SATsholm Syndrome

It’s hard to know where to start with what a convoluted mess our accountability system is in, but this tweet seems like a good place to begin. The idea that a child who clearly knows where to put the commas should not gain a mark for knowing this, simply because the commas do not slope in the approved direction, is almost impossible to comprehend. What have things come to when the DfE thinks it is okay to penalise a child in this way? What are we saying to our children about the level of control that adults want to exercise over the way that they write? No longer is it enough to tell our children what kind of sentences can have an exclamation mark, or that ‘good writing’ must include ‘fronted adverbials’, now we discover that our government wants to do the equivalent of holding our children’s hands while they are writing, to force them to form their punctuation marks in a particular way. Do the DfE really care about how children’s grasp of spelling, punctuation and grammar informs the quality of their writing, or have they turned into a faceless ‘Big Brother’ controlling every aspect of a child’s learning to the nth degree?

As if this weren’t bad enough, almost every day I read stories online of schools where entire terms of Year 6 (and earlier years as well) are taken up with doing practice SATs papers. Where the curriculum is narrowed to such an extent that children’s primary schooling becomes English/Maths, English/Maths, with a tiny bit of PE for variety. I see stories of schools holding ‘Easter revision classes’ and ‘SATs booster sessions’, for a series of tests that are supposed to be only about the school and that were supposedly never about the children passing or failing. I see schools reminding parents to ‘get their children ready’ for a phonics screening check that was supposed to be purely diagnostic. I see stories of schools where gaming and even cheating goes on, in order to try and ensure ‘good results’. And while I completely understand the pressure that schools are under to get those ‘good results’, it seems that we have become so wrapped up in getting them, that some people are willing to do almost anything, no matter what the cost.

After much soul searching and discussion, we let our daughter take her SATs earlier this year. Her school has been completely brilliant about the whole process – their curriculum has remained genuinely broad and balanced, right up to the week of the tests. Her class barely did a single practice paper. (In fact I was so surprised at how relaxed they were about the tests that occasionally I would quiz her about whether she’d done one yet. “No mummy,” she would assure me, “although one time we did discuss what our answers would have been to last year’s paper in groups.”) It’s a very small cohort, and our daughter is a high attainer, so if we had taken her out of school to avoid the tests, this would have punished the very people who have done so much to take the right approach in the most difficult of circumstances. As a child who finds tests easy, and whose mother has always told her that these tests don’t measure what really counts, she has been able to stay relaxed about the process. But more and more it feels like I am incredibly lucky and that this is an unusual case.

And so we have reached the week when the SATs results are published. Understandably, teachers have been stressed about how well their classes will do. Some even waited up until midnight, to see what their data was like. The pain of getting the children through these tests is perhaps ameliorated a little (for some) by the joy of being able to say that their children did well. We are trapped, it seems, between understanding how our captors at the DfE are twisting our entire education system out of shape, and wanting to celebrate the achievements of our children. We look at the charts that show how accountability has supposedly ‘improved results’, and we would have to be super human not to believe that it must be our own efforts that have caused the rise. Like a twisted version of Stockholm Syndrome, we are in hock to the DfE, who dole out praise and punishment, while keeping us trapped within a system that causes stress for those children in our care.

Should teachers respond to the latest diktat by using lesson time to train their children to never ever write a comma that is anything less than perfectly slanted, even those who write with their left hand? Should primary schools double down on their SATs preparation, including boosters during holiday time, in an attempt to ensure that every child ‘passes’ a test that was never supposed to be about pass or fail? Should teachers spend time teaching their young children to write government approved exclamatory sentences, starting with ‘what’ or ‘how’? Or maybe, just maybe, should every single school in England follow the example of Jill Wood, and refuse to participate in what has become a joyless mockery of an accountability system? Surely the time has arrived for us to rise up together, to shake off our shackles, and say ‘enough is enough’? Because if we don’t, we are complicit in an accountability regime that makes a mockery of what an education should be. We have sold our ethics down the line for the prize of SATs success. And in the end it is not the teachers or schools who end up being damaged by what is going on. It is the most vulnerable of our children who will actually pay the price.

“Don’t you know
They’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper”
Tracy Chapman

Posted in Testing | 2 Comments

Inspire SW

In honour of this conference, I’ve done something really mad
I’ve written a keynote poem, and I warn you, it could be bad.
I like to take a risk or two, I’m quite experimental
I sang a song at WomenEd, but poetry? Well that’s fundamental.

