One small step

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If teachers can’t agree on what schools of the future should be like, someone else is going to decide for them

In All Change Please!‘s recent “You Say Right and I Say Left, Oh No…” post, it concluded by suggesting:

“At the end of the day/lesson, the debate should not really be focused on whether traditional teaching is any better or worse that so-called progressive teaching, but simply whether traditional and more progressive methods are being applied well or badly in the classroom.”

This sentence was picked up and re-tweeted a number of times, so to extend this thought, here are some extreme examples of good and bad traditional and progressive approaches to lessons that All Change Please! has at some point had the fortune, or misfortune, to observe. Although they didn’t all occur in the same school at the same time, they are things that actually happened in real lessons.

A ’traditional’ teacher is sitting at his desk at the front of the class. He addresses the class, who have learnt to sit still and face the front in fear of being individually demeaned by the teacher’s penchant for sarcasm or informing them they are both stupid and failures. After pouring his considerable knowledge into the empty vessels before him, he writes some notes on the whiteboard (while still lamenting the removal of his blackboard) and tells the students to make some notes about what he has just said, which they do, in silence. He then asks a question and the children slowly begin to put their hands up, cautiously responding to his ‘Guess what I’m thinking’ game. Eventually he reveals the correct answer which, they are informed, is the one they will need to give in their final examination. Without variation, this approach continues to the end of the lesson, and homework – to ‘read the next chapter of the textbook for a test next period’ is set.

In an adjoining classroom is another ‘traditional’ teacher, standing at the front of a class. She has smilingly welcomed the students in and starts by re-capping the last lesson with them. A number of keywords have been written on the board, which are particularly checked for recall and understanding. By using more open-ended question and answers she is able to judge how much knowledge has been retained, and by whom. While she challenges those who have obviously not been listening or have not completed the set homework, she is positive and encouraging, and clearly has a good rapport with the class. Her explanation of the lesson content is enlivened by a PowerPoint presentation that highlights the key points with some strong, memorable images. She uses analogies and metaphors to help the students relate the concepts she is explaining to situations they will be more familiar with, and tellingly she draws on her own experiences of life outside school. During the lesson, the children are asked to briefly discuss an issue, either with a partner or in a small group, before making their own notes. To keep the pace of the lesson moving, there is a strict time-limit imposed. At the end of the lesson there’s a re-cap, as at the start, and she explains how today’s lesson has informed the next. Clear learning objectives have been set, and met. She sets the homework which is to study the next chapter and compare its content and presentation with a given web page on the same topic, ready to present during this next lesson.

Meanwhile in another part of the school a ‘progressive’ teacher is working with a class who are mid-way through a term-long project. They are working in groups. At the start of the lesson the teacher told them to get on with their work, and she is now circulating, becoming absorbed in sorting out in each group’s projects and problems one at a time. The rest of the class sit are round chatting and have little idea what they are supposed to be doing, and find working together difficult. They have done some research, mainly printing out pages from Wikipedia. Some students have decided what they are going to do, while others are still unsure, or claim they have finished. The teacher has no idea as to the extent and level of the problem-solving skills they have already developed in previous work, and as a result few children manage to extend their capabilities. During the lesson the teacher makes no whole-class input, or seeks to break-up the long double-lesson time. The room is noisy, with some minor instances of misbehaviour occurring, which the teacher ignores. The bell rings and the children dash off to their next lesson.

But next door, it’s a different story. Another ‘progressive’ teacher, working with a different class on the same project topic has started the lesson with a class review of progress to date from each group. He introduces some new content that he wants the class to consider and incorporate during the first part of the lesson, which they do while he goes round and quickly checks what each child has done for homework. He then asks the class to break off from their on-going work to reflect on how well their group is working and to establish some clear targets for the next fortnight. One group learns that one of their members is likely to be off sick for some time, so they re-allocate their roles amongst themselves accordingly. Back on their project, everyone is working and there is a busy, lively, purposeful atmosphere. Many of the children are talking, but the conversation is about their work. The teacher is circulating, but generally observing rather than directing, and being available as and when needed. Well before the end of the lesson the teacher stops everyone working and sets an individual research task, informing the class that simply printing off a page from Wikipedia will not be acceptable, and that they need to consult a variety of sources, evaluate the reliability of each and state their own conclusion. At the end of the lesson he asks one group to share an account of their progress with the whole class and uses what they say to ask some searching questions and highlight both positive achievements and where greater application is needed if they are to progress further.

