Monthly Archives: February 2016

Grammar School Boy

All of my older immediate relatives went to grammar school. The child of a mother who valued education and forever resented the fact that her schooling ended at 14, my mum was the first of her family to go to such an establishment, followed, nine years later, by her younger brother. We had a chat about it today, over coffee after a rather nice lunch. We talked about our school days, and how they fed into our college days, and the further days, the ones that followed; our formative years.

I know nothing of grammar school. Child of the 70s, I went to a comprehensive, an all-together school that the children of the valley, squeezed into overlarge coaches, attended. Nine miles down the road, my school was as far from her experience as my mother’s was from mine. Despite my romantic desires, I didn’t study Latin (instead, I listened with fascination while my parents laughed over their hazy recollections of the verb to Love), neither did I learn about the dates of kings and queens, or U-shaped glacial valleys. (I did, however, learn to be terrified of forges – sensible for one of my talents – and how to mix colours from a tray of powder paints, as well as how to avoid dissecting an eye or holding a locust.)

My dad went to a grammar school too, although he never talks much about it, other than the fact that he had to be in the cadets, a requirement he deeply resented, and that the uniform was scratchy. If you forgot it, you would have to drag a grass roller around the edge of the field in punishment; he told me once, with a glint in his eye, that it gave him pleasure to indulge in the small rebellion of making sure that, on the days he had to wear it, it was as crumpled as it was possible to be.

My mother and uncle though; their recollections are different. They speak, not of subtle rebellion, but of social isolation. The children of working class parents, they, like me, travelled on the bus to school, but, unlike me, not with their peers, but away from them. They found themselves, by going to the posh school, abandoned by their primary friends, no longer welcome in the street games of cricket or pom pom one-two-three, and yet, on the other hand, different from their class mates. A single visit home to play enough to convince them that they had nothing in common with them either. Neither fish nor fowl.

It’s funny, but despite my lack of a classical education, I have an inkling of what it means to be the social outcast at school, how uncomfortable it is to be learning outside of your tribe. A bookish girl of professional parents, no accent, no desire to sit back and let the boys take over – these things did not a comfortable schooling make. I may have given in to the pressure to buy the white stilletos, but I never wore them, and slid my protesting feet into my Doctor Martens with relief, as soon as I discovered them.

It’s one of the reasons we sent Sam to his special school, I suppose; the desire to help him find a meaningful peer group. When I see him enjoying a game of ten pin bowling with his mates, or getting into trouble over a joint game of shoe throwing, I know we made the right decision. So much of his success at school can be laid at the door of contentment and friendship.

I read such an interesting report yesterday, about the interconnections between poverty and SEND. I even told my dad all about it on the phone this morning, in preference to doing the ironing (if you tuck an iPhone under your ear while ironing you either compound the crick in your neck or you cut yourself off with Ear Power). We had quite a conversation.

But I have to admit that I remain in a state of, if not confusion, then disquiet, at the idea that children from poverty stricken backgrounds don’t have the same access to good schools and those from more well-to-do families. While this may be true on the outside, and a cursory reading of Ofsted reports, based as they are on the attainment of pupils, may well tell this story, I know that there is another, more complicated one.

You see, I used to think that we lived in a meritocracy. I used to think that it was only the knowledge that mattered, that it was that that deemed success. I didn’t think that who you knew mattered, or, in the words of my uncle, the bandana wearing working class boy (echoed in my teenaged years by my dad, when we discussed the thorny issue of boyfriends), that the fact you could wear an afghan coat with confidence, and that you believed the world was yours for the taking because you had been told that by everyone you ever knew since before you went to school, that the possibilities brought on by privilege made a difference.

Every child should be able to go to their local school and know that it is good. Every child should be able to be educated without the social isolation that plucking a child out of poverty (or their community) and placing them away from their peers brings, turning them into a creature that their friends don’t recognise. Every child should be able to be educated in such a way that they not only have access to the things, the stuff of books and numbers, the art and the craft of good teachers, but so that they fit too.

Inclusion.  It’s a funny old thing, really.  It makes you think.

 

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#NeD16

When I was 18 I was going to be in a band. I was going to be famous. Actually, I was in a band for a while (I was neither rich or famous) and my parents were horrified. I, on the other hand, had a blast. I was taken under the wing of some talented post-graduate students and enjoyed myself hugely – but it didn’t last. Before long, they were off to higher things, and I went in a different direction.