I like to be creative, I like to take a chance
I do not like my singing voice, but I really love to dance
If you want your kids to feel the same, to take a chance or two
The answer doesn’t lie in them, the answer lies in you.

Have you ever stopped to wonder what the word ‘inspire’ means?
What happens when you unpack it and look behind the scenes?
Or where inspiration comes from, and how you can pass it on
So the children will remember you, long after you have gone?

That’s what this conference is all about, so why not dig down deep
Into the joy of teaching and the memories children keep
Remember your favourite teacher. What was it about that one?
Was it how they made you feel special? Or how they made learning fun?

Maybe the very best teachers are not those with all the right tips
But the ones who put the focus on some great relationships
And if you tell me there’s one way to teach, I’m going to look for the other
Because I was a very contrary child. And now I’m a contrary mother.

Well anyway, that’s enough of me, time to talk about the kids
The children who we do it for, or at least I always did
Let’s put the child at the centre, because that’s where they should be
It’s always, always, always about them; it’s never, ever about me.

I’ve tried to use learning styles in my speech, I hope you won’t think me pathetic
There are pictures for the visual, and movement for the kinaesthetic
I’ve got sweet peas for the olfactory, please take this bunch and sniff
And peas for the gustatory, to give you all a lift.

I hope to get a laugh or two, you might find me quite glib
But whatever I do it can’t be as bad as SATs and as Nick Gibb
So join in with my keynote and I hope it will inspire
I don’t want to fill a bucket, I want to light a fire.

Once upon a story time, to get the fire burning
We took our children out of school and on the road for learning
We went across China and Europe, in planes and an ancient car
We got to see some magical things, both near and very far.

Our children’s eyes were opened wide, curiosity travelled along
If you want to teach children resilience, with travel, you can’t go wrong
It’s not so great for your sex life, but that’s just part of the deal
And at least the hands on learning is fundamentally real.

Stare into a crocodile tank, wonder at the past
Make a bunch of memories that will always, always last
Walk along an ancient wall, in the steps of men
Wonder how long it will have to be, before you come here again.

Ask a million questions, dream a million dreams
Have a long hard think about what you want your world to mean
Look outside your culture, understand the rest
That means so much more than any DfE or Ofsted test.

 Let’s talk for a bit about interests, which get a very bad press
The idea that they’d all read “Twilight” caused Gove so much distress
But if you actually take the time to ask a child the question
They might just make a totally amazing really great suggestion.

Sometimes kids love Wimpy Kid; at times 19th Century fiction
But I will never accept the thought that Gove has jurisdiction
I don’t have a massive problem with Eliot’s Middlemarch
But compared to diverse literature, it all feels a little parched.

So often it’s a real life person who sets your heart alight
Who makes you want to read your book in the dark hours of the night
You find out about Leonardo da Vinci, the words roll round your tongue
“Please can I see the Last Supper?” is what you ask your mum.

So your parents take you to Vinci, where Leonardo was born
You see models of the amazing machines that years ago were drawn
You visit the Mona Lisa, who hides behind a screen
And you think you might be an artist, you get the chance to dream.

Not only some children should have the chance to look outside themselves
We cannot just replace the real with books on a classroom shelf
The world is wide and wonderful, all kids should get a go
To experience life hands on, to find out what they want to know.

And now I’d like to tell you about some really weird stuff
I’m going to share some lesson plans that I’ve used when things get tough
There’s one that involves this crime scene tape, another some rigged dog food
It’s really not too serious, I hope you won’t think me rude.

Imagine a class of students who won’t do a thing you say
You walk into the classroom and your children look away
They chat amongst themselves and they all act like you’re not there
And when you threaten detentions, they shrug, ‘cos they don’t care.

You understand quite quickly that you need to ask some questions
To show them the point of learning, not make sanction shaped suggestions
So you set up a crazy scenario, you show them that you’re brave
And for all the lessons that don’t work, there are some that make them rave.

You pretend to do something crazy, to get the kids’ attention
You eat from a can of dog food, create a CSI invention
If they see you make a fool of yourself, they know that they can too
And that’s how you inspire, by being a crazy version of you.

