The Perfect Chief Inspector


This week applications opened for the new Chief Inspector of HMCI. If you’re interested you, and you’re not like Michael Wilshaw, you can apply here. I can’t help but think if we were more creative in our recruitment methods we might have greater success. So I’ve taken a leaf out of Jane and Michael Banks’ book (yes, the children from Mary Poppins) and I’ve written a short song…

Wanted: A chief inspector

If you want this choice position
Have a cheery disposition
Good ideas, a good sport
Work well, with all sorts.

You must be kind, you must be clever
And in time you should endeavour
To take on the government, give us hope
Help the teachers cope.

Never be mad or cruel,
Never forget the pressure put on schools.
Respect the teaching profession,
And end this data obsession.

If you will judge and intimidate us
Continue to undermine our status
We won’t teach your curriculum
Or play your games,
We’ll leave our jobs
For sunnier plains
Good luck, new chief!
All the best,
One more thing,
(Scrap these ridiculous tests.)

Age-Related Sexpectations


 “Miss Brown, how can people have sex with three people at once?” is not a question most people are confronted with at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon. This particular question was from a thoughtful, 9-year-old girl. She had seen something online and thought our sex education lesson was as good a time as any to seek some clarification. A deep breath and a quick moment to order my thoughts and I had an answer for her. Teaching sex education can be incredibly challenging but I’ve always enjoyed it. Firstly, because it is so important and secondly because the pupils always find it fascinating.

In the first lesson there’s inevitably a bit of giggling; it can take a while for the class to feel comfortable using words they don’t normally hear/see in the classroom (apart from during those sneaky looks in the dictionary during quiet reading or the occasional, sly Google search during Computing.) Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that 10-year-olds are obsessed with finding out about sex per se it’s more that they are infinitely curious about the world around them and, in particular, about their own bodies. For every, “What does an orgasm feel like?” question there is, “Why do we have eyebrows?” or “Why do men have nipples?” I don’t discriminate between questions in my classroom and I do my best to answer all of them as honestly as I can.

Anyone who has ever taught sex education to 9-year-olds will know that 9 years old is already too late. I’ve had 9-year-olds ask me questions about threesomes, STDs, masturbation, oral sex, sex with animals and everything in between. For most of those children this was the first sex and relationships education they’d had and their prior knowledge on the subject came from older siblings or whatever they’d seen on the internet. They weren’t asking those questions to show-off, be cheeky or wind me up. For most of them it was the only opportunity they had ever had to get some honest, straightforward answers about the mysterious world of sex. By the age of 9 they’d already been given several mixed messages and were almost relieved to have the chance to do some fact checking.

This is why I think sex and relationships education (SRE) is so important: it answers questions pupils actually wanted answered and provides them with facts that could impact their decisions later in life. Yes, reading and writing is crucial but forgetting how to use a semi-colon is unlikely to result in an unwanted pregnancy whereas not understanding how get hold of and use contraception might. It’s arguably one of the most important areas of the curriculum.

So you can imagine my despair when this week when Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, announced that sex education would not be made compulsory. The announcement was made after four House of Commons committees wrote to Morgan asking for the status of Sex and Relationships Education to be raised to statutory. Before you tell me that you have a very real memory of being shown a dated video by some red-faced Year 6 teacher etched into your retinas yes, at the moment sex education is compulsory, but only from the age of 11 and parents are allowed to remove their children from certain parts of it. This is the part I’ve always struggled with: parents are not allowed to remove their children from Maths, English, Art, Music, History etc… so why are they allowed to decide that their child should not receive this crucial part of their education?

There is a tension between parents and schools on Sex Education in a way there isn’t over other parts of the curriculum. I’ve rarely had a conversation with a parent about whose responsibility it is to teach their child about fractions or complex sentences. I’m of the opinion that we cannot rely on all parents to educate their children in an honest, factual way. Obviously, some parents are great. They feel confident talking to their children about sex and relationships and don’t mind answering any questions. Sadly, for every parent who is perfectly capable of teaching their child about sex there are parents who, due to cultural reasons, religious reasons or just plain old embarrassment are not able to have those discussions in an honest, open and factual manner. I once had a parent complain that I’d been teaching her son about “The Gays” (as if they were a mountain range.) I patiently explained we’d actually been having a discussion about the use of homophobic language and labels. Her next question was, “Well what am I meant to say to him when he asks questions about this at home?” The idea that she should just be honest hadn’t occurred to her. Her annoyance was not that he had been learning about homophobic language but that it had highlighted her own anxieties about discussing homosexual relationships.

Which is why every year, as we approach sex education, there are mutterings from a small group of parents that their children are “too young” or (my personal favourite) it might “give them ideas.” I understand that the fact that 1 in 3 10-year-olds has viewed pornography online might be difficult for some parents to accept, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Ten years old is too late. As for “giving them ideas” – firstly when it comes to sex young people don’t need to wait for school to give them the ideas so surely it’s better that they know the facts rather than having to piece together things they hear in the playground or see online. Secondly, don’t worry, nothing will dampen those thoughts faster than showing them a video of a woman giving birth.

