Why I have a problem with PiXL

It is difficult to criticise the educational philosophy of an organisation without hurting people. I know there are good people in PiXL. I am sure Sir John Rowling is a good person. I know he has done more for young people in his career than I have. Nevertheless I do not feel that this should prevent me from once again expressing my unease with this organisation and the educational philosophy it promotes.

Much of the criticism of PiXl has focussed on its policy of advising schools on quick fixes to boost P8 scores, the so called gaming of the system. Yet I accept that this is not all that PiXL does. There are things which PiXL does which I think are good. I like PiXL Edge for example. I know I myself regret not taking advantage of all the cocurricular opportunities which were offered to me at school and that I am less well rounded as a result. So any programme which encourages children to think about what they do beyond academic study is worthwhile in my opinion. Character, community and currency are all important. The following was from a TES article last year, referring to comments by Sir John Rowling, the founder of Pixl.

“Currency – helping young people get the best results they’re capable of – that must never, ever be sacrificed for me,” he intones. Exam outcomes, he says, are critical because they are “what kids have in their hands to take into the world to trade with”.

At first sight, how could we argue with this? I believe exams are important. My cohort’s GCSE results last summer were not a good as the year before, so of course I am always looking at ways of ensuring every pupil achieves their best possible results. I do get that these grades are important as they open up the doors to the next stage of education. I have no truck with those who say “abolish exams” or “abolish subjects”.

But I come back to “currency must never be sacrificed” and realise I do not support Rowling’s statement. What? How can you argue against it? Well, here goes…

  1. If currency must never be sacrificed, you should, logically, be proud to proclaim that there is no point studying any subject that may not lead to an examination. You should, logically, be in favour of deciding which GCSEs to do as early as possible. After all, letting pupils experience a range of subjects before deciding which ones to study to GCSE level inevitably sacrifices currency. So why not start GCSEs from year 7……
  2. If currency must never be sacrificed, it therefore follows that the substance of the curriculum is irrelevant. What matters is which areas of the curriculum are likely to give the pupil the greatest amount of currency. The search is therefore always on for a quick fix like the ECDL.
  3. If currency must never be sacrificed, no teacher should, ever, depart from the examination spec. Gone are the humorous anecdotes, the little asides which bring a subject to life. A liberal education is shunned in favour of  teachers being worked into the ground with “diagnosis, therapy and testing” and subjecting pupils to a dry diet of ticking off personalised checklists, memorising examination board mark schemes and concentrating on so called success criteria. Lessons should simply be ticking off the spec, as anything else is sacrificing currency.
  4. If currency must never be sacrificed, it inevitably leads to an “average point score” mentality, where, instead of pupils being required to meet a minimum standard in all subjects, they can cover up not passing or worse still, not actually studying a particular subject. This has already happened with the Ebacc “average point score” which does not reveal which Ebacc subjects were taken in the examination, or indeed studied at all. Particularly useful for covering up low MFL entries……..

Ian Stock, author of “The Great Exception. Why teaching is a profession like no other”, reviewed here in the TES, commented on one of my previous blogs as follows:

Once upon a time, exams were a *retrospective* sample of what pupils had been taught in class. Now they are the purpose of the whole exercise. Actually educating people can go hang. But then we wonder why pupils seem not to have much enthusiasm any more…What worse example to set to young people – in education of all things – than imply it is about nothing more than filling other people’s tick lists.

I know. It must be dreadful for a pupil to leave school with nothing. I acknowledge that coaching has always gone on. I acknowledge that I myself coach my weaker pupils.  I acknowledge that enabling pupils to overcome weaknesses in their subject knowledge and understanding is a good thing. But Ian’s comment  sums up why I cannot support the idea that currency should never be sacrificed, or that the study of an academic subject is simply a means to gain currency.


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Textbooks are the answer to the teacher autonomy question

“Fish is simply great – best teacher in the school”

“Fish isn’t cut out for teaching and lessons were unbelievably dull”

In nearly 30 years of teaching, I have heard the full range of comments about my teaching. In my experience, it is relatively rare (although I concede it does happen) that pupil views on a teacher are exclusively positive or exclusively negative. One of the key issues that tends to get forgotten in the debate about teaching methods is that teachers have different personalities. And our personality will influence how we teach. Equally, our pupils have a range of personalities and will feel they relate to some teachers better than others, because of their own personalities.