The students are given a bag of flour, they must treat it as their baby
And you look at them and you size them up and you think “what the hell, just maybe”
One kid puts his in his locker, he claims it is self raising
At least, you think, for a moment, he forgot about misbehaving.

I’ve one last story to tell you, before your attention dips
It’s the story of a school and how they collected paperclips
If you’ll listen a little longer, I’d like to try and tell
What happened to some children in a small town called Whitwell.

It’s a story from America, from a town in Tennessee
One a teacher told me long ago, that has always stuck with me
This story is a metaphor, for how our children learn
And how ideas are understood, and passed on, in their turn.

The teachers felt the kids should know what tolerance really means
And how a better world was not just something in your dreams
But how do you show your children what it means to feel grief?
And how do you explain what happened when it’s far beyond belief?

The teachers told their children of a war not so long past
The horror that had happened, the long shadow that was cast
The teachers told their children of the people who were lost
But the children didn’t understand the enormity of the cost.

So the children asked their teacher, how do we understand this?
And the teacher listened quietly, and chose not to dismiss
The question that her children asked, which is one I’d like to share
How do we know what six million is? How do we show we care?

So she set the children to study, and they went off on their own
They couldn’t really understand, how on earth could they have known?
But they went online, and found out about a symbol that was worn
And they took it to their classroom, and a new idea was born.

A simple loop of metal that was a symbol of resistance
To show in even the hardest of times, the power of persistence
They took a tiny object and it made them think real long
What does six million look like? And why do people do wrong?

So the children and their teachers set about a massive task
Six million paperclips to collect, such a crazy thing to ask
But soon the word got out, and the paperclips arrived
To date they have 30 million, each a thought of a person’s life.

And the very strangest thing happened, the community began to unite
Like the BAME network, or WomenEd, the bonds got really tight
In a place where over many years the community had shattered
The people came together over something they felt mattered.

But yet again, we’re in a time when hatred walks about
When people’s voices are not heard, no matter how loud they shout
So teachers have to stand between the hatred and the hope
To show our children what to do when it feels too hard to cope.

There’s a paperclip on your table, please take it when you go
And have a long hard think about what children really know
How to take the ideas that we give them, and inspire them to be wise
So they move on from their teachers, to live inspirational lives.

Posted in Learning, Writing | 2 Comments

Be a Writer – Part Four: Copy Rights

When your book gets accepted for publication, you will be sent a contract to sign. It’s likely that you will want to sign on the dotted line as quick as you can and send it straight back, just in case the person who offered to publish your book changes their mind. But it’s at this stage that you really should start to get to grips with the complex world of rights that surrounds written material. I’m no legal expert, so my best advice is for you to join the Society of Authors and use their free contract reading service. However, I do have some advice that I have picked up from 20 years of reading publishing contracts that you might find helpful in understanding the complexities of what you’re being asked to sign. Here are my ten top tips for understanding your ‘copy rights’.

1. Publishing contracts vary quite a bit in length – from a couple of pages to twenty or more. I’m not going to lie and tell you that they’re particularly interesting to read, but it really is a good idea to get to grips with what you are reading. This is a legal document that you are about to sign.

2. You own the copyright to your own writing when you write it – it’s a myth that you have to post it to yourself to prove that you own it, although it’s not a bad idea to put the little © and your name somewhere on your work, just in case. There is no copyright in ideas or titles, only in the expression of them. It’s your writing that you are copy righting, not anything else – if you think of it as no one being allowed to take a photocopy of what you’ve written without paying you, you’ll get somewhere close to what you’re getting (this is why you need to join the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society as well). If you want to copyright your ideas you would have to branch out into the field of patents or trademarks, but that’s not how writing works.

3. When you sign a publishing contract you are asked to assign the rights to your work, which is not the same thing as handing over the copyright. You still own the copyright, but you grant the publishers the right to publish your work in certain territories. Most publishers ask for worldwide rights and if you’re a new writer you won’t have much choice but to grant them this. At some point, the copyright may revert to you (for instance, if the book goes out of print). Pay close attention to clauses that outline this in your contract.

4. Unless you sell your copyright, you own it for your lifetime and, for written material, generally speaking for 70 years after you die. Sometimes authors will do ‘work for hire’, in which case they do not own the copyright, but instead get paid a fixed fee for the work that they do.

