Weasel Words in Education Part 5: Rigour

A crack team of DfE boffins test the proposed new system for the management and oversight of the United Kingdom’s increasingly fissiparous school system.

Rigour, n.

1. The quality of being extremely thorough and careful.

2. severity or strictness.

3. (when pluralized) harsh and demanding conditions

In education (as in other walks of life) the word rigour is usually meant in sense (1) when applied to one’s own thinking or the thinking of one’s friends or allies: “I am being rigorous. However, you, sir, are merely pedantic.”

These days, sense (2) seems to require the insertion of a prefix, as in “The moderation of our controlled assessments was over-rigorous.”

Rigour is therefore a good thing, right?

However, in my opinion it seems to be used more and more as a talisman rather than as a genuine description.

Mr Gove told the Commons: “The new specifications are more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous. That means more extended writing in subjects like English and history, more testing of advanced problem-solving skills in mathematics and science.”

The Independent, July 2013

I am not sure if Michael Gove* is using the word in sense (1) or sense (2) here. If he meant it in sense (2) then it is a rhetorical flourish to emphasise the idea that GCSEs will be more challenging. If he meant it in sense (1) then the promise of “extended writing [and] more testing” doesn’t tell me how the new exams will be more thorough and careful. This is not saying that the examination system does not need to be more thorough and careful, merely that “extended writing [and] more testing” won’t necessarily make it so.

Let me emphasise that I am not opposed to rigour. I like rigour and being rigorous, at least in sense (1). I would perhaps favour the words consistent and fair rather than use rigour in sense (2) in an educational context, but that’s a personal preference.

In short, I wish people would be more rigorous in their use of the word rigorous. You shouldn’t just use it because you think it sounds good. A is rigorous while B is not should mean more than I like A and dislike B.

And as a final thought, I strongly suspect that many of the people who are most keen to bemoan the lack of rigour in education would have to step out of the kitchen when push came to shove, as in this little vignette:

[I listened] to magazine columnist Fred Barnes . . . whine on and on about the sorry state of American education, blaming the teachers and their evil union for why students are doing so poorly. “These kids don’t even know what The Iliad and The Odyssey are!” he bellowed, as the other panellists nodded in admiration at Fred’s noble lament.

The next morning I called Fred Barnes at his Washington office. “Fred,” I said, “tell me what The Iliad and The Odyssey are.”

He started hemming and hawing. “Well, they’re … uh … you know … uh … okay, fine, you got me—I don’t know what they’re about. Happy now?”

No, not really. You’re one of the top TV pundits in America, seen every week on your own show and plenty of others. You gladly hawk your “wisdom” to hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting citizens, gleefully scorning others for their ignorance.

— Michael Moore, Stupid White Men (2001), p.58


* His successor Nicky Morgan look set to continue Gove’s use of the term.

Postscript: For the those (including myself) who are classically undereducated: The Iliad is an ancient Greek epic poem by Homer about the Trojan War. The Odyssey is another epic poem by Homer recounting the ten-year journey home from the Trojan War made by Odysseus, the king of Ithaca.

Assessing Without Levels: the Lewis Carroll Perspective

An alternative look at assessment without levels…

As part of our reforms to the national curriculum , the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress will be removed.  It will not be replaced.

DfE, 2013


Bellman Map


He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.


“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!


“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best–
A perfect and absolute blank!”


— Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark

The Gift of Screws

Essential oils are wrung:
The attar from the rose
Is not expressed by suns alone,
It is the gift of screws.

— Emily Dickinson, Time and Eternity XXV

It’s a memorable image that Dickinson presents: that the delightful, fragrant oil of attar does not spontaneously waft or pour from a rose, but rather it must be wrung from the petals using the force of a screw press.

Screw Press

In other words, this beautiful, natural, organic fragrance is the gift of screws.

What prompted me to recall these lines? Firstly, Leonard James’ recent excellent blogpost “Kayleigh Wants To Do Well“:

So ‘Kayleigh wants to do well’? Show me a child who doesn’t want to do well! If one accepts that the overwhelming majority of children want to do well then the vapidity of the questioning becomes clear. Extracting a meaningful dialogue from an underachieving child begins with putting their desire to achieve to one side and focusing on whether the child wants to put in the effort required to make it happen. Like many an adult who wants be thinner but doesn’t want to lay off the cake, Kayleigh wants a string of good grades without making the sacrifices required to achieve them.

