The value of an academic curriculum

I gather some university PGCE tutors are understandably upset when their training of teachers is criticised. I actually enjoyed my PGCE course. Yes – progressive stuff was pushed, but we weren’t forced into it. The conventional view at the time was that moving schools from local control was a bad idea. I remember writing an essay arguing the opposite – that by allowing every school to opt out of local control, we could have a truly national education service (sounds like Labour party policy in 2017!). My lecturer disagreed, but wrote me an excellent reference.

Back in the late 1980s, I was training to be an MFL teacher when communicative language teaching was at its height. The accepted wisdom was that grammar shouldn’t be taught and that children would work out the rule for themselves. A few lecturers had moved to a position whereby it was acceptable to tell children about grammar if they asked about it, but otherwise don’t bother with it. I had assumed that we would be given strategies for introducing the “less able” children to grammatical concepts and terminology, but was surprised to find that this was not the case. “It’s all too difficult for them” seemed to be the premise. I remember that we were all asked to name the textbook used in our schools for teaching German. Mine was “Deutsches Leben” a 1950s tome typical of its epoch (“Werner – let’s look at the map while your mother and Uschi do the washing up”), which was ridiculously out of date in the egalitarian 1970s. The lecturer smiled. “It’s amazing how many people who used these sort of textbooks go on to study languages”, he mused.

Teaching English in eastern Europe in the 1980s, the classes there used a similar textbook to learn English. I was quite embarrassed by it at the time, giving as it did a totally outdated picture of the UK, interspersed with texts about British communists I had never heard of (Harry Pollitt?). By the time they left school, the children were incredibly dismissive of the book and the lessons in it. Yet I remember thinking at the time, “Yes – but your English is superb considering that you have never been outside your country and had no access to UK media”.

There is a danger that if you start defending the past you end up being classified as a Luddite wearer of rose tinted spectacles, wallowing in nostalgia for a bygone age. Not with me. In my 1970s grammar school I remember some good teaching, but I also remember the bad stuff. The bullying which was often ignored because it was thought to make a man of you, the petty rules, the petty tyrannies, the crazy punishments. I am glad that education has moved on from this. However I also remember an atmosphere of scholarship, where the head and the staff respected academic study in itself, rather than just a means to an examination certificate. Staff frequently went “beyond the syllabus” and we certainly did not spend lesson time poring over mark schemes and success criteria.

I get quite irritated when I see very successful people denigrate and dismiss their education. I remember arguing with a lecturer who was convinced that grammar teaching was harmful. “Has it harmed you?” I asked. “Well yes, yes it has. I’m not very creative” was the response. This from a man who had written books and papers on his subject. When you have knowledge of something, there is always a danger that you forget the effort it took to gain that knowledge, or how that knowledge has helped you in your life or career.

I agree with Amanda Spielman about a damaging trend in the education system of today which seems to view the academic curriculum as just a means of obtaining “badges and stickers”. I think she is right to say that Ofsted will focus on the curriculum offered by schools. Yet I fear that she will be told that it is a choice between constant examination preparation, or a “Claxton” curriculum of children learning how to learn. Or she may be told something on the lines that “the curriculum we have is what we deem appropriate for our particular students” and that this will be used to justify decisions to enter students for any qualification which is likely to raise the school’s Progress 8 score, to give excessive curriculum time to English and mathematics, or to discourage students from persevering with subjects less likely to contribute positively to that score (eg. MFL).

As long as Progress 8 exists, the focus of a school will inevitably focus on the mechanics of boosting that score, rather than scholarship. So, in short, before we denigrate the education we received, perhaps those of us who succeeded in that admittedly flawed system of the past (yes, I know, there were plenty who didn’t) should consider ourselves lucky that we went to schools which did not have to worry about such measures and could focus on academic scholarship. The challenge was always to get a larger number of schools to focus on this, hence Harold Wilson’s designation of comprehensives as “grammar schools for all”. I guess a school focussing on the mechanics of boosting Progress 8 is better than a school focussing on some of the more whacky 1970s curricula (project based learning etc). But that doesn’t stop me being nostalgic for a time when an academic curriculum could be prized for its own sake, rather than a tiresome necessity for obtaining exam certificates and a Progress 8 score.



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You failed to add value!

Every time I hear a presentation explaining Progress 8, or indeed any of the various measures used to track so called “progress”, my heart sinks. This could be because I am not a mathematician and do not find such things inherently fascinating. But what I find most alarming is when such measures are presented without the slightest acknowledgement that the rationale behind them may be flawed. That whole business of saying you can predict with accuracy what a child’s attainment at GCSE will be in every subject because of English and maths scores when the child was 11.

