The School Trip

I’ve just read this. Which reminded me of my best school trip story.

Our (I)GCSE History course begins with the First World War, and so, in common with many schools, at the beginning of the October half-term we take a group of Fourth Form pupils to the battlefields of the Western Front.

We start very early on the Saturday, and if I didn’t have a four-year-old and a two-year-old I’d be able to use the six o’clock meeting time as an excuse for what happened one year. Unfortunately I do, so I can’t.

I’m a generally helpful sort of bloke, so as the pupils arrived I ticked their names off. All present and correct. As we settled on the coach I carried out one more register. Yes. Every name called, every name answered.

Okay, I told the tour leader, we’re all here. Ready to go.

Off we went.

The first leg of the journey was unexceptional. It being six o’clock on a Saturday morning there was no traffic, and we made it to the Eurotunnel terminal with plenty of time to spare. So we went in and had a full English breakfast. Right, I told the boys: back on the coach in forty-five minutes.

Forty-four minutes later I’m standing at the coach door counting them on.

Forty-seven, I told the Head of History and the tour leader.



There are only forty-six on the list.

Okay, I said. I must have miscounted. Easily done. I’ll recount.

I walked up the aisle. Counted them from the front of the coach to the back. Forty-seven. Then from the back to the front. Forty-seven.

Right. We appear to have one extra.

I will always appreciate these colleagues of mine for never once asking me why on earth I didn’t count them back at school. I would, I suppose, have defended myself by saying that missing pupils are to be expected, whereas whoever heard of someone trying to stow away on a school trip? Even so, they must have been cursing my feckless irresponsibility.

So up I stand, and address the boys.

Please don’t make me have you all stand up, then read out your names, and see who’s the last one standing. Who is not supposed to be on this trip?

A boy sheepishly raises his hand.

“You didn’t call my name sir. I think it might be me.”

Pupil lists are checked. It was indeed him.

Do you have your passport?


EHIC card?


Wellington boots?


But we don’t have a consent form. We don’t have a dietary requirements form. We don’t have a medical form. Are you allergic to anything? What don’t you eat?

Nothing sir, I’m fine. No allergies. I eat everything.

All right. But what are you doing on this trip?

Well. I thought everyone who did History was on it?

(That’s what we recommend. But it’s during half-term. Families have other plans. It’s not a Geography field trip. They don’t have to come.)

But where are your forms? How did your parents know to drop you off at six o’clock this morning?

Well, they asked Jim’s mum. She knew all the details.


Out come the smartphones. No, his parents weren’t sent the emails which went to everyone who’d signed up for the trip. We’d had no communication with them at all.

And because we don’t have his paperwork, we don’t have his parents’ telephone number to contact them and ask what on earth is going on.

But he’s got a mobile phone, right? All teenagers do. And it’ll have his parents’ numbers.

“No sir. My mum said I couldn’t take my phone. She didn’t want me racking up data charges or making calls abroad. Said I’d be fine without a phone for three days.”

But you know their mobile numbers, right?

No. I don’t need to. They’re on my phone.

What about your home number?

Oh yes.

(By this stage we’re about to go through passport control.)

We call his parents. No answer.

“No sir, there wouldn’t be. They’re going away for the weekend.”

As the alternatives were leaving him in Folkestone or abandoning the trip we took him.



This is my forty-second and last term as a teacher.

I don’t want it to be. But last year’s referendum means that it will be.

My wife is an EU national. German, since you ask.

She came here eight years ago, to marry me. She’s a lawyer, and thereby entitled to practise law in the UK because EU law requires mutual recognition of such qualifications.

Since then she’s worked ‘in house’ for a bank. She has just been promoted.

But she’s also been offered a relocation to Frankfurt. And she’s going to accept it, and I’m going with her.

Why has she been offered this relocation? Her firm already has a Frankfurt office, and they are, of course, making contigency plans for the UK’s withdrawal from the Single Market.

Does she have to go? No. She could continue in her job here. I don’t really think, much as our Prime Minister loves a good deportation, that in the absence of a deal there will actually be a repatriation of EU citizens. Mrs Grumpy is the mother of two British citizens, the wife of another, and in permanent full-time employment. I’d like to think that if anyone is safe, she is.

Can we apply for permanent residency? The Home Office is discouraging it. Mrs Grumpy has been here for more than five years, but it might be that she cannot satisfy the now-infamous health insurance criterion: she has twice been on maternity leave. Does that count? We don’t know. I expect she’d also struggle to provide a comprehensive record of absence from this country: she has returned to the Fatherland on both business and pleasure several times each year. Perhaps we could use bank and credit card statements to establish just when and for how long. Hopefully. We don’t know.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority has now twice emailed its members to say ‘we know lots of you are worried about whether you’ll be able to be registered with us after the UK leaves the EU: we can’t give you an answer at the moment.’ So there is at least a chance that she will no longer be able to practise law after Brexit. This might make it difficult for her to find another job. Not that she’s looking for one at the moment, but it may be that her firm does rather less from this country in future, and again the answer is that we don’t know.

