The HeartWarming Tale of Jacob the Goldfish

Not Jacob. But an approximation.

There’s a story I occasionally tell about teaching that raises people’s spirits. It’s the story of Jacob the Goldfish. So as it’s New Year’s Eve, I thought I might share.
I actually mentioned Jacob right back in 2010 when I first got Twitter and appear to have thought it was Facebook:

The Happy Birthday thing? No idea. But the classroom fish? I can tell you that story.
First of all, he wasn’t actually mine. In a blog earlier this year @betsysalt asked a bunch of questions of teachers. One was, How do you make sure the carers in your class get support to do their homework when you know they don’t have time to complete it at home as they are looking after someone they love?”  My answer? Get a fish.
Okay, it’s not the only answer, but students who are also carers often become habitual about subsuming their own needs under those of their family. Usually they desperately want to do their homework or be on time, but if I was 17 and faced with two parents struggling in cancer battles and asking me to be with them for their treatment sessions, I’m pretty certain my A-Level classes would have paled into insignificance. Likewise, if I was in Year 10 and if cooking dinner, rather than having my mum’s stressed body, fading fast to the perils of motor neurone disease, undergo the strain then I’d likely have been right there peeling spuds and worrying about my maths homework later.
While the self-sacrifice is understandable, it is nevertheless problematic. While many children get precious little time with their parents, they also get only limited amounts of free education and the pathways back to qualification are (sadly) growing more limited year by year.
So, as a teacher, we desperately want students to choose learning, and put themselves first on occasion. But doing that sometimes means finding a way to make your classroom matter as much as the responsibilities at home. And to do that – in one very specific instance – was where Jacob the fish came in.
Children have a remarkable capacity to care for living things. I discovered this when growing sunflowers with my first form. Habitually tardy kids would come in early to feed, water and rotate their plant. They quickly learn that if they don’t look after it, the plants get wilty and die.  The effects of their care is often the first time students realise how their actions have consequences for living things.
Young carers, however, know this too well. One particular sixthformer I taught, let’s call her Lily, had two ill parents and a younger brother to look after. She was bright, and curious, and desperately wanted to go to university. But she was torn in a hundred different directions and I knew that appealing to Lily’s own needs wouldn’t work. She didn’t operate like that. Her wants had been buried a long time ago. But her capacity to care for others was also her strength, and I figured we could use it.
In a long discussion about the need to improve her attendance, she mentioned that she liked fish, so we batted around the idea of getting her one. If there was something she had to look after, at school, I asked – would it make it more likely that she could excuse herself to get in to our classroom? She reckoned it would be worth a try. I promised not to feed the fish, and instead she would need to be in school early each day to get it done, this ensuring she would be in and on-time to lessons and could then use her free periods for homework.
Being honest, I thought the fish would die.
However Jacob, as she named the goldfish, did not die. Lily went and chose him. She bought a bowl. She sometimes bought new toys for his tank. She fed him, every day. She regularly changed his water (even though it was a rigmarole). And on Fridays Jacob would go home in his transportable carry case. On Mondays he would come back.
Lily’s routine improved. Something beyond herself gave her a reason to be at school. It didn’t work perfectly. There were infrequent bouts of absence in which she would send a message to a friend to sort the fish (I would allow this, though with a scowl, yet was always pleased to find that the next day she would turn up in a panic: “DID THEY COME AND FEED JACOB?”). In terms of getting her to school 95% of time and doing what she should be doing, though, it absolutely worked.
Beyond helping Lily, Jacob became a silent oracle to others too. They would sit and watch him, ask his advice, chat to him. Somtimes I would come in to my room after lunch time and find an anxious student sighing at his bowl. “Telling your problems to Jacob?” I would ask, and they would sheepishly nod and patter away. Even I lamented at his scaly self. At the end of a lesson I would look over helplessly, “That lesson sucked didn’t it, Jacob?” Jacob would look back blankly. We both knew the score.
At the end of the school year Lily took Jacob home for good, where he lived out his days in more peaceful surroundings than among the echoes of Room B2.
In September this year she started at university studying Classics. I nearly burst with pride when I found out. And I bet Jacob, in his glass-bottomed bowl in the sky, is looking down in silent happiness too.

