Is there really no-one quite like Grammar?

To start at the beginning: the proposals to increase the number of places in the grammar school system bother me a lot.  It bothers me that there has been a natural experiment going on in places like Kent, and that the results don’t show that selective systems work “for everyone”.  It bothers me that it’s hard to imagine a just mechanism of selection (if you use a test, it will be open to tutoring; if you use anything more subjective, it will be open to sharp-elbowed pushy appeals).  The idea of multiple entry points seems odd; if grammar schools are really going to offer something distinctive and better, it’s hard to see how many late arrivals will cope with the step up from their dingy old comprehensive modern.

The whole thing looks like a stunt to address the personal and local interests of some of the senior members of the new government, and to welcome UKIP supporters into the Conservative fold.  The policy looks like it is already held together by huge amounts of sticking plaster.  Selective schools were largely scrapped in the 1960s and 1970s because selection implies rejection and the unhappiness of the rejected was louder than the happiness of the selected.

And yet…

Two of the bloggers whose thinking on education I most admire for their clarity and humanity are prepared to advance an alternative argument.  Teaching personally puts it this way:

When I became a teacher, I wholeheartedly endorsed the comprehensive ideal – but in thirty years, I have never encountered a comprehensive school that came near the academic ethos of a grammar school.

Muggedbyrealitycom gets to the heart of the matter;

An intellectual environment seems to need a critical mass of staff and pupils who revel in intellectual pursuits to get an intellectual buzz… even in schools with a genuinely comprehensive intake and thus enough students to create that flourishing intellectual environment, it is missing.

I was at secondary school in the late 1980s, and grew up in the sort of seaside town that they forgot to close down (but hadn’t noticed would become a problem).  My 11-16 comprehensive was quietly competent (I know that plenty weren’t), but I only really got to experience that intellectual buzz at the town’s sixth form college.  It wasn’t formally, traditionally academic (actually nearly half the students were doing GCSE resits or life skills programmes) but there was a buzz of ideas, perhaps because everyone had chosen to be there.  It was hugely enjoyable, I learned a lot, and got from there to a top university and all sorts of future opportunities.  It bothers me that the schools where I have trained and worked, for all their competence at delivering target grades to students, haven’t had that same buzz.

Since the 1960s, politicians on the left and the right have promised a secondary education system that would provide a grammar school education for all.  If we’re honest with ourselves, the English school system hasn’t consistently delivered on this promise.  The reforms of the last 20 years or so have squeezed out some extreme bad practice, but at the cost of a focus on surface appearance and statistic-chasing.

This leads to a painful question.  Is a seriously academic education something that can only be provided for the few?  Instinctively I’m pained by this possibility.  As a parent, I know that, whatever my children end up doing, I hope that they will do it from the perspective of a broad academic education first.  Is there a reason why that can’t be the birthright of all?  Well, there might be some reasons;

1. We can’t provide the resources to give an academic secondary education to all
That probably was true in the 1940s and 1950s.  Rationing was rightly how the government dealt with shortages then.  We have many more qualified people and material resources now- don’t we?  Whilst there are definite problems finding and retaining teachers (for example, in physics!), rationing access to academic secondary education doesn’t feel like a valid response.

2. We shouldn’t give an academic secondary education to all
Again, this feels like an argument from the post-World War 2 era; that the powers that be can dispassionately look inside someone’s mind and tell them what they need.  Different pathways at 16+ and 18+ are one thing, especially if the choices are student-driven.  Not at 11+ though.

3. We have spent 50 years trying to make comprehensive schools work as grammar schools for all, and experience shows that it just can’t be done.
Maybe, and I can understand the frustration some commentators express.  Schools have made choices, and continue to do so; what curriculum to offer, how to teach, where to focus finite resources.  For the last 15 years, the main incentives for schools have depended on getting lots of pupils over the “5 grade C (+/- equivalents) (+/- English and Maths) at GCSE” threshold whilst looking OK if an inspector visits.

