Tag Archives: Education

100% Literate

All children reading by age 6.

Apart from those who haven’t got the hang of speech sounds properly.

Oh, and those with a literacy difficulty (as yet, undiagnosed, because they are only 6).

And those with a diagnosed SEN.

And disabled children.*

Obviously, we don’t mean those children. THOSE children will never be literate.

Or will they?

 

Maybe we could stick with the 100% and look again at what we mean by literacy.

 

*children with Down’s syndrome were deemed ‘educable’ in 1971. It is only since 1981 that they have been able to attend mainstream schools.

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School Accountability and the entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum

I’ve been a teacher a long time, since 1994 in fact, and over the years, I have been witness to the things that Amanda Spielman, new Ofsted chief, spoke of yesterday – you can read her speech here – a speech which I finally found time to read in the evening, while I was supposed to be watching the telly (I still have no idea, really, what the whole Terminator Mark Million was supposed to be about, and how old is John Connor supposed to be these days, anyway?), and, such is my irritation that I find myself cranking up the laptop on the train, as I whoosh through the early morning countryside on my way to work.

You see, what annoys me is not that the Chief Inspector has noticed that the curriculum (you know, the one that has cost so much money over the years), for a lot of children, is not that thing that we all hoped it would be. It is not a ‘treasure house of riches’ (that’s a quote from the foreword of the latest iteration), but a narrow, dry diet that in my view, and I am sure I am not alone in this, instead of opening up new opportunities and new ideas, widening horizons and just being interesting and, dare I say it, fun, for its own sake, puts children off education and makes school the very last place that they want to be.

For seven years, ever since I stepped away from domesticity and back into my professional life, I have been aware that my expertise in music, in history, in DT, in curriculum planning (yes, I am one of those who are increasingly rare in the system), is not valued. It might help you get a job in the first place, if you happen to get an old-fashioned head teacher reading your application, but in the end, in a today when the ability to play the piano in assembly isn’t valued, because you may as well use the CD so that you can use your assembly time for something much more valuable, I don’t know, like marking, or interventions, or catching up on your emails or whatever other job that teachers find to do in their precious non-contact time and after all, what we mostly teach is maths and English, and what do you know about that?

We know this; this story of narrowing and dryness and maths and English in the morning and again in the afternoon, the lack of access to the arts, to PE, to DT and all the other interesting things there are to learn in school, and which I notice children, my own included, enjoying so much, to such a degree that they chatter about what they have been doing in the evening, over tea, and skip off to school in the morning because looking at their timetable, today is their favourite day, is no longer one that belongs only to teachers (and you can concentrate and multiply this effect for children with SEND – the ‘lower attaining – let’s call it what it is). Parents, politicians, journalists and now inspectors have got wind of it.

I’ve written about it lots of times before, such is my consternation. Here’s a description of my daughter’s recent experience.

But this is not why I am irritated, annoyed enough to sit typing here, worried that my fellow travellers might spill their coffee on my new computer. Working as I do, for an educational charity with a national voice, I have the opportunity, unlike many of my former colleagues, to escape the powerless trap and feel, at least, as if I am doing something about it.

I am cross because of blame. In her speech, the Chief Inspector doesn’t just draw a picture and reassure the profession that she is going to do something about it – that would be a welcome pronouncement. She refuses to take, for the organisation she heads, one jot of responsibility, but instead points the finger of blame at teachers and schools.

Now, I know that schools aren’t perfect. They are human institutions made up of human people who make mistakes, just like me. But I do know this. The actions they take on curriculum, and ensuring that children have access to the things we, as a society, deem important, are driven, not by the curriculum itself, but by fear. The fear of our punitive inspection system, all in the name of accountability.

And here’s the thing. Here’s the thing that hurts: when, as the parent of a disabled child, you really need your school to be accountable, to you, in the interests of your child, they aren’t.

