Measuring what matters

One at a time, they came forward and stood on the big white X on the floor. The big white X which meant ‘THIS IS WHERE YOU STAND’. You could see the concentration on their little faces. They looked out to the audience of parents and carefully delivered the lines they had been practising over the last few weeks. They recited poems and held up their art work. They talked about their favourite moments from this year. They stood proudly and spoke clearly. And then…..well, then they got into position for their Africa-inspired dance. They leapt and twirled and weaved around each other whilst waving brightly coloured bits of fabric. They danced their little hearts out and made mums and dads cry.

At the back of the hall, with parents seated either side of her, their teacher danced with them – full of enthusiasm, she leapt, twirled and waved a ribbon; encouraging her little charges along.

This was Year 2’s Leavers’ Assembly, which marked the end of these children’s three years at infant school. And what a long way they have come.

After this wonderful display, parents went into the dining hall where tables were laid with tablecloths and little vases of flowers. Teas, coffees and biscuits were served. ‘Oooh, we didn’t expect this‘, muttered appreciative mums and dads. This all felt like……..well, like a proper occasion. So we drank tea and ate biscuits as our little ones chatted away excitedly; and there was a real feeling of warmth and loveliness in the air. Many of us parents didn’t know each other three years ago, but a solid community and support network has built up around this school and these children. And now this group of parents mingled happily as they drank their tea, delighting not just in the achievements of their own child, but in the achievements of all of these children who have come so far since their first days in Reception.

As I left the school that morning, I couldn’t help thinking that it’s a shame that the people who measure our schools and put together charts and graphs and league tables don’t see more things like this.

It’s a shame they can’t measure the pride these parents feel, the community that has been built, and the good feeling in the air over those teas and coffees.

It’s a shame they didn’t see that teacher, doing everything she could to encourage her class from the back of the hall. Joining in with their dance, leaping and twirling as she waved a ribbon around.

It’s a shame they don’t know about the child who was so shy during Reception that assemblies for parents used to make him freeze. He would never have looked up, looked out, delivered lines, or twirled around with a pink scarf the way he did in that leavers’ assembly.

It’s a shame they can’t see the confidence these children have developed – confidence when dealing with each other, with their teachers, and with other adults. Confidence to try new things, to step out of their comfort zones.

It’s a shame they can’t see how these youngsters have learnt to organise their play, resolve differences, take turns, and bounce back when things don’t go their way.

It’s a shame they don’t know about the little one who, a year ago, desperately wanted to join in with the football at lunchtime but didn’t think he was good enough. Look at him now as he runs off to join in, a huge grin on his face.

It’s a shame they can’t see how these children have gained in independence, maturity and resilience. How some of them used to struggle when they didn’t get the results they wanted, but have begun to learn how to deal with disappointment.

It’s a shame that, while we’re trying to decide how good schools are and whether we are ticking all the right boxes, so much about who our children actually are gets lost.

It’s a shame that so many of the important things don’t seem to get recognised these days. People, community, values. The determination, thoughtfulness, resilience and confidence that our children will take with them as they move onto the next stage.  Because ultimately, it is these things that will be the difference in the world. Not how quickly they can learn their times tables, or their understanding of a split diagraph.

That’s what I think, anyway.

Balancing boys

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Why are we teaching 6 year olds nonsense about exclamation marks?

How are you enjoying your topic at the moment, sweetheart?‘ I asked my increasingly reluctant-to-talk-about-school 6 year old a few weeks ago. Their current topic is Africa, and Africa is right up his street.

Hmmmm‘, he said. ‘I’m not sure we are actually doing Africa any more. We seem to be doing animals instead.

Even so‘, I replied; ‘whether it’s Africa or animals, it sounds like something you’d enjoy?

I think our topic is actually exclamation marks’, he said. ‘Exclamation marks, and a couple of things about animals…..But mainly exclamation marks.

Oh, what have you been learning about exclamation marks?‘ I asked.