Given those incentives, it’s not surprising that most schools look the way they do.  Most schools are pretty good at delivering what they’re told, if the incentives are sharp enough.  If that needs to be something different, be clear what is desired, try to devise a fiddle-proof measure of it (EBacc and Progress 8 look promising, albeit not perfect), and most schools will do what they need to.

So- are additional selective academic schools a good idea?

Despite the frustrations of teaching in a comprehensive school, I still hope not.  The problems that existing grammar schools have in devising a fair admissions process, coupled with their effect on the surrounding ecosystem of schools, would need to be solved, and I don’t think anyone knows how this could be done.

And yet…

The Toby Young problem– the impression that even good state schools aren’t delivering the type or standard of education parents hope for their children- is a real problem, and one of the shames of English education is how much that problem has been denied over the years.

It’s interesting that when YouGov surveyed attitudes to grammar schools, they found the places with strong demand for more grammar school places were the places that had some access to grammar schools already.  That could be parents liking what they see, but it could also be a recognition that by making selective schools less selective, their children would have a better chance of getting in.  And yes, if I lived in a selective area, I’m sure that I’d want my children to go to the grammar school.

Ultimately, that’s why I want to make genuinely comprehensive schools work.  Not for reasons of social engineering, or because all must have prizes.  Not even for utilitarian, growing the GDP reasons.  It’s just that education is a doorway to a brilliant world of ideas and experiences, and educators shouldn’t be putting a velvet rope across that doorway and saying “no, that’s not for you”.

And yes, that means running schools differently.  We need to admit that real learning doesn’t happen in tidy 1 hour drops onto a whole class.  We need to have the confidence to say to pupils “this is intrinsically valuable, however irrelevant or distant it seems to you now”.  We need the wisdom to choose the standards of a learning community, and the courage to be able to say “these are our standards” and mean it.  Schools haven’t always done that (not really done that), because other things have got in the way.

In a world where parents with clout, connections or cash can opt out of mainstream education, the only way to remove the privileges of elite schools is to make them redundant, by making the state offer really good.  As a nation, we have managed that with healthcare; hardly anyone seriously thinks that you will get better medical care in a private hospital than in the NHS.  I believe that this is possible in education as well.  But at the back of my mind, it bothers me that maybe it isn’t.


We could do the show right here


This book is brilliant.  I also hope that it’s really important.

The Isaac Physics project does many good things to support physics teaching.  The book Mastering essential pre-university physics is one of the best.  It’s an unusual book, and I sort of hope it’s the future.

It’s not a textbook, as such.  The main part of the book is a series of systematic exercises giving lots of practice using the key equations in A level physics courses.  Whilst these are linked to questions in the Isaac Physics MOOC, the questions work offline as well.

Compared with most A level textbooks, two things strike me about the questions.  First, there are lots of them (a dozen or so for each relationship).  Secondly, they stay relatively simple for much longer than most in texts I’ve seen.  In recent years, the pressure has been to move quickly to “higher order” problems as soon as possible.  This pressure reached a peak when Ofsted were on their “measurable progress checked every 20 minutes” kick a few years ago, and things aren’t as manic as that now.  Even still, the idea of practicing- deliberately doing lots of one thing until you are good at it- feels counter-cultural.  It’s also the thing that I’m sure is part of the gap between where many of my students are and where they could/should be.

That’s not the only unusual-in-a-good-way thing about this book.  It is the first book I have taught from that isn’t tied to a specific curriculum or specification.  It’s just the sort of physics that is commonly taught at post-16, in an order that makes sense to the authors.  It feels like a solid set of building blocks, but with implicit permission to select and arrange according to local need.  Too many GCSE and A level science resources seem to get this the wrong way round; the scheme of work is robust (and hard to deviate from), but too many of the individual activities aren’t up to the job.

