Cleavers

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“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making,
the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” 
Donald T. Campbell, 1976

If you were after a single sentence description of the effect that high stakes testing has on schools, you couldn’t really do better than Campbell’s Law. When decisions about how well a school is doing come down to the results of a set of tests, those tests can start to distort the process of education. If your livelihood depends on children doing well in the tests, then you can’t really ignore them, unless you are supremely confident that your children are going to do well. If something is in the tests, you’d be daft not to teach it. How well your children do at the tests depends on your school’s context, as well as on your teaching skills, and even a single context can vary widely with different cohorts over the years. From what I can tell, the vast majority of schools are doing the best that they possibly can in the circumstances for their children. But at the same time it would be hard to deny that the curriculum has narrowed for many children. That no matter how hard people might try, schools are influenced by thoughts of SATs, as well as what is best for the child.

One of the most telling things for me about SATs is that private schools don’t use them*. You can be sure that they would, if they were a good thing for the children or the teachers, or if parents really ‘wanted’ them. When I see the Government eulogising private education, I wonder why they cherry pick the bits of it that they like. Even the DfE fully admits that SATs are not about children, but about schools. It’s not like GCSEs, where there is a clear outcome for my child as well. If I feel that these tests are potentially doing damage to the state education system, and to the teachers who work within it, I can’t just sit back and say nothing. If people tell me that their children find the testing stressful, then I have to take that seriously. Even if my child is doing fine, because of her context, her school, and her confidence as a learner, it doesn’t make it okay when someone else’s isn’t.

I’m told by secondary teachers that target grades are set on the results of SATs. Even if they teach Art or Music, that number that gets attached to my child and will end up distorting the system, rippling out into her secondary career. Not only does someone’s livelihood depend on my child now, but someone’s pay rise five years later might depend on how she performed in a warm classroom on a May day in 2017. That seems like an awful lot of trust in a measurement, to place on a single child. When you put a target grade on a child, then you inadvertently put up a barrier between primary and secondary. The higher the SATs mark, the harder it is for the secondary to move the child on. And so, instead of being the gentle handover of a child, it starts to feel like passing on a ticking bomb.

We have a lot of Cleavers in our garden. The children love to play with it. It’s that sticky weed; the one that if someone throws it on your back, it sticks like it’s made of velcro. You can chuck it at someone when they’re not watching and they won’t even realise it’s there. Sometimes there is so much Cleavers in the garden that the kids get into a massive sticky weed fight with it. There comes a point when you have to shout, “STOP!”, or someone is going to get really upset. And that is basically the point I have reached when it comes to the way that testing is going in schools. Because the biggest problem with Cleavers isn’t that it is sticky; the problem is that its stickiness is how it propagates itself. And I’m starting to think that it’s just about time that we stopped spreading the seeds.

 

(* I’m told by those that know, that some private schools do use SATs. However, this is the school’s choice and not a statutory requirement for accountability. This article is a useful read on the opinion of most private schools on the subject of SATs.)

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Eyes of a Child

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“A child of five would understand this.
Send someone to fetch a child of five.”
Groucho Marx

You are drifting along the canals of Amsterdam, gazing out of the windows at the houseboats that line the banks. Outside the windows is a world that exists below street level; a place of low bridges and tall narrow houses. The buildings loom over you in the drizzle, their hooks sinister in the grey afternoon. The man on the tannoy tells the story of why the houses look like they do. But even more interesting than the houses are the boats, moored up at the sides of the canal. People live their lives in these boats. How would it be if you got to do that too? You think hard about how that might be, bobbing on the water and living a watery life. “Mummy,” you say, “can I live on a houseboat one day?” (Mummy tells you that this should be possible, unless everyone votes for Brexit, which obviously they won’t do.) So you tuck the thought away in the back of your mind, for a later date.

