Monthly Archives: January 2015

This other Eden: On INSET and CPD

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This afternoon I attended a “World-Class Teaching Profession consultation event” run by the DfE and I learned something very useful indeed that could be crucial for any role that a possible, maybe never, ‘College for Teaching’ might have. Those who attended this event were charged with the task of unpicking a variety of questions about Continuing Professional Development (CPD), Teaching Schools, a bit about a College for Teaching and how to ensure ‘great teaching’ takes place in classrooms up and down this sceptre’d isle, this earth of majesty, this England…

Now, Methinks I am a prophet new inspired but there is a crucial difference between Continuing Professional Development and Inservice Training (Inset). Inset is what a school deems it useful for you to have, whilst CPD is for a trusted professional, it is what you deem is useful for your own professional needs. Armed with this knowledge one can see that CPD has an important role to play in any teacher’s career and that this role is neglected in so many schools. Why? Because these schools are confusing their institutional needs with their teachers’ needs.

A school should have no say over what a teacher’s CPD needs are, this is the core of a contract between the institution and a trusted professional. In return the teacher should realise that the School has every right to use Inset to direct their perceived institutional needs. This begs the question: does your school allow much or any CPD and how much CPD have you had throughout your career?

When I began in teaching CPD was the norm, the school subsidised me to attend courses that were either subject specific or more general but developed me as a practitioner without any need for immediate impact on pupils results. I also visited and worked in a variety of countries, paid for by the school, all the time I was developing my practice and becoming a better and more accomplished teacher. Since then, with CPD budgets cut back, the need for schools to concentrate on the bottom line has led to a decline in this type of professional enrichment. Is this a business attitude? Rather than nurturing a reflective practitioner schools now, quite rightly, concentrate on the bottom line and us horses go on courses to drive up test scores. What is lost?

Here, then, could be a role for a College of Teaching (CoT) The CoT should allocate Government money to each and every teacher to allow them to decide their own CPD needs. In the long term this could include sabbaticals, Masters degrees and such like as well as membership of professional subject associations. The CoT could recommend and enable teachers to access CPD that was of sufficient quality as well as take feedback from teachers as to what is out there. This will enable teachers to build a career beyond being tied to the whims of their current school. In the case of bad management, or a school which has taken an exception to a member of staff for whatever reason that member of staff would have the right, regardless of what the school thinks, to access CPD under their own volition.

Schools could help by providing damn good Inset and also by providing time for teachers to collaborate together in school in order to improve professionally within the institution as well as encourage staff to develop their own expertise and enthusiasms with the school’s blessing. This would involve management that invested in its teachers beyond the current obsession with ‘it only counts if it impacts on the pupils’. This obsession has led to staff needs being neglected at the altar of student outcomes. Paradoxically I think better student outcomes might be achieved by ensuring staff are nurtured and, yes, loved.

Teaching Schools should not be used as the main provider of CPD, they should stick to their role as providers of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) and if there are crossover uses for this for Inset then schools might use this service too and teachers might decide to use some of their allocated money pot to spend on courses or other services from these providers.

How much will this cost? How long is a piece of string? I’ve no idea. How much would it cost if we invested £500 per teacher per year? Each teacher could spend, or save this until the next year. Perhaps it can be for teachers who have reached a ‘milestone,’ say, 5 years of teaching… I wonder how much teachers already spend of their own cash for this sort of enrichment? Could some of the amount currently spent by schools be used, could other sources of cash be found, could teachers subsidise it from their wages? Is it pie in the sky? That depends, if you want to trust teachers and you want a reason for a college of teaching to exist this seems a useful way forward. Along with the carrot, could be the stick: re-validation, teachers who show they are developing their practice through CPD may be re-validated every 3-5 years or so, with quality being the benchmark rather than quantity.

But if you don’t trust teachers then, for God’s sake stop talking about CPD and just say it’s all about Inset… And teachers, of watery Neptune, now bound in with shame, can’t ever develop beyond the needs of the school in which they work.

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I Did Not Speak Out.

First they asked me to teach girls differently and I did not speak out because I was a teacher.

They could tell what I was doing because, well, they were girls…

Then they asked me to teach black boys differently and I did not speak out because I was a teacher.