By saying this, I realise I am sounding as if I am disregarding the evidence around which teaching methods are effective. Not at all. I also realise that a pupil liking a lesson or liking a teacher is not the same as a pupil learning from that lesson or that teacher. At school, I had a number of teachers I may not have necessarily liked, but who were effective nonetheless. The evidence in favour of direct instruction, timely feedback, scaffolding etc is very strong. The evidence in favour of project based learning  and discovery learning seems relatively weak. So of course teachers should use evidenced based pedagogy. But teaching is not a precise science and I cannot see how scripted lessons can work. I remember listening to David Crystal (now honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor) when he was a lecturer at Reading. 50 minutes listening to him and I was spellbound. My notes were copious and I nearly decided to ditch foreign languages and concentrate on linguistics there and then. Unfortunately Crystal was followed a few days later by one of his colleagues whose tone of voice and style of delivery sent me to sleep. That was my perspective anyway. However, I remember one of my fellow students saying he found this second lecture clear and interesting! Both lecturers  were talking for 50 minutes. But whereas I preferred Crystal’s lecture, a fellow student thought he had learnt more from the second one.

If two lectures, delivered from the front with no interaction from the audience could elicit such differing responses, how much more difficult must it be to “script” an ideal classroom lesson.  One of the most painful experiences in my teaching career was watching a student teacher trying to deliver a scripted lesson. It just didn’t work. No script can prepare you for the myriad of interactions that will take place in a lesson. Equally, I hate trying to use someone else’s Powerpoint and I always end up changing the slides, to such an extent that I might as well have done my own in the first place. I once went for an interview at a school where the Head of Department had written all the resources herself.  The scheme of work was something on the lines of “do X resource with the class for 15 minutes and then follow it with Y for 10 minutes”. It was far too prescriptive for me and I pulled out.

So do I advocate a free for all? No way. And this is where the good old textbook comes in. Again, based on my experience abroad, I am a firm believer that a textbook should form the basis for a scheme of work and should be issued to pupils. Far from being a straitjacket, a textbook gives a teacher autonomy within a framework and this is what I saw in my observations of teachers in continental Europe. With a textbook, the teacher can then adapt the exercises in it to suit their own personality and those of the pupils in front of them. Take a simple reading comprehension text. I can decide to do it exactly as laid out in the book. Or I can jumble it up. Or I can ask different questions to the ones in the book. I can decide which tasks I might omit, maybe because they do not suit my personality, or because I do not have enough curriculum time to do everything, or because I don’t think that a particular class would benefit from it. If I want to do something different I can, provided I get through the scheme of work and my classes complete standardised assessment tasks.

I’m with Nick Gibb on textbooks. The demonisation of textbooks needs to stop. We need to embrace them. Mind you, the next step is textbook quality……

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Tech in teaching

Back in the early 1990s, I was told by my then headteacher that technology would bring about an end to excuses for not doing homework (forgetting book etc). I would be setting the homework online and I would see immediately who had done it or who hadn’t in electronic exercise books!

Step forward nearly 30 years and students can indeed use OneNote to do homework tasks. I use it, as do my colleagues, but the excuses are still there, they’ve just changed. Now it’s “my wifi wasn’t working/I couldn’t connect/my tablet’s in for repair/I dropped my tablet and it smashed”

For every piece of new tech, starry eyed promoters have claimed great possibilities. My parents informed me that back in the 1950s scientists were saying that nuclear power meant that electricity would be so cheap to produce that it would be virtually free of charge to the consumer. TV would mean the death of the cinema and newspapers. The motor car would mean there was no need for rail travel.

In the world of teaching, there have of course been various technological advances. In MFL the “language lab” was going to revolutionise language learning in the 1960s. More recently, the technology enabled explosion in data would mean that we could personalise the curriculum! Remember Gordon Brown “Learning personal to each pupil”? Personalisation, driven by technology, is still held up by many in the education world as an ideal, so I was interested to read this blog which summarises what I have always felt about it:


An amusing thread on Twitter by @katie_s_ashford on the problems of tablets in the classroom led to a flurry of responses, in support and against. My own view is rather prosaic.

