Tom Bennett

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Silence, the death of activism. Why Troliday defeats its own purpose.

If you’re a Twitter user in the UK, you can’t help have noticed that it’s Troliday today. This is the latest crest of a wave of protest currently ebbing and rising in response to a particularly grisly series of high-profile misogynistic attacks on, among others Mary Beard, and many other women who have the temerity to be too high profile and successful.

The aim of Troliday is for users to spend 24 hours away from Twitter in an act of solidarity and as an attempt to persuade Twitter to police its badlands more carefully, both of which are perfectly noble goals. But I can’t find enthusiasm for Troliday. I think it’s self-defeating. I think it’s a good cause but a bad strategy. Many of my reasons have been exhaustively described already throughout the day, so I’ll reiterate briefly:

1. To paraphrase the NRA, if we silence ourselves, then the only people left who get to say anything are the ones with the complicated and unresolved childhoods.
2. A boycott only works when withholding your services or goods actually hurts the organisation targeted. If a handful of people in the media decide to withhold their Sunday sermons, life very much proceeds as it was.
3. When you battle an idea, you need bigger ideas to win.

Memes, and the battle for the bigger idea

I’ll explain. For most people, a meme is a recurrent internet funny, like the scowling cat, the Facepalm of Picard, or Gandalf telling some unlucky high-schoolers that they shall indeed, not pass. But the term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book the Selfish Gene. As opposed to the gene, which was a unit of genetic inheritance, a meme was a unit of cultural or intellectual capital that could be passed on to other members of the species. The important thing was that memes acted like genes: if they offered a survival advantage or some kind of utility, they would replicate successfully and propagate. For example, the habit of washing ones hands before eating has a benefit, and so survives, whereas the practice of trepanning does not.

What excites those who study memes is that it’s a model that can usefully describe all kinds of cultural processes. Communism is a collection of memes, as is Capitalism. So is Coca Cola, and Apple, and Hula-Hoops, and social networking, and … anything that we do. Gangnam Style is a meme that acted like a virus before exhausting itself, having consumed its host, gratefully.

And that’s why it’s important not to stay silent. Unlike World WarII, this isn’t a battle against an enemy with clear ideological and geographical boundaries. This is a contest of ideas. On one side (and I abhor the linear description of two poles, but it’ll do for explanation) is the idea that women are objects that exist as a helpmeet to man; on the other, the idea that they are not, that they deserve every privilege and consideration that their male counterparts enjoy. On the first side we have the glass ceiling, the male gaze, patria potestas, feet binding, and the fear of weak men who cannot sustain a reasonable erection without constructing women as vile whores. These are ideas.

On the other side, we have universal suffrage, No means No, Dworkin, Wollstonecraft, Greer, the Equal Rights Movement and JS goddamn Mill if you please. These are other ideas. These ideas are in constant battle with each other, in abstract or concrete battlefields, shifting every day, taking place in new theatres every moment. Justice of any sort will not appear by itself, unless you believe that it exists as a natural commodity, which I do not. It must be constructed. It must be created, constantly, from the atoms of chaos and disorder that constitute our moral universe.

So I cannot conceive of silence in this context. Silence is an abdication of responsibility from wrestling with other ideas. Other than the idea behind the silence, which isn’t entirely without merit, the silence itself is a vacuum of ideas. It is the absence of ideas. It is shadow. It is darkness. The only ideas that are left to replicate are the ideas of unhappy and fearful men, cupping their timid viscera and congratulating each other.

How should we conduct ourselves in this arena? By speaking. The internet has bred courage in men who would previously have lived lives of desperate anonymity. The cure for their candour is exposure; confrontation; the spotlight of infamy. Mary Beard so deftly demonstrated this when she was party to the exposure of one such braveheart, whose bawdy boldness stopped at the point his mother found out.

By all means, let Twitter design methods that ease the process of exposure and reporting; they profit from our participation, and should be held responsible for good governance. I couldn’t organise a car boot sale without making sure my participants were reasonably safe from harm, so let them spend some money on their algorithms and customer care advisers.

And culture needs to start catching up with technology. When people start to realise that a threat to kill and rape becomes a published artefact once you press send, and redress can be legally sought against it, then they might think twice before airing their vile opinions beyond the pool tables and bars of privacy.

But the biggest weapon against these cruel, selfish and exploitative ideas, is better ideas. Police are essential, but it isn’t only police that make out streets safe. We have to reclaim the streets ourselves, police our own corridors too. I cannot change the whole world- no matter what some journalists with odd ideas of their importance think- but I can do something about the spot right in front of me. Any garbage that appears in my timeline gets questioned, just the same way that I’d cross the street to help if an old lady was being hassled. That’s something we can all do.

So I can’t condone silence. It isn’t the non compliance of Rosa Parks, or the Salt Marches. It’s cargo-cult activism; it apes activism, but it does nothing. It’s activism with no calories. Worse, because it temporarily satisfies the pang for justice, it actually denies justice the opportunity to be performed.

