Monthly Archives: October 2014


There’s a debate that is raging amongst the twitter-teachers at the moment, so you’ll have to excuse me joining in with this post.  If you have an opinion, please feel free to add it to the comments at the end, I’d be interested to know what you think.


Uncommon Schools

So.  The debate is centered around a small, select group of schools in the US, called charter schools, Uncommon Schools being part of a group including KIPP and Achievement First schools.  As far as I understand it, these are run a bit like our sponsored academies, or free schools, independent of local authority control. They serve largely urban, low-income communities with all their connected race, class and cultural facets, with the express goal of ‘closing the gap’ in academic achievement between rich and poor, and sending as many children on to college as possible.  Achievement in exams and tests is high, and so is the rate of exclusion; whether or not this translates to success in further education, I don’t know.


So what’s all the fuss?

On the face of it, you would think that teachers would be jumping for joy at the thought of schools doing so well in the face of the challenges so many of us work with, but, strangely, it is not the case.  The schools are controversial, and the cause of considerable disagreement.  I am no expert here, I have read no books by authors on the board, visited no schools aping techniques here in the UK – but I have been troubled by what I have read and seen, troubled enough to do a little bit of reading when I was supposed to be doing the housework, and thinking when I was trying to get to sleep.

  • Teaching tricks

Now this is a really interesting one.  One of the most famous of the Names, Doug Lemov, involved with these schools has written a book, Teach Like a Champion.  I hold my hands up.  I don’t do a lot of reading around my professional practice, and I’m not sure that his appeals to me, but it is doing the rounds and this is what I know about it.  Doug has had a go at analysing what it is that successful teachers do in their classrooms.  He has used Data (not the Star Trek character, sorry) (and I don’t know which data he used) in order to pinpoint techniques and he wrote them in a book, and they are the methods that are insisted on in his schools.

Now, all this sounds terribly useful, and I am the first person to admit that when I go popping in to other people’s classrooms I am the first to shamelessly steal all their best ideas, but, to be honest, I like to make those decisions myself.  Children are precious, vulnerable growing beings, and I have a lot of experience in working with them.  I see it as part of my professional toolkit, if you like, to make my own decisions about what method is most appropriate for the children I teach.  Some kids respond well to one thing, some another.  This constant decision making, this fine tuning, is all part of what I do.

  • Discipline

Every teacher knows that classroom discipline is the key to getting children to learn.  We call it behaviour management.  If they are chattering, they are not getting on with writing.  If they are throwing paper aeroplanes then they certainly aren’t.  If they are squabbling then they are more interested in whatever drama is going on between them that they are in what you are trying to teach them.  We know this.  Teachers who lack the skills to create a purposeful, respectful classroom are not very successful.

One of the things that characterises the Uncommon School is the rigid, some would say militaristic discipline.  The children move around the school in silence.  Carpet time involves special striped carpets and designated spaces where the children must sit.  There is a prescribed way of putting up one’s hand.  If you aren’t called upon to raise your Vertical Hand you might be Cold Called (that’s being asked without putting your hand up).  You must answer immediately, or be given specific Think Time.  Your eyes must track the teacher.  There is clicking (but I can’t quite work out what that one’s all about).

Why must the children do all these things?  Because they are the outward behaviours that signal an inner engagement with the material a teacher is teaching.  It’s a pity we can’t open up their heads, really, just to make sure that they aren’t faking it.

  • Pedagogy, or the science and art of education

This is a term which I approach with great caution, and I would probably characterise it as the philosophy that underpins my professional life.  As far as I can see, the Uncommon Schools, and schools like them, take the view that children are the recipients of Facts and Knowledge.  It is our job as teachers to transfer these facts and knowledge, especially in these days of competition between schools and education systems, as quickly and efficiently as possible by Direct Instruction. Tell them what they need to know and get them to practice it so that they at the very least know it well enough to pass the test(s).  Simple, right?  Right?

So why my disquiet?

On the face of it, you would think that I would be all in favour of these schools.  Rigorous (I hope) research backing up the techniques, calm orderly schools and classrooms, a firm belief in what the teachers are doing and why.  But, leaving aside the privatisation and application of market forces to education (by which I mean the competition engendered by results tables), I am left with a feeling of disquiet.  I am troubled by what I have seen, and what I have read.

You see, I know that teaching is a complicated business.  I know that what works for one teacher does not necessarily work for another.  And I know that to insist we do it one way and one way only sucks the soul out of teachers, it turns them from living, breathing, thinking professionals into automatons following a script, into disheartened, disillusioned creative people with no room for that creativity to express itself.

I know that the fundamental thing for a teacher to develop is a respectful working relationship with his or her class.  And I know that unless the teacher has fully invested themselves in the methods they use in their classroom, unless they are fully convinced as if they had come up with the techniques themselves, then what you have is a parody of teaching, an empty shell.

I also know a little bit about data.  Not much, mark you, a little.  I know that there is always someone at the bottom (or the top) of the heap.  I know that there is always some awkward little anomaly.  I live with one.  Every day he presents me with challenges I never thought that I would face.  Every moment I must come up with new ways, creative ways to help him to learn, to kit him out with every scrap of skill I can to help him on his way to an independent life.

I’ve written about how I feel about compliance before.  I’ve written about how I feel about children serving adult needs before.  I’ve written about the mistakes that well meaning people make, all in the name of education.  I’ve written about how being different chromosomally, but here, culturally, is part of who we are.  I could be more explicit about engagement or behaviour or how to actually do what it is I do, but it’s not my style.

To teach, you don’t just need enthusiasm.  You don’t just need techniques.  You don’t just need the change-the-world energy of the Bright Young Things.  You need the wisdom of colleagues who have seen the fashions come and go to keep you in check.  You need people about you who have experience and knowledge you can draw on when you stub your toe against the inevitable anomaly you have a duty to teach just as well as the bright eyed bushy tailed people pleaser.  You need the parent to tell you when the children cry, how they really feel about what goes on in class.  You need the head, and the heart, aligned.

And no. I wouldn’t send my child, not my Sam nor my other two, to an Uncommon School.



Wouldn’t it be great?

I’d love it if my son hadn’t needed surgery to help him breathe when he was two.

I’d love it if I didn’t have to supervise the cleaning of teeth even though he’s 13.

I’d love it if he wasn’t still bringing a reading book home.

It would be great if he didn’t relax by sticking his tongue out.

I’d be over the moon if he could control his voice and speak clearly so that not just me could understand him.

My heart would lift if he wasn’t so vulnerable.

If he stopped doing random things in public, I’d be relieved.


Don’t ever feel sorry for me.  Don’t ever pity me.  Don’t ever feel that I need you to validate him, or tell me that you think he’s gorgeous.

I’m glad he’s here.

I’m glad he’s him.

I’m glad of him.

He is not to blame for a lack of support for parents like me.

He didn’t make a system that penalises the vulnerable and then blames them for not being good enough, or taking evasive action.

He is not responsible for my happiness.


I am responsible for him.

It’s hard, but it kind of goes with the parenting territory.

No-one ever said that I, or you, would be marked out for an easy life.


Stand with me.


The big story about Down syndrome isn’t termination.

It’s acceptance of who we are.


The Island of Lost Things

There is an island far away. It floats, alone, like a mirage, out on the ocean; a jewel, painted with bright colours. Lush grass and golden beaches, high, snow-tipped mountains and deep valleys gush with foaming rivers. Exotic birds with gorgeous plumage flock in the tall trees of its mighty forests. Majestic beasts roam, unfettered, across the plains.

People live there. They are not strange, but they seem…charmed. They have a glow about them, a sparkle that strikes the green flame of envy in the hearts of observers, even as they want to reach out to touch them, to transfer something of their blush of good fortune to themselves.

