Monthly Archives: March 2016

Top Tips for TAs

The message is slowly getting out there (this link leads to Maximising TAs, led by the excellent Rob Webster) throwing a TA at a child/group of children is not the best way to get the best out of the situation, either for the adult OR for the child. Deployment (as well as the individual skills of the TA concerned, and the needs of the child/children) is the name of the game, and was the subject of my workshop at Primary Rocks Live.

If I allowed myself, I could easily talk for the entire length of any slot I am given, so, aware that we teachers like to get our own points in – and that there are plenty more experiences than mine to share – I gave over my time to other people, and gathered together their ideas for how to get the best out of TAs in the interests of the children they support, which is mostly, those children with SEND, which I promised I would write up here.

We had intended to discuss how the class teacher could deploy their TA, but the advice was so good on a whole school level, that I promised that I would add in some of my ideas that I outline in my book (out in May), which is for written for class teachers, as opposed to school leaders.

Before I start, however, I want to re-iterate what I seemed to keep repeating a couple of Saturdays ago – the entire education system runs on good will (every teacher spends their own money and time on the job itself), but we need to remember that TAs are paid a fraction of a teacher’s wage (and many of them are teachers who have taken a step back from running the classroom, for a multitude of reasons) and we must be mindful of that, and not exploit them.

So. For school leaders, here are our top tips for the deployment of TAs:

• Make sure that everyone is on board with the school vision for children with SEND. It may seem like a no-brainer, but it never does anyone any harm to go back to first principles and consider what they are doing the job for, and whether or not they are working in the same direction as their colleagues. Don’t forget to include TAs in these discussions, and remember to do them again and again, especially as staff move in and out of the school. Thanks to Michael Tidd.

• Timetabling meetings between teachers and support staff. This is the one that I hear the most and was echoed in the workshop. It’s an incredibly difficult task to take a group of children and ‘just go through blah blah blah with them’ without any prior discussion. If this happens, then getting the best out of the support won’t happen. Simple as. Thanks to Jane Manzone.

• When we talked about meetings, the very excellent Lynn McCann reminded us that our very youngest colleagues would benefit from a structure for any planning meetings being given to them from more senior staff. When you train as a teacher, no one discusses how to work with adults (or they didn’t when I was training, anyway), and deploying an adult who may well be the longest standing member of staff can be intimidating. Doing what we can to support our young colleagues as they enter the profession is time well spent.

• I may have spent some time talking about thinking about where TAs were working with children. Richard Farrow’s comment on the impact of the classroom environment certainly chimed with a lot of my thinking on the issue. We questioned the wisdom of sending the most distractable and challenging children to work in the most distracting environments and with the least qualified people.

• Many thanks to Cherryl and Nichola for giving their expertise from the special school perspective. They reminded us that we work closely with TAs, and when we are writing short term targets, working closely with them is essential. TAs can give us valuable insights and we need to pick their brains and work with them when setting targets.

• We also discussed the training that TAs may or may not have received over the course of the time they have been working in the school. The role in its current widespread form is still relatively new – and yet the TA may well be the longest serving member of staff on the team. She (and it is most likely that she is a she) may well have started out as a mum helper in the late 90s/early 00s, when she thought her role was going to be putting up displays and washing the paint pots. Finding out about her and her expertise, and her life before TA-ing is worth doing, for everyone’s job satisfaction.

Thank you to everyone who contributed – you know who you are.

So, on to my book. It’s written primarily for new class teachers wanting to work in as inclusive a way as possible (hence the title!), and, as the support for included children most often comes in the form of the TA, I spend some time on how class teachers can manage the dynamics. Clearly, I want you all to rush off and buy the book, so I will limit myself to general principles or we shall be here all night.

• When a TA is assigned to work 1-1 with a child, it can be that she feels she is not doing her job properly or earning her money if she steps away from the child and doesn’t offer them constant assistance. We all know that children need to learn to be independent, so, to help her feel that she is not wasting tax payer’s money or getting money for old rope, the class teacher needs to have some alternative work for her to do, while the child is either working with the teacher or on their own. We all like a bit of laminating, don’t we? There’s always extra resources that need making, aren’t there?

• Do take some time to chat and to get to know each other. You never know what skills you will unearth.

• Don’t expect communication to happen by magic. If you don’t have time to chat, try out a notebook for jobs/comments/observations.

• If it’s a class TA, don’t always send her out with the children who need more support. Do give her the highest attainers for a change. Or take the more needy ones yourself.

I’m sure there is more to add – so if that’s you, please do in the comments.