This resonates with my own experience with some students: “Oh. so you do want to do well? Then do the bloody work then!” (Sorry, I’m going through that time of year that I refer to as “Coursework Hell” at the moment, so I might be on a tiny little bit of a short fuse.)

Secondly, let’s not forget that learning, proper learning mind you, is bloody hard work (and I make no apology for quoting this line yet again, since it so neatly crystallises and encapsulates what I think is the single most important lesson of my two decades in teaching) :

Learning happens when people have to think hard.

Professor Robert Coe

Learning, real learning, is also the gift of screws.

Mine Eyes Glaze Over: the systematization of tedium

May they stumble, stage by stage
On an endless pilgrimage,
Dawn and dusk, mile after mile,
At each and every step, a stile;
At each and every step withal
May they catch their feet and fall

— Robert Graves, Traveller’s Curse After Misdirection (from the Welsh)

There is something fundamentally wrong with a system where individuals are expected to invest more time and energy in proving that they’ve done a thing than in actually doing the thing itself.

It seems to me that in the world of education (in the UK, at least) we have stepped through into that looking glass world already. And it’s getting worse.

Case in point: my school’s new salary policy. Gone is the system of automatic salary progression (subject to satisfactory performance management, of course). Instead, any teacher seeking to progress on the salary scale will need to submit — oh joy of joys! — a portfolio of evidence. And this is evidence required in addition to the evidence required for the performance management process. One system is not enough! We need two complex, mutually independent systems to check that everyone is doing the job that they are being paid to do.

In a way, it’s quite endearing: this is our leadership team admitting that if a person happened not to be doing their job properly, then it is more than likely that no-one on the management team would have noticed.

But never mind! An extra layer of inflexible, unresponsive bureaucracy will undoubtedly do the job, as it has done in numerous other instances.

I can’t help but be reminded (yet again) of Woody Allen’s Dictator who required that all citizens change their underwear every half hour. And that they wear their underwear on the outside. Why? “So we can check.”

The dreaded words weekly minuted line management meeting cannot be far behind. The idea of this is that I get to spend an hour meeting with my line manager and then another hour meeting with the people that I line-manage and then we’ll all email each other to confirm the issues, actions and timelines discussed in the meeting. And type up the minutes so that our line manager can submit them to his or her line manager. The upshot of this is that of course nobody has the time to actually take the actions agreed on  in the meeting. As the old joke has it: a meeting is a process whereby you spend hours in order to produce minutes.

And will the line manager of our line manager read the minutes submitted? I doubt it. Nobody possibly could, even assuming they wanted to.

This is the latest iteration of an ancient human idea:

[W]hen any uncertainty disrupted the smooth flow of life . . . men turned to the supernatural . . . The ordinary person found many willing to allay his concerns [including] professional magicians ready to supply incantations for any need . . . Superstition in general guided life . . . Charms were commonly used against all manner of ills.

Robert Knapp, Invisible Romans (The Romans That History Forgot) p.13

I conjure you, daemon, whoever you may be, to torture and kill, from this hour, this day, this moment, the horses of the Green and the White teams; kill and smash the charioteers Clarus, Felix, Primulus, Romanus; do not leave a breath of them.

— spell written on a lead tablet by an ancient Roman, quoted by Knapp p.13

To develop independent learning within a whole school context and challenge staff and student underperformance at a systemic as well as individual level
— Recent performance management target

Computing includes the concept of ROM — Read Only Memory; that is to say, memory that is designed so that its contents cannot be deleted or overwritten.

In my opinion, what passes for best practice in the world of education today includes the concept of WOD — Write Only Documents; that is to say documents that are designed so they are never to be read after they have been written.

Quite frankly, we are building giant pyramids and Doric-columned temples of propositions that are destined to be forever unread: mighty, cloud-piercing ziggurats of unread words.

For all the good that they do, these words might just as well be scratched on a pottery shard or a scrap of lead and thrown in a magic well as, once upon a time, the Romans used to do.

May they stumble, meeting by pointless meeting
Upon an endless paperchase,
Dawn and dusk, email after email,
Each one more urgent than the last;
Each one demanding data,
Available to the sender
Who finds it easier to press “send”
Than look it up themselves.

And may the bone that breaks within
Not be, for variation’s sake
Now rib, now thigh, now arm, now shin,
But always, without fail, THE NECK.

(With apologies to Robert Graves for the first 8 lines)

Licensed to Teach?

I miss the GTC. Actually, no, scrub that. What I really miss are the reports from the GTC hearings that used to appear in the TES (you know, when it still looked like a newspaper rather than an in-flight magazine for a budget airline).

What I found fascinating was the jaw-dropping chutzpah of some of the cases. Not only could I not conceive of doing some of the stuff reported myself, but I honestly thought that not a single colleague that I had worked with over the years could come anywhere close either. Quite frankly, much of it seemed too bizarre to be true, and yet there it was, reported in sober black and white.

[The man] who recommended a curacy as the best means of clearing up Trinitarian difficulties, that “[holy] orders” are a sort of spiritual backboard, which, by dint of obliging a man to look as if he were strait, end by making him so.
George Eliot, Carlyle’s Life of Stirling.

And now along comes Tristram Hunt with yet another cunning plan to put a spiritual backbone (or a “spiritual backboard”) into the profession with a system of licenses.

In principle, I have no objection to this. There are some individuals who should not be allowed to remain in the profession. If I put my mind to it, I could probably name one or two that I have worked with over the last twenty or so years who (in my opinion) should have been chucked out. But I would have to think about it.

So, in my personal experience at least, this is not a major problem. To be blunt, the sad truth is that natural wastage from the tough environment of modern teaching will take care of most of the wasters and no-hopers. The ones who stay — we few, we happy few! — generally really want to stay.

Let me hasten to add that not that everyone who leaves is a waster or no-hoper — some leave through a lack of support or the insanely inappropriate priorities of their school or line manager.

The devil will be, as always, in the detail. I think that what I dread is a bizarre set of professional expectations drafted by someone who thinks that, by dint of obliging a teacher to look as if he or she were strait, that it will end by making them so.

For example, one of the most excellent and engaging teachers that I know is also one of the scruffiest. It would be a pity if an ill-considered set of criteria forced eccentric individuals  such as him out of the profession because they didn’t always do up their top button (are you listening, Sir Michael?).

We can but hope, because (going on past experience, at least) the profession will only have a very limited say in drafting the licensing criteria.

“Hear me. I am your new president. From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish. Furthermore, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check.”

— The President’s victory speech , from Bananas (dir. Woody Allen 1971)

I have this idea about licenses for teachers and moving from a system of letter grades to number grades…

The Myth of Pedagogy

God help me, but I really enjoy reading edu-blogs: whether they contain tips, opinions, polemical rants or genuine philosophical analysis, they are all grist to my reading mill.

However, practically all the blogs that I have read buy into what I think of as the Great Myth of Pedagogy. In fact, I think all teachers (including myself) buy into it to a greater or lesser degree. Although, on reflection, perhaps members of SLT buy into it more than most.

What is this myth? It is based on the fallacy of magical thinking:  as human beings, we all too often make causal connections or assume correlations between two events based on what is essentially superstition, rather than logic, evidence or reason.

“11Sc5 met their GCSE target grades because of the extra targeted intervention that I instigated.”

“Erm…you do know that only 3 of them ever turned up. And they were the ones that actually didn’t need to turn up.”

“Targeted, proactive intervention. It’s the way forward!”

“So — you’ll actually be doing the targeted, proactive intervention every day after school next term, then?”

“No, of course not. I can’t waste time standing in front of a whiteboard reading powerpoint slides at students! I’ll be too busy coming up with innovations like T.P.I. — targeted, proactive intervention!”

“Oh. Goody.”

As a teacher, I believe that what I do in the classroom makes a difference. I wouldn’t stay in the classroom if I didn’t believe that. However, what I am much less certain of is what exactly it is that I am doing that is actually making a difference.

