Category Archives: Schools

Persistently exhausted

As any parent of young children will know, the effects of sleep deprivation, or even sleep interruption, are debilitating. At best, the mind is fuzzy. What’s normally done with ease or with little thought, takes extra time and needs to be completed deliberately, consciously:

Leave house. Get in car. Keys in ignition. Check mirrors. Stop. Forgotten to put shoes on. Back to house.

As well as making mundane tasks preposterously complex, lack of sleep severely diminishes intellectual power and the process of learning. It’s incredibly hard to concentrate and to remain alert.

Clear communication fades into a blur of half-formed words and mumbled sentences. Any chance of using reason or persuasion is nullified by the overwhelming desire to curl up and sleep (or weep). Writing, particularly writing with clarity, becomes unimaginably difficult as the rhythmic flow is replaced by a murk and a fug that obscures intended meanings.

The absence of sufficient sleep also hinders the process of ‘storing’ or consolidating learning as memory. Without the necessary winks each night, not only will it be hard to learn the next day but, the chances are, much of what was learnt will be forgotten or become jumbled, harder to retrieve when needed. Sleep oils the pathways of memory and, without it, recall becomes laboured or confused.

What must it be like if you are a child coming to school in such a state – exhausted and ill-prepared for the day ahead? No matter how much planning and preparation, a teacher faced with an exhausted child is doomed to fail. The real problem arises when the one-off, the staying up late because of a party or the missed bedtime because of a protracted journey home, becomes routine.

For some, bedtime routines – the dull but necessary habits of getting child up the stairs, washed, pyjama-ed and calm – can be slack and chaotic. TVs blare and consoles click, long past suitable hours. For others, the grim reality of over-crowding mean peace and quiet are hard to find.

It’s hard to say how many, but a significant proportion of children in my school are what should be called ‘persistently exhausted’. You can see them the next day; bleary-eyed, yawning, disruptive, upset. They’re the ones that are falling behind.

My hunch is that exhaustion is as big a problem as absenteeism and, over time, has a similar impact on learning and life chances. What to do, though? Solutions are hard to find, that’s for sure.

I’m trying to think. Problem is, I’m beat – I was up all night with the kids.


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Filed under Policy, Schools

Leave the kids alone

There are few steeper learning curves in teaching, particularly for those only familiar with the tail end of a primary school, than spending time in a Reception class.  Often in close proximity to Year One, along a corridor or down some stairs, they may as well be on different planets. Year One has more in common with Year Six than it does with a Reception class – the ordered timetable, the sitting at desks, the ‘going to big assembly’.  Reception class is different and fascinating.

There’s something precious about a child’s time in the early years.  It’s the gentle, skilled bridge-building from home to school, and from play into learning that marks out this unique year.  To the untrained eye, a Reception class can appear chaotic and free-flowing in a way that can baffle a teacher of older children; the laughing, the painting, the singing, the dressing up, the running around, the squidging, the squashing, the mixing, the pouring.  And all of it happening at once.  

But this is the very essence of learning and development and it doesn’t happen by accident.  Activities are carefully and meticulously planned, children are observed closely and listened to with care, enthusiasm and interest is harnessed.  The bridges to the more formal learning are built and tested.  Early years teachers, my cap has been doffed, my head is respectfully bowed.  

So, upon this hallowed, glitter-strewn turf stomps the clumsy, ill-informed plan to introduce a baseline test for children in Reception. Note the word ‘test’.  This is not an informed baseline measure but a ‘test’.  This is objectionable for a number of reasons.

Firstly, a test of what exactly?  At this age children are limited more by their experience not by their cognitive ability.  If they have seen a boat they are likely to recognise the picture of a boat in a book.  If they have been to a farm they will know what a cow looks like.  Not knowing what a boat or a cow is tells us nothing about a child’s cognitive ability.  What exactly will the test tell us?  More to the point, what test is so sophisticated that it will tell you all that you need to know about a child so they can be reliably tracked for the next six years of their lives?  

