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Exclusions: Another Zombie Debate

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The Real David Cameron Blog - Mar2024It has been interesting to see the increasing number of occasions where leading Scottish politicians including Jenny Gilruth, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, have been advocating a more relaxed position on school exclusions.

These are serious politicians and big hitters in Scottish terms, so what they say matters. They are responding to an understandable concern about disruptive behaviour in our schools. Survey after survey shows that Scottish teachers feel increasingly under threat from aggressive behaviour from their students. That concern needs to be addressed, but that requires more than a knee jerk demand for more exclusions.

There is growing evidence that young people have been profoundly affected by the experience of the pandemic, with more and more instances of disturbing behaviour. Attendance has become a huge issue, not simply because of absence, which is worrying enough as an issue, but because of partial attendance, with young people attending school for parts of the day or attending school, but not attending classes.

Teachers and other colleagues working in schools are struggling, so it is easy to see why excluding pupils who are disrupting education for themselves and others, while adding to staff stress and workload, seems like an obvious solution.

A couple of stories from my career in education might lead us to question that.

I have vivid and disconcerting memories of a fascinating experience that I had as Head of Education in East Lothian.

We had a unit for young people who had been excluded from mainstream provision which had failed recurrent inspections, so we closed it. The inspectors insisted on coming back to complete the process and that meant inspecting the experience of young people who would have been in the unit had it remained open.

What they reported was alarming. Work experiences that had been agreed were simply not happening. Arrangements made with families were not being implemented. Nothing was being done that made it remotely possible that these young people would be successfully readmitted to mainstream education.

Getting young people back into mainstream should surely be a key purpose of exclusion, yet in these cases, as in so many others, it had failed to achieve that.

My second story stems from my time as Director of Children’s Services in Stirling.

Our management team reviewed case histories of young people who were in crisis, seeking the point at which we might have made an intervention with children that would have led to a better outcome for them. We found that the point was always early in their school experience. Most often we believed that what would have made a difference was an intensive therapeutic intervention, yet there were few such interventions available. I think there will be even less such provision available now.

Even had there been such options we would have been unable to afford them, because the budget that we might have used was already overspent on youngsters for whom any intervention was almost certain to fail and where the spend was too late.

Where in the current discussion around exclusion is anyone talking about transition funding that would allow Councils a bit of breathing space to transfer resources to earlier intervention? Where might I find a conversation about where students will be excluded to? Where is the recognition that we need more than “out of sight, out of mind” as a basis for policy on behaviour?

No matter how frustrated and upset staff in schools might be, I refuse to believe that they want anything other than the best for children, even those that they cannot cope with. If a long career in education has taught me anything it is that teachers want more than simply to get the challenging young people out of their classrooms and onto the streets. A populist and punitive approach will sell everyone short and yet that is what we are at risk of adopting.
It is certainly the view of some influential educationalists in England that approach is what we need. They are constantly defending and, at times, apparently encouraging exclusion, via online, and in any other available, forum.
This leads to the obvious question – why am I dismissing the revived discussion on exclusion as a “zombie debate”?

It is a debate that refuses to die. It just keeps coming back, but, much more importantly, it comes limping back in a damaged, incomplete state.

Exclusion may get rid of problems. It clearly does not solve them. It will in many instances create new problems.

Scotland has committed to The Promise, a commitment to better support Looked After young people. One wonders how that commitment would square with an increase in exclusions. My experience is that few things cause a foster placement to break down faster than the young person being out of school. The reality is that Looked After Children are already more likely to be excluded so any increase in exclusions will affect them disproportionately. This is a classic example of cognitive dissonance and holding to contradictory ideas.

Arguably when young people are excluded, schools are less disrupted, other young people might be safer, school staff will be under less pressure, so their interests are served, but they are being served at the expense of some of the most vulnerable young people in the country. That takes us to the real debate, which is whether, or not, simply calling for exclusion is the best that we can do.

My answer is that it is far from the best that we can do.

We cannot set the interests of staff against those of students. We must try to serve both. To do that we need to recognise that where we have a wide spectrum of need, we require a continuum of provision. We talk about inclusion and integration and often enforce that by keeping children in mainstream provision even when it is evident that it is not working for them. We then finish up with a situation where pupils are most likely to be excluded, or to be in hugely expensive alternative provision, when they are between 14 and 16 years old. The chances of reintegration at this stage would be generously described as remote.

We are often rightly told that “teachers’ working conditions are pupils’ learning conditions”. That means that we need to address teachers’ working conditions and I think that we need to do that as a matter of urgency. It cannot be at the expense of some pupils’ conditions. The reality is that we need to enhance both. We need to start having conversations that go far beyond soundbites and begin to look at practical steps that we might take to improve both. I believe in inclusion, but it must not a shibboleth. It requires scaffolding. Alternative provision can be part of that scaffolding.