It was the same with “levels of progress” I remember. When the government abolished levels I was surprised at how long it took so many people to acknowledge that the whole concept of levels was flawed. For many, the reaction seemed to be “they’ve taken away a means of measuring progress – how dare they!” ASCL was particularly enraged until some brave souls broke ranks and (shock, horror) agreed with Tim Oates that the whole concept of levels might be flawed. Up until that point the statistical validity of the measure was not questioned.

I sometimes wonder if I am alone in finding it somewhat depressing to be told that I and my colleagues may well have “failed to add value” to a student who achieved a string of top grades at GCSE. In my case, modern languages, a pupil often arrives without having studied a language at all at primary. Even if they have, they are likely to have taken the GCSE in a different language (eg. German, Latin) to the one they studied at primary (usually French or Spanish). So a pupil starts with no knowledge of a language and ends up with an A grade at GCSE in that language, only for the teachers to be told they have “failed to add value” to that pupil, if the KS2 SATS indicated a high Attainment 8 score. The fact that we have opened the pupil’s eyes to a whole new way of communicating, that the pupil has gained knowledge and skills in a whole new field of study, the hours spent planning lessons and marking work, even the fact that the pupil may be continuing the subject to A level counts for nothing. And not just in languages. Attainment and academic study in the whole secondary curriculum can be dismissed with “Well, you failed to add value.” Whole fields of academic study reduced to a number. And all because of scores based on KS2 SATs in maths and English.

A similar situation exists at A level, where the ALPS system is used by many schools to predict outcomes based on average GCSE attainment. Apart from the fact that A level study is very different from GCSE study, a student may study a whole new discipline at A level, one they did not study at GCSE. Let’s say they achieve an B grade. But what if their ALPS prediction was an AABB? Again, all your hard work in teaching that student, the conversations you will have had with them, the support you will have provided and the extra knowledge and skills the student will have gained can be dismissed with the withering statement “well, you failed to add value.” The implication is that you as a teacher are worthless.

To me, this is the biggest drawback of making progress an end in itself. It encourages schools to focus, not on the curriculum, but a number. Never mind what the pupil studies – the main thing is the Progress 8 figure the pupil ends up with, as that will effect the whole school’s Progress 8 score. It is no wonder that organisations like PiXL are desperate to find easy qualifications to boost that figure.

I went into teaching because I loved my subject and wanted to use it in my work and hopefully inspire others to study it. For that reason, I never found senior management an attractive idea. Yet I have recently discovered another reason why I could not be SLT. I can imagine delight in my school’s GCSE and A level results. I can imagine delight if (controversially!) those results are better than other schools locally and nationally. I can imagine delight in the range of extra curricular activities offered by my school. I can imagine delight in seeing my school lauded as a beacon of excellence and having parents queue up to enter their children.

But unfortunately, I know I just could not get excited about having a Progress 8 score better than the school down the road. I know I just could not get excited about reducing academic study to a number. And I know I could not be seduced into what Tom Sherrington memorably described as “a vortex of delusional, algorithmic data-worship.”


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The joys of transition

Apologies to anyone expecting something profound on the apparent drop in attainment at KS3. This is a light hearted take on teaching year 7 from a secondary perspective
You know when you are teaching year 7 when…
1. If you have planned a starter activity, it will be severely curtailed as it takes them five minutes to unpack their bags
2. They look at you with astonishment when you tell them to put their drinks back in their bags
3. A forest of hands greets you the moment they have sat down as they aim to be the first to ask if they can remove their blazer/jumper
3. Another forest of hands and panic stricken faces greets you when you are barely one sentence into your explanation of the task or activity
4. A challenging question to the class is met by deafening silence, followed by a lone pupil at the back raising their hand. In answer to your carefully thought out question comes the statement “I need to go for my music lesson”
5. The pupil who left the class for a music lesson returns after three minutes, having got the time wrong…
6. You are asked if you mind them using both sides of the paper in a test.
7. Copying from the board is carried out at an average speed of two words a minute, assuming they have found their pen first.
8. The child holding a pen like a pole is surprised when you point out that their handwriting speed is slow as a result.
9. The child who writes at right angles is surprised when you tell him/her that this will not be allowed in tests and they should try to write without resting their head on the desk
10. You need to allow 5 minutes for them to write the homework in their diaries
11. A voice shouts out “When do we hand it in?” after you have told them that their homework is to revise for a test.
12. A child stays behind at the end to inform you solemnly that their hamster has died….
Anyone like to add to this list?!
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So how far can you study the culture without studying the language?