My Top Posts of 2013. (And the ones I *wished* were top…)

One of the rules of blog writing is that the posts you most lovingly craft are rarely the ones that get most readers. Alan White first brought this to my attention after he wrote a nuanced book review about Nick Ross’ controversial crime book. While the newspapers were hamming up Ross’ phrase that ‘rape is not rape’, White carefully unpicked the true themes (Ross was not quite as daft as the papers made out). The careful nuance, however, meant hardly anyone read it thus causing me to christen a new law. White’s Law: The number of people who read your work is usually inverse to either (a) time spent on it, or (b) your level of pride about it.
So in this year’s “Top Post” round-up I am writing two lists. First, the five most read posts of the year. Then, the ones I wish had been read more this year. My White’s Law pieces, if you will. Enjoy!
Top 5 Most Popular Posts of the Year

  1. 5 Lessons From Derby: The Significance of Al-Madinah Free School
  2. The Top 5 Myths About TeachFirst
  3. I Won. DfE Must Release Free School Applications.
  4. How I Survived the First Year of Teaching
  5. A Further Word on Educational Inequality

The Posts I *wish* Had Been The Top 5 …

  1. My 3 Best Classroom Explanations
  2. Why learn?
  3. How Speed Dating on the Isle of Sheppey Might Save Education
  4. Why Teachers Leave
  5. My Mum’s Perspective on Card Sorts

Think Like An Education Secretary: Gove's 2013 Reading List

Michael Gove has been hiding lately. Could it be that he has run out of steam and is looking for another job? Or perhaps he is out back reading a few more books? This time last year he was busy telling the Spectator all about his desire that working-class children read 70+ books a year. In last week’s Education Select Committee, MPs were hard-pressed to get him to answer anything let alone reel out his new favourite classics.
All of which is me teeing up to say that writing this year’s Govian 2013 Reading List has been harder than last. But, never fear! I have mined the archives and I think I know what he’s been carrying around in his bag. Or, at least, pretending to.
Here are my guesses for Gove’s 2013 Top Reads:
1. Daisy Christodoulou – Seven Myths About Education
Mentioned about a million times by Gove in his speeches this year, Christodoulou’s remarkable kindle-only book soared to the top of the education charts as knowledge-buffs fawned over themselves and claimed her as the new Messiah. An in-depth and very well-written piece, Christodoulou’s book put paid to fluffy notions such as the idea that kids can “just Google it” and drew on the lessons of American educationalist, ED Hirsch, to argue for a more precise curriculum in England. As with any new saviour, not everyone was happy. In a post engaging with the content, Debra Kidd – one of the year’s new and most outspoken bloggers – outlined some of her disagreements. However, the book was well-received by some pretty big names, including Dough Lemov and Steven Pinker, and Gove has remained resolutely on the side of Team Daisy. One can expect to see t-shirts appearing next year.
2. Amanda Ripley – The Smartest Kids In The World…And How They Got That Way
Gove used to be big into foreigners. When first taking office, every other sentence involved Sweden, America or Finland. Quickly, the vocabulary shifted to Singapore and Hong Kong (once people pointed out that Finland & America don’t really do exams or accountability). Those earlier countries have now been dumped as this year’s PISA results saw them tumble in the league. The new thing now is bellowing about Estonia, and Poland, AND PLACES THAT LIKES MATH. To keep abreast of this I wonder if Gove has been dipping into Ripley’s latest where, in part-travel writing, part-edu writing, style she takes the reader round these top nations and asks “how did their kids get that smart?” Spoiler: It doesn’t involve academies.

