Laura McInerney on education and journalism

Baiqu: Welcome to the Browser Interviews, today I'm with Laura McInerney who is an education journalist, and the founder of Teacher Tapp, and former high school teacher. Interesting fact, she was once taken to court by the UK government for asking a question.

So Laura, first of all, welcome to The Browser.

Laura: Welcome. I'm not going to take you to court for asking me any questions I don't think...possibly.

On being taken on court for being vexatious

Baiqu: Let's see how it goes. Obviously my first question has to be, can you tell us the story about the UK government taking you to court?

Laura: Yeah, it was really weird and quite unexpected. So I've been a teacher for six years and then in 2012, I decided to do some studying and I wanted to study a concept called free schools in the UK, which is the same as charter schools in the U.S. And it's where any group of people is allowed to apply to open a state funded school. We had just bought this policy in - and given that in the UK, if you want to add an extra part onto your house, you have to put in open planning permission, everybody gets to look at your plans and the judgment and decision is open - I thought I would ask to see the plans and the letters that went out deciding whether you got a school or not. I didn't think I was asking for the Pentagon papers. And the government came back and said, no.

I wasn't convinced that they were allowed to say no under the law, so I challenged it through what is called the Information Commissioner's Office - they're kind of an independent adjudicator. And they were like, government stop being silly, she's entitled to these documents. Then the next thing you know, the government in quite an unprecedented move, took me to court for being vexatious. So I believe I was the first person under the UK Freedom of Information Act to be taken to court for being vexatious, for asking a question.

Baiqu: Wow. How about that? How long did the proceedings go on for? And you represented yourself as well, which is also just crazy and incredible, so tell us about that.

Laura: Well we were called into the courtroom twice. I was being taken a third time, but they finally gave up at that point and realised it was all a bit ludicrous. And it's funny now, because of course at the time the education secretary was Michael Gove, and the special advisor was Dominic Cummings. So the last 18 months or so in which Dominic Cummings has had to account for his actions in public has been quite amusing for me. But what happened is, I was a student, so I just didn't have any money for lawyers, and at the time legal aid had been taken away. So if you were in an employment tribunal, immigration tribunal, or disability tribunal, the argument was that you should be able to defend yourself. I thought, well, I've had a good education, I've got a good network of friends, I was a teacher, surely if anybody can defend themselves in one of these types of tribunals, it should be me. And you know, the whole process is emotional and difficult. Even on the day I found it absolutely terrifying and I'm not a person who lacks confidence. So I can't imagine what it must be like for people who are worried that their husband is going to be deported, or whether or not they're going to get a payout from an employer.

I find it ridiculous that people don't get support in these situations. But what happened is we went to court, I wore all yellow as a symbol of sunshine laws and freedom of information and transparency. I was only about 30, 31 and I thought when I stand up in a courtroom, it's going to look like legally blonde anyway, so I might as well just own it. And every time they look at me, if they see this little tiny female who looks scared, at least they can also see some yellow sunshine. That worked really well.

The first court case, I lost, but there was a weird technicality, so the lawyers wanted to go again, which we did. It then got kind of thrown out, and then the whole process had to start again. Four years after I first asked for the information, the Department for Education sent me an email and went, oh, go on then, we won't do the third court case, you can have it. To me, that was even worse, right? Because up until that point, as Phoebe says in an episode of Friends to Ross when he kind of gives in on the argument, "well, at least before I respected you, now, you've just given in on your principles." I mean, what even is that? So I felt a bit cheated. I got the documents in the end.

Baiqu: Was Michael Gove still in office by the time you finished?

Laura: No, Also, I wasn't a student anymore. So I'd been a teacher and a student by this point. By the time I got the documents, I was a Guardian columnist, I was the Editor of Schools Week. It was foolish of them really, because had they just given me the documents in the first place, I'd have written a PhD, no one would have read it, and that would have been the end of that.

Baiqu: There you go.

Laura: Never kick a dog just because it's a pup. It will grow up one day.

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How to become a better educator

Baiqu: It will indeed, and wear yellow in court.

So onto our first official question then, what would you recommend if someone wanted to know more about education, and I guess your passion specifically is the intersection of politics and education. So where should they start?

