Oh what a lovely war

I read an article the other day about the final Hobbit film that is due to open this Christmas: ‘The Hobbit: The battle of the five armies film to end in 45 minute battle scene‘ screamed the headline. Can you imagine that? A great war between aloof elves, socially repressed ogres, single-minded orcs, sniping goblins and smug wizards. I imagine, sat in the cinema, it will be a never-ending stream of trolling. Now, I hate to be the one to break it to Mr Jackson, but 45 minutes of watching the same boring fight over and over again is nothing compared to what Twitter’s education community is capable of. We of course only have two armies: Progressives and Traditionalists. But, even so, that doesn’t stop them from battling continuously over hallowed yet uncommon ground. Aside from being hell-bent on knocking seven shades of pedagogy out of one another, each side is resolutely unforgiving of their opponent’s fighting methods.

I will now, dear reader, summarise the main differences between the progressive and traditionalist approaches to teaching. Actually, no I won’t, it’s far too boring. Look, just close your eyes and give your Twitter timeline a big old swipe…I guarantee you’ll land on a link to some blog that will explain it all. As the saying goes:

‘In the land of Twitter education, you’re ne’er more than 2 tweets away

From a progressive or traditional teacher, desperately having their say.’

I have often said that I don’t know what being a ‘progressive’ or a ‘traditional’ teacher actually means, and I’ll admit now that this is only half true. I do know the broad differences in ideology. Traditionalists are Victorian time travellers who know everything and believe that children should just shut-up, listen and graft silently until they bore a hole into their little wax slates. Progressives, meanwhile, mainly teach through the medium of dance, believe that there is no such thing as a single answer and that children can only work if playing in groups. The only characteristic these two types share is a fundamental belief that their opponents are singlehandedly ruining the education of this country.

In terms of who is winning the battle, it’s possible that the traditionalists are at the moment. We seem to be entering an age of educational austerity. I guess that comes from a few years of a Conservative government, one secretary of state’s worryingly self-absorbed obsession with reshaping the educational landscape to suit his own ego, performance related pay and Ofsted’s demand that progress is made within twenty minutes by every child. All of this encourages weak leaders to put pressure on teachers to produce ‘results’. In this climate, rote learning, sharp discipline methods and the testing of facts in order to prove capability kind of supports a traditionalist’s approach. And with the recent Sutton Trust research project that suggests even giving praise is a waste of bloody time, you could be forgiven for being a rather smug traditionalist at the moment. The mere thought that we could make a difference by allowing children to work together, by encouraging role-play beyond a drama lesson, by bringing empathy into learning, by making lessons ‘fun’ is sheer madness isn’t it, you risk averse robotic kill-joy?

But hey, that all sounds like I’m anti-traditionalist, and that is not the case. I have, for some time, been concerned that the public demand on schools has become too wide ranging. We are teachers. We teach children stuff and that’s where it should end. Society expecting us to do everything in terms of a child’s development is just not on. Parents expecting a teacher to design a personalised curriculum on the basis of their child’s interests-without a care for the other thirty children in the class or the national curriculum-is also just not on. It’s selfish and smacks of a middle-class sense of entitlement run amok. If children are unsure of school rules or how to be polite, it is the school’s job to give them higher expectations and sanction them when they fall below them – and if parents can’t understand that the school’s behaviour policy is in place for their child too, then schools should have the power to give the parents a detention as well as the kids! (See, not so progressive now am I?)

However, what always strikes me as odd and depressing, as I get engulfed by the hot air caused by a Twitter-edu-debate-blast-zone, is how rigid and at times blinkered some of these progressives and traditionalists are. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m just a weak minded, woolly headed individual who doesn’t know his own mind. But, try as I might, I can’t nail my colours to the mast. I honestly couldn’t tell you which approach I favour because, as you have read, in my time I’ve been both a traditionalist and a progressive.

I’ve worked with all types of children in all types of settings and, as I flit between being a traditionalist and a progressive, I have come to realise that there is a third type of teacher that is better than both of them put together (literally). I am talking of course about the ‘subtle’ teacher.

Teaching is a subtle art and I am a subtle teacher. I am a Subtle-ist. By my Bing Dictionary definition this means that I am ‘intelligent, experienced, sensitive enough to make refined judgments and distinctions’. Therefore, I can appreciate the time or the context where a traditionalist approach is appropriate just as much as I can identify the right time and situation to deploy a more progressive mode of teaching. It is through deft deployment of these styles that allowed my pupils to make progress and, as a Head, allows me to run a school (full of bull-headed traditionalists and progressives) successfully. At the end of the day we are all educationalists, which means it is our job to educate the children in our care, which in turn means…we gots to do what works. And I’ve never known one approach work the same for everyone – and I seriously doubt you have either.

