Head Magisterial Silliness

As a young man, I played a little Association Football. No, nothing remotely impressive, and you certainly won’t find my name on a vintage version of Championship Manager, but at one particular school a couple of seasons at a semi-professional club made me the equivalent of Jose Mourinho, and so I was appointed Director of Football,* with responsibility for all the teams in the school.**

Just down the road, a few miles away, was another school. A rival establishment. A place where the standard of cricket played by its boys was significantly higher than at ours.

Now one-sided sport is rarely fun. This is a realisation which comes to boys in their teenage years, I think. My third form tutees find it incomprehensible that I can be disappointed in a crushing victory, on the basis that no one gets much out of it, whereas the sixth form get it. But cricket really doesn’t suit an imbalanced match: even the winners will often go away frustrated. There’s not enough bowling to go round, and if the victors bat second there isn’t enough batting to go round either; even a team which bats first may see a few boys enjoy themselves and ‘fill their boots,’ while the rest wait for a chance they won’t get, because the opposition can’t bowl their team-mates out.

Fortunately school sport has an easy way around this. You can ‘play down’ – B teams can play against C teams so as to even up the contest. There are disadvantages – it can make a mess of a big block fixture, for example – but it is, I think, better than the alternative.

Anyway. The summer before I joined my school, there had been a block cricket fixture against these rivals. Because of the mismatch, it was agreed that our B teams would play against their C teams, and our C teams against their D teams. Then, on match day, it turned out that this school had just disregarded that agreement. They thumped us, and their Head Master no doubt enjoyed reading all the results out in assembly.

The story then gets murkier. The word on the street was that our Head Master decided that this was such reprehensible behaviour that we would not share a cricket square with that school again, and ordered all cricket fixtures for the forthcoming year cancelled. On getting wind of this, their Head Master decided that his school would not be fulfilling the rugby fixtures which had been planned for the next term (my first at the school).

And when the withdrawal from those fixtures was communicated to us, our Head Master, enraged, decided that we would therefore treat that rival establishment like apartheid South Africa: we would not appear on a sports field with them. Ever again.

This sounded like a pretty tall story to me, but sure enough there was no rugby fixture in the calendar, and a blank weekend where one could have been.

So I asked the Director of Sport if I could arrange a football match with that school for the next term. It would make an ideal fixture: we could get there and back by minibus in little more than a games afternoon, the boys would like to play against the old enemy, and they do good teas.

The Director of Sport grinned at me. “Arrange the fixture,” he said, “but don’t tell the Head Master that I told you to.” So I did.

The game went into the fixture calendar, and shortly afterwards I was summoned to the Head Master’s office. I had my excuse ready: I just didn’t know that this row had happened. I thought I might, if asked, suggest that I’d heard rumours, but discounted them as wildly unrealistic.

Instead, he congratulated me. “You got the bugger to back down!” he said, and told me a story, entirely at odds with the one I’d heard, about how his counterpart had been contemptuous of our boys’ sporting abilities after the cricketing fiasco, and had deemed us unworthy of their attention. He had, so the Head Master told me in tones of outraged disapproval, even told prospective parents that his school no longer played fixtures against ours because we weren’t good enough to compete with them.

I still don’t know where the truth of the matter lies. Both Head Masters remain in place: I just looked up both schools’ websites, and I can find no example of a sporting fixture between the two: not even a football match, which would, were it scheduled, be taking place this term.

Call me irresponsible, but it does please me to think of two twenty-first century ‘leaders’ conducting a version of the sort of blood feud that King Edmund tried to abolish over a thousand years ago.

Oh, we drew 2-2, since you ask. Came back from 2-0 down. A pulsating game. Really glad we played.

*No, not really. I did start using the title unofficially though.

**That is, the team. On a couple of very rare occasions we put out a 2nd XI.


Scrap Coursework

Once upon a time, long long ago, I was in one of those interminable staff meetings which too often waste teachers’ time at the beginning of term.

“No pupil,” announced the Head Master, “is to hand in coursework which is not of at least an A grade standard.”

This provoked some discreet raised eyebrows. Later, in the department meeting which followed, it was confirmed, mostly I think for my benefit, for I was in my first year of teaching, that this was indeed the Head Master’s way of telling his staff that we were required to do whatever it took to ensure that our charges’ coursework was to be the best that it could possibly be.