I know that sentences with an exclamation mark must start with ‘how’ or ‘what’ and end with a verb. Like “What a cold day it is!” ‘

I felt confused – where had this come from? Is it really seen as a priority for 6 and 7 year olds? Why are these restrictive and probably very daunting rules being foisted upon young children? And what purpose can this one possibly serve?

I decided that my boy had probably exaggerated a bit – perhaps they had had a little focus on exclamation marks but to him it had felt like more than that. However, a chat with his teacher revealed that yes, they have indeed had a drive on exclamation marks recently…..or, as I now know from having done a bit of research, a drive on exclamation sentences. If you are wondering what the difference is between a simple exclamation mark and an exclamation sentence……. well, an exclamation mark can be still used as punctuation in a statement such as ‘How amazing!‘, or ‘Help!‘; whereas an exclamation sentence should adhere to the rules outlined above by my son.  ‘What a beautiful day!’ does not count as an exclamation sentence; whereas ‘What a beautiful day it is!’ does. And of course this is the sort of language we use with each other and our children all the time, isn’t it?! ‘How beautiful you look!‘ / ‘What a wonderful jacket you’re wearing!‘  – you know the sort of thing.

The Department for Education‘s guidelines on the matter tells us this:

The definition of an exclamation should not be confused with the uses of the exclamation mark for punctuation. The exclamation mark can be used in a variety of sentence forms and not just in exclamations.

And yes, if they are to be judged as writing at the ‘expected standard’ then our Year 2 pupils (who are aged 6 and 7) should be able to recognise and write examples of exclamation sentences.

Really?

Really??

And if the answer is yes, then my next question is, why?

Is this going to make them better writers? Better thinkers? Better people? Because I’m not sure that filling young children’s head with this prescriptive nonsense will do any such thing. And if you’re not going to achieve any of those things then why do it? Just so that we can say ‘yippee, look at our 6 and 7 year olds who are now able to pass tests that are much harder than they were before‘ – is that why? Just in the name of ‘raising standards’?

If we really want to encourage our little writers, surely one of the first steps is to get them reading. Get them to the library…..you know, those brilliant places full of books that have had to reduce their opening hours because they have no funding? Get them reading and get them telling stories. Get them creating, writing stories and acting out stories. Encourage them to write and to use language without being restricted by frightening rules which make no sense to them. Let them know that writing is about endless possibilities, not about rules and restrictions.

If anything could sum up the utter ridiculousness of what is happening in our schools in the name of ‘raising standards’, then surely it is this focus on exclamation marks.

What absolute complete and utter nonsense it is!

(and yes, this is an exclamation sentence)

boy-writing

N.B  I am not a teacher. This is how I have understood things from a) my son b) teachers and c) things I have read. If I have got anything wrong then please feel free to correct me 🙂

Your first teacher

It is Friday afternoon and I’m waiting for you on the playground, just as I always do. I can see you there at your classroom door, hat askew, coat half off. I watch as your lovely teacher, let’s call her Mrs X, straightens you up and helps you pop your violin on your back before she sends you out.

She is a good’un, I think to myself. And suddenly there you are next to me. “Mrs X is leaving at the end of term”, you say; and your eyes fill with tears. All around us your friends are sharing the same news. And I don’t know what to say because I understand every little bit of your sadness, how could I not? Mrs X has been a fixture from the very start of our time at your school, right from your first settling in day over 2 years ago now.

I remember so clearly taking you into that Reception classroom for the first time. I just couldn’t believe it was happening. You. Starting school. You were such a little one. But there was Mrs X and I had a good feeling immediately. Anyone could see she was vibrant, competent and charismatic. I knew straight away you would be fine. She clapped her hands and you all gathered around her – like magic really. And that was it, the start of your school career.

From that day on, I watched with amazement as you got to grips with holding a pen properly, with phonics, with maths, and generally with the new routine of school. You hung onto every word Mrs X said. You even went through a phase of adopting her accent at home. You learnt to read, to write; and shy little you gained the confidence to stand up in front of the class with a copy of your treasured WhatCar magazine for Show & Tell. Amazingly, you grew to love doing Show & Tell. From your car magazines you moved on to telling jokes and even performing a magic trick…..I’m not sure how that one went actually, but still. Mrs X made you believe you could do it; and you did.

So when, at the end of Year 1, we learnt you would be in Mrs X’s class again for Year 2 there were happy children and happy parents all round. I hope she knows, I thought, how much she is appreciated.

And now here we are, part way through Year 2. Mrs X has pushed you, encouraged you; and crucially, understands what makes you tick. She has helped you grow in confidence whilst respecting the essence of your personality. She also knows that you would rather jiggle around in your chair than put your hand up to go to the toilet, so she looks out for that too. And tells you to straighten up your trousers afterwards.

No wonder, then, that you had tears in your eyes when you told me that you will be finishing this school year without her. No wonder I did too.

And now a new chapter begins, but you will never forget the last one. So three cheers for Mrs X, and all the other amazing teachers just like her. She will always hold a very special place in your heart, and so she should.

 

Trafalgar Square

After school is…….

I keep seeing smiley, happy photos of children doing things after school. You know…..making things or learning things or even going out to places. Sometimes just having fun. And it  bothers me, seeing these photos; because after school in my house does not even vaguely resemble these beautiful scenes. Nope, not one tiny bit.

There is very little constructive activity going on in my house after school.

After school is “Please take your shoes off…….No, I said shoes off, didn’t I? What are you doing with your shoes still on?? Just take them off please. Before you go upstairs. I said before you go upstairs. Yes now please. We don’t need to lie on the floor and complain about it do we? We just need to TAKE OUR SHOES OFF like we do every single day.”

After school is no we’re not having more snacks now. Why??? Because you’ve had apple wedges, three crackers, half a banana and a cup of milk and we’re about to have tea. What do you mean you don’t want tea……You just told me you’re hungry.”

After school is wondering how anyone has the time for spellings and sounds and everything else that gets sent home in the book bag. Because all you do for four hours from the moment you get home until they go to bed is troubleshoot.

After school is hating yourself for just wanting to get them into bed. But you can’t help it. You just want to get them into bed. 

After school is “it’s not nice to keep poking him with that pen, is it?” and “please stop fighting over a pair of scissors” and “you really mustn’t hit him with that spoon” and “No no no! Get that fork away from your eyes please.”

After school is battling to get children upstairs to get ready for bed because honestly they are NOT TIRED. They’re really not. Just look at them, flopped on the sofa rubbing their little eyes. Not tired at all.

After school is when there is always at least one child crying. And whoever is not crying, well they just need to get on with amusing themselves because your hands are very full.

After school is feeling like you can’t do anything right for anyone.

After school is being cried on, being screamed at; or having a snotty nose wiped across your shoulder.

After school is sitting having a cuddle in a dark quiet room because you know that this little one is all done in for the day.

After school is knowing that you’re needed, but at the same time knowing that most of the things you do or say are wrong. Very wrong indeed. Look, there you are making the wrong thing for tea. And now you’re trying to help a little person brush his teeth when he’s made is so clear that HE DOESN’T NEED HELP. And what are you doing now, daring to suggest that your children might like to wear pyjamas!

After school is wondering why the hours between 3 and 7pm in your house never look like they do in other people’s photos.

After school is mainly ugly, sometimes just about do-able but very rarely fun. After school is not “It’s so lovely to see you mummy, let’s sit down and do some crafts”.

After school in my house is very much a work in progress. And it doesn’t make pretty photos.

One day, hopefully, we will get there. But we’re definitely not there yet.

sofa-boys

Onwards and upwards

So that’s another year done of school runs, chats at the school gates, reply slips, cake bakes, school trips, show & tells, playdates, violin lessons, assemblies, reading books, spelling lists, birthday parties and everything else that the school year brings.

