sure there’d be far less words like obedient, polite, diligent and respectful. It feels as if we wholeheartedly want children to have the qualities in the first list but are much more squeamish about those in the second.

If this is true, then unease about strict behaviour systems in schools may be partially explained by the belief they squash the innate virtues of children by forcing qualities upon them that many adults aren’t sure are really qualities at all. Forcing children to be obedient, polite, quiet and calm isn’t reasonable, the argument seems to go, because it is natural for them to be boisterous, enthusiastic, loud and lively. In short, we should let kids be kids, which means allowing them to behave in ways most natural to them.

The trouble is kids don’t stay kids for very long. Before you know it the Year 7 who cutely shouts out the answer while waving his hand is a Year 11 doing the same thing much louder and swearing defiantly when told not to because he’s done it so long he thinks it’s fine. As horrible as this is to face, face it we must; what may have started as excitedly calling out an answer, left unaddressed, can become outright defiance and hurtful verbal attack. And remember this hypothetical Year 11 is not alone. He’s sitting with lots of children who do the same because they too haven’t ever been made to stop. Sadly, in the same class but much less obvious will be lots of once-quiet-now-silent children who’ve learned that unless you’re willing to compete you don’t get to contribute at all.

For schools in communities in which children are expected, intuitively, to be obedient and polite the damage inflicted by a permissive classroom environment is mitigated, but for schools in contexts in which poor behaviour is normalised outside school the effects can be devastating.

As unpleasant as all this is, if it really were inevitable it wouldn’t be worth worrying about. After all kids will be kids. Boys will be boys. That’s just them. Just childish behaviour, really. After all what can you expect?

But it isn’t inevitable.

While it is probably fair to say that wherever they are from, on the whole, young people are more prone to making impulsive choices and less mindful of the consequences of their actions than adults are, expecting children to behave impeccably in schools isn’t unusual. During my years working in Ethiopia I often heard my colleagues refer to youth as ‘the fire age’, in which elders were expected to be more forgiving of mistakes by the young. This, however, did not mean tolerating open rudeness, swearing or drug taking. Instead it meant that when such activities came to light the adults responsible for addressing it would not punish a young person in the same way they would a grown up. For example, this might mean speaking to child’s parents if they were caught cheating on a test rather than immediately expelling them from the school. While children might choose to disobey authority they did respect it. Indeed children went to great lengths to hide negative behaviour from their elders and if caught were invariably mortified.

The problem is that we regard poor behaviour as part of being young, whether this be tutting, eye-rolling, interrupting or worse, we accept it and by so doing condone it. Every time we turn a blind eye to these apparently minor misdemeanours, or make excuses for them by saying “oh well they are fifteen”, then we create the impression that such rudeness is OK.

Some children who behave this way may grow out of it but many others will not.

This is not to say that traditional societies like Ethiopia have necessarily got this wholly right. Respect for authority and obedience does have a cost. But then so does a romanticised view of childhood that stands in the way of schools creating and enforcing rules which regulate the behaviour of their pupils.


We’re hiring! Assistant Principal needed at TNA.


We are so excited! We’ve recently heard that in September we have approximately two hundred Year 7 children arriving at the Nuneaton Academy. We’re growing so fast we’re going to be opening more classrooms and have already expanded our curriculum by, amongst making load of other changes, appointing a music teacher for next year – bring on our new school song and all of us belting it out together in assemblies!

The improving reputation of the school in the local area and national education community is already providing us with big fields for the all the jobs we advertise. It’s no surprise. We have a simple, no nonsense approach to learning and behaviour based on TLAC strategies, and centralised detentions are run by tireless and dedicated pastoral staff. We don’t expect non SLT to enter data, have a feedback not marking policy, and give loads of time for departmental CPD. There are visualisers in every classroom with centrally produced curriculum (that we’re so, so proud of) and resources to put under them. We respect our teachers and empower them to be experts who lead from the front, with our most important professional expectation being continually working on improving subject knowledge to make our subjects sing louder and more beautifully.

The children in our school are wonderful and so we tell them we love them a lot. It’s a real school and, of course, there are a few pupils in each year who need extra attention and support to meet our unashamedly high expectations. These are supported by a warm-strict (TLAC again!) culture, mentoring, counselling and an already wildly successful Direct Instruction programme for those who have so far struggled to access our curriculum because of difficulties with literacy and numeracy.

Our teachers are great too. Caring, expert and multi-talented. Just a couple of days ago I was reminded of this when I walked into reception to find our wonderful art and RE teacher playing classical guitar to children waiting for taxis  to take them home.

And we’re hiring!

Here, you’ll find all the information you’ll need to apply for the role of Assistant Principal at the Nuneaton Academy. You’d be joining a small team of four SLT who meet together almost every day. We drink a lot of tea on the move – as everyone in our wonderful MAT seems to – and spend most of our working days walking our school. We drop in lessons all the time, supporting teachers, encouraging pupils and even getting on with work on our laptops if it looks like the teacher might want us to. We are always on our radios, with each other and to everyone else in the school, from pastoral leaders, to our kitchen team, to our site manager (who happens to be a published author). We remind ourselves regularly that we are the kicking legs of the swimming swan, and that our most important job is to provide a climate in which our wonderful teachers can teach, and in which our wonderful pupils can learn, whether that means having a rethink about the behaviour system, a revision of curriculum or picking up litter from a bin that’s blown over on a windy day.

We muck in and we work hard. No job is beneath us. If something needs to be done and we’re there on the spot to do it, we just get on and get it done.

If this sounds like the sort of work you like doing and the sort of place you like doing it in, you should apply right now.

If all this hasn’t convinced you yet, then perhaps a little about the area will. We’re close to the centre of Nuneaton, the home of George Eliot, a proud industrial town with a connection with the Ghurkas and a wonderful Nepalese restaurant in the centre that proves it. We’re well within commuting distance to Coventry, Leicester, Rugby and even some areas of Birmingham. The bright lights of London are only an hour away by train. If cities aren’t your thing then there are countless beautiful small villages close by, which means your commute – as mine is – can very easily be past green fields full of sheep and cows, and past farm shops full of local produce. It is a joy to watch the seasons change as I drive to work.

The only downside is you would have to work every day with me. And given this job is a dream come true for me I won’t be going anywhere. Sorry.

Ring us. Email us. Tweet us. Arrange a tour. Honestly, this is such a huge opportunity.

(I wrote about The Nuneaton Academy long before I was appointed. Those interested can find this post here)

(For how I felt just after joining the MAT have a look here)




We are doing very well at the moment.