There was, in truth, very little in the way of overt and undeniable cheating. Pupils would not have answers dictated to them. In the classrooms of younger and more ambitious colleagues there would be clear and explicit instructions as to exactly how to structure the coursework essay, what points to include, and what evidence to supply in support; drafted work would be taken in and marked; pupils who did not understand the advice on how to improve were given careful verbal instructions until they did.

Interestingly three senior colleagues did none of this. They set the tasks; at most, when the coursework was handed in, they would tell pupils that theirs was not worth an A grade and that they should therefore do it again. Of the three, one was a retired housemaster; the other two were part of the senior management team. (And this, let’s not forget, was just before the obsession with having bloated senior management – sorry, leadership – teams.) Together they had over a century’s service at that school. It was only a little over a decade ago, but I don’t think many schools, even traditional public schools, have any senior managers left who would so blithely disregard the spirit of the law handed down by the Head Master.

Do I object to teachers being told to ensure that pupils did the best they could possibly do? No, of course not. A very significant proportion of teenagers will only do what is in their own interest if coaxed or coerced into doing so. Given the free choice they’ll shrug and reach for their computer game.

Is there a difference between some children being given more explicit instruction and formal written feedback than others in the production of coursework, and some children being given more explicit instruction and formal written feedback in the sort of written tasks they’ll have to do in their public examinations? It feels different to me, but I’m not convinced that my feeling is altogether persuasive.

(What about parents or tutors doing the pupils’ coursework for them? Well, controlled assessment was supposed to put a stop to that. And yet those assessments were never all that controlled, were they? Teachers were on the spot, supervising, just as their pupils were putting pen to paper. This wouldn’t be allowed in public examinations, for one very obvious reason.)

But the aforementioned Head Master’s comment gave the game away. He was far too canny to explicitly order his subordinates to break the spirit of the law or the letter of the law, or indeed both, in order to get the results which would enhance his school’s league table position. Instead his instruction was illustrative of a very English form of corruption, not altogether unlike the phenomenon whereby donors to political parties are rewarded with peerages. (It might, to a cynical outsider, look like they are being nakedly bought and sold, but the transaction is rather more nuanced than that.) It was similarly deniable: we have high ambitions for our pupils, most of them will get A grades in the end, the statistics show that proportionally more marks are awarded for coursework than for work completed in examination halls, and so we must insist that they reach their potential.

Except we all know that this isn’t what he meant, don’t we?

And look – I understand. I do. At the time I was appalled, but I think that as a new teacher I was quite possibly shielded from the worst of parental demands. Certainly now I’m all too aware of the potential for complaints: a highlight of last year was a parent making a fuss because her son had been told that his A Level coursework was good, but it turned out that it had not received 100% of the UMS marks available, and why had the school therefore seen fit to submit it? He should have been told how to make it good enough to receive full marks.

If we’re no longer helping our pupils to do the best they can, but instead are helping them to produce work which is better than they’re really capable of, then coursework isn’t educationally beneficial. I would submit that this is the most parsimonious explanation for the disparity in results between those received for coursework and those received in traditional examinations. And with teachers judged by their pupils’ results, and heads of department judged by their teachers’ results, and Heads judged by their schools’ results, then skulduggery becomes difficult to resist.

Why do you think so many independent schools do the IGCSE now? There are, I think, good reasons for preferring the IGCSE in my subject (History). But let’s not kid ourselves that being able to continue with coursework isn’t motivating any of the large number of HMC schools which have abandoned the domestic GCSE in favour of its international version.

Because one thing I don’t think can be credibly claimed any more is that the production of coursework is a worthwhile intellectual endeavour. Maybe in theory. But I fear that the actual process is so far removed from what was originally intended when coursework was introduced as to be antithetical to its purpose. Our teenagers aren’t learning to craft an extended piece of writing for themselves: instead their teachers are giving them detailed instructions on how to structure specific essays and the particular paragraphs within those essays. They’re learning a great deal about how to ‘signpost,’ for the benefit of a moderator, that they’re ticking off an assessment objective. Goodhart’s Law has struck again.

These aren’t new problems. Coursework has been around for long enough. It can’t be fixed. So let’s scrap it.

In which I flirt with progressivism

I have a daughter. She’s four, and in Reception. She loves going to her school, which is a one-form entry village primary: she idolises her teacher, and the teaching assistants, and she was poorly last week, and had to have a day off with a temperature, and what upset her most was when she learned that this would keep her at home.

There were only really two options for her primary education: she would go to this school, which is just a few minutes’ walk from our house, or she would go to the one a couple of miles away. This alternative is the other side of a crucial county boundary: crucial because in the other county there is still an eleven-plus and selection for secondary schools.

