Näkemiin englanti, hei Suomi…..

Isn’t it about time that we learnt a little bit more from our Nordic friends over in Finland as regards educating students? After all, their academic success has drawn a great amount of attention from all over the world. For over a decade we have repeatedly heard how Finland consistently scores highly in PISA tests, despite (or should I say in spite of) giving little (if any homework), having students starting school at a later age than many other countries do (see a previous blog on ‘Too much, too soon…..), allowing more breaks in the school day for students and giving few (if any) mandatory tests until a single exam at the end of high school – summarised here in a ‘HuffPost Parents’ video for U.S. parents.

So what have we done about it in England? Erm….., well….., nothing! Well, I say nothing. What I mean is that we have insisted that students do more homework (despite their being very little evidence that this is actually beneficial whatsoever) and we have increased the amount of formal testing. Indeed, in May 2016, children in Year Two and Year Six (in England) will be the first to take the new SATs papers. These tests in English and maths will reflect the new national curriculum, and are intended to be more rigorous. There will also be a completely new marking scheme to replace the existing national curriculum levels. At the end of Year Six, children will sit tests in: (a) reading, (b) maths and (c) spelling, punctuation and grammar. These tests will be both set and marked externally, and the results will be used to measure the school’s performance (for example, through reporting to Ofsted and published league tables). Childrens’ marks will be used in conjunction with teacher assessment to give a broader picture of their attainment. This coincides with GCSE and A Level reform to make exams more rigorous and challenging. Fair enough. However, there is a huge presumption here; that harder tests improve standards. This is a fallacy. When will we learn?

There is also a deeper, more holistic issue too. In this country, and indeed in many others, we still educate students in subject ‘batches‘ and by age group. Our Victorian production-line education system is still at large; a ‘one size fits all model’ designed for the purpose of uniformity, conformity and standardisation. It has virtually not changed in over two-hundred years. It was ultimately designed to produce workers for the work force at the time, but it has not evolved enough, if at all, to meet the needs of the 21st century, as explained by Sir Ken Robinson in his talk on ‘Changing education paradigms’.

So what can we learn from Finland then? What have they got right? Here are my top 5 in order of importance (most important one first):

(1) Teachers in Finland are clever. They have at least two degrees – one being a master’s degree. Only first class honour’s  degrees are acceptable, such is the competition for places at one of the six national teaching colleges. Ultimately, they are subject specialists. I am simply not convinced that teachers in England are that clever – this was the subject of a previous blog: ‘Are teachers academically clever?’ Unfortunately, this is due to a vicious circle in this country regarding recruiting teachers. In Finland there is no teacher shortage; the profession is much more respected than it is in England (and the rest of the U.K.), it is a far less stressful job and pay is good. In stark contrast in this country we have a ‘Ticking time bomb’ when it comes to teacher recruitment – indeed, in a rare show of unity, the six teachers’ unions have joined together (18.01.16) to warn about a developing crisis in the teaching profession and to address just how to solve the teacher shortage in England.

(2) Teachers in Finland have time to plan and mark, not just teach. In Finland teachers teach less. A main scale teacher in Finland might only teach four hours of the school day, spending at least two hours on building curriculums and assessing student progress. In contrast, in England a main scale subject teacher will be teaching between five and six hours a day. This has been the main issue I have wanted teaching unions in this county to be addressing for over ten years now. Teachers simply teach too much! Especially NQTs (newly qualified teachers) and RQTs (recently qualified teachers). Just one extra one hour lesson a day is one extra lesson to plan for and mark for, and there might be thirty students in that class. From my own personal experience, as I gained more senior positions within schools the teaching side of the job became much more manageable. I would have between two and three hours of lessons a day. I could plan for these comfortably and mark student work every day if necessary so students got immediate feedback for their very next lesson. Very powerful indeed in terms of teaching and learning. I never even took marking home! The students in my classes certainly got the best out of me as I was fresh and ‘on top of my game’ for every lesson. In stark contrast, a NQT would be drowning under the workload of five lessons a day with all of the planning and marking that comes with that! Surely teachers need to be teaching less, especially in the early parts of their career?

