Review by Robert Peal

26 Oct 2014, 19:00

Book Review : Teaching: notes from the front line

A revolution in education is needed, according to Dr Debra Kidd. But like many revolutionaries, she is hazy on what the educational world would look like after she and her followers storm the palaces of the mighty.

Perhaps this is because Kidd and her ilk already inhabit those palaces. Kidd is a teacher of 20 years, but also a PGCE tutor at Manchester Metropolitan University and a consultant for various organisations such as Independent Thinking (which has published her book). Subtitled “notes from the front line”, her book is pretty much that, a scattergun list of anecdotes, vendettas, paeans and lamentations. Along the way, she takes on examinations, PISA rankings, Teach First, Ofsted and various other neo-liberal conspiracies.

She starts by declaring that teachers must “take control of the direction of education policy” and calls for further professional “activism”. However, she either ignores or dismisses the many instances where this is already taking place. Kidd calls for teachers to start “networking, reading and collaborating” but attacks the current “manipulation of social media” by teachers with whom she does not agree, making the extraordinary claim that some individuals hold several hundred Twitter accounts to create the illusion of mass support for unpopular ideas.

Such contradictions litter her book. She praises Finland for selecting its teachers from the top 10 per cent of university graduates, but attacks Teach First, an organisation designed to attract top graduates. She hopes that teachers become better versed in education research, but lambasts the limits of “evidence” for only showing success in tests.

Not that Kidd is averse to the odd citation. At one point, she writes that teachers should focus more upon “what makes learning really memorable in the long term, that is emotion, activity and narrative”. This is a bold claim, which she backs up with three references: a five-page article from 1994 (emotion); a conference talk by two educationists in Florence (activity); and a study of 209 pupils from a middle school in the United States (narrative). On the following page, she says: “People tend to choose the research that best fits their world view”. Quite.

And then there are the errors. She writes that Finnish teachers teach 15.2 hours a week, though the 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey report put it at 20.6 (higher than in England). Twice she repeats the canard that South Korea has the highest child suicide rate in the world. In fact, New Zealand, Ireland and Finland top the OECD teen suicide table. Kidd also argues that high stakes testing has a disproportionately adverse effect on children from ethnic minorities, citing a study into Hispanic pupils in America from 2005. Closer to home, this year’s Commons Select Committee report showed that, amongst free school meal pupils, all ethnic groups outperform white British pupils at GCSE.

I also fall victim to her erroneous pen. Attacking my book Progressively Worse, she describes me as a “Teach First graduate who fled the classroom as soon as his training was over” – even though I teach history full-time at a London comprehensive while Kidd (who refers to herself as a teacher) has left the classroom. She also classifies me as part of a group of “right-wing writers”. I have never declared any political allegiance, and a member of the Labour party wrote the foreword to my book.

Conspiracy theories are the last refuge of those living through changes they can neither accept nor comprehend. So, all that Kidd opposes is deemed to emanate from an evil nexus of big business, the Conservative party and Rupert Murdoch.

Ultimately, I am left feeling sorry for Kidd. She has suffered the fate of so many of yesteryear’s radicals who call for a revolution, only to find when it finally comes that they are in the firing line. Though it may claim to be a call to revolution, this book is really a reactionary squib.

The author of the book Debra Kidd
can be tweeted at via @debrakidd

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  1. Contradictions ‘litter’ Debra Kidds’s book, Teaching: notes from the front line, writes your reviewer Robert Peal. He criticizes Dr Kidd for praising Finland’s policy of recruiting teachers from the top 10% of graduates while attacking Teach First. But Teach First doesn’t just recruit from the top 10%. The minimum requirements are a 2:1 degree. In 2012/13, 67% of graduates from UK universities achieved either first or upper second class honours. 67% of graduates can hardly be described as ‘top graduates’.
    The comparison between Finland’s teacher education and Teach First doesn’t end there. In Finland, trainee teachers undertake five years of teacher education. Teach Firsters, on the other hand, receive a six-week summer school before being sent to schools where they’re expected to remain for two years. This six weeks is deemed sufficient to equip Teach Firsters with the ‘tools and knowledge’ they need to begin teaching. In Finland, it’s five years.