Frank Furedi’s talk on mental health at ResearchEd 2018

I have put something in my Todoist planner (recommend it) to blog once a week on a Monday. This week’s blog is a digest of Frank Furedi’s talk about mental health. Nutshell: we’re all doomed unless we collectively recognise what is really going on and take active steps to do something about it.

Frank began by going through some statistics, highlighting the massive increase in the use of mental health as a reason for making claims upon an already stretched system. Something like 15% increase in a year which is interesting because it shows that we haven’t reached a peak in terms of accommodating mental health issues. What’s also interesting is that according to Frank’s analysis all of the media claims are that mental health among young people is getting worse and that the language used is overly inflated, with frequent warnings that all student will be, for example, ‘damaged for life’ by their experiences at school. The fact that all claims in the media point to mass worsening of mental health should make us all skeptical and this is where Frank takes us, questioning the narrative and really thinking about whether our youngest generation is as mentally ill as is commonly. I’m really thankful to Frank that at least one social scientist is bringing this to our attention.

Frank went on to highlight a few common beliefs within the population that contribute to our collective concern about mental health. Firstly, that children are increasingly defined by their vulnerability and secondly, that in order to help them grow up to be resilient and happy people, we need to protect them from all pressure. I certainly see that thread of concern and belief weave its way through all sorts of aspects of education. Thankfully, I’m old fashioned and know, despite what I was told during my SCITT year, that it is the difficult experiences that make you stronger and this influences how I lead my year groups: we say yes to competition, yes to high expectations, yes to being held to account and challenged when we put a foot wrong, yes to working hard (regardless of one’s own troubles at the time) and yes to doing lots of practice. However, much of this narrative of vulnerability and protection from even the slightest of stresses permeates aspects of education I have no choice but to comply with. Safeguarding is one such role where I think we are in danger of collectively putting a lid on what disadvantaged children can achieve by automatically turning them all into ‘customers’ for mental health provision. I won’t go into that right now.

Our attention was drawn to how the typical problems of childhood have been co-opted and redefined with medical language. Frank gave us a great example of how, when we were young, some of us would bunk off from school on a regular basis. Back then it was called truanting and the assumption was that we were choosing to not do the right thing, and that the solution was to ensure we stopped bunking off of school. Nowadays, truancy has been co-opted so that now we have ‘school phobia’ with the result that children who are given this pseudo-diagnosis then get to have their ‘need’ to bunk off rubber stamped by the system. As one teacher pointed out, this makes it very hard for them to challenge children who have some kind of diagnosed condition, undermining their authority and making it very difficult for them to just teach – effectively, the whole system, including the teachers within it, lowers its standards and expectations of these children who happen to be experiencing merely normal teenage life and yet are led to believe they are mentally ill. Those children who have had their life experiences pathologised are also looking at getting less out of their academic education than others. Who are these children and which parts of our society do they hail from? We should all be really concerned about this.

Frank then described something called ‘concept creep’ for terms frequently used as part of the therapeutic industry’s expanding remit. Apparently, concept creep can be applied downwards (to less and less stressful experiences) and outwards (to capture a wider variety of everyday experiences). For example, ‘trauma’ used to be applied to only the most severe of life experiences, but is now casually applied to normal experiences such as having to leave one’s parent at the beginning of the school day. I hear the word ‘trauma’ quite often in my work as a school leader. For school leaders and business managers, there is an additional headache in that all this concern and provision for mental health issues in the school is very expensive. Further, Frank drew our attention to some stark statistics about the dramatic increase in mental health interventions in the U.S with the result that instead of reducing mental health issues in the younger population, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children identified as having mental health problems. This ties in with my observation that the more you do for people (particularly parents!), the less they do for themselves.

Frank’s closing thoughts on this were very sobering indeed. Essentially, the ‘mental health crisis’ is a manufactured problem that has become very real. This is because children are being socialised into interpreting their everyday experiences through the prism of attention to feelings and casual acceptance of all stress being a flag for mental health; over the years, this is making children genuinely mentally ill. My comment to the crowd was an anecdote from a recent safeguarding course I attended in which an example of ‘best practice’ was promoted. There was a school teacher who, in her reception year classroom, had set up individual, named pockets on a wall and children were asked to reflect on each activity and choose a ‘face’ every so often to put in their ‘pocket’ indicating how happy or sad they were at the time. The system was that as soon as a child felt a bit sad about something or someone, a TA would be able to swoop in and attend to their feelings. Again, this is part of the whole ‘children must never feel stress or just sort themselves out’ narrative, but now co-opted into the safeguarding system as a way of identifying and helping children who might be indicating to us that something is going on at home. Frank’s response to this involved a word beginning with F and that word was not ‘fantastic’.

My final thoughts at the end of this session were that I think school leaders need to be more courageous about highlighting and challenging this situation, not least because it threatens to burden teachers with an additional workload that they absolutely should not be burdened with, but also because this situation will stop many of our young people from coping with adult life as well as ruining their chances of academic achievement.

Who’s with me?



Why competition is a good thing (and we need more of it in schools)

Nutshell: we could co-opt our innate need to compare and compete and, to a certain extent, have a collective ‘enemy’ for the purpose of enhancing educational outcomes.

