What’s good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander (part one)

I am a pattern seeker – it’s what I do, a lot. I feel very lucky to have seen, experienced and worked in quite a few schools despite my relatively short time in education and this experience has given me so much in the way of pattern spotting opportunities. As the ‘scientist’ in charge of various learning ecosystems, maths being probably the biggest right now, I now know, for example, the pattern of hiccups that occur when a direct instruction program is implemented and I know what they mean and how to deal with them. It helps that I have seen every child’s book, taught pretty much every child, observed every teacher, led (or co-led) every assembly, analysed every bit of data, led (or co-led) pretty much every staff meeting etc, you know, done my best to ensure that I have really seen the bigger picture but even then not resting on my laurels because there is always more that could be investigated and whatever further questions I have for myself I always refer to what the evidence base tells me is the right thing to do rather than simply copying what has always been done in the past by everyone else. Sometimes this takes a lot of courage, for example, in year 1 to go for a more formal approach that attends to cognitive load theory, the need for explicit instruction, retrieval practice, knowledge-rich curriculum etc, but the payoff is huge not least because the children are calmer, happier and more confident as readers, writers and mathematicians. There is always more that can be done though.

And then I wonder why this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often. Why is it that an evidence-based approach to teaching and learning doesn’t dominate in most primary schools? Perhaps there is some kind of pattern that points everyone and everything in a different direction, causing them to not only get the wrong answers, but ask the wrong questions in the first place. Perhaps there are some assumptions that are, um, wrong?

One such assumption that I think is wrong (and I have seen this mentioned on twitter, so I know I’m not the only one that thinks this) is when people look at schools with advantaged intakes and correspondingly high results and then extrapolate that whatever goes on in those schools should then be ‘the model’. I think this is the reason why non evidence-based approaches such as PBL, open classrooms, child-led pedagogy, skills-based curricula just go on and on and on – the children who still do well in these sorts of learning ecosystems bring with them knowledge (social and academic) and scholarly behaviours (such as being able to sit still and concentrate) given to them by their parents and therefore don’t really need to be, well, taught (sort of). Everyone can coast along on the loveliness of it all and those who work in the schools where advantaged children make up the critical mass of learners will then go on to be promoted and will then go on to advise other schools of this ‘best way’.

How can this situation be dealt with? That’ll be part two. I’ve got to get my skates on because I run the maths breakfast clubs……..

Who’s with me?





Why knowledge-rich is *the* most child-centred way

I’ve been in education half a decade now and despite how it seems on edu-twitter, most primary schools still choose to implement a ‘child-centred’ topic-based/thematic curriculum for the foundation subjects and science whereby the ‘child-centred’ aspect is incorporated through the provision of exploration and discovery lessons at the start of the sequence with the teacher looking to provide further opportunities for personalised learning based on:

  • the child’s prior knowledge
  • the child’s initial interests in that particular topic
  • an assumption that children learn best through practical, ‘hands-on’ activities
  • an assumption that children prefer working in groups
  • an awareness that the morning’s lessons (maths, English, guided reading) would’ve been quite heavy going and that little children need a sort of change of scenery in the afternoon

A quick google and it’s easy to find examples such as here, here, here, here and here. Thanks to the new national curriculum, I would say that there has been a shift towards teaching a little more knowledge, with curriculum resource providers such as Cornerstone’s being popular choices for schools, but there is still this ongoing narrative that paints knowledge-rich curricula and knowledge-thorough pedagogy as somehow dangerous for children. Of course, we must also remember that choosing to go topic-based is also a practical solution to the reality of needing to give the majority of the primary teaching day to maths and English and once you’ve subtracted other necessities such as P.E, assemblies and the inevitable trip or three, there’s not much left for all the other subjects, so what better solution than to squish them all together into a sequence of topic lessons? You can give it all a snazzy title such as ‘Rotten Romans’ and start with the usual ‘what would we like to find out’ session (that gets transferred to the working wall), then hey presto you’ve got yourself a child-centred foundation subject curriculum, culminating in a ‘fun’ session of cutting, sticking and making of The Pantheon out of old toilet roll tubes. However, I’d like to make the case for knowledge-rich curricula delivered through discrete subject lessons and would argue that this is in fact *the* most child-centred way.

pantheon - Edited

My main argument is based on purely anecdotal evidence (sorry, I actually work full time in a school and am not a university researcher). I’ve gone from working in a school in a mostly middle class area where the usual topic-based curriculum was implemented, to working in a school on one of the most deprived estates in the country where subjects are taught discretely and where knowledge is the focus. To me, being truly child-centred is about acknowledging how young children are driven by a need for love, praise and attention and when I think back to lessons of old where we’d start with what we already knew and what we’d like to find out, who would be receiving the inevitable majority of the love, praise and attention from adults and peers because they already knew the most and therefore had the most interesting ideas for avenues of exploration and discovery? It would be those children who already knew quite a lot. Consider the striking unfairness of that situation compared with the situation I am now in and partly oversee: all children, regardless of background, on being asked a question could put their hands up and then enjoy the opportunities to show-off what they know. It really is as basic as that.

In order to acknowledge how good this situation is for children, we also need to stop fooling ourselves by pretending that children are like little professors. We are all guilty of assuming that children share our fascination with our subject specialities (which, if we think about it, developed in our late teens) and my observations show that time and time again the adult in the class will be engaging in more conversation with the children who already know quite a lot because they have read around the subject at home or had conversations about said subject at the dinner table. In this situation, the teacher and the child are mutually firing up the subject-specific circuitry of their minds, making yet more connections within connections and experiencing pleasure from that while the other children carry on (possibly) staring into space*.

When I think about it, the above situation could happen in both a generic topic lesson as well as a knowledge-focused subject lesson where the teacher has got a bit carried away with the Q&A plenary, it’s just that it’s more likely to happen in the former and for greater numbers of children as a matter of course. However, perhaps we need to consider that this natural tendency for human beings of all ages to seek out mutual opportunities to fire up the circuitry of their minds as they seek common ground for conversation behoves us to take the next logical step which is scripted lessons/direct instruction for those discrete and knowledge-focused subject lessons, if anything to shift the teacher’s patter towards a more equitable giving and sharing of knowledge that also takes into account the next level of planning (like the film Inception) which is to do with what each and every child is thinking at any one point in the lesson, rather than what the child is doing (or feeling). This need is probably particularly acute in schools where teachers are new to the profession and whose induction has involved a substantial amount of inculcation into inefficient pedagogies associated with progressive education.