We need to be talking about all these issues rather than going back to the zombie debate that seeks only quick fixes and obsesses with punishment. As an earlier report on looked after children asserted : “We can, and must, do better.”

Porty 2022 – another Covid Casualty

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I am writing this on the day that legal requirements designed to slow the spread of Covid-19 cease in Scotland. We are now going to rely on common sense and consideration. That should go well, given how much of both appears to be going the rounds in our current world. Of course, in other parts of the UK, commonly known as England, the pandemic is over, slain by Boris the Vaccinator, a stranger to truth but the nemesis of disease. So, it seems like an odd day to be announcing that we won’t be going ahead with the Portobello Learning Festival for 2022, but that is what we are doing.

If anyone is wondering why we are swimming against the tide of optimism, here is the explanation.

The impact of Covid-19 is still with us. Schools are faced with continuing attendance problems. Pupil absences have continued to be high and that places a huge stress on schools. High levels of absence undermine continuity in learning. They make the whole idea of progression a lottery. How do you build on what you have done if the class that you did it with is significantly different from the class that you are attempting the development with?

High levels of pupil absence are demanding in so many other ways. Recording, checking, attempting to support the children and young people affected are significant tasks and add to the workload in schools.

Many schools are also experiencing high levels of staff absence and no one should be surprised at that.

I often think that staff steel themselves for crises and the pandemic certainly has been a crisis.

People have gone above and beyond, and they are tired. We see this in more normal years. I often ask audiences of teachers how many of them have been ill during holidays and the question never fails to elicit a copious show of hands. It is as if they give all that they can in term time and then collapse as soon as term finishes. I liken it to Sebastian Coe’s comments that, as an elite athlete, he never seemed to get ill during competition or training, but he did during recovery.

There also seems to be plenty of evidence that working in schools now is more demanding than ever. Many young people are exhibiting real difficulties with their mental health. Disruption, lack of contact, anxiety, the absence of routine, the removal of support, despite our best efforts, have all taken a toll. Several have suffered bereavement. Vaccination may counter the virus, but it doesn’t counter all the impacts that it has brought.

Staff absence can also have a frightening domino effect. Classes have to be covered, pupils have to be supported, days become more unpredictable, demanding and stressful and workload becomes even more unsustainable. For those attending the effect may be that they become the next absentees.

Added to all these ongoing pressures, we have continuing uncertainty in other ways. Secondary teachers in Scottish schools are experiencing high levels of anxiety about this year’s SQA exams. Even a brief visit to EduTwitter is likely to lead you to real unease about the coming diet.

Perhaps all of this means that we should be pulling out all the stops to make Porty 2022 happen. People need something to look forward to. We have a brilliant range of contributors. We are convinced that we could have a great day. We even think that we might manage to sell a few tickets and we would love to see colleagues, share tales and laugh and learn, but…….

And there is a massive “but”.

Asking people to come out on a Saturday is always a thought and that is more true this year than any year in which we have run the event.

Organising an event like the Portobello Learning Festival makes huge demands on a school and, rightly, Portobello High School want to invest their energies in making sure that they address the needs of their students. I think that is absolutely the right decision for this year.

I am also very proud of Porty. It has only happened twice, and it already feels like an institution. We have had incredible presentations, DJ sessions, Blue Rose Code and a range of workshops that would bear comparison with better funded, nationally sponsored events. All of us who are involved want to maintain that standard and not risk it.

We are hoping to run an online event, perhaps even a hybrid one, so look out for that. It will be a marker that we will be back!

And now for the behaviour debate Part 1

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The behaviour debate in education is one that never goes away or change very much. I suppose that is hardly surprising. It is a debate that ties into all sorts of fundamental conflicts and links to much bigger discussions about philosophy, beliefs and culture. I think we might get greater clarity if we were prepared to engage with all of these elements.

I recently read Tom Holland’s  splendid book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind,

It is a history of Christianity and the impact that it has had on the development of western civilisation and the western mind. The ongoing controversy that runs throughout the book is how we deal with dissent and with sin. Do we forgive or do we punish?

Is Christianity about the acceptance of people and the commitment to making them better people than they might otherwise be or do we just hope that we are part of the “elect” and  use inquisitions and crusades against those who are not?

All of that may seem a long way from a discussion about school exclusions or isolation booths, but it is fundamental.  What we believe about children will dictate how we believe they should be treated. If we believe that every child deserves to be understood and supported that will lead us to one way of dealing with behaviour.  If we believe that some, or all, of them need to be controlled and threatened into acceptable behaviour, that will lead us to a very different approach

In education, the debate is often no more complex than “do we deal with the behaviour or do we deal with the child?”  Do we seek to understand and forgive, or punish and condemn, or somewhere in between? Advocates of a zero tolerance approach to discipline are in no doubt about the answer to that question. They are committed to linking a tariff to an action and then demanding that tariff be imposed whenever that action or behaviour occurs, with no exceptions.  For them, the needs of the organisation are paramount. They can argue that it is good for the child to learn that certain behaviours are unacceptable in other contexts and that they need to learn conformity. They also argue that the needs of the majority of children must be the highest priority, but the prime justification for them is the organisation’s need for order.

