Whose Book is it Anyway?

When my eldest was 12, he read Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. I found the copies a few years later when I was passing them onto his younger brother and saw a little note he’d written in the back of the last book:-

“This book broke my heart.”

The spines of all three were broken he’d read them so often. I can safely say he loved them.

Middle son loved Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness books. He read all seven of them fifteen times. He quoted ad infinitum. I’d buy him new books but they’d remain unread. Eventually he tired of them and moved on.

Both boys went on to study English Literature at A Level, one went on to continue studying it at University. Thankfully he’s managed to get a job afterwards and not thrown his life away as Nicky Morgan predicted. They love reading and have slowly discovered the classics as their tastes have developed. And now I watch my little one reading Michael Morpurgo with tears running down his face, getting to the end and starting again and I know that something is precious is happening. What Vincent Lien, in his lovely account of his own reading, called catharsis.

I’m not sure how it has happened, but there now seems to be a disparaging set of voices arguing that children must be reading the classics or they’re not really reading. That reading children’s literature is an “opportunity cost”. I find that a bit alarming. For the classics were all written for educated adults, not children. And it worries me that forcing a diet intended for another reader altogether on them too early might put them off reading for life. When is the ‘right’ time to introduce children to classics? And which ones?

I’ve had classes that have loved some classic texts – Beowulf (translated by Seamus Heaney), The Iliad (translated by Christopher Logue), Hecuba (translated by Tony Harrison) – all as dependent on the skill of the modern translator as the original writer. I’ve seen Year 4 completely captivated by Shakespeare. But none of the kids I’ve taught have been so keen on Dickens. If I’m honest, I find Dickens’ style turgid and heavy. But the stories are great and the characters well drawn. Is it a sin to say I think he was born for televised adaptations? When I’ve introduced Dickens I’ve had to come at him obliquely – through Jamila Gavin’s wonderful Coram Boy for example. In this text, the inequalities of society are writ large; the children can access the Georgian context preceding Dickens’ Victorian period – they can link the text to music, encountering Handel along the way. And there’s a perfect segue into William Blake. They love him. They love the Ancient Mariner too – “all that just for a bird?” they cry and we enter a discussion about justice, the sanctity of life and philosophy.

Books are portals. Portals to historical, philosophical and cultural contexts, yes. But they are also portals to other books. Let’s embrace children’s literature and see it as a valid genre in its own right with some wonderful authors weaving stories that capture the hearts of children. For when we have avid readers on our hands, we have clay that can be moulded and guided. We can lead them to the classics. But we have a great responsibility here to find the right texts. The ones that will make hearts race either with their plot lines or with the beauty of their style. And here we need to make way for personal choices.

I remember Jane Eyre left me cold, but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had me desperately wanting more. It’s a shame Anne died leaving only two books behind. My classmates felt differently. But we had a clever teacher – one who wouldn’t give us all the same book, but gave us different ones and asked us to talk about them afterwards. I got Far From The Madding Crowd in our Hardy fortnight – it remains one of my favourite books to date. My friend had the Mayor of Casterbridge. She loves it still. But we were sixteen. Raised on Enid Blyton, then Danielle Steele and Stephen King to become avid if not discerning readers. We met the classics when we were ready to delve more deeply. Perhaps a year earlier would have been good, but before that? I’d have switched off.

If we want to entice readers into a world of reading that will continue for their whole lives we need to value their choices; to entice – not force – them into new areas of exploration and most of all, we need to know them, their tastes and interests. If we don’t do this, there is a significant danger that they’ll have encountered classic literature and only learned to hate it.




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Stuff and Nonsense : Why The Phonics Test Should Worry All Teachers

I like phonics. I think it’s an important aspect of learning to read. Hopefully I’ve got that out of the way so that we can avoid another “phonics denialist” accusation. I was teaching phonics before we were told we had to because it worked. So let’s move on.