In short, this book is great.  It also costs one pound per copy.  That is the possibly important wider message: printing books is really cheap these days.  Having done some not-very-in-depth research on the internet, one pound for a 100 A5 page, black and white properly bound, properly printed book looks about the going rate for a run of a few hundred copies.  Colour is more expensive (by a factor of about 4, which sort of makes sense), but most of the time, colour isn’t needed.  It’s very tempting to put the many worksheets, experiment instructions and the like that go with a typical science course into a single student workbook that looks like a book, and doesn’t lead to a blizzard of paper.  The savings in glue sticks alone would be huge.

There’s more.  We’re looking at resources for new GCSE courses at the moment, and part of me is getting cross at the lavishness of the production.  I want to say to publishers yes, I know that your book design is colourful and engaging, but it’s also expensive, and I’m not sure it’s worth the extra cost.  It’s nice that your course has an online version of the text, but if the book was cheaper, we could afford to lend every student a copy of the text, and they wouldn’t need the online one.  This book shows that it doesn’t have to be this way; a book made of black ink on white paper can still be a brilliant medium of teaching.

Finally, Mastering essential pre-university physics started life with some successful teachers sharing something that they had created for their classes which turned out to work well.  There are other channels for this, of course., but I hope that combining low-cost publishing with a teacher sharing community is the way forward.  If teachers are going to reclaim their lives and sanity, we need more resources which have been created and refined by real testing in schools.

Teachers in schools.  We could do the show right here.

A blogpost about blogposts about Brexit

Lord George Byron cared for Greece,
Auden and Cornford cared for Spain,
confronted bullets and disease
to make their poems’ meaning plain;
but you – by what right did you wear
suffering like a service medal,
numbing the nerve that they laid bare,
when you were at the Albert Hall?

Jon Stallworthy, A poem about Poems About Vietnam

For what it’s worth, I voted Remain last Thursday.  I continue to hope that what emerges from the confusion maintains as close a relationship as possible between the UK and the EU.  Right now, the UK feels like a smaller, meaner place than last week.  I can understand and acknowledge the impulse to assert sovereignty, to take control, without feeling a need to follow that impulse.  I think that mixing and sharing ways of being part of the same continent are good- and that increasing the barriers to that will leave us all culturally and materially poorer.  Whilst I know that the vast majority of those who support Brexit are not remotely racist, I hate the effect that the fallout from the referendum is having on people I live and work alongside who happened to be born outside the UK.

The important thing is that, when all the votes were counted, more people had voted to leave the EU than to stay.  In a democracy, that’s what should matter.

The thought that bothers me is probably trivial and selfish to bring up.  Like a small piece of grit in a shoe, it’s irritating and not going away.  So here goes.

Can I do more about this sort of thing?

Stallworthy’s poem is one of those odd bits of experience that has stuck with me since school.    The poem contrasts the hero-poets of previous wars, the ones who went off to put themselves in physical danger, with more recent poets whose entire fight was with words written and said in safety.

We’ve just had a battle of ideas and ideals- arguably the most important and transparent that will happen in my lifetime.  I knew what I believed, I also thought that the Leave case was a mixture of sense and nonsense, with some massive contradictions at its heart.  I knew that there wasn’t a plan for what would happen next, and I’d worked out that there can be no plan that could achieve all the things that were promised.  I recognised- having been involved in the footslogging bits of small town politics before- a campaign that was about winning votes, not winning proper power.  Real parties have to be careful about the promises they make, just in case they are in a position to fulfill them.

I knew all this, and I didn’t do enough about it.

I voted, of course- I’m from a generation and a culture where you can talk about doing your “civic duty” unironically.  I wrote and shared some tweets; I’m still quite proud of the one describing David Cameron as “the father of the nation, trying to persuade a teenager not to drop out of college and join a band”.  I said friendly things to the people handing out Remain leaflets at the train station.  (I live in Brexit Central, it was a significant thing they did).  But that clearly wasn’t enough.

Whilst I still have hopes for the UK’s future relationship with the rest of the continent, I now worry for the future of politics here.

