The Cricketer

I’m watching – or I was when I started this post – the highlights of the first day of the Test Match at the Oval. This made me think of a pupil I taught in my first year in the classroom, a young man who is now a fairly big player in the First Class game – if you’re into county cricket you’d probably recognise the name, but if you’re not you won’t.

I taught him History, and I took a liking to him fairly early on. I had set the old chestnut of designing a First World War recruitment poster (I know…) and he had wrinkled his face in disappointment. “Don’t worry if your artwork is bad,” I announced, “mine is worse than yours. I’ll be looking for the point that you’re making.” He was far too polite to say so, but I could tell he was unconvinced.

And rightly so. He had a point. I even thought so at the time: I remember worrying about what I would say if he asked if he couldn’t just think of a point he’d want to make and write it down, which might possibly have taken as much as five minutes if he really thought about it, instead of the twenty or so I’d allocated to this dismal task.

He produced an appalling poster, which also made me wonder. Some of the others produced some nice pieces of artwork, which I duly laminated and pinned to the walls just outside my classroom as an example of the sort of twenty-first century learning which was going on inside. But I took his from him and gave him a look which I hoped conveyed sympathy tinged with disappointment.

But I didn’t act as though he had slacked off with a piece of written work. If he’d handed me in an essay which was a quarter of the length that it should have been, scrawled and scruffy and quite clearly the product of very little effort, and I’d spotted it, I’d have kept him behind, and there wouldn’t have been any sympathy: it’d have been full-on disappointment at best, possibly with some confected anger and almost certainly with an instruction to do it again in his own time until it was of an acceptable standard. Obviously I didn’t do that with a poster. It’d be unreasonable. And even as a brand-new teacher it occurred to me that this suggested that it wasn’t really a wholly respectable assignment to set.

Still, the Cricketer forgave my teaching, and in the Lent Term he found himself in his year group’s Association Football team. Because of course he did. He was his year’s outstanding sportsman, and he was the obvious choice for the role of midfield general and team captain. This meant that we would be spending more time in each other’s company, because that was my team.

One afternoon we had a fixture away at a similar sort of establishment. One of the very civilised elements of this sort of school sport is that the hosting teachers will meet travelling staff straight off the coach and whisk you off to somewhere for a cup of tea at least, and sometimes for something stronger, while one of their boys will take the players off to get changed. And that’s just what happened on this occasion. It was February, so the roaring fire and tankards of beer were particularly appealing, and we stayed indoors until the last minute. I strolled out with my opposite number, and everything seemed fine. The boys warmed themselves up: they were used to doing so.

The game kicked off, and I noticed that our one substitute was walking rather oddly. Was he trying to hide an injury? No. He was trying to hide the fact that he was wearing school shoes instead of football boots.

I asked him, as you do, to explain his unconventional footwear.

He was unwilling to give me an explanation.

All right, I told him, no one’s in trouble. But we’ve got a problem here now, which is that we have eleven pairs of boots for twelve players. Which feckless wastrel have you given your boots to?

The Cricketer.

I sighed. Well, I told him, let’s hope that no one gets injured, especially no one whose feet aren’t the same size as yours.

Now this would, I suppose, for some sports coaches, present a dilemma. The Cricketer was by some way the best player in the team. Taking him off at half-time would therefore be controversial. But I wasn’t going to take a substitute to an away match and make him spend the whole game on the touchline because someone had forgotten his boots.

Furthermore this was a midweek game, and only one parent had made the trip. Now I don’t think you can have a blanket policy of not substituting players whose parents are at the game, even when you might be aware that it’s fairly likely that such a parent will have travelled quite some distance to be there. It’s not fair on the others who are already missing out on their parents being there to watch them to play. But on any one occasion, if there’s only one parent there … I think – or perhaps I just feel – that it’s a bit insensitive to take off the one player whom that parent has come to see.

Why not ‘roll’ the substitutes then? Have several players take a ten-minute break? Well, regardless of whether you think this is normally a good idea, and I have my doubts, every substitution in this game was going to involve the swapping of boots and shoes, so barring injuries this game was going to have one half-time substitution only.

You have I’m sure worked out that the only parent in attendance was the Cricketer’s father. Fortunately at half-time we were 3-1 up and in a dominant position. So I told the Cricketer that he’d better return the boots on his feet to their rightful owner. He had the decency to look embarrassed. I told him that I wasn’t trying to make a point by taking him off, but that I was going to give the substitute a game, and that there was therefore only one logical change to make, and that change was going to involve him taking the rest of the afternoon off.

The father was very classy, and while I hope that neither Schoolgirl Grumpy nor Toddler Grumpy are daft enough to turn up to a sports fixture without their kit, I also hope that one of them does so that I can repay the universe by acting as he did: a few minutes into the second half he came up to me, slapped me on the back and commiserated with me for having such a fool for a captain. “He’ll learn his lesson now,” he told me, “at least let’s hope so.” I taught the Cricketer in the following year as well, and we always got on very well, so that at least was a happy ending.

