The clarity of light

In the title song of my favourite Bruce Cockburn album, Charity of Night, there is a refrain that goes:

Wave on wave of life
Like the great wide ocean’s roll
Haunting hands of memory
Pluck silver strands of soul
The damage and the dying done
The clarity of light
Gentle bows and glasses raised
To the charity of night.

Like many Cockburn lyrics, this needs plenty of thought. In fact, he is a better poet than he is a songwriter, perhaps, if you take David Kramer’s old notion, taught to me in his songwriting course in 1990, that lyrics should find immediate understanding and shouldn’t need a second hearing to be understood by the average listener. His own take on the song within the context of what is a basically post-sunset album can be read here.

There is something in the lyrics about the welcome we should give to those times when the light we see is reflected, is seen sideways on, and that we can welcome the sharpness that this brings to our vision, because around us everything is darker than we had hoped or desired, or less certain. It has an echo in the prophet Isaiah, when he commends those who cling to what God has said and rejects those who create light artificially when they want to walk by their own lights, if you will:

Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the word of his servant? Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD and rely on their God. But now, all you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires and of the torches you have set ablaze. This is what you shall receive from my hand: You will lie down in torment (Isa. 50:10-11).

Cockburn, here as in many places, celebrates the completeness of life in his songs, taking good and bad equally from God’s hand, like Job, and finding a degree of reconciliation and harmony in all of it, like a child sleeping safe and warm under a blanket in the midst of a war zone.

Why all this? It is hardly an exact analogy, but the phrases clarity of light and charity of night have been rattling around my mind the last fortnight as I have been revelling in the fullness of autumn. Last weekend it was a slow, off-path walk through Howe Park Wood, searching for hornbeams, autumnal tree fungi and ancient apple trees; yesterday it was a family walk through Whyteleafe recreation ground in Surrey. In both places we felt that the sense of God’s care for us, in the canopy of yellowing leaves and the sharpness of the branches against the blue November sky, was heightened and that this time of year has a particular revelation of clarity that we should take seriously. Also, we see more. There is less light, but more of it gets to the forest floor. And the yellowing and thinning of the leaves allows a warmth of light to reach the ground where the thick green hazel and oak leaves provide rich shade in summer. We see more activity of birds and squirrels, and hear them more clearly.

Last night, John Bell from the Iona Community reminded us who had gathered together at St Andrew’s Great Linford for one of his Big Sings, not to celebrate Christmas too early, and to walk with Mary, pregnant and uncertain, through advent.

If we do not live with the dark, and do not walk with those who walk in it, we have halved our witness.

And if we do not observe and keep watch when the darkness is around us, and somehow pretend that it is light, that all is well when it isn’t, we lose half our learning.

 

To disrupt the landscape in a very positive way: final thoughts

The Chartered College have kindly sent me through all the presentations from Saturday’s Third Space event at Bristol, and as there has been some interest from those that follow this blog in more of the content, I am putting those presentations that I thought were interesting here.

The talk by Stuart Kime I have put with the earlier post in this series, and the one from Nikki Booth is already embedded with the post before this one.

The other talks of real note and interest included:

  • A discussion by Sarah Earle from Bath Spa University and Kerry-Anne Barber from a school in South Gloucestershire on the TAPS model of assessment. TAPS stands for Teacher Assessment of Primary Science, and is an innovative and child-centred way of making assessment in science real and relevant for children’s learning.
  • A discussion on the nature of the validity and reliability of testing by Frances Brill and Jane Nicholas from the NFER, which gave us the opportunity both to follow the process of test design that has value for schools AND the chance to wrestle with developing a test question for ourselves, thus proving that NFER are worth all the money that they are paid, and then some.
  • Sue Timmis from the Graduate School of Education at Bristol presented a very challenging talk on whether technology can transform educational assessment, whether it can do so ethically, and whether we should let it. This presentation contains some excellent arguments about why we should be highly circumspect about the assumptions that lie behind the use of extensive pupil data for assessment.

There were other talks that ran parallel to Nikki’s talk, and in the afternoon, but these are the ones that are likely to have the longer term impact on us as a school and on me as an educator.

Looking back across a week where I have been doing training (9.5 hours) and receiving training (8.5 hours), these presentations have remained strongly in my mind, and in particular material from Nikki Booth’s talk has been used in two of the training presentations I have done this week for NQTs and those training to be coaches.