Could we take the hit if an officious border guard, post-Brexit, decides that Mrs Grumpy should be detained at Heathrow after flying back from a meeting, or seeing our family? I suppose so. I’m well aware that many people who don’t have the advantages of coming from a wealthy white country have to worry about this. If she’s coming back with our children, would their British passports make a difference? We don’t know.

What happens if we divorce? Or indeed if I die? Does she get to bring her new German spouse to live here? Or can my mother-in-law move here to help bring up our children? We don’t know.

Fortunately, we have a relatively easy way out.

Eighty years ago my Jewish grandparents arrived here as refugees. They were German citizens, and as part of its determination to atone for the past the Federal Republic has a policy that it will restore the citizenship, not just of those who lost it during the National Socialist period, but their descendants too. So after the referendum I filled in a few forms, procured a few documents, and presented them to the German Embassy in London; and by the end of the year I had received my certificate of naturalisation. (Or, to use the German term, of Wiedereinbürgerung – becoming a citizen again.) So we’re lucky actually: I can emigrate to Germany without difficulty.

I’m pretty peeved that it’s come to this. Our family is, or at least we thought it was, a settled part of our community. It’s not just that my wife works, obeys the law, and pays her taxes. She volunteers at a local primary school, listening to children read. The birth of two children has embedded her, through those groups of new mothers which are forged by health visitors, in village life.

In some ways she’ll never be fully English, of course. Her tea-making is still shocking. And, having arrived in 2009, she doesn’t quite ‘get’ the feeling that an Ashes victory over Australia really is a cause for massive celebration: she can, of course, intellectually grasp that this isn’t traditionally a contest of equals, that people of our age spent their entire adolescents getting a hammering off the Australians, and that we remain convinced even from the most commanding of positions that the England team will somehow manage to foul things up – she understands this when I explain it to her, but I know that secretly she just can’t quite see why we get so worked up about beating a mediocre Australian side.

In some ways, though, she really is. Her German accent is nearly gone: it only really emerges when she watches the Six Nations on television, and shouts, like a female Brian Moore, “Referee! From the side!” (Yes, she knows the laws of rugby union. I told you. She’s integrated.) She’s a monarchist who proudly showed her parents around the royal sites of London, and spent William & Kate’s wedding day glued (as they used to say) to the television. And she has become very attached to the Church of England. Perhaps we don’t appreciate this sort of thing enough, but when she’s told that ‘all communicant members of Christian churches’ does indeed include her (she’s Catholic) and that of course she is welcome to take Holy Communion in our parish church, then yes, she feels very much part of this country.

But not any more.

Before the referendum campaign it seemed that there were two types of Leaver: the souverainistes and the Faragists. I can remember when eurosceptics were obsessed with sovereignty and intensely relaxed about immigration.

There is still a clear distinction, of course. But as Vote Leave embraced the anti-immigration agenda there was a distinct change in approach from souverainistes. They appeared to discover – or to voice – for the first time the dangers of immigration.

I don’t think we’re a threat to social cohesion. I don’t think that our Leave-voting friends think so either. But they had a choice to make.

Am I disappointed that they voted as they did? Of course. I wish they’d thought of us and our situation and made it a higher priority. Can I blame them? Of course not. I celebrated Labour’s 1997 General Election victory – I’d have voted Labour, but was just too young – even though I knew that Labour’s education policy would deprive my best friend’s youngest brother of an assisted place at our independent school. I’ve no moral high ground to stand on.

Some Leavers are, I know, embarrassed that they associated with Nigel Farage and his anti-immigration agenda. But not that many, actually. To win the referendum it became necessary to argue that immigration from the EU was bad; and so a fair number of people conveniently found that they believed the arguments they were making. And faced with the difficulty of explaining how the Westminster system was more democratic than the institutions of the European Union, they fell back on the only explanation which made sense: democracy depends on the nation state.

Is it an intellectually coherent position to hold that immigration is bad? Of course it is. I don’t agree with it, but nor do I claim that those holding it are racist, or ignorant, or wicked.

(I am, though, a little suspicious of those who argue that free movement of people does great damage to the social fabric of the community, even if on aggregate it brings economic benefit, and that it should therefore be restricted, if they don’t also accept that free movement of goods and services and capital do too.)

I don’t think the 52%’s views are illegitimate. I accept that the UK will be leaving the EU. I see that there is a mandate for a ‘hard Brexit’ or, if you prefer, a ‘clean Brexit’. The people have spoken. I don’t like referendums, but we’re about to elect a House of Commons which will have an overwhelming mandate to take the UK out of the EU.

And yet I’m somehow cheered by my fellow Remoaning Remainiacs. It does provide me with some solace to go on to Twitter and to see that others are as distraught as I am.