Imagine if that thinking were to be extended to the criminal justice system.

There would be no need for judges, no concept of clemency and no place for a Violence Reduction Unit. The Howard League for Penal Reform would have to pack its tents and move on.  There is a reason why we talk about a criminal justice system and not just a penal system.

Nonetheless, the view that we require absolute consistency is widespread in education. It is often accompanied by a sense that, at worst, chaos would ensue and, at the very least, achievement would suffer unless we have a strict code and powerful sanctions.

When I started teaching, corporal punishment was still legal and widely used. The same sorts of voices that encourage us towards zero tolerance were, then, encouraging us to believe that the removal of the belt would be the harbinger of anarchy and that schools would shortly be the set for Clockwork Orange. Oddly enough, we coped.

One of the ways that we coped was by establishing Guidance and Pastoral Care. We took a more positive approach based on trying to understand why children and young people act as they do before we decide what the appropriate response to their behaviour should be. I don’t think am not aware that anyone is arguing that any behaviour that can be explained, has to be tolerated.

Opponents of zero tolerance are not advocates of unlimited tolerance within organisations.

We have seen the pitfalls of inconsistency where young people have no idea what is expected of them and are confused as they have to recalibrate their behaviour whenever they encounter different teachers with different expectations and standards. We have read about some of the car crashes that resulted when tolerance did lapse into anarchy. Mikey Cuddihy’s book,, is a real warning of where another absolutist approach was deployed in Summerhill. In her case it was closer to indulgence and a million miles from zero tolerance and it was deeply damaging. Most of us want something closer to the idea of “flexible tolerance” which was advanced in a recent Times Educational Supplement article,,  which I will return to in my next blog.

In simple terms, expectations are made clear, but staff have the scope, like a judge, to decide how to deal with situations where these expectations are not met. Stephen Lane, a head of year and author of “Beyond Wiping Noses: Building an informed approach to pastoral leadership in schools”, captures the basis of the approach well.

“Schools absolutely should be a safe space for children, where all children can be nourished in order to thrive. However, a large part of that nourishment is actually learning how to participate as a member of a community. Ultimately, we all need to understand how to operate within the parameters of the various communities to which we belong. Children need the support of clearly defined structures in order to develop this understanding

There is a risk that children will seek to exploit differences between teachers where “flexibilty” exists. They may be confused about the parameters if the response to breaching them is mixed, but surely that is not a reason for teachers to give up on their professionalism in terms of how they manage situations. We have rejected blind justice in the court system, why would we make different choices in schools. It is a choice that can work if we are clear about what we believe, what we expect and if we are ready to explain what we do.

Back to ‘facing the front’…..

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In my last blog, “Is facing the front really better than facing reality?” I focussed on whether or not it was appropriate for the Secretary of State for Education to politicise pedagogy, but I didn’t question the advice that he offered. It is time to address that omission.

I cannot begin to emphasise how tired I am of the “my way or the highway” style that characterises educational pronouncements. I was a teacher for years and, by any criterion that you may wish to apply, I was a pretty good one. My students got good results in certificate examinations, often achieving better than expected and better than in other subjects. Take-up for my subject was good whenever students had to choose courses. Students and their families generally spoke well of me although that positive view was not unanimous. I was particularly fond of a massive piece of graffiti which announced that “Mr Cameron is a specky shitey poof”. I mean, seriously, such disparagement and yet I still got a “Mr”!! I also appreciated the colleague who informed me that he didn’t think I “was all that specky

There are lots of other softer indicators of my teaching credibility – former pupils who keep in touch, even one who, touchingly, left instructions that I should deliver the eulogy at her funeral, former colleagues who still seek advice and want to recount the glory days. I got promoted. I created enough of a foundation as a teacher to build a successful career. I think I have the right to advance a view on classrooms. I know I have only been teaching and running children’s services, rather than, like Gavin, running a fireplace company and selling crockery and getting sacked as Defence Secretary.  but I am not going to let a little thing like that hold me back.

I sometimes had pupils sitting in rows and facing the front and that seemed to work fine. I also had times when my students sat in groups around tables, and that seemed to work fine too. I regularly ventured into the dangerous territory of the “double-horseshoe” as we called it in those heady days when the Blob took time off from Steve McQueen movies to create havoc in education, allegedly. I even, whisper it, cleared the desks right back to the sides of the room and operated in an open space. I also need to confess that I did sometimes change the configuration of the desks in the course of a lesson!! It’s only now that I realise what a lapse into heresy that was. Thank you, Gavin.

