Accountability

Once upon a time, long long ago, I was interviewed for a Head of Department job.

In my interview with the Head, she asked me about how I would use data to inform my evaluation of departmental performance in public examinations.

I knew she wouldn’t like my answer, but I wasn’t desperate for the job, certainly not so desperate that I would pretend to be the very model of a modern learning facilitator in order to get it. So I told her that I’d looked up the department’s A Level results, that twenty-two pupils had taken the subject, and that this was far too small a sample size to tell anyone anything meaningful.

At that point she interrupted me and I didn’t get to develop the point, but I stand by what I said: the Law of Small Numbers is in itself enough to cast doubt on any conclusions drawn from pupils’ performances in public examinations.

But an exchange on Twitter this morning made me think of another reason why the accountability agenda is so damaging. An English teacher asked, provocatively, whether, given that public examinations in English Language assess rather more than just the specifications issued for those particular qualifications, teachers of other subjects ought to be held accountable for their pupils’ results in that discipline.

I responded by suggesting that given how crucial the ability to communicate well in standard English is to pupil success in other public examinations, perhaps English teachers ought to be held accountable for their pupils’ results in other disciplines.

I don’t think either of us was being wholly serious (though I’m willing to be corrected). But I think we’re both right.

No, really. I do.

Of course it’s the job of the English teacher to teach English, command of which is essential if pupils want to achieve the highest marks in subjects like mine (History). But if, from the First Form onwards, History teachers give their pupils more challenging texts (both primary and secondary), and focus on features of good writing, and correct spelling and grammatical errors, then it’s probably fair to expect, all other thngs being equal, that when they come to sit a GCSE this will have made at least some difference.

We don’t always pull our weight here, and this helps explain why.

My school is keen on evaluating departments by comparing the results of individual pupils in different subjects. This is, I suppose, preferable to assuming that ‘raw results’ tell you everything you need to know, though the approach has one rather obvious flaw: most pupils accept, as those who are tasked with holding their staff accountable must not, that they are just better at some subjects than others.
But there’s something else going on too. Or at least there ought to be.Last year I taught my Lower Sixth historians the unification of Germany and Italy. Some of those pupils also studied political ideology in Government & Politics. Some of those took Religious Studies – or, as it is often branded to make it more appealing to the twenty-first century pupil, Philosophy & Ethics.

It is not at all uncommon for sixth-form pupils to study History, Politics & Economics. If they pursue the nineteenth-century history option, then they will study economic policy three times: once in Economics, once in Politics, and once in History.

‘My’ results (I know, but that’s the way some people think, isn’t it?) aren’t mine. Nor are RS teachers’ theirs, nor are Economics teachers’ theirs. We have all contributed to each others’ – be that in discussions about just what the relationship between the governors and the governed should be, or about what drives economic policy … and that’s even before we start thinking about the contribution we’ve made in teaching our pupils analytical essay-writing, or just writing under timed conditions.

And those are just the obvious crossovers; others, perhaps utterly spurious, are everywhere. How many A Level German scholars will come across terms like Kulturkampf or Zollverein? I don’t know. Do A Level biologists consider the similarities between evolution and GK Chesterton’s warnings about the dangers of radical reform? Does watching clips of Prime Minister’s Question Time help Drama students, as they wonder if a character is more like John Major, William Hague, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown?
Do any of these make a difference? I can’t measure it, and I will concede that it’ll be a marginal difference. (Though if we’re measuring by results in public examinations, let’s not forget that for quite a few pupils a couple of raw marks will make all the difference.) These beans can’t be counted. But they’re good for you anyway, and if you’ve been ingesting them for years then they will have made a difference.

It’s almost like the end of a Priestly play, isn’t it? I have an input into your results. You have an input into mine. It might be tidy, and convenient for those holding the rest of us to account, to pretend otherwise, but that doesn’t stop it being true.

Team Sport & Liberalism

It’s a Saturday afternoon during the Six Nations, and a man’s thoughts turn to rugger.

