Does Your School Have A Unicorn?


There are a lot of unicorns in schools at the moment. Things that we tell ourselves are true when we know deep down they aren’t. This doesn’t stop school leaders, politicians and advisers insisting that we believe in these myths. Here are some of the most common unicorns found in primary schools today.

Unicorn Number 1

“With “Quality First Teaching” all children will make progress”

Firstly can we please stop calling it “Quality First Teaching” as it’s empty, sanctimonious waffle like that causing many of the problems in the system at the moment. Let’s call it “quality teaching” or, even better, how about just “good teaching.”

Girl, Character, People, Person, Teacher, WomanSo yes, with a good teacher MOST children should make some sort of progress. By progress I mean they should leave that academic year being able to do things that they couldn’t do at the beginning of the year. Some children will make more progress than others and some will make progress in areas that aren’t measured (you know like increased confidence, problem solving or engaging with their learning.) I’ve had 6 classes ranging from Year 1 -5. Were you to look at the progress each of those classes made some years would suggest I am a cause for concern and others that I am outstanding – neither is true. My teaching has improved over the years but I do not take full responsibility for the progress of those children as there are too many other factors at play.

Sadly, some children won’t make progress. Or they’ll make tiny, immeasurable steps. Why? A variety of reasons: they don’t hear or speak any English at home, they only eat one meal a day, leaving them unable to focus, they share a single bed with their two siblings which means they don’t get much sleep. These aren’t “excuses” as educational big shots who never actually teach like to say; these are legitimate reasons why children, like all of us, have ups and downs.

Unicorn Number 2

“Education is the solution to social inequality”

This is my own personal unicorn. I’ve said it in job interviews, banged on at staff about it in training sessions and meetings and spouted it to anyone else who’d listen. That’s because, until very recently, I believed this to be true and because a few years ago it probably had more truth to it than it does now. Once upon a time, in the days of Sure Start, free English language courses for parents of new arrivals, community centres and libraries, schools were one cog of a large machine working to close the gap between the richest and poorest. Now with those resources being cut, school budgets frozen and Local Authorities being dismantled I have to resign myself to the fact that regardless of the quality of teaching or the progress these children appear to make in Primary school, the system we work in has rendered us powerless to compensate for social, economic and cultural inequality.

This is partly because schools no longer have the time or resources to equip children with the skills they actually need to make the difference to their lives such as working as a team, speaking in public and solving problems. Instead teachers are busy trying to get pupils to the “Expected Level” (whatever that may be) in these end of Key Stage tests. Perhaps more importantly, with all other support and resources being cut or stretched to the point they can’t function, schools are left trying to fix all social problems. We’re teaching English to the parents, feeding breakfast bars to the children who haven’t eaten since yesterday lunchtime and offering counselling to children who have witnessed domestic violence before the we begin the small matter of getting those children to National Expectations.

Attempting to reduce inequality through the education system when most other structures in our society are doing the opposite is like trying to clap with one hand.

 Unicorn Number 3

“Good teachers address the different learning styles in their class.”

I think most schools have woken up to this one. I only mention it because I still heard “Learning Styles” being discussed on a course earlier this year. It’s amazing how these things are able to take hold. I remember my friend telling me the lesson feedback he had received from a member of the SLT, “you have a clear voice so that will help the auditory learners.”  Being one of my more honest friends he said “Yes, all the children in my class that have ears probably find it useful when their teacher speaks with a clear voice.” Similarly Professor Bill Lucas once said to the staff at my first school “I am a visual learner because I can see.”

Whether it is brain gym, excessive water drinking or making sure every class completes an annual VAK test, some people in schools can be too keen to embrace the latest pseudo-science. There is little evidence to support the “Learning Styles” theory so perhaps it’s just best to focus on making our lessons interesting and engaging.

Unicorn Number 4

“Every minute counts”

This is an interesting one. The people that say this tend to be self-righteous school leaders or Education Czars. You meet them on the courses sometimes – the head teacher that declares smugly, “well we don’t watch DVDs in MY school on the last day of term.” It sounds impressive doesn’t it? “Every minute of this child’s education counts – we mustn’t waste time.” What I want to know is do the people that parrot this say it because they believe it or do they just want people to think they believe it? Obviously, it isn’t true. The brain is not a bucket that needs to be filled with information and if you “just hang on one more minute” you’ll be able to fill it some more. The brain is a muscle; it needs to be exercised and rested.

