Monthly Archives: July 2014

Practise Teaching, Teaching Practice: Queues

“Practise Teaching, Teaching Practice” is a series of tips and observations about fundamentals for great teaching based on my experience as a teacher for over twenty years and also as a trainer of teachers for much of that time.

There is a mathematical theory based on queuing, this is not it.

It is, however, something teachers should be taught but never are: how to make a great queue! Whether it is fair or not a teacher’s reputation with pupils and some fellow teachers can be enhanced or diminished by how they manage a queue. Hopefully it is something that in many schools is passed down from older experienced teachers to wet behind the ears enthusiasts who see queue upon queue disintegrate before their eyes. Face it, once a queue is lost it is quite a challenge to get it back again!

A teacher usually comes across the art of the queue if they are asked to ensure that their pupils line up before entering a classroom, this is a simpler task than the challenge of a queue for dinner, school nurse, bus stop, fire drill, or going into exams. All, however, if done correctly can be simple to manage especially if you observe the first rule: get there before the kids! If you don’t then you will need to go into ‘operation quick queue’; I will go into this later.

Children, whether they arrive in dribs and drabs or remarkably quickly, understand the cues for queuing and the knowledge that they will know that they are expected to queue will help you. If they are finding it difficult to queue it is because they are testing your nerve and you need to win. The first few children are the most important, once you have got them in to a queue the rest will tend to follow. Insist on single file and also straight lines where possible! Children should not lean against the wall or each other. The teacher should place herself near or at the front of the queue and be willing to move along the queue. Do not place your self in a doorway or wall side of a queue, always be on the side that affords you a view of the whole queue. Do not let anyone push in or let anyone ‘let someone in’. If anyone does push in they go to the back of the queue and if anyone ‘lets someone in’ they go to the back of the queue too. It is not a good idea to shout unless you have to, ‘raising your voice’ (projecting) is okay and hand gestures are very useful to use. Pointing, gesturing ‘get out go to the back’, and an outstretched arm signifying straighten the queue, can work wonders.

Try to jolly along the queue as much as possible, smiling and chatting whilst keeping an eagle eye on what is going on. Try to ensure children are not kept in the queue too long, although this can sometimes be unavoidable, if it does happen show some sympathy but don’t let the rules slip. If it looks like the queueing will go on ‘too long’ ask them to sit if possible.

‘Operation Quick Queue’: On some occasions a teacher has to fashion a queue from mayhem, this is what to do. Stand where the front of the queue should be, project/shout “Queue Here! Quickly!” and gesture with your arm in a way to signify where the queue is to be formed. Loudly insist on: “Single File!” and point children out who have not yet queued up. Be aware that some might take the opportunity to ‘bundle’ into a quick queue so you might want to instruct these children to get into the queue quickly and carefully. In all these instances it is better if you know children’s names but this is not always possible, especially if you’re a supply teacher.

A great queue will always take its cue from you.

Practise Teaching, Teaching Practice: On Desks and Classroom ‘Feng Shui’

“Practise Teaching, Teaching Practice:” is a series of tips and observations about fundamentals for great teaching based on my experience as a teacher for over twenty years and also as a trainer of teachers for much of that time. 

There was a problem in a music department, I was asked to investigate. I went to observe a lesson: mayhem… What to do? In these situations it is unlikely that a couple of ‘tricks’ will sort out the situation but I did observe something  quite astonishing and it was the teacher’s desk. The teacher was sat behind a very large desk with her head buried in a book from which she was dictating notes. On the desk there were piles of books for marking, returning and also piles of manuscripts and other books. The thing was, from her sedentary position she was unable to see the class and they were unable to see her. The books and manuscripts served as ramparts protecting the teacher from the barbarian hordes.

But this was not all, on the side of the desk facing the class was first a drum kit and then, in order to stop children approaching the drum kit, there was a semi circle of unfurled music stands creating a moat around the desk by which the teacher had completely cut herself off from the class. After the observation I asked her about her fortifications and she looked in surprise at what she had built over the years and agreed that something needed to be done. Of course there were issues behind her unconscious building of these impregnable defences, they were an outward sign of how the relationship between a teacher and classes can break down over time. It is also a good illustration of how little things like ‘desks’ can communicate an attitude towards teaching and learning.

Here, then, are my recommendations as to what to do with desks and a few other basic items of classroom furniture and accessories:

If you have a chance to ‘design’ your classroom then you should do so. Every space offers its own particular challenges but, if you can, try to get as near to the ideal a possible. There are likely to be three or four things you can do little about, the door(s), the window(s), the board, and the cupboard. I take it as a given that these can be distributed awkwardly and, if so, one has to do one’s best. Generally if you have a board on one wall the desk should be positioned ‘stage right’ of the board. Stage right means to the teacher’s right as she faces the class. The left of the board is a less ‘imposing’ place for the desk to be. The most imposing place for the desk would be central but this will begin to act as an awkward barrier to the board especially if the board is to be used a lot.