Part of the reason has been the level of common purpose that was shown by all attending on Saturday, and the confidence that that gives me as a teacher that the Chartered College will be a substantial force in balancing the teaching landscape. Long may it live!

 

 

To disrupt the landscape in a very positive way: formative assessment to feedback

After Stuart Kime’s excellent talk at Saturday’s Third Space event, the most significant input for us as a school was the excellent exposition of why formative assessment so often runs into the buffers, and what to do about it, from Nikki Booth. A PowerPoint of his talk can be found here, but you can also read the full article from the CCT journal, Impact. You have to be a member to get the whole thing, so the presentation is a bit more accessible. Nikki’s basic thesis was that there has not been enough clear definition of what formative assessment actually is, to enable educators to use it confidently to advance pupil learning. In the process, he moved the ground away from formative assessment as a concept onto the accurate use of feedback and success criteria within a Shirley Clarke-inspired growth-mindset approach. His telling of the story was masterly and as all his experience is from the secondary school sector, I found that I had learnt masses by the end, even though it was material I already was very familiar with.

Because the PowerPoint will tell his story far better than my notes will, this post will be more of a collection of reflections.

  1. I liked Nikki’s definition of formative assessment as being the use of information to adjust teaching and learning, during the learning process, a dialogue between the student and the teacher. This seems to me to be fundamental if we are to extract from the assessment process its full potential. We are using our children as research resources to progress learning for all in the class.
  2. The requirement that the information be used and acted upon is also central to its use, the lack of such maybe being the reason why Rob Coe (2013, Improving Education: a triumph of hope over experience, CEM) says that formative assessment has little or limited impact on learning outcomes. Surprising? Challenging to teachers? I think it is. Part of it is that formative assessment has turned into “mini-summative assessments” in which we constantly grade pupils and then try and move them on in the lesson.
  3. The work of Ruth Butler in Israel was the first (but definitely not the last) to evaluate the response of students to formative assessment carried out in terms of grades and in terms of comments. The way Butler worked was to give students a task to do, then had it independently marked, and fed back two days later in different ways: comments, comments with grades, grades only. Marks were kept in the teacher’s planners. They were then given some similar work to do and told that they would be marked in the same way as previously. The startling outcome (then!) was that those who had been given grades only made no subsequent gain, whilst those receiving comments only made a gain in marks averaging 30%. So far, so interesting. The students who got a high grade felt good about this, and those that got a low mark felt rubbish, but neither made any progress at all. Where the fascinating outcome is in those who got given both grades AND comments. These students also failed to make progress, with the same attitudes – high grades felt OK, low grades did not. But still, despite the comments, it seemed to Butler that the grades “fixed the mindset” of students and stopped them progressing. Subsequent work by many others has reinforced this finding. Alfie Kohn (OK, he is on the left wing of this debate) says therefore that that we should never grade students whilst they are still learning; as soon as they receive a grade, the learning stops as students focus far more on the consequences of the grades. So grading students in the lesson directly inhibits learning.
  4. The problem often lies in our confusion around what constitutes good data. Grades, levels, marks – these always are an approximation to the truth about what a child can or cannot do. They are shorthand for a bunch of skills – at best – and at worst are a backward looking view of what a child can do. We know this, and for various spurious reasons we continue to pay homage to the approximate data rather than focusing on the exactitude of what children can and cannot do. The insistence by Stuart Kime that we refer to information is a helpful and liberating one. Data means numbers in our minds, though the Latin root simply means that which is given.
  5. The way to progress is to “close the circle” of learning within each lesson and start thinking about clear learning intentions, strong and helpful success criteria, and feedback that is task centred. The problem with grades is that they feed the ego, as Butler originally wrote. And the strength of the ego so fixes our own view of learning that no matter how much we think we have a growth mindset, the success represented by grades enhances the feeling of self-worth (whether negatively or positively) to the extent that comments on work fade to the background. Arriving at the work of Shirley Clarke is the right place for this debate to end up, and a thorough study of the different types of success criteria (such as the one that Tracey Feil presented here) will help us move children on without the inhibition of the self-worth issues.
  6. The use of focused multiple choice questions that elicit an understanding of common misconceptions is an area that Dan Marshall at Christ the Sower has explored very competently with the use of the Plickers tool, but you can do it with mini-whiteboards (or slates!) just as well. Such “hinge point” multiple choice questions check student understanding at a given point in the lesson and tell the teacher immediately where there are gaps in understanding.