When we work together, we are more powerful. Teaching is a collegiate thing, after all.

The Voice of the Teacher #PrimaryRocks 2

There are times when I have been grateful for the fact that I possess a Teacher Voice. Like when I am attempting to corral my children from a large play park, or silence a tea time contretemps. My sister-in-law has an even more impressive one, seeing as she is a secondary school teacher; she can stop random teenagers in their tracks at 50 paces. It’s a skill.

It’s not something that I am used to hearing much, outside of the day job, though. Chatting with your mates after the school run (we have a street corner where we put the world to rights) isn’t the place to get the Teacher Voice out (not unless you wish to terrify the little old man who is passing by and force him to totter into the path of oncoming traffic, that is). Last week, however, at Primary Rocks Live, I was surrounded by them.

There’s something about the voice of a primary school teacher. I never used to think I had it (I used to think I was just me), until I heard myself recorded one afternoon. We were doing a character hot-seating activity (you know, the one where volunteers volunteer to sit on a chair at the front and answer questions as if they were a character in whatever it was you were learning about), and there it was, Teacher Voice. Calm. Interested. Controlled enthusiasm. Reassurance. A voice that is enriched by relationship.

Richard Farrow (who said, yes, children’s work should be on display in their classrooms) has it. Jonny Walker and Krysta Parsons (who understand that children live in little hermetically sealed worlds, punctuated by home and school and who have worked together to break down those barriers of ignorance) have it. Claire Bracher (who understands that, in order for all the children to learn stuff, they need to feel safe – and how to go about making them feel that way) has it. Meeting these teachers, talking to them, hearing that voice, that voice of understanding of young children, did me the world of good.

Sometimes, with all the chatter around Education, all the policy making, all the talk of floor standards and targets, standards and results, sometimes I feel that we (by which I mean the wider ‘we’ – when you’re in that classroom with those children, the last thing you do is lose touch with reality) have lost sight of what it is that we actually do. Some of us work with the children of the privileged. Some of us work with the vulnerable and poor. Some of us work with academic sparks, and some of us with those who struggle at the desk and with the pencil. But whoever it is we work with, we, in primary schools, those distinctive places that feel, to me, so ignored in national conversations, do the same thing.

It’s not the National Curriculum (although we all follow it). It’s not the maths or the literacy. It isn’t the subject knowledge, the special skills or the Fast Track. We make the safe place. The place to give new things a go. The knowledge that, if you get it wrong, it’s OK; it’s part of what learning is. It’s reassuring children that, while some adults are capricious and vain, not all are. Some of them are prepared to step back, and let the children take the centre stage.  It’s the working together.

The ethos of primary education is a very precious thing. Let’s not lose it.

#WDSD16 Down’s Syndrome Awareness Day

There is a YouTube vid doing the rounds at the moment. It’s a slick advert, produced by a big company, in support of World Down’s Syndrome Awareness Day (21st March – 3 copies of the 21st chromosome, geddit?), which is very nice of them, thank you very much. Here it is:

The only thing is, is it left me feeling a little bit uncomfortable. Yes, I want the world to see Sam the way he sees himself – and the way that I see him – but something about the vid jars. It’s not the young woman with Down’s syndrome we see, not until the very last moment. It’s a very lovely, very beautiful model.
This year, I prefer this video, from Shabang Theatre in Huddersfield. In it, you hear the real voices and see the real faces of young people with Down’s syndrome all the way through, and very lovely they are, and very excellent is the video.  I really recommend you watch it.

I wondered whether I should help Sam to make a video for Down’s syndrome awareness. I talked to him about it the other day, when I showed him these ones. I said, that he has Down’s syndrome, and wouldn’t it be nice if people could see all about his life. He wasn’t very impressed. Perhaps he knows that I am not a film maker, and would be bound to make a mess of it. (I am also far too impatient to spend all that time finding out what he would want to film, and I have no idea how to edit a film or do any of that techie stuff anyway.)
So I will tell you about this tweet.

I did indeed forget to remind everyone to wear odd socks in honour of Down’s syndrome – because wouldn’t life be boring if we were all the same? – but as soon as I pressed the ‘tweet’ icon up popped a notification of this.


It made a little lump come to my throat, my eye went stingy and so did my nose.
Because she’s right. Every day is an odd sock day. Every day is a day to be aware of Down’s syndrome, and all the other people who make the human race a diverse and a joyous thing, who show us that, weak and strong, large and small, we are all in it together.
So, I’m not asking you to wear odd socks tomorrow and make a donation, a little bit of fun for a good cause. I’m asking you to make like Laura and make every day a day for remembering someone else.

