Search This Blog

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Slow down and do it better

Although a significant number of the posts in this blog over the years have been "Get it off my chest" rants, so that I can keep on doing the job, I am at heart a postive and optimistic person. It's just that sometimes it is hard to find the appropriate voice for constructive critcism in the education sector. Speaking the truth to power is essential but when power doesn't really listen for the best part of a decade, frustration can creep in.
  • The DfE contains highly skilled, highly motivated and highly dedicated civil servants who have been rushed off their feet throughout Covid trying to issue guidance to support school
  • Unfortunately due to the massive fragmentation of the education sector, the DfE no longer actually knows what is actually going on in schools [see many other posts on this blog on fragmentation]
  • Political leadership at the DfE and in No. 10 appears to believe that the role of the department is to strongly assert certainty and ‘best practice’ when only uncertainty and emergent practice exist 
  • This is why there have been so many ‘U-turns’ as information comes to light that overtly contradicts the department’s over-confident assertions
  • Consequently, much of the department’s ‘guidance’ serves only to shift blame for failure from itself on to school and Trust leaders and in doing so creates work with significant opportunity cost to children and communities
The purpose of this blog is to highlight the importance of focusing on quality and not speed when issuing education guidance during Covid by constructively reviewing its latest Framework for reviewing remote education. So let's quickly and superficially identify what is wrong or insufficiently thought through:
  • As a whole the framework adds little value and much confusion, it is effectively a self-assembly noose with instructions to, “Insert neck of responsible officer here”
  • It's based on a false premise as we simply do not know which are the better ways to deliver remote learning to children not in school yet, so we should be seeking first to understand before we rush to measure
  • It is confused about whom it is for and confuses governance with operational management throughout
  • It imposes a self-assessment grading system without evidence base or terms of reference and although it (optimistically) asserts it will only take “approximately 1 hour” to complete fails to show how this will achieve anything other than the creation of a piece of paper marked 'remote learning self-assessment'
  • Having been drafted at speed for multiple audiences, it is less than clear over who is responsible for what and fails to even mention Trustees from whom authority must be delegated in MATs for some of the decisions it mentions
  • It wrongly and dangerously attempts to make schools and Trusts responsible for the safety of the home learning environment when this can only ever be a parental responsibility
  • Although it is merely repeating the line from other guidance, the requirements are stated in terms of quantity (hours per day) not quality when the role of remote learning is not to fill time but to help children learn
  • It appears to add a requirement to provide real time both way communication ‘school community events’ which are likely to be safeguarding nightmares
  • It lobs a reminder about GDPR in at the end just to keep us on our toes
  • And its last line is one of the best “There are clear rules for behaviour during remote lessons and activities. Pupils know them and teachers monitor and enforce them.” 
  • Anyone who has attended Google hangouts, MS Teams or Zoom meetings in the last year will immediately understand the impossibility of controlling behaviour of primary school children remotely. NB the Spanish councillor or other example of carelessness and stupidity whilst online
So far so easy and so negative. But what would better and more succinct look like? To which I offer the following:

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Postpone all formal examinations for the forseeable future

The government and Ofqual and some education bodies are currently arguing furiously over how we will be able to run examinations in 2021 if Covid continues unabated.

They are entirely missing the point. It is like arguing over what colour to paint the lifeboats whilst the ship sinks.

There is a limit to what an examination system can tell you. No amount of brute force trauma on next year's exam statistics will be able to redress the unfairness in the learning already lost to Covid since March. Exams are not impossible. It is perfectly possible to design a comparatively safe way to conduct them next year. But why would we bother? We already know beyond any doubt that they will be irrelevant and fundamentally unfair.

Exams are merely a proxy for what we think young people may or may not be able to do next. They are effectively passports or letters of introduction which say, "You can trust the bearer of these results to be able to..."