There is much more in Nikki’s presentation. I will be using some of this material – particularly the Butler research, and Tracey’s work on feedback – with NQTs at MKTSA this afternoon.

Final reflections. We are well down this road at Christ the Sower. We need to keep talking about it, sharing it, challenging each other to keep focused on it, knowing that it has such a thorough evidence base.

 

To disrupt the landscape in a very positive way: assessment policies and their use

To be at the Chartered College of Teaching’s Third Space event yesterday in Bristol (we were at the School of Education), was a great privilege. There were not a whole load of headteachers there, and it was very special for once to be among teachers, talking about assessment because tomorrow it matters. If policy-makers could have joined us, I think that they would have had their eyes opened in a good way. First of all, unless you really believe in this stuff you don’t go to Bristol on your weekend from places as far afield as Cumbria, Cornwall and Holland. And to see the determination of the Chartered College to reach people who really want to learn together, and thus be willing to give up weekends to host such good, focused events, thoughtful and beautifully planned, is in its way a treasure and gift to the profession.

It really feels like that. We had come from all over the place to learn about assessment and how we could make it more effective, but actually what we got was one another, listening hard, contributing sensitively and kindly led. This was as far as it could be from the manic world of Michael Barber, or the systems thinking that sometimes infects the EEF.

The morning began with an introduction from Alison Peacock, the college’s CEO, in which she expressed the hope that we would disrupt the landscape and be the grit in the oyster as we allowed research and reflection to take up more space in the classroom, so that we would have the confidence to say “this is what I am doing, this is why, this is the impact it is having and this is how I know.”

This is a virtually impenetrable argument to offer those “interested third parties who come from outside to see us” and enables us to move away from a highly defensive sandbagging approach where we defend ourselves with reams of paper. The central question remains What is the quality of our assessment that informs our teaching that enables children to flourish and do well?

The first presentation was from Stuart Kime at Durham, talking about whether Assessment Policies were worth the effort. Starting with Jerome Bruner’s contention that children should “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment, but as information” (On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand, 1962), he posited that the information we get from what learning is going on – this is the purpose of assessment.

We are generally in an assessment world where extrinsic motivation is the norm. We have tests and they come with either high-stakes attached or more negative meaning than children really need. The work of Ryan and Deci (2000) on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation gives a framework where we can see children move from no motivation at all, to an extrinsic motivation to a much greater degree of self-regulation:

Gains in self-regulation, and toward an intrinsic motivation, also appear as aspects of teaching and learning that have higher effect sizes of the EEF Teachers Toolkit. Is it possible, Kime asked, to so remove the rewards and punishment aspect of assessment so that children’s interest, enjoyment or inherent satisfaction came from, and was stimulated by, the task at hand? In this world, assessment yields not “data” but information.

Assessment, contends Dylan Wiliam, is a “bridge between teaching and learning.” Bridges, by their nature, are strong, and made to carry a load. they are also there to ensure access and designed to fulfil a particular purpose. Bridges are not all alike, but to be successful bridges they all need the same characteristics of strength, reliability, dependability, access. They give, in this metaphor, confidence and access to learning. Assessment, likewise, must give access to new learning from the teaching that is taught. It must be hole-proof, and robust in every aspect of its construction. The policies or guides to an assessment system must also be fully established and clear, designed to help us cross the bridge clearly and easily. They need to be time-costed, so that we do not spend hopelessly long times on assessing to gain a small amount of information, and put to the right purposes.

Campbell’s law states:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.

The implication of this is that we need to use exquisite care in devising policies and guides to assessment, lest we end up with Paul Dressel’s quote (see the previous post) and find ourselves standing with a grade paper in our hand that means nothing. In this case, as I have often contended, a sheet of descriptors of what a child actually does, knows or understands, is accurate. A numerically-malleable statistic is the approximation, not the reality.

Thus Stuart Kime concluded that actually, no, assessment policies are not worth a candle unless:

  1. They depict reality
  2. They are based on sound theory and practice, anchored in knowledge of assessment research
  3. They lead to better outcomes than would be caused by their absence
  4. They are manageable by normal humans under normal time pressures
  5. They are, and can be, understood by those who need to understand them.
  6. They are implemented as directed. Implementation is a problem not often commented on in education. We tend to assume, because of the scale of our organisations, that if a SLT member tells people, then they will do it. It doesn’t work like that and the implementation gap can get in the way (See Peter Gollwitzer from NY on this). We need to ensure in our assessment policies that policy has a way of affecting the phase leadership and that they have a plan for supporting assessment in the classroom.

