White Working Class Boys

There has been noise today about the data that suggests that white children are not doing as well as children from ethnic minorities in school. Of course, the reality of this data is that it is white working class boys who are not doing as well in school. And this has been known for some time. It’s a difficult and complex issue to address, tied into a web of biology, culture, gender representation and educational philosophies, but there are some things we really should know about as teachers and parents that might help move some of these issues forward.

I mentioned in a previous post on poverty the role of hormones on learning – particularly that of cortisol. Cortisol is known as the ‘stress’ hormone for a reason and in short, sharp bursts, it can focus concentration. But over time, children living under constant stress, are significantly impacted. Cortisol affects the immune system, meaning that children living in stressful environments are more likely to suffer illness and miss school. It also affects memory, making learning so much harder. And in boys, who don’t have oxytocin to offset the effects of cortisol on emotions, it makes for less empathy and more social withdrawal. This, in combination with the presence of testosterone makes it more likely that boys under stress will react with aggression and show less empathy towards those they disagree with. A recipe for punishments and exclusions, and indeed, if we look at the figures, boys are far, far more likely than girls to be excluded.

Getting into trouble, being ill and forgetting stuff does not make for effective learning. But surely, one would then say, ALL boys under the stress of poverty would do badly not just the white ones. And when one accounts for class, this is also true. But white boys do worse. So we have to move on to cultural factors too. And this is much trickier without starting to head into the territory of making huge assumptions about different ethnic groups. For example, we might say that women from ethnic communities are more likely to stay at home with their children. But is this true of all ethnic communities? No. And does staying at home make for a better learning environment than high quality EYFS provision? We’d have to surely say “it depends”. We might say that the capacity to speak more than one language strengthens cognitive function and so makes learning easier. But are all children from ethnic backgrounds EAL learners? No. We might say that people who have made the effort to migrate for a better life value education more and are more likely to push their children to make that “better life” a reality. The truth is probably a combination of these and many other factors.

And there is also diet – something we hugely underestimate when it comes to learning. White working class children are more likely to consume a high sugar diet with processed carbohydrates than those eating Mediterranean, Asian or African foods at home. And those foods inhibit concentration considerably when there is no opportunity to burn off the energy they produce. Is it possible that diet might impact? What about access to alcohol? Are white working class boys more likely to drink, smoke, take drugs? Why?

I don’t have answers. I’m asking questions. But the point is that this is a hugely complex issue. None of which will be remotely addressed by switching all schools to academy status, bringing textbooks into the classroom or having zero tolerance discipline policies. All that will do is lead to more exclusions for this most vulnerable of groups.

We must stop using data to feed a failure narrative that focuses on a narrow spectrum of society. Education is a factor not THE factor. An integrated approach to health, wealth, access to cultural and artistic experiences, diet, attitudes and gender representations is required if we’re really going to impact on this group of kids. Anything less is an abdication of responsibility.

Hey you. Poor Person. We’re here to make you just like us.

I’m a little irked at the way that people who argue that an academic education is the means to ending poverty, throw out an accusation of ‘low expectations’ to those who think we should have a broader debate about the purpose of education and the role of vocational routes. What I notice more and more is that the accusations come from people who have led comfortable upper middle class lives and who make the assumption that the answer to society’s problems is to ‘make every one like us’. At its most well intentioned, this translates into “I wish everyone could have what I have” – and who can judge that too harshly? At its worst it translates into hubris and a paternalistic notion that “we know best.”

For a start, consider the hierarchy we have in terms of which subjects ‘count’ as being academic. Let’s face it, there is absolutely no logical reason why History is rated above Theatre in terms of academic demand. Theatre students will explore the role of theatre (and by association, the development of democracy, the role of women and the use of theatre as a political and social tool) in Ancient Greece, Medieval Britain and Italy, Elizabethan society, Jacobean society and across Europe and America in the 20th Century. If you want to explore the rise of Hitler, look to “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui”. And the plays of Sartre are a great way of accessing the concepts of existentialism. Yet History is exalted and Drama derided. Ask children on the whole which subject they prefer though, and you’ll have a stampede into the studio. Children are not resistant to academia, they are resistant to static pedagogies and forced facts. A great History teacher who brings the subject to life will trump a lazy Drama teacher who sits on the radiator and tells children to ‘make up a play about drugs’. But bring the two together and you have fireworks.

This is not an argument about academic and non academic. Or even about academic versus vocational. It’s a twofold argument about values and purpose. What is the purpose of an education? And what do we value?

Let’s go back to poverty for a moment. Those championing an ‘academic’ route will throw at you all the statistics that show that children from poor backgrounds are less likely to go to University. And statistics show that they are less likely to stay there too – so those schools braying that they got kids through the door need to really think about whether they did them a favour. When 50% leave without completing their degree but still carrying debt, there is a problem. The reasons for leaving are complex but you can’t even begin to understand them if you don’t understand the lives of the children you are planning for.

My parents both grew up in grinding poverty. But in my Dad’s house was a parent who valued education and was willing to support him to the age of 18. In the other were parents who had no concept of the value of education and who needed their child to start earning as soon as possible. We’re talking about a home with one lightbulb that was moved from room to room. With no toilet paper. Where a piano given to the family was chopped up for fuel. For my Dad’s family, poverty was circumstantial – a reasonably well off family brought down by alcoholism. For my Mum, both of her parents had known nothing but poverty in a generational line dating back to the potato famine. There is a significant difference between circumstantial and generational poverty in terms of being able to imagine yourself out of your situation. My dad got A Levels and trained on the job until he became a Chartered Accountant and set up his own business. My mum left school at 14 with no qualifications and worked in a mill. She  quit work as soon as my dad was earning enough to support us all. She’s as bright as a button, but had no chances. So I completely understand the desire to put this inequality right. But the fact remains that without parental support, it’s a huge uphill struggle. It is meaningless to group FSM children into one category. Study after study tells us that parenting makes the difference. The EPPE study, a groundbreaking longitudinal study, is clear. When it comes to parenting, it’s not what you earn, it’s what you do that matters. Let’s take that for a moment. Back to my parents.

