A Spat with a SpAd Part 3: QTS, or not QTS, that is the question

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QTS or not QTS, that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and arrows of the DfE,
Or to take arms against a sea of Ministers,
And by opposing end them?

To die: to sleep; To teach
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That every DfE policy brings; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death
When we have but lost to workload and stress
What dreams may come of being free to teach

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

With sincere apologies to William Shakespere

I never understood Hamlet when it was a set text in English at my grammar school. When I got the chance to take part in a production of Hamlet with the West Glamorgan Youth Theatre in 1976 (I was the Player King), I understood it so much better.

My first English teacher – who failed to inspire me,  was unqualified – he had a great Oxbridge degree, was a classics man through and through and I swear he wore a gown while teaching (I think that last memory is not real, however, gowns were worn for assembly). I passed the 11+.  When the grammar school was shut in 1972, a result of Labour’s blitz on selective education in the mid-1960, many of the teachers, including him, were re-deployed to the new comprehensives. He continued to teach as if it was still a grammar school.

I had a few other teachers who were ‘not qualified’ (many I didn’t know were not qualified until I spoke to a former teacher some years later about my time in secondary education and he told me who was and who wasn’t qualified).

I failed English literature, twice. My chemistry teacher wasn’t qualified – but I had extra tuition to get my O level (Grade C). My best teachers were the young ones, the ‘bright new things’ from the teacher training colleges.

But this anecdote is not the core of my argument for having qualified teachers over ‘unqualified’ teachers.

I have a much more pragmatic approach to the QTS vs No QTS debate.

Why wouldn’t we want our teachers qualified to enter a profession that is so important?

What on earth makes someone think that simply having a degree in a subject makes you suited to be a good teacher? Why would we not want teachers to be trained to understand how children develop and learn and what’s wrong with providing teachers with skills that will help them be good or excellent classroom practitioners?

A Job vs A Profession

Teaching is not just a job. I’m not going down the ‘vocation’ path (that’s not a bad path, but it doesn’t mean those with a passion for being a teacher and wanting to teach will make good teachers). Jamie Martin’s (@jamieamartin1) core argument is to ‘let Heads decide’. If they wish to hire someone to teach who has no formal teaching qualifications then let them.

Until Gove abolished the need for QTS in academies and free schools, all Heads could employ ‘unqualified’ teachers – they were called instructors. So, that choice already existed. This is not some new ‘freedom’ that Heads have been gifted by Gove. In some instances Heads found it very difficult to employ someone for a specialist role, or they had difficulty in getting a specialist teacher say for maths or physics. For the latter, they would try to get them on a training route to gain QTS, perhaps via the GTP route. If the specialism was really niche they could employ them as instructors. In the 1970s one of my school rugby coaches was a member of the then almost unbeatable Welsh rugby squad – he took us for rugby and nothing else. He did not fulfill the duties of a full teacher.

Here then is the difference, instructors could not fulfill the complete role of a teacher. All Gove has done is make it cheaper to hire ‘teachers’ by abolishing the need for academies and free schools to hire trained professionals. Perhaps he was fully aware that school budgets were due to be severely cut in time. Staffing costs are a school’s biggest expenditure. This makes it the area where most saving could be made, provided the law was changed to stop any form of early years pay progression and the need for any formal teaching qualifications. The evidence is that unqualified staffing is on the rise.

Teaching is not just a job, it is a profession. The difference between a job – something you ‘do’, where perhaps your training has just been about the ‘mechanics’ of the job the day to day stuff – and a profession is that a professional is educated about the profession and not only are they trained in what to do, they also understand why they do it and they are on a continuous path of learning, greater understanding and improvement.

Who needs training? A good degree is all that matters!

Talking to Heads myself, of course they much prefer trained staff over unqualified staff – no matter how good their qualifications in a subject are. There are exceptions, e.g. Richard Cairns of Brighton College, one of the top private schools, does not believe that QTS confers any/much advantage. He would prefer to hire Oxbridge graduates direct. As a private school Head he can exercise that choice freely – as can all other Heads at private schools. But is this because an Oxbridge or even a Russell Group degree prepares you better for teaching? Or is it more likely that those who have been to Oxbridge are better placed to coach those students in how to work the system to their advantage and get, like them, to Oxbridge?

Increasingly in my time in ITT I see private schools hiring more and more qualified teachers and putting staff through QTS. I do not see them decreasing the number of qualified teachers in favour of the good Oxbridge degree (or any other good degree for that matter).

Then came a bizarre part of my conversation with Mr Martin.

Well, the evidence from the many calls, e-mails and conversations I have daily with Heads and our partnership schools is that most state Heads (including academies) want qualified teachers. I know that our Sussex trainees have been employed in all schools types from top private schools (including Brighton College before Mr Cairns tenure) to high profile free schools, such as the West London Free School. Our employment rate, consistently over 90% with, often, 100% in Primary and many shortage subjects, show our trainees to be coveted by our schools.

I’d be interested if any Head could cite a case where excellent QTS NQTs were passed over for unqualified teachers – excluding of course because of any cost related reason. A newly qualified teacher would start on around £22,244 but the unqualified rate could be as little as £16,298. Mr Martin would also abolish these pay rates allowing Heads (actually governing bodies and MATs) to set their own rates. A free market with choice. But as Simon Jenkins argues well in a recent Guardian article, the free market and schools do not go well together.