I loved studying ecology at uni. It all made so much sense to me when all the jigsaw pieces of life seemed to slot into place: very satisfying! However, the lasting impression is that just like that kid from Sixth Sense who saw dead people everywhere, I see ecosystems everywhere. I just can’t help it. A key factor in ecology is the importance of competition in enhancing a species’ chance of success and humans are surely included in this. In fact, it is generally accepted that humans are competitive and you don’t need to search for too long in order to find evidence of this. Amusing examples of how we compete, sometimes just inside our own heads, are:

  • When very young, with siblings in order to get parental attention and resources, and with peers in order to get teacher attention and resources
  • When very young, with the opposite sex at school in order to prove that the opposite sex is rubbish in some way
  • When slightly older, with peers for various ‘top dog’ status such as being the best at scoring goals, running, times tables, drawing, or having the most number of friends and wearing the coolest trainers (latter two are possibly linked)
  • Teenage girls compare and compete with each other as to who is the prettiest, slimmest, sexiest, most fashionable, has the handsomest boyfriend/most success with the boys
  • Teenage boys compare and compete with each other as to who is the strongest, fastest, most daring, best at ‘witty’ banter, feigning disinterest in school in order to prove manliness
  • Women compare and compete with each other as to who is the slimmest, most successful at ‘life’, most able to defy the ageing process, has the most memorable of weddings, is able to design the most boutique hotel-like interior for their homes, can curate the sexiest and most artistic holiday snaps on social media and who eats the least at a work-do buffet and makes a big show of it
  • Men compare and compete with each other as to who can move the most paving slabs, who’s got the best missus, who’s got the best house, who can down their pint the fastest, who is/appears least fatigued at the end of a club (bike) ride and who can shift the most metal at the gym

Granted, most of the above is pretty vacuous, but we still do it! Even nerds compete with their fellow nerd as to who is the most academic in some way. The drive to compete is everywhere and in everyone. Why? A scientist would say we have evolved this way because in a past world where resources were scarce and the chances of survival and reproductive success were somewhat reduced, competition made us push ourselves in order to maximise our change of survival and success. The only people I see who seem to be immune to competition are those who would, if ranked, come out on top anyway, i.e they’re pretty good at something, tend to be a lot older and have that air of confidence. Perhaps this is a natural shift in mindset that happens to everyone when they have either reached a certain age, have everything they need (and have also procreated?) or perhaps achieved everything they had set out to achieve? Perhaps some people believe that they are simply better than others and don’t need a competition to prove it.

The latter thought reminds me of an interesting thought-exercise conducted on a group of people, myself included, who were attending a speech by a well-known educationalist. She announced that we would be taking part in an experiment: an exam in a mysterious subject and then we would be ranked by results at the end of it. Then, she asked us to put up our hands if we’d be happy with that. Pretty much everyone was horrified and kept their hands down, except an idiot who was thinking about the one time she came dead last at a long distance duathlon and how she had learned from it as well as seeing the funny side*. This universal dismissal of competition and ranking was used as an example to gain collective approval that competition and ranking are de facto bad for children and should never happen in schools, whereas I thought that perhaps it was proof that people don’t like being tested on something they may know nothing about; therefore, we need to ensure that children are taught well and have committed knowledge to long term memory before they do an exam. To me, it’s all about fairness and I think that deep down the mass balking wasn’t so much the ranking per se, but at the unfairness of being ranked with those who may already know this mysterious knowledge. I also thought there might be an element of confidence that comes with age and believing one is superior to others (because of their chosen profession and their current status within that profession – attendees were all school leaders), therefore the thought of being ranked on some other factor was viewed as pure insult. Children have no such thoughts because they have yet to make their way in the world.

Anyway, given that we all, at some point and particularly when young, have this innate competitive drive, I’m somewhat perplexed when educators decide they can simply eradicate the competitive instinct in the name of promoting those ’21st Century Skills’ we’re all supposed to have. To me, a decision to eradicate competition in order to improve humanity is on the same level of folly as a decision to eradicate our preference for making our own lives easier and more productive by making rules, routines and habits illegal. If an educator decides to remove academic competition, then I believe this either drives academic competition ‘underground’ or drives children to compete on other terms (such as who has the best trainers). We’ve all witnessed teachers say, ‘Don’t worry! This isn’t a competition and you should just do your best!‘ as they hand out exam papers to their class, only for each and every child to spend an amount of time copping a sly look at neighbours’ writing in order to ascertain whether they’re on the right track and in with a chance of not coming last – everyone works that little bit harder. We all know that there will be a surreptitious ranking of percentage results when the teacher gives back those marked exam papers.

I was going to choose a more salubrious image, but this one cracked me up

Even those who would normally come near to the bottom of a league table seem to still want to take part. I have found, over the years, that maths competitions, implemented well, seem fire up absolutely everybody, including those disabilities and SEN. I think the key here is to make sure competition is ‘healthy competition’ with the option for everyone to achieve a personal best and where there is an adult in charge to ensure no-one’s cheating, being a sore loser or showing off too much, although it is important to celebrate the high achievers because they have worked for it and set the gold standard for everyone. Perhaps it is the honesty of knowing exactly where you are that makes us all feel safer, less anxious, plus there is the feel-good factor of seeing your hard work pay off. There is also something to be said for how amazing it feels when you come from a less well-off home than your peer and yet can compete with them on the same terms. What’s amazing is that I have seen children previously assumed to have some kind of discalculia shoot to the top of the class in maths within weeks of getting stuck into maths competition involving timed practice.

So I’ve talked about how competition brings out the best in us and now I’d like to introduce the concept of some kind of innate need for a (friendly) foe to fight against. I haven’t seen much written on this, although I did find an article on it recently. To me, it seems that without some kind of collective real or fictional foe to fight against, people just fight with themselves or look to the nearest person or group of people and make them the enemy instead. Teenagers are really interesting group to think about in this context. I do wonder if, during puberty, some kind of innate ‘warrior’ manifests and in the absence of a killer tribe in the next village, teenagers opt to make their parents and teachers the collective foe. Perhaps this is one reason why house systems work so well. Instead of fighting teachers or each other, they group together and vie for academic and sporting supremacy against a group of peers.

So, I really think that we should harness children’s innate desire to compete both with friends and with foes in order to get the very best out of them. Why fret and spend hours doing masses of extra interventions when a competition and ranking ‘system’ will do the hard for you by compelling children to push themselves that little bit further. Surely this is an opportunity to be grasped – can you imagine how all children could collectively ‘level up’ and have more pride in their education and school if there were trust-wide, then regional and then national competitions in various subjects/disciplines?

Who’s with me?

*That idiot was me. To be fair, it was the worst weather ever such that almost every female competitor stayed away and I ended up being one of only seven hard-core female competitors in the whole event (and my coach said that out of them all, I was probably the only woman).




My child can’t add up!

