From Russia With Just Minor Injuries…

I rarely turn an offer down. The song in Oklahoma was written for me.  As a result, I get that churning feeling in my stomach on most working days. But on Friday morning when I stood in front of a class of 8-10 year olds in a state school in Russia, I could barely speak for anxiety. They had very little English. I had one word of Russian.

I had a timetable in front of me of seven hours of contact time a day for three days. At 5.30pm on Sunday, they would be performing a play written by them in English to their parents and teachers. The anxiety was the least of my communication problems. “Spasiba” I muttered as a greeting, forgetting it meant ‘thank you’, and revealing myself as an idiot within ten seconds. The children smiled politely.

Three days later we’re looking at the song lyrics we’ve written together. The line we sing early in the play “I’ll finish what I started and continue” has changed to “I finished what I started and continued”.

“Ahhhh! In past is ‘d'” says a child who barely spoke on the first day.

They’re following instructions too. Instead of me having to say “sit down” four times, wave my hands towards the ground and finally in desperation plonk myself on the floor saying “this, this”, they sit first time. And stand and move in the directions I suggest. They laugh at my jokes. And laugh at what they think are my jokes, but which are just mistakes. They surprise me with random vocabulary that we just have to build into our performance – “he hurting and sad” one explains of the monster who turns out to be less terrible than I envisaged. “He vegetable” shouts another. I raise my eyebrows. He mimes eating. I assume we have a sad vegetarian on our hands. Which places our hero in a difficult ethical position.

Hence Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s journey narrative structure (an utter God send) gets a little update and a few new twists. I’ll never know if they were intentional.

Of course there were mishaps. Teaching lifts to children in a second language is foolhardy I learned as one left her blood on the floor. And “Pull the curtains” led to the whole rig coming down crashing on their heads. But they are Russian. All over town posters commemorating the losses of the Second World War (or Great Patriot War) are hanging and a few bloody noses and bruised heads are not putting this lot off.

So the parents arrive and watch their children perform a play in a language that most of them don’t understand. I’m playing the piano with my hands, operating the lighting rig with my toes. The song goes a bit wrong. But it doesn’t matter. Because like parents all over the world, their eyes glisten as they watch their child achieve something they didn’t think possible three days ago. And the children see this and their faces light up. And I remember not only what a powerful tool drama is for learning language, but also the power it has to bond families. I’m proud of these brave little children. And of myself. And I’m glad that I’m a girl who can’t say no.

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Let’s State the Bleeding Obvious…

I’m in Russia and about to go to the ballet so I’ll make this brief. The Sutton Trust tell us that ‘poor children’ (and if you want to know why this phrase is all shades of wrong, read Sue Cowley’s blog on the subject) from the South do better in life than those in the North. The press report this lazily as a product of better schooling in London. Hmmm. Well the children examined were from the district of Westminster. Where…

1. They are more likely to be schooled in a socially mixed setting.

2. They are entitled to free public transport.

3. And thereby can access all kinds of cultural resources, which are also free.

Whereas, in most Northern areas, our children from the most disadvanted backgrounds are :-

1. Living on isolated estates that were built miles from city centres and facilities.

2. Charged extortionate prices for travelling on buses.

3. Have far fewer opportunities to access free services.

Just saying there might be more to it than meets the London based journalist’s eye.

And incidentally, I was born into a ‘poor’ family and lived in the North. And here I am watching ballet.

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Testing without Brains.

When SATs were first introduced it was with the aim that a Level 4b would be an ‘average’ level of achievement. Very quickly this became an expected level of achievement for the majority of pupils and now it would seem that anyone falling below this (or its point score equivalent) is a failure. In order to address this failure, children will now be expected to resit the tests in Year 7. It’s a policy of such bum numbing stupidity I can barely be arsed to write.

1. Year 6 teachers bust a gut to get kids through these tests. Sometimes in order to do it, they compromise the rest of the curriculum, pass out endless practice papers and teach to the test to the extent that they dream the test (in the rare moments they get to escape from their marking). They have their class all day every day. If they can’t get them through, then how a Year 7 English teacher seeing them a couple of times a week is supposed to do better I have no idea. Oh, wait…perhaps the kids will be taken out of Art, Music, PE….

2. Most of the kids who achieve (and yes, for many of them it IS an achievement) a Level 2 or 3 in the tests have statements of special educational needs. As I understand it, they won’t be required to resit. Instead, the sliver of children sitting in the middle will now be put into a new group or set “not special, just thick” and asked to do the test again. Before the supporters of this policy (the ones who managed to read past the word arse without fainting) charge me with the sin of facetiousness, calling children “mediocre” as Morgan did, is pretty much labelling them as thick. What happened to growth mindsets eh?

