No, not WASPS the acronym, the actual stripy buzzing stinging things.

Yes this is relevant to education – well, to the part of my role that’s about running external exams, anyway.

Last summer we had a swarm of wasps appear in the exam hall during the GCSE and A-level exams. This is not one of those things they have written procedures for in advance, unfortunately, and sadly, comprehensive though our school policies on exam-related matters are (I should know as I wrote’em) – we have sadly neglected to have one about wasps.

Anyway – the invigilators had to make a judgement call – endeavour to proceed with the exam, or evacuate (which would have meant keeping around 100 candidates in absolute silence somewhere or other until we could find suitable additional spaces and invigilators to house them).  Since the wasps didn’t seem to be on the war path, but were mainly just staying up by the ceiling, staying put seemed the best option, and the invigilators developed their professional skills significantly by becoming expert at “silent swatting” when any of the winged menaces did descend. Of course, I submitted group “special consideration” to attempt to compensate the candidates for the disruptive effect of the background buzz and occasional appearance of a wasp at ground level.

Ever since then, everyone has been paranoid about wasps.  The appearance of one wasp in the school – even if up on a curtain – has become the occasion for much weeping and wailing.   Last week one of the little ******* appeared during the seriously high pressure admissions tests (which we really could have done without – those tests are highly demanding, stressful for the candidates and very high stakes, so probably about the worst thing to be distracted in).

Now obviously we do our best to get exam halls to be insect-free zones. We have had pest control people in to look for any places in which wasps or bees may be hiding out. But unfortunately, I don’t know of any way to completely proof a school against flying insects (or any other wildlife…. my predecessor as exams officer had to deal with a pigeon flying into the exam hall, and I’ve had complaints about “noisy ducks” – why don’t the ducks obey the silence notices, eh?)

Come to that, other external factors can be fun too – I remember in the first school at which I organised exams, we had a police helicopter landing about 50 yards from the exam hall – that was a wee bit distracting.

What’s the solution? I really don’t mean to be unsympathetic to exam candidates who I can see are genuinely distracted and distressed by things like this – they aren’t putting it on at all, and I hate that anything has affected them.  But I can’t see how I can provide the sort of hermetically sealed environment that seems the only way to keep people happy.  I do find it a little odd, too, that a generation who, generally, tend to do their academic work surrounded by an “always on” culture – devices beeping, alerts going off, music playing – seem to be much more readily discombobulated by exterior factors than did earlier ones who were more used to a stimuli-free environment for work. Is it about this expectation of perfection in every respect, perhaps? Not sure. But I do know, as an exams officer, that the number of “special considerations” I have to put in per year these days is a massive multiple of what I put in 20 or even 10 years ago, and it does worry me.

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Whose results are they anyway?

I’m sure many people have seen the news story about a school jettisoning pupils after the first half of their sixth form studies, and been properly horrified.

I’d hope we’d all agree that getting rid of pupils who’ve behaved appropriately, studied diligently and would benefit from remaining at the school or college is not acceptable just to secure the school’s league table position. We most certainly do owe a duty of care to our pupils,  and if they get results that are good for them, but do not reflect honour and glory on the school, then the school just needs to suck it up.  Here’s an article from the TES on the same theme

But (and you know there’s always a but)…

Sometimes it is in the interests of the pupil to, at the very least, question whether continuing is the right choice for them. If they have specific ambitions that they are not on track to achieve, then we need to tell them, not wait until they’ve spent more time and got a nasty shock after the full two years. If the year has been a bit of a disaster area for them, it doesn’t have to be about protecting the school’s reputation to suggest that dropping back a year and restarting the sixth form might be worth considering.