Anecdote 1

“So, what did you think of England?” I asked my Japanese student who had just visited England for the first time, staying with a family to practise English.

“It’s a bit like Japan”, came the unexpected answer.

I nearly fell off my chair. Part of Japanese “culture”, as I understood it, was a belief that Japan is rather unique. Yet here was a Japanese person drawing a direct parallel between her country and England. (I say England, rather than the UK as I have to point out to the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish that many foreigners use the word England to refer to the whole lot). I pressed her for more details.

“Well, they don’t always say exactly what they mean……..”

Anecdote 2

Class of adults of mixed nationalities (10 students). Good level of English, now in the UK on a study course.

Teacher (British national) “I’d like it if you could finish the poem by next lesson.”

Out of the class of 10 motivated students, only 2 people finished the poem. The British national teacher couldn’t understand why.

As a friend of mine who was a member of the class reported to me later, “Well, why didn’t he tell us we had to finish it, instead of just saying he would like it?”

The Guardian article  by Simon Jenkins makes the erroneous claim that you can teach culture without language. Only up to a point, I would say. He then comes out with the tired old assumption the computers make translation redundant as a skill. Any MFL teacher will tell you about the horrors of Google Translate, but I think my historian friends will confirm that Bismarck’s skilful editing of the Bad Ems telegram, missing out essential courtesies, caused the Franco Prussian war, even though his editing did not alter the basic facts of the message. In the 20th century it took a while before anyone realised that there were different words for “apologize” in Japanese and started wondering whether the Japanese had used the correct one when apologizing for their role in WW2. And does the English word “cosiness” really convey the meaning of the German “Gemuetlichkeit” or the Danish “hygge”? Not really.

The way some languages go into far more detail than English does, when classifying family relations for example, tells us a lot about the attitude to family in the cultures that speak those languages. Equally important is the way many foreigners, who use different pronouns for “you” depending on whether it is a formal situation or not, do not always appreciate the Anglo American “first name terms immediately” approach. Or the interesting situation which I have witnessed, where a German (speaking in English) tells his new English acquaintance that his name is Thomas, but then is addressed as “Herr Zimmermann” by a junior in the organisation (speaking in German), whom he has known for much longer.

In my conversations with foreigners who have learnt English and now speak it fluently, I have heard that they often find it strange that so many English people assume that that being foreign meant that they had a natural gift for English and just picked it up, or that they must have learnt from native speakers, or spent time in the UK. In the vast majority of cases this is not the case. They spent ages learning English grammar at school (such as the difference between simple and progressive tenses, which some anti SATs campaigners believe is too demanding for English 11 year olds….). They learnt English strong verbs by heart and were tested on them. In many cases it was not that their teaching was “communicative” or even that they started at a very young age. However, when they did start learning English, they certainly had more than the one or two hours a week which curriculum planners in the UK think is adequate for MFL.

I have blogged previously here about the need to raise expectations in MFL. Unless we persuade the government to recommend/incentivise more curriculum time for MFL within an academic year, rather than spreading into primary with just one lesson a week, articles such as those by Jenkins will become more frequent. But those with influence in MFL need to stress the standards that could be achieved, rather than enthusing about mediocrity. I have yet to find one of these foreigners (who now speak such good English) tell me that what incentivised them at school was receiving a reward every time they asked to remove their jacket in the target language……


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Metacognition and eduspeak – a distraction

The following post by the Quirky Teacher got me thinking.

It seems to me that there are ideas in education which are “simply assumed to be effective by circular argument”, to quote Kevin Stannard. Learning styles was one such idea until it was debunked. However, other ideas are still doing the rounds. The belief that it is vital for our pupils to be familiar with terms such as formative assessment, summative assessment, peer assessment, self assessment, growth mindset, Blooms taxonomy etc – all in the name of Assessment for Learning – is leading me to the conclusion that AfL is ripe for the chop.

I have blogged previously here about the supposed sine qua non of sharing success criteria at the beginning of lessons. Dylan Wiliam’s book “Embedded Formative Assessment” is almost taken as gospel on this point. It has even found its way into adult training courses, as I discovered on a first aid course recently, although at least we didn’t have to copy the objective for each unit. Obviously all my teachers at school were totally ineffective as they did not share the success criteria with me every lesson.