In both the successful traditional and progressive teachers’ classes, there are some children who clearly shine and prefer either the more knowledge-based or more process/skill-based approach. What’s important is that children get the chance to experience both types of teaching and learning, and that they are properly supported in the approach they feel least comfortable with.

Meanwhile a striking feature of the two ‘good’ lesson examples is that they are not actually that different. As the new ‘academic’ (as opposed to practical?) year gets underway, isn’t it about time we stopped arguing amongst ourselves about whether traditional or modern educational methods are best, and start to develop a broader, more consensual approach to teaching and learning? We need to take the best of both approaches, and not be afraid to mix them up and make them nice. And in reality of course that’s what already happening in a lot of schools.

Meanwhile teachers are certainly are going to need to be singing from the same song-sheet if they are to successfully rise to the real challenge of the next few years and ensure that low-cost, second-rate, multiple-choice assessed computer-based teaching and learning systems do not become accepted as an adequate substitute for the real thing.

Why replacing teachers with automated education lacks imagination

or, as Timothy Leary didn’t put it in the 1960s:

‘Sit down, switch on and shut up!’

 

Image credit: Flickr/bsfinhull 

Curriculum Noir: Who Stole The Arts?

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“Mr Marlowe?”

I looked up from my desk. In front of me stood Delores Anass – I knew her little sister from when I was at college. She was the art teacher from the local school and a tall, beautiful blonde – the kind that makes you want to go to life-drawing classes. There was no doubting she had all the necessary qualifications for the job. She gave me a million dollar smile I could feel in my hip pocket.

“I need you to find something for me. The Arts have gone missing from our school.”

I tried to resist asking, but it was about as useless as a D grade GCSE certificate. “When did you see them last?”

“Oh, about a year ago I guess. All the children were happily singing and dancing and painting wonderful pictures, and now they are all so dull and listless. I think it’s got something to do with this new curriculum and more rigorous examinations. Of course I hope you understand there’s nothing left in the budget to pay you with.”

“Well, trouble is my business, but I’ll see what I can do and then we’ll find a way to work something out. Do you run life-drawing classes by any chance?”

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I said farewell to the lovely lady and the next morning I put on my jacket with the leather elbow patches and slipped quietly into the school, posing as a pre-Ofsted inspector. She was right. There was no sign of the Arts anywhere. Just rows and rows of silent, obedient children staring solemnly at washed-out whiteboards or aging computer monitors that should have been retired long before they qualified for a state pension. No paintings on the walls, no posters announcing drama productions or concerts. The buildings and furniture had obviously had a great deal of expense spared on them. It was if someone had turned out the lights and everyone had gone to sleep, big time. Clearly something was badly wrong. Suddenly the loud, jarring school bell that signaled the end of playtime rang somewhere inside my head as I realised I’d seen it all before, and it meant only one thing. The infamous, arrant knave of hearts who stole the arts, Big Mickey Gove himself, had to be somewhere in the picture.

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Delores suggested I talked to the Headmistress, Ms Trust. She was dressed smartly, the sort of woman you just know will be good at evidence, facts, lies, damned lies and statistics. When I asked her if she knew where the Arts had gone she went as white as chalk-dust and trotted out a well-rehearsed speech about raising academic standards and providing opportunities for all, and I quickly guessed the Gove Mob had already got to her, doubtless promising her more money to become an Academy. She sure was one lady I’d like to see at the bottom of a lake.

