Eight Signs of Snake Oil

“ . . . it is a massy wheel,
Fix’d on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortised and adjoin’d . . .” –

There are literally thousands of enterprises and organisations which service and support the education sector, and without them the sector would struggle to function. Their support ranges from supplying food for school dinners, stationery, printing, office supplies, to cleaning and security services.  Some provide a better service than others.

Then there are the publishers of textbooks and resources, constantly evolving their publishing lists to follow the changes in curriculum. Again, some publishers do this better than others.

Then there are those providing professional services, in the form of advice, training and intervention programmes. (To be clear, I work in this field myself.) While it is tempting to write off all such endeavours as rip-offs, the truth is, some make a valuable contribution. Unfortunately, there are also the snake oil sellers, those whose main focus is on maximising profit rather than delivering a quality service.

To navigate successfully the complex ecosystem that services schools, it is important to be able to recognise the danger signs of predatory, rather than productive, partners. Here are eight things I have noticed these providers do to sell into schools.

  1. Present their product or service as ensuring a quick win

School managers are often persuaded by this strategy, particularly if they are short of evidence that they have met their KPIs, or are being monitored by Ofsted. The problem with ‘quick wins’ is the threat of homeostasis – the tendency of a system to return to its former state. Real changes tend to come incrementally from long-term initiatives.

  1. Describe short term, temporary gains as if they are substantial

Nothing hurts students more than low expectations and, unfortunately, many schools have them. For example, we frequently hear gains of two years in reading touted as ‘substantial’. They’re not. For a student who is five years behind, a two-year gain is woefully insufficient.

  1. Make the programme sound cheap to deliver, and disguise hidden costs

For example, it may only cost £9 per student for a licence – but if you then have to restock your library, and the librarian has to spend August putting colour-coded stickers on every one of the new books, who pays for that? Clue: not your new ‘provider’.

4. Present a superficial programme as the solution to a deep problem.

For example, a reading ‘promotion’ scheme might be presented as a reading intervention, but if it doesn’t actually include a teaching component, it can’t help the weakest readers – which is, surely, the point of a reading intervention.

5. Manipulate impact data through selection

Inferior programmes often use a simplistic selection system which allows students who don’t need the intervention to be included in the group. These students’ apparent ‘progress’ can then inflate the averaged outcomes. Quality interventions will use more than one pre-test to check that the students really do need the intervention.

6. Manipulate data to disguise who didn’t benefit

One way to do this is to cite only averages. For example, the students who make the biggest gains could be students who weren’t as far behind and didn’t need the intervention in the first place.  Always look for the breakdown that shows the progress of the lowest-achieving students.

7. Avoid any mention of follow-up gains

There is no point to an intervention if students go backwards later. Always check what the follow-up procedures are, and whether there is a system in place to help students if they do slip back.

8. Cite ‘research’ vaguely

What is meant by ‘research’ can range from scientific experiments to ruminations in the bathtub. Today, everyone claims that what they do is ‘research-based’. Always check the extent of a) the research conducted on the impact of the programme, and b) how well this matches the peer-reviewed body of research evidence in the field.

All this implies, of course, that as teachers, we have to be proficient evaluators of research ourselves. Caveat emptor!

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The Borderlands

Truly to speak, and with no addition,

We go to gain a little patch of ground

That hath no profit in it but the name.– Hamlet

The high moorland was dark with heathery bogs and the flat green farmland ran away to low hills right and left. Neat hedgerows and stone walls followed the rise of the land, and on the distant ridges farmhouses stood out sharp and squat against the greying sky. Dusk was approaching when I reached the headland. Water ran before me to the milky horizon, merging into a grey-blue sky that stooped down and likewise vanished into the water. North, across the bay, another headland lay flanked by high cliffs of grey stone; to my right, the land fell away and rose again repeatedly, bay after bay, the island’s coastline sinking ever southward.

The wind had dropped as I walked and now, in the stillness, I heard the tragicomic, burbling song of the seals, who were indistinguishable from the boulders on the rocky shore below until I picked them out with my binoculars. Dark like the rocks, pale like the sand, they lay packed into a tiny stretch of sheltered shoreline. I watched as one, bobbing through the waves, tried to come ashore and struggled to gain a place with others already comfortably berthed. Further out, dark heads appeared in the soft swells, vanished, and reappeared, winking in and out of existence like seaborne wraiths.

It felt ancient, and still, and my bones felt the good of it, for the day had been hard and dull and I had been busy in my head for a long time. The noise of the road had gone, and now all I could hear was the song of the seals, the occasional mewing of the gulls, and once, the sharp, warning croak of a crow.

This could be anywhere, I thought. This sky softening to dusky grey, this pale sea rising to the horizon. I have walked bluffs on the Pacific coast of New Zealand this bare, this blunt, holding forth just as stern against the sea. I have crossed the high moorlands of the desert plain, watched the bracken run away on rising ground that unfurled into volcanic peaks. I have watched breakers roll in from the Tasman Sea onto barren shores where seals turned lazily on the rocks, and driven winding roads into empty country where the passing of men is a memory, where our illusions of power and ownership falter against the immensity and the eternity.