The other point is – society (and the powers that be) seem convinced that good results are in the gift of the school, not mainly attributable to the pupil.  OK, this is drivel – unless we teach so badly as to put a ceiling on the pupil’s results, what they actually get will be much more to do with them than us, and so it should be!  But if the idea is that we value all pupils and do our best to help them achieve what they want to achieve, whether or not it is prestigious, then it’s vital to stop judging schools on raw results. We have the situation now that every pupil who achieves less than what is deemed a “good” result – no matter how praiseworthy an achievement it is for them – has a depressing effect on the school’s standing in the league tables, increases the chance of OFSTED coming down like a ton of bricks and is liable to get the poor Head an earbashing from the governors. Yes, I call upon school leaders to be brave enough to withstand this pressure and stand up for their pupils – but why should they be put in this iniquitous position?

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How’s this for bonkers?

The fact we’re coming up to A-level results soon set me browsing for educational news, and I found this gem:


I am thoroughly relieved to see that this guy’s university have told him in no uncertain terms that his idea’s not happening.  I almost wondered whether it had been made up just to provide an easy target for educational traditionalists (or send some of them into apoplexy).

But I am afraid he is only at the extreme end of a tendency that is far too common – brushing things that are problems or unpleasant under the carpet, rather than dealing with them. Of course no one likes getting a poor grade. But until it’s understood and internalised that there is indeed an issue, how on earth can anyone improve? Pretending that it isn’t a bad grade, or changing it without a reason really isn’t a solution. Imagine that happening in medicine – “oh, it’s too stressful to tell the patient that they have diabetes, so let’s invite them to make their own diagnosis and we’ll have that on their record instead”

I suspect most teachers have dealt with somewhat less extreme versions of this. For example: pupil gets 50% in mock exam. Teacher, trying to be generous and encouraging, sets grade boundary so that this is a C grade, knowing full well a D is more like it.  Teacher offers to predict B grade for external purposes (“well, it’s always good to go one up to allow for improvement, and with a following wind, and the right questions…”). Pupil and/or parent has hissy fit that an A or A* is not being predicted.   Teacher may opt for quiet life and give in… at which point pupil often starts to think “Yay, I’ll get an A”, rather than the more logical “Right, I really need to work now”.  And then – guess what – pupil actually gets that C or D in the real exam. At which point, the really outrageous pupil and/or parent turn with fury to the teacher “But you predicted me an A”!!

We need a culture change – we need to be able to be honest as teachers. And we need to encourage learners to be able to accept that their performance may not be what they’d like it to be. Sadly, I can’t see it happening any time soon.


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We gotta get out of this place

I see the Independent is reporting “staggeringly high” numbers of teachers wanting to quit.

As ever, the blame is put on workload. Personally, I don’t think it’s as simple as that (though obviously having no time to see your friends and family, or to relax and have some “me-time”, is obviously not the best way to keep staff). Pay is also mentioned – and sure, everyone would always like a pay rise, but teaching is not horrendously badly paid these days.

Personally, I reckon the tendency towards micro-management, the lack of autonomy and the lack of respect are likely to be bigger issues.  There’s a big difference between working every hour God sends because you choose to, you enjoy it and are passionate about what you are doing, and putting those hours in because you are pressurised from above, or perpetually terrified about not being up to scratch.

Then there’s the relentless assessment focus.  Certainly in secondary schools, we know preparing kids for public exams comes into it, inevitably – but when there is a culture within our society that education is just about qualifications and getting a job, then there can be a feeling that we are just feeding the sausage factory, not sharing the joys of our subject or developing young people’s minds.

What is worse, to my mind, is that the cumulative effect of this attitude has produced some teachers who really only think about delivering lessons according to a set recipe, focusing only on attaining whatever targets have been set, and who actually feel lost without a didactic framework for what and how they should teach.

Take one of the classes I have. It’s an extension class – that means it is not for an exam or other assessment, it has no set curriculum, and the students are volunteers. To me, that is absolute heaven. Why wouldn’t anyone want to teach that?  But you won’t find that many who welcome that sort of opportunity.