They could tell what I was doing because, well, they were black… and they were boys…

Then they asked me to teach white working class boys differently and I did not speak out because I was a teacher.

They could tell what I was doing because, well, they were white, and boys and spoke cockney’ish’

Then they asked me to focus on pupil premium children, there was a lot of money on this one… and I did not speak out

They could tell what I was doing because, well, they asked me to sit them at the front, or on the end of rows and give them coloured blazers to wear, and put photos and lists of who they were up in the staffroom so that I might learn their names…

Then they asked me to teach and track, girls in STEM subjects, muslims for signs of radicalisation, free school meal boys and girls to learn ’em, ADHD and EFL children, single parent family children, and they looked at my marking, my added British Values and my mark book was a mosaic of colours and grades and I did not speak out because I was

…too tired.

Then I began teaching everyone the same again so that I could actually learn ’em and the children did not speak out because I was their teacher and children like to learn… It was a moment of calm in the teacup of education, but someone with a clipboard wanted the storm, not the wisdom…

I had not tracked, so they checked my books, my plans, my data and oh they came for me saying we must be top of the league, that I must work all the hours God sends and I did not speak out…

For I was at the end of my tether…

So I was made redundant and I did not speak out because it was such a bloody relief.

Brave New World

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Two pieces of news attracted my attention today, one a speech from Nicky Morgan the Secretary of State for Education in England and the other a tweet from Andreas Schleicher the Secretary of State for Education in the World.

In her speech at BETT 2015 Morgan trumpeted that: “Already we have begun to produce destination data on school-leavers to identify where they end up. We aim to include them in league tables by 2017… In future, we could try to link qualifications to tax data too, in order to demonstrate the true worth of certain subjects… On my regular tours of schools across the country, teachers have shown me apps that can scan and mark almost instantly – saving hours of work,” According to this article in the TES she thinks: ‘Lesson plans are increasingly being curated, Ms Morgan added, helping to “reduce duplication” in the system and helping to “spread good practice from school to school”.’

In his tweet Schleicher trumpeted that: “PISA: A Tool for Improving Teaching and Learning…” Linking to this website it includes the joyful news that: ‘We will explore PISA’s approach to assessing student knowledge and skills. We will also consider ways in which PISA can be used as a tool to help teachers reflect on and improve teaching and learning in their local contexts.’ And that, if you complete the PISA course you will: “Demonstrate knowledge of the ways in which PISA assessments can be used as a tool for improving teaching and learning [and] Apply knowledge of PISA tests to adopt innovative approaches to teaching and learning”.

And lo, it came to pass… this is our brave new world.

Now, I’ve got nothing against data or technology but I do question the ideology that wants to use it for such bizarre ends. If we end up with a list of top GCSE and A level exams to take if you want to earn the most and therefore pay the most tax and everyone takes these exams what then? If we all teach the same lesson plans and mark with the same APPS using research to inform us as to ‘what works’, what then? If we manage to get everyone to pass the right exams with the right grade and they all line up at the Pearly Gates of, er, Oxbridge… What then? If everyone then leaves Oxbridge clutching their passes into the higher echelons of the media, the law, politics, acting, footlights ‘fools’ and the wherewithal to be a bearded barista, what then?

Well maybe we can try to be the most magisterial medias, loquacious lawyers, pithy politicians, accessible actors, funny fools and brilliant beards in the whole world IF we use PISA as a tool for improving teaching and learning…

What a comfort to know our future is safe…

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin…”

Aldous Huxley

What Do Posh Schools Teach Their Kids?

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There is a perennial debate that goes on in education circles about what education is for, is it about education for its own sake or is it about creating a workforce? Is it about teaching the best that has been thought and said or is this impossible to ascertain because certain knowledge has been privileged by class, gender, sexuality and colonial discourses in the past and therefore it has distorted our ability to see quality beyond its relationship to power? I think that this is a debate worth having. In a piece in the Times this week Dominic Maxwell suggested that a boy at Eton would see over thirty plays a year performed by his peers. Was old Etonian Eddie Redmaye a product of an elite education that enabled him to be one of the best actors in his generation?

