Why isn’t this taught in schools?

This was the cry of Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain yesterday. In a discussion on the worthy quest by Martin Lewis to improve the teaching of financial literacy in schools (a move for which I am broadly in support), the well-paid presenter explained that one of her own children was surprised, shocked and no doubt disappointed by the news that they would have to pay tax on their own earnings. Reid was incredulous. Yet instead of reflecting on her own parenting and wondering how she had managed to raise someone with such a poor grasp of how the world works, she wailed “why isn’t this taught in schools?!” The entire panel agreed with her, with nobody raising the fact that basic financial literacy is, in fact, currently taught in schools.

To quote a nauseating political turn of phrase, let me be clear: I support the teaching of financial literacy in schools and I agree with Martin Lewis that it could do with some improvement. I support it because there are a small handful of vulnerable children who will not experience any discussion at home when it comes to financial matters. They may have parents who struggle to understand such things for themselves, who lack the skills and the vocabulary to enlighten their own children in complex matters. All of that said, I cling to the fact that all parents have a responsibility to teach their children about the world and how they fit into it and to the fact that the overwhelming majority of parents are perfectly capable of doing so. It is parents who have a duty to give children a sense that money doesn’t grow on trees and has to be earned, as well as the basic principle that most of the things they see around them have to be paid for and that this money comes from all of us. These are the kinds of things that must be discussed constantly in order for a child to grasp them, not ticked off on a curriculum list.

When we’re talking about a parent as privileged as Reid (you can look up the latest best guess on her salary), I am pretty unimpressed by the apparent fact that she does not consider it her responsibility to discuss such matters with her own children. To give her the benefit of the doubt, some people find talking about money with their own children difficult. Some want to cushion their children against the harsh reality that things have to be bought and paid for. I’ll be honest and say that I have never understood this. I consider myself hugely fortunate to have had parents who laid their cards on the table. Who told me what we could and could not afford. Who pointed to schoolmates with more luxurious lifestyles and punctured the image by deliberating where that money might have come from, what sacrifices may have been made in order to get hold of it. I was told that I was lucky to have a father who came home in the evenings and at weekends, who turned down more lucrative opportunities because he had different values and preferred to be at home with his family. By the same turn, my parents got lucky that I happened to observe one or two things that supported their rhetoric. Perhaps the most poignant moment was during a pool party at the house of a particularly wealthy classmate. They had an amazing house and an incredible lifestyle, one which could easily have impressed a child of my age. But the birthday girl’s mother spent the entire proceedings lying on a sun-lounger while we were supervised by the au pair, which I found really weird. (I was too young to work out that the mother was drunk, but realised this in later years). What I did understand at the time was that the child’s father made a brief appearance at around 4.00pm and she burst into tears: he was wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase and was leaving his daughter on her birthday to go to work. I remember thinking there and then, “if this is what buys you a private pool, you can keep it.”

Of course, the debate about where the responsibility lies for financial literacy forms part of a wider discussion on what schools are and should be used for and to what extent we are now asking them to take on things which really should not be their responsibility. I have written before on Labour’s mind-boggling suggestion that schools should take on teaching children how to brush their teeth, and barely a day goes by when there isn’t a story of a child sent in to primary school incapable of buttoning up their own coat, doing up their own shoelaces or even the basics of toilet training. Schools are now the receptacle for every failure in social care and – let us not be afraid to say it – every failure in parenting. It simply is not sustainable.

When I mentioned Reid’s comment on Twitter I received a lot of replies, with plenty of people telling me whether they did or did not recall receiving any teaching about financial literacy when they were in school. As always, everyone thinks their own recollections of school reflect the reality then and now, and everyone labours under the illusion that their own recollections are 100% accurate. If I believed every tutee who claimed they’d “never been taught” something I’d be declaring a state of emergency in Latin teaching across some of the most prestigious schools in the country. The reality? Well, they have been taught it, they just didn’t take it in at the time and it’s my job to fix that. The teaching of financial literacy in schools does take place and Reid’s children will in all likelihood have been given some basic teaching on taxes. Could the teaching of financial literacy improved? Certainly. As Lewis pointed out in the discussion on GMB, it is a topic currently divided between Maths and Citizenship in state secondary schools, so it might be a good idea to have someone with overall responsibility for coordinating the curriculum on finances across the whole school. Great idea. I’m all in favour. However, there will still be kids who simply don’t take it on board and I come back again and again to the reality that nothing is so powerful as the messaging a child receives at home.

So, Susanna: if you truly wanted your children to understand about paying taxes, then maybe you should have talked to them about such things on a regular basis to prepare them for the world they will be inhabiting. Your children have grown up in a household with a fair bit more money than the average person, so I hope very much that this was discussed. I hope you told them when times were tight, or explained to them how lucky they were that this was never the case, since mummy does a job that is considered worthy of a salary that most people in equally worthy professions could only dream about. I hope you talked to them about how much prices have gone up in the last couple of years. Do they know why most supermarkets now have a donation point for local food banks? Do they know the answer to the classic question that MPs are so frequently challenged with: do they know the price of a pint of milk these days? Do you? You see, your children’s teachers were not responsible for explaining the basics of how the world works. That job, I’m afraid, was yours.