(I nearly wrote ‘it has grammar schools,’ but ‘it has secondary modern schools’ would be more accurate, since that’s where most of the pupils end up going. Anyway.)

We looked around both, but standards didn’t seem noticeably different: I compared Year Six pupils with the Year Seven pupils I occasionally teach, and the top end at both schools was in line with the boys who come to my moderately selective independent school. So we opted for the closer school.

Ofsted were in just before Christmas, and they downgraded their judgment from Outstanding to Requires Improvement.

(Do I trust this? I don’t know. The Grumpy Schoolgirl has made tremendous progress in her 3Rs since last September. I’m inclined to credit the school for this: she’s an August baby, and had she been born just a week later she’d not be going for another year. But it may just be that she’s ready to learn now.)

The report says that pupils don’t move quickly enough through their reading books, and that the school lacks the ambition to push them harder. I don’t think I agree that this is true for my daughter, but I’m well aware, of course, that there are two hundred pupils at the school and that her experience might be unrepresentative, and I’m also well aware that I’m far from an expert in teaching small children to read.

But in the light of the report, the school has abandoned its Friday afternoon activities programme, to be replaced by targeted reading.

And I’m appalled with myself, but I don’t like it.

The Friday afternoon activities were, I thought, a really good thing. The activities were offered to pupils of every age, so there was a mix of children from four to eleven in each session: the Grumpy Schoolgirl did dancing in her first half-term, then ‘logic & reasoning’; other options included arts & crafts, sewing, and gardening, and I was not-very-secretly hoping that one day she’d decide she’d fancy trying tag rugby.

Do I want her to do this at the expense of her reading? I don’t know. But before this happened to me I knew exactly what I’d think: school is for learning, not farting around with puzzles. And yet my daughter is four. I’m inclined to think that she ought to be able to spend a Friday afternoon dancing, or gardening. I also like how she’s made friends with older children in the school: at my most pompous I’d say it’s helping to build a genuine community in the village. The stories one hears from small children are rarely wholly accurate, but it does also seem as though these activities help foster relationships between older and younger children, and that this can (to use a couple of garbled and possibly wildly inaccurate anecdotes as wholly unconvincing evidence) lead to the older children looking out for the younger children whom they know in the playground.

So I’m torn. And I’m not entirely persuaded that withdrawing these activities is something of which I approve.

I know. I’m willing to be persuaded…

Do Your Own Detentions

Easy for me to say, I know. I now work in a school where behaviour is good and where teachers are supported in imposing discipline, both by senior managers and, most of the time, by the parents.

(This isn’t true for all independent schools, by the way. My previous place of employment, which was in a more precarious position, was somewhat less robust; and a friend and former colleague, who took a promotion in a small girls’ school, told me that a pupil had recently been internally suspended for telling a teacher to fuck off: the school’s financial situation precluded a more vigorous response.)

But I understand that there is a gulf between these sorts of schools and those where discipline is some magnitude worse; it helps, too, that in the independent sector teachers usually have a rather lighter workload. I’m not suggesting that this will work everywhere: this is about schools like mine.

I think the school sanction system, however well-designed, however consistently applied, isn’t the ideal way to deal with miscreants. Using it some of the time is inevitable. But I’ve found that doing it myself works better.

This does, yes, assume that a school has a reasonably supportive senior leadership team. If they undermine this approach then of course it won’t work. I’ve been lucky to work in places where they haven’t.

So if I catch a pupil misbehaving, my default approach is not to give them the formal school sanction. Instead, I might take him for a walk around the school, doing my best impression of someone who genuinely cares that he has been breaking some minor rule, explain to him why I’m being so unreasonable, and then let him go.

For slightly more serious infractions I might take him to my classroom, or arrange for him to arrive there at a certain time. I’ll theatrically sigh at him. And then I’ll tell him to just sit there for a minute while I send an email. I’ll tap away on my computer, for around fifteen minutes. (This feels like quite a long time to a teenager without a telephone.) And then I’ll look up at him, tell him not to do it again, and send him on his way.

I have even been known to tell boys to produce one side of handwritten explanation as to why they should not use the word ‘gay’ as a pejorative term. Once I told the offender to have a parent sign it. (I’m not usually that brave. I was in my last term at that school. But I didn’t get a complaint.)

If he’s unlucky enough to do it on a day when I have my dining hall duty, I’ll have the rulebreaker stand with me and tidy up for a while. Now lots of schools use this as a standard punishment, so how is this different?

