Can everybody succeed?

When I listened to John Tomsett speak about his whole-school growth mindset approach at #TLT13, I felt genuinely inspired. John has helpfully summarised his talk here. Head of Year and science teacher Ashley Loynton, who was sat next to me, is currently running a pilot project at our school ahead of a wider roll-out of growth-mindset strategy, which you can read about here. One of the most interesting aspects of this development for me is testing my own thinking about growth mindset. Do I really buy into Dweck’s ideas? Harry Webb has sounded a note of caution, and I take the points he makes in his blog about the dangers of a growth mindset bandwagon being misunderstood and misused. However, the blog which really got me thinking about my own approach to growth mindset was Mark McCourt’s Every Single Child Can Pass Maths back in March. Mark is an ex-colleague of mine and I have complete faith in his assessment of things educational. His excellent blog argues that, given the right conditions and approach, every single child can pass Maths – i.e. become a functionally numerate mathematician at Level 2 standard. So the question I pose myself as a Deputy Head in charge of the curriculum is, do I believe it is possible for every single child to “pass” Maths and English at Key Stage 4?

It is very clear that some in the political sphere do not. Dominic Cummings, ex-special advisor to Michael Gove, argued in his paper Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities that genetics has a far greater influence on educational outcomes than teaching. This week, Boris Johnson has poured scorn on the 16% of “our species” with IQs below 85 with a clearly deterministic view linked to Cummings’ philosophy. I reject these approaches instinctively – they make my skin crawl – but I need to force myself to examine them rationally. Am I wasting my time? Are there some kids who, no matter how hard we try, are never going to pass Maths and English?

One barrier to overcome is comparable outcomes. A Level 2 pass – currently a grade C and GCSE – is no longer linked to a standard set of criteria. Although grade descriptors still exist in the appendices of English specifications, the assessment criteria provide only a numerical mark which is scaled to a uniform mark scale (UMS) in each exam season to award grades comparable with previous seasons. In other words, to make sure we don’t get more Cs, As or A*s this year than last year. This statistical determinism bears a striking resemblance to Cummings and Johnson’s arguments, in that it presupposes that better teaching will not increase the proportion of young people meeting the standard year-on-year. Which rather makes me wonder exactly how schools are supposed to deliver Sir Michael Wilshaw’s vision of continuous improvement in results when the results can only ever be comparable to the previous seasons…

The conclusion I’ve reached is that I think that Johnson, Cummings and comparable outcomes are wrong. Plain wrong. And that I do, as Mark McCourt does, genuinely believe that every child can pass Maths and English with the right conditions. I could not bring myself to stand in front of a class if I genuinely believed that some of them had been born incapable of succeeding. But of course they don’t all succeed currently, so what needs to change?

My thoughts on this are still being formed. I am writing this really to test out my own beliefs – will they stand up to public scrutiny? This is the true advantage of edublogging for me. If I find myself unable to defend my position on any of this over the coming weeks I’ll know I didn’t have it right in the first place. Where I find myself on firmer ground I’ll know I’ve found a true value. Here’s what I think we need to do if all children are to “pass” English and Maths:

  1. We need to all believe that all children can succeed – without this inherent belief failure and underachievement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy

    Getting the basics right ensures that learning is built on a firm foundation

    Getting the basics right ensures that learning is built on a firm foundation

  2. We need to get the early basics right – the building blocks of successful literacy and numeracy must be secure or the whole edifice will tumble. The accountability system at primary school encourages teachers to move children onwards and upwards to the next level when it should be encouraging complete security at the level below. As I argued here, I don’t blame Year 6 teachers for coaching children to the new Level 6 tests but I worry about the security of the level 5 work underpinning it.

    Graphic (via @headguruteacher)

  3. The role of the family is vital – this month’s #blogsync deals with this topic and Tom Sherrington has written with characteristic vigour about the benefits of the “pushy parents” and the cognitive gaps between rich and poor. One of my most popular posts dealt with the Matthew Effect which argues that those who are brought up in word-rich environments where families value education have an intellectual and cultural capital which allows them to progress more rapidly still, whilst those who are not have nothing to grip on to education with. Changing the culture of those families who do not value education is a lifetime’s work, but there is no more important work for a teacher than that.
  4. All abilities should work together – hiving off the most able into separate streams, sets or schools sets a cap on the aspirations of those left behind whatever numerical cap is dictated by budget or facilities. Kenny Pieper lays out the case for all ability education here, and I have argued about the social importance of mixing all abilities and social backgrounds here. If a student is in a class – or a school – where they never get to see what a C looks like, much less an A*, how can we hope that they will aspire to achieve one?
  5. The core should be run through the whole curriculum – literacy and numeracy are the keys which unlock other learning. Every teacher should be developing knowledge, understanding and skills in these areas every day by providing explicit teaching of the literacy and numeracy elements of their specialisms. Requiring deliberate practice of literacy and numeracy skills should be part of the repertoire of every teacher, not just in a box-ticking “literacy across the curriculum” add-on but in a fundamental, foundation stone way. 
  6. We should abandon Key Stages so phases can work together – some students arrive in Year 7 too far behind for secondary schools to close the gaps enough. Every week in #SLTchat somebody mentions the importance of EYFS. I find the divisions into key stages unhelpful as it implies a shift where there should be a continuum. Anything we can do to collaborate and work together cross-phase is a must if we as a system are to turn out literate and numerate adults.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter.