What I really, really object to, is spending time in the classroom teaching children nonsense words in preparation for the phonics screening test. I know the arguments in favour. They are very well rehearsed. The nonsense words test decoding over meaning so that children can’t be guessing words. They don’t harm children – they can be fun and lots of authors (Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Roald Dahl, Shakespeare) made up words. Those arguments would be fine if the curriculum was empty of other content and we had all the time in the world. We don’t.

One of the biggest barriers to achievement in school is vocabulary. Reception class teachers report that some children are arriving at school with hardly any language at all – in one case, a child was reported as having the speech development of an 8 month old baby. That’s an extreme case, but it is well documented that children arriving at school can have differences in their vocabulary of several thousand words. David Didau recounts his frustration at his Year 11 pupils failing to answer a question on a GCSE paper that he knew they were well prepared for because the question contained the word ‘futile’ and they didn’t know what it meant. Many other teachers can recall similar situations.

Teaching children vocabulary is one of the most important elements of learning not only to read, but to be able to succeed in all areas of school life. So why on earth would we spend time with young children, deliberately teaching them to read nonsense?

Our language is incredibly rich. Look at the following list of words that really exist and think how much more enriched a child’s experience would be if they decoded these then learned what they meant. Children love new words – they love to test drive them, to sound them out, to share them, to write them into their stories. Why not give them the power of real words?

abask – in genial warmth

abear – to behave or to bear

adit – an opening into a mine

alfet – a boiling cauldron of water used at a trial by ordeal

armet – a rounded, iron helmet

I could go on, there are literally hundreds of these words on the web site The Phrontistery – an incredible source of vocabulary that I’ve dipped into for all kinds of reasons before. How much more exciting for children to learn real, new words that they can implement into their writing, than to encounter something that no-one will ever understand and which will have no use ever, except to help them to pass a test.

As for the richness of the made-up words in Jabberwocky and the like, what makes those poems and stories so exciting for children is the way they fire the imagination to fill the gaps. They use cues in the text and existing knowledge to create meaning. These texts are aimed at readers who can already decode, who are ready to play the game of meaning making. I have taught Jabberwocky more times that I can remember. We start by creating the meanings of those nonsense words “brillig”, “slithy”, “borogoves”, “vorpal”….and we discuss, at length, how the children are using their existing knowledge of spelling patterns to encode the words we just heard (I read it out first). How they use their grammatical knowledge to figure out whether the word is a noun, an adjective, an adverb or verb and how this existing knowledge allows them to create definitions that set the scene for our story.

We spend weeks on Jabberwocky, filling in the gaps in the poem with the reasons why the boy leaves his village in search of the monster. We map the environment, we write adventure stories about his encounters with Jub Jub birds and Bandersnatches. We explore Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Journey narrative. We create an epic. Then we welcome him home. We throw a party. We create a hero’s ritual. It all takes a while. Then in the middle of the party, they receive a visitor. A message from another tribe declaring war and demanding that our hero is handed over to face the death penalty. For in their society, the Jabberwock is a sacred creature and slaying it, a heinous crime. And the children have to decide what to do. We enter the worlds of war and diplomacy.

Yes, the children encounter nonsense words. But they encounter them in a meaningful way having already acquired the spelling and grammar skills to be able to make something of them. They don’t encounter the words in isolation – the poem is not read in isolation. It is steeped in the curriculum, from mapping to narrative structure, they learn other things along the way. This is how we can extend and expand curriculum to make it richer and deeper.

The nonsense words are not nonsense when meaning is made of them. When they fire the imagination and link to real words. When they enrich and enhance our lives. Those crafted contributions of poets cannot possibly be compared with the banality of sitting children on the carpet and asking them to decode nonsense words with no further purpose than to spit out the sounds. It doesn’t matter if you have a puppet on your knee to make it more fun.

Children will be every bit as well prepared for the phonics check if they are taught unusual words that they have never encountered before. They will be better writers afterwards too. And most importantly, they will be primed to build vocabulary for the rest of their lives – a skill that every teacher of every subject should welcome.



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When “High Expectations” are a poor excuse for callousness.

