A Tale of Two Teachers

Mr White* was legendary in my primary school; he was the teacher everybody wanted to have. He was young, dynamic and funny, and his lessons were quirky and exciting. Pupils did not earn house-points – they played a continual ‘game of life’ in which they could build ‘houses’, have ‘jobs’ (even get ‘married’!) and earn money. My brother was taught by him 4 years ahead of me and raved about him so that I couldn’t wait to be taught by him myself. He was particularly well-known for setting a long list of weird and challenging activities for the pupils to do for holiday homework. Of course there were lessons, too, though I struggle to remember them. Despite the ‘progressive’ sound of all this, our core education was decidedly traditional. I finally got to have Mr White in standard 4 (aged 10) and was duly delighted. He left us in the middle of the year, to take up a job as a deputy head in another school and we never did get to earn our dollars for ‘taking a swim before sunrise’, or ‘making a cheese toasty with the iron’.

Mr Smith was different. He was the deputy head in our school and had been since the dawn of time as far as we knew. We once had a lesson in which we were to identify what had happened on certain dates. He threw in one date that nobody could guess, until someone mentioned it was the year their grandmother had been born. That’s when we realised how old he was. We had him in standard 5, the year after Mr White. I mainly remember him sitting at his desk. He taught us from his age-old knowledge and from printed materials of all sorts, and he tested us often on everything. For example, alongside a rigorous maths and English curriculum, we studied to a fine degree, the life-cycles of several tropical parasites, knowing in great detail the scientific descriptions of the characteristics of each stage and their implications for health. He made no attempt to make the materials ‘child-friendly’ and he required that we did our own research projects to a high standard. I learned an incredible amount of a wide range of topics that year and I still remember much of it. As a teacher, I now can’t believe how much we crammed in, never seeming to be rushed or stressed for time. Nobody in our school would have called Mr Smith ‘fun’ or ‘funny’. He was a crusty old cove who gave up chain-smoking and tried to take up snuff instead – which he used in front of us in class.

I’m not sure, but I can guess, which teacher would have won the popularity contest, had we been asked as children. Fortunately for us, it was not our choice. The more I reflect on it through the years, the more I realise that Mr Smith was the outstanding teacher of my junior school, possibly my school years as a whole.

Teachers now seem to worry a lot about how they can be the ‘best’. There’s a huge amount of rhetoric about relationships, teaching styles, progressive and traditional practices, accountability for results and the problem is that most of it is either wrong, unfounded or measured in short-term, limited ways. Mr Smith didn’t have to worry about any of those things.


*Names changed, of course.





It’s 2017 – What on Earth can we do?

Though I felt I would have preferred to be at home drinking cocoa, I played saxophone for a small, local gig on New Year’s Eve. The revelry seemed suitably subdued as the clock struck midnight and the guitarist wished me a ‘Happy New Year’, saying that there was no way 2017 could possibly be worse than 2016. I sadly disagreed and prophesied that we would look back on 2016 as the last year of Recognisable Things before we really began to notice that nothing was ever the same again.

Anyone who has read my blogs before will see that they tend not to be very upbeat, generally. Nobody would describe me as a ‘bubbly’ personality and  I’m generally inspired to write when I have something to critique. As much as I admire spirit-lifting attempts, I perceive them as fundamentally flawed and self-centred in the sense that they seem to ignore reality.

So how do I manage to work with primary school pupils? Basically, I lie by omission. I can not possibly tell them what I believe their future holds and were I to openly discuss with them what’s going on in the world, I would risk censure for ‘extremist views’.

It was in a staff room, over 20 years ago, that I said that I was pretty sure that climate change would be the biggest challenge we would face in the new millennium. The reaction then was along the lines of, ‘Oh, really? Is that because of CFCs and things? I don’t really know much about it. We can’t be doom-mongers. Well I’m not really into the environment and all that – it’s more your sort of thing.’ Over the decades, everything that I said was likely to happen, has happened and sadly, the reaction I get now is pretty much the same, in spite of the global scientific consensus and the general acceptance that it is no longer a conspiracy.

On a day-to-day basis, I engage with the business of ‘business as usual’, and in 2016 I made some efforts to push against what I felt to be detrimental to the education of our pupils. I actively responded to every government consultation and was gratified to give evidence on primary assessment to the Education Select Committee. I try to promote an agenda that a quality education is a global citizen entitlement and is not about toxic notions of ‘attainment’ and ‘social mobility’. I agree that curriculum subjects should be rigorously taught by teachers with excellent subject knowledge and I welcome the increase in attention to evidence over mythology. Perverse incentives aside, I do continue to try to do my best to develop pupils’ knowledge and understanding in the ‘core’ and ‘foundation’ subjects of our National Curriculum, as though the future will resemble the past. Deep down, I have misgivings; I probably should spend more time teaching them basic survival skills. From how things are currently panning out, the next few decades will be an escalation of the challenges we have faced this year:

It was wrong to make heroes of those who have climbed the greasy pole over their fellows, those who have risen to the top of their chosen career and gained huge amounts of wealth, and those who have dominated nations through displays of power and authority, because their big noise drowned out the voices of reason to which we should have listened and now we have to face the consequences as well as we can. Knowing that we have tipped the climate balance, it’s very difficult to see how things could improve or even stay the same but there is something to do.

