My long journey into teaching and an ode to my parents

My teenage mother
My teenage mother

During the heated grammar school debate a few months ago, I read a few excellent blogs such as this one, from teachers who were the first in their own families to go to university and how their bright and intelligent mothers had been denied the opportunity to better themselves because of a poor education in secondary moderns. That got me thinking about my own mother and her legacy to me, and I have finally got around to writing my thoughts about it.

I wasn’t the first generation in my family to go to university. My mother was. It was all the more remarkable because of the difficult circumstances of her early life. She grew up in Damascus, Syria, at a time in the early sixties, when women were not generally expected to get a university education. Her father died when she was two, leaving her widowed mother virtually penniless with five children to care for. Her mother eventually remarried but her new husband was not interested in bringing up or funding some other man’s children. And so my mum and her siblings were left to mostly fend for themselves and times were often very hard. She told me once how she would wear two skirts on top of one another in order to fatten her skinny frame up.

In spite of all this, my mum did well at school while having to overcome the handicap of being forced, as a left hander, to write with her right hand. She was also very politically engaged from an early age. Those years in the late fifties and early sixties were full of political turbulence in Syria. This was the time of the disastrous political union between Syria and Egypt and my mum was a vocal opponent of the union, sometimes openly disagreeing with her teachers at school who toed the party line. Somehow, and now I wish she were here today so that I could ask her for more details, she got offered a place to study commerce at Damascus University. Going to university was how she met my father.

He was not a student at the university. In fact, when they got married, my mum was the one with the degree, not my dad. He was from Saudi Arabia but had a Syrian mother and had grown up in Damascus until his late teens when his father had summoned him back to his home town of Medina to help with the family shop keeping business. This did not work out very well and after a falling out, my dad headed to the coastal city of Jeddah to seek his own fortune. As luck would have it, the newly established Ministry of Foreign Affairs was looking for some recruits. My dad sat the civil service exam, passed and entered the diplomatic service.

His first posting was to Franco’s Spain in the early sixties. In Spain, he lodged with a landlady who taught him about social etiquette, dallied with Spanish girlfriends and learned to speak the language fluently. My grandmother was not happy. On every visit home, she tried to pressure him into marrying, putting forward as a candidate the next door neighbour’s daughter. My father was having none of it but as his posting in Spain came to an end and he had to return to Saudi Arabia, he knew that his mother would continue her insistent nagging about him getting married unless he did something about it. He decided to give in gracefully but find a bride of his own choosing.

With this in mind, he said his goodbyes to all his friends in Spain, packed his belongings into his smart new car, and decided to drive down to Syria in one last road trip as a bachelor. On arriving in Damascus, he sought out an old school friend of his and asked if he knew any nice girls he could be introduced to. This old school friend happened to be at university with my mother and immediately thought of her. My father promptly turned up at the university and my mother was pointed out to him from afar. He obviously liked what he saw because he soon presented himself to my grandmother as a suitor for her hand. Now it was my mother’s turn to have none of it. She wasn’t about to give herself to an unknown, uncouth Saudi Arabian. She initially refused to come out of her room to meet him but eventually deigned to do so. One look at him and the rest, as they say, is history.

Following her marriage (in a hand-me-down dress from her older sister’s wedding), my mother left Syria and started her new life as the wife of a diplomat. There was no opportunity for her to find a job and develop a career. In any case, she soon fell pregnant with the first of her four children, each one born in a different country. While my mother settled into a life of domesticity, my father’s star was rising rapidly. He obtained a degree in politics, a master in international relations and even started a PhD at Oxford University though he never had the chance to complete it. He steadily moved up the ranks of the civil service and, two years or so before his untimely death, was made a deputy minister of foreign affairs.

My mum the housewife, with me (far right) and my sister
My mum the housewife, with me (far right) and my sister

On the face of it, my mother was a conventional stay-at-home housewife but her keen mind was constantly whirring. She taught herself French in our posting in Geneva and then English when we came to London. She read avidly in both of these languages as well as her native Arabic. She followed the news and discussed politics with my dad when he came home from work. But then, as the years went on, things changed. Her children grew up and didn’t need her so much anymore and dad’s work took him away from home far too often to summits and meetings all around the world. All alone in her big house in Riyadh, she got lonely and drifted into depression. When my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 55, she nursed him with utter dedication until the day he died, but then her depression deepened even more. Just over a year later, she died suddenly of an aneurism, a much loved, deeply intelligent but lonely and diminished woman.

How does my mother’s story relate with my decision to enter teaching in my mid-forties? Let me explain.

I am an extremely lucky person. I grew up with loving and supportive parents who encouraged me to make my mark in the world. I was educated at a select private school for girls and went to a Russell Group university. One of my dad’s proudest moments was when I graduated with an MBA. The world was my oyster when I started working as a business consultant. I had grown up watching Joan Collins strut her stuff in shoulder pads on Dynasty, and I pictured myself walking into board rooms and making power deals. The reality was rather different. There were no power deals in board rooms. The work was sometimes interesting, often dull, and all around me were alpha males in suits who were massively better than me at self-promotion. By the time my parents passed away, I knew the business world wasn’t for me and I eventually jacked it in and decided to re-train as a reflexologist and aromatherapist. I wanted to do something that involved daily positive interaction with other human beings and I wanted to feel useful. For a few years, I eked out a living as a complementary therapist. I think I was good at it and it was satisfying though not hugely challenging.

