Before You Declare ED Hirsch's 'Core Knowledge' As Evil, Know This:

As someone who was initially sceptical of the idea, let me reassure you: there is nothing inherently evil about ED Hirsch’s “Core Knowledge”. Go look at if for yourself. All it consists of is a year-by-year list of things it makes sense for students to be taught during their first 8 years of school.
So yes, I admit, at first I was massively sceptical. When Daisy Christodolou, author of The Seven Myths of Education, first told me about ED Hirsch, and the curriculum he was advocating as a great innovation for American schools, I was more than a little incredulous. Fearful it would simply require students to sit, dead-pan, learning about “dead white dudes” it was a relief to see that this is not what Hirsch advocates.
Instead the Core Knowledge curriculum describes fairy stories, songs, paintings, political speeches, biographies and an incredibly wide geographical spectrum – were any of us ever taught the Japanese feudal system?! The curriculum is intended for American children so some of it is unfamiliar to British eyes, but one can imagine replacing an Eleanor Roosevelt speech with one from Emily Pankhurst or the geography of Canada & Mexico with that of the EU. While those substitutions must carefully coincide with other aspects of the curriculum – phrases, spellings, ideas – I was nevertheless impressed with the exciting depths of the sequence.
Hence, I’ve since found it odd when people profess consternation about the sequence. It’s really just a specification for year groups – what’s so scary about that?
The main concerns about Core Knowledge tend to come from the following misconceptions:

  • It requires didactic teaching – It really doesn’t. There’s nothing about teaching method in the sequence. Teachers can teach the information however they wish.
  • It’s about profit-making – While there are textbooks to purchase, if you wish, that help deliver some of the Core Knowledge specification, the curriculum itself is free as are many other resources online.  This is no different than the way the National Curriculum has operated for over 20 years in England and if teachers across the country were all teaching the same things, then they could more easily share lesson plans, activities, etc. rather than having everyone running around spending their time reinventing the wheel or buying expensive packages from publishers.
  • This is a patriarchal, conservative curriculum that prefers ‘traditionalist’ materials over more culturally relevant information – While I’ve some sympathy with this argument, it’s over-egged. First, if you leave decisions down to individual teachers what is to stop the curriculum a child gets from being a ‘radicalist anarchist’ curriculum? And is that really any better? Secondly, we do need a process for deciding what goes into the National Curriculum and that process, ideally, would be fair but methodical and go a long way toward ironing out this concern. So far my best suggestion is a National Curriculum review board, though I’m currently working on a longer document giving several different ideas.
  • Core Knowledge is advocated by Daisy Christodolou who works for the Curriculum Centre. A bit of context: as stated above, Daisy is the author of “Seven Myths About Education a forceful book that advocates ensuring young people get lots of factual knowledge while at school because it is a springboard to lifelong learning. In the book Daisy advocates Hirsch’s Core Knowledge sequence, and because she works for The Curriculum Centre, a group creating a sequential UK curriculum, some opponents argue that  her advocacy is biased and that Core Knowledge is part of a wider marketing ploy for a profit-making enterprise. Thinking like this gets the genesis the wrong way round. Daisy was a fact-junkie, and advocating Hirsch to me, back in 2010. It was her sureness about the approach that led to her involvement with The Curriculum Centre, not the other way around. But more importantly Daisy’s experience in the classroom, and her job now, do not dictate whether this approach to the curriculum is a good one. Its merits should be based on what we know about how learning develops, student engagement, what things students need to know for the future, etc.

Perhaps there are other reasons why Core Knowledge is problematic, and why a similar approach could not work in England. Debra Kidd raised a good issue earlier in a Twitter conversation, where she feared that specifying texts (e.g. galleries and theatres then over-focus on these texts and other great works are lost) but so far these gripes seem minor and possible to overcome. A carefully planned sequential curriculum, nationally agreed through a fair&  judicious process, seems – at least to me – an entirely useful thing.