If it were up to me, SRE would start earlier than 9. In Key Stage One I’d start with children knowing the technical terms for their anatomy and move on to educating children to understand that there are parts of their body that are private that nobody (apart from a doctor) is allowed to touch. In lower Key Stage Two we should teach puberty and the changes their bodies will go through in the coming years. It is important that this is done right – there are tales of girls starting their periods and think they’re dying because they had no idea this would happen or even boys who are worried that their periods haven’t started. Then finally, at the start of upper Key Stage 2, we should teach sex and relationships.

It’s the relationships aspect of SRE that anxious parents overlook. This is the time to discuss: homosexuality, asexuality, what it means to be transgender, feminism, marriage, divorce, fertility, dating and anxieties about relationships (which they may already be having.) Obviously these conversations shouldn’t just be restricted to sex education lessons but it’s a great place to start. This education is vital and we are doing young people a disservice by allowing their parents to opt them out of it.

Mind you, perhaps I shouldn’t expect a man who is alleged to have had sex with pig to consider honest, open discussions about sex and relationships a priority for education.

Grammatically Incorrect

I don’t often agree with Michael Wilshaw in fact I often make a point of it. However even a stopped clock yada yada, Michael Wilshaw said something so spot on last week that I felt the need to mark this rare occasion with a blog post.

I took the 11+ the year after my youngest brother Blaine was born. In Kent it is still expected that all children will take the exam, along with SATs, in their last year of Primary school. My school was fantastic and didn’t pile on the pressure but I still remember a certain amount of anxiety surrounding the test that would decide my Secondary school. I have memory of saying to Blaine on a walk (he wasn’t walking) back from school, “It’ll be your turn one day.” My Mum laughed and said “Oh, I imagine the 11+ will be long gone before then.” That was over 18 years ago and in Kent, Buckinghamshire and Reading the 11+ is still going strong. In London there are a handful of selective schools that use the 11+ as a form of entrance exam but the Primary schools do not administer the test. There shouldn’t be much more to say about this test. The 11+ has ticked along relatively unchanged for decades now – so why the post? In 1998, the year I started at the local Grammar school, Labour passed a law that made it illegal to open up new Grammar schools. So that was the end of that.

Yet last year my home town of Sevenoaks hit the National Press with the news that a new Grammar school was going to be opened. The loophole they had used was that the new school was to be an annexe of an already existing school in the next town. Now this was big news for a town whose local paper had once published, “Town not ready for sushi” as their front page headline.

The Grammar school system as we know it was established in the 1940s with the noble idea of offering public school education to children from working class backgrounds. The schools would promote social mobility: rescuing children from disadvantaged backgrounds and offering them a route out of poverty. This all sounds wonderful – but has it worked? No is perhaps the short answer. Yes pupils that attend Grammar schools achieve very high results. However, very few of these children are from disadvantaged backgrounds.  In 2013 The Sutton Trust research into Grammar schools found that:

  • “Less than 3% of pupils in Grammar schools qualify for Free School Meals (FSM) compared to the average of 18% for non-selective schools in the same area.” For those not familiar with educational shorthand, Free school meals is a rather clumsy measure of poverty but it is the best we have at the moment. To put this figure into perspective in Haringey on average 29% of pupils are eligible for FSM.
  • “Children in selective areas do worse than children who go to comprehensive schools in areas where there are no grammar school.” This one is fairly obvious. If the most able pupils are skimmed off the top and sent to Grammar schools this leaves a whole school of less able pupils without role models or peers to learn from.
  • In local authorities that operate the grammar system, children who are not eligible for free FSM have a much greater chance of attending a grammar school than similarly high achieving children (as measured by their Key Stage 2 test scores) who are eligible for FSM.

These findings should not be a surprise. In 1959 the Conservatives commissioned the Crowther Report – interesting reading if you’ve got a free afternoon; there’s at least one future blog post in my drafts based on its findings. The report found that “the children of non-manual workers are much under-represented, and the children of semi-skilled workers over-represented” in Grammar schools. So we’ve known for nearly 60 years that the system doesn’t work.

The reasons why children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to pass these tests are numerous and wide ranging. An article published earlier this week summed up it up quite nicely and it’s certainly been a discussion point in staff meetings for many years. When it comes to the 11+ access to private tutors is the perfect example of the advantages children from more affluent backgrounds have. A quick Google search will throw up the numerous options wealthier parents have for helping their child prepare for the paper.
In 2013 Buckinghamshire County tried to address this imbalance by producing new papers that were more closely linked to the curriculum taught in school with less emphasis on verbal reasoning. This way pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds would be covering the content in school. Sadly, analysis of the results showed that these new test made the gap in achievement between FSM and non-FSM even wider.
Social mobility (or lack of) aside, surely the strongest argument against the Grammar school system is that it labels children as failures at the age of 10/11? They see their friends pass and immediately draw the conclusion that they’re stupid, an attitude they take with them to Secondary school. A system that labels children as failures at 11 is not just unfair: it’s cruel.