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They are talking about SATs at school. The older kids all did them last year. They got to bring in their teddies and eat sweets after the event. You know that you would do well at SATs. In fact, you could show off how well you can do. You could prove yourself ‘better’ than the other children at school. But your big brother didn’t do SATs. You were all too busy travelling the world. Mummy says it is entirely up to you. She does ask you to think about how it might feel if you didn’t get a good grade; if you were the child who didn’t pass the test. But she doesn’t go on and on about it. You have a look at last year’s test paper about The White Giraffe. You had just read the book at the time that the older children did the test, so it’s not so very difficult. You wonder why there are pages that say ‘Do not write on this page’ in the test. What would happen if you did decide to write on those pages? What would they do then? (You check with mummy and she’s not totally sure.)

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Very soon you will start secondary school. You are brave now. You are ALL GROWN UP. You can jump off jetties into the river. Mummy says it is up to you whether or not you take these tests. That they are not about you, but about your school. Everyone says it is not a measure of you, but of your teachers. It is up to you to decide.

“Well,” you say. “If these tests are only designed to test my school, and not me, then I am happy to report that I have totally loved all my primary school teachers. They were all great. There was the one who held a duckling wedding, and the one who had a funny Danish name. There was the one who played with me when I was tiny, and who laughed at all our jokes. And there was the one who made me suddenly love books. Do you remember her, mummy?” (Yes, I say, I do.)

You blink slowly a few times and you take a moment to consider. And then you turn to me and smile. “I don’t think I want my teachers to be judged on what I do in some tests mummy. Maybe we could stay on a houseboat in Amsterdam for SATs week instead?” 

Posted in Children, Parenting, Schools | Leave a comment

How Will I Know?

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Learning through experience, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), April 2016

“Not all those who wander are lost.”
J.R.R. Tolkein

The idea of ‘learning through discovery’ has fallen so out of fashion in educational circles, that it seems nigh on subversive to talk about it in a positive light. (Luckily, I’m not big on being fashionable, but I do love a bit of subversion.) The moment you mention learning through discovery (and sometimes even when you don’t) you are likely to be met by people saying things like: Don’t waste time! Just tell them!” or “The teachers are the experts; the children are the novices!” or “They won’t just pick this up naturally, you know, it’s not like walking or talking!” or “But the science says this is the best way to learn!” I don’t think that ‘learning through discovery’ is a very good name for what I mean, when I talk about playful and child led approaches to learning. To my mind, I am talking about learning through experience, with the child as an active agent in the process. I think that there is a subtle but very important difference between this and ‘just discovering’ things.

For the first four or five years of their lives, children learn almost entirely through direct experiences. No one sits them down at a desk and instructs them in how to talk and walk. They pick these things up through a process of ‘discovering’ them. A baby is born into a world of confusion – bright lights, strange sounds, unfocused images and blurred impressions. If there are no complications with the birth, the midwife places her on your chest, against your heart, and she has her very first experience of ‘mum’. She begins to know who you are, to learn your smell and to build a bond with you. Over the coming weeks, months and years she will learn a huge amount – she will develop more rapidly in the first five years of her life than at any other point. And yet mostly she will not do this by people directly instructing her; she will develop through a process of observing, and imitating, and experimenting, and trying, and failing, and trying again, alongside and with the support of the people who share her life. If you shut her in a room, away from other human beings, you would slow down her development dramatically. It is the fact of her being in and part of the wider world that helps her learn and grow in knowledge.

What, then, is the role of the adult in all this? Are we supposed to just stand by and watch, in the hope that our children will somehow stumble across counting, times tables, and the Theory of Relativity if they spend long enough exploring? Is the parent or educator simply a ‘facilitator’ of learning, who never tells the child anything at all? Clearly this is not the case, especially as they get older, and learning becomes more complex and more abstract. To my mind, our job is two fold: first, we provide the child with a range of experiences from which they can learn; then we walk alongside them to support their learning as it happens, by sharing the knowledge we have. Sometimes the experience will be a hands on, live, breath-taking first hand experience – a trip to the theatre or the beach, a forest school session, a school farm. Other times, the experience will be the teacher explaining something complex to the child, or the child practising a repetitive skill. But an important factor for me, and I believe for the child, is them having some sense of agency in what they are learning.  Some choice, or input, or opinion, or interpretation, or personal response. The adult throws a wide range of experiences at the child, and I think the child should get the chance to throw some stuff back. If you only ever tell children what you think about the world, when will they ever get the chance to figure out what they think for themselves?

