The Firmest Foundations

“No sitting at desks, we are too busy playing
No testing or labelling, hear what we’re saying
Be brave and be bold, make the firmest foundations
Build a garden! Take pride in the joy of creation.”

There is something magical about creating a thing that did not exist until you willed it into being, especially when you do so through the power of community. A garden, an allotment, a conference. The power to make all these things is sitting in our hands. If we gather our courage, and work with like minded people, we can make something happen that wouldn’t have existed if we hadn’t taken that leap of faith. This is how friendships are born. And this, for me, is how education should work. (I’m lucky enough to have had that experience of how schools should be for my children.) There are lots of problems in our education system at the moment: funding is a massive issue, people are worried about what the pressures of accountability are doing to children and teachers, and recruitment and retention seem to be in crisis. But there are also wonderful people doing good things.

The Firm Foundations conference last weekend, in which I played a small part, was a great example of this. It was a group of like minded people who felt passionate about early years, and who got together to share good practice on a warm April Saturday in a lovely canal side setting in London. Pretty much everyone I know is shouting out about how baseline is A Bad Idea and they are doing it with a united voice. There are collectives of people doing everything they can to keep education centered around the child. So things might seem a bit bleak at the moment, but they aren’t hopeless by any means. Groups in all the far corners of the Internet are taking up the causes that they feel passionate about, and making something out of nothing (Keeping Early Years Unique, More than a Score, #WomenEd and #BameEd to name but a few). I find it strange to see people question the value of group work, since it seems to lead to so many great things.

When you build something, you have to lay the firmest of foundations. If you hurry along and leap ahead with putting up the structure, you will only end up with a wobbly mess. You must lay your concrete slab or get your roots down into the soil if you want what you have set in motion to grow tall and strong. For children to get a good start in life, to put their roots down into the soil, they need to have a sense of community. They need to know that the adults and the children who are with them will love and guide and teach and play with them, gently and carefully, so that they can develop in their own good time. They are “being not becoming” as Helen Moylett so perfectly put it at the conference. Sharing the experience of learning with others, helps us figure out who we really want to be. So I’d like to say thank you to Ruth Swailes, Simona McKenzie, Nicky Clements, Claire Navaie and Helen Williams, for the hours of chat, for the friendship, and for creating something that didn’t exist before. And for showing me what #FirmFoundations really means.

Posted in EYFS, Firm Foundations, Group Work | Leave a comment

If You Build It

I wanted to share a short story with you
It may sound unreal but I promise it’s true
So here is my poem on how the outdoors
Can become an inspiring unstoppable force.

It was ten years ago I became a trustee
Of an early years setting that’s local to me
They needed some help, like a fool I took pity
And that’s how I ended up chair of committee.

There was a big problem when I first arrived –
No way we could get our kids playing outside.
The hall had a car park just by the front door
A road ran right past, we’d be fools to ignore.

What use is a space if the cars drive straight through?
There had to be something that we could do
Our hope was to freeflow, that was our dream
And with parents on board, we worked as a team.

We were asked if we’d like to bring up to scratch
Some land by the hall – a dank scruffy patch
We leapt at the offer and asked for donations
We talked of how nature provides inspiration.

How children get brave and they build up their strength
How they talk about numbers and forces and length
How they breathe in fresh air and hear the birds chirp
How they play with the water and dig in the dirt.

So we started our mission, and we all took part
In building the garden that lived in our hearts
We raised all the money and drew up the plans
And that’s how our building project began.

Day one of the build dawned cold, grey and wet
No sign of our lovely new garden yet
We had concrete and gravel, fences and planks
So when the rain stopped we all gave thanks.

Steve put up an arch and he built up the wall
He concreted poles so that they wouldn’t fall
Some local builders gave us free supplies
If you call out for help you may get a surprise.

Day two of our build we got parents together
We battled on through some atrocious weather
We painted, we raked, we dug and we laughed
Our kids all got filthy, they had to be bathed.

We wanted the children to play their part
What better than doing some outdoor art?
So they painted some pebbles, to colour the spaces
Less paint on the pebbles, more on their faces.

