Sunday, 25 September 2016

Moron in a Hurry

On Thursday last week, I wrote a new Blog, #MasteryFail, as an appetiser for a speech I will giving at #MathsConf8 this coming Saturday. I used the blog to highlight my long term support for a mastery model for schooling.  At #MathsConf8, I will discuss the origins of a mastery approach and the weight of evidence to support its efficacy.  I have been speaking and writing about mastery for decades now and find it heartening that this way of operating teaching in schools is having a new renaissance.  Following my speech at the conference, I will release a new blog, Teaching for Mastery, in which I go into great detail about what it is, how it can be implemented and why, if embedded properly, the impact can be incredible.

Unfortunately, as with pretty much all education approaches, the renaissance of mastery has also brought with it much confusion.  So, #MasteryFail was a blog targeted at debunking some of the myths that are flying around at the moment.  If mastery is to have impact in England's schools, then stamping out poor practice early is going to be all important.  I did not expect the blog to be in any way controversial.

I was rather surprised, therefore, to find myself and my company being attacked in public through Tweets from one of the 35 Maths Hubs.


I have serious misgivings about the Maths Hubs programme, which I have written about in the past.  As someone with a lot of experience in designing, operationalising and measuring the impact of national and international education reform programmes and services, I do not believe that the model of the Maths Hubs programme will bring success.  It is deeply flawed, as I described in a previous blog.  However, and this is the important bit, I will do anything I can to support and promote any project or individual that works to improve maths education.  The Hubs programme may well be flawed by design, but the individual Hubs themselves are full of great people doing great work.  So, although I believe the programme to represent poor value for taxpayer money and unlikely to have positive system-wide impact, I recognise the excellent work happening in many regions across England by those (majority) of Hubs that are using the opportunity to make a difference.

On balance, I believe that, when considering the work of all 35 Hubs, they are doing more good than harm.  So they get my support.  We have promoted the Hubs at each MathsConf and given them access to our delegates.  Without fail, those Hubs that have engaged with us have made a great contribution to the events and their input has been highly valued.  I appreciate the hard work and desire to help maths education that is palpable from the individual Hub staff that I have met.

However, the quality of provision across the network of Hubs varies wildly.  I am hoping that this is teething trouble as the network becomes embedded, but find it concerning that, in such a small group of just 35 operational centres, the national coordinating body, NCETM, has failed to ensure a standardisation of quality.


On Friday morning, as we were coping with a rather awful break in at our offices, I noticed on Twitter this Tweet:

Someone, though I don't know who because they Tweet anonymously under the Hub account, decided to launch a public personal attack on me by calling me a hypocrite.  This was in response to a Tweet from David Weston, I was not copied in on the Tweet and did not know the criticism had been made.

I only spotted the Tweet because David responded to say he did not see any hypocrisy in my writing a blog promoting mastery and also selling mastery CPD.  David kindly included me in the thread, so I was made aware of the Maths Hub LDN Thames statement.  Now, David is the most non-partisan, balanced, objective person I have ever met in the education world.  I would suggest his judgement is sound.

I thought this was a rather remarkable accusation.  I re-read my own blog and wondered why on earth I would be accused of being hypocritical.  The blog clearly portrayed my support for what the evidence says about an effective mastery approach.

The Man on the Clapham Omnibus is the hypothetical ordinary, reasonable person that English law uses to test whether or not a person has acted reasonably.  The Man on the Clapham Omnibus is fairly well educated and bright.  I use him here to make this statement:  I think it would be reasonable to assume that The Man on the Clapham Omnibus would have to conclude that someone accusing me of hypocrisy must have come to that accusation in one of only two ways:

  1. the accuser read the blog, decided that my content contained therein was critical or contradictory of my own CPD provision referred to in the Tweet
  2. the accuser had not read the blog and made the statement without being suitably informed to do so

If 1. applies, then the anonymous accuser appears to be saying that those things I am criticising in the blog, such as the statement "we do mastery on Tuesdays" are in fact practices that they deem to be good practice.  Is the Maths Hub seriously suggesting that this is what mastery is?

Or, the accuser could be saying that the CPD provision that we roll out across the country promotes "we do mastery on Tuesdays".  Is the accuser seriously suggesting that my company does this?  Perhaps the accuser might wish to ask themselves what on earth they know about our provision.  Have they attended our mastery course?  Do they have any idea of the delegate feedback?

