Category Archives: Politics – general

The chef and the politician

Last night, Channel 4 News interviewed a man who spoke with passion, fluency, urgency and just-the-right-amount of humour. He talked about education, immigration and enterprise. His words were stirring and thought-provoking, sparking the dry tinder of policy and debate. The irritant verbal tics of his youth, not least the uncontrollable urge to describe things as ‘pukka’, were all but gone. Here was a man who had something to say and said it – plain and simple.

And, as well as Jamie Oliver, Channel 4 interviewed Ed Miliband.

You would be hard pushed to find a greater contrast. The sequencing was unfortunate, perhaps deliberate; the press are sensing blood and are after Miliband. Where Oliver was relishing the role of flag-bearer and skilfully bridged the gap between what can be distant policy and the watching public, Miliband was chronically unable to translate his thinking in to anything that resonated.

Jamie Oliver was talking to the public. Not talking down, or over-simplifying. Nor was he taking the populist line which can so easily be trodden by people who don’t tie themselves to party politics (he spoke with conviction, for example, about the way immigrants to this country have been integral to the growth of his business).

Ed Miliband was talking to himself. His sentences were contorted, convoluted and stuttering – they would start with some purpose then end abruptly or without any clear sense of what he meant. He appeared deeply unrelaxed.

There is an intellectual power to Miliband, that much is clear, but this means nothing unless he can communicate and connect. As an attempt to win votes for the local election, this interview would neither draw undecided voters to Labour nor would it have the loyalists rattling their sabres.

A funny old world when it looks like a chef has all the ingredients of a political leader, and the politician looks like he’s finding it too hot in the kitchen.

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Hattie the Hero

Real heroes are hard to come by in the world of education.

Estelle Morris remains on a pedestal. Few days go by without imagining a better, more decent world where Morris is in charge and not Gove. The late journalist Mike Baker falls into the same category, not least for his ability to write well and to strip complex issues and fluffy arguments down to the bare essentials of what mattered and what did not.

But top of my admittedly short list of educations heroes is Professor John Hattie.

The Director of the Education Research Institute at Melbourne University is above all a pedagogical myth buster. He uses the simple test of looking for evidence as to whether any given factor makes a difference to learning, be it a teaching intervention or a socio-economic circumstance. In doing so, he debunks the preposterous or the fashionable and reveals something approaching the truth about learning and teaching.

What sets him apart is his determination – albeit a dry and diligent determination – to bridge the chasm between what researchers have discovered about teaching and learning and what happens in the classroom. His aim is to synthesise all that we know about the former so that it knocks on the door of the latter, invites itself in and becomes the loudest, most persistent, most persuasive voice in class.

Luckily, we live in treasured times: Hattie is currently on a roll with his ‘Visible Learning’ series of books. Managing to be dense, academic yet also accessible they set out a clear rationale for what teachers should be doing and how they should be doing it.

Although it is not his intention, his work inevitably crosses the boundary from the pedagogical to the political. It is hard to read to much of what he says without thinking of Gove.

Take his latest book ‘Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn’. By page fifteen, Hattie has shredded Gove’s assertion that employing untrained, unqualified experts as teachers is in any vague sense a wise thing to do. Shredded. Utterly shredded.

Knowledge, it turns out, is not quite what Gove thinks it is. It’s not something which can simply be relayed from all-knowing expert to sponge-like child.

In fact, as Hattie quotes, knowledge can be a curse. Research shows that those who are specialists in a subject and who have no understanding of how to transmit the complexities of their wisdom – in other words those who know a lot but know nothing of teaching – are less effective at doing their job than those who may have less subject knowledge but who are expert, skilled teachers.

Pure knowledge does not correlate with an ability to teach. What matters is simple; it’s teachers who know their stuff and who are trained, skilled and passionate about what they do. Professor John Hattie is a giant – if only we had an Education Secretary who would stand on his shoulders.

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Embarrassing Uncle Nigel

If politics is some kind of dysfunctional family, then UKIP are definitely the slightly embarrassing uncle at the party, the one who slaps you on the back, drinks more than he should, rants about bin collections and mutters slightly dubious things about foreigners.

But, of late, rather than looking disdainfully at Uncle Nigel, it seems that more and more people are turning to UKIP as the party of truth and common sense.

