Consultation – stuck on repeat

I started this blog on December 12th 2012 in a fit of righteous indignation about the proposals to introduce a new suite of qualifications called the “English Baccalaureate Certificates” in a post entitled ConsultationAt the time, I didn’t think responding to the consultation on EBCs would make any difference; I thought they were inevitable. But I was wrong.


In February 2013 Michael Gove withdrew his EBC proposal

Of course, many of the original proposals contained within the EBC idea have made their way into the reformed GCSEs – numbered grading, the removal of coursework – but crucially the notion that rigorous qualifications were only for the most able has not. In the EBC proposal students below the academic standard would have been given a “statement of achievement” instead of a qualification. The reformed GCSEs, for all there is to object to about them, are at least accessible to all students within the same spectrum as the current qualifications – 9-1 encompasses the same range as A*-G.

The fact is, Michael Gove listened to the consultation responses and decided that he would back down from his proposals – proposals to which he was ideologically committed and about which he said he would be willing to overrule Ofqual and press ahead if he believed the changes were right:

“If they still had concerns and I still believe it is right to go ahead then I would do it, and on my head be it.” – Michael Gove, December 2012

Following the announcement the EBCs were not going ahead, I felt as though my voice mattered. As though I had made a difference. As though answering the questions which were phrased as if the introduction of EBCs was a fait accompli with answers which rejected that assumption was a strategy which worked.

nicky morgan

Nicky Morgan – new education secretary, new EBacc proposal (source)

And here we are again. A different education secretary this time – and one who has pledged to “listen to teachers and work with them” – and a proposal that 90% of students should follow the English Baccalaureate. I don’t have an issue with the notion that a broad base of academic subjects open doors for young people in the future. I think all students studying English, Maths, Sciences, a language and a humanities subject to 16 is a pretty good idea. But I also think that all students have an entitlement to a curriculum that suits them, and to a broad range of arts and design subjects. This policy seems to me an attempt to re-introduce the two-tier element of the EBC proposal, where English Baccalaureate subjects would be awarded EBCs and “the rest” would remain as GCSEs. This proposal devalued subjects beyond the narrow EBacc parameters, and although in the new system all subjects will be GCSEs the same dangers are present. The implementation of the policy as proposed will have a fairly obvious and catastrophic impact on arts, PE, design, technology and performance subjects, and the teachers who teach them, as they will inevitably be squeezed out of the curriculum and replaced by new humanities and languages teachers to accommodate the increased numbers taking those subjects. And, in these days of teacher recruitment shortage, I have no idea where they are going to come from.

The consultation, which closes on 29th January 2016, is again worded as though the implementation of the policy is inevitable.

It doesn’t matter. Find a way to make your voice heard. Question the basis of the questions you’re being asked. Question the assumptions inherent in the consultation questions if you feel they’re invalid. Make your point. If you don’t respond, your silence will be read as agreement, and your complaints will fall on deaf ears after the fact. But now, they’re listening. Someone in the DfE will read your response. It won’t necessarily make a difference – but my experience of responding three years ago shows that it might.

Respond to the consultation here – no matter what your views – before the deadline on 29th January 2016.

Who are the new GCSEs for?

The first post on this blog, in December 2012, was a tirade against the English Baccalaureate Certificates proposed by the then education secretary Michael Gove. In my first foray into the blogosphere, I was furious with the proposal for two-year linear courses assessed only by terminal exams, awarded numerical grades, only available in selected subjects and accessible only to some students. Fortunately, Gove saw sense and in February 2013 he performed what Stephen Twigg called “a humiliating climb-down” in parliament,  claiming that the reforms were “a bridge too far.” The profession breathed a sigh of relief. I too am mightily relieved that instead of those awful EBCs we now have reformed GCSEs – two-year linear courses assessed only by terminal exams, awarded numerical grades, only available in selected subjects. Politics, eh?

Michael Gove in the House of Commons, February 2013

Michael Gove in the House of Commons, February 2013

In truth, the most hateful part of the EBC proposal was that low-attaining students would not be able to achieve them and would instead be awarded a “Statement of Achievement” by their school. My cynical side can’t help but think that this was a bluff – a proposal so awful that was always intended for withdrawal so the remaining policy was seen as a  better compromise. At least the reformed GCSEs span the full attainment range and are accessible to all (in theory at least).

One of my other concerns about the EBCs was that, since they were only going to be available in EBacc subjects, they would create a two-tier curriculum favouring those subjects above others (whilst we’re on the subject, why isn’t RE a humanity?) This problem remains. The gradual roll-out of new-style GCSEs to English and Maths first, then other EBacc subjects, has already begun, but the status of other old-style GCSEs is still to be decided by Ofqual. All the rhetoric around the qualifications system has effectively devalued any A*-G GCSEs, and this was reinforced in July this year when the DfE confirmed that only reformed 1-9 graded GCSE qualifications would count in performance tables from 2017. The press release comfortingly stated:

“Schools may still enter pupils early for ‘legacy’ qualifications, but if they do pupils will need to either take the new GCSE in 2017 or progress to a higher level qualification, such as an AS qualification, for their achievements to count in tables.”