How much time do we spend on assessment? If it is too long, then it had better be worth it! If it is not worth it, then stop and do something else. There are plenty of other approaches that are quicker and more reliable (such as comparative judgments).

As humans, we are not good at making absolute judgments. Our decisions are better when communal and comparative, so there is more accuracy when we are comparing two pieces of work than with a single one. Is a piece of work “original” or “highly original”? Does it show evidence of “mastery” or “excellence” and which is better? When assessment, what is it we want? Assessment that is:

  • effective in enhancing learning
  • efficient for all concerned and which gives a good return on the investment made in energy, time, enthusiasm, patience, etc.
  • able to carry the load we want of it – it must be valid and reliable
  • able to produce high quality, useful, comprehensible information to all who need it, and on which we can depend.

If an assessment policy works well, it will be able to produce all of the above. To check whether a policy does these things, we just reverse engineer it, and identify practices that are effective and efficient, and build on these, and those that ineffective and inefficient and stop doing those straightaway, and find other practices that work.Make sure that teachers can answer the four assessment questions posited by Alison at the beginning of the day: What are you doing? Why? What effect will it have? How do you know?

Exemplars of work, from well-moderated judgments, are really helpful in any assessment policy, and perhaps the best contribution of time that we can make to the process.

Stuart’s presentation is linked to this image.

 

To disrupt the landscape in a very positive way: first reflections

Learning about assessment on a Saturday in Bristol is not for the uncommitted, but over 100 teachers and leaders met together at the School of Education in Berkeley Square under the auspices of the Chartered College of Teaching. We gathered to attend the second “Third Space” event – an opportunity for teachers and university researchers to meet together and shed light on one another’s practice and together find some common ground in the area of assessment. Dame Alison Peacock, in her opening welcome, called upon us to disrupt the landscape in a very positive way. In another blog I will amplify the content of what we learnt, and just how disruptive it was, but here is a summary of the main learning for me as a school leader right now, sitting in a train on the way back to London, and serving as immediate reflections.

  • There is a need to be absolutely clear about the evidence base of all that we do in assessing children’s attainment and progress. We need to be able to say what we are doing, why we are doing, the impact we have on children, and the evidence of improved outcomes for children’s learning.
  • We have to be absolutely clear in describing our assessment and making it possible for all our teachers to assess effectively through the adoption of an effective, efficient and well-evidenced guide or policy for assessment.
  • Formative assessment, particularly in secondary schools, has failed to a considerable extent and therefore we need to move to a growth-mindset, success-criteria focused push to allow children to be involved in more self- and peer-assessment. That this is possible in primary science, an area of special interest for us, is proven through the work of the Bath Spa University TAPS project.
  • There is growing evidence that combination of giving grades with feedback is highly counter-productive, and not as effective as offering immediate feedback alone.
  • A move to technology-enhanced assessment (TEA) has all sorts of ethical and democratic pitfalls and needs to be looked at very carefully before anything is adopted. Policy-makers also need to be much more aware of this.
  • The best quote of the day is from Paul Dressel, is 60 years old and goes like this:

Seeing October out – in gratitude

It has been a most extraordinary month, this October. It has seen the culmination of the most wonderful, zealous and moving term that I think I have experienced here at Christ the Sower, and that includes last term and the fantastic SIAMS inspection outcome, and Spring 2014 when we had both a great OFSTED result and a visit from 20 European teachers.

Little signs have told me of the enormous competence and compassion that our teaching team has demonstrated over the last month – comments from parents and teachers after the Parents’ Consultation in the last week of the half-term; the dynamism created by the “temporary” senior leadership team and the acquisition of three new teachers who have not been hanging about in their desire to make an impact; the sense of the blessing of God that has accompanied our walk together; the peaceableness that children have shown as they have settled to the task; and the awareness amongst those who are called as Christians in this place to walk as disciples. It has been real, honourable and humbling, and as October draws to a close, I am full of gratitude to God and to those who have supported us as leaders this term.

Today we held meetings with all the teachers from Year 1 to Year 6 – similar to the “impact meetings” we held last year, but this time to find out what was working, especially for those children who had the most catching up to do, and what would be needed. Like the weather today, it was a bit of a sharp shock for some, but meant that we had a common, collegiate and kind approach to the progress of children. Seeing the selflessness and openness of nearly all teachers today was a great testimony to the careful way that the leadership team have built improvement on the basis of encouragement.