As for the game, we had several good chances in the second half, missed them all, then conceded a goal with ten minutes left to make it all a bit tense; we then conceded another goal with two minutes left to ruin our afternoon; and we then conceded a corner in injury time, which our diminutive right-back heroically headed off the line to keep the scores level at 3-3. It was quite some finish to the game.

Would it have all been much easier if I’d asked all the boys with size eight or nine shoes to put their hands up and organised some way to keep the star on the pitch? Yeah, probably. I’m pretty sure that several sports coaches with whom and for whom I’ve worked would have done so. But I don’t regret that I didn’t.

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Even Humour Requires Knowledge

Well.

Not all the time, obviously.

But let me share a joke with you. I didn’t make it up: I was told it by an extremely likeable man by the name of Heiko, who took a Karl Marx -themed walking tour of central London which I accompanied a group of pupils (some studying politics, some nineteenth-century history) on last year. This is the company that runs it. In return for nicking a joke I’ll advertise the walking tour: it was terrific. Take your pupils if you’re allowed. It’s three hours, but you stop for a coffee halfway through, so they even get their caffeine/smartphone break.

To fully appreciate this joke, you need to know something about the nature of the East German regime. You need to know what the Stasi was. Ideally you’d know that teachers were required to be ideological supporters of Communism. You might get away with understanding the essence of this joke, and how subversive it would have been to have told it, if you had some familiarity with other Eastern Bloc regimes. But if you didn’t, then you really wouldn’t get it.

Anyway. Here we go.

It’s East Germany, and the protagonist of our joke is a schoolteacher.

In class one morning he asks a question of one of his pupils. “Felix! Who wrote the Communist Manifesto?”

“I don’t know sir,” replies Felix, “but it wasn’t me. Promise.”

This answer upsets the teacher. He broods on it for the rest of the day, and when he goes home that evening he’s still a bit down in the dumps. His wife notices, and asks him why. He tells her. “I asked Felix who wrote the Communist Manifesto, and do you know what he said? He said ‘I don’t know, it wasn’t me’!”

“Well,” says his wife, “maybe you should believe him. Maybe it wasn’t him.”

The teacher sighs, and decides that he’s going out to the local bar. There he takes a seat and nods at the barman, who also spots that he’s in a bad temper. He asks him what’s wrong, and the teacher tells him the story.

The barman shrugs. “I was never any good at school,” he says, “and I was always in trouble. Give Felix a break. Maybe he really didn’t do it.”

Our friend the teacher is now really forlorn, and he sits drinking his beer slowly. But when the barman goes to the lavatory, a couple of nondescript men who’ve been sitting quietly in the corner come up to him.

“Good evening,” one of them says conspiratorially, “we’re from the Stasi.”

The teacher starts to sweat. “No no,” one of them says, “don’t worry. We’re going to help you.” The other nods. “We’ll find out who wrote the Communist Manifesto. Don’t you worry.”

The teacher slumps, his head in his hands, appalled at what the world, or at least the GDR, is coming to.

A few days later, on Friday night, he’s back at the bar with a couple of colleagues. He has almost forgotten the whole affair, when one of the Stasi men comes up to him and slaps him on the back.

“Hey,” he said, “you look like you’ve cheered up! And I have good news for you!”

Oh? says the teacher.

“Yeah, it turns out Felix was telling the truth after all! He didn’t write the Communist Manifesto! And we found out who did!”

The teacher looks at him. He lowers his voice.

“It wasn’t Felix. Turns out it was his father.

He confessed after three days of interrogation.”

My Favourite Class

(I have, in fourteen years in the classroom, taught exactly one hundred different classes, though if a class which begins in the Fourth Form (or the Lower Sixth) and ends in the Fifth Form (or the Upper Sixth) counts as just one class then the number is seventy-seven.

Classes do take on their own character. Many independent school teachers will tell you how irritating it is when classicists attain high academic office, because they’re used to tiny Latin & Greek classes and don’t quite understand how much more work a proper class is. But I wouldn’t swap with them. The smallest class I taught was an Upper Sixth class containing four boys. I got to know them well: an intellectual, a mouthy debater, a trier, and a traditional public-school jock. It was easy. But if one of them was missing the dynamic wasn’t there. I can’t put my finger on why: debate was harder, questions were fewer, and there’s something intangibly odd about delivering a traditional lesson to just three boys sitting in a row.

I haven’t liked every class I’ve taught. In my first year I had two difficult classes and struggled with discipline. At the country boarding school where I spent a couple of years I had a bottom-set Third Form class, with pupils of significantly lower ability than those I’d taught before, and it took me longer than it should have to pitch the level right. So although I got on well with the class on a personal level I dreaded teaching them, because I knew I was doing it badly. A few years ago I had a Politics set which I’d loved teaching in the Lower Sixth. Many of them were political animals, and they were keen and argumentative and a lot of fun. As a collective they got very good AS results. But two of the cleverest didn’t do as well as they’d expected. (We’re not talking catastrophe, but they’d hoped for the sort of results which would have impressed Cambridge admissions tutors and they didn’t get them.) In the Upper Sixth these two were a sullenly malignant presence in class and by the summer we were all relieved to see the back of each other.