The whole debate about how we should educate our children comes down to values, which is where every discussion about education should really start. If you feel that the most important value of ‘an education’ is for children to get the biggest amount of good passes at GCSE and A Level, which will let them make choices about their lives through an academic route, and earn ‘social mobility’, then you will focus on getting them to do well in tests. (Some people refer to this as ‘making them cleverer’, although I’m not entirely convinced by that.) An efficient way of getting children to pass tests is to tell them lots of things, then to get them to memorise those things, and this is therefore the logical route for you to take. At school, you fill them full of adult directed and adult chosen knowledge, related to what will be in the exams, and then you send them away with their exam passes, to work their own way out of inequality (if they can). If this is your viewpoint then, were we to allocate school time to take children on trips, you would logically want those trips to have an impact on their grades.

If, on the other hand, your most important value for ‘an education’ is for the child to take ownership of her life, to make decisions based on her personal viewpoint, and to follow the path that her heart dictates (which might not necessarily be about her intellect) then you probably won’t be quite so focused on the tests. If you think that social mobility is a fault of society, and a responsibility of government not schools to fix, then you will take a different attitude to how and what education should be. As a result, you will value different kinds of learning experiences, beyond that of children sitting in rows of desks, listening to the teacher and being drilled in a set of facts and skills to help them pass their exams. You might feel that ‘closing the gap’ should be more about giving children access to varied life experiences, and helping them learn what they think about those experiences, rather than focusing on the academic at all costs. You might focus on emotional well being, over and above intellectual prowess.

When we took our children out of school to go on a Road School trip, we didn’t want the experience to be ‘like school, but on the move’. We wanted our children to know in a way that was not the same as being in a class of 29 other children, with a teacher, in a classroom. We wanted to immerse them first hand in places, and cultures, and landscapes. We wanted them to know what volcanoes and modern art and history and languages and architecture and cultures were like by experiencing them first hand, rather than by being direct instructed about them, or by reading about them in a book. I think we panic too much sometimes about the linear nature of knowledge; about how children must know one thing, in order to know another. We forget that life is made up of a series of twists and turns, and that we don’t necessarily end up where we thought we would, when we first started out. We talk as though a day (or a week, or a month, or a year) out of school would be a disaster for a child, as though learning is imprisoned in school. And we forget that there is a big wide world full of experiences out there, just waiting for us to wander by.

139941960240ac86a121c1c88508bb82742aa522ae50ea0b5af1d224ec011cae7c7315d5Mummy! Look what we discovered on the beach!  

65926423c507e1f072c1c9088e376f56bff6ced5db552a7794f4fd3848d300fc6e2ac35eMummy! Look what they make when we fit them together!

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Mummy! Mummy! It has to be from one of those!

Posted in Experience, Knowledge | 1 Comment

Interpretations

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“Each book was a world unto itself, and in it I took refuge.”
Alberto Manguel

When you become a published author, you very quickly get used to readers interpreting what you write in a way that is not what you had intended. Although this is disconcerting at first, in reality it is fine, and indeed it is perfectly normal. It is part and parcel of the process of writing and reading – the book (or blog) no longer ‘belongs’ to you once it is published – it belongs to your readers instead. As an author you don’t have any right to demand that your readers interpret your writing in a particular way, although it’s never nice to see them getting it totally wrong. Sometimes, particularly for the non-fiction author, these unexpected interpretations act as a signal that you didn’t express yourself very well, or that you could make your book better, as I explained here. Although it is natural to be defensive about ‘your book’, this precious thing that you have spent so much time creating, it is all just part and parcel of the job of being a writer. You must grow a thick skin or give up writing altogether.

When my book Getting the Buggers to Behave was first published, a reader got in touch. The email went something like this: “I read your book, I followed your advice, I waited for silence, and I was still waiting twenty minutes later.” My reader’s interpretation of my advice wasn’t what I meant, so I got in touch and explained in a bit more detail. (I later met the person who had emailed me, and interviewed him for a book, so there was a lovely bit of serendipity about that email.) Luckily for me, as a non-fiction author I also have the chance to edit the way I express my advice in each new edition, to clarify my intent for my readers. The book is in its fifth edition now, and although it is still essentially the same book, I have added lots of new ideas and made many tweaks as I’ve gone along. Ever since the book was published, I have also been told by a handful of people that I am blaming teachers for the behaviour of their students. I’m not, but I can’t find a better way to express that I’m not, and in the end some people just make what they want to see out of what they read. If hundreds of thousands of people find your book useful, you’d be a fool to worry about a tiny minority of dissatisfied commentators.

While in non fiction, interpretations can vary, in fiction the effect is magnified hundred fold. Stories are works of the imagination, rather than works of fact. What can you ever truly ‘know’ for sure about a story? A story essentially creates a fictional context in and of itself, especially if it is in the science fiction or fantasy genres. The only facts that really exist within a story are the details of the plot, the names of the characters, and the specific words and images that the author uses. However, even these are often wide open to interpretation. If you’ve read Gone Girl, you will know just how easy it is to be fooled by an unreliable narrator. Characterisation is also a difficult area in which to find ‘facts’, because people’s motivations are so complex, unless you focus on the details of what a character looks like. Thankfully authors often leave the reader to imagine a character’s appearance for his or herself, which is why films of the book so often disappoint – I mean, Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher? Seriously?

When you read a piece of writing, you sometimes need to know what certain words mean, to help you understand it. However, luckily for us authors, a lot of readers can work these out from the writing itself, rather than having to look them up as they go along. Someone asked me recently whether a person could understand Macbeth better if they knew what a ‘thane’ was. Obviously they could, but if the meaning was not clear from the sets, the costumes and the dialogue, then the director (and indeed Shakespeare) probably didn’t do a very good job of staging/writing the play. The flow of knowledge in fiction works in two directions – the reader can learn lots of things from the story, as well as learning things to help them understand the story before or after. One fact that we do know for sure about published writing, because it’s printed in the front of the book, is the date on which it was first published, and who it was written by. We might also be able to find out something about the author her or himself. This can inform our reading of a book, but even here, we can easily be fooled – George Eliot and Robert Galbraith being handy cases in point.

If you are ‘into’ the study of literature (which by definition I am, having done my BEd in English and Drama) interpreting books will typically be interesting to you. You want to try and find out what a story really means by picking the story apart, and analysing the details that surround it. You might look at the author’s life and the history that was going on at the time the book was written. You might try to explore alternative interpretations, and make parallels with world events. But, just as with non fiction, as readers we tend to overlay all this with our personal visions of the world. We start to feel that we ‘know’ what the author ‘meant’ by x, y or z, or that we understand the allusions they are making. We start to believe that the author was writing social commentary that said a, b or c, or making a particular political statement. We give ‘evidence’ to prove our ideas in the form of quotes and imagery. In reality the author might have meant nothing at all by what we are analysing, or perhaps those allusions happened subconsciously during the act of writing. It is all too easy to start presenting our own interpretations as ‘facts’ to our students, and to forget to let them do enough of their own interpreting for themselves.