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.

The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime

The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime is the demolition of private schooling.

Let me explain. I don’t just mean the existence of schools that you have to pay to attend. I also mean the social prejudice that believes a private school education is somehow superior to a state one. This is one of the many prejudices, it seems to me, upon which Michael Gove is modelling his reforms to the state education system: the curriculum reform heralded by the English Baccalaureate and subsequent EBCs emulates the perceived curriculum of preference for independent schools; the obsession with testing and examination does the same. If we are truly to continue to provide a world-class education for our children, this shall not pass.

Let’s start with the practicalities. My proposal is the nationalisation of all private schools. Bring all of the 25,245 schools in England into the state sector, and run them properly so every family has a great, local, state-funded school.

Here is some very dubious maths: according to this article from April 2012, 505,000 children are in private schools. Their parents are paying an average of £3903 per term at day schools and £8780 at boarding schools. I don’t know what the proportion of day to boarding is, but let’s say that’s an average of £19,000 a year (they mean old terms, right? a three term year?). 505,000 children paying £19,000 per annum means £9,607,372,500 being paid for a service which is free at the point of use in this country. Nine point six billion pounds. I realise that there are massive flaws in the calculations I’ve just done, but I’m really not worried about the figures, only the point that half a million children’s parents are paying for a service that they could be getting for free. Why is this? And what is the impact on the education system in this country?

The main reasons given for “opting out” of the state sector are:

  • Independent schools can offer better sports and extra-curricular opportunities
  • Behaviour is better / discipline is stronger
  • Private schools get better results
  • Private schools are better able to cater for my child’s needs

The reasons more rarely given but perhaps most powerful are:

  • Going to an independent school confers a social advantage on my child
  • They’ll mix with the right sort of people at a private school

Enough has been written about the hegemony of the independently educated. It is the poison of social division that I think my panacea will treat. John O’Farrell wrote brilliantly in the Guardian last summer about why he sent his children to his local state school, Lambeth Academy:

My kids rubbed along with classmates of all races and classes. They know the other people in their community, they are not frightened when they walk down the high street after dark, they have gained an understanding of how society works that you could never get in an institution from which most of society is excluded.

I know exactly what he means. I was privately educated and had no idea about the real world until I started teaching – you can read all about that in my post The Past Feeds The Present. Until we have a properly comprehensive system where children from all social backgrounds are educated together, ignorance will breed social division. We can’t blame David Cameron, George Osborne and the like for not understanding what it’s like to live in an inner city – they have never had the opportunity to coexist with people who do.

I have been really inspired by a fantastic post by Emma Mulqueeny called “Are the school fees worth it?” – I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of reading it for yourself, but I do want to refer you to her superb “Myth Busting” section at the very end of it which addresses many of my bullet points above. She put her children into private school, transferred them to state school, and honestly and insightfully compares the two. She highlights the kinds of problems that having an independent sector in education creates for parents who just want the best for their children. Read it.

We all want what’s best for our children. What’s best for our children is not educating them in a social vacuum. Putting children into independent schools is like putting them voluntarily into a bell jar and sucking out the air so the real world continues all around them but they can’t hear it, can’t touch it, can’t feel it – it all seems so distant and unreal.

To say that standards of behaviour and attainment are better in private schools is a spurious argument. Children from advantaged backgrounds go to private schools, so of course they behave better and achieve academically; they come from families who invest in education. Children whose parents make an investment of time, care and attention instead of money and send their children to state schools provide them with a similarly advantaged background and – guess what? – their children also behave well and achieve highly.

There is also a misapprehension that “comprehensive” means “the same for everyone”. As anyone who works in a good comprehensive knows, education is tailored to the most and least able on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis throughout the land. Educational needs are met. The brightest are stretched. The most troubled supported. All for free. It’s no wonder that we already have the sixth best education system in the world.

