Generally good kids

Contribution emailed to deputyjohn@live.com and reflect the opinions of the author

Generally good kids

I’m a parent. I’m middle aged and I live in a leafy part of England where there is a very low crime rate. Standards of living are great: there are a range of cultural pursuits and fantastic restaurants nearby and we can access the countryside in 500 metres.

In terms of education, my 7 year old son has mastered his times tables through repeat practise and he has a thirst to acquire knowledge about the world. We use quiz cards at home to broaden his knowledge of geography, history and the natural world. We study maps and memorise continents, countries, capital cities, rivers and mountains. He has benefitted from the use of phonics in reception and Year 1, through which he could start to pronounce and access vocabulary. Through this process at home and at school we could check that he understood the meaning and context of each word. From this he could start to read independently and widely and begin to develop and embed factual knowledge.

My daughter has almost finished reception. Before she started school she could read without recourse to phonics through auditory memory. At school they persisted in using phonics to ensure that she could develop a broad range of correctly pronounced vocabulary. At a few moments along the way I grew frustrated that, perhaps for my daughter, phonics was using a sledgehammer to crack a nut based on how adeptly she could read purely through repetition and auditory memory. Nearing the end of reception she has a reading age of 8 and each week completes several picture books and reads a few chapters of a children’s novel. She loves reading and it brings her joy and happiness.

At face value everything seems fine, but when you stand back complacency set in around here a long time ago.

In terms of uniform, every school has the same type of sweatshirt, just in different colours, with different logos. There is no blazer or tie in sight. Pupils can personalise their uniform or look by wearing different colour socks, by growing their hair to compete – who can be the most outlandish? Jewellery is a free for all competition to see who has the most generous parents.

There is a relaxed feel in each school. Pupils chat and walk without purpose. When you visit and ask why they don’t need to queue up you might be told because they are “generally good kids”. They generally don’t display any significant bad behaviour, the secondary pupils only swear when the teachers aren’t around and they certainly don’t do anything drastic like have a big fight.

They put their mobile phones away slowly when entering school. They can access these at break, at lunch, and when their teacher isn’t looking – only the latter isn’t allowed but even then they’re subject to many warnings and there’s never considered any need for action.

Therefore these schools feel sleepy and relaxed. Of course it’s a safe environment. It’s also not one with particularly high expectations.

Now a parent might say “Who cares if Matthew has really long hair? It doesn’t matter they are years away from employment, and hell isn’t a hair-cut policy a bit draconian, the sort of thing other schools need to do”.  Parents are supportive of schools by giving their time to school events and by making sure that their child comes to school fully fed and prepared every single day, with their freshly cleaned sweatshirts and fleeces. In my children’s primary school the teachers are welcoming and friendly, and at the start of the day will sip a cup a tea as their pupils fail to form anything resembling a straight line and amble into school. After some parents might go for a run, some might go to Waitrose, and others go to work or return home. Pick up is simply the reversal of the above and the cycle goes on for each day of each term. There is never any attempt at a formal introduction to the start of the day outside and certainly no roll call in silence. The general view is that these children do not need visibly formal rules because they are “generally good kids” and come from supportive homes. I see coasting schools.

There are positives though – schools do tend to value reading widely and often. There are loads of books on offer from Moshi Monsters to the Gruffalo. In fact you can be sure that every well-known picture book available is in the library and every so often the pupils can dress up as characters out of these books.

Where are the classics though?

They are there hidden in a corridor, pristine and un-thumbed. When visiting recently I commented to a teacher “it is lovely to see the Railway Children and Black Beauty, new copies as well, can my daughter take one home instead of that Moshi Monsters book she came home with last week?” T

he response I received was “no they are for KS2”.

I retorted “they look unused to me”.  I then followed it up at parents evening “please can you help my daughter select the book she chooses each week?”

The response from the teacher “she should choose herself, she is only in reception and should choose what she wants”.

I got increasingly irate and express my frustration “she came home with a Moshi Monsters book which will not extend her vocabulary in any way”.

Yes pupils read widely and often, but most of the books are happy go lucky fiction. How can my daughter start to think about more difficult aspects of life that are sad or even tragic? How will her vocabulary grow? Where did she learn that esq. stands for esquire? Certainly not in Moshi Monsters.

But it’s ok, the parents can do that: they are university educated and have a shed load of books at home. They can even teach them a bit of basic geography or history for good measure too.

There is no need to worry though because these generally good kids are just making expected progress.

Surely though these children could make exceptional progress if academic expectations were raised, formal routines introduced and curriculum leadership raised?

There are schools in some of the most deprived areas of England where such a culture exists and children are making swift progress. It’s time we demanded more of the sleepy coasting schools where parents’ actions mask the relaxed attitude to education.

