My Christmas Wish

In September 2005, as my family was reeling from the rapid deterioration of my mother’s health from lung cancer, I started feeling very ill myself. I turned yellow with severe jaundice. At an emergency GP appointment I was told me to take a cab to hospital immediately and the doctor rang ahead to get them ready to admit me. Something was horribly wrong with my liver.

I made an appointment to see one of the specialists at the amazing Kings College Hospital Liver Unit who soon diagnosed me with a rare disease called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, a randomly occurring condition without any known cause. My health continued to deteriorate, and I was in and out of hospital with infections. On one particularly awful evening as I lay alone in a hospital bed I was called by my brother to tell me that my mum had passed away with the rest of the family around her. That was one of my all-time lows.

I was put on the waiting list for a liver transplant, and in the meantime scheduled for a operation to put in a temporary measure to try and help my ailing liver. Fortunately this helped me make a temporary recovery, be removed from the transplant list, and I even managed to get back to work in early 2006.

I remained gaunt, tired, slightly jaundiced and had difficulty retaining concentration. I maintained this for two years before being rushed in to A&E in August 2008 for chronic pain, and started to deteriorate again. I went back on the liver transplant waiting list, and had to go on sick leave. Those months were a nightmare of hospital visits and sleepless nights, jumping every time the phone went in case it was ‘the call’ to come in and have the operation. The chance of me getting further complications and infections increased every day.

After a false alarm in early 2009, I finally got the call on the 4th of February. Somewhere in Midlands a family in the middle of despair and grief at the loss of their sister/mother made the breathtakingly generous decision to allow her organs to be used for donation, and I was lucky enough to receive her liver.

My life was saved. After just over two weeks in hospital I was allowed home. After only a few more weeks I was popping in to my school to help out. By April I was back in teaching, by May I managed to get back in to my big hobby of latin-american dance, and I even managed to meet my partner who I had a civil partnership with in 2010.

At the wedding we asked all of our guests to give generously to the Kings College Hospital charity in lieu of gifts, and, most importantly, sign up to the organ donation register and tell their loved ones to do the same.

Every one person who dies (and whose family agree to donate their organs) can save as many as ten other lives, and bring joy and relief to families. All it takes is for you and your friends and relations to sign up to the register, and tell everyone you know that if the worst should happen, they must give their consent.

My wish this Christmas is that you agree to give this most precious of gifts. Sign up today, and save lives.

Merry Christmas!


Evan Davis on Education.

By Flickr user Steve Punter (Evan Davis on Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Evan Davis is currently presenting a new show on BBC,  Made in Britain which accompanies the excellent book of the same name. He is a presenter on Radio 4’s Today show, BBC TV’s Dragon’s Den, as well as Radio 4’s The Bottom Line. Until 2008 he was the BBC’s chief Economics editor (see his blog).

Evan certainly takes pains to see both sides of the argument, indeed he has been criticised for being too consensual while interviewing for the Today show, when compared to John Humphrys. Over the past week he has been both lambasted for his views that international free trade has been beneficial (if painful) for the UK economy, and praised for the way he ‘exposed’ Frances Maude over the arguments over teachers’ pensions. I had the pleasure of interviewing Evan on Sunday 3rd July, to ask him for more detailed thoughts on UK education, and I began by asking him whether he had considered teaching himself.

“…it wasn’t something I considered then and I haven’t really considered it since university just as I’ve always liked my job and haven’t wanted to change. But I do think that I would enjoy teaching. I could easily imagine going in to teaching at some point, funnily enough”

Evan was keen to encourage teachers to continue their careers beyond leadership, so that experienced teachers could go back to the classroom, perhaps part-time. He also thought that a part-time route may be a way to encourage people in industry and commerce to try out teaching:

“…there should be a route in to teaching for people who want to dabble, where you can see if you would be a good teacher later in your career – to dip your toe in the water in ways that don’t undermine the professional integrity of teachers”

We moved on to the subject of universities, and Evan said that much of our success internationally could be attributed to the deregulation of university fees in the 1980s, although that wasn’t the only thing.

