A Year in Review – The #Nurture 14/15 Challenge

This year’s #nurture1415  blog challenge involves listing 5 highlights of the year and 5 hopes for the next.
Right, well… here goes.

The Highlights

FOI selfie with Helen Lewis (my official 'court friend'). It was the end of the day. And we did ask before we took it.
FOI selfie with Helen Lewis (my official ‘court friend’). It was the end of the day. And we did ask before we took it.

1. Being opposed in court by the Department for Education
That sounds weird, I know. It didn’t feel particularly good either. But the farcical situation of defending my simple ask that the DfE publish information about free school applicants and decisions, was one of the best learning curves of my life.
I spent months reading and writing court documents, and becoming conversant in Freedom of Information law. There were endless sleepless nights worrying about it all. Family and friends were bored to tears with me going on about it (and did an amazing job of turning up to support me on the day).
Lots of things about the day were awful. And I didn’t even win. (Well, I half did. Read why here). But I walked away a thousand times more knowledgeable about the legal system and I now get emails from people all over the place, trying to use the Freedom of Information act to access files the public has an absolute right to see – and it is wonderful being able to help them.
The tribunal also introduced “The Yellow Jacket” that I wore, on the day, as a symbol of shining light on the truth. It has since become a bit of a motif for me, and has the neat advantage of helping people find me easily at events. There’s now a hunt on for more – so if you ever see a nice yellow jacket in a tiny size – do please tweet me. I will likely run and get it if I can.
2. Launching Academies Week
I never thought I’d be a journalist. Frankly, I still struggle with the idea. But becoming Deputy Editor of education newspaper Academies Week, and steering it through the initial launch has been like a dream. It’s a bit like being a blogger, but with other people, who are all interested in the same things as you – and you get paid for it.
I’m so proud of the stories the team have produced. Our first investigation revealed that Trinity Free school in London had only 17 pupils. This fact is now dropped casually into news stories all the time. But it wasn’t easy to find out. The lack of transparency on frees is so bad that we literally had to send a reporter to count the pupils as they went into the gates. That’s ludicrous, but having the ability to do it, and write about it, means we now have this information – and I think that’s vital. It’s what gets me up in the morning.
Going into this second term, I want us to become better at deeper reporting, doing more investigations, and being a place for full and frank debate. So do keep telling us what you are finding interesting; what you are reading and what you aren’t. It’s a paper for the whole school sector, whether that’s teachers, governors, school business managers, teaching assistants – whoever! – and we want to write what people want to read.
I am also constantly thankful for the people around me who have helped me start in something I don’t have any real clue how to do. Reporters from other papers have helped me find press rooms, been kind enough at events where I blatantly looked out of my depth to come and shake hands and ask how things are going, and make me feel welcome in a world that I know – but also, don’t. Also, and this will sound really weird given my first point, that goes for many DfE staff too. It’s a tough job being a civil servant, with few outlets for letting off steam and no easy way to defend yourselves. I get that, and I appreciate the kindnesses that many have shown.
3. Seeing my former students starting their own lives
In July I attended the christening of a child born to two of my former students. One had a particularly harrowing time as a teenager, but is now at university and is raising the most wonderfully cared for little boy. Sitting among her friends (mostly from my one-time form group), it was an honour to see these young people making their way in the world, helping each other, flourishing in jobs, and some even becoming teachers themselves.
As the old adage goes, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you lived – this is to have succeeded”. I don’t know about them breathing easier simply because I lived. It was bloody hard work with that group sometime. But to know that they have got where they are, in some way, because of our collective hard work does make you feel uniquely alive.
4. Attending an Education Select Committee
Hard at work.

For the past two and a half years I have live-tweeted education select committees. It’s a niche interest, I know, but it has a surprisingly cult-like following, and I started it when I finished teaching because it used to get on my nerves when I was teaching that I could never watch the darn things – and I wanted to be able to read a quick summary (like this one) at the end of the day just to catch me up.
During my two years in the US on scholarship I got up, each week, at 3.30am to live-tweet them. (Missouri time is six hours behind London). Back in the UK, in September, I was able to go along to my very first one – in person! – and be in the same room as my MP committee heroes, such as Graham Stuart, Ian Mearns and Pat Glass. It was quite surreal, but also wonderful.
5. Being asked to write a 2,000 word piece for the Guardian
I blame a few people for me having the confidence to become a writer, but maybe no one more so than Alice Woolley, the Guardian Education editor – who is incredible. Seriously, I am in awe of her most of the time. Not because she gave me the chance to write (although I will thank her for the end of time for that) but because she has been so relentlessly supportive about it. (I’m not a natural writer; I am a natural worrier – she deals with both gracefully).
She also asked me, earlier this year, to write a full-length feature about US charter schools and their similarity to free schools. 2,000 words, she wanted, and a photographer to go with me to get shots of a St Louis school. I was besides myself. Both in a good way, and a bad one.
I went into panic mode. I didn’t know how to interview politicians. What are the rules? Can I record it? WHY DON’T I KNOW SHORTHAND? Also, how the hell do you fill 2,000 words in an actual newspaper? Can you use headings? Must it be funny? How many points can you realistically make without boring the reading, but also not-boring the reader?
These were all things I didn’t know. And yet, she believed. And also, she was right. The piece got done, it read well, and it gave me confidence to believe that maybe I could do this writing shiz properly after all. (As long as I have amazing editorial advice, and a small army of friends to look over my drafts).
Bonus +1: The LKMCo Pirate event was amazing and I was so very sad to leave LKMCo this year. That’s why it’s not a ‘highlight’ but I wanted to recognise that working with them has been an honour and they don’t get to escape too easily as Eleanor, who wrote a column very quickly for us a few weeks ago, found out!
 