  • Study 4 A levels with a reasonable chance of passing them
  • Reasonably hope to complete a BTech
  • Cope with the academic rigour of a university course
  • Thrive in this apprenticeship
  • Etc etc
Surely as a sector we can come up with some form of emergency letters of transit that equate to a letter from their current school that says, "Peter could reasonably have expected to have achieved between x & y GCSEs at grade q or above had he not lost six months of school in the last year". The next institution can accept Peter onto its programme of study or work; perhaps with a novel probationary period, if it turns out that Peter can't actually keep up with the demands of his new programme.

This is the only way that massive regional and economic unfairness is not further baked into an already divided country. 

This emergency process need only be for the duration of Covid and the only risk is that we admit a small number of people onto programmes of work or study that are too challenging for them. Well, what is wrong with that? Provided we treat them fairly and supportively, we can say, it looks like this course is a little too hard for you why don't you try 'x' instead.

The three arguments that the government has used thus far to defend its absurd attachment to exams under Covid are:
  • To do any different undermines the credibility of the exam system as a whole
  • It is unfair to those in previous and future years
  • It risks promoting people beyond their capabilities
The first point only matters if you are trying to protect the myth of a meritocracy. And can you really tell me that anyone in the current cabinet other than perhaps Rishi Sunak is there on merit?

On the second point if you could find me one person from the past or the future that says, "No we shouldn't err on the side of kindness to this year's cohort, whose education was ripped away from them by Covid. No. Let's mark them down because it's unfair on me". I'd say you'd managed to find an idiot and a heartless one at that.

And on the third point, see my answer to the first point.

Thursday, 29 October 2020

What is a school?

 As you already know, dear reader, I am a classical liberal educator. Unfortunately, we live currently in a period of deliberate endarkenment. But there is always hope...

I sincerely hope that America gets rid of Donald Trump next Tuesday. But there is nothing I can do to make that happen. Closer to home and in a field where I might have a tiny bit of influence, I sincerely hope that the Covid pandemic impact on the operation of schools will lead to a re-examination of the process of education that is to the benefit of the learners themselves. 

Wilhelm von Humboldt said, "We cannot teach language, we merely create the environment in which it is learnt". And with the rolling ongoing closing of schools I hope that we can deconstruct what we understand by a "learning environment".

As I have written before, most people have strong opinions about education because most people at least attended a school and thus believe they have received or suffered an education. But the extent to which most people, including many politicians, actually think about or understand the process of learning is tiny. We tend to conceptualise the process of educating through its machinery, namely schools.

Education is done to children - in classes - by teachers - in schools - run by headteachers - held to account to a greater or lesser extent by local or national governments. Even the late Ken Robinson in his famous TED talk used the metaphor of a factory to explain what he saw as wrong with education, when he asked if "schools were killing creativity".

But as Le Corbusier famously described houses as being, "things for living in" then schools should be "things for learning in" and here we can see that the process of education, or 'schooling', is not defined by the physical school or classroom itself.

Indeed children can and do learn at home, in the park, online, in the playground... anywhere in fact. Equally as schools are forced to send more and more children home to learn "remotely", they must realise that they have lost control of the learning environment, if indeed they ever had it. 

Much of the flurry of Covid remote learning has been the creation of pre-recorded lessons in video format that children can watch at home. But however much care is given to the platform through which teachers communicate, test and feedback to children, I don't think anyone has got the technology to tell whether any particular child actually watches the videos with the sound turned on and pays attention.

I suggest a school should be determined by its output. A school is the thing which creates, in the mind of a child, sufficient trust that appropriate risks can be taken from which learning may occur. Schools should create learners. If they do not, then they are not schools, they are merely childcare facilities.[1] 

This in turn poses questions about how you measure whether learning human beings have been created by our schooling process but that is for another post.


[1] The Covid pandemic has revealed that our current government cares more about schools as childcare for workers than it does as instruments of social progress

Monday, 19 October 2020

Centrist Dad's lament - provoked by looming no deal

 "If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain"   

For much of my adult life I have misattributed the above quote to Churchill. A superficial web search throws enough doubt for me to be unsure of its true origin and slightly embarassed to have been wrong for so long; Churchill having famously left the Tories at age of 56 to join the Liberals for a two-decade stint.

I suspect the reason I have not questioned its origin is because it appears to be so self-evident. As we get older, we have more to protect. The most obvious corrolary is, "Turkeys don't vote for Christmas". And yet maybe I should start examining the things I believe to be obvious in more detail as 2020 seems to have more than a little topsy-turveyness about it.

I have felt disenfranchised for the best part of a decade, if not longer. My political choices have generally been choices between the least dreadful. I cannot remember voting for someone I genuinely trusted to do right by society. In my youth I despised Margaret Thatcher at least partly because I was young and to do so was fashionable. Looking back now, although I still disagree with most of her policies and grieve at the damage done to communities and society, I can at least respect a values-led politician.

John Major is a man to whom history has been surprisingly kind, although his fondness for cricket and Europe are probably behind my affection. And what wouldn't one give to have politicians of the stature of Clarke and Hesseltine more involved in government now?

It is odd that I feel most let down by Blair. Not because of the Iraq war. I have to admit that I did not oppose it at the time, so I will not fly that flag of convenience now. But because of the lost opportunity. New Labour could have done so much more and in the end was brought low by its squallid compromises. Brown I suspect, like Major, will weather increasingly better with the passing of time as the importance of his role in avoiding genuine global financial collapse in 2009 becomes more apparent. But timing was against him as was his slightly awkward style and he paid for his predecessor's crimes

I flirted briefly with the idea of Clegg, despite having probably been a possible Lib-Dem for many years before his accession. But I cannot really forgive the degree to which he enabled a government so much worse than the one that he claimed to have mitigated. He was so comprehensively outmanouvred that his party was consigned to irrelevance.

Whilst Boris probably only make's the 8th level of Dante's Inferno [i] but with claims to the 2nd, 3rd and 4th (go on look them up it's fun), David Cameron I condemn to the 9th. He must go down, amongst some stiff competition, as the worst leader this country has had in centuries.

I already have some sympathy for Teresa May but the sooner we are done with Boris and all who sail in him the better. Society is coming apart at the seams because of the box that David Cameron arrogantly flung open and I'm not sure that there's much hope left at the bottom. 

The damage we have done to our country over the last decade borders on vandalism.

Would that the Greens had a little more pragmatism... [ii]


[i] I do not believe in hell so this a merely a thought experiment in ranking catastrophic leaders

[ii] My political compass appears to have moved a click or so to the left since I last checked but I'm still quite libertarian (in American terms)


Saturday, 29 August 2020

Rip it up and start again

Earlier this week, on an innocuous phone call, I vocalised what I realised I had been thinking for a while; it's time to get rid of the Department for Education. In the immortal words of Orange Juice, "Rip it up and start again". The government as a whole has not had a good Covid but No. 10 and the DfE are the bottom of of a particularly sticky pile escaped, perhaps only, by the treasury and Rishi Sunak.

One of my colleagues asked me yesterday, "What would be worse if the DfE ceased to exist tomorrow?" Neither of us could think of a single thing and that is why it is time for a reboot. By releasing this evening at 8pm on a Bank Holiday weekend their latest guidance, and then at 9.30pm amending their previous guidance, they have jumped their own blame shifting shark. 

The lion's share of the work of getting children back into schools during Covid has been done by Multi Academy Trusts, Local Authorities and by schools themselves. Covid has starkly revealed that government and the DfE in particular no longer even understand, let alone have any control over, what goes on day-to-day in most schools. It has been revealed as the most cavalier of absentee landlords who has let the entire building rot without realising or caring. It is clear that it cannot be shaken out of its self-defensive and bureaucratic torpor. Education needs to be completely reimagined from first principles. 

Whatever replaces the DfE needs to re-learn and re-examine the system for which it is accountable; so that when it speaks it does so with an earned authority. It needs to listen to the profession and give the impression that it cares in order to rebuild a modicum of trust without which it will achieve nothing. It needs to invest in its own people and trust them so that they can speak truth to power, when power needs to be told it is talking out of its arse. It will be helped greatly if it refrains from issuing guidance without first asking itself, "How will this help children and schools?". Then and only then when it has an actual understanding of what goes on in schools and the spaces between them (because the education system is much much more than just the sum total of schools) coupled with an informed, motivated, self-confident and self-critical staff can it think about redesigning structures of accountability, which are its current sole obssession. The fixation with accountability is easy to explain; if you have someone to blame for failure, you don't actually have to do anything difficult or expensive. But we should aspire to more for our children.

I have written here and elsewhere about the pernicious consequences of the fragementation of our education system over the last decade, which has bordered on vandalism. But the gap between education policy makers and practioners must be addressed as a matter of national importance. Society is formed at the gates of primary schools but teachers can no longer bear the burden of maintaining a civil society on their own. I

Any half decent school improvement professional will tell you that all successful schools prioritise their children and familes and most failing schools prioritise their senior leadership and staff. The first of the seven Nolan Principles is "Selflessness" and yet I would be amazed if a member of the current government or indeed any preceding government could spell that let alone live it. Governments prioritise the pursuit of power. Most schools prioritise the wellbeing of their children and families.

Who would you rather trust?

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Treated with contempt

"Primary pupils do not and have not needed to be kept apart in the classroom" From 24 June – Coronavirus – Daily update to all early years, children’s social care, schools and further education providers

With the 15 words above in an update email today, the DfE has shown in just how much contempt it holds the teaching profession. As a Chief Executive of a Multi-Academy Trust, I am not trusted with details. So I cannot tell whether this contempt originates from Downing Street or from Gt Peter Street, although I suspect the former.

To get the detail out of the way early, the innocuous clause above contains an outright falsehood. The DfE is trying to suggest that it has always maintained that social distancing was not necessary in Primary Schools. This is not a cock-up, this is a re-writing of history (one of my colleagues has pointed me towards a good SchoolsWeek article highlighting exactly this). When challenged, it is going to fall back on the only sentence in the hundreds of pages of guidance it has issued to schools over the last 15 weeks that contains anything even close the idea that it does not want and has not repeatedly asked for social distancing measures to be implemented in primary schools. 

That sentence, issued on June 1st says,

"We know that, unlike older children and adults, early years and primary age children cannot be expected to remain 2 metres apart from each other and staff. In deciding to bring more children back to early years and schools, we are taking this into account."

Acknowledging that something is probably impossible amongst hundreds of pages of encouraging people to strive for it nonetheless is not the same as pretending that you never asked for it in the first place.

What follows is speculation but as this is a blog, I am allowed to speculate. I encourage anyone who can correct errors in my guesswork to point me towards evidence that I am wrong.

I am told that SAGE, when modelling the scenarios for Covid, always assumed that social distancing in primary schools would be impossible. This is not an unreasonable assumption. Small children like physical contact. But if this were the case, it would have been nice for them to tell us. Conversely everything that issued from the DfE over the Covid lockdown was about the paramount importance of 2m+, islolation, test and trace, 72 hours to leave contaminated spaces, PPE and all the rest.

The stress under which the primary school system was placed was immense. I would not be surprised if headteachers have died from the stress, although I must be clear that I do not know that this has happened. 

Behind all this lies a really difficult political choice. Whilst the impact of allowing the Covid virus to progress largely unchecked through the UK will cost tens of thousands of lives, it is also possible that keeping the UK economy locked down might cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The UK government has a choice to keep schools closed and society locked down to contain the spread of the virus and with that condemn this country to a recession it has not experienced since the Black Death in the 14th century. Or ease the restrictions to allow the economy to recover and by doing so allow people to die.

There is something really terrifying in that phrase, "Allow people to die". It has echoes of WWI and "Lions led by donkeys". But the greatest good of the greatest number is the principal responsibility of government and no-one said it would be easy. But if hundreds if not thousands of dead teachers and support staff, of which many BAME, is the price that we need to pay to avoid hundreds of thousands dying through a terrifying recession, then the very least we can do is tell them the truth about the risks they are taking.