There are many forms of poverty – we tend to group them into “absolute” and “relative”. Absolute poverty offers immediate threat to life – it is where people lack the basics they need to survive in the short term – we see this type of poverty on our television screens all the time from drought or war torn countries. It is terrible. But relative poverty is also terrible – more of a terminal illness than a sudden death threat.¬†People suffering from relative poverty live in prosperous nations and yet struggle to maintain what anyone might call a reasonable standard of living. They are more likely to get cancer, to die young, to end up in prison and suffer from abuse or violence.

Even within the realm of relative poverty, there are sub groups – the main two being generational and situational poverty. In situational poverty, circumstances have conspired to send the person or family into financial straits. This could be unemployment, long term sickness, immigration or the break up of a marriage. Parents who find themselves in situational poverty can often offer ways out for their children. They remember a better life and can shape a vision of what a better future might look like. They are more likely to value education and to sacrifice basics to ensure that their children are in correct uniform and have their equipment. They are more likely to understand how to make tiny budgets stretch and to know where to turn to for help. The children of these parents carry the same label as other children in poverty, but their chances of success are vastly improved.

Generational poverty, on the other hand, is far more tricky. In homes where there has been persistent poverty and sometimes worklessness over a number of generations, it is hard for any adult to be able to offer a child a vision of a different or a better life. Education is less likely to be valued. In this group there are higher levels of substance abuse, a higher chance of chaotic home lives and a sense of hopelessness. High levels of chronic stress are common in these environments and it is well documented that the production of cortisol in response to persistent stress inhibits cognitive function and memory. A perfect storm for any child.

Of course, both of these categories are roughly drawn and there are overlaps and grey areas. But they offer us an interesting question. To what extent are those schools claiming that their zero tolerance behaviour policies, their perfect uniforms, their insistence that every child should have the proper equipment with them, simply enacting a  form of social cleansing? They claim that their policies lead to higher outcomes for FSM children but I wonder if they simply filter out the problem kids and leave themselves with those most likely to succeed. The poor children of aspirational immigrant families. Or the poor children of those in situational poverty. The others can be permanently excluded in the name of high expectations. And that simply exacerbates the underlying social problem. Throwing these children out of school, or refusing to accept that they might need equity more than equality, is an abdication of responsibility.

There are catastrophic events in some children’s lives which most of us can barely even imagine. In this Youtube clip, Chris Kilkenny speaks of what it was like to move from council flat to rehabilitation centres with his addicted mother, to care homes while trying to “hide in plain sight” at school. When you listen to him, you must surely realise that punishing a child living under this level of stress for not having a pencil is not a sign of having high expectations, but of having an almost inhuman lack of empathy and understanding. What would it cost us to have a pot of pens in the middle of the table and to focus on the business of learning? Not a lot.


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A Cautionary Tale of Setting

This is about the power of belief. My friend has twins. One boy and one girl. By some miracle of time travel, they seem to have accelerated from babes in incubators to Year 10 pupils in the blink of an eye. One moment I was stroking them through a plastic porthole, the next I was discussing their GCSE options with them. Sigh.

Anyway, one twin, the girl, has always struggled with her literacy. She’s had some private tutoring and has worked really hard and come a long way, but it’s been a struggle. The other learned to read quickly, is fluent and has not struggled in that area at all. Nor has he had to try very hard. So imagine their surprise and different reactions when she is placed in Set One for English and he in Set Three.

A tale of growth mindsets we might conclude. Or of hard work paying off. But no. It was simply a case of mistaken identity. The school meant them to be placed the other way round.

The thing is, she’s thriving in Set One.

At parents’ evening, my friend asked why the children were in those sets and it wasn’t until then that anyone realised there had been an error. She held her own. He produced work consistent of that expected and asked of him in Set Three. The initial response was to simply swap them back. But what would that have done for the girl? She’s worked her socks off to keep up in Set One. She’s doing ok and understanding the content. Most of all, she thinks she deserves it – that she’s worked for it. And so, rightly in my opinion, Mum says no. It’s too late now. So they are now both in the same class and both doing well.