Finally it hasn’t been helped by the slightly smug way in which a few of its proponents have implied that their absence would somehow end Twitter.  In fact, for that alone, perhaps the silence served at least some small purpose. Self important, self-elected salons are another idea entirely.

Teacher Proof: Why Educational Research doesn’t always mean what it claims, and what you can do.

So, I have a book out.

It’s been a long time coming. Since I started teaching, I knew there was something suspicious about what I was being told worked in classrooms, and what actually happened. It started in teacher training, as well-meaning lecturers and reading lists advocated apparently cast-iron guarantees that this method of educating children, or that way of directing behaviour, would be efficient. It continued on DfE sponsored training programs where I was taught how to use NLP, Brain Gym, Learning Styles and soft persuasion techniques akin to hypnosis.

Then I began teaching, guided by mentors who assured me that other contemporary orthodoxies were the way to win hearts and minds. It took me years to realise that thing I could smell was a bunch of rats wearing lab coats. And why should any new teacher question what they are told? Establishment orthodoxies carried the authority of scripture. And often it was justified with a common phrase- ‘the research shows this.’

I remember reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, and being amused and horrified by the cavalier ways in which science could be hijacked by  hustlers. His harrowing of Brain Gym led me to wonder what else, like Descartes, I needed to question. What I discovered led me to write Teacher Proof.

First of all I discovered that a lot of what was considered to be absolute dogma by many teachers, was built on quicksand.  Learning Styles, for example, were almost universally accepted by every teacher who trained me. It was a Damascan epiphany to find out that there was hardly a scrap of evidence to substantiate it, that the serious academic  community had washed its hands of it long ago. But it lingered on, a zombie theory, staggering from classroom to classroom, mauling lesson plans.

Once I had peeled one strip of paper from the wall, I could do nothing else but keep pulling, and see how much came off. Much, much more, it turned out. First of all, I entered the world of pseudo-education, where optimistic internet sites boasted of Olympian gains to made by the adoption of this pill (often Omega 3), that smell (sometimes Lavender, sometimes not) or even this sound (the Mozart Effect, for instance). These, at least, seemed to be obvious pigs in pokes. Other companies sold hats- literally, thinking hats- of various colours, or exercises that promised to boost brain power. But they asked customers to gamble a lot more than a stamp, as Charles Atlas innocently proposed.

Unfortunately, it was often just as bad when I progressed to the realms of alleged propriety; I found that a lot of what was practically contemporary catechism, was merely cant. Group work, three-part lessons, thinking skills, multiple intelligences, hierarchies of thinking like Bloom’s, all- at least to my poor eyes- appeared to rely on opinion and rhetoric as much as data. Delving deeper, I found that this was an affliction that affected the social sciences as badly as the natural sciences- perhaps worse, as natural sciences are at least readily amenable to verification. But any social science- from economics to sociology- is subject to inherent methodological restrictions that makes any claims to predictive or explanatory powers intrinsically difficult.

Which isn’t to say that social science isn’t’ a powerful and urgent device with which to accrue an understanding of the human condition. But merely to require that its claims be interpreted appropriately. It is a very different proposition to claim, for example, that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius at sea level, than it is to say that children learn best in groups. The first can be at least disputed immediately, or not, by testing. The latter requires a plethora of causal factors to be adjusted and  accounted for. And to confound matters further, humans are notoriously hard to fit on a microscope slide. Nor are we always the most reliable of subjects.

Sometimes this was the faulty of those writing the research; sometimes the research was, as Richard Feynman describes, Cargo Cult Science; sometimes the writers appeared to have no idea what the scientific method was, believing it to be some kind of fancy dress with which one clothed a piece of journalism; sometimes allegedly sober pieces of research were simply misinterpreted by a willing media; sometimes it was the teachers themselves that had misappropriated the findings; sometimes it was the policy makers who were hungry for a magic bullet and had already made their minds up about what they were buying.

Whatever the reasons, it was clear: the educational research we were asked to assimilate in schools was often more like magic beans than magic bullets. That’s unhealthy. There are armies of earnest, dedicated professionals working in educational research who are horrified by some of the fantastical or flimsy claims made by the hustlers and their PRs. If educators want to get past this unhealthy  system of intellectual bondage, we need to become more informed about what the research actually says, and what good research actually means; about how hard it is to say anything for certain in education, and when claims can be ignored, and when they should be listened to.

So I wrote Teacher Proof. It’s aimed primarily at people who work in schools, but it’s also for anyone involved in education, research and policy. I am, unashamedly, a teacher. I admit I have entered a world- of educational research- in which I am only a guest. I am aware that in my travels I may be more of a tourist than a native. But I have tried to write as honestly and as plainly as I can, about matters that affect me deeply- the education of children. If I have made any errors- and I’m sure that I have- I welcome correction, and discussion. I can’t shake the feeling that teachers would do well to make research more of their business, get involved, participate in studies, and perhaps even conduct some of their own, with guidance. I’d also like to think that researchers would be well advised to ensure their theories are tested objectively, with an eye to disproving them, in classrooms with meaningful sample sizes. There is a great deal of good that the two communities can do together.

