Those Who Can’t Preach

My first novel contained a thought experiment in which a somewhat inept RE teacher finds herself out of a job. Her demise came as a result of one well-meaning but thoughtless response to a vulnerable student and, as I crafted the tale, I felt sympathy with that character, even as I fashioned her downfall.

As a teacher, I fear it’s impossible to keep your thoughts, emotions and biases out of the classroom completely, however hard you might try. Teaching is personal – it has to be. We throw ourselves into it and, if I believed in the soul, I would say that teaching is a part of mine. It’s also immediate, and it’s not like the construction of a carefully-worded article. It’s us, in the flesh, on our feet, all the time: as an educator, a guide, a philosopher, a fool, a blagger, a gatekeeper and a showman. Speaking as a teacher and indeed as a person who could probably benefit from closing her mouth on occasion, I felt a certain sympathy for my ill-fated creation, even though her views differed wildly from my own.

But there is a darker story behind the tale that I told, a real version which dates back to the early 1980s, when I was on the other side of the desk. You know, the good old days when some schools still had corporal punishment and teachers could say whatever they liked? I share the real incident now as an illustration of the sort of thing that can happen when preaching is allowed to enter the classroom.

In my final year at a Church of England all-girls primary school, the headmistress took it upon herself to give us a talk on ‘the facts of life’ or ‘body matters’ as she called them. There was a general sense of excitement and trepidation amongst most of the girls, but I remember being bored during much of the talk; it was pretty tame stuff and besides, I already
knew ‘the facts’ from home. Despite my disinterest, I have a hazy recollection of zoning back into the room as the head was intoning her views on abortion.

Abortion was wrong. Fact. If we had ‘sinned’ (by having sex before marriage), and in doing so had gone and got ourselves pregnant, then that child must be born. Something told me that her views were a little extreme, but before I had even had time to make sense of them in my head, I suddenly heard my name and then realised that everyone was looking at
me. In her eagerness to make her point, our headmistress had decided to cite me as an example of someone who could ‘quite easily’ have been lost to the world as a result of a termination.

Head swimming, I tried to make sense of what she was saying. My parents were happily married, so how did my home situation fit with the den of iniquity she had been describing thus far? As far as I could gather, due to the fact that I have a mild version of a condition called Goldenhar syndrome (which does not, by the way, affect anything other than certain aspects of my appearance) my parents might have decided not to have me.
Now, there was a thought! But the headmistress put her hand on my shoulder, warmly and benevolently, and turned me to face my classmates. ‘Wouldn’t that have been terrible?’ she asked them. They all nodded, dutifully.

Now it may not surprise you to know that my ten-year-old self had not exactly contemplated my own termination as a possibility before. I was blessed with loving parents, who made me feel like the most important thing in their lives. Why on earth would the idea have occurred to me?

Quite why this headteacher felt it her place to introduce me to the idea seems impossible to fathom – until, of course, one remembers her convictions. I’m quite sure she thought she’d done a marvellous deed, and I wonder to this day to what extent she succeeded; did she persuade the majority of girls in that room of her beliefs? I do hope not. My objection to her tactics, speaking not as the person affected but as a teaching professional, is this: it was clearly more important to her to preach her morality than it was to consider the individual welfare of a child in her class. And that, I believe, is the biggest danger with preaching.

This piece was first published in 2014 in Humanist Life.

Making Every Lesson Count: chapter 2

Chapter 2 of Making Every Lesson Count focuses on explanation and starts with an arresting challenge: just how much quality concrete information do students learn from research-based group tasks compared to teacher explanation? This really resonated with me – it’s very easy to be dazzled by the “buzz” that these kinds of lessons commonly used in the Humanities can create in a classroom; as the authors put it, students “have enjoyed the lesson – but how many have learnt anything at a deep level?”