The alternative, of course, is to give over more of the sequence of topic lessons to ‘creative’ activities where we make and do – great at the time (because everyone’s ‘fun’ circuitry is being fired up) and having the extra bonus of engaging the parents because they get to see what is made which to them is better ‘proof’ of learning rather than unseen changes to their child’s mind. I’ve got a direct instruction maths blogette brewing on this aspect of ‘mind circuitry equity’ and it’s going to blow your, er, mind.

Anyway, It’s not just children hailing from disadvantaged backgrounds who benefit from ‘feeling the love’ (as I put it) in discrete, knowledge-focused subject lessons. Increasingly, children from relatively wealthier, middle class homes miss out on opportunities for potential praise and attention in the classroom because they are not fluent readers and because they default to video games over looking at a book that would have given them extra knowledge to make those connections with. In my opinion (and I appreciate it’s not exactly mainstream), once children have been introduced to the crack cocaine of youtube and Fortnite, particularly if access to screentime is unregulated and is allowed to permeate the latter parts of the evening (when they should be asleep), they will never choose to read a book again and the light of additional, potential knowledge acquisition is snuffed out. Further, we also have to consider the fact that our youngest generation of parents, the ones with children currently at primary school, were children in the 80s and 90s where ‘knowledge acquisition’ was merely an accidental by-product of listening to some grannies at the school bus stop. These parents, even if they were purposeful and chose to ban electronic devices from the dinner table and instead taught their children the scripts for turn-taking polite conversation, wouldn’t be able to experience the joy of shared firing up of the circuitry of the mind because they don’t know much about, for example, the Romans either. Inevitably, these parents would ask their children ‘So, what did you do today?’ rather than ‘What did you learn?’ and if the children haven’t received much in the way of knowledge, then everyone ends up having a substance-less conversation about who-talked-to-who at playtime or how ‘boring’ and ‘hard’ the lessons were.

So, that’s it really. Child-centred learning is about acknowledging children’s need for love, praise and attention and there’s no better way to do this than by giving them knowledge, best served undiluted in discrete subject lessons, thus facilitating more opportunities for all children to receive love, praise and attention in the classroom, out in the playground and in the home where they can impress their parents and siblings and have more interesting conversations.

Who’s with me?



Tech-free school

A couple of days ago, I was with a few fellow governors and as we waited for a meeting to start, the conversation turned to technology and its alleged benefits. You see, the other governors were all older than I and they had some great school stories to tell. I was able to join in a little as I had my own stories about the time I went to a mad private school on Bodmin Moor. I loved that school because it was just pure academic focus interspersed by joyful play and I really flourished during the short time I was there. To the outsider though, that school would’ve seemed backward, out-of-touch – it was completely tech free.

So, I dared to say to my fellow governors that if I were to have my own school, ideally a free school, it would be completely tech-free. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense. There were so many compelling reasons why I would just not bother with IWBs at all.

Firstly, there is something about the way these giant screens are positioned in all primary school classrooms that relegates the teacher to mere accomplice during a lesson. Even when the IWB isn’t being used, I notice that children can’t help but stare at the glowing screen while the teacher is, for example, reading them a story. Why is this? Perhaps children are increasingly used to staring at a screen more than looking at a human face. As I have said many times before, the current youngest generation of children are the first to have had a tablet computer placed in their hands from around the age of 2 (and parents think their children are genuises for using them) and they are yet to go to secondary school. These children are around year 4 and I wish the national media would pick up on this very different kind of neglect that affects all sorts of families, regardless of socio-economic status – sheer lack of human interaction that would otherwise teach a child the nuances of facial expressions, emotion, social scripts, self-control, taking an interest in others. For many, it is too late because everything and everyone is boring compared to Fortnite. So, if the IWB were to disappear, I think many children would benefit from being ‘re-set’ to looking at the teacher rather than a screen.

Already I can sense educators bewailing the lack of opportunities for these poor children in my ‘dream’ school to er…..do what exactly? What would they miss out on if I got rid of all the IWBs? Videos, interactive diagrams and google earth are the easy answers, but then I think back to the time before IWBs and try to remember how I was given an insight into the world beyond beyond the one I existed in. Books were the biggest feature and I poured over them. What if we expected children to look at a picture in a book about space and then imagine that asteroid’s orbit rather than simply being shown a video that requires an audience to make no effort at all? It seems like cruelty to expect children to ‘cope’ without their umbilical cord to the internet, doesn’t it?

Then there is the cost. Let’s face it, most of us teachers use the IWB to write and draw in the same way as teachers a generation ago would use a chalkboard. If we got rid of the IWBs, not only would we be getting rid of the cost of the equipment, but we’d also be getting rid of the distinct possibility of it all going wrong just as an Ofsted inspector steps into the room. No more costly software product updates, no more ‘freezing’ which seems to give tacit permission for children to start goofing about because they can’t wait mere seconds and instead must be entertained at all times. Think too, about the savings on utility bills for the school and just as we start to wonder about the cost of those replacement flipchart and whiteboard pens, we realise that there was a really eco-friendly version not so long ago called chalk. Woohoo!


The reality is that hardly anyone would choose to send their child to my tech-free, uber trad school. Most people want their children to be entertained constantly and they love the sights and sounds of children happily chatting away in class while they choose their high-tech activities and learn at their own pace. They can send their children to any of the thousands and thousands of schools across the country that provide that. My school, however, would require that parents commit to restricting their child’s access to tech in the home as part of the home-school contract. Yup, I would actually do that because I am sick to the back teeth of dealing with children who have spent the previous evening and every evening before that playing video games such that when they are in school, they are tired, fractious, think nothing of casual cruelty, have zero social skills, cannot concentrate or use their own minds for anything more than the most simple of computations and are incapable of waiting patiently while the books are handed out. They also know they are more than entitled to rage quit on everything from homework, to lessons to offers of friendship out on the playground when things don’t go their way. Even if SLT are supportive, it is far too easy for a parent to complain that the teacher hasn’t made the lesson interesting or easy enough for their child and therefore the child is justified in kicking off.

