It’s Not Funny

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

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

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

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

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

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


Another School Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see. That really is quite some story.

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

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

Of course not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How’s your Dutch, Head of Year?

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

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

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

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

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

Right. What did he look like?

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

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

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

Oh really?

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

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

Political Bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolutism & Direct Instruction

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

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

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

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

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

This usually raises a smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Answering Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Name of the Game

There are three ways to run an education system.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boys & Football Clubs

I’ve just read this, and it made me think about something which has bothered me for quite some time.

Like most teachers, I’ve taught boys who have dreamed of becoming professional footballers. And like many teachers, I’ve taught boys who have appeared to have been on the way to ‘making it.’

It feels to me like there are more such boys now than there used to be. As a schoolboy, over twenty years ago, I played in a league in which one club had one boy who was on Chelsea’s books. His status was legendary, though of course you’ve never heard of him, because of course he didn’t become a professional footballer. He was the only one. No one else in the league I played in, nor anyone at my school, had ever been taken on by any other football club.

So the first time I taught a boy and was told that he was part of a junior squad at a Football League club I was impressed.

I’ve learned not to be. At my school – and this is a private school, remember, which isn’t the usual breeding ground for professional footballers – I have known of several boys who have been described as ‘playing for’ one club or another.

This, needless to say, is something of which they are inordinately proud. They have indeed been selected by these clubs; they are indeed better than their peers; and of all the professional footballers, it is likely that they have come through these programmes. Not all of them ‘turn professional,’ but of the professional footballers at the peak of the game there aren’t many who were discovered at semi-professional levels. So if anyone is on his way to stardom, and of course someone is, it’ll be someone who has already been identified in this way.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. Nick Hornby wrote about the process in his brilliant chapter on Gus Caesar in Fever Pitch (1992):

At school he must have been much, much better than his peers, so he gets picked for the school team, and then some representative side, South London Boys or what have you; and he’s still better than anyone else in the team, by miles, so the scouts come to watch, and he’s offered an apprenticeship not with Fulham or Brentford or even West Ham but with the mighty Arsenal. And it’s still not over, even then, because if you look at any First Division youth team of five years ago you won’t recognise the names, because most of them have disappeared.

But the sausage machine appears to be taking in many more boys than it used to.

The attitude of the clubs themselves is understandable. They want to gather as much talent as they can, harvest the wheat, and discard the chaff. It’s not as though the attrition rates are a secret. The boys know the deal. Their parents know the deal. Is it necessary for those clubs to give boys contracts to sign in which they agree not to play rugby for their school team? I doubt it, but I suppose they have their reasons.

And I also understand the desire on the part of the football fraternity as a whole to support these academies (as they are, perhaps misleadingly, known). English football in particular has been criticised for a lack of sophistication, and that lack of sophistication has been linked to the way young English footballers are treated when they first take up the game. I remember being ten years old and playing eleven-a-side games on full-size pitches with full-size goals; I remember the convention that the centre-half was selected on his ability to kick the ball as hard as possible; I remember games on windy days in which an entire half (as in the time period) would take place in one third of the pitch because even that lad couldn’t get his goal kicks any further; I remember the boys who were perennial substitutes; and yes, I certainly remember the parents’ behaviour.

That, infamously, was a major drawback of that wholly amateur system. Those adults who were involved in it were motivated, mostly, by nothing more than a desire to do their best for the boys (I wasn’t aware of any girls’ teams in my town at the time) and for the game itself. But those youth football clubs, Burke’s idyllic ‘little platoons,’ too often became wretched and twisted versions of the real thing.

When my brother was twelve (twelve!) his team played against another team, placed in a higher division, in the league cup; they took them to two replays (those were the days), and the coach of the opposing team then spent the next few weeks coaxing two of my brother’s team-mates to join his club, which they eventually did. When I was sixteen, a club in my league folded in December: it had spent the previous summer trying to persuade some of the best players in the area to join, and some did, promised the glories of being the glamour boys in the area; but existing players (some of whom had played for that team for years) were utterly alienated, and team spirit collapsed; one cold afternoon they found themselves 7-0 down at half-time, to the team top of the league who they’d expected to be their only rivals for the title, and they walked off, never to play another game together.

So look – I’ve got no illusions about the good old days.