Because much as I agree that the will of the people is clear, my family can’t be part of this society any more. It’s not just that all sorts of things might happen in years to come, though they might, and if they do then the longer we leave it the worse it’ll be for our children (currently four and two): at the moment they’re young enough to adapt easily to a new country, a new culture, a new language.

No, it’s more that we’re not wanted here. Eight years ago my wife left her country to come here. Now it’s time for me to return the favour. I can’t expect her to stay here while we discuss just what position in society she ought to be permitted.

So we’re off. This summer, we’re moving to Frankfurt. I have a TEFL course lined up and hopefully I’ll pick up some work teaching English as a foreign language. Maybe I’ll write a book: I’ve produced enough of my own teaching resources over fourteen years to think I might be able to produce a decent textbook or two. I’m hoping to join a rugby club (yes, there are some). I’m going to work on my German. And we’ll see what happens.

I’ll miss teaching History and Politics. I’ll miss coaching rugby and cricket. I’ll miss my colleagues and my pupils. And I’ll miss England.

Just One Paragraph

I’ve been reading this and this.

Like everyone with a blog, I’m convinced that everyone wants to know what I think about things, unless they’re suffering from the sort of false consciousness which might be dispelled if only they were to discover my oeuvre. And although I don’t have much to add to these blogs, I can’t condense it into a tweet, so here we go.

I entirely agree with both Cox & Quigley that issuing past papers to pupils, especially towards the beginning of a two-year course, can be counter-productive.

I like their sporting analogies. I’m not the right shape to think about running a marathon, but even I know that I wouldn’t train for one by running marathons. And I know enough about coaching young footballers to know that while there’s plenty of easy popularity to be had by saying ‘today let’s not do any drills at all, let’s just play a match’ (which is, I suppose, where a comparison with doing a past paper in class breaks down) this isn’t the way to helping them improve their football.

While Quigley & Cox refer to GCSEs, I’m going to talk about A Level History, in which many papers consist of nothing more than a few essay questions.

There is, in History, a big jump between GCSE and A Level. Much of this is because of the amount of reading a student has to do. But there’s also the nature of the writing.

At GCSE, there are questions which pupils call ‘essays’. But they aren’t really essays. They’ll ask a ‘yes/no’ question, which can be answered with a one-sentence introduction, a paragraph arguing both sides, and a conclusion which, ideally, plumps for one interpretation or the other. They get twenty minutes to do it.

To progress from that to producing an essay with four or five central paragraphs in addition to an introduction and a conclusion, often ‘thematically’ structured, is something which many sixteen-year-olds find very difficult.

For a long time I used to go ahead and set them essays anyway. They had to learn, after all. When I studied A Level History I was writing essays from a couple of weeks in, and if it was good enough for me it was good enough for them. And the material to be covered at the beginning of the course was just as important, and to be assessed in just as demanding a way, as the material to be covered at the end of the course. I had to set essays on the ancien régime because the exam board might do so.

And it was a bad use of our time. I received lots of bad essays, which in their turn received lots of red ink, and if the education blogosphere and Twittersphere has taught me anything, it’s that when I thought that my ungrateful pupils seemed to be learning absolutely nothing from the hours I put into marking their essays, I was onto something.

So I started taking another approach, and it’s one I still do today.

I’ll set an essay, to the whole class.

I’ll get each individual to jot down a plan. A brief plan. So if our question is ‘why did William of Normandy succeed in conquering England’ then a plan might look like this:

-Because of his military skills;

-Because Harold Godwinson fouled up;

-Because of the treachery of certain Englishmen;

-Because of Harald Hardrada’s intervention;

-Because he got lucky.

Pupils will suggest other approaches. Some of those will be sensible, and we can talk about why. Some won’t, and we can talk about why. This, I think, is quite important. It ought to stop at least some pupils from pouring their energies into doomed strategies.

Anyway. We agree on a common approach. Or, if I’m feeling generous, I agree that two or three approaches would be acceptable.

We then agree on a line we’re going to take. (Occasionally a pupil will vehemently disagree with this line. This always pleases me. I might let him disagree or I might tell him that this time he’s going to do it my way, because I’m right and he’s wrong. It doesn’t really matter.)

I’ll write them an introduction on the spot. Turn on the computer and the projector, open up Word, type it out in front of them. Don’t bother to write it down, I’ll email it to you. Perfect Introduction Dot Doc. Good name for a document.

And then I’ll tell them to write just one paragraph of the essay. Yes, right now, because once you think you’ve written it, bring it to me, and we’ll talk about it.

I don’t get through all the paragraphs in a lesson. But I’ll get through some, and the rest won’t take me long to read, because they only consist of one paragraph. So I can give much more effective feedback on a small part of the task.

But if they’re getting something wrong about the techniques of writing essays (rather than about the history) it’ll probably show up in that one paragraph. They’ll pick a paragraph which they think they can tackle, after all. They’ll probably be able to state a case. They’ll probably be able to explain it. They might well know what factual evidence to supply in support. They might even have a caveat to deploy. (And if they can’t, that’ll show up too.) With just one paragraph it’s realistically possible to provide ‘surgical’ marking which identifies precisely where and how the technique can be improved.