It’ll never happen, this tech-free school. I know. But I’ll still carry on dreaming….

Anyway, one of the best things my mum ever did for me was lock the TV away when I was about 7 and I never saw a screen again until I was 18. Overnight, the relationship between myself and my sister blossomed and strengthened as we had to create our own imaginary world as a form of entertainment. I also developed super powers of concentration as I poured over books, teaching myself all sorts of interesting knowledge. At school, I was suddenly needing to be promoted to the year group above me, and I began to overtake other students (we were all ranked). This would never have happened if my mother saw me glued to the TV screen that one time and decided to do nothing about it. I had the most amazing childhood even though we had no exotic holidays, fancy clothes or shiny new cars. In fact, we were really hard up and I’m surprised I managed to turn out so tall and healthy despite a diet of Supernoodles and Angel Delight. Myself and my sister really did have a proper, innocent childhood with real imaginary play (not the phony kind in EYFS settings) inspired by stories I had read and this is what I’d want for as many children as possible.

A tech-free school…..who’s with me?



School-to-prison pipeline: maybe we are at fault after all

It’s taken me days to write this! This is a real thought piece that has changed completely as I’ve run through the logic in my head, so hear me out and I’d love to know your thoughts on this too. You know, I’d actually prefer to be persuaded that I’m wrong and then I wouldn’t feel so guilty that I’m part of a system that might actually be making life much worse for children. Long story short: an article was recently published arguing that instead of excluding pupils, we should all work harder to accommodate them more, otherwise they might end up in prison. The thing is, I’m wondering whether these pupils are being excluded and then ending up in prison because we accommodated them too much.

So, I am a school leader who moved half way across the country in order to join a trust dedicated to the provision of an excellent education to disadvantaged children and I now work in a school situated on one of the most deprived estates in the country. When I read these articles, I do wonder why there is an underlying assumption that educators do not care enough. It’s like they’re trying to guilt trip us even when all methods to facilitate inclusion have been exhausted, the coffers are empty and everyone is emotionally, mentally and physically drained, but I’m trying not to get too defensive about it all. I’m sure you all know that people like me really do care. It could just be that commentators are merely looking from the outside in and thinking that there is always more that can be done. You know, they’re probably right. There is always more that can be done if the status quo is to constantly look for more that can be done, but where do we draw the line? Suddenly I’m thinking about the triple marking fiasco – how did that start? It started small with a tick or a cross or a see me and then gradually ramped up as everyone looked for more and more that could be done for each and every child and soon each and every child didn’t bother to double check their own work or really listen in class because they knew the teacher would give them a multi-coloured private tutorial inside their workbook. Those children also knew that if they didn’t bother with the original work, or the marking, or the return-to-marking-marking, then it would be the teacher who’d get told off (because the leadership were checking up on the teacher’s marking rather than the quality and quantity of children’s work) and not them. Maybe we’re all trapped in a cycle of rising expectations similar to triple marking as more and more people get involved in this one child’s life.

There are actually a number of points the author raises which I agree with – a school’s ‘unmet needs’ is quite a good analogy because the very schools who struggle most with behaviour tend to be situated in deprived, white working class areas and will therefore struggle to attract and retain those specialist and experienced teachers who could give a few solid years of hard graft as part of a team investing a great deal in consistency, culture and community (rather than firefighting). Further, despite evidence showing that extra pay doesn’t help to attract good teachers, I can’t help but think that our national pay structures ought to take into account the fact that a cohort of 30 disadvantaged children will present a higher workload for the class teacher because of the sheer volume of extra safeguarding, pastoral and social needs. And if people don’t want extra pay, then perhaps the key to attracting good teachers to these schools/areas is funding extra time out of the classroom on a par with NQTs – this would help with their mental health because working with disadvantaged cohorts can very quickly wear class teachers down and then they make plans to work in a middle class school instead. We don’t want this to happen not just because children can switch off as they become resigned to a revolving door of aloof supply teachers but also because the teachers who leave are valuable, caring and hardworking people who deserve support rather than an attitude that there are plenty more fish in the sea.

One of the author’s proposed solutions is for schools to be released from the top down pressure of focus on results and attainment and then pupils who present with extremes of behaviour could be accommodated more and therefore be retained in school. While I agree that there is rather too much pressure on headteachers to come up with the results goods about 5 minutes after they’ve taken on a school, I’m not sure that lowering the bar would be the best option. Firstly, a lowering of both academic and behaviour expectations across an entire school would then potentially reduce or eliminate the life choices of well over 350 already disadvantaged children (our context), not to mention wearing out hard working teachers even more. When I think about the home lives of some of the children I am responsible for educating, it would be awful if they then had to put up with witnessing and being desensitised to more violence, chaos and disruption, displays of uncontrolled anger and having the only positive thing in their life turned into yet more daily hours of misery. Further, many of the children we educate have SEN and I am their protector – children with ASD, for example, who are not as confident and who need calm, routine, rules that are clear in order to quell anxieties and free their minds for maths. However, this is not just about the rights of all the other children, this is about the rights of the one child who might be excluded – we all want him to have an education and we all agree that when we reach the point of permanent exclusion there will have been many decisions along the way that have sought to accommodate this pupil’s disposition that have just not worked enough to put him on the path to better behaviour (and therefore academic) success. At what point do we admit that if something isn’t working and we’ve tried that something repeatedly and with increasing fervour over time, the solution might not be to go the full gambling addict and do that something yet again and with even more oomph in the hope that this time it’ll finally work. I’m sure we’ve all had this sort of discussion about discovery maths and realise after many iterations of doing more and more discovery maths that the answer was not to do discovery maths in the first place.

