Those who care the most also have the courage to hold children to account

I couldn’t help but write a reply to this accusation that educators who work in schools which have strict rules, routines and high expectations are complicit in child abuse. The author cites the DfE guidance on what constitutes emotional abuse and then states that certain practices in schools up and down this country also fall within this category of child abuse by alleging that they cause the child to feel the same way. The DfE guidance is here and I have summarised the definition of emotional abuse as:

  • adversely affecting emotional development
  • persistently causing serious emotional distress through through telling them that, eg, they are worthless
  • stopping children from expressing themselves/silences them
  • being forced to witness the maltreatment of another
  • involving bullying, exploitation, corruption

So now I will deal with each bullet point in which the author alleges constitutes evidence of child abuse.

Forcing children to publicly apologise for their behaviour”

I’m not really sure how the above constitutes emotional abuse, but I’m assuming that the author is thinking that if a child does not feel sorry, then it is emotional abuse to force him to say sorry against his wishes because this may cause him to feel upset. However, there is a clear distinction between the occasional feelings of guilt and embarrassment that come from being called to account in such a way, and the persistent emotional distress described by the definition of child abuse above. Also, we need to remember that a single teacher on their own in a class of 30 simply cannot leave the class with the one child to ask him to apologise because that would mean 29 others unattended. Further, some things just have to be dealt with straight away and what’s so wrong with guilt and embarrassment? These are normal human emotional responses that galvanise the young person into thinking twice before throwing that chair again, ultimately protecting them from future difficulties with relationships. What is emotional abuse is turning a blind eye, not expecting an apology and therefore simultaneously allowing a child to carry on not understanding that his actions may cause the misery of others: THIS will definitely interfere with his emotional development!

Publicly listing all children’s results so that low-achieving children are humiliated

No one does this.

Actually, where you do see public ranking, it will be those children who can access and have received the curriculum content; this will not include those with diagnosed SEN, for example. Ranking, despite not being popular with children who don’t like listening or working hard, provides a great incentive for those children who do work hard and see their results improve. We know that being ‘good’ at something comes from receiving explicit instruction and practicing lots and it is nothing to do with somehow being ‘naturally good’ from birth; therefore, ranking also rightly provides public praise for those children who have worked hard. It is also an honest way to inform parents where their child is. It is also how the real world works.

Giving detentions for low achievement in tests

I think the implication here is that children who can’t help but get low marks in tests are going to be punished and made to feel bad about it. However, I don’t know any teacher who punishes these children, rather every teacher I know works hard to give them extra support in the run up to the test to ensure they have a fair crack at it.

We need to bear in mind that in real life, if you don’t work hard, you will probably be ‘let go’. If your boss is feeling nice, then he might give you a second chance and ask you to do a few extra hours to make your quota. This is not emotional abuse, this is called running a business. Better to just learn this lesson well before getting a ticking off from your future boss that ends up with your not being able to pay the mortgage eh.

Demanding conformity to a highly exclusive ideal in order to be accepted as part of the school “community”

Children love to conform because it makes them feel safe. For those children who are not lucky enough to receive The Rules of Life from parents, the provision of rules, routines and etiquette expectations by the school gives them a basis with which to conduct themselves and have happier conversations and relationships as a result. Further, the wider world that will receive them will have similar expectations, unless of course you don’t expect some children to join civilised society – who would admit to that? I would hope that if you’re reading this, you are one of us educators who actually expects and would give children a chance to join the more ‘exclusive’ parts of society as it were.

Preventing student questioning

During the lesson, there will be times when a question from a student is appropriate, and there will be times when a question will shatter the carefully curated thought processes of 29 other children and derail the teacher’s instruction. Stopping a child from asking a question at an inappropriate time is not child abuse, it is common sense. Most/all teachers have rules for when you can and can’t ask questions and if the child breaks the rule and then ends up feeling a bit silly, then he will learn from that one-off event. A moment of feeling silly is not the same as persistent emotional distress.

Enforced silence outside of lessons

What? Even on the playing fields at breaktime? I don’t know any school that does this!

Silence is liberating. In corridors where bullying would tend to flourish, it protects those who would otherwise be subjected to cruel comments. Many, many children with SEN benefit from these sorts of rules. Hey, we’re expected to be mostly silent in libraries, museums and in the parts of church services where people bow their heads in prayer, but is anyone accusing librarians, museum staff and little old lady churchgoers of being child abusers? No. Just the teachers. Those nasty teachers out to get children. Seriously, a bit of safety-first enforced silence does not constitute child abuse.

Teachers criticising students openly in classes

There was one time, many years ago, when some aspect of my accounts was 10p out. Oh I never heard the end of it! Going back even further in time, I once got diddled by two recently released prison inmates and was ticked off by my boss for somehow letting them take an extra £20 from the till. Today, if a child has not followed repeated instructions, then they will rightly receive public criticism, just as the child who has followed instructions to the letter will receive a great deal of public praise. However, the author’s insinuation that a teacher telling a child off is really an attempt to make that child feel worthless is really quite wrong – when I tell a child off, I am not saying to him ‘You are worthless’, rather I am saying to him ‘I am disappointed. You can do better than this. I expect you to learn from this and I care enough to ensure you hear this message loud and clear’. I do not have time to produce a simpering and robotic ‘Don’t worry, we can fix that window’ for the child who is not thinking of others or who cannot be bothered to listen. The one off criticism for poor effort, behaviour or manners is not child abuse, it is actually a difficult and caring attempt to nudge the child towards future happiness and success.

