Nick Dennis' Blog

History, Technology, Education, Leadership

The 140 character problem

In a post a few months ago, I discussed the growing issue of ‘silence’ in the education debate on Twitter. People keep their views private (but use Direct Messages to share concerns) for fear of reprisal and exclusion if they deviated from a fashionable idea or use of terminology.

Last week, TED released Jon Ronson’s talk on public shaming via Twitter. For him, using Twitter at the start was a vehicle for emancipation:

Voiceless people realised that they had a voice, and it was powerful and eloquent. If a newspaper ran some racist or homophobic column, we realised we could do something about it. We could get them. We could hit them with a weapon that we understood but they didn’t — a social media shaming. Advertisers would withdraw their advertising. When powerful people misused their privilege, we were going to get them.This was like the democratisation of justice. Hierarchies were being levelled out. We were going to do things better.

However, use of the service also has its drawbacks:

Twitter is basically a mutual approval machine. We surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do, and we approve each other, and that’s a really good feeling. And if somebody gets in the way, we screen them out. And do you know what that’s the opposite of? It’s the opposite of democracy.

Where it really becomes problematic is when poor phrasing and the lack of context around the 140 characters becomes a mechanism of damnation:

You can lead a good, ethical life, but some bad phraseology in a Tweet can overwhelm it all, become a clue to your secret inner evil. Maybe there’s two types of people in the world: those people who favour humans over ideology, and those people who favour ideology over humans. I favour humans over ideology, but right now, the ideologues are winning, and they’re creating a stage for constant artificial high dramas where everybody’s either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain, even though we know that’s not true about our fellow humans. What’s true is that we are clever and stupid; what’s true is that we’re grey areas. The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people, but we’re now creating a surveillance society, where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.

I remember running training sessions urging teachers to use Twitter as a professional development tool with Doug Belshaw in 2008. The sense of idealism driving the workshop has since been dulled because there seems to be more of a ‘surveillance society’ in the use of Twitter in education circles.  If you have a few minutes, I recommend watching the clip below.

Share Button

Diversity and the independent sector

GuardianI was interviewed by the Guardian last week and the outcome can be seen here.

There are a few clarifications needed and this is not because the journalist, Hannah Fearn, did not do her job!

The first clarification is that it is mainly colleagues who are not from minority groups who often stop talking to me when I eventually tell them I work in an independent school. The majority are often from other state schools, teaching students who might look like me, and trying to get them to think that their current social and economic status does not have to be their destiny. For them, it seems that the dream of social mobility is a very strange thing when it is made real.

The second clarification is that the two pressures I identified, geography and ‘responsibility’ are not the only ones . I’ll write more when term ends but two factors don’t make even a GCSE history essay on it.

The third clarification is around hiring. Sentence from the article:

I think it’s important that we’re representing society, but if that’s your only driving factor when you’re really looking for someone who’s a good teacher then I’d be slightly worried.

To make recruitment more effective, more should be done on raising awareness of what independent schools look for in candidates before applications are made as this will increase the likelihood of success. Being a great subject teacher is one aspect. Another is offering sport/music/drama/DoE or something else beyond the classroom.

Speaking about recruitment, one factor that has been weighing heavily on my mind are the ‘gatekeepers’ to Headship positions as they refer candidates to governing bodies. This is a interview with Diana Ellis, a Partner at the recruitment firm Odgers Berndston in a book by Dominic Carman called ‘Heads Up’ in 2013:

Of ethnic minority candidates Ellis has recently put forward to governors, she has ‘two that immediately spring to mind, two deputies we’ve interviewed, and one in particular, we’ve really pushed for headship sadly, hasn’t got there. He’s bright, so I think he will in time. He’ll be our first. But he won’t leap into one of the top schools.’ Does she envisage, in twenty years, that we will see more ethnic or mixed- race heads? ‘I wouldn’t think we’d rush to do that,’ she says pointedly, ‘because what people are buying is British education, and therefore, they want to see a British leader.’

