Explicit Grammar: an EFL Perspective.

There is a strand of opinion within the fraternity of EFL that rejects all explicit grammar teaching.

This isn’t a straw man. I work for three language schools, and one of them has a policy of never explicitly teaching grammar points. “It’s not a secret,” my boss there told me, “and if your students ask what the name of a tense is, then you can tell them.” But the textbooks, schemes of work, lesson plans and resources do not envisage teachers ever saying “this is the present perfect continuous.”

The rationale for this – that we learn to speak our native languages without any explicit grammatical instruction – makes some logical sense, though I am unconvinced: being fully immersed in a language from birth is rather different to the circumstances in which most people learn further languages. Many parents do explicitly teach their children English grammar: not to use double negatives, for instance, and the correct forms of the past tense of the verb ‘to be’.

But when parents say ‘no, not you was, “you were” … they don’t say ‘this is the correct second-person form of the simple past’ do they?

Well. No. They don’t. But I think too much can be extrapolated from this.

Children are going to hear “was you?” or “I didn’t do nothing” a lot. But these are straightforward errors, and if they aren’t easily corrected (because the incorrect forms are so prevalent) then at least there’s no conceptual misunderstanding. Someone who says “was you there?” when he means “warst Du da?” knows how the language works. He just got the form of the second person simple past wrong. So it doesn’t need a more detailed explanation. Which is a good thing, because there isn’t one.

(Now this next paragraph may be completely wrong. I invite correction by a grammarian. Seriously. I’m conscious that this isn’t really my discipline. But here goes.)

Is this the same for double negatives? It feels like it is. I remember my mother patiently explaining why we don’t say ‘I didn’t do nothing.’ But this is – is it? I think so, but I’m not a linguist – a quirk of the English language. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a double negative. It’s not wrong in every language. French negatives are, in a sense, ‘double’ – the French put both ne and pas in a sentence to make it negative. They say, for example, ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe.‘ We don’t translate this as ‘this isn’t not a pipe.’ Colloquially, indeed, sometimes the French will drop one of the two parts of ne pas. Do French parents tell their children not to say “c’est pas vrai“? Do their teachers patiently explain that this is a ‘single negative,’ which is grammatically incorrect? I don’t know.

Anyway, back on topic.

There are two reasons why, when teaching English to Germans, I like to teach grammar explicitly, including the formal terms which are, I understand, currently a bone of contention in teaching English to schoolchildren for whom it is their native language.

The first is that my students like it. They want to know.

This may or may not apply to schoolchildren. My guess is that it will apply less. It is perhaps a more adult, and – if I may be indulged a crude national stereotype – a more German mindset to want not just to know how to say something correctly, but also the reason why. If I’m using the prescribed ‘no-grammar’ method in class, the most common question I get asked is ‘what’s the rule?’

When I explain the rule (which, you’ll remember, is grudgingly allowed) my students want to be told the formal term. So I tell them. I tell them the rule, and I tell them what it’s called. Sometimes I’ll give them an exaggerated wink and say, in what I imagine to be the conspiratorial manner of a politician revealing a particularly juicy piece of gossip to a lobby correspondent, “this is what we call a ‘gerund.'”

If I’m being scrupulously honest I’ll concede that there’s an element of vanity here. I have a sneaking suspicion that not all of my colleagues have a comprehensive grasp of what a gerund is. And so they shy away from using such terms. (At my most cynical I might even wonder if a language school which can’t find guarantee that all its employees know what a gerund is would be wise to make a virtue of not requiring them to pass on that information to their students.) When I say ‘don’t worry too much about remembering the definition’ before labelling something with its correct term, I know that my students will scribble it down anyway; I also know that they will think better of me for having told them. And yes, I like it when my students seem to approvingly nod and think ‘yeah, this Englishman knows his stuff.’

But I still think it’s worth explicitly teaching the terms, even if the real reason why I do it is a bad one. It’s just more efficient.

Last week, for instance, I taught the passive. According to the prescribed method I should have just used the form incessantly with my student until he grasped it intuitively. But fortunately I see this student in his own office, so I can pollute the flipchart with as much explicit grammar teaching as I like.

And it’s just so much more efficient for him to remember that this is the passive. He’s going to have to remember how to do it anyway; isn’t it better to call it by its name? Especially if, as sometimes happens, the name is a clue as to how and when to use it. Just remembering that there is a ‘continuous’ present tense as well as a ‘simple’ present tense might help to remind people learning English that ‘ich rauche‘ could be translated as I smoke or I am smoking, and that they mean rather different things.

Does this matter? I wonder if this sort of terminology is an intermediate-level thing. For beginners it’s less of a priority than learning vocabulary and simple tense forms which are fairly intuitive and for which exposure to incessant use will work. (My five-year-old daughter picked up the regular form of the past tense easily, but is only now reliable on irregular forms, and still occasionally talks about having ‘buyed’ or ‘eated’ something.) For very literate adults whose grasp of a language is very strong the rules probably aren’t necessary either: they don’t need aids or guides either to understanding meaning or to precise communication.

Is this why there is an alliance of published authors, education academics, and primary school teachers against explicit teaching of grammatical terms?

To be clear I’m not suggesting that teaching English to adult speakers of other languages is the same as teaching grammar to native speakers in schools. I’m just suggesting that, at some point between the EYFS and the PhD, it might be helpful to introduce the formal grammatical terms.

I’ll end, as it looks like we have another crushing Ashes defeat to look forward to, with a reference to cricket. I spent fourteen glorious summers coaching the game to schoolboys, at all levels from 2nd XI to under-twelves and under-fourteen ‘F’ teams. (Yes, F teams. All-boys boarding school. Great stuff, the F team. Lovely lads. And surprisingly reasonable cricketers.) In nearly every team I had someone who didn’t know what the fielding positions were. Now it’s not strictly speaking necessary for a cricketer to know where midwicket is. (If you don’t know, but you’re guessing, you’re probably wrong.) And for a beginner it probably doesn’t matter. A half-decent captain, even in a school ‘B’ team, will notice a big gap where a fielder probably ought to be. If he asks his team-mate to field at midwicket, and is greeted with a blank stare of incomprehension, he can point and say ‘over there’. If he’s a good player he’ll be sufficiently involved in the game that after a while he’ll just pick it up. But for intermediate, moderate players knowing the names of the fielding positions is useful.


In Defence of Depth

I’ve sat in several curriculum review meetings in which the topic of the Arab-Israeli crisis was suggested as a possible topic for (I)GCSE.

When I say it ‘was suggested,’ I mean of course that I suggested it; and it will astonish no one to learn that none of my colleagues or bosses agreed with me.

I have, therefore, never taught the Israel-Palestine controversy, and I think that’s unfortunate.

My colleagues and my bosses had several reasons for not wanting to teach the topic. Few had taught it before, so it would involve learning all about it first. This is something which History teachers like to feel sorry for ourselves about, in that ‘no-one-understands-how-hard-we-have-it’ sort of way which makes everyone feel particularly sympathetic towards teachers.

(Are we right to feel sorry for ourselves about it? I can see both sides. On the one hand, learning about a new period of history, which you’ve never studied before, in order to teach it to sixth-form pupils, is pretty demanding. You really can’t just stay one textbook chapter ahead of the kids, not if you’re doing it properly. You need to know much more than they will, and they’ll have to know quite a lot. The payoff is that most of the time it’s so interesting that it’s worth it. Most of the time. I’ll make an exception for the unification of Italy.)