I’m reminded of Seamus Heaney, writing in Tollund Man: “Out here . . . in the old man-killing parishes, I shall feel lost, unhappy and at home.” So, too, here I am happy and unhappy, lost and at home, alone, yet comforted. And then my mind turns to the borderlands, the man-killing parishes of Heaney’s dark dreams, and the things that lie in wait when the storm breaks once more, when Britain is no longer European, when Britain is irked by its upstart neighbour daring to choose another way, when the border becomes a revenge for this imagined wrong. A nightmare, rising.

The land is no one’s, really. It endures us. It outlives us. We depend on it, but it does not depend on us. Though we may claim it for our own, though we put up signs and warnings and border posts, though we draw lines on maps and write declarations, the land lies silent, as it is now, slipping into dusk, waiting for dawn, while we – we slide into another darkness.

Below, the seals slumbered on, untroubled and somnolent in the spring evening. The waves lapped silently on the rocks, the gulls turned for home in the gathering dusk, and the wind began to rise.

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Over The Abyss

“ . . . But so much was our love,
We would not understand what was most fit;
But, like the owner of a foul disease,
To keep it from divulging, let it feed
Even on the pith of Life.”

Tonight we are celebrating quietly. There is a puppy trying to nibble surreptitiously at my feet, the lights are low, there is jazz music playing from the kitchen and we are talking softly. Not a unique scenario perhaps, but precious for what C.S. Lewis called “the delights of domesticity.” But it is special to me for a different reason. By rights, I shouldn’t be here at all – certainly not in good health. Less than a year ago, I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer.

I’d been called in to discuss the results of some blood tests – never a good sign, but I was optimistic. I felt well and I’d overcome plenty of obstacles since I left the classroom to focus on addressing the silent epidemic that is reading failure at secondary school. Surely now, after all this struggle, it was time for a break in the clouds?

Apparently not.

For some reason, instead of the GP who had ordered my tests, I was seeing the senior partner in the practice. He peered at me over his spectacles. “Your results are very good on all tests,” he began, and then: “All except one.”

I waited for the bad news. “Your PSA score is very high. PSA is short for Prostate Specific Antigen. It spikes when there is a problem with the prostate. There is almost certainly something very sinister going on and I’m referring you for urgent diagnosis and treatment for cancer.”

Well, he’d certainly not beaten about the bush. There was probably room to work on his empathy skills, but at least I knew what the issue was. But I like to know the data, so I asked: “When you say very high, what’s the number?”


“And . . . what should it be?”

“Less than 4.”


I left the surgery feeling angry. Angry with myself for not having been checked sooner, angry with the health system (for no good reason) and angry with cancer that thought it could just invade my life and put our future, our family, and everything we’d worked for at risk. Explaining to your family that you have a high probability of advanced prostate cancer is not easy. You feel that you have let them down. You feel that you are making them sad, and worried, and that you can’t do much about it. You feel, in some indefinable way, that you have failed.

Cue tests and more tests, some of them unspeakable. But you grit your teeth and go through it, knowing if you’d been willing to submit to something milder a lot sooner, you probably wouldn’t be here. And then came the really low point.

We were shown in to the consultant’s room. Unfortunately he wasn’t the breezy, casual chap we’d met the first time prior to having tests and a biopsy. This man was stiff, cold and impersonal. It is not an exaggeration that there was a glitter in his eyes as he spoke.  “The cancer has advanced. There are two sites in the ribs, and two lymph nodes are enlarged. This means that the disease is not amenable to curative treatment. I have recommended that you are given a course of chemotherapy and have referred you to the Oncology Department.”

We were left with a nurse who urged us not to delay treatment. She said that I should put on some weight, get as fit as possible, prepare for four months or more of chemotherapy, and accept that cancer was going to change our lives forever. My time was now limited to a few years at best.

Fortunately, she was wrong.

When we met the oncologist, we had assembled a list of questions. In the course of the previous several weeks of investigations, we had been given different and at times contradictory information, and we could not contemplate major decisions about treatment without clarity. The remarkable thing about our oncologist was that in addition to being very well-informed about the latest research in her field, she listened to us. She let us put all our questions, and then responded carefully. She despatched some of our slender hopes gently but firmly, but then offered an unexpected ray of hope.

“The fact is,” she said, “The scan that you had has recently been shown in a study to be only 50% accurate. I can refer you to a hospital in London, where they can conduct a scan with a much higher reliability. Then you’ll know exactly where you stand and what your options are.” Naturally we accepted, but came away sombre in the knowledge that I might have been left to have palliative treatment, with curative treatment withheld, on the basis of an assessment with only 50% reliability. How many other people are driven down that road because they trust their doctors instead of questioning everything?

I have particular reason to question everything. Ten years previously I had had a brain tumour removed. I’d spent eighteen months asking for help and being told by GPs that my headaches were caused by stress, that I needed a good holiday, that I should drink a cleansing tea to help manage the nausea I felt, and finally that there was nothing wrong with me neurologically, but that I would benefit from a course of psychotherapy. When I finally did get an MRI scan, they wouldn’t let me leave hospital. There was a cyst the size of squash ball pressing on my brain stem and they feared I might collapse at any moment. (In fact, I almost did collapse on a street in Paris, when I was out on my own, but somehow got back to the apartment, literally one step at a time, where I was safer. So much for taking a holiday.)

