Keep Feeling Fascination

When children are fascinated by something, they want to do it all the time. They can also show the most incredible concentration. I’ve seen a child scoop the seeds out of a pumpkin for fifteen minutes and more, so she could get the inside of it clean. I’ve seen a child spend hours putting rocks in a digger, tipping them out, mixing soil and water, to create a universe of his own design. I’ve seen a child plant seeds, then return time and again, so she can watch them grow into a flower or a vegetable. I’ve seen a child so interested in dinosaurs that you could show him any dinosaur picture, and he would tell you everything you ever wanted to know (and more) about it. Magically, when children are small, learning seems to follow fascination. Fascination helps them make exponential leaps.

As children grow, there are many things we need to teach them, as opposed to letting them flit around and learn in their fascinated way all the time. Reading and writing need to be taught, preferably alongside parents. (Those Dinosaur books didn’t read themselves.) We get to introduce children to a wider and deeper understanding of their world, as they become more able to understand it. We show them lots of stuff that might fascinate them, but somewhere along the way, we seem to stop focusing on what they are truly fascinated by. And this is the question that really interests me, especially when it comes to my own children. Not how we should best measure teaching standards. Not why learning should be hard, and my children must ‘attain mastery’. Not even why a growth mindset is better than the alternative. But how do I keep them feeling fascination?

Posted in Children, Learning | 4 Comments

I Am Not A Camera

Quite frankly, there are days when I wish I had Stepford Kids. Take today, for instance. The kids did not make it out of their pyjamas. They spent more time than they should have on screens, and less time than they should have doing chores. On days like this, I wish someone could Stepford my kids: train them up to do as they are told. I wish there was someone on the other end of a camera, going ‘do this’ or ‘say that’, so that I could become a more efficient parent. And yet … and yet. Yesterday, we laughed and learned at the Zoo. Tomorrow one goes to a friend while the other gets a special day out with mum. Next week we will decamp to Portugal, where there will be all sorts of opportunities for quality time, and for downtime as well. The kids will spend half the time driving us mad, and the other half giving us joy. We will spend half the time driving the kids mad, and the other half giving them joy. There will be sunshine, and there will also be rain.

Such is life. Such are people. And such is teaching too.

About ten years ago, I was involved in a project with Teachers TV, where I was at the end of a secret camera, coaching teachers while they taught a real life class. Today I came across “I Am Not Tom Brady” by Amy Berard, on EduShyster’s blog. It explains how the ‘hidden camera’ technique is being used in the US. Please read it if you haven’t. Coaching via camera is a fascinating experience, but I felt it was a subtle, nuanced and difficult thing to do. I found it worked best for me to act as the camera for the teacher, spotting the issues that it’s impossible to see when you’re in the midst of 30 living, breathing human beings. The teachers who did it with me found it tricky too, and I don’t blame them. I didn’t feel that it was appropriate for me to script exactly what the teacher should say, or tell them how they should stand. I’m not here tomorrow; the teacher is. I did give strategies, maybe suggesting the teacher pause or use a time target. That stuff is useful when you’re in the thick of it. But I didn’t try to control another human being, because people are not robots.

I can no more precisely script what a teacher does, than I can turn my children into Stepford Kids. Well, I could, but why on earth would I want to? No one wants their life to be scripted for them; we all want to write our own scripts for ourselves. Some days we will get it right, and other days we will get it wrong. But I don’t get to have any rainbows, if I can’t put up with the rain.

Posted in Children | 5 Comments

The Seven Stages of Twitter

1. Oblivious: What is this Twitter thing of which you speak?

2. Confused: How does this thing work again?

3. Sceptical: How do I get anyone to listen to me if I’ve only got 3 followers?

4. Addicted: How many notifications/retweets/favourites/followers did I get? I love this!

5. Evangelical: You really really really MUST join Twitter.

6. Irritated: He said WHAT!?! This place is awful.

7. Zen: Write tweet. Delete.

Posted in Twitter | 3 Comments

Summer 10

1. Build a miniature garden with my daughter. (Done.)
2. Read and review a big pile of books by female education writers. (In progress.)
3. Spend time with family and friends. (Booked and coming up fast.)
4. Think up perfect birthday present for the other half. (Panic setting in.)
5. Finish Road School book. (Might need to stop procrastinating first.)
6. Weed garden. (Before No.3.)
7. Weed allotment. (Before No.3.)
8. Finish Spring Cleaning the house. (Hmm.)
9. Get the kids to bed before midnight. (Hmm.)
10. Long lunches, lazy days on the beach, and lots of lovely lie ins.


