Going off topic

I must confess to having committed what, in the eyes of some, are two major educational crimes today.

I didn’t stick to my lesson plans. And I discussed politics.

The kids in year 10 and above were absolutely desperate to talk about the American presidential election result. Should I have pressed on with hypothesis testing, with non-linear simultaneous equations, and whatever other treats lined up for today and ignored it? Maybe I should. But I didn’t.

I want young people to care what goes on in the world. And after all, if outrageous policies now impact right down the years (as I fear they will – a climate-change denier in the White House certainly doesn’t bode well) – then they have the longest to live with the consequences.  I want them to feel passionately that homophobia, islamophobia, racism and sexism are deeply wrong and a threat to us all. I want them to understand the dangers of political demagoguery.

So, we talked about it. We talked about parallels with other countries, other times. We talked about political systems and the issues of the electoral college and a first past the post system. We talked about media manipulation. We considered whether voting should be compulsory. We debated how far our own political inclinations are rational or just tribal, and how much altruism comes into our decision making.

And yes, I’m sorry, but I gave my own opinions. They asked me, and we were having a discussion – I wasn’t instructing them on what to believe. Being prepared to be honest was a gesture of respect.

I have come away no less depressed about Trump, but feeling very grateful to be working with young people who have tried to inform themselves on the issues, and who care so passionately about justice in the world.


Posted in Day to day school life, Opinions, Pupil relationships | 2 Comments

Education not training

The latest thing that provoked a rant – a complaint that school leavers “lack workplace skills”.

Well guess what, Mr/Ms Employer – we are here to educate, not to train. We are trying to broaden their minds, introduce them to the rich worlds of sciences, arts and humanities, help them learn to think, to aspire to change the world, and to play their part in our society.  We are not there to teach “business skills” or to produce little workers all ready to be fastened to their office chair.

Now in some areas I think we perhaps could do more to help children develop attributes and skills they’ll use in the big wide world. Here are a few:-

  • Thinking for themselves, not being passive consumers focused solely on regurgitation to order in examinations
  • Making their own decisions, not always looking for someone to tell them “the best thing to do”
  • Questioning everything
  • Being brave and taking risks
  • Taking responsibility for themselves

I am not convinced the average employer moaning about their school-leaver intake will necessarily welcome all of these. But as a society, we certainly should.

We really need a rethink about what we are achieving with education. It really isn’t just about passing exams (particularly as increasingly this is seen as a measure of the teacher’s success rather than the pupil’s).  It certainly isn’t about producing workplace-ready young people who will not inconvenience the employer by requiring training. An awful lot of what it’s about is pretty intangible, really, but that doesn’t make it any less important.


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A-levels, choice and market forces

There’s been discussion in the news of AQA’s decision to scrap A-level Art History. Inevitably, this brings out all sorts of comments concerning philistinism/ class issues/ your choice of pet hate.  There are even some who wilfully misinterpret the reasons for the decision (I can only assume they haven’t read AQA’s statement), assuming it’s about it being a “soft subject”. (Incidentally, I don’t recall anyone saying it was a soft subject in the past – that epithet is typically reserved for qualifications with the word “studies” in their name!)

I can understand the dismay of those outraged by the decision. I’ve felt the same when other things went in the past (for example, there were some fascinating options at O-level and/or A-level back in the 80s – eg Logic, Greek Literature in Translation…and more recently the removal of the AEAs was a great shame).

It doesn’t even appear to be just about it being a subject with few entries (though it is); exam boards maintain other minority subjects (inevitably cross-subsidising from the larger entry areas).  Apparently the issue is recruiting sufficient specialist examiners.

Now this does not surprise me. I have had four friends who’ve at various times been Chief or Senior Examiners – i.e. the people setting the papers and determining the markscheme. They put an awful lot of time and effort in, and the financial rewards are certainly not great.  Unless they have some sort of private income, they can’t do this as their sole occupation, but there will be very very busy times when it’s tough to do it alongside a “normal” job. It’s not a job in which popularity and appreciation come your way readily, either – how many candidates or their teachers will make a point of expressing their admiration for a well set paper on social media or to the awarding body? But needless to say, unpopular papers attract endless villification (and note I don’t say “bad” papers – some perfectly good ones attract completely unwarrented opprobrium simply for daring to require candidates to think for themselves rather than recall previous papers). Inevitably, anyone setting papers will have to grow a thick skin – I remember getting an amused message from a friend who’d set the paper for one January module, saying “Hey, result, I’ve just been called a bastard on Twitter!”.