They had three children. All went to university. I was born in a terraced house with an outside toilet. Eight years later, my brother was born into a house with two bathrooms and a bidet. That’s social mobility. But what made the difference to us was not my Dad’s income, but the value they placed on our education. When I became a mother, I watched my Mum with my kids. She’d take them round the supermarket and name everything. At the park, every tree, bird, animal was named and described. She talked to them as I know she must have talked to me. A constant stream of language. And my Dad, even when we had no money, would bring books home from charity shops. I’ve written of this before. Had we stayed poor, we would still have had the chance to succeed because they did the right things.

It is perfectly possible to be a school who makes the FSM data sing. Two things matter. The parents and compliance. So if you put in strategies to ensure that the poor children in your school have aspirational parents who value education, you are half way there. How do you do it? Make uniforms so expensive that it takes a sacrifice to send your child there? Perhaps. And to be sure, make the rules on uniform so punitive that only the children with parents willing to fix and replace can stay. Select children on the basis that their parents come in to talk to you before hand? Perhaps. Take from ethnic groups associated with placing high value on education? Perhaps. But that still leaves many children in a situation where they need something extra and we need to be really careful about labelling those kids.

Of my uncles and aunts, those who stayed on council estates (even those who bought their house and were left with it as a crippling burden as interest rates rose and the neighbourhood went down the toilet) had children who are still on council estates. Or who are dead. You are more likely to die young if you are poor. Of my uncle’s four children, two are dead and one is sectioned for mental health problems. The loss of his job, being trapped in his home, losing both sons, worry for his mentally ill daughter and the breakdown of his marriage led my kind and gentle uncle to despair. He committed suicide. The fourth child still lives on an estate, dependent on benefits and has seven children. There are many who would judge her. But being a mother gave her a sense of value. She had lost everything – having children around her made her feel like her life had meaning and stability. And there are stories like this all over the country. Tragedy is common where children have no safe place to play, are living in homes with black mould and damp, where boredom and hopelessness prevail.

It’s understandable that some of us think that the answer is to get them out of there. But we cannot underestimate the pull of belonging and of community. Many people don’t want to get out of their community. They want improvements to the community. And education will not appeal, if it is seen to take them away. We need to consider how we make education meaningful for those who want to remain in their communities warts and all. And to do that we need to consider what opportunities for work there are or could be in that local area. If we start from a point of improving what we have, we can find hope. Ironically, that’s the message being given by Dylan Wiliam to Head teachers – work with what you’ve got.

When I was at school, I’d stare out of the window of my O Level classes and into the sheds near the school. There, some of the boys in my year would be pulling engines apart and putting them back together again, all oily and happy in their overalls. Most of them went straight from school into jobs as car mechanics. They had the skills already. Although the 80s was a period of high unemployment, most of the kids in my year left at 16 and went straight into work. It wasn’t a question of poor kids doing vocational and more affluent kids doing O levels – it was much messier than that. For my own part, my dad pretty much made the decision for me. Many of my friends went on to schemes in secretarial, hairdressing, mechanics, plumbing positions – they all had some skill in those areas because they’d been able to work on them as part of their curriculum. I meet some of them these days and they are earning far more than I am. I’d sit in my French class, chanting verbs and wish I could get my hands on an engine. I’m not really complaining, but it would have been great to be able to do both. To get my hands and my brain dirty.

So back to brass tacks. What is the point of education?

To pass tests?

To get work?

To be creative?

To be happy?

To be wise?

To change the world?

Our answers to these questions will depend on our beliefs but there are some we can question straight away. While we throw all that time and energy into the question “what works”, we only look at tests. Even though Dylan Wiliam and others point to research that shows that our “evidence” of what works can only be applied to the test and that success in one test does not seem to guarantee the ability to transfer the knowledge to another context. Not even to another test. So our tests qualify kids to pass our tests. That might explain the frustrations of HE and employers.

If it’s to get work, then we need to think what it is that the world of work needs and offers. There is little incentive to study hard in order to secure a low paid job on a temporary contract. And there aren’t enough highly paid jobs. And the need in our society for carers and cleaners is great, but who would study hard for that? We cannot tempt children through tests with a lie that they will lead to work. An oversupply of graduates has created a situation where the jobs my peers were doing at 16 are now being filled by graduates with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt to their names. Where is the sense in that?

Another story – modern day. A primary school near a gas works. There is an emergency procedure for when a leak is suspected and on this day, the procedure kicks in. The children are moved a safe distance away and all the parents are called. The vast majority come and collect their children within an hour. Others call to say they’re on their way or that they’ve arranged for a family member to collect. But a small number of children are left. The Head instructs the staff to walk them home. My friend takes a small group of children. All the parents are home but most are not happy to see their children home early. Two children are left. One arrives at his house. The doors are boarded up. He tells the teacher that this is because the police kicked them in. There is a ladder leading to a first floor window. Quick as a flash he climbs up it and through the window. This is how he gets in and out of his house. The final child doesn’t want to go home. He drags his heels. When they get there, the door is open and loud noise from the TV is booming out into the street. The teacher puts her head around the door and calls out. No answer. She ventures in. There is no furniture in the room, except for a chair and a television. There is no carpet. There are beer cans all over the floor. In the chair a man is asleep. And in a cardboard box, on the floor next to him, a baby in a stinking, sodden nappy is crying. She understands why this child finds it hard to concentrate in school.