Many years ago, a short story by the much underrated SF author Robert Sheckley had a profound influence on me. The story was called “Pas de Trois of the Chef and the Waiter and the Customer”. In this masterful story (which probably doesn’t sit easily in the SF genre), three narrators describe what happened in an Indonesian restaurant on a Mediterranean island some years ago.

The Chef seeks absolution for addicting the Customer to his uncommonly delicious rijstaffel dishes and precipitating the man’s decline into obesity and illness. The Waiter is racked with guilt because he used jazz music to hypnotise the Customer into overeating: he played an artfully chosen sequence of classic jazz records over the restaurant loudspeakers and observed the customer eating in time to the music. Finally, the Customer confesses that he harboured a mad passion for the young Waiter and kept eating at the restaurant because he was convinced that the Waiter was shamelessly flirting with him.

The basic shape of the story is the same according to each of the narrators; however, none of them agree on salient details such as the others’ names, nationalities or motivations. More poignantly, at the climax of the story when the Customer walks out of the restaurant for the last time, each of the characters remembers an entirely different fervidly overwrought final conversation.

Author Michel Faber (another Sheckley aficionado) writes that the message of “Pas de Trois of the Customer and the Waiter and the Customer”  is

that people inhabit different realities. By this I don’t mean that people differ in their ability to perceive the objective reality of the lives they share with others. I mean that each of us tends to live in an alternate universe, which may bear only the most incidental relationship to the universe inhabited by the next person.

There are undoubtedly some objective realities in the classroom that teacher, observer and students would agree on. But what are they? I am not sure.

The room the lesson was held in: yes. The subject matter of the lesson: probably. The absence or presence of serious misbehaviour (e.g. throwing chairs, fighting): yes. Whether the teacher was confident and knowledgeable about the lesson content: yes, probably. Whether the teacher chose the most effective activities to teach the material: no. Whether all of the students were engaged all the time: no, probably.

I hope you see my point. But where does this leave us?

My answer is: we are no worse off than before, and we are probably better off in that we have acknowledged our ignorance and we are not pretending to knowledge that we do not possess, and we are not indulging in “educational voodoo” or magical, wishful thinking.

Now I am not suggesting that this state of affairs cannot change. As more scientific research is done (perhaps along the lines of the double-blind trials or further refinements in neuroscience) we will build up more reliable knowledge of what really works in the classroom.

In the meantime, I believe that we are essentially in the “pre-scientific” age of the classroom. We are like blacksmiths before the advent of the science of metallurgy. We have a range of traditional techniques and rules of thumb that work very effectively, but we are not always sure exactly why or how they work, at least in a scientific sense. We simply know that these kinds of techniques have worked in the past. Blacksmiths knew that if they hammered a piece of iron a lot it would become harder; teachers know that “learning happens when people have to think hard” (Prof. Robert Coe‘s Simple Theory of Learning).

That’s my purpose as a teacher: to make students think really hard about stuff. By whatever means necessary.

An old proverb suggests that “It is better to light a candle than complain about the dark”. And so it is. However, the first indispensable step is to say: “Hey, is it just me or is it really dark in here?” and cautiously begin feeling your way forward.

Wilshaw’s “Block of Wood” Moment?

Old Andrew draws our attention to an apparent turnaround in the Ofsted framework which make them less judgemental of traditional, didactic teaching techniques.

Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style. Moreover, they must not inspect or report in a way that is not stipulated in the framework, handbook or guidance. For example, they should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time.

— Ofsted [1]

I have mixed feelings about Sir Michael Wilshaw, the instigator of this change. On the one hand, I have been dismayed with comments like “if anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you will know you are doing something right.” [2]. On the other, in some speeches it seemed that he was attempting to address the dead hand of trendy “group-work-good, teacher-talk-bad” Ofsted orthodoxy.

In a previous post, I likened Wilshaw to the captain of a supertanker, and asked whether he would be able to rein in the “talk-less-teaching” rottweilers on his staff. Large organisations can have a momentum as stubborn as supertanker and plough onwards in the same direction for mile after mile, whatever the frantic signals from the wheelhouse say.

