Growing Weather

You have to time it right, sowing. Start too early and your seedlings will become leggy and soft as they wait to be planted out. Sow seeds outdoors in cold sodden soil, and you might as well throw them in the bin. There are ways to trick the weather: start your seeds in a propagator; grow them on in the warmest lightest place you can find; cover the soil where you are going to plant them with polythene to warm it up; use cloches to create a micro climate that will protect your plants as they grow. But don’t start earlier than it says on the seed packet – an early spell of fine weather can trick you into going too early and there’s always the chance of snow in April.

The funny thing is that when you let the plants decide when, where and how they want to grow, they pop up in all the best places, and grow strongly where you wouldn’t have thought to plant them. Today, I found native primroses that had seeded themselves in a shady bark path, behind my greenhouse. A rosemary had layered itself in the border, making me a new plant for free. Self seeded coriander and rocket are busy defying the weather in my raised allotment beds. I repositioned foxglove seedlings to make sure that they have space to grow, and I dug up strawberry runners to make more fruit for my family to eat and enjoy, and for me to defend against the badgers.

There are lots of things that it’s important to do, to make sure that your plants grow well. You have to give them the right soil, with the right nutrients, and if they’re growing inside, or if they’re outside and it doesn’t rain for a while, you must water them the right amount. Some plants need super sharp drainage and others need wet roots. You need to give your seedlings enough light, and if they’re on a window sill you need to turn them so that they grow straight and tall. You must pot them on at the right time, and you should definitely acclimatise them gradually to their outdoor positions. But the one thing that you must never, ever do, is to crush or tread on them. (Even if you’re laying a lawn, designed to walk on, you don’t tread on it while it is establishing itself.) Because you’ll never grow a strong plant if you keep flattening it down and small plants aren’t as tough as old ones.

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Coping with Critique

These days, when you put anything into the public domain, you can expect to receive critique on it. On the world wide web, the world is watching and many people will be perfectly happy to tell you what they think about what you do. As a writer, a key aspect of my work has been learning how to cope with criticism. Over twenty years I’ve managed to move beyond simply coping with critique, and have learned how to channel it to get better at what I do. Positive reviews are lovely, but they’re not actually much use in helping you improve. As I explained in this blog, as an author it is the negative reviews that you really need to listen to, and to dig through, for any nuggets of critical gold they might contain. Your readers have every right to tell you what they think of your book, or your video, or your training, or your conference. They might or might not be right, in your opinion, but if you block out any negative critique with defensiveness, you miss out on the opportunity to develop and improve.

There are two key difficulties in coping with critique. The first is that this is your ‘baby’ – you spend months or even years writing a book, or organising an event, and it comes to feel like a part of you. It’s very easy to get critique of your ideas confused with critique of you as a person, when your ideas are so closely bound to the thing you have created. The second problem is that people generally have quite fragile egos, and it can feel like an attack on yourself to hear someone flag up any potential issues with what you have done. This is especially so if you are someone in the public eye, because you get so used to positive feedback that it builds up your ego probably past the point which is sensible, and then any negative feedback can feel like an affront. My partner has a very useful reminder for me, when someone has praised me and I am all wrapped up in how wonderful I am at what I do. He says “don’t get too up yourself”. And he’s right.

Last year, I was part of a team of early years educators involved in setting up a conference called Firm Foundations. We did all the work in our spare time. (In fact, pretty much all of my early years work is as a volunteer – my contact with the sector arises out of having been the chair of committee at my local preschool for the last ten years. Most of my paid work is in secondary schools, rather than in primaries or early years settings.) Anyway, after the event was over, we were challenged by a couple of colleagues about the lack of diversity in our line-up. It was easy at this point to become defensive, and to point out that we had tried to get a diverse range of speakers. But that’s not the point, and our defensiveness was not appropriate – the line-up was what it was, and there wasn’t enough diversity. And that was our problem to deal with as conference organisers, rather than being the problem of people who weren’t available to speak, or of people who had pointed it out. We needed to keep trying until it was sorted, not to throw our hands in the air and say “well we tried!”.

Our second Firm Foundations conference is happening shortly, and I am grateful to the people who critiqued us last time round, because it meant that we worked to get a much more diverse selection of speakers this time. But even now, the point is that, if someone were to raise a concern with me again, about another aspect of what we had done, I would have a long hard think about whether there was anything valid in what they were saying. If I didn’t feel there was, then fine, and there would be no need for me to become defensive about the challenge. But if I did think they might have a point, then their critique would be incredibly helpful. Because we can only improve at what we do, if we are open to the possibility that we might not always get everything completely right.