Why do we have sets at all? None of the evidence suggests it benefits children – in fact most studies show a detrimental impact on most. I think we do it because it makes it easier for us to ‘differentiate’. But differentiation is not hard – the answer to differentiation is to teach everyone to A* standard (and beyond) and put in safety nets and scaffolds for those who might not quite make it that far. They’ll have leaped further than if we had given them C grade content.

Many years ago, when I was a young teacher, a senior manager came to me and said “Your value added results are off the scale – would you be willing to come and talk to staff about what you’re doing in order to have that impact?” I told her that what I did contradicted their policy and they might not like it. I told her that I never looked at target grades – something we were supposed to do religiously. I assumed every student was capable of an A and I used the evidence of my own eyes to judge what kind of support they needed. I said that in my view target grades were the quickest way to demotivate and to put lids on learning. I didn’t get invited to speak to staff after all, but my students continued to thrive. They didn’t all get As. But almost all of them beat so called targets.

We cannot seriously claim to support the idea of growth mindsets as long as we set children and give them ‘target’ grades based on past performance. And the fact that there is a girl in Set One, pushing past her so called limits is evidence in my book.


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Dilemma Led Learning

I spend a lot of my time travelling up and down the country banging on about the power of dilemma led learning, and sometimes a school will ask me to come in, put it into action with some children and let the staff watch. It’s like being observed by Ofsted for six hours straight. But with smiles.

Last Friday I worked with Year 6 in a primary school in Bury. They were about to start a unit of work on the Ancient Greeks and it seemed sensible to combine their History with Literacy work on Myths. I chose the myth of Perseus – it’s a great story – offers opportunities to explore the ancient geography of the Peloponnese as well as the role of religion in Ancient Greek culture, in particular the importance of the Oracle. But more than that, there are two dilemma led pivots in the story that lend themselves to some serious moral considerations.

If you don’t know the backstories to Perseus and Medusa and have only ever focused on the monster slaying elements of the tale, you’re missing two tricks. The first is the role of Perseus’ grandfather King Acrisius of Argos. On hearing a prophesy from the Oracle that his grandchild will grow to kill him, he locks his daughter up to keep her away from men. Of course, his attempt to cheat fate fails – Zeus impregnates the princess and Perseus is born. Foiled, he tries again to end the life of his grandchild. The princess Danae and her newborn son are tossed into a trunk and thrown out to sea, just as a storm is beginning. The gods intervene, however, mother and child are washed up safely onto shore and Perseus becomes a hero. After his encounter with Medusa, he returns to Argos to take part in some games. His grandfather, fearing that the prophesy will now come true, hides in the crowd as a beggar. And as Perseus takes aim with his weapon (the weapon varies in different versions of the tale), a strange wind blows up, taking the arrow/discus off course and into the heart of an old beggar man in the crowd….

As Ancient Architects, our Year 6s are asked by the King to construct a tower, built so securely and guarded so well that no man could enter and no princess escape. They are asked to sign a contract swearing them to secrecy and conceding that if one of them should talk, none will survive. Six children refuse to sign it and a debate ensues in which the power and morality of the king is considered. The children speak of “then time” and “now time”, admitting that they would be unlikely to say no to a king in those times (to be clear, we create a timeline – most of the myths of ancient Greece emerge from the Minoan and Mycenaean times – when were they?). They speak of how wrong it is to lock the princess away against her will and when they realise that they have a stark choice – to sign or to die – they try to think about how they can make the imprisonment as bearable as possible for her. They research leisure and entertainment in Ancient Greece. They interview the princess to find out what her favourite foods and colours are (figs and blue) and they design her tower to make it as comfortable as possible. But when the king hears a newborn cry in the middle of the night, the architects are in trouble. He accuses them of treachery. He orders them to take the princess and the baby and throw them into the sea….several refuse. But enough agree:-

“It’s either them or us.”

Later, at the point at which Perseus is about to take the head of Medusa, we freeze the action. One child is Perseus. One child is Medusa. The rest are frozen statues – all the men in the past who have tried and failed to kill her. I thought-track them and ask them to speak their thoughts in response to the question “why were you here?”

“I wanted to be known as the bravest of them all…”

“I thought killing her would make me rich…”

“Athena sent me here…”

And then we switch to the story of Medusa – a beautiful, but vain girl cursed by a jealous and angry God. Turned into a monster so hideous that her two loyal sisters begged to be turned into monsters too so that they could care for her. Three gorgons, so shamed they hide in a remote cave in Ethiopia hoping never to be seen, but hunted forever by men seeking them as trophies….

“Is she a monster?”

The room erupts into discussion.

We end the day in Argos, an old man lying bleeding in the dirt…what questions do we have?

“Is fate real?”

“Do we have any control over our lives?”

“Should God be good?”

“What is a monster?”

“Is Perseus really a hero? What IS a hero?”

We learned a lot about Ancient Greek society, beliefs, geography and over the course of the unit, they’ll learn much more. But much, much more importantly, we looked at some deeply philosophical questions and grappled with what it is to be human. And for, me, that is the essence of good education – working at the edges of morality and figuring out where we sit when the going gets tough.


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Horses for Courses

I must have been mad answering a tweet on a Sunday morning in bed. Instead of enjoying the breakfast my husband had brought for me and reading the paper, I ended up in a twitter fight about posters. My egg went cold. And then today, faced with a to-do list as long as Pinocchio’s nose, I ended up doing it all again. So I thought, in the interests of procrastination, that I would blog. Not just about posters. Frankly, I rarely used them myself; I just take issue at being told what I can and can’t do. No, this is about the increasing misuse of what people like to call “the real world” in justifying practices in school life.

Let’s start with uniform. My eldest son was one of those kids who looked like he’d been dragged across a rugby field, face down, with the entire scrum stamping on his back. Every day. Even as he stepped out of a shower. Clothes were ripped in seconds. Hair grew in all directions. Mud stuck. He was constantly in trouble at school for uniform misdemeanours. His nickname was “Tramp”. I’m not proud. Second son is pristine – it just seems to be the way they were. Anyway. He was told time and again that his appearance would be a problem “in the real world”. He would have to wear a tie. His shoes would have to be polished. No-one would employ anyone who looked “like that”.

He went to Oxford where suddenly it seemed de rigour to turn up to your lectures and ‘tutes’ in a onesie. I guess when you can stagger from your bed to your tutor’s office in less than ten seconds, there seems little point in getting dressed. No-one cared. The tutors were interested in their students’ minds not their dress. Still – that was not “real world” was it? The tie was coming. And there were days where he had to wear gowns. Not dressing gowns.

So he graduated. And got a job. In one of the biggest media agencies, working on a team representing two of the most famous companies in the world. I met him for a drink on Monday night. He stumbled out of his swanky office door in jeans, a t-shirt and converse.

“Don’t you have to wear a suit?” I asked, thinking of the money his grandparents had spent kitting him out for “real world of work”.

“Nah – no-one wears suits,” he said. And I looked around at the commuters pouring out of offices all around us and I saw he was a liar. Some people wore suits. But to be fair, most did not.

Why do we tell children that they must wear uniform because this will be expected of them in “the real world” when it is quite clearly a lie? They may. They may not. There may be other good reasons to insist that children wear uniform, but let’s not pretend that it is in preparation for adult life.

And we’re not much better when it comes to classroom practices. Postergate seemed to centre around the pointlessness of making posters. A lazy time wasting activity for losers. One blogger wrote that “real” historians didn’t make posters so he wouldn’t get children to make them in his classroom. Another complained that posters were “ubiquitous” and “on walls”. I’m not sure where else I’d put them to be honest. The thing is, in the “real world” posters are everywhere. They tell us which tube station to get to. They sell us stuff. They inform us about the exhibit we are seeing. They can even change our minds and make us do things we don’t want to. Like joining the army. The power of the poster to communicate is so widely accepted in “real world” that billions of pounds are spent on producing them. Academics have to make them to take to conferences. Shouldn’t children have an opportunity to examine the role of the poster in our “real world” communication systems? Isn’t this a form of literacy?