Photo by micheile henderson on Unsplash

How did it go?

With the first Latin GCSE done and dusted, “how did it go?” is probably a question that every candidate has been asked and answered multiple times. This week, I have found myself wondering to what extent their self-evaluations are accurate.

Curious to discover an answer, I turned to the internet without much hope of finding one, yet came across a psychology study reported by The Learning Scientists, a group of cognitive scientists who focus on research in education. What’s particularly interesting about the study is that it attempts to evaluate students’ success at making what they call “predictions”, which the psychologists define as a student’s projection of their likely performance prior to a test, as well as their “postdictions”, by which they mean a student’s evaluation of their performance afterwards. The study attempted to make an intervention in that process, in other words they tried to improve students’ ability to make both “predictions” and “postdictions” about their own performance. The results are interesting.

The study was performed with a group of undergraduates, and the psychologists made several interventions in an attempt to improve their students’ ability to self-evaluate. They taught them specific techniques for making the most of feedback and they ensured that they took a practice test one week before each of the three exams that they sat, inviting students to self-score the practice test and reflect on any errors. The undergraduates were then encouraged to examine reasons why their “predictions” and their “postdictions” may have been inaccurate on the first two exams, and make adjustments. All of this was with the aim of improving their ability to self-evaluate.

The study found that while the undergraduates’ “postdictions” (i.e. their report on their own performance after the test) remained slightly more accurate than their own “predictions” (their projection of their likely performance), the above interventions resulted in no improvement in the accuracy of students’ “postdictions” over time. While the accuracy of some students’ “predictions” did improve somewhat, none of the undergraduates showed any significant improvement in their ability to make “postdictions”. The students’ ability to evaluate their own performance after each test remained as varied as they had been prior to the interventions.

As the authors conclude, “this study demonstrates … that improving the accuracy of students’ self-evaluations is very difficult.” This is genuinely interesting and certainly fits with my own anecdotal experience of my own ability to assess how I have performed after an examination, as well as the huge number of students that I have worked with over the years. A student’s own feelings after a test may be affected by a myriad of compounding factors and if I had a £1 for every student who felt that an examination had gone dismally who then turned out a perfectly respectable grade, I’d be a wealthy woman. In my experience, some students may over-estimate their “predictions” but most students underestimate their “postdictions”. It is interesting that those “postdictions” appear to be elusive when it comes to intervention and that the cognitive scientists have not – as yet – found a method of helping students to assess their own performance more accurately. I suspect that is because it is too emotive.

It is not obvious from the study how high-stakes the tests were – the psychologists do not make clear, for example, whether the test results contributed significantly (or indeed at all) to the assessment of the undergraduates’ own degree. This to me is something of an oversight, as an obvious compounding factor in any student’s ability to assess their own performance has to be their emotional response to it. Low-stakes testing as part of an experiment is a very different ball-game to the high-stakes testing of an examination that counts towards a GCSE, an A level or a degree class.

My conclusion for now, especially for my highest-achieving students, is to remain unconvinced that they know how well they have done. I could name countless students who have been deeply distressed after an examination, only to discover that they achieved a mark well above 90%. Even in the most seemingly disastrous of circumstances this can be the case. I know of students who missed out a whole question or indeed even a whole page of questions and still achieved an excellent grade overall, so solid was their performance on the rest of the paper and the other papers which counted towards their grade.

Much as it remains an important emotional connection to engage with every student about how they feel their exam went, they’re not a good barometer for what will be on the slip of paper when they open their envelope in August.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Like nobody’s watching

Glorious sunshine is finally upon us and the temperature is going up, so it must be exam time. Some of my most distinct memories from both my A levels and my degree finals are of my hand sliding down my pen and sticking to the exam paper as I wrote line after line in a heatwave. Some things never change.

Bizarrely, I have mainly positive memories of written exams. You might think that this is easy to say for someone who has been reasonably successful educationally, but I should make it clear that I did not have the easiest of rides in all subjects. Mathematics in particular was a real struggle for me and – classified at school as academically strong – it took me some time and a lot of failure to convince the school that I should be placed in the bottom set. This was the only way I would be allowed to sit the Foundation paper and it paid off – I got the Grade C that I needed for the door to further education to remain open for me. But it was a struggle. Not every subject came easily to me and I was not always someone who excelled.

Despite my chequered history across the full gamut of academic subjects, I learnt to enjoy written exams. Some of my students look at me in genuine disbelief when I say this, but it’s true. The thing is, written exams are distinctly different from a performance, something else which I had felt (and put myself) under enormous pressure to do. While concerts and musical examinations made me quite literally sick with fear and my overwhelming memory of those experiences is unremittingly negative, my response to written exams felt quite different. For me, a written exam was an intensely private experience. No one is watching. It’s just you and the paper. As you write, nobody knows how well or badly it’s going. You could be writing “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” a thousand times over, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and nobody would know. On the other hand, you could be producing sheer genius. Who can tell?

