Monthly Archives: April 2016

Together we are stronger

Whilst momentum gathers for the kids’ strike on 3rd May, there are still a lot of parents who are undecided. Unsure if they are the sort of people who do this sort of thing, unsure if they or their kids will be punished for taking a stand, unsure if the issues at stake actually effect them very much at all.

One of the things I am hearing time and time again is that people love their schools. They don’t want to insult their kids’ teachers, they don’t want them to feel like they’re doing something wrong. But seriously – the time has come for us to act together. I remember – when I was teaching – having conversations with colleagues despairing over the negative impact of the Key Stage 3 SATs. We longed for parents to recognise how counterproductive this whole process was for their children, to petition us to stop the tests, to refuse to send their children into school. But they never did.

Fast forward ten years, and I am thrilled to see parents making their voices heard to say enough is enough. I am a parent now, too: and whilst my son is still a few years away from the Key Stage 1 SATs that initially inspired this campaign, I am already concerned about their impact on his future education. So much so that, at the moment, I can’t see any other option but to homeschool.

It’s not just the SATs though. There is so much that has changed in education in the three years since I took a step away from teaching, so much that the Tories are getting wrong.

So if you’re doubting whether or not to take a stand, wondering whether or not it applies to you and your kids, then I ask that you take a few minutes to consider this.

1) I would fail the new Key Stage 2 SATs

I am 38 years old. I have an A* in GCSE English, and an A in A-Level. I taught English to secondary school students for over ten years, and was head of faculty for the last two of those. I am currently in the process of writing my third novel.

And yet, last weekend, I sat a sample SATs test, and I only managed to get 50%. It’s taken me this long to admit it, because on one level I am mortified. But actually – I had trouble even reading to the end of the questions without glazing over, and my considerable knowledge of the English language has taught me that many of the answers would most definitely be open to debate in the real world.

Which brings me to my next point…

2) The knowledge and skills our kids are being told to prioritise is almost entirely irrelevant

I am (thankfully for me) far from the only well-educated person to have taken these tests and be utterly humiliated. Teachers, academics, writers, and many more people who in theory should know better have fallen foul of the particular demands of these exams.

It’s not that the technicalities of grammar aren’t important – it’s just that there are so many different ways to learn about them than by being able to recall the ins and outs by rote.

It’s ok for us – we have already found our path in life, have already succeeded. But what of the ten year old who takes these tests and declares themselves a failure because they are not able to jump through this government’s spectacularly misplaced hoops? If this action were to spare just one child from that fate, then it would have been worth it.

And the fact is, our children are suffering.

So much so that…

3) The relentless assessment regime our kids are subjected to is starting to seriously effect their mental health

One in ten children in the UK is diagnosed with a mental health problem. That is an alarming statistic, by anyone’s standards.

It is a leap to say that this is entirely down to the assessment regime, but there is a general consensus that it is a major factor. It would be very hard not to jump to this conclusion when reading the many testaments from parents that have come out of the Let Our Kids be Kids campaign. There are so many heartbreaking stories, but just this one from a parent of a year 6 boy should be enough to make us want to act.

In fact things are getting so bad that questions are being raised about whether the way in which our children are being treated in the education system is in breach of their human rights. I would very much argue that it is, and cannot imagine subjecting my son to the situations being described by parents in just three years time.

He’s ok right now, but it is the world that he is entering into that scares me.

Which is why…

4) Even if your child is not yet old enough for SATs, now is the time to act

Very few protests have the potential to directly impact on the people who are taking a stand: it is future generations who will benefit most.

I’ve been discussing this this week with my soon-to-be-a-junior-doctor husband. The doctors on the picket lines, the ones resigning their posts and speaking out so eloquently, are not protecting their own interests. The people who will immediately be affected by the new contracts are final year medical students, like my husband, and all of the future doctors currently slogging their way through the training system. It is likely that all junior doctors will ultimately be affected, but the action they are taking at the moment has very little to do with them and everything to do with the bigger picture.