3. Ben Goldacre – Bad Pharma
Ah, The Blob. In March, Gove wrote a bizarre newspaper article calling everyone in educational research “blobby”. Marxist and feminists were particularly derided, and in their place Gove asked that RCTers rise up. (RCTers being those who evangelise about”randomised control trials” –  a way of testing educational ideas similar to the way they are tested in medicine, by randomly metering activities out to kids and measuring who learns most). Gove was led to the idea by Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Pharma”. We know this because Gove said so, and he then asked Goldacre to write a paper explaining how RCTs might work in education (despite Goldacre’s total naivety about schools, and teaching). Reaction was fierce. Some loved the idea. (To be fair, it was a well-written report). Others were more sceptical. But either way it gave Gove great headlines and enabled him to use the phrase “enemies of promise” at least 53 more times. Happy days for him.
4. Doug Lemov – Teach Like A Champion
If our Secretary of State hasn’t read this yet, he ought to. Lemov spent years observing the best teachers and documenting their micro-techniques. Simple things: the phrasing of instructions, the use of hand gestures, how best to give out worksheets. Compared to discussions of academy conversion and teacher pension reform these may seem unimportant, but they’re actually vital to learning. Also, though few have cottoned on to this, Lemov’s book really matters for Gove’s policy of shifting teacher training from universities and into the classroom. To do that, you need to have techniques available that teachers can use for behaviour, for questioning, etc without having to go through a bunch of theory first. Enter Lemov. If you believe that by following his manual you can become a good teacher (my own thoughts on this have changed) then Gove’s policy makes more sense. Do people believe it? Hmmm…
5. Roger Hargreaves – My Complete Collection of Mr Men
Gove loves Mr Men. Honest he does.
And a few books that Gove probably didn’t read this year (buts lots of others raved about)
John Hattie – Visible Learning For Teachers
Hattie’s first book on learning was one of the most quoted in recent years. Having synthesised thousands of pieces of research about teaching techniques, Hattie reduced “what works in learning” to a few digits. Homework? 0.43 – not that useful. Team teaching? 0.06 – don’t bother. Giving quality feedback? 1.13 – DO THIS! But what the original book didn’t say was how to do these things. Cue “Visible Learning for Teachers” which outlines the most effective forms of planning, teaching and assessing. Will Gove care? Probably not, after all, it’s about actual teaching (not his forte), but should the rest of us read it? Absolutely.
Mick Waters – Thinking Allowed
I’m going to admit straight up that I didn’t read this book. (Gasp! Horror! THROW THINGS AT HER!). But everyone keeps telling me I should. Waters is the former head of the Qualifications & Curriculum Authority and led the 2007 Curriculum Reforms. These are the same reforms which Daisy aggressively attacks in her 7 myths book. I’m agnostic. To me, it’s likely the 2007 curriculum wasn’t perfect, but it also wasn’t a disaster. [Really, I taught from it, it was meh]. The reason I avoided this book initially is that I didn’t want it to be the sort of book that spends all its time defending past policy decisions. Whatever else they are, they’re gone. However, I hear that I am wrong.  Not only did the book sell ridiculously well but apparently it is about the future, and lots of new policy ideas. In particular Waters recommends a National Council of Schooling to run the curriculum independent of political parties. (An idea I have some sympathy with). So, it’s a book I should probably read, and arguably so should you.
Ron Berger – An Ethic of Excellence
Finally, in Gove’s last Education Select Committee appearance of the year he repeatedly used the word “excellence”. His team is excellent. The questions asked were excellent. He wanted excellence on toast. But what, exactly, does excellent mean? That’s the question this book gets into, and when it is mentioned by two of your favourite bloggers you know it must be good. Also, it has a cool title. Harry Fletcher-Wood used it to plan ways that his students might improve their writing. Tom Sherringto,n (headguruteacher),  showed how Berger’s idea of students repeating work makes it so much better. Gove has spent several years now tinkering at his policies. He thinks they are excellent. But have they really been crafted as thoughtfully as he reckons? It is worth reading Berger to find out.

MASSIVE YAWN: DfE Have Appealed My Free School FOI Judgement

To those not up to speed:

  1. Last year I put in a Freedom of Information request to the Dfe for Free School Application Forms & acceptance/rejection letters.
  2. The DfE turned down my request, twice.
  3. After an 11-month consideration the Information Commissioner’s Office said, under the rules of the law, the DfE had to release the information.
  4. This morning I found out the DfE have appealed and are taking the judgement to First Tier Tribunal.

