Dear Parent, this year we will be outsourcing our mathematics teaching to Bright Young Things Limited…

Dame Ruby de Snoopy
CEO for life
Neolibs ‘R’ Us Multiacademy Trust

Dear Parent

This year we have decided to outsource our maths teaching to Bright Young Things Limited. Mr Jones, who has given tireless service as head of mathematics for the last 35 years will be retiring. We thank him for his service. We wish him well with his recovery from his recent mental illness. The rest of the maths department have also taken positions elsewhere.

As you know we have been looking to improve the mathematical outcomes of students who leave Neolibs. It is important to us that they become functioning economic units who are equipped to contribute to our growing economy, brought about through the tough decisions made by the current government. We all know we have to live within our means.

We are very excited about Bright Young Things taking over, they are a new company, with young attractive and very enthusiastic graduates, they are supported by Hedgebank, a reputable city institution and PremierPedagogy the visionary teacher training organisation. We have awarded Bright Young Things a three-year contract. They have convinced us that they will deliver a cost-effective forward-thinking curriculum based on the Book of Intervention.

We will be consulting on this with parents later in the term.

Yours sincerely


The Book of Intervention

The last time I went to a general practitioner, I had a minor ailment. I described my symptoms, he reached for a large ocatavo soft-bound book. He thumbed through it, selected a page, ran his finger down the first column, then the second, he flipped a page or two until he was satisfied that he had matched my symptoms to a pharmaceutical. He wrote me a prescription and I went home via the chemists.


I imagined I was a teacher. I was sat with my class of year 10s. They found maths difficult, most had not been successful in maths through school. They were adding fractions. One student was having difficulty adding fractions. I didn’t know what to do. But I went into my teacher’s desk and I whipped out my copy of the Book of Intervention. I thumbed through until I found the section on low-attaining year 10 fractions. I ran my fingers down the two-column page. I flipped over the page, ran my finger down the next page, then the next. I soon found a recommended intervention. I just knew it would work because all interventions in the Book of Intervention had been scientifically tested.


Some reflections on Nottingham-shire – a voice for education

Information about the event is here:

This day was about a rejection of the neoliberal orthodoxy in education. It was about reclaiming education for the people. Not only was it about an alternative vision, but it was about how that might be done. There were a number of practical examples where communities and groups had resisted academisation or other non-sensical neoliberal policy and held out and forced change.

I was an alien at this conference since the focus was on Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. Howard Stevenson had encouraged me to come after some interaction between us on twitter. So I travelled from Cambridge to the University of Nottingham, to see what I could learn and what I might do in Cambridge.

Though I am not a complete alien in these parts, since I was born and grew up in East Retford in north Nottinghamshire, I did my A-levels at North Notts College of Further Education in Worksop and I did my PhD at the University of Nottingham. I was pleased to talk to people who had a similar East Midlands accent to mine.

What did I learn? I went along with the idea that teachers need to become more active and that they should be using the power of solidarity to defend  against the increasing privatisation of schools. Schools should be run by teachers for their communities. You will see this in my previous blog posts.

The most important message for me is that teachers and communities need to go beyond resistance. They need more than protest and campaigning, they need a plan, they need an alternative too. This was the message offered by Howard and the conference keynote Hilary Wainwright.

I found out about the fantastic work of the NUT in resisting academisation in Leceister City and from this campaign implementing an amazing reading programme in the city. I also heard about the effective and colourful protest which returned some funding to ESOL in FE. Though sadly I was made so much more aware of the threat to FE, and was sadder for this because of the second-chance I had in FE. There is no doubt I would not be where I am now without FE.

In all then, to successfully reclaim education, requires effective, creative, collaborative campaigning and protesting by multiple stakeholders: teachers, parents, students, unions… These collaborations can be complex but also creative. Along with this, as well as challenging existing orthodoxy, we need a plan, a vision for what education, schools, colleges and universities might look like and how they will work to serve people and their communities.

This is a time of opportunity and I hope I can contribute to something in Cambridge and support an emergent national organisation.

Many many thanks to Howard Stevenson and whoever else helped to put this conference together. I hope we can hold something similar in Cambridge.