I guess the only person who can ever truly know for sure what they meant when they wrote something is the author (and, speaking as an author, sometimes even I don’t have a clue what I’m saying when I write). Yesterday I was told by someone that one of my blog posts was about an American author called Doug Lemov. My correspondent was so sure that my blog post was about this, that apparently he uses it as an example with students (how flattering it is to be quoted as a source!). Unfortunately, given that I’ve never actually read any of Doug Lemov’s books, it can’t possibly have been about him. I can’t remember what the blog was about, but it looks to me like I was thinking about a vision of standardised and ‘evidence based’ education that doesn’t take account of context. My reader is very welcome to make that interpretation, as I explained in the first paragraph of this blog, but in this instance I am a first hand source, and that interpretation is just plain wrong. Anyway, we are very lucky these days, in that we can contact authors over the Internet, via email or on social media. Many authors will happily respond to polite reader queries. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we did this to Shakespeare. And I imagine him looking up from his manuscript and going: “Don’t be daft, of course I didn’t mean that.”

Posted in Literature, Reading, Writing | Leave a comment

Bigger Than Yours

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I have a bad memory. My mind just doesn’t retain certain (any) bits of information well, and this is particularly true when it comes to numbers. I can memorise one PIN number, but memorising that one PIN number wipes any other previously learned PIN numbers out of my brain. I am so bad at remembering dates that we once celebrated my partner’s birthday a day late. He thought I was joking, so he didn’t say anything but just went along with the ‘joke’. As you can imagine, I was mortified when I discovered my mistake. I’ve never really been a ‘know lots of facts’ kind of person. You definitely wouldn’t bother to pick me for your pub quiz team, and you certainly wouldn’t want me in your line-up if you were going on University Challenge. When I did my finals at university, I had to use a complicated memory system to retain enough facts to pass. And as I walked out of the door, I’m afraid that I did the equivalent of dumping the facts I had memorised in the bin. (I needed to make space for some fresh ones.)

Some people love memorising reams of stuff, and I’m guessing they find it fairly easy. Although maybe they don’t find it easy? Maybe they find it really hard, but they love doing it such a lot, that they are willing to work very hard at it. There are guys who memorise the phone book, or the order of several packs of cards; there are people who can remember Pi to a thousand places or more. One of my own children loves to memorise facts, particularly ones about dinosaurs. He can give you the lowdown on pretty much any dinosaur you care to mention: its size, when it lived, how fast it was, whether it was a carnivore or herbivore. He knows all kinds of interesting stuff, although it’s probably only really useful to you if you plan to become a paleontologist (which luckily enough, he does). As we wander around museums of natural history, he will come out with random facts about the fossils we are seeing, and he gets most upset if he spots any inaccuracies in the displays. His knowledge of dinosaurs is very definitely much, much bigger than mine. In fact, his knowledge is probably much, much bigger than yours (if it’s still okay to suggest that yes, sometimes children do know more than adults).

I’ve been reading about ‘knowledge organisers’ online for a long time now. I think I first saw them being talked about in the context of GCSE English Literature. To be honest, it felt a bit weird to me to be getting kids to memorise the historical context around fictional stories. A story is a story is a story. The main point of a story, especially one that has stood the test of time, is that it doesn’t really date. Whatever the historical context when it was originally written, the essence of a great story is that it holds true regardless. Sure, it can be interesting to know the historical context, but the truth a novel holds is usually about people and their motivations. Ideas that transcend time. The other reason literary knowledge organisers made me feel uneasy is because kids have the habit of over compensating when you encourage them to do something, especially if you test them on it. (Stories rammed with inappropriate fronted adverbials being a case in point.) And so it is that you end up with Macbeth essays that begin “Shakespeare was born in …” and end with a list of figurative devices “He uses personification to … He uses metaphor to …”. Anyway, I’ve kept my thoughts mostly to myself on this subject because (a) I used to give the kids chunks out of York Notes to learn when I taught GCSE English Lit, (b) if other teachers feel this stuff is useful, it’s really no business of mine to comment, and (c) I understand the pressures of a curriculum where success is essentially based on memorisation.