I have written before about this government’s use of the performance tables as a lever for change, and this is another prime example. Clearly, the DfE wants particular curriculum models in schools, favouring the English Baccalaureate route wherever possible. There is a whole raft of other qualifications and curriculum opportunities available, but they are being squeezed out by the fact that they don’t “count in tables.” You could teach alternative Science qualifications, BTECs and iGCSEs or even unexamined enrichment courses, and the students could get a perfectly balanced, rounded education, but if you want Ofsted to know how good you are you’d best stick to the new GCSEs and fill up the buckets in Progress 8 and Attainment 8 for as many students as possible. Woe betide those subjects that don’t make the cut when Ofqual decides which subjects get to be new-style GCSEs.

The summer holiday has given me enough time to pause and think. Who exactly are the new GCSEs for, anyway? All young people are now required to stay in education or training until they are 18 due to the rise in the participation age. This means that the GCSE is no longer the final qualification any young person will take. They will all go on to something else – A-levels, International Baccalaureate, Pre-U, apprenticeships, diplomas, certificates. The GCSE is an access ticket to the next stage. All the accountability measures for schools are focused on qualifications taken at 16, when all young people have to go on to study to 18. Surely, then, the new GCSEs are more about measuring school performance than they are about valuing the achievements of students?

We’ve been here before. The Key Stage 3 tests in English, Maths and Science, abolished by Labour in 2008 following a marking debacle, only existed to measure school performance. They were statutory and the new GCSEs are not, but you would be either brave or foolhardy not to play the game, such are the accountability stakes. And, as I’m well aware, the new GCSEs are likely to be the most valuable currency for young people to access academic post-16 provision, so we’d be doing learners a disservice not to deliver them. My wider concern is that the curriculum is being squeezed in an accountability stranglehold so that is consists only of those elements which “count in tables” – and that, I think, is wrong.

So what’s the alternative? Well, it is out there. Back in October 2004, the Working Group on 14-19 Reform published its report proposing the replacement of GCSEs and A-Levels with an over-arching diploma. Sir Mike Tomlinson, head of the working group, had established wide consensus for the overarching diploma. He foresaw the raising of the participation age and the need for a coherent qualification and curriculum system which encompassed the 14-19 age range, balancing vocational and academic study.  For many reasons (detailed brilliantly in this BBC report from 2005) the government at the time decided that GCSEs and A-Levels were sacrosanct, and rejected the report’s proposals. This remains, in my view, the single biggest mistake in education policy I can think of (and I’ve seen a few). The diploma that was eventually introduced alongside the existing qualifications was a Frankenstein’s monster already doomed at its inception.

The HTRT Qualifications Framework

Rising from the ashes of this butchered mess, however, is a curriculum and qualifications proposal in the style of Tomlinson that I can really get behind. The Headteachers’ Roundtable have proposed their own qualifications framework – an overarching diploma-style approach incorporating existing qualifications into a true baccalaureate. This wasn’t on the agenda when they met with Tristram Hunt in July this year, and I can’t imagine that there will be much appetite for further curriculum reform after the complete overhaul that has happened over recent years. But it is sorely needed, as the system we are moving to is not fit for purpose and runs the risk of squeezing much that is good, important and necessary out of schooling altogether.

Tony Little – a voice of reason?

This week Tony Little said that the current examination system is “unimaginative [and] little changed from Victorian times…[obliging students] to sit alone at their desks in preparation for a world in which, for most of the time, they will need to work collaboratively.” He concludes that while a sharp focus on performance is a good thing there is more to education than “jostling for position in a league table.” Of course, he doesn’t have to worry about Ofsted, Progress 8, or the new National Curriculum, but when you find yourself agreeing with the Headmaster of Eton maybe it’s a sign that there’s something seriously wrong with the system.

Using performance tables as a lever for change

League Tables - how far can they drive school policy?

League Tables – how far can they drive school policy?

One of the strategies used by the current education secretary to enact policy quickly is to use the performance tables as a lever for change. This has several advantages. Firstly, it does not require legislation or debate in parliament. This avoids any troublesome opposition – not that there has been much to speak of to date in any case. Secondly, it is fast, and the pace of change is really the hallmark of the current DfE’s policy drive. The secretary of state can make a decision about a change, leak it to the press to gauge the public’s reaction on a Sunday, then make an official announcement in the early afternoon of Monday tweaked to pick up on any of the major problems gathered from the Sunday tester. Thirdly, and perhaps most brilliantly, changing the construction of the performance tables is the kind of soft compulsion that puts schools in a lose-lose situation. This was most evident in the changes to early entry GCSE announced on 30th September. The text of the official announcement reads:

If schools are confident that pupils will achieve well even when entered early and that early entry is therefore in the interests of the pupil, they should not need to make any changes to entry plans. Any pupil who does enter early from this point on will still be able to retake if they receive a disappointing result. That result will not count towards the performance tables for their school, even if it is an improvement on their earlier entry, but pupils will still be able to use their best result to support applications to further and higher education, or for employment.

This strategy forced many school leaders to confront their consciences. Which do we care more about – the school or the students who attend it? Of course, these are (or should be) one and the same. At #TLT13 Jamie Portman memorably said that when his school buildings burnt to the ground in an accidental fire he learnt that “a school” is a community of people that exists independently of location or environment. A school really is that – a community. When national policy drives a wedge between the school and the students in it, there is something wrong with that policy.