Then my own little thunderbolt happened. I met and married a wonderful man and welcomed my son into the world. Following in my mother’s footsteps, I dedicated myself to my family. We bought an old house that was a bit of a wreck and I spent hours meticulously planning the refurbishment. I immersed myself in happy domesticity but after my son started school, I found myself at a bit of a loose end. I started thinking about resurrecting my complementary therapy career but kept putting it off for inexplicable reasons. A new Netflix membership two years ago saw me lounge on the sofa for hours on end watching one episode after another of popular drama series. Throughout, the memory of my mother kept nudging my mind, reminding me what happens when an intelligent and educated woman wastes her talents away. I don’t think I was depressed but I did lose a lot of my self confidence. I applied for a part time job in the administration of a newly set up local primary school but didn’t even get an interview. I had been so thoroughly de-skilled that even my BA, my MBA and my business experience couldn’t get my foot through the door.

So what saved me? Well, the first nudge I got into teaching was when I found out my son had been placed in the middle ability group in his class. Outrageous! How could my bright and clever son ever be considered to be of middling ability? Why were they streaming five year olds in the first place? Why hadn’t I been told of this? I had never before in my life encountered streaming in practice. The closest I ever came was when, as a teenager, we were divided into 4 “teaching groups” for maths. I hadn’t expected or ever thought that young children in year 1 would be judged on their ability and separated in this way. I was galvanised by outrage. Following a meeting with the deputy head of my son’s school, I scoured the internet for all the information I could find about ability grouping. I bought Carol Dweck’s book on mindset and Alison Peacock’s “Learning without limits”. I encountered blog after interesting blog about education and I read and read and read. I decided to do some extra tutoring with my son at home, and found great satisfaction in seeing his rapid progress once I took his education into my hands.

Then last year, at Christmas, I turned 45. The clock was ticking and I was no closer to finding a way to make my mark on the world. Next day, I happened to read an article about the crisis in teacher recruitment and how there was a particular shortage in secondary teachers. The day after that, I saw an advert on TV encouraging people to get into teaching. Could this be something for me? I sought advice from my husband and siblings and was surprised to find it uniformly positive. “You’d be a great teacher”, they told me, “fantastic idea”, “go for it”. I set about trying to arrange some school experience by volunteering, which was easier said than done. My first day at the inner city academy where I now work was scary and nerve racking. This was a world away from the girls’ school I had attended. I stuck with it though. It has been incredibly challenging at times but I have stuck with it and I know I will go the distance. The alternative, as my mother’s story keeps reminding me, is far scarier.

A beginner’s guide to inset days

One of the new concepts I have had to adjust to in my journey into teaching is that of the inset day. On a purely intellectual level naturally I can understand that time needs to be set aside for professional development and so on. However, the experience of such events (my third so far) leaves me slightly befuddled.

Today, there was of course the obligatory speech from our leader, instructing us in his vision for the school in true messiah style, and the repeated mantra of us “going from good to outstanding”  – unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Speech over, clapping done, and then we had to sit through one or two further speakers. In the midst of all this talking, there were genuine nuggets of information, but these could just as easily have been transmitted in an emailed press release. Did I have to sacrifice my 13th day of holiday for this?

But no, more was to come, something I had not experienced before: the education consultant (aka the keynote speaker). At least the tedium was relieved. For an hour, we got distracted with a very slick performance. He had us out of our chairs (good because my joints were getting rather stiff), made us laugh and was careful to plug his most recent book – which one lucky person got to take home in the raffle, hooray! It all sounded interesting and plausible but I’m not sure I took away anything that is going to improve my practice in any meaningful way.

At last, break time came and the caterers did us proud with a wonderful array of pastries. New Year’s resolutions had to be put back another day but hey.

The second half of the morning consisted of a short SPOT session on “Using questioning for differentiation: using Bloom’s to scaffold and extend”. Again there was nothing much there which was going to improve my practice in any great way. I had Googled Bloom’s the night before and read up a little on it but as an LSA, there is not much opportunity for me to pose higher order questions to the students I support. In any case, I learned much more about it from reading a few articles online than from our little work session. Still nothing so far, apart from the pastries, to justify my coming in to school today.

Next we had departmental meetings, with Humanities in my case. We trundled through the agenda, with nothing much for me to contribute. There was an interesting tug of war between the teachers and the department head about the number of CTL assessments in the red book which they had to do this term, and complaints about how the marking and feedback with the green pen was taking too much time. They suggested dropping one of the KS3 assessments but then of course, what to do in its stead to demonstrate to Ofsted – we await an inspection any day – that we are on top of feedback and assessment? I did once or twice want to pipe in about some of the fantastic blogs I have read recently concerning this very issue, Toby French, Daisy Christodoulou and all the good folks at Michaela. Is nobody else at my school accessing this goldmine of information that is available online? As they kept going around in circles, I did mention doing low stakes quizzes using knowledge organisers but then the question arose: “who would write up the knowledge organisers? Us? Sorry, don’t have time to do that.” So that was dead in the water. In the end, a compromise was reached. They would drop one of the CTL assessments and instead do some spelling and definitions tests that could be peer assessed quickly.

Lunch came around and again, the caterers did us proud. I had a lovely strawberry tart and chocolate éclairs. Maybe the day wasn’t a total waste of time after all.

Afternoon was slightly more interesting. We were split up into working parties – mine was on how to put together our more able and talented provision. Apparently, this was highlighted by Ofsted as one of our weaknesses during last inspection, so we need to focus on demonstrating improvement on that front. We whiled away the hour with some constructive discussion, helped along by the box of Lindor chocolates on the table.