Forcing children to wear signs around their necks for uniform violations

No one does this.

Forcing children to smile at teachers or suffer sanction

No one does this.

Forcing children to praise their teachers or suffer sanction

Never heard of this one either, unless the author is confusing praise with thanks and the expectation that children say thank you to a visiting expert or music teacher, for example. Being expected to say thank you is good training for little ones and will help them to have more friends as they grow up. It is definitely not child abuse to expect a thank you!

Pushing children into exclusion or even offsite units

Interesting and I’m assuming deliberate choice of words with ‘pushing’ conjuring up images of teachers literally shoving innocent children into windowless cells. No one does this.

Separate lunch areas for different children

OK so, um, we do this. I don’t know how providing special quiet and small supervised lunch rooms for those children who struggle with sensory overload in the main dining hall constitutes emotional abuse? I would say that for these children, many of whom are on the spectrum, forcing them back into the main hall would cause them a lot of emotional distress. Let’s move on.

A draconian no-excuses policy with heavy sanctions for any minor infringement

I think many would take offence at the inappropriate use of the word draconian, but in any case a no-excuses policy can provide real clarity for children who struggle with right and wrong or who have not been lucky enough to receive all the rules of life from parents. I don’t know any school that is giving out heavy sanctions for minor infringements though – I’m pretty sure there aren’t any. I think what we need to remember here is that not all children are uber-confident in the way the author might imagine – some really need us adults to ensure rules are followed so that they are then protected from the peer pressure that results when rules are slackened in favour of liberal interpretation and ‘self expression’. Further, hard and fast rules also remove the endless and really quite tiring negotiation expected of teachers under the conditions whereby many children naturally test those boundaries to see where they really are.

Perhaps the author, and many who also share his views, is thinking that if a child feels sad at any point = then the ‘instigator’ of the sadness is automatically a child abuser. This really is a conflation too far and risks tarring anyone who works with children as (potential) child abusers. This kind of thinking also seriously undermines authority – yes, authority is needed in this world to keep it safe – who wants to live in a world in which children who have not been parented are then allowed to do, say and take whatever they want by those who are responsible for their education? Not I!

So, let’s be courageous and hold our children to account. They need us to help them learn those good habits.

Who’s with me?

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Why music education shouldn’t be left to chance

I thought I’d write a little blog post in support of Nick Gibb’s intention to raise the status of music education for younger children. I’m really pleased that a model music curriculum will be created because, at the moment, so much is left to chance – more so than other subjects, perhaps. So, allow me to tell you a story about how I came to be musical and let us consider how we can give all children a chance, not just a few who, like me, were just lucky.

Although we were technically disadvantaged, in many ways my upbringing put me squarely in the advantaged category. My mum was a big fan of giving myself and my sister all sorts of interesting experiences such as gymnastics, ballet and books galore and she had also made the wonderful decision to toss the TV up the end of the garden and deny us that form of entertainment till the age of 18, thus forcing my sister and myself to create our own imaginary world and language to try and survive the sheer boredom of living in the countryside. The boredom was great for developing my imagination, curiosity and openness to new experiences, so when I was given a recorder and a ‘How to play recorder’ book on my 7th birthday, I naturally devoured it in a couple of hours and was soon given part B to learn.

Looking back, that kind of behaviour was not exactly normal (I was a bit ‘different’), so you could probably say that my musical luck at that time also extended to being able to focus without adult direction from a very young age. A short while after that, our year group was given a musical aptitude test at school and I was one of about 4 children in the whole year group who passed the test and therefore given the opportunity to learn an instrument. This was good for me, of course, but about 90% of the children in the year group had been denied a musical education, all because of a narrative that made everyone believe musical ability was somehow a ‘natural’ thing, encoded in the DNA of a chosen few and in need of spotting and drawing out. Of course, for those of us who are enlightened and evidence-informed, we know that there is no such thing as natural ability and all it takes is explicit teaching and masses of practice with acquisition of subject-specific knowledge to become an expert. Unfortunately, the resultant violin playing didn’t go well because I couldn’t stand the sound of myself during home practice (I actually caused my own sensory overload) and I stopped within a few weeks. I still played recorder and was invited to play in a very good recorder ensemble run during school lunchtimes by a couple of teachers.

A few years later, I was given yet another opportunity to learn to play the violin, for free. I was about 12 and spent every term time Saturday (9am – 1pm) for the next 5 years at a music school, learning how to play in an orchestra and sing in a choir. This was in East London where most people’s musical ability extended to singing ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’ at the end of a rowdy night at the Queen Vic. I used to walk past the old West Ham stadium on the way to Saturday school and attract all sorts of comments from crowds of football supporters such as ‘Is there a dead body in that, luv?’ and ‘Go on, play us a tune on your guitar!’ Good times. That music school became the a constant in my life as our housing situation turned a bit hairy and I eventually moved into a hostel. I loved that place and one of my enduring memories was my first day there: I was so worried, but then I met the music director who was stood in the foyer holding a cup of tea in a bone china cup and saucer that had numerous biscuits perched around the side, fag hanging out his mouth; he was a kind Welshman who made me feel at home even though I was so nervous. Also, he had a great singing voice despite being pretty much a chain smoker. You’ve got to respect that.

