Tag Archives: Children

Government Gradgrinds On

IMG_2133[1]Michael Gove may have left the Department for Education but his Gradgrindian spirit lives on.

It’ll be “Fact fact fact” all day every day if the Conservatives win the election in May. Times tables will be recited to perfection. Spelling, punctuation and grammar will be spot on. Headteachers could be removed from their jobs if a single number, comma or full stop goes astray.

So in keeping with the demands of Dickens’ censorious headmaster, here are a few “facts” the government might like to keep in mind.

If Headteachers are removed, they will have to be replaced. There is already a national shortage of candidates for Head’s posts.

Where exactly will we find these Wunderheads whose students get perfect marks when tested for facts? Yes, some can be stolen from other more successful schools to act as Super or Executive Heads. But if the government sticks to its threat to boot out leaders of schools that have failed to get every single candidate to pass the tests for two years running, even the Wunderheads will fast disappear.

And what of that other government panacea, Academisation, raised by the Prime Minister again today? As the Education Select Committee reported last week, there’s no evidence that academies “raise standards overall.” There’s also concern over the capacity of academy chains to expand. Last year, the Department for Education banned 14 of them from taking on new schools because of poor performance.

If the government sticks to its punitive plans, there simply won’t be enough good chains available to take on the task.

And what about the children? Of course everyone wants them to have a good grounding in literacy and numeracy. That’s what all teachers strive for. But as Russell Hobby of the National Association of Head Teachers rightly says

“with the best will in the world, and the best teaching in the world, there will still be times that young children do not perform as well in a short, high stakes test as they should. There will also be children that otherwise competent schools have failed to reach”.

There will for example be children sitting the test who’ve been recently bereaved. Or maybe they’ve had to move home suddenly – even repeatedly – because of family crisis. There are those who shine at maths and science and love a good story but struggle with punctuation because English isn’t their first language. And then there are others with more clearly defined difficulties such as dyslexia or its numerical equivalent.

The list of obstacles to that perfect score is long because all children are different. That’s a fact.

It’s also a fact that threatening to remove often popular leaders of otherwise good schools isn’t going to improve a single child’s performance.

Oh and one final fact even Mr Gradgrind would go along with: there’ll be lots more ill thought out “policy” of this sort – from all parties – in the run up to the election in May.

In Praise of School Governors

Wicked Wire after school clubA little-known secret: being a school governor can be fun.

Yes, it’s a commitment. Giving up your time to read and sometimes write policies. Analysing data on progress and attainment. Working out which children are not doing well and why.

Yes, it’s a responsibility. Setting the school’s budget and its curriculum priorities. Helping the head teacher resolve tricky staffing issues. Dealing with sometimes anxious, occasionally angry parents. Even eating school lunch with the children in order to prove to a mother that the food isn’t as bad as she believes.

I’ve done all the above – and much more in my nearly ten years as a primary school governor. It’s been one of the hardest roles I’ve ever had and also one of the most rewarding.

But it’s not difficult to see why there’s a constant shortage of people willing to volunteer for the posts.

According to the government-backed organisation, Governors for Schools, a quarter of governor places in some rural and deprived areas go unfilled.

Across England, one in 10 of these crucial posts is vacant.

That’s roughly the same number as five years ago, when a survey by the University of Bath found 40,000 positions on governing bodies empty.  It concluded that prospective applicants were put off by a role that seemed “overloaded and over-complicated”.

The answers to the problem back then have been repeated many times since (including by me). Better recruitment and training, more acknowledgement of the complexities and demands of the role, greater participation in school life by local businesses and their staff. To which I’d add, less soul-destroying criticism from the likes of Education Secretary, Michael Gove.

But nothing much has changed. Except for the increased level of responsibility governing bodies now have, and the growing pressures that go with the (unpaid) job.

Setting schools free from local authority control (as the current government likes to describe its sometimes chaotic and fragmented approach to education) has put more power in the hands of head teachers. But that only helps if there’s a strong governing body recruiting, supporting, guiding and ultimately checking-up on the head.

The school’s inspectorate, Ofsted comes down hard on any governing bodies that don’t take these tasks seriously – and so it should.

But neither Ofsted nor successive governments has ever acknowledged that being a school governor takes thought and commitment. Nor  that governing bodies are expected to carry out their duties with minimal support.

In many parts of the country, local authority education departments have shrunk almost to non-existence. With their demise has gone valuable training and advice. For many governing bodies, it can be very lonely out there.

And who would want to take responsibility for institutions that, thanks to the Govian revolution, are in a constant state of flux? Places where, we’re told by government, teachers lack ambition for children and don’t really care whether they succeed.