It was getting late, but on my way downtown I stopped in at the local Painteasy. The front of the shop was filled with cans of unimaginative pastel shades of household emulsion and dreary colour scheme chooser charts, but the man at desk recognised me and pressed the button under the counter that opened the door to the secret studio workshop at the rear of the premises. The windows were high up, so you couldn’t see what was going on from outside, but inside the space was full of excited children hooked on the hard stuff, completely intoxicated from various forms of real learning – totally absorbed with experimenting, taking risks, working together and making things happen. And best of all you could freely ask for any type of Arts activity you wanted without fear of being told you were missing out on yet another worthless academic qualification.

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I bumped into the Painteasy Director, Edward G (aka Ken) Robinson, and asked him if he knew what was going on with formal education. “We’ve never had so many kids visit us after school” he said. “I just feel sorry for all those we have to turn away. It’s the Gove Mob. They’re back in town, and they’re driving the Arts even further underground.”

So my hunch was right. But I also knew there was nothing I could do about it. Not on my own anyway. I was proud to be a member of the Blob, but the Blob had fallen into the cleverly laid trap of thinking that if it somehow became more academic it could raise its status with the Mob and things would get better, but all it got them was some extended prose.

Somehow the Blob needed to stand up for itself and fight back. It was time for it to start sending out the message that there’s more to life than words and numbers and knowing stuff, and that it’s through the Arts that children learn to understand that there can be more than one correct answer and that there are many other ways to see, experience, interpret and judge the world that go beyond writing essays and solving quadratic equations.

At one level the Blob had no choice but to do what the Mob told them, but at the same time it had to find ways to be more disruptive, and behave like only a Blob without any defined shape or size can, silently seeping into tight corners and crevices of the curriculum where and when no one is looking. That’s what the Mob hates the most about it – the Blob has no fixed structure, no clear rules, no 100% reliable way of formally assessing what it’s doing.

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The next day I called back in on Delores, and told her what I’d discovered. I tried to fob her off by saying I would write on my blog that one day the Blob would overcome the Mob, but it fell about as flat as an academic’s mortar board that’s lost its tassel. She began to sob and saying goodbye took a long time, but eventually I managed to drive off into a sombre, stormy sunset that reminded me of  the ink stains on a school boy’s well-used tie.

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As I drove, I found myself recalling the words of that great crime writer Raymond Chandler that somehow seemed to sum it all up:

“Without magic, there is no art. Without art, there is no idealism. Without idealism, there is no integrity. Without integrity, there is nothing but production.”

Because that’s exactly what our schools have become – factories of mass produced memorisation of out-dated facts. What’s needed right now in education is a little bit of real magic and a lot less political sleight of hand.

I decided I must re-read some of Chandler’s novels. Now what they were called? Let’s see, there was The Little Sister, Trouble Is My Business, Farewell My Lovely, The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake, The High Window and The Long Goodbye.  And I wondered if I could somehow work the titles into my next post..

 

Image credits: emilano-iko / dinohyus / jjjohn / dinohaus

 

Alas! Schools and Journos

Mel Smith, as the man who thinks he knows everything, and Griff Rhys Jones, as the man who knows he knows nothing, discuss new TV technologies in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, some 30 years later, they are discussing education…

Smith: You know something?

Jones: No, I can’t say that I do really.

Well you know what a terrible mess all our schools are in and how apparently Mr Gove is sorting them out and making them better again.

Oh, is he then?

Yes. I mean ever since the 1960s kids have been just running round doing exactly as they please in the classroom, and no-one ever tells them off or gets them to learn anything. And apparently it’s all been the fault of this ass Neil chap who opened this school called Summerfield.

Oh, was it one of these schools sponsored by a supermarket then?

Yes, that’s it. Anyway apparently at this school all the children went around naked, smoking and drinking, taking drugs and having sex with their teachers. And of course the teachers all realised they were on to a jolly good thing, and so that’s what our schools have been like ever since.

That’s a bit odd. I mean I attended a comprehensive school in the 1970s and it wasn’t at all like that. The teachers were pretty strict and pushed us hard to pass our O levels and CSEs. And my children were at similar schools in the 1990s, and they all wore a school uniform and were expected to do what they were told.

Well I expect you were at a special school of some sort. Well, anyway that’s what it says in the Daily Mail, and they wouldn’t print it if it wasn’t true would they?

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No, I suppose not.