That September Feeling

Today was the first day I noticed the morning mist. It hangs, golden, over stubbled fields heavy with dew, slowly disappearing, soaked up by the still-warm, late-summer sunshine of September. We are entering the final third of the last act of summer, and I am surprised that it has taken this long. It’s usually the first week back, the shock of the first INSET morning after the long rest that has me noticing it, curled around the valley floor, but not this year.

This year, September has been, not the delicious irony of glorious settled Indian Summer, but wet. Muddy, wet and cold and an unaccustomed early start to the wearing of long trousers. Instead of sunglasses, I have shivered, donned a raincoat and sadly abandoned my summer shoes. They sit, with the t-shirt I wore only once, on the floor of my bedroom, ever hopeful that warmth will return before they must be put away, hibernating in a dusty box beneath the bed.

It’s used to be that I was invigorated by the September Snap; that first breath of chill as you step out of the front door on the way to school. After a long, boring summer, with nothing to do but read, or hang out with the young people who just happened to be there (as opposed to young people who were actually friends), or, even, reluctantly perform the homework tasks set by teachers who would no doubt forget they ever asked, I was ready for the change, the challenge of a new school year. Now, though, now I am not.

For six long weeks I have them. For six long weeks, my children are mine. Our lives, for a time relive, they ring with the echo of when they were first born, of the time before timetables and bells and detentions and punishments for lateness. For six long weeks (bar the times when I must work, the bills needs paying, after all) we please ourselves. 

You don’t realise the freedom, the release from other people’s expectations, other people’s agendas, until it ends, until the moment when the hamster wheel of packed lunches and school runs, checks for homework and the paying for trips and clubs and music lessons takes up its relentless motion. You thought you were in control – of your own life, of the way your children are brought up – until that moment, and you see again the grey hairs and the burgeoning lines upon your forehead; you feel the pinch of other people’s expectations, etched upon your skin.

Your fingers itch to reach the keyboard, to fill in the blank pages of the home-school diary, to tell the people who don’t know your children all the things, all of the things, to reassure yourself that they know the mountain you are climbing, that they will help, not hinder your progress.

That first breath of September, no longer the chill that rosed the cheeks and quickened the step, must now be held, until you learn to trust.

SEND and the law

A very dear and very old friend of mine (as in, we have known each other since we were girls, not that we are Of Ancient Times, despite what I may be told by my middle child) is a lawyer. While I was teacher training, she was ordering up a wig and gown and hurrying around London carrying large boxes. It’s a very different life. At one time, I too was going to be a barrister; I was rather taken with the idea of wearing said wig (and gown) and arguing the case and saying ‘me lud’. A little bit of work experience, however, soon put paid to that idea. Then, as now, I find that I am unsuited to the law.

My friend A is not the only lawyer of my acquaintance, you see. These days I know several, in both a personal and a professional capacity, and they are almost as different to me as it is possible to be – all perfectly nice and lovely, but very, very different.

For a start, there is their commitment to details. They just love them. They love ferreting them out meticulously. (I’m more of a big picture, grand statement, splodge and mess making kind of person; my teachers used to sigh, as I grandly made pronouncements, and failed to back them up with evidence.) Off they go, burrowing into this, that or the other Act of Parliament, surrounding themselves with stacks of books of case law, with a sense of joyful purpose, finding out.

Then there is the letter writing. OK, so I can do a good letter, but I don’t do lawyer letters. There’s something about them that is spoiling for a fight and they just love it. Me, on the other hand, is more often to be found quaking like a jelly and wringing my hands over appearances and getting along. Lawyers, they just don’t care. Confrontation is their stock in trade. They thrive on it, that and their sense of justice.

Advocating is something they do so well, and so comfortably. Me, I do it all the time, but without the anonymising wig and gown, the creation of an official persona, backed up by years of history, I find myself standing on shifting sands, rather than the solid stage of the courtroom. Where lawyers win their cases through the full force of the law (when my sister and I were children, we were fond of playing the game that involved us banging on closed doors, declaring ‘open up, in the name of the law’ in loud voices), I find myself arguing for the spirit, rather than the letter. I’d much rather people just did the right thing.