Now ten years later our garden has grown
Staff added a mud kitchen, made it their own
Tarpaulins go up, more dens are built
New games get played and water gets spilt.

These days at preschool they’re always outdoors
One thing’s for certain, our garden ensures
They spend more time out there than they spend it inside
I look at our garden and I burst with pride.

With our garden all done, it was time to do more
To create our own forest club in the outdoors
A parent had land in the village to spare
So staff went on training and now we play there.

Outdoors there is challenge, outdoors there is fun
There are places to hide, and spaces to run
We pedal the ride ons, we dig up the worms
We get ourselves fit; we learn to take turns.

No such thing as bad weather, I hear it is said
That idea is only inside your head
So put on your boots, your hat and your coat
If it gets too wet, we can build a boat.

Our garden ain’t big and our garden ain’t smart
But at preschool we love it with all of our hearts
So build your own garden and then they will come
Take them outside, where they can have fun.

No sitting at desks, we are too busy playing
No testing or labelling, hear what we’re saying
Be brave and be bold, make the firmest foundations
Build a garden! Take pride in the joy of creation.

For our under fives do not have to be with us
If we forget that history will not forgive us
So that was my poem and here’s where it ends
Have a magical day all my Firm Foundations friends.

Posted in EYFS, Firm Foundations | 1 Comment

A Bad Idea

I’m finding it impossible to narrow down all the reasons why the baseline test is a bad idea, so I didn’t bother. Here’s my starter for ten. Feel free to add more in the comments.

1. It takes the class teacher away from the class during the vital settling in period.
2. It is a measure done over a 7 year time span – who knows what will change in that time?
3. Four year olds are not in compulsory education.
4. Children who have EAL will be disadvantaged by a test that is done in English.
5. If it is locked away it cannot be used to identify children who might need support.
6. There are many unanswered questions around how the data will be handled and used.
7. £10 million pounds is being used for a test lots of people oppose at a time of budget cuts.
8. All children will get tested, but the data not used for infant, middle or junior schools.
9. Settings may respond to the measure by gaming it in various ways.
10. Everyone who works in early years is saying that the data will not be reliable.

And oh yeah, whoops, I almost forgot. Will someone please think of the children?


Posted in Baseline | 10 Comments

Mirror Mirror

According to Damian Hinds (and various friends of the DfE) there are a handful of reasons for the slight recruitment and retention hiccup currently troubling a couple of England’s schools, and Damian has a list of handy ways to solve it. There’s workload, which is caused by all the SLT in the world misinterpreting Ofsted’s demand for evidence of progress as being about doing triple marking even though no Ofsted report ever written suggested that marking should be a thing and no one should dare say that it did. There’s a distinct lack of desire to deliver the standardised lessons that would instantly solve workload, which is caused by ungrateful teachers who want to do one of the bits of the job they enjoy but who are silly enough to think it might be sensible to give them a bit more time to do it. And then there is funding. No, not that funding. The other funding where there’s plenty of funding but it is the fault of schools that they don’t have enough funding because they are spending their funding on recruiting new teachers to replace the ones who left, but who definitely didn’t leave due to anything the DfE had done. Oh and literally no one is worried about too many tests in primary, because no way is the DfE ever going to impose any more tests on young children that might cause added workload (except for the extra two tests that have already been announced but let’s not worry about those right now).

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Government, and those who support its methods, have spent the last eight years talking most of our teachers down and telling them how they’ve been doing everything wrong for all these years. Michael Gove’s main mission in life seemed to be to alienate as many teachers as he could while bringing in a curriculum that made everyone’s lives harder. Accountability is in a mess, with Ofsted back tracking from half the stuff it used to say, or claiming that it didn’t say the things in its reports that it clearly did say. A punishing regime of accountability and competition between schools has led to a tense atmosphere and some school leaders resorting to what looks like gaming to ‘win’ the prize. A series of tests punctuate our children’s primary education. Exclusion rates are up, mental health is in crisis and alternative provision is struggling to meet demand. Those who educate the next generation of teachers in universities have been told they are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. And teachers are working more hours, under more pressure, than I’ve seen in twenty five years. So perhaps the best answer to the question ‘what is causing this crisis?’ is for the DfE and Ofsted to stop blaming everyone else, and to take a long hard look in the mirror. Because the answer to their question will be staring them right back in the face.

Posted in Accountability, Ofsted | 2 Comments

The Thing About Grammar

It’s really hard to talk about grammar without upsetting someone. Really, really hard. Some might even say impossible. The DfE have managed to upset just about everyone at some point with their approach to grammar. Even if you’re not cross about them saying where and when kids can use exclamation marks, you’re probably going to be at least a little bit irritated about the leak of Key Stage One SPaG papers. Writers have been known to upset teachers on the subject of grammar, by saying that you don’t need to name parts of a language to be able to write in it. However, those same teachers have to get on with the task of teaching the grammar that the DfE insists that they teach, whatever the writers think about whether it’s a good idea or not. Teachers also disagree with each other on what’s important, why it’s important and how it should be taught. Then there are linguists who say that maybe it’s the case that “Teachers hate teaching grammar” and that perhaps the reason for this is because they don’t know enough about it, rather than just that they’re fed up with another top down demand from the DfE. Sometimes it feels like the only certain thing about grammar is that everyone is cross with everyone else about it.

Having said the above, I’m bound to upset someone if I set out my stall on the subject of grammar. (Please know that what follows isn’t about me saying what should work for you, but rather, what works for me.) To my mind, language is eternally fascinating – I’m lucky because I get to play with it as my day job. But if you wanted me to teach “the difference between a conjunctive adverb and a subordinating conjunction” I would have to resort to google and a whole heap of hard thinking, since understanding grammar is not the same thing as being able to write. Linguistics is a field distinct in its own right. Hugely valuable and interesting, but more the nuts and bolts than the entire engine. Knowing how to name the parts is not the same thing as understanding how to express yourself, because you don’t learn to write by sticking bits of language together until you’ve made a piece of writing. You learn to write by having chances to consider what you think, to gain an understanding of the kind of voice you want to express your thoughts in, and then having the opportunity for an audience to celebrate what you said.

The piece of writing at the top of this blog is a story I wrote when I was 11. There’s a distinct lack of fronted adverbials; a paucity of subordinating clauses. I wouldn’t have had a clue what those things were when I was that age, anyway. But that story came from my heart, and my teacher told me that he loved it, even though I chopped up my sentences like I was trying to be Ernest Hemingway. So I guess my main take on the question of teaching grammar is that we shouldn’t be afraid to let children write like children. That we should allow them to build up their language from the inside out, not try to stick it onto them from the outside in. We should let them get older, read more books, talk about stuff more, learn how to express themselves, basically. I’m pretty sure this puts me in the bin marked ‘biogtry of soft expectations blobby progressive’, but honestly, I don’t care. Because the most important thing about writing is not how it is constructed – it is about whether or not it reaches out, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and makes you think or feel something that you never thought or felt before. And there ain’t no grammar recipe for that.

Posted in Grammar, Writing | Leave a comment


When I was at secondary school, there was a fashion for tucking our jumpers into our skirts. Looking back now, I have no idea why we did it, and I can accept that we must have looked stupid, but for some reason it made sense to us at the time. It was a way for us to identify what we were about. What we looked like became a shorthand for who we wanted to be (although goodness only knows why that involved tucking your jumper in your skirt). At around the same time, I got my hair permed, and sprayed Sun-In into it to make it lighter. I must have looked a sight with my curly orange frizz, but those superficial acts of rebellion were part of me figuring out who I wanted to be. Not long after, punk started trying to destroy everything that had gone before. Old people (adults) were horrified about what young people were doing. At school we were torn between shock and fascination. How brave did you have to be to get piercings and walk down the street with a Mohican? How scary were punks? Could that really be an option for us when we grew up?

As I got older, and I became more serious about becoming a dancer, I spent a lot of time scraping my hair back into a bun. Our hair had to look smooth, and it definitely couldn’t get in the way of our spins. Hairspray and Kirby grips it was. We were all pulled back and buttoned up and in thrall to the discipline of dance. Then in the summer after I stopped dancing, I cut off all my hair and basically embarked on a new life. Hair cuts are a great way to define the changes you want to make. You can create them as easily as finding a pair of scissors (which is why the kid once had a wobbly fringe) although you can only really work with the hair that you’ve got, which is either a shame or a blessing. Watching my kids, as they experiment with hair cuts and hair styling products, I thank my lucky stars how proficient hairdressers are nowadays. It’s a far cry from my mum’s hairdresser friend, the chemical perms and the fake sunshine in a bottle. So this is why I find debates about hair cuts and school confusing. While I get some of the reasons why people think it’s important, I don’t understand them. Hair styles aren’t about learning, and they’re not about behaviour. They are about how we want children and young people to identify.

Posted in Confidence | 1 Comment

I Love Lego

Back in the year 2000, Lego was voted the ‘Toy of the Century‘, thankfully beating such gendered nonsense as Barbie and Action Man in the race to the prize. It’s not hard to understand why. Lego is not only a fantastic toy for children, but adults love playing and working with it as well. This photo was taken at Arte em Pecas, an annual Lego sculpture event in a small, very out of the way town called Paredes de Coura, in Northern Portugal. The festival is organised by a group of Lego enthusiasts who call themselves ‘Comunidade 0937’ (see if you can work it out). That’s my kid in the centre of the picture – she built an amazing Lego sign out of the bricks they had left out for children to build with, and the organisers asked to take a photo with her. Behind them, you can see an incredible mosaic, built over the week of the festival by all the people who attended, using a set of patterns and lots of small flat four plate bricks. As well as making models and mosaics, people sculpt in Lego too. If you haven’t seen it yet, do take a moment to have a look at the incredible Lego art of Nathan Sawaya. The best thing about Lego is how something simple becomes much more than the sum of its parts.

Now, when it comes to Lego, I have a bit of confession to make. Not only do I adore Lego, but I also have a bit of an obsession with sorting it. In my experience, Lego lovers tend to fall into two camps. There is the ‘chuck it all in a box and do what you will with it’ camp, and then there’s the ‘err, would it be going too far to sort by shape *and* colour?’ camp. I’m definitely in the latter; for me there is something soothing about finding all the blocks, or the plates, or the strips, or the mini figures (especially the mini figures) and putting them into one drawer so we can find them all easily when we need them. The kids always end up sabotaging my sorting, but that’s part of the fun of the game for me. As well as about a ton of modern Lego, we also have some Lego from when I was a child. They didn’t seem to have much in the way of health and safety in those days. If you think modern day bricks are painful to stand on, you should see the sharp edges on my childhood conifers.

My loyalty to Lego has been tested over the years, especially when they went down the gendered route with the ‘Lego friends’ range. But as a company Lego seem responsive to their fans, and since they countered with the ‘Women of Nasa‘ set, I’m willing to forgive them the ridiculous pink thing. The word ‘Lego’ comes from the Danish ‘leg god’, which means ‘play well’, and that seems pretty apt in my experience. We have spent many, many happy hours playing with blocks and building our creativity, our fine motor skills and our ability to follow instructions in the process. (I have a suspicion that my kid will find putting IKEA furniture together a breeze when he gets to that point.) Other great things about Lego are that it is virtually indestructible, and that it can actually increase in value, the longer you own it. (Some Star Wars minifigures are worth a small fortune on Ebay these days).

And then there is the vexed question of whether or not we should be using Lego in our classrooms. Do we love Lego enough to make it part of our practice? Does it fit with our philosophies of education or should it stay in early years settings; be dismissed as ‘a toy’? My take on it is this. Like any other resource, Lego is just a tool. If it’s the right tool for the job you need doing, then use it. And if it’s not, then don’t. I’m not sure I could think of a use for Lego in PE, but I’ve heard that Mindstorms kits are great for working on robotics. I’m pretty sure that all that time spent working with 2’s and 4’s and 6’s and 8’s has to be good for my children’s conceptualisation of number patterns, but I’m happy to accept that Lego might not hold out much hope for secondary RE. I’m just not quite ready to sell off all the drawers of Lego yet, in case one of my kids turns out to be a famous Lego sculptor. Because I love Lego. And there’s nothing to be ashamed about in that.

Posted in Lego | 3 Comments