3. There is no evidence that testing children again and again improves their performance when the stakes are high. There is some evidence that low stakes classroom based tests aid learning, but let’s be clear, this is not what this resit policy is about. Instead it puts teachers and pupils under more pressure to narrow provision and divert resources.

4. There would, one assumes, be a huge cost to this policy in terms of setting, distributing, marking and moderating the results. But no – it’s cheap as chips apparently because teachers will do it. All by themselves. Those gaming, cheating teachers who couldn’t be trusted with coursework are apparently ok to assess these tests. Why? Perhaps because they don’t actually matter. They’re a policy sop to the media and to parents whose kids will never have to sit them. Tory heartland voters.

5. Those of us with memories will recall that the real SATs were subject to such controversy over marking a few years ago that the head of QCA was sacked and the system overhauled. But Year 7 teachers can mark them, no problem.

6. We don’t have time to mark them, by the way. Remember that thing about teacher workload you were banging on about a few weeks ago, Nicky Morgan, you know, in an unconvincing attempt to win some teacher votes?

7.  What I suggest is that if you teach Year 7, you just press ahead and teach children to love the English language. Read books with them, talk to them. Let them talk to you and to each other. Make writing the great, imaginative, wonderful adventure it should be. Forget the tests. You might as well not bother doing them actually, but if you do, draw a big smiley face on the front. Write PASS and then take them out to play – in a museum or a theatre or somewhere stimulating and lovely. Literacy comes with immersion and love of language. It doesn’t grow in a test.


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Impossible Expectations

I’ve just spent an evening with one of my oldest friends who has just resigned from her NQT year in an inner city primary school. I encouraged her to go into teaching and now I wonder what kind of friend I was. Last year, having spent 17 years working in private business, managing teams of people and multi million pound budgets, she left to teach. She expected that she would find a working life that was more rewarding with higher aims than simply making money, which she was good at. Having seen her own children turned around with the support of a good teacher, she felt that here was a job where she could have impact and feel that there was a higher sense of purpose to her working life. And so, she took a massive drop in salary and enrolled on a PGCE.

Her PGCE was demanding with a high emphasis on subject knowledge, but she enjoyed it. And with her grades high and references strong, she was offered several jobs at the end of it. She chose the one where the staff were lovely, where she felt she’d be at home and where there seemed to be a meeting of ideals and minds. Having spent years recruiting in business, she knew that this chemistry was vital. And so in September, she started with her Year 5 class. She expected the year to be tough, but no tougher than the PGCE, which had been challenging for her and all her colleagues.

So how could it all have gone so spectacularly wrong in just two terms? Why is she now unemployed, looking at doing supply and wondering how she’ll pay off a student loan?

She felt that almost immediately, she was expected to be able to hit the ground running at a pace that Usain Bolt couldn’t sustain. She was used to working 55-60 hour weeks, but now she found herself working more than 80. Told she must plan every lesson from scratch. Told she must mark all literacy and numeracy books every single day, putting targets in each, and then topic and spelling books regularly on top. Told she must fill in the behaviour plans for the children under review every single day. She was trying desperately to differentiate for children ranging from a 1a to a 5c (yes the school was still using levels). And coping with neglected and difficult children, for whom she felt desperately sorry, with little support and no training to meet their needs, was hard. She found in all that, her relationship and energy with her own children was dwindling to the extent that the smallest one was putting her to bed, tucking her in when she fell asleep with her books on her chest.

Despite having a very supportive mentor, these expectations were unsustainable. They were not the expectations of unreasonable management, but of teachers trying to do the best for their pupils and school. This is “just teaching”, they said, it’s what everybody is expected to do. But, at the end of the day, if your job undermines the well being of your own children and the security of your marriage, it’s not really that rewarding.

In the private sector, a business plan with a spend of up to £20 million would be four pages long and could take weeks to prepare. In teaching, each literacy and numeracy plan for the week was at least this long, the planning of it squeezed into a weekend. In business, weekends were her own time; in teaching they didn’t exist. In business she’d spend days planning a presentation. In teaching she was expected to give high quality presentations six times a day. In short the pressure she was under in a highly paid professional job was nothing in comparison to that she experienced in teaching. And yet she was expected to cope with all of that on a salary that couldn’t cover her housing costs.