The anonymity of written examinations freed me up to perform and I am aware that this is a preference that has affected many aspects of my life: I am not keen on public performance and the older I get the harder it has become. This might seem to some extraordinary for a classroom teacher to say, but there are many teacher introverts and you’d be surprised how forgiving a classroom of teenagers can be, not least because they are usually far more worried about their own insecurities to pick yours apart. Standing at the front of a classroom feels completely different from standing in front of any other kind of audience, particularly one that is there explicitly to criticise. OfSted was not much fun for precisely this reason, although I believe I handled the process better than most. The reality is that I had no choice. Every job has its downsides.

As I maintain my (so far) regular and increasingly habitual twice-weekly visits to the gym, I am struck by the members who are there to perform to others. Most notable is the girl who films herself on her mobile phone. Dressed in tightly-clad lycra, she records her performance of deadlifts and uploads them to social media. It seems a desperately sad way to live, even if she’s making money as an influencer: for me, the pay-off of being judged 24 hours a day would not be worth the money and certainly the reports we already have from ex-influencers are testament to the detrimental effect that this kind of lifestyle has on their mental health. Being under intense scrutiny is remarkably stressful; making one’s income depend upon this must be doubly so.

Having just finished Jonathan Haidt’s Anxious Generation, I have been thinking a lot about Gen Z and the fact that they have grown up under scrutiny. No generation before has experienced the combination of our modern obsession with constant adult supervision to “keep children safe” combined with a quite horrifying lack of gate-keeping online that has opened the door on their lives to the world. Even prior to Haidt’s research I had found myself pondering that the generation which has grown up with the world in their pocket seems to feel the weight of that world more than any other generation has done so, despite the fact that their world is in fact a safer and healthier place than it has ever been for previous generations. Something has gone horribly wrong that this generation feels so bad. The world should be their oyster.

None of us wants to be the one to say it’s the smart phones, as none of us wants to be the pearl-clutching old fuddy-duddy that blames the colour TV or the latest computer game for all the ills in the world. But I don’t think it extreme to say that having the eyes of one’s peers and indeed the eyes of the entire world upon one 24-hours a day is not good for the soul and that equipping children with a device that makes this inevitable was an emphatically, catastrophically bad idea. Children (and indeed adults) need time out, time unsupervised, time unjudged to make mistakes and to mess up, without the whole process being recorded and played back on a loop until the day they die. I don’t know a single member of my generation that isn’t thankful they did not grow up with this and that we did not have our thoughts, ideas, fashion choices and beliefs held to account and digitally recorded to haunt us forever.

If I could gift the next generation with one thing it would be the right to dance like nobody’s watching. I fear we may have robbed them of this privilege we all took for granted a long time ago.

Photo by Adrian Diaz-Sieckel on Unsplash

Making a habit of it

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Will Durrant, American historian, paraphrasing Aristotle

On the internet, where dodgy misattributions abound, this quotation is invariably ascribed to Aristotle himself. In fact, it is taken from historian and prolific author Will Durrant’s early 20th century work, The Story of Philosophy. In chapter 2 he examines Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and summarises his interpretation as above.

Despite undoubtedly being a genius, Aristotle was a master of the practical over and above the theoretical, which is perhaps the reason why his ideas have endured so successfully. He was one of the few thinkers of his time to acknowledge that philosophy is a luxury: that certain physiological and indeed psychological needs must be met before one can dedicate one’s time to it. He argued that there was never a simple way to define anything, that even the most fundamental moral definitions can vary with circumstances. He also argued, as Durrant summarised so pithily, that living well comes to a large extent through the repeated automation of good habits, and that being theoretically good was not much use in isolation without action.

This week, I finished James Clear’s Atomic Habits, a spectacularly popular book I have been in the queue for at my local library for several months. Conscious of the even longer queue that came after me (it is next available in December!) I finished the book within a couple of days. This was not a difficult task. I can see why there has been so much fuss about it and why for some it has been genuinely revelatory. As a reasonably well-organised and self-motivated person, I would not go so far as to say that I found the book life-changing, but I certainly found it helpful and agreed whole-heartedly with his refreshingly pragmatic approach. To take just one example, he makes the point that people who appear to be good at resisting temptation (a characteristic that many of my friends claim I possess) are in fact merely better at avoiding it – ingraining the habit, for example, that you do not buy certain foodstuffs is always more successful than buying them and telling yourself that you will consume them in moderation: the latter is simply too difficult to achieve.

