Tag Archives: Gove

Why ‘passivity’ in our learners is most definitely something to be criticised

Some weeks ago now, Michael Wilshaw sent a letter to OFSTED inspectors impressing on them the need to leave out of their reports any comments on how teachers teach, focusing only on the outcomes of said teaching.

This missive has been lauded as a breath of fresh air by teachers, school leaders and unions – a sign that perhaps this Michael at least has some respect left for the professional autonomy of teachers. It has also been welcomed by those who believe that today’s teachers are wedded to ‘trendy Left-wing ideology’, and that it is this that holds our students back from excelling in global league tables.

In this letter, Wilshaw said that ‘on occasions… pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning’ and that inspectors should not ‘criticise passivity’. This struck me as a little odd when I read it, and I touched on my concerns last week in the context of calls for schools to build character and resilience. But his choice of words has been playing on my mind since then, and I just couldn’t let it go without examining the implications of this statement further.

There are several definitions of passive, none of which sit terribly comfortably with me as descriptions of a child in a learning environment. We surely wouldn’t want them to be ‘not active or not participating’ and certainly ‘not working’ would be the opposite of our aims for a school pupil in lesson time. Perhaps there are those who would like young people to be ‘unresisting and receptive to external forces’, but it is my experience that other humans, even little ones, don’t tend to be that malleable without actively engaging in a process themselves.

Looking at synonyms for passive is even more worrying. Do we really want our young people sitting in classrooms to be described as ‘apathetic’, ‘indifferent’ or ‘uninvolved’?

In trying to gauge opinion on this amongst other education professionals, the general consensus seems to be that Wilshaw probably didn’t really mean ‘passive’, at least not in the way that I’ve defined it above. But if that were really the case then why not choose another word? Why pick a word – and then repeat it – which has so many connotations that are the antithesis of what we would like to see going on in our classrooms?

I fear that teachers have been so quick to welcome Wilshaw’s statement because they are desperate for someone in a position of power in education to throw them a lifeline – to tell them it’s ok, I trust you to teach however you like as long as you get the results. I would argue that if that’s the case why are inspectors bothering to go into lessons at all? Why not just look at the results if they don’t care about what’s happening in the classroom? Actually reading further into Wilshaw’s letter there are plenty of pedagogical preferences evident, from what resources teachers are choosing to use in the classroom to how they choose to set homework, but apparently questioning these choices does not ‘infring[e] the professional judgement of teachers’.

To be honest, though, it’s not really the teachers I’m worried about. Ok – there are probably a few who will use Wilshaw’s words as an excuse to make their workload lighter, will stop worrying so much about whether pupils are engaged or not because hey – even the HMCI says it’s ok for them to be passive. But in reality the vast majority of teachers want their students to be engaged and to learn, and they have the skills and professionalism to help them achieve that in a myriad of different ways.

What concerns me is what this acceptance of passivity – or in fact its promotion above more active learning methods if you look at the right wing interpretation – says about this governments aspirations for its young people.

Does it want to nurture a generation who can think for themselves, who can question the status quo, who can come up with new ways to face the world’s problems? Or does it want to create a society who will be easily controlled, accept authority without question, carry forward a canon of knowledge whilst quietly going about their business and being exploited by those in positions of power?

Certainly the tactics used by the Tories so far, from their denigration of the right to strike to their desire to curb peaceful political protests, from Gove’s attempts to falsify information and then rewrite history to hide his tracks to their incredible attempts today to rebrand themselves as the worker’s party, would indicate the latter. As Tony Benn articulates so clearly, ‘a healthy, educated and confident nation is harder to govern‘.

Casual references to passivity being an acceptable mode for the classroom effectively discard decades of educational research aimed at creating empowered and effective citizens to return us to a model of learning whereby the child is an empty vessel waiting to be filled with the superior knowledge of the teacher and of wider society. This is not how I want our world to view young people, either as a teacher or as a parent, and I think we should be very wary of anyone who has such low expectations of our future generations.