Perhaps then teachers can look forward to hearing the latest research, and run towards it; and researchers can see classrooms not as awkward inconveniences between data sampling and publication. There’s an awful lot of good research out there, but it gets drowned out by the bad.

Good ideas, like decent whisky, need time to settle and mature. I suspect that we need to develop more of a critical faculty to sift the ideal from the merely idealistic. Maybe then we’ll be immune to novelty and fashion in pedagogy. Or, as I call it, Teacher Proof.
Buy Teacher Proof HERE

The Second Coming of Ken Robinson- but he’s not the messiah

Brace yourself

Ken Robinson, godfather of unusually-used paperclips, is back. He’s famous to millions of educators as the author and speaker behind the RSA animation ‘How schools kill creativity’, which among other awards, is also winner of ‘the most superficially convincing but ultimately brainless education clip’- joint winner with Shift Happens. You might have seen him at a TED conference, if you’re extremely rich, or on Youtube if you’re not. I’ve never really understood the Cult of Ken. He’s affable, intelligent, charismatic and passionate about helping children. But unfortunately he’s also quite wrong in many matters regarding them.

This week Ken has descended from TED Olympus to lecture Michael Gove on the National Curriculum. In an interview with The Guardian he says:

‘[The] current plans for the national curriculum seem likely to stifle the creativity of students and teachers alike.’ 

 This does sound bad. Creativity is one of those abstracts so nebulous that it could mean a million things to a million ears. Most people would consider it a good thing, broadly, without being able to reify it. That’s what makes any discussion about it so slippery.

‘The important issue here is that when he talks about creativity, Gove seems to mean what he says but to misunderstand what he’s talking about. His views also suggest some serious misconceptions about teaching and learning in general.’

 That last bit made me sit up. I am neither the Secretary of State for Education, nor a Professor, but I am a teacher, which Sir Ken has never been, so I feel entitled to comment. Incidentally, that’s an odd thing, isn’t it? People are never been shy of expressing their opinions about education, no matter how little experience of it they actually  have. Many spurn Gove for his inexperience, but are more forgiving of Rosen or Robinson. I suspect it’s simply affinity towards whomever says what we already believe, more eloquently. 

I also have some dark views on people with PhDs in education and beyond who have built a life in education without ever doing the damned thing itself. It is rare to find an emeritus professor of mathematics who has never added anything up in his head. Robinson’s wisdom springs from a well of theory, compounded by distinguished service, garnished with laurels. But I’ll tether that beast for now.

His main objection is that the new National Curriculum will stifle creativity. I confess, I’m left scratching my head as to how this will happen. In what subject? Has he even read it? This is the same National Curriculum (draft, of course) that contains compulsory Music…and Art….and Design Technology, right? And that’s just the subjects that most obviously lend themselves to interpretation as creative endeavours. Yes, I can see how having all that art and music will just strain the creativity out of kids. Christ, it’s like Mao’s China.

Will this harrowing happen in English, with its creative writing component? Where forming a critical assessment of texts studied is central to the whole enterprise? Perhaps he means in History, that much debated echo chamber of neurosis, where everyone is appointed because their favourite inspirational figure has fallen off the table? I have no idea. All I know is that the proposed curriculum as it stands can barely bear its own weight, so heavy with creative pursuits is it saddled.

Robinson’s Barely

In his piece in the Guardian, Robinson explains what he defines creativity as. He also tackles Gove over his claims that creativity requires mastery before it can properly flourish, but this is a straw man (© Old Andrew) argument. Children- and all of us- are naturally creative. We create all the damn time. Every time we imagine anything that is beyond our immediate senses, we create. When we day dream, we create. When we fear, or hope, or plan, or imagine, we create. We are the architects of galaxies within our minds. Creativity is not some skill by itself; it has no substance. Creativity is the description we give to actions, events and objects once they have been created. It cannot be taught by itself. It can only emerge, unbidden, through the material we attempt to master. It reveals itself continuously through the way we design and solve problems.

What we can do to help kids practise creativity is to give them something to create with. In a potter’s hands this is clay. In the realm of our minds, the matter is ideas: knowledge is the atom of creativity; comprehension and understanding are its molecules. A child can be creative, as can a Master of Arts. But which one has the tools to create more extensively, constructively?

A masterpiece, apparently

Robinson also uses an odd argument when he discusses Hans Zimmer, the near omnipresent scorer of every other blockbuster movie this decade. Apparently he was so troublesome as a child he was kicked out of seven schools. SEVEN. Only a teacher can appreciate what an arse Hans Zimmer must have been as a child to get kicked out of so many schools, and I say that as a fan. School eight had a more unusual approach, however, which Robinson applauds:

‘The headmaster took him to one side on the first day and said: “Look, I’ve read all these reports. How are we going to avoid this sort of trouble here? What is it you really want to do?” Hans said that all he really wanted to do was play music. With the head’s support, he spent most of the time doing exactly that. Slowly he became engaged in other work too.’

