The subject matter is that subjects matter: save PE & the Arts

20131129-171113.jpgI have been trying to understand for some time now why it would make sense to force schools to take away subjects from their curriculum, particularly at Key Stage 4. I can totally understand the financial reasons that might cause a smaller school to not spread their GCSE curriculum too thinly if it meant that staffing needs were too expensive and class sizes made it unmanageable. However, the idea that some of the GCSEs were ‘soft’ and therefore needed to be replaced with super tough qualifications seems ridiculous. This is particularly the case when it comes to the edging out of the Arts, Drama and PE. I wonder whether anyone who is calling these subjects soft has actually sat and observed a lesson or two in any of these subjects. I have been fortunate to observe all of these subjects in the last year and have seen amazing work going on at GCSE level. I want to speak up for each of these subjects and then finish off by speaking up for the children that would take them.

Firstly Art. I was lucky to be able to attend the Art Party Conference (@ArtParty2013) at the Scarborough Spa last weekend. It was an amazing gathering of artists and educators celebrating their talents and how important it is to have the opportunity for creative expression in the curriculum. The event was led by Bob and Roberta Smith and began with a protest parade across the sands with amazing banners shouting out for the need to have Art in education. Once within the Spa, Bob read out his letter to Gove (see photo) 20131129-171145.jpgand explained his reasons for encouraging creativity and the diverse range of occupations that would be damaged if thwarted. The day went on with performance artists, music and exhibitions all collaborating together to show just how amazing learning about art can be. Scarborough was buzzing with artists, teachers, students, performers, who came from all over the country with placards ready to join in the protest. What added to the fun was that we were graced with the presence of @Micha20131129-171054.jpgelGroveMP who took part in events bringing his own creativity and humour to the proceedings. I loved the Goveshy where G(r)ove took sneaky shoots at mini effigies of himself. The atmosphere was full of joy and yet the serious message of keeping art in schools was clear.

I loved Art in school, it was a whole different kind of concentration. It allowed an expression of ideas not possible in other subjects. There is some amazing work going on in schools these days. Thank goodness that Art in schools doesn’t look like Art in schools anymore. It has been opened up and the variety of artists studied, techniques developed and work produced is immense. Why there is a need to narrow that selection I do not know.

As well as observing Art I have been fortunate to observe Drama. As with Art, lesson observations are accompanied by a little hint of jealousy at the freedoms used in lessons to prompt different kinds of responses from the students. I have taught students who have gone on to be highly successful actors on stage and screen and have been proud to have been part of their educational journey. Their love of Drama began with school Drama. What I find incredible to even consider is the notion that Drama could ever be considered soft. I think in particular of an examination piece I watch a couple of years ago and yes it was A level and not GCSE, but it had required to the cast to interpret their piece and perform in the style of Brecht. During those performances I can safely say that the students were educating more than a couple of the adults watching those scenes.

Skills that are developed from lower down through GCSE to A Level include improvisation and adaptation. Even if students are not destined for a career in theatre just imagine how useful those skills are for speaking in front of others, not being thrown by unexpected events, managing people, thinking on your feet. To say that the analysis that goes on when watching professional productions is soft is another thing again. Teachers will know how difficult and demanding it is to ensure that students get good results on those aspects, because it is a very hard thing to do. The level of analysis needed is sophisticated and subtle and again is incredibly adaptable to other aspects of Iife.

Finally PE, again another subject I’ve been fortunate enough to observe. Now there can be little disputing the health benefits of children playing sport, but that is not what is being challenged at this particular point. What is sadly being challenged is pupils opportunity to specialise in sport. Does that make any sense? ‘Oh hello young person there, you seem to enjoy your sporting activities’, ‘I do indeed kind sir’. ‘You also appear to have a particular interest in playing sport and are able to play a couple of these sports well?’, ‘Yes indeed, that is correct’. ‘Well’, said the gentleman in the suit and glasses, ‘that looks rather too easy to me’, why don’t you go and learn how to code with computers instead, that would be far better for your simple little head’.