Einstein is reported to have said that: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Far from thinking your desk should be cluttered (an office desk might be a different matter) I do think that a desk with little on it or of excessive tidiness might not be the best  way to ‘face’ a class. What is on your desk shows snippets of your personality, interests and also a bit a bit your attitude to the subjects you teach: perhaps a family photo, or a picture of your favourite football team, though I would not display pictures of heart throbs and pin ups! A picture or two of your subject heroes might be fun. Books, both reference and current reading, should be on view and used, not allowed to gather dust. If you have a lap top do not have it too central and only use it when necessary. A desk tidy with pens and rulers etc. is always useful. It might be good to have a few exercise books and spare paper on your desk too. A plant or two might be nice if you nurture them, if you are lazy don’t bother and never compromise with a cactus! Do not collect dirty cups on your desk ever!

If you have a ‘teacher chair’ use it behind the teacher’s desk but also bring it out to the centre should you wish to have the option to sit and talk as well as stand and talk when you use the space in front of the board. This means that you have a ‘performance area’ from where you can ‘teach’ as well as from behind the teacher’s desk. It might be useful to have a lectern in this area, also to the right of the whiteboard, should you so wish.

The wastepaper bin should be either near the desk or to the left of the whiteboard depending on how you want to use it, in some classrooms there are now two bins and if this is the case I would place them in these two areas.

The clock should be placed on the wall opposite the board, easily visible to the teacher at all times and in a ‘traditional’ classroom set up this will also mean that the clock is ‘behind’ the class so as not to prove a distraction to a class at certain moments.

Pupil desks should be arranged by the teacher beforehand where possible in a way that suits the needs for the lesson to be taught and the class it is being taught to. Rows facing the teacher is very good for teacher led lessons where there is a lot of use of the whiteboard. Desks arranged in groups are very good for group work. Desks arranged for group work are not good for teacher led lessons so change the arrangement when necessary. My favourite set up, particularly for sixth form lessons, is the ‘horse shoe’ and I would have this as my default. If you have fewer pupils than there are chairs and tables (lucky you) ensure pupils sit near to the front and in the middle before they fill in the back and the sides. The number of times I have seen pupils sit mainly at the back and the sides (AND still wearing their coats!) is extraordinary and it doesn’t bode well for (that word) engagement.

Bookshelves are useful, as are other shelves at the back and the sides and thoughtful display can make a classroom feel more welcoming for all.

This is the way I would set up my room, even if you disagree with my conclusions then please think about how you set things up as I am sure it can help make teaching more effective.


The Hunt For An Education Policy: Do We Need Less Creativity?

Today Tristram Hunt addressed the question: “Who Should Have The Power To Create The School Curriculum?” His answer was, as I remember it,  that it should be teachers working together in schools, clusters and chains. He reiterated his stated policy that all schools, regardless of what type of school they are, will have freedom to innovate and create their own curricula and will not be beholden to the national curriculum. The current National Curriculum will remain in place and will act as a guide, schools might take it as a starting point rather than see it as top down prescription.

I agree with this, I’d prefer teachers and schools to have autonomy, institutions should have a responsibility over what they do. By going through the process of developing its values through its curriculum a school will enable profound staff development and I think schools, teachers and pupils will flourish as a result. If the primary school nearest to me decides that in order to best meets the needs of its children they should design a curriculum with a heavy focus on literacy and numeracy because it feels its children arrive at the school needing a lot of support in these areas then that is all well and good. If I feel that my child is already pretty strong in literacy and numeracy and I want her to go to a school where the arts, competitive sport, foreign languages, are to the fore I could look for a school that, with its freedom to innovate, provides a curriculum in which children can study these subjects in more depth whilst still studying English and Mathematics but not as much, then I would send her to that school.

Only I won’t because in our far from ideal world I don’t have a real choice.  

A system of choice is only really fair if there is massive over capacity in the system allowing parents to a) have a choice and b) get their first choice. With the current system this is likely to occur less and less as we are not building enough new schools. It is also only realistic in urban areas where schools tend to be closer together, in rural areas the choice is far more likely to be based on which is the closest. The choice that parents have if they don’t like the school allocated to them is this: if they are rich enough, they might choose to privately educate their child or even, if able, to home educate. They might try to get on the governing board to ‘change the school’, though I don’t think every parent will be able to do this. They might move house to an area in order to get their child into a school of which they approve (which can be costly). They might resign themselves to the school they get and hope for the best… maybe get tutors, pay for extra curricular classes (again financial considerations)?  

If we are to only have enough schools with one place for one child then, if the system is to be equitable, we really need to send our children to schools that all teach in exactly the same way. The world of medicine is frequently compared to schools and a postcode lottery in health provision indeed occurs but, generally, you don’t get homeopathic care instead of major surgery because a GP has the freedom to be creative. Most of us would prefer a GP to know what they were doing and all do the right thing in pretty much the same way. In an uncreative school system it would be easy to ensure that all teachers taught from the same text book and that if a child moves schools they can pick up where they left off. The other advantage of this system would be that instead of asking teachers to be creative, which is all right if you have a creative teacher but a downright disaster if your teacher lacks the required skills to innovate, you can expect teachers to be proper public servants and do as they are told by teaching the lesson plan provided by central government or as near as dammit to the national curriculum provided. 