I applaud the Head for his unorthodoxy. But what do we take from this? That schools should only let kids study what they like? That they can tell all the other teachers to fuck off? That may work if you have bottomless resources, and are dealing someone as predisposed to pursue music as Hans Zimmer (who attended Hurtwood House, a private school in Surrey incidentally) but we don’t just teach children what they like, because they are children, and what they like may not be what they need.

People like Robinson seem to believe that our jobs as educators is to uncover the talents and aptitudes personal to each child, and then to elevate them. This assumes that such aptitudes exist, uncovered, undiscovered, like statues of David buried in cold lava, and our jobs are to be archaeologists of character. Who buries these statues? What fairy hand blesses each child with gifts, and then challenges its guardians with discovering them? What immortal hand or eye?

Two problems: firstly, its doubtful such talents exist intrinsically. They must be generated, not revealed. Zimmer was the son of two musicians, who grew up in a music studio and played by himself for countless hours. I wonder if that’s where the aptitude came from? I’m just guessing. Take a child into ten different lifetimes and watch as ten different lives grow from each path. DNA isn’t destiny, and experience carves us into the shapes that it will. We’re not just archaeologists; we’re sculptors.

Secondly, it is the entitlement of every child to the legacy of their culture’s heritage, whether they bloody like it or not. Universal education has at its heart this concern: that no matter what your background, you are entitled to a broad and rigorous exposure to the best that culture, science and thought has produced. To do anything else is to deny children- and it will be poor children especially- worlds beyond their experiences, and entire universes of opportunity. Allow a child, even a parent, to decide what children should learn, and we risk a regress towards cultural solipsism. Lucky Hans Zimmer; but no culture could, or should, build an education system on his experiences.

Is Robinson serious when he suggests this? That we should allow children to find their heart song and never mind all that beastly sums and Norman Conquest rubbish? Or that we should make lessons as entertaining as possible, and ensure that children are engaged at all times? Only a man who has never taught could think this. Or do we accept that learning, like anything worthwhile, is often hard work? That opinion won’t draw applause at a TED conference populated by believers and acolytes, but it’s the truth.

Here’s to you, Mr Robinson

Robinson is a kind and articulate man, but he’s as much a credible educational revolutionary as Paolo Coelho is a plumber. He may hold the LEGO Prize for international achievement in education ( and I am NOT making that up: best award ever) but his theories of what creativity is, and how it must be taught, are sophistry and illusion. There isn’t a shin-bone of evidence to support what he says. Creativity cannot be taught directly. We’re just not that powerful, or precise. Our medicine is not strong enough. We can demonstrate how others have been creative. We can give them an anvil, a forge and a hammer. We can show them swords, and shoes, and breastplates. We can let them try for themselves more and more as they learn.

But the rest is up to them. And the National Curriculum in its draft form does nothing to deter this.I really like Sir Ken. But he should stick to stand-up.

The interview in the Guardian:

Shift doesn’t happen. My earlier thoughts on Ken Robinson’s RSA Animate video

The Tiger Teachers of Hong Kong: a warning, not a lesson.

‘I can’t wear the same thing twice.’- Kelly Mok

I turned down a job teaching in a Hong Kong school a few years back. If I’d seen Tiger Teachers (Unreported World, Channel 4) before I responded, I might have thought twice. The Chinese island has seen such an explosion in after school tutoring that celebrity super tutors have emerged, some of them earning millions of pounds every year.

Tutors like Richard Eng, the founder of the Beacon College, an extra curricular institute that sees 40,000 students walk politely through its doors, sit quietly and say f*ck all as Tutor Kings and Queens like Richard apparently do little other than lecture to them for an hour and a half. The students are prepping for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE), the ultimate arbiter of University entrance. If you thought our exams were high stake, take a look at JJ, the student the program followed through his time at Beacon College. I’ve seen hydraulics on Tower Bridge under less stress. JJ was wound tighter than a mousetrap as he prepared for the Rubicon of the exams. Access to Uni would open opportunities of salary and occupation that would be closed if his grades didn’t cut it. But if you expected his parents to be awful Tiger Tyrants, they were surprisingly low key. Mum was brutal when poor JJ opened his mock results; ‘You’re not going to pass,’ she said, in her best Mum-of-the-year impression. Dad was more sanguine. ‘As long as he’s happy,’ he said. ‘I just don’t want him to have to drive a cab like me.’ And I thought, you didn’t do so bad, mate.

The competition for Uni entrance is so intense that it creates a Malthusian pond: 80,000 students compete for 17,000 places, and there are no illusions about the value of coming second in this race. In a culture where certification is a matter of status, failing to get into tertiary education is a badge of caste.

Which is where the Tutor Kings and Queens appear. There’s always a profit to be made in any circumstance: in war, munition stocks rise; in peace, mortar. In any market, where there is demand, there is supply. If extra tutoring conveys an advantage, then in order to flourish, that advantage is desired. The problem with advantage, as any giraffe knows, is that once everyone has it, it no longer represents an advantage, and the extra tutoring serves to simply prevent falling behind. And the spring tightens further.