My only excuse is that I thought that the organisation of the room should be based on the purpose of the lesson. As a head of department in a large secondary school, I even toyed with the idea of having different classrooms in the department set out differently so that we could use the room most appropriate to the approach being taken. That idea became overly challenging in organisational terms so we never followed through on it. I also had colleagues in the department who had a more limited repertoire in terms of pedagogy and they never seemed to feel the need to clear their room in order to re-enact the Battle of Bannockburn with a massive board and cut-out cardboard figures( I feel a Mea Culpa might be in order here).   Our approach was always to monitor how well children did in all of our classrooms and how they responded to the learning opportunities that they were offered and, if we were getting positive responses to that monitoring, we simply supported them as best we could.

We did share practice. We watched each other. We worked in teams. We took each other’s classes if we felt that young people needed a wider range of approaches. We empowered colleagues rather than constrained them. All that we asked of each other was that we reflected on our practice and, before we had read John Hattie,, indeed before he had even written anything, we insisted on asking what our impact was. If any of us were not having the impact that we should have, we knew that we had to reconsider what we were doing and make changes.

These were different times and I would be the first to recognise that there are complexities in the contemporary classroom that we did not have to face, but it wasn’t an easy shift either. I worked in large comprehensives with diverse populations. My first school was a former Junior Secondary struggling against the prestige of the former High School. We radically changed that status in just a few years and were proud of the status that the school had in the community. We worked through the miners’ strike which had a massive impact on our catchment. We dealt with gang-based violence. We even had a murder. We had drug issues. It was tough.

It was also a different time in that there didn’t seem to be a new educational treatise being published every second hour and we still thought Pisa best known for its leaning tower. The school effectiveness movement had not even reached its infancy. We were still waiting for Peter Mortimore,, and others to inform us that schools mattered. Despite this, we did engage with evidence. We went religiously to staff development, read what we could and supported subject associations and teachers’ unions, which also offered training and support.

We were curious rather than dogmatic and our children were well-served. So thank you, Mr Williamson, but no thank you. Your advice is utterly ill-founded and, I suspect, ill-informed and I hope unwelcome by. teachers.  Let’s continue to build a thinking profession where we commit to our responsibility to reflect on what we do.  May I suggest that you do the same?

The reality is that the government, including Mr Williamson are accountable to all of us as citizens. Don’t let him turn the tables on that.

Facing the front or facing reality?

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Well now we know what will work when schools fully reopen. Gavin Williamson has spoken and I am sure that we are all relieved by that, or perhaps not.   I certainly  harbour a few reservations and thought that I might see if anyone else had similar feelings.

Essentially, Mr Williamson wants pupils facing forward, presumably in rows, and he even comes up with the radical concept that they should be “paying attention”. I am sure teachers across the land are wishing that they had thought of that

My initial  reservation is why he is not actually doing his real job rather than being an education adviser. That real job is to support the system and help it to work.  It is not to tell teachers how to lay out classrooms unless there are overwhelming health reasons for so doing.

The support for the system  would normally involve tasks like ensuring effective planning so that there was an adequate supply of teachers for all sectors, stages and subjects. It would involve ensuring an equitable and adequate distribution of funding and resources to ensure that all schools could meet the needs of the young people and families whom they serve. It would also involve ensuring that we had decent school buildings across the country so that every child and every teacher was in a classroom fit for purpose and equipped for learning in the 21st Century. Despite recent promises, which may or may not be less vacuous than so many other promises that have been made, successive Secretaries of Education in England have failed to deliver on all of these basic tasks. One wonders if they might have done better in these core tasks if they weren’t investing so much time and energy in telling teachers how to do their job.

Whatever the answer to that question, Mr Williamson is not being held to account for his failures and the failures of his department and these failures are both long-term and short-term. One might have thought that, before he began to pontificate on pedagogy, he might have found the odd minute to ensure that schools had clear guidance on how to manage the complex challenges that they are facing. Oddly that seems to me to more aligned with his role, particularly when the challenges were so intense.

Laura McInerey,, who has been a beacon of common sense and clarity throughout the current crisis – and any other time as well! – summed up what schools faced brilliantly in a recent RSA discussion, Paraphrasing her, schools in England closed at short notice and reopened two days later as child care facilities for the children of key workers and for the most vulnerable children, a food factory responsible for ensuring that no child went hungry, with a voucher scheme that might be generously described as chaotic, and as an online centre for learning. Presumably Mr Williamson was too taken up with his research into school effectiveness and teaching approaches to provide either the recognition or support that schools needed to deliver on the untenable demands he, and his government, were making of them.

One can only assume that the strategy was to get people facing anywhere as long as they were facing away from the reality of what was going on in schools

Yet, remarkably amidst all of this chaos, many schools rallied, got on with it and went the extra miles and distinguished themselves quietly in serving their communities. Heads were innovative, imaginative and often out of pocket. School Business Leaders wrought miracles. Staff in all roles pitched in and they made a difference for families and communities. Unfortunately, appreciation does not seem to have been the Secretary of State’s priority. Of course, he said thanks, but it often seemed as hypocritical as when he and his colleagues clapped for the carers whom they were leaving under-funded and under-equipped to save lives.