A blog about maths, just like old times.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had educators who are also parents approach me to ask for advice about their child and how he or she can catch up. There is a common theme among these requests: their children tend to be around 7 or 8 years old, they’ve become aware that their child is on the ‘low table’ and then they try a few things out with their child at home and are horrified to see their child struggle with even the most basic of calculations because they’re still stuck using their fingers to count up and down all the time. Thinking about my own experience of various primary schools, primary educators and children whom I’ve taught, I would say these requests are not isolated incidents, rather indicative of a widespread problem: young children do not have their basic maths facts off by heart. What are the contributing factors and what can be done about it?

  • A skills-based approach in the early years assumes that the objective ‘being able to do simple addition or subtraction’ can be ticked off if the children can do it via counting up and down with fingers, beads, toys, whatever, but no expectation that they would be fluent (speedy and accurate)
  • The incredibly high amount of visual and aural distractions in the reception classroom that regularly interrupt children’s counting such that they often arrive at the wrong answer (no one’s there to check it because there are only 2 adults in a class of 30 with many different activities going on) and never get to really know for sure that, for example, 2 and 5 make 7. This is more of a problem for children who haven’t got the habit of concentration (see my other posts on learning to concentrate being as important as learning knowledge) in an environment that actively discourages it
  • A teaching approach that confuses ‘showing understanding’ with ‘learning’, leading to children being moved on to something else, usually problem solving, before they’ve had a chance to do enough practice and commit what has been taught to long term memory
  • Some early years and KS1 educators have a subconscious bias against maths, seeing it as inherently boring or hard, and seek to mitigate against this by making maths ‘fun’, thus obscuring and distracting from the core knowledge that children need to have
  • Awareness of the reasons why children need to know, for example, their times tables, but an inability to draw parallels with what must be known off by heart in early mathematics
  • Calculation policies mandating the use of inefficient methods of calculation in order to ‘show understanding’ before children are allowed to proceed onto the formal methods holds many children back
  • The need to evidence differentiation which means that over the years, the LAPs not only do fewer calculations per any unit of time, but they’re always being given manipulatives which removes the requirement for them to learn maths facts off by heart
  • Sometimes the differentiation is by calculation method, with LAPs expected to remain on those number lines while the HAPs get to use their column addition and subtraction to do many more calculations and learn so much more about number facts and relationships (place value, for example) through this practice
  • Teachers of mathematics in the earlier years (Year R, 1), while being aware of cognitive load theory, do not (or cannot) necessarily apply these concepts to teaching and learning of maths
  • Ideological opposition to SLOP  and ‘knowing things off by heart’ in maths

For me, I cannot help but see parallels with the teaching of reading. We now know that systematic synthetic phonics is so much more effective than the old Look & Say methods that encourage various forms of guesswork; children need to learn the little parts of words and how to sound them out and blend them, but we don’t stop there because we expect the requisite amount of practice to take place such that children become fluent at segmenting and blending and this means knowing the graphemes off by heart. However, in mathematics, it’s like we teach the equivalent of the phonics (actually, sometimes we don’t even do that), and then give the children some Shakespeare to read while also playing experimental Jazz in the background.

It’s so simple. Except when it isn’t.

So, the children get to practice some simple recall on the reading table within continuous provision, or will have opportunities for recall in extra phonics sessions at various points of the day, but the maths retrieval practice will be lots and lots of counting up and down, or perhaps recall of shapes, time, the weather, days of the week – anything but knowing off by heart, through teaching and lots of practice in reception year and year 1, that if we pop a 2 and a 5 together, they always make 7. They may or may not twig this fact, and even if they do, it is a fleeting moment that is not emblazoned in their long term memory because they’re swiftly moved to the ‘shopping task’ and suddenly their heads are filled with apples and pears. As these children progress onto working with larger numbers in year 1, 2 and 3, the constant counting up and down leads to errors: sometimes 9 and 5 make 14, sometimes 9 and 5 make 15 – so these children don’t then start to learn the patterns (that you also need to know off by heart) for, say, adding 9. They cannot see the mathematical tree for the leaves, never mind the woods for the trees! Some children go up into year 2 not being able to look at 6 objects and instantly know that there are 6 objects – you’ll put 6 counters down in a typical 2 by 3 array and they’ll bloody start counting one by one.

To many who read this, these little parts of number knowledge seem insignificant and therefore nothing to really worry or bother about. The common sentiment is that children will arrive, when they’re ready, at all this knowledge and then we can just focus more intensely on maths knowledge and SLOP in KS2 (quite often the maths lead will be in year 6). But that surely is the equivalent of expecting children to learn to read by immersion and magical osmosis?

If I were to change things, I’d shift the focus to a knowledge-based approach in early mathematics and really systematically teach, assess and expect lots of practise of specific, small bits of number knowledge – just like we’re expected to with phonics. Children who haven’t learned the little parts off by heart would then be expected to discretely practise more until they’ve got it. This is kind of the opposite of what the EYFS mandates, so we’re a little stuck at the moment, and I’m finding a focus on fluency in year 1 and 2 is really difficult as a result.

Until then, when teacher-parents approach me for advice, I usually recommend counting at home (without distractions) to 5 and then recognition of what 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 look like in a really systematic way, as well as the use of games such as dominoes, snakes and ladders where turn taking and slight increase in adrenalin induce more concentration (which is associated with enhanced memory formation and is an oft-forgotten reason why summative testing and competition are so useful). I also then recommend plenty of systematic practice such as through attending Kumon classes or just buying Kumon practice books off Amazon and doing them at home  –  the practice is really repetitive, but this is exactly what the child who is behind in their learning needs in order to commit maths facts to long term memory. It doesn’t take much, and with daily practice they can catch up, feel successful and move on to that top table in class. If you’ve got sons who are starting to be more consistently accurate with their calculations, I recommending making your own maths ‘league’ with ‘levels’ that are based on particular sets of maths knowledge, tell them a complete myth about a legendary boy who could do any level in under a certain time (make the target SMART), then whip a stopwatch out and see their faces light up with joy and ambition.

Who’s with me?