Above all else, Clear’s point is that successful people (and you can define “success” in whatever way you choose) develop good habits while others do not. This might seem obvious, but it is precisely his unerring focus on habits that is so radical. While other self-help manuals exhort people to find their motivation and attempt to inspire us to make dramatic changes in our lives, Clear focuses on advising us to develop better habits incrementally: to take advantage of our brain’s ability to assimilate and automate regular and repeated behaviours. For example, I have said to myself: “I will go to the gym at x time on a Monday and a Thursday every week.” How do I make sure that this happens? Well, Clear advises going when I can, whatever the circumstances. If I miss a session due to illness or emergency, it becomes even more important to ensure that I make it the next time. If I can only go for 10 minutes, I should go for 10 minutes. This is because the habit of going is what’s most important. To quote another oft-used saying, perfectionism is the enemy of progress: if I let my abstract desire to achieve the perfect full work-out every time I go to the gym dominate over the priority of simply going habitually, I put my long-term gains at risk. It is easy to use the fact that on any one particular day I simply don’t have time for the perfect workout as an excuse not to go at all. Instead, I should focus on developing the habit of attending come what may, even if my peformance is sub-optimal: the enduring habit is the path to life-long fitness.

One of the things Clear expresses beautifully is the limited power of motivation, something I have written about less skilfully here. I am a firm believer that motivation is difficult to come by and has limited value when it comes to the reality of the daily grind – for example, the regular gym visits necessary to attain fitness or the repeated vocabulary learning required to sit a Latin exam. Humans need to experience some practical gains before they can achieve any kind of motivation and even then motivation can fail. Clear mentions a discussion he had with a coach who trains successful weight-lifters. The coach attributed the difference between those who make it and those who don’t not to some bottomless pit of inspiration or self-motivation but quite simply to their tolerance for boredom: their capacity to stick with the programme of repeated lifts, day after day, without quitting. Fundamentally, that’s all that makes the difference.

One of my tutees, with less than a fortnight to go before their exam, suddenly interrupted our session to ask me about “the best way to learn vocabulary.” Now, I’m not saying there aren’t ways that are better than others, indeed I have written extensively about it and shared a practical guide to exactly that with him and his family months ago. But I know this particular student very well and he’s the sort that is always looking for a silver bullet. He’s the sort that wants a quick fix. The reality is this: there isn’t one. You. Just. Have. To. Do. It. A few words a day, every day, day in day out, over and again, until you’ve learnt them. This is what he has never been willing to hear and he wasn’t particularly thrilled when I said it again.

On my way to my first ever solo gym visit (yes, I made it!) I was stopped by a guy who was getting out of his car and wanted directions to the station. Rising above the urge to moan about London commuters who use our road as a free car park, I beamed at him and said I was going in that direction and would show him the way. “I’m heading there,” I said, pointing to the glowering gymnasium squatting next to Jewsons. “Although I’m not particularly thrilled about it.” What he said next precisely summed up Clear’s case in Atomic Habits. “I haven’t been to the gym for months,” he admitted. I told him that it was my first time going alone having lost my work-out buddy and that I wasn’t looking forward to it for that reason. “Ah!” he shouted, confidently, as we parted ways. “You just need to find your motivation!

Coming from a man who had literally just admitted that he had failed to attend his own gym for months, I found this fascinating. He was probably looking at me and thinking that with my attitude I would never keep going. I lacked the motivation to be a proper gym-goer. As for himself, I suspect in his own mind he was just having a blip. Okay, a blip that had lasted for several months, but a blip nonetheless. He was motivated to go, he simply hadn’t had the time, recently. Work had been manic. But do you see the problem? I think I do. In all honesty, I do not feel motivated to go to the gym. I don’t want to go. But I’m going. That’s the point. It’s the same thing that got me through my PhD, which I hated every minute of; while others claimed to love their research and yet gradually fell by the wayside and quit, I dragged myself up every day, wrote a few paragraphs, cried a lot, and eventually finished it. The practical grind beats the theoretical, the habit beats the concept. Sometimes, the hamster on the wheel is the ultimate winner.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Hell on earth

I have entered into the jaws of hell, grasped the horns of Beelzebub, set foot upon the murky plains of Orcus and gazed upon the yawning chasms of Tartarus. Yes. I have joined a local gym.

It will be difficult for the uninitiated to comprehend the true extent of the horrors that crouch within the bowels of this threatening locale. We’re not talking luxury establishment here, we’re talking the most affordable end of the market: so affordable, in fact, that one finds oneself pondering exactly how it turns a profit for its owners. Are the fittest of the lycra-clad males somehow disappeared, kidnapped and butchered as unwitting organ-donors for the Diamond Membership gym-goers at David Lloyd? The cheap-tastic gym I’ve become a member of operates 24 hours a day: who knows what goes on in the early hours of the morning.

Simply entering the premises, which sits nestled next to Jewsons Industrial Supplies, is a challenge: one is provided with a PIN number and a QR code, which only veteran members seem able to operate with confidence. “Stick it under the wotsit” says a voice behind me, as I fiddle anxiously with my phone, my friend already through security and staring at me through the fishbowl doors. After a few more seconds of stress, I successfully scan myself into a sealed glass pod, inside which I wait for what seems like an interminable pause, trying to quell the rising panic that I might never be released from the upright glass coffin. After a few seconds, I am spewed out into hell.

