Tuesday, 10 March 2015

My morning with Michael...

Unless one counts educationalists as celebrities, I rarely come across celebrities in my day to day life.  I used to teach Alison Moyet's son, and very clever he was too.  Rowan Atkinson used to turn up to watch his son's matches in a McLaren F1 and I've talked all things English cricket with Mick Jagger as he came to watch his son make a first ball duck one pleasant sunny afternoon circa 2000.  We had fun-sized mars bars at cricket tea that day and it is one of my life's greatest regrets (thus far) that I didn't at least raise an eyebrow as he tucked in - so many witty asides to choose from, and I chose none.

I recently spent a few days with my wife in Tel Aviv, and I managed to run in to Michael Gove and family not once but three times during the course of our first full day there.  The fact that we saw no more Gove during the next two days are probably the result of him avoiding his one and only stalker.  We had the chance to chat briefly (I cornered him in a gift shop) and I told him what a fine job I thought he had done as education secretary.  He was very pleasant (as one might expect when receiving a compliment) and though I expect he was slightly disappointed that I teach at a selective 450-year old Boarding School and not a City Academy, he didn't let on.

Whether one agrees with Gove's approach/ideas/philosophy or not (and it is inevitable there will be members of both camps), I don't think anyone can argue to hard that the man is able, displayed integrity as education secretary and left people in little doubt of what he was trying to achieve (perhaps a hollow compliment, but not one that can be applied to many politicians).  I can't have been the only person to note the irony of DC choosing to replace Gove with Nicky Morgan at the same time as declaring a 'war on mediocrity' in education.  Gove clearly believed in the transformative power of education; the fact that cultural capital is not the preserve of the wealthy; that great works of art and literature are for all, not to be whisked away from 'kids like these'; that by focusing so much attention on the C/D GCSE boundary for English we adopt an overly-reductionist approach to the teaching of the subject; that it is important to pass on an educational 'tradition' that is strong in the key academic disciplines; that not all subjects offered at GCSE are equal and that chasing grades by offering a slew of non-academic courses does not represent valid educational practice; that attempting to gain grades by multiple re-sitting of the same papers at the expense of spending time on teaching and understanding is educationally corrupt.  

I have no idea whether literature from the C19 is beyond many children, but I do know that it is the job of teacher and parents to foster a sense of intellectual curiosity in their pupils/children and to make sure they retain an ambitious approach to learning.  I prefer to believe that you can teach virtually anything to anyone, at least at some level.  If the child is enthused, they are more likely to become an auto-didact, and learning doesn't just take place in School.  My experience of teaching tells me that rarely are children (or adults) working at capacity, and that when the bar is raised, most people are able to jump higher.  I have been amazed at the response of 13-year old pupils to T S Eliot this year - they may not have loved The Wasteland or understood all (much?) of it, but they've gained plenty from the text and all of the connections (Classics, History, Art) one can make to it.

Gove clearly failed to bring the vast majority of teachers on board with him.  He will be remembered at least as much for his utterances about 'enemies of promise' and 'the blob' as he will about the rhetoric that was supposed to empower teachers and to encourage them to be ambitious personally and ambitious for their pupils.  In the end, tone matters, and lots of teachers didn't much care for his.  It is unusual that so many teachers who can object to his combative logic consider it reasonable to launch personal attacks that are little to do with educational philosophy and more to do with their own emotional.  

I doubt that our paths will cross again, and certainly not any time soon, but the last I saw of him was enjoying a lengthy quiz with his children.  In half an hour over a family lunch, it was noticeable just how much knowledge was absorbed by the kids, and just how much they enjoyed it.  Each question from the top of his head was connected to the last, and a subtle build-up of of connected 'grammar' (in the Trivium sense) was palpable.  Maybe we're all guilty of thinking the world right in front of us can be extrapolated further and applied well beyond our immediate sphere, and admittedly they were his own children, but if he ever wanted a teaching job, I'd hire him like a shot.  

