Bigot? Racist? Or just a child?

I have mixed reactions to this piece by Hugo Muir of the Guardian. I understand that the author is saying that the ‘logging’ of ‘incidents’ really reflects on the views the children are exposed to at home, and so should not be a cause for concern about the child itself. But this is where I become worried.

A few years ago I had two ‘incidents’ happen in the classes I was teaching in two different schools. They were handled in two very different ways.

Both of these ‘incidents’ could be seen as discrimination, and therefore bigotry. Both, in fact, were reported as such. But from where I stood, I didn’t see that at all.

Firstly, some background. One was classified as ‘racist’, the other as ‘homophobic’. Both incidents involved children of 5 or 6 years old.

In the first incident, the ‘racist’ one, a small white boy had asked his equally small classmate why he was ‘so dark’. The black boy called him a racist and ran off to find the member of staff on duty that breaktime. As I had been teaching the class that morning, I was asked to write a report about whether there was an underlying current of racism in the class. There wasn’t. At least, none that had been apparant to me in the short time I had been at the school. The black boy was the only one in the class, because apart from 3 white chilren, the rest were all of asian descent.

The head made the decison that this wasn’t a racist incident, and explained to the black boy that racism meant being nasty to someone because of their skin colour, but it did not stop someone asking questions, so long as they were polite. To the white boy, he explained that some questions are considered rude, and that we don’t ask them. Now, I don’t entirely agree with his explanations to the boys, but it produced a harmonious result and the two spent the rest of the day working and playing together.

The parents of both children were informed, and, as far as I know, no further action was taken.

In the second incident, one girl (A) asked another (B) what it was like having two mothers. Unfortunately she then said ‘because it’s normal to have a mum and a dad not two mums.’ The child with two mothers ran off to find a member of staff and complained that girl A had been homophobic.

As in the first incident, both children were taken off to see the head. However, the reaction in this school was quite different. The parents were called in, and child A was sent home. I was called into the head’s office and told that the class I was covering would recive ‘diversity intervention’ the following day.

One of the mothers of child B came in armed with volumes of literature, photocopied for each child, a PowerPoint on homophobic bullying and a lecture on the legal ramifications of persisting in this behaviour. The class were 6 years old. Child A was back in class, and sat there looking terrified throughout. The head, who had been present for the entire ‘intervention’, sat beaming at the parent and gave a resounding endorsement of everything she had said at the end. The pupils just looked stunned.

Later on, one of the TAs said that a third child had come up to her sheepishly and asked if it was ok to still speak to child A because she was homophobic and he didn’t want to get into trouble too. He was also worried about speaking to child B as he had both a mother and a father and was scared that would get him into trouble because he wasn’t ‘diverse’.

Now personally, I do not think either of these incidents was an example of intolerance. Rather, of a child’s natural curioisity about the world around them. If you don’t understand about inheritance and skin pigments, you may well wonder why people are different colours. If you’ve just learnt that a baby only comes into this world as a result of a contribution from male and female gametes, then it’s perfectly understandable that someone who seems to come from only female gametes may well be a puzzle.

I can’t see any malice in either comment – I do see genuine curiosity.

If both of these incients were reported as ‘intolerance’, then the parents of these chilren would be considered to be at fault for exposing them to undesirable thoughts, expressions and influences.

But would this in fact be the case? Can anyone really be sure from such incidents?

I despair at the reaction of the second head. Excluding a child, even for half a day, for such an event is appalling. Wouldn’t it have been better to explain why such a question can be misunderstood, and to have offered a explanation as to why? Instead, she chose to punish and submitted a report to the LA of a homophobic incident.

Racism and homophobia exist. But they exist where the intention is to cause hurt. If you’re in KS1 and still learning how to use the language, it seems more likely that any percived ‘hurt’ is the result of youth and inexperience.

I don’t advocate ignoring such incidents, but explanation, not instilling fear, is a far better way to deal with them.

I worry, because in some instances, the adults who should be guiding the children seem to have very little understanding of the world through a child’s eyes. Is the reporting of such incidents merely highlighting our own ignorance of their understanding of the world?

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Biological Warfare

Two days ago I was enthusing about how lovely it is working with young children in the run-up to Christmas.