My solution is to step back, get scientific about the origins of this child’s behaviour and then get in early, meeting his real needs rather than creating various official, rubber-stamped ways to accommodate his wants. Perhaps this is easier said than done though! In order to ask those important questions, we have to accept that:

  • Children can and do choose their behaviours and actions
  • Children who have SEN and disabilities can and should learn simple social rules
  • Children who struggle with self-control need to be taught and have the chance to practice to automaticity those basic habits that all the other children have, rather than be allowed to go through life thinking that everyone should placate them
  • There is a difference between needs and wants

I have been lucky enough to work with pretty much all age groups. I started off with the teenagers and gradually worked my way down into KS1 and EYFS. You know, when I see a young lad refuse a teacher’s instructions at 5 years old, I see the 15 year old young man that he will become and I know exactly what he will be like in year 11. There are all these patterns that point to a pathway that some of these children are on and that pathway goes way, way back. Most of the commentators seem to look at what happens when the excluded child is a teenager, and most people working in EYFS (where the path starts) don’t branch out into working in older year groups. When that behaviour butterfly flaps its wings and then causes a storm somewhere else in the world, I am probably one of very few educators who sees both the behaviour butterfly and the storm that results. There is something that is common to most younger children who are on the dodgy pathway and it is that their behaviour at 5 is still very toddler-like. It’s as if they got to 2 years old and that toddler pushback was not dealt with, rather, the home situation accommodated them instead and the parents just accepted that that kind of behaviour was sort of part of the child’s natural personality. And I do hear about and from parents who have younger children who are due to start school, ‘Oh, he’s a hitter. They will have to watch him because that’s just what he likes to do.’ Another common theme is that these children tend to lack ability to communicate with words and social graces. They’re incredibly frustrated and this constant frustration definitely contributes to the embedding of quick-to-anger personality traits and habits of thought, as well as holding them back from accessing early literacy and numeracy education.

As you know, I have concerns about the EYFS framework in that it accommodates the MO of a child who’s learned at home that he can do what he wants if he stamps and shouts hard enough and actually embeds those thought habits around choosing the instant, easy and fun over delayed gratification, effort and hard graft (even if it doesn’t present initially as poor behaviour – this is about basic psychology). Combined with a tendency to kick off if he doesn’t get his own way, it’s all to easy to allow this cute little fella to choose to not read or write, you know, so we must accommodate him a little more – maybe he’s just not ready, eh? It’s a bit of a shitstorm really because this child is not only having his current disposition accommodated and augmented, but he is now falling behind in his learning and he KNOWS it and feels like an idiot compared to the uber-confident girls.

We bide our time and then in year 1 we can really make a difference: evidence-informed pedagogy, knowledge-rich curriculum, dramatically different just-sit-down-and-learn with the teacher teaching from the front and lots of practice to make links and make permanent. Funnily enough, both behaviour and academic attainment dramatically improves too (when progress measures go from baseline, our school will rocket up the league tables). I know that many children are re-set onto a better and happier path in life during this time. The children love their learning and receiving praise. Pity the disadvantaged child in a school where noisy play/discovery based learning is the main influence all the way into year 2 – he might be clocking up lots of letters after his name as those labels get added and people wait for him to magically re-wire his own brain, reverse poor habits of thought and action and suddenly be ‘ready’ to learn like his peers, but he certainly won’t be clocking up letters after his name as a man.

What happens to this boy who tends to kick off as he moves up the year groups? A school that has that trad culture embedded will slowly but surely turn things around for this boy as he spends the majority of his time concentrating, staying calm, being polite and learning. This is not just about psychology but also about biology – think about all that adrenalin coursing round the body of a child who is running around in a noisy classroom where it’s all carousel teaching and ‘active’ learning vs the amount of adrenalin produced when corridors and classrooms are calm, quiet and orderly. However, the annoying thing about developing new habits of thought and actions is that it takes a long time and it needs to be consistent. This is why I think primary schools in particular should do the following:

  • Provide CPD for staff so that they understand why we need to have those whole school habits and routines and why this needs to happen every minute of the child’s time in school – everyone agrees that grammar needs to be explicitly taught in discrete lessons and then practised to automaticity before children can be expected to deploy that knowledge in their creative writing, and yet many cannot see that it is exactly the same for the habits of not calling out, walking rather than running, not hitting other children in frustration, working hard rather than giving up
  • Perhaps use pupil premium to tackle illiteracy and deficits in speech and language as early as possible rather than use it to provide clubs and middle class trips (sorry guys, I don’t support the theory on ‘biologically primary knowledge’). Yes, this seems mean, but I see a definite link between lack of ability to communicate and early tendencies towards defiance and eventual violence/not fitting into society – no child likes looking like an idiot in front of his peers no matter how much you big up his ability to run really fast
  • Develop metrics for measuring behaviour and expect to see improvements over time. For example, noise levels in corridors and classrooms (no, this isn’t a ‘learning buzz’, this is massively ramping up adrenalin and causing a lot of distress and cognitive overload for children) or whether children are using the ‘Star sitting’ (or whatever the school uses)
  • Develop whole school routines and expectations that have the overall objective of calming the body and freeing the mind for intellectual thought. For example, we have ‘Fantastic Walking’ which ensures our children walk in single file, no talking, heads held high and hands loosely clasped behind the back. Yes, Ofsted/consultants might hate this, but we found that giving children something to do with their hands turned around the words and phrases used in the corridor by staff from negative to positive. Instead of ‘stop poking him!’ we’ve now got ‘Fantastic Walking!’ It’s pretty new and our next steps are to ensure it happens all the time, including when going to the lunch hall! You know what? Children love it. I need all staff to be consistent with their expectations though
  • Identify the weak links in the chain of consistency that might allow poor habits to re-emerge because for many children it is very very easy to slip back

I looked into some research on habits and to my dismay I found out that it can take up to a year to learn a new habit but just days to learn a bad habit. It is for this reason that I dared to put that last bullet point in. You see, sometimes tiny little moments add up and children go back to that path of self-destruction with every return becoming more and more likely to be hard-coded and eventually irreversible. Every time a teacher avoids asking a boy to sit properly because she hasn’t got the confidence to confront him and is perhaps worried that he would kick off, so a tiny little seed of defiance is sewn and a little bit of power is transferred to him for an entire year that the next teacher will have to deal with. This will probably rile many teachers but there are also those who choose not to confront either because they prefer an easier life or have this weird thing going on in their head where they sort of take things personally, thinking that asking the child once should be enough and if he doesn’t remember the next time then it’s the fault of SLT/the child and everyone else can deal with it. Some teachers actively allow minor flouting of rules and expectations because they do not extrapolate beyond their year group and therefore never see how allowing boundary-blurring behaviour because he seems to be doing OK in his tests might escalate once the testosterone starts trickling in at the same time as his next innocent and unsuspecting teacher merely asks him, for the first time, to actually sit properly and write in silence. Sometimes the innocent and unsuspecting teacher is the year 6 or year 11 teacher.

