No Excuses and the Case of the Slow Drying Sun


It’s Sunday night and “Houston, we have a problem”. It’s not that the kid hasn’t done her homework; the problem is that the homework isn’t dry yet. This time round the homework was to celebrate the end of the Solar System topic that her class has been doing. The learning log challenge was to answer some questions about the planets, in whatever format you wanted. So the kid has spent the past two weeks working on a clay solar system and some planet fact cards to go with it. And herein lies our problem – she made the sun too late and too big, and the clay hasn’t dried yet. And until the clay dries a bit more, the paint that she’s put on the sun just won’t dry either. Every time we try to pick it up we get orange on our fingers.

“Why don’t you just take in the fact cards, and the planets that are already dry?” I suggest. “I’m sure that will do.”

“But that spoils the point,” the kid says. “The point is it’s the solar system and the solar system has to have the SUN.”

“Will Miss mind if it’s late?” I ask. I’m not too sure of the etiquette for delayed solar systems, and I don’t want her to get into trouble unnecessarily.

“Not if I explain the reason why,” she says. “Miss will understand. And you can help me take it in as soon as it’s dry.”


This morning the sun was finally dry enough to put in the box with the other planets, to take into school. The kid placed them carefully, lovingly in the box, in the right order. We added some fairy lights in a last minute dash of inspiration, to represent the stars. All the way into school she chatted about how Mercury was rolling out of position, how Mars didn’t move around because of the volcanoes she put on it, and how the Moon simply wouldn’t stay still. The box was really heavy so I had to carry it into school for her. As we arrived in the classroom, her teacher was talking to the class, so we snuck in at the back and I put the solar system down on a table.

“Ah!” her teacher said, smiling broadly and rushing over to look inside the box. “It’s the mysterious solar system at last! I’ve been so intrigued to see what that too wet sun was all about!”

I guess her teacher could have said that “there is no excuse for a late homework” and given my kid a detention. If she had, I would have insisted to the kid that she take it on the chin. (We had a chat about how she could have planned ahead a bit better; I think she learned that lesson without the need for a punishment of any kind.) Certainly it would be tricky in a large secondary school to be flexible about homework like this – to differentiate between all the reasons why homework might be late. But I wonder if we lose something along the way in our desire to be consistent and not to let the boundaries slip. Something to do with intrinsic motivation and the desire to take risks. The idea that mistakes are part of being human, and that forgiving people for their errors is not necessarily a bad thing.

“You won’t be able to do this when you go to secondary,” I said to the kid, before we set off this morning, to deliver the solar system. “You’ll get a detention if you don’t hand in your homework on time.”

“Detention? Urrgghh!” the kid said, scrunching up her nose and thinking for a moment. “Well then I’d better not do clay for homework when I go to secondary school.”

Posted in Behaviour, Children | Leave a comment

The Source of the Knowledge

What would happen if you handed over the management of a setting to the parents of the children who went there? Would they be excessively demanding, expecting things to be constantly adjusted for their own child? Would they put the desires of their own child above the needs of the many? Would it go all Lord of the Flies and descend into chaos?

chocolate face

Actually, no.

A voluntary run preschool is managed by the parents of the children who go there. The staff are in charge of how the setting is run, and how the children learn, but parents are the trustees, and make the strategic decisions. When most parents wanted our preschool to open 15 minutes earlier, to fit in better with drop off at our local primary school, we took a vote, got staff agreement and changed our opening hours. We’re not telling the staff how to teach, we’re working together to make the setting work at its best, for us and our children. Home visits are not a burden, but a brilliant opportunity to get to know our families. The thing about parents is that they have lots of information about their children, so they can tell us if something really isn’t working. (A bit like when we all tried to tell the DfE that the baseline was a silly idea.) As parents we spend countless hours with our children. We know what they need better than their schools could ever do. Listening to parents doesn’t mean us demanding and getting what we want, it’s just going to the source of the knowledge.