Yesterday, though, I stumbled across two blogs on using knowledge organisers in primary, specifically in Year 2. Jon Brunskill’s blog is here, and Michael Tidd’s blog is here. And I found myself feeling troubled, and needing to respond in order to get my thoughts in line. Yes, I am fully aware that “kids love facts” (as per my dino mad kid) and that some small children love learning lists of things (the dino mad kid started his fact quest by learning the names of different types of farm machinery, at around the age of 2 – I like to think of it as his “pre dinosaur phase”). But not everyone operates in exactly the same way, and facts do not have any intrinsic value, unless you are able to conceptualise them, and to place them in context in your mind. In his blog, Jon says “If children learn everything on this sheet, by heart, I believe that writing an information text about the moon landing will be a piece of cake.” Speaking personally, if you asked me to memorise this list of dates, I would feel so much panic trying to retain one number or date (let alone all of them), I would be unable to organise my thoughts to write a single word. On the other hand, ask me to write about something I have experienced, and you would be hard pressed to stop me. (Although even then, I’d probably add any dates afterwards, having consulted with Google first.)

It strikes me that there has been so much talk about knowledge in recent years (often in the form of memorising decontextualised facts), that we have started to make a fetish of it. We seem to be doing exactly the same thing with knowledge, as I’m told that we once did with skills, i.e. going too far in a single direction, to compensate for a mistake we perceive that we made. I have even been told that you cannot be creative without having tons of knowledge first (eek!), which should probably worry me more than it does, since I make my living being creative, and yet I struggle to memorise anything at all. Facts are appealing as a measuring tool for the classroom, because you can test the children to see if they’ve remembered them, and pat yourself on the back if they have. But a fact learned in isolation is not the same thing as learning that has been understood in context. And a good piece of information writing is much, much more than a list of related facts.

Anyway, there is nothing wrong with learning lists of dates, or countries, or cards, or digits, if that is what floats your boat. There is nothing wrong with small children memorising some facts within the context of subjects such as geography and history, although personally I’d advocate for them memorising stories and poems as a priority instead. (Interestingly, despite my complete blindness for numbers, I can do a perfect rendition of The Owl and The Pussycat – my mum sang it to me every night when I was a child.) But getting kids to memorise a list of tricky or complicated facts is not the same thing as teaching, or even the same thing as learning, for that matter. A small child cannot place a new fact into their mental map of the world, if they don’t have all the ones that go before it. And if a teacher sent my six year old home with a long list of dates to learn (even for my dino-mad-facts-are-easy-to-remember kid), I’m afraid I would put the lovingly crafted knowledge organiser to one side. Then we would snuggle up on our sofa with a big pile of colourful non-fiction books, and read our copy of WOW! Space (again) instead.

wow-space

Posted in Knowledge, Memory | 25 Comments

Moving On Up

a for Amsterdam

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

In recent years, the concept of ‘social mobility’ has been at the forefront of the agenda for education. Schools are paid pupil premium money to try and achieve it for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The teacher training charity Teach First seems to have been set up explicitly with this goal in mind. And yet, as this report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed in late 2016, the number of people living in poverty in a working family is at an all-time high. In our supposedly civilised country, 21% of the population live in poverty, a percentage that has barely changed in a decade. It’s interesting to note that many of the organisations charged with changing these statistics are constituted as charities. The Government seems to have decided that the redistribution of wealth through general taxation is not an option, and has passed over responsibility for ‘closing the gap’ to everyone else. Wealthy philanthropists (who presumably sit near the top of the ‘socially mobile’ ladder) pass on some of their money to those ‘below’ them on that ladder. Rather than the Government stopping people being poor in the first place by ensuring decent wages, job security and support for those who cannot work, the poor must strive to ‘earn’ their socially mobile status for themselves.