But the thing that struck me most was the claim from Mr Martin that he didn’t favour extensive training. Why? Surely you would not want someone who is a professional to not have been trained? He cited many large companies that take people on without training and then train them on the job.

(the phrase ‘train on the job’ came up a number of times and I also refer readers back to part one where I show that uni training is as much on the job as school direct). He also mentioned soldiers, but as I reminded him you would not send a ‘soldier’ straight into a battlefield situation to ‘train on the job’ all soldiers have basic training as a minimum before they get anywhere near a battlefield or a conflict zone.

Earlier in the conversation, Mr Martin stated that:

It’s still politicians choosing how people are trained. Remember, School Direct is the favoured approach and any limits put on numbers are put on HEIs first and School Direct Last. Politicians are also still determining that more places should go to School Direct regardless of its success rate.

Do ‘Qualified’ Teachers Make Better Teachers?

It would be nice if there was research which showed that teachers who were qualified (i.e. trained and certified as teachers) had a more positive effect on student achievement than those who were not. One extensive piece of research which shows just that was carried out 15 years ago in the US. It concluded, amongst other things that:

Among variables assessing teacher “quality,” the percentage of teachers with full certification and a major in the field is a more powerful predictor of student achievement than teachers’ education levels (Darling-Hammond, 2000 p.32)

In other words, by all means strive to hire those with good degrees, even masters or PhDs if you like, but combine that with training and certification as a qualified teacher and you will get better teachers overall.

What About the Trainee Teacher – do they have a choice in this?

There is also a fundamental ‘missing element’ here – so far the conversation has been all about Heads (and teachers) choosing how teachers should be trained, with his insistence that School Direct is the preferred choice of some (many?) Heads – though evidence as to how many actually wanted the system initially is glaringly absent.

What about those who wish to train to teach – they must have choice also. Prior to 2010 they had choice and many choose the University PGCE route. The BEd route is often the preferred route to primary. Post 2010 their choices have actually been reduced. The massive switch of provision to school direct only, the capping of places for ITT in university in favour of school direct for popular routes e.g. English, History, PE, primary forces candidates to choose school direct even if it is their wish to train in a university. They often do this, seeing the benefits of M level study and not just (in some cases) QTS. Heads must also ‘choose’ school direct and bid for places in the hope that a university partner will support and deliver what they want – even if they do not really wish to take on the extra burden of administration etc. involved in school direct. It’s either that or hope that enough trained teachers come out of the system that they can employ.

The ‘free choice’ market, beloved by Mr Martin is also not really a free choice. There is evidence that a number of school direct teaching schools are pre-selecting those who they perceive to be the best trainees and signing them up to jobs while other schools, who may be in partnership, but who are not leading or teaching schools, lose out.

At present there is a teacher recruitment crisis and it was amply predicted by all sectors well in advance. The DfE even to this day ignores the evidence from all the teaching unions and Heads leaders – their response to the ‘crisis’ is, in the words of one twitter user (not a teacher I may add, but a school governor) ‘delusional’. In a BBC report on 11th January 2016 the DfE response to the teacher recruitment crisis is as follows:

A Department for Education spokeswoman said it had worked with the profession to “raise the status of teaching”, adding that that a record number of highly-qualified graduates and “experienced career changers” were now teaching.

She added: “But we are determined to go further, and recognise that some schools find it harder to recruit the teachers they need, which is why we are expanding the great Teach First and Schools Direct programmes and we are launching the National Teaching Service, which will mean more great teachers in schools in every corner of the country.”

I’m sorry, but this is a pitiful response to a national teaching recruitment crisis.

How does abolishing the need for any formal qualifications in teaching ‘raise the status’ of teachers? It does just the opposite.

Pay has been massively eroded with a further 4 years of a maximum 1% rise – a rise which some schools are withholding due to budget cuts.  This does nothing to ‘raise the status’ of teachers – again, quite the opposite.

The National Teaching Service – as far as I can see – is not about training more teachers, but taking good or excellent teachers from one school to place them in another.

Notice also, in the DfE comment, how university training routes does not even warrant a mention.

Teach First is still a very minor route into teaching and I doubt has the capacity to expand to adequately meet the crisis. And in all this chaos, the best recruiters, the majority recruiter with nearly 50% ‘outstanding’ provision, is being stopped from expanding and is being cut back, all so that Gove’s (now Morgan’s) reform can provide ‘choice’ to Heads – choice that they had before, but which now is no choice, but a forced position to bolster a flagging and failing route that was rushed and badly implemented. As I stated in Part 2, it’s no choice!


Accountability, but to whom and how?

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My views on the difference between responsibility and accountability have been quite pertinent . I first wrote on this in the TES almost exactly a year ago here and in part restated my views more here As our Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, defines what a ‘coasting’ school is, exactly who is responsible for the exam results achieved seems very relevant. I’m not going to tackle Morgan’s definition of coasting schools, that’s a whole other issue, but I am very uneasy that it seems to be based almost exclusively on examination success.

Having tweeted a link to my blog on whether cheating is endemic in our schools, I was pleased to see that many others agreed with my sentiment that the only person responsible for exam success is the person sitting the exam.

The blog was not an examination of the issues surrounding accountability and responsibility, but Robert Craigen an Associate Professor of Math, University of Manitobaa did, quite correctly, point out that while I had identified the ‘what’ I had not addressed the ‘to whom’ or the mechanisms for accountability.  “I see you address “for what” in the piece. I’m still curious about to whom? Parents EG? By what mechanism? Not assessments?”

