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What is The Children’s Commissioner actually FOR? Speakeasy exclusions and good intentions

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner is yet again proving that it’s worth every penny of the millions ploughed into it annually from the public purse, not the least of which is the gargantuan, supersized salary of the Grand Vizier herself, Maggie Atkinson, at around £138K, plus I imagine an enormous amount of lollipops and Sherbet Dips. When the office was created in 2005, it was envisioned that the Commissioner would give the 11 million children in the UK a voice. 22 million parents, I imagine, are perfectly conversant with the timbre and volume of that voice already, but it was a nice thought.

What is the Children’s Commissioner actually for? To represent the interests of children? Well far be it for me to get all ‘technical’ on your ass, but the Commissioner isn’t elected by a mandate, obviously, so it’s imposed representation. By adults. So it’s adults speaking for children. Isn’t that what we do anyway?

And how are children represented by the office in today’s news? Well, by the looks of it, by making it even harder for schools to maintain a safe and structured learning environment, it seems. This report on the BBC, and everywhere else, sees a new report produced by the Office claiming  that many school illegally exclude children, AND that children shouldn’t be excluded for ‘trivial’ reasons such as uniform or hair styles. Or ‘Leave Children’s Weird Hair Alone’ as the Express thoughtfully and sensitively put it.

I think everyone can agree that exclusions shouldn’t be done under the table; they should be public, transparent and fair, and any process that smacks of the backstreet exposes itself to abuse. But what the Office doesn’t recognise is that the reason that schools are forced into this position is because exclusions have been made so very, very hard to do. Schools are now picked apart like carcasses on the Serengeti for excluding children; one of their performance indicators, as assessed by Ofsted, is how low their exclusion rates are. A low rate is seen as indicative of good housekeeping.

‘My needs aren’t being met!’ ‘And my voice isn’t heard enough!’

But depressingly, the most obvious solution to any school wishing to appear angelic, is simply to exclude far less, which is a monumental example of putting the cart before the horse. Exclusions are a necessary and intrinsic property of a well run school. If a pupil defies the conventions and rules designed to keep everyone safe and secure, then they are usually set some kind of interim sanction- detentions, report cards, etc. But what if a pupil fails to respond to these, or any other interventions designed to help them habituate? There has to be a terminal point, reached only after every other option has been spent- and that point is the exclusion, temporary or permanent. It simply has to be.

The alternative is the current car-crash of a system that I walked into when I joined teaching ten years ago, where kids who persistently misbehave are simply…kept in classrooms. And the tragedy of it is that the education of everyone else is decimated. I’ve seen it, and every teacher in any kind of difficult school can see it. And even sadder, every kid I know who doesn’t tell their teacher to stick their lessons up their arses can see it, and they despair. They simply look at us, the adults, and wonder why we don’t seem to be able to do anything with persistent offenders. The answer is that many schools choose not to. They simply contain them in the classroom and cross their fingers.

You want to see education improve in this country? You want to see your precious PISA comparisons rocket up? You ant literacy and numeracy to improve? Worried about STEM subjects? Worried about social skills?

Then for god sake, let us, the teachers, do our jobs and make it possible to do so.

There exists a small, persistent minority of children who have the ability to completely devastate a lesson, and all lessons because they choose to do so. This isn’t a statement of distaste or dislike for them. This is simply truth. Just as in any society there are some law breakers who place themselves beyond the values of the community, so too are there children- who grow up to be adults, incidentally- who display exactly the same characteristics. Yet we are often unable to remove them to a place where a) they can no longer harm the education of others and b) they can be educated in a one-to-one setting.

The current system is a complete clusterf*ck. They remain, and learn that there are few consequences to their actions. And they grow bold, wondering where the next boundary lies. And other children, whose lessons are routinely depth charged by these kids, look on, and wonder if they too can get away with misbehaviour; and so the behaviour normalises downwards, and everyone suffers.

Me, when I read today’s papers.

And at the end of this grisly process is the teacher, going out of their minds trying to teach, and being interrogated by parents, ‘Why can’t you control the class?’ as if control were some kind of Jedi Mind Trick. Which is why so many new teachers leave within five years of joining. It’s as if we have vowed to protect the interests of the most disruptive and forgotten the rights of everyone else, as if they ceased to matter. I wonder when, one day, a parent will launch a legal challenge against a school for failing to provide a safe educational environment for their child. Soon, I hope.

The social and emotional damage this situation causes teachers and children is awful, and I am precise when I say that it is a scandal. It’s why I got into behaviour writing in the first place, because schools and teachers weren’t allowed to do the completely obvious, natural thing; show children that good behaviour is rewarded and bad behaviour is discouraged.

It’s not that I want to see badly behaved kids punished for pleasure, or revenge; but actually because these children are so poorly served by the current provision- packed off to an ‘internal exclusion’ centre, which are sometimes brilliant, and often terrible, or merely holding pens. Given proper support in secure, disciplined environments by trained professional teachers, they could actually learn to become more socialised and educated. Instead they are frequently fobbed off with half measures.

And let’s not pretend that children are routinely excluded for minor matters: these days you need to practically pick off milkmen with a sniper rifle to be considered for an exclusion. A permanent exclusion would require that the child had constructed an airborne Ebola virus and pump it through the school air con. And admit it. It is really, really hard to get excluded.

I saw two charmers on Channel 4 News tonight who were ‘at risk’ of exclusion, as if they had no responsibility in the matter. They admitted they had been ‘rude’ to the teachers. Only a teacher knows just how rude a kid has to be before they get put on Exclusion Death Row; it normally means weeks, months, years of abuse and arrogance, of making their teachers and other people lives misery. These aren’t misguided angels with dirty faces. These children have to be persistently unpleasant to get there. So don’t tell me that schools over exclude. They massively under exclude. And the reason they do so off the books is because doing it on the books will lead to them being labelled Unsatisfactory. It is as simple as that. The process has been driven underground because the government insists on Prohibition. No wonder Speakeasys start to open.

So, thanks, Office of the Children’s Commissioner. I know that you have to justify your outrageous, credit-crunch-defying salaries somehow. And when it comes to taking the moral high ground, nothing is easier than saying, ‘Will no one think of the children?’ while wringing your hands like some Victorian Thespian.

Far harder to do what I and thousands of other teachers do, which is actually teach children (have you ever….? No, of course not. Few people in these positions actually have to get their hands dirty helping children directly.) Far harder to stand up for the rights of children like we do: their right to safe and secure schools; their right to a calm classroom; their right to a teacher who doesn’t spend half their time dealing with terrible behaviour; their right to guidance.

Sometimes being an adult means saying ‘No’ to children, for their own good. I know it’s easy to say ‘Yes’ all the time and be the nice Mummy. But all good parents- all good educators- know that sometimes, children need to know the boundaries. Tough love is still love, and love without boundaries isn’t love at all; it’s indulgence.

If a school excludes for make-up or uniform, it isn’t excluding for those things directly; they exclude for the child’s persistent refusal to follow school rules, created for everyone to be fair. If a child only follows rules they agree with, then schools cannot operate. Their acceptance of these rules is implicit in the application letter they sent prior to their arrival. In societies we don’t get to personalise the rules; we abide, and support out community’s will. We learn to rub along with others, and we learn that sometimes the individual’s needs must be set against the greater community.

So, I return to my original question: what is the Office of the Children’s Commission actually for? Because it seems to exist to undermine the institutions that want desperately to help children the most: teachers, parents and schools. Let us do our jobs. You can go…I don’t know. What IS it you do again? Because £138 grand would buy me a lot of textbooks and pens.

Teacher Voice.

The Interactive White Elephant in the Room: If IT is killing your lesson, pull the plug

‘You disgust me. You’re not even a mouse!’

My name is Tom Bennett, and I’m a recovering IWB user.

fet-ish /fetiSH   Noun

  1. An inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.
  2. A course of action to which one has an excessive and irrational commitment
  3. Any form of sex described in a tabloid newspaper that doesn’t involve two people having sex face-to-face through a white sheet with a joy hole cut out.

How many times have you taught a lesson from a PowerPoint, or similar? Title, aim, date starter….the four unholy corners of the starter square, and I DO mean square, man. Have you plodded through slide after slide, maybe a bit of video embedded from Youtube, then questions or a task….? I BET you  have; don’t think I can’t see you, you pervert. Speaking of which, Interactive White Boards have become the modern classroom fetish, certainly in the first two senses given above, and just give it time for the triple.

By this I mean that it is unthinkable for any classroom now not to possess one, and any that do are in the process of being kitted out. It is now the telos of every classroom to have one. It is the altar and font of the learning space. Teachers deprived of one will write angry emails to their line manager about how it’s impossible for them to teach any more, because the magic white rectangle of learning is silent. I used to be one of them.

Touch the screen and be healed

Then I had a Damascan epiphany, caused, like the best of superhero origin stories by a mysterious accident. Due to a BSF rebuild, I was given a room outside the school which, for a few weeks, was IWB free. I mean, OBVIOUSLY it was getting one, because my human rights would have been violated otherwise, but until then I was solo. It felt like someone had cut off my arms. But in a few days something odd happened: I remembered what it was like to teach without an electric dummy-board. It was liberating, especially in sixth form lessons, as I explored non-linear structures, taking new approaches as the lesson progressed, and abandoning tasks as soon as they became redundant. (It is also, I might add, far more kinaesthetically pleasing to write with a pen; to rub out instantly and easily, to shade, to feel the connection between finger and ink. No stylus and hard, unyielding plastic screen reproduces this. A small point, perhaps, but an important one.)

It reminded me how liberating it was to be truly free when you are teaching a subject you know and love. To Hell with the next slide, if I decided that the next thing they needed to know was a recap, or a new topic, or fast forward to something from next week, as long as I met the objectives we set out from the start. And sometimes, not even that, if I decided that new objectives would work better.

The strange thing is that I already considered myself somewhat of a free radical in lesson structure. I mean, I KNOW about three part lessons, about plenaries and starters, about the scaffolds of dogma that we find prescribed  as we enter the secret garden….it’s just that I don’t agree with their universal efficacy. Nothing could be more obvious. What hadn’t been obvious to me was that the technology had become another straitjacket, and that I had volunteered to tie the straps tight.

I bet you LIKE that, eh? You revolt me.

Now, there are obvious, obvious benefits to the projector/ IWB combo. I KNOW this. On a simple level, it allows better preparation and presentation of board content. It also opens up media possibilities of sight and sound that are quite wonderful- showing my kids the Moon Landing, MLK’s Washington Address, the Hajj, an argument with Richard Dawkins; even their own video work, is something very special indeed. Integrating it with t’web multiplies its power to the strength of ten. I wouldn’t lose it for a second.

But I have noticed something: there are some teachers who really, really like using the IWB. Maths teachers, for example, who adore the possibility of manipulating geometric shapes, inputting answers, uncovering correct solutions as they progress, getting kids up to the screen to write up their answers etc. And that’s great; seriously guys, go nuts. But it took me a long time to overcome the feeling that if I wasn’t doing all of these things (even in a philosophy lesson) that I was somehow letting the teaching team down, and being an ossified dinosaur. Then I realised that there was absolutely no need for me to feel like that. Some teachers love it; some don’t. There is no harm in either approach, nor is their any innate, universal superiority of method.

What would Plato do?

It’s an obvious point, but it’s worth reiterating for clarity: nobody before this generation learned anything through means other than the teacher’s voice, a textbook and if they were lucky, a battered old Soviet radio that took a hand-crank to start. My multimedia classroom experience was a tape recorder and a television larger than a family car. And I genuinely do not think that the experience was marked by any privation for the lack of brain-enhancing nanites and holographic distance learning. It worked out jes’ fine.

So why have we bought so suddenly, so avariciously into this new paradigm? Many reasons. I think no one wants to look like a Luddite reactionary. No one wants to peer up and notice that the Emperor’s natty new onesie barely covers the crown jewels. So allow me. THAT ROYAL MAN IS NAKED AND IT IS NOT A PRETTY SIGHT LET ME TELL YOU. It is easier to look like you’re doing something by buying the latest toys than it is to make and stand and say ‘why?’ But I wonder how often we realise that the IWB has become a millstone, when it was supposed to be jetpack.

I have seen observation criteria sheets that have a box marked, ‘Did the teacher use IT in the lesson?’ as if it were some kind of minimum expectation. Dear God, when did it become compulsory to use an IWB to teach Logic, or Geography, or Sex Ed? How on earth did we cope before its introduction? I imagine we must have all been rolling around the classroom floor, slapping our heads like chimps and wailing, ‘Someone invent the iPad!’ One can only guess how we ever escaped the primordial swamp.

What has the Silicon Chip done for us?

Has it ever occurred to anyone that the current role models of educational excellence and ambition- the Steve Jobs, the Gary Kasparovs, the Steven Hawkings of the world- were all educated in circumstances untouched by blended learning, break out zones, webinars and Google? That EVERYONE SMART EVER was educated in the conventional classroom? That, as of yet, there is absolutely no evidence that children learn significantly, reproducibly, indisputably better when IT is a common prevalent factor? Yet we have embraced it like a slave, and I use that word carefully.