But when you start to pick it apart, ‘social mobility’ begins to look like a really strange concept. For a start, on the ladder of ‘social mobility’, who sits at the top? Is it the Prime Minister, the Judges, the Queen? Do you have to have gone to a Russell Group university and become a banker/lawyer/politician/doctor to have proved yourself to be socially mobile? (What even is a ‘Russell Group’ university?) Or maybe it’s about being a famous, well paid celebrity? Or could it be about the people you mix with, the amount of money you earn, or how little tax you can get away with paying? Or maybe it’s about how you speak, the aristocratic families you’re connected to, or where you send your kids to school? Or is it about moving between the ABC classifications, or from a ‘blue collar’ to a ‘white collar’ job, or from lower to middle to upper ‘class’? Or maybe it’s just about cash, pure and simple? The class system is so tangled up with the British view of life that it’s hard to know what to do to be a socially mobile person. I start to worry that I might have dropped down the ladder since I went from a profession (teaching) to a vocation (writing). And what if I give it all up and become a gardener? Or a nun? (unlikely) What then?

The next strange thing about social mobility is the assumption that everyone wants to move upwards in the first place. Yes, if you live in poverty, you most certainly want to get out of it. But when so many people who are in work are also living in poverty, probably the last thing on their minds is becoming a politician/lawyer/banker. There’s a lot of pressure at the top of the tree, where the branches are fragile. Not all of us want to climb the tree, even for all the money in the kingdom. Some of us are motivated by very different things (family, job security, an easy life, the chance to travel, to name just a few). But let’s say for a moment that everyone did want to climb it. Everyone was equally motivated by money, status and prestige. Where would we be then? What if all the nurses, and the plumbers, and the ambulance drivers, and the shop workers said “we want to be high court judges too!” Of course it’s lovely to have the choice, and the more exams you get, the more possibilities are open to you. But that doesn’t mean I would have ever wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, even if I could have been.

And then I think for a moment about the people who I’m told have reached the top of the socially mobile tree. A politician, say, like Boris Johnson. (Bear with me.) He went to the ‘best schools’, he talks in the poshest of voices, he’s a descendant of King George II. Even his name (“Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson”) sounds socially mobile. And yet, look at his character! How is it possible to be so well connected, so high up the tree, and yet so apparently incompetent at your job? Shouldn’t he be sliding down the ladder by now? Or does no one have to come down to make space for others to go up? Similarly, I guess it would be fair to say that if you get to be President of the United States, you have basically won the socially mobile game. That if you achieved that goal, while also being a successful business person, like Donald Trump has, then you could officially be considered to have ‘reached the top’ of the tree. I don’t like to be rude, but if that’s what you end up with if you’re a socially mobile person, then please count me very much out.

And what about the notion that you have to earn your social mobility (or at least you do if you start out at the ‘bottom’ of the ladder; those at the top often seem to get a free pass)? That you have to somehow deserve it, especially if you’re poor. This bit confuses me a lot. I’m not completely clear whether we have to earn our way to the top through hard work, or whether we only get there through intelligence, or perhaps if some people believe that hard work is all that stands between most of the population and being the Prime Minister. For anyone with any kind of learning disability, the idea that ‘all it takes is hard work’ and that they have to ‘earn their way’ out of poverty is downright insulting. How could it possibly be fair if the only people able to dig their way out of disadvantage were the high attaining, grammar school headed, few? And finally there’s the debt that young people are getting into, in pursuit of their way up the ladder. I’m lucky in that, if my kids decide to go to university, I should be able to offer them some measure of financial support. But what about the struggling families, the ones we are meant to help to be socially mobile? How does it help them if their children begin their working lives £30,000 in debt?

