Live broadcast and blog

It’s not a Monday but here’s a quick muse. I have been working with colleagues at Plymouth Institute Of Education to enhance our work in many ways but one way we can share is though social media. We may be down in the South a West but we have a proud heritage of Teacher Education going back 100 years and our REF result was the best ever . So, we now have a Twitter account @PlymIOE which students and staff are beginning to use, and now we are not only starting to blog, but kicking off with live lectures on Vision and values. You can follow it all at Our blog. We will be adding resources over the coming months or leave suggestions about what you would like to see.

And if you fancy a Masters, head for our website !

Advert over!


Almost Monday- thinking about PostGraduate work

I have been very fortunate over the years to spend time in many countries. Often, my travels are for the purpose of examining, which is often the case when I go to Scotland. I have just returned from a visit to Edinburgh where I had my final visit as External on their Masters programme. It’s been a privilege to be a part of a programme which brought practice and theory together so effectively. Some of the work that I have read has been life affirming and really good examples of how reflecting on leadership in practice can help both new and experienced leaders. Scotland is in the middle of changing how they look at leadership and I will be interested to see how all this progresses with their College of leadership. At the same time, I have been involved in our new Masters at Plymouth, because I still think that postgraduate study can really be a new chapter for many people. This is based on my experiences of teaching, marking and advising on Masters programmes at many universities. So why on earth should you, pressed for time by work, family and life generally, give time to Masters? I started when I was a primary Deputy and finished it when my first son was a baby. So here are my Monday musings on my 10 reasons to do a PG qualification- PG Cert, Diploma or Masters- do any chime with you?

  1. I love reading and challenging my own position on ideas.
  2. Writing about my practice aids my thinking.
  3. Research on leadership in different contexts (insert your own interest) is fascinating.
  4. Meeting others studying broadens my perspective.
  5. It’s a treat to spend time writing.
  6. It’s great when I grasp what a complex writer is trying to say.
  7. It’s great when I grasp what a clear writer is telling me.
  8. Studying reminds me how students feel when beyond their comfort zones.
  9. Theorising practice helps my actual practice.
  10. I might even go on to do a doctorate .

Today, studying is a space outside government policy,or school or educational context, where you can challenge, think and discuss ideas. What do you think?

Travel broadens the mind

My mother used to say that travel broadens the mind. This is very probably a good maxim to live by, but for the next little while, I will hope to have my mind broadened while travelling to the American Educational Reasearch Association annual conference, or AERA. It is the most massive conference with thousands of delegates from all around the States, Canada and round the world. This year’s host city is Chicago, and, as ever, the papers, presentations etc from a logistical challenge. Which hotel is the one I want to see in and can I get to my next presentation in another hotel in time? This year my symposium for BELMAS is on at the very exciting time of 815 on Sunday morning – with Chris James from Bath as discussant and papers about education policy in Scotland, Wales and England, featuring Heads and academics, I am hoping for at least a clutch of people grasping coffee and trying to look awake having been to receptions the night before! It is a great opportunity, not only to showcase BELMAS as a society where research and practice meet, but also to help people understand the diversity in educational policy within the Uk and it’s ramifications.

As ever, I shall look out for that unexpected paper that challenges thinking or leads to a new research project. Once, I found just the chapter I was needing for a book I was editing. Another time, I discovered like Twitter minds at at Tweetmeet. The other weird thing that often happens is that I run into someone over breakfast that I haven’t seen in ages. It will be a busy and interesting few days, and Chicago is an interesting city too. I will blog about any interesting ideas that occur. Then, a few days leave, to help with the broadening of the mind, but also the relaxing of the body. 


Selection, choice or neither?

Today I was at a fascinating gathering at the House of Commons to launch a new Civitas book, called “The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools” edited by Anastasia de Waal, with forewords from opposition sides of the debate – David Davis, MP and Fiona Millar. Both were there along with many of the books contributors, and those of us who had been invited to join the debate, from Girls School Heads to representatives of the Church of England.

What struck me from the session ( and I have yet to read the book) was the lack of convincing research about if to, and when to select. When there was research people are keen to use it to back whichever side they believe in. There did seem to be a sort of agreement in the room that the current system was flawed, and you would not start from here if you were framing a system that was both equitable and efficient. The cynic might think that there is a good deal of vested interest in the current system. I was yet again reminded how much of what passes for intellectual debate in the educational field relies on anecdote (“I knew someone who”) and personal experience (” I am a working class boy who got into Oxford so bringing back grammars is the way forward”). It’s also an area where emotions run high, thus people often don’t listen to the other side. I thought David Davis made a good case, even if I knew he was light on some important points!

Wonderful comprehensives did get a mention, as did advocates of selecting at 14- perhaps a vocational pathway rather than an academic one? Getting into ‘good’ aka Russell Group universities got a mention. There was also a discussion about how schools could raise aspirations. I think another book would be needed to unpick what this really means. What is a good university for your area of interest? Oxford or Plymouth…for marine biology?

I am now inspired to read the detail in the book. Somehow, It would be good to keep both the academic and the vocational alive in the system in a way that doesn’t seem to exist at the moment. Can you not love reading and want to develop a new kind of waste disposal ? Is it wrong to study law and love makeup? I may go all Legally blonde at this point. Some young people know their path, others take longer to settle. Do accountability measures in the current system take notice of this? Selection and choice, as Alan Smithers pointed out today, are closely inter-related.

Being an External Examiner for a doctorate

Sometimes it is a privilege to be a doctoral External Examiner, and sometimes it has a nightmarish quality. Today, I have been fortunate enough to be involved in a viva where years of hard work come together in a intense, illuminating discussion about research where everyone came away learning something. Your doctoral viva is a real opportunity to share your ideas with two people who have engaged with it. A good viva should allow both challenge and exploration of where do we go from here? Today, the student passed with just a few minor corrections, and I came away with a nagging feeling that there is a part of the leadership development literature that needs re-shaping away from a research base dominated by ( mostly male, white) academics from countries such as the UK and USA. Of course,O knew this before, but the student’s thesis made me re-thinking several aspects of the literature. He goes away with a doctorate, and I go away with two key thoughts. The first is that this viva was actually how it should be after x years of hard work, part or full time. It should be a powerful experience for the good. Often, however, the viva can be underwhelming or fraught. Underwhelming if the student, and the thesis, are either very poorly put together or extremely dull. Fraught if the other examiner and you have radically different opinions, or, as in one case, I was involved with, the student had an unrealistic opinion of the strengths of the work. I guess that’s why both students and examiners need to be clear about what each brings to the viva, and in experienced examiners do need mentoring.

I have another viva in the next few months. I have seen the abstract, but haven’t read the thesis yet. It looks like it could be another joy to examine. Let’s hope so, for my sake as well as the students.


If you are reading this hoping for a blog about the long running television series, turn away now, because this blog is actually about CSR. Yes, CSR, the cornerstones of effective management according to the HayMcBer organisation . Clarity, Standards and Rewards, in that order. From a research point of view there is much we could dissect about that particular company’s approach, but I have always found CSR very useful on a day to day management level, both of myself and working with other people. Recently, I had cause to pause and think more about Clarity. What does clarity actually mean on a day to day level? Personally, it’s about whether I am clear to myself about what I am doing, and why it is useful to be doing it. I suspect that’s why I enjoy chairing meetings because it is up to the chair to achieve clarity for the attendees. We can all think of meetings we’ve attended where there is less clarity at the end than at the beginning! Perhaps the first question to be clear about is whether we need a meeting at all in those sort of situations. I am certainly clear in my own mind that any meeting over 2 hours is likely to be a waste of people’s time.

Clarity also applies to organisations. Educational organisations often think they have achieved clarity by paperwork, central dictat, or historical practices. This may also be true of healthcare. Clarity however is found not only on paper or in tried and trusted practices, although it may be, but in the way that people and teams go about their daily tasks. Questions, feedback, and a different way of approaching a ‘stuck’ problem may all help achieve clarity. I think I know when an organisation is clear in a helpful way because team work and people going the extra mile is what then happens. HayMcBer would call it ‘discretionary effort’ – that extra that people don’t have to give to do their job competently, but will make an organisation sing, instead of being JUST competent. Clarity is not the only thing an effective organisation needs, but it is vitally important. Have a think about where you are- how clear is your vision? How clear is the way to achieve it? What can you do to be clearer? Something to ponder on a very wet Monday.


Past, present and future

There comes a point in your career when the realisation dawns that you spend a great deal of thought looking back, reflecting on present issues, and slightly less time planning forward. Then, you realise that all three are vital to sustain the professional educator. The past can involve your own experiences in various settings, but needs, I would argue, to be weighed and balanced by a deep knowledge of how we got to where we are today, or the history of education. My great grandfather writing as a primary Head in 1904 had many of the same concerns we have- his school log records his frustrations with parents taking their children out of school, and his positivity at a new curriculum move to foster understanding rather than just memorisation in Maths. By then he had been a head 30 years. On the eve of his retirement in the 1970s, Sir Alec Clegg had some thoughts about headteachers in general. Reflecting back over a long career, he noted of Heads:

“From what they have said to me and from the way they directed their schools, they hold the following beliefs. I apologise if this list seems trite but the items in it are in my view extremely important:

-that there is good in every child, however damaged, repellent or ill-favoured he might be;
-that success on which a teacher can build must somehow be found for every child;
-that all children matter;
-that happy relationships between head, teachers, and pupils are all-important;
-that the life of the child can be enriched by the development of his creative powers;
-that encouragement is far more important than punishment;
-that teachers just as much as pupils need support and thrive on recognition.

I think I should add that most of the heads on my list had an excellent sense of humour, indeed a sense of fun, and I personally believe this to be an attribute of considerable significance in the post that they held.
But perhaps the most important quality in all these heads was that each had thought out why he was doing what he was doing and did not bend to fashion or cliché.”

I could probably debate one or two with the shade of Sir Alec but keeping his list in mind (and forgiving him the generic ‘he’!), I have been struck by recent conversations with heads that many of the above are missing at present in our system both for senior leaders and teachers more generally. Why have we got so many teacher vacancies in the present, and can anything be done to mitigate or change the future? What is worth exploring to fashion education policy post election so that teachers want to enter a rigorous, demanding but personally rewarding career? And, I should add, where they can also have a personal life outside school. The present situation in terms of recruitment and retention is looking increasingly fraught.

The future? If you assume that attracting people with good degrees into teaching is important, then they need to have opportunities to make their mark. If you assume life experience is important to motivate young people, then ways need to be found to attract older people into the classroom, both supported by clear ongoing professional learning opportunities. At Plymouth Institute of Education we are exploring several ideas e.g. the Swedish concept of university practice schools mixing classroom practice with ongoing feedback, support and access to high quality research and mentoring. The future is fluid- let’s work on making it sustainable and dynamic.

Mind wise

I’m currently in the middle of reading, ‘Mind-wise How we understand what others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want’ by Nicholas Epley (2014). He presents a very readable, yet research based account of why we are still prone to critical errors by misjudging social or work situations, others characters or motives. I hope to learn a great deal by the time I have finished it. Today, I spent a stimulating day in the company of members of the Heads Roundtable and other education colleagues, where, of course, part of me was trying to work out what others are thinking while maintaining my professional side. Of course I have also only got to ‘what you can and cannot know about your own mind’ in Epley so am in danger of making wrong assumptions. That said, it was instructive to be with a group of people who want to make a difference to the education of young people, and have carved themselves a space in the policy environment to make the case for change based on a practice perspective. Yet, there remains the difficulty of pulling views together, and moving forward, without compromising the passion for education that brought them together in the first place- to create change, without adding to the burden of change; to discuss areas of tension in a fair way; and to allow the profession to be a profession.

Tom Sherrington used the analogy, borrowed from Ken Spours of UCL IOE of the Glastonbury Festival. We can all pitch our tents regarding the National Baccalaureate, and perhaps by extension the curriculum, by acknowledging we are all there for the festival. It’s going to get a little muddy before it’s over, but at least we can agree on the basics of a tent. It takes someone to set up the Festival and make the ground rules work.Sounds enticingly simple.

I have been involved in education a long time, as teacher, senior teacher, parent, governor, lecturer and now Professor of Education. The latter title suggests knowledge, but sometimes I query what sort of knowledge! Reading Epley is reminding me how little we really understand of others, even we we think we are quite good at it. I felt no more or less knowledgable about education than others there. I guess what I do know is that I have been fortunate for the last 20 years to work in schools, and in university classrooms to explore that exciting place where research and practice met. Going to events like today reminds me that I need to keep making a case for keeping open discussion spaces for others to take advantage of the opportunity to discuss research and practice together. Not just ‘What works’ but ‘Why does it work here and not there?’, and ‘What can I do to help colleagues explore their own understandings of people, and their own mind’s hidden alleys?’ Better get back to reading that book!

Learning to talk

Mondays come around quickly, don’t they? This Monday, I want to write briefly about research into talk by an ex-colleague, Professor of Education Neil Mercer.

I first met Neil as a Masters students, and later found myself working with him at the OU and at Cambridge . It was reading his work on my Masters that made me start to think about oracy in schools- oracy being the use of spoken language. It has been the subject of many debates. I was struck recently by a short article he had written for the Hughes Hall journal, and though I might share it here, so that readers with an interest can grab one of his many books or read an article.

