A Primary Teacher Minifesto – a post from @jonnywalker_edu

CaptureI tweeted out this recently and was hit with several posts from several people. Thanks to all who contributed – here’s our half-term hitlist for you to read.

HALF-TERM HIGHLIGHTS – THURSDAY

Here is the original post – thanks to Jonny for allowing us to re-post.

Read it all, especially number 8.

A Primary Teacher Minifesto

This will be a minifesto, in which I will outline my key thoughts about primary teaching in a really condensed, misleading, facetious, probably untrue and flippant way. I won’t go into much depth, in the hope that someone will turn my phrases into those artistic images with my wisdom overlayed onto Hawaiian sunsets. Also I am really tired and everyone on Twitter is talking about Eurovision, which I can’t watch because I don’t get signal for BBC channels and my iPad has died because I played Soccer Stars’ for about three hours straight. Read my minifesto. Vote for me.

1) Kids don’t know enough stuff I would like them to know – They’re good at knowing stuff they want to know, but I want them to know the things I want them to know too. They are so focused on knowing things like ‘their interests’, ‘their experiences’ and ‘the things they have learned from their discussions’ that they have lost focus on the really important things a primary aged child should know – the population demographics of Stone Age Britain, the Singapore Bar Method and the language features of the instructions on a Pot Noodle.

2) Primary teaching is about 80% about being organised – I micro-manage the entire lives of 30 children for a whole year – children who often go out of their way to make themselves unmanageable. It sometimes feels like I am trying to teach a Mindfulness course to a pack of playful chimp-toddlers through the bars of the cage. My own mindfulness is somewhat lacking. To be anything like a good teacher, and especially one with a work-life balance, you need to be stupendously well organised. The well-organised primary teacher can survive any storm, as the less organised fall under a cloud of dust, planning, child protection anxieties and self doubts. As an innate flaneur and raconteur (flanconteur?), who allows a literacy lesson to detour into spontaneous lectures on ‘Actually this reminds me of something Foucault wrote about the spectacle of suffering’, I find it really hard to get things done. The peril of being overorganised is that you become less responsive to the children, and less flexible. The peril of being underorganised is that you need to sacrifice literally your entire free time to catch up, but it is vital you stay on top of everything.

3) Fun is not the opposite of good – If you don’t find it fun, you are doing it wrong. Learning itself is fun. Doing PE is fun because running about makes you laugh. Playing a trombone is fun because it sounds horrible. Spending time with groups of people is fun. Hearing other opinions is fun. Reading books is fun because I said so, among other more holistic reasons.. Having a range of after school clubs is fun. Children’s jokes are fun. The act of teaching is fun. Yes it is stressful, filled with meaningless drudgery, and yes it is difficult, but it is still fun. If it isn’t… you are the one who suffers most. Fun is not the opposite of good.

4) Teaching can be the most annoying thing in the world – I have a really rubbery face. I just do. As a consequence, my emotions tend to broadcast themselves through my rubbery face without much say-so on my part. My kids know that little stuff annoys me, and they also know that I get annoyed about the fact that the annoying things annoy me. At 9:15 on a Friday, I would rather be punched in the (rubbery) face than hear the sound of a HB pencil being covertly rolled over a table. Note – this does not give consent for either to happen. My face contorts, and then I can’t ignore it because the kids are commenting on it, and whispers shoot around like “Stop the pencil, look at Sir’s face.” When we realise how important the kids’ education is, any distraction from positive classroom experience is really annoying.

5) Every child has something they are great at. – The kids are not that different from us adults. If I told you you were not great at anything, but that is ok so and you mustn’t fret, because if everyone was good at something, that would make ‘being good’ meaningless, you would think I was mean and stupid. Or at least, you would think ‘You don’t even know me, how can you say that?!’ I am sure our kids think the same when we communicate to them, directly or indirectly, that the only way to be successful is to pass skillfully through our testing and assessment regimes. Being literate is more important than being a great dancer to exhume Ken Robinson’s metaphor from his freshly desecrated mausoleum of pedagogical fury, but if you can be a literate dancer, then that is just bloody great isn’t it.