When I was doing my O Level, in the “good old days” – one of the tasks on the paper was to take a long passage of text and to precis it into a limited word count. It was a difficult skill to master. It seems to me that effective posters ask exactly this of children. They force a condensing of language to its essential elements, while also perhaps asking that it is memorable and creative. That’s a pretty tough set of skills. Indeed, the old AQA English Language A Level course had a paper that asked students to do exactly this. To take a large amount of textual information and to re-present it in a new form for a specific audience. Sometimes that new form involved making a poster, or leaflet. It was not an easy task and required careful thinking and selection; an ability to know what was relevant, to reword and to summarise with the needs of a particular audience in mind.

I have some sympathy with the view that giving children a glue stick and some sugar paper and telling them to go away, find out and make a poster, is a lazy task. But to frame that task with audience and purpose in mind; to think about intention and effect – these are important “real world” skills. As with any teaching and learning task, it is purpose and quality that matters.

And while I used posters rarely myself, one of the best wall displays I ever had in my room was created by Year 8s. It was a jigsaw of posters, making up a comprehensive view of Elizabethan society in preparation for studying Shakespeare. Each group had a different focus – The Role of Women, The Role of the Monarchy, Poverty and Wealth, The Arts, Religion, Foreign Affairs and so on. Together they gave an overview of some of the issues underpinning the contexts of the texts we would read. It was not frivolous work.

Perhaps it’s time for us to stop trying to control everyone else by imposing our own prejudices on them. And let’s stop trying to justify our attempts to control children by feeding them stories about life in “the real world”, especially if we went straight into teaching from college. Instead let’s focus on the quality of what we do. That we make sure that whatever choices we make, they have integrity and purpose to them and we can explain why we are doing what we do. And that these decisions are always in the best interests of the child. That’s “real” enough for me.


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Bringing out the best?

I did a little triathlon this weekend. Six weeks ago I couldn’t run for two minutes without stopping. I think we can say that’s rapid and sustained progress. But there were some problems. I swim a lot. I was confident, getting into the lake that the swim would be the easiest part. I’m used to swimming up to 2 miles at a time and this was a measly 250 metres. I set off, powering close to the front when something odd happened. My breathing was off. The effort of lifting my arms in a wet suit seemed greater than it had ever done before. I was gaspy (and in swimming, breathing is everything). I started to panic. If I struggled with the swim, what was the rest of it going to be like? The last 50 metres were a blur of panting, taking in water and worry. I got out knees trembling and realised that I had completely underestimated the impact of fear and nerves on performance. The rest of the event was fine and I finished, but it made me think.

I was ready. I was fit. But I underperformed because of anxiety. Every year, thousands of children are ready. They are fit and prepared. They walk into an exam hall and fall apart. Maybe only for part of the exam, maybe for all of it. But they crumble and the consequences stay with them for life. What are we really testing in an exam situation? I don’t think it’s knowledge – even for a confident candidate, there isn’t enough time to demonstrate a really good range of knowledge. And given the move to linearity, it’s not resilience – we’ve removed the ideal of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” and replaced it with “one chance, don’t mess it up”. So we must conclude that exams are there to weed out the anxious and to place them on a scrapheap. Why?

I can see that in competitive sport, you need to be able to hold your nerve. But in the workplace? Are there really that many high risk jobs that require people to have strong nerves under pressure? Where is the line between brave and foolhardy? Look at the risks taken in the banking industry by people who could hold their nerve while making transactions worth billions in a matter of seconds. They brought the economic world to the brink of collapse. Are these the character traits we really want in society?

When we seek to assess a child, we need to ask whether or not the assessment model is there for the convenience of the system, or to meet the needs of society as a whole. I don’t think our current system meets the needs of society or the needs of individual children. There has to be a better way. A system that offers a balance of examination, creative portfolio based assessment, work experience with character references, volunteer work…. this kinds of assessment package would allow all kinds of human traits to thrive and be recognised. It would offer us a real set of skills applicable to all kinds of future situations. It would be more humane. And so, if the swim went belly up – there would be other events to offset it. It’s worth a tri – surely?


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