How to reduce a disadvantaged child’s chances of a leg up in life

This post is also about EYFS reception year and this affects everyone in education. It’s all too easy to dismiss  the start of school life for children as some kind of settling in period, perhaps a time to make friends and play while learning the basics needed to access year 1. Even Ofsted inspectors tend not to have experience of the EYFS stage and politicians decline to comment because that stage of school life and what goes on seems too other-worldly. Nobody wants to challenge the accepted dogma because it is so easy to accuse naysayers of being uncaring, cruel even. However, what goes on in the reception year sets the course for that child’s education pretty much forever. Take heed.

If you’re not aware of how the reception year is usually implemented, let me bring you up to speed: children are tracked for Early Learning Goals and teachers ideally do not teach, except for once or twice daily phonics sessions. Instead, the children are offered a number of group tables with different play-based activities designed to allow children to discover the basics that tie in with the literacy and numeracy ELGs as well as other areas of development. The characteristics of effective learning that must be developed according to the 2014 EYFS curriculum are:

  • playing and exploring
  • active learning
  • creating and thinking critically

Yesterday I posted about how EYFS reception year essentially free-rides on the teaching that parents do at home, as well as some input on phonics teaching. Those that do not achieve are easily given the ‘Not ready’ status and you can see how, right from the start, the gap in achievement, particularly for the disadvantaged, opens up. The whole system relies on a majority of parents being proactive, but it falls down in disadvantaged areas if the majority of parents do not do the requisite parenting (not just teaching the basics, but also discipline, love, routine) needed for children to ‘learn from each other’ in the classroom or to access the discovery learning offered by the teacher. So what are they learning then?

  1. Limited vocabulary and poor enunciation

Reception year is noisy. Everyone accepts this and assumes that children prefer hullabaloo over calm, order and quiet. If a cohort of children comes into reception year without the basic vocabulary to string a sentence together, and another cohort come in with chronic glue ear that affects hearing, then you’ve got an almost comedic combination of children learning hardly any vocabulary as well as pronouncing it all wrong. Add to this the fact that everyone will be speaking at once, you’ve got to wonder how anyone improves their speech, language or spelling at all. I feel tired just sitting in a popular pub for an hour and I also struggle to hear what is said, yet these little people spend 30 hours a week in a similar social situation. Middle class parents just accept the situation and know that their child will at least be learning good conversational vocabulary and social skills at the dinner table, but some parents may be worried that school might set their child back and undo their good work.

2. How to shout. All the time.

Oh my goodness how pissed off was I when my children started school and then somehow learned to shout in my face the whole time? We’d be sat at the dinner table and I’d have to remind them that I was sat right next to them, not in the next village. This happened because of the reception year enforcing and embedding their shouting and ignoring skills.

3. Adults are not important

When the teacher is facilitating rather than teaching then the child is also learning that the adult is not important: not worth listening to or even looking at. It strikes me as odd whenever I visited reception year classes how little eye contact and sustained concentration children were able to give to adults, but it does make sense given that the children will be, allegedly, learning through discovery and therefore spending more time looking at shiny, bright things on a table, at the iPad or their friends, rather than at the teacher/adult. Just writing this makes me wonder whether the massive increase in ASD incidence and diagnoses in recent years is partially because those on the spectrum who need explicit teaching/modelling about how to interact with fellow human beings are instead having the opposite situation hard-wired during a crucial stage in development.

4. Desensitisation to anti-social behaviour

Up and down the land there are reception classes with a minority of violent, rude, selfish and disrespectful children in them. Many reception teachers would say otherwise, that their classes are wonderful havens of angelic singing and creativity, but it’s like even the teachers get desensitised to the noise and disruption that a certain cohort of children bring. Every time I pop my head into a reception class it’s like Armageddon; how can the teacher possibly know what every child is doing? Biting, scratching, shoving and kicking are the natural go-to options for many children who lack the vocabulary and social skills to negotiate their way into getting what they want and no amount of 15 minute assemblies about ‘remembering to be nice‘ can offset that. The teacher may indeed manage to turn around the behaviour of many children and the year will end on a high, but during that time many children will have had to put up with an awful lot of shit. Sometimes literally. Many children learn the lesson that some people just can’t help themselves and that we should just let them be. There are positives and negatives to this: an acceptance of different kinds of people is good and the world indeed be a boring place if we were all the same, but if this is mixed in with having to accept anti-social behaviour, then this must surely get a lot of children who make the effort to behave down.