Seems to work for me, anyway.

The Grammar School Question

Declaring one’s own educational background appears to be a prerequisite for participation in this debate, so I was privately educated and I teach at a private school. Both were, a little over forty years ago, direct-grant grammar schools, before politicians made them choose between comprehensivisation and independence. I’m not entirely convinced that this was an improvement.

It used to be a cliché – perhaps it still is – that the French Minister of Education could consult her chart in the Ministry and see what every pupil in every classroom in France would be studying at that moment. The principle of la carrière ouverte aux talents, one which was embraced both by the eighteenth-century revolutionaries and by Napoléon, remains a republican principle to this day. And stereotypically French schools provide a traditionally republican ‘level playing field’ for their pupils: everyone gets exactly the same education, delivered in the same way. Differentiation is rare and, when it happens, summary: a pupil who can’t keep up has to repeat the academic year. The bright and the industrious succeed, while the dim and the lazy don’t.

The bourgeoisie accepts this system. Private schools are only for the very rich and the very religious.

I doubt that French schools actually conform to this stereotype. But there is quite a bit to be said for it, even if it is only a model: it conforms to a reasonably widely-shared view of what constitutes ‘fairness.’

(Historians tend not to like models. But they’re very popular in other disciplines, aren’t they? My entire GCSE physics course took place in a parallel universe where there was no friction or air resistance, and I nearly took A Level physics just to find out what happened when we finally acknowledged that such things exist.)

But we all know this isn’t on the cards for English schools. We’re not getting rid of independent schools. We’re not getting rid of faith schools. We’re not getting rid of Montessori schools. We’re not getting rid of the Royal Ballet School. And part of the justification for the creation of free schools was to allow a thousand flowers to bloom so that parents could exercise meaningful choice when it came to their children’s education, and we’re not getting rid of those either.

Why, then, shouldn’t parents be able to choose to send their pupils to grammar schools?

Yes, I know, it’s the grammar schools that do the choosing, not the parents. But that’s true of any oversubscribed school.

Because it’s bad for those left behind? That’s what the data (allegedly) says. And because grammar schools don’t select the cleverest: they select the children of those who can pay for independent preparatory schools or private tuition, never mind all the other advantages which the children of prosperous parents have.

I get this. I do. And yet I’m not convinced.

I accept that the data is persuasive, though I also know how grievously data can be abused and accepted by those who wish to be persuaded. And yet there’s a part of me which says you know what … if this is true, then this is a problem for the secondary modern schools to fix. How does the presence of bright children make a difference to those who wouldn’t be able to get into the grammar schools? What is it about them that makes a difference?

I’ve taught in a school which selected only by parental income, and it certainly didn’t appear to me that the relatively small number of clever, hardworking pupils set the tone for the rest of the school. Quite the reverse.

Is it the middle-class parents who, in pressing for a better deal for their offspring, thereby ensure that all the other children get a better deal too? This suggests that the middle classes are sufficiently sharp of elbow to make a difference to their children’s schools, but insufficiently so as to be able to target that difference so that it was in the interest of their children above all, which strikes me as being too convenient to be true.

Is it that the ‘best’ teachers gravitate to grammar schools, leaving secondary moderns with inferior pedagogues? On the basis of the teachers performatively denouncing selection on Twitter, and proudly announcing that they would never work in one, it seems unlikely.

I put scare quotes around ‘best’ not out of some trendy conviction that on the award of Qualified Teacher Status all teachers become equally effective. Teachers have their strengths and weaknesses. Some – often the teachers with the most impressive academic qualifications themselves – are better with cleverer pupils. Even in selective independent schools there are Oxbridge DPhils who struggle with younger pupils in lower sets. This seems somewhat less offensive than saying that teachers with a weaker grasp of their subjects are often those who struggle with discipline even with usually-well-behaved top sets in selective schools, but that doesn’t stop it being true. Different teachers are often suited to teaching different pupils, whether they consider saying so to be an insult or not.

The problems with selection seem to me to be the strongest arguments against grammar schools. The eleven-plus is very far from a level playing field, and it’s tilted in favour of those who are already advantaged.

One solution to this is the German solution (at least in some states: the German Länder, not the federal government, are responsible for education, and some have gone comprehensive). Where there is selection, there’s no 11+. Primary schools make a recommendation, but parents decide whether their children are to attend a Gymnasium or a Realschule.

Doesn’t everyone want to go to a Gymnasium? No. I will yield to no one in my contempt for parents, but they can be more realistic than we give them credit for, which will be a relief for primary heads who don’t fancy telling parents that their children aren’t clever enough to be selected.

Yeah, but what if parents are kidding themselves? Well, those selective Gymnasiums have standards, and if pupils don’t reach them, they have to repeat the year. A small but significant number of pupils will do this every year, but if they’re still behind they won’t stay in their Gymnasium indefinitely.

