Friday, March 04, 2011

I'm a Celebrity let me fix your education system!

I took part in a debate on ‘What should be taught in our schools?’ in London last night - a strange affair as the audience were a bunch of unashamedly snobbish toffs. You could tell at a glance the Toby Young, Katharine Birbalsingh acolytes. Fair enough, it was her book launch.

I was the final speaker and having heard a stream of unpleasant attacks on working class kids, decided to abandon my planned speech and go on the offensive. I was pretty annoyed by Toby and Katherine’s torrent of elitist anecdotes and the usual right wing obsessions with Latin and Shakespeare. But what annoyed me most of all was the assault, by both, on vocational training and working class kids in particular. People were actually braying ‘Hear hear’ or what sounded like 'Hair hair' in those awful 'aspirational' accents, whenever they launched their petty attacks on BTECs and kids who were learning how to be hairdressers, plumbers or work in hospitality. Toby Young was straightforwardly racist in his caricaturing of these kids, fair enough, he's as bald as a coot, so he has an excuse for not knowing much about the art of dressing hair but these are the people who serve him and his ilk in restaurants and fix up their homes, as men like him are usually as hapless in real world tasks as they are arrogant in dismissing those who know about such things. I was, furious.

My response

In any case, this was my response. First, I ponted out that something odd has happened to the education debate. It’s become cool for Oxbridge types to bellow out their superiority (they always mention within a few minutes that they went to Oxford or Cambridge) and to see the state system as largely dysfunctional. They start with a deficit model that caricatures students as feral, teachers as feckless and head teachers as foolish liberals. They parrot this pathological view of the state system.

Why does this happen? Because the education debate has a habit of descending into late night middle-class, dinner-party talk; all anecdotes and bitching. As if we didn’t have enough on our plate with the direct assault on the state system by Ministers, the debate has been further hijacked by D-list celebrities, wannabes, actresses and a TV chef. 
The D-list celeb Toby Young, wannabe (Katherine Birbalsingh), actress (Joanna Lumley) and TV chef (Jamie Oliver), who in turn has rolled in a bunch of minor TV celebs to show us how it should be done. We have nothing to learn from these people, absolutely nothing. Why? Because they are devoid of ideas. It’s all criticism, platitudes and anecdotes. The plural of anecdote is not data.
Toby Young is obsessed with Latin. Once again, he trotted out a set of ridiculous claims and anecdotes about why Latin should be compulsory in schools. But as I’ve posted enough on this subject, with a full set of evidence against these claims, let’s put that to one side. His only other real claim was that Marc Zuckenburg was a classicist and that, apparently, was why he was one of the richest men in the world. Really! Brin and Page of Google and Besoz of Amazon, all went to Montessori schools, do my three entrepreneurs trump yours Toby? This is just crap causality. I repeat, the plural of anecdote is not data. I think what annoyed him most was me calling him a D-list celeb - but he's worse ahn this, he's a D-level thinker in education and downright nasty and racist towards the poor.

TV Chef thinks education is a risotto

I also had a go at the the Jamie Oliver nonsense, a TV chef, putting a curriculum together as if it were a recipe for a risotto. (I’ve submitted a brilliant idea to Channel 4; Rick Stein, now he can fillet a good fish, why not have him head up surgery for the NHS?) Was there anything more dispiriting than watching the pompous David Starkey start his lesson by saying to his class, “You are all here because you failed.” Then without the lad saying anything, Starkey pointed to Conor and said, “Come on you’re so fat you couldn’t move… With Jamie’s food there’ll be lots of dieting opportunities”. I would have applauded Conor if he had simply marched up and decked him. “You think it’s funny making jokes about me” replied Conor, rightly seething with resentment. As it was, Conor simply gave as good as he got and after the class was lucid and reasonable. “He didn’t even know my name”. Two girls after the class, got it spot on about Starkey, “He’s a bit rude.” He is more than rude, he’s a pompous, old snob who then had the cheek to write a stinging article about these young people and the state system in the Telegraph, showing his true colour. He had no remorse, because he’s a megalomaniac who can’t teach, “I have nothing but contempt for the new-style head teachers…gives you a sense of why things have gone so wrong in state education”. Typical of Starkey, everyone’s to blame but himself.

