Mentioning the War

Last September, a Second World War bomb was discovered in Frankfurt. This happens a lot in Germany: the RAF and the USAF dropped a great number of bombs during the war, and a few of them landed without blowing up: they have to be detonated, and while that happens people have to be evacuated from the surrounding areas, which – as you can imagine – is a bit of an irritation. This one was a particularly large one, and was bang in the middle (sorry…) of a densely-populated area, so it was particularly irksome.

A couple of days after this bomb’s discovery, and a couple of days before its scheduled detonation, I found myself in my rugby club’s changing room after training, and the banter began. (Like every good Englishman, I have assiduously not mentioned the war, but on this occasion it was not an easy topic to avoid.) It was just the sort of light-hearted joshing which you might expect: it involved comments about the inability of English engineers to design bombs that would go off on time, for instance. And I replied in a similar tone, and everyone was happy.

Except that everyone was very far from happy. The lads I was talking to about this were youngsters: eighteen or nineteen years old. But as this went on, I could feel the older men, those in their late thirties, getting a little awkward, and eventually one of them broke in.

All right, he said, this is all very well, and yes, of course you can have your fun. But don’t forget. The carpet bombing of Frankfurt, and other German cities, was essential. It had to happen. National Socialism had to be crushed, and that was the only way to do it.

There followed a discussion about the morality of area bombing, a discussion in which Generation X took the Arthur Harris line, while the Millennials were rather more critical. (Those who have stereotyped ideas about rugby footballers may be surprised at this conversation taking place in a dressing room. I invite such people to check their prejudices…)

Anyway. It’s an interesting little vignette, I think. We sometimes think of Germans as having war guilt drilled into them, and Mrs Grumpy confirms that this was very much the case when she was at secondary school in the early Nineties. But this phenomenon may well be passing into history itself.

Perhaps someone has already written a PhD about the changing approaches to the Third Reich in the secondary schools of the Federal Republic. If so, I expect someone else will be able to write another one in a few years. Part of the soixante-huitard case in Germany was that the older generation had never reckoned with their culpability for German crimes, and it’s easy to forget that the excessive introspection which has become its own stereotype among Germans did not start immediately after the war. Fritz Fischer, after all, made himself extremely unpopular in the Sixties by suggesting that Germany really needed some rigorous self-criticism; and some of the output of his intellectual opponents during the Historikerstreit of the Eighties sounds, in retrospect, like the sort of thing which we would today associate with the AfD.

I’m inclined to think that this is a healthy development. It’s one of the characteristics of postwar Germany that only those who bore no personal guilt were willing to acknowledge their country’s culpability: witness Willy Brandt, for instance, a man with an impeccable record opposing Nazism, outraging some sections of conservative opinion by falling to his knees in Warsaw. It’s a generational thing: the children and the grandchildren of the perpetrators feel bad, at least on a political level, in a way that the actual villains never did. Their great-grandchildren don’t. Of course they don’t.

But this is also why German politics more closely resembles that of the rest of Europe, with between 10% and 15% of the electorate now voting for the AfD There is a visceral reaction by Germans born between 1949 and 1989 against a politician saying that they should be proud of the Wehrmacht which the younger generation does not have. Such comments probably don’t particularly appeal to teenagers and young adults, but they aren’t actively repellent any more.

I don’t have a thesis. Just pontificating. Have a good day!


The Pyramid

One of the things that used to really irritate me about science lessons at school was when teachers would say “this isn’t strictly speaking true, and you’ll find out why when you’re in the sixth form, but for now, learn it.” Occasionally I say this to classes, and there is a murmur of agreement, so clearly teachers are still saying this to pupils, and clearly at least some of them are irked by it.

Now look. I’m not a scientist, and I’m well aware that reading a few Richard Dawkins books (for the record, I prefer his earlier work) and some Isaac Asimov short stories doesn’t make me one. I am willing to accept that science teachers might prefer that they didn’t have to do this, and that science is very complicated indeed, and that it isn’t possible to explain the entirety of mankind’s understanding of the structure of the atom to fifteen-year-olds in one week.

I’ve done it while teaching English to Germans. They stumble across a phrase which uses a complicated tense form … what are you going to do, stop right there and teach the future perfect to someone just learning the future? Of course not. A student might not like it if I say that he has to master the future before we talk about the future perfect, but there’s no point in dwelling on it, because until he can say ‘tomorrow I will send that email’ he won’t be able to say ‘by the end of tomorrow I will have sent that email.’

I even accept that not telling pupils ‘actually this is a fib’ is just too unsatisfactory, even though I suspect I – and many other pupils across the generations – would really rather have gone through life believing that an atom really does have electrons orbiting it in a 2-8-8-2 formation. We think we’d rather be Socrates, but secretly there’s a part of all of us which would rather be the happy pig.

Why do I say this in class? Well, it’s usually followed by something along these lines. “You know how irritating that was? [murmurs of agreement] I thought so. That’s why I’m not going to dumb this down for you. So pay attention, because this is complicated…”

I expect that some would disapprove of this. Usually the first time I say it is when teaching the British constitution. The textbooks invariably say that the Common Law is ‘judge-made’ law. But so, I’m afraid, do official Pearson-Edexcel-issue stimulus-material questions, and mark schemes sometimes indicate that “Common Law is law which judges make when they issue judgments and thereby set precedents,” or similar guff.

So ‘Common Law is judge-made law’ is all that a pupil needs to know. The trouble is that it isn’t actually true. In fact it’s very misleading, suggesting as it does that judges just invent the law. And a pupil who does nothing more than learn to gabble out the officially-endorsed version has to be very bright indeed, and to have wondered what exactly that means, and to have gone and researched it, to properly understand the role of the Common Law in shaping the constitution.

What’s a teacher to do? Tell the truth? Or tell a fib, and spend the lesson thereby saved in something which will help someone in the class pick up a mark or two in a public examination? I know what my answer is, but I’m aware that it isn’t the only possible one.

History tends not to lend itself to this sort of thing. Of course there are more shades of meaning when you’re teaching an Upper Sixth class than when you’re teaching a Third Form class. But – in my classroom at least – the building up of nuance would work in exactly the same way. As a wise senior colleague of mine once said, “I teach First Form boys just like little Sixth Formers.” More easily done, I think, in History than in some other subjects.

But even History seems to embrace the dark arts sometimes. One example is with the wretched pyramid.

The pyramid is used to illustrate the feudal system. The king’s at the top; he grants land to his tenants-in-chief (the barons) in return for military service. They then sub-let some of their land to sub-tenants (the knights), again in return for military service. But the knights don’t till the land themselves: they have peasants to do that for them. And when I say ‘they have,’ I really mean it: those peasants are villeins, or serfs, and someone owns them.

Now this is a staple of Key Stage Three history, and it’s almost entirely wrong. And the pyramid really doesn’t help. It’s a cynical little thing, the pyramid. It doesn’t tell outright lies. But it’s suggestive of a simple, hierarchical structure, which is utter cobblers.

