There’s nothing quite like teaching

Sometimes when I’m reading an education blog I notice that comparisons happen between teaching and other jobs or professions. It goes something like this:

“Teachers may be treated like this, but you wouldn’t treat an airline pilot that way…”


“Doctors have this, but teachers only have that…”

I’m sure I’ve done it myself. My wife is a GP and I’ve often found myself musing on the ‘what if’ teaching was like medicine.

But the thing is, there’s nothing quite like teaching.

It really is unique.

Yes, many people are involved in education to some extent – either as parents or in the workplace – but teaching is unique. No one else goes to work with the sole purpose of just teaching: expanding students brains; giving them knowledge; providing opportunities to practise new skills and become better people.

No else experiences that ‘gets it’ moment – the instant when you perceive that the student has just made a significant leap in their learning, increasing their knowledge or gaining new understanding. It’s a magical thing and we get the joy of seeing it happen every day – not just every once in a while. Think about it – in some professions they never have that moment.

There are other things to do. I read somewhere that the only profession with more interactions per hour than teaching is air traffic control. Oh, I’ve just done it. I’ve made the comparison with another profession. That’s the sign that I need to stop.

Teachers: you are amazing.

There’s no need to compare yourselves with other careers or professions – you are unique. Be proud of it.

Michael Gove should trust Wilshaw more and League Table less

I’ve been reflecting on SATs in the light of Gove’s recent speech over the last few posts and today I received a tweeted reply to my most recent post from @janey23HT

@oldandrewuk @frogphilp what about the schools where over a third aren’t even at lv4 yet ofsted judge them to be doing an outstanding job!”

It seems a travesty doesn’t it? How can a school be awarded the best grade at inspection when a third of their pupils don’t even achieve the national standard.

But what if some of the children come into school at such a low standard that achieving the national standard 7 years later is a mighty feat. Is it possible that there could be that much of a difference in standards between 4 year-olds?

My school is a bit like that. Nearly half of our children come in ‘well below’ national standards. This means that at the age of four these children have not been exposed to books and libraries. Often these children are functioning like an eighteen month old with speech development far below that of the ‘average four-year old’. Sometimes their parents are just out of school themselves and have low expectations for what the education system can do for them.

For a school like mine, would it not be a good thing to educate these children so that they are only just below national standards? If we take children in who are already two years behind at the age of four and educate them so that they are only a year behind by the time they are 11, is that not a good job? Yes they might not achieve level four, but despite a lack of support from home they have caught up, and given the education from some of the fantastic secondary schools in my area, they will continue to catch up at secondary school.

Of course we don’t aim for just below national standards. We aim for higher. My school is not yet outstanding, but I can see how Ofsted might judge a school to be outstanding even if a third of their children did not achieve level 4.

And I think Michael Gove can see this too. That is why he has supported the pupil premium despite the cuts facing much of public service. It is the pupil premium in schools like mine that keep the resources to educate these children who are well behind at the age of four. That is why he speaks so passionately about high expectations – he knows we can do even better. Like Gove, I am not satisfied that some of my children are still behind where they should be when they leave my school. I want to find ways of improving my teaching so that my children do even better.

Of the accountability measures in place, it is Ofsted that has provided the best framework for improving my school. They have given us the advice that has shown us what we are doing well and where we need to improve. I agree with this week’s Secret Teacher at the Guardian that Ofsted can be used by school leaders to create a climate of fear, but it is not Ofsted itself that does that, it is leadership passing on their own fears to their staff. This often happens because of reference control (an idea I stole from Mick Waters).

Unlike Ofsted, league tables just increase role conflict, where the teachers are not sure what to serve – the success of the school or the success of their students. Yes Ofsted, may be a flawed system. It is humans monitoring humans after all. But without national data in the form of league tables, inspectors would come into schools and do proper inspecting – they would not be able to form any pre-conceived notions as the writer of the ‘Secret Teacher’ asserts. They would investigate performance management and discover whether teachers were being sufficiently challenged by school leaders, and likewise whether school leaders were being properly held to account by Governors.

Who would be brave enough to establish a system like this? A system based wholly on human to human interaction with consistency ensured by a proven successful school leader such as Michael Wilshaw?