  • What is the elite, do we have an elite, should we have an elite?
  • Does the elite use knowledge, skills and practices which can exclude others allowing it to retain an aura of cultural superiority?
  • Is some knowledge elitist or intrinsically middle/upper class or is it just given that tag by being valued by the elite?
  • Are the elite educated in a way that contributes to them and their families continuing to be the elite?
  • If they are, is the ‘elite’ method of education worth teaching to everyone?
  • If we teach it to everyone what effect would that have on the elite and on everyone else, in other words ‘will we all be members of ‘the elite” (sic)?
  • All of which needs to be framed by another question: does education reflect or shape society?

Cultural and social capital are interesting ideas and in societies, where class divisions are marked, differences can be seen easily. Do these differences have value, are some practices and products inherently superior to others or are they given the kudos of ‘high culture’ because they have been co-opted by a certain class? In Culture and Anarchy Matthew Arnold awarded the aristocratic class the nomenclature: ‘barbarians’, the middle class he called: ‘philistines’ and the working class: ‘populace’. All three classes, Arnold suggested, were marked by their bathos, an inability to respond to judgement, facts and taste. Culture, if you will. This then becomes the reason to teach the best that has been thought and said, and to introduce sweetness and light allowing people to become their ‘best selves’. An idea of all of us trying to become our ‘best selves’ is an interesting one and perhaps education has a role to play in this? Becoming our best self is different to ‘social mobility’, to be mobile socially we might have to adopt the cultural practices of the class we wish to become. Being our best self might mean celebrating the class from which we are a part at its very best, or might it mean valuing culture beyond its class baggage and seeing it and enjoying it on its own terms, the beautiful, the difficult and the sublime. This baggage is not just about cultural product, it also encompasses behaviour, an idea of what a life well lived might encompass, and an intrinsic knowledge about what is valuable.

What is the most valuable education we can give our kids and is this the education they get in the ‘poshest’ schools? In order to explore this I would like to take an American perspective:

After teaching for thirty years in New York state schools John Taylor Gatto resigned and has since dedicated his time to writing about and talking about education. His bestselling book ‘Dumbing us Down‘ is an excoriating attack on public (i.e. state) schools. In the book he writes that these schools confuse children, make them accept their ‘class’, make them indifferent, encourage emotional and intellectual dependency, have a need for constant affirmation by experts, and accept they can never hide from surveillance. Politically Gatto is a libertarian and appeals to people of right and left in varying degrees, his work is interesting, challenging, maddening, bonkers and thoughtful in equal measure. One piece of work of his I particularly like is his survey of the elite boarding schools in America. What is in their DNA, what is it that they do that is not done in American public schools? Gatto says there are fourteen themes that are “universal” in these schools and whether he is right or wrong about this I do not know. However, this might be an interesting conversation to have in the context of our ‘elite’ schools either private or state, but I doubt it. More interesting would be a conversation about whether we should be teaching these things or some of these things and what else could we add to the list. Gatto’s fourteen themes are:

  1. A theory of human nature (as embodied in history, philosophy, theology, literature and law). He believes these schools teach a wealth of information on humanity, now and in the past in order to inform the future.
  2. Skill in the active literacies (writing, public speaking). Write and speak well. Rhetoric. He says this communicating well is not a God given gift and can be easily taught through regular opportunities to speak in front of strangers and constant practice by writing every day. He thinks these skills will be picked up by doing and that expert intervention can come at some point later.
  3. Insight into the major institutional forms (courts, corporations, military, education). The ideas that drive them, with the crucial insight that argument is the way to truth and dissent is central to our way of life.
  4. Repeated exercises in the forms of good manners and politeness; based on the truth that politeness and civility are the foundation of all future relationships, all future alliances, and access to places that you might want to go. Not just common sense, as he has been in many ‘public’ schools where coarseness is an everyday part of the experience.
  5. Independent work: Child does more on their own than directed by the teacher. Gatto puts a, probably random, ratio to this: 80%-20% independent work vs teacher directed work. I think we need to be aware that this ‘independent’ work is carried out within the institution of a boarding school.
  6. Energetic physical sports are not a luxury, or a way to “blow off steam,” but they are absolutely the only way to confer grace on the human presence.
  7. A complete theory of access to any place and any person. Get your kids to do this, he says, get them to think they can and work out how to access people and places they need to or want to.
  8. Responsibility as an utterly essential part of the curriculum; always to grab responsibility when it is offered and always to deliver more than is asked for. Washing dishes, care for a horse, do community service, leadership in clubs,
  9. Check regularly: Arrival at a personal code of standards (in production, behaviour and morality).
  10. To have a familiarity with, and to be at ease with, the fine arts. (cultural capital) High culture, the best that has been thought and said and done. Transcending the animal materiality of our lives.
  11. The power of accurate observation and recording. For example, sharpen the perception by being able to draw accurately. The British upper classes used to think if you couldn’t draw something accurately you didn’t perceive it properly
  12. His favourite: The ability to deal with challenges of all sorts. Are we natural cowards until we have challenges, get knocked down and stand up again.
  13. A habit of caution in reasoning to conclusions. Scepticism.
  14. Constant development and testing of judgements, with follow ups so that you can discriminate value and keep an eye on your predictions to see how far skewed, or how consistent, your predictions were.