I still enjoyed the singing. I bought a guitar and taught myself to play it. In my free time, I lala-ed away to myself, writing songs made out of chords I could do (mostly G, C and D), figured out covers by playing-and-pausing my tapes over and over. It was, though, a private endeavour. Publicly, I turned my attention away; rather than taking to the stage, I stepped off it, learning instead about room bookings, staging, PA hire and publicity.

Not that I’m saying that NetworkEd2106 was anything like a gig, or me like some sort of impresario/student leader of a band society, but there was something about it that brought back a rush of fond memories.

Maybe it was the setting. Maybe there was something about it taking place in a university that kicked them off – I don’t know. The Park Campus is a bit more glamourous than the Langwith Corridor of my student past. For a start, the walls weren’t plastered with anything that didn’t suggest the serious nature of the study taking place therein. No hastily made, hand drawn photocopies here, detailing the latest offering at the Drama Barn or down at the Spotted Cow; we had beautiful programmes designed by the design magicians at Schools Week, who sponsored the event.

Spotty students were nowhere in evidence (although the curtains to their bedrooms were reassuringly closed when I got there at 8:20am – thank you to Simon Knight and to Andrew Hunter from OUP for your help in unloading a shed load of Twinkl covered mugs – thank you Twinkl – and Teach Primary and Teach Secondary magazines – thank you Maze Media – proving that things might change a lot in universities, but some things remain the same); instead, the hallowed halls and ivory towers of the University of Gloucestershire were populated by teachers from across the sectors, from EYFS to FE, mainstream and special, to meet, discuss, question and debate – and think about the things that draw us together as a profession, as well as the issues that drive us apart.

The speakers were impressive. Sue Cowley spoke with passion about the work she does in EYFS – and how the fact that she is a volunteer changes the balance of power between the setting and the inspection system. You could have heard a pin drop while Rob Webster told us the other story to the DISS Report; the way that it was reported, and how bad policy decisions have been taken on the back of half understood banner headlines. Martin Robinson caused hackles to rise even as he entranced us all with his appeal for truth and beauty in an age of measurement. We ran out of time and delegates took to Twitter to pose their tricky questions in return. The panel debate drew an impressive consensus as the values which underpin what we do were discussed, and their relationship to research – and the research which drives policy decisions. The head met – and conversed with – the heart.

Smaller presentations running in the style of Teach Meets allowed people to choose whichever strand they were interested in. The leadership room, led by Jules Daulby and Keziah Featherstone (the one I was chairing), was alight with ideas, with problem solvers who looked at the challenges of school leadership straight in the eye and said, ‘This Must Change’ to allow more talented people to use their talents in ways that don’t destroy their family – both men and women.

Simon Knight and Ben Davison held the Teaching and Learning room in thrall (I was a bit jealous I wasn’t there, I must admit) (they were the ones who were late for lunch) while they talked about what differentiation and planning from the needs of the child actually means, while not boring them to death with a mastery curriculum. The attendees of the Research room, led by Caroline Creaby, Sonia Dines and Michelle Haywood had grins on their faces a mile wide – I wasn’t there, but I could see them bouncing around the auditorium later in the afternoon. (I will put links up to presentations and other blogs referring to the event on the NetworkEd2016 website as they come in.)

But for me, it was the outside spaces, the informal moments when people connected, shared the reality of what they were doing, that made my day. Standing slightly to one side, watching, making sure that everything ran smoothly, that everyone had a good time – it took me right back. I’ve always enjoyed facilitating other people’s talent. Maybe that’s what I like most about teaching. I take the stage at the front of the private world of the classroom, but when the private becomes public, when the children take the limelight, I’m more than happy to renounce my place. To bathe in the glow of their reflected glory.

We don’t want yesterday to be the one and only – we plan to be back, not necessarily bigger, but certainly better, in the future. The format, the blend of the formal and informal, seemed to work. The ideas and discussion – combined with the coffee, biscuits nice sandwiches (which could certainly be improved on by the introduction of cake) and a great venue is a winning combination. If you would like a regional event of your own, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

 

The Laddered Trap

I’m not really a big fan of hierarchies. I got quite out of the way of them when I was on my extended maternity leave. One minute, there I was, coffee and tea (or water in my case as I don’t really do hot drinks) in all sorts of houses, from the smallest terrace to the largest country home, cackling over the levellers that are birth and breast, and then, suddenly, a step back into the workplace and all is rigid, strictly defined; stepped. The difference is harsh, and confusing. I’ve never really got used to it.

In education, hierarchy is everywhere you look. It reaches deep into the bones of the school and it defines us, from the headteacher to the dinner lady, from third year finals to EYFS. Even knowledge itself is ranked according to its qualities, with subjects classified as hard and soft, and, in our time, dispassionate reason stands at first place.