This then is the problem: creative curricula designed by creative teams of teachers will only work fairly if parents have a choice. If they can’t have a choice then it is fairer to have less innovation and demand that all schools stick to the national curriculum, including academies and free schools. It seems to me that the schools policy of both the Government and the Opposition lacks the nerve to pump in the necessary money to do the former and the will power to do the latter. Innovative schools are great if they innovate the way you want them too, if they innovate in a way that you think is no good for your child, what then? 

When Push Comes To Gove: What Did He Ever Do For Us?

In forty years time weirdly unwizened old women and men will whisper over their alcopops and remember the day when Push Came To Gove and education fell into the ‘quiet years’. They will recall that in the quiet years following Gove’s sudden demise that the Nicky Morgan colouring book never sold well. One will say: “When Morgan’s name was mentioned at conferences, on inset days and in the dingy corners of staff rooms, all coffee cups and ten day old mould, no-one screamed or booed, laughed or cried, they only stared into space wondering what had happened to their favourite father figure of fun.” Another will add: “As for the voodoo Nicky Morgan pin cushion and the computer game where you could slap her across the face they failed to grab market share, apparently they were thought to be misogynistic and violence was only acceptable if Gove’s face was involved!”

“In the quiet years…” another will muse, “It was hard to get angry, not many teachers chucked their toys out of the pram when Nicky Morgan rocked it gently.” At this the ancient teachers, who will all still be teaching as they won’t get their pension until they are 94, will reminisce with a smile that: “When Gove rocked the pram many teachers would chuck themselves out with their toys, so much pent up anger and rage they felt!”  Then they will all nod and sigh: “Ah, what happy days!”

They will recall that on Tuesday 15th July 2014 many teachers got drunk, threw caution to the wind and danced in the streets. One will say, “Oh how we danced! With our top buttons undone,” to which another will add: “And our skirts slightly above the knee, this was VG day, Victory over Gove day!” A more sullen faced teacher will add: “On the 16th the hangover began. When the enemy retreats so suddenly, without even waving a white flag, the victors are denied a proper victory.”  Another will agree: “We did not know if the war was over, were there snipers or minefields hidden somewhere in the terrain that we surveyed?”

“On the 17th we settled back into our classrooms thinking that life will never be the same again. And on the 18th, for many, the Summer Holidays began…”

…”And when we returned from Padstow and Magaluf in September 2014, we settled back into our classrooms and it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the best because Gove had gone and it was the worst because we no longer had one person to blame for everything that was going wrong!” Someone will say, with a tear in her eye: “We missed him! It was wondrous to be centre stage in the Gove years as it meant that education mattered, it was front page news!” “After a time we begged for him to return, remembering the camaraderie, the knowing glint in each other’s eyes when his name was mentioned.” “Can’t we have those times again was the refrain.”

“But it never happened…”

The old women and men with dyed jet black hair, botoxed expressionless faces, covered with tattoos and piercings will nod sagely and say to their fellow teachers and teach embryoers: “Ay, it was tough, but you knew where you were, you knew who the enemy was, and every ad hominem could raise a giggle.” 

And then one will say: “What did Gove ever do for us?”

And like the People’s Front of Judea they will say,

“Well there was the…

Liberal Arts Conference. October 14th 2014

THE logo TES logo black

TES and THE are proud to be media partners for this event and we are very proud that they are too!

The conference took place at King’s College, The Strand, London, on October 14th 2014. The point of the event was to look at the current thinking about the liberal arts in universities and in schools, to find common ground and discuss ideas about how to develop the liberal arts’ place in the ongoing debate about the future of English education.

The conference inspired, provoked, entertained and informed in equal measure and you can watch the footage here thanks to the generosity and hard work of staff and students from Newham Sixth Form College:

The last talk, a superb lecture on Michael Oakeshott by Jesse Norman MP, chaired by Nick Pearce,  unfortunately was not filmed but the audio is available here:


Here is a list of some of the speakers (followed by their biographies and a collection of pieces about what they currently feel the issues might be or things that they intend to talk about).

Jesse Norman MP

Nick Pearce

Dr. Frank Furedi

Claire Fox

Amanda Spielman

Carl Gombrich

Dr John L. Taylor

Dr. Aaron Rosen

Eddie Playfair

Tricia Kelleher

Marc Sidwell

Stuart Lock

Dr. Mike Dobson

Tony Sewell

Hywel Jones

Martin Robinson

Biographies and some ideas as to current thinking about the liberal arts and some pointers as to what might be discussed at the conference:

Jesse Norman MP:

Jesse Norman was educated at Oxford University (BA) and at University College London (MPhil, PhD). Among other things he has run an educational project in Communist Eastern Europe, been a director at BZW, and taught philosophy at UCL and Birkbeck College. He serves on the boards of the Roundhouse and the Hay Festival, and is a member of Council at NIESR, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, as well as working with numerous charitable and philanthropic organisations in Herefordshire.

Jesse’s books and pamphlets include The Achievement of Michael Oakeshott (ed.), After Euclid, Compassionate Conservatism, and The Big Society. He writes regularly in the national press.

In 2010 Jesse was elected as the Member of Parliament for Hereford and South Herefordshire, and as a member of the Treasury Select Committee. He was chosen as Parliamentarian of the Year and Backbencher of the Year in 2012. In 2013 he was asked to join the Policy Board at 10 Downing Street. Jesse’s most recent book, a biography of the 18th Century statesman Edmund Burke, has been widely acclaimed.