This means:

  1. The involvement of lawyers (way to spend taxpayers money, DfE)
  2. An additional delay (probably of about 6-9 months)
  3. By the time I get the information it will be far out of date (*gasp*…could this be the reason for the delay?!)
  4. All similar requests in the intervening period will be rejected, AND CRUCIALLY
  5. The public still won’t have access to information for which the ICO ruled there is a “very strong public interest”

Still, if I have to carry on with this silliness for another year in order that the public can access information which, until 2010, was always open and which has been ruled as being vital for accountability, then that is what I’ll do.
DfE, I’ll see you at Tribunal. Make sure to shine your shoes.

Why Can't We Have Local Hearings For Free Schools?

Zoe Williams has written a piece for the Guardian about the current Free Schools debacle. Discovery Free School has been given notice it must close. Al-Madinah Free School is still in disarray. And though there is notable quiet about King’s Science Academy there appears to be movement in the background over it, and a few other schools, with regard to dodgy finances.
While I’m not so daft as to believe that if the government had been transparent about the whole policy from the outset no schools would have failed, I can’t help but think that secrecy has contributed to many of the problems. The continued lack of scrutiny around applications, what was promised, how new schools were decided upon and their pre-opening inspections meant that officials could get away with making decisions that were not in the best interests of the children who might end up in those schools. Did they make bad decisions? We still don’t know, because the information I have been requesting for over a year still hasn’t been released.
I discussed this with Zoe and she quoted me in her piece:

The key point, (Laura) says, is this: “There isn’t a process in which local people at the moment are easily able to make their voices heard. There is a requirement to do a consultation. And the only people who know what is written about that consultation are the people who write it and the DfE. So we have no way of checking if what happened in the room actually went to the DfE. We’re not saying local people should have a veto, I’m not saying they’re necessarily right. But we must be able to see the process of having their voices heard and, if you decide not to listen to them, the process of deciding not to listen to them.”

I stand by what I said. In the US almost every state holds local public meetings where people can put forward their arguments for, or against, a new charter school (equivalent to frees). Decisions must also be made publicly, with reasons given that explain why certain objections were – or were not – accepted. Even where decisions are not made publicly they are requestable via state Freedom of Information laws [and in a way which doesn’t require a year of faff].
At present the Department for Education seems to be going down a road of having 8 Regional Commissioners and some kind of quasi-elected-academy-only body of advisors in order to provide some kind of “local accountability”. Except, if these regional commissioners simply make the decisions in the same secretive way as the DfE then we’re not really getting anything more accountable, or anything more local.
Far simpler, I think, to keep the whole thing centralised but (a) make it transparent – publishing applications as they are received, (b) have local hearings, and (c)publish public decision notices with full explanations of reasons behind the decision. It happened in a similar way before 2010, why not now?