Richard Eng is one of the most famous of the new wave of Tutor Kings. Richard wears Louis Vuitton, drives a Lamborghini with the number plate RICHARD, and is clearly somewhat of a dick. Although he’s 49, he looks half that; some of the other teachers on his Beacon College website look like they could be heart throbs and pin-ups. The documentary showed us the fruits of his trade: a penthouse apartment and a privately educated daughter with ambitions of Stamford University in the USA. She won’t have to sit the HKDSE, of course, as she doesn’t attend state school.

What does this show us? Eng himself admitted that the Hong Kong system of examination was a ‘factory for creating losers.’ His decision not to send his own daughter to state school (a habit, coincidentally, apparently common in Hong Kong educationalists) is a bitter signal of its perceived weaknesses. It’s an odd mirror for us in the UK: the Hong Kong system was, until recently fairly closely modelled on the British system. In primary school, many children regularly have two hours of homework every night. Behaviour is famously excellent, although even I have my limits as to how much is too much. It’s one thing for pupils to do exactly as a teacher asks. It’s another for this to allow the teacher to become little more than someone dictating from a powerpoint. With the little we were shown, I was deeply unmoved by the quality of the cramming sessions: sitting in silence as someone drones at you wouldn’t be my preferred activity for remedial learning. Still, maybe we didn’t see it all. Compared to this, I felt practically progressive. THAT’S how drilled it looked.

Timetables…taught by a dick

And what about state schools? What do they think? Here’s a quote from the Slate:

‘Not for nothing do most of this city’s rank-and-file teachers despise the tutorial industry. Educators at Hong Kong’s heavily subsidized local schools earn about $60,000—roughly half of what a tutor who’s just becoming a public figure brings in. Very few tutors have teaching backgrounds; cram chains like Modern Education are more likely to scout out young, charismatic lawyers or former beauty contestants. And in the contest to capture students’ attention, plain, hardworking professors simply can’t compete with miniskirted billboard personalities. In a strange irony, regular teachers often find that their lack of glamour makes them less credible as educators: Parents and their kids tend to believe that since mainstream schools are free and all teachers paid the same wage, the instructors have no real incentive to adequately prepare pupils for the public exams.

The truth is that formal schools simply don’t have the resources to pore over old tests, spot trends, develop shortcuts, and predict questions. Tutors deal in quick tricks proven to boost results. Their extracurricular sessions may not relay much in the way of real knowledge, but they deliver what they promise: high scores. “We’re a supplement to day school, like a vitamin,” says Eng.’


There is a danger, always, to easy adoption of international examples as evidence for improvements at home. Hong Kong is often lauded as an international jet rocket in the literacy and numeracy rankings, but with such a vast culture of docility in the classroom, and cramming after school (believed to be 85% of the school population), it’s little wonder that we should see variations between Jimmy Lau and Jimmy Law. Given that behaviour in the UK is still a significant problem, and that after school tutoring is still a minority sport over here, I can’t see parity any time soon. The worry is that we look at other aspects of the Kowloon model and mistakenly assume that aping them will benefit the children of Motherwell and Chester. Ironically, reformers in Hong Kong have looked to Britain for ways of driving improvement, settling on, among other things, project work, creativity and discovery learning, which just goes to show that it’s possible to go backwards as well as forwards in educational reform. Give it a decade, and you’ll see a Chinese Old Andrew or an Oriental Behaviour Shogun banging on about synthetic phonics, assertive discipline and the good old days.  

I’m a huge fan of hard work; I also love the idea of kids slogging away to learn. But this Hong Kong market model is a beacon all right- it’s a lighthouse, warning us from the rocks. The point of school isn’t to get kids into university; the point of school is to educate children, because we view education as intrinsically valuable. University is an extrinsic end, and a very noble goal for anyone who wants to work hard enough to get in. But this miserable dystopian world of pass or fail is the death of both education and social mobility, as advantages are only conferred to those already enjoying advantage. Add to that the celebrity world of image-driven after-school tutorials, and it seems to make an educational culture more cruel for those at the bottom, not less.

Actually, maybe I made the right decision after all.

For the whole program.

Slate article by Hillary Brenhouse

The Royal College of Teaching. Open doors and Games of Thrones, but this engine runs on hope.

The last GTC ad campaign

One of my deeper shames is that I possess a certificate for NLP (see below). Worthless, utterly without value. Everyone at the course got one, which means that it’s as precious an accolade as the sensor that toots when I walk into my local newsagent. You turned up? Congratulations, welcome to the Star Chamber. It’s like getting a ‘Yes’ from David Walliams.

But imagine if teachers could be certified in a way that you’d be proud to hang on your wall. I bring this up because an idea has broken the surface that’s been submarine for several years: a Royal College of Teaching (RCOT). I wonder how many teachers are aware that there already is a College of Teaching? Well, there is, and what’s more it’s been around so long (since 1846), I’m surprised Dan Brown hasn’t written a part for them as the shadowy overlords of education across the centuries. These days it’s based in the Institute of Education, London, no doubt in some crepuscular underground ossiery. Plotting.

