Don’t believe the hype


Lea owned a car. The car worked. It could go forwards and backwards; it could go slowly and quickly. The mechanic helped Lea look after the car. The mechanic made sure the brakes worked and the gears were smooth and the exhaust was healthy. The mechanic did this for all cars. Lea really liked the car and knew how to look after it. She put petrol in it and regularly checked the oil. She took it to the car wash every third Saturday of the month and occasionally she even cleaned the foot-well with a mini vacuum cleaner she had once bought from a service station. Lea liked her car.

Lea had a friend called Matt. Matt had just bought a shiny new car. Matt told Lea that his car was better than hers because it was shiny. Lea questioned him about why it was so good. Matt claimed that his shiny car could not only go forwards but that it could also go backwards. Lea said her car could do that too. Matt said yes, but his car did that and was shiny. Matt said that he could make his shiny car go really fast. Matt said he could drive at 120mph. Lea asked if he ever had. Matt said he hadn’t because you’re not allowed to drive that fast but he was sure his shiny car would find 120mph a breeze.

Lea didn’t think much of it until she read a review of Matt’s car in a car magazine. The review was written by a man who really liked fast and shiny cars. The man in the review said that Matt’s car was one of the shiniest cars he’d ever driven. The man in the review said that it could go forwards, backwards and that it could go 120mph. He even said that the gears were smooth. The best thing about this car, said the man in the review, was that it was shiny. The man in the review said that one day all cars would be shiny and therefore one day all cars would be great.

Matt was really pleased with this review and shared it with Lea. Lea said that she had read it and was pleased for Matt. Matt said Lea should get a shiny car because then her car could go forwards, backwards and 120 mph. Lea said her car could go forwards and backwards and that, for all she knew, her car already could go 120mph. Matt said he didn’t think this was true because her car was not shiny.

After that Lea started to see loads of adverts for shiny cars. The man who had reviewed Matt’s car started writing other reviews saying that all these shiny cars were amazing feats of engineering. They could all go forwards and backwards. Some cars, when you put petrol inside their tummies, could keep on driving for ages. Lea thought that this had been the case for a while, but the man in the review was pretty sure we were entering a new age of the car. Old cars could not compete with the new shiny cars.

Lea started to think that maybe her car wasn’t very shiny. She found herself dreaming about driving a shiny car at the legal speed limit but knowing she could go faster. She began to think how good it would be to have a shiny car that could go forwards and backwards. Lea went to car shop and asked to see the shiniest car for sale. She was shown a very shiny car. She asked what made this car so good. The salesman said that because it was shiny you could put petrol in it and that would make the car could go forwards and backwards. Lea asked about how smooth the gears were. The salesman said that what was amazing about these new shiny cars was that they used oil to make everything work properly. The salesman said that in his experience, what made these shiny cars so unique was the fact that the shiny cars could be looked after by a mechanic. Lea said that sounded really good and the salesman laughed and said that he knew it sounded good.

Lea walked home from the car shop. She rang Matt to talk about shiny cars. Matt said that if it wasn’t for shiny cars, people would literally be walking on motorways pulling their unshiny cars behind them with massive ropes. It was as if car builders didn’t know what they had been doing until they had invented shine. Then, suddenly, the cars were able to go forwards and backwards and possibly 120 mph. Lea agreed. Lea thought she might have to buy herself a shiny car.

On her way home she passed her own mechanic’s garage. Out of curiosity she popped in to ask what her mechanic thought of shiny cars. Her mechanic laughed and said that shiny cars were the same as any other car and that what made a car go forward and backwards was putting petrol in it, checking the oil regularly and generally looking after it. Lea asked about shiny cars going 120mph and the mechanic said that no car was allowed to go that fast so it didn’t really matter. Lea said that she had read a review saying that these new shiny cars were the best because they were so shiny. The mechanic said that this was nonsense and what made a car good was what had always made a car good. Lea asked what that was. The mechanic said that as long as a car had oil in it, a place to put the petrol in and an owner who didn’t try and drive at 120pmh, it would go forwards, backwards and as fast as you would ever need.