We began the day with a circle in which we were invited by Kaajal to share what it was that made us grateful in our work in Christ the Sower. For so many – the overwhelming majority – it was the kindness and support shown by those engaged in the common task of teaching children. This for me only scratched the surface of the issue: far more gratifying for me is the fact that each of these lovely adults can, because of the support and encouragement from those around them, give more and more of themselves, selflessly to the task.

And it IS our task, nobody else’s. We have one another because God gave us to each other. We have the children we have in our school because God gave these children to us. And yes, I am aware that that might not always be a cause for gratitude! We have the kind of school we have because those who pray and seek God on our behalf have had their prayers answered by a gracious and all-compassionate God. We sustain the life of the school through and under the power of the Holy Spirit. We live and we serve, under His holy call. And if you are a Christian reading this, then this is your bread and butter. And if you are not, and you serve with us, then, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.  You are no less called to serve the children in front of you. As a dear friend said to me eighteen months ago: Huw, these children, these children – they are my worship.

So I just want to say to every one of you who serve with me, how grateful I am to you that you came on the journey, and stayed for the challenge and the joys. No matter what the future holds, I want to set a mark here, now, at the end of this extraordinary month, of gratitude and remembrance for all that you have done, this term, for these children, in this place.

Abstraction of place

The Shrewsbury-based Visual Art Network (VAN) has been going for a good number of years but recently it has acquired a great new space at the bottom of Shoplatch, below Shrewsbury Market Hall. I have had friends over the years who have been part of VAN but a lot of their material either never appealed to me or passed me by in the usual rush. Since they have been able to use this larger space as a gallery, the material has been more impressive, because there is more on display and some of the larger scale material is available to view. The lighting is great – lots of natural light and high quality strip lighting – and the opportunity to talk to volunteers and artists is always there. Pretty much everything is on sale, too, so it is a great place for art shopping, from oils and prints to some lovely ceramics.

Since they have opened their new space, they have used it as a home for partner organisations to come and take part or exhibit. Currently a group of Shropshire-based abstract artists called Abstract Edge are exhibiting there. For a group of local hardworking artists who are either working in abstract art or moving in that direction, it is a really great exhibition, and some of the art is shown here. If many of these look suspiciously like landscapes this should not surprise us. Shropshire as a county has a very strong sense of place, as do all the borderland counties and even those artists who, in the exhibition, tried determinedly to be as abstract as possible, could not help to allow come concrete expression to slip in. This I put down to the fierce draw of being “in a place.” As far as I can recall, I have put the appropriate artist links (either from Abstract Edge’s site, or the artists own webpages) as the links on the photos.

One of the many jobs of an artist is to force us to look differently at the place that has become familiar. The painting of the Long Mynd below by Ros Burns is identifiably the Long Mynd, but somehow deeper and bleaker, as though special atmospheric conditions suddenly pertained to change the colour and the sensation of being there. Paul Nash spent his life forcing us to think differently about English landscape, whilst never straying from a clear sense of place. Landscape (in general) is one thing; a sense of place and belonging to that place is another. Harlan Hubbard’s paintings and woodcuts were of a place where he belonged and by whose landscape his existence was circumscribed. So it is vital for artists working in these conditions to enable us to see in depth or (as in Ellen Altfest’s work, for instance) in detail.

Knowledge, the curriculum and the Kingdom (2)

This is a short follow-up to a post from the end of July, where I argued for an epistemology for Christian teachers that differs in intent from that argued for by liberal-secular educators. There, using the arguments advanced by Tom Wright in his essay How the Bible reads the modern world, I contended that knowledge was

  • Always for something – it is both relational and responsible to that which is known.
  • Part of bringing the creation to order and flourishing.
  • Rooted in God’s wisdom and not ourselves, and that therefore the knower stands not outside that knowledge but within it, as part of a wider world of interlocking relationships.
  • Always communal, shared, built upon.

Here I want to develop the argument, again supported by Professor Wright’s work, that knowledge, because it is outward-focused and relational, is ultimately about love, and that love is the purpose and end of knowing. This becomes important when we are teaching, I think. I suspect that there are some rainy afternoons when the bottom set Year 9s need teaching where the love of either the knowledge or the learning process is pretty thin, but teachers thrive on the fact that children and young people gain, change, desire more, respond – in other words, relate. The greatest joy that is common to teachers is to teach children who so love the experience and the process of learning, or who resonate with the content, that it makes the job one of cooperation rather than one akin to deep-sea drilling.

