Why David Lammy might be wrong about Oxbridge

OxfordI was at Oxford in the early 90s and I stuck out. Why? Because I was black and hardly anyone else was. Entrance exam & interview was the way in. Nowadays, Oxbridge tutors have a sea of A* candidates to choose from. That’s what happens when you dumb down exams. It does not solve social disadvantage. It perpetuates it.

I can see why David Lammy thinks the problem is Oxbridge. That’s how we’ve always thought and changing one’s mind is hard. But my own experiences (which are vast in this area) tell me that he is wrong.

  1. It is recognized that black students from private schools get in. So clearly the problem isn’t about race.
  2. I would love to know the number of white private school applicants who apply and then the number that have 3 As and get rejected. I’d also like to know the number of black students (from the state sector and then also from the private sector) who apply and the number that get rejected. Then we’d have some facts instead of wild speculation from people who have absolutely no experience of the system.
  3. There is data out there showing that the majority of successful state-school applicants to Oxbridge come from about 200 schools. I’d love to know how many black students attend these schools and if, when they apply, whether they also get rejected.
  4. The current evidence shows that blacks often apply for subjects like Law and Medicine where the rejection rate is high. Again, I would love to see more precise data on this. How many blacks applying for these subjects get rejected? How many whites applying for these subjects get rejected? How many blacks applying for other courses get rejected? We need more data.
  5. Because of the dumbing-down, grades are necessary but not sufficient. Is it really the case then that one just has to ‘whiten up’ to get in? Or is it more profound than that?

Why are so few blacks at Oxbridge?

  1. Over my long(ish) career, I have met so many teachers who are anti-Oxbridge that I have lost count. I have also met many teachers (but far fewer than those who hate Oxbridge) who are trying to encourage their pupils to apply but are so terrified at being called elitist that it is a battle that is rarely won in many state schools. Not all schools are like this of course. But far too many are, and we refuse to talk about it.
  2. The schools where many black pupils go can often not have knowledge as their focus. They believe in teaching skills. Oxbridge will expect students to know lots of stuff at interview. It is hard for kids to teach themselves, however bright they are.
  3. The schools where many black pupils go can be reluctant on insisting on a no-excuses behaviour culture. This means that pupils who could get to Oxbridge are held back by those who would never be able to go. Teachers cannot teach and even if they can, their time is taken dealing with the disruptors instead of pushing the top ones to go for the very best universities.
  4. The schools where many black pupils go can have mixed-ability classes. Teachers will pitch to the middle and so the ones at the bottom of the spectrum prevent the ones at the top from accessing the knowledge that is necessary to get them to Oxbridge.
  5. The schools where many black pupils go can have teachers who struggle to know the Oxbridge application process and requirements. Even if they are lucky to have a few teachers who are not anti-Oxbridge, these teachers do not know how to get them in.

As a Head, if you have Ofsted’s demands to deal with, unreasonable parents, staff who need huge support, caretakers who don’t show up to work, amongst a million other daily fire-fighting issues, is it any wonder that your school’s Oxbridge count may not be your top priority?

Our top cohort is in year 10, but I have spent the last 2 years visiting both Cambridge and Oxford colleges, speaking to admissions tutors, asking for advice, attending events and conferences on how to get them in. It is a big focus of ours. In doing so, I have met countless Oxbridge tutors, all desperate for me to send them talented black pupils. I have met the full time staff employed by every Oxbridge college, all with one focus: widening access.

When the time comes, if we get some of ours in, I am certain people will say we got lucky. Or they’ll say that doesn’t it matter, all universities are the same anyway. But neither of these things will be true. And if someone took a moment to look at why Mossbourne or the London Academy of Excellence or Newham Collegiate Sixth Form or Harris Westminster (amongst others) get large numbers of ethnic minorities into Oxbridge, then we could start having a meaningful conversation about this.

 

 

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I LOVE our school!

This just landed in my inbox from one of our teachers and I had to put this on here because I want to tell the world just how incredible our school is, not because Ofsted inspectors say we are, but because of things like this…

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I confess that this morning in form I did something unspeakable. I did what, in other school contexts, we might call “discovery-based learning”. I played 8Z the opening minute of each of the ‘Planets’ suite and got them to ‘guess’ which planet we were listening to. Normally this would have been a pointless game of “guess what is in my head” but, owing to our fantastic knowledge-led curriculum, they were able to correctly name the first four without fail! Here is a sample of the conversations we had:

Max: “is this Mars because Mars was the God of War and this sounds very war-like?”

Jenny: “Is this Venus? Venus is the Roman god of Love and it has a very romantic sound”

Carl: “I think this is Mercury because Mercury was the God of messengers and thieves. He was known for playing tricks on people and the piece sounds very mischievous”

And then when I skipped to the “I vow to thee my country” part of Jupiter all the hands shot up.

Knowledge really does beget (meaningful) creativity.

What a great school we work at!

What is so extraordinary about this is this is this teacher’s tutor group. He isn’t a Science teacher or a Music teacher. He is just playing them some classical music as every tutor does every morning across the school.

It isn’t a test. They haven’t been taught this and then asked questions. It is just conversation being had while the register is being taken – with a year 8 middle set of working class kids in an inner-city school. They have remembered and retained what they have been taught over the last 2 years in various subjects and they have voiced it and applied it in a totally different context.

David Didau unwittingly argues for selection

WARNING: This post is not for the emtionally-attached to the ‘Grammar schools are evil’ idea. Only those who think there are pros and cons on both side should continue to read.

udzUVdjD_400x400David Didau is BRILLIANT. But he has unintentionally made me think that maybe Peter Hitchens is right on grammars after all.

‘Why grammar schools for all won’t work’

If you read nothing else, read this by David Didau. It is so spot-on in everything it says. It chimes with my years of experience in a variety of schools and it is for these reasons that at Michaela, we do as David says: we talk about being ‘Top of the Pyramid’. Many schools do this. It is a trick of illusion used by teachers in their classrooms and heads in their schools. “We are better than them” is the sentiment. We can behave better, work harder, strive more, and these attributes make us ‘better’. We aren’t failures like the kids who choose gang life over a life of hard work. We are better than that. At Michaela, we so believe in the sentiment that we have ‘Top of the Pyramid’ painted on the wall. We are the best. We are so damn good, we are going to give those boys at Eton who think they are the best a real run for their money. Think you are the best Eton? You haven’t met Michaela yet.

Peter Hitchens argues for an education system with grammars. David Didau does not believe in them. And yet, I find that Didau makes the most powerful argument in favour of grammars. Weird, eh?

Here’s how:

  1. As Heather Fearn has discussed and Roger Scruton argues for, the purpose of education should be to impart knowledge to the next generation, not to engender social mobility.  While Didau and I may put social mobility first, we also believe in our duty to pass on knowledge to future generations.
  2. Both David and I want a high floor for all schools. But David Didau makes a strong argument for the necessity of less good schools to exist so that good schools can set themselves up against them and motivate the children with talk of ‘being better than that’.
  3. Didau does say that he believes that children who do well in grammars would do well elsewhere and those who do worse in grammars would do better elsewhere. And he rightly said to me he isn’t sure how that can be construed as an argument in support. Didau is right: his heart is against grammars. But the logic of his argument is not.
  4. If the central point of Didau’s blog is correct, then, as he says, not all schools can be excellent.
  5. If this is true, the question is which schools should be excellent and which schools should not be. Hitchens makes this point and argues, rightly, that often what makes good comprehensives good is that they have huge intakes of very supportive parents who have moved into the area to get their kids into said school. Why select by postcode instead of ability?
  6. Of course there is also a handful of schools out there that are excellent despite intake because of the incredibly committed staff. But these are certainly not the norm. For a nationwide system, what should one do?
  7. Grammars have a natural ‘top of the pyramid’ position to play on and use to their advantage. If we had grammars across the country in sensible numbers, then the dynamic (currently used by clever comprehensives where they create the illusion of being better than others – explained by Didau) would give those schools the edge required to do very well.
  8. If Didau and I believe in successful schools and we believe in the validity of his blog post—that grammars cannot exist for all—then the question is who should get to go to an excellent school?
  9. Hitchens believes it should be the more able. I’m not sure who Didau believes it should be.
  10. If education should both promote social mobility and impart knowledge for future generations, then the argument that Hitchens puts forward for the able to be the chosen few is a good one, AS LONG AS some working class kids get in.
  11. As it stands, both Didau and I seem to take the position that the chosen should be those who get lucky either by post code or having pushy parents, or those who so happen to get into a school which so happens to have a strong ethos at that time because a good Head just took it over and will remain for 5 years until he/she leaves and the school deteriorates again. Our position is that the chosen should be totally random and unpredictable.
  12. And while Hitchens’ position in favour of grammars is coherent, I’m not sure the same can be said of ours against them.

 

I hope this makes sense. I find it hard to get my head around it!

