Tag Archives: schools

This is what learning looks like

On Tuesday 3rd May, thousands of parents are planning to take a stand against a school system which is more interested in testing our children than it is in nurturing in them a love of learning. They will be adding their voices to the growing unrest that already permeates the teaching profession, and joining the call from the National Union of Teachers to cancel the SATs for 2016. By keeping their children home from school on that day, they want to send a clear message to the government that enough is enough, and that their children – all children – deserve more.

We want to take things one step further.

THISislearning badge final

As well as fully supporting the kids’ strike on 3rd May, we want to use that day and the run up to it to flood the internet with inspirational learning moments: images, stories and activities that show just how much more there is to learning than the narrow focus of the SATs allows. Whatever the age of your child, whether they are at school or nursery or educated at home, we would like you to help us show the government what learning really looks like using the hashtag #THISislearning.

If you’re a teacher, we would love to hear your thoughts too: this government has marginalised the expertise of education professionals for far too long.

If you have a blog, you can link up your posts below to create a hub of inspiration in the run up to 3rd May and share what you and your child(ren) get up to on the day itself. If you are not a blogger then don’t worry – you can share your ideas and activities on your social media accounts, using the hashtag #THISislearning on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

You can find out more about why we’re taking this action by reading Maddy’s post No, Mr Cameron, No, which inspired us with the fantastic response it received from parents and teachers alike, and the follow up, This is learning, Mr Cameron, as well as my post Why SATs are Bad for our Children, reflecting on the current situation from the perspective of ten years of teaching as well as life with a three year old.

You can also join our Facebook group to keep up to date with latest developments, and please comment below or contact either of us directly if there is anything else you want to know.

Sophie: Sophie is…

Maddy: Writing Bubble



We would love as many bloggers as possible to join in! Here are just a few suggestions for taking part:

  • Link up any post (old or new) about inspiring children to learn, including fun activities people might like to try on May 3rd.
  • Please grab the #THISislearning badge for your post to spread awareness of the campaign (copy and paste the HTML code to add it to your site). We will share your posts on Twitter in return.
  • If you share your post on social media, please the hashtag #THISislearning. If you tweet us a link to your post @writingbubble and @sophieblovett then we will RT.
  • Link up your post below – just click on the blue button that says ‘add your link’ and follow the instructions. We look forward to reading your posts!


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Why setting children by ability does more harm than good

Yesterday afternoon I was rudely awakened from my post-Gove reverie by the announcement that Nicky Morgan plans to effectively force schools into setting pupils by ability. Twitter was aflame with indignation, tempered only by those who were sure the papers were over-reacting. Morgan herself was quick to refute the claims soon after, but I cannot help but wonder whether that was prompted more by the backlash the news received than the lack of truth at its core. And exaggeration or not, I’m not prepared to leave this one alone – particularly when Cameron is so clear on his own views about the issue: “I want to see setting in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works… But it still hasn’t happened. We will keep up the pressure till it does.”

When you put it like that it appears there’s not much to argue against. If everyone knows setting works so well, then why indeed are all our children not taught in ability groupings? The thing is of course that, like most things in education, it’s not actually that simple. It may seem obvious – separate the brighter kids from the ones who are struggling so that teachers can pitch their lessons more effectively – but in reality it doesn’t quite work that that. I’ve got plenty of anecdotal evidence to draw on here, but first let’s look at the research.

The Educational Endowment Foundation, in its analysis of setting or streaming as a potential intervention to raise achievement, concludes that overall it has a slightly detrimental effect. On average pupils taught in ability groups will be one month behind similar pupils elsewhere at the end of a year, with the only positive impact (equivalent to one or two additional months progress) being seen in higher attaining pupils. Significantly negative impact on achievement is seen in pupils who are mid-range or lower attainers, summer born or from ethnic minorities.

And it’s not just the detrimental impact on achievement that we should be concerned about. This might fly directly in the face of Cameron’s claims, but even more worrying are the myriad of other impacts setting by ability has on our children.

In her 2002 book ‘Ability Grouping in Schools’, Susan Hallam delves deeper into this, analysing research carried out over almost a century to conclude that:

‘concerns about underachievement, lack of pro-school attitudes and exclusion have tended to be approached by calls for more differentiation by ability or attainment. Such moves are not supported in the research literature. Indeed differentiation by ability/ attainment has been associated with limited access to knowledge by some pupils, domination of pedagogic practices by teachers, preferred teachers for ‘elite’ pupils and enforcement of social divisions among pupils’

Students put in lower ability groups struggle with their self-esteem, which then impacts on their motivation and performance – a situation only made worse by the allocation of less experienced or less effective teachers to their classes. Every teacher I know has tales of bottom sets made up of mostly boys, with a disproportionate number of pupils of lower socio-economic status and a high incidence or special educational needs and challenging behaviour – and these experiences are fully supported by the research that has been carried out.