Dr. Frank Furedi:

Author and broadcaster. Furedi is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England and Visiting Professor, Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London

Furedi has published widely about controversies relating to issues such as health, parenting children, food and new technology. His studies on childhood and parenting are oriented towards exploring the obstacles that stand in the way of young people gaining independence intellectually and socially.

Furedi has written extensively about issues to do with education and cultural life. His study, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone? deals with the lowering of expectations in cultural and intellectual life in contemporary western societies. His book, Wasted: Why Education Is Not Educating deals with the disturbing tendency to devalue the status of knowledge in the curriculum and with the erosion of adult authority on schooling. He is passionately committed to promoting the ideals of a humanists education and his writings on higher education are devoted to affirming the value of the liberal arts. At present he is working on the cultural history of The Reader.

Keynote : Why Liberal education Matters

Liberal education is under siege. Instrumental and utilitarian critics insist that it is not relevant to a rapidly changing world. Those obsessed with turning education into a social engineering projects denounce the humanist curriculum as elitist. In turn, those disposed towards an elitist outlook claim that liberal education is not suitable for the masses since only a tiny minority could benefit from it. These retrograde sentiments are reinforced by the gimmicky consumerist ethos sweeping education in the Anglo-American world. From this standpoint, liberal education is clearly not value for money and needs to give way to the philistine world of flipped class-rooms, MOOCs and related fads. The aim of this introduction is to explain why that these narrow minded criticisms of liberal education reflect a loss of belief in the transformative potential of education. It will argue that humanist education is essential for cultivation of a free, democratic and intellectually stimulating society.

Amanda Spielman:

Amanda is the Chair of Ofqual

Dr. Aaron Rosen:

Dr. Aaron Rosen is the Lecturer in Sacred Traditions & the Arts at King’s College London, where he is also Deputy Director of the BA in Liberal Arts, which he helped design. He taught previously at Yale, Oxford, and Columbia Universities, after receiving his PhD from the University of Cambridge. He has written widely for popular and scholarly publications including The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Apollo, New Humanist, Los Angeles Times, Times Higher Education, Jewish Quarterly, Literary Review, Art and Christianity, Religion and the Arts, and Literature and Theology. His first book was entitled Imagining Jewish Art (Legenda, 2009). He is currently editing the forthcoming volume Religion and Art in the Heart of Modern Manhattan (Ashgate, 2015) and writing two books: Art and Religion in the 21st Century (Thames and Hudson, 2015) and The Hospitality of Images: Art & Interfaith Dialogue.

Aaron’s thoughts on the liberal arts are here.

Claire Fox:

Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas, which she established to create a public space where ideas can be contested without constraint. She has a particular interest in education and social issues such as crime and mental health. Claire convenes the yearly Battle of Ideas festival, which will next take place at the Barbican in London in October 2014. She is a panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze and is regularly invited to comment on developments in culture, education and the media on TV and radio programmes such as Question Time, and Any Questions? She is also a columnist for TES (Times Education Supplement) and MJ (Municipal Journal).

Dr John L. Taylor: 

Head of Philosophy at Rugby School. Formerly a tutor in Philosophy at Oxford University, he has been extensively involved in the promotion of philosophical approaches to education, in particular through the medium of project work. He initiated the ‘Perspectives on Science’ AS level course in the history and philosophy of science. He helped shape development of the Extended Project Qualification through its pilot phase and has been a Chief Examiner of the qualification since its launch. In his book Think Again: A Philosophical Approach to Teaching, John Taylor argues that education can be enriched through the exploration of the philosophical element of all learning. Taylor’s work promoting philosophy in schools has featured in the Times, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Times Educational Supplement and the Daily Telegraph and on the BBC website. He has been a contributing author and editor of a number of education books. His latest book, ‘100 Ideas for teaching Philosophy and Ethics’ will be published by Bloomsbury in November 2014.

Taylor’s thoughts on the liberal arts:

Contemporary education is at constant risk of distortion due to the pressure created by an assessment-driven approach to teaching and learning. Immeasurable harm has been done by the assumption that only measureable outcomes matter. This utilitarian conception of education leads to an etiolated pedagogy, in which factual recall is prioritized over the development of deeper, critical reflection, an appreciation of ambiguity and uncertainty, and the formation of a synoptic understanding of the conceptual structure of knowledge. Nor is this simply a problem with educational consequences; the dominance of passive learning in the classroom affects social and political culture, tending to reduce scope for the formation of the capacity for critical, reflective enquiry on which the health of liberal democracy depends. The best antidote to the reduction of true education to a mechanistic process of spoon-fed training is the provision of curriculum space for philosophical reflection at all points of the education process.

Dr Simon Usherwood:

Associate Dean for Learning & Teaching in the Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences of the University of Surrey, and Programme Director of the BA/BSc Liberal Arts & Sciences degree. With a background in Politics and European Studies, Dr Usherwood is also active in publishing on the use of simulation games in HE and in supporting the development of learning and teaching more generally.

