I’ve Got The Education Blues

2017, still in early infancy has been a funny old year so far. It’s as if the world is stuck in some dystopian parody, and the education sector is no better. A quick snapshot across sectors shows that primary assessment is meaningless and unworkable, baseline is again being shouted about, worryingly very loudly by those without an iota of child development knowledge, and secondary schools are facing accountability across 8 subjects based on a few hours of discredited testing when the pupils were 10 & 11 years old, and cuts to further education limit opportunities for those who didn’t get them first time round.

Meanwhile, many teachers are struggling through education cuts to mop up the social care and mental health casualties produced by poverty and years of austerity to public services, whilst simultaneously being told they are ‘crap’ by a sector of education that has conveniently forgotten that their school systems automatically exclude those without parents with the capacity to pay for weeks’ worth of lunches up front, buy and wash uniforms, and provide a quiet place to study for the hours of homework now required to meet the new minimum ‘B-grade in old money standards’.

Education has become a market place with multi-academy trusts eyeing up take-over bids for schools and quietly flinging aside the ones they found too tricky for their systems to work with. A close maths teacher friend of mine recently told me how her department simply can’t afford the books and materials required for the new GCSE and A level syllabuses. Without the resources to do the job properly and being a comprehensive in an LA where the top performing children are in Grammars, the school will be ripe for a MAT takeover, siphoning yet more funding away from front-line and into the pockets of lawyers and executives.

Back in Local Authority-maintained-land things are not rosy either. Where we are, whole sections of school support have been cut. Children with SEND have seen their provision slashed, and many start school, at the most crucial time in their education, on reduced timetables because even the top band top-up funding for schools simply does not stretch far enough to provide for their needs and keep them safe. The best and most useful services have gone, funding for basic training in areas such as phonics is non-existent, whilst protecting investment in flawed and outdated strategies such as Reading Recovery. (Yes, I am bringing that one up again.)

Years of polemic politics has woven its way into the staffroom, with teachers now publicly attacking each other for their pedagogy. Sweeping generalisations about progressive and traditional strategies are floated around as if they are fact, and perfectly successful and decent people are being made to feel apologetic for standing up for themselves and others. As teachers, we should and do know better, but high stakes accountability and the heady mix of media and Whitehall adulation or scorn, make it hard to discern fact from fiction.

Sadly the DfE seems hell-bent on a de-professionalisation of education. Unqualified teachers are all the rage and pictures of ministers fawning over displays of clearly adult-directed, or rote learnt handwriting by three-year olds, only serve to add weight to the idea that teaching can be reduced to making children sit down and follow the script. Who can blame them really? Education is expensive and we could save £billions if only we could employ low paid supervisors to administer the scripts, ipads and detentions.

Sometimes it’s hard to be positive. What would make me less angry?  Trusting in, and investing in the professionalism of teachers. Acknowledging that children need nurture as well as instruction and that whilst there are some great systems and pedagogies out there, we do not all know what works for all children. We need to listen to the generalists and the specialists and be empowered and supported to make the right decisions for our pupils.

Serenade of the EYFS Teacher

Last week I went to see a local primary school that has has a somewhat mythical reputation for academic rigour. I went in my role as an early years SENCO, supporting a family who have a child with special needs.  As well as seeing how they might meet the child’s needs I was keen to see how they ‘do it’. Despite the progressive label some edu-twitter types like to lay on me, I am open to different pedagogy, and the fanatical synthetic phonics fan inside me made me want to see something different, done well.

At this point I’m going to leave the SEND side of the visit out -that’s for another blog entirely. Let’s just say the school was a lot more keen to tell the us what works for the school, than how they might work to meet the child’s needs.

Before we got to see inside the hallowed classrooms we are told very proudly how this school does things differently, how all reception children spend all morning doing literacy and numeracy at desks. They very proudly showed us the EYFS outside area, plain tarmac and completely devoid of anything a child could interact with in any way, including other children.”Each class,” they told us, “gets half an hour to play outside every afternoon, they can play with sand and water then.” (Gulp!)

