The Great Grammar School Distraction of 2016

The recent debate about the proposed grammar school expansion is interesting but it’s just another distraction from the real issues that affect education.

These issues are

  1. the quality and quantity of teachers available to teach.
  2. The growing emphasis on the performance of schools over the performance of students, therefore increasing the amount of gaming that is in the system and consequently increasing the amount of dishonesty amongst teachers and children.

If grammar schools were to address either of these issues, then they would be a good thing. But the impact of grammar schools would be peripheral and indirect at best.

It’s interesting how three years ago a crisis of a lack of headteachers, was responded to by introducing a new curriculum and how a year ago the crisis in teacher recruitment was met by radical changes in how children are assessed. Then in June the Public Account Committee reported that ministers have no plans to address the recruitment crisis. No. Instead they would like to expand grammar schools.

Two of my children go to a grammar school. They are both thriving. They are thriving because the school is full of great teachers. The great teachers go there because grammar schools find it easier to recruit because they have higher performing students from more aspirational families. And far fewer behaviour problems. However they are still vulnerable to bad teachers. My son had one last year for a few months in his computing lessons and he actually went backwards. It’s the teacher that makes the difference to the child.

I have no problem with grammar schools. But every child in this country deserves great teachers. If we restructure to more grammar schools does that then mean that some children get the best teachers and the rest will just have to get by?

No. We don’t fix these issues by restructuring the school system, it has to be more direct than that and focus on the teachers themselves: what make teachers great? And what keeps them great without burning out?


It’s been a while since I had a regular classroom commitment. I’ve always thought that senior leaders suffer from an authenticity failure when they are divorced from teaching. But that’s another story, to be told another time. And to cut that long story short, this term I am teaching a group of seven year 6 children. Maths. For just one hour a day.

I am ‘boosting’.

Here’s what it says in the dictionary about boosting.
boosting: the yearly panic that primary schools go through to ensure they meet their yearly quota of successful students.But this is more than a SATs game. Putting my cynicism aside, each of the seven children in my group have a unique perspective on maths. And it’s a perspective skewed by failure.

Now I know that these days it’s cool to fail. Fail: first attempt in learning, chant the students to me. But not when you’ve failed week after week. Not when you’ve been the last to ‘get it’ lesson after lesson. Not when you’re at the bottom of the achievement rocket year after year.

The children's maths weakness: concentration, telling the time, embarrassment
What the children told me gets them down about maths

My seven Year 6 students are old enough to be embarrassed by their inability to do maths that children four years younger than them can do. They can’t tell the time. They don’t know their times tables. They can’t reliably count on or back. And what’s worse, they can all tell me stories of embarrassment, when their failure to do what their peers find simple has been exposed to the rest of their class.

Embarrassment and repeated failure make a powerful poison that taints the waters of learning. And the antidote to that poison is more than mere boosting. If all I do over the next four months is ‘get these children through their SATs’, I will have failed them. They don’t need my tricks and tips to score the best they can on some 45 minute exam papers in May. They need me to teach them well. They need some core knowledge and some confidence.

So as it turns out, I am not going to be boosting after all.

I’m going to be a ‘remedial teacher.’

I know that sounds awfully old-fashioned, but there are some reasons why I prefer that term. I see their lack of knowledge akin to a sickness and the remedy is good teaching. Each of these children has unique reasons for why they are ‘below national average’ in maths. Whilst I can’t remedy all of the reasons, for some I can do the following:

  1. diagnose the ailment;
  2. identify a treat;
  3. present a cure;
  4. give time for that cure to take hold.

I suppose I could label the same 4 point sequence like this:

  1. identify misconceptions
  2. plan some good lessons
  3. teach well
  4. allow children time to practice so that their confidence grows.

The majority of my posting this term is going to be about the journey with these children.


Good data processes have an impact on teaching and learning.

You can make really efficient data processes within school that don’t actually do anything.

Some senior leaders would laugh if you came into one of our pupil progress meetings. We hold them three times each year. In each meeting the headteacher, deputy and teacher come together to talk about each child’s progress in reading, writing and maths.

