Going Against the Flow: Ted Wragg’s last interview

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I have been thinking a lot this week about the late Ted Wragg. When I joined the University of Exeter as a new member of staff he was already famous in the education world, for his columns in the Times Educational Supplement and Guardian, for his scholarship and knowledge, and for his unashamed, public critique of successive governments’ educational policy. At the time of his untimely death in 2005 he was by some distance Exeter’s best-known academic.

The amazing thing about Ted is that he was the same person in the columns that he was in real life. If you hung around long enough in the staff coffee room, he would often try them out on you, part lecture, part dramatic monologue, part stand-up gig. He would sit next to anyone, discussing without missing a beat the minutiae of the statistical analysis in a colleague’s recent paper in one breath, to ask how you were in the next. It was the best education.

Nevertheless, I pinched myself with surprise when he agreed to be interviewed by me for the first edition of Creativity in Primary Education (Learning Matters, 2005). Creativity in primary education

To celebrate his generosity, and the publication of the third edition of the book, I reprint the interview below. While it is very much of its time (not many of us discuss Excellence and Enjoyment any more), in his depiction of the discourse of derision as stemming from a fear of losing control, Wragg demonstrates his trademark prescience. We can only imagine what fun he would have had with recent policy, though I doubt he would have thought of it as such.

Going Against the Flow

Anthony Wilson:

Creativity seems to be a buzzword at the moment.  There’s been a lot of recent emphasis on it, with Excellence and Enjoyment and the campaign in the Times Ed, for example. So I’d like just to begin to ask you about what your idea of creativity is.

Ted Wragg:

There’s not much enjoyment in Excellence in Enjoyment at the moment actually, I think it was probably called Excellence, and then someone probably said -I suspect a Civil Servant: ‘Teachers are complaining that it’s too technical, and they won’t enjoy it, so let’s put enjoyment in’.  If you do a word search on it, there’s not an awful lot of enjoyment there.  And of course the reality doesn’t always match the rhetoric, so someone will say ‘Well, we want you to be creative’ -but then of course we still have a fairly punitive Ofsted framework.

AW:

What is the impact of this?

TW:

Teachers get very apprehensive.  The most common question I get when I’m talking about creative teaching to heads and teachers when I’ve finished is: ‘Oh yes, that sounds really interesting, and I’d love to do that, but what about Ofsted?’

So I think in order to create a creative climate, its not just a question of dealing with symptoms and deciding to let teachers go out and do something interesting on its own, I mean you need a whole creative climate throughout a school.  I reviewed a book called ‘The Creative School’ and it was about a very interesting school outside Reading where they do some very interesting things but when I read it through I wondered why I wasn’t getting over-excited.  I mean it was interesting, it was nice.  They capitalised on the environment.  Fine.  They bring in people from the outside to talk children. Fine.  And then it said: ‘And on Fridays we don’t even do the literacy and the numeracy hour, we do projects’. And I thought, well, is that it?  I mean, now does that mean that being creative means one day a week you don’t do the prescription?

AW: 

Is that creating a climate?

TW:

It’s not, no. I mean that’s kind of one device, really.  And to have a truly creative climate, I think what you need is first of all freedom from fear, because fear is not a good motivator for creativity.  So that’s the first thing I think, there needs to be an encouragement.  Secondly you need a structure for it, because I mean my experience of being creative is that of course you can be creative in your attic – but actually being creative sometimes, particularly if it’s to spread elsewhere, needs to have a structure.

I mean for example you need may be a forum where you can talk to other teachers about what you’re doing.  Or you need a way of recording what you’re doing, so that you can write about it and other people can read what you’ve done.  So it needs certain structures to go with it, otherwise it’s a series of one-offs, or it’s entirely confined to one classroom, it’s not part of the whole school’s climate.  On the other hand, if you over ritualise it, then you kill it.  It’s like Goethe’s poem about the dragonfly.  He chases after a dragonfly and wants to see why it’s so beautiful. He takes it to bits and he’s got a crumpled heap of dead bits in his hand.  So if you over-structure it, that’s what you’d have with creative teaching in a school – a series of dead bits.

AW:

Are Head Teachers responsible for this, creating the climate, or would it be more like clusters or LEAs, you know, that would get together and say ‘look, this is what we’re going to try out’?