Having got the hollow “thank yous” out of the way,  Mr Williamson could then get on with harassing schools into a partial reopening so well planned that it collapsed almost instantly. The Prime Minister made schools his cause celebre during Prime Minister’s Question Time demanding to know Keir Starmer’s position on it. Starmer clearly had not received the memo about facing the front and insisted on facing reality and kept mithering on that any further developments would work better if there was more listening and meaningful consultation with the people responsible for delivering on the PM’s plans.

Why on earth would we do that? If the government really aligned with the education unions or other bodies, they would lose the possibility of blaming them for any failure. It fits so well with the culture of “never apologise, never explain”.

Whatever one thinks of Mr Williamson’s advice, and I will turn to that in my next blog, we need to face the reality of what is going on. We have a government in England which does not see itself as accountable, but is utterly determined to hold schools accountable. It will apparently tell us how to teach, which evidence we should follow and how we should manage our schools. Everyone has to face the front, listen and take on the messages. Heaven forfend that we demand that Mr Williamson does his real job effectively, supportively and collaboratively.

And it doesn’t have to be this way. Whatever reservations one might have, the Scottish and Welsh governments have tried to work with schools, set reasonable targets and give due recognition to the need to plan properly and prepare thoroughly. These are difficult times and all governments make mistakes, but the risk of error is always reduced when they are clear about their role and deliver on it.

What is the role of an Inspectorate during lockdown?

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What should Ofsted and Education Scotland be doing in the current crisis?

I have been asking questions about why we are not learning from the experience of lockdown. My concern was that we tended to collect anecdotes, usually ones that confirm our existing views on education, but what I wasn’t seeing was any systematic effort to collect evidence about what was happening for young people. Should that not be a priority? Should the organisations charged with protecting the interests of children and young people be trying to establish how well these interests  are being served while many schools are closed? Is that not the role of an Inspectorate?

What is the point of inspection anyway?

 I have long argued that inspection should have two purposes.

One is to assess whether young people are achieving all that they can in schools, regardless of how they are being educated. In other words, the prime purpose is not to enforce particular policies and pedagogical practices, but to see the impact of the practices that schools are deploying. It may be that they would offer advice on the basis of what they observe, but that would be an outcome of the inspection. There would be no assumption that practice should be dictated.

If ensuring the best possible outcomes for children is indeed the prime purpose, why is no effort being made to do that during lockdown?

The second purpose, at least in my view, is to offer advice to government based on collating inspection findings. Education Scotland has tended to do that well by publishing a summary of the findings of their inspection programme. The approach is based on the format – “this is what we have seen, these are reasonable conclusions to draw from these observations”.

The process that they have is very clear – the criteria used in inspection are public through the “How good is our school?” documents, individual reports are published and the summary report is also published. The Ofsted model seems to be a little different.

If you broadly agree with these two purposes, it would lead to the next question.

How can an Inspectorate advise Government on a return to school if they haven’t made any effort to take stock of children’s experience over the last seven weeks or so?

 Let me be clear from the outset. I am not suggesting that taking stock would be an easy task, but it would be reassuring to know that it had been considered. I am suggesting that inspection is on behalf of children and 7 weeks is a long time for the task of inspection to be deferred.

Does anyone know how many young people have been attending schools? Does anyone know how many are vulnerable children and how many are children of key workers? What efforts have been made to establish what sort of experience they have been having in schools? Have any efforts been made to monitor the take-up of available resources? Have there been any attempts to engage with other agencies supporting families to try to establish what sort of experiences children are having at home?

I am not assuming that the answer to all of these questions in “no” or “nothing”, I am simply making the point that I don’t know what the answers are and the questions are not being publicly discussed.

I also remain convinced that if anyone has a responsibility to ask and seek answers to these questions, it is the national inspectorate. I would love to be reassured that responsibility is being fulfilled.

One thing is clear, the Westminster Government desperately needs advice on how any reopening of schools should be managed. Clearly a whole range of people involved in education think that their current proposals are unworkable. What are Ofsted telling them, not just about feasibility, but about what can be achieved with and for children? An Inspectorate should be stating clearly – “On the basis of what we have seen in practice, and what we know of the experience of young people during lockdown, here is what we think can be done”. Is this happening? Are they being asked? What does this tell us about the role of inspection?

Don’t these organisations have other priorities at the moment?

 Education Scotland, which is an inspection and development agency, have provided support for schools and I am sure that many people will welcome that. I am concerned that an inspection agency should never finish up in the position of inspecting their own advice, far less the use of their own materials, so I am a bit more equivocal about that sort of contribution. Maybe staff have been furloughed, although I doubt that, and capacity has been reduced. Ultimately though, the question must really be should they have other priorities.

