Hello, Goodbye, I love you

“I guess you know what aloha means, don’t you”

“Hallo, I presume,” Bernard ventured.

“Right. Or goodbye, according to whether you’re coming or going.” The little lady gave a brief cackling laugh. “Also, I love you.”

Paradise News, David Lodge

paradisenews.jpg

Hello

The clues were in the avatar all along. I always was a jaundiced minion called Stuart. I really do teach physics. I’m also at @stuartteachphys.  Hello!

Goodbye

But there are a couple of reasons to say goodbye to at least a bit of this persona. For a start, I’m not going to be teaching for a while. Good, positive, exciting (albeit implausible) reasons, but reasons which are going to take more head space than teaching leaves. For a while.

More importantly, the story of Requires Improvement has reached a bit of an end; maybe the end of an series rather than a complete finale, but a pause all the same. It started at a time when I was still professionally bruised by one specific toxic school, but the Requirement to Improve was a common concept in English schools. It couldn’t really work, because the combination of trad ends by prog means with spotlight monitoring according to a generic checklist had too many internal contradictions and burnt too may people out trying to make those contradictions appear to work. But for a while, it seemed to be everywhere.

I know we’re not out of the woods yet; I have friends who are teachers who still have to endure all kinds of stupid and dishonest. But it’s much easier to point to alternative narratives, which respect the role of the subjects we teach in making pedagogic choices, which are more effective, efficient and professionally interesting. There is a conversation happening in education again, and- if I do end up playing a part in that conversation in the future- it needs a different voice to this one.

I love you

Thank you- and I love you- to all the pupils who the pupils who did stuff, learned stuff and were patient when I got things wrong.

Thank you- and I love you- to the many many wonderful people I have worked with. One of the remarkable things about the teaching profession is how few people are in it for dishonest reasons. I have been given some appalling advice, by people who should have known better, and I was very nearly broken by it… but most of the people who gave me that advice were sincere in believing it, and worked stupidly hard themselves to make it work. (I can only think of three exceptions; unfortunately they were senior SLT members at a school which went toxic as a result). One of the tragic ironies of the mad-fever era of education has been that many of those who pushed the ideas were utterly sincere in their beliefs; they just failed to think hard enough about the evidence, and let themselves be dazzled by a small number of more cynical snake-oil salesmen.

Obviously, thank you- and I love you- to everyone who has taken the trouble to read this stuff, appreciated what I’ve been trying to say, prodded me to think more clearly about teaching.

Requires Improvement started as a voice for all the thoughts I had, which needed to be said but felt unsafe to say attached to the me who enjoys teaching physics and being paid for it. Maybe the debate really has moved forwards, or perhaps I’ve just got more confident in questioning stuff that doesn’t make sense. Most likely, it’s a bit of both.

Aloha.

Hello, goodbye, I love you.

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All the time in the world

The school year has (or should have) a definite rhythm to it. The start of September, when all is new and exciting, and people are awake segues into the tiredness of November. Later, at the end of the academic year, there is the delicious phase in June and July when exams are done, life is a bit less hectic, and it is possible to make plans, dream dreams, and do fiddly lessons which are fun, but require way too much planning to do on a regular basis.

Sometime in the spring comes the part I think of as Teach Like A Roadrunner.

TLAR happens when you realise that the department calendar simply isn’t going to work- at least from the point of view of ensuring that exam groups have been exposed to the entire specification before the exams happen. Various things can cause this, such as the extra round of mock exams, snow days, or the week when half the class were on a trip to Brussels. You can tell when you are in TLAR mode when the news that a class are missing your lesson to see a visiting drama group do a play about healthy relationships makes you think “Oh no, when are we going to do flame tests“, rather then “Ah-ha, cheeky bonus free“.

Teaching Like A Roadrunner is relatively straightforward. Ten minutes reading through a section of the revision guide together, then lots of past paper questions. Maybe look at comments from examiners’ reports after a bit. Rinse and repeat. I wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but it does it job- and, for some pupils, it comes as something of a relief.