TW: 

The evidence from research shows that what sometimes get called the distal factors, the ones at a distance, are less influential one what happens in a classroom than what are called the proximal factors.  The factors within the school; within the classroom; the teacher’s own skills, inclinations, interests and so on, are more powerful than some dictate from outside.  And so there is a limit to what LEAs can do.

They can exert influence, for example at conferences, where the people attending are encouraged to work in groups of five to ten people to talk about ideas they’ve had in their own classroom that seem to be successful; and then to share these with other people, who then to go back to their school and promise to try out an idea they’ve picked up from someone else.  Now that’s something valuable an LEA can do, but an LEA can’t dictate a climate or an atmosphere that’s conducive to creativity.

AW:

And at the Head Teacher level?

TW:

Heads can neither be creative in every classroom, nor can they kill creativity in every classroom, but the latter is probably easier than the former. A negative Head who constantly tells staff that they’ve got to be worried about Ofsted and stepping out of line and doing anything other than QCA Schemes of Work is actually killing creativity stone dead before it even starts.  So Heads do have a role.

But in the end, I believe that climate has to be created at the classroom level, because that’s where the teaching and learning is – Heads don’t teach every class in the school, teachers do that.

AW:

You talked about a climate of fear. Can you say how that erodes teachers’ willingness to be creative.

TW:

We’ve been told Ofsted is supposed to be changing.  I’ll believe it all when it happens.  The problem is not whether you tinker around again with symptoms like the period of notice, and say you’ll give less notice, well, people will just be anxious all the time —if it’s a bad experience.

It it’s a good experience it doesn’t matter whether you give people three days or three months notice because they look forward to it and say ‘Well, this will help us improve the school’.  If it’s a bad experience, then all that happens is either you give them a long notice and they’re fretting all the time, or they fret permanently on the grounds that there might be a knock at the door.

That’s what people are afraid of, the knock at the door.  So, that climate has to change.   Now, one Ofsted Inspector said to me when I was talking at a conference: ‘You are being very unfair, because we’ve just failed a school for not being innovative’.  And I said ‘That illustrates precisely the point I’m making: “Ve have vays off making you innovative.”’

Schools respond by saying: ‘Oh, look at this, it’s innovative: get the tick in the box.’  But it still won’t be.

AW:

So, do you think that’s the main challenge, or are there other challenges for individual teachers and schools to be creative?

TW:

I mean my view is that every teacher should have an obligation to invent.

Now, that doesn’t mean to say that every lesson should be a fresh invention – you can’t do it, you’d kill yourself. Teaching is a busy job, you’ve got lots of things to do.  Much of the time what you do will be derivative.  It will be based on ideas you got from elsewhere: text-books, schemes of work, and things you’ve tried and tested over many years.

But, then if that’s all you do then that I think, for me, is a killer, because no profession can move forward in that conservative manner.  If all you do is what people have always done, then actually you lose, because you lose a few bits along the way and the whole profession will diminish.  Whereas, if you’re encouraging everybody to invent and imagine from time-to-time when they can, then you add to the profession, because somebody somewhere has an idea that seems to work rather well, and then it can spread.  And I would say in just the same way doctors and people who work in health are obliged to try and improve practice, save more lives, get people better quickly, use safer procedures, more hygienic procedures and so on, better therapies, better surgical techniques, better drugs.  All these things are incumbent on a medical practitioner to improve.  And then, once they’ve tested out rigorously what they’ve done and found it really is better than what they did before the next step is that they then try and generalise that to other people.  I think that the same duty should be felt by teachers.  That your job is to try and do something that’s a bit different and better.  If it works, you test it out again, make sure it really is better, and then you tell other people and they tell you and you share good ideas because they’re precious.

AW:

That’s a form of research, in a way.

TW:

It is, it’s people doing research in their own classrooms – because you see the inescapable logic, whether you are talking about school improvement or teachers improving their own professional skills, is you cannot improve what you’re doing by staying the same.  It would be nice if you could but if you carry on doing the same things you don’t improve.  You repeat and rehearse but you don’t improve.  To improve you’ve actually got to change.  There’s no alternative.  You have to change for the better, and therefore if people never try out a fresh idea, never have an inspiration, or whatever, they can’t actually improve by just doing the same things.

