Three Things About February Half Term

It’s drawing to a close. Here we go.

  1. I’ve had a great time for the most part. There’s been too much sitting around looking at a screen but I blame the shocking weather during the first half of the week for that. We’ve done things, relaxed, had enough sleep – most of the time. Genuinely, this has been a week where I have felt refreshed.
  2. There are many, many things that I should have done for work that I’ve not. Nothing that needs doing and that I can’t get done before 9am Monday, but I could probably have made my life up to Easter easier if I’d ticked off a few things that have been rumbling on. Would I have felt so relaxed though?
  3. Whilst during the first two-thirds of the week I’ve been on a roll, closer to the force of nature I can be than I have been for a long time, the fear has kicked in now. The anxiety that the meds ease wasn’t there on Monday or Tuesday. But then Sunday evening started on Friday morning. If I couldn’t do it, If I was rubbish at what I do, I’d get it but I can and I’m not and there are no Dementors due for years so what is this feeling? Should I just look at #2? Should I have to?
Albert Bierstadt – Storm in the Mountains, c. 1870

Joy. Literally, Joy!

I’ve seen this on Twitter:

I really believe that if you want to raise literacy standards in schools, you need to train all staff on the following: Nouns, Adjectives, Verbs, Adverbs, Simple sentences, Compound sentences, Complex sentences. 7 basic things that impact so much.

I’ve not replied. I know there’s no point. I’m losing an ideological battle against a maelstrom of analytical ideology. I’ll probably start too many of my sentences with “I” this time.

As a child I was read to endlessly. And sung to. Our house was filled with books. When Mrs Jackson read us Roald Dahl’s “Danny the Champion of the World” when I was in Year 4 I was captivated. There was a world in a book that I could relate to, lose myself in, dream of. A world so like my own and yet more exciting and fantastic than mine could ever likely be. After it had been read to me at school I asked my Mum to read it to me, then I read it myself. Then I read lots of other books. From an obsession with sticker albums, atlases and encyclopedias the world of fiction became something worth engaging with, rather than it just being done to me. It was the same with “You Tell Me” by Roger McGough & Michael Rosen. And the Mr. Men books. And The Magic Faraway Tree series, and countless story books that I’m now sharing with my children. Books were exciting, reading was exciting. I have become an adult who has started too many sentences here with the same word, but who has held an otherwise acceptably high standard of literacy for as long as I can remember.

Nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs. I did those at primary school. I don’t remember specifically talking about simple, compound and complex sentences. I knew what they were though when we were ‘introduced’ to them at secondary school. I was using them already without knowing. My writing was good, or so my teachers and peers told me – without drowning the joy I found in the written word.

I wouldn’t argue that the those of us who have to teach literacy to children need to know about the seven basic things mentioned above, but where is the love? Where is the joy? Why isn’t it seen as important that staff need to communicate the joy of books and a love of reading? This isn’t a case of “Well obviously, that goes without saying!” because it doesn’t. Reading for pleasure is an afterthought, an add-on if there’s time to fit it in. How many Year 6 children in the country are read a story to daily? Nowhere near enough. During a recent observation I was told that, in an otherwise Outstanding guided reading lesson, the group who I had allowed to ‘read for pleasure’ were not being given a specific reason to ‘read for pleasure’ and thus the lesson was marked down to Good. I argued that giving purpose to pleasure stopped it being a pleasure, but it didn’t wash.

Currently I’m teaching Years 5 & 6 and I have made a point of reading to them as much as I can. They are excited and transfixed. The more able readers are able to enjoy a text for its own sake, and the less able readers are accessing a book they would presently have no chance of doing so for themselves. They are being exposed to text types, phrasing, emotions, vocabulary, dramatic devices, characters, general knowledge and so much more. And they don’t even realise it. The horror – how can you learn anything unless you’re told in minutiae what it is you’re learning and why?

You can analyse things as much as you like, break them down to gradable zeros and ones until you’re contradicting your own rules, but children and adults alike respond better and learn more when they are enjoying what they do. Until we make joy a central part of literacy (and all education for that matter) we’ll continue to have pupils who go dead behind the eyes when they think of reading and writing, and teachers will have to keep fighting to force feed stuff that would be gobbled down if there was some love shown for it.

I’m a teacher. I know I need to know those seven basic things. I also know that they are nothing if my pupils don’t feel excitement when they pick up a book or a pen. I wish the people in charge, and those who meekly follow their dogma whilst pretending to have minds of their own, would know this too.