Thank you to everyone – and a lot of you have – who’ve asked.

Bessie has been off her feeding tube for ages, is eating like a horse (her new nickname is ‘The Mega-trougher”), gaining weight, babbling away happily and taking her first steps. Much more importantly she’s healthy and with every letter we get from a specialist saying she’s been discharged our hearts sing a little louder.

She showers joy everywhere she goes, and insists that everyone she meets shows her the same love she shows them. Every strand of her perfect DNA seems to happily shout ‘join in with me!’

Almost everyone does and, whether it’s at nursery, at a family party or in the supermarket, it feels like she’s everybody’s favourite.

The best part of it all as her dad is the sense that she know that wherever she is, she belongs there. I imagine Bessie’s day-to-day life as a sort of old style Marioworld, a multi-coloured kaleidoscope of friendly sensory wonder in which everything she experiences is a friend. A world in which a silly face, or a novel sound, or a brand new book about Bears in a Bath are delightful treats that exist just for her.

I’m very proud of this actually.

All of us, our team of family, friends and caring professionals has done everything we can, as we always will, to make sure Bessie’s life is rich, deep, funny, loving and profound. We will do all we can, forever, to make sure that she will always feel she belongs.

Still, sometimes I worry.

At the moment Bessie is only just a toddler and it is easy to protect her, to curate her world and make sure that she knows she is entitled to her place in it.

But she will not be a toddler forever and as she grows up I can’t help but worry the things that at the moment make her so popular now might, in the end, result in her losing this sense of belonging. One of the most interesting ways I’ve heard typical personal characteristics of Williams’ Syndrome described, is that people with it retain the desire to fit in but lose the desire to compete and use others to their own advantage – think of the difference between dogs and wolves if this helps.

On the face of it isn’t this lovely? But practically it can mean sadness and perhaps even depression, with WS people sometimes struggling to understand why their open, trusting positivity is not returned to them in the same spirit they offer it.

I worry this might make Bessie feel like she does not belong.

But I know I worry too much. Nobody really knows what will happen to anyone else. While we all do our best, no parent can know for sure if their child will be happy, or fulfilled, or feel like they belong or not.

Bessie is much more than the charming hiccup in her DNA, which maps out what will happen to her in the years to come with no more certainty than the alignment of the stars in the sky above her head.

She is unique, living a life that nobody has ever lived before and nobody will again.

She is happy right now. So are we. And the most important thing my daughter has taught me is that while worrying about the future cannot change it, it certainly ruins today.

So I’m going to try really hard to stop worrying and assume, at least until something makes me change my mind, that things are going to be just fine.

After all, despite everything, so far that’s the way things have turned out.


Kalkidan and the Demographic Transition Model: Diverse Curriculum Part 2.


The first day I met her, Kalkidan told me she wanted to be an astrophysicist.

“Where I come from, my village,” she said, “there is no light at night. So when it is dark you see the stars very well. When I was very young, even before I knew what a star was, I used to wonder if people lived up in the sky. So when I moved to my school in the city, when I found what an astrophysicist did, I always wanted to do that. Now I know people do not live in the sky but I still want to know what is up there, so I still want to be an astrophysicist.”

Kalkidan was a scholarship student at the British International School in Addis Ababa while I worked there, with her fees paid by the embassy because she scored highly on her end of primary Ethiopian National Examinations.

I taught her geography in Grade 10, in a mixed class of Ethiopian scholarship students and international children whose parents paid full fees. It was an odd mix, with the Ethiopian pupils tending to be brighter but not as confident or forthcoming as the others.

We followed an IGCSE course, made even more fascinating by the blend of nationalities and hugely different contexts from which the children came.

I have a very strong memory of Kalkidan from a lesson in which I was teaching the class about the Demographic Transition Model, specifically about Stage 3, in which the population increases rapidly due to a high birth rate and a falling death rate. This was the stage in which Ethiopia sat, which made discussions around this especially interesting.

The international pupils were quick to jump in and offer their opinions. This was a big problem for Ethiopia, they argued, and that it was very important that the government educated people so they stopped having so many children. Some expressed baffled exasperation at why women would have so many children while in poverty and lacking the means to educate or perhaps even feed them. “They need education” was said, in different ways, again and again.

Until Kalikdan couldn’t take any more.

“You do not understand.” She said to the class. “You don’t understand at all. You don’t understand with your mobile phones and your trips to the cinema and your restaurants to go to, and your universities and your flights for holidays and your new clothes.

I am one of nine. My mother lives in a village with no school, or shop, or café or anything. We are all she has. She doesn’t have anything you have. We are all she has that brings her happiness. And you all say she is stupid for having so many children, me, my sisters and my brothers. And you don’t understand at all.”

There was a long, long silence. And because the class was full of nice children, someone apologised and then so did someone else, and I said what a good point it was. And when it was time for the assessments every child in the class wrote something influenced about what Kalidan had taught them, arguing that as well as education governments needed also provide more opportunity and infrastructure for the people living in the least developed areas.

What Kalkidan taught everyone was an important piece of knowledge, a piece of the jigsaw without which there the picture cannot be complete. And also a piece of knowledge we would never have got had Kalkidon not been in the class, because the people who write examination specifications and textbooks do not have mothers who live in villages with no mains power or running water.

This was my fault. The class was entitled to a teacher who did know all the reasons for high birth rates. I shouldn’t have assumed what was in the textbook was enough. I should have looked harder.

This is why I think that creating and developing a truly knowledge rich curriculum means proactively looking for knowledge from a wide range of places, and never being complacent enough to believe that we already know everything worth knowing about what we teach.

This is, of course, very tricky and there are many ways to get it wrong.

I really think we must avoid reductive ‘identity curriculum’, in which what we choose to teach operates on a sort of quota, with certain percentages allocated to ‘black’, ‘Asian’, or ‘white working class’ groups because this is a recipe for hotchpotch tokenism and incoherence, where content ends up being awkwardly shoe-horned in where it doesn’t really fit.

But equally I think we are right to be uneasy if we look over our curriculum and see that all the knowledge comes from the same places, not because there is anything necessarily wrong or incorrect about the material in itself, but because it is very unlikely that this is really representative of the domain in its fullest sense; our disciplines evolve and change all the time and our teaching needs to reflect this. For example, while it may once have been acceptable to teach the abolition of slavery by covering only the work of Wedgewood and friends, this would not now be satisfactory because more recent scholarship has effectively emphasised the role of the black abolitionists and the influence of slave revolts in the American South and the Caribbean.