Is there any element of truth in this I wonder? If there is, does it equate to the education context in the UK? What should we do about it? Or if class is purely a function of economics do we allow the philistines and barbarians to dominate the cultural landscape, giving value to art purely in financial terms and allow them to feed the populace cheaper ‘mass’ entertainment whilst all bypass taste because either it doesn’t exist or because we are all so badly educated that we have no idea what it is?

I’m just throwing out the questions…

Prick Us, Do We Not Bleed? Teach Us, Should We Not Study?

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In his diary column in the Times on Monday 5th January David Aaronovitch wrote about going to see, recently and for the first time, a production of the Merchant of Venice. Aaronovitch: “…nothing can disguise the fact that this was an anti-Jewish play for an anti-Jewish audience. The Jew cares as much for his money as he does for his daughter, and even more for the blood of a Christian than he does for his money. Thus he conforms to two of the great, historical anti-Jewish stereotypes.” Aaronovitch goes on to point out that Shylock is humiliated with the approval of the heroes of the play and that there is nothing a director can do to mitigate this. He finishes by stating that he will not go and see a production of the play again.

Anthony Julius writes: “I must confess to walking out of productions of the play when the fourth act is over, in protest. When Shylock leaves, so do I.” He argues that Shylock defines English anti-semitism. He writes: “The Merchant of Venice is the most important event in the history of Jew-hatred in England.” This event is compounded every time ‘The Merchant of Venice’ makes an appearance in school syllabi or is performed as a school production. Communities minister Eric Pickles describes anti-semitism as ‘an ancient evil’ and that: ‘Anti-Semitism… [is] completely incompatible with traditional British values and totally unacceptable in our society.’ In schools he wants to see lessons on the holocaust, yet whilst these lessons are being taught in a history classroom, across the corridor in an English or drama room one of the roots of our prejudice might be trotted out year after year. Teach it, do we not bleed? Teachers do get their students to discuss the play’s anti-semitic content, in fact they would possibly fall foul of all sorts of legislation if they didn’t, as David Cameron said: “There can never be any excuse for anti-Semitism, and no disagreements on politics or policy should ever be allowed to justify racism, prejudice or extremism in any form.” And yet this play is arguably an excuse for it. That it is written by, possibly, our most famous son and is part of what we think of as ‘high culture’ gives it a sheen of respectability that could mean we are irresponsible to teach it to children in our schools.

Daniel Hannan writes here about how the play is worse read than seen performed, because when performed the actor can subtly lessen the obnoxious elements of his characterisation, but on the page, he argues, it is unrelenting. Yet this play is part of our examination curriculum and its unrelenting nature increases under the scrutiny required for study at GCSE or A level. Would an examinee be able to write on her anger about this being an examined text, could a mark scheme cope with the vehemence of a child asked to sit through lessons upon lessons of this loathsome stereotype only to be asked to offer balanced and reasonable thoughts as to the ‘attitudes shown towards Shylock, possibly contrasting contemporary with modern reception?’ Shylock is not a person, he is a character in a play, a written device, and one that might appear too hateful to approach in a considered way.