A democratic education system for social justice and equality: the case of a coastal a school

One thing I have noticed in my relatively short time working here in Cambridge is that it is a strongly democratic university. Or at least it aspires to be. There is broad discussion over issues, where, especially if they are contentious, members of the university are asked to vote to reach a decision. Last year there was much debate over the funding of a chair to commemorate the life and work of Stephen Hawking. Potentially 3000 academics and academically-related staff could vote as Members of the Roll of the Regent House. Another feature is the academic freedoms that individuals working in the University enjoy, with which I feel a sense of duty and responsibility. I am proud of the values the institution preserves and sustains and, of course, very proud of the university of which I am part. All of this, I feel, brings out the best in me as a professional.

I argue that for schools to improve, they need to move away from hierarchical management structures, to democratic and distributed leadership models, much like the University of Cambridge. Schools need to empower teachers to have control over their professional work and ensure that they  have involvement in setting the direction of the school’s mission. This is an alternative model of cooperative school-led self-improvement as opposed to the in-vogue  top-down neoliberal school-led system in current policy.

Now you may very well point out that I work in an elite institution and as such it is in a unique position. I wouldn’t disagree, it is elite and there is much that can be said about the extent to which it is socially just. That debate, however important, is for another day. What I want to consider is how to get the best out of education professionals working in schools. My working model for this are the democratic principles underpinning the culture of the University of Cambridge. I return to this later, but let me a describe a case, a coastal school.

It was not so long ago that I was working in very different kinds of institutions, state-funded secondary schools in North East Lincolnshire. The first school I worked in, was, as a consequence of an inspection by OFSTED, identified as failing and placed in special measures [1]. I recognised, along with a number of other colleagues, that there were many things in the school requiring improvement.

However, the school was (and still is) located in a community with a high proportion of disadvantaged white British working class families. There was also a shortage of teachers; few, I imagine, consider moving to a coastal area in economic decline to work in a challenging school. Until the 1950s, the principle town in North East Lincolnshire, Grimsby, harboured the world’s biggest fishing fleet of 600 trawlers. Conditions in the town are different since the decline of the fishing industry, currently a quarter of young people are unemployed, that is almost twice the national average [2].

Through several generations the availability of secondary education has not mitigated the lack of opportunity and not led to social and economic improvement. It is unsurprising that there is a predominant culture of educational disaffection amongst the considerable group that can be described as disadvantaged. It is ironic that there exists free high-quality education, yet many in the community have little belief that it is going to benefit them. What is more, if you grow up in a family where your parents, grandparents and possibly even great grandparents have not been successful at school then it is hardly going to impact positively on your own perspective and educational self-efficacy. Not only do you experience, day-to-day, models that are negative, there may be few opportunities to develop some of the prerequisite skills to access a curriculum that is based on, principally, the curriculum philosophy of a sixteenth-century grammar school.

This is not the soft bigotry of underachievement, as it been characterised by current government ministers, it is the reality of underachievement. Moreover, it cannot be solved by implementing a more challenging curriculum, setting ever higher targets, increasing the amount of testing or parachuting in expert teachers. The solution to this problem is for highly qualified teachers who have a long-term commitment to the community to find solutions to the educational challenges in their locality and turn them into a practical and cost-effective educational project.

What is needed is a community-based cooperatively organised school, fully staffed by educational professionals with considerable professional training. Teachers require confidence, courage, knowledge and intellect to develop a school and curriculum that fully meets the needs of the community. They require similar levels of disciplinary knowledge to medical practitioners. Where doctors have anatomy, physiology and a range of medically-related scientific knowledge; teachers need knowledge of education, psychology, sociology, anthropology and philosophy, for example. These provide the knowledge base that combined with practical and practice-based implementations would start to bring about sustainable change.

This all contrasts with the craft-level curriculum-delivery model that is being surreptitiously introduced by the present government as part of its school-led agenda.

Over the last 25 years, and at least since the introduction of Local Management of Schools as part of the 1988 Education Reform Act, schools have been increasingly modelled as market entities. New Labour’s deliverology [3] introduced accountability and attempted to distil educational outcomes into reductive targets to ensure central policies were delivered. This represented a commodification of learning. In 2010 the newly elected Conservative Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, retained much of New Labour’s accountability but removed the agencies that supported the delivery of policy, like for example, the National Strategies. This means schools are responsible for both outcomes and the processes. Effectively academies sub-contract to the Department for Education for the delivery of education. It is looking less like a public project.