Her school has an unusually high number of FSM children, and the fact is that the majority are cared for, collected and safe. But for those climbing through windows, or growing up with nappy rash in a cardboard box, an academic education is not going to be enough. Tristram Hunt said yesterday that what makes a difference to children is attachment. Children without attachment, language, love, safety are not school ready. This is the first step towards being an educated person. For my cousin, for these children, History, Science, were irrelevant. That’s not to say we shouldn’t teach them. But without support – perhaps counselling – empathy, love and understanding, they will fall on stony ground. I look at her and think of what she could have been. She’s great with children – could she have had a career in child care? Who knows. But we need to think about how we teach parenting to all our children and to our parents. We need to think about what we can do to bring moral purpose and meaning into the system so that there is a chance to see that there is hope and possibility everywhere – even in your own communities.

There is a moment in the film Tyrannosaur – a film which paints a grim and realistic picture of life on an estate – where the community comes together at a funeral. There is care and support, understanding and belonging. This is what we need to tap into. This is what children need to find. This is the foundation stone that schools should seek to build. The rest can follow.

Saying Nothing Loudly : Ofsted on Behaviour.

Look, I have a confession. I have, from time to time, stood in front of an unruly class and wondered what on earth I’m going to do to get them to do what I need them to do. I know what some might say – why should they do what you want them to do? But that way madness lies. Perhaps those moments of weakness have made me a bad teacher, but I’d hazard a guess that we all have had them. Or the class that nothing seemed to work for. Or the kid. So I imagine that many teachers woke up this morning thinking that the new report from Ofsted would be a step forward – an offer of help and support perhaps? Of course not.

Based on surveys of teachers and parents (many of whom seemed to think that a] low level disruption from other people’s children was a problem holding their child back and b] it was not being carried out by their child), the report came to some disappointing conclusions:-

1. If headteachers stand out in corridors and are less friendly then disruption will stop.

2. Teachers are too soft.

Let’s pop those points under the microscope shall we?

1. Visible Heads.

I think it is important for a headteacher to be a highly visible and active presence in a school – of course it is. It helps children to build relationships with the captain of the ship and that’s an important thing. It’s also good to have them around if things kick off. But doing so in a manner that is designed to purely show kids who is boss is doomed to failure. And being a presence counts for nothing if the systems in place are not fit for purpose. At my last school, staff constantly raised concerns at meetings about low level disruption in class. I’ll come to our own culpability in this shortly, but let’s shine a light on processes and procedures here. The response was “most of the children in the school behave impeccably”. This was true. But the ones who didn’t were really making it difficult for lessons to flow. So a solution was introduced. A tiered warning system. This is how it worked for me…

C1 – verbal warning for small misdemeanours like not having equipment or entering the room rowdily or chatting at the start of the lesson. On average, I’d say that 10-15 pupils in each class would have had this warning if all teachers followed the procedure.

C2 – second warning – a note in the planner. I won’t go into the farce that is trying to get a note in planner that is repeatedly ‘forgotten’. Assuming it’s there, and kids being kids and trying to be consistent with all, a C2 could be issued to six kids or more. And it’s important to issue it, no matter how tricky, because consistency is important, right? So that’s 12 minutes I then had to find at the end of each lesson to write in planners. And I taught at opposite ends of the school. And I started to wonder which routine was most important – being there on time to greet pupils and have an orderly start or adhering to school policy. By the end of the day, I’d spent an hour writing in planners. And had missed an hour of lessons or duty to be able to do it.

C3 – Detention. Maybe one child a day. Usually one who has just necked one of those concentrated Robinson’s fruit drinks or a Monster can of madness. Might the Ofsted report have considered the impact of sugar on this issue? Of course not. Might they have suggested that parents had a responsibility to make sure that their children were not so high on sugar and additives that it’s sometimes a miracle we can keep them from throwing themselves out of the window? Of course not. So detention is issued. And for some children that means booking an appointment six months in advance. For many kids, school days have been extended forever. Perhaps they tolerate detentions as the price they pay for having a good time for the rest of the day. Or perhaps they don’t mind because they don’t actually want to go home. So at the end of the day, I rushed from my lesson (assuming I hadn’t just had to spend 12 minutes writing in planners) in order to try to catch whoever had a detention before they legged it. I’d take them to the inevitable meeting with me. And on the way I’d try to make a phone call to the parent of the kid I’d be seeing the following day. All while also trying to call back all the parents who had left messages to enquire or complain about the note I wrote in their child’s planner. It was frankly, a pain in the arse and the temptation to just not write the note, or issue the detention was overwhelming. But we mustn’t give in, right, or there will be chaos? Except things don’t get better, because at the end of the day, detentions just don’t work.

C4 – Removal from the class. Hit the ‘On Call’ button. Ten minutes later, if you’re lucky, a harassed person arrives at your door with a string of kids behind them. There isn’t actually anywhere to take a child when they are On Called except your office. And only a nutter would leave a child unattended in their office. I hit the button twice in my career. I regretted it both times. The lesson was almost over by the time they went, but then I had to log it on the system – a procedure so complex that it would be easier to take over the management of the CERN Hadron Collider. Then I have to schedule a detention, call the parents and …. well you’ve got it. I might as well have stuck with C3 because there is no consequence for a C4 that doesn’t just involve more work for the teacher.

