‘Brainstorm your thoughts on this sugar paper, and then I’ll tell you what I’ve already decided we’re going to do.’

To be honest, this wasn’t originally going to be the title of my next post, but I couldn’t resist it after seeing on Twitter @MrHistoire in reply to a humorous cartoon posted by @DavidDidau.It explains why I’ve come round to a particular view of how to chair working parties and meetings.

I remember the first school working party I ever joined. The idea was to come up with a new homework policy. The chairman, a man of strong views and convictions, had obviously read the relevant section in the good management guide and asked us one by one to contribute our ideas. As we went round the table, I could see that the chairman was becoming increasingly dissatisfied. The first comment elicited a slight tightening of the lips, followed by a “Hmm.” By the time the third person gave their views, the tightening of the lips was becoming a frown. I made my modest contribution, noticing that as I spoke, the frown was becoming deeper. By now, everyone had realised that no one had said what he wanted to hear. It was becoming a guessing game to say what he wanted. As the last person on the table spoke, (let’s call him Tom), it became clear that he, too, wasn’t saying the right thing. A slight flush was appearing on the chairman’s cheeks. Yet, in the middle of Tom’s spiel, he hit on a certain phrase (the exact wording isn’t really relevant to the point of the story). The chairman’s features relaxed immediately, he tapped the table with his hand and made an expansive gesture. “Now, what Tom just said is key to the whole thing – can we build on this? Let’s go round again!” So off we went on the next round. The problem was, none of us were saying what we really thought. We were simply trying to guess the views of our esteemed chairman.

Now, I am aware that at this point anyone reading this might be thinking “Well, a good chairman should be more poker faced and wait until the end before summarising everyone’s views. Only at that point should he or she give an indication of his/her own views.” This may be true, but it doesn’t alter the fact that this method of chairing a meeting doesn’t often lead to a frank discussion. Everyone is simply trying to guess the right thing to say.

In Kenneth Clarke’s autobiography, “Kind of Blue” he describes  the difference between how Margaret Thatcher and John Major chaired cabinet meetings. John Major’s was the more conventional method I have already described. On the other hand, Margaret Thatcher would state her view on an issue at the outset and wait for others to challenge her.  According to Kenneth Clarke, this approach led to more open and honest debate, contrary to what one might have expected. Moreover, he confirms that Margaret Thatcher could be and indeed was persuaded out of her initial views on several occasions.

Margaret Thatcher (and indeed Tony Blair) are controversial figures and it leads to some people dismissing everything they said or did simply because of who they are. Some people think that you must be an out and out supporter if you think any of their ideas were good. Actually, I think both personalities did some things I agree with and some things I disagree with. Since I became a head of department(some years ago now), I admit I have adopted the Thatcher style of debate. If there is an issue about which a collective decision has to be made, I tend to say what my views are early on, but I invite and (crucially) encourage others to challenge me. They often do and a lively discussion ensues. Sometimes I am talked out of my initial view. Sometimes I persuade others of my view. If necessary we have a vote on it and dissenting voices are noted in the minutes, so they can always say “I told you so” if it turns out the wrong decision was made.

Now, I acknowledge for this approach to work, the members of the team need to be confident that the chairperson is willing to be challenged. Otherwise it could mean that everyone acquiesces in something they don’t agree with. However, on balance, I prefer the Margaret Thatcher approach to chairing meetings to the more conventional one. I want debate in my meetings, not people simply trying to guess what I think all the time.

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Getting rid of descriptors won’t be easy

Some years back, I found myself on a working party looking at literacy across the curriculum. Having taught for nearly 30 years, which I know makes me ultra cynical, I can confidently say that literacy initiatives seem to come around every 7 years or so and then fade away when the initiator moves on or gets promoted. In MFL, we were fortunate in always having the excuse that the rules on punctuation and spelling in other languages were different and therefore the whole school initiative didn’t really apply.

However, I digress. That particular working party had decided that each department had to give each pupil a literacy grade for each piece of work. My suggestion that the grade should be a simple Yes/No to the statement “Standard of literacy sufficient for subject content” was instantly dismissed with “But Fish, what does that mean?” Instead, it was decided to give literacy grades at A, B, C. Elaborate prose descriptors on the lines of “uses a range of linguistic devices”, “writes coherently”, “sound use of paragraphing” were devised for each grade. The idea was that each subject would find something in the descriptor which applied to them. I gather in maths and science the overriding concern was that pupils should be able to spell the subject terminology used, but, in the descriptor, spelling was only mentioned in the context of writing paragraphs. In the event, it didn’t really matter as the whole idea was eventually left behind as new initiatives came in.

