“Never is anyone more unjust than the ignorant.” Adelphoe

            I was invited to observe a colleague’s lesson as part of some middle-management training. The idea is that if a school’s management know what the correct judgement for a lesson is (outstanding = 1, good = 2 etc) then that school knows its staff and will be able to explain itself to any visiting inspector. The process was straightforward enough but also insidious. The denial of subtlety and the insistence that learning can, and indeed must, be seen to be happening in front of any observer’s eyes is absurd, unintelligent and unjust.

            The Year 6 (ten and eleven year olds) maths lesson was an expansive one covering patterns, factors and shapes; not only covering these topics but ambitiously making connections between them. It started with twelve children in a circle passing a ball from one to the other. This was then mapped out on a blank clock face using a ruler to draw straight lines between each number on the face. The resulting shape is a dodecagon with twelve straight sides of equal length. A variation of the game – with the ball missing one person each time around the circle – mapped in the same way produces a hexagon. It was left to the students to take it forward from this appealingly active start to the lesson. Incidentally this sort of lesson is very much ‘post-SATs’ as no teacher would teach in such an abstract way prior to the teach-to-the-test SATs. Throughout this introductory part of the lesson the teacher made a big effort to encourage dialogue and reflection on what was taking place in the lesson.

            Working independently some children, naturally, fared better than others. Once the ball, as it were, is passed to every fifth person the line needs to break through the ‘12’ position on the clock and produces a star (the line going from 12 – 5 – 10 – 3 – 8 – 1 – 6 – 11 – 4 and so on). The ‘jumps-of-five’ pattern was something that a few children did not immediately grasp. The teacher had already foreseen this and asked those who were unsure to come to the front for further instruction and explanation before getting on with it independently. Unfortunately some who should have did not do this and some who did seemed none the wiser.

            I considered it to have been a good lesson; the great majority of the children fully engaged for the great majority of the lesson; a clear and articulate teacher leading the whole process with lots of chances for all to join in and share thoughts and ideas; an imaginative attempt to draw attention to the beauty that can result from playing around with numbers. The local authority adviser who watched the lesson with me assured me that it was in fact ‘in need of improvement’ (read: not bloody good enough). This is Ofsted’s new expression for what had been described in the past as satisfactory or adequate. The reason for this judgement was that some of the children had been muddled at the point where they had to draw a pattern for the ‘jumps-of-five’. I agreed that the teacher might have made more of the complications that arise at this point but I do not accept that, because these children were stuck, they were not progressing. Ofsted have introduced a culture where an inspector must see ‘progress’ and ‘learning’ right there during their – sometimes fleeting, as little as twenty minutes – visit to the lesson.

            At first glance this seems simple enough and obvious enough: the inspector’s job is to answer two questions: how do you go about teaching? And, more importantly, is your approach effective or not? The first question can be answered with close observation of the lesson itself; the second question is much harder to pin down and is often not answered even by close observation of the lesson. Ofsted would vigorously deny this last underlined point. Here are a few ways you can examine a teacher’s effect on the learner’s in the classroom:

  1. Ask the children, after the lesson, all about it to see how much they have really held onto
  2. Look at the children’s books to gauge the growth in understanding over time
  3. If it is a formally examined subject look at exam grades over time

            Efficacy is not by any means something that can be located and clearly identified in a single visit to a classroom. The most a sensible observer can do is to note the various strategies that are used by a teacher to encourage thought, engagement, enjoyment, problem-solving, dialogue, articulacy and so on. Ofsted have, over the years, introduced a culture of what I call ‘context-less judgemental immediacy’: an ugly expression for a profoundly damaging tendency. Ofsted, as anyone who works in a school will tell you, are in a terrible hurry. Inevitably they favour immediacy of judgement and it’s not surprising that they pay little attention to context. So, in the case of our Year 6 maths lesson with some children stumped by the task, any inspector would be unlikely to consider the following:

            “…learning from success tends to aim and focus how we think, while learning from failure also leads to … productive thoughts, but in less directed ways.”

            “Human thought is not based on any single and uniform kind of ‘logic’, but upon myriad processes, scripts, stereotypes, critics and censors, analogies and metaphors.” 

