#Nurture 2014/15 with a little #Teacher5aday

There are two great end of and start of year blog initiatives going on this year thanks to @chocotzar and @martynreah and I know it might seem a little lazy to roll them into one, but given that the second is about teacher well being, cutting down the workload can only be a good thing, right?

I wrote last year of wanting to be a better teacher, of wanting to get our new curriculum right, on wanting to have a year where I got all my registers in on time. And then I left teaching. The blog post I wrote at that point was the most popular I’ve ever written with over 80,000 reads. It struck a chord. I couldn’t cope any longer with the hypocrisy of having a vision of what I felt education should be – preparing children to enter adult hood with the tools they needed to leave the world in better shape than they found it; to live fulfilling and meaningful lives; to be able to find and give love and compassion and to understand that learning is something you continue to do all your life. Reconciling that set of beliefs with the pressure to push children down linear pathways that narrowed their view of what constitutes value and importance; that failed to recognise that human beings are multi-faceted and that all kinds of aptitudes and interests are needed to make for a better future and that THEY mattered more than the numbers attached to them was nigh on impossible. And I just couldn’t cope with all the time demanded to be the teacher I wanted to be and to still write, campaign and learn. I was cracking up. And so I resigned. It’s been tough, but there have been some great things coming out of it.

1. I finished my book. And apart from one snotty review, it was pretty well received.

2. I almost finished another one – nearly there…

3. I dropped 2 stones in weight. Swimming and yoga. And not having access to all those biscuits in the staff room….

4. Emma Hardy and I pulled off not only an education conference. But one with a great big beating heart which left people smiling and laughing. Nothern Rocks. (We’re doing it again by the way – look here)

Hywel singing

5. I became as Associate of both the RSA and Independent Thinking and was invited to speak at the RSA on revolutionising education. It was the most terrifying day of my life, but I loved doing it. You can see it here.

6. I travelled to Singapore, Brussels and Hong Kong and learned that there is a whole education system out there that is not beholden to politicians and that when that happens, you get a fabulous, long term vision of education with children who are articulate, responsible and confident emerging. The International Schools system offers a unique view into what might happen to education if politicians stepped away.

7. I’ve continued to push in whatever ways I can for an independent body set up by teachers for teachers and am pleased to support the Claim Your College campaign.

8. I’ve worked with a lovely school in Bradford, Appleton Academy, a school where five years ago I helped set up a new Year 7 curriculum model which is not only still going strong, but which is remembered in vivid detail by the Year 11 students now. Our question is if lessons they experienced five years ago are still well remembered, how come they claim not to be able to remember their GCSE lessons? We’re working on memory but also on making learning memorable across the school. And we’ve started off with 9 teacher/researchers who are following their own Action Research lines of inquiry with classes this year. They’re our Appleton Seedbearers and they are wonderful. Watch this space – I’ll be blogging about them.

And next year?

I have plans for a third book.

I’m returning to Hong Kong and China to learn more.

I’m going to be working in a refugee camp in Kenya – the royalties from my book went into the Big i Foundation, a charity committed to ensuring that children all over the world get an education. I’ll be training teachers and working with children for two weeks over there with Jane Hewitt and we’ll hopefully raise more funds for future work to be done. Here is their classroom.Kenyan Refugee Camp Classroom

That puts things into perspective doesn’t it?

And I hope I’ll be a better wife and mother. That brings us to the #teacher5aday element I guess, because sometimes, it’s easy to put everyone else’s children before your own. We teachers do it all the time. I’ve even been known to steal their books and toys to take them into work – you know what it’s like. And this Christmas, we were having a little family fun – what character would we be in such and such a film? When we got to The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings, my fifteen year old blurted out without hesitation:-

“Mum would be Galadriel. She’s hardly ever there, but when she rocks up she does something dramatic to show who’s in charge!”

We all laughed, but it made me think. Next year I’ll be out of the country for at least six weeks. And then there are all the nights spent in hotel rooms around this country waiting to deliver a day’s inset or attend a meeting. I’m away from home at least two nights every week. And when that happens, a family needs an anchor. My husband is a fantastic anchor, but he’s also a teacher under all the stress and strain that that entails. And I need to learn how to be more present when I’m home. Not to be constantly on twitter; or unable to listen because my mind is in work mode. I need to be there when I’m there. And that’s not easy, but I’ll try.

As a profession we need to learn to be kinder to ourselves and to each other. We need to recognise that the demands being placed on us in terms of marking loads and expectations are inhumane. We need to stop feeling like we’re failing. We need to fight back – point out the absurdities that make our lives unbearable. I still keep saying ‘we’ as if I’m in it with you every day and I know that I’m not. But after 21 years, it’s seared on my mind – the never ending cycle of feeling like you’re not quite good enough and it drains you. I might not be in the classroom, but I’ll be speaking up, pointing out these problems and doing everything I can to help. I promise. But if I’m not on twitter all the time, or if I can’t travel 200 miles to speak for 7 minutes at a teach meet, I hope you’ll understand that I’m also trying to be a Mum. I’d like to look like Galadriel, but I want to be in the fellowship of my family.

Happy new year to you all.

Let’s Get a Bit Lairy.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a bit poorly this week, or if it’s the effects of the exhaustion of a long term impacting on others who are still putting in the hours at the chalk face, but I’m starting to feel like I need a bit of fun in my professional life. Over the past year, we’ve been bombarded with narratives of failure. Even Michael Gove’s departure didn’t stop the ‘woe betide you’ messages emitting from every official channel. Everywhere I turn, there’s a work harder, try harder, do better message. Read more, research more, mark more….I think it’s time to get lairy.

I’m all for teachers getting involved in research, in reading to improve, in pushing ourselves towards excellence. But it should be done in a spirit of celebration and joy. Not under threat. And I don’t know any teachers who want children to fail, but I know many who are pushing us to believe that all the problems of poverty are our fault and that if only we were better teachers, poorer children would succeed. It’s starting to bother me. It bothered me even more when I saw this advert for Teach First. I’m working with two wonderful, committed TF graduates at the moment. They are awesome. But they recognise that without the support of their experienced colleagues, they would be going under. And that the problems that the children they teach are facing are a whole lot more complex than they can fix just by being clever and committed.

And that thing about resilience? When did it suddenly become a stick with which we should beat each other? I heard one senior manager tut as he/she heard of a colleague’s depression a few weeks ago. “They need to man up.” was the comment. Grit – that’ll do it. Alfie Kohn writes brilliantly here about this hijacking of grit and resilience. To what extent are we using resilience in order to justify a protestant work ethic designed to ensure compliance in the face of unrelentingly dull and unrewarding requests? It seems that as religion declines, resilience has become the new opium of the masses.

So don’t even get me started on this latest announcement from the DfE in which the same government that has removed speaking and listening from the GCSE, radically reduced the teaching of drama in schools and shoved thousands more children into poverty announces that debates and putting on Shakespeare plays (unabridged, mind) are the stuff of grit. It’s all about getting kids to overcome set backs apparently – like losing their school playing fields?

All this has been on my mind while I’ve been beavering away with Emma Ann Hardy organising Northern Rocks 2015. Are we feeding the monster by getting you all out on a Saturday to think about how we could be better teachers? Are we making things worse? Well it’s too late now – we’re booked and 65% of the tickets are gone and we have a shed load of quite brilliant speakers lined up. So instead, we’re getting party minded. We’re going to be celebrating, laughing and playing. Ross McGill aka @teachertoolkit is under orders to misbehave. We have a band. We have a lot of music actually. We’re even going to get some wine in for a wee toast at the end of the day. Because work needn’t always be hard. Teaching needn’t always be serious. Conferences needn’t always be about what’s wrong and what works. They can be a celebration of what we do well. They can be a challenge to those in charge to think a little more carefully about the impact that their latest whim has on our working patterns. They can be a chance to meet old friends, make new ones and be unapologetically joyful. And they can be an opportunity to learn something new without being made to feel that you were inadequate before you knew it. That’s what we’re aiming for. So come and join us if you can. And if you can’t, hold up your head. Be proud. Keep smiling and have a wonderful Christmas.

Loves Labour Lost and Found (nearly)…

I used to love the Labour party. Dame Barbara Castle, Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Glenda Jackson – you couldn’t have got a more eclectic mix, but the message was quite clear – we stand up for the disadvantaged, the poor, the weakest in our society and no matter what their own backgrounds were, they were all about championing those least able to champion themselves. That’s how it seemed to me in the 1980s – that there were people in parliament who genuinely cared and who weren’t afraid to speak up regardless of how it might play with the voters. My Dad (a staunch supporter of Margaret Thatcher) and I would argue for hours about the miner’s strike, the unions, capitalism and so on. He came from abject poverty and saw her as someone who had facilitated him to move up in the world. I looked at my cousins, still stuck on council estates, their parents made unemployed and their communities shifting from the working poor to the so called underclass and I couldn’t see the fairness in a system that prided individual ambition and success over community care and responsibility.