Ok, I thought, I must be missing something. And on we went into the EYFS classrooms. All identical, in that each had 30 children sat round desks, pencil in hand and with a worksheet in front of them. In each class a teacher was at with one group, and the rest were working on their own  as apparently they have little need for TAs (even in reception) here. Actually,  one class did have a tray of stickle bricks for pupils to play or build with (choose your word), which was an interesting choice of construction toy, (they are designed for under threes) for such an academically pious school. Anyway, you get the scene.

On closer inspection, the ‘work’ the children were doing, on their own at their desks, wasn’t really learning. It was mainly colouring letter or number shapes or simple matching CVC words and pictures sheets. It was low level and repetitive, and I struggled to see any learning value. Could these be the ‘aimless tasks’ that the Teaching Schools Council Report on EYFS teaching was on about, but masquerading as formal learning?

Whilst it seemed that children spent the morning ‘working and writing’ at desks, in fact they were well trained to sit and copy,  repeat or colour in what they already knew. How much more learning could happen if children were measuring flour & water to make their own play dough, or if they were digging up CVC words in the sand, so that they could put them together in a sentence to read for meaning to solve a clue to find the treasure? How much more real application and extension of knowledge could happen if they trusted children to experiment with shapes and sizes of blocks to build a boat or castle, and write instructions for other children to build one the same?

How much more mathematical learning would there be if teachers had set up and modelled a target game, scoring throws, extending learning so children can record and add numbers and work out the winners,  or how many more points they needed?  How much more development in their communication and language would there be if teachers and TAs interacted with children in the purposefully planned play and commented to extend thinking? What if they used plenaries and review times to encourage children to explain their thinking? A lot more than decorating numbers or drawing lines to match pictures of 10 ducks to numerals.

I came away from this school wondering how it could possibly be meeting the statutory requirements if the EYFS, as there was no evidence of “planned purposeful play opportunities”. It was impossible to see how keeping children occupied with simple pencil activities could be teaching any of the statutory characteristics of effective learning. Luckily, that is a question that I don’t have to answer, though it seems neither does the school. Located in a very wealthy area of a big city, and with its SEND culture that puts off parents of children with needs, it has been able to rely on its good results to keep Ofsted away.

Returning to my own setting made me very reflective. I did a quick check of the nursery and reception, to make sure that our children really were learning well. Everywhere I looked there was learning  taking place. Yes, even some children at desks with a teacher, some at desks on their own, learning how to apply them selves independently, and lots and lots of children exploring, playing and learning in, and with carefully planned learning opportunities, inside and out. Teachers and practitioners teaching a mix of whole class times, small groups and supporting play using skilful interactions to consolidate and extend learning.

By being in-tune with the children’s needs and interests, the EYFS teacher teaches the notes and the rhythms of learning. The EYFS teacher conducts the children in a serenade of learning that sucks them in with its irresistible tone and beat. It captures hearts, and holds them carefully. EYFS teachers don’t just teach and practice the scales and keys of learning,  we immerse children in symphonies and concertos, and support them step by step to make the music of learning ring in their ears. Learning is not a battle.



Closing the g – a – p

Last week a Local Authority proudly issued a press release claiming that it is closing gaps in reading. It all sounds rather wonderful. The LA encourages schools to use their funds to train and employ a full-time Reading Recovery Teachers, to identify children at the start of Y1 who are not reading at the required level.  The thing is, had the LA in question invested in training teachers in Systematic Synthetic Phonics and decodable schemes for schools, then the ‘gap’ should hardly be there at all, and all that money employing full-time teachers in top scale posts could be diverted to address other issues in schools.

Now anyone who has read my blogs or tweets, knows that I am not a fan or Reading Recovery (RR),  but I’m not going to go into that now. What I want to express is my frustration the gap being there at all in Y1, because class teachers well trained in SSP and using incrementally levelled decodable schemes in YR & KS1,  do not have large gaps in reading in their classes. The the gap would hardly exist, and intervention though applying and developing phonics skills would only be needed for particular individuals with particular needs.

In fact, the Reading Recovery industry does well out of  LAs not investing in SSP. Without a gap fuelled by lack of good phonics & decodable schemes in schools, there would be little to do. However, what happens in most schools using RR, is that the RR teacher takes children individually out of the Y1 class and asks them to read a Yellow Band Book. Now, if you  don’t know it, a Yellow Band Book will have a range of words in it, including many at Letters & Sounds Phase 5 or 6. (Insert equivalent phase or level of other SSP schemes here.)

If you are a great YR teacher, you will have been teaching your children to read using SSP up to and including Letters & Sounds phase 4, or the equivalent level. (Some children are able to and encouraged to progress beyond.) So when someone comes along and tests your children with a book of words using phonics you haven’t yet taught the GPS ( grapheme phoneme correspondences) for, it’s very frustrating, because they can often read a far higher banded decodable book.

More frustrating, and avoidable, still , is the way children who can actually decode & blend well for meaning, are labelled as failing. Not only that,they are then denied the opportunity to build on and develop their reading skills through to fluency using phonically decodable schemes, so that they have to guess and feel failure as readers. How much more inspiring would it be to read a press release that told a story of investment in SSP and how less intervention was needed in Y1 and beyond because so many children were reading at expected levels?

Parents Parents Parents

This morning I was privileged to listen to Professor Chris Pascal talk about the fantastic study that she and her colleagues at Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC) have recently undertaken. The project gives us an understanding  of what is working for high achieving white working class boys, that isn’t for most of their peers with low educational outcomes outcomes. The report is well worth a read for anyone working with children of any age, but is particularly essential reading for Early Years and Primary professionals. The report can be found here: http://www.crec.co.uk/HAWWC%20Boys/HAWWC%20Boys%20Project%20Report.pdf

Professor Pascal, as ever, is fascinating to listen to, but especially today, as she managed to pull the discourse away from a deficit model of  white working class families, and draw attention to the incredible capacity that many families, of all kinds, have, to support their children, despite some truly challenging circumstances. The research done by CREC points to parenting, lots of outdoor activity together, and the quality of relationships, as key for these boys. Not intervention groups, not more practice, not more phonics, not more reading or more maths. Just plain old strong loving attachments with a parent or other parent figure, boundaries, consistency, walks in the park, chatting and time together. As Prof Pascal put it, “its the ability of these parents to provide ordinary parenting in extraordinary circumstances” which is interesting.

Early years settings and schools also had a large part to play in the success of the boys in the study. High quality early years education and the key person system in particular, builds on the need for strong, authentic relationships for successful academic outcomes, so that parents feel part of something and that their family is cared for.

So if we truly want disadvantaged children to do well, the questions we now have to ask are how are not only about teaching and curriculum, but importantly, how are we supporting parents to do a good job? How are we letting them know that they are doing something right, even when we can see them struggling? How do we tap into their capacity to parent well, even when it is tough?


Not The Only One

Lets call him/her Jack. Jack is typical of many children the SENCo works with. He lives with in a flat with his mum and without divulging details, Jack’s life hasn’t been so great, lots of circumstances have conspired against him since birth, resulting in his behaviour being very difficult to manage at nursery, and this is continuing now at school.

Jack’s behaviour is so poor that he often puts himself and others in harms way, he hits, he punches, he throws large items, due to his acute attachment disorder, most probably due to neglect and abuse he has endured throughout his short life. Social care are doing what they can within the law to protect him. Or, Jack could be the one with autism, and a pretty chaotic home life, displaying a range of very typical behaviours. This ‘Jack’ now lacks any support because he has a school place over the county boarder and the Local Authority doesn’t seem to have a system to enable his support to continue.

Anyway,  whichever ‘Jack’ we are talking about, educational professionals and psychologists identified and agreed that they needed intensive one-to-one support at nursery to be able to learn in mainstream school. Luckily ‘Jack’ attended nursery at his local children’s centre where the SENCO was able to co-ordinate professionals and paperwork and get top-upfunding so that he could attend and start learning. Unluckily, when ‘Jack’ went to school, the local authority decided to change the rules on supporting children into school and took away all his SEN top-up funding.

Although the schools have the notional budget, that does not cover the 100% support that was previously agreed for Jack to be able to attend school. Unluckily again for Jack, he does not have a capable and well educated parent to shout loudly for him and take the LA to court. It is up to the SENCO to challenge her employer   for these children, and put her job on the line to try to protect their needs.

The schools are struggling to provide enough support for ‘Jack’ to attend school full-time from their budgets, because they already have a number of other children like Jack where top-up funding has been ‘reformulated’ to nothing, and a school budget can only go so far. The Local Authority would not accept any new applications at its last SEN panel, so it has to use existing school budgets to provide additional TA support for Jack and others like him.

To make things much much worse, the Local Authority has also just cut its behaviour support services for schools completely, thanks to the latest round of austerity measures. The schools are overwhelmed and struggling, and as its still not clear what the rules the Local Authority will make up for the next top-up panel, and together with the fact that the LA recently reduced the funding formula for top-up dramatically, things are not looking good for Jack’s school career. He has already missed out on much of the start to school.

With skilled one-to-one support ‘Jack’ is able to attend, and learn well in school. With one-to-one support he can start to learn, to read, make friends and have a chance to gains the skills he will need to overcome his difficult start in life. Without it, Jack assaults his teachers and peers, the day is disrupted for everyone. School funding is not enough to provide the support Jack and others like him need without additional top-up. The situation is completely unsustainable,  for the schools, and sadly for ‘Jack’. Support is limited, so the time Jack can be in school is limited. It’s a matter of time before a serious incident will mean he is excluded. He will be denied the chance of a better start due to money. If only the LA had honoured the original early years SEN agreement and continued funded support across into school. If only the council funded SEN properly.

The SENCO has become very unpopular with the Local Authority, due to her continuing lobbying and probing questions, but the LA is not able to let them know if and when they will have the funding for Jack back and at what level. No one can plan anything. This SENCO can name lots of children with support that has been reduced or slashed completely, Jack is not the only one.



To be Authoritative or Authoritarian?

As we head back to the second week of a new academic term after a week of uniform and enforcement rows, I’ll be questioning how I want my leadership to look. Do I want to be authoritative, or authoritarian? Two similar words with two very different meanings.

Being authoritative, means that you can be trusted to give reliable and accurate information. For example, dressing smartly is a socially accepted way to communicate your standards and expectations. Authoritative people gain respect for having knowledge to pass on.

Authoritative leaders tend not create systems and rules with ambiguous details or tricky specific details, or to exclude those who find it hard to comply, as that makes it hard to build trust. Authoritative leaders make it possible for the tangible benefits of compliance to be easily felt and benefitted from, most want to and can comply, leaving more time to support those who struggle to.

On the other hand, an Authoritarian enforces strict obedience at the expense of personal freedom, according to the dictionary definition. Certainly, we have seen children’s freedom and right to access education withheld, for not being obedient enough. For these authoritarians, not having enough money for the right shoes, or misunderstanding the benefits of wearing trousers considered a loose enough fit, are enough reasons to restrict rights and freedoms.

Treating pupils in this way on their first day at secondary school, certainly sends the message that rules will be upheld above all else. Trust is built, but in the understanding that nothing matters more than enforcing what often seems like an arbitrary rule,  but not in the value of the rules and the system itself. The system depends on fear of the enforcement and restriction of freedoms for compliance.

To be an Authoritative or Authoritarian? That is the question.




Dear Justine

Dear Justine,

Just to let you know that Teachers are utterly amazing. For the past 13 years numerous teachers have nurtured, encouraged and taught my child to buck the system, and the statistics and achieve far higher than her SATs results could have ever predicted. Teen2 got into her 1st choice university today. A Russell group University. To do Chemistry. And she goes to a state school and I am a single parent, so there are lots of reasons for us all to be proud and pleased. Teachers did this, together my daughter’s hard work and resilience.

Thankfully, we don’t live in an area with grammar schools, so she didn’t have her achievement capped by the label of low SATs, and was able to go on to flourish in a mixed ability school. Yes the school delivers consistently great teaching, but it also has incredible pastoral care. The sort of pastoral care that requires intense skills and focus and makes children feel worthy of the sort of achievement enjoyed by others. There were some rocky times for her at school but, it wasn’t going to some government-inspired ‘character club’ that changed my daughter’s attitudes and outcomes, it was Teachers’ genuinely high expectations, willingness to adapt and take time to show that she matters.

Today I have witnessed hundreds of teenagers going forward with opportunity and an exciting future thanks to Teachers. It is Teachers who engage, inspire and deliver knowledge and skills and give their time and believe in the futures of children. Please give them your support.

Yours sincerely,