So  these are the factors that have led to hierarchical and managerial structures in schools and academy chains, be-suited corporatism is symptomatic of the increasing privatisation of state education. This in turn has led to deprofessionalisation since educational purpose is largely determined by accountability demands and the definition of improvement processes by school leadership teams. Teachers’ work is increasingly moderated by managers’ interpretations of accountability frameworks and certain kinds of performances become more valued over others [4]. Compliance with leadership-sanctioned institutional cultures is valued over and above the kinds of teacher behaviours that have educational value and the pressure to ensure students perform well in high-stakes examinations is considerable.

The emergence of this kind of management structure, approach and culture in schools runs counter to effective improvement. It may result in short-term gains: improvement in examination results and better OFSTED inspection judgements, but in the long term it does not have an impact on the education of the communities like the one I described earlier. For long-term improvements teachers and schools need to be holistic and responsive.

This brings me back to where I began. The kind of culture we need in schools must permit teachers to be responsive to the context in which they work. This requires a democratic, distributed-leadership approach that is oriented toward the professional, like we have in Cambridge. School management structures need to be flattened, so that those holding senior leadership positions are more responsive to the processes within the school and are able to support the interpretation, analysis and decision making of teachers. There would be no need for a non-teaching executive principal with a six-figure salary. Senior leadership, would be simply that, experienced teachers guiding, supporting and helping analysis and interpretation: a group of senior professionals with representation and participation from the junior and support staff. Decision making would be collaborative, consultative and collegiate. Bigger issues might involve a vote amongst all stakeholders.

And with this level of professional responsibility and fulfilment, there would be no recruitment and retention crisis.


[1] The Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) lowest category following inspection is special measures. Schools placed in special measures are subject to regular further inspection.

[2] Bagehot. (2015, April 15). The view from Grimsby: A coastal clue as to why the economic recovery isn’t producing votes for the Tories. The Economist. Retrieved from

[3] see Bangs, J., Macbeath, J., & Galton, M. (2010). Reinventing schools, reforming teaching: from political visions to classroom reality. Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor & Francis.

[4] Au, W. (2007). High-stakes testing and curricular control: A qualitative metasynthesis. Educational Researcher, 36(5), 258-267.

Update 14 December 2016

Useful podcast from the New Economic Foundation on Coastel Communities

Throwing money at a broken system: a response to the increased bursaries for trainee mathematics teachers

Headteachers have been talking about a teacher recruitment crisis over the last year. Trainee mathematics teachers on last year’s Cambridge PGCE programme were being offered interviews well before Christmas. In fact two trainees accepted offers before Christmas, the remainder accepted offers soon into the new year. As course tutor I recieved a stream of phone calls and emails from headteachers to see if anyone was looking for a job. In all it was evidence of unprecedented demand.

The Department for Education (DfE) have been reluctant to acknowledge a recruitment crisis. Saying things like recruitment is challenging because of the buoyant economy; politicking with a smug claim that recruitment difficulties are merely a consequence of effective Government. However, there has been at least some recognition of the seriousness of the situation. Today the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, announced increases in bursaries [1] for trainee teachers. For trainee mathematics teachers with a mathematics degree (or in a subject with a significant proportion of mathematics), if they have a lower second or higher, they can receive a bursary of £25,000 tax free while they are training.

The tragedy in this is that Nick Gibb fails to recognise that our initial teacher education system is now broken. These measures are reactive and do not address the underlying problems. To pretend that they are anything other is an insult to those committed professionals working in initial teacher education and to those headteachers desperately trying to recruit mathematics teachers. The Conservative Government, and the Coalition Government previously, have embarked on an unrelenting pursuit of ideology-driven privatisation of the education system. As part of this process they have marginalised and denigrated the role of universities in initial teacher education. This has severely undermined the recruitment of mathematics teachers. Mathematics teachers appreciate the managed transition from study to teaching (or from another career) that university-led partnerships of initial teacher training offers. But this is only part of the story.

In an attempt to promote School Direct, instead of allowing prospective trainees to make their own minds up about the best way into teaching, the Government has created a confusing and misleading recruitment system. I fear this has put off potential trainee teachers, especially those that are at the early stage of making a decision.

Finally, I think the message coming from schools is of a demoralised profession that is forced into a preoccupation with high-stakes testing, unreasonably high workloads and an emphasis on accountability-driven performativity in place of a focus on pupils, their education and community.

The idea that a booming economy is undermining teacher recruitment is at best hopelessly and misguidedly optimistic at worst simply deluded. The promise in 2010 that ‘teachers know best’ and that the profession should be trusted was an utter lie. It was simply a means to disguise the sheer scale of the privatisation agenda which the Conservative party had covertly committed themselves to.