I take it all back.

 

 

The little rotters have given me GERMS!!!

 

humbugs

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It’s Father Christmas!

It’s cold, the weather’s a bit yuk, but hey, it’s nearly Christmas!

I’ve spent the day in a primary school that was Christmas crazy – tinsel and paperchains on everything and everyone. Even the head looked uncannily like a Christmas tree!

The school is in a deprived area, high unemployment and low aspirations abound amongst the local inhabitants. Most of the children I taught (I use that term loosely, seeing as how it’s nearly the end of term) will not be receiving much this year. Some won’t receive anything. I was warned when I went in not to ask the children what they would be doing over the holidays as a few were terrified at the prospect of the total lack of routine at home, compared with that of being in school.

The children were told in assembly that Father Christmas would be coming into school and they would get a chance to meet him after lunch. Cynical Year 6s, too cool for primary school, sat up and took notice, before looking around surreptitiously, hoping no one had seen them letting the mask slip. The Reception children had to be reminded to be quiet otherwise father Christmas would not be visiting their classroom – he counted noisy as naughty. This had the unfortunate consequence of rendering them utterly silent throughout the short prayer and song.

One worried child came up to me at break and confided that he was scared he wouldn’t get a present as he had been naughty that morning. I asked him what he had done, and managed to keep a straight face when he said he had poured salt into his brother’s orange juice at breakfast. He assured me it was meant to be a joke, but his brother hadn’t taken it well. I assured him that it probably wouldn’t affect his ‘Santa Score’, but it would be best not to do it again. He assured me he probably wouldn’t – not because he thought it was unfair to his brother, but because he didn’t want his brother pouring salty orange juice over him in revenge again!

Lunch came and went, the children kept asking “Is he here yet?” and looking anxiously up at the sky. Until someone said they’d seen him pulling up outside in a Ford Focus.

At last he was here! Every child in the class received a gift. And every child said thank-you. Unprompted. Well, maybe just a few…

As Father Christmas got up to leave, one of the children asked him if he was real. “Do you believe I’m real?” asked Father Christmas. As the child nodded, he added “Then I am.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent in making more paperchains and Christmas decorations that were 90% glitter. I pity the cleaners!

Word went round that the staff should all go to the staffroom at the end of the day, supply included. Too late for Ofsted, no one was quite sure why the summons was issued. But, as I went into the staffroom, we were all handed a mince pie and a glass of (non-alcoholic) punch – our gift from Father Christmas!

I’ve had a fantastic day. I’ve worked with great people who worked exceptionally hard to make sure all the children enjoyed themselves. They ensured no one was left out, and that, at least for today, all the children in school had the chance to be excited about the Christmas festival.

The children were excited and, even where they were too old and cynical for the Father Christmas myth, went along with it for the sake of the younger ones.

I was there for one day, but I was made to feel part of a great day, thanks to both the children and the staff. It was a long drive and I nearly turned down the booking, but I’m so glad I didn’t.

As I left the staffroom, I overheard two of the teachers discussing the day’s Father Christmas, “I’ve never seen him so happy, he’s normally as cheery as a funeral.”

“Well, you can’t be unhappy here – not today anyway.”

I smiled as I left, because yes, this is why I teach.

 

large_father_christmas

*A slightly grumpier Father Christmas…!
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Year 9 and the Entitlement

Entitle:

(often be entitled to) Give (someone) a legal right or a just claim to receive or do something

I was on ‘crowd control’ duty during the Year 9 assembly today. The school body is so large that not all of the pupils can fit into the hall at one time, so assemblies are scheduled for each day, one per year group for years 7-10.

This is the last general assembly those children will have before the end of term, so it was taken by the Head. He had mentioned in the staff briefing in the morning that he would be announcing the new behaviour expectations and that he expected support from all staff on this. Perhaps I’m too cynical for my own good, but when someone says that they ‘expect support’ I generally consider that they are informing people of this, as otherwise they don’t think they will get it.

The pupils sat in the hall, fidgeting, sullen and at first, unreceptive to whomever was speaking. As the assembly progressed, most of them (save the very unengaged) began to take more notice of what was being said. They glared at their classmates who were whispering & a persistent few were poked in the ribs.