With generally well behaved, academically minded children, as far as learning languages is concerned, (can’t speak for other subjects but I know some colleagues in other subject areas agree with me)  tablets make no difference, one way or the other.

In year 7, my classes take notes and handwrite vocabulary in the traditional manner. I test them and some do well and some do less well. Fast forward to year 8 and they have tablets (I teach in an Apple school).  The ones who struggle to get good marks on vocab tests are delighted because they can now use Quizlet for vocab learning, either through creating their own study sets or using ready made one.  (Sir – this is a really good app – I’m going to do sick in the next test!). Well guess what? The ones who got high scores with pencil and paper vocab learning and testing continue getting high scores with Quizlet and those who struggle with pen and paper continue to get low scores with Quizlet…

In years 10 and 11 my classes have an electronic textbook. All the more interesting that some of them choose to buy a hard copy of the textbook, because they say that they find it easier. And if they decide they really don’t like using One Note for grammar exercises, I will accept handwritten answers. From two students who achieved grade 9, one used One Note, Quizlet, electronic textbook etc and the other preferred handwriting everything. Same GCSE grade.

As for behavioural issues, with academically minded children, I think we just have to accept that some may find ways round things like Apple Classroom and that stopping them from ever accessing Minecraft or Fortnite is a losing battle. But children have always found distractions, whether that be passing notes, revising for the test they have in their next lesson in another subject, or just daydreaming. I remember doing all of those things at school. I may sound quite progressive here, but I do believe that older, academically minded children have to learn the self discipline to cope with distractions. But it is some time since I taught in a nonselective school and I think my view might be different if I still was. I have to acknowledge unease about using devices with those who are struggling in my subject, simply because they cannot afford distractions and the fewer opportunities we give them to be distracted the better. I like Kahoot quizzes occasionally, but have to remember to set it up so the joining code keeps changing, in order to avoid the bots!

Does tech save paper? Not really, as you always have to have hard copies to hand for when/if the system goes down. And don’t get me started on the updates that take forever to install, that end up crashing your laptop, or that result in it taking a full 20 minutes to log on to everything first thing in the morning.

Does that mean that we should ditch tech, as it doesn’t really make a difference? I would say no. There have always been technological advances and time cannot stand still. When it works, tech can enable us to get more done, more quickly. I don’t want to go back to acetates, banda machines, or cassette tapes (though I still have a few of the latter lurking in my cupboard…!!!) Do I use tech in teaching? Certainly. Do I see its advantages? Certainly. Will I try out new tech? Certainly.

But will I get starry eyed about it? No way…..


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If shy kids find MFL torture, something is wrong

I came across a tweet recently which saddened me. “For shy kids, MFL can feel like torture”. This was then used as an argument for ditching the opportunity to learn a second foreign language in school and for making/keeping MFL optional at KS4.

As someone who was and is fairly shy, who nevertheless went on to specialise in languages, I could not disagree more. My take on this is that what shy people find torture is being laughed at, or being made to feel a fool. Unfortunately, this can happen in MFL classes, or indeed in classes of any subject.

I learnt a lot from watching teachers deliver MFL lessons abroad in three different countries. Despite the differences in methodology, I noticed one thing in every lesson and it was this. An absence of sniggering. It was quite remarkable. Here is one example:

The class had to prepare 2 minute presentations on New York. Certain pupils were selected and had to come to the front. The first pupil selected was very confident and well prepared and delivered his speech with scarcely an error. The class listened. Not a grin, a wink, or a snigger in sight. I was impressed. The pupil received a good mark.

