Nobody expects a British Education

Pupil: Trouble at school.

Teacher: Oh no – what kind of trouble?

Pupil: One on’t cross beams gone owt askew on treadle.

Teacher: Pardon?

Pupil: One on’t cross beams gone owt askew on treadle.

Teacher: I don’t understand what you’re saying.

Pupil: [slightly irritatedly and with exaggeratedly clear accent] One of the cross beams has gone out askew on the treadle.

Teacher: Well what on earth does that mean?

Pupil: *I* don’t know – Mr Wentworth just told me to come in here and say that there was trouble at the school, that’s all – I didn’t expect a kind of British Education.


[The door flies open and Secretary of State for Education enters, flanked by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector and a SpAd]

EdSec: NOBODY expects the British Education! Our chief aim is literacy… literacy and numeracy… numeracy and literacy… Our two aims are numeracy and literacy… and creativity… Our *three* aims are numeracy, literacy, and creativity… and an almost fanatical devotion to British values… Our *four*… no… *Amongst* our aims… Amongst our chief aims… are such elements as numeracy, literacy… I’ll come in again.

[The British Education exits]

Pupil: I didn’t expect a kind of British Education.


[The educationalists burst in]

EdSec: NOBODY expects the British Education! Amongst our aims are such diverse elements as: numeracy, literacy, creativity, an almost fanatical devotion to British values… and the forming of reflective independent collaborative problem solving self-managers – oh damn!

[To the HMCI] I can’t say it – you’ll have to say it.

HMCI: What?

EdSec: You’ll have to say the bit about ‘Our chief aims are …’

HMCI: [rather horrified] I couldn’t do that…

[The EdSec bundles the other two outside again]

Pupil: I didn’t expect a kind of British Education.


[The educationalists enter]

HMCI: Er… Nobody… um….

EdSec: Expects…

HMCI: Expects… Nobody expects the… um… the British… um…

EdSec: Education.

HMCI: I know, I know! Nobody expects the British Education. In fact, those who do expect –

EdSec: Our chief aims are…

HMCI: Our chief aims are… um… er…

EdSec: Literacy…

HMCI: Literacy and –

EdSec: Okay, stop. Stop. Stop there – stop there. Stop. Phew! Ah! Our chief aims are literacy… blah blah blah. SpAd, read the charges.

SpAd: You are hereby charged that you did on diverse dates fail to meet the aims of a British Education. ‘We are preparing students for jobs that don’t even -‘

HMCI: That’s enough.

[To Teacher] Now, how do you plead?

Teacher: We’re innocent.

EdSec: Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!


HMCI: We’ll soon change your mind about that!

(For a better and more serious discussion of this problem, in the post that inspired this, see @michaelfordham‘s blog here.)

(This blog post was originally posted on Staffrm)

Blights of the round table: the damage of poor proxies for learning

(This blog post was originally posted on Staffrm)

Look at the image below and answer this question: how many empty spaces are there at the table?

Slide1Now look at this image and answer the same question: how many empty spaces are there at this table?Slide2Actually, the question I should ask is: which of the two people above appear to be less alone?

It seems a strange question. But not for a particular Seattle-based, world-dominating coffee peddler. According to author Karen Blumenthal, the belief that “people look less alone while seated at a round table” is the reason why you’ll rarely see a square table in Starbucks stores.

The company conducted research by interviewing hundreds of customers and studied the psychology behind what makes them tick. The idea behind the round table is that it doesn’t have any clear ’empty spaces’, unlike a square table. When you looked at the images above, according to Starbucks, the person at the round table should have looked less ‘alone’ than the person sat at the square table. Even if you didn’t register this consciously, you may very well have registered it subconsciously.

But the fact is that the two people in the different images are both as alone as each other. Even though one seems less alone, it isn’t true. They are both solo coffee drinkers.

The problem is that we are often easily fooled by what we glimpse, and we don’t often unpick the underlying truths to the meanings we’ve inferred. And no place is that more conspicuous than in lesson observation. We see things happening in lessons and automatically infer that learning has taken place. Often, we are very wrong.

According to Professor Robert Coe of CEM, we “readily accept poor proxies for learning, rather than seeking direct and valid evidence of true learning”. Whilst he concedes that it is “much harder” to do the latter, it doesn’t excuse the fact that we often judge, and are judged on these “poor proxies” – things that we assume show learning, but actually don’t:

Poor proxies fro learning

Much like with Starbucks’ round tables, we see these things and assume something that isn’t necessarily true. Just because students are busy or engaged or calm, it doesn’t mean that learning is taking place.

Whilst these things are logically desirable, they don’t really have anything to do with progress. And whilst it is certainly okay for schools to ask for these standards in lessons, the sad thing is that careers are often made or broken on the achievement of them, irregardless of progress. I have a friend (not in my school, I should add) who always gets excellent GCSE results. However, this teacher has been placed on capability measures due to failing lesson observations. Meanwhile a colleague of theirs has poor GCSE results yet revels in ‘Outstanding’ observations. I’m sure we all know stories like this.