So, this boy continues to push those boundaries (because all children do at various points – let’s remember they are little children and not mini professors) and is given a little more leeway, so he pushes more. A couple of years later, the teacher is avoiding expecting him to finish that paragraph because she knows he’ll just chuck the book on the floor and flounce off, slamming the door on his way out and running down the corridor giving everyone the finger. For every one of these boys, there are 5 more who are given tacit permission to be a bit silly, not quite pay attention to their handwriting, maybe ignore some of the instructions and despite the quality of explicit teaching and knowledge-rich curriculum, what actually goes into their heads and stays there isn’t much at all. Of course, they still want attention and to feel good, but this will never come from acing a maths test unless we choose to work hard and do some extra homework, so they end up choosing to be a bit of a class clown because it makes all the girls laugh. These small accommodations clock up and are self-perpetuating, sometimes leading to whole-school decisions such as banning regular maths competitions lest this boy and fellow pupils like him kick off. Our book thrower gets given a time-out card and then a reduced timetable and then and then and then…….

It’s not all on the teacher though (and it never should be). Leaders need to run a tight ship with whole school culture, routines, expectations and consequences being systemised rather than an ad-hoc mishmash of this, that and ‘do more’. One mistake I see is when a cohort of children develops a reputation as being ‘the nice class’. Where there is a large variety of whole-cohort ‘personalities’ between year groups and classes, what has happened is that this group of children has adapted over time and this adaptation is due to a succession of strong teachers steering and leading them on the straight and narrow. Then, leaders make the decision to put ‘the nice class’ with a teacher who has a history of struggling to control classes and who isn’t as thorough with sweating the small stuff, building relationships and ensuring consistency of whole-school routines, rules and expectations within the classroom. Everyone acts surprised when the ‘nice class’ after a short space of time isn’t so nice and within that class will be those children who take a mile when they are given an inch. It doesn’t take long for some children to switch back to the path of self-destruction they were on when they arrived at school. What was needed was for leaders to do as much as possible with whole school systems to avoid the creation of such variety of whole-year group ‘personality’ in the first place. It doesn’t help that some leaders are blessed with a whole school of ‘nice’ because of the hard work of the community of parents in the background – visiting inspectors and consultants then extrapolate from the superficial activities and somewhat lax rules and routines of the ‘nice’ school and assume them to be causal, marking down the contrasting school in a disadvantaged area for being too strict or having too much of that evil teaching from the front business. Secondary teachers and leaders don’t get to see these sorts of patterns because all the children from different schools are shuffled like a deck of cards when they arrive at year 7 – I recommend visiting primary schools and really looking carefully for and asking pertinent questions about the differences between average behaviour and attainment between year groups and classes because the history will be very interesting, possibly causing some self-reflection around the ‘truth’ that teacher autonomy is such a good thing.

If I could, I would love to really investigate the pathways that excluded children were on before they got excluded. I would interview the parents, the children and their previous teachers. I would go all the way back and look at their workbooks and compare them to their peers. Along the way, we could measure adrenalin production, levels of concentration, literacy and numeracy, oh there is so much that could be analysed. My hypothesis would be that a million tiny decisions and interactions gradually increased the amount of leeway this child received, accommodating him in more and more ways while reducing expectations either surreptitiously (eg. the teacher not confronting) or overtly and systematically (the SENDCo mandating his receiving easier work and time out on a computer game) such that he had the habit of thought ‘I can do whatever I want and if I’m unhappy then it is everyone’s fault but mine’ utterly hard coded. I reckon the pathway for this child diverged from his peers well before he arrived at secondary school and that instead of putting him on a better path at an early point by tackling his underlying thought processes and psychology, our decisions just ensured he remained on it until the inevitable happened. When I talk to friends and family who were on that path and managed to get their lives back on track, it wasn’t because their school or family put in place yet more and more to accommodate them, it was because they reached some kind of crisis point of failure, a moment of truth and realisation and then decided to take control of their own lives by dramatically altering their own thoughts and actions and sticking with them until it became routine. For many, the crisis point happened early enough and they were OK because their wider community had better expectations and standards, providing a route to put them back on track so long as they chose to work bloody hard. For some, the pathway of accommodating their wants extended into the wider community where the drugs and crime awaited and the crisis point becomes the moment they die. I would not want this for any human being.

So I have managed to write my longest blog ever and talked about everything from the very first toddler tantrum to the moment a drug addict dies. Sure, it’s not cut and dried but what I see are pathways and that we need to ensure that from a very young age all children are on as similar a pathway as possible even if it means being strict from the off and expecting all children to work hard and behave before we reach for the label and that time out card.

Who’s with me?

Knowledge vs ‘soft skills’ – which should take precedence?

This article in the TES caught my interest this morning. Given that employers seem to value knowledge (pay is higher for maths grads, for example), the author expected parents to be similarly inclined because it is human nature to want your children to be able to support themselves and do well in life. But no, apparently parents place more value on ‘soft skills’ such as ‘interpersonal communication’ over knowledge and they’d rather schools focused on the former at the expense of the latter.

I wasn’t really sure what the author was trying to conclude other than the fact that we need to listen to parents more. The author also pitted the lovely ’rounded education’ school where children don’t even know it’s SATs week against the kind of school that is only driven by data and test scores. Of course, we all want to be delivering that rounded education for children and I’m a big believer in winning the hearts and minds of children and the wider community – it should be like everyone’s in one big team – but when I see or hear about all these wonderful schools where everyone’s going on lovely trips, dressing up, taking whole days off just to sing and do drama, they tend to have overwhelmingly middle class intakes.

