So I had a huge argument on Twitter, mainly with @biolady99.

Duty Calls

I shared a link to the news story that teachers are going to be given training about helping students with mental health issues, including recognising the early signs of problems (EDIT: new guidance as .pdf) I think this is great. I think this is really important. But I pointed out that this is more than a little ironic seeing as the support for students with identified mental health needs is, shall we say, uneven.

A long discussion followed, and as usual many of the points were hard to make clearly because of the 140 character limitation. So here I am, with three ideas I want to get out of my system by clearly expressing them.

Pointing out a problem isn’t whining

Complaining about something we can change ourselves is whining. Complaining about something minor could be considered whining. Stating a problem isn’t whining, especially when you point out a possible solution.

I stand by my original implied criticism, that before (or more reasonably, as well as) ensuring teachers are trained to spot mental health issues in our students, we should make sure there is somewhere to send them. Of course we must be sympathetic and informed in the classroom. Of course we should be able to flag up concerns in a structured way. But when CAMHS are overstretched and underfunded, identifying an issue doesn’t help my students in my classroom today. Not when they may have to wait months for appointments, let alone a useful diagnosis and treatment.

What I object to is, once again, the assumption that having us teachers do yet more will solve the whole problem. There must be an adequate service for us to refer students towards, with trained specialists. If a primary teacher notices a child has an odd gait and they help the parents make a referral to the local orthopedic service, then the experts take over. By all means give us information, training and time. But don’t pretend we’re specialists, whether we have personal experience or not.

Sharing In A Classroom Isn’t Always Okay

Of course my life affects my teaching. Only an idiot would suggest otherwise. But there’s a big difference between using life experience to inform your professional judgement, and sharing personal details with potentially vulnerable students. I absolutely respect colleagues who choose to be open about potentially sensitive aspects of their personal life. But I hope they do it in an informed way.

When I speak to my own children, I do so as a parent. I can say things to them I wouldn’t say at work, to my students. I can choose to share things that I think they will learn from, because I will be the one dealing with the consequences. As a teacher, I am in a professional role and this means I am in a privileged position.

That means I rarely speak about politics; the closest I have come is telling students, when asked, that I voted against the BNP and why. I am careful, when talking about religion – inevitable during topics about evolution or the Big Bang – to make clear I am talking about evidence, and data. With older students I might explain how some of a religious persuasion are happy to accept their text as metaphorical in some respects, while others struggle to reconcile religious claims with scientific data. I will, when asked, tell them that I consider myself an atheist and a humanist, but I wouldn’t explicitly tell them that I think their beliefs are mistaken.

I would see personal medical issues as just that, personal. I’m happy to tell kids I’m asthmatic. Occasionally I’ve discussed – when relevant – my other biological oddity (no, not horns and a tail). But I can see two very good reasons to be cautious, both about welfare.

Firstly, and selfishly, giving kids information can make you vulnerable. Sad but true – you only need one student with a grudge to use that information and your life can be very difficult. Kids can be merciless when they find something they see as a weakness, whether it’s a stutter, a twitching eyebrow or something more.

Secondly, I would see this as potentially unprofessional. Students can look up to us; we are, like it or not, in positions of authority. If my children heard graphic details of a teacher’s surgery in primary school, I would have reason to complain. If a 14 year old, when challenged by a parent about self-injury, responds that “Miss X said they did/do it.” then it will raise all kinds of questions about professional boundaries. It’s a very fine line between open discussion and promotion. (And no, I couldn’t see this applying to sexuality, before anyone accuses me of homophobia – although the paragraph above may apply!)

It’s about what we say and how we say it. Telling my students I have 2.5 children isn’t unprofessional. Telling them how they were conceived or the details of childbirth would be.

I’ve seen guidance about how mental health issues of staff should be handled within the school setting. I’ve seen and fully support the campaigns such as Time To Change hoping to end discrimination and stigma around mental health issues. But I think we need to remember that just as doctors would hesitate before sharing their own health concerns with a patient, we should think twice. I’d love to hear about any specific examples suggesting that teachers should share sensitive personal issues like this with our pupils.

What I do online=/= what I do in the classroom

Finally, it was suggested that because I’ve tweeted about – for example – religion and politics, that this makes me unprofessional. I blogged ages ago about how teachers need to make a stand for their own personal life to be seen as separate from their professional persona. In the ‘real world’, I swear. I very occasionally drink alcohol. (Cider, in small quantities, because I’m a lightweight.) I eat more chocolate than I should.