In this latest iteration of the ever-changing whirligig that is the Ofsted inspection framework, Wilshaw appears to have nailed his colours to the mast. Rather than “T” for “Trendy” it seems that he is flying the “P” for “Pragmatic” flag — anything goes, as long as it works.

And it is a change for the better, as long as inspection teams adhere to the guidance. (How we can judge exactly what works is another can of worms that I don’t propose to dig into here.)

Could this be the defining moment for Wilshaw? Possibly, it could be his “block of wood” moment.

Knowing also that the severities of the past had earned him a certain amount of hatred, to purge the minds of the people and to win them over completely he determined to show that if cruelties had been inflicted they were not his doing but prompted by the harsh nature of his minister. …. [T]hen, one morning, [the minister’s] body was found cut in two pieces on the piazza at Cesena, with a block of wood and a bloody knife beside it. The brutality of this spectacle kept the people of the Romagna for a time appeased and stupefied.

— Niccolo Machiavelli, “New principalities acquired with the help of fortune”, The Prince


The reference is to a story about Cesare Borgia and how he calmed a turbulent province by appointing a “cruel and unscrupulous man” to rule as his minister. When the man’s severe methods had secured a measure of peace and calm to the territory, Cesare Borgia dispensed with his services in the very final and bloody way outlined above.

Just to be clear, I am likening Wilshaw to Borgia and saying that he has, essentially, dispensed with the services of the previous “cruel and unscrupulous” style of Ofsted framework in a very public way. OK, so it’s by way of pressing the delete key on a keyboard rather than a bloody knife, but I hope you get my drift.

Every headteacher I have ever worked with has been a consumate politician (which is not automatically a bad thing, by the way), and I cannot help but wonder if this is only a part of a “Great Game” being played out. (Unlikely, I know, but it’s fun to speculate: the more probable, pedestrian truth is that, as a character in All The President’s Men observed, “they’re just not that bright.”)

And so is the teaching profession “appeased and stupefied” by Wilshaw’s action? A little bit, perhaps. For my part, I will wait and see what effect this has on the next round of inspection reports and (perhaps more importantly) internal school observation criteria before I celebrate, but I am, I must confess, faintly encouraged.

And on that cheerful note: Happy New Year!

[1] http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/filedownloading/?file=documents/inspection–forms-and-guides/s/Subsidiary%20guidance.pdf&refer=1

[2] http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6145814

Through Other Eyes

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

–William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Yet another whiny email from a Year 12 student. He requests a special selection of past paper questions on a particular topic. My answer? “Go to the flipping website that I have so laboriously set up for your benefit which has resources galore of that particular ilk and more, as well as digital bells and whistles, you clod!”

I did express the above sentiments somewhat more diplomatically in the email. And, to be honest, I was glad to get even that whiny missive: I feel we might be on the verge of that tipping point where the Year 12s stop being passive GCSE Spongebobs and become a little more independent, a little more grown up, a little more like proper 6th form students. Maybe. Just maybe. It might be a sign. I loved it when I heard him say to the other students in the class that “there’s a lot of good stuff on the website.”

Now I know that the student concerned had seen the website previously. He had even complimented me on it. But he obviously hadn’t seen it properly. And, strangely enough, it started me thinking about how we do not always see the world as others see it.

To my mind, one the finest descriptions and “thought experiments” on this topic comes from a short story by the incomparable R. A. Lafferty:

“It may be that I am the only one who sees the sky black at night and the stars white,” he said to himself, “and everyone else sees the sky white and the stars shining black. And I say the sky is black, and they say the sky is black; but when they say black they mean white.”
— R. A. Lafferty, Through Other Eyes, “Nine Hundred Grandmothers and other stories”

Do we genuinely ever see the world as others see it? The truth is — ultimately at least — we don’t rightly know.

Charles Cogsworth, the scientist in R. A. Lafferty’s short story, invents a machine called the Cerebral Scanner which literally allows its user to see out through other people’s eyes, and to truly see the world as others see it.

Charles makes the mistake of using the Scanner to look out through the eyes of his girlfriend, Valery. He is horrified: “she hears sounds that I thought nobody could ever hear. Do you know what worms sound like inside the earth? They’re devilish, and she would writhe and eat dirt with them.”