Getting this right means actively seeking out perspectives different to our own not because of where they came or who said them, but because unless we do we risk oversimplification and myopia. Every one of us, whatever our background, is a product of our context and we can’t count on regular, serendipitous interventions from people like Kalikdan to nudge us closer to the truth. Indeed, it would be very unfair to even imply it is solely the responsibility of those with missing parts of the jigsaw to convince those putting together the puzzle that their piece deserves inclusion.

This is a shared responsibility in which we all have a duty to play our part.

This debate will function best and be most productive if all participants are proceed in good faith. Insults, accusations, rabble rousing and point scoring are the enemy if what we want to achieve is coherent curriculum that tells meaningful, important and disciplinarily authentic stories. We need to share our versions of truth based on the evidence of their significance and not because we think who makes them is self-evidently important and so above justification. We must explain what is obvious to us patiently to those to whom it makes no sense. We must be in rooms with people we feel we have little in common with and we would do well to remember that, whoever we are, the right to be heard is contingent on a responsibility to listen.


Let us keep our schools safe.


Anybody who works in a school will tell you one of the most upsetting things that can happen is a child you care about suddenly and unexpectedly rounding on you with something vicious and deliberately calculated to hurt. This might be a comment like “nobody ever learns anything in your lesson”, or “you know nobody in this school likes you?”

It feels like being slapped in the face. It can make you suddenly short of breath or bring the pinprick pain of bitter tears. In that instant we forget all the wonderful things children say (often by the same child who has just insulted us) and feel weak, degraded and unappreciated.

But we get on. We calmly give the appropriate punishment. We take our deep breaths. We think about something happier. We run it off after school and remind ourselves that the child who has hurt us is a child who isn’t yet capable of understanding everything we’ve done and will continue to do for them.

It’s hard but we do it. Because we have to and because it is the right thing to do.

Following days of politician and commentator moral pontification about how school exclusion rates are driving gang culture and associated knife crime I’m feeling something of the same emotion. I, like thousands and thousands of school staff, from cleaners to Head teachers, from TAs to governors, feel so very, very unfairly under attack.

Of course we all know it to be utter nonsense. We went to schools and paid attention before we worked in them. We understand the difference between correlation and causation. We understand how to interpret statistics properly. We’ve been in the fraught behaviour meetings. We’ve been to the courts. We’ve been on the phone to overstretched social services and the police, and CAHMS, and educational psychologists. We’ve made the plans and revised the plans and made more plans and revised them again. We’ve woken in the small hours and worried. We’ve been in the pub with our friends and family on a Friday night and suddenly gone quiet as we tune out, because a situation has suddenly exploded to the forefront of our minds like a malevolent jack-in-the-box. We’ve taken the calls from concerned parents and from others in the community. Our minds have turned over worst case scenarios if we get a decision wrong, we hear the insistent and insidious whisper of ‘what if.. what if.. what if..”

We know all this and we don’t complain because we don’t have time to and because the stripping away of social support over the last few years doesn’t change the fact that we stand on the front line and, come what may, have children to keep safe and educate.

And we do all this and we don’t complain and yet we are under attack.

We are attacked because by making the agonising decision to exclude a dangerous child we are now told we make society less safe. We are told that we are the reason that children join gangs. We are told that we are the reason that children attack each other. We are told that we are the reason that those we care most about are at risk of prison, injury or death.

Oh and how it hurts.

It hurts all the more because these attacks are coming from those who should be defending us – the same political parties that expect us to raise standards and drive social mobility now tell us that we should not be able to make the decisions that keep our schools safe. They indulge and parrot lazy assumptions that just aren’t true; that we systematically off-roll children just because they won’t get good exam results, and that we expel children for not having equipment or for not knowing Shakespeare.

They take England’s most worrying social problems, they gather them up, they roll them all together and then they flytip them outside the gates of our schools. Then they have the gall to wring their hands about how we can’t find or keep teachers.

Do they actually think we are to blame? Really? Or do they know we aren’t but see the opportunity to score political points by attacking those they think won’t fight back? It is impossible to say which of these possibilities is the more frightening.

None of this will keep me up at night though. I can shake this off. What will is the possibility that the narrative that school exclusions drive crime will be accepted, and decisions will be made that mean we can’t do what we need to do ensure the safety of the schools in which we work.

What keeps me up is the fear that our ability to keep our wonderful safe and happy school will be eroded by stupid, dumb and dangerous politicking. And I care far too much to stand for it.


Can we debate curriculum diversity politely? (Please)


It is the 3rd March 2019.

I declare the Great Pedagogical War over.

‘What’ has beaten ‘how’.

While, like Japanese soldiers fighting in the jungle long after the end of World War Two, there are some consultants, teachers and schools still preoccupied with delivery they are isolated now, vanishingly irrelevant and will soon be pushed into the void.

The new debate will be over what exactly pupils should be taught in their schools.

This will be more acute in some subjects than in others. It is unlikely to be particularly contentious in maths and science because in these subjects what pupils should learn is more established than in others, particularly history where discussions are likely to be fraught and potentially antagonistic.

As uncomfortable as this may get it is the right time to be having the conversation. The emphasis of Ofsted’s new framework on curriculum intent means that MATS, schools and teachers are now thinking hard about what they are trying to achieve and what exactly pupils need to know to get there. Curriculums are being strengthened and rewritten from scratch with those responsible for them thinking hard about the very point of what they teach.

Thank goodness, saying ‘to get good exam results’ is no longer a satisfactory answer. Deeper, more profound questions need to be considered and answered. What is the purpose of the curriculum? What will be in it? How has the content of the curriculum been decided upon? Who makes decisions about what pupils should learn? How is curriculum Quality Assured? What processes exist to critique and revise the curriculum?

In these questions lie the seeds of irresponsible attack and unhelpful defensiveness. I think we’re beginning to see this already; accusations of racism, white supremacist views (albeit framed differently to the culturally dominant definition) and propaganda flew around twitter this weekend.

Those concerned about curriculum content, whatever the reason, have the right and responsibility to have their say, but I worry that some of what I’ve seen is based upon assumptions that are often not true.

For example, an argument I’ve heard made recently is that many history curriculums are racist because they teach that the abolition of slavery was solely the result of white abolitionists. Well, quite. But I haven’t come across a curriculum that actually does teach this. At my MAT, the abolition of slavery part of the curriculum contains the work of both white and black abolitionists, economic arguments influenced by Marxist historians, the influence of rebellions in the southern states and Caribbean countries and an examination of the reasons for changing scholarly debates and why these are particularly contentious. My understanding is that this, based on scholarship, has been the most common approach for quite a long time, although I am of course quite happy to be pointed towards evidence that shows I’ve got this wrong.