I was sad to read that the sharing of success criteria is now a “non negotiable” at a school I once taught at. In the course of my teaching career I have observed great lessons where no success criteria were shared with the learners. Equally, I have observed mediocre lessons where they were. Moreover, as David Didau points out in “What if everything you knew about education was wrong”, it is often the case that that we do not expect our pupils to have grasped something after just one lesson.

Reading Dylan Wiliam’s “Embedded Formative assessment” I came across this line on P.152. “There is no doubt that activating students as owners of their own learning produces substantial increases in learning”. I guess we all accept this, as we ordinary classroom teachers do not have time to do the research and we trust that people who write books on education will have done so. Yet if it were so effective, one would expect it to be “embedded” in the education systems of high performing countries.

Later than everyone else it seems, I am reading Lucy Crehan’s “Cleverlands”, which looks at the education systems of the world’s top performing education systems. I have yet to finish the book and if I have missed something in what I have read thus far, I am ready to stand corrected. That being said, I would have thought that if the sharing of success criteria, the language of metacognition, mini whiteboards and traffic lights really did result in substantial increases in learning, I would expect to see frequent reference to these techniques being used in the top performing countries. I would also expect that these techniques would be mentioned in Crehan’s Chapter 17 “Five Principles for High-Performing, Equitable Education Systems”. I jumped ahead in the book to look, but I couldn’t see them. This should surely make us pause for thought before we set out certain “non negotiables” in teaching and learning policies.

To me, it seems that the more students are worrying about the process of learning, rather than the content, the more likely it is they will be thinking about the wrong things. Rather than worrying about whether a particular task is a “formative” or “summative” assessment, I would rather my pupils concentrate on the subject matter and leave me as the teacher to decide what kind of assessment a task might have. Rather than holding up a red traffic light the moment they don’t understand something, I would rather they continued to concentrate as it might well make sense to them later on. If they are really stuck they can always see me at the end of the lesson.

My first year in teaching was spent in a school in eastern Europe. At the end of the year, one of the high achieving pupils said to me that she hadn’t really understood much in my first lesson with the class.

“Oh”, I said, “you should have stopped me!”

“Oh no, I realised that it was good for me to hear so much English and that I needed to concentrate” was her reply.

Now that’s what I call growth mindset!



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Data and exam technique – the wrong reasons to be in a flap about the new GCSEs

Having taught for a long time, I have seen many changes to the format of GCSEs. Every time a new syllabus is introduced, we all moan because we only have one set of specimen papers and we don’t know what the grade boundaries will really look like. Happens every time. But today’s climate of managers obsessing about progress and predicted grades is the reason that the flap seems greater this time round.

I get rather uneasy when I hear people talking more about grade boundaries than about the subject content. Those of us long in the tooth can remember getting pupils through GCSE without having to predict any grades or set any targets until the mocks in January (or later) of year 11.  But yes, like all of us, I have to fill in frequent data for my classes and predict grades to keep SLT happy. But I accept that it’s not really valid data. So I tell my classes not to take much notice of it. When it comes to targets, I prefer to tell the students what they need to do in the context of the work itself – rather than “do X and that will move you from grade 3 to grade 4”. My “interventions” (I admit it), are more focussed on the pupils I feel at risk of getting less than a grade 4 rather than those that the data say are below “their target grade.” I know – naughty, naughty, I should look at the progress of all pupils. Well, you have to focus somewhere. And given that the grade boundaries are unclear, in my view it’s better to focus interventions on the pass/fail boundary. For despite all the talk of “progress” rather than “attainment”, the fact is that society will still see some grades as a pass and some as a fail. So why not accept it?

Yet in all this obsession with grade boundaries and target setting, I am not hearing the things which concern me. My issues are a) lack of curriculum time and b) ensuring that the students have enough knowledge in their long term memories.

I like the new MFL GCSEs. They are much more rigorous and would seem to be less susceptible to the cheating and gaming which went on under the controlled assessment regime. But yes, I do worry about ensuring the pupils will be able to remember enough grammar and vocabulary to access the top grades. And I do worry that they won’t have had time to practise the language sufficiently for this knowledge to go in their long term memories.

This brings me on to the next point. The new GCSEs require a lot of teaching time. Yet a survey I did on Twitter revealed that over two thirds of schools carry out mock examinations before Christmas in year 11. More alarmingly, some schools are taking pupils off timetable to put pupils through repeated mock GCSE exams, which start in year 10. I am not talking about end of year exams. I mean full GCSEs.

