Today we are learning how to do the things your parents should have taught you

I’ve worked in three schools that had a Nursery as part of its early years setting. Two out of three of them were, in my opinion, outstanding examples of what provision at that age should be. They were lovely and fun places to be; the children expressed themselves and enjoyed all manner of child initiated learning; the adults did more monitoring and assessment in one day than a SATS marker would do in a lifetime and, most importantly, there was rigorous literacy and numeracy teaching every day.

Occasionally, especially if talking to certain Early Years experts, you had to keep that last bit quiet. If you told them that you had just seen a great maths lesson in a nursery class where the children sat in a circle for about twenty minutes whilst being taught number bonds (sometimes up to 20) followed up by some investigative practical maths activities, well first you would have to help them back onto their feet after they had fainted from the shock and then you would have to suffer a telling off that would go on for so long you couldn’t help but think it contradicted their own advice about inputs being very short.

Their argument: ‘You’re not meant to teach them, they’re not at school, they need to be nurtured, they need to explore the world, they need to be led by their own curiosity not by formal lesson structures…you evil, evil man.’

My response: ‘You see that child there? He’s just made a hat out of leaves and that one has just learnt paint isn’t tasty. Pretty sure they’re being led by their own curiosity thanks. And as a bonus they’re learning loads about maths because they can do it and they seem to enjoy it.’

I was often never more impressed at what schools can achieve than when I visited Nursery classrooms. When the teachers and support staff refused to adhere to a glass ceiling of what the youngest children in our system could learn and how far you could stretch their understanding. None of this ‘but they only need to count objects up to 10’ nonsense. They’ve done that, they did it really easily; imagine if you put two more counting bears on the carpet? All of that PLUS more creative and child centred learning than you could shake a bead bar at. All that PLUS a level of assessment that is thorough to the point of lunacy.

I do think the aforementioned Early Years Specialist is a now a rather dated gross stereotype-but I have met those ‘types’ in my career. And I normally ended such a meeting with a swift word in the nursery teacher’s ear to say ‘yeah, ignore what they said, keep doing what you’re doing.’

So, imagine my delight when I heard that Sir Michael Wilshaw was suggesting that children should be taught more and taught earlier. Bring it on, I thought. At last someone understands. The ‘gap’ that develops between many of our disadvantaged children and their peers is often there at the very start. It should be our job to give them a leg up before we’re even aware they need it. Don’t wait until you know they’ve fallen behind. Crack on and teach them how to enjoy stories, make them love putting crayon to paper, get them counting, adding, taking away, grouping anything that can be grouped. In short, exploit the time you have with them to the max. They’ll enjoy it, they’ll associate school with learning which will fuel their curiosity and they’ll have a better chance of succeeding later on. Good on you Sir Michael, you’re a star.

But wait…

What about that checklist though? How’s that going to work? Is he saying that children won’t be able to attend full time school until they can successfully hold a knife and fork, ask to go to the toilet in a complete sentence and then sort themselves out after they’ve done a poo? Are nurseries now going to have less time to teach all the stuff I went on about because they’re going to be modelling the sentence ‘Please Miss, may I nip to the loo as I really need a wee?’ on flashcards to a distressed child who is now bent double from trying to keep the wolf from the door (as it were)?

What if they can’t do it? When they join Reception are we going to have to split the class into two groups: those that can eat spaghetti correctly using the fork and spoon method and those that consider cutlery to be a distraction that they have neither the time nor the inclination for? Are we going to lose half a year of potential literacy, numeracy and wider curriculum progress because the autumn topic is now ‘putting on a coat and asking for things nicely’?

Why is it now the school’s job to teach children how to put on outer layers of clothing and using a type of knife that isn’t preceded by ‘craft’ or ‘stanley’? Forgive me, Sir Michael, but it feels like you’re dumping society’s failings onto us again and expecting us to fix it. Responding to the challenges of a changing society is one thing but I know how this works; you’ve put it out there now. You’ve released this concept that schools should teach this rubbish so pretty soon every parent up and down the land is going to expect it. Mums and dads across the country will gradually absolve their parental responsibility as it will be deemed the school’s job to sort it.