Neuroscience of habits vs. EYFS: even more ways to disadvantage the disadvantaged child

This blog post goes beyond the usual consideration of, for example, cognitive load theory, or the need for explicit instruction and retrieval practice in reception year and into the realms of the neuroscience of habits. I think that ‘best practice’ in EYFS does not consider this aspect of neuroscience. Yet!

It’s been a privilege this year to oversee the education of children in reception year and if I’m honest, I certainly couldn’t do as good a job as our current reception year teachers – the experience has given me real food for thought as I have dwelled on the eternal conflicts that could be summarised in the following questions:

  • These [disadvantaged] children need to be taught, by adults, what they do not know, and they need to be encouraged to practice what they have been taught in order to commit knowledge to long term memory – why is this truth almost frowned upon?
  • Even though we know that learning and development comes from being taught and then being given opportunities to practice, why do we insist on waiting for children to be ‘ready’, only to then label them SEN when they don’t miraculously discover or do what everyone’s waiting for?
  • Why does cognitive load theory not seem to apply to EYFS? All these children flitting about and thinking about their choices, or with the teacher in a group having to process much more than a child in year 1: struggling to concentrate as their young minds consider what to write, the phonics, the pencil grip while other children constantly but inadvertently interrupt the teacher’s words and the child’s thoughts – their working memories must surely be overloaded?
  • All that constant noise (or ‘learning buzz’ as so many call it) – how do they not go mad or just switch off altogether? The closest we come to stillness and focus is when we are listening to a story, or when we are receiving our phonics instruction, but there isn’t even 5 minutes of silent, whole-class reading or writing when they are alone with just our own thoughts and struggles

This last bullet point is what I am thinking about most at the moment, which is why I have ended up pondering how the neuroscience of good habit formation might be applied in reception year (or what happens in its absence). When I consider our most disadvantaged children and the lives they lead, I realise there is probably no moment of peace during their day in which they imagine themselves in a story. The equivalent for us adults is when we create space in our lives and minds to think about or invest in our future. How is this possible? We humans have this marvelous ability to do more than the bare minimum of existing through the creation of rules, habits and routines, an automation of thought processes, decisions and actions that make us more ‘efficient’ and then happier because we feel we have achieved more, or because we have facilitated opportunities for relaxed conversation, time to read a book even.

The thing about creating good habits and routines is that you need to have some willpower to start them off and the resolve to keep doing the same thing until you no longer have to think about it (if you want to read more of the science, try this). The habit formation loop relies on a cue, the repeated activity and then the reward at the end. For most of us, the ‘cue’ tends to be a signal for a particular time of the day, and the ‘reward’ is the satisfaction of having got something done or making someone else happy. Many of our good habits were actually developed when we were children because our parents made us form them: brushing our teeth before going to bed, always cooking and eating vegetables with every meal, always ironing shirts and shining shoes on Sunday night, making our bed every morning, practising the piano after dinner, being polite to granny even though she asks the same question over and over – we had no choice but to put our whining to one side and just get on, resulting in greater willpower and concentration that helps us at school and that we carry through to adulthood, enabling us to form whatever habits are necessary to for us to achieve as parents, colleagues and friends. It’s a virtuous circle of good habit formation which facilitates even more willpower, concentration and ordered thinking that makes us more successful as adults.

What about the disadvantaged child? You know, the one living on that estate and who is permanently tired, messing about, can’t read, not interested in anyone or anything to do with learning? What good habits does he have in his life? When he wakes up, it won’t be to an alarm and there won’t be a set routine for getting dressed, brushing hair, having breakfast at the breakfast table, finding and putting on shoes and then going to school in an orderly manner. No, he’ll awake, late, to a cacophony of noise, drama, rushing around and his mother will berate him for not being able to find his tie – but nobody showed him how to lay out his uniform and bag before bedtime as a matter of routine or then ensured it was done every single night until it became a habit, such that he could simply put on his tie on in the morning like any other child. How on earth is he going to develop some willpower and ordered thinking if he’s never been taught and then expected to practice those typical rules, routines and systems that then create good habits and the accompanying willpower?

Does this boy think about his future, stories or life’s curiosities, or does he live merely ‘in the moment’, condemned to think only of the here and now, of how hungry he is (because there is never a fixed time for dinner and he’s got into the habit of constantly asking her about it), of when he’s next going to get on the XBox and the fact that his mum seems to be stopping him from doing what he wants to do? In the absence of willpower, direction and parental authority, he begins to develop bad habits: being disrespectful (it creates a risky buzz of excitement), pushing boundaries and breaking society’s rules (another risky buzz), not bothering to listen till the end of a sentence, automatically deciding to do the bare minimum until he can get back outside to play, never sticking with any activity for longer than a few minutes, developing automatic defiant reactions to being asked to do anything that is not what he wants to do (partly because he is so cranky from lack of sleep). Over time, these bad habits become ingrained. The trajectory is set and it ain’t upwards. It doesn’t help that mum’s support worker said that she needs to let him have more choices so that he can ‘develop independence’, and to reason and negotiate with him rather than tell him off when he throws a tantrum so that he develops ‘his own understanding of kindness and right and wrong’. If she’s honest, she feels powerless and lately a little bit scared of him.

And then he starts school.

He has no willpower, and he physically and mentally flits about, doing his best to avoid anything that involves a bit of effort. The teaching assistants notice that he never washes his hands after going to the toilet, so they set about teaching him how to wash his hands, then watching him and reminding him to ‘wash your hands!’ until the hand washing becomes a habit. But does the teacher notice his bad habits in the classroom? She may not; lack of willpower or willingness to please others is not really a problem in the EYFS phase because this phase is child-led. If she does notice, what is the automatic reaction? There is no mention of the value of home rules, habits and routines in terms of helping him to acquire some willpower, concentration, a notion of obedience. Instead, we may have the usual recourse to ‘he’ll do it when he’s ready’ and then they will wait for this miraculous overwriting of neural pathways to happen, only to watch him get worse and worse as he simply reinforces those bad habits over and over again. In the meantime, they put him on an IEP for SEMH and he attends a lego therapy club twice a week.