Sunday, 1 February 2015

FHM Knowledge and Loaded Skills

In the 'New Lad' heyday of the mid-90s, when cigarettes, alcohol and football were all you needed to be a 'ledge', one was presented with a binary choice for lad-based news: 'Loaded' and 'FHM' were the clear market-leaders.  Nuts and Zoo were a little too low-brow, aimed more at the 13-year olds lacking the confidence to buy pornographic magazines in their local WHSmiths and GQ was a little too high-brow, not to mention that fact that it contained fashion shoots involving men.

FHM and Loaded contained a glossy mix of supposedly true laddish tales, a 24 page glossy shoot of a lady whose first name ended in 'i', some sports and some music that it was ok for a lad to like (Oasis, Cast, Space etc).  A 'dilemmas' feature occasionally made an appearance, presumably to massage the grey matter of the readership.  This would include questions such as:

'Would you 'do' The Coors if you had to 'do' the bloke too?

Which would you prefer, a mermaid with the top half of a woman and the bottom half of a fish, or the top half of a fish and the bottom half of the woman?

If you could have ten points to spend on women, and supermodels were 10, women you knew were 2 and 'lucky dip' was 1, how would you spend your points?

If these aren't actual questions from FHM, they are close enough to the brain-teasers posed by the mag, and they make for a brand of rather tasteless sexism.  I think we've moved on.

However, these needless and pointless questions aren't so very different from the question of 'Knowledge v Skills'.  We have admittedly move into a more highbrow line of questioning (perhaps even beyond GQ's remit), but I don't think the dilemma is any more valid as a question.  It is surely desirable to have both.  It is even possible to possess 'skills' in isolation, without background knowledge?  It is certainly possible to hold in one's mind a large collection of disparate facts, which may be useful when it comes to questions of pure factual recall (pub quizzes) for example, but does this even constitute knowledge?  No-one articulates better what I mean than Richard Feynman - here he is talking about the difference between 'knowing the name of something, and knowing something':


It is clear that the people Feynman criticise possess a certain degree of knowledge, without the skills of analysis to make that knowledge useful. However, how can you begin to use your skills of analysis if you don't even know that it's a bird making the noise?

Knowledge and skills have little in common with the 'traditional v progressive' debate, though some may argue that the method of direct instruction favoured by those in the former category promotes the importance of knowledge and the pupil-centred approach favoured by the progressives promotes skills-based learning, but to look at things in these terms is too simplistic and binary (almost in the mold of an FHM article writer).  

Every teacher must agree that the passing on of knowledge is to some degree their raison d'etre - this is evident in the quote from Joseph O'Neill, who states that 'the human race refreshes itself in complete ignorance'.  However, no teacher would ever intend to pass on that knowledge without making connections between the material being delivered.  I watched the marvellous BBC4 series 'A Tale of Three Cities' last night, which focused on Paris in 1928.  The series moved effortlessly around the Culture, Politics, Art, Architecture and Music of the City, all placed in clear historical context.  I can't imagine how one could have appreciated the programme without knowledge of how these things came to be, but it takes a certain degree of skill to understand how these things are connected.  'Only Connect' has been the theme of my Third Form teaching this year, and I have tried to prove that connections can be made between seemingly disparate things.

I cannot imagine anything more dull than skills-based teaching - the passing on of knowledge is one of the most joyful parts of being a teacher.  Having said that, to think that I was merely preparing pupils for a tilt at the 'Eggheads' would be pretty disappointing too.  In much the same way that Baddiel and Skinner will always be linked to the laddish mid-90s through '3 Lions' and 'Fantasy Football', it's impossible to de-couple knowledge from skills.  It's not an either/or question- if it's those you're after, stick to your back-copies of Loaded.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Manners maketh man

...if I could give you just one gift ever for the rest of your life it would be this. Confidence. It would be the gift of confidence. Either that or a scented candle.

So says smug posh-boy Dexter Mayhew to mousy Emma Morley in David Nicholls' One Day. Emma is the talent-rich Northerner with self-esteem issues and Dexter is the Southerner with swagger. Emma is state educated and Dexter is a product of the hallowed halls of one of England's foremost centres of learning. He is part of the '7 percent club' and we are led to believe that at least part of his innate confidence and bravado come from his formative education. He has presumably developed such an advanced sense of social confidence through multiple visits to Hunt Balls, sailing at Salcombe and a few cans of warm Stella at Hunstanton tennis week.