Call me a weak minded, moaning quitter if you will, but we can’t have complete responsibility for the holistic development of every child…that ain’t fair!


When we was Phab!

It’s good to get away. Not just to get away from the hustle and bustle from your own environment but also to have an opportunity to meet other like-minded (or not) people from your profession. At a time in the academic of year where the promises of Autumn seem to be at their most fragile and you feel success is balanced on a knife’s edge, it’s good to get away and realise that…you are not alone.

It was the annual Phab (that’s Primary Heads Association of Bristol to you) conference in Chepstow. A day and a half of Heads and Deputies talking, laughing, eating, drinking, singing (partly due to the drinking) thinking, supporting each other, reflecting and looking forward.

Listening and talking to other Heads about their schools, achievements and struggles. Not only do you realise that there are situations that are way more challenging than yours but more importantly you find yourself able to offer support and advice. This in turn is reciprocated and suddenly you have an idea you can take back and a person you can go to after the conference to ask for help. I believe they call this ‘networking’. I prefer to call it ‘chatting with a purpose’ and is a good example of why I love being Phab.

Our highly esteemed Chair @overton66 had started the main proceedings on Friday with the statement: ‘I know we seem to say this every year but it really does feel like we are living in uncertain and exciting times in education’. He’s not wrong. The landscape of education is changing more rapidly than Phab’s resident in-house band’s set list. (Current name: ‘The 4Heads’ although I’m leaning towards ‘The Phab 4’.)

The big movers and shakers of Bristol LA have changed, there are many different school models across the city, and partnerships are popping up here there and everywhere; all this against a backdrop of a never endingly changing national picture of expectations from Whitehall. The goal posts are not so much as changing, as more disappearing leaving schools to put down their own jumpers for goalposts and hope for the best.

How awful!

But as Gus Hedges, the smooth talking Chief Executive of GlobeLink from ‘Drop The Dead Donkey’, always said: ‘’Problems are just the pregnant mothers of solutions.’’

Our new LA leaders were also there at the start and made it very clear to us that as the redefining of what it means to be a school in Bristol gets underway, it will be done with us not to us. If that’s not an incentive to get involved then I don’t know what is as I genuinely think they meant it.

Then, to get us inspired, we had the pleasure of working with Mick Waters. In just over an hour he had gone through:

  • What was important in a child’s experience of schooling.

  • The danger of PISA.

  • The damaging role politics has played in education.

  • The shifting sands of assessment data.

  • The false prophets behind Gove’s ‘freedoms’.

  • What the new national curriculum has left out.

  • The rich educational, cross curricular, mind expanding opportunities of a 6 minute video of a man dancing with people around the globe.

I think it is also safe to say that pretty much everyone in the room agreed with his every word. I did. This did occasionally lead me to think ‘Oh goodness, I have become conditioned by Ofsted? – Do I only care about data and things that can be measured? Am I ruining the lives of my children?’ (Luckily, I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t, I don’t, and I’m not.) But I recognised that as a city we have a chance to address all those issues and build a stronger and richer experience for our children.

Then it all got terribly exciting. I mean we started thinking about where Bristol could go. How we, as an educational city, could write its own mandate for what we will give the children that grow up under our watch. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? I think we’ll do it, I genuinely do. But for it to work we are going to need an almost Herculean effort from the LA. Because after we’d all decided what it was we were going to put in place so our children could succeed and be fully prepared for a life of contributing to their world fuelled by a love of learning and life; we would have to have a guarantee that no one could come and dismantle it. It would be a bit like a fixed mortgage. We would need the LA to buffer any national changes or additional crazy expectations that came from Whitehall in order to win votes or to be seen to be addressing society’s ills in the eyes of the media/public – they would have to stand up to national government and say: ‘No, we can’t do that at the moment, we’re busy.’

