The other reason people dismiss the importance of good handwriting

‘Yes, but it’s more important that we focus on their reading skills’

‘Yes, but is this their own writing?’

‘You should be concentrating on improving the quality of their writing, not how it looks.’

I’ve heard many versions of the above over the last few years whenever the subject of good handwriting crops up. For the record, I am all about the high expectations in terms of presentation and handwriting in particular; I’ve found children’s ability to read, write and spell MASSIVELY improve when they are taught and then made to practise the basics until their previously scrappy handwriting is transformed. It’s hard work and much of that hard work involves me digging deep, bracing myself and remaining steadfast in the face of moaning, face pulling and theatrical slumping downs on the chair; I don’t care what your excuse is, be it some kind of problem at home, that your mum thinks you might have ADHD or the fact that you’re tired and hungry – let’s have some pride here about what we put in our books. Of course, once the handwriting starts to change, the compliments come and the child (usually a male) then feels pretty chuffed about their handwriting (and themselves). It’s all worth it when a child eventually receives this amazing ego boost and you can say to them, “Who did this? Look at your work a month ago and compare it to now; you did this and I am very proud of you.”

OK, OK, it’s not the be all and end all. But why, when a young lad has finally cracked the handwriting thing and all those letters, having been through some kind of penmanship Sandhurst, are now lined up and in ship-shape condition, ready for deployment to the working wall, is this feat of concentration so easily dismissed? I think I might know what the real reason is:


There is something that skulks about behind this sweeping aside of excellent handwriting and I think it is a similar sentiment to that of not wanting to ‘force’ children to behave in a certain way when walking through school corridors. Oh I do hope I am wrong on this, but it seems that teaching and then having children practise their handwriting to the point of gliding automacity smacks of coercion and control, and just as the usual suspects cry ‘child-hater!’ whenever a bold school leader enforces a rule about silent, orderly transition to classrooms (which simultaneously improves the start of lessons as well as destroys opportunities for corridor bullying), so these same people would dispense their histrionic wails all over twitter because ‘Whole Child’ and ‘individual needs’ and ‘not ready’. These people make you feel guilty for caring, for wanting all children to achieve and you end up feeling bad and apologising for actually teaching.

Then there is this business of quality and presentation of writing being, allegedly, mutually exclusive; this is always backed up with the one example of some high-flying child, usually the offspring of an educator, having the worst handwriting in the world yet going on to receive a PhD in poetry. Again, the implication is that in teaching the basics, right from the start (avoiding the bad habits setting in), something more important has been neglected (like ‘creativity’). What could be more important than basic letter formation and matching those letter forms to the sounds in one’s head? It’s basically free reading/phonics practice and it’s something that 100% of children can access, unlike ‘creativity’ (which is only accessible to advantaged children who have more words, phrases and facts in their heads to choose from). The fact that this subject involves tiny little children makes the whole situation even more emotional, but if you look at expectations from just 50 years ago, you’ll see what young children are capable of.

The last thing I’m going to say on this is that I’ve always been a bit confused as to why, because of school handwriting policies, so many children are not allowed to properly join up. This business of forbidding loops, so the g and the y for example are never joined – why? A loop tidies everything up and makes the writing flow, surely? Examine the handwriting policies of primary schools up and down the land and you will find weird rules as to particular letters that are ‘not allowed’ to be joined, even though most older generations were taught to join pretty much everything. My own children were taught this half-print-half-join handwriting and it just looks pants, plus it slows them down dramatically. Could someone explain why, when I advise them to join properly, it’s like I’ve just told them to commit some kind of crime?

So, I stick to my guns. Luckily, the new national curriculum has got my back and I’m pretty sure there is plenty of evidence to show that good handwriting is massively helpful to children.

Who’s with me?


The real way to instill a love of learning

Secondary teachers and leaders: are you finding that your new year 7s just can’t get enough of that there learning?

I dare you to randomly google ‘primary school’ and ‘love of learning’ to see how many and what type of results come up; it seems like pretty much all the primary schools are instilling a love of learning – not just any old love of learning, but a lifelong one at that.  So, with these big bold claims being added to mission statements up and down the land, you’d think there would be some official evidence somewhere? Is there a ‘love of learning’ assessment, perhaps? Are the secondary schools experiencing wave upon wave of pupils who are just chomping at the bit to learn? No, I didn’t think so either.