June #blogsync – My Best Classroom Explanations

This month’s #blogsync asked education bloggers to describe “an example of a great classroom explanation”. The theme is inspired by an Alex Quigley blog on “Top Tips for Explanation”, itself inspired by Joe Kirby’s “What Makes Great Teaching?” It’s an important issue because all teachers know that the way we explain things matters for how successful student learning is.
Problem is, I’m not really sure what counts as an explanation.
So below are three different types of explanation that successfully helped my students learn something and which might give you some ideas for explanations in your own classroom and also might show why debates about ‘teacher’ vs ‘student-led’ learning are often a bit odd. Alternatively, maybe you won’t think one (or any) of them, is really an explanation. That’s okay, but let me know why in the comments so I can ponder the distinction a bit more.
The Classic Didactic Explanation
I inherited a Year 11 Citizenship GCSE group a few weeks before their final exams. They’d previously had 7 teachers in 18 months and they simply did not have the knowledge required to pass their exams. People sometimes scoff at thoughts of a Citizenship GCSE: How much knowledge can it really involve? Answer: a lot. If you don’t believe me, here is the list of key terms a student needs to know and use in essays in just one of their exams (the shorter one). And this isn’t all of them.
Desperately trying to convey the information quickly, and struggling against the tide of their low-morale, I had the students draw the above diagram out, bit-by-bit, and explained as we went. It was old-fashioned chalk & talk, but it worked. They behaved; we drew; we questioned; we wrote out what each part was. Then, next lesson, we did it again. And same the one after that, until eventually I could point to any part of that diagram and they could tell you what it was and why. Don’t worry, this is not all we did.  As starter activities for each lesson I used news stories from the week (similar, if harder, to what they see  in the exam) and asked questions using the knowledge they had learned  (E.g. I remember one was about Nick Clegg. Cue, is Nick Clegg in the Opposition or Government? Nick Clegg is an MP, which House does he speak in? If Nick Clegg is an MP what sort of electoral system is used to vote him in? And so on…) and at the end of the lesson we would tackle a 12-mark past exam question by first trying try to figure out which part of the diagram was important for the question, which vocabulary we would need and take it from there.
What blew me away was that really focusing on this knowledge for a few lessons meant students then the grasped news items and exam questions way quicker and much deeper than when I taught Citizenship piece-by-piece – i.e. doing a whole lesson on the commons, then one on the lords, then one on laws, etc. Having an overview, with the correct terminology, of the whole political/legal system meant it was far easier for them to know what was going on when we then honed in on one issue (e.g. much easier to understand the EU and how it fits into the picture when you have a basic grasp of the way laws/courts work in England).  Seeing this difference was one of the reasons why I started to come round to an idea that Daisy Christodolou had explained to me a year earlier (yes, she’s been on about it for a while!) about ED Hirsch and his belief that a foundation of factual knowledge is critical for true understanding.
Though uncomfortable with chalk-and-talk activities I nevertheless started the following year’s teaching with this same process – getting the students to draw the outline on their folders and referring back to it as often as possible for consolidation. The difference in the quality of their understanding, and the more sophisticated vocabulary and analysis in their controlled assessments, throughout that year was incredible. Having that base of vocabulary really made a difference. Hence, while varying activities is very important it’s also true that starting by telling students the simple stuff over and over again helps lay a base for more complex topics.
Moral of the story: Bloom didn’t put knowledge at the bottom of his taxonomy because it is unimportant, he put it there because it is the vital first step.
The “Experiential” Explanation
On my fourth day with a brand new Year 13 BTEC Health & Social Care group, we had a conversation that went like this:
 Me: “Who are the people most likely to suffer obesity in England today?”
Student: “Rich people”
Me: “Why rich people?”
Student: “Because they can afford the most food, so they eat the most, so they get fat. Poor people can’t afford food, so they starve, so they are thin.”
No matter how I tried to question, reason, explain that people with lower incomes  are the group with the highest risk of obesity, the students simply would not have it. In their  heads, the more money you had, the more food you had, the  fatter you would get.
Unsure what to do next I made an unusual move:
Me: “Right, get your coats…..”
Ten minutes later (with appropriate permissions having been sought from school & supermarket) we were stood at the tills in our local Tesco. Each student had a basket.
Me: “Okay, let’s imagine you’ve just got home from work and you’re a single parent, you’ve got two children, they’re hungry because they haven’t eaten since midday and you’re tired. You can spend £5 on tonight’s dinner but you need enough food for all three of you and you have to be able to make all of the meal in fifteen minutes or less. Off you go….”
Twenty minutes later when the students stood in front of me with a sorry mess of frozen pizzas, angel delight, and tesco value meals the problem began to dawn. We then went and stood in the freezer section comparing the nutritional values of cheaper and more expensive goods.  Slowly, clicked some more. Finally we thought about who has the time to buy and cook fresh food, or who has the money/education/space to buy or grow (and store) fresh herbs. After trogging back to our classroom we then got back to looking at the data and writing out analyses (and yes, it’s not quite as straight forward as poor = fat, or cheap=frozen food, but we could only get to that once they understood the risks).
Moral of the story:  Sometimes you can’t just “tell ’em”, sometimes a good explanation means helping them see it for themselves.
The Peer-to-Peer Explanation
Unlike many teachers, I am not an advocate for peer-to-peer marking or teaching. Why would you get the least knowledgeable people in the room teaching other people about it? BUT, there have been occasions when it has felt right.
I taught an unusually sociable and hard-working A-Level Psychology group. Over a year their team work, their concern for each other’s work, their ability to help one another was top-class. It also helped that we studied a whole unit on memory so they knew how to make information retainable.
When studying mental health treatments I therefore asked each group to prepare a 15-minute ‘teaching’ session for one treatment. Students were encouraged to use vivid mnemonics, music, actions – and they had to provide at least 4 key facts that the audience were required to remember, as I later based our weekly vocab test on their presentations.
Several of the sessions were excellent but the one that blew me away was the group who looked at Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT), a procedure historically used for treating Schizophrenia. The group used the question “Is Harry Potter schizophrenic?” and asked the class to look at evidence that he might be (think: delusions about flying on brooms, the ‘lightening’ mark on his head). They also introduced the session with the song “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and later used this to talk about the ethics of giving ECT.
Their explanation had it all: a catchy tune, a mnemonic, a link to something relevant to students, it gave clear facts about the treatment and its ethical issues, and was – frankly – better than I would have done. It also gave students an opportunity to practise public speaking, slide design, and thinking of ways to remember concepts for themselves. The subsequent vocab tests also showed that the students had really understood this treatment.
Moral of the story: There are times when the best explanations might not come from you. Hard to hear, but true.
Reflecting on these explanations made me remember why I think knowledge/skills debates, or ‘teacher-centred’ vs. ‘learner-centred’ debates are usually over-egged. Different students, different topics, different contexts, all lead to the need for different types of teaching. In each of these sessions students developed new knowledge (and new skills) useful for our next steps as a class and their next steps in education.
People might ask: “But don’t you think there is a quicker/more efficient/more rigorous method for getting them to learn x thing?” Possibly. But students are people, not automatons, we can’t just ‘programme’ them to remember. And even if we could, they learn as much from the intentions of our actions as they do from the content. If I had yelled at my new BTEC students and told them they simply must believe me, it would have been easy for them to think I didn’t really care about their thoughts, hence they’d have had the perfect excuse to never again think for themselves. When my psychology students did those presentations we’d already had several lessons of hard-going teacher-led activities on brain biology. We were all getting bored. If I hadn’t harnessed their innate sociability they would have started using it themselves – chatting to one another under their breath – and I, aware that my enthusiasm for teacher-ledness had run out, probably wouldn’t have had the energy to fight their rational desire to be more involved. Hence, I harnessed their strength and made it into an opportunity rather than ignoring what were completely reasonable ways to feel at that point.
Yes, some explanations formulaically work with classes over and over again. But others, less so. What we really need to do next as a profession is work out: how do we know which explanation  type we need?  How can I figure out, in advance, if an activity will work for this group or not?  Because that’s a question I still can’t answer at all….