None of those make me unprofessional. They make me human.

If sharing opinions outside my classroom about religion, politics, sex or anything else makes me unprofessional, then something’s gone badly wrong. If students choose to follow me on twitter (I block them when I can, but my professional account is unlocked and will stay that way) then they’re choosing to be exposed to those non-workplace opinions. And to be bored senseless about teaching stuff, incidentally.

If I was naming and shaming my students on twitter, that would be a problem. If I was openly criticising my workplace or colleagues, I’d be in the wrong. Live tweeting lessons with photos of students without clear consent? Not on. But spending gained time discussing national policies on mental health in young people, implications for the classroom and professional boundaries? That’s not just professional, that’s CPD.

Please comment and respond; I’m particularly interested in any links to model policies about what staff should or shouldn’t disclose to pupils about (mental) health. How do other professions handle it with potentially vulnerable clients/patients? What does the law say and what is the union position?

If you wish to share personal stories anonymously, either take care commenting or email me and I’ll add it stripped of any identifying metadata.


Performance Related Pay as an ISA

I’ve just been reading that the government (in the form of the Education Select Committee) is recommending a return to the idea of performance-related pay for teachers. Now, this is interesting, to say the least – and more than a little political. Because, of course we all know how well a bonus-led culture worked in banking. So I’m going to sublimate my anger and approach this from a scientific point of view. Not just by looking at the data, but by treating it like a GCSE science problem in experimental design.

Background Research

You can find news reports at the Guardian and the Telegraph, among others. It might be an ineresting Politics/Media lesson to compare the reporting of this story in different publications, perhaps? The news stories I’ve seen completely fail to mention that this will presumably only apply to schools governed by national agreements, so academies and free schools may not even care. I’m still checking out research (the actual data that governments like to claim backs up their case) but this from the famous Ted Wragg is interesting.

Confounding Factors

It’s not that long ago that the government stopped collecting what we call ‘contextual value-added‘ data – where the students’ circumstances, social background etc are taken into account. So if we don’t know about all of these things, how can we account for them? An abvious example is that in some schools and areas it’s much more likely that students will access a tutor. And what about kids whose parents help them out, talk them through homework, share study techniques? Who’s responsible for any improvement?

Subjects overlap too. If I teach a student who’s doing badly in Maths, and this affects their Physics scores, who gets the blame? I’m imagining wars between Maths and Science, between English and Humanities, as teachers accuse each other of causing them problems. Not a pretty image. How are we supposed to work together when we’re also competing? Nobody wants to be at the bottom. Will teachers in one department stop sharing resources with each other?

Measuring the Dependant Variable

Is this going to be based solely on exam results? What about subjects which don’t do an external exam, such as PSHE? The equality or otherwise of subjects is always a huge issue, especially when different types of qualifications are considered. Will it apply to all key stages – what about teachers who only or mainly teach at Key Stage 3, for example?

What happens if one class does ‘well’ (although I’m still not sure how we’ll be able to tell) and another doesn’t? What about when a class is shared between two or more teachers? Or when a teacher is ill or on maternity leave? Do good A-level results matter more or less than good GCSEs? Should absolute scores or percentages matter? For example, if I have 14 students at A2 Physics, 7 of whom achieve an A grade, is this better or worse than, say, Spanish, who have 4 students and 3 A grades?


Many courses rely to at least some extent on teacher-assessed work. Will the existing pressure on teachers to give students the ‘best possible chance’ be increased? Should only externally-assessed work be used for the judgements? In theory this could lead to ethical teachers being penalised when those colleagues who are more ‘supportive’ – and yes, that was sarcastic – benefit personally from the better results of their students.

What about those students who happen to be taught by their Head of Year? How will their level of support vary compared to others? Or the students mentored by members of SMT, who so often seem to get extra chances or have the rules ‘stretched’ for them? Teaching the children of other staff members may suddenlt be a bigger perk than before.

And who chooses which teachers get the more promising students? It’s already true in many schools that timetabling causes problems when particular teachers are perceived to get ‘easier’ classes. Sometimes this is unavoidable – imagine two A-level Physics classes, who due to timetabling are split depending on whether they aso study Further Maths. I know which one I’d rather have.