That experience ended successfully, if somewhat traumatically, with surgery – except that I went back to work too soon. Note for any readers having neurosurgery: if someone cuts open your skull, lifts out part of your brain, and then puts it back and staples your head together again, don’t rush back to work. It will slow down, and possibly permanently limit, your recovery.

So now we question everything and everyone, and the end result of this is that we are sitting again in the oncologist’s office and she is giving us the results. “There is no cancer outside the organ,” she explains. “The enlarged lymph nodes have shrunk. There is only one possible site on the ribs, but it is so tiny that chemotherapy would not be of any benefit. I am therefore recommending you for a curative course of radiotherapy.”

I recalled how, a few months before, I had been horrified at the thought of having to take time off to have radiotherapy. Having recently faced the chemotherapy alternative, however, radiotherapy seemed like a very pleasant option indeed.

And so now, a few months later, I sit at home quietly celebrating the end of my course of treatment. It has not been easy – in particular, I had not anticipated the levels of fatigue and their effect on my mental functions. I’ve been a bit of a zombie for the last few weeks. But here I am, irradiated and at peace, and knowing that there but for the grace of God . . .

You may be wondering why I would share all this. I’m sharing it because I know that many of the people who read this blog are teachers, and teachers are particularly prone to put themselves last. It’s something to do with personality and motivation, and something to do with the culture we foster in schools. But, teachers – especially male teachers: do not delay in getting yourself checked for whatever need arises. I know that men can often feel that it is somehow shameful to admit that we might have a problem. We sometimes get laughed at when we do. “Man flu!” someone will scoff, while your head throbs and your stomach churns, but you have to hold it together because – why? So they won’t think you’re weak? Because that’s what men do?

The truth is, managing your health is vital to fulfilling your other responsibilities. Ignore the tactless colleague, and face down the unsympathetic, possibly sociopathic manager who grumbles about you having time off to deal with health issues promptly. They aren’t the people who care about you, nor are they those who depend on you. Teaching, with its amazing highs and lows, its adrenalin surges and desperate moments that can so quickly resolve into relief or even joy, has a way of distorting our priorities. To manage our health, and to flourish, we need to keep a little distance. Look after yourself. There are people who need you. Beyond your career, there is a life to be lived. Don’t let the love of your work trick you into becoming the victim of some ‘foul disease’.

Note for male readers:

It turns out that the only sign of prostate cancer you are going to get is a reduction in urinary flow. That’s the only external sign that something is wrong. If this happens, don’t assume, as I did, that it is simply a function of getting older. I was wrong! Prostate cancer also tends to be more aggressive in younger men, so forget all that stuff about it only affecting men over 55. It can affect you at a younger age and it is more dangerous when it does, so get checked at the first sign that something is wrong.

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A Door Into The Dark

There is something more in this than natural, if philosophy could find it out. – Hamlet

I have of late been haunted by an image from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In a post-apocalyptic world, starving bands of survivors roam a dark, barren landscape. There are no resources left, and so the survivors hunt and attack each other in their desperation. Most humans have lost their conscience, which is to say, they have descended into cannibalism.

On a moral and intellectual level, it seems to me that this is already the world we live in. The cataclysm has happened – the death of truth, the eruption of postmodernism – and with it has come the tribalism of social media, and the mob mentality that surges like a pack of scavengers, squabbling in the darkness to pick over the bones of the weak and those who have stumbled.

Like the hunters in The Road, we tend to define ourselves by what we are attacking, rather than what we are for. So, we are anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-EU, anti-Trump . . . . the list is endless. No one any longer asks what we are for. As long as we state loudly what we are against, we are providing the credentials needed for acceptance into the group.

The aim of discourse is no longer dialogue, but dominance. The quest for dominance is presented as ‘resistance’ against the ‘oppressor’, whomever we determine that to be. The post-modern meta-narrative is that ‘truths’ are the products of power, with the narratives of those considered more powerful requiring stronger resistance. In turn, this meta-narrative has given birth to Yeats’ slouching ‘rough beast’, for every group now claims to be oppressed, every group now claims to resist, and every group defines itself by its stand against its perceived enemies. Social discourse is imploding into smaller and smaller chambers that echo ever more loudly. And so, to follow Yeats, ‘things fall apart’.

It’s my belief that this polarisation is in the interests of only a small minority, and they are not the oppressed. What we are seeing is a strenuous campaign of divide and rule deliberately fomented by those who perceive that they can gain political, economic and even military advantage from it. From the White House to the Kremlin, from Robert Mercer to Nigel Farage, governments and demagogues are playing a dangerous game of incitement and division. While social media can, at least initially, bring people together, it is now being used to drive them apart. Sadly, it seems that there is little ‘resistance’ to this trend.

If a post is written that people feel is implicitly (or explicitly) offensive, ‘love wins’ is not the response; rather, it is a verbal flamethrower. The thrill of righteous anger spills into a rush of indignation, and the person who gave offence is now deserving of whatever insults they incur. Not only that, but others considered to be ‘associated’ with them will also be targets. They are required to denounce or be considered guilty. It’s all very familiar to anyone who has studied McCarthyism – or indeed countless other ‘purges’ throughout history.

