In which I try to work out what British values might be

So it’s been decided that we ought to be teaching British values in our schools. Michael Gove and David Cameron are absolutely agreed that this is a whizz bang idea, and will no doubt be cracking on with that forthwith. Worryingly, I don’t violently disagree with the values that Gove and Cameron are spouting so far. They generally involve vague notions like equality and democracy and tolerance, all of which seem peachy fine.

However, there is, I think, a problem here, and it comes down to the fact that the whole notion of teaching British values sounds a bit, well just a bit earnest. There’s no obvious self-depreciating humour or social awkwardness about it. The notion that we have values that are worth teaching feels a bit self-important. My gut reaction is that any attempt to teach British values should include a section where the teacher looks a bit embarrassed and mutters, ‘Or not. You know, it’s up to you really,’ and then stares at the floor.

And secondly, let’s take a minute to consider what it was that caused Gove and Cameron to decide that equality and tolerance and democracy are of sufficient import to be proactively promoted in schools. Was it a response to the fact that the pay gap between men and women is still around 15% (and much much higher in some professions)? That would make sense – maybe Gove and Cameron recognise the importance to teaching business leaders of tomorrow to value their staff equally. Was is a response to news that police forces in the UK received nearly 8000 complaints of racism over the last 8 years and upheld less than 1%? Maybe Gove and Cameron think the only way to tackle ingrained racism is from the cradle with the next generation. Or was it in response to the fact that in 2012-13 over 42,000 hate crimes (crimes linked to race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or gender reassignment) were recorded in the UK? Maybe they believe that that sort of prejudice and ignorance fueled violence needs to be tackled from school onwards by promoting tolerance and equality.

But no. None of those things were are the forefront of politicians’ minds when they came out with their ‘British values’ soundbites. They were reacting to the Birmingham schools ‘trojan horse’ affair, where it is alleged that muslim governors attempted to ‘infiltrate’ extreme values and teaching into schools. That might make a person question the sort of tolerance and equality that were discussing here. It looks at though Gove and Cameron think it’s important that people who look or think differently from them learn to value tolerance and moderate their own views accordingly. The sorts of intolerance and inequality that are long-term and chronic and form part of our status quo are fine to carry on as they were. Or maybe I’m being to cynical. Maybe promoting equality and tolerance is a good thing, regardless of the impetus.

Well, this was intended to be a jokey sort of post where I commented on the British penchant for humour and self-depreciation. With hindsight, it seems to have got away from me a tiny bit.

Anyway, no doubt good spirits will be restored by next week, and if you can’t wait until then I’ll be doing my writerly thing in Worcester tomorrow (21st June 2014) along with Sue Moorcroft, Christina Courtenay and Liz Harris when I host the Worcestershire LitFest and Fringe’s Author Panel. Tickets and downloadable festival programmes here.

In which I have a book out and undertake the pondering of various things

Ahoy.  Good afternoon and howdy there. I have been remiss of late in the tending of this little bloggy corner of the internet. I’ve been gadding all over the shop writing blogs for other people left (What make’s a hero? for Choc Lit), right (Letters to my younger self for Serendipity Reviews), and centre (Adapting Shakespeare for The Romaniacs), and my first novel has come out.


Yes. Indeedy. It is true. Much Ado About Sweet Nothing is now out there in the world and is all buyable for your kindle (or your kindle smartphone/tablet/PC app). So you could buy it if you wanted. I’d be delighted if you did.

All of which explains why my head is a bit all over the place, but does not excuse the lack of good blog maintenance. Now I’m back at it, I can see that there are cobwebs in the corner, and the occasional table needs its doilies freshening. Yes. My blog has doilies and an occasional table. Please feel free to make up your own jokes about what the table is the rest of the time.

So in order to get up to date on the blog I’ve done a whistle stop tour of the internet to identify the main concerns of the day, generated some arbitrary opinions on them and arranged the whole thing into a numbered list. Here we go:


1. Tom Daley is dating a guy. I have two opinions on this. Opinion 1: Lucky guy. Opinion 2: This shouldn’t be news. I’m slightly sad that it so clearly still is. Tom Daley is famous for being unusually good at jumping prettily into water. That would seem to be an activity that can be achieved equally competently whether the jumper in question is gay, straight, bisexual, asexual or entirely undecided. So it’s nice that he seems happy. If there are kids who are questioning their own sexuality who gain strength or a sense of solidarity from his announcement that’s brilliant, but really really sad that it’s considered Big News.