In contrast, we have schools in disadvantaged areas where the children arrive at the door with nothing, not even the basics of communication and the desperate race begins to get these children up to the same level of academic achievement as their wealthier peers in other parts of the country. To somehow squeeze more ‘learning’, be it academic or social, into the same number of hours per day as other schools where children arrive with a bank of social skills and knowledge that can be built upon is mathematically impossible, so there must always be agonising compromise. As a leader, do I direct precious resources away from reading instruction? No. I must be evidence-informed in my decisions and think about what will help these children most as they grow up, but there will always be the great clamouring of needs that these children arrive with, many related to said ‘soft skills’ that parents allegedly want us to focus on instead of teaching knowledge.

I’m in a different mindset to the author (and therefore, probably, most people). Why? Parents want their children to be happy and have lots of friends, you know, grow up to be nice people and they think that this is the school’s main remit. Who or what gave them that impression? True, there are aspects of character education that can only be developed in school – the ability to put up with a little hardship, not moan about it and see the value of deferred gratification that comes from cross country runs and exam seasons, for example. Social skills? Yes, we can help with this because we have clear rules, routines, high expectations with regards to manners, deference to authority, decorum in public spaces that can then be transferred to ‘real life’ when the child leaves education, but the kind of ‘soft skills’ that I think parents would like schools to focus on are actually the ‘soft skills’ that can only be developed via what is commonly known as ‘parenting’. Sorry guys.

I think that, over the years, the whole concept of parenting has warped and many parents now do not know that the simple of concept of modelling good conversation, etiquette and explicit teaching of manners is best done at the dinner table and through rules, routines and habits put in place at home. Even if we mandated that all teachers and teaching assistants sat with children at lunch to try to do the same, as well as have many, many assemblies, circle times and PSHE lessons to teach ‘soft skills’, it just wouldn’t be as effective. If it were, then we wouldn’t see such variation in personality, soft skills and ability to make friends that we see in schools today where, roughly speaking, children receive the same education.

So, let’s do what we can to provide a rounded education that includes plenty of teaching of knowledge as well as providing opportunities for character development. At the same time, we need to let parents know that they have the most power to give their children the ‘soft skills’ they value so much.

Who’s with me?


Those who care the most also have the courage to hold children to account

I couldn’t help but write a reply to this accusation that educators who work in schools which have strict rules, routines and high expectations are complicit in child abuse. The author cites the DfE guidance on what constitutes emotional abuse and then states that certain practices in schools up and down this country also fall within this category of child abuse by alleging that they cause the child to feel the same way. The DfE guidance is here and I have summarised the definition of emotional abuse as:

  • adversely affecting emotional development
  • persistently causing serious emotional distress through through telling them that, eg, they are worthless
  • stopping children from expressing themselves/silences them
  • being forced to witness the maltreatment of another
  • involving bullying, exploitation, corruption

So now I will deal with each bullet point in which the author alleges constitutes evidence of child abuse.

Forcing children to publicly apologise for their behaviour”

I’m not really sure how the above constitutes emotional abuse, but I’m assuming that the author is thinking that if a child does not feel sorry, then it is emotional abuse to force him to say sorry against his wishes because this may cause him to feel upset. However, there is a clear distinction between the occasional feelings of guilt and embarrassment that come from being called to account in such a way, and the persistent emotional distress described by the definition of child abuse above. Also, we need to remember that a single teacher on their own in a class of 30 simply cannot leave the class with the one child to ask him to apologise because that would mean 29 others unattended. Further, some things just have to be dealt with straight away and what’s so wrong with guilt and embarrassment? These are normal human emotional responses that galvanise the young person into thinking twice before throwing that chair again, ultimately protecting them from future difficulties with relationships. What is emotional abuse is turning a blind eye, not expecting an apology and therefore simultaneously allowing a child to carry on not understanding that his actions may cause the misery of others: THIS will definitely interfere with his emotional development!

Publicly listing all children’s results so that low-achieving children are humiliated

No one does this.

Actually, where you do see public ranking, it will be those children who can access and have received the curriculum content; this will not include those with diagnosed SEN, for example. Ranking, despite not being popular with children who don’t like listening or working hard, provides a great incentive for those children who do work hard and see their results improve. We know that being ‘good’ at something comes from receiving explicit instruction and practicing lots and it is nothing to do with somehow being ‘naturally good’ from birth; therefore, ranking also rightly provides public praise for those children who have worked hard. It is also an honest way to inform parents where their child is. It is also how the real world works.

Giving detentions for low achievement in tests

I think the implication here is that children who can’t help but get low marks in tests are going to be punished and made to feel bad about it. However, I don’t know any teacher who punishes these children, rather every teacher I know works hard to give them extra support in the run up to the test to ensure they have a fair crack at it.

We need to bear in mind that in real life, if you don’t work hard, you will probably be ‘let go’. If your boss is feeling nice, then he might give you a second chance and ask you to do a few extra hours to make your quota. This is not emotional abuse, this is called running a business. Better to just learn this lesson well before getting a ticking off from your future boss that ends up with your not being able to pay the mortgage eh.

Demanding conformity to a highly exclusive ideal in order to be accepted as part of the school “community”

Children love to conform because it makes them feel safe. For those children who are not lucky enough to receive The Rules of Life from parents, the provision of rules, routines and etiquette expectations by the school gives them a basis with which to conduct themselves and have happier conversations and relationships as a result. Further, the wider world that will receive them will have similar expectations, unless of course you don’t expect some children to join civilised society – who would admit to that? I would hope that if you’re reading this, you are one of us educators who actually expects and would give children a chance to join the more ‘exclusive’ parts of society as it were.

Preventing student questioning

During the lesson, there will be times when a question from a student is appropriate, and there will be times when a question will shatter the carefully curated thought processes of 29 other children and derail the teacher’s instruction. Stopping a child from asking a question at an inappropriate time is not child abuse, it is common sense. Most/all teachers have rules for when you can and can’t ask questions and if the child breaks the rule and then ends up feeling a bit silly, then he will learn from that one-off event. A moment of feeling silly is not the same as persistent emotional distress.