This is a very far cry from the “body of knowledge” merchants, who seem to think that if only we can cram a certain amount of content into young brains, they will be necessarily more equipped for the future. On the other hand, we have to say, as I have consistently said in this forum, that British teachers as a profession are woefully under-taught and under-cultured in our education system. Because we are so dissociated from what might be viewed as traditional or classical European learning, and because we do not love or value the great inheritance that we ourselves have received, we are not in the position of being able to draw on the literature and cultural achievements of our inheritance. Quoting Homer now is a rarity; when I was a child, I expected that level of erudition from my teachers.

An example: Last week, to show the children something wonderful and cultural, I found a great Youtube video of David Oistrakh and Yehudi Menuhin in 1958 at the Salle Pleyel playing the Bach Double Violin concerto. Just in that sentence there are four amazing cultural icons – Menuhin and Oistrakh, two luminaries of the great pantheon of Jewish fiddle players of the 20th century (Stern, Zukerman, Heifetz, Kreisler, Szigeti, you name them), the Salle Pleyel, home to an astonishing quantity of astounding music making in a quiet corner of Paris, and the Bach Double, which, if learnt when young, becomes a part of you. I was lucky enough to be playing this, with my friend Mark Parish, at the age of 16, under a violin teacher who know the benefit of a serious classical education and its impartation to his pupils.

Wright is right. At the root of all of these is love. All the learning that has gone into the music and the playing and performing of it, has been learnt because of love. The fact that you use this knowledge and these skills, and gain this understanding is a function of love, because the real impact of the knowledge gained lies in the way that you use them. And the right way to use that is in the way of love.

I am much challenged by Daniel and his friends, who, on being exiled to Babylon in about 598 BC, had this stroke of good fortune:

Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service….To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds (Daniel 1:3-4, 17)

What challenges me here is the knowledge that God gave: Ashpenaz was to do the training in language and literature (and, shock horror, this probably contained a great deal of mystical and occult material as well as science and mythologies), but it was God that gave the knowledge of the literature and other learning to Daniel and his friends. This implies that the understanding we gain is given by God – and, in dreams and visions, is added to by God – so that we can begin to see a unity and purpose for the learning. God wants learning to take place, it seems, to bless others through our study of it. And this desire to bless others through the knowledge we have been given is motivated, of course, by love. Love, somehow, must be the motor of our learning and the motor both of the methodology and pedagogy of learning, but also the principal feature of the content of the taught curriculum.

However, without the culturally acquired riches and depth that has been denied us for so long in our schools, we will find that instead of being able to deliver such a “curriculum of love” we will be, in fact, both teachers and learners in a curriculum of “servitude to the current dominant feelings, emotions, images, ideas” (Oakeshott) that prevail so often over an epistemology of affection.

To maintain the world, or change it

In my ideal school, we would teach all children how to garden, the basic principles of four-crop rotation, how to lay a brick wall, how to build things from wood, how to sew and knit, how to operate simple machinery, weld and fix things, and how to care for animals properly. Every child would be taught that art is both practical and beautiful and provides enjoyment and purpose, and that music is one of the best ways of entertaining themselves and others, and thus mastery of an instrument or the ability to sing or dance, is an essential. Some rural and semi-rural societies still operate on these principles. These activities and topics would serve as context for mathematical and scientific learning, keep children active and healthy, provide endless opportunities for talk and for writing, and require children to learn to read effectively to address all of this. In doing so, they would be pointing backward to a cultural past, creating a strong community of learning in the present, and pointing forward to the kind of life that they could imagine living. They would be active, engaged and competent in a wide variety of skills and focal practices. Our energy would come from solar panels and wind turbines and ICT skills would be required to be known to manage these pieces of equipment, as well as to find out more information to assist the learning in this school. Teachers would be recruited from the population that had grown up locally, to afford continuity, and also from overseas, to broaden the educational perspectives or Milton Keynes teachers and children.

I was thinking about this recently, because it is becoming ever more a worry to me that we are not skilling children for a life that they need to live in order to bring peace and harmony into this world.

Yesterday, in the Guardian, there was a piece by Laura MacInerney about the 15th route proposed by the secretary of state to become a teacher (who knew there were already 14 different routes into teaching?): work for an apprentice’s pittance for four days a week and then go to university for the 5th day, and take a silly number of years to complete a PGCE or teaching degree.