I have spoken to the firm since then and they have clearly stated that this is not their belief. However, the thought lingers and I do wonder what a ‘British’ leader means in this context. Let us not forget that the schools funded by government are not really doing well in this area. Nor is government or the media (one editor, at the Independent).

I have been incredibly fortunate to have had some superb mentors through my independent school teaching career. The first person is Mark Lauder, currently Headmaster at Ashville College in Harrogate who was a Deputy Head at my previous school. The second person is my current Principal, Mark Steed. Far from buying into the narrow view of ‘Britishness’ lurking in the above quote, they have encouraged me in a variety of ways and I want to do the same. If you have ever considered a job in the independent sector, get in touch. History has to start somewhere.

 

 

Share Button

CPD Review

I took over the CPD programme at Berkhamsted in 2013 and after considering the work at Cramlington Learning Village, I devised a programme that:

  • was role specific;
  • included research bursaries for action research;
  • catered for personal well-being as well as pedagogical concerns;
  • enabled teachers at school to access leading experts through twilight sessions and the TLAB conferences by staying in the school grounds.

 

At the end of each twilight CPD session, I send a survey to all staff asking for a rating and comments on the session itself (comments are anonymous). This is an important part of any project in school – close monitoring allows for calibration and circumvents frustration from colleagues. The stats for this year are below:

  • 89% think the sessions were useful (up from 83% last year);
  • 6% think the sessions were not useful (down from 12% last year).
  • 5% were unsure about the usefulness of the session (same as last year).

Although pleased that the usefulness rating has increased, there is still more work to be done on the making sure the sessions are relevant to everyone and this will form the focus for next year. The online CPD portal (built in SharePoint) will be available for staff to request CPD and be linked to their professional development targets created by the appraisal system. On the ‘unsure’ rating, the contextual comments were usually focussed on the need to think more carefully about the training in relation to the teacher’s work. I think this is a good thing – the ‘slow hunch‘ or diffuse thinking is an essential process in making ideas stick.

Next year, I will hand over the CPD project to my colleague Rosie McColl, Deputy Head at Berkhamsted Girls. There are a few lessons I will take away that will stay with me:

  • Any CPD needs to be part of the wider strategic framework and not some ‘bolt on’ with a trendy speaker launching a ‘big idea’ which is not really mentioned again;
  • Teacher research based on classroom skills/pedagogy is invaluable;
  • Time throughout the year should be given over for CPD;
  • Work should be shared across the school community at regular intervals;
  • You should be wary of the performativity aspect of CPD when considering impact (it may look different but nothing has substantively changed);
  • A relentless focus on a few areas is best (see Greg McKeown’s Essentialism);
  • CPD should take a holistic view (personal well-being as a clear example).

Rosie will do a great job next year as the school moves towards exploring Building Learning Power in greater detail.

Share Button

Wrestling with angels

But my own experience of theory – and Marxism is certainly the case in point – is of wrestling with the angels – a metaphor you can take as literally as you like.

Stuart Hall

This could be a very long response and could go on for ever. It seems I was juvenile in making two observations after reading some educational blog posts yesterday:

  1. I am noticing a growing trend where edu bloggers quote/use other bloggers as sources of authority.
  2. It has also become apparent that a limited number of writers are being read and quoted. What happened to intellectual curiosity?

As a result of these two statements, following Stuart Hall, it seems as if the ‘roof has been falling in all over the place, and I want to take the opportunity to pick up one or two of the bricks and heave them back.’ Two major charges have been lobbed through the open spaces. The first, supported by Tom Starkey is that I am against teacher blogging because the work is not academic. The second charge, stated by Jon Brunskill, is that I do not engage with people holding the views I disagree with.

Let me deal with the first brick and as a result, also with the second.

Writing about education has always been a serious matter to me. Serious because it deals with reality (classroom/school/policies) and is also a conscious attempt to change something (an approach/way of viewing an idea/whole school policy). As such, bloggers are intellectuals. Just like everyone is an intellectual. People theorise about life, clothes to wear, places to eat, how people should behave in public forums and what works best for students in their classrooms. So, in this sense, teachers are intellectuals too. If everyone is an intellectual, they should be able to write, comment and be challenged. Blogging, therefore, should not be limited to a ‘legitimate’ few. First brick heaved.