Who should hold teachers to account?

The short answer to this is that teachers at various levels should be accountable to a range of people and ‘organisations’.

Classroom teachers will be accountable to their direct line managers for their day to day work, delivering the curriculum through the lessons they teach. Ensuring that they plan their lessons, deliver them, keep up to date with their subject knowledge and with any changes in the curriculum and, of course assess their pupils usually formatively as well as summatively. At key ages they also need to prepare pupils for public examinations . They will be accountable to parents through the dialogue they have with them either at parent evenings, through informal contact at the school gates, or more formal contact via letters and communications to the home.

At a higher level those with curriculum responsibility – that is responsibility for ensuring the curriculum is delivered, will be held accountable by their direct line managers in the senior management team. They will also be classroom teachers and so have the same accountability as already described above.

The senior leaders in a school have a responsibility to effectively run their school, to manage the budget, staff the school etc. Some of these functions are often delegated down (e.g. middle managers handling their own budgets for their areas of responsibility) and overall the Senior Leadership team should be held to account by parents and those organisations/authorities that provide the financial resource for the success of the school as a whole.

Beyond the school who has a say in ‘accountability’

Now things get very messy in my view.

Our system of education in England (I will avoid, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as their systems vary) is a ‘mash up’ of organisations that ‘run’ schools. Public bodies and private enterprise all have a stake in education and all want their say. From Local Authorities who used to govern all state controlled schools, through to private companies that run private schools as well as Churches, educational trusts (that run academies) and, now, some parent/private groups from football clubs to retailers and the firm that make JCBs that run free schools, technology schools, studio schools etc. Each of these bodies will want to hold teachers to account for the work that they do.

On top of all this we have national central government which, under a cloak of ‘freedom’ for schools is actually imposing strict controls on what children learn from the content of the curriculum to what subjects they should take in the public examinations.

Ultimately schools and their employees will be held to account by the government. Government has a key role here and much as we’d like the government to leave education alone, that is not going to happen. The best we can hope for is that they become the ultimate body that holds the system to account, but does not impose it’s ideological whims on us.

Governments are often here today, gone tomorrow, elected people. They are not necessarily experts in the fields over which they preside. Few secretaries of State for Education have ever worked as a teacher, one key exception was Estelle Morris who was a qualified teacher who did the job for some years. I do not doubt that politicians want education to benefit all children, but they should not impose their own ideologies on something they know nothing about.

I believe in local accountability. Everychild deserves a good school, every child deserves a good teacher. Where we have local accountability I believe things can be better managed and delivered. Knowing the context in which the schools operate, knowing the local situation when it comes to employment, opportunity etc. is vital. Centrally imposed structures that take little heed of local conditions cannot, in my view, meet the demands of the people.

So the next question is HOW do we hold schools to account?

Is it just about examination success or is there more to it than that?

Examination success is one factor for accountability; it is not the only measure of success.

When ‘assessing’ teachers too much is made of ‘lesson observation’. In my work with newly qualified teachers I have seen people destroyed by the ‘one off’ observation or judgement by observation only, forgetting that, in the job of teaching, how good you are is not just how well you perform in a class. We need a holistic view of teachers and teaching. We need to look at the work a teacher does across a range of indicators from how they plan, teach, work as part of a team, reflect, maintain their skills and knowledge base and interact with children, parents and other professionals. All these things to a greater or lesser extent (and others that I have no doubt I’ve missed off this list) determine the success of a teacher.

The same is also true for school success. We need a much more holistic view of what a school does and achieves for all its pupils, not just whether it meets an arbitrary figure of say 60% A* – C in a group of subjects.

Parent’s and children’s views of the school and how successful they think it is are important, so too are the views of other stakeholders such as employers.

At this point, I’ll admit that coming up with  a system of accountability that incorporates a holistic view of schools is very daunting, but surely we should at least try? Working out whose view is more/most important is also tricky. Many parents in some areas care little about their local school and probably wouldn’t bother to give a view. Employers want young people with specific skills for their company regardless of how specialised they may be (e.g. JCB is unlikely to rate a local performing arts school that produces talented dancers, singers and actors very highly when what it needs are engineers).

OFSTED, one of our current mechanisms for accountability, is having a very rough time at the moment with confidence in its judgements being quite low for many teachers. But I do believe there is a need for an inspectorate for schools. Again I would rather local inspectorates that understood the contexts etc. that schools operate within rather than teams from all over the country pitching up with no knowledge of the locality, other than having looked at reams faceless data.

This response to the questions of ‘who’ and ‘how’ is really just a knee jerk reaction to the pertinent questions raised by Robert Craigen. My belief is that we must first establish what we mean by responsibility and accountability – something I started to do last year. Once we establish those parameters, then we must move on to answer in full (with better, well-reasoned arguments) the questions of, To whom? and By what mechanism(s)? are teachers/schools accountable.

“The One Show”: BBC perpetuates the myth of Learning Styles

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Pie chart of learning styles


I was interested in an item recently broadcast on “The One Show” featuring advice on memory and how to improve your memory. The show item was, in itself, fine and provided quite commonly available advice on one way of improving memory. Viewers were directed towards a BBC website for more information.

Section 6 has highly disputed information, presented as if it were accepted ‘fact’. It’s our old enemy Learning Styles! You know, the thing that ‘progressive’ university types are trying to indoctrinate trainee teachers with? Except of course many of us fight the Learning Styles guff we see in schools at every opportunity.