Most classes, though, I’ve got on with fairly well. I’ll always have a soft spot for the Upper Sixth class, in the very august public school where I started teaching, to whom I taught Oliver Cromwell, and for the class to whom, a couple of years later, in another school, I taught King John, which is a topic just made for sixth-form study. There was a Fifth Form class at the country boarding school, which had a few boys and the under-sixteen ‘B’ girls’ hockey team, all of whom were also in the same boarding house; in history as in hockey what they lacked in natural ability they compensated for with enthusiasm. (The Director of Sport used to put them on the school’s only grass hockey pitch on the basis that it might drag the opposition down to their level. It didn’t work: they won one match all season.) Their tutor was also a history teacher, and she and I would sometimes watch them play on a Saturday afternoon: being hockey-playing historians together became part of their collective identity, which was nice.

And there was Bad Fifth Form. Having struggled a little with behaviour management in my first school I was determined to be tough at my second. A fellow history teacher, who had joined the school at the same time, but who had come from the sort of girls’ private school which doesn’t have detentions because it’s never needed them, had been taken by surprise at how badly-behaved private school boys could be.

(This, by the way, is one of the sector’s dirty little secrets. At every interview I’ve been to someone, usually the sort of Grand Pooh-Bah who has been at the school for thirty years, and who on interview day is often to be found escorting candidates on their tour around the place, has told me that their establishment has no discipline problems. I have never found this to be true. I’m not suggesting that private schools are really just like Waterloo Road, and I imagine teachers in tough comprehensives rolling their eyes at my presumption, but then you might be surprised at some of the things which I’ve known pupils to have got away with; and the actual impact of disruption on learning can be mitigated by extra catch-up sessions and private tutoring.)

Anyway. By the end of our first year my colleague wanted to get rid of her Fourth Form class, which contained all of that year group’s detention regulars, and our head of department, who taught in the adjacent classroom and so was well aware of the difficulties she’d had with them, agreed.

No, of course he didn’t take them on himself. Don’t be silly. He allocated them to me. And don’t go kidding yourself that this was because the timetable only worked that way: the shuffling that this reallocation involved meant that I had to pick up another Fourth Form class. This set, which contained all of that year group’s meekest and quietest boys, had been taught by a popular and respected man, and they weren’t happy about losing him.

So I had a Good Fifth Form, which would never give me any trouble, but which always resented me for not being their favourite teacher. And I had a Bad Fifth Form. I prepared for battle.

I didn’t tell them that they had a terrible reputation; I didn’t tell them that I’d been given them because they’d been so troublesome. I just let them believe it. My classroom became a military dictatorship. I might blog about everything I did with that class, because I think I did all right with them. But actually a significant part of it, I discovered after a while, was that they really did want the smack of firm government. It was one of those classes which made me feel much better about myself as a teacher. Quite possibly unreasonably. But that’s how I remember it.

But my favourite class was a Lower Sixth set. I’d managed to persuade the Head of History to let me teach the Norman Conquest, and this was a class of pupils who’d not just opted to do History, but who’d opted for this instead of the twentieth-century dictators course. I was predisposed to like them.

I knew they were special when, in a lesson on the exile of Ælfgar (that’s the son of Lady Godiva, by the way) in 1055 they quickly appreciated how the different versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s accounts of the witenagemot meeting where it happened might be reconciled. I knew I’d fallen for them when a couple of the boys went on a long cycling trip and told me excitedly that they’d taken a detour to Waltham Abbey to pay their respects to Harold Godwinson. One of the girls is now a history teacher herself, which makes me … well, I only taught her for a year, so it seems appallingly presumptuous to say that I’m proud of her. But it makes me happy. Another is doing a PhD in History. Another wanted to run a vegan cafe on the south coast when he was seventeen; he’s not doing that yet, but he’s a support worker for a charity, and because he was always the sort of idealist who actually likes people I’ve no doubt he’s helping to make the world a better place. They were special and I miss them.

One morning, in March, one of them told me I was looking a bit tired. Not quite true: I’d just been dumped, by the woman I thought was going to be my wife, half an hour before the lesson started. I was feeling very sorry for myself indeed. And that’s what I told him, as the rest of the class filed in, at least the part about feeling sorry for myself: I wasn’t going to say why, but I’d really appreciate them being on good form that lesson, because I needed a good cheering up.

And sure enough they did turn it on that morning. You’ve never seen a class keener on arguing with each other, and with me, about the Salisbury Oath. And after forty-five minutes of setting each other straight on the nature of the Norman regime, when we were done, I puffed out my cheeks and raised my eyebrows. “You’re all intolerable apologists for the worst sort of tyranny,” I told them, and they laughed; and as they were shuffling their stuff to depart one of the class, a wannabe wide boy who’d played in my football team the previous year, grinned at me and said “so do you feel better now then sir?”

Teaching can restore the soul.