Something else that sometimes comes in  – there can be a culture of “presentee-ism” among teachers – peer-pressure to work longer and longer hours to show you care enough. A teacher having a life is sometimes seen as a bit suspect, and symptomatic of lack of dedication.  If you have been around a long time like me, then you can get away with it – you are allowed to be a bit of a maverick, particularly if you have a decent record behind you. But I think a lot of teachers are guilt-tripped into working ridiculous hours – the fact that a slight improvement in the plan of a lesson is not worth it if it takes an additional 2 hours of your time and leaves you exhausted is probably obvious from outside, but often isn’t to the teacher concerned.

The politicians aren’t going to manage any sort of quick fix – though at least some of them admit there’s a problem, I guess.

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SATs and all that

Just read that the NUT conference supported the suggestion of a boycott on SATs in primary schools.

I am, of course, glad to see teachers making a stand on an educational matter, and prioritising pupils’ welfare.  I certainly agree with the quote from the General Secretary “”Drilling within a narrow set of disciplines and expectations is taking the joy out of learning and much of it is of questionable educational value.” There is a very great danger that the SATs focus leads to “valuing what we measure” and thus impoverishing the curriculum.

But I am also concerned about what on earth is going on that pupils are getting so ridiculously stressed.  Of course the DoE’s assertion that “tests should not be stressful” is a little unrealistic in the real world – it’s almost inevitable to be a little bit on edge if you feel you are being judged (and kids will encounter that in competitions, music exams – even a big football match).   But for them to be so uptight and tearful over something which, if we are honest, really will have no impact on their life, is just plain wrong.

And no, it’s not just that it’s an exam. You might get the impression from reading much of the commentary that children never used to sit exams in primary school before the era of SATs. Well, they did – we had exams every year at junior school, and my mother had them every term in her day! The exams in themselves didn’t reduce us all to nervous wrecks.

It seems to me that – setting aside for a moment the content of the SATs and whether the new required standards are even halfway reasonable – that either the children are unduly sensitive to doing something hard, or (or more likely “and”), there is too much emphasis – from school and home – on doing well in the SATs.

Now I know schools are judged by SATs – so there is going to be a very great temptation to drill those poor kids to get the highest grades they can, since having OFSTED come down on you like a ton of bricks if you go down a few percentage points is most definitely a thing to be avoided at all costs.  It must be hard to avoid passing that anxiety on to the kids, though I sincerely hope all my primary school colleagues try to.  I’d like to live in a word where teachers were all brave enough to say they valued education more than the results of a dubiously valid or reliable test and did their own thing – but that is not the world we are in. And that, of course, is down to the government – its ever-increasing focus on regarding data as the final judgement, its lack of awareness that education is not a one-size fits all matter and is not confined to what can be measured by tests, and its failure to trust the professionalism and good faith of teachers.

But – what on earth is going on with parents who prioritise it, or take kids in for extra cramming sessions for SATs? What on earth do they think they are achieving?
Now I know this is not new – when I was at school I saw parents taking a similar approach to the 11-plus. But – whilst I’d never condone the way a couple of my peers were treated in the name of trying to “get them through”, at least I could understand why the parents felt short-term pain was worth it for the long-term gain of avoiding the hell-hole of a local secondary modern that those kids were otherwise destined for. But with the SATs – there is no ambiguity! The parents need to be supporting education, their children’s well-being, and helping them deal with tackling hard material without crumbling, rather than focusing on results and upping the pressure. Of course many parents do exactly this – but what is up with those who don’t?

And as for the change in demand of the SATs… when will the powers that be actually get the idea that just saying you want “higher standards” does not actually mean that all children will now be able to achieve what the top 30% or so once achieved? It is as if it were decreed that we should all be at the standard of at least county-standard athletes, or of professional musicians. See, that’s ridiculous, isn’t it, and everyone can see that. But understanding the same thing works for academic disciplines appears to be beyond the powers that be. Of course no one wants poverty of aspiration limiting achievement – but that is not an excuse for a complete lack of appreciation of the spectrum of ability and attainment.


