Tag Archives: teaching

The power of connection

Recently, my trips to London have been more about connection than ever before. I mean, they always are in a way – catching up with family or friends, seeing the people I miss since we made the move down to Devon.

But the last couple of visits – as with many of my recent encounters with friends – have meant more than that.

The conversations I have shared have been on a different level. Driven at first by growing incredulity about 2016 as its carnage unfolded, and now by hope that 2017 might just be a time for change, we have discussed our fears about the world and revealed our plans to combat them in whatever small way we can.

Sometimes this has meant continuing conversations started online, or dusting off shared values that have lain dormant for years. And sometimes tentative comments about the state of things have led to entirely new connections being revealed, the realisation that people with whom I became friends mainly through circumstance in fact have way more in common with me than I ever dreamed.

Yesterday began with the donning of pussyhats with one of my bestest buddies. We made our way to Grosvenor Square to join the women (and men, and children) marching in protest at Trump’s inauguration, marching to say that we do not agree with the values that he represents and in fact find them reprehensible, marching to say that we will not stay silent in a world where those values are being normalised through his rise to power, and the rise of right wing divisiveness all over the world.

IMG_1826.jpg

Ours was a quiet and familiar connection in the midst of the crowd, a togetherness that we used to enjoy on a daily basis and now happens way too infrequently, a standing side by side with the values we know we share without even having to talk about them. The words we did exchange spoke of trying desperately to overcome the sense of helplessness that simmered beneath our convictions – thoughts of what on earth we and all of the people we stood shoulder to shoulder with were supposed to actually do to make a difference once the march was over.

I’m still mulling that, but what came next strengthened my resolution afresh to make sure it was something, and something good.

Even before the march was scheduled I had planned to be in London yesterday. We had to duck out of it early, not having anticipated quite how well supported it was going to be, in order to arrive almost on time for a memorial service.

The person we were remembering would not have minded that we were a little late. In fact were she still around she would undoubtedly have been marching by our side.

We were celebrating the life of a mentor, colleague and friend we lost far too early at the end of last summer: the indomitable Morlette Lindsay, a force of nature unsurpassed by anyone I have met before or since, the woman who not only taught me how to follow my heart and be the teacher I wanted to be but taught me to stand up for what I believed in and knew was right even if (especially if) it felt like the whole world was telling me I was wrong. Sitting in St Bride’s church yesterday afternoon, and afterwards at the pub, it was clear that she had touched the souls of every single person there in similar ways.

I hope she had some inkling of how important she was to me. I’m not sure I ever came out and told her, and I regret that – but I can make sure that her spirit lives on in my refusal to stand by and watch whilst our humanity gets twisted out of shape, and in the playing out of my determination to find a way to make things better.

I could have happily stayed in that pub, remembering Morlette and reconnecting with friends and colleagues who I have lost touch with over the years, for the rest of the evening, but my day was not done yet.

From there it was on to the West End, to meet old drama school buddies. These were friends who I got very drunk with the week before the EU referendum last June and realised that we were all fighting the slide towards a society driven by fear and hate in our own ways.

Yesterday we were headed to see one of our number perform in The Kite Runner at Wyndham’s Theatre. It was exciting to see him on such a significant stage, wonderful to see this story I had loved in book and film form brought to life through theatre – and humbling to be reminded how the narrative we are in the middle of right now has played out in so many different places and times before, and never with positive consequences.

Again the conversation turned to what we are supposed to do to stop this permutation of that narrative in its tracks, and the realisation hit that the things we can do will be different for all of us – and in fact all of us are working out our path to a better future even as we worry that it doesn’t exist.

From the actor bringing Khaled Hosseini’s powerful story to new audiences, to the translator embodying internationalism and connectedness with every new commission, to the sports journalist planning a move to current affairs in order to influence the way people engage with what’s going on in the world.

And the writer, trying to find a way to make my words mean something beyond the spilling onto the page of the thoughts inside my brain.

There is more we can all do – more we will do – but it is heartening to remember that in many ways the revolution has already begun.

Learning to meditate

I have been an advocate of meditation for years. I used to love dropping into the London Buddhist Centre whenever I got the chance, just to soak up the atmosphere if nothing else. I held the thought of finding that inner peace, that inner silence, on something of a pedestal.

IMG_1823.jpg

When I started teaching I quickly became interested in holistic approaches to helping teenagers cope with the stresses of school, and enthusiastically read reports of daily meditation transforming students’ experiences. I tried to find ways to feed it into the school day – created resources featuring links to guided visualisations for my colleagues to use in tutor time. It seemed to make such perfect sense: take the time to breathe, to reconnect with yourself, and suddenly everything would be so much easier to cope with.

I have a confession to make, though: I had absolutely no idea how to actually do it.

I still don’t.

There was a leadership course I went on that sticks in my mind. It was about Project Management I think, and there was a whole section of it focusing on Work Life Balance. I’ve always struggled with that. Once I get stuck into something I find it almost impossible to let it go, only to collapse in a heap when it’s finally done. Harder to take that approach with a kid to look after mind… The thing I remember about this section of the course, other than being told by the facilitator that I really needed to work on my Work Life Balance (thanks) was being led through a guided meditation at the end of it.

Being a Teaching Leadership course, this was as with everything couched in its potential in the classroom. That I could totally get behind. But to do it? To actually stop moving and quiet my brain enough to attempt the meditation myself? That kind of scared me a little bit.

I’d never really stopped to think about how odd this all was. How I can be completely won over by something both in theory and through the positive impact I’ve seen it have on other people, how I know that this thing is probably exactly what I need to help me deescalate my tendencies towards stress and anxiety, and yet how I have never, in the twenty years or so that it has been on my radar, made the effort to include it in my life, for me.

I guess ultimately reaching for a glass of wine at the end of the day is a whole lot easier to get my head around…

But part of my ‘kick 2017’s ass‘ plan of action is to change that. January is proving a little bit extreme in my efforts to jumpstart this year of productivity – I’m going for a full-on no booze, no caffeine, no dairy, no gluten, no sugar (etc) detox, upping my activity levels with more walking, swimming and yoga, doing all sorts of life-organising, goal-setting, motivation-boosting work related stuff AND trying to find the time to meditate, every day.

And mainly it’s working.

Almost every single day I’m managing to fit in ten minutes of guided meditation. I don’t think I’m very good at it – stilling my mind is perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever really tried to do – but I’m giving it a go, and I’m learning.

I’m learning what kinds of meditations work for me, and which ones don’t.

Visualisations, for example, are really tough. I think it’s the writer in me – I find myself either judging the narrative for its plethora of cliches, or else getting drawn in just enough to begin to flesh out the story around the scenario. Why am I in this secluded cabin in the woods? Am I really alone? Is that safe..? This beach… Where is it exactly? Can I swim? I’d like to swim… And so on. It’s a real effort, trying to stop my mind from riffing on the words. And as for being able to turn them into images that’s really not working for me so far.

Stuff focused on my breathing is better. I like breathing – consciously. It’s a bit of a hangover from my acting days I reckon. And as long as I don’t get too competitive about it it seems to work to chill me out.

There was a new meditation I tried tonight, on cultivating kindness and compassion. I was a little sceptical I admit, but actually there was something incredibly healing about all of those positive vibes. (Especially when directed towards the people who have been monumentally stressing me out over the past 48 hours, but I’m not going to dwell on that…)

Basically this is a journey that is worth continuing. And possibly one I should have started a lot earlier… But hey – we have to let go of the past, right? Focus on the present, and build our resilience for the future.

That’s what I’m going with anyway.

 

 

Crocodile tears?

So there is something that’s been bugging me, and I haven’t said anything because it’s all a bit contentious. I can hear the arguments already: about how I’m cold-hearted, or blinkered to the concerns of others, or so biased that I just can’t see the hurt some people are feeling. But do you know what? I’m going to say it anyway.

So here it is: what on earth is going on with all these female MPs being reduced to tears lately?

IMG_1553.jpg

It started with Labour leadership challenger Angela Eagle, bemoaning her ‘agonising decision’ to resign by insisting that ‘it’s just not working’. A couple of days later we had Margaret Beckett, again pleading for Jeremy Corbyn to resign by comparing him unfavourably to the eight previous Labour leaders she has felt able to be ‘loyal to’. And then of course there was Ruth Smeeth, who left an antisemitism event in tears after being accused by a supporter of Corbyn of ‘being part of a media conspiracy’.

As a woman, I am embarrassed.

This is an incredibly stressful time for our politicians, I get that. The disastrous EU referendum project brought out the worst in everybody, breeding hatred and animosity that has been felt at every level of our society. My social media timelines have been filled with anger and with grief, and I have no doubt that many tears have been shed behind closed doors over what is happening to our country.

But to do it in public, when what is happening to our country is actually your job, your responsibility? No, that does not sit comfortably with me at all.

I know what it feels like to be pushed to the edge, to be beaten down by the system and by the task that lies before you. As a teacher and a leader in secondary schools I felt that biting pain of tears behind the eyes both in the classroom and in meetings, but I did not let my smile drop until I was alone – or at least alone amongst the most trusted of my colleagues. It takes strength, but keeping those emotions at bay is vital not only to maintain a semblance of professionalism but also to be able to continue to act professionally.

These women who have let down their guard have not been overlooked in some private place: they have let their emotions rise to the surface in front of politicians and journalists. And I do not believe they have done it because they are weak. If I did then I would not be writing this. These are strong, powerful, empowered women – they are choosing to let themselves cry.

The reasons why are to me pretty clear. There is a narrative at work here, a narrative which is placing Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in role as bullies. There are undoubtedly within the people who have flocked around Momentum (as with any political cause) those that give the whole movement a bad name. But to blame it on the movement itself is laughable. Jeremy Corbyn is a peacemaker, a champion of kindness and equality, a speaker of truth. He is not a bully. He is being bullied, that much is certain, by the PLP and the media. But I have yet to see his emotions show in public beyond a flicker of resentment and a determination to continue with the job he was elected to do.

And this steely resolve is being used against him. Women are crying as they say his name, and he is being aligned with the bullies. And I do not think that is fair.

It is not fair on him, and it is not fair on us.

Just over a year ago, Tim Hunt and Boris Johnson were at the centre of a furore over gender discrimination: Hunt said, and Johnson agreed, that ‘when you criticise [girls], they cry’ – that ‘it is a scientific fact that women cry more readily than men’. They were despicable comments to have made, and revealed a truth about the underlying misogyny in our society that women have to battle against every single day in order to be taken seriously.

I cannot help but feel that, with their tears, Eagle, Beckett and Smeeth have taken us back even further.

 

Writing Bubble

 

A cut above

The unschooling diaries: week twenty-two

Excuse the incredibly specific focus of this post, but there were a couple of moments this week that reminded me why I love the unschooling approach to learning new skills.

Months ago now, I first started trying to teach Arthur how to use scissors ‘properly’. It felt like one of those seminal fine motor skills, one of the things that pre-school teachers tick off to show progress, one of the milestones that parents proudly share on social media.

And he just wasn’t having it. He was fascinated by scissors, but every time he picked them up he seemed sure to injure himself. Any attempt to encourage him to use them more safely was met with a blank stare, and generally prompted him to give up and go and do something else instead.

So I stopped bothering. We had plenty of other things to focus on, and this particular one just seemed a bit dangerous to pursue any further. But still it would niggle in my mind: just one of the many skills through which I was failing my child by not pushing him to master it as early as possible.

And then this week, whilst we were making a congratulations card for his dad, he came across some foam letters and asked if he could have his scissors. I queried what he wanted to do, and he said he wanted to cut them up to ‘make other letters’ – an idea we’ve been playing around with at breakfast time with his alphabites cereal. I handed the scissors over, resisting the temptation to tell him how to use them, and watched amazed as he carefully placed his finger and thumb inside the handles and demonstrated complete control over the task he had set himself.

IMG_1509.jpg

He did it again yesterday, finding some tissue paper and asking if he could do some cutting. And again he was careful and precise and achieved his self-set goal. Admittedly he was using his other hand this time – he’s taking a while to let go of his ambidexterity – but I figure he’ll work that one out too in his own time.

IMG_1510.jpg

I’ve started to notice the same tendencies when it comes to Arthur’s approach to drawing. Again I have been trying for ages to push him towards a ‘proper’ pencil grip, and again he’s resisted my efforts, preferring instead a resolutely clenched fist.

But a few times recently I’ve looked over when he’s been scrawling out circles on his easel and I’ve realised that he’s chosen to adjust his grip all by himself.

These are very precise skills I’m talking about here, but they are precisely the ones that I worry about with an unschooling approach. Sure, it’s great for the broad brush strokes of independence and creativity, but what about those things kids have to just know?

The more I learn about how Arthur learns, though, the more I feel a creeping confidence that unschooling might just be a cut above for developing those skills, too.

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.

IMG_1415
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!

 

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.

IMG_1412.jpg

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 SATs are bad for our children

There are many moments that have stayed with me from my ten years of teaching. The overwhelming majority of them are positive, but there is one in particular that has been circling around my head the past few days that makes me feel so sad about what current government policy is doing to our children’s experience of learning.

Early on in the first term of Year Seven, I often broached the question to my English class “What makes good writing?”. It’s a big question, and not one I ever expected to hear answered in its entirety, but still the responses that I got were pretty telling. The particular set of responses I remember was from Autumn 2012, just before I disappeared on maternity leave. Fresh from SATs preparation, hands shot up as I wrote the question on the board, and the answers spilled out proudly into the classroom: “varied sentence starters”, “correct use of conjunctions”, “fronted adverbial clauses”, “using semi-colons”.

Now none of this is strictly wrong, of course – and I dutifully noted each response on the whiteboard before mooting my own ideas. But it was still incredibly deflating to hear it from a room full of eleven year olds. Where was the talk of imagination? Of storytelling? Of creativity? Where was the space for them to fly?

IMG_1384

It is this reduction of learning to rote mechanics that worries me most about the SATs, because the world doesn’t work like that – and yet in order for children to be able to succeed in these exams they have to be trained as if it does. When Key Stage 3 SATs were still around, I remember as an English department poring over questions trying to work out what it was they were actually getting at, and then teaching our students which right answers to put down for which type of question to make sure they got the marks they deserved. It was a preposterous waste of time and energy at a delicate stage in young people’s lives when the cocktail of hormones they were dealing with made the conventions of school pretty challenging anyway.

Still, I can get the argument that (at least within the limitations of our current system) being able to ‘do’ exams is kind of necessary. And I can just about stomach the concept of putting thirteen year olds through that process – at least we could explain to them the whole idea of the hoops they had to jump through, and begin to separate out different types of learning so that the experience didn’t completely extinguish the fire within.

I find it harder to justify for ten year olds, and I think it is such a crushing shame that children’s final year in primary school, a period in education which for many has been characterised by creativity and imagination, is reduced to drills and mock exams and learning ‘right’ answers to the most complex of questions making reopening the door to the potential for real learning a dauntingly challenging task in the years that follow.

Except of course primary school isn’t really like that any more. Not since the reintroduction of KS1 SATs, where children as young as six are now expected to sit formal tests in spelling, punctuation, grammar, reading, arithmetic and reasoning. SIX! The notion of what constitutes correct answers is, from what I have seen, just as convoluted as it was in KS3 – and so drilling is, if teachers are not going to sacrifice the children in their charge (and themselves) on the pyre of government assessment, inevitable.

And then of course there is the question of what all of this drilling occurs at the expense of. Play, for example, and creativity. Various other government initiatives are squeezing out the arts as children move up through the school system, but it is beyond belief that they should be marginalised at this crucial early stage. It goes against all of the research, the experience and the professional instinct that should guide our education system. When I admit that as a result of the regressive nature of government reforms I am reluctant to enrol my child in nursery, friends are quick to defend the relative freedoms that are still enjoyed in the early years. They go quiet when we get on to what starts to happen in year one.

All of this is part of why I am no longer teaching, and is a major driver in my decision to home-educate my son – for the first few years at least. My approach as a teacher always meant that there was a degree of rallying against the system – I wanted to see my students grow as individuals, to try to find creative ways of managing assessment that did not compromise their own personal development. During the bulk of my career, it felt at least as if I was moving with the tide – that what I innovated with one year I could integrate the next as Labour education policy responded to the needs of teachers and schools. And then the Tories came to power.

I could still be fighting the battle from the inside – I have untold respect and admiration for my former colleagues that are – but it is just so exhausting to have to make your classroom a fortress against the outside world, and I have a family to think about now.

My son is three: he is curious, brave, funny, unique and creative. He has many subjects he is passionate about, and is developing his own clear preferences for how he likes to learn about them. I want to nurture those in him, to enable him to find his way through the world in a way that it keeps its wonder, and where he gets to cherish his uniqueness, not play it down to fit in within the system and win validation for himself, his teachers and his school.

These KS1 SATs don’t give children levels; they don’t take a formative approach to identifying their strengths and areas for development; they don’t recognise that each and every child will progress in different areas at a different pace: they just indicate whether they have reached the required standard, whether they have passed or failed, whether or not they are ‘good enough’ at this stage in their lives.

I cannot imagine putting my little boy through that in three years time.

And it looks like I am not alone.

A campaign is gathering pace to undermine the KS1 SATs with a children’s strike on the 3rd of May. Yet more parents are calling for a boycott of the KS2 SATs, where the expected standards have risen so sharply that children are being set up to fail more than ever before. Parents up and down the country are uniting to say that this dismantling of their children’s childhood is simply not OK, that to stop their kid’s learning in its tracks by subjecting it to meaningless assessment is not something they want to be a part of.

My son is too young for me to be able to make a stand in this way, but I will be taking the opportunity on that day to demonstrate just what learning can look like when we set it free: to tell the story of our learning journey on this blog and on social media, to show how much fits into a day when it is not constrained by the need to learn to jump through hoops.

If you too are angry about what current government policy is doing to our schools, teachers and most importantly our children, then I hope that you will join me.

 

Edited 16th April 2016:

In response to our general disbelief at the way the government are decimating our education system, myself and Maddy from Writing Bubble have started a campaign to show them what learning really looks like. 

To find out more, check out our launch post and join our Facebook group. It would be awesome to have you on board.

 

Writing Bubble