“Ad hoc, ad loc, and quid pro quo! So little time. So much to know!”
Jeremy Hillary Boob , Ph.D in Yellow Submarine

Faced with the huge amount that schools could teach pupils, and the reality of finite time to do so, schools and teachers respond in various ways. One is to try to TLAR all the time. For all I understand, even respect, the drive for efficiency, I’m not sure that people work that way. We can do efficient input that way, but what if long-term memory needs repetition and time… for ideas to marinade in the learner’s mind and become permanent?

I’m reminded of a case study (OK, anecdote) I learned about when doing a computing GCSE in the 1980s. An engineering firm had bought a superfast computer to help their design team check designs of something- airplane wings, I think. In the old days, the designers had an idea, then spent a few months doodling, fiddling with slide rules, having a think, doing some more tedious sums, thinking some more, drinking lots of tea and eventually groping their way to a design that would work. The new computer was intended to take the misery and tedium out of this. Unfortunately, the result was that the designers put their first plan into the computer, and a few seconds later, it responded with “Your thing will break in these places… try again”. The massively increased rate of explicit new thinking required of the design team sent them all mad in about a month.

I think the same thing can happen in teaching and learning. When I was training, one of the mantras was “high-order creativity = good, more-of-the-same = bad”. With hindsight, I’m not surprised it made classes unhappy. I massively underestimated (though in my defence, it was what I was told to do) both the stress of trying to be creative on-demand all the time, and the effects- both cognitive and morale-boosting- of getting lots of routine things right.

But there’s so much to know. And so little time.

“What are you doing here?” growled the watchdog.
“Just killing time,” replied Milo apologetically. “You see—”
“KILLING TIME!” roared the dog—so furiously that his alarm went off. “It’s bad enough wasting time without killing it.” And he shuddered at the thought.
The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

A few years ago, there was an Ofsted report which claimed that some pupils were losing 1 hour a day to low-level disruption. Since that’s only about 10 minutes a lesson, I can’t say that I’m shocked at that idea. And I’m all for reducing that lost time.

But schools and teachers do things that waste time as well. Sometimes, I do make classes do things, like green-pen responses, which I really don’t think will advance their learning, but will make my compliance with school policy obvious. Many schools lose far too much time doing mock exams before pupils have the maturity to cope with the questions. The discovery that Year 9 (let alone 8 or 7) don’t do well on whole GCSE questions really shouldn’t be a surprise. Why are we bothering?

There’s a bigger point, at least in science. People often talk about the science curriculum as a spiral; the same ideas are revisited periodically (often once per Key Stage), but each time with more depth and sophistication. That’s a useful model. But it depends on embedding things each time. So an equation like speed = distance ÷ time comes up again and again on the spirals. But too often, the pressure to keep making progress means that things don’t get properly embedded. If we didn’t cut so many corners in Key Stage n, then Key Stage (n+1) would go so much better.

The move away from modular exams is encouraging a better model. One of the nicest things about teaching this year has been seeing pupils get to grips with the need for long-term recall. They found it hard at first- especially in year 11, for who it has been a horrible shock. But pupils have adapted their strategies, and in the longer term, they are going to learn brilliantly. That’s without my teaching (let alone my school) going full-on knowledge- though I envy those who have.

“We have all the time in the world”
James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

So what am I saying? The claim that “teacher quality = rate of learning” has ended up taking the education system down a bit of a dead end. Partly that’s because it’s too easy to fiddle, by jerry-building a tower of learning that looks good in the short term, but doesn’t have the robust foundations last.

The time pupils have in school is finite; sometimes it feels as horribly finite as the time 007 had with his dying bride. But 12 years – 14 for many – ought to be enough time to teach the things that matter, and teach them properly. Time enough to open intellectual doors, because I’d hope that learning doesn’t stop when pupils leave the compulsory part of their education. If we do it right, we can give pupils all the time in the world.