I thought of this particular quote when reading one of the many blogs on character, grit and resilience that have sprung up like Japanese knotweed in recent months, threatening to strangle dialogue on virtually any other topic. To read many of these blogs is to suggest that such ideas are new and that Schools have been myopic in ignoring such an obvious facet of each child's education.

Do I believe that my School develops character and encourages grit and resilience? Yes, certainly, but they are not taught explicitly and neither are the words mentioned (at least in any 'official' capacity). These are basic human qualities that are desirable, but they cannot be taught, in much the same way that kindness and happiness cannot be taught - especially as one person's version of what it means to be happy may well bear little resemblance to that of another. 'Teaching explicitly' and 'developing through the educative process' are two very different things. The latter is not quite subliminal, but it is something that goes on throughout the pupils' time at School, and as such, becomes embedded over a number of years.

For 'character' to be developed, it is important to give first pupils the opportunity to display their character. We place significant emphasis on competitive team sport; on playing a musical instrument in various ensembles; on treading the boards in both School and House plays; on attendance at various clubs and societies; on taking responsibility in a School and House context; on undertaking academic challenges that last months rather than days, giving one the sense of real expertise and achievement over a significant period of time; on serving the local community in a genuine and meaningful way; on learning the need to rely on others and have them rely on you through the CCF; on a significant engagement with charitable pursuits, both at home and abroad.

To quote just one example, I have coached my current football team for just two sessions and one fixture, but it has already given me insight into aspects of character of many of the individuals. I can see whose head goes down quickly when we concede, who looks to blame others when things are not going well, who is the first person to congratulate a team-mate for doing something good, who values their own milestones over that of the team, who is scared of the physical side of things but puts their feet in where it hurts anyway and who wants to win more than anything for the duration of the game but recognises that is is nothing more than that: a game. Tiny things - the boy who asks if he can help at the end of a session, the boy who thanks you at the end of every game, the boy who shakes the hand of the opposition coach win or lose - these must always be noted and fed back (usually in a subtle manner) if the team ethos is to develop.

It is important as educators that every one of the above behaviours that is commendable is celebrated and every one of the above that is undesirable is challenged. We must adopt a rigorous commitment to setting the highest standards of behaviour and we should never deviate from these standards. All teachers need to buy in to this approach across the entire range of School-based activities. In general, pupils like to know what is expected of them. They value high standards that are applied consistently. Trying to teach 'grit' is impossible; presenting pupils with ample opportunity to display this behaviour, identifying and praising such behaviour where it is apparent and ensuring that the educative body is committed to developing such behaviour through a wide range of activities should be possible in every School.

I conversed on Twitter recently with an academic at the university of York who was bemoaning the imbalance of resourcing in the independent and state sectors. He had a point, but character, grit and resilience cost, just like good manners, nothing.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Teachers' Workload?

This is the latest (to quote Alan Partridge, or at least his radio jingle)...Hot...Topic...doing the rounds. New-ish Education Secretary Nicky Morgan (I expect she'll stop being called 'new' when she actually does something) is keen to hear from teachers for practical ways to reduce their workload, thereby increasing their workload in the process. Far be it for me to suggest that all this talk of workload has something to to with next year's election, but the two major parties do suddenly seem to have become the parties of care. Whether a workload is light, heavy or excessive is very much in the eye of the worker, and I have worked in day Schools and boarding Schools, single-sex and mixed Schools, City Schools and rural Schools and I can say with some certainty that the definition of hard work varies wildly from teacher to teacher. People vary in levels of efficiency and capacity and to talk about 'teacher workloads' as a catch-all term makes no sense. I have worked in the same School with people who worked extraordinarily hard and didn't seem to bat an eyelid and others who did precious little but still found time to moan (the sort of people who don't actually say hello in the corridor, but raise their eyes just a little as they pass you, just to let you know that the weight of some globe or other is still fixed to their shoulders).

