GUEST POST: How Early Should The Early Years Be?

Let me first introduce myself and explain why this blog won’t be as expertly written as it usually is. On a previous blog Zoe quotes Hemmingway, “the first draft of everything is shit.” For Zoe, this is a comfort to her in reading her first drafts. I’m sorry but my final draft is still a bit stinky, but it will have to do. Anyway, as well as being a not-so-slick -logger I am also a qualified teacher with experience in KS1 and lower KS2. I taught for 5 years before hanging up my interactive whiteboard pen for motherhood. Three and a half years as a Stay At Home Mum (SAHM) has taught me more about early education than 5 of years teaching.  I’m not suggesting motherhood should be a necessary aspect of teacher training or outstanding teaching by any stretch of the imagination, but it has most definitely cast a plethora of colour across my previously black and white views on education. 

As educators, we regularly debate the pros and cons of well, everything. One thing that we all bemoan is the governments constant need to leave a mark and flip flop between fads and fashions, regardless of their suitability in preparing children for the changing world that we live in; but that is another argument for another (and doubtless previous) blog.

When it comes to discussing early years education in this country you cannot have a conversation without someone throwing Finland into the mix. In a very basic nutshell, Finland’s education system is free for all and concentrates on real play based learning for much longer than in this country. Early childhood education and care is from age 0-5, and comes in many forms but is essentially an informal setting. This is followed by Pre- Primary education (what we call ‘preschool’ or ‘nursery’ here) and then formal education, which starts at aged 7. Compare that to our little nippers starting at aged 3 in nursery or pre-school and compulsory education from aged 4-5 and one might assume that we in the UK produce genius adults, considering the number of hours of formal education they rack up. Well, no. Finland outperforms us in the PISA rankings year after year. The reasons for this are varied and complex, but many scholars, parents and teachers have put this success down to the holistic approach and starting school when the children are truly ‘ready to learn’.

In the U.K., if you have the money, you can make the decision to send your child to a Montessori or Steiner school. These schools have a more practical and play based learning approach – where children aren’t ‘moved on’ until they are ready to learn. Some hard-line Steiner schools insist the moment when children are ready to learn is when they lose their first milk tooth around age seven but the theories behind that are too many and too complex for a single blog. I’m not sure that I buy into the loss of baby teeth signalling readiness to learn – but it is rather novel to imagine that moment: Billy runs to you in assembly (that the head teacher is conducting) with his proud grin, clutching a blood-tinged canine tooth and thrusts it into your palm for safe-keeping, “Congratulations Billy, you’ve graduated to the desk and chair level of education, grab your books and crack on with your 2 times tables”. 

Where do I stand? Well, first, let me tell you where I stood. Pre-children I was adamant that we start formal education too soon. I felt that instead of building an education system that best prepared children for the future we had an education system that provided free childcare from a early age and pushed children to acquire facts and knowledge far beyond their capabilities. I believed that starting so early was especially damaging to those children who were struggling to keep up in Reception and then fully giving up by the end of Year 1, at the age of six, a full year before the Finnish children even start school. It’s not uncommon to hear KS1 teachers say, “There’s such a huge difference in maturity between Year 1 and Year 2′ – they’re so much more ready to learn.” Is there any truth to that? Have they simply learned how to learn by Year 2? I will say that I was truly convinced.

Then I had a child. I swore there was NO WAY I would be sending her to nursery at 3. Then by 22 months old she knew all her shapes, all her colours, the alphabet in and out of order and was speaking in full sentences – without any coaching or pushing. I adjusted my stance, ‘Well she’ll benefit socially,’ I told myself. ‘I could send her for one or two sessions, it’s play based anyway.’ Then, by two and half, she was getting very frustrated if she wasn’t pushed (she also had a baby sister who took up a lot of my time.) Her thirst for knowledge was unquenchable she had cognitively outgrown the home setting. Which is how she, at 3, came to be the child that attends nursery 5 sessions a week and I became the parent who was sat in a nursery office asking my child to be pushed more because she was getting bored and acting out…

I am aware that my daughter is slightly unusual – but by no means unique. Whilst she is extremely bright she is by no means alone, plenty of children are at or near her level in her nursery. They are ready to learn, they are grumpy when they don’t. Suffice to say this has altered my perspective significantly. However, my experience does also remind me of the many children who are not at all ready at 4 when we trot them off to school (post obligatory first day selfie) and deposit them for 6 long hours of learning. What is the answer?