If things are going to get a lot trickier, then I see that there is a need to remember that many of us are not psychopaths. We know about co-operation, consideration and compassion and we should exercise these. If we possess the trait of empathy, we know about the suffering of others and we have to be kinder – to humans and non-human animals. If we know the difference, we need to be emphatically better to each other, because there are those who will be emphatically worse. How we treat each other should be a matter of concern – in school, the supermarket, on the road, and in our (t)wittering online which appears often to deteriorate into childish insults and point-scoring. If we have the wit, let us use it to exercise consideration and circumspection in 2017.

Got the T-shirt (a moderate tale)

Given that teacher assessment is a nonsense which lacks reliability, and that moderation can not really reduce this, nor ensure that gradings are comparable, our moderation experience was about as good as it could be! It was thus:

Each of we two Y6 teachers submitted all our assessments and three children in each category (more ridiculous, inconsistent and confusable codes, here), of which one each was selected, plus another two from each category at random. So, nine children from each class. We were told who these nine were a day in advance. Had we wanted to titivate, we could have, but with our ‘system’ it really wasn’t necessary.

The ‘system’ was basically making use of the interim statements and assigning each one of them a number. Marking since April has involved annotating each piece of work with these numbers, to indicate each criterion. It was far less onerous than it sounds and was surprisingly effective in terms of formative assessment. I shall probably use something similar in the future, even if not required to present evidence.

The moderator arrived this morning and gave us time to settle our classes whilst she generally perused our books. I had been skeptical. I posted on twitter that though a moderator would have authority, I doubted they’d have more expertise. I was concerned about arguing points of grammar and assessment. I was wrong. We could hardly have asked for a better moderator. She knew her stuff. She was a y6 teacher. We had a common understanding of the grammar and the statements. She’d made it her business to sample moderation events as widely as possible and therefore had had the opportunity to see many examples of written work from a wide range of schools. She appreciated our system and the fact that all our written work from April had been done in one book.

Discussions and examination of the evidence, by and large led to an agreed assessment. One was raised from working towards; one, who I had tentatively put forward as ‘greater depth’, but only recently, was agreed to have not quite made it. The other 16 went through as previously assessed, along with all the others in the year group. Overall my colleague and I were deemed to know what we were doing! We ought to, but a) the county moderation experience unsettled us and fed my ever-ready cynicism about the whole business and b) I know that it’s easy to be lulled into a false belief that what we’ve agreed is actually the ‘truth’ about where these pupils are at. All we can say is that we roughly agreed between the three of us. The limited nature of the current criteria makes this an easier task than the old levels, (we still referred to the old levels!) but the error in the system makes it unusable for accountability or for future tracking. I’m most interested to see what the results of the writing assessment are this year – particularly in moderated v non-moderated schools. Whatever it is, it won’t be a reliable assessment but, unfortunately it will still be used (for good or ill) by senior leaders, and other agencies, to make judgements about teaching.

Nevertheless, I’m quite relieved the experience was a positive one and gratified and somewhat surprised to have spent the day with someone with sense and expertise. How was it for you?





Oh look, I’m right again

Being in any profession for more than 20 years (yes, me) means you may have had to watch the same old stuff go round again and again. Sometimes something is brought back having been thrown out because it didn’t work the first time and nobody else is old enough to know that it isn’t new and wonderful. Sometimes it’s something that was abandoned against your best protestations, only to make a reappearance some years later as a good idea. Often, we just throw away good old stuff and replace it with tat – but that’s a different story!

I’m currently feeling the need to vent spleen over the reintroduction of a weekly ‘singing assembly’. That’s all very well – perhaps we could cope with the sudden change in our timetables (having already spent many hours trying to get everything to fit), since it could be generally argued that collective singing in a primary school is a ‘good thing’. However, we used to have a singing assembly. I ran it. I didn’t want to – particularly as it always needed to have overtones of collective worship – but I put that aside and concentrated on getting the best out of the whole of Key Stage 2 and a bunch of disparate, pupil volunteer musicians. We did pretty well – there were 3-part harmonies and instrumental accompaniments. I mainly plundered the gospel repertoire for its sheer musicality. Then one day, without explanation, I was unceremoniously ‘thanked’ for everything I’d done and informed that it was not going to happen any longer. I did object, in spite of not really wanting to have to run the damned thing in the first place, on the grounds of there being no more collective singing, and possibly very little singing at all. Now, some 5 years later, we’re told that the lack of collective singing is an issue and so we’ll be having singing assemblies once a week, led by a paid outsider. It’s unlikely that anyone will have the courtesy to say I was right.

Yes this is rather petulant but only one example in many of just how little value is placed on experience and expertise. It’s all about rank – as it has ever been – and in education those are very different things.