Managing workload is a collective responsibility, jointly held by the individual and the School's management. It seems reasonable to expect that teachers will work long hours during term time. The job affords around 3 to 4 times as much holiday time as other professions and the job security could be said to offset the relatively meagre financial rewards. It is sensible to start with an expectation that days will be long during term time, whilst remembering that you're rarely more than six weeks or so from at least one week off. I don't know if teachers feel that they have a monopoly onlong days and hard work, but I don't remember many of my friends who worked in the City coming home on the 5pm train. They may have earned far more than I did, but they sold their souls in the process!

But lest this blog become a 'back in your box' message for teachers, here's some ideas about how the individual and School management can come together to make life easier (or at least more effective):


This should not inform all that you do. This should not hang like a Damoclean sword above your head. You should rarely (if ever) ask yourself whether Ofsted like this. You should never get in trainers who talk about what Ofsted like. Inspections happen once every few years or so and you will teach several thousand lessons in between ones that are observed during inspection.  Concentrate on these lessons, do things that you find work, the things that allow the pupils to learn things. Ofsted don't know your pupils, you do, and you should have the courage to teach the best way that you can, not with some manual in the background. Being in charge, feeling empowered to teach the best way that you can is a pretty good feeling.


It's really important, but it's not *that* important. You can set work that takes 3 hours to mark and the pupils won't have learned any more than if it took sub-1 hour. Don't be a martyr. Multiple choice questions are great for many subjects and can be marked quickly. Occasionally (very occasionally) pupil marking is fine. Pupils need time to read; give them that time. Give good feedback, but make sure that the time you spend marking isn't so excessive that that feedback gets lost in a mass of ticks, crosses and marks out of 300.


This is really important too, but it has to be worthwhile. Anodyne reports that say very little are often worse than no reports at all. Move away from an 'end of term' model where teachers need to mark exams and then write 150 reports. They will end up sounding generic. Stagger your reporting throughout the year so that teachers only have to write a maximum of half that number each session. 'No-one grew taller by being measured more often' is certainly true, but make sure you space out your sessions appropriately. Too often and people are writing reports almost every week, not often enough and you'll drop the baby. Not all reports need to be sent home; try short, pithy (and honest) internal comments on pupils.

Data generation

The data that you generate should be valid, understandable and must lead to worthwhile things happening. Being able to praise colleagues where the raw data doesn't show anything special is important, likewise being able to support colleagues who are struggling. Setting appropriate targets for individual pupils, being able to treat pupils as individuals, not as merely a part of a top or bottom set - data can help with this. Make it someone's job to produce and present the data - teachers then only need to read it to help their understanding of the pupils they teach. Don't use data to beat people - use it to support and enhance professional judgement.

Activities, worksheets and powerpoints

These can take ages. Make sure that any time you spend designing activities or producing worksheets is worth it. A fantastic lesson is not characterised by the number of different activities you have going on. Starters, Post-Its, white-boards, plenaries might all be useful at certain times, but you don't need them every lesson! especially if planning time is tight. Too many teaching strategies these days seem to be less about teaching and more about engaging the reluctant learner. If your delivery is dynamic, if you're the most interesting thing in the classroom and if you can transmit enthusiasm for your subject, you won't have reluctant learners. If you ever hear yourself say that you need to create a ppt for every lesson because then you've got them forever, the profession just might not be for you.

It's supposed to be enjoyable

Most teachers will be delivering the subject in which they have a degree, certainly in the world of secondary School teaching. This was the subject for which you rejected all others. This is the subject you may have studied for nigh on 15 years at School, then at university. You may even have a doctorate. You now get to communicate all that knowledge and enthusiasm to a captive (for some of the time) audience. When I'm making gunpowder, synthesising paracetamol, extracting capsaicin or eugenol or just live-following the announcement of the Nobel prize in chemistry, I feel this is the best job in the world, and no amount of paperwork, books to mark, stroppy parents or Saturday night pub duties will disabuse me of this fact. And then I get to coach football in the afternoon. What's not to love? 

Workload? If it all feels like work, I think you're missing the point.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Working out what works?

The title of this blog is almost exactly the same as the website address of ResearchEd, Tom Bennett's education site, festival and behemoth. ResearchEd has mushroomed in the last couple of years, and the many hundred teachers that packed the rooms of Tom's School were testament to his energy in putting educational research somewhere near the heart of the education debate.

Only the question mark at the end is added by me. I attended ResearchEd 2014 last week, and found the whole day confusing and ultimately rather unsatisfactory. Maybe this is at least partially the point - education research is so full of complexity, counter-intuitive findings and uncertainty that I would have been foolish to expect the opposite. However, I spent several hours at Raine's Foundation School, and I don't think I took away anything that could be used practically in a classroom.

I deliberately stayed away from the usual suspects - Smith, McInerney, Didau etc. I have heard them speak before and felt that it was healthy to diversify. I did listen to Dylan Wiliam (he's the conference equivalent of crispy pork belly - if it's a choice on the menu, you have to make it) and he made most sense on the day, explaining why teaching will never be a research-based profession. The usually reliable Rob Coe followed him up, in part as counter-argument, but he seemed miffed that so many people had evacuated the hall post-Wiliam and failed to convince. I have seen the Sutton Trust Toolkit graph (plotting effect size vs cost per pupil for various educational strategies) on multiple occasions now, and much of it makes sense and tallies with my experience. Points that go against our instinct are useful discussion starters, and it's always wise to approach an educational conversation with an open mind.

I find it difficult to explain why ResearchEd was so frustrating. The quality of the presentations I watched were poor, but maybe I was unlucky. There was much reading from PowerPoint (one presented in Comic Sans) and several of the presenters had moved so far away from the classroom that I even felt their anecdotes were out of date. The presentations I watched in the afternoon didn't really have a beginning or an end - it was as though I has stumbled upon lecture 5 or 6 of a 12 part series. The whole concept and title of ResearchEd appeared to be constrictive, with people skewing their presentations to fit in with the theme. This was quite unlike the Education Festival at Wellington College back in June, which gave speakers the freedom to present on far-reaching issues in education and was more inspiring as a result.

Many of the pertinent questions went unanswered: should teachers undertake their own research; should Schools employ a Head of Research (or Research Champion); can one apply with confidence research findings of 'what works', and if so, how does one look to embed this on a daily basis? These for me are the key questions, but I never felt that the conference got to the real meat. We skated on the surface and oft-quoted the phrase about things being a bit more complicated than that. The strategies that 'work' only work if done well, and if not done well, they actually have negative effects. I was also left wondering if many of the teachers who undertake their own research have simply reached that point in their career where they needed something else to occupy them; intellectually curious people looking for a project.

The aim of the conference is noble; all teachers should be interested in improving their practice. Finding out what works and committing to that. Teaching as a profession does need to improve, and the best way of doing that is to know what improvement looks like. Questioning what it is that we do, and how we can do it better, should be central to the profession. Teachers shouldn't be made to feel under pressure from above (or anywhere) but striving for 'good enough' is under-ambitious and a culture of improving through training or otherwise is healthy. Teachers should be supported in their wish to improve, and an awareness of research is just one part of that. In teaching, all strategies should be evaluated in terms of time spent vs measurable outcomes. Using educational research to work out what works seems to be nigh on impossible, given the occasionally conflicting evidence and the possibility of positive and negative effects of the same area of focus. Dylan Wiliam talks about 'loving the one you're with', and states that all teachers can improve, whilst taking care to note that it's not because they are not good enough in the first place. I do agree with this, but I also feel that raising the quality of those who enter the profession in the first place is important. Teachers are not regarded with the same distrust and loathing as bankers, but it is not a profession with the status it deserves.

The characteristics of excellent teaching are hard to define, but a non-controversial short list should include subject mastery, ability to communicate that subject at all levels, application of consistently high standards for one's pupils, a willingness to work hard and a level of intuition that is palpable. How much of this is innate and how much can be trained? To what extent can an interest in education research help to improve teaching in these areas? I suspect the answer is not much. Willingness to accept training is a key part of improvement and without mentioning growth mindset, an understanding that we can all get better and should look to do so is vital. You cannot expect the same level of performance from everyone, but appointing clever, talented people in the first place is always a good start. We should not be looking for minimum competence, but to appoint teachers that will have a positive impact on those around them. Sharers, not hoggers; subject experts, not those a few pages ahead of pupils; confidence, not arrogance; making people feel better, not worse; making people's lives easier, not harder; giving people the support they need to improve, not setting targets without showing teachers how to attain them. 