Laura: So the best thing I ever read on education, is actually an American professor who had died a few years before. This dude, Seymour Sarason. Seymour, like Suddenly Seymour in A Little Shop of Horrors. He'd been an academic in education until his 90s, and then I discover him about 18 months after he's died, which I'm still a bit devastated about. But Seymour Sarason wrote loads of education books. You could read any of them and you'd find something to shock, surprise, amaze, even if you don't think you're interested in education. He looks at education as a foundational public service, it's the public service that everybody pretty much interacts with at some point in the first 15, 20 years of your life. Even if you're privately educated, you will know people who are in a state, or as you call them in the U.S. a public school. He's just brilliant.

My favourite of his books, is The Predictable Failure of Education Reform that was written in 1990. I read it in 2010, and then wrote a book. Well it was the set of blogs at the start that was called The Predictable Failure of Free Schools. So I was about 27/ 28, and I essentially just went, there's this guy, he's studied this before, he thinks this is what will happen with our free schools. Wrote the stuff, and it all turned out to be correct. So people look back at this piece now and they're like, how did 27 year old you know so much? And it's like, well, it wasn't me. It was Seymour Sarason. I did tell everybody it was his work, I wasn't trying to rip it off. His compendium book is called The Skeptical Visionary, and it is just brilliant. Best place to start.

Baiqu: I mean, you started as a teacher and I read that you went through the Teach first programme. So for viewers who don't know what it is, it's like a fast track programme where they get graduate students to go into a traineeship, and then join as an educator. What drew you to teaching? Because there's this really awful saying, and my teacher said it to me once, "if you can, do. And if you can't, teach." Which I think is just terrible, because obviously we're all so influenced by our teachers and you have teachers who literally change your life. So what got you into education?

Laura: Yeah, I mean, that's it. Teaching is brilliant. I didn't really plan to come out of it. Everything just went a bit wrong with the court case. But I guess what happened was I came out of university and I'd never thought about teaching. So I went to a fairly substandard comprehensive school that later closed down because it wasn't very good during all of the periods of reform, I think it was probably sensible that they closed it down. I never thought about teaching, I was seen as super bright and therefore a kind of shining light of the future of our town and school. So I go off to university, and then I go and join one of the big management consultants. Yeah, look at me right? Everything was great from the outside, and I just spent a lot of time on spreadsheets and being quite bored, and I didn't feel as if at that time, management consulting was a profession. What could I read? What could I learn? I didn't feel part of a community.

Then my school asked me to go back and do the prize giving for the GCSE exams(high school exams) that year. So I went all the way back up to the North and it was in November, and it was cold and it was dark. And I remember walking into the school hall and it was so warm, and Mr. McGee who had been an amazing teacher, stood on that stage. I remember some kids, you know, didn't get very high grades, but they clearly cared and had worked hard for him. And when they got on that stage, he made it feel as if they basically landed on the moon. I stood there and I thought, if I died tomorrow, people are going to come to my funeral and say some quite nice things, but ultimately I am just looking at spreadsheets. If Mr. McGee died tomorrow, thousands of people will turn up and talk about how he changed their life. Even if I just do this for one or two years, I think I have to go and do something that I feel is more powerful, is more useful and that was super selfish. I wasn't a martyr to the cause, it was actually quite an almost arrogant thing to think at the age of 21/ 22. I only thought I'd go for a couple years, and when I got to school, I just fell in love with the concept of teaching. How you explain things to people is so hard. Teaching is really difficult and that's what kept me there.

Baiqu: We just talked prior to the interview about some of the schools that you taught at, a few of which are very close to me. I went to an inner city school in London and I remember how we treated our teachers, and looking back, it must've been so difficult. How was it for you?

Laura: Yeah, I did high school, so 11 to 16 in my first school in East London, just near the Olympics. What was not even the Olympics yet, going to be the Olympics one day. And then 14 to 18 year-olds in Hackney, which at the time was considered the worst place in the UK to live. And had very sadly a really big knife crime problem. We had a lot of drug problems, had a lot of prostitution problems, had a lot of people trafficking problems in East London in that time period. But what I found most challenging when I got to school, is that young people want to test you and they want to know that you care. So they do that by being ruthlessly rude to your face. And up until that point in your life, you won't have dealt with that very often. People, at least, if they're going to be mean about you, do it behind your back mostly. So to walk into a classroom and you know you're there to do a good thing. You might have sat up until 11 o'clock planning those resources, and just to have a bunch of kids come in, not care that you're there. If they do get your attention, they can work out if you're worried about your hair, or your nose, or your height or whatever, and they just go for it. You have to learn to stay calm, stay focused, win their trust, but also always try and get towards everybody leaving that room knowing more than when they entered. It's such a character building thing to do, but it's also a technically difficult thing to do. And I love to this day, the technical difficulties of how does one person get 30 people, over 50 minutes, to imbibe information they didn't have before. Make it so clear and obvious to them that in the future, they could explain it to somebody else. What a skill.

How to come across as being smart in a conversation (with teenagers)

Baiqu: It really is. And you're right, I think some of the naughtiest girls at my school were the best at just zoning in on someone's insecurities, the teacher in this case, and it's incredibly hard to then overcome that and win their trust.

I guess this leads into my next question, which is when you're having a conversation, whether if it's with someone you're teaching, or not, do you try to come across as being smart in a conversation? How do you try to come across as being smart in a conversation?

Laura: I think there's a difference when doing that with teenagers. The big learning, and the bit when you get good as a teacher is when you realise it's not about you, ever. It's actually always about them. You don't need to worry about your nose, or your height, or what you're saying. You need to worry about the reaction that's happening inside their brain. What they think about. That's what's going to bring about the change that you're looking for. So you need to make sure they feel confident, they feel safe, and everything else. And if they come away feeling good about themselves, they're going to think that you're smart, kind of as a byproduct bizarrely. Because especially for teenagers, saving face and feeling good about yourself is a hugely important thing, and adults don't always spend as much time trying to make that happen, because they're focused on themselves.

In terms of conversations more broadly, and I used to do this when I talked with a lot of my kids about going to top universities. So again, if you teach in somewhere like East London, you get a couple of bright kids and they want to go to a top university, like Oxford or Cambridge, they really panic. They think if I don't know Latin, or if I haven't read Oliver Twist, or if I don't know the president of some random country, when I get to these universities, are people gonna think I'm stupid. And I went to one of those universities from that sorts of background, and I just found that the simplest thing was: one, just be fascinated in what other people know. When they say, oh, have you read Oliver Twist? Don't pretend that you have, just go no, tell me about it. Then the trick is, try and think of anything that it might be like. Okay, so Oliver Twist's about an orphan, have you seen the film Annie? Is it kind of like Annie, but a hundred years ago? And nine times out of ten, that person, if they're smart, they'll have heard of Annie and you'll be on the same track. Or they won't, and that's your opportunity to comment, what do you mean you've read Oliver Twist, but you've not seen Annie the movie? What sort of philistine are you? Then you can explain your side, and I think always being able to pull on other things that are similar gives people a chance to learn. And if it's similar or if it's different, there's something else to move on with.

Have you seen Annie?

Baiqu: I have not seen Annie.

Laura: That is something you need to sort out this weekend.

Baiqu: What kind of a philistine am I?

Laura: Or Oliver Twist which is also a very good musical.

On becoming an unlikely tech-bro

Baiqu: I've not seen either then.

You sort of talked about just now, connecting things in order to create opportunities for conversation and for learning. You went from being a teacher, to ending up in court, and then journalist and now founder of an app. Becoming a tech entrepreneur feels very different to the other parts of your career. How did that come about?

Laura: Yeah, that's true. I am a very unlikely tech bro. I was not planning to start an app, not least because my poor family, having gone through the mill with various jobs as you say, I became a journalist, became the Editor of Schools Week. Of all the many unfathomable things I've done, the idea that I had to explain what an app was, and why I run this thing, especially in 2017 when apps were quite new, was funny. A lot of it has been accidents. Along the way, I've had opportunities come up and I've always tried to go where I can learn something new. It's usually about information, giving people information and transparency.