The second speaker had not prepared well, was nervous and stumbled. But again, my attention was on the rest of the class. At one point he was erring and umming and I noticed a couple start sniggering to each other. The teacher also noticed and wordlessly raised a finger at the sniggerers, without stopping the boy who was speaking. The sniggers stopped immediately. The boy continued, with factual and grammatical errors, but he was listened to respectfully, with the class facing the front. His speech barely lasted a minute and he was given a low mark

The third speaker was obviously also nervous, yet well prepared. However she spoke so quietly she could barely be heard. No sniggering this time in the audience, but a lot of whispering broke out. This time the teacher stopped the speech and admonished the numerous whisperers who stopped immediately. But equally, she then turned to the presenter and reminded her of the need for voice projection and speaking up, otherwise it would be boring for the audience, who would then start whispering to each other. Although nervous, she finished with much better voice projection. Again, following the admonition, there was no more whispering or sniggering among the rest of the class.

So I have to ask myself now two questions:

1) Was it “torture” for the teacher to make pupils come and speak at the front of the class, some of whom were obviously shy and nervous?

2) Did it “feel like torture” for those pupils who were speaking?

I suppose the simple answer is “I don’t know.” I did not know what was going on in the heads of the pupils at that point. It was a test and they were being given marks for it, so they probably were not enjoying it. All I could do was think about how respectfully the speakers were listened to and how any attempt at winking, whispering or sniggering was stopped.

Now, I know many people reading this will be thinking, ” well that’s just good class management and I would not allow laughing at mistakes in my class,”  but please bear with me. Over 30 years I have watched numerous lessons (not just MFL), where a teacher will be asking questions to the whole class. Some pupils will volunteer answers, at which point the rest of the class turn to look at that pupil who is answering. As a shy person, I remember finding that very off-putting. yet this is tolerated, even by those who would admonish sniggering. When watching lessons abroad, I did not see pupils turning round nearly so often. Anecdotal but it got me thinking.

I like my classes to sit in rows facing the front. This certainly does not mean, as some “progressives” might have you think, that I would obviously never do pair work, group work or games and am some kind of Victorian reactionary. Nevertheless, the bulk of my teaching is whole class teaching, involving me

a) asking questions to the whole class and looking for hands up (with occasional prompting for those who rarely volunteer)

b) going round the class with pupils answering in turn ( my very old fashioned version of no hands up questioning – I’m not really into lolly sticks)

To give the shy pupils confidence, I enforce a “no turning round to look at someone answering” rule. It takes a class a while to get used to it and I periodically have to point or click fingers at someone attempting to turn and look at the person answering. My view is that speaking a foreign language is difficult and I want my pupils do be able to do it without fear, not just of being laughed at, but also of having people turn and look at them while they are answering. A teacher cannot be sure that, among those turning round, there will not be someone with a leering expression or a snigger.  In imho that is what shy people do not like. On the other hand, shy people still have to do presentations in front of the class, with everyone looking at them. Nevertheless, in those situations, the teacher can monitor easily any attempts at sniggering or whispering. The shy person, however, also has a responsibility to deploy voice projection, which they have usually done in drama.

Do my shy pupils like speaking up in class or doing presentations? No they don’t from what they tell me. But they also tell me they appreciate not having to worry about others in the class sniggering. They also tell me they appreciate my not allowing others to turn round and look at them when they are trying to formulate sentences in a foreign language. And in the past some very shy pupils have gone on to do the language at A level. We don’t all like games. We don’t all like speaking. But shy people can and do succeed in MFL.




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Stop MFL decline? Not just one thing to do, but many

As an MFL teacher and head of department, I am naturally interested when something like the following appears. In response, we usually get a flurry of tweets proposing solutions to the problem of declining language take up. I would summarise the solutions as follows

a) We need fairer GCSE grading

b) We need examinations which are better designed

The above are the focus of the letter to the Guardian by a group of linguists, but then people tweet other solutions, namely:

c) The whole MFL curriculum is too banal and needs revamping

d) We must teach languages more at primary, the earlier the better

e) We need to teach subjects in other languages (CLIL)

f)  UK language teaching methodology is wrong

g) The subject needs to promote itself more

h) MFL needs far more curriculum time

I think the issue is that perhaps all of us who believe in the importance of MFL tend to focus on just one of these solutions, as the one and only thing that will save the subject. In the past I have been as guilty of this as anyone(point h is my thing). I would like to take each of the above points in turn and explain why I have come to the view that focussing on just one of these, to the detriment of others, is not going to work and why I now, after 30 years of teaching, believe that it is a matter of taking all of the above into account.