Then finally, it was home time. First day back at work done and dusted. Still not convinced that this was the most effective use of my time but if that’s what they want me to do, I have no objections as long as they keep up the good supply of pastries and cakes.

Change is in the air

I have been following the bitter arguments on Twitter between educational traditionalists and progressives with interest lately. A lot of the anger has come about as a result of the event last weekend held at Michaela school to promote their new book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”. There was a very memorable moment in the debate where Michaela head, Katharine Birbalsingh, made an impassioned speech about reclaiming authority and discipline in our schools. I won’t paraphrase it too much, best listen to it here.

The speech, which was not everybody’s cup of tea, struck a real chord with me because I am witnessing on a daily basis what happens to a school when respect for teachers is lost and behaviour gets out of hand. It isn’t pretty. Actually, it’s tragic and I feel desperately sorry for the students at my school who are unlikely to get much of an education at the end of their time here. I feel particularly frustrated because the school I work in is new – it opened only 4 years ago. The leadership had a perfect opportunity to start something from scratch and embed the right kind of culture in that first year where there was only one year group to contend with, but that precious opportunity was squandered away. Instead, we have a set of year 10s who behave with impunity because they know they can get away with it, and in turn they set a poor example for all the other year groups.

Our head’s big mantra, as far as I can tell, is grit. Yes he wants the students at his school to do well academically, but more importantly, he wants them to show grit and resilience. A lot of what he says to us on inset days could be lifted straight out of “Educating Ruby”, a book I found incredibly disheartening in its approach to education. The main message, if you have not read it, is that there are some things more important to learn at school than the academic curriculum. It’s alright that the mythical Ruby in the book leaves school without any A-C GCSEs because she has learnt something else more valuable: grit and resilience. Such skills, we are to infer, will allow her to make the most of her lot in life (i.e. she will probably stay poor but she will be a more contented poor).

This kind of message, I believe, stems from a defeatist attitude to education born out of decades of low achievement in schools. So the paradigm gets shifted. Instead of focussing on academic results when it’s frankly clear that these are just not going to improve for a large chunk of the school population, we shift our measures of success to more intangible things that all sound good in theory: creativity, problem solving skills, grit etc…

But what happens when a school like Michaela comes along which unashamedly says the opposite? Poor children can achieve, they can do as well if not better than privately educated children, if only we have the right culture of discipline and high expectations. What happens if, as is becoming increasingly clear, such a school manages to demonstrate that this can actually be done in practice? How will others react to this? Some, like me, are curious to find out more, to see what can be learned from the Michaela experiment.

I don’t have any axe to grind or any record to defend though. I think it may be a lot different for teachers and school leaders who have invested a lot of their time and effort doing the progressive thing and have not been able to show the same degree of success. How difficult must it be for them to see a school doing everything they have been taught to believe is wrong and regressive, actually helping the most disadvantaged children get on in life. This is where the concept of the sunken cost fallacy comes into play. Too much has been invested in a course of action to turn back and change course, even when the evidence is there for all to see. So instead of greeting the new approach with curiosity and interest, far too often the reaction is to denigrate, to accuse, to attack.

I am watching the battle of ideas raging on with great interest. What must it be like for teachers who entered the profession a decade or so ago, when the orthodoxy was all about progressive education (as evidenced in Andrew Old’s recent blog) to be confronted with the complete opposite? Human beings are generally a conservative lot (with a small c). We don’t generally like to be jolted out of our comfort zone. And we certainly don’t like to be told that what we have been doing for the last ten years or so, what we have toiled at with the best of intentions, was actually the wrong thing to do. It’s little surprise that the reaction of many is one of anger.

This brings to mind something that I witnessed when I was a mere slip of a girl during my gap year when I worked at the Handicapped Children’s House in Riyadh. My parents lived there at the time and managed to help me secure a job as a teaching assistant in the Early Childhood Program (ECP), working with 3-5 year old disabled children. I had playgroups and one-to-one sessions where mostly I was told to play ball games to help their motor skills and sing lots of cheesy songs. One month into the job, the American head, a lovely lady named Dr. Ann Gerard, announced her retirement and the appointment of a new head, who was Saudi Arabian and who had recently returned from the USA with two masters in special education. The new head soon started making some changes. She introduced us to the Portage development scale and how we could use it to assess the development of our pupils to set appropriate goals for them. I remember being delighted at the prospect of doing something new and meaningful, something a little bit more directed than ball games and songs. But my colleagues were not so happy.

They wasted no time in showing their hostility to the new regime. I was shocked at the level of antagonism and resentment towards the new head, just because she had the temerity to change the way they had comfortably been doing their work for years. At every opportunity they tried to sabotage what she was doing and they made her life hell, to the point where she resigned from the job two years later (after I had left). Interestingly though, when I caught up with my old colleagues a few years later, they were happily using all the new techniques she had introduced.

I think that was my first real insight into the human condition and for this reason, I have not been all that surprised at the reaction of the progressives to the resurgence of traditional teaching. I have been quite energised by it actually because to me, it shows that it has hit a nerve: change is in the air and the low expectations of progressivism inexorably on their way out.

A reminder that I’m not so young anymore

I was supporting a student in a year 7 English lesson today and we were given a new poem to study entitled “Hurricane hits England”. The poem, by Grace Nichols, was inspired by the great hurricane that hit our shores back in 1987.

As the teacher introduced the poem, she talked to the students about the 1987 hurricane and showed that famous footage of Michael Fish doing the weather forecast and assuring the viewers that there was no hurricane on the way. I laughed in remembrance and then found myself startled when I heard the teacher say that she was born shortly after this event. That made me sit up. How could it be that a grown up professional, a teacher for God’s sake, was too young to have even been alive in 1987?

