How Not To Write Reports

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DISCLAIMER: Obviously I would never leave my reports until the last minute/drink whilst writing reports/have nothing to say about a child in my class. I would also never write a blog post about reports as procrastination from actually writing reports.

This internal monologue is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental… honest.

Right. Reports. Got my laptop, got all the snacks. Got my notes. Just a quick check of Facebook and I’ll be well on my way to starting.

report writing

OK let’s start with an easy one: Jessica – smart, hardworking, popular. Lovely, conscientious, easy-to-write-about Jessica. Done. Next?

Mustafa – smart, funny, excellent musician, lead part in our class assembly… God I really am nailing these reports. I am winning. I can probably get these all done in the next couple of hours. I don’t know why everyone moans about them so much when they’re really no big deal you’ve just got to get on with it.

Jasper – witty, intelligent, kind… Note to self: avoid writing reports that sound like internet dating profiles.

Right next one: Andy.

Why can I not think of a single to say about Andy? Has he definitely been in my class all year? *Checks class list* – is this definitely an up-to-date class list? Maybe he’s been away a lot…

I’ll get some wine. Wine will help.

*Gets wine. Does all essential phone checks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Gets drawn into an argument with a Twitter racist*

Right. Back to Andy…

*Opens work email. Feels chest tighten. Closes work email.*

You know what Andy… I think we’ll come back to you and move on to… Elan. Elan is… what is Elan…? Elan is lazy and thinks he’s much smarter than he actually is.

Can’t put that. “In order to meet his full potential Elan will need to apply himself to all lessons.” That sounds proper.

OK. Andy.

WHY HAS ANDY NOT DONE ANYTHING MEMORABLE THIS YEAR?

Wine.

*Instagrams picture of wine #wine #inspiration #reports #FML. Spends 10 minute choosing filter.*

Seriously Andy nothing – not even Scissor Monitor?

*Does all essential phone checks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Gets drawn into an argument with a Twitter racist*

DT! Bollocks I didn’t know we had to write about bloody DT! Who on earth has been finding time to actually teach DT?

OK don’t panic – they made those Christmas cards didn’t they? And those Eid cards. That was DT-ish. And those Easter baskets – that definitely counts as DT.

“Whilst working on her design project Amber was able to select tools that were appropriate for the task” (read: used scissors to cut out the cardboard template of the basket.)

Right a DT target for Elena: To use tools with increasing accuracy and care (only use the scissors for cutting paper – not hair.)

Who does Andy remind me of from my last class? What did I write for last year’s Andy? Must remember to keep all reports.

Wine.

Right – RE: Easter story – tick. Diwali story – tick. Christmas story – tick. The Eid cards again. Oh and the Rabbi came in and did that assembly – wonderful. RE = done.

Been working for nearly an hour now – must be time for a break soon.

*Does all essential phone checks* 

Art. Well there was the self-portraits that they did with that supply teacher that day I was on a course… They ended up in the bin…

“Eric has explored a range of mediums during our lessons this year”  although only if you consider “eating” to be the same as “exploring.”

Wine.

Oh and the Eid cards again. They were arty. Think I’m mentioning those too often now. Is that how you spell Eid? Eed. Ead…

Isn’t it funny how words stop looking like words when you really focus on them? Is this a word? I wonder what the funniest looking word is? What’s the word that looks least like a word in the world?

*Googles: What’s the word that looks least like a word in the world?*

No – mustn’t get distracted. They’ll be time for looking up words later. Back to Andy.

Andy is… a child… in my class.

What is the name for the study of words?

*Googles: What is the name for the study of words?*

Etymology. There will be time for etymology later. Now it’s time for reports.

Is “recovered from chicken pox” an acceptable comment for the achievements box? Chicken pox is horrible and it’s probably quite difficult to recover from. I’ll put it in.

Chicken pox. A pox of chickens. A pox on chickens? A chicken of poxes. Poxi?

…Who drank all the wine?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

unicorns

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.

The Perfect Chief Inspector

hiring

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.)