            “We can make fewer errors by confining ourselves to cautious, ‘logical’ reasoning, but we’ll also discover fewer new ideas.” 1

            These sorts of thoughts are much too subtle, and indeed thought-provoking, for the inspection process; quite simply we need a simplified image of teaching and learning that can be quickly and universally applied. This is, of course, the famous ‘tick-box’ culture that you will hear teachers, and many others, complain of. For schools then it is a question of imagining learning as no more than filling a person’s head with knowledge; something that John Dewey faulted schools on a hundred years ago. I repeat: teaching is not telling.

            The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks Singapore and Finland at the very top for educational provision. In the Institute for Learning’s current magazine Geoff Petty (author of ‘Teaching Today’ and ‘Evidence-based Teaching’) lists a number of key ingredients for this success:

            “They don’t use accountability and control systems, they get teachers to work together to frame good practice. They provide excellent CPD (continuing professional development), enable teachers to make innovations in pedagogy and foster professional dialogue. They have moved away from standardisation and compliance towards helping teachers to learn how to get better. They also put the most capable teachers into the most challenging classrooms.”

            This last point is funny for me because it reminds me of when I started teaching and I was given the class that was clearly, and openly acknowledged as, the most disruptive group of children in the school!

            It’s not just Geoff Petty fighting the fight for including some actual pedagogical values in educational policy. In the same magazine Dr Matt O’Leary writes about an ‘expansive’ – as opposed to restrictive – approach to lesson observation. This is an approach that is defined by:

  1. differentiated observation: this allows the teacher to select what the focus of the observation will be resulting in greater ‘ownership’ of the process
  2. prioritizing feedback: this means giving feedback its proper place at the centre of the process i.e. allocating time for feedback equal to the amount of time of the observation
  3. removing the graded element: no use of Ofsted’s 1s, 2s, 3s & 4s

This last point is my favourite and Dr O’Leary’s research identified what happens when the graded element is removed “levels of trust between colleagues improved and some of the negative associations surrounding observation vanished…” In another paper Dr O’Leary tells it how it is:

            “By attaching a grade to the subjective judgement of the observer, people are seduced into believing that such judgements have greater objectivity and authority than they can, in reality, claim to have” 2

The seduced include Ofsted inspectors themselves: never is anyone more unjust than the ignorant; to be ignorant is to be impressionable, seduce-able. I knew one teacher who trained to be an Ofsted inspector. He had too much integrity to follow it through and chose not to become an actual inspector. As it happens Ofsted are about to visit my current school; I should really print the above quote out in large font and make a poster of it. It neatly sums up one of the main forces of momentum behind this disgruntled website.

            1. The Society of Mind (1987) by Marvin Minsky pages 96, 184 & 279

            2. The Role of Lesson Observation in Shaping Professional Identity, Learning and Development in Further Education Colleges in the West Midlands (Doctoral thesis, University of Warwick, 2011)


Thought dismissed

I have left one school and moved on to another. At the last place they never did show the staff ‘Waiting for Superman’. Apparently there “wasn’t time”. I like to think that my exposure of this film as a horrid piece of corporate propaganda helped to keep it off the agenda. In my old classroom I left a picture of some fine young ladies sitting at their harpsichord; as you can see I have put words in the mouth of one and thoughts in the mind of the other, and I re-titled it as well: it is no longer ‘Adelaide de Guiedan and her sister’ (by Nicolas de Largilliere) but instead ‘Pupils will not learn to think for themselves if their teachers are expected to do as they are told’. You will have to click on the picture to read the other quotes. They are both from the Cambridge Primary Review (2010)


A state theory of learning

A state theory of learning

I understand that the member of senior management who came across this, whilst instructing someone else to clear the room, decided to personally remove this portion of wall-display. Perhaps it now adorns the wall of a senior management office. We may never know…

Bogus judgements: a case study

The following quotes in bold are from a recent lesson observation; these quotes are followed by my thoughts on each one. The intention is to show how a system of quick judgements can be both inaccurate and destructive. ‘Performance-related pay’ is being pushed through at the moment as the obvious solution to poor teaching. The following few points illustrate how easy it is to make inaccurate judgements. There is also a sense that the final grade is more important than the development of the teacher’s practice. This has disturbing implications for a new era of ‘performance related pay’.