Anyway, the kind of concentration you need to follow a conductor, read music, get those notes in tune and keep your bowing the same as everyone else’s requires you to dedicate all your RAM which has this wonderful side effect of crowding out life’s worries. When you learn an instrument and play in an orchestra, you learn to submit completely. Also, all music teachers are slightly mad/different and that’s a good thing because, let’s face it, who wants to surround themselves with boring people? When I was 14, a friend of my mum gave me a violin. He had found in his attic and being a Christian, felt compelled to give it to me because I was approaching the point where I needed a better quality violin to play those trickier pieces of music. It turned out to be a rare antique English violin (most, at the time, were made in France or Italy) and it is now around 250 years old and worth thousands.

Let me count the ways in which I was lucky:

  • Being given, on multiple occasions, opportunities to learn and play music for free
  • Being the sort of person who could concentrate and work hard without adult direction
  • Going to a school that ‘spotted’ musicians and provided musical education
  • Being taught by teachers who happened to be musical and who voluntarily gave up their lunchtimes to running a recorder ensemble
  • Being given a violin that could produce such beautiful sounds
  • People generally being quite kind to me

Subsequently, the children that I have taught have also been lucky because they have learned how to read music, play instruments, perform to an audience and appreciate the best that has been arranged and composed. Most primary schools don’t even have one class teacher who has benefited from that kind of musical education and even if Nick Gibb’s initiative becomes the status quo in many primary schools, it will be a whole generation before primary schools can take for granted that at least one class teacher is a Real Musician. What usually happens in primary schools is a combination of the following:

  • Assembly singing involves more modern songs and the old-fashioned, vocab and knowledge-rich religious/traditional songs are fast becoming a distant memory
  • Primary teachers are either not teaching music, or are resorting to more experimental and ‘relevant’ lessons in order to draw out some kind of innate musical ability in children, or provide fun experiences as a type of therapy to help children cope with the expectation that they will work hard in maths
  • Schools sometimes buy in musical experts to teach music as PPA cover, leading to an awful lot of African drumming
recorder book
A classic – who remembers this?

What can be done? Well, there’s a lot that is easier said than done, such as requiring leaders in schools to take into account the balance of degree subject specialisms when shortlisting candidates for interview. At the moment, many ads show a preference for BEds (particularly in Scotland, Wales and in international schools) rather than academic degrees + QTS, so unwittingly drive away many with the kind of knowledge and expertise who could really make a difference to children’s musical lives. I wonder why that needs to be the case? Schools could also, if necessary, choose a willing teacher and give them the opportunity to learn music and to play an instrument in order that they share that knowledge with children. Is it possible? Yes! You can learn anything at any time of your life – you just need to submit yourself to the cause.

Ah yes, submission. This is a tricky one because those of us who know about music education, know that a certain mindset needs to be inculcated both in children and in teachers. Firstly, the belief that musical ability is naturally occurring rather than the result of years of practice, dedication, tears even needs to be proven wrong in the minds of new teachers, so that they do not, by accident, disadvantage those disadvantaged children further. There also needs to be an understanding that the ability to submit completely to learning is a good thing, an old-fashioned scholarly attribute that needs to be encouraged rather than destroyed – again, many new educators would struggle with that concept because they have grown up in a world of ‘do what feels good’. We need courageous educators who think about the child’s future rather than allow a possible strop or tantrum to curtail the learning. Further, the view that music lessons in primary school should be an antidote to the hard work of the morning’s learning, or perhaps an opportunity for ‘less academic’ children to gain confidence also needs to change because in its current form, it drives curricular decision making towards the ‘relevant’ and the ‘fun’ Damian Hinds-esque experience and away from the more challenging and rewarding canon of traditional music, music reading and instrument playing. Further, it risks those ‘less academic’ children internalising that reading, writing and adding up is not for them, and that they should perhaps consider becoming famous YouTube singers and performers instead when what they needed was to be given extra teaching and opportunities for practice. The result of all this underlying thinking is what causes music lessons in year 7 to end up being a hellish and noisy free-for-all, ultimately leading to the withdrawal of GCSE music provision because most secondary pupils simply cannot access it. The lucky ones who could access it can simply use their ABRSM qualifications instead of GCSEs and A levels anyway.

If I were running a SCITT course, I would firstly (well, after the safeguarding spiel), seek to uncover and break down these beliefs that lurk in the minds of new primary educators. This would probably be quite a painful psychological process for many SCITT students because it would cause them to look at their own educational trajectory and realise that the reason they are not ‘naturally’ good at maths, music, writing, whatever was because they probably didn’t listen, focus or do enough practice when they were given the chance. Also, being told that you can’t view certain lessons as a chance to kick back and enjoy, possibly get your children to like you more because of the super-duper noisy and experimental fun you’ve got lined up for a Friday afternoon would also be quite a rude awakening, possibly uncovering underlining tendencies towards unhealthy co-dependency.

So, changing mindsets during SCITT training, thinking about academic expertise during the hiring process as well as providing CPD and a great, sequenced curriculum to follow should help to give all children the chance of a great music education, rather than a lucky few who, like me, were simply in the right place at the right time when the opportunities were handed out. Wouldn’t it be great to have a musical revival and to see our children go on to compose and perform great music?

Who’s with me?

 

Breaks and lunchtimes: the flaw in our system

To be fair, our situation is about as extreme as it gets. Recently, one of my colleagues was talking to me about the health and social data for the local community as I had put together a policy document which she was contributing to. It was one of those hurried conversations as we both needed to be on our way to classrooms to teach, but I remember thinking that an average life expectancy of 57 for males (it was something like that) was possibly even lower than Russia! Anyway, the mental health situation is also very interesting and of course it permeates into our setting, affecting everyone and everything, especially the parts of the day when children have more freedom. When I am out on break and lunch duty, I cannot help but think that one of the flaws in our education system is the continued assumption that breaks and lunches do not require as high an adult to child ratio as during lesson time, that adults on duty do not need to proactively teach so much and that all children need and love the freedom of breaks and lunchtimes.

screenshot 2019-01-09 at 6.55.31 am - edited

(For secondary teachers who are reading, what usually happens is that teaching assistants go out on break duties and then they take their break during lesson times – young children must be overseen by an adult at all times. I really don’t know what we will do when/if most teaching assistants disappear from the system because we certainly can’t go back to the 1980s when we just had one lonesome teacher with a no-lid cup of boiling hot coffee out on duty)

Of course, we adhere to the legal requirements for supervision of children, and staff who are out on duty are there to support and guide children, particularly when it comes to the squabbles that so easily escalate. Our staff have to work very hard on this aspect because our children do not have the same level of language and communication as children in other schools (yes, we are tackling this in our curriculum) and what is modeled at home in terms of settling disputes* isn’t always what we would like to see in a school. Of course, we also give the children suggestions for games to play and we act as referees for all those boys who want their football games to be fair.  What happens during children’s playtimes is also supported by messages given during assemblies, in circle times and during PSHE lessons and you may be interested to know that a knowledge-rich curriculum certainly imbues their role-play with more imagination and creativity. Further, we provide a variety of lunch clubs and at various times purchase new play equipment (that gradually disappears as items are accidentally flung over the walls and into gardens around the estate) for the children to use. We have also got a year 6 playground buddy system as well as established routines for lining up after break that helps the children to calm themselves and be ready for their teachers’ instruction.

But I don’t think this is enough.

Being a reflective sort of person, I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that instead of fewer people watching over and supporting children during playtimes, we need more. Many more. It would be fascinating to run some kind of scientific experiment to compare levels of epinephrine and blood pressure of children at breaks and during lesson times and to compare this data set with that of another school serving an advantaged community. My hypothesis would be that epinephrine levels would be way higher in our children and this would be directly related to lack of ability to automatically self-regulate emotion and one’s body in a way that would normally be taught and expected by parents (through teaching sitting calmly, conversation as well as calming love and support etc).

Epinephrine, also known as adrenalin, increases heart rate, blood sugar levels and blood flow to the muscles. It makes you sharper, angrier, feistier, stronger, faster and louder and effects are amplified if you happen to be male, or if it is a windy day. Yes, you might be recognising the fight-or-flight response there. For some children, flying into fight-or-flight mode is an exhilarating habit and so the waves of their playtime debacles spill over and into the classroom. Despite whatever ‘best practice’ measures are put in place, the adrenalin is still coursing through their bodies as they try to get on with their maths Do Now.

In an ideal world, what kind of adult support would I like? I’m talking 1:10 ratio in zoned areas and I reckon there would be quite a few leaders in schools serving disadvantaged communities like ours who might think the same. In fact, there might be a few leaders in schools serving advantaged communities who are quietly thinking that this would massively improve the education of the whole child in their school too. My vision is for a playtime curriculum and for children to be taught and expected to practise the old fashioned songs and skipping games, for example. You might be thinking ‘well, why don’t you do that already, Hannah? Why are you not teaching all 370 odd children all of this while also putting on plasters and soothing the squabblers and blowing the whistle?’ I’m afraid I’m not as good as you, clearly! I’m just an ordinary leader trying to do her best. Seriously, what I need is for teachers, teaching assistants and a huge swathe of play/support workers to be teaching ALL the children during playtimes and lunchtimes (including how to sit and eat at a dinner table as well as how to skip) every single day and this just can’t happen because, unfortunately, adults need to occasionally have a break themselves. Dangit. Perhaps there is a way? I’ve often thought that instead of using pupil premium to provide after school sports clubs so they can learn to kick harder and run faster from each other, maybe use pupil premium to support regular, old-fashioned play and then children can kick less and hold hands instead.

Who’s with me?

 

 

*Some seem to know how to create disputes out of nowhere!

 

How we can really help parents

This is a blog post about how I believe mistaken benevolence for parents inadvertently weakens their resolve – instead, we need to empower them with knowledge and aspiration for their children.

One of my own little mantras, conjured up over a few years of seeing how life pans out, is the more you help someone, the less they help themselves. When I see this in a school setting, I end up in a quandary over wanting to help because it is the right thing to do, yet at the same time knowing that a person or group of people is at risk of learned helplessness and dependency if they allow themselves to get used to said help. To some extent, you can see how possessing strength or expertise in any area of life would then be reinforced and augmented through practice because we all seek the happiness of helping others and then in tiny little ways we are all connecting and becoming more than the mere sum of individuals. It also makes more sense and increases our chances of survival if individuals specialise and become more efficient, therefore we have evolved to be this way: during groupwork, this is why some children end up doing all the writing, some do all the thinking/working out and others do all the colouring in! However, it seems some of us find it too easy to receive help and are not the most willing to help ourselves or others; children are no exception to this rule because they are fallible human beings in need of guidance. In fact, children probably are more at risk of this, aren’t they?

A classic example of this phenomenon occurs when the TA or the teacher works with children who are lower attaining and in need of a boost, re-telling what has just been taught and what they have to do and then providing the starts of sentences/scaffolds. It is good practice for the teacher or TA to base themselves with a group of children while the rest of the class is busy getting on with their independent work, yet the unintended result of all this good practice is that a core group of children could end up…

  • learning that they don’t have to listen during the input (because Miss will just give me a private tutorial after)
  • zoning out while the teacher gives instructions (because Miss will remember the order of everything)
  • not developing much needed focus and effort to remember key words, algorithms, procedures (because the hard part of starting anything will be provided by the adult)

Over the years, these thought processes could become habitual, their ‘dao’ so to speak. This is very difficult to change and I believe it is one of the reasons why, despite average or high KS2 SATs results, many children struggle when they start secondary school and are suddenly expected to work on their own. Nobody wants to be accused of being cruel and uncaring, so they do their utmost to care and help others despite the risk of learned helplessness. Deep down, we all know that the best thing is to struggle a bit, maybe make a mistake or two along the way.

It’s different for parents, right? One would assume that they are not at risk of learned helplessness because they are not children. Therefore, the best way to to help them cope with parenting and to be better parents is to, er, help them as much as possible? We’ve got all this austerity and Brexit going on, plus the mental health crisis and parents are really struggling. No wonder some children are coming to school tired, hungry, depressed and anxious! I wonder if some parents end up struggling because they’ve also developed some dependency due to receiving and then expecting so much help. Have you ever had the same thoughts? OK, you probably haven’t. In fact, you’ve mostly heard the opposite. ‘Parents need less help!’ is not exactly a message you would read in The Guardian.

Anyway (says she who still pursues this challenge to the status quo), society expects the educator to extend the caring and helping role to parents and wider family because, well, that’s one of the reasons we all pay tax. Politicians win votes over it and yet in a similar way to that child arriving in year 7 unable to start a paragraph, I think this contributes to a phenomenon whereby many parents inadvertently arrive at the front door of the primary school thinking that….

  1. many/most aspects of child development happen naturally and ‘when they’re ready’
  2. professionals will be able to step in to help when their child doesn’t develop x, y or z naturally
  3. children must be given voice and choice on everything right from the start
  4. children must only experience happiness and happy thoughts because that’s how happy adults are created

The above are mantras/rules of parenting showered upon the newly pregnant woman by professionals until all the wisdom and tradition of her ancestors is overwritten and she knows not to listen to granny who is advising her that little Tommy needs to learn that he can’t get his own way and that she really ought to get that bedtime routine going for the sake of everyone’s sanity, not least the health of the child.

For the new parent who has not been parented well herself, this is an unmitigated disaster. She needed to be empowered by the truth that it is only the survival instincts which come naturally and that everything else must be purposefully taught, modeled and then practised to the point of automaticity. That’s how we learn; it’s the same magic that happens in the classroom. Sleep hygiene is a great example of something that must be learned. Many parents are told by a kindly health worker that at some point their baby will automatically regulate his own sleeping ‘when he’s ready’ (rule 1 above) and to really drive the message home we have the added guilt trip of being made to worry that in ‘forcing’ a child to go to sleep at a certain time by saying ‘No!’ instead of using the modern wisdom of offering choices, they might cry a bit which of course breaks rules 3 and 4. Years later, they find themselves embroiled in increasingly lengthy and elaborate rituals that only they can do in order to get their child to go to sleep and stay asleep. Some give up along the way by either accepting a potentially marriage-wrecking solution of allowing the child to sleep in the adults’ bed for years while others just let the child be on an iPad till the wee hours. Years later, the parents are still knackered and never have time to really love and care for each other.

I think there is also a chance that many developmental problems 5 year olds arrive with at reception year could be attributed to one, some or all of the four modern parenting rules listed above. And then of course the state provides an enormous amount of help with all sorts of labels and diagnoses for the child thus facilitating a conveyor belt of state provided professionals and help into their lives. The EYFS framework is interesting in that it kind of cements this process: if you look at the modern parenting rules I have listed above, you can see them weaved into the narrative of the framework for early years practitioners to follow. Another great example: speech and language. Children need to hear the crisp enunciation of English language from an adult and then be expected to use it lots and purposeful parenting is basically the same as good quality teaching in this regard. Civilised conversation at the dinner table that includes the giving of knowledge and its associated vocabulary from the parent (rather than allowing the child to dominate) and sharing bedtime stories is a key factor in this process and yet parents are led to believe that their role in all of this is merely to wait for a miracle while their child plays on an iPad or tears around the playgroup screaming at the top of his voice. If you put 20 toddlers who can’t talk into a room together, the English language will not magically flourish (I disagree with Geary, as you know), but it’s OK because we have lots of speech and language therapists working with young children now. An official-sounding diagnosis of speech and language delay would surely reinforce any learned helplessness of parents, partly because it abdicates responsibility from the adult, who would impart the much needed knowledge, to the child with his mysteriously ‘unready’ brain. Further, in schools in areas of high deprivation where precious resources are being hoovered up in order to tackle speech and language delay, that means less time/resources for the teaching of phonics, which means whole cohorts are delayed in reading, which means fewer years to start to accumulate knowledge and vocabulary which means…….you get the picture. And how are all these children coping with the fact that they cannot use their words to communicate and play with friends? What might they use instead to communicate? Perhaps the root cause of the behaviour crisis in schools goes back further than we think……and there are of course plenty of professionals to help parents with that.

So, how could we really help parents? Many argue for more money for parents or for those Sure Start centres to be re-opened, but I think that the absence of Sure Start, even though we all agree it was pretty good, highlights just how much of the parenting role has been gradually transferred to the state and to front line public sector workers in general, necessitating the proliferation of all kinds of therapists and general help into families’ lives.

Instead of more help, I would argue that perhaps parents need to be empowered to help themselves. All that it would take is for them to turn to the wisdom and tradition of their parent ancestors rather than automatically follow the narrative described above. Parents need to know that:

  1. Parenting is something you can do, purposefully. Whatever it is you want your child to do or know, you need to teach (or model it to) them and expect lots of practice because pretty much nothing comes naturally*
  2. You are worth listening to, so please do not accept the soul-crushing reality of being routinely ignored. Make the decisions for your child and do not let them take over all the conversations. Learn to say no and mean it.
  3. Your child will never be truly happy if he grows up expecting you and the world to provide constant fun and entertainment as well as thinking he has a right to to act out (sometimes violently) whenever he doesn’t want to do something. True happiness comes from working hard and helping others and you can be pivotal in helping your child to learn that.

I’m not sure how exactly those messages could be conveyed or by whom, but anyway…..

Who’s with me?

*I just had to put something here about the ability to sit still and focus because I saw a comment on twitter about it. Many seem to believe that being able to sit still and focus is something that comes naturally and if a child cannot do that, then they need to be allowed to run around and do lots of different things until they’re ‘ready’ to learn to sit still and focus. Everyone seems surprised when these children become natural runners and flitters instead. I believe that just like everything else in life, in order to learn to sit still and focus, you need to be taught and then expected to practise sitting still and focusing lots in order to then become ‘good’ at it – just like we would need to practise sitting still and focusing in order to meditate. Those children who are miraculously and naturally ‘good’ at this are usually being taught and then regularly expected to sit still and focus at the dinner table and for their bedtime story by parents – I think we need to remember that, otherwise we risk disadvantaging disadvantaged children even more by attributing the ability to sit still and focus to some kind of natural force/ability/genetics or, dare I say it, God himself.

 

The Most Magical School

This is a blog post about a school’s inspirational USP. I’ve been thinking a lot about school culture and have come to the conclusion that through the latest developments in school networks such as multi academy trusts, there is the risk that a certain je ne sais quois of individual schools would be lost in the process. When a school’s USP is allowed to shrink away, we risk losing the hearts and minds of parents and the wider community.

The most ‘magical’ school I went to visit and work in was a Montessori primary school. Now, you know I’m not the biggest fan of the Montessori philosophy, however, the headteacher sought accreditation, developed the Montessori philosophy all the way through the school and then of course this became the school’s USP. The Montessori thing was like a beacon that attracted a certain kind of family who wanted a Montessori approach and therefore were invested in the success of their children and the school before they stepped onto the premises. These parents had aspirations for their children and in due course the good behaviour and academic standards also became part of the school’s USP.

The magic of this school extended into the family home: the kinds of conversations happening at the dinner tables would reinforce the high status of teachers in the children’s minds so that when they went into school they would listen and work that little bit harder as well as be more likely to follow the rules and routines. And those that lived next door who were a bit more ‘meh’ about the whole thing would be hearing ‘this school is great’ down the shops or at the pub. Due to the great reputation and USP of this school, the parents had been co-opted to provide extra energy and enthusiasm for this organisation and the subsequent ratcheting up of effort of every single pupil and parent also had a positive effect on the teachers.

So, the teachers could actually teach and because they weren’t exhausted, they could invest a little more of their mojo in building those relationships and giving their enthusiasm to the subject matter being taught, rather than having to placate, cajole or entertain. Most of the staff, including the headteacher, were then able to volunteer their time to run an interesting after school club. Teachers hardly ever took a day off sick and since all the children were working hard from the start, there was no need for teachers to have to bust a gut over constant interventions. I have never met an entire staff that was happier, friendlier or more willing to go the extra mile than the staff at that school – they were a great team and supported each other so well. The USP of the school attracted the best teachers and those that couldn’t get a job there seemed to volunteer until a position became available. All the TAs seemed to be volunteers too, eager to work at this friendly and happy place.

Due to the general positive vibes and extra energy everyone seemed to have, there was extra capacity to give to children with special educational needs. The school then developed a reputation for being very inclusive for children with severe disabilities – everyone was trained in lifting children in and out of wheelchairs for example. If a teacher was struggling with a child who had high needs on a particular day, another teacher would volunteer her TA to help.