Now there is no way that I am against getting students to learn code in schools. Far better that then spend endless time on making spreadsheets, but there is no way that the PE is easy at GCSE level. The opportunities for cross curricular activities with Biology are frequent and good teachers have teemed up with science staff to produce some amazing lessons which reinforce knowledge in each subject. I always tried to refer to PE as Sports Science because there was so much information on what’s happening to the body, particularly for elite athletes. I saw lessons that capitalised on the fervour following the Olympics and analysed sporting performance in order to see what is needed to succeed at that level. Nothing soft about that. If you ever need convincing of the value of good PE teaching then trying to hear Alex Danson, Team GB Hockey, speak. I and all the other teachers in the room were so moved when she spoke of her love for the PE she studied at school and her desire to be a PE teacher. Outstanding.

Finally what about the students who take these subjects. I think that with a narrowed curriculum you have students who have a great range of strengths and talents all forced down similar routes. By taking these subjects out or narrowing their breadth you also take away the opportunity for those students to shine. Not everyone is interested in the same subjects. I have always been against children picking certain subject combinations because they feel they ought to. Instead I thinking there should be creativity, individuality and diversity. There are so many things in life we have to do as adults why not encourage those students who are going to do those subjects because they want to. It is so hard to discover your passion in life, a subject you love, why take away or narrow those options into unrecognisable alternatives. I’m all for individuality, who wants to be a clone? Far better to be your own person. The fact is that human beings are beautifully different,unpredictable creatures. If you want to raise standards then you need to do the hard work that teachers do on a daily basis. There are no short cuts and think about what it means when you describe these subjects as soft. Would you describe the people below as soft? No, I didn’t think so.



I want to Continue to Develop Professionally: one teacher’s learning journey

Teachers don’t come out of a box labelled ‘Teach20131115-121424.jpger’. We take a long journey, some longer than others, but still a journey. For many of us it begins with school and with the way in which we were taught ourselves. Either we were lucky enough to have some inspirational teachers who nudged and encouraged us along paths that were new and challenging to us. Or alternatively we had terrible, terrifying experiences that gave us clear ideas about how not to do things and therefore made us think that if we were a teacher we would definitely do things differently.

Next came our degree. Some, lucky enough to know what they wanted to do from early on combined an interest in a particular area with an educational underpinning. The rest of us had a specialism that had become our particular beloved subject. If you work with sixth formers or spent any time with school leavers you’ll know that not all pick their degree subjects out of a deeply held passion for that subject. So it would be interesting to poll colleagues to see just how passionate they were when they came to take their subject. Hopefully, hugely. You come to the end of the degree and do you think, ‘hooray, now I can go and do my teacher training’? Some must do. I’ll be brutally honest, genuinely I wasn’t that sure at all when it came to considering teacher training. A friend working at a university told me to give it a go and if it didn’t work out I would come out of the year with a great qualification. He was right and I was wrong. It was a great move to make, fantastic even.

So now the teacher training. Boy, have we heard some opinions about teacher training of late. I have heard lots of teachers dismiss their PGCE year as inconsequential. I think I must have gone to a really good course with great lecturers (let’s give them a plug – Exeter!) and yes my lecturers were pretty special – including Terence Copley and Ted Wragg, but I definitely think I learnt a lot. If nothing else I thought a lot about things, about what to do if they misbehave, about writing a scheme of work, about how to teach history by building trenches out of tables and chairs (in the days when you had a second subject). I also learnt how hard it was to prepare a million lessons, evaluate them and produce amazing resources every single night. During teaching practices I would meet up at the weekend with a fellow student teacher for soup and bread (financial resources were so limited) and we would encourage each other and commiserate over the latest lesson disasters, ‘oh you had a child faint in your lesson? I can better than, I had a girl cut her hand‘. If nothing else it was practice and people very quickly told us when we did something wrong.

As a senior leader I have been privileged to be able to mentor PGCE trainee teachers through their QTS year. Far from being a waste of a year, it was great to have time to sit and discuss lots of different aspects of teaching, pedagogy and strategies. It’s really tough for PGCE trainee teachers, especially those trying to work a 90% timetable, as their levels of paperwork are huge. Being observed by tough criteria is challenging and I think the process of target setting and checking is a continual process of development. Once you get though the PGCE year there is now the NQT year. I’m so old I didn’t have to do that. It’s quite a frustrating year in some ways if anyone attempts to make it a simple repeat of what has gone before. My last NQT and I kept coming back to the word ‘bespoke’ about what we were trying to achieve. However, I think, depending on the circumstances it is like the process of starting with stabilisers and then taking them off the bike. Someone is there for the few wobbles and occasional crash, but otherwise you’re heading out on your own.