Welcome to my world

Exciting times.  We have a new physics teacher joining us in September.  Here’s what I hope I’ve let them know.

Despite everything, it’s great being a teacher. 

You know all those teacher adverts?  They’re a bit annoying, because a lot of the time, teaching isn’t fun like that.  Sometimes it is though.  Sometimes, Year 9 won’t appreciate your lesson on parallel circuits, or appear to learn much from it.  Sometimes, they will though.  When that happens, the buzz is fantastic.  On top of that, children can be great to work with; they’re (mostly) curious, funny and an intriguing mixture of superficial street-smart and charming childish gaucheness.  I’m not convinced about “loving children” as a criterion for a teacher; certainly at secondary level, we ought to be changing children into adults, helping them put childish things behind them.  But working with children can be a life-giving experience. Enjoy it.

Despite everything, it’s a good time to be a teacher.

OK.  There’s going to be remarkably little money for anything nice for the foreseeable future.  And there are terrible people doing terrible things (though who the terrible people are, and what the terrible things are is still a matter of opinion). But there is an increasing intellectual freedom in some parts of the education system, and that offers hope. For starters, all the social media malarkey has given people the opportunity to try out their ideas, and test out the claims they are presented with. Knowing that you are not unique, or crazy, for thinking what you do is incredibly empowering in itself, and it’s something that didn’t really happen a decade ago. Also, some of the tricks schools have used to make themselves look better than they are aren’t going to work as well in the future. There are increasing openings for other ways of doing school. This is a Good Thing.

You’ve got to get safety and safeguarding right.  Pretty much everything else is fixable. 

You know what to do with Child Protection issues; everyone knows what to do.  If in doubt, even if it’s a vague unease, report it to the appropriate person in the appropriate way.  In terms of lab safety, think through the risk assessments for practicals, and be prepared to stop if you aren’t convinced about the class’s ability to work safely.

Beyond that, anything that goes wrong is fixable, even if it doesn’t seem it at the time.  If a class leave the lesson not understanding, look in their books, try to work out what went wrong, and fix their learning next time.  If a class gives you the run-around behaviour wise (and someone probably will), sanction the ringleaders (and don’t panic if you don’t catch everyone, or you can’t quite pick up the scale of bad perfectly), and reset the expectations as the prelude to a fresh start next lesson.

You will be horribly short of time, so bear that in mind when planning.

Recycle lessons, and bits of lessons.  Don’t laminate anything.  If you must do card sorts, give pupils an uncut set and a pair of scissors. Make them tidy up at the end, so you don’t have to.

Part of the art of teaching is channeling and conserving energy.

It’s about 7 or 8 weeks from September to half term, and another 7 or 8 weeks to Christmas.  That’s a lot.  Think how you are going to keep going for that long.  Look out for the days in your timetable where you teach non-stop, and how you can be get everything ready for them.  Plan something nice for half term.

Another part of the art of teaching is making sure that pupils actually do the work.

Unceasing vigilance is hard to do as a teacher.  Human nature being what it is, pupils will often slacken off the work rate if they think they can. Think where you will sit, stand and move to address this.

Part of the art of science teaching is managing resources.

Where are exercise books at the start and end of lessons? How are you going to get experimental equipment out and back? What will you do when things get broken? In a really well-run school, there will be answers to these, so ask. If there aren’t, work out what you want to do. It doesn’t really matter how good your plan is, as long as you have one. But do count apparatus in and out, and log things that get broken.

Technicians are heroes.

They know how everything works. They also know how everyone works. Be friendly and grateful, and give them the paperwork they need. Prep rooms are usually a great place to decompress after a difficult lesson. Everyone has difficult lessons.

Watch out for magnets and compasses.