Further amendments to the performance tables have continued, including the 14th October announcement of full-scale reform to secondary school accountability. On the face of it, Progress 8 seems like a step in the right direction, in that it incentivises progress for students of all abilities rather than just at the C/D borderline. In a Progress 8 world, it makes a difference to the school whether a student gets a D rather than an E, or an A* rather than an A. Of course, it should already matter to the school. But does it? Here, the tables are being used to leverage change that I see as potentially positive, beneficial and inclusive, albeit with the massive flaw that progress is being measured from an average points score baseline in KS2 English and Maths to a GCSE grade in whatever eight individual subjects a student happens to take. And that their progress is measured as better or worse than the national average for their peers with similar prior attainment, meaning that half the schools in the country will automatically have negative progress and half positive. Which means that one school can only do well in the new accountability measures at the expense of another. Aside from that, as I say, potentially positive, beneficial and inclusive.

Mock up of how the new accountability measures might look (from BBC)

Mock up of how the new accountability measures might look (from BBC)

This use of the tables as a policy lever has been evident from the early days of the new Department for Education. Back in December 2012, the policy on the table was the English Baccalaureate Certificates. I was so incensed by the proposals that it made me start this blog. A key component of this policy was that the EBCs were going to be offered by a single examination board. To get around the awkward problem of commissioning a multi-million pound contract to a monopoly, all the exam boards were to be invited to submit EBC specifications which would be openly offered to all schools. However, only one EBC specification per subject would be approved by the secretary of state for inclusion in the performance tables, thus effectively (though not actually) creating a single national specification. As it happens this particular monstrosity was the subject of a U-Turn on February 6th when parliament heard that the replacement of GCSEs was “a bridge too far.”

Were EBCs really a "bridge too far" or are they being ushered in under another name?

Were EBCs really a “bridge too far” or are they being ushered in under another name?

In actual fact, many of the elements of the original EBC proposal have still been enacted under different names. The proposals for new GCSEs sound very like the EBCs but under an old name – linear, single-tiered, exam-only terminal assessments graded numerically and only offered in the EBacc subjects. The latest rumours in the press include the removal of “soft” subjects (including, apparently, PE, drama and media studies) into another, as-yet-unnamed, form of qualification outside the GCSE stable. So, rather than promoting EBacc subjects to a new EBC qualification, non-EBacc subjects will be demoted. And, presumably, not included in the performance tables (which only include GCSEs).

It doesn’t have to be this way.

This year, we are running a core ICT qualification at KS4 which does not count towards the performance tables but is definitely the best fit for our students in that it will provide them with the skills and knowledge we feel they will need the most. We feel the course we have put together is in the best interest of the students whether or not it counts for the performance tables. We have maintained the November entry of all our English Language candidates in Year 11 because we believe it is in the best interests of our students even though it may impact on our performance table 5A*-CEM figure. Dance and Drama are discounted against one another at GCSE (meaning that if students achieve both they only count as one in the performance tables) – we offer both and will continue to do so because we believe that this is in the best interests of our students even though, if students take both, the school only gets the credit for one. The same goes for subjects not on the DfE post-Wolf-report approved list either now or in the future – if they are in the best interests of the students it is the school’s duty to include them in the curriculum offer.

In summer 2014, the school’s performance tables figures will not reflect the actual examination achievements of students at the school. John Tomsett has described how, in York, “all secondaries have agreed to publish “final result” figures…when the DfE performance tables are released.” We shall certainly do the same on our website, as will any school (I would imagine) which continued with November entry. We will also include achievement in non-performance-table qualifications and pack the site with the broader, deeper life of the school. Any parent who even looks at the performance tables will certainly also look at the school’s website, and I want them to find the beating heart of the school there. I wonder how many do actually go to the tables at all?

Raise Online will be an issue. The new floor standards will be based on Progress 8 and are described as follows:

Our intention is that schools will fall below the floor standard if pupils make an average of  half a grade less progress than expected across their 8 subjects. So, for example, a school is underperforming if its pupils were expected to gain 8 Cs (because that’s what their peers, with similar prior attainment, secure elsewhere in the country) but they actually achieve less than 4Cs and 4Ds.

Falling below the floor standards could result in special measures, constant scrutiny and forced academisation. Heads could roll. But surely – surely – offering a curriculum that is right for the students, rigorous, challenging, demanding and broad, is defensible. School must be more than just academic. It must be.

And, if the performance tables don’t show the results that students actually got at a school, how can they have any value at all?

The importance of enjoyment

I know that it is a fool’s errand to try and argue with anything that Old Andrew says, for fear of being called a phonics denialist, Gorilla, or enemy of promise reinforcing low expectations in the face of “all the evidence”. Well, here goes…


In making “The Case against Michael Gove” our anonymous blogger makes the following argument about what is currently wrong with the teaching profession:

Nobody is going to rise up the ranks in teaching for saying that the highest priority is the recall of knowledge and that teachers should explicitly teach knowledge without regard to whether it is enjoyable. 

There is nuance to this argument, so let me make something plain – I am not against teaching knowledge. I am all for explicitly teaching knowledge. But teaching anything without regard to whether it is enjoyable? Yikes. In my book, that is bad teaching. Anyone who plans a lesson without regard to whether it is enjoyable should, in my view, think again.