Many (perhaps most) teachers come into the profession to ‘make a difference’. It’s a fine and noble motivation, and teachers definitely can and do make a difference to the children they work with. Schools definitely do help children get the chance to do something different with their lives. I am eternally thankful to my own teachers for doing this for me. But this sense of vocation can sometimes run the risk of over reaching itself; of making us assume that we can change the world for every child, if only we could find the right way to go about it. Of taking far too much on ourselves, and not handing enough responsibility to those who really should be taking it. I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that the first question we need to be asking ourselves is not what pedagogy we should use, nor what behaviour systems we should have in place. It is not what tests we should be giving, or how our accountability system should work. It is not what Ofsted wants, or what crazy thing the DfE has asked us to do this time around. It is not even how much marking we should be doing, or what the causes of excessive workload might be. I think we need to stop and ask ourselves a couple of far more fundamental questions. Ones that all those dead cats being chucked on tables are making it hard to spot. Why the hell are we taking on a job that a Government is meant to do for its people? And why on earth do we collude with a narrative that says children have to work their way out of poverty, themselves?*

 

*If you’re wondering what I would do instead, I would probably start with this.

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Nurture 16/17

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So, it’s that time of year again, when we all like to look back on the year that has passed, and look forward to the new one that is coming. At these moments, I’m always reminded of a line from the song New Year’s Day by U2 – “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day”. Although the song is actually about the Polish Solidarity movement, as a child I always interpreted it as being about the fact that nothing really changes when we go from 31st December in one year to 1st January in the next. All those resolutions we make could be made on any day of the year. Waiting for New Year’s Eve to make changes to our lives is neat in its symbolism but changes are probably better done on a day by day basis. Anyway, re-reading my Nurture 15/16 blog, I was happy to see that I was extremely realistic, that I only set myself three targets for 2016, and that I managed to achieve them all.

1. Travel a lot.

2. Finish Road School.

3. Do something amazing to celebrate my *beep*-ieth birthday.

Starting with No.2, I’m delighted to say that Road School is now a reality. Although it is nothing like any of my other books, I’m really proud of it. Perhaps the most special thing for me was having my own kid choose to read the book on the plane back from our Christmas holiday, and pointing out to me all the bits in it that made her laugh. No.1 and No.3 basically got combined into a year of travelling extensively. We went to Amsterdam and Lisbon with friends to see bands (Muse in Amsterdam and Queen at Rock in Rio in Lisbon). We stayed on a houseboat in Amsterdam, which is something that I’ve wanted to do since I was tiny, and we got to show our friends around Lisbon, including taking them to see the flat where we used to live. We went to Portugal another two times (once in the summer and once for Christmas). And at Easter, after endless hours of discussion, debate and close examination of our finances, our family went to Chile for 3 weeks. We spent the first two weeks touring the south of the country, which is an amazing landscape of live volcanoes, glaciers, deep lakes, ancient mythologies and mystical islands. And after that we went to Easter Island. To say this was a thrill would be putting it mildly.

I’m going to stick to the 3 targets format for 2017, since it seems to be working well for me. Some might accuse me of the soft bigotry of low aspirations, but at my age, I have grown to know my limits.

1. Publish and write more books. (This is kind of inevitable as a target, if you make your living as a writer.) My next book The Artful Educator is pretty much done and dusted, with just the final edits to complete. The book a bit of a reaction to the current narrative of teaching as a science, and of there being only one ‘right way’ to do things. It is full of crazy and creative ideas for artistic approaches to teaching. I’m also writing a book on differentiation for Bloomsbury and a book on behaviour in the early years for John Catt.

2. Keep travelling as much as possible. We’ll make the usual trips to Portugal as often as the school holidays allow, but I am also hoping to fit in a trip to Iceland, and there has been vague talk of a journey across America to see the solar eclipse next summer. Fingers crossed. I’ve offered the youngest kid the option of doing SATs or not doing SATs, according to how she feels in May. If she decides on the ‘not doing SATs’ option, I plan to head somewhere exciting with her.

3. Write a novel. I’ve always wanted to do this. In fact, I’ve completed a couple of drafts of novels in the past, but I have never had the courage to push through to complete them or send them off to agents/publishers. If I’m going to be the female Lee Child, I need to stop talking about it and get on with it and do it. And now I’ve written it here, I’ll have to put my money where my mouth is. Watch this space, and I hope you all have a great 2017!

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