A Perfectly Ordinary Preschool

Say what? We’re going to build a garden on THAT?

The preschool that I help to run is almost 50 years old. We have an ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted. We have never excluded a child. We work with any parent who wants their child to attend our setting, to ensure that we can meet their needs, including children with significant SEND. We work very closely with our local primaries to support the children’s transition into school. We have built a garden next to our setting and (despite our setting opening onto a car park) we have found a way for the children to freeflow between inside and outside. We have created a forest club and we dig on an allotment. We are run by a group of volunteers, who fundraise constantly to ensure that we can achieve a ratio of at least one adult to every five children. We reflect all the time on what we do, looking for ways to improve and develop our setting for the benefit of the children. (We use the Bristol Standard as our SEF). Our children are happy, and our families report how pleased they are with our provision. And our staff? Well, they work with astonishing dedication for salaries that do not in any way reflect the level of commitment they put into our setting. (We would happily pay them much more if only the funding rate allowed.)

And yet, we are nothing special. In our local area, there are lots of other early years settings (many of them also voluntary run) who are doing exactly the same thing as us, and who also achieve excellent outcomes for their children and families. In his final annual report as HMCI, which was published yesterday, Michael Wilshaw noted that “early education has never been stronger”. With 91% of nurseries, preschools and childminders being rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, the sector does a lot, often with very little. You could probably find out the name of our preschool if you looked quite hard. I don’t tend to mention it, unless I’m writing an article specifically about us, which is rare. Unless you are in our local area, which is unlikely, you are not going to want to send your children to our setting. We get occasional mentions in the local press, although positive word of mouth among parents is the most powerful publicity of all. I am always happy to share my ideas about what we do (I wrote about our approaches here), and you are very welcome to visit us if you want to get in touch. Although if you come on a Thursday, make sure you wrap up warm, since it’s forest club and we’re outside all day. But I don’t need to spread our name all over the Internet. First, it’s quite a mouthful. Second, I have a duty of confidentiality, especially to our children. But mostly because we are a perfectly ordinary preschool.

“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everybody else.”
Margaret Mead

Posted in Early Years, Preschools | Leave a comment

Extreme Differentiation


Every Monday, for about the last five years, I have run an after school club at my children’s school. The club is called ‘Magazine Club’ and (as you might have guessed) we create a school magazine, which we publish once a term. I wanted my club to be open to all the children, and so I often find myself working with a group that includes children ranging from five or six years old, right up to age eleven. Or, in other words, some children who are only just learning to write, and others who are old hands at it. Because of the age range, my magazine team is about as diverse in skills and knowledge as it is possible to be. And this means that I have had to become a practitioner of something I like to call “extreme differentiation”. I want everyone to get the chance to contribute and learn, and so I need to adapt my strategies to make that happen. My extreme differentiation techniques are pretty similar to what I would use if I was teaching a single year group. Just more, well, extreme.

