Tom Bennett

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London Festival Of Education Part 2: Teacher Training, Flirtgate, and The Pale Rider

‘Ah! The laughter of children!’

From the rural womb of Wellington, a post-modernist cement baby is born. If the Summer Edfest is James Blunt, the London Festival is Tuliza. Even the banners and livery of the event were spraypainted, Banksy style, on tarpaulins reminiscent of a CND march. If it had been any more metropolitan it would have had a roundabout.

After Gove, I bolted to see Charlie Taylor take part in a panel discussion about the future of teacher training. The former behaviour czar has been reincarnated, like the Doctor, as the head of the Teacher Agency in charge of the stuff, so I imagine this panel wasn’t too taxing. ‘Yeah,’ he could say. ‘It’s like that. Touch me.’ Taylor’s a rare thing: a man up to his armpits in the education business who actually knows which way up a child goes. Everything he did and said as behaviour advisor was intuitively and demonstrably sensible, and I expect he’ll be no slouch in training reform either.

He talked about School Direct, the school-based qualification system that emphasises practical experience. This has been criticised by some as dislocating teachers from the wealth of educational history and theory that underpins the profession. I’d respond by arguing that 99% of that theory is utterly useless until you have a bit of teaching under your belt. Sometimes even then. The consequence is  complete greenhorns walking into school worrying if they’re meeting the 45 basic competencies, or satisfying the fifteenth spoke of the learning bicycle or something. Teaching is a profoundly practical activity. There is no tension  between whether it’s an art or a craft or a profession or a blancmange; it has elements of the first three, at different times, in different proportions. It’s an acquired habit; it’s a character set; it’s a body of learned content; sometimes it’s even an interaction between all three. Sometimes it’s like shaving a chin or planing a door; at other times it’s as conscious and planned an activity as having sex on a ladder.

The Institute had never looked lovelier

Charlie’s top tip for new teachers was to lie in a dark room for a few hours every week and think about what you’ve done, like a chastened boy in a corridor. Dennis Hayes, his co-panelist, suggested going to the pub, but I suspect most teachers won’t take a great deal of prodding. Hayes, who spoke a terrifying level of sense about the intellectual poverty of much educational research, added that he thought every teacher needed to have read three core texts to consider themselves fit: Plato’s Republic, Rousseau’s Emile, and Dewey’s The Child and the Curriculum. I have. The films were better.

Flirtgate

Then it was my turn. After a clandestine coffee with OldAndrew I was contestant number three in a Gardener’s Time Q&A on behaviour: me, Paul Dix and Professor Susan Hallam.  Michael Shaw, the assistant editor of the TES, hosted: a man who presumably keeps a painting of a wizened old man in his attic. He’s the Benjamin Button of the teaching press, and every time I meet him I want to buy moisturiser and maybe lay off the smokes.

Q&A; minimum preparation, and you have to sing for your supper there and then: produce the goods or get out, much like a classroom. I did my usual schtick of saying ‘Get them into trouble when they’re naughty and reward them when they’re good’ in as many variations as I could. It’s also the title of my next book.

Most questions were perfectly sensible; nobody wept. We picked over their entrails and poked around their chamber pots and divined and diagnosed. The standout moment came, however, when a lady in the front row asked us what should be done if students display, misogynistic and sexually aggressive behaviour. Professor Hallam, who is undoubtedly a woman of repute, intelligence and craft, gave an answer I can only describe as surprising. ‘Flirt with them,’ she said.

No.

Uproar in the court. Mind. Blown. I could see a hundred eyeballs practically detach from their retinas and pop out onto the carpet, mine included. I have no idea what possessed a woman to say such a thing, and perhaps it’s unfair to expect a non-classroom practitioner to answer such a question, but I fear that this exemplifies a very serious point: the best people to advise on how to run a a classroom are those who actually do such a thing. Research is often a million miles away from practice, and boy, was it ever here. Flirting with kids who want to treat you as a sexual object will only do one thing: encourage further predatory behaviour. It demeans and insults the teacher, and provokes the aggressor to further heights of inappropriacy. The way you deal with sexual intimidation in classrooms is by shutting it down; by standing up to it; by crushing the merest flicker of it as it emerges. God help the child on my watch who tries to trash-talk a female teacher because of her gender.

