We know the problem. Let’s offer up some solutions. Don’t be Kevin.

When I was at Holland Park School in the 90s, there was a big review of the timing of the day as we moved to a five-period day -from whatever had gone before. There was a legendary staff meeting when the options for the model were presented. One issue was the configuration of the periods. Should we go for model A: 2-break-2-lunch- 1 (lunch 1.20-2.20) or model B: 2-1-2 (lunch 12.20-1.20).

Each was presented in turn.

After Model A was presented, long-serving teacher Kevin Bircher (as we’ll call him) stood up and gave an impassioned speech. 2-2-1 was a ridiculous idea. Appalling. It would mean children, many of whom are on FSM and don’ have decent breakfast, might not eat until 1.45pm if the queue was long. This was outrageous. What were we thinking? He made a strong case.

Then, Model B was presented. The earlier lunch. After a few minutes Kevin stood up again and gave another impassioned speech. 2-1-2 was a ridiculous idea. Appalling. Everyone knows that ‘research says’ kids learn better in the morning and here we were putting two hours of learning after lunch – which would affect disadvantaged children the most, never mind how tough that is for teachers to deliver. Outrageous. What were we thinking? He made a strong case.

And then, just as he was rounding off Speech 2.. the penny dropped. To an audience listening in awe at Kevin’s cognitive dissonance, he admitted.. I do realise that this completely contradicts my earlier comments. He sat down sheepishly.

From then on, in our house at least, this has been known as ‘Bircher Syndrome’ (using his real name). All problems, but no willingness to make the hard call. When Kevin was asked – so, Kevin, when do you think we should have lunch – his reply was along the lines that it wasn’t his decision to make, above my paygrade etc etc. Audible groans all round. He copped out.

The reason for sharing this that I just feel there is too much of this in our educational discourse. Of course Kevin has a role – the critiques are useful and can influence the decision-making process. Of course. But ultimately, Kevin and everyone else needed to accept that a decision had to be made and, whatever choice was made would have inherent imperfections. At the same time, some respect has to be given to whoever does have to make that decision – especially if you’re not to make it yourself.

At least in this situation, there were two specific propositions to discuss. The even-worse examples of Bircher Syndrome are when the critics are not even talking about any specific alternative. They imagine that someone else will just magic one up somehow….

I see this a lot in relation to the exams debate. Commentator after commentator – both inside and outside the profession – is quick to be outraged at the injustices of our current exam system or the proposed short-term arrangements to address problems presented by these most challenging Covid times, this year and last year. And yet, the offer of specific alternatives is pretty thin on the ground. Often you get brushed off with ‘lots of people have suggested alternatives’ without there being any reference points to find them. It’s Bircher Syndrome.

I think a better mindframe is to think things through and then propose things you want rather than only offering critique of the things you don’t want.

The assessment model I would prefer would work like this….. here are some concrete ideas that could be made to work and here’s how we could go about it……

But no. That’s usually seen as someone else’s role. Every time someone says ‘Scrap GCSEs, our system’s not fit for purpose’ or something along those lines, I scan ahead to see what they’re arguing for. But it’s never there. (Almost never.) Bircher strikes again.

The same applies to other areas too – like university tuition fees. When people are campaigning to scrap them I wonder what they’re arguing for instead. Paying from general taxation – presumably by paying more tax? A different form of graduate tax? What? That’s hardly ever mentioned. Think it through and make the honest case: yes, I am saying we should pay a bit more tax and fund university education from general taxation. (Catchy slogan!) Or, suggest something else.

Mainly my current botheredness is about the various injustices that are argued in relation to keeping exams in 2021. We don’t have full exam by exam details yet so it’s hard to know exactly what will happen but whilst that uncertainty persists we don’t see too many of the outraged people making specific proposals for other alternatives. Sorry if I missed them. Send me links please. My main message would be that, unless your better plan is about to follow, with some level of detail that shows how it works in a more just manner, let’s dial down the outrage. Please. Offer some specific solutions you’d argue for and let’s explore them. Don’t be Kevin.


  1. Dear Tom,

    I am currently teaching in a new school in Bulgaria. The Head is looking for a rigorous system of assessment, recording assessment and if feeding this data back to students in a way that leaves them feeling informed and illumines about their child’s progress. I’m wondering if you have any suggestions ?

    Kind regards


    Sent from my iPhone



  2. I totally agree with the author.
    Well said, and for my opinion :
    Keep the exams, make provision a couple of weeks later for those that had to isolate during the exam season.
    I’ve taught KS4 BTEC, really old GCSE, modular GCSE, ISAs, coursework and the modern exams. Each had its benefits and drawbacks, but by far the worst for science was modular. Each topic became taught in isolation and for my own students we had less take up of science at KS5.
    Yes, the current system is hard. But, in science it promotes the subject for future study.
    Whatever they do they should not make changes during a pandemic! No big decisions should ever be made during a crisis.


    • Hi there, regarding the above: ‘No big decisions should ever be made during a crisis’, I have found that this crisis has thrown the weaknesses and inequalities of our provision into sharp relief. I for one, will be making big changes to address these within my own curriculum. (Music)


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