When I went to university, I stomped the streets of London pushing leaflets through doors and trying to talk to people in flats on Glenda Jackson’s behalf. I wept when Labour lost the election. And in 1997 partied so hard when we won that I was ill for days. And then months. And then years as disappointment began to set in. I thought we’d get equality, but we got a weird kind of equanimity instead. I wish they’d done more, I lamented in 2010. I wish the differences between politicians had been more marked. But look at the trajectory of movement to the right as outlined by political compass.org.


I became a little disillusioned. What was the problem? There’s something to do with the cult of the professional politician – the blind compliance with party lines. The fear of losing votes and seats (because if all you’ve known is politics, where do you go when you lose your seat?) This shift from politicians with proper working backgrounds to the career politician has led to a colourless palette of choice – like a Kelly Hoppen political interior of nothing but taupe. There’s so little choice at the very time there is so great an appetite for change. I really think that UKIP are gaining so much ground not because of their appalling policies, but because they are appealing to the desire for something new and different. And somehow they get the attention of the media. There is choice on the other side – the Greens of course, but how often do you see them on the telly? Credibility is formed by media attention and ours has been shabbily shaped by a media governed by the very same desires as those bland politicians – protect your advantage; sit;  don’t rock the boat.

There are some notable exceptions. My local MP, Debbie Abrahams is wonderful – hard working, caring and compassionate. And she’s worked in the NHS for years – she knows a world away from politics. This is what we need – people who know stuff. Not academic stuff, but life stuff – work experience, the machinations of industry, institutions, the work place. But there is too little of this across our whole political system. We need more Alan Johnsons, more Ian Mearns. We need politicians who don’t give a toss if they’re given a portfolio. And who will offer alternative visions. And where they exist, we need a media who will give them coverage. Look at this – where British politicians sit within the wider political spectrum – where is the real choice?


Nevertheless, I’m backing Labour this Spring. I’m phone phobic, but calling people in my local area from my constituency office. I’ll be pounding pavements, delivering leaflets and knocking on doors. Why? Well, partly because my MP is great and I want her back. But also because while the gap might seem slight between Labour and Conservative, there’s still a world of difference.

I’ve watched in dismay as our schools have become fragmented and atomised; as our children have been valued less and less for what they are capable of and pushed though ever decreasing sets of measurements. I saw my brother in law, a brilliant physiotherapist, who has painstakingly dedicated 15 years of his life to building an NHS centre of excellence for back care in the South East, suffer the news that his service is to be handed over to Bupa – a much reduced service with no attempt to even match like for like. I’ve seen children in my school unable to get in because of extortionate bus fairs. I’ve seen families queuing up at food banks while politicians sneered. Those gaps matter. They are significant.

People have said to me that it is better to have something to vote for than something to vote against. And while I wish the Labour party would have the courage to step to the left; to see that there are literally millions of people yearning for a fairer society, I do think there are some really good ideas in there. The problem, of course, is that newspapers rarely report them.

Last week, I was honoured to be invited as a guest of Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn to a Comprehensive Futures meeting in parliament. Tristram Hunt addressed the meeting outlining his priorities for education. All day his comments about private schools and state schools had dominated the news. (By the way, Tristram, while you’re on the subject of tax/charitable status, can we please get rid of the anomaly that means that sixth form colleges – often serving highly disadvantaged communities – have to pay VAT when school sixth forms don’t. It will cost you about £31 million. Less than the cost of a single free school). Anyway, away from the media headlines, it emerged that there was some compassionate common sense being spoken:-

1. A renewed investment in EYFS provision including 25 hours per week free entitlement. This would be high quality provision, not Liz Truss’ pile em high babysitting service, with highly qualified nursery nurses and provision that is rooted in research into what young children need. Not calculus as it turns out.

2. More investment in apprenticeships – proper apprenticeships, not slave labour – with a greater choice of vocational routes. Building more links between FE and industry.

3. Reinstating the AS level and exploring how GCSEs might allow more scope for practical modes of assessment.

4. Wrap around school care from 8am to 6pm – not staffed by teachers.

5. A representative body for school support staff.

6. The facilitation of teachers to ensure that they are able to teach. And that they are ALL qualified.

7. An emphasis on high quality CPD, ensuring that teachers are entitled to professional development and that they are committed to it.

8. The creation of a less hierarchical, ‘value neutral’ system where no school type is given preferential treatment over another. Local authorities will be able to open new schools where there is demand in the area.

9. An investment in good quality careers services in schools.

10. Teacher training which is varied, but managed centrally by HE institutions acting as hubs.

As fast as I could scribble, these were the headlines I heard. And these are the headlines we need to be communicated, because there is much goodness in this mix. Is it perfect? No. Is it a lurch to the left? Not really. But it is a step towards common sense. And it’s why I’m getting behind Labour education policy and the party as a whole. And once you’re behind something, you can give it a bit of a push…