Much of the discussion arises from numbers on a sheet, but it is focused on the barriers each child faces and how, as a team, we might overcome those barriers. Sometimes that might involve a conversation between a senior leader and a parent; sometimes bringing in external professionals; sometimes the tweaking of some classroom practice.

I get the impression that at some schools, senior leaders are so concerned about the ‘big picture’ of what the data shows them, that they forget about the details. But the details are called children. And a school where children are just numbers on a sheet of paper is no school at all.

I have to admit, sometimes I can get a little task focused when I’m creating my latest uber-sheet: in this one, I tell myself, the data process will be so efficient it will hardly detract from our time at all.

It’s important to remember, that each number crunched, each set averaged, is just another tool to help teachers with their job: teaching.

I’m speaking at WeTweeted at BETT this Thursday – it would be great to have you there to contribute your thoughts on data too.

How to be good SMT

I’m no expert at leadership, and so I read @oldandrewuk’s post, How to be a Bad SMT, with a wry smile and a deep sense of sadness. Firstly – it caricature’s the very worst extremes of leadership in our schools; secondly many teachers experience much of what the blogger says on a daily basis.

My counter-list isn’t as comprehensive as the post which inspired this one. That’s more down to my lack of experience in leadership than the ease we Brits we find in being critical.

How to improve teaching and learning

  1. Judge teaching based on the teacher standards, not on Ofsted criteria – this implies an emphasis on the long-term: on lessons sequences over one-off lessons; on consistency over flashiness; on substance over style.

  2. Release staff to teach to their strengths rather than to conform to one single style – the strength of our education system is in the individuality and autonomy of teachers.

  3. Never use the word ‘delivery’. While the postal service is incredibly valued, teachers aren’t posties. Don’t dumb down teaching with the word ‘delivery’.

  4. Take the Teacher Standards statement “demonstrate a critical understanding of developments in the subject and curriculum areas, and promote the value of scholarship” seriously – this means allowing teachers to research good and outstanding teaching for themselves, rather than reducing it to a checklist.

  5. Allow teachers to take part in non-judgemental peer review. This may involve self-sacrifice as you may have to cover lessons yourself to allow teachers to collaborate with each other.

  6. Don’t call yourself SMT: call yourself SLT. It might seem to be mere semantics, but if you call yourself ‘management’ than you will only ever focus on doing things right; whereas if you call yourself leadership you focus on doing the right things. Even better, leadership teams may even learn to do the right things right.

How to improve behaviour

  1. Make sure transitions are your top priority. Be high profile at any point that children are moving into classrooms, or from one classroom to another.

  2. Allow teachers to contribute to the shared behaviour policy. Be aware that adjustments may need to be made depending on the age of the children – sanctions for 3 year olds may not always apply to 16 year olds.

  3. Take your responsibilities set in the behaviour policy seriously – don’t shy away from speaking to parents or reinforcing sanctions that teachers have enacted.

  4. Be prepared to shout occasionally. It’s not ideal, but if you don’t, your teachers will have to, and that’s worse.

  5. Respect the teachers who want to sort out the behaviour within their own classrooms, but offer support even if they don’t want to.

  6. Exclude when all other sanctions have run out – a clear, consistent message helps teachers, children and parents alike.

How to improve morale

  1. Be consistent in relationships, especially with middle leaders, who are still learning a new set of skills and will make a whole load of mistakes.

  2. Be self sacrificial – do an extra cover for  in your department at least once a half-term.

  3. Take the lion’s share of assemblies and playground duties.

  4. Listen to staff. When they suggest that a new initiative might be too much, consider what they say and remember that the main thing is your teachers’ teaching. If the initiative won’t help, don’t introduce it. Even better release staff to design and introduce the initiatives that they want to happen.

  5. Don’t go straight to your office each morning, but spend some time in your colleague’s classrooms first. Follow up at the end of the day if teachers are having a tough time.

