Final post! Moving to – a shameless sales pitch

Hi all

This will be my last post as Pedagog in the Machine. As of today, I am relocating to As well as hosting any future blogs, the new site is kind of mothership that ties together all my educational activity.

In the last few years, through word of mouth I have increasingly become involved in teacher training. So – along with my educational co-pilot Kate McAllister – I have set up a company, Rethinking Education, which specialises in three key areas of school improvement:

If I may, I will sign off by sharing some of the feedback that Kate and I have received from people we’ve worked with over the last few years. The process of pulling it all together like this has been quite remarkable. It seems we’re actually pretty good at what we do!!

If you would like to hear more about what we do and how we might be able to help you, please drop us a line to arrange a free consultation.

Praise for our public speaking

  • “James’s presentation was very eloquent and inspiring. Real research ideas that can be implemented in the classroom.”
  • “It was a clear, structured and informative presentation. The impact of the work was evidenced. It was nice to see how passionate both presenters were.”
  • “I am terribly skeptical about these programmes, but I was impressed by the reports and understand the importance of getting this right in schools.”
  • “James is passionate about the topics he was presenting on and sparked many ideas.”
  • “Engaging and thought provoking.”
  • “It’s made me rethink the subject of metacognitive strategies and given me an insight into how to potentially implement them.”
  • “There was a clear balance between theory, practice and actual outcomes. No promises were made. There was a sensible, honest account of the research.”
  • “As a Head of Maths I am looking for ideas how to close the gap and help children to learn. By attending this session I think I found way forward.”
  • “It was brilliant to hear not only the theory behind learning to learn but also the practicalities of implementation.”
  • “Good grassroots movement with grounding in trial at the chalk-face but reviewed and analysed systematically.”
  • “It was great to hear firsthand about the project/experiences that I had read about previously.”
  • “Well presented with enthusiasm and clarity of ideas.”
  • “I don’t usually think of educational conferences in terms of their comedy value, but James Mannion’s presentation was a hoot! A combination of his own humorous and engaging style and the benefits of a smaller, more interactive audience, made this session both informative and enjoyable.”

Praise for our Learning Skills training

  • “The collaborative approach to planning allows you to make sure lessons are watertight before taking them into the classroom.”
  • “Plan do review and do again… Distilling the essence of group-work!”
  • “It’s a really good structure as it allows for reflection and contributions from more than one individual.”
  • “Great insight into how to structure group work in primary schools with helpful resources available.”
  • “The training broke down group work into manageable steps and strategies.”

Praise for Learning Skills in action!


  • “When I first heard we wouldn’t have Learning Skills lessons this year, I was really upset. And then I thought back over everything we did in years 7 and 8, and I realised: it’s a part of me now. I can take it forward into whatever I go on to do.”
  • “It makes you make more friends and you learn that you might not always work with people that you want to work with, but you have to get along with them – or at least be civil if you want to get along. Because otherwise you won’t be able to do what you need to do.”
  • “I found it really fun and I like it that I was pushed to work with other people that I’ve never worked with so I can see what it’s like working with someone that I’d never usually work with.”


  • “At Key Stage 3, there is contribution from all students. They don’t seem as scared of getting things wrong. They’re much more forthcoming, they give it a go and are more prepared to be critical of each other. I definitely think Learning Skills has been a big influence in that.”
  • “Teaching Learning Skills reinvigorated my classroom practice. It made me listen far more carefully to what students say. It also helped me understand how important speaking and listening is in the learning process. I definitely took that back into my work as a Science teacher.”


  • “Students can talk about how, as well as what, they are learning. Lessons in ‘Learning Skills’ are helping them to do this. They enjoy explaining, for example, which processes ‘processes of learning’ they are using. They are expected to apply their skills across subjects…”


  • “Since taking Learning Skills lessons, Max’s understanding of where he fits with the world, what he can do to increase his chances in life and how he can do this – he has completely amazed me!”