6) Being a primary teacher isn’t just about teaching and learning – My children learn lots of things, they get their timely feedback and my lessons are well thought-out, but my role as a primary teacher is more than just about that. Some teachers bemoan the way we are expected to become all these other things like social workers, counselors, therapists, surrogate parents, conflict resolution negotiators and so on. I don’t. I think these are a vital part of being a primary school teacher, and it just annoys the life out of me that in order to do it, your workload becomes unsustainable by default. I want the babbies to be smart, geeky and knowledgeable, but I also want them to be happy, I want them to be able to seek help if they need it, I want them to develop confidence and humour, I want them to be able to make good life choices, be safe, know their rights and I want them to have friends. These things don’t just happen as a side-effect of good curriculum teaching, especially not for children who already have a lot of unmet needs. I prefer to bring home 60 books to mark each night if the alternative is for me to shoo out a kid at playtime who seems like they are a bit conflicted or downbeat. If I focused only on the teaching and learning, my life as a primary teacher would be easier, but I couldn’t do it even if I wanted to.

7) Cake Availability – The tone got a bit serious, so I felt I should bring it back by talking about food. Primary schools are full of cake, as we all know. This is a professional perk that we all must take advantage of. The same goes for samosas, in my place, which are like our Ambrosia (mythical sense, but tinned sense). My main lesson learned at my current place, if I was ever to become a leader, would be that the entire emotional life of the school can be controlled through the provision of Milk Trays, fried samosas and a tray of crumble left in the staffroom.

8) It’s hard – As teachers, we all get used to the comments about our undeserved long holidays. This is like criticising a diver for coming up to breathe. As primary teachers though, we often have to deal with condescension from secondary teachers, who presume we are thick (wrong), our work is easier than theirs (it’s not), the kids we teach are cute (they aren’t) and that their jobs are totally different from ours. Teaching primary is a bloody slog and not everyone realises.You find some trainees who clearly struggle, and in large part, it is because of the presumption that if you just smile like Miss Honey, your kids will be Matildas. They won’t. Sometimes you’ll smile like Miss Honey and they’ll be the girl from the Exorcist. It is unpredictable, long work, emotionally intense but because of that, very fulfilling. (PS Ks2 teachers are often guilty of looking down on EYFS teachers – for my part in this, I apologise for having ever underestimated how complex and energy-sapping it is working with the littleuns.

9) Primary teachers always have anecdotes – If the pay freeze ever gets lifted, I will love the money I am rightfully owed for the disproportionate amount of work I do. But in another way, I feel I have been paid off in the form of anecdotes. I am only 4 years into teaching, and my book of anecdotes (if it existed) would be as thick and indeed as diverse as the Yellow Pages itself. Emotional highs and lows. Dramatic events that tear the staffroom apart, traumas and tragedies that bring everybody together. Children issuing pearls of unimaginable wisdom. Children saying things so deeply funny, you wish the moment was being filmed to play it back. Gory tales of school trip viruses, and ridiculous accidents, and staff politics. I feel that among the evergrowing list of roles, one that I particularly like is Chronicler of Anecdotes.

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The secret teacher – a post from @nancygedge

CaptureI tweeted out this recently and was hit with several posts from several people. Thanks to all who contributed – here’s our half-term hitlist for you to read.

HALF-TERM HIGHLIGHTS – FRIDAY

Here is the original post – thanks to Nancy for allowing us to re-post.

“‘RESULTS!   RESULTS!  RESULTS!’ and on the other, ‘INCLUDE!  INCLUDE!  INCLUDE!  AND ADD IN FLUFFY BUNNIES!’”

I usually quite like reading The Guardian’s Secret Teacher series.  Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t; but if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, or even if today is your first visit, you’ll soon know that I’m all for hearing the voices of the unheard.  And sadly, in today’s climate of anxiety, despite how they are when you meet them in real life, with their loud voices and commanding personalities, teachers’ views in public spaces are muted at the very least.  But this one, with a title guaranteed to catch my interest, being as it’s about inclusion and all, touches me a little too close, and not in a good way.

Oh, I understand the difficulties of teaching children with challenging needs in a mainstream classroom.  I’ve done it, and it is indeed challenging, even when you have another adult in the room to lighten the load.  Children lying down on the floor at the front of the room, or breaking out into fights while you are trying to teach them what a noun is, or a fronted adverbial, is not an easy thing.  Planning activities that get everyone thinking but avoiding panic (and therefore stropping and not thinking) isn’t easy either.  When behaviour gets extreme, and plans get abandoned for whatever reason, be it a change of staff, or unrealistic expectations, or a lack of communication and/or support, or because at first it seems to make no difference, it’s hard.  Very hard.  And, honestly, some children just don’t fit into mainstream schooling – I know because my son is one of them.