All You Will Hear About Charter Schools Until 2017

From the 2013 CREDO Study
From the 2013 CREDO Study

This is Figure 1 from the 2013 CREDO Study Executive Summary. Get used to seeing it. I suspect it will soon become a new classic reference in education debate.
By matching every student in a Charter School with a similar student in a nearby school, CREDO aims to see if there is a difference to reading and maths scores depending on the type of school a student attends.
If you read all the Parliamentary debates about Free Schools in the UK & New Zealand (as I did) you soon realise the enormous power of the Stanford CREDO studies. The 2009 CREDO was the most referenced study in the debates and not just by free school advocates – it is referenced by everyone.
The reason why both sides like CREDO is that it presents a mixed picture, manipulable to fit one’s long-held views. Back in 2009 CREDO showed that about a 1/3 of Charter schools were doing brilliantly, and about a 1/3 not so brilliantly. Advocates for the policy talked, constantly, about the first statistic; its opponents carped on about the latter.  (For a great read about such behaviour, I heartily recommend Henig’s “Spin Cycle” which forensically examines education stakeholder’s preference for point-scoring over proper debate).
From what I’ve read of the study so far, this 2013 study also presents a mixed picture. Students from groups who have traditionally received less good schooling and have been ‘underperformers’ look to be doing better in the new charters when compared to their “twin” in a traditional public school. This picture differs dependent on state, and dependent on the company running the school the student is in.
No doubt much commentary will start to pull these issues out. Until then, Figure 1 is likely to be the hit home message.