5. How to follow their whims and not concentrate

The EYFS curriculum only requires that the children developed sustained concentration in the activities that they’re interested in and these activities must relevant, play-based and facilitate learning through discovery. I recommend you read page 42 to 44 of the handbook I linked to earlier because it is a real eye opener. Any parent will tell you that it is a load of hogwash because if you, as a parent, provide lots of lovely activities, the child gets picky and then is never happy, always roaming to the next option and certainly never concentrating on anything in particular. Why make a rod for your own back when you can give your child a wooden spoon and a couple of saucepans to play with for an hour? Boredom is great for helping children to develop an ability to think creatively! Further, can you see how progressive education is basically embedded through the reception year because children will then go on to expect the same from parents and future teachers? What of the child who never chooses to concentrate on something and work through a few problems because he’s so used to using an iPad at home? ‘Not ready’ is the easy answer that lets educators off the hook; there is no requirement to enforce good habits such as concentration during periods of hard work on something that a child would rather not do. In fact, just writing this makes me think that those children with ADHD might suffer disproportionately here. Again, middle class parents would make their children sit and read, so effectively inoculate their children against the most damaging effects of EYFS on children’s ability to concentrate.

Somebody in government needs to overturn the EYFS curriculum

Who’s with me?



Primary education’s dirty secret

Re-tweeting an old post about the education of young males really got me thinking about how they’re let down by the EYFS reception year curriculum and its usual interpretation/implementation in classes up and down the country. While young males prefer and are denied clarity, hierarchy, competition and no-nonsense direct teaching, they are also denied a certain amount of learning simply because their relative social immaturity (compared to female children) renders them unable to ‘read between the lines’. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that many men are also unable to read between the lines; think about that classic situation where the female partner says, through gritted teeth, ‘I’m fine’ when she’s clearly seething about something her partner’s done (by accident), and said male partner merrily takes the answer to his ‘Are you ok?’ at face value. Yes, this is a generalisation, but there is some truth in it: boys and men seem to need and prefer people to cut the bullshit and just spell things out. Anyway, reading between the lines and general inference are also required in order for discovery/play-based learning to work and many young boys simply lack the nous to infer, in the midst of the general noise and hustle-bustle of the reception class, some kind of connection between the dinosaurs that they’re playing with and the fact that Miss Potts is hoping they’ll spontaneously assimilate the knowledge that 2 red dinosaurs plus 3 blue dinosaurs make 5 dinosaurs. A young boy may prefer and need Miss Potts to just cut the dinosaur bullshit and instead tell and show him that 2 + 3 = 5 and then get him to practise using and applying that knowledge until he remembers it.

Some males will have ‘learned’ though, won’t they? However (and here’s where the dirty secret gets revealed) it’s not because of Miss Potts’ incredible ‘facilitation’ of play-based discovery learning, it’s because the children who are doing well are actually being taught, directly and indirectly, at home. The fact that Miss Potts set the dinosaur maths table up and stood there with an iPad ready to snap that evidence into the folder for the relevant ELG means that she’s very good at eliciting evidence of teaching at home; however, putting some toys out in a certain way, maybe offering a few mysterious comments starting with ‘I wonder….’ and then holding an iPad ready is not teaching. What of the boy who, unfortunately, didn’t read between the lines or make those connections? ‘Not ready’. Poor sod.

This is not to say that the reception year teacher isn’t working hard enough. Of all the people, she is rushed off her feet because constantly being required to be creative and run a room full of 30 tiny children with multiple activities going on all day long is exhausting. Being there for the needs, wants and whims of 30 4 and 5 year olds will leave this woman a husk of a human at the end of the day. You know, I wonder if she ever entertains the thought that it would be easier and more efficient to, perhaps merely for the mornings, sit the children in rows and show them all how 2 + 3 = 5. Surely it would be better for them to hear her clear voice and have more teaching time, rather than each child receive just a snippet of adult attention? After all, that would still leave many, many hours for happy play…..

Just as no one readily admits to stooping so low as to make a fishfinger sandwich of a Friday night instead of a proper, nutritious dinner with vegetables and everything, no parent readily admits to teaching their children phonics, nursery rhymes, how to hold a pencil, how to sit and listen to a story, formation of letters and numbers as well as basic number bonds (plus the conceptual understanding that comes through repeated practice). No one talks about the fishfinger sandwiches and no one talks about what they’re doing at home to prepare their child for school and in order to do well once he’s there. If a parent is teaching, she’s doing this because she things it’s the normal thing to do. If a parent is not teaching, then she either can’t be arsed, has bought into the whole ‘children naturally learn’ rhetoric that middle class people (who are teaching their children) peddle, or has assumed that Miss Potts might actually be doing this.

Does Miss Potts fully understand this scenario? No. Miss Potts is young and does not have children of her own, and even if she did, granny would be looking after them during the day (and teaching them the basics), so Miss Potts has no idea about the deliberate investment of time and energy needed in order to make little children literate, numerate (because it doesn’t magically happen if you leave a child with a book or a calculator) and with a bank of vocabulary and understanding to make further connections with. Miss Potts has her BEd degree and clearly knows all she needs to know, plus of course she might think most stay at home mums chill out in their onesies while watching Jeremy Kyle (yup, I have been told this). The TA has had children and has probably been working in the reception class for donkey’s years, so she’s got a few things to say about how children are rocking up in September unable to string a sentence together and it’s certainly not of the ‘He’s not ready’ flavour. But does anyone listen to Mrs Coddle? Er, no.

Research has already shown that reading needs to be taught initially through a series of phonics lessons, therefore the whole ‘Look at the picture, what do you think the word is?’ bullshit has long since been cut, but we’ve yet to see this logic applied to other areas of learning. I really believe that until we acknowledge that skills and knowledge need to be taught, modelled and practised in a deliberate way, we will continue to entrench disadvantage not just for young males who naturally need a more direct approach, but also for children who come from homes where nobody is actually teaching them the basics.

Let’s just cut the bullshit and teach.

Who’s with me?


Every minute counts. Except when it doesn’t.

Is it just me who is feeling a little too rushed? I think it might just be a primary school thing, but we have made a deliberate attempt to squeeze a few more minutes of learning into every child’s school day. Of course, it’s an attempt to make sure that children are receiving the best education possible, but I’m not sure the massive effort yields the extra results one would hope especially when I consider that we are losing vital minutes of learning due to other factors. Anyway, how have we squeezed a few more minutes in? Ringing the morning bell 5 minutes before the official start of the school day so that children come into class earlier and the teacher has an extra opportunity to hear a reader or two, abolishing lining up (this was a while ago), having the school assembly 5 minutes earlier and consciously minimising time in assembly to 15 minutes maximum. Breaktimes have also been surrepticiously shaved down by timing the bell ringing to be just before the end of break/lunch so that it finishes as the children reach the classroom. Teachers also now teach small groups through assembly and bring children in at various points during lunchtime for intervention responses to maths or English lessons that took place during the morning. This is all pretty normal stuff for primary teachers today.

What secondary teachers may not be aware of is that we primary teachers also have the impossible task of teaching God knows how many subjects, but with maths, English, guided reading (compulsory carousel for us) taking up the majority of the day, every day. Therefore, we have hardly any time to teach all the other subjects while also being therapists of course. We’re already rushed, without rushing ourselves into a mad frenzy, and it is indeed a mad frenzy. It’s also a paradox because we’re both saving minutes and losing minutes at the same time. How are we losing minutes of learning?

Well, the upshot of having to teach so many subjects in so little time, coupled with the expectation that children are always on task/learning 100% of the time, is that there is also an expectation that lesson changes and transitions in the classroom happen in seconds. Like, BAM! Suddenly we’re doing a 20 minute Geography lesson. The reality? Children take ages because every transition is an opportunity to chat, mess about a bit and generally get a bit excitable, plus of course roughly a million children will ask you if they can go to the toilet (for some reason, we make it difficult for children to go during playtimes). You’d expect to see this because we abolished lining up to wait for the teacher and there is no single file or silence in corridors rules, so children just go everywhere like they’re at a football match, including when they bundle into the classroom and moving from sitting near the teacher for input to their tables (always group tables in primary). It makes the job of the teacher really difficult because every lesson, or even lesson section, starts with the teacher having to calm everyone down. This is not good for the teacher because not only is it exhausting, but it also damages relationships because the children come to view the teacher as the Fun Police. When I point this out in staff meetings, I just get told to make my lessons more fun so that the children are always looking forward to every single lesson. It’s a tall order, but even if I could do that, it still doesn’t stop the problem of children sort of ‘taking off’ when I ask them to go to their tables to put a bit o’ learning in their books. If it all gets a bit raucous, many children will also be forgetting what I have just taught them 5 minutes previously. This I consider a very serious problem, but nobody seems to worry about this because I’m told that the most important thing is that the children are having fun.

The fact that we are gaining precious minutes through manipulating the timing of bells and lessons adds to teacher workload (and general frazzled-ness). Additionally, the lack of school-wide policy and SLT input into behaviour management also drains the teacher’s energy reserves at a faster rate than normal. It’s like a double whammy for the teacher!

Has anyone else experienced this?



The Lockdown

Well, it was nice of Ofsted to publish some information to dispel a few inspection myths, but, as ever, there are always ways to interpret messages that suit the reader’s current mindset. My beef is with this apparent belief, and maybe it is actually based on reality, that Ofsted require that everyone in a school to be doing exactly the same thing.

Take marking for example. We have an onerous policy, but instead of being told that Ofsted require a certain type of marking, we have a school policy to make sure everyone is doing the same thing because Ofsted require that we’re all following said policy (I do get where they’re coming from on this). And because the (outstanding) leader in charge of the policy has all the time in the world, everything rises to the highest common denominator in terms of expectations. We do have verbal feedback stamps/codes because, of course, (the royal) we go the extra mile. Lots of pretty colours, codes and comments are going on and everyone’s happily busting their balls at 4am in the morning, during breaks, lunch, after school, evening, weekend….I wouldn’t be surprised if someone’s actually tried to mark while making a stir fry at some point.

It’s the same for regular assessments. No need for Ofsted to require a particular format of assessments or extra to be presented during an inspection because we can just make sure that we’re all going above and beyond on a regular basis, with lots of photocopying and spreadsheets, so long as we’re all doing the same thing, which is what Ofsted wants.

Our planning is highly regulated, our timetable is regulated, our working walls and displays are regulated and even the layout and colours of our planning and subject leader folders are regulated. Recently, we were advised to all be doing exactly the same kind of maths starter in each maths lesson. Everybody must be doing groupwork and active learning and teachers must not be talking too much.

I was relieved when Ofsted said that they do not expect to see a certain teaching style or lesson format, but of course school leaders have regulated the style of teaching and lesson format in the name of ‘We need to be doing the same thing’. I guess for progressive educators this is wonderful, but for someone like me who is traditional and prefers to stick to exactly what the national curriculum requires of me (to teach both knowledge and skills), this presents a lot of anguish and internal conflict. How can I teach history and science knowledge if my school requires that I only teach skills?

To be honest, I am actually quite confused by this whole scenario!


What if….the children worked harder

We had a staff meeting recently, and in a school renowned for high turnover and incredibly high bureaucratic demands on teachers, we were told of a ramping up of evidence gathering requirements. At once point during a lull in proceedings, we teachers were literally stunned into silence and we all struggled to suppress feelings of horror, dread and worry showing on our faces. So far this academic year we have had marking, planning, guided reading carousels, new regular tests (with spreadsheets to update weekly), learning objectives mandates (all skills based), book scrutinies as topics of ‘concern’ in staff meetings where we have been given new directives and increased requirements. This is pretty typical of primary schools, although not all will be like this (of course). It’s got to the point where I’m dreading the next staff meeting and it seems like bit by bit every single aspect of what we do is being subject to micromanaging and top-down control.

I do try to ask those difficult questions in staff meetings as the token ‘old person’, and it certainly helps to be able to call on my own experience of being a parent when it comes to missives about children and what they’re doing in class, but I tend to get shirty answers, you know, the typical ‘If you get your teaching right, everything will be wonderful’ (which are really just code for ‘Why don’t you just shut up’) type of reply. I’m not used to this because in my previous working life it was expected that everyone contributed and the nature of financial services meant that everyone was trained to look for what could go wrong as well as what could go right, lest mistakes be made and people’s livelihoods/savings/businesses be put at risk, so pointing out the downside of some new policy was not viewed as a threat rather as a valid and intelligent contribution to proceedings.

Further, it also regularly occurs to me that while the pressure from SLT on us teachers is continuously being ramped up, such that people like me are worried about job security (someone has already called me lazy for not working all weekends/evenings due to to the fact I have a family), but the pressure on children is basically at level zero. To me, this all seems the wrong way round. Back when I was a child, SLT seemed to spend a lot of time checking up on children and doing a lot of ticking off of the less compliant contingent, but now SLT do exactly that to the teachers. But, it doesn’t matter how much we teach our arses off and photograph, mark, assess and compile evidence of the children’s learning if the children don’t pay attention because they can’t be bothered. I think the behaviour of children has deteriorated to the point where the low-level disruption obliterates teaching and it really makes you feel like shit when children are being silly, talking over you and making fun of what you say when you’re trying to teach. And then of course there is this situation where we can’t really teach anyway because, apparently, we should just be letting the children discover everything.

Maybe children should work harder?

Who’s with me?

What if……there were no computers

I actually really like technology. If it weren’t for my chromebook and the internet, I wouldn’t be writing this blog right now, so why should I even be contemplating the thought of a no-tech school? Well, it’s an interesting idea and I’ve been thinking about it rather a lot since receiving an email about a couple of schools in my area that have had their servers compromised by malware. Apparently in one school teachers have had to use pen and paper for everything because even the back-ups are infected. I wonder how the teachers feel about this ‘terrible’ situation?

If there were no computers in schools, how would I cope? Like everyone on the planet faced with a change in circumstances, I’d probably adapt, although I’d really miss my visualiser because this is the one piece of kit that I feel really helps children with their learning. But then again, what time would I save? My planning wouldn’t have to be so intricate and I wouldn’t have to keep updating spreadsheets or re-hashing resources at the whim of management. Instead, I’d just stick with my one big book that contains a hand-written record of children’s results and if management wanted to see it they could have a little walk and ask politely, rather than going to the server to snoop about behind my back.

I think the main difference would be in terms of not having to duplicate everything onto special proformas and into centralised systems. This copying out in multiple formats feels like a punishment akin to being asked to write out lines as a child. A no-tech school would also mean that teachers could not rely on worksheets. How on earth could a primary school operate without the prospect of worksheets for kids? I reckon I must be doing 100 photocopies a day and I’m the sort of teacher that makes a conscious decision to do a bit of dictation instead of immediately photocopying a worksheet where they can pop in the odd word. Well, it would be pretty tough for the children because they’d have to write a lot more for sure. Children would also have to concentrate more because the teacher won’t be able to scroll back through a powerpoint for the umpteenth time during input because a handful of children couldn’t be bothered to pay attention the first time round. I remember a time when, if you didn’t pay attention when the teacher was talking/reading/writing information, you just got a question wrong and that was that, and if you got all the questions wrong there would be consequences. Nowadays children can simply ask the teacher the same question over and over, even when they get to their tables they can simply do this, so the teacher trots over to the powerpoint and scrolls back to show the child the answer and hey presto! Child doesn’t even need to remember something for a few seconds in order to ‘achieve’. Perhaps children might make more of an effort to concentrate if they knew that once the information was rubbed off the chalkboard, they’d have to try and remember what was written.

Maybe we could just get some textbooks? Mind you, textbooks these days tend to be a bit light on content and instead are stuffed with silly cartoon pictures designed to put children at ease or something. We’d have to re-design textbooks so that they were full of interesting information!

A no-tech environment would also save thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds for a cash strapped school (so, basically all schools). No updates or upgrades, no constant call-outs of the IT company currently fleecing the school through a dodgy contract that no one had any choice but to sign up to. I’m also imagining how quiet a school would be without screens because there’s something about brightly lit, cartoon infested  computer screens accompanied by buzzing, beeping and popping sounds that makes children shout and scream their reply rather than just simply say something in a normal voice.

Who’s with me?

Enthusiasm is not enough

The above title is my starting point for an argument against this commonly held belief that children are either naturally curious learners, or that we can somehow make them so, and that in doing so we would guarantee any child’s trajectory to academic and social success. Educationalists seem to forget that success comes off the back of hard work, most of which needs to happen because of a conscious choice to pull one’s own socks up on a consistent basis. The trouble is most humans, including the young ones, are a little bit lazy, but this fact seems to be glossed over in Education.

When I look back at the times in my life when I have worked my hardest and learned the most, they have either been the result of my being mega enthusiastic about a subject, or a result of basically being forced to work hard by some kind of outside force. Those of the progressive persuasion would probably seek to dwell on those times when I was somehow infected by enthusiasm and how this drove me to further success, for example when I taught myself to play the recorder and read music at about 7, and then went on to experiment with all different kinds of music and musical instruments. However, it wasn’t until I had had a formal musical education (with a much more difficult instrument) much later that my own musical ability was honed. Until then, I was basically a bored (we had no TV) silly amateur aimlessly meandering around, albeit better than most, but there was no way I could’ve mastered the music of my favourite composers had it not been for the sheer hard graft basically forced upon me by the teachers at the music school I attended every Saturday. The great thing about playing in an orchestra is that being lazy, not listening and mucking about makes you stick out like a sore thumb because when the conductor counts you all in and you mess up, you look like an idiot and not only can everyone see it, they can hear it too. There is no hiding place and time wasters either get shamed into compliance, or they just get booted out because they spoil absolutely everything for absolutely everyone. This is also how society used to work.

If I had just been left to pursue my own musical interests on my own, I would not have achieved anywhere near the level of musical competence and I probably would’ve experienced a dwindling of interest due to the limitations of my own skill and knowledge set. Why? Because enthusiasm is not enough; you need to knuckle down and work hard, even when you want to give up through frustration and mental (and sometimes physical) pain. The pressure from teachers, an expectation of perfection during performance, a rigorous testing regime, and the potential embarrassment of not living up to the high standards of the music school I attended ensured that I stayed on that steep trajectory to success. Would I have chosen this narrow, treacherous path? Not at first. Later, when I was an older teenager, I chose to keep going with this monk-like commitment to personal progress, but it was because good habits had been forced upon me and it felt almost therapeutic in the end, plus of course the kudos and pleasure from being able to play music very well then provided extra motivation. To this day, I have sought to replicate this kind of dedication on my own in other pursuits and have never been able to emulate it 100% on my own.

So, why do primary and secondary schools harp on about and create systems, lessons and protocols that attempt to get children curious and enthusiastic about a subject, usually through the medium of ‘fun’ lessons and ‘relevant’ subject content, while ignoring the fact that what works best is good teaching (the kind that looks you in the eye and tells you to pull your socks up), high expectations, discipline, competition and regular testing? Even if most children were infected with enthusiasm because of some kind of growth mindset assembly, a wacky ‘Make your own Moon’ project in science, a discovery based french lesson, or a maths lesson that didn’t feature any numbers at all, that would still leave one child either frustrated and not making any progress at all. To me, that is one child too many. Even my own children, despite working hard, are questioning the purpose of studying RE or Spanish (which horrifies me). Thank goodness they have the extra motivation of wanting to get straight As that keeps them from slacking off. What of other children though who don’t have the pressure from Tiger parents to do well though?

Even adults lack the commitment and drive necessary to achieve personal feats. If we all found it so easy to achieve off the back of enthusiasm alone, the personal training industry wouldn’t exist and we’d all be thin, multi-lingual athletes by now. But we’re not. We’re mostly fat, monolingual fair-weather joggers because we don’t have personal trainers and we’re not bothered about the consequences of lack of education or health because we have things like the NHS and unemployment benefits in this country. Also, let’s face it, we live in an ‘anything goes’ society that permits, celebrates even, general laziness and self-indulgence.

I find it odd that those who profess to be part of a caring profession seem to understand and care so little about the nature of humans, especially the little ones who have not had years to hone good habits. If we are in loco parentis, then surely we ought to be Tiger Teachers for those children who are not fortunate enough to have Tiger Parents?

Who’s with me?