An Open Letter

As parents and educators we find ourselves increasingly concerned at the pressure that is being placed on our children and young people. We worry about the long term impact that this pressure may have on our children’s emotional health, particularly on the most vulnerable in our society. We are concerned to hear of children crying on their way to school, upset that they will not be able to keep up; of parents worried that their four year olds are ‘falling behind’ or of six year olds scared that they ‘might not get a good job’. And we wonder what has happened to that short period in our lives known as ‘childhood’.

The pressure that is put on schools to achieve results, particularly in the tests that now form such a regular feature of a child’s life, has inevitably led to increased pressure on the children themselves. This is not to blame teachers, or schools. Rather, it is to say that with test results becoming such a high stakes feature of our education system, schools are put in a very difficult position. When test results are the key measure of whether a child’s school is ‘good’ or not, we believe that every child’s entitlement to a broad and balanced education is put at risk. We believe all children have the right to become fully rounded individuals, and that in order to help them achieve this, we must protect their emotional well-being, now and for the future. We believe all children have the right to be treated as individuals, and to be allowed to develop at a pace that is right for them, not to meet a Government target.

We call for all those who are equally concerned to speak out against the direction in which education in England, and in other countries around the world, is moving. We call for governments around the world to take into account children’s emotional well-being when they consider the ‘effectiveness’ of schools and other educational settings. If you would like to join us in sending this message to those in government, please add your name, and any title/location, to the comments thread below in order to ‘sign’.

Thank you,

Sue Cowley – Parent, author, educator and chair of preschool committee, Bristol, England

Laura Henry – Parent, independent early years consultant, trainer, writer and author, London, England

Debra Kidd – Parent, teacher and author, England

Hywel Roberts – Parent, author and travelling teacher, Yorkshire, England

Elizabeth Holmes – Parent, educator and author, England

Tim Taylor – Parent and teacher, England

Meraud Ferguson Hand – Parent, England

Chris Chivers - Grandparent, ex head teacher, consultant, ITT, tutor, blogger, England

Kate Evans - Parent, educator and head teacher, Scotland

Nancy Gedge - Parent, teacher and blogger, Gloucestershire, England

Emma Hardy – Parent, primary teacher, blogger and activist, England

Di Leedham - Parent and teacher, London, England

Mary Cooper - Parent and educator, Lancashire, England

Neil Leitch – chief executive, Pre-school Learning Alliance

Please support the Too Much Too Soon Campaign.

Posted in Children | 466 Comments

We All Line Up

There are many reasons why we need to use routines in our teaching spaces. Routines are a helpful ‘shorthand’ for getting things done quickly and efficiently. Routines help us ensure that the children are safe, and that there is a calm, purposeful atmosphere in which to learn. Routines let the children feel safe and secure, because they know what is coming and what they are being asked to do. And routines can be a brilliant way for you to ‘get at’ certain aspects of learning (which, after all, is the purpose of school.) One key routine that is needed, particularly in the primary school, is a routine for how children line up, and how they move around the school, for instance to assembly or in from break.

Method One: Tightly Controlled (The Basic Line)

Learning Objectives: How to follow instructions; why it is important to follow instructions; learning self-control; waiting your turn.

This approach is useful when you are starting out with a class. It offers a secure and controlled way of getting your children into a line and learning how to move around safely. It is very useful indeed for ‘fire drill’ lines. With the children sitting in their seats, or on the carpet, explain that you are going to talk about lining up. Ask the children what they think – why do we use lines, what kinds of behaviours are important when lining up, what does a ‘great’ line look like, and how should they move safely around the school? Next choose a leader for your line – “Let’s see who looks like they would be a great leader for our line … ah, Nancy is sitting beautifully and listening, Nancy would you go and take the front spot in our line?” Make sure that you have a different line leader each time, and aim for every child to get a turn. You could also choose a reliable child to go at the back of the line (which is typically where issues arise anyway). Now allow the children to join the line, a few at a time, using lots of personalised praise to encourage them. Once your line is in place, you can practise moving in and out of the classroom, and around the school, quietly and sensibly. Talk a lot about why this is important, as you do so.