Do exams allow us to get to grips with the real nature of this play’s portrayal of a Jewish character? What about a candidate who protests in an exam? How can she register her disgust about the play? By accepting the premise of the play as being ‘acceptable’ to study does she not collude with it being part of our educational canon? What if she wrote that the play was anti-semitic and that the areas the mark scheme focuses on accept the stereotype rather than alleviate it? Or what if she walks out after answering the questions on other texts after spoiling the Merchant part of her exam paper in protest?

Here is an AQA exemplar question and mark scheme for the GCSE (2014):

The Merchant of Venice

Question 4

Starting with this speech, how does Shakespeare present Shylock’s feelings about the way he is treated?

Write about:

  • how Shakespeare presents Shylock in this speech
  • how Shakespeare presents Shylock in the play as a whole.

Indicative content

Examiners are encouraged to reward any valid interpretations. Answers might, however, include some of the following:

AO1

  • Response to Shylock in this extract and elsewhere in the play
  • Shylock’s behaviour and whether or not it is justified – both here and elsewhere in the play
  • Shylock’s refusal to lend money and possible reasons for/reactions to this
  • Shylock’s treatment at the hands of Antonio and others AO2
  • Use and effect of questions
  • Use and effect of anecdotal speech
  • Effect of repetition: ‘monies’ etc
  • Use and effect of imagery of dog/cur AO3
  • Attitudes towards usury
  • Attitudes towards Shylock, possibly contrasting contemporary with modern reception
  • Shylock as outsider/victim of society
  • Shylock as pariah

What about the anti semitic candidate who wrote that the Jew is rightly seen as a pariah? If all the evidence was presented in a well argued piece, conforming to the mark scheme, would the examiner feel obliged to mark it highly? Would the examinee and the examiner not then be colluding in an anti-semitism that is ‘incompatible with traditional British values’?

Pity the teacher, playing devil’s advocate in class and pricking the consciences of her charges, who could be open to all sorts of accusations. Classrooms should be places to explore thought and therefore all thought should be open to discussion in a reasoned way, but some works might have something so hateful running through their core that some might find it too challenging to discuss in a reasoned way, imagine what it might be like in a class somewhere to be the one Jewish child who is constantly asked to ‘give their opinion’ about Shylock.

Maybe we should ban it from our schools? But banning certain texts because of their controversial themes could one day leave us with the question: what then is left that we can study? Maybe, like the repeats of old Top of the Pops, it would be better to cut bits out of the text.

The Jubilee Centre of Character Education uses the Merchant of Venice as one of its texts to teach children under the age of 11 about virtues. The objectives are:

  • To explore in greater depth the virtues of self-discipline, justice and gratitude.
  • Enable pupils to become familiar with the story of the Merchant of Venice

Pupils are read a somewhat shorter version of the story and one of the tasks they are asked to do is:

Teacher read comments below and ask the children to agree (thumbs up or thumbs down) with the statements (useful assessment of pupils’ understanding of virtues):

  • Antonio displayed the virtue of gratitude when Shylock lent him the money
  • Portia showed the virtue of humility when she was pretending to be a lawyer
  • Portia demonstrated the virtue of self-discipline by not letting her husband (Antonio) know she was the lawyer and had the wedding ring

It seems here that the entire question of anti-semitism in the play is ignored, probably edited out in the shortened version given to the children, is this the best thing to do? If the anti-semitism is airbrushed out of the text do the pupils really “become familiar with the story”?

Todays events in Paris should give us pause for thought. Free speech is an important part of our tradition. I think we should study the Merchant of Venice. If anything, the play can be used to answer the question ‘How great was Shakespeare?’ and maybe brought in as evidence for the anti-Shakespeare lobby. Questions could be asked about Shylock and the whether the play reflects its writer’s anti-semitism, the anti semitism of the time and whether the play should be performed or studied at all in this day and age. This should be conducted in a way that allows for a full discussion rather than silencing opinion through an expectation of politically correct viewpoints that might be encouraged  by our need to represent British values of ‘tolerance’. The best way to counter unpleasant views is to allow them to be expressed and then counteract them, in fact to display the British value of ‘intolerance’ of ‘intolerance’ maybe? However, the nature of examinations means it should not be studied for exam purposes, no matter how well the exam boards might think they cope with the ‘Shylock question,’ there must be some doubt about whether every child studying the play will agree that he should be thought of as a ‘character’ at all.

