It’s easy to unite people against something. It’s much harder to unite people in favour of something

The proposals for the new MFL GCSE have come in for criticism from a large number of people and professional bodies.

GCSEs: Heads and exam boards reject ‘risky’ modern languages reforms | Tes

The list of those who are opposed is impressive. They include the headteacher organisations ASCL, NAHT and HMC, three examination boards (AQA, Edexcel and Eduqas) and language associations ALL, ISMLA and NALA. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages has expressed its concerns.

Like most MFL teachers, I too have concerns. My main concern is the “frequency list” and the online tool where a text can be scanned to ascertain how many high frequency words it has. I worry about a “computer says no” approach to teaching, where texts are discarded because they don’t have enough high frequency words, rather than whether the texts are intrinsically interesting. I can also envisage organisations such as Pixl or the examination boards producing horrendous “tracker” spreadsheets where students have to give RAG ratings to each high frequency word and teachers required to organise interventions for students who didn’t know particular words well enough! I actually am opposed to a defined list of words for GCSE. I think working out possible meanings for unfamilar words is a skill all language students should have.

As I say, I think we shouldn’t have a defined word list. But there are people who think we should, and don’t mind that particular aspect of the new GCSE proposals They don’t oppose the new GCSE for that reason – they have some other area of concern. I am now going to attempt to list the different areas of concern that we MFL teachers have expressed on Twitter, with apologies if I have left out your particular one.

  1. The proposals have nothing to say about communication
  2. The proposals will lead to dull and uninspiring teaching.
  3. There is no opportunity to test spontaneous speaking – instead there will be a test of reading aloud. This is not communication.
  4. The proposals do not match the national curriculum
  5. The proposals are nothing like anything used to teach languages in other countries
  6. The proposals ignore a lot of SLA research
  7. We shouldn’t limit vocabulary to a defined list of 1700 high frequency words
  8. There’s no need for a focus on grammar as teachers already teach it.
  9. There’s no need for a focus on phonics as teachers already teach it.
  10. We don’t need a change just now as we’ve only just got used to the current spec.
  11. The composition of the panel which came up with the proposals was not transparent enough and needed to include a wider range of voices from the MFL community.

Having expressed areas of concern, we then express views on what the new GCSE should be about, eg.

  1. It should be all about communication.
  2. The current GCSE is basically fine, we just need to fix the grading.
  3. The current GCSE is basically fine, we just need to fix the listening and reading papers.
  4. The current GCSE topics need replacing to make them more appealing.
  5. We should leave GCSE as it is and just devise something like graded tests for those who find they cannot cope with a full GCSE course.
  6. We should keep GCSE as it is, but go back to allowing different tiers of entry for each “skill.”
  7. We should abolish GCSE entirely and have a sort of graded test, rather like grades used in learning a musical instrument.
  8. We should downgrade the writing element at GCSE and raise the profile of speaking.

And there are no doubt many other views!

The GCSE debate links to questions about MFL teaching generally. I have blogged about this in the past, but I will repeat the main areas of concern here:

a) We need fairer GCSE grading

b) We need examinations which are better designed

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

The new GCSE proposals attempt address points b) we need examinations which are better designed and f) UK language teaching methodology is wrong. This is actually quite brave, since points b and f are probably the most controversial in that, while most MFL teachers will concede there is an issue, it is these two points where opinion in the MFL community is most diverse.

Point a) We need fairer GCSE grading and point h) MFL needs far more curriculum time are obviously areas where there is the greatest unity in the MFL teaching community. But the panel which was convened to set out proposals for a new GCSE would obviously point out that their remit only covered the examination, with a consequent knock on effect on pedagogy. It may be that the new GCSE proposals will be tweaked slightly as a result of the consultation, but otherwise remain intact. It is after all the case that nothing is going to satisfy everyone.