Imagine that?

Imagine working in a world where you were in control of the goalposts. Imagine a whole city working together to give the same experiences and entitlements for every single child. Imagine raising standards in every single area of the widest curriculum? Imagine being able to do this and know you were making a difference? Imagine that the best ideas, the ones that the professionals deemed to be important, were valued and respected and given the time and freedom to succeed.

That is what it should mean to be in education.

Having the chance to instigate it?

That is what it means to be Phab.

How the mighty have fallen

It happens to the best of us I suppose. You reach a point where if you allow yourself to stop, take a breath and reflect on the situation you’re in, you immediately feel like climbing under a table, breathing into a brown paper bag and perhaps, should the urge take you, quietly vomiting into a shoe. This is why you shouldn’t stop of course. Just keep on going. Just relentlessly chug away like a demented robot who has overridden its self-destruct button happily busying itself unaware of course that it’s about to burn out.

But, because I am not a robot and neither are you, we all occasionally stop and that can often seem like a huge mistake.

Today, I read a reference someone had written for me, about me, for when I applied for my current job. Now, before you start to worry, I don’t make it a habit of reading my own references. I don’t take them home on a Friday, pour myself a glass of wine and regale myself with how great I am. (That would be madness and besides, I have a blog for that.) No, I had in fact been asked to provide a reference for an old colleague and I thought before I start, I should read a successful one (well I got the job didn’t I?) to look at the basic structure of the thing and steal some sentence openers otherwise I was in danger of starting every line with the words ‘And another thing they do well…’

As I read my own reference two feelings began to emerge. One was that I appeared to be the most amazing Deputy the world has ever seen and the second was that I sort of remembered who this person was but felt it certainly wasn’t the current ‘me’.

Again, don’t worry: I know I wasn’t the most amazing Deputy in the world. But I was pretty good. And reading back this distillation of my four year stint I kept thinking: ‘Wow, I did a lot and I did it well.’ Then, thinking about my current job and everything that I’m in the middle of doing I couldn’t help but think: ‘What the hell happened to me?’

How did this cool, calm and collected leader who went from one success to another turn into this husk who seems to be staggering to life raft to life raft narrowly missing open mouthed sharks, sea snakes and floating pieces of excrement?

I do not know.

Then I read my reference again. And as a little treat, I read it again. Then it began to dawn on me. Reading back all of my achievements I began thinking back to those times and how I felt when I was actually there doing it. In retrospect, it all went so smoothly; at the time though, well that’s a different tale.

I remembered all the frustrations and challenges that were part and parcel of success. I remembered the feelings of self doubt on the journeys home, the conversations with the Head saying: ‘What the hell are we doing? Nothing’s working, I mean nothing we are doing is bloody working!’ Because when you’re in the thick of it the dream you had that started the ball rolling, always seems far, far away. Like when you dream you’re running a race and the closer you get to the finishing line the further away it gets. (I’ve never actually had that dream, but I’m sure more sporty people have and the metaphor sort of fits so I’ll ‘run’ with it.)

When you look back though, the success that you achieved for your school tower over the stress and torment it took to get there. So, I realised I hadn’t changed, I hadn’t gone from hero to zero: I’m just doing what everyone else is doing: fighting on. And sometimes it is a fight and sometimes it feels like you’re losing. But we all know it’s going to be worth it – whatever it is you’re personally fighting for, whatever it is that is keeping you from sleeping, you know that your hard work, determination and belief will win in the end. And when the next person writes your reference they’ll focus on everything you achieved and the way in which you refused to be ground down when it got tough.  Hopefully they’ll miss out the bit where they found you underneath the table being sick into a shoe and jabbering on about sea snakes otherwise you’re really stuffed.

So keep going and when you do stop and it feels like it’s all too much, just remember: this ain’t the first time and if you keep doing your job, it won’t be the last.