People like Donald Trump and Steven Bannon relish this kind of division. The anger of the left, Bannon has claimed, is playing into the hands of the right – or more precisely, those who are manipulating the anger of the right for their own purposes. It can even be argued that the rise of the right has only become possible because of the left’s obsession with fractured oppression narratives, whilst simultaneously making no actual difference to the lives of those whom they claim to champion. This is a common explanation for the Brexit vote: people in the regions feeling ignored and abandoned by political ‘elites’ – a frustration that was fanned to anger by carefully chosen language, deliberately designed to distract, incite and divide. President Trump’s tweets perform the same function – to generate anger, stir up a backlash and forestall reasoned debate. For such leaders, informed debate is anathema; it is a direct threat to their power base.

When terrorists strike, as they did this year at Manchester Arena, London Bridge, Finsbury Park and far too many other places, it was inspiring to see the consistent responses of both political leaders and the general public: ‘you will not divide us’; ‘we will not give in to hate’; ‘love wins’. Unfortunately we rarely see such attitudes on social media. Rather, the masses are amazingly compliant with digital narratives of oppression and resistance. Surges of indignation wash around the globe at amazing speed, to be overtaken by others of even greater intensity.

Real resistance is not to insult some imagined enemy, or to reject those who do not use the same language. It is to oppose the incitement to division that is being pumped into our worlds every day by bots, extremist websites, fake news, political game-players, and our own over-reactions. It is to adhere to that very same message we use in response to terrorism: we will not be divided, we will not be incited to hatred. Love wins.

But to resist in this way requires us to find an identity that is defined, not by what we are against, but what we are for. What do we really hope for? What is the best way to achieve it? If we choose to pursue such a path, we might find that we have many more ideals in common than we currently think.

Then again, we might also find a yawning emptiness, a door into the darkness of our souls.



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What Dreams May Come

If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now . . . – Hamlet

He gazed past the gleaming stainless steel, through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows to the vibrant, pulsating city far below. Tiny cars crawled amidst flashing signs and strange buildings shaped like gherkins, ships and pyramids. It looked like an exciting time to be alive, and by a miracle, he was here to see it.

The door opened and a slender, balding man with glasses and an oddly intimidating deference glided in. He extended a hand briefly, smiled even more briefly, and sat down to peruse the file on the glass desk without speaking. After a few minutes he looked up.

“Mr Simmons. Welcome to London 2017. I am your liason officer, Dr Lenning. How are you settling in?”

“Well, I only arrived this morning, so I hardly know. I mean, it’s all very exciting, and I simply can’t wait to –”

“Good, good,” said Lenning. He set the file aside. “Just a few formalities and you’ll be on your way with our Teach Second programme. As I’m sure you are aware, we are a true revolution in recruitment. We go back in time, find teachers who have already been trained, transport them forward thirty years and there you have it – recruitment problems solved! No messing about with training programmes, qualifications and so on. Just teaching.”

“Yes, they said that thirty years would be an exciting difference but not too much to cope with.”

“That’s right. We think it’s the perfect balance between familiarity and novelty. You’ll have some surprises of course, but most of those will be quite agreeable, I’m sure. You won’t believe how much more you’re being paid compared to what you’re used to.”

“I was impressed when they said that the education budget had been protected in real terms.”

Lenning’s brief smile came and went. “In a manner of speaking,” he said smoothly. “Now, you have the signed contract?” Simmons handed it over. “Any questions about that?”

“Well, only the bit about the option of returning to 1987 after the probation period. How . . . how will that work?”

“Ah, you mean, because of the time paradox? Does the transfer distort the fabric of the space-time continuum? It’s a question that often comes up.” He pronounced “often” with a drawl that betrayed – or perhaps affected – an upper-class background. “No, it turns out that there is no paradox. All we have to do is move people forwards and backwards at the same time to balance out the equation, and it all works splendidly. It’s all to do with quantum physics, apparently.”

“So I can go back whenever I want?”

“You can certainly go backwards whenever you want, Mr Simmons. I can’t say fairer than that, can I?”

Simmons felt that this response did not hold the reassurance he had hoped for, but before he could respond, the induction had apparently begun.

“So, you’ll notice a few changes from 1987, but not nearly as many as you might have expected. Your current teaching skills will still be of great value. For instance, we have abandoned the experiment with comprehensives and are reverting to grammars and secondary moderns. We have nearly restored funding to 1980s levels, so you won’t see any of the profligacy of recent governments’ romantic investments in social mobility and that sort of thing. No one can afford IT any more so you’ll be teaching from the front with a board and a marker pen. Behaviour is still patchy – and in some cases, disastrous.” This last point was uttered with a kind of shudder that Simmons took to represent laughter, though when Lenning’s head was thrown back and wobbled on his shoulders the impression was quite alarming. The odd laugh stopped as suddenly as it had begun.

“So you see, you’ll feel right at home. Lots of schools are understaffed, too – which, obviously, is where you and your Teach Second colleagues come in. You’re a very valuable resource, and I must say a welcome breath of fresh air in the profession. Here is your placement, and you can start as soon as tomorrow.”

Simmons shifted uneasily as he took his commission. “There is just one other thing,” he said. Lenning raised an eyebrow. “I understand that before Teach Second, there was a Teach First.”

“Yes, well done,” said Lenning. “Excellent independent research, that’s what we like to see.”