First of all, that’s one of the problems with it. Where are the cobblers? Where are the smiths, the cheesemakers, the tanners, the masons, the merchants, the fishermen, the innkeepers? The answer is too complicated for the pyramid. Some were almost entirely outside it: a merchant might have rented a house from a knight, but paid a money rent for it rather than owing any military service. A tanner, on the other hand, might well have derived some of his income from tanner, but also held some of his land from a knight in return either for military service or for money. Serfs weren’t ‘owned’ like slaves, but were ‘tied to the land’ – but some of those cheesemakers were of that status, as were some shepherds – and while some of that work was done as part of their serfdom, sometimes it was done by serfs who were ‘moonlighting’ for people other than their lord.

Theoretically bishops and abbots were part of the pyramid – they were the tenants-in-chief of the king just like barons. But what about priests, or monks? What about the Jews, who (between 1070 and 1290) were under the king’s special protection, whose property was theoretically all the property of the king, and who were theoretically the only people allowed to lend money? Where did they fit in?

That brings me on to something else. If you teach the thirteenth century, or the fifteenth, or the sixteenth, you’ll come across the phrase ‘bastard feudalism.’ It lets you use the word ‘bastard’ in class, which is nice. But it’s also misleading (and this isn’t a function of school history, it’s a term which is used by academics, but they can handle it) because it suggests that once upon a time, Boxing Day 1066 perhaps, when William divided the country into 165 baronies for his henchmen, there was some sort of ‘pure’ feudalism which, over the years, had become corrupted.

Wrong again. By the end of the eleventh century landholding looked nothing like a pyramid. William, wisely, did not set out 165 territorially-contiguous baronies: they would have become too easy to use as bases for possible rebels. Instead those barons were given bits of land all over the place. So of course they started to sub-let inconveniently-located strips of land to each other. Two barons couldn’t owe each other military service, so of course they did it for money.

Plenty of knights held land from more than one baron, which is where the term ‘liege-lord’ originates – “my liege” isn’t just some flash phrase used in historical dramas, it’s a reference to the man from whom you hold the bulk of your land, and whose service you must therefore prioritise when the king demands that his men fulfil their obligations to him.

The thing with military service is that it was a right pain. You’d have to get all your equipment together, and your supplies, and be away from home for ages, and it’d be expensive, and what about the harvest … and it was just much more convenient for everyone to settle these matters with money. Of course it was.

(Though wise kings always made their barons turn out and do military service, and the same is true of barons and their knights. If they didn’t, it stopped being the natural order of things, and if that convention fell into disuse then those barons’ and knights’ sons, who had never had to do military service for their king, didn’t feel like it was something they had to do, even if the whole system was based on their holding their land in return for a promise of military service. Making them do it every summer meant that the question of ‘yeah but do you really need it?’ didn’t arise. I’ve often wondered how this little nugget of wisdom gets passed on to Directors of Sport in independent schools who insist that no one can be spared absurdly overstaffed Games afternoons, but it clearly does.)

England – like the rest of Europe – was of course an overwhelmingly agrarian economy. But it nonetheless allowed entrepreneurial or skilled or industrious or lucky farmers to enrich themselves. When they did, they bought more land – again, sometimes for money – and sometimes they let it to people theoretically above them in the blasted pyramid. Of course some barons, and some knights, were better at managing their fortunes than others, and some barons ended up holding land from some knights.

Oh, and the king didn’t sublet all his land. He kept quite a bit of it in the royal demesne. For some people well below the rank of baron the king was their only feudal lord.

So look – the pyramid is just too misleading. It’s so misleading it’s wrong. So I don’t like it.


Teaching History Backwards

Once upon a time, long long ago, I went to one of those dreadful ‘tips-on-teaching-this-specification’ INSET days. Yes, it was in a nice hotel, so the lunch was good, but most of it was unutterably tedious: a couple of bigwigs who’d devised the dodgy backstreet abortion that was OCR’s Curriculum 2000 History offering talking about how to approach what was misleadingly called the ‘synoptic’ paper.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, this required pupils to study a broad chronological sweep of history, at least a century, and answer questions which covered the whole period. “What,” a question might ask, “caused rebellion in Tudor England?” It was a classic example of an idea which could have made for some really interesting Upper Sixth History, but – of course – didn’t. There were acceptable ways to approach such questions, and unacceptable ways, and finding out which were which was not altogether straightforward: and once a teacher, or a department, hit on a generic essay structure which would yield high marks, that had to be drilled into the Upper Sixth without mercy, because there were so many ways of getting the ‘technique’ of answering the questions on that unit wrong.

(I haven’t taught the new GCSE, but I fear the centuries-long ‘themes’ which now form part of the specification may be vulnerable to a similar phenomenon.)

The only concrete piece of advice I remember from that day was one which I never implemented. It would have been controversial, and although I’m not afraid of controversy I was never convinced (and, never having tried it, I’m still not convinced) that teaching this way would have worked, at least in terms of yielding better results in public examinations. And if I’d tried it while other teachers in the department were not trying it then this might well have created difficulties.

The advice was to teach the period backwards.

Now this very much is the sort of thing that historians do. Why, after all, did “Rebellion & Disorder in Tudor England” became such a thing? It’s a pretty odd thing to teach to sixth-formers who weren’t taught all the Tudor highlights. (I never fielded a question about this from a pupil, because they’re now well aware that the only thing that matters is the examination specification, and that intellectual curiosity beyond it is irrelevant. But I had a number of parents ask me why I was teaching a course on the entire Tudor period which more or less ignored the Break with Rome, Henry VIII and his six knives, and the Spanish Armada.) At least one of the reasons is that the English Civil War didn’t come from nowhere, and – knowing that it was around the corner – we like to look back and see if, in retrospect, there were any signs of it to be discerned.

The advice to teach the period backwards arose from the sort of illiteracy which also inspired advice that detailed knowledge didn’t matter, and that this paper was all about the longue duree, and I don’t, looking back, regret that I didn’t do it. Things happened in the light of other things which had already happened: of course the Northern Earls who rebelled in 1569 were thinking about the Pilgrimage of Grace. RG Collingwood once wrote that young historians often find it hard to appreciate that what is now deep in the past was once far in the future, and school history doesn’t always help with this. Most pupils know that the Weimar Republic ended with Hitler, that ancien regime France ended with the Revolution, that Anglo-Saxon England ended with the Norman Conquest. There is a danger that these periods become seen only as preludes to what was to follow: a danger we all fall into, of course.

(How different would our views of things be were standard courses of study to end at different points in time? A history of Germany which culminated in Stresemann’s death in 1928, handing over an advanced, prosperous, liberal society which had learned from its historical mistakes? A history of France which culminated in the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which marked a decisive strategic and moral victory over the British? Or, indeed, a history of England which culminated in 1064? There’s a fairly respectable – though, I think, wrong – school of thought, championed by Norman Stone, that says that Czarist Russia was actually doing very well indeed on the eve of the Great War, and perhaps you could tell a story of the gradual development of a backward land, culminating in the triumphant tricentenary of 1913? Maybe.)