Usherwood believes that the current issues in the Liberal Arts are:
There are two main issues that strike me as central in the development of Liberal Arts in the UK. Firstly, there is a transition difficulty, as we have to raise awareness of what Liberal Arts is and is not, not only for students, but also for school teachers and employers. This is further complicated by the differences between the American model and that which we find here. However, this also feeds into a more underlying challenge, namely of how to ensure that students are not ‘lost’ in their university, wandering alone from module to module. This requires clear support and guidance mechanisms from teaching staff and personal tutors, as well as an overall awareness of the importance of curriculum design. Such a challenge is not easily met, but the proliferation of programmes across the UK does offer a number of different approaches that we might usefully share.

Eddie Playfair:

Eddie Playfair has been principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) since 2008 and was previously principal of Regent Sixth Form College in Leicester for 6 years having taught in London schools and colleges since 1983.
NewVIc is a large, successful and comprehensive sixth form college in East London which sends more ‘disadvantaged’ students to university than any other school or college in the country. Overall, 767 NewVIc students progressed to HE in 2013 from both A level and vocational programmes. The college has a 99% progression rate for A level applicants and has also increased the number of students progressing to Russell group universities from 42 in 2012 to 60 in 2013.

Thoughts on the Liberal Arts:

Post-16 students in England specialise early and the programmes they follow are often too narrow. I am interested in developing ways of broadening the 16-18 curriculum which give all students some common understanding of human history and culture and prepare them for active global citizenship. I believe we need a broader and inclusive post-16 baccalaureate for all young people which values both practical and ‘academic’ learning, but even without this I think there are imaginative ways we can develop a post-16 liberal arts curriculum for all without needing new qualifications or requiring additional spending. At NewVIc, we run a Liberal Arts lecture programme curated by universities and we are planning to develop service learning and student research in ways which will broaden and deepen our students’ experience. There are opportunities to do so much more if schools, colleges and universities can work together and make good use of shared resources.

Tricia Kelleher:

Tricia Kelleher joined the Stephen Perse Foundation in 2001 when it was an all-girls, academic powerhouse. Much has changed, including the introduction of two co-educational pre-preps and the merger with a nearby, non-selective preparatory school. Whilst the academic pride remains, and the results are higher than ever, Tricia has moved the emphasis of education towards inter-disciplinary learning with a concern for development of skills or aptitudes which are the building blocks to prepare young people for a rapidly changing, globally connected future of many unknowns. Introduction of IB, co-education (within a diamond formation structure) and leadership in the digital world are all key to Tricia’s, and the School’s, vision for education.

Carl Gombrich:
Programme Director
Arts and Sciences (BASc)

Gombrich thinks that:

‘Liberal Arts: Where’s the Science?’

‘I will argue that Liberal Arts must not be seen merely as an attempt to broaden the humanities and to re-establish somehow the relevance of any threatened disciplines that come under this contemporary faculty banner. Rather, a liberal arts education can and should attempt two things: 1 To offer the possibility of breadth in higher education – some kind of approximation to the ‘universal education’ of old; 2 To foster and promote interdisciplinarity across all disciplines but especially across the sciences/non-sciences divide where, perhaps, the challenges but also the rewards are greatest.’

Tom Sherrington:

Tom Sherrington has been working as a teacher and school leader for over 25 years. From September he will be taking up the post of Headteacher at Highbury Grove School in Islington. He is a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable and has a large following for his blog He has also just written his first book aimed at new science teachers: Teach Now! The Joy of Teaching Science.

Marc Sidwell:

Marc Sidwell is the co-author with Anthony O’Hear of The School of Freedom: A Liberal Education Reader from Plato to the Present Day and City A.M.’s managing editor, where he also writes a wide-ranging weekly column, The Long View, on topics including the benefits of a liberal education to success in today’s workplace. His collected columns are available as Amazon ebooks. A dedicated generalist, Marc is a graduate of University College, Oxford and Warwick University, where he respectively studied Psychology and Philosophy and the reconstruction of Elizabethan amphitheatres. When not writing, editing or reading he likes to climb, go for long walks to good pubs and ski cross-country.

Marc will talk about:

The New Humanism
— A look at the trailblazers reinventing and rediscovering liberal education for the twenty-first century and how a new synthesis of arts and sciences may be emerging as a result.

Hywel Jones:

Hywel Jones – Headteacher, West London Free School

All pupils should have access to an education that connects them to
the best that has been thought and written in mathematics, the
sciences, history, literature and the arts. As Headteacher of West
London Free School that provides a liberal arts education to a
comprehensive intake, I want all pupils to engage with the study of
the serious side of human life which focuses on the fragile and
temporal nature of humanity. Education should provide students with an
insight into our human heritage, and should not be overly concerned
with the surface level of vocational and technological change. A
liberal arts education provides students with the knowledge to reflect
on our human heritage. Primarily because it stresses the importance of
each subject as a separate discipline. Each separate discipline
contains its own conventions, terminology and knowledge base to
understand further the world around us. Furthermore, all schools
should play a central role in emphasising that knowledge should be
pursued in and for itself and not as a means to some changing
vocational end. During my spare time I am an avid reader of twentieth
century international history, spy novels and political theory. I was
educated at a state comprehensive school in Wales, the London School
of Economics & Political Science and Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Stuart Lock

Deputy Headteacher at Rushcroft Foundation School in Chingford. I blog at and tweet about education and other things under the twitter handle @StuartLock

On the liberal arts Stuart feels:
At my school, I despair that when asked about why they’re in school, many students refer to getting a good job.
Similarly, colleagues presented with challenging students or students not motivated in class sometimes ask, rhetorically but not without damage: what do you think you’re going to do for a living when you leave school?