The 12 Most Critical Findings of the NAO Free School Report

The National Audit Office have published a report scrutinising the DfE’s Free School policy.
No doubt the government will trumpet the headline that most primary Free School places are in areas of high need (which is good), and talk lots about how much better the process now is (which it is), but buried in the report there are still some pretty concerning findings. Here are the key 12:
1. Only 19% of secondary places are in areas of high or severe need – 81% of the places are in areas which aren’t facing any severe shortage.
2. 42 schools have opened in areas with no forecasted place need – These schools cost £241 million. Which you might think was okay until you realise that….
3. No-one applied to open schools in half the areas with severe or high primary place shortages  – That £241 million might have been quite useful in providing schools there, no? Meanwhile there’s still no plan for what will happen in these locations.
4. Fifteen projects were cancelled or withdrawn at a cost of £700,000 – The £700k was “written off” by the DfE. But it’s in someone’s pocket somewhere…..
5. In 2012, only 16% of new Free Schools filled all their places – 16%. I can’t get past it. 16%. So this idea that free schools are well-loved and over-subscribed is quite the fib.
6. Even now, the average Free School recruits only 3/4 of its planned intake on first opening – Admittedly, this hides enormous variations. Some schools are over-subscribed, but approx. 40% of schools still had 1 in 5 places vacant during their second year. This is problematic (and expensive).
7. Average school premises have cost TWICE the original estimate – The average is £6.6 million per school. (I presume the early guess was £3.3m). Getting it wrong by that margin is quite impressive. Also, Free Schools are getting more expensive. Schools opened in 2013 were 1/3rd more expensive (capital cost wise) than ones opened in 2011.
8. The DfE doesn’t have a framework for assessing the impact of open Free Schools on other education establishments, or their value for money – Because *fingers in ears*….
9. 1 in 3 of schools planned to open in 2014 do not have a postcode for the proposed location – So when politicians say “free schools will be in areas serving the most vulnerable pupils” they’re basically bluffing. They can’t assess the deprivation of the local area if they don’t know where schools will eventually be. (The NAO therefore also couldn’t assess this either)
10. Converting 15 independent schools into Free Schools required the DfE to write-off £8m of existing debts and spend £15m on facilities and accommodation – Which is weird, because I thought the private sector was super efficient and able to deal with finances way better than the public sector.
11. 60% of Free Schools opened in temporary accommodation which cost a minimum £27m – Notice: temporary buildings. So that money is effectively burned. Would be interesting to know if these schools were in areas needing places quickly or if they could have waited (and saved themselves the enormous cost).
And finally,
12. Over 11% of the teaching staff in Free Schools were reported as unqualified, compared to just under 4% in all other state-funded schools – Make of that one what you will.
To ‘redress the balance’ of my negative tone, Jonathan Simons over at Policy Exchange has written 12 Positive Things About The NAO Report. It’s an interesting take, and useful for hearing both sides, but be cautious of his use of words like “good” and “cheaply”. Those do not appear in the report. (Which is why I didn’t use those sorts of evaluative words in my own list).

How speed-dating on the Isle of Sheppey might save education

In last week’s Education Select Committee, an issue was raised regarding the spread of highly effective teachers. Loic Menzies raise the point that teaching in London schools serving the most disadvantaged pupils is commonly rated as good or outstanding. Schools serving disadvantaged populations elsewhere in the country, however, have much lower rates of good or outstanding teaching.
Now, highly effective teachers might be a different thing to highly effective teaching. But I’m making a leap of faith and assuming most teachers who bring about good results will do so in any environment. Yet, if that’s true: why are there more highly effective teachers working in London than elsewhere?
A further twist to this puzzle was added at the committee by Graham Stuart MP. He noted that even with the extra cash tacked onto wages, London teachers are relatively poorer because of the high cost of living and the higher median gross income of professionals in the city. With this in mind it then seems extraordinary that London would is attracting “the best” teachers given that they could be economically better off elsewhere.
This would be extraordinary except that education has a “2-body” problem or as Becky Allen called it:

Most teachers are in relationships with a partner who is not a teacher. If that non-teacher partner works (which they are likely to do, especially when couples don’t have children) then there is a need for the couple to live somewhere offering good employment opportunities for the teacher and the non-teacher. Given that teachers also tend to be well-educated, and well-educated people tend to be in relationships with other well-educated people, it is likely that the non-teacher will want some kind of ‘professional’ or graduate-level employment. The likelihood of getting this sort of employment in many rural, coastal, and even some suburban, areas is quite low.
This is a common problem faced by new TeachFirsters sent to work in a small town. I know this because I lent my parents to a few of them. Though no schools in my hometown employ TeachFirsters, some schools in St.Helen’s do (St Helen’s is about 3 miles from our doorstep). Now, as much as I heart St. H (it’s my mum’s hometown) there aren’t many graduates who decide it is the ideal place from which to forge a professional career. Hence, when TF sends its handful of intrepid teachers into the area, those graduates often move there with no friends, no family and a boyfriend or girlfriend who may struggle to find a career in the area so decides not to come along for the ride and instead jets off to a big city. (Hence, I lend out my parents, for tea and sympathetic listening).
While most participants make a valiant effort to get through their two years, there is then the lurking issue of a long-distance relationship, or an itchy-footed partner, or the friends and families calling from elsewhere meaning that Year 3 almost always involves a move elsewhere. And remember, this is in St. Helen’s, which at least has Liverpool or Manchester within an hour’s reach. When the school is in Accrington, or Halifax, or the Isle of Sheppey, you’ve got an even bigger problem.
And before anyone starts to suggest that this is a TeachFirst specific problem, or thinks that I am saying only TeachFirsters are excellent teachers, that’s not at all my point (I’m just using TF as an illustrative example because it’s neat and it’s what I know best). First, this issue haunts all graduate pathways. People who leave smaller communities and go off to university tend not to return home to teach in their home towns. Bright students who go to Northern universities still have an annoying tendency to schlep South (sometimes stopping at Manchester or Birmingham, if we’re lucky). Secondly, while there are many fantastic teachers in ‘non-metropolitan’ communities, there simply aren’t enough of them. Because of this the suggestion is that teachers can be spread around like confetti. To my knowledge, TeachFirst is one of the only programmes that (somewhat randomly) assigns people all across the country so knowing why its participants rebound back to cities is useful before we replicate its approach.
So, what are the solutions to the uneven spread? Golden handshakes and handcuffs have been tried in the past, but cost tends to outweigh benefits. There are also limited benefits of helping people buy homes, or building professional associations, or promoting teachers in these areas quickly and supporting them into management. And the reason why these don’t work is clear: it doesn’t resolve the 2-body problem.
Which really only leaves the one solution proffered by @xtophercook on Twitter this evening:
Hmmmm…. any other ideas?!