School performance would be entirely dependent on inspection, the reputation of the school in the community and the rigour of the Governing Body.

It would involve a high level of trust in the success of the inspection part of the system, and maybe that’s something Michael Gove is not quite ready to do yet.

A third of children at level 4 aren’t

It is Monday morning. Today, primary schools across the country are beginning their week of judgement. Should their children in Year 6 do well in their SATs, then the primary schools will meet their targets – maybe be beating the floor targets; perhaps by demonstrating that all their children have made the required amount of progress; or possibly by beating their previous best and thereby showing year-on-year improvement.

Doing well could mean a higher place in the league table. It could mean families from more well-off backgrounds choose that school in the future. It could mean that the school scores well enough to avoid an Ofsted inspection (Ofsted undertake an annual risk assessment to establish which schools need inspecting). In short it can mean less stress and anxiety for teachers, and who wouldn’t want that?

Does anything sound wrong in what I’ve just said? That’s right – it’s all about the performance of schools and not about the performance of students. You would hope that the former is the same as the latter, but teachers, and especially school leaders, suffer a considerable role conflict in this. Is it possible that school leaders and teachers can behave in such a way that their school performance is enhanced whilst the learning of their students actually suffers?

No-one would do this intentionally, neither do I want to get into the how or why this happens, as I have blogged extensively on it in the past. However I have observed that the education secretary, Michael Gove has noticed something of a discrepancy between the performance of schools and the performance of students. In his recent speech he tells us:

Nearly a third of children who get at least a good level 4 in English and maths fail to go on to secure five A*- C passes including GCSE English and maths – the minimum level of literacy and numeracy required for future employability.

I find that statistic truly shocking. It means either that those third of children achieving level 4 are badly let down by the secondary schools, or that they weren’t actually performing at Level 4 in the first place. Sorry, that is a bit sensationalist. It could also mean that the whole system for leveling a child is wrong. Or that after primary school, a third of children lose all motivation and fail to perform for reasons entirely independent of their secondary school. Let’s be honest – education is complex and it’s probably some mix of all those reasons.

I was pleased to read therefore from Michael Gove “We’ve taken action to deal with this scandal.” The action seems to be twofold:

  1. introduce a phonics screening check for 6 year olds.
  2. introduce a grammar and punctuation test for 11 year olds.

In his speech Michael Gove then spends several sentences criticising unions and Michael Rosen for opposing these tests. Now I do not oppose those tests, but they don’t seem to me to be the kind of action to ‘fix the scandal’ of seemingly good performers at primary school under-performing at secondary school. The whole problem with SATs is that they are internally invigilated and then linked to whole school performance. The way to fix this is not to introduce more tests that are also internally invigilated and linked to whole school performance.

I would suggest that the way to fix this is to do some decent analysis of that third of students. Which of those four possibilities are true for them? Is it:

  1. They weren’t actually at level 4 in the first place (indicating too much support during primary schools SATs – you might say this a kind way of saying ‘cheating’.)
  2. The secondary schools didn’t do a good enough job.
  3. The system for leveling children in English and maths is all wrong.
  4. The students lost motivation completely independently of the education system.

Once this has been determined, some change of policy and practice could be put into place that would sort this scandal out, rather than just trying out another test in primary schools that might actually make things worse.

Guardian Education is Michael Gove’s ‘Michael Gove’

There’s an art to public speaking. You have to win your audience over – to get them onside. I can’t claim to be very good at it myself, but I have noticed a pattern in public speaking over the last couple of years, particularly when the audience are teachers.

To get a laugh, the speaker puts up a picture of Michael Gove.

That’s it. Just his face.

Often the camera has caught his lips at an unfortunate angle and he looks slightly ridiculous. Then all the teachers laugh and the presenter knows they have the audience on their side. Think about it – have you seen Michael Gove’s visage presented to you as an object of ridicule?

I noticed in Michael Gove’s speech that he does something similar. Except his object of ridicule is Guardian Education. Have a look for yourself – the reference comes early on in his speech before he gets on to his ‘meaty points’. Just at about the right point to get his audience on his side.