Well of course, do the maths and it’s entirely possible. On an intellectual level, I have naturally been aware that I am older than many of the teachers in the school but I never felt it at the gut level like I did today. One of the challenges going into teaching at the ripe old age of 45 is the knowledge that I will most probably have to be taught or mentored by people who are a good deal younger than me.

There are two sides to this coin. On the one hand, I need to be atuned to the fact that, regardless of age, my colleagues will know a lot more about the business of teaching than I do and that I will have to listen to their advice carefully. On the other hand, I clearly have a great deal of experience under my belt and already have formed my own (not intractable) views on educational matters. I will have to chart a course between genuinely opening my mind to new ideas and sticking to my guns when what is being spouted at me seems nonsensical. But most of all, I will have to learn real humility because teaching as a profession involves a daily admission that you still have a lot to learn yourself.

Going back to today’s lesson. The hurricane was being described as if it were a historical event beyond living memory and so of course I had to say out loud that I remembered it very well. All eyes turned to me. “How did I feel?”, “was I frightened?”, they asked with interest. There, my moment of fame came to a sad end as I had to admit the disappointing truth: I slept right through it.


How do we get teachers to teach rather than act as referees?

Friday afternoon and I finally head home, bruised and weary after yet another challenging week at my school. Half term seems like a distant memory already. I have had to deal with the usual rudeness, disrespect, rowdiness, chaos and aggression that characterises the behaviour here.  Yesterday I passed by one of the “problem” students on my way down the stairs to my next lesson and suddenly felt something cold and wet land on my hair. He had in his hand a cup of slushy iced drink with a little spoon inside and thought it would be funny to jettison some of that ice down onto my head.

I could go on with other examples of the kind of behaviour I have to deal with but I don’t think that would be necessary: you all get the general picture. The compounded effect of all this poor behaviour has me re-thinking my future. Do I really still want to train as a teacher? Can I work long term in a school like this? Maybe I should just stick with it long enough to get my QTS and then head for the halcyon hills of the private schooling sector.

The thing is, when I actually get to teach, it is still one of the most rewarding things to do ever. I work closely with two Syrian refugees, teaching them English 10 periods a week. They arrived in this country earlier this year with no English whatsoever; one is 11 years old and the other is 15. I have to work intensively with them and somehow get them to learn this tricky and complicated language well enough so that they are able to access the curriculum. I am having to do this task pretty much on my own. The head of the MFL department, who also heads the EAL in my school, is too busy to take this on. I was given a fairly useless ESOL textbook and the login to Linguascope and sent on my merry way. The rest was up to me.

After a few false starts, I decided to go back to basics. It helped that I have a seven year old son in primary school and that I have witnessed his journey into literacy. What do you do with someone who can barely read or write? Answer: phonics. I have been busily engaged teaching my Syrian girls to read using phonics. We read simple story books together every day and I also read more complex stories to them and translate as I go along. I get them to do reading comprehension exercises, modelling for them how to construct simple sentences and hammering into them the rules of punctuation. They already know to start all sentences and proper nouns with a capital letter and to end with a full stop, something even some year 10 students I work with forget to do. We do regular small stakes tests and quizzes, interleaving and repeating content learned in previous weeks. Words they get wrong in the weekly spelling test are tested again and again until they get them right. I make them practise their cursive handwriting which already looks much clearer and neater than the scrawl of the other students I see in school. We still have a very long journey ahead of us but we are making progress and it is gratifying to see.

The above is an example of when my job purely involves teaching and not behaviour management. The Syrian girls are well behaved, serious and motivated. They are a joy to teach because they want to learn and they are not interested in disrupting my lesson. We can get on with the nitty gritty and get a lot done each session. Of course, that kind of attitude is rare to find in a whole class setting. Michaela school, which I have written about before, seems to be achieving this but in most other schools, an element of behaviour management will always be on the teacher’s agenda. The question is then, at what level does the balance tip in a lesson from one where the teacher is mainly teaching to one where the teacher is mainly trying to impose discipline? Some teachers, by their charismatic or strong personalities, can manage to sort out the behaviour and get on with teaching but many others will need to rely on the schools’ systems and culture to do so.

It is in this context that I believe school leaders have a particularly important role to play. There needs to be a clear vision, purpose and attention to detail. If they want to have a successful school, they need to enable their teachers to actually teach. Quite clearly, this is not happening at my school at the moment. I can tell that the leadership is exercised by this issue in the frequent new directives that arrive in my inbox. Two weeks ago we were told to issue 5 behaviour points to any student arriving at their lessons 5 minutes late and 10 behaviour points for those that are more than 5 minutes late. Last week, we were told that all teaching staff had to make their way down five minutes before the end of break and lunch to assist students with lining up and help them proceed into classes in a more orderly fashion. I also got an email last week “proposing that we only use the main stairs for the transition between lessons. This will mean easier supervision for staff and, hopefully, swifter transitions.” And so on and so forth… Lots of tinkering at the edges but not enough real vision.

Faced with these realities, what do I do? Well for starters, I am going to try to make sure whatever school I end up doing my schools direct training with has a better standard of behaviour than the one I work at presently. I am not exactly spoiled for choice as history is not one of the shortage subjects. Secondly, I will have to work on my own strategies for ensuring good behaviour in lessons. This involves on the one hand actively observing other teachers and reflecting on what seems to work and not work, as well as what style of teaching would be appropriate for me (for instance I do not have a booming voice or a big physical presence). On the other hand, I need to try to practise these strategies myself and refine my technique.