Support for the idea of a RCOT has been very broad indeed. In fact, it might be the most omnipopular suggestion since Bank Holidays or pudding. An unlikely Justice League of Education has put its mighty shoulders to this: the NUT, the NAHT, the ASCL, the NASUWT, Michael Gove, Labour, the Council for Subject Associations, the Education Select Committee, have all dropped their white balls in the bag. With that kind of political will, it feels like pushing against an open door, or perhaps jump-starting a speeding train.So who’s shovelling the coal?

Michael Gove indicated his support for its inception last week, although he stressed that it would be independent of the DfE, perhaps aware that his patronage would be considered by some to be as welcome as Julia Burchill helping Suzanne Moore win an argument (‘Here, let me put your ashtray fire out with this bucket of petrol’). He’s right to do so. The establishment needs to stand very still and quiet if it wants these deer to come closer.

A blue print for the RCOT is already being drawn up by the Prince’s Teaching Institute, one of the Heir Apparent’s charitable trusts formed in 2006 to promote the work of a series of Summer schools, themselves designed to ‘bring together voices in education’, which is a gloriously aristocratic ambition. Its provenance might suggest it might embody a somewhat homoeopathic attitude towards education. But an examination of their website reveals distinctly independent DNA: teacher training based on subject knowledge; professional development aimed at revisiting core knowledge, sabbaticals and so on. Now that makes a refreshing change.

Before we are teachers, we are subject experts, otherwise we aren’t fit to instruct anyone else. And yet, once we become teachers, how often are we encouraged to revisit the fuel and the flame that fired us in the first place? Most CPD consists of anodyne INSETS that are endured rather than enjoyed or embraced. Try telling your line manager you want to go on a training day specific to your subject, and watch the blank stare. Tell them you want to explore ‘Displaying progress in 20 minutes for Ofsted’ and their saddles will ululate like an Afghan widow.

First session of the proposed Royal College

The PTI’s aims are interesting. They advise teachers to take a step back from the centrifuge of the school once in a while to re-evaluate and reignite their passion and raison d’etre for teaching. I took a teacher fellowship sabbatical a few years ago and it sharpened- possibly saved- my career vim. Priests do, and I suggest that we should too.

Everyone *Hearts* the RCOT. Why?

The reasons are obvious: in the Guild of Teachers mirror, everyone can see their ambitions reflected. To understand it further, look at where such a body places itself. For the immediate future, it’s likely that its ambitions would be to provide a supplementary certification process to existing qualifications like QTS. It would be, in effect, a value-added supplement to the minimum height requirement of profession entry. Membership (in increments of mastery) could confer upon its participants the kudos of having achieved a certain level of acumen, CPD and evidenced attainment, which would then be redeemable in the job market.  That, so far, is as uncontroversial as custard.

It’s what comes afterwards that makes this a Game of Thrones. What if such a body started to appropriate QTS itself? Or certified approved CPD linked to job development? It could provide a magnetic north for teacher standards; it could define and prescribe the Shibboleths of good practice. In short, it could transform the way that teachers are trained, hired, evaluated and indirectly, promoted, retained and distributed. It could help to define what a teacher is. Add to that powers of excommunication and sanction, and you have three hotels on Mayfair.

No small prize. No wonder people are- for the best of reasons- queueing up outside in their sleeping bags waiting for the doors to open.

The fine print

One of the main challenges in its emergent phase will be dealing with the Manichean cage fight occupying education for some decades, which might be broadly characterised by the child-centred and knowledge-centred approaches. Of course, depending on the mood and balls of the RCOT, they could simply pick a lane and race it like a dragster, but that would cleave a profession in two like Solomon’s baby. If it were to assume powers of registration and accreditation it could be a powerful force one way or the other, and culture change would happen anyway. A wise body would accommodate both poles wisely.

My shame. Luckily I escaped.

So what should it be? What shouldn’t it be? We don’t need another union; that pitch is as crowded as a conga in a coffin. We certainly don’t need another General Teaching Council, unlovely, unloved and missed by no one, which by its death rattle had become, to teachers, nothing more than an annual debit on their bank statement for which they received…well, nothing really. It’s greatest failure lay in what it didn’t do rather than what it did. It didn’t map good teaching- it merely punished the bad, and not always wisely, as a number of odd, high profile cases showed. It was meant to regulate the teaching profession- membership was compulsory in order to teach in maintained schools, and by its demise it had 500,000 teachers on its register- but the bar it set was so nebulous and so shallow that its impact was cursory.

So what could a RCOT be? It could be what the GTC was meant to be, but wasn’t.