Method Two: Target + Team Work (The Increasingly Independent Line)

Learning Objectives: How to work cooperatively; how to behave independently; learning self-control when working as part of a group; meeting targets.

Once your children have got the hang of the ‘basic line’, you can start to spice things up a bit. This may feel scary at first, as you are handing over the responsibility to your children. What if it all goes wrong? (If it does, pull back from the activity and begin over again. Use ‘the fun’ to encourage them to control their own behaviour.) This time, explain to the children that you are going to give them a specific target to achieve, when making their line. This might be to line up: without making a single sound; in less than 20 seconds (without any pushing); in height order, with the shortest first; in reverse height order; in order of their birth dates; in alphabetical order of their first names, and so on. Depending on how old the children are, and how well they work together, they may need some support and help in doing this. If necessary, break the activity down into stages, or model it first for them.

Method Three: Imaginative Focus (The Creative Line)

Learning Objectives: Using an imagined focus; building personal creativity; developing self-control; developing the imagination; movement skills.

This is the ‘line with the cherry on top’. You take a simple routine and develop it into a place where creative thinking can happen, both for the teacher and for the children. This time, tell the children that they are going to move into the line, and around the school, with a specific imaginative focus. Explain to them that an observer should be able to figure out what the focus is, without being told. You could mention that this is what drama does for us. Your children may become over-excited with this approach, so have a clear expectation of calm and sensible behaviour. Your imaginative focus might be to line up: in slow motion; as though they are in zero gravity; as if they are trudging through mud; as though the floor is sticky; imagining that there is a sleeping giant under the floor; pretending that the floor is very fragile and might easily break; in the manner of … (a police officer, a very old person, a monster, a king or queen).

If teaching was purely a science, you could create a set of ‘methods for routines’, ones that would work for everyone, in all circumstances. However, it is not. Teaching is partly a science, for sure, but it is also an art form, a craft and a ‘humanity’ (in the sense that it is about working with young people, in all their messy, wonderful complexity). The routines we use need to work for us, and our children, in our own specific contexts. And we should never forget that (as with everything we do in school) routines are about more than just control, they are about learning too.

A great post on lining up/entry routines at secondary school by Mark Anderson (@ICTEvangelist) can be found here.

(You can find more imaginative ideas for routines in my book ‘The Creative Classroom’.)

Posted in Behaviour, Children, Communication, Creativity, Drama, Learning, Primary, Teaching and learning | 1 Comment

Uniform-(ity)

When I was a kid, we didn’t have much money. So when I started at secondary school, and they brought in a smart new green wool expensive blazer, I got to wear my sister’s old blue nylon one instead. Maybe this was an early example of the bigotry of low expectations, but at the time it just felt like a kindness. We used to do a bit of uniform personalisation. We would tuck our jumpers into our skirts (the Horror!), do weird knotty stuff with our ties, and cover our canvas satchels with slogans and designs.

Uniform is a peculiarly British love affair. I can imagine our friends on the Continent shrugging their shoulders at our choice of battlegrounds. The clothes we choose to wear help define us, so it’s weird that we ask all children to wear the same thing. There are lots of positives to uniform. For parents, it means that you know what your children are going to wear and that they look smart (if you like that kind of thing). For schools it gives an identity and a way of showing children what it means to ‘follow the rules’. For children, it is a common ground, a place where you don’t have to be different just because you can’t afford the right clothes. The best uniform pleases everyone. It is:

* Practical, hard wearing and washable;

* Good value and easy to get hold of;

* Colourful and comfy;

* Clear in its sense of identity;

* Used consistently;

* Enforced fairly but flexibly, as appropriate;

* Useful for creating a group identity, as in house colours;

* Open to an element of personalisation by the children (especially in helping design school badges if you get the chance);

* Only a small part of managing behaviour in classrooms.

The mistake comes if you get too obsessive with the details; when enforcing uniform becomes a method for ensuring control and conformity. Honestly, we don’t have to blot out every rainbow umbrella. We can let go of uniformity, and maybe even allow a bit of lateral thinking into our uniforms as well. And that way, we won’t forget that what we’re actually there for is learning.

Posted in Behaviour, Uniform | 1 Comment

How to Write Tight

“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.” Emily Dickinson

I love quotes. They are like little golden nuggets of great writing. They catch something tight inside you and they make it shimmer. Maybe the secret of great writing is to make sure every sentence is worthy of being quoted. When you write tight, every word counts. When you write loose, you assume your readers will stick with you, that they are totally invested in what you are saying. Tight writing is all in the edit, and editing is a writer’s job. Yes, writing is a form of free expression, but your readers have the choice of when to stop. On that note, I’ll shut up and give you my top tight writing tips.

Don’t:

* mistake the first draft for the finished product

* mistake long words for clever thinking

* be self-indulgent.

Do:

* risk a change of form to keep things tight – turn an essay into a play

* let your ideas come first, then sculpt them into shape

* turn the passive into the active, the general into the personal

* find your voice.

As a reader, I will stick with a piece of writing if it resonates with me, and I will stop reading if it doesn’t. As the writer, you get to do the editing. And that means a focus on form, title, structure, ideas, paragraphs, sentences, words. This is not a problem, however, because (a) it’s fun and (b) editing is the way you scrub the dirt off your thinking, and make it shine.

(And you are welcome to quote me on that.)

Posted in Blogging, Creativity, Writing | 2 Comments

Early Years Play is …

It would be hard to overstate the importance of brilliant early years practitioners when using play to support children’s learning and development. Early years play is …

* carefully structured to ensure conceptual development in all areas of the curriculum;

* imaginatively resourced to ensure that learning opportunities are maximised (you should see our cupboard!);

* timed to perfection (this really matters with small children), so that there is group time, free time, busy time, quiet time and, of course, story time;

* focused on language and conceptual development through the use of talk and sustained shared thinking;

* guided and structured through the use of routines, timings and patterns;

* child initiated, adult initiated and adult directed as appropriate;

* focused on social and emotional development, and independent skills such as toileting, dressing and sharing;

* highly personalised, with the use of key workers, next steps, learning journeys and home visits (we use a ratio of at least one adult to five children);

* a way of identifying any special needs at an early point, and intervening as needed;

* often done outdoors, so that children learn about the natural world, use all their senses, build strength and find out how to calm themselves;

* intensely creative, with the use of provocations, pretending and masses of glitter;

* a thing of beauty, wonder, love and sensitivity.

I’ve got to get back to playing with my family now. But I just wanted to say that, thanks to some brilliant early years practitioners, this is what learning through play actually looks like, at our modest, local and resolutely child centred preschool.

Posted in Children, Pedagogy, Play, Preschools, Teaching and learning | 3 Comments

Play is …

It would be hard to overstate the importance of play in children’s learning and development. Play is …

* the way that children interact with and consequently learn about their world;

* vital for developing language and acquiring new vocabulary;

* crucial for building both fine and gross motor skills;

* essential for learning how to share, socialise and build relationships with others;

* a brilliant way for children to express their emotions and develop their confidence;

* critical for helping children learn how to assess and manage risk;

* the way in which children come to understand the concept of symbolic representation;

* important for healthy physical development;

* vital for building creativity and imagination;

* the perfect way to explore new ideas and make new connections (as an adult, too).

It strikes me that the gap between what we call ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ children is at least partly about a deficit in opportunities to play. Today is National Play Day: the perfect opportunity to play with those you love (a child, a pet, a friend, yourself). I’m keen to go and play with my family on the beach, so I’ll stop there and wish a happy play day to one and all!

Posted in Children, Creativity, Early Years, Learning, Play, Preschools | 17 Comments

Sledgehammer

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.

Posted in Children, Flexibility, Government, Schools | Leave a comment