Anyway. There’s that. The history of the State of Israel is also thought to be particularly complicated. This is, I suppose, broadly speaking true. While any topic can be taught to any depth, some topics are easier to learn than others. These can either be particularly gruesome topics (Hitler, say, or Stalin) or particularly tedious ones: it’s not much fun learning about the composition & functions of the Council of the League of Nations, nor about the Aaland Islands Dispute, but they’re pretty simple to teach.

And Middle Eastern history is, of course, controversial, and I understand why a Head of History might prefer not to be handling complaints about why a teacher is an inveterate and irredeemable partisan of the Palestinians.

Even so, I think it’s unfortunate that so few schools teach the topic in depth.

Why? Just because I’m interested in it?

Well, if I’m honest, yes, that’s part of the reason why I wanted to teach it, and it was fair enough therefore for my colleagues and bosses to say ‘well we’re not interested in it, and there are more of us, so tough luck.’

But there’s another reason too. A good reason this time.

Because it’s complicated.

I’m not under any illusions that half a term spent studying the history of the Middle East in the second half of the twentieth century will produce pupils with an encyclopaedic knowledge of every issue surrounding that vast topic. But I would hope that at least a significant proportion of pupils to whom that topic was taught would at least get some understanding that the whole thing is really very complicated.

And no, this doesn’t apply to every historical topic. It could, but it doesn’t. Because the ‘takeaway’ for pupils studying what used to be the staples of Key Stage Four History: Hitler, or Stalin, or the World Wars, or the Cold War, or all of them, isn’t that it was complicated. Versailles was Bad. Kennedy was Good. And although of course we history teachers do our best to draw attention to the shades of grey, Nazism & Communism don’t really lend themselves to nuance. Not for our pupils.

Does it have to be Israel though?

No, it doesn’t. I think understanding that the Middle East is complicated, and that it would be good to try to give pupils an inoculation against arguments which suggest that it’s really very simple. I’d like to think that a decent grounding in the history of that particular corner of Asia would make young people less likely to indulge the glib summaries of those who airily assert that ‘it’s all because of religion.’ (Or colonisation. Or the Grand Mufti. Or the International Judaeo-Bolshevik-Zionist Conspiracy.)

For some time the lack of focus on chronology in the History curriculum has been lamented. Our pupils have no sense of it, so the argument goes, and we should spend more time on it. And I agree. I can remember my parents giving me a big blue hardback book about the history of the Football League. It was a centennial celebration, so it must have been 1988, which means I was nine, and I remember being surprised that in 1888 human beings could be so advanced as to establish a football league: hadn’t we all been apes back then? So you won’t find me saying that knowledge of the chronological sweep of history isn’t important. It is.

But I also think that studying some topics in depth is really very important too.

Including – especially? – those which are politically sensitive? I’m inclined to think so. The British Empire. The Reformation. The Crusades. Yes. Because they were very complex affairs, and we do tend to simplify them. In doing so we get the history wrong, and that’s my main concern, but I don’t think it ought to be controversial to suggest that any political consequences of  more people appreciating that these events weren’t as straightforward as they’re sometimes painted would be beneficial.

I’m not generally a believer in the ‘transferable skills’ argument for history. But I do think that someone who has studied the subject ought probably to emerge from having done so as a sceptic. “Hmm,” I’d expect her to say, “but was it – is it – really that simple?” And that, it occurs to me, isn’t a dreadful attitude for a citizen to have.


It has become fashionable to assert that the word ‘neoliberal’ is a meaningless term of abuse.

I do see why. I don’t know of anyone who identifies as a ‘neoliberal,’ and it is often used pejoratively; the most common invocations of neoliberalism used to be by left-wingers denouncing Blairism; now it seems to be favoured by communitarians denouncing elitism.

As a word, therefore, it might be going the way of ‘Zionist’ – something which did originally mean something, but which has been so perverted by wilful misinterpretation that it’s now probably best avoided. Maybe.

The same could, indeed, be said of the word ‘liberal,’ especially in North America. But I’m a history teacher. I don’t particularly care about terminological perfection. I’m happy to describe Gladstonian policy as essentially liberal. I’m also happy to describe Asquithian policy as essentially liberal. And, yes, I’m happy to describe the policies of Nick Clegg – and, indeed, of Tony Blair and David Cameron as essentially liberal.

What holds them together is their emphasis on freedom. But these are, or were, very different types of liberalism. Of course they were. They arose in very different times to meet very different political and economic challenges; and, just as Gladstone’s understanding of ‘freedom’ was rather different to Asquith’s, so Cameron’s is different again. So too, therefore, were the policies they espoused. Professors of Politics can argue about theoretical definitions, and they ought to do so: such questions are important. But personally I don’t object to describing these strands of liberalism as ‘classical liberalism,’ ‘modern liberalism’ and ‘neoliberalism’. Whatever the complexities – and of course it’d be very difficult to identify an individual in the real world whose beliefs constituted a ‘pure’ form of any of these strands – it is my view that these descriptors do a reasonable job of distinguishing between them.

A similar phenomenon appears to be developing within the ranks of self-identified traditional teachers. The term ‘neotrad’ has gained some traction; it has also irritated teachers who consider themselves to be traditionalist, but who reject the label of ‘neotrad,’ whether because it is thought to be intrinsically insulting or because it is an inaccurate description of their views.

But there are differences between twenty-first century traditionalists and the ‘traditional teaching’ which prevailed in schools a century ago. They are significant differences. Of course they are. The twenty-first century traditionalist is in a very different environment to his predecessors, and – not surprisingly – he believes some very different things.

The twenty-first century traditionalist, for instance, often wants an ‘evidence-based’ approach. He is very attached to ‘the research.’ And he justifies the traditional approach, in part, with an appeal to this. “What matters,” I can hear him saying, “is what works.”

The twenty-first century traditionalist is therefore often positively-inclined towards central control of how teachers teach, and this often extends, if not to a full-blooded embrace of scripted lessons, at least to view them broadly positively as a potential opportunity – something to be tested, perhaps, to see what the research says.

The twenty-first century traditionalist often sees results in public examinations as a very useful measurement.

And I don’t know who first said that ‘the best pastoral care is a good set of GCSE results,’ but it has been doing the rounds on Twitter for quite some time. It’s popular because it resonates, and it resonates because it takes on one of the more damaging elements of twentieth-century education: the idea that some children can’t be expected to achieve academically, and that a school which inculcates self-esteem in such children, and sends them on their way with Mickey Mouse qualifications has done its job.

(That is itself a monstrously unfair and crude stereotype of progressive educational philosophy, I know; that’s not what this piece is about.)

But this is also an element of twenty-first century traditionalism. It is justified by pupil outcomes. The twenty-first century traditionalist often considers results in public examinations as a useful measure, however cautious he may be about interpreting them, however aware he is of the ways data can be manipulated into telling fibs.

Why is this an element of twenty-first century traditionalism? At least in part as a reaction against progressives who overemphasised the idea that ‘school is about more than exam results.’ I don’t think there are many traditionalists who’d disagree with this, but they see it as a dangerous idea in the wrong hands: an idea which can be used to justify all sorts of bad things. Because if exams results don’t matter, then how else can educational outcomes be measured?