If the baseline didn’t crystalise just how much he is missing, the need to assess constantly makes it glaringly obvious that something isn’t quite right. The professionals come together to nod sagely and talk of ADHD or ODD, and his mum reveals she has been thinking about this for a while. His ‘needs aren’t being met’ and if he carries on this way, he’ll end up being excluded – he’s now starting to hit children in order to satisfy the habit loop of always getting his way. At the end of reception year he hasn’t achieved many of the ELGS, particularly the more academic ones and ‘Year 1 will just make him kick off! He needs to have more ‘active learning’ and ‘choices’ because ‘he has low concentration‘. So, he goes up to year 1, but spends most of the morning back in reception year repeating the phonics and the early maths, and then choosing activities that he wants to do. He never quite learns to read and write like other children his age, because he never had the willpower to concentrate on the adult teaching him in the first place. He never experiences the joy of listening to or reading a whole story.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out where I’m going with this. I’m coming to the conclusion that poor behaviour, including the kind that leads to so many thousands of children being excluded, has its roots in the entrenching of bad habits all the way back in EYFS. Part of the problem is in how we also automatically dismiss poor parenting on ‘austerity’ and alleged lack of help for disadvantaged parents. The answer always seems to be more mental health support, more money, more provisions, never anyone actually taking ownership for the true cause of the situation which is that these children just haven’t been put on the right path towards greater willpower, concentration, can-do attitude. It costs nothing to decide to put your child to bed at night at exactly the same time, and follow a set routine until that child goes to sleep, but today’s disadvantaged parents have themselves grown up without rules, routines and good habits such that they too are mired in the ‘here and now’ and there is no time or space in their lives to invest in teaching their own children.

Likewise, many teachers do not even see the real point of rules, routines and the deliberate formation of good habits (to overwrite the bad habits), merely seeing it all as a way of ‘forcing’ children to behave in a certain way for the sake of everyone else’s convenience. ‘Why are we even making them waste time lining up in silence after lunch?‘ they say to me, ‘Surely the learning time in class is more important?‘ I say to them, ‘but this is also their learning’. They argue that we should let children be who they are meant to be, and to let them choose rather than automatically comply, knowing full well that the disadvantaged child will never automatically choose to work as hard as his advantaged friend, or even to work at all towards the higher goal of success and happiness in life.

I think this is the real reason why, despite massive investment in the promotion of, for example, knowledge-rich curricula, plus intense focus on the how and what of teaching, certain pockets of disadvantaged children still trail behind. This is why I think children need more structure, routines, rules and deliberate formation of good habits in the early years of school life, rather than for us to inadvertently allow bad habits and poor concentration and willpower to become entrenched. Until we get our heads round that, and start taking into account the neuroscience of habits when it comes to teaching and learning for younger children, those disadvantaged children just won’t access knowledge-rich curricula the way their advantaged friends do.

Who’s with me?


QT goes to GYCA

I couldn’t think of a snappy title or any incredibly deep and meaningful quotes to put in this post (poet laureate I ain’t), so I am just going to share a snippet of honest detail about my trip to Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. The truth is that it’s extraordinarily ordinary: all pupils are polite, happy, safe and can learn, and all teachers can teach. This is how it should be in every school, shouldn’t it?

Barry breezed into the reception area where I was waiting and then all of a sudden we were practically Olympic walking through the corridors and into the classrooms to see how the children and staff were doing. One of the teachers was accosted en route and was asked to tell me how things used to be: teachers were afraid to go into the corridors because it was so unsafe, it used to take 20 minutes just to get pupils to write the date and the learning objective and pretty much every simple request would be met with defiance and rudeness. Staff used to be told that if they made their lessons engaging enough and if they got the differentiation right, then children would behave and would want to learn, but no matter how hard the teachers tried, it was hellish to work there – I was told of a teacher who would throw up on their way to work on a Monday morning, such was the anxiety, and of how the school was blacklisted by supply agencies because it was too dangerous to send supply teachers there.

And if it was that bad for staff, imagine how it was for those pupils who had SEN, or who didn’t look quite right, or who were in any way unconfident or different. 

The expectations are very high now. Your typical educator or Ofsted inspector might look at what is going on and think that the pupils are being prevented from being creative, from being ‘themselves’, but when you think about it, they’re actually liberated, set free from the typical teenage experience (that frequently descends into chaos) and given unfettered access to higher level thinking that comes from knowing more and more. There are now many rules and routines that require the pupils to control their own inherent distractions such that in any lesson you will never hear the errant tap of a ruler or see pupils look pretty much anywhere other than at the teacher or their books (after clear instructions). There is no space for opt out of any kind. Many adults would struggle to conform in this way because they have had a lifetime of slouching, tapping, whispering, ignoring, fiddling and interjecting without thinking first, but these children have been given the keys to the kingdom of the best that has been thought and said – you can hear it in their full sentence replies to teachers’ questions and you know that those interesting words, phrases and concepts will trickle into the local community such that even everyday conversations will evolve. Imagine the happiness that will result from that.

Charter is a very civilised place now and yes, this even includes the canteen! But the magic isn’t really in what is happening in the corridors and the classrooms, the magic is what is happening inside the children’s heads because of what is happening in the corridors and the classrooms. Barry and his senior leadership team bring a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm to GYCA and it is a very positive place to be, so if you’re an intellectual teacher or aspiring leader who wants to, shock horror, ensure that children learn, then I recommend you get in touch with Barry. You won’t regret it.

Who’s with me?

Confirmation bias in the reception year classroom

In publishing a couple of blogs disputing what is considered best practice, firstly regarding the psychology of young disadvantaged males, and secondly regarding the application of CLT to the reception year experience, I’ve had a lot of push back (as expected) and some of this has been along the following lines:

  • EYFS is great if you do it right
  • In our setting, all disadvantaged children catch up by year 1 – this is because we do EYFS right
  • Young children’s brains are different, therefore EYFS is great
  • Prove it! You’re theorising, but fail to give me real evidence, therefore EYFS is great

It seems to me that whatever I say, whatever appeal to logic (such as the proportion of time Harry spends choosing, as opposed to learning relative to Hermione), people are extremely keen to defend and promote the status quo. Perhaps the problem that EYFS reception year faces is confirmation bias? Everyone’s mostly going around around telling each other how great it all is, and then writing research papers about how great it all is.