But it is its possible performance in the school theatre that brings me to this distressing conclusion, I do not think a school age cast should ever be asked to perform the Merchant of Venice especially in an atmosphere where schools have to respond to the ‘British Values’ agenda. A young actor getting to grips with the character or being asked to ‘sanitise’ his portrayal has a formidable task whether they are Jewish or Gentile, therefore as a school play, or as a performed exam piece it could be far too awkward or challenging. (Howard Sherman writes passionately about school theatre censorship here. Here is a review of a Jewish production of the Merchant of Venice at the Globe)

We could also have the same discussions about Oliver Twist and the character of Fagin, that other major contribution to anti-semitism in our cultural landscape. As Julius puts it: “These, then, are England’s gifts to Jew hatred.” Made even more likely to be performed in a school as a musical, with its delightful score written by the Jewish composer Lionel Bart, Fagin offers huge challenges for any performer or, indeed, any examinee writing about him. I think we might have to ask similar questions about Oliver but, maybe, draw different conclusions?

Which brings me to the Taming of the Shrew…

There Are Learning Styles, But…

ISTEK-2nd-ELT-Conference-Learning-Styles-VAK-2011-14japa7 …the learning styles that most people think of when we use the phrase are bunkum. Despite this seeming to be common knowledge I still surprise groups of teachers when I mention it in passing whilst I’m delivering inset. Some teachers still seem to be wedded to the idea, they berate me for telling them, generally refuse to accept what I say and continue, I expect on their merry way, being style gurus… Give us a ‘V’; Give us an ‘A’; Give us a ‘K’! But this doesn’t mean there aren’t different styles of learning. The way someone learns football is very different to the way one learns latin, learning to dance is very different than learning to math! These specific styles are part of the tradition of imparting knowledge in a particular subject. As a drama teacher I become quite concerned when drama is used as a pedagogy to teach subjects which might be better communicated in ways that have worked successfully in teaching that subject for years. Mind you role play can be to drama what display work is to high art, a different thing altogether, sometimes done well but sometimes done atrociously.

When I was at school, in the third year, I was moved from the bottom set to top set French. I didn’t have much of a clue to what was going on, but I would listen and doodle in my exercise book. I doodled copiously as I listened and tried to absorb all this highfalutin new knowledge that was cascading over me, someone who had little grounding beyond, well, doodling in my bottom set class. Anyhow, at some point the teacher stopped in mid flow, saw that I was doodling in my exercise book, albeit in the ‘back’ of the book (a sacred area that any pupil worth their salt knows is more ‘theirs’ than the teacher’s who should spend their time looking at what is in the front part of the book, but that is by the by…) The French teacher marched over to my desk, held my book aloft and showed the rest of the class my doodles, page upon page… He was flabbergasted! Aghast! Shocked! Never in his life had he seen! Didn’t I want to learn?! A ruler slammed across my hand, punishment for my ‘bottom set behaviour’! Well, now, it seems as if doodling might be a good way of ensuring one learns new information, well maybe not my doodling in French class, but “drawing during learning appears to be a potentially powerful strategy for improving students’ learning…” in a science class according to this study. Perhaps I will have the last laugh! Ha! The reason I don’t know French is because I wasn’t allowed to doodle! Bon, that’ll show him… Well, maybe, but there is not enough evidence for me to approach smug level ten. This ‘style’ of learning is something a lot of us do naturally, in meetings, in classes, give us a pen, an agenda and a good deal of info, many of us resort to doodling as we absorb, I wonder if it helps?

The style in which we learn does make a difference dependent on our level of expertise: “Instructional techniques that are highly effective with inexperienced learners can lose their effectiveness and even have negative consequences when used with more experienced learners…” (see here)  And that, “…there is evidence that novices learn better from studying examples, whereas those with more expertise learn better by solving problems themselves,”(see here). There are other examples of this, in fact, I posited the same idea in Trivium 21c, basically people learn differently depending on their level of expertise in a given field and the amount that they know about what they are learning. For a teacher this means they need to be aware that how they teach does need to change as they go through a course and/or a topic dependent on the relative and, hopefully, growing expertise of their students; I expect for many teachers that this is common sense. Perhaps when we talk about learning style and adjusting teaching style in the future we can automatically think of this rather than as some still think, wrongly, about learning styles today.