Lea couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Lea went home and went on the internet. She searched for stories of shiny cars. So many shiny car owners believed their cars to be good because they were shiny. Could they all be wrong? Even the man who reviewed all the cars said that shiny cars were the best sort of car. But she couldn’t stop thinking about the advice her mechanic had given her about all cars needing the same things in order to go forwards and backwards. Lea was so confused.

In the morning she rang Matt and asked if he could drive round. Matt said he’d love to but that his car was in the repair shop. Lea asked what had happened. Matt explained that he had tried to drive his shiny car through a small tunnel. Unfortunately his shiny car was a bit too big. His shiny car had made an awful scraping noise as it squeezed through the tunnel and when he had got through he had stopped his shiny car and got out. To his dismay all the shine and had been removed and his car was now all dull. Matt said that this was a disaster and that now it was completely undriveable. Lea asked how he had got his car to the repair shop. Matt said he’d driven it. Lea sounded surprised and asked if the car had driven alright. Matt said yes, in fact he thought it had gone a bit faster but that was probably just the shock. Lea asked him how much it was going to cost to get the shine back. Matt said about a million pounds. Lea asked him if he thought it was worth getting it re-shined. Matt said yes because without the shine his car wouldn’t go forwards or backwards and it certainly wouldn’t possibly go 120mph.

Lea hung up.

Matt was an idiot.

Lea got into her car and drove, perfectly well, to work.


Just gimme some truth


I’m sick and tired of hearing things

From uptight, short sighted

Narrow-minded hypocritics

All I want is the truth

Just gimme some truth

John Lennon

It must be a tough gig being a Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC). I mean, no one in education must ever want to talk to you. If I got a call coming through saying the RSC was on the line, I’d immediately order the shredding of my RaiseOnline and fax Justine Greening my application to convert to a grammar school, just so I could avoid talking to them. Their sole purpose, according to the DfE website is ‘to sack work with school leaders to make more academies take action in underperforming schools’. That basically means: if they need to talk to you, you’re yesterday’s news.

Still, that doesn’t seem to bother them much. In fact, you can’t help admire their single-minded visionary approach to education. It turns out anything can be solved by becoming a Multi Academy Trust (MAT). I genuinely did not know that. I knew that it was a Tory policy to transform any type of school into a MAT by 2020 but I didn’t know that it was actually the best thing that could happen in education. Until, that is, I heard the South West RSC talk to a group of Heads last week.

Rebecca Clark began her talk by saying that she believes MATS are the best vehicles for effective partnerships. I looked around the room, at all the Heads I have worked with over the years, and I realised she was right. For years we have been pretending to work together: turning up at cluster meetings, conducting peer reviews, taking part in moderation activities…and for what? Selfishly working with other schools to help our own. If only we were a MAT. Then we could really work together, rather than pretending to, and we could probably afford better coffee.

The nail had been hit. But, there was more.

For too long, Rebecca said, in this MAT-less landscape we call our home, any successes have been accidental. I scanned the room and I saw the shamed faces of my colleagues, all of whom had previously claimed that they had systematically improved their schools through careful and diligent planning. All they could do now was stare at the floor as they heard the truth: their improvements had in fact been accidents. But MATs are not accidents. MATs are planned. MATs are good.

And don’t start with some lily-livered lament about moral purpose. Everyone knows, declared Rebecca, moral purpose isn’t enough. Only a moral imperative works. And of course, that’s right. Heads only cared about disadvantaged children once they were given a budget for them and held accountable for their progress by Ofsted. I thought back to all those conversations I’ve had with Heads who talked about the only reason they’re helping the poorer children was so they had something to brag about on their website. ‘Don’t know if 1:1 tuition helps the little sods but Ofsted bloody love it!’ I once heard a local authority Head say at conference whilst a chain of MAT Heads walked out in disgust.

Rebecca, and I’m sure this is true of all RSCs, can’t stand it when she hears Executive Heads bang on about their school development plan being financially viable. Excuse me? But what about it being educationally viable? How about you put your ego aside and focus on the child before the cash cow Mr Executive? The only small issue here – and I hate to bring it up – is that I think only MAT Heads call themselves Executives. Maybe the RSC should change that bit because I’m sure it’s the local authority school Heads, like me, who brag about our massive budgets.