Feeling powerless, caught in a riptide of other people’s expectations, or immovable policy is never an easy feeling.  Get any group of teachers in a room, be it classroom, staffroom, training room, pub, wherever; throw in the word OFSTED and watch what happens.  It won’t be long before ranting and railing and wailing and gnashing of teeth and generally despairing at the state of statistics and one-sized-fits-all classrooms, teachers and children takes over, and anything else you wanted to discuss falls by the wayside, never to be taken up again.

And there’s that other thing about teachers that isn’t apparent until you are one – the feeling that you are never doing a good enough job.  Oh, I don’t mean the pressure of inspections or observations, although that certainly has a part to play; I mean the desire we all have to do our best for the children we serve.  Teachers often complain of those times when the domination of one child, for whatever reason, means that they have less time to spend with the others, who need them too.  We are always walking a tightrope line, balancing the needs of the individual against the needs of the class.  And for those of us with children at home, it’s exactly the same there too.

And the pressure.  Oh, the pressure.  We must not only do our best for them all, but we must make sure that they are making at least acceptable progress in their school work, learning about their verbs and spellings and times tables, and how to do long division before they leave us, and all from their very different starting points.  Little Jonny, with his happily married parents with university degrees and books covering every wall in his big house, must do as well as Jade, who lives in a one bed bedsit with an alcoholic (or more) relative and no breakfast.  Or tea.  Or supper.  It’s a hard, hard job.  We wish that someone would come along and make it easier for us.

Oh, there’s a lot wrong in our educational system, with its standardised demands over a diverse population.  The inspection system is groaning before our very eyes with the knowledge of its own inadequacy.  The statistics are stuttering under an onslaught from teachers who actually know what they are talking about.  Educational funding is being cut and cut (don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t) and the axe is falling on specialist provision because it’s just so expensive, as well as everywhere else.  On the one hand we are told ‘RESULTS!   RESULTS!  RESULTS!’ and on the other, ‘INCLUDE!  INCLUDE!  INCLUDE!  AND ADD IN FLUFFY BUNNIES!’  We, conflicted and confused, are struggling with the strain.

And our society is no better, with its expectations of perfect mothers, with their beach-ready bodies, nano-seconds after giving birth, and perfect babies, checked for acceptability before they are born, before they have even taken their first breath.  We must have perfect families with perfect children who never squabble in the supermarket or throw a tantrum because they wanted to wear the red shoes, not the blue ones.  Our education system, with its issues of increasing control, over teachers and over children, is merely a reflection of the wider world we live in.  We are all looking for something, somebody to blame when the going gets tough, when it doesn’t turn out to be quite so picture perfect as we were led to believe.

We think we have the answers.  We think there is a magic pill to make the kids behave; a quick and easy solution to doing as they are damn well told.  We think that somehow a label will wash all our troubles away.  We think that shutting the special schools and moving the children to a mainstream one, with a helpful adult in tow, one who has experience in working in care, or who has intimate knowledge of the local population is the answer.  We think that somehow, after we’ve spent the money on the equipment that somehow everything will be OK.  The nice little disabled kid, the one who is so loving, and always happy, never sad or cross or a pain in the neck with their constant getting up too early in the summer mornings will fit in just fine.  We don’t like it when we find out that nothing is ever easy, that children, with or without disabilities, never stick to our unexamined rules, and we look for someone to blame.  Someone who is not us.

But let me tell you a story.  Let me tell you a story about the man who has been the love of my life since I was eighteen years old; the father of my children.  Let me tell you of the day we were told that our firstborn son had Down’s syndrome. We didn’t cry together.  We didn’t even say very much.  We each went on a super-fast readjustment journey we told each other about later with glasses of wine and talked over telly.  ‘I just thought to myself,’ he said, as he told me of his dark drive home, leaving the wife and child in their hospital beds, ‘that it’s not me who has to live his life.  It’s him.’

So the next time you feel like a moan; the next time you feel like telling the world how it is, how our school system fails those with additional needs when it forces them to fit into an inflexible and ill-trained system, the next time you want to stand up for the needs of the many over the needs of the few, the next time you want to point out how hard teachers’ lives are and the difficulty they have in providing an education for a child with complex special needs you think about that.  The next time you think it’s acceptable to give voice to the attitude that says ‘if that child is in my child’s class, I’m moving mine out,’ you think long and hard about what you are saying.