Creative Commons with attribution licence

 So this is how the BBC iWonder website supported the item on “The One Show”

Section 6  Live and Learn

The section begins with the statement (attributed to Dr Jess Quirke, a clinical psychologist).

“When you want to learn specific information, before an exam perhaps, it’s best to know what style of learning is your strongest.” Clinical psychologist Dr Jess Quirke says: “By using your preferred learning style you are more likely to retain and remember information. These usually breakdown into three areas: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning.”

In education we are fighting hard to dispel the myth of learning styles which seem to pervade our schools. The reality of learning styles is that there is no such thing! People may describe or provide a ‘preference’ but research shows that this in no way aids their learning.

In a published peer reviewed paper in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Pashler et al (2008) state in their conclusion that: “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.”  (full text available by clicking here).

Riener and Willingham (2010) state, “students may have preferences about how to learn, but no evidence suggests that catering to those preferences will lead to better learning” (p. 35). A careful review of literature suggests that, while learning styles are prominent in education, there is nearly no supporting evidence of their existence, and that the theory should not be used in education.

A meta-analysis of research into learning styles by Coffield (2004) also concluded that “learning style researchers do not speak with one voice; there is widespread disagreement about the advice that should be offered to teachers, tutors or managers. For instance, should the style of teaching be consonant with the style of learning or not? At present, there is no definitive answer to that question, because – and this brings us to the second problem – there is a dearth of rigorously controlled experiments and of longitudinal studies to test the claims of the main advocates.” (p.140)

Baroness Susan Greenfield is also a critic of learning styles, stating that “The rationale for employing Vak learning styles appears to be weak. After more than 30 years of educational research in to learning styles there is no independent evidence that Vak [visual, auditory, kinaesthetic], or indeed any other learning style inventory, has any direct educational benefits.” She goes on to state that “We do students a serious disservice by implying they have only one learning style, rather than a flexible repertoire from which to choose, depending on the context.”

Additionally, while learnings styles is also common in business management, its use there has also been severely criticised e.g. by Reynolds (1997) who states that there is inadequate research to support the use of learning styles and that there are considerable doubts about its validity (full reference available by clicking here)

There is a considerable body of evidence to show that learning styles are a popular myth, with no empirical research that conclusively shows the advantages of such categorisations for individual learners.

I’ve submitted a complaint. I wonder if W1A will take note…


Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 417-444.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Learning and Skills Research Centre (pp. 1-182). London, UK.

Dekker, S., Lee, N.C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology: Educational Psychology, 429, 1-8.

Henry, J. (2007) Professor pans ‘learning style’ teaching method Daily Telegraph

Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2010). Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles. 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior (pp. 92-99). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science,9(3), 105-119.

Riener, C., & Willingham, D. (2010). The myth of learning styles. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 42(5), 32-35.

Rogowsky, Beth A.; Calhoun, Barbara M.; Tallal, Paula (2015) Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 107(1), Feb 2015, 64-78.

Nicky Morgan’s Policy just doesn’t add up

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Please Note: I would normally like to insert links to useful research, blogs, news items etc. in my blogs, but time is pressing and I wanted to get this out today. If I have time, I will update later with some links.

All Children Must Learn Times Tables – that is an order, direct from the Secretary of State!

I’m from the generation where I had to recite times tables twice a day in primary school. I went to a Church primary, if we failed we got caned. Did I learn them? Yes. They can be useful when shopping or doing a rough estimate. Whether or not they have made me fully numerate is another question. I get by in maths. I have to, I did a science degree, I taught science. I do some quantitative work in my research. None of the former were really helped by knowing the times tables.

I also know the first twenty elements of the period table. This did not help me understand chemistry. I learned a few Shakespeare quotations by heart (e.g. from the Merchant of Venice, The quality of mercy is not strained…), again no use in my life other than as a party trick now and again.



So what are we to make of this ‘new’ pronouncement and policy on tackling poor numeracy and literacy (again the ‘war’ metaphor raises its ugly head).

I can see secondary maths teachers in general liking the idea that 100% of 11 year olds will be able to instantly recall multiplications up to 12 x 12. Perhaps English teachers would like 100% of all 11 year olds to be able to spell a defined list of say 144 of the most commonly misspelled words in English. What about 100% of all 11 year olds learning all the Kings and Queens of Britain, or has someone already proposed that? Then perhaps 144 rivers, or 144 chemical elements (the fact that, at present, we only have 118 known elements will be an inconvenience no doubt).

In China 6 year olds are required to learn 3000 characters – that is part of their ‘literacy’. Memory is a great thing, but memory does not equal numeracy or literacy. memorizing things is a very useful skill, though not a predictor of intelligence per se.

This new policy and the idea that we should be in the ‘top 5’ of the PISA results by 2020 is great politics, but extremely poor education policy. League tables are a very bad indicator of success – look at how many ‘top teams’ have been knocked out of the FA cup by much lower teams in much lower leagues – should Chelsea now abandon it’s coaching and training strategy and employ the strategies of Bradford?

To succeed in PISA we would at least have to have a curriculum  that taught what PISA examine. This means our curriculum is not decided by us, but by an international committee. Surely our curriculum should be decided on what we value and think is right for our children and not on what other countries (which may well have different needs) require?

So is Rote Learning All Bad?

Rote learning some things is not all bad. I don’t object to times tables, or learning some Shakespeare or even some maths formulas or chemical elements, but when people’s jobs and careers, are decided on such things it has to be wrong.