Posted in Gardening, Writing | 5 Comments

Having It All

I feel like a party-pooper for saying it, but I don’t think it’s possible for women or men to ‘have it all’. In fact, I don’t think it’s a good idea for women or men to aim to ‘have it all’. You go through life making decisions, and along the way some sacrifices have to be made. Will you have children? Will you put them into nursery so you can work? Will you go for a promotion? Will you buy a house? Will you move to live abroad? All these decisions come with a sacrifice of some kind, whether it is about how much money you have, what kind of career you build, or how much time you spend with your family. It is typically harder for women to mix work and home life, because we still tend to do the majority of the childcare and the housework. But at the same time I think it is hard for men to break away from expected gender roles as well, it’s just that they have to do it in the opposite direction.

Just after we had our first child, my book Getting the Buggers to Behave took off and I was being offered lots of training work. At the time my partner was in a high powered role, with job security and a great salary. We had to make a decision about whether to prioritise my career or his, because with all the travel I was being asked to do, we couldn’t manage both. So he packed in his job and we set up in business together, and he took on the majority of the childcare and the task of running a home. While I was breast feeding our first baby we would travel the country together for INSET bookings. Our baby wouldn’t take expressed milk from a bottle, so my partner would look after him somewhere in the school during the day, and I would breast feed him in between sessions.

We are lucky enough to run our own business – I regularly remind the kids how fortunate they are to have us around as much of the time as they do. But this choice comes with sacrifices as well. There is no job security, and you can’t afford to be sick, because you don’t get paid if you don’t work. We could earn more money and have more security if we both worked for someone else. But being your own boss means you get control over how you spend your time, plus you can speak your mind more easily as well. Last year we took our children out of school and went travelling with them. This meant a period of several months where I couldn’t earn much money at all. Perhaps the book of the trip will make us our fortune, but we did it because it was something that we wanted to do, not because we wanted to make money doing it.

I’ve been mulling all this over, since Michael Wilshaw made a speech about the early years, earlier this week. He seemed particularly keen on the idea that we should get as many two year olds into schools as we possibly could. With the Government bringing in 30 hours of free childcare for ‘working parents’, there is clearly a drive to get new parents back into work a.s.a.p. But here’s the thing. When you decide to have children, you sit down with your partner and you talk it over. And (if your circumstances allow) you could decide to prioritise time spent with your small children, over career prospects or money in the bank. You might not; but you could. Because you can only spend time with your children once, and they don’t stay small forever. We all make choices, all of the time. And we don’t need to ‘have it all’, but we do need to decide what it is that we truly want to have.

Posted in Women | 6 Comments

Wherefore Art Thou Wilshaw?

“Let me be clear: what the poorest children need is to be taught,
and well taught, from the age of two.”
Michael Wilshaw

I’m not really sure where to start with Michael Wilshaw’s speech, made as he announced the publication of Ofsted’s Early Years Report for 2015. The report itself makes interesting reading, and the way that Mr Wilshaw chose to speak about it does not necessarily reflect its contents. You might have assumed he would be happy, given that 85% of early years registered providers got a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted. (This despite the fact that our sector is chronically underfunded and is staffed by dedicated practitioners who work for a pittance.) But no, as with the schools sector, the early years sector needed an ear bashing too, although at least we didn’t receive it via the Sunday Times. I’ve been asked by quite a few people to comment on Mr Wilshaw’s speech, so I’m going to try and pick apart why I feel what I feel about what he said.

“I am committed to using the power and influence of inspection …”

From what I read online, educators have just spent the entire year debating the usefulness, and indeed the continued existence, of Ofsted. Ofsted have had to ditch lesson observation grades, and promise that they’re not looking for either a particular style of teaching or a specific way of marking (although no one seems to quite believe them on the latter yet). Ofsted also recently ditched 40% of their contracted inspectors. Maybe it’s just me, but is that a distinct whiff of hubris in the air?

“I am particularly pleased to see the progress that childminders have made.”