So what would I do? While it is true that whatever is proposed has no chance of satisfying everyone, I believe a panel would have a greater chance of success if all the points are considered together. In other words, if a new panel were to be appointed, their remit should cover the whole MFL curriculum, not just the GCSE examination. And the format of the examination should not be considered until all the other points have been dealt with.

Finally, if a new panel were to be appointed, it has to command the respect of the profession, while satisfying the government that its proposals will not lead to “dumbing down”. To this end, I would say that any new panel needs to include teachers from schools which currently manage to both a) enter large percentages for MFL and b) achieve positive value added scores. This, I know is controversial, and is just my view anyway! Many would say that any teacher from any school should have the opportunity to be appointed, but in my view credibility requires proven success. This is not to say that the existing panel was not sufficiently “expert” – they obviously were – but there does seem to be agreement that more practising teachers should be included in any new panel.

It will be interesting to see what happens…

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Phonics in MFL

It was the early 1990s and I had gone to a school for an interview. The school was experimenting with “resource based learning” and I was invited to observe a class. It was a German lesson. The members of the class I was observing were involved in carousel activities (basically they could choose what to do from resources laid around the room.) One little group of girls could not have been more enthusiastic. The first girl picked up a card from the pile.

“Ick farra natch…. Ingland” she proclaimed triumphantly.

The second girl picked up a card

“Ick farra natch Ingland und.. Frankreetch!” she said confidently.

It was the third girl’s turn. A slight frown appeared on her face.

“Ick farra natch Ingland, Frankreetch and.. what’s Dee Dee AR?”

“I don’t know! Julie, what’s DDR?”

“Miss told us. It’s East Germany!”

“OK! Ick farra natch Ingland, Frankreetch and East Germany!”

I remember asking the teacher whom I would be replacing about what she thought and her comments were guarded. It was a good idea “in Prinzip” she said, but the issue as she saw it was that pupils weren’t really ready for it. Yet directly teaching how sound matched to print was not on, so…..

I made my excuses and declined the post which they had offered to me. I felt guilty as it was a lovely friendly school, but I knew I didn’t want to teach like that.

Objections to a focus on phonics usually involve one of the following:

1.We’ve always done it

Well, you might have, but even my anecdote tells you that not everyone did, or if they did, it wasn’t very effective. In my training we were told that pronunciation would just come naturally, provided they did enough listening. And anyway, there was no point reading aloud – silent reading was what we were supposed to do. I travelled abroad to teach in three different countries where I observed teachers asking children to read aloud and insisting on correct matching of sound to print. This gave me the confidence to do likewise on returning to the UK, but over the years I remember hearing that because dyslexic children found reading difficult, it was something that MFL teachers shouldn’t really be doing. I enjoyed my PGCE and learnt a lot of useful things. I am certainly not one to trash everything I was taught and my introductory lessons still follow an idea I was given. I think my PGCE was valuable. But on phonics and pronunciation, I have concluded that what we were told was just plain wrong.

2. Well is your pronunciation perfect? Thought not. But when you go to the TL country, I’m sure they understand you.

I was chuffed when asked in Austria if I was from Holland! Usually my English accent is detected after a bit. I have always struggled with the “ell” sound – I remember my tutor saying “vorne das l” when I was reading out loud. Having an accent is one thing. But mispronouncing the ie and ei sounds in German? Or ignoring the effect of the umlaut on how vowel sounds are pronounced? An entirely different ballgame in my opinion.

3.OK, we need to do it, but look, listen repeat is far too boring! There are more interactive ways.

There are lots of tasks children can do to practise pronunciation. But I can’t see how you get round look, listen and repeat in the early stages. However, I am ordering my copy of Breaking the Sound Barrier by Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti and maybe I will be converted! There are indeed lots of games one can do, but some of those I have seen so far rely greatly on peer assessment. Observing lessons over the years, I have seen peers nod through all kinds of misconceptions. In my view, pairwork and peer assessment is good for communicative activities, but I am sceptical as to whether it is truly effective for grammar or pronunciation tasks, where a lot will depend on how effective the peer is.