I know far more who’ve been involved at the lower level – marking the exams (indeed, in the dim and distant past, I’ve done exam marking and external moderation of coursework myself).  It is not a fun job. You come home from your normal teaching job, and sitting in the corner of your room, there is a big pile of envelopes looking at you reproachfully.  You open the first one up – not one that’s too thick, as that’s scary – but even that medium sized one is going to occupy your attention for quite some time. You know you must give full attention to what you are doing – it’s someone’s future in your hands – but when it gets past midnight and only the matchsticks are holding your eyelids up, it is hard to feel positive about a semi-legible paper which uses all sorts of strange methods, and requires you to do a lot of checking for “follow through” marks because they are horrendously careless. To cap it all, you can almost guarantee there’ll be asterisks and arrows pointing you to where this question is continued elsewhere on the paper, so you’re endlesly flipping back and forth. So no, it wasn’t something I enjoyed, and it didn’t pay me enough to be worth doing it for the money. I did it because it helped my teaching, simple as that. That’s why I stopped – once I’d got what I wanted out of it, why put myself through all that again?

Under our current system, difficulties – I might even say a crisis  – in recruitment of examiners is inevitable. You are asking people to undertake a high-pressure role with inflexible deadlines at a rate of pay substantially below their normal one! Combining this role with their regular one will, in many cases, lead to working substantially more hours than the European Working TIme Directive would indicate to be appropriate.

If the awarding bodies started paying examiners more, this would result in increased costs to schools for exam entries.  If they offered payment to schools for cover for the teacher who is an examiner, to enable them to do the job in a slightly less rushed way, that would have the same effect.  The exam boards aren’t all run by profit-making companies (though Edexcel/Pearson is), but they are in a compettive market. Differences in costs to the school, unless they are very minor, will have consequences.


Given the government seems to think education is all about exams, you might hope they’d offer financial support to facilitate examining being done by competent, non-stressed, non-fatigued individuals …. Oh, I see something fat and pink winging its way past the window.  But if they want to offer a broad range of good, solid subjects, and get them marked reliably, they are going to need to put the investment in.


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I’m sure all teachers must have this experience – overhearing teaching, schools, education etc being discussed on the next table in a cafe or pub. Sometimes what you hear is fascinating or pleasing…  more often, dispiriting or infuriating.

Here are some recent samples:-

Grandma to age 11/12 granddaughter: “Are your teachers fairly bright?”   Now I am sure if the child had reason to think any of her teachers were a bit dim (and let’s be honest, once she’s a teenager, she probably will think that anyway), she’d have decided that without grandma’s intervention. I suspect the net result of this will be to put doubts in her mind where there was no reason for them.  Seems an odd thing to ask a kid of that age, too – easier to judge such things when you are older.

Dad to 13-14 year old daughter “Well, it’s all down to the teacher – that’ll be why you don’t like Latin”. Well, of course a poor teacher can put a child off (though I had 3 dire maths teachers and always loved the subject, so it’s not invariable). But really – would it be natural for a child automatically to love all subjects if it weren’t for those evil teachers putting them off? If the majority of the class like a subject, but a few don’t, is it not more likely that they, like adults, are individuals with tastes and preferences?  And don’t even start me on the idea of encouraging kids to blame the teacher…

Auntie to 10 year old twins out shopping for the new school year “what’s the good of a scientific calculator? Why do they make you get that? You’ll never need all those buttons!”. Just one word. Aaarghhh!