Simon Callow gets irony bypass

Simon Callow then threw Shakespeare at them, or rather some confusing and ambiguous questions, that got predictably confusing answers. When he asked them who they’d like to be in life, he didn’t like it when they mentioned Bill Gates and Katy Price. Then, suffering from a serious loss of irony, blamed ‘celebrity culture’ for the downfall in education! He can hold the attention of a paying audience, but not a roomful of kids. He was, well, hopeless. I loved the feisty girl’s final comment, “He can’t help the way he talks”. At the debate last night the headmaster from Winchester was similarly obsessed by Shakespeare. Then in rolls Rolf Harris. Good start but was too busy doing his own thing and didn’t spend enough time with the kids. He just looked lost. Robert Winston took a chainsaw to a dead pig (budget no object in this schools), but the kids saw right through his theatrical antics. Ellen McCarthur, had the advantage of a 30 foot yacht. Now how many state schools have or have access to a yacht? And next week we have Mary Beard, teaching, you’ve guessed it – Latin. This whole idea is way out of hand and nothing to do with the real world.

Inner-city London skews

Toby and Katherine are the poster boy and poster girl for these attacks on the state of state education. Note that all of them, bar none, live and work in London. The only common denominator is this ‘inner-London angst’ that every middle-class Londoner has about schools. But there’s a problem here. Inner London is not representative of the state sector as a whole.

First we have the richer kids creamed off into the public schools, second, you have the faith schools, set up to educate the poor, but largely taken over as the sharp elbows of the middle class get to work, even lying about their faith, to get in. So, as the evidence shows, from the LSE and Institute of Education, they achieve what they achieve through selection. Around 65% of Westminster’s secondary schools are faith based but the national average is only 17% and it’s less than 5% in many other areas of England. The net result is extreme social sorting. These are inner London skews.

On top of this we have an editorial class who also live in inner London and have exactly the same concerns. Toby and Katherine have no trouble in getting on radio and TV or into print, because the TV folk and journalists all live in London, and have the same worries about their kids, You can read it between the lines, the barely disguised fear of young black kids and a barely disguised fear of working class culture. In an interesting faux pas, Mary Beard revealed that neither she nor Jamie Oliver had suggested Latin, it was a member of the production team who was an Oxbridge classicist.

We’ve even had Joanna Lumley, only two days ago on the BBC, telling us how to run our schools, her only educational credentials; the Lucie Clayton Charm Academy, a finishing school and ’modelling’ agency for girls. At least it was vocational. This isn’t some ab fab, celebrity author, TV chef debate. It’s a serious business with serious outcomes and needs. And don’t think it’s not having an effect.

Bad news

We end up robbing the Building Schools for the Future budget, launched in 2004, to pay for Toby’s schools of the past. A decision now judged to have been an ‘abuse of power’. We end up recommending Latin as a compulsory subject in our schools despite the fact that the evidence points to it NOT doing what many claim it does. It doesn’t help you learn other languages, it’s a hindrance. We end up with a class-based attack on vocational learning, long the great apartheid fracture in the English system, Rather than listen to Tomlinson we relegated vocational subjects to Diplomas and the whole thing collapsed – again. Toby and Katherine regret the fact that we teach vocational subjects in schools. In one disgusting incident Toby had a go at BTECs in hospitality and hairdressing, and oh how the coiffured, restaurant-fed ,well-to-do ladies in the front row laughed and shouted, ‘hear, hear’. It was unabashed snobbery at its worst.

Education policy should NOT be skewed by a self-selecting group of inner London types who have their own idiosyncratic concerns, backed up by an editorial class that has the same concerns. In my lifetime, we’ve seen the creation of the abolition of the 11+, that most brutal of segregation policies, the raising of the school leaving age to 16 (remember this only happened in 1972), the rise in University participation from 12% when I went to University to 45% in just this year, higher staying on rates in schools. We’ve had the Open University, Learndirect’s 2.8 million learners, both offering ‘second chances’. This is real progress. It’s not perfect but it’s progress.

PS To Miss with Love

This was Katherine’s book launch and at the end she read out a strange passage from the book that was a long rambling exchange between her and a pupil, who for some weird reason called ‘Munchkin’. Katherine has a habit of demonising the children she has taught by giving them names like ‘Gruesome’. Those at the LWF conference heard her rant against this particular student for a full half hour. As Stephen Heppell said when he took the stage “I was beginning to feel quite sorry for poor Gruesome”. And that’s her problem. For all her claims to love teaching and the state system, she is, at heart, someone who does a lot of talking and not much listening.

The whole book is written in a faux-novella style, a confusion of fact and fiction (She even makes up a husband in the book, who doesn’t exist in real life.). And maybe this is the problem. Like David Starkey, she blames everyone (Fiona Miller got a booting in her speech) and everything but herself for the problems. The main problem is her outrageous claims that the state system has collapsed. This is so extreme, as to be laughable. But it was a view held by many of the people in the room last night.  She has this bi-polar tendency to proclaim love in one sentence then follow it up with downright bile and hatred in the next.