Well, it’s different because I’m there. I think that’s important. If I tell a pupil he’s broken the rules, I’m the one to punish him for it.

He doesn’t see me depending on a senior colleague for my authority.

Nor does he participate in what is, in a way, a standard teenage rite of passage: the endurance of a punishment. In a school with hundreds of pupils, several are being punished in the same way every day. This makes the standard sanction lose its impact, I think: for all the exhortations to be restrained in issuing them, the ‘usual suspects’ will receive several every term. It becomes an occupational hazard, or perhaps a natural disaster. (In Robert Marshall’s Storm From the East he suggests that the average Chinese peasant looked upon Mongol invasions in this way. Sometimes you got floods, sometimes you got droughts, and sometimes you got Mongols. I wonder if some teenage boys think that sometimes your girlfriend dumps you, sometimes your coach drops you, and sometimes your teacher gives you a detention. Just one of those things that happen.)

And he doesn’t wait for the next available slot – the next occasion he can clear up in the dining hall, or the next evening his housemaster can keep him in the study room instead of allowing him to watch association football, or the next formally scheduled detention. He gets caught, he gets punished, straight away. Indeed, if there’s no prospect of my inflicting an immediate punishment, unless the offence merits a serious response, I tend to just get performatively angry, make the offender apologise, and then send him on his way with a flea in his ear and an injunction to go forth and sin no more. If he can’t be nailed then, it’s probably not worth doing.

I don’t have a grand overarching theory behind this. I’m not confident that there’s a defensible theoretical base behind it. But it seems to work for me.


“I thought about applying to Durham. But they say that they will discriminate against private school applicants…”

*Grumpy Teacher raises his eyebrows*

“…yes, they do. It’s harder to get an offer because they give your GCSEs a lower weighting. And I just think that’s not on, and I don’t want to go to a university which will discriminate against me like that.”

The boy with whom I recently had this conversation has a private tutor as well as attending an independent school.

He also has extra time in examinations, plus rest breaks; he has a scribe to write his answers for him; and he sits those exams in a separate room, all by himself.


“I think that people in this country have had enough of experts.”

His point was, in truth, a little more nuanced than that. Still, with Michael Gove’s interview with President-Elect Trump in the news today, and with edutwitter arguing about this rather controversial piece published just yesterday, and indeed with this published just two days ago, I am thinking about educational experts.

And yes, I’ve had enough of them.

In some fields, research involves randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trials, which to be trusted must be replicable. But not all. History, for instance, my own discipline, is generally considered to be a respectable academic subject: it involves careful studying of such evidence as survives. But it doesn’t involve the replication of randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trials, and I don’t think that makes History somehow deficient as a pursuit.

However. There is a big difference between the claims which historians make, and the claims which scientists make. Those whose findings are based on the successful replication of randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trials get to say ‘do this, just as we did, and you’ll get this, just as we did.’ And people will try it, and it’ll work.

Yes, historians do occasionally flirt with such suggestions too. But at most the responsible historian will suggest that there are certain similarities between the events of the present day and those of a chosen period in the past; and no historian worth listening to would be so rash as to suggest that history shows that following a certain prescribed course of action will definitely yield a certain result. The historian’s field is the past: what happened, how and why. There can’t be randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trials, and they can’t be replicated, because although it’s always possible to draw comparisons, the circumstances are never the same.

The trouble with the discipline of education is that too many of its practitioners make a scientist’s claims with an historian’s evidence.

The most that an educational researcher can do is to say ‘look, we did this, and it had that effect.’

And there is a huge temptation to generalise claims for ‘this’. Because ‘this’ involves giving a certain number of children of a certain nationality, of a certain social milieu, of a certain gender, of a certain age, of a certain ability, who have had a certain educational experience an iPad, for a certain length of time, used in a certain number of classes, with certain teachers, assisted by certain researchers. And ‘that’ can try to measure the impact of the iPad against all the other variables of those children, and come up with some sort of answer.

What researchers are doing here isn’t like measuring what combination of chemicals will make a pill effective. It’s like measuring the relative weight of factors which caused the Norman Conquest. The most we can confidently say is that all this stuff happened; some of it must have contributed to the final outcome (perhaps all of it in some way); there will have been other things going on, but we don’t know what they were. So by all means try a clever feigned retreat if you like. It might work: after all, it seems to have worked for William the Conqueror. But then don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work: if it were that easy everyone would have done it in every battle.

(Maybe, to stretch my analogy a little, it might work the first time you try it on an army for which the tactic was a novelty.)

I’m sure that some of those involved in educational research, and in purveying it to those of us at the chalk face, are doing so from a position of intellectual honesty. They’re convinced that they’re right, and that if only we teachers were to do as they say, only better, we’d be doing a better job by the children in our classrooms. They’re not consciously selling snake oil. And some teachers are, I’m also sure, genuinely persuaded by the sales patter.

(It is, though, often a ‘sales patter.’ Just the other day I confiscated a small rubber ball from an eleven-year-old who was unlucky enough to be throwing it against a window during break just as I was walking back from a staff room which had run out of filter coffee. He told me confidently that he had to be allowed to keep it, because the assistant SENCO said so. This did not persuade me, but an hour or so later I was emailed by the aformentioned colleague who told me that the boy needed it. We get on reasonably well, so I asked for evidence: he replied with a link to a commercial website selling such items.)

Unfortunately, and whether through cynicism or not, it’s difficult not to conclude that schools, and teachers, have been the victims (sometimes, unfortunately, the very willing victims) of educational carbolic smoke.

These are the people who’ve flogged us Brain Gym, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences … all of which were brilliantly and entertaingly skewered by Tom Bennett in Teacher Proof.

And now Growth Mindset turns out to have been hokum after all. Once more, teacherly suspicion turned out to be right.

We shouldn’t believe anyone who says ‘look at the research, it shows you should teach like this.’ No it doesn’t. It can’t. The high priests of education are not to be trusted.


Once upon a time, long long ago, I taught Political Ideologies to the Upper Sixth. I haven’t done so for a decade, but with the last of the Gove reforms being rolled out this September I expect to be doing so once more in a couple of years’ time.

Will I teach Anarchism? I don’t know. I hope so: when I did, I rather enjoyed it. Anarchism has a decent intellectual heritage, and I like how the utopia envisaged both by ‘collectivist’ anarchists and by ‘individualist’ anarchists looks essentially similar: I imagine two of those fabled anarchist communities telling very different stories about how they’d come into being, and about why their inhabitants behaved as they did, while bearing a very strong resemblance to each other.

But, as I told the pupils I taught, this isn’t ever going to happen. And, because I can’t resist a cheap shot, I would remind them of the ultimate silliness of anarchism by asking them to imagine what would actually happen in a truly anarchic boarding house.

A little unfair perhaps. Having never formally studied anarchism before, I began my preparation with Colin Ward’s Very Short Introduction. He tackled the idea that anarchism was utopian by drawing his readers’ attention to the appeal of anarchism to those whom one might not automatically think of as natural anarchists. The true spirit of anarchism (I paraphrase, probably inaccurately and badly) is not found in the ideologue who has a particular vision of society in mind to which he would like everyone to conform, be it a model of rational self-interest or some mythical communal spirit. It is found instead in the sole trader who prefers the freedom to the greater security and higher income of working for a boss, or the small businessman whose small, moderately-profitable enterprise with a couple of employees is quite enough, and who wouldn’t want to spoil it all by turning his pride and joy into a faceless corporation.

I think Ward’s got a point.

I think, for instance, that for a fair number of schoolmasters this was part of the appeal of the vocation: certainly for my senior colleagues teaching was a job in which they were mostly left alone to do as they pleased. The tweed-jacketed geography teacher and the corduroy-trousered history teacher were natural anarchists, equally uninterested in climbing any career ladders themselves and in enforcing conformity on the pupils in their charge.

And yes, it does sadden me somewhat to use the past tense, but I fear that’s where we are. I do teach alongside a couple of gentlemen to whom this description would fairly apply, but I don’t see their replacements coming through the ranks. They may well be gone for good, and I think that’s a shame.

The term ‘neo-‘ as a prefix has been criticised as indicating little more than a tone of moral disapproval, and ‘neoliberalism’ is usually the archetypal example. Now as a political concept I don’t think ‘neoliberalism’ is as empty as it sometimes suggested, though I’ll concede that it has been used as a meaningless term of abuse for long enough that it’s probably best avoided.

Even so. People have been calling themselves liberals for quite some time: looking back, historians tend to use terms like ‘classical liberalism’ and ‘modern liberalism’ for the ideologies which dominated their times. Cobden and Bright were liberals, and so were Asquith and Lloyd George, but they were very different types of liberals. It’s probably fair enough to say that another form of liberalism, one which emphasises a different form of liberty, has emerged: it does not command the loyalty of all those who call themselves liberals (indeed many of its adherents don’t), but it is a significant phenomenon. If it’s going to be called something, then I suppose personally I don’t mind it being called neoliberalism.


I’m going to be controversial and suggest, therefore, that I’m inclined to think that there probably is also such a thing as a ‘neo-trad’ movement in teaching. It’s distinct from traditional teaching: it is not just a resurgence of traditionalism after a long dark night of progressive dominance. There’s an ideological difference too. Neotrads do not want those scruffy and anarchic teachers back. Neotraddery involves rather more regimentation, of teachers as well as of pupils.

(I’ve never been to the Michaela Community School, and if I’m wrong I will of course retract; but from what I’ve read about it I doubt it’d be keen on employing those sorts of schoolmasters, nor would they find it a happy home.)

The neotraditionalist (correctly, in my view) observes that teachers are told to teach in a progressive way by ‘leaders’ whose orders are founded on an erroneous ideology and backed by flawed educational research. But I take a paleotraditionalist view of what that implies. I don’t think that if only our cadre of school managers were to embrace a different ideology and accept the imperative of being informed by better educational research that we would move forward into broad sunlit uplands.

I expect that things would be better than they are now. And I don’t have a coherent alternative: I’m well aware that ‘schools should employ more inspirational mavericks, and let them do their thing’ is not much of an educational manifesto. But it’s all I’ve got.

So I think I’m a paleotrad.

Meet the Parents

The schoolmaster ought not, so the conventional wisdom goes, to produce any unpleasant surprises at a parents evening. If the pupil has been badly behaved, or has been significantly underperforming, then the teacher should have already raised the issue.

I sympathise with this view. I do. If there’s a problem, there’s no point waiting for the formal consultation event to make a fuss about it. I understand that.

Nonetheless, anyone familiar with teenagers, especially teenage boys, will know that they’re quite good at doing just enough to keep above that threshold which calls for me to make a fuss with their parents. I want to grumble about them, without opening myself to the accusation that I should have raised the matter earlier.

This is what I do.

I offer a general overview. Then I look at the parents. I turn to the boy.

(It’s usually a boy. And he does have to be present.)

“But…” I say, in my best more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger voice, “…Molesworth…can you honestly say that every time I set a written question, or a reading homework, you do it as assiduously and as carefully as you could? That you do your best every time?”

And I look at him. So do his parents. And he shakes his head. And so do they.

“That’s a problem,” I say quietly, “and that’s what he needs to improve on.”

At this point I have won. He has just admitted his own fecklessness in front of his parents, and they are either cross with him for being such a wastrel, or they are cross with him for robbing them of the chance to blame me for anything that goes wrong in his education.

It works because boys and parents hear two very different things when they’re asked that question.

The boy hears it literally. And he answers it literally. Of course he can’t honestly say that. No one could. He does his best every time? Don’t be silly. Sometimes he’ll shrug and say ‘that’ll do’ when he could go further. Well, we all do. This isn’t something we can reasonably reprove him for, is it?

So why doesn’t he say that? Partly because he’s put on the spot, with up to three adults glowering at him. Partly because he recognises the truth of the accusation. And partly because of his own pride: he’d rather be thought of as a bit lazy than as a young man who tries hard but isn’t quite up to it.

(What if he does say that? Then I say that I think he’s being kind to himself, and that I think he can do better. This actually happened to me last year, and the mother was about to defend her son, when he said “Mr Grumpy’s expectations of me are just too high.” I could just see her deflate: she was all set to make a fuss about how unreasonable I’d been to him, and yet she was familiar enough with educational jargon to know that this particular phrase would immediately acquit me in the eyes of the Head Master. I doubt the boy had any idea what he’d done.)

But the parents, generally, don’t hear it literally. They’re used to teacherly euphemisms. They think that they recognise a careful, restrained criticism from the anodyne world of the twenty-first century school report. And so they interpret what is actually a fairly mild comment as a more serious complaint. They think that I’m politely calling their son a feckless workshy idle wastrel; and they think that their son has just confessed to the truth of such an accusation in front of them.

And in such a way do I encourage pupils to make more effort.

Trying Trendy Teaching

I’m just about old enough to have been recruited for my first teaching job in what must even then have been an archaic manner. The Labour Government was soon to pass the Constitutional Reform Act abolishing the ‘tap on the shoulder’ system for appointing judges, but in a few public schools it was still customary for the Headmaster (or the Head of History, I don’t know which) to put in a telephone call to a contact at one of the country’s oldest universities and ask if the History Department knew of any suitable young man who might be interested in doing a year’s teaching.

So I never did a PGCE. But that didn’t protect me from the principles of progressivism. I read some books about teaching, and subscribed to the Times Educational Supplement, and I quickly learned that my own pretty traditional secondary education, which had taken place at a somewhat less grand independent school, was no longer considered acceptable.

So I tried to teach trendily. I opened my lessons to the youngest pupils with the school prospectus and invited them to consider it as an historical document. I took boys onto the school playing fields to re-enact military engagements. I had a class put Helmuth von Moltke the Younger on trial for losing the First World War for Germany. And yes, I did a lot of group work, and yes, we made posters.

I congratulated myself on delivering the sort of lessons which the boys wouldn’t be getting if they’d been so unlucky as to have ended up in a classroom with one of the senior beaks. An ambitious young man, who had taught for a couple more years than me, conspiratorially told me that I shouldn’t try to emulate them. “Look at the books,” he told me, “they won’t have been marked.”

Because I was new to teaching as well as to the school I was assigned to observe those senior colleagues, and sure enough they didn’t mark their pupils’ notebooks. Instead they had weekly factual tests, which were marked immediately by the pupils themselves. Efficient, I thought, but not particularly dedicated: these decrepit old geezers clearly didn’t care enough about their pupils to pore over their work and mark it carefully. Not like me.

And yet I found my pupils strangely ungrateful for my efforts. I wanted them to talk in my classroom, but they seemed not to want to talk about the topics I wanted them to discuss. I didn’t want to be a stern disciplinarian. “Be firm, fair, and friendly,” my ambitious young colleague told me,  “and they’ll behave.” But it didn’t seem to stop the disruption which I was having to deal with. And I worried about this: I had, after all, been told when I joined the school that this was a place which didn’t have any discipline problems.

(This wasn’t, it won’t surprise you to learn, wholly true.)

Meanwhile, pupils in the old hands’ classes were doing pretty well in their tests; and when there was a department-wide exam at the end of my first term, my classes did noticeably worse than the others.

I was upset. I blamed myself, but most of all I blamed the pupils for failing to appreciate my endeavours on their behalf.

And then one of my fourteen-year-old charges told me that we didn’t appear to do much in my lessons. Last year, he said, he’d been in one of my senior colleagues’ classes, and he’d get at least a couple of pages of notes each lesson: but in mine, he didn’t appear to be learning anything.

I told the ambitious young colleague about this conversation. “Ah,” he said, “that’s just what they expect. They think a good lesson is one they emerge from with pages of notes.” And he shook his head in despair at the horror.

I began to formulate a fiendish plan. A betrayal of everything I understood good teaching to be. It would begin after Christmas.

It occurred to me that a lesson in which I told the pupils a lot of facts about the Treaty of Versailles would be quite an easy one to plan. All I’d have to do would be to jot down a few key points on a piece of paper. Lesson plan done. Then I’d just rock into the classroom and tell them to write this stuff down. Instead of starters and activities and plenaries, I’d divide the lesson into five ten-minute sections: I’d tell them about military and naval restrictions, territorial losses in Europe, the colonies, the war guilt clause, and reparations. They’d write “Terms of the Treaty” at the top of a brand new page. Every ten minutes I’d tell them “right, new heading.”

They wanted traditional teaching? They’d get it good and hard.

And funnily enough they seemed to rather like it. They liked being told exactly what to write on their page. They liked me telling them, explicitly, “this is what I want you to write down.” And they seemed to understand the material quite easily.

That I could understand. I had after all been told that this was the type of lesson they likes. And I knew about learning styles: I didn’t know that a learning style could be acquired as a consequence of exposure to only one form of teaching, but perhaps that was what was happening here. It made a certain amount of sense.

But what I really wasn’t expecting was that this didactic approach would improve discipline. I’d been worried that if they were difficult when I was trying to make lessons funky, they’d be really difficult now that I didn’t care if I was boring.

And yet they weren’t difficult.

Instead discipline suddenly became much easier too. The default in such a lesson was silence. This made it much, much easier to nip minor indiscretions in the bud. I tried that type of lesson again. It worked, again.

I’m not saying I suddenly became an effective disciplinarian. I didn’t. But things were far better than they had been. There must, I thought, be something in the old methods after all.

Target Grades

Once upon a time, long long ago, I taught at a country boarding school which selected only by parental income. I was told by my predecessor, who was retiring after decades of service, that I was joining the most expensive comprehensive school in England. And however outrageous (for several reasons) that may sound, it’ll give you an idea of the sort of school it was.

On my first day in that new job, when the headmaster announced to the assembled staff that ‘our parents are good people,’ I did wonder what I had got myself into. And sure enough, he later told me that the school’s use of target grades was partly to manage parental expectations.

That is, I suppose, a sensible and pragmatic reason to use them. Most of the interested parties (the schools themselves, the preparatory schools which act as their ‘feeders,’ and their clientele) know which schools specialise in educating pupils who would not be admitted to more selective institutions. But this is rarely stated outright. Euphemisms around such schools’ allegedly excellent ‘pastoral care’ and the ’rounded education’ they offer are deployed instead. But these are not perhaps as transparent as they appear, especially now that some of the most selective independent schools are advertising these as their own qualities too.

In these circumstances, the deployment of target grades as a way of handling potentially awkward fee-paying parents is understandable.

But it’s not an educational reason to use them. And what about in other circumstances? I’m not convinced.

“This is how well you’re doing,” says a traditional attainment grade. “And this,” says a target grade, “is how well we think you could do, if you follow our advice.”

This is implicit in an effort grade, isn’t it? A top effort grade suggests that the pupil is already doing her best, while a lower effort grade suggests that higher attainment grades might well be possible were that pupil to try harder. So what does a target grade do?

It gives what appears to be a more substantial answer to the question which follows the award of a low effort grade: if this pupil follows the advice, what result can we expect?

But that’s what it is: the appearance of a substantial answer. It doesn’t give more actual substance. At least I don’t think so.

My first reaction to being asked what I thought of target grades was to grimace at the implications of setting one below an A*. I imagined a pupil, or indeed a parent, asking me why I didn’t think that he, or his son, was capable of getting that grade, and…


I really don’t want to have to tell a parent that a pupil is just not bright enough to get an A* grade. I’d rather not have that conversation. I’d much rather have the parents evening conversation in which I lament a failure to make the sort of effort necessary to achieve the pupil’s full potential, in which I either state or imply that an A* grade might be a possibility if only the pupil were to really pull her socks up. But this didn’t strike me as being a good reason to object to target grades.

Fortunately I have another.

Do I think that there are some pupils who will not, by the time they sit their GCSEs, have any chance of getting an A* grade? Of course I do. But do I think that I can identify them without error?

No. I don’t. In fact, speaking for myself, I know I can’t. I’ve taught several pupils who ended up with higher grades in public examinations than either my judgment or ‘the data’ would suggest they were capable of. (And yes, when those results were in A Levels, and I had underpredicted them, I felt pretty bad.) So I don’t trust my own judgment, and I don’t trust the data.

Anyway. Why do I think this is? Two reasons.

The first is that I don’t know how hard the pupils are working, and I don’t know how hard they are capable of working. Now I’m fairly cynical about the average teenage work ethic, and unless I’m given a good reason to think that a pupil really is working hard I am disinclined to think that this is the case. And no, I’m afraid I don’t count a parent telling me that her son works very hard as a good reason.

(And yes, of course there are some teenagers who work very hard indeed while trying to maintain a rather different image. Sure. That’s my point. I don’t know.)

But there are all sorts of factors which can affect that work ethic; those factors can change; and if they do that can have a tremendous impact on the standard of a pupil’s achievement. Without that knowledge, we can pretend that some standardised baseline assessment can tell us what that pupil is capable of, but we’re kidding ourselves.

The second is a little more complicated. If I’m giving a pupil a B grade for attainment, it’s that I think that’s the overall standard of her work. I can tell her how to improve. Some of this will be straightforward (though perhaps unwelcome): she needs a better grasp of the factual detail, so she has to sit down and learn the stuff. But some of it will be more complicated: she has a tendency to produce reams of narrative instead of analysis. (This can be helped with tips like ‘always start a paragraph by explicitly addressing the question,’ but if it was that easy to rectify it wouldn’t be such a recurrent problem.)

If that pupil manages to break through the barrier that’s keeping him down in the C zone (he just doesn’t see how what he’s writing doesn’t answer the question) then he might well find the next steps up easier. I don’t know how easy or how hard he will find those next steps. A pupil who finally ‘gets’ how to write an analytical essay, and so can write a decent B essay, might have little difficulty in appreciating that now he has to refer to different historians’ views, or to prioritise the factors rather than just listing them. But he might not. Until he gets there, I don’t know.So no. Teachers shouldn’t be trying to help pupils to reach a target grade. We should be trying to help them to get better at our subject. And a target grade does nothing to help that.