Some recent columns

Here are some links to articles I have had published recently.

Firstly, my regular column for the TES can be found here. It continues to be the main outlet for my writing.

Here’s a piece I enjoyed writing for The Critic. It seems dated now (doesn’t everything pre-Covid-19?), but the main argument – that the Conservatives are not the close friends of independent schools that is often claimed – holds.

I was asked to write an article for The Copyright Licensing Authority on why teachers should write. You can find it here.

And here is an article I wrote for Odgers on vocational pathways in education.

A time of loss and anticipation

It is that unreal time in schools again. It is a period of loss and anticipation: the academic year is all but done, wrung out and packed away, with its last gasp, its final blazon, being the public examination results coming deep in the otherwise blameless August, reminding all teachers of the struggles and successes of classes now fading from memory with surprising haste.

So many pupils have now departed, leaving classrooms and corridors relatively quiet. Almost overnight, pupils left unaffected by the twin intensities of GCSEs and A levels, roam the school landscapes suddenly liberated, emboldened, free from the stifling presence of their elders. Lessons take on a peculiar tone, being both more relaxed, but intent on being productive, outwardly at least. Teachers used to eye the VHS machine, nervously wondering if any members of SLT, whose teaching commitments have remained unchanged since week one, are on another learning walk; now, those teachers pray that wifi works and that they can find a TED talk, or that documentary by Melvyn Bragg on YouTube.

There is a looking-forward-to as well. The organised, conscientious teachers begin to plan classes, order books and files, write schemes of works, sort out their classrooms. They might even start thinking about books they should read, or at least start consulting lists posted online. Others stare at them with a growing sense of alarm, preferring sometimes to simply sit, drinking coffee, marvelling at the new gaps on their timetables, blindingly white now, wondering how was it possible, in those long winter days, to do quite so much in one day. In an idle moment they might reflect on that difficult Year 11 class suddenly scattered to the winds, some of them unmissed, to reassemble in different forms in the Sixth Form, and some never to be seen again, statistics that appear in name only when the September inquisitions begin.

What should teachers do with six weeks off work? Ask the general public and some talk jealousy of such a gift of time; others complain about such a period of indolence, aghast that it continues still. Parents of young children have a very different view from those who have no such emotional investment in education: those long summer days stretch out, endless, filled with unaccounted for activities and exhaustion, the juggling of childcare and favours promised. But of course teachers’ holidays have long been eroded by the demands made of an ever-more accountable system, of marking, planning, new specifications to be read. But only those involved in schools know this, or speak about it, most teachers stay quiet, calmly planning to catch up on all the things most people do when working 9am to 5pm, not 7am to 9pm.

For all this, it is a moment of delicious anticipation when, despite all the signs from the past suggesting the opposite, this Summer will be a time of reinvention, of weight loss and knowledge gain, of preparation and recuperation, and it will last for several weeks at least. Perhaps such optimism, which I find in so many teachers, is a defining characteristic of the profession, and long may it remain so: it is sustaining, affirmative, and, above all, well earned.

Reflections on a Summit

On Wednesday 7 June Bryanston held its first Education Summit. Our strapline was: ‘delivering a world class education in turbulent times’. Just how turbulent these times are was driven home the following day when the first results from the general election started to come in. With so much uncertainty affecting so many aspects of this country’s future it seemed particularly important to bring people together to discuss what were the biggest issues facing schools today, and how could they be resolved.

And so we invited some of the most influential speakers working in education to give us their insights, and over 400 delegates arrived to listen, take notes, debate and disagree. Those attending came from all sectors: primary, prep, maintained and fee-paying secondary, and there were representatives from higher education as well. Themes developed over the course of a fascinating day: the role that technology could play was explored by Ian Fordham, Head of Education at Microsoft UK. Award-winning teacher Paul Turner looked at how technology could be used meaningfully in the classroom, and there were other sessions by, among others, Crispin Weston, James Penny and Jane Basnett, which looked at how far technology could shape learning. The answer? Quite a lot, but only if the teachers are fully trained. And that requires investment, of resources, trust … and time.

And time was a theme running through the day. Professor AC Grayling discussed ‘educating the future in the present’, and Martin Robinson explored similar themes arguing for a return to the ‘trivium’ style of teaching which places emphasis on grammar, rhetoric and logic. Russell Speirs discussed the ten biggest educational trends in 2017, and a panel of prep school heads looked at the future of prep schools in a turbulent world with ever-changing priorities (and demographics).

In such uncertain times people often reach out to others, for guidance, and support. And colleagues from maintained schools discussed the nature of partnerships, both within the sector and across independent and state. Sharing, it was felt by many, results in strength, not dilution. But the pressures schools are under was also debated, with one panel of head teachers arguing about whether leading a school at such times is the ‘impossible job’. It was heartening to hear so many school leaders say it remained such a valuable and rewarding job, but the responsibilities are growing, and resources are shrinking.

There was also a strong evidence-based strand running through and across sessions. Experienced teachers and researchers such as Nick Rose (on using memory research in the classroom), Lucy Crehan (on the role that culture plays in creating education superpowers), David Didau (on the research that helps us make kids more academically successful), and, in the final keynote, leading educationalist Professor Dylan Wiliam talked about how we can create the schools our children need (which are different from the ones they actually have). It was stimulating, provocative stuff.

I end where I began: on uncertainty. Now that we know the result of the general election, it seems less likely that we will see a return to grammar schools, but what fills that policy hole? How important will schools be to a government that is struggling to retain a working majority while it is negotiating Brexit? My guess is that schools will slide down the political agenda quite quickly, and that is potentially very serious for the future of our country. On a more positive note, the summit showed what is possible when teachers come together, and share ideas, good practice, and find local solutions to perennial problems. Of course, such things cannot be scaled up to a national level, but perhaps this is the most we can achieve in the immediate future, and indeed this might be enough to ensure our schools still help produce gifted students ready for the 21st century. That is the hope, and until these turbulent times settle down, that might be just enough.