It’s so easy to forget with the rhetoric from politicians, but at a school level the sample sizes are small. Too small, really, for any such judgements to be made on a class by class basis. If we drew error bars on the results to account for the confounding factors – many of which we don’t know about, let alone have the ability to control – they would be huge. Yes, we can look at the effects of various interventions on students, and many of us are trying to use this data (see the fantastic work by Geoff Petty for example, the What Works Clearing House, and Dr Mark Evans’ Teachitso website). Linking research to educators working in the classroom is surprisingly difficult, though see #SciTeachJC for one such effort.

But the useful data comes from large studies, reviews of many classrooms and many teachers. If I have a class of twenty-five (chance would be a fine thing) then every child’s results make up 4% of the total. How many students in the average classroom will lose a relative during exam season? How many will have health problems? You don’t need many to affect the class results hugely, and these factors are unpredictable. Like decaying atoms, we can measure how many of these events will happen – probably with high accuracy – in any particular cohort. But in any one class it will vary hugely.


Our results aren’t even very detailed. Grade boundaries change, and we can often break it down into more detail than to an A or a B. Will it matter if students meet a decimalised target, or does just the grade matter? How many subjects will we need to look at? If it’s just about meeting a boundary, those who get over it will be ignored even more than we’ve already seen with the wonderfully-named ‘C-chasing’ strategy.


Sadly, it seems to me that performance related pay fails the test according to what we teach our students. It seems a shame that the MPs haven’t done an ISA recently…

Evidence on Behaviour?

And next week, the Commons Select Committe for Catering will be hearing evidence from the latest participants of the TV show “Come Dine With Me.”

A year ago the newly appointed schools minister, Nick Gibb, made clear that he did not consider teaching skills to be important for teachers. Politicians clinging to ideology and bias is hardly a news story, and you only need to ask Professor David Nutt for further examples of government meddling in the sharing of evidence. More recently Gove’s suggestions – from 50 books a year for all students to the opportunities offered to tiny percentages of pupils through the free schools programme – have angered many who have seen them as stemming from a nostalgic view of private schooling.

On Tuesday, and since then, many teachers have been particularly frustrated by the Commons Select Committee for Education. They chose to interview some of those involved with Jamie Oliver’s controversial Dream School project. If you missed it, this idea involved asking university academics, Olympic sports personalities and Shakespearean actors to ‘teach’ disgruntled and disruptive students. To put this in perspective, they worked with the students for on average an hour a week over several months. They appeared to have little advance instruction in teaching techniques, but to rely on inspiring students with their wit, charm and considerable subject knowledge. It would be fair to say that their success was variable.

So naturally these are the people who understand behaviour issues in British schools.

The Select Committee has many alternative sources of information – but they seem to have forgotten that they asked for it only 3 months ago. This wasn’t a chance to get a contrasting viewpoint to reports from OfSted that emphasize the need for a range of agencies, counselling and mental health services and the use of teaching assistants. They didn’t refer to research from the General Teaching Council, or even their own Department for Education review pointing out the dangers of focusing on details of the curriculum at the expense of classroom management, especially for staff new to the profession. Many organisations, including the Teacher Support Network, have pointed out that free schools and academies tend to encourage competition rather than cooperation – making it harder for teachers to share ideas. And this is before I point out just how many world-class researchers in education could explain their evidence-based ideas, if asked. (@DeclanFleming did a great job tweeting his responses to the video, which he has since Storified.) Why are the opinions of a handful of non-teachers being seen as having equal weight to that of education professionals and the research they have undertaken?

The focus in government often seems to be on the small number of extreme cases, rather than on the persistent low-level disruption which makes life so difficult, and learning less successful, in classrooms over the country. Maybe I’m lucky that I don’t worry about students bringing knives to school. I’d just like students to be able to focus on learning, rather than a long series of exams and resits which they see as my problem, not theirs – because they know that grades matter to the school.

Dream School was about experts inspiring young people. The problem is that, to misquote Ben Goldacre, teaching is ‘a little more complicated than that’. Of course teachers – myself included – aim to inspire students. We are enthusiastic about our subjects and hopefully knowledgable. We hope to share our interest, the ideas that captivated us in the past and often still do. It was clear as the series continued that the ‘teachers’ at Jamie’s Dream School were also passionate and expert, and in some cases students were able to recognise this, even respond to it. But it was also painfully obvious how vital the other skills of teaching are to a functioning classroom. They struggled, partly because they failed to understand that teaching is more than inspiration. The kids on the show hadn’t failed in mainstream education just because Rolf Harris had never shown them how to draw a picture, or because they’d never dissected anything supervised by Professor Robert Winston.