Both of the above seem too absurd to be the case, so I therefore believe that The Man on the Clapham Omnibus could only conclude that the accuser had not bothered to read the blog at the point of publishing this public Tweet.

Several other Twitter users also came to this conclusion.

A couple of hours later, the person behind the name calling said on Twitter that they had read the blog.  Having applied the test of The Man on the Clapham Omnibus to the evidence, I am not able to believe that they had.

So, my assumption is that the person calling me a hypocrite did not have any substantive evidence at all to support that slur.

Meanwhile, many Twitter users were discussing my blog and praising what had been written.

But the anonymous Tweeter representing both the Maths Hubs and the Harris Federation of schools did not stop with this one, false, accusation.  Instead, the following Tweets also appeared in their timeline in response to several teachers who had written positive Tweets about my blog:

I would suggest that the content and tone of these Tweets clearly communicates that the anonymous person behind the Maths Hub LDN Thames Twitter account believes that I am anti- rather than pro-mastery approaches.  Yet, my blog is explicit in its praise and support of mastery models for schooling.  Once again, I suggest that The Man on the Clapham Omnibus would reasonably conclude that the Maths Hub LDN Thames tweeter could not possibly have read the blog and arrived at that sentiment.

I would also suggest that, even though I accept tone is hard to discern on Twitter, The Man on the Clapham Omnibus would read these messages as critical of me and my company.


In English courts, another hypothetical person exists called A Moron in a Hurry.  The Moron in a Hurry is used to test cases of 'passing off'.  If, given branding, a Moron in a Hurry would reasonably believe that one product was the same as another, then passing off has occurred.

I suggest that, given the iconography, branding, links to well known names, a national centre and government, the Maths Hubs would reasonably be considered by a Moron in a Hurry to be an expert and official authority on mathematics education and policy.

It is reasonable, then, to state that teachers will accept the judgements of a Maths Hub on the quality of provision of a maths CPD provider.  I suggest, therefore, that the Maths Hub LDN Thames did seek to cause my company a commercial disadvantage and loss of earnings, since teachers reading their Twitter timeline would reasonably believe that I, and by connection, my company, have been hypocritical and either do not support mastery or promote poor practices.  Furthermore, the apparent tone would be interpreted at critical.

I would like to ask the anonymous poster some questions:

  • have you ever built a company?
  • have you ever used your personal, private money to fund a start-up?
  • do you know the feeling of telling your family year after year that having no income is worth the sacrifice because improving maths education is such a worthwhile cause?
  • do you understand that, for a company to succeed, its provision has to be of such high quality that customers keep returning?

Seeking to cause unwarranted harm to a small company that is working hard to improve maths education (not supported by any government funds) seems entirely unprofessional.  Even more so when one considers that the Maths Hubs exist for the purpose of raising standards in maths education - which part of this mission would be supported by damaging the reach of reputation of a high quality CPD provider?

The Maths Hub LDN Thames author appears adamant that I am "anti-mastery".  How, then, does that person explain that over the last year alone we have trained over 2500 schools, including dozens of local, small group mastery sessions and our annual National Mathematics Education Symposium, which this year focussed on mastery and included talks in support of mastery from me, John Mason, Tony Gardiner and Jeremy Hodgen among others?

Surely the only conclusion The Man on the Clapham Omnibus can arrive at is that the person who wrote those Tweets was not in possession of the relevant facts and that the Tweets were ill-informed, subjective comments from the individual hidden behind the Maths Hub LDN Thames Twitter account.

The Tweets also repeatedly focus on the fee that we charge for our mastery course.  The Man on the Clapham Omnibus, I suggest, would read this as a criticism of the amount we charge.  Let me ask the anonymous poster these questions:

  • what do you know about our provision and what is included in the fee?  Do you, for example, know that the fee includes access to a multimillion pound teaching platform and free access to three national conferences per year?
  • how much do you think high quality CPD provision costs?

I believe the secret Tweeter knows very little about our provision and even less about the feedback we get from delegates about value for money.

On the issue of how much CPD provision costs, I wonder if the person behind the Maths Hub LDN Thames account perhaps believes that CPD should be free?  Would they think this because they, falsely, believe that the mastery CPD they provide is free?

