2014 – Reasons to be Educationally Cheerful


‘And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
Heard again – again – again –

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.’

Percy Shelley, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’

It is that time of year. Alcohol and food excess is pretty much mandated, hopeful resolutions are being set into motion and teachers are resting, mostly, with an eye to preparing for the new year ahead. It is a time to be positive and hopeful that our schools and our students will have a better year ahead.

Too often the media discourse about schools is one of failure. Competing political interests can only seem to agree that teachers and schools must improve. From the right of the political debate schools need to be failing to mandate that systemic changes being undertaken to break up LEAs and to unleash the freedoms of Academy status and Free Schools. From the left, well Gove and his brethren need to be seen to be failing, so schools aren’t really allowed to be flourishing either. Of course, good news is just plain harder to sell. Plummeting standards and PISA catastrophes are nice and simple narratives – no complexity or nuance required – good old tabloid, 24 hour news fodder. Let the facts trail behind in the weeks and months after the headline has left its indelible stamp.

Yes, there are undoubtedly reasons for concern, hesitation and cynicism. Our profession is unduly attacked at times, important changes are hasty and I’ll-timed, budgets are incessantly being cut and the recruitment of the next generation of teachers is insecure. Yet, in the spirit of this post, in such confusion and difficulty lies opportunity.

Here are some of my reasons to be cheerful and positive about education in 2014:

Changing League Tables: Being a Subject Leader of English means I know the power of the school league tables even more keenly than most. Ok, they will still exist in 2014 – but they will be better and more rounded in future. We now have multiple measures that makes for an infinitely better scenario than the blunt tool of the 5A*-C Eng/Maths high jump game. Progress and attainment will both be into the melting pot and schools will be less inclined to ‘game’ and obsess over a small cohort of students at the C/D borderline. The changes to accountability measures this year have been a positive step forward.

End of Multiple Exam Entries: Were the multiple mid-year changes to the reporting of multiple entries in English damaging for thousands of students in the middle of their GCSEs? Yes. Was the change the right thing going forward for all students and their learning in the long term? Yes. I would really like to be able to plan a two year course without multiple changes for once, but the short term pain does account for long term gain here.

Controlled Assessments Chopped: Going, going and nearly gone! Few will mourn their loss. A welcome return to teaching. Some welcome freedom to teach.

A New Curriculum, a New Hope: Changes to the curriculum are common for teachers who have been at it for a while. I used to moan about change after change, but I find these current curriculum changes timely. I am really excited by the prospect of a new key stage three curriculums at our school. Tim Oates has led a slimming down of the National Curriculum and if you go beyond the headlines we really do have lots of freedoms. It was always thus. The intended curricula issued by the government has always been trumped by the actual enacted curriculum in classrooms. We should seize at this opportunity to remake a curriculum in the image of our own school and students.

Levels for the Chop Too? Of course, National Curriculum levels have gone too. No doubt many schools will cling to these levels as the last vestiges of a data driven myth that a move from a 4b to a 4a is necessarily improving learning, but we can seize upon this opportunity for change too. The DfE is currently paying schools to offer them alternative models! We can create our own. The only things stopping us is having the will and the imagination to do so.

OFSTED and No Preferred Teaching Style: This shouldn’t even make a headline (but of course it does). Michael Wilshaw spoke about this over a year ago. The common sense notion that in a system of thousands schools, with a raft of subject disciplines, with millions of students, that there would be one mandated method of teaching is frankly daft. Yet, lots of OFSTED ‘consultants‘ and Chinese whispers would say it ain’t so. So here is the new OFSTED subsidiary guidance:

“Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style. Moreover, they must not inspect or report in a way that is not stipulated in the framework, handbook or guidance. For example, they should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time. It is unrealistic, too, for inspectors to necessarily expect that all work in all lessons is always matched to the specific needs of each individual. Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable. On occasions, too, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. Do not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding.”