4. When they don’t pronounce correctly, it’s just because they’re not motivated enough.

Children often giggle the first time they have to say something in a foreign language. Like any drama teacher, I tell them about physical control. “We make funny noises when speaking MFL, so get over it” is my view. I personally have not encountered someone who deliberately mispronounces because they think it uncool to say it properly, unless they have learnt in an environment where pupils have been allowed to giggle at each other when speaking the MFL. So yes, in those circumstances, the disaffected pupil trying to raise a laugh might do so. In my view, if a child is afraid to pronounce something correctly for fear of being mocked by their peers, then the teaching and learning environment needs to change. But the group of girls saying “ick farra natch” to each other were trying to impress. They thought they were saying it properly….

5.It’s pointless as there are exceptions to the rules.

The fact that there are exceptions to rules leads some to conclude that we shouldn’t teach any rules at all. I have seen this argument used for grammar rules as well as phonics. I don’t see why exceptions to rules mean not teaching any rules at all. In the late 1980s I remember some lecturers getting agitated about rules such as “adjectives describe a noun” or ” a noun is the name of a person. place or thing”. Unless definitions were 100% accurate, we shouldn’t teach them – that seemed to be their view. Again, I don’t see the problem with teaching a simplified form of a rule in the early stages. And then being delighted when a pupil discovers an exception.

6. There are lots of variations among native speakers. We shouldn’t be pulling out one particular pronunciation and teaching it, as that discriminates against native speakers who pronounce it a different way.

It’s fun to point out regional nuances. I do. I believe we should be doing this. But I don’t buy the argument that there is no such thing as standard pronunciation and therefore anything goes. Maybe there is somewhere in the German speaking world where the pronunciation of bleib and blieb is interchangeable, but I doubt it.

7. There’s no firm research in favour – evidence is conflicting. So we shouldn’t promote it.

Like most teachers, I admit that I don’t have time or am too tired on evenings or weekends to read a lot of research papers. Much SLA research I have seen seems to envisage a different scenario to that of the average UK MFL teacher, who is looking for practical ways to enable pupils to progress on one or two hours a week, when those same pupils are quite rightly learning lots of other subjects as well. All I would say is that I don’t think it is acceptable to apply English SSCs to a foreign language, which is what pupils will do if not told otherwise. And letting them do so is reinforcing a belief in English cultural superiority (a rule in English must automatically apply elsewhere).

8. Phonics are important, but we shouldn’t test them on it in the GCSE

I sympathise with that argument. We have to beware of the backwash effect. But equally, I don’t buy the argument that “exam boards will have to resort to tricks, since at GCSE they need a range of marks and some people will have to fail”. The phonics is just one part of the test – they could in theory allow everyone to pass that particular section – the range of marks will occur in general conversation. And even so, some people will mispronounce some words, even if they have been taught and practised, because English SSCs still raise their heads and interfere.

In conclusion, while I have reservations about frequency lists, I welcome the focus on phonics in MFL teaching and don’t see an issue with phonics and/or dictation being tested. The lockdown has had a pernicious effect on pronunciation in general, as far as I can see. A focus on phonics will mean that hopefully, we can bury the ghost of “it will all come naturally” and really ensure our pupils can decode words. Once they can decode the words, we can then introduce longer texts to widen pupils’ vocabulary.

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What works in one place won’t necessarily work somewhere else, but we do need a range of voices

I commented recently on a proposal to pay teachers from outstanding schools £10000 to work in schools which are struggling (See link below)

Even if it were possible to identify outstanding teachers, has any one stopped to think that they might be so because the culture of the schools they currently work in has enabled them to flourish? And that in another school with a different culture, they might struggle?

