Working out what Ofsted is up to involves dividing woods from trees. Unfortunately, as our editor Laura McInerney learned this week, sometimes that causes splinters…
Oh to be one of those witty social commentators who is always correct. I envy those people.
This week, in a bid to deal with a shortage in team members — (we have fewer reporters than Abba had singers) — I took to live-tweeting the Lords committee about citizenship education. This was personally exciting, as I am a trained citizenship teacher and taught the subject for six years. Every top-performing country in the world has a social studies curriculum, and it makes me want to weep that we treat the subject so badly in England.
At one point a slightly odd conversation took place between Ryan Mason, a current citizenship teacher, and Sean Harford, Ofsted’s director of education. Harford is a well-known communication legend and I am typically a big fan. (Going so far as to tell Sir Michael Wilshaw off for not giving him more credit).
Mason (the teacher) was explaining how the reduction in ‘active citizenship’ in the new GCSE means there is less time for pupils to undertake campaigns, including going on trips.
So who said what now?
Listening back to the committee at around 11.24
Ryan Mason says: “The new GCSE active citizenshipment element… in the old style there was a requirement for them to go out and do active citizenship projects, two of them, now there is a project but there is a very small weighting in terms of the GCSE so less time is given to that.”
This is true. Previously, 50% of the citizenship GCSE was about active campaigns. It is now 15%.
Mason then goes on to explain that when it was 50% his students had the time to run campaigns, including going to parliament, but “the new spec[ification] has restricted that”.
Harford then steps in.
Harford: “I think that is right in some respects, Ryan, but the issue here is … and this goes back to the Chief Inspector’s recent commentary on the curriculum… schools need to be looking just beyond what is just meeting the GCSE specification and if schools think that youngsters learn better and are more able and knowledgeable as a result of the things that you’ve said then presumably they would put the time in and do things that way.”
For me, this was a red rag. I’ve heard a few times recently this argument that schools need to be going above and beyond what they are expected to do and I’m finding it increasingly annoying. There will always be some schools where this is possible. Where cohorts are well-drilled in expectations, amazing teachers float around, and the kids can storm through the more rigorous GCSEs while also playing the flute, coding their first app and acting as a UN Goodwill Ambassador on the weekend.
Hence I tweeted:
And because Harford is normally on point, I wrote this:
The debate rattled around social media all evening. Some people strongly backed Harford, and felt schools have enough time to d extra active campaigning in Citizenship. Many more felt teachers should focus on what the GCSE asks them to do. After all, if the government tells teachers that pupils should only spend 15% of their time on active campaigning it seems rude for a teacher to ignore it.
Harford responded the next day and gave me a teacher’s telling off (note the full name):
He was also pretty insistent he did NOT mean to imply that teachers should go off-specification in favour of their own whims.
But, if you look back.. it does seem like he said that. So what is going on?
The confusion occurred because Harford mixed up “active citizenship” as a teaching method with the content of the GCSE. In his view, if teachers felt the best way to teach the content in the Citizenship curriculum was by using the method of active citizenship – i.e., taking kids out to parliament and running protests – then that’s what they should do.
What he missed is that active citizenship isn’t a method. It was half the curriculum. Reducing it down to 15% meant an additional 35% of other content added in. So saying that teachers should continue with it if they think it’s the right thing to do is a bit like saying you should teach 15th century novels in English GCSE even though there’s no time for it (and no exam content). Teachers simply cannot spare the time when other content must be covered.
Still, it was good to know once we cleared up what happened, that Harford does NOT think people should be straying from their specs.
(He probably does need to gen up on the finer points of citizenship, however.)
So that was that, until…
The Revenge of the Misunderstandings
My mix-up today. Uh-oh.
In another bid to help the team I watched Amanda Spielman get grilled by MPs in parliament on Wednesday. Not because she’s in trouble. This happens every year!
At one point she was asked about her relationship with the national schools commissioner. He had a bit of a frosty one with her predecessor.
Listening in, I heard this startling fact:
Cue me writing in the paper this week that Spielman was moving at rather slow pace if these meetings were only happening just now.
But. Um. Yeah. That’s not what the Chief Inspector meant.
Spielman has a somewhat ‘Famous Five’ way of speaking. Think of an awfully nice child from the simply splendid 1940s — and you’re about there.
Hence, when Spielman was explaining that she met Sir David Carter “only yesterday” she was pointing out they met regularly (as in, “we met just yesterday”) rather than “we only met yesterday [for the first time].” If you say out-loud “we only met yesterday” in an excited 1940s voice, you’ll see what I mean.
One-nil to Amanda on this one. My apologies.
It’s Only Words…
What this all goes to show is how difficult words can be to interpret. I’m not complaining; that’s what makes creating a newspaper a great deal of fun. But, as with people in schools, we are always battling these tiny little communication jolts. My team do it much better than me, which is why I let them write the news! But I thought this was an interesting example of how misunderstandings happen and why even when we are trying to get things right, sometimes they go awry.
Trying to explain complicated things in the right amount of brevity while listening and typing, and keeping nuance and interest, is what makes this job exhausting, and brilliant, and a good thing to do. The outcome just isn’t always perfect.
And you can quote me on that.