Points a and b

At the grammar school I attended in the 1970s, it was accepted that languages were hard. We were a grammar school and did French, German and Latin, whereas the secondary modern down the road barely dabbled in French. Languages had “snob” value. We have quite rightly moved away from a situation where it is “I am intelligent because I study X and you are thick because you study Y. “But in truth, do all subjects present the same level of cognitive challenge? Is there any research on this? And if not, can this be compensated for in the format of examinations and the grading? I have often heard people say that any difference in cognitive demands between the subjects can be accounted for in the examination. But is that really the case? Is MFL more difficult than others? And are some languages more difficult than others? A French colleague once told me that in France it was accepted, for example, that German was more difficult than Spanish. I have no idea whether that is in fact the case, both in terms of whether this is the general view among French academia ,or whether German is more difficult. From my own experience teaching relatively able pupils in recent years, I find they can often understand quite complex grammar when it is presented to them, but they tell me the thing about MFL is how much they have to REMEMBER AND RETAIN, compared to other subjects.

Point c

This is certainly the view of a fellow linguist @MFLTransform and he/she has a point. The new GCSE is certainly better than the last version, but there is certainly not enough cultural background. And as someone who spent summer holidays playing outside the house, running errands, reading, with only the occasional stay with grandparents or trip to the beach to break up the boredom, I am still concerned that the MFL exam seems to assume that all our pupils have action packed middle class lifestyles. Endless talking about yourself, family, hobbies, where you live etc is very boring. Yet I am old enough to remember that the focus on “self” in language teaching was brought in, because it was felt that the O level was demotivating as a result of too much grammar and translation. I remember the late Ted Wragg (a linguist) enthusing in the TES about how the new GCSE in MFL was far more motivating for children, as children like to talk about themselves. Well yes, up to a point. But for teenagers who are learning about the adult world in all other subjects? Hmm. And that leads us on to the next point..

Point d and e

Other European countries start languages earlier than we do. Young children are more receptive to foreign tongues and less likely to be prejudiced. Moreover, all the topics in GCSE MFL, which are rather banal for teenagers, are not so for younger children, who do, as Ted Wragg said, like talking about themselves. Without the worry of GCSEs, primary schools are often more receptive top the idea of teaching other subjects in a foreign language. The CLIL idea (teaching other subjects in a foreign language) helps children see that languages are not something cut off from everything else and the recent SpAG test at least enables pupils to realise that English is not something apart from other languages and totally unrelated to those peculiar foreign tongues. There is a risk of cognitive overload, but some schools both here and abroad are doing CLIL successfully. However, just saying  “teach it in primary” as New Labour did back in 2004, is not enough. Half an hour a week with a non specialist and they won’t get much beyond names, ages, colours, animals, counting to 10 and singing a few songs. Also, should there be uniformity about which language is taught? And if not, will it really help secondary schools, who already find that they have to teach from scratch anyway, as  the feeder primaries have all done different languages and are at different stages? At which point someone usually talks about coordination between primary and secondary. This may work in small towns and rural areas, but not in large urban areas where schools have a range of feeder primaries.

Point f

Back in the 1980s, on my PGCE course we were all trained that explicit teaching of grammar was wrong and that all lessons should be taught entirely in the foreign language. @brianlightman mentions the same thing happening to him on his PGCE. Phonics and pronunciation practice were a big no-no.The Bauckham review into MFL teaching highlighted some of the issues which have arisen from misguided pedagogy. @JohnBaldLangLit has particularly strong views on the shortcomings of CILT, the now abolished national centre for promoting languages, when it came to pedagogy. My own view as a practising teacher in the field was  that I found CILT useful for resources and the people there were all committed linguists. However, when monitoring a CILT trainee, it did seem to me they got far too hung up on motivation and teachers issuing rewards for children for asking to remove their jacket in the target language. This leads me on to the next point.