Don’t misunderstand me, please. I accept that there are some parts of our curriculum, no matter what subject you teach, which are really hard to make “fun” but are nonetheless critically important. Sometimes, in front of class, we have to say: “you know what, you just have to learn this, so let’s get on with it as painlessly as possible.” I know this. I accept this. I teach like this. But that is very different to teaching without regard to whether it is enjoyable. That is the result of a planning process where I have decided, after careful thought, that the most effective way of getting this learning across is through simple direct instruction and cyclical reinforcement. You just need to know this.

It’s also important to state that I’m not a “progressive” in that I’m all for direct instruction. I believe direct instruction is a vital part of the teacher’s repertoire. But direct instruction is not incompatible with enjoyment, surely? Some of the best teachers I have worked with can hold a class rapt as they talk, from the front, for half an hour on a key learning point, enthusing and carrying the learners with them as they probe and develop their understanding. Students can walk away from lessons like that with their heads spinning with new ideas, and have really enjoyed the experience.


My point is this – children should enjoy learning. Instinctively, they do; everybody does. But this enjoyment needs to be nurtured or it will flicker and fail. Not at the expense of high expectations, but in conjunction with them. One of my favourite blogs at the moment is Rachel Jones‘ newly-revamped CreateInnovateExplore, which is full of posts where she looks to try and engage students in their learning by finding a way to make the content memorable and – yes – fun. I was first hooked as she hand-made a parachute so that her students could bounce revision questions around to one another. Of course, it would have been easier and more time-efficient to sit them in rows and just ask them the questions, but classrooms should be about more than that. The same is true of Lisa Jane Ashes’ Thought-Bombing, or Isabella Wallace’s Poundland Pedagogy, or so many other examples of teachers planning with enjoyment in mind. 


I do not think that fun should be the point of the lesson. “Can we just have a fun lesson today?” is student-speak for “can I opt out of actually learning anything?” My stock response is always “every lesson with me is packed full of fun, so turn to page 394.” No, learning should always be the point of the lesson, and if the learning gets lost then the lesson is unsuccessful. But if I can find a way to make the learning engaging, “stickable“, pleasant and, yes, enjoyable then I’m going to use it.

Of course, I am a Deputy Head. I do agree with Old Andrew on much of his argument beyond the enjoyment point: “while good leadership is so important to schools, bad leadership will only become more toxic as the power of SMT is increased” does ring true to me. But good leadership to me includes valuing, praising and encouraging teachers who can engage, motivate and inspire young people not just with the knowledge and skills they need, but with the enjoyment and pleasure that taking on the challenge of learning brings.

Assessment without levels

I don’t share Tom Bennett’s gleeful celebration at the demise of National Curriculum levels confirmed by the Department for Education today. In fact, I feel quite nervous about this new world with the “terrifying amount of freedom” it brings. I share some of Heather Leatt’s worry:

I believe there are some good things about the National Curriculum Levels which we need to preserve in whatever models we devise to replace them. First amongst these qualities is that they were standard across the country. I accept that their application was varied and that they were open to interpretation, but the criteria for a Level 5 in English were the same in Cornwall and County Durham. When training as a teacher in 1996 I could read the National Curriculum at university and know that the level framework would be familiar to the primary school teacher where I did my Year 6 experience and the four secondary schools I went to for my teaching practices and school experiences. I knew it would be there in my first school, and the next, and the one where I was promoted. In the new world, this will not be the case. Just as the pay structures will be different, so the assessment regimes will vary from school to school and even subject to subject. I hope that, through Twitter and blogging and through the work of more astute subject organisations as well as the DfE itself, models of best practice might be disseminated and adopted by a range of institutions, but the days of a consistent national system of assessment are gone and I’m not sure that this a good thing.

Tom Sherrington wrote brilliantly about The Data Delusion back in March, describing how the original conception of National Curriculum levels was corrupted and perverted over time. They were never designed to be applied to a single piece of work – returning a student’s homework with “Level 5a” at the bottom requires a twisting and bending and filtering of the criteria which renders them next to meaningless, rather in the way that we bend Ofsted’s whole-school criteria for teaching and learning to fit single lesson observations. However, in their original form I do believe that the levels are still fit for purpose. When used to assess a portfolio of student work over time and to summarise their achievement across a range of skills and aptitudes, they work well. I happen to think that using “all”, “most” or “some” of the criteria, on a best-fit basis, can even allow for consistent application of sub-levels.

Some of my nerves are down to the statement from the DfE itself. This week teachers have been told that the whole exams system has been overhauled because we can’t be trusted to do internal assessment accurately, we’re failing bright children, and we’re to blame for the rise of the EDL. Forgive me if I think that this brave new world where suddenly Michael Gove trusts to teachers’ professionalism isn’t all that it appears. To whit, “schools will continue to benchmark their performance through statutory end of key stage assessments, including national curriculum tests” – does this include Key Stage 3? “We will provide examples of good practice which schools may wish to follow” – a bit passive aggressive, wouldn’t you say? “We will also work with subject associations, education publishers and external test developers to signpost schools to a range of potential approaches.” Translation – we already have. My fear, I suppose, is that schools will be coerced by suggestion into a particular way of assessing through the accountability framework, and obliged to pay publishers for the privilege. At least the National Curriculum, for all its faults, was free.