All in all, it’s an utterly unworkable system in which nothing is achieved. But that’s not to say that I think headteachers should suddenly start kicking kids out. Or turning into Judge Dread. Because that kid who told you to ‘fuck off’ found his Dad hanging in a garage. The one who is constantly tapping on the table is in pain with her IBS and the tapping is a subconscious distraction from the pain. And when a Head hears these tales, they use their judgement to decide what to do. Compassion is important. It matters and these problems need to be handled on a child by child, day by day basis.

In zero tolerance schools like KIPP in the US, there is a hugely disproportionate rate of exclusions for children with SEN or from ethnic minorities. Too often our schools don’t take any account of the complex needs of our children – either in terms of their cognition and socialisation or their home culture. We need to attend more to this – throwing children out of school is a failure of the system. It should never be rejoiced as I’ve seen some unscrupulous senior managers in Academies do, or be seen as anything but a very last resort. And for those children who simply cannot cope in mainstream education, we need to properly fund alternative provisions so that they are all entitled to the quality of education and support that is offered at places like Springwell in Barnsley.

But those are the high level disrupters and this report focuses on the low level. What of them? Are teachers too soft?

2. “Teachers – grow a pair!” (an extract that didn’t quite make its way into the report, but was there in the subtext).

There were several references in the report to informality and even dress, making a very bold assumption that informality breeds contempt. Where is the evidence for this? I work a lot in International Schools, where children rarely wear uniform. Sometimes they call members of staff by their first names, especially in High School. And here, in sixth form colleges and FE colleges, it is routine to be on first name terms with tutors and not to have uniform. And yet standards of behaviour in these settings are excellent. There is a clear difference between open, friendly and informal relationships between staff and pupils and poor consistency and expectations. The report has really confused these two things and there is a strong flavour that personal preference is over-riding evidence in this matter.

Children need boundaries. They need to know that you are trying to be fair and consistent (and they’re pretty good at recognising that fairness is not always the same as treating everyone in exactly the same way). But whether or not their uniform (or yours) impacts on those issues is unproven. It’s a silly correlation. I wish the report had spent more time asking the following questions:-

1. What impact is diet having on behaviour? What could we do to ensure that parents don’t give their children cash to go to the shop on the way to school?

2. To what extent are we feeding a culture of low respect and tolerance for each other, by placing far more emphasis on exam results than personal character?

3. To what extent do politicians, Ofsted and the media shape the opinions of parents? And in belittling and blaming the profession, do they create a lack of respect for the profession in parents’ minds that then gets passed onto their children? I’ve had, on more than one occasion, a parent demand that their child be excused from a detention for spurious reasons and had to deal with some fairly rude and dismissive comments about getting a ‘real’ job and knowing what ‘hard work looks like’. This attitude comes directly from our media and it is fed by politicians. Sort your own houses out first.

4. When we teachers blame each other for not following the system and letting the team down, how often do we think whether or not it is just harder for some people than others. People who don’t have their own classrooms, or are teaching subjects where it’s just not practical to have planners out on desks. You’re in a field for example. Is consistency really the better option, or should we find solutions at departmental levels?

5. We should be teaching lessons worth behaving for. Too many of us think that resilience is about enduring boredom. It’s not. And there are very few adolescents who can tolerate sitting and listening for 5 hours or more without needing to move about and talk.

It always depresses me when complex problems – and don’t get me wrong, this is a problem – when complex problems are met with simplistic solutions. When they are used as an excuse to push forward a favourite ideology. When they are used to avoid looking at bigger questions.

This year, Harvard university published a report’Making Caring Common’ which examined why it was that children were placing their own needs ahead of others and why their ability to empathise was falling. The answers were complex, but in a nutshell, we, as a society are not prioritising empathy, respect and care as we raise our young. It is absent from our curriculum. We press for individual achievement and personal happiness above community responsibility. Is it really any wonder then that we are finding this lack of respect and empathy in our classrooms? Surely, instead of blaming Heads, teachers and children, we should start to look at ourselves as a society and ask some serious questions about how we educate our young.

Bottom’s Up!

After my post about my MoE journey with my Year 9s (http://debra-kidd.com/2013/09/30/bottoms-on-fire/ ) lots of people asked me to let them know what happened next. You see that’s what a good story is – a hook – and it’s much easier to get children to learn once they’re hooked. Of course there were also those with questions – What did they learn? – was one. So here’s the next instalment of the Snoop family holiday.

You may remember that Mrs Snoop wanted adventure, that money was no object and that she didn’t want to fly. At the end of the first session, the children had settled on India, Nepal and the Maldives but they had forgotten an important detail. The daughter was in Year 11 – the holiday would have to take place in the Summer.

In terms of ‘English’ we were learning to write in order ‘to inform’ – the kids were writing an itinerary and designing a brochure, but I have a lot of sympathy with the Hirsch/Christodoulou position that knowledge is vital in equipping children with the skills of the future. It doesn’t seem enough to me to say ‘here are the features of informative writing – off you go…’ Instead I think, how can this be an opportunity to learn more about the world? Hence the two constraints. Not flying means they have to look carefully at a map. In doing so, they discovered that travelling overland to India meant going through either Afghanistan or the northern parts of Pakistan. A quick look at advice for travellers on the Foreign Office web site showed that this was a dangerous area. The children, before we did this, had no idea where Afghanistan was on a map. Now they do. They also know what the Foreign Office is and how to check for information about travel.