It’s not a direct parallel to the kids’ strike, but it’s not a million miles away either. The parents who initiated this whole campaign have children in year two. Those children will still, most probably, have to sit the tests this year (unless of course a miracle happens and Nicky Morgan actually listens). The children who will most benefit, though, are the children who are facing the SATs in the years to come.

The NUT are considering a boycott of the SATs for next year: they will be even more likely to act with the strength of the nations parents behind them.

And anyway…

5) It’s not just about the SATs

The pressures on the curriculum at all levels is completely squeezing out arts subjects. The proposal to force all schools to become academies is essentially a back door to privatisation where we lose all ownership and democratic control of our schools. The knock on effect of the raising of the bar at Key Stage 1 is that Early Years education as we know it is under threat. Teachers are feeling such despair at all of this that they are leaving the profession in droves.

And yet…

6) The government does not expect you to act

If you are sitting thinking that it’s not really about you, that there is nothing you can do to make a difference and that your kids seem ok right now so it might be better not to rock the boat, then you are doing exactly what the government wants you to do.

And if you are not that bothered by the points that I’ve made above, then fair enough. But if you think our kids – your kids – deserve better, then maybe now is the time to make a stand.

There are 16,743 people behind the Let Our Kids be Kids campaign on Facebook, and that is growing by the second. News outlets across the country are starting to take notice of the movement that is emerging. In my small town alone I know that there are two major television news stations planning to cover the events of the day.

And the question I would ask you is, what would you like to show them? Would you like them to see just a few parents out there making their voices heard, and silently applaud their intentions whilst not being quite brave enough to make the move yourself? Or would you like to see parents out there in droves, saying that our children are better than this? We are all better than this.

My son is only three, so we cannot strike as such. We will be doing what we do every day which is to seek out learning in the world around us. I am only hoping, on the 3rd of May, that we might come across you, and many, many other parents too, doing exactly that: and making the government fully aware of just how much their plans for our children are unwelcome.


In the absence of any real striking power my son and I, along with many other parents across the country, are participating in the #THISislearning campaign. Click here to find out more!


Animal magic

The unschooling diaries: week fifteen

Sometimes you plan for learning: gather resources, anticipate interests, provide inspiration. And sometimes, when you’re least expecting it, it just happens. I guess, fundamentally, that’s the beauty of unschooling – especially because going on adventures (small or large) is a particularly good way of throwing up those unexpected learning opportunities.

I like adventures.

We went on one last weekend, to the countryside near London where some friends are about to embark on the ginormous adventure of building a house. I love living by the sea, but there is something quite wonderful about being somewhere properly rural too: seeing bunnies hop across the fields and horses trotting along the lanes.

There were horses living in the field next door to our friends and one of them, Tommy, was particularly friendly himself. Arthur was transfixed.


He’s not really met horses before, not close up. Tommy is a very small horse – a pony really – but to Arthur I imagine he seemed huge. We went to see him first in his stable, just to say hello, and he was incredibly tolerant of all of these people invading his space – especially the curious little ones.


Arthur just loved being next to him, and giggled when he nibbled at his hair. It does, admittedly, look an awful lot like straw.

The next day Tommy came out of his stable, and again Arthur delighted in having him close. He rested his hand against his flank and then, getting braver, rested the other hand on him too and went in for a kiss.



He took the opportunity to get involved in grooming very seriously, gently brushing Tommy’s coat. Arthur has a tendency to get a bit overexcited around animals, but he visibly calmed in the presence of the horse. I was so lovely to watch – a glimpse of a more centred place for my little man.


It didn’t entirely last: the offer of a ride on Tommy’s back seemed to freak him out completely. He swung between wanting to and not wanting to at all, and in the end we just followed down the road on foot as his friend enjoyed a ride herself.

I’m not really surprised he was overwhelmed. The proximity to this animal was already an awful lot for him to digest, and the experience was clearly an important one for him. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what he learnt – there were practical things, like the way his behaviour shifted and an awareness of the dangers of standing behind a horse – but the deeper learning is less tangible. He was absorbing so much from just being there, making whole his perception of an animal he had only previously seen from a distance or in books.

It was a reminder of the magic animals hold for children, and how important it is to include them in their experience of the world. I don’t think we’ll be getting a pet just yet (the tadpoles are plenty for the moment), but I am looking forward to seeking out opportunities over the months to come for Arthur to feel that magic again.



How to grow a writer

It is easy to be negative at the moment when thinking about education. In fact it’s easy to be negative about most things to be honest – I’ve spent most of this week dwelling on the seemingly inevitable fate of the NHS, while intermittently wondering whether there is anything we can do to bring our schools back from the brink.

But of course there is.

Beneath all the doomsaying around the utterly depressing state of assessment – the unbelievably detrimental SATs exams, and ill-thought-out reforms to GCSEs – there are teachers just getting on with doing their jobs. Jobs which, incidentally, align the vast majority of them much more closely with the interests of the young people in their care than with the government and its dictats.

Much of what we have shared through the #THISislearning campaign so far has been rooted in the Early Years. And it is a relief to know that here the notion of play as a vehicle of learning still predominates; that our children, at least when they are very young, can follow their own path to creativity and fun.

But of course play does not become defunct as children grow older. In fact I would argue that its magic becomes all the more important.


It was always one of my key goals as a secondary school teacher, to harness the power of play.

There is a tightrope of engagement when you are working with teenagers, hung tentatively between the towers of curriculum and assessment. My job, the way I saw it, was to enable my students to balance on that high wire – to give them the skills they needed to succeed whilst simultaneously not losing sight of the love of learning that motivated them all, once upon a time.

Of course inherent in this is the notion of success, and this is where my views diverge most from those of our our current government. For me, success (from an English teacher’s perspective) is a young person who can think, read, write and speak with confidence. I imagine what that looks like for me is very different to Nicky Morgan’s idea of a perfectly educated child. To be honest I seriously doubt whether confidence, and all of the dangerous individuality that goes with it, factors anywhere at all in this government’s vision for our children. But that’s a story for another post.

So back to my job, as a teacher.

I established very early on in my career that I was not a ‘filling empty pails’ kind of educator, but rather one more interested in kindling fires. I have never had much time for bare facts – knowledge without context leaves me cold, and I admit to finding myself so completely disengaged with the approach to learning about grammar intrinsic to the new KS2 SATs papers that I can hardly read to the end of a sample question without switching off.

That’s not to say grammar is not important, or fascinating – of course it is, given the right situation. It’s just that there are so many more interesting ways to understand it than by methodical categorisation and endless rules – especially given that our language is often not very interested in following the rules itself.

My goal in the classroom was to get my students interested in things. To get them asking questions, being genuinely curious – to get them to a place where the answers (where they existed) might just stick.

I remember sitting down with a colleague (and friend) to plan a scheme of learning for Year Eight which needed to get down to the nitty gritty of word and sentence level analysis, as well as improving students’ use of grammar and punctuation in their own writing. We wanted to use a multimodal approach to engage students in a dialogue about how texts were constructed, the similarities and differences in the way meaning is conveyed through images, film and the written word. It ended up being based around a range of texts including ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, ‘Persepolis’ and ‘Stand By Me’, weaving back and forward through the narratives in their different forms and inviting an intelligent discussion which did – inevitably – lead us to the technicalities of how language was being used, and how the students could manipulate it to their own ends. I can tell you now that at the end of it none of those kids would have been any closer to passing the exams that, according to our current government, they should have been sitting two years earlier. But they were more confident readers and writers, and could explain why they (and others) used words the way they did.

All of that aside, it was fun. Not easy – in fact arguably harder than going through the motions of learning by rote because of the degree of thinking involved. But it was interesting: informed by the personalities of myself and my friend, and inviting our students to engage with it on a personal level.

There are a couple of other schemes of learning that stand out to me from Year Nine – a notoriously tricky year where the emotions of puberty are in danger of taking over completely, but an exciting one too when the new level of maturity students are beginning to exhibit can take everything up to another level. One was inspired by a brilliant set of resources from BT, using an exploration of all forms of spoken language as the hook into learning more about how words work. Another took its starting point from an excellent study guide produced by the English and Media Centre to explore the Sherlock Holmes stories, and detective fiction in general. We encouraged students to go into role as detectives as they read and studied the texts, to look out for clues in the language to the meaning that was being created and then be able to apply the techniques themselves as they grew into more confident writers. My kids produced some fantastic stories as a result of what they learnt, with some exhibiting incredibly sophisticated and effective manipulation of language. Could they have told me exactly what grammatical devices they were using and why? I doubt it. Did they need to? No! Not back then anyway…

I could go on, but I imagine you get my point. The nurturing of a writer has very little to do with teaching them to identify fronted adverbials and subordinate clauses, to carefully construct expanded noun phrases and employ the correct balance of semi-colons and exclamation marks. It has everything to do with introducing them to a wide range of texts, with letting them discover for themselves the thrill that comes from reading words that truly speak to you, with giving them the tools and the confidence to be able to construct their own sentences and paragraphs and weave them into whole texts that they are proud of and that mean something.

I know that, in English classrooms up and down the country, that is exactly what is happening. But I fear that it is happening less and less. Because, in our overloaded education system, this sort of learning seems to no longer be valued. And I don’t mean by the teachers – they know what learning looks like, and how to inspire.

But they also have an obligation to get the children in their charge to pass the tests. And if this government remains insistent on testing the wrong things (and testing them way too often) then there will be no space for real learning left at all.



Writing Bubble


Why I am standing with our junior doctors


In just over six weeks time, my husband will become a junior doctor.

Juggling the last five years of training with family life has been hard – the long commutes after sleepless nights, the hours of study when our son just wants to play with his Dad, the fear that the dream of being a doctor that has lain dormant for twenty years maybe really isn’t meant to be – but we have got there.

And now, just when he should be celebrating, just when we are on the cusp of this next phase of our lives, we are faced with this government who are intent on tearing the NHS limb from limb – starting with, or so they thought, its weakest members.

But junior doctors are not weak. Each and every one of them has already fought so hard to be where they are right now, has made tough choices, and sacrifices, and turned away from much easier paths to pursue the one they have chosen.

They are standing up today for themselves, for their families, for their patients, for future generations of doctors – and for the very existence of our NHS.

I, along with every single one of my friends and family, am standing with them.

And we will not be ‘defeated’ by the threats of the Tories, whatever base, bullying tactics Hunt and his cronies resort to.



“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

It’s hard, learning to make friends.

We spent the weekend with one of my oldest and bestest and her two kids, the elder of whom is weeks younger than Arthur. He was so excited to see her.

Things weren’t always entirely smooth. There were moments when Arthur’s experimental interactions crossed the boundaries, moments when I wanted just to sweep him up and replace him with a child who was perfectly socialised and knew not ever to push or hit or kick.

Looking at this image – of all the images I have as memories of the weekend – it would be easy to forget that it had not all been smiles. But it is important to remember, I think, what a huge amount of subconscious negotiating is going on when our little people are learning to share their world with others.

Ultimately, though, they were learning to be friends, these two. By the end of the weekend Arthur cared enough for her opinion not to want to make her sad or cross. When they went to say goodbye, he gave her a little kiss.

And when she kissed him back he visibly melted.

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

#THISislearning update

It has been a week and a day since Maddy and I launched the #THISislearning campaign, and already it is beginning to gather momentum.

THISislearning badge final

We have 272 members of our Facebook group – parents and teachers, from up and down the country, united in their belief that there is something seriously wrong with the lack of understanding and respect our government shows towards the art of learning.

There has been lots of interest in the campaign on Twitter, with some of my favourite educationalists (including Michael Rosen and Sue Cowley) showing their support. The links that people have shared using the hashtag #THISislearning have led me to some fantastic posts, including one which sums up perfectly why it is time for parents and teachers to unite and fight the decimation of our education system.

And support from parents is certainly strong.

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"Play is often talked about as if it were a release from serious learning. But for children play IS serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood" -{Fred Rogers} . My eldest has left school, he did well in his exams and wasn't a worrier when it came to preparing for them. He always knew that he'd follow in my husband's footsteps regardless of the outcome, he wanted a trade rather than years and years of further education. We are proud of him, making a living whilst still staying on in college, as is mandatory. . My middle daughter is currently studying for GCSEs she is working relentlessly night in night out to keep the place at college that has been provisionally offered her, but I worry that the exam stress is too much. . In the UK, children sit compulsory SATS tests to measure achievement. Children that do not reach the required level are described by the government as 'failing' or 'doing poorly' which can seriously affect self-esteem. I tried an English paper yesterday and I scored 6 out of 10. I would say half of my correct answers were guesses. This is a paper aimed at ten-year-olds, and yet I am 36 years old with an A* in English at GCSE and a B at A Level as well as further qualifications in journalism, copywriting and editing but I still only got just over half correct. A child's progress can not be measured by their ability to spot the conjunctive clause. Whatever happened to trusting teachers to do what they entered the profession to do? There is a tremendous amount of pressure on parents, teachers and children and that makes me sad and worried about what is in store for Rose's education and how hard she will be pushed. . . . . . . . . . . #THISislearning #letkidsbekids #StopSATS #LittleFierceOnes #clickinmoms #lovemyblog #ABMlifeissweet #darlingdaily #mommyblogger #mummyblogger #thehappynow #childhoodunplugged #RSlove #Flashesofdelight #humansofjoy #livebeautifully #simplepleasuresoflife #our_everyday_moments #simplychildren #simply_children #liveauthentic #candidchildhood #howyouglow #litt

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I love that not only are people beginning to share their own images and stories that promote a positive and passionate vision of learning, but also that the stories that are being shared are actually beginning to inspire people to think more deeply about learning – something which has been an unexpected side effect of the campaign for me as well.

The blogging community is beginning to come together, sharing their posts about learning and the activities which inspire it. I particularly like this story-inspired rainbow activity, and the hands-on learning about the butterfly life cycle using the ever-versatile tuff spot.

Of course this is all leading up to the 3rd May, when children across the country will be kept out of school and will have the chance to engage in exciting learning opportunities in their communities. I am particularly excited about what is going to be happening in my little town: a Celebrating Children’s Creativity day organised by the fantastic Flossy and Jim.

But perhaps most of all, I am excited by the general tide of enthusiasm in the world of education. The sense that, whilst things might be pretty rubbish right now, there IS another way – and that by standing together we really do have the chance to create a better future for our children. There are all sorts of campaigns kicking off, with people making the most of their expertise and interests to galvanise support from far and wide. And the wider campaign now has a soundtrack, in the form of this protest song which is in the process of being created by a group of teachers in London.

So what can you do – what can we all do – to take things further?

As far as #THISislearning is concerned, we would love it if you could do the following:

  • Join our Facebook group if you haven’t already, and share it with your friends
  • Use the #THISislearning hashtag to share your experiences of (or thoughts about) learning on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
  • Link up your blog posts to inspire others with your experiences, ideas or activities
  • Share our badge (link in sidebar) to raise awareness of the campaign

Thank you for your support: together we are stronger.




A space to learn

The unschooling diaries: week fourteen

It may be taking up rather a lot of time and headspace, but one major benefit of the #THISislearning campaign for me has been the renewed focus I have found on the way Arthur learns, and how I can best facilitate it. I’ve been reading lots of articles about what does – and doesn’t – inspire effective learning and I in turn am feeling very much inspired.

One of the key concerns parents and teachers have about the SATs is the space they take up – both in terms of time and the room they occupy in peoples’ heads – meaning that other learning, proper learning, is squeezed out as a result. With Arthur learning at home (and out and about) with me, I don’t need to worry about his learning time (and quality) being reduced by assessment or administration. I do, however, want to make sure that his learning does not get lost in the focus on the everyday.

This is a bit of an oxymoron when it comes to unschooling. After all, everyday life IS learning – everything we do, enhanced by talk and questions, is teaching Arthur about a different aspect of the way the world works. But all of that is fairly ordinary, and I want to make sure he is inspired by the extraordinary too – that he has the chance to explore familiar (and less familiar) objects and materials in his own way, and in doing so learn things that might challenge his perceptions and everyday experiences.

Part of that means making sure he has the time in the day to play, and to immerse himself in that extra-ordinary learning. And part of it means dedicating physical space for him to do it – space that inspires curiosity and exploration, space that is his.

He actually has various little places around the house for this – his room, obviously, and a corner of my study. The area we’ve been working on this week, though, is in the kitchen. It started off just over a year ago as Arthur’s art corner, but as the months have passed it has evolved: he has acquired an increasing amount of resources for building and creating and experimenting, and the more things we’ve had to try to cram in to his corner the harder it’s been to actually access them.

I dream of Montessori-style open shelves, with carefully curated learning materials rotated on a regular basis. But then I have to get realistic, and remember just how quickly the space around me can descend into chaos if I’m not careful. So we’ve gone for clear drawers instead – I trawled the internet to find ones which would fit on our Ikea unit and finally found the perfect ones. I’m still waiting for another column of shelving to arrive which should (hopefully) fit perfectly into the corner by the window, and then there will be space for books and boxes of miscellaneous bits and pieces.


The idea with the drawers is that each of them has one type of resource. The way I’ve grouped them has varied, but there is a logic to it all. I’m hoping each one contains something that will inspire Arthur towards creative play: very few of the resources have a ‘right’ application, so it’s going to be interesting to see how he interprets their potential.

My favourite at the moment is definitely the seaside drawer, with shells and stones and sand collected from local beaches and our travels all over the world. I have so many ideas of what we might be able to do with them, but I’m trying to hold back at the moment to see what Arthur comes up with first.


As for Arthur, he seems especially intrigued by the ‘small worlds’ drawer, and I can’t blame him. We have yet to collect all of the weird and wonderful creatures he has secreted around the house and introduce them to their new home, but the ones that are there are already inspiring some interesting play – I particularly liked this morning’s conversation between the bear and the octopus.


On the subject of creatures, this learning space is also home to Arthur’s first pets – four tadpoles collected from the pond at my parents’ place. We are both fascinated by their habits and their creeping metamorphosis – in the last forty eight hours they have just begun to grow legs. They have inspired so many fascinating conversations already – I can’t wait to see Arthur’s wonder when their transformation is complete!


There is generally something incredibly powerful about focusing Arthur’s creative and conceptual energies around this space. He tends to oscillate round it as we go through our day, picking up new things to explore or pausing to investigate something further. It has certainly become the place he gravitates towards first thing in the morning. With things being accessible and clearly laid out he has proved more likely to just leap straight in – like yesterday, when I came downstairs to find him drawing on his easel (welly boots on of course ready to escape into the garden the second I opened the door).


The more I learn about learning the more I realise I have yet to learn – which is exactly as it should be. I am just very grateful to be spending my days with such a good little teacher, and will continue to do all I can to make the adventures we have together as inspiring and enlightening as possible.