What would be welcome is for the Government to acknowledge they have made mistakes and that all stakeholders should be consulted in an attempt to repair the system. However, I fear their idealogical mission will not permit this kind of principled reflection.



Teacher activism, teaching unions, neo-liberalism: divided and conquered

While I was a teacher in Cleethorpes and studying for an MEd with the Open University, I read a paper by Judyth Sachs about teacher activism, The Activist Professional [1]. She argued the means to reform state-funded education is through teacher activism. That teachers take the lead in professional and educational decision making. That they become vocal and assertive. And to bring about reforms in education, changes need to be led and implemented by those closest to practice, the teachers. Educational reform is only effective and sustainable through bottom-up activism.

I believed very much in teacher activism then as I do now.

All but a very few of my colleagues then believed in professional activism or that they had professional authority in their classrooms. Authority, for many teachers, was with the headteachers, local authorities and policy-makers. You see in the early to mid noughties, accountability was on the increase, examination results were becoming mission critical, Ofsted inspections were becoming critical to sustaining and developing a headteacher’s career. Local authorities were under increasing pressure to show improvement in the schools that they were responsible for. They also had a responsibility to implement the government curriculum and pedagogy programme: the National Strategies.

The school I was teaching in in the first half of the noughties was placed in special measures [2]. The headteacher resigned and a temporary replacement was appointed. A great deal of pressure was placed on teachers to teach in a particular way using a three-part lesson. We were expected to produce considerable documentation for each lesson, which was checked at random to ensure compliance. We were frequently observed and lessons were graded using Ofsted criteria. We even had an inset day in which teachers were placed in particular groups according to their Ofsted grade.

The acting headteacher was under pressure to show that the school was improving, that teaching and learning was improving and that the school leadership had capacity to improve further. His approach was to impose a regime of obedience and uniformity. This had little or no bearing or even consideration of developing effective teaching and learning. It was expedience in reaction to demanding accountability measures. Within the year I resigned and was offered a post in a neighbouring school. A permanent headteacher was found but the school has never really recovered. In subsequent years it has closed and reopened twice as a new school. The number of pupils at the school has never recovered to the levels that it had before it was placed in special measures.

There was a degree of outrage amongst teaching staff, the headteacher was demanding excessive workloads, feedback was brutal and not developmental. Yet, even in the well attended union meetings teachers would not take collective action. They were frightened. In the past, teachers had stood shoulder to shoulder to defend not only their working conditions but also their professional judgement in the class. Although many of my colleagues were members of a union, there was an unwillingness to collectively challenge what was going on the school and the inappropriate treatment by the inspectorate. Unionism and dispute had been denigrated and humiliated in the 1980s. First images and stories of union dominance in the 1970s, the final humiliation in the 1980s, particularly characterised by television images of the miners’ strike. By the noughties union action had been demonised, furthermore neoliberal individualism was divisive and encouraged colleagues to pursue self-interest over collective action. Unionism as a vehicle for teacher activism had been compromised.

Through the latter part of the decade Michael Gove was planning the Conservative’s education policy. In his white paper, The Importance of Teaching, published shortly after the Coalition Government took power in 2010, he weaved freemarket ideology into a vision of a teacher-led education system. He marginalised the teaching unions, the local authorities and university schools and faculties of education. The settlement on offer to headteachers was autonomy, the freedom to run their schools with minimal state intervention, even though we know from international data that school autonomy does not necessarily lead to improvement. He said to teachers, they know best. It was but a shallow offer of professional autonomy because accountability remains master. He cast the unions, universities and local authorities as “the blob”, they were a barrier to school and professional autonomy. Gove was effective in delivering a private freemarket ideology, but hiding it beneath a discourse of institutional and professional freedom.

As he rejected the so-called blob, he identified with neo-traditional teachers who had become well known through social media. They shared some common views about curriculum and pedagogy, rejecting progressive ideas favouring traditional authoritarian education and classroom practice. As a result the neo-traditional tweachers and teacher bloggers became the new teacher activist movement. They have become the voice of teacher autonomy.

Certainly this activism has created interest amongst the profession. No one can deny the success of movements like Research Ed. However, I do have a concern about the neo-traditional agenda that is being put forward by a number of these new social media activists. This reflects Gove’s ideology, with the teacher taking a traditional authoritarian role in classrooms and that curriculum and pedagogy has an emphasis on facts and fluency. More clearly emphasised is what neo-traditional approaches are not about, neo-traditional activisit often define their project in terms of it not being progressive, constructivist, featuring groupwork or discovery learning. Indeed their activism, they often characterise as being driven to escape progressive ideas that have been thrust on them by experts (e.g. academics and local authority consultants).