  1. Capitalise on their interests and expertise. Each magazine has a ‘theme’ – the children put forward their ideas, and then we take a vote to decide which one to use. Because the work we are doing is based on the children’s existing interests, they have lots of knowledge that they can bring to the table. This term’s theme is ‘fantasy’, and we have used the children’s love of Harry Potter and other fantasy books as the starting point for a number of features. In the world of Harry Potter, I am very much the novice, and the kids are very definitely the experts.
  2. Hand over responsibility. For the older children, the chance to be ‘Guest Editor’ offers a great opportunity to stretch and challenge themselves. Children love the idea of ‘being in charge’ of something, and will typically rise to meet the challenges you set. When the children need something (water, the toilet), I let them sort this out for themselves. If they come to me with a half finished piece that I know they could do better, I ask them to go away and finish it. Trust seems to breed responsibility if you are brave enough to give it.
  3. Find tasks that can be accessed at different levels. Sometimes we want to create a feature about a craft, or about making a model, or about an exciting way of creating art. The children can come at these kinds of tasks at their own level, so we end up doing what teachers tend to call ‘differentiation by outcome’. When I do this, I find it interesting that it is not necessarily the oldest children who produce the ‘best’ pieces.
  4. Think ahead about resourcing. This is a tricky one, because different children operate in different ways when you hand them a resource. My main strategy is to think about the worst that could possibly happen, and figure out how I would deal with that. After I’ve thought this through, anything that does go wrong feels much less daunting. I’ve done some clay modelling with my magazine team, for instance, and it was really important to consider how to do this without making a mess of the teacher’s classroom.
  5. Figure out who is going to need support and how you can provide this. When we are writing pieces for the magazine, the youngest children often need help with vocabulary, spellings or structures. Sometimes I pair them up with an older child; other times I give them a scaffold to work within. Sometimes I tell them not to worry about the spelling when they’re writing, and then I read the piece through with them once they’re done. Support can come in all different disguises.
  6. Find ways to build confidence. One of our favourite activities is the interviews that we do with various members of staff. This is a great confidence building activity. First we work together to devise the questions, and share them out equally. Then we get our interviewee in to be interviewed. At this point, I hand things over to the children. Putting them in a position where they are the ones who get to ask the adults stuff is a great way to boost their self confidence.
  7. Give everyone a chance to feel successful. Obviously the writing I get from the younger children is not as polished as that which I get from the older ones. I make a point of featuring everyone’s voices equally in the magazine, though, because the whole point of our club is to celebrate the level the children are at, not to create a competition to see who is ‘best’.
  8. Give everyone a chance to contribute. For quite a while, I tended to ask the older children to draw or paint an image for the front cover of the magazine. They would often create their pictures at home for me. But then I had a brainwave as to how I could let everyone participate in making the cover. I give the children tiny pieces of paper on which to draw, and then I join these together to make the design. (You can see the image that was on the cover of our Summer issue this year, at the top of this blog post.)
  9. Offer choices. It’s quite hard to get a full issue of a magazine completed in the space of a term, so sometimes I need my team to get several features done in one club. In these instances, I offer them a choice of what they want to do first. As well as choosing the theme for each issue, the children decide who they would like to interview, and what kind of articles they would like to see in their magazine.
  10. Work as a team. When a team is working well, the strongest members of the group support the weakest ones. Not everyone can be strongest at everything, and sometimes it can surprise you who turns out to be best at each thing. Everyone gets to bring their own talents to the enterprise. All the time I am with the children, I talk about us working as ‘a team’. All the language I use reinforces the idea that we are a group. This creates a climate where the children support each other, and do a lot of the extreme differentiating on my behalf.

When I listen to talk of differentiation, I sometimes wonder if people are speaking about an entirely different skill set to me. In its simplest terms, differentiation is about making sure that all children can access what you are learning, and aiming for everyone to move forwards from where they are at the moment. Sometimes you have to think sideways, to think creatively, to achieve it. And sometimes you just have to be extreme.

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Education For All?

“Schools for all – institutions which include everybody, celebrate differences,
support learning, and respond to individual needs”
The Salamanca Statement

In 1994, not all that long after I started teaching, the UK was one of 92 governments and 25 international organisations to sign the Salamanca Statement. The Statement called for us to find ways to make the education system inclusive for all children – to work towards a situation where children with special educational needs had the same rights of access to mainstream schooling as their peers. It stated that “those with special educational needs must have access to regular schools which should accommodate them within a child-centred pedagogy capable of meeting those needs”. As part of this the Statement called for government to give “the highest policy and budgetary priority” towards helping schools to be inclusive. If you read the Statement, it is clear that the signatories knew inclusion was not going to be easy to achieve, and that it would need a lot of government support and input, but that nevertheless it was a worthwhile and valuable goal to work towards.

“The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.”
George Bernard Shaw

At the heart of effective classroom management are consistency, routines and an agreed set of rules. Children like to know what is coming – to know what behaviour is and is not okay in their classrooms and their school. It is important to tell children what is expected of them, because it is only fair, and also because it helps them feel safe and secure. When we have a common set of standards, this creates an environment in which learning can happen, and in which everyone is kept safe. However, this does not mean that all children can get to the same standards in exactly the same way. Nor does it mean that we can set any standards that we want to, regardless of their impact on the children. It is important for us to be reasonable, so that we do not inadvertently create barriers to learning and inclusion for children with particular needs. While consistency is vital, some children will find it much easier than others to ‘follow the rules’. Our duty as educators is to make “reasonable adjustments” to support the inclusion of children with SEND and this is where the concept of ‘flexible consistency’ can be very useful. It is possible to aim to reach the same standard for all children, and at the same time to accept that some children will need much more flexibility and support to get to the point where they can meet that standard.

“Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life.
The only completely consistent people are dead.”
Aldous Huxley

In recent years, “no excuses” behaviour policies have become more common within the UK education system. The concept seems to have originated in the US with the “broken windows” theory of criminology. This theory suggested that if you cracked down on any minor infringements, you would prevent major crimes from happening. The message has been translated into similar approaches in classrooms, where every small ‘infringement’ is picked up on and ‘dealt with’, by applying some kind of punitive consequences. The idea is closely intertwined with the “zero tolerance” methods that are becoming more of a feature in US (and some UK) schools. Superficially, these ideas seem extremely attractive. If being consistent about the rules is important, and if being picky about the rules you create is useful, then surely the more consistent and picky you can be about the rules, the better? But this is where the fault line between consistency and inclusion lies, and where potential barriers to inclusion can very easily (and inadvertently) be erected. If your aim is for ‘the very highest standards’ of behaviour, some children are inevitably going to struggle more than others to meet them. Depending on the level of expectations you decide to set, you may be picking a fight that only some children can win.

“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”
Isaac Newton

Imagine a four year old, bursting with physical energy and the childlike instinct to explore her environment. When you ask her to sit still on the carpet, she wriggles, because actually she is just desperate to be up and at it, not sitting there listening attentively to her teacher. Part of our job as teachers, then, is to help her learn to pay attention when she needs to, to focus on learning, to learn how not to disrupt or distract the other children. We are not only teaching her the curriculum, we are also helping her learn how to behave. We might decide to create a rule about sitting still, because we believe that this rule will help all our children to learn better. But at the same time we need to be reasonable with the rules that we set. If we ask a class of small children to sit still on the carpet for twenty minutes, with their hands folded in their laps, we are setting ourselves up for trouble. This is not about having low expectations of children, it is about accepting the reality of how small human beings operate. If we make our rule too unyielding, too difficult for people to follow, then we create an invisible wall that is a barrier against the possibility of inclusion. It is all very well to talk of “rigour” and “raising the bar” and the “soft bigotry of low expectations” but we should be careful not to build walls that would be better replaced with hedges.

“The highest result of education is tolerance.”
Helen Keller

One of the biggest tensions around inclusion for teachers is that feeling of wanting to be equitable to all your students, rather than just to some of them. How do you ‘include’ a child whose behaviour makes it really difficult for the rest of the class to learn, or who makes others unsafe? How is it fair for you to give more rewards to the most difficult children, and less rewards to those who always behave well? At what point does your tolerance of difficult behaviour in the name of inclusion become too much of a negative for everyone else? I’ve had some very interesting conversations with my own (thankfully well behaved) children about these questions. What’s probably most surprising to me is how tolerant children are of difference, and of the need for their teachers to behave with flexibility and responsiveness as well as consistency. This is a really useful conversation to have with our kids – why might it be harder for some of us to ‘behave well’ than others? Why is it so important for us to learn how to help others behave well, and to be tolerant of differing needs? How can their behaviour help us move towards a more inclusive world?

“You cannot solve our problems with the same thinking
we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

If we are truly going to embrace the concept of inclusion, then we need two key things. Firstly, we need the government to support schools properly, to fund them in a way that allows them to deal with these complex issues without unintentionally excluding or discriminating against any of their children. There is nothing simple or easy about making inclusion happen. But secondly, we need to look at ourselves and ask ourselves how willing we are to change the way we think on this subject. Are we just paying lip service to the idea of inclusion, or are we actually working to make it happen? Do we isolate the children with most difficulties from our classrooms, in the name of consistency and learning to conform, or are we going to make a go of inclusion by changing the way that our system works? When we talk about ‘high expectations’ do we run the risk of pushing out those children who are most difficult to support? These are really tricky questions, and to imagine that there is a simple answer to them is a failure in which we are probably all complicit.

“Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations,
the relations within which these individuals stand.”
Karl Marx

I don’t want to talk about individual cases, because to do so would be to break the confidentiality that we all hold with the families who choose to use our provision. However, I will say that my proudest moments as an educator have been in helping make it possible for children with complex needs to attend our preschool. Rather than seeing these situations as a problem to be solved, we have tried to see them as an opportunity to be embraced. How could we adapt our setting and our approaches to break down any barriers that might exist? How could we make it possible for any family who wanted to join us to be included in our provision? How could we (for want of a better word) be more inclusive? Clearly it can be far more difficult for larger settings than ours to achieve this, and particularly for schools and colleges when they are under so much pressure to achieve results. But I do believe that this is about a frame of mind, and a willingness to be adaptable, rather than about adopting an approach that refuses to bend and which sees flexibility as a fault rather than as a benefit.

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
Shirley Chisholm

The debate about the balance between inclusion and meeting everyone’s needs is further complicated by the fact that sometimes parents or carers feel that the ‘best’ setting for their child is not going to be a mainstream one. Until we reach a time when children with special educational needs and disabilities are properly included in mainstream schools (if this is actually possible) then parents of children with SEND quite rightly feel that they need to put the needs of their children first. We need to ask ourselves some difficult questions about whether it is possible to include all children in mainstream settings, and if not, which children we feel we might not be able to include, and much more crucially, why. This is a whole other discussion, and if you are interested in reading and thinking more about this, then do read Nancy Gedge’s excellent blogs on the subject. It is brilliant to see Nancy and many other parents of children with SEND advocating so strongly for their children. However, it is also deeply frustrating to see the DfE marginalising children with SEND in announcement after announcement, and publication after publication.

“The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself.”
Rita May Brown

Perhaps my biggest concern about the debate around inclusion and behaviour is the way that conformity is currently being framed as a virtue. While it is important for children to learn how to go along with social norms, and to regulate their behaviour, the idea that we should teach children to conform without question is a dangerous path to tread. In the ‘good old days’, children were expected to be seen and not heard. We used to beat children with a stick if they refused to conform to what the adults wanted in school. The change in attitudes, and in the law, around the rights of children has made life a lot more difficult for educators in terms of handling their behaviour. But if we are going to exclude children from the mainstream classroom because of their refusal to conform, we need to be damn sure that what we ask of them is respectful, achievable and realistic. A great rule of thumb is: would it be reasonable for me to ask this of adults, who have already (in theory) learned how to behave? A teacher I once met, who worked in a special school, said something to me that goes to the heart of any discussion about inclusion. Whenever I listen to the points made on both sides of the debate, I am minded of what she asked. “If we can’t include them when they’re children, then when are we going to include them?” And I wonder how I would feel about the answer to this question, if it was my child you were going to exclude.

