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A Response to Nick Gibb

07 December 2015
Margaret Thatcher famously rebutted a criticism by telling a reporter ‘I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.’
Ad hominem is that oh so favourite tool of those seeking to shut down debate, to silence, to snuff out freedom of thought and expression. In education circles it is rife.
I have been told many times by teachers and educators that my view doesn’t count because I am a Tory. Rather than grapple with facts and argument, those with an ideology to push will often resort to personal attack and, like Thatcher, I am uplifted because it only reveals that lack of depth and rigour of their argument.
This morning, The Guardian published a piece by Schools Minister, Nick Gibb (the full text can be found here), which seeks to shut down debate by calling those who argue with the central assertion, racist.
Of course, the words are carefully chosen to avoid such a harsh word, but Nick writes ‘Those who try to dismiss their methods using crude national stereotypes’ and accuses anyone who demurs of ‘narrow-mindedness’.
It is a very fashionable political tool at the moment to use an accusation or racism, homophobia, transphobia and a range of other taboos.
It is a real shame that Nick has decided to use this approach, rather than engaging with the real debate.
Teacher exchanges are wonderful. I have had the great pleasure over the years to be involved in several in differing cultures. I also have the great privilege nowadays to spend time in schools across the country and around the world. Every single teacher can learn from each other. Collaboration is an incredibly important ingredient of effective professional development.
Nick asserts that teachers in Shanghai are highly effective and that their teaching is of high quality. He is absolutely right, it is.
But his argument that those who challenge the current DfE policy are making ‘ crude national stereotypes’ misses the point. There are many of us who talk about culture. But we are not talking about culture in the wider sense (though of course, this is important), we are talking about the culture in the school. The culture that is built up in the classroom. These things are crucial.
Rather than avoiding the cultural debate (for fear I may be shot down as a racist), I think it is at the heart of the issue. We teachers cannot change our model of society, but we can create a culture in our schools of high expectations, a culture that is explicit in stating that every single child can be successful and then demanding that they are, a culture that ensures every single child grips every single mathematical concept and does not accept a conveyer belt approach to curriculum.
Speak to your own Chief Inspector of Schools, speak with the many head teachers running schools in the most challenging of circumstances who are achieving excellent results, speak with colleagues in the many incredible independent schools across the country. All of these people have created effective cultures and values in their schools.
Nick, I am not a racist. And I do not accept that critics of current policy should be silenced. Debate is important in getting to the real issues and making real change.
Attainment in mathematics is exceptionally high in Shanghai. Should we learn from what is happening there? Of course. It is obtuse to shut down any opportunity to learn.
But it is equally obtuse to make sweeping statements that will alienate those very effective teachers who teach mathematics in classrooms across England day in, day out. To write in a national newspaper that ‘England is still hobbled by the misplaced idea that teacher instruction is irredeemably boring’ is both wrong and damaging. Many, many thousands of teachers in England are extremely expert in what they do, many, many thousands of teachers use high quality, group instruction on a daily basis as a foundation of their teaching.
Nick goes on to state, ‘Shanghai maths teaching works because it is meticulous. No pupil understanding is left to chance or accident: every step of a lesson is deliberate, purposeful and precise.’ Well, what on earth do you think thousands of us, here in England, have been doing for decades? Our teaching is meticulous, our teaching ensures purposeful lessons.
To make the claim that this sort of practice does not occur in England is simply wrong. Many of us, ignoring trends and fads, have taught effectively in England’s schools for a long time.
Tarring 350,000 maths teachers with the same brush is dangerous and ignorant.
I do, of course, understand why the Minister needs to do this. It is, after all, far easier to make such generalisations than it is to publicly state there are serious structural problems in the teaching profession in England.
There are many people teaching mathematics who do, indeed, deploy ineffective teaching methods. There is a massive requirement for subject specific CPD to help these teachers develop more effective practices.
But is the best way to achieve this to ignore and write off the thousands of effective schools and teachers in England in search of a new silver bullet? I think not.
I wish all of the Shanghai teachers visiting England an enjoyable and enriching experience, I wish all of the teachers who get to interact with them while they are here the same – I hope that the exchange is as successful as the many teacher exchanges over decades that UK teachers have engaged in.
The trouble with the current policy is that is has deliberately and viciously sought to be non-inclusive. Why are we not holding up those schools in England that have cultivated incredibly conducive cultures for schooling? Why ignore the thousands of teachers who have very well developed, evidence based, effective pedagogies?
As I travel the country at the moment, running workshops on mastery models for schooling, I am continually impressed by the teachers I meet. They have theories, they have deep knowledge and they want to engage in the debate. Don’t write them off as flakes or racists, engage with the debate and there can be so much to gain.

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