5. Your royalty payments will be based on the terms set out in your contract, so pay close attention to these. Your royalty will usually be based on “net receipts” which is sadly not the same thing as the sale price of your book. This term describes the amount of money that your publishers receive from the outlets that sell your book. Sales might only net your publisher 40% of the list price and so your royalty will be based on that.

6. While it’s not usual to negotiate royalties for your first book, there is certainly no harm in having a try. No halfway decent publisher will judge you for this, but be realistic. One handy option is to ask for a ‘rising royalty’, to allow you to get rewarded for high sales – the royalty rises after x number of sales.

7. Check how and when your royalties will be paid – you can usually expect this to be twice yearly, in arrears, and typically it will be 3 months after the end of the sales period. To put that simply, royalties on sales from January to June would be paid in September. Once you add the time you will spend writing the book, and the production period (up to 7 months in some cases), it can be a long time before you see any money from your book.

8. You’ll be asked to fulfill certain criteria, in order for your book to be published. It will have to be the right length, and of good enough quality. You will be asked for a submission date and you should think carefully before agreeing this. It is far far better to be known as an author who meets her deadlines than to be known as one who doesn’t submit on time. I’ll never forget the exasperation an editor once shared with me about most of her authors not meeting their deadlines. Aim not to be the person who upsets her editor.

9. Look closely at the clauses around sub licences. A sub licence is any use of your material that is not covered by the main assignment. This could include serialisation in a magazine, translations, agreements to print in a different format and other uses of your work. (Dream about film rights if you’re writing an amazing novel!)

10. Although it’s never a good idea to believe that your book is going to find easy success, when you read your contract it is a great idea to think about what might happen if you did actually win the lottery and find yourself having written a best selling book. Don’t sell yourself short but don’t worry too much – you can always renegotiate for the 2nd edition.

Posted in Writing | 1 Comment

Be a Writer – Part Three: Publish or Be Damned

Once you’ve decided that you are going to be a writer, and you’ve got your idea past the “is this actually going to be useful/interesting/inspiring to my audience?” test, it is time to try and get your words into print. In the Olden Days (about ten years ago) you could only really do this if you published via a traditional publisher, or if you paid money for someone to publish it. These days self publishing is not only an option, it is free. Self publishing is not particularly difficult, especially if you are reasonably adept with computers. However, if you’ve never published anything before it is easy to make the mistake of thinking that writing the book is all that matters, when it actually forms only a small part of the equation. It is very important not to overlook how important editing, proofing, production, design, marketing and so on are, in the success of a book. Publishing a book is not about you, the author; it’s about them, the readers. You’re likely to need some help figuring out how best to appeal to your audience, especially at first. It’s wise not to assume an expertise that you do not yet have.

A publisher will do some, but not all, of the work for you. Obviously you have to write the book, but a good publisher will support you in editing, production, design, marketing, publicity and sales. If you’re not self publishing, the first step is to find a publisher who will like your idea and who you trust to do a good job of publishing your book. Not all publishers are equal, so think carefully about the author you want to be. Get hold of a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and look through the entries. Which publisher publishes books that are in a similar style to yours? Who is most likely to have a space for your work on their list? If you’re writing fiction what you need is an agent. If you’re writing non fiction then you’re probably better off without. The yearbook explains what you need to do to make a proposal – many publishers will have a proposal form that you need to fill out, that you must submit along with some sample material and a contents page. Once you’ve submitted your proposal, and it has captured the publisher’s interest, it might go through some kind of review process before being accepted.

Writing a proposal is a great discipline for a writer – it forces you to think about your idea in a clear headed way – so take it seriously (and try your very hardest not to make typos when you write it). The proposal will ask you about all the things that you forgot to think about when you were dreaming of “writing your book”. The market, the competition, the chapter headings – all the stuff that makes writing a living rather than just a hobby. Not all publishers ask for a detailed proposal – it tends to be the larger ones. But whoever you publish with you will eventually be asked questions about how your book is going to sell. Do not approach more than one publisher with the same idea at any one time – it’s bad manners and it will not win you any friends. Once your proposal is submitted, my best advice would be not to wait around for it to be accepted, but to get on with writing the book that you said you wanted to write. Because the only way to write a book is to write a book, so you might as well get on with it while you’re waiting. If your idea gets accepted for publication, after a short period of jumping up and down in excitement, shouting “where do I sign!?”, you are going to need to learn to read a publishing contract. But don’t worry too much about that – The Society of Authors will help you understand it and I’ll cover the basics in the next blog.