This comment received more likes than anything I have posted on Twitter. After all, how do we recognise outstanding teachers? Their relationships with pupils? Their results? Teachers who are successful in one institution are not necessarily going to be successful in another. And what does successful mean? I had good results in some years and less good results in others. Some teachers who responded to my tweet pointed out that their results went from good in one school to mediocre in another, to good in another. There are all kinds of factors influencing results – school culture, behaviour, curriculum content, curriculum time are just as influential as pedagogy. And there are lies, damned lies and statistics and we are no doubt all aware of stories about gaming the system.

Personally, I don’t think you can easily identify outstanding teachers and even if you could identify them, there is no guarantee they would continue to be outstanding in another institution.

Unfortunately, among the responses to my tweet were some which I felt went to the other extreme. In their view, the most outstanding teachers were already working in the worst performing schools. I don’t know what evidence they had for that, other than the fact that if a school has problems with one or more of the following: disadvantage, poverty, lack of resources, behaviour, poor management, high staff and pupil turnover etc., then it seems obvious that the challenges will be greater.

I believe that all teachers should be free to share views and give their thoughts on teaching, pedagogy, resources etc. Many do. However (and this is the controversial bit) I do think we need to hear more from teachers teaching in schools which, at least statistically, appear to be outstanding. For example, in my subject , MFL, I would like to hear more from teachers who enter large numbers for GCSE (70% or more) and still manage to achieve a positive subject value added score, consistently.

My department managed both of these in 2018 and I basked in a smug feeling of success. In 2019 I was brought down to earth when results showed a dip, both raw results and value added. The teaching was the same but the cohort was different. And in general that’s what my experience was. when I was teaching, in a career of over 30 years. Up one year, down the next. Not consistent.

As I said earlier, there are lies, damned lies and statistics and I would be the last person to say that someone who consistently a) gets good results and b) enters large numbers is automatically a good teacher, but something must be going right surely? So we do need their voices. Not because their ideas would necessarily transfer to another context. Not because they are the only people worth listening to. But because in our evaluation of success, outcomes are a factor. Not necessarily the be all and end all, but a factor. So while I disagree with the idea that you can turn round schools simply by shipping supposedly “outstanding” teachers from other institutions to those places and paying them a lot of money, I also disagree with those who argue that the teachers in struggling schools are by default outstanding because of the challenges they face. What we all need to do is share our thoughts, in blogs, on Twitter, but most of all, by visiting each other in our different schools.

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Covid catch up funding – a tutor’s perspective

There has been a huge row over the difference between the amount of money apparently recommended by Sir Kevan Collins (£15 billion) and the £1.4 billion allocated by the government. But as a tutor delivering Covid catch up lessons, I fear both sides are mssing the central point.

I recently signed up with a tutor agency to deliver tutor support lessons under the National Tutoring Programme. The agency was very thorough. I completed all the necessary online courses and was trained in the style of lesson they wanted me to deliver. To be honest, I wasn’t totally convinced by the lesson format they wanted, but they were the bosses and I felt it was easy to adapt my resources and produce a lesson in the format they required, using their template.

As always when you start a new job, you put a lot into your first lesson. I checked and double checked my slides, wondered whether I had the right amount of scaffolding (always tricky to assess when you don’t know the students) and kept changing my mind on certain activities before finalising it. On the day of the first lesson I logged on and waited. And waited. And waited. No student attended. At the end I filled in the register and hoped for better luck next time. I logged on and waited. And waited. And waited. No students attended, so I again filled in the register and this time an email was sent to the school which had enrolled the students. Third lesson, exactly the same thing happened. I had almost given up when in lesson 4 – hooray – I got students. Lessons have continued, but attendance is, let us say, patchy. One student in particular seems keen, but the school internet is very dodgy. When I asked them, I was told they don’t like to unmute as there are lots of students around when they are doing a lesson and it is noisy. So proper speaking practice is impossible (I tutor in MFL) I can and do ask them to say things, but I have no idea if they are saying them correctly.