It has been suggested that Ofsted should be harrying schools who are not rigorous enough in enforcing distance learning. That is a good example of the issue implied earlier, that inspection in England has become more about enforcement than investigation. In both countries, there has been a tendency for inspection to become a means of informing parental choice. I understand that, but ultimately it is a counsel of despair. It accepts that there will always be relatively poor choices for children.

 So what?

 The current crisis has shown very clearly how important schools are. Should we not be reflecting that by offering them the inspection system that they deserve, one characterised by curiosity, rather than certainty, which is genuinely focussed on inspection and not enforcement? Do they not deserve a natonal system of monitoring and evaluation which looks after the best interests of children at all times?

When did it become THE science?

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I think that it is pretty incontestable that, throughout the Covid-19 crisis, our government, along with most others – goodness knows what is going on in Brazil! – have been resolutely following “the science”. We know this because they keep telling us. We also know that following “the science” is a really good thing to be doing. We know this because it is an unquestioning assumption every time a politician stands up flanked by some real scientists. We know it even when the scientists look close to mortified when “the science” apparently suggests that a good internal bleaching might be the very thing to save our lungs from the ravages of Coronavirus. We know it because it does sound better than “we are making this up as we go along” or “I used to go to measles parties when I was a child and it never did me any harm” or even “we’ve just decided this might be a good idea”.

This means that it is worth asking the question “when did it become THE science?”. When were we reduced to only one set of scientific views? When did it stop being the Sciences? When did scientific debate free itself from any scintilla of controversy?


The associated questions


There are other associated questions. If we are all following a science so clear and uncontradictable that it merits the definite article, why does it seem to be taking different countries in different directions? Apparently, Sweden is also following THE science, but it is not leading the Swedes into lockdown. It seems to have led a number of countries into different strategies. The “test, trace, isolate” appears to have been a popular result of following the science and appears to have been quite effective. Meanwhile, in Britain we seem to have been stumbling towards that, not as a means of containing the virus, but as a means of ending lockdown. For us it appears not so much a strategy for prevention of initial spread, but of preventing a second wave.

It is also interesting that the gold standard of “the science” has allowed the UK to vacillate wildly in policy. It permitted the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the visit of Atletico Madrid and a fair collection of fans, the odd rugby match and open airports before it insisted on quarantine. It flirted with herd immunity when we were only dealing with a version of the flu and that’s not really that much of a threat. One might have hoped that the beacon light of the science might have been more akin to the pillar of fire leading Moses and his people to the Promised Land with a limited number of deviations.

It would seem that there is no such thing as THE science. This is hardly surprising when we are dealing with a new virus. One would expect the science to be evolving. One would expect there to be different views between scientists from different disciplines and with different experiences, and that is exactly what we have seen. There is no such thing as THE science, and we should stop being patronised by the idea that there is. The concept is a fig leaf.


Why claim the science?


It is an interesting choice of a fig leaf for a government whose calling card was the rejection of “experts”. Notably, in education expertise existed only to be derided and rejected, unless the views of the expert in question sat comfortably with the policy that the government wished to adopt. Look across the UK and you will find the different nations adopting different gurus. One has to question whether these gurus drove the development of policy or provided a post-hoc justification for it.

It is interesting the Scotland has a panel of international educational experts, but when you look at the membership it is hard to imagine them fighting like cats in a sack over fundamental positions.

That’s what we do too often; we buttress adopted positions and evolve a jargon to justify the approach that we take.


Some questions about “evidence-based practice

A current favourite for me is the phrase “evidence-based practice” as if that provided a clear policy direction, as if all the real evidence pointed us in a particular direction in terms of pedagogy. I imagine that the advocates of learning styles and VAK thought that they were at the cutting edge of evidence-based practice. I certainly remember conferences where theory, observations and experiences were trotted out that justified a good solid burst of brain gym before we worked out how to respond to multiple and varied intelligences. Much of that evidence has been contradicted, but isn’t that the way with evidence? We are perfectly used to a court situation where there is evidence for the prosecution and for the defence. We accept the concept of balancing evidence, of engaging with it, of filtering it in the context of justice, but in educational debate, too often, we wield it as a bludgeon to end debate. We champion schools like Michaela(, but don’t talk about Newlands Junior College ( or we attempt to recreate Newlands and dismiss the achievements of Michaela. Like the politicians presenting THE science, we present THE evidence. If it is worth questioning the first concept, should we not also be questioning the second?

Are we refusing to learn from lockdown?

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I keep seeing observations about what we should be learning from lockdown. I have even been involved in discussions about it and all of them appear to have one thing in common – no one seems to have changed the views that they had before they went into whatever form of quarantine they are currently enjoying/enduring. All of which makes “are we refusing to learn from Lockdown?” a fairly pressing question.

How is this playing out in education?

 My focus is on education where no one seems to be collecting evidence in any balanced and coherent way. What we seem to be doing is collecting supportive anecdotes and confirmatory observations. Everyone’s views seem to be being reinforced, rather than challenged through lockdown. We seem to be in tribes, progressives, traditionalists, techies, whatever and the most important thing appears to be supporting that tribe.

