Getting the Parents to Behave

This week, a couple of fascinating school uniform stories hit the news. In a speech to the CBI the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said that wearing uniform gives children “a lesson in how to be employable”. In The Guardian, a head teacher who sent 150 children home for uniform breaches was quoted as saying that “Being kind to the children is a camouflage often for low expectations.” As a parent, these comments spark off a number of questions in my mind. Is the key purpose of education to make my children ‘employable’? How many (and what kind of) workplaces require a uniform? Are we seriously saying that being kind to children is wrong? What on earth do these mass exclusions do to long term parent/school relationships? And, where exactly is the evidence linking school uniform to children’s learning?

Setting all these questions to one side, though, what both stories seem to miss is the fact that it is not children who have to afford, and pay for, and wash, and (perhaps) iron, a school uniform. It is their parents. Essentially, what we are seeing here is a message of compliance being sent to parents, rather than to children. Do as you are told, the message seems to be, or your child will not be entitled to an education. Increasingly, I see schools with complex, expensive uniforms, ones that presumably cost hard-pressed parents an arm and a leg. And it does make me start to wonder whether uniform, and compliance with a complex uniform code, is turning into a covert form of selection.

There are two ways you can get people to behave as you want – you can either encourage and support them to do it, or you can punish them for not doing it, by making them afraid of the consequences. When I send my children to school, what I hope for is a partnership, focused on my children’s learning, happiness, and well-being. Regardless of Ofsted reports or exam results, this is what I’d imagine many parents want. As a parent, I try my very best to be supportive of my children’s schools. I send my children into school wearing the correct uniform. If an item goes missing, I can afford to buy a replacement. I know why it is important for me to back up school. (And yes, I’m aware that some parents do not.) But not only do I support my children’s schools by sending them in correct uniform, my children’s schools support me and their other parents, in achieving this. And here’s how they do it:

* The uniform is good value, easy to get hold of in local shops, and washable.

* The uniform is comfortable, my children are happy to wear it, and it does not impede learning in any way. (Whatever Sir Michael might say, school is not a workplace, it is a learning place.)

* I was given clear information about what I needed to buy, and where to buy it.

* I had the choice of buying cheaper ‘non badge’ school tops if I did not want to, or could not afford to, buy the school version.

* There are no complicated and potentially costly rules about things such as the colour of bags and coats.

* There is a sensible attitude to missing or lost uniform – teachers help you and your child track it down.

* If I needed to, I could buy a complete set of uniform, including shoes, for less than £100.

* The focus is not on uniform (frankly, this feels like a side issue); the focus is on children being in school to learn.

What is interesting to me is that these mass exclusions seem to be happening in schools that are struggling. A crackdown on school uniform becomes a symbolic crackdown on a lack of parental compliance. And this makes me uneasy, because it seems to suggest that for some parents, in some kinds of schools, the focus is on encouragement and support. While in others, the message essentially boils down to: comply, or else.

Posted in Uniform | 2 Comments

I’ve Got My Mindset On You

A a child, my dream was to become a ballet dancer. This was all that I wanted to do. I had what you might call a ‘total growth mindset’ around dancing. I trained for hours each night after school. I practised my pointe work until my toes bled. At the age of sixteen I swept out of the school gates as fast as I could, and went to study at the Central School of Ballet. My teachers included the wonderful, inspirational Christopher Gable. Dance is a highly competitive field. To get to the top, it is not enough just to work hard, you need the right body as well. Some of my fellow students had beautifully arched feet, which looked perfect in pointe shoes. I did not. Some of my fellow students could do the side splits or hold an arabesque at 120 degrees or more. I could not. (Believe me, this was not for lack of trying.) In the end, injury forced my life down a different pathway. But even if it hadn’t, I would never have been Darcey Bussell or Sylvie Guillem. I was corps de ballet or cruise ship material, not soloist or prima ballerina.