AW:

Is there sort of any direct advice that you might have for teachers to try to do that?  If you’re a relatively new teacher, for example, you might nervous about passing on new practice.

TW:

Creativity embodies risk, in the sense that if you’ve done something a hundred times you’ve got a pretty good idea of how it’ll go.  If you’ve not done it before, then you don’t have any idea of how it will go, and it might go badly.  And a lot of good ideas actually, the first manifestation of them is terrible.  And I think anybody who’s tried a different idea, say in drama, would say the first time they tried it, it was a shambles.  But order can come through chaos.

So I think people have to have courage to innovate and create, because I think you have to go through something that you may know doesn’t go down as well as what you normally do, and then the big temptation is to go back to what you’ve always done, whereas, in fact, that’s the challenge.  The challenge is not so much having an idea because most people can either have an idea of their own or get one from someone else.  The challenge is when you’re trying out the idea to make it work.  That’s where people’s professionalism has to come out because experienced teachers who are committed could make almost anything work.  They’d find a way of making it work, if they believed it was worth doing, even if it didn’t work the first three times, they could find a way of making it work. The second time they did it, it would be better, and by the third time it would probably be rather good.  If it was a worthwhile idea.

AW:

What do you think of the way that the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies recommend teachers to teach in certain structures?  Do you have any advice to pass on about how to teach within them?

TW:

The National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies were, I think, a hugely misplaced initiative. There is nothing with having a big bash on literacy and numeracy.

There is nothing wrong either, with having available schemes of work or ideas about things that might be worth trying.  What was wrong was to impose a uniform pattern on everybody.

The message there was compliance.  And the first message people got from Ofsted -this is where it all started– was: ‘If you’re not doing the literacy and the numeracy hour as laid down in the book then you’re probably going to be in deep trouble unless you can demonstrate that what you’re doing as an alternative is far better’.  And people didn’t want to take that risk.

There was no reason, no research evidence – and I’ve worked in this field for thirty odd years – there’s no research evidence either here or anywhere else, that having three parts to a numeracy hour is the best thing to have, or having four parts to a literacy hour.  I mean why not four parts to a numeracy hour and three to a literacy hour?  I mean who’s to say?

So, that was misplaced, to pretend that there was a structure that was somehow superior and you could over-ride the professional judgement of two-hundred thousand primary teachers by telling them what they should do every day of the week with every age group from reception right up to Year Six.  It’s crazy.

And the message was: ‘Don’t try and be creative, because you are going to be told what to do, and if you’re not doing it, Ofsted is a compliance model, a tick-box, to see if you comply’.  It may be changing, but that’s the history of it.

AW:

Student teachers, as well as experienced teachers, find it hard, when they’re being watched, to try out new things, even if they believe they are good practice.   They feel, perhaps, that their ideas won’t divide up neatly into the three or four part lesson.

TW:

But this is across the board, you see. Here’s a good example.  I get Head Teachers saying to me now: ‘Is the next generation of trainees going to be able to invent and innovate?’ and I say they would like to, but then very often they have an idea and their classroom teacher says ‘Well, I wouldn’t do that if I were you, its not in the QCA Schemes of Work’.

It’s not that they don’t want to; often the impression they get is: ‘Play it safe, don’t step out of line’.

And that’s a very bad start in the profession, because amongst many people’s motivation, not everybody, but amongst many people’s motivation, is the belief that they can be creative, that they can use their imagination.  Again, the research evidence shows over many years that if you look at why mature entrants leave a job that they’ve maybe done for ten or fifteen years, for teaching, very often they’ll use a word like ‘creative’: ‘I want to be able to use my imagination’, ‘I want to be more creative’, ‘I don’t feel that my talents are being used in the job I’m in.  They see working with children as a creative enterprise.  They then get very disappointed when they find that they are inhibited on it.

AW:

I know you have a story which exemplifies what you’re saying a bit further.

TW:

Bill Lahr was talking to Head Teachers in Bristol just after there had been sudden snow that had paralysed the city.  And Bill said to these two hundred primary Head Teachers: ‘Put your hand up if you did snow yesterday.’  And very few hands went up.  They were saying things like: ‘Well, SATs are coming up’ and  ‘We had SATs practice’.  One even said: ‘I was doing science’. And Bill said: ‘Snow is science’.  That just seems to me that that’s an example of how people have lost courage.

Let me take this further.  I’m not in favour of all the things that have gone on in primary education over the years, but one of the things that I think that has been a real gain is that teachers have been willing to capitalise on something that they thought would grab children’s’ attention: snow would be a good example.  It doesn’t snow every day, in fact nowadays with global warming you sometimes get five or six years with no snow at all, and when you suddenly get snow it’s very exciting to kids and it’s no use saying ‘We do snow in May, or November’; or ‘We don’t do snow at all’.  You know, it’s there, use it while it’s there.  And that relates to another point, which is the literacy strategy was very weak on writing.

Everybody knew it was weak on writing from the beginning but people were scared to use their initiative and say: ‘There’s not enough on writing so I am going to do it’. People said: ‘Well, you know, that’s the Strategy, we better follow it’.  But in fact, snow is a very good example of capitalising on something that will get children writing because they are interested in it.

The saddest letter I had for many years was from a primary Head, who wrote to me saying that she had some boys who were not keen on writing: they couldn’t see the purpose, why the hell should they write, there was no point.  And she thought that if she took them to a farm to watch lambs being born, because it was the lambing season, this would move them to write:the miracle of birth.

But, unfortunately it was Ofsted inspection week, so she said to the Registered Inspector:  ‘Would it be all right if we start off the literacy hour with a visit to a farm? It’s not too far away.  Then the kids can come back and write about it.’  And he said: ‘No, you have to start the literacy hour with fifteen minutes of shared text.’  Well, that kind of knuckle-headed view of the curriculum just seems to me inane.

I was also talking to the geography advisor in a county where there are fantastic geography features.  He said that they look out of the window and they can see great coastal scenery and moors. But he told me the children in primary school had to study: ‘Your High Street is dug up: what are the implications for traffic?’  Why? Because that is what’s in the QCA Schemes of Work.  Well, all right, it’s a perfectly interesting topic. But what about the stuff you can see out of the window?  Which apparently they are not doing.

AW:

Projecting into the future a little, do you think that the pendulum will swing more towards a creative climate?

TW:

It’s swinging a bit.

AW:

But not terribly much?

TW:

You see there’s a massive, massive political terror. When the political parties lock horns, not just before an election, but between elections, they are all terrified that their image as being in control of education, which is what they see the right wing tabloids want, will slip.  They have to be seen to be telling schools what to do.  It doesn’t square with a policy of saying we want to trust teachers to use their imaginations more, or we want to give schools more freedom.  On the one hand they say schools are going to have more freedom, then they say schools are going to have to introduce uniforms and have a house system.  Well, are they free or not?

The same applies to the curriculum. Schools are told they are going to have more freedom, but then told exactly what they’re going to have to teach and how.

And that has been the big change in education: massive amounts have been prescribed.  Back in 1980 I wrote an article called: ‘State Approved Knowledge, Ten Steps Down the Slippery Slope’. Of those ten steps, only one of them was in force at the time, which was the government having broad, generalised aspirations, like ‘to give every child the opportunity to develop themselves fully’.

(Only psychopaths would dissent!) But now we’ve got all ten, including the government saying what should be taught, the government saying how it should be taught, the government even firing teachers who don’t follow their instructions.  Which they have, people have been fired for not teaching the National Curriculum for example.  And now, actually, you need to go further.  I had to think of another ten steps because we’ve got all the first ten.  For example, schools actually have to apply to the Minister, under the 2002 Education Act, to innovate.

Most schools don’t know it, and I’m glad they don’t know it, so they don’t bother.  But that is what you are supposed to do, and you are supposed to fill in a form describing how many people you’ve consulted about this innovation and what they’ve said.  The biggest joke of all is the last section, called ‘Exit Strategy’.  It asks what schools will do when their licence to innovate has expired. It’s beyond satire now.

Thank God they don’t do that in medicine.  You can imagine Christian Barnard going round saying: ‘Me old heart’s back so I’m going to have to stick it in because my license has expired. The whole point about innovation is that it should lead to better practice!