The thing is, though, that they don’t. Last November I went to a conference on design for disability, and the point was made, again and again, that the laws exist to protect disabled people, and yet again and again they remain broken. Again and again, in all sorts of fields, from websites to coffee shops, we, as a society, fail to treat disabled people properly. And by that I don’t only mean people in wheelchairs, I mean people with learning differences too.

And, as I watch the debates that swirl in education, the ones that touch special educational needs and disability, about the way that we, as a community of adults, treat children, and disabled children at that, I think that we aren’t any better than the businesses who don’t provide disabled toilets, despite our claims to the moral high ground conferred by public service. Current narratives that speak of giving disadvantaged children opportunities brought through education fail to notice that they speak of disabled children too – the ones who seem so quickly excluded, thrown out, and written off as disruptive influences.

The plain fact is that those disadvantaged children we purport to save are the very same as those protected by Acts of Parliament, such as the Equality Act (2010) and the Children and Families Act (2014), not to mention the Teacher Standards and international agreements such as the UNCRC.

And I can’t help wondering just how much longer they will go on being ignored.

 

Afraid

I was chatting the other day,  with some mothers of children with Down’s syndrome; what was it about Down’s syndrome, we were asked, that everyone, the world and his wife, finds so scary?  It’s a question that knocked on the door of my consciousness long before it was posed.

You can find a post on the fear of disability, and Down’s syndrome here.

It doesn’t happen straight away, but once your child is no longer a baby, or a cute toddler, a little one in a too big school uniform, once your boy starts to turn into a man, people’s attitudes change.  The miasma of fear hangs around them.  A fear of male sexuality.  A discomfort with a feminised masculinity; a man who will always need to be helped.  A not-quite someone.

You can find a post about Down’s syndrome and manhood here.

And I have written about the judgement on women, on mothers who dare to have a disabled child. Framed as choice, the discourse has more than a whiff of judgement about it, there is a you made your bed now you lie in it stench.  I have read about, thought about and written about the blame that is hung around the neck of mothers of disabled children.  Too needy. Hysterical. In denial. Awkward. Liars, even.

You can read a post about the inherent sexism present in our schools here.

Mothers of disabled children are set about with rules. In a digital age, we are told we share too much. We place our children in danger; we share stories that are not ours to tell, as if the stories of women, of mothers, are somehow less important, less deserving of a hearing.  In an economic time of debt and austerity, we must both pay the bills and stay at home. We have no need of ambition; our fate is to lay ourselves down at the feet of our children, the price we must pay for bringing to birth a disabled baby.

Today, for work (although I’d have read it out of interest), I read a report into the mental health and wellbeing of children with SEND (that’s special educational needs and disabilities) in schools, and, to be honest, I wasn’t shocked.  Depressed and angered, yes. Shocked, no.  You can read it here.

You see, we know that SEND is intimately connected with poverty and economic and social disadvantage.

We know that having a disabled child puts a strain on adult relationships and many such children grow up with an absent father.

We know that teenage girls are deeply unhappy with the world around them and their place in it, and that this is especially pronounced in girls who don’t, or who feel they don’t fit in.

We know that disabled adults and children face greater levels of bullying than any other group – and disabled girls even more so.

The report paints a picture of a toxic cocktail of powerlessness centred on the experience of women and girls; of individuals caught in the feminised state of disability.  No doubt there will be calls for change, for interventions or plans, for government backed initiatives, citing the well known unhappiness of the UK’s children in justification.  We have a big problem, requiring a big solution.

Except we don’t, not really.  To be kind costs nothing.  To be alert to bullying and to help our children and put a stop to the behaviour that has blighted the lives of so many costs little; some thought, some understanding, maybe a bit of training and a heap of commitment.  Challenging workplaces and demanding societal support for families, so that caring is shared, not carried by one person, might take a bit more, but still.

Without that commitment to change, when you look at it, when you really look at it, who wouldn’t be afraid?