This is, of course, connected to the emphasis placed on evidence and research. But this emphasis is itself at least in part a reaction against the irresponsible peddling of disreputable ideas. And it has been a success: debates over Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences, Brain Gym or Neuro-Linguistic Programming have been consigned to the dustbin of educational history. That’s because evidence from research showed that their propagation in schools was doing no good. The same process is underway for Growth Mindset.

Twenty-first century traditionalism, therefore, is a product of its time.

But it is very different to old-school traditionalism.

(This is, I suppose, the opposite situation to that of the idea of liberalism. Different strands of liberals at different times advocated different policies based on different understandings of how best to advance freedom. By contrast educational traditionalists converge on methods while holding very different views as to why those methods should be preferred.)

Because the twenty-first century traditional teacher is more or less completely at odds with the philosophy of traditional teachers of the past. Thomas Arnold famously set out his priorities for Rugby School as ‘first, religious and moral principle; secondly, gentlemanly conduct; thirdly, intellectual ability.’

Yes, I know, Arnold was sui generis. But it would never have occurred to his contemporaries, or indeed his successors, to have judged teaching philosophies according to whether or not they produced better results in public examinations.

In the past traditional teachers defended their practice not on the basis of evidence derived from academic research, but on the same basis that the English constitution can be defended: this is how we’ve always done it, and it works; and even if evidence gleaned from educational research might suggest that alternative approaches might be better, there’s going to have to be a great deal of evidence before we abandon an approach which has worked for a long time.

Actually I think many neotrads secretly agree with at least part of this. Do traditional teachers in the twenty-first century really want to deliver scripted lessons? I’d like to think that even if the authors of those lessons had been personally and scrupulously vetted by Dominic Cummings that they’d be sceptical. Because of course as individuals very few of us fit neatly into categories.

Even so, when it comes to educational traditionalism there is a significant distinction which can be drawn between two schools of thought. The difference is real. Use a different term if you like. I don’t mind. For now, as it seems to be the only one which is recognisable, I’m happy with ‘neo’.

On Liking & Listening

I had two tutors on my TEFL course.

Both were purveyors of the sort of progressive consensus which I’ve grumbled about ad nauseam already. But there were significant differences between them.

One of those differences involved their attitude to a student of theirs who’d been a teacher for fourteen years and who was unwilling to uncritically accept assertions like ‘it’s always better for something to come from the students than for it to come from the teacher.’ Tutor One saw my questions or observations as intellectual challenges to be jousted with. Tutor Two saw them as evidence that I wasn’t fit to be in a classroom.

It won’t surprise you to learn that I didn’t rate Tutor Two very much. I understand that VAK has successfully permeated all areas of education. I once sat in a meeting of my school’s teaching, learning and assessment group and saw a colleague with a PhD describing an activity he’d prepared for his classes with the words ‘it’s kinaesthetic, so it’s good.’ I also understand that people have jobs to do, and if your job requires you to believe something, it’s probably best you believe it. Still, even Cambridge Assessment (which accredits the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults qualification) is now disseminating materials to centres delivering the course saying that the preferred term is now ‘Learning Preferences’ rather than ‘Learning Styles,’ the latter having been so comprehensively debunked. I don’t think it’s wholly unreasonable to expect someone delivering lessons on the topic to be familiar with this development.

Once you’ve decided someone’s a bit dubious it’s usually easy to find evidence to support your judgment, and you’re inclined to be less generous in your assessment of them, and then you’re looking out for things to criticise. When, for instance, in the session on teaching young learners, Tutor Two told us that didactic teaching was not just Bad, but would be unsuccessful and turn our students off the language forever, I couldn’t help but demur. This is the sort of thing which schoolteachers have been arguing about for quite some time, and not just on Twitter, and asserting such a view as unchallengeable fact is inaccurate.

By halfway through the course, the point at which my teaching practice lessons stopped being observed by Tutor One and started being observed by Tutor Two, I was well aware that Tutor Two did not like me one little bit. Tutor Two had clearly concluded that I was being contrarian, and that I needed to learn some humility.

So when it came to observing my lessons, Tutor Two was heavily critical.

Were Tutor Two’s criticisms reasonable?

Well. Of course some of them were. None of what Tutor Two observed about my lessons was entirely indefensible. Every criticism could be supported with some evidence, and Tutor Two’s professional judgment was clearly that the deficiencies in my teaching were indicative of significant weaknesses. So having been told by Tutor One (in a tutorial halfway through the course) that I was on for a ‘good’ pass (a bit like a ‘merit’ or a ‘distinction,’ something which says yeah, this was one of our better students) at the end of the course I’d received a bare pass.

Now. I knew this was coming. And I was in the happy position of not caring. Those high grades are only awarded to the top twenty percent or so of candidates, and while I’m a monstrous egotist, I’m not quite so conceited as to think that I was the best of the eight trainees doing the course. By the final quarter of the course I knew I’d get the pass – thanks, no doubt, to bruising experiences in the past, the language school had been very clear that anyone who was at risk of failing would be told that this was the case, and that remedial assistance would in those circumstances be offered; I’d also, while having my lessons heavily criticised, had them all ticked off as being of a satisfactory standard. It was, of course, a little blow to my ego to find that I’d been downgraded from ‘pretty good’ to ‘just about good enough,’ but I’ll cope.

Here’s the thing though.

Once I worked out that Tutor Two didn’t like me … I just stopped listening.

I did enough to ensure that all my lessons and assignments would be acceptable. But I knew that nothing I did would persuade Tutor Two to acknowledge my unquestionable brilliance, and so while I went through the motions of acknowledging my faults and pretending to address them, I didn’t take any of them seriously. I’d said the wrong things in lessons; I was clearly an agent of the Dark Side; I was insufferably sure of myself; I had, therefore, to be put in my place. So I didn’t learn anything from Tutor Two. I knew that what I was being told was not to help me improve my practice but to provide evidence of why I didn’t deserve anything other than a scraped passing grade.

Now whenever I read this sort of account I am suspicious. I would be surprised if you weren’t. I will, therefore, add what might well be construed as a bit of boasting, but which I will choose to call contextual information. Maybe you’ll believe me, maybe you won’t.

I think I’m actually quite good at teaching English as a foreign language.

Why do I think so?

Because at the end of my course I sent off my CV to four language schools. I got three interviews. (The fourth language school, perhaps entirely coincidentally, is one that Tutor Two has connections with.) After each interview I was given some freelance work. I’ve been doing this for about a month. I’ve had good feedback, from bosses and students. Big deal, I know. Every teacher can say this. Sure. But I’ve also been offered a permanent, full-time contract by one of the language schools for which I’ve thus far been freelancing. (A contract including a non-compete clause. “You’re good,” said the boss. “We want you working for us, not the competition.”) In EFL this sort of thing is fairly rare, and I’m pretty pleased with myself.

No, of course I’m not getting carried away. I’ve got a lot to learn about EFL: I’ve only been doing it, including the training course, for two months. I’m well aware that I am in a particularly fortunate position. I’m an Englishman, and for all the political correctness about no version of our language being better than another, there is still (at least in Frankfurt) a preference for a bona fide native speaker of the Queen’s English. I look like a credible, experienced teacher. (Most of us don’t wear suits to work. I do. I think it’s made a difference. Seriously.) So yes, I’ve got every unfair advantage going. But as far as independent verification that I’m not too bad at it goes, I’m happy with that.

Maybe there are generic teaching skills after all.