AW:

What’s your response to politicians and the media complaining about ‘trendy teaching methods’?

TW:

The Daily Mail has a particular line on education which is that schools are full of trendy teachers doing wild unimaginable things, which bears no resemblance at all to the schools I go into.   None at all.  It is as remote from reality as Pluto.

For one thing, most teachers now are over forty. In fact, half the profession is over fifty.  So the idea that these are wild hippies, throwing out crazy-horse ideas is nonsense.

AW:

If you, if you had a handful of as it were tips or words of advice for new trainees to remain creative, to remain ‘courageous’ as you put it earlier, how would you sum that up?

TW:

Well, I think the first thing is, the climate will not be the same as it would have been two or three decades earlier.  Now that’s both a good and a bad thing.  It’s a bad thing, because there would have been -certainly when I started teaching in the 1960’s- there was a feeling that you could have a go at something and people would say: ‘Oh, well done, you had a go.’  Even if it didn’t work, at least you had had a go.

So the assumption was, teachers could try out ideas to see if they would work.  And there was quite a feeling of excitement and a lot of new teachers in their twenties being recruited.

But then, the bad thing about it was, there was no structure, within which these ideas could fit.

So the good thing now is that we do have an outline National Curriculum where you can see where content fits, into the sort of work you do in Year Five, or whatever.

I think puts us in a strong position, because it means that we could now have invention within a framework which is perfectly possible, unless the framework is so strong that it’s a straitjacket.  Then you can’t have invention, because your arms are literally tied.  You can’t do anything imaginative.  So I think if people use the structure to give security and continuity and progression, but then branch out, that it’s actually quite a good climate.

Second thing is, I think it is a matter of courage.  And if new teachers are not courageous, who the hell else is going to be?  People will always turn to newly qualified teachers. I think new teachers often don’t realise how high the expectations are about them.  They come in and see themselves as being the smallest piece of plankton in the food chain, but in practice, if they could have only eavesdropped on the conversations before they arrived, the other staff would have been saying ‘Oh, we’ve got a new teacher coming in September, and we’re hoping that they will do …’ and then they’d have a long shopping list, some of which would be innovation: ‘We’re hoping that they’d have fresh ides on this that and the other.’ Schools also look for new skills: for example, they hope their recruits will be IT literate, and more secure with new technology.

There are often are high hopes that the new person will actually be miles better than the people that have been doing the job for years.  Which of course you can’t live up to, but at least you can capitalise on the climate of good-will.

AW:

Finally, are you optimistic about the potential for the general discussion or debate about creativity to remain ongoing?

TW:

Yes.  I am positive.  By nature I’m an optimist.  I remember a very good biologist I know saying that to be a biologist you need to believe in regeneration.  There’s an analogy with forests burning down and growing again and so on: even if the teaching profession gets beleaguered and things are too prescriptive, humanity has a habit of bouncing back in the same way.  We do like to look past the obstacles and see them off.

So, yes, I am optimistic.  I also think the other good thing about teaching is that you’ve got twenty-four thousand schools and over four hundred thousand teachers and therefore when you’re working on that scale, there should always be some places and some individuals, some groups, who as Peter Apse put it, go against the flow.  They row up-stream.

Which is not easy, but it is nice to know that there is a constituency out there that would have a go.  So yes, I feel an optimist because I think the system is big enough for a number of people to buck the trend and I think the main thing is that they actually tell people about what they are doing, and feel proud about it, not shamed or apprehensive.

 

4 comments

  1. Tricia

    I read Ted’s column for many years. As a young teacher he made me reflect and laugh, as I went on he kept me going. I was so grateful that someone was speaking out with humour for the things that mattered to teachers. Creativity within a structure. That’s what I always aimed for. If only people like him had been making education policy, perhaps I’d still be in teaching. I wasn’t aware he’d died, so thank you, Anthony for drawing it to my attention. RIP Ted.

    Like

  2. Simon R. Gladdish

    Dear Anthony

    I used to enjoy reading Ted Wragg’s columns in the T.E.S. and Guardian and was surprised and saddened by his sudden death at the age of 67.

    Best wishes from Simon

    Like

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