 So, what are the hopes for 2015?

1. Retain a link to blogging – and try to blog a bit about journalism  
One of the problems of become a ‘professional writer’ is that I’ve found blogging a bit odd. What’s the point of it? With teaching I could convince myself that other people might be going through the same thing, and that I might learn from their perspective (or they, from mine). What’s happening now is a bit more unusual – so it’s lost that purpose. However, I think openness about edu-journalism might still help. I used to hate journalists and was incredibly wary of talking to them. I didn’t really understand what they did – or why. It was only the cautious patience of edu-reporter heroes, such as Chris Cook, Richard Vaughan and Warwick Mansell – each of whom spoke with me when I was teaching, and gave me some insight into what they were doing – that I ever spoke to journalists at all. Without teachers speaking with reporters, though, their voices get missed completely. So if I can help break down the mystery a little, that’s worthwile.
Also, I don’t want to get too far away from the blogging community. It’s my stomping ground. It’s where I feel comfortable, and where I learn so much. When I finished teaching I kept writing monthly #blogsync challenges about teaching practice to keep my hand in. Over the past year I always wrote a blog about the experience of doing my Guardian column that month, and what I learned from the reaction. In 2015 I want to find a way to keep talking about what’s challenging, or funny, or interesting, in this new world I inhabit.
2. Read and comment on more blogs
This is vital for two reasons. One, I’m always looking for good stories to highlight in my Guardian column and the paper. But also because blogging is scary, and having people comment on your ideas is a good way of getting feedback and improving. Back in my early blogger days (pre-twitter) I had a rule when commenting that I would always try to find something to agree with a person about, and also ask one question. I want to get back to doing that – it was a good way of bringing out ideas.
3. Raise voices of groups that need to be heard
The last few years of education policy have focused on traditional subjects and ‘mid-to-brightish’ kids. Many other groups have been ignored. Special needs schools are regularly missed in conversations. So are the needs of young carers, children educated in hospitals or exclusion units, or those who have just arrived into the country. Many are getting a raw deal and in 2015 I want to talk about them more. If you have any ideas, do get in touch.
4. Get more subscribers and brand awareness for Academies Week

For Academies Week to survive we will need subscribers, and given that I’m enjoying myself, I want people to buy in. But the real reason for wanting people to get the paper is more schmaltzy than that. (Get your vom-bags ready). In school, I tried to make every lesson worthy of the time kids were giving to. At Academies Week, we do the same with content. Each week, when we create the paper, we try to pack it with stuff that, if you’ve read it, then you’ll have learned something, and you’ll be able to discuss education more knowledgeably, and maybe even do your job better, because of it. That’s why I want people to read it. A maximally informed world is my nirvana – this is our step towards making it happen.
(If you fancy taking a look at Academies Week – here’s a pdf of edition 11).
5. Upper Tier Tribunal at the end of January
I haven’t written about this anywhere so far, but I’ve been granted an appeal for my free school FOI tribunal, and will be going to court again at the end of January. The parameters of the case are quite technical and more to do with the law than schools, so it’s not something I plan to write lots about until we get the judgement and I know if there are any actual implications for the education community. My hope is that it will undo some of the problems of the judgement last year and will hurry in a sorely needed era of transparency around free schools. When the public give you their kids and their taxes, the least you can give them is honesty in return.
Obviously I also hope to eat well, exercise often, sleep ten hours a night and have lots of holidays with family and friends. But I already do all those things already. Right?
Happy 2015 all. Let’s hope it’s a good one.
 
 

My 5 Top Blogposts of the year (and the 5 I *wish* had been better read)

A single rule plagues the land of blogging:

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 every year I write a list of things that other people liked, and a list of things I liked.
Here’s this year’s:
My Top 5 Most Popular Blogs of 2014
1. What do you notice about this free school monitoring visit?
2. Less than one week to my DfE FOI tribunal
3. Women! Share your numbers! (aka ‘The surprising reason why I offer less work to women’)
4. Should we be placing unqualified teachers in inadequate schools?
5. The Jonah Complex: Why we are afraid of being brilliant
 
My Top 5 Posts I *Wish* Were Most Popular
1. A tale for when you are missing out on an event
2. The Berlin Wall Manifesto: For politicians serious about private schools
3. Kentucky Fried Schools: Are academies a ‘trade secret’?
4. Students should be able to freely access their exam papers – end of argument!
5. What I learned about teaching at the Wellington Education Festival
 
Finally, here’s my list of favourite things I wrote elsewhere in 2014:
1. Trojan Horse: Why are some extremists more acceptable than others? – The Guardian
2. Tim Brighouse profile interview – Academies Week
3. Are teachers who dislike group work doing it wrong? – Edapt
4. The Godless delusion – TES
5. What should we do about the Berlin Wall? Follow the Indian model – The New Statesman
 
Here’s to more in 2015. If you have thoughts of things I should be covering, please do drop me a line (laura@academiesweek.co.uk).

