Maximising cleverness – but for whom?

How overwhelming would the research evidence need to be for you to give up your most strongly-held beliefs about education, teaching and learning?

What would it take for you to abandon the setting of children by academic ability?

Would you stop using fixed-term exclusion if it was shown to have no effect, or was detrimental to improving children’s behaviour?

This is a big test that we need to pass if we are to consider ourselves a research-informed profession.

I’ve recently been talking to teachers about inclusion and I’ve been trying really hard to engage with the research evidence that I can find (where to find it is a skill I am learning slowly). I’ve learned that in our profession you can probably find some research evidence to support whatever position you choose to adopt. For instance, when looking at segregation and mixing by gender I found some research showing how much better girls fared in girls’ schools. The research was commissioned by an American association for girls’ schools.

The research evidence on inclusion that I can find is enlightening.

Inclusion and Pupil Achievement by Dyson et al (2004) from the University of Newcastle, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) as was, documents a large-scale study (rare in inclusion research, it seems) looking at the effect of inclusion (defined as the proportion of children in the school with special educational needs) on the achievement of all pupils. In summary they found:

We found no evidence of a relationship between inclusion and attainment at LEA level. An LEA’s policy in terms of the proportion of pupils educated in mainstream schools seems to have no bearing on overall levels of attainment in schools in that LEA when other variables are taken into account.

We found a very small and negative statistical relationship between the level of inclusivity in a school and the attainments of its pupils. The possibility that this is a causal relationship cannot entirely be ruled out, though this seems unlikely.

They also found a positive view of inclusion from teachers and pupils, who observed the positive effects on the wider achievements of all pupils. And they noted that their findings were in line with the international research evidence. Most studies find few if any negative impacts of inclusion on the attainments and achievements of pupils without SEN.

Would it encourage you to reconsider your approach to inclusion? Would it prompt you to think again before you ask me to consider the other 29 when I talk about meeting the needs of the one? Or perhaps you are influenced by some other research that contradicts Dyson et al? If so, I’d like to read it.

Heresy?, a recent post by Dave Aldridge (@zudensachen), has really got me thinking, though, about the cumulative effect of all the different ways we organise our systems, both on a school level and in the individual classroom.

The jury is largely out on mixed ability v. setting. There are probably small gains for low ability students from mixed ability teaching and small losses for high ability, and it’s the other way round with setting. The question, from a ‘what works’ point of view, is how all of these small gains and losses stack up overall. To put it another way, the question is how to maximise cleverness for the aggregate of students? And this is certainly an empirical question.”

It got me thinking about society’s priorities. Inadvertently or not, our system prioritises ‘maximising cleverness’, to borrow the phrase, of our highest academic attainers. The terminal written exam, the characterisation of vocational subjects as poor illegitimate cousins, grossly disproportionate use of exclusion for kids with SEN, Oxbridge entrance as a measure of success and the positive correlation between socio-economic status and Ofsted success are all factors that are entirely within our control. They could be changed tomorrow.

As long as we ‘maximise cleverness’ for our highest attainers we, as a nation, are content for others to do less well. Why is it not the other way round? Our highest attaining children are likely to be best prepared to do well as adults. The same cannot be said for our children with SEN. Their life outcomes are dire*. A small improvement in these sickening statistics would make a big difference to the lives of many.

A measure of our maturity as a nation – and boy do we need that now more than ever – would be to commit to improving the life outcomes of our most vulnerable, even if it meant that the rest of us fared ever so slightly less well. I fear that we are light years away from that. Just as we ‘maximise cleverness’ for our highest attainers, so we prioritise maximising richness for our most wealthy. We demonise benefit claimants, we use blunt policies like the bedroom tax that affect parents of children with disabilities and we go out of our way to smooth the path for the wealth creators because, so the lie goes, the money will trickle down to the rest of us. Tell that to the 90% of adults with learning difficulties who are unemployed.

* They will die at least 15 years younger than you.

They are twice as likely to be bullied at primary school.

They are nine times more likely to receive a fixed-term exclusion from school.*

They are nine times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion from school.

They are seven times less likely to work than you.

If they do work, it will probably be part-time. It will probably be poorly paid.

They are twice as likely to live in poverty as you.

They are over four times more likely to have mental health problems as a child.