(3) Finland has a vocational education system that works well alongside it’s traditional academic one. Forty-three percent of Finnish students attend vocational schools. At the age of sixteen, students can decide if they want to attend the Finnish equivalent of high school to prepare them for university or enter vocational training. Students who attend vocational school can attend a university provided they score high enough in the matriculation exam. Preparation for employment and careers guidance in schools are good. Low rates of youth unemployment in countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Finland correlate with these countries having very good vocational training systems in place. In contrast, in England the current vocational system is at best confusing and ill-defined; this has been the case for the past fifty years! Our view of vocational training has quite simply been ‘dumbed-downed courses for the disaffected and low-ability’.

“Vocational options for teenagers should be much better so the talents of non-academic pupils are not wasted….. The education system in England does not offer enough opportunities for those who do not succeed at GCSE….. Better vocational training would reduce youth unemployment…. We simply have to improve the quality of our technical provision”.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Head of Ofsted (2016)


(4) Finland promotes multilingual studies. Finnish language education begins on the first day of school. By age nine students begin Swedish (Finland’s second official language) and at eleven they start learning a third language, usually English. Many students take on a fourth language at the age of thirteen. Students are tested on their first two languages in a matriculation exam for university placement. The benefits of learning languages from a biological perspective are huge. Learning makes connections between brain neurons; the cleverer you are the more connections you have. It’s not the actual number of neurons you have that is important, as these do not divide, but the number of connections between them that is important. So, a younger person has more neurons than an older person (as neurons die throughout life), but the older person may be cleverer as they have more connections between the neurons as they have learnt things throughout their life. When we are babies we have all the brain neurons that we’ll ever need, but we have very few connection between them so we are not as clever as a teenager who has less neurons. However, we learn to communicate through language and the number of connections increases exponentially – we learn a new language from scratch in four years or so at this age. This is the power of language on neuronal connections. It is no coincidence that multilingual people are supremely clever. In this county we are somewhat lazy as our first (and normally only) language is English, which just so happens to be the language of business. There is no great need to learn other languages. This is a huge problem both biologically, as highlighted above, and culturally. As well as making you more clever, learning languages increases global understanding, improves employment potential, increases native language ability, sharpens cognitive and life skills, and makes travel more feasible and enjoyable. Yet in this county it is massively undervalued. We only have to look at football players and managers; those who are foreign and who are playing or managing in the English Premier League can speak several languages in press conferences and learn English (pretty well), in stark contrast to English players (such as Joey Barton) and managers (such as Steve McClaren) who have played and managed abroad.

(5) Finland recognizes the importance of socialising. Our view on teaching and learning is (still) that if students aren’t in classrooms for lessons then they aren’t learning. This hasn’t changed for two-hundred years or so. Breaks in between lessons in England are non-existent, meaning that as one lesson ends the other one is starting! Mid-morning breaks are generally only long enough for the quickest of toilet breaks before lessons resume. Lunch hours are not an hour; they are generally thirty to forty minutes long. My own personal view on this has been that I have never been surprised why students talk in class (the biggest low level behaviour issue in schools in this country) or why they ‘act up’ when we have restricted their socialising so severely. Ultimately, we then lose countless hours of lesson time dealing with the consequences of this which ultimately impacts on learning. In Finland, students have seventy-five minutes of playtime a day (and I love the fact that this is the name given to it). There are small breaks between lessons too (not just beneficial to students but for staff too to get organised). Outdoor physical activity is encouraged and lessons taught outside as often as possible – even in Winter. The value of ‘play’ is valued far more in their society and culture, right from the grass roots level. Finland heavily subsidises daycare for children for this very reason, with children starting school later (at age seven) than they do here in England. Although ninety-seven percent of children attend pre-school, which starts at age five, the emphasis is on playing and socialising, which is not necessarily the case in England (from my own experience of having a four year old pre-school boy).

