At first glance it is hard to question. A policy that all children should be in school during all of term time. Very well done, Mr Gove. Back up your policy with a fine, have a focus on attendance in inspections, and Bob’s your uncle, as my mum used to say. It even brings money into depleted LA coffers. In the spirit of autonomy, ask governing bodies and head teachers to decide who qualifies for ‘exceptional circumstances’ (a.k.a.’passing the buck’). What could go wrong? Let me introduce you to … The Law of Unintended Consequences.

* Head teachers and governing bodies find themselves being asked to play judge and jury on what constitutes ‘exceptional circumstances’.

* This puts a strain on school/parent relationships, with parents upset about their reasons for absence being turned down.

* Families with less money are less able to afford holidays.

* Children with families overseas are disproportionately affected.

* Parents are given a bizarre financial incentive to lie to their child’s school and ‘do a sickie’. Children are asked to join in with the lie.

* Schools bring in competitions to reward 100% attendance. This happens.

* A challenge is made under Human Rights’ Legislation.

* Parents in public service jobs wonder what they should do if their holidays are limited to certain times of the year.

I would never argue that parents should be allowed to take holidays whenever they like. But what I would ask for is a bit of ‘flexible consistency’. Have a standard in mind, and support people in different ways to achieve it. You can smash every single walnut with a sledgehammer. Or you can pick up the one you need to open, place it in some nutcrackers, and give it a gentle squeeze. That’d be my recommended approach.

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Back to the Future

I went to school in the 1970’s. Some people say this was the time when it all went wrong. When state schools became all fluffy and child centred, when they renounced the traditional methods. Perhaps I just went to the wrong kind of state school, but this is not my memory at all. I remember it as a time when we kept our mouths shut and did as we were told. A time when those of us who refused to comply would be screamed at, humiliated, or beaten with a cane. Our lessons were traditional, we learned by rote, and we did an awful lot of copying from the board. Children were streamed by their perceived ability, with those at the ‘top’ given extra attention, while those at the ‘bottom’ were shunted to one side.

This is not a time to which I would want us to return. Despite all the difficulties it can cause us as educators, I am delighted that children now have a voice, and know their rights. Even though it makes a teacher’s job harder, I think it is wonderful that we are asked to engage children, rather than simply insisting that they comply. I have a theory that our view of how education should be is based (at least partly) on our own experiences as a school child. The terror I felt as a child, at the hand of adults, has coloured my entire vision of what education can and should look like. Corporal punishment was outlawed in state schools in the United Kingdom in 1987. Some of the people reading this blog post may not even have been born when this change was made. So please let us not forget, when we hark back to the ‘good old days’ that for some of us they didn’t feel that ‘good’ at all.

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Masters of the Universe

Yesterday it was announced that a Labour Government would create a new designation of ‘Master Teacher’, as part of a ‘drive to raise standards’. Setting aside any questions about whether this is a good idea or not, when I run the word ‘Master’ through my brain, here’s how the ticker tape comes out:

… man … boy … strong … powerful … master plan … public school master … master race … slave … masterpiece … masterful … cane … dominate …

At this point the ticker tape gets visual, so I’ll spare you the details. But when the tape runs out, I’m left wondering: ‘Hey, where were all the women?’

Words do not exist in a vacuum: they come with connotations. They have historical and cultural associations. The term you choose defines what your idea is. So what I’d like to know is this: does Mr Hunt visualise squads of Master Teachers, grasping their subjects by the neck and squashing their weaker colleagues into shape? Or does he actually mean a group of subject and pedagogy specialists, both women and men, who work alongside their colleagues to model and build good practice? And, if it is the latter, might I respectfully suggest that he picks an alternative* (and preferably a more inclusive) term instead.

* e.g. ‘expert teacher’, ‘consultant teacher’, ‘mentor teacher’ or perhaps even (gasps) ‘advanced skills teacher’.

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Stop Making Sense

Inside every word is a tiny capsule of sense. You can sound words out, you can name their parts, but meaning only comes out when you get them into the right context. Suddenly, the sense goes POP! Let me tell you a story …

Shanghai, China. We have just bought a wooden frog. It makes a croaking sound when you rub its back.

A: [excited] I didn’t know Assassia was real!

S: Assassia?

A: Yeah. I thought Assassia was only in Minecraft. I didn’t realise it was a real tree.

S: [puzzled] Assassia? What’s that?

A: It’s the wood that this frog is made from. See. It says so on the bag.

S: Ah. [smiling] You mean Acacia.

It was a perfectly plausible attempt at saying the word. It might even have passed muster in a phonics screening. If you’re not aware of its Greek etymology, then Assassia is as good a pronunciation as any. But I was only able to understand what my son was saying once I could place what he said in context. Meaning is language in context. English has a tricksy nature; a rich historical background all of its very own. Frequently it does strange things, like making the same sound for two different words (hole and whole), or different sounds for the same one (Reading and reading). And let’s not even go near rough, through, bough and cough.