What should replace levels? There has been no shortage of suggestions.

I’m fully subscribed to the view that kids need to know stuff. I’m right behind the idea that they need cultural capital and should read a whole Shakespeare play and know their times tables. But a curriculum which only tests what they know and not what they can do? That’s not for me. I’d far rather know what a student can do than what they know – not that it’s ever an either-or choice. And, crucially, the assessment has to be subject specific. The Maths curriculum is more likely to be predicated on knowledge; the PE curriculum is far more likely to assess skills. There is plenty of mileage in Joe Kirby’s mastery model, but it needs flesh on the bones to become a viable proposition.

What won’t I miss? I won’t miss tying the levels to ages. The arbitrary and purely political association that was made by the last government that children aged 11 should reach a level 4 to be average – and then the glorious mathematical finesse that saw 75, then 80% of children being “average”. Children develop at different rates. Some progress rapidly through Key Stage 2 and slow, some “click” with Maths in Year 9, some suddenly find a passion for sport aged 15.

The DfE statement says that National Curriculum levels are “complicated and difficult to understand, especially for parents.” I won’t miss trying to explain to parents that a level 5 in one subject does not necessarily mean that the same child should be a level 5 in another, and why levels in languages are lower because they start at level zero in Year 7. But I hope I won’t have to substitute that with an explanation of the different systems used by History, RE, Spanish, Computing, Textiles, Art and Drama – each complex, each fit for purpose, but each unique.

Whatever curriculum we put in place must take the lid off learning, setting the highest expectations for all children, removing any barrier to their progress with effective pedagogy and committed, professional teaching. Whatever assessment system we use must capture that progress and give the children themselves, and their parents, a clear view of the path ahead so they can take the next steps. It is a sign of how complex this task is that National Curriculum levels have been wrestling with it since 1989 through APP, end of key stage testing, teacher assessments, progress maps and sublevels – and, judging by the reaction to their demise, they have failed. I hope that whatever we design to replace them can do a better job but I, for one, am daunted by the prospect.

What would do most to improve the status of the teaching profession?


I have blogged before about the limited public image of the teaching profession. About how, despite polling as the second-most-trusted profession on the UK in February 2013, the profession lacks the social status of medicine, science, and the law. Why is this? And what can we do about it?New College Oxford

In November 2012, I was invited back to my Oxford college to speak at a careers day. Alumni of the college from many different employment sectors were there to speak to undergraduates about career options, training routes, and postgraduate opportunities in their respective professions. There were accountants, arts administrators, broadcasters, civil servants, journalists, lawyers, management consultants, medical professionals, manufacturers, musicians, priests, researchers and teachers, amongst many others (including a circus manager). The first session – where the alumni were put together by the degrees they had studied with undergraduates currently on the same courses – showed the diversity of opportunities available to these young people. In the second session the alumni were grouped by their employment sectors in the Hall and waited for undergraduates interested in their sector to visit them to ask questions. I sat with the four other teachers – three state, two independent – to wait. The accountancy, law and management consultancy tables were busy. The priest had an earnest conversation with one undergraduate for about half an hour. The broadcasters and journalists had several visitors. We saw nobody. Not a single undergraduate from my Oxford college came to ask about teaching.

How, then, can we improve the status of teaching so that it becomes as attractive and viable to the high-achieving undergraduates at top universities as those other professions? Is it about pay? I don’t think so – as a teacher I’ve always earned enough to be comfortable and PRP is I think an invidious and unhelpful solution to a non-problem. Is it about career progression? Again, I don’t think so. There are clear and varied progression routes in teaching just as in medicine and law. Is it about entry routes? There may be something here. My PGCE was a necessary step but was a year extra without being in paid work. School Direct, GTP, Teach First and the raft of SCITT approaches go some way to addressing this, although I would still argue it is harder for someone to switch professions into teaching than some other sectors.

Or is it about public perception? The truth of public opinions of teachers, shown in the IPSOS-MORI poll above, is that they are held in very high regard. But the rhetoric in the press tells a very different story.


I agree with Cherrylkd that our teaching unions do little to help in the circus of unreasonable extremism masquerading as conference season. Even the NAHT fell victim to this at their recent AGM, heckling and jeering at Michael Gove despite Bernadette Hunter’s attempts to pass this off as expressions of “exasperation and indignation“. What the unions don’t seem to realise is that Michael Gove wants them to go hard-line. The strikes and jeering will play into his hands as his response to the NAHT conference in the Times, his letter to schools branding the NUT/NASUWT pay policy “illegal”, and his “blob” accusations show. I can’t help feeling he views PRP as a a tool to break the unions; his Thatcher moment. He relishes the thought of their ineffective action and the negative spin he will easily be able to put on the strikes to come, confirming the “enemies of promise” narrative he has already set in motion. It will make it easy for him to brand any arguments coming from the left in education as guilty by association.