Valery also uses the Cerebral Scanner to look out through the eyes of Charles, and is equally disturbed. She confronts the hapless Charles:

“You can look at a hill and your heart doesn’t even skip a beat. You don’t even tingle when you walk over a field.”

“You see grass like clumps of snakes.”

“That’s better than not even seeing it alive.”

“You see rocks like big spiders.”

“That’s better than just seeing them like rocks. I love snakes and spiders. You can watch a bird fly by and not even hear the stuff gurgling in its stomach. How can you be so dead? And I always liked you so much. But I didn’t know you were dead like that.”

“How can one love snakes and spiders?”

“How can one not love anything? It’s even hard not to love you, even if you don’t have any blood in you. By the way, what gave you the idea that blood was that dumb colour? Don’t you even know that blood is red?

“ I see it red.”

“You don’t see it red. You just call it red. That silly colour isn’t red. What I call red is red.”

And he knew that she was right.

–R. A. Lafferty, Through Other Eyes

The phrase that has stayed with me over all the years since I first read this story as a callow youth is Valery’s description of what is, to her, Charles’ unforgivable deadness to the wonders of the world: “You can watch a bird fly by and not even hear the stuff gurgling in its stomach.

That is the experience of Physics that I want to communicate to my students. I want them to look at the universe and hear the stuff gurgling in its stomach. I want them to be able to experience their understanding, not just on an intellectual level, but also on a visceral level. This, to my mind, is what makes studying Physics fun.

Do I always succeed? Absolutely not. Do I sometimes succeed? Maybe, sometimes.

Do I have fun in classroom? A significant part of the time, yes. This is why I wanted to become a teacher. This is why I have stayed a teacher. And what about the other rubbish that is constantly being foisted on us?

Well, just for now, I think I’ll let it all go hang. I’ll worry about that on Monday.

Me and My PGCE


Fifty-two years,
most of them taken in
growing or in the
illusion of it

— R. S. Thomas, Selected Poems 1946-1968

Some recent blogs on PGCEsQTS and initial teacher training led me to reflect on the practicalities of how I became a teacher.

Generally speaking, it takes two years to become a qualified teacher, by whichever route you choose (PGCE + QTS, Teach First or Schools Direct). Opinions vary as to how long it will take you to become a good teacher, although it is generally agreed that this is not an automatic process. (‘Good’ according to whom is a question I will leave to one side for this post.)

From my own experience, I would venture to make the risky generalisation that good teachers are not born, they are not made (in the sense of being manufactured on an assembly line); rather, good teachers are grown.

I entered the profession some 20+ years ago via the near-universal (at the time) PGCE route. To be honest, I wasn’t driven by any sense of vocation aside from a hazy idea that another year of uni would be kind of nice (ooh – and a bursary too, thank you so much). As I recall, the course had two school placements: a short one (of two weeks) and a long one (of — wait for it — six weeks).

The rest of the time was passed pleasantly on campus, sometimes attending lectures on educational theory and philosophy, and other times having useful (and sometimes not-so-useful) small class tutorials on the stuff of actual Physics teaching. I regret to say that I was often more focused on drama society productions and going to the pub than on my studies and placements.

Nevertheless, I passed. I don’t know how, but I passed. And I managed (again, God knows how) to get my first job. It was as a Physics teacher at a small rural comprehensive. I won’t say in which part of the UK, except that there were so many Mr Jones’s that we had to be distinguished by referencing our teaching subject. I was “Mr Jones Physics”.

And I was rubbish. I couldn’t control a class to save my life, my planning was abysmal (when I actually did any), and I spent most of each lesson shouting at students (well, at least all that drama society stuff was put to some use after all) in increasingly desperate attempts to get them to copy stuff off the blackboard (one of those old style ones where the writing surface was a looped belt that you used chalk to write on). Without a doubt, the present-day me would have fired the then-me without a second thought.

Surprisingly, I still made it through my probationary year (the prehistoric version of QTS), although with my ears ringing with a stern admonition to mark my students’ books more often.