Right now, like the Ancient Greeks, we are in love with Reason and the realm of ideas. It fires you up, the workings of the brain lifts you to the spiritual sphere. With it you can debate, move the knowledge it underpins on. Reason, and its close partner objectivity, stand at the gates to truth.

Emotion, on the other hand is such a loaded thing, so chaotic, so subjective. It shuts down debate and is painted in terms of opposites; earth to spirit, water to fire, female to male. Easily dismissed as not being relevant, or clouding judgement, emotion lurks underneath, one step above or away from instinct. It is the enemy of the tick box or the check sheet; the success criteria. ‘What works’ means reason and research; head, not heart.

Yet we teachers exist in a constant state of tension between the realms of knowledge. As members of an academic body we care deeply about the things we teach – and at the same time, we worry about the wellbeing of our charges, and guard our right to do so fiercely. We are, after all, in loco parentis. But when it comes to it, we dislike the idea that parents should have a say in policy or practice. Why should Mumsnet be going to the Department for Education, we ask? Why them and not us?

Parents and their emotions are the last people who should be making educational decisions, we mutter between ourselves in whispered conversations. They don’t get it, they can’t see how difficult it is, their judgement is clouded, they are over emotional, too close, hysterical; too female.  They don’t see it the way we do.  How easily we dismiss them and their subjectivity.

I do wonder whether it isn’t something to do with the hierarchies between different kinds of knowledge.  My knowledge of children and special needs didn’t come from the pages of books or the journals that sit in academic libraries (although I know that my experience is echoed there). It isn’t guarded by academes.  Anyone, from whatever kind of hierarchy you care to mention, can acquire it – although in many ways, when it comes, it does so randomly and through the chaos of life itself.  Like birth or death, there is little, if any, control over its caprice.

Maybe that’s why we don’t like it, we look at it with distrust. Maybe that’s why we put emotional knowledge, our reactions and intuitions, those based on experience and the heart, at the bottom of the heap. In the same way that Aphrodite roamed the world causing all sorts of trouble, Athena, her sexless sister and goddess of wisdom, born not in the way of blood and tears, but leaping instead, fully formed, from her father’s head, did not.  Two sisters; competitive and jealous. Powerful.

Perhaps we who are not goddesses but who find ourselves, despite our frail attempts, tossed on the spume spray of the sea as much as the ancients ever were, could turn the story of centuries around and escape the laddered trap.

I would like that.

On Writing

For years, I was going to be a novelist. I was going to be a writer of stories (and possibly a pop star or ice skater, while I was at it), make my fortune, have a swimming pool; all the things that writers do, in fact. The thing that I didn’t appreciate, when I was making my plans though, was quite how difficult it is. Writing.

The thing that’s so hard, you see, is coming up with a story. One of the nicest things to happen to me, in terms of writing novels, was the email a publisher took the time to write (to say thanks but no thanks) and softened the blow of rejection by telling me she thought my novel was well written with a clear authorial voice. It meant a lot. It meant that I knew what I was doing with a keyboard.

But it turns out that coming up with a good story is the difficult bit. It turns out that that’s the bit that stumps me every time. I start out with an idea, it seems great, I start to write and it, well, fizzles out. It turns out that it wasn’t so original or funny after all. Nothing special, in fact. Nothing to write home about (or win a novelist’s contract). It turns out I wasn’t (or aren’t yet!) a novelist. It turns out I have a different sort of story to tell.

Whereas I sat and stared and swung on my chair and squeezed out a thousand words if I was lucky when I was writing romances, when I write this blog, or write my column, or when I wrote my book last summer, the words flew off my fingers and onto the page (or screen). They pour out in one long stream.

Of course, this might be because the process of writing something completely new is extraordinarily difficult. Now, I happen to like reading light romance, particularly comic fiction or historical whodunnits. I will probably be pilloried for my taste, but, frankly, I don’t care. What does make me cross, however, is when these genres are poo-pooed as somehow less worthy than more serious work, as if the light touch is somehow easier to do. It’s not.

Of course, it does help that I have the nuts and bolts of writing pretty well under control (although my mum does still criticise my grammar). It’s true when they say that practice makes perfect. After a summer of book writing, it was far easier to come up with a blog post than it was in the spring (even though I didn’t have time for more than the odd hundred words, here or there), but what really makes the difference is that I have something to write about.

