Rigour + Creativity = Wow.

Yesterday there was a bit of a commotion in the corridor. Four Yr 4 children were discovering that their careful measurements might be out by a couple of centimetres. They couldn’t decide whether to check again or get back to class – it was nearly dinner time after all, and there was clearing up to do. But having come this far, they really wanted to get it right, so they decided to check, one last time. As one explained, it might be alright in centimetres, but it’s a lot more in miles.

They had with them two circles they had cut out of paper, one much larger than the other.

“We found out the radius of the moon and of the earth,” they explained “and then we drew them to scale.”

They told me the exact measurements and the ratio they had used, but I can’t remember – my memory is not as good as theirs was. Then, their task completed, they decided they’d like to do something else – to use their knowledge of ratio and scale to work out the distance between them, relative to their size, and place them in the corridor. Just to see. So they did. Because in this school, children keen to go the extra mile, can.

Along the corridor, in the Year 6 classroom, a teacher showed us some snowflakes the children had designed.

“We’ve been exploring rotational symmetry” one child explained, “and the uniqueness of nature.”

Their inquiry question was “Is Antarctica Worth Protecting?” and under the principles of a Harmony curriculum, the children are exploring the idea of interdependence in nature. In fact every inquiry topic is underpinned by a Harmony principle, devised (to my surprise) by the Prince of Wales. Interdependence is one, along with Health, Beauty, Cycles, Diversity and Oneness. The children’s topics link to one of these concepts and the overarching aim of the curriculum is to produce agentive, responsible children who understand their place in the world, their connections to others and their responsibility to each other and the planet.

Before you sneer about knitting yoghurt, consider the impact that these ideas are having on the children’s mathematical and wider language. It’s highly unusual to walk into a classroom, ask a child what they are doing and to receive an answer like “we’re exploring rotational symmetry and the uniqueness of nature.” Most children would answer the question what are you doing with “making a snowflake.” The connectedness of mathematical and natural knowledge is not usually the first response of a child, unless they really GET what they are doing.

In Year 5, the children are looking at the rich imagery of India – the patterns and colours and festivals. Under the principle of Beauty, they are creating their own kites in response to the kite flying season there. But when I ask the children what they are doing, one says

“Well I’m creating a tetrahedron first of all….”

Mathematical language is internalised within these kids. Not because they have to learn it for SATs, but because they have learned that Maths is everywhere. They examine the golden ratio in Year One, looking for patterns in flowers and in fruit. They grow their own food. They monitor the energy the school is using and how much is being recycled. They look at cycles of nature through daily geometry sessions. And in the hall, I see a small group of Year 4 children dragging bins to weighing scales and making careful notes of their weight in a notebook.

“We weigh the waste every day before it goes to the compost heap.”

“We’re trying to keep it under 15kg per day.”

The head, Richard Dunne, explains that the children then discuss the waste with catering staff to see if adjustments to the menus or portion sizes might help to cut down food waste even more. Maths is everywhere.

These are children who are fully aware of their place in the world and their interconnectedness with others. They are agentive and full of vim and vigour about how to make things better. They speak of Year 6 about being a year in which their learning is about developing the leadership skills they’ll need for the future. They go to Chamonix and explore, first hand, the impact of climate change on The Alps. And they speak of sustainability being the most important element of their learning in Year 6. Not a word about SATs. And yet they pass the SATs with flying colours. No wonder. They are flying.

This is Slow Education. Education that allows children the time and independence to thrive, to think, to synthesis their knowledge and their experiences. The Slow Education network doesn’t tell schools that one method is better than another, but it seeks to link schools who are minded to allow children to grow – to stretch them to be active, engaged learners in a complex world, together. If you’d like to see these children and their teachers from Ashley school talk about their work in more detail, you can find the link here. I was blown away.


The Great Aspiration Myth.

Last year, my then seven year old son came home from school looking like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. I asked him what the matter was.

“I’m worried I won’t be successful.”

I did that mother thing – frowning with concern while stifling laughter.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m worried that when I grow up, I won’t get a good job and won’t be able to support a family.”