The Good, the Bad and the Unsatisfactory

Finally to the Pale Rider himself, the outlaw Michael Wilshaw. I’ve written before that I rate the Bishop of Mossborne highly. Unlike most of his detractors, he has actually pulled off the Holy Grail of education: turning lead to gold, or low-achievers into high. He attracts ire like lightning to a copper weather-vane, seemingly for having had the temerity of giving thousands of kids a chance of social mobility where little seemed to exist before. I know, burn the witch, right? He also doesn;t give a f*ck about what people think of him or his methods, which practically has me screen-printing T-shirts.

Are you still using VAK?

If other rooms were packed, this was a gangbang in a coffin. He read from notes, perhaps mindful of the press tendency to surgically dissect the most controversial words in any of his speeches and randomise them into headlines like ‘Wilshaw calls all teachers bastards‘ or similar. Everything I’ve ever heard him say was tough but practical. Criticisng the status quo doesn’t imply blanket condemnation; merely that things can improve. In a room full of teachers, he spoke of how good schools came from good leadership, and I saw an entire room full of people nod at once. He’s no fool. He seemed to go out of his way to congratulate teachers for being the catalyst of change in London, and foreshadowed the format of his annual report: more regonalism, more emphasis on the people who sit in the big chairs. A room full of people with little chairs lapped it up.

Then he launched into his new hit single: Oftseds with less box-ticking and more lesson observations. Inspectors trained not to look for specific teaching styles, gimmicks and legerdemaine. By this point the crowd were waving their hands in the air with lighters aflame. If he’d chosen to stand on the table, turn around and fallen backwards like Peter Gabriel, he could have crowd-surfed to Russell Square. He should do this kind of thing more often.Maybe he’ll do another tour.

Marchgate

Taking questions, he explained how he was often taken out of context; that the Dirty Harry comments were just a throwaway remark, although the chuckling press corps next to me conveyed their suspicion that The Man With No Shame rather enjoyed the Judge Dredd caricature. They might be right: he comedy-checked himself as he said, ‘I was marching- sorry, walking down a school corridor.’ Riffing on his own stereotype? And he got the laugh he was looking for. By this point in his own session, the Sorceror of Sanctuary House was dogfighting with the Red Army. The Unforgiver, by contrast, was dropping LOLZ like Dean Martin at a roast.

Time will tell if he also has enough medicine to drive his army of inspectors before him, or if they’ll continue to harrow schools with witless prescription, mono-dimensional metrics and snake-oil dogma. But he doesn’t deserve the rep that a hostile press has brewed for him: I haven’t seen a man more suited to the despotic reform that inspection needs, and schools should support his project in order to support themselves. They should expect inspectors to explain their judgements; they should expect them to be supportive and suggestive of ways to improve. An Ofsted Inspection should be seen as a chance to shine and improve, not an opportunity to pimp your data and get the FSM kids singing songs from Oliver, wearing flat caps with target levels painted on them.

Every Which Way But Home

The Wellington College party arrived with little fuss

If you live in an edububble it’s important to escape at times and speak to normal people, so I left, although before I did to my joy I saw Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington Towers being carried down the stairs in a sedan chair by monks in white samite*, just in time for his final address. The country mouse was visiting the town mouse. I wonder what he thought? 

The Festival was a splendid thing. They should do it every year. It worked for Christmas.

*This may not have actually happened.

PS Thanks to Chris Husbands, Michael Wilshaw, Gerard Kelly, TES and the IoE for hosting the event, and for letting me come and caper.

New study shows that something is possibly true but it might not be: the Fog of Social Science.

‘Kill me.’

These are apocalyptic days for many school schemes; in the present age of neo-austerity, it seems like anything not related to life support and child protection is being pared down to the marrow. I’m not sure people are aware yet of how much is on the way out, thanks to a cartel of financial hucksters and their sub-prime lending habits that made the lifestyles of termites seem modest and restrained. Some of the things on their way out were definitely dirty bathwater: the GTC, for example. But some were babies. As the FT comments:

‘The schools resource budget, which covers day-to-day running costs, will rise in real terms by 0.4 per cent. But a rise in the number of pupils will mean current spending per pupil will be cut by 2.25 per cent…The education department’s budget for buildings, which is almost entirely spent on schools, will be cut from £7.6bn to £3.4bn – a real terms cut of 60 per cent….Michael Gove, education secretary, admits that many schools will enter a tough period.’

Which means we’ll be holding wet hankies on the platform as we watch many extra-curricular schemes, clubs and so on  wave at us through the steam from the train now leaving the platform. This, to be fair, isn’t news any more, although many in schools still have to adjust to this reality: if it can go, it will. I’ve been reading professional Dear John letters from LEA consultants and liaisons all week, wishing me well as they pack their belongings into  red handkerchiefs tied to sticks as they set out for London with their little black cats.