Second, the age of a child matters more when they are younger.  There may be as much as 11 months difference between the youngest and oldest in the class.  As a proportion of their lives this difference is massive.  Excuse the crude maths, but let’s say the age of the oldest could be about a quarter more than the youngest child. Would it make sense to compare a 10 year old with a 12 or 13 year old, or a 15 year old with a 19 year old?  Nope, of course not.

Third, this ignores the incredibly detailed assessments already undertaken in Reception class.  Anyone who has seen the amount of data generated by early years teachers, spanning everything from physical and emotional development to literacy and mathematics, would be hard pushed to say schools are ignorant of a five-year old child’s understanding and abilities.  The difference is that these assessments are drawn from skilful observations and carried out over time.  It’s not a test which relies on jumping through a hoop on a particular day.  It seems that underpinning the proposals for a test lies a distrust of teachers and their judgements. 

Fourth, this disregards the real and very fixable problem which is the clumsy and muddled transition from early years assessments to the assessments in Year One and up.  Schools have long struggled with how to translate early years assessments into National Curriculum Levels.  They are two separate systems established without regard to the other.  The subtle observations in the early years are folded and crammed to fit it into the broad levels of a 1c or a 1b or more.  Spend a year tending a precious orchid then stuff the stem into a vase so small that the delicate petals are crushed.   

There has long been a need here, not to abolish levels as the Government is doing, but to reform them and, critically, to make the assessments made in Reception flow more clearly and more thoughtfully into Year One.  Such changes would mean progress could be gauged, without the unnecessary sledgehammer of a test.  

And last but not least, they’re too young for a test.  Back off.  Trust the teachers. Leave the kids alone.  





Filed under Early Years, Schools

Hours of precious life slipping by

Teaching brings more than its fair share of elation and revelation. A lesson that runs exactly as planned, a lesson that is utterly unlike the one you planned, the first day of term, the last day of term. It all adds up to to the uniquely special job called teaching.

Low on the list of revelatory moments, however, is the weekly staff meeting.

Few things can match the sheer drabness, the pointlessness of the hour spent watching, blinking, half-yawning while handouts are scattered and slides flip endlessly across a screen. Hours of precious life slipping by.

How strange that a profession whose sole purpose is to educate can get things so wrong, so often. All that we know about good learning can stop the moment the staff meeting begins.

Too often staff meetings are structured around transmission and compliance – a given expert, often with credentials unknown, telling the assembled audience what to do and how to do it, complete with the assertion that it’s ‘what Ofsted are looking for’.

The end result is a classroom full of people keeping schtum, able to generate little more than an occasional nod and an overly enthusiastic ‘thank you’ in the mad rush for the door and the relative bliss of a pile of unmarked books.

Enough is enough. Today, this very evening, we ripped up the plan. No expert, no Powerpoint, no handouts, no Ofsted. Instead, we gave space and time. Teacher talked to teacher about what they did in their classroom, what was working and what was not. Invites to observe were given and received with enthusiasm. Plans were hatched to test out new ideas. Resources were shared and books were recommended.

The hour was up. No-one moved. For once, the weekly staff meeting was a revelation.


Filed under Schools

Wish them luck

SATs week is upon us. No more can be done. They’ve been coached, coerced and crammed. They’ve been drilled to death. They are machines. Tomorrow, they will sit in their rows, silent. Tomorrow, they must deliver.

The stakes are high for all schools but for mine in particular; on their eleven year old shoulders lies a heavy burden.

If they succeed, if targets are met and hoops are jumped through, then we are safe for another year. If they come up short, by one mark or by more, then an unspoken calamity will occur. Heads will roll. Or, more likely, the Head will roll.

The long history of neglect at the school, dating back a decade or more, long before any of the incumbents were in place, matters not one jot.

The school, like an oil tanker, may be turning a corner and heading towards a brighter horizon. There are good teachers in every class. The corridors, once chaotic, are now calm. Empty chairs are being filled with new children keen to come to a school that, not long ago, was bottom of every list. We’re going places.