And what about those late bloomers? Well, pupils leave a Realschule two years before they leave a Gymnasium. Many will go on to take up jobs or, more commonly, apprenticeships. But others attend an Aufbaugymnasium – essentially a sixth-form college – where they sit the Abitur, bringing their qualifications up to the same level as those taken by their peers in the Gymnasium.

Now the German system isn’t perfect – the issue of selection remains a controversial one there as it does here. But it does deal with some of the problems which grammar schools present. And were I introducing grammar schools, that’s how I’d do it. There doesn’t have to be one set-piece high-stakes examination deciding destinies forever.

After all – we’re not using the French republican model. If your parents are practising members of some churches, or are willing to pretend to have that faith, you might well get to go to a better school. If you’re talented enough, you might well get to go to the Royal Ballet School, or indeed get a sports scholarship to a top independent school. If your parents are rich enough then you might well be nowhere near the standard required of a grammar school, but find your way into a school which will ensure that your results are the very best they could realistically be. If your parents think you would be best suited to a free school which offers a rather different ethos or curriculum than your local comprehensive then you can apply for a place at one.

But if you’re fairly clever, and could do well academically if only you were able to attend a grammar school? Tough. Because the existence of those grammar schools damages every other school.


School Cricket

Tomorrow the long Easter weekend begins. It ends on Monday evening, and on Tuesday I’m back at work. On my first day back I’ve got a games afternoon, which means I’ll have my first coaching session with the under-fourteen ‘B’ XI, and just between you and me I’m rather looking forward to it.

There’s something about cricket which brings out the Jacob Rees-Mogg in me. I know that in the first half of the summer term at least there will be miserable afternoons of standing in the freezing cold; that my team will travel to an away match, win or lose early, and then have to hang around for hours while other games finish; that we will turn up for a fixture, and it’ll rain, but not enough to guarantee a cancellation, and that it might well be a couple of hours before someone finally decides to call off proceedings.

But the summer beckons. I get to don my white suit and panama hat without looking ridiculous. My brand new A6 scorebook (you can’t rely on the boys to do it themselves, and I hate carrying those preposterously oversized ones into the middle) is pristine. I’m looking forward to some good match teas. I might even practice my Aleem Dar -inspired more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger nod just before I raise my finger to confirm a batsman’s dismissal, though we all know that one of the very civilised elements of umpiring a 14B team is that in truth there are rarely many decisions to make.

But cricket has its design flaws. It’s an individual game played in teams, and that gives rise to several tensions.Boys want to feel that they’re playing in a real competitive game. We don’t play that version of cricket where every batsman gets to face a certain number of balls regardless of whether he gets himself out or not. Nor do we retire batsmen when they reach a certain score. I think this is right at secondary level: building an innings is an essential part of the game. For an individual making fifty runs might be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, and I’m inclined to think that those waiting on the boundary for their turn ought to learn that they are expected to support and applaud him regardless of any personal frustration.

But many school ‘A’ teams, and 1st XIs, have a few players who are significantly better than their team-mates. It is far from uncommon for the same five boys to do all the bowling and to monopolise the opening and middle-order batting positions. Most seasons boys tell me that they are relieved to be dropped into my ‘B’ team because they didn’t get to do anything in the ‘A’ team.

They might well then be somewhat disappointed that they don’t get to dominate their new team in their turn, though I’ve never had a boy say to me ‘hey, I played in the A team, why don’t I get to be a bigger deal in the B team?’ Perhaps I’m too unapproachable.

Look – I see the logic behind that approach to ‘A’ team cricket. Everyone likes to win, and if the best players do the bowling and the batting then a win is more likely. Some of those in what we might label the ‘supporting’ roles no doubt prefer not to have the ‘lead’ roles, whether that be because they don’t want to let the team down or because they don’t want to be given a hard time by their peers if they do mess up. And I have a sneaking regard for the Deputy Head, now a Head Master, a former minor-counties cricketer himself, who once told me with a twinkle in his eye that boys had to learn that some people are more important than others.

And it’s easy for me to criticise the practice, I know. I’m just a history teacher.Even so I think it’s wrong.In my B team, everyone (or nearly everyone – there’s usually a couple of players who genuinely don’t want to, but I’m generally inclined to think that a schoolboy is too young to be ‘just a batsman’ or indeed ‘just a bowler’) gets a bowl. The best bowlers will come back and finish the innings off, if it comes to that, but only after everyone has had at least two or three overs each, depending on the length of the innings.

There will be a batting order, and it will conform to conventional principles. But it will change. If we have bowled a team out in a few overs, the boys who didn’t bowl will start higher up the order. I can’t, of course, guarantee a bat or even a bat or a bowl for every player in every game, but those who don’t get to bat one week will be higher up the order next week.