With this popularity, however, comes greater scrutiny and a close look at their education policies reveal the extent to which UKIP are high on rhetoric and low on ideas. They are far from the political solution in what is a mightily complex world.

You can read a summary of UKIP education policy here here. Much of it is fairly straightforward, old-school, right-of-centre thinking (the term ‘thinking’ is used loosely) – scrapping paperwork, building more grammar schools, protecting rural schools. This is relatively progressive; no mention of the cane at least.

Best of all, they plan to ‘insist’ schools teach the 3Rs’ – as opposed to the current situation, presumably, where schools barely bother with all that reading and ‘riting nonsense.

Most intriguing though, is how they plan to pay for all this. New grammar schools don’t come cheap that’s for sure. Their answer, as dismal as it is predictable, is ‘to let schools sack bad teachers’. It’s a mystery how this will generate even a few quid, let alone the megabucks needed to build new schools.

What this does reveal is the extent to which UKIP unthinkingly buy into and promulgate the view that schools are full of ‘bad teachers’. As ever, evidence for this is non existent. But UKIP, like the embarrassing uncle, have no need to sully themselves with such things as evidence or facts.

All they need is an enemy to attack – immigrants, or bad teachers, it matters little.

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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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Gove adds fuel to the fire

Whatever your view of this Thursday’s strike action, you would think this would be a time for cool heads. A tense situation needs careful handling yet, in piles the Education Secretary, urging parents to break the strike and take the place of teachers in the classroom.

This is dotty on so many levels. These parents would need to be supervised – so who would be free to do that? What exactly would they teach? What would happen, say, if there was an accident? Or a badly misbehaving pupil? Head Teachers and Governors would have a lot of explaining to do (and be without a leg to stand on) if something went wrong.

Aside from the practicalities, Gove is also sending the message that teaching is an amateurish pursuit which anyone can have a go at, and do to satisfactory standard at the drop of a hat. Causing offence and being provocative at such a time is a very peculiar tactic. The effect of such disrespect, rather than diffusing the situation, will be to rally more and more teachers to the union cause

More perniciously, Gove’s words seek to drive a wedge between the two most important people in a child’s learning and development: teacher and parent. Where there is trust, understanding and dialogue between teacher and parent, the child benefits.

Parents may – or may not – support the strike action. If they don’t, there is no reason why this relationship should collapse as a result; it should be strong enough and mature enough to withstand a difference of opinion.

But why should the Education Secretary decide to strain this relationship, to push it past breaking point, by saying it would be ‘great’ if parents, this Thursday, became strike-breakers.

When a dangerous fire is beginning to burn, Mr Gove, wouldn’t it be wise to dampen it down; to calmly put it out rather than adding more fuel?

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The devil is in the detail for Archbishop Williams

There’s nothing like a political bun-fight and they are made all the more interesting when the main combatant – in this case, Archbishop Rowan Williams – is able to call on a higher power to damn not only the Government, but the political class as a whole.

Leaping into the ring, the Archbishop has well and truly stuck the boot in, lashing out at the coalition for making radical reforms without a mandate, and slamming the opposition for failing to devise or articulate an alternative to the cuts and the foundation-shaking policies in health and in education.

The response so far to his article in the New Statesman has generated a passionate response from the Prime Minister and some stinging comments from his backbenchers, suggesting Williams is an unwelcome visitor on the sacred turf marked ‘party politics’.

His words were undoubtedly designed to provoke – this was a carefully constructed piece written by his own hand, not an interview (where even the most disciplined guard can be accidentally dropped).

Of course, if you are anything close to left-of-centre, it’s easy to be drawn to Williams’ critique of the coalition, but his scatter-gun approach makes it difficult to unreservedly rally to his cause.

It seems a bit too simplistic and unthinking, for example, to jump on the bandwagon which slates the opposition for keeping their policy powder dry – if opposition is not the time for reflection and prolonged analysis, then when is? And you would be a pretty foolish opposition to set out policies with any certainty when the next election is four years away – who knows what the landscape will look like in 2015?

What is most odd – and what seriously weakens his position – is that Williams himself seems to be lacking in ideas, or at least ideas which could be described as concrete, tangible or even – to be honest – understandable.

He talks of re-inventing co-operation and syndicalism, but doesn’t bother to explain how; he asks for ‘better communication’ of ‘strategic imperatives’ – whatever that means; he dismisses ‘managerial politics’ and ‘associational socialism’ – phrases familiar perhaps to him and the small number of people who actually read the New Statesman, but pretty meaningless to your average man in the pew.

