Tag Archives: Primary Education

We need to talk about writing

Every so often I decide that I ought to be a Responsible Parent, and I take against technology.  I hide the iPad in my desk (you can rarely find anything in there, once it has been sucked in – this is partly because the drawer handles have fallen off and been put in some unknown safe place that is not entirely obvious, even to me, the putter of things in safe places), and refuse to tell anyone where I have put it. This makes the children cross, but after they have shouted at me (and each other) for about half an hour, they go and find themselves something else to do.  Usually this involves books, or lego, or a bit of colouring or a jigsaw.  Sometimes, this means writing.

When I was a little girl I loved to write; my dad got into the habit of squirreling away little bits and pieces that amused him.  In the days before photocopiers, accounts I had written in school were copied out, phonetic spellings and all, and every so often, when I find something they have written, I do the same.  The odd book they bring home, at the end of the year, makes its way into the bottom drawer, and I smile to myself at their turn of phrase, or the little things they chose to write for news.

It’s difficult, though, to put the teacher-me to one side when I read their writing.  I become easily annoyed at the absence of full stops, concerned that the sentence appears to have been left behind in the desire for wow words. I’ve read an awful lot of children’s writing, you see. I’ve sat in countless meetings, discussing the merits of spelling and handwriting, whether, on balance, a collection of work denotes a specified standard – or not.  I have become boggled by reading the same subject rewritten by countess childish hands.

It’s a funny business, this assessing of children’s writing.  Very quickly, in order to make your judgement, you find yourself sliding down into a grammatical morass.  Noun phrases, extended or otherwise, ambitious vocabulary; the hunt for shifts in formality (google it) clutches at you as you pass by, pulling you into a swamp of disconnected detail. It’s very easy to lose track of what it was they were trying to say, when they put pen (or pencil) to paper.  It’s oh, so easy to forget that they are, in fact, children, adopting as they do, as if they were clacking round the garden in their mother’s high heeled shoes, the voice of an adult addicted to purple prose.  Sometimes, I wonder if the purpose of teaching children to write hasn’t become in order that they may fulfil our official (if temporary – hopefully) checklist.

Until, that is, I see my children writing at home.  Here, there is no purpose other than their own pleasure (or rage, if you are my daughter and you have filled a notebook with all your plots for revenge upon your older brother/s* *delete as appropriate), no teacher with a red (or purple, or green or pink or any other colour you care to mention) is going to come along and tell them what it was they did wrong, to force them to fit their ideas into the convention.

Sam used to write only lists (and occasional notes on the calendar when he had decided that it really oughtn’t be a school day and instead he was declaring an INSET day).  Now it seems he, as I have done, ever since my teenage years, can be found using writing to tell whoever cares to read about his day.  His words, his voice, are there on the page and I, his proud mama, will put them in the safest of safe places and think upon what it was he was really trying to say.



There are two consultations at the Department of Education that will close on the 22nd June.  They are about school assessment; one on primary assessment and the other on the recommendations of the Rochford Review.  Please take the time to read them and let them know your thoughts.  You can find the link here.

Know nothing, Know-all

This isn't the original.
This isn’t the original.

I remember the first National Curriculum, or I should say, the first primary national curriculum (secondary remains a ‘here be dragons’ kind of place to me, a mystery full of grey corridors and children wearing blazers).  Introduced following the Education Reform Act of 1988, the year of the GCSE, it was rolled out in primary schools in 1989.  By the time I started my PGCE in 1993, teachers were getting the hang of it, even if it was an extraordinarily cumbersome document.  I remember the day I took my copy home from college, so that I could read and inwardly digest; I struggled down the road with two carrier bags and a couple of folders tucked under each arm.

