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.

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.

Game of Shadows



According to Dr Avis Glaze there are 21 trends for the 21st century that will have a profound impact on education and therefore the whole of society. During her talk at #ILConf2014 we were asked to pick our top trend. I chose number 16.

A spotlight will fall on how people gain authority and use it.

I chose this as it seemed to me to be a worrying example of locking a stable door after the horse has bolted, set up a meth lab, organised a red wedding and is now trying to become president of the United States.

For any cats without a Netflix subscription let me explain. The authority has already been gained, in shadowy darkness, and the spotlight, by shining on how it is being used, has been turned on too late.

You just have to cast your eyes over the ‘Trojan horse’ headlines concerning those handful of schools in Birmingham that have hogged the spotlight recently. These schools illustrate not the faults of Islam extremism but of the subversion of power within a particular type of school. As local authorities fracture, the cracks have been filled with unregulated systems of power.

Is it surprising that in these schools there are stories of governing bodies becoming distorted with an over-representation of a single-minded vision that has gradually suffocated and silenced the Head? Allowed to operate outside the local authority and with less checks than state maintained schools, for academies, there is no spotlight except for Ofsted.

And when the corruption and damage to a school-full of young people is finally exposed it should prompt the ultimate powers that be to re-think the system; instead however, their solution is to maintain the organisational status quo whilst trying to now catch everyone else unawares.

Sadly it doesn’t stop there. What about those academies where it is not the governors who are operating under the radar and on the sly, but the Heads themselves? Never mind the pathological lying crazies who syphon off the school budget to pay for parties, holidays, unaccountable pay-rises and an awful lot of shoes; what about the career nepotism? What about those organisations where the common interview is something that they have neither the time nor the inclination to bother with? I mean it is easier to invite someone for a cup of coffee and offer them a job whilst you’re dunking your hob-nobs, than go through the tedious process of shortlisting, putting in place a panel, coming up with tasks and actually putting a range of people through their paces in order to, you know, find the best person for the job, but hey…who’s watching?

I’m all for building up a team and spotting talent but I’m also a believer that the good will out. If I had someone in my mind who I wanted to get a job but found someone else better through interview then surely I still win. I get the best person, a nice clean conscience and the smug feeling that everyone else knows I make decisions for the school not for my convenience.

More importantly, if you do appoint through the nudge-nudge wink-wink system how are you building in accountability? How can you justify their authority and your integrity when the spotlight shines on your organisation and it casts no shadow? Your failings are always your own but at least when the gaining of authority has been proper, the processes you go through to sort out the problems are easier to put in place because we can rely on, oh what’s the word, ah, yes; we can rely on our professionalism.

Finally, and this seems like a far more trivial example of the 21st century gaining of authority than those mentioned already, what about twitter? Is it a sorry state of affairs that popular social media users gain authority, or if not authority, influence? I have experienced this first-hand (albeit on an exceedingly small scale) when I was asked to DfE to talk about the new national curriculum and life beyond levels. I was not asked because I am an outstanding Headteacher, or because I was an outstanding teacher or because I have contributed anything of significance to the world of education. I was asked because I tweet and have written one or two blogs about education that, if I’m lucky, contain the odd cheap gag. Is this really an appropriate acquisition of authority? Now don’t worry, I do not seriously consider myself to have any ‘authority’ with the DfE but the principle of government and policy makers allowing themselves to be influenced by social media commentators occasionally seems a bit worrying. I mean, can’t they think for themselves? Should they really go after popular opinion so lazily? Does a massively re-tweeted message necessarily contain a sensible idea?

Probably not.

But at least in the world of social media the spotlight is on. Those tweets and blogs are for everyone to read and opposition to any popular tweet is just as visible to anyone willing to be engaged. If, when the spotlight shines, the public do not like what they see, they will simply unfollow and the deranged ramblings will fade to black and cease to have any influence or authority.

The same cannot be said for those who have been allowed to have authority within a world of shadows.