How to persuade those of us who are not instinctively anti-grammar

UnknownI have no problem with selection. I do not have an instinctive aversion to grammar schools. I do think that the current school system is failing our children. And I do think that something radical must be done to save it (and the country).  I also believe that the school system of the 1950s was not failing the country and I do absolutely believe that we have been on a downward slope ever since.

So I really should agree with Peter Hitchens’ (@ClarkeMicah) position on grammar schools.

Except that I don’t.

And despite having had a long to and fro with him on Twitter last weekend, I am still not convinced of his pro-grammar stance. 140 characters just aren’t enough.

For those of us who believe that there are pros and cons in this debate, but are still anti-grammar, I think there are two issues for us.

  1. We are not convinced that the reason progressivism (child-centred teaching & lower behaviour standards) consumed our education system was because the grammar schools were abolished and comprehensives established. We think it was a sad coincidence that these two things happened at the same time. Indeed, we are certain that grammar schools now and the grammars of the future will simply perpetuate progressivism because generally speaking (not in every classroom but in many), as a society we believe that the teacher teaching from the front is bad, that lessons must be ‘engaging and fun’ and that strict behaviour systems are, well, not very nice.
  2. The old grammar/tripartite system of the 1950s belonged to a different society. It may well have been successful then with some 50% or 60% of pupils being from the working class.  We do not deny this (unlike many anti-grammar people) and nor do we insist that similar standards of both behaviour and achievement are being met by our current comprehensive system. But we are unsure of how we would recreate this now for two reasons. a) The stable working class family with dad working at the factory and mum at home with the kids doesn’t exist on anything like the scale that it used to (today barely half of households with children are conventional two parent, married families). b) The 11+ used to be a test that was fairer. It was fairer because hot-housing did not dramatically affect who got in then. These two reasons help to explain why poor kids have a far harder time getting into grammars these days. We do not believe that this is only because grammars are in affluent areas. Middle class people are everywhere.

So how would I be convinced grammar schools could work?

  1. Convince me that somehow by establishing grammar schools, this will help to reduce the impact of progressivism. I believe that our main focus in education should be in establishing what works well in schools. Does having high expectations on behaviour work, or not? If not, fine. If it does, then let’s start expecting this across the country. Does having teachers teach from the front work? If not, fine. If it does, then let’s start rolling this out in all our schools. I think progressivism is harmful. I don’t see how establishing grammar schools that will themselves be progressive is in any way addressing the more urgent and dramatic issue for our country: an education system that is broken at its roots and in need of a radical rethink.
  2. Convince me that we can test pupils in a way that isn’t unfair to the poor. I can even accept that it might be a little unfair. But grammar schools cannot just be a clever way for the middle-classes to get a private education without paying for it. How you do this in 2017 with the hot-housing culture that we have where the poor are at such a disadvantage, I don’t know. How on earth the government is going to insist on 30% of grammar schools having poor kids without lowering the test results for them, I don’t know. Tests require cultural knowledge. Tests require either a home filled with books and someone to give you practice tests and/or a teacher teaching knowledge from the front of the classroom. Our schools on the whole don’t do that. So how on earth are the poor kids going to get in?

Often I read stuff on the anti-grammar side and I cringe. It can often be too emotional and assumes that people who are pro-grammar are mean and nasty and have another agenda.

The simple fact is that the anti-grammar people and the pro-grammar people all want the same thing. They want a fair and successful society where our children, ALL of our children are educated in the best way possible.

We simply disagree on how to do it.

This – Changing my mind on grammar schools, from one of Michaela’s teachers (mike_taylor11) is well worth reading. I only discovered his thoughts on grammars upon reading it and then I thought, yes, I think that’s right.

Peter Hitchens responded to my post above in tweets below:

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Perhaps I’m not a conservative (small c) after all…

Heather FearnIt was Heather Fearn’s (@HeatherBellaF) post on grammar schools that made me pause. She has written an interesting piece here on reasons why one could be in favour of grammar schools.  I thought I would be persuaded.

I was not.

So I started to wonder why.

I’m not against selection per se. Neither am I outraged by the idea of splitting children up at the age of 11. I tweeted a lot yesterday asking teachers questions like, ‘What if we had a fantasy test that didn’t test cultural literacy and background (as all tests inevitably do, so penalising the poorer child), would we teachers then be pro-grammar? My own answer was, I’m still not sure I would be. What if we really could guarantee that a certain percent (80%? 90%?) of all grammar school children came from families earning under X amount, would we teachers be happy with the policy then?

What I wanted to know is whether teachers dislike grammars because of the inevitable exclusion of the poor, or whether they just instinctively hate the idea of selecting children.

For those of us who believe there are pros and cons to both sides of the grammar debate (although clearly we fall down on one side in the end), I think the crux comes down to this (from Heather’s article):

“…these arguments from research are anyway based on a highly debatable premise. They presume that the purpose of education is social mobility. The research then seems to focus on the chances of grammar schools raising the status of the most disadvantaged – a worthy endeavour but hardly all that should be understood by social mobility.

I am not a socialist and therefore I do not believe in the possibility of an egalitarian utopia in which all will flourish. This means I cannot view social mobility as the primary purpose of education. A stretching academic education is a good in and of itself, whatever utilitarian outcomes it might also offer society. On balance I would rather at least some children benefit from a limited resource (whatever their social background) than none.”

Roger Scruton – who I once told that having him visit our school was like having Brad Pitt visit – I like him that much – says the same thing: Education’s primary purpose is not to enable social mobility. It is to pass on our history, culture and knowledge to the next generation.

And there we have it. That’s where I part ways with those who are perhaps truer conservatives than I am. I am not in the game of education just to pass on knowledge. I admit it. I’m in the game to change the stars of the children we teach, to give them the chance to be just like Boris Johnson (i.e. be articulate and knowledgeable and have all doors open to them in life). And to do that, we give them knowledge, thereby doing what Scruton and Fearn believe should be the primary reason for education. But for me, it is secondary.

So the idea of reserving all the clever teachers for the brightest seems wrong. Fearn spends some time explaining why having all your intellectuals in one place is important. And I agree with her that comprehensives (or indeed the whole school system) fails in numerous ways to give our children the education they deserve.

But cleverness is a trait that every employer craves in all staff: teachers, office staff, kitchen staff, caretakers. And that’s because it means systems are more likely to work well, staff are more likely to work seamlessly, and one’s school is more likely to succeed. To reserve the cleverest staff for the brightest children because they will want to discuss more Shakespeare is both unfair in my opinion, and simply not true. At Michaela, we take children who were years behind their chronological reading age on entry and have them writing glorious essays on Macbeth within 2 years.

If we didn’t have super bright staff (and I don’t just mean teachers), we wouldn’t be able to do that.

But if what matters to you is passing knowledge to the next generation, then it doesn’t matter who exactly gets that knowledge. All that matters is that it has been passed on.

However, if what matters to you is everyone having an equal shot at the pie, then in end, the arguments in favour of grammar schools will always fall short.

I don’t care for the current policy on grammar schools but am not incensed because 50 or 100 extra grammar schools will make little difference to anyone. If the current government is obsessed by grammar schools, then let them have their fun. I am baffled by the decision to use up so much of their political capital on such a contentious issue, while sidelining the far more important issue – our 23 thousand schools that require the government’s interest, time and energy.

But the simple fact is that if we had many thousands of grammar schools, Michaela would not and could not exist. I wouldn’t be able to find the staff to make it happen. And that would mean that all those children either at the bottom, or simply in the middle who are more than capable of doing intellectual work, might never do it. And social mobility for anyone but the brightest would no longer be a possibility. Schools like Michaela make social mobility a possibility for anyone who chooses to work hard. Grammars make social mobility possible only for the brightest.

So that is why, on Easter weekend 2017, I’m wondering whether or not I’m a conservative after all…

*** Heather Fearn’s response to this blog post, is here. And I have to say, it has me thinking once more! I can’t really disagree with anything she is saying…

Extreme critics & changing your mind

images.jpegI have long wondered at the abuse that educationalists get when they dare to question the status quo. There are teachers out there who will defend the current system at all costs.

Despite the stats that demonstrate just how badly our current system fails its pupils AND its TEACHERS, some teachers march on, certain that what the current system does is not only right, but worth defending. Sometimes that defence will include insults, threats of violence, wishes of death, that the critic should have no children (as in the most recent Twitter spat involving Katie Ashford, one of Michaela’s staff).

What is fascinating is that the perpetrators feel they are morally justified in inflicting the abuse.

Why?

They seem to think that because the critic has criticised a practice or a curriculum or a system, the critic is criticising THEM. They then seem to believe that this criticism justifies all types of behaviour towards the individual who dared to question the status quo. I can think of one Michaela hater whose behaviour, if we knew who he was, would be worthy of police action. The harassment has been so intense, prolonged and determined that I worry about his mental health and I worry about my staff and whether one day he will meet one of us leaving school. Jo Cox’s terrible end remains at the front of my mind when my teachers receive death threats.
We have been broken into, had protesters outside handing inflammatory flyers to our year 7s, had hundreds, if not now thousands of emails and letters sent to our school, some with threats, some with simple insults, and some just telling us how much they hate us. We’ve even had guests visit our school who deliberately target our children telling them that they couldn’t possibly like their school.

