Britain: Nation of Failure – a partial answer to Birbalsingh


Like many, I’ve been musing on some of the many announcements and provocations that have been said by or about the government’s education policy in recent weeks.


When Nick Gibb, the man in charge of the new curriculum is said to have declared that he wants maths to look like the 1950s style education he received at prep school, with content such as 4-digit column methods by the age of 7, I’m concerned.


When Michael Gove talks about the current curriculum being jam-packed and yet needing to contain a ‘minimum specified knowledge‘, I’m… well… hesitant.


And when Katharine Birbalsingh writes that teachers are trapped in a broken education system, I’m confused.


You see, my (admittedly limited) experience would suggest that all three are, at best, wrong, or, at worst, lying.


Personally I think I must have had a similar experience to Gibb and Gove. I learned column methods at an early age. I am replete with facts, much to the annoyance of my family and friends. However I regret that I didn’t talk more at primary school. I regret that I didn’t learn the skills of debate and persuasion because I was so busy learning facts. I’d have been a much more effective teacher and leader earlier if I had had a greater education in ‘people skills’ that had started at Primary School.


And with maths, even though I knew a lot of facts and methods, I never really started to understand them until I was teaching the national strategies. Then, I started to ‘get’ how everything linked together and was able to pass that on to teachers. Mike Askew (et. al) finds just this in his review of maths teaching back in 1997 (right at the end of the previous conservative government). He finds that teachers that can make connections between concepts have the greatest impact. See that – you’ve got have the concepts – but they’re not the most important thing – the connections between the concepts are even more important.


It’s a bit like trying to build a house without mortar. The bricks are clearly vital, but without the mortar it will just leak and fall down. It’s just too simplistic to say we only need knowledge – a point that I’ll come back to.


Unlike Nick Gibb, I received my knowledge based curriculum at a state primary school. It served me really well. And everyone in my class. Despite being in the heart of a council estate that is the 10% most deprived in the country, all of my friends from my class went on to get good educations, one became a golf professional, some went on to university One even went to Oxford.


Go the state sector. Go knowledge-based curriculum you might say.


However I received a shock when I left my primary school: There were two other classes in my year group.


Another 60 children.


60 pupils of the same age who had been kept from the ‘more able’ ones for their entire school career. We had been isolated from them, and they from us. Now let me make it clear that there were children who had struggled in my class, so I can’t imagine what academic standards were exhibited in the other classes. It certainly represents Britain as a nation of failure. At least two thirds of children who weren’t even getting close to ‘making the grade’.


I say ‘I can’t imagine’, but actually I can now. You see I now teach on the same deprived council estate where I was educated myself. What I see is 80% of children ‘making the grade’. 80% – what an improvement from 25 years ago when only 33% were doing so. Some of their parents do struggle with either, literacy or numeracy and there is a greater group of grandparents who have the same issues. So we have an education system now that is improving literacy rates in communities – creating generation after generation more literate than the rest.


So – concerned, hesitant, confused – I’ve been listening to the likes of Gibb, Gove and Birbalsingh and have been wondering what they are trying to do.


My conclusion is that the really want a more simplistic system. Let’s face it  – it would be easier (and therefore cheaper) to just test for knowledge and measure schools that way.


Unfortunately, I believe that as we live in a highly complex society, we need a complex education system to improve it. A simple system will work for some, but will leave many as failures. The children and students who can’t attain the ‘minimum specified level’ will, at an early age, discover that they are failures and they will switch off from learning. This will start a cycle of failure which will see them fail academically every year until they finally escape from the education system which has so brutalised them. The success of society will be dependent on those few that do success to be the kind of big-hearted people who are willing to ‘give something back’, supporting those people who have failed.


At the Conservative Party Conference last year, the room fell uncomfortably quiet when David Cameron was talking about his vision for a ‘Big Society’ (yet there were claps and cheers for pretty much everything else). If elitism is going to work, it can only work if the elitists are all philanthropists – if they actually believe the ‘Big Society’ thing. While I’m happy to believe that Cameron might believe it, the rest of his party seem yet to be convinced.


But as the new education system creates less ‘haves’ and more ‘have-nots’, it is only the big-hearted, Big Society, elitist ‘haves’ that can stop all of Britain suffering as it slowly becomes a nation of failure.

Why does character matter?

Bill Hybels defines character as: who you are when nobody else is looking.”

