Independent Th!nking

re:thinking education

A World Away or a Class Apart? Some Thoughts at the Start of Term — September 6, 2014

A World Away or a Class Apart? Some Thoughts at the Start of Term

Independent Thinking Associate Tim Benton has just come back from leading a two-day VIth form induction in a top school in Hong Kong. He came away with an important message for all UK teachers:

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” – From Plutarch via W B Yeats.

September is not the easiest of months. What vestiges of a Summer we may or may not have enjoyed slip slowly towards Autumn, the days grow shorter and warm weather clothing is dutifully packed away until next year. The nation shrugs, heaves a collective sigh of ‘well that was that then’ and girds its loins for Winter. Central heating systems are tested. More relationships, we are told, end in September than any other month. And why not? It’s the start of another season, after all. Give up. Move on. How depressing. Oh, and of course the new school year begins. More of the same… Yes, the storm clouds well and truly gather over September…

Two weeks ago I stood in a drama studio in an international school in Hong Kong. 170 sixth formers, fresh from GCSE results, crowded the room and an expectant buzz signaled that this group was ready for whatever I had planned. There were a few exceptions, as there always are, but mainly these were motivated young people, hungry to learn and eager to do well. Their ambitions are grand: they want places at the top universities around the world; Harvard, Yale, Oxbridge, Russell Group colleges and other comparable institutions across the globe. Many are also skilled artists, actors, athletes and could do well in these fields. Realistically, however, and because of parental expectations, they will go on to become doctors, engineers, financiers or CEOs. Their education has equipped them with the tools to gain excellent exam results so they can achieve these aims, but it has also given them far more and they have other options, even if they don’t take them. More importantly, because they have more to offer, they will excel in their respective fields because they bring more to the table. Their teachers understand that a holistic education stretches way beyond the results gained at certain milestones, important though these are. They appreciate that all the A*s in the world will not help these young people if they don’t have soft skills, creativity, energy, drive, curiosity and compassion. So their curriculum embraces service, arts, questioning, exploration and the love of learning. The young people ‘get it’ and can see how this prepares them for the world they are going into. It is relevant. The end products are young people ready to embrace the world with the mindset and attitudes that will position them at the forefront of whatever they turn their hand to. As a fee-paying school, in a competitive market, they need to deliver results, but without the encumbrance of target setting, Ofsted and league tables, their educators are free to prioritise what really is important. They also get the grades.

The buzz continued and I started my session. Over the following two days I would spend eight hours with this group. Would I see something different from what I see in UK schools or are sixteen year olds the same the world over? Does the education system there produce different outcomes?


Teaching should be the best job in the world. What a privilege to shape the lives of the next generation, to teach them all we’ve learnt and inspire them to discover more for themselves. It’s two weeks after my Hong Kong trip and I stand in front of a group of teachers, corralled together for the obligatory INSET at the beginning of September, already battle-weary and the kids aren’t even back yet. I ask them why they joined the profession in the first place. The answers aren’t surprising; to make a difference, because I loved my subject and wanted others to gain that passion too, to help, to ignite something in young lives and change things for the better. We work together over the next few hours and spirits are lifted and at the end of the session, they walk out brighter and more focussed. “Thanks,” said one. “I felt deflated at the start of all this, but I feel better now. I’m going to do a few things differently.” I smile. I hope that glimmer stays with her, and I say some last words of encouragement but frankly, when it comes to our education system, the beast is sick and enthusiasm and passion are sucked out of teaching staff from the off. The desire to educate is blanketed with an all-consuming drive for results, data, targets, paperwork, league tables, Ofsted and a myriad of initiatives that do nothing for lighting the spark in children. In fact, it does the opposite.

As I leave, I pass a newly decorated Geography classroom with its various wall displays. In an almost Orwellian manner, slogans about achievement and percentages are plastered around the room, advice and information about target grades are on large display boards. Everything screams about how to get A*-C in Geography GCSE. There is no mention on Key Stage 3. There is nothing that inspires a love of Geography. This room says nothing about why Geography is a great subject to learn. All it talks of is how to get the grades that will raise the headline figure for the school, boost its position in the league tables and appease the authorities. Where are the models of volcanos? Why are there no amazing posters about glaciers or rivers? Why is there nothing that makes students ask questions about population, poverty and injustice? What is there here that will inspire the next generation of Edmund Hillarys, Ranulf Fiennes or Bear Grylls? This room is a grade factory. I hope I have this wrong. I hope more aspirational material goes up as term goes on, but sadly, I don’t think it will. The focus is wrong. They will hit the target, but miss the point. Geography is dead.

The day before I work with the 6th Formers in Hong Kong, they took part in a poverty simulation exercise. An engaging and energetic presenter led them through a series of exercises that aimed to raise their awareness of some of the injustice that exists in this world. These kids come from affluent backgrounds and this is eye opening. That’s not to say they don’t understand pain; just because a parent can afford to send them to a fee-paying school doesn’t necessarily mean they are a stellar parent. Some of these students have been emotionally neglected. The simulation exercise resonates with many of them and their empathy is awakened. They want to make a difference. They feel compassion. Geography, suddenly, is real. Their experience of school, and probably Geography, to date, however has meant they rise to this challenge differently. They are inquisitive – so want to know more. They are focused – so they get more out of the exercise. They assume the activity will be a positive experience – and so it is. I wonder if that same presenter, if he were taken into that secondary school I visited this week, would have the same response from UK students? Would the drive to gain an A* – C in Geography, above all else, have paved the way for him to work with our young people and find them with the same open and enthusiastic mindset?

My two days in Hong Kong go quickly. I’m jet lagged and sleep starved, but the students are with me all the way. They devour information and rise to each challenge. They are exhausted from a full and demanding week of induction that has seen them not only stretched mentally but physically as well (they tried Zumba!). Yet, they continue to stay focused and on task. They want to do well. They want anything that will help them. We work on presenting and communication skills and on Day Two they each present a two-minute speech on a topic of their choice. They are passionate and articulate. They support each other and celebrate success.

This is a culture of achievement. They understand the importance of academic success and in some instances push themselves too hard and have too high expectations. Whilst I was there, GCSE results came out. One girl was inconsolable because her A* results were blemished by dropping to merely an A and B in two of her subjects. For her, this was failure. I’ve seen similar reactions in the UK too, of course, because young people are indeed the same the world over and there will always be those who try their hardest and are self motivated. But these students are not the norm in the UK – many are bored and disillusioned from a system that demands nothing but exam results. From what I saw in that school in Hong Kong it is different there; they own their education. This is about them. They want top grades because they understand this is their best shot to allow them to achieve their goals. So it is personal. But they also want more from their schooling and expect more. So this, allied with a love of learning brought about by making a curriculum that matters, means their attitude is right.

Chasing grades because ‘you have to’ is not motivation. If getting an A* in Geography is just about doing certain things, to formulate certain answers to tick certain boxes, motivation will always be lacking. A room full of posters about how to make the grade won’t inspire young people. It needs to be real. It needs to be relevant. We owe this to our young people. The world has grown smaller. They are no longer in competition with other young people from the school down the road. The people they are up against for university places and jobs are across the world in places like Hong Kong. When I was in India four years ago, I found the same thing. In Kenya, two years ago, I met students in poor rural communities working tirelessly to make the most of the privilege of education. It is their only way out. These young people are hungry, focused and determined. They work hard and their attitudes are good. They know what they want and they are going for it. Can we say the same here?

Back in the UK this week I led another sixth form induction session. Again, it was around 170 students, but this time it was just for two hours. Again, it was at a fee-paying school. They were lovely enough, most of them were with me for the majority of the session, but something was different. Even here, at a fine school, with excellent results, the attitudes were not as good as they were in Hong Kong. They struggled to remain focused for the full time, frequently lapsed into chat and that eagerness to learn was noticeably absent from many. In time, however, the rigours of A Level will become clear, they will step up, and most will do well, but they will still be trailing behind the international competition. They simply aren’t on the same page. The UK’s pervasive culture of grades above all else colours all our institutions, and its heritage affects all our young people.

And what of our state schools? How will our sixth formers fare against private and international competition? From what I’ve seen, I fear not so well. Our staff are worn down and our students bored. Higher education institutions complain that UK young people come in from A Levels expecting to be told the answer. Of course they are; their educators are under enormous pressure to get the right results and so buckets are filled rather than fires lit.

Something has to change. Teachers are hard working, committed and resourceful professionals. They train to become teachers to make a difference. So much of what they are asked to do goes against the grain of what they know to be ‘outstanding’ education – in the real and not the Ofsted sense. It’s all about getting grades, but not about preparation for life. It’s teaching to the test and not exploring the subject because the subject is worth exploring. Risks aren’t taken in case it isn’t what Ofsted want. But our young people need fearless teachers, who are prepared to draw a line in the sand and say ‘enough’. They need teachers who will do what’s right. So please take down those wall-coverings which say what the base-line target is for this year. Let’s stop ramming ‘how to get an A* to C’ down the throats of our disillusioned students. They don’t care. Instead, let’s get back to why we wanted to work with young people in the first place. Let’s get them back to the love of learning. Then they will sit up, take notice and want it for themselves.

Edmund Hillary had a picture of Everest on his wall. After his first failed attempt at climbing the mountain, he wrote this; “Mount Everest you beat me the first time but I’ll beat you the next time, because you’ve grown all you are going to grow, but I’m still growing.” Surely this would make a better wall display for the Geography classroom. Our young people need to be inspired and they need you to help them. They want to know this: Why is Geography worth studying? Why should we care? If the answer is just, ‘well, you need at least 5 GCSEs, grades A* to C and Geography could be one of them’ then that doesn’t cut it.

September is a fresh start and a time for new beginnings, and it doesn’t have to be doom and gloom. Let’s change some lives and make the difference again. Young people absolutely are the same the world over, but they will always be the product of their environment; good or bad. If we talk just of levels and grades, our young people will be equally hollow and disaffected. If we model bravery, they will be brave too. If we talk with passion, they will catch that fire. Of course they need to pass their exams, but they need so much more. Is it risky? Yes, but it’s time to be fearless. Surely we owe it to them to be remarkable, because if we are, they will be too.

Tim Benton

6 September 2014

Olivia’s Letter to Nicky Morgan — August 29, 2014

Olivia’s Letter to Nicky Morgan

Following the impact of Olivia Loder’s letter to Michael Gove which led her to becoming an ambassador for the British Dyslexia Association and a meeting with The Fonz if not Gove himself, she still has the bit between her teeth. 

Here is her latest letter, this time to Nicky Morgan:

Dear Nicola Morgan

My name is Olivia Loder and I wrote to the former education secretary Michael Gove about dyslexia and the British dyslexia association have made me their young ambassador. I have been to 3 state schools, they were good schools but did not meet my needs there. I was sent to Moon hall school then Moon hall college where the teachers there are trained in teaching dyslexics were I am achieving good grades. Last year I got all A’s and B’s that would never of happened in state. I would predict getting D’s and E’s, in state schools.

1 in 10 people are dyslexic, the teachers in state schools are not trained in special needs so children like me just fade in the background but then the other students which aren’t special needs the teachers embraces them where they will excel. At moon hall college, a special dyslexia school it does change your future I would like to be a veterinarian which moon hall will give me the opportunity to get those GCSE results then get into a good 6 form ,then a good university, then vet school. I feel if I was at state school I would probably get low GCSE grades then 6 form and not be able to go to university.

I would like you to ensure that dyslexics in state will get the help they need and that teachers get better training.

Congratulations on your new position and I hope for the best.      

From Olivia Loder

Great, persistent campaigning from a young girl who sees an injustice and is determined to do something about. We look forward to meeting up with Olivia and father when they come to our Big Day Out in Down South as our special guests in November.

Exam season! The View from the Special School Part 2 — June 10, 2014

Exam season! The View from the Special School Part 2

Twelve months ago I felt compelled to write a blog about the frustrations I was feeling regarding GCSE exams and children in special and alternative provision. For those who read my ‘annual blog’ I was attempting to express my feeling of despair about how the children at my school are put through worrying levels of pressure to sit exams. Well, it’s happening again!

Today is Maths GCSE day. Seven of my pupils have refused to even leave their houses. They can’t cope! They have completed the two-year course, been supported, mentored, guided and bribed. The staff at school has spent tireless hours planning, differentiating, delivering and disguising work. Algebra, equations, geometry and all the rest of the syllabus has been delivered through genuinely outstanding teaching and a commitment to every single pupil.

Those seven pupils will leave school with nothing because the system has not allowed them to be assessed over the entire course but relies too heavily on a terminal exam. How does the system reconcile that? For those pupils, this morning, the stress and anxiety was too much to bear. They don’t think about the future, college, apprenticeships, jobs or livelihoods. They think about the pressure they feel right now and they resort to their default setting of refusal. Tomorrow, or even now, they may regret this, but tomorrow is too late. The damage is done!

What about doing some maths yourself? If seven pupils from a cohort of forty don’t even sit the exam, how does that impact on the overall percentage pass rate?

So, what’s wrong with on-going assessment? Why can’t we just have a system that allows vulnerable children with additional needs to build portfolios, take small modular exams, complete teacher assessments?

Today we used twenty six exam rooms and forty one staff to administer this one maths exam. We also had two staff out in cars knocking on doors and supporting parents. I even gave up my office for an anxious and phobic boy who couldn’t be anywhere else.

On a lighter note I’d like to share with you an anecdote from the science exam last week:

Exam question: The theory of evolution was developed by Charles ………… (1 mark)

Pupil sits with his head in his hands chuntering “I know this one, I know this one, it’s Charles Dickens”

He then looks around the room doubting himself and thinking long and hard about his science lessons. “No it’s not, no it’s not” he convinces himself. Now it was the light bulb moment, the one we as teachers have come to love and cherish. He’d worked it out!

“It’s not Charles Dickens” he mumbled to himself, “it’s Charles Dickenson”

With a smile on his face he wrote this up and moved on to the next question!

Dave Whitaker, Head Teacher, Springwell Special School

The Revolution Will Not Be Metricised – Guest Blog from @LisaJaneAshes — April 26, 2014

The Revolution Will Not Be Metricised – Guest Blog from @LisaJaneAshes

Gil Scott Heron, writer of The Revolution Will Not be Televised, spoke of the inability of mainstream media to bring what is in the hearts of the people to the world. His poem, written in the 1970s, was meant as both a call to arms as well as a recognition that there is an alternative out there, an alternative we have to go out and find. The alternative will not be brought to us as we sit passively watching TV (or trawling Twitter). The revolution may not be televised but, in our digital world of social media, it often feels like we can bring the revolution to the masses. The reality is, the more diluted the voices become, the more need we have for real revolutionaries to stand up and be counted. We need people to see through political agendas, see past pointless debates between anonymous bloggers in their pyjamas, made powerful by an avatar; we need to begin planning for the future of our children’s education.

Inspired by his work, this satirical transformation tells us, just as we should not sit passively by our TV sets, nor should we allow the increasing popularity of box ticking, target setting and spreadsheet analysis remove the real purpose of education. Increasingly, educational professionals suffer from the constant and intense pressure created by a target driven culture. Education happens in a classroom and much of the magic cannot be measured. The revolution will remain alive and we will never allow that magic to die.

Revolutionaries may have differences in opinion. They may fight the skills vs knowledge debate with each other aside from the main issues at hand. Their classrooms will differ, their teaching practice will be distinct from each other. We are reminded in the final stanza of this poem that the revolution is “human” and “alive.” Teachers are human and alive. Students are human and alive and are the citizens of tomorrow. Revolutionaries are fighting for a future where the humanity of education is recognised, where education is distinct from politics and as such, it can never be metricised.

The Revolut!on Will Not be Metricised

You will not be able to measure revolution.

You will not be able to input, analyse or use to throw old out.

You will not be able to lose your reality in XL spreadsheets,

Colour coded green, amber, red using pointless, made up post code targets

Because the revolution will not be metricised.

The revolution will not be metricised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by Office applications

Neatly named in files, analysed anally for .4 effect size.

The revolution will not hold up irrelevant images – ‘good’ and/

Or ‘outstanding’ perfectly packaged teaching practice; not a nation of

Robots led by future Goves – among others – to create neat tick boxes,

Seeking no man’s real approval

For imagined

Political purpose.

Because the revolution will not be metricised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by Ofsted Awarded Schools

Filled with hosts of young Teachers surviving on anti-d, gin and a prayer.

The revolution will not use ladders impassable, impossible.

The revolution will not promise cures for non-outstanding behaviour

Will not make you work harder, nor provide heavy new endless paper piles

Because the revolution will not be metricised!

There’ll be no analysis of your average schools – how they cheat their dead weight

The last mile on the exam run – sticking plaster successes can’t apply

No triangulation of responsibility for a hopeless hour,

Will not be able predict the revolutionary future wins,

Nor report on or learn from unrealistic surprising successes.

Because the revolution will not be metricised!

There will be no call for SLT shooting down MPS in the wake

Of an Ofsted attack.

There will be no accusation of poor practice or “less than outstanding”

Teachers run out on the word of a grid (yet another new criteria).

We will provide no spreadsheet or success grid to push on Mr X’s Climb,

Up the greasy pole; the grey, grey and grey three piece suit that he had there saved

For just the proper occasion – the revolution is not the time friend.

The revolution will forever remain human.

The revolution is not a spreadsheet but alive.

The revolution will happen to you by chance.

The revolut!on WILL NOT be metricised!

The Battle for Early Years — March 26, 2014

The Battle for Early Years

It’s not up to us to tell you what to think so, instead, we’ll just put two items on the proverbial table for you to compare and contrast.

The first is this wonderful short video about children’s right to play according to Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the many, many proven benefits that play brings:

The second is this letter from the Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw about his expectations for what inspectors should be looking for in early years settings and whether the children ‘are being adequately prepared for the start of their statutory schooling’.

(NB: The word ‘play’ is mentioned twice – ‘play bricks’ and ‘play with a ball’. We wonder whether Sir Michael had a rather sad childhood?)

Let us know what you think won’t you.

Ofsted Letter to early years inspectors March 2014

10 Things I Love About Being Dyslexic — February 27, 2014

10 Things I Love About Being Dyslexic

Written by Ian Gilbert’s 19 year-old ‘dyslexic’ daughter to help with the current debate about what it is and whether it is at all:

10 Things I Love About Being Dyslexic

1. As a mature dyslexic, you’ve learnt that asking for help isn’t a bad thing.

2. Dyslexia pushes you to find other ways of expressing the talents you do have.

3. People are more forgiving if you spell something, reasonably simple, wrong.

4. You learn the true value of “Personal Best”.

5. You learn your weaknesses.

6. You become far more eager to push yourself, because it doesn’t come easy.

7. Your schoolwork is always more colorful.

8. You’ll find that you think very differently in comparison to the people around you. This is a good thing.

9. You learn the lesson that desiring to try and be better than other people is a waste of time.

10. Once you’ve learnt that not being able to read doesn’t mean you’re stupid, you’re pretty much indestructible.

Footnote – Since writing these words Olivia has passed her IB diploma and is now studying jazz vocals at the Royal Welsh College of Music.

Olivia’s Letter to Michael Gove — January 15, 2014

Olivia’s Letter to Michael Gove

One of the gems thrown up by Twitter recently was the written exchange between a young girl with dyslexia and Michael Gove.

Inspired to take action after watching Nelson Mandela’s funeral, 11 year-old Olivia Loder wrote to Gove to share her experiences at schools in the UK dealing with her dyslexia and the bullying she endured. She told him how she was now receiving the support she needed (and flourishing) in an independent special school especially for children with dyslexia.

With thanks to her parents for permission to put these letters on the blog, they are a useful prompt for all teachers to evaluate just what they are doing and what else they could be doing to help young learners like Olivia.

Olivia’s letter to Michael Gove.pdf

Olivias copy letter to Michael Gove.pdf

Olivia in the Local Paper

I’m as Mad as Hell – The SlideShow — September 24, 2013

I’m as Mad as Hell – The SlideShow

This is an interactive presentation Ian Gilbert put together for an IB Theory of Knowledge group in Hong Kong recently. We thought you might like to give it a go. There are plenty of assemblies in here too!

Before introducing each section he got the group to think about three things they knew on the particular topic. After each section he got them to come up with three questions about that topic.

As is often the case, coming up with knowledge is the easy bit for a bright group. Having to ‘lunge at the first question that comes into your head’ is a whole different thing…


What Makes you Angry?

The Power of Lazy Teaching — September 23, 2013

The Power of Lazy Teaching

At a time when Gove and others are telling teachers they should be talking more and partaking in ‘whacky gimmicks’ like group work (!) less, we are delighted to have received this feedback about the power of the Lazy Teaching approach as espoused by our Associate Jim Smith in his two best-selling books – The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook and Whole-School Progress the Lazy Way.

We hope it reassures you that the power of great teacher is often in what they refrain from doing.

‘Dear Jim

I joined my current school as Deputy in 2010. Five months later we were in Special Measures. (I did see it coming, but couldn’t convince the Head in those five months that drastic change was needed.)

About that time I stumbled across your first book The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook. (I have since had it stolen by one of many teachers who were desperate to get their hands on it.) A lot of what you were saying really resonated with me a) because you were spot on and b) because a lot of your principles I was already applying to my teaching.

In the school the teaching profile was awful with maybe only three of the teachers with any capacity to improve. I began a coaching programme starting with one of these teachers. His grades were coming out as inadequate or requiring improvement.

I worked closely with him and soon enough he ‘got it’ and his teaching was improving very quickly.

The first HMI visit came and 16% of lessons were deemed good.

With this other teacher, I put together a programme of coaching. I told him about some of your principles and we worked on getting them – and some of our own – across to selected staff.

As we improved staff they too grew into coaches. Our guiding principal was always that the children needed to be working harder than the teachers.

To cut an already long story short, in November 2011 we moved out of special measures with 64% of teaching at least good. I got an outstanding and so did two other staff members.

I think at that point I messaged you on Twitter.

Since then I read your second book and with my teaching buddy we set about formalising some of our coaching processes (again based on yours and our principles).

One piece of work we undertook was devising a model to show progress in observations in the second half of lessons (we’d spotted a big difference between getting observed first half and second half).

Anyway, this week things have come full circle really. We had OFSTED on Wednesday and Thursday and, although I can’t say too much, we are very pleased.

My mate was observed three times and nailed two outstanding lessons. Another of the originals nailed outstanding twice too and the other nailed a good.

No lesson observed was less than good and our only improvement point is to move all teaching to outstanding…

Your books have aided us so much already and we wanted to see your principles in practice first hand. We are already working on a plan to cascade outstanding practice around to even more staff and hope we can pick up a few ideas (from your INSET).

So after all of that (sorry I’m not great with words) I just wanted to say a big thank you for the help and inspiration your work provided, it gave us structures to tag our ideas onto…

Thanks again

Deputy Headteacher’

And, in case you feel all this praise would go to Jim’s head, he tells us that this is how he was introduced before a staff INSET at the beginning of term:

‘Now the quality of an INSET Course is often judged by its lunch. It’s lasagne today which I really like. So, Jim, no pressure, it’s going to be a great day anyway. But to be fair whatever you think of the lunch, Independent Thinking speakers are often better than lasagne. Jim, I hope you continue that trend!’

So, there are you have it. Lazy Teaching works and Independent Thinking speakers are better than lasagne.

You heard it here first!

QR Code Posters for Your Corridor Wall Display — September 13, 2013

QR Code Posters for Your Corridor Wall Display

We were sent these geography-related QR codes compiled by geography teacher and head of Learning to Learn @benking01 from Devon and we felt they were too good to keep to ourselves.


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