So, what would be the benefits of my fully nationalised education system? Social harmony. Greater understanding between people of all backgrounds. Fairer distribution of funding, facilities, and opportunities. Maybe, just maybe, we could have the best education system in the world .

Of course, at the moment, that honour belongs to Finland. Finland has a completely nationalised education system. Students don’t sit any compulsory exams until they are at least 17. There are no inspections. There are no such things as school league tables – instead, investment is made in local schools to ensure consistency of quality. Adam Lopez summarises: “Finland’s Ministry of Education’s philosophy has been to trust the professionals, parents and communities to guide their own policy.”

In Finland teaching is one of the most respected professions. In Finland, local schools are fully autonomous with the freedom to implement the curriculum that best suits their context. That sounds like an independent school I’d want to work at.

This post is a response to the #blogsync topic for January suggested by Edutronic here:

UPDATE: Emma has helpfully gathered all her “Myth Busting” points into one new post: Myth-busting State Schools vs Private Schools. Go!

The Past feeds the Present

I went to a private school from the age of 11 until I was 18. It was an elitist, high-performing boys school. I remember sitting the entrance exam, driving up to the school with my friend Simon, testing each other on capital cities of countries around the world. This didn’t come up in the exam, but we knew a lot of them. I got a bursary to attend the school; every year my academic performance was monitored to make sure I was still eligible to receive this money. If I hadn’t met the standard, my parents could no longer have afforded to send me.

Looking back on this now with adult eyes, that seems like a lot of pressure to put on a child, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. In reality, I had no concept of the financial and political decisions behind my education. I went to school. I worked hard. I made friends. I did well. That was all.  However, the decision even to send me for the entrance exam resonates through my life to this day and has guided every step of my career.

In the sixth form I applied to read English at New College, Oxford. The system is different now, but back then Oxford set its own entrance exams which you would sit in your school. If you passed those, you were invited for interview, and if you passed that you were given a nominal offer (two E grades, in my case) for the purposes of UCAS. I was put in a special class to coach me for the entrance exam, given mock-interview practice and guidance from Oxbridge graduates on the staff as the tried-and-tested programme at my school picked me up. Again, even as a 17-year-old, I didn’t question this. My school was the only secondary school I had ever known; I naively had no idea that other schools were any different. I got in.

The formative moments came after Oxford as I studied for my PGCE at Nottingham University. The highly astute and perceptive tutor Chris Hall (to whom I owe an enormous debt) recognised that sheltered naivety in me, and sent me for my teaching practice to a school in the north of Nottinghamshire in a very deprived area, where there was no school uniform, where teachers were called by their first names, and where open-plan classroom spaces merged into one another. I think she thought that it would make me or break me. It made me.

I was appointed at Sutton Centre (now an Academy with blazers) as an NQT after my teaching practice and spent three years in the amazing English and Drama department there. The experience shaped my adult self. I know this is supposed to happen at university, but Oxford hadn’t provided that for me. I knew a lot about Jane Austen and even more about Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson, but I had no idea how people really lived in the real world. Suddenly, I was in a properly comprehensive school for the first time in my life – and I loved it.

During this time, between the ages of 21 and 24, I was forced to reassess my past. I would often conceal the fact that I was an Oxford graduate, as it generated prejudices in people I met which caused me to be ashamed of what I thought were unfair advantages in my own background. I went through a period of resentment about my own education, which boiled down to this – I like to think that I got into Oxford on merit. That I would have got in anyway, no matter which school I had gone to. But I would never know if this was true.

If I’m honest, I still haven’t resolved this, although am no longer ashamed of admitting where I went to school or university (hence this post!). But what coalesced in me during that formative period from my PGCE to my first promotion was a bedrock philosophy for my career. This philosophy is simple: that no person should have an unfair advantage through education because of the amount of money their family has.

What I realised in Sutton was that state schools provide an education that private schools cannot – a human education which puts children from all backgrounds into one community, together. My education did not do this – I didn’t learn much about the real world until I was in my twenties. And some contemporaries of mine from school and university, not to mention some government ministers, never learn what it’s like to live a different sort of life or come from a different sort of background. They live their lives in a comfortable, homogenous bubble which corrodes the social fabric of our country.

This realisation continues to push me every day to provide a free state education to every pupil for whom I am responsible which is of the highest quality. I want state schools so good that parents, if they are choosing between state and private, would choose the state. I want state schools so good that private schools go out of business and end that poisonous division in our society which leads good parents like mine to think that they can buy increased chances of success for their children.

I know that I won’t change the world. But I will chip away at my little piece of it, making what difference I can.