The idea of education for the sake of education often appears lost – certainly in the school in which I teach. The idea that education allows one to be free is one that is unheard of from almost anyone I know working in formal state education. Humankind has, I contend, lost the tradition that suggests to be inducted into what Michael Oakeshott called the conversation of mankind is the purpose of education.

While not deifying the past, those who believe in education for the liberal arts have a challenge to recapture an element of tradition in education – one that contrasts with narratives that include 21st century skills or preparation for jobs that don’t yet exist.

There is not a consensus as to how and what to teach, yet insights from cognitive science have provided us with a clearer view of what works best in the classroom. This is becoming increasingly problematic for teaching and learning practice. Some prevalent teaching techniques combined with a development of a ‘skills-based’ curriculum, underpinned by progressive ideals, have signalled the demise of the liberal arts in the curriculum. Hence fewer pupils have access to the richest works of literature, chronology in history, and the rigour of grammar and language. A revolution is needed in classrooms so that all pupils- in particular, those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds- come to see that education possesses beauty and virtue in its own right, that it is not simply a means to an end, and most importantly, that it is a key facilitator of freedom and liberty of thought.

Meanwhile, some of the sensible writings of the liberal philosophers in the 1950s and 1960s exploring the liberal arts – those of RS Peters, Paul Hirst, Robert Dearden and indeed Oakeshott – remain unheard of by many. The shoulders of these giants are barely visible to stand on as the tide rises.

My view is that the current issues faced by the liberal arts are that an education that sets one free remains wholly absent from the political agenda and they are hence largely excluded by those who comment on education. We need to put them back on the table.

Dr. Mike Dobson:


Dr. Mike Dobson’s experience of studying more than one subject at a UK university started as an undergraduate when he studied history and archaeology at the University of Exeter. His postgraduate research continued this interdisciplinary vein, as he combined classical literary studies and archaeology to look at the Roman army. A growing interest in IT in the humanities during the 1980s led him to teach interdisciplinary IT-based modules on graphical communication and publishing, at the University of Exeter. This resulted in him directing a humanities-based IT academic unit for many years. Since 2007 he has been director of Exeter’s ‘unusual’ Flexible Combined Honours degree, looking after over 700 students and increasing annually. His research interests in the Roman army continue, and he was made a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 2013 in recognition of this work.

Some thoughts for the Liberal Arts conference

Single Honours and if you must, Combined Honours – How very British! But now Liberal Arts as well. Or, no subject combinations please, we’re British.

Why is it that the rest of the world think that studying more than one subject is the norm? Why do they formulate their universities to provide an ‘education’ for their students? Why do they see their universities as simply continuing the practice in their schools, of ‘educating’ the pupils until they are 18, through a wide curriculum, with subjects in abundance for each pupil.

Nearer to home, the Scots provide degrees of breadth, embracing several subjects, allowing students to move freely between subjects. This education naturally follows the breadth of the school provision of post-16 Scottish Highers. They must have got it right, as the American university system was established long ago by Scottish academics. The result is the Ivy League, or should it really be the Thistle League? No wonder the Scots want independence from the rest of the UK.

But dear old England. No watering down of degrees here please. Single subject is best. Good depth and academic rigour. Lots of academic insight into the subject. Make the students experts. That’s the thing. Train them at school for this with just three subjects post-16, four if you go to the right school. But keep it quiet that the statesmen (heaven forbid states-women) who built the Empire studied Greats at Oxford; this was not just the Classics, both language and literature, with Philosophy, but originally included Maths and Natural Sciences (sounds very much like the emerging UK-version of Liberal Arts to me). Or that a large majority of the current Cabinet studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Isn’t that combined honours you say? Oh no, it’s PPE – a single subject really.

But the Enlightenment is dawning. A-Levels are facing competition from the IB. Now there is hope for a proper education, continental-style. Some private schools have dropped A-Levels altogether as they can see the folly of subject silo-teaching, aka A-Levels. So why do so many UK universities still fight shy of the IB? Not so long ago, some universities did not even recognise it as an appropriate qualification for university entrance. Even now, some universities ask for higher IB grades than an A-Level pupil can achieve. Yet IB students perform excellently at universities, some even say better than A-Level entrants. They have skills that A-Level students frequently lack – thinking across boundaries, excellent critical thought, independent learning, motivation, the desire to learn. Several of my IB students say they found the first year at university did not stretch them as it so overlapped with their IB. I have never heard an A-Level student say that.

Why the fear of the study of multiple subjects in the UK?

Over 60% of UK employers say they do not mind what degree a student studies. Most graduates do not go on to jobs that are in their degree area (vocational degrees such as medicine, law, engineering etc being exceptions). So why the British stronghold of ‘single subject is best’ and anything less (i.e. any form of combined studies) waters down things. We do not need to turn out subject experts; employers do not want them.