Henry Stewart said...

Excellent piece, Don. Only bit i'd pt out is that not all middle-class inner Londoners are paranoid about local schools. Some of us are very happy wtih them, and think they are the best in the country.

We've got together at Do come, join and post.

Though we do come under regular attack from Toby Young (eg, yesterday's attack on me and my school:

The upsycho said...

You're probably right. I'm talking about your closing paragraph. The teacher who stands out in my memory and still holds a place in my heart was a teacher who bucked the system to let me know she believed in me. She expected only the best from me, believed she would get it and smiled beatifically when she did.

I had a right go at one teacher at a school my kids went to (and, yes, they subsequently went to a faith school, no lies required - another conversation) for haranguing the class with threats that they would wind up flipping burgers at MacDonalds. It's honest work. It's necessary work. Somebody has to do it. Of course, I'd rather my own kids did something more challenging, more stretching, but that's because I think they could and would be bored flipping burgers. But I have a niece for whom a job flipping burgers would be challenging and stretching, and I would be as proud as punch if she got such a job!

Kids want to be believed in. They want to be ascribed value. If you think they're sunk before they start, they'll give up. And you'll wind up with a bunch of disaffected... oh hang on, that's what we've got.


Anne Brown said...

Enjoyed meeting and chatting you last night at the event.
What concerned me so much in what Toby and Katharine were saying was the suggestion that you only get rigour and high quality with certain 'academic approaches' to teaching and learning. So the creative and practical approaches we associate with subjects like digital media, drama or art are seen as not stretching students enough and therefore not allowing them to compete with those who do the Latin and Languages. I have seen more rigour, challenge and self-discipline in young people devising a multi media performance than those sitting in class learning knowledge and facts from the teacher.
All teaching and learning has the potential to be more creative, allowing students to take risks, problem solve, ask questions and make connections to the wider world. So its not about what 'subjects' should be taught in our schools, but allowing the science, the maths or the art teacher to use those creative approaches and new technologies. Even a Latin lesson can be creative in the right hands!

The Creative Partnerships programme from 2002 has shown this to be the case.

Anne Brown Advanced Skills Teacher

Kim Thomas said...

I wish I could have been there last night! I'm going to the Times debate with Michael Gove and Estelle Morris on Tuesday, though, so I don't want to overdo it:-)

I think to some extent middle-class parents like to terrify each other with stories about how awful state schools are to justify their own decision to use the private sector. If you're going to spend £15k a year on private education, you want to be absolutely sure you're doing the right thing. Having said that, now my daughter is at a state comprehensive, some of the behaviour she reports from other kids does make my hair stand on end. And this is in a leafy bit of Hertfordshire, not inner London.

The Jamie Oliver thing was odd for a number of reasons. One was that he failed at school and then did very well for himself without GCSEs, which makes you wonder why he sets such store by them for other children. The other is that there is no reason on earth to believe that people such as Callow, simply by dint of being successful in their own field, would be any good at teaching. I admire Callow greatly as an actor, but why would anyone think he'd be any better at motivating these students than an English teacher with years of experience? I don't actually put Oliver in the same category as Toby Young and Katharine Birbalsingh, and I think his motivations are rather different. (Though I couldn't, tbh, tell you what they are.)

Kim Thomas said...

Oh, and I meant to add, the really bizarre thing about Jamie's Dream School is that even if it worked, how could it be used as a template for anything? You can't send Cherie Blair and Rolf Harris into every school in the country to motivate disaffected students. So what's the point?

Anonymous said...

Your contribution to the debate last night was excellent and I am sure you are a committed and excellent teacher. I agree with various points made by most of the contributors; however there is one issue which was not covered and which in my view is crucial - although I accept that you don't agree with it.

The point I wished to make was that most of the teachers I worked with left teaching due to abuse by pupils and management (in either that particular school or the one they moved onto); that this occurred in a situation where league tables and easing exam requirements were the main driving factors, that highly committed, knowledgeable and effective teachers felt let down by the system and where Headteachers were (and still are) under enormous pressures to include societies problems, with very little delegate powers of resilience, irrespective on the damage this does to the majority.

I know you don't agree with this (only you touched very briefly on it), but as the other debaters failed (or did not want) to address this point (it is in my view the most controversial of all the education issues) there wasn't the opportunity to make progress on understanding it. I am sure whether one relates to it depends on which schools one has taught in, ones background and what subjects one has taught. However I know it is a common theme around the country.