It is of course horrendous that the Secretary of State for Education and Chief Inspector of Schools between them are leading lights in undermining and denigrating the profession in their public statements. “Stop moaning” says Wilshaw. “Low expectations” says Gove. What’s even worse is that their criticisms may be true of some members of our profession, and that the unions seem to confirm the narrative in their obstreperous resistance to and blanket rejection of any kind of progress or change, even when it might actually be a good thing (progress measure based on the best 8, for example).

The vast majority of teachers, I believe, share Ross McGill’s view:

However, RedorGreenPen has written brilliantly about how easy it is for a teacher with the highest expectations (and redorgreenpen is clearly one of those) to have those expectations eroded with weak leadership and a lack of support systems. And this is where I believe the solutions begin – with school leadership. If the profession is to live up to the trust that the public places in us and defy the “enemies of promise” label so readily bandied around by those in charge at policy level, school leaders must do all we can to empower teachers to maintain the high standards they aspire to for the young people in our charge. We should avoid the traps of defective school leadership laid out by Joe Kirby in “What makes great school leadership?” and fulfil the seven positives:

  1. Entrench the ethos
  2. Avoid fads
  3. Walk the talk
  4. Ban excuses
  5. Focus on teaching
  6. Ensure consistency
  7. Build trust

We should heed the words of Rob Carter in “What would you say?“, Stephen Tierney in “Advice to new senior leaders“, Kev Bartle in “Ten Commandments for School Leaders” and Peter Smith in “7 things successful heads of department do“. Above all we should behave professionally and responsibly, engaging with problems and tackling change constructively, rationally and calmly. We wouldn’t want our teachers jeering and heckling us in staff meetings, we wouldn’t want our students behaving like that in lessons. Although that is the dominant mode in parliament, we can set a better example.

This post is a response to the May #blogsync topic hosted at Edutronic.

A tale of two photographs

I found two photographs of politicians in classrooms this week. I was struck by the similarities – and differences – between them.

Photo 19-05-2013 10 21 34

The Secretary of State for Education looks awkward as he leans forward on his chair, off balance, as though he could fall any moment. His hand is cupped around his ear in an exaggerated attempt to make out what the children are saying. He towers above the children, trying to bring himself down to their level but unable to do so. He wears his jacket as though his visit is only fleeting. His expression is clownish and self-conscious. The girl nearest to him is amused by this funny man in her classroom, knowing that he isn’t really listening but is putting on a show for the benefit of the cameras. The other children don’t know how to react; they want to do the right thing and look beyond the frame for help and guidance.

President Barack Obama visiting Moravia Park Elementary School in Baltimore

The President commands respect as he leans back in his chair, stable and relaxed. His hand is raised in the air in an exaggerated attempt to provide the right answer to a question. He towers above the children, but is acting as one of them. His jacket is off and shirtsleeves rolled up as though he is settled in to the lesson. His expression is earnest and intent. The boy nearest to him is amused at this funny man in his classroom, knowing that he has the answer but is putting on a show for the benefit of the cameras. The other children don’t know how to react; they want to do the right thing and look beyond the frame for help and guidance.

I don’t know whether this juxtaposition says more about the superiority of American politicians in manufacturing a photo-op, or more about the superiority of this particular American politician. What I do know is that Michael Gove looks ridiculous, and Barack Obama looks…great.

Canon Fodder

Michael Gove, in what has become known as his “Mr Men speech“, made reference to “a Great Tradition of English Literature – a Canon of transcendent works” as something which the curriculum should adhere to. He made this reference to summarise the arguments put forward by Joe Kirby in his blog Pragmatic Education to play Stephenie Meyer off against George Eliot for his rhetorical conclusion. His message is clear – Canon=good, trendy=bad.


Earlier in his speech, he derided the text choices of candidates (i.e. teachers) in English Literature GCSE, using the 16,929 candidates who “chose” An Inspector Calls as evidence of low expectations and seeming to hold up the single candidate who had studied She Stoops To Conquer as a beacon of rigour in a sea of mediocrity.

I have a problem with this. I would choose An Inspector Calls over She Stoops To Conquer any day. Not because I’m some trendy left-wing let’s-teach-computing-through-dance slave to engaging relevance – because, let’s face it, the dual context of composition and setting for An Inspector Calls is at least as distant from contemporary teenage experience as Goldsmith’s comedy – but because it’s a better play.

How do I know it’s a better play? I’m not going to justify it here. The fact is, I think it is. I have made a judgement that this play is better than this other play. I have done the same as F.R. Leavis did in the 1930s and the same as Michael Gove did on Thursday. I made a value judgement about the quality of literature that was not directly connected to when it was written.


Old does not equal good

This is a perennial bugbear of mine. I remember the fury and outrage at the list of the worthy published in the National Curriculum for English (2000) as the prescribed content for the “English Literary Heritage”.  The list persisted in the 2007 revision as follows:

Matthew Arnold, Jane Austen, William Blake, Charlotte Brontë, Emily
Brontë, Robert Browning, John Bunyan, Lord Byron, Geoffrey Chaucer,
William Congreve, John Clare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wilkie Collins,
Joseph Conrad, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, John Donne, John
Dryden, George Eliot, Henry Fielding, Elizabeth Gaskell, Oliver Goldsmith,
Thomas Hardy, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Gerard Manley Hopkins,
Henry James, John Keats, Christopher Marlowe, Andrew Marvell, John
Milton, Alexander Pope, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, RB Sheridan,
Edmund Spenser, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jonathan Swift, Alfred Lord
Tennyson, Anthony Trollope, Henry Vaughan, HG Wells, Oscar Wilde,
William Wordsworth and Sir Thomas Wyatt

I’m not denying the quality of the writing that the people “on the list” have produced. But as a qualified teacher of English with a degree in the subject I resent being told what is good. I hate Sheridan. I find Wilkie Collins formulaic and potboilery. Defoe wrote one half decent book. Sir Thomas Wyatt may have been an early adopter of the sonnet but he’s no Shakespeare. Six women on a list of forty-five?