Anyway this Gove chap is trying to make sure that in the future all children have an e-Back

What’s that then?

Well, it’s obvious isn’t it. It’s a clever electronic device that you wear and it straightens your back and stops you from slouching around.

Oh. Right.

Look if you don’t believe me, here’s an article in the Guardian, now they certainly wouldn’t print anything that’s not true would they? According to this Nick Glib, it’s not so much the teacher’s fault, it’s all to do with this secret organisation called The Blob. They believe they come from outer space and are devout followers of this ass Neil. And what they’ve done is secretly taken over all the teacher-training colleges where they just tell new teachers to let the kids do whatever they want.

Is that so? Again that all sounds a bit strange because my daughter has just finished her teacher training course and she says it was all about things like your subject knowledge, how to plan and prepare lessons, manage classes, and use IT.

Well, perhaps she was a bit confused, because that’s not what is says here, is it? Look, here’s some more in the Telegraph. Apparently teachers don’t bother teaching children from poor backgrounds because they are going to be failures anyway. And the proof is that while there are more poor children in places like China and South Korea they still do better than us in the Pizza tests.

Are these tests something they do in their Home Economics lessons, then?

Don’t be daft. No-one does Home Economics anymore.  No, they do them in their Food Technology lessons.

But I thought the reason the Chinese and South Koreans did better than us was because they only put their cleverest children in for the test?

Exactly. That just goes to show how much smarter they are than us, doesn’t it?

You don’t think that all this stuff the journalists write in the papers isn’t really news at all but just right-wing capitalist political propaganda, do you?

Good lord, no. I mean no-one would buy them if it was, would they?

 

 

 

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.”

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A new initiative by traditional academics insists that very small children should first be taught a rigorous programme of structural theory and have a good knowledge of the scientific application of forces before being allowed to play with building blocks.

OK, this time just kidding, but admit it, for a moment there you were willing to believe it!

Meanwhile All Change Please! recently read an account of a prospective employee, who when asked a knowledge-based question in an interview, admitted he didn’t know the answer, but that when it became important to the work he could suggest various ways in which they would be able to find out. The employer was impressed, both with his honesty and resourcefulness, and he got the job.

Or as US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld so clearly put it in 2002: ‘Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.’

In contrast, reading much of Gove and Truss’s spin or the writings of traditional academics, one could easily believe that an abundant store of known knowledge is an essential and the only prerequisite for any future employment, and at the same time not a single child has been taught a single piece of knowledge since the 1960s. This is of course, all complete nonsense. The reality is that the majority of children in the majority of lessons have continued to be formally taught existing knowledge. Indeed there is current trend in the production of resources intended to support teachers who have never used a project-based learning approach before.

And if All Change Please! reads just once more the supposed myth-busting  revelation triumphantly proclaimed by traditional academics that ‘you can’t look everything up on the internet’ it will scream. Let it make something clear. NO ONE IS SUGGESTING THAT CHILDREN SHOULD NEVER BE TAUGHT ANY KNOWLEDGE.

All so-called ‘progressive’ teachers of any worth recognise the value and importance of knowledge. What they do however is to question the type and amount of knowledge needed and to try and relate it as much as possible to practical application rather than abstract theory. They are also keen to develop children’s abilities to independently discover and learn – and question the reliability and validity of – new knowledge.

What’s really missing in the education system though is a structured programme of the development of thinking and learning skills, properly coordiated, monitored and rewarded across the whole school, instead of the current very patchy, haphazard exposure children might or might not encounter, depending on which teachers they just happen to have that year. When that finally happens then perhaps we will really be able for the first time to assess how effective or not it is.

OK, quiz question for budding traditional academics. Who is supposed to have said “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.”? No cheating now…

In case you were away from school the day that was covered, the answer is Albert Einstein. All Change Please! is happy to admit it didn’t previously know that. Indeed it was only after searching online to discover the source of the earlier saying “A little learning is a dangerous thing” that it discovered Einstein’s version. Sounds like a little searching might be a good thing.