Simmons couldn’t tell if this was sarcasm, but he pressed on. “What happened to Teach First then?”

Lenning had been about to stand up, but he sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. He regarded Simmons closely over the rim of his glasses. “When Comrade Corbyn and the Committee negotiated the power-sharing agreement with the minority government, following its repeated failures to gain legitimacy, one of their conditions was that Teach First should be recognised as a deep-state, capitalist-Zionist conspiracy dedicated to free-market asset-stripping of the nation’s educational apparatus. So – personae non gratae.”

Simmons shifted in his seat again. “So, er, so what happened to them?”

Lenning appeared to be considering how much to say. Finally he leaned forward. “You will recall I explained that, in order to bring people forwards, we have to send others backwards.”

“So they’ve been sent back to 1987?”

Lenning gave another strange laugh and his head jerked about so much this time that Simmons actually thought it might detach. But he recovered himself as suddenly as before and leaned forward again.

“No, no, Mr Simmons. That simply wouldn’t do, would it? Far too confusing having all those idealistic, wide-eyed acolytes running about decades before their time. No, once you’ve discovered a tyrannosaur in your midst, there’s only one place to send it. And that’s much further back than 1987. Much, much further back,” he repeated softly, as if remembering a pleasant dream.

He rose. “Take care, Mr Simmons, and the best of luck. One eye on the future, eh?”

And he extended his hand once more.

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More Light?

OPHELIA: The king rises!

HAMLET: What? Frighted with false fire?

CLAUDIUS: Give me some light! Away!

– Hamlet

 In Act Three of Hamlet, the troubled prince hatches a plan to prove the king’s guilt. He stages a play re-enacting the circumstances of the murder he believes his uncle to have committed. The king’s reaction goes well beyond Hamlet’s expectations. Abruptly, Claudius gets up and rushes out of the makeshift theatre. “Light!” he cries. “Give me some light!”

The irony is impossible to miss. Crying for light, the guilty king runs for the embrace of the darkness that, until now, has sheltered him.

The same is true of life. Often, cries for ‘more light’ are accompanied by a flight into darkness.

One application of this idea is: how we engage in a discussion shows at least as much about us as the ideas we claim to endorse.

The recent attacks on Greg Ashman are an example. Having challenged (with evidence) the perpetuation of learning styles in Australian ITT, Ashman was alleged to have been denigrating women, promoting himself, making baseless allegations, and of being an incompetent researcher with incompetent supervisors. Quite a reaction, and that is just a selection.

The attacks against Ashman were off-topic, personal, focused on his integrity and competence, and betraying an indignation far out of proportion to the issue he had raised. Surely, if his questions were so trivial, it would have been a matter of posting a concise dismissal and moving on?

Likewise, when Tom Bennett questioned the tendency of ITT provision to over-emphasise certain theorists instead of equipping people to evaluate evidence (citing Mark Seidenberg’s book, Reading at the Speed of Sight) he was accused of attempting to tarnish all ITT providers, failing to cite evidence, and then of posturing and self-promotion. The echoes of the attacks on Greg Ashman were apparent, and just as empty. Calls for light accompanied by behaviour consistent with darkness do not provide illumination.

Returning to our play: it is the king’s reaction itself that establishes his guilt. Hamlet never again has to doubt his course of action; the king’s behaviour provides the evidence that he cannot face the scene before him.

I had my own taste of this sort of reaction recently, after co-presenting at a ResearchED conference in Oxford on rates of illiteracy in the UK. We gradually became aware of discussions on Twitter which developed into challenges to our truthfulness, integrity, and competence. We were, supposedly, ‘cherry-picking’ reports for the data that suited our ‘agenda’, ‘reprehensibly’ ‘frightening’ people into following that agenda, and using out-of-date and contradictory research to provide an overly specific and unjustified conclusion. These claims were made on the basis of seeing photos of a slide posted on Twitter, and later (perhaps) after viewing slides from the session. It was curious that none of those making these allegations were in the session. None of them had heard what we said about the sources we referred to: the qualifications, connections, comparisons, differences, or definitions. No one asked us; presumably this would have complicated the argument too much. One tweet even claimed that the presentation was an attack on primary teachers – the exact opposite of what had happened in the session, where much of their work was praised, and primary teachers themselves had raised concerns about their desire for more training.

Given that the criticisms came from people who were in no position to make them, I eventually reflected that our presentation must have been perceived as challenging someone’s status quo. Sometimes what people are protecting is their sense of ‘territory’, despite protestations for ‘more light’.

I learned long ago in teaching that making sensible suggestions about how we might change things for the better will quickly be seen by some colleagues as a threat. For them, their comfort zones are sacred, and they will engage in what they see as counter-attacks with surprising speed and ferocity. In school, I have been verbally abused, lied about to my superiors, and even challenged to a physical fight by another teacher. (The latter prompted by me suggesting (politely) that numeracy was not just a buzzword.) Where do such intense reactions come from?

One of the claims made in recent times is that ‘trads’ and ‘pseudo-trads’ are trying to impose a right-wing agenda that diminishes the voice of the poor, ignores individual differences, and creates unquestioning automatons instead of thinking students. I can see how such a claim can be arrived at. If one first takes the view that progressive education is the antidote to such outcomes, then an approach antipathetic to progressivism must be promoting them.