Point g

Many feel that the main issue in MFL is that pupils are not enthused enough.  So over the years many school language departments have latched on to all kinds of ideas. Huge displays, language themed events, trips, exchanges, assemblies, outside speakers, cross curricular projects etc. Is there a head of MFL anywhere that hasn’t arranged some or all of these? As a German teacher, I am a firm believer in the value of trips, as most have never been to Germany before and are often surprised at how much they like it when they get there. And there is no doubt that a new event can often give an uplift to numbers opting for the subject. However, for the uplift to be sustained, other factors come into play and this is not always appreciated by the “everything is motivation” lobby.  MFL has been in decline nationally for years and it is simplistic to say that it is all about pupil motivation and MFL teachers not promoting it enough. It may suit some headteachers to say this, however, as it avoids discussion of the next point.

Point h

The lack of curriculum time accorded to the subject is, I would still contend, the main reason why it does poorly relative to other subjects and indeed the performance of students leaning languages in other countries. But I am less dismissive of the other points than I used to be. On its own, sufficient curriculum time is not enough. The English education system is not suited to MFL, in that it gives subjects other than maths and English very little time in the early stages and then bags of it at A level. I would contend that teaching a language on one period a week and teaching another subject such as RE, history, geography on one period a week is not directly comparable, because the memory and retention issues in language learning, which I mentioned earlier, are more acute in languages than in other subjects. So then what happens is that pupils become disaffected and behavioural issues arise. SLT then put it down to incompetent MFL teaching (other subjects on one period a week are not having these problems!) and basically give up on the subject or start advertising for lead practitioners/advanced skills teachers/etc.

However, I now realise that it is also true that just giving MFL more time in its early stages is not the single answer. All of us MFL teachers have to ask ourselves whether, in the past, we have always made effective use of the time we have been given. I certainly like to think I have, but likewise we MFL subject specialists should not discount the views of many headteachers, referred to in the Bauckham review, who would say that they have given time to the subject but results have continued to disappoint.

So although I feel that curriculum time is the main issue, I do now acknowledge that by itself it is not enough. All the points I have mentioned need to be taken together. May be some can think of others. Somehow, we have to persuade the powers that be to take all of the issues together.




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Secondary curriculum design – let’s standardise the basics first

Ofsted’s focus on the curriculum seems to have thrown up two contrasting views, roughly equating to a trad/prog split, on what the ideal secondary curriculum should look like. I have enjoyed reading both viewpoints and deciding where I stand on this. However, I feel that no one has yet addressed the basics.

At one end, we have ideas described by proponents as forming the basis for “a curriculum fit for the 21st century,” but read rather like “a throwback to the 1970s” to those longer in the tooth such as myself.  A grudging nod may occasionally be given to subject disciplines, but the general tenor is overriding enthusiasm for project based learning, topics, cross-curricular work and discrete lessons in various “skills”, which we are informed we are all going to need in the brave new world of the future (as if they were never needed before). Enthusiasts for this approach appear to be Mary Bousted of the NEU, John Dunford of ASCL and various academics such as Guy Claxton. I have written a post about this earlier. In order to attract support, enthusiasts of this approach to the curriculum paint the alternative as an examination treadmill, with students poring over mark schemes, teachers obsessing about target grades and constant interventions with students falling behind. Given that this has happened in many schools recently, it is highly likely that a large teachers will be seduced by a curriculum which appears to reject all of this. Being broadly traditional, I believe those of us who are sceptical about such an approach need to highlight and highlight again the many occasions where it failed in the 1970s and indeed more recently in the borough of Knowsley.

So you would expect me to be an enthusiast for the alternative approaches which place knowledge at the heart of the curriculum, make use of cognitive science and seek to develop long term memory. I certainly do find these ideas more attractive than the alternative, but as a subject leader I am focussed on three mundane, but essential issues for anyone who believes in a subject based curriculum. They are:

a) How much curriculum time do I get overall?

b) How long are lessons?

c) How are the lessons distributed in the different year groups?

Boring, boring, boring I hear you say. But the answers I receive to these questions will have a dramatic effect on what I teach, when I teach it and how I teach it. I often sigh when I read articles and books about methodology in my subject, foreign language teaching. They appear to assume the same rules apply whether you are teaching the subject for over 5 hours a week (as I did when teaching abroad) or whether you are teaching the subject in an after school club for half an hour every week. I would contend this is simply untrue. If I am compelled to teach my subject on one hour a week for example, I have to accept that students will forget target language easily. I then have to accept that students become frustrated because they forget it all. I then have to accept that this frustration will lead to behavioural problems. So do I then spend a lot of lesson time going over the same stuff again and again (leading to boredom at lack of progress), or do I decide to move on to new material (leading to many students forgetting)?

Many countries have standardised lengths of lessons. In Britain, lesson times vary between 35 minutes to 3 hours.

Many countries decree the amount of curriculum time a subject should get, both overall and within a year group. In Britain, the variation in curriculum time in my subject is astounding and I have blogged about this here.

In my conversations with various members of SLT throughout the years, many mention the challenges of putting a timetable together which reconciles the different wishes of each subject. Fair enough. But I would contend this conversation needs to happen at a national level and that guidance needs to be given. Performance management means that comparisons between subjects in terms of “value added” are inevitable. There has to be a move towards a level playing field if fairness is to be ensured. But I accept that this could restrict the freedom of senior leaders to adapt the curriculum as they see fit for their schools.

I am not sure what the answer is. Yet I do believe that the three questions I posed  should be being debated at national level. I repeat them:

  1. How much curriculum time should a subject have overall?
  2. How long should lessons be?
  3. How should the lessons be distributed among different year groups?

It may well be decided there should be no national guidance and schools should be free to do what they like. Fair enough, if these questions have been properly debated at national level. My note of caution would be that, if other countries  have decided to give more explicit advice (in some cases statutory) on these matters at a national level, then should we assume that giving headteachers and governors absolute power over these questions is always a good thing?


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Rebutting the “Stuff the facts – let’s just develop confident rhetoric” argument

Every now and then I see an article which makes me think about what the author is really saying and trying to see if I can agree with it. The article which got me thinking inferred that facts are irrelevant to a debate, as confidence was what mattered.


To quote from the article

“I was horrified (my italics) by a policy developer who tried to defend a knowledge-rich curriculum because “you need facts to win a debate”. He’s wrong – you need confidence. I’ve seen people win debates purely on bravado without an ounce of knowledge”

What horrifies me is that, in many cases, the author of the article is correct. There have been and there still are people who can win debates through sheer bravado. If you look and sound confident, you can go a long way. In my experience, people with a background in sales are very good at this. It’s only after a good few years of experiencing life (one of the benefits of getting older!), that you begin to realise that some people will sound confident about anything at all, whereas the trick is to ascertain whether they really have the facts at their fingertips, or whether what they are saying is just a lot of hot air.

In my 30 years of teaching I have seen many pupils give “speeches” asking to be considered for various positions of responsibility. In recent times, I have had to advise them that making a speech is not the same as an audition for “Britain’s Got Talent”. To be fair, some of their peers see through the confident rhetoric and gimmicks and start asking probing questions. But, equally, I have seen Mr and Miss Narcissist carry the day.

It is also true that I have often wished that the quiet but knowledgeable, thoughtful pupil would put themselves forward, So yes, I agree that we need to develop our less confident pupils in oracy.  Yet I do not want a world where people shout empty rhetoric at each other.

As another article has stated, oracy without knowledge leads to a situation where anger and passion substitute for analysis and exposure to an unexpected piece of factual information can derail the speaker. So yes, we need to develop confident speakers, but knowledge is crucial if ideas are to be challenged and argued appropriately.

Back in 1989 the former headmaster of Westminster School, John Rae, published a book, “Too little too late?” which gave his response to the newly introduced national curriculum. In it, he quotes Harold Macmillan’s classics tutor at Balliol college Oxford saying the following,

“Nothing that you will learn on the course of studies will be the slightest use to you in later life, save only that if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot and in my view that is the main if not the sole purpose of education.”

The sole purpose of education? I disagree. But “a” purpose of education? Absolutely. At the risk of breaking Godwin’s law,  history is littered with examples of demagogues who used their rhetorical skills to win people over. Those people who dismiss a knowledge based curriculum are not giving their pupils the vital tools they need to challenge the windbags and narcissists. That is what horrifies me.

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