What saved me? An inspirational Head of Science who — wonder of wonders — saw some teaching potential in me. He unselfishly gave me the lion’s share of A-level Physics teaching. Gradually, in the relative calm of an A-level class, I learned how to communicate my knowledge of Physics to students in a useful way. I learned how to talk with rather than at or down to students. I learned how to control a class using the maxim “It’s not the severity of a sanction that matters, it’s the certainty.” And, sometime near the beginning of my second year of teaching I remember a lesson with a Y10 group when I had the shocking thought “Hey, I’m enjoying this!” I became confident enough to write and develop my own teaching resources. I started getting positive feedback from students. I learned techniques and strategies to help students across the ability range. And . . . well, I was hooked.

So: fast-forward to today. Am I a good teacher? Hell, yes, I think so. A-level Physics take-up at my school has never been so healthy. Results are above the school average and improving. Ex-students occasionally write to me saying how much they enjoyed learning in my classes. A student gets up at the end of the final lesson before the exams to shake my hand and say “Thanks for being a great Physics teacher!” A young woman says that she persevered to the end of A2 Physics simply because “It’s so rare to a teacher who is so passionate about his subject.” (PS — I’m not making any of this stuff up, honest; blowing my own trumpet does not come easily to me, but I think I need this to give some perspective on what follows. Plus I need to counter some of the steady drip-drip-drip of SLT negativity.)

The point is: it wasn’t the PGCE or QTS* process per se that made me into a good teacher. It was time, good guidance and inspiring examples from colleagues and friends and — most importantly of all — learning that I, myself, wanted to do this well and putting the hours into thinking about teaching, planning lessons, developing teaching sequences and ways of communicating concepts and — perhaps most importantly of all — learning about how important it is to know about children’s possible misconceptions in order to effectively teach (thank you, Rosalind Driver and her colleagues for this research).

So if PGCE and QTS-equivalent did not, by my own admission, turn me into a good teacher, should they be dispensed with?

Absolutely not. I believe that QTS is the “Goons’ Cambridge tie” (see below) of the teaching profession. It is the minimum standard. It is the line drawn in the sand: to be a teacher you have to do this and this and this*. And to an extent, anybody who wants it can get it (assuming they do the necessary work, of course). It is the necessary first step.

So far, I have not heard an argument that convinces me that QTS is a major obstacle to outside experts entering the classroom. As far as I can tell, all such arguments are obfuscatory justifications for cost cutting by way of employing temporary or transient staff.

Teaching looks easy but is actually much harder than it looks. Unless a person is willing to “buy the tie”, so to speak, I do not think they will develop the classroom expertise that students need and (usually) respond so warmly to.

Do take a seat with the other applicants.

Thank you. I sat down next to a man wearing a brass deerstalker, white cricket boots, and a shredded cardboard wig.



Don’t tell me you’re applying for the post of announcer?

Oh, yeah! And I’ll get it too, you’ll see! I’m wearing a Cambridge tie!

You? You were at Cambridge?


What were you doing there?

Buying a tie.

The Goon Show, “The Greenslade Story”

* Ridiculously oversimplified, I know. My apologies to all those who have had to assemble multiple ringbinders of evidence for the QTS standards.

A Letter from Talleyrand: ‘Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities’ by Dominic Cummings, aged 39¾

Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings
If Michael Gove can be likened to Napoleon, would that make Dominic Cummings his Talleyrand? (after Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord 1754-1838, Napoleon’s éminence grise.)

The Duke of Wellington once remarked that the battle plans of Napoleon were made of marble, whereas his own were made of little bits of string. Napoleon’s plans were brilliant and effective, as majestic as a triumphal arch. However, they all shared one fatal flaw: if one little bit went wrong then the whole edifice came crashing down. Wellington said that his own battle plans were different: if one string broke, he would merely knot two other strings together and the plan would continue on.

The pdf what Cummings wrote*  has the feel of man attempting to build a Napoleonic battle plan in order to sort out, once and for all, all the tiresome disagreements about educational policy.

And there’s no denying the man has been busy: he has read a lot. An awful lot. From a very wide range of authors. And it’s quite an interesting and eclectic read.

But it also gives the impression of being no more than an energetic exercise in quote mining, and not a dispassionate investigation of the issues. In other words, I strongly suspect that Cummings read so widely in order to find extracts to support his pre-existing views, rather than thoughts or insights to help form or challenge them.