So then you’re on your own. Hopefully, with supportive colleagues, you are still nurtured and encouraged. So how does development continue at this point? Well there has been a lot of flack recently about training away days, but I always liked the space they gave me mentally to listen to an alternative perspective. Even if the trainer did not inspire, it was a different viewpoint or even a reassurance that you’re not doing a bad job. I also ended up organising a national conference for about 200 delegates myself for a few years, and with a small team, we worked for months and months to prepare everything. Ridiculously hard to put on a day for a decent rate that teachers really enjoyed. I know that they are not as fashionable these days, but I still think they are really useful, often because it is an opportunity to tackle a new topic or learn about a new development, but then I would say that.

What has crept up on me is the rise of the Teach Meet – a wondrous phenomenon of the sharing of good practice. Something that senior leadership teams ideally should have been encouraging throughout. I think Teachmeets are amazing events, not least because it is a chance for teachers to get a pat on the back. If they get positive feedback then it is affirming and pushes you on that you’re doing a good job. It’s basically like a lesson observation without the children, which is where for me it’s limitation lies. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing negative about a Teachmeet, but if possible (and there’s the rub) I think lesson observations are better. Not only do you see the amazing teaching idea and all right it’s only one teacher and one lesson, but you see the interaction, the evolution and adaption of the idea which is ultimately what it is all about. So, personally I think the more you are able to observe lessons, the better, that certainly makes it possible to continue to develop professionally.

As a professional I believe that to continue to develop I want to learn from someone who has studied more than me. It means I read some of the amazing academic texts that are have been published. My understanding of teaching has been transformed through reading giants such as Fullan, De Bono, Holt, Grint, Robinson and Cowley. A school I worked in was forward thinking enough to run extended internal INSET with fantastic experienced leaders that challenged me and opened up whole new worlds of academic study that inspired me to do a Masters degree. For me, that is continuing to develop professionally. If I think about teaching an A level class, I would share peer essays for them to think about potential mistakes, or to understand parallel examples, but I wouldn’t teach a new topic with them. I would encourage students to lead revision seminars to ensure their understanding was correct and to help them understand through teaching, but I wouldn’t ask them to teach a new topic.

We can gain a huge amount from sharing good practice amongst peers, but our learning is about pushing forward, about recognising that there is always more to understand. There is so much more I want to learn on my horizon. I thought it was quite sad when I saw someone on Twitter say that they didn’t know a teacher who had ever read an academic educational journal and then make use of it in the classroom. Through twitter we have access to some amazing articles now and sometimes an article from an incredibly different context can inspire new ideas. I remember coming up with a new curriculum idea after reading about the schools in a tiny fishing town in Newfoundland. That’s an amazing thing about professional development, it creeps up on you when you least expect it. I have been lucky enough to be able to deliver INSET in some schools. I love delivering INSET, not because I can’t teach, or have failed as a teacher, but because I am passionate about communicating ideas and being part of that process that gives teachers head space to continue to develop professionally. So the learning journey continues, it’s an education accumulator. We should always share good practice, but let’s not be afraid of the idea of an expert. There’s already too much ‘us and them’ in education, let’s not make learning from academic educational experts as part of CPD another example of it.

“In order to be a teacher you’ve got to be a student first”

Gary L Francione

Celebrating books: covers, pages, spines and ink

I promise you I am not a dinosaur. The evidence might appear to be to the contrary given that I have declared my love for the days of chalk and blackboards and now here I am championing the age of print. However, to reiterate I am not a dinosaur. I don’t have an ereader as such although I do have relevant apps for tablets and phones, but I still tend towards buying books either from…horror shock book shops or yes, I admit, the internet. So there is a part of me that gives a secret cheer with the independent booksellers who, when asked if they wanted to be able to s20131109-165701.jpgell kindles in by their stores whilst receiving a cut said, thanks but no thanks ( I definitely think that ereaders fulfil a function and I find it quite handy to read research articles as PDFs on a tablet, allowing you to whizz to the relevant quote or table. Of course it’s not the same as little page markers and a soft pencil to gently annotate the page. There is something beautifully tangible about books, whether they are new or old. I’m a child of paper upbringing and it’s a hard history to shake off.