  • ‘The lesson was pitched too low for the class’ – During verbal feedback a critical point was made regarding a single pupil who was considered not to have been adequately challenged. The lesson was about how to spell words by thinking about the sounds, a typical lesson in Year 1. The child in question was able to write sentences and had not been made to do so. His sentence-writing at this time was limited to words being squashed together with many capital letters in the wrong places. As this was the sixth 45 minute Literacy lesson of the year (and of his life) formal sentence-writing skills had not yet been addressed. It would be unhelpful to both pupil and teacher to see his same mistakes being repeated. The group-work session was, as always, differentiated into three separate exercises for three ability-groups within the class. Bearing this in mind, and considering the case of this single pupil, it is impossible to explain how the entire lesson can be regarded as having been ‘pitched too low’.
  • ‘…however you did stop during the lesson and checked pupils understanding before redirecting them.’ (sic) – Poor grammar and punctuation aside it is still unclear how this helped to mitigate the lesson being ‘pitched too low for the class.’
  • ‘Lesson not resourced and ready to go’ – The Teaching Assistant (TA) had received the resources for this lesson from the TA of the other Year 1 class next door. This was because the same lesson had just been taught next door (NB all staff have been encouraged not to waste resources in the school by unnecessary duplication). This handover was at the start of the lesson as the observers entered the classroom. Those observing knew why the lesson was not already resourced as they walked through the door. That this detail has been noted as a failing is the clearest indication of all that this observation was not carried out in a helpful and supportive way.
  • ‘Least able children were supported by the TA in the group-work session. Ensure that these children rotate daily so that they are getting teacher input and independent time’ – Quite simply: they do rotate daily. A quick glance at the planning shows this.
  • ‘The teaching was found to be satisfactory as the lesson was pitched too low for the pupils’  – This is a very revealing statement indeed. Here we can see that the word ‘satisfactory’ has actually been reinterpreted to mean ‘less than satisfactory’. For this sentence to actually make sense the word ‘as’ should be replaced with ‘but’ (i.e. the teaching was found to be satisfactory but the lesson was pitched too low for the pupils). Ofsted began the process of degrading the word ‘satisfactory’ and now this is carried on by management teams within schools who have internalised those values. Ofsted has now abandoned its attempt to bring a new meaning to the word ‘satisfactory’ and has replaced it with ‘in need of improvement’.
  • Not a single descriptor within the ‘Good’ category is highlighted: this tells me there was nothing good about the lesson! Quite apart from the fact that this is demoralising as a judgement it is also inaccurate when the category-descriptors are examined. Without any sense of poor judgement or exaggeration the following descriptors could easily have been highlighted: ‘There is no evidence of disruptive behaviour’ (Outstanding) or ‘Pupils are motivated and engaged’ (Good) However these descriptors were not highlighted.In fact all highlighted descriptors fell within one category: ‘Satisfactory’. This in itself is suspicious. It is as if the need for a clear ‘grade’ was more important in this exercise than helping teachers to improve their practice. Many equivalent ‘good’ and ‘satisfactory’ descriptors are practically the same anyway (i.e. little more than arbitrary judgements).

Internal observations should be conducted in a professional and supportive way. They are not meant to be an Ofsted inspection but a check that standards are being upheld. More importantly it is a time for the more experienced teacher to help the observed teacher. A punitive and unreasonable observation results in an unmotivated teacher. It puts an individual on the back foot trying not to do the wrong thing rather than pushing to do what is best for the class.