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Managerialism

I was in a school two weeks ago with just under eighty teaching staff. I happened to get a copy of the staff list, and I counted them.

Of the near eighty staff, fifty-eight had a Teaching and Learning Responsibility payment for something. Some of the responsibilities were unique to the school, referencing faith. There were 12 members of SMT. All members of the maths teaching team had ‘extra responsibility’. I couldn’t help but wonder who all these people were leading.

This is something I’ve noticed more recently and it seems to creep in whenever there’s a recruitment crisis. Some NQTs look for responsibility after they’ve passed their induction year, whether they’re any good or not. Leadership positions are like a ‘right’.

I’ve seen schools invent fake jobs in order to attract or retain staff. I’ve seen Heads of maths and English now become Assistant Headteacher posts just because of the status (diluting that colleague’s focus on their subject) and I’ve seen people threaten to leave because they should be promoted every couple of years.

I suspect good schools don’t need to do this. 

I suspect there’s a negative correlation between the proportion of managers on the teaching staff in a school and a school’s results. 

Teachers who undermine

They fail to follow the behaviour policy, because they have their own methods of controlling pupils, from coercion to compromise. As a result, they make it more difficult for others, especially new teachers and supply staff.

They take kids out of lessons for trips, because that’s how they engage the pupils. Sometimes they write “let me know if I can help you make sure the pupils catch up” but the pupils never do. They know they don’t have to. They therefore create more work for colleagues and steal curriculum time.

They have the same ‘favourite pupils’ who get to do surveys, show people round the school, present in assemblies, and so on, missing dozens of hours of lessons.

They are often late to their lessons, leaving pupils in the corridor and the colleague next door has to leave their lesson to deal with them. Two classes have their learning disrupted.

They often deliver messages to pupils during lesson time, not because the message is urgent, but because that is the time that is convenient to them. They therefore disrupt learning further.

They ask questions during INSET sessions that aren’t questions at all, but an effort to get the speaker to agree with an opinion they’ve often uttered in the school. INSET sessions are rarely useful, but when they are, they make them worse.

In the same INSET sessions, when there’s “group work” (shudder) they delegate someone else to take notes and spend 90% of the allocated time giving their opinion. So no-one else does and their colleague becomes their secretary.

They are often unavailable after school, having blocked off time for paperwork.

They “delegate” even when it’s not their position to.

They do everything possible to avoid having a tutor group, because they’re too important for that.

They show films during the last week of term, making it more difficult for teachers who actually want to teach for the small amount of time they have the pupils a year.

They announce one irrelevant thing during staff briefing, but occupy 75% of the time.

They spend whole lessons on anecdotes about football or TV programmes and hence fail to teach the pupils much at all. At least the pupils were engaged. The pupils hence try it on with others.

They sit in the staff room and listen to behaviour complaints before expressing surprise and saying “well they’re fine for me”. Teachers hate them, but they would, given the implication is that it’s the teacher whose class the pupils are misbehaving in that is the problem.

They often leave early, especially on Fridays, for an “offsite meeting”.

Anyway, that’s enough about SMT.

An intensely political campaign

I really like The Seven Myths About Education by Daisy Christodoulou. It illustrates convincingly the extent to which progressive education pervades all aspects of education. It then takes on some of the key tenets of modern progressive education, as reinforced by the establishment, and illustrates that these tenets are myths.

Daisy’s book provided me with additional arguments, and clarified the position I take against progressivism and in favour of a knowledge based curriculum drawn from the liberal arts. I knew I agreed with Daisy from her blogs. Her book is a clarification of loads of those arguments and is very helpful. It’s like an extended briefing sheet against the progressives I encounter daily, or those who are heavily or wholly influenced by the progressive establishment.

The book was launched last night. Tom Sherrington, a Headteacher and blogger, cancelled his invitation. Harry Webb has written a great reply to a post from Mr Sherrington where he feels slighted because Daisy has prepared a defence to the points he would have been likely to make. You can source these posts yourself – they’re interesting reading – and Harry and Mr Sherrington have explained what happened really well.

I should say at this point that Tom Sherrington’s blog is excellent throughout, even though I disagree with many of the things he writes. He engages in debate and that is welcome.

One thing Harry skates over and meant I wanted to write this blog, is the ethical position of Daisy circulating her points, specifically the points that reply to Mr Sherrington, in advance of the meeting. Mr Sherrington seems to think that this indicates the book launch would have been something of an ambush, and cancelled his invitation to attend. He judged in advance that there would be no debate.

Now I’m sure the overwhelming position at Daisy’s book launch would have been one that is supportive of her book. That doesn’t mean there would be no debate, but I’m sure that Mr Sherrington would have been in a minority.