The Head explained that there was a new behaviour policy that would be taking effect after Christmas. The pupils were expected to adhere to this, and detentions would be given out if they broke the rules. The rules, he said, were pretty much the same as they currently are, but the main focus was on the attitude of the pupils.

“You must remember that you are entitled to a good education. That is your right. Be proud of your entitlement and happy that you live in a country where you have that right.”

He went on to explain that in many countries children do not receive an education due to poverty or war. For some it is due to cultural opposition. But the children sitting before him had their entitlement, their right, enshrined in law. They were the lucky ones.

The Head then went on to expand upon his definition of this entitlement. The teachers would, he explained, ensure that they were producing lessons that would engage, challenge and motivate them. The pupils had an entitlement to such lessons. They should expect to receive them and to make the most of the lessons that met that entitlement.

The Head said he expected the pupils to embrace the new behaviour policy, because for the first time it brought together the pupils’ entitlement to a good education and his vision for a school where the pupils had a much more concrete role – one where they help to define the teaching that occurs in the classrooms. They had the power to shape their lessons and they should use their ability to judge when their lessons met their entitlement.

In the staffroom at break, most of the staff were pessimistic. As one teacher noted, there are two ways to interpret the word ‘entitlement’.

Entitled:

Believing oneself to be inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment

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“Madness,” said the dinner party.

Last night I went to a Christmas party where I talked to and mixed with a fantastic group of people who work in widely differing fields. As we ate, drank and talked, we invariably chatted about our working life. We hadn’t all met before, and well, it’s one of those things you do, isn’t it?

I mentioned I am a teacher, which seemed to interest a number of the people there. I think this is because it was a pretty international gathering and so experiences of education, albeit in various countries, was one thing everyone had in common. As we chatted I became aware that what I was describing sounded bizarre. The people I was sitting with had good, very good, jobs. They had got to where they are by sheer hard work. They had started as graduates and gained their positions by proving themselves capable. They had studied and put long hours in, with the express purpose of achieving some goal. They had become graduates by studying hard. They’d got to university in the first place by putting the effort in whilst at school.

They had worked hard for what they had achieved.

And there I was, explaining that I spend my days ensuring that the pupils I teach gain those same achievements that the people I was dining with had worked so hard for. That essentially I, and thousands of similar teachers, work to ensure that those who will not work gain those ever important qualifications.

“But surely the kids have to work? It’s their own fault if they fail – if they don’t bother, isn’t it?”

Well, no, it isn’t.

Because if they fail due to lack of engagement or hard work, it’s because my lessons weren’t stimulating enough. If they misbehave in class, it’s because my lessons aren’t fun and aren’t tailored to their learning styles. If they become disengaged with education and fail to get a job when they leave, it’s because my lessons aren’t relevant to them.

“Isn’t it their own responsibility to pay attention and learn?”

No, apparently not.

“That’s ridiculous. If my team turn up late or don’t bother to do all their work that’s their problem. They’re the ones who get fired, not me. In fact, I give them the warning, but the rest is up to them. If they’re rude, they’re out.”

But in teaching, of course, that doesn’t apply.

If the pupils are argumentative, poorly behaved, rude, disrespectful, lazy, or simply non-academic, it’s somehow the result of a problem with my teaching. It has no origin in the personalities of the children themselves, their natural inclination or disinclination, their use or abuse of drink and drugs, or their personal home circumstances.

It’s all, and only, a result of how entertaining my lessons are.

Up to a certain point I can concede that teachers have a responsibility to ensure that the pupils do well at school. They are children after all, and can’t be expected to know what the best options really are. If they could, 11 year-olds would have the vote. There’s a good reason they don’t.

But I cannot, will not, be held responsible for those who wilfully sabotage their own chances. Those who expect to be given answers because they can’t be bothered to think for themselves. Those who demand their rights, but deny their responsibilities. Those who are given every chance, every opportunity, and yet who expect ever more – those who are prepared to give nothing in return.