Joy. Literally joy!

Three Things About Ofsted

I do sometimes get the urge to write about other things but…Ofsted does stir the emotions!

  1. The best thing about Ofsted is that, regardless of the outcome, people generally come together and support each other. I know that at some schools it’s dog-eat-dog but whenever I’ve been involved in a visit the glow of being part of a team inspires in its immediate burning and isn’t something that fades with any immediacy. Beyond the staff, the messages of encouragement  from parents, governors, ex-colleagues, friends, other schools, my children’s teachers, and family are all so important and must be remembered weeks down the line when you’re feeling sad, alone and despondent. They mean an enormous amount.
  2. This was probably the ‘best’ Ofsted I’ve ever experienced. From the off it felt like the inspectors were on our side and the stress during the visit was much less than in previous years. Gone was the confrontational nit-picking and in its place a seemingly genuine desire to highlight our strengths and give us constructive pointers for the future. It’s not a perfect regime by any means and I’m sure that if our school had previously been less than ‘Good’ it might have been a different experience, but if this is what the new inspection regime is like across the board, then well done Ofsted.
  3. Better than previous inspections it may have been, but the words “I’ve just received a phone call…”, with the characteristic trail off of voice and the apologetic expression, still causes the stomach to churn and the butterflies to swirl. You still find yourself analysing minutiae to cover all bases (I found myself rearranging my bathroom at home, on autopilot, because the inspectors might mark us down for my stepson’s hair dye being left within reach of the children!) and there’s still an empty feeling as you eventually lay your head on the pillow the night before. And then there’s the feeling of being an underdog in the cup final, and for me at least the massive loss of appetite and the extra nausea that that causes when still more questions are asked and more demands made . When it’s over there is relief even before you know the verdict, because what is done is done and it’s over for now. All you can do is wait, and feel somehow hollow. Better than previous inspections it may have been, but I’m still glad I’ve not got to go through that again for a while.

As is the way of Ofsted I don’t know how my school did in our inspection last week. I still think that that’s rotten, but so be it. It’s over for now.

Charlotte Mason by Frederic Yates 1902 (c) The Armitt Museum and Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Before The 2017 General Election

I voted to Remain in the EU and I’m a member of the Green Party. In an ideal world we’d have a left-wing Government as part of the European Union but I’m also a realist and, however much it upsets me, I accept that 52% of voters chose to leave the EU and so that’s what’s going to happen. Referendums are binary and we’re heading out.

As we approach the General Election in a few weeks time I have an important question rattling around my head. Here it is:

In light of all that we have seen and heard since the Referendum, with a Conservative Party seemingly aiming for a hard-Brexit, do Brexit supporters feel that the wishes of the 48% should have any bearing on the process? Are those 16.1 million people now irrelevant because 1.3 million more people wanted something different?

With the answer to that question in mind, what point is there in me voting on June 8th? This is not a flippant question. I used to think that every vote, even with a first-past-the-post system, was important because even if you didn’t vote for the winner your MP would take notice of those who voted for other parties. For example, as a Green voter in a Conservative safe seat I’d expect my MP with 53% of the vote to follow the Tory line and represent the wishes of the the majority who voted for him – but I also hoped that when doing their job they’d bear in mind the other 47% and take into some sort of consideration that almost half their constituents had a different vision for the country than them. By voting Green (or Labour, or Lib Dem, or – shudder – UKIP) in a Conservative safe seat I’d expect to lose but I’d also be making my views known and, however quietly, my voice heard.

Post-referendum, I’m left doubting that absolutely. We have marched towards a hard-Brexit with scant regard being paid to the 48%. We are repeatedly told that Brexit is “the will of the Nation” when actually it’s the “will of 33% of those in the Nation who are eligible to vote”.

Along with over 16 million people I have become a non-person, irrelevant and disregarded. Yes referendums are binary, but surely you have to pay some attention to the will of those who didn’t win? Don’t you?

And so back to June’s election. James Cleverly is going to win this seat. It’s a certainty and he knows it. Unless he does something as stupid as the last one he’ll be my MP until 2022, and even if he does mess up some other Tory will be drafted in and they’ll do the job instead. So who do I vote for, or do I vote at all?

Obviously, I’m going to vote. But…

Vote Green I definitely lose and, in light of what I’ve written above, I have no faith that my non-Tory views will be considered for even a moment over the next 5 years.

Vote Labour tactically and I’m 99% going to lose and again, in light of what I’ve written above, etc. etc.