These poor proxies were highlighted by Professor Coe a couple of years ago, yet still aren’t widely known in schools. I think academic work like this is too important to not be recognised by teachers and school leaders. Organisations such as NTENEEF and ResearchED are working well to reach schools and teachers that are engaged with research. But what about those that aren’t? How do this information reach them?

Maybe Starbucks have got something they can teach us about ubiquity or presence too?

The 21st Century Job

“Sorry, Mr. Thompson, but we won’t be taking you forward to the next stage of the interview…” said the sharply dressed woman who had been conducting the morning’s aptitude tests.

“Ok. Thanks for letting me know.” I replied, my heart not quite sinking to the depths it had often sunk to last year, when I had first begun searching for a career after finishing my education. Those early rejections were pretty heavy, but after 11 months of being rebuffed by sharply dressed men and women, I’d sort of gotten used to them.

I picked up my blazer and turned to leave. As I did, I asked the woman what I had asked almost every interviewer previously.

“Oh, before I go… you couldn’t tell me what it was that let me down, could you?”

Her reply contained no surprises: “Of course. I’m sorry to say that you failed the maths aptitude test. Oh, and there were some grammatical problems with your written communication test too.”

Those had been the basis of many of my rejections to date. Still, I knew I had more to give than maths and grammar. I’m a creative person, I thought to myself. There is a job out there for me. It just hasn’t been invented yet.

My job hadn’t been invented yet. I knew it was true because my teachers at school had told me this. I first saw it in a video clip in assembly, but it was repeated throughout my school years by my teachers: we are preparing you for jobs that have not yet been created.

These words lifted me a little and they echoed through my head as I left the building through the revolving door, and made my way to the station.

As soon as I’d found a seat on the train, I flicked through the paper to the classifieds. There were a few vacancies worth applying for, but it seemed to be page after page of the same types of jobs. Notably, they were all jobs that had yet been created. In fact, they were pretty much all the types of jobs that had been around for years in some form or another. Where were all the jobs that hadn’t yet been created? All I was looking for was something new, something different, something that would leap off the page and say to me: This is the job for you!

I got off the train at my usual stop and took my usual walk of dejection back towards home. As always, I stopped off under the awnings of a row of local shops to light a cigarette before the final stretch. It was then that I saw it: in sleek black font on a white A4 sized notice in the window of one of the shops, the words:

Looking for a job that has not yet been created?

This is the job for you!

I looked around me for confirmation that this was a joke – a very elaborate joke, targeted very specifically at me. Was someone filming me? Had my friends set this up? But as I stared at the words, I realised that these are things I’d never expressed to anyone before. If I was honest, I was a little embarrassed that I’d failed so far in getting a job, so I always brushed off any questions from my friends on the topic. It wasn’t something we spoke about. So if nobody knew that these were the exact words that I constantly thought about, was somebody reading my thoughts? Ridiculous! Of course not! This is it, I thought. This is fate. I tapped the phone number at the bottom of the notice into my phone, already excited at the prospect of the phone call I was going to make in the morning.

“Ah, Mr. Thompson. I’m pleased to say that we’d like to offer you the job…” said the sharply dressed man, extending his hand towards me.

“Really? I mean… thank you!” I faltered as I shook his hand. “This is so… I’m so… thank you! I didn’t realise that the interview was complete. I mean, I thought there would be some… er, aptitude tests too?”

“Ah, no. We’ve learned everything we need to know about you. I can only assume from your enthusiastic handshake that you’d like to accept the position?”

“Yes! I mean, of course… yes, I’d be delighted to accept the position.” I knew I was meant for great things. I knew my creativity would be seen as a perfect fit by an employer who was looking for something special. I knew that I’d find a job that I could excel at. This job. This job was the one for me… whatever it was. Wait, what was the job? At that moment I realised that I had no idea what I was agreeing to. I didn’t know what it was that I’d just accepted. “Erm, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what is the position exactly. I mean, what is the job?”

“The job? It hasn’t been created yet. As we said in the advert. But when it is created, we know that you will be absolutely perfect for it.”

“Oh… right. It hasn’t been…? So, er, what would I be doing then?”

“Nothing. Yet. Of course, when it is created you will have plenty to do.”

“Nothing? What do you mean? Do you mean I’ll get a salary for doing nothing? I don’t think I understand.”

“Haha! A salary for doing nothing! Very good! I don’t think we’d stay in business very long if we paid people for doing nothing, Mr. Thompson. Do you?”

“No, of course… I mean… what will you be paying me for then?”

“Oh, I thought I made that clear? We won’t be paying you, Mr. Thompson. At least, not until your job has been created.”

“So I don’t really have a job then? I mean, you won’t be paying me until the job exists, until you create the job? When will that be, if you don’t mind me asking you?”

“Well, we’ve been in business for nearly ten years and we’ve been hiring people for jobs that haven’t been created yet all that time. We hope to have a job created for our first employee in the next five years. That’s our aim.”