Personally, I wonder if we are a tad too obsessed with age and peer relationships. Though theoretically it is possible to advance children up a year or keep them back to repeat it very rarely happens. The stated reason usually being ‘it will hamper their bonds with peers’. Wouldn’t it make more sense though if Billy, who isn’t ready for Year 1 just did another year in Reception and Brandi, who is a year ahead, moved up a year? If it became the norm they wouldn’t stand out, if they didn’t stand out they wouldn’t be left out. They’d just be more comfortable working at the level they need to be working at. That way the early years could start early or not so early. The children would build and develop a real confidence in their ability. The social mobility might even help children develop better social skills and differentiation in lessons would be more on point because teachers wouldn’t be torn between the children who are two years behind and the ones pushing on two years ahead. 


GUEST POST: Coming Out In The Classroom

‘Never discuss your private life’. Along with ‘don’t smile before Christmas’, this is one of the first commandments drilled into you in teacher training, but what happens when your private life is visibly tied up with your identity?

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The summer has been simultaneously shocking and celebratory, with a number of very public tributes to the individuals who campaigned tirelessly for this abolition and those who suffered under the consequences of the law.

Having sobbed our way through Peter Gale’s ‘Man in an Orange Shirt’, conversation turned to how invigorating it was to see these programmes so openly publicised. The current generation of school and university students are growing up in a world which, for the most part, celebrates diversity and acceptance. A world where openly gay characters are portrayed living mundane daily lives and ‘out’ members of the public appear, unclothed, on reality shows discussing naked suitors, with no one batting an eyelid. This couldn’t be further from our experiences growing up pre-internet, when the exposure to LGBTQ+ representation was through the scandalous 5 second lesbian kisses on Neighbours and Brookside, or sneaking down late at night to watch Queer as Folk and Bad Girls.

But whilst we are making enormous strides in our public attitudes, there remains one sector of society which is finding it hard to move on. Whilst individually, the majority of pupils approach life with an open mind, as a collective group, our current student body are producing worrying statistics. According to a 2014 Stonewall report, of teachers surveyed, 86% acknowledged homophobic bullying, 89% say that they regularly hear homophobic comments and language and yet only 43% of these teachers say that they would intervene. Only a quarter of all schools provided clear policies on homophobic behaviour and in 65% of cases, even this is not properly enforced. How are we getting it so right in one area of society and yet so wrong in another?

To answer this, we must look to our own attitudes. I remember one of my peers asking our PGCE tutor about coming out in the classroom and the response stuck in my mind for years. ‘Don’t give the children any more ammunition. They will never respect you again’. I was truly saddened by this response, not because of the negativity towards the LGBT issue, but because of the inherent suspicion and distrust she afforded the pupils. Now, at this stage I was not a misty-eyed dreamer, expecting to be adored for bestowing my pearls of wisdom upon eager young minds. I had had my eyes opened after teaching in an underprivileged and unenthusiastic school in northern Spain for a year and subsequently, working as a language assistant in two local state schools. I had seen horrendous examples of neglect, bullying, and gang related violence but never at any stage did I consider education to be a battle pitting teachers against students. I was shocked by her answer but I wasn’t surprised.

See, my PGCE tutor began her career in 1964 and when she entered the profession, homosexuality was illegal. Over the course of her career she saw the decriminalisation in 1967, worked under Section 28 (prohibiting open discourse about homosexual relationships) in 1988, witnessed the repeal of this law in 2003 and the establishment of Civil Partnerships in 2005. It is no wonder the response to the question seemed antiquated. To some extent we are all guilty of making assumptions based on our own experiences but if these attitudes are presented as lore, we are in danger of not allowing new teachers the momentum to move the profession forward.  They say it takes three generations to change public sentiment, one to rewrite the rules, one to bluster through the change and one to have never known anything different. Yet schools and teaching can be inherently institutionalised and may be in danger of not moving on.

