Tom Bennett

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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.

Always someone else’s problem? No, it’s ours, thanks. And you make it harder.

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner, yesterday

Fans of witless bureaucracy and low expectations of children were not disappointed today as the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) launched their report ‘Always someone else’s problem’. Here’s the groovy gist of what it says over 56 gripping pages:

1. Many schools exclude children illegally
2. Exclusions are beastly things anyway
3. Schools that do this should be fined and prosecuted.

I’m not kidding about that last bit. The OCC wants to get tough with naughty schools, which is deeply ironic when you think about it, which they haven’t. Now you don’t have to read it. I’ve written about the OCC before, mainly along the lines of how unlikely I would be build a commemorative shrine were it to suddenly sink into the ocean like Atlantis.

Cards on the table: they are absolutely right that this happens. In fact, rather than their cautious estimate of 2 or 3% I would say it is far more widespread than she suggests. It isn’t the data I substantially disagree with, but their conclusions. Let me clear about something else: they absolutely shouldn’t. There is little a school does that shouldn’t be absolutely transparent, and nothing that it does that should be against the law. If a school has a policy, or the governing bodies have statutory guidelines and requirements, they should be followed.

Ghost exclusions

But why do schools act in this manner? Speaking as someone who actually works in a school, rather than reads about them in the papers, I can tell you. They ghost-exclude because they’re terrified of doing it properly. Because the system has been skewed for so long against excluding at all, that they’re scared- correctly- they’ll be clobbered by Ofsted.

Inclusion has become the new orthodoxy. When I entered teaching I was mystified why so many apparently unteachable children were allowed to remain in classrooms where chaos reigned. Answer: inclusion, that contemporary, well meaning but ruinous excuse for adult responsibility. The aim was to make sure no one was marginalised. The reality was classroom after classroom ruined by a tiny minority of extreme spectrum children, whose needs exceeded the capacity of a mainstream teacher to provide. They need special provision; they got sealed in a classroom with everyone else. Everyone lost, everyone.

We have failed generations of children in this way. You want to radically improve every school in the UK? Scorch the moronic practice of inclusion at all costs, and pay for appropriate in-school internal exclusion facilities, with trained teachers, facilities and teaching materials. You’ll see exclusions wither, I promise. And pay for external provision- PRUS, specialist schools- that can cope with small groups of extreme spectrum children. To do otherwise is as sensible as shoehorning a dozen sick and a dozen well people into a lift and hoping they all get better.

The peril of no destination

‘Your value-added is f*cking unacceptable, Bennett.’

The fact that there is a section in the report titled ‘Lack of a meaningful sanction’ (against schools) suggest to me that the authors are masters of parody and irony, because no one could write that sentence and fail to apprehend that the lack of a meaningful sanction is exactly what they are advocating in schools, which means that boundaries will be entirely unenforceable. Can you guess what this looks like to a teacher? Let me assist.

It means this: when schools don’t exclude as a matter of procedure, without fear of rebuke, then children quickly realise that if they defy the class and school rules then….nothing at all will happen. Consider the classroom teacher who needs to set a short detention for, say chatting. What happens if the child doesn’t turn up? Well, the sanction tends to escalate, both in severity and up through the hierarchy. But what happens if the child doesn’t attend, or continues to tell the teacher to blow their lesson plans out their ass? It has to go somewhere. Such children (and they aren’t many, but they are a consistent minority in every school) need to be taken out of the classroom.

But what if the child still tells the teachers, and the world, to go f**k themselves? Then the child is beyond the means of the school to manage. We literally cannot control their behaviour- only they can do this. All we can do is offer incentives and deterrents to behaviour, and hope that they amend. Greater society also has this last resort- the gaol; not to be wished for, but necessary, as inevitable and indispensable as a lavatory bowl. There has to be a terminus for repeated bad behaviour, to be used as little as possible but as often as necessary. I work with many, many teachers who are told variations of ‘we don’t take children out of classrooms.’ The people who suggest this invariably don’t have to teach them. Maggie Atkinson certainly doesn’t.

A well run LSU/ PRU is a place where children can access one-to-one support, and trained staff. It should be a positive step to exclude, because it’s what the child and their peers need. Ah yes, the peers- only a teacher can tell you what the damage caused by reports like this looks like- exhausted teachers lashed by rude, often violent children, and classes torn apart by the selfish, desperate actions of a few. From the way the OCC writes, you’d think classes were stocked with nothing but avatars of kindness and altruism. They are not. They’re people, just like us.

The pointless OCC (and why do children need an expensive office to look out for their interests? What the Hell do you think we’re trying to do, turn them into nuggets and drop them in a fry basket?), if it was genuinely interested in the well being of children and not merely concerned with showing how lovely they are, would say something like this:

  • Schools to provide appropriate levels of internal provision for children based on education and socialisation, not just a holding pattern over the school runway.
  • No condemnation to be attached formally to any school that excludes whenever it needs to; not from Ofsted, not from Governors, not from the anodyne OCC
  • Exclusions to be seen as either a way for children to obtain and access appropriate services, or as an admission that the pupil is beyond the capabilities of the school to manage, or the relationship has broken down too severely. Maggie Atkinson, I’ll wager, has never had to teach a child that punched her in the face, or sexually harassed her, as many teachers do.
  • Schools to be funded appropriately for taking an excluded child. Some schools specialise in these kinds of children; if you’re good at it, encourage schools to take them for positive reasons.
  • Ofsted to ask the right questions about behaviour, such as ‘Why is this child still in a mainstream classroom,’ rather than ‘Why have they been excluded?’ Again, my challenge to many inspectors is. ‘Howe would YOU deal with this pupil?’ and I’ll stake my shirt that many of them wouldn’t have a clue.

I asked someone from the DfE what penalties exist for schools that exclude children. The answer is surprising; very little. Of course, schools lose the finance for pupils they permanently exclude. The only other penalty is the possible disapproval of the inspector, who might take a dim view of exclusion as so many of them are suckled on the dogma of yesteryear. In which case, Sir Michael Wilshaw needs to add this thread to any subsequent inspector training: inclusion not always good; exclusion not always bad.

There are a dozen things wrong with this report, and that’s before I get past the title:

  • The authors go to great lengths to include the views of children, but the only time teachers are asked their opinion is as part of a survey where they are merely asked to report quantitatively about ghost exclusions, which is a bit like asking a pineapple what their opinion is of canning factories (Christ, someone will jump on that metaphor, I know). If you’ve ever taught any naughty (sorry, troubled) kids then you might be unsurprised that when you ask them what they did wrong, they often deny it or even- vaudeville gasp- lie about it.
  • Putting targets before real improvement. I’ve heard from teachers who were told that their exclusion rates had to plummet in the next 12 months. There are two ways of achieving this: putting structures in place that mean exclusions are needed less, or just cutting the number of children excluded, with no other effort made. Can you guess which option is easier? I’ll leave that with you.
  • My main problem is that the OCC seems most upset that paperwork hasn’t been done, rather than supporting the right of children to be safe and learn in an environment that promotes their flourishing. It’s anti-education; the administrator’s gag reflex. It ignores what children need, and focuses on what form needs to be stamped.

There are schools doing incredible work in the area of exclusion and inclusion, largely because they have clear and rigorous behaviour policies that serve a greater aim: the well being of the community AND the individual, but not at the expense of the many, as most inclusion policies are; which is odd- isn’t the many composed of the sum of the few?

You’ll already know most of this, if you’ve ever taught difficult classes. Unfortunately for most of us, the panjandrums of the commentariat often haven’t. The OCC wants to paint the whole world with a rainbow, and that’s a lovely ambition. It wants to teach every child to sing their heart song; I just want to teach them, to be safe, given boundaries set with compassion, not unconditional and bottomless altruism.

I want what’s best for them, not just what they want. That’s the difference.
What is the Children’s Commissioner actually FOR?
Little bit of satire.
Inclusion, the opiate of the chattering classes
When everyone’s special, no one is.