Politically, the 2010 coalition was broadly where I am.  The financial numbers have to make a reasonable attempt at adding up, public services have to be decent, but balancing those two isn’t easy.  There is such a thing as society, but it is “us” not “them” and needn’t be government.  If my choices hurt other people, the state has a duty to consider intervening, but if not, it shouldn’t.  Perhaps most importantly, the world is a complex mesh of interactions, and simplistic attempts to solve problem X by pushing button Y are doomed to failure or unexpected side effects.

The way things are going, I don’t know where this set of values are going to be in the party system.  Boris will clearly say anything to get into Downing Street, and most of the Conservative alternatives are way to the right of this.  Liberal Democrats are still atoning for the stuff which I quite liked, and Labour are off somewhere strange.

Like I said, it’s a bit of a selfish minor thing.  Part of the whole “civic duty” thing is choosing the best/least-worst option, and working to inform it and nudge it to somewhere better.  One of the reasons our politics is in a mess is because people (like me) have been too sniffy and lazy to do this.  And while I mope about things I’ve not done, other people have got real problems to live with.  Their jobs are at risk, or they feel personally threatened, in part because of democratic choices.

And I’m here, writing blogposts.

“Maybe I like the misery”: or why low-tech teaching sometimes rocks

SALESMAN: Teamaster takes the misery out of making tea. What do you think?
MRS DOYLE: Maybe I like the misery.

Father Ted, “A Christmassy Ted

I teach science.  I like shiny new things, and if they light up or make noises, so much the better.  I like shiny new things that help me teach science.  I love using the fact that mobile phone cameras pick up infrared to introduce the electromagnetic spectrum.  Being able to use the speakers on my whiteboard to set up sound interference is cool (OK, it’s geeky, and that’s the same thing, isn’t it?).  However, when a study reported that using laptops and tablets in lectures led to worse outcomes, it reminded me of my doubts about edtech.  Not so much about the temptations of having so much other stuff at the end of an internet connection, but whether some of the ways we use technology in schools gets in the way of actual learning.

Take dataloggers.  On one hand, they can quickly, accurately and patiently record measurements from a demonstration, and the quality and quantity of data can allow classes to study things that can’t really be observed with human hands, eyes and brains alone.  On the other hand, they can make learners’ experience of an experiment more second-hand, less memorable.  It can be a bit boring recording the temperature of some melted wax not change as it freezes back into a solid, but often that’s the way into  the idea of latent heat.  Watching a computer do the same doesn’t have the same emotional effect.

The same separation from reality happens when we use information technology to process numbers or words.  The process of plotting a real graph, on graph paper, with a real pencil requires an engagement with the numbers being plotted.  It requires thought about which variable is which and where they need to go.  Spreadsheets can produce a beautiful graph quickly.  In a work situation, that’s great.  In a learning situation, not so much.

A similar thing happens when hand writing is replaced by word processing.  For a hand-written essay, it was necessary to have a fairly good idea of the whole line of argument before writing anything.  Because it’s easy to edit, rearrange and delete material in a word processor, it’s easy to dump thoughts into a document without having worked out an actual line of argument.  (We know.  It shows.  Ed.).  If the aim is to produce a product, it’s a boon.  If the aim is to think through an idea and learn from it, the technology has cut out a valuable- maybe, the valuable stage.

None of this is to say that I’d want to get rid of all the technology in schools.  I love using simulations and animations to get inside processes, and it’s wonderful to bring audio and video into lessons in a seamless way (I’m old enough to remember when watching the school television meant going to a designated room at 11.37 exactly, because that was when the programme was broadcast).  It’s great to share resources and ideas with pupils and colleagues so easily.  But that leaves a lot of edtech that I’m not so convinced by.

Perhaps the problem is that what technology often does doesn’t mesh together well with how learning happens.  Technology- especially information technology- is brilliant at taking difficult, fiddly or boring processes, and putting them in a black box.  We can then control the box from the outside, without having to worry about the inner workings any more.  The trouble is that I increasingly suspect that learning often depends on what’s going on inside that box, and it’s not enough to control it from the outside.  Our current tendency to judge the quality of the product may be diverting our attention from less visible thinking.

