Unhiding the Pastoral Curriculum

What are we really teaching our kids?

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to regular readers and Twitter correspondents that I am a keen advocate for both developing a research informed approach to teaching, and building a knowledge-rich curriculum. These two things have become dominant strands in the discourse of #EduTwitter and the Tweacher Society as it manifests online, through conferences, and in related publications. However, I have become increasingly aware of some gaps in this discourse around the pastoral work of schools and teachers. I have spoken about this at a few ResearchED events now, and have written about it in a previous blog post. I plan to write a series of blog posts in which I develop further my thinking about the pastoral aspects of our work. In this blog post, I’d like to think about the messages that we give children outside of the academic curriculum, and to encourage fellow teachers, Heads of Year, and pastoral leaders to think a little more deliberately about them.

Be Extraordinary

I’m sitting in a Year 10 assembly as a form tutor. The Head of Year (HoY) is leading the assembly. It’s something about doing extraordinary things. Or something. The HoY is showing a video that she has found on YouTube. It is a montage of people doing amazing things: there’s someone doing stunts on a bicycle; there’s someone doing Parkour; there’s someone conducting huge jumps over a ravine. And there’s someone jumping onto a moving car.

It’s difficult for me to conceptualise now, several years later, what message this particular HoY hoped her Year 10 students would get from this montage of clips. Beside from the utter stupidity of the content, I’d also problematise the essence of the message. The notion of being extraordinary is dangerous territory: most of us are not, and never will be, world record holders, top ranking sports stars, olympians or inventors of paradigm shifting machines. Most of us are not going to do things that are going to be recorded in history books. And presenting such characters as role models can be quite damaging for some students, harming their self-esteem.

I guess what this HoY wanted to do was something around aspiration, and of course, I’m not against aspiration. But I think we need to be very careful about what kinds of aspiration we suggest to students and the kinds of activities that we promote and celebrate.

The Hidden Curriculum

Children and young people learn far more in schools than what we have written on our lesson plan. There are infinitely complex social networks that they must learn to navigate, between each other and the adults. There are unwritten rules about which teacher has what expectations. There are myriad unwritten rules about which kids are at the top of the hierarchy and those who dwell in the mud at the bottom. And, ultimately, there are the unplanned learning episodes that we as teachers transmit to students. The social mores, the expected behaviours, the allowed digressions.

Many of the artefacts of the hidden curriculum are manifested in those moments where we could so easily ameliorate the problems. Assemblies are an obvious example. I wonder how many schools have a curriculum plan for their assemblies.

Towards a Knowledge Rich Pastoral Curriculum

In my school its easy: we have the Book of Common Prayer to guide us through! Of course, assemblies are but one element of a cohesive knowledge rich curriculum. Other elements are built around PSHE, SMSC, Character Education, Ethical Leadership and so on. Some schools are doing great work on these strands, with dedicated lessons for, say, PSHE. But I wonder how many schools have actually scoped out their offer in the same way that they might for academic subjects. I have seen roadmaps shared on Twitter – lovely graphical displays of a department’s very long-term plans from Y7 to Y11. I’ve yet to see one for the pastoral.

In fact, despite some Twitter accounts and hashtags devoted to the pastoral, I rarely see discussions about pastoral curriculum.

So I would urge you to think carefully about the pastoral knowledge you might want your students to acquire. Plan it out. Unhide it.

“Climb that tree” – Differentiating Differentiation

Back in 2016 I wrote a post called “Climb that Tree” – Differentiating Differentiation. I have now deleted that post as I decided I no longer wanted to give exposure to the tweeter mentioned in it. However, the thrust of the post is, I think, worth revisiting. So here follows a new version of the post with the same title. 

I’m sure you’ve all seen the cartoon which aims to lambast ‘Our Education System’ by showing a line of different animals being ordered to “climb that tree” as a standardised assessment tool.