Notes on a scandal: Giving up on students

One of the most rewarding things I do outside of teaching is acting as resident Agony Uncle on the TES website’s Behaviour Forum. I, and many other teachers do what teachers do best: offer free advice and perspective to those wading through a river of chains. Occasionally a correspondent raises a problem and I think, ‘Christ, have we sunk so low?’ Most of the problems to which I respond are fairly straightforward; but a large percentage involve teachers being placed in unnecessarily difficult situations by school management systems that seem designed to encourage poor behaviour, and in this case, give up on the kids. Here’s a summary of what someone said recently:

‘I feel embarrassed posting this, as I’m an experienced teacher who would normally feel  that my behaviour management was pretty good – but I am at my wits end with a Y11 class (bottom set).

…Only about 5 out of 28 would do anything they were set.  They were just about polite enough that when I insisted they face the front and listen so that I could talk through brief powerpoint, explain the objective and set the work they did so without interruption.  This was hard work. 

One pupil told me ‘We are leaving school in 4 weeks – and no one cares if we do this’ to which most agreed, despite me telling them strongly, ‘Yeah?  Well I care!’
Very few did anything more than a couple of sentences of half assed effort.  2 or 3 did nothing. I have this class 4 times a week.’

So far, so normal. I get this email a dozen times a week. It’s awful that this is repeated so often in classes up and down the country, but that’s another issue. No, this is the bad bit: he carries on-

‘I feel really pathetic writing this – I have spoken to [the] HOD – who tells me, ‘Oh no one expects them to do anything’.  SMT have told me I cannot [my emphasis] phone home, that I can issue detentions ‘but they won’t come’ and that ‘well…they are leaving soon…it’s very difficult to get them to do anything’.

As there does not appear to be any consequences for their behaviour they will quite happily just sit and chat through every lesson, but I am obviously not happy about this….I’m just highly frustrated and pissed off that no one will back me up and that the class won’t do as they are told.’ 

Once I’d pulled my head out of my keyboard this was my response:

You know, if more parents knew about this kind of attitude then there’d be an earthquake in the scandal rags. Can you believe that a school would just give up on its children like this? Sure, what they’re saying makes perfect sense- but we’re paid to do more than just baby sit them; we have to have high expectations from them every day up until the minute they leave. That’s the job. If the school doesn’t give a shizzle about these kids, it doesn’t deserve to have any.

Your strategy has to be to insist upon full school support. Follow the behaviour policy to the letter, and expect/ demand the support. Remind line management what the policy is. The surest way to fail is by not trying in the first place. Have kids removed who fail to comply. If you can’t motivate them in the short term you can at least present them with an immediate inconvenience (ie hassle from senior staff/ yourself etc) to the point where they consider it easy to work than not. 

We’re paid to believe in them even when they’ve given up. If we give up, God help us.

This is institutionalised thinking at its worst. The minute we cease to believe that we are responsible custodians of children’s futures, and that we have the power and duty to do something about it, then we should quit the job on incapacity grounds, and let someone else look after them. Does a doctor give up on a patient because they probably won’t make it? Does a fireman ignore an alarm because, well, there’ll be more fires tomorrow, and you can’t beat fire? This school might as well have said, ‘We couldn’t give a damn about these kids anymore. Damaged goods.’ It’s the same diabolic thinking that inspired a thousand ‘Reaching for a C’ programs, where schools ignored their consciences and treated one group of students (C/D borderline kids) as more important than the others (the safe bets and the no-hopers).

When I ran restaurants I had a door hostess called Suky who wasn’t the sharpest blade in the drawer. One Saturday night an angry customer grabbed her and said, ‘We’ve been waiting for an hour for a table!’ Suky replied, with perfect sympathy and sincerity, ‘I know! It’s mobbed isn’t it?’ Maybe she went into education afterwards.

The next time a line manager tells you that nothing can be done, you might want to think about finding a department with a different line manager, possibly in a different school. We’re paid just as much in April as we are in September. Our salary is the same whether we’re launching year sevens into secondary or parachuting sixth formers into University. They need us every minute they live under our care. Of course for that to happen, we actually need to care, and vast number of teachers do, of course. Which is why it’s so depressing to hear this kind of croaking.