There are other aspects of the Finnish education system that are worth noting; ones that didn’t make it into my ‘top five’. In Finland, teachers are given guidelines for what they have to teach, but they are not given prescriptions for how to teach it. This allows highly trained teachers to develop a curriculum geared toward teaching their unique group of students. The average class size in Finland is twenty and there is no tracking or separation of students on ability. There is also no homework or testing until the ‘big test’ at the end of high school. Teaching assistants (though they not called that in Finland) are far more trained than they are in England and support groups of students far better than they do in U.K. school, in my humble opinion.

Clearly we have a lot to learn, but maybe the biggest problem is our own mindset. We have had lots of reform in the past three years, but have we been reforming the right things? We have reformed examined content ultimately. As much as is humanly possible. But have we reformed anything to do with actual schools? Have we reformed teacher recruitment, teacher pay, vocational education, the school day? Erm…. well …. no! Maybe we’ll just keep talking about Finland then without actually doing anything about it. I wonder…..

Are teachers academically clever?

In recent years it has become an absolute (global) necessity to attract good quality and well-qualified people into teaching in order to raise educational standards. In Finland and Singapore, teachers are recruited from the most-qualified graduates, all with a second degree. Indeed, you need more than a bachelor’s degree and teaching qualification to teach in Finland – you must have a master’s degree. Competition is fierce between ‘the best of the best’ to do this highly respected job. This is not the case in countries a little closer to home.

In European countries, between 10 and 25% of people tend to think that pupils respect teachers – compared to 75% in China. Fewer than 20% of Germans would encourage their child to become a teacher compared to nearly 50% of Chinese people. Out of all the countries (surveyed), only Chinese people tended to compare teachers with doctors. Here, cultural issues seem to be at work. Teaching is treated with reverence in Asian societies – especially in China.

Peter Dolton, author of the Global Teacher Status Index

In stark contrast to many Scandinavian and Far Eastern countries, it has been possible to be accepted onto a PGCE course in England with a 2:2 degree in a subject for many years now – and funding has been available for this; though now funding is only available for candidates with a 2:1 or above. In addition to this, in 2014, more than a quarter of UK teachers in over 50% of taught subjects in secondary schools level did not have any qualification beyond an A-level in the course they were teaching! This is largely due to the fact that there has been a severe teacher shortage in this country for a long time now and we simply need more teachers every year (Teaching – the ticking timebomb). It is a simple fact that in the state sector, for decades and decades, we have been recruiting teachers who are far from being any form of expert in their respective fields; the teachers are arguably very good teachers once trained, but lack detailed subject knowledge of significant depth and breadth. In stark contrast, the independent sector has always (by that I mean hundreds of years) recruited subject experts. Every single teacher who taught me at secondary school had either written books on their subject, had a master’s degree in it or was a doctorate, and marked for a relevant examination board. They may not have been the best teachers in the world (although the majority were) but they have excellent subject knowledge that they kept continually up-to-date. They were revered and respected. They didn’t just assess their subject, but they actually taught it! This, for me, remains the biggest difference between teachers in state and private education (independent school, tutors).

‘The lack of qualifications held by teachers is alarming and will have consequences. It is little wonder that in comparison with the rest of the developed world, our standards are slipping. It takes more than a good degree to make a good teacher. But sound subject knowledge, gained from a degree, is absolutely key. How can teachers passionately communicate their subject if they do not have a good level of understanding about it?

Professor Alan Smithers, Buckingham University.

The government is still endeavoring to attract more graduates with first-class honours degrees  into teaching to raise the status of the profession, but it is seemingly an ongoing struggle (Teaching – the ticking timebomb). Teaching, whether rightly or wrongly, is still seen as the ‘poor cousin’ when it comes to professions such as medicine and law. This is largely due to the fact that there has been a lack of academic rigor when selecting teachers, itself brought about by a teacher shortage. This vicious circle has been the ‘unbreakable curse’ of the state teaching profession for many, many years. I remember gaining my first-class honours degree in biology in 2003 and a family member turning to me and saying “Well done…… You don’t have to go into teaching now!”, because the general view was that there were better career paths to pursue based on my qualification. The cleverest graduates, in demand from the best employers, will not want to join a profession that is publicly denigrated or seen as a second-best option for graduates. Governments that are serious about attracting the best people into teaching must look seriously at the status of teachers – alongside other factors such as their salaries.