I’m not going to challenge the first bullet point above because it’s a rehash of a classic argument for progressive education in that people who challenge it are told they’re simply not doing it right, or enough. This is really a thinly veiled and slightly amusing insult along the lines of ‘You’re an idiot and so are your colleagues’, which I will not participate in.

The second bullet point is interesting. So, there are all these EYFS reception years where disadvantaged children (boys in particular) catch up by the start of year 1 and then everything’s just dandy. I even began to question my own assertions when challenged with this evidence, so I went back to the national data on outcomes at the end of reception year:

  • 44% of white British boys eligible for free school meals achieved at least the expected standard in all ELGs vs. 61% of white British girls who were also eligible for free school meals
  • 67% of white British boys who were not eligible for free school meals achieved at least the expected standard in all ELGs vs. 81% of the same category of girls
  • For the local authorities in poorer areas of the country, around 50% of children on FSM achieved at least the expected standard in all ELGs vs. around 70% of non FSM children

They certainly don’t catch up which is just as I thought. Disadvantaged white working class males having the worst outcomes at the end of reception year, just like they have the worst outcomes at every other data collection point for the rest of their academic lives. So it is quite odd that many tell me how wonderful they and their reception year settings are (and therefore shifting the blame to teaching and learning in year 1 and above). Perhaps we’ve got a bit too much confirmation bias going on? Also, you’ve got to wonder if this child-led, play-based, personalised, relevant education is so wonderful at helping disadvantaged young males to catch up, why is it not then the modus operandi of teaching and learning in year 1, 2, 3 even?

You can literally see confirmation bias when you observe reception year settings – the teacher will be looking for evidence to collect, which means perusing/scanning for children who are doing something productive and constructive at the continuous provision activity areas. When they’re looking for evidence to tick off ELGs, they’re not looking for evidence of children not ticking achieving ELGs, so Harry is less likely to gain the teacher’s attention (unless he messes about), whereas Hermione (who already has extra education at home which gives her confidence and communication skills) gets to have slightly more, thus consolidating, reinforcing and augmenting what she already knows. At the end of the day, the teacher will upload all this positive evidence and then feel good about all these children who have achieved.

Experts, consultants and officials who visit reception year will also (inadvertently) be prone to confirmation bias. If you look at Ofsted reports, you will see much lip service paid to the superficial – the ‘children were busy and happy’ type comments alongside the approval of all the lovely activities and equipment laid out (because that is what they were looking for, that ‘best practice’ that we all love so much). They too will be drawn to the most responsive, talkative and engaging children – who are these children? Harry’s not one of them because he’s not a fan of the whole talking malarkey – he’s got no clue about what people are talking about anyway so he likes to be where the adults aren’t. This is the complete opposite of the observation protocol in year 1 and above where observers will not only look at what the teacher is doing and saying at each and every minute of the observation, but at each and every child (which is possible because they’re sat still) and then each and every one of their exercise books and data sets with the expectation that 100% of them will be paying attention and then making some kind of progress. You simply cannot look at 100% of the children in a reception year classroom at any one time, nor can you properly analyse what they did/learned/said afterwards because much of that evidence vanished into thin air as soon as it happened. You know, if I were to do some kind of PhD, I think I might look at analysing what children are doing and saying, but using the mathematics of crowd dynamics and comparing different cohorts. Technology would be key to this investigation and children would have to have some kind of tech attached to them that recorded position within the classroom as well as proximity to various activities, for example – I wonder if my hypotheses that white working class males spent a higher proportion of their time racing around in ‘choose’ mode (relative to being calm and doing activities laid on for them), a lower amount of time ‘concentrating’ (ie. sat relatively still at a literacy table) and a lower amount of time interacting with adults than their peers would be proven correct?

The third bullet point really bugs me. You’ve got your neurons and you’ve got your connections between the neurons – there are fewer connections (I’m deliberately using simple language here, so don’t have a go) in younger children because they have not learned as much, yet. Teaching and learning (should) causes changes to long term memory – synaptic plasticity being the key mediator here. However, defenders of the EYFS child-led status quo tell me that children’s brains are different because they have fewer connections between neurons and therefore this is why they cannot learn like older children (where it’s ‘safe’ for their brains to let an adult teach them), instead they must learn through child-led discovery and play, the EYFS way. However, fewer connections doesn’t mean ‘different’ like they’re a whole different species – fewer connections just means that their brains are less mature or, er, child-like. Essentially, people are telling me that little children have little children’s brains. Further, if you look at the evidence in support of child-led learning, it completely ignores the explicit instruction and requirement of sustained practice from the mother in the very early months and years of a child’s life, as if the mother doesn’t exist at all – instead we have this (in my opinion dangerous) ‘biologically primary’ argument that certain aspects of very early learning are pretty much spontaneous and you only need to look at old footage of Romanian orphanages to see that ‘biologically primary’ doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. Anyway, the way confirmation bias works in this scenario is when certain children seem to ‘learn’ at these various activity areas in the reception classroom, yet no one seems to wonder whether they have really miraculously learned, or whether they’ve just summoned up and consolidated some prior learning (from home) – why would they when they could easily attribute Harry’s apparent ‘lack’ of learning to ‘not ready’?

The final bullet point I cannot do much about because educational research hasn’t really asked the kind of seriously awkward questions I’m asking right now. The lack of evidence in support of my hypotheses isn’t due to their all being proved wrong, the lack of evidence is due to a lack of research. I seem to be held to account for this lack of research and subsequent evidence, like I should apologise for it, but many of these same experts and consultants seem to forget that I work full time in an actual school.