After every lesson I go on to the attendance register and fill it in. My subjects is MFL, so I am aware that it may not be top of teacher and pupil priority for catch up, but the register enables me to see attendance for all subjects taught that day. The number of “absent” boxes is staggering, not just in my subject, but even in those subjects where you might have thought there would be greater interest in catch up tuition, such as English and maths. This is across both the primary and secondary sector. I can certainly understand any reluctance from the Treasury to fund a programme of catch up tuition which could end up with tutors sitting at computers, waiting to deliver lessons to pupils who just don’t turn up.

But this is where greater imagination is needed. And I would say that funding is needed for a reward and consequence programme. What? Let me explain. Let’s face it, we are asking pupils and students to give up their time to do extra work. Just at the moment when things are beginning to open up again and we are allowed to travel and meet up with people we haven’t seen for ages, we suddenly tell a group of young people that they should be sitting at computers doing catch up tuition. I cannot believe that Labour MP Peter Kyle was serious when he said on TV that young people were bursting to get into school. Bursting to use sports facilities is not the same as bursting to take advantage of catch up tuition.

So my suggestion would be that funding should be made available for a system of credits, which would be ammassed by students for attending the online tution programmes that their schools have decided are needed. These credits should be accepted by out of school organisations to fund activities such as outside school sport, music, drama, DofE, ATC etc. according to the wishes of students. As we all know, it is not just academic study that children have missed, but the opportunities for participation in a range of co curricular activity. Attend the tutition – get the credits.

However, I think there also has to be a consequence for students who are regularly absent from catch up tution without any valid reason. This is taxpayers’ money and taxpayers would rightly be concerned at tutors pocketing money waiting for students who simply don’t turn up for catch up tution, even with the incentive of rewards. Therefore I believe funding could be allocated to schools for the express purpose of requiring those students who do not engage with catch up study to repeat the year. Repeating the year is common practice in many countries. The EEF research which concluded it had little value was flawed, since it did not take into account its effect on the whole cohort of students, focussing entirely on the small numbers who did end up repeating the year. It needs to be made clear to both students and parents that repeating the year will be a consequence of non attendance.

In conclusion, I would say that additional funding is required, certainly. But the government is also right to insist that they get value for money for that funding. All the online tution offered won’t make the slightest difference if students don’t attend. So why not use extra funding for a “carrot and stick” approach to attendance, on the lines I have suggested?

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Why experienced teachers can get cynical and what might be done about it – some thoughts

Now I am nearing the end of my career, I tend to look back more frequently than before. I would like to start with some things which, if not introduced properly, can make experienced teachers very cynical.

1. Literacy initiatives.

In my 30 odd years teaching career I have lived through at least 4 literacy initiatives. They all tend to start the same way. A staff survey or primary school data indicates concern about the literacy among pupils and a working party is set up to look at the issue. Despite protestations that literacy should be seen as a whole school issue, the working party is always led by someone from the English department. While this may seem logical, the resulting policy ends up focussing on English department concerns. Things like using etymology to work out meanings of new vocabulary (where the science, maths and geography departments may have more expertise) or the use of tenses (where the modern languages department may have more expertise) tend to be downgraded as the English department naturally focusses on areas where it has most expertise (punctuation, paragraphing and writing for different audiences). The policy is launched with great fanfare, the assemblies are held,the posters are made, the subject handbooks are updated and data shots include a literacy column on the spreadsheet. Usually the whole thing dies a death when the chair of the literacy working party leaves or gets promoted, having ticked the appropriate boxes on their CV and performance management documentation.

2. Crosscurricular initiatives

I have lived through at least 3 of these. The idea is perfectly sensible. Departments should compare their schemes of work to see where there is overlap, or where there is scope for some cross curricular teaching, with appropriate references made in your lesson to the work you know the class will be doing in another subject. Again, time is set side for departmental collaboration. Yet it rarely lasts long. Changes in syllabus or staffing will mean that where once a cross curricular theme was possible, the new scheme of work makes it no longer so. A new head of department may have something else as a priority on their performance management objectives. Or another initiative in something else (eg literacy!) comes along and departments are told to prioritise that instead.