Now, I have to admit to a certain weakness for stationery.  I used to spend hours, as a teenager, choosing my new pencil case and the ring binder I would hug to my chest in the way of teenage girls before the start of the school year.  I was secretly envious of my sister’s collection of smelly rubbers in the shape of fruit, even thought I had a collection of my own (mine were from National Trust properties and museum shops, the only thing, bar the bookmarks, that I could ever afford to buy).  I stacked the brightly coloured folders (one colour for each subject, English was yellow, maths blue, music pink, geography brown) (actually, now I come to think about it, this is probably the reason why I am always disconcerted if maths and English exercise booked aren’t blue and yellow respectively) on my student desk and sighed a deep sigh of satisfaction.

I used to know it well.  Every half term and holiday, I would consult it, just to check that I was teaching what I was supposed to; I would enter in, on the planning form we used, exactly which points I was covering, down to the a,. b. and c.  I filled in Modbury books, and highlighted handwritten objectives, to show what was covered.  When I (hand) wrote reports, I would pore over the level descriptors, to make sure I knew where the children were at in terms of their progress, and what I could usefully tell their parents.

That said, I was glad when it was slimmed down a bit.  It took up a rather large amount of space in my teacher cupboard (along with all the things that everyone else was looking for and that I had forgotten I had stashed in there).  Doing my planning became a lot less complicated (especially maths, I recall, with its pull out diagram of what went where), although every little tweak and change made you feel like you had to work from scratch all the time.  They kept the colours though.  That was nice.

These days, the National Curriculum is a very different document indeed.  Gone are the colours (it’s serious knowledge, after all, none of this playfulness associated with children, please), and in their place are lots of important sounding words, like narratives, summaries, linguistic knowledge, transcription, morphology, geometry and algebra.  It feels aspirational and…muscular.  There’s a lot of Knowledge in it, dressed up in those important sounding words.  So much, in fact, that spelling, vocabulary, grammar and punctuation have two statutory appendices of their own.

Now, I know it feels a bit like having a moan a long time after the event, in the manner of shutting the door after the horse has bolted, but still; and I’ve got nothing against knowledge – there are lots of interesting things in the world, and I am interested in lots of them.  But it seems to me that in our quest for knowledge, and the kind of National Curriculum Knowledge we statutorily strive for, in the seriousness of the document (despite the odd ‘joy’, ‘treasure house of wonder’, ‘imagination’ and ‘curiosity’ here and there) that we have forgotten something really important.

Maybe it’s the layout.  I’ve been reading it again this afternoon (as you do on your day off), checking it out and comparing it with curricla (curriculums?) that have gone before, and there is something about it that troubles me.  It’s not so much the hierarchical nature of it, the way that English and maths are prioritised, which is entirely appropriate in the primary school, as the way it is presented, almost as if it is a list of Things To Learn, and you start at the top and you carry on working away until you get to the bottom.  And that knowledge about writing, and words to describe words, are somehow more important than the things we ask children to write about.  (When you read the document like that, what other conclusion can you come to?  The foundation subjects are lucky if they get a couple of double spaced pages per key stage.)

Maybe primary teachers feel like second class citizens, constantly constructed in the popular imagination with glitter and glue, as if all we do is play at teaching, and we leave the hard stuff, the stuff of subject domains, the treasure trove of facts and knowledge to our secondary colleagues.  Maybe it’s that we wanted a bit of the seriousness of the endeavour to be placed upon our shoulders too, I don’t know.  No pictures or colours here.  This is Serious Knowledge that needs Serious Learning.

The thing is, though, that I know that many primary teachers are not happy with the Way Things Are in their classrooms.   They aren’t happy at being forced, by overly prescriptive assessment criteria that drives what ends up being taught, to teach things they know are wrong, or silly (exclamatory sentences, anyone?).  I’m not happy with the things I’ve seen, when I’ve been driving round the county, reading the books, full of what the children wrote.

But maybe the solution lies with us.  Maybe we ought to have a bit more professional confidence.  Maybe we ought to say a bit louder that if children are going to be asked to write, then they need something to write about.  Maybe we ought to point out that the primary curriculum has art and music and science and technology and computing and foreign languages and RE and all sorts of other lovely things in it that would do that very job.  If only we had the time to teach it.  Or the time to think about how we would do it in a meaningful and joined up way that makes sense to the developing child.