If Twigg won't answer Gove's questions, I will

Earlier this week Michael Gove wrote a letter to Stephen Twigg asking for clarity on a number of issues in his schools policy. Twigg declined with a sassy response. But why? The answers were really not that difficult to give, and if it’s because Gove is going to spin whatever is handed to him, Labour need to step up and demonstrate that they will see his spin and raise him honesty, integrity and clear policies.
So, here’s how I would have answered that letter. (NB: Maybe these aren’t the policies Twigg was going for, but I don’t see why not.)
Dear Mr Gove,
Thank you for your engagement on these issues. I am surprised by some of the questions you asked, as I thought my response fairly obvious to several, but I am always willing to explain to you how education might work better than it is doing under your watch.
Below are answers to the first two lists of questions you sent, on Teachers & Free Schools. I have tried to be thorough in my responses and ensure you have all information necessary. Given that your department, despite its large number of staff plus your two advisors, is currently not meeting targets for answering Parliamentary Questions or Freedom of Information requests on time, and that the Public Accounts Committee have pulled up the Department for the quality of answers when they do arrive, I would ask that you meet me half way: You get those punctuality figures (and the quality) sorted, and I will answer your third set of questions and any others you wish to ask.  Fair is fair.
In the meantime, onto your questions….
Firstly, on teachers. You said that people you term ‘unqualified’ professionals who are currently teaching in schools must either undertake a particular prescribed form of training or be sacked.
 Does this apply to your Shadow Education Minister Tristram Hunt, who told The Guardian that he teaches in schools in Stoke? If not, why not?
If Tristram Hunt is considered an “instructor” (for which there are several criteria in the current School Teachers Pay & Conditions which he is likely to meet) then no, he need not get qualified teacher status.
 Does this apply to the former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who taught in his old school for two years? If not, why not?
As David is no longer teaching in a school, and we are not planning to wing this policy backwards through a time machine, then no – it is does not apply to him.
 Does this apply to teachers from independent schools such as St. Paul’s who may not have QTS but who do have degrees in maths, physics and chemistry from Russell Group universities and who give lessons to children from local state schools where there are no teachers with degrees in those subjects?
As an independent school St Paul’s is allowed to hire whoever it wishes, though it seems rather odd that they would wish to employ teachers not capable of passing the minimum standards set by the qualified teacher certification process. We would therefore encourage St Paul’s to ensure their staff are given the opportunity to demonstrate that they meet these standards. As noted above, if there is a shortage of teachers with a specific qualification in an area, and this is only a limited type of instruction happening occasionally in schools, this would fall under the criteria for an “instructor” and qualified teacher status is not needed. That said, we would hope that by working with local state schools, these outstanding teachers might be encouraged to move to where their skills could help students from non-traditional backgrounds in getting to university, and it is for this reason that we would push for schools like St. Paul’s to ensure their staff do meet the minimum standards and are certified, so they can then choose where to teach in the future. Getting all staff their qualification is a fair return for working so hard with their young charges.
Does this apply to a lecturer from a further education college whom we have allowed to provide high quality technical education in a school, a flexibility schools were given following a recommendation in the Wolf Report which you claim to support in its entirety?
The Wolf Report recommended that the QTLS qualification gained by people in FE should also be transferrable into school teaching. We would continue this recommendation. Therefore, any teacher with QTS or QTLS would be able to teach in a state school.
 If an individual teacher currently employed in a state school declines to pursue the prescribed path you dictate, how will you ensure he or she is dismissed?
As per your current legal issues with the national curriculum, we still need to look further at this, with the support of a legal team. Given that we are in early stages (in comparison to your 3 years of work on the curriculum) I’m sure you can understand why this might take some time.  If it transpires that there is no legal way of dismissing teachers, there are alternative ways to ensure this policy aim. For example, we might limit the % of unqualified teachers allowed in a school and reduce this % over time, or we could ask that any further employment of teachers requires that the teacher get qualified within two years or they will be dismissed. We would also publish headline data on the % of teachers in the school who meet (and are in training for) qualified teacher standards.
 If an existing free school or academy is good or outstanding for teaching and learning and an individual teacher’s lessons are judged good or outstanding by Ofsted but they do not have QTS, would you insist they were dismissed?
Our insistence is that the school ensures the teacher gets qualified. In the specific anecdotal case you mentioned it is even more important the school does so. Rightly, many schools in the state sector have, and will continue to hold, policies of preference for teachers meeting the qualified teacher standards as they feel this provides assurance that teachers have met standards on health & safety, assessment, etc. This sort of careful approach is particularly true of schools in areas with the most vulnerable intakes, as these students cannot afford to have a teacher who has not been shown to meet a minimum standard. (Even if it is true that there are wonderful teachers out there who are currently not qualified I am sure you would rather Heads in these schools were certain about these standards rather than ‘taking a chance’). If there is an outstanding teacher in an outstanding school, but they have not been put on the pathway to getting QTS, this would limit their opportunity to teach in schools with such challenges in the future, even though they are exactly the types of schools that would benefit most from their expertise.  Of course, we could follow your policy of simply lifting the requirement, but this runs the risk of schools letting in people to teach those students who do not meet the minimum standards. Instead we prefer a policy that says outstanding school *must* help their teacher get qualified which will then enable those teachers to move to other schools, when and where they are most needed.