As every maths CPD provider in the country knows, the Maths Hubs are major commercial competitors.  I have no issue with competition, it is what drives quality when the playing field is level.

There is a bizarre misconception that the Maths Hub provision is somehow free.  It isn't.  It is paid for by every tax payer in the country.  I would simply ask this: would the Hubs survive if, instead of giving money to 35 Hubs, the same money was instead given directly to schools so that they could decide where to spend it?  That would mean each school in the country receiving over £2000 to spend on its own maths CPD.  Where would they choose to spend it?  I believe my company would continue to have the honour of providing high quality CPD to large numbers of schools in such a scenario.  Would schools choose the Hubs?  Some would - I, for one, would happily pay for CPD from the GLOW hub, for example (and many others too!).  Would Maths Hub LDN Thames continue to provide CPD? How much would it charge if it had to pay, from delegate fees alone, for staff, venues, admin, PR, marketing, travel, follow up surveys, postage, premises and everything else that a normal provider has to carry without a state handout?

What was the purpose of repeating in each Tweet how much we charge for that particular course (which, by the way is only £95 for our member schools) - was the Hub Tweeter trying to suggest there is something wrong with schools deciding on their own CPD provider and paying a fee commensurate with the services they received?

As the Moron in a Hurry would assume that the Hubs are both an authoritative and official voice on maths education, he would also be duly swayed by their communications.

Hubs are passing off as a statutory authority.

Should a Hub use that perception to try to squash CPD providers it does not like?


Earlier, I mentioned that I have concerns around the Hubs programme (despite my admiration for some of the Hubs and individuals).  Now a couple of years in to the programme, I am deeply concerned by the fact that some Hubs are behaving in a way that will undermine the entire programme.

I think it is reasonable to suggest that this string of Tweets sought to undermine the work that I do and, even more worryingly, smacked of a lack of confidence in the Hubs own position.  A confident authority does not need to wield its power to try to stifle dissenting voices - it instead espouses its beliefs, assured of the quality and evidence behind those beliefs.  Yet here we are, with a Hub effectively trying to bully a maths CPD provider.  The Hub person has made assumptions about my beliefs and appears to have decided: this person does not agree with what I want them to think, so they need to be rubbished.

My entire working life is dedicated to improving maths education, has been for decades.  I support and promote Hubs where I can, I have supported and promoted the NCETM where I have been able to.  But it saddens me that there are some people working in these structures who do not understand how to operate professionally.  Over the last couple of years, I have met teachers in different parts of the country who have told me that a Maths Hub or NCETM representative has told them not to engage with our CPD provision.  How desperately sad and how desperately damaging to those Hubs that are doing a great job.

I have also heard, including in a Twitter discussion following these Tweets, from schools who have been chastised by Maths Hub staff for daring to disagree or criticise.  When a Maths Hub is ringing the head teacher of a respected maths teacher to discipline them for making comments they don't agree with then there is something wrong to the core of that programme.

The NCETM is dear to my heart.  I spent years of my life helping to build the Centre, but alas alas for some time now, the conclusion I have had to reach is that it is doing more harm than good.

Perhaps the DfE agree with this, given that the NCETM contract has been abolished after 10 years of successful operation.  What on earth went so badly wrong?

The NCETM has a coordinating role in the Maths Hub programme.  I asked the NCETM to provide me with its view on a Maths Hub trying to damage the reputation of a maths CPD provider, but no reply was forthcoming.

I asked the Maths Hub to apologise for the string of Tweets that it posted and was met with the anodyne response "I wanted to prompt debate not cause offence.  Sorry."

A mature and confident response, which I would have made if the boot was on the other foot, woudl be "The Tweets I posted were ill informed.  I retract what was written and offer the Maths Hub's apology for any negative impact to you or your business."  Heigh-ho.

Would The Man on the Clapham Omnibus view the Tweets as wanting to prompt debate?  I suggest not.


The decision to continue funding the Maths Hub programme for the next couple of years has already been taken, with £45 million assigned to continue the work of the Hubs and a new national centre.  That is where we are, no turning back, so what we all, in maths education, must do is to try to get the most positive system-wide impact from that taxpayer's money as we can.

If the Hubs are to be more successful, there needs to be a move away from the Ministry of Truth approach adopted by some.  The new national centre and the Hubs must not try to bully or force a narrow view of mathematics education onto teachers or CPD providers.  Mastery, as the central tenet of the centre and Hubs, must not be allowed to continue to descend to the level of a passing fad or superficial diktat.