Thank you.
(And if you fancy helping me and Sam make a film at some point, please do get in touch!!)


In the mean time, when Sam was a year old I wrote this post, and I would be honoured if you would read it.

Wise Women, Witches and Widows #PrimaryRocks 1

When I was a very little girl I used to travel quite regularly, with my mother and my big sister, on the train from Exeter to Leicester to visit my grandparents. We would go, one woman, two little girls in white socks and a great big suitcase, on the Big Train to Birmingham New Street where we would change to the Little Train to Leicester. Of course from my perspective, as a little girl, the train to Leicester was no bigger or littler than the other one, except that, for a good few years into the Eighties, when you went on the Little Train, it was possible that you might travel in a carriage with compartments and those bouncy seats upholstered in rectangular scratchy velvet with sliding down windows and red chains you were Not To Pull. One day, there was a man with a flute, which he let me have a go at playing.

Birmingham New Street station always impressed me with its bigness. We used to have to wait for some time there for our connecting train, and my sister and I would take it in turns to sit on our mother’s battered old suitcase, the one she took with her when she went to America, while the other would make the expedition from one end of the bridge to the other. Again, as a child, I was never really sure that the long corridor with downward steps leading off it and paved in ridged black plastic, was actually a bridge (seeing as it differed markedly from what I thought of as a bridge); I used to like scuffing my heels along the ridges, feeling them bump and give slightly as I passed.

How it has changed. I passed through it yesterday, on my way to Primary Rocks Live (only, it wasn’t Leicester I was travelling to, but Manchester). I changed trains (once on the way there, and once on the way back), and, such was the change wrought by posh paving slabs, shiny escalators and aspirational shops, that I had to take a quick turn to the end of the platform, the pointy bit that meets the track and where you can take the fumed air, just to reassure myself that I was, actually, in the right place. We used to make the journey there too, when we were older, and took our dog with us to Granny’s. We used to walk her up to the end so that she could do her Business.

Some days, everything around me seems to have changed, while I wasn’t looking. Often, when I go on a train journey, I play a little game in my mind called, ‘Spot the School’. (This is why it is not a game I play with anyone else.) I can spot them a mile off, through the splattered windows as I trundle through the countryside. Despite being in a multitude of architectural styles, they are distinctive, their purpose immediately obvious to the interested observer.

There is a playground (often painted), a field (although not always), and big, white-rimmed windows, mostly around low buildings. You can usually see the hall and the way that the classrooms cluster around it. A couple of grey mobiles in the yard. Maybe an upstairs if the town is particularly big. The kind of place I thought I was going to.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The school I eventually found my way to (after I got lost in Manchester Picadilly – they REALLY need to sort out their signage, they really do) bore no relation to the school buildings I have become accustomed to, and rather fond of (apart from the fences – no one has chain link any more, it’s all metres tall security jobs these days) over the years. There was a playground, yes, but, built in 2008, the school squats, a vast shoebox, an industrial building on an industrial size, unlike anything I have every worked in.

It was strange being in a building that felt more suited to adults than to children. Maybe It’s because there weren’t any children in it, but the ceilings were so tall, the hall, apart from dwarfed wall bars in one corner, equipped for a conference; it was miles away from the environment that has been my workplace for so long. It didn’t even smell even a little bit of that strange, primary perfume made up of washing powder, rubber-soled shoes and wee.

What was NOT strange, however, were the gown ups who were there. Grown ups who reminded me that I am part of something really rather special. That in the way they speak, the words and tone of voice they use, the gentle encouragement of body language held just right for young children, their ability to pretend that they have eyes in the back of their head without even blinking an eye reminded me, that despite my surroundings, I am part of a very special family.

Mind you, I never thought I would ever see the day when I was one of the older members of staff. I was supposed to be the young one, the wide eyed, over-enthusiastic ingénue. Yesterday, though, I was surrounded by colleagues whose fresh, unlined faces and shiny hair betray their youth, and I feel old.

I feel old, and cantankerous, bolshy and, strange as it seems to me to think it, experienced. It’s funny how the shortest of conversations live with you all the way back down the train line, through Birmingham New Street and back to the Victorian platforms of my local station. How, without me realising it, like the lines on my forehead (mummy, what are those?) and the grey hairs appearing at my temple, I seem to have joined the ranks of my foremothers. The ones who were held in suspicion, because they seemed to have escaped or gone beyond the bonds of marriage and motherhood, gained knowledge and power and voices of their own.

The wise women, witches and widows.