And yet I wonder if the new system is better. I wonder if top football clubs are being grossly irresponsible in telling boys that they can now consider themselves A Chelsea Player, knowing that in a few years’ time they’ll be telling them that they’re not wanted. And I wonder if, in the long run, the boys themselves would enjoy their football more, and indeed their other sports, if they were playing for their local club instead.

Almost none of these boys are going to become professional footballers. I don’t quite know what we should do about this phenomenon, but the current situation – where we allow them to kid themselves that they are, and to allow their futures to be curtailed in the way that Jeff explains, is wrong.


Some time ago, I had an informal chat with a senior colleague, himself active on social media, and asked him a question. If you knew that one of your subordinates was tweeting or blogging anonymously, I asked him, and if the Head Master suspected the same thing, and if he asked you if you shared those suspicions, what would you say?

He was careful not to answer the question.

Am I anonymous through a desire for self-preservation? That’s certainly part of it. It wouldn’t be difficult to interpret some of what I’ve said on here as bringing my employer into disrepute, and I prefer having a salary to not having one.

But that is no longer a consideration for me. In a few days it’ll be the end of term. Tomorrow I’ll receive my salary payment for June. At the very worst, were I to be unmasked and sacked this afternoon, I’d miss out on two more instalments, and at least I wouldn’t have to endure the colossal waste of time that is the last few days of the academic year.

So I don’t fear being unmasked. Threats to reveal who I am and who my employer do not worry me. It may be that I stay in teaching in some form – I’m enrolled on a TEFL course to start at the end of August – but I won’t be a full-time schoolteacher again, and I’m leaving the country, and although yes, I know, these things can potentially follow you online everywhere and forever, I think the chances of this little corner of cyberspace becoming a big enough deal that it has a significant impact on my future chances of employment to be so small as to not be worth worrying about.

Even so, although I no longer fear the sack, I won’t be announcing who I am at the end of August. This is why.

I genuinely hold a great deal of affection for my current place of work and even for those who manage (or, if you must, lead) it. Like all schools it has its problems. But – and this is rather Marxist of me, I know – I don’t think that those problems are primarily the fault of the school itself, or those who currently occupy its most senior positions. I have a sneaking suspicion that many of my bosses actually agree with me more often than they’d like to admit, but can’t say so. They’re constrained not only by their own careers, which require them to introduce inadvisable initiatives, but also by governors, inspectors, and parents, all of whom may have silly ideas about what a good education looks like, and all of whom must be placated.

And of course there are areas where they don’t agree with me, where they have persuaded themselves that the brave new world of twenty-first century learning, for jobs that don’t yet exist, requires the school to pay thousands and pupils to spend hours on iPads … but I’ll give them this. I think their hearts are in the right place. The people I work for do genuinely want the best for our school and for our pupils. They must compromise, as we all must, with forces which are stronger than ourselves.

If my ramblings are attached to this institution then it will look bad as well, at least in some people’s eyes, and I don’t want that for the school, nor for its chiefs.

This is leading me down a path I don’t particularly like. Because if I believe all that, and I do, then isn’t it utterly irresponsible of me to be tweeting & blogging in this way? Now that it won’t be me that suffers the consequences, shouldn’t I be all the more careful about what I type?

Maybe. But the issues are there. They’re bigger than any one school. I want to grumble about them. I’m not sufficiently pompous or deluded as to think that anything I put on here will make any difference to anything, but if everyone did this, then someone would, and if no one did then no one would, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Immanuel Kant.

I don’t actually see what knowing my name would add to the Grumpy Teacher. You’d know I wasn’t fibbing? You’d know how representative I am? Maybe. But I think you can make your mind up about that from the content. (I’m not fibbing, but I’m not at all representative: this is just one snapshot of one teacher and the four schools I’ve worked in.) You don’t trust me? That’s easy: don’t follow & don’t read.

So yes, being anonymous protects me from the slings and arrows of outrageous educationalists who would ‘expose’ me, confident that all that they publish is approved of by those on whom they depend for their income. But that’s not all it does.

On Being Not Quite Jewish

It was a cold winter’s Saturday morning, and I’d walked from my flat up to the school playing fields. Normally I’d have jogged up in my refereeing kit, but this was a special Saturday morning: there were fewer rugby fixtures than usual, so there was (for once) a surplus of staff; my colleagues being selfless and generous people, one had agreed to referee my game for me, so I could watch the boys and concentrate on managing replacements.

On the touchline a mother came up to me.

“Mr Grumpy! Good morning. How are you? I saw you walking up and I said to my son, I didn’t know there was a shul around here! And he said no there isn’t, that’s just Mr Grumpy. And I said I didn’t know Mr Grumpy was Jewish! And he said, well, I don’t know if he is or not. So I said I must go and talk to Mr Grumpy, and he said please don’t, but you don’t mind, do you?”

Now it so happens that not only do I have a name which Jews usually recognise as being Jewish in origin, but I also have a somewhat rabbinical beard and a very fetching black fedora, in which I’ll have you know I look amazing, and which I was wearing that day.

“So Mr Grumpy I have to ask you, are you Jewish?”


And at that point every Jewish person knows that the answer is going to be one of two things: either this is a bona fide Jew who has decided to repudiate the faith and culture of his ancestors, or it is someone with a Jewish father but a Gentile mother. The latter applies to me, which is what I said to this mother.

“Oh,” she said, briefly showing her disappointment before pulling herself together, “but were you brought up Jewish?”

I wasn’t. Old Man Grumpy was an atheist who certainly wasn’t about to waste his time taking his son to synagogues. I didn’t quite say that to her.

“But Mr Grumpy. Do you feel yourself to be Jewish?”

Tricky one, I told her. On the one hand I’m certainly not embarrassed or ashamed of my Judaic heritage; on the other hand I don’t practise Judaism, nor am I in any sense a part of any Jewish community. (The State of Israel considers me to be a Jew, and I’m eligible to make aliyah; but many Jews would, I know, object to me claiming a Jewish identity, and as Yiddishkeit belongs to them more than it belongs to me I wouldn’t want to press such a claim.)


There was a pause. We watched the boys warming up. She was about to leave: her son wasn’t in my team, and kick-off was just a few minutes away.

“But Mr Grumpy…

…surely you had a bris?”

History’s Superpower

“A man acquainted with history may, in some respect, be said to have lived from the beginning of the world, and to have been making continual additions to his stock of knowledge in every century.”

That’s David Hume’s answer to the question posed by Mark Enser (@ensermark) about the superpower conferred by studying a subject. I suppose it’s mine too.

There are genius teenage chess players, and musicians, and mathematicians. Some talented teenagers are celebrated for their achievements in the arts, and in business, and in sports. But there are no genius teenage historians. There are no celebrated works of history written by teenagers. CV Wedgwood was in her mid-twenties when she published her biography of Strafford, and (doing no more research than thinking off the top of my head for a quarter of an hour) I don’t think many younger historians can have written a book which has entered the historical canon.

Good history requires good judgment which requires a great deal of knowledge. School leavers can’t be good historians. The most we can do is pump them full of knowledge, prime them with some understanding of what historians do with that knowledge, and inspire them with the desire to find out more, and thereby enable them to go on and turn themselves into historians.

Not much of a superpower, you might think. And fair enough. History might give you wisdom, but only after you’ve studied a lot of it.

And yet I think you can tentatively suggest that someone who has done a fair amount of history at school, and has been taught the importance of only ever drawing careful, nuanced, limited judgments, can nonetheless be in a somewhat better position to understand some aspects of the world than he might otherwise have been.

This morning on my way to work I listened to John McDonnell citing Gandhi on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme. And like everyone who has studied or taught the history of the Indian subcontinent in the first half of the twentieth century, I shook my head.

Gandhi is regarded, in many circles at least, as one of the finest men ever to live. And yet historians know that the story is at best (as they say on social media) complicated, and that a critic of Gandhi, the politician and the man, has got plenty of ammunition with which to attack him.

Gandhi’s image is of a humble man. Historians know that Gandhi’s insistence, at the Round Table Conferences and thereafter, on being recognised as the only voice of all of India was not just very far from humble, but also hugely damaging to his cause. Plenty of people who supported the Indian independence movement did not consider themselves represented by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress.