Last term I took my under-fourteen ‘B’ team to my alma mater. They were dismally uncompetitive, and it turned out to be one of those games that no one gets much out of.

The obvious conclusion, especially for a reactionary like me, was to blame progress. The decision to admit girls has weakened the school’s results in boys’ rugby matches as much as it has improved the school’s results in public examinations.

But chatting to their coach over a cup of coffee and a biscuit (the quality of the post-match tea has declined too, I noted) another reason for their bad performance emerged. Boys are no longer told that they must play rugby; if they opt to do so, they are no longer told that they must attend training sessions. If they wish to drop out of a game the day before, they are permitted to do so.

It is, therefore, an individualist’s paradise. The school prepares a table before their paying customers, and they pick and choose as they see fit.

I can see how a school gets to that position. This isn’t one of the country’s great public schools. It hasn’t educated generations of the same family. It has neither that grandeur which can persuade parents that it knows what it’s doing, nor the financial security which such august status can bring, and which enables a school – usually implicitly, but occasionally explicitly – to tell parents that if they don’t like it, there are plenty of lesser establishments which will be happy to take their money.

Parents do seem to want an école à la carte. And I do see why. I expect we can all think of something which, while it wouldn’t be enough to make us decide not to send our darling offspring to a school, we just don’t care about. A Combined Cadet Force? Chapel? Uniform, or some aspect thereof? What about ‘Golden’ or ‘Circle’ Time? Just between you & me it’d be Speech Day. I’d really like to think that if, in a decade’s time, Schoolgirl Grumpy were to ask me to write her a note to get her out of one of those events, I’d tell her that these occasions are important. But I’ve sat through so much unutterable tedium at Speech Days that I’d certainly sympathise, and I can see circumstances in which I’d acquiesce.

And I can see the case for taking a liberal approach to sport. Principally, for me, would be that it enables a consistent and transparent approach. There’s no favouritism and no exceptions: there’s the service, take it or leave it. As a Director of Sport, or a pastoral chief, or a Head Master, such a policy must make for a quieter life: no parents demanding that their sons be exempted from rugby, no morning-of-the-game cry-offs with fictitious illnesses or injuries, and no attempts to coax, cajole, manipulate or intimidate pupils into participating in things they don’t want to participate in.

There is, after all, something hugely unsatisfactory about the status quo at my school, which was the same as at my previous school and is I expect the most common model throughout the HMC. Participation in school sport is theoretically mandatory. But there are, of course, exceptions. Some have ‘official’ status: we’ve had the odd lad contracted to professional clubs which require them not to play for their school, and we agree to this. Some parents have written to the school demanding that their sons be excused from rugby, and nerves around this particular sport are such that we indulge this too. Much more common is the phenomenon whereby boys avoid selection by persistently failing to turn up.

It’s a mess. And yet it’s better than the alternative.

Look, I wish I could persuade parents that their sons ought to play rugby. I know that I can’t, and I recognise that in the current climate there’s no way most schools will be able to enforce a rule that all boys must participate.

But let’s not kid ourselves that a sports team can exist if everyone can dip in and out of it as they please. Once your team doesn’t have a core of players who turn out to practise and to play every time the standard starts slipping. Everyone plays worse than they would otherwise have played. There’s less of a strong collective feeling. There’s less cohesion among the players, who don’t get used to playing together with each other. And so the team loses. Losing every week isn’t much fun, especially not when it’s cold or wet or both, so players stop turning up. The most serious players get frustrated, and drop out of school sport, joining – or preferring to concentrate on – a local club instead, and that drags the standard down. And slowly a culture dies.

Sure, some of you don’t care if rugby dies. But this applies to all team sports. It applies to drama and music and anything else which is a collective endeavour. So – inconsistent though we will have to be, and irritating as we will find it – I think we should continue to do our best to fight this possibly lost cause.