Praise for our training in Praxis Teacher Research

  • “The training was eye-opening and motivating. It gave me many ideas to attempt & learn to do my own action research.”
  • “It has allowed me to use research to support the work that I do”
  • “The training was an excellent way to make me think critically about my practice and how I could improve.”
  • “I felt it gave me a focus for developing myself professionally. I found it very interesting.”
  • “It was inspiring to think of other ways we might want to look at classes or groups of pupils, to make them more independent, resilient and have a better work mindset.”

Praise for Praxis Teacher Research in action!

  • “I felt it gave me a focus for developing myself professionally. I found it very interesting.”
  • “A positive experience that has enabled me to use this approach to support my work and offer rigour, reflection and focus to a specific piece of work.”
  • “Allowed us to clarify that what we thought might be the case, was indeed the case!”
  • “It was simple to implement, schools were positive about using the strategy and the impact on children’s learning was significant..”
  • “I have adapted the activity and advised schools to use it to support pupils with their spellings. Schools have found this useful and seen real progress.”
  • “I have really enjoyed the Action Research project, as I feel linking the work that I do in SENIS to action research deepens it and extends my knowledge further.”
  • “The results were very informative and will enable us to use this resource with other pupils.”
  • “I found that it focused my thinking and provided evidence to advocate specific approaches to use with children with SEN.”
  • “It’s helped to inform my practice and contributed towards both my own CPD and that of the Early Years Providers that I am working to support..”
  • “I was really pleased with how engaged other teachers and schools were and that they wanted to actively participate.”
  • “The project was planned through an Action Plan which set a timeline of what needed to be done and when, which ensured the inquiry was carried out in precisely the same way by staff in different locations across the county.”
  • “The school that I worked with as part of the project was really engaged with it as were the parents, pupil and staff involved. It was a very interesting experience and there were very positive outcomes at the end of the project.”
  • “What went well? All of it!”
  • “Results proved a hunch and were more pronounced than expected.”
  • “I enjoyed the opportunity to liaise and collaborate with other professionals.”
  • “Action research allows you to step outside of theory and put those perspectives to work to see how effective they really are. It gives you an opportunity to examine the body of research already out there and develop your knowledge.”
  • “It’s far simpler than you would imagine. A simple idea, a simple plan with a few initial and final assessments is all it takes.”
  • “The strategy really engaged the children and they began to take responsibility for the project. Schools were equally engaged and saw the potential of the strategy to use with other children.”

If you would like to hear more about what we do and how we might be able to help you, please drop us a line to arrange a free consultation.

(Re)introducing Praxis Teacher Research: a peer-reviewed platform for sharing professional knowledge


You may recall that a while ago, I blogged about an idea I’d had for a platform where teachers can share action research, lesson study, masters dissertations etc. The idea was well-received, and I built a pilot site that was a bit rubbish. Even so, around 100 people signed up to the site, and inquiries started slowly trickling in.

Well, now I’ve built a new version using WordPress, and obviously I’m biased but I actually think it’s kind of awesome. The main difference is a) it’s not rubbish, and b) it’s now much more explicit that it’s a peer-reviewed thing. I’m still migrating inquiries from the pilot site, and there are a bunch more in development at the moment which should go live in the coming weeks. Anyway, it’s here. I look forward to hearing what people think of it.


In other news, this will be my second to last post as Pedagog in the Machine, as I’m migrating to a new site called So watch out for that.


My slides from researchED 2016: Rethinking Learning to Learn as a complex intervention: raising the bar, closing the gap

Yesterday, Kate McAllister (@theschoolbus62) and I shared the story – and the findings – of a new approach to Learning to Learn, that we developed and taught over a 4 year period at a secondary comprehensive school in Sussex.

This new approach to Learning to Learn – now known as Learning Skills ( – has been evaluated as the focus of my PhD. This evaluation found that students who received L2L went on to achieve higher grades in their subject learning (all subjects combined), compared with a matched comparison group. Furthermore, while non-Pupil Premium students gained from the L2L programme also, the gains were especially pronounced among students eligible for the Pupil Premium (often used as a shorthand for social or economic disadvantage).

