Monthly Archives: November 2015

Power Chords

I had one of those unexpectedly lovely moments the other day, in the midst of the school run. This is not to say that my life isn’t regularly punctuated by shafts of brightness, not at all, rather that it is the school run itself that is rarely a cause for celebration.  My school-week mornings, without exception, operate on a whirlwind schedule; I generally arrive at work in a sort of state of sweaty flap, and on my days off it takes me at least two hours, a couple of chocolate biscuits and a comatose stare at my smart phone before I feel remotely recovered.  On Thursday, however, right in the moment when I knew that me and L were going to be not only late but spectacularly so, despite our best efforts, something rather lovely happened.

Not that us being late on a Thursday (or at least not rushing about, shouting at the children) is in any way unusual.  For a start, it’s my day off, and there’s nothing like the concept to have you exiting your bed with slug-like similarity.  I lie there hitting the snooze button at least three times, telling myself that because I don’t have to get ready for work there are at least twenty extra minutes on offer, and every week I am confounded.

Thursday is music lesson day you see, for my boys at least, and, as well as all the other things we do in the morning, the showers, the breakfast, the washing up and the putting away, the teeth,  the hair, the turning off of the youtube, the packing of packed lunches, the checking of the correct books in the school bags and sending in of reply slips and signing homework diaries we must pack a violin and a guitar and their various bits of music and notebooks.  You wouldn’t think that a couple of musical instruments added in to the general morning melee would make such a difference, but there you are.

The guitar lessons are a new thing for Sam.  A has been learning the violin (slowly) since Year 4, but Sam, despite bringing letters home from school since he started there, is a new student.  At first, when he brought them home I filed them straight into the bin, assuming that they were a circular sent to all of the children.  Sam, despite appreciating music to a great degree is not what you might call a ‘natural musician’ so I thought no more of it.  Until they started to come with more frequency, and he started putting them on top of my dinner, making sure that I would read and inwardly digest.  In the end, despite our misgivings about his suitability for the instrument, we caved.

The husband took him off to the guitar shop, armed with instructions on what sort of instrument to purchase, and they returned guitar in hand, the husband rather fuller of tales of Fenders and electro-acoustics than expected.  The day of the first lesson, we cycled up to school, his little guitar inside my massive carrying case.  That day he walked out of school taller, and more proud than he ever has before.  He practices away (with reminders), and we haven’t a clue whether he is doing what he is supposed to or not (R and I are both self-taught), but he takes it very seriously.

And last Thursday, while I was hurrying him through the front door to school, as I turned to go and chivvy L back down the path to her own place of education, it happened.  I met Sam’s guitar teacher.

When your child learns an instrument at school you don’t get to meet their teachers very often.  It’s usually at some sort of concert that you see them, and on those occasions they are busy; they sweat as they herd nervous performers into different positions, they look at the time and count and conduct.  After years of producing concerts of my own I know that they haven’t really got time to talk to people like me who want to thank them for their time, for their commitment to my child.

And that’s what I did on Thursday morning.  I tried to express, no doubt far too clumsily, that I knew that Sam was never going to make it to the Albert Hall.  He isn’t going to be up on stage in a competition, but when it comes down to it, we don’t care.  That for him, and for our other children, and indeed for many other children up and down the country, learning to play an instrument is about more than the music itself.

It’s about learning the power of practice, and how, when it all feels like it’s really hard and you’re really stuck and you’ll never get it right, a little bit of practice every day makes the difference.  It’s about learning that if you stick at something, results will happen.  Eventually.  It’s about forging new neural pathways, the pleasure of learning something new.  It’s about coming out of school with that guitar case on your back, your little chest puffed out because you are doing something you think is important; you are getting the chance to experience what you have watched others do for ever so long.  It’s about that relationship with a teacher that is so precious and so special; the shared joy and interest in something that makes both hearts beat quicker, both hearts sing.