In the case of Teacher Tapp, it's an app that surveys about 8,000 teachers every day in England, and we then present the results back. So unlike lots of market research where you have to do surveys and then you never hear from people again other than a call to check you did the survey. We actually, on the app, present the results back again. Then in the background, we're able to do lots of analysis, make the data representative, do longitudinal studies and present that back. So when for example, the Education Secretary here, Gavin Williamson, recently accused schools of closing at 2:45 PM. Within 24 hours, we were able to get the data that showed that simply wasn't the case. About 2% of primary schools did so, about 18% of our secondary schools for age 11 and over did that, but they also opened much earlier as well. So it's just a really nice way of being able to hold the government to account. Make sure we're all on the same page. Give teachers a voice and give back to the teachers.

In each case, what I have done in the first 12 months is I try to really read everything. Read every book on being a journalist, read every book of being a teacher, read as much as you can about being involved in tech. About 50% of it you don't remember, and 50% of it you don't really understand. But eventually, at some point, the clouds clear away. And because you've now got a whole repertoire of experiences that other people in that sector don't have, you can do things a lot better than might've been done before.

Best online purchase

Baiqu: Yeah for sure. I guess on to our next question then, what has been your best Amazon / online purchase?

Laura: I knew you were going to ask this. So I did go back and take a look. It's actually an item that I used to have when I was in school, but I had lost mine, and I recommend it constantly to teachers. It is a staple free Japanese stapler. So, I don't know if you've seen these before, but it's literally a stapler, but instead of using little metal staples - which are probably very bad for the environment, I can never find them in the right size, I stand on them, and you can't put them through paper shredders - this stapler puts a hole in the paper and then pushes the paper through and folds it back around on itself. So yeah, it's a staple-less stapler. It won't staple more than 10 pages usually or 15 pages, but you never have to look for a staple again.

How to cure an existential crisis

Baiqu: That's very, very smart.

Then for our next question, I'm curious because you seem like such a bright, motivated person who wears yellow in court. I wonder what you do when you kind of go through an existential crisis. What's a good cure for that.

Laura: The best cure for an existential crisis is children, but it's not always easy to get access to them. So I used to find, whenever I've interviewed people who are head teachers, senior school leaders, all of them say the same thing. Which is that if you spend five minutes with a four-year-old, they will just remind you that you're not that important. That actually, everything is okay because they just give no stuffs for anything. If you can't find a child, cats are very good at this as well.

When I won my court case, and I got all of my documentation finally through the post. I had waited and when the post turned up with loads of problems with it, and the documents had all fallen apart, I put them down in the living room, and my cat just came to sat on top of the whole thing and wouldn't let me at it. And I thought, well, it kind of puts it all in perspective, doesn't it really? There's me thinking I'm all important for four years, but really this is just a warm place to stay for some cats.

Baiqu: So access to children or a cat.

Laura: Talk to a four-year-old or a cat. Yeah.

Baiqu: Yeah, exactly. So if you don't have one, then borrow from a friend I guess.

Laura: But ask permission first, people don't like it if you just randomly start talking to their four-year-olds about your existential crisis

Baiqu: Or take the cats away.

Laura: Yeah, exactly. Otherwise, borrow one.

Favourite piece of music, article, and daily habit

Baiqu: Okay, cool. And last question, can you recommend one piece of music, an article that stuck with you, and a daily habit?

Laura: I would love these all to be cohesive, but they're not at all.

The piece of music, is Caliban's Dream by Underworld, and it was actually the theme that was sang London Olympics in 2012 during the opening ceremony, which to me is still possibly one of the most emotional moments of my entire life.

I'd lived in Stratford, East London, I taught here, both sides of the Olympic park. I'd watched this thing built up, and of course when I moved to Stratford we just had the 7/7 bombings, which were the bombings that happened in the underground. And those bombers had stayed the night before they decided to undertake their activity in Forest Gate, here in Stratford, and the community was very divided when I turned up. There were lots of people who blamed other people for harbouring them. There was a lot of resentments towards the Asian community, which was incredibly unfair. Race relations were not good, and do you know what, the Olympics, it sounds ridiculous, but it did bring people together. It did heal some of that rift. I remember Mo Farah at the time running, and my Somalian pupils saying, "you know what everyone looks at us and sees us as British now miss, look at that." And it did have this sense of, actually we can put all of this to one side, we've all built this amazing thing together.  