Think about your working day – are you equally productive every minute of the day? Of course not. You might work solidly for two hours then break for one. Or work all morning and ease off in the afternoon. There is no reason why children would be any different. I’m not saying that every day should be spent watching films or making posters but there is nothing wrong with Golden Time on Friday afternoon or eating mini eggs and watching “Hotel Transylvania” on the last day of term. Everyone needs downtime – even 6-year-olds.

Interestingly, the people that spout “every minute counts” assume that our school day is the optimum time for learning. School days in all-conquering Finland end anytime between 12 and 2pm – the belief is that school should be a small part of a child’s day. So formal education is a few hours then they are free to play, explore, draw pictures – just be children.

Unicorn Number 5

“How much progress have they made this half term?”

The idea a child will make measurable progress every 6 weeks is one of the most damaging myths in education today. 6 weeks is about 30 school days. Yes, with a comfortable home life, parents who read to them and 100% attendance a child will make progress over the course of the year – but that is not the home life most children have. Even those that make progress over the course of the year may not make measurable progress every 30 days.

Refugees, Economic Migrants, Financial Equalization
Progress is not a made in measurable blocks

I’ve recently taken up boxing and god forbid you were to make a graph of my progress. I am very, very bad at it. In the last lesson I left with marks on my arms from where I repeatedly hit myself with the rope whilst attempting to skip.  So at the moment my progress would be a horizontal line – hopefully, after 6 months you might see a slight curve. However, once I’ve got to grips with the basics I imagine the instructor will introduce new punches and skills that I won’t be able to do. So I’ll be back at the beginning. If I practise every day and turn up to every session I will probably get better much faster than if I go home every night and sit on the sofa eating burritos. My boxing instructor is great; he is incredibly skilled, pushes me to work hard and models every task clearly. The reason my progress is a flat line is not because he’s a poor teacher or even because I am unwilling student it’s because I haven’t been boxing for long enough to have honed those skills yet.

So often what children need is time to learn without being tested every 30 days. However the DfE want measurable steps of progress so measurable steps of progress we must find.

I’ll be honest – I don’t so much mind that school leaders and education experts talk about these myths as though they are all true because everybody does. I imagine I’ve said every one of these at some point in my career either in an interview, to an Ofsted inspector or to the local authority. I’ve said them because these are the things you are meant to say. However to other teachers and the rest of the SLT I am able to speak honestly. I was the first to open the mini eggs on the last day of term and the last to judge a teacher’s ability on their results alone. What I want to know is – does anyone REALLY believe them? Do you believe in unicorns?


5 thoughts on “Does Your School Have A Unicorn?

  1. Unicorns: Do they exist? I would love to believe that in some dark forest, deep inside Eastern Europe, there stand a herd of Unicorns…maybe you will see them on your travels?
    I freely admit that I have spouted those myths at times, mostly with a heavy heart, with the exception perhaps of The Learning Styles, VAK, Brain Gym, Water drinking etc. all of which, I still believe, has some truth. However if you believe that any of these “Unicorns” in themselves are the answer to educating any child then you are living in that fantasy land in that deep, dark wood!
    So why do they still have such power and influence in this profession? Maybe it is because, as humans, we are constantly struggling to find a solution to all things. In many ways that is a positive thing and helps us evolve and move forward in a positive way. It has helped us out of the sea, into the plains, through the forests and into the cities as we have evolved. The clue is, however, in the striving towards solutions not the actual solution. My “mantra” as a leader in schools was always this : “The day you think you have the answer and feel you have got there is the day you should give up and go home”
    That has often been frustrating and even incomprehensible for some teachers with whom I have worked. I would categorise them as true believers in Unicorns. They are the ones who are convinced that they have the answer to how ALL children learn. They are also the ones who quite simply blame the learner for failing rather than any other factors, least of all themselves.
    So keep busting those myths ….and please let me know if you ever come across those Unicorns!


  2. Whilst I understand that some people choose to watch a DVD, in my school I don’t see it as a treat for children who probably watch a lot of films (appropriate ones or not) and yet may have little play or interaction with adults. However I agree with the need for some ‘down’ time and so at the end of term I prefer to organise outdoor activities such as treasure hunts and love relaxing with the children in this way. Our relationships with the pupils underpin so much so whatever it takes for you and yours, do it.

    I really enjoyed reading this and feel ready to battle those unicorns.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s