Reading this document, I was put in mind, more than once, of the fictional doctor, Andrey Yefimitch:

“You know, of course,” the doctor went on quietly and deliberately, “that everything in this world is insignificant and uninteresting except the higher spiritual manifestations of the human mind … Consequently the intellect is the only possible source of enjoyment.”

— Anton Chekov, Ward 6

Cummings laments that “less than one percent are well educated in the basics of how the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ provides the language of nature and a foundation for our scientific civilisation.” That, though true, is not necessarily a reason for lambasting our current education system as “mediocre at best”. For me, this seems a curious priority.

Sir Isaac Newton was roundly criticised by his contemporaries for lacking a solid theoretical foundation for the infinitesimal calculus: Bishop Berkeley accused him of trafficking in “the ghosts of vanished quantities”. A couple of centuries later, the rigorous** notion of a limit laid that criticism to rest. Now of course it is generally better to understand more rather than less, but would learning about the foundational difficulties of the calculus be the most pressing priority of a 18th Century student of Physics? I would argue no, not necessarily.

For my part, I have thought long and hard about the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” (in Eugene Wigner’s phrase). I have discussed it with students. I think it’s a fascinating issue, and I adore far-ranging, off-spec discussions of this ilk. But is it an educational priority? Not in my opinion.

Other parts of the pdf seem just plain odd to me:

It would be interesting to collect information on elite intelligence and special forces training programmes (why are some better than others at decisions under pressure and surviving disaster?). E.g. Post-9/11, US special forces (acknowledged and covert) have greatly altered … How does what is regarded as ‘core training’ for such teams vary and how is it changing?

— Cummings, p.98

Interesting, sure. These special forces teams are (I presume) made up of already highly-motivated and highly-capable individuals. Cummings overarching priority always seems to be towards the individuals on far right of the “bell curve” (another Cummings hot topic: see pp.13, 20, 67, 224 and others). He genuinely seems to recoil in fastidious horror at the very concept of being “mediocre”.

This essay is aimed mainly at ~15-25 year-olds and those interested in more ambitious education and training for them. Not only are most of them forced into mediocre education but they are also then forced into dysfunctional institutions where many face awful choices: either conform to the patterns set by middle-aged mediocrities (don’t pursue excellence, don’t challenge bosses’ errors, and so on) or soon be despised and unemployed.

–Cummings p.4

Compare with Dr Yefimitch:

Life is a vexatious trap; when a thinking man reaches maturity and attains to full conciousness he cannot help feeling that he is in a trap from which there is no escape.

— Anton Chekov, Ward 6

Apparently, Mr Cummings plans to leave the DoE and take up the headship of a Free School. Although I have serious reservations about the Free School programme, I welcome this as an encouraging example of a politician putting his money where his mouth is. And I wish him well. I genuinely do.

However, from my own experience I have to say that I do not think his abstract philosophy will be as reliable a guide for navigating the choppy waters of a headteacher’s life as he believes it will be.

I have quoted from Chekov’s Ward 6 already. This masterful short story is the best description I have ever come across of the result of a collision between a man with an abstract philosophy and real life. In a discussion with a lunatic, Dr Yefimitch proposes that: “There is no real difference between a warm, snug study and this [cold, freezing] ward … A man’s peace and contentment do not lie outside a man, but in himself.” However, disaster strikes and he is committed to the asylum:

Andrey Yefimitch was even now convinced that there was no difference between his landlady’s house and Ward No. 6, that everything in the world was nonsense and the vanity of vanities. And yet his hands were trembling, his feet were cold, and he was filled with dread…

Now, I am not suggesting that our Dom will end up in an insane asylum, or even cold, hungry and alone. What I suggesting is that since one Free School head of what might be described as “the-how-hard-can-it-be?” tendency has, sadly, already bitten the dust, Mr Cummings may find that running a school (or just being a plain old teacher for that matter) requires far more than is dreamt of in his philosophy.

Unless, that is, he learns to make his plans out of string rather than out of marble…


* This joke ©Morecambe and Wise c.1972, as are most of the rest of my jokes
** Now where have I heard that word before?