I'm not sure it could ever be possible to evaluate the impact of ResearchEd on those that attended, but it did very little for me. I'm delighted that so many of my colleagues across the country display an interest, but you'll get a lot more from a nice summer day at Wellington College.

Friday, 15 August 2014

The case against AS

24 hours after A level results were released to pupils, so the dust begins to settle.  Maths overtakes English as the most popular A level (re-tweeted with glee by Liz Truss), A* is up, A is down, overall passes down for the first time since 1982, many girls did a lot of jumping, someone got 11 A levels at A*/A and said their time-management was poor.  There are probably some twins who got identical results, and an 8 year old who got an A level in Computer Science, but these stories must have passed me by, at least for one year.

The legacy of Gove is being celebrated by some and damned by others.  Entries for facilitating subjects (for the uninitiated, this means hard) are up at AS, A grades are down for the A level, a record number of students are likely to go to university.  But in fact, the changes are statistically pretty minor, and that is to be expected, because the only real change this year was that pupils were not able to take/re-take their AS levels in January.  They still had the opportunity to re-take AS modules at the end of their Upper Sixth, but they didn't have the opportunity to take some AS modules four times, which was the case previously.  The true legacy of Gove may well be noticed in a year or two's time, when the first cohort of pupils on linear courses receive their grades in 2016.

I don't care for modularity.  I don't think the introduction of AS has offered breadth.  I don't think the AS enables pupils to decide which subjects they wish to take to full A level.  I don't think exams at the end of the Lower Sixth help to focus or to motivate.  I don't think AS exams enable pupils to bank marks with the long term goal of higher overall grades.  I think it is patronising to suggest that pupils cannot cope with linear courses and that the material needs to be boxed up bite-sized for them.  Tristram Hunt's popular political statement to re-introduce AS (if elected) is anti-educational and a retrograde step.  In any case, Gove never 'banned' AS grades, he simply de-coupled them from A levels, following consultation with universities.

I experienced linear courses when I studied in the Sixth Form, and when I first become a teacher I taught linear A levels.  I taught though the introduction of modular courses in 2000, and the new re-vamped modular A levels in 2008.  I have taught the linear Cambridge Pre-U for the last 3 years.  I have taught in four different Schools.  I do not state a preference for linearity and then seek to justify; it is evidence that bring me to this point.  I do not think this is an exact science, and there are certainly some pupils for whom a modular approach is best.  Some subjects are perhaps more modular than others, and some do not suffer so much by the compartmentalisation of knowledge.  However, in a utilitarian world, linearity wins for me.

To make a case against AS, here's a de-bunking of the commonly quoted reasons for keeping them:

Pupils need to bank marks

Pupils in their GCSE year are well capable of learning two or three years' worth of material for terminal examinations.  In ten subjects.  Quite why they have become unable to cope with three (or four) subjects over two years is beyond me.  It is precisely those pupils who do not need to bank marks (the top academics) who end up doing so, and those pupils who should be banking the marks that end up sitting linear A levels anyway, given their need to re-take everything.

No pupil will be more linguistically developed at the end of the Lower Sixth, compared with that same pupil a year later.  No pupil will have a more advanced problem-solving ability.  Complex ideas need time to bed in, pupils need time to mature and adapt.  Starting a School at 13 means that each pupil will have around 150 weeks of build-up to their GCSEs.  Starting in the Sixth Form leaves you with just over 20 to get the AS syllabus completed.

The 'bad day'

The likelihood of such a 'bad day' is directly proportional to how well prepared you are for an examination.  The likelihood of said bad day can be nigh on eliminated by being very well prepared indeed.  All Pre-U linear courses involve four assessment modules, one of which is usually a coursework assignment.  Even accepting the fact that a pupil might mess up one of the questions (or even a whole paper), there are still three further chances (one different days) to atone.