A Cause for Love

When I was a little girl, we used to, for a treat, go for a walk along the sea front at Torquay, to look at the lights. I don’t really remember going on holiday as such – there were a few weekends in posh out-of-season hotels, the sort with balconies overlooking Cardigan Bay, but, seeing as we were growing up in South Devon, I don’t suppose my parents ever felt like they weren’t on holiday. The sea was never more than a half an hour’s drive away; consequently, we went for an evening walk along the sea front at Torquay, to look at the lights, fairly often.

Torquay was always exciting. There were, and still are, I believe, not that I’ve been there for a while, huge hexagonal paving slabs, in grey and the distinctive Jurassic Orange (well, that’s what I’m calling it) for long stretches along which you could roller skate (should you still fit your roller skates), or jump (should you decide that the orange ones were poisonous); a gloriously smooth, flat surface that never ceased to attract a child more used to the vertiginous lanes of the valleys inland. It always smelled of vinegary fish and chips, and, as you walked along, you’d travel through pulses, music that would drift out of amusement arcades and bars you weren’t allowed in, but pushed at you, pressed on your chest, attempting to suck you in to taste their delights.

My parents always used to park at one end of the sea front, the one furthest from the shops and arcades and we used to walk, when we were very young we’d totter, along the top of the sea wall, after we’d crossed the road on the twirly bridge. It was the sort that crossed one of those triple laned highways and had a ramp made of shallow steps that were just too far apart to make in one stride, no matter how long your legs, and leaned out over the beach, which, when the tide was fully in, and the sea churned underneath you in its purple seaweeded restlessness, made you feel deliciously adventurous, especially when your companions jumped and made the entire structure shiver and boom like a gong. We used to arrive just at the time when the light was beginning to fade from the sky. We’d go one way in the gathering dusk, and come back in the multi-coloured darkness, wending our way home as the party-goers came out to play.

The lights were strung in loops along the sea front – I expect if you looked at them from the deck of a ship they would be reflected in the water, but my favourite part was the gardens. If you chose, you could cross the road again, leaving the sound of the sea and the business of the prom behind, and take a turn along the tropical garden. The ground was always damp there, rusty puddles would need to be negotiated, and once in, you’d dodge the fern fronds and pointy palms; at every turn you would step into otherworldy colour. Red, blue, green, violet; upturned floodlights would cast dramatic shadows on the foliage, would turn your face, and that of your friends, into aliens. It was magical.

When Sam was a baby, and I went to stay with my mum for a week one summer, we decided to take a trip down memory lane, and take him out for a walk along Torquay sea front, to look at the lights. It’s funny how things change, or how you notice different things when you are all grown up; the lights are still there, the loops along the prom but not the pier, the multi-coloured gardens. They are all there, just as they were when I was a child.

And yet my adult eyes pick out different details. The gardens no longer hold magic and mystery, but threat. Did there used to be such litter? Plastic and paper bags full of empty cider bottles and old chip packets? Did there used to be the faint stench of piss behind the green-painted bench, the puddle discoloured not by the red soil but by passers by? Did there used to be knots of bearded tooth-gapped men, calling out from the darkness? I don’t remember them. Was I blinded by my childish excitement at bright colour contrasting against the gathering dusk, the palpable sense of the gathering night, of adult entertainment I would miss and didn’t understand? Or were they always there, waiting for me to notice, to stop and see a different story?

It’s a strange feeling when you realise that you are pitied by the tramps along Torquay sea front; when they wish you well, and congratulate themselves upon their luck as you pass. I’ve never really understood it. Oh, I’ve been grateful for my little Get Out Of Jail Free Card many times – after all, who’s going to have a go at the woman with the disabled kid? (Not many people, I can tell you.) But I don’t understand it.

I didn’t understand it then, when I held my baby boy, and heard his laugh, or watched in wonder as he figured out the world, and how to navigate it, when he covered himself in banana or walked the whole way to school on his own. And I don’t understand it now, not really, not when he meets me at the end of school and shares with me the warmth of the classroom, and hugs me through the chill of the playground.

I’m tired, yes. I’m worried about the future, near and far, of course. I grew up in the 80s and used to worry about nuclear war and environmental disaster, after all. I’ve had more than my fair share of snot and sick and poo and wee to deal with over the years, if I may say so – but hey, so does everyone else who ever had a baby or a child in the family. Down’s syndrome isn’t a cause for pity. It isn’t a cause for anything like that at all.

Like every child that ever came before him and after, with or without chromosomes, he’s not a case of tragedy, but a cause for love.