If you want to have moral authority, you must first have morals.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

The endarkenment chapter IV: a new hope

How intriguing that I haven't blogged for four months... [1] It's almost as if there have been some unforeseen events that society has had to deal with. I trust my reader will forgive me. Although he or she may not forgive me jumping from, "Endarkenment II" to, "Endarkenment IV" just so I can make the weak Star Wars gag in the title. Shall we assume that III would have had too much Jar Jar Binks in it and leave it at that? [2]

I was talking recently to my rather wonderful and unlawyerly lawyer Nick Mackenzie for a Podcast, in which he asked me to find a positive from the Covid-19 crisis; to look for hope at the bottom of the box. I answered that maybe the pandemic would finally dispel the myth of control. I know it doesn't look possible now, as we are globally beset with moronic 'alt right' leaders who demand our fealty above everything. As their incompetence and bluster is exposed, they clutch tighter to the idea of of command and control as the only solution; banging the drum of flag, tradition and tribe. Let's pray it crumbles to dust in their ever tightening grasp.

My hope is that if we can help the scales fall from enough people's eyes, then maybe we can make education and society better.

What most people and still too many educators are yet to grasp is that whilst the requirement for social distancing remains our schools can probably only receive 44-51% of pupils back into classrooms, depending on school size and staffing. This means that education as we understand it will fail. We will simply not be able to get enough children back into schools in the traditional 30 bums on 30 seats way. This in turn will force us into some form of innovation involving digital technology. Whether it be splitting years groups into A & B cohorts for week on/week off schooling with the off weeks supported by virtual lessons at home, or the extension of the school day and school year into holidays and weekends to allow for catch up, or exam year groups being prioritised back to schools, while others learn from home. All of the options require a massive contribution from Ed Tech.

If we are moving to a space where the average pupil to teacher ratio in school is going to drop from just over 20 to just over 10 (in the primary sector with and without social distancing), then this can only be solved by a massive influx of teachers or a significant re-imagining of how pupils can learn when they are not in school.

I use the verb "learn" deliberately because when children are not in school we cannot "teach" them. However upsetting this will be for the starched collar, new-Edwardian, uniform, discipline, Empire and repetition brigade. We cannot metaphorically throw a board-rubber at a child at home who has got bored of the tedious video their teacher has sent them and is looking out of the window. We have lost control...

Likewise headteachers, who have been ground into submission by decades of accountability without authority, clinging to their false 'autonomy', need to realise that the only way we can make the system work is by children from their school having access to subject matter specialisms from teachers in other schools. And I don't mean the wet superficial collaboration that our sector bleats about where 'experts' with a badge drop in on another school for a day or two to lord it over their less fortunate peers. I mean genuine co-innovation at a system level. 

We need to start thinking seriously about the creation of inspirational learning environments outside of school that draw on the deep knowledge held by teachers about their pupils but also look for efficiencies in content creation and curation. We must avoid absolutely the 21st century equivalent of plonking the children in front of the TV to watch an 'educational programme', even if that programme is high quality and based on a curriculum sanctioned by Minister Gibb himself.

The problem with all virtual learning is it spends too much time and money at the curriculum end of the challenge and almost none at the delivery end. If the only reason that children were learning in classroom is because you've metaphorically locked them in, how are you going to cope if they can play Fortnite instead?

Unfortunately, as a nation we are in about the worst possible place for this to happen having blown up our school system into the structurally incoherent mess it is today. If ever there was a moment for school trusts, groups and cooperatives to step up and show how the creation of a learning environment goes way beyond sitting up straight in class and listening to teacher but into the minds of each child, it is now.

'Education is the lighting of a fire not the filling of a pail'

Let's start building learners.


[1] I started writing this blog before the rant I published on Friday

[2] Yes, I know that Jar Jar Binks only had one line in 'Revenge of the Sith' but that was one line too many.