I was part of a really good conversation with a group of generally “progressive”, educational trainers, writers and thinkers. The meeting involved a number of colleagues from other countries or, other systems. There was a very helpful exchange of information. I am sure that everyone involved emerged better informed than we were when the meeting started. Nonetheless, the rough summary of the meeting tended to focus on points that would have been made as a result of a conversation between the same group of participants before, during and, I suspect, after the ravages of Coronavirus have passed, even if only temporarily!

That might be because these colleagues were right before the current situation and were having their views justifiably confirmed by their experience. It could also be partly due to the tendency that many of us have to look first for confirmation, rather than contradiction. It might also involve an element of using the lens of opinion to examine the narrative of what is happening.

Is it only the “progessives”?

 Whatever is happening with my colleagues, it seems to be echoed by a whole range of others. Even a casual visit to Twitter will make clear that people involved in Educational Technology are finding that it is the lifeline for those attempting to learn at home. Indeed, it is such a lifeline that we need to be doing more through educational technology once lockdown is over, because, after all, things will never go back to the way they were. We will all need to do things differently in the new post-Corona world.

Oddly enough, more traditional colleagues are finding their position absolutely reinforced by what is currently happening. Some are convinced that the need for school uniform remains vital in the home and that successful learning will be dependent on the donning of a blazer or, at the very least, a tie. Others seem equally clear that the disciplinary systems of school will need to be an essential element in home education. Presumably all of these views are being reinforced through the lockdown experience, at least for those who hold them.

The same is true for approaches to instruction where the need for direct teaching is being continually reinforced by what is apparently happening in homes across the land. All of this makes me question how we know all of this.

Do we have evidence?

 In my last blog – “Why are we talking about reopening schools?” – I talked about reports, that I had heard from contacts in Home-start, of really positive experiences that some families were having through lockdown. An argument could be built on this that young people and their families might be putting a greater value on learning, that their well-being was likely to be enhanced and they were likely to be better disposed to learning on their return to school. I am pretty sure that, if one were to make such an argument it would be rebutted very quickly by those who are hearing different reports of the lockdown experience. Undoubtedly these reports are there to be made. The massive increase in referrals to Women’s Aid and the increasing incidences of domestic abuse make clear that there is a huge variety of experiences for our young people.

A valid question?

 I think that this validates my question. Why are we not trying to learn systematically from lockdown? Is it impossible for us to have any research that might capture the anecdotes and observations in some more careful way that might translate them into useful evidence? Why is this not the subject of much wider discussion?

I am sure that part of the reason is that too many of us are overly infatuated by certainty. Arguments seem to be for winning, rather than a means of exploring ideas and learning. Too often we seem afraid of curiosity.

Another perspective

 There is a wonderful quote in Johnathan Rowson’s article, “Cultural Indigestion”

“…. the ambient pressure to choose a tribe and say “yay” or “nay” to the issue of the day is the problem that obstructs meaningful progress. We are building division within people that is culturally muted, while amplifying the divisions between people that are reinforced on a daily basis. Broadcast media selects guests with opposing views to get “both sides” of an issue, as if they were coins. Oppositional identities, in which we define who we are by what we are against, become the defining characters in public debate. We are rarely allowed to be curious but disinterested. Instead we must pick a side: Are you left or right, atheist or believer, with us or against us? This kind of ambient divisiveness is part of what Rowan Williams calls “the meta-crisis” of our times; namely how ecological, economic, social, and political crises are compounded by the limited and harmful ways we encounter, conceive, experience, and discuss them

(Williams, 2016).[xxxviii]

In terms of learning from lockdown, perhaps we need to break from our tribes and unite in an effort to learn

Why are we talking about re-opening schools?

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“Why are we talking about reopening schools?” might seem like an odd question, but it is an important one and one that doesn’t seem to be being asked often enough during the current crisis.

I never tire of using the comment that “purpose is not simply a target that an organisation aims to achieve, it is an organisation’s reason for being” and with good reason. We need absolute clarity of purpose, before we consider reopening schools.

If the purpose is to get back to normal that would dictate how we go about the reopening of schools. We need to reopen as normal, and “old normal” at that. If the purpose is to enable more people to return to work, that would have different implications for what we do. If the purpose is to reduce inequality and make sure that disadvantage does not increase as a result of school closures, that would have an impact on how we organised the reopening.

Getting back to “normal”?

The first purpose, returning to normal, is unlikely to be fulfilled as we are continually being assured that we will be returning to a “new normal”. We are continually being shown an adapted normal – the same classrooms that children left with the desks more widely spaced. In effect, the old normal adapted as little as possible. There is no effort to look at different approaches. The only question appears to be “how far can we restore what we were doing before this all started?” and the answer is likely to involve part time education and, therefore, disrupted child care and, most likely, a very limited impact on inequality.  It will involve huge issues about what we do in playgrounds, in corridors and in other shared spaces.  It will also involve us in seriously thinking through how we go about ensuring an effective return. There will be issues of adaptation for young people who have been isolated for weeks. There will be issues about starting points. How will we know what has been happening with children during lockdown?