A certain kind of light-fingered pupil loves magnets and compasses. Definitely count in and out. And check that the compasses point the right way before you start the lesson.

Experiments with electric circuits never, ever work.

Usually there’s a dodgy connection, or the fuse in the ammeter has broken. Spend lunchtime getting one example circuit working properly.

Make lots and lots of lists, and keep them in a big folder.

One of those big (but not lever arch) ring binders. Make it distinctive and lurid, so that you will recognise it when you put it down somewhere.

Have information about every class and every scheme of work. If you put documents (like seating plans) in those transparent document wallets, you can write on them in board marker, and rub them out later. This is quite handy for in-lesson notes about naughty children.

When you make phone calls (and you should, for both good and bad news), record who you spoke to and what you said. You might find it useful to write down the key points before you pick up the phone; you will sound much more convincing if you have the facts to hand.

If you must do colour-rated spreadsheets, use pastel colours.

You and I both know that the difference between an estimated attainment grade and a made up target will be small enough to be swamped by the uncertainty calculation, because we’re physicists, and understand these things. Until the revolution comes, you can at least use the paler colours of the palette. At least then you can look at the wretched things without getting a migraine.

I don’t think anybody can really tell you how you should teach.

I can tell you, and show you, how I teach.  Sometimes that’s great, sometimes… less so.  I can also tell you, and show you, the sorts of ways of teaching that generally work better in the context of our school, and the things you need to do to fit in the whole-school demands, so that they don’t tell you off and continue to pay you.

But I can’t tell you exactly how to teach, because there is a pretty wide range of things that work roughly as well as each other.

I’m not arguing for an “anything goes” approach here.  Some of the approaches to teaching really don’t work, like extreme discovery learning with novices.  For everyone’s sake, your classroom routines need to be reasonably consistent with the rest of the school. But anyone who tells you “this is how you should teach” should be nodded to, and then walked away from whist maintaining loose eye contact.

It didn’t feel like that 10 years ago; then there were people making reputations by claiming that teaching was a solved problem; as long as we all conformed to the checklist, all would be well. The checklists didn’t really work, because they missed out too many possibilities, and checking the checklists took too many people too much time. The education system is gradually learning this. All I can ask you to do is try stuff, sense if it’s working, and respond appropriately. I’m sure you will be great.

In the meantime, it’s break time and the kettle is on. Bagsy the penultimate chocolate hobnob.

 

The obedience paradox

demon-headmaster

The Headmaster is a marvellous man, and this is the best school I’ve ever been to.

(Gillian Cross, The Demon Headmaster.  I don’t think this line has ever appeared in an Ofsted report.)

I was born in the 1970’s, and most of my school years were in the 1980’s.  Whilst I didn’t go to my home town’s Trendy School, where teachers were known by first names, I don’t think obedience was seen as something to be cultivated; responsibility and consideration were the watchwords.  The Demon Headmaster was clearly a wrong’un from the first pages; the children in his school are strangely neat and well-behaved and they even work during break.  Long before we discover that he wanted to take over the country by mass hypnosis, it’s clear that he was up to no good.

The thing is, however you dress and decorate it, some parts of school life really are about obedience.  If I’m teaching a class about electric circuits, I might well want them to make decisions about what circuits to build and test.  However, I also don’t want them to connect the meters in ways which will cause things to get broken (unless they are cheap and safe to break, and the breaking is interesting).  Whilst it’s right to give reasons for instructions (“if you plug in the voltmeter that way, you won’t get any current anywhere, because it has a huge resistance”), there is still a bottom line.  During a lesson, I need pupils in the class to do certain things in a certain way, because that is best, overall, for the learning that needs to be happening.

That’s before we get to exam courses.  I don’t think that there can be any doubt that GCSEs and A levels are currently largely about obedience; obedience to a set of assessment objectives, expressed in a predictable mark scheme.  As teachers, we may not call it obedience, but when we say “to write a top band answer, you need to include these points and express them in this way”, we are essentially asking for obedience.

In many important ways, the pupil experience in English schools now is a lot more constrained and regimented than I suspect it was in the recent past.  The system is more target-driven, and it’s sometimes a struggle to mould those targets to an individual’s plans, rather than what a computer database says that they ought to get.  Lesson notes have to be done in a school-approved format, which teachers and managers monitor.  Come to think of it, I don’t think any of my teachers would have had a teacher-directed seating plan.  All of these might be good things, but they are constraints which have been introduced.

I don’t think that I am describing a super-strict no-excuses school here.  Even if one wishes to be flexible, and agree some aspects of classroom routines with classes, there is still- somewhere- a bottom line scenario which says “we have to do this thing, at this time, in this way“.

And that’s the difficult bit.

This great blogpost by Georges Simplon clarified the problem of what happens next.  One paragraph really stood out:

I get them to like me, I crack jokes, I confuse them, I act the alpha male, I use the occasional put-down, I shout loudly for no more than a second, and then bring my voice down to just above a whisper.  I make eye-contact, and I try to make sure every kid in there knows that I like them and want the best for them.

I don’t think that Georges’s experience is unique.  Certainly, the schools I have trained in, and worked in, have had written behaviour policies which are there not to be used.  The heavy lifting of getting pupils to do what you want is by relationship-building and Jedi-mind-games.  Those tools are useful, up to a point.

But the thing about a lot of these techniques is that they work at a subconscious level, and need an element of surprise to be useful.  Once both parties are aware of the game being played, they become a lot less effective.

Worse than that, some of the worst-behaved pupils I’ve had in my classes have been brilliant at these strategies themselves.  They act alpha, they crack jokes, they try to confuse those around them.  Even if they haven’t learned those strategies in school, they have certainly had their use legitimised by what they have seen teachers do.

In any case, there’s a paradox here.  Explicit demands for obedience are seen as bad, and it’s right that anyone in a position of authority should find that status at least a little bit uncomfortable.  But behaviour management as practiced in schools often seeks the same ends, just by less direct means.  Leaving aside the question of efficacy, it seems to me that there is a question of honesty here.  If, as teachers, we aim to manage pupil behaviour implicitly, is that really any more liberal or liberating than being explicit about expectations and consequences?

 

The requirement to improve

“Requires improvement”.  It’s a curious phrase.  Although it’s made of English words, there’s something not-quite-English about the idiom; as if it’s been translated by a computer from a less friendly language.  It’s rather passive-aggressive, with the emphasis on the aggressive.

I doubt that it was used much before 2012, when Ofsted re-badged satisfactory as R.I..  I understand the intention and ambition behind the change.  Five years on, though, I’m increasingly convinced that the label of “Requires Improvement”, as a label that one part of the education system can stick on another part, hasn’t worked.

For a while, any problems with schools were seen as essentially technical.  The impression given by those in charge was the right way to teach had been sorted out, and it was simply a question of making sure that the resources were available, and that teaching staff jolly well did what they were told.  (I have memories of a head holding up the Ofsted framework, in much the same way that an evangelist would hold up the Bible, and telling us that this was The Way To Teach).  It was (and to an extent, still is) a strange mixture pedagogies which probably didn’t really please anyone.

It wasn’t (and isn’t) prog; if a lesson has a clear (and teacher-defined) success criterion, it can’t really be progressive.  Comparing my experience as a pupil in the 1980’s with that of the pupils I teach now, they are much better trained in what to write to pass exams, and their whole school experience is much more closely managed than mine was.

Equally, it wasn’t (and isn’t) trad; if the lesson model is about pupil talk, or putting generic skills above learning a canon of content, it can’t really be traditional teaching.  It wasn’t (and isn’t) fully technocratic either, though the prevailing model of teaching had (and has) a lot of monitoring, tracking and intervention to hold the whole thing together.

(This might be why the prog-trad wars in education are often so unproductive. Both sides of the argument can make a reasonable claim to “have lost”, so both sides feel like David up against Goliath.  In situations where we feel our opponents have an inbuilt advantage, it’s very tempting to think that the rules of debate shouldn’t apply quite so rigourously to us as to our opponents.)

Anyway- that was the model of teaching.  From 2012 onwards, teaching that didn’t conform to that model Required Improvement.  Teachers were to be frequently observed to make sure that they were doing all the things on the checklist, and if they weren’t there in an observation, heaven help you.  So, everyone did what they were told.  This worked about as well as the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente did at preventing World War 1 (rude word coming up):

Edmund:  You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other.   The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent.   That way there could never be a war.

Baldrick:  But this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?

Edmund:  Yes, that’s right.   You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.

George:   What was that, sir?

Edmund:  It was bollocks.

Blackadder Goes Forth: Goodbyee

In these last few years, teachers have done a lot of things which were, frankly, rubbish, in order to avoid being labelled R.I.  We’ve taught in 20 minute blocks, and moved pupils onto new content before they can possibly have got long-term mastery of anything.  We’ve done mini-plenaries and convinced ourselves that we could say exactly what pupils have learned.  We’ve obsessed about Purposeful Learner Talk all the time, and ignored the difficulty of thinking in a room with multiple conversations going on at once.  We’ve put subgrades and sublevels on individual pieces of work, ignoring the detail that grades and levels didn’t work like that, can’t really be divided into thirds and that there’s good evidence that grades swamp any other feedback you give.

I’ve done all of these things, even though I sort-of suspected that they weren’t a good idea.  The Requirement to Improve was a Requirement to Conform.  Worse than that, the conformity was to a model which was actually quite questionable, if you dared.  Understandably, few did for a long time.

Whatever the frustrations and imperfections of teaching in England today, it is a good thing that this model has begun to melt.  There are schools of all sorts of stripe trying models which they believe in, which are different to the standard prog-trad-tech setting.  That’s healthy.  It does leave a challenge, though.

“Requires improvement” as a label would be problematic, even if it hadn’t driven some pretty harmful trends.  Requiring improvement as an ambition, something chosen, that’s a different matter.  It might not show up in results, even; the focus on progress measures based on real grade scales (like Progress 8) shows how hard it is to change results on a school-wide basis.  Improvement has to be about doing the right thing, because it’s the right thing.

Improvement also needs honesty about what approaches to education are more likely to work better in the classroom, particularly in a world of real children and finite resources.  Part of that honesty is about acknowledging what we don’t know, rather than enforcing the current orthodoxy.

As I said at the start, “Requires improvement” is a curious phrase, with a tone characteristic of a certain way of doing things.  It’s a way that hasn’t gone away… yet.  But just maybe, it is fading enough to allow real improvement to happen.

Collated Discourses, or what the CD format might tell us about textbooks.

cddiffract

Compact disc: image from http://hyperphysics.phy.astr.gsu.edu/hbase/phyopt/grating.html

Like I suspect a lot of schools, my place has a conflicted attitude towards textbooks.  We spend a fortune on the things, and more than a few of them go home with pupils, even when they aren’t meant to.  Despite this, we don’t really use them; not as a go-to resource for planning lessons.  Some of that is because of the standard teacher-guilt that says that a textbook lesson is, by definition, boring and shows that we don’t love our classes enough.  However, we all do make quite a bit of use of the other parts of the bought-in scheme of work; the worksheets which have to be downloaded, printed, copied and then somehow attached to pupils’ books.  Put like that, it’s all rather odd.

In some ways, it’s the right response to the current situation; as Tim Oates has pointed out, market failure has led to a situation where many textbooks published for UK use aren’t all that good.

Although there’s a lot to be said about the content of textbooks, I suspect that part of the problem is that schools and publishers have boxed themselves in with the design of the modern UK textbook as an object.  I’d like to suggest that a story about the development of the compact disc might be helpful.