There are schools, right now, engaged in practice that will harm children because that have been misled about mastery.  This needs to be undone.  The PR war needs to be won.

Mastery is not yours to own, national centre of Hubs.  It has been around for a very long time and will continue to be around long after the Hubs programme comes to an end.  Engage with the research and don't try to attempt to redefine it - doing so, will only lead to diluting its impact.

Recently, the NCETM have been rebranding mastery as Asian Mastery.

Jesus fucking wept.  Stop it.  Step back for a moment and try to see why you are now doing more harm than good.

This kind of Orwellian attempt to control language is absurd.  One can't just redefine a long standing, well researched model for schooling by giving it a new name and hoping that nobody notices it has been bastardised to the point of losing its efficacy.

I will continue to support - and provide free space and PR for - the Maths Hubs at MathsConfs (at my own cost, gosh aren't we nasty commercial beasts) because of the 35, the overwhelming majority are doing good, helping maths teachers and therefore get my respect.  But I also hope that all of the Hubs can engage in debate rather than bullying and intimidating tactics.  The work that they are doing is deeply flawed in places and could be so much better - why not have the open discussion and try to bring the profession with you?  Believe me, that would be so much more effective than being an unthinking mouthpiece for the Ministry of Truth (or whatever they call the new national centre).

Thursday, 22 September 2016


I have such a privileged life, I get to visit schools all around the world and see maths teaching at its very best. I am able to spend time both researching mathematics education and reading the best contemporary evidence as well as well established and proven approaches to pedagogy and subject knowledge.
For decades, I have dedicated all of my time to working to improve education. It is the very lifeblood of a mature civilization, it has the power to transform lives and bring meaning and joy to the world. Mathematics education sits at the top of my priority list – every day, I live and breathe it. My only professional goal in life is to make education better.
So, being able to visit schools and meet with teachers, being able to see experts in practice, being able to hear the stories of success and to witness the extremely nuanced behaviours and dispositions that lead to a mathematics concept being grasped by a child, is an honour.
Over recent months, as I have travelled around England visiting primary and secondary schools, I have repeatedly heard the same word being slapped onto various activities like a brand label. Mastery.
Those who know me, know that mastery is something very dear to me. My education heroes list features Washburne and Bloom. Mastery is an approach to teaching that Aristotle deployed to great impact. It encapsulates the very best practices in terms of formative assessment and it drives teacher CPD by continually raising questions about how to communicate an idea, what impact that approach has had and how to make changes to one’s own pedagogy to improve that communication. Mastery is as old as good teaching. Washburne took great steps a century ago to formalise a model, which heavily influenced Bloom and was the driving force behind much of his life’s work. Guskey, in particular, but also Kulik and others, have tested the approach across long periods of time in a wide range of settings and culturally differing jurisdictions. Mastery, as a model for schooling, can be summed up simply: it is great teaching.
I have just been reading some research papers I wrote on mastery some years back and a piece of feedback I received at the time, which slated mastery. Interestingly, that same person, as so many others have, has jumped on a bandwagon boldly branded Mastery and is a part of a machinery propagating an obtuse and deficient approach to teaching mathematics under the banner of Mastery. This saddens me greatly.
Mastery, at its very best, is transformative for both teacher and student. I am certain, long after the fashion for the word has passed and those on the bandwagon are singing the praises of whatever is en vougue at the time, I will still be beating the mastery drum. It drives me to distraction that the word has been hijacked and misinterpreted.
As I have visited each new school of late, I have – almost without exception – been faced by the most regressive and damaging practice falsely labeled mastery.
I will speak more at MathsConf8 about mastery and why I have been such a long term supporter and will write a blog afterwards highlighting what the model really is about and why it is impactful. For now, though, here are some #MasteryFails that I have come across just in recent weeks, all told to me by subject leaders with sincerity and solemnity.

“the first term in year 7 is place value, nothing else”

Why on earth would you do this? Not only is this bonkers in terms of learning about place value, because of the loss of interconnectedness with other mathematical concepts and ideas, it is also a sure fire way to turn kids off maths. Is that really the kind of experience we want year 7 children to have of mathematics?  A term of place value? Jeez.  Don't go complaining when they yell 'maths is boring and shit!'
Place value is one of the non-negotiable fundamentals of learning mathematics and it is incredibly important that kids grip how to work with place value, but this is not the way to do it.