The Year One phonics screening test is not a test of reading, it is a test of a child’s skill at decoding words out of context. It is a test designed to ensure teacher compliance with a government mandate. And it is a test in which children as young as five learn the lesson that, in school, they can pass or they can fail. I don’t know about you, but I am bewildered by these thoughts. Like Winston Smith in 1984, I cannot get them to make sense – the act of doublethink is beyond me. If I was going to name some imaginary monsters, I would not name them pog or queeb or strom. I would call them the Grumblegrowlerator, or the Slimyblobificon, or maybe even the Tssktsskpurrificalt. But then I’m engaged in the creative process of trying to make sense, because that’s what I always thought language was for. How on erath could I be so datf?

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Informed Consent

Teacher: You’re going to do your baseline test now, Charlie.

Charlie: Why?

Teacher: Because we need data.

Charlie: What’s data?

Teacher: It’s something we can use to measure systems. To see if they are efficient.

[There is a pause.]

Teacher: Think of it as a game, rather than a test.

Charlie: What’s the prize?

Teacher: There isn’t one. It says in the manual: ‘Any offer of a reward may skew the data and is not permitted.’

Charlie: Will you play the game with me, Miss?

Teacher: I’m not allowed to.

Charlie: Why not, Miss?

Teacher: Because … well, because they think I might help you.

Charlie: But you’re meant to help me.

[There is a long pause.]

Teacher: Will you do the test now, Charlie?

Charlie: [starting to wriggle] I don’t want to play this game. I want to do Lego with Ben.

Teacher: Later. But not as a reward for doing the test.

Charlie: Can I go out to play yet?

Teacher: Do the test. And then you can. But not as a reward for …

Charlie: [urgently] I need a poo.

Teacher: Off you go, then.


This post is for the June #blogsync hosted by Chris Waugh @Edutronic_Net. This month’s topic is testing in schools. You can sign up here.

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Simply the Best

“access to the best that has been thought and written …” Michael Gove

I’ve always been wary of the notion of a literary canon: a list of the best that has ever been written. In part, my concern stems from worries about who gets to decide what is ‘best’ (Mr Gove, apparently). I also fear that, since women and minorities did not have an equal chance of publication until relatively recently, the ‘best of’ list will consist mostly of dead white men. (Thus sending a subconscious message to any girls who might dare dream of becoming a writer.) But mainly my concern stems from the idea that we can say what is ‘best’ when it comes to fiction. Because ‘best’ implies a value judgement, and my values may not be the same as yours. Are we talking about the ‘best’ in terms of what we might call literary merit? Do we mean ‘best’ in respect to a novel’s political or social impact? Are we looking for books that live on in the public consciousness, long after they were written? Do we want the ‘best’ in the sense of inspiring children to love literature? What kind of ‘best’ is best?

Now it appears that, when Mr Gove talked about giving children access to ‘the best that has been thought and written’, he actually meant ‘in the 19th Century’ and ‘if you venture into the twentieth century, then only by the writers of the British Isles’. But if you’re going to say that you want ‘the best’, and you narrow that with geographical and historical boundaries, you are hoist by your own petard. Because it appears that Mr Gove didn’t mean ‘the best’, he meant ‘what I personally believe is the best’. In truth, I’m not that concerned about my own children. They read widely already. It would take a damned awful book to destroy their love of reading. But I worry about those children who do not come from a background where they read for pleasure. Because books are not medicine: you can’t feed a child a dose of Dickens or Austen to overcome social disadvantage. You are more likely to perpetuate the gap if you tell children that only some authors are approved as being ‘good for them’.

Books act as a window into another world. They give us access to other lives, to other ways of living and different ways of thinking. When you inhabit a story character, you are transported into another time and place. It doesn’t matter that the characters in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies are all boys, when I read it I was Ralph, desperate for a sense of order and democracy. It doesn’t matter that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the southern states of the US, when I read it I was Scout, confused and devastated by inequality and hatred. To my mind the ‘best’ books are those that we can inhabit. Those books where, when we finish reading them, we are not quite the same person as we were when we started. And I believe that knowing which books will achieve such a miracle is the skill of the English teacher, in their own context, and for their own students. So why not let the teachers decide which books are ‘best’ for their students? Now that’d be a novel idea.

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The Rules of Home School

1. Although we have a timetable, learning can take place at any time.

2. Your uniform is what you deem appropriate for our day’s activities. You decide.

3. Clean up after yourself (a.k.a. ‘life skills’).

4. Handwriting matters.

5. Reading for pleasure is never wasted time. Read, read, read, then read some more.

6. You can wear nail polish if you want. It just didn’t occur to you to ask yet.

7. It won’t always be what you want, but we’ll try our best to make it what you need.

8. Our world is made up of maths, and geography, and science, and history, and art, and drama, and music, and language, and all sorts of other wonderful things. The motto of Home School is that we hunt it all down. Together.

9. Please, go ahead and think sideways.

10. ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

(The grown-ups don’t have to make all the rules.)

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