I have had office staff in tears because it is very hard reading bile about their school that they love. Presumably the people sending the abuse do not consider the office worker who is just doing a job, opening the post, constantly terrified at what might jump out at her.

I presume that all of the abuse that we get is not just from teachers. Although I am always astonished at how much comes from teachers. Surely teachers know that the current system is failing our children and our TEACHERS?

Is it not obvious that change is required? Tom Bennett said in a tweet recently that one shouldn’t assign blame. But it is only in pinpointing what is at fault that one can ever hope to address the correct issues and make change. To do anything else is to just wail in the wind. Perhaps what he meant is that one shouldn’t blame any individual. And of course that is true. There are many factors that cause the current system to fail and one should be seeking them out, not insisting that the system is perfect as it is, and attacking anyone who dares to question it.

Why not be open to change? Open to a better education system that will better serve the children we claim to love?

The number one problem in education is that there are too many people actively defending the status quo. If we could just admit that there is a problem, that the education system could make changes to improve things, then we might be in a position to discuss what they are.

There is a difference between blaming something rather than someone. You can call it something else – pinpointing responsibility – whatever you like. BUT one has to point the finger at something, or else the conversation is utterly pointless. This business of saying ‘all methods work’ or ‘all methods are equal in value’ is bizarre. Clearly some methods work better than others, no? Is it a crime to try to seek them out?

Ever since I started teaching, it was made clear that dissent was not allowed. I think things have improved in the last few years in this area, but it remains the case that there are far too many people unwilling to criticise the current system or current practice. If one cannot reflect, question, consider and discuss, and CHANGE ONE’S MIND, then our education system is doomed.

At Michaela we are even planning a conference (on June 17th) based around the ideas that we have changed our minds on. We change our minds every day about all sorts of things. We do so because we are interested in what works, not in a particular ideology.image1.PNG

There is nothing wrong in being critical of methods that do not work as well as other methods. Indeed, such criticism is what stimulates improvement.

 

Candour is cool

'By now, you've probably noticed that a corporate culture which values candor and a free exchange of ideas comes with a price tag!'

If you work at Michaela, it would not be unusual to get an email like this from the Head:

Today is Thursday. Before the end of the week, you must say something to someone that you would not have otherwise said. Start with, ‘So Katharine said that I should say, so I’m saying it…’

And then the email will remind them to give themselves a star on the Candour Start Chart in the staff room and to give a star to the person with whom they’ve been candid.

Wherever you work, I guarantee there will be misunderstandings and miscommunication. I guarantee people around you will do things that will make you raise an eyebrow. It is the nature of working with others. So if you want your organisation to run well, you need to address the issue of candour, or the lack of it will CRUSH your organisation.

I think staff probably think, ‘Oh no… here she goes again…’ when they get emails like this from me. But they do as I ask and they raise all sorts of grievances with their colleagues as a result. What happens next? The grievance gets resolved. No one feeling awkward about stuff, wishing they had said something but never quite mustering up the nerve.

The Headmistress at Michaela never gets any stars on the chart. And that’s because she is always candid. Hard to take? Perhaps. But people get used to it.

That’s why our so-called ‘PM Management meetings’ with me tend to go like this:

ME: “Is there anything that we could do to support you better?”

STAFF: “Well no, because had there been, I would have told you.” Pause. “So is there something I should be doing differently?”

ME: “Er…No. Of course you would already know if that were the case…”

See my last post on abolishing targets. You should only abolish targets in a culture of candour. When everyone speaks freely to each other, then you don’t need the tick box exercises that pretend to improve people when in fact they only make an organisation feel as if that’s what it is doing.

Every half term, the top 3 star earners on the chart get a reward of chocolate in front of the whole staff and a clap. Hurrah for speaking your mind! Hurrah for the bravery, for the honesty, for putting the success of the school and the children above your own feelings of awkwardness. Hurrah for being candid!

Candour creates a culture of trust. And a culture of trust allows you to abandon all the nonsense that wastes teacher time, like targets, PRP, book looks and marking. Oh, and all the crazy data input… There is so much I could write about!

All a load of nonsense if you ask me.

That’s why I don’t get stars for being candid.

I just can’t help it. 🙂