Monthly Archives: February 2014

The monster stops breathing fire

I’m writing this with my eyes half closed. I can barely look. Deep breath. Come on. Just type.

No. It’s too hard. I’ve got butterflies. The uncomfortable-sicky-sitting-in-front-of-an-interview-panel ones. Not the flitty-exciting-first-date ones.

Try again. Do a Winslet. Gather. Gather.

Here goes:

I. Love. Ofsted.

Phew, that was a rush. I guess that’s what confessional is like. Big build up then the release. Like the cork out of a bottle or the staff room on a Friday.

I should clarify.

Something pretty exceptional happened at the tail end of last week. After a visit to Ofsted towers by some wonderful bloggers – each one a Daniel entering the den – Mike Cladingbowl, Ofsted’s National Director for Schools, published a report called ‘Why do Ofsted Inspectors observe individual lessons and how do they evaluate teaching in schools?’.

Snappy, no. Groundbreaking, yes. You can read it here. Please do (and please also take a look at the bloggers and their blogs they deserve a link, a click and a read – twitter details below).

The document speaks for itself. It’s well written and engaging. Honest, open, human. It’s refreshingly free of the bureaucratic language that can alienate and keep people at arms length. In parts, it’s written in the first person. The author is clearly someone that knows schools, understands teachers and, most important of all, wants to get it right. A poacher turned gamekeeper. A gamekeeper who hasn’t forgotten where he came from.

The key bit, the game changer, is the clear and unequivocal message that Ofsted inspectors should not be grading lessons after popping their heads into a classroom for a few minutes. If you are a teacher that has survived an Ofsted you’ll get the significance of this. Something’s shifted. The monster has stopped breathing fire.

For the first time, I can lift text straight from an Ofsted document without any desire to scoff or to ridicule. I can do so because I agree with every word. Here it is:

‘On average, inspectors may spend only 25 minutes or so in each lesson. It would be nonsensical to suggest that an Ofsted inspector could give a definitive validation of a teacher’s professional competency in such a short time. We are not in the business of handing out badges that say ‘You are an outstanding teacher’ or the opposite. We leave that to others, who will use their own and other evidence to come to a conclusion. We would not expect any other professional, for example a surgeon, to be judged by peers on a single 25 minute observation of their work.’

I could stand and applaud.

Let this be the start of a new relationship between inspector and inspected.

Mike Cladingbowl – thank you.

Here are the people who helped make this happen:

And the man himself:




Filed under Ofsted, Schools

The world has gone mad this week. Twice.

The realisation that the world has gone mad has twice crossed my mind this week.

The first was watching Snowboard Cross at the Winter Olympics – so crazy is this event that a medal should be awarded to anyone who survives the descent with limbs intact (the sanity of the competitors is clearly long gone).

The second was this report in the Evening Standard warning parents against employing tutors for their under fives.

The idea of tutoring for under-fives is so reprehensible it’s hard to know exactly where to begin. There’s something that sticks in the throat about tutoring whatever the age of the recipient. For me, it’s the nauseating combination of privilege and panic which sums up what much tutoring is about. It’s the hysterical clamour of middle class parents who are on a misery-inducing treadmill, desperate to keep up with the Joneses, desperate to ensure that their little one won’t, heaven forbid, end up at the local comprehensive where the poor kids go. It’s the privatisation of parenthood, sub-contracting responsibility to the lowest bidder with the funkiest website.

But tutoring for under fives boggles the mind. Tutoring them in what exactly! You can only imagine the syllabus: ‘Win at the sandpit, every time!’, ‘Get yourself heard in circle time singalongs’, ‘Potato prints GUARANTEED to get on display’, ‘Role play corner – what to wear and how to wear it’.

What’s really appalling about this, is the sense of creep into a very sacred place: childhood. It’s as if the early years are now solely about preparation for something yet to come without any intrinsic value. Childhood isn’t childhood any more. It isn’t about play and about today, it’s about worrying about what’s round the corner and getting ahead of everyone else.

Tutoring for under fives! Snowboard Cross! The world’s gone mad.

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No news from nowhere

On the day that the unpleasant closeness between Tony Blair and News International is making headlines again, it’s interesting to look at how different life is for Cameron’s Conservatives. In part, the electoral success of Labour under Blair was because they knew they had to influence the news agenda and had to do this doggedly and by any means necessary, never taking their eye off the bulletins and the headlines, reaching out to the media in a way that was meticulously planned and, ultimately, beyond the boundaries of what could be considered reasonable or decent.

Fast forward to 2014 and we are in very different times. The scurrilous elements in the media are still present, albeit with wings ever-so-slightly clipped by the Leveson Inquiry. But the demand for New Labour style news management has dwindled. Of course, even at the best of times the business of Government is never easy – it’s either raining or pouring – but what makes life more straightforward for the Conservatives, in stark contrast to their predecessors, is the almost entirely benign media environment in which they operate.

Where Labour had to battle for every story, the Conservatives simply don’t feel the need to chase headlines or generate stories with quite the same urgency. Nor do they need to hot-foot it from studio to studio manically re-butting inaccuracies or desperately flogging the latest policy wheeze.

