PTE’s Wonder Years Conference – My Takeaways

I came back home yesterday afternoon after attending the PTE Wonder Years conference, thinking that it was money – and time –  well spent. I was already a convert to knowledge-rich education, although convert is probably the wrong word to use. I have always been for it. So I went to the conference curious to see what was being done in those knowledge-rich schools and to learn from their experiences.

The day started with a rousing keynote speech from Amanda Spielman, with which I agreed wholeheartedly. The speech is available on the link above, so I won’t paraphrase it. In fact, what I want to do in this blog is to highlight the conclusions I have reached since attending the conference.

Getting buy-in

We need to get more buy-in from the teaching community and the public at large for the knowledge-rich approach, and this means countering the many misleading tropes that get put out by its opponents (rote learning, regurgitation of facts, elitism, lack of relevance) and replacing it with a powerful counter-narrative. I very much liked John Blake‘s phrase “Knowledge is not an imposition, it is an emancipation”. We need to keep highlighting the emancipatory power of knowledge and keep hammering that message in. It is not the knowledge-rich schools that hold back the poor and disadvantaged. Quite the opposite.

It is knowledge-rich education that, quoting Clare Sealy this time, “changes a mirror into a window”. Through a knowledge-rich curriculum, “Great teachers lead the child by the hand from where they are to somewhere else” –  this from the fabulous Christine Counsell. We need to keep very much on message when it comes to this important point. Just like Leavers kept telling us about “taking back control” during the referendum, we need to keep talking about knowledge being freedom, knowledge being power, knowledge opening up wide vistas of opportunity. Knowledge is not a bad word.

ITT is the missing piece of the puzzle

One thing that was quite evident in several of the sessions I attended was the importance of subject knowledge for teaching a knowledge-rich curriculum. Matt Burnage suggested that teachers should have knowledge of the subject they are teaching at a key-stage level above what they teach. So if teaching the Norman Conquest at KS3, they ought to have at the very least GCSE-depth knowledge of it. If teaching the Cold War at GCSE, then they need to have A-Level depth of knowledge. And so on.

Nearly all the speakers I listened to spoke about the need for subject-specific CPD when changing over to a knowledge-rich curriculum, in order to equip teachers to teach at that level of depth. I couldn’t help but wonder if this had implications for Initial Teacher Training (ITT). I braved a question about it to John Blake, and he responded with an impassioned call for universities to do more. (This came with a rather good impression of a university academic lecturing teachers about their shortcomings – could it be David Starkey?)

I do agree. Universities, and school-based ITT, need to do more. There are pockets of excellence here and there, but the picture overall is not a good one. There is too little subject-specific training and too much genericism. Instead of devoting a whole lecture on the subject of creativity, my university tutor could have got us delving into different interpretations of King John or of the Third Reich, sharing expertise, sources, texts and pedagogy specific to these topics. Perhaps the assumption is that we already have the knowledge, because of our undergraduate degrees. But here, John Blake was very clear. Undergraduate knowledge of a subject is not the same as knowing how to teach it.

So yes, universities need to do more, but are they willing to? My distinct impression is that many of them are still very much in thrall to progressive education ideology. Much of the criticism I see on my Twitter feed directed against knowledge-rich education – those tropes about rote learning and regurgitation of facts – has come from university academics. How do we effect change in this sector?

This leads me to my final point.

Institutional memory has been lost

There was a time when knowledge-rich education was considered the norm. I was lucky enough to go to school on the last cusp of that era, before schools went down the road from which we are now trying to veer. In the thirty plus years since, personnel change in schools has been such that most of the senior leaders, the people with power to change their schools, are steeped in the previous orthodoxy and don’t even know what knowledge-rich education looks like. Why else did we need to have a conference about it last Saturday? Why is it we need to preach the gospel of knowledge-rich curricula? It’s because that institutional memory has for the most part been lost. It will be a long road to bring it back, but yesterday felt like a positive start.

Speaking to Stuart Lock during lunch, I voiced my fear that we were in a bubble, preaching to the already converted. He responded with optimism. “A few years ago, you would have got only 50 or so people to attend a conference like this [as opposed to the 300+ attendees that came]. I was expecting to see the same people but looking around, there are so many new faces here today”. The word is spreading. Let’s keep up the momentum and not let up.

Quaker Soup

One of the advantages of my new healthy eating regimen since the new year is that I get to rediscover some rather tasty Arabic recipes. This soup is filling enough to be a meal on its own – it’s often made during Ramadan to sate hungry people breaking their fast – and it ticks my healthy eating checklist as it’s thickened with oats, not flour.

This is a very well known soup in my native Saudi Arabia. They call it Quaker soup after the leading brand in the market, Quaker oats. I don’t know why I haven’t made it for so many years. It’s delicious and easy to prepare. I’m thinking of making a big batch and freezing individual portions which I can then take to work for my lunch. Much better, and cheaper, than shop-bought soup.

Here’s the recipe. This makes enough for two hungry adults.

Ingredients:

1 medium onion, chopped
4 chicken thigh fillets, cut into small pieces (the packet says it’s 360g)
Half a can of crushed tomatoes (or chopped tomatoes)
2 chicken stock cubes, dissolved in 1/2 litre of boiling water (I use very low salt stock cubes, as I like to salt the food myself)
Around 16 tablespoons of oats
1 level tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
Salt & pepper to taste

Method:

Heat some oil in a saucepan and add the chopped onions. Cook on medium heat for a few minutes until softened. Add the chicken, and brown on high heat for a minute or two. Next add the tomatoes, spices and chicken stock. Bring to the boil then lower the heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. While the contents in the pot simmer, mix the oats with a cup of water and leave them to soak. When the 10 minutes are up, add the soaked oats to the saucepan, mixing thoroughly. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure nothing sticks at the bottom of the pan. When the soup is ready, give it a taste and add salt and pepper as required. Serve and enjoy!

The Obligatory New Year Blog

This is the time when many of us reflect on the year gone past and make new resolutions, so I might as well join in.

2008 was a bit of an annus horribilis for me, although it ended on a positive note. Having had my hopes of becoming a history teacher dashed, I licked my wounds last January and resolved to start anew, this time in a primary school. What I still wanted, more than ever, was to teach and I reflected that there were more opportunities in primary than in secondary history, which is not a shortage subject.

I started scouting for jobs, and soon managed to get myself an interview. It seemed promising: year 6 TA in an Outstanding school, which was also a teaching school. A perfect springboard for developing my career! The interview itself went well enough, until right at the end, I was asked how I would feel working with a teacher much younger than me and taking instructions from her. I can’t remember what I answered, something to do with mutual professional respect, but in that instant I knew that they probably weren’t going to offer me the job. It might not have been ageism per se. My eclectic CV just didn’t fit the bill and I know that my bailing out from an ITT course one term in didn’t inspire much confidence.

A month went by, with no responses to several applications I had put in. I began to lose confidence and feel very unwanted. The only bright spot on my horizon was the KS3 history textbook I was writing, which gave me a sense of purpose. Over time, this morphed into a set of booklets on the Middle Ages, which I decided to self-publish under the name Learning For Memory. I haven’t exactly broken the publishing world with this venture, but I have received some positive comments, for which I’m grateful. I’m currently working on some follow up booklets and looking forward to getting them out during 2019.

But as for a career in teaching, well that path seemed to have closed up. On my low days, I felt very hard done by. It offended my pride and sense of rightness that, in an era of teacher shortages, someone as bright, dedicated and talented as me could not get a foot in. However, one can only be maudlin for so long. I applied for some more jobs and eventually got offered a position. It was well paid and at Level 4, which I soon discovered meant that I would be the cover teacher across the school in the event of an absence. More significantly, it meant working in Reception for the first time ever.

I started one bright morning in February, full of hope. Working with very young children was a bit of a shock to the system, but I soon adjusted. On my third day in the job, heavy snowfall meant that the class teacher couldn’t drive in, and I had to step into her shoes, with little notice and no lesson plan. With the help of a fellow TA, we somehow managed and I felt very pleased with the way I had acquitted myself that day.

It’s a shame to say, but that sense of hope faded fairly quickly. I had never before experienced working in a school where fear of SLT was paramount, where the audit culture and the appearance of things trumped everything else. It didn’t help that, a few weeks into the job, I was hauled in to a meeting with the head of department, the neighbouring Reception teacher who had barely cracked a smile in my direction since I’d started. We were due to have a “mocksted” the following day, and the pressure was on. She started the meeting by describing how unlucky my class was to have gone through so many TAs since September, and that they had really hoped to recruit someone with experience in Early Years, but instead they had got me. She went on to say that Early Years were very different to other key stages and whatever school experience I already had was of little use.

Having demoralised me to this extent, she then went on to describe how terribly, earth-crushingly important tomorrow’s inspection was going to be, and how I must absolutely not let them down. She was particularly worried about how I would fare being observed during a phonics lesson. We had daily phonics, and I had been given a group of the lowest ability children to teach, with no training apart from being told to teach them the phase 2 sounds (whatever that was) and some flash cards. Now, she handed me a sheet of paper with a lesson plan on it. “Follow this to the letter”, she barked, “and come to me if you have any questions about it”. Meeting over.

I’m happy to report that the mocksted went just fine and the next day they were basking in the positive comments that had come their way. They were Good but on their way to Outstanding. Well, hooray! As time went on, it became increasingly clear that this school was not the place for me. It’s difficult to describe how corrosive a working climate can be, where a whisper from a colleague that SLT is in the vicinity can inspire such fear. It’s not healthy to spend your day fearful of being told off, to feel that no matter how hard you work, it is unappreciated, but whatever little error you make is magnified. I decided to hand in my notice after the Easter holidays and to finish off the summer term by working for a supply agency, which experience I wrote about here.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel though. Last summer, I applied for a job starting in September. The pay was much less than I was used to, but the hours were shorter, which meant no need to pay for before-school and after-school club (I have a 9-year old son). I had reached last chance saloon. If this didn’t work out, then I was going to just give up on ever working in a school again. Three horrid school experiences in a row can do that to you. Luckily for me, it has worked out well. The interview augured well. The headteacher had a list of questions to go through with me, but five minutes in, she opined that I knew what I was doing and didn’t need to answer any more questions. A few hours later the phone call came in, offering me the job.

I can’t begin to say what a difference it makes to work in a place where you are valued and trusted, where you are seen as competent, and not a problem to be managed. It helps too, that I work with the best class teacher ever. I learn something from her everyday. We also have a fabulous SEND TA who works with one of our autistic children. The three of us work wonderfully well together, with professional respect and kindness underpinning everything we do. If there is one big lesson I’ve learned from 2008, it’s the importance of kindness and respect in the workplace. You can put up with a lot, as long as you feel valued.

So what does 2019 hold for me? One thing it won’t is teacher training. I have abandoned any further idea of training as a teacher. I look around me and see that it’s not a job I want to do anymore. There are many reasons for this, but I can encapsulate them as follows: audit culture and workload. I have just turned 48 and my husband celebrated his fiftieth this year. He is talking in terms of taking early retirement, working less and improving quality of life. I’d quite like to share some more leisure time with him, not have to be a slave to the teacher grind. I also want more time to write my history booklets and the possibility of working with schools to develop their history curriculum. There’s lots to look forward to in 2019. I’m glad I can begin the year with a sense of optimism. I’ll sign off with this little gif which my cousin sent me and which made me smile.