The Thinker


As I lay in bed wondering if I would ever walk again – having been cruelly crippled by chronic back pain and reduced to a whimpering husk of a man, desperately trying to cease all bodily movement until the time inevitably came to shuffle over to the side of the bed and wee into a bucket – it seemed an appropriate time to consider the changes I would have to make in my potential new life as a, now bedridden, beacon of education.

The harsh reality seemed clear to me: I was never going to be able to stand up, let alone walk, again. How would I continue? Would I have to face-time my assemblies and staff meetings? Would I have to employ my own special Hodor to carry me upon his back as I went about the school observing lessons? Did I now have a legitimate excuse to miss governor meetings? More importantly, could I, considering the school’s financial position, buy a new wee-bucket on the school’s credit card?

The saving grace was that I could still access Twitter. By propping myself up on a mountain of pillows, and using my copy of ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ as an arm rest, I could just about hold up my phone and swipe through my timeline. All was not lost.

And so, in agony, I purveyed the Twitter landscape. I stumbled across a blog entitled ‘Nobody’s actually against knowledge are they?’ by a little known blogger called @oldandrewuk. In it, the writer discusses the debate in education around traditionalism vs progressivism. Specifically, he considers how some progressive folk are denying that there is even a debate going on anymore. Some Progressives are coming out and saying that they too are in favour of teaching knowledge and they’re now wondering what these Traditionalists are getting so hot and bothered about.

This, to many Traditionalists, is bloody annoying. You see, the argument between Traditionalists and Progressives used to be so simple: traditional teaching = teach knowledge; progressive teaching = teach skills. Now it’s all being muddied with Progressives backtracking on all this ‘skills’ stuff and claiming that they don’t have a problem with knowledge. But, according to the writer, they can’t really be in favour of knowledge if they are against testing it, or, teaching an awful lot of it. If you’re against testing the amount of knowledge a kid has in their brainbox, or, want them to solve imaginative problems that will make them use and strengthen their understanding of the knowledge, then, you’re nothing more than a Progressive in a Traditionalist’s tunic.

I suddenly began to feel queasy. It wasn’t the fact that I’d taken ibuprofen on an empty stomach or that I’d lost sight of the wee bucket. It also wasn’t because I disagreed with the blog. It was because I was questioning my own mind. I thought I’d always maintained a nuanced balance regarding what I considered to be important in education. A subtle blend of the traditional and the progressive. But was I kidding myself? Had I, in fact, changed my stance and become more traditional? And if so, why was that? Had I seen the light? Or had I simply conformed, been beaten down by the curriculum, the tests, the tedious battles on Twitter between the two armies that tend to, in my opinion, be won by the Traditionalists only because they have the energy to keep on going when everyone else has gone to bed?

When confronted with change in physical form, as I was now (would I ever walk again?), I could consciously adjust my thinking (forget my holiday to climb Everest, I need to save up for a Stanner Stair Lift). But when ideological and educational reforms surround me, am I unable to consciously adapt? Or do they warp my thinking until I have convinced myself that not only was I right before, but I am also right now?

There was only one way to find out. I had delve into the deepest darkest depths of my mind. I closed my eyes and began to recite an old Tibetan chant that would bring about a zen like state and allow me to transcend my own consciousness. Then I realised that not only was I not The Ancient One but it would also probably be easier just to re-read some of my oldest blogs.

It took some time (my word I’ve written a lot of drivel) but eventually I found something I’d written in 2013. In a blog entitled ‘Goodbye Mr Chips, Hello Mr Squeers’ I gave my opinion on this ‘new’ curriculum of ours. I didn’t appear to be a massive fan:

This, as I see it is the biggest disappointment of the national curriculum: it’s just a list [of facts] that he [Gove] wants children to know… This expectation for mass content knowledge coupled with a lack of thought on curriculum skills may, I fear, mean that topics as I know and love them will disappear.

So, I thought to myself, I was a massive Progressive after all! I was exactly the sort of person Traditionalists in 2013 loathed. I even dared to raise the idea that you could get children to learn about historical events, personalities, bias, politics, and culture through art rather than by memorising facts. I can only imagine how I survived the inevitable onslaught of derision that this post must have garnered on Twitter as I appear to have blocked it from my memory completely.

Near the end of the blog however I start talking about pub carparks. I couldn’t quite grasp why until I remembered that this was written at about the time that Richard III was found buried underneath one. My main objection to the new curriculum, at the time, was that although knowledge is great, too much emphasis on ‘facts’ result in a weak level of understanding. Simple recall, without any application, evaluation or opinion, does not a learned person make. If all we do is teach single-subject facts, we will produce nothing more than a nation of expert pub-quizzers; learners able to demonstrate a veneer of knowledge at the drop of a hat but without the deeper understanding of why what they know is important.

I still believe this. But I am glad to say that my prediction was wrong. We are not producing ‘knowledgeable but ultimately useless eggheads’. And this is not because either the Progressives or Traditionalists have won the great educational debate. It is also not because I have changed my stance or because I believe in knowledge without testing. Testing is fine. Just don’t tell me that a perfect SPAG score means you’re an effective writer, or that because you can name all the Tudor monarchs you’re a historian, because that’s just silly. Instead, I think the biggest impact on children developing a deeper understanding of the knowledge they are learning is because of life beyond levels. As I said in May 2016, in a post called ‘Metamorphosis’.

We are no longer teaching a ‘progress’ curriculum; we are teaching a ‘knowledge’ curriculum. I like the move away from vertical progress. I think the opportunity to play around with the highest level of knowledge you currently have – challenging it, stretching it, strengthening your understanding of it – is rather liberating.

You can’t gain masses of knowledge without some traditional teaching methods. However, you can’t strengthen your understanding of said knowledge if you are not free to explore and try it out before you are tested on it. Schools are now free to do this in a variety of cross-curricular, imaginative and progressive ways because we have been freed from the shackles of vertical assessments. The 2016 SATs may have been a shambles, and the standards may have been ridiculously heightened but, so what? Continue to teach a well thought out and challenging curriculum effectively and most pupils have a chance of getting there by the end of key stage 2.

It was therefore with a sigh of relief that I closed my eyes and smiled at the realisation that I had not changed. I had evolved my thinking but, deep down, I was still as subtle an educator as I ever was. I realise that may make me twice as irritating to twice as many people, but hey, it’s only Twitter.

With that, I heaved my legs over the side of the bed, grabbed a walking stick and pushed myself up to a standing position. Bellowing a great howl as I straightened my back, and putting one foot in front of the other, I elegantly hobbled to the toilet. Because some things are not meant for the wee bucket.

Modern life is rubbish

I’ll keep it brief: Modern Britain sucks.

I don’t mean that being here, actually living on this small island is bad, for the record, I quite like it – we have a national health service, the BBC, a good solid class system that allows me to feel socially awkward pretty much constantly, and some of the best cheeses known to man. No, living here, suits me down to the ground.

What I dislike about ‘modern Britain’ is that it’s now been appropriated by politicians and become a ‘thing’. Modern Britain has now, apparently, arrived and of course, schools have not noticed. While we’ve been busy teaching girls how to walk in a steady line whilst balancing a pile of books on their heads and developing boys’ aptitude for shimmying up chimneys, the world has moved on.

Modern Britain is totally new. It’s all shiny and fast and touchscreen. And that’s great and people want that. But they also kind of want traditional things, how things used to be – you know, cups of tea, starched shirts, McDonalds. Imagine Britain was like the Booker Prize and the winning book was a mash-up of Thomas Hardy and Irvine Welsh. Modern Britain is exactly like that. Classic, sweary, comfortable, edgy, shabby, chic.

Except…there’s more. According to facts there is also radicalisation, separatism and a poisoning of good old fashioned British values. I’m not sure what these British values are: imperialism, colonialism, Thatcherism? But in between the Old Britain and the New Britain is the Bad Britain. Close your eyes and think of Britain today: you’re probably getting an image of a tattooed Mary Berry piping salted caramel curry sauce on a Yorkshire pudding whilst sexting. That’s modern Britain, red in tooth and claw, and that last bit…that’s the bad bit.

This is the full hard core Britain that we, as educators, were just letting children blindly wander into. But now, thanks to Ofsted that is set to change. No longer can we just get on and try to survive in whatever sort of Britain we wake up to – now we must prepare children for a pre-defined modern Britain; the one that we apparently all want and have subconsciously agreed upon.

There’s just one problem…this idea of Modern Britain is a bit, well, naff. And I say that knowing that I’m discrediting my previous three paragraphs. That’s how sure I am that the people who decided, in the new Ofsted consultation, that schools should prepare pupils for life in modern Britain, hadn’t really thought it through. I mean I put a lot of thought into the Mary Berry bit (a little too long to be honest) and well, even though I reckon that’s the most accurate picture anyone has ever come up with to describe modern Britain, I wouldn’t want to hang my school’s whole curriculum on it – let alone yours!

But soon we’re going to be subjected to proving how we’re preparing children for someone’s idea of modern Britain. How is that going to work? Who is that someone? Why will their version of British values be relevant for my pupils or yours? And does anyone really think it’s going to work?

My suspicion is that this body of work will be reduced to box ticking. All over the country websites will change, ever so slightly, to make sure words like ‘modern’ and ‘British’ and ‘values’ are visible to impending Ofsted inspectors. Every school policy will be updated with identical incidental paragraphs promising that promoting British values is an integral part of school life. During the inspection Heads will do whatever the modern British values equivalent is of lighting a candle in assembly in order to pass it off as ‘collective worship’.

No school will actually sit down and decide for themselves what British values are and how they promote these in their school. And if they did, what would stop a rogue inspector saying ‘No, no, no, these are not British values…these are!’ It’s an inappropriate misappropriated mess.

I don’t doubt that the concept has come from a good place. But seriously…let’s be British about it and think about it sensibly. How about bringing back community cohesion? That was pretty good wasn’t it? Looking at your community, celebrating its strengths and challenging its weaknesses. Working out how you could give your children the best start in, not just modern Britain, but the modern world – an even more rapidly changing place.

Some might say, that schools have been doing this for years, even when community cohesion wasn’t considered cool anymore. Yes, a minority of schools may have failed some of their pupils by not safeguarding them effectively from the more sinister fractions of their community but their failings are lessons learned and taken forward by all of us. We don’t all need another knee-jerked bolted on initiative to put into action…we just need to keep our ears open in order to hear the winds of change because modern Britain doesn’t suck…it blows.



DfE – the D is for the ‘Day’


Ooh I was terribly excited. Being invited to the DfE to discuss…well something educational I guess. I didn’t really know anything about it. Who was going? Why had I been invited? What was the purpose? What on earth could I contribute? Would lunch be provided?


The night before I got a DM from Tim Taylor saying that some of the other invited Twitter folks were meeting up in a pub beforehand and would I like to join. Would I? You bet – this was starting to sound like a right old jolly. In the morning I made my sandwiches and went to the train station, picked up my tickets (69 quid that I was told I could claim on DfE expenses – this is the bloody life I thought) and soon I was sat on the train zooming to London.


On the way, I thought I should probably brush up on the National Curriculum, so I read that for a bit. Then I got bored and ate my sandwiches. Pulling into Paddington I skipped to the underground and got to Westminster. By this time I was running very late to meet the gang in the pub but I googled the address anyway. I arrived just in time to shake hands with @imagineinquiry, @cherrylkd, @debrakidd and @educationbear; grab a soda and lime (75p…come on London, behave!) before I was back out the door walking towards Sanctuary Buildings.


Upon arrival we were ushered in to the DfE waiting lounge, where @emmaannhardy and @heymisssmith were also waiting. Luckily it seemed that none of us had any clue what this meeting with the DfE minister and policy men was about and when @thought_weavers completed our group and also said they weren’t sure what to expect we were badged up, crammed into a lift and were soon sitting around a table. There was no lunch but there was a tray of cookies. I positioned myself next to those and thought, well if nothing else, I’ll probably eat more cookies than anyone else so it won’t be a day completely wasted.


From the DfE we were met by Vince Jacob (and later) Jim Magee who as far as we were concerned actually wrote the national curriculum word for word (they seemed quite intent on confirming and then denying this in equal measure…I think they did). There was also Caroline Barker who was solely (well as far as we were concerned) responsible for the abolishment of levels. We chatted about implementing the new curriculum, assessing without levels, our own thoughts and experiences of educating in the current climate. Then, in a whirlwind of mobiles and whispering assistants Elizabeth Truss MP joined, left and came back again. While she was there we repeated stuff that we’d already said, explained what differentiation was, I very nearly got her to answer a very important question that I had come up with but she had to leave to go and vote on something. I tried to get her assistant to vote for her but, as you would expect from a committed MP, she did her duty – albeit by promptly leaving the meeting she had presumably set up in the first place.


When she came back from her vote – a distraction to the group that I used to my advantage by swiping another biscuit – it was getting near my return train time. So it was my turn to say that I was very sorry but I had to leave and go and vote on something back in Bristol. She can’t have heard otherwise I’m sure she would have laughed. I flew out of DfE – oh thanks to Cait Mellow, who I think had been the person who set it up as she is in charge of the DfE social media team leader, and pointed me in the direction of the nearest Tube. I missed my train as it turned out. I couldn’t get on the actual next train because that was a ‘peak time’ train and my ticket was not valid. I asked if I could pay the difference and was told that to pay the difference between my original ticket and a peak time ticket would cost £128 but if I bought a new peak time ticket it would cost me £96. I failed to see how this was mathematically possible but I really wanted to go home. Two things popped into my head at that moment: the first was I hoped that the DfE expenses claim form would cover this unexpected additional cost to my day out and secondly, I thought maybe the incredibly prescribed maths curriculum wouldn’t be a bad idea and could someone give a copy to the ministry of transport.