Is There Something Wrong With How We Teach Children To Write?

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The idea for this post came to me at 10:35am whilst I was boarding a train at Amsterdam Centraal.  We were heading to Cologne to check out the Christmas markets. I spent the entire two-hour journey scribbling down the idea on a piece of paper my husband had been using as a bookmark. (I normally carry a notebook but on this occasion, had left it at home to make more room for Cologne Christmas purchases.) My notes were messy and incoherent as I rushed to get everything down:

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The next day I sat at my desk and transferred my notes into a first draft. It was still incoherent: just a list of points I wanted to make that needed to be fleshed out into full sentences. During the drafting stage I am always comforted by Hemingway’s claim that, “the first draft of everything is shit.” I used to have this quote written on a post-it and stuck to my laptop as a reminder for those “this is so crap and you’re deluded if you think anyone will ever read it” days.

That draft was written about a month ago and since then I’ve been editing and rewriting. The idea that had come so suddenly and easily proved to be harder to write than I’d thought.  But I liked the idea so I stayed with it. Yesterday I had 1,700 words in a sort of coherent structure but still wasn’t happy; I dropped the laptop into my husband’s lap and said, “Can you work out why this is so rubbish?” I just couldn’t get it right – I had been so enthusiastic about the initial idea it was as if any attempt to create the post didn’t do the idea justice. Once he’d read it he commented how ironic it was, given the subject matter of the post, that I was struggling with it so much.

Then last night, as I was getting into bed, it clicked; I realised what I’d been doing wrong. I grabbed my notebook and quickly scribbled out a new plan ready to be typed up the next day. And here it is- you’re reading it which means I’m finally happy enough with it to post it – hooray!

You’ll notice I haven’t actually mentioned the idea that came to me on the train to Cologne – so far this has just been a blog about blogging (meta-blogging?) The idea itself is something that I was always slightly aware of as a teacher but has been highlighted since I started writing professionally:

Why is there such disconnect between how we as adults write and the processes we ask pupils in schools to follow?

It starts with asking children to generate ideas on demand. Yes, we provide plenty of discussion and stimulus but essentially a child can walk into a classroom and be told that in that hour they have to come up with an idea for a report/story/diary entry etc… That’s a big ask. Even when I’m pitching ideas to my editor they are ideas I’ve developed in my own time. Of course time is the main constraint here and generating ideas is just one part of writing (and the part that normally involves the least writing) so we can’t afford the luxury of allowing children endless time to generate ideas and develop them. Equally, if the objective is “To write a diary entry” there is no reason why you can’t provide the pupil with the idea just to get them writing.

Once they’ve had/been given the idea it is commonplace to ask children to complete some sort of plan. Google “KS1/KS2 planning formats” and you’ll be presented with dozens of versions of essentially the same document: a page of boxes for the children to complete.

 

In the early stages of their education, when children need to be taught HOW to plan, there is certainly a place for these but once they’ve learnt the process I would argue that these templates can be more of a hindrance than a help. On a practical level the boxes are small which means you have to think about keeping your handwriting neat to make sure your ideas fit in. It also limits the amount you can write which doesn’t allow for those ideas to lead to other ideas – there just isn’t the space for that!

My plans are messy and illegible to anyone else and that’s fine because nobody else needs to read them. What is the main barrier to children being allowed to plan their writing freely? I would argue it’s presentation policies and policies that state there should be a certain number of completed pieces of work in a book each week. I’m not saying children shouldn’t take care over their presentation and learn to underline the date etc… but it shouldn’t take priority over the learning. Children need a space where they can write freely without worrying about cursive script or drawing in a margin. Some schools have draft books or jotters for this purpose but I’ve heard of schools getting rid of these books because they were “messy” or hiding them when Ofsted turn up.

Once they’ve planned, children start their first draft. In the ideal world the children would have the option of typing a first draft because the process of editing and rewriting is laborious enough without having to do it by hand. If you’ve written a four-page draft that you want to edit and then rewrite, it means turning back and forth between pages and squashing notes into a margin or rewriting sentences in that little gap between the original sentence and the line. Once again, when you’re first teaching editing, it’s essential that children see the process modelled, either by watching you mark their work or editing a piece of work together as class. By upper KS2 children should be able to edit their own work with the support of a checklist of criteria and a dictionary. Their editing would need to be checked by the class teacher but most of it could be done independently. The problem with editing is that it takes time – time that schools don’t have. This post took weeks to edit but even when I’m on a deadline the process can take days and includes a cooling off period where I walk away from the piece for anything from an hour to a day.

Finally we ask children to write up their work. As in rewrite the whole piece again. By hand. For what could be the third or fourth time depending how many drafts they’ve done. Out come the line guides, paperclips and ruled margins which will end up being elaborately decorated. Had they been word processing from the beginning the final draft would be there waiting to print once they’d finished editing and even if that isn’t an option I question how valuable “copying up” lessons are. You could perhaps argue it is a handwriting exercise but there are other ways to teach handwriting. By the “copying up” stage only the keenest of children are still interested in this piece of writing.

Conversely, how often do children get to scrap their work and start again from the very beginning if they want to? I had a child ask to do exactly that when the rest of the class were on their final drafts and I said no because we only had one more lesson to spend on this and next week we’d be moving on to something new. That was the right answer. Children have to learn to meet deadlines and follow instructions and I’m not suggesting we abandon our plans every time a child changes their mind but I do wonder whether if I’d agreed that he could start again on the condition he’d have to work on it at home he might have produced a better piece.

Obviously we’re not teaching children to be “writers” any more than we’re teaching them to be astronauts, doctors or civil servants. We are teaching them to write which requires practising the basics over and over again. It means showing them how to construct complex sentences and how to use punctuation and grammar and giving them time to practise it. Writing is bloody hard work and learning to write even more so.

This post isn’t a criticism – just a general musing. I would love to hear about how different schools teach writing  – please get in touch. I’m also not suggesting that the way I write is how we should teach children to write – I’m not Michael Gove. It’s just that if we are serious about children mastering a “writer’s voice” we should, at least occasionally, allow them to behave like writers.

 

Yes, We Have No Glue Sticks.

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I’ve been away from education for nearly 6 months now and most of that time has been spent abroad; I’ve not followed educational news as closely as I would have done in the past and what’s interesting is how much you still pick up from the headlines. The recruitment crisis is still heavily reported (although I would argue it is more a retention crisis than a recruitment crisis.) Government figures released last month reveled that a third of teachers who qualified in 2010, which incidentally is the year I started teaching, have since left the profession. A third. And that doesn’t include those who didn’t even make it through training. Workload is still a problem and still reported along with the clickbait stories published in the Daily Mail about school uniform and behaviour policies that they consider ridiculous. Message to school leaders: if the Daily Mail think you’re doing something wrong, you’re probably not.

There’s one piece of big news that schools have been talking about for a couple of years now and has only just been picked up by the media: budgets. In his 2015 Autumn statement Osborne (Remember him? Friends with David Cameron? Carried a red briefcase? Had a fondness for cocaine and S&M?) announced that the Government was going to cut the Education Services Grant by 75%. That’s the grant that pays for educational psychologists, speech therapists, physiotherapy, truancy officers, DBS checks, management of school buildings, school improvement and occupational therapy. Gone. Local Authorities used to offer a certain number of hours for free – these cuts means schools have to pay for each service individually. At the same time schools are trying to compensate for the decimation of other state services its families rely on. Gone are the days of Sure Start centres, behaviour support and youth services: schools are offering parenting classes and English lessons to try and help families. Teachers are buying breakfast for children who haven’t eaten since their school lunch the day before. Increasingly, schools are having to appoint their own social workers as local authority provision becomes increasingly stretched; legal services and insurance that used to be provided for free have been cut and those that still exist have to be paid for.

The Government have said that until 2020 school budgets are “protected” which guarantees that schools will lose no more than 1.5% of their income per pupil per year. However this doesn’t factor in any additional costs needed to cover inflation and extra costs such as higher employer NI and pension contributions. This means that, in reality, the actual value of funding per pupil in real-terms will fall by as much as 8% and in some cases more than that. As I said, to those working in schools this is not news; they’ve known this was coming for a long time and have been preparing for it as much as they can. I first wrote about the issue in May in my resignation letter:

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A school in West Sussex hit the headlines last month with their announcement that they are considering dropping to a four day week. In their letter to the parents the school explained that they have made “every conceivable cut” to their provision including increasing class sizes, cutting staff and reducing the curriculum on offer. Closing was very much a last resort. What I always struggle with is that when news like this breaks there is such a lack of trust in the education system that people assume that the situation cannot by this dire and schools are just mismanaging their money. When a doctor tells me the difficulties the NHS are facing – I believe them. I don’t assume that the people who have given their lives to these jobs are doing so to line their own pockets.

In the last six years I’ve seen:

  • Teachers buying stationery for their class
  •  TAs and support staff cut – most schools have one TA per year group or Key Stage
  • Schools renting out the premises after school and at the weekends. This is a good idea but does mean schools are unable to offer fewer after school clubs because there’s a zumba class in the hall. It also means paying somebody to open and lock up at those times.
  • The whole SLT in class. I agree your SLT should do some teaching but a full time class based SLT doesn’t leave much time for day-to-day running of the school
  • Schools asking parents for financial contributions for resources
  • Cuts to the curriculum areas that have resources that regularly need replenishing e.g. art, DT and even science
  • Building work cancelled or “indefinitely delayed” – schools are now having to choose between repairing leaky roofs or buying exercise books
  • Technology no longer fit for purpose. Smart Boards that don’t align, laptops with keys missing and screens that don’t work. Computing is such a vital part of the curriculum and a skill future generations are going to rely on and at the moment there simply aren’t the resources to teach it adequately.
  • Head teacher choosing not to have a deputy head
  • Subsidies for school journeys and trips being cut
  • Reducing site mangers’ hours
  • Cutting job shares – two part time teachers costs a school more than one full time but it also means we lose experienced, skilled staff because we can’t offer them flexibility once they have family
  • Hiring unqualified teachers because they’re cheap – I’ve known several occasions where the cheapest candidate has got the job because the school could not afford the more expensive (read: experienced) teacher
  • Six years of pay freezes for teachers whilst at the same time nearly doubling the contributions they’ve had to make to their pensions

Schools are not exaggerating when they say there is nothing left to cut and they are right to start communicating the problem to parents – the only way to fight this is with parents and teachers working together. Often when parents complained about testing or curriculum changes my answer was,“I completely agree with you and I suggest that you write to your local MP.” It’s the same with this. Parents need to know the cuts schools are making are not by choice – there is simply no other option.

There is an issue with the distribution of funding. A school in inner London receives more funding that an outer London one and substantially more than a school in East Sussex for example and the government has plans to address this. However simply taking from one area to give to another is not the solution here. The Government need to start investing heavily in education. Otherwise four day weeks and unqualified teachers will not just be controversial headlines but the only way schools can survive.

To find out how the cuts will affect schools in your area follow the link and enter your postcode. And once you’ve done that – do this.

School Gategate

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I tried to ignore it. You’d think being in Hawaii would be a enough of a distraction that I’d be able to take my eye off the news.It was the first week of the new school year, I told myself, how much was really going to happen? If I hadn’t already written a post about my views on Grammar schools this post would probably have been about Theresa May’s announcement that she plans to drag us all back to 70s  reverse the ban on grammars. Instead this post is about the other “scandal” to hit the headlines this week.

Matthew Tate, the new headteacher at Hartsdown Academy, made the news because on the first (and second, and third) day of term he and his staff sent home pupils for wearing incorrect uniform.

Generally I’m pro-school uniform on the condition that it is affordable, comfortable, durable and gender neutral. By that I don’t mean skirts or summer dresses. I mean that girls can wear trousers and boys can wear skirts – because it is 2016. The most common argument is that school uniform is a social leveller: when everyone is wearing the same it’s harder to tell who is rich and who is poor. Children don’t feel as though they have to “dress up” to come to school and families don’t feel the pressure to buy the latest trends (are there trends in children’s fashion? There must be. I spent my entire childhood in leggings and over-sized t-shirts so children’s fashion is a bit of a blind spot for me.)

The last school I worked at was Requires Improvement. The first thing the new Head Teacher did was write, and more importantly, enforce a new uniform policy. No more coming to school in glittery trainers or stripy leggings, no more hoodies or sweatbands. For a lot of children, the school uniform was as a physical representation of the school’s values and, when they put on their uniform, it served as a reminder of how they were expected to behave in school. For children who were allowed to hit or swear at home – putting on different clothes helped them leave that behaviour at the school gates. The number of times I’ve said: “When you wear that logo – you cannot use that language because you’re representing our school and we don’t call other people those things.” Call it voodoo nonsense all you like, it worked.

There are strong arguments against uniforms and I know lots of schools don’t have one and that’s fine. To be honest, I don’t really care whether a school has a uniform or not. I’ll never be one to fight for or against it. What matters to me is when a school has agreed what their policy is – they are allowed to enforce it. Anyone who has ever worked in a school will be able to tell you that there is nothing more pointless than a policy that is not enforced. It’s something Ofsted are very interested in at the moment: is the school doing what they say they’re doing in their policies?

When parents send their children to a school they immediately become part of a “Home/School Agreement.” This is a document outlining the responsibilities of the school and the parents. The school will commit to keeping children safe and provide learning experiences that will ensure they make progress and the parents commit to things like: completing homework, bringing children to school on time and ensuring their children are wearing the correct uniform.

My understanding is that the parents of Hartsdown Academy were written to at the beginning of the summer holidays outlining the new uniform policy, including the fact that children would be turned away at the school gates for wearing the incorrect uniform. It should therefore have come as no surprise to those parents that their children were turned away at the school gates for wearing the incorrect uniform. Apparently 20 of those children returned the same day wearing the correct uniform which begs the question – why didn’t they just wear it in the first place? Like most schools, Hartsdown Academy offer subsidised uniform for parents who can’t afford the full cost and they have a second-hand uniform shop. There is no reason for not being able to get hold of the correct uniform, particularly not on that first day.

Whether or not I agree with the actual policy is irrelevant – what I do agree with is a school’s right to enforce their policies without facing backlash from parents and the media. As a head teacher, if you bow to pressure to change your policies  you build a rod for your own back. It would send out the message that the head teacher doesn’t really know what they’re doing and you can basically ignore any new rules or policies.

As one has come to  expect, the response from the public has been completely hysterical. The head teacher has been called a tyrant and a bully by a parents but, I’ll be honest, I’ve seen head teachers being called that for reducing playtime by 5 minutes – yes really. What some supportive parents don’t realise is how many parents there are that will complain about ANY policy or change. Of course it’s not a majority. Most parents are amazing, they do the best they can for their children and work well with the school. However there is always a loud minority who cannot wait to get their complaint in. I’ve had complaints about: playtime being too long, playtime being too short, homework being changed, homework not being changed, PE kit being sent home too often for washing, PE kits not being sent home often enough, too many trips, not enough trips, coat pegs being swapped for lockers, ties being taken off the uniform list and, you’ve guessed it, ties being added to the uniform list.If a school changed its policy every time there was a complaint they would never get anything done.

I have huge sympathy for head teachers – it’s a bloody hard job and you face criticism every single day. Yes, there are some really crap head teachers out there but they aren’t the majority. Most are hard working, dedicated people who are having to act as a buffer between their staff and the ever increasing pressure being put on them by external forces. You cannot please everyone as head teacher and ultimately the final say is yours. Surrounding yourself with a smart and talented team who can advise and, when necessary, challenge you will help but ultimately you have to do what you believe to be right. And you have to defend your decisions almost every day: to children, parents, staff and, occasionally, the media.

I’ll end with a story from my husband Tim. In his first year of teaching his head teacher told him he’d received two complaints about him. One was that he was setting too much homework and the other that he wasn’t setting enough.

On the basis of those two complaints the head teacher concluded that Tim was setting exactly the right amount of homework.

 

 

Sorry, Nicky, I’m out.

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Dear Nicky Morgan,

Please accept this as written notice of my resignation from my role as Assistant Head and class teacher. It is with a heavy heart that I write you this letter. I know you’ve struggled to listen to and understand teachers in the past so I’m going to try and make this as clear as possible. In the six short years I have been teaching your party has destroyed the Education system. Obliterated it. Ruined it. It is broken.

The first thing I learnt when I started teaching in 2010 is that teaching is bloody hard work. It’s a 60 hour week only half of which is spent doing the actual teaching. It eats into the rest of your life both mentally and physically. If it’s not exercise books and resources taking over your lounge and kitchen table it’s worrying about results or about little Ahmed’s home life keeping you awake at 2am. I’ve never minded this. I’ve always been happy to give my life over to teaching as I believed it to be such a noble cause. Besides we’re not the only profession who work long hours. What I didn’t realise back in 2010 is that the job would get harder each year.

First you introduced the phonics check. I was in Year 1 that year and continued teaching phonics to the best of my ability. I didn’t spend much time teaching children to differentiate between real words and “non-words” because I was focused on, you know, teaching them to read. I sat and watched child after child fail that ridiculous “screening” because they read the word “strom” as “storm”. The following year I taught to the test. We spent weeks practising “words” and “non words” and sure enough our results soared.

My second year brought with it the changes to the Ofsted framework and the obsession with data began. Oh the sodding data game! The game that refuses to acknowledge how long a child has spoken English or whether or not they have books or even food at home. The data game changed things. Attainment in Maths and English was no longer just important, it would almost entirely decide the judgement made about your school. Oh and whilst we’re on the judgements “Satisfactory” was no longer satisfactory – it was the far more sinister sounding: “Requires Improvement.”

From then on things began to unravel at an alarming rate. The threat of forced academisation hung over each set of SATs results and the floor targets continued to rise. Gove cut the calculator paper (because calculators are cheating) and introduced SPaG. Grammar was no longer for writing – it was for grammar. Around the same time he also froze teachers’ pay and doubled the contributions we would have to make to our pensions. Teachers were suddenly worse off than they had been the previous year and under more pressure than ever before.

So teaching became harder still and life in schools started to change. There were new hoops to jump through and somehow we just about managed to get through them. It meant sacrificing everything that wasn’t SPaG, English or Maths but we did it – we learnt how to play the game. Outside of the safety of our schools though there was a bigger game being played – one that we had no chance of winning: the status of the teaching profession was being eroded away. There was the incessant name calling and smears in the media from “the blob” to “the enemies of promise” and, of course, “soft bigots” with “low expectations”. You drip fed the message: teachers were not to be trusted and it worked: the public stopped trusting us.

As bleak as it sounds, those years look like a golden age compared to what we have to deal with now.

I was delighted when Gove went. I knew there was every chance he’d be replaced by someone equally awful but I couldn’t imagine things getting worse. I figured the Tories were done playing with Education and they’d move on to something else. I was so wrong .


This year brought with it our greatest challenge to date – the new assessments. For most of the year we were completely in the dark. We had no idea what form the tests would take and how they would be scored (we’re still not entirely sure on the latter.) There was also the introduction of the SPaG test for 7-year-olds (which was sadly scrapped because of your own department’s incompetence.) The criteria for assessing writing has changed dramatically.  Gone is the best fit approach and what has replaced it is an arbitrary list of criteria of the things children should be able to do – some of which are grammatical rules that your department have made up . Year 6 were tested on their ability to read long words and remember the names of different tenses. Whatever foundation subjects were still being taught have had to be shelved in favour of lesson after lesson on the past progressive tense.

In some ways I don’t feel like a teacher at all any more. I prepare children for tests and, if I’m honest, I do it quite well. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of as it’s not as if I’ve provided my class with any transferable, real life skills during the process. They’ve not enjoyed it, I’ve not enjoyed it but we’ve done it: and one thing my children know how to do is answer test questions. They’ve written raps about how to answer test questions, they’ve practised test questions at home and test questions in school, they’ve had extra tuition to help them understand the test questions. They can do test questions – they just haven’t had time to do anything else.

At the same time you’ve cut school budgets to pieces. This one hasn’t been widely reported yet but it will be over the next 18 months. I know of 3 head teachers who are considering having their own class next year as they can’t afford to replace the teachers that are leaving. Most schools I know have already cut back on support staff (read: made valuable, hard-working teaching assistants redundant.) And this is just the start of it. I suppose the only thing schools should be grateful for is that you introduced performance related pay and, with the leap in National Expectations, there will be fewer teachers getting their pay rise this September.

In many ways I’m one of the lucky ones – I work for two smart Head Teachers in a school with an SLT who genuinely care about teacher workload. Meaningless box ticking exercises are kept to a minimum and meetings are kept brief. We only have INSET on average every other week and book scrutiny/monitoring is only carried out once a term. Demands on teachers’ time are kept to a minimum but there is very little we can do to protect teachers from the unreasonable expectations being put on them by your Government, the threat of no-notice Ofsted inspections and, of course, the ever increasing risk of academisation.

I know I’m not alone in feeling like this. A recent survey found that nearly 50% of teachers are considering leaving in the next 5 years. Just within my own family my fiance, my sister and my sister-in-law have all quit the profession in the last 12 weeks. Rather than address this issue you’ve decided to allow schools to recruit unqualified teachers to fill the gaps. The final nail in the profession’s coffin. I don’t want to stop teaching. I love teaching but I have no interest in being part of this game any more.

Worse than being a teacher in this system is being a child at the mercy of it and to them I say this: we tried our best to fight these changes: we rallied, we went on strike, we campaigned and made as much noise as we could. I’m sorry it didn’t work and I’m sorry that I’m not strong enough to keep working in this system but as I’ve told many of you many times: when someone is being mean to you – you ask them to stop. If they continue to be mean you walk away. It is now time for me to walk away. I’ll keep up the fight though.

Maybe in time things will change and, when that time comes, I can come back to the job I loved but until then sorry Nicky – I’m out.

Yours Sincerely,

Zoe

P.S: One last thing – if you do end up losing your job over your shambolic running of the Education System – make sure they don’t replace you with Boris.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does Your School Have A Unicorn?

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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?