They are more likely to have children with their own learning difficulties.

They are at least three times more likely to end up in prison.





If only we didn’t have experts

“I think people in this country have had enough of experts,” proclaimed Michael Gove, our school’s constituency MP, in an EU referendum debate on Sky recently.

He was referring specifically to economists and their views about what would happen to Britain in a post-Brexit or post-Eurin vote, but to me it summed up neatly the views of some who attack the public services in this country and reminded me of his time as Education Secretary.

Mr Gove led the DfE through a four and half year campaign to improve schools in this country. No-one can argue with that aim (the method of delivery is a different question), and no-one in our cherished profession seriously wants anything other than the best for each and every child. Yet many of us were characterised as getting in the way of progress, of being part of the problem – we were The Blob.

Schools could be better. If they could be better, then they are not good enough. If they are not good enough it must mean that those who teach in them and lead them are not doing a good enough job, ergo the professionals (so-called) are the problem. If they are not doing a good enough job, despite their training and years of experience then that must be a major cause of the problem. They don’t even realise that they’re not doing a good enough job, goes the logic. The extension of that is that it must take someone with a fresh pair of eyes, someone who hasn’t been institutionalised to show us the errors of our ways.

The NHS, one of this country’s most impressive achievements, gets hammered because of a perception that it has a bloated management and bureaucratic culture. Not that it is chronically underfunded to fulfil its duties. The criticism in this case is reserved for managers, not clinical professionals who, rightly, retain high status in this country.

The police service has coped with eye-wateringly large budget cuts in recent years. I feel sick every time I think of my budget, yet my pressures pale into insignificance by comparison. Despite this, front-line police officers and their operational leaders, of which my brother is one, continue to make big dents in recorded crime. The British Crime Survey which, despite its many flaws is the best indicator of crime trends that we have, shows major reductions in overall crime over many years. This is not considered good enough and resulted in the abolition of Police Authorities (a second cousin to school governing bodies) and the creation of Police and Crime Commissioners – one person who can back or sack the Chief Constable.

We’re not immune to this ourselves. There is nothing more satisfying than sticking the boot into ‘SLT’. I regularly read on Twitter criticisms of senior leaders that the reason we’re so bad at our jobs is that we’ve lost touch with what it’s like to be a full-time class teacher, forgotten what it’s like to talk to kids, that we’re obsessed with numbers and spreadsheets and Ofsted. We’re getting in the way of schools being better, of teachers just getting on with their job. I can take constructive criticism and feedback, but I have a very thin skin when it comes to lazy stereotypes.

It’s this approach of mistrusting the expert (as Michael Gove would say) or the experienced that is slowly strangling parts of the public sector. I’m proud to be a public servant and I was proud to be a public service volunteer when I was a Special Constable with Thames Valley Police and a British Army reservist. How long I continue to enjoy, and therefore how long I can remain, being a public servant is another matter. It’s difficult to feel that you’re doing anything other than a mediocre job, at best, in the current climate.

I know absolutely nothing about running a hedge fund. Perhaps I’ll give that a shot instead.


He cannot keep up at the pace we teach

Inclusion of children with special educational needs is one of the most emotive subjects we debate or argue about as teachers and, unusually for our profession, is even more emotive for parents, for obvious reasons.

It is considered by many to be a basic human right and the ideal is that all children should be taught well in their local mainstream school and have their associated needs met. Anything different is seen to deny them at least some part of their childhood that others take for granted.

This is not something that I believe is possible. It is not possible because there are some children whose needs are so complex, or require such specialist skill and knowledge from staff, or some specialist equipment, or can exhibit extreme behaviours that they cannot be meaningfully included and well educated in a mainstream school. To pretend to include them in the life of a mainstream school is far more damaging and, in my view, robs them of their entitlement.

We rarely, if ever, have this discussion about other forms of segregation. We celebrate the diversity of a system that allows some children to be educated apart from the opposite sex. We are content for religious organisations to play a major part in running some of our schools, and for religion to be a factor in how some schools select their children. We are in love with our selective independent schools and, having heard this myself, breathe a sigh of relief that those sons or daughters don’t have to mix with the other 93% of the population. Despite the evidence, many in this country bemoan the lack of expansion of grammar schools who, presumably, are single-handedly churning out soon-to-be management consultants and hedge fund managers who otherwise would have been chimneysweeps or match girls. We regard segregation by all of these methods as a positive choice for parents. It is not seen as a zero sum game – their presence or absence does not disadvantage other children. Not so for children with special educational needs whose presence in a school in the name of inclusion can be regarded as lowering the average, making it harder for others to learn or dominate the attention of adults to the detriment of other children.