And yet I will. I’ll wake up tomorrow and start all over again. I’ll be shouted at, verbally abused, accused of not knowing what I’m talking about, have disparaging comments thrown at me and be threatened with being reported to the head for some unspecified offence. And then I’ll see the children out of the room, and welcome in the next class for more of the same. At the end of the day I’ll be drained and wonder why I put myself through this. Until the next day, when it starts all over again.

Madness? Yes, possibly. The people at the party certainly thought so.

“What,” one of them asked, “is the point? If the kids haven’t got the willpower to do their own work, what value are their qualifications? If they’re rude and lazy as kids, who’ll want to employ them as adults?”

I couldn’t answer that. I don’t know anyone who could.
But perhaps that just reflects on my friends, and their attitude to hard work and personal responsibilities.

 

Christmas pudding

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“Luke’ll be fine…”

As I was going into the Year 10 English class, a TA came running up to me.

“Hi! Just wanted to let you know about Luke. You’ve got him next. He’s got issues, he doesn’t like writing and isn’t very good at reading but if you give him lots of praise he works OK for you. And he loves doing stuff, so drama is OK too!”

I thanked her for the information and asked her what support he normally had in class, but she was off, fluttering down the corridor in a wave of good intentions.

“Don’t worry,” she shouted over her shoulder, “Luke’ll be fine…”

And with that, she was gone.

I have no idea how Luke would have fared in the lesson, it turned out to be an analysis of the main character in a book – so heavy on the writing, as he took one look at me, mumbled “Not f*****g supply,” and ran off.

I sent a pupil off to student services with a note explaining what had happened, and asking if Luke would return with a TA. If so, alternative work could be found for him. But I received no answer.

I’d like to say that this experience was rare, but sadly it isn’t. Both the attitude to having a supply teacher (see Shelby doesn’t do Supply) and the disinclination to write are, if not common, becoming more frequent occurrences than in the past. When I started doing supply teaching the pupils used to play up, now they often walk out. And this seems to be the accepted course of events.

For a number of these pupils (many?) the reason may be down to things such as autism and its associated problems with regard to change. But for other pupils it seems to be simply a disinclination to do something they don’t want to do. In one instance I was informed that a pupil wasn’t on the SEN register, he just had a really bad temper so it was best to let him go. In cases such as this I do question the logic of allowing the pupil to dictate the terms of their education.

If Luke doesn’t want to work, should we make him?

Well, if we don’t, he won’t gain any qualifications. That will severely limit his chances of getting a job. It could be argued that the school had also failed in its duty of care, given that a teenager couldn’t be expected to have the maturity to make decisions which could have an impact for the rest of his working life.

But if we do make him…? One TA told me that the mother had said that making her child do work when he didn’t want to was infringing his human rights!

As I left school I saw Luke, schoolbag over his left shoulder, cigarette in his right hand. He gave me the ‘V’ sign as I drove past.

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The departure of Mr Gove – what did he get right?

It was quite a surprise. In fact, it was a shock.

Michael Gove has certainly been one of the most instantly recognisable public figures in education for years. He has also been one of the most controversial.

When his departure was announced I wondered what the reasoning behind it was – dislike of his policies, or his personality? Ollie Orange (@OllieOrange2) made the point that Gove is unpopular at the moment, and the conservatives are beginning to focus on their aim of getting re-elected. This, of course, makes perfect sense. No political party would want to have such an unpopular figure in such a prominent position. And Michael Gove has been in the unique position of angering two opposing sides of the educational divide – teachers and parents. His departure has been greeted by much crowing from both the teaching unions and many educational professionals, but parents are also said to be celebrating, illustrated by the following Tweet by Fiona Millar:

Which rather overlooks the point that it is the job of the Secretary of State for Education to ‘meddle’ in educational policies!

Looking, in retrospect, at some of his ‘meddling’, I wonder if the changes can be regarded as such a universally bad thing.

QTS skills test reform

In order to gain QTS, a prospective teacher had to show proficiency in English, maths and ICT (the latter now no longer required). This involved passing three short computer-based tests before the end of the PGCE. Each one lasted 20-30 minutes and was (I believe, I could be remembering this wrongly – please correct me if so) aimed at showing that the trainee teacher was able to demonstrate a minimum ability in each test, around the level a 14 or 16 year old is expected to achieve.