– Never mind, they said, we can take them to Oman and sail them across. So I got out some weather charts. 

“She’s coming in soon – do you think we should check the weather in India in July – she might ask.”

They found it quite tricky to read the information on the chart – in PISA tests, the OECD reports that UK children find interpreting visual data more difficult than those in other countries so the practice can’t hurt, right? Eventually they realised that it was going to be very wet. Very wet indeed. They didn’t know what a monsoon was before the lesson. They do now.

So when she came in, they quickly needed an alternative. We had a quick recap. What did she want?

– sky diving

– animals

– adventure

– rainforest walks

– water sports/beach

– Maybe we could try Africa?

It turned out that most of them thought that Africa was a country so it was a revelation for them to discover not only that it was a continent made up of many countries, but that there was such a variety of experience to be had. Among other things, in planning their route, they found out that there were more ancient pyramids in the Sudan than there were in Egypt and got really interested in the history of a country that none of them had ever heard of before.

So a holiday was planned and the Snoops set off and they wrote many postcards on their journey. They were having a fantastic time – seeing Europe first of all and the famous landmarks of Paris, Rome and Athens; sailing across to Alexandria and crossing overland to Cairo then down the Nile right through to The Sudan. Camping in the desert by ancient sites before passing into Uganda for forest treks and gorilla spotting. And finally into Kenya with a spectacular safari trip ending with a parachute jump over the Masai Mara. But then we got an email. There had been an accident and Mrs Snoop was dead.

The boy who gathered the team together to deliver the news was brilliant in his serious and low key delivery of the news.

– We need to fly them home

– We should pay for the funeral

– Was it our fault?

There was a silence. Was it our fault? Who had checked out the safety record of the parachute company? Hands went up.

– They had a safety certificate

-The parachutes were new

– We’ve used them before

But who is liable? None of them have ever heard the word liable before. We need to unpick it. If we offer to pay for the funeral, are we admitting liability?

– It’s the right thing to do.

– Maybe we should just pay to get them home?

– Don’t they have insurance?

– We should write and offer help, but not say sorry.

They rush off to write carefully worded letters of condolence (another new word).

When the Health and Safety people come round for a visit, the children are quite confident that they’ve followed procedure and are in the clear. But they’ve forgotten one thing – that we had photographs of previous accidents stored away in our filing cabinet. Do they shred or hand them over…..

Mantle of the Expert is loaded with knowledge. But it is also loaded with ethical dilemma, rich language and notions of responsibility. It is more than a gimmick; more than a fad. But it is also difficult, time consuming and complex. It is not for everyone, but for this group, and this teacher, it worked a treat.

Bottom’s on Fire

I love Mantle of the Expert. I especially love it when I come back from working with the best teacher on the planet, Luke Abbott, and realise that there’s so much more to learn. I went into my classroom today, after working with Luke and Tim Taylor all weekend and it was the best double lesson I’ve had in ages. My Year 9 English class (we’re bottom, us) are on fire.

We’ve got rid of setting in Years 7 and 8 for our new English and Philosophy curriculum, but for the moment, Year 9s are still in sets. Having the set who, despite our best efforts to avoid the word, know and call themselves ‘The Bottoms’ throws up many challenges. For a start, all bar two are boys. Some are so disaffected by the idea of writing that they’d rather stick their pens in their eyes. And they do. They are hard to manage, have short attention spans, push boundaries and are deeply, deeply vulnerable. They think they are rubbish and they push those who teach them to confirm it. But they’re not rubbish. They’re actually really funny, imaginative and brilliant. And sadly bordering on illiterate. Almost all are dyslexic or have another language development problem. So I’ve been working on building on two areas to improve confidence and to get their pens off their eyeballs and onto the page: knowledge and vocabulary.

Another problem with this setting business is that sometimes, you wonder if the departmental scheme of work is quite right for the children you’re working with. But it’s what we have and so my job is to find the awe and wonder in our unit of work on travel writing. Last year when I had set 2, I tried to make ‘writing to persuade’ and ‘writing to inform’ more interesting by setting up an elaborate in-role enterprise which involved a failing travel company, a rebranding and marketing exercise and finally a complex liaison with various press and law enforcement agencies as our passengers sat as hostages on a cruise ship captured by Somali pirates. This year, I needed something simpler – the complexity of language required for those tasks was too difficult and the recent events in Kenya a little too raw. In addition, I was finding that this particular group didn’t really care if our company failed or not. The tension that had captured the attention of the children in the higher sets did not work for these children. So I needed something simpler and something more enticing. God sent me Luke.

Today when I went in for our double (two hour) period, I set the chairs out in a semi circle and placed a small scarf on my chair. When they came in I explained that they were about to meet a potential customer with an unusual request. The brochure pages we had been working on might not be suitable for her – “she needs something bespoke, that is, created especially for her”…(no need to stop and ask ‘who knows what bespoke means – just support with an explanation/synonym). Then I put on the scarf and sat down:-

“Thank you for agreeing to see me at such short notice – I know you’re all so busy rebranding your company, but I’ve heard that you’re the best in the business and I have some exciting news. My husband and I have come into some money, well quite a lot of money actually and we want to spend some of it on a holiday”

– How much money?

– How did you get it?

“Ooh, well we sold our business for half a million pounds and we’ve worked so hard for so long, we’ve never had a holiday – not once in twenty years, can you believe it? Anyway, now we really want to go travelling. Somewhere exciting – an adventure – and we don’t want to travel on a plane, we want to take our time and see everything we can. Do you think you would be willing to help us?”