Enforced silence outside of lessons

What? Even on the playing fields at breaktime? I don’t know any school that does this!

Silence is liberating. In corridors where bullying would tend to flourish, it protects those who would otherwise be subjected to cruel comments. Many, many children with SEN benefit from these sorts of rules. Hey, we’re expected to be mostly silent in libraries, museums and in the parts of church services where people bow their heads in prayer, but is anyone accusing librarians, museum staff and little old lady churchgoers of being child abusers? No. Just the teachers. Those nasty teachers out to get children. Seriously, a bit of safety-first enforced silence does not constitute child abuse.

Teachers criticising students openly in classes

There was one time, many years ago, when some aspect of my accounts was 10p out. Oh I never heard the end of it! Going back even further in time, I once got diddled by two recently released prison inmates and was ticked off by my boss for somehow letting them take an extra £20 from the till. Today, if a child has not followed repeated instructions, then they will rightly receive public criticism, just as the child who has followed instructions to the letter will receive a great deal of public praise. However, the author’s insinuation that a teacher telling a child off is really an attempt to make that child feel worthless is really quite wrong – when I tell a child off, I am not saying to him ‘You are worthless’, rather I am saying to him ‘I am disappointed. You can do better than this. I expect you to learn from this and I care enough to ensure you hear this message loud and clear’. I do not have time to produce a simpering and robotic ‘Don’t worry, we can fix that window’ for the child who is not thinking of others or who cannot be bothered to listen. The one off criticism for poor effort, behaviour or manners is not child abuse, it is actually a difficult and caring attempt to nudge the child towards future happiness and success.

Forcing children to wear signs around their necks for uniform violations

No one does this.

Forcing children to smile at teachers or suffer sanction

No one does this.

Forcing children to praise their teachers or suffer sanction

Never heard of this one either, unless the author is confusing praise with thanks and the expectation that children say thank you to a visiting expert or music teacher, for example. Being expected to say thank you is good training for little ones and will help them to have more friends as they grow up. It is definitely not child abuse to expect a thank you!

Pushing children into exclusion or even offsite units

Interesting and I’m assuming deliberate choice of words with ‘pushing’ conjuring up images of teachers literally shoving innocent children into windowless cells. No one does this.

Separate lunch areas for different children

OK so, um, we do this. I don’t know how providing special quiet and small supervised lunch rooms for those children who struggle with sensory overload in the main dining hall constitutes emotional abuse? I would say that for these children, many of whom are on the spectrum, forcing them back into the main hall would cause them a lot of emotional distress. Let’s move on.

A draconian no-excuses policy with heavy sanctions for any minor infringement

I think many would take offence at the inappropriate use of the word draconian, but in any case a no-excuses policy can provide real clarity for children who struggle with right and wrong or who have not been lucky enough to receive all the rules of life from parents. I don’t know any school that is giving out heavy sanctions for minor infringements though – I’m pretty sure there aren’t any. I think what we need to remember here is that not all children are uber-confident in the way the author might imagine – some really need us adults to ensure rules are followed so that they are then protected from the peer pressure that results when rules are slackened in favour of liberal interpretation and ‘self expression’. Further, hard and fast rules also remove the endless and really quite tiring negotiation expected of teachers under the conditions whereby many children naturally test those boundaries to see where they really are.

Perhaps the author, and many who also share his views, is thinking that if a child feels sad at any point = then the ‘instigator’ of the sadness is automatically a child abuser. This really is a conflation too far and risks tarring anyone who works with children as (potential) child abusers. This kind of thinking also seriously undermines authority – yes, authority is needed in this world to keep it safe – who wants to live in a world in which children who have not been parented are then allowed to do, say and take whatever they want by those who are responsible for their education? Not I!

So, let’s be courageous and hold our children to account. They need us to help them learn those good habits.

Who’s with me?

Why music education shouldn’t be left to chance

I thought I’d write a little blog post in support of Nick Gibb’s intention to raise the status of music education for younger children. I’m really pleased that a model music curriculum will be created because, at the moment, so much is left to chance – more so than other subjects, perhaps. So, allow me to tell you a story about how I came to be musical and let us consider how we can give all children a chance, not just a few who, like me, were just lucky.

Although we were technically disadvantaged, in many ways my upbringing put me squarely in the advantaged category. My mum was a big fan of giving myself and my sister all sorts of interesting experiences such as gymnastics, ballet and books galore and she had also made the wonderful decision to toss the TV up the end of the garden and deny us that form of entertainment till the age of 18, thus forcing my sister and myself to create our own imaginary world and language to try and survive the sheer boredom of living in the countryside. The boredom was great for developing my imagination, curiosity and openness to new experiences, so when I was given a recorder and a ‘How to play recorder’ book on my 7th birthday, I naturally devoured it in a couple of hours and was soon given part B to learn.

Looking back, that kind of behaviour was not exactly normal (I was a bit ‘different’), so you could probably say that my musical luck at that time also extended to being able to focus without adult direction from a very young age. A short while after that, our year group was given a musical aptitude test at school and I was one of about 4 children in the whole year group who passed the test and therefore given the opportunity to learn an instrument. This was good for me, of course, but about 90% of the children in the year group had been denied a musical education, all because of a narrative that made everyone believe musical ability was somehow a ‘natural’ thing, encoded in the DNA of a chosen few and in need of spotting and drawing out. Of course, for those of us who are enlightened and evidence-informed, we know that there is no such thing as natural ability and all it takes is explicit teaching and masses of practice with acquisition of subject-specific knowledge to become an expert. Unfortunately, the resultant violin playing didn’t go well because I couldn’t stand the sound of myself during home practice (I actually caused my own sensory overload) and I stopped within a few weeks. I still played recorder and was invited to play in a very good recorder ensemble run during school lunchtimes by a couple of teachers.