I started teaching in a well-known public boarding school and soon began a relationship with another female member of staff. I heeded my tutor’s advice and, whilst one would always aim to be discrete in such an intimate environment, vowed never to allow this relationship become public knowledge amongst the pupils. My decision was confirmed by comments from a long-serving member of the Common Room that ‘people like you shouldn’t be trusted to work in the boarding houses’ and a close acquaintance asserting that I would ‘single-handedly destroy the reputation of the school’. This led to 9 months of looking over my shoulder and cringing whenever a student mentioned anything LGBTQ+ related. I was never 100% comfortable hiding away, but believed it was the only option.

My attitude, however, changed over the course of one evening. One of the 6th form girls came to me in floods of tears between platitudes and armfuls of tissues, she managed to choke out ‘Miss, I think I’m gay and I don’t know who else to tell. I thought you might understand because… you know…’. My heart stopped. She knew. I felt the floor fall away beneath me but my instincts kicked in, I had to put her pieces back together before I could concentrate on mine. By the time we finished, she was bouncing out of the room talking excitedly about her Oxbridge offer. I however, had never felt so sick and immediately went to explain the situation to the housemistress, an insane but wonderful French woman. Far from the conversation I expected, she wittered on about how ‘delighted she was that this girl could come and talk to me’ and ‘how wonderful it was for the pupils to have a visible, gay role model’. Both tears and the scales fell from my eyes.

Far from protecting myself, I was perpetuating the myth that sexuality is something to feel ashamed and afraid of and was helping drive it back underground. I was standing in front of these pupils every day, encouraging them to be proud of their individuality, but refusing to heed my own advice. If we want our pupils to celebrate their diversity, should we not be leading by example? I promised myself that, from then on, I would be honest and open if and when the matter arose. When we married in 2013, one of the mothers made the cake, colleagues attended and pupils conveyed their happiness and congratulations. Why had I been afraid?

Since then I have experienced, almost exclusively, acceptance. The only negative moment was during a maternity cover at an all-boys Catholic school when the headmaster called me to his office to say they weren’t going to extend my contract as ‘my lifestyle didn’t suit their ethos’. I was, naturally, upset and furious and I wanted to spend months seething and plotting revenge. But I didn’t. That would be letting him win. He had the power over my contract but I refused to give him the power to poison my mood. Ultimately, I now didn’t want to work for this institution and the only person who would be hurt by my blistering temper would have been my wife. So I had a large gin, held my head high and ensured that I was particularly subversive in my final months to help create support networks for those who didn’t fit the mould.

Subsequently, any school I have worked for has encouraged me to be open about my sexuality, embracing the importance of visibility. When I was younger Section 28 was in force and, aside from the locker room speculations about the PE teacher, there were no visible role models in real life. Every year I have a couple of students come out to me and this reinforces my belief that we need to support teachers in being open, with no fear of recrimination. We cannot live in the past, allowing antiquated attitudes and our own prejudices to be handed down from generation to generation. We must help move society towards a place where someone’s sexuality is as mundane as their hair colour.

We are incredibly fortunate to be living in the modern world where many of the barriers have been broken down by those who went before us but, in all good conscience, I cannot say that every member of the LGBTQ+ community lives without fear. Yes, we can now celebrate same-sex marriages, proudly go into adoption and fertility treatment, and live our humdrum lives arguing about whose turn it is to make the tea; but to say that we all live without fear of retribution is to silence thousands of voices. We still read of too many cases of violence being perpetrated against members of the LGBTQ+ community, too many stories of young people taking their own lives through fear of social discrimination, too many examples of individuals being turned away from their families. How do we help close the gap between general public sentiment, and the experiences of thousands in their own homes? Acceptance of homosexuality needs to step out of the television screen and into reality but, to make a stand, we need use the resources available to us. Teachers are one our most powerful weapons in the fight against homophobia and we need to give them our full support to ensure that our arsenals are well stocked.


“Take Back Control” and the Death of the Policy

This guest post comes from Alex Hunter, Insights & Analytics Director for Hearth Group and a longstanding Labour member. He shares his thoughts on the role policy has to play in the era of the political slogan. 