It’s clear to me that the leading education systems are built on teachers with expert, specialist subject knowledge. As life long learners, teachers need to be allocated sufficient time to pursue continued professional development so that they can keep their skills and knowledge up-to-date. More emphasis needs to be put (back) onto teachers delivering engaging content based on a wealth of personal experience and study to a very high level, as opposed to them merely facilitating lessons and assessing pupils’ progress. I am not saying that the later is not important. Far from it! But, just as there is a clear difference between a babysitter and an early year’s practitioner, there is a clear difference between a teacher who teaches a subject they love as their hobby and one who assess a subject that they teach. I know which teacher I’d respect more.







Teaching – the ticking time bomb…..


Targets for the number of new trainee teachers in England have been missed for the third year running (Nov. 2015). The official line from the government is that there is no ‘crisis‘ in either teacher recruitment or retention. I will let you decide…..


The government’s position on teacher recruitment:

While teacher recruitment will become increasingly challenging as the economy strengthens, the teacher labour market remains healthy and teaching continues to be an attractive profession. Teachers’ salaries are still competitive.

 The government’s position on teacher retention:

We are creating a National Teaching Service (NTS) so that by 2020 there will be 1,500 high-performing teachers and middle leaders in underperforming schools in areas of the country that struggle to attract, recruit and retain high quality teachers.


However, perhaps all is not as upbeat as it seems…..


(1) There are issues with pay:

Teachers pay has been frozen for the past four years, not even increasing with inflation. This amounts to a ‘real term’ pay cut of 15% over the past five years. The most recent 2016/17 1% pay ‘award’ will need to be met from within school budgets, which are already tight. Without any pay award, the teacher pay bill is projected to increase by approximately £565 million to £24.8 billion in 2016/17. This is mainly due to increased employer National Insurance contributions and a projected increase in the workforce size. As a result there will not even be talk of a further pay ‘award’ until 2020. Many graduates are simply not seeing teaching as attractive a career as the adverts suggest; they are increasingly put of by the ever-increasing workload and the fact that they can now earn far more in the private sector. In 2014, one in six teachers in qualified overseas. This is set to rise to two in six for 2016.


(2) There are issues with high staff turnover:

Nearly half of newly qualified teachers leave teaching within the first two years of the job. Excessive workload and stress are cited as the main reasons. At the other end of the spectrum, teachers with years and years of experience are leaving the profession to either take early retirement or to do a less stressful job. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said she knew of a teacher who had become a bus driver because they felt “anything was preferable to the lack of quality of life” that came with teaching. Interestingly, the majority of teachers who leave the profession for other jobs are taking substantial pay cuts. Research by the NFER (National Foundation for Educational Research) looked at teachers who left for different occupations over the past fourteen years and found that, on average, their pay dropped by 10%, compared with those who stayed in teaching. Some teachers – who left to become teaching assistants or who took up a job in the public sector – saw a drop in their wages of up to 30%.

 The fact that teachers are taking lower paid jobs reflects the desperation that many teachers feel. The relentless nature of the workload and pressure is leading to teachers just walking. They can see no way they can remain in teaching and so they lose professional status and money.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

Indeed, increasing numbers of teachers leaving the profession year on year has resulted in many schools advertising for teaching jobs ten months in advance as the rush to get ahead in the recruitment race intensifies. The rise of the educational recruitment agency as a business has been one of the biggest growth areas of the last two years in response to this. New figures from the TES show that here was a surge in the number of headteachers pushing out adverts for September, 2016, before the Christmas break, 2015, to ensure that they filled vacancies. As the recruitment ‘crisis‘ bites (but remember, there is no ‘crisis’) many headteachers are being forced to guess the number of staff they will need and advertise before they have received teacher resignation notices or even know their budgets! The average secondary school in England has advertised over 5 post last year; in Milton Keynes alone this figure rises to nearly 15! £733m alone was spent on supply agencies in 2014 and that figure is expected to be closer to £800m for 2015. This has ultimately lead to too many classes in too many schools being taught by too many unqualified teachers. A poor outcome for teachers, pupils and parents alike.