It’s Not Funny

The Times Education Supplement reckons that pupils want teachers to be funny. It’s the number one quality. These findings are being given elaborate respect, but given that ‘good at explaining’ is ranked twenty-third by the primary-school respondents and twenty-fourth by the secondary-school respondents out of the twenty-five characteristics supplied to them, I’m afraid I’m disinclined to take this survey seriously. Either the survey was flawed, or – more likely – children don’t think that teachers being able to explain things to them is important.

I find the latter easy to believe, but I don’t find it easy to believe that any but the most progressive of teachers actually agree with them. Surely ‘discovery learning’ demands some very good explanation at the beginning of each self-directed task? Anyone who has set project work, or set up a drill on the sports field, or even just read out a complicated email sent to tutors for the attention of their form, will know how easily pupils will misinterpret what seemed to be fairly simple instructions.

So what do we say about this? Well, I suppose a few teachers, those who truly believe that learning should only happen when the learner spontaneously decides that it’s time to learn that particular topic – sorry, skill – will hail these results. Teacher explanation doesn’t matter. Being a helpful, supportive ‘good listener’ does.

Now as it happens I think that being a good listener is really important in a teacher. But a teacher doesn’t have to be a ‘good listener’ that is meant in all those dreadful columns about how to improve your interpersonal skills. (Much of the time I think this sort of thing does harm: up and down the country there are teachers listening carefully to pupils complaining about how unfair and unreasonable their colleagues are, thereby doing exactly what a certain type of ‘good listener’ does – which is what a good colleague doesn’t do – in validating the speaker, making him feel that he has been heard, and that his interlocutor is on his side.) But that’s not the sort of good listener I’m talking about: I’m talking about the sort of good listener who can ask a couple of questions of a pupil, and from the often vague answers understand his misconceptions.

As for the substance of ‘funny’ … well. Like everyone I think I have a good sense of humour. But if my pupils want a stand-up comedian they’re going to be disappointed. I’m not one, and they can find plenty of them on YouTube, where they aren’t constrained by the requirement to stick to appropriate topics & language. I can’t compete with that. So I shouldn’t try. Haven’t we seen all this before, with the desperate arms race over ‘engagement’? I really hope we aren’t going to see consultants offering INSET sessions on ‘how to be funny.’

Pupils like teachers to be funny? I’m sure they do. They also like teachers to let them out of lessons five minutes early so that they’re first in the queue at the tuck shop. They like (some of) their teachers to wear revealing outfits, and even the most progressive of heads are unlikely to be on Twitter telling attractive young women that they ought to dress like Muscovite streetwalkers because that’s what the kids want. They might want it. They can’t have it. Tough. They’ll live.

Another School Trip

I don’t have many good school trip stories. In fact I just have two. Like this one, it happened on our annual trip to the battlefields, cemeteries and museums of the Great War.

It had been a surprisingly efficient day, and so we had booked into the Flemish hotel an hour or two before we were due to be fed. Forty or so boys were duly dispatched to their rooms and told to relax, settle in, and meet us for dinner at the appointed time.

We, the staff, did likewise, and then went ‘on patrol’ around the rooms to check that our pupils were behaving themselves. Most of them were wise enough to shut their doors so that we would have to knock on them, thereby giving themselves time to hide any evidence of misdemeanours before we entered the crime scene.

But one group, consisting of some of the leading members of that year group’s rugby team, was not quite bright enough to manage that. Not only had they not shut their door properly, but they were also on what passed for a balcony (hey, when private schools go on trips, they don’t stay just anywhere), and so they did not hear my perfunctory knock.

This meant that they did not have time to conceal the pristine packet of cigarettes which was lying on the only table in the room, a pack of twenty which now contained sixteen.

I picked up the packet. “Okay,” I asked wearily, “who’s taking responsibility for this?”

I’d like you to imagine the sort of shuffling and exchanged looks which would happen were this scene to be enacted on stage, because that’s how I remember it.

“Well sir. We were out on the balcony, and looked down, and we saw this packet, and we thought oh, that’s interesting, it looks brand new, I wonder what it is? So we went down and picked it up, and saw what it was, and we were just talking about whether we should hand it in to you or to the hotel reception.”

I see. That really is quite some story.

(This provoked the confected outrage with which every teacher who hasn’t quite caught a miscreant in the act of breaking the rules will be familiar.)

So you’re taking collective responsibility for this, are you? Are any of you admitting to having smoked one of these cigarettes?

Of course not.

Even though there are four of you and four cigarettes are missing from this brand new pack? That’s a remarkable coincidence.

They shrugged their agreement that this was indeed a remarkable coincidence.

Okay, I said. I’m new to this school (I’d only been there six weeks) so I don’t quite know what the procedure is now: I’m going to have a chat to your Head of Year (because he, despite being a Maths teacher, was on the trip) and the Head of History (who was also, tidily, the trip leader) and see what they want to do.

Off I went, and told these colleagues of mine what had happened. ‘It’s a preposterous story,’ I told them, ‘but then it’s clearly a Belgian – or French – packet. So how did they get it? We haven’t been to a shop all day. If they’d brought it from England it’d have English writing on it. So maybe they’re telling the truth?’

No, smiled the Head of History, there’s a little corner shop just down the road. They’ll have sneaked out and bought it there.