Can we get 100% of 11 years olds to learn their times tables?

IN SHORT NO. It is a silly aspiration, a ridiculous target. There would have to be many exemptions for this for numerous pupils whose special needs or disabilities mean that such a target is a complete nonsense. I wonder how many appeals we would have due to illness etc. on the day of the test? Would they have to show they can actually do all twelve tables up to 12 x 12 or would we ‘sample’? What if a kid hits lucky and just knows the ones asked for, but doesn’t know, for example, their 9 times table and we didn’t ask that question?

Can we Force a child to Learn?

NO. Children can be stubborn, they can be awkward, they can ‘not do’ things to ‘spite’ you, they can be brilliant yet forgetful, they can be studious yet fail to comprehend or remember even simple things.

In my primary school days learning was ‘forced’ through the threat of violence – the cane. It was regularly meted out for simple infringements like not knowing a table or misquoting a beloved poem of the teacher. Mr T (I won’t give his full name) was the nastiest teacher in my primary. Many years later, when I was a teacher myself, I asked him why he was so vicious, authoritarian and why he loved the fact that all children feared him. He said (and I paraphrase here)

It was always for the good of the children – learning doesn’t come naturally to kids, especially those from ‘poor homes’. If I have a dog and I want to teach it, I use cruelty as a kindness – if the stupid dog tries to run across the road and I shout at it, it will stop in fear at my voice and I will have saved its life. That’s what I did for all the children I taught – they dare not, not learn something in my class and then they will thank me later when they get a good job, I will have saved them from their own ignorance and made their lives better.

I never thanked him, and I never will, as I believe he was thoroughly misguided and wrong.

Knowledge vs Understanding

And so we come to the most argued about bit – does ‘knowing’ something mean you understand it? Some people argue that I’m splitting hairs when it comes to knowledge vs understanding, that they are fundamentally one and the same thing. I disagree. I will say that knowledge is a precursor to understanding, but that knowledge does not have to be, for all things and for all time, permanent.

So, for me, knowledge in the form of recall of facts, recall of times tables or Shakespeare does not equal understanding. I knew some passages from the Merchant of Venice – did I understand the meaning? No. Did I get the themes behind the play? Not really. At the age of 14 of course I did not. When it came to Shakespeare’s plays, my understanding of them arose not by memorizing lines, but from acting in them when I was a member of a Youth Theatre. I understood the meaning behind Hamlet’s famous soliloquy not by learning the speech (I was the Player King in this, not Hamlet), but by listening to the actor making the speech and by watching the rehearsals and talking about it with him. I have since learned some of it, just for fun.

There is a lot of intellectual snobbery surrounding the rote learning of things like Shakespeare and various ‘classic’ poems. I know no poems off by heart, I know a few short passages of Shakespeare. Once, at a party, one intellectual snob kept quoting famous lines, poems, Shakespeare and lauding it over those who could not, including me. He presented himself as this erudite man intellectually superior from the rest of us. At one point, I ended up chatting to a small group and he came over. I flattered him and said how impressed I was at his abilities. I asked “could he do one more for us?”,  “Of course” he said – “how about the first twenty elements of the periodic table?” I said, “I bet you can rattle those off, with no problem, a really clever man like you”. His eyes opened wide his mouth gaped and he stormed off, with the rest of the group laughing at him. I’m not proud of a put down like that – (I was in my twenties and much more immature then).

I know lots of science facts and I can recite certain science principles, laws and theories – but nobody seems to care about that!

Is this proposed policy really going to work?

No. The idea that you simply walk in and replace a senior leadership team if 100% of your pupils don’t pass these tests 2 years in a row is a nonsense. It is linked to forced academisation and, as has been illustrated elsewhere – most recently in government reports, academisation seems to have little to no effect on standards. The policy of changing school structures as a means to raising standards is a busted flush. It does not have the effect that Gove promised – a transformation in our schools.

The real agents of change are the teachers and senior leaders in schools

Threatening to sack anyone who does not perform well will not bring about reform and change that is sustainable. It will do more damage than good. Teachers will be placed under even more pressure to get results fast – leading to much more bullying in the workplace and frequent disruptive staff changes.

Heads will not wish to take on any school where there is even a slight chance that the pupil cohort isn’t already meeting the targets set. Children who have genuine difficulty in just memorizing things will be labelled as failures from the earliest of ages, some may even find it difficult to get school places as ‘hidden selection’ becomes the way of ensuring you keep your job.

What if a group of parents wishes to unseat a Head? Quite simple to tell your children to get a couple of answers wrong, fail a test and hey presto – the Head and the SLT get sacked!

Counting Down to the Election

In my view this is a political puff policy –  it has already served its purpose in grabbing a headline in the Tory press – front and (OK not quite) centre – it certainly had the largest font, making it the lead. Will it come to pass? I doubt it. Certainly not in the form in which it is being reported.

Oh, and by the way, take it from a scientist – don’t trust atoms! They make up everything. (OK I’ll get my coat…)

The Carter Review of ITT is out: does it go far enough?

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The Carter Review of ITT is out. The purposes of the review were:
• To define effective ITT practice
• To assess the extent to which the system currently delivers effective ITT
• To recommend where and how improvements could be made
• To recommend ways to improve choice in the ITT system by improving the transparency of course content and method

A Missed Opportunity?