Mercer argues that ‘talk’ needs tuition. In particular, state schools must teach spoken language skills for the sake of social equality. He writes, “Psychological research now encourages the view that human intelligence is distinctively collective, and that language has evolved to enable collective thinking: not only do we use language to interact, but we also use it to interthink.” I was immediately drawn to the idea of inter thinking , and its relationship to team working. He argues that employers want people who are both ‘effective public communicators and collaborative problem solvers.’ We know from public rhetoric that employees have been complaining of this deficit in school leavers for decades. Mercer has argued consistently that most people will need oracy skills more than algebra in their adult life. He has found that politicians don’t often see this. He notes ‘There still seems to be an influential view that ‘talk’ does not need tuition, and that if children are talking they are not learning.’ Many children learn at home, but many do not. Mercer notes that the public schools place a good deal of emphasis on training pupils to be confident in spoken language, hence his argument that state schools should do the same.

When we talk about research led practice, I think we should note that over 30 years, Mercer and colleagues have shown that there are some very effective ways of teaching spoken language skills. On (the often argued about) group work, Mercer suggests that ‘One established way to make group-work more productive is to ask students to agree on a suitable set of ‘ground rules’ for how they will conduct their discussions. Unproductive talk is often the outcome of students using the wrong ground rules – for example implicitly following the rule ‘keep your best ideas to yourself’ rather than ‘any potentially useful information should be shared and evaluated’. When groups follow appropriate ground rules they are more likely to find good, creative solutions to problems. They learn how to use talk to get things done. And our research shows that when students learn how to use talk to reason together, they become better at reasoning on their own – and so improve their attainment in maths, science and other subjects.” He certainly doesn’t argue that children should be left to their own devices, and it is for teachers to monitor and provide feedback.

Currently Neil Mercer is working with Cambridge colleagues using a grant from the Education Endowment Foundation to create a ‘teacher-friendly’ toolkit for assessing the development of children’s spoken language skills- the Cambridge Oracy Assessment Project.

I hope you’ll find the details of interest. It may lead you to look to other research into children’s spoken language skills.

Looking forward to the election?

Please don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good election night-the anticipation, David D( for the last time this May), and the scrabble around to form a government. Health is obviously positioning itself, for many reasons, to be a key focus for all in the next few months. But what about education? Whilst all sides are engaged in talking about the same issues in very similar terms, debates are still out there in the blog sphere about the identical issues that I have seen discussed since I became involved in education in 1980. From Callaghan’s Ruskin speech on the secret garden of education in the 70s we now seem to have a very public garden, but with no real consensus on what to grow or how to nurture different plants. I see this every time I go to Twitter and see debates on what constitutes progressive education; vocational or academic; the role of research; the de-professionalising of teaching and more.All of this in the face of the worst teacher supply and retention situation in decades. Change is relentless, and the most difficult thing to do is to pause. Governmental Motto-If it’s not working very quickly, let’s change the idea/policy/person.

Who will be in charge of education policy and will anyone take away the gardening tools from the politicians? What role will a College of Teachers play? What’s important? As I was named after a politician, here are some ideas that I throw out for you to consider.

-Take the curriculum away from the politicians, without returning to 1976.
– A workforce review, not just a ITE review. Bring in lots of interested parties- universities, teaching school alliances, unions, student teachers. Find someone brilliant, perhaps slightly off the wall, but certainly without a specific axe to grind. Come up with just three BIG ideas. Invite comment. Trial them in specific areas and if they work well, roll them out.
– Bring back creativity in all its forms and learn from the past (see below).
– Encourage new ways of planning – piles of paperwork don’t equal effective planning. @teachertoolkit’s 5 minute plan or similar?
– Systemise professional learning throughout a career so that people have a license to fail, improve and learn from.
-Prioritise people, not structures and re organisation.
Now you see why I am not a politician, but if I was, I suspect my manifesto would be built around the idea that just as children need to relate more closely to their personal and shared environment, teachers need a healthy place and system within which to work. In all the discussions recently on character, I recalled the words of Sir Alec Clegg in the 1950s when he talked about the role of the visual and creative arts in education. He believed that a well planned, well selected activity in visual arts and crafts, music, drama, or creative writing engaged directly with the child’s “loves, hates,fears, enthusiasm and antipathies, with his courage, his confidence and his compassion, in short with the whole range of qualities which will determine not what he knows but the sort of person he is.” I will forgive Sir Alec the gender, as that was of its time! The key point does remain valid for children in my view, and perhaps we need to engage with the workforce in the same way.

So, let’s see if there is any freshness in our debates over the next few months, focused on building a workforce that is not only robustly trained (by a variety of ways), but is able to be both resilient and engaged over a sustained period. That’s my musing for this Monday.