All this developed from a very clever approach to USP requiring an initial investment of time and resources which then ended up co-opting the hearts and minds of whole families and the wider community. The magic didn’t happen by accident: it was a leader’s planned, purposeful and proactive approach to PR and the school’s USP that generated all this (people in the street would talk about how it was like a private school).  She had real vision and it was nothing to do with quick fixes or firefighting approaches. Don’t get me wrong, there were also those efficient systems in place that ensured the school ran like clockwork and I think it’s probably no coincidence that she had a background in business/financial services. A leader cannot do all this alone and credit also goes to the teachers who bought into the vision and invested more of themselves as a result. They were appreciated and trusted and you could see how that made them feel good.

44147584-silhouette-of-a-raven
I put this picture here for no other reason than the family Corvidae, my favourite animals, are great planners*

You’ve probably gathered that I’m not trying to persuade anyone other than myself here about how I would go about running a school. Here are my conclusions:

  1. A USP needs to be positive and really quite unique. For me, it would be all about tradition, a knowledge rich curriculum and the development of scholarly dispositions/habits. Further, I would say that ‘tradition’ also includes helping our next generation to participate in social discourse and this means giving them scripts for positive and caring communication because so much of that has been lost in our local communities. This, ultimately, would lead to happier children, especially if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  2. Leaders need to create those efficient systems so that their teachers aren’t exhausted! I would work towards an ideal situation whereby most aspects of the school are running like clockwork. I do love a system anyway.

The other magical aspect of a school having a great USP is that it also creates a powerful alternative ‘identity’ for children to step into when they enter the school gates. So, instead of a child thinking about how their parents are getting divorced or the fact they live in cramped, cold and damp flat, they would leave their troubles behind and instead think about being successful in class and experiencing happier playtimes with their friends. Surely this is the best way to give children a proper childhood?

Who’s with me?

 

*Odin had two pet ravens: Huginn (from Old Norse “thought”) and Muninn (Old Norse “memory” or “mind”). Someday, I don’t know how, I’m going to get myself a pet raven or two!

 

 

A homage to the ‘Tai Chi’ of academic education

I was in a twitter conversation recently about handwriting and thought I would do a little blogette about it.

Have you ever seen those video clips of elderly Chinese people doing Tai Chi and Qi Gong together in public parks? Isn’t it wonderful! I taught a Tai Chi extra-curricular club at my old school and it was amazing to see how even little children could learn to focus and synchronise both the mind and the body together – the movements (which you had to learn by rote) even require you to control where you are looking. Along the way, the children would make mistakes and struggle, but they would only master the sequences through overcoming their own internal rebellion and pushing through; I was there to teach, encourage and provide the very still and quiet space to practise. I see handwriting lessons in a similar way – as a sort of ‘Tai Chi’ of children’s academic education where the outcomes are about so much more than neat, swift handwriting.

taichi

Old-fashioned penmanship fell out of favour a long time ago. Today, many struggle to see the worth of cursive handwriting; they think it restricts children’s rights to express their individuality and creativity as well as detracting from ‘the learning’ which should be about the content of the writing rather than how it looks. The fact that handwriting is not measured or reported on per se, is also another reason why it has fallen by the wayside as other management priorities take over. When I joined the profession, I found it a bit odd that there seemed to be an institutional disregard for something that was, to me, so fundamentally important, inclusive, liberating, an entitlement of all children, surely?

For a mere 20 minutes, the whole class dwells on their handwriting under the ideal conditions of silence or very soothing music. Ideally, this practice is a peaceful, daily ritual that pays attention to only one aspect of handwriting and there should be no additional cognitive demands such as simultaneously being expected to create some kind of poem, or think about a spelling rule, for all of that can come later on. For a moment, all of the children in the class are equals, united by this one purpose and experiencing the same struggle to synchronise their minds and bodies. Quite often, it is the ones who struggle in other lessons who experience the most success and receive that all important praise. Their sense of self-worth is boosted further because this may be the one time during the day when they work alone, without a TA helping them, so they get to feel like all the other children. This ‘being like everyone else’ is really important because children do like to fit in and be like their peers, even from a very young age. This is also why I am not keen on the modern wisdom that calls for children to be allowed to express their ‘individuality’ through a more lax approach to handwriting. Frequently, these individuals are not so much proud of their unique handwriting as ending up incredibly embarrassed and frustrated.

The good vibes that are generated through this simple little lesson can permeate through the rest of the morning’s activities, and the fact that it is a daily ritual is a key factor in helping many children to settle and feel less anxious. However, just like old fashioned penmanship, the tradition and joy of daily rituals has been supplanted by an assumption that younger children benefit from and prefer an ever changing smorgasbord of experiences. This runs counter to our own adult preferences which is to have parts of your day that are exactly the same and that ground us and connect us to our family. Many children do not experience this, either because their parents are ideologically opposed to daily habits and rituals, or they haven’t got the capacity or willpower to provide that kind of upbringing for their children. The daily handwriting lesson could, potentially, be the one part of the day all children experience a peaceful moment.