When I was at primary school, I loved eating lunch, holding my coat in the air on the windy day with the aim of flying up into the sky, playing the recorder, quiet reading and maths. I was (relatively) good at all those things. Coincidence? I think not. If I flip the situation round and think about what I didn’t like – dance, netball and general conversation about the weather and people’s feelings – I was crap at those things.  Try this interesting test on yourself: do you find that you like/love/enjoy the things you’re good at, and dislike the things you’re not so good at?

OK, so hopefully you’re with me so far and thinking ‘Surely a love of learning can only happen if one is good at learning?’

Which came first? The ‘being good’ bit, or the ‘loving’ bit then? For all those activities that we love: did we love them from the start, when we were beginners? I didn’t enjoy playing the recorder at first, and I distinctly remember having a visceral hatred of reading because it was so frustrating at first, but people kept pushing me along until something clicked and I became a fluent reader (and then I could consume my books). So, I’m going to go ahead and say that a ‘love’ of something develops over time and only after you become relatively good at that something (apologies for using quite vague language at this point).

Do you remember learning to ride a bike?

A lifelong love of learning would surely mean that children would choose to study and learn, even outside of school? These children are rare, but what seems to unite them is firstly that they are very able readers – they are fluent, and by fluent I don’t mean the usual ‘they read all the words accurately’, but also quick and with evidence of understanding (there is a picture being created in their heads) via intonation. How many children in year 6 are truly fluent readers? Not many.

Being ‘good’ at learning also means being able to focus and practise without giving up. Again, how many children do you know who would choose to do this?

And this is where I’m going with this blog. If primary schools are serious about wanting to instill a love of learning, one that lasts a lifetime, then they need to help children to become good at learning and this is what good at learning looks like:

  • (True) reading fluency
  • Possession of a vast range of vocabulary and basic knowledge that enables them to ask questions in all their lessons
  • The ability to concentrate and work hard
  • Respect for authority and therefore the people who have knowledge to be shared, as well as respect for all the subjects

I think if we are truly honest, we need to admit that the journey towards being good at learning is somewhat arduous for little children. We also need to admit that nobody got better at anything by doing nothing about it – so why are those ‘We instill a lifelong love of learning’ statements followed with the usual ‘providing stimulating environments and activities’, ‘facilitating creativity’, ‘giving children the opportunities to choose’ and ‘making the learning fun’? Yes, all these provisions and resources will help a bit, but where are the statements such as this:

  • We will stop at nothing to ensure that your child is a fluent reader

So, the real way to instill a love of learning is good teaching and high expectations.

Who’s with me?

Are we looking at ‘bullying’ from the wrong angle?

It is anti-bullying week next week and I’m sure we’re all on board with that, getting ready with our odd socks to promote the message that bullying is wrong and that we need to root it out. But, has anyone stopped to wonder about why bullying seems to be rife? I think we might be looking at the whole issue from the wrong angle! So, let’s look at the (current angle of) themes and messages of anti-bullying week which centre around the celebration of uniqueness:

  • empower children and young people to celebrate what makes them, and others, unique

  • help children and young people understand how important it is that every child feels valued and included in school, able to be themselves, without fear of bullying
  • encourage parents and carers to work with their school and talk to their children about bullying, difference and equality
  • enable teachers and other children’s workforce professionals to celebrate what makes us ‘all different, all equal’ and celebrate difference and equality. Encouraging them to take individual and collective action to prevent bullying, creating safe environments where children can be themselves.

So, my litmus-test-du-jour is ‘What are the children thinking?’ whenever I plan (I go for knowledge-rich lessons), and when I apply this litmus test to the above, I get this:

  • I’m great
  • I should be allowed to be me and no one is allowed to be horrible to me
  • I am talking and thinking about bullying (and all those nasty people)
  • I and my friends need to think about, look for, find and report, bullying

Are the alarm bells ringing yet? It seems to me that children are being encouraged to think about themselves (as potential victims) rather a lot, to think about spotting bullies and bullying (misery/other people), and to occasionally wear odd socks (which isn’t so bad)!


But why is bullying so bad? Is it because children aren’t aware of the concept or don’t know how to spot it? I don’t think so. If you speak to any child, they will all be able to identify the kinds of behaviours that ‘other bullies’ do, but when you also speak to children who are notorious for bullying, they just think they’re having a laugh. Although there is no doubt that children are being increasingly desensitised to casual racism, sexism and pretty much every other -ism by those god awful memes and videos being circulated ad infinitum, my theory is that pretty much all children have not been taught the knowledge of how to have good friendships and happy play times and even if they have been taught, they have not had the opportunities to ensure the knowledge is practised to the point of automacity, ie they need have the habits of thinking about others and not always about themselves.

I think that the typical (empty) brain filing cabinet called ‘knowledge and habits of good friendships’ is being filled with the bad habits of casual cruelty no amount of anti-bullying weeks will ever counter it.

So, what do we need to teach (through modelling and explicit teaching) children? So many teachers ‘teach’ children that they need to be ‘nice’, but forget that children also need to be taught the actual words and phrases too!

  • The words and phrases of civilised, normal conversation
  • The concept, words and phrases of giving a compliment (when was the last time you head a child say they liked your lesson?)
  • The concept, words and phrases of taking an interest in the other person
  • The words and phrases of politeness
  • The knowledge that it is better to smile than to go around with a frown on one’s face
  • The words and phrases associated with being grateful

All this needs to be practised to automacity, just like those number bonds, times tables, stories and geography facts.

Children may not have those dinner table conversations taught and modelled to them – so we would need to do that. Children also don’t have general conversation modelled to them, especially if they are living in a single-parent family. So many children come to school without any language, not even that vital word ‘toilet’. We need to teach them the script for polite conversation and somehow have them practise to the point of automacity. All this knowledge is being eroded from our society and we are well placed to put it back in. Of course, you know where I think this needs to start: EYFS.

Who’s with me?


Everyone needs a good teacher

I watched this and for once, I agree with Jo Boaler – we shouldn’t label children as gifted or talented. Her perspective was that this was psychologically damaging for so many reasons:

  • Children internalise their G&T status and then feel great, perhaps don’t put in as much effort and then see their ‘G&T-ness’ run out, which is devastating
  • Children feel that they must keep up appearances of showing that they are miraculously good at everything, so do a lot of hard work at home/secretly and feel guilty about that
  • Children have to take on this mantle of being an expert, where everyone can come to them for help, but they cannot go to others which makes them feel isolated
  • Children feel like utter failures and question their entire identity when they do encounter some aspect of learning that they find tricky

While I agree with the above, I didn’t agree with her surreptitious assertion that children shouldn’t be made to learn their times tables! But yes, it is far better to celebrate effort and the achievement that results from that (which usually equates to high marks or grades!). I think we should also make more of a deal in promoting good behaviour and publicly celebrating children who are being well-behaved – I have really enjoyed seeing the tiny little children I am responsible for beam with pride when I tell them that they are being the best boys and girls at behaving, but it seems to be unfashionable and I suspect that this overt ‘Who’s being a good boy or girl?’ perhaps makes teachers feel guilty or anxious because ‘What about the feelings of the children who can’t behave?’ There is a real danger that any kind of genuine praise of this kind, whether it be for effort or behaviour, is deemed unfair on those children who ‘Can’t help it’.

Anyway, while pretty much everyone in education is busy acknowledging that all children need to work hard, behave and listen in order to learn, and that anyone can become a good mathematician, for example, once they are taught and then have put in the hours of practice, down in reception year children are internalising that they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at various subjects because the EYFS curriculum effectively mandates it. The biggest problem for me is that in reception year, teachers aren’t really supposed to be teaching.

Take a look at this (and this) exemplification.

Screenshot 2017-11-09 at 6.38.32 AM

Screenshot 2017-11-09 at 7.12.11 AM

Now, the above seems fairly innocuous. However, upon further thought, I think this is the equivalent of problem solving in maths; you can’t do any problem solving in maths until you are fluent with your maths facts and algorithms, have the stamina to keep trying and also the habit of a systematic approach. All three aspects need to be taught and then practiced to automacity before they can be deployed in a range of situations. If we look again at this speaking requirement, in order for children to meet this goal, they would need to be fluent with their words and phrases, have the stamina to listen to the person(s) speaking to them and also a habit of a systematic approach to conversation. All three aspects need to be taught and then…….oh wait….no we’re not allowed to teach.

What a bummer.

Somehow, children are expected to do the equivalent of ‘problem solving’ via the three characteristics of effective teaching and learning which are:
• playing and exploring – children investigate and experience things, and ‘have
a go’
• active learning – children concentrate and keep on trying if they encounter
difficulties, and enjoy achievements
• creating and thinking critically – children have and develop their own ideas,
make links between ideas, and develop strategies for doing things

When you go through the exemplification, you will see examples of children using, in context, the following words: invitation, destroy, stethoscope. How many little children’s storybooks have you seen with the word stethoscope in? So, the teacher could perhaps gather the children to talk to them about what happens at the doctor’s surgery, maybe show them a little video and then have the children repeat some of the new words and phrases a few times (as a parent would ‘What’s that mummy?’ ‘That’s a stethoscope darling, ste-tho-scope’ and it’s used to……..’ etc) before going off to play? No. This is whole-class teaching which stops children from playing and as page 8 of the statutory framework shows, we can provide, encourage, guide and enable, but not actually teach.

So, no one’s planning to teach children specific words and phrases, even the words and phrases to begin a conversation, never mind talk at the doctor’s surgery. The doctor’s surgery play area will be set up, and who gets told that they’re being very good at being a doctor, writing down all those notes (see the exemplification)? One of the most intelligent girls – a girl who has all the words and phrases and habits of intellectual conversation provided by her parents. Who feels like a complete dunce? Yup, the kid who desperately needs to be taught.

Who’s with me?

The real way to enable children’s play

A few days ago I attended a session, a sort of project, to help children with their transitions into different educational settings, the result of which would be a pamphlet for parents to help them prepare their child as well as a multi-media approach to help schools and Early Years settings to reach out to parents. The end game is that we want children to be as happy and confident as they can be when they move to nursery school or reception year – who wouldn’t want that?

Well blow me down, but the project was manned by nursery school stalwarts who were absolutely singing the same tune as those of us who were working in KS1 (or even higher up the school). We were all concerned about the fact that children were not being taught, by their parents, the following:

  • Everyday words and phrases that enable a child to communicate their needs and wants
  • To wait
  • To use the toilet
  • To put on their shoes
  • To follow simple instructions, particularly instructions that involve a sharp ‘No!’
  • To be grateful
  • To be apologetic when it is necessary to apologise
  • To eat everything on their plate
  • To say please and thank you

A core theme for me has always been the sheer lack of vocabulary, but there was something else that was not quite right. We always knew that disadvantaged children rock up to school with fewer words, phrases and life facts/general knowledge in their heads and it is easy to blame parents, so I started wondering about why we are faced with this situation. My belief is that, through the idealistic (and very middle class) rhetoric of ‘When they’re ready’, ‘Meet/follow the child’s needs’ and ‘Learn through play’ (that is also mirrored in EYFS in schools), parents (just like teachers) have actually been dis-empowered; the parents who have been most affected by this new parenting mantra, promoted by mostly middle class health visitors and accompanied by ‘Don’t listen to Granny because she’s from The Past’, are disadvantaged parents simply because their day-to-day lives are so much more tiring and their homes so much more likely to be lacking all those lovely chemistry sets and child-friendly encyclopaedias that middle class homes have.

I feel quite angry about this, you see, because the advantaged children have routine, lovely books and lovely conversations around the dinner table, so they get their high expectations home education. Disadvantaged children? Not only do they not have the high expectations home education (because their parents do not have the knowledge, the time, the energy or the money), but they also don’t get to learn how to use the toilet, articulate their needs/wants, to wait, to learn that ‘No’ means ‘NO!’ Why? Because parents have taken on this ‘When they’re ready’ parenting mantra, but were not able to supply the endless patience and loveliness of Sarah, the middle class mum who stays at home, goes to yoga and occasionally helps to run a bijou handbag shop during school hours in the posh part of town. No, Sandra the disadvantaged mum has just done a night shift cleaning up shit in a care home and still cannot pay the gas bill – but wait! She must wait till Harry’s ready to potty train, wait until Harry wants to eat those vegetables and wait until Harry spontaneously realises that drawing on the walls with crayons makes Mummy sad. Perhaps Sandra should learn from Sarah and the health visitor and instead provide an array of tantalising play opportunities, you know, make it all just rahrly rahrly fun, to learn how to use the potty. Perhaps Sandra could rustle up a veritable feast of vegetables arranged to look like fun and exciting dinosaurs, and let Harry choose what he wants? Oh wait, she can’t afford the waste. Well, at least she could follow the good advice of ‘positive behaviour’ and just smile and praise Harry for not putting crayon marks all over the furniture? After all, it’s only a wall, isn’t it? Far better to just shell out for some new paint than risk the mental health of her child by giving him a ticking off, as Sandra has been warned might happen. The result is that Sandra’s too tired and worried about that gas bill so she gives Harry her iPhone and he teaches himself how to play Candy Crush instead. Granny with her hands on her hips desperately wanted to help Sandra, but Sandra followed those state-sanctioned orders to not listen to her.

In the past (the real past and not the fantasy past), pretty much all working class and disadvantaged women worked. Raising children well required a different kind of parenting to today’s ideal – one that expected children to eat all of their dinner without a fuss, to do exactly as they were told, to go to bed without quibble and to not answer back. This kind of no-fuss, learn-the-rules-of-life quickly style of parenting got the job done in the most efficient way and also provided school children who may not have had much in the way of general knowledge with at least the disposition and character traits of an effective learner – being able to listen, for a start – as well as enough ‘starter vocabulary’ to communicate effectively with peers. The days, the same children don’t have that – so they are more likely to push and shove their way to getting what they want, as well as not listening to the teacher (and then be labelled ‘Not ready’ to learn how to read).

And this is where I’m going with the blog post, folks: we need to empower women like Sandra to put their foot down and parent the no-nonsense and old-fashioned way. We need to tell them that it’s OK to expect their child to eat all of their vegetables, to go to sleep with minimum fuss and when told to, and to potty train their child when the child is physically capable and when the time is right for the mum (because it is mainly the mother that undertakes this exhausting and literally shitty task). Furthermore, we need to tell the Sandras that they do not have to take on this middle class parenting mantra of ‘When the child is ready’ because all it is is a mandate for passing all control in and out of the home to children, turning all requests from the mother into kind of everybody-is-equal-in-this-conversation negotiation – which maybe fine for middle class mums who have plenty of time, patience and energy, but not for mums who could do without the hassle. In giving the parent the voice and choice, rather than the child, we are also ensuring that the child is hearing and learning the language of everyday communication too.

  • Expecting a child, at home, to say ‘I need to go to the toilet’ (rather than just watching constantly and listening out for The Grunt) enables the child to feel empowered because they can say that very sentence at school.
  • Expecting a child, at home, to say ‘May I play with this?’ enables a child to say that very sentence at school and then, of course, play peacefully with their friends.
  • Expecting a child to stop when an adult says ‘No!’ rather than enter into some protracted conversation in which the parent has to apologise for and explain their reasonable request, enables the child to listen and to learn.

Who’s with me?












Tales from Charlie and Lala Land

What is it with these famous authors? They live in their big houses with thick, lush carpets and they hobnob with fellow literary stars, probably talking a lot about the good old days of going to incredibly expensive boarding schools and then of course, dahling, why are those ghastly teachers making innocent little children do tests all the time when they could be doing CREATIVE THINGS with paper mache instead?

Well, I teach those innocent little children and I’ve got some information for Lauren – they’re not so innocent and weak as she thinks. Last week, as I got up to walk over to a working wall in order to point at something, I bashed into a table and hurt my knee so bad it probably sounded like I was in the last stages of labour. Pretty much all of the kids laughed. Yes, that’s right – laughed. Because they’re feisty and urban and they knew that although I am the strictest teacher in the whole wide world, I do allow a bit of humour, so they just wend ahead and indulged in a bit o’ schadenfreude.

However, they’re not so good at reading and writing, yet.

The difference between me and this author is that I think that these children absolutely need to learn to read, write and add up whereas she seems to think that these expectations are just too much, never mind that we test them on these high standards. At the risk of rehashing many, many blogposts from the past, here are a few other reasons why I think SATs aren’t as evil as Lauren makes out:

  • Their existence ensures teachers keep focused on what matters – giving children the facilitating knowledge of how to read, write and add up
  • Preparation for them helps children to learn to cope and concentrate – two character traits that aren’t necessarily developed in the family home these days
  • Without the SATs results, parents would possibly be fobbed off with ‘progress’ reports and never know how far their child might be behind their peers (and at risk of not being able to access KS3 lessons)
  • For a few children, tests are actually a welcome respite from the noise and over-stimulating activity that feature to varying degrees in the typical primary school day

The fact is, if we take away all the testing, standards would slip and there would be far too many children arriving at secondary school completely unable to access their lessons not just because of the high level of content, but because the expectations (hard work, stamina, concentration, listening without interrupting) would be too much compared to what they were previously used to. As I have said before, children don’t magically mature during the 6 weeks holiday between year 6 and year 7 – no-one ‘naturally’ develops the ability to concentrate or work hard on something tricky – training is required and because children are not mature enough to choose to put themselves through the training, we, the adults, must ensure that they receive that training. The children who would benefit most from that training are those who aren’t receiving that kind of training at home.

Who’s with me?

‘A bit like the army’ – and your problem is?

I’ve been super busy this week and haven’t really had a chance to look at twitter or the Echo chamber etc, but what’s this I see this morning? Oh yes, a previously failing school with a reputation in the community for terrible behaviour and terrible outcomes has been taken over by someone with a great reputation both as a teacher and as an expert in behaviour management and people are COMPLAINING? Good God. You literally couldn’t make it up.

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to write this by way of support for Barry, Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, Inspiration Trust and more importantly the children and families in that community who desperately want and need change in their local school. This blogpost is an attempt to give airtime for the kinds of people who don’t run to the local rag with their exaggerated complaints, but rather quietly attempt to bring up their children in the best way possible and want their local school to implement routine, structure, discipline – those facilitating systems that develop good character traits and of course enable teachers to teach and children to learn. After all, that’s what children go to school for – to learn. If the children aren’t behaving and paying attention, they ain’t learning; it’s as simple as that. It’s our job, as the adults, to help the children to learn.

One thing I’d really like the naysayers to understand is that in choosing to be the person who instills discipline, that person is committing to invest huge amounts of physical and emotional energy. Just as the already knackered parent must come to a decision to really push forward with bedtime routine for their children, digging deep to invest even though it would be so much easier to pretend to be one of these hippy ‘let-the-children-decide’ parents, the educator must dig deep to create whole-school policies, ensure that colleagues are committed and supported, and then personally make sure that policies are followed. Oh how easy it would be to just rock up and be one of those overly friendly, get-down-with-the-yoof types and just let the children (not) come to their own decisions about behaviour and uniform. Who is the most caring? Who loves the children the most? The educator-leader who takes the easy route for personal gain (fully knowing that all of his staff, the children and the wider community would ultimately suffer), or the educator-leader who digs deep, summons up enormous amounts of energy knowing that he would be on the receiving end of vitriol from virtue signallers?

New things are never perfect. So, the original behaviour policy needing a little refining. And your problem is? I would have thought that fellow educators were intelligent enough not to nit-pick at first, but to actually consider the meaning and purpose of it all, understanding that this is not about ‘controlling’ children, but about freeing them to learn, to be safe and to be happy. It’s amusing that the very same rock-throwers bang on about teaching children the skills of inference, yet can’t really do the same themselves. Hmmm, perhaps they need to have a little more knowledge about the research on how children learn best – when the atmosphere is calm, ordered and minds are open (not defaulting to ‘How can I mess about and get a laugh’).

‘A bit like the army’

I glimpsed this mid-week. Apparently, a school being a bit like the army at first is a bad thing. Is it really? For a start, the implication is that the Army itself is a bad thing. Let’s look at the evidence for and against ‘The Army’


  • Young men who are perhaps on the verge of failing in life are taken in, cared for, transformed through routine, discipline, structure and fitness training and eventually turned into highly skilled heroes with respect for authority, willing to die for their country
  • Our country is protected


  • The army costs money

Of course, you might add ‘death’ to the list. But, there would be death anyway, particularly if we, the civilians, weren’t protected.

The first bullet point is really what resonates in my own mind – the transformative effect of discipline and routine. Anyone who chooses to take on that difficult role of putting in place something so transformative that has not been in place before deserves not vitriol, but support and praise.

Who’s with me?