I love the idea that effort is more important than attainment. However, I have some niggling concerns about the way that children and young people may interpret this message. When they hear us say ‘you’ll get better at this if you work harder’, will they hear ‘you didn’t get to the top because you didn’t try hard enough’? I’m also troubled about the messages we may send to children with SEND.  For some children, that tiny step forwards took a massive effort of will. For others, it was as natural as breathing. I was a nervous child, conscientious about my school work, desperate to do well. The idea that I’d get to the top as a dancer if only I was thinner, or worked harder, was tempting to believe. This led to some psychological problems that took a good few years post-dancing to overcome. My son said to me the other night that he didn’t want to move up to the top maths set, because he didn’t want the ‘stress and pressure of being a top set kid’. And while part of me thought ‘Don’t be so lazy!’, another part of me thought back to myself as a child, and wondered whether that wasn’t a pretty sensible attitude to take.

Posted in mindset | 4 Comments

*BAD* Review

There’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ book review. There’s such a thing as a negative one, sure, and it’s perfectly possible to find badly written book reviews, or unnecessarily personal ones (don’t worry, your readers have a brain just like you). But for an author, any review is better than no review at all. The question ‘How do I get people to review my book?’ is one that haunts new authors. My book ‘Getting the Buggers to Behave‘ has been in print for 15 years. Over those years, it has picked up lots of print reviews, and 65 Amazon ones. Some are glowing (thank you!), others are tepid (oh dear), and some are downright lousy (ouch). But as a writer, I cannot control what my readers make of my book. I do not have the right to control what my readers make of my book. I can only write it, and send it off into the world, where it may well get a bloody nose or two.

If you hang around on writing forums (as I sometimes do) you will quickly stumble upon the solid gold advice that you should never respond to reviews. Yes, I know it’s your baby, but it is not your job to tell your readers what they should think about your book. Do not underestimate your reader reviewers or dismiss them out of hand. When you get negative comments, take them under consideration: they may have hit on something about your book that could be better, which is always a good plan. Store them in the back of your mind for when you write the next edition. Do not let positive reviews go to your head – ‘Don’t get too up yourself,’ as my other half usefully reminds me from time to time. Just because you wrote a book does not mean you are special or different. You are just someone who happened to write a book. Negative reviews, glowing reviews, they all come with the territory when you’re a writer. Suck it up or suck it down, and then get on with writing the next one.

Posted in Books, Writing | 1 Comment


*Warning: this Blog contains Emotion.

The word ‘judgement’ has a split personality. It can be decisive, harsh and final: “She stood in judgement and found him wanting.” But it can also be sensitive, subtle, responsive: “He made a judgement about the best way to help her.” As a teacher, I use my judgement in many ways. I judge the best way to get my ideas across (based on experience and research). I judge the most useful material to include (based on research and experience). And I judge in the moment – these people, this place, that time. This is where my intuition comes in: engage, react, decide, intuit what is needed now, based on all that I have learned before.

My instinct says that teaching is as much about the personal, individual, creative, as it is about the specific and the standardised. It feels right when I teach, so I aim to pick that apart for others, to help them get to ‘feels right’ too. I have a funny feeling that we will look back and wonder quite what we were doing trying to iron all the difference out of everything. And my intuition tells me that, if we specify one ‘right way’ to teach, we may lose something that we didn’t realise we had, until it was gone.

(Of course, I may be wrong.)

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A Question of Style

I was teaching overseas when the idea of ‘learning styles’ landed in the UK. On my return to England, I was surprised to see posters in schools announcing the importance of ‘VAK’. What was this ‘VAK’ thing everyone was talking about? (I soon found out, although I never gave my children a ‘learning styles questionnaire’.) These days, mentioning the idea of learning styles on Twitter will elicit an incredulous flurry of responses: ‘Didn’t you know that idea has been discredited?’ and ‘Haven’t you seen Dan Willingham’s ‘Learning Styles don’t Exist’ video?’ But still the idea persists, as David Didau points out here. In which case, it is probably sensible for us to ask the question: “Why?”

It may be heresy to say this, but I suspect the reason the concept persists is because “the best way to learn the shape of a map of Australia” is still different for different children. Yes, a map of a country is visual, but if we change the word ‘learn’ to the word ‘remember’, then the notion starts to make sense. For some children, the best way to retain the shape of a country might be to visualise it, for instance as an animal shape, that they ‘see’ when they recall it. For other children, perhaps the best way to remember the shape is to draw it several times over. And for some children, maybe the best way to store the shape in their memories is to walk around a drawing on the floor, locating the landscape features.

While the children are all still retaining a visual shape, the way that they embed that shape into their memories may be different. Yes, the concept they are learning is still visual, but the way they retain and retrieve it may be different. I found this effect particularly striking when I asked a question on Twitter about how people recall their times tables. I was taken aback at the diversity of the responses. Some people saw a number line, others recalled the image of a number, others heard music or rhythms. I wonder if some of the ‘learning styles don’t exist’ discussion comes down to convenience, and the nature of how schools work. With high numbers of students (especially at secondary) it is hard to individualise our methods of instruction. In an early years setting, with higher adult to child ratios, we have space and time to personalise our approaches. We can explore the schemas our children use to make sense of their world, and adapt our methods to encompass them.

Perhaps the answer (or the problem, depending on how you look at it) is not that ‘learning styles don’t exist’, but rather that we are calling them the wrong thing? Maybe, rather than talking about learning styles, we should just start calling them memory styles instead?

Posted in Learning, Memory | 4 Comments

Because You Have To

This half term we built a two metre high guinea pig run. (No, we don’t have 2 metre high guinea pigs, we just couldn’t stand upright in the old run.) I am below National Standards in DIY, but we had a powerful motivation to get the run built – we wanted to catch and handle our guinea pigs and this is tricky to do when you are bent double. We had to do it, so we figured out how to get it done. The most magical relationship you can have with learning is to do it because you have to, not because someone else says you must. I get this when I write – I’m powerless to resist the urge to spill out my thoughts, and I have an obsessive focus on making my expression of them as near perfect as possible. Now, I’m not saying that our guinea pig run is anywhere near perfect, but we were deeply engaged with the process of building it. We bought the materials at a builder’s yard, we dug the holes for the posts, we attached the chicken wire and we made the run secure. It was muddy, hard work and a very steep learning curve. There were times when it was not a lot of fun, but after all our hard work we ended up with something new and rather wonderful.

Engagement is not an event, it is a scale. There are some things our children do simply because they must. “Pick up your clothes off the floor – it’s your mess.” “Tidy your room or I’ll hoover up your Lego.” Our children do not exactly skip with joy when they are doing these things: their engagement levels are low, but they understand that they must be done. Some activities in school are like this – it’s hard to make them engaging, the children do them because they must. But with skill, creativity and a following wind, we can figure out how to make a lot of activities engaging – we can give them a sense of purpose and show why they are of value. We can help children see that there’s a good reason to keep going, even when it’s not much fun. And that is what I mean when I use the word ‘engagement’.

Posted in Children, Engagement | 2 Comments


1. I will try to model the behaviour I want to receive. I will remember that I am a professional educator and that those I work with may read my tweets.

2. I will focus on sharing ideas, offering positive feedback, being supportive, friendly, and (hopefully) funny.

3. I will try not to swear. In extremis I will use asterixes but I will never swear directly at anyone. Mostly, I will just think it and not say it. (Alternatively, I will moonlight as @SuperWork2 or @BadTeacherTrainer.)

4. I will ask other people what they think, and try to take their viewpoints into account.

5. I will not expend valuable energy trying to get everyone to agree with me in 140 characters. I will remember that I can always write a book and then they can disagree with me in 50,000 words.

6. I will acknowledge when I make a mistake, and apologise if I am rude or if I upset someone.

7. I will remember that sometimes, if I can’t say anything nice, then it is better if I don’t say anything at all.


Posted in Writing | 7 Comments