If a teacher failed any of the tests they could resit them an unlimited number of times. On my PGCE course there was a girl who, by the time we all said our goodbyes at the end of the Summer term, had sat the maths skills test 5 times. And failed it five times. She intended to receive private tutoring in order to have a better chance of passing the test on her 6th attempt.

As a supply teacher I’m often left notes by the class teacher, some of which are barely coherent. I’m also provided with worksheets peppered with spelling errors. How many times should a teacher be allowed to attempt to pass a basic skills test in English? In 2010 a teacher at Gleed Girls’ Technology College was ridiculed after they emailed a summary of a child’s progress to a parent who had missed a meeting. The Daily Mail summed up its reporting thus:

Yesterday, the school’s head, Liz Shawhulme, said she was ‘shocked by the number of mistakes, many of which appear to be typos’.
‘It was obviously written in haste and not checked but this is no excuse and I will be contacting the parent to apologise.’
Marie Clair, of the Plain English Campaign, said: ‘Teachers who do this should wear their own dunces’ hats.’

And in May this year, the East Grinstead Courier reported that Ofsted had criticised teachers’ spelling when marking work at Dormansland Primary School:

A letter addressed to new head teacher Sarah Stokes, who was appointed in January, states: “Marking remains inconsistent. It does not give clear advice to pupils about how they can improve, nor does it address all the mistakes made, for example in spelling or punctuation. Sometimes the teacher’s own spelling is not correct.”

 

Northgate High School in Ipswich was so worried about poorly written reports going out, that it advertised for a proof-reader. Yes, teachers are busy; yes, we all make typing mistakes; but no, we have no excuses for not checking our work. There may be one or two errors that may go unnoticed by the writer, but not so many that a proof-reader is necessary. Some primary schools insist on staff reading each others’ reports to ‘help those who find it difficult’ to write correctly.

It might, therefore, be assumed that the changes to the skills tests (maximum of two re-sits within two years for each subject, higher pass mark at 63%, more challenging content) would be welcomed. Far fewer instances of the press seeing badly composed or miscalculated work, far less admin for teachers to carry out checking other reports.

But no, in this article by Melissa Benn for the Guardian, on the possibility of some of Gove’s reforms being overturned, there is this comment by Shipyardwelder:

“On a personnel level , his rushed introduction of Pre-teacher training Skills tests, prevented a promising student from even starting her Teacher Training.”

 

Phonics

I’m stepping into shark-infested waters with this one, but I’m a firm supporter of phonics. Giving children the ability to attempt new words based on the letters on the page is far more effective than looking at the beginning and end of the word and trying to guess what’s in the middle based on the pictures. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this done more than once.

And yet there are plenty of teachers who claim that it is too prescriptive, that it turns children away from reading books. Michael Rosen gets quite worked up about this, and when the phonics screening tests were introduced he penned a rather peevish missive.

I do find the concept of testing children on made-up words odd, and although I understand the reasoning behind it, I would rather see children tested on unfamiliar words containing those same letter patterns.

Phonics, though, is a very sound way to base the teaching of reading. There are too many children who still need ‘clues’ to help them read when in Year 6, those same children are completely lost in Year 7 when the ‘clues’ are no longer in their reading material.

Giving them the opportunity to access the same material as their classmates cannot be a bad thing. As for the assertion that it turns children away from reading, surely being unable to work out a text when there are no ‘clues’ present does that anyway? Or is it best to condemn some children to a lifetime of reading picture books – even as adults?

Term-time abscences

Very controversial, mainly because of the extra financial loading on holidays during the Summer months. However, this is aligned with a clamping down on the requirement for children to attend school regularly, and fining or imprisoning the parents of persistent truants.

I have taught in deprived areas where children regularly miss school because their parents couldn’t be bothered to get up in the morning. Some simply couldn’t care less whether their children attended school or not, just as long as they kept out of their way. Those children invariably ended up in trouble with the police, with no -one chasing them to be in school the devil made work for their idle hands. Fines though, have had some impact, mainly because those same parents don’t want to lose the fags and booze money.