It is worth remarking that this is unusual. Progressives (or progressives masquerading as being ‘in the middle’) have their ideology dominating mainstream educational and hence political discourse. As Daisy shows in her book, it dominates OFSTED, training providers, the rhetoric of highly influential professors of education, and seeps its way into schools – even ones that on the surface appear to have nothing to do with progressivism.

Those who I am aligned with, ie opposed to progressivism, are in a tiny minority, both nationally and within schools.

As Robert Peal outlines in Progressively Worse, this is a tragedy for education. I would argue it is a significant reason that so many children leave school illiterate and innumerate, and a reason the UK trails behind countries we wouldn’t consider our economic competitors in international comparitors. Progressivism dominates UK education, to the detriment of our kids. A good example is the issue of the curriculum as detailed by Cristina Iannelli in this paper.

I want to change this.

As a result, I want the few schools with explicitly knowledge based classical liberal curriculum, such as West London Free School, Michaela Community School in Wembley Park, or Dixons Trinity in Bradford, to be hugely successful. I need them to be so that I can have positive examples of an alternative to what Michael Gove termed ‘the blob’ – a metaphor for the education establishment based on a 1950s film about a being that creeps into every corner.

I also want to read more, learn from those who have rehearsed their arguments (or are better read than me) but whom I broadly agree with, and ensure that I make the best case possible against progressivism. Yes, I’ll debate with people, but I want to make the best case possible and be thoroughly prepared.

I think the arguments stand up for themselves, but in a climate of almost total opposition to traditionalists, it’s no surprise that the argument needs to be rehearsed, challenged and rebuttals written, and, to some extent followed.

People who agree with each other circulate their arguments, respond to each other and agree the strongest line, including challenging others. In some cases, this means just hearing what those who are best-read suggest. We are dealing with opposition to institutional practice, and hence it needs organising.

I’m sure some will read “unthinking acceptance” into that phrase, but that’s not what I mean. I mean that sometimes, for example when I write a blogpost, I send it to others who broadly agree with me. They often make suggestions for improvement, and I often use their suggestions. Through discussion and argument we come to a consensus – usually but not always – about what is the best way to argue for ends we agree with.

For when Harry writes in the first link above, I thought ‘yes, that response chimes’ and I am sure I will repeat some of it in some of my discussion. My arguments against progressivism have become more nuanced because of the contribution from Harry.

Pushing back against progressivism does need organisation, it needs those who are aligned with what is often termed a more traditional vision to pool their resources and ensure their arguments are developed, and yes, nuanced. It requires that those that agree share their arguments, including their arguments against others, in order to strengthen them and their effect. It requires that those that agree carry the tradition of their position in order to build on that tradition. That’s to ‘push back’. I want to go further than to push back.

Amongst educational discourse, it requires a version of a political party – or at least requires working like one when developing the arguments.

That’s why I don’t think it’s an ambush to circulate one’s arguments in advance, particularly the response to possible objections, and why I don’t think it’s wrong to explicitly want to win the discussion. Of course, this requires us to hear the argument (and not shut it down by using institutions and the establishment to do it, or not arguing the point but arguing the way in which the point has come about).

Without trying to win, by implication by defeating the other side, the educational establishment will easily overcome argument simply by its power and its institutions that engender compliance.

I have no problem with organising in a way that apes political organisation so that we can push back and give us a better chance to win. I’m not surprised progressives don’t like us doing that.

No hands up nonsense

Over the last few years, I’ve become aware of schools that have policies of ‘no hands up’.

To be clear, these are policies. Hence teachers are to some extent effectively banned from allowing pupils to put their hands up in lessons.

Pupils can’t put their hands up:

  • because they are indicating know an answer
  • because they want to answer a question
  • because they agree/ disagree with another answer

I presume pupils are still allowed to put their hands up to ask a question or to ask for help, but I’d hazard a guess that this is somewhat confusing.

This is the kind of nonsense that comes out of a healthy instinct to try to stop pupils from opting out, then it gets taken on by management and suddenly, ludicrously, turned into a policy. The idea is that if a teacher asks a question, pupils will ‘think/pair/square/share’. They are supposed to think, often for thirty seconds, then they share ideas with a partner for thirty seconds, then two sets of partners share in a square, then having clarified and thought about their answers for a total of about two minutes, the teacher selects a pupil, apparently at random, and they answer with their considered and reflective answer.

Sometimes the square bit is missed out.

In reality they probably copy what the most able pupil in the pair/square said.

The theory is that effectively every pupil has answered the question.