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Be a Writer – Part Two: Ideas and Audiences

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet,
then you must write it.”
Toni Morrison

There are all sorts of motivations for writing a book. Maybe you want to share your ideas with the world, because you think that they’d be helpful or inspiring to other people. Perhaps you love the thought of being a ‘published author’ and seeing your book on a shelf. Or maybe you spotted a gap in the books that were out there already and you had the idea that you might be the person to fill it. Perhaps it’s all three. Or none of the above. It would be hard to deny that there’s something eternally romantic about the thought of being an author – it’s a possibility that draws people in and can hold them tight for years. I think that, a bit like being a teacher, the power is in the idea that your words could have an impact on someone else’s life. Apparently, 90% of Americans want to write a book.

“Everybody has a book inside them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”
Christopher Hitchens

Getting too wrapped up in the romantic possibilities of writing a book can seriously dent your chances of actually writing one. And it can particularly spoil your chances of making a living as a writer (as opposed to creating one book that might or might not sell). It’s not enough just to want to ‘write a book’, you have to think about whether anyone will buy it. Writing can be an incredibly introspective occupation – you have to look inside yourself to get your ideas in the first place, and it can be all too easy to fall into yourself and forget to climb out. There is a very tricky balance to be achieved between the confidence you need to put your ideas in the public domain and the kind of pride that tends to come before a fall. Even if you don’t want to make a living as an author, the idea of writing a book is that lots of people will read and enjoy it, so you can’t just think about you and your ideas – you have to think about your audience as well.

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
Elmore Leonard

The writer must pay the ultimate respect to their audience, because they are the ones who are going to be buying and reading your book (you hope). So the first thing you need to do, before you even think about approaching a publisher, is to analyse the idea that you’ve got. Is it about you going ‘look at me and how clever and special I am’ or is it actually going to be helpful to people? (Or, if you’re writing fiction, are people going to love your story world and the characters in it?) Not every book that is successful is useful to its audience – polemics can be popular and anything with shock value is likely to sell – but both of these tend to be short term wins. In the end, if your book is genuinely helpful, it has a far higher chance of succeeding, because people like to read books with good ideas, and because good ideas generate positive word of mouth. (Word of mouth is a whole other subject and one that I’ll come onto later in the series.)

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”
T.S. Eliot

The voice that you use is a crucial part of connecting with your audience and making people want to read your book. It is your voice, in the end, that ties your readers to your ideas. You can have the most brilliant ideas in the world, but if people don’t connect with your voice, not so many readers are likely to hear them. At the early stages, it’s worth considering the ‘style’ that you want to achieve in your book, because you will need to talk about this when you pitch your idea to a publisher. Don’t worry about it too much at this point, though, because you will find that your voice develops as you write your book anyway. And that’s basically it. Idea sorted. Audience kept firmly in mind. Now all you need to do is submit a proposal to a publisher or self publish it. Oh, and you also have to write the bloody thing. Never forget that.

Posted in Writing | 2 Comments

Be a Writer – Part One: Ten Home Truths

“There is nothing to writing.
All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Ernest Hemingway

I’ve been meaning to blog on writing for a while, because it’s something I get asked about a lot, via email and also on Twitter. In this new blog series I’m going to take you step by step through what you need to do to be an author, to publish books and articles, and to make a living out of your writing. I am eternally grateful that I get to sit down at my desk each day, type words into my keyboard, and people actually pay me to do it. I love writing – I love it so much that I’d do it for free if no one was willing to pay me. (I’m doing it for free right now writing this blog, although mainly it’s for the purposes of procrastination, since as per usual I have a book to finish.) Given the explosion in writing since the advent of the Internet, it seems like a lot of other people feel the same way as me. There is clearly something romantic and appealing about the idea of writing for a living, of turning your words into an actual book, because many people want to do it. Before I get started on the process and the advice and the tips though, in this first blog I’d like to sit you down and tell you ten home truths about what it means to “Be A Writer”.