Well, said the Head of Year, let’s go and ask the shopkeeper about it. It can only have been an hour ago. He’ll remember.

How’s your Dutch, Head of Year?

Ah, it’s okay, he said, I can speak Afrikaans. (The Head of Year is South African. He believes in discipline. He’s not going to let this one go with a shrug. I loved working for him.) We’ll understand each other.

So off we go to the corner shop, where the Head of Year addresses the man behind the counter in Afrikaans, which is I suppose the equivalent of strolling into a Savile Row tailor and speaking to the assistant in a thick Glaswegian accent.

Now Afrikaans is just a version of Dutch, and Dutch is just a version of German, so I was hoping to follow what was going on. But after a brief exchange the Belgian twigged that we spoke English, and so he did so too.

Now, asked the Head of Year, did you sell this packet of cigarettes to a group of boys about half an hour ago?

Not to a group, he said. To one boy.

Right. What did he look like?

He gives us an unmistakable description of one of the Gang of Four.

Okay thanks, says the Head of Year. But I’m a bit disappointed that you sold it to him: couldn’t you see he was under age?

Certainly not, came back the affronted reply. He wasn’t under age. I know, because I asked him for identification, and he showed me his driving licence.

Oh really?

Yes. I’d never sell vodka to someone who looked underage!

(We repaired quickly to the hotel and, you’ll be relieved to learn, located the vodka, which fortunately hadn’t yet been opened.)

Political Bias

A piece of historical writing which made quite an impression on me is the introduction to AJ Youngson’s The Prince and the Pretender. Youngson’s book on the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 is actually two accounts from two perspectives, one Jacobite and the other Hanoverian. It is an extended illustration of how reasonable historians can justifiably reach very different conclusions about the past without ‘cheating’ – that is, without disregarding material which any fair-minded person would expect to see given due consideration. The last point Youngson makes in his introduction, which explains all the ways in which this can happen, concerns the use of language:

Finally, it should be noticed how far the choice of words, even the use of a single word, will do the trick. The Earl of Nithsdale and Viscount Kenmure joined Charles at Edinburgh in October, but, after surveying the scene, returned to their homes on the following day and had nothing further to do with the ’45. In the words of one historian [Andrew Lang, since you ask], they went soberly back and ‘skulked.’ This does not sound like good behaviour. But he might have said that they went soberly back and kept themselves and their followers quietly at home; or out of harm’s way; or – if this had been his attitude – free from entanglement in a rebellion of irresponsible folly.

This strikes me as being correct and therefore of having some profound implications. It certainly changed my thinking. Before reading The Prince and the Pretender I had taken the view that the historian really ought to strive for as objective a position as possible. But Youngson persuaded me not just that this would be very difficult, but that if it were indeed practically possible to purge a piece of historical writing of any language which gave any hint of partiality it would likely be tediously unreadable.

I don’t think the parallels with the classroom are perfect here. I do think that teachers should try to present both sides of every argument to our pupils. And I think it’s easier to do that in a classroom than it is on paper, because pupils will have their own views and be ready to argue. I’m very much a sage on the stage in my classroom, but when it comes to considering controversial issues I’ve found the best way is to actually have the argument.

(For what it’s worth, when I have a politically tricky question I try to do the following. Let’s say the issue is whether Richard II brought his troubles on himself. I’ll set a piece of reading in advance of the lesson. And then I’ll pick on a pupil and say ‘right then, Not Quite Random Pupil – you’ve read about the last two decades of the fourteenth century: did Richard II bring his troubles on himself?’ The pupil will answer. Probably not directly, so I’ll ask for a direct yes or no. When I get a yes or no, I’ll ask if anyone else in the class agrees. Then, together, we’ll set out that case on the board. Several points, all developed. And then I’ll ask someone who didn’t put a hand up and say right, let’s knock this utter rubbish down. Down the rest of the class will knock it, before setting out the alternative interpretation. Those lessons are fun.)

Funnily enough I’ve found Politics lends itself much less to insidious bias than History. I’ve only taught Politics to classes sitting public examinations; the relevant specifications involve different perspectives on every topic; and all require candidates to understand both sides of the debate. I suppose a particularly irresponsible teacher might disregard these considerations, but I think my own experience is probably more representative – I’ve found that teaching arguments which I don’t agree with year after year has actually caused me to lose a great deal of confidence in what were my political views. When my pupils ask me what I think, and I tell them ‘I can see both sides,’ I’m not always being disingenuous. (I have, for instance, become a reluctant convert to the cause of monarchism, at least in so far as I think it’s probably not a good idea to abolish the monarchy as part of a constitutional reform. I continue to loathe the ritual genuflection towards the Queen, and I expect it’s a good thing that I’m not going to be in a classroom on the day when she finally dies, but I’ve spent so long putting the traditional conservative case for preserving the current constitutional arrangements that I’ve convinced myself.)

So look – I think I do my best to be impartial. I think most of my colleagues do. Where pupils emerge with a skewed perspective, I blame the curriculum as much as teachers.  Even so, I think it’s fair enough to say that while we are not actively trying to indoctrinate our pupils with liberal left-wing views, the predominance of liberal left-wingers in education probably has an effect.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask some conservative teachers.

No, you don’t get to shrug and say that of course they’d say that. This is exactly what the left is talking about when it talks about privilege – you only notice it if you don’t have it, and you don’t get to dismiss the perspectives of those who are marginalised just because their experience is different to yours: actually they’re more likely to know the truth. If you’re going to say that the test of whether an incident is fuelled by prejudice is whether those on the receiving end perceive it as such, then you must accept that there is prejudice against conservatives and/or conservatism.

Are schools a ‘hostile environment’ for such people and their views? I don’t know. I have always worked in the private sector, which attracts – as some (though not all) of the higher-profile free schools seem to – a more conservative workforce. In my first school I had tremendous fun when a group of sixth-formers were taught Politics by me and Economics by an acolyte of the Friedmans: it wasn’t long before he and I were discussing the merits of different economic policies ‘through’ the pupils we taught, who were equally delighted to tell me that Mr Thomas would disagree with what I’d just said, and to be told to remind Mr Thomas about something or other when next he said something quite so controversial. This is the sort of thing which feels like it might be difficult to get right, but the pupils knew that he and I were on good terms, and that our disagreements did not mean that we disliked each other, and so I’m inclined to think that it was good for them.

I have intellectual respect for conservatism. I hugely admire Burke and Chesterton and Bastiat and Hayek. I have a very soft spot for Nozick. But it’s not my tribe. I don’t feel it the way conservatives do. I think I can explain conservative ideas adequately to pupils. There are conservative values which I want to see propagated in schools: individual responsibility, for instance, and respect for tradition.

But if I was a Tory, I wouldn’t trust me. I’d suspect that I didn’t really ‘get’ conservatism. I’d expect that at some point I’d say, when a pupil asked me exactly what ‘family values’ are, or why conservatives think that patriotism is a virtue, that I’d go through the motions of explaining what Scruton has to say about these matters, but there would be important elements that I’d miss; and, perhaps more importantly, I’d probably suggest that these aren’t really worthy of being held in great intellectual regard.

(This is my third long passage in parenthesis, I know, but bear with me. Here’s an example. There is often cause, when teaching Politics, to refer to Tony Blair’s flirtation with joining the Euro. I do so every year when teaching the constitution and constitutional reform. Now as we know he never actually put it to the referendum which had been promised in the Labour manifesto of 1997, but when it looked like he might he gave an interview to the Sun in which he said ‘I know how the British people feel when they see the Queen’s head on a £10 note. I feel it too.’ I tell classes this because it’s clearly the sort of thing a Prime Minister would say if trying to establish his own patriotic bona fides before launching a campaign; but I usually then identify one of the more outspoken Tories in the room and ask him if he feels all warm and fuzzy and patriotic when he sees the Queen’s head on a £10 note.

Now I think I’m mocking the interview. But I’m doing so on the assumption that actually people don’t feel anything when they see the Queen’s head on a £10 note. Maybe they do. I have a feeling I might be wrong about this. But then it’d be equally wrong of me to say ‘and Tories really do get a lovely frisson of excitement when they see the Queen’s head on a £10 note,’ wouldn’t it?

Oh, and why do I have a soft spot for Nozick? Well. Apparently he said that he’d support a one-off redistribution of property rights, on the basis that although he strongly supported the freest of markets in Anarchy, State & Utopia he was well aware that most of the property of the rich had very much not been purely accumulated as a consequence of people’s individual choices. This seemed, and seems, to me, to be intellectual honesty, and a demonstration that his views are not a convenience for keeping property and power where it is. I don’t have a feel for what conservatives think of it, but I doubt they agree with me. Even when we’re trying our best to empathise, we won’t get it right: perhaps it’d be better for the arguments to be put by those who truly believe in them.)

I don’t think that schools having more Tory teachers would fix all these problems, of course not. But I do very much want pupils to have a good understanding of what conservatism and conservative values are. And I do think that all other things being equal the best people to deliver that are conservatives.

But you know what? This is increasingly something which conservatives themselves can and should address. Right now schools are having trouble recruiting and retaining staff. My own employer, a venerable HMC establishment, is now struggling to find any applicants for some jobs. I know Tory teachers won’t always find it easy. There will be prejudice and, in some cases, discrimination.

But you can handle it. Don’t blame ‘society’. There is no such thing. There are individual men and women. They can choose to go into teaching. They should. Their country needs them. This wet pinko unpatriotic liberal extends an invitation. Join us. Please.

Absolutism & Direct Instruction

When I teach the French Revolution, I teach about the ancien regime. Of course I do.

I spend some time on the criticisms which contemporaries made of it.

I also spend some time explaining that actually the ancien regime has its defenders. I refer to François Furet, one of French history’s greatest heavyweights. And I go off on the following tangent.

Furet says that actually absolutism wasn’t all that absolute, and that ancien regime France did have a proto-constitution, including certain elements like the Catholic faith of the monarch and the inalienability of the royal demesne.