But all this comes crashing to a halt if our Year 6 don’t do the business this week. The innocent victims of abysmal teaching in their early years, they have had a huge mountain to scale this year. For some, this has meant making three years progress in just over two terms. Whatever happens, they will have succeeded. They will not have failed.

The grim truth is that we need them to pass; level 4 is our golden ticket, our get out of jail card. Most are there and many comfortably so. This, however, is a game of percentages. We’ve known since September that it’ll be one or two children that will tip us over the edge, one way or another. More than likely, it will come down to one mark in a reading test or two in a maths test.

All that is left is to wish them luck.


Filed under Assessment, Schools

What lessons can be learnt from Greenwich Free School?

As any decent teacher knows, failure is not something to celebrate. Failure, in whatever form it comes – error, misconception, or simply falling short of a goal or target – is a key part of the process we call learning. If we only succeed, then achievements and progress are woefully constrained. Failure provides the opportunity for reflection, for consideration and for a change of tack.

What, then, are the lessons from the Greenwich Free School, which this week emerged from an Ofsted inspection with the dreaded ‘requires improvement’?

There are few schools that so epitomise the current government’s educational reforms. Lauded by Michael Gove, the secondary school was co-founded by Jonathan Simmons, an adviser to Gove and head of education at Policy Exchange, a think-tank who have long been advocates of free schools. The vice chair of governors is Tom Shinner, now director of strategy at the Department for Education. This school is as Goveian as it comes.

But, just a couple of years in, Ofsted have pulled them up for the quality of teaching at the school; not enough challenge for more able children, shoddy work in books and too little progress for children with special educational needs.

Of course, anyone who has lived through the delights of an Ofsted visit will know that ‘requires improvement’ can be a pernicious judgement, based on a dodgy lesson, an inspector with blinkers on or a blip in exam results. Come another day and ‘requires improvement’ can so easily be good.

Nevertheless, this is an embarrassment for the free school fanatics. It doesn’t fit easily with the rhetoric of unbridled success that such schools were supposed to bring.

And that’s the rub. Such was the expectation, the unrealistic, politically motivated desire to present free schools as the solution to all our educational ills, that they have been set up to fail. Put on so high and so unsteady a plinth, it’s not surprise that some free schools will noisily crash to the ground.

In reality, Greenwich Free School faces the exact same challenges that every other school faces: how to get the quality of teaching right, ensuring every child makes progress, using assessment astutely and wisely, managing staff and all the rest.

Uniquely for free schools, however, these familiar challenges are compounded by the double whammy of the pressures of setting up everything from scratch and the weight of expectation, under a Gove-generated spotlight, to be the best of the best in no time at all.

But this judgement won’t shake the government’s free school policy in any significant way. Gove and the gang are dug in for the long haul. The school may well turn things round and, of course, other free schools have been viewed more generously by Ofsted. That will be enough to keep things ticking over.

In these divisive times, where different types of schools are pitched against each other like football teams and where the team called ‘council-run’ is denigrated at every turn, all we can hope for is for a change of tack; a reigning-in of the rhetoric that seeks to argue that excellence and innovation can only be found in academies and free schools.

There are great schools, good schools, and not so good schools. We should be hunting down and shining a spotlight on the good and the great, wherever that may be – academy, free school or, dare I say it, ‘council-run’.

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Filed under Academy Schools, Free Schools, Michael Gove, Schools

Hysteria in the home counties

Yesterday was one of those days – a day full of excitement and tension. The day when thousands of parents found out whether or not their beloved offspring had secured a place in the chosen school. A day when hysteria hit the home counties.

For more than a few, there is heartbreak and gloom, particularly if said parents live in a procreating boom town or in an urban area where pressure on places is always high. It seems some local authorities have managed this process better than others (see link).

All that is left now is the long-shot of a successful appeal or, more likely, a painful adjustment to expectations. The new school may be neither close nor convenient. Or, equally, it may be close but unwanted.

It’s tough. Really tough for some who didn’t get a place at any of their six selected schools – 15% of applications in Kensington and Chelsea fall into this category.