What the review didn’t do – though it was never asked to – is assess whether or not the current models for training teachers and the in-built timescales for training are really fit for purpose. Increasingly I am of the opinion that, rather than tinker with the current system of training in the belief that what we have is adequate and merely needs minor changes, we should take a long hard look at our teacher training and aim for a paradigm shift in ITT that would meet not just the needs to today’s schools and pupils, but future schools and pupils. Too much change and reform in education is short-term. Are we in danger here of taking a short-termist view of ITT in the belief that the current system is fine and merely needs a few cosmetic changes?

When review is undertaken two questions should always be.

  • Is what we have in place now not just fit for current purpose, but also robust enough to respond to future change and development?
  • Is the reform we aim to make merely a short-term response to current and near-future need, or is the reform aiming to be generational, with a longer term goal of overall improvement in mind?

The current system (more or less) of ITT that we have is much the same as the training I received in the mid-1980s. Subject knowledge was not addressed during training as there was/is insufficient time to incorporate meaningful enhancement. Teaching theory, child development, and how children learn is still patchy, seen as ‘useless’ by some trainees and serving teachers or as ‘unscientific’ pseudoscience. The most important and useful aspect of teacher training, according to many, is experience in school, in the classroom and learning to teach ‘on the job’. I was certainly of that inclination as a young trainee teacher – the ‘professional studies’ lectures were seen more as a necessary evil than an integral part of teacher training. Over time I realised that far from being ‘useless theory’ they were in fact the basis of professionalism. It’s not enough to what to do and how to do it (on-the-job training) you also need to understand why you are doing what you do. That is, for me, what makes teaching a profession. It is clear from the review that the current time available for ITT is insufficient. For example when it comes to subject knowledge, the review says that “the most effective courses make use of pre-course time for subject knowledge development.” (p.26) Advising trainees on what subject knowledge to acquire, at what level and ensuring that this is what is needed to enhance their teaching requires someone, somewhere, to put in place detailed information, advice, links to sites or even develop subject knowledge materials. Who is paying for this? Yes, providers will routinely ask for ITT students to prepare for the course, but surely something identified as crucial to good teaching (the teacher’s own subject knowledge) should be an integral part of the training. By acknowledging that this has to happen outside the official training time, even before training starts, and unfunded for both trainee and provider, surely is an admission that the time we have for training is insufficient. The Carter review acknowledges that subject knowledge cannot be addressed in the short time a PGCE has, so recommends that this is taken back into schools during the NQT induction year.

Why not Generational Change?

Generational change is not easy and requires institutions and politicians to look beyond the imminent political landscape to plan for change that will, over time, be transformational. For generational change in ITT I would look to have a pathway into teaching that begins during the undergraduate degrees of interested or talented students, which feeds into a postgraduate system that secures training in schools and university and leads to not just qualified teacher status but also a Master’s level academic award.

The two main routes to QTS are an undergraduate route (normally four years to incorporate a degree in education and professional experience for QTS) and a Postgraduate route which is just 36 weeks long (again this will vary on the route, e.g. Teach First with less initial training but longer support, or School Direct Salaried which technically could be a whole school year, but the standard Post Graduate Certificate in Education is funded for 36 weeks).

As school become more complex is a longer training needed?

Our schools have become ever more complex, the demands on teachers more widespread and multifaceted. The pressure to ‘deliver’ results – almost, it seems, at any and all costs, has never been as acute. But entry to this complex profession can be granted in just 36 weeks. The Initial training is, as the name suggests, and as the Carter review very helpfully points out, initial, but have we really got any agreed, validated and systematic pathways of further training and development which produces world-class professionals? Reading the review it’s clear that we haven’t and that is professionally very bad news. Granted some schools have excellent first year training and induction for newly qualified teachers, others have developed CPD pathways that suit the needs of their own schools. But for the profession to succeed and address the problem of early career burnout we have to ensure that the training is world-class.

How much would this cost?

Of course the major barrier to effecting changes such as these is cost. Can we afford to train teachers for any longer than we do at present? I’m no economist and do not pretend to have all the answers, but a route that identifies potential teachers during their undergraduate studies (as they do in Finland) and a steer from professionals as to what content would actually suit their aspiration of teaching would help address some of the subject knowledge issues, this is, again a welcome recommendation in the Carter review. For those who come to teaching after their degree has ended, a six month subject knowledge enhancement course is a must in my view. By combining training (which needs to be paid for e.g. in the same way that the current PGCE is funded) with employment and looking creatively to subsidies and bursaries across subjects to fund M level academic study, we should be able to provide a better training that is cost effective.

A departure from the norm

The year-long programme of initial teacher education to concentrate on ‘how to teach’ can work much as it does now, with some pressure taken off the need to deliver subject content.
At the end of the initial training year I would depart from the norm. Too often NQTs are employed as if they were fully experienced teachers. Too many schools place too much responsibility on NQTs and expect them to be ‘fully equipped, hitting the ground running’. Rather than give someone full QTS after their initial training I would provide them with a licence to teach – where the Licenced Teacher is part employed in schools and attending advanced M level professional and academic training leading to a full Master’s degree. If their teaching was restricted (along with the roles they have to take on and the responsibility they have to shoulder), Licenced Teachers would be able to carry on their ‘on-the-job’ training with the space and time to fully reflect on their teaching and the pupils’ learning as well as continue to develop professionally. Schools would have employees that they can evaluate over a year for potential posts. Follow this with a supported first year in teaching as a newly qualified teacher – again with a reduced timetable, increase pay from the licensed post but not quite full pay, and the individual further develops as a professional. Finally in year two they will be ready to take on a full teaching post at a full professional salary, with full qualified teacher status and a full Master’s degree. Such an entry to the profession is, in my view, more likely to lead to professional who can not only deliver the best teaching, but who will also have developed a resilience and understanding of the profession, meaning they are less likely to quit.