And, when I think about it, when I follow this train of thought, it’s about learning that nothing is ever perfect.  It’s about bum notes and learning how to recover from them, in practice or performance.  It’s about knowing that everyone has to start somewhere, and we all start at the beginning.  It’s about the realisation that the perfect sounds you can get out of technology or recordings, just like the printouts we are so keen to hang on our classroom walls, are fake and mechanisitic; like photoshopped pictures of celebrities they give us unrealistic excpectations of who we should be, of what we should be able to do.  It is about learning that music, and making music with a real instrument, is like us – human – and getting it right is hard.

It’s about putting the power in his hands.

 

Hoist by my own Petard

Sometimes I feel really sorry for my mum.  She is sorely tried by having me as her daughter.  Not only does she regularly step in to help me with my ironing, or to find things, or to pick one of the children up because I have failed to appreciate the fact that I am supposed to be in two places at the same time, but she has been saving my bacon for some considerable time.

Actually, I feel sorry (sometimes) for both of my parents. They have seen me through teenaged angst (why is my hair so curly?), teenaged clothes (what do you think you look like in that?) rants (all ages, these have yet to abate, although the subjects of my ire changes fairly regularly) and various stages of poor organisation.

There was always something I was forgetting when I was growing up.  Mostly it was PE kits (the torture of having to wear spare kit was never quite enough to help me to remember).  Sometimes it was homework (although I generally managed to get it in – just – in time; when questioned my dad confirmed that I probably had done it sitting on the end of my unmade bed), but by far the most exasperating, to my mother at least, was cooking ingredients.

I was quite excited about cookery lessons.  My sister, two years older than me, loved them, and she would regale us at the tea table on what she had learned about such fascinating subjects as bacteria and albumen.  She brought home dishes she had cooked and we ate them with great ceremony, and every so often, fruit cobbler was one of these that springs to mind most easily, made with some sort of 80s tinned cherry pie filling, a recipe she had learned at school made it into my mum’s repertoire.

She used to hum away happily in the kitchen (except for the day she made éclairs; as a family we rather wisely went out for a walk and returned to find her, looking somewhat ghostly, in a kitchen visible only through a film of flour, or the time our mum went away and our grandma came to stay and she made quiche and our dad ate all the cheese there was in the house which she had somewhat unwisely left grated and unattended for a matter of moments) chatting away to our mum while she filled a sort of red-riding-hood basket with ingredients.  Mum had made an embroidery anglaise cover for it.

When it was my turn, however, it took on a different hue.  The basket was big and clumsy and got in the way.  (What did she do with all day?  Surely she didn’t lug it around everywhere.  I must ask her.)  There was never any time to do the washing up without missing some of your break.  You had to stand mournfully at the sink, your hands in luke warm water, making sure you stacked the clean things the Correct Way, while you watched everyone else out of the window, eating their crisps and getting their full fifteen minutes.

And the recipes.  I never got to make fruit cobbler.  I never got to make meat stew that I brought home in a flask because of the bacteria.  My dad manfully ate my bananas in custard (cold)(brown), but I could tell he wasn’t very keen.

Whether or not I actually had the right ingredients was always a bit hit and miss.  Not for me the gentle chat over the kitchen table, lovingly placing every packet and tin into the hallowed basket, no (my ingredients never stayed standing up anyway).  Instead, it was the whirlwind.  The rapid slap of butter and lard into greaseproof paper bags (it’s fat, it’s the principle Nancy), while I wailed about the fact that what I was given was not what was specified on the list.

Ah, how it all comes back to haunt me.  As I scrabble around on a Friday morning, examining my empty cupboards with thinly (ie not at all) veiled patience, I know how she must have felt.  I know mummies are supposed to be all powerful and all knowing and all, but the presentation of the list of required ingredients/equipment/costumes/cakes/cash on the very morning such things are required, or just as they are going to bed and after the shops have shut, is enough to try the patience of anyone.

When it comes to cookery lessons I much prefer the way Sam’s school do it.  They tell me how much I have to pay, I do and that’s it.  They even take him shopping.  Much better.  Much less capacity for disaster.

I learned how to cook eventually.
I learned how to cook eventually.

 

Speak Truth to Power part two

So, having declared that I don’t really do details, here’s part two.  I seem to have come up with a few.  If you have anything to add, please so so in the comments.

SENCOs

These people need to be on SLT in a school.  That needs to be added to the Code.  I am also concerned that the people responsible for co-ordinating SEND in post-16 colleges do not need to be teachers.  It isn’t a purely administrative post.

Funding

It seems to me that there ought to be some rules, based on agreed good practise, around about how the funding for SEND can be spent, and some sort of scrutiny from someone that it is having the desired effect.  It seems clear that just spending the money on a 1-1 TA isn’t the answer, and neither is putting the money into one big melting pot.  There is too much misunderstanding of what it is that children and young people actually need and how to go about it.  Or too much half understanding, and too much writing things down on digital paper so that you can be seen to be doing the right thing even if reality says different.

Training

This needs to be looked at wholesale.  We have an inclusive system.  Whatever we think about that we have got to the stage where we know that just putting vulnerable kids in mainstream settings isn’t exactly the end of the story, and we need to make sure that all of our teachers – and indeed all of the people who work in schools, from the secretary to the caretaker – have the knowledge to help them do their jobs in the school community.

For a start we need there to be more than a passing nod to SEND when trainee teachers are learning how to do the job.  Teaching children with SEND is the most difficult and challenging part of our job (in my view), it’s worth spending time going over the main areas at the very least.  I would suggest spending some time at a special school local to them, as well as really good training on reading and ‘what to do when things go wrong’.  I would also strongly suggest that there is specific training on working with parents as well as how to work with TAs and other professionals.

Teachers need to be aware of their legal responsibilities as far as SEND is concerned, as, at present, I’m not sure that all of them do.  I might be tempted to insist that a part of any INSET programme is devoted to SEND and what teachers can do at classroom level.

TAs

Where to start here?  Some unified standards and proper training and qualifications would be nice.  Oh.

School organisation

I have learned that there are some children who do not fare very well in mainstream education.  They are just too vulnerable, and their needs are too great.  I know this because one of them lives in my house.  He is my son.  However, while he is incredibly fortunate that he lives in a town where there is a special alternative that suits his needs, I know that this is not the case for many vulnerable children.  This needs looking at.

All our young people need and deserve an education, so we need to look at how this can be achieved.  Not all special schools are the same, and just because there is a special school nearby it does not automatically mean that a child with a specific need will fit in there.

Communication

Until I became a parent and my children started at school I didn’t really understand how spectacularly bad schools are at communicating with parents.  And now that I’m thinking about the national picture I can see that this lack of communication is system wide.  Teachers get stuck in next door classrooms.  Schools in the same town have little clue about what is going on in their neighbourhood, or the head teachers might, but not the teachers.  And special needs provision is much the same.  Do mainstream schools know what their special counterparts are up to and vice versa?  Are there mechanisms for sharing good and bad news?

I think it would be really useful to research who are the gatekeepers for information about SEND in our schools.  Who gets the emails?  Who gets the circulars?  How does information sharing – or not sharing – work?  If we know this, then we can have a look at how to make it better and make changes.

Research needs to be much more widely disseminated – we need to look at how to do that effectively too.

Leadership

Oh, where to start with this one?  We need school leaders who are committed to SEND and making schools a great place for all.  Where they lead, other people will follow.  But to be honest, I’m not sure that it is very wise to wait until those leaders appear out of the ether.  Training for school leaders needs to include SEND, and we need to give people time to talk around the issues.  SEND is an emotional minefield, and people need this reflection time on a subject that touches us all deeply.