Look, this isn’t going to turn into an essay about Gandhi. But let’s not forget that his refusal to listen to India’s Muslims was a huge factor in Partition. You want to blame Dan Hannan for Brexit-related racism? Okay. Then you can blame Gandhi for the violence which accompanied the end of the Raj, and indeed for the rupture between Pakistan and Bangladesh; you can blame Gandhi for the dismal persistence of Hindu nationalism, and you can blame Gandhi for the fact that the Pakistan cricket team can’t play matches at home any more.

Gandhi’s carefully-cultivated image as the embodiment of India was a great success. He was, and continues to be, very popular. Gandhi described the Dalits as ‘children of God,’ and suggested that the essence of India was rural backwardness. Historians would tell you that. What you did with that information would be up to you.

Gandhi’s image is of a man who wanted to avoid violence at all costs, and you might respect that, but you might also think that of all the points in human history when ‘I’m afraid we need to use force on this occasion’ can be defended, the Second World War against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan is fairly high up on the list.

Historians will tell you that Gandhi launched the Quit India movement, demanding immediate British withdrawal from the subcontinent, in 1942, a moment of great danger for civilisation in the Old World. Historians will tell you that Stafford Cripps offered India self-government after the war in return for the support of India’s nationalist leaders, and that Gandhi described the offer as ‘a post-dated cheque drawn on a failing bank.’

When telling classes that information I try to do so as neutrally as possible. We look at both sides. We consider the motives of people on all sides. However, when I tell them about Gandhi’s decision that he needed to purify himself by taking nubile young women into his bed, and not touching them, I’m afraid I do dabble in a bit of the sort of interdisciplinary approach which I normally disparage. “This,” I say, “is what is meant by ‘objectification’ [something teenagers often struggle with]. Not looking at a girl and thinking ‘I like the look of her, I wonder if she’d like to go for a coffee and an argument about the High Middle Ages.’ Not asking a girl out because you like the way she smiles when she hears the cricket scores. No, the very definition of objectification – treating someone not as a person but an object, a body to serve your interests – is what Gandhi did here.”

You think I’m being unreasonable? Console yourself that the rest of what they’ll learn about Gandhi – especially, I’m afraid, in too many Religious Studies lessons – will be hagiography of the very worst kind. It’s all right. Gandhi the Saint will persist for a long time.

What has this got to do with superpowers?


The pupil who has studied this stuff knows that the conventional wisdom about Gandhi is misleading.

In having learned that she’ll also have learned that sometimes the conventional wisdom is wrong, and should therefore be imbibed cautiously.

(This isn’t, of course, restricted to the Indian independence movement. Spend a year on European dictatorships, or on the Cold War, or on the Russian Revolution, or on the French Revolution, or indeed the English Revolution; spend a year on the Reformation, or the Crusades, or the Norman Conquest, and you’ll learn that these events, and the central figures involved in them, weren’t like you thought they were.)

But the more history you learn, the more you’ll learn that circumstances are always sui generis, but also that there are comparisons which can be drawn, while recognising that trying to do so is fraught with danger, and yet knowing that your understanding of one part of history can be very useful in understanding another.

The French Revolution and the Russian Revolution were very different, not least because the Russian revolutionaries were very conscious of their French forbears. Still, in both countries a decaying system headed by a bad king (with a foreign wife, from the country’s traditional enemy) saw the monarch forced to accept some measure of constitutional liberalism before a bloody war provoked a reign of terror which culminated in the assumption of power by a dictator. They should have seen it coming: it happened in seventeenth-century England too.

But were the systems decaying? Francois Furet & Norman Stone say not. Were the kings bad? Or did they find themselves in impossible circumstances? France’s war was with a foreign power, with some domestic disturbances; Russia’s was the other way round, a civil war with foreign intervention. The Bourbons were restored; the Romanovs were not. There were plenty of similarities. There were also plenty of differences.

A man acquainted with history knows that Gandhi was a far more sinister individual than is usually recognised. He knows that the Mahatma was actually a very ordinary soul, with the same self-regard as your average politician; he might well find himself considering Jinnah and Nehru as greater men. When he comes across other alleged heroes he may well find himself asking whether there is an Ambedkar in the shadows whose perspective may be rather different.

He knows that some combinations of circumstances are dangerous. He knows that he mustn’t assume that just because something happened in some way in the past that it’ll happen in the same way again in the present, or in the future. If he uses this knowledge wisely, his judgment will be improved.

Okay. So it’s not a superpower. But it’s worth having.