It’s not nostalgics like me who’ll lose out when school rugby comes to an end. It’s the kids who would have spent their Saturdays on their Playstations instead of on a muddy field, but who were allowed to give up something which they’d have got a great deal out of if only they’d been made to persist.

That’s Private

Once upon a time, long long ago, I was asked by an idealistic young colleague, now an assistant head of the best kind, whether I ever felt bad about working in the private sector.

She did. She did her probationary year at a fairly rough comprehensive, and would have stayed had they not decided that she was surplus to requirements at the last minute; she came to us as a bit of a last resort, but found that working at an independent school was rather congenial, and stayed for much longer than she’d intended. She was, though, a socialist, and she certainly felt bad about her part in working for the class enemy.

Not really, I told her. Because as far as the state sector was concerned, I was hopeless. Not only do I not have Qualified Teacher Status, but I’m one of those dreadful teachers who considers himself a teacher of history, not of children; I do none of the trendy stuff, not even differentiation: I just stand at the front of the class, talk to pupils, and tell ’em to take notes. I am, as far as they’re concerned, the worst type of teacher: the independent sector was welcome to me.

The independent sector, meanwhile, didn’t care about any of this stuff. The schools I’ve worked in considered me ‘qualified’ because they can write “BA Oxon” next to my name in the staff lists. (No, I’m not paying for the MA. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s the university’s equivalent of paying for one of those preposterous Scottish lord-of-the-manor titles which you can buy online.) And they cared that I had just enough knowledge to coach rugby and cricket, and that I’d be willing to run teams in those sports on a Saturday.

Perhaps this is why there’s currently a furore about grammar schools, while no one (other, gloriously, than Michael Gove) seems to want to make a fuss about private schools.

I think I might come back to this.

A Loser’s Creed

Andrew Pettegree, an historian of the early modern age, described the principle of religious toleration as “a loser’s creed.” As the Protestants emerged, in their not-quite-infinite variety, they demanded to be tolerated. But where Protestants were able to seize control they conveniently discovered a renewed appreciation of the virtues of uniformity and forgot their commitment to tolerance.

It’s easy to smirk. Was there ever a time when people believed in toleration? Certainly the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ feels particularly inappropriate in our own time, with our various political sects simultaneously committed to the principle of free expression for themselves, while considering their own intolerance of heresy intrinsic to their moral righteousness.

Anyway. This isn’t going to be about left-wing students and no-platforming, or Breitbart and Milo, or even about the intricacies of the theology which tells us that Rachel Dolezal is the Worst, Most Oppressive Person Ever while Paris Lees is the Best, Most Oppressed Person Ever. It’s going to be about schools.

When I started teaching, fourteen years ago, the progressives were in the ascendancy, and traditionalists were being burned at the stake. The Holy Ofsted enforced whole-word recognition and discovery learning, and were supported by true believers and committed careerists in senior management teams throughout the land.

Now things have changed. The reformation is underway. Shift is Happening. Let’s not get carried away. The reformers aren’t dominant yet. Head Masters, including my boss, continue to try to impress parents by telling them that their children will be doing jobs which haven’t yet been invented, while some inspectors continue to reward group work. The sale of iPads continues to persuade credulous or desperate buyers that there is a shortcut through the purgatory that is teaching the pupils what they need to learn.The progressives continue to dominate the university departments of education. But even some of them are beginning to make their accommodation with the new order: witness these latter-day Vicars of Bray asserting that any attempt to distinguish between the different schools of thought is to create a false dichotomy.

It’s going to be difficult to dislodge the new traditionalism. Its practitioners have been emboldened. There are now entire schools explicitly committed to its embrace. There will, no doubt, be a counter-reformation at some stage; but for now the progressives are on the defensive, worried about being driven into priest-holes, just as primary teachers used to – in some places perhaps still do – have to hide their use of synthetic phonics instruction from their bosses and from their SENCOs. I am seeing debates in the educational blogosphere, and on Twitter, about teacher autonomy; only now it’s the traditionalists who are debating just how far the progressives should be permitted to inflict their ideology on the poor defenceless children.

Don’t they remember what it was like? Of course they do. But just like sixteenth-century Protestants they’re not in the mood to live and let live. Because they have The Truth, and they know that only their way will lead to salvation.

And they know it because of The Research.

And this is where I start to worry.I think I’m about as traditional as it’s possible to be. I’d wear a gown if I could, and I wouldn’t care that it’d make me look like Severus Snape, because I share his disapproval of foolish wand-waving and silly incantations.

But I’m not on Team Tradition because educational research leads me in that direction. (Traditionalism is much more than ‘what works’.) I am, of course, like everyone, pleased when a peer-reviewed study confirms my own preferences and prejudices. But I don’t base my approach on the findings of that research. Because the findings are not robust enough.

No, they’re not. I’m not disparaging educational research in its entirety. But let’s not forget that there can be no randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trials in our discipline. Research in education is like research in criminology. Educationalists, like criminologists, can tell us a lot about their field of expertise, though like criminologists they are suspected of being heavily politicised.(And who are we kidding? Brain Gym, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences, Growth Mindset … all allegedly supported by incontrovertible evidence, all coherent with educational progressivism, all tosh.)

Educationalists can, in broad terms, tell us what helps pupils learn, and what doesn’t, just as criminologists can, in broad terms, tell us what contributes to crime, and what doesn’t. This – if it can be trusted – can inform the teacher just as it can inform the police officer. But this can only ever be a broad guide. The individual members of a class – and indeed the collective character of a class – will have a relationship with their teacher. Some things will work well with them, and some things won’t, just as individual criminals have their own motivations. It may be that more often than not the research will to some extent at least align with what will on aggregate work well with the individual and the class.

But I worry about the brave new world in which the principle of ‘the best lesson,’ prepared in a think-tank or by a mandarin in a multi-academy trust, in accordance with The Research, attains the sort of unchallengeable status which progressive methods used to enjoy. Sola fide in the new orthodoxy will be demanded. The principle of sola scriptura will be applied to teachers: just teach what the official lesson says.

And it won’t make everything better, because it’s based on a seductive but wrong idea – what Edmund Burke described as “the cant of ‘measures, not men.'” Effective teaching will always involve teachers adapting what they do to the pupils in front of them.

I am reminded of the West Wing episode The Supremes, when President Bartlet has a Supreme Court appointment to make. He interviews a candidate who tells him that “my allegience to the eccentricities of a case will reliably outweigh my allegience to any position you might wish I held.” He doesn’t get the nod. But he’d have made a decent teacher.

Charisma

I read this article this morning.

I was surprised.

At the beginning of his article, Rogers quotes another teacher suggesting that perhaps “traditional teaching is an excuse for **** teachers who are devoid of better ideas.” And yet by the end he seems to be suggesting that while a charismatic teacher can carry off didactic teaching, others who lack that personal magnetism, that ability to hold a class, might instead have to rely on progressive methods.

Like many traditionalists I have occasionally harboured less-than-generous thoughts about the motivations of our progressive masters. Those educational barbarians who would do away with subjects and replace them with generic ‘twenty-first century skills,’ who are determined to prepare pupils for jobs that haven’t been invented yet, but that they somehow know will be centred around group-work projects, for whom knowledge is simultaneously obsolete and the basis of an economy requiring constant use of iPads.

(These are strawprogs, you say? No one really believes this stuff? I’m afraid this isn’t true. I’m a Third Form tutor, and so I attended a meeting a few weeks ago in which a change to the Third Form curriculum was announced. Our Third Form pupils will now do less Religious Studies, less Drama, less Art, and less Design & Technology. Their timetable will now comprise Computing & Coding, Metacognition, and a double-period of Creative Project Work, for the reasons in the previous paragraph.

Now, it might not actually be for those reasons. It might be that our enlightened leaders secretly agree with me that it’s all cobblers, but feel that they must pretend otherwise in order to impress our customers. I don’t know which of these explanations is more dismal.)

I digress. Yes, I’ve occasionally thought that this is exactly the educational philosophy I’d find most appealing if I didn’t have much subject knowledge myself and if I didn’t back myself to teach interesting lessons without technology.

But I’m well aware that this is a pretty offensive thing to say, so I tend only to hazard such views after a couple of pints and in the select company of fellow-travelling traditionalists. I am surprised to read it in the Times Education Supplement, especially by someone from the progressive end of the spectrum.

But does he have a point?

Well … I’m alarmed to find myself thinking that he probably does.

It probably is easier to be an effective didactic teacher if you’re blessed with charisma. But charisma is, at least with some people, domain-specific: I know several colleagues who can be fluent, persuasive, and interesting on matters they know about, and significantly less so when outside that ‘comfort zone.’ Charisma can, to some extent, be learned: someone who supposedly lacked charisma but who followed this advice would be considered significantly more charismatic in the classroom. And charisma isn’t just Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. Those Keatings standing at the front of the class are the teachers who are most frequently described as ‘inspirational,’ and a school which doesn’t have a smattering of them is an unfortunate school. But a teacher doesn’t have to stand on a desk to be charismatic. The senior schoolmaster on the point of retirement whose genial smile and gentle demeanour just seems to work has his own different form of charisma. So too does the quiet young woman who has acquired a sharp tongue to survive in front of a class of teenage boys.

This is, I know, starting to sound a bit like Howard Gardner and his infamous multiple intelligences. No, I’m not saying ‘everyone is charismatic in her own way.’ The chaplain whose sermons send everyone to sleep, and the disillusioned and disaffected teacher whose pupils hate his lessons as much as he does, are not charismatic, and I’m not pretending that they are. I doubt that adopting more progressive methods will improve their teaching, much as we’d all rather play with our iPads than listen to yet another tedious and badly-delivered Head Magisterial assembly.

Do the rest have to teach progressively? I don’t think so. My experience is the opposite of Rogers’ interlocutor: the effective progressive teachers I’ve known have been immensely charismatic. They’ve really cared very much that their pupils succeeded. They’ve tried very hard to teach accessible, interesting lessons. They’ve done their best to reach every child; and this hasn’t been done with priggishness, but with interest in their struggles, commitment, and humour. Or, as you might say, with charisma.

Prejudice

This post was going to be a comment here, but it turned out to be twice as long, so I thought I’d better put it on my site instead.

I don’t live in anything like a metropolis, and I’m not wholly convinced that as a humble schoolmaster, even one at an independent school, I can accurately be described as part of an elite. Nonetheless I suppose that when people think of a metropolitan liberal elite they think of people like me.

When, for instance, several years ago, a parent told me that she stayed at home and was therefore always there for her sons, I did allow myself an internal eye-roll. Weeks later I told a colleague, who was being frustrated by the refusal of the older boy to do any work, that this was only to be expected: the mother was one of those ghastly ‘ladies who lunch,’ and the boy was consequently clearly a spoiled brat.

Yes, I know. I’m everything that’s wrong with twenty-first century liberalism.

Well.

Years later, I taught the younger boy, in the Sixth Form, in a class with which I had a very good relationship. One of them yawned, and I expressed a lack of sympathy for his alleged tiredness. What, I asked him, had he been doing at 2am? 4am? Oh, he’d been asleep? Lucky him. I’d been up at the bedside of a baby who wouldn’t sleep unless I sat there and sang to her. And yet here I was, full of vigour and enthusiasm, so if I could manage it, he could too.

At this point the boy extended his sympathy. I can’t remember what he said exactly, but he revealed more knowledge of small babies than a sixteen-year-old boy ought to have. I told him this.

“That’s because my mum’s a foster carer. She looks after babies before they’re adopted. We’ve basically always got a baby in the house.”

I’ve never felt so morally inferior in all my life.