“What? You mean I won’t actually be working or getting paid for five years?”

“Oh, I think it will be longer than that, Mr. Thompson. We have over 250 employees. We hope our first employee’s job will be created in five years. Your job could be created in fifteen years. Perhaps even twenty.”

“Twenty years! I can’t afford to wait that long. I need to work now. I need to be earning money.”

“Yes, I understand that. I’m just… I’m just not sure that your particular skill set is suited to the jobs that you might get today. Your numeracy is lacking. Your literacy needs a lot of work. And the whole ‘creative’ thing is, well, a bit nebulous. Oh, I should also add that your world knowledge leaves a lot to be desired. And as for your basic comprehension… well, the less said about that, the better, eh? That’s not to say that, one day, there might be a job created where only the fuzzy quality of creativity will be really useful. And when it is created, it’s yours. But as it stands, in the world that we live in, there aren’t really a lot of careers that you’ll have access to, I’m afraid. And that’s where we come in. We’ve speculated on you and on future jobs and we believe that there is a strong likelihood that your specific – albeit rather limited – skill set will be matched with a job requiring that skill set in years to come. I suppose in the mean time… have you thought about going back into education and actually training for a current job?”

With those words ringing in my ears, I made my way out of the building and sauntered to the station.

Should I go back into education and train for a job that does exist? What if the jobs that haven’t been created are just around the corner? I put my ticket in the barrier, made my way to the platform, sat down on a bench and waited for my train to arrive, all the while these thoughts spinning through my mind.

I waited and I thought. I thought and I waited. And before I knew it, I was alone on the platform. Where was my train? I looked at my watch. I’d been waiting for hours.

On the other side of the tracks, a lone station employee swept the platform.

“Hello!” I called. The man looked up at me. “I wonder if you can help me?” I continued. “I’ve bought a ticket for a train and it hasn’t come. In fact, none of the trains that were scheduled to go to my destination have come. Do you know what’s happening?”

He cupped his hand around his mouth and called back at me. “Certainly, sir. I think you may have bought one of our Creative Saver Tickets? Is that right?”

I looked down at my ticket. “Yes. That’s right. It was the only ticket available for the service I wanted to use. What does this mean? Is this why my train hasn’t come?”

“Yes, sir. It’s a new ticket we have been offering. You’ll notice how reasonably priced it was. You pay that price because the train service you are paying for hasn’t been created yet.”

“I’ve paid… wait, what? It hasn’t been created yet? What on earth…? You can’t do that? I need to get home! I’ve paid for a train to get me home! I… I… need to get home! When… when will a train come that can get me home?”

“Oh, not until a service has been created, sir. Could be weeks. Could be months. I wouldn’t have thought it would be any longer than a couple of years. But when that service is created, you’ll be prepared, sir. You’ve got a ticket.”

And with that, the station employee got back to sweeping the platform, whistling to himself as he did so.

Teachers as stick insects: the constant re-evolution of education

(This blog post was originally posted on Staffrm)


Up until recently, scientists thought that stick insects evolved away their wings when the species deemed them unnecessary – it was understood that they required more energy for reproduction than flying, so out went the wings.

But a discovery in 2003 by evolutionary biologists tells us that the very first stick insect, had already lost its wings 300 million years ago when it first appeared. But more interestingly than that, it has actually re-evolved wings and lost them again FOUR times since. Up until this discovery, entomologists thought that (loss of) wings only evolved once in insects – once they’d lost them, that was it: they were gone for good. It was assumed that the gene responsible for creating wings was mutated beyond repair as evolution had decided that they would never be needed again. But the gene was still there, and the wings re-evolved. And evolved away again. And back again. A few times.

This seems to me a lot like the life of a teacher.

Whether it be the decline of SEAL and the rise of Grit; the degeneration of the GTC and the advent of the mooted College of Teaching; or the death of National Curriculum Levels and the birth of things-that-look-just-like-levels-but-are-called-something-else, teachers are faced with endless re-evolution of edicts and movements that dictate the things we do, or how we are expected to do them.

Whilst entomologists were certain that the genes that created wings in stick insects were mutated beyond repair, teachers are often led to believe that we have heard the death knell of a certain precept or approach, only to see it grow wings again.

This re-evolution is one of the most tiring things for teachers. If it were an ever-evolving realm, the sense of forward motion would be stimulating. The feeling that we were always moving forward as a field would energise teachers, I’m sure. But the constant re-evolving can actually be quite exhausting.

This re-evolution is largely due to the fact that education policy is directed by politicians, who are shuffled regularly by both government and by the electorate. However, I would never want a system that doesn’t give stakeholders the power to elect (and so also remove) those that control education.

So what is the answer? Can education become evolutionary? Or do we just prepare teachers for constant re-evolution during teacher training? Shall we just tell trainee teachers to prepare for a career as a stick insect?

“Just tuck those wings in a drawer. You’re probably going to need them again in a couple of years.”