For TES: “Send in the gowns …”

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.)

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“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.
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“Daddy, what did YOU do in the Mr Men War?”

So, we come to it at last: the great educational battle of our time. And it’s as much about the Mr Men as the War of Jenkin’s Ear was about that unfortunate mariner’s flesh, waved in anger in the House of Commons.

Instead, the Mr Men War is about two distinct issues, one a question of pedagogy, the other a question of power. As a teacher of History, the subject battleground on which the war is currently being fought, I have an interest in the former; as a political activist whose major interest is education, I think there is lot to discuss in the later. As both, I’m mildly despairing that the education establishment has decided to argue via the medium of cartoons… But, for what it’s worth, here’s my contribution to the Mr Men War.

Pedagogy: is it alright to teach the Nazis using the Mr Men?
No. I didn’t used to think that – not long ago, I’d have defended the activity as a valid and useful piece of classroom business that gave the students the chance to display their knowledge in an interesting way. I’ve never done this particular activity, but in my time I’ve asked students to do things that are very similar. Certainly, I’ve used the idea of getting older students to devise ways of teaching young students to shape lessons. It is the experience of having done that, however, that has made me question the usefulness and validity of this and other activities.

For a start, unless there are actual real live younger students to teach, asking students to simplify their ideas for a younger audience just results in them simplifying their ideas for themselves, partly because if the younger students are theoretical, students have no way of testing whether they are effectively transferring knowledge to them, and thus whether they have enough knowledge to begin with; if they can’t be stumped by a younger student’s question in a way which makes them think “I need to go back and learn more to answer that question”, what’s the point? If the students are real, then having gone to the effort of getting a primary class in, I’d probably hope for a stronger intellectual outcome than the Mr Men activity implies. I think that the the rise to power of the Nazi Party is an intellectually stimulating story in and of itself, and whilst I often ask students to represent narratives in different forms, I don’t really see the point of asking students to make that story more simple.

Of course, as I’ve suggested above, the specific activity itself, isn’t the entire point: Sue Cowley’s blog suggests that the issue is one about creativity versus knowledge in the curriculum itself. I’d need a longer post to fully explore my views on the foundations of the curriculum, but I think Cowley is missing the point here, as does Miss Smith here: a list of activities you remember, or things that were creative and that your enjoyed, isn’t a list of things you have learned. Whilst it might be good if students are enjoying themselves in lessons, this is no necessary correlation between that and learning. Indeed, given that learning new things is hard it is quite possible much of it will not be enjoyable: the fun in History isn’t in the method of learning but in being able to talk confidently about the past and the discipline of History. That students are learning, and are learning as much as the can do, is surely the correct test of a lesson.

Politics: is it alright for the Secretary of State to call out particular lessons and teachers?
Yes. If someone writes something on a website, especially something designed as an exemplar for others to follow, then you have to accept a critique of that, from wherever it comes. That the Secretary of State has a pretty big pulpit to critique from shouldn’t be a problem for those who are confident in their practice – after all, he has actually surrendered the power to tell most of us what to teach in the classroom anyway, so one might argue his view is pretty irrelevant. If you believe you can defend your teaching as providing students the progress they need, then there is little to fear.

Moreover, for years, teachers have complained that ministers don’t understand them and don’t listen to them. Now we’ve got a Secretary of State who, whatever you might think about what he is doing, is extremely well briefed on education and is obviously reading the direct views of teachers, as put out on their blogs. Even those of us who are politically opposed to him can be pretty certain he and other politicians are reading our work. Given that, it just seems a little lightweight and something of a missed opportunity to churn out smug patronising stuff like this from Cowley, or this from Paul Bernal, or another petulant piece of education agitprop from Rosen. If policy-makers are reading this stuff, why not write something persuasive, rather than something that treats politicians like they’re all idiots? To his credit, Russell Tarr did respondwith clarity about the purpose of his lesson and though I don’t agree with him, I think it is to his credit that engaged in this way. Argument between practitioners and politicians in a web environment with no gatekeepers is a big part of the future of education policy making: those on the frontline speaking and arguing directly with policy-makers.

But for that dynamic to thrive, those of us on the frontline have to accept that–like learning–argument doesn’t have to be enjoyable to be engaging.

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