The only other time I get to teach on my own is during the enrichment club I take on Friday afternoons. We play the TV quiz “Countdown” using an online version of the game. Unlike my EAL lessons with the Syrian refugees, my Countdown club is made up of a hodge podge of students, many of which never actually signed up for the club but just got lumped with it because the ones they wanted were oversubscribed. Two boys in particular have definite behavioural issues and it has been a huge challenge to get them to play by the rules, without shouting out, getting up and walking about the room or arguing with each other. Often I have felt more like a referee than a teacher in these sessions.

Each week after the club, I reflect on what went wrong and what went right. I think of different strategies to try out. I wish I could tell you in this blog that I have nailed it, but I’m afraid it is work in progress. I will describe, however, the new strategy I adopted in the club yesterday.

I decided to try out a zero tolerance approach yesterday with a nice big carrot to reward them with. I started off by telling them that I was unhappy with their behaviour over the last few sessions and explaining to them again what I expected. No one was to leave their seats for any reason without my permission, no talking or calling out during the game, only speak after putting your hands up and being invited to do so by me. I then proceeded to write all their names down on the board and explained that if any of them broke these simple rules even once, their name would be rubbed off the board. At the end of the lesson, everyone was to put their mini whiteboards, pens and erasers away neatly and stand behind their chairs. All the students with their names still on the board would get a cupcake or a sweet of their choice from the bag I had with me. Did it work? Yes and no. One boy decided this was not for him and just walked out. One of the “problem” boys broke the rules within minutes of the start of the game, and also walked out of the classroom in a huff. The other “problem” boy actually managed to stay seated and quiet. Overall, the class was much quieter and we had a more productive session. I managed to buy their good behaviour through bribery, which might work once a week on a Friday enrichment club but would not be viable in a day-to-day setting. I also lost two students who walked out of the classroom.

There are no easy answers here although I would welcome any constructive advice from more experienced practitioners. I will just continue to reflect and try to learn my craft as best I can.

What’s this education lark all about?

I had my first teacher training interview last Friday. I’m not sure how I came across or whether I shall be invited back for the next stage in the recruitment process. One thing I was asked to do was to give a 5 minute presentation on a topic of my choice and after some deliberation, I decided to talk about my vision for education. I figured it was important to explain why I wanted to be a teacher and what kind of teacher I wanted to be. If my vision didn’t square with theirs, then we would not be a good fit either way.

I’m sharing here some of what I said. Maybe you can have a better inkling than me whether it went down well or not. In any case, I found it a useful exercise to put into words what I believe education is about and what it should look like. It went a little like this…

Let me start by saying that education is very precious to me. It allowed me to be more thoughtful, analytical and philosophical. It opened many doors for me and I want to be able to pass that gift on to my students and help open doors for them too. I’ve seen the various educational debates that are raging at the moment between the “traditionalists” who emphasize a knowledge-led curriculum versus the “progressives” who want to focus more on creative thinking and problem solving skills. And I have to confess to being baffled by this dichotomy on offer. Why do we have to choose between one or the other?

I’ve always thought it was a given that a teacher’s job was to impart knowledge and that this knowledge would underpin creativity and problem solving. Let me give you an analogy which demonstrates my point, albeit not in an educational setting. My mother taught me how to make perfect, fluffy white rice. Over the years, I have taken her recipe and added a few tweaks of my own. My expertise in cooking rice gave me the confidence to play around with the recipe, to be creative with it. I hope to teach my son, when he is a bit older, how to cook rice both the way my mum made it and with my innovations. In due course, I expect he will go forth into the world with this knowledge and try out his own permutations of it. In this way knowledge gets passed on and improved upon from generation to generation.

I guess this means that I fall more into the “knowledge-led” camp. To be honest though, I think this is all a bit of a no brainer and that we need to look beyond this debate. What do we understand by a good education? Now it is beyond the scope of my 5 minutes to answer this question in any depth but let me give you, very briefly, my perspective on what encapsulates a good education, based on what I have read and observed in schools so far.

I’ve talked already about the importance of imparting knowledge and so I won’t go much more into that. Secondly, I believe in pitching things up and setting high expectations rather than pitching things down as is so often the case. For example, I am not in favour of giving students lots of handouts rather than expecting them to write their own notes and I’m not in favour of spoon feeding them with writing frames rather than encouraging them to formulate their own sentences. I have seen Year 10 history students carelessly copy down the writing frames on the white board and then cobble them together with what is written on their handouts, resulting in often incoherent sentences that make no grammatical sense. I think all this spoon feeding derives from a sense, not overtly articulated, that the students are just not able to work at that high a level and so we have to pitch things down for them. But then this becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If you want to raise standards you have to have high expectations. You can’t do it by just making things easier. Of course that’s much harder to do and much more challenging, but nothing worthwhile is ever achieved by taking the easy road.

When I think of a good education I also think of language skills and communication. If you can’t read, write or speak properly, you haven’t been well educated, full stop. I am able to sit here before you and speak articulately about this topic precisely because of my education.

And finally we come to what is, to my mind, one of the biggest issues of the day: behaviour management. If you are constantly having to manage even low level disruption, constantly having to stop what you’re saying because someone is talking over you, then you are not going to be able to teach very well. I see behaviour and discipline rather like the first building blocks in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In order to learn, I believe you need to be in classrooms where there is good behaviour. You can have a well behaved classroom where learning doesn’t happen, but not the other way around.