We are now – very cautiously – starting to work with other schools, to see whether we can develop this approach further – and replicate (and improve upon) these findings more widely. We are really grateful to have been able to share this story with a packed room of teachers at the researchED conference yesterday, at Capital City Academy in London. Here are the slides from our session – video to follow.

If you are interested in hearing more about our work with schools, please email

Oracy has never been more important. Don’t miss this fantastic CPD opportunity on 23rd Sept


Throughout my 10 years as a classroom practitioner, I have become increasingly convinced of the importance of oral communication – not just as a powerful driver for learning, which it undoubtedly is, but also because speaking and listening play such a critical role in the development of the individual – our sense of identity, and our ability to relate to one other. *

The need for human beings to improve our ability to relate to one another – to communicate more effectively, to share ideas, to engage in rational debate, to build consensus where possible and where it isn’t, to learn to disagree without resorting to violence – has arguably never been greater.

If you agree (and especially if you disagree!) – or even if you just want to find out more about the power of the spoken word in education – you could do worse than fill out a cheeky little CPD request form before we break up for the summer.

There’s a fantastic 1-day conference being held at Mercer’s Hall in London on Friday 23rd September. See below for details of the day – tickets are £25 including lunch:


Should oracy be given the same status as literacy and numeracy?

How do oracy skills support learning across the curriculum?

This event is designed for teachers and provides an opportunity to learn more about oracy across the curriculum. Teachers in all sectors, and of all subjects, are warmly invited to attend. 

Speakers will include practising teachers who have implemented whole school approaches to oracy. They will share details of the triumphs and tribulations they encountered during the process, and will offer recommendations to others who are starting out. Representatives from the English Speaking Union, the Communication Trust and Debate Mate will explain how these organisations can help teachers to enrich the quality of communication across all subjects in schools. Findings from academic research on oracy in the classroom will be shared by Oracy@Cambridge. It is hoped that the opportunity to meet and converse with others will help teachers to develop a professional network for future support and collaboration.


10am Arrival, tea and coffee

10.30am Welcome and introduction

10.40 – 11.10am Panel discussion – Should oracy be given the same status as literacy and numeracy?

11.10-11.30am Discussion groups and feedback

11.30 – 11.45am – Tea and coffee

11.45-12.15pm Panel discussion – Speech and debate in schools: dispelling myths

12.15-12.30pm Discussion groups and feedback

12.30-1pm The Art of Listening

1-1.40pm Buffet lunch and time for networking

1.45 – 2.15pm Six tricks from a professional speechwriter to turn today’s schoolchildren into tomorrow’s leaders

2.15-2.45pm Panel discussion – Talking to learn: how do oracy skills support learning across the curriculum?

2.45-3pm Tea and coffee

3-3.25pm Follow-up discussion in tables – opportunity for attendees to meet speakers and converse

3.25-3.50pm Roundtable discussion and identification of future priorities

3.50-4pm Closing remarks

Travel bursaries

A contribution towards travel costs may be available to state school teachers attending the event. Teachers should arrange and pay for standard class travel to London then apply afterwards for subvention of these costs. Funds for travel bursaries are limited, so the amount available to each teacher cannot be confirmed until the total number of applicants is known.

WHEN Friday, 23 September 2016 from 10:00 to 16:00 (BST) – Add to Calendar

WHERE Mercers’ Hall – Ironmonger Lane, London, EC2V 8HE – View Map

See you there!

* This year, it has been my great privilege to have become a founding member the management team of the Hughes Hall Centre for Effective Spoken Communication. In April, we hosted a fantastic one-day conference which brought together professionals not just from education but also from social care, business and entertainment. In case you missed them, there are two blogs about the day – here and here. This conference is not being organised by us, but we will be there and endorse it wholeheartedly!


Why I resigned from teaching


Today, I took the difficult decision to step down from my role as a classroom teacher. However this is not a “woe is our education system” post. Throughout my 10 years at the chalkface I have frequently felt challenged, yes – but also stimulated and delighted by the incredible project to educate future generations.

Of course teaching is hard work; anything that’s really worthwhile should give you the occasional headache. And maybe I’ve just been lucky. But my residual sense as I look to the next phase of my career is not one of relief but of immense gratitude, to the countless students and teachers who have taught me so much about myself – and about learning itself, a subject I remain endlessly fascinated by.

There are two main reasons why I am stepping down from my role as a classroom teacher, and they are linked. And I know you didn’t ask, but I’m going to tell you anyway.

Reason 1: Finish my PhD

I am about to enter the 6th and final year of a part-time PhD in Education. I have heard it said that superhuman people exist who can rattle off a PhD while working full time. One of the main things I have learned this year is that I am not one of them.

Reason 2: Work with other schools, mainly to help close the Pupil Premium gap

Through my research, I have mainly been concerned with the question of how to help people become more effective learners – students mainly, but teachers also. There are a few ways in which schools typically ask this question, but it’s essentially the same problem underneath. For example:

  • How can we improve attainment at our school?
  • How can we improve the attainment of young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds?
  • How can we close the gender gap at our school?
  • How can we develop learners who don’t need to be “spoon-fed” quite so much?
  • How can we make it so that students don’t “hit the wall” when they get to year 12?
  • How can we make it so that teachers continue to get better at what they do, throughout their career?

If you consult the research literature, you can find a number of answers these questions. My favourites are metacognition, self-regulation, oral communication, growth mindset, formative assessment, action research, transfer. But two key questions remain:

  1. What does all this stuff actually look like in the classroom? And
  2. Is it possible to combine these methods, so that the effect sizes stack up?

Through my research I believe I have found some promising answers to these questions, and I am keen to share them with other schools.

Earlier this year, my PhD supervisor and I published a paper in the Curriculum Journal detailing the 3-year interim outcomes of a longitudinal case study of a novel ‘learning skills’ intervention that I helped design and teach over 4 years. These interim outcomes included significantly improved academic attainment (all subjects combined), and a significant closing of the Pupil Premium gap from the bottom up. (Here also is a short video outlining these findings. A second paper, outlining the equally promising 5-year GCSE analysis, is due out later this year).

I now plan to spend the next phase of my career working with other schools to see whether we can replicate these findings more widely. My strong suspicion is that we can – not because it’s easy, but because I’ve spent the last year or so thinking about how to do it.

To this end a colleague and I have set up a not-for-profit organisation. Our vision is that in the near future, all schools will explicitly teach their students not only “what” to learn, but also “how”.

Through word of mouth, we have started working with a number of schools throughout the UK. However we now feel the time is right to scale up this work significantly.

If you are interested in hearing more, please get in touch through our website –

We look forward to hearing from you!

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Poverty and Education, part 3 of 3: The Praxis Curriculum


I recently attended a ‘Thinking Saturday’ event on the theme of Poverty and Education. The first and second posts in this series can be found here and here. In this final post, I will outline some of the key features of the Praxis Curriculum – an innovative, evidence-informed approach to ‘learning to learn’ that I have been involved in developing and evaluating for the last 6 years or so – which address some of the issues identified in parts 1 and 2. I do not present this as a panacea to the disadvantage. But if we can replicate these findings more widely, it would be a giant leap in the right direction. If you work in a school and are interested in exploring ways of getting started, please drop me a line:

I am currently in the 5th and (hopefully) final year of a part-time PhD. My research focus is to carry out a longitudinal impact evaluation of a novel approach to Learning to Learn (L2L), which I helped develop and teach at a secondary school in the South of England from 2010 to 2015.