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“More maths teachers”

Although obviously the sheer horror of Betsy DeVos’s appointment in the US inevitably trumps anything home grown, I couldn’t help finding myself seriously incensed by this article:-


He wants the most selective maths degree courses to become less selective. Why? This means they are pretty well inevitably going to become less stretching for the top end – and yes, we do need our very top mathematicians. He fails to acknowledge that actually, teaching mathematicians is not the same as teaching historians.  And – perhaps most importantly – he is implicitly suggesting that the universities not right at the very top of the league tables are not worth considering. I’m sure all those departments, and graduates, will really appreciate that.

He wants to encourage the best mathematicians to become teachers. This makes me wonder if he as actually met many seriously good mathematicians. Guess what – I have. And the majority of them, I would never let near a classroom in a million years.
Also – why on earth would he assume that the best mathematicians are needed? Of course you need to know enough to inspire and stretch your pupils. But that is not the same as whether you got the top first in your year at university, now is it?

He wants us to structure our teaching to maximise those who will be ready to study maths at university. Now, I certainly wouldn’t wish to do anything that would put off people from studying maths at university, and certainly our teaching should always cater for, and stretch, those who wish to take the subject further.  But… if I were really to aim principally for maximising maths graduates, I would not be doing the majority of my class a service.

So what is my solution to addressing the shortage of maths teachers? Actually, pretty much the same as addressing the general shortage. Stop fiddling around with education. Stop regarding students’ grades as more the teacher’s responsibility than the student’s. Stop valuing what we measure, rather than measuring what we value. Stop guilt-tripping teachers and give them some trust and respect. Then, maybe, the profession won’t be losing so many new entrants so quickly. Then, maybe, it will become attractive in its own right because people will see it as a hugely exciting opportunity to work with and inspire young people, rather than as the express route to a nervous breakdown.


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So this is Christmas

Another term nearly over.

The school year is full of fixed annual rituals. For us, the last week of the autumn term brings the  girls’ highlight of the year, the so-called Karaoke, which in fact is a dance competition, for which all the forms prepare intensely, care about to the exclusion of almost all else and relish triumphs from years gone by. This is a ridiculously noisy and frantic event, endured with an indulgent tolerance or gritted teeth by frazzled staff. To me it is a good example of why a focus on control and orderliness at all times in school can miss the point. They have a wonderful time at the Karaoke and it brings forms together – and though they are noisy and apparently undisciplined, they do understand when to stop. Something more sedate really wouldn’t achieve the same.

We also have our annual Carol Service at a local church. Of course we do not force people to come if they have a religious objection, but in practice, despite the school being very multicultural, very few exercise that right. I’m an unapologetic atheist but I still love the Carol Service – the walk up there, the lovely old church, the readings from the King James Bible, the old carols (though I wish they’d pitch it a bit lower! I find myself fading out part way through). It’s a really good way to finish the term.

Individual classes may have their own rituals too. A lovely group I taught for five years (years 7 to 11) had a favourite kind-of mathematical game that we always played at the end of term (that involved noise and apparent anarchy too…spotting a pattern?). Some of them have requested that we have a class reunion (as they are now in the sixth form and so no longer together) and play it in a lunchtime next week!

Another feature of this time of year is the Oxford and Cambridge interviews. Whatever we say to counter this (and believe me, we do – we have way too much sense to believe an Oxbridge place is the be-all and end-all, or right for everyone), they have a ridiculous amount emotionally invested in this. A lot of them find it very hard to deal with the fact that the interviewers will be asking them things way outside their comfort zone where they have to figure it out rather than know it. For a number, not getting the place will be their first real experience of academic “failure”, and it can hit them hard; for all we may point out the excellence of their other choices, it is the one missed that dominates their feelings. And I hate to say it, but some parents really don’t help – you can understand a child being stressed if their parents regard going to somewhere that is third nationally for their subject as some sort of “failure”.

I know some of my colleagues will feel our pupils should be using the holidays to get some work done. With the sole exception of kids who feel they are floundering because they’ve got seriously behind – I don’t, I’m afraid. It’s a long and tiring term – they need the break, and to do the normal festive things of eating, drinking, relaxing, watching old films, and who knows, maybe talking to their nearest and dearest.

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