WE ARE AN ALL-INCLUSIVE SPACE screams a metre-high wall-notice above a Huel dispensing machine, while the throbbing of intolerable, interminable and unidentifiable music confirms that this all-inclusive space is emphatically not for people like me. The hell-hole itself possesses all the worst qualities of a modern airport, combined with the most depressing establishments to be found in Vegas, Nevada; high ceilings, swirling carpet and synthetic air circulating around a room that never sleeps, no matter what the time of day. Glassy-eyed acolytes move around the equipment like drones around their queen, hovering and quivering with anticipation. Let the horrors commence.

First stop, legs. My ever-patient friend introduces me to a machine designed to supercede the need for squats. I assume the position, which appears to be the one favoured by brutalist midwives back in the 1950s – legs akimbo, knees bent and bottom up. “Put them on the pallet!” says my friend, as my feet flail erratically like the limbs of an upturned cockroach. “Push the pallet away from you as hard as you can.” I oblige, and the pallet fails to move, so my friend adjusts the machine to what must surely be its lowest possible setting, enabling me to gain some kind of purchase upon it. I strain my muscles. Nearby, an ashen-faced male in his 40s stares blankly ahead as he rows back and forth on the spot, AirPods bright white against his ears. Behind him, two younger men laboriously climb a pair of miniature revolving escalators in Sisyphean endeavour. This cannot be happening: I’m having a moment of existential dread and we’re only 5 minutes in.

More leg action with a new machine means using my front thigh muscles to raise a bar from ground level to knee-height. This is quite okay, but I veto the third and final leg-based apparatus, which requires one to lie face-down, spreadeagled over an A-frame reminiscent of the spanking horses favoured in boys’ boarding schools during the 18th century. There has to be a line somewhere, I decide.

The machines themselves are terrifying contraptions with indecipherable instructions, all sprung weights and glistening, wipe-clean leatherette. I survey them dubiously, pondering the fact that my friend had informed me of that morning, that the gym possesses a pool with no water in it. “Why?” I had asked her. “Well, the premises used to be owned by a more expensive brand, but the business model of this one doesn’t run to the cost of a swimming pool,” she said. So the empty chasm remains, presumably waiting for the surely inevitable moment when the gym-goers become overwhelmed by the need to throw themselves headfirst into the abyss.

Finished with the leg-machines, we investigate those designed to challenge the shoulders and arms. Most extraordinary is one designed to support users in attempting full-body pull-ups, a device so complex that I find myself whooshed uncontrollably into the air at the end of the set, dangling from its handles like a spider from a curtain. “There is a more elegant way to dismount,” says my friend, benevolently. “Put your feet on the footholds when you’re in the raised position, and climb down from there.” Of course.

Most of you are probably wondering why on earth I am putting myself through this hideous ordeal. Well, you may recall (I wrote about it here) that around 5 months ago I embarked upon a programme of resistance training with the friend who is guiding me through this chamber of horrors and, reader, I stuck with it. Against all predictions, with the exception of a couple of weeks away and one bout of illness, my friend and I have met twice a week every week since November and she has taken my embarassingly pathetic attempts and turned them into a really quite respectable performance of squats, lunges, push-ups and weight-lifting. My body-shape has changed considerably and I can do things I could not do 5 months ago. I have even tried my hand at dead-lifting and am currently managing 42 kilos (not bad for someone who weighs 47).

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. My friend has finished with a period of gardening leave and is about to embark upon a new, high-powered role doing clever things I don’t understand with sums of money I cannot comprehend for a company I’ve never heard of. As a result, she will regretably no longer have the time to supervise my own personal improvement path, so I am forced to find another outlet for my endeavours. Hence, with her unwavering support, I have set sail across the waters of Hades, with little to no idea as to whether I will honestly have the willpower to see it through in the longterm. We’ll see. My parents are appalled and have openly told me that I won’t stick with it. They may well be right. Yet a stubborn voice of self-knowledge in my head says that I’m more likely to work out if I have somewhere to go and do it; convincing myself that I shall do so in the comfort of my own home has not proved successful so far. My home is too – well – comfortable. So, the hell-hole it is.

Maybe I’ll be like Persephone, and manage to visit hell for at least half the year. Half the year is better than nothing.

Photo by Peter Leong on Unsplash

Thoughtless examiners

While I am the last person who would advocate for whitewashing the ancient world, I do sometimes wonder at the sheer lack of sensitivity shown by examiners when it comes to the selection of the material that Latin GCSE candidates are faced with on the day.