– lots of nods.

I take off my scarf and ask them what they think we might need to know – to draw up a list of questions to ask her when she comes back. They suggest:-

– Does anyone in your family have any medical problems?

– How long can you travel for?

– What did she mean by ‘we’? Who is going on this holiday? Are there children?

– What is your budget?

At this point, as a teacher, I have a choice. I can go into role and answer all those questions, or I can build up their investment into the fiction and get them to do some of the groundwork. So I tell them that perhaps we should impress her by finding out a little about her family.

“You took her initial call didn’t you Adam, did she say how many children she had?”


We have a brief discussion and the class decide that there are three children aged 15, 14 and 12, a girl and two boys in Years 11, 9 and 8. When she comes back, they bombard her not only with more questions but with information:-

– We know that your eldest is in Year 11 so we assumed that you’d want to go after her exams?

– Are any of your children afraid of heights?

– Is there any particular weather that you’d want to avoid?

Already, an area of the curriculum is opening up to me. This is not a Geography lesson, but we are clearly going to have to learn quite a lot about Geography to fulfil this brief. We also need to build a notion of a ‘responsible’ team – a team which has moral purpose. And to do this, we need to tempt them with dilemma. They agree to meet with Mrs Snoop (don’t ask!) next week and present her with a suggested itinerary and she leaves.

I ask them in pairs and threes if they could possibly show me some examples of the types of ‘adventure’ activities they have in mind. They are to represent them as if they are photographs in a holiday brochure. This allows me to manage chaos – photos can’t move, leap off tables and punch each other. But it also allows the children to focus on detail. We see self conscious and slightly awkward representations of a scuba dive, skiing, a rainforest tree top canopy walk, skydiving and a tiger safari.

As we view each one, instead of asking ‘what is happening here’ I ask ‘is there something interesting that you notice about this image?’ It stops them making wild guesses and encourages more tentative answers.

– He’s holding his nose and leaning backwards

– She looks like she’s trying to balance because her arms are out to the side

By focusing on detail, two things happen. Firstly, the images begin to subtly become more clear – the children in the image respond to the comments. Secondly, the children are constructing fuller descriptions, not rushing straight to an answer. If I can develop this habit in speech, it will impact on their writing. In addition, by simply being asked to comment on what they notice, not on what is happening, they’re more prepared to have a go and not feel compelled to get straight to a ‘right or wrong’ answer. This subtle shift in language was one of the key things I’d learned over the weekend while Luke had taken us through similar processes and it works.

The children caption their images with the words that would appear in the brochure under their photograph.

– Discover an underwater wonderland

– Snow fun for all

– Monkey around in the treetops

– Discover what it feels like to fly

-Close encounters with the kings of the jungle

We decide that we’ll ‘show’ these pictures to Mrs Snoop next week when she comes in. But “hmmmm”, I say. “Where are we sending them? Where in the world could you scuba dive and ski? Walk in the treetops of a rainforest and meet a tiger? What do we need to know?”

-Where tigers live?

– India

– Are there mountains in India?

– Where’s Everest?

-Do we have a map?

After pouring over a map and some globes and a couple of travel brochures, they decide to send the family to Nepal, India and The Maldives.

-I’ll get some pictures and bring them in Miss.

“OK” I say, “I just wonder if all these adventures are safe. I wonder what might go wrong. Do you think you could show me some photographs of a time when your activity went wrong? Could we do that, do you think?”

They’re off. Two figures on a beach, one laying face down, the other leaning over him, hands pressing on the injured man’s back.

– You don’t give CPR to someone’s back

“Is he giving CPR then? What do you notice?”

– He has his hands on his back. Miss, miss, he might be bleeding and he might be trying to stop the blood coming out


“Do you think you’d be able to cover a shark bite with the palm of your hand though?” Silence.

– No – it’s more like he’s stabbed himself on something – maybe a bit of metal

– Maybe a sting ray got him

-No – they don’t stab you, they like shock you. It wouldn’t bleed

-Maybe they’re diving at a wreck and he’s fallen against something sharp


– yeah

“Why don’t you ask the man who is trying to save him?”

– Did he hurt himself on the wreck?

-Yeah, there was a sharp metal pin sticking out and he fell back against it.

-Why didn’t it just hit his tank?

-He was sort of twisted

– How did he fall back, did something push him

– Yeah, a big current of water.

“That’s interesting – you take people diving down to this wreck all the time, don’t you?”

– Yeah

“Don’t you know the currents well?”

– Err, yes, but err, they’ve changed

” I wonder what could make ocean currents change?’

– Climate change, Miss, Global Warming!!

A brief discussion starts about whether or not this would be possible and similar conversations crop up about the other images. The children are building general knowledge, vocabulary, belief and investment in the work.

“The thing is” I say once we’ve finished looking at them “do we tell Mrs. Snoop about these accidents?”

-No way! She’ll never buy our holiday if we tell her that

– We should say something, like put a warning on the brochure or something

– No we should keep quiet.

“Do you think we have a duty to warn people though? I don’t know, but I wonder if it might even be illegal not to tell her”

– I don’t think we should tell her, but maybe we should say that people should be aware of danger like

– or that it’s their choice, or fault if something goes wrong.

“Hmm, yes, I think that’s called a disclaimer. Where will we put it? How big should it be?”

– like on the front page in a big font in red

-no, it’ll put her off – on the back page, dead small.

– small print!

We vote. Ten in favour of small print. Four against. We’ll come back to that vote later.

“Right, then, we’d better crack on with getting this brochure page done for her then….”

