For TES: the comprehensive system at 50 – confused ideals leave a complex legacy


The “partying children” artwork which accompanies the piece is a particular highlight

As well as blogging for them, I’ve also penned the cover piece for this week’s TES, considering the legacy of Circular 10/65, the Labour government’s commitment to the introduction of comprehensive education across England.

Below is the conclusion that I reach, but if you’d like to see how I got there, the article is only available in the magazine, so you need to get down to the shops!


UPDATE: the full article has now appeared online BUT you should still buy the magazine because, trust me, the artwork is cracking.

For TES Digital: Teaching the Norman Conquest at GCSE and A level


The experience of a French exhange trip has remained much the same these past 1000 years.

TES has launched a new online collection of subject specialist blogs (under the title “Subject Genius”) which they’ve kindly asked me to contribute to. My first is on the Norman Conquest, which is coming to GCSE for the first time with the qualifications change. I’ve written on the big questions about it which are common across all the exam boards and the value of teaching something at Key Stage 4 which students have almost certainly already encountered at (the very beginning of) Key Stage 3. 

Here’s a taste:

Teaching students in more depth a topic they are bound to have done at Key Stage 3 is a great opportunity to consider how and why we teach history in different ways at different ages and I’d strongly urge anyone thinking about teaching the Conquest for GCSE to give it a go. 

You can read the rest over at TES Digital…

Liz Kendall is right about free schools

Off to work like...

Off to work like…

First, a confession: as of Monday, I will have ceased being employed by a free school so that I can take up a role with an academy chain. To many in Labour, I will have thus ceased working overseeing a slave pit in the Mines of Moria to take up a broader role destroying whole planets with the Galactic Empire; I am a Red Tory, my Labour values self-evidently corrupted. But I would like reverse the proposition: I went to work at these places precisely because of my Labour values, because I believe English education isn’t good enough, and the people for whom it is failing most are those Labour has always sought (not always successfully) to help, and that those institutions which are challenging the inadequate status quo are precisely those which Labour ought to be supporting.

It was this reason that I was delighted to see Liz Kendall’s uncompromising backing for successful schools during her recent speech to the Westminster Press Lobby:

As leader, I’m not going to waste time obsessing about school structures. If a school is providing a great education, whether it’s a local authority, academy or free school, we will back it. What’s more, if someone wants to help run their school, they deserve credit, not criticism.

The crucial part here is the last line. It is strictly true to say that Kendall is committing to nothing new overall: had it won the 2015 election, Labour did not intend to close successful free schools nor academies. Moreover, the free school programme was to be replaced by Parent-Led Academies, an idea whose distinction from free schools lay mostly in the use of capital letters.

But, regardless of both commitments, the rhetoric in the lead up to the election was uncompromisingly hostile to the idea of free schools, and provided very little encouragement to academies either. This was a perverse situation, in which Labour engaged in an ill-omened balancing act that risked looking indecisive, deceitful or both: we didn’t like free schools, but we’d keep them, and maybe we’d let people open things that were very similar, but we didn’t much like those people either.

Kendall’s decision to put herself squarely beyond such prevarication is excellent news. Not because all free schools and academies are excellent (some are not) or that everyone who wants to open a free school is an excellent person to do so (some aren’t) but because it evens out the inconsistency in our education policy in a way that will be a relief to many of the most effective providers of state education, whilst giving us a far simpler message for parents (and the only message most want to hear): we will get you a good school, by any means necessary.

Of course, there are areas that will need to be tidied up: Kendall has rightly distanced herself from the “preferred provider” model in the NHS which would overcomplicate the work to improve that service by favouring a particular provider, in this case the one directly controlled by the state. The current commissioning system for schools in England—almost all of which is done under the Basic Need Programme and not via the semi-separate free schools system—operates on the same basis but in reverse, preferring non-state providers even where they may be less good than public options. This ought to be corrected, not least because it will help ensure that poor-quality providers are kept out of the system. Further, the Labour leadership should provide strong support to those Labour local authorities sensibly engaging with free school and academy providers to expand provision against opportunistic and aggressive opposition which is sadly too often led by other Labour members.

On school structures, Kendall has not only committed Labour—should she become leader—to the correct route but proudly proclaimed it. Some in Labour won’t like it, but in the end the only thing that matters to a truly liberating education system, is what works. End of.

For TES: “There is no workload crisis – just politics”

My latest Opinion piece considers the evidence for a “teacher workload crisis” and posits that much of the activist pressure to view this as a system-wide breakdown (as distinct from individual examples in diverse schools) is driven by more ideological considerations.

Workload is the word of the moment. It has achieved the ultimate accolade: a government inquiry. The Workload Challenge, instituted by Nicky Morgan early in her time as education secretary, famously gathered tens of thousands of responses from teachers and generated concrete policy proposals from the Department for Education.

You can read the rest over on the TES website…

For TES Digital: We Need To Talk About Finland

Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment has produced an excellent short summary of the myths about Finnish education, correcting each one. I’ve written a piece for TES Digital exploring why Oates’ arguments here should change both the rhetoric and the deeper policy debate about education reform in England:

The real lesson of Finland’s school reform isn’t bohemian laxity of approach but total, system-wide commitment – and that is a very bold lesson indeed.

You can read the rest on TES…

For Labour Teachers: Doubts about the College of Teachers

I have written a piece for Labour Teachers (which is now under the sound guidance of Old Andrew), on why I am less and less enthused by the plans for the College of Teachers. 

There is, evidently, something very appealing in the idea of a College of Teaching. The vision of a new professional body for teachers is endorsed by all the political parties and the Claim Your College consortium can boast a 100-strong list of supporters. Given I once called for Labour to make support for such a college a key plank of its educational policy, I should be delighted, yet actually, I can’t help but harbour some doubts.