Everything, it seems, can be done better if only we can spend less money on it and reduce the budget deficit. I have this crazed vision of teachers, worn to the bone and treated like the unqualified apprentices they are, filling the gap of this government’s delusional teacher-recruitment policy, and reinforcing the public perception of exactly how unworthy of respect the teaching profession really is.

Sorry, but this is appalling news, and is another example of the public-service-on-the-cheap approach that has characterised the current administration’s policies for education and health. It is education-for-maintenance. It will not change the world, except to render it more homogeneous and under the rule of multinationals who want to flog us stuff.

Just as bad, I think, is the huge growth of teacher training rooted in teaching schools and school-centred initial teacher training. This has come to light in a number of recent discussions with NQTs, trainers, and teaching school folk. There seems to be a common judgment that teaching is for one thing – pupil progress – and that the experience of teaching students, in what I have learned from speaking to many of them, is geared principally to that end. This would not be a massive problem except that “pupil progress” is shorthand in primary schools for “pupil progress in reading, writing and maths.”

Colin Richards, always worth listening to, has a column in the TES this week where we worries that because “the curriculum” has been so poorly defined for primary schools, any efforts by OFSTED to “look at the broader curriculum” are doomed to failure. His previous post places the fault of that squarely on the inspectorate. The curriculum is, for non-maintained schools, exactly what they say it is. For maintained schools, it is an ill-balanced see-saw of 200 pages or so, of which 89 pages are for English, 44 pages are for maths, 32 pages are for science and 23 pages are for everything else. This is not the curriculum: it is just the national curriculum for England. And for those many schools (and I keep hearing about them) who pretty much do just English, maths and a bit of science – well, they are actually following it nearly to the letter. A colleague of mine was on a course in Hertfordshire the other day and was amazed that the Y6 teachers of her acquaintance were not even thinking of doing any foundation subjects until after the SATs test in May.

For teachers, then (to return to my main point) to be able to contribute to, develop and teach a healthy, broad-based, child-and-culture-centred curriculum full of human experience and wisdom – well they will need more than a teaching school can give them, I suppose. They will need more than a year to do it. And they will need to be apprentices of life and culture, not just one-day-a-week students living on the breadline and wearing themselves out as starter teachers in schools that only want to teach English and maths.

What on earth are we creating here?

Continual dew of Thy blessing

WP_20171015_17_15_27_ProToday, the congregation at Bradwell Church said goodbye in word, deed and food, to Andy and Jane Jowett, who have led and pastored and built up said congregation over the last 17 years. For 6 of those, we have been villagers and congregants under Andy’s careful eye, and when we have had the chance, helped a little. We have valued their friendship and involvement, but for many present at a packed service at the church today, and the over 50 at a farewell lunch at the Bradwell Abbey Cruck Barn, their involvement and fellowship with Andy and Jane goes much farther back and much more richly and deeply than ours.  These are good people, whose unwavering commitment to Jesus and to the steadfast pastoring of the church of God has built up a purposeful and willing congregation that was made to feel safe, taught thoroughly, and cared for. Andy’s ability to remember names and circumstances is legendary, and both his and Jane’s pastoral energy was considerable. Andy has, by his commitment to a huge range of causes (not least the Christian Motorcycle Association, who arrived in force to say farewell) become a part of the MK mission and is widely respected and loved. There will be people more qualified  eloquent than I to write about both Andy and Jane, and the sheer honest devotion of those that shared in this afternoon’s farewell service, whilst laced with an entirely appropriate self-control, teetered on the edge of an outpouring of loss and affection.

At the beginning of the service, we shared the prayer above, and subsequent meditations were centred around the great marvels that God had done through this couple, the congregations committed to their charge and, in being sent out and commissioned for their next work, at Foxearth with A Rocha, the continual dew of Thy blessing. It felt like – and is – the end of an era, and the slow machinations of ecumenical Anglicanism now grind on to find a replacement; but that the continuing blessing of the Father will remain on Andy and Jane, and on those who continue to lead the interregnum work at Bradwell (Rob, Rod and Mike), is certain.

The beauty of the day needed a fitting conclusion, and a quiet walk through the Wolverton floodplain forest saw us to sunset. A jay, a group of lapwings, a little egret and an enormous pheasant strutting about in a recently grown willow thicket were the reward. These too are part of the continual dew of His blessing.