To be fair, he is a bit of a worry bean. But his concerns are echoed by children all over the country. Often, they start with innocuous comments from parents and teachers along the lines of

“If you don’t work hard at school, you won’t get a good job when you’re older.”

It sounds harmless enough, but add that to the bombardment of advertising showing children that being able to buy stuff brings love and happiness and you have a recipe for disaster. And the worst thing of all is he’s probably right.

We tell our children that education = success. We don’t tell them that in order to be able to afford what the government terms an “affordable home”, they’ll need to be earning almost six times the national average wage outside of London and a staggering 15 times more in London itself. We don’t tell them that 50% of graduates leave university burdened with debt to find themselves in jobs that didn’t require a degree in the first place. We don’t tell them that the University course most likely to secure employment after Medicine, is actually Media Studies.

They hear a great deal about facilitating subjects. About the importance of academic success. About the prestige of Russell Group Universities. But what happens when they get there? At the other end of my family’s age spectrum is a 23 year old. He went to a state school, a state sixth form college and on to Oxford. Hurrah! A success. But when he left it took him a year to find work. And when he did, the job came through a friend of his Uncle. Offered two weeks’ work experience as a favour, he managed to secure a job. Contacts counted for way more than qualification. In fact, although he loved his time at Oxford, he started to feel that the fact he’d been there was a hindrance. Some potential employers told him – off the record – that they worried that employing Oxbridge graduates would lead to accusations of elitism. It is a great injustice for a state educated child to beats the odds and get into Oxbridge, only to meet inverted snobbery at the end of it. Still, happy ending….sort of.

His lovely, articulate and clever girlfriend, with a science degree, also from Oxford, is still unemployed. She has taken on voluntary project after voluntary project – clearing brambles in parks, taking on ecological and environmental work for nothing in the hope that something will lead to paid work. The reality of austerity, however, is that these kinds of services are now done by volunteers and charities. There is no public funding and so the jobs associated with conservation are gone. It seems ironic, given Nicky Morgan’s insistence that the Arts lead nowhere, that in this partnership, it is the Scientist struggling for work. Where she applies for work in the area she is most interested in, she is told she is overqualified. When she applies for graduate positions, she is told she is under experienced. It is a frustrating and depressing position to be in as a young adult who was told, like so many others, that her string of Grade As would lead to work. She will find work, I know. And she’ll look back and all this will be a blip. But what then?

He is on a decent starting salary for a graduate – almost at national average. Yet they have no money. They pay £1000 per month to live in London. This buys them a studio flat so small that the sofa sits beneath a bunk bed. They have to share a bathroom with other flats. After rent, travel to work, bills and student loans are paid, there is nothing left for him. Should they even want to start a family, it’s hard to know what they’ll do. Staying in London will clearly be impossible. But this is where his work is.

All of this is personal and anecdotal, but their experience is mirrored all over the country. Adults returning to live at home with parents, or living in rented accommodation barely fit for habitation. These are the successes. The ones who worked hard and did well. What of the others? There can be no future for this generation of young people that consists of the things we once considered basics – a decent home with outdoor space in which one could raise a family – as long as house prices remain at their current level. We have reached a point where one generation is dependent on the death of another in order to have any hope of that goal. How awful.

I look at my little one and tell him that of course he’ll be successful. Of course, things will turn out well. And then I open the TES and look at jobs in international schools. Because I fear that for him, that future might not be possible in the UK.

Falling Out of Love

I was working in Athens when the General Election results came through. Walking out to meet my colleagues in the lobby of our hotel, I burst into tears. It wasn’t a great day. And in the inevitable aftermath of accusation and navel gazing, a narrative emerged that just didn’t ring true in terms of the people I had met and talked to during the campaign. The media told me that the electorate didn’t trust the Labour party on the economy or on immigration and welfare. The party needed to move towards the right. And then Labour supporters I knew on twitter retweeted their articles so it felt that everyone believed that this was the reason.