The misery of learning?  I hope not.  But some of the things that have been thought miseries are valuable.  Maybe I like them.


The Joy of Geek

That is what’s being a geek is, it’s not just having an interest. It’s not going to an observatory once and then being pleasantly surprised you’re not bored! It’s not being able to tell a Harley Davidson motor bike from a not-a-Harley-Davidson-motor-bike. It’s knowing as much as you can possibly know about a thing and being at least a bit weird about it.

Why are you so cross?

Because those of us who are geeks, ok, real geeks, who earned our geekhood at school through sweat and loneliness and wedgies will no longer stand idly by and watch our geekly identity taken from us by people who think geekhood is nothing more than wearing cute glasses and an asymmetric fringe! Particularly not when they are the very people who gave us the wedgies at school!

John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme

I did a rash thing recently.

I was doing a revision lesson with some sixth formers. I needed some exam questions on a topic, but knew that there weren’t any spare questions from our exam board; I collate the mock (sorry, internal) exams, and had used up the good questions there. There were some nice questions from other exam boards, but the content in the question was ever so slightly different.

(In the unlikely event that anyone’s interested, they were questions about gravitational fields. My group do a specification where they need to know about forces, others need to know about forces and energy. Don’t worry, this doesn’t have much to do with the point of this story.)

I’ve been on the exam prep training. I know that the prudent thing to do is to focus on What’s Going To Come Up. Preferably as a spreadsheet. Ideally with traffic light ratings. These questions wouldn’t have fitted on that spreadsheet, and I shouldn’t have done them. The rash thing I did was to teach my class how to do them.

It didn’t take long; it was basically joining up some things they did know with some ideas they had learned in A level maths. The class got the point quickly, and were happy enough answering the questions. I’m sure that the exercise made them better at doing physics. The trouble is that I know that, if pressed, I would have struggled to justify teaching it… because it didn’t directly move them on a grade.

There seems to be a lot of sadness in the teaching blogosphere at the moment. I wonder if some of that is because the dominant model in English schools at the moment involves taking a checklist and gradually ticking off all the points on it. By looking so hard at the boxes on the checklist, it sometimes feels like the subject behind the checklist has vanished from view. If so, that’s a loss.

One of the reasons that I do what I do is because of all the teachers I encountered when little who were able to be unashamedly, geekily enthusiastic about ideas. The content wasn’t the important bit; I remember people corresponding with Antarctic research bases, discussing tactical voting, crushes on Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre (never understood that one myself), contaminating civic fountains, John Wyndham’s novels, why cold fusion was almost certainly a flop… None of it was on an examinable syllabus, all of it mattered to someone.

There’s no doubt in my mind that schools are more efficient at ensuring that students leave with a useful set of qualifications than they were (ahem) years ago. That’s a good thing, in that it opens doors for people. If an unceasing quest to improve this efficiency leads to squeezing out anything that doesn’t have a certifiable payoff, that’s a problem, for me anyway. If every minute of 5 years at secondary school is really needed to prepare students for a reasonable range of GCSEs, we’re probably doing something wrong.

Partly, I must to admit, I like geeky enthusiasm because that sort of teaching is fun. But also, students need to experience the culture where the Joy of Geek is celebrated, and they can maybe start to recognise where theirs is.

I still wouldn’t dare do it if a manager was watching. They might give me a wedgie.


The Royal Palace, Stockholm, Sweden. (Abhijeet Vardhan)


Stockholm syndrome is a name given to the way that hostages end up having sympathy and empathy for their captors.  In a teeny-tiny way, I think I’m going through something like it at school.