Do I let the captain have any say? Not really. I’ll tell him that when I’m umpiring at square leg I expect that to be his fielding position; from there I’ll talk tactics with him every other over. I’ll offer him ‘advice’ on who to bowl and when to make bowling changes. I’ll suggest he looks carefully at fielding positions when something is amiss. And if he doesn’t listen, I’ll step in and overrule him.

I’m not happy about doing this. I’d rather captains take responsibility for these decisions. But, unfortunately, it has been my experience that standing back and allowing captains to control things gives a quite terrifying insight into the group dynamics of adolescent boys. Every so often I’ll umpire a team which isn’t ‘mine,’ and the coach has put the captain in charge of the bowling & batting order. It doesn’t end well. Schoolboy captains don’t have much sympathy for my attempts at involving as many players as possible. They overbowl the ‘best’ players, or they overbowl their friends, or they are unable to stand up to their peers offering them ‘advice’ on fielding positions and bowling order. Look, no one despises the ‘alt-right’ more than me, but I defy anyone to watch an under-fifteen ‘B’ team in the field on a summer’s afternoon, with a boy rather than an adult in charge, and deny that there are – or can be – ‘alpha’ males and ‘beta’ males.

Does this hamper my team’s chances of winning? Well … yes, it does, somewhat. I don’t care. I’ve never been challenged about this, neither by senior colleagues nor by parents, but my answer would be that actually this approach will help us win – just not, necessarily right now. Players get better through training and practice but they also get better through playing in competitive matches.

What’s the alternative? We decide that Aggeridge, Ankerton, Borby & Bungabine are ‘the best players’ at age eleven, and then they bat, bowl, keep wicket and captain for the next seven years? I used the scare quotes for a reason. Of course some players have more natural talent than others. Those who find themselves with that talent no doubt also find hard training and serious practising more congenial. In a school’s shortest and most disrupted term there is a limit to the amount we can develop young cricketers. But we can do something. And if, instead, we prefer to chase victories, many of those players who aren’t in the magic circle and don’t get to play a full part in the game will give it up instead.

I teach History

Every schoolteacher has come across the faintly smug answer “I teach children” to the question “what do you teach,” usually from the type of colleague who would sadly conclude that it was his professional duty to report you to the Deputy Head for uttering a profanity on discovering that you had forgotten your board markers.

Such people tend to like the idea that what really matters is the child. If the teacher, or indeed the subject, does not suit the child, then it is the teacher or the subject which must change. This is the principle at the heart of the ‘child-centred’ education movement, which would traditional teaching methods and traditional academic subjects with metacognition lessons in which iPads would be used to enable discovery learning.

Well … I don’t teach children. I teach History.

Firstly, I’m not quite so presumptuous as to think that just because I can teach History, I can teach anything. I notice this twice a week when coaching sport. I’ve played rugby for nearly thirty years, though never at a particularly exalted level, and I’ve coached the game for fourteen years, though I’ve never taken an ‘A’ team. So when I run my ‘B’ team it’s usually alongside a PE teacher who takes the lead.

What I’ve found particularly interesting about this experience is that I’m a good coach with a junior ‘B’ team.* I’m good at coaching the basics. I’m good at motivating players. I’m good at refereeing a game so that the participants get as much out of it as possible.

(Yes, it is easy for me to say this. It’s not just that I don’t care if my team wins or loses. It’s that there isn’t really any pressure on me either way. Neither Directors of Sport nor parents care about ‘my’ results, and that frees me – as I know coaches of top teams sometimes, appallingly, aren’t free – to make sure that players all get decent game time, that games flow, and that in my teams no one, including me, has a go at people who get things wrong, including me.)

But there are too many things which I don’t even notice, never mind know how to put right, for me to coach an ‘A’ team. I’ve been trying to think of examples, but the whole point is the ‘unknown unknowns’ – I will look at a player performing a particular skill in practice, and it’ll look fine to me, but my PE-specialist colleague will identify something which I haven’t seen, and give instruction on how to improve it. If I knew what I ought to be looking out for I’d be half-way there, but I don’t.

You can, I expect, see where this is going. I can bring some generic schoolmastering to the games field, and some amateur knowledge, and that’s good enough. But if I was put in charge of the 1st XV, or teaching academic PE, or preparation for pupils’ applications to read Sports Science at Loughborough, then I’d be hopeless.

But that’s not all.

I’m not just here to teach History to the children in my classes. I’m doing something bigger and more important.

I think History is important. (I expect – I hope – you think your subject is too.) As a History teacher I am tasked with the transmission of our knowledge of the past to generations to come. I am carrying out my part in Edmund Burke’s famous social contract, which is between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. I am an infinitesimal part of the preservation and passing on of our collective heritage. This is, I think, a tremendous privilege. But it carries with it responsibility too.

And it’s not just a responsibility to the pupils in front of me. It’s greater than that.

What if the interests of Clio and what are alleged to be the interests of the pupil appear not to coincide? For me, history comes first.