This has mainly been overlooked in the backlash against the removal of access to cheaper holidays. I sympathise with the parents who are complaining, but a foreign holiday is still not a right, it is a luxury, and should be treated as such. There are other ways to enjoy the holidays with your children, flights are not an imperative part of this.

The main point here, though, is that it is difficult to teach a child if they’re not actually in school.

Primary Maths

Very often poorly taught, with the emphasis on ‘exploring’ ways to solve problems. Works a treat if you’re good with numbers, not so great if you don’t understand why things keep changing and end up using half of one way to solve something, and half of another, thereby constantly getting the answer wrong.

Pupils who find maths difficult need fewer options. They may never understand ‘how something works’ but they should be given a fail-safe way to tackle the problem. Not many people can explain exactly how a TV works, but they know that if it isn’t plugged in and switched on there’s no picture. It’s simple to execute, quick and you don’t need to take the set apart to apply this. The same goes for maths.

I taught in one school where the children who didn’t know their times tables were encouraged to use multi-link cubes in arrays to show them the answer. They were encouraged to say out loud how they had arranged the cubes (eg: six rows by seven columns) before counting them to get the answer. “Six times seven equals, one, two, three, four, five….”. Madness anyway, but this was in year 5, and no, the child was not on the SEN register. I used to wonder what would happen to him when he went into Year 6, let alone Year 7.

NC Levels

Originally intended as a measure of progress throughout a child’s school life, the expectation was that children at primary school would make two sub-levels of progress a year. Essentially the measure became a target in itself.

This brought with it the attendant problems of the target being used to measure the school, rather than the child. When this happened, it became imperative for a school to show that a child was making the expected progress, if they didn’t then the local authority would start asking questions. As would Ofsted. But it soon became apparent that it wouldn’t be the school that was accountable for the perceived ‘lack of progress’, that would fall to the class teacher, and possibly the headteacher.

If pressure was brought to bear on the head, that would definitely be passed down to the class teacher, so obviously, the two sub-levels of progress became a minimum that each teacher recorded in their end-of-year results.

Darren can’t write his own name yet? But he came into year 1 on a level 1B, so I’ll have to say he’s a 2C… Lucy never uses capital letters or full stops, but she came into year 4 on a 3A, so I’ll have to say she’s 4B… Anna doesn’t know her times tables and can’t tell you how to calculate area, but she came into Year 5 on a 4a, so I’ll have to say she’s a 5B…

All this does it put inordinate pressure on the Year 6 teacher to try to get the children to gain those grades in the SATs tests, they have to try to get the children to the claimed level they were when the entered Year 6, never mind with an additional two sub-levels of expected progress!

It’s all nonsense, and the reason why so many children have intensive SATs coaching lessons from January onwards, in a desperate attempt to make the results fit with the paper trail. And all for what? When the children go on to secondary they’re usually given another assessment as the schools don’t trust the SATs scores or the teacher assessment.

 

***

 

None of these things can really be considered to be problematic, but they were all contentious. They were all brought in with the aim of raising standards and this can only be a positive move. The phonics and maths reforms both have research behind them, the skills test and attendance requirements are simply common sense. The National Curriculum levels one removes the need for the farcical circus that is grade inflation. And yet each was met with derision when announced. Why?

These were also relatively ‘small’ things, yet they resulted in a very vocal opposition, so loud that it began to take on a life of its own. Gove’s departure gave rise to numerous statements by the teaching unions, bloggers, journalists, heads and classroom teachers, all cheering his removal, as though this was something with universal support.

But there isn’t universal support.

There really are many teachers who felt that Michael Gove was beginning to make headway in terms of reforming state schools in this country. Not everything he did was great, and there are things that I disagree with profoundly, PRP being one of those, but in general I have no argument with his curriculum reforms.

For too long children have been short-changed by the education they receive, one that deifies progressive teaching methods and a policy of valuing everything equally, to the detriment of a content-rich curriculum. I had hoped that the reforms that were beginning to make inroads into this would continue, but I now have my doubts.

I wonder though, because Gove was seen as such a caricature of unpopularity, whether the areas in which he brought a common-sense reform will be quietly altered to appease voters – both those who teach and those who have children?

It would be a great pity if this were to be the case.

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