“I think another factor is that, compared to other countries, we have tended to say “we want some excellence” rather than a lot of mediocrity…”

“…as a country we have had some real excellence which you see reflected in the global university league tables where we have a disproportionate number at the very top”

We discussed the effect of foreign students on the domestic ones, and Evan said the situation mirrors that of the Premier League in football with its expensive foreign players, in some ways:

“On the one hand, opening up the league to foreign players means our players get to play with the best in the world, but on the other hand it may mean our domestic players get a little ignored as the clubs are obsessed about getting the best players from abroad instead of thinking how to create the best players at home.”

During the interview I had the opportunity to put a number of suggested questions from my Twitter followers, and one of these was from Aaron Porter, ex president of the NUS, about the effect of fees on students from poorer backgrounds. Evan does worry about the debate surrounding this issue, and its potential to put young people off university. Although he isn’t keen on universities getting overly reliant on marketing, he does think that it is important for school students to fully understand what is happening.

“When you go to university you are making a bet about whether it is going to be worth it or not, and the government is really trying to skew the bet so that if it doesn’t work out then the taxpayer will bear most of the cost. If you end up in less than a ‘middle-class’ job, then you’re unlucky really, and unlikely to pay much towards your university degree. I think that really does need to be explained.”

One of the most fascinating insights was into the university fees market, where Evan compared the current situation to perfume and car-dealerships who set prices to signal something about how they want to be seen, rather than their absolute value, and then come up with ways of offering discounts while retaining their headline high list-price.

“I think it’s so clear that universities have fallen in to that category of using price as a marketing tool. We know that in those markets we don’t want prices to be that high, and the interesting question is: how will they choose to give those discounts? What will be the mechanism?”

We moved on to discuss the school system, and I challenged Evan on some statements written in both his current book, Made in Britain, and an older book, Public Spending, which he wrote in 1998. In these books he suggested our school system could be more effective than it is, and that there are lessons to be learned from supermarkets.

“I think in a really successfully operating sector there always has to be some failure, and some spectacular success. There should always be a mechanism to allow success to grow, and failure to contract,  and we’ve seen that in supermarkets.”

“If you have a sector where new capacity and new entry is very difficult, and a sector where failure is very difficult, then it’s much less likely that you’ll have that natural evolution towards more efficient and better ways of doing things.”

However there was a significant caveat about this:

“… I slightly worry that when a good school expands and takes over a bad school, that instead of having two good schools, you get two bad schools – that the good school is only good because of what it is.”

Evan is clearly a believer in the power of markets, and we discussed the consumers: in this case parents.

“…there’s no reason why a successfully functioning capitalist economy won’t deliver good schools at both ends [of the spectrum]. Whatever type of school it is, it will probably be better if there has been some parental choice. It’s whether or not you have faith in the parents…”

I suggested that the LEA’s role had been to step in where parents were not exerting sufficient influence over a school to cause it to improve.

“The interesting question is whether the LEA really was running it for the benefit of the parents who had no voice, or whether, as in so many industries where the regulator (which in this case is effectively the LEA) becomes captured by the interest of the schools, and by bureaucratic convenience.”

However, he agreed that for capitalism to work effectively in schools, you need parents to be fully able to exert choice, and to be aiming to do the best for their children.

“You would like somebody to be ‘training’ the parents, and perhaps those difficult areas are where someone should be helping the parents help themselves.”

“[Perhaps] we can think of some ‘nudge ways’ to get parents interested in exactly which school their youngsters go to, in to shopping around, putting pressure on schools rather than leaving them be…”

Finally we talked about employability, and about the focus for the school sector to produce more successful adults. Evan stressed that the key skills were numeracy and literacy, which would never go out of date (unlike certain types of specific vocational skills, such as learning how to sell mobile phones, etc.) However he was keen to stress that no matter what the level of skill, the number-one attribute for a student was attitude and enthusiasm. Evan is, I think, a little concerned that some aspects of our school system work to destroy enthusiasm in students:

“… people who are keen, flexible, have good social skills, are able to work constructively with other people – these skills are enormously helpful for anyone looking for a job and I think if schools could refrain from making people unenthusiastic, or grumbling, or lazy, then that would be very, very helpful.”