Now, two wrongs don’t make a right, but it’s interesting to me that these speakers I have heard, and Michael Gove himself, are all talking to teachers. Teachers who need to be very careful about using ridicule in their pedagogy. It seems to me that we need to be careful of listening to anyone who would offer up individuals as an object of ridicule – it’s not a good habit for the classroom.

It’s not about the curriculum

I read Michael Gove’s recent speech with a great deal of interest, partly because of the Mr Men thing but mainly because he mentioned one of my favourite bloggers, @oldandrewuk.  To me it shows the importance Gove places on argument and debate.

I’ve already poked a bit of fun at the Mr Men debate, because I think some people are missing the point. While it might be unfair of Michael Gove to single out one particular lesson, I think he’s making a general point about the need to raise expectations, or at least about the need for a debate about how expectations can be raised. My chosen Mr Man for Gove is not as others have suggested Mr Wrong or Mr Grumpy, but it’s Mr Tickle, because I think he’s trying to prod us and provoke us into debate.

When we debate education, it makes us more sure of our purpose and so we become better educators. I might fervently disagree with Gove or I might completely support his views. Either way, when I debate them, I become more dedicated to my chosen pedagogies and the children benefit – standards are raised. I know from this from my own personal journey – since starting blogging and tweeting about education I have become a far better teacher – I am more sure of what I am doing and more competent at doing it.

It’s tempting to hear Gove’s speech and think that he’s talking about his new curriculum. The history curriculum is one example that has been in particularly fierce debate (in what seems to me a bizarre reprise of a Mary Whitehouse’s experience’s 2 professors sketch).  Concerning history, Gove says:

And while some good individual points have been made by constructive critics of our draft, I have to record that, amidst all the debate which the draft history curriculum has stimulated, no coherent single alternative model has emerged as a superior rival.

From this one might suppose that it is Gove’s purpose to create one superior and coherent single curriculum for all students to benefit from. But this is not the case. Gove’s purpose is to raise standards. His strategy for doing this it increase autonomy for schools and the process he has chosen to do this is ‘academisation’. If Gove really believed that his new curriculum would raise standards for all, then he would make all schools do it. But no. The intention of the DfE is that all schools become academies, and academies do not have to follow the National Curriculum.

You might think it is slightly disingenuous, insincere even, for Michael Gove to spend so much time talking about curriculum stuff, when actually his key policy is academies. It could be that he thinks the academies debate is already won – academies will happen – it is just how we get there that matters now, and perhaps the new curriculum is just another tool for moving more schools to academies.

Gove says lots of things in his speeches that we can get terribly pedantic about. That is our job after all – some dictionaries say that ‘pedantic’ is defined as ‘school masterly’. For example his claim that infantilisation happens at primary schools is somewhat laughable, given that the bulk of primary school children are infants. However to focus on Gove’s mistakes can distract from the real debate.

This debate is not about Gove’s mistakes, nor is it about the new curriculum. It was, and it still is about academies. Should we have an education system of ever-increasing autonomy, or should we have a more one-size fits all approach? Academies offer the former; maintained schools offer the latter. Which is best for our society, our economy, our children and their futures? Don’t be distracted by the curriculum.

Which Mr Man is Michael Gove anyway?

For those who don’t know, the Mr Men are a series of books written by Roger Hargreaves for small children.

Some may read the news that Michael Gove has been criticising lesson plans that use Mr Men to teach history with resignation. Here he is again – the Mr Grumpy of education – taking all the fun out of our lessons.

But is that fair? He complains about the infantilisation of history teaching, so surely that makes Michael more like Mr Clever, trying to use his knowledge to benefit his fellows. But as we learn from the story –  Mr. Clever is also very smug. He believes that no one can get the better of him, because of his superior intelligence. That doesn’t sound like Mr Gove.

Others would like Michael to be like Mr Bump so that his next mistake might be one accident too many and cause him to lose his job.

From my perspective, I see Michael Gove as being more like Mr Tickle – he likes to gives us the odd prod every now and again, just to keep us on our toes.

Anyway. This is all silly – using fictional characters to represent real people? What next? Metaphor? Let’s just stick to the facts.

How about you, which Mr Man do you most associate with Michael Gove? If you can’t be bothered to respond to this post, you could always vote on this Guardian poll, although typically the Guardian haven’t provided the most pertinent choices.

Image cc geoftheref on Flickr at

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