Posted in Behaviour, Children, Inclusion | 6 Comments

Word Up

“If men do not keep on speaking terms with children, they cease to be men,
and become merely machines for eating and for earning money.”
John Updike

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to go to the House of Lords, for the launch of the Oracy Network, a group working to promote the development of speaking and listening skills in children and young people. The event also marked the launch of two publications on oracy: The State of Speaking in our Schools, written by Will Millard and Loic Menzies from LKMCo and Speaking Frankly, a series of essays on the subject. We were treated to an entertaining speech from Paul Boateng that made us laugh, and a speech by a student from School 21 about refugees that made me cry. And, perhaps best of all, I got to chat to some Year 4 children, who had me spellbound with tales of a chocolate bar project they did in Year 3, inspired by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Listening to children talk about their take on the world is a great way to remind yourself what education is actually about. Give children something that they’re interested in to talk about, and someone who is interested in what they’re saying to listen to them, and you can go an awfully long way.

“Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.”
Maggie Smith

It’s tempting to think of ‘oracy’ as being about public speaking and debating, using formal, Standard English – the oracy of politics, reason, rationality (the kind of speaking that gets you a job as a lawyer or a politician when you’re older). But actually this is only a tiny part of how we use speech, language and communication in our day-to-day lives. The speech that made me cry at the launch on Tuesday didn’t make me cry because of the facts or the vocabulary that the speaker included, it made me cry because she touched my heart. Children need to learn to express themselves through talk, not because it is a way to help them earn more money or have more power when they’re older (even if it is), but because speaking is how we form and maintain relationships – it is how we express ourselves. In his blog about the LKMco report on oracy, Michael Fordham says that “fluency is, at least in part, a consequence of having deep, domain-specific knowledge”. The “knowledge narrative” suggests that, in order to be able to speak (or read, or write) fluently, children need lots of information to speak about, and lots of vocabulary to speak with.

“I should not talk so much about myself
if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”

Henry David Thoreau

If you listen to children talk together, especially young children, you might notice that they have an openness to their world. Their talk is about exploring, and negotiating, and questioning, and feeling – they learn what they think about life by hearing themselves talk about it. This is why I’m a fan of approaches like Philosophy for Children. Not because of how many months progress a trial might say it adds to their SATs scores, but because it helps them build and shape their own ideas and decide what they personally think about a subject. And if you want to find the one subject that children can always talk about, the one where they have “deep knowledge” even when they are tiny, then just ask them about themselves. Their opinions, their views, their ideas, their emotions, their ‘take’ on how they see the world. I have heard it said that it is hard to see learning, but actually learning is quite easy to see if you ask children to talk about what is in their minds. When we listen to what children say, it lets us in on the secret of what they are actually thinking.

“As a matter of fact, have you never noticed that most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of a witness?”
Margaret Millar

In early year settings, speaking and listening (and its buddy, non verbal communication) are the mediums in which practitioners and children work. Pretty much all the learning that goes on has talk at the heart of it. It is thrilling to see the development of language at this age – from the reticent speech of a two year old who has just started at our setting, to the much more fluent talk of a four year old who is just about to leave us and set off on the journey that is schooling. One of the things that we have to be really careful about is that we don’t spend the whole time talking over our children. If we jump in quickly to guide their play, they don’t get to develop their imaginative thinking. If we don’t tune in properly to what they are saying, we can’t tell what they are actually thinking. We might make all kinds of assumptions about their understanding that don’t hold water, if we talk too much and listen too little. As children get older, you can check their thinking by giving them a test or asking them to write about what they learned. But when you work with kids who can’t yet read or write this is not an option. The chapter that I wrote for Speaking Frankly was on a technique used in the early years, called “sustained shared thinking”. I describe it as the “polar opposite of direct instruction in a teacher-led classroom”. Rather than sitting the child down in a seat and passing on knowledge, you help the child build understanding by having a conversation. It is dialogue, at work, to create learning.

“Free speech means the right to shout ‘theatre’ in a crowded fire.”
Abbie Hoffman

Sometimes oracy is presented mainly as something that children simply must learn to do properly in class, because they do it so very badly outside of it. This idea is often placed alongside a ‘closing the gap’ narrative, where the way to get some families to have as much money as others is to get them to ‘speak properly’. The drive is then on to teach children how to use formal language and correct grammar to let them ‘code switch’ as the situation requires. Obviously it’s helpful for children to learn how to do this, but this approach does tend to sideline any kind of talk that doesn’t fit into the standardised box. The logical end point of presenting talk as something you either do properly or not properly, is that you end up trying to control as much of the children’s talk as you possibly can. From a teaching perspective, one of the ‘problems’ with talk is that it is harder to control at a whole class level than reading, writing or listening. In a class where children are having discussions in groups, it is impossible for the teacher to monitor everything that is going on. Group work gets characterised as the enemy – as a format in which children will immediately go ‘off task’ and start to talk about what they are doing at the weekend. But without some kind of group work, oracy is basically impossible to achieve.

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.
If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
Albert Einstein

Oracy (and oratory) is not restricted to the factual, it is of course very much about the fictional as well (as we have seen from some of the political speeches of 2016). Speaking and listening is, perhaps, more about the unreal than the real. Nursery rhymes and songs, poetry, popular music, drama, plays and stories read out loud – all of these give us reason to lift up our voices and want to be heard. When something touches us deeply, we say that we are “lost for words” – it is the drive to express the inexpressible which is at the heart of all artistic endeavour. All day long, since I heard the news of Leonard Cohen’s death, I’ve had the words of the song Hallelujah stuck in my mind. If you read his songs, most of them don’t seem to make an awful lot of sense, at least not in the rational, factual meaning of the word. And yet, at the same time, they make all the sense in the world. This, then, is the true power of speech, and its vital counterpart, silence. The way it touches our emotions. The way it allows us to speak in our own voices. And the way it reaches out and reminds us to shed a tear, in remembrance of those who have passed.

“There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah.”

Posted in Children, Communication, Early Years, Listening, Speaking, Talk | 3 Comments

In Defiance of Compliance


Speaking as a parent, instead of as a teacher, I can see that the vast majority of school rules are eminently sensible – they are based around either learning, or the health and safety of children and teachers. If you don’t listen properly, you can’t learn; if you run in the corridors, someone might get hurt. Then there are the rules that I can just about understand, and that I am okay to go along with, even if I don’t entirely agree with their purpose. A practical, hard wearing, sensible and cheap school uniform is a good example of this – it makes my life easier in a lot of ways, and I am happy to set aside any personal qualms to help my children’s schools achieve consistency in it, so long as they don’t get stupidly picky about the details. And then there are the other rules; the ones that don’t seem to make any sense. The ones that appear to have been made up purely in an effort to get parents to be more compliant, that seem almost like a deliberate attempt to discourage particular ‘types’ of people from even considering applying to a school, or that are almost impossible to comply with whatever the hell you do.

This week I saw an article about a school that had a rule about a specific size of pencil case – it had to be long enough to hold a 30cm ruler. (Quite why the aforementioned 30cm ruler couldn’t just go loose in the kids’ bags, I have no idea.) Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m a regular purchaser of pencil cases. Since my kids began at school, it seems like I have bought hundreds of the things. When your children overload them with felt tips (as mine have a tendency to do), the zips often break. Plus my kids are quite keen to specify the kind of pencil cases they would prefer. And so I have become what you might call a connoisseur of the pencil case. I have located owl ones, ones with dots, clear ones, and ‘definitely not pink, mummy!’ ones. And my vast experience as a pencil case purchaser has taught me that, if you want to find a pencil case long enough to take a full length (30cm) ruler, then you are looking at a very limited set of options indeed. On this page of 155 types of pencil case from the well known stationery retailer, W.H. Smith, it looks to me like there is only one pencil case that will fit a full length ruler. Now, you might say to me, “Well, what’s the problem with that? If the school requires it, get on with it and buy it.” But this reaction overlooks two rather important issues: 1. The purchasing of pencil cases mostly happens in September, at which point if your local school requires a specific pencil case said pencil case will instantly be ‘out of stock’ in all the local shops, and 2. The kids will all end up with the same damn pencil case.

If you dare to question the rules set by some schools, particularly online, the standard response seems to be that (a) parents sign up to the rules when they apply to the school, that (b) parents can always choose somewhere else if they don’t like it, and that (c) consistency matters more than personal preferences. So let’s have a look at whether these arguments hold water. Firstly, parents do not ‘sign up’ to a long list of rules when they apply to a school – that would imply a choice of schools and school rules that simply doesn’t exist. No, parents cannot choose the school where they send their child, unless they are in an area with good public transport, or they plan to drive their child to school every day. (And even if there is transport, and you try to choose, you may not get your first choice of school.) And what about those of us who are fed up with the concept of ‘choice’, and who would just like to use our local schools? What happens to us? Then, the idea that I could just pick my kid out of one school, because I happened to disagree with an aspect of its policy, and drop them instantly into another one, is a fantasy as well. Again, this relies on me having access both to a new school place, and a way to transport my kid to it.

When it comes to (c), I do have some sympathy with this argument. Consistency is an important factor in effective behaviour management. Unfortunately, though, it becomes hard for parents to be consistent when rules are so specific and detailed in nature that the laws of supply and demand make it impossible to follow them. (“What do you mean you don’t have any shoes left without buckles in my kid’s size? This is Clarks Village for god’s sake!”) When I take up a place at a school for my child, what I want is to begin a long and fruitful partnership in which I support the school, and they support my child. (Thankfully my local schools do exactly this.) What I most definitely do not want is for the school to say to me the equivalent of: “Comply or Die” – do exactly as we say, or go away! If a rule is impossibly hard to follow, or if it causes parents anguish, expense or unnecessary stress, then there had better be a good reason to ask for it. Otherwise it’s not me or my child that is in the wrong for not following the rule. It is the rule that is stupid. And, that being the case, I definitely wouldn’t want to be the one who made it up.

Posted in Compliance, Consistency, Rules | Leave a comment

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It


When a brilliant singer called David Bowie died, on 10th January 2016, little did people realise that he had been holding the world together. But from that moment on what people thought of reality began to slide. Shock after shock followed. In the United Kingdom, the people voted to commit an act of economic self harm leave the EU. In the United States, the people voted for a racist, misogynistic orange guy Donald Trump. As the markets reacted to these events, confidence fell and exchange rates bounced up and down. Meanwhile, in a back room somewhere, some hedge fund guy made a billion dollars by betting against his own economy. Later on, people would look back at this year as a turning point. While some people said it was “the rise of the common people”, others called it “the rise of anti-politics”, and yet others “the rise of stupid”. Whatever. It was certainly a traumatic year for anyone who lived through it.

As the people known as “the liberals” hunkered down in their bunkers, waiting for the sky to fall in and the world to end, they began to ask themselves how this happened, and (more importantly) how they might prevent it happening again. And one shell-shocked writer came up with a list:

  1. Media Studies is a really, really, really important subject. In a world where a poster or a headline can swing a vote, and where people believe what they read in The Daily Mail, we need to teach children how to read and interpret what they see in the press.
  2. Facts have been superseded by a “post-truth” world, where some people will believe literally anything if you shout it loud enough. It is not enough anymore just to teach children facts; we need to teach them how to differentiate between facts and post-truth.
  3. As well as being like the greatest encyclopedia ever invented, the Internet is also an epic and unending source of post-truth. Digital literacy, the ability to ‘read’ it, is of critical importance for future generations.
  4. People will sometimes pretend to believe things that they don’t actually believe, especially if they feel that people might disapprove of the things that they do believe. While we can’t condone prejudice, we need to believe it exists to be able to challenge it.
  5. Social media can give you a completely false view of the opinions of other people, creating a bubble in which you only see the vision of the world that you agree with. Unfortunately, elsewhere on social media people with the polar opposite views are doing the same thing. You can mute, block or ignore them, but they won’t go away. However, there is no point in saying “follow those you disagree with” if all you ever do is retweet their comments with a sarcastic witticism attached.
  6. It is much harder to change people’s opinions and beliefs than you might imagine.
  7. Education is the only possible solution to prejudice and misunderstanding.
  8. However, teachers and schools can only do so much. We can’t just make endless lists of things for them to solve, and expect it to happen. The fault lies with those who stoke prejudice, and this mainly means politicians and the media.
  9. It’s important to stay positive, especially if you have children, or if you work with them. Some of us are old enough to remember the What to do in the event of a nuclear war leaflets and the fall of the Berlin Wall. These things too shall pass.
  10. If you’re a Remain voter, you might be feeling slightly better today, since the people of another country have shown themselves to be even more misguided than the people of your own. However, you would do well to remember: Trump is only for four years; Brexit is forever.
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Now I Have Finally Seen The Light

“I saw Goody Proctor with the devil!”
The Crucible

There was a strangely febrile atmosphere on edu-Twitter last weekend. People snapping at each other, making bold statements, accusations of bias or rudeness flying around, a general sense of narkiness in the air. (Personally, I blame the US election – after what happened with Brexit, who knows what the outcome will be and what will happen next?) When Twitter turns like this, it makes me want to step away. To hunker down and get back to the real world, where sweeping statements are rare, and where people talk with nuance in sentences of more than 140 characters. The cause of all the upset seemed to be an (ongoing and apparently endless) debate about different styles of pedagogy. In the past I’ve been called a “well known progressive”, which I found both amusing and annoying, but which mainly felt to me like I was back in the playground and someone was calling me names. But this blog is not about whether or not I, or anyone else, is “a progressive”, or “a traditionalist”, or even whether there is a divide between the two camps. This blog is about the problems of framing questions in terms of “a debate”.

I left school at 16, and my school was an ILEA comprehensive, which meant I missed out on the kind of ‘debate clubs’ that you tended to only get in sixth forms or at private school in those days. I can vaguely remember a class debate once about fox hunting, in which tempers got very heated, but beyond that it’s not a format in which I’ve often worked. When I was small, my parents got divorced, and it was all very heated, so I’m not keen on arguments in any form, really. I don’t like to hear people quarrelling and getting upset with each other. From what I can understand, in a debate, people argue both “for” and “against” a motion, and at the end you take a vote to see who “won”. It all sounds very rational, and measured, and balanced, and democratic, but the problem is that coming to decisions in such a binary way leaves no space for the thousands of graduations between absolute agreement (yah! go Donald Trump!) and absolute disagreement (no! go away strange orange guy!). While I accept that this is how democracy (or referendums) work, I’m not convinced it is a viable way to talk about something as complex as education.

I’m a contrary person, and the more that you tell me what I have to do, or say, or believe, the more likely I am to do the complete opposite. This means that, if you say that there is a debate and you must accept that and join in, you are only making it even more likely that I will say “no thanks, I think I’ll pass on the debate thing”. If you say group work is stupid and people should realise that and stop doing it, I will feel inspired to immediately go and get a group of children and do some work with them. Or I will start thinking about all the circumstances in which group work plainly isn’t rubbish. (As in team sports, drama, music ensemble, and so on.) Now you may or may not think this attitude is childish, but at my advanced age, I like to try and retain a childlike nature. You may or may not care what I think, and if you belong to “Team Traditional” I have learned to live with the idea that you don’t. But the point is that you can’t have a debate if no one joins in with you. You can’t have a debate if the opposition doesn’t agree with the way you’ve worded the motion. And if your debate causes people to polarise their opinions, that’s not very helpful. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to dance with the devil. I’ve heard he has “all the best tunes”.

Posted in Learning | 7 Comments