I was lucky enough to be brought up with book-loving parents who took us to countless second hand bookstores. When I was primary age my mother worked in an independent bookshop which was such an old building that there really was a curtain behind the counter, behind which a trap door mysteriously led to an underworld cellar of stock. On days off school I would live in between the boxes of books, playing games, reading and colouring in. By the time I was employable I got a Saturday job in the same bookshop, sadly now moved to modern premises. The theological specialism allowed me to use my discount to build my own library, from NT Greek lexicons to theological classics. The world of the bookshop was never dull. Over the years I worked there there were numerous adventures including shoplifting children, petrol bombings (yes really, although it was a mistake – they thought we were stocking the Satanic Verses & it was actually the bookshop fifty yards along the street), death threats, romances and suffering people. Everyone came in, it was somewhere that felt like home. Days were long, but I look back on working there with great fondness. I could easily have told you the price of any size or translation of the Bible, from cloth covering to red letter calfskin deluxe. There is something so enticing about buying books.

It doesn’t really matter if the books are old or new. If a book is new then it is the unopenedness of it which is so exciting. Of course my bibliophile upbringing meant that you NEVER broke a spine. The book adapts to you, is a reflection of you using it. If the book is second hand you inherit the book and it’s accompanying heritage. I’ve queued up to have editions signed by a favourite author, but there is something mysterious about inheriting someone else’s inscription and then turning the pages to see what words of wisdom might be penciled in the margins. There is something wonderful about owning books. For ten years I commuted to work and I had the opportunity to read so many books, there was those moments on the tube where you checked out what everyone else was reading before settling into your own little world. Perhaps if i was still commuting I might have succumbed to a little ereader for transport ease, but maybe I would do what I have done with many audio books purchased and that is buy t20131109-165730.jpghe print edition as well. I admire those people who are able to pass books on once read, but the hoarder in me likes to see a well stocked shelf, each spine a memory of the time and location when the book was read. I love libraries, but I tend not to want to give the books back! I promise I have no outstanding fines. The wonderful thing about libraries is that they celebrate books. This week I saw that a new academy opened up its library with this quotation written on the wall, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library” by Jorge Luis Borges. I think it’s a legitimate idea. I was so impressed by the unveiling of the beautiful new Birmingham library as a celebration of the written word. Books deserve to be treated well and stored in a beautiful way and the architecture is stunning (

So with this tribute to books you can imagine my feelings about books in schools. I have to hold my tongue at the piles of text books in their unloved state, but feel am uplifted by the sight of children engrossed in a book, even if it was me telling them to put it away because the lesson is starting. The advert for a particular ereader with children absorbed is great, because ultimately we want them to read, but I wonder if the turning of pages back and forth transcribes to the electronic swiping experience. Maybe it does and I am sounding a little like a plodosaurus, but for now schools should be encouraging that contact with books. Don’t be ripping out shelves and replacing them with charging points. The library is not the same thing as a study centre, it is the home of books, with their dazzling colours and huge variety of shapes and sizes. I’ve worked in schools with amazing librarians and they have worked hard to make the library a place where intellectual curiosity thrives. Long before surfing or googling, discovering books was running a finger along a shelf, dipping in and out of the books that lived there. I’m excited by what future technology brings and that is as true for electronic books too – you only have to see ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore‘ to see that, but let’s not miss out on the tangibility factor of opening a book just yet. I’ll finish with the infinitely more eloquent words of Winston Churchill:

“If you cannot read all your books…fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.”


“Try not to have a good time…this is supposed to be educational”


It’s a crazy time. Just when you think you’ve heard the worst there it is, another little twitter murmur that gets louder and louder to something that hits one part of our teaching community hard. One time it’s the Year Elevens struggling with every opportunity to get their grade Cs in Maths and English or perhaps it’s the SEN departments seeing cuts that will thwart their work. Twitter is groaning under the strain of debates about the value of QTS and of course we now have GCSE subjects under threat of closure. Crazy times. However, we should remember the scary times that we thought were coming, but have managed to evaporate so far. There is still time to make a difference and if anybody is capable of making a difference then it’s the teaching community. It’s reassuring that programmes like the last episode of Educating Yorkshire, showing the reactions of teachers to Musharaf’s farewell speech to his peers, reminds us of those moments. For me, what was even more gratifying, was to see a tiny cross-section of the public’s reaction to that episode when watching Gogglebox. As a teacher we know those moments of revelation, but it was good to see that shared with the wider community through the small box in the corner of the room. We should take comfort that retired, 79 year old Leon, a Gogglebox regular and retired teacher, saw that and wanted to be back there. ‘Teaching’s a great profession‘, he remarked to his wife, June, also a retired teacher.