The ancient world abounds with a plethora of stories fit for adaptation. The possibilities are endless. Given this fact, I fail to see the necessity of including stories that even prior to the #metoo era would unquestioningly be classified by all but Andrew Tate’s very worst acolytes as a story of sexual assault. The ancient world abounds with these stories too, and I am not suggesting that we should remove them from the corpus, nor that we should hide the truth of them from students who elect to study this material; it is profoundly important not only that we address these accounts but that we examine what they have to tell us about attitudes towards women and towards consent in the ancient world. But this is an examination I am talking about. Let us remember that there will be a range of students sitting each and every paper, some of whom may (or – according to the statistical reality – will) have experienced sexual assault for themselves. For some of them, the abuse will be ongoing. I’m sorry if this is upsetting news to anyone reading this, but if you work with young people and have undertaken any kind of safeguarding training then it should emphatically not be news to you that this is the case. So, to write an examination that includes a story of sexual assault is either to feign ignorance of the fact that some of our students will have suffered in this way, or is to declare that one simply does not care about the impact that the examination’s contents may have on some of our most vulnerable children, on what amounts to a very important day for them: a day on which their knowledge and hard work is being put to the test.

In an examination, a student who is already in a potentially stressful situation is forced to sit with the material in front of them and process it alone. If they are translating a passage, that means sitting with the material for some considerable period of time. It is clear that the examiners gave no thought to this and I refuse to accept that one has to be some kind of super-woke convert to the concept of trauma-informed education to raise an eyebrow at their monumentally insensitive decision to include this material. Personally, I have some concerns about the spread of trauma-informed practice into education, often pushed by advocates who know nothing about the realities of classroom teaching; I consider some of its most lethal mutations potentially harmful when it interferes with a school’s basic need to provide a robust disciplinary framework for all students to thrive within. Yet humanity and frankly common sense surely teaches us that one should think carefully about the impact that the content of our lessons may have on students, and even more so about the content of an examination that will be sat by thousands of them, on their own, without support.

During my teaching career I worked with the OCR specification, so have come to the WJEC specification in recent years as demand from tutees has increased. I am now at the point where I am looking closely at individual past papers and last week I worked through the contents of the 2020 WJEC GCSE language paper. I was frankly appalled. I have spoken to a couple of contacts who have far more influential voices in the field than I possess and they confirmed to me that they have already raised concerns in the past, to no avail.

So let’s see what everyone else thinks of the content, shall we? The first passage on the 2020 paper consists of Jupiter disguising himself in order to have his wicked way with an innocent young nymph named Callisto. So far, so typical Jupiter and perhaps euphemistic enough for most of us to be broadly okay with the story’s use. However, things do not remain euphemistic. In this particular retelling, Jupiter disguises himself as the virgin goddess Diana, a close companion of Callisto, so that he can enter Callisto’s bed, and the story continues as follows – below is my version of what the students were asked to translate; I have not quoted the Latin extensively, in case they come at me with copyright complaints, but you can view the paper freely here on their own website:

Callisto, when she saw the goddess, was happy; but as soon as Jupiter lay down next to her and gave her a kiss, Callisto realised that she was not a woman but the god. She was terrified. For she had avoided men her whole life, just like Diana. Although she tried to escape, Jupiter held her down easily.

The passing mention that she had “avoided men her whole life, just like Diana” may (one hopes) have gone over the head of most students, but the truth is that it is spelling it out for readers that Callisto is still a virgin. This, plus the clear implication that Jupiter forced himself upon Callisto and physically held her down, is bad enough, but the disturbing content continues:

Having entered the woods with her other companions, Diana greeted Callisto, who was again so terrified that she wanted to run away: she thought that the god was coming back for her. But after she saw the companions, she hurried towards them, crying. “Why are you crying?” they asked. “What happened?” “Nothing,” the unhappy girl replied. After a few days, however, they persuaded Callisto to tell them what had happened.

She thought that the god was coming back for her?! Who thought that line was a great one to include? The Latin is deum ad se redire putavit, a marvellous opportunity to test candidates on the indirect statement with a past tense main verb and a present tense infinitive, well done chaps! Didn’t think about what the statement actually meant, though, did you? I really do despair. (I know I shouldn’t assume that they’re all men but really … what else can one assume? That a woman thought this was okay? I do hope not).

Perhaps worst of all, in a final turn of events, Callisto’s friend and protector Diana turns on her and blames her for her own assault, as does the ever-jealous wife of Jupiter:

Callisto’s companions, shocked by such serious news, hurried to Diana to report the matter to her. Diana, who was very angry, ordered Callisto to leave at once. “You are not blameless” she said. “Do not ever return to us.” Callisto left, very unhappy. She was forced to live in the woods for many months. Meanwhile Juno was watching her. Juno was the wife of Jupiter. Although Jupiter was always trying to deceive her, Juno had found out what he had done. “That very bad nympth will pay for this” she said.

The word (glossed on the exam paper and translated as per the examiner’s instructions as) “blameless” is casta. The phrase could be translated “you are not innocent”, “you are not pure”, “you are not chaste” (our closest equivalent as a direct derivative) or indeed “you are not a virgin”.