“we now do mastery from year 7”

No, no, no. Mastery, at its heart is about the full journey through learning a discipline. It is not possible to simply switch it on halfway through learning. Also, what is this nonsense of ‘we do mastery’? Mastery is not something one does.

“we do mastery on Tuesdays”

Fuck me.

“we have written a new mastery scheme of work from year 1 to year 6”

No. You are missing the point. In a mastery model, time is the key variable – the length of time that a teacher spends on a concept or topic varies because they are ensuring that all students attain a level of knowledge, understanding and skill. It is not possible to write down a mastery curriculum mapped out by year group because there is no "year group". There are cohorts of children (classes, usually) on a journey. The timing is fluid and the teacher’s skill is in continually working out what has been gripped and what needs to be corrected.

“we don’t do differentiation now, we do mastery instead”

This one breaks my heart. Somehow the message has reached schools that differentiation is bad. Particularly, that the brightest kids should not be accelerated. This is showing itself in some schools as really bright kids being asked to work on mundane crap for months because the whole class hasn’t yet caught up. This is not what mastery is about at all. If anything, in a mastery model, the very brightest kids have the most stretching experience. Every single concept in mathematics is infinitely extensible. In a mastery model, the brightest kids go way beyond the demands of the national curriculum and work on incredibly deep maths. Also, because human beings grip things in different ways, one of the great things about a mastery approach is that everyone has a turn at being the one who grips something early and therefore gets to work on the deep material.

“we have mastery indicator questions, which show when a child has mastered a concept”

Jesus wept. There is no such thing. There is no question that shows a child has mastered a concept. Nobody at all ever masters anything (how dull would life be if we did!). There is always more depth, always more to learn, always new connections or ways of looking at a concept. An army of ill informed consultants and advisors are reducing mastery to a bloody checklist, just like they did with AFL.

“mastery means staying on a topic for much longer”

No it doesn’t. Mastery approaches treat time as a variable. Stay on the topic for the right amount of time, not just longer for the sake of it.

“we never revisit topics – spiral curriculum is bad – the kids master each topic so don’t need to do it again”

Reading these words again, I ask myself, can any professional teacher actually be this stupid? But again and again I come up against this pronouncement.
Learning is not linear. Mathematics is a complex web of interconnected ideas and knowledge. The notion that one should never revisit areas of mathematics beggars belief. It is incredibly important that students have opportunities to revisit learning and build new understanding in the new framework they have as they learn more and more. This is not just about memory (spaced practice is good for this, by the way!), but also about the need to expose mathematics carefully over time as concepts and ideas come together to form a wider picture.

“we downloaded a mastery scheme for this year group”

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. There is no mastery scheme for this year group. Because there is no this year group. Schemes should be bespoke to each and every class. No year 7 class is the same as the next.

“we do AFL questions now and record mastery in an excel sheet”

Desperate to find a way of evidencing, schools have once again turned to reducing teaching mathematics to a series of checklists. Heartbreaking.

“mastery is a new thing that Ofsted is looking for”

No it isn’t. Mastery is ancient, steeped in extensive research and evidence.
This is quite possibly the most damaging lie: that mastery is new. The NCETM and others have perpetuated this lie. Schools hear this as a new initiative and try to implement what they think it means. This is what has led to all of this confusion and will lead to practice that ultimately lowers standards and turns students off maths.
If you have heard more #MasteryFail statements in your school or schools you know, I’d love to hear about it. Please add in the comments section below.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