This is a massive question in itself and brooks many others. As far as I am aware, there is very little being done to gather anything resembling evidence about the experience that young people are currently having. I have no sense at all of a structured, strategic approach to this, which sits at odds with the regular claims that government actions are informed by evidence.  Notable exceptions include some very good work by the Children’s Parliament to track the experience of children.

Anecdotes and Evidence

In short, there is a lot of anecdote, but very little collated evidence. Even the anecdotes are often contradictory and surprising. Much of what we hear focuses on the widening of the gap between rich and poor and highlights the negative impact of lockdown.  In contrast, a local branch of Home-Start has been reporting that families that they are working with are responding well to the lockdown. They have been engaging with their children through arts, crafts, stories and constructive play.  Their diet has improved as more food is being prepared at home.  I have never heard any other conversations about this in the media or social media, although it seems likely that the same patterns will be being repeated elsewhere, but not everywhere.

I intend to follow this article up with another looking at the whole question of what we are learning from the experience that we are undergoing, but for now I hope that it is enough to mark the fact that we need to know what we are building on in education and there is a massive risk that we won’t unless we get curious about the range of responses to lockdown and organised in the way that we satisfy that curiosity.

All of this suggests that we are not going to be able to move quickly to achieving our first purpose.

Supporting other people to return to work?

If the purpose is, primarily, the second one, effectively to provide childcare, with the bonus possibility of a bit of education thrown in, so that more people can get back to work, then we can think differently about what we do with our schools. We don’t need schools filled with teachers. We can deploy youth workers, always assuming that we can find some. We can work with Third Sector organisations. We might be able to deploy childminders who may not be able to continue with their established arrangements. All of this might help to create a model that might be sustainable through the summer without placing undue, and unsustainable demands on teachers. I am not suggesting for a moment that I am offering a panacea, but some divergence in thinking might unlock some of the horrible dichotomies that we have allowed ourselves to become trapped in.

Addressing disadvantage?

If the purpose is genuinely to address disadvantage and to ensure that we don’t have increasing differences in outcomes for young people, then why would we consider bringing all young people back in, if that is deemed to be unsafe? Why would we not offer spaces to those about whom we are concerned?  I know some of the answers. There would be uproar and a cacophony of objections, which, surely, is a clear indication that, for a lot of people, this is not the purpose at all. It is certainly not the way to get the economy going and fulfil the ambitions of those for whom that is really the primary concern.

…. And the consequence?

The absence of clarity creates the inevitability of confusion.  Confusion is always likely to create conflict and conflict always bedevils coherence in establishing policy and determining action. We are only going to get clarity if we get open discussion and we will only get decisions if these discussions include fundamental questions, which usually start with why.

The Great Behaviour Debate

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Is anyone else tired of Zombie debates?

There is a raging debate on Twitter as I write about behaviour. Remarkably, it contains a fair bit of wisdom while being utterly pointless. As ever, there are clearly a lot of people who don’t believe common sense should get in the way of an argument.

The central debate seems to be about whether “behaviour”, generally, in this case, disruptive behaviour is a form of communication or, perhaps, just disruptive behaviour. There is another strand about whether behaviour should be more understood than controlled or more controlled than understood. There is advice on how to manage behaviour, which has merits, but will not be unfamiliar to aficionados of Pavlov or the work of Barbara Wodehouse, who was an enormously popular dog trainer some time back. There are heartfelt pleas for empathy and the protagonists are “full of passionate intensity” so, as Yeats would have it, “surely some revelation is at hand” –
– but, sadly, not. The lust for caricature and oversimplification appears to overwhelm the simple realities.
Here is my stab at some of the common sense simplicities –

No matter what motivates a student’s behaviour, we need to minimise the impact of that behaviour on other learners.

We should use all the opportunities that we have to know our students and use that knowledge to avoid behaviour becoming an issue as often as possible.

We should offer demanding, engaging and interesting experiences to learners and plan from, and for, the students that we have. Curriculum is a map; it is not a dictatorial GPS. It needs to be respected. It is not sacrosanct.

– The curriculum, regardless of its importance and beauty, is not delivered if children have failed to learn.

It helps if we don’t only see behaviour from our standpoint – “challenging behaviour” – but sometimes see it from the standpoint of the student – “distressed behaviour”.

– Understanding and indulgence are not synonyms.

– Routines and boundaries are helpful.

– Learners deserve to know what is expected of them.

– We need to recognise that some learners will need more help and support to meet these expectations.

I know that stating simplicities is also stating the obvious and that there is no “how to” here. I am just hoping that toning down the conflict, the posturing and the point scoring, might just help us get to the “how to”.