No school is inclusive. My school is highly exclusive in that sense. We cannot admit 97.5% of the school-age population because the possession of an Education, Health and Care Plan is a condition of entry. Every school has limits on who they can educate well. Those limits are flexible, and the degree of flexibility depends on the Headteacher and the institutional confidence of the school. I have seen the ripples that spread through a school that admits a child with Down syndrome when no-one in the school has worked with a child with such a condition before. If the values of the Headteacher and school are strong enough and they are willing to learn they will be successful. If they simply expect the child to fit in with how they operate then the road ahead will be long (or short) and rocky. The special school that used to state brazenly on its website that it didn’t admit children with either learning difficulties or emotional and behavioural difficulties is one such sad example.  This is where the tension arises.

The difference between a school reasonably and correctly saying that, hand on heart, it cannot meet the needs of a particular child, no matter how much support or money is offered, and a school meaning that it does not want to meet the needs of a particular child is a fine one. How our culture of accountability and performativity influence the behaviour of Headteachers will have to wait for another blog.

When I hear inclusion it sometimes comes with a subtext of compromise, dumbing down, doing things that a school shouldn’t have to do, stifling the clever ones or of risking its academic status, or an exact quote which is my personal favourite

He cannot keep up at the pace we teach.

The parents at our school are very strong advocates for their children – wouldn’t you be? They tell us in very clear terms that they want us to relentlessly focus on their child living and working independently. Think about that for a second and reflect on the last time you questioned whether that was possible for your own children. That is not too much to ask, but the bald statistics show dire life outcomes for people with learning difficulties. In my job those numbers are a professional context, but for the parents it is on their mind and in their gut the entire time. If attempts at inclusion do not directly work towards improving those life chances then it is not working. It may well make the adults involved feel better themselves as they see a child superficially experiencing the same curriculum as their peers, but in reality that child is losing touch with them at a rate of knots. It is this kind of veneer of inclusion that leads to Nicky Morgan stating that

“every child should study maths, English, history or geography, a language and the sciences up until the age of 16.”

She’s wrong.

Inclusion is the wrong word. I prefer to talk about a child’s entitlement. An entitlement that drastically improves their chances of being an independent and successful adult. If that’s not what my school is about then I’m in the wrong job.


Labourers, chippies, sparks, brickies and plumbers

I’ve been reading with interest a lot of the responses to CentreForum’s recent report highlighting the relative underachievement of white, working class children and the suggestions for why this might be the case.

I was one of those working class children in the 70s, 80s and 90s and recall that period without a hint of nostalgia. There is talk in the press of a poverty of aspiration. In my case, we didn’t have much room to aspire, to be ambitious – we were too busy trying to survive, to get by. (Ben Elton tells an amusing story of his time at Manchester University in which he never saw a tomato ketchup bottle the right way up. His whole life was about eeking things out). Sure, I daydreamed about what I would do as an adult, but the harsh reality of life would puncture those dreams with depressing regularity.

We lived in a council house, which we now tend to use as a proxy for “succeeded against the odds” – I’m not sure why as most people I knew lived in a council house in those days. My parents bought it, interest rates soared and it was then promptly repossessed when I was doing my GCSEs. We were technically homeless for about a week, and slept on the floor of a friend’s house. We then ended up in a bed and breakfast twelve miles away for a few months until we were rehomed by the council. In that time the single most depressing thing in my life happened. I answered the door one day after school to be met with, I was told, a representative of the court, who issued a repossession order to me for the B&B. The landlord hadn’t been keeping up with his mortgage payments either. So, out we went, off to another B&B for a few weeks. My mediocre set of GCSE results and a whopping 50-odd days of absence in Year 11 were statistics that were sources of ridicule when I went for an interview at the Army careers office. I had dreams of being an army officer, but that time in my life was about survival, coping with the nausea of watching my mum get ill with the stress and wondering where we were going to live.