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Humble

I have a complicated relationship with humility. I suspect we all do. On the one hand, I like people who are humble about their achievements; who do what they do for the sake of doing it, and not for any public acclamation that might accompany it. On the other hand, I’m a writer and a public speaker by trade so my job involves sounding confident in front of other people. If I don’t believe in my own voice and my own ideas, I’m up the proverbial creek without a paddle. The irony of writing about humility in a blog post is not lost on me. I am hardly one to talk about how people should or shouldn’t get attention, since the word ‘buggers’ features in the title of some of my books, and I tend towards sweary in person.

If you want lots of press, it is useful say things that are controversial. Getting people to disagree with you pretty much ensures great coverage. It is also a good idea to point out your achievements – to say how great you are doing and how many wonderful things you have done. Unless you are the Pope there is no story, really, in humility. But the danger is that you can end up becoming that person who spams other people with your genius all the time. “Look at how I am changing the world,” you want to say, “see what a difference I have made!” Or that you fall so in love with your belief that everything you say and do is right that you think people need to hear about it more than they might want to. Both teachers and writers are prone to this fault, because in both jobs you can actually make a difference to your world. Although let’s be honest, the same could be said for many jobs – doctors, care workers, plumbers. If your pipe bursts in the cold weather, there’s only one person you want to turn up at your door.

There are a lot of angry people in the world at the moment. To be honest, I’m one of them. I look at the political situation in our country and all I can do is despair. It is easy to get infected by the idea that he who shouts loudest will win the race; that those who are humble will be lost. But the danger is that we all end up standing in different corners of a room, shouting at each other but never finding any common ground. So I can only think that maybe the best way for me to learn and to grow is not to take a position that I am right and that everybody else is wrong – that I have ‘the truth’ or ‘the answer’ and if only everyone listened to me and did what I said then everything would be fine. Maybe the best way for me to learn and to grow is to accept that I don’t know everything and that I can’t change the world, but that if I keep my head down and I focus, I might just be able to make a difference to my tiny corner of it.

I’ve been planting lots of seeds over the last couple of weeks. At this time of year it’s an act of hopelessly optimistic faith (some might even say madness) to get the propagator going, especially when 5-10 centimetres of snow are forecast overnight. But what the hell, while all around you chaos reigns, when the news is filled with politicians hating on each other, and hopeless attempts at resolving the mess the UK is in, you have to have something to look forward to and to give you hope. My tiny seedlings are popping their heads above the compost, fooled by the warmth into germinating earlier than is sensible. I will nurture them, turning them daily so that they don’t get leggy, keeping them warm until they are ready to brave the cold greenhouse, then get potted on and eventually put outdoors. Because one day, the sun will rise warm and bold and the cold hard times might even be over. And I will be ready to plant them out and in time I should hopefully get to crop them. And as I do I will whisper to myself as humbly as I can, “Yes, it was me, who grew this.”

Posted in Allotment, Learning | 1 Comment

A Child Called It

Just before Christmas, Ofsted published a suite of materials on curriculum, ahead of the consultation on their new Inspection Framework. One of the videos is  on ‘Early Reading’ and it features Ofsted’s Regional Director for the South West – Bradley Simmons. Biographical information about Mr Simmons is not easy to find online, beyond a brief description on Ofsted’s own website telling us he used to be a head teacher. There are a handful of news stories about the upset he caused in Swindon when he wrote a report saying that children were “failed by its schools at every key stage”. But my guess is that there is no point at which Simmons has worked with children in the EYFS.

Early reading is a pretty controversial subject, particularly on social media forums such as Twitter. Ofsted had previously promised not to tell teachers ‘how to teach’ but Simmons is keen to get stuck into the subject and to share his forthright views on exactly what you should be doing in your classroom. Unfortunately, though, his views are badly phrased and inaccurate, although they do inadvertently tell us quite a bit both about Ofsted’s attitude to early years, and also about how keen they are to separate Reception from the rest of the phase. Simmons appears not to know that the Early Years Foundation Stage runs from birth to age five. He uses the words “from the very moment that a child starts in the EYFS” to describe the child’s entry to school, apparently failing to understand that most EYFS provision is in non school settings, and that only a handful of children enter a Reception class without ever having attended an early years setting before.

According to Simmons “There’s no more important intervention and assessment in the early years foundation stage than checking that children are making the right progress with reading”. This ties in nicely with claims in Bold Beginnings about reading being the “core purpose” of Reception. However, even if you accept this as a premise, there is a hell of a lot more to early reading than phonics. Parents of a child with language delay, or glue ear, or any one of a number of potential issues that might require support prior to learning phonics, are swept aside in his determination that “every child masters the phonic code as quickly as possible”. He uses the word “furious” to describe the way in which teachers should approach the teaching of phonics, a word that might not sit well with parents. If I was the parent of a summer born four year old, and I was considering deferring entry to Reception, the way he says “furious” would be more than enough justification for me.

To compound the confusion, Simmons confuses decoding with comprehension, suggesting that decoding is the same thing as reading, in a verbal sleight of hand worthy of Nick Gibb: “from there [phonics] of course comes the ability to actually decode words to read them and to comprehend a larger text”. But perhaps most tellingly and worryingly of all Simmons uses the word “it” to refer to children, not once but twice. He wants us to “teach it to read fluently” and to ensure that “every child is getting what it needs”. And I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sit at all well with me. If I was asked to give this video an inspection, it would fail in every area. It’s only a short video, but it packs in a lot of issues. You really must do better, Ofsted – it’s our taxes you are spending on this.

Posted in EYFS | 1 Comment

The Medium and the Message

Just before Christmas, Ofsted published a series of short videos on YouTube about their proposed new Education Inspection Framework, with specific reference to the focus they are going to be putting on Curriculum in future inspections. The Framework is going out to consultation shortly (information is to be published on 16th January) and it will come into operation from September of this year, so time is fairly short for schools and settings to get to grips with the new approach. One of the videos in the set is entitled ‘Vocabulary and Reading’, and it features footage and images of early years children, including the still seen above (this is actually an image from the cover of the Bold Beginnings report). The video features Gill Jones, Ofsted’s Deputy Director of Early Education, and at the point in the video when we see the still, she makes the following claim: “The most rapid way for children to increase their vocabulary is through listening to stories, rhymes, poems, that they can then internalise, repeat and learn new words and the meaning of new words through those stories. It is the most rapid way to gain vocabulary.”

No one who works in early years would dispute the idea that reading, stories and nursery rhymes play a fundamental role in childhood, and that they form a vital part of early education. In the early years setting that I help to run, they are a key part of our daily offer to our children and their families. When parents arrive to drop off their children, they choose a picture book together from the box, to take away with them and share at home. We give advice and support to parents on reading with their children. We read a story to the children every day, and we share nursery rhymes daily at snack time, using Makaton signs as we sing. However, what we do not do is to instruct the children in vocabulary, and get them to repeat it. We don’t need to! New words appear as if by magic at this age, when practitioners talk to and with their children during hands on activities. When I went into preschool earlier today, our lead practitioner was talking with the children as they made snacks together, using language around cutting, food and colours, and the preparation and sharing of a meal. “It’s a purple pepper!” the lead practitioner said, merrily playing with vocabulary. “No it’s not – it’s red!” the children informed her in response.

During the video we see footage of a group of very small children sat in an outdoor area (looking more than a bit cold and fed up, if truth be told). They are all togged up for what looks to be an exciting outdoor learning or forest school session. But instead of romping around in the mud and the water, chatting merrily about what they are learning, they are listening to an adult talk. I’d imagine that the footage was set up for the camera, rather than representing usual practice in the setting, but that is exactly the point. We are seeing a model of direct vocabulary instruction in the early years, a method that would normally play only a tiny part in the work that we do. These images have been chosen to send a specific message, because that is how video works. Match the images to the voiceover as the children are sat listening and the message becomes clear: “So if we take children in the early years, for example, it’s very important that teachers are aware what sort of vocabulary could be picked up through the activities that children are doing, but what needs to be taught quite explicitly through reading to children.”

Where a taxpayer funded organisation says that its approach is based on evidence, and it puts videos into the public domain to show the thinking behind its new inspection framework, it is important that the claims made can be backed up with evidence. I cannot find any evidence to support the claim that listening to stories is “the most rapid way to increase” a child’s vocabulary, especially in the early years. Yet this is a claim that is made and emphasised not once but twice in the video, over footage of our youngest learners. Despite requests for a link to the research to support this claim, Ofsted have been unable or unwilling to provide it. The video has already had over 2,000 views and some of those viewers might have taken away the message that Ofsted wants more sitting and listening to develop early language, and less hands on interactive learning. This is a lesson that Ofsted do not appear to have learned from the images on the cover of Bold Beginnings – that the medium (the pictures, the video, the very words that you choose to use) contains the message that you want to send. Unless, of course, this is the message that was intended. If it had been phrased as “one useful way” there would be nothing to see here.

Why does all this matter? Why all the fuss? Why not wait and see what the consultation materials say next week? Well first and foremost, because ‘consultations’ have a habit of turning into a fait accompli, when it comes to this government. And also because, more than a year since publication, concerns about Bold Beginnings rumble on in the early years sector. These concerns are particularly around the potential for the report to lead to increased formalisation within the phase, both in Reception and via a ‘trickledown effect’ to an ever younger age. I am already hearing teachers and parents report that children are doing more formal phonics instruction in nursery, and yesterday I heard that in one Reception class play ‘stops after Easter’ in order to prepare for Key Stage One and SATs. Sector concerns are not going to be ameliorated by videos that seem to encourage more teacher led input and explicit instruction of vocabulary, without any evidence to support what we are told is the most rapid method to learn new words. The video explains that our “educational programmes” should “focus on increasing children’s vocabulary” and we are shown how this should happen in the film.

While reading stories to our children is a valuable and wonderful part of the EYFS, and a great way to give children access to new words and new worlds, it is not the only or the main factor in language development from birth to five years old. There are a range of ways in which language acquisition happens in the early years, but at heart it is about warm and attentive interactions between children and their carers, particularly during play. ‘Serve and return’ conversations, sustained shared thinking, role play and talk during hands on experiences – all these will contribute to children developing vocabulary. Although stories play an important part, early language acquisition is not about being static, listening to an adult, following instructions, or memorising words given to you out of context. It is about using language within rich, meaningful, enabling environments in the company of supportive adults, whether that is them reading you a story, or working alongside you as you play and learn. When the medium is video, the words and images chosen matter, and to me the message is clear: the new Framework comes with an agenda, but without the evidence to back it up.

 

If you’d like to watch the video, you can find it here:

Posted in Bold Beginnings, EYFS, Ofsted | 1 Comment

Joining the Dots

At the same time as testing increases and we put ever more pressure on children to achieve high academic results we see rising rates of poor mental health in young people.

At the same time as schools are being put under ever increasing pressure of accountability, the curriculum is narrowing and potential off-rolling is raising serious concerns.

At the same time as exams have got harder, funding has got tighter and SEND support has been cut, behaviour is back in the headlines and exclusion rates are up.

At the same time as workload demands on teachers have got higher, and school funding has got lower, we have a serious recruitment and retention problem.

At the same time as child poverty has risen, children are in settings longer and parents are working longer hours, Ofsted talk about a rise in toileting issues in young children.

And in a stroke of genius, at the same time as we have a developing obesity crisis in children, they promote an approach to early education in which children have to sit still. (The obesity might not be their fault, but they could at least read the NHS Guidelines.)

We could argue forever about whether these things are linked – to what extent correlation or causation might be involved – but we’re talking about children here. So the DfE needs to get busy on joining the dots.

Posted in Accountability, Behaviour, Government, Ofsted | 1 Comment

In Partnership

One of the key elements of being in EYFS is that we work in partnership with our parents and families. This phase is about the care, learning and development of the children who attend our settings. Small children have many developmental needs, including things like toilet training, so we have work closely with families to support them as well as we can. Most young children in the 0-4 age group are in PVI (private, voluntary and independent) settings, but many schools also take children from 2 years old and sometimes younger. There is no single moment when a child is ‘toilet trained’ and children might have accidents in Nursery, Reception and later on. This can be distressing for both them and their parents. Children with SEND and medical situations may have continence issues for a variety of reasons and to describe these children and their parents as having to be “excused” as “extreme cases” is unhelpful.

Where we face a situation in which parents are struggling to toilet train, or to do other things that we might say are ‘their job’, we need to think about why that might be happening. What is it about policy or practice that is causing this phenomenon? Parents are working longer hours, so children are in settings for many more hours than they used to be. There seem to be ever more demands on children, at ever younger times. Settings can’t just down tools and refuse to step up, so telling parents what to do is unlikely to help, because it doesn’t reflect the realities faced by families, early years settings and schools. None of us can take the children we work with and replace them with children who aren’t affected by government policies.

Schools are being given an endless list of things to ‘solve’ and this needs to stop, but blaming parents isn’t going to help anyone and it might even make things worse. The statutory EYFS framework in England gives guidance about the duties of settings in relation to children’s toileting (see p.30, point 3.60). The early learning goals require that settings support children to “manage their own basic hygiene and personal needs successfully, including dressing and going to the toilet independently.” (see p.11) If there is research evidence available showing problems in this aspect of child development, then government organisations should disseminate it. But anecdotes don’t meet research standards and the headlines about parents they generate are often unhelpful. Settings are working in partnership with parents on behalf of their children, because that’s what we are there for. And it’d be great if Ofsted could stop doing things that get in the way of that.

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