One of many, many schemes teetering on the end of the gangplank is Sing Up, (click on the link while you still can), an organisation that, unsurprisingly, believes that ‘Every child deserves the chance to sing every day.’ While you could greedily take issue with the origins of this alleged right (is it intrinsic? Divine? Legally prescribed?), I would never antagonise such a well-meant, noble cause. If I were Educational King for a Day (it keeps me awake at night sometimes, plotting and dreaming…) this is the kind of group I would give money to; I want schools with choirs; I want schools with voice coaches and singing lessons; I want parents to set up Papparazi Nests on Talent Nights, weeping and filming, weeping and filming. This is the world I want.

But for Sing Up, it’s the last scene in Casablanca, Braveheart, Butch and Sundance, Angels with Dirty Faces. It’s curtains; the scheme will be funded up until 2012, and after that, all is silence. (I presume that after everyone has gone home from the Olympics, Britain will dramatically revert to Blitz-sepia, rationing will be reintroduced, and Park Lane will become a gated community. I suggest you buy bottled water and plenty of tinned goods otherwise you’ll be eating your hands or something.) From looking through their website, this appears to be an event we should genuinely regret. Plus ça change.

Do not approach these men.

But where there’s a cause, there’s a claim. In this case, a report was released this week by the Institute of education, which claimed that projects like Sing Up were enormously beneficial to the well being of children.
This was reported on the BBC, presumably from a news release via agencies such as the Press Association,  and was obviously proudly trailed on the Sing Up website. Now I don’t wish to put the boot into what, to me, appears to be a fine and meaningful project. But the way in which this research has been positioned has a lot more to do with marketing and a lot less to do with authentic science. And incidentally, I’m not taking issue with the people who conducted the survey, either, and least of all with Sing Up. But it’s a perfect example of how social science is misused to justify values and interests in education.

For a start, the report was commissioned by Sing Up themselves:

‘The Institute of Education’s independent three-year study, commissioned by the Sing Up programme, is based on data collected from 9,979 children at 177 primary schools in England.’

The words ‘independent’ and ‘commissioned by the Sing Up programme’ placed together in such close proximity must indicate some new, alternative meaning of the phrase independent that I haven’t yet heard of, unless they mean something else.This by itself doesn’t exclude the research from the realms of credibility, but it should at the very least allow us to reposition the findings in a different context. In much the same way that homoeopaths and cigarette manufacturers are fond of quoting from research that supports their products, it trips alarms when you find out that research has been carried out by vested interests. (‘Getting up early is dangerous’, a new report commissioned by the National Union of Students warned today. That kind of thing.) This doesn’t mean that there is actual researcher bias in this case, simply that the choice to publish or not publish becomes a political decision based on a utilitarian assessment of benefits.

Go on- I dare you.

Secondly, there’s the issue of the report itself:  try as I might  I can’t see it anywhere. And the only  link from the Sing Up website to an IOE  report takes us to a paper published on the their website, in which I can’t find any specific reference to the Sing Up program at all. Oh, there’s plenty about singing, and lots of claims for the benefits of a musical education. Which means that either I’m looking at an old report, or it hasn’t been published yet. Or maybe I just can’t find it. Like I say, I might be wrong, but that suggests to me that it hasn’t been published in a journal and exposed to peer review and assessment by the academic community. And if that’s the case, then mere mortals like myself have no purchase on the information- we rely, of course, on the weight of a community assessment to judge if such material meets the standards of rigour and academic ethics. Until that happens, it’s about as authoritative as an opinion piece.

Again (and I know I’m stressing this a lot, but this isn’t meant to be a criticism of the report itself, or the project, and I’m at pains to be civil), for research to be meaningful in a public sphere, it has to be subject to public scrutiny. There are a lot of people out there with PhDs. Some of them are Gillian McKeith. One of the first thing I learned at university was that there are plenty of opinions out there, and none of them have a guaranteed  copyright on certainty.

