Hello. How’s things?

So, I asked for some suggestions as to what to write a blog about. I didn’t get many. But I did get this one:

And then Naureen beat me to it.

The discussion around this topic has been fascinating, and has been going on for a long time. Specifically, the debate over phonics continues to be an issue around which the debate spins. Of course, this has been an issue for some time now, with proponents of phonics claiming it is the best way to teach reading, and critics claiming that reading is about more than decoding – which is what phonics is all about. I don’t intend to retread this tired debate, but I am interested in its recent resurfacing following two recent conferences which occurred on the same day: #rEDLang and #OxReadingSpree.

I wasn’t at either event. But reading through both hashtags was interesting. The former, unsurprisingly, has a lot of material about research and evidence informed approaches to language, whilst the second shares discussion of¬† some fantastic and lovely kids’ books. As a teacher of English at secondary level, I appreciate the need for, and value of, both strands of this reading debate. However, these two events help to serve as perfect symbols of the wider debate in education. This debate is often framed as trad vs prog, as alluded to by Naureen in her tweet. However, as I wrote about previously, I think it is more reflective of a dichotomy¬†that goes even further back than the phonics debate.

On the one hand,¬†reading is the physical act of decoding and deciphering written or printed shapes on a page which represent phonic articulations that we call speech. Learning to decipher the phoneme/grapheme code is crucial for children to do well in school and beyond, and I’m sure there’s lots of research to support this position. However, on the other hand,¬†reading involves far more than decoding and deciphering the squiggles. It is about comprehension and understanding.

Following these two events, a discussion – often a little heated – arose following this tweet from @oldandrewuk:

Inevitably, I think a lot of this discussion was about crossed-wires. Some of the reaction to Andrew’s comments revealed a passionate (yes, I used¬†that word) love of childrens’ literature. I particularly enjoyed my conversation with @redgierob about the ways in which picture books convey narrative, as exemplified here:

which included this image:


I am a big fan of this kind of work, and can see how¬†reading includes this sort of¬†text. But here’s the crux of the problem. For Andrew, this ain’t reading. For me – a teacher of GCSE English, A Level English and sometimes media studies – this is partly about semiotics.

Have a look at the Eduqas GCSE English Assessment Objectives:

Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 22.32.13

AO1 gives us the phrase “identify and interpret explicit and implicit information and ideas”. This is a kind of deciphering, but it is about what¬†isn’t written just as much as what is.¬†And look at this question from the old version of AQA GCSE English Language: “Explain how the headline and picture are effective and how they link to the text. ”

[The past paper from which this comes can be found here, whilst the matching insert can be found here.]

And now have a look at the National Curriculum for KS2:

Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 22.43.58

So, case closed? Reading really is about more than just decoding via phonics. Sorted.

And yet. In order for kids to really be able to do any of that other stuff, they really do need to be able to read in the strictest, basic sense of decoding.

The more I think about this sort of stuff, the more I’m inclined to see Martin Robinson’s Trivium as a good model. And, as I tweeted to Old Andrew:

Will that do? I’d like to eat my Bournville now.

The Language and Discourse of Teaching Job Adverts

Following my post about #EduTwitter’s response to an advert placed on the TES Jobs website by a certain free school, I’ve been contemplating the messages that lie beneath the surface of the language used in advertisements for teaching vacancies. In this post, I’d like to begin a critical look at that language and, more importantly, the¬†discourses¬†that such language reflects.

Before I begin, I think it might be worth offering a definition of¬†discourse. However, this isn’t so easy. To begin with, dictionary.com offers these definitions:



communication of thought by words; talk; conversation:

earnest and intelligent discourse.

a formal discussion of a subject in speech or writing, as a 
dissertation, treatise, sermon, etc.

Linguistics. any unit of connected speech or writing longer than a 
verb (used without object), discoursed, discoursing.

to communicate thoughts orally; talk; converse.

to treat of a subject formally in speech or writing.
verb (used with object), discoursed, discoursing.

to utter or give forth (musical sounds).

It might seem that the most¬†immediate definition of relevance to what I’m doing is #3, taken from linguistics: “any unit of connected speech of writing longer than a sentence”. Certainly, this is the definition used by Eduqas in its A Level English Language specification. However, it is definition #1 that holds more pertinence for me: “communication of thought”. But I do not want us to settle for that because it seems to imply the conscious, deliberate act of¬†communicating a conscious and clear thought. The term¬†discourse¬†points to more than this. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose, depending on your point of view), from an academic standpoint¬†discourse doesn’t afford particularly easy definitions.¬†A look at Wikipedia (yeah, I know, but I¬†like it) reveals a number of schools or types of¬†discourse analysis or¬†discourse studies.

But, because my supervisor at the University of Birmingham likes him, I’ve been trying to get to grips with Foucault. He doesn’t do simple definitions. Here is Pat Thomson (@thomsonpat) doing a grand job of outlining a “Foucauldian approach to discourse analysis”:
  • discourse is a culturally constructed representation of reality, not an exact¬†copy
  • discourse constructs knowledge and thus governs, through the production of categories of knowledge and assemblages of texts, what it is possible to talk about and what is not (the taken for granted rules of inclusion/exclusion). As such, it re/produces both power and knowledge simultaneously
  • discourse defines subjects framing and positioning who it is possible to be and what it is possible to do
  • power circulates throughout society and, while hierarchised, is not simply a top-down phenomenon
  • it is possible to examine regimes of power through the historicised deconstruction of systems or regimes of meaning-making constructed in and as discourse, that is to see how and why some categories of thinking and lines of argument have come to be generally taken as truths while other ways of thinking/being/doing are marginalised.
Now, I’m a novice with this stuff, so I’m not going to pretend to offer a Foucauldian critique of the job adverts that I’m going to look at. Instead, I offer them up as material to be considered. And, since we have her in mind, I suggest that Pat Thomson’s questions to ask of texts might provide some interesting contemplation of the messages that lie beneath the surface of teaching job advertisements.
  1. What is being represented here as a truth or as a norm?
  2. How is this constructed? What ‚Äėevidence‚Äô is used?¬† What is left out? What is foregrounded and backgrounded? What is made problematic and what is not? What alternative meanings/explanations are ignored? What is kept apart and what is joined together?
  3. What interests are being mobilised and served by this and what are not?
  4. How has this come to be?
  5. What identities, actions, practices are made possible and /or desirable and/or required by this way of thinking/talking/understanding? What are disallowed? What is normalised and what is pathologised?
So, as I give the examples that I do below, I’d like you, dear reader, to consider these questions.


A Note On Data Selection

I’m taking my examples from vacancies currently advertised on the TES website. I won’t provide a link, and I won’t name the school. Such texts a short-lived, as they disappear once the closing date elapses. I am looking at posts in the secondary phase, because that’s my own, but I suspect those in the primary sector a likely to be similar.

I’m not selecting any particular subject or location. I have selected role of “teacher” in an attempt to avoid¬†promoted roles, but I know from experience that promoted roles often appear in such a selection. At time of writing, there are 2204 such roles. I will¬†not be going through all of them! Instead, I’ve picked the firs three.

A Note On Agenda and Motive

I’d like to make it clear that this is in no way intended to be an exercise in the kind of¬†criticism that so much of #EduTwitter seems to indulge in. I don’t mean to¬†criticise these adverts. I’m not trying to highlight anything¬†wrong with them. That’s really not my intention or job here. What is my intention is to ask questions about what the language chosen¬†might imply; to interrogate the kind of language that is employed in the most mundane aspects of the educational field.¬†

So, let’s get on with it.


The first one is for a teacher of computer science and ICT. I quote the first paragraph:

An exciting opportunity to work in our popular, growing ICT and Computing Team within our Maths and Business Learning Village; it is suitable for an outstanding Teacher who is able to teach IT to all Key Stages including 6th Form and computer science to at least KS3, with KS4 and KS5 an advantage. We’re looking for an ambitious, talented teacher looking for an excellent stepping stone for leadership roles in the future and who shares our belief in the highest standards of academic achievement in an inclusive setting. For us attitude, ideas, potential and teaching skill are important, we will actively support your development.

As I said, I don’t intend to deconstruct this text in some amateur Foucauldian hatchet job, nor do I intend to perform a genealogical analysis. But I would urge you to read this paragraph with Pat Thomson’s questions in mind. Furthermore, I’d like to ask some specific questions about this paragraph.

  • What might “exciting opportunity” imply?
  • What is a “Learning Village”? Is it a euphemism for “department” or “faculty”? Or is it a geographical thing? Is the faculty housed in a building separate from the main building?
  • In what way is the department (sorry, Team) “growing”? Are more pupils choosing the subject at KS4 and Ks5? Are more subjects being offered?
  • Since Ofsted no longer grades individual lessons or teachers, and many schools appear to have abandoned this practice, by what criteria are candidates to consider themselves to be “an outstanding Teacher”? And why has “teacher” been capitalised? Is this a typo, or does it reflect an attempt to emphasise the professional identity of the¬†teacher?
  • Following on from that, does this school still grade individual lessons or/and teachers? What does this imply about the school’s performance management procedure [I once worked in a school that, even if you met your PM targets, would prevent you from climbing the salary scale if you didn’t hit Good in every observation, and if this happened for two cycles could decrease your pay]?
  • Why is “ambitious” synonymous with a desire for “leadership roles”? Why is¬†leadership held in such high regard and esteem?
  • Are any and all “ideas” considered to be important? Are there any “ideas” which might be considered unimportant, unhelpful or unhealthy?
  • If a school is keen to support the development of the ambitions and potential of a teacher seeking leadership roles, does that mean the school is anticipating that such leadership roles will be available within its own setting soon? Or does it imply that they expect the candidates to stay only for a short period of time? Why might this be?



The second advert is for a Lead Practitioner in English. Again, I’ve taken the first paragraph.

We are seeking to appoint a creative, highly motivated and dynamic candidate who ‚Äėloves‚Äô English to join our English Faculty as a Lead Practitioner. ¬†This role will involve working closely with the Head of Faculty and KEY Stage Leaders to ensure the effective delivery of a challenging and engaging curriculum, delivered using the very best of new and traditional teaching and learning approaches.

  • How does one define any of the adjectives in the persuasive triplet in the first sentence? “Creative” in what sense? A Shakespearean one? Does the school want a candidate who is nimble with iambic pentameter? I’m being slightly flippant here, of course, but I think you’ll get my point. How about “dynamic”? I assume we can take this definition from the OED: “positive in attitude and full of energy and new ideas”. Again, like the previous advert, there is an implication of¬†newness and, perhaps,¬†change. I wonder: how many new ideas and how much change is the SLT of this school open to?
  • “Delivery” and “delivered” are interesting terms, aren’t they?
  • “New and traditional teaching and learning approaches” – is the school advocating #NoBestWay? Is the school leadership engaged in the debates on #EduTwitter surrounding pedagogical methodologies? Are teachers at the school free to autonomously choose which methods they use?
  • Whilst there are no explicit references in this opening paragraph to “outstanding”, the word does appear later in the advert, where the school is looking for someone who “has the ability to regularly deliver outstanding learning experiences”. Does this imply graded lesson observations operate in this school? How are these learning experiences judged, by which criteria?



The third advert is for a Teacher of English. It’s a nice short first paragraph:

We are seeking to appoint an enthusiastic and well qualified English graduate to join our proactive, highly motivated and supportive team. You will be responsible for planning and delivering high quality lessons and achieving excellent results, instilling in all students a love for the subject and a desire to learn.

I’m going to leave you to form your own thoughts and questions about this one.



The next few adverts on the TES list are mostly focused on giving information about the schools, so I won’t reproduce them here. It’s interesting, though, that so many of them contain very little about the qualities wanted in the desired candidate. It’s also interesting how many adverts use the word “outstanding” in their candidate desires.

As I have said, it is not my intention to find fault with these advertisements. Rather, this is an attempt on my part to raise questions. I’d warmly welcome any comments.



Romanticism, Star Trek and the Prog/Trad Debate

The power to change men’s common way of thinking.


I’ve recently been teaching my Year 10 students the content of the poetry anthology for GCSE English Literature. In order to develop the pupils’ contextual understanding, and their understanding of what some of these poems are doing, we’ve been discussing Romanticism. As part of this, I found a BBC documentary about The Romantics over four episodes. The first episode explores the influence upon Romanticism of the French Revolution, and appears to present a juxtaposition between two friends: Rousseau and Diderot. The former, seeing feeling and emotion as offering a future of freedom for man who is “born free, and everywhere he is in chains” is played by a floppy haired David Tennant wondering around the wilds of nature. Meanwhile, Diderot is presented as seeing reason as being the means by which man will be set free and is played by a besuited and straight faced Jason Watkins.

Now, I don’t actually know very much about these two men, but a brief glance at Wikipedia reveals that this presentation is, of course, far too simplistic. Neither man really sought to promote either reason or emotion over the other, but argued for a recognition of the value of both.

But while I was watching the programme I was reminded of another documentary I had seen recently. I finally subscribed to Netflix and have been thoroughly enjoying the original series of Star Trek. I began with the pilot episode, with the Enterprise under the command of Captain Pike, and have been going through quite systematically. I’m now half way through the second series, and the portrayal of the characters is well defined and developed. Netflix recommended for me a documentary made by the son of Leonard Nimoy, reflecting on the life and work of his father. At one point in the programme, some talking head or other made the case that Mr Spock and Dr McCoy represent a kind of devil/angel duo, sitting on the shoulders of Kirk. Spock, of course, with his Vulcan logic and reasoned arguments is placed in contrast with the emotional McCoy. Between them, Spock and McCoy combine to make the ideal human being: Kirk.


I can’t help to see some echoes of all these ideas in the discourse on #EduTwitter, with the juxtaposition of progressive and traditionalist ideas about education. Frankly, I don’t like either of these terms. Progressive ideas have been around since the dawn of mass schooling; indeed even before, with Romantic poets rejecting the schoolroom. But the divisive nature of the discourse is getting frustrating. As a number of writers have pointed out, there has been a dominant orthodoxy in schools for decades, with progressive ideas grounded in social constructivism being pushed by ITT providers, Ofsted and SLT. Now, over the last few years, a rising number of voices online have been arguing the case for “traditionalist” methods or/and a “traditionalist” methodology. The swing of the pendulum in policy reflects both the influence of the argument, and perhaps the co-opting of the argument by those who some have labelled as neoliberal forces. Whilst these concerns may be valid, the nature the rhetoric is bizarre.

Inevitably, these voices of traditionalism are being challenged less and less by rational, reasoned argument or even calls to philosophical emotion, but more and more irrational, abusive versions of emotional outburst. For evidence, one need only look at the abuse hurled at #Michaela, or the kind of language used when people are gossiping about @oldandrewuk. I have read a couple of blogs lately that have sought to position the rise of traditionalist teaching on the same political line as the far right, where traditionalist are compared to Farage, Trump, nazis and fascists. Such blogs spectacularly fail to understand traditionalist teaching, nazism and fascism. But more fundamentally they fail to see that preference for teaching methodologies has very little to do with party political preferences or left/right wing thinking.

And there are those who prefer to deny the debate, or use one term whilst refusing to accept the other. The #nobestway chat is illustrative of an attempt to close the debate rather than to contribute to it.

But perhaps the most obvious sign of the decline in the standard of debate must be the emergence of parody Twitter accounts whose sole intent is abuse.

So, here’s my call to the new New Romantics, the NeoRomantics: come forward with your impassioned but well reasoned arguments. Let’s have our Spocks and our McCoys hammering it out so that the Kirks can get on with making informed decisions; and let’s ignore the troublesome tribbles.

#EduSonnet On Discourse

Perhaps this conversation is misplaced,
And words are squandered, twisted out of shape.
Progressive and tradition now disgraced;
A¬†dance macabre¬†from which they can’t escape.
These tortured yin and yang both rooted in
The same historic fractured, tainted ground,
Where myths of freedom, myths of discipline
Become the prattling, clanking background sound.
And all are blind and deaf amidst the din,
Unwilling or unable to discern,
The biggest, darkest, clearest stubborn sin
Is when debating has no place to turn.
The greatest strength that one can ever find,
Must be to welcome challenges of mind.

Michaela’s Job Ad

I’ve been resisting the urge to write about Michaela Community School. This is mainly because I am ambivalent about it. I have not visited the school, and I have not read¬†Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers. I know nothing of the school beyond the discourse on Twitter, and some basic Internet searches. I am aware that my initial thoughts about the school probably reflect my own ideology (and there’s a whole other Foucault inspired blog post waiting to be written on that topic).

Therefore, it is not my intention (yet) to comment upon its practices, and certainly not my intention to comment upon the individuals who work there. I’d like this to be very clear because there are those engaged in EduTwitter who are perfectly happy to criticise and make comments about this school and its staff without looking beyond the rhetoric. They argue that the school puts itself on a pedestal, engaging in aggressive self-promotion via insulting the rest of the teaching profession. There is some interesting dialogue occurring in response to the information which MCS puts out, but I fear that this gets lost in the shouting and boo-hissing which seems to erupt around this school, as if it were some pantomime villain. I must confess to finding some of the rhetoric from MCS somewhat distasteful, but it certainly does not warrant the kind of venom which oozes through a tweet labelling its staff as a “bunch of c****s”.

So, whilst I am not here to critique the school itself, I am really rather intrigued by the discourse surrounding it. And this is perfectly exemplified by the reaction to an advert published in the TES purporting to be for a School Detention Director at MCS. I say “purporting” because some of the response on Twitter has been to question the authenticity of the advert, such is the nature of its wording. Here it is:


Days are 7:30am to 5:30pm, with Friday ending at 3:30pm

Do you like order and discipline?
Do you believe in children being obedient every time?
Do you believe that allowing children to make excuses is unkind?

If you do, then the role of Detention Director at Michaela Community School, could be for you.

This role isn’t suited to a would-be counsellor or to someone who wants to be every child’s best friend. This role is for someone who believes children need clear, firm discipline. This role is for someone who believes tough love is what children need to become better people and grow into responsible young adults.

We want someone who will analyse data, organise detentions, line-manage staff, be a sergeant major in the detention room, ring parents, be extremely efficient with time and paperwork, have heart-to-heart conversations with pupils and be inspirational.

You do not need any experience, but must be willing to learn on the job. You will need reasonable spoken English, but your written English does not have to be excellent. You must also be hard-working, willing to get stuck in and own the job like it is the most important thing in the world to you.

We will train you if you are the right person for the job. So don’t imagine you cannot do it. If you have presence, passion and a good voice, then we want to meet you!

The salary we are offering is far higher than a job like this would normally pay. This is because we want someone who is truly excellent. Even if we start you at the bottom of the range, the pay will rise quickly if you are good.


[Link is currently here, but I don’t intend to keep this updated, and I assume it will cease to work once the deadline has passed.]

Every aspect of the advert has been commented upon or derided in the Twitter chat, from the salary of ¬£22k-¬£35k (“How can a school afford this?”), to the nature of the rhetorical questions, to the phrase “sergeant major”, and the stipulation that “your written English does not have to be excellent”. Indeed, the very existence of the advert has been seen as evidence that the school’s infamous behaviour policy doesn’t work. I can’t help but admire the kind of double-think that such a complaint requires.

But here’s the point. You know what this job is about. There is a kind of honesty about the wording, even if it does revel in its own brand of hyperbole, that is often lacking in school job adverts.

For comparison, let’s have a look at some of the other adverts currently listed on TES. I’ve selected secondary and I’ve also selected teacher in order to discard promoted roles. I’m not going to include the names of the schools or provide links.

Here’s the first one:

We seek to appoint a teacher of Physics with the ability to teach to A Level. This position is a full time post. We require someone with a strong subject knowledge and a passion to teach all the sciences to our younger students as well as Physics to our senior and most able students. This is an exciting opportunity for either a newly qualified or more experienced teacher to work within an ambitious and supportive department in a high achieving school. Excellent opportunities for development exist.

[School name]¬†achieves outstanding examination results, has a strong focus on extra-curricular provision and seeks to nurture ‚Äúmind, body and spirit‚ÄĚ. We expect our staff to be fully committed to this ethos.


Here’s the second one:

[School name] is expanding its team as the school scales up and we launch our new sixth form and middle school. We are looking for an excellent art and design teacher who is passionate about their subject area and ready to develop their practice in a dynamic and innovative teaching environment. [School name] is an all-through school and your role will offer the opportunity to teach in the middle school as well as 14 to 18. The successful candidate will be an experienced teacher of Art and Design with a track record of achieving exceptional results and progress. Ideally, the candidate would have experience of teaching A-level and GCSE Art and Design and will have a well-developed skill set in the areas of printmaking, painting or illustration.

We believe the teaching of art and design should support students to think independently and to develop their own creative confidence as a means to making a difference to the world. Creating beautiful and expressive work is a key feature of [School name] as a whole and therefore we are looking for a highly collaborative individual who is passionate about spreading the use of arts or design-led approaches across the curriculum.

We are keen to build cross curricular links and develop projects that involve external partnerships. Our ideal candidate will enjoy collaboration and be keen to share and develop their understanding of project-based learning. Art and Design is popular subject within the secondary school and this will continue to be the case in the sixth form and middle school, so we are looking for a confident teacher who can help us build a distinctive and bold vision for the department going forward.

You will be trained in and develop a range of pedagogies including oracy-rich learning, project based learning, coaching, advanced literacy techniques and using technology effectively in the classroom. English Language is central to the life of [School name] and all teachers are expected to develop reading, writing and speaking skills within their subject. All teachers will also be expected to be a coach to about 13 students, developing their professionalism, well-being and confidence. In order to do this effectively, you will be trained as a one to one coach. Our oracy curriculum, teacher toolkit and our collaboration with Cambridge University has resulted in a school filled with purposeful talk and thinking. You will have the chance to shape this exciting area of the school’s culture, along with the ethos and core practices of the sixth form and middle school.

[School name] is a very special and different kind of place to work in. We empower staff to find their voice and their creativity. We offer collaboration and learning across ages and subjects. All staff have more planning time than most schools and a tailored programme of professional development which results in extraordinary outcomes for the students. We offer multiple routes to progression through subjects and pedagogies. We believe strongly in developing the full potential of all staff.

[School name] has built strong foundations in a short period of time, confirmed by our recent Ofsted which was outstanding in all categories. There was strong recognition for the ethos and approach of the school:

“Pupils across the school make exceptional progress.”

“Pupils have excellent attitudes to learning, impeccable manners and show respect for everyone.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúStaff morale is exceptionally high. Teachers at the early stages of their career value the ‚Äėfantastic‚Äô professional development and opportunities to learn from each other. Those with more experience said that they have become much better teachers since joining the school.‚Ä̬†

Through project-based learning “pupils achieve remarkable standards of work and demonstrated knowledge and skills at levels beyond those expected for their age group.”

‚ÄúPupils talk and discuss with a maturity and confidence that is remarkable for their years.”

The successful candidate will be:

  • An excellent teacher and subject specialist¬†
  • Experienced at developing other teachers¬†
  • Skilled at fostering independent, student-led learning¬†
  • A creative and deep thinker about pedagogy¬†
  • A teacher of English language skills¬†
  • Innovative in using new technology to enhance learning¬†
  • A collaborative planner, able to work across subject disciplines¬†
  • Interested in the growth of every child – head, heart and hand¬†


  • 4 to 18 mixed, inclusive school in the heart of Stratford, Newham¬†
  • Cutting edge pedagogy and curriculum¬†
  • Small – only 75 children in each year group. From September 2017 we will have years 7 to 11, Reception to year 4, a new Sixth Form beginning and a Middle school starting for years 5 and 7 in the first year and years 5 to 8 in the second year.¬†
  • All teachers spend between 3 to 4 hours a week with their coaching group of about 13 students¬†
  • We have plans to set up two new schools in close proximity to [School name]¬†which will give staff more opportunities to grow and develop.¬†


  • Outstanding career development and exceptional CPD¬†
  • Generous TLRs based on experience and skills¬†
  • The chance to network with outstanding practitioners and learn from the best¬†
  • Collaborative working across the 4 to 18 school¬†
  • Leadership training and development opportunities¬†
  • A strong feedback culture so that teachers can develop in areas of their practice that are important to them¬†
  • Every teacher being part of a team/circle that develops strategic practice

And a third:

[School name]¬†is an established, successful and oversubscribed 11-18 mixed comprehensive school with 1300 on roll including a Sixth Form of 350+. The school is situated in outstandingly attractive grounds in a conservation area on the edge of London and achieves examination results well in excess of local and national averages. In addition to ‚ÄėSportsmark‚Äô we have also been awarded Arts Council ‚ÄėArtsmark Gold‚Äô and the Religious Studies Bronze Award. In December 2016, Ofsted judged us to be a ‚ÄėGOOD‚Äô school, maintaining this judgement from 2012. ¬†¬†

We are seeking to appoint a well-qualified, highly motivated professional who is an excellent classroom practitioner with a record of effective teaching or teaching practice to join our Modern Foreign Languages Faculty.    

Applications are welcomed from NQT’s and those professionals who can demonstrate a successful track record of innovation to inspire both students and colleagues alike. You must be able to teach French and Spanish to GCSE and either or both languages to A Level.    

We can offer well behaved and willing students; a friendly staff; well-equipped classrooms with interactive whiteboards; and well supported A Level classes. 


Advert #1 is short, but manages to pack in the key terms of educational jargon: “passionate”, “exciting opportunity”, “ambitious”, “high achieving”, and even “outstanding”. And yet these words tell us nothing really about the school. It could be anywhere, so generic is this language.

We go from the stunning shortness of advert #1, to the novella of #2. I suppose, at least, that that this one¬†gives some sense of what the school stands for, with it’s reference to “project based learning” reflecting a pedagogy grounded in the progressive mythology of 21st Century Skills; a pedagogy which they see as being the grounds for securing the Outstanding Ofsted grading from which it quotes. This advert utilises jargon to which those of us whom work in schools have probably become so immune that we don’t even notice it anymore: they want somebody with “a track record of achieving exceptional results and progress”; they offer a “dynamic and innovative teaching environment”; and they are so keen for someone who is “passionate” that the word appears twice.

Advert #3 offers us the jargon bingo entries of “highly motivated professional”, “excellent classroom practitioner”, and “record of effective teaching” all in one sentence. Here we want people to “inspire” and we are still peddling “interactive whiteboards” as a perk. And whilst the school is only “good” by Ofsted standards (having made no progress in this regard for four years, it seems), at least the grounds are “outstandingly attractive”, and the school has some nice badges to hang in reception.

Interestingly, none of these adverts mentions behaviour.

I have, of course, been deliberately picky and harsh with my critique of these adverts in terms of the wording and language used therein. I’m having a bit of fun at their expense. But are they really any more desirable than the much derided advert from MCS?

Perhaps the bluntness of the MCS advert is hard for us to accept, so inculcated are we in the corporate banality of educational discourse as it typically appears in job adverts. Or perhaps it is the honesty with which the school acknowledges that behaviour is an issue, or certainly a priority, and that it demands a full time, well paid post in order to support its teachers. Or perhaps the school stands for something that is so different from accepted orthodoxy that it has become a kind of totem Рor anti-totem; less a subject of worship but an artefact of scorn. Perhaps, for some, the school is a manifestation of pedagogical practice that epitomises the dreaded Gove. For others, the school is a victim of its own propaganda; an open target for ridicule.

For me, MCS generates a field of discourse that helps me to formulate my own theorem, where Newton meets Foucault:

For every statement, there is an opposite and totally unequal reactionary statement.

Five Years

It turns out that this blog is five years old. I haven’t really done as much with it as I had originally hoped; only a small number of posts, but gaining increasing readership as my Twitter follower count has increased.

I feel I’ve come some distance in that five years. Professionally, I’ve moved from the dark authoritarianism of a school locked in a dance macabre with a system it doesn’t understand, into the paradoxical forward looking freedom of an independent cathedral school, steeped in history and tradition. Personally, I’ve come through a heart attack and, 18 months later, a cardiac arrest which gave me a nudge into a seeing things differently. Academically, I’ve moved away from thinking Facebook groups might improve learning, to trying to construct a Foucauldian positioning of education discourse¬†on Twitter.¬†And virtually, I have engaged with¬†the most extraordinary group of people from whom I have learnt more about teaching than during my three year B.Ed, or any CPD since. I’ve observed this network of teachers, governors, inspectors and academics grow in number and in influence, with policy makers and the inspectorate engaging with classroom teachers and senior leaders in ways which were unimaginable less than a decade ago. The network now straddles the space between virtuality and reality, with teachmeets and events such as ResearchEd providing platforms to meet and share ideas, evidence and hashtags in real time.

I attended my first ResearchEd only last year, meeting in flesh those names that have become figures of my adoration. And that they recognised me by my Twitter handle was the strangest feeling. It was a phenomenal event, attended by hundreds of people in their own time at a weekend. Attendees and speakers had travelled from across the globe to share in healthy debate, not tainted by hostile divisions but rather united in a spirit of belief in the power of education.

But the virtual network isn’t all smiles and winks. It is a mirror-world, and it has its dark corners in which lurk the nasties and the strange. In recent weeks, I was labelled an alt-right, pseudo-trad, fascist for daring to query ideas about differentiation. Elsewhere, schools claim great things and their detractors label them nazi. The language of edutwitter is both enriching, and morbidly fascinating. It rewards and punishes. It offers the promise of gold, and delivers tin. And I love it.

“Climb That Tree” – Differentiating Differentiation

Twitter is a funny old thing, and I’ve no doubt that I’ve been guilty of¬†tone crimes. I can be brusque, sarcastic, pedantic and disingenuous. But I have tried in recent months to curb these behaviours. None-the-less, I often find myself embroiled in conversations that can be irritating, confusing, and sometimes just weird. I suspect I am at least partially to blame – I can respond to things in a manner that may seem accusational or confrontational, I suppose. And I often fall foul of the 140 character limit and perhaps do not explain my thoughts and objections fully or clearly enough.

Thus, when I responded to a tweet from AdrianFGS (@Thembinkosi), about differentiation, I was not really expecting the conversation that ensued, or the nature of the labelling and insults that Adrian tweeted without directly tagging me. However, I am happy to concede that I may not have made quite clear what my objections to his initial tweet were, and I would like to try and do that here.

Adrian’s initial tweet was this:

With a link to this blog post.


I took issue with two things. Firstly, that in his blog post, Adrian gives must/should/could as an example of effective differentiation. Secondly, the picture shown in the tweet is terrible for a number of reasons. I shall deal with the picture first.

The cartoon is often presented with a quotation falsely attributed to Einstein. However, Adrian’s version doesn’t include it, so I shan’t spend too much time on that other than to say that ¬†Einstein didn’t say it. Never-the-less, the message of the falsely attributed quotation clearly chimes with that of the cartoon. The quote reads: “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.

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 different species. 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 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 a pass (by which I mean at least a G grade) at GCSE 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. Indeed, this seems to be what Adrian was talking about in his blog post. The problem here is that the example he gives as good practice – must/should/could (henceforth MSC) – doesn’t really address the problem of genuine differences in need in the classroom. Strangely, in our Twitter conversation, Adrian offered a scenario:

I asked Adrian how he would apply his MSC model of differentiation in this scenario. In fact, I asked a number of times. I’m still waiting for the answer.

The issue is that MSC types of differentiation are unlikely to help in such scenarios. How would it work?

All pupils MUST be able to say a key word from this topic in English

Most pupils SHOULD be able to explain the topic in English

Some pupils COULD write a thesis on the topic in English

I just can’t see how this approach would help anyone in that class. Of course, I¬†would differentiate as best as I could, but I am by no means an expert in EAL pupils, and I have limited experience of working with them. The schools in which I have worked with EAL pupils adopted an immersion approach, with withdrawal sessions focused on language.

In his blog post, Adrian¬†says that “it is essential that a lesson be planned to cater for the learning requirements of all”. 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 – that 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 comes from a MSC approach to differentiation. As it happens, that school insisted that lessons always have an MSC structure. A hinge-point question that would enable the teacher to divide the class into three groups, all 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. At my current school, my HoD told me that she never entered pupils for Foundation tier. Her view was this: “If we can’t get a kid a D in GCSE English, we’ve done something wrong”.

In the conversation on Twitter, which was joined by @DiLeed offering sensible contributions, ¬†I felt that the topic had become dominated by the issue of EAL, but no-one seemed willing or able to explain to me how differentiation of the MSC type could be used to effectively help EAL pupils. Some comments were made about personalised curriculums, but that is a different thing entirely from differentiation in the classroom, which is what I¬†thought Adrian’s blog was about, and certainly what I take issue with. However, I will mention @otspage who engaged more openly in the discussion offering some interesting thoughts, questions and challenges about assessment for children with physical needs.

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.