Whenever you jump into a new period in the past you have to ‘set the scene,’ and doing so several times a term seems daft. So no, I’m not on Team Teach it Backwards. Not for one course.


I do think there might be a case for reversing the whole thing. Everything we do in the History classroom. Ben Newmark observed recently on Twitter that pupils have a far more sophisticated grasp of more recent history because they study it when they’re older. He’s right. So how about this:

Pupils in Year Seven should start by looking at the most recent period of history. They should study the twentieth century. Each year after that should move pupils backwards in time, so that by the time they enter the Sixth Form they’re ready to study the High Middle Ages. Maybe even the reign of Alfred the Great as their specialist subject. (We can leave the ancient world to classicists: EA Freeman didn’t approve, but I rather like this market-sharing arrangement.)

Yes, we’d have to ‘reset’ at the start of every year. Yes, we’d lose the grand narrative. But there would be advantages too. What would they be?


For people – especially children – living in the early twenty-first century, the mindset of people living in the last century is not that different. The child of 2018 can understand the evacuee of 1939 far better than she can understand the eighteenth-century apprentice or the thirteenth-century novice of the same age. The motivations of the Great War volunteer, or Neville Chamberlain, or the striking coal miner, are easier for a younger pupil to understand than the motivations of the crusader, or Praise-God Barebone, or Robert Kett. Getting used to the idea that people in the past were in some ways very similar to us, but in some ways very different to us, is something that is very difficult to get right: but asking an eleven-year-old to really understand Thomas Becket is a bit much. Couldn’t we see if they could understand William Temple and George Bell first?

Yes, of course teachers should approach the issue of ‘benefit of clergy’ in a nuanced way. But there’s a tremendous danger that children emerge from those lessons shaking their heads at how two great friends should have fallen out with each other about something so trivial, and I’m not sure I back myself to persuade all of them that this would be, as EP Thompson once memorably characterised it, to indulge in the enormous condescension of posterity. By contrast, the bombing of Dresden – or, to make it murkier, Hamburg – is the sort of debate which a twelve-year-old can understand the essence of. When they consider that argument, they’re far more likely to be getting the history right. Or at least more right. Societies do become more alien as they are more distant in time, and understanding them does become harder.

Twentieth-century history is also far more prominent outside the classroom. A Year Seven understanding of (say) Communism is a decent enough basis on which to then engage with more nuanced sophisticated history later. The same is not true of a Year Seven understanding of the Crusades. And so arriving later in a child’s school career at earlier periods of history would give them a better understanding of the complexities of the past.

It would also – or at least it might – give them enough of a framework to make further learning easier. Someone who wants to pick up a book about the mediaeval period is essentially starting from nothing, and that’s a difficult position to start from. A Year Ten understanding would open many more intellectual doors. And – because of their relative ubiquity and because they are easier for our minds to understand – it wouldn’t be at the expense of understanding more recent periods.

Yes, I know, with GCSEs this is impossible. Still. This is my blog, and I’m allowed to pontificate.

School Trips: A Defence

A while ago, the Provoked Pedagogue posed an interesting question on Twitter.

Where, s/he asked, do school trips fit into the ‘trad’ agenda? Don’t we believe in children sitting in rows, directly instructing them, and having frequent low-stakes tests? Aren’t we supposed to worry about the opportunity cost of children spending days learning something which could be done in an hour? Does this all get jettisoned when teachers fancy a nice day out?

(I paraphrase. I hope I haven’t been unfair or unreasonable in doing so. Very happy to edit if so.)

Well. I think, as I said on that platform, that this is a rather good point.

And sometimes I agree with it wholeheartedly. I have, for instance, been on school trips with Second Form (yes, I still use imperial measures … I think that’s Year Eight in the metric system) pupils to Hampton Court which involved very little History and a great deal of running through mazes, watching real tennis, enjoying cafes, shopping in gift shops, and sitting on coaches. I’ve been on school trips with First Form pupils to Warwick Castle – described by a colleague as a history theme park – which were similarly lacking in any real historical or educational value.

Was it because we fancied a ‘jolly’? Not really, though educationally the reason was no more justifiable. These trips happened at the end of the summer term, after the conclusion of internal examinations. I just typed out a long rant about these wretched things which I have deleted and to which I will devote another post, but in short the Provoked Pedagogue was right: the justification for these trips was dubious at best.


I have been on some really worthwhile school trips. One of my favourites was taking a day trip, with Lower Sixth pupils from a North London school, to the Tower of London. They were studying the Norman Conquest; right there on the specification was a section on castles; and right there in the same city was a bona fide Norman castle. We had a terrific guide who took us through the Norman keep and then did a couple of classroom sessions, and then we looked at some Norman armour.

But I can imagine the criticism already. Did they really need to take the day off school for it? Couldn’t I deliver the sessions which the Tower of London’s Education Department delivered? Wouldn’t a few slides on a screen showing a Norman castle be good enough? And did we really have to try on Norman helmets? It might have been fun for everyone to watch the young, charismatic, attractive guide offering an eleventh-century helmet to an intellectual, fashionable seventeen-year-old, helping her put it on, and saying ‘I hope that haircut wasn’t too expensive,’ but did it really add to anyone’s understanding of the Norman Conquest? No, I didn’t think so.

What about the trip to the Palace of Westminster, that staple of Politics departments throughout the south-east? Again, a whole day off school, and even if coupled with a trip to the Supreme Court we’re talking about an hour’s tour of the building and, if you’re lucky, half an hour with a Member of Parliament. (If you’re unlucky, twenty minutes with some minion from the MP’s office.) Is it worth it to see the Mother of Parliaments? Can’t this sort of thing be done electronically? Couldn’t I just say to the pupils, in my lesson, ‘actually the House of Commons might look big on television but in reality it’s rather small’? Even when we got to meet our local MP (cynically, you might think, though I couldn’t possibly comment, this only happened in General Election years) and put questions to her, it’s not as though these were questions she wasn’t on the record as having answered. Couldn’t I quite easily have shown a class Hansard transcripts, or clips from BBC Parliament?

Yeah, probably. I don’t feel like I agree, but I’m at a loss to come up with a decent argument.

I’ll try one more. What about the Great War battlefields-and-cemeteries trip to Belgium and northern France? Is that worth doing?

It’s a long time off school. (Actually at my last place it wasn’t: the History Department, scandalously, was not only forbidden to take Fourth Form pupils out of school in order to visit these sites, but was even forbidden to start the trip first thing on the first Saturday morning of half-term, because sports fixtures took priority, so we had to leave on a Sunday morning. No opportunity cost, then. But – much as I love rugger, and I do – I’m inclined to shake my head at the school’s priorities here.) It’s expensive. It involves a lot of travel. The pupils don’t concentrate: they’re more concerned about WiFi, or when they’re going to get to visit a chocolatier, or which girls are ‘fit,’ than about the war dead. Can’t I just tell them what happened?