Pupils are focussed/motivated by the AS exams

This is a fairly lazy argument, offered by the sort of teacher who attempts to gain the attention of pupils by stating that the current topic is 'popular with the examiners'.  'This is a question that often comes up' might be used as a way to raise Lower Sixth Formers from their slumbers.  But these pupils should be motivated by the subject material, after all they have rejected over half their GCSE subjects to study your course in the Sixth Form.  I want my pupils to be interested in the work for its own sake, to build up knowledge, to gain an interest (and facility) in solving problems.  I don't want them to feel that everything is building up to this examination, occurring just 25 School weeks after they started the course in the first place.

Options are cut off

I have no problem with pupils studying four subjects through the Lower Sixth, and then dropping one at the end of the year.  They just don't have to take an AS in that subject.  I read an article in The Independent yesterday stating that without the AS exam, the pupils will not know which subject is their weakest, and which they should drop.  Surely after 30 weeks of study, any pupil can tell which subject they have struggled with the most/enjoy the least.  You can also still give them an internal exam (which might even be an AS past paper), just in case they couldn't tell from the 200 lessons, numerous pieces of marked work, reports, feedback etc.  How many university courses require an extra AS, on top of three grades, when that could be made up with an EPQ anyway?  Some require four grades, and an extra AS wouldn't count towards that anyway.  

I encourage pupils to make positive choices - this is a subject I am good at, this is a subject about which I want to learn more, this is a subject I wish to study for two years.  The presence of AS can lead to a more negative mindset - if you're asking the question: what if I want to drop it after a year, there's a good chance you shouldn't be picking it in the first place.  If there's a course call Literature in English, it's best to pick it only if you like reading books.

The pupils have nothing to show for a year's study

Learning is generally more fun when there's no exam at the end of it.  If a pupil has studied Art, Economics, English or Physics for a year, they have gained plenty from that year.  The fact that they have no letter on a piece of paper to show for it does not make the year's learning worthless.  The existance of necessary knowledge (that which appears on a syllabus) and useless knowledge (about which no questions will be asked) is a fallacy.  

AS and A2 papers are completely different

This seems to be a flaw in the chosen syllabus.  If all the easy ideas are crammed into the Lower Sixth, pupils may well gain a false idea of their progress within that subject.  Incorrect information is worse than no information at all.

And if results are still all-important, and trump everything else about the educational experience, it's worth noting that where we have moved to linear assessment, results have improved.  In every subject.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014


Toilet roll: check.  Glow-stick: check.  Rock of weed wrapped in cellophane: check.  DM boots with band names marked in tippex: check.  Girl in bikini top on shoulders: check.  This is my imagined festival essentials list from 1993, the last time you'd have seen Kurt Cobain on the circuit and probably the last time you might have seen me packing for a real festival.

My festival essentials list for Wellington College last weekend were very different: map (to assist with locating the 'Spiritual Room', list of Twitterati I wished to meet, iPad and name badge (in the vain hope that someone bounded up to talk about this blog).  More festival nerd than festival chic, but I was excited for the event nonetheless.  The promise of 'freshly brewed organic beats' for the Friday night entertainment (presumably some recent Wellington leavers playing ukuleles whilst dressed in red cords) made me glad I was heading into London for the evening, but it was the daytime treats I was most looking forward to.  And here's what I did:

Day 1

Christopher Waugh

Donnie Darko disciple and wearer of double denim, Chris gave his excellent talk 'Deus ex Machina' about pupil choice, pupil voice and the co-creation of curricula.  He is certainly high up on my list to visit at the London Nautical School next year.  An idealist but also a realist, he draws you in with his enthusiasm and clear love of teaching and of his pupils.

Tom Sherrington

Predictably good.  I have read his blog for some years now, and he writes with great clarity but also humility - his gravitas comes from the fact that he is so able; he is collaborative and open to ideas without forcing them upon you.  I felt the talk was a little rambling, but maybe that was the purpose - look for a conclusion yourself rather than having it rammed down your throat.

Keiron Sparrowhawk

How could you not go to this talk?  He sounds like a cross between a fast bowler from the Leeward Islands and an LAPD traffic cop.  Sadly, he was neither.  His talk was on 'what makes a great leader' and during the 30 minutes I managed to stick it, I learned that pupils often thought MLK and Gandhi were great leaders, that I needed a mixture of luck and hard work, and I should drink only in moderation and eat my 5-a-day.