Of course, a little knowledge can, as it is said, be a dangerous thing (as Gove has demonstrated through his lack of knowledge of teaching and learning). but so is too much. As well as more specialists we need more generalists who are able to see and work with the bigger picture. And as All Change Please! might just have mentioned once or twice before, what we’re currently completely failing to do is engage in any sort of debate about exactly how much formal ‘just in case’ knowledge of a given subject is now appropriate, and what that knowledge can best be delivered’ as it now can be, ‘just in time’.

Instead of nervously looking over our shoulder at the future while grasping to keep hold of an ever receding past, we should be striding positively towards tomorrow, learning from the mistakes of yesterday. Or as someone else once sang:

There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow

Shinin’ at the end of ev’ry day

There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow

And tomorrow’s just a dream away.

Now I wonder who wrote that? Well, this time it certainly wasn’t Einstein. But there’s a clue in All Change Please!‘s last post.

There’s No Supporting Truss

10be4873-12a7-8222-9dd2-048b1da0f96a-2“Err…  Is this the place where I can exchange our existing education policy for a new one?”

Truss…No Support. Get it? No? Oh well, please yourselves then. As All Change Please! sadly and uncontrollably weeps at the lack of academic rigour of its latest blog post title, it suddenly realises that now it will have to write something about Elizabeth Truss, Education and Childcare Minister. But, by an amazing co-incidence, All Change Please! learns that she recently made a speech in Oxford about social mobility, the economy and education reform. So that should be good for a few laughs and revealing responses, as was the case with Little Diss Trust

If you are desperate you can read the full text here. But to save you the bother, here are a few choice extracts, together with some of the alleged text it is believed got deleted at the very last moment.

Truss: Until we agree that doing well is an unequivocally good thing – and that it is attainable by all – we will continue to waste talent. So – let’s make 2014 the year we abandon the limiting beliefs holding us back, and help our country to rise.

I repeatedly hear in the education debate some children are just ‘non-academic’. What does ‘non-academic’ even mean? It’s certainly true that some disciplines like maths or reading come easier to some than others. But the vast majority of people can master them – just as all students can benefit from vocational skills, too. Yet there’s this idea that some pupils are ‘not academic’.

Well, I’m just hoping and praying that someone doesn’t get round to asking me what ‘academic’ actually means, let alone ‘non-academic’. Of course if they did ask I would just have to find another way of avoiding the explanation that an academic education is essentially a highly theoretical one, and only involves the development of a very limited range of the repertoire of skills we actually need in life. It tends to focus on studies of what people have thought and done in the past and why, and on gaining a largely non-practical understanding of the natural world works, and all tested and accredited through written knowledge recall. This differs from vocational and life education which has a primary focus on preparation for the workplace and everyday living. Not a lot of people know that, and neither did I until someone explained it to me the other day.

Oh dear, this all just goes to show that my own highly academic education, which culminated in me doing Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, has left me with a very narrow view of what the working world and real life is really like. Anyway, to explain it as simply as possible to the great mass of uneducated plebs – oops, perhaps I better not say that in public – that we need to get to vote for us, I’m pitching it to suggest that by definition ‘academic’ means something that is very difficult and demanding, while worthless ‘vocational’ skills are easy-peasy to acquire and require no effort. Which is all a lot of nonsense really if you think about it.

Can you imagine if we took the same attitude to driving? If we labelled people as ‘non-drivers’ because they found it difficult, the first few times they got behind the wheel? It would be nonsense: most people manage to pass their test eventually. It took me 3 goes. I understand it took my boss 7. But he decided he needed to be able to drive and he practiced hard and got on with it. We need the same attitude towards academic attainment – particularly in maths, where the more you practice, the better you get and the more you will earn in your future career. Just as we would never say only a handful of people have the innate ability to learn to drive, we should find it unacceptable to say maths is just for a talented few.

Did you see what I did there? I misleadingly compared academic learning with driving, which is of course a practical, entirely non-academic skill. And one that you are tested in when you think you are ready and not on a single, one-shot fixed date in early summer when you’ll be suffering really badly from hay-fever. Meanwhile, what I’m really saying here is that for the academically able, they will continue to find getting to University easy, and everyone else will all just have to work a jolly lot harder in order to do so and feel even more of a failure than they already do.