Bad things happen to people. They have setbacks, they cope with difficulties. So what, you no-excusers may say. Get on with it.

Financial difficulty was one thing. However, the more chronic problem was that I didn’t know what to aspire to. Adults I knew were labourers, chippies, sparks, brickies and plumbers. I was working on a building site days after I finished my GCSEs – an exceptional experience that probably did more for me in terms of convincing me to do something different with my life than any careers lesson. The poshest people I knew were my teachers and I regarded them as a class apart. How could I aspire to be an engineer, a doctor, a solicitor? I had no idea who these people were or what they did. I’d had the misfortune to experience up close how bailiffs worked on more than one occasion and the only good thing that came out of that was a certainty that I’d never be one. I’d never met anyone, apart from my teachers, who had been to university. I didn’t even know what one looked like or what people did there (see Paul Mason’s Guardian article here). I defined people as posh if they went to Spain on their holidays, or if they were able to afford to fill up their car or pay for 12 months road tax on their car in one go. Andy, who lived in our street, was a quantity surveyor and I regarded him as superior because he wore a shirt and tie to work.

This was only reinforced by experiences in my mid-teens.

I applied to join the Irish Guards at 16 and received a letter soon after to be told that they had no vacancies in my year of birth. Some time later a friend, a highly-decorated officer himself, told me that they were doing me a favour. My dad’s job – he’s a digger driver – meant I would be unlikely to be able to afford the lifestyle it demanded. It took some explaining to me why my dad’s job had any bearing on my ability to be a soldier. I tried another regiment, where I got chatting to another candidate.

What school do you go to?” he asked.

Brakenhale,” I responded.

I’ve never heard of that school. I go to Pangbourne College.”

It’s a comprehensive. Why would you have heard of it?

I went to a comprehensive for a day once. It was horrible.

He’s in his 40s now, I guess. I hope he’s ok.

In the Officers’ Mess that week I was talking to a Captain and another candidate. They were talking rugby and asked me what position I played. When I responded that I had never played rugby they both looked at me with utter disdain. It was quite clear to me that I didn’t belong.

Much of my life up until then had reinforced my place in the world. This was brought home to me when working in Slough in a school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. We lived in a static caravan when we first moved back from Ireland and I remember the hilarity that met this fact when I told my tutor group. I was regarded as the poshest person in the school by the kids and they reminded me of me when I was their age. I counter it with an example when I worked in a selective independent school. Year 10 (Fourth Year in their parlance) were off for a week’s work experience.  I asked James in my physics class where he was going. “Dad’s sorted me a week at a political think tank in [Washington] D.C.” I was stunned, but it just tripped off his tongue without a second thought.

What’s in our children’s frames of reference? What do they think is achievable? Don’t blame these kids for having a poverty of ambition. They need to be shown the way. They need to believe that they’re as good as anyone else.

Oh Canada – a tribute to Joe Bower

I have a distinct fondness for Canadians. I’m on to my second Chair of Governors to hail from that proud nation and I’ve been blessed with both of them – exceptional people in their chosen fields and as Chairs. My late great-uncle, Jim Quigley, was a World War II veteran in the Canadian Navy too, and it was at his funeral that I developed a love for their anthem Oh Canada! It’s fairly short and ended up being played two and a half times as Uncle Jim’s coffin draped in the Maple Leaf entered the crematorium, colouring a sad moment with a touch of comedy.

I have developed a fondness and respect over the past couple of years for another Canadian, but I never had the privilege of meeting him, and I now never will. I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of teacher Joe Bower at the weekend. I got to learn of Joe and his thoughts on education, and specifically about behaviour, soon after joining Twitter. I was instantly attracted to Joe’s views as they chime with my own. But, I had yet to meet many who thought that way or were brave enough to publicly admit as much. Those of us who espouse such approaches can be labelled as soft, permissive or just plain wrong, irrespective of the success of our work.

Joe’s blog For the Love of Learning is a rich resource and the aim was to, in his own words, “challenge ‘traditional’ schooling while exploring more progressive forms of education. I intend on using this blog to uproot some of the most deeply rooted myths that continue to distract people from a love for learning. And I am going to have fun doing it!”

The blog covers a wide range of issues and there is something in there for everybody, but his section Rethink Discipline is my personal favourite. The post Consequences for whom? states his views on the use of consequences and sanctions, as well as rewards.

We have to stop reacting to misbehavior by saying:

“He has done something bad; now something bad must be done to him.”

And we need to start saying:

“We have a problem here; how are we going to solve it together?”

This view upsets many as consequences and sanctions are seen by them as the foundations of solid behaviour policies. I am reminded of the time Basil Fawlty attacked his car for failing to start in the middle of the road.

Screenshot 2016-01-05 20.55.18

I saw Dave Whitaker use this very effectively in a training session once and I’ve now nicked it myself. It reminds me of the continued use of sanctions that do nothing to improve the behaviour of a child. The only purpose they serve is to make the adult feel better – Something must be done. Something that looks tough. This is that something. It is claimed that the situation has been dealt with. And yet the car remains there, unmoved and still unable to start.

Another of my favourites that many find challenging is Are children in control of their misbehavior?

I frame a child’s difficulties not necessarily as a choice that needs to be convinced otherwise — instead, I see a child’s difficulties as proof that the child is lagging skills, and it’s our job to help teach them those skills.

Are children in control of their misbehavior?

Who cares.

Those of us who work with children with social, emotional and mental health difficulties know that Joe is right. It is a view borne out of experience, of repeated failure to get things right, of repeated failure to improve things, of extreme situations that force you to confront the obvious – what you are doing is not working.

I’m sad that I’ll never get the chance to meet Joe in person, but I was fortunate to be able to let Joe know via Twitter how useful his blog has been to me and to let him know how influential he has been. I have recommended his blog to NQTs when I work with them on behaviour and will continue to do so.

Joe will be sadly missed by many, but I am confident that his thoughts and his actions will leave a legacy that will last for many years.

Have you ever sung at the Royal Albert Hall?

I am always pleased when children with SEN come up as a topic for discussion as it did yesterday following Quirky Teacher’s post on segregation. I am still waiting for the day, though, when I hear from a teacher who says in exultant tones that teaching children with learning difficulties has made them a better teacher. Until then I steel myself for deficit narratives, sometimes overt, sometimes implied. This deficit model is fed, in part, by the process of assessment for statements of special educational needs as was (now the Education, Health & Care Plan (EHCP)) which lists, sometimes in great detail, everything that the child finds difficult. I have often wondered what my own EHCP would look like – it would make depressing reading for sure.

This deficit narrative, these proxies for SEN, arise time and again. The two main ones I see are:

These children are an unacceptable drain on resources.

Every child is a drain on resources by definition. So what? Start the watch on an INSET day and see how long it takes someone to come out with the wisecrack “This job is so much easier when the kids aren’t here! Eh? Eh?” It’ll be minutes, not hours. The line between what any school can and cannot do is undefinable and is, in large part, drawn by the headteacher. I’ve blogged about that before in Entitlement? Yes. Inclusion? No.

Their behaviour has an unacceptable effect on the other children.

I see SEN and behaviour used interchangeably and erroneously. Do some children with SEN sometimes present with challenging behaviour? Yes. So do all children. The last time I looked 53% of all special schools had an outstanding judgement for behaviour and safety, compared to 32% of all other schools and 27% of all pupil referral units. That’s the same framework remember. Special school exclusion rates are also half that of mainstream schools. Couple that with the fact that all kids in PRUs are there because of their behaviour and last year 25% of the children at my school came to us from secondaries due to their behaviour.

The thing that irks me most about this narrative is the subtext that without these children the lives of the teacher and the other students would be improved. I reject this.

I’m a love the one you’re with kind of bloke. I have unshakeable belief that all kids can do great things with the right teaching, support, care and, as Dave Whitaker would say, love. The things that the children I serve achieve sometimes move me to tears. They have significant difficulties in certain aspects of their life, but that does not mean that they struggle with everything. 10 of our students sang at the Royal Albert Hall this year. Not in some event purely for children with SEN. They were full participants in an opera with professionals and other children from across Surrey. My heart was bursting from my chest that night. I had to politely clap along with the other 6,000 people but I desperately wanted to scream and shout from the rafters about how proud of them I was. Take the young man in Year 10 who has Down syndrome but speaks three languages (Do you? I don’t.); the girl in Year 11 who was a Paralympic torchbearer in 2012 (as well as appearing in a BBC documentary and being interviewed on Japanese TV); the young lady in Year 12 who recently returned from Italy where she won four medals and set a European record at the European Down Syndrome Swimming Championships; the young lady in Year 10 who’s been selected for the GB Down Syndrome Swimming Squad. All impressive, but no more impressive than the 25% of our children who had to leave secondary schools due to their behaviour but have come to love school once more, a place that, at one time, scared the life out of them. For one of our Year 11 students it took FOUR YEARS for us to make him feel safe in school. It takes that long (this is the bit where you tell me to think of the other children) and we pride ourselves on not giving up on kids who have been written off long ago. Their difficulties will not be solved by the end of the week.