The tale goes that, having developed the basic data format of the compact disc, Sony and Philips had to decide on the size of the disc.  Sony president Norio Ohga is said to have specified a disc which would be able to store all of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, whilst being able to fit in a jacket pocket.  It’s a fantastic story, showing how engineers can turn practical constraints into a well-defined product.  The evidence for the details is unfortunately patchy, but even snopes.com doesn’t debunk it entirely.

So, channeling my inner Norio Ohga, what specifications might I want textbooks to have to make them useful?  I can think of three…

1.  Students should have their own physical copy of the textbook, for the duration of the course.

I want students to have access to the text, so they can revise from it and explore it.  Symbolically, I want them to have the feeling of “owning” the content.  I also want them to experience the responsibility of that ownership, and bringing the book to lessons.  Whilst digital models can give access to the information, the lack of permanence (and the accessibility for poorer families) means that the emotional and practical interactions aren’t the same.

We can’t do this at the moment; the books are too expensive to afford 1 book per child.  On top of that, they are often too flimsy; some of our new GCSE books already looking a bit sad after 1 year’s occasional use in classrooms.

2.  The text should be rich enough and self-contained enough to be a viable cover lesson or catch up for students who miss a lesson.

This isn’t really about cover lessons as such; hopefully, they will stay infrequent enough to not be a defining issue for schools.  I’m trying to mark the point where a book has enough detail.  Ideally, this text would contain the community wisdom of the teachers of a subject; the ideas, models and phrases which make subjects clear to learners.  (I still remember being told that the point of static electricity was that it was static– it couldn’t move).  Good books are packed with this sort of thing.

 

3.  If possible, the content of the text should serve for different exam boards and specifications.

Partly, this is to work around the market failure problem; a lot of the issues with modern textbooks happen because the only real question for schools to consider is “does this book precisely and accurately match our exam board’s specification?”. Schools have got trapped in a cycle of replacing textbooks very frequently, to keep up with changing exam models.  I’ve only been teaching in schools for about a decade, and I’m already on my fourth version of GCSE science and third version of A levels.  There’s more to it than that, though.

A lot of the really classic textbooks have lasted, evolved, improved and become classics because they haven’t been too closely tied to changing exams.  There’s also something appealing about the idea of a book that says to learners “The things you need for the exam- they’re not everything.  There are other things to know about your subject“.

Some possible consequences

Some things follow about the design of books.   If schools are going to afford 1 book per child, they need to be cheaper.  The simplest way of reducing the price of books is to simplify the design and print- probably by moving back to mainly black-and white.

Extending the useful life of books will help, which implies stronger binding and covering than most books have right now.  On my bookshelf, I have got copies of the A level maths textbooks by L Bostock and S Chandler (you know, the ones with the concentric circles on the front cover).  They are getting on for 30 years old, and are still in reasonable condition.  I doubt that the books my sixth formers get will last anything like as long.

If a textbook is really going to richly contain whole lessons, we need to move away from the one-spread-per-lesson model which seems ubiquitous.  Sometimes, a double page will be too much; sometimes it will be too little.  (Actually, many resource packs get round this by stealth; the book contains some material, but any overspill is put on a worksheet which needs to be separately downloaded and copied.  Maybe “doesn’t require daily trips to the reprographics centre” should be another design criterion.

The final point- decoupling textbooks from exam specifications- might be the hardest of all, because it means changing minds, which are the hardest things of all to change.  For all the modern textbook-as-a-glossy-version-of-the-exam-spec model saddens me, I understand why schools do it.  Even if it doesn’t make that much difference to results, it shows schools are doing their best to prepare pupils, and aren’t taking risks with them.  In a fearful culture, it makes sense to be cautious.  I hope that culture is beginning to change.

A more interesting type of textbook for a more interesting type of education- what else should it have?

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.