Those then are my five pillars of a good education: knowledge, pitching things up, language, communication and discipline. That’s what I think teaching is about and I hope most of what I have said chimes with your outlook on education.

[At this point, I was told I had about 30 seconds left, so I decided to squeeze in one last bit of the presentation I had prepared.]

Let me finish with this little vignette.

Many teachers will have had a light bulb moment when they realise teaching is the profession for them. Although I probably had been thinking about it sub-consciously for a while, I had such a moment when I received this note from my son’s teacher.


When I tell you this note was written by no less than the deputy head of an Ofsted Outstanding school, you may get an idea of my level of frustration, disillusionment and ultimately my conviction that someone needs to step in and raise standards. I do believe that teachers have to be well educated themselves, to be masters of their subject, in order to pass that on to their students. When I saw this note I realised that here was an opportunity for me to do something of value. Or more simply, it made me feel needed. And so here I am, raring to go. Thank you for listening.

When did we lose our authority over our kids?

At the tail end of Friday I heard some of my colleagues discuss meeting up in the pub for a few drinks after work. My plans were rather different: pick up the kid from after school club, then home. I managed to get through dinner, homework and bedtime before collapsing into bed myself and sleeping for an unheard of 13 hours.

So what made my week so exhausting? I work as a learning support assistant though I do also teach EAL English to a few students who are refugees from Syria. This involves developing the curriculum, lesson planning and preparing an end of term 1 assessment for them, so one could say there is something of the teacher’s workload in my busy week. Still, I haven’t had to mark mountains of homework so that alone doesn’t go far enough towards explaining my fatigue.

Maybe it’s because we are approaching half term but I do get the sense that behaviour has got a lot worse over the last week. I had to break up two fights in the corridor in the space of two days and on the last period on Friday, at the start of my enrichment club, a girl came into my classroom, said a few angry words to a boy there, punched him in the stomach and then strutted out before I had a chance to stop her getting away. I later had to try to sift through class photos on the SIMS system before I identified her and gave her a “red card” for “reckless behaviour” which will add 10 behaviour points to the 60 or so she had already, no big deal for her.

All week long, navigating a path to classrooms between each lesson has proved to be something of an obstacle course. Hordes of children moving about in a chaotic manner, sometimes just stopping in the middle of the staircase for a chat, sometimes having raging arguments, laughing or being rowdy – this is no orderly procession from class to class. Fighting my way through these hordes to get to my classroom has become something of a daily struggle. Yesterday after period 3, I finally reached the top floor, turned right towards my classroom only to hear a girl shouting out to another “I’m going to punch you for this”. I remonstrated with “this is not appropriate language to use at school” but the girl simply ignored me and walked off.

I also noticed something else which gave me pause for thought. Twice this week, I have been accused by students of being rude to them, both times in nearly identical circumstances. This is what happened. I was trying to make my way up the back staircase to go to my next lesson but got held up by a group of girls having a heated conversation on the half landing. I said to them in a stern voice “go to your classrooms now please”, when this had no effect I then raised my voice and said “get moving to your class now” and when that still had no effect I literally had to shout at them to “go on, get moving now”. What did I then get for my troubles? A pained, injured expression on their faces and the accusation that I had been rude to them.

When did it become ok for students to talk back at teachers and accuse them of being rude? When did we lose our authority over our children? Looking back at my years at school, I don’t think I could ever have spoken to my teachers the way these kids were talking to me. If a teacher had told me to go to my classroom, I would have obeyed. I don’t think I ever witnessed chairs being upended or threats of physical violence, something of a daily occurrence in my school. Let’s not forget, this is a school rated as “good” by Ofsted. I dread to think what goes on in the ones that require improvement.

I am not so old that I ever experienced corporal punishment in school but there was always an element of respectful fear of teachers, particularly senior staff. Both of my headmistresses, Mlle Dutouquet in primary and Miss Rudland in secondary were what one would call battleaxes. Rather strict and stern individuals you didn’t ever want to get on the wrong side of. If you happened to pass them in the corridor, you would unconsciously make yourself as inconspicuous as possible. You did not want that eagle eye to fall on you.

Now I don’t want to come across as a traditionalist who views the past through gilded lenses. The kind of schools where teachers could behave like tyrants, ordering children about and imposing harsh punishments for misdemeanours obviously have no place in our modern world. Yet I do wonder if our efforts to empower children and to give them a voice have taken matters to the other extreme. Their empowerment has come at the expense of our authority. There is a happy medium somewhere but I have not seen it in any of the schools I have worked in, except perhaps the independent prep school I was with last year.

It is in this context that I am intrigued by the reports I read about Michaela free school in Wembley, the marmite school that has sharply divided opinion. Its head is Katharine Birbalsingh, the darling of the Tories and a champion of Michael Gove’s educational reforms. This on its own is enough to raise the hackles of the left leaning educational establishment. As I don’t belong to any of the two main political tribes of this country, I am not particularly bothered by the political hue of this school’s leadership. What interests me is what they seem to be achieving in terms of behaviour and educational attainment. I am told that students at Michaela walk the corridors in silence between lessons and that they are able to pack up their belongings, get to the next lesson and be ready to learn all in the space of 2 minutes. I hear that teachers are free to teach without having to constantly keep on top of behaviour management. I hear that they teach the children about gratitude and kindness. I’m intrigued.