The Praxis Curriculum, as it has become known, combines taught lessons throughout Key Stage 3 (the first cohort had more than 400 lessons over 3 years) with a joined-up approach to whole-school teaching and learning, to ensure that proactive learning skills and dispositions are explicitly transferred throughout the school, enabling students to access higher grades across the curriculum.

The issue of transfer has often been the Achilles heel of L2L initiatives, and it is well understood that skills tend to remain rooted in the contexts in which they were developed. While transfer can and does happen to varying degrees, it certainly does not always happen automatically, and therefore requires careful management.


That was the idea anyway, and as it turned out we were pretty successful in achieving what we set out to do. Last month, my PhD supervisor and I published a journal article outlining the interim 3-year findings (the 5-year GCSE analysis will follow later this year). There’s a short video outlining the key findings here, and the paper is here (pay-walled unfortunately – it will eventually be open access, but is currently “under embargo”).

I won’t go into the findings here, other than to say that the Praxis Curriculum was associated with significantly improved attainment (all subjects combined) by the end of year 9, with exceptional gains among young people eligible for the Pupil Premium (often used as a shorthand for social or economic disadvantage).

Rather, building on the first 2 posts in this series I would like to outline a few aspects of the Praxis Curriculum that are especially beneficial to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I will then suggest a simple reason as to why this should be the case.

A trusted point of contact


The nature of the Praxis Curriculum is such that the teacher gets to know the students really well – much more so than I have ever been able to do as a Teacher of Science or a form tutor. One reason for this is that there’s a central and continuing focus on developing high quality speaking and listening skills. We do this through philosophical inquiries, paired talk tasks, structured debates and public speaking – all of which is modelled, explained, practiced and fed back on. (Using traditional means to achieve progressive ends, you might say). So we literally spend lots of time speaking and listening to one another. And because there’s no pre-ordained subject content, we are free to explore issues that really matters to the students – whatever they may be.

Each half-term there’s a 6-week project – either individual or small group based (these alternate). Because there’s an explicit approach to helping all students develop the social, emotional and linguistic skills needed to work effectively in pairs and small groups (‘ground rules for group talk’ is the key to that, in case you were wondering), the teacher is able to spend far more of their time observing, noticing, listening, or working one-to one than is usually the case when there’s an ocean of content to wade through.

Also, each week the students write at length in reflective learning journals, which are dialogue marked (light literacy marking, combined with comment-based feedback to prompt students into reflecting on how learning happens).

All of which means the teacher gets to know the students really well. However, I think this is just a start – it could be taken much further. For example, ideally I think the Praxis teacher should also be a Year 7 tutor for their class. In addition to this they could have a pastoral role for all the students who have previously been their year 7 Praxis classes. This would build over time, to the point of having 5 groups with 30 students per year group (years 7 to 11), in a role not dissimilar to a head of year. This vertical student liaison role would ensure that all students have a regular point of contact throughout their time at the school. This is something I will ask schools to consider as we begin to develop this approach more widely.

Finding the time to explore young people’s life narratives

Narrative galley.indd

It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again: the transition from July of year 6 to September of year 7 is brutal:

  • You go from being the oldest in a community – the cohort others look up to for support, guidance and mentorship – to being the youngest and therefore the most vulnerable;
  • You go from a community where you are well known, and where it is quite possible to know most people by name if not by association, to one where many students do not even know the names of all their teachers;
  • You go from having 1 main teacher for 5 days a week, to having around 10 teachers scattered randomly throughout the week – with no one adult who really knows you;
  • In a secondary school, the Dunbar number (and anthropological rule of thumb which states that humans can handle around 150 relationships) is often exceeded even within a single year group, never mind within the community at large. This can precipitate a crisis of identity which sees many young people getting lost in a sea of behaviours which seek mainly to get themselves noticed by their peers – something, anything to give them a sense of identity among the uniformed anonymity, even if it’s something so banal as hiding another student’s pen, or “accidentally” falling off a chair.

