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If Slippers Are The Answer, WTF Was The Question? And Who Was Stupid Enough To Ask It?

Daft footwear is the latest distraction from the unpalatable truth that teaching is bloody hard work, says Kevin Harcombe

Kevin Harcombe
by Kevin Harcombe
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A school in Derby is experimenting with improving learning through shoelessness.

No, really. It’s credible because it’s based on findings from academic research.

I say this to distinguish it from findings from non-academic research, such as, ‘We’ve tried everything and this lot are still thick – hey, why don’t we try getting them to wear slippers?

It’s no more crazy than Edward de Bono’s thinking hats, so what’ve we got to lose?’ Some teachers have also brought in their own slippers. All they need is a camp bed in the corner of the classroom and there’ll be no need to leave school, or have a life, at all.

The 10-year study, by researchers at Bournemouth University, found that allowing pupils to remove their shoes, ‘as is the practice in Scandinavia’, helped them to engage better. Note the cunning reference to Scandinavia – way above the UK in the (increasingly dubious) PISA rankings.

Are they implying that the key element of Scandinavian success is not down to the higher levels of investment in education, coupled with a culture that prizes teachers highly, but is chiefly ascribable to the introduction of Peppa Pig footwear? Politicians would love that wouldn’t they?

Since implementing the shoeless policy, staff noticed an improvement in behaviour – it no longer leaves a nasty red mark when the boys kick each other? If it works I don’t want to knock it, arch pragmatist that I am, but is this really what we’ve come to? The study’s author, Stephen Heppell, was cautiously positive: ‘Shoeless learning isn’t for everyone,’ he told the Daily Telegraph, ‘but the hard research data says cleaning costs are lower and furniture lasts a lot longer. It saves money and academic progress is better too.”

So, just to be clear, academic progress is actually way down the list of claimed benefits, below saving money on mop head replacements. Not quite a panacea then.

The research also found that 95% of children actually don’t read on a chair at home. “When they go on holiday they read lying down. Having conditions in the classroom that are like those at home means that more boys are reading.” Personally, I only read in bed, so should I have a divan installed in my office to encourage me to read research-based tosh that I would otherwise avoid?

In my first teaching job children had to change into plimsolls indoors and it was an enormous time waster, though the floors were certainly clean.

All told, I can’t see slippers becoming popular practice like multiple intelligences and other brands of snake oil peddled by fast-buck businesses to gullible and desperate schools – desperate because they will seize on any possible chance to up their pupil progress levels, turning base metal into gold.

Pity teachers at the mercy of increasingly frazzled headteachers who instruct them to implement ever-more piecemeal and crackpot ideas.

What we need is filtered water for the children – hydrates the brain! And then, with many brains still as arid and empty as a desert, its massage and yoga – helps the children be learning-ready! Then, when learning-readiness doesn’t materialise, reach for Singapore maths – because Singaporean success in maths is not due to punitive 16-hour days and a culture of rote learning, but entirely down to this handy and affordable set of workbooks!

They’re all little more than displacement activities to distract from the unpalatable truth that teaching is a bloody hard slog – harder than ever, with more demands made on schools, teachers and assistants, with greater accountability and surveillance of our work and little in the way of thanks or remotely appropriate financial reward. No wonder many teachers flee the profession within five years, having given up valiantly trying to do the undoable.

Teaching is a bloody hard slog because (cue sweeping generalisation) too few parents properly prepare their children for formal education nor support the schools sufficiently to deliver it. This is perhaps not surprising when the press reports daily on how rubbish state sector education is, and when government funding is absolutely, unequivocally insufficient to do well the many vital and complex jobs asked of us.

If slippers are the answer, WTF was the question, and who was stupid enough to ask it?

Kevin Harcombe is a Teaching Awards winner and headteacher at Redlands Primary School, Fareham. Follow him on Twitter at @kevharcombe.

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