At a party, I endured conversation with one man who spent an interminably long time name dropping all the people he knew in political and media circles, using this to declare as a universal truth the ‘fact’ that “Unless we move to the right, we’re finished. The country has moved to the right and we need to follow.” And I politely sipped my wine, pointed out that only 24% of the electorate had actually voted Tory and perhaps we ought to focus on the vast majority who didn’t vote at all. Or at least I started to say that but he interrupted for the 50th time. I gave the secret wink to my husband that means he has 30 seconds to whisk me away before I thump somebody. Obviously I’ll never be a politician.

During the campaign those I spoke to simply said they didn’t know what the party stood for. They couldn’t tell the difference between them on policy and so better the devil you know. They didn’t have much time for Ed Miliband – not because he was too far left, but because they felt he was insipid and he had a stuffy voice like his nose was blocked. Shallow? Yes, but that was what I heard. And I had some sympathy with the view that politics was more like a celebrity reality show. Witnessing a dearth of regional accents and career experience, people just seemed tired with being told what to do by people who had gone from closeted schooling to closeted higher education to a career so closeted that they have their own door straight into the office from the Tube station. They were bored and politics seemed irrelevant.

When Corbyn entered the leadership contest, I had never heard of him. I was drawn to Andy Burnham – at least the lad has an accent and a state education behind him. But I got caught up in the Corbyn campaign – people I knew who had never even bothered to vote were sharing pictures of him getting the bus home, and his expense account details saying “here is someone worth our attention”. I liked his policies – I’ve never really considered myself very left wing, but I really can’t see the sense in Trident. I thought I was aligned with Michael Portillo on that score. Here was a man who would visit constituents rather than take VIP tickets to national sporting events. I liked him. So did my Mum – he was the first politician she’s liked since Margaret Thatcher. She said she might vote for him.

When the result was announced, I felt a sense of hopefulness and optimism that I hadn’t felt about politics in a while. And I wasn’t alone. My phone started beeping and my social media streams were full of people literally tweeting for joy. Now this isn’t ordinary. I don’t remember ever greeting a leadership result with anything other than mild interest. And I don’t remember social media going so wild. Many of the people feeling so joyful were young – lots of them ex students of mine. They had ‘discovered’ politics and were over the moon. Ok, perhaps there was the underdog effect, but there was also hope for a new beginning – genuinely a new politics. So it’s doubly disappointing to see people so determined to crush that new hope before it’s even had time to find a voice. Not only for me, but for all those young people who were engaging with politics for the first time. I see many of them walking away, angry that their votes are being dismissed and disparaged.

Just before Christmas, I found myself sitting around a dinner table in Manchester after an event I’d taken part in. Most of the people there were Labour supporters – a couple of them had been unsuccessful Labour candidates in the last election. But as we went around the table and introduced ourselves, there emerged that enigmatic creature – the floating voter. He told us he had voted Conservative in the last election, but that he liked Corbyn and would consider voting for him in the next. He thought he had integrity. To my shock, the next hour was spent listening to Labour supporters telling this man, considering switching from Tory to Labour, why he was wrong. Their antipathy to Corbyn was so strong, it seemed, that they would rather lose voters than see him supported. I was stunned.

I’ve followed, with interest, the conversations about Corbyn on twitter and beyond. And the nastiest, sneeriest comments come from people claiming to be Labour supporters. It is a misnomer to me. I didn’t like Tony Blair particularly, nor Ed Miliband, but I loved the party and I supported and campaigned for them both. Now I find myself behind a leader and falling out of love with the party. I don’t think I want to be part of a group of people who can’t get behind a democratically elected leader with a mandate to lead. Or who would rather see the media rub their hands with glee, lining them up for quotes, than show unity: who would rather hand the next general election to the Tories, than roll up their sleeves and fight for greater equality, exposing the shocking impact that Tory policies are having on our poorest and weakest. Why on earth would you rather blog (and I know it’s ironic), about how little chance the leader has of winning an election while at the very same time, reducing his chances of doing so? Because I tell you, if he can win my Mum over by being nice, he can win over all those people who wouldn’t vote for a man with a stuffy nose.

Let’s stop this nonsense now. Because while we all bicker among ourselves, our NHS, education system, safety nets for the poor and vulnerable, mental health services and care services are all being decimated by a government that simply can’t believe its luck.