Graded Lesson Observations: We know issuing levels to students hampers feedback and learning, yet we still grade teachers OFSTED-style. There are alternatives. We need only have the will and courage to deploy them. Even the OFSTED guidance once more highlights that such a snapshot is a weak indicator of quality: “We are not simply observing the features of the lesson but we are gathering evidence about a range of issues through observation in a lesson. Do not focus on the lesson structure at the expense of its content or the wide range of other evidence about how well children are learning in the school.” Surely we can do better.

The reasons to be cheerful listed above revolve around some genuine freedoms to innovate. I have written before about the Stockholm syndrome effect created by OFSTED, but we need to shake off those chains. Like Shelley stated – we are many, they are few – if many schools forsake levels, graded observations etc. then we could share our new and improved models.

If my reasons to be educationally cheerful are about some central freedoms being offered schools then a crucial move forward is the freedom to collaborate. Yes, LEAs have been broken beyond repair and the Teaching school model is not as well connected as it could be, but, once more we have nothing stopping us from collaborating. Of course, school Academy chains are built upon this premise, but individuals schools can form local families, across phases, to share the opportunities (they are only burdens if we shoulder them in not so splendid isolation) of creating new, improved curricula and an alternative to NC levels etc.

Other methods of collaboration are afforded by technology, social networking and more. Collaborative TeachMeets, blogging, Twitter and systematic sharing of best practice through organisations like NTEN, the ‘Head Teachers’ Round Table‘ and SSAT (I joined the SSAT #Vision2040 group because I wanted to do something to improve schools – moaning about our lot doesn’t change anything!) offer a nexus for effective collaboration. We can do better. We can better share high quality CPD nationally. We can better share effective teaching and learning methods. We can better cohere the training of new teachers in the fractured aftermath of systematic changes. The list goes on. We can determine and create these changes. There can overcome the inevitable barriers.

We can undoubtedly be cheerful and optimistic about education if we are determined to be proactive and not reactive to the latest government whim. In the year and more preceding a general election governments are often soft in their policy decisions, in preparation for the national vote. We need to seize the opportunities being offered us in such a climate. When Gove broke up LEAs he knew any future government wouldn’t be able to put it back together again. Of schools forge ahead with successful changes then the same scenario will play out. We need only collaborate and have the courage to connect with one another and change our lot. I complained once or twice this year about changes and other issues – it is only natural. Yet, each time I returned to this sage Maya Angelou quote:

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.”

It feels like a good aphorism to live by in 2014. Have a great year!

10 thoughts on “2014 – Reasons to be Educationally Cheerful”

  1. Love your post. I popped into school to start my prep for next year and feel uplifted by your blog…I might even print them out and stick them in the staff room. Happy New Year! L

  2. This is a superb post (as you’d expect from someone recommended by The Guardian 😉 ) if only for the fact that it cuts through the agendas, prejudices and preferences that seem to colour and obscure so much other writing. I especially like the clear identification that there can, and always has been, so much potential for creative teachers to see the difference between the intended and enacted curriculum. If as a profession more had the confidence – and as senior leaders we need to give it – to teach from the heart and worry about the curriculum and exams later then we’d soon blow the latter out of the water. I was talking to someone during TEEP training at the end of last term who was lamenting that she’d never met a student with a genuine love for literature or history as she had had when at school. When I asked if she’d ever taught, discussed or recommended a piece of writing that didn’t fit the specification she hadn’t. No criticism of her as a young teacher doing what she thought was necessary but if we only teach what’s needed for assessment it’s no wonder we don’t inspire writers, scientists. mathematicians or revolutionary thinkers. We need to resist reducing education to a means to and end. And with that the focus of my next blog has been born! Will have to wait till after the pub and some cheapass frozen party food though. Cheers!

    1. Enjoy the party snacks! Yes – the indoctrination runs deep – a learned helplessness. In the coming year I am going to write a boatload about confidence. We need to have the self-confidence and conviction to change our actions and enact our beliefs. We can be pragmatic and match other supposed standards such as tests if we are canny and collaborative.

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  6. Thanks Alex – and let’s hope for more posts like this in 2014. It is possible to be positive AND constructive/specific so that we’re not just ignoring the harsh realities but embracing the spirit of the Angelou quotation.

    A Happy New Year to you and yours!

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