Parents discussing their daughter’s A-level options after GCSE results “I can’t see why they don’t want her to take Maths – she got her GCSE grade C in it – it’s just snobbishness wanting more”.  Why do parents find it so hard to see that we are actually trying to look out for their child, and that years of experience do actually give us some idea what we are talking about? No, it’s not about protecting our academic record – one fail grade amongst many good grades will not spell disaster for us, but it would seriously affect your daughter’s future.  Honestly, we are trying to help.

Father talking to daughter after A-level results “Surely the school can get you in somewhere by calling up? That’s their job, particularly as they didn’t get you the grades!” To her credit, the daughter did try to explain that she had to go through Clearing herself. I so wanted to say – our job is education, advice and guidance. Our job is not getting you grades, jobs or university places. We are here to give you the support and teaching to enable you to make the most of your talents, and to get the grades and offers that your ability and industry warrant – not less, but also not more.

A nice one to end on:

Two mothers discussing their children’s school “You can see they really care about the kids, the way they talk about them. “. Yes – most of us do, you know, some to a huge degree. Lovely that people recognise it.

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Approaching results day…

It’s always the sign that the end (of the holidays) is nigh – A-level results day this Thursday.

As exams officer, I’ll be doing quite a bit about this tomorrow. I have to download the results from the exam boards and import them into our system (this seldom goes completely smoothly – something crashes or doesn’t import and has to be entered manually). Then it all has to be printed out and collated, ready to give the kids on Thursday. I have various documents to prepare or print – explanations of grade boundaries, info on getting re-marks etc.  Of course the results are strictly embargoed at this stage – the kids certainly can’t have them, and only am extremely restricted range of staff can see them. I must confess I do look at how people have done, though – I can’t just regard it as an admin task when it involves pupils I know and particularly those I’ve taught.

This year is going to be particularly interesting as the new AS specifications came in for quite a few subjects, including the sciences, which are taken by the majority of our sixth formers. The content and style of the specification and exams had definitely changed, and many of the kids said the exams were a bit nasty, so it’ll definitely be quite tense looking at those.

I guess I’d get a bit less uptight about results if they weren’t such a political football. I think the government wants to be seen to make things more rigorous, which means, I fear, the law being laid down on what the exam boards can do with grade boundaries.  I know exam boards can get a bad press, but I really would rather have the criteria for an A set by the examining team who’ve actually looked at the papers and have experience of what candidates achieved, rather than some know-it-all politician out to make a point. And of course, this is a no-win situation. If results improve, everyone says exams have got easier. If they don’t improve, teachers aren’t delivering.

I’d always be feeling a bit nervous about how the kids had got on, though, anyway. How could I not? I care about them – I want them to get the university places they’ve set their heart on.  I know some cynics think we teachers are only anxious because of how it reflects on us – but that is absolutely wrong. Sure, if all my class underachieve, I might well get asked a few pointed questions, as would my head of department – but it makes way more difference to them than me how they do, so I’ll be pleased for them if they’ve got what they want, and disappointed if they haven’t, whatever it says on my class’s value-added data.

Of course schools have to be concerned with how their data looks in the league tables. That doesn’t mean that their leadership think it’s more important than the pupils – of course they don’t. It’s because we’re stuck with a damnfool system that regards a school as only as good as its latest results, with no regard for natural variability, context or anything else.

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I was talking to someone while waiting for a train the other day (well, to be accurate, I was trying to read my book and they’d decided to make conversation with me). I owned up to being a teacher at some point in the conversation, which was the signal for them to immediately start to share their expertise about teaching with me, based on their experience of explaining a few things to a niece.

Does this happen in other jobs? Do plumbers find people offering insights into pipework, and dentists into root canal treatment? Or is it just us?

I guess almost all of us do have experience teaching something or other to someone or other, and so feel we have some grounds for expertise. But hey, I have some experience cooking, but wouldn’t presume to instruct a chef on it.

Now I may be being a bit of a hypocrite here, because I’ve never been much of a fan of a huge overdose in educational theory as part of teacher training, and I do think some people have the ability to teach pretty well even without being trained to do it.  But that’s a bit different to someone who has never stood in front of a class thinking they have “the answer” to engaging kids, behavioural issues and exam success.  It amazes me how many people do not quite grasp that what you can do with an individual is rather different to what you can do with a class of 20-30 kids, and that you actually cannot teach every child individually.