On the 18th of February 2017, Donald Trump held a rally in Florida where supporters held aloft signs that read ‘Make America Great Again’. Trump told reporters that he first came up with the slogan after the loss of the presidency to the Democrats in 2012. Of course, this may be true, but when Donald was 33 years old in New York City, Ronald Reagan was using that phrase in all his campaign media.

In 1963, Martin Luther King spoke from the heart when he said “I have a dream…” and it was to become one of the defining speeches of the age. Many have discussed the rhetorical measures employed, and the theatrics by which it was delivered. However, in reality it was simply an excellent reflection of feeling at the time, and it therefore deeply resonated with people and effected change.

I’ve wondered if Nigel Farage would like to think he can bump up against such titans of global politics, but his most catchy of slogans was ‘Nigel Farage will give Britain its voice back’ which wasn’t quite ‘Take Back Control’. The credit for that slogan goes to Dominic Cummings, a political strategist, not Nigel, Boris or Gove. Again, resonance was needed, and for this they turned not to internal feelings of discontent, but to data science.

The “Vote Leave” campaign hired scientists and engineers to build the databases and tools required to deliver an extremely effective campaigning tool. However, they also used their data to understand on a deeper level what makes people tick and used this to their benefit. They outclassed the opposition by competing on a different plane. No longer did policies matter when you could tap in to a different level of thinking. This is the future advocated by Dominic Cummings.

So, we’ve tapped into an emotional way of thinking and shortened political debate by about 7,000 words, but how did it come to this? It’s more the why, than the how. I believe I can point the finger squarely at my own industry, market research.

Asking people what they think is now easier than ever, and in some ways you don’t even need to ask. However, step back to the dark ages (before the internet) and you will find many more people than now were knocking on doors and dialling numbers to ask people to fill out a survey. This generates huge amounts of paperwork and data. Why not use the latest in text analytics to scoop up every public (and not so public) thing that people say and use that instead? And so, in our most public age of sharing, a new industry was born of predictive analytics and algorithms.

The problem with standard commercial text analytics is that it still doesn’t really work. If you send that last sentence through my IBM text analytics software it tells me that I’m displaying negative sentiment and talking about the category of analytics. It’s right of course, I am, but it has obviously lost a lot of the nuance of my language. If you condense everything into a black or white statement on a category then you’re very likely to see the debate as fairly polarised. 44% believe the economy is negative, 38% believe it is positive, 18% ‘unknown’.

This means that the process of governing has become so much easier. No longer is it necessary to understand or empathise. You don’t need to believe in what you’re doing, you just need to sell it. Which is the best environment for corporate marketing. We are being governed not by politicians, but by marketers. Is it any wonder that the media means so much to them. They analyse sentiment, deliver policies and wrap it all up in a catchphrase which appeals to our base emotions. When the rewards are big enough, someone steps this on, and delivers class leading political messaging.

In 1996 Tony Blair took to the stage of the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool and after a while he said, “Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you: education, education and education.” to rapturous applause. He chose this line because he had looked at all the polling and knew that a focus on education was not only important to him, but to Britain. This was a new way of working and was to continue to guide him for years to come.

Fast forward 20 years, and we have Theresa May saying, “Brexit means Brexit” which not only didn’t make much sense, but left people empty of feeling. What we don’t know though is whether this was an attempt to surf the wave of feeling generated by the referendum. Did this play to concern that politicians were fiddling around the edges? Is this the tell to suggest Theresa has switched up to a new way of working?

What does this mean for Corbyn and Labour? Well, it probably means that his concentration on policies that matter will only continue to speak to the people for whom are willing to engage which means there will continue to be the obvious echo chamber effect. Of course, it is entirely possible to go out and fight on fair terms, bringing all the same data science to bear. Alternatively, it will be necessary to await the political conditions that were there for Martin Luther King Jr. and hope it comes soon.

You can follow Alex on Twitter @alexghunter

GUEST POST: Generation Rent


This week’s guest post comes from one of my favourite people – Kath Shaw. We’ve been friends ever since the day we had to create a make-shift rubbish disposal cart whilst working together at a multiplex cinema. Our cinema days are behind us and we’re now grown-ups trying to navigate life in London. By day Kath works in PR and by night she takes me to comedy gigs.