So, for instance, I despise the ‘Hitlerisation’ of the History curriculum. When I have taught in schools which have included the Third Reich at both GCSE and A Level I have made myself unpopular by criticising the practice: when I have been in a position to change it I have done so. If results go badly because of it? That’s a price I’m willing to pay.

Aha, says my previous Head of Department, who arranged for pupils to learn the Second World War and the Holocaust for two terms in the Third Form, to then be taught a GCSE course including a term on Hitler’s foreign policy and another term on a depth study of Nazi Germany, and to then spend the entire Upper Sixth on the history of the Fatherland in the first half of the twentieth century. That’s all very well for you to say. What you really mean is that it’s a price you’re willing for your students to pay. Well, I don’t want them to pay the price. Their parents don’t want them to pay the price. The Head Master doesn’t want them to pay the price. You don’t care about them, not like we do.

Tja. Has he got a point? I don’t know. Does studying the same thing help pupils succeed in public examinations? That hasn’t been my experience, but I’d be surprised if it had no impact, though it’d be very difficult to measure. There are other reasons to focus on Hitler besides results in public examinations: the first half of the twentieth century in Germany is often said to be very popular with teenagers, usually by teachers who themselves prefer teaching it to something more adventurous, and once (as it lamentably does in so many schools) it has the status of ‘the default option’ then considerations of library books, textbooks, other teaching resources and schemes of work all mitigate against reform.**

And you know what? I don’t care if it is in the pupils’ interests (however that be defined) to follow a course like this. There is a bigger picture. History matters. And we are betraying the past and the future if we do not teach it properly.

So I teach History. Not children.

*Yes, you’ll have to take my word for it. I think my argument works even if actually I’m a bit rubbish.

**There’s something else too. Whenever I start off a new season coaching an Association Football team I always line my team up in the conventional 4-4-2 formation. Why? Because the players all know what they’re doing in it; but also because if things go wrong I can then say to them, well, that was a bit of a mess, and I think a change of tactics might help, and they’ll listen. Whereas if at the start of the season I say ‘look, we’ve got three really good centre-halves here, and three central midfielders who all deserve a place in the team, and we don’t have any full-backs, so let’s play 3-5-2; and we then lose, then immediately the players will attribute their defeat to the tactics, and thereafter they won’t listen. Well, I think a lot of Heads of History worry that if they don’t focus on the Third Reich, and results are disappointing, then they have provided their own line managers with one obvious way in which they can be personally blamed.

You’re On Your Own

One of the independent sector’s dirty little secrets is that pupil behaviour is not quite as good as is sometimes suggested.

I’ve never taught in a state school, so I’m not in a position to make a comparison. I’m not asserting that behaviour in independent schools is no worse than in the state sector: on average, just on the basis of what I read online and what I hear from colleagues, I would guess that overall it is significantly better.

Even so, at each of the four schools at which I’ve worked, behaviour in some classes has been sufficiently bad that it disrupted learning. (In my first school, where I was silly enough to follow the advice that I just needed to be ‘firm, fair and friendly,’ this included my lessons.) In my second, memorably described by a pupil of mine who is now a journalist on a national newspaper as ‘an inner-city private school,’ a new Head Master was sufficiently concerned by standards of discipline that an entire INSET morning was devoted to handling bad behaviour.

I know that several state schools forbid mobile telephones from their premises; others will allow teachers to confiscate them and keep them from their owners overnight. But of the schools in which I’ve worked, none have banned the devices, nor have I ever been permitted to deprive a pupil of his after the end of the school day. Some state school have same-day detentions, or indeed next-day detentions the timings of which are non-negotiable: in none of the schools which have employed me has this been the case.

I’m fairly confident that in many state schools calling a black teacher a racial epithet (yes, that one) would result in permanent exclusion, as would smearing one’s own name in one’s own faeces in a lavatory. Both of these have happened in schools in which I’ve taught, and on neither of those occasions was the pupil concerned expelled.

This shouldn’t be a great surprise. Fee-paying parents want a disciplined environment, but they also want indulgence for their own children. They are our customers, and the customer is always right.

And yet in each school there was a logical, rational system of sanctions. To keep order all the teacher needed to do was to follow its provisions.At least that was the theory. In practice anyone who relied on the school sanctions system was likely to have discipline problems.

Why is this?

It’s easy to point the finger at individuals, and I’m quite happy to do so. The pastoral leaders who are supposed to be ultimately responsible for maintaining order in a school, but who are often too keen on being liked by the pupils than they are on doing their jobs properly? Yeah, I blame them. The Head Masters who appoint them? Ditto. (Though I wonder how much of a feel for discipline Head Masters can have. You know how the Queen thinks the world smells of fresh paint? I expect a lot of Head Masters think their schools have excellent discipline, especially if their subordinates prefer to pretend that this is indeed the case.)