I’ve been thinking about character a lot recently. It’s mainly because I’m about to deliver a reflection on ‘character’ at my church this morning for ‘Growing Leaders’ session 4. I’m doing the final exercise after the participants have learnt about character. The prezi I’m going to use is here:


I was struck by a presentation at the UK Education leaders conference at BETT2011 yesterday (BETT is a technology for education conference that happens in the UK every year). Chris Gerry from the Future Schools Partnership talked about how they use IT smartly to get the best value for it. While a tiny part of his talk was about budget and systems, a large part was about emotions and self esteem – developing character in both pupils and teachers. Could developing character actually save money for the UK education system?
The list that the participants came up with that are ‘essential’ for Christian leadership are:
  • love
  • holiness
  • servant-hearted
  • wisdom
  • encouraging
  • humility
  • perseverance
  • faithfulness
  • integrity
  • forgiveness
  • compassion
  • trustworthiness
  • integrity

I wonder how much of that list applies to our secular leadership. To the likes of Gove (in Education), Cameron and Clegg. We’ve all heard of leaders who had a great gift, a great ministry, a great mission, whatever you want to call it, yet through some flaw in their character, their great task was cut short. Brought down by media revelations or a crisis in their private life. We all have flaws – the question is: do we brush them under the carpet and hope they go away or do we face them up and do something about them?

As Christians we look at the character of Jesus as to be our guide for how we should shape our character. Find out more in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Bible.
Perhaps the significant characteristic to add the list above is that of authenticity. Jesus was all those things. He was servant-hearted, wise, encouraging, humble and all the rest. But he was authentic too. He lost his temper when he saw injustice. He challenged authority when he saw it was wrong. He became frustrated when his disciples were infeasibly dense. He was real with people.
Later on this morning we will be looking at tools to help analyse character. One of the best I’ve found is the Johari window – a great tool for delving into who you really are, although you do need somebody to help you with it. To find out more, Google it.
So, what shall I do with flaws when I find them?
Augustine said: “Make sure your life sings the same song as your lips.” Authenticity – I think that’s the key for me.

Digital Natives and the Underclass – should schools make IT-based home visits?

I’ve had many really interesting conversations this week about children’s online activity. Four in particular made me wonder about this concept of ‘digital natives’ and if everyone is really getting it.


The first conversation was with my friend and CEOPS advisor, Craig Gilman. We were looking at the Think U Know website to plan some e-safety activities for safer internet day on the 8th February. I was using my Google Calendars to look at the dates and he pulled out his paper diary, explaining that he had used a Google Calendar for some time up to a couple of years ago, but had to revert to a paper diary, because it was always accessible.


The second conversation was with musician, creative agent and practitioner, Bobbie Gardner. We were talking about a social media project we’re hoping to implement later in this term and got onto to talking about the children’s abilities compared to those of the adults. We noted how both of us had to check our paper diaries to organise their dates. Indeed – I had to check both my paper diary and my Google calendars. Although I love using Google Calendars, not everyone at my school has got to grips with them yet, so we’re in the part-paper / part-digital in-between state at the moment. Bobbie pointed out that the children we were planning for would have no such problem. They would be digital all the way. it would be completely natural for them to plan their activities using a calendar.


The third conversation was with my colleague and Year 3 teacher Helen Wilson. She observed that all three of her children, all in their twenties, had had the same kind of digital upbinging with access to laptops and laptop use modelled by Helen. Yet it was only the youngest of them who was entirely a digital native – completely natural at being online. In contrast the older two, just a few years older weren’t so ‘at home’ with online activities.


The fourth conversation and the most poignant was with my own group of children – a high-achieveing group of 10 and 11 year olds, studying writing. We were writing biographies using Google Docs (having been inspired by interviewing the biographee via skype). I had noticed how many of the children are really quite fast at typing – far quicker than when I had first joined the school. At that time (6 years ago) I remember there was only one child in Year 6 who could type quickly enough to make word processing in writing lessons anything less than an entirely painful exercise. I also remember that at that time only about 40% of students had internet access at home. The Google Docs lesson was essentially made possible because most of the children could type at a reasonable speed. Now part of this may be that we do more typing in school now, but I’m sure that part of this is also because the children are using computers at home more.


So I asked the children how many had internet access at home. One quarter didn’t. 25% still with no internet access. When I delved further I discovered that some had had internet access  -some even through government funded schemes, but due to viruses, or no technical expertise in the house, the computers no longer worked.


So the digital natives are coming – the children and young adults who have always used computers – but what about those being left behind? The underclass who for whatever children only access online learning at school. What will become of those?


It made me wonder if one of the key jobs that schools should do is to send out technical support into the homes of the families they are responsible for. A school-based home IT support service. Maybe that’s one of the tasks for the school of the future? Just like home visits are key for a good start at nursery and reception, maybe home visits should become central to our IT strategy…

Reveling in Failure: a response to our outcome driven world.

I had the idea for this post a month ago at which time I was going to call it: November: Month of Failure. Unfortunately I carried on failing long into December so I had to give it a broader title.