I could tell them about Lijssenthoek cemetery, sure. I could tell them that there are thousands of graves there. I could point them to the number of young men cut down in the flower of youth. Then I could tell them about how these gravesites came into being, about how right at the beginning of the war officers’ bodies were repatriated, while the others’ weren’t, and how this quickly became unsustainable. I could tell them about how families could choose an inscription for the graves, and the restrictions on that choice. And I could tell them that otherwise each Commonwealth war grave was identical to the others, regardless of the rank of its occupant.

I could tell them that if you then move on to Tyne Cot, which – unlike Lijssenthoek, which was built on the site of an old field hospital – is sited on the battlefield of Passchendaele, you’ll see countless graves with no more information than ‘A Soldier of the Great War,’ on the upper part, and ‘Known Unto God’ underneath. I could tell them what that means about the condition of the bodies found there, and invite them to add that to their knowledge of the Third Battle of Ypres.

Would it be the same?

I don’t know. I don’t feel like it would be the same.

Can’t I just tell them that the first day of the Battle of the Somme was a disaster? (Discuss…) Sure. Was it unwise? Well. Again, discuss … but maybe if you’ve stood in the Allied lines at Beaumont-Hamel, beautifully preserved by the Canadians, and looked down at the German front lines and the Danger Tree, it’s easier to recognise that yes, whatever the merits of the choice of battlefield, there’s a reason why the idiocy of the generals of that particular war became so legendary, even if that image is now recognised to have been somewhat unfair.

Can’t I just tell them that the impact of the Great War encouraged France and the UK to pursue the policy of Appeasement? It doesn’t need a trip, does it? No, it doesn’t … and yet there is something about standing there in the vast French military cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette, watching the intensely moving daily ceremony there, that makes it somehow more understandable, that in the days when each of those graves contained the body of a young man only a little older than the pupils, anything would be preferable to going through that again.

There’s a new memorial there now, with the names of every soldier who died in that area inscribed on it, in alphabetical order, regardless of nationality. And that’s one more thing which the trip gives pupils, which they probably wouldn’t get in the classroom. The commemoration of the Great War is itself now part of history.

For years, it seemed that only British tour groups visited the German war graves, the most famous of which is that of Langemarck, near where poison gas was first used on the Western Front. In recent years, the little blue and yellow flowers which are the German equivalent of the poppy have appeared, though perhaps after November 2018 centenaries they will recede again, and whenever I have visited (admittedly during peak British-school-trip season) they’ve been heavily outnumbered by the British poppies.

There’s something quite special, I think, about how British schoolchildren lay their poppies on the graves of unknown German soldiers of the Great War.

And it’s not something that a history syllabus will cover. Not at any length. No exam spec will include ‘tell the kids about Langemarck – about how in the beginning it was little more than a pit for the graves of hated invaders, grim and unvisited, and why there are often still eight bodies to a grave, never mind the tens of thousands in the mass grave in the middle, and why Germans don’t do battlefields trips like we do, and how changing views of the war led the British to start coming here too…’ But we schoolteachers do tell the kids that, and it’s worth telling them.

And there we are – I have a reason. In these days when, if there’s no chance there’ll be a question on it in a public examination, it doesn’t get taught, the school trip offers something different. What should we think of those young freiwilliger who volunteered to fight for the Kaiser and were slaughtered in the First Battle of Ypres? No, I don’t have an answer for that one. But I do want young historians, a hundred years later, to spend some time thinking about what we should think of them. So that particular school trip, at least, can stay.

And if that makes me a bad trad, I can cope with that.

My Least Favourite Student, Business English, & Textbooks

On a Wednesday I have three classes. First I see an interesting group of four who work in the same company: three young men in their early-to-mid twenties and their senior colleague in his mid-to-late fifties. Then I go into a bank for a one-to-one session with a banker, and after that I have a group of apprentices.

The first and the third sessions are lots of fun. The second, on the other hand, is by some way my least favourite appointment of the week.

Why is this?

Well. My student is a senior employee of the bank, three years away from retirement. She’s doing English because the bank will pay, and because she’d rather spend an hour and a half with me than doing any work.

She refuses to use the official language-school-issue textbook. She refuses to do any homework. She refuses to do any reading or writing. (I tried giving her the Spectator‘s “Miss Manners” section, in which Mary Killen deals with the alleged problems of what George Orwell would call the upper-upper-middle class, which is short, sometimes funny, and has some interesting vocabulary, but I think she suspected me of passive-aggressive mickey-taking.) In our appointments, she just wants to talk, principally about her holidays, her physical ailments, and cooking.

Now this ought to be all right by me. She’s not entered for any examinations, and there’s no way she’ll be complaining that I’m not following the syllabus or teaching her properly, because she has explicitly told me that she’s not remotely interested in these considerations. “I don’t need Business English,” she told me, somewhat grandly, “because soon I’m leaving the world of business for good.”

Do I feel bad that in enabling her I am conspiring to defraud the language school and the bank? Both, after all, expect a series of proper lessons based on the approved textbook and centred around business-related vocabulary.

No, not really. If anyone is quite capable of deciding on what she wants to learn and how she wants to learn it, it’s this  student. Easy for me to say, of course: the prospect of being challenged on this is wholly theoretical.

I am, as it happens, fairly sympathetic to some of her points. The textbook is a pretty dismal one, significantly inferior to those issued by another language school for which I work. I’m not, as regular readers of this weblog may be aware, particularly attached to textbooks, though I am coming to appreciate that in this, like in everything, the subject being taught really matters; and anyway, I’m not knowledgeable enough about either the English language or the best ways to teach it to be able to do a better job myself: I’m a mediocre EFL teacher, so using a textbook helps to ensure that I at least meet a minimal standard of teaching.

And Business English? It’s a bit of a scam.

A scam is maybe too strong. I can’t think of a better word. (Suggestions in comments please!) Most of my Business English students already know the specific vocabulary they need to do their jobs: they might need English for business, but that’s not the same as needing Business English. Sure, any language course will necessarily involve selecting vocabulary areas, and there’s nothing intrinsically bad about business-related topics: there would, of course, be something faintly silly about middle-aged businessmen learning how to say that their favourite subject is Maths, or that they spend their pocket money on clothes and cassettes. But the trouble with Business English is that it has such a limited range of topics: textbooks (for instance) often revisit meetings and conferences, telephones and emails, and dealing with awkward customers, because there appears not to be enough different material to fill the requisite space.

Even so, it’s rather difficult to think of different things to talk about every week. A new grammar topic, sure, there are always plenty of those, but do I have to hang it around her trip to South-East Asia? Again?

It’s only an hour and a half, I know. Worse things happen in classrooms, and overall teaching adults is preposterously easy compared to teaching children, even outside my comfort zone. Nonetheless I’m becoming nostalgic for the days when I could just say ‘read the whole of pages six and seven, then answer all the questions.’

