Tag Archives: children

Resisting the ‘inevitable’

Browsing through the education news this week, I came across this article. It reports on a study which seems to show that young people in the UK are being held back because their parents believe that their failure is inevitable – if they are not ‘born bright’, then no amount of hard work is going to change their futures.

This study has strong echoes of the beliefs of Dominic Cummings, a former special adviser to Gove who sparked outrage when he claimed that the fate of young people is determined by their genes, with neither them nor anyone else having the power to change that.

As a teacher, this notion certainly does not ring true for me – though there is no denying it permeates the attitudes of a good proportion of young people, parents and teachers alike. It was not uncommon to hear a year seven student declare they would never be any good at English for example, or a parent to respond to concerns about underachievement with the explanation that their child just wasn’t academic. Teachers too would sometimes fall into the trap of judging a new student by the prior performance of their siblings, or dismiss entire groups as unteachable. The practice of setting by ability, which in some schools begins when children are just five years old, is essentially dictating who will pass or fail – ask a pupil in a bottom set and they will rarely have much faith in their potential to succeed.

But for every young person who followed the seemingly inevitable path, leaving school at sixteen with minimal qualifications, there were others who were transformed by their time in education. The boy who at twelve was thrown out of most of his classes because of his inability to concentrate and went on to combine sixth form study with mentoring younger students who were struggling to focus. The girl who at fourteen believed she could aspire no further than vocational qualifications in childcare despite her dreams of university yet went on to complete the International Baccalaureate diploma and win a place on a degree course.

I am not saying here that academic success at school is the be all and end all – we all know stories of people who have broken the cycle of inevitability themselves, going on to build exciting careers in their adult lives despite the odds being stacked against them. But there is no denying that successfully jumping through the hoops of academic qualifications opens doors, giving people more choice over what to do with their lives rather than having their path dictated for them.


As a parent, my interest in resisting the inevitable has been revived with new vigour. I want my son to be able to be whoever and whatever he wants to be, to be happy in his choices and not to be held back by other people’s beliefs about what he is capable of. I’m sure that is the dream of all new parents – looking at that helpless bundle of newborn joy in their arms and imagining a future which is boundless and free.

And yet before long something begins to change. A girl who does not seem to take much interest in books at the age of one is destined never to be a reader. A boy of three who runs around like a whirlwind is declared unlikely to ever really be able to focus – but it’s ok because he’s a boy and that’s what boys do. As children grow up even seemingly positive statements can begin to close doors – in my family my brothers and I were labelled encouragingly as ‘the sporty one’, ‘the creative one’, ‘the academic one’ and ‘the musical one’. Actually my youngest brother chose that label for himself, not wanting to compete with what he perceived as our territories. It has served him well, though the rest of us took many years to realise that maybe we could be more than just one thing, that in fact we were all creative, sporty, musical and academic in our own ways and the choices we made in our lives could reflect that.

Of course it’s almost impossible to resist labelling to some degree, but young people are so impressionable that I think it’s vital that anyone with a stake in their upbringing empowers them to believe that their future is not inevitable. The more I watch my baby finding his place in the world the more I believe that his potential is unlimited – and the more I hope he can hold on to that belief as he follows his dreams.

Thank you to Sara at ‘Mum Turned Mom’ for inspiring this post with her prompt: ‘It was inevitable…’



Why we need to lay off the tests and give our children space to learn


If this article had been published today, I would have had it pegged as an April fool. Testing and academic rigour for two year olds? Surely a predictably unfunny joke dreamt up by someone at the DfE to keep us on our toes. Sadly of course that is not the case. The letter that Wilshaw sent to Early Years inspectors was published on Friday, and it appears that he is deadly serious.

It comes as part of the latest onslaught on childhood and a meaningful education system which, if Gove et al get their way, will result in formal testing from age four, the reinstatement of national tests at seven, and the raising of the bar for schools as well as individual children in the year 6 SATs.

I am not an Early Years specialist: my expertise comes from ten years working in Secondary, and more recently as the mother of a fifteen month old. I do not intend to comment on Early Years provision, either current or proposed. What I do have an opinion on – and a strong one at that – is the damage that this regime of testing will cause.

Firstly, there is the stress and psychological pressure that comes with any test, however much its proponents try to play it down. Even if we are to consider the reception ‘check’ as a baseline assessment, nervous parents will no doubt want their offspring to do the best they can – and despair if they are found to be wanting. This nervousness and sense of expectation will naturally be passed on to the kids themselves. To be honest I’m having trouble marrying the idea of this as a baseline with the testing that will already have been going on for the previous two years: these tests will generate data, the data will have to be kept and compared, and suddenly the reception ‘check’ becomes a summative assessment of progress – at least for those children unlucky enough to have been in the system from the start.

Then of course there’s the question of what will be done with the data, how it will be applied to the provision of education for children in their primary years – a period when there will of course be regular high-stakes testing on the cards. The first and most obvious answer is that pupils will be set or streamed by ability. In fact in much of the comment I’ve read on this issue grouping by ability seems to be a given. And yet the research shows that this is damaging to pupil progress – particularly for the ‘less able’ pupils who this regime of testing is ostensibly meant to protect.

Children will be labelled, told what they are good at (perhaps) and where they are failing, and thus will begin the cycle of diminishing self-esteem that will serve to crush their potential.

There is also the question of what happens to the curriculum. With all the will in the world, when the stakes are high schools will teach to the test. Succeeding in the narrow framework the test defines is vital for the pupils and the teachers – far more immediately valuable than the pesky business of creating a lifelong love of learning. And what can be tested is necessarily narrow – it needs to be objective and quantifiable when so much of learning (especially for very young children) quite simply isn’t.

What happens to the space for children to play and explore and discover? What happens to the opportunities for them to surprise and delight with a fresh solution to a problem? What happens to the freedom for them to follow a spark of interest and have the satisfaction of finding something new? It strikes me as so spectacularly arrogant that this government can believe they know what is best for our children. My son amazes me every day: if I was focused on teaching him my truths there is so much I would miss, and so much of his potential that would go unrealised.

The irony of this all is that Wilshaw claims his goal is to prepare children for the demands of their education further down the line, and yet my experience of dealing with shell-shocked eleven year olds as they transitioned to secondary school taught me that testing does anything but. Though each cohort would come in with increasingly impressive KS2 scores, they would be broadly the same in terms of their actual ability. As an English teacher, much of year 7 was spent freeing them up to be creative again, to have their own thoughts, to realise that there was more to a good story than a range of connectives and lots of semi-colons. Some students were afraid to write anything at all for fear of not being able to spell correctly – and when they did they restricted their vocabulary in order to play it safe. Even by Wilshaw’s narrow view of the world, in order for students to have a hope of reaching the higher grades at GCSE they would need to be able to be perceptive, to offer original ideas and read between the lines, to take risks in their interpretations and in their own writing. And even to get that far they would need to have a sense of why they were doing it – the lure of yet another high-stakes test just isn’t going to cut it for most kids.

It is ultimately this goal of his that is the most telling thing of all. Education at any stage should be about preparing young people for the rest of their lives, not just the next phase of education.

In the early years it is not so much what children are learning that is the key, but who they are becoming: each experience lays down the very foundations of their personalities, shapes the people who they are going to be. By reducing this process to easily measurable goals that can be tested we will be doing our children a great disservice, and very possibly causing irrevocable damage that society will be left to fix for years to come.

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com


Looking through the eyes of a child

Whenever I tell anyone I’m using motherhood as an excuse to start writing novels they look at me like I’m bonkers. But you’d be surprised how conducive a new person is to writing about the world.

Firstly, they go an awfully long way to giving you the discipline that’s needed to be a proper writer. It’s remarkably motivating to have a small creature attached to you who could go off at any moment. I know I can rely on about an hour and a half of quiet time, so that’s now how long it takes me to write my 1500 words.

Secondly, and this is actually entirely an addendum of the above, they remind you what’s important. I am at home with my son because I’ve managed to convince myself and those who are close to me that I’m a writer. So if I stop writing… Well, I’d just have to go and get a proper job, and I doubt I’d be able to bring my son along.

The third reason is the one that brings me to this week’s prompt:

‘Seek the wisdom of the ages but look at the world through the eyes of a child’ Ron Wild

I’ve studied writing for forever. I could tell you exactly what you need to do to produce something worthwhile. And yet there are still moments when I am trying to write and I have no idea what I’m doing.

I could think about the accepted wisdom, about the writers whose work I admire. I could think about the theory, about the tricks I know would manipulate my reader. But actually what works better than anything else is to think about my child.

My child, who has no idea of what a cliche is or why you might want to avoid one. My child, who can help me see anew the world which has made me weary over the years. My child, who inspires a fresh approach to the most mundane of experiences.

I spent years as a grown-up trying to conjure the time and the confidence that I needed to write, but it is only since I’ve been a mother that I’ve been able to make that a reality.

The wisdom of the ages has its place in what I do for sure, but it is my son who is my biggest inspiration.