It strikes me that if we don’t, if we do the compliant thing that answers the order, ‘jump1’ with ‘how high?’, if we can’t find a better answer to the accusation that we are against knowledge and against learning than treating children to a narrower and narrower curriculum – for everyone, not just those with SEND – in order to justify ourselves, to prove that we are Serious Creatures, not frivolous ones in love with fun, then we are in danger, by forgetting that you don’t have to learn ‘this’ before you can learn ‘this’ (i.e. the ‘treasure trove of wonder’ is to be found in the primary school too), of creating children who appear to know it all, but actually know nothing.

And in the meantime, while we struggle to keep up, we are distracted from commenting on the funding bubble that is about to burst and the slow but steady creep of the neoliberal trap.

Publication Day

I’ve just got back from picking my daughter up from school.  Thursdays are a busy day, what with swimming and music lessons, so I always walk up the road to meet her, even though most days she brings herself home, because she has so much to carry.  Today we just about managed to dodge the raindrops (it always rains at 3pm, always), so we were unencumbered by tilting umbrellas as we walked together (well, I walked, and she skipped and swung her swimming bag around in circles) and she informed me, with absolute certainty, that when she grew up, she would like to be a writer.

Now being a writer is a very fine thing, I think.  I am very pleased that she has moved on in her ambitions from ‘famous YouTuber’ to writer, and the conversation came about because today (not tomorrow, as I was convincing myself) is Publication Day for my book, Inclusion for Primary School Teachers.  This is a massive deal for me, so massive, in fact, that I went out earlier and bought myself a bottle of proper champagne (the lady at the till told me that she has a bottle of the very same brand sitting unopened-for-thirty-years upon her mantel shelf); I fully intend to drink it tonight in celebration (especially as I am too ridiculous to organise myself a party, I don’t like the social anxiety and would far rather be the guest than the host).

I hope lots of people read the book.  I hope that it makes the complicated world of SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) a little clearer.  I hope that the words ‘grandma’ and ‘sucking eggs’ aren’t put together.  I hope that people, teacher-people, think a little bit more, and a little bit more kindly about inclusion in our schools; what it means, and what they can do about it.

I haven’t written a book for leaders, although they are welcome to read it.  I haven’t written a book for parents, although they are welcome to read it too.  I’ve written a book for teachers, the ones in the classroom, the ones teaching all the children, every single day.

Because whatever you think about inclusion, whether you think it’s a waste of time, or it’s OK for some kids but not others, or whether you think it should be for everyone and the system needs wholesale change, regardless, the reality is that kids with learning difficulties rock up in mainstream schools every single day, and they have a right to do so, and they have a right to a good education.

If you buy it, you won’t find any tales about Sam.  You won’t find my other children, or the children I have taught over the years.  You won’t find any heart-warming or tear-inducing anecdotes.  You won’t find anything that hasn’t been tried and tested.  It is a book that talks about ideals but, no matter how hard you look, you definitely won’t find any magic wands.

I hope you like it.  I hope you find it useful.  You can buy it here: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/inclusion-for-primary-school-teachers-9781472921147/

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.

Getting children to do stuff

It’s not the enthusiastic people pleasers you ever have to worry about as a teacher.  Those ones will do as you ask pretty much all of the time, because that’s who they are.  They are interested, curious, they like school and the things we do in there.  No, the ones we have those endless, circular discussions about in the staffroom (or wherever) are the ones who are the exact opposite.  For whatever reason, they are the ones who don’t want to write things down.  They don’t want to stop talking when I am talking.  They don’t want to sit still in their chairs.  They just don’t want to.

I’ve always been quite good at these ones.  I’ve never found it particularly difficult to turn them around, to get them ready to learn.  I think this is why I have spent so much time teaching in the middle years of primary school.  Years 4 and 5 are my favourite.  They aren’t infants, so I’m not worried about all the self-care stuff, and they aren’t the top of the tree either, so I don’t have to open the windows even when it’s mid-winter and they aren’t ‘going out’ with each other (if they think they are in my class, they soon find out that they are Not Allowed).