 Have you taken legal advice on how you might secure such a dismissal?
As above, we will do so in due course.
Could you let us know how that advice squares with an individual teacher’s rights under EU law and the Human Rights Act?
This is a matter we can discuss once looked into further (as I say, you have had 3 years on your curriculum changes and are still having to look at legal advice, so I think asking for time is not unreasonable).
Given that a disproportionate number of those teaching in our schools without QTS are from BME backgrounds or enjoy other protected characteristics under equalities legislation, can you tell me if your plans are compliant with the Equalities Act?
One of the notable effects of New York’s decision to ‘relax’ requirements for teacher certification in the late 80s and 90s was that teachers from BME backgrounds and of other protected characteristics became (a) less likely to have certification than their peers, and (b) concentrated in schools with the most vulnerable populations. Every teacher, reagrdless of background, should be given equal treatment with regard to certification: including access to getting it and being required to have it. To suggest that it’s okay for some people not to have a qualification simply because of their background is akin to saying that it is okay for some students not to get great GCSE results simply because they are BME or in another vulnerable group.  For this reason I believe our policy will not only minimally meet the requirements of the Equalities Act (as I am sure could be demonstrated in an impact report) but that we will actually be implementing a policy that meets the full spirit of the act by ensuring equality among all teachers regardless of their backgrounds.
Free schools
Secondly, I and many other anxious parents would be grateful if you could clear up the confusion surrounding your free schools policy.
 What is the difference between a free school and your proposal for a ‘parent-led academy’ or ‘teacher-led academy’?
This sort of phrasing is commonly used in the US Charter School system; a system often referred to by you in policy documents. In the US a distinction is drawn between “charter management schools” and “mom and pop schools”. The difference is decided based on the characteristics of the group who put in the proposal, and who are considered the “founder” members. Approximately 1/3 of the most recent list of granted Free Schools were proposed by academy chains, and not parent groups. These labels could help to distinguish between the founder types and ensure parents are more informed about who is designing their local schools.
You say such schools – ie new free schools – would only be set up in areas where there is a shortage of school places. Your colleague Lord Adonis said they should be set up where there is a shortage of ‘good quality’ school places. Who is correct?
The policy as announced today is where there are fewer school places than children who need them.
What is your definition of a shortage of places?
Where there are more children in an area than there are school places available within a reasonable distance.
What is your definition of a shortage of ‘good quality’ places?
I did not give a definition of good quality places. I believe those were Lord Adonis’ words.
 Without such a definition how will you ensure that any decision you take over the opening of some free schools, and not others, on the basis of a claimed shortage of places is not judicially reviewed?
This question is now irrelevant.
 How can you ensure such a decision on your part was not judged unreasonable by any judge on the Wednesbury principle, leading to the overturning of your decision and considerable cost to taxpayers?
We would be reasonable in our decisions.
What would you define as the area in which there has to be a shortage of places before a free school can be set up? A borough? A city? A given travelling distance? In both urban and rural areas?
There are many different ways this may work, and it could be appropriate to have different criteria in different types of areas, potentially based on population density. Given a current move toward regional Ofsted structures, they may be involved in advising on these requirements, as might other bodies. Indeed, with so much change in the governance structures of education  there is no way to make a concrete administrative decisions on who (and how) this decision will be made at present.  Once in power, and knowing what resources are available, then the details can be hammered out. If we can make that decision in fewer attempts than you have had at announcing GCSE changes (I believe the count is now four), then I will be happy.
 If a school within the area you define has not met its admissions quota, but is ranked inadequate by Ofsted, does that mean you would force parents to send their children to a failing school rather than let a great new school be established?
If a school were currently ranked as inadequate by Ofsted it would already be required become an academy, or have a new sponsor. This would, under your reasoning, already mean it will change into a great school. Hence no new school (great or otherwise) needs to be established. Unless you are saying that academisation does not really lead to improvement?
How would you prevent existing under-performing schools simply increasing their admissions quotas – thus ‘ending’ any shortage of places – and so preventing any great new school being established?
As described above, under-performing schools are already being converted into great new ones. Given that we envisage a greater scrutiny of admissions via the local authority, it is also possible that school place expansion could be limited if  a school receives a low Ofsted grade – though, at this stage, we cannot say what position LAs will be in by 2015 given the number of cuts and changes.
And there we go. Questions answered. Not so difficult or dramatic as you might have thought, though we – of course – still have more to do to ensure these policies can be best implemented to ensure a great education for all families across the country. Once you have sorted the legal holes in your own policies and finally started answering the questions we (and the public) are putting to you, then I’ll be happy to discuss even more.