The error is two-fold. First, progressive education has manifestly failed to achieve greater equality, social and economic advantage, and civic participation for the poorest. It isn’t working. Secondly, the aims of those promoting a more evidence-based approach are very much in agreement with those that progressive educators want. Assuming the opposite is the kind of knee-jerk reaction that belies a desire to stay in charge, and a resentment of being questioned. Progressives are at least as prone to such behaviour as anyone else.

I was recently speaking to a friend in New Zealand whose school is being re-built based on progressive principles: few walls, open-plan; teaching spaces for 120, lots of seats dotted randomly around the building; social spaces prioritised over classrooms. It is incumbent upon schools to accept this kind of design from the Ministry of Education if they want new buildings. Requests to the contrary are denied. My friend tells me that while many teachers dread moving into the new buildings, “no one is willing to put their job at risk by putting their head above the parapet”. It is (once again) ironic that in a ‘progressive’ environment, a heavy hand of coercion is required to make sure everyone toes the liberal line.

When a comment or question stirs up a hornet’s nest, remember that the hornets are trying to protect something they value – not because they deserve sympathy, but because hornets will hurt you if they can, so that they can keep their nest undisturbed. Don’t be impressed by calls for “more evidence”. Look at what has been rejected, ignored, or misrepresented; and look at what has been alleged, and whether there is substance or evidence to back it up, or whether it is simply a personal attack.

The cries of the social justice warrior ring hollow when accompanied by personal attacks. Making personal attacks not only calls into question the attacker’s motives, it also weakens their argument. Demanding evidence from someone while personally attacking them is still personal attack. Such behaviour does not support constructive debate; in fact it hinders it, and undermines one’s own credibility. Such attacks can have only one goal, at least with respect to education policy and practice, and that is to silence people whose views, thoughts or questions are unwelcome.

Personal attacks undermine professional discourse. They should themselves be met with stony silence. Perhaps here, too, Hamlet’s thoughts are apposite: “Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument . . . ”

Or, as the Book of Proverbs puts it: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.”


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Requiem for a Straw Man

” . . . and indeed it takes

From our achievements, though performed at height,

The pith and marrow of our attribute.” – Hamlet

There is a common refrain in the discourse about teaching reading that almost immediately derails the debate, and which ensures that people are talking at cross-purposes. This does nothing to advance the cause of improved reading teaching, which is the cornerstone of a good education.

The misunderstanding is apparent every time someone proclaims that “there is more to reading than just the words on the page.” Surely this must be one of the most trite statements possible with regard to teaching reading. Of course there is more to it than that – otherwise why would anyone bother to read? The obvious facility of this position tends to suggest that the speaker is avoiding the issues – or else holds a prejudiced, and uninformed, view of what proponents of effective decoding teaching are actually advocating.

Those who propound good phonics instruction do so because it is a means to several related ends, ends with which almost every teacher would whole-heartedly concur: improved comprehension, access to background knowledge, development of imagination and empathy, and a love of literature. It is essential for us all to acknowledge that these are important points of agreement in an often conflicted and highly emotive field. Those who advocate phonics do so because they believe its effective inclusion in the curriculum will achieve these goals better than it if was left out.

Equally, those who propound phonics do not do so because they are in favour of rote, drill-and-kill, or some linguistic form of Pavlovian conditioning. They do so because they know that phonics is what children need to know, and decoding accurately and fluently is what they need to do, in order to support those longer-term aims.

It is important to stress the what in that last sentence. Phonics (i.e. knowledge of sound-spelling relationships) is a body of knowledge which students will need to recall automatically and effortlessly for the rest of their lives. As such, it needs to have a systematic organisation within the curriculum, and, just as importantly, in the teacher’s mind. For many teachers, this is commonplace; they simply see phonics as an aspect of curriculum and try to ensure that it is taught well, both in its discrete components and how it is integrated with the wider curriculum.

For others, though, a systematised body of knowledge seems too didactic. This is particularly so where theories of child development with discovery as the main focus of learning hold sway. In this view, children should find things out for themselves, and so the environment is arranged in ways that are intended to stimulate their imagination and creativity. Children encounter books and print, they talk about them, they make links between words and pictures, and they are encouraged to think from the ‘top down’, to infer what the text says from a general sense of what the story is about. While all this is often stimulating, it does not work well as a comprehensive system for teaching children to read.

The biggest problem with this approach is that it actually works for some children. Most children can actually intuit much of the English alphabetic code, given time and opportunity. Why is this a problem? Because for teachers it leads to what one researcher called “intermittent reinforcement” – just enough reward to harden our behaviour into a habit. Cognitivists might call it ‘confirmation bias’ – we attend to those success stories that confirm our preferred ways of doing things. So when some children pick up reading anyway, we can say, “See, Samantha learned to read this way. But Simon didn’t, so there must be something about Simon that’s causing the problem.” As a result, all children learn to read more slowly than they might, and some do not learn very much at all.

What is puzzling is that those who contest phonics do so in the face of overwhelming evidence that teaching this body of knowledge systematically is of great benefit to children’s emotional and cognitive development. Conversely, failure to learn reading – something that seems to afflict about 20% of children not taught systematically – has ongoing and debilitating effects on achievement, self-esteem, mental health, and behaviour. And that’s just during the school years. The effects of low literacy beyond that are enduring and pervasive.

