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The view from my ivory tower: a response

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Jonathan Barnes is a Senior Lecturer in Primary Education and a former head-teacher of one of the most successful schools in the district. In March, alongside 99 other academics, he signed a letter criticising proposals for a new national curriculum for England. The letter drew a strong response from the Secretary of State for Education and the Ofsted Chief Inspector. Here Jonathan responds.

Spiral staircaseOn March 19th I was one of the one hundred signatories of a letter suggesting that the draft curriculum was too dependent on dry facts, over-prescriptive, untrusting of teachers and narrow. We feared such a curriculum would demotivate many children by failing to develop their interests, hamper their ability to think critically and creatively and stifle the development of independent thinking and problem solving. The letter provoked a great deal of press coverage, a lengthy (but shallow) debate on BBC’s ‘Question Time’, and in particular a stinging response from Michaels Wilshaw and Gove. These Michaels accused us (who include one of Michael Gove’s ex-expert panel of advisors) of living in ‘ivory towers’ distant from the realities of life and learning in England and representing ‘bad academia’.

Rather than living in an Ivory Tower, most of my colleagues spend a great deal of time working in schools and education settings. Instead of being distant from the realities of education, we are still actively involved. My experiences last week are good examples and I only wish that the Michaels that currently control education in England could have shadowed me, for it was one of the most exciting and hope-giving weeks of my 41 years in education.

On Monday I re-visited a Pupil Referral Unit in inner London and joined groups of 6 – 11 year old children in a drama project designed to address their speech, language and communication difficulties. All were there because of challenging behaviour and the real danger of exclusion from their schools. Talking to the children, their teachers and adult supporters I found a remarkable degree of agreement. All claimed that working for just 45 minutes with a drama practitioner week by week throughout the year was transforming them. As the theatre-maker helped small groups dramatize their unaided, unedited stories, the children grew in fluency, new language, sentence planning, imagination and engagement. They called these short sessions their best time of the week. They told me they felt safe, strong and happy. Children beamed with pride as classmates and adults, working together, gave their stories life. They had remarkable control of the process. At one point, I and all four other adults had to become floppy puppets and our six year old partners bent our limbs, bodies and heads into the shape of super heroes flying down for a game of football with another Michael, (this time Jackson).

Teachers and Learning Support Assistants reported on significant, measurable and positive changes in their children’s motivation, behavior, language and mental state. Progress was measurably transferred back to their referring schools and classes in 75% of cases. According to their teachers the remaining 25% were changed, but less measurably, keener to apply themselves, more confident but perhaps not yet improving their test scores. The local authority officer called it the most effective programme she had seen for improving speech, language, communication and behaviour. She noted fewer referrals, improved attendance and more rapid reassimilation into mainstream schools, as evidence.

I spent Tuesday with younger children. In one of the poorest wards of London I worked with parents, teachers and toddlers at a Children’s Centre. These children were part of a music project in which a professional singer and composer created, performed, and recorded a highly personalized lullaby for each 2 or 3 year old. Every lullaby had lyrics taken from a conversation between artist and parent about the joys and daily lives of their children. Special words, loved relatives, favourite pets and toys filled the songs. Each had a style relevant to the family’s home culture and was given to the family on a CD. When asked if the CD had ever been played one parent remarked, “200 times in the last week…… she always wants it, I use it as my get-out-of-jail-free card!” Another simply reflected, “if I had had a song like this, for me when I was a kid, I think it would have changed my life.”

My job was to work with parents and children together and show, how, even without special composing and singing skills, they could build greater attachment and stronger language growth through simple songs and musical games. Sitting on the floor, each parent held and faced their child and sang (many for the first time) simple two-note improvised songs to their own child. The sight was truly moving. Shared and sustained smiles and warm body language between parent and child spread quickly around the group. This embodied evidence confirmed the high value of shared singing, closeness and laughter to a group of vulnerable children. Such was the community-building impact of this project that parents stayed behind to share food and relaxed conversation for an hour after the timetabled session.

On Wednesday, I interviewed staff and clients in three Kid’s Company centres in the back streets of southeast London. I met fifteen ‘hard to reach’, once heavily disaffected young people. Some were victims of trafficking, some had been abused in other ways, others were homeless or in trouble with the law, but all expressed appreciation of the Company’s guiding principle of unconditional love. Staff members gave humbling summaries of their work with other youngsters. Volunteers, key-workers and professionals consistently told me they loved working there and gained massive satisfaction from seeing broken lives mended. This year the charity supported 17,000 5 -25 year olds (97% of them self-referred) with food, clothing, beds, education, creative and collaborative activity, legal representation, counseling, mentoring and therapy – all things scandalously missing from the lives of these young people. The charity collected hard evidence that the vast majority of those passing through its doors were positively transformed in terms of work, relationships and an increased sense of belonging to a community.