Now, if you don’t mind my saying so, this is where I get really cross with the likes of education ministers. I noticed, over my porridge the other day, that they were in the news again, pontificating about standards in schools. Mr Gibb decided, in his wisdom, to attack teachers on Monday, in a speech he gave at Durham University, reported in a national newspaper no less. Apparently, we are teaching ‘joyless skills’ and not the wonders of science or art or anything interesting like that.

It’s at moments like this that I want to sigh deeply. You see, in a strange kind of way I agree with Mr Gibb. Children, like adults, need something to write about in order to use the skills they have learned. There’s nothing like writing up a real science experiment, or an account of a school trip (yes, we still do those), to lend purpose and meaning to a written task. I only have to look at Sam’s shopping lists and menus, pinned up in the kitchen, to know the power of purpose in terms of motivation and voice.

But let’s look at the standard of writing expected of 11 year olds in England. The exemplifications came out this week. Comparisons were made with the English GCSE. I sigh, and I wonder how many people know just what it takes to get an eleven year old child to write in the style of someone three years older than they are? I wonder if they know how many school hours it takes to get them to perform this way; to know what a semi-colon is, and how to use it? To use and understand an extended noun phrase? To write in clear paragraphs, with links and cohesion? Believe you me, it takes a long time, and a lot of hard work on everyone’s part.

And while we are going over and over and over the mechanics of writing, guess what we don’t have any time to do, other than in the most cursory way? All that science and art and music and history and geography – all of which might actually give children something to write about, rather than expecting them to somehow pick content out of the air.

A knowledge rich curriculum? Maybe if the skills of the writer weren’t so high up on the list of checks and measures, making sure that we were doing our jobs, then that might have been what we actually had. In the meantime, what you measure is what you get, and you can look to yourself for that, Mr Gibb.

Lazy Bones

My dad always used to call me lazy. It was not an epithet I particularly enjoyed, but, given my love of staying in bed in the mornings, either sleeping or reading, I can see that I must have driven him potty, him being a morning person and all, and me being a lover of books and all things sendentary.

Laziness is a term we teachers bandy about a lot. Teachers who download plans from the internet – lazy. Teachers who don’t mark books – lazy. Teachers who don’t differentiate their lessons a bajillion ways – lazy. Ones who arrive at school after 7:30 in the morning – definitely lazy. And as well as applying the descriptor to ourselves, we regularly use the term to describe a selection of children in our classes.

You know the ones I mean. You’ve worked with them a while and you feel you have got a rough sort of handle on their capabilities, and, somehow, they aren’t living up to them. When we meet them, they seem just the sort of child who’s going to get on well, but, somehow, they don’t.

After a while we begin to notice things about them. They always seem to be chatting. Or looking out of the window. Fiddling or sharpening pencils. Going to the toilet, or fetching a tissue. Anything, in fact, other than what they are supposed to be doing. We’ve met them many times before. What they need to do is pull their socks up and knuckle down, but they don’t. Lazy. They never make a fuss about not doing any work, they just quietly, consistently don’t seem to do it.

It all seems so simple, when you put it like that. Except, that is, when it is applied to your own child. The first time it happened was when Sam was at primary school. It was in a school report. I was, fairly predictably, cross.

The thing is though, that it never seems worth bringing it up at the end of the year. You forget that teachers talk to each other, that reputations are made in staff rooms and that they cross the years. While I may have ranted away to the kitchen window whilst doing the washing up or muttered under my breath in an irritated way, I never thought to challenge the idea that my Sam, my boy for whom existing in the mainstream environment of a busy primary school was a challenge in itself, was lazy.

Back then, I didn’t realise that my view, my understanding of my child and their learning was worth bringing to the attention of the teacher. I forgot that teachers, even though they know a lot, don’t know it all, and that I, when I am the one standing at the front, am just as bad at jumping to conclusions.

I forgot that, as teacher, I wasn’t witness to all those moments that show you so clearly their attitude to learning. The way that one child was so determined to move under their own steam, to crawl, to walk, to run (off) that there was nothing that was going to get in their way. How a fall and a bump slowed another one down, as the painful consequences of trying that thing that was just beyond their reach became apparent and something to be feared.

As the person at the front of a junior class I never saw the way that some bits of knowledge seem to fly into some heads, and knock on the door for ages before gaining admittance into others, and I certainly didn’t know how they might feel about that, about how these early experiences might affect a child’s willingness to give new learning, new difficult learning, a go.

I think about them, the little ones who didn’t really like trying, peeping like snails from under their shells, and I remind myself of my own children, and the knowledge I have of them, that they might not be lazy so much as scared or tired or frustrated or hungry, and that for each of these barriers to learning there is a different solution, and that it requires some detective work to find it.