You think about the real lives that people with Down’s syndrome live, the confusion, the prejudice, the bullying and the abuse, and you turn the blame to where it properly lies.  You don’t turn it on their parents, whose job it is to stand up for their child’s rights.  And you don’t turn it on the child.  You don’t ever centre it there.  Your job is to break down barriers, not create them.

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Lowering my expectations – a post from @pwallen1985

CaptureI tweeted out this recently and was hit with several posts from several people. Thanks to all who contributed – here’s our half-term hitlist for you to read.

HALF-TERM HIGHLIGHTS – SATURDAY

Here is the original post – thanks to Paul for allowing us to re-post.

So, my far less handsome and much less cool deputy counterpart and good friend, @MrWaldram, has been badgering me to take up blogging about my experiences in an infant school for some time now. So here goes…

I’ve been working as a Deputy Headteacher in an infant school for nearly 18 months now, where I also teach a Y2 class. I am also the only male teacher in the school although this was also the case at my previous school, a full primary just around the corner. Having mainly worked in KS2 where I was Head of Key Stage for 6 years prior to this, the move to KS1 was quite a culture shock. “What do you mean you don’t know how to use a ruler properly?’ and “Why haven’t you started your third paragraph yet?’ were regular comments I found myself saying during those early days. I’ve always been known for having high standards and high expectations of what children can achieve, quite rightly, but here my expectations certainly had to be lowered…to an extent.

I’m a firm believer that if you expect children to do something, 99% of the time they will rise to the challenge and do it. Conversely, if you expect children to not be able to do something, they will live up to that expectation. Why can’t children who are in KS1 stand up and deliver presentations like children in Y5 and Y6 can? Why can’t they take part in a debate like you would expect those in Upper KS2 to be able to? What’s stopping them?

Obviously now, with the introduction of the new NC, children are expected to work within a set of expectations for their age group. There isn’t the pressure to push children in their learning before they are ready, like with levels. I actually quite like this approach, and am keen to develop the idea of mastery and depth within my own teaching much further. It is the wider set of learning skills that I am keen to raise the bar with in terms of high expectations: team work, confidence, speaking, sharing and developing ideas, presentation…the list is endless. These are the things that children should have the opportunity to excel in, developing a well rounded learner as opposed to a child who can simply pass a SATs paper. If you model it to them and simply expect them to do it, they will do it, regardless of age, ability, background or gender.

For example, last week, to mark the end of our Inventions topic, my class held an ‘Invention Convention’ to share their learning with parents. It’s quite a standard thing to do, which I’m sure is common in schools up and down the country, but the buzz in the room was fantastic. I can quite honestly say that every child in my class spoke confidently and passionately about their invention when questioned by lots of different adults…this was simply because they had been given the opportunity to. They all had the ability to do it – they just needed the opportunity to demonstrate it. So whenever I hear people say, “They can’t do that because they’re only infants,’ my reply is always the same: “Why not?”

This leads me to my next point: gender. Boys’ writing is certainly an issue for many schools and there are countless teachers trying their best to narrow that gap between boys and girls. I recently attended a training course about targeting teaching towards and appealing to boys. It was interesting and thought-provoking and I certainly picked up a few ideas which I have used in my class which have appealed to boys. The boys in my class have always made good progress in both reading and writing…but so have the girls. It’s almost as if the girls have benefitted from the strategies I have used which are especially designed to engage and enthuse boys. Was it the competitive element I introduced which improved progress for not only the boys, but also the girls? Possibly. Was it the use of boy friendly texts and topics which not only helped the boys to become excited about their learning, but also the girls? Possibly. Is it the fact that I am a male teacher and so provide a male role model for boys, which also provides a good role model for girls? Possibly.

Deep down, I think I know the answer to why boys in my class make just as good progress as the girls in reading and writing. Yes, I’d like to think I provide a positive male role model for them. Yes, I’d like to think that I plan boy friendly topics and use boy friendly texts. But more importantly, I have high expectations. I have high expectations of the boys and I have high expectations of the girls (even if they are only KS1!). If I think back to last years progress data, the boys in my class had made really good progress…but so had the girls. The gap was still there (don’t get me started on the issue of the ‘gap’ and accelerating progress). Why was this? Simple. I expected the boys to do it and if I expected it from the boys, I had to also expect it from the girls. They too had benefited from the high expectations I had and the teaching strategies I had used to further engage boys. In short, they all had received decent quality teaching.