Childminders play a crucial part in the early years sector, because they offer a kind of flexibility that other settings simply cannot provide. There has been an unprecedented drop in the number of childminders in recent years: 14% in the last three years alone. Mr Wilshaw can be as pleased as he likes about how well childminders are doing, but if he wants real choice and flexibility for parents, he needs to figure out why so many people are quitting the job and ask the government to do something about it.

“last year … I used the word ‘teach’ to describe the practice we wanted to see. This provoked a very strong reaction from the sector … a pile of irate letters that landed on my desk …”

The definition of what practitioners do with children in the early years has become a bit of a bone of contention. My feeling is this: if the word ‘teach’ becomes the over-riding narrative of the work we do with 0 – 5 year olds, this subtly alters the very nature of the foundation stage. The word “teach” makes more sense if you work with a Reception class, but we shouldn’t forget that we are talking about babies as well as rising fives. We should also never forget that this is not a statutory part of a child’s education. In the annual report itself, we are told that: “In one outstanding school, all of the experiences provided for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds involved adult direction …”. I am very uneasy indeed with the idea that adults should direct everything that a two year old child does, no matter how disadvantaged that child might be. (To be fair, I think he actually means “support” when he says “teach”, it’s just that he’s not used to how small human beings work.) Mr Wilshaw is entirely right when he says that: “Young children can learn without any loss of freedom, imagination or excitement.” But please, let’s be clear that teaching is not the same thing in this context as learning.

“the most important measure of success for the early years sector is whether the poorest children are doing as well as their better-off peers by the time they start school.”

That this is “the most important measure of success” is a very strong statement indeed. It would appear to define everything that Ofsted wants the early years sector to do. It’s very hard to argue with the ‘closing the gap’ narrative, because if you do, some people accuse you of not wanting to make a difference. I’m delighted to try and make a difference – I wouldn’t give up so much of my own free time to help run a preschool if I wasn’t. But the thing is, I am not convinced that the education sector should be so willing to try and close a gap that is not of our own making. I am not convinced that we can close a gap that is not of our own making. The gap is a fact of society, not a fault of education. And the figures bear this out. Despite so many positive inspection reports for early years settings, Mr Wilshaw cannot help but notice that the gap has not closed at all. He says as much in his speech: “Six years later … the gap had not closed: it was still around 20 percentage points.” This is awkward for the ‘closing the gap’ narrative, but never fear, Mr Wilshaw has the solution.

“Let me be clear: what the poorest children need is to be taught, and well taught, from the age of two …. schools are best placed to tackle disadvantage.”

This is where I get very antsy indeed. The figures around early years education are skewed, and always will be, by various confounding factors. One is that it is only schools that have Reception classes, which are counted as part of the foundation stage. Another is that schools have historically been funded and run very differently to other early years settings. (Non school settings don’t have a head teacher, for a start.) Another is that the foundation stage is not statutory: some children will go to an early years setting from the age of six weeks, others will turn up when their statutory education begins, the term after they turn five. Comparing one to another is not just like comparing apples to pears, it’s like comparing apples to elephants. The gap between good and outstanding inspection results in schools, and in early years settings, is a wafer thin, statistically insignificant 1%. But do not fear, because Mr Wilshaw has the answer to the pesky gap that just refuses to close. And the answer is: get more two year olds in schools.

As a parent, the last thing I would have wanted for my two year old children was to put them into a school. This is not to denigrate the wonderful work that is being done by both schools and early years settings. It is just to say that, when my children were two, I didn’t feel that a school setting was the right place for them. It may well be the right place for other parents and their children. But that is up to the parents to decide, and it is not the business of Ofsted in any way, shape or form. Awkwardly for Mr Wilshaw, 42% of children who were eligible for two year old funding did not take up their place. This tells a story, both about the supply of places, and also about how parents decide to bring up their children. This, from the report itself, is very interesting as well: “primary school places for two-year-olds were disproportionately occupied by children from better off families”.

“No, it is not proven. But it is obvious what has been done to date has not worked. It’s time to try something different.”