On Selection, Grammar Schools and Mastery

Yesterday evening, like every other Conservative Party Member, I received an email from Theresa May, outlining her plans to create a meritocratic Britain. A Britain that forces more universities and public schools to use their wealth and influence to aid improvements in State schools, a Britain that aims to give “our most academically gifted children the specialist and tailored support that can enable them to fulfil their potential”. I like the sound of that.
But also, a Britain that encourages the use of taxpayer money to increase the link between State and Church by encouraging the expansion of faith schools, “especially new Catholic schools”. A Britain that, yet again refuses to allow a school structure to have any time to settle by introducing the potential redesign of the entire landscape.
I should say, I have no particular beef with Grammar Schools. I have read all the same research and evidence as everybody else, I know that a system of Grammar Schools and Secondary Modern Schools does not advance social mobility and isn’t really effective in improving standards anyway. But I am not as livid as many of my peers in the education world who have been nearing nervous breakdowns in the last day or so.
This is because I know that the argument has nothing whatsoever to do with the evidence and, in the mind of voters, has pretty much nothing to do with the education workforce. The majority of people are not teachers, do not read education research. They are just people whom, once upon a time, went to school. Those who have children do not look at their own little darlings objectively. The Grammar School debate for the average parent is really one about how they remember school and what they believe about their own children.
Successive governments have overseen a dark time in schooling for some decades now. Behaviour has worsened and teachers have become browbeaten.
And we have now moved to the point where children who attended these schools are now the young parents who are thinking about where to send their own children. Those parents who attended schools in the 90s and 2000s will often remember a schooling that was about the needs of the one, rather than the many. They will remember sitting in classrooms where hours and hours of time each week was wasted, stolen away from them even, because teachers were ‘dealing’ with a tiny number of individual kids whose behavior became more and more extreme as we moved through the 2000s. Perhaps they now look at their infants and, rightly, think to themselves, ‘why should me child have to put up with that?’
A great trick that parenting plays on you is that it is almost impossible to think your child isn’t special, isn’t wonderful. Of course they could pass an 11 plus, one thinks when looking into their toddler eyes. They could attend the ‘good’ school, away from distraction. They could have an education that is about knowledge and challenge, rather than one designed around naughty children who don’t want to learn.
Of course, everyone denies this kind of thinking. It just isn’t right on, is it?
But who has ever said of their infant, ‘well, they’ll probably be quite thick and end up in a dump of a school.’ No one. Ever.
The debate around Grammar Schools is an emotional, not evidenced based, debate.
Parents who attended schools, which they recall as being low in aspiration and challenge or full of disruption and pandering to the children who were out of control because nobody would do anything about behavior, don’t care about what facts and figures say. These parents feel state schooling let them down.
And perhaps it did.
But, over the last 5 years in particular, a change has been happening.
The Prime Minister signs off the email with the line “And over the coming months and years, that is the better Britain that we are determined to build: Britain, the Great Meritocracy.”
Interestingly, I believe that there is a danger that the result will instead be a slowing down of what had been an emerging movement of educators driving a new approach to meritocracy in England’s schools, which I wrote about in the blog The Rising Meritocracy back in 2014.
This new movement of educators is a violent reaction to their voice being denied for years and years. Changes at the DfE and Ofsted in the last 5 years and the increasing influence of a movement of teachers who believe in high aspirations and expectations, have just started to show promise.
Nick Gibb, the schools minister, has been relentlessly driving the promotion of a mastery approach for mathematics.
As someone who has been writing about and promoting mastery approaches for the past couple of decades, I find much of this rhetoric from the DfE most welcome.
Mastery, which at its heart is just very good use of formative assessment, is a long established model for schooling, starting with Wasburne in 1921 and really popularized by Bloom in the 1970s. Much of the approach is present in high performing jurisdictions, such as the Pacific Rim countries.
The key characteristic of a school system where a mastery approach is truly embedded and successful is that cohorts of children will be working on the same mathematical concepts as each other. Not at the same level, of course. Every mathematical concept is infinitely broad, so there is no holding back truly bright children who will spend a great deal of their time studying a concept to a much greater depth than the school curriculum requires. I’ve had kids working on the 3D Bernoulli Equation in the past!
Concepts are arranged hierarchically such that whatever is being studied has a firm foundation of prior knowledge and skills already in place.
In a mastery approach, the length of time spent on any given concept becomes completely fluid (which is fine, because they are all infinitely broad), because the cohort does not move on to the next concept until all students have become secure in the concept at hand.
In other words, a mastery approach does not require any segregation of children based on ability, because all children are gripping the concepts. All children.