I’ve been Tutor Two, you know. I’ve taught A Level History to very bright pupils, and they’ve written me some very good essays. And each time I’ve found fault with them. I’ve told them that their argument might be well-constructed, but that it hasn’t given due weight to some factor or other; I’ve drawn their attention to facts which they haven’t deployed, and asked them how they think including those facts might change their interpretation; I’ve told them that they need to be more pugnacious or more circumspect in what they say.

But I’d like to think that I’ve done it in such a way that shows that I was paying them the compliment of taking their history seriously: their essay (or source analysis) technique is sound, they’ve ticked the boxes which the examination board requires them to address, so let’s talk about what really matters. I hope that’s how it came across, anyway; maybe, in retrospect, I didn’t make it clear enough. But I think that on the whole such pupils were willing to take my advice because we had a good relationship already. (It is, of course, usually easy for teachers to have good relationships with those sorts of pupils. I’m not taking much credit for that.) I didn’t have a good relationship with Tutor Two. I’m sure I wasn’t the perfect student, but I really wasn’t any trouble: I was motivated, everything was handed in on time, I was always punctual and prepared, and I wasn’t any trouble – I just answered questions in ways Tutor Two didn’t like.

But I didn’t like Tutor Two, and Tutor Two didn’t like me, so I didn’t pay attention, and I didn’t learn. And – and this might be where you’re appalled – I don’t blame myself.

No-Frills Private Schools

A few months ago there was an announcement that ‘Britain’s first cut-price private school‘ would be opening.

It still isn’t open, and I’m not surprised. This sort of thing gets floated every so often, but the paradigm somehow doesn’t shift: I just looked up Sherfield School’s fees, and it’s remarkable how similar they are to neighbouring independent schools.

Why is this, though? Independent schools, and not just the big names, have been engaged in what Ross Clark in the Spectator memorably describes as an ‘arms race’ for years. And it is surprising that there appears to have been a negligible drop in what economists call ‘effective demand.’

Yes, some schools are relying on being able to attract students from all over the world. But they can’t overdo it. Foreign parents who are sending their offspring to an English school expect them to be surrounded by English children so that they come back speaking perfect public-school English. (I just discovered last week that one of the lads I play rugby with in Frankfurt did this. We were chatting, and I got my German horribly mangled, and so he switched straight to rather posh English. He’d spent a year in a south coast boarding school and picked up a love of the game as well as the language.) The school has to be a boarding school. And many only want a year or two in England, usually in the Sixth Form. The Russian plutocrats aren’t going to keep most private schools going.

And there are many apparent inefficiencies in private schools, as Clark observes. Much of it is sport-related: intercontinental tours, centres with state-of-the-art gym equipment, swimming pools, brand new 1st XV kit every year … even the refreshments which traditionally follow (or, in the case of cricket, are taken during) inter-school fixtures. But there are also the performing arts centres, the ever-increasing (mis)use of technology (I once sat in a staff meeting at which the assembled teachers were told that the school would be spending half a million pounds in the forthcoming five years on a new ‘learning platform’) and, of course, flashier and more costly marketing materials, electronic and physical, which I’m sure marketing experts will persuasively argue ‘pay for themselves.’

Yeah. All of that could go.

So why hasn’t it?

Well, where’s the gap in the market? Your prospective customer is the parent who can’t afford the fees for the local private school, but who could afford them if they were at half of that level. That, presumably, is quite a lot of people.

Except that for many of those, their children are already attending private schools. When the HMC likes to boast about how many of the children attending their schools receive some form of fee assistance it’s worth being sceptical: schools are quiet about the numbers, because the number of children on full bursaries at most private schools are quite low. But a bursary doesn’t have to be full before it makes all the difference between parents being able to pay and parents not being able to pay. Such parents are already getting all the frills for the no-frills cost: they’re not going to move.

Ah, but such places are limited, aren’t they? Yes, of course. And there are nonetheless still plenty of parents who could afford the headline figure of £52 a week, but not school fees of six times that cost.

But this is when realism has to set in.

Now I’m quite happy to stipulate that the state can be massively inefficient. But £52 a week is less than half of what a state school gets for each pupil on its roll. The idea that a private school could do better than a state school with half the money strikes me as being somewhat unlikely.

Of course private school fees don’t have to be as expensive as they are. There appears to be a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ not to compete on price: the ‘fee-fixing scandal’ of 2005 even has its own Wikipedia page. But cartels of hundreds of organisations are unstable. And unfortunately the reason why private schools are so expensive is that that’s what it costs to provide that education.

The frills might be superfluous, though many of them are actually paid on top of school fees. Those intercontinental sports tours? Parents pay for them. There are fundraising efforts. The flash facilities? Funded, at least in part, by wealthy alumni. Even those schools daft enough to decide that each pupil must have a tablet in each lesson have not been quite so silly as to undertake to provide them: parents are usually just told that their children must come equipped with a device that meets certain specifications.

And the biggest cost in private schools? (Or, at least, day schools?) Teachers’ salaries. I know, because a few years ago, at one of those interminable beginning-of-term staff meetings, my school’s bursar came armed with graphs and numbers illustrating the point. I can’t remember whether salaries were a majority or just a plurality of the school’s outgoings, but it was by far the biggest number. Because of course it was. Teachers aren’t overpaid, but we’re not underpaid either, and once you add in generous pension contributions as well as all the other costs of employment you’re dealing with big numbers.

How’s a cut-price private school going to cope?

By employing very cheap teachers, I suppose. You do what the traditional public schools have always done, and employ clever kids straight out of university. They don’t have to be qualified, so you don’t have to pay them much. Sure. Okay. But it’s not as though there’s a surplus of teachers on the market at the moment. You might be able to pick up some English or History teachers in this way, but good luck persuading a Maths teacher, who could go to work in an established private school, or indeed a state school, and make more money, to work for you.

Larger classes? Yeah, maybe. But how big are we talking? If thirty is standard, are we having forty in the class? Good luck persuading parents to pay for that. What’s that you say? Behaviour will be better, so it’ll all work? It’s possible. But a school operating on these margins will have to be extremely accommodating of parents, and the disruptive pupil is the offspring of a paying customer too, and usually a more awkward one. There probably won’t be riots, but it won’t be like a military school either: the Head will certainly not be able to shrug and say ‘well, if you don’t like it, you can always go elsewhere.’

Well, how about adopting the airline model to which one of those articles compares this type of private school? That might work to begin with. Get the parents to pay a low up-front fee; then everything is extra. Never mind ‘bring-your-own-device’ – let’s have buy-your-own-books. Yes, textbooks and exercise books. Some private schools do this. (Actually let’s make a deal with a tech provider: all pupils to bring a device, with all these e-textbooks loaded onto them. You can get them from this company. School gets a cut.) Lunch. Special Needs. Individual music lessons. Trips. Uniforms. Sports kit. Have enough of these extras, make a bit of profit on each, and maybe you’ve got a workable business model.

Seductive to begin with, sure. And education is a difficult area for markets to properly operate in. For a start, the customer and the consumer are different people. Then you’ve got the problem of how you judge a good product or service; you only really know years later. And you can’t treat a school like you do your local supermarket, and go to another one next week if you think it might be a bit better. Many of the ingredients for competition are therefore absent, and perhaps a school could exploit this by providing a dodgy product supported by good marketing, and getting parents on the hook before jacking up the prices. Maybe.

