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.


Pass it on…keep it simple, stupid


I am not sure what prompted @HeyMissSmith to tweet:

I am coming to the conclusion the more complicated people try to make teaching the worse it gets.

But I am inclined to agree. In fact I would go further. The more complicated people try to make ‘the entire world of education’ the worse it gets. It is a deceptively tricky thing to manage however. Education is a tangled mass of issues (chopped and divided up into sub-issues each with their own mind-map of interconnecting categories, reference points and progress measures) that impact on the day to day practitioner who is just trying to make it to the school bell with their sanity intact. One can often be forgiven that education is essentially about: teaching children stuff.

It sounds so simple don’t it?

Children don’t know things…We do…Pass it on.

The problem, I think, is that somewhere along the line we began to worry that it was too simple a premise. You know when you ask a child a question that you know they know the answer to and they really struggle with it. Then they eventually, squint up at you and slowly vocalize the answer (remembering to cleverly lilt their voice upwards at the end as if to suggest it was ‘only a question’ should they get it wrong) and you say ‘Yes, that is the answer, it’s easy isn’t it! I think you were expecting it to be harder but there, you see, you did know it.’ That’s what education is like. It is as simple as you think it is.

But lots of people haven’t been satisfied with this and they’ve slightly tweaked the formula:

Children don’t know things…We do…Pass it on…In a special way that only I know about…Here, I’ll write it down for you.

Suddenly we are swamped with everyone’s simple way of passing it on that couldn’t possibly fail. And that would be fine. But education is a broad church. There are lots of subjects. And each one comes with expert opinion on how to pass it on the best. Before you know it, you are carrying around multiple approaches for multiple subjects and, due to the fact that they each consider themselves to be the most important thing to pass on, you become overwhelmed as you try and compress all of them into a single day of lessons. Not to mention the other areas of education that soon became passed on by the experts: behaviour, teaching styles, assessment strategies, feedback strategies, etc.

Multiple ideas for every facet of education have wormed their way into school culture. None of them necessarily bad, when explored on an individual basis, but when viewed collectively, they muddy the water, like some weird educational homeopathy.

It is, or course, the job of leaders to ensure that teachers are not forced to work in a complicated mess. But it is often these school leaders who zealously create over-complicated blue-prints that must be obeyed, distorting the formula thus:

Professionals don’t know things…we do…follow this plan.

At best, leaders are enablers: defining a vision and supporting individual teachers to be effective for their individual class. At worst, they are short-sighted architects: building their empire upon quicksand and distorting ideas for improvements into self-serving goals.

We need to reclaim the simplicity and subtlety of education.

So, in an extraordinary display of arrogance that seemingly feeds into everything I claim is wrong with education, let me present you with my own formula that will help you:

You know what is needed…Keep it simple…Make it work.

This can be applied to every stratum in every school. What’s more, I’ll prove it to you in less than one
two, okay, three sentences.


Know the school, the people in it and what needs to be done. Don’t just know the school through meetings and minutes: visit, observe, listen and learn, in short: add value. Support and challenge because you’re behind the school and you know the context.

Senior Leaders

Don’t have any long-winded or stupid ideas that are more work for everyone else than for you. Be clear about the school’s goals and allow everyone to care as much as you. Be respectful and loyal to your team and help people become better.

Middle Leaders

Know what else is going on in the school to help put your priorities in perspective. Listen to people and, if necessary, adapt your every-day expectations whilst keeping your overall expectations and your chin up. Help other leaders secure their goals – it’s not a competition.


Understand that many facets of teaching (marking, planning, data analysis) are tactics that you can use to help children learn more effectively than if you don’t use them. You can always get better so let those around you help you. Most of all, keep it simple: kids don’t know stuff…you do…pass it on.

Support staff

Believe that you can make a difference to a teacher’s effectiveness by the role you play in their lives – look out for them and they’ll look out for you. Remember that your role is to support learning, not prop it up. You deserve to be invested in too, so, if you haven’t been on training for years or if all you do on insets is take down displays, make some noise.


The whole school is in your hands but remember, you’re a head teacher; you’re not God or Chuck Norris, so tread carefully, be nice and know it’s not really all down to you. And try teaching once in a while. All of the above and oh, stop writing bloody blogs.

So there you are…pass it on.

That Was The Year That Was

There are two types of change: the obvious and the subtle. Obvious changes being things like a haircut, after which I can look at the pitiful mess of wiry curls sticking out of my scalp and appreciate that at least they’re shorter than before. Subtle changes are like going grey. I don’t actually notice the colour of my beautiful locks changing; no, that is for long lost acquaintances to notice when you bump into them on the street and they choose to point it out to you. And so, too, were the changes in the world of education throughout 2014 both obvious and subtle. Some happened overnight, some were a long time coming, and some, like my recent ‘just for men’ dye job, took people rather by surprise and will take a long time to get used to. 

TeachFirst – EducateLast

One of the changes that certainly took me by surprise, but then maybe I hadn’t been paying attention, was the dawn of the teachfirst teacher. It wasn’t until I tuned into BBC’s ‘Tough Young Teachers’ that I saw first hand the deal some of our most challenging and neediest pupils were getting from their unqualified teachers. The impact however, appears to be anything but subtle. The philosophy seemed simple: clever people can teach. This is fine if you also happen to believe that all fat people can cook and players of Minecraft are qualified town and city planners. 

I watched in a constant state of horror and amusement as these plucky graduates taught class after class of secondary school pupils. At best, it reminded me of my own trial and error experience that was my NQT year, but there were a number of times where it made me rather concerned about the state of teacher training for members of our own profession. It seemed like a cheap quick-fix way of getting educated people into the classrooms, rather than training and developing talented, professional teachers. It is, to my mind, an experiment that risks failure a little bit too frequently. 

I have no doubt that there are, and will continue to be, some great teachers that come out of this initiative and I know there are plenty of teachers who went through traditional teacher training methods who, shall we say, require improvement. I am not ‘that’ interested in the teachfirst debate (if you are then search for long enough on Twitter and you can become bored rigid by countless arguments for and against) but I am interested in what it will lead to. Unregulated teaching is my biggest fear from 2014 – maverick, inconsistent and at times just bat-shit crazy approaches to teaching appear to be all the rage. Forget the ‘traditionalist’ vs ‘progressive’ argument, we’re talking about cults of education here, and, in my opinion, this all started when it became OK to be an unqualified teacher. Governmental freedoms to help new types of schools appoint whoever they wanted (soldiers, clever graduates, wizards) have changed the profession at a time when professionalism is needed more than ever. 

The King is Dead

And then Gove left. Possibly the most wished for change of the year actually happened. Our man in Whitehall got himself a promotion and, like all good promotions, he’s hardly been seen since. What did this change mean? Well, not a lot. So many of his personal changes had already happened that it was difficult to see the light at the end of his tunnel vision. With the appointment of Nicky Morgan (more on that later), we now faced more change, but were told that it was going to be a softer and more cuddlier change. If Gove’s regime had been focussed on telling teachers what to do and how hard to work, Morgan promises us that her ears are open. But, like I said, more on that later. 

Gove has been called one of education’s biggest reformers. I think that means that there is now a longer list of stuff that we have to do so that someone else can look at it all and use it to say that standards are higher. He certainly was very personally driven – no harm in that – except that he was more rigid in his beliefs than those folks who laughed at Columbus for saying that the world was round. In fact, so insistent was Gove on flattening the education landscape, in order for him to traverse and rule over it more easily, that in the end he alienated himself from everybody and ended up on his own flat little island. A word of advice, Michael: don’t take up Minecraft. He has left behind him a battered warzone and, through deregulating the market, has left it harder for us to rebuild it.

The Undiscovered Country

A change that we all saw coming, but to which we prepared for by quite rightly hiding in a cupboard hoping it would pass us by, was the end of NC levels and the 2014 National Curriculum. One thing is for sure, some people are getting rich – our children might be getting stupider, but companies flogging schemes of work and attainment trackers are wising up to the fact that no one knows what the hell is going on. Up and down the land, harassed history subject leaders were panic conferencing and booking every Year 3 class to a trip to Stonehenge, while Heads were meeting up and avoiding conversations about assessments, hoping that someone from the DfE would come out and shout ‘April Fool!’

This is typical of bad change. No, that’s wrong; I don’t have a problem with getting rid of levels if that’s what the government wants, or changing the curriculum – what I have a problem with is the management of the change. The ‘over to you’ approach is not just lazy, but sets the whole country off on a wild goose chase. If we assume that judgements are made by comparing like for like and, where appropriate, taking into account contextual differences (we do don’t we?) then this massive example of buck passing must surely mean that we can no longer be compared accurately, therefore we can no longer be judged via statistics. This should mean that ofsted inspections should go back to those six week long endurance tests so that inspectors really get to know the school and how it operates…but I didn’t read that in the last updated inspection framework. In short, these particular set of changes – coupled with the fact that external judgements will not change – sets too many schools up to fail. 

Stressed Out

When I reflect back on 2014 what springs to mind is the feeling of pressure those in our profession are currently under. The workload has become unsustainable. Don’t get me wrong: you work in my school, you should be prepared to work hard, and, if you can’t stay on top of planning, teaching, marking, assessing and behaviour so that your pupils achieve (however we’re judging that today) then you should choose a different job. If you’re a middle/senior leader, be expected to do that, and more, with a smile on your face, and whilst supporting others. But it saddens me that we appear to be teaching in an age where nothing is good enough. I know how hard teachers work and many of the previous reforms and new initiatives often fail to take into account the contextual challenges of teaching. Therefore we are perceived as talentless fools who can’t even get a child to sound out a nonsense word. Teachers feel unloved because their masters have only been cracking the whip and inventing more stuff for them to do. 

All hail Nicky Morgan then, who is listening to us and wants to tackle the challenge of teacher workload. Call me a cynic but I don’t buy it. It’s election time and, as the scorpion stings the frog, the politician lies to the voters. She says she will carry us on her back and help us move forward. She can say that now because none of us bloody know what success is anymore! You wait until the standardised scores in Reception and Y6 start rolling in and they don’t start adding up: I’ll wager she won’t have carried us too far before we notice the sting in her tail.

Teach, Die, Repeat

Each year, after making substantive changes in my own school, I kid myself that this next year will be the year of no more change – this will be our consolidation year. It never is though because education never stands still. The profession, our communities, our politicians are ever changing, and we adapt and adapt and adapt because that is what we do. 2015 will bring with it more changes (obviously) but, for once, I think we are in dire need of them. I have no idea what the future holds for education but, as always, and despite the rather dystopian tone, I’m kind of looking forward to it…gives me something to blog about don’t it?