On an impulse last week, I sent an email to the vice principal of my school who is also my line manager. I attached a link to Tom Benett’s blog about his visit to Michaela and asked whether anyone from our school had been to visit. If there were any plans to do so in the pipeline, please could I hitch a ride? When I next met up with her, she asked me about Michaela in a way that indicated she had never heard of this school before. I was surprised. I forgot that not everyone is in my twitter bubble. The long and short of it is that she would be happy for me to visit Michaela as part of my CPD though I did suggest that she accompany me there, as I feel it is important for a member of the leadership to see if there are any lessons we can learn from Michaela.

So, Michaela school, I hope you are still welcoming visitors because I want to come and see for myself how you do the things you do. If you’ve managed to crack the behaviour thing, then I want to learn how you do it. Make no mistake. Behaviour is the single most important issue in education today. We need to sort it out for the children’s sake but also for our own sanity. Maybe then I won’t have to come home at the end of the week feeling as low as I did last Friday.

Wading ever so slightly into the grammar school debate

I have just completed my first week as a Learning Support Assistant at an inner London secondary academy. I took the job to gain experience in the state education sector before applying for teacher training. Prior to that, I had worked for a term as a teaching assistant at an independent prep school. It will come as no surprise if I say that my current school feels a million miles removed from my previous one.

The first and most obvious difference is in the pupil intake. This is a school with a very high percentage of children on free school meals and over 50% of them with English as an additional language. I had the opportunity to observe the new intake of year 7 students during their induction process. Comprehensive is the word that springs to mind when I think of these year 7s. At one end of the spectrum, a handful of very bright and engaged students immediately stood out. There was a solid number of students who seemed to be working within the expectations for their year group but also a fair few that seemed to be struggling with their reading and writing. Add to this mix a couple of students recently arrived in the country (one of them a Syrian refugee) with little or no English. And to complete the picture, the new intake also included a few disruptive students with serious behavioural issues.

Academies and free schools have been at the forefront of the government’s educational policies for the last few years and there have been some notable success stories, in London schools particularly. My school could be considered one of these successes. Rated “good” by Ofsted, it has a dedicated and motivated leadership and there is a palpable ethos of aspiration. Although budgets are always tight, the pupil premium accompanying a large number of the students has meant the school has been able to invest in a significant number of specialist and support staff, myself included. The school itself is housed in a state-of-the-art newly built campus. There are also some tremendously talented and inspirational teachers, the backbone surely of any good school.

The acid test for me, however, is this. My son currently attends the local state primary but before too long we will need to think about secondary schools for him. Would I want my own son to go to this school? The answer to that is a definite no. And the reason for that is a relatively simple one. Because the school is comprehensive, because there is no element of selection and because the school happens to be in a poorer part of the city, it is likely that my son would have to share his classroom with some very troubled and disruptive students. For me, that is the deal breaker. I have repeatedly observed lessons being derailed by poor behaviour. I have also noticed how, over time, the disruptive students exert a pull over others who would otherwise behave, and encourage them to misbehave too. To clarify things, although I have worked in an official capacity at this school for only a week, I also volunteered there last year for half a term. So I do know what I am talking about.

When it comes to the grammar school debate, I can understand many of the arguments against them. I can see that they do very little for social mobility and that they have a negative effect on the neighbouring schools by creaming off the most talented, effectively turning them into secondary moderns. I understand all this and yet, as a mother myself, I have sympathy for those other parents crying out for a grammar school to open in their area so they don’t have to send their precious child to a school like mine. They want an element of selection so their child can be in a classroom with pupils that will exert an upward pull on them, not a downward one.

And that element of selection is already there, though not officially so. Schools in expensive areas, such as the one in leafy Surrey that I volunteered at briefly, are comprehensive in name only. Other schools deal with the problem by aggressively streaming or setting the students in most subjects. An Ofsted Outstanding school I know of assesses the students at the start of the year and then separates them into seven ability groups. That is surely a grammar school system by the back door.

Let’s have a bit more honesty in the debate and talk about the real issue, which is that of poor behaviour and how that can damage the educational chances of others. I don’t pretend to have the answers. I don’t think opening more grammar schools is the solution either. As for my son’s choice of secondary school, well we’re the lucky ones. If need be, we can afford to go private or move to a better catchment area. Others are not so lucky.

My thoughts on Chilcot and Blair

Thirteen years ago I went on my first and my last protest march. Up until then I had been content to watch events unfold from the safety of my couch but this, this was different. My adopted country was going to wage a pre-emptive war on a fellow Arab nation. While I had no love for the tyrant Saddam Hussein, it was obvious to me that he posed no serious threat to the security of the British people. It was equally obvious that many innocent Iraqi civilians were going to be caught in the crossfire. Their lives were too precious to be sacrificed on the altar of some nebulous greater good.

And so I marched. Thousands of others joined me that day on the “Stop the War” march. Our numbers were so great that I hoped politicians in Westminster would sit up and take notice. They didn’t. The war went ahead and it was more destructive and more bloodthirsty than even I had feared. The infrastructure of an entire nation was torn apart. People who once lived secure lives under a cruel dictator now lived in fear of their lives thanks to their benevolent rescuers. This is something that people in the West have long misunderstood. Such were the tales they heard of Saddam Hussein’s viciousness that they imagined a people living downtrodden, miserable lives. Surely then it was right to free them from the evil dictator and bestow on them that wonderful elixir called democracy.

As the daughter of a marriage between a Syrian and a Saudi Arabian, I know what life under dictators looks like. There is no freedom to express political views or to vote to change the leadership of your country. Corruption is rife and people in the high echelons of power can get away with murder, literally. But if you keep your head down under the radar, you can live secure and prosperous lives. Go to school, to university, to work. Enjoy wedding celebrations or dine out at a restaurant of your choice. Invite family or friends to dinner or go shopping for the latest fashions in the local mall. Such were the lives led by many ordinary Iraqis before the war. No doubt it would have been preferable to live in a free and democratic society under the rule of law but was the situation bad enough to justify the destructiveness of war?