The authors address the inescapable fact that teacher explanation has received a bad press in recent educational theory, as the advice in teacher training has moved consistently away from the “chalk and talk” model. All that guff about being a “guide on the side” instead of a “sage on the stage”. Well, you know what? Sometimes the kids need a sage. The authors look closely at the growing body of evidence supporting the idea that teacher-led instruction is actually A Good Thing. They then briefly explore the methodology of how to make your explanations comprehensible and memorable.

Pleasingly, the authors move swiftly onto the importance of building blocks and dispelling misconceptions; they emphasise the key principle that lessons should always build upon prior learning, each building upon the last and addressing problems that may have become apparent in the students’ work.

The authors really put the boot in when it comes to everyone’s favourite sport of “guess what’s inside the teacher’s head”, a game which we’ve all ended up guilty of playing in a desperate bid to keep our lessons interactive and question-based. The truth, of course, is that this is a seriously pointless way of approaching things. Their sound criticisms of this and similar methods has made me reflect again on the Cambridge Latin Course, which is based on the principle that students miraculously work out what’s going on by observing it; anyone that’s tried to teach like this knows that students need a huge amount of guidance to get there and sometimes – frankly – it’s pointless. Just tell them, for God’s sake, before we all lose the will to live.

In their defence of teacher explanation, the authors are never in danger of encouraging a static or dull classroom environment. They advocate storytelling and bringing the classroom to life. They conclude the chapter with some interesting reflections on why teacher explanation has been so overlooked in professional development, as well as a salutary reminder that poor explanations which fail to achieve student engagement will always remain one of the worst ways to teach.

Should you employ a tutor who is not a teacher?

Writing this makes me nervous. It has been on my mind as a topic for several years, but until now I have avoided committing my thoughts to
writing. This is partly self-preservation: I am not keen to receive an onslaught of complaints. Mostly, though, it is a desire to protect other people; I have met numerous private tutors without formal teaching qualifications, all of whom seem committed and passionate, many of whom clearly do a great job. I do not wish to denigrate what they do.

My concerns about the explosion of unqualified tutors offering their services do not mean that all tutors without professional qualifications are to be avoided; however, I do have serious concerns about some of them and I believe that parents should approach the situation with their eyes wide open.

Let me be clear from the outset that my core concerns are in a particular area, namely tutoring support towards a specific examination goal. If your child is struggling in a subject and you would simply like their confidence boosted, there are a huge range of tutors that can probably help with this, including your enthusiastic nephew in his second year at university. However, if you would like your child tutored to a particular
examination, and particularly if you are relying on the tutor to prepare them for that examination in its entirety, I would urge parents in the strongest possible terms to think carefully about what kind of tutor they employ.

Private tuition has exploded in recent years and the number of parents choosing it as an option for their child has risen to a record high. More and more parents are spending money on the service and the plethora of private companies touting for business in this field is frankly bewildering. I have been approached by dozens of providers keen to add me to their books and to take a slice of my profits for doing so. I have registered with some services that allow tutors to maintain full control over their work, and some have been diligent in chasing up evidence of my qualifications and experience. Most, however, have not.

It is my belief that this industry will soon face regulation; the government is already under pressure to address the fact that there is no current requirement for tutors working with children to have a DBS check. It would not surprise me if, within the next three to five years, tutors are forced to go through some kind of registration process at the very least. Will this go some way towards addressing the concerns that I have raised? Highly unlikely.

If I were seeking a private tutor to guide my child towards a particular examination, these are the questions that I would be asking:

1. Is the tutor a qualified teacher? If so, what experience do they have? What was/is their specialism (both subject and age group), what kind of school did/do they work in and for how long? What were/are their results like?

2. If they are a retired teacher, has the syllabus that they will be teaching to changed since they retired? How have they ensured that they are up-to-date with the new specification? (Full time teachers in service have training provided, much of it directly from the examination boards; when I
retire from classroom teaching, I will choose to set aside funds to pay for my own training when required).

3. Have they ever worked as a professional marker? If not, why not? I would make this a priority question if I were considering an
unqualified teacher
. Anyone with the right subject knowledge can apply to
work as a professional marker; you receive superb training and you get paid for it! If a tutor hasn’t opted to do this it would suggest to me that they have no interest in gaining an insight into the examination process.

4. How much experience have they had with one-to-one tutoring? Can they give examples of students that they have helped and can they share testimonials from parents who can vouch for previous successes in the relevant examinations?

In addition to these questions, a fairly recent article in the Telegraph, written by a qualified teacher and experienced tutor, gives some
really good advice on how to choose the right tutor for your child. Ignore it at your peril. In my next blog post, I will be sharing the most shocking case I have come across to date of how an unqualified and inexperienced tutor can let you down.

Making Every Lesson Count: chapter 1

My school has asked us to read Making Every Lesson Count by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby, completing chapter 1 by the start of term. So far, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

I find it hard to recall and distil information without doing something with it, so I have decided to blog as I read.

The first chapter addresses challenge and the fact that “all too often challenge is presented in the context of ‘challenging the most able'” rather than with the mindset that all students should be engaged in “healthy struggle”. This has certainly been my experience; happily, this culture is shifting.

The ludicrous expectations placed on classroom teachers to differentiate for every child are addressed: “we believe that much that is promoted as good differentiation practice is both unmanageable and counterproductive: it is not humanly possible to personalise planning for each and every child, nor, as often suggested, is it possible to create three levels of worksheet for every lesson.”

Hallelujah! We’ve all known this for some time, but it’s jolly nice to read it in a volume that my Senior Leadership Team has advised me to read! The chapter focuses on the value of “sharing excellence” with students as a method of support, modelling and demonstrating to them what excellence looks like. It also states the truth that one can differentiate much more simply by outcome.

The importance of subject knowledge in exposing students to content pitched above or beyond national expectations is emphasised. Pleasingly, the authors strike a balance between championing the importance of rich, challenging curriculum content and the importance of excellent teaching, stating the inescapable truth that “hard content is harder to teach”. The authors talk about “the long haul” and advise that not every lesson should be challenging – for our own sake and for the students.

The chapter is refreshingly practical but it does draw on other research, most notably Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset and work done by The Sutton Trust on motivating students through content.

Chapter 1 has been a thought-provoking and pleasurable read; I look forward to the rest of the book!

In Defence of Private Tuition

“Private tuition can be harmful to the long-term academic prospects of children, a leading London headteacher warned today.” A recent article in the British press employed the usual tone of melodrama and foreboding that is standard for most reporting on educational issues, especially those which focus on parental anxiety and individual choices.

The article – of course – lacks nuance; the quoted head teacher of South Hampstead High School has told me personally that “the debate is not binary” and even that she has recommended tutoring on some occasions, a balance to her position somewhat absent in the histrionic tone of the article in which she is quoted. However, she is disquieted by the increasing numbers seeking private tuition, and advocates it only in extremis, when a child is struggling to such a degree that the situation is truly desperate. When I suggested that private tutoring can also provide stretch and challenge, she replied “we provide plenty of this at school,” her words revealing an unease that is familiar to me and which I hope to explore in this post.

Part of the rhetoric of teaching – whether in a mainstream comprehensive like mine or a selective independent school like South Hampstead – is that anything and everything is possible. We are expected to subscribe to this mantra, and to suggest otherwise is to admit that you are willing to let the children down – not a comfortable position for any of us. We strive for outstanding practice in every lesson, and every child must make the relevant progress and have his or her particular needs fulfilled.

We must provide stretch and challenge or scaffolding and support as appropriate; every lesson must be tailored to the diverse needs of each individual member of the class and every lesson must be reflected upon and refined. How did each child perform? Did they grasp the key concepts? Did they make the relevant progress? Were the most able sufficiently challenged? What areas of weakness need to be addressed next time? This process must be repeated numerous times a day, every day of the week. And we try. Oh, how we try. But the reality is that sometimes it’s not enough.

As a result of the high expectations that are placed upon us, it is easy for teachers to feel threatened by the very existence of private tuition. I have experienced this myself only recently, when I watched a boy who was struggling in my subject transform his performance as a direct result of working with a private tutor. It was a truly humbling process to witness, and I don’t deny that for a short while I felt rather dismal about my own apparent failure as his classroom teacher. But as a private tutor, I have seen the game from the other side of the fence. I know that what I can do with a child in a regular series of bespoke one-to-one sessions bears little or no resemblance to what I can achieve in the mainstream classroom. I pride myself on being pretty good at my job: my results are excellent, I have never been rated less than “Good” in almost 20 years in the state sector, and I know that I am valued immensely by a school I feel lucky to work in. But I am not a magician, and there are limits to what I can achieve in the classroom.

As a private tutor, everything I do is in direct response to one individual’s needs. The key to outstanding private tuition is developing the ability to read each person closely; in a one-to-one session, I can watch for every tiny non-verbal cue that a child is giving: every shift in the chair, every bite of the lip, every furrow of the brow. Of course, I often notice these signs in the classroom too, and I endeavour to pay close attention to those individuals who are expressing some puzzlement. But how often must I miss such nuances, due to the sheer number of faces in front of me? And every missed moment is another tiny chink in that student’s progress, another fissure in the delicate and ever-evolving construction of knowledge and understanding. If I thought too much about it, I would go mad.

In a large class, children must wait – an individual query may not be relevant to the whole class, and some students, especially in the younger years, seek to reassure themselves by querying what you have said before your sentence is barely out of your mouth; this desire to ask questions at every stage of an explanation can ruin the flow of a lesson for the majority, and students must learn to save their questions for later, when a teacher is circulating the room. We try then to address each individual query and pay personal attention to every child, indeed the importance of this is one of the things that makes teaching both challenging and rewarding. But the rules are reversed in private tutoring, when a tutor can actively encourage a child to interrupt as many times as they wish; as a result, the lesson is truly tailored to the individual and every potential misunderstanding is addressed – simply impossible in the mainstream classroom, however hard we might try.

I am not unsympathetic to those educationalists who have concerns about private tutoring. In stark contrast to the case of my student whose progress was transformed as a result of tuition, I have also come across cases when a child has been thoroughly let down by a tutor with no professional experience. Many of those advertising at the more affordable end of the scale are university students – I would willingly have tutored for £10-15 an hour as an undergraduate – and some of them do an excellent job. However, such tutors have no experience of the ever-changing expectations that children are working towards; if you are simply looking for someone to de-mystify a subject then this kind of tutor can work very well, but if you are looking for your child to make progress towards a specific educational goal or to excel in a particular set of examinations, you’re taking quite a risk in paying someone who is not an expert in this process.

Yet the main objection against private tuition raised by the quoted head teacher is not a lack of professionalism on the part of some tutors; rather, it seems to touch on the wider issue of so-called “helicopter parenting” and a tendency to problem-solve on behalf of our children. In truth, no matter how much a parent might wish it to be so, private tutoring is not a magic solution; it is merely an opportunity, with which the student has to engage in order to progress. A few will rock up confidently with a myriad of questions, but the vast majority have spent so long hiding at the back or trying to bluff their way in a subject they are struggling to understand that it takes some time to strip away their defences and encourage them to participate without fear.

The tutees that come to me are often in the very state of despair that the quoted head teacher cites as appropriate for tutoring, when they have “exhausted all other options.” More than one parent has described the dreadful bouts of gut-wrenching anxiety and floods of tears as a child finds themselves getting further and further behind their peers. My subject (Latin) is obscure, and few parents are blessed with the knowledge to help their child through the quagmire of this difficult and unforgiving discipline; so they can watch in despair while their child suffers, or they can find a compassionate and competent professional to provide the right kind of support for them. As one parent put it to me, “you have turned dislike and dismay into enjoyment and enthusiasm.” Sounds like something worth paying for.


This piece was originally published in September 2017 in Quillette Magazine.

Marching Towards the Corporate

When did the world decide that the corporate model is the ideal template? The inexorable march towards business speak and a commercial style of operation appears to be infecting every aspect of our lives, from health care to education, from politics to the arts. Sometimes, it feels as if we’re all becoming a part of somebody else’s branding exercise.

Two years ago, my husband quit his engineering job, severing ties with a company he has been with for over ten years. There were several reasons behind his relatively sudden decision, but most of them relate to the increasing prevalence of what one might call “corporate bullshit”.

“Nobody helps each other out any more,” my husband said to me. Everyone’s time has to be logged on a spreadsheet; as a result, nobody is motivated to give their time for anything other than what will get a tick in the box. Engineers are under ludicrous pressure to provide “accurate estimates”, the oxymoron apparently lost on a management team that seem to have little to no understanding of what engineers actually do.

My father had the same experience, and I watched as his effervescent passion and technical brilliance were slowly eroded by the drip, drip, drip effect of timesheets; he worked for small-minded money men, faceless suits with no comprehension of the fact that high-quality engineering requires free-thinking, imagination and flair.

In education, where my own experience lies, a depressingly corporate tone is now the norm. The simplest of pedagogical principles are dressed up in the flowery language of over-sell, making everything sound more complicated than it needs to be. We don’t teach any more – we “cascade” and we “expedite”.

Managers spout a bewildering plethora of executive sound-bites and every school has a self-conscious “vision” for its future, shaped by the leadership team. I nearly lost it at one staff meeting in which a middle leader exhorted us to “facilitate those water-cooler moments” – by which he meant “talk to each other in the staffroom”. I think.

But the problem is not just the meaningless turns of phrase that drive us all to distraction in the workplace and provide endless fodder for the ever-brilliant team of satirists at Modern Toss – it’s far more serious than that. The corporate world is infiltrating the very heart of what we stand for. As someone who deliberately chose a career path away from the treadmill of commercialism, I am disquieted by the subtle shift in culture.

Recently, I received a conference invitation from a company called Osiris, an independent training provider for teachers. So enraged was I by its contents that I tore up the leaflet in a manner reminiscent of the mythical dismembering of Osiris himself. Around half an hour later, I decided that a much more productive response would be to fish the offending item out of the bin, piece it back together and vent my spleen in writing.

The conference, to be held in March 2016, is on “building character” in students. It seems that the government has a “new model for character development” as part of the “2016 national agenda for character education.”

Any sane person should already be feeling queasy.

To help us with this terrific new framework (the details of which I simply cannot wait to hear), the flyer explained that the conference will furnish its delegates with the following:

  1. A new model of character development for your school and individual pupils. (Give that some thought for a few seconds and tell me it isn’t nonsense).
  2. Strategies to identify and audit character. (Yes, you read that right: identify and audit character. I can’t wait to see the spreadsheet they’ve created – or maybe it’s a whole new piece of software? Either way, I’m excited).
  3. Clarity over which character traits your school should focus on. (Personally, I will be arguing for wantonness and dissipation).
  4. Ideas to build character in lessons, across the school and outside of school. (If anyone mentions paintballing or trust exercises, I will not be responsible for my actions).

The leaflet states that delegates will also hear from an Ofsted representative on how character will be inspected in 2016 (can you even imagine?) plus views shared by a representative from everybody’s favourite global brand: McDonalds. Your guess is as good as mine as to why he is invited.

So this is the situation in which we find ourselves: spreadsheets for auditing our children’s very character development, driven by bureaucrats with about as much personality as a dampened sponge.

There is only one response, and it lies in resistance.

I will not do it. I will not even discuss it. As Head of Citizenship in an excellent state school, I will not audit the characters of our students, and if the government or our management team want it done, they can go find some other mug with no morals and a shaky sense of self.

If this is the future, I may become a hermit.


This piece was first published in December 2015 in Quillette Magazine under the title: Schools proposing to audit pupils’ characters should mind their own business.