Does Your School Have A Unicorn?


There are a lot of unicorns in schools at the moment. Things that we tell ourselves are true when we know deep down they aren’t. This doesn’t stop school leaders, politicians and advisers insisting that we believe in these myths. Here are some of the most common unicorns found in primary schools today.

Unicorn Number 1

“With “Quality First Teaching” all children will make progress”

Firstly can we please stop calling it “Quality First Teaching” as it’s empty, sanctimonious waffle like that causing many of the problems in the system at the moment. Let’s call it “quality teaching” or, even better, how about just “good teaching.”

Girl, Character, People, Person, Teacher, WomanSo yes, with a good teacher MOST children should make some sort of progress. By progress I mean they should leave that academic year being able to do things that they couldn’t do at the beginning of the year. Some children will make more progress than others and some will make progress in areas that aren’t measured (you know like increased confidence, problem solving or engaging with their learning.) I’ve had 6 classes ranging from Year 1 -5. Were you to look at the progress each of those classes made some years would suggest I am a cause for concern and others that I am outstanding – neither is true. My teaching has improved over the years but I do not take full responsibility for the progress of those children as there are too many other factors at play.

Sadly, some children won’t make progress. Or they’ll make tiny, immeasurable steps. Why? A variety of reasons: they don’t hear or speak any English at home, they only eat one meal a day, leaving them unable to focus, they share a single bed with their two siblings which means they don’t get much sleep. These aren’t “excuses” as educational big shots who never actually teach like to say; these are legitimate reasons why children, like all of us, have ups and downs.

Unicorn Number 2

“Education is the solution to social inequality”

This is my own personal unicorn. I’ve said it in job interviews, banged on at staff about it in training sessions and meetings and spouted it to anyone else who’d listen. That’s because, until very recently, I believed this to be true and because a few years ago it probably had more truth to it than it does now. Once upon a time, in the days of Sure Start, free English language courses for parents of new arrivals, community centres and libraries, schools were one cog of a large machine working to close the gap between the richest and poorest. Now with those resources being cut, school budgets frozen and Local Authorities being dismantled I have to resign myself to the fact that regardless of the quality of teaching or the progress these children appear to make in Primary school, the system we work in has rendered us powerless to compensate for social, economic and cultural inequality.

This is partly because schools no longer have the time or resources to equip children with the skills they actually need to make the difference to their lives such as working as a team, speaking in public and solving problems. Instead teachers are busy trying to get pupils to the “Expected Level” (whatever that may be) in these end of Key Stage tests. Perhaps more importantly, with all other support and resources being cut or stretched to the point they can’t function, schools are left trying to fix all social problems. We’re teaching English to the parents, feeding breakfast bars to the children who haven’t eaten since yesterday lunchtime and offering counselling to children who have witnessed domestic violence before the we begin the small matter of getting those children to National Expectations.

Attempting to reduce inequality through the education system when most other structures in our society are doing the opposite is like trying to clap with one hand.

 Unicorn Number 3

“Good teachers address the different learning styles in their class.”

I think most schools have woken up to this one. I only mention it because I still heard “Learning Styles” being discussed on a course earlier this year. It’s amazing how these things are able to take hold. I remember my friend telling me the lesson feedback he had received from a member of the SLT, “you have a clear voice so that will help the auditory learners.”  Being one of my more honest friends he said “Yes, all the children in my class that have ears probably find it useful when their teacher speaks with a clear voice.” Similarly Professor Bill Lucas once said to the staff at my first school “I am a visual learner because I can see.”

Whether it is brain gym, excessive water drinking or making sure every class completes an annual VAK test, some people in schools can be too keen to embrace the latest pseudo-science. There is little evidence to support the “Learning Styles” theory so perhaps it’s just best to focus on making our lessons interesting and engaging.

Unicorn Number 4

“Every minute counts”

This is an interesting one. The people that say this tend to be self-righteous school leaders or Education Czars. You meet them on the courses sometimes – the head teacher that declares smugly, “well we don’t watch DVDs in MY school on the last day of term.” It sounds impressive doesn’t it? “Every minute of this child’s education counts – we mustn’t waste time.” What I want to know is do the people that parrot this say it because they believe it or do they just want people to think they believe it? Obviously, it isn’t true. The brain is not a bucket that needs to be filled with information and if you “just hang on one more minute” you’ll be able to fill it some more. The brain is a muscle; it needs to be exercised and rested.