  6. Smile.

  7. Apologise when you’ve made a mistake, or even if you’ve been a bit grumpy.

Now I’m not saying I’m God’s gift to leadership. I can honestly say that I have made at least three of the mistakes that are on oldandrewuk’s list in the last six weeks. But neither is the list above pie in the sky – I have done every one of them in the last 6 week’s also.

Digital literacies and the bottom line

There’s a bottom line in teaching – the things we must absolutely teach, no matter what. I’m questioning whether digital literacies should be part of it.

Here’s my story:

I know the theory of digital natives has been discredited, but if it did exist, I would be one. I am out of the age range for it: at 41 I have not lived in a world where computers have been ubiquitous all my life.

And yet they have been ubiquitous for me.

My father, a mathematician at Birmingham University, showed my a computer when I was five – a punch card machine in the maths department. We had a BBC Micro in the house soon after. An Acorn Archimedes by the time I was a teenager. In my first job when I was eighteen I  used Apple Macs in one department, PCs in another and Sun workstations in the third.

When it came to teaching, using computers just seemed natural and I was often frustrated at the lack of resources for teaching computing. If only we had more computers, we could do better ICT teaching and give our children better life chances… That’s what I thought. And I still do – having the best equipment and being taught how to use it has to be a good thing.

I’m also sold on the argument that most of the jobs we are preparing our children for don’t exist today – that was certainly true of my schooling. Computers were limited in my education, yet my peers from school days include web designers, Microsoft and Google employees and even a guy who designs mobile phone networks for entire countries.

None of these people were taught digital literacies, and yet all of them are fully digitally literate. In fact, I would argue that none of them were taught anything to prepare them for a particular job. They were taught by teachers who were passionate about their subjects and keen that their students would learn their subjects to the highest level possible.

It seems to me that success at a particular job is not defined by the particular subjects you have been taught, but by how well you have been taught those subjects – just the very act of learning something to a high level gives you the ability to succeed.

So I am still going to teach my students about ICT and computing. I am a primary teacher so I have the joy of teaching other stuff too. What’s more I’m going to teach them to the highest level I can so that can be as digitally literate as possible. And as good at English and maths as possible too. But as a school leader is it right for me to make all my teachers conform to my image. Surely, if I have an art specialist I should encourage them to teach their students to the highest level in art as possible. And likewise for all other teachers.

I’m not saying that we should ignore the bottom line of teaching sound grammar, punctuation, spelling, maths, reading, and so on… I’m questioning how much we put in that bottom line, including digital literacies. I wonder if by teaching to our strengths, teachers can enjoy what they do and their students can far surpass the bottom line.

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.

The mediocrity of facilitation

The late, great Frank Zappa

I’m always a little mithered by the word ‘facilitation’ being used in an educational context.

I think it started from way before I ever thought I’d become a teacher. I had an excellent lecturer on my BEng Electrical Engineering course who loathed the word ‘facilitate’. I don’t remember much about him – it’s been twenty years and I’ve not needed much of the content of my electrical engineering degree in my career as a primary school teacher. There was another thing though – he was a keen Frank Zappa fan who wore blue denim every day. On the day Frank Zappa died he changed to black denim and never returned to the blue. And he didn’t like the word ‘facilitate’.

I’ve heard teachers say that they are not actually teachers, but facilitators. They ‘facilitate learning’. This worries me somewhat. I think teachers can facilitate group work – children getting on with each other – they facilitate behaviour. But I don’t think learning can be facilitated. It has to be taught.

Good teachers, who have misnamed themselves ‘facilitators’, must work alongside children until the point where they get stuck. Then they teach something. But that isn’t facilitation. It’s teaching.

I saw this in practice on Tuesday when I interviewed for the post of inclusion leader within my school. As part of the process, the candidates had to teach two children they had never met before, both with statements of special educational need. I’m always wary of forming hard and fast judgements on such a snapshot of an activity – learning doesn’t often happen in snapshots, but over the course of time and in the context of the relationship between teacher and student. However the activity did demonstrate the dangers of facilitation and the great benefit of teaching.