Of course, Gove is all about removing the prescription and putting the power back in the hands of teachers. Which is why his draft National Curriculum proposals for English at KS4 only specify:

studying high-quality, challenging, whole texts in detail including:

  • two plays by Shakespeare 
  • representative Romantic poetry 
  • a nineteenth-century novel 
  • representative poetry of the First World War
  • British fiction, poetry or drama since the First World War 
  • seminal world literature, written in English

Finally, I get to decide what “high quality, challenging” texts are. I can choose. In my mind, An Inspector Calls is better quality than She Stoops To Conquer. There is also no doubt, however, that my students would find She Stoops To Conquer much more difficult. So which should I go for? Which provides the rigour?

Engaging and relevant does not equal good either, does it? 

breaking dawn book

Of course it doesn’t. I really enjoyed Breaking Dawn when Bella finally became a character rather than a vapid pining excuse for inertia. I thought it was the best of the four Twilight books but it couldn’t hold a candle to His Dark Materials or even the Carnegie winning Chaos Walking trilogy I’ve just finished. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t think it was “good”. But then, who am I to judge? What Twilight and Harry Potter are is engaging. This is a quality all of its own. Kids read them, lap them up, devour them. The writers have tapped into something that speaks directly to readers and grips them. This is a good thing. I suppose the adult equivalent is Dan Brown – sales by the bucketload, gripping legions of readers with writing that is at best formulaic and at worst…well…terrible.

David Didau (@learningspy) has written about Robert Swindells’ Stone Cold in the same light: 

“it’s not OK to use store cupboard favourites like Stone Cold as class readers. Whilst this may be a perfectly enjoyable read it’s not particularly worthy of study…So, while we should encourage students to read anything and everything, we should only actually study texts which build cultural capital.”

I’m not sure I agree on this example. I think there is some merit in the twin-track narrative of Swindells’ novel and there is some good suspenseful writing in it. But I agree with David’s principle here – “we should encourage students to read anything and everything, [but] we should only actually study texts which build cultural capital.”

Whose cultural capital?


The English curriculum, as I have blogged about before, must help young people understand their culture. The texts we study, and the contextual understanding they bring with them, help us to understand the roots and evolution of our society, as well as speaking timelessly of the human condition. They provide important cultural capital in a society which values this knowledge. However, a curriculum rooted too much in the past does the richness of contemporary culture a disservice. I proudly teach Media alongside English, and there is real cultural capital in knowledge of the media. It’s not capital valued by Michael Gove and his National Curriculum (in which media is completely excised from English), but it is capital which has real traction. And the humanising influence of a good, well-told story can be as powerful in modern TV drama as in seventeenth century poetry.

As with so many of these artificial debates, the solution is in the balance. Nobody – nobody sensible anyway – would deny the importance of knowing and studying canonical works. Nobody would deny the importance of reading widely; I would not seek to prescribe what anyone reads, provided they are reading. It seems as though nobody is talking about the importance of contemporary, multi-modal and media texts as worthy of study – but they are.

Limited public image

The public trusts teachers. Honestly – they do. Look, here’s the proof, from the Ipsos MORI Trust Poll in February 2013:


The public place more trust in teachers than in TV newsreaders and judges. 86% of British adults trust teachers to tell the truth, whereas only 18% would trust a politician to do so. On the balance of probabilities, then, it’s clearly quite likely that Michael Gove is spinning a line when he describes us as “Enemies of Promise” or “The Blob”, or when he argues that we should work for longer each day and with less holiday, or when Sir Michael Wilshaw says we don’t know the meaning of the word “stress”. Yet the damage done to the morale of the profession by these attacks – what Polly Toynbee calls “teacher bashing” – is immense.

Of course, it doesn’t help when the profession itself contributes to the erosion of our public image with utterly impractical union conference motions passed – teaching should be capped at 20 hours a week, for example. Little wonder that even within the NUT a group has sprung up to decry the hard-left headline grabbers. Ian Grayson, a member of the NUT national executive, said:

“The vast majority of NUT members are well-educated, reasonable people who just don’t feel the same way as the extreme left who take the podium. Industrial action has a place, but we oppose calls for perpetual industrial action. We would tend towards a programme of constructive dialogue instead.”

Unsurprisingly, Grayson’s stance didn’t get a lot of media coverage. Instead, Gove went on the offensive with his attack on The Blob and implication that we’re workshy chancers who should work for longer, despite the international evidence that more contact time does not improve educational outcomes.  He is pressing on with the introduction of a performance related pay system which all the evidence is against to tackle the problem of a failing education system which isn’t, if you look at the evidence, actually failing.