Think Like An Education Secretary: Gove and Morgan's 2014 Reading List

Another Christmas Eve, another Education Secretary’s Reading List. Over the first months of the year I kept my usual notes of what Gove might be reading. And then he left us! Nightmare.
Nevertheless, do not fear, the reading list has been revised to account for Ms Morgan, our latest edu-leader. She hasn’t mentioned books all that much in her time in office. She’s been too busy talking about science and maths, but I’ve done my best to glean possible reads from her quiet determination not to say too much about anything.
So, here goes. My guesses for Gove and Morgan’s 2014 Top Reads:
 

1. Toby Young – How to Lose Friends & Alienate People

Back in 2010, Young was all over Gove like a snake on eggs. But this year, the tables appear to have turned and it seems Gove has been reading Young. The biggest tell was when, in a Newsnight interview, Gove said that outstanding teachers overwhelmingly supported his policies, but suggested that the bad ones didn’t. Within a week, he was removed from post. We can’t be certain the events are linked, but it offended many teachers, and going into a general election having upset about half a million people is not typically a good strategy for winning it.

 

2. Yong Zhao – Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China has the best (and worst) education system in the world

Watch Parliament with any regularity and you’ll come to believe that schools only teach three subjects: English, Maths and science. This past year, even English dropped from view. You’d also be forgiven for thinking there’s only one country in the world teaching its children anything, and that’s China. Hence, then-schools minister Liz Truss spent the first half of this year banging on about maths and china, sending people to look at maths in china, worrying about maths and china, and praising the implementation of Singapore Maths in schools. (Yes, I know Singapore isn’t China, but shhh…don’t ruin the political narrative about the mystical East). Shuffled off to Environment, Food and Rural affairs it was comforting to see Truss on the stage moaning about Chinese food imports, and arranging another trip.
 

3. Michael Dobbs – The House of Cards

The fiction book on which the UK and US dramas of the same name are based, tells the sordid tale of a government Chief Whip ruthlessly taking down people’s careers whilst in pursuit of power. If it doesn’t describe Michael Gove, (I’m keeping quiet on this point), it might at least explain why he was suddenly removed and replaced by a person unknown to the public with a brief to calm everyone down.
 

4. Joseph Siracusa – Diplomacy: A Very Short Introduction

No one ever congratulates a captain for going around a storm, but Morgan has clearly been told to be a steady hand and unless she’s hidden a penchant for rule-breaking thus far, it doesn’t look like she’s about to break rank any time soon. Her ship will be sticking to calm waters. Blair-esque in manner, she has shown a talent for speaking knowledgeably, for listening just enough, and for sticking to her guns and getting what she wants. No doubt these skills were honed during her time in legal practice, but I’ve a sneaky suspicion she’s been genning up on the finer points of political diplomacy also.
 

5. Carol Dweck – Mindset

Dweck’s idea is simple: children can self-limit their potential if they don’t believe their talents can grow. It’s not a particularly new to most in education. Yet, for some reason, in 2014, Mindset is the new AfL. And Nicky Morgan looks set to continue that trend with her relentless chat about resilience and character development. Look out for INSET training, handbooks and resources pack on offer throughout 2015. But grab them quickly. I predict the backlash will begin before we get to 2016.
 

6. Graham Allcot – How to be a productivity ninja

One of Morgan’s first moves was to ask teachers for their ideas on reducing workload. Suggestions poured in and by the end of November the Department for Education had 44,000* responses to plough through. These have now been speedily analysed and recommendations are due before the end of January. That turnaround time is even more impressive when one remembers that this year the DfE spent thousands on a tribunal to stop the release of information about free schools on the grounds that having civil servants plough through the paperwork it would produce was “too burdensome”. One can only presume they’ve since picked up some tips from Allco’s book, and that we can expect those free school apps imminently, right?
 
7. Nick Davies – Hack Attack: How the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch 
Gove worked for the Times. He had meetings with Murdoch while in office. I’m willing to bet he read it after scouring the index for his name. (It’s there p.362-3).
 
Right, that brings us to a close for another year. It has been emotional, folks, and I suspect it is only going to get worse. Election year is upon us. Hold on to your seats.
And in the meantime, have a great Christmas.
 
*It’s actually ~20,000 once you take out all the people who didn’t answer anything, but THE NARRATIVE, people, Stop Ruining The Narrative.

What I Learned From Good Will Hunting

1. Why “knowing stuff” does not make you the smartest person in the room


2. How being academically smart, even when your friends are not, is a really useful thing

3. Why you don’t owe an education to yourself, but to everyone else