When I say this to pupils, even Sixth Form pupils, of course I get blank faces, so I’ll tell ’em about Henri IV and Paris being worth a Mass; I’ll also tell ’em about François Ier getting himself captured at Pavia, having crown lands sold off to pay his ransom, and then taking them back on the basis that the droit fondamentales of France meant that the original sale was illegal.

This usually raises a smile.

I think that these vignettes are important. I think they help to characterise ancien regime France.

Now look. I don’t think I’m special in this. I think there are History teachers everywhere doing things like this every day.

And I don’t think that I’m a teacher of such tremendous ability that my own ramblings will be better than a scripted Direct Instruction lesson.

But nonetheless when I read that John Hattie has assigned a nice high Effect Size number to Direct Instruction I find it dispiriting. I appreciate that lots of very clever people think that these numbers are very meaningful. I appreciate that just because I don’t like the implications it doesn’t mean that one day someone won’t develop a Direct Instruction course for History which will improve ‘measurable outcomes.’

But it’ll upset me. Because I have a suspicion that the people devising such a programme will decide that such digressions are an unnecessary distraction, and won’t include them in their scripts. And I have a suspicion that even if they weren’t, it would be impossible to include all the little ways in which history teachers everywhere enrich their lessons like this.

And I fear that if this is the future, it will damage the soul of History in our schools.

Maybe you think this is just my way of saying ‘I don’t want to teach like this.’ And maybe it is. Still. I worry.

 

AN EDITING UPDATE.

It has been brought to my attention (thanks, Mr Blatchford) that although the famous effect sizes refer to direct instruction, they don’t refer to Engleman’s Direct Instruction, the scripted lessons which I’m referring to here. I am therefore wrong on this point. But rather than pretend that this was never wrong I’ll leave my initial wrongness here. I should not have referred to Hattie’s effect sizes. Oops.

Answering Questions

A few years ago, I was interviewed for a Head of History job.

I didn’t really want to be a head of department. It’s a job I’ve done before, so I know whereof I speak when I say that it’s a position of responsibility without power. Years of organising internal examinations, and filling in the endless reams of paperwork required for the coursework elements of public examinations, didn’t appeal to me. Attending more meetings, and having to write agendas and minutes? Book scrutinies? Arranging for all the extra sessions which are now expected? Not for me.

I’d have tolerated all of it to do what I thought needed doing. Ours was one of those History departments which, partly in pursuit of public examination results, and partly because of the preferences of its senior members, offered a dismally narrow curriculum. There was a great deal about Hitler, and a fair amount about the nineteenth century, and from the age of thirteen a pupil would never be taught anything that happened before then. Along with a couple of other members of the department I thought this was a bad thing, and I said so.

I was the internal candidate, but the job was advertised externally, so I knew the Head didn’t fancy me for it. No doubt he wanted someone who relished all elements of the job, not someone who’d tolerate the grim bits; and perhaps he approved of pupils studying the Third Reich at Key Stages Three, Four and Five.

In a way, this made it easy for me. I’m not really a believer in ‘interview technique,’ at least not for me, not any more. As a young man I was sometimes taken by surprise by a question, and although I’m not saying that this definitely wouldn’t happen to me now (I was once asked, by an immensely likeable English-teaching Deputy Head, whether I agreed with him that poetry told the truth in a way that history didn’t, and I’d be no readier for a question like that today than I was a decade ago: that, though, I suspect, was the whole point of it) I don’t think there are many things that an interviewer could ask me that I hadn’t thought about.

Ah, but what about thinking about the answer that’ll get you the job?

No, I’m not playing that game. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never been desperate to leave a job. And so I’ve always been able to say ‘here are my answers, Head Master: if you like them, then appoint me, and if you don’t then don’t.’

When he asked me if I thought that what would happen in the history classroom of the future would be different to the history classroom of the day, I knew what he wanted to hear. I’ve been present, after all, when he has said to new and prospective parents that their sons will be doing jobs which don’t yet exist. But I didn’t tell him that I thought flipped learning was the way forward. Because I don’t think it is.

And when he asked me how I would measure my performance as a head of department, I didn’t mention public examination results. I told him that I’d consider it a success if more history books were taken out of the library and read. I told him that I’d consider it a success if attendance at History Society events with guest speakers no longer needed to be compulsory. And I told him that I’d consider it a success if, years in the future, some of our pupils became history teachers themselves.

I didn’t get the job. But those are still my answers.

The Name of the Game

There are three ways to run an education system.

One is for the Treasury to hand out a pot of money to each school and leave them to get on with it. This has several advantages, but it is now politically impossible.

Another is for the State to withdraw altogether and to let the free market run its course. This also has several advantages, but it is equally politically impossible.

So we’re left with the mess we have now. The Treasury hands out pots of money to schools (or, in some cases, local education authorities, or multi-academy trusts); the schools are then accountable to Ofsted inspectors. There is some attempt at harnessing market forces: parents do get to express a preference as to which school their children attend. And, to inform both Ofsted inspectors and parents, examination results are published.