Vote UKIP or Lib Dem and I’ve somehow got to live with myself…

So who do I vote for? Vote for my beliefs or tactically, and does it make any difference? Is James Cleverley and the Conservative Party in general going to pretend I don’t exist on June 9th or might my vote, and the many millions of votes by people like me, be considered for even a fleeting moment whilst the country is being ripped apart?

On Britishness

On being faced with the question: Could these British values of tolerance be the thing that costs us our Britishness?

Britishness? Britishness? It’s just a political construct! A name! The people of these islands have changed, and will change, day-after-day until the end of time. I was born and bred in this country but I’m a quarter-Latvian which means I’m not pure-bred British and so ought I to lop off an arm & ship it back to the Baltic? I’m probably more anti-Britain than most of the Muslims who get abused on a daily basis in this bloody wonderful country but because I’m white nothing will ever be said to me.

What is it to be “British”? Reading the endless drivel about the Woolwich attack made me think just that. Calling paid killers heroes? Knifing someone who looks like a Muslim? Attacking a mosque? Too extreme? Maybe just venting your spleen about ‘them’ on social networking sites like being ‘British’ makes you automatically morally superior to every people in the world by default.

Being ‘British’ means nothing. I’m not British, I’m not European, I’m just a person. An accident of fate means that I was born in Britain, and I’ll concede I was lucky enough that that’s the case. But I’m not lucky to be ‘British’ because Britain is somehow better than other countries, or that ‘Britishness’ is superior to any other -ness, but because 500 years ago the people of these isles decided to act despicably towards the rest of the world before the rest of the world had a chance to fight back. That meant I had food, water, an education, clothing & a roof over my head – all paid for by centuries of plundering the world. I’d rather have it than not, but Britain (and therefore me as one of its subjects) is in no position to take any kind of moral high ground, and if being ‘British’ means I have to look down on the rest of the world and pretend I’m someone special because I’ve got a light-coloured face and was brought up with a cross being rammed down my throat rather than a crescent I’ll pass thank you.

‘Britishness’ is about as concrete a notion as the sea. It’s been changing for thousands of years and it’ll keep changing forever, although it’s only been ‘Britishness’ since 1707 because that’s how long Great Britain has existed. Before that it was ‘Englishness’, and before that ‘Anglo-Saxoness’ and before that… We can’t lose something that isn’t fixed, but we can keep hold of the fact that we’re all humans and that most of us basically want the same things in life.

I don’t know why I’m writing this, I’ve been sucked into the ‘debate’ when I promised myself I wouldn’t. All I really think, because I’m a yoghurt-weaving woolly-minded hippy is that the labels of ‘British’, ‘Christian’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Nigerian’, Conservative’, ‘Cambridge United Supporter’ are just labels we give ourselves because we want to belong, but in the end we’re all simultaneously individuals and one part of the human collective. Maybe if we all started treating the Woolwich killers as two people who did a terrible thing rather than ‘Muslims’ and the victim as a man who was walking home rather than a ‘British soldier/hero’ we might not give other people reason to do this kind of thing again, because you can’t have reprisals against everyone? Give people a label though and you make them a target. Maybe if we were all just a bit nicer to people regardless of where they were born or live, or the colour of their skin, or the version of god they worship there might be less of this kind of thing in the world? Maybe if we stopped judging people from a position of self-imposed superiority? Maybe if we were all just a bit kinder to one another?

If we really were a tolerant nation these terrible things wouldn’t happen. I think they do because we’re only really tolerant when it suits us.

That’s me done, I shall leave with this wonderful cartoon and go back to avoiding the news and trying to be nice to people as much as possible.

B&M Bargains & Growing Up

I went in a B&M Bargains store today! When I last shopped at B&M Bargains they were a relatively small chain of shops found only in and around Blackpool. 15 years on and they’ve been developed into a national chain and as I bought cheap mealworms for the chickens and a novelty sock hanger for the washing line I was thrown back to my days on the Fylde Coast. I quite enjoyed being back in a B&M Bargains Store, if only because I like the feeling that I was in on this one from early on – like having seen a stadium-band in a small pub before they made it. If only I’d tested the Hello Kitty toothbrush light before leaving the shop…

Today’s the day Thatcher died. I grew up in a Conservative household in a constituency so Blue they put an Iraqi-born candidate forward at the last election and still won. I went to a grammar school that may as well have been a recruiting office for the Conservative Party. From the age of 8 when I started to be vaguely aware of politics to the time I was in the sixth form I only knew one Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister and I was in her thrall. I was so right-wing & anti-European I’d be a member of UKIP now, and I wrote her a letter telling her so. I didn’t know any better, how could I growing up where, and how, I did? If I moved further and further right from 8 to 18, from 18 to 38 I’ve shifted completely the other way. I’ve seen some of the world since then. Enough to find myself becoming more left-wing as each year passes and finding myself despising the things I now realise Thatcher stood for.