When you stop to think about it, it’s little wonder that we see a ‘dip’ in Key Stage 3 that some ever really come back out of. And it is disadvantaged young people who are disproportionately affected by primary-secondary transition – as was recognised by Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, when he said “We know that difficulty making this transition effectively is one of the key stumbling blocks to improving social mobility in this country.”

The first project we run in the Praxis Curriculum is to give the students 6 weeks to answer the question “Who am I?”. They are free to respond to this question however they see fit, and the responses vary significantly. Some get on the Internet and make family trees dating back to medieval times. Others interview elderly family members. Others make models of their homes, with figures of their siblings, pets etc. Others may make collage boards or photo slide shows. Or they do a combination of some or all of these things.

Throughout these projects, students set their own short, medium and long-term targets (including setting their own homework tasks each week). Each students’ progress is reviewed each week in a brief “check-in” with the teacher. And at the end of each half term, each student presents their project to the class, and their projects are self, peer and teacher evaluated according to success criteria set by the students themselves. All of this is about developing self-regulation, by the way – essential stuff if you want to develop independent, resilient learners.

Again, the identity project is not presented here “the answer” to the problem of transition. Nor am I suggesting it’s a new idea: I remember doing something similar myself in Year 7 English. But if your school doesn’t currently give students a big old chunk of time to explore their identity at the start of year 7, perhaps you might want to find a way of making that happen.

A flexible, responsive approach to curriculum


Two of the half-termly projects are rooted in library-based research (one individual, and one in group project – both resulting in a presentation to the class). The students are told they can only choose books from certain shelves – academic topics which are not on the menu at school usually: politics, international relations, anthropology, psychology, sociology, photography, a suitable biography. Ideally not current affairs – this features more in the year 8 programme of study.

The group research project is really fascinating, as the students must firstly undergo intense negotiations to identify topic they can all agree on. To give an example from a Year 7 class I once taught… Jasmine had picked up an ancient-looking child-friendly ‘Introduction to feminism’, and wanted to do something about that. Ryan, her partner, had picked up a huge glossy tome about Latin America. He had never even heard of the continent previously, and wanted to find out more. They debated it back and forth for a while; neither wanted to budge. Finally, a light bulb blinked on. “Why don’t we do it about feminism in Latin America?” asked Jasmine, wide-eyed.

The next day Michael, the 3rd member of their group, returned from an absence. He was dead set on doing something about China. By now, they had the hang of the art of negotiation: they soon agreed to do a comparative study of feminism in Latin America and China. They required some help from a teaching assistant to understand some of the more challenging articles they located. But their presentation to the class 6 weeks later was really incredible, taking in such diverse topics as the life and art of Frida Kahlo, the relationship between communism and feminism, dowries, foot binding and the one child policy.

So while the Praxis Curriculum does not include the use of pre-ordained “knowledge planners”, it is by no means content-free. This enables students to extend their gaze farther and wider than is possible through traditional subject disciplines.

Again, I do not mean to suggest that such open-ended study should be the sole method of knowledge acquisition. However such a flexible approach to curriculum focus does complement and enrich subject-based study, and I endorse it thoroughly.

Exposure to positive experiences


The Praxis Curriculum exposes young people to positive experiences in a number of ways – some quite standard, some less so. For example in year 8 we gave each student £2, and set them an enterprise task to turn it into £25 to pay for a trip to Thorpe Park. They had to have receipts to show how they had bought and sold things, or carried our chores using things they had bought with the £2, in order to raise the money for the trip. So not only were they exposed to a trip out – a standard positive experience – but they were exposed to the value of money, and the notion of having to pay your way. And some of them made an absolute fortune! It turns out with a decent tube of glue you can make really cool jewellery out of old lego and scrabble pieces and whatnot, and make an absolute killing.

We also did things like planning and building an allotment, and “events management” (e.g. planning and running a Christmas market for visiting Year 5s). But if I had to point to one thing that makes the Praxis Curriculum beneficial to disadvantaged young people in particular, I think I think it’s that we exposed all students to one another, and thus to themselves.