After all is said and done, I still can’t help but be concerned about the fact that only 44% of disadvantaged, white working class males achieve an acceptable outcome by the end of reception year. This is partly because I am trained to just put the emotions to one side, analyse and then be impartial in my reporting (previously worked in financial services), and partly because I do not define myself solely through my work. It strikes me that many who define themselves through their work, and this is more likely in education, particularly in EYFS, are likely to interpret any criticism of The System (which is what I’m doing) as a personal attack on their identity, which then of course in their view justifies a personal attack back at me. I can see that. But let’s move on anyway.

I was about to wrap this blog up when I received a personal message drawing my attention to some activity on twitter. I’ve cut out the identity (GDPR n’ all that) and here is a summary of the back story before you look at the accompanying image:

  • This child was excluded 4 times from his previous primary school where he was in a ‘formal’ year 1 class that was not ‘inclusive’ and not ‘compatible with his needs’ (the national curriculum does require reading, writing and arithmetic to be taught, so it does have to be quite formal at times)
  • The child has moved school and is repeating a year 1 which is, according to the mother, ‘inclusive’ and personalised [and therefore the correct way]

Here is the child’s daily timetable:

Screenshot 2018-06-03 at 10.28.32 AM

The mother had said she had picked the wrong primary school and disputed whether the Bold Beginnings report was correct in its conclusion that children who are falling behind need a bit more instruction and practice in order to catch up, but I do wonder the extent to which his reception year experience enforced habits of ‘do what I like that I’m good at, enjoy and find easy’ and ‘I will avoid difficult tasks such as writing, reading and arithmetic’. I do not know the child and therefore need to be careful in my analysis because he may indeed have SEN or severe behavioural difficulties, plus such a strong character that any request to try out something a bit more academic resulted in a dangerous reaction, but surely letting him choose then reinforces and possibly augments the status quo? I’m seriously wondering whether reception year actually worsens a child’s SEN or a predisposition to behavioural issues. This is purely anecdotal, but there does seem to be an acceptance that the best way to deal with young children with behavioural problems is to let them repeat reception year (or year 1 if it is set up more like reception year), as if reception year and year 1 is some kind of in-house alternative provision. Here we have yet more confirmation bias in reception year – observers would be looking for a child like this to not be having meltdowns/temper tantrums/violent outbursts, and when this is confirmed, it is assumed that the child is having his needs met and is now making progress. Is he having his needs met, or is he having his wants met and then for that to become even more entrenched/habitual? The child above is receiving just 10 minutes of academic learning a day, plus he is a whole year older than his class mates and therefore bigger, louder, stronger and scarier. I’m quite protective of my little ones and it does upset me that before a child can even be considered for an EHCP or managed moves etc we must show how much we’re doing for said child, including letting them hang out in and possibly dominate younger year groups. I digress – is this not another case of confirmation bias getting in the way of tackling real issues because of the association with happiness = progress?

My last point is to do with habits. How long does it take for scholarly habits to form? Well, according to this interesting article, the time it takes for something to be learned to automacity (ie, to become a habit) depends on the nature of the habit. If it’s easy and relatively pleasurable to do, then the habit forming period is much shorter, but if the habit is relatively difficult at first, then it takes much, much longer. The research referenced in the article found that some trickier activities hadn’t become habits even when done regularly for a year. Also, a crucial factor in successful habit creation is the regularity of that activity at the beginning of the habit forming period. Confirmation bias in reception year must surely blind observers to the fact that Hermione must have had a shed load of consistent practice at doing reading and writing every day for it to become second nature in the classroom, an automatic choice for her? The other side of this is pretty disastrous for Harry because his choosing the easier, less-academic things to do on a daily basis becomes, if the article is correct, a habit within about 4 weeks of starting reception year.

Perhaps we need to stop looking at how successful Hermione is, and start looking at what it’s going to take to get Harry to be just as successful.

Simply saying ‘It’s great in reception year’ is not enough.

Who’s with me?


Does cognitive load theory apply to reception year?

Much of my writing about EYFS is a simple extrapolation of how I would apply what we know about the benefits of, for example, explicit instruction, and how lots of practice enables those positive changes to long term memory – my theory is that whatever applies to all the other year groups above reception year must also apply to reception year (and nursery) itself because the structure and function of the human brain is the same. Of course, EYFS experts would jump on this and parody my argument with their visions of innocent little children slaving away at desks all day long when nothing could be further from the truth – whole class instruction can also involve lots of singing, hearing great stories, for example (still leaving plenty of time for all important free play). I’ve written a lot about how the ‘best practice’ set up of your typical reception year classroom leaves too much to chance, allows disadvantaged children to fall behind and ensures that children who have had extra practice at home (also known as ‘good parenting’) in the basics to fly ahead; however, I’ve not written about how specific elements of cognitive load theory applies to the reception year classroom.

In a nutshell, of course I believe that cognitive load theory applies to the reception year classroom. The trouble is, I don’t think EYFS experts give much thought to this at all (happy to be corrected on this). It’s an interesting thought experiment, so here goes……

#1 What are they thinking about?

Of course, the ideal, according to experts, is that children don’t know they’re learning – they’re supposed to just be thinking about having fun, innocently playing their way to basic competence in reading, writing, conversation, calculations, although we do at least now have a requirement for explicit instruction on systematic synthetic phonics. I’m in two minds about this issue. For me, it seems like a massive imposition on cognitive load for a child to be thinking about, say, adding as well as playing at the same time. Let me give you an example:

maths 1

Harry’s 4 years old, what would he be thinking about when he approached this multi coloured table? Harry’s not competent in the maths basics, otherwise he’d probably reinforce his knowledge with a few more calculations and wow the girlz with his adding prowess. However, he’s got no clue, so what is he going to do? Maybe play with the tweezers, scoop up all the counters and then pour them out? You bet. Even if the adult (remember, there are two, possibly three, adults in this classroom of 30 children) did come by and ‘encourage’ some kind of activity involving actual maths, the confused child is now thinking the following:

  • I want to please this person
  • I want to continue to have fun with these tweezers
  • Oooh look at that fly
  • If I don’t scoop up these counters, Barry’s gonna take the red ones
  • Adding is hard – I don’t want to do that
  • Maybe if I went to the painting area, this teacher would leave me the hell alone
  • OK I’ll just do a bit of adding, then when Mrs Smith goes and deals with the pushing and shoving over there, I’m just going to carry on with this epic scooping and pouring project
  • 2 add 4, hmmm, which counters shall I choose?
  • OK, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 10, oh I’ve forgotten what I’m doing
  • What was the question?
  • How come Hermione seems to know all her adding things off by heart?