This is not an unusual picture. I know that many of you will be nodding in agreement and empathy. It seems that the only way an NQT can cope in this brave new world of SPAG tests and baselines is to have no family of their own and no life. What on earth is going to happen to the profession if we don’t seriously tackle the issue of workload expectations? It’s a disaster not waiting to happen, but happening now, right under our noses. We are in danger of pushing our teachers into mental and physical health problems caused by stress, insomnia and guilt that is immoral. And yet, when she began to raise her concerns, it was obvious that the school  had a duty first and foremost to the children. Teacher’s welfare, inevitably comes a poor second. It’s time we began to understand that without taking care of the latter, we can’t meet the needs of the former. What a sad and sorry state of affairs.


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Resilience and Grit

I saw a lot of grit last week. Most of it was in my eyes as the desert winds whipped up a mix of sharp sand in my face. I saw an awful lot of resilience too. Heartbreaking resilience and heartening resilience. Children who walked hundreds of miles to reach refuge. Alone, without adults, past lions, not really sure if Kakuma really existed.


I also saw wonderful resilience and resourcefulness. Children determined to be children in spite of everything, and making toys out of whatever they could find.


I met resilient adults, giving up time and energy to help others. I was stupidly naive going in – I expected to see well meaning white westerners assisting needy, traumatised Africans. I cringe as I write it. What I saw was Africa helping Africa. No dependency culture but instead a culture of communal responsibility and growth. In all that seeming chaos, there was a commitment to human dignity, to integrity, to making the most of every single, limited resource. What happens there is a triumph of hope and determination. Grit. There is, apparently, a saying in Africa that if you travel alone, you travel faster, but together we travel further. What a great way of summing up the achievements at Kakuma.


An experience like that can’t leave you unchanged. I came home to a parcel which I couldn’t bear to open – toiletries costing more than £50 – things I barely need. We take so much for granted. So much is wasted. But we can’t suddenly collapse into hessian sack cloths and stop moisturising! Think of the wrinkles. We can, however give time and thought and a little, just a little of what we have. We won’t miss the cost of a bottle of wine or a cup of coffee, but believe me, please believe me, every penny of that would make a difference to these determined, resilient children and the adults working around the clock to care for them. 80% of the refugees in Kakuma are children. Many, many of them orphaned, having witnessed the slaughter of their parents. The best hope they have is education. And so, I’m not going to apologise for asking again (and again), to please donate. You would be amazed at how far they make a little money go.

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Aftermath. Kakuma Part 3.

It’s 30 hours since we left Kakuma and I’m finally home. I sit here, looking out over a lush, green garden. The sun is shining, and my children, having fleetingly greeted me, have returned to their gadgets and games and I’m left to reflect on what I’ve seen.

There were thousands of children in need and many thousands more that we didn’t even see. But one has wormed his way into my heart so deeply that every time I close my eyes I see him. Obama. Five years old (we think). He never spoke a word. “He doesn’t speak. He is sad,” an older girl tells us in the playground on our first day there. His face is deadly serious. He wears a shirt that once must have been white, but has been stained brown with the dust. Over the days that I see him, it is the only thing he wears. Like many of the other children, it is the only shirt he possesses.


Obama barely leaves my side in the days we work in Hope school. On the first day, he stands mutely beside me, silent, solemn, never smiling. But there. On the second, he sneaks into the shed that serves as the Headteacher’s office and clambers on to my knee and I read him a story – The Red Tree by Shaun Tan. He stares at the pictures, finding the small red leaf that symbolises hope on every page. But still does not speak or smile.


On the third day he takes part in my classes – all of them, moving from class to class with me like a little shadow. But he doesn’t sing or perform the actions of the naming songs we are doing. On the fourth day, I play music through a speaker attached to my i-pad. For him and some of the other children, it is the first time they have heard recorded music. The others laugh and smile, joining will-i-am with cheery choruses of “I like to move it, move it” though they don’t dance. Obama doesn’t smile. Doesn’t sing. But he does dance. And his dancing is stylish, though very seriously done.

On the last day he is with me again and I know I am going to get into the jeep and drive away. I know that even if I return, the chances of seeing him are remote. I realise I’m about to cry, so I steel myself and pull funny faces at him in the playground. And then he smiles. Briefly. A little row of white baby teeth appear. The last I see of him, he is running, barefoot in the dirt after the jeep, waving but solemn once again. And as he disappears into a cloud of dust I burst into tears.

