Tag Archives: education system

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.

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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.

 

 

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#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.

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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.

 

 

 

Unschooling a preschooler

I am fascinated by learning. What ignites the first spark, how knowledge and understanding become embedded, the directions these can take people in as their lives unfold. As a teacher, this informed my whole pedagogy. I didn’t want to stand at the front of a silent classroom and speak, filling supposed empty vessels with the fruits of my superior intellect. I wanted to inspire, to start the young people in my charge on a journey of discovery which would hopefully take them way beyond the walls of the school. So much of education, it seemed to me, was about fitting square pegs into round holes – and I just didn’t want to be part of that.

If as a teacher, though, the constraints of our education system were frustrating, as a parent I find them positively frightening.

I look at my unique, bright, inquisitive boy and I can’t quite comprehend how he will benefit from being subjected to rigorous standardised tests. Whilst I have every faith in the intentions of the vast majority of teachers to bring out the best in each of their students, I worry about how their resolve will hold in the face of ever-increasing external pressures. Fundamentally, my fear is that the government do not want to foster a populace driven by individual thought and opinion. And I do not want to do my son the disservice of reducing him to being merely a cog in the machine.

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It is for these reasons that, after years of being a passionate supporter of state education, I find myself reluctant to begin the process of enrolling him in one of our local schools. He is a while off compulsory education, but at three years old he is already unusual amongst his peers in that he does not attend nursery or pre-school. He will be more unusual still if I follow through on my instinct, bubbling just below the surface, to keep him out of formal education until he is at least seven. By this age, I would hope, he would be resilient enough to navigate school as an informed and engaged individual. Many educational experts believe that this is the age at which children are best suited to enter formal schooling – a theory born out by successful education systems all over the world.

I am mindful, though, that there is an awful lot I am trying to do with my days: writing novels, representing my community on my town council and as a school governor, acting as a subject consultant for Ofqual. The question of how I am going to find time to provide meaningful learning experiences for my preschooler has not passed me by.

Except… My experience as a teacher has taught me that much of the school day is spent managing a large volume of children rather than focusing on individual learning – I can only imagine that this is even more pronounced in early years than it is in Secondary. And my aspiration with my son, just as much as with the pupils I have taught in a school environment, is to be a facilitator rather than a font of all knowledge. I want his learning to be driven by his natural inquisitiveness, not constrained by what I feel he needs to know and understand.

And it is this that has led me to unschooling. As an advocate of child-led parenting in the baby and toddler years, and student-centred learning in the secondary school, it seems the logical path for me to follow as I look to foster a love of learning in my son.

With this in the back of my mind, I am beginning to see the play that unfolds in our everyday lives – both self-directed by Arthur and shaped (loosely) by me – in a new light. It is my intention to begin to document this, for my own reflection and maybe to inspire others too. I will never be able to capture every aspect of his learning, but what I can do is focus in on some little key moments from our weeks and reflect on them as a sort of learning journal: an unschooling journal, if you like.

It was that I had intended to do when I sat down to write this post, but thought I should maybe take a little time to explain my approach – something which took a little longer than I’d thought it might. As with many things, though, I’m much more convinced about what it is I am actually doing having taken the time to write about it: so the first instalment should be coming up very soon!

Why anyone has to be better than Gove

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When I heard the news on the radio this morning I felt my spirit lighten: after all of the heartbreak he has caused as he dismantled our education system brick by brick, Gove was being removed as education secretary. Finally it appeared that teachers, parents, children and educationalists up and down the country were being listened to: we had roared ‘Gove must go’ until we were hoarse, and now our pleas had been answered.

Of course I am not naive enough to think that placating the victims of Gove’s reforms was Cameron’s motivation. I cannot allow myself to hope that now that he has been replaced the misguided direction of the Tory education policy will change significantly. I’m trying to avoid finding out too much about his successor, Nicky Morgan: I’d rather spend just one day in blissful ignorance. From what has seeped into my twitter feed I gather that her politics are at least as unsavoury as Gove’s, but then given her political allegiance that’s not entirely surprising.

The thing is it was not just his politics that made me so angry whenever Gove opened his mouth to say something about education. In fact the political stance he was taking was generally the least of my worries – after all, there were so many other things to be angry about.

There was the way he completely disregarded the professional opinion of people who had devoted their lives to education, presuming that his own experience of school could over-ride decades of evidence-based research.

Worse, there was his coining of the term ‘the blob’ for those who disagreed with his reforms – the sneering condescension with which he dismissed their concerns about the impact those reforms might have on young people.

There was the exploitation of those young people for photo opportunities to try to disguise the archaic nature of his mission with a vulgar attempt to get down with the kids.

The total failure to acknowledge the impact his race to lead the world might have on the mental health of young people and their teachers – along with his buddy Wilshaw he seemed determined to wear down all of the stakeholders in the education system, deciding that misery was a mark of success.

Another thing that made me furious was the way new policies appeared to have been scribbled on the back of a cigar box after one too many glasses of claret at a dinner party. Dropped on to breakfast tables with the Sunday papers they often bore more than a whiff of the public school education of his peers, and very rarely stood up to tight scrutiny in the cold light of day.

There was also, of course, the way he held up the private sector as the pinnacle of education, blithely ignoring all of the other factors that influenced the success of its alumni to wrongly presume that these fee-paying schools were fundamentally doing everything better than their state-funded equivalents, that within their ivy-clad walls and manicured lawns was the cure for all the maladies of the education system.

At the core of all this was the way Gove completely ignored the truth wherever it got in the way of his vision. He took this to ridiculous lengths – if rumours are to be believed he rewrote syllabi for English and History GCSEs, an absurd arrogance and grossly overstepping his role as education secretary.

There is so much more I could add to this list, but I can feel my blood beginning to boil just remembering all of the injustices served to our nation’s young people by that man. I am however finding great solace in the repetition of the phrase ‘there was’. He is now in the past, at least as far as our education system is concerned, and hopefully schools and teachers and students and everyone with their best interests at heart can begin the slow process of recovery from the damage he has done to their sense of worth.

There is much for Nicky Morgan to consider as she steps into this role, but there is one key thing I would ask of her: to listen. To recognise how much people care, and how much they know. To rebuild the bridges between the policy makers and the professionals, so that together we can work to carve out a better future for our children.

 

Comprehensive, creative and democratic: my three wishes for education

With another national teacher’s strike looming next week, I’ve been pondering a lot about just what is wrong with our education system at the moment. As a former teacher, a governor and a parent, I fully support the difficult decision NUT members have made to strike. Of course a strike will cause disruption, but with the rhetoric often levelled against teachers in the press it’s easy to forget that ultimately the people who will suffer in a dysfunctional system are our children. Teachers who are overworked, undervalued and disillusioned will not be able to provide the education our children need and deserve. As the professionals at the frontline of Gove’s misguided reforms, society needs to trust teachers when they say that things are not OK in our nation’s schools – and to support them in the face of the bullies who are powering on regardless.

However as well as thinking about everything that is going wrong with the education system under the Tories’ guard, we mustn’t forget to hold on to our core beliefs about how our education system should be. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the minutae, particularly when any time to think is being eroded at an ever-increasing rate. Every teacher I know entered the profession with a philosophy that guides the choices they make in and beyond the classroom and keeps them focused on what’s really important. It would be a sad day indeed if, when teachers finally feel able to raise their heads above the parapet, they realise that the barrage Gove has unleashed upon the profession has eroded those core beliefs that led them into the classroom in the first place.

With this in mind, I’ve revisited my own philosophy of teaching and condensed it into three wishes for education: three core things which I believe if we could find a way to encompass would create a system fit for our young people and the futures they will carve for themselves and for society.

I wish our education system could be:

1) Comprehensive

I am a staunch supporter of comprehensive education: a system which rises above the divisions and inequalities in our society. As a teacher (and now as a governor), I gravitated towards schools that were called comprehensive, but the problem with our current system is that no school can truly call itself that.

Whilst we have a system that includes private schools and grammar schools – and increasingly a confusing patchwork of options which chip away at the comprehensive ideal in different ways – then the schools that are left are missing vital sectors of society. In order to have a system that everyone – particularly the most powerful and influential – is invested in, we need everyone to be a part of it.

I have made no secret of the fact that I went to private school – and have written about why I wish I hadn’t. Many people I speak to dismiss the idea that we could get rid of private schools in this country as naive. Perhaps it is, but it isn’t without precedent. The much-revered education system in Finland has no private schools – they were abolished in the 1970s – and its achievements come from a focus on equity rather than excellence. Public figures from Warren Buffett to Alan Bennett have called for the abolition of private schools to promote social justice. If Gove was really serious about the gap between rich and poor in this country being “morally indefensible”, then I would have thought private schools should be the first thing to go.

Personally I wouldn’t stop there though – in order for our system to be truly comprehensive I’d get rid of grammar schools too. There are only 164 of them anyway, against over 3000 secondary schools in total, and they are concentrated in particular geographic areas where they undermine the comprehensive system: heaping pressure on parents to try to do the right thing by their children and skewing the intake and results of schools that do not select by ability.

And whilst on the subject of ability, I’d actually go one step further in my quest for a truly comprehensive system and, as Finland has done, outlaw setting by ability even within schools. The damage it causes to the aspirations and self-esteem of children consigned to bottom sets is indefensible, and evidence collected over thirty years indicates that, counter to popular opinion, it actually damages pupils’ achievement.

Our schools should obviously be places of academic learning, but they are about so much more than that too: by making them truly comprehensive we could begin to build a better society from the outset.

2) Creative

The second foundation of my ideal education system would be creativity: not just in the curriculum, but underpinning the system as a whole.

Particularly at the moment, with the sidelining of arts subjects in the secondary curriculum as a result of the now-defunct EBacc, school seems to be a journey away from creativity for young people. As pre-school children their minds are open and alert to a multitude of ways of seeing and interacting with the world, but for many as they move through the exam factory their minds are narrowed. This is of concern not only for the creative industries: as the human race faces increasingly complex challenges, creative thinking is key to find solutions to the new problems we face.

So much of what Gove seems to want to do to the curriculum is backward looking: a return to a 1950s education stuffed with facts at the expense of learning. We need to encourage our young people to think, not just to regurgitate, if they are ever going to be well equipped for their futures: futures which in reality we know close to nothing about.

This space to think is a privilege that should be extended to our teachers and school leaders, too. No-one is saying that our schools were perfect before Gove came along, but education professionals need to be give the time and professional autonomy to creatively develop a system that really works. There is a wealth of research that can be drawn on to encourage this, and teachers should be encouraged to do their own research too to find out what helps their students in their classrooms. I was lucky enough to engage in such research whilst completing my Master of Teaching qualification, and it was incredibly powerful for my motivation and sense of pride in my work – something which all our teachers deserve.

Teachers don’t need to be told how to do their jobs by the government any more than young people need to be told what to think by their teachers. A system built on creativity would allow all stakeholders space to grow.

3) Democratic

The third thing that I believe should be at the heart of education is democracy – again both within and beyond the classroom, for pupils and teachers alike.

I believe in child-centred learning. Not in the unfocused, wishy washy way that has recently been denigrated in the media, but in a way that puts the child at the centre of their learning experience and structures an appropriate learning journey around them. There are a myriad of ways that this approach can manifest itself in schools: from getting students’ input into policies and procedures, from enlisting their help in planning schemes of learning, or simply by providing them with projects where the outcomes are not set in stone but can be crafted by their interests. Even better are approaches where young people’s learning can be rooted in projects whose impact is felt beyond the school gates, helping them see that their efforts really can bring about change in their communities.

For so many young people, there is so little about their lives they can control. In our schools we should teach them that what they do does matter, that they can have a positive impact on themselves and society by the choices they make.

Teachers and school leaders too need to feel that they are part of a democracy. There is not much worse for morale than feeling like your voice doesn’t count, and yet this is the reality for the majority of professionals in education under Gove’s regime.

Of course in all of this someone is going to have the final say: but everyone benefits from listening to the people who are really affected by what happens in our education system, and very few do if they are silenced.

So there you have it: I wish for an education system that is comprehensive, creative and democratic because I believe that is what is best for our young people and for our society. When you think about the teachers striking on Wednesday, remember that they too will have strongly held beliefs that are at the core of what they do, however much the government and the media may try to represent their actions as selfish and narrow minded. And if you are a teacher, or a parent, or in fact anyone with an interest in education, I’d love to hear your ideas too. What are your three wishes for education? How can we create a system that will work – now and for the future?

Thank you to Sara at ‘Mum turned Mom’ who inspired this post with her prompt: ‘If I had three wishes…”

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