But what of the higher attainers? The ones who would otherwise be held back by those badly behaving boys, have their thirst for knowledge hampered by the need for teachers to attend to all those individual needs? Well I would argue that they, too, are ill done by to be grouped with others of supposedly similar ability. My experience of teaching top sets has shown me that pupils can become arrogant, ultimately underachieving against their individual potential because they feel that the label they have been given shows they don’t need to work as hard as everyone else. At the other end of the scale it has also shown me bright students lacking in confidence who feel that they don’t belong in the top set, who will happily take their place at the bottom of that particular ladder when if they were taught in a system which valued the individual they may have been more keen to play to their strengths.

The thing with mixed ability teaching is that you can’t do it unless you recognise that all the students in front of you are individuals. Of course that is true in any classroom, but teachers can be lulled into a false sense of security if they are told that the students in their charge fall into a set – that there is parity in how they will perform as learners.

One of my favourite ever classes was a mixed ability group who were studying for GCSEs in English and Media. The target grades in that class ranged from G to B, and the personalities ranged from introverted high achievers to poor attenders with challenging behaviour. I had to design my lessons around each of their needs – to pitch each different task at the level that was going to best help each individual in that class achieve their potential. That process was illuminating in itself, because there was not one child in that room who was universally high or low ability. Some were better at analysing literature, others at creative writing; some excelled in creative thinking, others in their artistic ability; some listened perceptively, others spoke engagingly and eruditely on a range of topics.

I am confident that each pupil in that class left with a strong sense of what they were good at, and also the areas in which they needed to improve. They learnt not to judge others on face value, that they had much to gain from listening to their peers as well as much to offer in supporting them. And the actual grades they achieved ranged from E to A*, with a good proportion going on to study English or Media in sixth form.

In a literature review carried out in 2005, Kutnick et al express their concern about the narrow scope of the educational outcomes that are considered, saying that ‘in general a narrow range of learning outcomes has been researched with little concern for critical thinking, creativity and meta-cognitive and transferable skills’. 

I would add to this concerns about equality, about social mobility, and about mental health. Ultimately I believe in the importance of each pupil being able to genuinely discover their potential through learning, not through a label imposed on them at the start of their educational journey.

But even if we put all this to one side, even if we focus purely on academic achievement, then the fact remains that setting children by ability does more harm than good.

In contrast, research shows that mixed ability teaching can:

  • provide a means of offering equal opportunities
  • address the negative social consequences of structured ability grouping by encouraging co-operative behaviour and social integration
  • provide positive role-models for less able pupils
  • promote good relations between pupils
  • enhance pupil/ teacher interactions
  • reduce some of the competition engendered by structured grouping
  • enable pupils to work at their own pace
  • provide a sense of continuity and security for primary pupils when they transfer to secondary school
  • encourage teachers to acknowledge that the pupils in their class are not a homogenous group
  • encourage teachers to identify pupil needs and match learning tasks to them 

(S.Hallam, 2002)

Or to put it another way:

‘I love group discussions and I admit I get really excited and a surge of energy to participate. In GCSE English we had mixed ability students in class and I enjoyed it. Helping and telling others what I know about the task or stimulus helped me to remember as I was going over it out loud. I learn the best in discussions or debates as I hear what other people are thinking and it gives me a different or an altered view and the ideas just seem to flow one after another in my head.’

(A* GCSE English student, 2009)

For me this sums up the key benefits of mixed ability classrooms – where students become collaborators in each others’ learning and teachers adapt their pedagogy to include, challenge and engage all learners.

Of course not all schools or classrooms or situations are the same, and where mixed ability works for one teacher and one group of pupils another may thrive on setting by ability. But to claim that setting should be happening across the board? I am afraid, Mr Cameron, that I do not see the logic in that.

Why schools fining ‘bad parents’ is a really, really bad idea

Another day, another ludicrous idea from one of the Michaels. This time it’s Michael Wilshaw, chief of Ofsted, saying that parents should be fined if they don’t, amongst other things, make children do their homework.

This story made my blood boil when I read it this morning, and I can feel the fury rising inside me reading it again now. I mean, who does this man think he is? To make sweeping statements about the causes of underachievement amongst children growing up in poverty, to drive a wedge between parents and schools in the communities where close collaboration is perhaps most important, to blithely dictate what it is that makes a good parent in such a patronising and unpleasant manner. There are so many things wrong with his proposals that I almost don’t know where to start, but I will try.

Let’s just begin with what he expects of good parents. I agree that communicating with the school is pretty important, though I also know there are a multitude of reason why someone may not be able to attend a designated parents’ evening – and the realities of those evenings (or afternoons, or days) is that there is little scope for in depth discussion about young people’s progress, especially if they’re struggling.

I agree, of course, that reading is something to be encouraged – urgently so given the impact it can have on children’s lives. But you can’t force someone to read for pleasure – adult or child – and the real focus should surely be on expanding local libraries rather than closing them, or maybe reinstating the funding that would bring inspirational authors into schools on a regular basis.

And then we come to the tricky subject of homework. I never much liked homework, neither as a child nor as a teacher. And with educational research throwing up little to support its position as a tool to improve learning, and officials in countries from China to France and Sweden seeking to reduce it or ban it altogether, it seems a funny time for Wilshaw to be insisting on its importance. I’m not saying that there aren’t times when it is appropriate for students to work on something at home, but teachers setting tasks for the sake of it then parents battling with demotivated kids to complete homework that’s only going to increase teachers’ workloads when they have to mark it just makes no sense at all to me.