The messaging here is clear. A girl is sexually assaulted, is deeply distressed by the assault, is terrified that it will be repeated and finally is told by others that the assault is her fault and that she is sullied goods. How on earth is it possible that this material made it past the huge number of eyes that one presumes (hopes?) get to look at it before it makes it onto the final draft of an examination paper? Did not one of them think to ask whether the content was appropriate or frankly even necessary? Was there no other single story that would have sufficed, from all of the other thousands of ancient stories that are in our possesion? One can only imagine that every single examiner involved was so blissfully ignorant as to the realities of life for some of our young people that they simply did not consider the fact that the material might be unfit for purpose. All I can say is lucky for those who live their own lives knowing so little about other peeople’s pain and distress.

In the past I have written about the content of the text book Suburani and consider some of it inappropriate for younger students, but at least in a text book the material can (and indeed should) be managed by the classroom teacher, who can skip out that section altogether should they decide – as I would – that it is simply not appropriate for their class. If they do decide to tackle the material, they can manage how this is done and provide guidance and a supportive atmosphere for students to respond to it. In an examination, students are left completely exposed, with no gatekeepers to protect them and no safety net to catch them if they end up in freefall. For me, that is simply and emphatically not acceptable and a clear betrayal of our duty of care.

Photo by Zhivko Minkov on Unsplash

Going viral

This week, the second of two manically busy weeks, I have been struck down with the nastiest cold I can remember having for years. Since I now work from home and am largely cushioned against the slings and arrows of outrageous viruses, the whole thing has been an unpleasant reminder of just how horrible it is to feel unwell. The last virus to enter our home was just after Christmas, an equally nasty bug which my husband succumbed to while I remained blissfully immune. “This is it,” I thought. “I have reached peak immunity. I am untouchable.” Oh, what a fool.

As I write this, I am coming out the other side and today is the first day I have started to feel like I’m turning the corner. The relief is enormous and having not been ill for quite some time I am reminded how utterly glorious a feeling it is to make it to the other side of a nasty bug and feel well again. Years ago, I listened rather obsessively to one of the first ever podcasts (before podcasts really became A Thing), which was created by Ricky Gervais, Steven Merchant and their erstwhile producer and general punchbag Karl Pilkington. I recall an episode when Karl remarked that it was good to feel ill sometimes, because it made you appreciate your usual condition of feeling well. Gervais immediately launched into a diatribe telling him that this made “no sense whatsoever” and (as was standard for the podcast set-up) berated him for his stupidity. I recall finding this deeply irksome, given that Gervais studied Philosophy at UCL (he switched away from Biology when – by his own admission – he found it “too hard”). Yet Gervais must have missed or slept through the lectures he no doubt received on Plato’s Socrates, whom I quote verbatim below. The scene is from Socrates’ final hours with his friends before he is executed by the Athenian state. Socrates has been held prisoner and was wearing leg irons, which his guards agreed to remove for his final hours:

Socrates sat up on the bed and drew up his leg and massaged it, saying as he did so, “what a strange thing it is, friends, this sensation which is popularly called pleasure. It is remarkable how closely it is connected with its conventional opposite, pain. They will never come to a man both at once, but if you pursue one of them and catch it, you are nearly always compelled to have the other as well … I had a pain in my leg from the chains, and now I feel the pleasure coming that follows it.”

Plato, “Phaedo

Socrates is observing the fact that a release from discomfort is uniquely pleasurable. Think back to the last time when you were desperately hungry and how good it felt to eat, or when you were dreadfully thirsty and finally got hold of a drink. Pleasure and pain are the two sides of the same coin and – as Socrates points out in this scene – the pursuit of one inevitably needs to the other. (Remember that the next time you’re tempted to have one drink too many). So a positive spin on the distress of feeling unwell is to celebrate the rush of relief and appreciation that comes when you turn the corner into wellness.

This week has also been a salutary reminder of the different pressures we find ourselves under to continue to work when feeling unwell. At the moment, I feel this somewhat acutely for more than one reason. First and most obviously of all, I am now self-employed: sick pay is not an option. If I had cancelled all of the clients that I had booked in for a record-breaking number of sessions this fortnight, that would have lost me a lot of income – income which I will not get the chance to earn in the same way during July and August, when bookings tail off with the end of the academic year. Specialising in the GCSE means that I lose most of my clients overnight when their exams are complete, and even those in the lower years tend to take a break for the traditional summer holiday, so wedded are we to the Victorian model of schooling.

Beyond the obvious need for an income there is also the inescapable fact that my clients need me. Lots of Year 11s had booked in for booster sessions over the holiday, many of whom I cannot fit onto my books on a regular basis as often as they would like. They are frantic for help and the thought of letting them down was simply too awful. This is a mere fraction of the pressure I felt in the classroom, which I remember only too well. In particular I felt the unbearable weight of being the only subject expert in the school. On the one and only occasion in my entire 21-year career when I was simply too ill to set cover work, my HoD rang me up to ask me what he should do; I’m honestly not sure that would happen in any other job that is paid what classroom teachers are paid. But the reality of being a one-man subject specialist was that without me there in school, literally nothing could happen – no one had any idea what I did or how I did it. The pressure was genuinely immense and my school had a rude awakening as to just how much they had relied upon my goodwill after I left my job. My successor had a nasty accident which left him physically injured for several weeks. Being far more inclined towards self-preservation and resistant to external pressures than I was, he was not the sort of chap to be working on his laptop from a hospital bed nor indeed from his sick bed at home. As a result, no cover work was set for any of his classes. I’ll give you three guesses who ended up doing it.