IT is a wonderful tool. Like any tool, like many tools, if I try hard enough I can think of wonderful and interesting uses for it in the classroom. But I could say that of any strategy, prop or tool. Give me a basketball and an onion and I’ll give you a dozen thinking tasks or starters. Give me a pair of scissors, a lava lamp, a Sultan’s slipper and an Angora goat and I’ll give you a lesson that would make an Ofsted inspector whistle La Marseillaise. The fact that IT resources bend themselves so agreeably to novelty and the nouveau doesn’t define them as necessary or sufficient conditions to good teaching and learning. They are a tool, and like all tools, sometimes they are not needed.
So let’s rebel against this new orthodoxy; let’s be digital radicals, and I task you this in the form of a dare. I DARE you to walk into school on Monday, go up to the white board and….do nothing. Simply don’t turn it on. Turn instead to the board; the lesson in your head, your voice, and your own instincts.

Try it. I call it extreme teaching. Some people just call it teaching. I don’t care what you do instead, just don’t use it. Just TURN the F*CKING THING OFF. Put ‘Police: Do Not Cross’ tape across it. Tie a three-headed guard dog to the monitor to deter yourself. Just go cold turkey. For a week. It’s Lent, you heathen, and if you haven’t already given up other forms of self-abuse, give up this one.

A few years ago, I took part in a parachute jump, in a fit of vitality and joy. Naked teaching is like this: terrifying at first. Then, it’s exhilarating.  If it terrifies you, you can always pull the ripcord.

But see how long you can last before you do. It feels like flying.

Real Steel in the classroom: how we need to be more than robots to be teachers.

Machine versus humans

Real Steel: boxing robots as a metaphor for teaching

For those of you who haven’t, or will never, see it, Real Steel is a film aimed at the family market. It’s set in the near-future, where boxing has been replaced with robot boxing.

Bear with me.

Hugh Jackman plays Charlie, an ex-boxer/ loser who bums around from fight to fight with an assortment of junk robots, always one step away from the gutter. Through an improbable twist, he gets temporary custody of his estranged 11 year old son; they start the film hating each other, and if you can’t see the plot/ character arc sweeping down on you like the Valkyries then you need better narrative radar. It’s a kids/ family movie, and I thought it was rather wonderful, but that’s not the point.


Now that I’ve chased off the last few of you, it’s just you and me. Either you’ve seen it, or you don’t intend to, or you don’t care. Either way, take a ring-side seat with me for the finale. Like a deathless Rocky meme, Charlie and his son have restored a beaten-up Atari of a robot and got him through unlicensed fights until he’s up against Zeus, the World Champion, a gleaming, sinister, black Ferrari of a tank with fists. Programmed with an onboard fight simulator that can anticipate millions of combat options, he is unbeatable.

Contrast Zeus with Atom, Charlie’s reconditioned junk heap; he’s a ruin, he’s old, he’s built from scraps and spares. But he can take punishment, and most importantly, he’s got the ability to learn to fight from humans, as Charlie reluctantly demonstrates when he agrees to teach the robot his old boxing moves. Also, Charlie tends to take remote control of the robot for some fights. If you haven’t spotted the ‘tin man with a heart’ symbolism by this point, I don’t know what. The heavy implication is that Atom, the ruined loser on a comeback, is the simulacrum of Charlie; both are lost and broken; both restored by the faith of a child (which was also the name of Celine Dion’s last Grammy-repellant, I believe).

This is what gives Atom the edge; Charlie’s experience and skill, transmitted through Atom, makes him see how the fight needs to be fought. There’s even a nice touch when, as part of a pre-fight ritual, his son makes Atom dance before he gets in the ring (and at one point he even makes the robot….do the ROBOT. I hugged myself with joy).

In the final match, Charlie/ Atom puts up a good fight, but Zeus is too quick and strong. On the bell of the fourth, Atom slumps down, his voice command and online computer fried by the battering. As a last resort, Charlie switches Atom to ‘Shadow’ mode; Atom (an ex-sparring droid) will simply copy every move that Charlie makes from the ringside. He is quite literally, fighting Atom’s fight. The last few scenes as Charlie’s son glows with pride to see his old dad making a comeback in the ring are surprisingly touching, and I’m surprised Disney didn’t nail this one years ago. I won’t give the fight away to you, but as Barry Norman once said reviewing Rocky IV, ‘If you can find someone to bet on the Russian, hold on to him.’

And I realised what was nagging away at me as I watched this fine piece of inoffensive entertainment. The boxer in the ring, Atom/ Charlie, is the teacher in the classroom. Zeus is the avatar of best practise, the recommended recipe. On paper, Zeus is unstoppable, just as on paper, the formal requirements for a good lesson should result in a good- sorry metasatisfactory– lesson. This guidance comes from educational research, from ministerial dogma, from ideologues and academics who have barely set foot in the ring- sorry, the classroom. We are told constantly how to teach by people who have never taught. Their only evidence base is the Mystic Meg method of research that clearly shows whatever it was they wanted it to show. I don’t mind ministers and concerned parties telling me what we, society should teach children- that’s their elected prerogative. But I massively, massively resent being told to follow the program when it comes to how I teach. The skeleton is there as a safety net when you begin, but after that, instinct, judgement and intuition start to take over.

We are best suited to knowing how children learn, and should be handled to do so. Other people’s opinions are important, but no one is going to ask me to step into the ring and tell me how to throw or take a punch if I try it and it doesn’t work. Let them step under the ropes and see how they guard, block and combo. If anyone IN the ring has advice for me, I often take it. If someone watching it in the VIP rows, or from TV has an opinion, I consider it. But I’ll make the last call myself, thanks. I’m the one with the black eye and the cauliflower ear.

Atom/ Charlie won their fights because they went off the map; because they understood that boxing is an art and a craft that relies on techniques as well as the improvisation of those techniques. So is teaching. There are notes, scales and chords we need to learn from others, but if we really want to play music, we need to bring ourselves to the piece.

The Tin Man has to have a heart. That’s Real Steel.


Let’s say something so stupid we have to call it science: obnoxious, loud children ‘learn better’

My learning style involves everyone else not learning.

NEWSFLASH: A study of 12,000 baby Tyrannosaurus Rexes found that the larger, more aggressive calves with longer, sharper teeth tended to outperform their more civil, amenable peers in standardised herbivore intimidation tests (SHIT). This contradicts the commonly held view that agreeable, polite mega-carnivores would be more successful. This raises questions about the need for T-Rex mentors to consider other methods…..(continues in a similar vein forever and ever until everyone dies crying)

Comedy Gold dropped into my email box this morning; a timebomb of stupid that I normally associate with people ‘standing on street corners, selling coloured pencils from a tin cup,’ to quote the Hitch. Only this time it was a paper written by m’learned educational scientists at Durham University, and blazed on the BBC news website here. The claim was that children who shout out in classes do better than their kinder, lovelier peers.

If Charles Darwin read this report he’d be chewing his long beard like Gandalf and wondering what all the fuss was about. ‘Competitive, unpleasant organisms unfettered by social mores or self-restraint get more of what they want’ isn’t exactly news. Nor is ‘teachers forced by obnoxious organic alarm clocks to focus attention on hitting the snooze button until Hell freezes over.’

‘The lead author of the research, Peter Tymms, head of Durham University’s school of education, said that among children with ADHD symptoms, those who got excited and shouted out seemed to be more “cognitively engaged and as a result learn more”.
“Perhaps those children also benefit from receiving additional feedback and attention from their teacher,” suggested Prof Tymms.’


YOU THINK? Noisy, greedy little attention-hoovers grab attention, do they? Well, KNOCK ME DOWN WITH A FEATHER. Who knew? Maybe they should ALL be like that, eh? Those quiet little f*ckers, keeping their heads down and working hard, what do they know, eh? Despicable little arse-limpets. They should step the HELL up and get some attention for themselves. Except….except if they all did that….then there wouldn’t BE a survival advantage any more because the teacher would be split like a kaleidoscope into a million shards of fragmented attention. So for anyone to grab more attention than their peers they would have to….SHOUT LOUDER AND LOUDER UNTIL THERE WAS NOTHING LEFT IN THE COLD BROKEN UNIVERSE BUT THE BAYING SCREAMS OF CHILDREN HOWLING UNTIL THEIR THROATS HAD TURNED TO STONE.

Let’s not do that.

‘Ms Merrell, CEM’s director of research and development, said she wanted to carry out further studies to see how pupils could be encouraged to shout out as part of the lesson.’

OH BOY OH BOY, I bet the teachers will be QUEUEING ROUND THE BLOCK for Ms Merrell to start doing her experiments in their class. Perhaps after that we can test the effect of letting kids fling faeces at the teacher like Barbary Apes. Form a line, comrades.

“We need to look more closely at this behaviour and how the interaction can be managed in the classroom.” 

The data suggests that this is optimal.

No, chum; we don’t. I, and every teacher, know how this interaction can be managed in the classroom. You don’t allow it. If we allow the loud mouths and the intemperate to dominate the time and attention of the teacher, to guzzle the oxygen of attention, to monopolise discussion and personal resources, then all we do is create a war of all against all, where the loudest, neediest and least agreeable come first. Which is fine if we are breeding the next generation of politicians, transvestite cabaret artists or X-Factor participants. Less so if we seek to sculpt human beings.

Other aspects of this paper:

1. The title: ‘ADHD and academic attainment: Is there an advantage in impulsivity?’ Are they kidding me on? Are they really asking that question? Normally Educational Social Science needs to be pretty brave to show its face round my manor, but this takes the whole packet of biscuits. Are they having me on? Ask anyone with an ounce of language and experience and they would tell you the answer to the question: yes, of course there is, sometimes. But it still makes you a dick. I look forward to the follow up: ‘stealing things- does it mean you get more stuff?’

For F*CK’S sake.

2. ‘However, it is also recognised that these behavioural problems can lead to children being excluded from pre-school and school from an early age, and that early interventions are promising.’ Or to put it another way, kids who shout out and misbehave get in trouble a lot, and if you work hard with them to control themselves at an early age, they can improve. Which we already know. How do we know? We work with kids. Isn’t that grand?

School Uniform? More research is needed.

3. In the ‘alternative hypotheses’ section of the paper, the writers scratch their undoubtedly pointy chins, and ponder their own fallibility:

‘Could an unmeasured variable, such as the intelligence, confidence or knowledge of some young children be acting as the key causal factor? This is a possibility; only intervention studies could firmly establish a direct causal link.’

Say it isn’t so! You think…you think it might be something else? You think maybe it wasn’t just the shouting out that gave them an educational advantage? I love the cautious, wide-eyed uncertainty allowed to creep in at the end, as if they were scared to even ask the question: is it possible that human behaviour is so complex, that the causal density for potential explanations is almost infinite, and the possibility of exacting a clear predictive mechanism is next-to impossible? Let me answer that one for you: yes, it is possible.

It’s possible that you wrote this paper before you wrote it. It’s possible that you found exactly what you were looking for. It’s possible that the first ten cars I see tomorrow will be red: does that mean that Friday generates a glut of scarlet Hyundais? If, every time I wake up on a Sunday morning I have a sore head, a wet mattress and a pocket full of sticky pennies, can I infer that Sunday mornings cause incontinence, cephalalgia and amnesia, or should I look to the pile of empty Laphroaig bottles surrounding my bed? 

4. Most importantly, this paper actually only makes the claim that pushiness is a competitive learning advantage in the group that already displays inattentiveness; in other words, being quiet and well behaved still outweighs all the other factors in terms of educational achievement correlation, as you might expect. It’s just that the shouty kids who are inattentive do better than the quiet kids who are inattentive. Now that’s not so much of a claim,but in my opinion, the paper frames these themes in such as way as to present them in a more newsworthy and provocative, bone-headed light. The news article certainly does.

T-Rex: surprisingly good Value-Added.

Social science, I despair of you. You’re not really a science are you? Like an ape pretending to be a prince, you can wear the robes and hold a sceptre, but you’ll never pass the laws. You can hide behind as many abstracts, tables and T-scores as you like, but you aren’t physics. You aren’t chemistry. You aren’t even biology. Until educational research remembers what it can do- act as a commentary on human experience, suggest and frame that experience- and what it can’t- discern causation in anything  more than the most rudimentary sense when it comes to human desires and direction- then I’ll file papers like these squarely under ‘that’s nice, did you have fun writing it?’ and turn to the classroom for the laboratory, the research, and the Petri dish of my teaching.