I have a hunch that this approach, while suited to the old style exams, will prove sadly inadequate for the new ones. In fact, I hope it does. Anything that makes school leaders realise that content knowledge is the main thing is to be welcomed. Only when children have accumulated sufficient knowledge should we look at exam technique.

I welcome @amandaspielman’s comments about her dismay at watching a class being drilled in examination technique well before the exam is due. We do need to focus on the curriculum. However, I fear there will be a large number of voices trying to persuade her that the choice is either repeated examination practice, or a content light  curriculum of discovery learning, projects and learning how to learn – what I have called in the past a “Claxtonite” curriculum, since it seems to be the sort of thing advocated by Claxton in his book “Educating Ruby.”

@brianlightman wrote a letter to the chief inspector welcoming her focus on the curriculum. Yet I disagree with his premise that all school leaders and educationalists accept the importance of knowledge in the curriculum. Too many would have you believe that teaching to the test and repeated exam practice is the inevitable consequence of a knowledge based curriculum, conveniently forgetting that repeated drilling in exam technique and repeated analysis of mark schemes is, in my experience anyway, a relatively recent phenomenon. I am not talking about the sensible practice of having end of year examinations covering the work done in that year. I am talking about the use of GCSE papers well before pupils have covered the content or developed sufficient analytical skills.

These school leaders and educationalists also choose to ignore the fact that pupils in South Korea sat a Welsh GCSE maths paper and completed the paper with ease, despite the fact that they had not been subjected to walking talking mocks, repeated practice in GCSE exam technique or analysis of mark schemes. What would @pixlclub make of that?




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Interviews – why do we make them so complicated?

Many moons ago, as an NQT, I remember that attending an interview was a relatively straightforward process. I was rarely asked to teach a lesson, for example. Much of the interviewing was in the style of a friendly chat. Yet I was aware that behind the seemingly innocuous questions, some razor sharp minds were evaluating my responses.

“So Mr Fish, I see you’re a Man of Kent. Or is it a Kentish Man? What is the difference by the way?” The head teacher looked up from poring over my CV.

My actual thought was, “I bet you know the difference full well!” But when you think about it, my ability to answer or not answer this seemingly unimportant question would have told the head teacher a lot. An inability to answer it would suggest that either I was dishonest on my CV and hadn’t actually grown up in Kent, or that I lacked a piece of general knowledge about my home county, which might be an indication of a lack of interest or commitment to the community where I lived. For those not from Kent wondering what I am on about, the deciding factor (though sometimes disputed) is that it depends on which side of the river Medway you were born.

I was born in Dover and attribute my interest in foreign languages and other countries from walks by the sea with my parents. They would point across the channel saying, “You can see France today!”. The distant grey line of cliffs was fascinating for me. France. What was it like? I wondered. This line of reasoning would doubtless be dismissed by modern day interviewers, who would expect me to spout some stuff about having been inspired by a passionate MFL teacher at my school. Not that my teachers weren’t passionate subject specialists, but my interest went back before I ever started learning languages at school.

I remember once taking a prospective teacher round my current school. This candidate had impressive credentials and had apparently taught a wonderful lesson earlier that morning. But the lack of interest in the school, the department, education or life in general told me all I needed to know. I am often told that watching a candidate teach is a good thing because you can see how they react with the children. I disagree – a show lesson is a totally artificial environment. How they react with children taking them round the school is more revealing.

Children interviewing prospective candidates has understandably had a bad press and I suppose I am lucky in that, when I have experienced it, I did not have a problem. I remember inwardly smiling when it was obvious that the interviewer (the head boy) had been on Rate My Teachers to look me up before the interview. If there are to be student panels (I have reservations), I think it should be older pupils who have some position of responsibility. But actually, for secondary schools. I would say an interview with the head teacher, the deputy and another with the head of department (not at the same time on a panel, but separate) is enough.

I’m afraid I don’t do the usual stuff when I interview. I don’t ask about a lesson they thought really went well. Nor do I ask them questions about pedagogy. This is because I believe that if I do, I will get people trying to guess what I want them to say, So I tell them about the school and the department and look and listen carefully at how they react to what I am saying. This doesn’t mean I want someone who just nods and smiles at what I say – I am looking for sparks of interest or a willingness to ask me challenging questions. Simple but effective in my opinion.

Perhaps the only good thing about the current recruitment crisis is that the long, over complicated interviews, scrutiny of lesson plans and expectations of an all singing and dancing show lesson are on the wane. While I would say that more than one person needs to be involved in the interview process, a chat and a tour of the school will usually tell you all you need to know.

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