And I know what their reply is. It’s all very well for classroom grunts like me to call for tougher discipline. But I mustn’t rely on senior managers to impose it for me. I have to be part of it. And I agree: a teacher who relies wholly on a school sanction system is probably in the wrong job. We don’t all have to be martinets, but we do all need to be able to maintain healthy and productive relationships with the pupils we teach. There are several valid ways of doing this, and different approaches work for different teachers. Being someone who expects teenagers to be as they have never actually been, and who conspicuously dislikes the pupils he is expected to teach, is not one.

But – in my experience at least – there really aren’t many such people in your average staffroom. And yet discipline problems persist.

“Men make history,” said a certain nineteenth-century German philosopher, “but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” Quite clearly individual pastoral leaders can make a big difference to the maintenance of discipline in a school. In each of the schools I’ve worked in there have been some tough disciplinarians in those roles, who put their softer colleagues to shame. There can be no structural explanation for this: some people prioritise keeping order more than others. It’s about the individual. (Boarding schools can be very illustrative of this: you just have to walk into a few boarding houses to see the difference which can be made by different styles of houseparenting*.)

But the incentives, unfortunately, are on the side of leniency. The Head of Year who shrugs indulgently at bad behaviour, who rewards it with a meeting, scheduled to coincide with double chemistry, in which the recalcitrant pupil relaxes in a comfortable chair in his office, and in which the year head nods sympathetically and insinuates that yes, he quite understands how the boy might well feel persecuted, will find things much easier. He won’t get the hassle from parents who share their son’s view that his teacher is picking on him. He won’t have to make that telephone call, or send that email, announcing that the boy is going to be in detention, which might well invite an aggressive reply or a passive-aggressive agreement that the boy will do the detention but not that day because he has a sports fixture, or a concert ticket, or an aged relative’s birthday party, so it must be rearranged. He will be liked by the boy (or at least he thinks he will – it doesn’t always work out like that). It makes for an easier life.

This compromises a whole-school approach. But what does he care about that? To be promoted to Deputy Head Pastoral he’s going to have to go to a new school anyway.

A pastoral leader who is philosophically committed to getting this right can make a big difference. But the incentives all point the other way. And this, I fear, means that those discipline problems aren’t going away. Ultimately you can’t rely on a pupil’s pastoral leader to support you: you’re on your own.

*I hate this term, but ‘different styles of House Mastering or Mistressing’ is just too awkward a phrase. Neither House Masters nor House Mistresses (another fairly unsatisfactory term, suggesting as it does a brothel-keeper rather than a pedagogue) are doing the job of parenting, even if they are in loco parentis.

Don’t Name Six

In Tony Little’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education he reports approvingly advice given to him on becoming a Head Master. ‘When the inevitable visit comes from a teacher claiming that all his colleagues feel that … etc., invite him to give six names.’

Now elsewhere in the book, Little cites Jonathan Smith’s (brilliant) The Learning Game several times. He cannot, therefore, have failed to make the connection between ‘Name Six’ and the following little vignette, which Smith gleefully recounts, of a Head Master telling his minions that some initiative or other was to be introduced or dropped:

“‘And, above all [said the Head], parents are adamant about it.’

Suddenly a confident voice came from the back of the room, the voice of a senior housemaster with only two years to go and nothing to fear:

‘Names, please, Headmaster. Names of the adamant parents.’


I had a rather revealing discussion with an Assistant Head – Teaching & Learning about this. His view was that Little’s line was entirely reasonable: that someone who was unwilling to tell a Headmaster that he disagreed with something did not really disagree with it, but was saying so in order to humour a staffroom malcontent.

It is, as I conceded to him, quite possible that colleagues pretend to agree with me when I grouse about some pointless policy designed to advance the careers of the alliance behind it. I can’t know what they really think.

Teachers can, after all, be dismally cowardly when it comes to speaking their opinions (I won’t be so pompous as to suggest that what I think always constitutes truth) to power. I’ve been in Heads of Department meetings, and I’ve seen the difference between how people speak when the Head isn’t present, or when they’ve have been dispatched to ‘break-out’ groups to discuss some matter or other. It is simultaneously amusing and utterly dispiriting.

I’m even prepared to concede that someone who isn’t prepared to say something to a senior ‘leader’ clearly doesn’t care enough about it to be taken seriously. The alternative, I know, is for those senior managers to take it on trust that the mouthy agitator represents the silent masses whom he claims to represent, and I think we all know this is wildly unrealistic.

I see, therefore, the elegance of Little’s ‘Name Six’. It’s a good tactic. I doubt that most teachers would be willing to identify their colleagues when put on the spot. I certainly wouldn’t. Even if one did, a Headmaster following Little’s advice would then be able to isolate the named individuals and ask them if they actually believed what they had been reported to have believed, or whether the original dissident was exaggerating.

But I worry about colleagues like my interlocutor, who will be a Head himself one day. I worry that they have actually persuaded themselves that the silent majority agrees with them, and that their silence is approval rather than apprehension about the impact that speaking their minds would have on their careers.