Therefore it will hardly surprise you if I say that, on reading Daisy Christodoulou’s “Making Good Progress”, the chapter I found most enjoyable was Chapter 4 on Descriptor-based assessment. We all like to find people who agree with us and even more importantly, have researched the issue in a way that ordinary full time classroom teachers, such as myself, do not have the time to do. Daisy mentions inconsistent conditions, making reliable and consistent judgements hard, as well as the fact that judgements against descriptors are subject to bias. However the problem of inconsistent interpretations i.e. the same descriptor can be interpreted in many ways, clinches it for me. When levels were abolished, I rejoiced at the chance to get away from inaccurate prose descriptors and managed to devise a scheme of work and associated assessments for my department which did not use them, while still supplying the necessary summative data as and when required for the school’s data management system. As I see it, there are two main stumbling blocks in abolishing descriptor based assessment.

Firstly, a whole generation of teachers and school leaders know nothing different. At a recent conference to discuss assessment, held by a well known schools organisation, I was not surprised to find that a sizeable number of people at the event never saw anything wrong with the “descriptor” side of levels, even if they acknowledged that putting a level on every piece of work might have been inappropriate. These people were busy devising APP style grids for use in their schools. It was therefore inevitable that PiXL and others would get in on the act and offer their own grids. I guess for senior leaders dismayed at the removal of levels, this was a godsend for solving the problem of demonstrating pupil progress once the levels had gone.

The second problem is the examination boards’ addiction to rubrics. These are basically descriptors and as I know from my own experience marking for an examination board, the rubrics can be interpreted very differently, despite all the efforts at standardisation. Pearson has even come up with their own lists of descriptors for teachers preparing students for Pearson qualifications.

What would really be a game changer would be for all examination boards to commit to using comparative judgements when marking essay type questions. This would put an end to the horrors of “I like it, because it’s good” (descriptor calls for justifying opinions – tick!) in MFL writing pieces. I would love to see it, but based on my observations on Twitter, where some teachers and SLT are currently in a flap because we do not have grade boundaries for the new GCSEs, I fear the outcry would be enormous. Nevertheless, I live in hope!

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Why I’m leaning towards NASUWT

When I started teaching I never thought I would have need of unions. In my head, I associated the unions with British Leyland, Arthur Scargill and a 1970s world of wildcat strikes. So when it came to signing up to a union, I rejected the militant NUT with horror. I believed then and still do believe that a strike should be the very last resort. Moreover, the NUT tended to reflect the views of primary teachers and while there were obvious common interests, I found it irritating to listen to primary teachers complaining about the newly introduced SATs – why should my primary colleagues escape accountability measures which secondary teachers had had for years in the form of public examinations? I therefore joined AMMA, as ATL was known then, as I felt it was moderate, sensible and less primary biased. I found union support invaluable after enduring excessive and unnecessary unannounced observations in my first teaching job.

To me, a prime function of a classroom teachers’ union is to protect its members against unjustified treatment at the hands of managers, whether that be bullying or excessive workload caused by an initiative. Being broadly traditional in outlook, I tended to disagree with statements from my union about the curriculum, particularly the once fashionable idea that knowledge didn’t matter now that everyone had Google. Yet, on workforce issues and teacher terms and conditions, I was fired up by the horror stories I heard about the workload inducing activities that some heads in some schools were asking their staff to engage in. Hearing about a teacher obliged to submit written reports to her manager on how she spent her PPA time came close to releasing my inner “Arthur Scargill” – what utter nonsense!

Yet I came to recognise a narrative which went something like this: “Address your anger to the government. Be sympathetic to the poor head teacher – they are simply responding to government pressure”. This led to a bizarre situation where, year after year, union motions would accuse the government or Ofsted of wanting something, which would then be flatly denied by those organisations. In the meantime, the workload continued to pile up.

A friendly NASUWT rep pointed me in the direction of the “Action short of strike action” document which his union had just produced. Brilliant, I thought – this is just what is needed – a list of tasks and activities which NASUWT members have stated they will not do, given that these activities were essentially about creating unnecessary workload. Yet I was surprised to find it seemed to have little support among members of my own union. Time and again, I heard comments on the lines of “But Fish, this just upsets the head teachers. It’s the government we should be attacking.”

To my mind, this involves the union going too far from its remit, namely to protect and enhance the working conditions of its members. Far better, in my opinion, would have been for unions to agree a list of unnecessary tasks and state that from now on no member would carry them out. Head teachers might then have said that the tasks were simply what the government required. In that case, the head teacher unions, NAHT and ASCL should be the ones putting the pressure on the government. The ordinary teacher unions should concentrate solely on the workload issues faced by their members and leave the head teachers and government ministers to argue who bears responsibility.

I very much fear that a merged NUT/ATL union will simply become more and more remote from the workload issues which are the main concern of teachers on the ground. Instead, there will be attacks on government policy which will simply  be ignored by the government of the day. In the meantime, the ordinary teacher asked by their manager to attend yet another unnecessary meeting or waste time on even more “quality assurance” activities will be forgotten.

NASUWT’s action short of strike action seems to have gone very quiet. Perhaps a new updated version is needed. Perhaps it will happen if they receive an influx of ex ATL members who are unhappy about being swallowed up by the NUT. The next few months will prove very interesting.


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“Teachers in England don’t value CPD”

I have a confession to make, namely to a guilty feeling of relief when I realised that a clash of engagements would result in my missing the next staff training event. Not surprising, I hear you say. After all, who wants to listen to someone droning on about some fad, with no real evidence backing it up, which staff will be expected to introduce into their lessons forthwith? Who wants to hear a load of “Ofsted wants this” and “Ofsted wants that”? Who wants to watch yet another video clip on the lines of Shift Happens? Yet CPD where I currently work is not like that. The organisers work hard to make it meaningful. No one is forced to implement fads. No one lectures us constantly about what Ofsted are suppose to want. We are encouraged to look at research based evidence and develop ideas which we could adapt to our classroom practice. We discuss what we have read and share thoughts with others. All well and good. Yet I still felt a twinge of relief to get out of it. Why?

I recently came across this video clip from Andreas Schleicher.

There are lots of points made which go beyond the scope of this blog post, but I was struck by his comments about CPD. He mentions that teachers in England are some of the least likely in the world to say that they want to improve through CPD (26.00) After the fads of the last decade this is hardly surprising. My guess is that schools in other countries did not start mandating ideas such as “learning styles” on the basis of a theory which had no real evidence. Yet, as I say, although I remember once hearing a talk from a consultant at a staff INSET who boasted that he sat his pupils with cards saying what their preferred learning style was, it was not mandatory for me in the way I gather it was in some schools. Nevertheless, I remain sceptical of much CPD and some of the practices advocated by Schleicher, if (and this is the big if) he believes that these practices are suitable for everyone, which he may not.

Firstly, I have nothing against lesson study – I first experienced it in Japan as a new teacher assisting the classroom teacher in her English lesson. There was no bureaucracy involved. As a new teacher it can be very valuable. Yet I would suggest that for experienced teachers, it is irritating to be told that we could/should/might consider doing X or Y instead of what we did. This is because we are only too well aware that our lessons could/should/might have been better. But we were whacked out as we had a full teaching day and therefore we probably did not teach the best lesson we could have done. The trouble is that there is no such thing as a perfect lesson. Because of this, it means that every single lesson can always be improved. Whatever you do, it will never be good enough. It highlights how depressing it must be for our pupils to have constant “Even Better If” comments on their work.

Secondly, Schleicher also mentions that the challenge for England is the variation within schools, rather than between schools. This has led to some school SLTs adopting very top down approaches to teaching and learning. Yet I would say this is not always effective in a secondary school setting, despite my being impressed by what I hear about Michaela. What works for one subject does not necessarily work for another. I have watched countless lessons in subjects other than my own. I can see this is probably effective CPD for new teachers, as they could gain behaviour management strategies, strategies for appropriate timing of tasks and activities. Again, I would suggest that for experienced secondary teachers, we gain little from watching lessons in other subjects, or attending staff CPD forums where teachers talk about how they have improved their questioning technique (usually because our experience means we have been using that technique for years without even thinking about it). I am also sceptical of the value of coaching for most staff and have blogged about this here.