The background for this post is one of success. 2010 had been one of achievement after achievement (relatively speaking). Since the CCE Conference in February and Ewan Macintosh’s Keynote I have re-invigorated my teaching career: blogging with more conviction; using Twitter to gain a network that has inspired and informed; and even gained a place on the UK Google Teacher Academy. Not to mention that I had also been appointed as deputy headteacher, even if only in an acting position, in my current school. Achievement in anybody’s book. Yet little did I realise some of those things would conspire to cause me to fail as I approached Christmas 2010.



My failure
I suspect like many other teachers, I arrived at the Christmas break exhausted and somewhat disillusioned with my own abilities. So much of what I had started had fallen by the wayside. So much of what I had wanted to produce hadn’t been produced. Exactly how did I fail? Like this:
  1. I had started Nanowrimo and failed to finish (I only wrote 7000 words, not the full 50000).
  2. The English group I teach had also started Nanowrimo and had to drastically reduce their targets (from between 5-10000 words to 2-4000 words)
  3. I started to grow a moustache for Movember, but I failed at about twenty days (I just became too irritated with the damn thing!) – it seems a little thing but all these things add up.
  4. I effectively stopped blogging, I wrote the odd post here and there but not with the same regularity as I had been previously. To me this is really important, because blogging is synonymous with reflective thinking, which is an important part of being a teacher.
  5. I became quite grumpy. This is because I realised I was failing at some things. It made me fail at more things. I don’t know exactly how that affected my colleagues or the children I teach, but it must have.
  6. I marked work inconsistently – this is really bad for the children because they don’t know what level of feedback to expect.
  7. I put on weight. Inevitable I suppose, but still not good.
  8. I didn’t make it to church very much. Again – I’m not a very legalistic sort of person, but when you’re supposed to be part of a community and you don’t see the other members of the community very much, it’s not really much of a community.
I’m sure there were other things too, but they how many things I failed as isn’t the most important thing to the post. Dealing with the failure is.


How I dealt with the failure
There’s something I call the rubber-band effect. Psychologists probably call it something else and the term ‘Rubber Band effect’ I’m sure means something else. For me it means returning to unhelpful addictions. Football Manager is probably my worst and it doesn’t sound too bad does it. But when you’ve always got it on and you’re playing it every spare minute and it’s taking up your thinking time, it can be pretty bad. I’ve been very disciplined with Football Manager this year – only playing it for an hour or two every Sunday night with my friend Gordon. But November wasn’t good. And nor was December. It was like the Football Manager rubber band had stretched and stretched and then pinged back with a resounding ‘twang’. And of course when you’ve got your head in a computer game, it’s difficult to get it into anything else.


Why I failed?
I guess you could say I failed because I played Football Manager too much, but there other reasons:
  1. I started too much. I should never have started NaNoWriMo – it was just too much for me at that time. Nor Movember as it turned out. If I had started less, I could have succeeded in more.
  2. I listened to the wrong people – it seems to be awards season in teaching at the moment. Loads of people giving each other awards and tweeting about it too. In my state of failure, it felt like I was missing out. I should have listened to Doug Belshaw earlier, but hey.
  3. I forgot the ‘big picture‘ and ‘who I am. The ‘big picture’ is that failure is an important part of the education process. You can’t do something, so you learn – you get better. You fail again, you learn – you get better still. If teachers can’t demonstrate they fail, can’t model how to deal with that to their students, how can students learn that failure is OK on the journey to success? Also ‘who I am’ isn’t defined by how much I can write and whether I have any awards. It’s about giving hope to children. I wrote about this back in October in my post ‘Are you a hub or a connector?’, but obviously by November I had started to forget it.
  4. I was distracted by the outcome. In education we’ve fallen into the trap of believing that everything should have an ‘outcome.’ Education is there to get jobs. Better Education gets better jobs. Teachers can be scored by how good their lessons are. Children can be tracked in every subject week by week. Now outcomes are important, but not when you strip past the process required to reach that outcome. In November I had just wanted to succeed at lots of things – I didn’t care how. But it’s important to care how. Because caring ‘how you do something’ makes it a repeatable process that other people can learn. It makes education real and meaningful. Revel in the failure – it’s all part of the process of success.
How I intend to deal with failure in the future
(OK – so as you can see I’ve wallowed slightly.)
My intention is to wallow no longer. I will revel in my failure. I will use it as motivation to teach better maths and better English. I will remind myself that when students fail they probably feel the same thing.


Practically, this means:
  • continuing to blog, so I can reflect on what I do;
  • ignoring ‘Awards’ Talk on Twitter;
  • sharing the failure before it becomes big enough to wallow in;
  • limiting Football Manager play.


Failure – it’s alright – enjoy it while it lasts…
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