Why Sex Education Matters to "Nervous" Young People

With schools taking a vacation from the National Curriculum and a renewed focus on traditional ‘academic’ subjects, many schools have already laughed subjects like Sex Education off their teaching roster. “Teaching about condoms?” they say, “Ha! How quaint. These days we teach about real things like romantic poetry and royal history”.

Except, however quaint it might seem, sex matters to young people and positive role models are depressingly rare.

Blogger @redorgreenpen yesterday tweeted an article about the game “Nervous” where girls are encouraged to let boys trail fingers under their skirts until the girl flinches – thus revealing her “nervous” point. The game is not new. It was known by this name among my own school friends, though as a tomboy I heard more of the boys’ side than the girls, and frankly many of them disliked being pressured into doing it too (after all, the presumption was that they had no “nervous” point – a fairly awful situation also). Hence, this is a human rather than “feminist” issue. What we saw as a game, however, was subtly affirming implicit messages about power, consent, and of “going further” as being equal to “winning”, and there was simply no room for conversation about any unease we felt nor any clear way of getting out of it unless you had the fortune of having boyfriend which meant you were ‘off-the-table’, so to speak. It is only now that I flinch about the message that portrays of girls as property – at the time I doubt I’d have thought anything of it.

Worries about messages like these meant one of the first articles I ever wrote for LKMCo was about the topic of sex education. It was about an in-depth year 11 programme covering a wide range of topics with the skilled help of external professionals long since bonfired in Coalition cuts. Much of what I taught the students were questions new even to me: What exactly is the HPV Vaccine? Why is it needed? Where can you touch on another person’s body without asking? (there is somewhere!) What is the difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment? Can you text your friend a pornographic picture?  Important questions that all too often get ignored.

The biggest concern arising from that programme was the lack of confidence young people had about their ability to take charge of their sexual activities. A girl once asked: “Why are you telling us this? The boys will do what they want to us anyway”. The idea that anyone could ever be unhappy about sex was also never mentioned. If anything we were supposed to talk about sex as if it were perfunctory, inevitable, and that you would neither be happy or nor unhappy about. It was as if it would just happen.