This is a quick ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to the Carter Review – I have skimmed the document and see many valuable recommendations. Already the DfE has published its response – which I am yet to fully digest (though at 8 pages it will be a quicker read!).


Is there hope for education under labour? Part 1 Schools

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Tristram HuntShadow Secretary of State for Education, Tristram Hunt MP’

‘Education is the solution to social mobility and social justice. It was also the way in which we can secure our place in the competitive international economic scene.’

I may be an old cynic, but for me schools succeed in spite of political interference rather than because of it. Teachers, school leaders and those of us working in associated areas of education are usually very creative. We work around initiatives that we see as flawed to deliver the best that we can for our students. Yet politics plays a big part in our lives – more so over the past 5 years where the pace and extent of educational reform has been unprecedented. With a general election looming thoughts are now focussed on what the political parties are planning for education. Will education budgets be protected? Will the reforms currently in the pipeline be carried out? Have the major parties got sensible policies for the future of education?
At a meeting yesterday I got the chance, with a group of school leaders to hear first-hand what Tristram Hunt MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education had to say. The meeting took place at the Brighton Aldridge Community Academy (BACA) one of the few academies in Brighton and Hove. The meeting was brief, but afforded us the opportunity to ask questions about his views and the direction he would take if he became Secretary of State for education.

Where do we Start?

The place to start, naturally is with Early Years education and he hoped to re-boot the Sure Start scheme – this is the way to prepare our children for future education. He saw children’s centres that involved not just schools or nursery specialists, but the involvement of other services as well such as the NHS. He wants to commit to 25 hours free childcare for every family.
So far, nothing new; nothing that hasn’t been reported elsewhere.

Schools Policy

Moving on to schools policy, here we start with a condemnation (with which I wholeheartedly agree) of the “structural chaos” wrought by the current government on schools. The proliferation of Academies, the experimental free schools and sheer volume of different school types has missed the point of how we achieve educational change and reform. He mentioned the map in the DfE with its different coloured spots indicating which schools were academies, converters (forced academies even?) and state schools. The type of school, said Tristram, is not the important factor it’s the strength of leadership and teaching that is the engine of change. Here, at least I can agree with him. I’m guessing that this is his rationale for not reverting academies – they are what they are and changing their name or status is not the issue, it’s how it is led and how good the teaching is that’s important.
He supports the College of Teaching – as do I. No profession should be without a professional body, but (and this is where the GTC went wrong) it must be built from within not imposed from outside. The campaign to ‘claim your college’ is the right way to go. Teachers must reclaim their profession from the politicians. Already I see the cynics stating that such a college is pointless as it will not represent ‘real teachers’ with some claiming that only teachers who have regular contact on a daily basis with teaching classes of children should have a say in how the profession is run. I understand this view-point, though I disagree that whole swathes of professional expertise should be shut out and an ‘exclusive club’ created whereby membership is suddenly withdrawn because you simply move to a senior post, or circumstance means you end up not doing the ‘right type’ or ‘amount’ of teaching to qualify for membership. Of course a College of Teaching should be dominated by teachers who teach on a regular basis. Yet the fact that such teachers will become active in running a College of Teachers will also take them away from the classroom and involved in many other aspects of educational policy and reform. It’s likely that some of these would then fall foul of the ‘rule’ that they must be classroom based teachers to qualify for membership/office.

No School is an Island

This is something that should not need saying. Yet in my time in education we have always had a tension between competitiveness and collaboration. We have, in the past been told that schools must compete with each other for pupils, to climb the ‘league tables’ of results. Then we have calls for collaboration – to learn from each other how best to improve our results. And it’s not just state schools, the private sector should share its secrets of success and techniques, at risk of losing their charitable status.
Today, schools are run as businesses – we have schools who no longer have a Bursar but a ‘business manager’ schools have variously sold consultancy, courses, rented out premises, even run leisure centres for profit. All of these things have been at one time or another hailed as ‘innovative’ and as a way for schools to improve their financial situation. Critics say that such ventures can be distractions. We are now in the position of schools, multimillion pound ‘industries’, being issued with Financial Notices to Improve, headteachers and ‘Executive Heads’ being charged with large-scale fraud – some convicted and barred from teaching. My concern is that in all of this we are losing sight of the purpose of schools, to educate. That is the core purpose, not making money.
Schools should collaborate – not because a politician says so, but because as professionals we should share our expertise. If I see the course I write for my pupils as some form of ‘commercial enterprise’ then my option is to not share but sell to the school next door. We already have commercial arms for that, publishers.