This statement is interesting: when I read the speech, it made me stop and go ‘say what?’. At a time when we are told that what we do in education must be based on evidence, and millions are being spent on research studies, Mr Wilshaw is bucking the trend. Hey, it’s not proven that putting two year old children in schools will work. But let’s not allow something as insignificant as evidence of impact stand in the way of a multi million pound policy. (If you’re interested in the issue of value for money, and you have the time to wade through Hansard, the Lords committee readings of the Childcare Bill make fascinating reading.)

“Of course, disadvantage is not the same as special educational needs. Too many schools make that mistake. But if a child does need specialist help at age two, three or four, a school should have the specialists on call who can step in.”

This bit needs a lot of picking apart. Throughout his speech, Mr Wilshaw refers to “the poorest children” (see here for what I think about that). But all of a sudden he changes tack, and wants us to remember to keep disadvantage and SEN separate. (He gets in a quick dig at schools, while he’s at it.) The bit about access to specialist help really stuck in my throat, though, because our Local Authority has had to cut the Early Intervention Grant that used to help us access the specialist support that our children required. Perhaps there are primary schools throughout the land with speech and language therapists on tap. Or perhaps there aren’t.

“Another advantage is that schools are familiar with tracking children’s development …”

We’ll just chuck those lovingly crafted Learning Journeys in the bin then. Thanks Mr W.

“Well-qualified graduate teachers make a difference too.”

They do. Of course they do. Our setting is run by a graduate leader who has an Early Years Professional qualification, and she’s brilliant. However, the new qualification of ‘Early Years Teacher’ does not come with qualified teacher status, or access to the teachers’ payscale. You cannot create a graduate led profession on £3.51 an hour.

* * * * *

The early years sector is about to encounter a time of unprecedented change. With the introduction of 30 hours of free funding for ‘working parents’, we are going to be firmly in the spotlight over the next few years. There will be lots of issues around the funding and administration of the scheme. But one of the main issues will be about the capacity within the sector to actually deliver these places. The childcare sector is overwhelmingly outside of state control – the vast majority of places are provided by private, voluntary run and independent settings. And there is very little that a government can do to increase supply within a market, if they are not willing to pay the going rate that the market demands. I’m not sure how Mr Wilshaw’s speech fits into all that, but I’m willing to bet that it does. For now, he has fired the first salvo at schools, and it’ll be fascinating to see how they respond.

Posted in Children, Early Years, Ofsted, Teaching and learning | 2 Comments

Renaissance of Respect

When I was at school back in the 1970’s, we had to stand up if a teacher entered the room. Not just if the head teacher entered, but any teacher at all. We also had to do endless copying from the board, use fountain pens, write 100 lines as a punishment, and accept that we might be hit with a wooden stick if we were particularly disobedient. I have a distinct memory of my class bobbing up and down behind our wooden desks (the type with the lift-up lids – remember those?). On days when several teachers entered the room, the process would become like a Mexican wave. Our bottoms would momentarily hit the hard wooden chairs as one teacher exited, then we were back up again as another teacher entered. Quite what the impact was on the flow of our lessons, I can’t really remember, but I think we probably all enjoyed having a rest from copying off the board.

In an article in today’s Sunday Times, Michael Wilshaw is reported as asking for a “renaissance of respect”; for a return to the times when students stood up when the head teacher entered the room. This, apparently, is all part of the “grammar school ethos” he wants to see in comprehensive schools. Mr Wilshaw also tells us that “a quarter of secondary head teachers are substandard”. All this at a time when there is an ongoing recruitment crisis in schools. This kind of running commentary via the media is becoming all too familiar, to the point where it now feels odd if I open up the papers on a weekend and don’t see someone telling me how awful our schools and teachers are. Weirdly this all happens at a time when, as a parent, I couldn’t be happier with my day-to-day experience of state education. (Apart from the ‘too many government tests’ bit.)

Mr Wilshaw seems not to have noticed that respect isn’t something we give automatically anymore, like we did in the ‘good old days’ when we thought nothing of hitting small children with sticks. In our modern society, respect has to be earned, and people feel perfectly comfortable about withholding it if they don’t like what they see. Now I’m pretty sure Mr Wilshaw would prefer it if I referred to him as ‘Sir Michael’. But hey, you can’t get everything you want. And there is no way he will get a ‘renaissance of respect’ from me, while he continues to spout a ‘tidal wave of tripe’ in the Sunday press.

Posted in Ofsted | 6 Comments