First, the bad news …

1. Writing a book is a *lot* of hard work. It sounds really obvious, but it has to be said. Writing 50,000 plus words is not easy. Realistically, it’s not something that most people can do in their spare time, unless you plan to burn the midnight oil every night. Like any job, to do it well takes commitment and dedication. If you’re willing to give up your weekends and your holidays, you might just be able to combine it with something else, but the reality is that writing is as much a job of work as any other career.

2. Writing a book is not the hardest bit. The hardest bit is selling it. If you want to write for a living, you have to be willing to ask people to pay for your work. Anyone can write for free (and lots of people do). But to actually make money from your writing, it has to sell, and selling books is tough. Really tough. Interestingly, sales are not just about marketing and publicity, they are also about trust and word of mouth. I’ll cover all these aspects of the job later on in this series.

3. There is a *lot* of competition out there. Each year, around 184,000 new and revised books are published. And that’s just in the UK. Worldwide, it is estimated that more than 129 million books have been published in total, since publishing first began. The average person reads between 1 and 5 books a year. (Yes, I know you probably read more – if you’re reading this, you are likely to have a vested interest in reading, but sadly most people don’t.) As the saying goes, “you do the math”.

4. Most books don’t sell many copies at all. The average book sells around 250 copies a year, and 3,000 copies in its lifetime. I’m very lucky – my first book is still in print, almost 20 years since it was initially published, but this is unusual. Book sales tend to follow a graph that looks a bit like your classic bell curve – there’s a spurt of sales when a book first comes out but this usually tails off quite quickly.

5. No one is going to come to you. As a writer you have to learn to ‘pitch’ yourself, your work, and your ideas, to a range of outlets. Unless you are an established name, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to offer you a writing job on spec. It’s just like with any other job – you have to turn up in order to be interviewed. This means you have to learn to put yourself out there, which can feel awkward at first, but it’s just part and parcel of the work.

And now the good news …

6. Holding your own book in your hands is a deeply magical moment. Even though it’s almost 20 years ago, I can still remember the breathless excitement I felt when I held a printed copy of my first book in my hands. The excitement of this is very closely matched by the buzz you will feel on the day when you first see your own book in an actual bookshop.

7. These days, anyone can publish a book. Self publishing, and the advent of ebooks, has opened writing up to everyone and anyone. You don’t have to go through a traditional publisher anymore – there is no longer a ‘gatekeeper’ holding the keys and preventing you from putting your own work in print unless you are willing to pay heavily for the privilege. These days, with a bit of know-how about formatting, you can do it by yourself. (I’ll cover the ins and outs and the upsides and downsides of self publishing later on in the series.)

8. It gets easier, and you get better at it, the more you do it. Like any skill, the more experience you have at writing, the easier you will find it. The more you do it, the more you will also figure out how and when you write best (I tend to write better in spurts followed by a break, rather than in a slow and steady way). I like to think that, technically, I am a much better writer now than I was twenty years ago. In fact, I know that I’m a much better writer than I was when I first started out. All I need to do is read an old edition of one of my books to confirm that this is true. Over the years, one of the key skills you learn is how to cut out all the words that don’t have to be there. Interestingly, writing short is much harder than writing long.

9. Writing is fascinating and fun. One of the great things about being a writer is that you get to nose into different places, to explore different subjects and to ask people lots of questions. If you’re interested in other people and how they operate, writing is a fantastic job to have. The research you do when writing a book or an article can be almost as much fun as the writing itself. Fun is desperately under-rated these days – it has become almost like a dirty word in parts of the online education community. But if you ask me, what could possibly be better than doing something that you find fun for a living?

10. And finally, remember that, at some point, someone will ask you for your autograph. When I was a kid I practised my autograph for ages, until I felt I had got it perfect (I hate it now, but that’s a whole other story). I always fancied being a writer, or at the very least being famous, as I suspect many kids do. So if you ever meet an author, please don’t be embarrassed to ask her or him to sign their own book, because deep down inside they will love you for it.