But such places are at a big structural disadvantage. How is it different to a free school? If there’s a gap in the market, why isn’t a free school filling it? A free school would get twice as much money per pupil, and it’d be guaranteed, not subject to (however imperfect) market forces. So if I was running one, I’d want to make an offer to the Department of Education. We’re like a free school, I’d say, only private. So you get no say, but on the other hand we save you money, so it’s a good deal for you too, isn’t it? Give us half what you’d give a free school, and we’ll open. Lobby the minister who, as a Conservative, might be expected to support you. After all, one day Labour will be back, and they’ll do everything to state schools which you don’t want them to do, so the fewer pupils being educated in them the better, right? It’ll be just like the old Assisted Places Scheme. Only you subsidise the schools, not the pupils. And you liked the Assisted Places Scheme, didn’t you?

And if the General Election result had been as most people expected then maybe that’d have happened. They wouldn’t have been genuinely ‘independent’ schools, but they’d have been something like a free-private school hybrid. I can’t see it happening now.

But then I couldn’t see the Government losing seats at the last General Election, so what do I know?

The Limits of Ideology

I’m as much of an ideologue as anyone.

I’m a believer in traditional education. But not because of ‘the research.’ In fact I worry about depending on this argument. Not long ago, ‘the research’ supported progressive models of education, or at least that was the consensus among those who practise educational research. Soon ‘the research’ will say that using technology is essential to the twenty-first century learning process. Maybe it does already. Apple, and Microsoft, and presumably many other companies, are right now ploughing money into initiatives which will culminate in them being able to triumphantly and credibly announce that ‘the research’ is unambiguous – learners need their products.

And they might even be right. I don’t know. Like most teachers, I’m not an educational researcher. I’m suspicious. But if it comes to an argument with very clever and lavishly-funded advocates of e-learning with reams of evidence, I’ll be outgunned. I know that.

I hope there will continue to be credible, articulate traditionalists in the discipline who will be able to rebut and refute them. But I’m not going to kid myself that I will be able to assess the relative merits of the different arguments.


Of course there’s a but.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to support My Team unconditionally.

There’s always a point at which supporting an ideology goes too far.

Those socialists who couldn’t (or can’t) accept that the Soviet Union was ultimately a workers’ state, and therefore forgave it all its evils?

Those imperialists who couldn’t (or can’t) accept that the Irish Potato Famine, or indeed the Bengal Famine, were exacerbated by London’s policies?

Those Irish republicans who embraced terrorism?

They went too far.

It’s not a difficult concept, is it?


I understand, I think, the Weltanschauung of educational progressives. Theirs is a decent and honourable ideology, founded on decent and honourable principles. And for all that I disagree with them I’m inclined to think that it’s a good thing that they’re there. They were right about corporal punishment. They were right about grammar schools, and I say that as an agnostic when it comes to academic selection: the criticisms which educational progressives have made about the way selection actually worked are sufficiently robust that even advocates of the return of secondary modern schools have to affirm that they do not wish to countenance the return of secondary modern schools.

But it hasn’t been a good weekend for progressives. Because when your ideology leads you to suggest that sharing accounts of behaviour which didn’t lead to permanent exclusion from school is in and of itself unacceptable, then I’m afraid you’re behaving like the ideologues who suppressed accounts of the Holodomor.

And if you think there might be circumstances in which physical violence against a pregnant teacher ought not to result in a permanent exclusion for the perpetrator, you’re behaving just like those conservatives who looked smugly at Bryant & May and said yeah, well, it’s a bit of a shame that people working in their factories were poisoned with phosphorous, but no one’s making them work there, and that Annie Besant really is awful.

“No child should be permanently excluded from school” is from exactly that stable of politics. Never mind the teachers, never mind the other pupils, never mind all the other employees of the school, never mind what it does to the school community: the principle must be upheld regardless of the consequences. Everyone must suffer in the service of the ideology. It’s the most grotesque irresponsibility.

Food & Collectivism

Once more, this morning, I was greeted on Twitter with the news that another school has sent a letter to its pupils’ parents asking them to pay for their children’s lunch, and informing them that children whose lunches are not paid for will be fed, but that the food given to them will be more basic than the usual school dinner.

Some are outraged. Some are not. I can see both sides.

Yes, parents should be paying for their children’s food.

And yes, the ‘but they’re poor’ argument is unconvincing. There are free school meals for the children of those who genuinely can’t afford to pay for them.

Ah, someone comes along and says. But what about those parents whose income is just above the threshold for free school meals, but who struggle to pay the bills? Or whose boiler or washing machine or car has just broken down? What about parents who spend the money on fags or booze or weed? What about parents who don’t know their children are eligible for free school meals, or don’t know how to claim them, or are being ‘sanctioned’ by their local benefits office?

Whatever the reasons, clearly some parents are incapable of consistently ensuring that their children have meals at school, otherwise these letters and the accompanying minor scandals wouldn’t be so frequent. And yes, I’m enough of a bleeding-heart liberal to dislike the idea of a seven-year-old being told ‘your parents didn’t pay, so you get bread and an apple for your lunch.’ But then I’m also enough of a cynic to appreciate that if there are no consequences for parents not paying for their children’s school meals, then some parents won’t pay for them.

So I can see both sides.

I’m alarmed to find that I think the solution lies in socialism and repression.

In French Children Don’t Throw Food, which anyone with small or embryonic children should read, Pamela Druckermann explains how French schools, including écoles maternelles, provide, at the behest of the state, a centrally-determined menu of healthy and nutritious meals for their inmates. There’s no choice, there are no packed lunches, and it’s all funded by the authorities.

Now the French are of course very keen on their own image of themselves as a nation which takes gastronomy seriously, and perhaps their model depends on this cultural quirk. I’m sure it helps. But the Germans could, I think, learn a lot from the way things are done in France.

German schools were traditionally morning-only institutions, and although that’s changing in secondary education it’s still the case in most primary schools. There isn’t the culture of eating meals in schools: children would go home and be fed by their mothers. This is slowly evolving, but the Germans, perhaps surprisingly, appear to be handling the change inefficiently.

At my son’s kindergarten there is a lunchtime meal. But children are supposed to bring a breakfast snack and an afternoon snack with them. During Toddler Grumpy’s induction I was given a list of everything he needed, including what these snacks should comprise: it was all to be healthy, sugar-free, and to include a piece of fruit.

Fine, I thought. Makes sense.

A couple of weeks later his ‘key person’ took me aside. Why, she wanted to know, didn’t I ever give him biscuits? He was looking at the other children’s biscuits and was upset that he didn’t have any.

Well, I said, I thought that was forbidden by the rules!

The rules?

Yeah, the rules on the sheet you gave me two weeks ago. No sugary snacks.

Oh, those rules. Yeah, no one bothers about those. Give him biscuits.

So I did, but they came back uneaten in his lunchbox. He liked the idea of biscuits when he was being deprived of them, but quickly decided that actually he’d prefer his bananas after all. Sometimes I do wonder whether he’s my son.

Wouldn’t it, I grumbled to Mrs Grumpy, just be more efficient to do it like they do in England (or at least the way they did it in my son’s kindergarten and my daughter’s primary school) and say ‘no food brought from home – we’ll provide it all’? Everyone eats the same thing. Children learn to eat what’s put in front of them. They become accustomed to different foods. It’s good for them.

Of course that isn’t how it’s done in England – not beyond infant school, where lunch is provided free at the point of delivery. But I think it should be. Free school meals for everyone.

What are the objections to this? It’d pauperise the parents? Do me a favour. The parents aren’t paying school fees, are they? Once you’ve decided there’s going to be state provision of education, state provision of school meals is no more controversial than state provision of exercise books.

What about parents who want to decide on their children’s diets? Parents who want their children to have kosher or halal food? Or parents who want the right to feed their children junk food? My inclination is to say ‘tough.’ I suppose the ship has sailed on vegetarian options, so parents who really don’t want their children eating treif can enter their children for that.

Is this an outrageous infringement on liberty? I suppose so. I just don’t care. It’d be much more efficient. And we’re talking about five of the twenty-one meals a child will eat in a week. During term-time. It’s not as though I’m proposing to deprive the next generation of their inalienable right to drink sugared fizzy drinks for all eternity.

But what about the hard-pressed taxpayer? Hmm. Look. When I’m Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education I’ll make it revenue-neutral. I promise. I’ll abolish Assistant Headships, which appear to have been invented in the last decade to fill gaps which schools never used to have. Interactive whiteboards? Scrapped. Mocksteds, or companies offering services which are just different enough so that everyone can deny that this is what they’re providing? That can go too. Oh, and Virtual Learning Environments.

I’m a fan of Milton Friedman’s Four Ways of Spending Money. I am. I think it explains a lot about how schools waste it. (This includes private schools, by the way, because the spectre of the fee-paying parent just isn’t real to the people making decisions about day-to-day spending – indeed, I get the impression that it’s rather less real than the spectre of the cut-wielding bureaucrat in state-maintained schools.) But this is one of those occasions where the state really would be justified in saying that even if there are no economies of scale to be made then for other reasons it’d be worth doing.

Scrummaging, Mark Schemes, & Cheating

A fortnight ago, I played my first competitive rugby match in Germany.

I’m a member of your average amateur rugby club of a type that is found, if not all over the world, at least in several parts of the world. We have a mix of ages, from late teens to early forties. And in accordance with one aspect of the spirit of rugby football, as outlined in the preamble to the Laws of the Game*, we have a mix of shapes and sizes too. You can look at us and immediately tell who plays in what position.

This was significantly less true of our opposition. The league we play in is the third tier of German rugby, but our opponents were the under-nineteen side of a Bundesliga (that’s the top division) club. They were all proper athletes. Their fly-half could tackle, their locks could pass, their wingers could ruck. They didn’t only have a full matchday squad of twenty-two players; they had a twenty-third with them, a replacement for the replacements, just in case someone got injured in the warm-up before the game. This was a serious team.

(If you have a passing familiarity with rugby, you may be surprised to learn that there are teams which have players who can’t tackle a player or pass the ball. Readers with more experience of amateur rugby, on the other hand, will appreciate the rarity of a team in which all the players are competent in all of these areas of the game.)

We were, predictably, beaten. But we had the better of the scrum, which to a prop forward is all that really matters.

I’m a prop. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, this means that I stand at the front of the scrummage, bind on to my opponent (also a prop) and try to shove him backwards, while he tries to do the same to me. You should also know that props are universally regarded as the intellectual powerhouses of every rugby team and are often renowned for being far better-looking than players of other positions.

Anyway. In the first scrum I didn’t feel quite right. That can happen when you haven’t scrummaged for a while – your positioning can go a little awry. So in the second scrum, I was particularly careful about what I was doing, alert and ready to identify the point at which things went wrong.

It was my opposite number. Of course it was. The cheeky little eighteen-year-old was cheating! He was mucking around with his binding and his body positioning. I’d thought my difficulty was my own ineptitude, but instead I was the victim of an attempt to subvert the Laws of the Game.

But he hadn’t moved me back. This is principally because I am, as the purveyors of menswear used to say, a generously-proportioned gentleman. It’s also because I’ve played in the front row for longer than this youngster has been alive, so I know how to retaliate in these circumstances.

However. The main reason it wasn’t helping him is that he wasn’t good enough to cheat.

There is a kind of mythology about skulduggery in the scrum which front-row forwards are sometimes happy to exaggerate. Schoolboy players would often ask me, when they discovered that their coach was still playing the game, albeit at a level only slightly higher than theirs, about what tricks I could teach them. My answer was always the same. I didn’t know any, because I wasn’t good enough, and nor were they, so let’s do it properly and get it right.

That is, I suppose, also the answer one expects to hear from a schoolteacher. But it’s also true. I’ve been driven back in many a scrum, but it was usually because the opposition’s forwards were, collectively, stronger than my team’s; sometimes it was because my opposite number was stronger than me. Only once in a quarter of a century of playing the game was it because of ‘the dark arts,’ and that was when a loose head managed to pick my leg off the ground. (Extraordinarily the referee managed not to see it, otherwise I can only assume it’d have been a red card, because this is really dangerous play.)

In the upper echelons of the game, where the players are very evenly matched, and where they’re experts in their particular position, an illegal bind or something similar might well make all the difference. But for the rest of us, the body position required by the Laws of the Game is the most efficient way to do it. If we try to cheat, we only make it worse for ourselves.

Around a decade ago the History Boys came out. I loved it. Many history teachers did. And so, of course, did a brief generation of Oxbridge applicants, who wanted to try out being a Posner or a Dakin for themselves. But Irwin’s advice – to be provocative and contrarian, regardless of the actual truth – was counterproductive. I can’t have been the only history teacher trying to tell Sixth Form students that no, they’d better not write their A Level coursework on how General Custer was actually a military genius; nor can I have been the only history teacher to have tried to disabuse teenagers of the misapprehension that the way to approach Oxford’s History Aptitude Test was to try to be as controversial as possible.

Teenagers don’t always like being told that they don’t know anything (which is perhaps why more of them should study History, as its a congenial way of reconciling oneself to that condition). Lawrence Brockliss can say that William Burghley arranged for the terminally-ill Amy Robsart to be pushed down the staircase of her house so that the scandal made it impossible for Robert Dudley to marry Queen Elizabeth I. An A Level History student can’t. For that student it’s not a welcome message. But it’s true. You can only really start playing these subversive games well when you have extensive knowledge of the period. Without it, your cleverness lasts about as long as it takes someone to say “yeah but what about x?”

(Or, if you prefer, for about as long as it takes a tight-head to realise that his opposing loose-head is trying it on with a short bind, designed to prevent the tight-head from getting a decent bind himself, and to retaliate by dipping leftwards/inwards a little, thereby simultaneously making a mess of the loose-head’s body position and revealing his illegal bind to the referee.)

This is another way in which  published mark schemes for subjects like History & Politics can be so damaging. Pupils can all access the generic mark schemes, and of course they immediately go to the top band. So for some there appear to be an obvious answer to the question “What do I have to do to get an A?” It’s published right there on the official website: “say why one factor was more important than other factors.” Or “refer to historical debate.” And they try to do it.

But they try to do it without mastering the history first. And so you end up with these dreadful essays which appear to meet some of the criteria for the top ‘band’ and therefore an A grade, but which are otherwise so basic, so lacking in any development or sophistication, that they really belong several ‘bands’ down in the E-grade category.

They tried a short-cut, you see. They tried to do the clever thing, to do what the best do, but they did it without being expert practitioners, so it didn’t work for them.

And if their coaches are telling them about tricks they can do … well, maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe they should just concentrate on proper scrummaging first. Once they’ve got that right, then maybe they can think about flourishes.