So, to finish, is there a trick to teaching children in KS1? Do I think it’s any harder or easier to teach in KS1 when compared to KS2? Is there a magic solution to teaching boys and improving progress? In my opinion, no. Just have high expectations of all the children you teach, regardless of age, gender, ability and background, and just teach them all. And teach them all well. That’s it.

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Studied Poetry – a post from @johncmurphy7

CaptureI tweeted out this recently and was hit with several posts from several people. Thanks to all who contributed – here’s our half-term hitlist for you to read.

HALF-TERM HIGHLIGHTS – WEDNESDAY

Here is the original post – thanks to John for allowing us to re-post.

When it comes to ‘studied poetry’, we explore the poets’ backgrounds and examine the context in which the poems were written in order to inform our analyses.

I understood that at secondary school. It was expected. Paper II of the Leaving Cert has just one ‘unseen’ question, and of the time we spent on Paper II most of that was, of course, devoted to the studied texts.

While I enjoyed the poetry and other studied texts (though, admittedly, after a while the theme to Cinema Paradiso piqued sighs of irritation and it took a long time to get over that), a problem arose – one which I didn’t immediately understand.

At Junior Cycle I developed a love for poetry. I loved reading poems and creating my own connections to them. The more I read them the more I understood that no two readings were always the same: whatever meaning or associations we create can be dependent on emotions, thoughts, memories, events…

During fifth and sixth year I grew accustomed to reading analyses of poems putting forward the same (or, at the very least, strikingly similar) interpretations – each expressed more verbosely than the last – which relied on information such as context and the poets’ beliefs. These interpretations laid the foundations for a certain reading of the poems which I would then draw upon when addressing an exam question. Although each of us in the class answered the questions differently, more often than not the analyses of specific images and phrases tended to be uniform. In other words, originality in answers came in how we addressed the question rather than how we really responded to and interpreted the poems.

Half-way through sixth year I began to notice that the bridge which connected me to poetry began to fall apart, piece by piece, under these foundations, and I felt as though the enjoyment for poetry I had cultivated at Junior Cycle slowly began to wither.

I felt that my connection to poetry was drifting further and further away, struggling to stay afloat in the waters of the Leaving Cert.

My answers to ‘unseen poetry’ questions became a trite affair, deficient of authenticity. I hadn’t forgotten that poetry could inspire multiple, distinctive readings, but in my new-found dependence on others’ readings and my search for the ‘real’ meaning behind the studied poems I began to doubt my interpretations, second- and third-guessing everything and wondering “which reading would get me more marks?”

In my case, it wasn’t my English teacher’s approaches which led to this, nor was it a lack of help which contributed to it; I wouldn’t have become a teacher if I didn’t have the post-primary education I had, and, among others, my English teacher played a large part in guiding, encouraging and inspiring me.

The problem was I had become so focused on the exam that my relationship with texts – particularly with books, stories and poems I liked to read in my spare time – became strained and the effects of this rippled through my school-work.

It wasn’t until the weeks before the exam that I was once again able to let the text itself guide me.

I returned to the basics to try and salvage my connection to poetry. I re-read my favourite poems to reclaim my appreciation of poetry. I read poems which I hadn’t encountered before. Instead of speculating “which reading…?”, I let the words flourish and not be tamed by exam-focused thinking or scrutinising what it was ‘intended’ to mean.

I created my own meaning.

‘Introduction to Poetry’, by Billy Collins.

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Source: The Poetry Foundation. Copyright 1988/1996 by Billy Collins. Personal, non-commercial use only.

As a teacher, I’m aware that, at one time or another, in helping students we may unintentionally strain the relationship between student and text.

I think this is partly because there can be a struggle to balance analysis with engagement, and partly because there is a thin line between analysis and over-analysis; analysing something to the point where it is just a chain of techniques creating a single, almost unwavering, reading can threaten to stifle students’ interest in and enjoyment of texts, and, as a result, genuine engagement.

In our efforts to help students reach a level of understanding and appreciation of a text, our intentions can easily be misconstrued; we may, inadvertently, lead ourselves, and them, towards the so-called ‘right’ or ‘expert’ reading and away from the personal experience of finding and using our own voice to explore a text and create meaning.

The important thing is that we dismantle this trap.

We need to acknowledge that what is communicated to the reader is not fixed. Nor, I believe, it is intended to be. Writing this, I’m reminded of how Jennifer Lee, one of the makers ofFrozen, responded to some claims about the film:

“We know what we made. But at the same time I feel like once we hand the film over it belongs to the world. So I don’t like to say anything, and let the fans talk. I think it’s up to them.”

[Source: The Big Issue. My emphasis.]

The text is open to interpretation.

It has been handed over to us, the readers, to create meaning – our own unique reading.

If we always knew what every word, image and expression meant, our encounters with ‘the arts’ in all its forms (literature, music, theatre, film…) would be an isolated shadow of an experience deprived of all meaning, and achieving any semblance of originality or true engagement would be impossible.

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No excuses! Post from @stephanootis

 Capture

I tweeted out this recently and was hit with several posts from several people. Thanks to all who contributed – here’s our half-term hitlist for you to read.

HALF-TERM HIGHLIGHTS – TUESDAY

Here is the original post – thanks to Ms Keenan for allowing us to re-post.

No excuses: who is taking responsibility?

From where I’m reading, this week’s twitter discussions seem to have reached the consensus that while there may be ‘no excuses’ for poor behaviour in schools, there may be reasons.

Before proceeding, I will first state my own, hopefully uncontroversial, opinion that appropriate behaviour in schools must exist before learning can take place, that all schools need a clear, strong whole school behaviour policy with firm but fair boundaries in which teachers are supported by SLT, and that a nurturing pastoral system must exist to support the behavioural code.

What principally concerns me, however, is the subtle transference of some of the more negative aspects of Gove’s and now Morgan’s ‘rhetoric of rigour’ and the osmotic absorption of this negativity by some in the teaching profession.  ‘No excuses’ to me implies a negative assumption that you will be lied to by those intending to shirk responsibility. It appeals as a soundbite or slogan, sounding powerful and no-nonsense, but an equally brief slogan of ‘Take responsibility’, for example, implies instead a positive expectation, an implication that students have the desire and capability to step up to expectations of mature behaviour. An English teacher’s pedantry it may be, but for me, every word signals and models our expectations. Positive expectation starts with every phrase, for example ‘Walk, please.’ instead of ‘Don’t run.’ Negative expectation is continually embedded in the language of politicians and the media from the implied to the overt, whether ‘benefit scroungers’, ‘career women’ or ‘migrant cockroaches’.  It is pervasive, insidious and dangerous, and we need to remain alert to its persuasive power.

Negativity is absorbed incrementally, and the past years of Coalition government have subjected teachers to a barrage of negative rhetoric.  I believe Gove’s curriculum reforms, his adherence to Matthew Arnold’s ‘the best which has been thought and said’ and high standards for spelling, punctuation and grammar will probably be judged positively in the long run. However, his real skill was a political one: to use negative rhetoric to shift responsibility onto teachers, schools and students whilst removing by the back door many of the support systems we need to make his dream of equality of achievement for all a reality.  Nicky Morgan’s dawn attack on ‘coasting schools’ this morning again highlights what Tom Sherrington has called the ‘idiotic gun to head rhetoric’ which blames schools for problems which the government has helped to create.

Teachers are mostly driven by a service ethos: it has been noticeable to me since joining the profession (after 12 years working in television production) how many have a religious background.  This sense of individual responsibility teachers have for each and every student they teach, their desire to give back to society and help others, is genuine, heartfelt and powerful. And it has been shamelessly exploited by the political rhetoric of a ‘no excuses’ culture. No child must fail. All children must have equality of opportunity. Which teacher would disagree? Therefore, like Boxer in Animal Farm we continue working ever harder, almost proudly demonstrating our Stakhanovite work ethic in the hopes of achieving the dream. We absorb the message: ‘No excuses’.

But there are reasons. The circumstances into which students are born. Welfare cuts with very real physical, financial and emotional impact. The loss of Sure Start and the EMA, the raising of university tuition fees, the extension of middle class privilege via free schools and grammar schools, have all hit students’ ability to achieve equality, and the ability of schools to help them.