Employers say what they really want is transferrable skills (the soft skills). Increasingly employers are asking for combined honours students, simply as they are likely to have twice as many (or more) transferrable skills.

Students are increasingly seeking to study what they ‘want’ to study, not what they feel (or are told by schools or parents) they ‘ought’ to study. This may account for why my own Flexible Combined Honours degree at Exeter, which is largely student-driven (essentially they create the degree programme they want to study), grows by almost 100 students a year. I started in 2007 with 120 students – this year I have 714. It also attracts the brightest students coming to Exeter – it has the highest entry tariff of any degree at the University. Similar patterns of growth and quality have been seen at other UK universities offering this type of degree.

So let’s encourage multi-disciplinary studies at UK universities. The rest of the world cannot have got it wrong!

Combined Honours, Joint Honours, Dual Honours, Liberal Arts. The list is growing. There is also the issue of are they multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary; arguably some are one and some are the other. But the essence is the same – students should be encouraged to embrace more than one way of thinking about things. They will not live in a linear society or be likely to follow a single career path. They are going into a world of increasing uncertainty and change. Many of the types of job they will be applying for simply do not exist at the moment. They need a university education that will train them to think laterally and freely, with every type of ‘inter-‘ and ‘multi-‘ they can embrace. That way their future may not just be orange, but many colours.

Martin Robinson:

As this is a conference jointly organised by Aaron Rosen and myself I don’t want to say too much here apart from here is a link to me talking about a humane education.


Bring Back Rhetoric!

Forget 21st Century Skills!

“What we need is not new, but perennial. We need an art that integrates body and soul and recognises enduring and underlying principles, which have sustained wisdom and insight throughout humanity’s history.”
The artist and punk: Billy Childish (with Charles Thomson), Remodernist Manifesto (2000)

I wrote a piece this week for the TES in which I said that: “Schools should ensure that rhetoric and debate are central to their curricula.” I go on to suggest that the Government/Ofqual was absolutely right to remove speaking and listening from the English Language GCSE, I don’t think it was a great ‘test’ nor do I think it was particularly challenging or reliable but I do think spoken English is a very important part of any curriculum that values eloquence and the right of children to leave school fully able and willing to take part in ‘the conversation of mankind‘.

In order to help schools focus their pupils on the need to communicate beautifully there are drama classes, debating societies and public speaking where some children can be challenged to argue, think, and hone their skills of presentation to a wonderful degree, much more than in many speaking and listening tasks they took for GCSE. I would like to celebrate this side of schooling in a way that not only cements their learning in other subjects, but gives them space to think, connect, articulate and defend ideas they have had (or will have had when they are given the tasks to do) about some or much of their learning. I would like pupils to have the opportunity to show off their skills of speech making and ability to enter into dialogue with adults and experts about their thinking.

In the TES piece I argue that we should revive the idea of a Viva Voce where we could: “see and hear whether pupils can talk about their work as well as write about it.” This exam could be called a ‘rhetoric exam’, involve children in making speeches linking together aspects of their learning and then answering questions about what they have said.  The exam could be carried out by and assessed by teachers, and moderated by exam boards through videos and spot checks. Crucially, grades would be awarded in a way that reflects the subjective nature of the assessment, not 1-9 or A-F but, as is common in many performing arts exams, in the following way: fail/pass/merit/distinction. It would be absolutely essential that the exam should not count towards any accountability procedure whatsoever, as the teachers involved must not be compromised and nor should it be part of any ‘essential’ exams that kids should take, reflecting the possibility that the grade might not be 100% accurate. Rather it should be an opportunity for enrichment with the rhetoric exam happening because people know it’s the right thing to do to help children flourish in their lives.

Perhaps the exams could be run as an adjunct or an extension to the current EPQ or even performing arts exams like those run by LAMDA and Central. I think it would be a great way for schools to start to be a bit more daring with their timetables, I would love to see Rhetoric taught in a formal way: period 3 on a Thursday I think would be just right!

Oh and, bearing in mind rhetoric classes would involve debate, these two ways of the trivium could be then complemented by discrete classes in English grammar, truly a radical re working of the timetable, and an opportunity to go back to the future, forget 21st Century Skills, bring back the perennial! Bring back Rhetoric!

How Traditional is the Teaching and Learning in Harris Academies?

Michael Gove has divulged the name of his hero: “Lord Harris of Peckham”. Harris is a ‘Conservative millionaire who is saving schools’. In the piece Gove claims that Harris Academies are: ‘led by traditionalist teachers who refused to accept excuses for failure,’ and that: ‘traditional teaching, the celebration of knowledge, discipline, respect for adults, a refusal to accept background as an excuse for underperformance, and academic and sporting competition are all approaches that help working-class children most.’ Gove finishes with a flourish wondering what the Labour party feel: ‘as it finds that a millionaire Conservative is more progressive and practical than its own leaders? All one hears is the silence of consciences unexamined.’ Here the word progressive is not being used as a pejorative but as an example of the progressive ideal of releasing the working class from their lot. Gove implies that by instilling traditional education values and methods a meritocratic society will come into being and the sons and daughters of the horny handed labourers of toil will enter Oxbridge, assorted Russell Group Universities and become Lawyers, Journalists, Cricketers, MPs and even Education Secretaries. I am not going to argue against this but I thought I would examine a certain assumption in Gove’s piece, where he says that Harris Academies use ‘traditional teaching‘. I live in South London and know a little of the ethos behind Harris Academies and though on the outside they might seem traditional, I was under the impression that they used quite a few techniques and ideas in teaching that some would equate more with ‘progressive ideology’. I wonder whether a quick search on Google would confirm my impression?