Think about your working day – are you equally productive every minute of the day? Of course not. You might work solidly for two hours then break for one. Or work all morning and ease off in the afternoon. There is no reason why children would be any different. I’m not saying that every day should be spent watching films or making posters but there is nothing wrong with Golden Time on Friday afternoon or eating mini eggs and watching “Hotel Transylvania” on the last day of term. Everyone needs downtime – even 6-year-olds.

Interestingly, the people that spout “every minute counts” assume that our school day is the optimum time for learning. School days in all-conquering Finland end anytime between 12 and 2pm – the belief is that school should be a small part of a child’s day. So formal education is a few hours then they are free to play, explore, draw pictures – just be children.

Unicorn Number 5

“How much progress have they made this half term?”

The idea a child will make measurable progress every 6 weeks is one of the most damaging myths in education today. 6 weeks is about 30 school days. Yes, with a comfortable home life, parents who read to them and 100% attendance a child will make progress over the course of the year – but that is not the home life most children have. Even those that make progress over the course of the year may not make measurable progress every 30 days.

Refugees, Economic Migrants, Financial Equalization
Progress is not a made in measurable blocks

I’ve recently taken up boxing and god forbid you were to make a graph of my progress. I am very, very bad at it. In the last lesson I left with marks on my arms from where I repeatedly hit myself with the rope whilst attempting to skip.  So at the moment my progress would be a horizontal line – hopefully, after 6 months you might see a slight curve. However, once I’ve got to grips with the basics I imagine the instructor will introduce new punches and skills that I won’t be able to do. So I’ll be back at the beginning. If I practise every day and turn up to every session I will probably get better much faster than if I go home every night and sit on the sofa eating burritos. My boxing instructor is great; he is incredibly skilled, pushes me to work hard and models every task clearly. The reason my progress is a flat line is not because he’s a poor teacher or even because I am unwilling student it’s because I haven’t been boxing for long enough to have honed those skills yet.

So often what children need is time to learn without being tested every 30 days. However the DfE want measurable steps of progress so measurable steps of progress we must find.

I’ll be honest – I don’t so much mind that school leaders and education experts talk about these myths as though they are all true because everybody does. I imagine I’ve said every one of these at some point in my career either in an interview, to an Ofsted inspector or to the local authority. I’ve said them because these are the things you are meant to say. However to other teachers and the rest of the SLT I am able to speak honestly. I was the first to open the mini eggs on the last day of term and the last to judge a teacher’s ability on their results alone. What I want to know is – does anyone REALLY believe them? Do you believe in unicorns?


First Persons and Fish Pets

89 children have joined my school since September – that is far more than your average Primary school. Out of those 89 new arrivals only nine arrived speaking someChildren, Kids, School, Little, Boys English. The rest had none. Nada. They’ve come from all over the world: Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Somalia, Lithuania, Afghanistan, Romania… and those are just the children that have joined my class. This is their first experience of a British school and some of them (particularly the KS1 children) didn’t go to school in their home countries.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a moan, I knew how diverse my school was before I applied – it’s one of the reasons I wanted to work there. The fact that there are so many different languages and cultures mixing every day brings out the best in the children who, it has to be said, are wonderful with the new arrivals. There’s always a fight over who will get to be the buddies and then it is with real they carry around a whiteboard with them during the first week to draw pictures to try and explain things to their new, bewildered classmate. They love teaching each other their first language and showing us on the class map the country they were born in.

There is, in Educational circles, a myth that if you throw a non-English speaking child into a class of English speaking children they will just “pick it up”. Sort of through osmosis.  The first issue of this is that in my school most of their peers don’t speak English as a first language. What is far more likely to happen is that the new arrival will find the child/children in the class that speak their first language and then spend their first few days speaking through that new friend.

Even if the rest of the class were fluent in English just “hoping” they’ll pick it up is not how you teach a language. If I wanted to learn French spending 6 hours a day in a room of people that were speaking French would not be the most effective way for me to do that. I would probably learn “hello”, “goodbye”, “lunch” and “toilet” very quickly because those can be understood from the context of conversation but if, after 8 weeks of being in France, I was asked to explain in French how I knew the character in the story was feeling unwell I probably wouldn’t know what I’d been asked/known we even reading a story let alone have enough language to form an answer.

And of course learning to speak English is only half the battle. I have plenty of children that can speak, read and write in English to the point that they can be understood but they’re still learning how to structure sentences. My favourite example of this conversation that I had in my previous school with a 7-year-old boy. He was born in Pakistan but moved to the UK when he was 5.