They rush to pick up their pens.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll track the Snoops on their holidays. We’ll ask them to write postcards or contribute to our company travel blog and the children can write in role. We still need to do some homework on the climate of the places they’ve chosen and create a proper itinerary. We need to liaise with the organisations who plan and deliver the adventure activities and check their safety procedures. Of course, we’ll be going in and out of role as Snoops, adventure companies and so on, and sooner or later there will be an accident….

There will be writing to inform, writing to instruct. There will be travel writing. But crucially, there will be problem solving, there will be dilemmas, ethical choices to be made, stories to be created. And there is knowledge. Lots of it. Geographical, scientific, legal, linguistic knowledge. There will be new words to be learned, texts to be written, artifacts to be made. And hopefully, if they continue to enjoy working on this, there will be children whose writing, speaking and willingness to engage with texts have improved. There will be busy, confident, agentive children who are learning that they are not rubbish. They are responsible and they have important stuff to do. So thank you Luke, Tim and NATD. I feel my teaching got a great boost of vitamins this weekend.

What I learned about children and reading this holiday…

Middle son is 14 and likes to read on holiday. Since he was little, he’s enjoyed reading favourite books over and over again, hence Harry Potter’s series was read 15 times over, and The Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials received similar treatment. He reads books to a pulp. But this summer, he did something new – he asked me to choose some books he might like. I felt a little sense of dread as I looked at my bookshelf. Get it right and he’d trust my judgement, get it wrong and the Hunger Games would come in for its tenth reread. Unlike Michael Gove, I don’t really care if my child is reading Twilight or Middlemarch, but I do care that they read – not to add lists to a future university application, but so their futures are filled with the pleasure that books can bring. So I looked at the shelves, and then rang eldest son.

Eldest son is/was a voracious reader but unlike his brother, raced through to the next book as fast as he could. Reading for him was like a competitive sport – he wanted to have read as many as possible and was less likely to fall in love with one. Still, I figured he’d be more in tune with the taste of his brother. ‘Catcher in the Rye’ he said without hesitation, so that went in the bag. I knew middle kid liked the film ‘Life of Pi’ and reading the book might appeal to his tendency to repeat, so that went in too. He thought Twilight was ‘alright’ so linking to the vampire theme, I added ‘The Historian’ and then on a whim, ‘The Kite Runner’. He loved them all and each one opened up discussions over Greek salads and souvlaki about the many more books he might read. He’s looking forward to John Irving,  Harper Lee, Jane Austen (on his brother’s recommendation, not mine) and Amy Tan. Few of these books would appear on a literature canon, but they’ve been chosen for HIM, based on what he has enjoyed and themes he has engaged with. And so this is what I learned…

Reading is like spinning a web – things connect. It turns out that one of the things he enjoyed was learning about other places – India, Istanbul, Afghanistan and what life is/was like there. So I can now recommend all sorts of books which are set in other countries and cultures. He liked the first person narrative style of The Catcher in the Rye, so I can recommend books with similar voices. His canon will link to his interests and it may be that this crosses over to the classics. But choices will be personal and linked to what he has enjoyed so far. This is how readers are created. One thing leads to another.

And this is why I resist and will continue to resist the idea that some books should be read by everyone. Because we all have different webs and it makes the world a more interesting place. By all means let’s introduce children to great literature, but let’s do so by finding their individual ways in. Let them personalise their web; find their connection. The result is that when they’re grown, you can argue over whether Lear or Hamlet is greater, whether Anne trumps Charlotte or whether Pip or Nicholas captured our hearts. We can have these discussions because we had the freedom to find our favourites, not have the same texts thrust upon us. Our literary heritage will be very much poorer if we reduce our children’s reading to prescribed lists of recommended texts; creating straight paths rather than a web. There’s something very controlling about that. We need, in schools, to find out what makes children tick and find books that feed their interests. We need to know the children. And we, as adults, need to read and read widely so that recommendations can flow.

This is one thing I learned on holiday.


Behaviour has been preoccupying me a lot recently. There have been a few incidents in school where I’ve found myself angrily thinking things I always thought I’d never think. Days where I’ve verged on turning to the Daily Mail in my desperation to find someone else to blame for ‘them’ (alright, I exaggerate, but I was pretty desperate!). Then as I veered at the precipice, two blogs steered me back in the right direction. Firstly from Tim Taylor @imagineinquiry and then from Gordon Baillie @aflpie – both reminding me that behind every child is a complex system of reasons for behaviour and that each needs to be viewed as an individual. I knew that of course, but it’s easy to lose sight when you’re tired and faced with a group of children pocketing money from a charity box that their heavily pregnant teacher dropped as she tripped.

I started working in a new secondary school this year and niavely expected that behaviour would be good because the school is in a fairly leafy, middle class area. I was wrong of course. I don’t think I’m daft enough to simply assume that middle class children would be ‘better’ behaved, but in the other schools I’ve worked in, challenging behaviours have been almost invariably linked to deprivation, neglect and loss. So I wasn’t expecting so much sass from the middle class, whose parents unfailingly attend parents evenings, demand extra homework, push for their children to be challenged, and where necessary, to be statemented and supported. I think I expected that with all that value placed on education by families, that the children themselves would, well, value it. So….what’s going on?