So how can we tackle this erosion of our wonderful profession?  What can we possibly do? Go on strike? A strike will surely play into the hands of an education secretary spoiling for a fight. It makes it easy for him to brand teachers “enemies of promise” and accuse them of not caring about the kids and their hard working families. Taking him on anywhere but at the ballot box is not going to help.

Instead we need to build on the “programme of constructive dialogue” that has begun. Groups like the Heads Roundtable have shown that it is far more productive to offer a rational, evidenced alternative solution to what is offered than to stand shouting “No! We don’t like it! Stop! We have no confidence in you!”. Debra Kidd, whose brilliant performance on Channel 4 news represented the profession so well, has written a persuasive call to get behind Mick Waters’ education spring. And Michael Gove himself has given schools and teachers the freedom to set our own pay and conditions, to design and implement our own curricula, and to run schools the way we think they should be run. This is how our profession can succeed. We have more power than perhaps we realise.

If we teach well and set the agenda in our own schools, our great profession can be impervious to the attacks and accusations that are thrown at us. The trust that is placed in us to cherish, nurture and teach the most precious asset that any person will ever have – their children – will only be repaid if we continue to do that job brilliantly and with the kind of dedication that is the daily norm for the vast majority of teachers. It isn’t easy, and it’s likely to get tougher and tougher as economic, social and political conditions challenge us. But teachers are equal to it if we keep our attention firmly on what matters – the young people entrusted to us. Because if we do what we do, and do it well, we will be unassailable.

Strike action – my union history

When I was a PGCE student, I was a member of the NASUWT, ATL and the NUT. I was courted with free highlighters, post-its and notepads because, as an NQT, I’d need to choose one. I needed to be in a union “just in case”. A union was an insurance policy; protection in case I ever needed it. I joined the NUT because practically everybody in my first school was in it. And that was all the thought I gave it.

As an in-school voice to protect and speak for teachers at a local level, I have always found unions to be constructive and helpful. Having your union rep by and on your side is a heartening and empowering thing. As a classroom teacher I was always grateful for the union reps who met with the senior team to negotiate on workload, vet the calendar, and feed back any concerns about the institution on my behalf. As a senior leader I am, if anything, even more grateful to the excellent union reps who now meet with me to do the same on behalf of the classroom teachers in my school.

My problem with teaching unions comes at national level. Whereas I felt the union reps in school spoke with my voice and represented my views as a classroom teacher, the same could not be said for the national executive. I used to read the NUT magazine and despair. It seemed to me to be a PR disaster. I resigned from the NUT in 2008 as they called strike action, transferring to the ATL as they were a non-striking union. I stayed with them, in AMiE, as I moved into senior leadership. ATL promptly went ahead and reneged on their non-striking policy, calling strikes in June 2011. I resigned my membership, joining ASCL. AMiE are still sending me their monthly publication, though, even though I haven’t paid a penny in subs for two years…

Now that I’m in ASCL I feel like I belong to a union that does speak with my voice. When I read Brian Lightman’s responses to the GCSE fiasco, to the EBac proposal, to the proposals for performance-related pay, they seem rational, reasoned and responsible. They represent the profession as a profession, and when I hear the national officers speak at conferences, they seem committed to constructive negotiation on our behalf with the Secretary of State and the Department for Education. This model of the representative voice constructively negotiating with the senior leadership on behalf of teachers is precisely that which works so well in school, scaled up to the national level.

I don’t believe teachers should strike. Not because the issues don’t demand it – they really do, perhaps now under this government more than ever. Newspapers and “the media” (awfully glib term) don’t often find opportunities to paint a positive picture of our profession – if we’re not exactly “enemies of promise” we’re usually to blame for not preventing most of society’s ills. I know – we know – how hard we work, but the perception from outside is that we have thirteen weeks’ holiday and a working day 8:30-3:30.  And when schools close due to strike action we can’t underestimate the impact that has as parents rearrange childcare, as the self-employed businessman loses a day’s work, as grandparents are pressed into action, as shifts are rearranged, as an employee takes one day of her precious four weeks of annual holiday to look after her children. This is not, in my view, the means to garner public support behind the issues.

Of course Gove’s article in the Daily Mail aligning the striking teachers with a Marxist conspiracy is a fabrication.  The fact that he attributes Marxist motives to a conspiracy he claims is “actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need” should be enough to prove this. But he is already manoeuvring so that, when the strikes begin, teachers will be perceived as “enemies of promise” rather than acting out of legitimate self-interest. He is, as I have said before, an incredibly gifted politician who is far more than a match for the union leaders who are trying to take him on. When they threaten strikes, he uses them as fuel to further his own agenda. Every blustering attack they make is used as ammunition against them.

So what should we do? Just roll over and accept what is proposed? Of course not. We must negotiate, lobby and protest. But the confrontational nature of strike action does our profession a disservice. And in the three schools I’ve worked in whilst strike action has been called, it has caused division and discord. The unions don’t strike together, so some staff go out and others come in. Even within union memberships in schools I have worked in, they have voted for staff to act with their consciences rather than follow the union call. It seems to me that the heart of the profession is in action, but not in strike action. By calling strikes, the unions risk fracturing what little unity we are able to muster.