Schools are continually having to assume more and more of the role of parents and/or social services:

  1. Schools as Mini Welfare States – http://schoolsweek.co.uk/how-schools-are-becoming-mini-welfare-states/

  2. Promoting British values –https://www.gov.uk/government/news/guidance-on-promoting-british-values-in-schools-published

  3. Responsible for Character Education –https://www.gov.uk/government/news/dfe-character-awards-application-window-now-open

  4. Teeth Brushing as well? Hey, why not…?http://www.nhs.uk/news/2014/10October/Pages/NICE-schools-should-teach-teeth-brushing.aspx

What about the pupil premium?  A worthy intention, seemingly clearly ring-fenced to help the most disadvantaged, yet again, smoke and mirrors worthy of the Wizard of Oz (well actually he was a bit rubbish at hiding what he was up to, so let’s hope we see through it, as did Dorothy and pals). I’m no policy expert and am not responsible for pupil premium cash at our school, but on the gov.uk website it appears the government offers:

  • £1,300 for pupils in reception year to year 6

  • £935 for pupils in year 7 to year 11

Schools also receive £1,900 for each pupil who has left local-authority care

So say £1,000 a year so £12,000 over a school lifetime for the most disadvantaged. Leaving aside the fact that the most troubled or challenged students may not necessarily be those with the least money, how can this amount of funding hope to create equality of opportunity? The equivalent of the fees for a half-term at Eton (£11,478). An amount which would be seen as a derisory bonus for any self-respecting banker (if there are any!).

Surely behind The Wizard of Gove et Morgan’s curtain are the true costs of ‘closing the gap’ as it is so neatly put, for these students. What does it really cost?  Obviously, it depends on the individual student, and sometimes the students with the most need will not be on that list, and sometimes they will, but the true cost of professional help, based on individual needs of the child, to redress the balance might come from the list below:

  • Cheapest teacher for a year £22, 023 (but what these students really need is of course the most experienced teachers)

  • Cheapest social worker for a year around £25,000 (but what these students really need is …)

  • Private tuition £25 – 40 per hour

  • Clinical psychologist – £50 – 300 per hour

  • Constant emotional support / Parenting / home life – priceless – or not – some children’s homes charge up to £250,000 per year per child –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-18649389

Schools are expected to close the gap for these students with this money? And at a time when schools will be facing real cuts of between 7 – 12% according to the Institute for Fiscal studies, a ‘very difficult’ decision for Cameron but, hey, could we still close the gap?  Well, with what, exactly?

And if schools are shown to be unable to close the gap? What then? Why, forced academisation. Who runs those academy chains again? What’s their success rate?  How much do they earn, by the way?  There’s the Harris Foundation, an ‘exempt charity’ – named after Lord Harris (personal fortune estimated at £275 million and Tory donor). Estimated salary of a Harris Foundation director? £243, 027.  Or perhaps E-ACT, stripped of 10 underperforming schools, or the Academy Transformation Trust with 7 RI schools out of 9.   No excuses.

I don’t want to blame individual schools or teachers, simply to remind us to be aware of the negative rhetoric which slams teachers as ‘enemies of promise’ while introducing a programme of free schools, expanding grammar schools and forced academisation, which offers an illusion of freedom and choice whilst in fact deftly shifting the huge responsibility for social inequality onto those same schools and teachers. Teachers whose Herculean efforts are taken for granted, who are presented as shirkers and skivers by politicians and the press. No excuses.

There are many schools working incredibly hard to close the gap and offer equality of opportunity to some of the most disadvantaged children in our society and I wholeheartedly applaud them. By all means use a knowledge-based curriculum and a strong behaviour policy to try and balance the educational books. But beware ‘no excuses’. Because ‘no excuses’ doesn’t apply to everyone. It doesn’t apply to bankers or there would have been people with prison sentences. It doesn’t apply to politicians as they never face the consequences of their term in office 15 years later when the students have gone from early years to A-level – the students, parents and teachers do. My concern about the ‘no excuses’ rhetoric coming from the teaching profession itself is that it suggests we have absorbed the negative political lie that it is entirely our responsibility to solve problems which we are not adequately resourced to solve. There are reasons. Reasons resulting from social inequality, from political choices borne of expediency and protecting vested interests. Reasons which we need to continue to identify and fight for increased investment to address.

There are ‘no excuses’ for us. But while we, and the children we teach, are taking responsibility, the politicians are not even justifying their actions: they really do offer no excuses.

No surprises. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5CVsCnxyXg

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Urgent – what needs doing ASAP | @FarrowMr

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I tweeted out this recently and was hit with several posts from several people. Thanks to all who contributed – here’s our half-term hitlist for you to read.

HALF-TERM HIGHLIGHTS – MONDAY

Here is the original post – thanks to Richard for allowing us to re-post.

Urgent – what needs doing ASAP | @FarrowMr

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Richard Farrow is a year 5 teacher in the north-west. He has been an (on/off) Labour member since 1996.

This blog is unashamedly about primary schools. Urgent actions need taking and this is what I’d like to see on day one of a Labour administration.

1. The SATS tests for y6 (KS2) in 2016 to be cancelled.

Why? The current situation in primary schools regarding these assessments is a farce. The switch to the new curriculum and the blatant raising of standards has created an unequal playing field for kids. The problem falls onto year 5 (my year group) the most. Children that were on track last summer to meet a L4b, now find themselves below the standard required of them, through no fault of their own, or their teachers.

Not only that, but (from September 2014 when the new curriculum started) they only have a year and a half to catch up this gap until the 2016 tests are given to them. Contrast that to y4, where they have two and a half years to catch up, or y3 where they have three and a half years. Unfair right? Of course. There is only a finite amount of time to learn new stuff (properly) and this time does not exist for the y5 cohort. You also have the farcical situation whereby the current y2 can meet national standards this summer (they are still on the old curriculum) but when the clock ticks to September (and the new curriculum in y3) they will automatically be behind where they have to be. Added to this is the fact that we have no idea what % or grades are required and there have been no exemplars given for national level writing standards given. We are basically aiming our kids at a test we have no idea about. It needs to go.

2. OFSTED needs serious reform, or abolition

Why? OFSTED is a law unto itself. They walk into a school for two days and then make a judgement about how good that school is. They make high-stakes observations (oh yes they do) and huge generalisations about behaviour etc from limited experience in the school. They provide feedback that you have to act on, even if it is palpably nonsense. This has to stop. While I agree with almost everything Wilshaw says, his troops on the ground are not following his guidance. It smacks of an organisation too large to reform effectively and the ultimate step might need to be taken.

3. Issue clear guidance on children playing under-age computer games

Why? we are seeing an epidemic of children exposed to inappropriate and violent computer games, far different from anything we have experienced before. The behaviour and themes are carried into school and reports of this have come from across the country. Labour need to make clear that if a school is made aware of children playing these games, that a referral to social services will be made. While I sympathise with the pressure they are under, something radical has to be done and soon. This could go hand in hand with a blitz on e-safety, covering the use of websites with an age limit like facebook. Schools should be given the backing to report children in their care for using these sites. At the moment, they act alone.

4. End the free schools vanity project

Why? Less money will be available for all schools during the next parliament, so why give money to free schools, established in areas they are not needed? Its not joined up thinking at all.

5. Cast the net further when looking for primary representatives for panels/commissions etc

Why? Primary representation on curriculum/assessment/strategic policy making is woeful. Recently, the same names have appeared on every committee going. More variety is needed, or it starts to look like an old cronies network, and basically becomes an ineffective process.

While I am aware more needs to be done (SEN/Academies/Behaviour/Class sizes etc) these are the most pressing concerns as far as I see it from my little corner of the country. Above all, Labour has to trust primary teachers to do their professional duty and provide a great education for the kids in our care. Too often under Gove (who I didn’t dislike hugely) statements implied that trust didn’t exist. This needs to change.

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The Pursuit of Purging the Gap for Pupil Premium Students by @ASTSupportaali

A very useful guide from Amjad. Well worth a read. Lots of links too.

NewToThePost

*UPDATED- 13/02/15*

Here is my PowerPoint presentation I shared with my staff to further raise awareness about our Disadvantaged Pupils. It includes my top tips based on the EEF toolkit on practices which make the most measurable impact for ALL Secondary School Students.

Click here for a detailed write up of this PowerPoint. Where I give examples for each of the top tips.

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Background:

In August 2014 I took over the responsibility of Pupil Premium funding; its allocation, use and impact. I therefore wanted to share with you some of my thoughts… and learn from many of you? My idea is to…

“…Use the collective knowledge we have out there in the big world of social media, to share some of the inspiring, effective strategies that are put in place, to help reduce/close/narrow the gap for Pupil Premium/Free School Meal Students.”

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