Then there are the claims, or at least the claims as reported.

a) Singing in school can make children feel more positive about themselves and build a sense of community I bet it can. So can chess clubs, being in a gang and joining a cult. So can just about any other activity in the right context.

b) There is ‘a clear link between singing and well-being’. Could you define clear? Can you define well being? Pupils that sing feel better about themselves; even assuming we have overcome the definitional challenges of such a subjective term, how on earth can one draw a clear causal relationship between the two, and disentangle that relationship from a million other factors that could accompany the proposed cause and effect? Perhaps being part of a group promotes well being, and the singing is incidental. Perhaps if you’re the sort of person who likes to sing then you’ll also be the type of person on average, feels better about yourself. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. I’m still not getting a causal relationship here.


c) ‘Children who took part in the programme had a strong sense of being part of a community.’ I don’t wish to be churlish here, but the idea that people who participate in communities feel like they’re in a community doesn’t exactly sound like headline shattering stuff. But thank you, science. I look forward to your assessment of what the effect of punching myself in the pipes feels like.

d) “A clear inference may be drawn that children with experience of Sing Up are more likely… to have a positive self-concept,”  What’s your point caller? It sounds like this means that x causes y, when in fact it shows no such thing, at least by itself. They may be more likely for other reasons. Maybe y causes x, and having a positive self concept causes people to join Glee clubs, I don’t know. But that’s the point. I don‘t know. Nobody does.

e) ‘Sing Up children were up to two years ahead in their singing development than those of the same age who did not take part in the programme’. Sorry, I thought we had finished with tautologies. Are they seriously implying that children who are involved in singing practise actually improve at singing? You’ll be telling me that people who climb ladders get higher up, next. Honestly, it’s an open goal.

This may sound petty, because at least on the surface, who can disagree with the idea that singing lessons are a great thing for children to be exposed to, and to made available for as many as want or need them to flourish? I enjoyed singing at school. Others hated it, in much the same way I didn’t enjoy the ritual humiliation of rugby in December, where your alleged friends would barrel into you at full tilt in a manner that would provoke charges were they to be repeated off the field. And I certainly would mourn the loss of any scheme that promoted such activities (singing, not assault).

Helen Goddard. Not an ideal role model, to be fair.

But this story nicely summarises many things that are wrong with the use of scientific research in education, and especially social science. Humanities research is commonly used to promote a myriad of causes and interest in schools, and almost always in the advocacy of a new initiative or in an attempt to convince headmasters and teachers that they should be teaching in a particular way, or running a school to a particular model. And that has led to a suffocating number of ideas and initiatives drowning the practise of teaching for decades, each one justified by a clutch of optimistic, hand-picked research and statistics.

And the problem with this is that social science research just doesn’t provide anything like the level of probability that the physical sciences, however problematically, offer. If someone asserts that water boils at 100 degrees at sea level, then I can comfortably and easily assess that theory by testing it to my heart’s delight. But if someone then claims that they have shown that children learn best with a three part lesson then I run into an enormous number of problems:

1. How do I check that their progress wasn’t down to some other factor? Isolating a causal point of origin is almost impossible in an environment as wild and complicated as human interaction, with its plethora of reasons, internal causes, external, invisible factors, and unknowns.
2. How do I create a control to provide the above?
3. How do I know I’m not biasing my own research with my own intentions, however implicit?
4. How do I know my participants aren’t skewing the data by some form of bias on their part?

And so on. Social science is not, and never can, offer predictive powers. The pursuit of certainty in the Humanities is a fool’s errand, because we can barely claim such a principle in the natural sciences. That isn’t to discount social scientific research, but merely to contextualise it appropriately. As the MMR non-scandal showed, even the biological sciences can be subject to misinterpretation, especially when an arbitrary bundle of studies are offered as representative when in fact they are not. Social science is an invaluable commentary on how we live, who we are, and the exploration of meaning in the human sphere. But what it isn’t, is science, at least not as Joe Public knows it.

And that’s the shame of it: that education has been drowned in pseudo science, in the name of progress, when what it really represents is the justification of the values of the educational policy makers. The policy is decided for a thousand reasons, and then research is selected or created that justifies the decision.

If you want to say that singing programs should be exempt from deletion in the next rounds of cuts, then you should do so by dwelling on the intrinsic value of the activity itself- singing is an art form, a pleasure and one of the ways in which we express ourselves as humans. You value it or you don’t. But what you shouldn’t do is try to justify its value by reference to an extrinsic factor- ‘it improves well being’ and so on. That’s the argument of the boardroom and the abacus (‘What use is singing?’), and should have no place in our consideration of what is and isn’t a valuable part of a child’s education. (But of course I get the feeling that the values have already been decided: what does the economy need?) And we certainly shouldn’t rely on one piece of social science research to provide justification for a proposal, no matter how well intentioned. Because as teachers, I think we’ve had quite enough of that.