Tread Softly

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

W. B. Yeats

In the summer of 2016, we were staying at the children’s grandparents’ house in Portugal, when one of our Portuguese cousins discovered a bucketful of kittens behind the garage. The kittens were at that gorgeous, still tiny stage, where they spent most of their time feeding with their mother, stumbling around the logs and bricks that were piled up along the wall, or sleeping in the hot Portuguese sun. The children who were staying at grandma’s house, who were from various branches of our family, all argued about names for each kitten. They took balls of string onto the lawn, and flicked them in the air, playing with the tiny bundles of fur and claiming each one as their own. They picked them up and cuddled them, the kittens wriggling in their arms and the grown ups telling them to be careful and to put the poor kittens down when they had had enough. Our one was ‘Midnight Star’. ‘Jinja’ belonged to the youngest of the cousins. Jinja was definitely the liveliest of the bunch, with a ginger coat and a cheeky attitude.

This Christmas we were back at grandma’s house. A lot has happened since the summer of 2016. Grandfather is no longer there. The house is emptier than it was before. A silence seems to inhabit the corridor where once we heard his voice, calling grandma’s name. Life has moved on, as it always does, and changed the way that things were before. One afternoon, as I stood out on the terrace, I saw that the mother was back in the garden, and that there was a ginger cat slinking along beside her, perhaps hoping that the sound of children’s voices might signal food. Jinja is much bigger now. Almost ready to separate from mum and step out into the world. Not quite there, but definitely well on the way. When children are tiny, they are reliant on the gentle nurturing of adults. They need us to play with them, to give them lots of warmth and attention and love. As they grow older we can be a bit tougher on them, show them how to stand up in the world that they live in, and help them succeed. But when they are tiny we need to handle them gently. And they are only tiny for a very short while. So maybe we should all tread softly, lest we tread upon their dreams.

Posted in Behaviour, Children, Writing | Leave a comment

A Culture of Trust

“(S)he who does not trust enough will not be trusted.”
Lao Tzu

Trust is a strange thing. There is no way that someone can prove themselves worthy of your trust, unless you put your trust in them in the first place. But what if the person you put your trust in lets you down, the moment that you hand your trust over? We have to be brave to trust, but we also need to be realistic – no one can do everything on their own, we have to rely on others. Plus which one of us can say that we never let someone else down? None of us are perfect, so let she who is without sin cast the first stone. It’s tempting to micro manage, to control as much as you possibly can, particularly if you don’t trust easily, or if you are under pressure. But in the end this is counterproductive because you cannot do it all. At some point you have to let go. The less trust you are willing give, the more control you have to retain. And the more control you retain, the less you listen to other people, and the more likely you are to make mistakes yourself, or to do something so over controlling it doesn’t make sense. Here are a couple of handy examples from Twitter.

When you employ someone to work in your setting, you are saying that you trust them. You do the right checks, and then you welcome them into your team. When other people know that you trust them to do their job, they tend to feel happier in their work. The feeling you get when you know that your colleagues and managers trust you to use your professional judgement is a key part of feeling satisfied in your job. Sometimes staff will make mistakes, just like managers do, but try to give them space to learn from those mistakes, just as we try to do with our children. If you are a school leader, remember that your staff have to trust you, as well as you having to trust them – people will do a hell of a lot for people that they trust and respect. In the end you cannot do it for them, anyway, you can only do it together. In a culture of wellbeing, trust percolates up and down through a setting, making everyone feel better and happier. We all let each other down, from time to time, but we cannot substitute control for trust. And it’s the getting up again and dusting ourselves off ready to begin over, that is most important in the end.