3. Student voice surveys

One of the perverse consequences of performance management is the need to evidence the impact of something. Hence the endless requests for feedback from students.

James Herriot, the internationally famous vet, wrote in “All Creature Great and Small” about his clients. ‘There were some people who thought I was a pretty fair vet, some who regarded me as an amiable idiot, a few who were convinced that I was a genius, & one or two who would set their dogs on me if I put a foot inside their gates. All this in a year. What would be the position in 30 years? Well, as it turned out, very much the same.”

I have to say James Herriot hits the nail on the head for me. In the course of my career I have been called everything from brilliant to crap. I have had children who loved my lessons and children who hated them, with others in the “all right” camp. On Rate My Teachers (remember that?) I had one comment saying I was the best teacher in the school. Next time I looked another comment appeared saying I wasn’t cut out for teaching. I have been privileged to teach academically able students through a lot of of my career. Some have told me that they loved the way I explained things. Others didn’t like the way I taught. Early in my career I remember being totally eclipsed by a new Head of Department whose lessons I thought were captivating. How does he do it, I wondered. He left after one year, totally burnt out. Yet even he was not universally popular. In my experience, even the “legends” will have one or two students who don’t like their personality, style or method of teaching.

4. Observing each other teaching

David Didau’s book “What if everything you knew about education was wrong”, has a chapter entitled “Why lesson observation doesn’t work”, which is a fantastic response to those who think observation is the key to school improvement. However, the one thing he omitted to mention was that observations at secondary level become even more pointless if the observer does not have the specialist subject knowledge.

I remember observing an A level physics class and having to grade it and comment on the teacher’s subject knowledge. I felt a complete fraud. Of course, I could see whether the students seemed engaged, knew what they were doing, were receiving feedback and having their written work marked, but beyond that I didn’t have a clue what the teacher was going on about. She could have been teaching them absolute rubbish, but I wouldn’t have known.

In my career, I have had countless observations by people who do not speak or understand a word of the language I have been teaching. I have even had some “outstandings” from them. When you think about it, it is quite frightening to think how easy it could be for me to go on for years peddling misconceptions. Equally, when being criticised, I resent comments from non specialists wondering why the children were noting down vocabulary in the lesson ( surely it was all in their textbook or couldn’t I have given them a sheet), telling me that it was too teacher centred, or wondering why they were working on something in silence.

This leads into another issue – we all have our own prejudices as to what constitutes a good lesson and we will look for things that confirm those prejudices and disparage things that don’t. We are all human beings and we are not as objective as we like to think. I have to observe my colleagues teaching and I do not always agree with everyone’s approach. I find it difficult to keep my own prejudices out. Nevertheless, at least my colleagues are aware that I have specialist subject knowledge and know what it is like to teach it, day in and day out.

I would not say that lesson observation is always a waste of time and it is certainly beneficial for new teachers. But for experienced teachers something else is needed.

So after all of this, here are my two suggestions to keep the old sweats on board.

1. Differentiate CPD for experienced teachers See my previous blogpost on this here.

2. Before any initiative is embarked on, arrange a meeting with experienced staff beforehand. Ask them if they have experienced the initiative before and if so, what lessons needed to be learnt. If they say it didn’t work, ask them why. I expect that in most cases the answer will be that initiatives need TIME to embed and should not be just about ticking someone’s peformance management objective for one year. Even if the initiative is about something they are not likely to have experienced before (eg new technology) ask them about the drawbacks, rather than just dismissing concerns as “negativity.” Of course there may be someone who just grunts “won’t work” and refuses to say more when asked why. But my guess is most experienced teachers will feel grateful that their years in the classroom are being acknowledged and will try to be constructive, even more so if their suggestions are taken on board.