(3) There are issues with the imminent surge in pupil numbers:

Two in five councils in England are not expected to have enough primary school places by this September 2016! A frightening statistic. £7.5 billion has already been allocated by the government to build extra classrooms. In addition to this there will be an extra 800,000 pupils in secondary schools by 2022 – a 10% rise from what we are at now. The simple fact is that we are going to need more teachers. But not enough people are entering the profession (the target was 40,000 for 2015) and plenty are leaving it early. So where are these teachers going to come from? Will we see an influx of teachers arriving from overseas, as we have see with nurses in the NHS over the past three years, or will the requirements required to be a teacher (not substantial in the first place in the UK – here a second class honours degree will suffice whereas in Finland you need to have a first class honours degree and a masters too! ) be lowered even further?


Clearly one thing we can all agree on is that recruiting and retaining good quality teachers is a key issue facing the education system over the next five to ten years. Understanding the types of jobs former teachers are going into and their underlying motivations is going to be crucial for formulating an appropriate policy response.








Effective marking -Unlocking the chamber of secrets…..


The chamber of secrets
The Chamber of Secrets was created under the dungeons of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry during Medieval times by Salazar Slytherin, who disagreed with the other Hogwarts founders on the merits of blood purity. Every state school has one!

When student Tom Riddle was in his fifth year at Hogwarts, he achieved his goal of locating Salazar Slytherin’s Chamber of Secrets and used his ability to speak Parseltongue (a new language for the EBac) to open it. He further used this language ability to order the Chamber’s Basilisk to terrorise the school and hunt down the Muggle-born students. Eventually one, a Ravenclaw girl named Myrtle Warren, was killed. Riddle would later use this murder to infuse the journal with a piece of his soul, and transformed it into his first Horcrux.


Some time during the First Wizarding War, Lord Voldemort (AKA Tom Riddle) entrusted the diary to Death Eater, Lucius Malfoy. The plan was to use the diary to reopen the Chamber, but Voldemort fell before that plan came to fruition. However, Malfoy still possessed the diary and, in 1992, he planted it on Hogwart’s student Ginny Weasley, hoping to kill three birds with one stone by sabotaging Ginny’s Father, purging the school of Muggle-borns, and eliminating an incriminating Dark artefact (as SLT would do with a poor OfSTED report).

Ginny’s emotional vulnerability allowed the fragment of Voldemort’s soul within the diary to gain partial control of her mind and force her to re-open the Chamber of Secrets. Ginny was forced not only to paint terrifying threats in the school corridors, but also to release the Basilisk within the Chamber and strangle the school roosters (not in the film) to protect the Basilisk, all the while in a sort of trance, and never knew what she had been doing. The Basilisk attacked several members of the Hogwarts community.
It was Harry Potter who discovered the water-logged diary after Ginny had tried to flush it away down a lavatory in the girls second floor toilet. She suspected that it was she who had petrified the Muggle-borns, and that she finally realised that the diary was the cause. Soon enough, Harry was communicating with Tom Riddle through the diary.

I use the Tom Riddle analogy with students, the vast majority of who have either read the Harry Potter books or seen the films (or even both). In terms of marking I stress to them from the very onset of Year 7 that marking is a two way process that has to involve them writing back to me just like Tom Riddle does to Harry. It is this dialogue that is so important, so much so that there is no point in me marking their work if they never write back to me to act on the feedback I give. Marking for the sake of it to fulfil school policy, meet OfSTED criteria, please parents or because it’s what we thing we need to do is pointless, time-consuming and counter-productive. Marking should be enjoyable – no, honestly, it should. If it’s not then you’re doing it wrong. It shouldn’t be soul destroying (get it, soul destroying?!)

Tom Riddle writing back to Harry Potter
So what’s the Chamber of Secrets in this analogy then? Well, ultimately it’s knowledge and understanding. It’s the eureka moment when a  student realises something new or understands a new theory or concept. It’s the new found confidence a shy student in class has as they are able to have a dialogue through their exercise book with their teacher.

Enemies of the heir beware!