I am prepared to alter my current view on this and therefore welcome
an open debate as in my view it is this issue more than any other that is driving concerns over state education - much more so than the issue of 'what should be taught' in it.

Unknown said...

The title of Katherine's book (To Miss With Love) echoes Braithwaite's To Sir With Love.

I notice that neither of them actually stuck at teaching for very long.

One argument for the case that even our top universities are 'dumbing down' is that KB went to Oxford. I saw her on Newsnight debating with Fiona Millar and KB came across as a bit of an airhead.

Donald Clark said...

Matt. This is a serious issue. Gatto, an award winning teacher in the US, had some good suggestions here.
1. Scrap staffrooms, as they reinforce a siege mentality, especially in young teachers.
2. Break the 'straight from University to teaching' pipeline. Many young teachers are ill-prepared to deal with the rough and tough of the real world as they're inexperienced in life.
3. Really filter teachers for teacher training on personality and 'fitness to teach' by that I mean 'handle a class of 30 young people'.
4. This is controversial, but the system needs to weed out poor teachers. Once the kids smell blood they're in trouble and it causes problems elsewhere.

On the whole, however, society gets the education system it deserves. If we continue to stigmatise kids who are not academic things will get worse not better. That's why the Toby Youngs of this world are so dangerous.

Kim Thomas said...

Donald, I'd agree that we need to weed out poor teachers, and I'd also agree that the model of going straight from university into teaching isn't the best one. I think the corollary of that is that you have to raise the pay of the teachers you have left, otherwise nobody's ever going to want to do it.

I'd also agree with Matt that you have to have a more effective way of dealing with the troublemakers than exists at present. That seems to me to be a big problem in a lot of schools.

Fiona Millar said...

I am with Henry on this. We have been very happy with our local London state schools although I am (apparently) in trouble for saying so.
I loved this blog, especially the pointer to the evidence about Latin, which I studied to A level to no great effect.
I better be careful what I say about the wannabe celebs though as my other half is up for the slaughter next week!
You need to be on twitter though.

Bridget McKenzie said...

Thanks for this post and for your comment on mine about the same event. I didn't mention Latin in my post so wanted to come back on that. I agree with you that Latin isn't a magic bullet and that the research you cite seems to be valid that it doesn't enable learning in other languages. However, Mary Beard here has a point that Latin is great for understanding vocabulary, etymology and linguistics. I'd like to see some Latin taught within a creative high-level exploration of languages and cultures. I think you'd agree with me that what's wrong is the subject-driven curriculum system, which is why I try to avoid promoting particular subjects (although I can't help myself sometimes saying that Maths is overdone and Geography neglected).

Alan Douglas said...

Don, were you really at the same event I was at last evening ? I really don't think so. In a room full of opposing viewpoints being reasonably discussed, there was also you. You mention "braying", and seem to imply there was a room full of it. I was standing next to the SINGLE individual who could be said to be braying. Somehow your statement is so much more dramatic though.

Katharine spent all of 5 minutes launching and reading from her book. But "half an hour" makes it seem so much more like a drag.

You were the only individual there apart from Toby who seemed to be stuck (loudly) in a fixed viewpoint. Not one I share, but good luck to you.

Alan Douglas

Herbie Potts said...

Very well written and excellent piece Don.

It's also nice to read a piece by someone who clearly cares about education and is not pushing some polarising political agenda.

Toby Young is the pied piper of the "not so bright" middle class of West London (they're not all Oxbridge) who've done a fine job for themselves spending £15m of taxpayers money on a school that teaches "latin" for their 120 kids & excludes the "oiks". (He claims that it is open & even his kids "might not get in"....)

Fact is "Latin" is the intimidation barrier for the riffraff as well as the rallying cry of the indocrinated.
Hopefully the less pushy undesirables will be too intimidated by schools that teach such lofty things as Latin and stick to the comps, without having forced the selection committe make an embarrassing rejection.

It is the duty of a parent to do the best for their children. If this govt is so dire that it thinks freeschools are a good idea it is in same boat as previous gov'ts that have screwed with education.

The biggest crime however, is the self-righteous hypocrisy that the Toby Young gang spout.

They don't believe for one moment that vocational subjects are bad - they just believe its bad for their kids.
They pretend that they are doing something great for the community when the No1 objective is sorting themselves out.
They don't care about Conor, they dont believe he can learn latin (nature not nurture) and when he fails at least they will have someone to do odd jobs and make them feel they are putting something back into the community again.