I spoke at an academic conference on Thursday. The symposium brought together biologists, conservationists, educationalists, anthropologists and artists with a passion for wildlife, wild places and biodiversity. From markedly different backgrounds and subject perspectives we quickly recognized wholly distinct vocabularies and skills. We also noted common core values: hope for a better future, care for the natural world and determination to share our commitment. These agreements led us toward planning multidisciplinary action in curriculum and research at my university.

On Friday I worked with another drama project. I showed children videos of their previous week’s drama session. Four six year olds with English as an Additional Language and one diagnosed with autism, guided me through their story-based activities with confident, articulate, enthusiasm and demonstrated huge joy and knowledge in acting, showing a sophisticated understandings of their own and others’ emotions. Later the head teacher and staff members related the powerful effects of the drama project on children with major barriers to learning. Not only had behaviour, confidence and fluency measurably improved but some had leapt five English curriculum sub-levels within a year – three more than expected

What unites these five days of uniquely inspiring educational experience? Positivity, (researched comprehensively by Fredrickson, 2009) joy, (Damasio, 2003, 2010, and Noddings, 2003), love, (Bowlby, 1953 and Sternberg, 2008), passion, (Robinson, 2009), hope (Freire, 2004 and Halpin, 2003), total involvement (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002), facts, facts, facts (Hirsch, 1989) and the reality that for the adults and children I met last week their educational experience enhanced existing interests, stimulated thinking, developed creativity, encouraged independence and solved problems.

Perhaps, last week’s trip to the real world of inner city educational success shouldn’t have been so stirring, (after all none of it arose from any national curriculum), but it provided answers to my mighty accusers. A brief sojourn in the ivory towers of ‘bad academia’ at the end of a long career at the chalkface, has provided time to read the careful, authoritative research of others and to witness the daily miracles performed in a range of successful projects amongst young people in diverse and challenging contexts.

It has reminded me that I am not taking the Michael when I claim that throughout my life in education I was happiest and children learned best when we laughed, imagined, hoped, constructed, explored and created together. Will the new curriculum help us combine the learning of important facts and skills with constant and progressive opportunities to apply them in real, relevant and joyful experience? My fear is there will be no time.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002) Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness, New York: Ebury Press.
Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory, London: Routledge.
Damasio, A. (2003) Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow & the Feeling Brain, Orlando, FL: Harcourt.
Fredrickson, B. (2009) Positivity, New York: Crown.
Freire, P. (1992) The Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum.
Halpin, P. (2003) Hope & Education, London: Routledge.
Hirsch, E. (1989) The Schools we need & why we don’t have them, New York: Anchor.
Noddings, N. (2003) Happiness & Education, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Robinson, K. & Aronica, L. (2009) The Element: How finding your passion changes everything, London: Allen Lane.
Sternberg, R. (2008) The New Psychology of Love, New York: Yale University Press.

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5 Responses to The view from my ivory tower: a response

  1. Mike Radford Thursday, 4 April 2013 at 22:53 #

    This is an inspiring glimpse of some of the wonderful things going on in schools but these are not the everyday experiences of children in full time education. The problem that Gove is trying to address, albeit cack-handedly, is that of the occasionally disappointing, levels of ignorance shown by young people leaving school. There are some things that we feel an educated person just ought to know. As Gilbert Ryle said, we should not be appalled at ignorance but we should be appalled by the circumstances in which ignorance thrives. Too much emphasis on happiness, creativity, critical thinking skills, etc. and not enough attention to history, geography, literature and the arts, may be a factor in this.

    So although we find Gove’s rote learning / instructionally based curriculum a product of ignorance about education, we may nevertheless sympathise with the circumstances which have given rise to his pronouncements.

    • Jonathan Barnes
      jonathan Saturday, 13 April 2013 at 00:11 #

      I suppose my point is that in primary education it should never be either happiness/critical skills/creativity or facts/knowledge etc but both, and that these London education settings show what is possible given the time trust and freedom. In my experience over the last five years working in dozens of London primary schools with Creative Partnerships, (and now in schools continuing that approach), such inspiring practice can be common and achieve genuine development along both sets of educational aims.Many London schools continue to focus on achieving progress in knowledge acquisition though routes that concentrate on happiness, well-being, creativity etc because they have found these methods successful in raising standards.Our students and teachers in waiting need the examples of these approaches and I fear the proposed new curriculum will effectively crush them.

  2. Debra Kidd Friday, 5 April 2013 at 10:45 #

    I was one of the others on the list too. Part time academic and full time teacher in a school. Most of the other names I recognised are also involved closely with schools every day – what a lot of nonsense was written. But not to worry – I’d not really read much Marx before and Michael Gove encouraged me to do some reading. I found this enlightening quote – ‘reason has always existed, but not always in a reasonable form’. How true.

    • Jonathan Barnes
      jonathan Sunday, 14 April 2013 at 08:53 #

      thanks for that, and thank you for your excellent blog and for representing teaching and research so carefully.

  3. 3arn0wl Friday, 5 April 2013 at 10:50 #

    A fantastic piece – thank you for sharing your diary for a week. 🙂