But more than that, I despair of the way that papers like this are presented in the national media. Normally sober and I’m sure, reliable journalists put things like this under the magnifying glass, cranking up the claims and turning a fairly standard investigation into data, into something beyond even the claims of the writers. The paper itself is no worse than many others, and was, I’m sure the result of many hours of dedicated enquiry and analyses. It isn’t the author’s fault that the factual conclusions of the research are so unremarkable, although it is their fault that the suggested implications are so knuckle-headed. But the BBC online news portal seems to be increasingly hyperbolic, as if no Thursday could be complete without a claim so absurd that the Krankies would have blushed to imagine it. 

And of course, the real heart ache is that people will pick up on research like this, and attempt to shoe horn it somehow into the classroom, advising impressionable teachers to let their kids shout out because of some imagined benefit it brings. What kind of people? Normally people who have never taught in a classroom, never will, and yet have the kind of stones to tell people like you and me how children best learn. Get back in your pit, weasels. We have a job to do.

Teacher Voice.

Thanks to @Bio_Joe for passing on the paper to me, and highlighting the alternative hypothesese.
Read the paper yourself here. It’s a barrel of laughs. At least it’s short.

Teacher Voice: we need more than #askgove. Teachers need to speak up

I’m warning you

Have you heard of Student Voice? Of course you have. If you haven’t been interviewed by a twelve year old, or sat in the stocks of a 360 degree performance management assessment while your more feral EBD customers pelt you with mouldy tubers, then you, my friend, teach on the Moon.

Have you heard of Parent Power? Stupid question; when they aren’t demanding to know why their children haven’t completed their A-level in Further Maths in year 7, setting up a Free School, or crucifying you with league tables, they’re logging onto the new ‘Rat on a school’ website designed specifically for people with personality disorders and bleak, flavourless lives to bleed their neuroses online while cry-w*nking into a sock.

Have you heard of ‘Teacher Voice’, the bold new initiative launched by the DfE to create a representative body that regularly polls and consults acting teachers, asking them about issues of pedagogy, how children best learn, what needs to happen in schools, classroom design, etc.?

NO YOU HAVEN’T UNLESS YOU LIVE INSIDE MY MIND. That’s because it doesn’t exist. Everyone BUT teachers has a megaphone in the meetings where nuts and bolts are cast. We don’t even get an invite.

I am put in mind of this point because of the #askGove project that is currently lighting up the switchboards of Twitter like a pinball machine. It’s an attempt, it says here, for the education select committee to get the views of teachers, ahead of  a meeting with G-Diddy on Tuesday. Well, excuse me for pissing on your camp-fire of I AM LISTENING, but what on EARTH is this designed to prove? We can send him questions any time we like already. Does anyone seriously think that all their questions are being put, as we tweet, into a big sack, and the Education Select Committee will rummage round it, arm deep like Jimmy Saville, and pluck out something to ask M-Gove? ‘Now then, now then, here’s a question from Beth from Middlesbrough, and she’d like to know if you’ve ever gone full pelt with a tranny. Minister?’

I SUSPECT THIS IS NOT A THING THAT WILL HAPPEN. No, what will happen is that they ask the questions that they wanted to ask anyway, and use any goddamn data they fancy from the #askgove pool of tweets to justify their interrogation. It isn’t an exercise in listening, it’s exactly the opposite; it’s an exercise in appearing to listen, which as we all know from classrooms is ANNOYING AS HELL. It’s also deceptive, and patronising.

Who devises policy? Who decides how best children learn? Who works out if class sizes are important or not? Who creates systems of assessment? Who says if a subject, a skill, a project is workable, or a laboratory Frankenstein, engineered in a Petri-dish of good intentions? Everyone BUT us. Now does that sound sensible to you? It doesn’t sound sensible to me. In fact, it sounds perverse. It sounds like education is the ball everyone wants to play with, and the ones who actually do…you know, the educating thing….are the ones most removed from its design and execution. Isn’t that odd?

In the Land of the Deaf, the big-eared man is King.

It is my mission in life, because I am on a mission, to wade through the slurry and the offal of guano that rains on us like Satanic Manna every day, wave my tricorder at it, and decide one thing: good idea in the classroom or bad? Most of what showers down on us that was decided solely in a department of education, a cabinet meeting, a pow-wow with speech writers and focus groups, falls fairly and squarely into the latter category. I have had it up to here *indicates a spot between nipple and chin* with False Prophets telling us, the experts, what works, and what doesn’t.

We, as a profession, have been muzzled, fixed as neatly as any castrato. When  Ofsted ties its horse to the front gates and bowls in like Berty-Big-Balls, it consults the school leadership, the students, even the parents. How are teacher views taken into account? When, apart from the ballot box, when single issues conflate into a million others, are teachers asked to indicate their preferences for how they would like to teach, for how they think children learn, and what they think about the latest oh-boy initiative doomed to die, like mortal men in Middle-Earth?

Don’t the Unions speak for us? Well, they have a different purpose these days, being focused more on pay and conditions- thanks for that, incidentally-than matters of pedagogy. They do act as a funnel for ideas and debate, but I don’t think I’m ruffling any feathers here when I say that’s not really what they’re about any more. Also, their intrinsic aim of defending the lot of the teacher, while admirable in many ways, isn’t the same thing as defending education itself, although it often identical. The GTC? The GTC is/ was a miserable embarrassment, because it could have been so much. It was meant to be a representative and regulatory body that ensured the profession was a profession. What it became also damned it; a punitive organ you only heard about when you had to cough up your fees so that you could receive a tatty circular sent to your previous address. Sometimes you heard about it when somebody got busted for downloading porn. It was the Vito Corloene of the quangos, awkward and unloved and it will not be missed.

‘Oh we can HEAR you; we just don’t have to GIVE a sh*t.’

And now there is nothing. The Schools Council, the GTC, all lost, like the library of Alexandria. Nobody speaks for us. Worse, we have even forgotten there is an us. We have lost consciousness. Never consulted, we now no longer even act surprised when we are not consulted. A generation of teachers have gone through the system who have never experienced what it feels like to question educational orthodoxies, who seem to be unaware that other orthodoxies, equally contestable, even exist. Teachers who have sat obediently through MAs and PGCEs who have never known anything other than the dogma of group work, of thinking skills, of learning hats, or levelled assessments, of value-added, of target grades and FFT, of green marking ink, of graded inspections, of skills-driven learning, of APP, personalised learning, AFL and positive behaviour management. We have become like the inhabitants of Huxley’s World State in Brave New World, unable to conceive of other realities.

This situation will last as long as we permit it. We are legion because, of course, there are many of us. Every teacher needs to wake up; to remember that the duty they serve is greater than any directive or article of best practise. If you saw a child being man-handled on the street would you ignore it? I hope not. If you see a child’s future being wrecked in an act of abstract abuse, should we look away. Worse; should we enable it? Of course not. Teachers, we need to speak up and tell people when they’re doing it wrong. You have every right; YOU are the expert on education.

And what of the commentators, the Professors of Education, the advisers, the talking heads? They too have their place in the discussion on education. Their ideas are useful, and important too. For all the faults I sometimes paint, we need them to act as a check and balance on us, to detect the counter-intuitive flaws of the classroom, to advise and challenge. They also care about education, and often, they have skills we lack and need.  But that isn’t what they are right now. Right now, they are the ruling class, the Alphas to our Gammas. We barely register on the RADAR of the war room. In the Secret Garden of Education, the gardeners are now absent, replaced by flower arrangers. Like bee-keepers; they want the honey, but they couldn’t make it themselves. If ministers ran a hive, they would probably advise apiarists to wake the bees up with Radio 4 and warm air because ‘research suggests honey production accelerates in these conditions.’ Either that, or they would slice each tiny insect open, looking for the honey.

So from now on, I invite you to remember that you have a teacher voice. We are the only missing guest at the party; in fact, there isn’t even a seat for us.

Teacher Voice Manifesto:

  1. Realise we are a marginalised group.
  2. Admit that we know most about what happens in classrooms
  3. If educational research contradicts classroom experience, and the shared experience of your peers, then defer its acceptance until the research has been explored and reviewed 
  4. Speak. Up. Raise your voice at every staff meeting; email the HELL out of people with whom you disagree.
  5. Ask for explanations of every policy you feel is damaging and dangerous to children
  6. Raise your points with line management, governors, anyone you feel needs to know.
  7. Seek positions where you can influence policy yourself.
  8. Discuss and debate and defend your experience in every arena, virtual and solid, from chat-rooms to the staffroom.
  9. Always stay focussed on what we should be doing- educating children to the best of our ability- rather than what you are told to do: for example, raising the school GCSE rates. Such things are extrinsic goals, incidental to our objectives.
  10. Campaign at all times for teacher views to be taken into account at every stage of interrogation and data sampling. Who conducts national surveys of what we think any more, unless they want to sell us something?

Brothers and sisters, boys and girls, it’s time to crash the party.

Teacher Voice.

Teacher Voice.