But to be honest it’s not the nitty gritty of Wilshaw’s proposals that I find so offensive, even if they are typically narrow-minded and outdated in their origins. What I find really unbelievable is that he can think that pitching schools and parents against each other is really the best way to get them to work together to support the young people in their care. The bullying tactics he used against the parents at his old school in Hackney are really not going to work for anyone – and I can’t imagine that many head teachers would want to take the approach he describes.

The issues that lead to underachievement in impoverished communities are complex and far-reaching. Many of them have their roots in low self-esteem perpetuated by generations of un- or under-employment – in a lack of trust in the system, and schools in particular. The only way to truly overcome this is to help communities believe in themselves again, to show what they can achieve for themselves and for their children when they work hard, to celebrate successes and find the things that motivate them to change.

Treating parents as naughty school kids themselves would have the opposite effect – sure people might purport to play the game, might jump through the hoops they need to to escape the fines, but that is a long way from nurturing the impetus for learning that will truly help young people escape the cycle of poverty.

And what if parents don’t play the game? To be honest the ones that are hardest to reach, that aren’t already responding to schools’ attempts to engage them, are highly unlikely to give two hoots about the prospect of a fine. And what then? Protracted and costly legal proceedings, culminating in poor families being poorer still and so condemning the young people who most need our help to an even harder struggle?

I don’t know whether Wilshaw intended to be taken seriously, or whether he was just firing off another simplistic idea for the sake of it. But I do know that his way of thinking is incredibly damaging to our society – and it is time that parents stood together with schools to tell him that enough is enough.


Why schools need to do what they know is right (just don’t tell Gove)

So after many, many months of reasoning, protesting and pleading from teachers and parents alike, Gove is still ploughing on with his ill-guided reforms of the education system. With Tristram Hunt pledging to undo little of this government’s bad work it looks like we’re in this for the long haul: a system devoid of creativity, culturally narrow and reducing the next generation to empty vessels to be filled to the brim with facts, neither questioning nor challenging the status quo and most definitely not thinking for themselves.

But it doesn’t need to be like this.

Some big hitters in the world of education finally appear to have given up hope in the state system altogether. Sir Alasdair MacDonald, one time head of Morpeth Secondary School in Tower Hamlets and now the Welsh Assembly’s ‘Raising Attainment’ tsar, has claimed that the only chance British pupils have of a rounded education now is to go to a private school. Michael Rosen has just finished a book written for parents to help them fill the gaps in their child’s education left by the direction that schools are being forced to take.

But it doesn’t need to be like this.

There are three secondary schools in the UK that I can currently claim to know well, and I know that all of them are full of teachers doing their best to provide the education that they know their young people need. They will jump through the ever-changing hoops presented to them by the government, play by the rules as much as they need to to be left alone, but they will keep on doing what they know is right. The leaders in those schools will seek out frameworks to support a more holistic education: Building Learning Power for example, or the International Baccalaureate. They may no longer be required to filter personal, learning and thinking skills through the curriculum – but they will, because they know it’s right. Speaking and Listening may no longer be assessed, Music and Drama may have fallen down the pecking order – but these aspects of their students’ learning will not be ignored because they are vital to their all-round education. Multicultural texts may no longer appear on GCSE syllabi, but these schools will find a way to fit them into their curriculum because to do otherwise would be to do the young people in their care a disservice.

And yet there are other schools who are, if media reports and TES forums are to be believed, collapsing under Gove’s reforms and following his rules unwaveringly. They are narrowing the curriculum in order to teach directly to the tests that he says matter, they are closing Music and Drama departments because those subjects are invisible in league tables.

And on one level I don’t entirely blame them. Because it’s hard, jumping through all those hoops. When teachers and school leaders are worked almost to breaking point it’s easy for them to forget what brought them to their classrooms in the first place. It’s easy to think that all that matters is being judged good by whatever the latest criteria happens to be, to climb up that league table and away from the reaches of those who would remove you from post if they deemed you to be failing.

But it doesn’t need to be like this.

In the arts, tight constraints – whether externally enforced or self imposed – have generated some of the most innovative and creative results. The Iranian film industry always comes to mind when I think of this: so many rules and restrictions and yet a body of work that almost any country would find it hard to rival.

The constraints facing our teachers operate on a different level, but they are still numerous and growing: restricted finances, an archaic new curriculum, seemingly endless bureaucracy, narrowly focused and high stakes tests. Rather than being defeated by these, schools need to see them as a challenge to be overcome. School leaders and teachers need to remember why they are doing what they do and find the confidence and strength to trust their professional judgement.

Because the pleading and the protesting and the reasoning is getting us nowhere, and if we’re not careful a whole generation of young people is going to be trampled underneath Gove’s stampede for standards. We owe it to them – and to our own sanity – to do what we know is right.


Thanks to Sara at Mum Turned Mom for inspiring this post with her prompt ‘rules are meant to be broken’.