I wonder this sort of thing happens because some of those concerned about the content of the history curriculum have assumed that pupils are learning what I call The National Myth. This misunderstanding would be understandable, given that such narrative are often culturally dominant.

In this wrongheaded conception of history, Britain alone won World War Two, Churchill, Gandhi and Martin Luther King are secular saints, and there is serious debate over whether humans have ever been to the moon. That all of this is nonsense doesn’t make any of this fluff go away, and as I argued here a core purpose of history in schools should be to act as the Ghost at the Feast and fight such dangerous, inaccurate generalisations.

History teachers are allies here, not the enemy, and rather than call them to task over strawmen, it would be more productive to amplify their voices so that what they teach is better able to challenge the inaccuracies that infuriate us all.

None of this is to say that every history curriculum gets everything right. I think there is indeed a very important conversation to be had around how these are created and who creates them. But for this to happen properly it is just as important that challenge and debate happen in a constructive, collegiate and civil manner. Nobody wants topics or themes to be crudely shoe-horned into learning sequences just to tick a box or meet an arbitrary quota.

This is what went wrong with the way in which Mary Seacole was included on many curriculums in the past, where I’ve seen her thoughtlessly plopped in next to Florence Nightingale, her contributions to nursing and doctoring made to compete celebrity death-match style against those of her more famous contemporary in questions focused on medical significance in which she inevitably came off worse. In order to compensate, I think, I’ve also seen curriculum use the shade thrown by Nightingale at Seacole during the Crimean war to give the death-match an unhelpfully presentist moralistic element. A common, infuriating conclusion reached by pupils ended up being along the lines of, ‘Nightingale more significant but EVIL.’ I think this happened because while Seacole is absolutely worthy of including on a curriculum, not enough thought was given to why. In our curriculum Mary Seacole is included, along with the inherent interest found in any extraordinary life, to show how attitudes towards race and ethnicity are complex and have changed. We teach the importance of her work at the time, that when she returned from the Crimea a huge benefit concert was arranged for her by grateful ex-patients. We teach that her fame faded over time because far less was written about her than Florence Nightingale by historians until a comparatively recent rediscovery, while considering the possible reasons for this. This fits in with the ‘evolution or revolution’ theme of the unit of work, which examines the type and speed of social changes in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

This hasn’t been easy and while confident I’ve put hard thought into getting this right, I’m just as sure there will be some certain I’ve got it wrong. And this is the point. Doing anything properly takes time and careful and sustained thought, and even then it isn’t at all clear that there will be a consensus on how successful curriculum planning has been.

I would go further and accept the likelihood there are themes, events, personalities and interpretations that perhaps should be on the curriculum I planned but aren’t simply because I am either unaware of them at all, or unaware of scholarship that makes them more significant than I thought them to be. Although I am a voracious and curious reader I am very busy, and a part of my own context as much as anyone else. Sometimes things that seem obvious to others are less obvious to me. I want this debate to happen over the specific not the generic. Less “you need more Indian history on your curriculum right now” and more “have you ever thought of including the Black Hole of Calcutta on your curriculum as part of a unit on Britain’s control of India?” Suggestions on history articles, books, exhibitions or new discoveries that challenge existing orthodoxies, the lifeblood of history, are even more welcome.

We do need to have this conversation, we really do. But this is a big, big debate which might involv deep structural changes (or not) for many history curriculums. Erecting strawmen won’t help. Nor will blunderbuss non-specific accusations of white supremacy or racism. Nor will defensiveness from curriculum planners when faced with legitimate challenge.

Collegiality and generous application of the Charity Principle will help. All of us want the best curriculums for our pupils, as we define them, and to say otherwise is at best unhelpful and at worst very disingenuous.

We’ve just finished one war. Let’s not begin another.

If we are to take best advantage of a welcome focus on ‘what’ over ‘how’, we must work together.

(Note: In an earlier version of this blog I wrote that the content of MFL was not particularly contentious. It’s been pointed out to me this isn’t true. I’ve edited. Please excuse my ignorance and thanks to those who patiently pointed me towards a debate I was unaware of.)


Teach what’s important


A year or so ago I wrote this blog post on “Ten Principles for Great Explicit Teaching”. It was a popular post, with Oliver Caviglioli kind enough to turn it into a poster which I’m vain enough to have printed out and pinned to a wall in my office.

Explaining things is something I’m always trying to improve at and while I think I’m steadily getting better, I’m even more certain there’s a great deal more for me to learn.

So I keep tinkering.

A big change for me moving schools was adapting to a context in which poor behaviour in lessons is genuinely rare. By this I do not mean ‘well behaved’ as in ‘quiet’, but wholehearted commitment to listening, completing tasks and answering questions.

This means that it is possible to talk to classes for long lengths of time and I, as will surprise nobody who knows me, have enjoyed this.

Perhaps a little too much.

I’ve noticed a lot of what I say is actually designed primarily to grab the attention of children, because I’m used to them switching off unless they are periodically jolted by something very obviously shocking, emotional or provocative. This might mean spending ages being the berserker on Stamford Bridge, or telling classes about Franz Ferdinand ‘s apparently cursed car, or relating a ghost story about a girl who died of the Plague in York. While I’ve always made sure what I talked about was linked to the subject of my lesson, it would be a stretch to claim these links were always strong enough to justify inclusion based on what I really wanted pupils to remember. I don’t completely blame myself for this. When I’ve worked in places without clear and functional behaviour systems in which there was little support for removing a child for poor behaviour, such strategies were necessary survival tactics.

Whereas in the past I felt I had no choice, delivering a gratuitously shocking explanation now leaves me feeling cheap and a bit ashamed of myself, and I’m now considering very carefully as to how I can make all my explanations useful and purposeful as well as entertaining.

Some of you are rolling your eyes now and – quite understandably – thinking “oh for goodness sake get that stick out of your arse.”

I get this but also think it wrong nonetheless.

Pupils often find stories fascinating because the events in them are decontextualised. For example, a child may love a story of two gladiators fighting to the death because this is so utterly alien to the society they live in that it feels like fantasy. Their response is an entirely emotional and not a historical one. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t teach about gladiators but the sweat, blood and guts shouldn’t be obsessed over simply because children like gore, just as we shouldn’t explain the events of the Children’s Crusade as if those who took part in it were somehow stupid or mad in the modern sense.

It is these stories that have in the past made me feel most tawdry, almost as if I’d betrayed the people I was teaching about.

Another problem with telling stories purely to get attention is that many of the stories turn out to be at best of dubious provenance and at worse, plainly not true. The story of Franz Ferdinand’s car is a very good example of this; while initially the idea of the vehicle being somehow cursed is a compelling one, it doesn’t take much research or common sense to work out that many of the details are exaggerated or just far too coincidental to be significant There are a thousand stories like this, from the obscure but fascinating (Monkey Hangers of Hartlepool) to those that have come to be accepted as canonical truth by wider society (Elizabeth I and Walter Raleigh’s cloak) but almost certainly never happened.

But they are undoubtedly fascinating stories and surely they can’t do much harm?

I think they can.

We have so little time and so much to cover – I wouldn’t be surprised to be told there’d been a history book written on every single element of our extensive curriculum. There really is so much to get through there just isn’t time for superfluous elaboration. This is even more of an issue for those of us influenced by Nuthall’s “The Hidden Lives of Learners” which offers the hypothesis that we need to expose pupils to everything we want them to remember three times.

If we aren’t disciplined in giving explanations it can be all too easy to lose the thread and end up nowhere at all. While pupils may have been thrilled, entertained, disgusted or horrified by what we’ve told them, if it isn’t connected to what we want them to know it’s unlikely they’ll retain what, in a quieter calmer time, we know they need to remember.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t tell entertaining stories or explain things passionately. But we do need to be sure what we are saying has deep purpose. I’m working hard at this at the moment, looking carefully through my booklets before lessons and deciding exactly what analogies I’ll draw and which stories I’ll tell, and being strict with myself to make sure I know why.

I’ve had to kill some of my babies, which is sad. But as I’ve done it I’ve reminded myself I’m not a clown, stand-up comedian or circus entertainer. My pupils have so little time and so much they have to learn, and I care about them too much to waste their time now there’s no reason to.


Why teach?

why teach

It feels as if it is getting harder to answer this. Year on year we fail to hit teacher training recruitment targets and lose more and more teachers to private family lives and other professions.

As the number of children in our schools rises, alarm feels increasingly like panic.

There are many reasons for this. The familiar culprits of poor behaviour, crude accountability measures, falling wages and inflexible working conditions have probably all played a part.

But there are more fundamental questions to answer too. This talk will outline four common consequentialist justifications for teaching as a profession, explore their flaws and limitations, then explain why, irrespective of all these, teaching is still profoundly moral and worthwhile.

Before beginning properly, I’d like to begin by roughly defining what I mean by consequentialist justification. Put really simply, I mean that very often attempts to justify education are done on the basis of what happens because of it. For education to be consequentially justified, we would need to prove that it has measurable, positive outcomes. When I gave this talk previously, someone politely suggested a better word for what I mean might be instrumentalist, given that I do believe there are positive consequences to education, but that these are found within learning itself. I have no particular objection to this, so if you prefer to think of this as an anti-instrumentalist rather than an anti-consequentialist argument, please be my guest and go ahead.

Do teachers make society more equal?

Fifteen years ago I was drawn into teaching by a lie.

I was told, and believed, because teachers were directly responsible for the grades of their pupils in public examinations, good teachers working in poor areas were helping redress societal inequality. I thought better teaching in poorer areas led to better grades for poorer children, which led to them going to better universities, which meant they got better jobs, earned more money and became more influential.

The outcome of my work was poorer children becoming richer adults as gradually the system I worked in constructed a true meritocracy.

This argument, particularly attractive to the young often in a rush to change the world, is as persistent as ever.

Well-meaning teacher training programmes, particularly those working in areas of disadvantage, still use the gap between the richer and poorer sections of society as a way of signing up new recruits. We see this in adverts in which poor pupils talk enthusiastically about the impact a teacher made in setting them on the way to high-flying, influential careers and we see it when England’s Department of Education proudly crows any suggestion of narrowing attainment gaps between poorer and richer children.

Such messages are compelling. All of us want to feel our lives have mattered. Righting the wrongs of life’s injustices seems a noble way to live and find meaning.

Unfortunately we have little evidence the gap between rich and poor people in Britain has narrowed or will narrow in the future. In fact, more evidence suggests the opposite. If we acknowledge this but persist in believing the main reason for public education and teaching is to narrow differences in wealth, then we must accept we have failed in the past, are failing now, and in all likelihood will continue to fail in the future. Recent surveys suggest that our younger generations are fast wising up to this and increasingly cynical – or actually realistic – about the idea of social mobility.

This should not come as much of a shock given the nature of our public examination system, which effectively caps the number of top grades that can be achieved each year based on attainment in tests children take at ten or eleven. Everyone involved in the care of a child, and of course the child itself, is incentivised to use every advantage they have to outcompete other children of the same age. Those with more advantage will usually outcompete those with less, and go on to more prestigious university courses and better paid careers. If the whole cohort improves, then those in a position to do so will make sure the children they care most about improve more than others. Once again, it is the most advantaged who are in the best position to do this. While it might be a stretch to say things have been set up this way deliberately the effect is the same, as divisions in educational attainment are maintained or even widened. Even abolishing cohort referencing altogether would be unlikely to make much difference as all this would mean is universities and employers raising entry requirements.

This makes us dishonest when we say to all our pupils “work hard and you will get a good grade and if you get good grades you will rise in society”, because the limited number of grades and exclusive opportunities means that not everyone can. Those blessed with advantage be it affluence or higher intelligence are always likely to do better than those less fortunate. The worst consequence of all this might be that by tying the value of what we teach to a test score, we imply that those who do not get a high grade have been wasting their time. This is particularly alarming when we remind ourselves that the whole way examinations are set up makes it simply impossible for all pupils to reach the top of the ladder.

More evidence of this can be seen in admission figures to the best universities, which show that while more young people are going on to university, there has been little if any improvement in the proportion of poorer children going to Oxbridge and Russel Group institutions. This is important. While the number of high paid, prestigious jobs remain the same (and may even decline if our economy contracts after Brexit), then it would be entirely illogical to assume that the act of going to university, particularly if it is less prestigious, will lead to greater affluence.

Perhaps we could treat the justification of education as driving social mobility more seriously if those that made it had plans to make richer pupils perform worse in order to make space at life’s top table. This is an absurd and silly suggestion. No sane government would ever introduce a law making it illegal for parents to pay for private tuition for their child or banning them from reading to their children before bedtime to help them with literacy.

Life is competitive. For some pupils to do better others have to do worse.

The playing field is not level. If we teach to reduce social inequality then we are failures.

Do teachers make society happier?

Even if we were to accept our work does not narrow divisions it might still be possible to form an argument it is consequentially justified if we could prove that society in its entirety was becoming more educated and happier as a result of our collective work.

Superficially this argument does carry some weight. While we should at least nod at the dangers of correlation-causation, educated societies do, on the whole, seem to be more peaceful, tolerant and prosperous. It is not a huge stretch to extend this to the belief that should we improve the overall level of education – effectively shoving the bell curve right – then the work of teachers would, overall, lead to the general betterment of society even if the divisions within it remain as acute as ever. This echoes the classic capitalist argument, in its belief that competition between individuals and groups results in an overall improvement from which everyone, eventually, benefits even if inequalities are never ironed out.

To decide whether or not this works as a reason to teach we need to look at whether England is actually becoming more educated over time, then work out if this is because of schools, before considering whether or not any rise has increased general happiness.

David Didau has done good work on this. In a sequence of blog posts and in his new book, he has demonstrated that if we take IQ as a measure of intelligence, and I do realise this is disputed, then our children do, as a whole, seem to be getting cleverer.

The problem here is that it isn’t at all clear this has been the result of schooling. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is important to remember that children actually spend a very small proportion of their lives in lessons. It is just as likely that rises in IQ test scores, which assess ability to think in the abstract, are attributable to an increasingly complicated world that requires its inhabitants to think in an abstract fashion. This seems borne out by bigger increases in IQ scores in developing countries which are undergoing very rapid technological and industrial changes than in developed societies which went through these changes longer ago. While David Didau has good reason to disagree with this, citing evidence which tracks differences in increases in IQ between pupils of different ages in the same year, I still don’t think there’s enough evidence for us to say with absolute confidence that England is becoming any cleverer as a result of the work of its teachers.

While there is evidence that IQ has risen over recent years, and while schools probably have contributed to this, the many economic and societal changes that have happened in the same period means we cannot be sure that this has been only or perhaps even mainly the result of the work of schools. What’s more, depressingly and alarmingly, it appears that literacy and numeracy rates may now actually be declining. We are the only OECD country in which literacy levels of those aged between 16 and 24 are lower than those of aged 55 and over, which suggests our society may actually be becoming less rather than more educated.

It is at least possible that our recent preoccupation with examination outcomes as proxies of education may well have worsened the overall quality of education in England. Brutal, unsophisticated and high-stakes accountability incentivised schools to game play with low value qualifications and to teach to tests. What may have worked for individual schools may well have failed the collective if the overall aim was a better educated society. Encouragingly, it does seem that Ofsted, England’s school inspectorate, is acknowledging this as a risk with its latest framework, but it is far too early to tell how successful they are likely to be.

Even if we put all this aside and could prove that our children are getting cleverer, will continue to become cleverer and that this is because of our schools then it would still be impossible to say whether this has benefited society. This is because we can’t say whether people in the past were any happier than we are today. While we can make judgements based upon our own values, the inherent bias in making such judgements invalidates them. While we may look at the life of a medieval peasant and shudder their pain and suffering, our shudders are because we are imagining ourselves as them. What we fail to get is if we were them we wouldn’t be us. We don’t know what it was like to be illiterate in a culture in which nearly everyone was. We also don’t know what it was like to have a certainty of faith that meant we knew when we died our souls would still exist for eternity. This is not to say that men and women in the past were happier than us, but it does mean we just can’t make an accurate assessment as to whether or not being better educated, however we define this, leads to greater happiness.

It would be unfair to move on before acknowledging the correlation between higher IQs and greater happiness in individuals, and how this might lead some teachers to argue teaching can still be consequentially justified if the result of a teachers work is cleverer and therefore happier children. The problem here is it is not clear higher intelligence in itself is the cause of greater happiness, even if those with higher intelligence do tend to be happier. As I’ve already pointed out, life is largely a zero sum game, with greater opportunities afforded to those who win. It is entirely possible, even likely, it is greater opportunities which are the source of any greater happiness, not intelligence in of itself. This means if teaching did make children cleverer, unless this resulted in greater opportunity, which is something entirely different, then it is unlikely people as a whole will end up any more content than they are now. I saw what I think to be an example of this when I worked in Ethiopia at a time when the government was rapidly expanding higher education provision. This expansion happened too fast for graduate opportunities to keep up, which may have led to increased dissatisfaction, migration out of the country and potentially political unrest.

Finally, it is worth thinking about how happy so called child geniuses end up where the picture is, at best, very mixed.

So no. The argument that teaching leads to a cleverer, more educated and therefore happier society is not one robust enough to use as a justification for why teachers do what they do.

Do teachers make society better?

Some teachers believe the most important purpose of education is to make our world a morally better place. Proponents of this might say the world is unfair and this unfairness is the result of flaws in the people who have constructed the societies in which they live. Children in school offer a fresh start. If we can teach them to be less prejudiced, more honest and selfless, then the world they create when they grow up should be better than the world we live in now.

Perhaps if we could eliminate negative influences then humans will not behave so badly and the world will be better for everyone.

Alternatively, others claim that children are naturally selfish and will behave badly without corrective influences. They may argue that it is possible to create a better society by rewarding pupils for good behaviour and punishing them for bad. If we do this well then children will eventually internalise good values, which will lead to a better society.

There are lots of problems with both these approaches. The first of these is how we define what a ‘better’ society looks like. There is no consensus. For some people this might mean the withering away of the state and the final realisation of Marx’s communist dream. For others it may mean an orderly, traditional societal structure in which rigid hierarchies provide stability and security. If we cannot agree on the ideal society then it is impossible for us ever to achieve a result that satisfies everyone. One person’s dream is another’s dystopian nightmare. Teaching in a way designed to create a specific type of society means teaching children that those with alternative views are misguided or wicked.

Even if we could all agree on what kind of society we want to create, there is little reason to think schools could deliver it. In a typical year children spend only about 10% of their time in front of their teachers, meaning most of the time they are exposed to influences beyond their schools. This means that any child’s views are far more likely to be the result of their parents, friends and those they admire than they are the work of their teachers. While some countries, including Nazi Germany in the past and North Korea today, have tried hard to drastically increase the influence of schools to create the sort of society they deem desirable, most of us would not feel comfortable with their methods.

Do teachers make society more productive?

Every day in England a pupils interrupts their lesson to ask “why do we need to learn this?”

What often follows is teachers parroting learned consequentialist justifications. In my subject, history, this might be a teacher saying “if you understand that people in the past had different views, then you’ll understand that people today have too and this will mean you get on with people better when you get a job.”  But trying to justify the content of our curriculum by its capacity for practical application is flawed. Beyond basic literacy and numeracy most of what is learned in school is not obviously useful in the wider world without making absurd leaps. This is something many of the pupils I have taught have been acutely aware of. While it can be amusing to try and construct contrived situations that justify the teaching of something pupils regard as obscure, for example, “if you become a baker and your till breaks and you have to work out how much Mrs Jones owes you and you don’t have a calculator, or a phone, and there’s no way you’ll be able to get one then this algebra is going to come in really handy. If you remember it. Which given you only learned it to pass an exam, you almost certainly won’t.”

Worse, by indulging this argument we suggest the only subjects which are important are those with a clear and direct link to practical tasks pupils might do in the future. While some might argue this is actually quite right, curriculum developed on this principle would be radically different to most of those we deliver in schools today. In with using Excel and developing a good phone voice! Out with Homer, Angelou and the irrelevant Renaissance artists!

Do we really want our young people to learn only what is practically useful?

No consequentialist argument is strong enough to work as a justification for educating our children. As much as we might want to, we cannot say “we teach children in schools so that X will happen”, because we can’t agree what we want, can’t prove anything we want to happen does, and even if we could all agree that a change that had happened was desirable it would still be impossible to prove we were responsible for it.

Accepting this means facing something of an existentialist crisis.

If nothing good comes of our work then why bother doing it at all?

This story might be a helpful way of concentrating the argument.

Not very long ago I heard about a senior leader who had a meeting with a Teaching Assistant assigned to work with a pupil suffering from a progressive disease, which meant he used a wheelchair and was not expected to live beyond his early twenties. The meeting was called because of concerns the pupil wasn’t getting proper support, with the TA often appearing to be disinterested and bored. In the meeting the assistant accepted she had not been effectively supporting the young person and told the leader that she would prefer to prepare small groups of gifted pupils for Oxford and Cambridge University instead When the senior leader asked them why they didn’t want to work with the disabled pupil they’d been directed to help, they were horrified to hear the reply “it’s not like there’s any point. It’s not like he’s ever going to do anything.”

Never going to do anything.

Upsetting. But if we derive our sense of purpose as teachers from consequentialism what right do we have to be upset? Whatever grades this young man ended up with, he almost certainly would not go to university. He was even less likely to ever have a job. His early death means in the big scheme of things how well educated he ends up is irrelevant to the general education level of society. Lastly he would play no part in the future because he would not be part of it so what does it matter whether or not school equips him with the personal qualities or skills needed to impact on the world?

If we accept consequentialism then there is no point in educating young people like him at all, which makes the Teaching Assistant right.

What nonsense.

She was wrong and we know it.

The story makes us uneasy because we know the true value of education is not found in any outcomes we hope will be a result of it.

The true value of education is in the inherent worth of what pupils learn and their entitlement to it regardless of anything that might or might not happen to them in the future.

While justifying education in this way may feel unfamiliar it is not actually new at all. Our obsession with consequentialism is quite recent. For hundreds of years people have believed an important reason for education was because what was taught was thought to have great inherent value. All that was taught was something precious to be passed down through the generations. This has perhaps been most famously expressed by poet and inspector of schools Matthew Arnold who wrote in 1869 that the purpose of education should be for young people to know “the best that has been thought and said in the world”. Those tempted to dismiss this as the privileged witterings of a Victorian man with a Messiah complex may be interested to remember precisely the same sentiment was expressed by his socialist contemporary Robert Tressell in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, in which he argued that:

“What we call civilization – the accumulation of knowledge which has come to us from our forefathers – is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil.. it is by right the common heritage of all.”

Robert Tressell

This offers us a way forward.

In making the point of what we do the value of what we teach our children, and letting go of the idea we need something else to happen as a result of it we can find real and robust purpose.

We cannot shake consequentialism completely. If we are to make the reason for what we do the things we teach we have to believe that the children we are responsible for have the capacity to recognise the inherent value of what they learn. While this is of course still consequentialist it is much less so than believing learning Hamlet will result in a measurable outcome in a completely different domain. It is far more realistic for a teacher to say “I hope that by learning Hamlet’s soliloquy pupils will see that people often struggle with feelings of pointlessness” than it is for them to say we teach Shakespeare because it will make them richer. While there will an always should be argument over what we should teach, we can have more confidence in pupils recognising the inherent value of “the best that has been thought and said in the world” if what we teach has been recognised as of great worth by many people over a long period of time. This is why teaching children the Odyssey is better than teaching Harry Potter or Holes. It is why we do pupils a disservice if we teach them the history of football instead of the Magna Carta. It is why a geography teacher is right to focus on glaciation and wrong to allow their pupils to spend valuable lesson time colouring in and labelling blank maps.

I think we might push past Arnold’s narrow view of what is considered academic in the strictest sense too, expanding ‘the best that has been thought and said’ to ‘the best that has been made, cooked, danced and so on’. Deciding whether pupils will learn to cook a Rogan Josh or a Chicken Tikka Masala, or whether a dovetail joint is a better use of time than a mortoise and tenon should be just as important as deciding whether or not pupils should learn about the Napoleonic wars. There will never be agreement, but the most important debates we have in schools should be over what exactly we should teach our children based on intrinsic and inherent worth. On a subject of such importance there will never be agreement, which is why we should be talking about it more than anything else.

We should be arguing about whether we include Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko on our curriculum. We should be arguing about exactly which Gothic novel should be taught, and whether pupils are better served by this or a unit on Grace Nichols.

Schools should not adapt what pupils learn based on what they think they will become as they are right now. Instead they should teach children to alter themselves in order to become part of something greater. We all have voices but we sing as part of a choir. Our curriculum should whisper to our children “you belong. You did not come from nowhere. You are one of us. All this came before you, and one day you too might add to it.”

This, the antithesis to the way in which child centred education has been understood and interpreted in many English schools in recent years, may sit uncomfortably with those who feel it should be teachers making changes in response to whoever they find in front of them. Those feeling uneasy might want to think about how transformative and liberating it is to utterly lose yourself in a mathematical equation, poem, painting or piece of music. Curriculum is a powerful alchemy takes a person out of their own limited experience and connects them to something so much larger. This is the real treasure. To allow our pupils to do this we must first help them shake off the intrusive egos that push all of us into imposing ourselves on what we encounter whether in school or elsewhere.

This idea was developed in Simone Weil’s 1942 essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”, which expresses the view the primary purpose of schools should be to teach pupils to pay proper attention to what they are taught. While she sees the ultimate purpose to be an increase in the capacity for prayer, we do not need to go this far to see better attention as a worthwhile end. If we teach pupils to see the value in subsuming their own egos and individual characteristics to what they are learning and free them from the oppressive belief that what they do in their classrooms is only worth the bother if they are materially rewarded for it, we create an inclusive sense of meaning achievable for everyone, from future astrophysicists to people like my daughter who may always struggle to learn new things as quickly as most others.

This provide schools and the teachers in them with a powerful sense of purpose that enables us to throw off the existentialist horror in realising that we cannot be sure anything we do ever leads to anything else.

It also presents us with a great responsibility.

If none of our actions leads to the outcomes we once thought they did, and the only value of what we teach is in the intrinsic worth of the material itself, then what and how well we teach assumes immeasurable significance.

In this we are saved.

We do not teach because by doing so we can eradicate the differences between rich and poor. We do not teach to educate society, or to create a better one. We do not educate our children so that they have skills that will make them more productive workers. Our responsibility is more profound. We teach because, as Tressell has said, our children are the heirs of all that has gone before them and by teaching them well we gift them their birth right to the fruit of our civilizations. How important then is what we teach and how well we do it? There is so much to learn and so little, little time. When we make decisions about curriculum we do so as part of a great, grave tradition. For hundreds of years, societies have been taking the baton of knowledge and passed it down through their generations, and by doing so shown their children that they are valued, important and part of something so much more enormous than they are.

If you are a teacher and now or in years to come find yourself data-befuddled tired and listless, doubting whether what you do has real purpose then get up early and stand beside almost any road in England. Watch the buses, silly uniforms and striped ties go by. Smile at the important, ritualistic frivolity. Think of the schools that breath in our children in the morning and exhale them in the afternoon. Think about how little these children knew when they started school, and how much they know now, and how much they will know in the future. Think about how barren their lives would be if there were no schools or teachers and they were never taught anything at all and didn’t know anything beyond what they’d directly experienced themselves.

Think about how poor they would be in the most important sense if there were no schools and no teachers.

Think about this and allow yourself to feel the privilege and enormous weight of responsibility you carry, a weight that goes back hundreds of thousands of years. Picture yourself as a link in the only chain that really matters, a runner with a flaming torch you are thrusting into the hands of younger athletes so it won’t matter that one day, sooner than anyone ever thinks they will, your legs will fail. Remember that even if one of your young athletes does fall they had the same right to run as their luckier compatriots.

Remember we are all of us part of a race in which the aim is not to win but just to keep going.

We are the links in the chain.

We are the runners in the race.

We are the bearers of the torch.

And this is why we teach.

“Academic work is one of those fields, which contains a pearl so precious that it is worthwhile to sell all our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it.”

Simone Weil


My teachers don’t help me


One of the most common complaints made by pupils in schools, especially when trying to justify poor behavioural choices, is ‘I didn’t understand the work and the teacher didn’t help me.’

This can feel like a devastatingly logical line of argument. After all, how can a child do work if they don’t understand it? And if they don’t understand it, isn’t it a teacher’s job to make sure they can?

But things, as they never are in schools, are not so simple.

Asking pupils who use this argument how they would like their teachers to help them is revealing. Very often, their understanding of help is very specific. Frequently, what they mean by ‘help’ is individual one-to-one support. They mean that they think their teacher should sit down next to them to explain each task, and how it should be successfully completed. They believe if teachers do not do this, they are not helping, which makes any poor behaviour, for example shouting out, justified, as in “I asked for help loads of times but Sir ignored me.”

Logistically, for most teachers in most schools, this is just not practical. I think teachers, certainly in most subjects in secondary schools, should spend most of their time instructing the class as a whole. Any time they spend in one-to-one support is time they cannot spend explaining content to everyone. When it is not necessary, as it often isn’t, one-to-one tuition in lessons is an inefficient use of time.

For pupils who have, for whatever reason, internalised the idea that help has to be one-to-one support, any whole class teaching must seem very frustrating. “Sir is talking to everyone again! He’s not helping me!” This can mean that they switch off and stop listening, which means they miss out on the material they need to complete the tasks they then think they need help with later on.They are then more likely to demand personal help and so create a vicious cycle of slow progress, poor behaviour and confrontation.

This is such a shame. Pupils whose understanding of help is limited to one-to-one tuition miss the truth; their teachers are helping them all the time. When a teacher explains something new to the whole class, they are helping. When a teacher goes through a worked example or model answer, they are helping. When a teacher tells their pupils common errors made on a test and corrects them, they are helping. When a teacher tells a pupil to stop lollygagging out of the window and look at the board, they are helping. Pupils who do not recognise this as help miss all of it, which means that when it is time to complete tasks, it is inevitable they will not understand.

All of this is not to say that teachers should never help pupils individually. When appropriate they absolutely should. But a teacher finding themselves having to do this regularly for an individual child should consider the possibility that the help the pupil needs is actually in engaging with what they are saying to the whole class. Regrettably, I think in the past some pupils have been so individually helped they have come to believe that they actually aren’t capable of understanding anything unless there is an adult available to translate for them. For some pupils this might be true but I am sure for most it is not.

This learned helplessness is dangerous because it robs children of the ability to learn in any other way. We must fight this and push our most vulnerable young people past the idea they need someone with them at all times in order achieve anything.

All of this means, as I’ve written about here, that schools, whether they do this through SLANT or something else, must teach children how to listen. They must insist that pupils know that in order to get individual help from their teacher they must first keep their side of the deal by engaging with support in its very widest sense.

Of course, unfortunately and inevitably there will be times when whole class instruction, whether through a teacher’s inexperience or something else, isn’t helpful. This does need to be dealt with. But the way to do this isn’t to say that the teacher should stop talking to the whole class and help each child individually instead. Such classrooms are chaotic which makes everything harder to do.

Anyone uneasy about what I’ve written here, and I think there may be some, should be clear that all I’m really saying is that I think children should listen while their teachers talks, whether it is to them individually or to them as part of a class, and that pupils understand that whenever a teacher is teaching, they are also helping.

Surely this isn’t controversial?