That led me to write at the time:

Do students need to know more than the ‘basic facts’?  After all, what skills does a sexually well-educated person need?  By 15 all students are aware of what sex is, so what else am I trying to teach them?

At the beginning of the 12-weeks I share intentions for the programme.  Firstly, given that students will – at some point – have sex, there are several risks they need to think about so they can plan to avoid them.  Secondly, they need to find a language to talk about sex so that if things go wrong they know where to get support and how to talk about it.  In my mind it is vital that young people understand there are boundaries in sex and that if broken you can find the right sort of help.  In each of the years I taught this programme at least one student has later revealed how they came to be in a situation where they were forced into sex.  Yet many hadn’t realised this was unacceptable, or that they could do anything about it.  

All people should also know where they can access contraception, medical clinics and legal protection – this programme aims to begin that path.  But just knowing things does not equate to being able to do them.  So, we focus on two practical skills.  Firstly, making decisions about and using contraception or abstinence. Secondly, we focus on obtaining and evaluating information – e.g. making a clinic visit or balancing online information.

Even after several years of thinking this through, the answers weren’t complete but we were starting to get it right. Since then, with the refocus of the curriculum, much of this hard work (not just in our school, but many) has been washed away. This is a potentially disasterous step back. If we never teach it, or if all we do is worry about the facts, and never build the skills of confidence, then students will instead continue developing them through games like “Nervous” which only reinforce destructive ideas of passivity or force.

We can do better than that. And we must.

On Not Ignoring Ofsted

This month my column in the Guardian Education looks at Ofsted and the problem of being a teacher trying to meet  standards when they seem to be constantly shifting. Writing about Ofsted when you’ve never been a headteacher is a little tricky, as I didn”t want to downplay the nightmares leaders say they go through, but the intention was explaining the classroom teacher experience. Hopefully I achieved that.
However, one line caused some consternation:

Ignoring Ofsted is not an option, and neither should it be.

Some people got upset at me saying this because they think teachers should ignore Ofsted and focus on the students. That’s fair comment, if you think I’m saying teachers should only think about Ofsted, but that was not my original intention. Actually, the original sentence was longer but because the piece goes in the physical paper I am constrained by a word limit so the line was eventually trimmed which maybe meant I sounded more curt than planned. Before cutting, the full sentence read as:

Ignoring Ofsted is not an option, and neither should it be. When you are a pupil stuck in an awful school you would rather have an imperfect system for externally checking teaching quality than not have one at all.

Having studied at a school on the decline we prayed Ofsted would come and see its real light, and I’m grateful that they did. Floating on without inspection is not good for pupils who need someone to see the mess a place is in and stick up for them. This is particularly true in communities where parents are unaware of what should be offered by the school and who don’t have the skills to advocate for better. That’s why I believe ignoring Ofsted is not an option. But I also believe that the scrutiny of teachers that Ofsted undertake must clear, shared widely in advance and contribute to professionalism rather than anxiety. As yet, there is too much of the latter over the former, and with just a little effort it could be sorted. This is not a terminal case.
[NB: I was very grateful to the people who did point this stuff out to me. The only way those columns will stay fresh is if people help me learn about their responses to them].