I impose my own imagination on Obama’s story, picture the horrors he has seen; the hardships he has suffered. And even if they are not true, his current situation is grim beyond description. I know he is one of many. And I know that helping the school, rather than singling out one child, is the right thing to do. So I’ll keep a little picture of Obama on my desk and whenever I feel like giving up on the fundraising, I’ll look at it. I’m minded of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as I sit in quiet contemplation looking at my garden :-

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep.

Please help me to give Hope school the resources its name deserves and to help children like Obama. The cost of a coffee or glass of wine will make the hugest difference to these children.

You can text WWEP01 £3 to 70070 for a small but significant donation.

Or use our Just Giving page here and leave a message noting that the money is for the Classroom Challenge.

Thank you so much.



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Teaching in a Refugee Camp. Part 2

Imagine this. You arrive at school at 7am and the temperature is already 30 degrees. By noon, it will be well over 40. You haven’t been able to work at home because you share a room with your three siblings and there are few resources available to you. After assembly you teach from 7.30am until 4.30pm. Your students, like you, are refugees, and although many of them were educated in their home country, and are hoping to pass their school certificate, you are desperately short of resources to help them.

Your blackboard is rendered useless by the relentless dust that blows constantly through the open gaps in your walls and through the door. The gaps are necessary to stop the students from suffocating, but they make teaching on windy days difficult. The dust covers everything; books, desks, the children in minutes. Every day is windy. Although the school tries to make sure that upper primary – the grades preparing for exams – have a notebook and pencil, the pages disintegrate in the dry heat. It is almost impossible for them to keep a record of their learning. And with over 150 in the class, it is hard for you to do anything other than stand at the front and hope they can hear you. Your students have hopes and dreams. They tell you, in fluent English, that they wish to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers. They hope to attend universities. But there are no universities in the refugee camp. Still they try. They hope. One even makes a little tie out of cardboard and fastens it to his shirt so he looks smarter.


Your teaching is constantly interrupted by smaller children peeping through the door. Grey from dust, clothes in rags, hundreds of children roam the playground. Some are tiny – too young to attend school. But their only carers are older siblings and so they come in at 7am and stand in the hot dust all day waiting for their brother or sister to finish. Some cram into Grade 1 classes and even though they swell class sizes to 200, they join in. When lower primary finishes at 12 there are even more children roaming the school site, because many of the children would rather stand in the dirt than go home. Some have no parents and the adults they live with are strangers to them. And there is little to return to – tents are stifling in the heat. The other teachers understand this. They let them stay – no one is turned away. image

This is life for Nancy, aged 24 – a highly intelligent, articulate and aspirational young teacher. This is Hope School. Home to 7008 children taught in just 26 classrooms. Yes, you read that right. There are several schools in Kakuma. But Hope is the newest, set up in response to the huge influx of South Sudanese fleeing warfare at home. The environment and conditions at Hope are probably the most challenging there are. There is no shelter from the hideous dust and rocketing temperatures. In older, more established schools, there are some trees and bushes to give some relief. But not here.


The school desperately needs resources. The children chant that there are 100 cms in a metre, but they’ve never seen a ruler or measuring tape and when I produce one, it becomes clear that they didn’t know how long a metre was or how tall they were. One of the first things I do is draw a height chart on their wall with sharpie markers. But it’s not enough. They need maps, books, mathematical equipment. Even pencils. One child approaches us. “Madam,” he says “I wish to become an engineer but I do not have a pencil. Can you help me?”

New classrooms need to be built so that class sizes can be reduced in order to make teaching even remotely effective. I can’t even begin to explain how shocking it is to witness this level of difficulty; how heartbreaking. I’ve barely been able to teach. My eyes and throat struggle to cope. The children crowd around you longing to touch your hand and so many are hard to manage. When they sing “goodbye teacher” it breaks my heart. And our teacher training sessions feel like wishful thinking, though they are deeply appreciated.

No amount of well meaning visits will help these children. The support and infrastructure that the UNHCR offers is truly astonishing. But they can only do so much. They need money. So that’s what I hope we can really do. UK teachers together, standing shoulder to shoulder with these teachers and saying “We hear you.”

Please give. Every penny will make a difference. The infrastructure is here. Tom stands ready to build. We could have a classroom standing in less than three months.

You can donate through our Just Giving page here. – please leave a note saying that you are donating for the classroom challenge in Kakuma.

Or for a smaller but highly significant donation, text WWEP01 £3 to 70070 Thank you.


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