Does the typical nursery and reception year experience worsen and embed maladaptive behaviours in children with ASD?

Further to recent pondering about handwriting and pencil hold, I started to think about how the typical experience of reception year might worsen maladaptive behaviours in children with ASD. My conclusions are that EYFS as it stands is not appropriate for the needs of children with ASD, even where kind and hard-working teachers try their best to accommodate their needs. My conclusion is that parents of children with suspected ASD should have the right to choose an alternative, ASD-friendly EYFS setting. This would mean that there needs to be some kind of legal challenge to the EYFS statutory framework so that an early years setting can disapply it, create their own curriculum and then evolve evidence-based practice seen in older year groups to meet the needs of younger children with ASD, or any child who struggles with communication, social interaction and self-regulation. I already have a vision of how this might look. In this blog post, I will give a quick summary of the principles that govern the EYFS statutory framework, how this manifests in on-the-ground provision (for my secondary readers), and a logical, evidence-informed extrapolation of how this would affect the child with ASD and the potential for long term maladaptation that may eventually prevent them from accessing secondary school education.

Quick summary of 4 principles governing EYFS:

  • Children are unique and develop at their own pace: the have an innate drive to learn and should be given choice of how and when they learn (because they know best) so that their individual talents can be fostered and developed
  • Positive relationships: children should have a secure attachment to their caregivers, be listened to and be encouraged to be independent, active learners
  • Enabling environments: this is commonly known as ‘continuous provision’. Each area of the open plan room has an educational purpose that is accessed through play and exploration. Here is an example description (note the warning that routines are not good for learning and subsequent advice for self-service snacks)
  • Learning and development: children learn best through play and exploration, through being given choice of what to do and opportunities to be creative. Learning should be relevant

I should point out that my extrapolations are based on having family and friends with ASD and their feedback from the home-Ed community about how their children coped in reception year and nursery. I’ve also, over the years, successfully taught a number of children who display autistic traits (likely to receive a diagnosis at some point) and seen them thrive and level-up their own learning in an environment that is highly organised, very calm, ordered and where the adult is in charge of who gets to learn what and when. People stop throwing chairs and tables when they’re with me. On my recent travels, I also had a candid conversation with a headteacher who disclosed to me her thoughts on how the nature of EYFS provision allows ASD type symptoms to remain hidden in plain sight.

The danger here is that in order to arrive at some kind of logical consensus, I will need to generalise a bit. Here’s my prediction for a classic counter argument that would attempt to stop me questioning whether EYFS is right for every child: everyone will say that I am being far too general about ASD, that my lack of attention to the minutiae of how ASD manifests in each unique child therefore means that a) I do not know about child development, b) do not know enough about ASD ergo c) it is unprofessional to question the EYFS as it currently stands. It’s always the same. You just can’t challenge the status quo (which is like a red rag to me!). I know that things will never change, but if I can reach at least one parent and give them peace of mind that the reason their child might be having meltdowns in reception year is not because of their ‘not ready’ child, but because the typical environment is causing massive amounts of anxiety and cognitive overload, then I will be satisfied with that.

As it quite clearly states here, all children have to follow the Early Years Foundation stage in the same way as their peers. So I will now look at each of the four guiding principles from the perspective of the autistic child.

Innate drive to learn behoves us to give the (autistic) child choice, allowing talents to unfurl: 

The unquestionable truth that all children have an innate desire to learn even biologically secondary knowledge, particularly that which is new and tricky to master can be traced back as far as Pestalozzi in the late 1700s (google it: it’s interesting). I actually love how children with ASD blow this truth out the water with the occasional tendency to develop an all-consuming special interest. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who loves trains and knows loads about them and then ask yourself whether finding plastic letter shapes in the mud kitchen cuts the mustard. All children deserve a broad and balanced education, but the fact that EYFS education is mediated through choice means that it is going to be even more difficult for the child obsessed with trains to go and stick their hands in the mud kitchen, even if the teaching assistant asks politely. In this situation, the Arab interpretation of SEN springs to mind – they have their own term ‘People of determination‘ which I adore because it makes it sound like neurotypicals need to learn a thing or two in order to improve themselves, rather than the other way round.

However, the cognitive dissonance here is profound: on the one hand we’re telling and showing this child that he can have a choice, but on the other hand we’re expecting him to choose the mud kitchen, which is literally not a choice and the fact that an educators has used the word ‘choice’ doesn’t change that fact. This is not fair because we can see Hermione is allowed to do her favourite thing which is writing incredibly detailed fairy stories and we just heard you say that Tommy is a kinaesthetic learner so he should be allowed to choose to go outside and build stuff instead of do anything remotely academic. Further, choice in itself causes a lot of anxiety, particularly when everyone around you seems to know where to go and what to do. Here is an interesting study that shows less choice makes toddlers more focused and more creative – something to think about! My autistic brother, 15, literally can’t choose from a menu and just the thought of having to choose from two options causes huge amounts of stress but at least he can say out loud that he just doesn’t know what to choose – how can a 5 yo on the spectrum be expected to do this when he can’t speak yet?

To the autistic child, it is worrying that everyone else seems to be able to walk up to a group and then, like a blob of water joining a bigger blog of water on a piece of plastic, merges in without being given funny looks or rejected. And this funny business of the teacher/TA who seems to want you to not make a choice which is not a choice. Hello meltdown central! If meltdowns are frequently happening, then they will become embedded, habitual, surely? Solution? A no-nonsense and satisfying fixed order of jobs that everyone ticks off all together through the day, finishing up with a delicious immersion in one’s special interest.

Unfurling of natural talents? This is an area of the EYFS that is in urgent need of revision. There is much that has emerged that reminds us that talent is not innate, but developed over time and with explicit teaching and purposeful practice. I recommend this book. While it is great that Hermione seems to be developing her ‘natural’ talent for storywriting, we are in danger of allowing some children to develop no talents whatsoever because they desperately needed explicit teaching and lots of practice in order to start to enjoy that particular subject.

Children need secure attachments in order to learn, and they enjoy and should be encouraged to be independent, active learners. 

Again, I just love the fact that autistic children can blow the secure attachment thing out the water. Many autistic children are impervious to the adults’ need to be needed and a fawning attempt to help said child with some painting may be met with deadpan nonchalance or even outright refusal and then running away. I love how this causes us adults to take stock and focus instead on straight-up explicit teaching of skills and knowledge rather than use emotional hooks/bribes. I do wonder whether autistic children get confused about the purpose of the adults in the room – are these guys teaching me, or are they playing with me?

When it comes to the ‘truth’ that all children prefer and should be encouraged to be independent, active learners (ie in charge of their own learning). I think many children, not just those with ASD, crave the anxiety-reducing effects of simply being told what to do, what to say, what to think, what to write and what to remember. You know what? Many adults want and need that too. Perhaps this is why we create for ourselves habits and routines, minimising the need for constant choice in our lives. Being in charge of your own learning might be wonderful for children who are confident, socially mature, who have a better than average command of the English language, but I would argue it is actually both stressful and detrimental for children with ASD to be expected to do this.

Enabling environments: each area of the open plan room and outdoor environment should have an educational purpose that is accessed through play and exploration

Play can be a very different concept for children with ASD: repetitive actions feature, a preference for playing alone as well as using objects for a purpose not originally intended. This means that despite the ‘truth’ that all children learn best through carefully pre-designed play and exploration (and from/with each other), children with ASD are effectively shut out of learning what is intended to be learned. My brother just went around emptying boxes of stuff and getting incredibly stressed about the whole thing, but enjoyed learning via listening to and reading stories and fact books with headphones. According to the EYFS statutory framework, no child would prefer or learn best through more traditional methods of simply being presented with new material and then rehearsing it to automaticity, yet autistic children show us that this is not always true. Why do we persist with this? For autistic children, the learning that is intended to be discovered or rehearsed through a disguise of play and exploration can be lost in translation and they are denied the acquisition of the basics as a result. Further, they would not learn from their peers because quite often, even when appearing to be playing ‘with’ peers, they will be playing ‘in parallel’.

I feel that autistic children in particular would be better off if we created an EYFS experience that separates out ‘play and exploration’ from learning biologically secondary knowledge. Much less confusing, plus of course it is more satisfying for the innate list-ticker (I find children with ASD have a real urge to tick stuff off the imaginary list in their heads) to feel that sense of completion, satisfaction of a job well done, and then the reward of, for example, repeatedly building a tower and tipping it over to see the pattern of how the bricks fall.

Let’s also talk about something else that is incredibly stressful for the child with autism: noise. Open plan, ‘hot-desking’ EYFS experiences are noisy and there is no escape because all areas are connected. Quite often, I visit EYFS settings and find it too noisy, stressful and actually feel physically sick and anxious at the cacophony of sound and visual stimulation: walls covered, things and eyeballs dangling from the ceiling, people rushing around in an non-orderly way (not even like pin-balls in a machine because at least their movement is governed by the laws of physics and I could write an algorithm for that). I have the urge to walk straight out and seek comfort in focusing on the predictable subtle rustle and delicate colours of tree leaves. This is possibly because I am a musician and have become used to noisy situations that are melodic and harmonic, and where everyone is moving in synchronicity – the sounds and visual load are predictable, you see, unlike the EYFS experience which is deliberately non-patterned.

Many teachers over the years have said to me that they absolutely could not cope in reception year and the mere suggestion of working there brings them out in a rash. Now, is it not inconceivable that if adults like myself struggle to cope, then some groups of children would struggle to cope too? I think our little friends on the spectrum are actually the canaries in the mine here. Many nursery practitioners and reception year teachers seem unflinching and almost in their element in the noise (youTube videos of ‘outstanding’ pre-schools and reception years baffle me), and seem to extrapolate that everyone should enjoy it. Even when they do acknowledge that what they enjoy is not enjoyable to others, the provision of an escape tent, for example, still won’t reduce the stress for a child with ASD because it doesn’t remove the stress of unpredictability, the not knowing when and where the next spike in noise or movement will come from.

I tried to find some research around when stims and repetitive body movements such as rocking accelerate or develop in an autistic child’s life. I’ve got this sick dread feeling that their development or increase in frequency coincides with starting pre-school/nursery. The more I think about this situation and about the recent increase in ASD diagnoses, I wonder if it is connected to the dramatic increase in nursery and pre-school attendance as more and more families need two wages to live. Yes, you read that right. I think the deliberate channeling of nature’s list-tickers, pattern seekers and super-focusers through  the compulsory EYFS setting leads to maladaptation and the increase in/augmentation of the kinds of symptoms that lead to diagnoses, with said symptoms then influencing that child’s development forever more, like a little puddle of water that ends up joining a stream on the other side of the mountain. I think ASD has always been prevalent, but manifest in different ways based on early childhood experiences. It may be evident to you that I identify with many features that classify with ASD, and I do genuinely wonder how I would’ve turned out if I had gone to a modern nursery full time rather than a couple of hours a week. I would’ve gone mad.

Learning and development through being given choice of what to do and opportunities to be creative. Learning should be relevant

I’m running out of time here, and I want to publish so you can all feed back to me. I will just dwell on the ‘relevant’ aspect. Again, autistic children seem to disprove this with their enjoyment and accelerated learning of knowledge that is really rather abstract. Is this such a bad thing? In fact, it does make me think an alternative, ASD-friendly EYFS curriculum should just go ahead and introduce everyone to the galaxy and everything in it except boring things like making sandwiches, playing in a mud kitchen etc.

An ASD-friendly EYFS experience is really quite radical and, let’s be honest, would never happen – EYFS as it is is statutory. However, I do wonder about the potential of our friends on the spectrum if we did actually give them the EYFS setting they would naturally thrive in.

Who’s with me?


Is it wrong to teach children how to hold a pencil?

Following some online discussion yesterday which was inspired a part of HMCI’s speech to the National Day Nurseries Association, I was left wondering why so many disagreed with this part of the speech:


I agree with Amanda, but so many didn’t, including a well known children’s author. My position is that as we are not evolved to write, writing is of course biologically secondary and therefore must be taught. This includes how to hold a pencil and form letters correctly, ensuring that both muscle memory and letter formation are rehearsed to the point of automaticity in an environment that controls cognitive load, the latter consideration being particularly important for males, children with SEN, those who are easily distracted. I’ve written here about my recent experiences learning Arabic and how this made me reflect on how it feels for a 5 year old to learn to write in a busy and loud room.

On the other side of the debate are those who advise that a variety of pencil grip styles is fine, so long as the child is able to do what they want to do. Their position is that pencil grip develops naturally and that is wrong for us to intervene by making a child hold a pencil with the class tripod grip when they are ‘not ready’. Many anecdotal examples were given of people who do not use tripod grip, and I was reminded that left handers tend to develop a different pencil grip and do just fine.  Given my own experience dealing with 4 and 5 year olds who have an inefficient and painful pencil grip completely embedded, and observing how difficult it is for them to change in order to avoid exhaustion, to form letters correctly and later on join their writing, I was somewhat perplexed and for a fleeting moment wondered whether I was wrong. Also, I’m sure I can’t be the only person to question why EYFS leaders maintain that pencil grip should be allowed to develop naturally, and yet would never ever say the same thing about using scissors! Can you imagine allowing a child to develop their own scissor holding technique? What if they cut their own fingers as a result? So I had a look at what was out there in terms of research and here are a couple of examples:

There are plenty of examples of research out there, but essentially if a child has an inefficient pencil grip, then he will be less likely to be able to write fluently and legibly later on (when expectations ramp up), is more likely to find writing painful and if he is asked to change this habit, then in many circumstances this will be impossible because of the way the muscles in his hand have developed to support his current grip. Where older children with a poor pencil grip do manage to change, the process only happens with adult intervention and it can be a painful process both physically and psychologically.

However, the thought of expecting toddler to hold a pencil with the tripod grip when he is having fun drawing and colouring crazy shapes at pre-school seems wrong. Here’s a typical pencil hold you might see:

pencil grip

Pre-school children tend to adopt this pencil grip style and you wouldn’t be able to correct it for a number of reasons:

  • The writing utensils are too large and wide for their little fingers to hold in the tripod grip – think about those enormous crayons and indestructable felt tip pens they are given to use
  • Explaining the finer points tripod grip to a toddler who just wants to play and who is surrounded by the usual pre-school noise and hustle-bustle would be nigh on impossible

So, we have reached an impasse! The problem is exacerbated by the assumption among EYFS authorities that I’m talking about toddlers and people like me assume that they’re talking about older children in reception year. I’ve said this before and still think this should be investigated as a way of bringing harmony between educational sectors – reception year should be taken out of the EYFS and a special transition curriculum where biologically primary knowledge is allowed to develop through play, and the beginnings of biologically secondary knowledge is explicitly taught and rehearsed to automaticity. Then, the remaining 0-4 age group within EYFS should be allowed to develop biologically primary knowledge mainly through play, but with a purposeful knowledge-rich EYFS curriculum that involves stories, stories and more stories (and singing, and teaching of games, nursery rhymes etc – stuff everyone does, but specified and sequenced as the ‘substance’ of the EYFS curriculum).

Where we might agree in this proposal is that I do not think early writing should be part of my proposed 0-4 EYFS curriculum because it so easily leads to poor letter formation and poor pencil grip that has to be unpicked later on. It would be much better for the little ones to develop their knowledge of stories, knowledge of the wider world, broaden their vocabulary and for writing to be properly taught later on, in reception year. Likewise mathematics – I’d much prefer children to come up from pre-school knowing how to play dominoes, snakes and ladders, ‘What’s time Mr Wolf?’ and to be able to belt out ’10 Green Bottles’ than for some of them to know number bonds to 10 and be able to do mad problem solving while some of them come up knowing nothing and writing their numbers backwards.

However, I also think we need to revisit the assumption that pencil grip develops ‘naturally’. A quick google and you can find advice on the development of pencil grip, but the assumption is that because this is most commonly observed, then this is natural and we should adopt a wait-and-see approach. I disagree. I think we need to get stuck in at the beginning of reception year (and also ensure they have lots of playtime), but leave pre-school children to concentrate on having some fun with their art. Has anyone questioned whether the ‘fisted grip’ in the picture above is actually a consequence of writing utensils being too massive to be held any other way? What would happen if we gave them more delicate writing utensils under adult supervision a la Montessori method with those tiny little beads and a tweezer activity? That would be an interesting experiment. Perhaps some children, the males in particular, struggle with the finesse of early writing because children’s toys are enormous and indestructable compared to years ago (dolls made out of china etc), so we’re inadvertently creating little fairy elephants (hope you don’t mind my using that term; I mean it fondly). I wonder whether this differs around the world and the image of Chinese children learning calligraphy comes to mind; this is a very different approach that comes with higher expectations of concentration and it’s how I envision reception year children should learn to write.

I think the conclusion I’m trying to draw here is that when it comes to teaching writing properly, we should also teach pencil hold and ensure it is rehearsed to automaticity. Unfortunately, this means we would need to look again at continuous provision where writing activities are not overseen properly and those children with poor pencil grip are rehearsing and embedding said poor pencil grip over and over again. There is too much at risk here, even if they are displaying the ‘creativity’ that everyone cherishes. The fact that some children and adults do OK with poor pencil hold is not a reason to allow many other children to simply develop a pencil grip that stops them from learning to write fluently and legibly in later school years. EYFS definitely needs a shake-up in that regard.

Who’s with me?


How ‘perfect book syndrome’ could improve school culture and leadership

Following on from my previous post on the possibility of enhanced learning as a result of aspiring to ‘perfect books’, I thought about how this might also affect leadership and school culture in a positive way. I’m hoping this will provide some comfort to teachers who are worried that a focus on bookwook will add to their workload and stress. My synopsis is that a focus on bookwork should, ideally, do the opposite for teaching staff.

Whenever I read about strategies to improve ‘teaching and learning’, most advice seems to focus on changing what teachers are doing/saying rather than changing what the pupils are doing/thinking. The assumption is that if some groups of pupils are not learning as much as others, then the teacher needs to be directed by a leader to be more engaging, to teach more or in a different way, or to work harder to plan and provide more resources, scaffolds, support, interventions, differentiation and so on. The onus is nearly always on the teacher. If you want proof, just google ‘how to improve teaching and learning’.

It may well be the case that teachers need to be encouraged to deploy more equitable and efficient pedagogy or just turn the tables round so all the pupils are actually facing them, but it could also be that the pupils themselves aren’t working (or thinking) hard enough when the baton of knowledge is passed to them. No one seems to have the courage to consider this option, at least not in public; the idea that that a pupil is not putting in enough effort is absolutely unconscionable. Maybe the teacher has not planned sufficient high leverage activities for practice to ensure what is taught is committed to memory, or perhaps the teacher allows pupils to clock off in various ways and at various points in the lesson without consequence. The corresponding bookwork would reflect this. However, widespread shoddy bookwork could also be the canary in the mine of a much bigger problem to do with school culture and leadership. Some children develop take-it-easy habits despite the teacher clearly stating the minimum expectations and then politely asking and showing them how to finish that sentence or paragraph. They may still take the easy option of trying to get away with doing as little as possible (just like us adults do). Years of ‘when they’re ready’ and then ‘choose your challenge’ certainly doesn’t help in this respect. Groups of pupils who know that there will be virtually no consequence for less than adequate attendance to the knowledge taught, either because the school has a policy of only using praise/positive language around pupils that seriously confuses them or because there is no system in place (centralised detentions etc) to issue consistent consequences, will take the easy option by default. These children are at risk of being entrenched in the slow lane of learning due to habitual lack of practice and concentration and it is our fault, not theirs.

Who is responsible here? Leaders.

What might be lacking that would otherwise galvanise that pupil into aiming high instead of psychologically bailing out is a whole school academic culture that, for example, celebrates the best young scientists, mathematicians etc. Where is that sense that when a pupil walks into a school, they can step into a new identity where they can dream, hope, work hard and then feel successful and purposeful? This is about so much more than trips and distracting experiences. Are they on a mission to be the best mathematicians, going up secondary school with a fearsome reputation that precedes them, or they going up to a secondary school (that is not looking forward to receiving them) thinking that school is primarily for entertainment and that a teaching assistant will do their thinking for them? If they are on a mission, it will certainly show in their books. If they have been inculcated, thanks to leaders, with the belief that school is primarily about ‘expressing individuality’ or ‘making happy memories to inspire writing’ then this will also show in their books in the form of lack of detail, coherence and consistency that would ordinarily come from developing the habit of working hard and concentrating*.

There could also be a lack of old-fashioned leadership presence that gets inside pupils’ heads and stops them from aiming low through taking the easy option. How can a leader be that person? By being on hand not just to give a gold star and go the full panto for a pupil who has worked really hard to impress (yes, younger pupils want to impress), but if needed for a really stern chat and supervised re-write of work in their own time when a pupil decides not to work as hard as his classmates or worse still stop themselves and their friends from learning. This means that the teacher can (hopefully) concentrate on teaching knowing that the pupils, when entrusted with independent work, have an added incentive to avoid taking the easy option. This is really important and analogous to a father and mother working together in the home with consistent expectations for raising their children. If I visit classrooms, I’m not checking up on the teachers like I’m the Stasi, I’m checking that the children are giving them their full attention, not messing about or speaking over them, and doing exactly as has been asked when writing in their books. If I catch someone doing anything other than what is expected of them and that they are capable of, then that pupil will know I am very disappointed and I will insist he or she apologises (because we also teach manners as well as maths) and then ensure they go above and beyond to put things right. Not all lessons can be wildly fun and engaging and even if they were, it would not guarantee that all children were engaged. I deploy this strategy to raise the status of teachers and teaching assistants in the minds of pupils and because I care very much about all the pupils, not just the advantaged pupils who already come to school with a good attitude to learning and an ability to learn by osmosis. I believe everyone has the capacity to learn and to change (and then I will find a way to praise said pupils later). This ‘system’ requires that a school leader is visibly present and it’s the reason I don’t agree with the view that leaders should be constantly teaching and attending meetings; using the father and mother analogy again, it’s similar to the father having to work away on business all the time and the children, in his absence, forming the view that their mother, who now has to do absolutely everything, as a lowly servant whom they can treat like dirt.

I also like to ‘catch’ the pupils who are quietly beavering away and make a big positive fuss of them, which causes all the other pupils to want similar praise. Often a teacher has to (quite rightly) devote a lot of attention to children with SEN or who need extra help ‘staying on the bus’ and this means that the quiet ones who always work hard and do the right thing miss out when the teacher’s energy and attention is carved up. Whenever I issue some public praise, I also tend to include a clause ‘aren’t you lucky to have such a good teacher who’s helped you get brainier!’

Really, this is another level of teaching. What is being taught? That you are being held accountable for your behaviour and effort even when the teacher is not sat right next to you or even looking at you. This is knowledge of the rules of wider society and it is taught by the headteacher (or deputy) and therefore, in my view, should constitute part of the ‘quality of education’ judgement because it does affect how much pupils attend to teaching and independent practice. It is very interesting clocking the body language and vocal reaction of pupils when a senior leader enters a classroom or is in the vicinity. If pupils aren’t galvinised into following rules and instructions by the mere presence of the leader, then they sure won’t do the same for teachers (unless that teacher is strong and experienced). How easy would it be for a leader to be the equivalent of the ‘fun weekend dad’ and appear infrequently to give lots of praise, treats and rewards. This would surely undermine the teacher because the pupil would compare the leader to their teacher and deduce that their teacher is a naggy, sour cow who doesn’t want him or her to have fun. I bet there are a few single mums reading this thinking this situation seems strangely familiar…….

So, if I were an inspector confronted with consistently inconsistent bookwork, I would be gathering a group of pupils and asking them about what happens when pupils decide to take life a little too easy.

Who’s with me?

*Sometimes this shows lack of SPG explicit teaching and practice; pupils might have ideas, but cannot convey them in writing because they have not had enough instruction at sentence level.

‘Perfect book syndrome’ might not be so bad

Following the publication of a few articles and blogs on Ofsted’s proposed use of book scrutiny, I thought I’d have a look at their research and offer up a primary perspective. I found the reaction to the original proposal surprising, but I can understand why people would worry, particularly if they’ve invested so much in curriculum review. I understand now that Ofsted will just be using book scrutiny to check that what people are saying is happening, is actually happening. The collective worry was that if Ofsted did use book scrutiny to triangulate judgments on quality of education, then teachers and school leaders would try to manipulate what happens in the classroom in order to game the system by superficially ticking off the the book scrutiny criteria:

  • Pupils are building on previous lessons;

  • They have a breadth of knowledge;

  • They are making progress;

  • They have opportunities to practice what they have learned.

I really like the book scrutiny criteria and I cannot fathom how it would be possible to game the above, save for just making pupils copy out what was on the board for every single lesson. No one would do that. I think where I might diverge in opinion from most evidence-informed educators, and Ofsted it seems (?), is that I do think that bookwork should have a heavy weighting in our assessment of impact. In my opinion, impact means that pupils have not just learned what has been taught, but have made connections with what they already know and can then apply this in their writing, conversations and tests. Further, I think it’s important that pupils have something to show for it all and be proud of, be it a great end of term test result, being able to talk about a topic or producing a decent piece of writing to receive a gold star for that can then be shown to parents.

For me, it’s not quite enough for the teacher to show me their markbooks and insist that pupils really know what has been taught because of what has happened in the classroom (because this is actually implementation, which I should be observing too) even though I really value and trust what they are saying. I also need to get the sense that pupils themselves have learned and feel like they are learning otherwise how would they be able to talk about their day with parents at the dinner table? So, I thought I’d write something about what I’d look for in bookwork, particularly in the foundation subjects.

Building on previous lessons

This makes sense and I’d look for a logical sequence to what pupils are thinking about when writing in class – week A & B geography might be on types of waves and how beach material is moved, week C might be on the effects of coastal erosion, week D might be on types of coastal defenses and week E might be a trip to a beach to check it all out and then write up a report. Pupils’ retrieval practice questions will also be in their books and this will be evidence that they’re thinking about the previous lesson so that when the teacher introduces the new knowledge, the pupils will start to make the logical connections themselves. There is also a psychological benefit for pupils to have retrieval questions with self-marked ticks in their books: it makes them feel successful and it is a very motivating way to start a lesson, spurring them on to learn more. You can see how this is different from the kind of engagement derived from of having a ‘fun’ lesson starter that involves guesswork, jumping about etc and that causes pupils to expect more fun things to do.

Everybody knows that no human being or group of human beings can create the perfectly sequenced curriculum. I wouldn’t expect to see tenuous links in sequencing of lesson content that were being created for the sake of book scrutiny. Sometimes a one off lesson is the right choice, but if you look at a book and it seems that lesson content is jumping about without rhyme or reason, then that is a flag, yes.

Non-sequenced lesson content could mean a few things to the observer which would then need to be followed up:

  • not enough attention being given to sequencing of knowledge by the subject leader
  • teachers might be planning for what pupils are going to do (hello social media requests to gather ideas for random topic activities) instead of what they are going to think about
  • the school is temporarily reliant on using supply or teaching assistants to cover classes.

For me, the best example of a topic book that I saw was actually my youngest son’s from when he was in year 5 quite a few years ago. The half term topic was ‘Darwin’s Finches’ and it was possibly the most knowledge-infused half term topic he experienced at primary school. The topic didn’t just cover evolution, but also made really good links to the other foundation subjects that were in themselves very well sequenced. It’s the topic that he remembers most, talked about the most at the dinner table, was most interested in, culminated in a beautifully decorated topic book and endures today in his interest in the biological sciences. He still talks about it. What was missing was some sampling of what was originally covered in end of term foundation subject tests once the class had moved onto its next topic and then next year group, but I guess that’s something all primary school leaders are working on right now.

Breadth of knowledge

This means pupils are being given lots to think about and make connections with. Personally, I would look for a little bit of new and interesting knowledge every week. I would also look to rule out evidence that the opposite might be happening: if pupils are spending too many lessons making recreations of coastal defenses and thinking more about cutting, painting and sticking in their geography lesson than the geography knowledge itself, then the domination of these kinds of activities will be inhibiting opportunities for pupils to be exposed to a breadth of knowledge and it will definitely show in their books.

The other thing I might look for is that the efficiency and efficacy of teaching has created space for teachers to introduce pupils to sort of ‘side knowledge’ which is interesting aspects closely related to what they’re learning about, but which probably wouldn’t come up in the end of term test. My own observations and experiences over the last half decade or so is that ‘Did you know that….’ type teaching moments have this magical effect and suddenly the class will go into a tangible ‘super-focus’ mode (evident by change of body language etc across the class). For me, this is one aspect of outstanding teaching because it shows me the teacher has read around the subject and can therefore give the pupils the cherry-on-the-top of the knowledge cake.

I would also ask pupils to use their books to talk to me about the most interesting thing they have learned in geography to triangulate with what I am seeing in books. Again, this is very different to the usual questions to pupils about what they have enjoyed in their lessons because young people will naturally defer to memories of what they have done rather than what they have thought about that is new. If this kind of questioning continues, then pupils will end up viewing their days through the prism of ‘my day should be fun’ when what we want is for them to view their days through the prism of ‘my day should make me feel successful, purposeful, proud and hopeful for the future’. I get this real sense from reading about the new framework that inspectors are being trained to understand that sometimes it’s not just the answers that are wrong, but the questions that can be wrong too. If you are a leader and you are worried pupils are starting to internalise ‘my day should be fun’, one thing you can do is pencil in a regular assembly slot when you ask the whole school to put up their hand if they can think about something interesting they have learned (that they didn’t know before – be careful not to use ‘enjoyed’ or ‘do’). This will start to shift their thinking about the purpose of lessons and also embed a better quality, knowledge-thorough conversational script that they can use at home when talking about their day.

Making progress

Writing about what has been taught is a high leverage activity. In my view, if they are thinking hard about that interesting and well-sequenced knowledge by writing about it, then it is gradually working its way into long term memory, giving them more to think about and make connections with in the future. This is learning and this is part of what we call progress.

I’m also going to go out on a limb here and say that because I believe presentation, quality and quantity of bookwork indicates the degree of care, focus and attention that pupils have given to the knowledge that has been taught, then these criteria provide a useful litmus test of the intensity of learning. My reasoning is that when pupils focus and take care with presentation and in crafting their sentences and paragraphs for the reader, then they are thinking that little bit harder about the knowledge. The constant use of mini whiteboards doesn’t quite cut the mustard in this respect because it could cause pupils to develop a slapdash approach to everything. Also, and this is where I also differ in opinion to many in education, I think the psychology of having visible proof of your effort and knowledge accumulating in front of you is very powerful and important; you can flick through it, refer to it to jog your memory, be proud of it and develop work ethic, receive a gold star for it and show it to your parents. This is a kind of surreptitious retrieval practice that would surely add to the likelihood of knowledge being sequestered in long term memory. You can’t put a gold star on an empty whiteboard and for those who say that the best teaching involves virtually no work being accumulated in pupils’ workbooks, I would say that just because the teaching’s great, doesn’t mean that the pupils have learned.

Following the introduction of St. Sparkle’s new knowledge-rich curriculum, year 5 really upped their game during history lessons

I have been told that because there are children who are incredibly intelligent/high achieving and yet have the most unintelligible, poorly presented and incoherent writing, diagrams and calculations, that we should not look for neatness, quality or quantity of writing as a proxy for learning. Sometimes this missive extends to allowing children to not take as much pride in their written work in case we stop them from learning (the ‘learning is more important than handwriting’ fallacy). These children can laugh and chat away during lessons and yet still learn loads, but this is a classic and arguably unprofessional use of ‘correlation equals causation’ which also inadvertently puts a limit on what brilliant pupils can achieve. There are parallels here with the widespread belief that because some children learn to read without phonics instruction (and are fortunate enough to work out the code for themselves), that systematic synthetic phonics instruction is therefore unnecessary, cruel even. However, I would argue that the existence of this small group of children indicates that they are particularly good at focusing, remembering and pattern-seeking, possibly reinforcing their knowledge with quality conversation and reading with parents at home and are therefore rather more lucky than the average child who really does need to be directed to think hard about knowledge in the form of reading, thinking and writing about it. Also, I think all children, regardless of how great they are at learning subject content, deserve to learn how to focus and to write in a coherent and legible way because this is their entitlement (and I can’t believe I have to defend this so much!).


Sufficient practice. Hmm, how much practice do they need? Most people now agree that pupils need lots of (retrieval) practice in order to commit knowledge to long term memory, and we have (hopefully) moved on from ‘moving them on’ the second pupils ‘get it’. ‘Getting it’ is a fleeting moment of understanding whereas practice to the point of mastery takes much longer. However, hardly anyone feels comfortable with the concept of overlearning. You can see this in criticisms of Direct Instruction programs because at surface level it looks like some of the work is too easy, but this is usually a case of deliberate overlearning opportunities being added into the sequence of learning. I really like David Didau’s writing on the subject of overlearning and he explains its importance more eloquently than I. However, when I am looking in books, I’d be looking to see a variety of evidence of pupils attending to the same knowledge that has been taught in order to satisfy myself that there is enough overlearning taking place, particularly if classes have a high proportion of children with SEN. I think I might be one of the very few people in education who thinks that there is a problem with our collective sense of what constitutes ‘normal’ practice and this could be because most educators are relatively well-educated and have few, if any, special educational needs themselves. We are all calibrated slightly above the average ability of children in our classrooms and this leaves children with SEN out in the cold when it comes to our assumptions about the right amount of practice needed. Perhaps Ofsted inspectors need to be wary of this too. I like to operate on the assumption that pupils will need more practice than we think they need.

If all this means that perfect books become a goal, then I cannot see how this could be a bad thing. In fact, there is another plus side to the pursuit of perfect books: positive changes to whole school culture and leadership. That’s in the next post.

Who’s with me?

The weirdest school I ever went to…..

I thought I’d write something a little more personal about a school I went to when I was about 10. My experience was quite rare because I was at one of those Christian schools where you spend a lot of your learning time engaged in self-directed study while sat at a little booth. For the uninitiated, the curriculum consists of booklets that you read, answer questions on and then self-mark, all at your own pace. Do click on the links that I’ve added into this post because it’s quite interesting and very different. For those of you who know about these schools, you will know that the media reports are not good. I wanted to write about this experience partly because I think my readers will find it interesting, but also because my experience seems to contradict what I have come to understand as the most effective methods deployed in classrooms and across schools. I’d really appreciate some feedback from you all!


On balance, I would say my experience at this school was the best experience out of all the schools I attended (and I attended quite a few because we moved around a lot), not just in terms of happiness, but in terms of academic achievement. I was assessed and given booklets and an ‘office’ (a booth – they line the edges of the classroom). If anyone needed help, we had a little flag that we placed on a shelf above us and then the classroom monitor would come over to give additional guidance. I felt valued, supported and encouraged. The reason we went to that school was because my sister had been diagnosed as dyslexic and my mum wanted her to transfer to a school with a more personal approach; I just didn’t want miss out and I’ll be honest even at that age I thought that a private school would be better for me than a state school.

Looking back, my sister was the victim of poor reading instruction because I can remember this tin of words she had to learn – no phonics instruction at all – and she just never learned her words. The tin filled up with words and my sister floundered and was very unhappy. I, on the other hand, was one of the lucky ones who must’ve worked out the code (I am a prolific pattern seeker) without instruction and somehow became a fluent reader almost overnight and seemingly without having to read to my mum either. As I said, just lucky. I loved reading and I would practically eat whole encyclopedias and novels.

I really flourished at this school and if we are to analyse the reasons why, I would say this was largely due to that fact that I was well-behaved, could concentrate and I possessed all three components that make a fluent reader from a very early age: automaticity in the mechanics of reading (phonics), wide vocabulary (knowledge) and the habit of reading for pleasure (practice). Contrary to media reports that booths are somehow abusive, I loved having my own undisturbed, silent space to read and write about the knowledge that I was accumulating. I zoomed ahead and was promoted up a year group, overtaking other children (we were all ranked, sort of). The silent study was punctuated many times throughout the day with outdoor play. Welly boots were a compulsory part of the uniform policy and as this school was in the middle of a moor, they were very much needed to fully enjoy the muddy terrain. If my memory is correct, I recall that the playtimes were roughly ten minutes in length and occurred every 40 minutes, or something like that. We definitely had way more play time than primary aged children today and I had good friendships as a result. We also had science lessons in a ‘lab’ which was basically a glorified shed, but with all the proper sciencey things you would expect in it. Good times.

I don’t really feel like I was indoctrinated and I don’t remember being ‘taught’ that evolution was unproven or that homosexuality was a bad thing, for example. I do remember being required to learn big chunks of the Bible off by heart though, and in the Old King James version too. Despite not being religious, even as a child (I just sort of pretended), I have a more pragmatic view of this kind of religious education. Firstly, it provides clear guidance on how to live a purposeful, healthy and happy life, particularly as you navigate your way through the emotional teenage years of your life and I would argue that a modern PSHE assembly would struggle to match the power of a lesson about the Good Samaritan.

Secondly, study of a religious text in a slightly different language is a pretty powerful tool for developing a scholarly disposition. This is a character trait that I think many primary school leaders and teachers could do with mulling over a bit more, perhaps questioning an underlying assumption that an inclination towards scholarship will develop naturally as children get older and then to also think about why, despite this assumption, we get to year 6 and still have to intervene. The interventions might work in terms of giving children 11th hour knowledge and skills, but they do nothing to mitigate against years of inculcation of the habits of surreptitious opting out. I’m happy, no, ecstatic to be proved wrong with real, statistically significant evidence on that one. My experience at this school showed me what young scholars, including myself, were capable of and in that short time my trajectory of learning was almost extreme compared to the accepted trajectories for modern primary aged children.

It is my experience at this weird school that provides an interesting and rare prism with which to view what goes on in primary schools. The contrast is stark and I think that as a society we sometimes expect, permit and therefore promote relatively babyish behaviour (compared to other cultures) which is not a good look for children going through puberty. Instead of feeling down about it, I see the possibilities of amazing, untapped potential for thousands of children. Having said that, when we moved again and I went into a regular primary school, I was told off for wanting to fly ahead. I also remember, very clearly, the pre-entry interview with my mother being told off as well for wanting me to go into the year group I was used to. Apparently, promotion up year groups was, according to them, ‘elitist’ and I was to be brought back down (a peg or two) to learn with my ‘peers’. I also remember being asked about myself and then being perplexed to hear a loud and really rather pompous tut-tutting resonating around the room as I naively described how I was a hard-working perfectionist. To this day, I have never fathomed why those educators seemed to disapprove of my love of learning. I’ve been saying the ‘wrong’ things ever since, but that’s only because I want the best for children!

Although I am conflicted about the effectiveness of self-directed learning vs. whole-class instruction, I do believe ‘scholarship’ is a much neglected value and it could do with a revival. We also need to ask ourselves what we are doing to support and encourage the children who will go on to be computer scientists, mathematicians, writers – the people who operate best when given opportunities to ponder and create without being disturbed.

Who’s with me?




What do inference, creativity, problem solving and happiness have in common?

They’re all outcomes, the final performance. The evidence-informed among us know that you can’t get better at the final performance by just practising the final performance. And this whole blog is about how I believe that applies to ‘happiness’ too. So many in education are coming round to the sensible position that you cannot get better at being creative by trying to be creative – you’ve got to have something to be creative with and to think about in novel ways. This is the substance of the curriculum, that gift of knowledge, passed from curriculum leader and teacher to the pupil. It occurs to me that we also need to look again at the common ‘truth’ that we will make children and young adults happy by letting them practise being happy as often as possible.

This is a big one. Many enlightened educators with younger children about to start primary school might still be thinking this way……

The pursuit of happiness is what drives curricular decisions whereby leaders, particularly in primary schools, envision a broad curriculum that includes lots of opportunities for children to practise being happy. So, we hear lots about the provision of a wide variety of clubs and we also pick up the subtle undercurrents of anti-testing sentiment. This is not to say that I am against the provision of a wide variety of clubs. Far from it because I’m more than happy to teach chess, German, ukulele and even Tai Chi! But, happiness is an outcome, just like creativity, and I think educators need to be mindful of this and perhaps consider approaching the development of happiness, as a character trait, in a different way.

It is useful to think about what makes us adults truly happy as well as what made us happy in our childhoods. For me, true happiness comes from feeling loved, like I am making a difference in the world, feeling successful in what I do, and from seeing my children develop into successful (and happy!) adults. None of this happened by chance. No, all are the product of hard work towards ever-so-slightly out of reach goals. I have to make an effort to be a purposeful parent, not leaving things to chance and I have to work hard to be loved by remembering to be there for friends and family. This blog, for example, has brought me a lot of happiness because it has changed minds and given teachers new confidence. But it didn’t happen overnight. I’ve had to write, re-write, delete and re-instate thousands and thousands of words as well as cope with all sorts of attacks and threats along the way.

As a child, what made me happy was not just playing, but also that amazing feeling of doing well in class, as well as learning anything new and interesting. I loved receiving real praise, not the kind that teachers would dole out like left over Christmas chocolate. What I find is that children who are behind in their learning or who cannot make friends quickly assimilate a different kind of psychology that is born out of frustration, jealousy and feelings of inadequacy, but when you close those gaps (including teaching manners and sharing for making friends) and then they get some public praise for a bit of prowess, it flips back and they are changed children. I’m a big believer that people can change.

Basically, I take the view that it is not the provision ‘fun’ art classes that make children happy, neither is the approach of taking away anything that might cause the need for hard work. Children are genuinely happy when they feel successful, purposeful, and have hope for their future and a goal to pursue. They also need good friends in their lives. The path to true happiness is a difficult one to take and it involves deferring gratification and instead acquiring knowledge, working hard, overcoming frustration along the way. It’s up to us leaders to show true courage in the face of a society that prioritises endless ‘because you’re worth it’ moments. In a primary school, I think we need to remember that many facets of happiness we inculcate in children will not manifest until years later, when that child suddenly starts to enjoy history, or science, or music, maybe having a life-changing conversation that piques their interest and gives them their true ‘calling’. That conversation won’t happen if they haven’t worked really hard to acquire all that knowledge that led to them having an interesting conversation years later. And that’s part of my job, I believe, as a primary leader and a teacher. I will never be thanked for ensuring the children I educate spend ages on their handwriting, or mulling over their calculations till those number bonds are safely secured in LTM. Knowing that one day, when I’m long forgotten, they will feel great in their secondary classes and in their adult lives is more than enough for me.

Who’s with me?

The contribution of subject specialist teachers to primary education

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last year or so, you’ll be aware that the Ofsted framework is changing. I’ll admit, I wouldn’t need an Ofsted framework to force me to look at the substance of curriculum or to ensure that school culture develops the (scholarly) whole child because I already believe in it wholeheartedly. This is the evidence informed approach that, for me, boils down to thinking about what the children are thinking about at all times of the school day, including during transitions. It’s an interesting thought process that seems to add clarity to my continual questioning of accepted ‘best practice’ or ideology and I am aware that my perspective seems radically different to the majority of educators. In this blog, I’m going to make the case for hiring subject specialists to teach in primary schools and I’m hoping, fingers crossed, that school leaders will actively seek out and entice those subject specialists to perhaps switch from working in secondary schools to working in primary schools.

Science laboratory research and development concept. microscope with test tubes

What I have found is that I can tell when an older KS2 cohort has been taught by a subject specialist. I remember one cohort a few years ago who were all super keen on history and also seemed to know a lot about the scientific aspects of engineering. I knew their former teachers: one was a historian and one was a former engineer. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Sure, they were also very experienced teachers who knew what was what when it came to behaviour management, but when the baton was passed to me and I taught those children any aspect of history or science, their brains lit up and they were making more connections compared with the cohort I had taught before them who had not been taught by those two teachers. When any child answered, it was almost like I could hear the typical words and sentence structures of these two teachers and it was uncanny.

I’m pretty lucky in that I have a few subject specialisms to offer, but I would say my significant offering to that particular cohort was music: I took them on a journey from vicious hatred of music lessons to driving their parents mad by repeatedly playing the Star Wars theme tune on the recorder and generally loving reading, playing and performing music on both the ukulele and the recorder. It was a very special moment when the entire class got to dress up (the boys all wore tuxedos and the girls all wore ball gowns) and perform in the evening music recital which had hitherto been the preserve of those children who were being taught by the peripatetic music teachers.

The reason those children didn’t like music initially was that they didn’t have much knowledge and could only play three notes on a recorder, so they were very, very frustrated. They wanted to experience success and I knew that what they needed was not to be fobbed off with opportunities to be experimental or feel good in the moment, but to be given real knowledge (both know-how and know-that) and the opportunities to rehearse that knowledge to the point of automaticity. And then they could get experimental. The whole process also really helped to develop their scholarly dispositions because of the very demanding expectations to concentrate. They also suddenly became very supportive of each other as they saw how this ‘everybody on the same bus’ approach enabled the children with SEN to shine and for the nerds to be humbled because ‘banana-fingers’ tended to happen when you were too confident and tried to rush ahead! Who knew that a knowledge-rich curriculum coupled to evidence-informed pedagogy could also be good for mental health and social skills, eh?

Based on the above personal experiences and from what I have read about the importance of knowledge, the ideal, I believe, is for there to be a balance of subject specialists in primary schools so that as children go up through the year groups, they benefit from the sparkle of subject expertise in each subject area. What I found is that both children and their parents then looked forward to being in my class the next year because it was like the ‘extra special thing’ for that year group. And yes, before you ask, of course I taught all the other subjects too. What you also get as a bonus when hiring a subject specialist teacher, is someone who can lead that subject for the school. They can ensure the curriculum is well sequenced and that includes providing advice on teaching, resources, planning and assessment. What I have found is that even when teachers are given access to a well-resourced and sequenced curriculum and know that knowledge needs to be imparted, there is still a big need for CPD on evidence-informed pedagogy and short-term planning.

A typical pedagogical problem is when a teacher is adapted to constantly trying to win the attention of children by teaching through asking endless discovery questions or through planning for what children are going to be doing and feeling rather than what children are going to be thinking. There are a few reasons why a teacher might have adapted this way that I won’t go into now*, but for school leaders up and down the country, I would say this latter aspect of planning for what children are going to think about rather than what they are going to do or feel is but one of many subtle yet dramatic shifts in approach that needs to happen to put the substance of the curriculum at the heart of what we do. I should also point out that I am a big believer in second chances and the importance of winning hearts and minds first and foremost when it comes to staff development. Teachers are adults, not toddlers, therefore the logic and purpose of any change or initiative, which should be all about what is best for curating the memories of children rather than pleasing Ofsted or consultants/advisers, needs to be explained and who better to explain that than a subject specialist who is passionate about their subject? Likewise, typical misconceptions and worries that teachers might have** can be thought about before they arise.

Over the years, I’ve heard a common argument against hiring and promoting subject specialists which is that these subject specialists were somehow born naturally good at their subject and therefore don’t understand how young children might struggle. The thinking is that they would then either frighten children off that subject or bore them with ‘dry’ rote learning. This is an accusation most often leveled against mathematicians and there are probably a fair few mathematicians up and down the country who may have been prevented from become primary subject leads in their schools as a result. I’m hoping that this will also change as the new framework moves in and leaders realise just how valuable their primary teachers with degrees in maths, history, sciences, languages are.

Subject specialists love their subject and tend to foster a love of learning that subject in the children they teach. Let’s give them those opportunities to feel valued and bring extra sparkle to children’s education.

Who’s with me?

*A very interesting metric that could be developed by inspectors/advisers could measure the degree to which teachers have adapted in this way. What it would show is (for experienced teachers) how the culture and leadership of the school is behind the scenes or (for NQTs) what they’d been taught and inculcated on their ITT course.

**A typical misconception is that you can’t have, for example, a bit of drama in a history lesson.