I never really got on with the GCSE science courses as they were from 2006 onwards.  They were made of little modules that had to stand independently, so ideas never really linked up.  Each module only really had one way of sequencing the ideas that made any sense at all.  You pretty much had to teach each module on the basis of spending one lesson on each line of the specification, then moving on to the next line.  Then, every 12 lines or so, you did a module test and moved on to something different.  All the published textbooks and schemes of work did the same sort of thing.  It was a bit dull, to be honest.

Anyway, those GCSEs are on the way out; the current year 10s will be the last cohort to do them.  We don’t know quite what’s replacing them yet, because the new specifications haven’t been finally approved.  That’s a bit of a challenge if you teach a 3 year GCSE course.  Technically, we’re teaching our year 9s a course that doesn’t exist yet.  It could be taken as a huge opportunity for freedom.  We could teach anything; as long as the choices are sensible, it’s bound to come in useful.

What we’ve ended up doing is taking the first few pages of the draft specification, spending one lesson on each line of the specification, then moving on to the next line.  Then, every 12 lines or so, doing a module test and moving on to something different.

That’s not the problem. Neither is it really a problem that the sample resources I’ve seen publishers produce look like they are sticking to the same old model.

The problem is that I’m secretly quite glad about that.  Having taught in this way for so long, the idea of making a judgement about what matters, what might be worth teaching is pretty scary.  Not being able to confidently say to my class “this is the content you need to know to get this grade” leaves me feeling a bit naked, however much I used to hate saying that.

For a while now, I’ve felt my teaching trapped into doing things I didn’t like/believe in.  Now some of those things have been taken away, and I sort of want them back.



Good Intentions

Path Through The Forest

Path Through The Forest by George Hodan

If you’re a teacher, it’s definitely not cheating to know what is in the exam board’s specification for the courses you teach.  In fact, it’s pretty unprofessional not to know.  Similarly, it’s right and proper to have a working knowledge of the recent past papers, mark schemes and examiners’ reports.  Whilst this might need some processing before sharing with classes, it’s important that they have access to that information as well.

We all want pupils to do as well as they can.  If there are patterns in the exam questions and expected answers, it will help them achieve if they are aware of these.  If there are stock phrases, mnemonics or sentence starters that will help them to scaffold their thinking, those will help them not lose marks by missing out anything important.

Some pupils find the memorisation difficult.  It will help them to have a final reminder just before they go into the exam space.  That’s fine, if their teachers organise a final briefing for them at breakfast / lunch.  Besides, it gives an opportunity to make sure that they have had a healthy meal, and are in a positive frame of mind before an exam.  Like a coach with a team just before an important match.

So far, so good.

But what if it’s not a traditional exam, but a controlled assessment?  One which is spread out over several lessons, maybe several weeks of lessons?  One where the questions are often not just similar each year, but identical?

It’s right and proper to have a working knowledge of the recent assessments, mark schemes and examiners’ reports.  Whilst this might need some processing before sharing with classes, it’s important that they have access to the allowed parts of that information as well.

We all want pupils to do as well as they can.  If there are patterns in the questions and expected answers, it will help them achieve if they are aware of these.  If there are stock phrases, mnemonics or sentence starters that will help them to scaffold their thinking, those will help them not lose marks by missing out anything important.

Some pupils find the memorisation difficult.  It will help them to have a final reminder just before they go into the controlled space.  That’s fine, if their teachers organise a final briefing for them at breakfast / lunch.  Besides, it gives an opportunity to make sure that they have had a healthy meal, and are in a positive frame of mind before writing up the assessment.  Like a coach with a team just before an important match.

Some of this is OK, some of it isn’t, really

A part of what teachers and schools do is about maximising the return (in terms of exam grades) from a given amount of learning.  That’s not an impulse to be despised, especially if it opens doors for young people that would otherwise be closed.  It’s not cheating, as such- that is a different, much murkier kettle of fish.  But a lot of “good practice” that gets shared is about working out ways of completing assessed tasks that are easier for pupils to do.  Some of these probably fall within the intentions of the task designers, but some don’t.  And it’s hard to talk about the difference, because it’s all done from the very best of intentions.

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters