Where Do You Come From?


In my dreams, I would come from a family of Spanish desperadoes, or exiled Russian princesses. My ancestors would have crossed tropical seas, fought with pirates, made their fortunes panning gold. Instead, I was brought up in a suburb of London called Ealing. My mum’s family are from Wales and my dad was brought up in Norwich. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but these places are not exactly exotic. Some people love a bit of flag waving. They can get very heated about their national identity and I understand that they love that stuff. But it’s not the symbols of being British (or is that English?), like the Royal Family or the Union Jack, that define me. What defines me is my innate sense of being a bit English and a bit Welsh because that’s where my family come from, and that’s where I’ve mostly lived. It is in my genes, and it is also part of the culture that I’ve been brought up in. I can’t really help it. Over the years, the culture that I have lived in has, thankfully, included people from all over the world. Immigration and immigrants have immeasurably improved not only my public life, but my private life too.

My partner’s family has a history of which I am inordinately jealous. Basra, Goa, Portugal, Germany; they’ve lived all over the place. Mine have started to scatter too, and these days between us we have family all over the world – in Portugal, Germany, France, Australia, India. And many other families are exactly the same. The world is gradually getting more mixed up, and the question “where do you come from?” is not a simple one to answer any more. Do I come from where I was born, where I was brought up, or where my family came from originally? Not in the legal sense, but in the sense of what I see as my identity. In an age of easy air travel and the possibility of free movement around the world for some of us, the question “where do you come from?” can be a tricky one to answer. Well, my family started out here, but we ended up over there, oh and then we went there. We don’t all live in just one place all our lives anymore, or only have families within our own gene pool, and thank goodness for that. It’s great to live and work in other places, and being ‘foreign’ is not some kind of a disease. So I’m really sorry, Ealing, you’re lovely and all that, but I don’t really come from you anymore. In the current climate I like to see myself as a citizen of the world.

Posted in Travel | 4 Comments



Sometimes by ‘engagement’ we mean ‘busy’, although just because you’re busy, doesn’t mean you’re moving forwards. You might be busy doing the thing badly. Some skills need you to stay busy to learn them, and for a teacher to watch over you and advise you at first. Handwriting, forward rolls, sewing, typing, knitting – you need to get them all into your physical memory, so you learn them by staying busy at them. You keep moving, and when you’re new to these skills you have to focus really hard at them. But the quicker you get at the thing, the better you know you’ve got it.

Sometimes by ‘engagement’, we mean ‘focused’ or ‘attentive’. Asking children to look at the board when we are teaching from the front; getting them to look at a resource when we are explaining about it; or insisting that they listen to what we’re saying. If they don’t see or hear it, they can’t possibly learn it. There is a deeply inbuilt yearning in us, for people to look at us when we are speaking to them. For me, it’s a ‘signal’ – it helps me to gauge where I am and whether I am keeping people’s attention, but I wouldn’t force it. If I am open to making eye contact with you, then you will probably make eye contact with me.

And sometimes by ‘engagement’ we mean absorption. This kind of engagement is magical. It is a quiet, introspective flow that leads to creativity and sudden understanding. It is also setting yourself quietly to work. But I suspect the question isn’t deciding what we mean by ‘engagement’. It is deciding what we mean by learning.

The small girl lifts the top off the pumpkin and sets it to one side. She puts her hands into the pumpkin and feels around inside. Squishing, squashing. When she pulls out some seeds, strings of pumpkin flesh come out with them and she weaves them like spider’s webs between her hands. She stares at it for ages, then she brings a mouthful to her face and licks. A frown crinkles her face. She smiles. “Pumpkin!” she says. “I like pumpkin!”

Posted in Children, Learning | Leave a comment

So Over That


The picture above is (I am reliably informed) of a Pokémon character called Oshawott. My daughter drew it for an art competition when she was eight years old. She didn’t win a prize with her picture, but she was so delighted with it that she asked us to frame it for her. It now takes pride of place on her bedroom wall. Over the years, my kids have spent a lot of time with Pokémon. They played the Nintendo DS games, watched the TV series several times over, and collected sets of miniature Pokémon characters. They read The Pokémon Essential Handbook so many times that the pages started to fall out. But, as is the way with all such fads, their love for Pokémon came to an end and they moved onto Minecraft. This meant that they missed out on the Pokémon Go! craze that swept the world earlier this year. It was no longer relevant to them.

If you wanted to start a heated debate on Twitter,  ‘relevance’ would be a great choice of topic. (For anyone who somehow missed this weekend’s edu drama, Debra Kidd explains eloquently here.) Relevance is the fault line between the “best that has been thought and said” crew, and the “I guess when Gove said ‘the Blob’ he must have meant me” one. It is the difference between believing that we must eradicate Pokémon related learning from schools on the basis that it will ‘dumb down’ the curriculum, and being confused as to why the occasional modern cultural reference might be so terribly bad. One of the great things about being a teacher is that you get to keep up with all the latest crazes. You watch from the sidelines as children fall madly in love with one thing after another. It’s amazing the level of obsession that children can muster, when faced with an animated cartoon. It’s astonishing how many names and facts a child can learn, when they belong to some plastic toys. From my perspective, it would feel odd to see such a powerful motivator for learning, and yet ignore its potential application in the classroom.

But this debate isn’t really a debate about curriculum, it’s a debate about culture and control. Do we want to incorporate aspects of our children’s lived experience into the classroom, or do the adults get to have all the say? Do we want to find ways to connect learning to our children’s lives, or do we want to present them with a vision of ‘high culture’, passed down from adult to child? How far should learning be something that children ‘just do’ because we tell them to, and how much should it be motivating in and of itself? Personally I think it’s a bit of a shame if we don’t at least try to spark an intrinsic desire to learn, by capitalising on the things that they love. Of course, the tricky bit with relevance is figuring out what it means for each child, and also keeping up to speed with the pace of change. Because the grown ups might be totally into Pokémon. But the kids? They’re so over that.



Posted in Children, Learning | Leave a comment

A Blunt Instrument

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

I look down at my workbench. I have a number of tools available to me, to make the sculpture happen. I pick up the chisel and the mallet. They are solid in my hands. Weighty. They hold authority. I want to shape this sculpture quickly, so I need to make confident strokes. I check the end of the chisel. The chisel I have picked up is blunt. I need a sharper tool. There is so much pressure to make miracles happen, that I feel the need to move fast, and shape things quickly. Do I even have time to think about my blunt tool? And then I wonder whether maybe the material in front of me isn’t more like clay, than like a solid lump of rock that I have to chisel. Perhaps my best bet is to move softly, gently. See what potential lies here. Not me, but us.

It is not really about the thing that you decide to use, as a symbol of how you want your relationship to be with your children and their families – what you want your setting to ‘feel’ like. It could be uniform, if that’s the route you want to take, although things closer to the heart of learning and relationships are perhaps a better choice. It is more, I think, about how you use the thing that you decide to use. No matter how frustrated you get at people’s tendency to be awkward, do you manage to stay kind? It is actually possible to use uniform differently, if that’s what your community says they want to do. You can make it something that people decide to do, together. Although uniform wouldn’t necessarily be my choice many people are emotionally wedded to the idea. And an ethos is not about what want, it’s about what the learning community as a whole would like.

At preschool we have an optional uniform which is comfy, practical and cheap, because that is what our parents (who also help to manage the preschool) decided, in a democratic vote. Staff decided that they wanted to wear a uniform as well because it makes them identifiable, it helps them feel like a team, and because things can get awfully messy in the early years. Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about any uniform debate, is how people are so drawn to this as a cultural concept. There is something about a group identity that pulls people in. But anyway, uniform doesn’t have to be a fault line, in the debate about how authoritarian we should be. It doesn’t have to be school versus parents, or management versus everyone else. (Talk of no excuses makes my brain buzz with the contradictions.) You don’t have to impose expectations on people; to use them as a blunt tool. You can also do things gently, shaping your ethos along the way. When people are happy with what you do, then they will mostly do what you ask them to. The angel is already in the marble. Your job is to set her free.

Posted in Learning, Uniform | 1 Comment

In Praise of Lazy


“There’s 104 days of summer vacation, 
‘Til school comes along just to end it.”
Phineas and Ferb

The problem with having a hard work/effort is good/growth mindset attitude all the time, is that it gets really tiring. By the end of July I am on my knees. Thankfully, as Phineas and Ferb told us, there are many days of summer vacation to look forward to (although perhaps 104 is pushing it a bit). The Portuguese are very good at taking summertime seriously. You have to be if it’s 30 or even 40 degrees for the whole of August. Luckily, when your country is one long coastline, you have the ideal location in which to cool down. I love the attitude to summer in Portugal. It is all about families, festas and food. You eat lunch, then you go to the beach. Or you have a late breakfast and take a picnic to the beach. Or you can even go to the beach and go out for dinner later on, if you’ve got the energy. The people party late into the night because that is when it cools down. Fireworks start at midnight or later. There are festas all the time, everywhere. No one thinks about school, and academic learning, because they are too busy remembering how to enjoy life.

I’ve read a couple of blogs about holidays recently. Nancy Gedge talks about the difficulties of the long summer break, and offers her thoughts on solutions here. Larry Cuban explains the situation in America here, where the traditional school year is 180 days. I just wonder sometimes whether the UK isn’t suffering from the symptoms of an over developed work ethic. We’re just not very good at being lazy. The year has a shape, punctuated not by school terms, but by ancient festivals that grew up around the seasons. Whatever religion you are (if any), there is no denying that the rhythm of the year is incredibly important to people. Christmas, New Year, Easter, Summer; over and over again. Without the holidays to break up the year, it’d be one long drudge. With the holidays, you come out refreshed and ready to face the world.

We should be wary of treading on the month of August (if you tried that in Portugal, you would have a riot on your hands). We should be wary of Governments taking more and more hours of our leisure time away, in the name of greater productivity. We should be wary about a push to focus more on work than on family, because family is what matters, in the end. Yes, it’s great to work hard, and do well, but that stuff isn’t everything. Sometimes lazy is just what is required. And I’m above expected standards at that.

Posted in Holidays, Travel | Leave a comment

Holiday Knowledge

087 088


(Festival Internacional de Jardins 2016, Ponte de Lima)

“What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.”
Isaac Newton


We know how to jump over a sprinkler,
and we are at least Olympic standard at swingball.


We know which kitten is our favourite
and we know that her name is Midnight Storm.


We know how to go down an

003 021

We know that forest fires blacken the sky,
and make rings of flame in the night.


We know how to play outdoor chess at the garden festival.
Kind of.


We know that this praying mantis loves our lime green chair
because he’s been sitting on it for days.


And we know that we are finally brave enough
to jump off the jetty and into the river!

We might not know much, but we know what we love.🙂

Posted in Children, Holidays, Knowledge, Learning | Leave a comment

Celebrating the Blob

When Michael Gove made it fashionable to blame “the blob” for the supposedly disastrous state of our education system, he unleashed a powerful narrative on state schools. The narrative told us that progressive state education had been an unparalleled disaster (with the not-so-subtle subtext that this had happened on Labour’s watch). In the past few years, some high profile bloggers and writers have repeatedly called for a return to ‘traditional approaches’ to teaching, as the only way to save our children from the fate that awaits them if “the progressives” continue to have their way. The DfE is equally clear about the solution: our children lack character, they need more resilience, more respect, more of a military ethos. We are told that our children are needy, entitled, that we make too many excuses for them, that we need a more competitive approach in education. Rigour, rigour and more rigour is needed. Testing, testing and more testing is the order of the day. This, apparently, is the only way to put the “progressive” mess right.

In October 2010 Michael Gove axed the £162 million dedicated funding for school sports. It was also revealed that he had approved the sale of 21 school sports fields. After an outcry, there was a partial U-turn on the funding for School Sports Partnerships, but the selling of sports fields continued unabated. In 2015, figures revealed that 27 schools had been given the go ahead to sell some of their “playing fields land” in the prior twelve months, making a total of 87 schools to do so, since Britain hosted the Olympics in 2012. And yet, as I sit here watching bits and pieces of the Rio Olympics while I’m on my summer holidays, I can only marvel at how brilliantly our progressively state educated young people are doing, despite all the difficulties that appear to be stacked against them. As a nation, we’re not great at blowing our own trumpet, but let’s face it, Britain is well and truly smashing the odds when it comes to the amount of medals we are racking up. Yes, Sport England has been given lots of lottery money to throw at the situation. But one thing is undeniable: a hell of a lot of those young athletes went through school, and first played sports, at the time the Blob was supposedly doing all that damage.

Yes, it’s true that there is an imbalance between the number of sports stars who were educated privately, versus at state schools. At first glance, it would seem that state schools should account for more than 70 per cent of Olympic medal winners, since they educate around 93 per cent of children. But the massive difference in sports facilities between state and independent schools goes a long way towards explaining this imbalance. There is also the fact that private schools generally have more time, space, funds and parental support, allowing them to focus on a broader curriculum, including sports (and the arts). So as our little country punches well above its weight in the Olympics, I’m taking a moment to celebrate state education, and all the teachers who do such fantastic work encouraging children to play sports in schools. And while I’m busy celebrating things that are rather unfashionable at the moment, I should also mention all the amazing athletes that we have, thanks to immigration. Because if commentators are going to blame feckless youths, “progressive teachers” and immigrants for all the supposedly bad stuff, the very least I can do is to say thank you to them for their achievements.

Posted in Sports, Teachers | 2 Comments