Announcing: The 1st TouchPaper Problem Solving Party

Back in September, the ResearchEd conference hosted a vast range of speakers suggesting how research might be more effectively used in education. My own contribution was a presentation of 7 problems which, if answered, would help teachers understand important things about their job. (See the full talk here)
The list was called the “TouchPaper Problems” – a reference to the blue paper with which one lights fireworks. I created each problem because I felt it would give information useful in classrooms. They are difficult questions though. Each one will require several layers of theory-testing and consideration before they can be considered ‘solved’. This sort of public problem-solving approach in the past motivated mathematicians and engineers to solve some of the most fundamental problems in their sector. My theory is simple: we should do the same in education.
To move things forward the brilliant Becky Allen suggested it would be interesting to see if it  really is possible to answer these questions. She threw open a challenge: Why not get curious people together, provide some coffee and facilities, and over a few hours see if they can work together to start solving the problems?  It was a genius idea. And so….

You Are Invited to the 1st TouchPaper Problem Solving Day!

On Saturday 18th January 2014, between 11am and 4pm, Becky and I are inviting you to join a day of problem-solving at The Institute of Education in London.
There are 50 total spaces available, with the group split into 7 teams that will look closely at a specific TouchPaper Problem and use the session time to start pulling it apart, finding out what research is already available and considering next steps for solving the problem.
On the day the teams will be led by our amazing group of facilitators including Katharine Vincent, Michael Slavinsky, Helene Galdin-O’Shea, David Weston, Harry Fletcher-Wood and Kris Boulton. Together we have planned a way of ensuring that throughout the day the teams will begin breaking down the question and moving towards answer.

Why take part? Because it is education nerding at its finest!

We have no idea if the questions are possible to solve in one day or not. [Though It seems unlikely]. What we are excited about is seeing what happens when people who are really interested in finding answers to these questions start working together to achieve them. Hence, we can’t promise you will go away with a particular skill or  set of knowledge. But you will get a whole day of looking at a difficult education problem and learning lots of materials around it. There’s also the added prestige of being a person trying to answer some of the hardest problems we face in our profession.

Sounds fun? Here’s how you sign up….

The initial 50 places will be assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. To register complete this SurveyGizmo link.
Two notetable things:

  1. We have asked you to select the questions you are most interested to work on during the event. Please fill in so we can assign you to a group. We guarantee everyone in the first 50 will get a place on a preferred question.
  2. We have asked for some information about your background. This is just so we can balance groups. You don’t have to be a teacher (or have been one!) to take part.

Once the first 50 spaces are gone, we will close registration and assign groups. If there are still spaces in some groups we will then open an additional, more specific registration for the questions that still have spaces left.

We hope to see you there!

TouchPaper Problems