One of the candidates guided the children through an activity where the children formed sentences from pre-printed words on a laminated sentence board. By the end of the activity, both children had both spoken and written a mainly accurate sentence. The children were engaged, but there was no clear evidence that they had definitely learnt something new. It could have been that the children just practised something they could already do quite well.

By contrast, another candidate, who turned out to be the successful one, did a far more uncomfortable activity. They played a game where the task was to make a model of a picture on card out of plasticine. The children then had to guess what the other model was by asking questions. However they got stuck. There was an uncomfortable moment where it was clear that neither of the children had the expressive language to either ask the most appropriate question, or to describe their shapes. At this point the teacher had to step in and teach the children. She modelled some language that the children had clearly not used before and made the children use it. After the teacher’s input, the children were able to try speaking in sentences and using more accurate words – but it took the teacher’s input to get there – no amount of facilitation would have helped.

My belief is that a facilitator can help children practice what they already know and can possibly help children work co-operatively on a project using what they already know, but they cannot teach children knew stuff. Learning is the process where children gain the knowledge of knew stuff. Teaching begets learning.

The final part of facilitation that makes me nervous is its place in the distributed leadership spectrum. This is a blog post for another time, really, but suffice to say that leadership can be distributed not enough, just right or too much. Some words that would help describe this are:

Instruct – Consult –  Delegate – Facilitate – Neglect

Facilitation is just a little too close to neglect for my liking.

Teaching is great. Great teachers make great schools and a great education system. Teachers who think they should facilitate as their top priority only lead to a mediocre education system, and we all know what Frank Zappa said about that:

“Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system.”

[Image courtesy of]

The Purpose of Education is Hope

Contributing to this year’s Purpos/ed 500 word campaign.

Education is how a society maintains and improves itself. Yet, while education is a relatively straightforward process, that very definition causes problems for discussing its purpose. Depending on whether you have a traditionalist or a progressive perspective, you will either place more emphasis on educating for the maintenance of past standards or educating for a brighter future. Add that to the various cultures, sub-cultures and expectations that exist within a modern multi-cultural society and there exists a vast complexity of purposes for education.

That’s my cap-doffing to the broader debate.

In my own setting there are roughly three groups that we educate, each with their own perceptions on what education is for:

  1. Education for success – these families believe that the school system will give their children opportunities. Despite limited success at higher education themselves, they want that for their children.
  2. Education for happiness – these families just want their children to be happy. Often with negative experiences of their own time at school, they want their children to feel safe and content within school. Success is often linked with celebrity and being able to get the latest DVD before it is out at the cinema.
  3. Education for hardship – these families want their children to be able to survive. They tell their children “if someone hits you, hit back harder”. They often see school as that annoying place that phones the social worker too often. Sometimes there is illiteracy in the family.

While each of these groups have radically different expectations of society, and therefore the purpose of education, they do have one thing in common – they all need hope.

I am aware that for some, the word ‘hope’ has negative connotations. They think of ‘hopes dashed’ and this leads them to regret. However this is not ‘hope’ as in the aspirations you may have had, but the Hope that things can be better, or at least as good as they once were.

So how does this translate into teaching? The obvious answer is to start a new core subject of the National Curriculum and start running ‘Hope classes’. I’m joking.

Group 1 –  they need so much knowledge at the end of primary school that they can fly into secondary school and perhaps become the first in their families to go to university. Good teaching helps these children love their learning.

Group 2 – good teaching again leads to happiness. The families are surprised at how their child can be both happy and doing well in reading, writing and mathematics. They start to believe that maybe their child can learn enough at primary not just to ‘get through’ secondary school, but to do well there.

Group 3 – good teaching brings success for the child. The family is (in the main) proud of this success and begins to gain a faith in a previously-despised school system.

In each of these groups good teaching produces hope. Hope that things can be better than they were.

So, when I’m stuck I remember: bring Hope – teach well.