A few years later, I was given yet another opportunity to learn to play the violin, for free. I was about 12 and spent every term time Saturday (9am – 1pm) for the next 5 years at a music school, learning how to play in an orchestra and sing in a choir. This was in East London where most people’s musical ability extended to singing ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’ at the end of a rowdy night at the Queen Vic. I used to walk past the old West Ham stadium on the way to Saturday school and attract all sorts of comments from crowds of football supporters such as ‘Is there a dead body in that, luv?’ and ‘Go on, play us a tune on your guitar!’ Good times. That music school became the a constant in my life as our housing situation turned a bit hairy and I eventually moved into a hostel. I loved that place and one of my enduring memories was my first day there: I was so worried, but then I met the music director who was stood in the foyer holding a cup of tea in a bone china cup and saucer that had numerous biscuits perched around the side, fag hanging out his mouth; he was a kind Welshman who made me feel at home even though I was so nervous. Also, he had a great singing voice despite being pretty much a chain smoker. You’ve got to respect that.

Anyway, the kind of concentration you need to follow a conductor, read music, get those notes in tune and keep your bowing the same as everyone else’s requires you to dedicate all your RAM which has this wonderful side effect of crowding out life’s worries. When you learn an instrument and play in an orchestra, you learn to submit completely. Also, all music teachers are slightly mad/different and that’s a good thing because, let’s face it, who wants to surround themselves with boring people? When I was 14, a friend of my mum gave me a violin. He had found in his attic and being a Christian, felt compelled to give it to me because I was approaching the point where I needed a better quality violin to play those trickier pieces of music. It turned out to be a rare antique English violin (most, at the time, were made in France or Italy) and it is now around 250 years old and worth thousands.

Let me count the ways in which I was lucky:

  • Being given, on multiple occasions, opportunities to learn and play music for free
  • Being the sort of person who could concentrate and work hard without adult direction
  • Going to a school that ‘spotted’ musicians and provided musical education
  • Being taught by teachers who happened to be musical and who voluntarily gave up their lunchtimes to running a recorder ensemble
  • Being given a violin that could produce such beautiful sounds
  • People generally being quite kind to me

Subsequently, the children that I have taught have also been lucky because they have learned how to read music, play instruments, perform to an audience and appreciate the best that has been arranged and composed. Most primary schools don’t even have one class teacher who has benefited from that kind of musical education and even if Nick Gibb’s initiative becomes the status quo in many primary schools, it will be a whole generation before primary schools can take for granted that at least one class teacher is a Real Musician. What usually happens in primary schools is a combination of the following:

  • Assembly singing involves more modern songs and the old-fashioned, vocab and knowledge-rich religious/traditional songs are fast becoming a distant memory
  • Primary teachers are either not teaching music, or are resorting to more experimental and ‘relevant’ lessons in order to draw out some kind of innate musical ability in children, or provide fun experiences as a type of therapy to help children cope with the expectation that they will work hard in maths
  • Schools sometimes buy in musical experts to teach music as PPA cover, leading to an awful lot of African drumming
recorder book
A classic – who remembers this?

What can be done? Well, there’s a lot that is easier said than done, such as requiring leaders in schools to take into account the balance of degree subject specialisms when shortlisting candidates for interview. At the moment, many ads show a preference for BEds (particularly in Scotland, Wales and in international schools) rather than academic degrees + QTS, so unwittingly drive away many with the kind of knowledge and expertise who could really make a difference to children’s musical lives. I wonder why that needs to be the case? Schools could also, if necessary, choose a willing teacher and give them the opportunity to learn music and to play an instrument in order that they share that knowledge with children. Is it possible? Yes! You can learn anything at any time of your life – you just need to submit yourself to the cause.

Ah yes, submission. This is a tricky one because those of us who know about music education, know that a certain mindset needs to be inculcated both in children and in teachers. Firstly, the belief that musical ability is naturally occurring rather than the result of years of practice, dedication, tears even needs to be proven wrong in the minds of new teachers, so that they do not, by accident, disadvantage those disadvantaged children further. There also needs to be an understanding that the ability to submit completely to learning is a good thing, an old-fashioned scholarly attribute that needs to be encouraged rather than destroyed – again, many new educators would struggle with that concept because they have grown up in a world of ‘do what feels good’. We need courageous educators who think about the child’s future rather than allow a possible strop or tantrum to curtail the learning. Further, the view that music lessons in primary school should be an antidote to the hard work of the morning’s learning, or perhaps an opportunity for ‘less academic’ children to gain confidence also needs to change because in its current form, it drives curricular decision making towards the ‘relevant’ and the ‘fun’ Damian Hinds-esque experience and away from the more challenging and rewarding canon of traditional music, music reading and instrument playing. Further, it risks those ‘less academic’ children internalising that reading, writing and adding up is not for them, and that they should perhaps consider becoming famous YouTube singers and performers instead when what they needed was to be given extra teaching and opportunities for practice. The result of all this underlying thinking is what causes music lessons in year 7 to end up being a hellish and noisy free-for-all, ultimately leading to the withdrawal of GCSE music provision because most secondary pupils simply cannot access it. The lucky ones who could access it can simply use their ABRSM qualifications instead of GCSEs and A levels anyway.

If I were running a SCITT course, I would firstly (well, after the safeguarding spiel), seek to uncover and break down these beliefs that lurk in the minds of new primary educators. This would probably be quite a painful psychological process for many SCITT students because it would cause them to look at their own educational trajectory and realise that the reason they are not ‘naturally’ good at maths, music, writing, whatever was because they probably didn’t listen, focus or do enough practice when they were given the chance. Also, being told that you can’t view certain lessons as a chance to kick back and enjoy, possibly get your children to like you more because of the super-duper noisy and experimental fun you’ve got lined up for a Friday afternoon would also be quite a rude awakening, possibly uncovering underlining tendencies towards unhealthy co-dependency.

So, changing mindsets during SCITT training, thinking about academic expertise during the hiring process as well as providing CPD and a great, sequenced curriculum to follow should help to give all children the chance of a great music education, rather than a lucky few who, like me, were simply in the right place at the right time when the opportunities were handed out. Wouldn’t it be great to have a musical revival and to see our children go on to compose and perform great music?

Who’s with me?