I’ll tell you the other area on which  Joe (or Jo) Public seems to feel him/herself an instant expert – some parts of science.  Every medical journal out there has shown no link between vaccines and autism – but hey, people who have no medical or scientific training know better! Likewise, the effect of atmospheric carbon dioxide is really pretty uncontroversial in scientific circles, but let’s not believe that because we don’t like the consequences, eh?  It’s obviously better to believe every crank out there rather than someone who actually has the appropriate education and has worked to develop their understanding and knowledge to a high level.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to encourage a ridiculous level of deference to experts, be they teachers, scientists, doctors, economists or whatever. We should always encourage critical thinking and a questioning approach.  But at least try to take an informed critical approach!


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Another universal panacea…

BBC Education News is reporting on the introduction of the “Asian Maths Method” to primary schools.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against new approaches, whether they are from Asia, Mars, or the next classroom along. We should always be open-minded, prepared to experiment and to amend what we do.

But what always bugs me is the sloppy thinking. The article talks about functional innumeracy being much lower in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong than in the UK. Yes, that is interesting and perhaps raises some questions. But why assume it is automatically because of the use of a specific method? Couldn’t other factors be more important? For example,  cultural factors such as how education is viewed, how frowned on innumeracy is, and how much support and reinforcement is offered at home can be hugely important to success. And even restricting it to educational methods – would you expect levels of functional innumeracy at 15 to be solely explicable from methods used in primary school? Hey, that’s like saying I can blame my pupils’ GCSE results on their KS2 teachers!

So let’s look at the content. I see it places importance on the use of textbooks rather than worksheets, for a start. I never actually realised that was revolutionary as I’ve been doing it in my classroom all along, and it happened when I was at school too. Of course it is useful to have access to earlier work, and to be able to refer back, or consult worked examples. That is why textbooks are such an old – and long-standing – “technology”.
But thinking practically for a minute –  I assume the schools implementing this “new” approach won’t be allowing the kids to take them home, as unless they can work some sort of miracle, kids will forget them, and sometimes little brothers/sisters or the dog will eat them/remove pages…  Ideally, a home copy and a school copy would be provided, of course, but will that be funded?

They talk about whole-class teaching, and encouraging the higher achievers to gain a “deeper” understanding rather than racing ahead. Yes, sounds fair to me – I’ve never thought it’s a good plan to have your top end studying topics that the rest of the class will come to later, and so deferring their boredom, and agree it’s much better to tackle more thought-provoking material related to the basic topic.  But I will be very interested to hear how this “deeper” understanding is to be achieved. If you are teaching your class about, say, adding fractions, what deeper conceptual grasp can you ask that is not either something you want everyone to learn (eg that you don’t just multiply the denominators to find the LCD) or is really a bit beyond kids in isolation (eg application to algebraic fractions)?  I’m also interested in when there will be space for the extension of the individual in the lesson, given that they are not keen on “slower individual practice” – if I am to acquire a deeper understanding, I need time to tackle tougher problems and/or to read about the concepts.

And yet again, we see reference to “specialist teachers”. Guess what – my maths degree does not make me particularly well suited to teaching a 7 year old how to multiply. We didn’t discuss multiplication in any more depth, actually. Or how kids learn it.     I would agree entirely with concerns about maths in primary (or indeed, secondary) schools being taught by those who are not secure in their own knowledge and understanding – this can result in a rote-learning approach, little flexibility or creativity and a lack of provision for those who wish to go beyond the curriculum, and for those for whom the “standard” explanations do not work. But avoiding these pitfalls does not require a mathematics specialist – it requires a competent, confident teacher who understands the subject thoroughly at the appropriate level.

I have no doubt that the approaches involved in the “Asian method” have their place in the repertoire of the classroom teacher, as do the many other approaches promoted to us over the years. A good teacher will adapt what they do depending on the topic, the class, and even depending on when in the day the lesson is, how far into the term etc. A good teacher will not regard any approach as the universal answer – variety in the educational diet is crucial- we don’t live on educational brussels sprouts alone!


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