So why oppose something that massively reduces the incidence of illiteracy, and greatly enhances children’s life chances? Writing off phonics teaching as a ‘one trick pony’ or ‘barking at print’ won’t cut it. There is indeed a lot more to reading than just phonics. In the same way, there is a lot more to being an athlete than just fitness, but you won’t get far without it.

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Reading is Knowledge


We shouldn’t confuse skills with knowledge 

One of the most discussed topics in education today is that of the so-called ‘knowledge curriculum’. Its most famous proponent is E D Hirsch, who has written extensively on the subject. Hirsch argues that depriving students – especially poorer students – of the ‘cultural capital’ that middle and upper class children have access to perpetuates inequality and injustice. Instead, he believes that the curriculum should reflect ‘powerful knowledge’ that enables students to gain the same access to higher education and working opportunities that those in better-off circumstances tend to have.


Hirsch, and many others, recognise that reading is an essential tool in this approach. The amount of knowledge that students need to consume in order to be well-equipped by the end of secondary school is vast. It is not possible to cover it all in lessons alone; nor is this desirable. Developing independence in…

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O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! Ophelia, Hamlet.

It should not be surprising that a recent report by the Social Mobility Commission found that educational inequality is increasing. Schools tend to reflect, rather than direct, their communities, so in a society of increasing inequality, it should come as no surprise that that inequality is replicated in its schools.

This replication is not, however, a foregone conclusion. The mechanism by which inequality is reproduced is well embedded in the system, but there is also evidence to show that it can be changed, and that when this happens there are remarkable results for the children concerned. The mechanism in question is not funding, governance, leadership structures or even curriculum. It is not even the class system itself. Rather, it is the beliefs that educators, parents and policy-makers hold about intelligence – beliefs which are barely recognised, let alone discussed or questioned, but which pervade our actions every day.

It was Alfred Binet who first developed a test of intelligence. Working amongst the poor and deprived in Paris, he was commissioned by the government to find a way to classify students so that they could be given extra help according to their level of ability. His early tests were designed to identify three categories: idiocé, imbecilité, and moronité. While Binet’s motives were charitable, the sorting power of IQ tests was soon harnessed by eugenicists such as the Stanford professor Lewis Terman, who devised tests to ‘prove’ that immigrants from certain countries had sub-normal intelligence. Scandinavians scored the highest on his tests, he told an American Senate Committee, while the Irish and Mexicans scored at levels “dangerously close to those of negroes”. Later in the twentieth century, the British tripartite model of education (grammar, secondary technical and secondary modern), was heavily influenced by the work of Sir Cyril Burt – based on ‘twin’ studies purporting to show intelligence as hereditary and fixed, which were later discredited because Burt had falsified data.

The legacy of this approach to intelligence is that we have an education system inherently focused on sorting children according to their perceived intelligence. Underlying this pre-occupation is an attitude, often unspoken but nevertheless widespread: more intelligent children are more deserving of a quality education, whereas this would be wasted on those ‘less able’. The most recent policy built on this belief is the government’s determination to increase the number of grammar schools, i.e. state-funded, selective schools. The justification is that this will ensure ‘the brightest’ students receive ‘good school places’. In schools, the manifestation is more subtle. Almost universally, we infer intelligence from attainment – a proxy that is fraught with problems. The most important of these is that we can easily make our students bear the consequences of our failures.

In other words, is it possible that our students’ low attainment may be a consequence of our teaching, not an independent entity – one which excuses us from expectations of progress? We do know that the labels we apply to students are readily internalised, and can affect not only their expectations of academic progress but even their sense of identity and their role in society (Osterholm, Nash, and Kritsonis, 2007). It is entirely possible for the system to create an achievement underclass – an underclass overwhelmingly comprised of children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, as the Social Mobility Commission noted.

Take, for example, the case of a student in Year 10, having arrived at secondary school with all his Key Stage 2 scores several years below expected progress. His mean CATs were just above 70, indicating that he was at the bottom of the below average band – nearly two standard deviations below the norm, a long way behind his peers. The intelligence test results seemed confirmed by his reading age – he was reading at a six-year level. Well into his GCSEs, he was unlikely to finish school with anything other than a handful of poor grades. Such a student, you might think, is the perfect example of why we use setting – his particular needs could be accommodated within a small, nurturing environment.

Except that it was the other way around. It was precisely because he was treated as if he had a disability, as if there was something wrong with him, that he had underachieved. His low scores on the intelligence test were in fact because he lacked the tool skills – primarily reading – to be able to answer the questions. His poor academic performance was rooted in the same problem. How do I know? Because, when he was placed in a programme which ensured that he caught up in his reading, his scores across the board increased to the point where he gained five good passes (A* – C) including English and maths. He went on to sixth form and then university. The system had, for ten years, treated his low attainment as a proxy for low intelligence. No one expected very much from him – in fact, he was not expected to last at school until the end of Year 11 because his behaviour was so poor.

I am not offering this anecdote as evidence, but as illustration. For evidence, you can see other examples of students who acquired reading skills very rapidly on the Thinking Reading website. A few minute’s searching on Twitter and blogs will show you examples of remarkably high attainment by non-privileged students at Michaela School in Brent, London. A well-documented example is the Berieter –Engelmann Direct Instruction pre-school in Alabama in the 1960s:

“Confounding the belief that intelligence was hereditary, Engelmann found (and others later confirmed) that the mean IQ for the group jumped from 96 to 121 in one year. . . .” (Barbash, 2012).

