Market madness: condition critical


Principal of NewVIC shows how the marketisation of education leads to a loss of choice and diversity.

Originally posted on Eddie Playfair:

IMG_3878Market madness: condition critical

From Forum vol.57, no.2, 2015

The condition of English education is critical. It has been weakened by pathological marketization and is in desperate need of treatment to restore it to health. In this article, I try to diagnose the disease, describe some of its symptoms and effects on various parts of the system and finally I offer two possible prognoses for the patient; a turn for the worse and the start of a recovery.

1. Key processes of marketisation


If education is seen as a commodity; something which can be consumed and traded, then schools, colleges, universities and the courses they offer all enter the market. What were previously thought of as life-long social interactions and developmental processes become tradeable things with tangible exchange value. Thinking this way inevitably changes the relationship between students, teachers and institutions. Students become consumers, demanding that education ‘delivers’ outcomes…

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Free schools policy fuels segregation

Published on the Guardian website here.

The prime minister’s announcement that, if re-elected, he will open 500 new free schools in the next five years, has catapulted this dismal policy initiative back into the headlines. Most commentators had assumed that David Cameron would keep quiet about free schools because it is generally acknowledged that they’ve been a bit of a disaster and one of things that contributed towards the previous education secretary, Michael Gove, being sacked.

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Academies are an expensive red herring. Here’s how you really improve school standards

How many times must academies be discredited before policymakers look at the proven but less headline-grabbing solution?

The prime minister’s announcement today that, if elected, the Tories will force “mediocre” schools to convert to academies was important for a couple of reasons. First, it indicated that the government wants to make education an election issue. Second, it shows that politicians never learn. There is now a bucket load of evidence that academies don’t raise standards: a report from the House of Commons education committee last week showed this, as has Henry Stewart’s forensic analysis of academies’ results for the Local Schools Network. Furthermore, we have lots of significant research evidence from the US and Sweden where similar “academy-style” schools have been set up. Clearly they are not a good way to invest taxpayers’ money.

Common sense should also tell you that just because you make a school independent of local authority control – which is effectively all an academy is – it doesn’t magically turn it into a beacon of learning. I teach in an academy and am a governor of one as well, and it’s not their academy status which makes them effective, it’s the teaching that goes on in them.

But there is no causal link between academy status and improved teaching – this is where successive governments have gone wrong. Politicians have been obsessed with structural change rather than addressing the core issue, which is raising the quality of teaching and learning in schools. This is what makes a difference to children’s outcomes: when students are taught well, they achieve more.

Teaching quality is the biggest single factor in raising standards. Significant research conducted by John Hattie for the New Zealand government, Robert J Marzano in the US, and the Educational Endowment Foundation in this country, all show that we have to focus on providing teachers like me with meaningful, ongoing training so that we can become better at our jobs. Academies are a complete red herring. If the billions that have been thrown at this programme had been invested in providing teachers with decent, evidence-based training which is “on-the-job”, then standards would have sky-rocketed and we would be vying with the best education systems in the world, such as those in Finland and Singapore.

At the heart of the problem is that much of our continuous professional development has been woefully inadequate. Furthermore, most Ofsted inspectors are clueless, as the increasingly discredited rubric for school inspections shows. Mike Bell at the Evidence Based Teachers Network estimates that 95% of teachersare not aware of which teaching techniques are proven to work in the classroom. The best research shows that good results are achieved when teachers are trained on an ongoing basis and are given the time to reflect upon their practice. This is expensive to do properly, but much more cost-effective than the academies programme: it basically means teachers teaching less and being given more time to study their pedagogy.

It wasn’t until I did a PhD in creative writing and education at Goldsmiths College that I became aware of valid, reliable methods of teaching. I had been teaching for 20 years virtually in the dark. We need to become much more like the medical profession, instituting strategies that are proven to work and given the resources to pursue evidence-based research. Fortunately, there is a movement gathering which embraces both traditionalists like TES columnist Tom Bennett, who also runs the researchEd movement, and more progressive teachers like Tom Sherrington, the inspirational head of Highbury Grove school in London. It is focused on spreading the word about the importance of teacher-led research.

Sadly, the prime minister would not have hit the headlines today by saying he was going to wheel out more teacher training. But that’s what we actually need. The Punch and Judy politics surrounding education, typified by Cameron’s statement today, has to stop.

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The Workload Conversation by @TeacherToolkit

A crucial point: the workload for many teachers is actually insane; how can you improve practice if you don’t have any time to reflect upon it or plan?

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#ResearchED 2014: therapy for a nervous wishy-washy teacher

Last weekend, I cycled from my home in Bethnal Green to the 2014 ResearchED conference at Raine’s Foundation School and was amazed to see so many teachers paying out of their own pockets to attend a conference about educational research on a Saturday. The impressive attendance, possibly over 600 delegates, was a real testament to the power of social media: this was truly a “Twitter” conference in that the interest for it has been generated because its leading lights are such active Tweeters. What was really good to see was that quite a few of its attendees seemed to be young, passionate teachers intent upon trying to improve their practice and wanting to engage in the intellectual debates around education. The conference was absolutely packed: you could scarcely move in the main entrance hall of the school at the beginning of the day.

I was there with two other teachers from my school: the schedule was choc-a-block with different talks so we decided to divvy up going to different events. Most of the talks, though not all, were about the whys and wherefores of teachers should using research to inform their teaching or how they might do their own research. The movement is led by Tom Bennett, who has been a R.E. teacher at Raine’s for the last ten years and is the Behaviour Guru for the TES as well as a prolific tweeter. He is now leaving Raine’s to teach part-time at another school and have more time to run ResearchED and write. Under his guidance, the movement is going global: there are going to be conferences in New York and the Far East soon I believe.

As I’ve pointed out before Bennett is, by and large, a fan of Michael Gove’s reforms and advocates what one might chararactise as a “didactic” model of teaching with the emphasis being on the “teaching of knowledge”. In his book, Teacher Proof, he ridicules what he perceives to be the opposite of his approach: “voodoo” pedagogy which advocates such inanities (as he sees them) as Brain Gym and Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that quite a few of the speakers at the conference are evangelical about what might be termed a “knowledge-based” curriculum and keen to show that the research endorses their pedagogical model. Perhaps for this reason, I felt a little nervous about going to the conference. On the whole, I’ve felt a bit dispirited reading Bennett’s work which I believe unfairly judges teachers like me, who advocate collaborative learning and take people Howard Gardner seriously, as being hopelessly woolly and failing to teach children “knowledge”. Furthermore, I’ve found my interactions with teachers who are strongly supported by Bennett like Andrew Old quite traumatic on the internet because I know I am no match for their witty one-liners and put-downs.

But I was delighted to find that talking one-to-one to teachers who probably don’t agree with me on a lot of things – including Tom Bennett, Andrew Old and Katherine Birbalsingh — at the conference was a really positive experience. For me, the real marvel of the conference was the way people were talking to each other outside the events: there was a genuinely open atmosphere. Unlike the Wellington College Festival of Education, which I’ve found a bit snooty, there was a real sense that we were colleagues in this “teaching thing” together, even if we may disagree on certain things. I think possibly holding the conference at Raines was an important factor here: this is a non-selective, inner-city school in Tower Hamlets which serves some of the most deprived students in the country. There’s the smell of reality in the place which is the opposite of the rarefied atmosphere you get at places like Wellington.

For this reason, I found the day therapeutic. Many of my worries and anxieties about the Gove-supporters – who I have unkindly called “Gove’s blob” or “the Glob” in the past – vanished. Just as I am not a member of the Blob – Gove’s term for any person who might advocate anything that smacks of progressive teaching methods – Bennett and his supporters are not the Glob. It makes a big difference that Gove’s gone I think: he was a divisive figure who did insist that you were either “for us” or “against us”. There was a palpable release in tension in the air with him gone: I spoke to journalists, academy chain bosses and other important educational chiefs during the day and found them refreshingly open.

In particular, listening to Andrew Old’s talk, “How to have a rational argument about education”, was the best therapy I’ve had in years. As I said before, I’ve always found his anonymous internet presence rather scary and found his emphatic one-line put-downs a bit upsetting at times. It was a revelation seeing him in person: I suddenly “got” his tone. I believe now he’s actually not confrontational but just certain he’s right; it’s a very difficult concept to get unless you meet him in person. My amateur video of the talk gives you a sense of his personality I think:

I appreciated the way Old related his ideas about logic to etiquette on the internet. At the end of the session, I told him I liked his talk and he told me he enjoyed my two books, ‘I’m A Teacher, Get Me Out of Here’ and ‘Teacher On The Run’!! Later on, in the pub, we worked out that we’ve both taught at the same Midlands school, depicted in ‘I’m A Teacher…’ and had a bonding experience the like of which I would never have imagined could have happened in a million years a few days ago. Now that I “get” his tone, his “habitus” as Bourdieu would term it, I have found myself re-reading his blog in entirely different light. Although he himself feels tone is unimportant in an argument, my experience of meeting him and others at the conference has made me realize that it’s very important. The internet has been incredible in the way it has brought so many people together to talk about pedagogy, but the real dialogue for me happens face-to-face.

My other therapeutic moments at the ResearchED conference:

  1. Having Andrew Old hand me a TES goodie bag he’d found in the pub because I didn’t have one, only to discover that it was the “Tough Young Teacher” Oliver Beach’s bag!! A few tweets led me to cycle over to Oliver’s place in the East End the next morning. We had a pleasant conversation about the conference.
  2. Tom Bennett taking a “reminder” photo of my copy of Geoff Petty’s Evidence-Based Teaching and promising to consider Petty and Mike Bell, of The Evidence-Based Teachers’ Network as future speakers. I also had a friendly conversation with him about differing views on group work, which I will do another blog on.
  3. Challenging Nick Gibb about the problems with high-stakes, one-off exams which the Coalition has introduced at GCSE and A level. Another blog here I think.
  4. Talking frankly with TES journalists about the possible Tory bias of the magazine – which they denied with some cogent arguments and evidence – and the whole issue of teachers being paid for their resources, which is now being introduced.
  5. Talking to David Didau, a.k.a. the Learning Spy and author of The Secret of Literacy, about supporting the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) and being invited to be a member of the ginger-headed teachers’ club, despite the fact that my hair is possibly no longer ginger. But it once was!
  6. Just feeling the general vibe that teachers are genuinely up for turning this into an intellectual, evidence-based profession which will put us on a par with the medical profession in terms of rigour and dialogue.




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Romeo and Juliet: The Study Guide Edition out now in paperback and Kindle!


My new study guide to Romeo and Juliet, which includes a modern translation, how to write good essays etc. I’ve taught this play every year of my teaching career!! Tyears of teaching it went into the book.

Originally posted on FGI Publishing:


You can buy Romeo and Juliet: The Study Guide Edition in paperback or Kindle.

“Clearly Francis Gilbert is a gifted and charismatic teacher,” Philip Pullman, author of ‘Northern Lights’.

“Gilbert writes so well that you half-suspect he could give up the day job,” The Independent.

“A great teacher,” Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s Newsnight.

Are you struggling to understand Shakespeare’s classic play ‘Romeo and Juliet’? Are you a teacher who needs a really good edition of the play which will enable students to understand the play’s complex language and cover all the key areas required to get a good grade in an examination or coursework?

This brilliant edition of Shakespeare’s great love story may be the answer to your prayers. Written by a teacher who has taught the text for more than twenty years in various secondary schools, this version is aimed at students who must analyse the text in…

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What really matters

Why do 95% of teachers not know about what really works in the classroom? Why are the media and politicians even more clueless? According to Mike Bell, who runs the Evidence-Based Teachers’ Network (EBTN), very few people are actually aware of the teaching techniques that are proven to work across all the age ranges and subjects. Bell feels this is because we don’t live in a culture which values evidence; we prefer to argue and disagree rather than come to a consensual point of view based on the best evidence before us.