To me – and I suspect to many teachers – Dream School was a huge missed opportunity. I would kill for the chance to share some of those resources with my classes, even to team-teach with some of those people. Imagine if instead of trying to reach just 20 students, a completely different programme had been created. Imagine if Tinchy Stryder and Alistair Campbell, Simon Callow and Ellen MacArthur had found out what teaching is really like – not by taking on a full timetable, complete with marking, but by visiting real schools.

Imagine 12 inner city schools being offered a schedule with a dozen visitors. Imagine Rolf Harris and Mary Beard seeing 5 classes in a day, supported by regular classroom staff. Imagine if Starkey, with his resources and knowledge, had been paired with an experienced and enthusiastic, professional. Imagine what we as teachers would have gained from the chance to talk to someone at the top of their field as a peer, to swap ideas and see what they were excited about sharing with the students. Imagine how much those young people could have learned if instead of playing pretend for the camera, it had been real. Imagine if Jamie had realised that teaching, just like history, law or science, is a career and a profession in its own right.

Babies and Bathwater

I’m sure many of us have read about the planned closure of many government quangos (this weird word means a group set up by the government which has some delegated power, see Wikipedia) with delight. The loss of some of the more annoying functions of, for example, the GTCE, is hardly a problem. It is, however, worth looking at the list (see the Telegraph for their leaked list) with reference to education. Many of them have positive as well as negative effects, so we can only hope that the more useful functions will be preserved.

The following list is the result of my quick scan of the Telegraph’s article. Apologies for any mistakes, omissions or over-simplifications – please let me know if you spot any.

  • The British Educational and Communications Technology Agency (BECTA) has for years promoted the use of new technology in an educational context. As usual with something like this, it offers economies of scale at the expense of wide choice. In many ways it could be argued that now schools have ‘in-house’ expertise.
  • The General Teaching Council of England (GTCE) administers a list of those teachers able to work in state schools. They have been fairly unpopular with teachers since the start.
  • The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) coordinates the qualifications offered with what is taught in schools. (It is perhaps interesting that reversing the effective privatisation of the exams themselves has not been suggested.)
  • The School Food Trust is theoretically responsible for the use or avoidance of Turkey Twizzlers. How this will affect the provision of school lunches is yet to be seen.
  • The School Support Staff Negotiating Body does what it says on the tin. As well as whole-school staff (admin, teaching assistants etc) this is particularly relevant to science departments who have lab technicians as part of the team.
  • The demise of the Teachers TV Board was a logical step since they moved from a broadcast to a web-only service. Presumably the website will continue – perhaps I should do my bit by trying to use it more…

Other groups are still ‘under review’:

  • The National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services (NCSL as was) coordinates the Headship qualifications among others. Although I haven’t seen anything online about this I wonder if it means universities will be asked to take on some version of the qualifications – perhaps as some variant of a Masters in Education degree?
  • The main role of the Partnership for Schools seems to be BSF, so it’s hardly surprising they are under threat.
  • Remploy offers support and guidance, as well as some advocacy, to those in employment with complex disabilities including learning difficulties. They fulfil a similar role to the Shaw Trust, and like several of the organisations here we may see charities taking over some of the more pressing functions of deceased quangos.
  • Seeing the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) on the list is quite a surprise. Their main role – organising and overseeing teacher training and recruitment – is growing rather than diminishing, as we work harder to recruit ‘good graduates’ to the profession.
  • The Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA) coordinates post-16 provision, as well as academies and EMA. Much as I would love to believe that academies will be no more I suspect it is more that the DofE will just take over that responsibility, seeing them as the norm rather than the horrendous aberration they really represent.

As well as these, several of the science groups listed seem to me to fill very necessary roles. The Health Protection Agency is an obvious example. I don’t want to make a political point as I’ve stayed away from those kinds of posts, but the groups I have listed above don’t strike me as exclusively ones we won’t miss. Let’s not get rid of useful features in our happiness to wave goodbye to the GTCE.