Now I Understand

I don’t like the notion that only people who have personal experience of something can or should comment on it. Of course I don’t. I’m a history teacher, and if this principle is to be accepted, as some would have it be, then we have a big problem. I prefer to think that while we do see through a glass darkly, we can still see enough to make it all worthwhile.

But even historians flirt with the idea when it suits them. In Interesting Times, Eric Hobsbawm writes about how, in order to effectively conduct oral history interviews with people who had lived through the inter-war years, it was necessary to find out so much about the period that the information the interviewees supplied would tell him almost nothing new, which teachers will appreciate as yet another example of the importance of subject knowledge. But he also goes on to say that historians, like himself, who actually lived through the rise of National Socialism, had an advantage over those who hadn’t: in particular they understood, in a way that those of us who weren’t there can’t, what it all felt like, and just what the Nazis were really like.

There’s something in this. I know, for instance, that many people have religious faith. I think I have a reasonable idea of what that means for them. When my mother says “I don’t know anything about philosophy or theology or any of that stuff, I just know that I love Jesus, and Jesus loves me” … well, I understand in one sense. I know that religion is an immensely powerful force and has been for millennia. What I can’t do is to know what that feels like, because I don’t feel it myself. And ‘what it feels like’ is such an important part of what it is that I suppose I have to acknowledge that no, studying the Conversion, and the Crusades, and the Lollards, and the Reformation, and the Wars of Religion, and dechristianisation during the French Revolution, will not make me properly understand it.

Another thing I’ve never understood, not properly, is the position of the advocates of setting by ability. I have taught a few streamed classes, and a couple of setted classes, but with no noticeable difference. History just doesn’t lend itself to setting. No, it really doesn’t. It’s a dreadful cliché to say that every class is a mixed-ability class, but it’s particularly true in History. Maybe if a school could set an exhaustive knowledge-based test identifying which of their pupils already knew a fair amount about the past and could stick them all together in one set a teacher might approach that one set differently; maybe if a school could somehow identify the pupils who would do lots of semi-independent reading and put them all in one set together a teacher might adopt a somewhat different approach. (Though I expect the effect would be limited, and I expect most of us probably wouldn’t.) I’ve understood the case, intellectually, for setting in (say) Maths. I just haven’t felt it.

Well, now I have.

Last week, one of my groups of apprentices was changed. Instead of the intermediate-level group I normally have on a Wednesday they were shuffled. The company wants them to do presentations, in English, to the directors, and for that they need to be grouped according to the type of apprenticeship they’re doing. “So,” said my boss, “do some brainstorming, come up with some principles for a good presentation, find out what their topics are, deliver some vocabulary, and get them to make a start.”

Any language teacher reading this is sighing already. History teachers might not be, as I probably wouldn’t have been a few months ago.

If, of course, you’ve got to teach like this then you’ve also got to teach progressively, haven’t you? You must hope that the stronger students will help the weaker ones and that learning-by-doing will work. And perhaps you’ve got to differentiate. Properly differentiate. Not asking different questions to different pupils, or addressing the particular weaknesses you know some pupils have, or getting certain pupils to argue with certain other pupils … but differentiation as the high priests of differentiation see it, with different pupils doing different tasks at different levels, tailored to them, with the pupils not really having the same lesson at all, just being in the same room.

Because delivering a more traditional type of lesson to a group of mixed-ability language learners, where some are little more than beginners while others are ready to learn my favourite tense (the future perfect, since you ask) is at the very least only going to end in suboptimal outcomes.

I’ll give the progressives this, too. I am still inclined to snort at disapproval of the term ‘ability’. Some children are more able, academically, than others, and pretending that they aren’t is daft. But when it comes to learning a language, ‘ability’ is perhaps the wrong word. Who is ‘more able,’ the school leaver who has attended a Frankfurt Gymnasium and reached a high level of English through several years of teaching, or the Middle Eastern kid who already speaks Arabic (and quite possibly a local dialect too), has mastered German in a few months, and is now an intermediate English speaker? I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. It’s not about ‘ability’. It’s about the level they’ve already reached. To be only a little bit facetious, you can’t really tackle the future perfect until you know the future and the perfect. So it’s really about prior attainment rather than ‘ability’.

Secondary schools have a tremendous advantage here, of course. The aforementioned company is a classic example of the German Mittelstand and has fifty apprentices. They can be divided according to their level of English. A company with five or ten apprentices would struggle to do this. Schools, on the other hand, can set more easily, timetabling issues notwithstanding. Schools can also take pupils who, while not blank slates, are nonetheless generally unlikely to speak much (say) French and bring them all along together, though of course in real life it’s never this tidy.

Even so, on the philosophical principle I have changed my mind. Setting might not matter for history. But it matters for language learning.

Getting Found Out

One of the great things about sport is its cruel clarity: there is no such thing, for example, as a bad one-hundred-metre runner, or a hopeless centre-half who got lucky; in sport, you get found out. … There are, however, plenty of bad actors or musicians or writers making a decent living, people who happened to be in the right place at the right time, or knew the right people, or whose talents have been misunderstood or overestimated.

Nick Hornby, in whose Fever Pitch that passage appears, is, of course, right. But it’s not just sport in which you get found out. There are other parts of the world of work in which performance can be fairly easily measured.

The salesman, for instance. A good salesman is one who makes more sales. Yes, of course there’s more to business than sales, and no, I’m not saying that ‘a good salesman’ is the same thing as ‘a good person,’ and no, I’m not even saying that being ‘a good salesman’ is equivalent to ‘deserving’ (whatever that means) something. Nor am I saying that there’s no element of chance in being blessed with those skills – and, indeed, particularly for women, an appearance – which can make someone good at sales. But what I am saying, which I don’t think is very controversial, is that measuring the performance of a salesman is straightforward. Most of the time the ‘best’ salesmen are those who accrue the most sales. Easy.

The cutting edge of financial services seems rather like this too. Again, I’m not endorsing the morality of the City of London. I am saying that it’s relatively easy to measure the performance of a hedge fund manager. How much money did he make for his clients? That’s all that matters. Done. Measured. Easy.

When, as a schoolboy, I worked in a warehouse, that was easy to measure too. Did I turn up on time? Did the pallets get loaded onto the lorries? Were the boxes wrapped up properly, so they wouldn’t fall over when the lorry was half-full? Yes? Fine. Then call the agency back and say yeah, we’ll have that kid again. Was he a bit odd, bringing Frank Barlow’s biography of Edward the Confessor to read during lunch, or on overnight shifts where the antisocial hours were compensated for by longer periods of idleness? Sure. Did it matter? No. Nobody cared.

But not all jobs are like this. Some just don’t lend themselves very easily to measurement. Is a good author one who sells more books? Well, yes, obviously, and in my appallingly partial and philosophically naïve view no one deserves to be multimillionaires more than JK Rowling and Julia Donaldson. But equally the argument that Vincent van Gogh was a bad artist because he only sold one painting in his lifetime is not a particularly persuasive one, is it?