Introducing a mastery approach takes a long time, because it necessarily requires starting from day one. You can’t introduce a true mastery approach from, say, Year 7.
It is therefore really difficult to square the introduction of selection based on ability and the true belief in a mastery approach. Either mastery works or it doesn’t. If it does, selection on ability is simply not required.
I said at the beginning I have no real beef with Grammar Schools. I should come clean and tell you, during the 90s and 2000s, I would have voted for their return. This is because there had been an increasing trend in education to fail truly bright children. There had been a long race-to-the-middle, instead of recognising academic excellence.
I know there were attempts, and the Strategies gave a nod to Gifted and Talented (whatever the Hell that’s supported to mean), but in all honesty, really bright kids did not receive the education they were capable of.
If creating ‘special schools’ for these bright kids was the only way to provide them with that education, then yes, I would have voted to see the widespread return of Grammar Schools.
But there are green shoots of support for a schooling system that values knowledge and celebrates excellence. There are comprehensive schools up and down the country demonstrating time and again that a rigorous, academic schooling can be delivered to all. There are nowhere near enough of those schools yet and the ‘oh, not those kids’ attitude of those who believe that being poor means being consigned to a school diet of namby-pamby subjects and low expectations is still strong. But I have certainly felt a change, witnessed as I travel around the country visiting schools and meeting teachers at our events. Among this group, and the likes of Michael Wilshaw, there is a true desire to make all schools academically brilliant. It’s really hard to do, but very good head teachers are proving it can be done no matter what the circumstances.
Perhaps the belief at No 10 is that these successes are not scalable. Perhaps they are right. But what if they are wrong?
What if we are at the beginning of an actual improvement to all schools, just 5 years into the journey, and we pull it all apart by changing the entire landscape yet again?
My belief (I could be wrong of course, but all education reform is a gamble), is that the direction of travel was just starting to be the right one.
If we want all schools to be great, if we truly believe in a mastery approach to schooling where all children learn everything and the exceptionally bright go way beyond school level, then how can the argument be won?
Firstly, it is worth considering that there actually is no argument even taking place. The Grammar Schools announcement has no mandate by manifesto and is almost certainly not going to make it through both Houses (even if the Commons let is pass, which is already not a given, then the Lords will almost certainly reject it). So, from one perspective, the announcement may not be about education at all. There would certainly be a sense in creating a hullabaloo that led to a call for an early general election (to establish whether the mandate exists or not). As a Tory Party Member, I would be delighted for this to happen because the party majority would increase enormously at any election called now whilst the Labour Party is out to lunch.
Being less cynical, suppose this truly is about education and MPs head off to their constituencies to take the temperature of support for the proposal. Well, support for Grammar Schools polls pretty well, though not as overwhelmingly as some would like to believe. But most MPs would come to the vote torn and slightly incentivized to vote in favour of the Bill.
What might change this support in the electorate? As I have already said, it won’t be educational evidence (no one outside of education cares) and it won’t be facts and figures about how likely their child is to get in (everyone thinks their child is good enough), it will instead be emotions and memories.
Personally, the big change I would need to see happen before calling for no new grammar schools would be a serious and rigorous policy of supporting, challenging and advancing truly bight students in comprehensive schools. This is red line for me. We must stop failing exceptional kids.
Some will argue that this flies in the face of a mastery approach. This is, of course bunkum, for the reasons outlined earlier. But I understand why people are starting to think this. The messaging around mastery has been an absolute disaster. NCETM have singularly failed to communicate an accurate and consistent message – they have simply been ineffective at winning the PR war – and schools across the country are implementing the most watered down, disastrous nonsense believing that mastery means no differentiation or that the whole of a term should be spent on, say, Place Value because a scheme says so rather than looking continually at assessment data and using it formatively. Many so-called mastery approaches that I witness in schools mean that really bright kids are stuck working through mundane material on a concept because the teacher does not know how to extend it infinitely (or, at the very least, to the level the child deserves to be working on). Mastery, in some schools has become a race-to-the-bottom. So sad.
I believe that Nick Gibb is sincere in his desire to have schools working in a true mastery approach, but the mechanics deployed to date have not only failed to achieve this but, in many cases, are causing more harm than good.
This is my red line, but parents have many differing histories and incentives. The argument needs to be won that comprehensive schools do not have to be places of low aspiration or bad behaviour or the myriad biases that the 90s and 2000s have imbued in this generation of young parents.
If we can have a comprehensive system where all are challenged, where poor behavior is stamped out, where really bright kids get to excel in academic subjects much in the way a young Olympian does in sport, then we can avoid another fracturing of the education system and truly have educational excellence everywhere. Fingers crossed.