2. Men and women’s brains are wired differently. No. No. They’re not. Firstly nobody’s brain is wired. I know this. It’s why as a freelancer who goes into lots of different organisations I am required to have professional indemnity insurance, but have never had to have my head PAT tested. The study the headline is based on is here. Just from the abstract you can see that the study only looked at people up to age 22. The study also noted that differences are greatest during puberty but reduce during adulthood. So interesting stuff medically for anyone studying neurological conditions that are more common in one gender than the other, but not a reason to sack your female CEO and hire a man or vice versa.


3. The University of Kent were tad rude about children’s and genre fiction. Clearly what we have here is what used to be known as a storm in a teacup, and is now just known as Twitter. Having said that, university level courses in creative writing have expanded massively over the last few years, and if you’re serious enough about writing to do a BA or MA then you do need to think about choosing your course carefully. I did the sort of broad covers-a-bit-of-everything course that Kent so obviously don’t offer, and it was brilliant for me. I started off thinking I was a playwright, and left as a rom com prose writer. If I’d done a narrow playwrighting MA I would never have known.


4. Michael Gove still doesn’t understand how education works.


I think that’s all. Presumably some real news has also happened while I’ve been distracted, but you know better than to look for coherent thoughts about serious things here. Ta-ra for now.

In which I weigh into the debate on qualified and unqualified teachers

The coalition have had a little falling out recently over education, specifically over the rules regarding unqualified teachers. Currently free schools and academies are permitted to appoint teachers who don’t hold qualified teacher status, and in September 2012 the rules on teacher qualification for all state maintained schools were slightly relaxed. As yet, it’s not clear how big an effect this most recent change has had, but there’s some more information on numbers of unqualified teachers in free schools here.

I’ll pin my colours to the mast upfront, and say that I am a qualified teacher. I’ve never taught in school, and specialise in teaching adults in the workplace and community. However, I still have a bit of a bee in my bonnet over the perceived professionalism of teaching.

The idea of allowing, or encouraging, schools to appoint individuals without a teaching qualification seems to be an attempt to get more inspirational individuals from different professional backgrounds into schools. On face value, that’s laudable. A big part of education is about engaging and inspiring students, and having direct contact with people who’ve achieved success in different professions is one good way of doing that. It’s also a way of bringing up to date expertise into the classroom, and it’s perfectly possible that some of those individuals will be charismatic classroom teachers. Others won’t – in-depth knowledge and the ability to communicate that knowledge are not necessarily overlapping skills.

However, subject expertise and charisma aren’t the be all and end all of good teaching. You need to be able to do behaviour management, lesson planning, formative assessment, summative assessment, designing learning outcomes, designing learning activities and resources, differentiating within your lesson for different abilities and learning speeds, adapting your lesson plan to the realities of the class in front of you – and all of those things are skills that need to be thought about and developed.

That doesn’t mean that someone who joins a school without a teaching qualification can’t learn those skills, but I do think it demonstrates that teaching qualifications have value. It also suggests to me that politicians in the department of education don’t really understand the complexity of a teacher’s role. It appears that they equate good teaching with simply knowing about your subject and being able to talk about it. Both those things are important, but they’re not everything. A teaching qualification demonstrates that you’ve spent time gaining an understanding of the theories and practice that underpin good teaching and effective learning.

Michael Gove (oh come on – you knew I’d get to him eventually, didn’t you?) has been vocal about GCSE and A’Level ‘grade inflation,’ and spoke last week, defending his preference for more rigorous testing of children. He said:

“Imagine that you had a choice not of schools, but of airlines. There is Test Airlines, very rigorous, and there is Warm and Fuzzy Airlines. What’s the difference between the two? In Test Airlines they actually insist that the pilots have passed a test so that they can fly a plane. How old-fashioned can you get?

“At Warm and Fuzzy Airlines, they don’t bother with these tests to see if pilots can fly. They just concentrate on all of the pilots giving the customers a warm and fuzzy feeling as soon as they get on board. Which would you fly with?”

Well yes. Quite. What I simply don’t understand is why you would apply that logic in one case and decide that tougher qualifications are good for children, but, at the same time, conclude that formal qualifications in teaching aren’t necessary for their teachers? Either qualifications matter and tell us something about a person’s skills and expertise, or they don’t. The bottom line here, I suspect, is that Gove simply doesn’t see teaching as a complex, expert profession; he sees it as something that anyone who knows a bit about a subject can probably have a jolly good stab at. And conversely, that attitude is probably exactly the one that will discourage the most expert and highest achieving individuals in different fields from considering teaching as a career. Rather than opening up teaching, it lowers the status of the profession, and discourages both current and potential teachers. You wouldn’t want an unqualified doctor, dentist, pilot, solicitor, or electrician. So why would you value your child’s (or your own) education less highly than your fusebox?

In which I think about Michael Gove and it makes me go “Grrrrrrr.”

Last week I claimed I was going to blog about MPs voting on a 30% pay rise for themselves in the same week as approving a 1% cap on welfare benefits rises. It turns out that was lies, not least because it would be a very short blog. It’s pretty much obscene. That’s all I really want to say.

So now I can move onto other issues, and the thing that has caught my flutter-minded attention today is the intriguing phenomena that is Michael Gove. Mr Gove, the Gove-ster if you will, is Education Secretary. Just to be clear, that means that he’s in charge of education policy for England, not that he does the typing.

Since taking office Gove has had three main headline-grabbing policies. First he decided that he would send a bible to every school. Then he decided that GCSEs were too easy and he wants the young people of today to do proper old-fashioned manly academic exams instead. Today, he’s decided that A-levels, in their current form, are too easy and he wants the young people of today to do proper old-fashioned manly academic exams instead. And yes, I do see that technically, that’s only two policies, and the first one of those is just silly anyway.

The bible for every school thing is daft, not least because it’s pretty much the most widely available book on the face of the planet. The whole thing’s available for free online in multiple different editions and languages. Amazon will download you the full King James, Gove’s preferred version, to kindle free and gratis. If anything is holding back the educational progress of British schools, I think we can say with some confidence, that it’s not the inability to access bible texts.

So let’s have a look at his 2nd policy – the idea that young people today aren’t learning enough proper hard academic stuff and that exams should be harder. In both the replacements for GCSEs and the current A-levels one of the key ideas is that assessment will be by a single end-of-course examination, set and assessed by an external body.

Now that’s something I should probably be in favour of. I was one of those annoying kids who was good at exams. I passed the coursework part of my History A-level by writing the full 5000 word course work essay over a single night, starting at 6pm the night before it had to be handed in. Essentially I reduced the whole research-draft-reflect-revise coursework process into a 12 hour high pressure exam.

But I’m not blown away by Gove’s ideas, and I’m not blown away because I have no faith at all that he understands what he’s actually doing. Designing assessment in education is hard. Good assessments are ones which have reliability, validity and fairness.

Reliability, is sometimes called replicability. Essentially it means that if the same student, with the same level of knowledge/skill, took the same assessment at a different time and place they would get broadly the same result. Similarly, results between similar groups of students should be consistent.

Validity means that you are actually testing the thing you are setting out to test. This is incredibly difficult. If you are trying to assess knowledge of a particular subject, do you do it by ongoing course work or by single exam? Ongoing coursework might assess subject knowledge, but it also assesses research skills, time management, organisation, and possibly, ability to copy from the internet or get your mum/friend/teacher to write it for you. Single exam assesses subject knowledge, but also ability to cope with pressure, ability to write quickly, ability to cram or revise, and possibly, creativity and imagination in your approach to cheating. Coming up with a form of assessment that solely assesses the thing you’re claiming to assess is all but impossible, and I don’t think Michael Gove understand that.

Fairness means that all your students have a fair crack at getting a good result – it relates closely to validity. It covers things like not assessing students’ descriptive writing by asking them to write a paragraph describing the taste of bacon. Jewish students, for example, are likely to find that significantly harder than a child who’s eaten a full english every day for the last 16 years.

So, yes, review assessment and education processes. It’s important that we make them as good as we can, but understand that doing that is really difficult. Simply deciding to make it “tougher,” or “more academic,” or – and this is what a lot of education reforms ultimately amount to – “more like it was in my day,” is lazy policy making. And it’s policy making with no basis in evidence, and no basis in an understanding of how learning and assessment work.

Several eons ago I had a little rant on this very blog about the rise of the career politician, and Michael Gove is a prime example of why this matters. Gove is a product of the political bubble. Prior to entering Parliament, he was a political journalist and the chair of a conservative thinktank. If only there was some sort of training or job one could do that would allow a person to enter politics with some knowledge of how education works, or doesn’t work. But no… I can’t think of any such career. Oh wait. Hold on one tiny little second. There’s actually being a teacher. There’s an idea. How about having an Education Secretary who knows something about education, beyond a general sense that things were better in the old days, and that every child’s schoolday would be best commenced with a gown and mortar-boarded master reading verses from the King James Bible before requiring the boys (and weirdly in the mental picture I’m creating there are only boys) to recite their 12 times tables out loud until their tonsils start to bleed?

I think that’s all. In summary – Michael Gove: grrrrr. Comments please!