The thing is, though, I’ve never really thought much about what it is I do, that makes me good with difficult classes.  I don’t always get it right, I have to say, but in general, when I look back on my career, such as it is, the classes, and the children, who have made the biggest impression on me, and not in a negative way, are the ones with challenging behaviour at their heart.

It was only when I was faced with the challenge of my own little conundrum that I really had to settle down and try to analyse what it is I do.  For a long time I thought I might be veering on the  authoritative side in my parenting.  Little children, and by that I mean the very little ones, are always getting themselves into life threatening situations.  Those three little holes on the wall are just the perfect size for tiny fingers.  The funny stuff in the bin looks like just the sort of thing that needs a taste.  It’s so much fun being chased, and look!  Don’t I get an interesting response when I run towards the road?!   Even today, thanks to a certain lack of awareness of the consequences of their actions, and I’m not just talking about Sam here, I have moments where I expect them to do as I say, no questions asked.

There are times when you  have to do as you are told, no question.
There are times when you have to do as you are told, no question.

But the older they get, the more I find that I am taking time to explain why I am requiring them to do particular things.  Tonight, for example, they have all gone to bed early (leaving me time to write this).  They have had a run of late nights, they are tired, and they need to be up early for school in the morning.  If they want bedtime stories, or time to read, they need to be snuggled under the duvet with the beside light on rather than sitting down here, talking over the telly.  They know that I am going to insist they eat all of their breakfast and have a good drink in the morning because it will be a long time ‘til lunch.  They know that I won’t be saying yes to sweets because I am respectful of their adult teeth.

When I think about my classroom practise, I know that I am doing something very similar.  No, we may not all shout out, because we need to give everyone a chance to ask their question, or say their piece.  We may not disturb other people when we have finished our work, because that isn’t giving them the same chance that they have given us.  We won’t talk over, or make silly noises, or laugh at someone else’s answers, because that is not how we would like other people to treat us.  We want people to be able to ask their questions, to say when they don’t understand, because it is my job to help them to do those very things.  We will sit up nicely and listen and say please and thank you, because that is showing other people respect.

Sometimes I have to admit that it is a little wearing to have to repeat oneself so many times, and there are moments when I wonder if my life is imitating my art a little too closely.  Sometimes, the Down Syndrome means that we are treading the same old paths for longer than we ever thought possible.  Sometimes I admit that I just want them to do what I want them to do because I want them to do it and that is that.

But the thing is, I am not in the business of bringing up unthinking automatons.  When I watch Sam cross the road I get the heebie jeebies.  He knows to stop.  He knows to look.  I think he might even know to listen.  He certainly goes through the motions.  But when he has stopped, looked and listened, he steps out into the road regardless.  He has not yet understood the importance of the why rather than the what.

Sometimes I think that life would be an awful lot easier if my children weren’t that little bit more compliant, a little bit more obedient, because my life would be so much easier if they were.  But then I remind myself of my disquiet when I hear these terms describing children in celebration.  And I think about my son with Down Syndrome, and I think about my daughter.  I think about people trapped into abusive relationships, at the bottom of the heap because they were compliant and obedient.  I think of people who make life changing decisions that in later years represent opportunities lost, dreams sacrificed because they were compliant and obedient.  I think of the damage done to countless generations because they were submissive.

So when I look at the children around me, both at home and at school, I know that the very last thing I want for them is blind obedience.  I especially don’t want it when it is coupled with compliance.  And I certainly don’t want to see those qualities celebrated in end-of-term assemblies.  Yes, they need to do as they are told, yes, there are times when they need to do it straight away, no questions asked; but as they grow, as they turn from the children they are into adults, I want them to turn from obedience to discipline.

And that’s why, when I am getting children to do stuff, I will continue to explain, until I am blue in the face, the why as well as the what.

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