Me: Does anyone else have a pet?

Boy: Yes. Fish.

Me: Great so the sentence is: I have a pet fish. Can you say that sentence?

Boy: I have fish.

Me: Try again. I have a PET fish.

Boy: I have a fish pet.

Sure enough, when I marked his writing later that day there it was:

fish pet

Fish, Kids, Clip Art, Pink, Cartoon

What could I say to him? “Sorry you’ve used fish as the adjective which is why this sentence doesn’t make sense”? His sentence was incorrect however he’s 7 years-old and doesn’t yet have enough English for me to explain to him why it was incorrect. I wrote the correct sentence underneath but he still doesn’t understand why my sentence is right and his is wrong. He doesn’t have enough experience of English to be able to “hear that it is right.”(Another skill teachers often rely on children having, “Read your work back – does this sound right?” Well, yes to this little boy it did.)

None of this should matter because really I shouldn’t be trying to get children to read and write in English before they can speak it. However, I get paid by the Government to my job and they have decided that my job is make sure all children are writing at National Expectations by the time they are 7 whether or not they speak English yet. Not only that, the effectiveness of my school will be judged by the number of children that meet National Expectations. Their results will be put in a table and my school will be placed below schools where over 90% of the pupils have English as their first language.

So to ensure my school isn’t deemed as a complete failure I don’t just have to teach these children to speak English I  have to simultaneously teach them to write, read and understand grammar rules. They have to be able to use adverbs, contractions, plurals, past and present tense (that one is particularly tricky for children new to English.) They need to have enough understanding about tenses to answer questions on the KS1 Grammar test. Questions like this: SPag1

Of the 22 children in my set, nine of them wrote “go”, six wrote “gone”, three wrote “been” and one wrote “went” (hooray for the one!) The rest left it blank.

The Reading Paper doesn’t provide much relief either. It’s not just that most of the children don’t have enough English yet to actually read the paper, although that is a huge issue, it’s that even the children that CAN access the paper has such limited vocabulary they can’t draw any meaning form it. These children don’t have the points of reference that a child growing up in a more affluent, English-speaking household would have. They don’t know what or where Big Ben is, where the Queen lives or who The Beatles are. They’ve never heard of Shakespeare, Radio 4 or David Cameron… (you have to envy them that last one.) The small amount of English that they have is conversational and based entirely on their experiences; they have such a restricted vocabulary.

They don’t speak English at home so most of my class know the words they need to get through the school day as well as perhaps the names of animals, computer games and a couple of countries. Again this wouldn’t be a problem if it was just about us muddling through the day. However the Reading Test they will take in May means they will have to decode and understand words like: valley, horizon, ashore, drift, exclaim, palm because the Government thinks they should be able to. Words like these, that they do not encounter day-to-day, require explaining. Often with a picture or diagram (although that’s not always possible. I once had a very painful conversation where I tried to explain the word “inappropriate” in the context of behaviour and we had to agree on “not right for school.”)

When I am reading to my class I don’t stop to explain every word because I just want them to enjoy the story so I have to judge whether knowledge of a word is key to them understanding the story. Whilst I am getting them ready for the Reading Paper they can’t just enjoy listening to stories or reading they have to understand every word and give very specific answers to questions about what they have read.

Reading paperThis is a page from the DfE sample papers. Even if you ignore the amount of language a child new to country wouldn’t understand there are other skills at play here that they won’t have had a chance to develop. For example, question 12: “How do you know that Frog was excited?” half a dozen of my children wrote ,”Frog is smiling” which I suppose is a perfectly logical conclusion to draw when you look at the picture (which is one the strategies we teach the children to use to help them when they are learning to read.) The correct answer is actually, “Frog says, “This is definitely our lucky day/this is what I call an adventure.”” Which my class won’t recognise as an expression of excitement because no one they interact day-to-day speaks like that.

This isn’t a post arguing against testing in schools and it isn’t meant to be a list of excuses for why the children in my class won’t score highly on these tests. The argument is about testing children before they have learnt the language the test is written in. This final story sums it up quite nicely. The Man On The Piccadilly Line was teaching his Year 6 set last week and going through the tests with them. One very hard working, conscientious girl put up her hand and said, “I came to this country 3 years ago and I think I have worked hard and I have learnt a lot of English but I find these tests really hard as I don’t know enough English yet.”

There was a petition recently asking for Education ministers to sit the KS2 assessments. Perhaps we should go one step further than that and send them to India and in 12 weeks time they can take the KS2 assessments in Tamil.