For TES: “Send in the gowns …”

This should probably be a photo of Glynis Johns

 I’ve a piece in today’s TES on the value (and under-valuing) of ritual and academic symbolism in schools. 

You can read the whole thing in the paper, or here if you’re a subscriber. 

(If you’ve not yet had the chance to pop down the shops this fine New Year’s Day, there’s an edited preview here. But the longer version is better and contains a description of how the gown of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford came to be, so you should definitely pay for it.)

“Beware the Ids that march” – to the barricades for Ofsted at Michaela

Here you can watch my debate with Katie Ashford as part of the Michaela Debates held recently. I stood up in defence of that most maligned of educational institutions: Ofsted.

You can hear my whole argument above, obviously, but the key points are:

  • Accountability is an essential feature of all modern educational system, on grounds of both the cost of state education and the importance of educating the young. Schools should thus be held accountable for: 1) proper use of public money; 2) outcomes; and 3) day-to-day practices. 1) is handled by the audit process; 2) by league tables and destination data; and 3) is best handled by inspection.
  • Some might suggest that there is no need to inspect practice, if outcomes are what is desired and money is spent appropriately. But it is always possible to manipulate any accountability system, and outcomes can sometimes be achieved by unscrupulous means (“gaming”) and it is essential the day-to-day practices be inspected. Of course, Ofsted can likewise be gamed, but the “mixed constitution” of outcomes, financial audit and inspection makes it harder to game one without exposing problems elsewhere.
  • Further, Ofsted does not exist for the benefit of teachers directly, but to help build trust between teachers and those we work for: the government who pay for schools, and the parents whose children we educate. Of course, it may put teachers under pressure and feel our work is being scrutinised, but it is that scrutiny which is essential for parents and government feeling trust about the value of what teachers do. Unconditional trust of professionals working with children, absent any real accountability system, is precisely what produces problems such as those that led to the collapse of Kids Company.
  • But even if teachers being happy with Ofsted is not necessarily a measure of Ofsted’s success or legitimacy, it is also the case that Ofsted had changed in the past four years in response to complaints raised regarding the validity and value of their work. Short of full abolition, most teachers would have wanted:
    • an end to graded lesson observations
    • an end of out-sourced inspections
    • shorter inspections
    • no preference for particular teaching styles
  • All of those now feature in the new Ofsted inspection frameworks. Of course, Ofsted may not achieve those things and it also should be held accountable for them, but when challenged by arguments with a strong evidence base, Ofsted is not an unchanging behemoth, and this should be acknowledged.
  • The strongest arguments against these positions raised in the debate was, I think, the idea that Ofsted’s existence generates and perpetuates bad practice amongst teachers. But I’m afraid I can’t accept that: the many examples of poor practice suggested (triple-marking, VAK, only marking in green pen, and more) are all, I think, monsters from the Id of the teaching profession that, as I have long argued, is not remotely mature enough in regard to its own practice, ethics or the research base for its work to effectively police itself.
  • But seriously, watch the video for a cracking Shakespeare paraphrase and a load of musical theatre references.

Debating Education at Michaela – watch me defend Ofsted (yes, seriously)

michaela debate

I’m on the bill for Michaela Community School’s inaugural Debating Education event. There’s five debates across the course of the day, I’m up at number four versus Katie Ashford on the existence of Ofsted. I’ll be arguing that it is both a good and necessary thing. I imagine this will prove very popular in the room…

There’s still a few tickets left, so do sign up asap. You can get tickets for the event here.

Politics In Education Summit

politics in education summit

I’m speaking at the Politics in Education Summit on 2 November in London. The whole affair is being overseen by Professor Chris Husbands, currently head of UCL’s Institute of Education, and with a variety of great speakers: I’m particularly excited to hear more from Tim Oates (of Cambridge Assessment), Ros McMullan (of LEAF Academy Trust) and Russell Hobby (of NAHT), three of the most interesting and thoughtful people in the sector.

I’ll be speaking in the panel debate on the acceptability (or not) of ideology in making political decisions about education. You can see the details of the rest of the panel below, and some of the questions the sessions is designed to address. For myself, I think education, especially but not just publicly-funded education, is inherently political and thus inherently ideological: there’s only so far ‘what matters is what works’ takes you before there’s an argument about what we’re actually working towards and that is, by and large, a value judgement (even though some judgements are made with a lot less evidence than others).

The event is especially important, I think, as education leaders and teachers face up to the reality of majority Conservative government (which few were expecting before May), and I suspect a long-term Conservative control of politics as a result of the strange turn taken by Labour. Politics has always mattered in education but, in a more autonomous system, the ins-and-outs of government policy may affect us all in unexpected ways. You can find details of how to get tickets here.

All these people dress better than I do. That's not the biggest problem I'll have, but it will niggle.

All these people dress better than I do. That’s not the biggest problem I’ll have, but it will niggle.

I’m speaking at this weekend’s Battle of Ideas

This. I'm doing this.

I’m speaking at this weekend’s Battle of Ideas (details of the debate above and the panel below) on the question of schools and British values. My involvement grew out of comments I made about “character education” at a previous education panel debate – in short, I worry that it is has the effect of making teachers short-change their pupils on the learning the teacher is expert in, in an attempt to dictate the moral choices that pupil makes as an adult – but I think “British values” is a little different to that, since without the underpinning of a liberal, pluralistic state the kind of disciplinary thinking that is essential to my own subject is, if not quite impossible, then certainly massively restricted, both in how much can be done and who can it.

So, my general theme will be the necessity of trusting the power of well-delivered, well-structured disciplinary teaching in order to admit students to the world of powerful knowledge, which empowers the students themselves to challenge those who form conclusions contrary to such knowledge or wish to undermine the social, political and educational structures which permit such learning.

I’m really looking forward to the debate, and hope some of those who’ve read my thoughts on this and other issues to do with history teaching will be able to join us. You can get tickets here.

Come see what this little group make of this.

Come see what this little group make of this.

For Cambridge Assessment: “Engineering Not Design” – Rob Coe’s lecture on accountability

I’ve written a piece for Cambridge Assessment about the fascinating lecture Rob Coe of Durham University gave to them recently about the accountability structures in English education. Coe provides a sensible idea of what accountability means (sometimes not clear in the discussions) as well as highlighting some of the issues with the two major levels of accountability in England: Ofsted and exams. He ultimately concludes accountability is valuable and useful, but that it is a matter of engineering, constantly evolving to solve emerging issues rather than assuming a given design will work off-the-shelf.

The first paragraph of the piece is below, and you can read the rest over at Cambridge Assessment:

It seems very much in keeping with an age in which social media has reconfigured the ways teachers talk to each other that I am writing a blog post about an event I engaged with the first time via Twitter and second time via YouTube. That event was Rob Coe’s recent lecture to Cambridge Assessment about the validity of England’s accountability systems in education. And social media had its own part to play here, as Coe made clear that it was via such media, given a platform at the very first ResearchED conference, that his conclusions on the unacceptably imprecise quality of lesson observation data reached out across education and changed the way Ofsted went about inspecting schools

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…

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A new teacher's forage into a challenging school.

The Echo Chamber

Tabula Rasa

"For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath."

Pragmatic Education

*Ideas are the currency of the 21st century*

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former 'behrfacts' blog now archived

Freeing the Angel

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free

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Back to the Whiteboard

Evidence-based teaching practice

Scenes From The Battleground

Teaching in British schools


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