However, there is a difference in that not all of these intellectuals serve the social function of intellectuals in society. I use Gramsci’s example:

Everyone at some time fries a couple of eggs or sews up a tear in a jacket, we do not necessarily say that everyone is a cook or a tailor

The educators who serve the social function as intellectuals are teachers speaking to government departments, invited to speak through a variety of media channels and talk at conferences. Their presence is based on an assumption that they represent teachers as a group and they use their critical voices to ‘speak truth to power’ in an effort to transform the current system. However, what if the critical thought takes precedence over the self-critical reflection? What if instead of fulfilling the role of raising consciousness, the actions are limited to referencing each other? Where might this lead us?

I can ask this question because even though they may not admit it, they serve as my representative as I am part of the group ‘teachers’. I also ask this question because of the apparent danger in limited consensus.

So why the ire? Few questions are asked partly because of the issue of social pressure. What if you gain the disapproval of others by asking difficult questions? Could this lead to a risk of you being excluded from a conversation on Twitter or worse, being ignored at a conference or not invited to drinks/dinner? Should I therefore stick up for them if they are being questioned? Far from being separate, the social media world has everything to do with the real world. People are afraid of offering critiques of what people have written or said at conferences because they are worried about reprisal and being socially excluded. When Alex Quigley suggested that the outcome of the argument would exclude teachers from blogging and other ‘voices’, there was no recognition of the silence that already exists.

Without critical engagement, these intellectuals, and the teachers who follow them, according to Sunstein and Hastie, could run into three problems:

  • They do not fail to correct errors but actually amplify them;
  • Groups may fall victim to cascade effects as group members follow the statements of those who speak or act first (the discussion on Twitter is a great example of this);
  • Groups focus on shared information (what everyone knows already) at the expense of unshared information and thus miss the benefit of critical and troubling information that other people may have.

Now I need to be clear on the purpose of making the original statements. It was not to exclude. It was to ask them to be better. It was to ask them to consider the wider social and intellectual space they work in and to be aware that the scientific truths they may claim today are part of a history of scientific revolutions where previous modes of thought have been refuted. It was asking them to think deeply, carefully, and with humility because social change (what they are interested in) is won with consent.

In relation to the second brick, engagement and challenging views of people I disagree with is more than a ‘conversation’ on Twitter (if people are willing to listen). It is also a desire to act. For my own part, becoming a school governor is one aspect. Organising a teaching and learning conference and bringing together diverse ‘voices’ and lesser-known practitioners is another. Studying for a further degree is also another. I frequently speak about the points of disagreement when asked to speak at conferences and work with individuals in schools. Some of this work is done without fanfare simply because it would demean the serious and personal nature of it to do so. Both within and outside my school environment, I challenge, in a very real and meaningful way, the people I disagree with. But it is not about them. It is because I take the work seriously and it demands the need for action rather than just words.

I have no books to sell. Nor am I asking people to book me for their inset sessions/conferences or vying to write for a particular media outlet. I am not looking for a job outside of teaching nor am I suggesting that I am the paragon of virtue – I know my faults in relation to the above points well enough. I am simply asking whether we can be in a better place than we currently are by actually engaging in a wider conversation. I suspect we can but I am not sure if people are willing to listen.

Selected further reading

Stuart Hall ‘The Big Swipe’ Universities and Left Review 7:1959

Thomas Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie Wiser

Antonio Gramsci Prison Notebooks

Jurgen Habermas The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Rob Phillips Reflective Teaching of History

David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (Eds.) Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies

 

 

 

Share Button

Thank You

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore opens #TLAB15

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore opens #TLAB15

I want to thank all the speakers, workshop leaders and delegates for making the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted (#TLAB15) a memorable one.

You can find a collection of the tweets from the day here.

Blogs posts on the day:

Sally Thorne: http://sallythorne.com/category/cpd-notes/tlab15/

Drew Thomson: http://cupofteaching.com/2015/03/22/tlab15-how-do-we-know-our-cpd-works-the-hidden-lives-of-learners-and-tl-tips-galore/

Jonathan Peel: https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/tlab15-another-great-day-of-cpd-for-the-brain/

Nikki Able: http://nikki-able.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/tlab15-summary-and-takeaways.html?spref=tw

Emma Kell: https://thosethatcanteach.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/tlab15-a-flash-of-light/

Amy Harvey: http://staffrm.io/%40ms_jamdangory/zlJIr4jQ1T

Kevin Carson: http://thelibraryandsteponit.com/2015/03/29/tlab15-the-leadership-workshops/

Kamil Trzebiatowski: http://valuediversity-teacher.co.uk/tlab15-conference-report/

Helena Marsh: http://staffrm.io/@helenamarsh/Dz2x444JzY

Workshop materials:

Dave Stacey: http://blog.mrstacey.org.uk/?p=1001

Tom Boulter: http://thinkingonlearning.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/professional-learning-presentation-from.html

David Fawcett: https://www.dropbox.com/s/hk5ahn7qw7uw7xp/TLAB15.pptx?dl=0

Darren Mead: http://pedagogicalpurposes.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/blog-post.html

Mark Steed: http://independenthead.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/appraisal-and-performance-management-in.html

Candida Gould & Crista Hazell presentation

 

An excellent team is taking over next year. Alastair Harrison and Laura Knight will be leading things from the Berkhamsted School end. They will be joined by the Astra Teaching Alliance  & Chesham Grammar School in planning future events. I was asked yesterday whether it is hard to ‘let go’. My answer then (and it is the same answer now) is that the conference was never meant to be linked to one person, school or sector and the teachers attending and leading workshops are proof of this.  I know my colleagues at Berkhamsted and beyond will take the day to new heights as the workshop leaders and speakers already do. They are the leaders we have been waiting for.

Professor Barbara Oakley closes #TLAB15

Professor Barbara Oakley closes #TLAB15

One of the most interesting conversations yesterday was around the need for such events in other areas of the country and beyond. It is just an idea at the moment but will now be floating around in ‘diffuse mode’ so feedback/comments are welcome!

One tweet stood out for me yesterday:

Great education and professional development is not the preserve of a particular education sector yet certain social forces and loud voices seem to suggest otherwise. I hope that when the conversation occurs again (as it will), there will be one concrete and successful example people can point to where all involved are seen as educators who care about the ‘work‘.

Share Button

#TLAB15 Welcome

The text below is taken from the #TLAB15 conference booklet. The Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhmasted takes place on the 21st March. http://www.berkhamstedschool.org/TLAB15 

Education is an ever-unfinished conversation yet we seem to forget this fundamental idea as data, inspection judgements, performance reviews and lesson grades crowd our vision. Although important, the supposed finality inherent in these measures often limit our ways of thinking. We don’t see that we are in fact dealing with other humans and their minds as well as reflecting on what we do with ours. This year’s conference, with the theme of ‘All in the Mind’, hopes to put the human element squarely on the agenda. It also seeks to touch upon the latest research from cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience – two exciting contributors to this ever-unfinished conversation.

The theme also pokes fun at the purveyors of limited political vision who suggest that independent and state educators sectors will only work together effectively when money (or the potential prospect of losing it) is on the table. I must thank the workshop leaders for giving up their time freely to share their work because they think it is important. Rebecca Brooks has continued her great work in managing the event and containing her sighs when I discuss conference badges.  I am especially grateful to Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Professor Barbara Oakley for taking the time to talk about their research. As I write this on International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to point out that very few educational conferences have had two women scientists provide the opening and closing keynote sessions. As we reflect on the professional work we do in schools, we should also consider our professional work outside of the classroom.

The final sense of ‘All in the Mind’ is that this conference hopes to lay down a concrete challenge to all attendees. We have heard from a variety of organisations that one-off CPD is fairly ineffective because there is no chance to develop the learning. This view certainly has merit, yet I believe it ignores the possibility (and probability) of leadership.  John Kotter writes that leadership is not what we usually think it is in terms of position or supposed status:

Leadership is entirely different. It is associated with taking an organization into the future, finding opportunities that are coming at it faster and faster and successfully exploiting those opportunities. Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and, most of all, about producing useful change. Leadership is not about attributes, it’s about behaviour. And in an ever-faster-moving world, leadership is increasingly needed from more and more people, no matter where they are in a hierarchy. The notion that a few extraordinary people at the top can provide all the leadership needed today is ridiculous, and it’s a recipe for failure.

If you have not guessed it by now, you are the leaders we have been waiting for. By attending the conference, you have partly accepted the challenge of taking the ever-unfinished conversation about education back to your schools, meetings and training sessions. Since 2013, former attendees have told me how they have left the conference inspired to become teachers, senior leaders and better educators for the students they have in front of them on the Monday morning. Some of them are in the audience or leading workshops today. I can think of no better proof that you too can be part of the conversation and also lead it in your respective organisations and classrooms.

I wish you all a very enjoyable and stimulating conference.

Nick

 

Share Button

Scholarship

After a long period of gestation, we have released details of the revamped ‘gifted and talented’ programme.

We already have extensive provision for sports, music, drama and academic scholarship students yet we felt we could do more to support our students. The first element is our Fry Scholars’ Programme (named after Dr Thomas Fry)  and seeks to promote the following values:

  • An attitude of scholarship;
  • Curiosity;
  • Independent study;
  • Humility;
  • Working hard by doing hard work;
  • Developing a love of learning.

Selection for the programme will be limited to three students in each year group on each our campuses. Identification is grounded in baseline data and teacher recommendations. Students are then invited to partake in the additional challenge this programme provides. We will also invite a small number of students outside the selected group to participate in additional activities (denoted by the asterisk in the tables below) by signing up on a first come, first served basis.

 

Year 1 Activity 1 Activity 2 Activity 3
Year 7 & 8 Introduction Maths/Science Visit*
Year 9 & 10 Introduction Philosophy* Engineering
Year 2 Activity 1 Activity 2 Activity 3
Year 7 & 8 Literature/Poetry Debating Visit*
Year 9 & 10 Fiction* Leadership Training Mindset and learning plenary

 

For students in Y10, there will be a further opportunity for stretch and challenge by entering the Academic Competition.  Inspired by the selection process for Fellows at All Souls College, Oxford, it is open to all students in Year 10 who achieve at least 8 A grades in their summer exams. Students meeting the criteria will sit three papers of an hour each from the selection below:

  • Classics
  • English
  • Geography
  • History
  • Philosophy and Ethics
  • General paper (sat by all candidates).

After sitting these papers, the students will have a viva voce exam based on their papers lasting no more than 20 minutes. One winner will be named for each campus and they will hold the  honorary title of Nicholls’ Scholar for Year 11. We will post further information on the exam questions, viva process and the prize (trophy) on the Berkhamsted School website after the Easter holiday.

It is worth reiterating that we have high expectations for all our students. We believe our curriculum already provides stretch and challenge in all areas (record GCSE results last year are only part of the story) yet we believe we can do more. The Fry Scholars’ programme and the Nicholls Academic Competition are just the start of our exciting plans to refine the work we do.

Share Button

TLAB – All Sold

TLAB PhotoI am very pleased to announce that the original ticket allocation for the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted has now been sold!* There will be around 240 educators at the conference on the 21st March to discuss, share and consider ideas on the process of learning and teaching.

As it will be my last event as organiser, I am really looking forward to welcoming you to the conference and hopefully joining the discussions. See you on March 21st!

*We have released 10 more tickets that are on sale until Friday 6th but no more will be sold after that date (unless you would like to be placed on the waiting list). Please go to the booking page for more information.

Share Button

The problem of a single story

Robert Peal’s article in the TES on Friday ‘History’s an adventure – don’t cut it short’ left me feeling slightly bemused. In the piece, Peal argues that current history textbooks lack an extended narrative that is detrimental to exciting students about the stories of our past.

You would be hard pushed to find a stretch of more than 200 words that is not broken by a cartoon, a snippet of “source material” or a “funny fact”. The layout often resembles a magazine, not a book, with short chunks of boxed text designed to cater to the supposedly minimal attention spans of today’s pupils.

Moreover, the apparent attempt to link the past to the experience of the students breaks up the power of the narrative. The downfall is due to the changes in post-Imperial Britain, the move towards encompassing historical skills and the growth of ‘irreverent humour’ in the Horrible Histories series. I don’t doubt that there are KS3 textbooks which are poor having seen/used a number of them myself, yet Peal’s argument resides on two assumptions that are troubling. The first is that textbooks are the best way to tell a story and the second is that a particular narrative should be privileged.

I think Peal expects too much from textbooks or does not comprehend their place in the toolkit of a history teacher. They are a resource which the well-trained teacher can use as a basic standard from which they can innovate (teach). There is a form a recognition at the end of the article when he suggests that he uses them to aid planning yet the thrust is that they are the main teaching tool for conveying a story. Due to the National Curriculum (schools who do not have to follow it choose to do so anyway) and the chronological span and flexibility within a single school year, no KS3 book can adequately cover the variety of topics or narratives available even if there is a series like the Counsell, Byrom and Riley books.

The article then uses the work of RJ Unstead at Primary level to showcase how good a textbook can be when there is a focus on stories rather than sources. What is interesting to note is that Unstead’s books were produced at a time when there were no mandated topics to cover (see David Cannadine’s The Right Kind of History for examples of the very  general guidance given to history teachers at Primary level). In the absence of useful material, Unstead’s books helped to fulfil a need for a ‘good story’. KS3 books operate in a slightly different atmosphere and I question the suggestion that a series of books, located in a particular time and for a particular purpose, can be the panacea for the complex conditions of KS3 history. This is an anachronism that seems to slip by in the critique of the inexact use of culturally and temporally fixed reference points.

The most worrying aspect of the article comes in the section ‘Back to the old school’. Here, Peal explains why Unstead’s book fell from favour:

From the 1970s, Unstead became a figure of fun, mocked for his earnest stories of derring-do and insufficiently critical take on British history. In 1962 he defended his brand of scholarship: “Whereas England has often acted foolishly or badly, her history shows the persistence of ideals which good men have lived by since Alfred’s day.” This was not a fashionable view in post-Imperial Britain.

The crude linkage between an unbroken narrative of high-minded ideals and the disruptive ‘post-Imperial’ condition seems to suggest that the ‘best’ narrative of collective memory in the public sphere has been lost due to the post-colonial condition.  This mourning of a single, linear and progressive narrative in this passage reveals a belief that we (English? British? Western?) learn from our mistakes. I am not so sure of this view when considering the Middle Passage, the treatment of the Mau Mau in Kenya or the racism in society that fuelled Imperial Britain and continues in various guises today.  I am not suggesting that these examples, a ‘post-Imperial’ narrative, should replace Unstead’s as the ‘right’ one because the collective memory that we deal with in school classrooms is not a competitive history but a connected one.  Examples of the persistence of great ideals are part of our history but there is also the unsavoury and the unspeakably cruel. No textbook can ever capture this depth and this is where the expertise of the teacher, versed in what Michael Rothberg terms as ‘Multidirectional Memory‘, is vital. To deny these parts of our collective memory for the sake of scoring points against a ‘progressive turn’ in ‘post-Imperial Britain’ shows, at best, a naivety about the multicultural society that we live and teach in.

Stories are important for history teaching. They help us to reveal that even though the past is a different place, the human ‘qualities’ of love, desire, greed, hate, hospitality, vulnerability and altruism can be found and this can be used to create a link between the present and the past for our students.  Yet we should not forget that in a desire to support a particular story, we miss the complexity of our history and the world around us.

Share Button

One million minutes and pointing fingers

No doubt you will have seen Dr Tristram Hunt’s speech last week about independent schools and tax rates. If you have not, I suggest you read it first

This is an invitation to do something radical. In his book, ‘Lessons Learned’, Fenton Whelan estimates that children between the ages of 4 to 18 spend around 1 million minutes in school. This might sound like a generous amount of time, but to make each minute count there must be an effective school system in place – a condition arguably not fulfilled by our current arrangements. Last week Dr Tristram Hunt revealed his take on resolving the problem by suggesting that independent school should lose their charity status if they do not form meaningful partnerships with state schools that will enhance the experience of students. Some have labeled it as ‘class war’, a rebuttal that further muddies the waters. If Tristram Hunt is to be considered as a possible next Secretary of State for Education, it is worth examining his ideas in detail.  After all, they might be foisted upon a school near you.

In my reading, Tristram Hunt’s makes two points, both of which contain a number of important complexities not accounted for in his original speech. The first is that the state and private sectors should work together. This is correct, and I firmly believe they should too. Where it has worked successfully is due to spirit of collegiality between the schools/teachers. One example is the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted (TLAB). In its third year, TLAB has managed to draw a fantastic crop of teachers from both sectors to lead workshops in their particular subject areas. These teachers have come together from the state and independent sector out of a shared desire to exchange and learn from each other and the result is an event that confirms the positive value of cross-sector dialogue and sharing. I question however, whether this same spirit of collegiality can be forced, rather than fostered, into existence. If such an event was to be demanded by government, the feeling of goodwill and openness would likely disappear, and teachers would rightly question the motives behind every conversation.

The second point that Tristram Hunt makes is that the removal of tax breaks would redress inequality across the country. While I don’t question the sincerity of his desire to redress the imbalance, I have serious concerns over the true effectiveness of this proposed removal. £150 million is a large sum of money, yet if divided equally among all state schools in England it would amount to just over £6,100 (if limited to secondary schools in England it would be around £20,311 per school). To be sure, an increase in school funding would be welcome, yet it is not the radical shift in equity that apparently drives the policy. What Tristram Hunt’s speech avoids is the stark reality that data on student achievement from Ofsted reveals; that the Social and Economic Status (SES) of parents and students still largely determines the grades that these students achieve. There are clear examples where individual schools have made a considerable difference –  Dunraven School and Chestnut Grove School to name just two. Yet there is still a persistent achievement gap between those who are on free school meals and those students who are not.

As well as avoiding the difficult conversations on society and economy, the speech sidesteps key questions regarding the role of Ofsted, general funding for schools, and the progressive diminution of the Arts/Sport as a result. These are urgent problems that my colleagues in the state sector struggle with as they strive to provide the best education for students. We have a state inspection regime that is nominally based around accountability, yet historically it has enabled an environment of fear and summary judgement rather than support and appropriate challenge. We have little space for the Liberal Arts (music, dance, drama, art) because politicians appear to only want a curriculum, which as the philosopher Michael Sandel suggests, reflects a market society rather than one that reflects some of the most wonderful aspects of our humanity. As a result we have diminishing opportunities for school sports, a lack of investment in facilities, and limited vision when it comes to school planning. These are serious issues and the challenge is to create an inclusive and successful education system by thinking through all the problems and opportunities to maximise success.

I don’t think anyone disagrees with the view that education in this country can improve when we work together, or that it must. When average house prices in the postal districts of the thirty best performing state schools are almost nine times higher than average gross annual earnings, we have a problem. When we have around 1 in 10 students from working class backgrounds and hardly any black students attending Oxford and Cambridge, we have a problem. When fees for independent schools are, in the words of Andrew Halls, Head of King’s College School in Wimbledon, only for ‘oligarchs’, we have a problem. As a teacher, I want the best for all students, even the ones outside my immediate care. When only limited numbers of students can benefit from a great education there is a serious problem; one that demands a collective effort. Yet it cannot happen when ‘pointing fingers’ is perceived as an effective strategy for educational change.

Essentially, this is an invitation to Tristram Hunt and other politicians to grasp the complexity of education in this country and engage with all schools. Without this, we will stay exactly where we are, wasting too many of the precious and unrecoverable 1 million minutes students have.

Share Button
« Older posts

© 2015 Nick Dennis' Blog

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