So my suggestion for CPD in English schools would be that there needs to be variation in what is offered, depending on a teacher’s experience.For experienced secondary teachers like myself, our problem is that we can get stuck in a rut, particularly if we have been teaching at the same institution for a long time. Joining our subject associations and attending their conferences is vital and many of us do this. Yet how often do we have CPD time to visit other schools to talk specifically to our fellow subject practitioners about how they organise their teaching, their curriculum? The times I feel most revitalised are after attending the annual conference of my subject association, or on the rare occasions when I have had the chance to visit a school, preferably one with better outcomes in my subject than I currently get, to talk with my counterparts about how they go about it. I get really irritated when I am asked to consider adopting a teaching strategy from a school which is consistently achieving less well in my subject area than my current department. Yet I am fascinated by schools which seem to be doing better in my subject area. What are they doing? What can I learn from them? As I see it, this is the most valuable CPD you can offer experienced teachers. This does not mean that experienced teachers will never need in house CPD, as there will be whole school developments and curriculum changes which need to be discussed. A once a year visit to another school could be just the job if SLTs are seeking to rejuvenate long serving staff. What do others think?


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My thoughts on Debra Kidd’s review of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers

I became irritated recently when reading this review of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”. I should point out that I have not visited Michaela Community School and although I find what they are doing interesting and exciting, I think the jury is still out on whether it will succeed long term, even if signs are very encouraging. However, the review makes claims which I feel should not go unchallenged.

The author of the review states that “Spurious claims are constantly made throughout, with scant regard for facts”. However, there are some spurious claims in the review. Take the following:

Most European countries are far more child centred than us. Really? Where is the evidence for this claim? Most European countries require children to repeat the year if they fail to meet a certain minimum standard. Nothing particularly child centred about that.

Saying that “teacher training institutions…indoctrinate unqualified teachers with their one sided progressive values” ignores the hours I spent as an ITT tutor teaching my undergraduates grammar and phonics. I don’t see the evidence for this either. It’s perfectly possible for a teacher trainer to teach grammar and phonics, while constantly telling their trainees that they are only doing so because the government decrees it and it’s really not in line with their philosophy. I’m not saying that this is what the author did, just that the claim is unsubstantiated. The anecdotal evidence about teacher training institutions pushing progressive values is very strong. Nevertheless, perhaps the author can point me in the direction of a teacher trainer who is dismissive of learning through projects and group work….

An 11 year old cannot access the adult experiences and passions writ large in Wuthering Heights. Why do we think a novel written expressly for adults about adult emotions should be appropriate for an 11 year old, just because it is hard? This seems to be saying that 11 year olds cannot read any books meant for adults, as they have not yet experienced the full range of adult emotions. Well, I remember starting to read books written for adults at that age. I started with “The Eagle Has Landed” if I remember rightly. I then read “The Odessa File” at the age of 12. I had never experienced the emotional state of being in fear of my life, but it was interesting to read about others experiencing it. A lot of books written for adults are unsuitable for children, but not all.

The review is scathing about Michaela’s approach to SEND. It is a fact that the UK diagnoses far more children as having SEND than is the European average. Surely these statistics should make UK educationalists sit up and take note? Yet, according to the review, to probe further into this statistic has no purpose. It’s almost as if we must be doing it right and other countries are doing it wrong. That seems rather arrogant.

Towards the end of the review we come to the author’s main criticism of Michaela, that, by asking for parental support, it is selective in its admissions. This has been identified by Greg Ashman here as a trend which is emerging about criticism of Michaela. I would simply say that it seems rather odd to criticise a school for seeking to ensure parental support for the school. I also find the author’s view rather fatalistic about parental engagement – it seems to be that there will always be parents who are unengaged and that’s just the way it is. It is possible that if all schools adopted the Michaela approach the number of disengaged parents might diminish considerably.

The author is careful to praise some aspects of Michaela.  Yet I felt as I did when I read her review of Daisy Christodoulou’s “7 myths about education”. Being “damned with faint praise” is the phrase which springs to mind.



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Is fear of MFL the real reason behind opposition to the Ebacc?

Opposition to the Ebacc usually centres around the fact that practical and creative subjects are excluded from this performance measure. As a teacher of MFL, I sometimes feel that teachers of art/drama/music tend to forget that their subjects appear glamorous to young people in a way that more traditional “academic” subjects can never match, no matter how hard their teachers try to jazz them up. Children will naturally flock to practical/creative subjects because they offer immediate gratification, rather than to subjects whose value is appreciated only after years of study. As I see it, the Ebacc measure simply helps to balance out the natural advantage that art/drama/music have when 14 year old children are asked to make their GCSE option choices. Despite wild predictions of the death of practical/creative subjects, I have yet to come across a school which doesn’t value them and doesn’t offer a host of extra curricular activities in those subjects. In fact, children talented in sport/practical/creative subjects have far more opportunities for acclaim and celebration than a child who is talented in subjects traditionally regarded as being more “academic.”