So where I have concern with neo-traditional social media teacher activism is in its narrowness of perspective. Its rejection of educational scholarship, ambivalence towards the importance of local democracy in education and ambivalence toward teaching unions. I fear they campaign for a false professional freedom, what is more it is dangerously aligned with freemarket and privatisation ideology which has the potential damage our education system.

Activism should not be progressive or traditional, it should not marginalise stakeholders such as the university schools of education, but should be pressing for a democratic education system, focussing on social justice, equality and high-quality learning outcomes. In order to achieve this, activists need to focus on the standing of the profession, its capacity to act collectively, to argue confidently using scholarly discourse. The profession needs to ensure that it can offer professional justification for what individual teachers do in their classrooms and influence how the education system is structured and organised. A strong activist teaching profession is symbiotic with teaching unions and academics. Teachers need to have voice alright, but they need the organisation and discourse to make it heard and deliver the argument. Acitivism needs to be campaigning against the real oppressor, that is policy that is ideologically focussed on privatisation, and accountability systems that work to support the agenda of political masters. The enemy in this is not educational scholarship, the teaching unions or local democracy.

[1] Sachs, J. (2000). The activist professional. Journal of Educational Change, 1(1), 77–94.

[2] Special measures is the lowest rating given by the inspectorate, Ofsted. A school is monitored regularly until improvements have been moved.

E D Hirsch’s visit to the UK and the neo-traditional teacher bloggers

I picked up on Hirsch’s visit to the UK, when I noticed excitement amongst a number of teacher bloggers on Twitter. Though, I don’t follow them directly, there was an overspill of retweet excitement, arousing some of the tweeters that I follow.

I was aware of E D Hirsch from a general knowledge of education philosophy. I don’t know too much about him apart from his interest in promoting the learning of ‘knowledge’. I was also aware that his work had become fundamental to the educational reforms of Michael Gove when he was Secretary of State for Education.

Hirsch’s work is also very popular with neo-traditionalists in education, for example education bloggers like Tom Bennett and the neo-traditionalist author and Ark Academy head of research Daisy Christodoulou. There are number of others who argue for a teacher-led profession without the input of expertise from the educational research establishment. The education research establishment are often painted as the pedlars of pedagogical quackery of limited efficacy and reliant on dubious sources of evidence. One of the chief criticisms of the neo-traditionalist is that their evidence is largely baseless and flawed.

I watched quite a lot of Hirsch’s talk at Emmanuel College in Cambridge via periscope, he was hosted by the University’s commercial examining offshoot, Cambridge Assessments.

Hirsch contrasts the learning of knowledge with Piagetian constructivsim. Hirsch argues that knowledge should take precedence over child-centred learning (Piaget developmental constructivism). This he believes is necessary to promote equity in education, curricula need to have core knowledge (particularly at primary level). Knowledge is a necessary precursor to skills. He believes that knowledge is secondary to child-centred discovery learning in schools, the emphasis should be on knowledge, so that the disadvantaged can have improved life opportunities.

It is easy to see why they neo-traditionalists admire this, since it supports traditional pedagogy and practice: teacher-led classrooms involving teacher exposition, demonstration followed by pupil drill and practice. Importantly it is consistent with their rejection of academic educational research. Research which has drawn on, for example, Vygotskian sociocultural theory and the introduction of constructivist approaches. It also serves the Conservative vision of teacher-led education, where valued practice is a traditional type of lesson. I recall one neo-traditional teacher blogger saying, “I talk, they listen, how hard can it be?”

Hirsch’s philosophy is not necessarily of this political agenda or of the neo-traditional movement, however, he is a learned voice whose thesis has been adopted to give the movement philosophical authority.

I have nothing against knowledge in curriculum, pedagogy and practice. What I have trouble with is knowledge proceeding skills as a dogma. It is necessary, as a learning imperative, to manage the two side-by-side and in tandem. That is a principal skill required of any teacher. Advances in social cognitive theory, cognitive psychology and neuroscience show that knowledge and skills are inseparable human characteristics.

I have sympathy with the neo-traditionalist view that the teacher needs to have stronger standing both in the classroom and professionally. However, the focus on knowledge is not the solution. This diminishes the complexity of the classroom, teaching and of society.