The song Caliban's Dreams was played as the Olympic torch was lit. For weeks there'd been this argument about who is going to do it, which athlete is going to be picked to do the torch. Will it be football or David Beckham? Will it be one of our famous runners? And I don't know if you remember what they did. But Danny Boyle, who's an extraordinary director of lots of films. He directed the opening ceremony, and he decided that as the flame ran in, it would run past all of the workers who'd built the Olympics, so they had all the guys in their hard hats and their jackets. Then there were all these athletes stood there who were famous, Torvill and Dean our ice skaters, so who was he going to hand it to? And what they did, was they lit about eight or nine torches, and then each of those people handed it to a young person, who was from London, who was going to become a sports star in the future. And together they ran around - I get upset thinking about it- together they ran, and they sang this song Caliban's Dream, which was written using the kinds of words that were written by the World War One poets. It's absolutely beautiful. They ran past and they had a choir that was signing, they had a deaf ear playing the drums, they stopped for a moment's silence for all the people who've died for the country over the years, and then these young people together lit a huge caldron. And I just think that is everything I would ever want as a symbol to symbolise anything. Just humanity in a few moments, and Caliban's Dream was the soundtrack to it. So that's my music pick.

Baiqu: Oh my God. I got goosebumps just now listening to you describe that moment. I mean, I remember it now. It was a really beautiful moment and you're right, the timing of it as well as where it happened was significant.

Laura: And you grew up near the Olympic park, so you remember what it was like before? I mean, the area was effectively a cesspit. It was horrendous and it felt like everybody had been forgotten for generations.

Baiqu: Oh completely. I mean now is obviously very different. Everybody wants to live in Hackney, everyone wants to live in Tower Hamlets. Which I think is great. But as with all kinds of gentrification or economic development that happens in urban cities, I think across the world, you have this strange siloing of people who used to belong to the community here, people who are new to the community, and there isn't really a shared sense of ownership I think. It feels quite segregated. I don't know how you've observed that, but that's sort of how I feel.

Laura: So you and I are on different sides of the Olympic park. There's literally  the Hackney side and the Newham side. I've always felt on this side, they kind of handle some of that better, even though it's only a few miles away. And the big example for me is there's a shopping centre just by the Olympic park, which overnight stays open because it's through a public right of way. And every night there's always been homeless people, young people on skateboards or bikes or whatever, and they're all just kind of allowed to hang out there. It feels as if it shouldn't be allowed, there should be security guards chasing everybody out. And even during the Olympics, those homeless people were allowed to stay in there. They weren't shooed away, they weren't hidden, which I think in other countries they would have been. And I felt a certain pride in that. Obviously I'd prefer to live in a world where we deal with homelessness more readily. But also accepting that there are people who are in that situation or one wants to stay in that situation.  Newham often feels as if we'll accept anybody. That said, I understand that the house prices and everything else that comes with regeneration is a challenge, and it's a local government challenge, and we've got to stay on top of that and make sure young people who were from here, can stay here.

Baiqu: Yeah, exactly. I think that's so important isn't it. It's really sad to see some of the friends who I went to school with here have had to move out because it's just not sustainable anymore. But maybe I'll spend a bit more time on the other side of the park.

Laura: Come to Newham. Live, work, stay, that's our motto. We've got great new housing developments, loads of affordable housing. Come here. Anybody listening, come to Newham, people are always welcome.

Baiqu: Okay. Then an article that's stuck with you.

Laura: Much less positive unfortunately. It's a sort of a negative emotion, but a very, very powerful piece that was written in September 2011 for Esquire magazine, by Luke Dietrich.

It's probably the best piece of writing I've ever read. I went to live in Missouri for a couple of years, this was when I was doing my studies that I thought I was going to do on charter schools and free schools, and I was worried about tornados. And this piece, the actual title, the short title is Heavenly Father. The full title of the piece is "Heavenly Father!" "I love you all!" "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!" "I love all of you." It's a piece about the six mile long tornado that ripped through Joplin in Missouri and killed 160 people.

