Making the Grade?

On Saturday, I went to a workshop for MA students. I met there a woman, J, to whom I have always warmed when I have met her on previous workshops and conferences. She’s a Year 2 teacher with a cynical take on the current phonics-for-four-year-olds policy. Maybe I also like her because she is of a similar age to me – and most of the other MA students seem very young!

I remembered that I last saw J on 23rd May (I have a very good memory for dates). This gave me a sad jolt. When I last talked to her, I was still in that Time Before (as Rose Tremain’s character Merivel would say), having just had that routine mammogram, but with no idea that a week later I would get the call-back appointment to the breast care clinic which would set the trajectory for my summer.

But I must remind myself that the Time Before wasn’t actually one of sunlit happiness. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the job trauma of earlier this year hasn’t been as bad as the breast cancer, in its own way. I feel much more responsible for my mistakes in taking and then not managing the job than I do for getting breast cancer (though I should not have eaten so much butter). And currently, my loss of professional confidence is, I think, much more marked than any loss of social/physical confidence resulting from breast cancer.

I am very glad I went to the workshop, which was about research ethics and methodology. This may not push your buttons, but I so enjoyed it and, after a long gap (I last worked on my MA nearly a year ago), I remembered why I find research so engaging. As I wrote at the end of last winter’s assignment:

Finally, and quite unexpectedly but with some sense of recognition, I have encountered the view of research as an endeavour which is spiritual – in a broad sense (Macpherson, 2008; Pring, 2001). To use the Quaker phrase, this “speaks to my condition”, and I aspire to meet the challenge to rigorous standards of care and honesty in the search for meaning.

I emerged at lunchtime really wanting to pick up the threads. And although it will be hard work, I do actually have a nugget of confidence that I could do it well. But I have a dilemma: I don’t have a working context at the moment. Whilst in one sense that liberates me from some of the ethical difficulties faced by those of researching among their own colleagues/ in their own schools, it means I have to find a way of exploring a research question as a volunteer or a guest in a school/setting. And as I am feeling very de-skilled, and wondering if I was ever in fact a good practitioner I have yet to screw up the courage to approach schools and ask if I can work with them. Why on earth would they want to cram me and my needs into their crowded days? Is it even ethical to consider it? How could I make it worth their while? Which takes us to possible research topics. I currently have a number of interests, such as children’s views of their learning; the effect and efficacy of rewards and motivation; and actually doing participatory research with children. But might it be better to approach schools and offer to research into something that is high priority for them? I think I could actually get interested in nearly anything to do with learning and teaching. It could be the playground policy. Or children’s reading for pleasure. Or how children feel about phonics lessons. Though I do draw the line at boys’ games.

I got another idea whilst sitting among those young, confident, early-career teachers this morning. I was aware that, in this small sample at least, the young seemed to have bought into the current agenda of targets/league tables/performance-related pay. That’s what they talk about. Maybe it’s all they know. Maybe they have to focus on it to survive. It was left to an Old Fogey (OF) like me (who hasn’t survived, note) to ask what “performance” might mean, and another OF – the MA programme leader – to query the limits to OFSTED’s use of the word “evidence”. So I started thinking about the perspectives of those who started teaching before the advent of the National Curriculum, let alone the Literacy and Numeracy Hours; in the days when – say it quietly – in primary schools, you made up the curriculum, and taught it in ways that seemed to work for your pupils, with minimal interference (but also, I have to say, often with little guidance). What motivated us then? What drove us when we weren’t driven by targets?

I’m not sure yet if there’s enough here for a project, or if it’s a topic that will push the boundaries of educational research in a useful way. I’d better do some reading and work up a good research question. Maybe a better topic will come to mind. But if you are an (ex)teacher in the 45+ age bracket who might be willing to participate in some sort of research about your teaching journey, let me know!! I can assure you, if you do get involved and agree to fill in a survey or be interviewed, there will be no grades, marks or assessments. That’s a promise.



  1. Where do I start? I am with you on every point. You are always welcome at North Walney, usually when we have a ‘project’ it can usually tie in with something we are doing so it could be led by your ideas for research or tie in with something on our school development plan. Working with me at present would only enhance your confidence as you would wonder when I am actually going to start teaching, I am fire fighting. If you were in and able to help that would be more than enough compensation for any ‘work’ that your project entails. And I know a very good b+b in Ulverston. Hope you understand this disjointed note, I am exhausted and should really go to french now. Lots of love Hazel And don’t even get me started on phonics – we’ve moved well into phase 5 with the year 1s and I am so muddled, I never needed it to learn to read and spell and the more I think about it the more I feel confused so what do the 5 year olds think??? Some children may need it and find it helpful but we have to push all through the phonics machine. This week practising how to read nonsense words – particularly the best readers as they are most likely to change the nonsense words into real words as sensibly they have learnt that reading makes sense and may even be fun.


    • Ho yes, lots to think about there. Thank you. I would really rather do something with kids than with adults – what I like most is trying to work out what they’re really thinking and understanding.

  2. You do realise that you’re really good at research, right? And that a “loss of professional confidence” is no measure of your professional competence, or professional worth?

  3. A couple of friends recommended that I subscribe to your blog. I’m so glad they did. I love your wonderfully reflective style of writing – from which I’m sure I will learn a lot. But the reason for this comment is just to say that I am one of those people in the 45+ age bracket – actually considerably more than that – so well before National Curriculum etc. So if you need an extra body for your research – feel free to contact me. I’m sure I would enjoy talking to you. Jenny

    • Thank you so much! I may have found a way into a school, so I’m not yet sure which direction my research will go on, but I will keep you in mind should I decide to do something about teachers’ life journeys.

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