Posted in Children, Parents | 2 Comments

Jumping the Hurdles

When your babies are small, the thing you really can’t wait for them to do is to walk, because that means you don’t have to carry them anymore. The tiny baby bit is lovely, if you like that kind of thing, but they very quickly get heavy. You need them to learn to move by themselves, because otherwise you can’t even make a cup of tea. Crawling is efficient, but it is also mucky, and it’s not a great all surface option. So walking it is. But you can’t just hoist your kids up onto their feet and say “walk” – their legs have to be ready to cope with it, and they have to have the confidence and the will to do it. They have to jump that hurdle when they’re ready, otherwise they’re just going to fall over. And you also clear some space in the room, so that there is less stuff for them to trip on. Putting pointless hurdles in their way is a really dumb idea.

As the DfE has discovered to its cost, one of the dangers of setting the hurdles too high, and of erecting pointless hurdles, is that you run the risk of tripping over them. If you set an agenda of “high standards” and then you fail to live up to the kind of standards you said you expected, your shins get bruised. A cancelled baseline, delays to the exemplification materials, a KS1 SATs spelling test that shouldn’t have been published, “achieveing” on the website. Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! If you’re going to say that there are “no excuses” and that “all must be above average” (oh my aching shins) then you can’t really make monumental mistakes and expect people not to giggle as you fly through the air. If you’re going to ask for something from children, then make damn sure you model it yourself. Because you can’t have higher standards for the kids than for you, unless you’re a hypocrite or a dictator.

If a child is ready to jump over the “spot the adverb” or the “use a semi-colon” hurdle, then by all means set up that hurdle for the child to jump over. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having high expectations for each child, and I have no problem teaching children to spot these things, mostly because they are best avoided. But not all the kids in the same class are the same age, and some kids are not as tall as others. Why would you make them jump a hurdle when they’re not ready, or make them walk before they can crawl? All you end up doing is bruising their shins. And that’s not high expectations, that’s just bullying. (A bit like making all schools become academies is like dragging them over the hurdle against their will.) So I’m not surprised that parents are rising up and starting to make a noise. And I’m watching very closely to see what happens. Because the DfE can set up whatever hurdles it wants, but I don’t have to let my children crash into them.

Posted in Children, Testing | 4 Comments

The Collective

Although #WomenEd is not exclusive to women, it is a space where women are in a clear majority, and where they get to share their experiences in what feels like a safe space. The very words “safe space” can bring out a rash in some people, so this blog is most definitely not about safe spaces. But today’s event felt to me like a place where it was possible to tell a few stories that I might not have told in a different setting. If you feel that there needs to be a #MenEd, then I would encourage you to set one up, because today’s event in Bristol just felt like a great space to share the experiences that bind us. We weren’t putting down men, we were putting up women. (And no offence meant to the guys, but the physical process of childbirth doesn’t have quite as much relevance to you.)

It’s been my experience that people and organisations work very well when they have a clear vision of what they want to do. Not in the sense of “we are going to do this anyway, regardless of what you think” but in the sense of “this is how we do it here”. I love the way that #WomenEd achieves this goal. It feels like the very best kind of collective, where all the people within the collective are emboldened to speak out. These days, the idea is afoot that organisations are all about leaders – The Superheads – and that the best leaders hurdle the barriers and can do it all, even the stuff that you didn’t actually ask them to do. This is the “cult of perfection” that Jules Daulby so rightly identified at today’s @WomenEd event in Bristol. But if you move away from the idea that one person knows or can do it all, and you just work together, embracing the crap-o-meter of life, maybe good stuff can happen.

The problem with a “clear vision” is that not everyone’s vision is always the same. This is especially the case if you have a top down structure to your organisation, where someone is always telling someone else what to do. The lovely thing about today’s event in Bristol was that no one was telling me I had to do anything. They were just suggesting it as an option. And telling me it was okay if I didn’t quite manage it. We could always take a vote on it later, over a bottle of wine. Because after all, we are all part of a collective.😉

Posted in WomenEd | 2 Comments


There are 604,800 seconds in a week. During term times, children spend around 117,000 seconds a week in school. In theory homework might use up another 18,000 seconds each week. If they sleep for 8 hours a night, that uses up 201,600 more seconds. Let’s say that they also spend an hour and a half a day doing things related to eating and drinking, which is another 37,800 gone. Washing, going to the loo, getting dressed, getting around, let’s allocate those 40,000 seconds. So, while they’ve used up 414,400 seconds without even thinking about sitting down to watch some TV or read a book or play on a computer, they still have 190,400 seconds of each school week left over to spend as they wish during term time, and discounting holidays. (Apart from chores, family outings, after school clubs.)

If every second counts, maybe some important questions for teachers are what does each second count for? and is it possible to influence how children spend their seconds when they’re not with me? (and perhaps also bloody hell, I hope I’m not doing the every second counts thing when I’m 68). Interestingly, while teachers might have a limited number of seconds in school with the children, the children have a lot of spare seconds outside it. As a parent, it is my responsibility to help my children spend their spare seconds wisely (although I do get them when they are tired, so I also have to give them a chance to rest). The idea that every second counts might lead us to the conclusion that we have to keep children very busy when they are at school. That we should fill up their heads with skills and knowledge as quickly as we can, as though they are at a pitstop with an empty tank, and four bald tyres, and we need to sort them out so they can get back in the race.

When I’m working on a book, I sometimes spend long periods walking around in what might look like a daze: wandering in the garden, or across on the allotment, doing odd jobs around the house. The seconds tick away and not much gets done. But all the time I appear to be doing nothing of consequence, I am letting the ideas bubble up in my mind, until the point at which they are ready to flow out of my fingertips as words. This probably sounds like Romantic nonsense, but it’s not, it’s just how writing works for me. A deadline is the perfect antidote to procrastination. When a book is ready to bubble over, the secret is for me to sit down and write it. I mustn’t shirk, or falter. I must just get the damn words down on the page, as quickly as I can. You can’t edit something that doesn’t exist.

If every second counts, then maybe one of the most important things about a child’s education is that they know how to learn self sufficiently, and that they don’t stop loving the idea of learning. That they still come home curious, wanting to pick up a book because they love to read, or ask to make a clay model of the Solar System, because it’s just so interesting, and they want to surprise the teacher. Children need the skills, and the capacity, but also the desire and energy to want to learn, and to make the most of their lives. Sometimes that takes a bit of downtime, or of wandering in the garden. There are a lot of seconds in a childhood (I googled it), but there are a lot more seconds after we grow up. And teachers are very lucky indeed, because we don’t only get the seconds we spend with the children. We get the chance to influence all the seconds in the rest of their lives.

Posted in Childhood, Learning, Writing | 2 Comments

Rapa Nui

The very name conjures up a fantasy
As it rolls off your tongue and pours into
The hot, dark seedbed of your imagination.
A long, cramped plane ride; patience frays
But you know there are giant stone heads ahead
Heads hewn by humans, saying THIS IS ME.
Rapa Nui

002 013

The volcanoes rose out of an ancient sea.
Forcing their way through the ocean’s crust
Magma thrusting up towards the sun, red and black.
Huge lakes crept into the craters
The island waited. Silently. Patiently.
For someone to find it.
Rapa Nui

060 007

Remember the time, those many centuries ago
When we first came here? Who knows what drew us,
The currents, the birds, the lure of an azure sea.
We pitched up in paradise. And what could we do but stay?
Claim this place as our own. Dig fingers in the sand.
Our feet the first to touch this ground.
Rapa Nui

078 089

The plane descends into the humid night air
Of an island, captured in the vast Pacific
Remote as the possibility of finding such a place.
A lady passes a garland of flowers over your head
The flowers are pink, shining, fragile jewels in a dark night.
When dawn comes you stare out at the Moai. Transfixed.
Rapa Nui

014 016

Exploring the shoreline, with your brother
Rocks scour the soles of your feet
As you pick shells out of the rock pools.
A dead horse’s jaw, that your brother dares you to touch
You watch out for anemones
And gaze into the clearest water you have ever seen.
Rapa Nui

011  012 006

You climb up into a quarry, where a thousand years ago
People chipped, and carved, and worked
Heads hewn out of the volcano, with ancient tools.
Lines of Moai stand stark against the sky. Looking over the land.
We were here, they say. We did this. We had power.
(You shuffle, and you stand up straight, and you try to be the same as them.)
Rapa Nui

037 066

That night, you tell us that you are going to be a sculptor.
You scavenged for obsidian on the volcano that morning.
You want wood, or rock, or shell. Something you can carve.
Looking around for materials, you grasp a bread roll.
Biting it, you make your mark.
This is my Broai, you announce.
Rapa Nui – Māuru-uru.

063 044

Posted in Road School | 4 Comments

Faith, Hope and Not-Really Charities

“It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world.”
Mary Wollstonecraft

Our preschool has been around for almost 50 years, but it was constituted as charity in 1996 (which makes us 20 years old this year – woo hoo!). In the early days, the charity was kept afloat by fundraising and by however many parents wanted to pay for their children to come, and get involved in bake sales. We were only open maybe 10 hours a week, because that is all that could really be sustained. There was a lot less regulation around in those days. With no state run alternative, parents either did it for themselves, or it didn’t happen. These days, although we are still voluntary run, we get most of our funding from the Government. Any fundraising is an added bonus, because it buys us lovely things like high ratios and sheds and equipment for our forest club. We’re in a fairly affluent area, where parents are happy to get involved and, crucially, where they have the time. We are in the fortunate position of being able to do charity on our own kids. In areas of deprivation, it must be so much harder to take this approach.

Running a charity is complicated, and time consuming. There is a lot of charity law, financial regulation and administrative red tape that you need to understand. It’s easy to miss doing something because you didn’t know you were meant to do it. I’ve only been able to devote the time to learning how to do it all because I don’t have a 9 to 5 job. Reserve Fund Calculations and Annual Reports. AGMs and Quorums. One of the other issues with a funded charity is that people don’t tend to want to volunteer, when they view something as an entitlement and not an extra. The people who do volunteer can come with an agenda. This can be good or bad (usually, thankfully, it’s good). Sometimes, though, it can be a pain in the backside. As trustees (and particularly as chair of trustees) you can have a lot of influence, which means that it’s important to have plenty of oversight into what you are doing. Unfortunately, oversight can only ever be limited in scale, because there are a lot of charities. This is a fundamental flaw in the Government’s new ‘all must be academies’ policy, because academies will all be exempt charities, which means that the DfE/EFA are going to have to do a lot of oversight.

Ironically, although I have helped to run our charity for seven years, there is something wrong to me about having charities do a job that a government should do. Yes, it’s a good way to fund organisations where you want them to reuse any profit, and not pay any tax. Yes, it is lovely to encourage a community to help its own. But at the end of the day it is still charity. It is asking people to do a job that the Government is meant to do. I struggle to see us as a charity, we are more like a business run by volunteers that doesn’t make a profit, just one that gets more money because we raise our own. When people say that the Government is trying to privatise education, I fear they might be right. If a CEO is earning a massive salary, there is a hair’s breadth between being a government funded charity and acting like a private company. It’s wrong that my children should get a better deal than other people’s, just because we have time to help run their preschool, organise charity events, and write grant applications. It’s wrong that we call something a charity if it acts more like a business. And while charity might begin at home, high quality education is not an act of charity. It is the job of a Government, and a right for every child.

Posted in Charities | 2 Comments