Laura McInerney

Laura is very sharp; her writing on education is perceptive; her Twitter feed is excellent.  I am sure that she gives excellent talks for the majority of the time.  This was not one of them.  Probably the most disappointing thing I saw because I know how excellent she could have been.  Instead, in her talk 'what makes a great education secretary' she presented a data-trawl on numbers of children, months of birth and time spent in the job, all to no obvious end or conclusion.  The more time in the job, the more they got done (and the more loathed they tended to be) and most of them were born in the summer.  Er...that was about it.

Dylan Wiliam

This man is superb.  He talks with articulacy, clarity and when he says 'research shows...' you know that he has read it, and really understands it.  Some teachers have chosen to trivialise AfL, but that's hardly his fault, and his embedding formative assessment materials are excellent.  He is interesting, inspirational and forces you to reflect on practice.  His 'debate' with David Didau was more 'Brokeback Mountain' for educationalists, but did provide for high-quality musing on some philosophical points of education.  When intelligent able people get together to talk education, it's a privilege to be able to sit back and watch.  

Day 2 

Andrew Adonis

Lord Adonis spoke impeccably for 40 minutes without notes.  His talk ranged from School governance to apprenticeships and though perhaps of limited relevance to me, here was clearly a man with a fine moral compass and serious ability.  The former 'thin controller' makes one wonder what might have happened had he been given the chance to push on his vision.

Ian Leslie

The find of the tournament for me.  There's something of the Gareth Malone about him, but far less irritating.  He spoke about his book 'Curiosity', and curiosity in general.  I love this word, and it has yet to be bastardised in the same way of 'passion' and 'engagement'.  With just the right amount of certainty, conjecture and whimsy, I found myself taken in by his calm manner.  Note to self: book him in for next year.

Kris Boulton

I liked him a lot, and clearly so do a lot of others, as room 1 of the Mandarin Pagoda was packed to the rafters.  All the gang were here in support: Daisy, Andrew Smith, Katie Ashford; just don't call them the 'new traditionalists'.  Kris is very likeable and earnest, and talked a lot of sense.  I got the feeling (as I get with a lot of the relatively inexperienced teacher bloggers) that his ideas are in the process of being formed rather than fully formed and that he is reacting to the circumstances in which he has found himself, rather than extolling some deep educational philosophy.  It felt a little as though I was in some sort of clandestine 'cell' a la Hans Fallada/George Orwell, where people of like mind felt able to express themselves without fear of Ofsted and/or progressive reprisal.  I agreed with pretty much all he said, and expect that he's an excellent teachers; I just don't recognise the system he's railing against.

Geoff Barton

I expect that he's given this talk (or something similar) many times before, so polished it was.  However, he could power the College with his enthusiasm, and the message is just as impressive as the man.  When I check Twitter at 6am, there's always some Barton to read already that morning.  He makes me want to read more, he makes me feel like a grammatical ignoramus and he does it all with plenty of jokes and being genuinely likeable.  What a star.  

Keith Vaz, Katie Hopkins, David Starkey, Claire Fox

Drivel from start to finish.  Keith quotes abstract soundbites (we need to give our children the best, it's not all about A* grades), Katie sounds like a rabid right-wing housewife (some people are failures and need to go into catering), David says f*ck and praises Brighton College and Claire says little, probably bemused by the directionless shambles of D-list celebrities with whom she's having to share a stage.

David Baddiel and Cosmo Landesman

David Baddiel was excellent, as always, but was let down in a huge way by his interviewer.  I had never heard of Cosmo, but he was very poor, with no research, no ability to sit and listen and seemingly no idea that people hadn't come to see him.  Even David was struggling by the end, resorting to telling a feeble anecdote about Gove just to get off the topic of pornography.

This was an outstanding educational occasion.  The opportunity to be inspired, to discuss, debate and to network was a great privilege and this is surely the gold standard by which all educational meets can be judged.  And the toilets were fragrant.