Look no further than this month’s Government press releases (I know, I know, but it’s half term, and I have a little time on my hands). You’d be hard pushed to deliberately generate a list of such exceptionally dull announcements. Foreign Office Minister visits Tunisia. Transport Secretary meets bus industry. Much of it is the political equivalent of holding the front page for ‘Man gets stung by bee’. Aside from the daily flood updates, none of this suggests a Government much bothered by the news churn.

Few people will look back with fondness on the days of Alistair Campbell, Charlie Whelan and the other New Labour spin doctors. And there’s something oddly refreshing about the factual drabness of this Government’s pronouncements. Today’s news that Tony Blair was close enough to Rebekah Brooks to be giving advice on how to handle phone-hacking allegations will do little to lead people to yearn for the good old days.

Like Kinnock in 1987 and 1992, this leaves Ed Miliband in a right old pickle: how do you get your message across when no-one’s listening?

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Tristram Hunt is in no man’s land

With his recent speech urging schools to teach character and creativity, Tristram Hunt, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, has stirred up the already lively battle between so-called traditional and progressive educators.

It could be seen as an attempt at reconciliation or to find some common ground. After all, in the last few weeks those traditionalists who have argued that state schools should do more to mimic private schools must acknowledge the extent to which Eton, Harrow and the rest define themselves by both what their pupils know and also by the type of character that emerges from the private school experience. Similarly, so-called progressives need little persuasion that a well-rounded education should develop character and creativity, alongside academic achievement.

But the problem is that the two camps are deep in their trenches, well dug-in, ready for many months of attritional mud-slinging. The no man’s land which Hunt has wandered across doesn’t allow much for nuance. You either believe in academic rigour and direct instruction or you’re a lilly-livered envelope-shuffling, group-work loving, post-it note wielding softie. You either want your children to inhabit the 21st century or you are a hard-faced Gradgrind patrolling the desks, rattling knuckles and twisting ears. One or the other. Choose your sides now.

The need to stick valiantly to your guns no matter what is well-demonstrated by Toby Young’s blog on the issue, where such is his desire to defend the traditional view he ends up disagreeing with himself. Character or ‘soft-skills’ as he terms them, is something he has ’emphasised’ in the past and he insists children at his school do extra curricular activities to develop such traits. Surely, he should be open to Hunt’s arguments then?

He goes on to cite ED Hirsch, who must know a thing or two because he’s American and doesn’t use his name. Young describes Hirsch as being ‘withering’ on the subject of teaching character. Here’s his ‘withering’ attack, quoted directly:

“Hirsch acknowledges that there’s a link between traits like “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence” and success, defined in terms of academic achievement, employability, earning capacity and mental and physical health.”

Oh, hold on. That sounds quite positive. Not withering at all. You’ll be forgiven if you are confused at this point. But remember that, as Young believes himself to be a defender of tradition, he simply cannot allow himself to side with anyone who has a whiff of the modern about them.

The last roll of the dice, as is often the case for the two entrenched sides, is to caricature and misrepresent the others’ position. Propagaganda, if you like. What is dangerous about advocates of character education, Young states, is that they claim teaching character is more important than book learning. You can almost feel the sharp intake of breath from the Home Counties. The sods, they don’t care about books. School’s just one long team-building away day, making bivouacs out of Bleak House, rafts out of Romeo and Juliet.

But, oh, hold on. Again. Hunt is not saying teaching character is more important than ‘book learning’. Nor is he arguing character should be taught as a separate programme or as an ‘add-on’. Far from it.

Where Young leads us to the ‘let’s all pack up and go home’ view that character is hard-wired in our genes, Hunt’s argument is that our dispositions are more adaptable and can be shaped by events and experience.

This central point here is one that should, for once, unite the old school and the new school. Through it’s culture and it’s teaching, a school should develop both the academic capacities and the character of it’s students. Is that really so hard to agree on?

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Filed under Policy, Politics - general, Schools

Return to Planet Gove

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had time to blog. Years and years in fact. How time flies. I’m afraid to say life has interrupted the flow. Children, work, work, children, lack of sleep, children, work, lack of sleep.

Of course, there’s been no shortage of subject matter and more than enough piffle from Gove and the gang to justify a bit of cathartic spleen-venting. The real problem is that much of what passes for policy at the moment is so utterly disconnected from the real world it has become dangerously easy to step away from the debate.

At times, the discussion has seemed other-wordly, preposterous even. All that gumph about behaviour, saying teachers should get children to pick up litter and tidy classrooms as a consequence for unruliness. What on earth does he think we do all day?

Then the ridiculous comparisons between private and state schools. Great for headline grabbing but, come on, really. It was a classic public school debating tactic to box in opponents – who could possibly say they wouldn’t want children in their local school to have even a fraction of the experiences of your average Harrovian?

The challenges the children in my school face, growing up with the childhood-sapping complexities of mental health, domestic violence and deprivation, warrant a bit more than clever-clever point scoring.

So, time to return to the fray. Children, work, work, children, blog, lack of sleep, children, work, blog.

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Filed under Michael Gove, Policy