Creating the space for daily handwriting lessons is very difficult. Even when you set it all up, there are so many ways the zen-like focus can be shattered into a million pieces. All it takes is for someone to come in to ask what so-and-so is having for lunch, or for a child to just call out that their pencil has spontaneously exploded under the pressure of forming the perfect fancy f. Sometimes it is the teacher who inadvertently shatters the silence with a reminder or a question, destroying the child’s opportunity to really learn to focus.

I’ve managed to write a 1000 words on how handwriting helps with character formation and have yet to talk about the writing itself!

Cursive is ideal. Why? It’s continuous and I’ve literally seen spelling problems melt away over time when children are required to attend to this style of handwriting in a more focused way. More modern handwriting styles that enforce compulsory breaks cause children to think about which letter they’re allowed to join or not, rather than the spelling, the choice of word or the coherence of the sentence. This is a simple case of cognitive overload and we’re supposed to be avoiding that, not enforcing it! Further, compulsory breaks stop children from ever reaching the kind of handwriting speed that indicates fluency and allows them to fully participate in more demanding writing sessions required in KS3. Many would argue that attending to fully joined handwriting shouldn’t be prioritised because, apparently, this slows children down. However, we all know that children are slow at everything at first and just because they’re slow at something, doesn’t mean that we give up and let them do whatever they like instead – if they’re slow, it’s because they need more (focused) practice, not less.

The other aspect of modern handwriting styles that enforce compulsory breaks in words is that unjoined tails of letters and part of other letters that are not joined add such variety to the look of many words that children do not see the patterns and rules of spellings. The absence of a lead-in also adds further variety in terms of which words are flying in the air as opposed to sat on the line. This kind of handwriting is also more likely to be messy, causing additional cognitive demands for children who are trying to write a story, for example. Again, many don’t see a problem with ‘messy’ if the writing is, generally, of good quality and there are always those teachers and highly successful adults who boast about their messy handwriting (and how it hasn’t held them back) but the fact is that children do need to be able to read their own writing and so do the adults who mark it. Maybe I’m on my own here, but I really do think that neat, fast and fully joined handwriting is an entitlement of all children and that primary schools need to ensure that all children have the opportunity to learn, to automaticity, cursive handwriting, even though it doesn’t feature in progress measures.

Back to Tai Chi. The synchronicity of mind and body is not only amazing to experience, but it is also character forming, peaceful and generates happiness for both teacher and pupil (and onlookers!). The daily handwriting lesson is so similar in this way and I think we need to remember that before we relegate it to the one-off weekly lesson.

Who’s with me?

 

 

 

 

Do they really need karate and horse-riding?

This was a question that I asked (myself) during a recent discussion about the length of school day and the provision of clubs for children. We’re all about Hirsch and want to provide a knowledge-rich curriculum, but when it comes to extra-curricular provision, the assumption is that the more we provide that is similar to the life experiences of better-off children, the more we can ‘close the gap’. However, I think we look at the wrong ‘bit’ of the advantaged child’s life. I don’t think it’s karate and horse-riding that gives an advantaged child the edge in class, even though these activities are pretty fun, I think it’s the fact that they’re more likely to be experiencing dinner table conversation, homework supervision, music practice, bedtime rituals which include reading and being read to every single day. This is surely the real reason advantaged children enter reception year with a vast store of words and facts in their heads, as well as that advanced ability to concentrate, communicate and appreciate which ultimately leads to success and happiness.

knife and fork

There is this other curriculum that no one seems to see or acknowledge. Maybe this is because many teachers (teaching is a middle class profession) assume that a civilised dinner conversation is more or less what everyone experiences, that it doesn’t really matter, or perhaps they’re too scared to talk about this in public lest they be accused of being to ‘judgy’.

Instead, we look at the glamour of fun, entertaining and distracting activities and assume that if we give as much of these as possible to disadvantaged children, they will also achieve in the same way. The modern view that happiness for children should be a goal rather than the by-product of hard work could cause us all to lose sight of what really needs to be looked at. In this case I think it is what happens at the dinner table, at multiple points of the day, a steady drip, drip, drip of the following that makes the difference:

  • teaching, modelling and practice of sitting still and waiting
  • teaching, modelling and practice of a script for civilised conversation (‘How was  your day? What did you learn?’), including the inculcation of the habit of listening
  • teaching, modelling and practice of sharing
  • teaching, modelling and practice of tier 1, 2 and 3 words as well as interesting facts that they can refer and make links to in class

A simple calculation of 3 x 20 minutes of ‘dinner table curriculum’ a day gives us a child who has had almost 2000 hours of said instruction and practice by the time they start school. I’ve often thought that the real difference in ‘ability’ and attainment that we see open up in reception year is really a manifestation of whether a child has received the curriculum above (or not) which would then affect that child’s ability to receive the teacher’s instruction when they start school.

Reverting to the provision of middle class experiences as a way of closing the gap provides the following:

  • teaching and practice of constantly moving about and being heard
  • teaching and practice of a script for shouting matches (‘Who’s ready to have a great time whoooooo!’)
  • recycling of a child’s own limited vocabulary, opinions and feelings
  • an expectation of constant entertainment that ultimately leads to endless disappointment and ingratitude

My conclusion: maybe we need to somehow implement a ‘dinner table curriculum’ as a way of closing the gap instead. They don’t need yet more fun activities, they need our time, attention and high expectations.

Who’s with me?