Teachwell | Debating Michaela
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Debating Michaela

I am bit late blogging this but I did want to put down some of the lessons I learnt at the Debating Michaela event (23/04/16)


First of all – well done to all at Michaela – it was a fantastic venue and a great day.


Fair play to Peter he brought along props – two clay busts of Thatcher and Karl Marx. While I have some sympathy for his argument (when there are natural links between subjects why should they be separated), the truth is this is rarely ever the case at the level that we are teaching children at in schools. Rocks in Science and Volcanoes in Geography are one of the few units that I can think of that have substantial core knowledge components in common. Most of the time this simply isn’t the case. All the time Daisy made the case for knowledge brilliantly and the fact that too often adults suffer from expert blindness. Peter’s speculation that children know more than we give them credit for has some truth to it but what they know often contains errors and misconceptions that we have to rectify.


Also having taught a variety of different cross-curricular/topic/theme units the truth is that for every child who made a decent bust, there will no doubt have been many who didn’t, ditto leaflet, ditto, whatever you want. I discuss my ideas about cross-curricular done well and badly here, so don’t want to go into it again. Daisy’s clear arguments can’t be countered with just ‘I think’. Also, the key question that wasn’t asked was, did he test the children who answered GCSE questions about WW1 after three months? Because if he is right then that learning should still be embedded. Would he be willing to submit to any independent research/study?


I did wonder what John Tomsett would say regarding the no excuses debate and he did bring up vital points. First of all, the issues with zero tolerance and no excuses behaviour management policies in the US. Having read the studies he used to back up his evidence from his blog,  I would make some points.


  1. From a research design point of view, there is a reliance on self-reporting about informal exclusions from parents and pupils in one of the studies which were taken entirely at face value. This evidence was then used to indicate greater exclusion than school records show. At the very least there should have been some examination of caveats.
  2. The fact that zero tolerance policies ‘may have little impact on middle class’ pupils as this MIT paper states is not the same as his asserting during the debate that it did not and that middle-class parents did not choose schools with zero tolerance policies. The study that states that the impact on middle-class students was negative quote studies where this was not shown to be the case, thus in context it is not conclusive. The MIT paper highlights variance between KIPP schools and asks about replicating the successes of KIPP Lynn elsewhere, indicating the gains made by lower ability students and those with SEN as well as improvements in boys reading. Not the condemnation of KIPP or zero tolerance policies then.
  3. The Vera study on zero tolerance policies indicates a very different reason for instituting no excuses policies, namely the backdrop of weapons being brought into school, which included automatic suspensions and expulsions. Given the extent of the problem and cases of school massacres in the US, it is fair to factor in how this impacts on their exclusion rate and also to consider to whether that would be mirrored here. While it would be naive to say that weapons are not brought into schools, the idea that our schools regularly deal with guns is not accurate either. What would John Tomsett do if guns were brought into his school on a regular basis? What wiggle room does he envisage?
  4. Two of the studies that are cited relate specifically to the state of Texas – here and here – to what extent is the issue with zero tolerance policies a problem there and to what degree is it a general issue? Also, these were both Charter and non-Charter schools. To what extent does culture affect the understanding and implementation of zero-tolerance policies.


There are studies that I could not read as they were behind a paywall.


However, I do take away much from what John said.


Is the point of the negative consequences to be harsh or to be consistent? If the consequences are arbitrary and just getting harsher for the sake of it, then that is as much of a problem as what we have now where the consequences are arbitrary but get more lenient. The extremes are not the place to look for good behaviour management systems. The way to deal with a child who is displaying challenging behaviour due to inconsistency at home can’t be more inconsistensy at school.


Systems have to recognise both the positive and the negative. They need to reward and have consequences which are consistent and meaningful. Going over the top for either has negative consequences simply because it is dishonest.


In the end, what I found disconcerting was the number of times John referred to the ‘white working children’ in the school who needed ‘excuses’ it would seem. I have worked in a similar environment recently and I don’t accept that being any of those things is an excuse for poor behaviour.


I found part of the issue here is that the research is lacking as those who deal with behaviour are biassed in both the questions they ask and the studies they consider necessary. All I can say anecdotally is one of the things that keeps coming up when I talk to others who come from challenging backgrounds and succeeded was how important it was to be treated the same as everyone else. The confirmation bias in the system is clear. People like myself and Quirky Teacher are more likely to be vilified than listened to, whereas those who do seem to advocate for ‘teacher as parent’ get more of a look in because they already fit the ‘excuses, teacher as parent substitute’ narrative. Also, these tend to be youth workers, inspirational speakers, etc. but not teachers. This is worthy of a blog in its own right so I won’t go further here but update and link.


Personalised learning is an issue close to my heart as I think it is one of the reasons why workload has exploded in the way it has. Tom Sherrington and Katie Ashford had very different ideas about what constituted personalised learning. The truth is we can’t have personalised learning realistically in a classroom environment without spreading the teacher so thin that they are ineffective. Neither can we just state one size fits all and make no adjustments for children of varying abilities. I do think personalised learning has the scope to become incredibly restrictive, placing limits on certain children in much the same way general grouping does.


I was very impressed by Ed Vainker’s commitment to supporting parents and children. However, I do not think that ‘whatever it takes’ has to mean becoming a mini-welfare state. I also believe there is a fine line between support and creating dependency, as there are real dangers of blurring the personal and professional in this situation. Having said that one of the best investments my previous school made was paying for a Home-School Visitor, who was a completely invaluable link between teachers and parents. Joe Kirby’s ‘Let teachers teach’ was a great slogan it has to be said! I do think it would be interesting as time goes on for Michaela to outline the support that is given to parents but I think it is worth stating that not all parents want or need support. Schools are there primarily to teach children and it is important that we do not lose sight of that. As always I do wonder if some people have become teachers when it is social work they are after.


Lastly, Katharine Birbalsingh did not need to convince a room full of teachers that PRP is a bad idea which leads to perverse incentives. I think Jonathan Simons was confusing TLR’s which are payments for additional responsibilities with PRP and I am not even sure he was convinced by his own argument by the end of it thanks to Daisy’s question on an actual system that would work. I think that the Gove was wrong about head teachers and their capacity to run a PRP system fairly. Also, he did not see how the system could be and would be abused to prevent teachers being unfairly kept on lower pay scales or how some SLT would demand the impossible from teachers to get it. It needed safeguards – there are none. Katharine is right that it can’t be left to chance or whim if we want to attract and keep the best teachers.


It was lovely to meet and catch up with so many people. Looking forward to the next in the series already!

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