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Babies have a natural affinity with water – they’ve just spent nine months floating in the womb, so a warm swimming pool feels very familiar to them. The advice used to be to wait until your babies had their first vaccinations before taking them swimming, but these days the NHS says that you can go right from birth. We’re not a particularly sporty family, but we do love to swim, and we spend a lot of time in places where there are pools, rivers and beaches. As well as being a lot of fun, and good for your health, being able to swim is a crucial life skill – it could literally save your life one day. And so, from when they were tiny babies, we have done a lot of water based activities with our kids (especially during the holidays). These days they are highly confident swimmers: they are at home diving into a swimming pool to do lengths; they adore bombing off a jetty into the river; they will tackle any size slide at an aqua park; and they love to spend hours battling the waves in their wetsuits in the sea. It’s interesting to consider how they got to this point. How they learned, not only to be able to swim in the technical sense of the word, but to feel relaxed and confident enough to swim in any environment. How they came to be swimmers.

The first step in the process of learning to swim is to feel relaxed around water – to enjoy the act of being in the water in its own right, rather than seeing it as a means to an end. The best way to do this is to spend lots of time doing things in water, without turning “you must learn to swim” into the main event. In the early years, the most important thing is to focus on the fun – to splash and laugh and mess around and generally have fun in the water with your tiny baby. When the sun shines, you get out the padding pool and stick them in it, you run through the sprinkler, you head to the beach. What you must not do is force it too early on, especially if you have a nervous child. I remember being at the swimming pool once with my friend. We were splashing around with our babies in the warm water, as we did once a week. At the other end of the pool was a mum with her daughter. The little girl was in some distress – she really did not want to get in the pool – but the mum was insisting that, not only must she get in, but she must also try to swim. The situation escalated until the little girl was crying, the mum was screaming, and no one was getting anything positive out of the experience. Gently does it, every time.

Another key part of the process is to spend lots of time around water, in lots of different contexts. It’s a bit like getting children to read for pleasure – if they spend their lives in a home that has loads of books and newspapers in it, and they see the adults reading in their own time, purely for the love of it, then they pick up on the fact that reading is (or can be) enjoyable. Being at the seaside is as natural for our children as breathing, because they have done it so often. So is jumping into a swimming pool and swimming from one end to the other. However, even if your children can swim brilliantly in a pool, you can’t just rock up to the seaside one day and let them loose in the sea without close supervision. They might be able to swim, you might have warned them about the dangers, but waves and tides add a whole new dimension. You need them to understand what is and isn’t safe in any given situation and they mainly learn this through supervised experience. I remember being at the beach in Portugal once with our children, when they were tiny. We were playing close to the waves, but the wind was getting up, and the waves were getting bigger. A little old Portuguese lady came over to us, and gave us a good telling off, pointing to the sea and making it clear that we needed to move back. Just as you don’t dive into the shallow end of a pool, so you must always pay respect to the ocean.

Next you need to develop some technique, because learning to swim is not only about having fun in the water, and you can’t wear arm bands or use floats forever. This is where a bit of direct instruction comes in handy. Both our kids had a handful of lessons at what felt like just the right moment for them. Not so early that they weren’t physically ready for it, or so that swimming became a chore, but not so late that it held up their progress. If you plan to be a competitive swimmer, then you would obviously benefit from lots of coaching. However, if you’ve spent a lot of time in water before you learn to do it ‘properly’, a short series of lessons is usually enough.

Once you’ve got your technique in place, the only thing left to do really is to focus on building up your confidence as a swimmer in different environments. Perhaps the best way to do this is through lots and lots of practice, and by gradually ramping up the level of challenge. Again, it’s best not to push this. While our oldest took one look at the giant slide and immediately threw himself down it (not just once, but what must have been 50 times in a day), it took a number of visits to the aqua park before our youngest felt ready to tackle it. The first couple of times she wouldn’t even countenance going up the ladder. The next couple of times she climbed up the ladder with me, took a quick peak over the top, and climbed straight back down. But eventually the day came when she not only climbed up the ladder, but she also whizzed down the slide, screaming with laughter as she hit the water at the end.


There is a difference between teaching a child to swim, and a child becoming a swimmer. Technique matters, instruction is important, but neither are enough on their own. As a teacher, you can be as efficient as you like in the way that you instruct a class, but in the end you cannot make your children learn something simply by instructing them in the techniques behind how it is done. For learning to happen children have to participate in the act of learning as well. They have to be confident enough to take leaps and to push themselves, without a fear of failure holding them back. They must be brave enough to dive into the waves and know that they are going to come up again on the other side. They must be immersed in an experience, until it becomes a part of who they are. You can teach a child as much as you like, but you cannot force her to learn. And you can lead a child to water, but you cannot make her swim.

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