I have to confess that, until recently, I was not aware of the full range of work that has been done which shows that there are some really effective, simple teaching techniques that consistently work. Sure, I was aware of John Hattie’s seminal research studies but I have to confess that I’d found his book Visible Learning rather heavy weather: it is full of off-putting charts and statistics and isn’t written in readily accessible language.

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to attend an EBTN training day recently and came away feeling much more enlightened. The training day was persuasive because, unlike many CPD days I have attended, Bell produces hard evidence that the teaching strategies he advocates have actually worked. Furthermore, he is an excellent communicator, in my view the best in this particular field: his approach is a bit less technical than his mentor and colleague, Geoff Petty, who has written books on evidence-based teaching.

In this short video clip of my interview with him, he explains where to find effective teaching techniques:

As he says in the interview, there are a number of strategies and policies which we know from years of evidence are ineffective. These include:
• Charter schools/academies/free schools
• Reducing class sizes
• Non-specialist information technology
• Untrained teaching assistants
• Staff development with no feedback

In his interview with me, Bell went through the things that definitely do make a difference to students’ outcomes.   You can find the main sources:  Hattie, Marzano and EEF on the EBTN website. All of the strategies which he advocates and which are proven to work are ones which play to the brain’s strengths. As Bell says, scientists are finding more and more about the human brain and are realising that are brains learn by making connections, spotting the similarities and differences between things; this is why teaching by analogy is so important. This is what effective teachers do anyway, but it is useful to know why making analogies help students learn. In this clip, bell explains why ‘Using Analogies’ comes top of Marzano’s list of effective methods.

Teachers are notorious for being overburdened by marking, but Bell says that they needn’t be. Indeed he says that teachers shouldn’t waste their time by marking too much:

It is more effective often to get students to mark their own work.  Summative Assessment should be minimised.

What teachers really need is to have time to reflect upon their own practice. Good quality staff development has one of the highest effect-sizes in education. In this clip, Bell talks about why they need this space during school time:

Indeed when teachers are encouraged to research a particular area of their teaching, they usually improve their students’ learning.  They start to see the learning through the eyes of the student:

Bell points out that there is a great deal of evidence that setting by ability does not change average results and often doesn’t work for the less able students:

What students need to do is to have the space to talk through problems in mixed-ability groups so that less able students communicate with more able students and improve their knowledge of a topic:

When teachers nurture discussion, they really manage to raise levels of achievement. This is why a “no hands-up” rule often works very well because it forces students to discuss key issues in groups.

Students also need to adopt positive attitudes towards learning and to adopt a “Growth Mindset” where they believe that can achieve if they try. Rewarding students for effort not for their innate ability is vital in this regard:

While some of these methods might seem suspiciously trendy to some more traditional teachers – no hands-up, co-operative learning, Growth Mindset –
some methods are quite old-fashioned. Bell advocates “rote-learning” where appropriate:

He also says that teachers must be giving students the big picture of a topic consistently, as well as the fine detail. This is something many teachers neglect to do.

In the interview, Bell discussed the major researchers in this area, who are: Michael Shayer and Philip AdeyJohn HattieRobert Marzano. Here he talks about how Cognitive Acceleration developed following classroom experiences in the 1970s.  It enables less able students to understand complex topics:

In this clip, he talks at greater length about the methods and approaches of the evidence-based approach:

Bell’s own video, The Case for Evidence-Based Teaching, is a good summary of all the main points he makes:

Let’s hope that teachers are given more support and training in these vital areas. Instead of wasting billions on initiatives that we know don’t work, we need to nurture a system which really helps teachers use strategies which are proven to raise standards.

You can join EBTN by following this link.  EBTN also offer training sessions either at your school/college or at an external venue.  I think they offer amazing value.

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