Why all this talk of character and resilience education is totally topsy turvey

In 2007, a new National Curriculum was born. It wasn’t perfect, but as a teacher and leader in Secondary English I liked it.

It was largely skills based, with the scope for teachers to use their professional judgement to build programmes of study which suited their students and their schools. There was lots of potential for cross-curricular work, with signs that we might be able to move away from the subject-shaped boxes that learning was often inefficiently forced into. The arts were promoted both as subjects in their own right and as vehicles for learning elsewhere. And at its heart were the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS) which aimed to look beyond the needs of school to set students up for a lifetime of learning, complementing the older initiative of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). Fresh creativity was injected into our pedagogical approaches as teachers focused on ways to engage students as active learners in the curriculum. Couple all this with a government who had raised the status of teachers beginning with the ‘Those who can, teach’ campaign back in 2000, and you had an environment that was full of potential and ripe for further development of teaching and learning.

Fast-forward three years to 2010 and the Tories, albeit in coalition, were in power. I remember distinctly the sombre mood amongst the senior leadership team and the rest of the staff at my school as we mourned for the impact this would have on education. We were not wrong: under Gove’s watch, PLTS and SEAL have been scrapped, the arts have seen their funding slashed and have been reduced in status to the extent that they are being sidelined in many schools, speaking and listening has been removed from the sphere of assessment, active learning methods have been denigrated and teachers have been continually undermined and demotivated. All this in favour of an easily quantifiable facts-based curriculum and exam-based assessment that will begin as young as four and continue throughout children’s school career.

And now we have a cross-party group saying ‘there is a growing body of research linking social mobility to social and emotional skills’, that schools must be ‘more than just exam factories’. They call for the ‘requirement to participate in extra-curricular activities [to be] a formal aspect of teacher’s contract of employment’ – something which fits very conveniently with Gove’s plans for an extended school day. Tristram Hunt agrees that ‘instilling [character and resilience] in young people “should not be left to chance”‘, calling for ‘a holistic approach that goes beyond extra-curricular activities and into the classroom’.

But aren’t they all forgetting something?

The only reason we don’t have these so-called ‘soft’ skills at the heart of our curriculum is because Gove ripped them out. All of the aspects of character and resilience that the APPG assert are so important in their manifesto were already embedded in the curriculum through SEAL and PLTS, given life in different forms by schools using the structure of Building Learning Power, the International Baccalaureate Learner Profile or numerous other well-researched and intelligently put together schemes.

Teachers do not need to be told that we need to build character and resilience in our most vulnerable children in order to level the playing field, and, as with so much else, they certainly don’t need the private sector to tell them how to do it. Despite the attacks on their own resilience by an increasingly unsupportive government, it is something they do on a daily basis, both within and beyond the curriculum. In lessons it is something they do through facilitating group work, through encouraging independent learning, through supporting students to set their own goals and structuring the ways in which they can achieve them. It is something that evidences itself particularly strongly in arts subjects – drama or media studies for example – where students work on a creative project for an extended period of time, often far surpassing their own or others’ expectations. Though with the threat to the place of the arts in the curriculum, and without the clarity of purpose offered by PLTS and associated schemes, it’s going to get harder and harder to do all this.

I realise I’m treading dangerously close to the territory of advocating ‘trendy left-wing ideology‘ in the name of a more holistic and human education system. And for that I make no apology. It’s not easy to empower children to take charge of their own learning journeys, even harder to demonstrate to those who do not understand what it is they’re learning in a snapshot of sometimes-rowdy group discussion, but all of my experience as a teacher has taught me that a child-centred approach is one we should aspire to. There is a wealth of research that backs this up, indicating that collaborative learning and actively engaging students in the learning process can be an extremely efficient and effective way to improve achievement. Rarely do I believe there will be a period of twenty minutes in a classroom where students will be ‘rightly passive‘, and I think Wilshaw has started down a very dangerous road by saying passivity is ok.

Whether or not Gove will entertain a further revision of approaches to teaching and learning in schools to embed character and resilience education in the classroom or, more likely, use the APPG’s manifesto as fuel for his drive towards longer school days, I’m finding the lack of joined-up thinking in the world of education policy making frustrating to the extreme.

Being used as a political pawn is destroying our education system. Why throw out a raft of extensively researched and sound initiatives before they’ve had a chance to embed themselves, only to then have to work out how to put back in what you’ve lost? Babies and bathwater come to mind…

In the longer term I definitely believe we need to look towards a way of running our education system that is beyond party political point scoring. But in the meantime, and especially whilst character and resilience education is on the table, I just wish Gove et al would look back in that bathwater to see if there any babies they can nurture back to life without needing to start the whole process from scratch.

Why more time at school is not the answer

The proposal that educational achievement should be improved by increasing the amount of time young people spend in school is not a new one, and is by no means restricted to the UK. It’s been on Gove’s agenda since he came to power, and has recently raised its head again after Paul Kirby decided it would be the perfect promise to get the Tories re-elected. I’m not sure how, since I have yet to come across anyone who thinks it’s a good idea. Apart from Gove of course, who in ‘that‘ speech last week confirmed that ‘a future Conservative Government would help state schools … to offer a school day 9 or 10 hours long’. So much about his reasoning indicates a complete lack of understanding of what is currently going on in schools and the fundamental business of how children learn that I just couldn’t leave this one alone.

A review of the evidence indicates that extending the school day might just help to increase educational achievement. But not by much, not if the changes are unsupported by parents and staff and not if school time increases significantly – i.e. above nine hours a day. The financial cost is considerable, and the other potential costs to the wellbeing of all involved form a veritable minefield.

The initial reaction of most parents and teachers to the idea that school days should be longer and holidays should be shorter seems to be how on earth children are going to cope. Learning is an exhausting business, particularly when that learning is spread across a wealth of different subject areas and is continuously monitored and assessed. By the end of the school day, and as each holiday approaches, young people are genuinely in need of a break. Kirby’s argument is that the longer school day would allow for a slower pace, for a greater range of activities to balance out the school experience. I’ll come to my scepticism about that in a moment.

But first we cannot forget the teachers. They, too, would struggle to cope with a school day which saw them have any increased contact time with young people. When I was teaching my average working day was already at least ten hours – more often closer to twelve once work at home was factored in. Add in a few hours work on at least one day at the weekend and my working week was over 60 hours – despite a payslip which listed my hours as 32.5. I’m not detailing all this for your sympathy, but rather to point out one of the many ways in which Gove’s proposal is unworkable. My experience was by no means unusual – if fact I think in my ten years as a teacher I learnt every trick in the book as to how to cut the amount of hours I spent on the job. As a profession I loved it, but it consumed me. I needed every day of the holidays to keep on top of the workload and to rebuild relationships with friends and family that had to be put on hold during term time. And whilst I have total respect for those who manage to juggle teaching with having children of their own it is not something I can see myself doing until my son is considerably older – if at all.

Mr Kirby says that his ideas would actually improve the teacher’s lot rather than making things more difficult by providing time in the school day for all the additional work that fills the gap between the 20-odd hours of teaching time and the 60 hours spent working each week but I can’t quite see how he’d make that add up. He talks of all the non-academic activities that could be provided to enrich students’ experiences of school, but this is where my aforementioned scepticism comes in.

I mean, this is the Tories we’re talking about. What in anything Gove has done so far could make us believe that he would not slowly chip away at any ‘enrichment’ time in order to cram as many facts and exams and world-beating literacy and numeracy skills into an extended day as he possibly could? You only have to look at everything he believes to be important to know that the range of arts and sports activities he alludes to would never really be very high up his list of priorities.

Though ironically of course all of the enrichment activities he and Kirby purport to praise are very high up the list of priorities for most of the teachers I know. And this is one of the things that frustrates me most about the proposals: as with so much Gove says it indicates totally misplaced assumptions about what already goes on in schools. At the two schools I worked in for the majority of my teaching career – one in East London, one in Plymouth, both with ‘challenging’ intakes and neither ‘Outstanding’ as far as the government’s concerned – young people were already in school from 8am with breakfast clubs and study groups in place before the official start of the school day, and there were a wealth of activities on offer after school which would see kids in the corridors until 4, 5 even 6pm. I spent hours working with young people on a school newspaper – which they devised, secured funding for and ran in their own time – and a range of film projects, both as part of exam subjects and as extra-curricular projects. The schools ran mentoring schemes, drama groups, debating clubs and a full range of sporting activities – I know I’m only scratching the surface here but you get my point. And whilst most of these groups were voluntary, there were also compulsory study sessions for students to catch up on coursework or prepare for exams, or just to bring students in lower years up to their target levels. Other students might indeed head home at 3.15pm, but would be involved in all sorts of activities in the community, or they might just like to read, or, god forbid, hang out with their friends or family.

There are of course a minority of students who would use the time to make trouble, who would never do anything constructive with the hours that weren’t specifically mapped out for them, whose parents were unsupportive of their learning and who might just benefit from a heavy handed approach which would see ten hours of their day committed to whatever their school saw fit. But all of the work I have done over the years on raising expectations and achievement has taught me that very rarely can you do it by focusing on the lowest common denominator – and that if you do you very often lose the attention and the enthusiasm of the people you think are doing ok. More often than not there are pretty significant reasons why the minority are not able to focus on activities that will benefit them, are forever making the ‘wrong’ choices, will find themselves in trouble at school and in their community. Longer hours at school would not make their problems go away, and it would take a complete shift in focus on how those hours were spent to be able to begin to address the multitude of issues they face.

Time and time again the issues of troubled young people I worked with were found to be rooted in dysfunctional family units – I’m not talking about bad parenting, but a whole range of difficulties families were facing as they tried to bring up their children in a world often hostile to their needs. And one of the biggest things that worries me about these proposals for longer school days and shorter holidays is that they effectively normalise not spending time as a family. Kirby has a go at some sums in his piece, but he’s missing some figures. Even if we take the lower end of Gove’s intention, for nine hour school days, by the time you factor in getting to and from school you’re looking at more like ten. Add to that the actual recommended amounts of sleep for school age children rather than Kirby’s skimpy eight hours, and again you’re looking at an average of ten. Which leaves only four hours a day for everything else – not very much I think you’ll agree. Particularly if you combine this with proposals for children to start school from the age of two you’re looking at a population who become almost entirely institutionalised, have no idea how to fill their time for themselves, and have no time to even begin to work out who they might be.

Rather than focusing on ways of getting those pesky children out from under the feet of their parents so they can focus on the far more important business of work, we should instead be looking at ways to increase the amount of time families can spend together. When I was discussing all this with my Dad, a recently retired business leader, he found it bizarre that Gove’s emphasis should be on increasing the amount of hours parents can work when the business community is looking at ways to decrease everyone’s working hours. Even the Daily Mail acknowledges that spending too much time at work away from young children is the thing parents regret most, and studies show that the mutual benefit of spending time together as a family continues well into the teenage years. This definitely seems to be born out by the experience of most parents I know – opportunities for flexible hours, working from home and job shares are few and far between and mean that many people see much less of their children than they would like. The scary thing about Gove’s proposals is that by making these extended school hours a legal requirement then even the people who had managed to find a balance would suffer – short of home educating their kids, something which is not a realistic or desirable proposition for everyone, parents would be restricted to only those four hours a day that they could spend with their children as they pleased.

I am not disagreeing with the fact that a range of enrichment activities can be extremely beneficial for young people, helping them to find their passions and learn all sorts of skills that there is limited space for within the curriculum. But I strongly believe that enrichment opportunities for young people should be provided by the community, not just by schools in isolation. Looking at Gove’s preferred list of extra-curricular pursuits it seems strikingly narrow in comparison to all that is on offer from youth clubs and arts organisations and sports centres all over the UK. Or at least what used to be on offer before so many of these fantastic groups had their funding cut. By focusing on community provision young people would be able to mix with a range of people of all ages and backgrounds, and specialist centres could offer equipment and expertise that most schools could only dream of. Families could participate in activities together, and young people would have the satisfaction of seeking out the things that they want to fill their time with rather than just being told what to do.

Of course all of this still hasn’t addressed the very real need for individual time, for boredom, for unstructured play which would be the first casualty of longer school days and shorter holidays. So much research has shown that so much learning happens where it was least intended. Children need time and space for learning begun in school to embed itself, and if they are going to become genuine life-long learners then young people need space to develop their own passions and interests rather than the ones that others, however well-meaning, choose for them.

That brings me to my final point, the reason why these proposals are so insidious. Both Kirby and Gove and others who have spoken out in favour of extending the time that young people spend in school justify their ideas with a raft of rhetoric which makes it seem like they’re acting in the best interests of society. And so many of the people making the decisions about what happens to our communities are so detached from reality that they may be taken in by their promises of raised achievement, lower crime and a flourishing economy, and even be able to convince themselves that they really are acting in peoples’ best interests. That is why, though these proposals are not new, I think we should continue to beware them – and continue to listen to the very real concerns of the people they would really affect.



Why private school’s not all it’s cracked up to be

Every time I think I’ve drifted far away enough from teaching that Gove’s latest directives won’t have quite such a visceral effect on me he comes up with something else to punch me in the stomach. Today’s blow was this article in The Telegraph, its impact not lessened now I’ve read the actual text of the speech Gove made this morning.

There’s lots in what he says that I could pick apart, but the thing that really winds me up – that’s been winding me up for a while actually – is his misplaced assertion that private schools are categorically better than state schools.

Some of the things Gove aspires to in this speech are downright nonsense. The statement that stands out for me is the desire to see a society ‘where a state pupil being accepted to Oxbridge is not a cause for celebration, but a matter of course’. There were more than half a million applicants to university last year in the UK, and there are up to 7,000 places available to undergraduates each year in Oxford and Cambridge universities combined. That makes, approximately, 1% of all applicants that will be able to be accepted by Oxbridge unless Gove’s planning on a mass expansion: hardly a ‘matter of course’ by any stretch. Fortunately there are plenty of other great universities to take them on, but whilst Gove’s cavalier approach to figures – such as his assertion that he wants all schools to be above average, a clear mathematical impossibility – might make for good soundbites it indicates an unwillingness or inability to engage with the real issues at hand.

Private schools, like Oxford and Cambridge, are by their very nature elite organisations. 7% of British children are currently educated in the private system, and these are children whose parents are, on the whole, very well off and highly committed to their education as well as having a host of contacts in the world of work and beyond. Spending per pupil in the private sector is almost double that in state schools – as has been highlighted in the ongoing debate on twitter today:

So it’s hardly surprising that for that small, wealthy group of people facilities and opportunities are better than for the rest of the population. What I would argue is that this doesn’t always make for a better education.

The majority of my education was in the private sector. It didn’t start like that – my first schools were small village primaries in Wales, the second one being particularly amazing. I remember genuinely interested teachers and a personalised approach to how I spent my days at school – from taking some lessons with older children to being allowed to spend a week writing and illustrating a sequel to The Iron Man after I’d been inspired by reading Ted Hughes’ book in class.

And then, when I was seven, we moved from the Welsh countryside to the city of Birmingham, and I joined a well-respected all-girls private school. I found it all a bit odd – the size of it, the old-fashioned uniform, the competitive nature of the girls even in the prep school, the fact that there were no boys and generally such a narrow mix of people. And so despite not entirely disliking the experience I asked my parents if I could move to a local state school as the transition to secondary approached. For reasons we’ve thrashed out many times over the years but which were grounded entirely in what they believed were my best interests, they refused.

Over the next few years I went from being a happy, creative, sociable girl to suffering from various forms of depression and a fairly significant eating disorder – something which was far from uncommon amongst my peers. I was academically able, but to use a well-worn cliche felt like a square peg being tapped persistently into an unwaveringly round hole. I didn’t respond well to the pressure, and there was little support available to help me. By the time I left at fifteen I had no sense of direction and no real enthusiasm for learning.

We moved to London then, and I went to a sixth form in a local school which was part of the same private girls school trust. The damage had very much already begun by this point, and I was far from a model student – I spent my weekends clubbing, was late to school pretty much every day, bunked off lessons I didn’t like to go and smoke in the local cafe and regularly fell asleep in class. And the school did nothing to stop it. I guess because my grades didn’t suffer.

I credit my early years education with giving me the resilience and ability to learn that got me through all those exams – that amazing village primary, a mum who filled every waking hour with exciting, creative projects and a dad who’d read book after book to me when he got home from work in the evening. And the education I got in those two private schools was… fine. It clearly covered what I needed to get the grades, but I can’t imagine I met my potential – in fact I had no idea what my potential might be. I knew I didn’t fancy the narrow future the school had in mind for me, but I had no idea what else might be out there.

And I’m not alone in this. I have plenty of friends who have certainly not got value for money from their expensive private schools – friends whose parents spent yet more money putting them through crammer colleges to get the grades out of them that their private schools could not; friends who are still deciding now, in their thirties, what they want to do with their lives. Friends whose mental health, like mine, did not survive the pressures of the private system. There is a strong body of thought that sees the championing of public boarding schools in the UK as a state sanctioned form of child abuse – and in many ways I am inclined to agree.

It took me a long time to rediscover myself and my love of learning after I left private school. In fact it took me training to be a teacher. I went into teaching after a randomly chosen degree and several years of drifting between various low paid jobs and half-hearted attempts to do something creative. I was drawn to it in the end by an unashamed desire to make a difference, to make up in some way for all the privilege I felt I’d wasted.

And in ten years working in the state education system I found so much more than that. Personally, I found something that stimulated me creatively and academically. I found teams of colleagues who were committed and hardworking, always willing to go the extra mile for their pupils. I found incredible young people overcoming unbelievable personal challenges every day in their pursuit of an education. And I found amazing opportunities that I could channel their energies into, building up CVs to help them achieve their goals – the goals we sat down and worked out together. Lateness, truancy, falling asleep in class – none of these things were tolerated. Pupils who were achieving the grades but still had energy to spare? New challenges were found for them, within and beyond the classroom. And mental health issues were identified and guarded against as best we could with our limited resources – but never ignored.

So with all this incredible work going on in the state sector, what is it that holds it back from the private school elite? Well, all the things that make the private schools elite – the money for starters, but also the contacts, the lack of equal opportunities in the wider world for people from different social backgrounds. The facilities, not just within the schools but in the wider community – all of those fantastic arts organisations that have had their funding slashed since the Tories came into power. And the sense of entitlement that makes it a given that your average private school pupil will go on to a top university and into a high-flying career whilst many state school pupils are fighting against the expectations and ambitions of their community.

I know that the majority of private school alumni are unlikely to have such bleak memories as mine – and the disproportionate percentages who end up in top universities and influential careers does indicate a certain type of success. But quite frankly with all of the advantages the private school sector has then that success should be a given. And in contrast to the beliefs of Gove and his cronies I think it is those who work in our state schools, with all the additional challenges they overcome on a daily basis, that have much to teach their private colleagues.

If we really want to remove the barriers between them, to create a system of excellence for all, then it is the private schools that have to go. The state system is achieving so much already: just imagine what it could do for those who are less fortunate with the backing of the wealthiest and most influential citizens. And imagine what it in turn could do for their children to create a new generation of empathetic, balanced, open-minded and happy individuals at all levels of society.