“The worse thing, of course, is that you might find that we’re currently measuring things that currently crowd that out. Measure the exam results, and you don’t measure the enthusiasm of getting kids to take part in ‘local history day’, you haven’t left time for the history day. Not only haven’t you measured it, but you remove the time for it. That would be a very great shame.”

It was certainly a fascinating interview, and you can read the full transcript here. I’d be most interested to hear your thoughts about Evan’s ideas – do please leave a comment.

Reprofessionalising Teachers

What do doctors do?

They specialise in certain fields, they engage in research. They become knowledgeable in diagnosing, treating, and monitoring. The public know this, and respect the profession.

Doctors engage in public health campaigns to educate the public. They appear on TV shows to give expert opinions. They challenge unhealthy lifestyles. They feel no shame in engaging with industry and academia for the purpose of research.

Doctors hold themselves to high standards. Their professional bodies examine best-practice and disseminate it. They measure success rates and survival rates – not just while the patients are in hospital but they are often monitored for years after. If there is a failure and a patient dies, there is a post-mortem, and the failure is thoroughly analysed and lessons (usually) learned.

So what do the public think us teachers do? My entirely anecdotal responses:

  • We have long holidays (first thing people mention to me).
  • We teach kids stuff (i.e. we write stuff on the board and kids copy it down and ‘learn’ it)
  • We tell off naughty kids (they say “I just don’t know how you cope with all those kids, I think I’d want to kill ’em”)
  • We spend evenings marking work.
  • We’re quite sweet really (“I think it’s great what you do, you’re so dedicated – you’d have to be really.”)
  • We moan about the government a lot, and about our workload, and about the kids… and their parents (“Going on strike again are you? Holidays not long enough eh? Hah!”)
  • We’re dedicated, some people think we’re probably fairly clever but a bit mad
  • A lot of people remember teachers from their school days – a couple of teachers they loved, and lots of teachers they hated.
  • We are cogs in a ‘failing system’. The public have totally bought the tabloid line that education is in crisis.
  • Our views are entirely represented by our vocal unions who are seen (often) “as fairly introverted and self-serving” (a great quote from Nick Wells, @NSMWells)

People do, of course, say lots of other positive things about teachers, but I do think this represents a good slice of public opinion. Add on top of that the general feeling that kids are rioting and exams are totally devalued and you have a toxic mix.

How did we let this happen?

It’s all too easy to point the finger of blame – the government, the unions, maybe even parents. I’m certainly not an expert in the history of education (although I’d love to hear informed opinions on how we got to this point). However, I’d like to suggest that we should take a long, hard look at the medical profession, learn some lessons, and start doing something about it.

Here are some suggestions for starters.

  1. Found (by ourselves, not government) a new association of education professionals. This would be an entirely non-union and non-government body whose job is to represent the interests of quality education for all. It should aim to become the dominant and expert voice, as the British Medical Association (and AMA, etc.) has become in medicine. It would include representatives from all teaching unions, education professional associations, but mostly be made up from fantastic, expert teaching professionals and researchers.
  2. Begin public information campaigns about how we learn, and how we can help our children become more successful adults. Engage with the media to create and run more newspaper columns, tv shows, blogs, etc. which entertain and educate the public about learning.
  3. Invest properly in long-term outcomes research to find out which schools are creating confident, competent, successful adults, and which are churning out exam statistics.
  4. Forge strong links with business and universities and create centres of expertise in new understanding of teaching and learning, and new technologies.
  5. Engage with all the professional bodies to start creating new ways of teaching more effectively that utilise our brightest and best teachers, and acknowledge and reward expertise and advancement, rather than time spent at the ‘chalk face’. Perhaps we could allow, for example, Junior Teachers, Chartered Teachers, Consultant Teachers?

You may not agree with all the ideas, and I agree that much of this would be resisted by teacher unions, but I cannot help but think that this is the correct way forward.

I’d very much welcome your thoughts, opinions, criticism, etc.

The easiest way to encourage reflective teachers – beta testers needed!

Have you ever wanted to know:

  • Do my students do better in my subject than their others, or worse?
  • What subjects are my students good at, and which ones do they struggle with?
  • How does my set compare to the others in the year?
  • Are my students on track to get the grades they are targeted?

Until now the answers to these questions were beyond the reach of most teachers, but I’m a firm believer that teachers want to reflect on their practice, and they need a system that doesn’t require any training in order to do so.

Enter Skoovi, my attempt to create that solution. It’s already being used at my own school, and I’ve had some incredibly positive reactions from some ordinarily sceptical colleagues.

  • “Wow, I had no idea that X did so much better in my subject than his others – I must remember to encourage him”.
  • “This is so easy to use!”
  • “Hey, this is amazing, I love being able to see which students are under-performing in my class – I wish this had been available all year.”

I’d love to find a few partner schools who would be interested in helping me develop this product further, and who would be interested in having this product for free in their schools for a few months. As part of my role as an associate researcher at Brunel University I’d like to evaluate its impact on teaching and the culture of continuous learning.

Have a look at the demo video at:

and try username test and password test to have a go yourself with some dummy school data.

I’d love your feedback and your help. Why not get involved? I’m looking for some schools to participate in the free beta testing phase.

Passing the buck

Even though we repeatedly disagree how to do it best, all educators are really passionate about getting kids to have more “Aha!” moments. Everyone has their own ways of doing it, and their own ideas on how to make things better. Trouble is, it’s hard not to feel pretty jaded by constant criticism. The thing is, where is that criticism coming from exactly?

We all know the media only likes to pick up on negatives. Witness the recent painting of an improvement in reading standards as another failure, or the pillorying of Oxbridge when in fact they’re taking a huge proportion of the tiny number of deprived kids getting 3 or more grade A’s.

Then there’s the school inspectors, who managed to reduce good schools to merely satisfactory at the stroke of a pen. There’s the government who selectively interpreted PISA results to claim the UK’s education system is slipping despite the fact that the 2000 data was not applicable due to sample size.

However, every sector and industry has negatives thrown at it from all sides, but not everyone deals with it the same way. Perhaps we should look at ourselves, and the way we use language in the staffroom?

If we stopped undermining that member of school management who is on our backs about results and went and talked through our concerns maybe we’d find engagement worked better than anger? Perhaps the next time someone else gets good results we might hesitate before alleging “teaching to the test”, and go and find out what they did so well? Maybe before we complain to our colleagues that the head of department has lousy schemes of work we could start writing one ourselves? What if the latest government scheme actually has some merit, and is not just designed to make our lives harder?

Perhaps the roots of all evil aren’t academic tracking assessments and school data, maybe we could actually learn something from them as well as contribute new and improved ways of measuring success? As Richard Branson points out so well in his Entrepreneur article, maybe its time we stopped complaining about them and started thinking about how to help us?

Fixed Mindsets

Carol Dweck claims that teachers commonly induce a fixed mindset within students that causes them to believe that they cannot become any smarter than they are, and that it is not worth the effort to try to do so.

She goes on to state that by re-training children that the brain is like a muscle then it can transform their approach to education, and that you can change them in to much more reflective, persevering, engaged students.

It’s a delicious thought, and it seems remarkably easy (albeit expensive if you sign up to her Brainology course) so I am definitely going to try it with my Year 9 Maths set, one of whom recently told me “Sir, you say we can be the best in school, but we’re set 4. If you want to teach the best, go and teach set 1″.

Watch this space – can it work?

Some great books

I have spent my summer reading management books, such as Good to GreatLinchpinsMultipliers, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Here’s a selection of their recommendations:

  1. Lead with questions, let others come to the important conclusions first, and give your own wisdom sparingly.
  2. Have a core belief, and a key aim, and inspire your team with a lofty goal and high expectations
  3. Create a team that can fix problems and improve itself without you.
  4. Encourage your team to be creative and improve itself, to try new things all the time, relish mistakes as opportunities to learn and encourage people to take risks.

I don’t really believe that a teacher does all of these things. We impose our rules and our logic for using them. We value correctness and punish errors. Our system tells them to acheive their target grade in order to pass the exam (hardly inspiring stuff). We make our students rely on our own marking and on our help, and we tell them how we want them to learn.

Is there a better way?