Last year I wrote about the toxic culture of presenteeism, which affects both staff and students in schools. This is something I most certainly do not miss about being in the workplace. I may be at the mercy of the reality of being self-employed, but frankly I think I’d rather that than the guilt trip that taking a sick day sometimes carried with it. Teaching is very much a job where your presence is required and “working from home” is not an option, a fact which I suspect is one of the reasons behind the mass exodus of classroom teachers out of the profession; the pandemic was a tipping point, during which tens of thousands of teachers not only got their first ever taste of working from home, they also got to watch other professions adapt and adopt long-term changes to accommodate this convenience for its workforce. As teachers returned to the chalkface during the two years that finally drove me out of the job, I can’t have been the only member of the workforce who found themselves wondering exactly why I was dragging myself into school when my skills and qualifications meant that I could do pretty much anything else I wanted to from the comfort of my own home. The statistics on how many of us left in the same year that I did are frankly alarming and are an ongoing issue that the government needs to address; until they take a long, serious look at why so many teachers do not want to teach any more, I cannot see the situation improving.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Last-minute help?

This is the first of two remarkably busy weeks working with a very large number of Year 11s during their school holidays, preparing for the forthcoming GCSE examinations. Many of these students have approached me in just the last few weeks seeking help, and it is remarkable how much can be achieved in a short time prior to the final exams.

Many clients are surprised by the assurance that help can be worthwhile at this late stage. Many contact me in a state of panic or near despair, convinced that the situation is unsalvageable and unsure why they’re even asking for my advice. Yet within a few weeks it is possible to have an impact on a student’s confidence and their attainment, so long as you know what to focus on.

First and foremost, it is essential to assess the particular areas with which a student is struggling. This in itself can be a challenge, since many students (and certainly their parents) can struggle to identify where the problems lie. Students often present with nothing more than the fact that they need help with “the grammar”, so I rely largely on my own detective work to get to the bottom of what can be done to improve the situation. At a late stage of intervention this may well not mean delving into complex material, nor indeed trying to ask them to learn basic fundamentals. At this stage, it’s about identifying and selecting some concrete things to address that will gain them a win.

One thing that can be tackled head-on is their performance in the grammar questions, which make up 10% of their language mark. The examiner is remarkably repetitive and we are now in possession of enough past papers to prove this concept. Showing students every single past paper in quick succession, focusing entirely on the grammar questions and demystifying what it is that the examiner is looking for in their answer can be a real game-changer. In just one session it is usually possible to help get most students to the point where they can achieve 8 or 9 out of 10 in that section. To achieve full marks, students require a whistlestop tour of the uses of the subjunctive, which is a question the examiner has asked every single year, and that can take up another session or two. The uses of the subjunctive are another relatively easy win because most exam papers contain at least 5-10 sentences containing one of these constructions, so an understanding of how to translate those clauses gains them a significant margin.

There are further gains to be had if we have time to look at several practice papers as they can be coached on the types of phrasing that come up on a regular basis. I have identified a collection of common phrases that appear on exam papers with striking regularity, and a student who is perhaps overwhelmed with vocabulary learning can benefit from focusing their revision on these phrases. In addition, I have a list of high-frequency words that come up time and again on exam papers. Focusing on the high-frequency words will not gain a student a top grade in the exam (you need all the vocabulary for that!) but it can be a real game-changer for students who are struggling at the pass-mark.

Some students come to me for help with the literature and the majority of the time it is because they are completely overwhelmed by how to go about committing the texts to memory. I have written before on the fact that too many teachers tend to assume that students have the knowledge, experience and skills to rote-learn vast quantities of material without support, but in my experience, this really is not the case. My grades went up significantly when I started to assume that students did not have this knowledge and I taught them explicitly how to go about the process. Likewise, my grades went up when I took the risk of allowing them short bursts of class time to make a start on the process – this afforded me the opportunity to model the process and then monitor them using it. Many students are resistant to advice when it comes to study skills, so it’s important to ensure that they do give effective methodologies a chance so that they can be converted to the process. If left to their own devices, many students will ignore the suggestions made by their teachers, attempt to do it their own way and fail.

I am finding the work that I am doing immensely rewarding. Just this week I had a particularly heartening message from a client saying that her son is really seeing a difference. “He’s just said to me “ a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have had a clue and now I am getting them all right”. So grateful.” This particular student has been through exactly the process I have outlined above – I took him on a whistlestop tour of the uses of the subjunctive, we reviewed all the grammar questions on past papers and now we’re onto as many practice papers as we have time for, tackling some further easy wins such as time phrases along the way. Once the student is on board with the notion that it is never too late to turn their performance around, it’s quite remarkable what can be achieved.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash