There’s a mental health crisis. What’s your school doing about it?

‘I’d rather die than eat this with you.’

A missile fired across the tea-table by my eldest daughter. I will not describe in any detail the depths to which she sank or the battering her body endured during that deadly two year campaign. Simply, It was a hideous time. She may be recovering now, tentatively, but I’m still unable to look at ‘Before Anorexia’ photographs like the one above without feeling the most profound sense of loss.

Oh, the things I would tell my ‘Before Anorexia’ self, if we could only go back. Among these, that allowing your fourteen year old daughter to eat tea in her bedroom is a mistake; that agreeing to her cooking her own meals is a bigger one; that frantic concerns about appearance do not reflect just normal teenage insecurities; that long silences; not wanting to go out; checking calories; running after tea; working-out upstairs; claiming to need laxatives – there should be sirens going off everywhere when these things are happening. Most of all, I would tell my BA self that you should never, ever share your own body hang-ups with your impressionable daughter; the one who is bombarded daily with toxic, body-shaming, impossibly thin beauty standards and who looks to you for strength, support and a normal sense of perspective.

Indeed, I now look back at that blissfully ignorant BA self as one who had no real understanding at all of just how incredibly resilient today’s adolescent must be – for all those years spent working with them in secondary schools. The world for young people is nothing like the one we inhabited as kids. Most of us could escape into our homes, lick our wounds when necessary and face another day. For today’s teenager, 24 hour social networking never lets up; the pressures to have access to a plentiful supply of money, the perfect lifestyle, the perfect body are immense; family breakdown is widespread; as exam factories, schools heap on the pressure and to cap it all, the future for school leavers is so, so uncertain on so many levels. Goodness knows, the modern teenager must be resilient.

So when Nicky Morgan suggests that we need to think seriously about promoting resilience in our schools, she is absolutely right. Of course, she should be reflecting on whether Gove’s reforms, such as the end of modular courses (favoured by universities but apparently insufficiently rigorous for teenagers) have added to the pressure, but at least she acknowledges the existence of a problem. And for those who maintain that we’ve promoted resilience for years in our schools, I beg to differ. Not only has painful experience taught me otherwise, a plethora of horrifying mental health data shows that our young people are not coping. We are not successfully building any kind of resilience.

If the point needs illustrating, consider these facts from ‘Young Minds’. One in five young adults show signs of an eating disorder, three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health disorder, one in twelve self harm. This data is, of course, depressingly familiar, but what are we doing about it – beyond bemoaning savage cuts to CAMHS? These are scandalous and short-sighted, of course, but how about schools taking the idea of prevention – building resilience – seriously? Surely, we cannot simply continue to deliver the national curriculum as if there is no mental health crisis; as if a focus on raising academic standards will somehow prepare young people for a successful transition into adulthood. As if they are thriving on business as usual. This would be head-in-the-sand folly.

We forget at our peril that we are as educators ‘in loco parentis’. If somebody at Meg’s school had taken their responsibility in this regard seriously, her eating at lunch might have been monitored – as we asked – she might have been allowed to sit in the warm rather than freeze outside – as we asked – she might have had a mentor to talk to – as we asked – the disapproving attendance reminders might not have been sent and she would surely never have been required to participate in a charity run that resulted in a desperate after-school dash to A+E. Who knows, school might have been a place where she felt safe, supported, understood. Instead, it was an alien, hostile environment where she truly believed that nobody cared and she was only as valuable as her grades.

As a parent and as a teacher, I am changed forever by these experiences. I have a completely different set of priorities. I am determined that my own school continues to develop as one that adjusts to support students who are not resilient. I am proud that vulnerable young people, sinking under the pressure, now transfer to us from local grammar schools and are able to thrive – and learn – again. Keyworker support, liaison with home (respecting confidentiality), a safe haven for break and lunch, perhaps a reduced timetable; the adjustments required are not enormous, but they do make an enormous difference.

I am also proud that pastoral staff at my school do not see their duties as amounting to nail varnish removal – and yes, I am referring back with some bitterness to my daughter’s academy. I am proud that we have a Mental Health and Wellbeing policy which ensures that a team of highly skilled support staff, who care deeply about our students, are trained in bolstering their self-esteem, alleviating their anxieties, mediating with friends and family, signposting to services such as Addaction and Young Carers, and most of all in really listening. We know from the rating scales we use to monitor progress that the impact of these keyworkers is huge. There are fifteen of them in all, each with the capacity to work with two or three students. In a school our size, nobody has to wait for help and, crucially, many adolescent problems are caught before they become acute.

When she was in Year 8, Meg came home after a PE lesson distraught because a ‘friend’ had described her pubescent tummy as ‘flabby’. (No wonder so many girls hate PE if that’s your typical changing room banter). That, looking back, was the start of our two year nightmare. In bringing young people together within our schools, we have a moral duty to educate them in how to support rather than catastrophically undermine each other. All students need to learn about mental health, not just because one in four of them will suffer at some stage in life, but also because they impact on one another so massively. Teenagers doing this adolescence thing for the first time need to be taught how to look after themselves and each other. There are some terrific resources out there to help in this. Body Gossip’s self-esteem programme is just wonderful. We also use the free and excellent @TimetoCgange resources within PSHE and during our mental health awareness week.

Last year’s @NatashaDevonSET self esteem class was launched with this poetry video, made by our students. If you listen to it, you will note the power, passion and honesty of the writing.

Our students want us to allow them to explore issues that are of urgent concern to them. And although they would never admit it, they do look to us for guidance. Perhaps Nicky Morgan gets this in a way that her predecessor clearly did not. Whatever, I think we must certainly encourage rather than condemn her interest in education for life as well as for exam success. Meg got her haul of grades – I’d swap these for resilience any day.

Research shows half of poor readers receive no support at secondary school

Having just read Vision for Literacy, 2025, I feel compelled to share a thought about why struggling readers are not being adequately supported during the secondary phase. A couple of years ago, Margaret Snowling’s team at York University published a study which highlights the scale of this problem:

The Rate and Identification of Reading Difficulties in Secondary School Pupils in England.

The research demonstrates that less than half of ‘poor readers’ (reading age under 8) are identified on secondary SEN registers – with the result that they fall further behind and leave school functionally illiterate, having received no help.

I have a theory about the reason for this under-identification of reading difficulty, supported by six years of data collected at my school. What our data shows us is that the SAT reading level is in reality no reliable indicator of reading ability. In other words, transferring to secondary school with the expected level 4b does not mean that you are a competent reader.

I work at an all ability high school in a selective area. We screen reading ages every year, less than 10% of the Year 7 cohort comes to us with a reading level 3 or below, yet this year – which is typical – around 30% of students are currently following a reading intervention, meaning their reading age is below 9.6 (the point at which we intervene). By the time they reach Year 9, only a small proportion of these students will remain on the SEN register, because most respond to intervention and do catch up, but this is not without much more support than is generally available for struggling readers within the secondary phase: in a school of just 650 students, we have 19 TAs – all trained in delivering a range of reading interventions to groups and individuals.

I am very happy to discuss the range of programmes we use, with evidence of their impact, in a future post. (I would also be very keen to counter the Sutton Trust finding that TAs do not represent value for money in relation to closing the gap – properly trained, their impact can be transformational.) This post, though, aims merely to flag up what I feel is a major issue – that achieving the ‘expected level 4b’ does not mean that reading age and chronological age are close, necessarily – the discrepancy can be very significant indeed and this, I am suggesting, has contributed to the alarming findings highlighted in Snowling’s study.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly #Behaviourism and how it fails

The irony about my last post is that I wrote it because I felt my blog was altogether too negative and ultimately, therefore, not very helpful. This was a good story, I thought. Unhappy students who hated each other at the start of the day; happy students who were friends at the end; lots of learning in between. A good story.

How wrong could I have been? For many, it was in fact a despicable tale. Its protagonists came to represent the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ kids within our schools. ‘Good’ had been mistreated whilst ‘bad’ was indulged. The girls (Good) should never have been asked to reconsider the withdrawal of their acceptance of an apology – this was bullying. The boy (Bad) a ‘violent’, ‘abusive’, rampaging aggressor, should simply have been punished. Without doubt, it was this lack of a clear punishment (preferably exclusion) that readers found most disturbing with the reconciliation at the end of the narrative providing neither comfort nor catharsis.

Setting aside for now some of the attitudes towards children with autism which this post aggravated, the view that punishment is the only correct way to respond to misconduct is clearly open to challenge. Indeed, it is high time we reflected much more critically on our commitment to behaviourism in the UK; to the tactics of Skinner, a scientist who did most of his research on rodents and pigeons but who wrote most of his books about people.

If one of the goals of education is to ensure that children grow as responsible decision-makers, then motives matter. We want those who bully, for example, to desist because they learn that it is wrong and hurtful to others, not simply to avoid a punishment. Behaviourist school policies do not promote reflection and personal growth of this kind. Indeed, a student punished for harming another is much more likely to feel angry and self-pitying than thoughtful and empathic. As Morrison put it, “punishment makes one think only of oneself rather than the consequences of one’s behaviour on another.” (Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, 2002) Restorative practice (RP) is in fact much more challenging, harder work, than mere punishment because it requires the wrongdoer to accept full responsibility, to listen to victims and their parents, and to find a way of repairing the harm their behaviour caused. None of this is easy. RP is not a fluffy bunny.

Another problem with punishment is that unlike a restorative conference, which I have never had to repeat, it breeds the need for more punishment. In Sears’ landmark study, cited by Kohn in ‘Punished By Rewards’, children of mothers who used controlling, punitive measures were significantly less likely to comply with requests, either at home or in a laboratory situation:

The unhappy effects of punishment have run like a dismal thread through our findings … Mothers who punished aggressive behaviour severely had more aggressive children than mothers who punished lightly. They also had more dependent children … Our evaluation of punishment is that it is ineffectual over the long term as a technique for eliminating the kind of behaviour toward which it is directed. (Sears et al)

As Kohn so succinctly puts it, “Control breeds the need for more control, which then is used to justify the need for control.”

There is an argument too that whilst espousing a philosophy of care and respect, traditional behaviour management policies prescribe an approach which is entirely inconsistent with these values. Advocates of RP ask whether inflicting further pain on someone when pain has already been caused by them is either an effective “or indeed a morally appropriate response.” (Hopkins, Just Schools, 2004) Our current DfE guidance on behaviour policy, which recommends that misbehaving students are made to run around a field, is surely perfect exemplification of this problem. The message for the learner is that, when you are more powerful than someone else, you can use that advantage to force the other to do as you wish. Returning to Hopkins, “It is no surprise that we see young people everywhere doing or saying threatening things to each other.”

Many school leaders understand this and have been persuaded by a growing volume of research that highlights the efficacy of RP. Evaluations from Australia, the US and more recently the UK identify benefits such as a reduction of bullying and interpersonal conflicts as well as fewer detentions, fixed term and permanent exclusions. Staff also report greater confidence in dealing with challenging situations. (Hopkins) It is greatly to be regretted, therefore, that not a single sentence within current and exclusively behaviourist DfE guidelines acknowledges the existence of this flexible, inclusive and essentially problem-solving approach to behaviour and relationship management.

Indeed, what the guidelines tell us is nothing very helpful at all about behaviour but everything about the punitive, child-despising culture that we have become. Just reflect on some of the facts. Whilst 23 countries in Europe have outlawed smacking, Sweden being the first in 1979, no law in Britain prevents parents from physically chastising their children – even though we can be prosecuted for striking other adults or our pets. It was only a little over 20 years ago, after impassioned debate and a hairs-breadth vote, that legislation banning corporal punishment in British schools became law. At 10, the age of criminal responsibility in the UK is the lowest in Europe with other European member states setting the age between 13 (France) and 16 (Spain). Not surprisingly, the rate of imprisonment of young people in England and Wales is the highest in Europe. And as widely reported in the press, often in connection with a suicide story, the vast majority of those offenders are held in appalling conditions that differ very little from those found in adult jails. Ours is a punitive, punishing country.

Sir Aynsley-Green argued as children’s commissioner that even normal youth behaviour, such as gathering in public places and playing ball games, is demonised in the UK. Hence the introduction of those dreadful youth dispersal devises that emit sounds piercing to the young ear. Hence too the frowning ‘NO SCHOOL CHIDREN’ signs that we see in so many shops. The commissioner rightly described “demonisation and lack of empathy for young people …a major issue for England.” One that causes “anger and alienation”.

This then is the cultural climate in which sit our avidly behaviourist school policies; inflexible ‘do this and you will get that’ regimes that only alienate our most vulnerable children – those who have social and emotional difficulties or who rely on adults for support, care and guidance that isn’t available to them at home. I read a shattering report recently, ‘These Kids are Desperate. Please Don’t Exclude Them’, in which Ms Brooks, Governor of Scotland’s only YOI, makes an impassioned case for more solutions-focussed and inclusive approaches to problematic behaviour. Her statistics reveal that the vast majority of young offenders at the institution have lost loved ones and were barred from classes before being permanently excluded: “Please don’t exclude them from school if you can possibly not,” she said. “The figures in Polmont are absolutely stark. About 90 per cent of young offenders have had a bereavement …and about the same number have been excluded from school in the past.”

We need to end our love-affair with punishment. The evidence is clear – it is more likely to exacerbate than to correct troubling behaviour and it only reinforces social disadvantage. It is, therefore, irresponsible not to consider alternatives, especially those like RP which have been proven to work – as illustrated, I thought, by my last post. I should add before closing that if any readers remain fearful for the safety and wellbeing of the girls, they are now friends with ‘Tom’. He had a great week following the conference and there have been no further meltdowns. The three are currently devising a piece together in drama.

When swearing in class was a reason to rejoice #restorativepractice

Just last week, a boy, I’ll call him Tom, burst into my office, squeezed himself into the gap between my cabinet and the wall and yelled, “I’ve had enough of this fucking school and everyone in it!” After the pressure of the tight space had calmed him, he agreed to come out and we talked things through.

It emerged that he had offended two girls by swearing at them during a lesson. The incident had been referred to Head of House and there had been an impromptu restorative conference, in line with school policy. The girls had told him how upset they were by his language and he had apologised. However, they had since withdrawn their acceptance of this apology and Tom’s meltdown was triggered by his confusion. Why would they do this when the thing has been sorted out?

Tom has Asperger’s. He has already given a presentation to his form about this, telling peers about his anxiety, about the fact that he was permanently excluded from his last mainstream school and about his experience of special education. He wanted to be accepted, understood and successful in mainstream this time.

I reassured him that I would speak with the girls and the situation would be resolved. In the meantime, he would work in the learning support area, our ‘Cottages’  – to avoid any further episodes.

Like Tom, both girls are mid year transfers which is perhaps why, for the full hour that I spent discussing the situation with them, we seemed to be speaking different languages. We are at my school explicit and celebratory in our commitment to inclusion. At the start of the new academic year, the Headteacher’s assembly, ‘Every Child an Equal Chance’, reminded students that to have a genuinely equal chance, some people need more help – more adjustments – than others. This unequal treatment is not unfair, he explained, but actually the only true basis for equality of opportunity. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “There is nothing so unfair as the equal treatment of unequal people.”

By and large, our students don’t just accept this philosophy, they embrace it; they are proud to be part of an inclusive community school because they are regularly reminded that, without their compassionate and intelligent participation, there could be no inclusion. Equally, staff are proud to have developed skills in managing learners who present with a wide range of needs. Inclusion might be hard and relentless work, but it does make everyone who contributes to its success feel very good.

However, the girls did not want to hear any of this. The bottom line was, they wanted to see Tom punished for his bad language, just as they thought they would have been punished. These views were expressed in the most vociferous terms, through tears. I invited my deputy SENCo in to talk about her son, who is also on the autistic spectrum and finds it difficult to control outbursts, but it made no difference. Two minds were closed against us.

I remained troubled for the rest of the day and it was difficult to know quite what to do next. Contacting parents to discuss the deadlock was one obvious strategy and I had resolved to do this when there was a tap at the door. It was one of the girls; the angriest.

She looked quite transformed. She explained that she had reflected and she felt really, really bad about the things she had said and the way she had spoken. She said that she had no idea why she had been unable to accept Tom’s difficulties that morning. Smiling, she said that she had just now accepted his apology and given him a hug.

We talked a little about why she had been so angry. She admitted that her volatility had been a major issue at her previous school, hence the move. (Jumped before illegally pushed.) So I introduced her to one of the school’s counsellors and they arranged to talk. She left saying that her mum would be really happy that she would now be getting some help.

People will take different things from this series of events. For me, though, they serve as a powerful reminder that our decision to implement restorative practice five years ago was the biggest, boldest, most transformational thing we ever did for inclusion.

If Tom had been punished, according to a set of inflexible ‘do this and you’ll get that’ rules, he would not have had the opportunity to practice the skill of apologising and he would already be questioning his ability to succeed within the mainstream. If Tom had been punished, the girls might have felt vindicated for a short time – but they would have missed out on the deeper, more lasting pleasure that comes with reconciliation and forgiveness. If Tom had been punished, they would have learned nothing about autism and one of them would not have left school with a lighter heart and some good news for her mum.

Most important of all, without that swearing in class and the restorative process it triggered, there would have been no hug and our school community would be one relationship weaker.

Gove’s grammar test – political meddling as bad as it gets

Be honest, can you confidently answer this question?

Which option completes the sentence below so that it uses the subjunctive mood?

I wish I———————–free to come to your party, but I am afraid I will be busy.

Tick one.

could be
may be

It’s taken from the DfE’s sample KS2 ‘English grammar, punctuation and spelling test,’ for first assessment in 2016. There’s a KS1 version as well. These ominously dubbed ‘GAPS’ are designed to assess understanding of the new content in Gove’s revised and highly prescriptive 2014 primary curriculum. The question does seem a tad tricky for a 10 or 11 year old, doesn’t it? Mindyou, it is the tenth question and they are supposed to “appear in order of difficulty, where possible.” So let’s have a look at the first.

Fill in the gaps in the sentence below, using the past progressive form of the verbs in brackets:

(to play)

While I ————————————in the park, my mum

(to push)

———————————————my sister on the swing.

Reassured? No, I’m not either. And what’s with all of this decontextualized naming of parts anyway? Well according to Appendix 2 of the revised primary curriculum, which lists the grammatical terms to be covered from Years 1 – 6, an emphasis on formal grammar instruction during the primary years will raise standards in writing and ensure learners are ‘secondary ready’: “Explicit knowledge of grammar is very important, as it gives us more conscious control and choice in our language.” We are led to believe that if pupils can understand and apply the correct grammatical terminology, they will become more “sophisticated” writers.

This is erroneous Daily Telegraph-pleasing opinion, stated as fact. However, we would be naïve to expect anything different from the Department – and especially in relation to English, about which anything Gove doesn’t know isn’t worth knowing. It must also be remembered that the debate around grammar has always inflamed passions and policy in this area has tended to reflect changing attitudes in society rather than academic research. We have not served our children at all well in this regard.

The dominant view from the late 1960s was that “Most children cannot learn grammar.. and to those who can, it is of little value” (Thompson, 1969). Grammar instruction was seen as positively damaging – divisive and a shackle on the imagination. The pendulum began to swing the other way with the introduction of Labour’s National Literacy Strategy in 1997 and with that, ‘Grammar for Writing’. There is indeed some good evidence that ‘sentence combining’, developed initially in the USA, is effective. Several studies, cited in Richard Hudson’s comprehensive review of grammar teaching, support a ‘surreptitious approach’: that is, minimal terminology underpinned by a clear theory of grammar. This is of course precisely what Alan Peat’s engaging ‘Pocket App of Exciting Sentences’ offers us and, significantly, explains its popularity. In the end, teachers do know what works.

But of course Gove would never have any of this. We knew nothing. We were ‘the blob’; the enemy of world-class education and true ‘academia’. We weren’t to be consulted and simply had to accept, amongst all of the other nonsense, that lots of impressive grammatical terminology and a ‘rigorous’ test of it in Year 6 would raise standards. “Children will flourish if we challenge them but the Blob, in thrall to Sixties ideologies, wants to continue the devaluation of the exam system” Gove explained.

Nicky Morgan has changed the tone but not the message and now the profession is left to pick up the pieces. Many of these will be very sharp. Not least the requirement for 85% of learners to achieve expected levels in all SAT tests from 2016. We ignore the arid and age-inappropriate GAPS programme at our peril, therefore, and clearly we are going to have to use all of our creativity as teachers to persuade struggling nine-year-olds that distinguishing your modals from your subjunctives is fun.

Neither will we be able to kid ourselves that we are engaged in this struggle for any reason other than to meet floor targets. The ‘GAPS’ is a fundamentally inauthentic test in that it has nothing to offer the learner – but strife. It is simply a check to ensure that Gove’s prescriptive curriculum is taught. Think about it – if the explicit teaching of grammar was really introduced to raise standards in writing, as is claimed, then why does the SAT assess the means, grammatical knowledge, rather than the end – proficiency in writing? It makes no sense. The equivalent would be to score Tom Daley on his warm up routine rather than on his dive. But as we’ve seen, Gove’s curricular equivalent of the warm up carries with it a politically important impression of rigour and, regardless of whether it helps them attain genuine standards in writing or not, children from September will be urged to master the drill. After which they can forget it.

Our children deserve so much better than this. “A completely archaic 1870s elementary-schooling-for-the poor curriculum”, to quote Professor Terry Wrigley of Leeds Metropolitan University, will do nothing to equip young people with the skills essential for success in 21st century life. This truth is perfectly exemplified by Gove’s irrelevant GAPS assessment – a test that has nothing to do with genuine standards and everything to do with politics.

An inconvenient truth – grouping pupils by ability is iniquitous

My youngest daughter loved school once, especially topic work. In Year 2, the Amazon Rainforest became an all-consuming passion. She would arrive home bursting with facts about the wondrous world beneath the canopy – not just the flying, jumping, swinging creatures but also the stiller delights of the forest floor. I would discover shrivelled mushrooms, lovingly wrapped in tissue paper, hidden inside her sock drawer.

Then we moved onto ‘Rocks and Minerals’; stones and fossils were added to the fungi collection and no visitor was allowed to leave our home without at least an entry level understanding of their birth stone. Peacock ore was her favourite rock, sorry ‘mineral’ (I’ve always been a disappointing parent on the recall of facts front); extra special because, “It doesn’t need any polishing; it has completely natural beauty.”

Josie ollecting fragments of Blue John
Josie collecting fragments of Blue John

There were other enthusiasms – Florence Nightingale, the mummified Pharaohs, volcanoes – but then last year all talk about topic work stopped. “We’re doing rivers and oceans. They’re boring.” Boring? Josie, bored by a topic? Bored by something as mind-blowing as the undiscovered world of our oceans? Something had to be wrong.

The clue was a dictionary on her bedside table – where the Collins ‘Rocks and Minerals Pocket Guide’ used to be. Josie explained her strategy. “I’m trying to learn some new words every night to make me clever.”


“To make me more clever. I’m one of the dumbest in my class.” Her eyes brimming with tears. It emerged that she had been assigned to a ‘bottom table’ and was being given ‘easy work’. Sobbing, she described an experience of utter humiliation. The class was learning about the human ear. Despite her mortified bottom table state of mind, Josie was excited by the prospect of the activity, which was to draw and label an ear. She was excited, that is, until her table was given the ‘easy’ task – to cut out the key words and to stick them onto a pre-drawn version. So Josie and her group snipped and stuck away as the rest of the class sketched and wrote.

It is difficult to convince your child that ‘bottom table’ does not mean stupid; that not everything that makes you clever is actually measured in school; that learning isn’t a race and people progress at different rates; that maybe ‘test week’ went badly this time; that kindness is more important than cleverness anyway; that you are the most curious, funny, articulate nine-year-old that anyone could ever wish to meet. Actually it’s not difficult. It’s impossible.

The argument in favour of ranking learners by table within the primary classroom is of course that progress is optimised when children are organised in this way. A ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching can never work and pupils must have differentiated tasks and the opportunity to work with others of similar ability. Another justification is that all children cannot be equally good at everything and this is one of those brutal lessons in life that simply have to be swallowed. A gentler version of the same line is that children have different talents – Josie’s spelling sucks but she’s a wonderful artist (a pity about that ear). ‘Fluid’ groupings reflect this and self-esteem is preserved.

If only this were true. If only any of the arguments outlined above were valid and the end, excellent educational outcomes for all, really was justified by the means. But more than thirty years of research into ability grouping consistently tells us that this is not the case. In fact, the very opposite applies. If you are in a low set (secondary) or part of a low ability group (primary) the odds of you making the same progress as everyone else are stacked against you. According to the Education Endowment Foundation, a charity set up to break the link between family income and educational achievement, you can expect to fall behind by a rate of about two months a year.

This is not hard to believe. You don’t have to be a child psychologist to understand the EFF’s explanation “that routine setting or streaming arrangements undermine low-attainers’ confidence and discourage the belief that attainment can be improved through effort.”

Making up the ranks of the ‘low attaining’ groups are predominantly summer born children, Josie, and children from poorer families. For different and complex reasons, both groups start at school with some catching up to do. But of course the result of grouping by perceived ability (forget potential) is that mostly they do not catch up. Mostly they fall further and further behind. This inequality of achievement is nothing short of scandalous.

In a speech to the Educational Reform Summit, Michael Gove used the same word and reassured listeners that ‘closing the gap’ between the achievement of rich and poor was his ‘personal crusade’. What a pity his campaign was fought along blinkered and deeply ideological rather than evidence-based lines. He could have learned so much from Finland, for example. This country now ranks first amongst all OECD nations in the PISA (Programme of International Student Assessments) programme. It had a huge achievement gap to contend with in the 1970s, closely correlated, as always, to social-economic status. Despite a sharp increase of immigrants with no or little education, that gap is now one of the smallest in the world.

This can’t be attributed to a single factor because the whole of the Finnish system has been radically reformed over the past thirty years. However, one of the first measures taken to promote equal educational opportunity was the elimination of ability grouping based on test scores. Then the tests themselves were abolished. Finns take their first exam at the age of sixteen, and there are no league tables. Here, on the other hand, the DfE has introduced news tests for primary school children, including one for four and five-year-olds. Truly a crime against childhood. Whilst in Finland children don’t even begin school until they’re seven, in the UK, according to a recent study, 97% of our seven-year-olds are already learning in ability groups.

So why, in this era of closing the gaps and pupil premium, are we blind to the research? There was a time when it was taken seriously: the late 1970s and early 1980s witnessed a growth of mixed ability teaching with concerns about educational inequality pervasive back then. But these concerns have of course been eclipsed by another agenda around standards and progress, particularly that of the ‘most able’.

Competing for business in a ferocious educational marketplace, schools are keen to create images which are appealing to the right kind of middle class parent, and setting is popular. I know from direct experience just how alarmed parents can become when you mix things up, as I did working as a Head of English in Worksop. Wherever you are in the UK, stratification sells.

Little wonder that the Coalition’s flagship policy is floundering. More than half of local authorities saw an increase in the attainment gap last year, according to Demos, a leading cross-party think-tank. We had plenty of ‘bold reform’ under Gove, what’s urgently needed now is some that is also evidence-based. Otherwise our inequitable system, the most “segregated and stratified” in the developed world, to return to Gove’s speech, will fail another generation of young people. Pupil premium to paper over the cracks with free revision guides is not the answer.

Of course, mixed ability teaching is no fix-all either, if only the solution were that simple. It is, however, one of the nettles that must be grasped if we are really serious about tackling educational disadvantage. We should think creatively about it, invest in training, share pedagogy that is proven to work. Because nothing is more important to a child’s progress than self-belief. Sorting children into groups based on perceived ability might be convenient but it erodes that self-belief and stifles potential. Too often, a dismal self-fulfilling prophesy is triggered and life-chances are compromised. Josie’s confidence may return in time, but I don’t think she will ever fully recover from the day they learned about the ear.

How we punish students with rewards

Many teachers are parents of school aged children too; we’re the ones who embarrass our offspring simply by making vaguely informed enquiries at parents’ evening. (‘How can she work towards a target grade that is actually lower than her current performance grade?’ – just one example of many strictly off-limits squirm-inducers.)

But parenthood does provide us with fascinating insight – it’s often our own  kids who stop us in our tracks; offer us a refreshingly common sense perspective on aspects of our practice that we’ve stopped thinking critically about simply because they’ve been around for so long.

I asked mine about rewards. “They’re rubbish. If you get on with your work without any fuss you never get rewarded.” This injustice isn’t one my girls get too exorcised about though, because they don’t actually want such goodies at all. “Praise from a teacher I respect means a lot to me. I really like that. House points? No thanks.” My eldest once begged for a day off school because she was at risk of having to accept a certificate for 100% attendance in assembly. “I’d rather die. It would be so embarrassing!” Oh the irony in that.

Of course, elitists will attribute this modesty to the lack of a competitive ethos in our coasting comprehensives, or to a culture of low aspiration. But they would be missing the point. Most students love good grades, they relish positive feedback, they want to do well. But they see right through rewards.

I accept the argument that fairness doesn’t mean everyone has to be treated the same – have the same chance of being rewarded, in this example. As Jefferson rightly pointed out, ‘There’s nothing so unfair as the equal treatment of unequal people’. Some young people need more encouragement than others because they are disadvantaged. If a reward can draw in the disaffected, engage the damaged, help a child with ADHD make a super-human effort to sit still, in other words level out the playing field just a little, then surely that’s a good thing. My daughters, complaining about fairness, just need to take a broader view.

In reality, however, rewards simply don’t have this kind of seductive power. Indeed, there’s a strong body of research, neglected by policy makers, which shows that rewards actually reduce motivation and therefore do all learners a disservice. In his iconoclastic ‘Punished by Rewards’ , Alfie Kohn explains that when, in a study way back in the 1960s, children knew that they would be awarded with a certificate for playing with ‘Magic Markers’, they became less interested than they were before the reward was offered.

According to Kohn, the total number of studies of this kind, showing how extrinsic controls actually reduce intrinsic interest, exceeds one hundred. For him,

 “This fact is so predictable that rewarding people might even be regarded a clever strategy for deliberately undermining interest in something.”


So why is this? Maybe it’s because what we do when we promise a reward for something is convey the idea that the activity isn’t worth doing for its own sake. ‘Do this and you’ll get that’ automatically devalues the ‘this’ – whether it be composing a haiku, solving a maths problem or completing a homework task. Psychological reactance theory comes into play here too – the idea that when we feel our freedom to perform an action is threatened, we experience an unpleasant feeling of ‘reactance’ that makes us want to recoil from the situation. So when rewards are experienced as controlling, they become entirely counter-productive as incentives and adolescents in particular want nothing to do with them.

It’s worth pausing to question why it is that we feel compelled to dangle goodies in front of children when learning is in fact such an instinctive thing. As any parent will attest, toddlers ask endless questions, play with language and number, experiment, engage in all manner of cognitive activity in order to make sense of the world around them. As teachers, we have an ally in every curious child who walks into our classroom.

Why the bribes then? Well perhaps behaviourism – do this and you’ll get that – is so deeply rooted in our culture that it feels natural and inevitable and therefore goes unquestioned. As Kohn points out, rewards suffuse our lives – from performance related pay in the workplace to pocket money and other treats for compliance in the home to a vast and growing array of rewards in schools – they are used to manipulate behaviour. It is the approach that teachers know best because it governed how we ourselves were managed.

Simply raising the stakes through ever more extravagant assembly draws to elicit  “a type of behaviour that the natural force field of the moment will not produce” (Kurt Lewin) is surely a mistake. What we need is a serious debate in our schools about why the ‘force field’ of the learning moment is not strong enough to engage so many young people. A preoccupation with rewards (and sanctions) stifles that debate; it’s a distraction.

We need to return to researchers such as Willaim Glasser who argued in ‘Choice Theory in the Classroom’ that it’s because the traditional classroom environment deprives the adolescent of the need for power, or control, that we lose them as committed, independent learners. Whatever, it is clear that the single most important issue we should be addressing as educators is how to secure genuine learner buy-in, not on what prizes we need for the next raffle or whether to move from house points to Vivo Miles.