Gordon Baillie reminds us of Ken Robinson’s statement in his excellent RSA talk, Changing Educational Paradigms (available on YouTube) that ‘children are living in the most stimulating times in the history of the world’ and that in schools, we respond to this by teaching mostly boring stuff. I have always believed that the key to good behaviour was a pedagogical issue and not a pastoral one, and recent experiences have reinforced this for me. But it’s much, much more complicated than simply teaching more interesting lessons. I’ve seen (and planned) lessons which have been active and ‘fun’ and which have been sabotaged by children being children – pushing the boundaries to see what would happen and spoiling what might have been effective learning. Similarly, I’ve observed lessons which have been static where behaviour has been excellent, largely I suspect, because the children have been happy to comply when not being asked to think too much or do too much. This type of compliance is simply passivity and too often we mistake it for ‘good’ behaviour.

The best behaviour and best learning I’ve ever witnessed and experienced have been when children have been immersed in learning which is taking place in an adult realm – in the mantle of the expert. In MoE, children have to adopt the roles of adults with a pressing problem to solve. I’m starting to think that the power of mantle is not in the excitement of the context, or the thrill of role, but in inhabiting the adult space. For example, in one mantle with Year 8, peers who veered from the path of righteousness were hastily hushed by classmates who tutted and said ‘You’re not being very professional!’ There was no need for teacher intervention and it was fascinating that the language used was from the workplace, not the classroom. Similarly in a recent mantle I have developed with Year 9, children have vied for ‘promotion’ as an incentive to work hard. The promotion is entirely fictional – the title of sergeant rather than constable, or inspector over sergeant. There are no extrinsic school rewards or prizes – just a title, but one drawn from the adult world again. These children are starting to manage their own behaviours because they are practicing being adults and they recognise that this demands higher standards than those they need to practice as children. Teachers who have worked in alternative curriculum models where pupils incorporate work experience into their learning often report improvements in behaviours as have those who use enterprise and ‘real world’ learning projects. In all these models, children are practicing adulthood.

There are huge implications here. It suggests that children need to practice responsibility in order to manage their behaviour. In recent times, the burden for managing behaviour has very much fallen on the teacher. This can be problematic. Kids will be kids for as long as they are kids – of course they will – but learning to wait, to listen, to be patient, to empathise, to be resilient, to be bored sometimes, is a essential part of becoming adult. How are we equipping them with these skills if we believe that it is our job to entertain them in every lesson? Is the push to engage and inspire actually inhibiting progress in this area? Don’t get me wrong, I strive to both engage and inspire, but not all the time. Sometimes, when drafting writing, or rehearsing a play, or figuring out a problem, there are prolonged periods of boredom and frustration. We need to expose children to these emotions in managed environments in which there is the thrill of success at the end. That’s one of the beauties of working in a Mantle – some of it is hard work, but it is necessary work – ‘we’ve got a lot to do, we’d best crack on’ . I am beginning to wonder if instead of thinking of teaching and learning in terms of levels of engagement, we would be better to consider levels of responsibility and ownership.

So that’s responsible pedagogy. Now, responsible relationships. Another thing I’ve believed, and something that both Tim and Gordon reinforced, is the enormous importance of relationships in managing children. They need to know that they are liked. And sometimes the ones that are hardest to like need to be liked the most. That’s a tough gig. And the thing is, you’ve got to mean it. For those of you interested in neuroscience, read up on the role of mirror neurones in relationships. Basically, when we look another in the eye, we are capable of downloading their emotional state and throwing it right back. And we hardly know we’re doing it. You have to be in control of the state you are presenting to children and you have to be really careful not to mirror their states back, if they’re not in a good state of mind to start with. And when you’re tired, that’s really hard. But it’s crucial. Carl Rogers, the counselling guru speaks of ‘unconditional positive regard’ in dealing with clients. The same is true of the teacher/child relationship. One of the things we tend to do as teachers (and parents) is to remove positive regard from testing children. You have disappointed me. I liked you, but now….There are only two responses to this removal – begging for it to be reinstated or a ‘f*** you’ response. Neither is healthy. We, as adults, need to react carefully to situations which make us want to punish, through removal of positive regard, the children in our care. And this is a challenge, not only for us as individuals but as a profession. Because tired adults don’t make the best teachers. For this reason alone, the NUT proposals for a limit of 20 hours teaching per week is a sensible one.

Which leads me on to cultural responsibilities. Many of the challenges I receive in my day to day teaching come from children who think that teachers are in some way foolish for having become teachers in the first place. For many of the middle class children I teach, this comes from parents who have bought into the ‘those who can, do, those who can’t, teach’ myth, and who, despite their demands for excellence in the education of their children, fail to impress upon those children the idea that their teachers are generally well meaning and well educated people who are trying to do the best for them. Instead the ‘support’ takes the form of policing the teacher, keeping up pressure to make sure that the teacher is doing their job ‘properly’ and, perhaps most damagingly, talking teachers down in front of their children. And who can blame them? The briefest of glances at our media would convince the most reasonable adult that the system is in crisis; that teachers are work shy enemies of promise and that standards are very much falling. Set this against a background of high unemployment, competition for university places and economic uncertainty and there is little wonder that parents lose faith. What we need is maturity and mutual respect. We need to build bridges with parents to let them see the reality of what it is we do. We need to bypass the media – largely written by the privately educated whose own children are privately educated. Last term, I ran a couple of open lessons where parents could come in and just watch a lesson. I think they did more for my relationships with those families than any parent’s evening could achieve. ‘What an eye opener’ one said. We need to open more eyes.

In short, we need to develop pedagogy that allows children to practice being adults.We need relationships which allow children and adults to practice liking each other and to work in environments where they are not too tired to do so. We need to open our doors to parents, and take control of our own professional images. And this is going to demand a huge cultural shift and an openness and maturity in the way we talk about behaviour, learning and each other.