Directors of School Standards

Tristram Hunt wants to put in place Directors of School Standards, here I would have liked a bit more time to see how these positions differ from the Local Authority positions – is this just a new name for an already established post in LAs? Or is this a parallel structure or integrated with LAs. I like his notion of devolving away from Whitehall oversight of schools. For me local accountability is the key to an effective education system. If schools are run remotely (e.g. by an academy chain miles away) and local residents have little contact or say in how the schools are run or where they are located it is not a good thing. Tristram wants these new Directors and LAs to be able to bid for funding for new schools to meet local need and he is clear that consultation should also be meaningful and local – again things that I cannot disagree with. Too often we have seen meaningless ‘consultation’ for academisation where there was never any intention of listening to the views of the local people or more importantly the parents. An exception to this, however is in Brighton. Hove Park School started down the road to academisation (not forced, or due to poor performance) and the voice of the local community and the voice of the parents was so strong the school rejected academisation.
In my view, it’s such a pity that the Billion pounds spent on the Academy programme by Gove was not put to better use. If Gove saw the issue as poorly performing Local Authorities (and I have to agree there are some shocking LAs) then attack the problem and reform that structure to make it effective, don’t spend your money on creating a whole new, untried, untested structure that simply gives schools to privatised companies with little to no local accountability. The cynic in me feels that Gove’s plan was always to privatise and allow for profit schools. If the Conservatives win the next general election, that may still happen.
One question I did have was whether or not academies, if they so wished, could revert to Local Authority schools under labour. Tristram’s answer was “yes”, well a qualified “yes”. There are, he rightly states, issues surrounding the contracts that Academy trusts have which means some academies within trusts could not easily go back to LA control. He was also cautious about schools ‘flipping’ their status too often (perhaps MPs flipping their first and second homes and the scandal that ensued came to mind here). But the principle that schools could revert back to LAs was one that he seemed to fully support.

In my next blog I will look at Tristram’s views on Initial Teacher Education, funding the “unjust” taxation on sixth form colleges, post 16 core curriculum and work experience for all.

Are we focusing too much on examining practical science?

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Science evokes images of Bunsen burners, coloured liquids, vapours rising from flasks, white coats and safety goggles. But are we making too much of the rigid assessment of the practical parts of science in our school curriculum?

Ofqual, the examination regulatory body, has announced that practical work will no longer count towards the final examination grade in A levels. This has happened despite intense opposition from science teachers and learned scientific bodies, represented by SCORE. How can we say that a student has achieved any level of competence in a subject if a key skill is not being assessed, they argue?

The reason for the removal of the practical work from the final grade is based mainly on two issues. First, what was examined at GCSE and A level had become a joke. The set list of practical activities that constituted independent skills assessments and controlled assessments at A level were as relevant to real science as a banana is to a fish.

They were regularly abused and students routinely scored high marks as the system was exploited to bump up grades. As yet, no decision has been made on how, or even if, practical skills will be a part of the overall GCSE grade.

Second, setting practical examinations that are a real test of skill, problem solving and aptitude may just be too difficult. Ofqual feels the current assessments are too predictable, they don’t reflect students’ overall ability (as most students get high results) and they are open to malpractice. Rather than tackle these difficulties, its alternative is a list of 12 practical experiments that students must complete with the award of a pass/fail certificate to accompany the A level grade.

The practicalities

In my early days as a teacher we ran practical examinations, set by the exam boards. They were difficult to organise and set up – it invariably meant that laboratories were taken out of action for a period of time, along with laboratory technicians, so that the equipment could be set up.

It involved high levels of security to ensure the details of the experiments were not leaked to the students and it incurred costs – the purchase of certain equipment, chemicals or specimens that matched the exam board requirements. The examination then had to be invigilated, like any other. All the time the rest of the pupils needed their fair share of work and practical investigations.

So, was it worth it? Yes. Sometimes the practical examination utilised experiments that pupils had done before or variations on an experiment that tested their ability to apply their knowledge and skills to new problems. But ultimately the students understood that associated with the knowledge and theoretical elements of science were skills and procedures which informed that theory.

What are the inherent dangers with the new proposals? The first is the downgrading of experimental work to a minimum list of 12 – there is a danger that this becomes the norm. Schools looking to cut costs may take a reductionist view of science, reducing budgets, laboratory technical support, perhaps even the requirement for laboratories.

Much of what needs to be taught could arguably be taught in general classrooms – as a science teacher I don’t object to this for some lessons. But laboratories could be seen to be unnecessary for most science teaching and learning.

Associated experimental work may be reduced to YouTube video clips, watch-and-learn type activities such as demonstrations by the teacher, or reliance on experimental simulations on interactive white boards. Could this become the norm for practical science – no actual hands-on simply simulations?

Universities already decry the skills of A level students and their inability to carry out what were once standard procedures. This move will not improve matters.

The opportunities

But of course there is always a flip side to any change. Could this move actually be better for practical science?

The current system with its woefully inadequate controlled assessments of practical skills serves little to no purpose at GCSE and needs to change. At A level, again there are limited assessments and this leads to some schools only teaching a limited set of skills – those needed to pass the assessments.

If I were a head of science now, I would be looking to secure some assurances for my students from the school’s senior management team that laboratory space and budgets will not be cut. My next move would be to look at what, ideally, we would like our practical/theoretical integration at A level to look like. What can we do now that previously we couldn’t due to time constraints, that would help consolidate our students’ understanding of the theory through innovative use of the practical?

Such a move would be designed to boost performance and improve grades – so justifying the maintenance of the budget. Could we also, in our departments, look to undertake some longer-term experiments of the kind that just had no space in a rushed, assessment driven curriculum that focused on a small set of unrelated skills?

The notion is creative compliance. Rather than go down the path of least resistance and seek to deliver just the minimum, use the freedom to create a curriculum that not only delivers a wider range of skills, but also seeks to underpin the theoretical input required in the A level specification.

This Article was first published on The Conversation, UK on 25th April 2014