I thought I’d liven up a last week’s staff meeting with a little bit of citric acid. When asked if there was Any Other Business (AOB) I had this to say:

“The recent NUT meeting that was called to elect a new representative was most fruitful”

[I hold up a lemon]

“This is Betty. She is your new NUT rep. And she says that everything’s just fine. But then…she’s a lemon! The sad news is that by the start of the Summer Term poor Betty will be little more than a puddle of green ooze. This means the school will have no NUT rep at all! By an interesting coincidence the film that our headteacher is encouraging us all to watch on that first day of the Summer term – Waiting for Superman – is very much an anti-union and pro-academy film. It’s a film that gets behind the odious argument that poverty itself is caused by bad teaching. These bad teachers are shunted about from school to school, because they are impossible to sack, says the film in a process known as The Dance of the Lemons”

[I waggle the lemon about a bit to show what a dancing lemon might look like]

“It doesn’t say what happens to bad management. Do they do a dance as well? Perhaps The Dance of the Apricots? We just don’t know. Anyway, please do watch the film and make up your own minds. And speak your mind. Don’t be a lemon…no offense Betty.”

On the subject of the odious argument mentioned above, and for your information dear reader, here are three paragraphs from an article about Pasi Sahlberg’s book ‘Finnish Lessons’ (by Diane Ravitch – 08.03.12 – http://www.nybooks.com):

In recent years, elected officials and policymakers such as former president George W. Bush, former schools chancellor Joel Klein in New York City, former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have agreed that there should be “no excuses” for schools with low test scores. The “no excuses” reformers maintain that all children can attain academic proficiency without regard to poverty, disability, or other conditions, and that someone must be held accountable if they do not. That someone is invariably their teachers.

Nothing is said about holding accountable the district leadership or the elected officials who determine such crucial issues as funding, class size, and resource allocation. The reformers say that our economy is in jeopardy, not because of growing poverty or income inequality or the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, but because of bad teachers. These bad teachers must be found out and thrown out. Any laws, regulations, or contracts that protect these pedagogical malefactors must be eliminated so that they can be quickly removed without regard to experience, seniority, or due process.

The belief that schools alone can overcome the effects of poverty may be traced back many decades but its most recent manifestation was a short book published in 2000 by the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., titled No Excuses. In this book, Samuel Casey Carter identified twenty-one high-poverty schools with high test scores. Over the past decade, influential figures in public life have decreed that school reform is the key to fixing poverty. Bill Gates told the National Urban League, “Let’s end the myth that we have to solve poverty before we improve education. I say it’s more the other way around: improving education is the best way to solve poverty.” Gates never explains why a rich and powerful society like our own cannot address both poverty and school improvement at the same time.

Top down lock down!

Here is a quote from Ken Robinson speaking at a Royal Society for the promotion of the Arts (RSA) event in 2009

“Getting back to basics includes recognising that great education requires great teaching; it’s not enough to know your discipline, great teachers have to know how to engage people, and great teachers do. And what, really, I think most people find exasperating is when – well intentioned as they are – politicians decide they’re going to take control of a process they don’t know, promote ideas they only half understand and remove the one thing which improves education which is the discretion and creativity of the people actually doing the work.”

(If you don’t know Ken Robinson just put his name into Youtube for a number of interesting talks he has given in recent years).

I was sat in a meeting at the start of the week where we were addressed by one of our local authority Early Years people. She was explaining the latest changes to the way that pupil-profiles are now put together. One such change at a monitoring level was that the inspectors would now be looking at five profiles in great detail; this is up on the old number of three. I asked why this had changed. Her answer was not hugely reassuring: “I just get sent these mail-shots: there is never any explanation of the thinking behind these decisions”.

One new teacher commented that it was a good time to be joining the profession because he did not know the old system so he would not be in the position of having to re-learn anything. Not one teacher in the room chose to put their thoughts into words i.e. the system is constantly being tinkered with and there will be plenty of chances to re-learn and re-learn again as the years go by! Or was it only me that thought this?

Of course this state of constant upheaval is not to be confused with a dynamic system that is in a state of flux due to the practitioners on the ground, Ken Robinson’s “people actually doing the work”, responding to the unique set of challenges in their own setting. This kind of dynamic system would be built from the bottom up and is close to the exact opposite of what we now have.