Of course, this does call in to question all this cash being pumped into free schools, in areas where there is already a glut of places. Madness upon madness and hopefully some of the ire these parents feel will be directed towards Gove and his poisonous policies.

But running parallel to the genuine inconvenience and uncertainty this process has caused for some, is a bubbling panic that says a great deal about how schools are judged, labelled, categorised and branded as good or bad, desirable or not.

The school my youngest child is in has been denigrated for years. Ofsted gave it a shocker of a report. Another local school and its super Head were brought in to shake things up. The school was known locally, if you know what I mean – it had a bad rep.

Friends, who I now respect a little less, moved house to escape the catchment. Others would adopt a strange look, an odd mixture of pity and disgust, when we placed the school top of our list and said we’d be gutted if she missed out. Gutted because it’s our local school, it’s where we live, it’s our patch of the world – if there’s a problem, we’re part of the solution. More recently, the school is on the up, but reputations linger.

The challenge for the undesirable school is to change this reputation. Much more easily said than done – damaged goods are hard to fix.

But it can be done by doing the obvious (good teachers in the classroom) and by being open and transparent. Most parents are pleasantly surprised that the school with the bad reputation is actually full of smiling and successful children, energetic and determined teachers and leaders who are directing the ship towards sunnier shores.

Maybe, just maybe, some of the hysteria is misplaced and, actually, the school with the bad reputation – the one that was way down the list, or not on it at all – is actually a diamond which just needs a polish and to be held up to the light.

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Filed under Schools

The monster stops breathing fire

I’m writing this with my eyes half closed. I can barely look. Deep breath. Come on. Just type.

No. It’s too hard. I’ve got butterflies. The uncomfortable-sicky-sitting-in-front-of-an-interview-panel ones. Not the flitty-exciting-first-date ones.

Try again. Do a Winslet. Gather. Gather.

Here goes:

I. Love. Ofsted.

Phew, that was a rush. I guess that’s what confessional is like. Big build up then the release. Like the cork out of a bottle or the staff room on a Friday.

I should clarify.

Something pretty exceptional happened at the tail end of last week. After a visit to Ofsted towers by some wonderful bloggers – each one a Daniel entering the den – Mike Cladingbowl, Ofsted’s National Director for Schools, published a report called ‘Why do Ofsted Inspectors observe individual lessons and how do they evaluate teaching in schools?’.

Snappy, no. Groundbreaking, yes. You can read it here. Please do (and please also take a look at the bloggers and their blogs they deserve a link, a click and a read – twitter details below).

The document speaks for itself. It’s well written and engaging. Honest, open, human. It’s refreshingly free of the bureaucratic language that can alienate and keep people at arms length. In parts, it’s written in the first person. The author is clearly someone that knows schools, understands teachers and, most important of all, wants to get it right. A poacher turned gamekeeper. A gamekeeper who hasn’t forgotten where he came from.

The key bit, the game changer, is the clear and unequivocal message that Ofsted inspectors should not be grading lessons after popping their heads into a classroom for a few minutes. If you are a teacher that has survived an Ofsted you’ll get the significance of this. Something’s shifted. The monster has stopped breathing fire.

For the first time, I can lift text straight from an Ofsted document without any desire to scoff or to ridicule. I can do so because I agree with every word. Here it is:

‘On average, inspectors may spend only 25 minutes or so in each lesson. It would be nonsensical to suggest that an Ofsted inspector could give a definitive validation of a teacher’s professional competency in such a short time. We are not in the business of handing out badges that say ‘You are an outstanding teacher’ or the opposite. We leave that to others, who will use their own and other evidence to come to a conclusion. We would not expect any other professional, for example a surgeon, to be judged by peers on a single 25 minute observation of their work.’

I could stand and applaud.

Let this be the start of a new relationship between inspector and inspected.

Mike Cladingbowl – thank you.

Here are the people who helped make this happen:

And the man himself:



Filed under Ofsted, Schools