Of course, we were told it was not just about getting rid of a cruel dictator and bringing democracy to the people of Iraq. There were those weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that could be mobilised within 45 minutes. There was the increased threat to the West from terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks – although no evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with AlQaeda.

We know now that there were no WMD. Iraq today is a fractured country riddled with sectarian violence. And after seven long years in the making, we now have the Chilcot report into this sad episode in our history. So what have we learned? Well among many other things, we now know that:

  • The UK chose to invade Iraq before peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted
  • The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s WMDs were presented with a certainty that was not justified.
  • Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated and the planning for post-Saddam Iraq was inadequate.
  • The Americans were going to invade Iraq no matter what. The UK was powerless to stop them and had to decide whether to join them in this endeavour or to risk the special relationship by insisting on continuing with diplomacy and UN inspections.

I watched Tony Blair’s press conference today, in which he responded to the contents of the Chilcot report. It has been widely reported that he seemed a broken man as he apologised for mistakes made and took responsibility for them. What struck me, however, was his refusal to admit that the decision to go to war had been wrong in the first place. Indeed, he used the example of Syria to demonstrate the dangers of inaction. How much worse would the Arab spring have been with Saddam still in power? I found this unconvincing. One could equally argue that, had there been no Iraq invasion, there might have been more appetite for military action in Syria and that this might have taken the shape of a no-fly zone rather than all out regime change.

We’ll never know what the geopolitical situation in the Middle East would have been today had there been no invasion  of Iraq. What we do know is that thousands of people died in this conflict: civilians, British, American and Iraqi soldiers. Perhaps the most important lesson that needs to be learned by our politicians is this: human life is precious. Do not embark on war lightly, without thought for the consequences, and do not treat the lives of ordinary people as pawns in a game of politics.

School tests should be welcomed, not reviled

It’s May and school tests are in full swing all around me. I work as an assistant in a year 3 class at a London prep school and we are quite familiar with testing. Every week there are spelling, mental arithmetic and problem solving tests. This week is a little different however. In addition to the usual tests, the children have done assessment papers in maths and in creative writing. All these tests and assessments are used to check how well the children are learning and to spot any areas of weakness that can be improved. This is a great help to the teachers in writing their end of year reports for each child.

Although the class size is comparatively small and the teacher has gotten to know his pupils very well, tests are still necessary to get a more detailed picture of how much each child has learned. Despite knowing the children really well, the class teacher still gets a surprise or two when marking the tests. “Robert”, the boy who clowns around in class to hide his academic insecurities, has done surprisingly well in quite a difficult test. Confident and cocky “Percy” who usually sails through all his tests has found this particular one quite challenging.

Yesterday I was asked by the class teacher to pore through the test data for one particular pupil and to make a note of all the tests where that child scored below a certain mark, and then to list the topics of each of these tests in order to try to identify any pattern. With this information, the teacher hopes to get a better understanding of where the child is struggling and to be able to devise appropriate strategies for him.

Without all this test data the teacher would have to rely mainly on his own observation of the children in class, an imperfect way of assessing how much they are learning. Even with the best intentions in the world, teachers can fall into the trap of bias. It is human nature to make mental judgements about people and all subsequent assessment can easily fall prey to the influence of these initial judgements. This article by Daisy Christodolou explains teacher bias very well. Interestingly, it is children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are most likely to be affected negatively by it.

My year 3 class is not alone in getting tested this week. Throughout the country, year 2 and year 6 children are doing their SATs tests. There has been an outcry against these tests in certain quarters, with some parents going as far as stopping their children from going to school in a protest “strike”. My son is in year 2 and he too will be sitting SATs tests next week at his school. I initially had misgivings about the tests. Now I welcome them and here’s why.

My son is a bright boy and doing well at school. His teachers are satisfied that he is achieving what he needs to for his age and are not, in my observation, particularly motivated to stretch him any further. I suspect he could be doing a lot better. Out of curiosity, last week I downloaded sample SATs papers and sat him down at home to do them. He scored to level 2a (the top end of what is expected for his age) but struggled a bit in the level 3 paper. We went through this paper together and I made a note of the main areas of difficulty.

Every day for the past week, we have practised together for no more than 20 minutes some of the level 3 types of questions. Yesterday, my son made my day when he exclaimed: “I really enjoy these maths questions now!”. He has noticed that he finds maths a lot easier now and I no longer hear him say he is rubbish at it. In the space of one week, he has improved noticeably. I will give him another level 3 paper at the weekend and I suspect that this time, he will find himself much more capable of doing it. We have achieved all this progress in the space of one week because of a test. This supposedly stressful test has boosted my son’s confidence. It allowed us to identify his areas of difficulty and to target them successfully.

If this kind of improvement can be achieved with other pupils at the national level through testing, then we should be welcoming SATs tests, not reviling them. In fact, I would go further and say there should be more frequent testing in schools. It should become a normal, common thing to do. The more often children have tests, the more familiar they become with the process and the less likely they are to be stressed by them. A one-off big test can loom high in some sensitive children’s minds but a low threat, high challenge set of regular tests would be a less scary proposition. There is a further advantage to testing. Research has shown that tests are a better way of retaining knowledge than studying. By giving regular tests, we can help ensure that whatever the children learn gets remembered and not forgotten. Win win all round.