The effects of this strategy can be:

  • the teacher has no idea if the pupil that answers understood, and their assessment of the pupil’s answer is actually an assessment of what someone in the group said
  • each question takes a minimum of two minutes to get through, breaking up any flow or story that would allow greater depth of study
  • the teacher is not able to ascertain which pupils think they know via hands up, and therefore is denied a useful piece of information in teaching the class
  • a whole host of useful information is missed out, follow up questions to elicit understanding can’t be used, the teacher may probe the wrong pupil (because the answer given wasn’t theirs)
  • the teacher is deprofessionalised, denied the opportunity to use the strategy they consider optimum, amongst others
  • for expediency, and speed, some teachers will hence not use as many questions, just telling pupils the answer. Questions may get in the way
  • via their peer reflection, many pupils have had misconceptions reinforced or introduced, with little moderation from the teacher

I am sure that SMT don’t want any of these things to happen. What’s happened is that they’ve often seen an effective teacher use the strategy well, having honed it over many years experience. Hence SMT have engaged in a teaching-by-numbers approach and decreed that every teacher, regardless of discipline or topic, must use that same effective strategy.

Asking pupils not to put their hands up for a certain question may be an effective strategy.

Ignoring pupils hands up and choosing/ picking on a pupil to answer may be an effective strategy.

Think/pair/share may be an effective strategy to get all pupils thinking (less so square, I would imagine).

Choosing pupils randomly may be an effective strategy (and may mitigate against some of the low expectations that embed themselves when teachers get obsessed with differentiation).

When SMT makes these things a policy, with threat of enforcement, they become hinderances on teachers’ teaching and pupils’ learning.

A no hands up, school wide policy is a nonsense. I’d imagine most teachers would ignore it unless observed.

Being counterproductive

I knew of a school that announced they were going to pay teachers for taking sports clubs.

The result of this was that teachers felt devalued. They did sports clubs for the pupils, and ran them with a sense of duty and some pride.

The number of sports clubs decreased.

I know a school that pays its staff to run after school sessions. This seems fair, not taking advantage of teachers’ goodwill. However, the school insists that the sessions must be agreed with the assistant headteacher in advance, the sessions must run every week without fail, the attendance must be recorded, and the results of the pupils that attend will be assessed for impact. The school feels it can do this because the sessions are paid for. The result is that many many staff do not run any after school sessions, because the message is that they’re optional. Yes, by paying, fewer teachers are doing sessions – far fewer than in any other school I know.

Last week I observed a lesson. The lesson was liberally sprinkled with praise. It was a bells and whistles lesson. The pupils were being challenged by questions, and the pace was incredible – probably too much. There was a lot going on. With the more challenging questions, the teacher said “this is a house point question”. I think he gave out about thirty house points.

I asked the pupils about when they put their hands up, and what made them answer questions. One pupil said to me “I don’t answer questions that are not house point questions”.

I reflected, and thought in this class there is no motivation to answer ordinary questions, only house point ones. I thought about expectations. It appears to me that rewarding the answering of questions is pretty counterproductive.

It got me thinking, are rewards like that always counterproductive?

Whenever we give a reward for something we should be expecting (like pupils answering questions as best they can, every time, or for attending school on time, or anything else), we shift the arena of expectations. The pupil gets the message that they’ve done something not expected, but extra, and been rewarded for it. They may reflect that they don’t really need to do that thing, because the consequence is not getting the reward. The action we’ve praised has become optional.

Is it possible to use extrinsic motivators to develop intrinsic motivation? I’m guessing not, and I suggest that extrinsic motivators (reward points, Vivo miles and so on) are far more likely to actively work against intrinsic motivation.

This is especially true if we consider how rewards are used in most schools and the arbitrary 4 amounts of praise to one criticism rule (or varient of) that is taught on PGCE courses and reinforced by terrible schools.

Like paying teachers for taking sports clubs, they do the opposite of what they’re intended to.

Kids like ours

Conversation yesterday:

Assistant Head: “I don’t know about the type of teaching Weedingham promotes, but while it sounds good in theory, I’m not sure it works with our kids.”

Me: Do you mean Willingham? He only writes about how learning happens, not teaching, and how the mind/brain works. Why do you think our kids are different?”

Assistant Head: “I don’t think his experiments were carried out with poorer kids”

Me: What?

Assistant Head: “Well we need more engagement than average kids.”

Me: But the intake here is above average.

Assistant Head: “But we still take from the estates”

Written down this looks ludicrous, and not just because of the fact that she clearly hadn’t read any Willingham, but it didn’t sound it, partly because it’s such a common thing to hear.

Every time someone says “<insert name of school> kids are…” or “<insert name of area> kids are…” they’re lowering expectations of either that group of pupils or the pupils not in the group.

The worst is “kids like ours…” because this is usually the start of a sentence making excuses for why it’s not their fault their kids are going to fail.