Donald Clark said...

Fiona - been on Twitter for years - #donaldclark.

Unknown said...

Enjoyed your talk last night. My reflections on the evening are here:

Martin Owen said...

The Jamie show is a total contrast with last summer's "When Romeo met Juliet" which showed bright intelligent kids in inner city Coventry be bright and intelligent. Paul Roseby, Adrian Lister and Lolita Chakrabati showed that commitment to subject and students is something even celebs can do- if their heart is in the right place.

Bob Harrison said...

The thing that really gets to me is that the Young/Birbalsingh axis is predicated on what is best for "working class kids".

How would they know?

This and the Wolf report ( is the Wolf family related to Gove??)have caused me to re-read "Half our Future" The Newsome report which was around in the 1960's

Colin said...

Karyn, to summarise:
The best teacher you ever had "expected only the best". The *bad* teacher at your child's school warned pupils (presumably if they were lazy) that "they would wind up flipping burgers at MacDonalds". The best sentence: "Of course, I'd rather my own kids did something more challenging, more stretching, but that's because I think they could and would be bored flipping burgers".

You believe--and I'd agree here--that good teachers have high expectations. You feel that aspiring to a life time career in McDonalds is to have high expectations. However, this is the high expectation you'd set for poor kids, but not your kids for whom the task wouldn't be challenging enough.

This is bigotry: the idea that poor kids can't cope with latin/maths/science, should take vocational subjects like BTEC babysitting instead (good enough for other kids, just not your kids) and become subscribed to a life in McDonalds. Vocational subjects aren't looked down on because they're vocational, they're looked down upon because they're easy. Anything that comes easy has no value, anything that comes with hard work is valued.

Working in Mcdonalds is, indeed, honest necessary work; but as you yourself admit it is boring. When a kid walks through my classroom door I don't care if they're rich or poor. They're going to learn something, and I'll hold the opinion that if they work hard for it they can become what ever they wish--and won't be limited to McDonalds.

maryb said...

Hang on a minute .. even I didn't say that Latin was a magic bullet, or that everyone should be made to study it...that's quite different from saying that it should be a curriculum OPTION (which I do think).

I cant help feeling that you have read what I wrote in the Guardian in a bit of a weird way. Quite a lot of it (OK not all, but quite a bit) was broadly in tune with what you are saying here.

Anonymous said...

You can listen here and make up your own mind.

John Putt said...

I picked up on this via Twitter and I would have known nothing of this debate without pursuing a # that led eventually to this blog.
I have found the points made very interesting and enjoyed reading the comments.
If our society is broken then it is down to inequity in our education system. I think that you allude to this in your piece Donald. You talk about private schools and then faith schools and about how some parents choose certain schools for their children avoiding other less well regraded institutions. This pervades right through all state schools.
From what I have read, and what little I know, some of the more effective education systems in certain countries do not have such inequity.
What we really need is a grown up debate about education in this country? Politicians must reach an absolute consensus on education policy that has to be stuck to. There cannot be this swapping and changing with successive governments or ministers. A truly great education system must deliver for every individual child in a fair way and barriers to learning and achievement, significant for many in certain contexts, must be overcome with properly funded interventions.

Simon Ross said...

Thanks for this excellent article.
One common theme from reviews of this programme seems to be that Ellen McCarthur had some success. This is perhaps in part because she has experience of taking young cancer patients on similar trips -
You correctly point out that most state schools do not have a yacht. However, don't forget there are a large number of youth sail training organisations offering amazing opportunities to schools and young people -

Ross McGill said...

A great article.

Donald Clark said...

Mary Beard - Hi Mary. My arguments, based on empirical studies is that Latin should NOT be taught in schools, certainly not as a compulsory subject. It is less useful than a modern language in helping you learn a second Romance language. My arguments are not against your position but that of Toby Young who plans to make it a compulsory subject. The fact remains, that you are taking part, not in a useful experiment, but a sham of a reality TV show that is far removed from reality. What's more, as you said in your article, a member of the production team chose Latin as part of the curriculum in the show. This also shows the power of the Editorial Class in pushing this agenda.

maryb said...

OK Donald.. I suppose why I commented was that I as soon as I get even remotely compared to the likes of Toby Young I feel more than slightly queasy.

I have never thought that the argument that Latin helps you learn other languages was a very powerful one (I mean, if you want to learn Spanish, learn Spanish for heavens sake... ). And the studies that people toss around dont have a clear message anyway, or rather they starkly offer conflicting results -- and are usually carried out by those who know what they want the answer to be before they start.

I'm not going to bang on about why I DO think that Latin should be a school option (and not just for the toffs)... Just to say that I felt all the ambivalences about the ideology of the programe that you would expect. But in the end the message that will come across most strongly, I suspect, is that proper real trained teachers do an amazing job. And that most of us could no more teach English to a class of 14 year olds than we could take out an appendix..

As for me personally. Well I was crap to start with, and got quite a lot better quite quickly. I learned a lot from the kids, and they from me I think. And I am pleased to still be in touch with a good proportion of them. So I dont feel bad about it..

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Mary. Refreshingly honest reflections. I have one query, which is still bugging me. I love Classical history and have spent a great deal of time and money, reading about and visiting relevant sites (just back from a two week stint in Syria). But I'm puzzled about the obsession with Latin, as the riches of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, along with the Iliad and Odyssey, seem more relevant than Latin texts, in terms of our philosophical, political and aesthetic roots. So why not recommend Greek? We seem to have a fixation with Latin.

Anonymous said...

From MaryB (posting as anonymous because this computer wont take my google account)

Well in my case it is probably a matter of not pushing my luck. But I am absolutely with you that Greek is very exciting. And, to be honest, I think that reading Homer in the original Greek (and no translation is ever quite as good -- excellent as many are) is an experience worth being born for!

Why Latin first. I am tempted to say that it is easier than the sometimes confusingly fluid structures of Greek, But as I write that I am conscious that I might just be reflecting a 'that's how we have always done it' view. If the course of the Renaissance and modern Greek history etc had been different, Greek might well have come first.

There is also the case that the Romans did get to Britain and made a still noticeable impact on the geo-politics. As I hope you'll see me saying on Dream School, once I've been right crap at getting the kids to shut up!

Kim Thomas said...

Mary - I really enjoyed your piece in the Guardian and was interested to read your post here. Although I'm faintly appalled at the premise of the Jamie Oliver series, I am looking forward to seeing your contribution. I can understand what you mean about getting better quite quickly: I'm not a trained teacher but years ago had to teach young adults, and the first few lessons were a question of adjusting expectations, understanding what they were interested in and capable of doing, and modifying my approach accordingly. (Not that I was ever very good at it!)

Latin is something I enjoyed at school, and I think it would be nice to offer it as an option to students (in the sense that there are lots of things it would be nice to offer as an option), but most people I know who were forced to study it seem to have hated it. I can't understand why Toby Young is so obsessed with it. And I'm very interested in Donald's question about Greek, though I suspect the answer may be that the whole business of learning a completely different alphabet is regarded as too daunting. Or perhaps it's just that some people learnt Latin in school and therefore think that it must intrinsically be a good thing. An awful lot of what people think about education seems to be based on generalisations from their own experience.

Lesley Price said...

All using technology!! This is gen Y why is education wanting to go backwards and teach Latin?? ..

David Wilson said...

Donald, I missed the debate and so cannot comment on the specifics, but wish the commentary and comment wasn't so obsessed with party and class politics.

In particular, I think it is very dangerous to effectively dismiss the personal choices of tens of thousands of parents as class deluded nonsense. I'm not sure anyone willingly spends £15k plus a year or puts their child through 11 plus stress to get into a grammar school unless they firmly believe it will lead to a better life for their child!

Anonymous said...

I remember one school day when our music teacher said that she had hired a local songwriter to spend the day teaching us all about writing songs.
The guy who taught my class was not a teacher. It was his first time teaching which we found out much later. His passion for his subject was infectious,he just sat there at the piano asking each of us to make up a sentence and as we did he sang it right back to us at the piano instantly.
That day i still clearly remember, everyone was amazed by this mans skill and knowledge on his subject.
I had never seen my class so well behaved and focused and i wondered why we all enjoyed his lesson so much. In one day he got 234 children to write their own songs!
Years later after leaving school i met my old music teacher and we got talking so i mentioned to her about the day this songwriter came to teach us. She smiled and said....
Oh yes i remember...
Back then i had been teaching music for 30 years and i remember him well. I met him in a local music store, he was playing the piano. I thought he worked for the store but he didn't and we got talking and that's when i asked if he would like to visit our school to talk about songwriting.
She then said...
To be honest the day he did that she resented him being there, she was jealous.
I asked why... she said...
For all my years of experience in teaching he got your attention and held it. I never got that level of attention from any of my classes. I asked why that was. She said.... As teachers are so focused on stats that we can lose sight of everything around us,
eg:you the children.
He tuned right into you and by watching him i saw just how simple something like being yourself and showing passion in your subject can get the very best out of you.
She said that after that day was over she spoke to the musician and thanked him. He asked how he had done because it was his first time in school doing this. She said..
If i gave my students a choice of having him teach them or myself then they would pick him every time because as teachers here we are so bogged down with stats,
rules and paperwork that all creativity is lost on us but he on the other hand didn't have those restrictions.
I think my teacher is absolutely right!
We do need creative teaching like that on all subjects in schools to inspire our children and it does not always mean that the person educating us HAS to have a teaching degree to be able to inspire.
Bring back the passion to teach!