My teenage infatuation with Thatcher’s politics isn’t something I’ve ever tried to hide – there were mitigating circumstances I was powerless to control – but I do feel like a man who long ago realised his first “love” wasn’t actually worthy of his attention and now feels a little bit silly. From me, no tributes (is there a politician I respect enough?), no celebrating (it’s not Blair after all), just remembering what I used to believe in and being thankful that I’ve grown up.

A Week After Ofsted

This time last week I was halfway through a visit from Ofsted. I’d had 3-4 hours sleep the previous night and was faced with the same prospect again that night. I’d not been able to face eating and Red Bull was my friend. I was running on empty. So much rides on a ‘good’ performance these days, and it’s all based on what 2-3 people you’ve never met before and know nothing about think during 2 days in your school. They put everything under enormous scrutiny and if they don’t like what they see lives are turned upside down and careers are ended.
We’d been expecting them to visit any day but still, when we did get the call, the initial feeling was of a bowling ball in the stomach. “Here we go…” went the thought in my head, and then a sort of numb tranquility set in and I set to getting ready. In actual fact, apart from feeling physically sick from the time I found out they were coming in at 12.30 on Tuesday to their arrival at 7.45 on the Wednesday, the anticipation was worse than the inspection itself – what can you do about anything at that point? The weeks of ending every sentence with “in case Ofsted are in next week” are far worse because there is always something else you could do, always something else that you fear might be held against you.
The consequences of a bad inspection are well known and don’t really bear thinking about. You can flippantly suggest that if you’re doing your job properly you’ve got nothing to worry about but what is ‘properly’ these days? The goalposts are always changing and often are placed according to an inspector’s loose personal interpretation of ever-vaguer Government policy. The feeling is that if they want to ruin you there are enough gaps in the system to have you whatever you do. Michael Gove recently dismissed the suggestion that Ofsted should be a cause of fear. He demands that teachers are held accountable and I don’t have any real issue with that, but accountable in such an arbitrary way with such grave consequences? If they don’t like what they see over that short time frame a teacher’s job, their career, can be over either through being asked to walk, or due to the unbearable stress ‘school improvement’ puts on people. What jeopardy does Michael Gove have in his job? So long as he doesn’t do something really stupid the only consequence of any incompetence is, because he’s an MP in one of the Conservative’s safest seats, a backbench job for life on £65000 a year. How would he deal with the daily threat of having to have every bit of paperwork perfect and available for inspection at 19 hours notice AND having his performance in parliament, meetings and interviews scrutinised in minutiae with the prospect of unemployment (or further continuous scrutiny of the same kind) hanging over him? I expect he’d reject the comparison, but that is the way of the politician. One rule for you…
A week on then, as the title suggests, how do I feel? Well apart from not being allowed to know how we did (it’s our hard work, it’s our school, it’s our careers, but we the staff are not entitled to know the inspectors’ judgement until the rest of the world does) I feel OK. The weekend afterwards I felt like an arm had been lopped off because there was no need to do the extra work I had been subconsciously doing to cover myself in case we got the call. What I had done was enough – perfection was not needed for a while – and I could relax with the young family I hadn’t seen for three days earlier in the week without constantly remembering other things I ought to do ”in case Ofsted are in next week”. That display could wait until Tuesday, the planning for Thursday could be done on Wednesday, the weekend was mine. This week, after school, I spent a while reading in my neglected garden and, for the first time this year, took the time to properly water the vegetables whilst listening to the birds singing and looking at the clouds. I hadn’t noticed I’d stopped doing these things for fear of Ofsted, and I was glad they were back in my life.
In its current form and under the leadership of Wilshaw and Gove that’s what Ofsted does – it looms in the ever-closer distance robbing you of perspective. It takes over your life until, if you notice it’s happened, you don’t like what you and your life have become. Too much rides on too vague a set of criteria judged in too opaque a way. The week after Ofsted I feel free – I await to see how long it is before my vegetables start wilting again.