To clarify, because I realise that sounds a bit cheesy – the Praxis Curriculum is a mixed ability approach, and there was a clear and explicit expectation – right from the start of the year, and repeated ad infinitum – that by the end of the year, all students would be able to communicate and work effectively in any group they find themselves in. (They start the year in a pair of their choosing for talk tasks, building their way up in cycles to working in an unfamiliar group of 6 for the summer term project).

We spent a lot of time on this. Whenever a group project began, all students were required to look one another in the eye and say “I look forward to working with you”. (They squirmed at first, but soon got used to it when they realised there was no mileage in refusing). This served as an effective pre-emptive strike against any complaints of the “I’m not sitting next to him” variety. We also spent a lot of time talking about the importance of body language – how if you are put in a group and someone selectively ignores you, that kind of passive-aggressive bullying can be even more damaging than outright name-calling.

I think all students benefitted from this requirement of the course, and I wish ‘learning how to get along with one another’ was more widely recognised as perhaps the best answer to the question of “what is education for?”.

To wrap it up for now

There’s plenty more to say on this subject, but this post is an impolite length already. To conclude for now – I don’t think it’s any surprise that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds should gain more from approaches like these. In the Praxis Curriculum, all students engage in a 3-year metacognitive journey, through which they are exposed to many different kinds of learning processes – as well as reflecting regularly and deeply on how they learn in different contexts. This policy of exposing young people to one another in positive ways benefits all young people socially – and for those with more to gain academically, the academic gains are greater for the simple reason that they have more to gain.

That’s what you call a win-win. We are currently in the process of looking to identify suitable schools so that we can begin to implement these practices more widely. If you work in a school and are interested in exploring ways of getting started, please drop me a line:

Poverty and Education (part 2 of 3): Solutions

Last week, I attended a “Thinking Saturday” event on the theme of Poverty and Education. The first post in this 3 part series can be found here. In this post, I will attempt to summarise what we came up with in response to this deceptively simple question:

“How can we serve disadvantaged young people better?”

1. The importance of a ‘trusted other’


Chris Kilkenny, an inspirational youth worker from Edinburgh, emphasised the need for a “trusted other” – a lasting point of contact throughout a young person’s time at school. There was no such person when Chris was at school, and this is something he feels would have made a huge difference in making him feel more understood, more cared for, and perhaps better informed about the support and services available to him.

Chris has recently been consulting on this in Scotland, in relation to the #namedperson policy which is currently being implemented by the SNP. A brief glimpse of the Twitter timeline suggests that this policy is not without its critics. But whatever the problems may be, we shouldn’t lose sight of the central idea here. The only question we should be asking is: what do disadvantaged young people say? Maybe we should take a steer from Chris on this one. See how that goes.

2. Expose all young people to positive experiences


Ian Taylor, another educationalist who overcame the challenges of a disadvantaged childhood while many of his peers did not, spoke about the importance of exposing all young people to positive experiences. This can take many forms – mentoring by positive role models, visits by inspirational speakers, participation and organisation of community celebrations, day trips and residentials.

If you work in a school, you are in a unique position to make things like this happen. So however ludicrous your workload – this summer term, why not do something to give the young people in your school a positive experience? It doesn’t have to be a week in Disneyland. I live in Brighton, which is not a big place – you can basically walk anywhere – and an alarming number of young people in this city have never been to the beach. So let’s take them rock pooling; if anyone asks, you’re doing a bio-survey.

3. Make time for empathy


By and large, teachers tend not to be psychopaths. Nor are we a profession of clock-watchers who are only in in this game for the big bucks. But in a system of intensive expectations coupled with performance-related pay, the things that get squeezed are the things that aren’t measurable.