Around the island, the sea is ever changing. Sometimes it is bright blue, shallow and rippling, darted by luminous fish. Othertimes the water-chatter changes. Waves do not tumble; instead they roll and crash, grey and forbidding. They rumble.

Despite its distance, the island beckons; it sings a siren song and many mariners set sail in pursuit of its glories. In mighty warships and tattered rafts they attempt the journey. A few set their feet upon the crystal sand. Most do not.

And those who do, those recipients of aspiration from those of us out on the sea in our tiny, brave ships, they find to their dismay that their stay can not be long, that they too, despite their achievement, must leave as they discover the short term let on their residency. Upon departure they must drink from the river that feeds the ocean, that gives the sea the salt tang of tears.

They too must taste the grief for the island that never was, of hopes unrealised, or truths uncovered. Of dreams dashed. The island of lost things.


Stuck in the Mud

A #teachinghighlight.


When you think of creative dance you don’t always think of children’s playground games.  When you think of ballet you don’t always think of wheelchairs and community involvement.  When I think of funding by the Arts Council galleries or Covent Garden and opera are more likely to spring to mind, not school halls, rapidly swept clear of the detritus of dinners, but there you go.  But there is nothing like getting involved with an artistic project to sweep away some preconceptions and that’s exactly what we did last year.  Children from my school performed in Stuck in the Mud  , an inclusive dance collaboration between GDance and Ballet Cymru.

Rehearsals for the production kicked off at the beginning of term.  GDance sent in a consummate professional to teach the dances to the children and select those who would be dancing key roles.  The enthusiasm for the project was palpable.  The children picked out grew about two feet in as many seconds.  They were treated to lessons in creative dance from someone who really knew what they were doing (I was busy in the background with a notebook, stealing all the good ideas) and the smiles and the sweat were reminiscent of Fame.  They loved it.  I loved it.

As the day of the performance drew nearer the levels of excitement rose, as did the worry.  Would they actually go to an evening performance?  Would they be allowed?  But we needn’t have.  These kids were in for a treat.  In keeping with their status as performers, GDance had hired rooms in a local hotel for costumes and makeup and general screeching.  They got the star treatment, and everything, bar the weather (stair rod rain) went to plan.

Me, because I am not a class teacher, I got to be in the audience.  And better than that, I got to take my own children.  It’s a funny thing, this thing about children.  The children I teach, and the children I bore are fascinated by each other.  They are endlessly curious about my peculiar status: teacher-mother.  Usually I keep work and home separate.  For once, I allowed my two worlds to collide.

Actually, that’s not quite true.  Actually, it was my three worlds.

You see, the dancers weren’t just school children.  The company was composed of community groups (my school) and professionals (Ballet Cymru).  And as if this wasn’t enough, they were not just able bodied, but diverse.  In the wheelchair, out of the wheelchair, with the wheelchair.  They danced on the floor, making sinuous shapes with their bodies.  They danced in and out of ribbons that tied them, from which they slowly escaped.  Tiny dancers were carried gracefully by larger ones.  The audience moved in and out of different rooms, were challenged and profoundly moved by the experience.

One of the most wonderful things for the teacher part of me was seeing the children grow, to seeing them walk taller because of their involvement.  My school serves a culturally diverse, down on its luck part of the city and I recognise those children we read about who complain of tummy ache because they are so hungry.  Many of them experience poverty, both materially and culturally, that I can barely imagine.  To see the look of quiet pride on the face of boy picked to be the leader, to see the excitement on the faces of graceful girls who have promised me they will never stop dancing, to hear them whispering (well, not really whispering) behind the door the audience didn’t go through was a joy and a privilege.

But more than that was the deeper, more powerful lesson; the one the show, Stuck in the Mud was all about.  I saw their preconceptions about people with disabilities challenged, as they looked beyond outside appearance, as they admired people who, previously, they may well have pitied.  I saw them understand that part of being inclusive was understanding that everyone has something to bring to the performance, no matter what our prejudices might tell us.  I saw them begin to understand that they, too, could be set free from their ideas about what it might mean to be marginalised, and I was proud to introduce them to my son.