All teachers are leaders – in fact anyone who works in a school is –  and they need training not just in how to work with children and young people, but adults too.  I hadn’t the first clue, when I started teaching at age 22, about how to work with a TA, and over twenty years later there is a positively astronomical number of them in our schools.  Training for teachers in their responsibilities towards TAs and what they are and aren’t expected to do would be very useful.

If schools are being badly led as far as SEND is concerned, what do we do to highlight it?  In fact, if this is the case generally, where do teachers turn?   Help us do better.

Thanks for reading.

Speak Truth to Power part one

Now that I’m back at home from my visits to London, I’ve had a little while to think about where we go from here as far as education and SEND is concerned.  I thought, being as I have a dual investment, as it were, in its success, that I’d put some ideas down on paper, get some discussion going, that sort of thing.

We all know – or those of us with an interest in the area anyway – that there is too little good practice going on that is shared, and that too few people know about it.  Too few people feel they can change what goes on, even when they do know about alternatives.  It is my personal view, backed up with nothing better than a hunch, that many of the people with good ideas – the people who actually carry them out – are too far down the hierarchical pecking order to get their voices heard.  Patchy is the word that is bandied about.

We all know that, in the field of special educational needs and/or disabilities, the consequences of getting it wrong are very great for the children concerned.  There is, as the lady said, a moral imperative in the work that we do.  So let’s put the arguments behind us and work together to get it right.

 

I’ve had a bit of a think and I’ve arranged my thoughts into themes, from the general to the particular.  I’m very good at big picture stuff, but not so hot on things like details, so don’t expect to see too many of them here – if you have any good ones, add them to the comments below.  Because I’ve had many, many thoughts, I shall split them into a couple of posts.

 

National Government

In my view (and if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you will know this already) the government in the form of the Department for Education, needs to look at the purpose of education and whether the system we have is fit for it.

Personally, if the purpose is to fit all of our young people out with the skills and knowledge they are going to need in order to live an independent life as possible, I don’t think we are doing very well.  There are pockets of greatness, yes, but pockets are not what we are after, are we?

We have got to a situation where Education is serving itself, rather than the children, and we have an almighty job on our hands to change the prevailing culture.  Success comes in many forms, and so does accountability, so that really needs to be looked at.

League tables and end of school examinations and accreditations need to be changed.  Alternative forms of accountability need to be considered, and exams/accreditations that allow children and young people with SEND to show what they know in positive way need to be found and celebrated.

If you’ve got any ideas about how we could go about making the system of accountability and exams better, I’d be grateful if you could add them to the comments.

 

The role of inspection

I wrote to Mr Harford last month about what I would like him to inspect as far as services for children and young people with SEND are concerned, and I agree with many that there is an important role that Ofsted can play as far as ensuring people are getting their best start.  However, it also seems to me that Ofsted has a lot to answer for for instilling a culture of fear in our schools, and fear is bad for learning and bad for SEND.  So, we need to know that inspectors will look at all sorts of data, the qualitative and the quantitative, when they are making their judgements, and have in mind the most vulnerable as well as the brightest and the best.  We need them to challenge the tick box culture that is strangling education.  We need to believe that this is what they will do.

If a school isn’t doing as well as it might with their vulnerable kids, what are Ofsted going to do about it?  Is there a way where they can help, rather than simply pronounce judgements?

As an aside, I think it would be enormously helpful if the four categories were abolished and sent to the bottom of the ocean in a concrete overcoat.  Either a school is a good school or it isn’t.  That’s all we need to know, frankly, and the same goes for teachers.  Anything else just encourages window dressing.

 

 

We need co-operation and collegiate working, not competition.  Teachers in different schools need to be able to meet together.  Training needs to be improved, inspection simplified, and flexible provision ensured.  Above all, we need a culture change.   We need to stop seeing children with SEND in a medicalised way.

Thanks for reading.  Please do contribute your ideas in the comments.