It seems to me that Harry’s working memory is overloaded – in order to be better at calculating, he needs to think about the calculations and pretty much nothing else. Unfortunately, the above set up overloads his working memory and he’s not even picked up a pencil and had the opportunity to write anything down and check it makes sense.

So, maybe the above example was too open ended? Let’s look at another:

maths 2

Now, how long did it take you to work out how to use this ‘machine’. It looks fun, doesn’t it? It’s a classic, lovingly made by hard-working, caring reception year teachers and appearing on many independent maths tables in reception year classrooms up and down the country. Unfortunately, it causes children to think about lots of other factors at the same time as the calculations, and this is what happens in Harry’s mind:

  • Ooh, nice machine. I love a machine. Wonder if it goes 100 mph?
  • How do I use it?
  • Oh yes, Miss explained how to use it at the beginning of the lesson. Shit. I wasn’t really listening then because she’d also previously explained the spider man writing challenge table and the creative area activity and the outside jumping and hula-hooping thing and the……
  • I’ll just copy Hermione
  • Right, look at the card like she is. E + 7. What the…? Oh, it’s upside down. 2 + 3.  I got this
  • I’m gonna have 2 cubes and 3 cubes. I got this
  • [sing songy voice activated] I’m gonna put the 2 cubes and the 3 cubes and the 4 cubes and the 5 cubes…oooops gone too far….take some out….I’m gonna take the 5 cubes and the 4 cubes and the 3 cubes….
  • HERMIONE!! Why are you using this at the same time?
  • Let’s count it up. What do we get? Tada! 11 cubes [there are 23 but no one knows the number for that].
  • Miss? Are you going to take my picture as well as Hermione’s?

Not only was Harry not thinking about the calculation in the way that was intended, but he was thinking about all sorts of other things and then the outcome wasn’t just the wrong answer, but a missed opportunity to learn, off by heart, that 2 and 3 make a no-quibble 5.

#2 choices

I really struggled to find the kind of picture I want you all to see, but without children in it (GDPR ‘n’ all that). So, we’re talking about ‘continuous provision’ which, for the uninitiated, means a number of areas within a room, a creative area and an outside area with lots of different activities laid out. Some of these activities are numeracy, literacy based, and some are more like free play, one area will be dressing up within a particular topic etc. The thing about choice is that it involves choice, and when you’re making a choice, you’re not thinking about what you’re supposed to be learning. This brings me to another aspect of the disadvantaged child’s life in that our man Harry is more likely to lack the kind of concentration and resilience that well-fed, secure, calm and focused Hermione has. Harry, through lack of opportunities for/expectation of sustained concentration at home (such as eating and having polite conversation at the dinner table, or having a story read to him), has not got the requisite focus to really benefit from spending time at just one area, but tends to flit about like a fly on E. Even his mum laments the fact that he just can’t sit down for too long which is not because he’s got ADHD by the way, but because he hasn’t had much practice sitting down…because no one’s actually ensured that he sits down. Anyway, not only does he not get the same benefit of the maths and the independent writing tables as Hermione because he hasn’t got the basic knowledge down pat so ends up overloading his own working memory, but he also spends more of his time making choices and then giving up than Hermione because he just can’t sit down.

The above two examples of how reception year ‘best practice’ does not consider working memory, or, you know, what the child is thinking about at any one time that might not be about learning. And this is before we’ve gone into the additional detrimental effect of constant noise, constant movement, constant visual (and olfactory) stimuli that take up precious working memory, reducing the educational experience to virtually nil for the disadvantaged child.

Say you wanted to get radical and just separate out the whole play and learning thing (for crucial early academic knowledge). Maybe increase the amount of explicit instruction a little, ensure that whatever is taught is practised to automacity in a quiet and calm atmosphere and then just go nuts with the whole play thing once Harry’s got what Hermione’s got. Could you? No. The current EYFS framework mandates a certain reception year way….


So, we’re told that children learn through play. And that’s that. Here’s more:

teaching and learning

If we look at the playing and exploring aspect and the assumption that children need to investigate and experience things in order to learn, you do need to have certain thought processes going on in your head in order to get out of x, y or z activity that which the teacher had in mind. In short, you need a requisite amount of knowledge to partake in the whole investigating and experiencing thing. Harry doesn’t have any knowledge, so……?

As for ‘active learning’. I’ve had this rammed down my throat so many times – it’s basically ‘anything that is not about sitting down, listening, reading, writing and generally concentrating’. Trouble is, Harry struggles to concentrate, so……?

Then we have creating and thinking critically – where do these ‘own ideas’ come from? Harry doesn’t have many ideas because he’s not got the kind of knowledge that Hermione’s got, so……?

These 3 characteristics of (alleged) effective teaching and learning seem to be the opposite to the effective characteristics of teaching and learning in year 1, 2, 3 all the way up to….er…..adulthood. No mention of explicit instruction. No mention of much needed practice to fluency and automacity. No mention of retrieval practice to help secure knowledge in long term memory. Yet, their brains are virtually the same come year 1 – albeit with slightly more connections (especially for Hermione). I’m also reminded of the very somber message said to us all at a recent local authority moderation meeting:

Remember, we are looking for evidence of the three characteristics of effective teaching and learning in your setting – this is mandatory. Evidence collected for the ELGs must be through implementation of these three characteristics.”

Anyway, I maintain that cognitive load theory applies to Harry in reception year just as much as it applies to a Harry in year 1, 2, 3 and beyond. How we factor that in, while also ensuring that Harry develops in other ways, is another question entirely!

Who’s with me?