For the second half of her talk Rebecca discussed how school improvement works and how schools should think about the academic and emotional education they provide their communities in order to have a positive social impact. Every school leader should be committed to ensuring that no child in their community, or their neighbouring area, should attend a poor school. Schools should work together on common areas of need. Schools should add value to their communities and be able to sustain any improvements they make so that they are a viable option for years to come.

But, of course, I didn’t really understand that bit because this is only what MATs do.

I guess it won’t be long until I do understand it though. Because, luckily, MATs are coming. It’s time to declutter and repair all that nuanced and individual leadership that has accidentally, and yet steadily, improved the state of education over the last decade. Now is the time of false dogmas that help those in power peddle the concept of structured school partnerships. We all, apparently, need to be intentionally (not intelligently) re-designed so that we can all stand on the same MAT, hold hands, cross our fingers and hope it works out for the best.

Until then though, I think I’ll carry on screening my calls.

Rigour (funny title isn’t it?)

The questionnaire

I was at a Heads’ meeting the other day and we were discussing last year’s moderation process. There were several schools that had been moderated in writing and they shared their experiences. The over-arching theme was that the moderators had been rigorous in their use of the writing framework’s tick list. The DfE would be proud. Best fits were out. Triple evidenced tick boxes were in.

We began to talk about the rigour of the new curriculum. It’s really rigorous. Teachers need to rigorously teach it. The rigorousness of the children’s ability to write proper depends on it. Teachers being unable to talk to children without commenting that the last child who answered a question did so whilst using a cracking modal verb followed by a coordinating conjunction is the current educational de rigueur.

Primary English education is very, VERY rigorous.

Except it isn’t.

It’s tedious.

Churning out lessons like they’re literary shopping lists is not the way to create a literate society. Parroting the exemplification framework, rather than talking like a human, is neither good nor rigorous teaching.

Rigorous English teaching is a holistic art. It requires you to blend the technicalities of the English language with the much harder job of capturing imaginations. You have to ignite passions, acknowledge tentative attempts, unpick glorious failures and celebrate style.

You can’t do this if you are an assessment framework slave. Sometimes you have to feel success, not identify it. That’s the magic of teaching. Reading a child’s work and not quite being able to put your finger on why it’s astounding. How often has a slightly misplaced word, or even an incorrectly spelt one, actually got across an idea or a feeling better than anything else you’ve ever read? I’ve lost count of the number of times the ‘teacher’ in me thought he hasn’t quite used that right while the ‘human’ in me has countered that with but my word, he’s nailed it; I know exactly what he means. Being able to appreciate when wrongs make a right and then sharing that with the child is how you evolve writers.

Of course you need to teach punctuation, grammar and spelling. You can’t be a consciously good writer if you don’t have an understanding of the basic rudiments of how the written word works. Teachers’ subject knowledge has to be exceptional. But not at the expense of their instincts.

I know there will be many teachers who read this and think: alright mate, we’re not stupid; we get it. There will also be many people who may think that this is something that should have been published when the interim assessment framework was first released.

But I think it is more pertinent now that last year is over. Because we’ve survived the first year. We’ve got the hindsight of what happened as well as the foresight of what’s coming. We know what the moderators are after. We know that children were not allowed to be judged ‘expected’ because a tick list, not a professional teacher who knows their class inside out, deemed it so. Professional teachers will now be in danger of being reduced to teach to the tick-list more than ever because, at the end of the year, we’ve all got to show progress. And that progress will be linked to how many more children ticked more boxes than last year.

The potential for dry evidence creating is greater than ever. Children could spend more time copying out final drafts of old (and corrected) writing in order to show that now, and in this book, they can use the progressive form appropriately. Teachers may be told to abandon creative ideas in order to churn out standards baiting paragraph openers – or whatever openers are called nowadays. Literary sparks, that fly off the page, could be snuffed out as teachers shine a light on a mixed tense malfunction. This could be the landscape of teaching English this year.


Because the framework is rigorous and the moderators use it rigorously.

Told you the title was a joke.