This is a missed opportunity. Unencumbered by the demands of political reality, Williams and the Church he represents, are ideally positioned to set out a clear and precise vision of public policy.

The criticism he makes of the left for not developing an alternative is precisely the vacuum that he – and the considerable resources his Church commands – should occupy.

But it should not be filled with bluster and brickbats – they serve only the needs of radio phone-ins and political chat shows. Nor should the gap be plugged with abstractions and theories alone. What we need are ideas that can be applied in the real world.

While Archbishop Williams may well have painted an accurate picture of the devil, but what we now need from him is the detail.

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How to spend the Pupil Premium. Maybe.

In a time where schools policy seems to swing wildly from one extreme (think wholesale structural reforms like free schools and Academies) to political interference in the minutiae of how children should be taught to read (think synthetic phonics) praise the Lord for some calm, reasonable, sanity-restoring words from the good people at the Sutton Trust.

Their latest dollop of common sense comes in the form of a guide for schools on how to spend the Pupil Premium. They keep clear of the politics, not seeking to make a judgement on whether the Premium is ever going to meet its grandiose aims: to increase social mobility, to reduce the gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils and to smooth the barely-worn path from a place called ‘deprivation’ to somewhere called ‘Oxbridge’. Instead they present, in simple terms, options for schools about how to spend their cash.

It’s clear, quite early on in the report, that the authors not only engaged their brains, but – in deciding what to include in their list – also managed to plant tongues firmly in cheeks. They surely had the bone-headed traditionalists in mind – those who believe that the absence of a well-knotted, throat-gripping school tie explains just about everything that is wrong with our schools – when they explained that there is no evidence that school uniform improves ‘academic performance, behaviour or attendance’. So there!

They also slay, in a gentle academic way, some other sacred cows. Grouping by ability, for example, is described as ‘what not to do if you want low income pupils to benefit’. And the benefits of homework are summarised as ‘modest’ at secondary school, and even less so at primary school.

But in true boffin-style, they are concerned not with the grinding of axes but with the evidence. This leads them to similarly dismiss the more cuddly teaching approaches, such as developing activities for children based on their ‘learning styles’, which in some cases has been shown to have a detrimental effect. They also have little time, purely in the context of the aims of the Pupil Premium, for reducing class sizes, after school programmes or summer schools.

More controversially, however, the Sutton Trust questions the role of Teaching Assistants who, according to studies, have ‘very small or no effects on attainment’ particularly when their main role is either to tidy up after the teacher or to provide ill-defined support to a particular child or group of children.

This finding should make schools – if they are anything like mine – think long and hard about Teaching Assistants on their pay roll and how they are matched with children who may be the beneficiaries of the Pupil Premium. What a waste if the Premium ends up aimlessly dumped in the generic pot for ‘special needs support’ – perhaps to top up the hours of a Teaching Assistant, who ends up spending her time at the photocopier or sharpening pencils.

So, to the key question: what does work?

The Sutton Trust points to three things:

First, the teacher providing effective feedback to the learner about their progress.

Second, ‘meta-cognition strategies’ – teaching approaches which ‘make learners’ thinking about learning more explicit in the classroom’.

Third, ‘peer tutoring’ where ‘learners work in pairs or small groups to provide each other with explicit teaching support’.

It’s as simple as that, apparently.

What is striking about the Sutton Trust’s top three is that, put simply, they cost peanuts. Money does not need to be thrown at the problem. To make this work, there’s no need for top-of-the-range technology. Nor do you need to convert to an Academy. Or teach Latin while playing rugby (competitively of course).

The only real expenditure is on a bit of CPD which, presumably, the school would be spending anyway.

What is more interesting, though, is that these interventions bring us back to a simple truth: it is good, innovative teaching that makes the difference, done by teachers who are constantly on the look out for what will make them better at their work.

One thing nags at me, however; if we take the Sutton Trust’s advice and warmly embrace the benefits of feedback, draw close to us the joys of meta-cognition and cherish the benefits of peer tutoring – wouldn’t we then do this routinely in our classrooms? Wouldn’t all our charges benefit – rich and poor, Premium and – erm – Standard? Who could argue against such an improvement, but how will this narrow the attainment gap? Perhaps it’s not so simple, after all.

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