Source unknown

The cartoon is often presented with a quotation falsely attributed to Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. At first glance, this quotation and cartoon might seem a startlingly, obviously true reflection of our education system. The cartoon implies that asking every child to take the same test is unfair because children are individual and some children can’t do academic tests as well as other children can. Adding the quotation from Einstein is intended to lend the message some authority, but the message carries enough truthiness to have people nodding sagely in agreement with it anyway. It’s a wonderfully Romantic notion to celebrate the individuality of each child and to present the school system as oppressively uniform; it’s an echo of Blake heard through the marshmallow comfort of ‘child-centred’ rhetoric. It seems wholesome and brain achingly obvious. But it is #EduLasagne: it tastes nice, it feels comforting, but it might be a load of horsemeat. 

In fact it isn’t #EduLasagne. It’s downright #EduBobbins.

One of the problems that I have with this cartoon is the notion that children are so very different that they are analogous with being entirely separate species with unrelated evolutionary paths. The idea is that two children are so utterly different that an education system is unable to find suitable models of assessment that can identify knowledge and understanding shared by them. This is patently nonsensical.

For those children with physical disabilities or severe learning difficulties, I can appreciate where the idea of a standard test becomes problematic. However, the cartoon is never presented to reflect such children. Rather, it is presented as a humorous example of why we need to differentiate assessment. The problem here is that in most classes across the country, children’s learning capabilities are really not so extremely different as to mean that they can never access the assessment criteria of a given test. The cartoon shows 5 out of 6 animals that could never climb that tree. Do we mean to suggest that perhaps 5 out of 6 children will never be able to access the assessment criteria of any given exam? How does this correlate with the high numbers of pupils who manage to attain GCSE grades in a range of subjects? The evidence of exam results clearly shows that the vast majority of children indeed can access the assessment criteria of GCSE. Indeed, the grading of GCSE has differentiation built into it. And where children have severe physical or learning needs, special dispensation can be given, offering equity within the system. Whether this works in practice is up for debate, and I would certainly not say that access arrangements are currently successful. However, I think this falls beyond the scope of this blog post.

Alternatively, the cartoon could be seen as a humorous reflection of the need to differentiate instruction. One example that has been used, and is often still promoted, is the use of must/should/could (henceforth MSC) strategies that expect teachers to differentiate learning objectives to three levels. 

I’ve often seen it suggested – expected – that teaching should take account of the learning needs of all. In principle I agree. In reality, how is this possible through a MSC style approach to differentiation? Is it really possible to plan a lesson that is going to cater for the individual needs of 30 children? How can we even know what those needs are actually going to be? In any given lesson the needs of individual children can be different from the previous lesson, the previous day, the previous week. What about the kid whose mother has just been diagnosed with cancer? What about the kid whose elder brother has been arrested? What about the kid whose been bullied and is harming themselves in secret? What about the kids for whom none of those things are happening?

The answer is, of course, that we can’t know those things. But we can know about their diagnosed learning needs, through their IEPs and so forth. So what happens then? We know that Billy has dyslexia and that Jenny has ADHD. On what grounds are we going to differentiate their learning on our plan? Do we assume that the autistic kid won’t get that George plays solitaire because he’s lonely? What assumptions is it acceptable for us to make about our pupils? Who are we to assume that any child would be working at the MUST level of our objectives?

This is a serious problem with this style of differentiation – it inevitably leads to low expectations. I have frequently heard teachers say things about bottom sets such as, “Well, what do you expect from these kids?”.

In a previous post,I wrote this:

Another version of this question, or at least the underlying thinking that forms it, was when I worked in a school which was pretty good at playing the results game. At the time, I was Head of English and was discussing the content requirements of the GCSE Literature course with one of the Deputy Headteachers. His view was that we only really needed to bother teaching the Literature content to the top set; we would enter all the others for Literature but only so that their English Language grades would count towards the league tables. I tried to offer a counter opinion of this, but his retort stopped me in my tracks: “We only need them to get a C in English, not to be able to discuss the finer points of Of Mice and Men“.

This is an extreme form of the unintended consequences that come from a MSC approach to differentiation. As it happens, that school insisted that lessons always have an MSC structure, employing a hinge-point question that would enable the teacher to divide the class into three groups, each doing a different thing. If a lesson were observed where children were doing the same task, it would be condemned. I got a GOOD in a lesson observation where I had a GCSE class marking sample exam answers and rewriting them. One group looked at a D grade answer, one group a C grade answer, and the other group a B grade answer. What’s the problem with this? Well, why shouldn’t the “D” group look at the B grade answer? Who am I to limit their experience of that?

[Of course, there is research to suggest that showing kids “Good answers” can do more harm than good in some instances. I think it is @lauramcinerney that I learnt this from.]

Back in the days of tiers in GCSE English, differentiation took the form of Foundation or Higher tier entries. But I know that some pupils were entered for the wrong tier. Some kids who could have attained a grade B or higher were entered for Foundation, limiting their potential attainment. This is something that I lament. 

So, the problem that I have with differentiation as it manifests in most schools that I have experienced is actually about having low expectations of some pupils – either because of a diagnosed “learning need”, or because of teachers’ low opinions of the pupils.

Instead of assuming that some kids can’t climb that tree, we should be finding ways of helping them to get up there.

Towards Pastorality – Developing a research informed approach to being a Head of Year.

I had the great pleasure of attending ResearchEDBrum as a speaker again this year. This time, the event’s amazing organiser, Claire Stoneman (@stoneman_claire) asked if I would be interested in presenting a session on an evidence-informed approach to my pastoral role; of course, I said yes. Within minutes, a nauseating realisation washed over me: I do not have one.

I have been banging the drum in favour of research and evidence informed practice in education for some years now, zealously encouraging my colleagues to engage with evidence through emails, INSET sessions, invites to rED events and so on. My English departmental colleagues and I have reworked our schemes of work to incorporate interleaving, spaced practice, and the testing effect. I have shared links to Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction with just about everyone, and have adapted my own classroom practice in response to reading it. I have stripped back my classroom displays, employed retrieval practice in most lessons, and attempted some dual coding on my board. And yet, when it comes to my role as Head of Year, nothing is based on research.

By the very nature of pastoral work, much of what we do is reactive and often ad hoc. It is, perhaps, instinctive. We deal with issues in the moment, and try to pick up the pieces as we go. But this somehow didn’t feel good enough. I felt that there probably ought to be a more robust approach, and was certain that there must be a solid body of literature for Heads of Year and pastoral leaders to consult.

So I looked.

And looked.

I found a couple of How to … type handbooks, one of which claimed to be a “post-modern approach” to the practice of pastoral care. But nothing that struck me as being especially rigorous, academic, or robust. Nothing with an extensive reference list; nothing pointing to a literature review.

Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 21.42.14But then I came across the journal Pastoral Care in Education, which led me to the National Association for Pastoral Care in Education (NAPCE). The journal is peer reviewed and, despite having a clear leaning towards a social constructivist approach to schooling, contains a range of papers covering a wide array of topics. Some of the papers are free to access. With a rising number of issues I face being due to children’s use of social media and messaging apps, of particular immediate interest to me was a piece titled ‘Cyberbullying bystanders and moral engagement: a psychosocial analysis for pastoral care‘. Searching the journal’s database for the key term ‘bullying’ returns over 1300 results.

Clearly, here is a resource of great potential for Heads of Year and pastoral leaders. Whilst not all articles are free access, the journal’s papers can be found through the Chartered College of Teaching journal access.

The role of Head of Year incorporates many strands, each of which could no doubt call upon a wealth of field specific research and, perhaps, even empirical evidence. Screen Shot 2019-03-11 at 21.50.23It is interesting to note that, in all our work as teachers, there is probably only one area with a specific, nationally mandated body of literature that all teachers must be familiar with: safeguarding. With statutory updates, safeguarding policy and practice rests upon specific cases, such as Victoria Climbié and Baby Peter, and responds to changing understanding of issues such as county lines. Whilst it is absolutely right that safeguarding commands such high priority for our attention and mandatory CPD, it is telling that it remains the only area of our work with an agreed body of knowledge, and established protocols for action. No other area in teaching, or in school work, carries such certainty. 

For those who might wish teaching to be considered a profession, or to be regarded with the esteem of, say medicine, the notion of taking an ad hoc approach to pastoral care must only seem foolish. Developing an empirical, evidence informed response must surely represent a necessary step forward. 

One area of research which seems like a good fit for pastoral care is that of character education. There are those who may see character education as yet another nebulous generic skill, and I’m incredibly disappointed in the list that Damian Hinds gives as his “five foundations for building character“. However, I would much rather look to the work of the Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham (@jubileecentre1) for a better idea of what might constitute character education. Furthermore, with the current focus on curriculum, I see the Jubilee Centre’s ideas as giving the potential grounding for character education as a more concrete curriculum artefact – a subject that can be taught. 

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (2017) A Framework for Character Education in Schools[online]. Birmingham. Available from: https://uobschool.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Framework-for-Character-Education-2017-Jubilee-Centre.pdf 

By way of example, my colleague Jo Owens (@joanneowens) and I recently did some work with our Year 9 students on how it might be argued that Atticus Finch is presented as an idealised virtuous character, finding examples from To Kill A Mockingbird of when Finch demonstrates the various virtues from the Jubilee Centre’s lists.

If it is the case that we can conceive of the pastoral as curriculum artefacts that can be taught, then perhaps we can make explicit use of things such as cognitive load theory and Rosenshine after all. Certainly, if we see PSHE, for example, as a timetabled lesson, then whatever we choose to incorporate can be handled just as any other subject discipline knowledge. It is easy to envisage the use of, say, knowledge organisers and quizzes to ensure that any pastoral knowledge that we deem relevant and important is moved into long-term memory.

As Head of Year, I am also responsible for weekly assemblies. In my setting, these are fairly easy to organise – the work is done for me by dint of the Book of Common Prayer! But here is another opportunity for me to make explicit those aspects of the pastoral that we might deem to be important. I can recall during my B.Ed being taught about the ‘hidden curriculum’ – all those aspects of pupil learning that we do not, or cannot, plan for. I wonder if we might, in fact, be able to unhide these aspects, to reveal them through a determined, conscious and deliberate process of identifying the specific pastoral knowledge we wish our students to learn, and explicitly teaching them.

And finally (for now), we must not ignore the symbiotic relationship between the pastoral and the academic. It is very tempting to suggest that, in order to succeed, students must be happy. But it is in fact the case that academic success can bring happiness.

It is interesting that Project Follow Through found such large positive effects for Direct Instruction, and other academic programmes, upon non-academic measures of problem-solving and wellbeing, whilst those programmes which were designed to specifically target problem-solving and wellbeing had zero, or at worst, negative impacts on those very measures.

So, in order to move towards a research informed approach to the pastoral, I suggest that we need to do the following:

  • Develop dynamic pastoral policies which make reference to peer-reviewed material and that can be adapted in response to new findings;
  • Consider the academic and the pastoral in symbiosis;
  • Consider the pastoral as curriculum, and teach it explicitly.

In a future post, I will consider how Foucault’s reflections on the Panopticon and Orwell’s dark prophecy of Big Brother, might be put to positive use in the act of (as Biesta puts it) socialisation and subjectification.


In what has been described as the most watched TED talk of all time, Sir Ken Robinson famously suggests that we are “educated out” of creativity. This view has certainly not gone uncontested. Julian Astle does a nice job of commenting upon Robinson’s arguments, pointing to TEDx talk by Astle’s colleague Tim Leunig in which Leunig argues that “real creativity is based on knowledge”.

There is an on-going thread in the #EduTwitter discourse that positions ‘creativity’ as being of fundamental value, above even literacy and numeracy, perhaps, and certainly more important than merely memorising facts by rote. And ‘creativity’ is described as being vital in the 21st Century; it is essential for employment in the economy of the future. Of course, purveyors of this view seem not to have noticed that we are two decades into the 21stCentury, and they aren’t able to offer any kind of definitive explanation for why the future particularly needs ‘creativity’ any more than ‘creativity’ was needed at any time in the past. The soothsayers merely tell us that robots will take all our jobs, and that most kids in school today will end up in jobs that don’t exist yet.

There is an unpleasant undercurrent of utilitarianism to this discourse; I am deeply irritated by arguments which basically amount to nothing more than suggesting schools = job training. I’ve written before about some of my concerns with the utilitarian view of education, and it concerns me to see it so dominant in some quarters. Much of the drive for ‘creativity’ seems to be coming from the worlds of business and banking. And the last thing we should be doing is asking bank managers to help us design curriculums.

What baffles me most, though, is the notion that schools don’t currently teach ‘creativity’. I teach English – a subject whose very being pulses with creativity; creativity is the lifeblood of English, it is the essence of English. Without creativity, English would be nothing.

At GCSE, English Language is 50% composition, including narrative prose and discursive and transactional writing. In English Literature, students are assessed through the medium of the essay – the paragon of academic composition, an exercise in argumentation and rhetoric.

This term, across KS3, I have discussed the following texts, stories, and news reports with students:

  • Genesis ch.1-3;
  • Prometheus, and Pandora;
  • The Portraits of the Knight and The Miller (Chaucer);
  • Caxton’s Eggs;
  • The Monkey’s Paw;
  • The Signalman;
  • The Red Room;
  • To Kill a Mockingbird;
  • The Crucible;
  • McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In addition, we’ve been using the weekly writing challenges from Rebecca Foster to help students to develop their writing craft. And best of all, some students have had a go at writing their own sonnets.

My subject absolutely oozes creativity, and so do many others. And that’s not to mention the music, the drama, and the artistic endeavours that permeate every school across the country, nor the creative approaches that students employ and develop in their charity raising, the Duke of Edinburgh Award, their sporting achievements, and in many other activities too numerous to mention.

To suggest that schools do not promote creativity is a lie.

KS3: The Wonder Years

I had the great pleasure of hearing Mark Lehain (@lehain) speak at the ResearchED National Conference (#rED18) last week. He is entertaining, charismatic and, perhaps most surprisingly given some of the things tweeted about him, not actually evil. He was speaking on the topic of a knowledge rich curriculum – a topic which has provoked as much surreal discourse on #EduTwitter as anything else. He was keen to point out the emphasis on the indefinite article, though. He wasn’t talking about the knowledge rich curriculum; there was no attempt here to dictate or prescribe what all children should learn across the country. Rather, this was a rallying call for teachers to engage with the question of curriculum, and to develop their own answers for their own students.

Lehain’s examples were drawn from popular culture: did you know that The Lion King is Hamlet? (I did, as it happens.) These examples demonstrated how knowing stuff helps to enrich our appreciation of art and culture, and how valuable it is to build cultural capital. This isn’t about elitism – it’s really the very opposite of that.

Lehain referenced the words of Clare Sealy (@ClareSealy) in his inspiring discussion of The Wonder Years,  a further exploration of which can be found at the Parents and Teachers for Excellence project page:

This project was inspired by a great comment the great Clare Sealy made at our inaugural conference. She said that if we accept that Reception and Key Stage 1 is about teaching pupils “to write and not bite”, and that Year 10 onwards is inevitably driven by exam specs, why can’t the time in between be “The Wonder Years”?

She described a glorious period where children are taught a curriculum jam-packed full of the very best that has been thought, said, and done, so that they enter the latter part of their schools with a broad, deep and rich base of cultural & communal knowledge, to draw upon in later life and, yes, exams.

In 2015, Ofsted published a report titled Key Stage Three: The Wasted Years? which raises concerns about a lack of rigour in both the curriculum and teaching in KS3. Of particular concern to me, this report also noted a reduction of KS3 in some schools, as they begin teaching GCSE in Year 9 and have students choose their GCSE options at the end of Year 8.  These concerns about a narrowing curriculum have also been echoed by Amanda Spielman (@amanda_spielman ) in various instances.

Inevitably, there are those on #EduTwitter who see something sinister in these movements, or those who seem to want to peddle an unhelpful focus on some vague notion of 21st Century Skills which reduces schooling to job training and which provides nothing but propaganda fuel for technology companies.

There are more serious critiques of the concept of a knowledge rich curriculum which draw upon critical pedagogy and wish to question what they see as the ‘dead white males’ standard of curriculum design, as perfectly illustrated by union leader Dr Mary Bousted (@MaryBoustedNEU ). However, whilst there may be valid concerns raised in this sort of critique about the content of exam specifications, what Lehain is talking about is, perhaps, somewhat different. A knowledge rich curriculum in Lehain’s conceptualisation would see no such limited focus on dead white males; indeed, equipping students with cultural capital* would enable them to turn a critical eye to such things as curricular set text lists. In my first lesson with my Year 12 English Literature class this week we discussed the prominence of male names in the poetry anthology, and I have suggested that developing a working knowledge of feminist literary criticism would be serve them well.

Founder of the Midlands Knowledge School Hub, Clive Wright (@Irenaeus1969) told me about his school’s English department which studies Ovid in Year 7. His question about curriculum for all departments now is “what’s your Ovid?”. In other words, what are the foundational bits of your subject that your children would benefit from knowing? For me, in order to prepare them for later study at GCSE, I want my KS3 pupils to know about iambic pentameter and sonnets. I want them to know a bit about Prometheus and the Three Fates. I want them to know about Pandora. I want them to know about Romanticism.

But, perhaps more than all of that, I want them to know stuff. I want them to be able to spot references to stuff in other stuff. I want them to be able to say “Oh! I recognise that!”

I want my children – by which I mean the children I teach, and my own daughters – to be able to participate in the great conversations of human activity, endeavour and thought.



*  A fascinating conversation has ensued on Twitter about my use of the term ‘cultural capital here’, which starts at this tweet. Thanks to @memneon and Peter Ford (@EdSacredProfane).


I expected them to be trudging the yard, eyes down, their minds manacled. I expected nervous looks between them as I asked them questions, afraid to utter the truth about their terrible life of drudgery. I expected officious, dry and humourless Vogonesque teachers, chanting out their instructions as the poor children chanted their replies.

What I got was …

I arrived during one of the lunch sittings and was escorted out onto the playground. I saw children. Some of them were playing. Some of them were chatting. All of them were happy.

As I chatted with some of the children, I was struck by their willingness to talk and by their articulate maturity. Inevitably, some were shyer than others; they’re children after all. But all spoke about their favourite subjects with openness and enthusiasm. What upset me, as a teacher of English, is that most of them said their favourite subject is maths.

And then we were into lunch. This was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had in a school. The children entered the room reciting the words of a poem. They arranged themselves at tables. I was sharing my table with mostly Year 7 pupils, and a Year 9 pupil. We sat. Mr Williams-Yale then recalled the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, drawing out the positive and negative power of influence, before posing two questions for discussion: 1) Who influences you? 2) How do you influence others?

By this time, food and cutlery had magically appeared before me, brought to the table and passed to me by the children. We ate. We talked. The Year 9 girl at our table led the discussion with aplomb, but not before introducing herself to me with a handshake. She was incredible. Her chairing of the discussion ensured that everyone around the table was enabled to participate.

Suddenly, we were on to ice-cream and then the dirty plates and cutlery were gathered up and taken away, by the pupils.

Lunch concludes with appreciations. All pupils raise their hands to offer an appreciation, and my Year 9 girl offered an appreciation to me for my visit and for contributing to the discussion. I couldn’t resist raising my hand to offer an appreciation in return followed by one two clap clap.

I did think that perhaps the lunch was over all too quickly. But then, the logistics of getting children fed in a timely fashion dictate this. It will be interesting to see how this develops when the school reaches full capacity.

After lunch, we were given a tour of the school. What struck me was the silent focus in every lesson. It was impressive, too, to see SLANT in action in real classrooms with actual children. And it works. As the tour progressed, I began to wonder if there was a risk of the children losing a sense of individuality within the pace of the lessons and the direct instruction. I was, perhaps, worried that the children were being somewhat brainwashed to give standard responses. But then I actually listened to some of the answers – and questions – that the children were offering. I noted a lot of discussion between pupils, at the invitation of teachers, but unlike the kinds of discussions I’ve witnessed in most lessons in most schools, these were focused and precise. I was impressed in a Year 8 English lesson by a girl who politely challenged an interpretation offered by the teacher: she gave an informed, coherent, and plausible counter interpretation, supported sublimely by apt textual reference.

Our tour guides, two Year 8 pupils, spoke to us of their ambitions and their experiences of being Michaela pupils. They clearly valued the opportunities that the school is offering them. They were mature, articulate and – and this is impressive in children their age – interested in what we had to say. They asked our opinions of what we’d seen. They asked about our journey. They asked about our schools. These are children who can hold their own when talking to adults.

After my tour, I had the great honour of chatting with Ms Birbalsingh herself. I’ve seen bizarre criticisms of her on #EduTwitter. I’ve seen, too, her speeches, including the infamous Tory party conference one. But here she was, in person. In the flesh. And I was struck by her …

Now look. People who’ve seen me speak at ResearchED will know that I have a problem with the notion of ‘passion’ in education. I resent its use in teaching vacancy advertisements because of the implied expectation of suffering, or of uncontrollable emotion. But that isn’t to say that the term should never be used. And here I’m going to use it.

… passion. One of the criticisms I’ve seen of Birbalsingh is a suggestion that she somehow works against the progressive ideal of social justice. Just ten minutes in her company, or ten minutes walking around her school, will tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Birbalsingh adores her pupils. Her kids. She is determined, almost beyond reason, to give these young people the best opportunities to lift themselves out of whatever conditions they find themselves in and to hold their heads up high as they mingle with all those public school alumni who dominate the hegemonic sphere of influence.

As we sat chatting in her office, I noticed the walls which were like those of a gallery: adorned by the most extraordinary artwork. This was a feature of the whole school. The walls around the building were minimal, but the children’s artwork was everywhere. And it was brilliant. Later, I mentioned to the art teacher how impressed I was and she explained how the artwork on display was the direct consequence of drilling. The children work on a particular skill or technique for a long time, enabling them to ultimately produce masterpieces.

After talking with Ms Birbalsingh, I was left to roam the school. This was the point in the day where I would discover the truth behind the facade. Perhaps, up until this point, I had been Mr Whymper, taken in by the apparently full grain barrels. So I went into lessons.

I had the joy of visiting another English lesson where the enthusiasm of the teacher was infectious. I visited maths lessons, art lessons, and science lessons. Everywhere, the children were focused, well behaved, and … engaged. Sure, a few kids looked like they’d prefer to be at home. But then, so do I most of the time. But to see an entire school so engaged in learning was a thing to behold.

I happened to be on a corridor during a lesson change over. It was silent. This is hundreds of children moving along corridors, up and down stairs, in silence. And moving rapidly. In my previous schools, lesson changeover was a key danger spot for poor and dangerous behaviour with children shoving each other on the stairwells, chasing each other on the corridors, and the noise would be horrendous. I once followed a boy down a corridor demanding he let go of another boy whom he held in a neck lock; upon finally releasing him, the aggressor told me this was “bantz”. Here at Michaela seemed like another world.

I did wonder whether I could cope with working in such a place as Michaela. I felt that perhaps I might find it too restrictive, that it would not allow a Maverick teacher to thrive; that creativity and autonomy had been replaced by, albeit very successful, routines and procedures. But then I remembered why I love the sonnet form so much.

The English (or Shakespearean) sonnet has a strict set of rules. It must have 14 lines, constructed of three quatrains in alternate rhymed iambic pentameter, followed by a rhyming couplet. Such prescription, such restrictive order. And yet … Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day. The tight structures of the form allow for great creativity of expression and sophistication of expression. A sonnet is a piece of rhetoric, a logical argument which turns at the volta. It is the perfect expression of human artistic endeavour, perhaps even the pinnacle of literary enterprise.

Perhaps, within the tightly controlled parameters of their school days, teachers and students at Michaela can thrive in the creative beauty that form allows.


On the 12th May, 2018, my school is hosting #CharacterED2018, with keynote speakers Nicky Morgan, Sean Harford, Elizabeth Wright, and Martin Robinson.

I look at that sentence not quite able to believe that it’s true. What began as a silly idea dreamt up while I was mooching around last year’s ResearchEDRugby event is now just a few weeks away; and it’s real.

With help, support, and encouragement from my friend, colleague, and co-organiser @joanneowens, we have brought this thing to life. Our little Cathedral School is about to host what we hope to be the first of many such conferences, forming part of an important national debate about the nature of Character Education, whether it can be taught or if it’s caught, and how schools might go about embedding it.

Character Education is back on the agenda (did it ever go away?), with Damian Hinds talking about traits like “resilience”. However, I’m uneasy with talk of “soft skills” and preparing children for the “workplace”, as I’ve discussed before and I don’t want discussion around Character Education to get hijacked by these kinds of reductionist, utilitarian discourses. Rather, I’d like to embrace what Gert Biesta explores and describes as subjectification in his description of the three aspects of educational purpose, and what @bernywern discusses in his comments about educational fideism.

I’d like to reclaim the phrase 21st Century Skills, and wrench it from the hands of those who would seek to sell us technological snake-oil, or condemn our children to a lifelong job training scheme. I wish to redefine it as being-centred education – how to be in the 21st Century.

For me, Character Education is an act of what Foucault calls the “critical ontology of ourselves” and which he describes as a “philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them”.

Character Education, then, is not some vague notion of “soft skills”, nor is it anything to do with preparing for the workplace. Rather, it is the training of individuals to become subjects, it is a deliberate philosophical life, an ongoing experiment with the possibility of going beyond the limits imposed upon us.

Character Education is not just about individuals though. It is about society. It is about focusing on, celebrating, and nurturing those attributes which so many of our young people already demonstrate. It aligns, I think, with ideas around a post-critical pedagogy, taking a “positive stance”.

I’m quite excited about our conference. Why not join us?

Link to Eventbrite page for #CharacterED2018

Character Education in the 21st Century

Confirmed keynote speakers:

  • Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP – Author of Taught Not Caught: Educating for 21st Century Character;
    former Secretary of State for Education (2014-2016).
  • Sean Harford – Ofsted’s National Director, Education.
  • Elizabeth Wright – Paralympic Medalist, schools speaker and character education expert; co-author of Character Toolkit for Teachers: 100+ Classroom and Whole School Character Education Activities for 5-11 Year Olds.
  • Martin Robinson – Author of Trivium 21c; Education and Curriculum consultant with an interest in the Liberal Arts (especially grammar, dialectic and rhetoric).

Additional sessions from: