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

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 🙂

On our obsession with putting children into boxes

When you become a parent, you soon realise that people are very keen to put your child into boxes. Or onto a chart. And if your child doesn’t tick the right box, or fit onto the chart exactly where s/he ‘should’, the implication is that you should be concerned.

It starts with the centile lines in the red book; and then it continues with the health visitor development checks. Can your child jump? If not, why not? How many words can s/he put together? How many things can we find to make you worried about? Yes it’s all very well that all your 2 year old son wants to do is line up cars into traffic jams, but why can’t he thread macaroni onto a piece of string? We’ll follow that up with you in a few weeks. Oh dear, your 7 week premature 12 month old twins are using a whole hand to shove raisins into their mouths and not using their pincer grip? That could be a concern.

Unfortunately, it seems that this is all preparation for when your child gets to school. There goes your precious little one, off to start a new chapter. The little one who makes your heart burst with pride and joy and love. The little one who is flying at some things, struggling with others; but doing everything at the pace that is right for him. You could not be prouder.

And then you get to parents’ evening, and you see those all-important boxes – is your little one ‘exceeding‘, ‘meeting‘, or ‘working towards‘ expectations?

This is what it comes down to – which box does your child fit into?

If you ask parents what they want from a school, I think the answers would be pretty straightforward. Parents want their children to be valued. They want them to reach their potential and for their talents not to go unnoticed. They want a broad and balanced curriculum which gives them opportunities to discover their strengths and talents. They want them to be supported, to have friends, to feel confident and happy. They want them to leave with the skills and confidence they need to be able to contribute to the wider world.

And yet what have we got? A system which is so focused on attainment that it begins testing children at 5/6 – ages at which, in many other countries, children would only just be starting formal school. A system which believes 5 and 6 year old children are ready to move away from the age-appropriate, play-centred atmosphere of a Reception classroom and spend most of their day sitting at desks.  A system which keeps raising the bar, because apparently what children really need at 6 years old is a good, solid grasp of time-openers and subordinate clauses; and because if you just keep making things harder then the children will obviously follow ……won’t they?? A system which teaches children to pass tests rather than to love reading and writing and exploring and creating. A system which makes meeting age-related expectations so difficult that schools feel they simply can’t devote any proper time to subjects which don’t ‘count’ or they will be seen as failing their pupils in the key areas of Maths and Literacy. A system which so many teachers feel they are having to fight against, because it all just feels so wrong.

A system which makes a significant number of children feel like they’re failing.

I overheard a conversation the other day between a teacher and a non-teacher. The teacher had taught in at least three other countries, and said that teaching in this country was by far the most difficult. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could do it. None of what she said surprised me.

Teachers’ talents are in the classroom – they motivate, inspire and encourage. They also plan, mark and give feedback. We expect all of this from them – this is what teachers do. But now, we expect all of that and more. We expect them to set targets, track students, prepare for the next inspection, and explain why it is that Pupil A is still in this box instead of the higher up box. And the good teachers, the compassionate teachers, the ones with that passion and the ability to inspire; the ones who want to find out what makes their pupils tick ……..well, data isn’t really their thing. They didn’t go into this just to get children into the right box. They didn’t go into it just to teach children to pass tests. So those teachers, they’re leaving. They don’t want to leave, some of them are devastated. But they can’t do it any more. The raised bars, the expectations, the targets – they can’t do what they actually went into teaching to do. The government is doing its best to fudge over the issue by telling us that teaching remains an attractive career option and PGCE courses continue to recruit well. But it’s not easy to pretend when we all know that teaching is in the middle of a recruitment crisis. It’s all very well recruiting to PGCE courses, but that’s not good enough if teachers are realising soon after qualifying that teaching isn’t quite how it looks on the PGCE recruitment posters.

If you are interested in schools, you probably know that Finland is the shining light when it comes to education. Have a read of this if you’d like to be enlightened:

Why are Finland’s schools so successful?

The Finnish system feels like the polar opposite to ours: children start school later, play is valued; and teachers are highly trained and well respected. There are many interesting things in the article above – I particularly like the Helsinki principal who says “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.” In Finland there are no rankings and no comparisons between schools, students, or regions. Imagine – a world without school league tables.

I would put league tables up there as one of the worst things to have happened to schools in this country. ‘But parents use them’, you might argue. Yes they do, but I am convinced that we’d be better off without them. Because for many schools now, success depends on an ability to manipulate data. You hear about it all the time – students at some schools being asked to leave before exam season because they’re not being predicted high enough grades. School sixth forms turning away their own students in favour of high achieving students from other schools. Because doing well in league tables means getting more of the children that everyone wants to teach, and more of those children means you’ll continue to do well in the league tables. So the schools down at the bottom…..well they have no chance.

So yes, parents do use them – because they’re there. But our obsession with league tables has been at the expense of our children. We’re so obsessed with getting children into the boxes that we think they ‘should’ be in, that we seem to have completely forgotten that they progress and develop at completely different speeds. Or that children can have a bad few months, or a bad year. Perhaps this child had glandular fever and that child’s parents separated….. and that one over there, well her best friend went off to another school and she just isn’t feeling settled at the moment.

We lose the many young people whose skills and talents don’t fit into the box we are so desperate to get them into. Frequently, we hear very talented and often creative people say that they always hated school: their talents just weren’t noticed until they got to college. Think of all the future artists, designers, craftspeople, builders, and sportspeople in schools at the moment who are labelled as not meeting their age-related expectations because of their Year 2 SATs results. Think of all the young people who don’t fit neatly into boxes, because SO MANY PEOPLE JUST DON’T.

It seems we spend all our time telling our young people to ‘think outside the box’ when all we want them to do is fit into one.

I spend a lot of time on this blog rambling on about schools. I didn’t start my blog to write about education; but I have three small boys all at the start of their school lives and so right now, school is everything to us. My 4 year old twins currently love going to school because at the moment school is about role-play and building and discovering and creating; but I already feel concerned about how will they cope later this year when they discover that play is no longer seen as being valuable to their learning.

What is really unclear to me is what we’re actually hoping to achieve from all this – parents are anxious, children are struggling to keep up and teachers are leaving. And where is the evidence to show us that what we’re doing is of any benefit? Because it seems very clear to me that we are getting it ALL COMPLETELY WRONG. And really, Ms Greening, we need to do something about it now, before there are no teachers left to teach our children.

Or before everyone who cares moves to Finland.

boy-writing

Tired eyes, grubby faces

Here you come little ones. Tired eyes, grubby faces, pen marks and half your pudding on your jumpers, grazes on your knees.

It is 3.10pm, and you fling your tired little arms around me; sometimes your legs too. What you’d really like is for me to carry you home but I can’t do that, lovely boys. You’re too big now, you see. So you make do with a snack instead.

Another day is done.

How much information I get from you on what today has involved is variable. Sometimes you are full of excitement, struggling to put your sentences into the right order. Other times, I can tell I have asked one question too many and I need to stop, because you really want to just be. And that’s ok boys. We can just be.

Occasionally, you give me confused little snatches of information about new friends:

You say – “I talked someone new at lunchtime today, mummy.”

I say – “Well that’s lovely sweetheart, well done.”

You say – “When can he come and play at our house?”

I say – “Well, what’s his name, darling?”

You say – “I don’t know his name, mummy. But he would like to come and play. He told me.”

You are muddling your way through this making friends in the playground business; gradually working out, step by step, how it all works. I would love to secretly watch you just for 5 minutes, but I will have to content myself with the scraps of information that you share.

We get home and sometimes there is fun, but more often there is an overwhelming desire to do nothing other than flump on the sofa. Always, you are ravenous. Ridiculously so, even though you’ve got your stickers showing that you ate all your lunch. And always, the mood is fragile. At any point one of you might break down; and it could be over anything. Proper heartache, proper puddle-like tears. All day you’ve listened, you’ve behaved, you sat on the carpet when you were told to and remembered to cross your legs. And 6 hours of behaving and listening and going by a timetable that isn’t your own when you’re 4 is…..well it’s really hard work. And sometimes, when you get home, you need to let rip. Sometimes it’s ugly. Sometimes, the only way I can deal with it is by leaving you to it. You don’t want to talk, you don’t want a cuddle, you just want to let off steam. It can be ugly; but I understand. Because you are coping with something huge, and we all need a safe place. Home is your safe place; and I wouldn’t want it to be anywhere else.

And look at where we are now – we have almost reached half term, your very first half term of school; and you have done magnificently well. You really have. The other day you looked at your class photo and named every single child. Over 20 new faces and you knew them all. A new place, new faces, more structure, being told to go here, go there, sit down, stand up. Remembering which group you’re in, getting changed for PE, working out what PE is and why you have to call your PE teacher ‘Coach’ when he doesn’t even drive a coach. That isn’t easy to get your head around when you’re 4. Going to the hall for lunch, carrying your little trays, sitting in that dining room which seems teeny to me but must seem enormous and noisy and confusing to you. These things, boys, these are a big deal. They really are. And you are doing it. You are coping. You and all those other amazing little new starters.

So now, as you continue on your school adventure all I want for you is this – have fun and enjoy. Be kind, make new friends, roll down the hills, run and jump and don’t worry about your grazed knees or mucky jumpers. Don’t worry about your reading levels either – we’ve got plenty of time for that. Just enjoy it all while it is still fun. Because before you know it, school gets pretty serious. And because a good, solid, happy start to school – well, that is the thing that will set you in the best stead. Everything else will come.

You are managing it all, boys. And I could not be prouder.

Well done new starters – you are amazing. x

after-school-snacks

Ravenous. Always.

On why being officially ‘Outstanding’ isn’t all that matters

We all use organisations and services that we feel confident are good, don’t we? We use them most days, we know them well, they are part of our day to day routine. We feel happy with the service, and the people who work there seem to do a good job. The whole organisation seems to work pretty well and that is a nice, comforting feeling for everyone.

But these days, it isn’t enough just to know that something is good – you need to have someone official to tell you that yes, this organisation that you have always been happy with is, officially, Good.

And sometimes it’s not enough to be officially Good either. Because there is always something better than Good. There is always Outstanding. And if officially you’re only  Good, won’t people be wondering why you’re not Outstanding?

And of course being Outstanding is; well, it’s outstanding. And there are some truly outstanding organisations out there. But the problem with aiming for Outstanding, is that sometimes……..well sometimes it just results in the organisation actually being less ‘Good‘ than it was before. Because the focus is on demonstrating how Outstanding you are, rather than on doing what you’re there to do in the first place. So there are new processes and initiatives, new ways of recording information; more reports to write, more things to prove, more monitoring, more boxes to tick, and more data to collect. More and more things that end up taking people away from doing their actual jobs.

So in the process of trying to demonstrate that they’re better than Good, many organisations lose those very things that made people think of them as actually being good in the first place.

And therein lies my problem with Ofsted, and our collective obsession with it.

Because if being recognised as officially Outstanding can end up meaning that, in real terms, you’re not actually as Good as you were before, well then I’ll happily stick with Good thank you very much.

20160813_143545

 

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 (Reception) year that was

It’s the last week of the eldest boy’s first year at school, and it has been the biggest (and probably best) year of his little life so far. If you read my last post about school, you’ll know that I have found the rather frenetic pace of school life challenging to say the least. This term alone there’s been bring a bottle day, bring a jazzy jar day, the school disco, sports day, the summer fair, collections and parties for the soon-to-be-retiring Headteacher, a cake bake and more. With at least one event a week to keep up with as well as the logistics of getting to and from school, Reception has been more of a struggle than I anticipated.

My boy, however, has sailed through and absolutely loved it.

Just over 2 years ago, his nursery told me they were concerned about how quiet he was. I had no worries of my own about my little boy – yes he was very shy, he had never been immediately outgoing around other children, but at home he chatted away non-stop, was affectionate and had adjusted very well to the arrival of his little brothers. But my worry was this – he was due to start school just over a year later and, as an August boy, would be one of the babies of the class. If nursery thought he was ‘behind’, how was he going to cope with the jump up to school?

I needn’t have worried. From day 1, my little boy has skipped happily into school, settling into his new environment and soaking up absolutely everything; proving what I had often suspected – that targets and tick-boxes for pre-schoolers do very little apart from cause parents to worry. Not only did he throw himself into his new routine with huge enthusiasm, but rather impressively he now has an excellent grasp of how to run a successful infant school and has set up his own version at home, with two particularly disruptive pupils. As well as introducing his little brothers to Phonics and Literacy, he is also doing an effective job of running the administrative side of things: collecting up lunch choices, reporting absences to the school office and arranging last minute supply teachers.

The strides he has taken in his learning have been staggering. He has gone from struggling to hold a pencil properly to writing whole paragraphs; from sounding out words to being able to read most of the books on his bookshelf. School seems to have opened his eyes to a whole world of learning – the Ice Age, where egrets can be found, the diet of piranhas; his thirst for knowledge can be exhausting, particularly as the topics that interest him most are those about which I know virtually nothing.

And who’d have thought there was so much joy to be had from a school menu? For the last few months, the soundtrack to Herts menumy life has been the 4 year old reading out Hertfordshire Catering’s menu choices time and time again. Not at all distracted by his brothers climbing up bookcases and flinging themselves off sofas, he continues undeterred: ‘Southern style Quorn burger with diced potatoes, ribbon vegetable chow mein, home-style lasagne with side salad…..’. Even the 2 year olds are now familiar with the three week rotating menu.

He has now moved onto creating his own menus, which yesterday I found covering every available surface so that our living room resembled an extremely colourful version of Hertfordshire Catering’s Head Office.

Aside from his obsession with the school menu, what has struck me the most has been his increased confidence. I doubt he will ever be the most outgoing child in the class; but rather than sticking to my side at birthday parties as used to, he now runs off without hesitation to join in with all the games. Almost as much a milestone for me as him starting school was dropping him off for his first disco – yes really, a disco for 4-6 year olds. I watched my little boy as he ran down the corridor to the hall, and he didn’t look back once. I felt the tears come but quickly pulled myself together, realising that it was quite ridiculous to be crying at the doors of a school disco.

My little boy is not the only one to have loved this year. It’s true, jazzy jars are not my strong point, and I definitely lack patience when faced with three tired boys to walk home at the end of a school day; but actually, I love school too. We moved here six years ago, but it has only been this year that I have really started to feel a part of the community. It has been a year of new friendships, of looking forward to school gate catch ups with other mums as 2 year olds (usually mine) throw tantrums over dropped gingerbread men, and of realising that I am surrounded by a wonderful group of supportive parents, many of whom have helped me pull myself together outside the school gates as I’ve made it quite evident that I have more children than I can competently handle.

So School, whilst I will enjoy my 6 weeks without any jars to fill, costumes to create or slips to return, I will miss you over the holidays. I’ll miss catch ups with friends at the gates and I’ll miss chasing twins around the playground; but most of all I’m sad that what has been a wonderful year for my little boy is almost over.

Thankfully, though, the at-home version of school is sure to be in full-swing over the holidays, complete with the full range of Hertfordshire Catering’s lunch choices.

school run