In this piece I make a couple of assumptions: Firstly that what is said on websites etc. reflects what is going on in the classrooms, and Secondly I make assumptions about what is ‘traditional’ and what is ‘progressive’ rather than undertake an examination as to what these terms might mean, so this blog is but a little bit of fun rather than an in depth survey as to what really goes on beyond the pristine carpets in the foyer of a Harris Academy.

I wonder, despite saying to the Telegraph in 2009 that all they do is traditional are Harris Academies hotbeds of progressivism in traditional clothing?

On the much vaunted progressive desire for transferable skills the Geography department at Harris Academy Bermondsey write that students: “Will become an expert at map reading, problem solving, creative thinking, data collection and the use of ICT. [You} will equally develop (sic) your teamwork as well as your independent enquiry skills and acquire an in-depth understanding of current events from the local to the national and global level…” In ‘Enterprise‘ at Harris Academy in Purley “In Year 8 and 9 Students study a number of units that aim to develop and promote students personal employability by exploring the enterprise process and how it can be applied in different contexts. Students will explore what capabilities are required to be enterprising and the impact and the skills and knowledge they need to demonstrate to become employable.”

Project based learning seems to be a feature at the Harris Girls Academy in Dulwich and in year 7 pupils at the Harris Academy in Merton take part in a cross curricular project. The Gifted & Talented department at Harris Academy Peckham celebrate that they enable students to: “experience a broader curriculum and a deeper learning experience through extended and project based learning.”

The student zone at the Harris Academy in South Norwood wants to equip students for life in the 21st Century: “The Academy is a confident and caring community that will equip students for life in the 21st century,” through Enterprise: “actively developing the skills of self presentation, initiative taking, creative problem solving, decision making, team working and interpersonal skills in a variety of contexts, so building self esteem and confidence.” The whole school is set up to: “Develop an invaluable set of life and employability skills essential for success in the 21st century.” The sixth form at Harris Academy Falconwood emphasise a “commitment to nurture our young people so they are ready to act as citizens of the 21st century world,” through a “range of opportunities to develop skills such as enterprise; financial awareness; team work and problem solving.”

Student voice/student led and co-construction seemed in 2009 to be a focus of Harris Academies, as the lauded Dr Dan Moynihan put it on their ‘Student Commission‘: “This goes much deeper than traditional Student Council work, which often gives very little voice to students on the really important issue of their own learning. Our Commission is about students and teachers working side by side to investigate what makes for the most effective learning and then testing out these approaches to see what works…” Perhaps this is summed up by student voice page at Harris Academy at Chafford Hundred, where students will be ‘entitled to build learning partnerships with teachers to improve learning through feedback, co-planning and co-design.’

In fact it is interesting to note that the bete noir of many traditionalists, Guy Claxton, was involved in Harris Academies Student Commission and that last year he was presenting to Harris Principals his work on Building learning Power. Harris Girl’s Academy feature in a project Claxton carried out from 2004-10 called “A Handbook of Strategies for Increasing Learning Power” In fact so enamoured by the work Harris Academies have been doing with Claxton that in 2011 The King’s School Peterborough set up their own Learning Commission.

Much work at Harris Academies seems to have gone into the idea of experimenting with co-construction of the curriculum, whether it be at Harris City Academy in Crystal Palace where students have been having an ‘active role in producing learning’, or at Harris Boy’s Academy where students enquired into whether they were ‘ able to develop as more successful autonomous learners and help teachers to develop lessons that enable independent learning to be more effective and successful.” All this would seem to be an anathema to ‘traditional teaching’.

There are many more examples of ‘progressive’ ideas taking place in Harris Academies but how well do Harris schools do in that measure of the number of students who take and ‘pass’ traditional, academic subjects: the Ebacc? In order to have traditional values surely this will be an area where Harris Academies excel? Here are the results from 2013 GCSEs for some Harris Academies in Southeast London: Harris Academy Greenwich got 11%, Harris Academy Bromley got 23%, Harris Academy Beckenham got 12%, Harris Academy South Norwood got 31%, Harris Academy Crystal Palace got 40%, Harris Academy Purley got 6%, Harris Academy Bermondsey got 9%, Harris Girl’s Academy East Dulwich got 16%, Harris Academy Peckham got 14%, and Harris Academy Falconwood got 29%.

A short stroll around Harris Academies reveal that far from just being places of purist traditionalist dogma, they seem to have been infected by some progressive teaching ideas. Now, far be it for me to draw any conclusions from this beyond saying when it comes to what a progressive school or a traditionalist school looks like should we sometimes look beyond the uniforms and the discipline policies? And that when an Education Secretary wants to extoll the virtues of ‘traditionalist teaching’ he might want to do a bit more homework first about what really goes on in the classrooms? (Or at least on the websites…)