Posted in Leadership, Trust, Wellbeing | 2 Comments


If you take a look at the Board of Directors of this multi academy trust, you will notice something very odd. I know it’s hard to believe, but here we are in the twenty first century, at a time when equality is supposedly at the forefront of all our minds, and yet we have a board made up entirely of white (mostly business) men. Perhaps even more startling than this, though, is the fact that no one in this MAT stopped to think that this might be a problem. These ten men must have sat in meetings making decisions and never even noticed that there was something strange about the make-up of their team. Inspired by this example of a MAT #manel (all male panel), I decided to take a look at a selection of other multi academy trusts, particularly some of the larger and better known ones, to see whether their boards were more representative of the population, and of the children and families that they serve, than this Education South West one. It’s hard to know what someone’s ethnicity is from just a name, so I focused on checking gender balance. Although there were a handful of boards that were balanced in terms of gender*, the overwhelming majority were heavily weighted towards male representation.

8 men, 3 women
9 men, 3 women
6 men, 2 women
9 men, 3 women
8 men, 3 women
10 men, 3 women
8 men, 2 women
9 men, 3 women
8 men, 4 women
*4 men, 4 women
*3 men, 4 women
*2 men, 3 women

Some people might say – why is this an issue? Some might even resort to the hackneyed excuse ‘well, I guess they just chose the best people for the job’. To my mind, though, this is a problem. These MATs are educating huge numbers of our children, and the larger trusts have a lot of power within the system. If they are not representative of the population that they seek to serve, what kind of message is this sending to the children in their care? How can they make balanced decisions if there is no adequate representation? For educators to lead the change towards equity and equality (and surely this is one of the key areas where we should lead the way), the first thing we have to do is have a balanced set of role models at the top of the system. No matter how unbiased we might believe ourselves, the decisions we make tend to be based on the experiences that we’ve had. And if the voices of women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds are not heard in MAT board rooms, then we run a serious risk of entrenching inequality not overcoming it.

Posted in Equality, Gender | 1 Comment

The Core

I’ve been thinking all day about what is at the core of the Reception year, ever since I woke up this morning and read in an Ofsted report that they think that the core of Reception is reading. Lots of us knew this report was coming: EYFS is a key focus of policy makers and government at the moment, what with the 30 hours offer and the baseline. I tried not to over react to the report, to give it a chance, and to be fair there are lots of good things in there, but I found myself coming out of the experience of reading it feeling depressed. So, instead of spending the morning on Twitter, ranting about how everything was terrible in the world, I decided to post a question and then go across to the allotments to have a think about what I actually thought myself. I’ve got a bit of allotment that me and the kid have been digging over together, ready for preschool to use and I felt like I needed a bit of physical development. Anyway, here’s the question I asked before I headed over to do the weeding. The answers make for reassuring reading.

The thing about the Reception year is that it is special. Each year is special, of course, but this particular year is the moment when a child is usually received from their parents and into a school. Into the place where they will spend a lot of years (unless you home educate them, of course). These days the boundaries are blurred a bit, because more schools are taking children in earlier, but the majority of early years provision is still PVI (private, voluntary and independent). As a parent, Reception marks a kind of stepping away – a time when you and your child separate just that little bit more than you did before. It’s a bittersweet moment. Anyway, from my experience the complexity of all the things that are at the core of early child development at this stage is pretty mind blowing. You’ve got speaking, and listening, and moving, and balancing, and grabbing, and twisting, and skipping, and focusing, and exploring, and going to the loo by yourself, and sitting still, and reading, and counting, and being confident, and finding out new things, and making new friends, and understanding how to control your emotions, and playing, and playing, and playing, and far too many things for me to possibly reduce into one single idea. So I’ve figured out what I think has to be at the core of the Reception year. It’s simple in the end. It’s not about what we put into an EYFS curriculum. It’s about the care and development of each four year old child.

Posted in EYFS | 3 Comments

Boycott Baseline

There has to be a baseline test
Your school must outdo all the rest
No matter that they’re only four
No time to waste, we must do more.

There has to be a baseline test
For only some can be the best
Life’s one big race towards the top
Can’t ever let our standards drop.

There has to be a baseline test
To fill the giant data chest
In seven years we’ll open wide
And from the data we’ll decide.

There has to be a baseline test
We’re not sure why, but if we’re pressed
We’ll claim a test’s the only way
For this is not the time to play.

There has to be a baseline test
Ten million pounds we must invest
For in the future, far from now
We must compare your schools somehow.

There has to be a baseline test
We hope you will be most impressed
When we can make the numbers say
What 4 year olds should do each day.

Today I stood in the morning sun
And watched the children laugh and run
Each one of them a different person
Their time with us is just rehearsing

The grown up that they’ll be some day
When they have no more time to play
But at this point they’re only young
Their lives have barely just begun.

Stop rushing on to a future point
Saying for now they disappoint
Take a moment to stop and think
Join the dots and make the link.

These are children, not things to test
Please listen to those who know them best
But if you won’t, be in no doubt
#Boycottbaseline is what we’ll shout.

Posted in Baseline, Children, Testing | 1 Comment

A Critical Friend

It’s very interesting to see feedback getting so much attention as a concept in education at the moment. It’s lovely to see so many examples of teachers using critique in such complex and intelligent ways. Unfortunately for me, though, the word feedback always makes me think of that moment when you go too close to a speaker with a microphone, and you hear that awful whine of sounds being bent out of shape. Feedback has the potential to be positive, but it also has the habit of being negative. We should take care not to forget, in all the talk about feedback, that critique can be hurtful. If you look around yourself on the Internet you will often see adults upset because someone said that something they did wasn’t good enough, or true enough, or worth the words it was written with. When feedback turns into pure criticism, it has the power to destroy. So I reckon we need to be really careful about how specific our feedback is to individuals in front of a whole class. Not everyone in the world wants their work put on the stage.

One of the things I think about writing is that you need a bit of space to do it badly. To figure out how to do it by yourself by making mistakes and then repairing them. For sure, you need a teacher to pick you up on technique, and accuracy, but you also need time to understand what you want to throw away and what you want to keep. If you are going to be a writer, eventually you have to find your own voice, rather than having one given to you. Writing is both deeply personal and horribly public – it takes courage to put your words out into the world where people might not like them. And feedback can be the thing that makes the difference. Years and years and years ago, I wrote a story called Palomino, Little Horse. My teacher wrote a comment on my story that made me feel that she liked my writing. I liked it too, and I still have the exercise book. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that feedback doesn’t have to be a loud noise, in a public place, with immediate impact. It can be a moment between child and teacher – a moment when one is a writer, and the other is a reader. Because maybe what you most needed just at that point wasn’t someone to critique you publicly, maybe what you needed was a critical friend.

Posted in Feedback, Writing | Leave a comment

Kindness is Power

Power is a funny old thing. It’s thrilling to have, but I definitely wouldn’t want too much of it. As a writer I love it when the words that I use turn out to have power. If I’m lucky they have the power to engage, to inspire, to amuse. If I’m unlucky they’re a damp squib. Power is fickle like that. Power thrives on networks, word of mouth, and confidence. The more powerful people you know, the more powerful you tend to get. The more confident you are, the more people believe that you know what you’re talking about. The big problem with power, though, is how easily people can abuse it. The news at the moment is full of people who drunk too deeply on the elixir of power and did the wrong thing with it. I’d imagine there are a lot of people currently thinking “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The theme du jour in education is that “knowledge is power”. That school is about “making kids cleverer”. That we should get children to memorise stuff, pass lots of tests and then the keys to the kingdom will be theirs. It’s interesting to pick this idea apart. To ask what the power we’re talking about actually consists of, and to what extent people want it. To consider whether power is truly available to everyone who gets a good set of exam results. And to think about whether knowledge does end up being power and whether education should be framed in terms of IQ or income anyway. (Thanks to Nancy Gedge for getting me thinking about all this.) We need to ask what different people’s values are, before we start to make grand statements about ‘what really matters’. Given the state of the world we live in, the political problems we face, and the nature of the people who have caused those problems, I can’t help but think that maybe education shouldn’t be about making people cleverer. Maybe it should be about making them kinder instead.

Posted in Learning | 5 Comments