Like many, I suspect, one of the main reasons why I became a teacher was because I was taught so well. It’s amazing what you can remember, the moments of kindness and encouragement as you look back over your own education. I can think of primary school teachers who encouraged our creativity and imaginations. In days before pupils had official labels and were lively or bizarre, I can think of teachers such as Mr B, who protected their quirky reactions and made them feel safe in the classroom. I can think of Mrs W and Mr W who encouraged me and my friend to perform our tribute to Morecambe and Wise in front of the school, such a forgiving and positive audience! At secondary school I quickly found subjects that made me feel at home. I loved the freedom to develop ideas in Art with Mrs H who genuinely seemed to believe that we could achieve anything we wanted to on the paper. I also loved the variety that RE offered me with our teacher who made us laugh with his fantastical tales. I was lucky enough to have my early RE lessons with Terence Copley who introduced each new denomination or religion by telling us that he had a cousin that believed in that. We marvelled at the glorious diversity of his curious family tree – he had us hooked. We quizzed him endlessly about the cousin of the day to see if we could catch him out. I can honestly say that I learnt a lot in such a joyous, unselfconscious way. Isn’t that what it was all about and is still all about today – the simplicity of the learning experience?

Don’t get me wrong I am not against complexity. Like Leon, I think teaching is an amazing profession, and being a professional I think we should have a great deal of pride in wanting to perfect our skills. In these crazy days then, I think we have to hold onto the joy and know that teaching is bigger than any latest press release that comes along. Political theories come and go, but the art of teaching well to promote learning will continue. The title of this blog is a wry quotation from Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and perhaps his portrayal of droning teachers suggests a distinct lack of a good time. Education could be seen as a compulsory necessity rather than anything fun. However, the increased number of pupils visiting Thornhill Academy’s Open Days and the hundreds of teachers emailing for jobs there, suggests that success in education has an awful lot to do with having a good time. The teachers make the lessons look fun, the experience looks uplifting, it looks rewarding and that’s because teaching is all of those things. Yes it is frustrating when we have to use one set of paperwork and then the latest inspection memo tells us we have to rewrite everything in a new format, but we do it and it doesn’t stop it being fun teaching students.

I’m not sure I have ever seen so many colleagues so demoralised by the current state of affairs and it is really sad. Perhaps it is because there has never been a time when teachers are able to communicate with each other as we can now, so we are more aware of the national ‘staff room climate’. The flip side of that is that there has never been a time when we have shared so much of what is working well with us. I think it is great when teachers share their classrooms, displays, lessons, productions, events and achievements with each other.

It’s amazing that one person can have such an influence on the direction of education today. It’s ironic really that we are having debates about whether teachers need to be qualified because someone without any teaching or educational qualifications has suggested it doesn’t matter. 20131101-192727.jpgNever has education felt so political, but that shouldn’t hold us back in our work. This is certainly not the first time I’ve been told by a non-teacher how to be a teacher. It’s a curious thing that so many feel qualified to comment on how to be a teacher. I think lots of people enjoyed David Schneider’s take on this, when he tweeted, ‘I’d respect Michael Gove’s passion for unqualified teachers more if he agreed to be operated on by an unqualified surgeon‘. The learning process is a fascinating, captivating challenge. If someone came along and told me that there was one way that people learn I would laugh heartily. How can that possibly be true when we are working with human beings? The notion that we can prove that a particular method works definitively or that things have to be done in a certain way is crazy. Our classrooms are filled with individuals, not clones, and that’s what everyone else is seeing on television, good teachers working with individuals.

We can weather this storm, because we are teachers, we are professionals. Just remember the joy. Think about the last time you felt that joy in a lesson, because they got it, because an individual pupil got it,because an activity went well, because your class made you laugh, because they performed well in a test. Watching the faces of the teachers when Musharaf was speaking in Educating Yorkshire was moving because we know how that feels. Cling on to your beliefs and remain true to your vocation and this too shall pass.