They didn’t need to be stuck.

This post first appeared here


Inequality, Lord Freud

I’ve been reading an excellent book.  Actually it’s a series of excellent books, and I have been quite transported.  So much so that my husband actually asked me where I had gone last night.  (I was sitting next to him, as it happens.)  I’ve been reading Phillipa Gregory’s series of novels about the wives and daughters of the English monarchs of the 14th and 15th Centuries.  My mother in law tuts, scoffing that the author doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, but I like them.

I know quite a bit about the 14th and 15th Centuries, funnily enough (although not as much as I once did).  Not that I know much about how these people actually lived.  What I know about the clothes they wore or the food they ate comes from my work as a primary school teacher.  No, the thing I know most about is how some ideas have stood the test of time, have come down through the generations, twisted and turned, but still hanging on in there by the skin of their teeth.

The nature of children.  The nature of boys and girls.  Of women.  Of men.  The nature of women’s work.  The role of men and work.  And, a new one for the Elizabethan age, the undeserving, or the feckless poor.  Not that there hadn’t been the poor before, you understand, but, thanks to Henry’s reformation of the church in England and the social change engendered by a growing population, the state now found itself with responsibility for them.  Charity clearly wasn’t enough.

It interests me because this debate is still raging, as we, in our generation, face an equally ever present poor and ever larger tax bills.  And, rather than blaming the system in which we live, a twenty-first century child of those Early Modern artisans, the men and women with the work-hard ethic, the burgeoning market within which they could make their fortune and challenge their status quo, we too have an unfortunate tendency to blame the victims, blame the poor.  They are feckless, we say; drunk and ill-educated.  They must be forced to stand on their own two feet, take responsibility for their actions and understand the benefits of Hard Work and its saving grace.

Apart from the disabled, though.  It would be terribly mean to blame them for their predicament, seeing as we have moved a long way from the idea that their condition must be a result of their, or their parents sinful and licentious living, their parents’ lack of foresight.  Haven’t we.

You won’t find me disagreeing about the importance of work, of finding a role for yourself (and all that as well as getting paid, I mean, what’s not to love?).  My job, ‘Teacher’, is a fundamental part of how I define myself.  When I became a mother I threw myself into that role with equal, if unpaid, enthusiasm.  I doubt that my dad will never retire, and my mum volunteers now that she has.

And when I look at my son, I can almost see the point that Lord Freud, he who makes decisions upon housing and is so inappropriately housed for one in his position, was oh-so-insultingly trying to make.  If we are to accept people with additional needs, whatever they may be, into mainstream society, then we need to offer them the benefits, the dignity, of working for their living too.  And, if we fall down at this most important hurdle, after all that work preparing them for an adult life, all the lessons, all the support, all the money, what does that say about our commitment to an inclusive society?

When he said that some people weren’t worth more than two measly pounds an hour the nation winced.  We want to believe that we are better than that.  We want to believe that there is a place for all of us in our society.  All of those who pay our own way, that is.  All of us who are nice looking, or talented at sport or clever at sums and spellings.  Those of us who can manage on our own without a helping hand, maybe.

So I’m left with a question.  Is inclusion all about pretty children?  The click-bait of the ever present Down’s Baby Story?  Have we gone as far as we can, or want to go, paying lip service on the surface, but falling back on the old idea of who deserves our assistance?  Or are we up for a bigger challenge?

Is it still OK to say that that the team is only as fast as its slowest member, or that the measure of a civilised society is the way it treats its poor, its weak and vulnerable?  Is it still OK to say that we should all be paid a fair days’ wage for a fair days’ work, no matter who does it, male, female, able bodied or with additional needs?   Do we still think it is the job that makes the wage, not the person?

Do we?

The satisfaction of a job well done.