So, let’s leave the extended battles to the elves, wizards and talking eagles, and let’s start an underground movement of our own: La Résistance Subtle! Let’s leave the petty name calling and ‘my way or the highway’ nonsense behind and embrace all that is nuanced in education. Let’s agree that it’s ok to change teaching styles depending on what class you’ve got or what you’re teaching, or even what the weather is like (I’ll wager a traditionalist doesn’t let the fact that it’s windy outside get in the way of a maths test). We can do it. We just need to be open to adaptation and try to approach teaching from a subtle-ist’s perspective.

Who’s with me?




Hypocritical kiss

Tristram Hunt

To be fair to Tristram, teaching really is a profession where we could do with a little more commitment. You only have to look at school staff car parks at 3:30pm up and down the land, empty and deserted, to know that. Walk into any staff room during lunch time and, as you listen to every adult within judging distance, giggling with glee at the prospect of being home in time for ‘Pointless’ whilst they book their seventh holiday of the year, it’s clear that any ‘moral calling’ to join a ‘noble profession’ is falling on deaf ears. Teachers are well known procrastinators, deliberately wasting their time and underperforming. If I had a free school meal for every time a teacher said to me during performance management ‘but I became a teacher for the holidays’ I’d be able to feed the juniors for free as well as the infants.

Governments have tried to address this before. Knowing full well that teaching encourages even the hardest working individual to become an opportunistic slothful slouch (the sort of person who avoids ‘professionalism’ like they would the wet footprints left behind by a child wearing a verruca sock), they tried to increase the teacher’s workload. But it doesn’t seem to matter how many initiatives you throw at them, teachers just keep on hiding in the shadows and getting away with it. You would have thought performance related pay, league tables, testing nonsense words, pupil premium, sports premium, SPAG tests, removing assessment systems and having to invent your own, constantly changing inspection frameworks, new curriculums…all these, you would have thought, would have had some impact. But no: teaching remains a sullied profession and Tristram has, quite rightly, had enough.

I mean what makes it worse is that it’s not just ‘those in the know’ who have noticed. Parents are beginning to wise up to the fact that teachers don’t know what they’re talking about. Luckily they can now do something about it. Due to the canniest political move since Blair told Brown ‘of course you can take over after five years’ and then mouthed ‘NOT’ whilst poor Gordon was distracted trying to add the 10% service charge to the bill, parents can have even more control over their children’s education by building free schools. There may only be a few of them, but they are the only schools where the right people are in charge with the right people in the classrooms – the more unqualified the better I say, as it makes it easier to do what the parents want if you haven’t got to view their requests through a lens of ‘knowledge’, ‘experience’ or ‘being an actual educator’. Spare a thought then for all the other parents, who have to live with the fact that their local authority school or academy chain is being run by people who consider weekends as some kind of entitlement.

Luckily, Tristram has a two point plan to change all of this. He will first make teachers take a ‘Hippocratic oath’ and he will then give them an actual compass. I could go into details here about why these two things are brilliant ideas, but I wouldn’t want to patronise you. It is a brilliant plan; anyone can see it: the oath will mean that teachers finally see that they are expected to work hard ‘educating’ and the compass will help them navigate their way to the toilets in a new build. There really is nothing more to add. Bravo.

It is so nice to be able to get behind someone who ‘gets us’ and sees the wood despite all the trees. Like a laser beam zoning in on James Bond’s balls, Hunt has teaching in his sights and knows how to sort it all out. He knows that the profession must elevate itself from the bargain basement expectations we currently have and soar like Icarus towards the light – and his two point plan will make sure we never get anywhere near the sun. Clever Tristram.

What better way to make us better than giving us an oath and a compass? I mean, you could argue that dismantling free schools, redefining assessment procedures so they are meaningful, cutting back on nonsense policies that distract us from teaching and learning, not dumping social issues onto our laps and expecting us to fix them/eradicate them with no more cash or time, creating an inspection system that isn’t driven through fear and inconsistency, respecting schools to make decisions that benefit the whole community rather than pandering to lone, loud voices, and generally valuing teachers for doing an incredibly complex job in an increasingly complex world, would also help restore teaching to its stature as a noble profession, but, like most of us teachers out there, maybe he’s afraid of hard work. Never mind, I’m sure the compass will work just as well.

I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart…


There was a bit of Twitter chat on male and female teachers today. Is it right that there is a shortage of male teachers? Are women better teachers? Do heads prefer a specific gender with which to populate their school? You will be thrilled to know that I don’t know the answer to these questions and I would balk from answering them as I haven’t done any research. I haven’t, for example, set up three schools, one with all male teachers, one with all female teachers and a control school with, yes you’ve guessed it, no teachers. And I haven’t then observed these schools over a period of ten years to see which of them achieves the highest percentage of Level 6 scores in the spelling, punctuation and grammar test.

I also haven’t conducted experiments with myself such as ‘Skinner’s Pavlova’ whereupon I enter a classroom blindfolded and after observing a lesson declare the teacher to be male or female, resulting in a shard of meringue being fired into my open mouth or getting electrocuted in the face, depending on whether I was right or not.

No, I think it would be wise of me not to answer – plus I’ve kind of already written a little bit about it here. But what I will say is that when I go about the task of selecting a teacher to join my school I don’t care whether they are a man or a woman, I care about their abilities as a teacher. (I’m great aren’t I?) But there is one very important trait that I observe that will help me make up my mind and, if I’m honest, certain elements of this trait, in my experience, are more prevalent in one gender than the other. I won’t tell you which and what – that can be a little game for you to play.

For this very important trait I’ve turned it into a question and I’ve compiled multiple answers for which I have a point system that I won’t share with you now as I wouldn’t want to ruin your fun. If you like, you can come up with your own point system and use it at school when you’re interviewing or maybe just in the staffroom as a bit of self amusement. This is great. It’s like devaluing education and putting teaching on a par with some teen magazine questionnaire about deciding which member of ‘No Direction’ you’d be best suited to having a short term and emotionally devoid relationship with. This is exactly the kind of thing education needs; Nicky Morgan, take note and let’s go….good luck everybody – and just so you believe that I really don’t value the sexes differently, I would like to convey that luck equally to both men and all you lovely ladies.

@theprimaryhead’s big question:

Do you have a special teacher voice?

  1. No, I talk to children the same way that I speak to adults in the staffroom accept  with less swearing (for primary teachers at least; I imagine you secondary lot swear like dockers as you struggle to maintain control of the hooligans that you blame us for creating)
  2. Yes. Normally I speak in a, well, normal voice. When put in charge of a class of kids however I feel compelled to use what I consider to be modern vernacular in order to hoodwink the children into thinking that I have my finger on the pulse and that I relate to them. The hit ratio is horrendously low – I may start off using current phrases but will soon descend into using words from TOWIE Season one and trying to crowbar a reference to Gangnam Style during a PE lesson. I will eventually use phrases that wouldn’t seem out of place in a 1950s documentary about teenagers – do you dig it Daddio?
  3.  Yes. If you and I were having a conversation you would hear and understand me perfectly and you would be able to stand at a reasonably close distance to me – when you enter my classroom you will see that tone, pitch, volume and an assumption that anyone else can speak English are vocal considerations that I have neither the time nor inclination for. My voice becomes more of a strangled harsh bark of the highest register and my vowels come out shorter than your average consonant, unless the word I’m saying is a ‘filler’ word in which case the vowel sound will be stretched to such an extent that it makes a Reception phonic lesson sound like a condensed rap performed by Alvin and his band of chipmunks: Noooowwwwww, riiiiiiight, okaaaaaaayyyyyy, liiiiiisten pleeeeeaaaaase. I also like to stress the main ‘learning’ words so that children are quickly trained to pick up on key vocabulary without actually hearing them in context and I always phrase my questions in such a way that it is impossible to choose the wrong option.
  4. Yes. When I speak to children, particularly in independent work time or during break/lunch/registration, I tend to sound like I’m auditioning for a part in ‘The Wire’. I mumble, assume that all children have an intricate knowledge of ghetto lifestyles and often end each sentence with a question such as ‘You feel me?’ or ‘Ain’t that right bruv?’ It’s almost as if I think children won’t tolerate or respect the vocal honesty in my plummy Received Pronunciation accent.

So there you are. How did you do? And did you spot the man or the woman or do we all have an equal chance in being vocal idiots? I will let you decide, but for the record, and based on the results of all my extensive research into the matter, I know which answer I’d go for. And that means that not only do I have a higher chance of dating Harry Styles but that I also have the perfect teacher voice, init?