*”Rugby is a game for men and women of all shapes and sizes.” Glorious.

Liking Pupils

There has, for a while, been a little meme popping around Edutwitter.

No one, it says, learned anything from someone they didn’t like. Or something similar.

Now this is quite clearly cobblers. I was taught Chemistry for three years by a teacher I didn’t like one little bit. I got a B grade in Chemistry GCSE, and although of course some of that was my doing some of it was his; and if you want something specific which Mr Smith taught me, it was the word ‘pusillanimous,’ which was how he described me on a report, written, I think, in the Fourth Form.

That was irritatingly sharp of him. I didn’t like Chemistry, and I didn’t see the point of it. I disliked being made to study three sciences and having to choose between History, Geography & Religious Studies, and between French, German & Latin. Those were things which I was good at, and of course I therefore persuaded myself that they were things which were worth studying. I did not attempt to hide my contempt for Mr Smith’s subject, and I made it clear that I thought I was above it all. In retrospect I rather like the thought of the aged and irascible chemist sending the bumptious teenager who fancied himself an intellectual scurrying to the dictionary.

Anyway. Mr Smith didn’t like me, I didn’t like him, and yet I learned from him.

Still. I think it’s probably a good thing if pupils and teachers like each other.

It certainly matters to the pupils. A few years ago I had a spot of bother with a girl who’d just joined our Lower Sixth from another school. Girls who join boys’ schools’ sixth forms are interesting specimens. Some are there for the boys; some have allowed themselves to be persuaded that boys’ schools have higher academic standards or better teaching; some have had older brothers going through the school; some have hated being in an all-girls environment. This girl was a refugee: she’d failed to make the standard at the local girls’ school and so came to us.

She did History and Politics. In both subjects she had the tremendous good fortune to be taught by me. After three weeks she owed me an essay in each. Gloriously, she had to apologise both in Period One and in Period Five for not having done the first essay. I kept her back at the end of the latter lesson to give her a stern bollocking, but before I’d even started she burst into floods of tears. As she made a snotty mess of my lovely bottle green pocket square, I could just about make out ‘and I’m really scared you won’t like me now.’

I related this to the Deputy Head when he asked me how she was getting on. “They don’t see that it’s not about liking people,” he said, “but that it’s about having a professional working relationship. Never occurs to them.”

I’m not sure I agree with him.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with a professional working relationship. And it’s probably a better aim to shoot for than the alternatives. Certainly better than those teachers who insist that they like all of their pupils. (Come on. Really?) Better too than those teachers who pride themselves on their popularity. But I think we can – and perhaps should – like our pupils.

I also remember a GCSE History set. All boys. They were theoretically mixed-ability, but the timetabling was such that this group contained all the boys who did History and who didn’t do French, but did Spanish instead. (The conventional wisdom appears to be that GCSE Spanish is easier than GCSE French, and certainly in this school it was a bit of an intellectual insult to be told that you’d be better suited to Spanish than to French.) The hard core of the class, as I’m sure they thought of themselves, were together in the bottom set for Physics, and would often rumble along discontentedly to my lesson having just endured an hour at the hands of a teacher – an award-winning senior teacher, by the way – whose relationship with them was far from harmonious.

“You’re looking particularly grumpy today,” I’d say in my best jocular manner, “did an Association Football team lose an important fixture last night?”

I’d get a grunt. “It’s Mr Brown sir. He really hates me.”

I really hate you.

“No but he really does.”

I promise you I really hate you.

“No you don’t sir, you’re just pretending, I know you like me, you said so to my mum. He’s not pretending. He actually hates me.”

By now there’ll be a chorus of support from the other boys. “Yeah, sir, you don’t know what Mr Brown is like. He hates all of us. But he hates Bloggs most of all.”

Look, I’ll say, I remember spending an afternoon sitting on a bench at Hampton Court because you, Bloggs (I’ll point my finger at him at this point), couldn’t manage to behave yourself. I was really looking forward to having a double mocha choca skinny latté macchiato in the café with my colleagues. Instead you couldn’t manage to look at a Real Tennis game without trying to put off the old geezers with silly noises, could you?

Bloggs tries not to join in the giggling from the others who’ve heard this all before. “That was, like, four years ago sir! We were in the Second Form!”

I still haven’t forgotten. Trust me when I say that no one in this school hates you more than I do. Not even Mr Brown.

“You love us sir.”

You go ahead and tell yourselves that if it makes you feel better. Here I am, brain the size of a small planet, encyclopaedic knowledge of the eleventh century, and I’m wasting my life telling feckless wastrels like you to behave yourselves on school trips.

The thing is … they were completely right about Mr Brown. He really did hold his bottom set in utter contempt. At the end of the year, halfway through their GCSE, he managed to rearrange the timetabling so that he didn’t have to take them through the second half of the course. Most independent schools have a smattering of such teachers: they like teaching the top sets in the Sixth Form, and they’re often good at it, but they’re also the ones to be found in the staff room complaining about admissions procedures and discipline policies, and wondering how on earth boys ‘at a school like this’ can be so dense and so badly behaved.

And the other thing is … in that exchange with that class I said things which would in many circumstances be wholly unacceptable. I could only get away with them because they knew I didn’t really mean it, and that I did like them, collectively and individually.

I didn’t, of course. Not all of them.

(Tell you what’s interesting though. As I try to think through examples of pupils I’ve disliked, so as to unfairly caricature them here, I can remember tutees, or boys who lived in the same boarding house I was a residential tutor in, but not pupils I’ve actually taught in the classroom or had in my sports teams. Is this just me? Maybe. I think I’m at my best in those circumstances, so pupils are more likely to respond better to me; but I also think that having some common endeavour is more likely to foster good relationships.)

But no, I didn’t like every individual pupil I taught. And sometimes, collectively, boys can be appalling, especially in circumstances where they’re undersupervised. It makes me irrationally angry to sit at the front of a bus and listen to the raucous whooping and jeering from the back if a sports match, especially an international Association Football match, is being broadcast on the radio. Very little in teaching has angered me more than the way a group of pupils will casually drop litter in their own common room on the basis that there’s always someone else to clean up after them. So let’s get this straight: I don’t have any illusions about the purity of young people, and I very much don’t think that they are somehow better than the rest of us. They aren’t. They would, left to their own devices, behave like barbarians.

I don’t, personally, find the usual clichés about learning to like teenagers useful. I’ve tried to look through the obstreperous teenager to see the adult who’ll emerge later. Doesn’t work for me. Nor does trying to see myself in them. Nor learning about their hidden qualities from colleagues.

The last group of pupils I didn’t get on with were a tutor group I inherited when I joined their school. They were going into the Upper Sixth. Their Lower Sixth tutor was still at the school, but she had successfully petitioned to be allowed to drop them, as she had found them very difficult, and so they were allocated to me, while she took on an easier group. I don’t blame her for this, though it does amuse me that she is now in a senior pastoral position at one of the country’s finest – or at least most selective – academic girls’ schools. I do blame whichever leaders agreed to the move, which – even disregarding the treatment of a new member of staff – was unlikely to turn out well. And it didn’t. I found out about this arrangement on the first day of term; I was told to expect them to behave badly, and they did, and we did not find each other’s company at all congenial.

I had a think about how to do better next time. I’d tried the aforementioned advice without success. So I resorted to a far more famous cliché – I decided to fake it until I made it. And, surprisingly, it worked. I don’t have anything in particular to share: I don’t think it’s about specific techniques. It’s more an attitude, a frame of mind.

Since then, whenever I’ve started with a group of schoolchildren, be they a tutor group or a team or a class, I’ve pretended to like them. This doesn’t necessarily mean being nice to them. I can like them without giving them an easy time. Liking one’s pupils is very different to (and very much easier than) liking an acquaintance. It doesn’t involve sharing interests or values; it doesn’t involve taking a forgiving attitude to social transgressions. In a way, it’s the opposite of liking someone, because it’s about not taking things personally.

Or rather, it’s about deciding to see everything that would make you dislike a pupil or a group of pupils as an occupational hazard, or a natural phenomenon, while seeing everything on the other side of the ledger as being a reason to actively like them.

Totally illogical, I know. But I’ve found that if I act as though despite all the ways teenagers can be immensely frustrating people I enjoy their company, individually and collectively, it turns out that over time I discover that they’re much more likeable than I thought they would be.

This makes the whole experience of teaching so much more pleasant, which is why I’d advocate it ahead of pursuing a purely ‘professional’ working relationship.

Does it make a difference to learning? I don’t know, and I’d be suspicious of anyone who claimed that it was possible to know. It’s almost certainly impossible to measure with any confidence. But for me that doesn’t matter. If it makes being in the classroom more fun, it’s worth it.

Bring On Katie Hopkins

Katie Hopkins is launching a ‘Stand Strong School Tour.’ In a month’s time, she wants to address schoolchildren about several things: she has helpfully issued this to tell us what she’ll be talking about.

Some people, of course, are outraged.

Interestingly, I haven’t seen anything in defence of the proposal.

Usually there would be two strands of opinion supporting the Stand Strong School Tour. One would argue that schools are bastions of left-wing indoctrination, and that such an offer is therefore very welcome. There might be an acknowledgement that Hopkins may not be the perfect person to deliver such a message, but schools’ reluctance to invite her would be used to demonstrate that they and the teachers who work in them are the ‘real’ enemies of civilisation.

The other would comprise of those commentators who, since last summer, have discovered David Goodhart. They’ve decided that being a Man of the People is more important to them than any of their opinions, and have therefore happily jettisoned the latter in favour of the former. These types now demonstrate how ‘woke’ they are by prowling the corridors of cyberspace looking for slighting references to the tabloid press and indications of a lack of patriotism and, in a sadly triumphant tone, announce that this is modern liberalism, and it’s no surprise people don’t like it, but fortunately they are better than the rest of those dreadful metropolitan elites to which they might belong but whose values, they now recognise, are appallingly undemocratic.

Usually both groups can be relied on to defend the right of someone like Hopkins to address groups of schoolchildren, and to noisily disparage those who disagree. But they’ve clearly decided to steer clear of this one.

And I can see why. It’s not just that Hopkins is clearly a fairly dislikeable person, though she is: her oeuvre appeals to those who already agree with her, and maybe seeing it in the media encourages such people to be more vocal in their views, but she’s unlikely to win many converts. If I held those opinions, or some of them, and wanted them propagated, I’d want it done by someone with more credibility: I wouldn’t want to find myself in the awkward position of having to align myself with Team Katie Hopkins.

Now I’m not trying to be a contrarian. But as they’ve abandoned the field, I’ll take to it. If I were in a position to extend an invitation to Hopkins, I would do so. Why?

Because it’s good for pupils to listen to external speakers. Such events add something to their education. And they are particularly good, I think, when they involve an esteemed figure challenging the interpretations which are usually delivered in the classroom.

Two examples for you. In recent years Dr Madsen Pirie, the Adam Smith Institute chief, came to speak to my Politics classes (and the Economics classes too); Gary Sheffield came to address the sixth-form historians (plus some younger nerds). And for weeks afterwards I found myself dealing with interjections along the lines of ‘yeah, but Gary Sheffield said…’

And it doesn’t have to be directly related to the subjects which pupils are taking for such talks to be of educational value: introducing pupils to the poetry of Merle Collins, or the films of Michael Dudok de Wit, both of which I’ve seen done on these sort of occasions, is worth doing too.

So does Hopkins fit into this category?


I don’t think so. No.

But clearly lots of people do think so. She has nearly a million Twitter followers (including, as was highlighted on my ‘feed’ this morning, Michael Gove). She has written for the Sun. She continues to write for the Mail. She used to have her own radio show. She has appeared on BBC Question Time. She is part of ‘the national conversation.’ This isn’t some obscure nobody we’re talking about. You don’t have to be Brendan O’Neill or Caroline Flint to appreciate this.

Is she fit to address our innocent, impressionable children?

Well. One reason why I expect Hopkins’ ideological fellow-travellers aren’t making a fuss about this is that they’re well aware of what will happen when she does go into a school. Teachers will prime their pupils to beware of what she’s saying. There will be a few outspoken radicals among the pupil body ready to challenge what she says and what she has said. Afterwards there will be careful debriefing to ensure that everyone understands that Although Free Expression Is Important, Katie Hopkins Is Wrong. Perhaps a film will emerge of a teenager saying something unpleasant to her, and it will, as they say, ‘go viral,’ under the title “15yo Girl DESTROYS Katie Hopkins – MUST SEE.’

Setting that to one side I am, I’m afraid, intensely relaxed about the potential damage that one hour’s worth of talk can do. What’s the worst that can happen?

I suppose the worst that can happen is that a few pupils think ‘oh, that’s interesting, I’ve never thought about it that way before.’ A few more, who agreed with Hopkins to begin with, are prompted by her to act more obnoxiously around the school and on social media. Muslim pupils in particular are targeted.

But that’s not, I’m afraid, a reason to suppress Hopkins’ views. Schools have behaviour policies. They have policies on cyber-bullying. Some even take them seriously. But we need to be able to handle different views without resorting to barbarism, and if a group of children isn’t able to do it … then they have to be taught. By their parents, yes, but also by their teachers.

And it’s not as though Hopkins, her views, and her robust approach to public discourse are a secret. She’s easy to find. It wouldn’t surprise me if this whole stunt is designed to allow her to pose as someone whose arguments are being suppressed by intolerant liberals.

And whisper it, but an hour of Katie Hopkins is not going to turn our schoolchildren into goose-stepping brownshirted stormtroopers. No, it won’t. I promise.

What about balance?

Look, were Laurie Penny to offer to do a White Men Are Scum tour and address schoolchildren on that theme then I’d be happy to invite her to my school too. That she isn’t doesn’t, as far as I’m concerned, mean that Hopkins shouldn’t be able to. We didn’t, after all, invite Christopher Clark to follow Gary Sheffield. And, funnily enough, we didn’t get any complaints from parents that we were outrageously partial in choosing only to host speakers who’d blame Kaiser Wilhelm’s government for the outbreak of the Great War, and not the equally-academically-respectable historians who disagree.

I fully understand why the school leaders who’d have to sign off on such an invitation might prefer Katie Hopkins and her Stand Strong Tour to stay away. Never mind the trouble it’d cause when it was announced that the talk would clash with a sports fixture, or a drama rehearsal, or any one of the myriad events which are carefully aligned to cause a minimum of clashes. (Someone really should have told whoever arranges her calendar that schools are different from the media, and that set-piece occasions usually have to be booked months, not days, in advance.) Dealing with the inevitable parental complaints would be irritating and time-consuming.

But in principle I don’t object.