Luke Dittrich who's been an incredible kind of Gonzo journalist at various points in his career. What he did was, he found a YouTube video, which was about 20 people who took refuge inside a walk-in fridge that was in a gas station, that was right in the centre of this tornado. And he goes back to Joplin to find the people involved in that, and looks at the consequences of tornadoes. Which if you've never lived in a part of the world where there's no natural disasters, I don't think you can understand how it embeds into the psyche. And having lived somewhere where there's tornadoes, which are just so strange... nothing has ever made me really feel very religious other than watching spouts come down, and you think it really does feel as if God's finger has come down out of the sky and gone, right you, and you, and left people on either side to survive. And it's an extraordinary piece of writing, so I thoroughly recommend it.

Baiqu: I've been fortunate enough to never live in a place that has frequent natural disasters. But I remember the first time I went to Mexico city I was staying with a friend and she was like, okay, you know, here's your room. And by the way, if you feel a little bit of shaking, it's probably just an earthquake and don't worry, if it's really bad, an alarm will go off.

Laura: The funniest bit for me was in Missouri, we had the journalism school. I was at the journalism school one day on a week long course with all these journalists from all over, and the tornado warning bell goes. But it was just the practice, we all knew that every Wednesday at 11 it would go off. So eventually somebody comes in and says don't panic, it's just the tornado practice bell. And I saw various people kind of relaxed and somebody said, oh okay, I was a bit confused because in Florida this would be the hurricane warning. And then San Francisco, they were like, oh for us it would be earthquakes. In Philadelphia, I believe it was a bear on campus. Then of course somebody from Texas went well for us, it would mean a shooter on campus. And you were just like, wow, in the UK we really don't have any of this. There's a lot of ways in this country that people live day to day, that I don't think about. It brought home a huge amount of privilege when you live in a country or city where those kinds of things don't happen.

Baiqu: Yeah I can imagine. I haven't had a chance to go to the Midwest, but maybe next time.

Laura: Once you've watched Annie and Oliver Twist, then listened to Caliban's Dream, then you can go.

Baiqu: And the last one.

Laura: Um, so I'd love it to be, you know, sort of drink whiskey in the morning, or something really rebellious, but unfortunately it's not. It's about working out. I dislike it. When people say that you should exercise every day and you should go to the gym and it'll make you feel great. Go for a run every morning, you'll cry with happiness, it's not true. I hate exercising. It doesn't make me happy ever. It doesn't make me feel better, ever.

But since 2017, I've used this little app called Sworkit. It is paid for monthly, it's not very much. And it has a variety of workouts that don't change very much. They don't have anybody yelling at you, it's not motivational, but you can change the timing. So you could do five minutes or six minutes or 28 minutes. They'll pick one for you, or you can pick some others. It's dead simple. And I made myself do seven minutes every morning in my pyjamas, in my bedroom. Don't go to the gym, I don't put my trainers on, I don't have special Sweaty Betty outfits, just in my pyjamas. And some days I do seven minutes, some days I do 30 minutes. Some months I get really into it and I'll start ramping up and I get to 30 minutes a day. Other months I'm like nope, just seven minutes, I'll cry the whole way through it and then it's done.

What I find is, as long as you keep up with a bit of exercise, it's always easier to ramp it up. If I end up with a knee problem, or a hip problem, or I want to improve my cardio, I can start inching up. The difficulty is if you don't do anything for a long time, you're going to find it difficult to get back into it. So that would be my one daily habit, do seven minutes of exercise and your pyjamas. It won't make you feel good. But it's probably a good thing to do anyway.

Baiqu: I feel like seven minutes is like the perfect time as well.

Laura: Honestly, most of the time, if you do seven, the next day, you'll think I'm just going to do ten because seven isn't even worth it.

Baiqu: And how often do you play that drum kit behind you?

Laura: Well, I was playing earlier this week. I've played the drums since I was 15. And over the years, it's been easier now that digital drum kits are available and you don't have to upset your neighbours. I often slum away on it for hours. In terms of exercise, actually, that's the best exercise you can have. My heart rate goes through the roof much more than when I do my Sworkit.

Baiqu: Well, thank you so much, Laura. It was really good fun talking to you and now I've got a whole list of things that I need to tick off. So thanks for that.

Laura: Thanks for having me.

Laura McInerney:


Teacher Tapp:

The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform:

The 6 Predictable Failures of Free Schools:

The Skeptical Visionary:

Staple free Japanese stapler:

Caliban's Dream by Underworld:

Heavenly Father - Esquire Magazine article by Luke Dittrich:


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