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

Life in the Sandpit

If you spend any length of time working in the early years sector, you start to get the feeling that you are not seen to be quite as intellectual or rational as those working in other phases. This doesn’t come from everyone, by any means, or even from the majority, but it is the narrative from a small but fairly influential group of commentators. It’s nothing obvious – no one comes right out and says it, but there is definitely a subtext that working with the under 5’s is (a) not particularly hard, and (b) means one becomes far too prone to emotional reactions. While everyone is happy to say how important they believe your work with small children is, there is the hint that they don’t think you get it right – mainly along the lines that provision is not formal enough. (This despite the fact that 94% of early years settings and 100% of maintained nursery schools are graded ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.) While none of us working in any sector would ever claim to be perfect, I have observed a strong desire to be self reflective and to continuously evaluate and update our practice. The undercurrent of criticism seems to emanate from those who have not worked with the under 5’s and I’m sorry to say that the majority of it comes from male colleagues. The reaction to the anger over Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings report is a great case in point – lying just beneath the surface of the language being used on Twitter seems to be the idea that the women who make up 98% of the early years sector should just calm the hell down.

In case anyone thinks I’m over stating the case, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen all of the following things tweeted about those of us who work in the early years sector and who have objected to Ofsted’s report (I will leave the authors anonymous, to spare their blushes). That “It’s the politicised ‘why oh why won’t someone think of the children’ hyperbole that grates”. That we may be “culpable in the gap growing between those [disadvantaged] chn [sic] and others”. That we “find any criticism – however gentle” difficult (that one made me laugh – how kind of you to be gentle with us!). That blogs from those not working in the EYFS offer “a rather more sophisticated conversation than you normally see surrounding Early Years”. And that we “shouldn’t be allowed to let [our] own wilful [sic] misreading of Bold Beginnings stop education being improved for millions of children”. Recently I even saw someone make the astonishing claim that children “spend all of R [Reception] splashing about in [the] sandpit instead of learning to read and count”. Taken individually, it might be easy enough to shrug these comments off as ill informed and lacking an evidence base, but over time the cumulative effect is to create a distrust of the early years sector and a misunderstanding of the pedagogy we use. Taken together with the latest push by the DfE to implement a baseline test, the inclusion of schools in ‘baby PISA’, and a report from the Teaching Schools Council in 2016 describing “aimless activities” in reception, a clear pattern begins to emerge.

Clearly, there has been a strong reaction to the Bold Beginnings report, culminating in a number of articles and an open letter being published in The Guardian yesterday. Heated words have been exchanged on both ‘sides’. Early years organisations have written a number of detailed responses, demonstrating how the evidence base supports the pedagogy that settings use (for instance, see this from TACTYC). A number of meetings have been arranged between those responsible for the report, and those in the sector who are unhappy with its recommendations. I agreed to attend a meeting, although unfortunately I was told that I had to keep the discussion confidential. Since the report was published, there has been plenty of effort from all parties to try and resolve the situation, but to little avail. If Ofsted were hoping that the anger would settle down and go away over Christmas, the opposite seems to be the case. To my mind it is probably going to be impossible to reconcile some parts of the report with the values and beliefs of those of us who work in early years, and probably colleagues in other phases as well. The statement that “the teaching of reading, including systematic synthetic phonics, is the core purpose of the Reception Year” is hugely problematic for a start (see the responses to the tweet below if you’re unsure about why).

It is useful to note that the early years sector is a very different beast to the schools sector, particularly in the way that it reacts to government dictates and how it operates on social media. While Gove and the DfE seem to have been able to drive a wedge between those teachers and academics described as ‘the Blob’ and those who identify as ‘traditionalists’, there is no such divide between those of us who work on the ground in the early years. While the Reception year is the point at which the EYFS moves entirely into the schools sector, the mix of provision between schools and PVI settings for the 0-4 age group means that this phase is much harder for policy makers to control. Our parents pay fees, as well as taking up funded places, which can make us feel like a curious mix between state and private education. The sector was united in its opposition to reduced staff/child ratios, during Liz Truss’s tenure at the DfE, and it ran a #rewindratios campaign until the idea was quietly dropped. When there were previous concerns about Ofsted, the sector initiated the #ofstedbigconversation and meetings with Ofsted were held around the country.

The sector also has a very clear vision of what developmentally appropriate assessment in the early years looks like, and is pretty much united in its opposition to a baseline test. The huge percentage of settings that chose the Early Excellence observation based assessment in the previous round of tenders simply serves to underline the strength of feeling. The refusal of Early Excellence to even apply for the £10 million tender for a non observation based assessment (most likely a test done on a tablet) and the news that CEM are unlikely to tender either, seems to indicate that government policy on the early years is fatally flawed. One of the key factors to remember when discussing anything to do with the early years foundation stage, is that this is a non statutory phase of education. That we advocate not only for ourselves, but for small children who cannot advocate for themselves, and who don’t even have to be in our settings. While the majority of parents choose to use the provision that is on offer, there is absolutely no compulsion for them to do so. The DfE is caught in a bind when it comes to pressing their reforms downwards into the early years, because we’re not going to stop expressing how we view those reforms any time soon. And we do not plan to let the EYFS become a “preparation” for “now-increased expectations”. Because it is a unique and important phase, in and of itself.

Posted in Baseline, Bold Beginnings, Children, EYFS, Play | 7 Comments

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