Over to you, SLT!

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I don’t do touchy feely happy clappy. Does that make me a bad teacher?

As we all get used to working from home, I am beginning to feel uneasy. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel under ever growing pressure to show what a wonderfully caring teacher I am.

I sometimes wonder whether all this pressure is an example of the pernicious influence from the business world with regard to feedback. I loathe constantly being asked for feedback when I go shopping, or take my car to the garage. I was once begged by a local garage to change “very satisfied” to “completely satisfied” in a feedback form. Some poor guy’s bonus probably depended on it. Back in the pre Corona days when we could visit restaurants, I hated being asked “is everything all right for you” when my mouth was stuffed full of food. This does seem to be an Anglophone thing – my experience of other countries is that they wait until you have finished before asking you if everything is OK. In other countries, there seems to be an underlying assumption that everything being OK is the norm, and that if it wasn’t you would complain without waiting to be asked.

Sometimes in my work, it seems I am being urged to assume that the default position is that everyone is not OK and that, in the school context, our pupils cannot possibly be OK unless they have confirmed publicly on a daily basis that they are. (Garage – where “very satisfied” is not enough, you must be “completely satisfied”).With the school shutdown, I sometimes feel I am being exhorted to share the wonderful things I have done to show I have not lost touch with my pupils and show how much I care about them. What? You mean you’ve only done X? Well look at so and so, they’ve done Y! Why don’t you try Y? And what do you mean – you were just planning to send a weekly email to your class saying you hoped they were still OK and not to be afraid to email if they had concerns? Well, is that really caring enough – why don’t you have daily conversations with them by email or on Teams and constantly ask them if they are OK? (Restaurant – asking “everything all right for you?”). Perhaps your relationship with your classes is wrong if they are not sharing snippets of their daily life with you… Surely you can make your work more interesting for them – can anyone top Mr Z’s fun activity?

Of course, in this crisis, it is important that vulnerable people are asked if everything is OK on a daily basis. And I appreciate it as much as everyone when I am asked if I am OK. Yet, being in the fortunate position of being fit and healthy, I would not like to have to confirm that I am OK to someone who is not a friend/relative on a daily basis. And looking back to my teenage self, I certainly would not have liked to share snippets of my life with my teachers, although some of my more extrovert peers did. I liked and respected nearly all my teachers, but I regarded them as teachers, not friends. Moreover, I was and am an introvert and I am not comfortable with “all about me” conversations. And some of our pupils are introverts too, something which can get forgotten in our constant exhortations to them to let us know their opinions and feelings. In the past, the school system may have been unfair to extroverts, but now I feel the opposite is occurring and I have blogged about this here.

Does being an introvert make me an uncaring person? I hope not. In the street where I live, a number of us, including me, have shared phone numbers with messages, telling our neighbours not to hesitate to get in touch if they are self isolating or ill. I regularly contact relatives and friends to ask if they are OK and share snippets of what I have been doing. But I think it is different with colleagues and pupils. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about them. It doesn’t mean I will never ask after them. Over my 30 years of teaching, I have had a lot of appreciative thanks from pupils and colleagues. But my life at home and my life at work are different things and I am not going to pour out my soul to colleagues or engage in earnest “tell me about your feelings” conversations with colleagues and pupils. I’m afraid it’s just the way I am. But I am sure that more introverted colleagues and pupils feel the same.









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If we don’t like the Ebacc, what should it be replaced with?

This is a summary of a talk given at BuffetEd on Feb 8th 2020.

There is a lot of opposition to the government’s Ebacc measure in the UK education world. Basically, there seem to be 3 main strands of opposition.

  1. It is a government initiative, not one that the education system itself proposed. As such, it should be opposed.
  2. It does not include the arts.
  3. We should not force a set of subjects (and thereby exams) on pupils.