This is, of course, a dangerously seductive argument. We can kid ourselves that we are van Goghs, our talents underrated by a few key decision-makers. Most of us aren’t, of course.

But where does teaching sit on the spectrum of Art to Warehousing?

You already know what I think, don’t you?

Rob Coe doesn’t agree with me. He thinks that using test results – that is, pupils’ test results – is the best way to assess teacher effectiveness. And yes, I’m conceited enough to think that I know better than a Professor of Education.

You just can’t measure the performance of a teacher the way you can measure the performance of a salesman or a hedge fund manager. It doesn’t work. I’ve banged on about this before, as have many teachers more eloquent than I.

Hang on. What if you had two teachers. Both at the same school. Teach the same classes, because they share them. Every year the same. Several years on end. Then, surely, you can look at the pupils’ results and say ‘aha, look, there’s a pattern here. We’ve got hundreds of data points over several years. We can see that Mr Happy is better than Mr Grumpy.’ Can’t we?

No. We can’t. Look, I understand that accountability is important. Gone are the days, like it or not, at least in the Anglosphere, that the State would simply hand over a pot of money to a school and say ‘there you go, spend it wisely.’ Equally we’re nowhere near a situation whereby the operation of the free market in primary and secondary education would be politically palatable. Someone has to decide whether public money is being wasted or not: to do otherwise would be intolerable. I get it.

But just because there’s a problem, doesn’t mean there’s a solution.

In my first year of teaching, there were two sets of remarkable results. One was internal: the Third Form class (the fourth ‘stream’ of eight overall) which I taught did significantly worse than the set immediately below them. This was embarrassing for me, and I worried about it. Until, that summer, a (Physics-teaching) colleague showed me some dissertation he’d done for some educational qualification.

Now this colleague had taught the fifth ‘stream’. And there, in his portfolio, signed off by some senior figure in the school, was a boast about how much better his class had done than the set above, with figures to prove it. I did not have access to the data which might have revealed whether or not he was particularly good and I was particularly bad, but a couple of discreet inquiries revealed that this particular phenomenon had been replicated in some – but not all – other subjects too. Set Five had overperformed, and Set Four had underperformed.

All right, you might say, but a reasonable person looking at all the date would see that, right? Maybe. But what about the other set of results? I shared an A Level class with my Head of Department. Eight boys. Of the eight, four did better on my paper, and four did better on his.

Now this, in retrospect, was very odd. (At the time it was just a relief.) He had a decade’s teaching experience; I had none. He was, and is, an excellent historian and teacher. Why had he done no better than me? If he was asked, here’s what he could have said. He’d spent a lot of his time helping me, time which he couldn’t devote to that class. He’d made more ‘comparative’ points than he’d usually do, to help support those pupils who he knew had a novice teacher, and that had detracted from his delivering of his own side of the course. (He taught sixteenth-century Spain, while I taught sixteenth-century England, so his superior explanations of (say) religious doctrine will have helped pupils with my side of the course too.) He gave me the choice of papers to teach. And maybe, for that particular group of pupils, the paper I was teaching them was easier than the paper he was teaching them. It was the OCR ‘synoptic’ paper, the paper which was supposed to cover continuity, change & development over a century. They were loveable but essentially idle young gentlemen for whom getting a C grade in that enterprise was easier – because it involved more ‘blagging’ and less detail – than getting a C grade in the other paper, which was centred around a ‘great man.’

You and I both know that there are many, many school managers who would have considered these to be unconvincing excuses for his underperformance.

Then I moved schools, and taught AS for the first time. This was also the OCR A Level History paper. But this time, at the end of my first year, the pupils whom I’d shared with a colleague did significantly worse on my paper than they’d done on his.

Why was this?

Well, this colleague was a cleverer and more talented teacher than me. Yes, he was. That’s not false modesty. I’m amazing. He was better. But there was more to it than that. Because of course there was. He taught the English Revolution, while I taught the French Revolution. (A great pair of topics to teach together, by the way.) But that meant, with the preposterous old system of three AS exams, that there was an uneven timetable split: he saw them twice as often as I did, and taught them for two papers. (1629-49, & 1649-1660) So what? Well, so he had four lessons a week with them, and I only two: multiply that by two and he had eight lessons a week with those classes while I had four. This meant that I got another two Lower School classes to prepare lessons for, mark work of, and write reports for. (Yes, of course the school policy was that work should be marked once a fortnight at least, and no, of course it wasn’t more nuanced than that.)

Furthermore, the examination was structured thus. You might remember it. There were three separate papers, but they were all sat together, one after the other. Our pupils sat the English papers followed by the French paper, so by the time they came to approach the paper I’d taught them, they’d already been sweating and scribbling for nearly two hours. Anyone who has marked examinations will know that the last questions tend, all other things being equal, to be done worse.

Oh, and did you notice? Better results for British history twice. Because pupils find it easier? I think so. There’s some familiarity with, say, Queen Elizabeth & Henry VIII, or even with the Civil War, which there isn’t with Philip II of Spain or the French Revolution.

I’ll give you one more example. For the last seven years I shared Upper Sixth Politics teaching with one other colleague. We did the Edexcel Route A stuff: UK Political Issues (him) and EU Political Issues (me).

My results in the A2 exams were significantly better than his. Because I was a better teacher? Cobblers. His paper was harder. Nowhere did it ever say so. But it was. To do well in EU Political Issues you just needed a far less sophisticated level of understanding than you did for UK Political Issues. Little factoids just went much further than they would on the other side of the course. This wasn’t because of the nature of the assessment: both papers were structurally identical, as were the generic mark schemes. My personal suspicion is that examiners just know much less about EU politics than UK politics, and consequently tend to over-reward the deployment of seemingly-obscure detail which are actually not remotely impressive for someone who has studied the subject for an academic year. (This isn’t my own idea though: a former colleague explained his exceptional results in the ‘Britain & Ireland 1798-1922’ A2 History paper in similar terms. The same examiners who marked ‘Russia & its Rulers 1855-1964’ also marked that paper, but – knowing much less about it – tended to over-reward, or reward structural soundness over academic argument, and the latter is rather easier to drill.)

Something which convinces me that this is true is that after my first year I decided to drop the EU and teach American government instead. I thought it’d be more approachable, and there are more textbooks. (No, in those days I wasn’t the inveterate textbook-hater I am now. This whole business helped to persuade me.) Instead, my results fell to just below my colleague’s. Why? Well, I’m not sure, but I think the overall standard expected in that paper was higher; and the existence of a textbook fostered the sort of lazy thinking & approach to the subject which was, in the end, my pupils’ downfall. So, after two years on the dark side, I came back, and the uneven results returned.

Well, if I’m right, can’t we factor this in when holding teachers to account?

Good luck with that.

No, seriously. I think that what I’ve written was true, on aggregate, for the pupils I taught. But of course it wasn’t true for all of them. That A Level ‘synoptic’ paper, which those pupils found relatively easy? Okay, but cleverer, more industrious, more erudite pupils often found it much harder, whereas they’d find the ‘great man’ paper easier to excel in. That wasn’t the class we had that year. But it’d be another class we’d have another year.

Do you think I’m making all this up? I hope not. But if you were a Deputy Head Academic, and I said this to you, after my pupils had got bad results … would you assume I was telling the truth? Or would you assume I was making excuses? The answer, of course, is that most likely you’d be influenced by two things. Did you rate me? (A prejudice you might well have formed without results in public examinations.) And did you have bosses who’d want chapter and verse on how you’d investigated anomalies in results, or not?

And if you think I’m not making this up, and that these influences are real … do you think you can distinguish real reasons for anomalous results from the excuses of substandard teachers? In every subject? Really?

And all this is before we even start the question of whether you can possibly compare results in coursework with results in examinations. I think most teachers would agree that these are not the same, though would find it impossible to produce a realistic, meaningful way to fairly compare outcomes in those two rather different types of assessment.

I know this is inconvenient. But just because there’s a problem doesn’t mean there’s a solution. I don’t want teachers booking computer suites, putting their feet up, telling pupils to research a topic on the internet instead of teaching it, and then saying afterwards, when those pupils get bad results, that those results are meaningless and that they can’t be judged by them. I really don’t.

But that doesn’t mean that I can pretend that exam results can tell us much about the effectiveness or otherwise of teaching. It’s just too complicated and too difficult. It might be satisfying or reassuring to think that, if only we get the right data and interpret it in the right way, we’ll be able to rank teachers from one to four hundred thousand. But we can’t, and pretending that we can is unlikely to make things better.

Times Tables Tests

The Government wants children to learn their times tables.

I’ve no problem with that. What I have a problem with is Whitehall’s corollary – that there should, therefore, be a national test, sat by every state-educated nine-year-old in the country.

I understand why. If the Department of Education orders schools to make sure that children learn their times tables, and just leaves it at that, then schools where teachers consider the drilling and testing of times tables to be tantamount to child abuse will ignore the instruction.

As national tests go, a times table test in the middle of Year Four appears fairly benign. One tremendous advantage is that the problem of ‘teaching to the test’ is – or ought to be – unlikely to be a factor (see what I did there?) in a times table test. The whole point is for children to learn them by heart. As I’ve seen observed on Edutwitter, the proposed timing would enable primary schools to put things right should results be unexpectedly low. Taking a class to a computer suite, having the children log on, and telling them to follow the instructions, which will require them to type in or click on a few numbers, seems like the sort of thing which a half-decent primary school should be able to manage without damaging their pupils’ mental health and/or wellbeing.

And yet I’m not convinced.

First of all, let’s not forget the wisdom of Goodhart’s Law. That’s the one which says that once a measure becomes a target it ceases to become a useful measure. Yes, it’s harder to see how this could apply with a times table test. But here’s one possibility, dreamt up in a few minutes by someone who has never taught in a primary school.

Cramming, unfortunately, works. You want kids to learn their times tables? Good, so do I. You don’t trust primary school teachers to make sure they do it? I understand. But those primary school teachers whom you don’t trust will not be wholeheartedly embracing this. You know what they’ll do? They’ll get results by intensive cramming in the run-up to the tests. And then, after a big sigh of relief once it’s all over, they’ll stop.

No, don’t shake your head and tell me how unprofessional that’d be. The whole point of the test is that you don’t trust these teachers to drill times tables properly. Your whole argument for spending public money on this is that, left to their own devices, they’ll not do things the way you want them done. That’s why you want the big stick of the State on your side.

There’s more.

This test is there to hold teachers to account. And the accountability will, I’m afraid, be cobblers; and it will be damaging. A Year Four teacher will be assessed on the performance of thirty pupils. Now as we’re talking about mathematics, I think it’s fair enough to observe that – never mind all the variables – a sample of thirty will be statistically meaningless.

But, of course, they won’t be treated as statistically meaningless. Neither by Ofsted, nor by head teachers (perhaps in fear of Ofsted). Teachers will prefer not to teach in Year Four. Some slightly wiser heads will observe that cramming times tables into nine-year-old heads is a far worse approach than taking the long view, and will therefore decide that more time should be spent in Years Three and Two on them as well. I agree with this. But how will this turn out with the high-stakes test at the end? You know as well as I do. A deputy head will be made responsible for ensuring that there are frequent times tables tests throughout the school. She will be made responsible for gathering and recording data. And she will be made responsible for intervening when pupil results fall below that which they ought to be. And in such a way the short Year Four test will cast its shadow over the school.

Thus far aficionados of political philosophy may have noticed that my argument has been based on Karl Popper’s Law of Unintended Consequences. But I’d also like to remind my readers of Frederic Bastiat, author of That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen.

Look, I approve of children learning their times tables. I do. If my children aren’t made to learn them at school, I’ll make them learn them at home. But what will happen if they’re given this exalted status at school? Everything else will suffer. Yes, it will. There’s only a certain amount of time in the school day. So what are our pupils going to drop in order to learn their times tables well enough to satisfy all the ‘stakeholders’? There will most definitely be something. Good results in formal times tables tests will be that which is seen. Less exposure to literature, or the humanities, or the arts, or the performing arts, or sports, will be that which is not seen. There is always opportunity cost.

One more thing.

Who’s going to be preparing this test? It’ll be some outsourcing company, won’t it? Some educational version of Capita? Or a behemoth like Pearson?

Do you trust them not to mess it up?

No, really? Do you?

You think the programmes will always work? You think there won’t be glitches or gremlins which cut pupils off halfway through sitting the test? You think the results will always be accurately reported?

And, again, these are just the potential problems some bloke sitting at his computer while his children eat their cereal and play with their toys. All sorts of things could go wrong.

Yes, I know, that’s an argument against doing anything. But it’s a further reason not to go down this path given the unlikelihood of it making a significant difference. There’s always a temptation to think that if only we could set the right tests and hold teachers accountable for pupil performance in them then everything would improve. It is, I’m afraid, far more complicated than that.


On Wednesday afternoons, I teach a group of apprentices.

They’re extremely loveable and altogether rather impressive young people, aged between sixteen and twenty. And their English is pretty good. One of today’s topics was unreal conditionals, which gives you an idea of the level of the class.

What’s that you say? You don’t know what an unreal conditional is? Well, it’s when you postulate something which isn’t true, and probably couldn’t be true.

For example:

“If you’d read your emails, you’d know this.” (But you didn’t read your emails, so you don’t.)

Oh, and this is when it is correct to use “I were” or “s/he were” instead of “I was” or “s/he was.” So:

“If I were young again, I’d work harder at school.” Well, I’m sure you would, but you’re not going to be young again, are you?

“If Rudolf’s nose were blue, no one would have heard of him.” But it isn’t, it’s red, so he’s everyone’s favourite reindeer.


Having introduced this to the class, I got them to go around the table and make one up each, using the first person singular. So we had some “if I were rich, I’d buy a Porsche,” “if I were French, I’d eat snails,” and so on. Fine. All very successful. Well done.

And then, after they’d done that, I gave them cues, so that they’d use the second and third person, singular and plural. So, for instance, I’d say:

“Heidi [that’s the student’s name, though of course I’ve changed it]: Prince George, baby girl, Queenie.” And he said, correctly, “If Prince George were a girl, he’d be called Queenie.”

“Hermann: Eintracht Frankfurt, bust, upset.” And she replied, correctly, “If Eintracht Frankfurt were to go bust, we’d all be very upset.”

So they’d got it. Fine. And so I stepped back, and just gave them one cue.

“Angela: a flood.” Well, Angela had no problems with that one. “If there were a flood, we’d all be stuck here.” (She was right: the language school is near the river, and it’s on the top floor of the building.)

“Martin: Donald Trump.”

He nodded. He could handle this.

“If Donald Trump were President…”

The rest of the class looked at him and shook their heads.

He looked at me as though to ask what he’d got wrong. So I asked the class. “What did Martin get wrong?”

Well, they told him, he can’t use a conditional for Donald Trump being President, because he is the President.

I was expecting a wince of disappointment that he was the first in the class to get the form wrong. But that wasn’t what I got.


Anarchy in the classroom. Total anarchy. It was just like being back in school.

(What really amazes me about this is that he clearly knew enough about America to know either that Trump has coveted the Presidency for quite some time, or that he was a candidate, and yet had managed to miss the news for the last fifteen months.)

How Long Should Exams Be?

This is going to be a grotesquely ill-informed post, so if you like your educational disquisitions to be research-based … well, you probably wouldn’t be reading this to begin with, would you?

Last summer, the Department of Mathematics at Oxford University gave all of its finalists extra time to complete their examinations. Not a great deal of extra time – 105 minutes instead of 90 – but it apparently yielded the result for which its instigators had hoped, which was that women performed better.

For me this raises a very interesting question. What’s the ‘right’ length of time for an exam?

There are different models. Some exams appear to be designed so that time isn’t, for most candidates, much of a factor. I may be out of date, but for me recent experience of invigilating science exams tallies with my own more distant experience of sitting them: you get plenty of time to work out and fill in the answers, and most candidates are finished well before time is called. The principal test is whether you know your stuff well enough to answer the questions correctly.

Others – those in which the principal mode of assessment is the essay – are fiercely time-limited. To do well, candidates need to spend almost the entire time writing. The classic History exam requires an essay to be written in forty-five minutes. That’s not very long, and having more time is therefore immensely helpful. So, indeed, is being permitted to type rather than handwrite. More time would be an advantage for…

…well. For almost everyone? Probably not, actually. There’s a significant minority of candidates for whom examinations with more time would not help one little bit. These are the candidates who have just about enough factual knowledge, and who also have the knack of deploying a few facts in such a way that they appear to have been carefully selected from a vast bank of knowledge, rather than the only stuff the candidate knows.

(Much as I regret the decline of the traditional A Level in History I have to concede that it was particularly vulnerable to this sort of approach. I remember preparing for the European History paper back in 1998: a question on the Ottoman Empire was guaranteed, and it could only be one of three: why did it rise, why did it fall, and just how magnificent was Suleiman, really? I dashed off three plans and wrote a blinding essay, and I can still tell you that Roxelana was bad news. I have a sneaking suspicion that the most up-to-date scholarship probably has a more nuanced take.)

I remember Mathematics exams being closer to the first model than the second, but it appears that this isn’t true of Oxford finals: instead they appear to be more like some of those ‘maths challenge’ papers which schoolchildren can be entered for: they are (or have been), in the words of one of the dons quoted in the Press, more of a ‘time trial.’

There’s another model too. When Mrs Grumpy sat her state exams (in Law) in Germany, she had several hours – four or five – to complete a paper with one case study. “Here’s the situation: what’s your legal take on it?” I can see why this makes sense. The purpose of such a test is (presumably) to give candidates plenty of time to deliberate and give an exhaustive answer.

Now this works for a discipline like Law in a way that it wouldn’t for History. There’s no pressure to produce reams of writing, because (unlike in a History exam) actually there’s a limit to what a correct answer is. Only a few laws are relevant, and only a few interpretations of them and how they apply to the case are reasonable. You can (in theory – apparently no one ever does) get full marks by identifying every relevant law and explaining how they apply to the facts of the case. You are obviously expected to produce a detailed answer, but it isn’t the case that more is automatically better: in fact, going beyond what is relevant is worse.

Could History exams be much longer? Three hours, say? I’m dubious. (This used to be an option, didn’t it? Instead of the hated Curriculum 2000 OCR History ‘Independent Investigation’ paper you could do an exam and write an essay instead. I never knew a school which actually did so.) With ‘positive marking’ the temptation to hurl everything you know at an examiner would be great, and the skill of carefully selecting facts to support an argument would be diluted. Asking a question for which candidates had three hours would be tricky. It’d either have to be on a very broad topic, or it’d have to demand very specialist knowledge. I suppose an eighteen-year-old who had studied the first half of the seventeenth century could spend three hours crafting an answer to “Why did the English Revolution happen?” but I don’t think we have time to teach the sort of knowledge which would be required to spend three hours answering a question on the reasons for the outcome of the (First) Civil War.

Tell you what, though, I wouldn’t mind the following experiment being piloted somewhere. Candidates get three hours, a traditional A Level essay, a computer (no, not one with an internet connection, you barbarian) and a limit of a thousand words. Let’s see if they can use all that time to tighten their arguments and hone their prose.


I find the Oxford Maths question really interesting. Because there is presumably nothing special about a ninety-minute paper, no very good reason why it has to be that long. It just is.

And it seems to discriminate against women. Make it another equally arbitrary length and women do better.

Or, if you prefer, make it another equally arbitrary length and men do worse.

Which is a ‘better’ test of mathematical ability? The race against the clock? Or longer deliberation? Not being a mathematician I don’t know. I can see both sides. What does the world want of its mathematics graduates? What do employers want? What do academics want? I don’t know. I suppose Oxford University is indifferent to the preferences of employers, who’ll want to employ their Maths BAs regardless of the nature of their Finals.

If girls do better with more time, is that genetic? Is it the consequence of socialisation? Or is it that we – teachers – are better at teaching boys, and worse at teaching girls, how to do well under time pressure?

I don’t know. I don’t even have suspicions. I’m stumped.

But I think it’s a problem. Or at least a bit of a problem. If different lengths of exam produce significantly different outcomes for boys and girls then deciding how long an exam should be is also deciding who is more likely to succeed at it.

So I’m not just stumped. I’m troubled. I see a problem without a solution.