Where are the voices telling us about the positive parts of the job? The thrill of sitting at the back of a classroom of excited, happy children and watching them learn? Or attending an assembly where seven year olds describe carefully and seriously what they have been studying that week.

And yes, even school lunch, squeezed between a couple of five-year olds, their sticky hands tugging at your sleeve as they compete to tell you the synopsis of Sleeping Beauty can make the slog over the data and the Ofsted requirements all worth while.

Not enough people getting the message, or signing up to be school governors? We all need to talk more about the good bits. And a little more  support, encouragement and – dare I say it, praise from the government and Ofsted really wouldn’t go amiss.

Reporting child abuse is only the start

On one side a shabby council estate, on the other side a pitch-dark park. Not the kind of street I particularly enjoy walking along.

Not the kind of place either that small children should be unsupervised at 8.45 on a Saturday night.

But that’s where I came across them. Three boys involved in a vicious fight.

I heard them before I saw them, a string of F***s coming from the older one as he smashed the little one’s head against the park railings, adding the occasional furious punch to the guts.

At a rough guess I’d say they were aged about six and nine – at the most.

“It’s alright, they’re brothers” said the third one as I waded in.

“It’s not alright” I said, lowering my voice slightly from the initial “OI STOP THAT” yelled when I first saw them, and physically pulling them apart.

The older one stomped off. A little ball of fury chocking back tears. His younger brother sniffled along a few yards behind.

They seemed so vulnerable – and I don’t mean to each other. What were they doing out alone on a cold dark night?  It occurred to me to march them home, but to what? I didn’t fancy a confrontation with whoever was supposed to be in charge of these kids.

What about calling the police? I thought about that too but I was late for the event I was supposed to be at, the police probably had better things to do on a Saturday evening and besides, what could they actually do for these boys other than maybe, for that night at least, get them off the street?

Which brings me to Keir Starmer’s call for mandatory reporting of child abuse allegations.

It’s a perfectly laudable aim in many ways. But my question for him is: then what happens?

The failure of health, education and social care professionals to report suspicions of abuse is appalling – when it happens. But it’s not the only obstacle to protecting children. Far from it.

Manipulative parents are good at running rings around hard-pressed professionals. We’ve seen it time and again. Worse, as I’ve written here before, vulnerable young people are too often simply not believed.

It’s true that many of Jimmy Savile’s victims were dismissed or told to keep quiet when they reported abuse to hospital or school staff. But when allegations did get as far as the police, “Jimmy” (as the interviewing officer called the star throughout his interview) ran rings around them.  Just take a look at the transcript to see how it was Savile, not the police running the show, dismissing his victims as hangers-on hoping for some cash.

Similarly in the appalling case of four year old Daniel Pelka, starved and tortured to death by his mother and her partner. Of course teachers and doctors should have done more, but it’s not as if the police didn’t know there was a serious problem in the family.

They had visited the boy’s home 26 times in the years before his death. As the official case review said, Daniel was “invisible,” while his mother had a remarkable ability to “hoodwink” anyone who questioned his health.

And remember the young women raped repeatedly by the gang of Rochdale men who then trafficked them to countless others? Social services let them down badly for sure.

But one girl did go to the police. She told her horrific story, she even provided samples of her attackers DNA. The police believed her and arrested two men. But the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute. The teenager was too damaged to be a credible witness in court, they said. The men were released without charge and the abuse continued.

So, Keir Starmer, by all means change the law to compel professionals to report allegations. But only if we go further and rethink the way in which those allegations are investigated. To start with, police, social workers, schools and health services have to work more closely together. In the words of the Pelka case review, there must be a more “holistic” approach.

And yes, maybe neighbours and even strangers in the street have to get involved too.

But joining up the dots is only the start. Once the allegations are reported, investigators must listen to the victims. And everyone – police, CPS, judges and juries – needs to remember that authority figures, whether parents or TV stars, sometimes lie. Just because a young person is vulnerable or damaged doesn’t mean they can’t be believed.

But what about the kids?

England’s teachers are unhappy? Miss, Sir, join the crowd.

From the young unemployed, half of whom say they regularly feel depressed, to nurses suffering low morale in the NHS upheaval, not to mention the growing numbers of working families struggling to make ends meet, these are not happy times.

At least the teachers questioned in a National Union of Teachers survey of the profession have jobs – better than minimum wage ones at that.  So why should we care if,  like millions of others in these economically gloomy times, they’re finding their working lives tough?

Well, quite simply, because of the kids. They’ve barely had a mention in the press coverage – for which the NUT shares the blame. The word “children” appears only once in the first three and a half pages of their report. The message is mostly about that plunging morale, down by more than two thirds since this government came to power. (And there are the predictable complaints about pay and conditions).

But read on and you’ll see that teachers are not as selfish a bunch as the government and media sometimes make out.  Acutely aware of the link between income and attainment, they are desperately worried about the impact of public sector cuts on the families they have contact with every day. More than three quarters said austerity measures were having a negative impact on some or most of the children they teach.

Then there is the question of the great “freedom” the Government says it has given teachers, heads in particular, by cutting them loose from local government red tape.

It’s one of the main justifications for the rapid expansion of the Academy programme and for the introduction of Free Schools. Both were trumpeted again today in response to the NUT’s survey. The BBC quoted a Department for Education spokesman saying the government’s policies would raise standards by giving more power to head teachers.

“Our academy and free schools programme gives schools greater freedom so that more schools are run by great heads and teachers,” he said.

Teachers don’t agree. When asked if they thought the government was taking education in the right direction, 75% of those who work in Academies said no. And only a measly nine per cent of them thought they had more autonomy than before.

That’s not surprising really when one tries to work out who actually runs the multiplying Academies. It’s a complex business whose details are probably best saved for a separate post.

But here’s one explanation for why the professionals are unhappy. Most Academies have sponsors – individuals and companies, that in exchange for a bit of cash up front, get to run a school. The company, or its board or most powerful individual, calls the shots.

Take the American business Mosaica, now running primary schools in East Sussex. It says “each Academy will be distinctive in its own right”. But at the same time, all will use the company’s trade-marked humanities and social studies curriculum. It doesn’t look as if the head teacher, freed from local government control by Education Secretary Michael Gove, will have any power over that.

Then there’s the Academies Enterprise Trust which has also trade-marked its “Improve Framework.” It’s designed by the AET “to prepare all young people to become successful and world class learners.” Laudable aims indeed but where is the head teacher’s freedom in that?

I could go on. Every Academy sponsor has a “vision” even if they haven’t yet invented an educational “programme” and registered it as their own.  No wonder the teachers are a lot more suspicious about the freedom and independence they’ve allegedly been granted than the gung-ho Mr Gove.



Phailed School Policy?

Why is Education Secretary Michael Gove setting children up to fail?

His highly prescriptive, not to say idiosyncratic approach to what’s learned in schools (to be formally announced later this week) amounts to a random list of musts and shoulds that have little relevance to real children’s lives – nor to how they learn. Of course every effort should be made to get children reading fluently and, just as importantly, to enjoy reading and understand what they’ve read. How learning poetry by heart for classroom recitals (i.e. learning by rote) at the age of five helps is not at all clear. I’m curious too about the government-dictated list of spellings. Which minister or mandarin gets to choose the words?

Then there’s the new emphasis on phonics – learning the sounds of letters and letter combinations (brilliantly debunked by children’s author Michael Rosen in the Guardian). The first national tests for Year 1 children start next week.  Nonsense words will be included just to make sure the children have learned the strict phonics formula rather than any other way of reading and understanding real words. All this, says the Department for Education, is because Mr Gove is determined to make English teaching at primary schools “more rigorous”.  Which means, for many already struggling children, much harder to achieve.

I am not arguing against benchmarks, targets or even testing.  All of those have helped to improve standards in primary schools over the last 15 years (so has the substantial amount of money poured in by the Labour government  but that’s another story). But what about the children who, however hard the best teachers work, cannot make the grade?  They may be struggling for many reasons, poverty or a chaotic family life being amongst the most common. (Children formally classified as having Special Educational Needs (SEN) are much more likely to be eligible for free school meals – an indicator of social deprivation – than the average school population).  In primary schools, most of the kids with SEN take the same tests as the more able ones so what happens to them when they fail?

photo by George Rex

Well, given the wrong circumstances, the prospects aren’t good. One of the most shocking findings to emerge from research into last summer’s riots was that two thirds of the children who ended up in court had Special Educational Needs and on average missed almost one day of school a week.  As a report by the government’s Riots Communities and Victims Panel says, nobody believes that’s an excuse for criminal behaviour. But it does provide some explanation for it. Interestingly, the vast majority of rioters were under 24, the most tested and target-set generation we’ve ever seen (the first SATs tests were introduced in 1991). Also the generation that’s experienced the closure of hundreds of special schools and an emphasis on inclusion in the mainstream. “Most disturbing to us” says the Riot Panel report, “was a widespread feeling that some rioters had no hope and nothing to lose.” And it quotes one of its many interviewees as saying, “Some people get to 14 or 15 years old without ever being told they’re good at anything. They feel a sense of worthlessness.”

Good schools know how easy it is for less able children to be put off learning, and how failure affects self-esteem. Yes, they teach spelling and grammar (they’ve been using phonics as a tool for years), and get their students to read poetry and study art (I’ve heard six and seven year olds at an inner London primary school wax lyrical about Georgia O’Keefe). But they also structure lessons so that children can learn at varying paces. And most importantly, they’re changing the culture of learning to focus on achievement rather than ability and on the active participation of the child. It means re-thinking the language used in assessment, and encouraging children to work out what they find difficult and how they might tackle a tricky subject differently next time. Pupils have to talk more about their work (including to each other, thereby exercising those verbal and team work skills that employers say more children need) and teachers adjust lessons to allow children to come up with their own questions.

This type of approach is not an easy way out for teachers. It requires much more work with each individual child than supervising a test or handing out a list of required spellings. Not all schools are doing it well enough yet, but it is rooted in academic research and expert practice. Which is more than you can say for most of the instructions issued by Michael Gove. The Secretary of State for Education says he’s passionately committed to helping disadvantaged children maximise their potential. It would help if he didn’t make those kids who struggle with school feel like failures from the start.


Posh Lunch: Social graces for social mobility

The excited Year 3 children began by introducing themselves to each other. They’d already changed out of their school uniforms and into their very best clothes. Maisie had a brand new dress, there was discussion about Joe’s shirt and speculation about his shoes. Everyone agreed they looked good enough for Posh Lunch.

Posh Lunch is a Friday ritual at South Malling primary school in Lewes. Every week the meals supervisors choose four children who’ve behaved particularly well at lunchtime. Each child then invites a friend and the eight of them join head teacher Joanna O’Donoghue at a specially laid table in the dining hall. There’s a white table cloth and a big jar of freshly cut  flowers. The children either fetch a school dinner or place their packed lunches on their plates. Then Mrs O’Donoghue helps them with the unfamiliar paper napkins and the meal begins.

“It started as a reward for good manners, to encourage the children to be respectful to the adults serving them” says the head teacher. Her school in East Sussex, a couple of hours south of London has levels of deprivation – as measured by the numbers on Free School Meals – that are pretty much in line with the national average. Over the two years it’s been running, Posh Lunch has evolved. Now Mrs O’Donoghue says, “It’s a model for sitting and sharing a meal with other people”.

For many children that’s an entirely new experience. They love it and, not to make a meal of it, Posh Lunch has a lot of  value beyond encouraging good behaviour in the school.

The world of work is changing as the UK moves from manufacturing to service sector jobs. As the report on youth unemployment published this week by the Work Foundation says, that transition means “soft skills” such as communication or being able to work in a team are increasingly important when it comes to getting a job – and today’s school leavers just don’t have those skills.

 A similar conclusion was reached by some of Britain’s major employers in a survey earlier this year. Yes, businesses felt young people entering the work force could do with better English and Maths. But when asked what newcomers lacked most, 41% said “interpersonal skills”.  An absence of “respect for authority” was another big area of concern.

I’ll admit, you’re not going to sort that out over one Posh Lunch – but it’s a start. The children responded politely when Mrs O’Donoghue engaged them in small talk about weekend plans.  They also had important questions of their own. Why does the Queen cut her sandwiches into little triangles prompted a lively debate – and a resolution to Google the answer after the meal. I couldn’t quite follow all the twists in the tale of Poppy’s dog nor of why Maisie’s mum wanted to call her brother Claire though I did get that Elijah doesn’t like apricots. But that’s not the point. These 7 and 8 year-olds were talking confidently and comfortably with adults (including a complete stranger) in a relatively formal gathering.   

That I should praise good conversation around the dinner table is not just a reflection of my own middle class upbringing where such meals were routine – and it may not be to everyone’s taste. But Posh Lunch does provide children with a useful tool. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg said in a speech on Social Mobility this week that we “need to ensure that our school system as a whole promotes fairness and mobility”.  He was talking mostly about upping academic achievement which is of course any school’s main aim.  But social graces also promote mobility. And a sense of fairness, not snobbery means we should share those skills too.  

Posh Lunch ended with each child finishing in their own time and asking Mrs O’Donoghue if they could leave. She reminded them to come back and say goodbye to anyone still eating once they’d cleared their plates, and then they were off, out into the sunshine with one final treat: They got to stay in their posh clothes for the rest of the school day.

 (By the way, where are my manners? I should have introduced Mrs O’Donoghue. She’s my sister)