Their IQ scores moved when they were taught differently. You can also see the other side of the issue in the telling study by Galen Alessi, reviewing the cases of 5,000 American students who had been evaluated by educational psychologists:

“All 5,000 evaluations attributed the student’s problems to deficiencies in the child and the child’s family. Not one linked the student’s problems to faulty curricula, poor teaching practices or bad management.” (ibid).

 My observation is that within the teaching profession, we hold deeply-rooted beliefs about intelligence and how we can infer it from students’ language, behaviour and performance. However, such low performances are actually likely to be the product of ineffective teaching in the past. I don’t say this to cast blame, but to suggest that we need to examine how we respond to low attainment.

We have only to look at the PISA results from 2012, cited by none other than the DfE, to see that 17% of UK school leavers were below the minimum level for literacy. They were the products of a system that assumed the problem was in the child, not the teaching. The evidence, however, shows this does not have to be the outcome.

We cannot neglect those at the lower performing end of the scale: they too have the right to the dignity and the power of a good education. It is only when we accept our responsibility to change the way we teach these students that the inequality we all decry will be addressed. If we do not, another kind of change will come, one that I fear will be a harvest of resentment, ignorance and hatred.

Perhaps the last word is best left to the founder of intelligence testing, Alfred Binet:

“Some recent thinkers…[have affirmed] that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity that cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism; we must try to demonstrate that it is founded on nothing.”

I can think of no better way to describe a system driven by assumptions about student inability than ‘brutal pessimism’.


Barbash, S. (2012) Clear Teaching. Education Consumers Foundation.

Osterholm, K., Nash, W. R., and Kritsonis, W. A. (2007) Effects of Labeling Students “Learning Disabled”: Emergent Themes in the Research Literature 1970 Through 2000. Focus on Colleges, Universities and Schools 1 (1).

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8 DIY Steps to Build a Reading Culture

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not expressed in fancy; rich, not gaudy  – Hamlet

Many UK schools have invested in online ‘reading acceleration’ schemes which claim to foster a richer reading culture and to improve students’ motivation to read. Such a scheme will likely cost the school considerably more than the price tag of the licences, in IT equipment, librarian time, teacher time, and of course the books that the school must buy in. (See here for an estimate based on an EEF study).

Schools may find some value in this, especially if funding is readily available and the new product helps students to feel that they are part of something novel and exciting. It feels positive to have a display of students’ reading mileage; and when Ofsted comes calling it is always helpful to hand over a sheaf of statistics showing how reading levels and mileage are being tracked.

These are, of course, advantages of form, not substance. The reality is somewhat different. Any novelty will certainly wear off with time. There are other ways of tracking student progress in reading, and with more depth and greater reliability. Crucially, the success of the system does not actually rely on the software – it relies on the motivation, organisation and enthusiasm of the staff promoting it.

Then, of course, the big question is: do such schemes actually assist reading progress? The answer appears to be, not much – and for the weakest students, not at all. (See this post for example). If you are a student reading three years behind, this approach will not enable you to catch up during your entire five years at secondary school.

The fact is, we don’t need to import a system when we already have able and intelligent staff who know their students. Points on an IT system will not motivate most teenagers for long. It is the interactions between staff and students that build motivation, and that provide the foundations for a reading culture. Limited resources should be targeted where they are most needed.

Here are 8 steps to building a reading culture without resorting to an unnecessary software package :

  1. Use standardised tests already in school. Some of the pre-packaged test scores bounce around a lot which makes them difficult to use for tracking progress. If your school lacks a good standardised reading text, it is a high priority to obtain one.
  2. Teach students how to work out if a book is too hard for them (e.g the five-finger rule). But don’t stop them from reading challenging books!
  3. Use free online readability calculators to check the appropriate reading level for each book. Show students how to use this method for themselves.
  4. Have students write quiz questions for books. Store these quizzes centrally in the school library for use by others. If stored digitally, they can become a modifiable ‘wiki’ resource.
  5. Have a wide range of activities available for students to respond to different books. Use the resulting performances, talks and displays to keep raising the profile of reading across the school.
  6. Award recognition according to students’ needs, not a pre-determined formula. Consider effort, obstacles and improvements in attitude as avenues for recognition. Celebrate all forms of progress, and take into account students’ circumstances in a way that software can’t.
  7. Have students keep a diary, log or “passport” to track what they read and when. Have parents support by listening to their children read, signing the passport, and talking to students about book recommendations.
  8. Track overall attainment through school-wide standardised testing. Ensure progress for low attainers is tracked as part of a suitable, age-appropriate intervention. Independent reading on its own is not enough to help those reading two or more years behind to catch up.

It may seem that all this relies on the strength, commitment and enthusiasm of the school librarian and the English staff. That’s because it does – they are indispensable to the success of any reading promotion scheme. Handing over the ownership of that process to the team who will deliver it is much more likely to bring long-term success than asking them to fit into the pre-programmed systems of a multi-national software company. And you won’t have to hand over thousands of pounds every year.

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