  1. A regulatory body. Membership could be seen as a badge of credibility, something to be striven towards. At first, an aspiration. Later on, perhaps a minimum bar.
  2. A body of advocacy- not for pay, conditions, the profession of teachers- but for the practice of teaching. It could observe, analyse, dispute or promote the very best thinking in education- from both research and the collective well of experience, and take a lead in promoting and disseminating these treasures.
  3. A critical friend to itself. Teaching is not nursing or medicine. It is far more prone to dispute than either, because even the building blocks of educational debate are disputed. Because of this an RCOT needs to be a fluid, genuinely introspective body that welcomes, absorbs and accommodates the inevitable challenges from within and without that such a large and broad church will entail.
  4. A guarantor of CPD- or even a provider.
  5. An independent voice for teaching and teachers, liaising with all of the satellites that orbit our heavenly bodies. At present the press turns to a handful of names in its Rolodex when they need a quote. We need a body that can meaninglessly represent teaching, not merely telegenic partisans.
  6. A certifier of teacher development- what Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment calls an ‘advanced certifier’. Doctors are required to evidence continued commitment to professional development; imagine if teachers had to do the same, not by ruinous days spent in mid-price conference hotels scooping up pens and shortbread, but revisiting their subjects, and learning skills they genuinely want and need.

I’ve frequently written with frustration at how, in education, we have student voice, stakeholder voice, parent power and Westminster voice- but never teacher voice, which is odd when you consider that we are the professionals most affected by it all. What an odd omission. Who would think it logical or fit to exclude such an important community? Yet here we are. There is room, of course in any discussion, for those not blessed with the scars and spoils of the classroom, but for too long the room has been missing an elephant: us.

The RCOT needs to be constructed by teachers; populated with teachers; run by teachers. The iron, right  now, is red hot. The need has rarely been greater. The will is there. If we succeed, we can fix teaching from within, without waiting for someone else to do it for us. We can transform from many quiet voices into one authoritative one- not the moronic bellow of a crowd, but the careful proclamation of experience.

Get this wrong, and it’ll take decades to clear up the mess. Get it right, and we could change the lives of millions of children for the better. This engine runs on hope.

English, Maths, Science, Porn. Will this be on the testes?

‘Will this be on the test?’

There isn’t enough porn in schools. 
This apparently odd conclusion isn’t the title of my career suicide note (at least I hope not), but the view of the Sex Education Forum, a group of sex education advisers. They want pornography taught in terms of “media literacy and representation, gender, sexual behaviour and body image”. 
Their intentions are entirely honourable, but misguided. The first, minor complaint I have is that it provides yet another mis-use of the word literacy to include…well, just about any understanding whatsoever. It’s this kind of dilution of denotation that dissolves meaning until a word can point to just about anything, and therefore nothing. It’s explains why understanding an IKEA manual can now somehow be called literacy when it used to mean spelling, grammar and Shaw. 
It isn’t the content of the SEF’s cause that I reject- in fact a lot of what they say is perfectly sensible: porn creates unrealistic expectations of body shape, sexual experience, reinforces the idea of the male gaze, and escalates the arms race of who does what and to whom. They even want the positive side to porn on the curriculum- many people use it as part of a loving relationship etc, although I feel that far more use it as part of a loving relationship with a locked door, drawn curtains and a remote control. 
At University I found myself, as the only man on a Feminism course in politics, writing an essay on porn (‘the depiction of vile whores’ in Greek). Commentators like Andrea Dworkin and Germaine Greer were pretty clear: porn was corrosive, addictive and oppressive. Most women in the industry were victims collaborating in their own oppression; addicts or the products of fractured histories based on abuse and desperation.
Running clubs in Soho, I saw the industry up close: creepy all-night book shops that stocked Taschen and Penguin classics upstairs, while beneath the decks, buggery and bondage  stacked the shelves (a legal loophole allowed them to stock the lucrative bongo as long as 75% of their wares were PG or below). There was even a porn cinema, The Astral, on Brewer Street, the demise of which it is impossible to be sentimental. One of my club promoters had a sideline in making stroke movies for the Fantasy Channel, and he even filmed a few links and promo trailers in the bar when I wasn’t looking. At one point he asked if I wanted to guest star in one, but I demurred. I assure you, you will Google in vain.
I’m often asked at what age I think it appropriate to allow a child to have a smart phone. I answer, ‘That depends- when are you happy with them seeing porn?’ Human nature is curious; anything forbidden immediately becomes precious, and the market price escalates. Few things are as forbidden, or as interesting, as sex, especially for the emergent adult. When I travelled as a 17 year-old through Europe, my eyes were out on stalks as I saw the permissiveness of continental adverts and TV- we even had programs like Eurotrash that offered us Brits a What-the-butler-saw keyhole of their damnable foreign lasciviousness. Now, yesterday’s porn is today’s scenery. 
Children now exist in a society that sexually, permits everything except prohibition. When I’ve taught sex-ed, the breadth of novelty of the pupils’ apprehension exceeded the vocabulary of a 19thcentury trapeze artist. Yet this surface knowledge of eccentricity (‘Sir, what’s a Plushie?’ Me: ‘You never need to know.’) is accompanied by the same incomprehension that children have always had for events and experiences that are beyond their capacity. This is the danger, particularly of porn for children. Girls have enough problems with unrealistic expectations of their bodies, without porn multiplying them with its pneumatic cartoon characters acting as role models. I’ve heard young boys talking about anal sex as if it were something you brought up on a first date, something that proves she’s into you. 
In the absence of parents talking to their children about such matters, porn fills the vacuum. It’s a tragedy that something so mechanical should be used as the template for the intangible sorcery of human relationships.
And yet I don’t want it in the school curriculum. Because this is another example of schools being expected to fix every problem in society with a badly delivered lesson. For a start, the timetable is already stuffed with English, Science, etc which makes it hard to know when this is going to fit, especially when it competes with a million other, equally worthy causes like lessons on vandalism, social responsibility, healthy eating, voting and on and on and on. It’s as if we were walking down a street full of chuggers and being asked to justify why we weren’t dropping our change into the cans of every one.
Society has many issues. People need to stop looking to schools to fix them, because we can’t. What we can do, if you let us, is teach them about the great legacy of human thought and knowledge. We can try- try- to act as good role models, and to instil them with manners and codes of community conduct. 
We are not the pilots of their lives. We don;t have time to teach them every thing society would like them to know. We can do our best, and their parents can too. Beyond that, they’re on their own.