Nevertheless, if I were a teacher of non Ebacc subjects, I too would rail against any measure which I thought might decrease take up. Moreover, I, like most teachers I know, would say that practical and creative subjects are an important part of a rounded education. A school without art, drama, music or sport would be a rather sterile place in my view. So what I find interesting is that Tom Sherrington’s idea of a national baccalaureate to include both MFL and performing arts appears to have died a death, while Kenneth Baker’s version (which excludes a compulsory MFL) seems to be gaining support.

My school has compulsory MFL to GCSE, but it is in a minority. I often find it intriguing to go onto school websites of schools which trumpet their Ofsted outstanding ratings to see how many of the year 11 cohort took MFL to GCSE. This can be quite difficult at times, as schools are not obliged to publish the number of pupils taking a particular subject, but of those that do, I never seem to see the same numbers entered for GCSE  MFL as for those entered for English and maths. In fact, a school is often struggling to get 50% of children to study MFL to GCSE.

Whenever I hear of a head teacher opposing the Ebacc, I look to see if they support Sherrington’s version. Not usually. Why is that, I ask? I admit, I have no evidence for this, but if I were a head I would worry that MFL, of all subjects, is the one which most pupils say they find most difficult. It is also the one which, even in the most “academic” schools, never matches the performance of English and maths. I would therefore be tempted by any measure which excludes or makes optional the subject that most children find hardest. Call me a cynic, but my guess is that fear of the impact of compulsory MFL is what motivates a lot of opposition to the Ebacc. This fear is, however, disguised as concern for the fate of practical/creative subjects.


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The best way to prepare for exams is to know the subject

Counsellor: So what can I do to help?

Year 11 student: I’m going to fail, I ‘m going to fail!

Counsellor: What do you mean? Your subject teachers are ever so pleased with you.

Student : Yes, but the other day we missed a couple of lessons when we practised going in and out of the exam hall. The idea was we could get used to what is expected.

Counsellor: I gather most students thought it was very effective!

Student: Well, lots of them were only to happy to be missing the lessons, because they hadn’t done the homework. Others wanted to be kind, because they knew the teachers had put it on to help us. But to be honest, I would rather have had the lessons.

Counsellor: But you’ll catch up easily.  Don’t forget we’ve got the Pizza revision evening next week. Free pizza for all those attending!

Student: Yes I know – I’m missing my usual swimming club session to take part.

Counsellor: There you are. And you’ll be attending the residential study weekend?

Student: Oh yes. My parents didn’t want me to miss Gran’s birthday, but in the end they were persuaded.

Counsellor: Now let’s check you’ve got everything sorted. Exam calendar on phone?

Student: Yes.

Counsellor: Walking talking mocks completed?

Student: Oh yes – we missed lunch every day last week for those. They were really stressful – I mean – normally I just answer the questions to the best of my ability. This time I got into such a flap when I realised I had only used 2 connectives in question 1, that I didn’t answer the next question properly!

Counsellor: PLCs all colour coded?

Student: I spent last night on my English and maths ones. I wasn’t sure whether to give myself an amber or a green  rating to the statement “I can write coherently.” It took me about 10 minutes before I decided on amber. Same thing happened for some other statements. In the end I got it done, but I was too tired to do the science revision which I’d originally planned to do.

Counsellor: So your first exam is a week 0n Tuesday?

Student: Yes – but I’m worried that I won’t make the 7.30 am warm up sessions before each morning exam- the traffic’s always terrible at that time! It’s my parents – they didn’t see the importance of it until they had the phone call from Mr Blenkinsopp. They said they would set their alarm clocks for 4.30 am after I flipped and shouted at them!

Counsellor: Quite right too – the warm up sessions are vital. And you’ll need to be on time for the complementary breakfast roll, fruit and water before it all goes!

Student: Miss – there’s just one question.

Counsellor: Yes?

Student: Why am I getting so stressed?

Counsellor: Well, I’d much rather we didn’t have exams at all, but the government insist….

Student: No, I don’t mind exams normally – I know I work hard and I usually do well. But all these preparation sessions are doing my head in…

Counsellor: Well, not all students are as conscientious as you – they need to be more geared up.

Student: In that case, couldn’t you just tell them at the start of year 7 that if they work hard and listen attentively throughout school, the exams won’t be so much of an issue? And repeat that message at the start of every school year? Because all these preparation sessions are stressing out those students who work hard – we keep missing lessons for them.

Counsellor: Tell pupils that all they need to do is work hard? And in year 7? But that might stress them out……



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