That usually means the things that enable us to get to know our students: picking up the phone, or arranging a meeting with a parent or carer; turning up to a detention to have a restorative conversation; going to speak with pastoral colleagues to find out more about a student you’re concerned about; observing a challenging class being taught by a teacher for whom they don’t “play up”. In short, to borrow a line from Lisa Ashes – taking the time to see young people not just for what they are, but for what they can become.

Empathy emerges from relationship building; from listening, from taking an interest and from taking the time and effort to see the world through the eyes of others. In a pressured institution like a school, such relationship building needs to be given structured time and space in which to happen.

The best after-school meetings are those in which there is 10 minutes of input, followed by “now go and pick up the phone”. But such things are few and far between. How else might we find the time and space in which to nurture empathy in schools – not just toward young people, but among ourselves?

4. Focus on what people are good at


Chris spoke about the importance of identifying building on his strengths in getting to where he is today – speaking and listening, caring for others, understanding his environment and understanding the choices people make every day.

This got me thinking – how much of the feedback we offer to young people in schools is focused on their strengths – and how much centres around compared with what we feel they “could do better”? Sure, we often use the ‘what went well/even better if’ formula. But could we find more ways to celebrate and recognise young people for what they do well – and then encourage them to find ways to build on those strengths in ways that help others? Without following it up with a ‘but…’? I’m pretty sure we could, and I’m pretty sure we should.

5. Flexible approach to curriculum

shutterstock_73347058Dave Harris used a visual metaphor last week, which I think is kind of neat. The child is a pillar. Wrapped around this pillar is a spiral staircase: the steps are the knowledge and skills the child develops, which enable them to grow and explore the world. And wrapped around this is a rotating bookcase: this is the curriculum, which provides whatever stimulus the child needs in order to build the next step.

Like all metaphors, it has its limitations. But I think it’s a lovely way of representing how a curriculum can be flexible and responsive to the needs of the individual. If you had to go to your local library for 5 hours a day, but were only allowed to look at one shelf each time you went there – even if you found the battered old textbooks on that shelf dull and uninspiring – would you look forward to going to the library, or would you come to resent it?

I think it’s clear that we need more flexibility in our approach to curriculum. Some people might object to such a flexible curriculum saying ‘but children need to learn history chronologically’. I think the answer to that criticism is that such a rigid, logical approach may well suit some children, and some teachers – and if that works for them, then they should be free to pursue it. That is literally what a flexible curriculum means. But what if that approach does not work well for a group of children, or for a group of teachers for that matter? Should we really mandate what people learn and when? Is there some excellent epistemological or developmental reason as to why all 7 to 8 year olds should learn about the Romans? Is the alternative really so scary?

6. Finding the time to explore young people’s life narratives

Narrative galley.indd

We humans are storytellers; we live our lives through narrative. Often, we mentally rehearse how we might relay our experience as a story – even as events are still unfolding. We tell stories to ourselves, about ourselves; our very identities are narrative in nature.

In seeking to do something like evaluate and address inequality, attaining and understanding reliable data is obviously important. But in education – which is, at heart, a process of human development – numerical targets and attainment data will never be as important, as rich or as informative as the human experience that lies behind it. In education, technology and managerialism have led us down the cul-de-sac of traffic lit spreadsheets; but red, green and amber squares are a poor substitute for the richness of human lives.

Recognising this does not deny the importance of data; these things are not mutually exclusive. Both numerical data and human experience are important. Just let’s make sure we don’t let the importance of one overshadow our appreciation of the other.

If we can agree that perhaps we educationalists “could do better” in understanding the life experiences and perspectives of all young people, but especially those affected by social or economic disadvantage, then we must ask ourselves: what can we do to safely facilitate, recognise and celebrate the sharing of stories by and about the young people we serve?

In the final part of this series of 3 blogs, I shall discuss the Praxis Curriculum – an evidence-based Key Stage 3 Learning to Learn curriculum, and a whole-school approach to teaching and learning – which embodies many of the ideas outlined above, and for which there is compelling evidence of social and academic gains for all young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.