The first strand of opposition can be dismissed as a tribal response which does not look at the issues. Simply rejecting an idea, because of who proposed it, does not stand up.

The second strand of opposition is more interesting. If I taught one of the arts subjects, I would probably be opposed to the Ebacc as well. As it happens, I am a firm believer in the arts as necessary to a well rounded education, although I also think it is true that the arts lobby tends to forget that they have advantages that no other subject has. I have blogged about this here.

However it is the third strand of opposition which I find most interesting. When I taught English to the equivalent of the sixth form in Germany, I had “Grundkurs” (basic course)  and Leistungskurs (advanced course) students. My Grundkurs students were mainly on the maths and science side. As such, they had no particular interest in studying either German or a foreign language. Most were doing the Leistungskurs in maths/science. However everyone, including parents, seemed to accept that everyone wanting to gain entry to university had to pass the Abitur (German school leaving examination). That meant students continuing with German, maths and a foreign language, whatever their future plans might have been and whatever their intended field of study at university was. And the basic concept of having to pass a range of subjects, not just the ones a student has interest in, seems to be the norm in Europe.  Abitur, Baccalauréat, Bachillerato, Baccalaureus, Maturita, Matura – whatever each country’s name for the examination, it is an examination which requires a minimum standard in a range of subjects.

Would British parents accept such a system here? Probably not. And that system does raise serious questions. If anyone saw the progamme “Are our kids tough enough?” on BBC2 back in 2015, they will remember one girl in tears, desperately trying to throw a ball the required distance, so as to pass the physical education section of the Chinese university entrance examination.  We can all remember our worst subjects at school. Would some of us even have tried for university, if we had known that we would have to continue studying and achieve a minimum standard in our worst subjects?

It’s a tricky one. And yet it is remarkable that so many other countries insist on  students continuing to study, and indeed achieve a minimum standard in, a much wider range of subjects than is the case in Britain. Unlike most other countries in Europe, there seems to be entrenched resistance in Britain to the idea of “making” or “forcing” people to study particular subjects. It is interesting to note that, until 1988, the only compulsory subject in English and Welsh schools was religious education.

Yet, historically, Britain had a similar system to other European countries. The School Certificate and Higher School Certificate were leaving examinations which required passes in a range of subjects. They were both abolished in 1951. When I looked into this, I found an interesting thesis by Andrew Watts of Wolfson College Cambridge. This gave a lot of detail on the background as to why the O levels were introduced, thereby ending the requirement to achieve a minimum standard in a range of subjects.

I had assumed that opposition to the School Certificate would have been motivated by the wish to allow students to drop subjects they were not good at, in order to develop their talents in those they were. However, it seems that was not the case. Opposition to the certificates seemed to be more against the idea of an external body setting examinations. The Norwood report of 1943 therefore argued against reliance on an external examination board setting external examinations – “teachers being reduced to the status of journeymen.” Controversially, it proposed a system whereby each school would set its own examinations, based on their knowledge of their students. This seemed too much for the government to accept and consequently O levels and A levels were introduced, almost as a kind of “halfway house”. These were external examinations, but schools had the freedom to decide which board and which examinations students took. This is the basic principle which still exists today, despite the axing of O levels for GCSEs.

So that is why where we are in England and Wales. So what do we do about it?

Having seen it abroad, I do wonder whether so many other countries must be wrong when they insist on a minimum standard in a range of subjects and whether we are right with our “free choice.” Surely we want our university graduates to be well rounded in a range of subjects before specialising in one discipline? As a first step, maybe there could be some kind of certification for pupils and students who pass certain groupings of subjects. The current Ebacc could be one such grouping, but maybe there could be others as well, as in the French bac. Maybe we could have 3 or 4 sets of subject groupings with “bacc” names and the examination boards could jointly issue certificates to students who pass particular groupings of subjects? This would make the current Ebacc a qualification in it’s own right, not just a performance measure. It’s a thought.


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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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