Debunking ConservativeHome on Unqualified Teachers

Spending time debunking guff written about unqualified teachers could be a full-time job, so I usually don’t bother. But this piece from Conservative Home on Twigg’s announcement today tested my limits. So here is my take on it:
What they said:
“As Harry Phibbs wrote yesterday, that isn’t the only inconsistency. While private schools are, in Labour’s eyes, at an unfair advantage, state schools are to be banned from copying their successful policies.
For example, independent schools regularly employ teachers who don’t have official qualifications – indeed, such teachers make up a large proportion of the staff in Britain’s most successful teaching establishments. That is why Gove has granted state schools the freedom to employ them, too.”
First off – who are Britain’s most successful teaching establishments? If you look at the ones mentioned by Gove, you’ll find they are state schools: Mossbourne, Perry Beeches, Elmhurst Primary. Secondly, even if we assume that “most successful” means the private schools who top league tables, there’s not a great deal of evidence (if any?) that says this is down to the quality of their teachers over and above the quality seen in state schools. If anything, the evidence tends to run in the opposite direction.
And yet Twigg denies the evidence. According to his speech, qualifications are the only indicator of good teaching – an assumption which, if true, would mean the nation’s private schools would be basket cases, not the bastions of privilege and elitism which Labour claim.
Twigg never said having a teaching qualification was the only indicator of good teaching; but it is a nationally-recognised minimum standard, and that is important. It is important because it ensures the person has been through all appropriate training, some of which is not just to do with teaching but issues such as health and safety (yawn away, but you’ll regret it when you find yourself in a school trip bus crash) or child protection (no yawning here I hope). Sure, some people drive for twenty years without a licence – and without an accident – but we still expect everyone to pass a test. Let’s not allow less than that for a profession dedicated to our children.
Bravely forging ahead despite the inconvenient obstacles thrown up by reality, he therefore commits that he would ban all state schools from employing teachers who don’t hold formal teaching qualifications – which would mean sacking up to 5000 of those currently changing kids’ lives for the better.
No. He said that schools would not be able to employ teachers who do not get a formal teaching qualification within a reasonable period of time (this is a common journo mistake, see more here). As long as all teachers are given adequate opportunity to get qualified and they are genuinely changing kids’ lives for the better, then no doubt they will pass.
This policy shows the fingerprints of the NUT, the union which loves to say “never”. Where Gove has demolished the dominance of their vested interests by allowing teachers to be employed based on ability rather than paperwork, Twigg seeks to restore protections for NUT approved employees – at the cost of the quality of education on offer to children.
“Teachers to be employed based on ability rather than paperwork” – This is a rum statement. One: teachers teach kids to pass stuff. If the teacher can’t pass QTS, how good can they be at helping other people pass things? Two: If you do have the ability you will pass; if you don’t have the ability, you won’t. And, three: If you’re no good at paperwork you will suck at being a teacher who has to deal with exam entry forms, trip permissions, assessment recording, etc.
That the general public often forget teaching is more multi-faceted profession than pontificating at the front of a classroom is annoying, but understandable. That such ignorance pervades in the words of people wanting to represent a political party is not.

Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?

Just read the marvellous 2011 essay from Mark Edmundson “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?” about the purpose of education, especially a degree. There are many wonderful parts, in particular this on why we should read a variety of writers:

The reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated, or more articulate, or to be someone who, at a cocktail party, is never embarrassed (or who can embarrass others). The best reason to read them is to see if they may know you better than you know yourself. You may find your own suppressed and rejected thoughts flowing back to you with an “alienated majesty.” Reading the great writers, you may have the experience that Longinus associated with the sublime: you feel that you have actually created the text yourself. For somehow your predecessors are more than yourself.

Note that Freud is in that list. Books that lift your heart might not always be the fiction ones. They might not always be the most “classic”, what matters is that they lift you up. It’s so easy to become bogged down in the idea that reading should be for other people – to impress or blend with them – but reading is really about much more than that.
Edmundson also reflects how to be a great learner:

You’ll be the one who pesters his teachers. You’ll ask your history teacher about whether there is a design to our history, whether we’re progressing or declining, or whether, in the words of a fine recent play, The History Boys, history’s “just one f***ing thing after another.” You’ll be the one who challenges your biology teacher about the intellectual conflict between evolution and creationist thinking. You’ll not only question the statistics teacher about what numbers can explain but what they can’t.

And he explains why his father got mad when teenaged-Edmundson said he would likely study law for his degree because  lawyers “make pretty good money, right?”:

My father detonated. (That was not uncommon. My father detonated a lot.) He told me that I was going to go to college only once, and that while I was there I had better study what I wanted. He said that when rich kids went to school, they majored in subjects that interested them, and that my younger brother Philip and I were as good as any rich kids. (We were rich kids minus the money.) Wasn’t I interested in literature? I confessed that I was. Then I had better study literature, unless I had inside information to the effect that reincarnation wasn’t just hype, and I’d be able to attend college thirty or forty times.

There is so much more wisdom in this piece, but I’ll leave it for you to explore and figure out which are the bits that speak back to you the things you’ve always thought but have never been able to say.