You can read the rest over on Labour Teachers…

For Bristol 2014: The tragic necessity of the First World War

This piece was first published in Bristol and the First World War, a book produced as part of Bristol 2014: The City and Conflict from the First World War to the Present Day. More details can be found here.

Dulce et decorum est...?

Dulce et decorum est…?

The question of why the First World War broke out is subtly different from the question of why Britain fought in it. On the face of it, there was little to connect the interests of the most powerful empire in the world with that of a small, increasingly-aggressive Balkan state in its confrontation with a decaying Central European empire. There had been two Balkan Wars in the years prior to 1914 which Britain had not deigned to engage with, why was the Austro-Serbian conflict of 1914 not simply another one of these? Of course, the intervention of Russia in the Balkans heightened tensions, but despite a century’s-worth of misleading textbook assertions, Britain had no alliance with Russia, and indeed significant reason to want her kept busy and away from the frontiers of the British Raj in India. So it is conceivable that a war could have been fought on the edges of Europe in which Britain had little interest and no intention of expending blood and treasure. Some have even recently argued that, even once Germany had found a way to involves itself—a way which necessitated war with France—Britain could still have stood aloof.

Given that Britain was the last of the major belligerents to declare war, it is clearly the case that Britain’s involvement was not essential for beginning or expanding the conflict. However, to argue that Britain could, or should, have kept away from the pan-European conflagration is not simply politically naïve, it is morally deficient. Continue reading →

Oathkeeper: Tristram Hunt and professional maturity

The last day of teacher training was always a bit special since Tristram Hunt became Secretary of State.

The last day of teacher training was always a bit special since Tristram Hunt became Secretary of State.

“For so sworn good or evil an oath may not be broken and it shall pursue oathkeeper and oathbreaker to the world’s end.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion    

I have written a very short blog for TES Online responding to Tristram Hunt’s suggestion of a Hippocratic Oath for teachers.


On Sunday morning, Tristram Hunt suggested he wanted to add a new ritual to the world of education, the swearing of a Hippocratic Oath for teachers. Responses to this idea came in three flavours: outrage, mockery and bafflement.

The first need not take up too much time: say absolutely anything in educational policy discourse and some part of edu-Twitter will explode. The mockery, while funnier, is also fairly predictable: teachers are a cynical folk and deadpan humour helps while away the hours. The bafflement is more a problem, because it seemed both more common and shared by many sensible people: why an oath? Why now? What was it designed to achieve?

You can read the rest at TES…

Workload, Middle Leaders and school IT systems: a modest proposal

This blog first appeared on NAHTEdge, the new union for middle leaders.

All school information managements systems, ever.

All school information managements systems, ever.

The launch of a new venture in teacher trade unionism is a big deal. The recognition of the need for a distinctive voice for middle leaders, the staunch stokers of the engine rooms of successful modern schools, is even bigger. In a movement characterised by the conviction that the strength of our common endeavour is greater than our individual capacity, how do we explain why a separate unit needs to exist for those who have acquired some greater responsibility, but are not yet sat in the big chair?

To illustrate the value of marking out a space for middle leaders alone, I’d like to focus on perhaps one of the biggest issues handicapping our profession: teacher workload. Everyone recognises this, from the Secretary of State down. There is, however, often precious little we seem to be able to do about it. We could plan and mark less, of course, but the evidence is clear that (done well) those things are vital contributions to the quality of our teaching. We could rip out entirely the inspection and accountability regime and bin the league tables, but Wales did and, by some measures, it didn’t work out very well. We could ignore the possibilities of developing extensive data and never enter anything into a spreadsheet again, but that would be to stand against a (potentially very valuable) tide.

Instead of thinking on the big scale of abolishing Ofsted or forcibly uninstalling Microsoft Excel from every staff room computer, what if we came up with much, much smaller and perhaps more effective changes? One area I think we could do small but vital work in reducing the load is in an area I’m sure many middle leaders will shudder to think of: school management and information systems (MIS). The advent of networked computing in schools opened the door to integrated databases which ought to make overseeing attendance, punctuality, behaviour and academic interventions more straightforward. Far too often, however, the systems purchased by schools to do this are unwieldy binary behemoths which need hours more work to operate as required. To give an example, one system I’ve previously worked with provided breakdowns of behaviour incidents which occurred in school on a daily, weekly, termly and annual basis. It was possible to further examine this data by year group but not by subject, so collecting reports of disruptive behaviour in my department (a requirement of our school behaviour management policy) became an elaborate process of additional emails, in-system messages and fly-by conversations. This left chains of evidence in a mess which often took more time to clear up than the original problem.

Why would a bigger voice for middle leaders assist here? In almost all cases, it’s middle leaders who end up filling the gaps in MIS because as either academic or pastoral managers they’re the first responders to school policies. Although they’re often the primary users of the nuts and bolts of MIS, the product isn’t marketed to them. Only senior leaders can decide to implement a new MIS, and only they’ve the budget-holding responsibilities to pay for it. Often the functions of the system chosen are those most appealing to the customer sat in the IT providers’ sales pitch even if they mostly examine the outputs of the system and are less concerned with the inner workings. This is not a criticism of senior leaders: of course it’s right the system should work for them, and the purpose of having senior leaders is that they take a more strategic look at the operation of the school. But, technocratic and even dull as such conversations might be, a louder, more confident and better trained voice asking precisely how these systems will work day-to-day could be a useful addition to school discussions in the name of efficiency, effectiveness and workload.

What’s class got to do with it? My ResearchED 2014 presentation

Bourdieu model

Anyone who is interested can download the slides from my presentation today on the problems of class in educational research here, including the exciting attempt to explain Bourdieu’s model of social reproduction in a SmartArt diagram:


Class – researchED presentation 2014

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