Teaching children with complex learning difficulties can make you feel unskilled. To start with it certainly makes you feel scared. This is at the heart of the matter – read Beefy’s response to Quirky Teacher’s post to learn more. Embrace it and it will be the best CPD you will ever have. It took me to teach children with profound and multiple learning difficulties to realise that what I knew about teaching, and behaviour, when I worked in mainstream was a veneer at best. Try teaching a child with multi-sensory impairment (that is to say, deaf and blind) and then you’ll have to begin from first principles. How does this child even know who I am? How do I know if they’ve learned something? How do I assess it? Have they really learnt it if they cannot do it in another class, outside of school or with another person?

My seven-year-old daughter and I were discussing jobs yesterday. Her visual impairment means that some jobs will be closed to her. She spends time with soldiers and police officers and thinks their jobs are cool. I’ve had to tell her that she won’t be able to do those things when she’s older. It breaks my heart to tell her and her disappointment is palpable. The thing that is most upsetting, though, is that she feels a little less human as a result. “There are things I’m not allowed to do. This makes me different from everyone else.” Her impairment is, in the world that I spend my time in, minor and close to being inconsequential. I can only imagine what it’s like for those with complex difficulties. Read Beefy’s response again.

Don’t make the mistake of perpetuating that deficit narrative. Don’t make the Fortune Teller Error – the prediction of failure – that I so often hear.

As Dylan Wiliam has said, “teach the kids in front of you, not the ones you wish you were teaching.


How Reliable is Your Ferrari?

I left university many years ago with two things to my name: an overdraft that I thought was eye-wateringly large (loose change by today’s standards) and an overinflated ego courtesy of the degree certificate I was flourishing. My inability to secure a graduate job (ah, those were the days) soon bought the ego a one-way ticket to Dignitas and off I trooped back to my holiday job with BMW in their warehouse. The slagging I got from the regulars for ending up back there taught me a lesson in humility I’ve never forgotten.

I loved working there. I started work at 2pm, so I could indulge my love of running in the mornings before work. BMW were also a really good employer. They treated their staff really well, but expected a lot in return. Their big focus was quality. In a warehouse full of the thousands of parts that make up the hundreds of models and variants of BMW cars and bikes that there have been over the years, the ability to get the right parts to the right dealers at the right time was critical. Sounds easy. It is when the parts are the size of a 7-Series bonnet, but when you have parts boxes with thousands of washers and shims, miscounting means omission of the smallest of parts halts a service or repair which means unhappy customers.

For a brand as prestigious as BMW I was surprised to learn that the only measure of quality the management were really interested in was reliability. Speed? Price? Sales? Volumes? Nah. High quality and reliable trumped all.

On our noticeboard was the league table of reliability. Who produced it and from what information I cannot now recall, but I still remember who occupied the important positions.

Bottom Three

3 Vauxhall

2 Ford

Dead last Ferrari

Top Three

1 Toyota

2 Honda


Fast forward sixteen years to last term. One of my students was telling me that his mum and dad were driving back from Maranello having collected their new Ferrari from the factory. Soon after I was talking to his mum and she recounted their journey through a torrential rainstorm in northern Italy without the use of the windscreen wipers as the electrical systems in their brand new car had malfunctioned.

When a promoted tweet popped up in my timeline today from Osiris Education advertising Primary Turnaround – A proven process to get to Outstanding in under 2 years. A step-by-step guide to move up an Ofsted grade I couldn’t shake a mental picture of that Ferrari – incredible to look at, great for the ego of the owner but in reality fragile, temperamental and prone to breaking down when the track is anything other than perfectly flat.