Or do you think this will turn out to be bunkum too?

On the Octagon Table: Does Mixed Ability Teaching and Learning Work?

Centre_Table_(Carpenters'_Hall)

Would you prefer your seven year old child to be taught in a mixed ability class or not?

According to the Millennium Cohort Study whether a seven year old child is taught in a mixed ability class or streamed makes a significant impact on their attainment. This paper from the IoE draws on the evidence from the study and draws some stark and not altogether surprising conclusions: “Children in the ‘top’ stream achieved more and made significantly more academic progress than children attending schools that did not stream, while children in the ‘middle’ or ‘bottom’ streams achieved less and made significantly less academic progress.”

I have not had access to the rest of the report so I am not sure what conclusions it draws but from this statement alone the challenges for primary education are huge. Streaming is not good for ‘middle’ ability and ‘low’ ability children, however it is good for children in the ‘top’ stream. If you are a parent of a child who would be potentially in the ‘top’ stream the likelihood that they will achieve more and make significantly more progress if they were streamed than they would in a mixed ability class is something to ponder. In order for the majority of children to do better as a whole parents of children who are highly able should think carefully, do I want my child to do worse so that others might do better or do I want my child to do the best that they can so that they might have an academically flourishing life?

This is something that is very close to home for me. My little ‘un, when she was six, was taught in a mixed ability class. I guess that she was one of the ‘top three’ pupils.  What do I mean by ‘guess’? Well, her teacher and the school went to great lengths to deny that they were ‘setting’ within the ‘mixed ability’ class. The children were assigned to tables which were given names to differentiate them: Octagon, Hexagon, Pentagon, Rectangle, Square, Triangle, and Circle (despite the names hinting that the tables would be different shapes they all, somewhat disappointingly, looked the same). My little ‘un and her little friends were sat at the Octagon table; there were three children sat at the ‘Circle’ table.

What angle were the school trying out with this I wondered, only to be told again and again that the names of the tables were not significant. However, the children knew,.. they told us octagon got the difficult work and circle got the easiest. The tables were there to serve some hidden purpose, I can only think it was probably to do with worksheet distribution. In the hothouse atmosphere of the Octagon the children were given worksheets and when they had completed the worksheet they were given ‘extension work’ worksheets to do. The teacher spent most of the time teaching to the ‘middle’ where the majority of the thirty or so other children found themselves (the bell curve…) The two assistants spent a lot of time working with the ‘circle’. The result was that the Octagons decided, as they ended up with more worksheets by completing their worksheets, to stop completing worksheets and talk to each other instead. By the end of year two my little ‘un got a report which said she is always chatting and never completes her work. This was her experience of the Octagon for you: chat to your friends and do the minimal amount of work. I’m sure that this ‘Ofsted Good’ school is not typical but it does seem to reflect something inherent in the report and somewhere along the lines that those who are ‘top’ might be left to their own devices a bit more and that the pretence of mixed ability might be not as mixed as we would expect it?

If some primary schools are ‘setting’ by tables in mixed ability classes, is ‘this’ really mixed ability teaching? If it is, I suppose my little ‘un and her fellow octagons in the classroom had some positive effect on the others in that class, well according to the report cited above ‘they’ did but for me this is all most unsatisfactory. What does really good mixed ability teaching really look like and even ‘if’ this is done can it truly fulfil the needs of all pupils? I doubt it.

The problem is, what can be done? Either we pitch parent against parent in the battle for their little ones’ futures or we try and do something else, is there a solution that can help all children to fulfil their potential, not streaming, not mixed ability, but a mix of the two? Are there schools who teach part set and part mixed ability across all subjects at Primary and I mean in all subjects, in a fluid way? Would this be possible in primary schools or, at least, in some primary schools? Or should we just not worry about it and carry on as before?