GUEST POST: Generation Rent

Nine out of ten north London private renters have had “serious problems” with their homes, according to details of the #BigRentersSurvey released last week; problems ranging from landlords entering the property without prior notice, deposits not being returned and unexpected rent hikes.

I moved into a new flat at the start of this month and with one day’s notice was told the rent was going up. The letting agency had known I was moving in for eight weeks so why hadn’t they told me earlier? Presumably because they knew that with 24 hours to go I would already be packed, there would already be somebody ready to take over the room I was vacating and I would have no choice but to meet their demands.

I take little comfort in being part of the 90 per cent of people being screwed over in the city but I take some comfort in knowing that Sian Berry, Green member of the London Assembly and former mayoral candidate, is calling on Sadiq Khan to set up an independent London-wide organisation to represent renters. London is made up of private renters; it’s about time we had the help available to us made clear and formulised. It’s about time there was some protection.

My salary didn’t increase in line with my rent so it just means a larger percentage of it will be given over to my landlord, but I’m by no means the worst affected here. I have a job which pays well and a family who’ll ensure I don’t go hungry. Lots of people don’t. The people who work in the retail or service industry in zones one or two who earn minimum wage – where do they live? The minimum wage in London for 21-24 year olds is £6.95. On a 39 hour a week contract, they will take home – after tax and national insurance – around £1062 a month. Even less if they’re making the pension contributions we’re all being told to make. They’re met with the challenge of working out whether it’s cheaper to live in central and walk to work, or live in zones five and six where the rents are slightly lower and pay travel. The reality is they’re probably working an extra job (or two) and sharing their flats with multiple people. For them, it’s not a case of a little less disposable income. Every fiver was accounted for when I was unemployed and then again when I was on minimum wage. That £40 extra a month on rent just simply isn’t there to spare.
During the 24 hours of ‘negotiations’ with my new letting agency, they suggested I should give up the tenancy and they would ‘find someone who was happy to pay market rate’. Show me those people. Who are they? Who is walking around happy to pay £500+ a month for a box room in a converted council flat? What they meant is they’d find someone happy to accept that they have to pay market rate.

I moved from the North East to London and sometimes when I want to cloak myself in sadness, I play the, ‘what would this get me in County Durham?’ game. The answer: a three bed house in a good catchment area, a yard – potentially a garden, living room, dining room, garage. But I just brush it off. I join in with colleagues as we share those all too frequent viral room adverts offering little more than a tent in a living room. I frivolously compare London to the cinema whereby I wouldn’t dream of going into a supermarket and happily handing over £14 for a Diet Coke and some Butterkist but within the parallel economy of a multiplex cinema, I don’t question it. London is my Vue: County Durham, my Sainsbury’s.

And that’s fine for me. I could pick myself up and move back. If the work opportunities were better, I probably would – and I’d probably fit back in just fine. But what about all the Londoners who are being priced out of their own home city by greedy landlords who plead that ‘they’re just charging market rate’ (as if market rate isn’t something they have any shitting control over) – do they have to move out to completely new areas, get new jobs and build new support networks? That can’t be how it is.

So it’s not just landlords screwing born and bred Londoners over. It’s idiots like me, who keep paying the ridiculous rents. I could just stop. Maybe we should just stop – that might be the only way the revolution starts. If we all just bartered and dared to suggest that maybe the bedsit with the leaky shower wasn’t legitimately worth £680 a month – and all agreed that we wouldn’t pay it. Landlords would have to price their properties in accordance to their actual worth, not the value they’ve escalated it to. Mobilising a city of people is all it would take…

Generation Rent. That’s what we’re called. Those in (or approaching) their 30s who have half the wealth than those born a decade earlier had at the same age and have the lowest house ownership rates for any generation in a century. If we’ve been given a name then it seems likely we’re renting for the foreseeable. It’s bad enough that London homes are too expensive for us to ever own them, we shouldn’t have to also deal with an inefficient and exploitative renting system.

So whilst things don’t seem likely to change anytime soon, it might have to be enough to at least have some help which Sian Berry’s Londonwide renters organisation would offer. In the meantime, I’ll flesh out that mass mobilisation idea.