Donald Clark said...

David. Not so sure what you mean here. The debate didn't mention grammar schools or the right for parents to pay for the education of their children. It was about a selected group of minor celebs hijacking the debate about state schools. 93% of the population go to state schools and the great majority of those have no choice, as 15k a year is way beyond the means of most. However, I'm not sure that 'class' or 'politics' are not worthy of debate. The former is real the latter the positive result of living in a democracy.

@ebd35 said...

I would be fascinated to know what Toby and Katharine think should happen to the children that I teach in a special school for those with social, emotional and behaviour problems.
Can't quite see them fitting into their picture of what students should be like.
Where would their system leave them?

Primary teacher at an EBD school

Dook said...

I was gutted not to have been able to make the event in the end, but knew that over the following few days there would be a series of tweets, blog posts and comments passing back and forth amongst the noted and infamous.

And yet I do enjoy the banter that is going on too ... all with different agendas, some more obvious than others, some more openly political, some with significant evidence and those which pull on intuition and gut-feeling.

I have already made my jokes about Gove and Latin at BETT and so on ... and I whilst I don't see why Latin is to be the saviour of education I can say, from personal (anecdotal?) experience that it has been beneficial to me. This was more due to my teachers than than the subject itself, who showed that Latin was a subject which required significant application of effort and I was even told that it was the application which the most important factor.

Given a choice of choosing further languages to take we had to continue with French and those who had applied themselves across the languages (English, French, Latin) could also opt for German. I was disgusted (as I still am) to find that the reason I could not opt for German (which had the best school trip) was because my English was not up to scratch.

Yes, it was not poor Latin which held me back, but issues with English (undiagnosed dyslexia as it turned out).

I don't think purely academic studies is the answer, and I don't think that vocational studies were the answer either ... I do believe that no matter what option is put forward it will be open to abuse by one group or another, to allow for twisting of stats, for forcing students to continue with studies most suitable for the school rather than the students.

It was not the fault of the vocational route for this, but the collective pressure of tables, exam boards (and those reselling resources to help jump through the hoops of the exam boards) and, whether some will like the comment or not, some teachers looking for easier options for students they had not been able to engage with or handle.

Tomlinson should have removed the barriers of accepting vocational routes as viable and supportable options for learners, but we had a swing to an extreme. We now have a swing to the other extreme.

Perhaps we will sit round a table one day and learn to compromise. Partly due to the understanding and acceptance of evidence, partly due to the understanding that change due to passion and instinct is worth working with and partly due to a healthy dose of realism that continued arguing over areas, which brook now acceptance of other views, will get the whole system absolutely nowhere.

As for celebrities in the classroom ... I already know a lot of celebrities who work very well in the classroom. They might not be celebrities who appear in OK or Hello, but we all know the likes of Dawn Hallybone, Tim Rylands, David Mitchell and so on ... and they are *our* celebrities.

Anonymous said...


dan bowen

maryb said...

@Kim Thomas
I fear that compulsory Latin is a killer...and it is only the barking who want that. Optional Latin
(and Greek) is life enhancing.
I hope you will be kind to me when you watch...I start out crap and get better. Basically not surprising..I am untrained, but am quite quick on the uptake and have reasonable gut instincts about what is going down well. But that doesnt make up for no training!

victoria showunmi said...

What an excellent piece and an intersting read, it is good to know that others are thinking the way I do too.

Unknown said...

This is worth a squint:

graham said...

I agree, an excellent piece. One of the problems I see at the moment is that challenge to some of the ‘new approaches’ is almost visceral rather than analytical. Satire and humour may have their place but this topic is too important to just ridicule without reason. The debate needs to up a gear. For example, Katherine’s views and comments need to be reduced to rubble through analysis - for too many people they have 'the ring of truth'.

I think that many of the comments on this blog have identified a fundamental issue. It is the quality of the teaching which is critical. The content of the curriculum is less important than the way it is taught. We all have heard anecdotal evidence of people whose lives have been turned around by good teachers but rarely have I heard of a life turned around by a Latin text book. Not that the content is irrelevant but more important is that the way that content is taught – I know of young people who say they developed more through being taught by an excellent beauty therapy lecturer than in many years of formal education. Surely, this is one observable lesson we can take from our observing the incompetence of some of celebrity ‘teachers’.

In this, at least, I am in agreement with the evidence base of the White Paper, The Importance of Teaching.

The danger with this view, though, is that this gives a tacit green light to ‘hunting down’ of the mythical 15,000 failing teachers. I would rather take the view of Dylan Wiliam when he espouses the ‘love the one you have strategy’. Raising the standard of teaching must include:
• Improving selection – and this does not mean just employing Oxbridge graduates but understanding the key skills needed
• Improving ITT
• Ensuring that appropriate CPD is provided.

Considering the last two points, I am constantly flummoxed by the fact that the profession which is based on an understanding of pedagogy does not understand andragogy (adult version of the same)! When we train and professionally develop teachers (and often other adults) we ignore the key experienced based components such as modelling, observation and professional dialogue. Experiential learning is at the heart of many professions so why not teaching?
I am biased, this is what I do! There are a couple of related blogs on this if you are interested:

We always welcome feedback, comment and contact.

Kat B said...

Hi Donald - thanks for a really interesting post! I'm one of the numerous middle-class people who don't know a thing about London state schools/state schools in general and who has been thoroughly spooked by To Miss With Love (which was a very interesting blog). Really interesting to read this as a riposte.

Donald Clark said...

Don't be spooked Kat. It's largely a figment of her overactive and ego-driven imagination. I hope Penguin have classified it as 'fiction'. See review

Colmmu said...

I sat through Katherine's 30min performance at LWF with vitriolic rage at her apparent disdain for learning and fixation on antiquated teaching attitudes. I was "gruesome" at school not because I was of any particular class or because I lived in an inner city area, it was because of teachers like Katherine backed up by notions like those espoused by Young and Gove et al.

Garry Platt said...

Hello Donald - The issue has even migrated as far as TrainingZone where a question has been raised:

Sue Jolly said...

Just got round to reading this post. I to had the same rant about Jamie's programme. I got so frustrated with Starkey I turned him off after 10 mins. What Jamie et al don't realise is that this is not a game. Thousands of teachers and kids spend hours in schools. Solutions have to be sustainable and pragmatic. Also school is not just about learning subjects — vocational or academic. If the school has a mixed intake its about understanding people from all walks of life. Probably one reason why Toby and katherine have such narrow views on education, they went to a school/university that reinforced their elitist attitude. What you gain in academic credentials from this type of environment has its trade off, a basic understanding of others who are not like you.

Donald Clark said...

Sue - exactly. The only 'realistic' person was Alistair Campbell who simply said 'this all so unreal'. As you say, this is NOT a game.

AlexKeay said...

Don, great article & debate.

In defence of Jamie's dream school, I found it was compulsive viewing & it has stimulated more debate about how the current state sector system is failing some pupils.

By trying "non-traditional" methods & subject matter experts to re-engage these young people, not always successfully, it opened the eyes of many viewers who do not have to face those challenges.

I believe it has helped bring more parents and non-educationalists into the debate on the future of our schools and children.

Surely that is a positive use of celebrity status & should be applauded?

Donald Clark said...

I'd like to think this was true but have come to a different conclusion. It said nothing about real solutions to real problems. This was the never-never land of television and painted teenagers as feckless, shouty beings. It also promoted the idea that celebrities are relevant to education - they're not. Like the 'unteachables' it presents education as dysfunctional. This pathological view of learning is a distortion that has been used by other celebrities such as Toby Young, Katherine Birlsbalsingh and Joanna Lumley to attack the state sector and further demonise children. I'm more than uncomfortable with this, I'm angry about it.

Sebastian said...

Well, I teach in an inner London School, and I've known Katharine for over 15yrs now.....way before the hazy days of the infamous Tory conference. Have to disappoint you, she not a good teacher BUT an outstanding one. Don't always agree with her approach, but have to respect her integrity and commitment to the values of quality education.

Donald Clark said...

So 'outstanding' that she stands up at conferences and verbally abuses the kids she's taught. I also know her, spoke at her book launch and have heard her pronouncements many times (I'm tired of hearing that she went to Oxford - which she mentions every time she speaks). She may be committed to the value of quality education but not to the values of equality in education. I've never seen her teach but judging by her public speeches I wouldn't let my kids near her.