Meanwhile the key phrase I used, in case you didn’t notice, was that my boss ‘decided he needed to be able to’ drive. I’m therefore completely ignoring the fact that, unlike the practical and extremely useful skill of driving, most children quite rightly don’t recognise and accept the fact that they need to struggle against the odds to gain purely theoretical qualifications that probably won’t get them a job. And naturally I won’t be one of the lucky teachers who ends up working in deprived city-centre estate schools trying to get the children to sit still and listen while I try and fail to convince them otherwise.

In the 21st century and beyond, skills pay the bills. And even more so in the future. The new economies are growing. There are more consumers today in more countries across the globe than at any other point in history. And at the same time, technology is transforming industry after industry – creating new ways of making, earning and learning.

Tee-hee, ‘Skills pay the bills’ – that’s a clever catch-phrase that one of DfES interns came up with for me, isn’t it? Perhaps sometime he could explain the logic of this to me, again just in case someone ever asks. Surely the new highly theoretical academic curriculum we are promoting means that even fewer children than ever will acquire any practical, technical or creative skills, and it contains no business education whatsoever (despite the latter being the most popular university degree subject). So that means that they’ll actually have less skills to pay the bills? I don’t get it, do you?

We need to believe that if England started producing vast numbers of nuclear engineers or top-flight mathematicians – more of the world’s leading companies would want to headquarter here. But we need to go even further. We can be the enterprise capital of Europe. And we can combine the commercial flair which has always been one of Britain’s strengths with advanced science, maths and technology. Napoleon called us a nation of shopkeepers. Why can’t we be a nation of coders, analysts, inventors, entrepreneurs, creators as well – selling our skills to the world?

Well there’s an obvious answer to that last question isn’t there? The reason why we can’t be a nation of all those things is called Michael Gove. But don’t tell anyone I said that.

This optimistic vision is ambitious. And our ambition must be to out-educate the rest of the world. And everything we’re doing aims to make sure that high-quality schooling – an excellent academic education – is seen as a universal necessity, not an option for the few. History will provide a more meaningful, chronological immersion in the past. Geography will include more specific knowledge of people and places. Design and technology will expose children to the most exciting new technologies – while computing will give them the technical ability to innovate and create in a digital world.

This is just so much fun isn’t it? All I have to do is to speak these words out loud and it will all just happen as if by magic. Won’t it?

Or our reforms to improve the quality of teaching – expanding programmes like Teach First, so that top graduates from the best universities are working with more children than ever before.

Note to self: get ‘Tough Young Teachers‘ taken off the air immediately. It’s all very worthy of course but, I mean, we don’t want prospective graduates realising that teaching is not just about long holidays and preparing able students for entry to Oxbridge, do we?

Every reform is based on this idea: giving every child, no matter where they live or what their parents do, the sort of high-quality, rigorous, rounded education previously reserved only for the few. Our ambition must not just be to catch up with Germany and Poland but to overtake them. Not just to learn from the Asian tigers but to surpass them – do it better, smarter, more creatively. Take our fantastic cultural heritage and combine it with the most advanced computing and science. Our ambition must be to out-educate the rest of the world. We are very aware that this is not an overnight job. The Secretary of State has been clear it is a decade-long project – which then must be built on.

Oh God, another six years more in this job and then, just like the dreadful tower-blocks of the 1960s that no-one ever wanted, everything we’ve done will have to be quickly demolished and replaced by something far more sympathetic to the way in which real people want to live and learn. Sometimes I wonder why I bother?

Now All Change Please! isn’t one to gossip, but did you know that apparently Ms Truss’s father is a left-wing professor in mathematical logic, and refused to campaign for her? And that allegedly in 2009 she nearly got de-selected when it emerged that in 2005 she had allegedly been having an affair with a married, allegedly Tory MP? Well, that’s if you believe anything you allegedly read in The Sunday Times anyway.

And finally, if Ms Truss becomes a wealthy woman as a result of her parliamentary career, will she set up a Truss Fund for her two children?