Think Like An Education Secretary 2016

In a tradition that now spans three education secretaries, it’s this year’s Education Secretary Christmas Reading List. (Gosh, aren’t we all getting old).
This year we have a new overlord, Justine Greening.
She’s actually really smart, and interesting, and seems ‘nice’, if that isn’t an offensive word to use about people these days. Almost everyone who has met her says this. Which is really good for the sector, but a bit rubbish for anyone trying to write a funny book list related to her foibles.
Still, because it’s Christmas, I did what I always do and used my professional judgment (best guesses) to discern (totes guesses) what Justine Greening has been reading this year.
And this is where the clues led….
1. The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving A F*ck – Sarah Knight
It takes a special sort of person to be the first comprehensively-educated education secretary and then, for your first policy, announce you are bringing back selective schools which is basically the evidence-equivalent of saying you don’t believe in climate change or that you are about to replace the NHS with homeopathy. One can only presume this is because J-Green read this best-seller by Knight which launched last New Year’s eve as a book for people whose only resolutions for 2016 were not having any resolutions. (As it turned out this was probably for the best, given most dreams for 2016 have been comprehensively defecated on all year).
The book is a dirge on the importance of not really giving a stuff about other people’s opinions. Greening has shown she can do this with panache, having sent out an email saying the government were defo going ahead with its mad grammar school plan less than 72 hours after it closed its consultation. Sad that you spent so long writing up your consultation response? Sorry! You should have spent more time life-changingly not giving a f*ck!
One of the greatest pieces of advice in this book is to “offer your regret” (for being a terrible person) “in a timely fashion” – which also made me think that former education secretary Michael Gove has been reading this book this year. Six YEARS after he cancelled a bunch of buildings for schools in desperate need of new shelter he finally ‘fessed up and said that he had made a hash of the thing and he regretted it. Well gee, thanks Michael. But, having read Knight’s book, I find it rather magical to say I don’t give a monkeys for your inadequately late regret. Cheers anyway, love! *thumbs up emoji*
 
2. The Myth of Meritocracy: Why Working Class Kids Still Get Working Class Jobs – James Bloodworth
Okay, okay. Greening is nice, so the barbs above were mean. (They were also true, but yes, a bit mean).
What Greening actually seems motivated by is working under the radar in order to make inching improvements in life conditions. She has announced six “opportunity areas” around the country where the government is going to put cash and elbow grease with the aim of improving the lot of poorer kids in the area. The approach is neat and gets to the heart of meritocracy chats which have come up all over the place this year but nowhere better than in James Bloodworth’s The Myth Of Meritocracy, which talks at length about the fact that people often work damn hard but their employment and wages are still often pitifully unstable. Bloodworth gives ideas for changing schooling (and the workplace) to help. Greening’s plan to trial these sorts of policies in areas of need, with eventual scaling if they work, is right out of Bloodworth’s leftist playbook even if the blues want to recapture social mobility as their right-wing baby.

 

3. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way – Katharine Birbalsingh and assorted cast members
Justine Greening will have had this book thrust at her by Nick Gibb whether she likes it or not. I know this because Nick Gibb needles me about how marvellous Michaela Community (Free) School is every time I see him and I don’t even have any actual power.
Our conversations tend to go like this:
Nick Gibb: Hello, Laura. That was a mean thing you wrote about me the other day. But, more importantly, have you been to Michaela School yet? I went recently and the children there eat with knives and forks and it is brilliant and you should go.
Me: I haven’t been. Also lots of children eat with knives and forks. But good for them.
Nick Gibb: Oh no, they don’t eat with knives and forks like the children at Michaela. There they eat so beautifully, altogether and in time, that it makes middle class people weep. Have you really not been?
Me: No.
Nick Gibb: Well you really should. Also, did I mention about how they learn facts?….
And so on…
Admittedly this is a little bit of a paraphrase (though not as much as you might think) but if you’ve never had the joy of running into Nick Gibb, or otherwise learning about Michaela, then you need to know it is a comprehensive secondary in north London with an obsession for structures and practices to aid learning and an evangelical zeal about sharing them. It’s a bit draconian in its implementation of policies for some tastes but there’s nothing fundamentally evil about what its staff are doing. Many practices are just old wine in new bottles and some of the new innovations are rather handy. The team have done a particularly good job of creating sexy new terminology that I expect Gibb will encourage Greening to drop into speeches next year to show how hip she is for having consumed this book. Keep an eye out for “knowledge organisers” as the new word for “schemes of work” and watch as “summer school” becomes “bootcamp” and anything now debunked gets replaced with “cognitive psychology”.
 
4. Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With The Language of Politics – Mark Thompson
Nicky Morgan (remember her?) was also guilty of this crime but Justine Greening has continued this year’s fad for having a single strapline and sticking to it: damn all context, truth, or even sense. While Morgs was always hamming up “educational excellence everywhere” we have had that replaced with Greening’s insistence on using two key phrases. One: “schools that work for everyone”. Which is hilarious, in part because the document it is based on only talks about bright children and doesn’t give two figs for children with special needs, but also because there’s scant evidence grammar schools work much for anyone at all. (There’s that magic of not giving a f*ck again!).
The other phrase Greening has clung to like a limpet in a tidal wave is the fact there are now 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools since 2010. Putting aside the fact this is largely down to a baby boom and immigration (shhh, don’t wake the Brexiteers), it’s also because the Ofsted frameworks changed and they are incomparable now anyway. Forsooth!
Still, as Mark Thompson’s rollicking read on the language of politics points out, “word work” can make or break politics. Hence the current trend is for hammering home a simple point – damn its truthfulness – and doing so in a way that is less about actual persuasion and more like an algorithm which works out just how often someone needs to hear a message before believing it. Saying schools are ace and grammars “work for everyone” enough times and it turns out people might just believe it’s true. Greening’s own soul might even start to believe it, eventually.
 
3 books Justine Greening probably didn’t read this year… but should
This is the bit where I pontificate about what books the education secretary probably should have read. [NB: Special advisors, this bit is for you. Just stick them in her bag. It’ll work a treat].
1. Don’t send him in tomorrow – Jarlath O’Brien
The parts of the school community dealing with children outside the mainstream – whether that’s special needs schools, pupil referral units, hospital schools, whatever – are commonly missed from political discourse. That’s stupid. Because it is one of the areas where there is the most good to be leveraged even just by talking about them more. Why education politicians fail to get this point is entirely beyond me. Even more crazy is that O’Brien’s brilliant book, which gives all the facts and figures to show why this sector matters, AND practical solutions for improving it, is a ready-made speech for a politician with the cojones to give it. Sod letting Edward Timpson read this and steal some future glory where he tries to tackle the alternative education system. Greening should be all over it as soon as the turkey is finished and scribbling down notes for her next big speech.
2. The regulation of standards in British life – Gillian Peele and David Hine
Should you ever wish to invoke raised eyebrows from the staff and visitors at an entire spa, I do suggest reading this gloriously titled book while lounging by the jacuzzi and shouting “oh good point” as you turn the pages. (What do you mean have I ever done this? Pfffsshh…. *noticeably doesn’t answer*).
Peele and Hine’s book looks incredibly dull and, let’s be honest, because it is written by academics and published by an academic publishing house, it’s overly long and a bit pretentious in parts. BUT, there are neat summaries at the end of each chapter and the actual content is glorious. Looking at the trend for regulation the points out what the consequences are for trust, accountability, public services, costs, etc. In a sector where we love a good regulator – come on now, who didn’t send a Christmas card to Ofqual? – this is a particularly apt read.
Academies are particularly affected by regulation as intrusion by Ofsted, the schools commissioners, and the education funding agency are the main ways ministers are trying to ensure academy freedoms are not used for piss-taking (also known as: paying yourself a second salary, or failing to teach science, etc, etc). But, as Peele and Hine point out, if this regulation is poorly done or, sometimes, overdone it can actually undermine policies. The education department are very very far from having perfected regulation of academies. This book won’t solve that. But Greening learning more about the latest thinking on this topic certainly wouldn’t hurt.
 

3.Passing Time In The Loo – Steven W Anderson
Finally, if I can give Greening a bit of advice for future speeches, it would be that she needs a bit of oomph. She’s not the greatest speaker, and that’s in comparison to woodentop Nicky Morgan (ouch), and because of that she’s coming across a bit… impersonal. Which is a shame because, as I said at the start, there’s a very likable and smart politician hiding inside her. If she doesn’t let it out, though, she’ll lose the broader sector and I fear a louder, more charismatic, possibly madder and certainly less competent politician will try and wrestle the education brief from her. So, my final recommendation for the year is that she gets herself a copy of the brilliant Passing Time In The Loo – which is a huge compendium of 2-page summaries of novels and classic texts, and pages and pages of funny quotes. A little humour and pop culture might just be the thing to elevate her speeches from being good in her head, to also being ones that people engage with.
I know, I know, it’s very uncool to say that you have to grab people’s interests these days with fluffy analogies and a wisecrack. But as any headteacher who takes assembly will tell you: the way you pass on the message really matters as to whether or not the kids take it home and tell their parents.

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Right, folks. That’s 2016 almost done. Go get a survivor’s t-shirt.
See you in 2017 to do it all over again.

A Love Letter To Miss Watson

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Miss Watson emailed me recently. Miss Watson!
She was my form tutor in year 9 and 10, and the only woman who taught me anything about how to break a wild class. She had poker straight hair, and huge glasses, and always wore a burnt orange jacket that she would only take off if it was 53 degrees and even then we still had to ask before we could take our blazer off.
I hated Miss Watson. And loved her. Because that’s how it is when you’re a teenager. The teachers who spend all their time moaning at you for your own good are often those you come to love most.
My typical crime at school was listening to my walkman. Miss Watson hated it and would steal my earphones if I refused to put it away.
Plus I was forever in the wrong queue. Miss Watson would make us line up outside her class on either side of the door. Boys on the left. Girls on the right. I would queue with the boys every time. If boys went in first, I would hang near the end, and she’d make me swap over when I got to the front. If the girls went in first it was a victory. I’d swan in last, with all the boys, to make my point. Miss Watson was smart enough to know this victory made me feel good. And I was dumb enough to believe I’d gotten away with something.
It was autumn 1996 when I first met her. Our form arrived in the stark blocky room of 9C. Unlike other form groups, whose letter reflected their tutors’ surname, we were exotically named after Miss Watson’s first name, Carole. Yup, with an ‘e’.
Our form group was not pleasant. We had decimated tutors over the year and become known as the ‘nasty’ form. Later, when I taught in London, I met the karmic reincarnation of our 9C selves in 9MO.  It was only then I realised how horrific we had been and felt terrible for every teacher we made flee from our classroom in tears.
Miss Watson was never going to cry. She basically told us as much when we arrived.
Her thick Wigan (Wig-uhn) accent clipply told us that she had heard how awful we were, and that we were going to stop it. Now.
She was about 4 feet 10 tall and blind as a bat. We were terrified anyway.
In one of our first form meetings she whipped out a record player and played ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to us. After the song she told us about how, at university, when the world felt a dark place, the  person she could rely on was Freddie Mercury. With the few pennies she had, she’d bought enormous headphones and spent days at university lying on her bed, listening to his voice. She hoped we all had Freddie Mercury’s who helped make our lives better. And she wanted to hear about them. Each of us was going to have to make a speech, just for a few minutes, over the next few weeks, about a thing we really liked.
We were flummoxed. And a bit outraged. What was this bullshit? We were used to swinging on chairs, and throwing things at each other, and boys pinging girls’ bras, and reading David Hughes’ copy of the Daily Star which he got from some builders on the train to school each morning. Reading speeches to each other sounded rubbish.
It was and it wasn’t. I don’t remember many of them, really. They probably weren’t very good. But I remember being amazed that we did it anyway. We actually listened. We didn’t shout, or throw things. We snoozed a bit. But we were placid. A definite break-through.
I don’t remember making my speech at all but I know it was about Terry Pratchett. A few weeks later Miss Watson gave me a page of the Sunday Times magazine featuring an interview with him. It was the kindest thing a teacher ever did for me. I’d never seen the Sunday Times. I didn’t know authors gave interviews. I kept marvelling at how she could have thought of me, on a Sunday, when she wasn’t at work. And I wondered what sort of human being does that? Who bothers to pull a page out of a newspaper, and put it in their bag, and carry it to work, and get it out at the right time and say “I saw this and thought of you”. I remember thinking, right then, that I wanted to be that sort of human being.
Years later, in my own classroom, I was forever doing the same thing. Giving pupils books that I thought they might like once I was finished. Passing them magazine articles; sharing music of bands they loved.
I still have the Terry Pratchett article, too. It’s in a small memory box I keep of the most important things from my teenage years. It’s a permanent homage to Carole-with-an-e.
*
More amazing, perhaps, than Miss Watson’s form tutoring was being in her French class. Here, she was Madame Watson. Not Miss. Never Miss. And never Laura, for me, but always Laure. In fact, she diligently called us all by our French names: James was Jean-Jacques, Clare became Severine, David … Daaarveeed.
I hated learning French. I still hate it. Languages are my Achilles heel. I don’t care for them, they make me uncomfortable, every time I utter a foreign phrase I feel like a hippopotamus trying to pirouette.
The amazing thing is that Miss Watson didn’t solve that. She just taught me anyway.  She taught me that a truly great teacher doesn’t make you love a subject. She just gets you an A* whether you liked it or not.
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Ten years after I started in that blocky form room, I had my own form and subject classes. My classroom emulated everything I had learned from Miss Watson. Clear instructions on the board, rigorous routines for starting the lesson, constantly asking questions, giving resources out, ending the lesson in a clear and consistent way. I stole her clippy matter-of-fact way of speaking, and the way she always did fun games at the end of lessons and vocab tests at the start. And I wore jackets. Lots of them.
I gradually came to see how she had got our form on side. After those initial speeches, she broke us into teams. We were selected each half-term by raffle and the groups competed against each other for points in mini-quiz activities. My favourite was the A-Z game, where we wrote all the letters of the alphabet on a piece of paper, and then had to complete a word for each letter based on a theme. The team who could complete the most letters won.
Topcs included chocolate bars, car manufacturers, capital cities. Cries of “Rome? Is Rome a capital city? It’s got a football team…” would fill the air. And instead of 30 pupils battling the teacher – our prior modus operandi – there would be 5 groups each trying to work together and outpit each other.
Somehow she would mark the papers by breaktime and we’d pile into her room to see who had the glory. (I look back now and presume she had a free period, but to us it was magical). She would take the moment to check our ties, shirts, blazers, the walkman. It was only as an adult I realised she made several points in the day when she would see us (she would let us eat lunch in her room for the first 15 minutes of our break, for example) – not just because she was “cool”, as we thought, but because she wanted to reinforce her expectations for us, and also be there in case we needed her.
When I was 15 and split up with a dear boyfriend, (young love is intense, isn’t it?), I went to school 20 minutes early and put all the chairs down in our form room and flopped on a chair and sobbed in the corner. And all she said was “you’ll be okay, Laure” and she made me help her put some worksheets out. It was exactly what I needed.
*
The high-point of Miss Watson, however, was The Day of the Nail Varnish Incident. It is the story I have told most often to new teachers I have trained about behaviour.
The Nail Varnish Incident began like every other autumn term blustery morning. We piled into our form room: shirts had to be tucked, trainers changed to shoes, walkman taken from me again. Grr.
And, as was the ritual every morning, Emma had arrived wearing nail varnish. Loud, red, luscious nail varnish. Which Emma lovingly painted on her fingers almost every night and which, for weeks on end, Miss Watson had required her to remove each morning.
The routine never changed. Miss Watson would go into her stock cupboard, produce a bottle of nail varnish remover and plonk it on Emma’s desk along with a series of cotton wool balls. The removal would begin.
Only this day, there was a problem.
Two minutes into the cleaning Emma thrust the bottle onto the desk with force. Her eyes gleamed, her mouth smiling, her tone defiant. She announced: “It’s empty”. And leaned back in her chair.
For a moment we froze. For the first time it was possible: one of us might win.
That possibility was tantalising. But incredibly short.
In one swift move Miss Watson strolled from her desk, swiped the bottle with one hand, spun, threw it in the bin, caught the stock cupboard handle, swung it open, grabbed a second full varnish remover bottle, spun again and placed it in front of Emma. She slinked  back at her desk before the stock cupboard had even closed.
Emma never wore nail varnish again after that. And I learned that persistence is about 90 per cent of achievement when it comes to improving teen behaviour.
*
Someone asked recently if a teacher had changed my life. I’m not sure that Miss Watson did anything that changed my route through it. My french grade never mattered. I didn’t become a teacher because of her. No major change in my circumstances occurred because I was in 9C.
But I do think Miss Watson changed me as a person. She modelled a whole new type of human. Determined, smart, curious, fierce. But always, always intentional and kind.
After twenty years, I am glad I finally get to say a proper thank you.
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Jesus beat the Devil quicker than the ICO will sort the DfE

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We have a new Information Commissioner, and she seems very exciting and hip. She keeps talking about how she wants to expand Freedom of Information laws to any group with a public contract. Which sounds great and everyone is excited.
I am not.
At the moment, trying to get information from a government department who is refusing to play ball is like drawing blood from a stone and the ICO are not helping.
If the system for getting information from the bits of the world that are already covered by the law is broken then expanding it is not only pointless, but likely to make the whole thing worse.
Ducks. In. Row. First.
Let me give you an example: I have now waited an extra forty days for the DfE to respond to a freedom of information request. Forty. That’s eight weeks. On top of the 20 days it takes to do the request (which was also late).
Imagine a kid not handing homework in and then being given an extra eight weeks to do it! Wouldn’t happen in my class. Detention would be almost immediate.
So why is the DfE able to get away with such behaviour?
Answer: Because the ICO seems to have no simple system for dealing with delays.
When you send an information request to the government the law says it has 20 working days to respond. After that point, the polite thing is to needle at them for a few days and, if still nothing, your only recourse is to go to the ICO where you can seek a ‘Section 10’ decision notice. A section 10 is effectively a formal letter to the government saying “you are out of time, you broke the law, don’t do that again, now hand the docus over”.
At the moment it is taking the ICO over thirty days to even reply to a complaint. And then they give the DfE a further ten days to respond.  In my eyes this is the equivalent of those parents in the supermarket who weakly tell little Timmy not to eat the grapes, but who do it in such a lame voice you know that Timmy is going to swallow the entire vine as soon as their back is turned.
In my most recent case, the DfE did just that. Ten days came and went. No FOI. I like to imagine the department as a child gleefully skipping out the gates at 3pm as their teacher waits upstairs for them to appear in detention.
So I wrote to the ICO and pointed this out. And I called. And I have heard nothing.
All of which is ridiculous. Jesus beat the devil in 40 nights in the desert but apparently the organisation funded to protect our information rights can’t even censure the DfE for a blatant breaking of the law in this time.
Sigh.
So, Ms Denham, our new information commission overlord. PLEASE: I beg, implore, beseech you to come up with a new process for dealing with delays so that this rigmarole can stop.
In fact: I already have one.
When someone complains to the ICO they must fill in a form which asks what the problem is. If a complainant ticks the ‘no one is responding to me’ box, put that into a fast-track system.
This system would involve a person checking, quickly, if the request is, in fact, delayed. This should take, oooh, 3 hours? At most? If the answer is ‘yes’ then, immediately, write a Section 10 decision notice and send it to the government department telling them to get their arse into gear and respond within 5 days. Not 10. FIVE. And no ‘pre-warning’ faffy nonsense emails. Send the decision notice. JOB DONE.
Five days later do a simple check with the department. “Hi, did you send it yet? … Yes, great!” Or, “No… UHOH”and immediately give them some kind of serious notice.
If a public authorities get, say, three of these serious notices in three months then BOOM, put them on monitoring. Require them to fill in compliance documents. Insist on having long boring meetings about their record-keeping. Ask to see copies of all their request response. Make them uncomfortable with the sheer number of checks you will do on them.
Ultimately: Make their life harder than it would be if they just responded ON TIME and AS THE LAW SAYS THEY SHOULD.
Seriously, this is how consequences work. Watch any good teacher. Watch Supernanny! Getting people to do things they don’t want to do is largely about having quick, effective systems followed by quick sanctions that are less pleasant than doing the right thing the first time around.
Ducks. In. Row. First. Please.
Once that’s done, then the law can expand to cover all those other public authorities. And I will be up there with everyone else giving a big cheer.
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