It doesn’t take much to make me tearful, and the end of the school year always feels like an emotional time. I imagine it will always feel like this – coming to the end of one school year and getting ready for the next is yet another of those moments that make you aware of the passage of time. I have a feeling that whatever the age of your child, each year will be remembered for something – for my eldest one, Reception was all about getting to grips with the school timetable, learning to read, and memorising the school menu. Year 1 has been the year that he has gained in confidence, made his first proper little circle of friends and discovered the joy of chapter books. As he moves up and through the years I know that there will be other milestones I will remember – the year he no longer slips his little hand into mine as we walk to school, the year ‘mummy’ becomes ‘mum’, the year he starts walking to school on his own. Small but significant steps towards independence.

Parenting is a whole series of milestones, but the significance of the end of a school year feels even more marked because their whole little tribe is going through it together. Unlike a birthday which, quite rightly, is your child’s special day; the end of the school year is a huge moment for the whole school community. Whether or not your own child is involved, you can’t help but be aware of leavers’ assemblies, transition days and then, as they get older, leavers’ balls (or ‘proms’, as they have become); and realise what milestones these are for all of the families who are part of your community.

All of these children and young people moving on and up to the next stage.

I love these early years of school – the increased pressures on young children aside, this is such a special a time when friendships are made and learning is a whole world of discovery. At some point, I know this will change. At some point, I know these children will no longer run into school squealing with delight while they cartwheel in the playground. Of course I hope my boys will always love learning, but at some point school is likely to become associated with exams and worry. Those days are not here yet; and for the moment I am grateful that our school experience so far has been a happy one.

And so here we are – the end of term for my eldest boy’s little tribe was today, and that is Year 1 done and dusted for all of them. Out they trotted this afternoon – sweaty little red faces, eyes shining with excitement and t-shirts covered in toffee ice-cream. Some getting ready to go off on exciting holidays and others just full of excitement at the thought of six weeks of freedom.

It will be a new chapter for all of them in September; but in the meantime here’s hoping that the summer holidays are just the right mix of rest, pottering and adventure. With minimal whining. That always helps.

Happy summer holidays folks x

boy with bag.jpg

Hooray for the teachers

At the beginning of this month, we walked to school as normal to drop off the eldest boy and were greeted by sparkly Christmas lights at the main entrance, which continued inside all the way down the main corridor. My boys gasped with delight. A simple thing, but one that requires a bit of thought and a bit of planning. When, as we know, teachers have quite a lot to think about and to plan as it is.

My eldest boy, who is in Year 1, has always loved school – I don’t think that’s unusual for 5 year olds. They are naturally curious little creatures: learning is a big adventure, not the chore that it may well become in a few years. School is fun and exciting and, at this age, often full of pleasant surprises – like the Christmas lights. Most of us have happy memories of our early school days; but this special environment must take quite some effort to create.

Personally, I cannot imagine spending my day surrounded by 30 small children – answering non-stop questions, creating any sort of sense out of the day, actually managing to get anything done; all of this seems incredible to me. Surely a day spent in charge of 30 children would leave you feeling totally drained; but instead of going home to put their feet up, teachers go home to plan and mark and prepare and write reports. Many of them have young families of their own, so they then need to have some energy in reserve to look after their own offspring.  I know how I feel at the end of a long day – I have the energy for little more than eating and sitting on my sofa. I would be a rubbish teacher.

We all know about the pressures that teachers are currently under; reports tell us they are leaving the profession in droves. Everything they do has to be justified with learning objectives; any significant skill demonstrated by a child has to be written down. As pleased as I am to see my boy’s comprehensive Learning Journey, I do wonder how it can be possible to produce one of these for every child in the class and still manage to teach.

Education now is all about targets and testing and results and league tables; because apparently we’d like to be like China. Even in Year 1 – at 5 and 6 years old – children have their Phonics test to look forward to. And if, like me, you live in an area where the 11+ is still in existence, you can also look forward to your child having to sit a test just to determine which secondary school they’ll go to.

With all of this going on, I am amazed that teachers have the time or the energy to think about how to make school a happy place for children to be. However, not only do they think about it but, judging from my boy and his friends, they succeed. If I didn’t read a newspaper, I wouldn’t have any idea about the strains these teachers are under. The children certainly have no clue. To hide all of those extra challenges, to be full of enthusiasm every day whilst still thinking about meeting all of your targets and setting learning objectives must be an enormous challenge.

Of course to keep a high level of motivation amongst the staff, you need an inspirational Headteacher. And those are difficult to find because, unsurprisingly, very few people want to be Headteachers these days – why would you, when so many people are ready to jump on you and tell you that you could be doing better? The Headteacher at my son’s school is ever smiling and, seemingly, ever present. She is on the school trips, she is in the playground, she is chatting to parents. She seems to love her job, she certainly loves the children. After last week’s Christmas play, she told them, in all seriousness, that theirs was the best Christmas play that had ever been seen. Anywhere.

She had probably already sat through at least 27 run-throughs, and yet she still managed to convince them that theirs was her favourite ever festive offering. Their little faces beamed.

So thank you teachers – your efforts do not go unnoticed. And now that we’ve finally reached the end of term, I hope you’re pouring a large gin and ready to enjoy a couple of weeks with no learning objectives to declare.

Hooray to that.

hopscotch

The playdate

I’m not a fan of the word playdate, but for ease of a title I’m going with it. And yesterday afternoon the eldest boy had one – a little girl came to play at our house of boys.

It all started swimmingly. They walked home from school hand in hand in the sunshine chattering happily. My boy gave her a comprehensive tour of the house including the shoe drawer, his collection of Autocar and WhatCar? magazines, and the cleaning cupboard. There were obviously two 2 year olds hanging onto them, desperate to join in; and predictable heartbreak from them when I told them to stay downstairs and leave the big children to play, but before long everything was relatively calm and I could hear the happy sound of two children pretending to run their own school upstairs.

Lovely Friend (let’s call her LF) had brought her pretend teacher’s resources pack with her – it is a dream for any child who, like my boy, comes home from school and immediately launches into the role of teacher, desperate to re-enact the day s/he has only just experienced. It comes complete with a bell, stickers, whiteboard, whiteboard pen and more.

I know, I’d have loved one too.

They seemed to have a pretty efficient operation going on – I could hear them running along the landing to take registers to the makeshift school office, and arranging supply teachers forplaying schools Year 2 who, rather alarmingly, had been left without a teacher. It was all very impressive.

At some point I even made myself a cup of tea.

And then things started to unravel – I should have known the cup of tea was a bad idea. I heard my boy’s tears escalate into a tired, frustrated, nothing-you-say-will-calm-me-down hysteria. And the reason? The teacher’s resources kit had, after at least an hour, been tidied away; including the whiteboard. The lack of a whiteboard of his own had never been a problem before. It was definitely a problem now.

‘I NEEEED MY OWN WHITEBOARD!!! I want to be doing my phonics happily not sadly’, he managed to explain through the sobs.

I desperately wanted my boy to understand that it isn’t really appropriate to invite LF to play and then stamp around your room hysterical about not having a whiteboard. But at the same time I felt so sad that, in his utterly distraught state, he was missing time with the friend he absolutely adores. Sometimes it feels like my 4 year old is the only one who occasionally gets so tired, frustrated and overwhelmed by what seem like simple things that his whole world crumbles around him. But then I remember that he is only little – he is doing brilliantly at school, hangs onto his teacher’s every word, copes with a noisy and frenetic home life; so perhaps it’s not surprising that every so often he gets a little overwhelmed by it all.

The meltdown probably lasted a maximum of 10 minutes but seemed like forever. LF was left downstairs with the adoring 2 year olds, totally bewildered as one boy asked her to remove his shoes and the other requested a kiss for his injured foot.

Thankfully, my boy re-grouped in time for tea which was which was the usual messy, rowdy affair. Three boys competed for LF’s attention by knocking over drinks, shrieking over each other and, of course, doing their loudest dinosaur roars about three inches from her face.

After a few civilised minutes of games, LF’s mum arrived to pick her up. Everyone had cuddles and off she went.

Then I microwaved my cold tea and hoped we hadn’t put LF off ever returning to this loud, chaotic house of boys with an incompetent seeming mum.

I wanted to tell her that it’s not always like this………except it sort of is.