Good teaching decreases mathematics anxiety

This weekend, I found myself doing something I’ve not done before – disagreeing with Professer Derek Haylock. Giving his second lecture to Edge Hill MaST cohort 1, the man who’s seminal work “Mathematics Explained for Primary Teachers” has pride of place on my shelf, said some things that didn’t quite hang together for me.


His lecture was on the subject of mathematics anxiety – something that most adults have either experienced or can empathise with. His main point was this: if you teach mathematics well, you don’t get students who are anxious about maths. As someone tweeted on the day “My God I never thought of that. I hope the person giving this advice is paid a fortune.” Given that the audience was a room full of primary maths specialists, or ‘maths champions’, the advice is more purposeful if given a more negative slant: don’t allow bad maths teaching in primary – you’ll just get adults who are anxious about maths.


Briefly I will sum up what I thought were his main points and then I’ll say where and how I disagreed with him.


  • Many adults experience anxiety in maths when they are afraid to make mistakes in public, or given a mathematical challenge they cannot think clearly to carry it out.
  • These adults can trace their feelings of anxiety back to a single experience usually between the ages of 9-11 at primary school.
  • This experience is always a negative interaction with a teacher – Prof. Haylock quoted adults saying that their teacher had shouted things like “why can’t you just get it right?” There was a real emphasis on the negative experience being when maths is thought of as either right or wrong.
  • Many of these adults reported they could only learn maths by learning a rule by rote and couldn’t master any conceptual learning.
  • Some of these adults become primary teachers.
  • Teaching styles are to blame for mathematical anxiety – ‘traditional methods’ create more anxiety; a ‘problem-solving / relational approach’ creates less anxiety. Quoting from Newsted, he described a traditional approach as one of direct instruction, followed by practice and application, whereas in the ‘problem-solving approach’ the teacher acted as a facilitator, with the children suggesting their own methods and strategies for solving problems.
Aside from the dangers of telling rooms full of teachers that ‘rote learning is always bad’ and ‘this is the only way to do it’, my main disagreement was the way he linked the single negative experience with a given teacher to the traditional teaching method. It doesn’t take the room being in rows or table groups for you to have a bad experience with a teacher. Neither does it mean that you if are using a ‘problem-solving approach’ then teachers can’t lose their tempers and make everyone frightened of maths.


In my own experience I’ve tried both traditional and ‘problem solving approaches’.


I would call them using a rigid scaffold and using a negotiated scaffold. In the former, the teacher plots the course through the learning (the scaffold) and takes the students through that course through direct instruction, practice and intervention; in the latter the student and teacher negotiate the path through the learning.


Both approaches work.


In fact this time last year I did an experiment where I did 6 weeks of negotiated scaffolding in maths, then 6 weeks of rigid scaffolding in maths. The children made progress in both periods.


Delving a bit deeper into the Newstead report I see that the traditional approach includes: “The teacher decides what is right or wrong and intervenes in the case of mistakes. Later word sums may be used as application of methods. Social norms are more static and involve more discipline, rewards and teacher authority.” Now to me that’s not traditional teaching. Traditional teaching is where direct instruction is followed by practice, yes, but then appropriate intervention from the teacher. And so now it leaves me thinking that Haylock, quoting Newstead isn’t comparing ‘Problem Solving’ with ‘Traditional’, but is comparing ‘Problem Solving’ with ‘Bad Teaching’.


I’ll go on to say that Haylock is right by saying that for a student to have one-to-one negative interactions with an authority figure such as a teacher will cause anxiety, in any subject. The teacher that chooses ‘traditional teaching methods’ but can avoid the negative interactions can still teach a class without causing anxiety amongst the students. And a teacher that attempts to be a ‘facilitator’ but then loses their temper when the students don’t choose a method they were anticipating will also cause anxiety. It’s not about the style, or dare I even say it the teaching, it’s about the teacher themselves.


Good teachers reduce anxiety.


The book all primary / elementary teachers should read. #mathchat

I was just engaged in a conversation on #mathchat about skill levels in primary teachers, when I realised that the book all teachers of young children should read was sitting right next to me: ‘Mathematics Explained for Primary Teachers’ by Derek Haylock.


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