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

“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.


Why everyone in schools should care about RE

nunswater1Aside from time spent as a Senior leader, I have been an RE teacher for over twenty years. To be honest it was the only subject I ever really enjoyed at school and was pretty certain from Year Nine that I would be studying Theology at university. By university I had also developed a strong interest in philosophy which ended up being my specialism. So why did I like the subject so much? Not surprisingly one answer is that I had great teachers. Their lessons were imaginative, dynamic, fun, intelligent and challenging. The topics were so varied that we could be studying the rituals of Jewish marriage, ethical theory, nineteenth century theological heroes, atheist arguments on applied ethical dilemmas, learning Koine (Greek) and trying to understand the existence of evil. By the time I left school I had grappled with all of those things, via active learning, developing my own research projects, debating, creating mind maps, playing games, trips to discover new and fascinating cultures, and leading seminars; it was a great experience. I loved that my thinking was challenged and that there was often no right answer. Not once was I preached at, asked whether I had considered ‘trying’ a particular religion, prayed with or for. From Year 7 onwards it was always an academic subject with exactly the same standing as any other subject on the curriculum. Even when I was sitting in a particularly gruelling interview for my Durham University place and was asked, ‘do you feel disadvantaged coming here from a comprehensive school?’, I took a deep breath and told him about how good my lessons were. I think that before I had even considered being a teacher I already had a biased view in favour of good RE.

When I started teacher training, I realised that RE was not the same in every school. For example, on observation weeks, I watched a low ability Year Nine group spend a whole lesson colouring in a picture of Jesus and the fishermen. My passion remained undiminished. For me it was still the most varied and interesting subject. So I find it really sad that headlines say that RE today is marginalised, confused and even irrelevant to a modern curriculum. I still think that everyone in schools should care about what is going on in RE and in fact think that Senior Leaders should be proactive in their support of the subject. Why does RE matter? Here are some of my reasons why I still believe in RE:

RE is far from irrelevant. It’s a myth to say that religion is irrelevant in the modern world. Throughout my teaching career I have frequently had to answer that one. My first response hasn’t changed – the majority of the world’s population has some affiliation with a world religion. A very rough estimate is that out of six billion, maybe 1.1 billion would describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or secular. In a very bad analogy it would be like saying that studying animals are irrelevant because I am a human. Religion is still such a massive part of our world. Think about that as you approach the Christmas holidays later this term! Understanding religion is seeing that it is an influential part of our world, you only have to watch the latest episode of Homeland to know that. The relevance of what was covered was frequently made evident from the questions that came from students, or the discussions with parents, when ethical matters overlapped with family experiences. Perhaps the most shockingly relevant lesson was when a Head of Department managed to let me, a trainee teacher, know after a class debate on abortion, that one of my students had just returned to school having just had a termination. None of her classmates were aware. The girl in question said that she would have stayed, even if she had had advanced warning, because it had given her a chance to explain her view, despite no one knowing her experience.

RE is not only about religion. It is another myth that RE does not cover Humanism, secularism and atheism. I can honestly vouch for the past thirty years and know that they have always played their part. I’ve attended meetings of the RE Council with wonderful representatives of the British Humanism Association to know that collaboration has been a part of RE for some time. I know that I was expected to know Dawkins’ views when I sat my A Level RE and that was a million years ago. RE covers so much, not just knowing your way around a church, but it’s about understanding people and their motivations, why do people believe the things they do. This leads me to my next point.

RE is as much about development of skills as it is about developing knowledge. Before AfL was even on the scene, higher order questioning was the way that good RE was taught. Good RE has been about developing good arguments, to speak confidently on a number of difficult and controversial issues. It has been about learning the difference between fact and fiction, to empathise with views different to your own and promoting tolerance. Never has there been a greater need for this. I’ve taught Thinking Skills, Critical Thinking, Theory of Knowledge and these are all good subjects, but RE has been developing these skills for some time now. If you also study Philosophy then you learn the structure of logic that underpins good argument as well.

RE fits beautifully on the curriculum. I have been lucky to work alongside many enlightened heads of departments who have been happy to talk to their students about the compatibility of RE with their subject. These have included Maths, Science, English, Languages, Art, Music, and other Humanities. The skills developed in RE can enhance performance in other subjects and vice versa. It is such a contemporary subject that text books can barely keep up with the changes in ethical topics. At certain points I was telling students to read the paper the morning of the GCSE because the law could have changed.

RE needs support. Anyone who has ever been a one person department knows how hard and lonely it can be. You have meetings by talking to yourself, making notes to yourself, deciding on resources by yourself. It can be very isolating. For a while I was chair of the ISRSA (Independent Schools’ RS Association) and organised some national conferences at Chelsea Football Stadium. Every year I would talk with colleagues who were so grateful for the opportunity to talk with other departments as they often felt so alone. I know this is true of other gatherings such as St. Gabriel’s as well. What can make it worse is the lack of support from SLTs, which can make a massive difference. With the greatest respect staff can be dumped in RE if they are timetable is light. Not surprising when often students are encouraged to do RE when everything else is too hard. Despite all this RE is a multi-disciplined subject. I think I have taught about six entirely different GCSE subjects as part of RE and at least the same again for different A level subjects; biblical studies, ancient history, church history, philosophy, ethics and rabbinical history. Entirely different disciplines with different thinking and learning skills needed. I’ve worked with colleagues who have respected my subject and those who have not. It can be tough having to defend yourself to parents and colleagues in a way that other subjects don’t have to.

RE has substance. Good RE has always been overflowing with important things to learn. It is not about singing ‘Kum ba yah‘ and sitting in a circle talking about the beauty of flowers. It is the place where I learnt about Plato, Kierkegaard, Gandhi, Schweitzer, Rambam, Kant, Hume, Wittgenstein, Bultmann and Dawkins. It’s a tough subject where ideas are challenged, rather than pandered to. Not knowing what is going on in your RE department is not a good enough excuse. Shame on the department for not sharing it enough and shame on other subjects for not finding out.

Senior Leadership Teams are missing a trick by not supporting their RE departments. So much of what should be found in your average RE department handbook should support a school’s mission statement and aims. Looking for evidence of spirituality? Look at the RE department. Wanting to show evidence of pupils understanding morality? Look at a GCSE lesson debating euthanasia. Need to have evidence of global awareness? Look at the RE department’s work on pretty much anything.

So let’s say a loud Hallelujah that RE is in the spotlight and let’s light the candles, get some incense going, because it’s time to celebrate and remember the value of GOOD RE.