This phenomenon isn’t going away. It may even be that it is the least worst option of the three. Its capacity for catastrophic failure is, overall, significantly lower than that of the other three options, though no doubt it doesn’t feel like that to teachers who have the misfortune of seeing their classes do badly in high-stakes tests while not being in favour at the Court of their own Head Teacher.

But let’s not kid ourselves please. The whole business of measuring schools’ and teachers’ performances by the standards achieved by their pupils in those high-stakes tests has a fundamental flaw at the heart of it. You’re probably familiar with Goodhart’s Law: that once a measure becomes a target, it becomes useless as a measure. Of course you are. I’ve blogged already about how misleading using pupil results to measure teacher performance is, and I won’t dwell on that again.

Edutwitter, or at least some parts of it, have been appalled by some of the marking policies applied to this year’s SATs. Pupils have been marked down for correctly-used but aesthetically-unconventional commas and semi-colons which were nonetheless quite clearly commas and semi-colons. Undoubtedly the next Year Six cohort will be subjected to extra practice at producing artistically unimpeachable versions of these punctuation marks. And why not? Well, because of opportunity cost. The pupils whose work was shown all over Twitter clearly understood the proper functions of commas and semi-colons and what they look like. Their time would be better spent moving on to other things. Now they won’t be. I am inclined to think that this is a bad thing.

A minor point? Maybe. So let’s press on. Reports that Year Six children in one primary school would be devoting Maths and English lessons after Christmas to cramming for SATS were greeted with widespread dismay. (It was not universal: some observed that the act of reviewing material already learned was well worth doing, and would help those children learn that material properly. I have some sympathy for this argument, but I’ve run enough ‘revision sessions’ to know that a great deal of preparing for exams involves not careful factual revision but tedious drilling of ‘exam technique.’) Much of it was directed at the school. And I agree: of course a primary school shouldn’t do this.

This reminds me, by the way, of my niece. She’s a moderately bright girl. Lives in Kent (or did, before she went away to go to university. So the story has a happy ending. She failed the 11+ but was in the top set at her secondary modern. Her time in that secondary school coincided with modular GCSEs, and so she was entered for some Maths and English exams at the end of Year Nine, and some more after just one term in Year Ten.

Now I suppose I don’t mind pupils being entered ‘early’ for public examinations, if they’re ready. But that wasn’t what happened here. She squeaked C grades in English and Maths. Not dreadful results: rather good results, in fact, for a grammar school reject taking exams two years early. But this wasn’t done in her interest. If anything she was disadvantaged by the school’s policy: leaving Year Eleven with B or even A grades in those subjects would probably have served her better. But she got those crucial C grades, and the school could therefore stop teaching her English and Maths, allow her to focus on getting the grades in other subjects, and allow the teachers to focus on transforming those C/D borderline pupils into solid C students. Do I blame the school for putting its own interests above those of its pupils? Of course I do.

At the other end of the educational spectrum – but not, as it happens, too many miles away geographically – I am reminded of something which happened around the same time. I spent two years teaching at a country boarding school which selected only by parental income. We often admitted pupils who had failed to gain admission to the very academic school down the road, or indeed who had been told by the up-and-coming Head Master that their particular talents would be better served by a school like ours than at a school like his.

Imagine my surprise when (after I had left, as it happened) the ‘English Baccalaureate’ results were published. This school is well towards the very top of the national independent schools league tables. And yet a greater percentage of pupils in the country boarding school left with an ‘Ebacc’ than of those who’d attended the academic powerhouse. Why? Because to secure that school’s league table position, a pupil who wasn’t going to get an A* grade in (say) French would be withdrawn from the subject. (It was usually a modern language, as studying them to the end of Key Stage Four is not compulsory.) I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to think that a school which shrugs and tells its pupils not to bother learning French any more because they’re not likely to get an A* in the GCSE is doing its pupils a dismal disservice.

Note I’m not talking here about schools which ‘teach to the test.’ I’m not talking about public examinations in some subjects (my own, History, is vulnerable to this, but it’s far from alone) which reward the gabbling of certain examiner-approved approaches to essay questions, and the way that teachers sacrifice the subject on the altar of the exam. I’m not talking about this because it could be argued – I wouldn’t necessarily agree, but it could be argued – that this is just what teachers have to, ought to and usually want to do, to help their pupils get the very best grades they can. No, I’m talking about those areas where the interests of pupils and the interests of schools diverge, and where that is caused by the phenomenon of high-stakes testing.

I will, though, observe that this environment has led to lots of teachers being caught cheating. This is one explanation. Here’s another. Some (in the US) have even been sent to prison.

Are all these incidents examples of reprehensible conduct by schools and teachers? Sure. Of course teachers and schools shouldn’t cheat.

But in the current circumstances they’re going to. Set up a system like this and it will only encourage it. It might make you feel better to denounce the teachers and the schools concerned, but with careers depending on results it’s going to happen.

Look, I don’t have an answer to this. Maybe there isn’t one: just because there’s a problem doesn’t mean there’s a solution. I’m just getting a little tired of hearing about how important accountability is, and how indefensible people who respond to the perverse incentives which it creates are. It might be the best system we’ve got at the moment, but let’s not pretend that it doesn’t have very significant flaws.