Fury as Gove admits ‘he likes teachers’. The speech to the NCTL

Well, here are some quotes nobody expected from Michael Gove:

‘I’m a great fan of Andrew Old, whose brilliant blog Scenes from the Battleground provides one of the most insightful commentaries on the current and future curriculum that I’ve ever read; but I’m also an admirer of John Blake of Labour Teachers, who has transcended party politics to praise all schools which succeed for their pupils, even if they are academies or free schools…’

This is exactly how it must have played in the DfE last week:

 Then this:

‘I also hugely enjoy the always provocative work of Tom Bennett, the Behaviour Guru, who champions teachers at every turn while challenging them to up their game.’

By which point this is me:

Next time I get stopped for driving drunk with my knees at the wheel on the M11 I’m pulling a Reese Wetherspoon, throwing a copy of this speech at the Feds and shouting ‘Have you read THIS?’

Got home from a busy day releasing butterflies from children’s hearts, to find that Michael Gove had mentioned my unworthy self and several others in his address to the National College of Teaching and Leadership. I’m not going to be cool and pretend it’s anything other than plusgood because it wasn’t so long ago that I was plugging into my first blog and wondering how you got anyone to read the damn things. The temptation to style it out with a casual shrug and play the demagogue is an itch that chafes my contrary nature.

I was asked if I thought it was a good thing, to be thought well by an an SoS, and I realised what a double-edged butter knife of Brutus recognition by the Alpha class can be. Some rakes suggested it was done with political purpose, and my weary inner inquisitor thought, ‘What isn’t?’ Politics is a Hall of Mirrors, of appearance, semblance, and the semblance of semblance, regressing into infinity. And sometimes it’s just appearance. Who knows? Speculation about the interior lives of others I’ll leave to psychologists and other clairvoyants.

It was reassuring to see DJ Gove dropping shout-outs to voices from the Cursed Earth of education, like Daisy Christodolou, the anonymous Old Andrew (brilliantly referred to as Andrew Old: ‘To you, Mr and Mrs Old, a son’), David Weston, Matthew Hunter and others. These people are in it for the love, plugging away, saying what they believe like John the Baptist without the locusts and honey (apart from Andrew). Not me. I get a pound for every word I write. I just gave Paul McCartney money for the meter.

I often hear that teachers are constantly battered as a profession. I think the reality isn’t quite the match of the charge sheet; the principal culprits, if any, are a handful of journalists trying to plug into the Zeitgeist and blowing everyone’s fuses for shits and giggles, hits and headlines. At the least (and here I lay myself open to accusations of playing the dupe) was a speech aimed at the back of the stalls and the upper circles. It was the equivalent of Justin Bieber lolloping out on to the stage of Wembley and shouting ‘I love London’ as Twitter creams and palpitates.

Some of the more social-collectively minded of the named elect will probably have some explaining to do at tomorrow’s breakfast table (‘So, WHAT do you call THIS then? Who have you been talking to on that social platform when we’ve been out campaigning for oppressed centaurs?’), but I have no figs to give. My house allegiances are long gone, like tears in the rain, Deckard. I’ve been called a bleeding heart and a bully, and it stopped meaning anything to me years ago. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of the enemy are deadly, goes the proverb. Worst dating advice ever.

The story the papers are running with is, of course, Gove’s thoughts on the creation of a Royal College of Teaching- which needs a blog in itself, and not the vanity of a handful of bloggers. Appropriately enough, Gove says:

‘The creation of a Royal College is not DfE policy – on the contrary, I’ve had nothing whatever to do with it – which is why it’s such a good idea. Now, I realise that any endorsement from me might blight its chances before it even gets off the ground’

Some of the teachers he names might feel the same. Maybe it is just a ploy to sweeten the profession. If he announces tomorrow that the Tech Bacc has a ‘kids up chimneys’ component, I could be convinced that we were being softened up for bad news.

I won’t let this change me. Kids at school are the most effective humility bomb you’ll ever encounter. I’ve just got over them finding out my book was called Behaviour Guru, which is like painting a target on my ass, and rightly so.

Touch me.