The Wrong Sort of Child

Do not apply to come to our school
If you cannot comply with every rule
And if your child has SEND
We’re not the place for them to be.

There’s another school just up the road
And we don’t plan to spread the load
They’ll take you on, they love to share
So go to them – you’ll be happier there.

The cost of uniform, as you’ll see
Makes this an expensive place to be
If you can’t afford it, well maybe think twice
Go somewhere else, is the best advice.

Our rules are strict, we’ve very tough
And if you don’t like it, that’s fair enough
We only work with those who support
So go to a school that accepts your sort.

Ofsted have told us that we can be strict
When Spielman said it, well things just clicked
We’ll make lots more rules, claim high expectations
Not have to bother with awkward relations.

This isn’t a partnership – don’t be silly
Find somewhere else for little Billy
He’s not the right sort, he needs careful handling
He’ll ruin our chances of getting outstanding.

Reasonable adjustments? What’s that you say?
An inclusive system that won’t turn you away?
Oh they’ve got all that in the school next door
They’ll have space for you, of that we’re sure.

So don’t come here if your child’s defiant
We don’t do well if they’re not compliant
They’ll be much better off in another place
Somewhere not interested in winning the race.

What do you mean we’re your local school?
That doesn’t matter, don’t be a fool
When the government said that you had a choice
They forgot to say you won’t have a voice.

So go where they want you but don’t come here
Run along now, be quick my dear
We only take children who yearn to be taught
And your child? Well obviously. Not the right sort.

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Posted in Compliance, Education, Expectations, Schools, Selection | 9 Comments

Expected Standard

I’m not Expected Standard
There’s lots I do not know
The Government checked my learning
And decided it was low.

The grown ups think I’m stupid
They think I do not see
That some kids find school easier
And learning is hard for me.

My mum said it didn’t matter
My dad said he didn’t care
I heard them talking in whispers
They didn’t know I was there.

But the test was not a fair one
They didn’t check me out
“I can do loads of great stuff!”
Was what I wanted to shout.

I know all the names of dinosaurs
I’m a super hero too
I am brave and strong and fearless
(Although sometimes that’s not true.)

I can make the world’s best mud pie
I can pick up worms and snails
And I’m forming my letters nicely
Like the snails make silvery trails.

I know how to count up to ten now
I can make a huge tower of bricks
And my teacher said that the numbers
Can do some incredible tricks.

I can’t quite see the tricks yet
But then I’m only four
The kids who are one year older
Seem to get it a whole lot more.

I can sit for the afternoon story
Although sometimes I shuffle about
And when Miss gets to the good bits
All I want is to stand up and shout!

I get a bit tired as the day goes
I once fell asleep on the rug
But when dad came to get me
I got an enormous hug.

I wish I could tell you the things that
Are going on in my head
But I haven’t got all the words yet
And some things are better not said.

So stuff your expected standard
Don’t measure my life away
Cos I’m perfectly happy to be me
And I’m planning to stay that way.

 

 

Posted in ELGs, EYFS | 1 Comment

The Trouble with Knowledge

“Who controls the past controls the future:
who controls the present controls the past.”
George Orwell, 1984

When I was a child, I believed in two things that later on (to my complete astonishment) turned out to be incorrect. I believed that the name for the food you ate at lunchtimes or on picnics, which consisted of a filling between two slices of bread, was a “sandwitch”. And I believed that there was a giant country on the maps that I saw of the world, which was known as “Africa”. As far as I’m concerned, the first of these might as well be true – as both a spelling and a concept, “sandwitch” makes a lot more sense to me than “sandwich”. As far as the latter is concerned, in later life I found out where my misconception came from. A geography teacher told me that there was a textbook, back in the seventies, in which the countries of Europe were labelled and coloured individually, but the entire continent of Africa was shown in one colour, with a big “Africa” label slapped across it. Whoever wrote the textbook had clearly decided that the astonishing range of countries, landscapes, peoples, languages and histories in this continent were not worth detailing. The way information was presented in that textbook not only led me to an embarrassing error of thinking that stuck with me for years, but also shone a light on the knowledge that the authors of the textbook felt it was important for me to know.

Of course, we might reassure ourselves, there’s no way that such a thing would happen these days. After all, surely we have experts to write our curricula and our textbooks now, to create scripted lessons so that we can teach children ‘the truth’ about their world. Plus there’s always the Internet, should we need to check up on our facts (so long as we can avoid the perils of tree octopus style fake news). But then I came across a series of tweets from Kym Scott this morning, about Civitas, their ‘Core Knowledge’ materials, and links to what is currently happening to early years. A representative of Civitas is on the advisory review group, helping the DfE to rewrite the early learning goals that sit at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage, as the things that our youngest children should know and be able to do. (The goals were due for publication in May, and the delay in sharing them suggests that there may be some controversy about their contents.) Civitas publish the ‘Core Knowledge’ curriculum, a set of lesson materials and resources inspired by E.D. Hirsch and his idea that children need ‘cultural literacy’. (For the uninitiated, this is, in its most basic terms, the idea that children should learn the knowledge that would allow them to read and understand a broadsheet newspaper.)

For anyone who works in early years, who is a parent, or who has even just met a four year old in living memory, the first thing that jumps out of these tweets is the strange idea that they could conceptualise “the signing of the Magna Carta”* well enough to get anything out of a role play of it being signed. This reminds me of a painful moment in my teacher training where I tried to teach Reception age children about ‘the world’ using a globe, only to discover that many of them had never left the town where they lived, and couldn’t even conceptualise where London was, let alone anywhere so far outside their immediate experience. Of course, we can teach children this information as a set of facts to recall, but it just won’t go in like it does later on – they simply cannot place it within their mental maps of the world. As Carol Webb rightly pointed out, a fair few of the children role playing the Magna Carta would probably remember learning about something weird called a “Magma Crater” when they were at school, in exactly the same vein as my “sandwitch” misconception.

But a more worrying narrative also emerges from these tweets, and that is the problem that by codifying and presenting knowledge in this way, rather than encouraging children to play an active role in exploring, finding and evaluating it for themselves, we might inadvertently be teaching children things that aren’t actually true and not giving them the tools they need to assess whether or not to believe it. This is especially so if we follow the line of thinking in which the teacher is always the ‘expert’ and the children condemned to being ‘novices’ forever more. The Core Knowledge materials for the Reception year suggest that our four year olds need “to know Shackleton explored the South Pole”. But he didn’t. Yes, he explored Antarctica, and yes, he made it to within 97 geographical miles of the South Pole, but it was Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott who actually got to the pole. I’d imagine this is just sloppy wording, rather a genuine attempt to rewrite history, but whatever your take on any knowledge versus skills debate, I’m pretty sure we’d all agree that it’s definitely not good to teach children something that isn’t true.

The idea that ‘knowledge must come first’ has become so firmly embedded in the educational narrative, that it seems akin to heresy to question it. Skills have been sidelined so extensively that people have started to claim that you can become creative just by loading up on more and more knowledge, apparently without ever practising the very act of being creative. Education has a habit of doing this – of swinging from a fervent belief in one thing, to an equally fervent rejection of that one thing in favour of a fervent belief in another. Round and round and round we go, in a cycle that you begin to notice more and more, the older you get. The trouble with knowledge, though, is that it is not, and can never be, value free. It is incredibly slippery, hard to define, prone to misunderstandings, misinterpretations and mistakes. What we know and understand about our world changes over time, and a lot of what we claim to know is pretty subjective, especially if we’re throwing around terms like “the best”. It’s really important that we help children to understand this, and the only way to do that is to give them some agency in their learning.

Today, Nick Gibb is speaking at an International Summit on Textbooks. According to a source, there is a representative of Civitas at this event as well. My feeling is that the push to get textbooks into schools is not just about profit for publishers and saving on workload and photocopying for teachers, nor is it just about getting more knowledge into schools (where there has always seemed to be plenty of knowledge to me). There is more to it than that. As well as sharing information, the authors of a textbook control what information we receive, and the way it is interpreted, through the way in which they present it. They basically get to decide what is important. If we focus on a narrow definition of “the best that has been thought and said”, we end up with a curriculum that is pale, male and stale – preserved in aspic but without the ability to change and develop as our society does. As Orwell said, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” – what we are told and the way that we are told it shapes our views of the world. Just as the entire continent of Africa was redefined in my childhood mind by the way that it was presented to me, so the things that we believe are defined by the curricula that we are taught. And it is perhaps in what goes missing, even more than in what is shared, that the real story lies.

 

* Thanks to someone on Twitter for letting me know that this is another misconception in the resource materials – the Magna Carta was sealed not signed.

Posted in Knowledge | 6 Comments

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