A demoralised colleague

I sent the following message to a fellow teacher who has been treated with contempt by those employed to support and guide her. She had taught a literacy lesson to a class of five and six year olds. Some of the children had used ‘ellipsis’ (as a set of dots) in their writing because they had learned about these three little dots earlier in the week. The children knew about them and were intrigued by them and by their special name: ellipsis. The management/observers regarded this as reason enough to dismiss the entire lesson as ‘inadequate’. Curiously they felt the need to ‘reassure’ this particular teacher that she was an outstanding teacher but – due to the grave matter of five year olds messing around with dots – the lesson in question had to be judged as ‘inadequate’.

A message of support:

I was dismayed to hear of your recent observation. I really do feel for you. It is an extraordinary process. I am stunned that a school can internalise the punitive OFSTED approach to staff ‘development’ to the extent that utterly demoralising someone is considered ‘what’s best for the children’. The horrible passive-aggressive nature of such encounters with our managers is very unpleasant. Just remember that there are two kinds of authority: hierarchical and natural. The former, in its worst form, is characterised by bogus ‘cleverer than thou’ language and by petty attacks on those who are further down the chain. Both of these characteristics are symptoms of insecurity. Natural authority is not about ‘x’ telling ‘y’ what to do and how to do it but rather by ‘y’ learning from ‘x’ because ‘x’ has more experience and knowledge and hence expertise than ‘y’. With natural authority one can only learn and grow in a supportive atmosphere.

Grammar Control Systems

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”
Oscar Wilde

We had an INSET about teaching grammar today. The DfES have decided to jiggle the curriculum about and, as part of this process, the teaching of grammar has been redefined. This means some aspects of grammar have become more or less important and the order that these grammatical elements should be taught has been tinkered with. The whole process is petty. The DfES reasserts its position over and above ordinary teachers while achieving nothing of real value.
As the meeting continues I realise that a teacher may agree with the state curriculum or not but it is only when a flaw is removed that it is OK to admit you thought it was ridiculous or unhelpful all along. For example I have felt for many years that the division of writing into six text-types (explanation, persuasion, recount, instructions, discussion and report) is reductionist and unhelpful, limiting a child’s idea of what writing is. Today we were told that the new ‘Program of Study’ places much less emphasis on these six text types and that there are now less rigid sets of descriptors for each of them. So now my own thoughts about this are closer to the official version. In a few years my own considerations may be heresy again.
We really did sit there today learning how the government has changed the term ‘embedded clause’ to ‘relative clause’. I don’t know what real linguists would make of this; my point is that it is completely normal for teachers in this country to subordinate their own insight and understanding to a higher authority. Real learning environments should be responding to the needs of the situation and should be in a state of creative upheaval and renewal at all times. How we teach grammar needs little if any of this kind of continual renewal and anyway if teachers can’t be trusted to do this themselves in their own settings should we really be letting them loose in the classroom? ‘Not only will we tell you what, how and when to teach’ says the DfES ‘we also reserve the right to arbitrarily change what, how and when to teach at any time’. The good teacher is a compliant one. Why would you openly question any of this? You’re only making trouble for yourself.
English grammar has barely changed for hundreds of years. But a new government feels the need to put its stamp on it. The most horrid example of this is their definition of a sentence. In our meeting this afternoon we were asked to define a sentence. All ten groups in the room came up with a variation of this: ‘a linguistic unit (a collection of words) that can stand alone to convey meaning using a verb’. Some included references to a subject and an object, some included references to capital letters and full stops. Now look at the DfES’ version:
‘All the words in a sentence are held together by purely grammatical links, rather than merely by links of cohesion. A sentence is defined by its grammar, but signalled by its punctuation.’
This definition might not easily illustrate what a sentence is (!) but it certainly illustrates the desire of the DfES to look cleverer than thou: a symptom of authority without natural authority. And there is no reference to ‘meaning’ in their definition.

Still, it’s not all bad. I spoke to an NQT colleague today (Newly Qualified Teacher) who is openly upset, even disgusted, by numerous aspects of how she must go about her job. Her values and priorities are squeezed out by the machine of state interference. But where did she get all these ideas about how children learn and what is best for children? At a Teacher Training College that’s where! Yes, those pesky academics are filling young trainee teacher’s minds with deep thought and proper reflection on what it means to be a teacher.
This job is for teachers not politicians.