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Let Our Voices be Heard

I’m handing this blogpost over to my 12 year old, Sam, who took part in the climate change strikes yesterday. His headteacher asked him to write about his experience and this is his account.


On Friday 15thFebruary I took part in the #SchoolsStrike4Climate protests in Manchester along with over 10,000 others across the country, to protest against the world leader’s attitudes towards climate change. It felt important to me because the future of our generation and every generation to come is at risk of being destroyed because of the selfishness and greed of the very people who are supposed to be protecting us and putting our communities first. People say children should be obedient and do what they are told, but sometimes you have to be disobedient to be noticed and to make a difference. What is the point in learning about people who broke the rules to change the world, like Rosa Parks or Nelson Mandela if we’re then told that we have no right to break the rules ourselves? Especially when time is so short for us to make the difference that needs to be made.

When Svante Arrhenius, the Swedish scientist, first predicted that burning coal for industry would warm the earth, he saw this as a possible benefit. Of course we now know different, but we’ve known that this warming would be harmful for 50 years now so why have world leaders been so slow to do anything about it? Even though carbon emissions have dropped by 38% since 1973 in the UK, as a planet we are still heading towards what David Attenborough has described as ‘the collapse of our civilisations’. Scientists have warned us that we have only 12 years to avert this. So while we can see that some countries, including our own, have made some changes at home we are still pushing our waste onto other poorer countries and investing in their damaging industries as if we don’t share the same planet at all. In spite of the reductions we’ve made, pollution in our cities and towns is now thought to cause around 39,000 deaths a year. The changes governments have made have not been enough and some governments won’t even admit there is a problem at all. I’m looking at you, Donald Trump! If the governments won’t change, we need to change the governments. This is one of the reasons that the people behind the school strikes are campaigning to reduce the age of voting to 16. If we’re mature enough to sit exams that will dictate our futures, we should be mature enough to vote for the people who will dictate our futures too.

At the point we children will start to make our way in the adult world, the very existence of human kind could be at risk. That’s a terrifying thought for a child and it seems to me that we’re the only ones who seem determined to change that outcome. Even if this does not happen, it’s clear that we are damaging a large number of species in the world at a rate that threatens all kinds of things, including our food supply. A 40% drop in pollenating insects as reported last week in the news, is one worrying sign of how our eco systems are being disrupted. We’re already coming close to the 1.5 degree warming limit that scientists told us would trigger rises in sea levels and catastrophic weather events.

I’m a child. I shouldn’t even have to be writing this stuff. It shouldn’t be the job of young people to protect the world and the people in it. We shouldn’t be having to miss school and take to the streets in order to make adults take notice but this is where we are and I wanted to do my bit. It felt good to be standing there, chanting and singing with hundreds of other people and I’m glad I went if for no other reason than to feel like we were heard.

Will anything change? I don’t know, but I do know that sometimes you need to speak up and take action. Now I think we should be asking our own parents and our teachers to take action too. What can they do to reduce waste and emissions in our homes and schools? What small actions can we take too? Walking to school, using water bottles rather than buying fizzy drinks in plastics, cutting down on the amount of meat we eat, taking short showers rather than baths and perhaps asking for less and making do with what we’ve got. We can all do those things but we need more. We need adults to help us to hold politicians to account for the decisions they make. How can our parents use the votes that we are denied to elect people who will promise to take action for the children they love ? Adults say they care about us and love us. I say love is best shown in action. I care about the planet and the creatures who live on it, including myself. My love was shown in action on Friday.

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What Children Need.

My child is sad. I can’t go into many more details than that without breaking his trust, but suffice to say, he is very sad indeed. He’s too sad for us to cheer up with a treat or ice cream. Too sad to play. Too sad to see a hopeful future in front of him. And his sadness makes us sad too.

So we’re trying to work out what to do and that’s been really hard. I like to make things better, sort stuff out. If something breaks, I fix it or replace it, but I don’t seem to be able to fix him and I don’t want to replace him, so I’m trying to understand what’s within my gift. I’m learning.

One of the things I’ve been learning is how adolescence impacts on the teenage brain. Through Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s brilliant book ‘Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain,” I’m learning that he’s in a process of huge biological change that is creating behaviours in him that neither of us really understand. He’s enormously emotional (his limbic brain has expanded). He’s deeply self conscious. Everything his Dad or I do seems to be an embarrassment – even appearing at the window of his drama club to see if he’s finished. All this is apparently normal. He’s deeply concerned with how he is viewed by his peers and convinced that he is failing on every score. Apparently that is also normal. But he seems abnormally sad.

One of the things making him sad is the state of the world around him. He feels the future is hopeless, that the human species is doomed because of climate change. He’s afraid of the political climate adults seem to have created, overwhelmed by the expectation that he knows what and who he is to become and that he should be working hard for this seemingly unappealing future. I realise as a parent, in an attempt to make him a ‘better’ person, I’ve shared so many stories of people who are worse off, that I’ve inadvertently made him feel like he doesn’t deserve the life he has: that he is worthless and undeserving of it. And his school, in their eagerness to educate children into understanding that there is suffering in the world, are exacerbating that. Exacerbating that with a curriculum I helped to design because I worked there once.

I’ve realised in the last couple of years, as a teacher and parent, that we need to be careful about the narratives we present to children. Instead of putting them in a bath of empathy, pouring sorrow over them to the point of drowning, we need to help them to be actively compassionate – to be empowered to seek and make changes. We need to expose them to the solutions others are finding to the problems in the world. To imbue them with the hope and belief that change can come and that they will be part of that change. We can’t and shouldn’t protect them from the truth – they’ll see it anyway – but we do need to show them less doom and more boom. Greta Thunberg, taking on the world’s leaders on climate change; the young activists, inventors, and social entrepreneurs who are not waiting around for adults to make a difference, but who are becoming the difference. We need to weave narratives of hope.

I’ve realised that his biggest rejections – those that sometimes seem ungrateful or rude – are those that come after an offering I’ve made. When I’ve arranged for us to do something I thought he would enjoy, made something I thought he would like, bought something I thought he wanted…It’s been hard to have those gifts pushed away and I’ve struggled to understand why he doesn’t seem to want them any more. But it’s about control. My child is telling me he’s afraid of the future; that he feels he has no control over it, or himself, or others, or his life. And so I try to control his feelings in the nicest possible ways and he pushes them away. He feels bad, tries to apologise, I get upset and he feels more worthless. It’s a tough cycle. But when I read Oliver James’ Love Bombing, something clicked into place. I can’t take control of his sadness, because trying to do so makes him feel more powerless and more sad. I need to find ways of giving him control.

I haven’t found them yet…I’m still learning. But it’s made me think of how school impacts on this need of a child/adolescent to have some sense of agency over their lives. His school, like all schools, has rules. It’s not a particularly strict school, compared to some. There are some pretty arbitrary uniform rules, but generally, he’s in a kind environment. And even so he speaks of adults shouting, he doesn’t understand the assessment system, he feels he’s on, as he put it,  ‘a treadmill of expectations.’ And his school is gentle in comparison to some. In a zero-tolerance school, where does that natural need for control, for empowerment, for agency, trust, respect and responsibility go when there’s absolutely no room for choice or individuality? When even the conversation over lunch is dictated by teachers? Where corridors are silent, toilet trips are banned, teachers must be tracked with eye contact all the time? Where everything, down to the size of a pencil case, must be the same? Where does that need go?

I don’t know, but I look at my child. I look at the mental health stats for young people and I worry we’re seeing a tip of an iceberg. We need to be thinking, as parents, how we give our children the trust and breathing space to make their own choices. We need, as schools to be building a pedagogy of power, that gives children a sense of agency and control over their future and their identity. We’ve pushed our adult neurosis – our own fear of future – onto their shoulders, often with the best of intentions. But it’s too much. They’re cracking up. And it’s heartbreaking.

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The School Uniform Nightmare.

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com


It’s one of my most dreaded days of the year, venturing into town for uniform and equipment shopping. No-one wants to do it, yet we all have to. At least we all have to in the UK where uniform is a national obsession. I’m not really writing this to start an ‘is uniform good/bad’ argument – I’ve had those before. In a nutshell those against make a case for personal freedom, comfort and practicality and those for make the case for equality in terms of supporting and protecting poorer students and the pride of group identity. Some make the case that you need uniform for work but obviously that’s mostly bollocks unless you end up in low paid retail work or you need to be in uniform to keep yourself or others safe. In reality, most people don’t work in uniform. And women don’t tend to wear ties either. Nevertheless, let’s, for the sake of argument, accept that uniforms are a force for good. Now what?

I take the leaflet that my son’s new secondary school have helpfully given me, complete with pictures of acceptable shoes (only one velcro strap, slip ons or laces, leather, no trainers, plain black etc…) and skirt length. Thankfully he’d rather wear trousers. In primary school it was simple. White shirt, blue v-neck, grey trousers, black shoes, navy shorts and white t-shirt for PE. Whole kit available in most supermarkets for less than £50 with an extra £3 for the tie. Reasonable, I’d call that. This is a whole other ball game. For a start I’m going to have to go to at least three shops. One is an ‘approved’ supplier -Blazers, PE kits and ties have to be school branded. The shop is local, convenient and packed to the rafters with stressed parents and children. In front of this audience, we play out the ritual of “room to grow” with me demanding that he gets bigger sizes so that they’ll last longer and with him almost weeping with the fear of being bullied. I win as I have the money. And so I sign away £120. And we’ve barely begun. In the queue for the one card machine in the shop is a mother whose eyes are filled with tears. Her card has just bounced. She pulls out her credit card. I can see her briefly cross the fingers on her spare hand as she taps in the pin number. And I know how she feels. Summer holidays are expensive. The last thing you need at this stage of the year is expensive school uniform. I look away.

I’m already fed up and I don’t even know at that point that I have another four hours of stress lying before me. I could go into minute detail about how that next four hours transpires. The locust stripped supermarkets that had sold out of his sizes…the shoe fiasco…the hour spent driving from one town centre to another…the living hell of Sports Direct. But let’s cut to the final sum – a few pence over £300 to kit him out. And that was with me driving from place to place to get the very best deals I could. £300.

It was specified he had to have not just the usual stationery in his kit, but also highlighter pens, green and purple biros and language dictionaries. Items his brothers were never expected to buy as the school provided them. But now, in the face of funding cuts, it seems the cost is passed to parents.

“We need green and purple pens because when I mark my own work, I do it in green and when I mark someone else’s we write in purple.”

“You’re having to pay to do your own marking?” His lip does that wobble thing kids do when they think you’re about to kick off so I take a deep breath and put them in the basket.

“I can’t have those, they have to be Collins language dictionaries.”

“But there are no Collins language dictionaries here.  This is still a good brand.”

“But it says Collins – can we go to Waterstones in Manchester – they might have them?”

“No. We’re in The Works in Oldham because that’s what we can afford right now and these will do.”

Wobbles again, but I’m past caring. And even with all that, still £300.

We’re not a low income family. Compared to many, we’re pretty well off and now our older boys are grown and gone, we only have one child to kit out, but this is a real stretch for us at this time of year. I dread to think what other families are experiencing. We don’t have to pay out for a bus pass either as we live walking distance from school. And our school is not even one of the most expensive in terms of uniform – some insist on the initials of the child being printed on things, on branded trousers, skirts, shirts and in one case, a parent told me of Drama socks. Drama socks? Seriously?

If we’re going to make the case that uniforms are a good leveller for poorer students, why are we making them so expensive? If we’re going to say that school uniforms help students to be less reliant on expensive brands, why are we branding our uniforms expensively?  Some help is available in some local authorities, but even that post code lottery grant doesn’t even cover half of what I had to spend. And I even hear of schools insisting that the child has an iPad or computer to boot. There are schools expecting parents to spend around £1000 for their child to start secondary. It’s completely outrageous.

Branded uniform adds an unacceptable amount to the cost of kitting a child out for school. Without a blazer and branded PE kit, I could have saved a third of the cost. Still expensive, but much less so. Why are so many schools insisting our children wear blazers? Too hot for Summer, too cold for winter, too bulky for coats to be worn over them, rules about not layering under them…they are useless. And they look cheap even when they’re not. So why do schools do all this branding? Is it just thoughtlessness? An obsession with competition? Or are they getting commission for sales to help plug their one funding shortfalls? Has it become necessary for schools to rip off their students and parents in order to survive? If so, then our ire should be directed at the Treasury. And if not, it’s really about time parents stood up and spoke out about the cost.


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Sats Boycott – The Aftermath.

10922645_10155190145725176_579692603467850007_nSo this is the third and probably final blogpost about our decision to boycott SATs this year. I write it on the eve of the results coming out for our son’s school and it feels a little odd thinking that those results will mean nothing to us at all. So what has been the impact of making this decision?

So far, so good. The week of the boycott went smoothly as I described at the time – he stayed off school in the mornings and went in for the afternoons where he took part in normal topic work, PE, Art and life was pretty much business as usual. His teacher and peers were inclusive and supportive of him – he was fully welcomed back and took part in all the activities the other children did – the ice cream treat on Friday was carefully presented to the children as being a reward for all their hard work over the year and not for SATs. That was very reassuring to him.

It was hugely disappointing that as soon as his classmates had put down their test pens, the school announced they would be moving his beloved Year 6 teacher to work in Year 5, where presumably she could start prepping them for their SATs year. The Year 6 children were gutted to lose her. She was ‘allowed’ to see them some afternoons to prep the play and take them on their trips, but Maths and English curriculum time in the mornings was now all about having their eye on the next set of results. Had I had any doubts about whether I’d been right or not to take mine out of SATs, this sealed it for me. Year 6 were dispensable once their test results were in the bag. It was a small comfort that they couldn’t claim at least one child’s results. Petty, I know…

So onto secondary school. We had a transition evening for new parents last week and I explained to the head of year and his new form teacher that we had removed him from SATs. I asked them what difference it would make. The answer was none. The only subject that sets in Yr 7 is Maths and they start off teaching for the first half term in mixed ability groups and then set after an internal assessment. He’ll be assessed, like all the others, in line with what he can do there. One teacher from the school shrugged and said “we don’t trust the SATs results anyway – we just do our own assessments.”

So that’s it. No drama, no fuss, no consequences. And thanks to making that decision, no stupid data flight paths either.


So the information I was given at transition evening turned out to be slightly different in reality. The Maths tests came at the end of the first week, setting at the end of the third. He’s in top set so it clearly made no difference not having SATs results. Just testament to the fact that he had a really good Maths teacher in Yr 6.


Call out Homophobia for what it is.

I knew my son was gay for years before he told us. He just had such good taste and from such an early age. And he loved to come shopping with me 😉 I’m being flippant of course, but we just knew. When he finally sat down last year, at 16 to tell us, it came as no surprise.

“I want to tell you something,” he said, “I’m gay.”

“We know,” we said.

Then we all watched telly. Well, we did have a bit of a chat – why now? Are you ok with us telling the rest of the family? And so on. But basically it was not a stressful conversation. We laughed quite a bit.

“Emily said you’d be cool with it,” he said “she said – for god’s sake, your Mum has been practising in front of the mirror for ten years for this moment.” Emily was right.

My son is a beautiful young man with a good heart and an ability in Art that blows my mind. He’s thoughtful, kind, funny and just easy to get along with. The fact that he’s gay is completely irrelevant in terms of how much I love him. I don’t love him in spite of being gay. I don’t love him because he’s gay. I just love him and everything he is.

So when I see that a man has walked into a nightclub and killed over 50 men and women; that he targeted them specifically for being gay, it strikes a fear into my heart that is almost too much to carry. I want to keep my son home, tell him never to go anywhere where he might be targeted. But then they win, don’t they? The fear in my heart is their reward for the hatred in theirs. I can only replace it with hope if I’m to win.

We should not let the fact that this man mentioned ISIS before he targeted this group of people blind us to the fact that this was a hate crime. We should not let anyone use their religion as a shield for hatred. No religion on this earth preaches hatred and anyone who claims to be Muslim or Christian who thinks that killing is justified, is sinning in the eyes of their own God. The sanctity of life trumps all.

This was a crime of hatred. Hatred IS the thing. It’s a thing we should tackle as parents. As teachers. As human beings who want to live in a peaceful and loving world. Every time we hear a child calling another one, or even a thing, ‘gay’ we need to stop. Not stop it dead. But stop and examine it. You don’t stop hatred by driving it under ground. You don’t stop prejudice by making a child feel bad. You stop it by examining it for what it is. By talking about it. By being explicit that if you use a word to mean that something is rubbish and that word describes a group of people, you are, by association, saying that that group of people are rubbish. Is that what you really want to say? And if so, why? You see prejudice thrives in the dusty corners that we turn a blind eye to. Every “they didn’t mean it,” “it’s just a turn of phrase,” “it’s harmless” is not only a denial of the problem; it adds to the problem. I once went into my son’s primary school concerned that he was constantly being called “Gay Boy”. He was only 10. I was dismissed by a headteacher who said “Oh it’s just banter – they don’t mean anything by it.” People like him let the dust settle until it becomes a choking threat. I wish I’d said more to him.

My 9 year old came home the other day.

“Everyone kept saying my brother was gay today.”

“What did you say?”

“So what if he is!”

It’s a good answer and I’m glad he felt confident enough to say it. We need all children to be able to say ‘so what’? And to be able to do that, we need schools to be confident enough to tackle the issue in the way they would tackle racism.

By labelling this “just” another terrorist attack, we turn our eyes away from the complexity of hatred. It lives everywhere. And only by shining a light on it, seeing it for what it is, can we have any chance of defeating it. And replacing it with hope.


The Reality of the Exam System

Anecdote alert. Some people don’t like anecdotal evidence. They prefer bell curves and statistics. But we all know that statistics hide an awful lot of detail and for parents, the single example of their family life is all the data they need. Here are some stories about the changes to exams over the past few years and how they have impacted on my family. I know ours is not a unique experience.

Firstly, I should say we’ve been mostly lucky. Three boys who have largely enjoyed school, who are engaged with the world and are curious, creative and mostly happy. But the eldest two feel that they survived the system rather than being allowed to thrive in it. And the youngest is learning that the most exciting education he receives is the one outside of school.

Child number one. When he was in reception class, his teacher took me to one side. “I’m keeping him out of assemblies so we can have some one to one time. He has so many questions and is so insatiably curious, that I can’t cope with them when there are 29 other kids around. Is this ok?” Of course it was ok – I was grateful for her attention. When he was in Year 6, his class teacher gave him GCSE papers to do to keep him occupied. He loved being tested and sailed through SATs pretty much with full marks. Learning was easy for him. Minimal effort, maximum outcome. Then came KS3. Bored to tears, repeating subject matter he’d already encountered at primary school, he switched off. He barely opened a book in preparation for GCSEs. Be careful, we warned him – you can’t blag these exams. But he did. A sweep of As and A*s and again little effort. When it came to AS levels, he had a bit more of a shock. An English Literature result came in as a Grade D. His hopes of going to Oxford looked unlikely. But we were middle class and could afford to ask for a remark. And that D became a B and overall the B became an A. He made it to Oxford. Whereupon his tutor said “The first term here is about undoing all the damage that A Level did to you – you need to learn how to think, how to work, how to write.” And finally, my son had to work. He had to work really hard – for the first time since primary school, he rediscovered his love for learning and the rewarding feeling of challenge. He was lucky. But he still found it really hard to get a job. And two years later, his Oxford graduate girlfriend, with a high 2:1 in Biology, is working as a waitress and doing volunteer work in conservation in the hope that one day, a job will become available to her.

Child number 2. On paper, he’s as successful as his brother, but he’s had to work much, much harder for it. A talented artist, it became clear early on that no-one in primary school really cared about Art. The only things that mattered now were Literacy and Numeracy. In the seven years since his older brother had been in primary, things had moved on. Results were everything. He got his Level 5s, worked for them, but was bored and disillusioned with school. Like his brother, KS3 was dull as ditchwater, except for the chance to do Art. He spent as much time in the Art room as possible and jumped at the chance to take it for GCSE. He would have like to have taken DT as well, but his school forced him to take German. He hated it with a passion. Passed it and can’t speak a word. He found a very different GCSE world in 2016 to the one his brother had experienced in 2009. No speaking and listening in English. No modules. His A in a module for Science was dropped when the school realised that first grades only would count and moved hastily to a linear system in the middle of his GCSE years. It seemed like a mad decision – “but he’s already bagged an A”, we pointed out to the Head. But what mattered was not the individual’s results but the trend across the year group. That trend was slightly down. The decision was made to move to linear in the hope that the trend would go up. It didn’t. The move to linear in a system that was designed to be modular meant he sat around 25 exams in a three week period. His brother had sat the same over a two year period. No wonder the elder had sailed through. Younger was predicted an A/B in Maths. But then came Hannah’s sweets on the paper. It wasn’t, he explained, that there was a difficult question that threw him, but that it came in the middle of the paper, when all previous papers had been designed to get increasingly hard. This pattern had been designed to build confidence and this paper changed the game. Some would argue that it’s meant to be tough – that kids shouldn’t be able to predict the order of questions or their difficulty. But this is to ignore the fragile nature of confidence. Or how the mind copes with stress when it is exhausted – like when it has already sat six exams that week. He panicked and scraped a C. No big deal, we decided. He has the Maths in the bag, will never need most of that stuff again. The rest of his results were great, with the exception of German (another C won through blood, sweat and tears when an A or A* in DT would have been within his grasp). Move on.

Ah. Move on – to what? AS Levels of course. Except this year group were about to face the farce that has been the decoupling of AS Levels from A Level. But not all AS Levels. Only some. To date, a year on, as a parent, I have had no formal communication from his college about which were uncoupled, what it meant and why. I had to go in to ask. It turns out that  only Philosophy is now counting as an AS. His other three subjects will have to be taken again at A2 level – double the amount of exams in the second year. So why bother doing AS at all? We were told as parents that it would allow universities to be able to offer places on the grounds of ‘real’ results. But the AS levels are not real – they’ve not been cashed in. And other colleges, offering only predicted grades, are free to inflate them. Furthermore, what we’ve found, as he’s spent weeks and weeks practising AS exam question technique and revising, is that other colleges, who decided not to bother with AS but put kids straight through to A2, are already teaching A2 content and starting coursework that my son won’t start for weeks, perhaps months. They haven’t had to lose five weeks to exam prep, revision and examination days. Those kids are weeks ahead of mine. Was this explained to me as a parent? No. Has anyone explained the changes to you and their implications, if you have a child sitting GCSEs?

As I write, there are specs for next year that are still to be approved and released. Teachers wanting to prep and plan for the new academic year are hampered by an extraordinary delay. Last year, the exam boards were so pressed for examiners, they were employing undergraduates with no experience of the exam or of teaching, to mark them. Teacher examiners were begged to take on extra papers, even though the research shows that overloading examiners compromises quality of marking. Some papers were even being marked on the day that results were released. Are parents aware of the cracks in the system? That we can’t rely on the results? Do they know that last year saw a record number of remarks? Or that the earlier you got your request for a remark in, the more likely you were to have the grade changed?

Our exam system is broken. And I was stung today to be told that to say so, is to be irresponsible. That to suggest that effort won’t guarantee success is irresponsible. Really? My own children’s experiences suggest otherwise. The experiences of working people all over the world every day suggest otherwise. The rise in wealth of those with access to what George Monbiot calls ‘unearned income’ at the expense of those grafting tells its own tale. It may be an unpalatable truth that we can’t trust exams. It may be even more unpalatable that exam success does not necessarily equate to success in the wider world. But we have a responsibility to crack open these issues to debate. Like I said earlier, we’re lucky. My gripes are minor – a small disappointment here, a minor inconvenience there. But for many, many children, whose parents don’t have an insight into the system, or those with SEN, who are now even more hampered by changes to the GCSEs, such as the removal of compensation for spelling and grammar for dyslexic children, the system is critically damaging.

So what can we do?

We can tell our children that there are no guarantees. That effort will make success more likely, but that it’s not the whole picture.

We can encourage our children to be flexible in their thinking – talking to them about complex issues where they have to consider many points of view. To get them to expect the unexpected so that surprises in exams don’t panic them.

We can tell them the truth, that in the end what will matter more than grades, are experiences and contacts. Encourage them to work. A job on a CV is worth its weight in gold. Build their contacts and wider experiences so they have references. It’s another uncomfortable truth that contacts count far more than grades when securing your first graduate position. That’s why the Opportunity Network in New York has been so successful. We need one of those here.

Don’t over organise younger children with timetabled activities. Leave them time to read, to explore knowledge, to build their capacity to concentrate and become obsessed with an interest. My youngest doesn’t feature much in this post, but he’s been teaching himself Japanese for the past two years, and Korean as a second language for the past year. He decided he was a Buddhist and that led onto an obsession with Asia and now with Asian Languages. He’s decided he wants to study Japanese, live in Japan… He’s nine. It all might change. But a dream dreamed in youth is a powerful thing. Leave space for dreams to grow.

And most of all, remind them, again and again, that tests are not the be all and end all. Personality, persistence, goodness, reliability – all these things, in the end, will matter.




Parent Power

When my youngest was in Year 4, I decided to boycott the SATs. He’s now in Year 5. I strongly believe that the SATs tests, as they currently stand, are damaging to children and to schools and that the only reasonable option for parents who are concerned, is to refuse to allow their child to sit them. If you’re a parent of a primary aged child, please consider this as an option available to you.

Let me set the picture. When I went to see their Yr 5 and 6 play at Christmas time, the head stood up before the children began.

“You’ll notice that Year 6 pupils are reading their lines from pieces of paper,” she explained, “This is because they have been working so hard for their SATs, they’ve not had time to practice.”

The tests are not until May. Surely, they could have spent some time on their play? The lines were short and they had one each! In the last week of term, leading up to Christmas, the Year 5 class were told they could have their Christmas party only if they did a Maths test first and on the first day back in January, they sat two practice SATs tests and a comprehension test. Happy New Year! Like many schools, Maths and English fill the long morning of curriculum time and all the rest (Art, Music, Languages, Science, History, Geography, PE, RE and anything else) are crammed into a short afternoon usually lasting no more than 90 minutes. There are literally not enough hours in the day to cover them all, so some get lost. By no stretch of the imagination is this the “broad and balanced” curriculum that is a statutory requirement of all publicly funded schools.

The picture I describe is not an isolated one. There is relentless pressure put on young people to perform all over the country. In one school I visited last year, the whole of year 6 were in exam halls doing a mock paper on a beautiful, sunny day. In another school Year 6 were told by their teacher that if they didn’t pass their SATs she would cancel their planned play day – a supposed reward for hard work over the year. All across the country, stressed teachers are imposing expectations on stressed children that are completely unrealistic and unfair. And for what? Of course English and Maths matter and there’s a strong case that they should take priority over other subjects, but an hour of each per day should be more than adequate – still way more than other subjects and more than they’ll have in secondary school. It’s what my older boys (now 24 and 18) got. So what has changed?

The new tests are so demanding and the results from last year so unreliable that schools are in a blind panic about not meeting the floor target. They are concerned that poor data will lead to a poor Ofsted inspection. They are right to be worried. This is the government that declared they wanted all pupils to be above average, demonstrating a poorer understanding of mathematics than they expect of their 11 year olds. Take this exchange at the Education Select Committee in 2014 when the changes were first being introduced by then Education Secretary Michael Gove.


There are no excuses for failure, yet the writing results show a frightening level of inconsistency across the country in terms of moderation and marking and overall the number of pupils meeting “expected standards” last year fell from 80% to 53%. Let me be clear, when half of our children are told they are failing to meet “expectations” at the age of 11, there is something wrong with the expectations, not the children.

Now, I’m as pushy a parent as any middle class woman I know. One child went to Oxford, another is off to Edinburgh. The youngest juggles three instruments with his school work. I don’t mind tests. I value knowledge. But I resent my children being put off school. I resent the fact that all the skills my eldest son, who is now grown and working in London, needs for work – presentation skills, report writing over time, holding his own in meetings, managing his own time, thinking both critically and creatively – all those skills are being undermined by the current education system. I resent that my youngest is constantly being told that SATs matter, when in fact they matter not a jot to a child – only to the school and to a system obsessed with measuring him in a linear way. So I’m boycotting.

A quick scout on Mumsnet shows I’m not the only one wondering this. And over in the US, 53% of parents across Long Island refused permission for their children to sit the Common Core exams – a pattern repeating itself across the US. I’ve mooted the idea on twitter and to friends and had a very mixed response.

“You’re brave – I don’t think I’d dare have that conversation with the Head” said one parent, who was brave enough to take on the school about bullying, but not about the fact that her child weeps in Year 6 at the thought of going to school.

Others expressed concern that it may impact on Year 7 sets. This is a fallacy that needs to be challenged. Most secondary schools administer low stress CATs tests on entry, not trusting the SATs results. Many don’t set at all in Year 7. Either way, your child will find their way into the right group based on the internal assessment of the school. But if they do enter secondary with a SATs score, that mark will lead Ofsted inspectors and government to judge the child’s projected performance from that day forward. Based on their SATs results, their GCSEs will be predicted. Yes, even in subjects like Art and PE where there is little connection to the tests. It is this nonsensical belief that a child’s future is set in stone; that their capacity to grow, change, develop is irrelevant, that really pushes me over the edge. I want my child to be assessed based on their performance at the time they are assessed. Not for an old score to follow them like a shadow. In our local secondary school, Year 9 children are placed in sets based on their SATs results. What about basing it on their performance in Years 7 and 8? If there isn’t a SATs score, they’ll have to do just that.

Some of the parents I spoke to worried that the law said they had to agree to their children doing the tests. It’s true that it is the law that schools must administer and report the tests, making the assumption that parents agree. They are also expected to do everything they can to ensure that children take them. But they can’t force them to. Strictly speaking, there is nothing in law to say you can’t refuse to allow your child to take them. And I can see that being in school on the day that everyone does the tests might make your child uncomfortable and create a difficulty for the school. So the best option seems to be to keep them off and make sure they’re getting a great home schooled experience in the meantime. I don’t think mine will complain too much if we spend time in museums, galleries and libraries on those days.

We have created a society which is beginning to demonise children. Labelled the “snowflake generation” they are deemed to be flighty and overly sensitive. These labels come from adults who have not experienced first hand anything like the pressure our young people are experiencing in educational terms. We, the older ones, went through a system where you could get into a Russell Group university with a couple of Bs and a C. We walked into a strong graduate job market with no student debt. We were allowed a childhood without endless external, high stakes testing. We took for granted the fact that we would own homes, have job security. None of these things are true for our children. It’s no wonder we’re facing a mental health crisis among the young, and more worrying still are the huge rises in calls to ChildLine from children under the age of 11, many of them citing pressure of tests as a source of their anxiety.

To rub salt into the wound, the government and exam boards seem bent on not testing what they know and understand, but on catching them out – even when they are only six or seven years old. Look at this KS1 practice paper:-

Spot the verbs in this sentence

She was wearing her running shoes.

Now you and I know that running in this context is an adjective. It’s a trick question. What kind of human being tries to trick a 6 year old in a test? And let’s not even go into the farce that the DfE admitted to last year when it was revealed that the actual KS1 tests the children were about to sit contained the same questions that were in a practice paper published on their website.

SATs don’t benefit children. Private schools don’t do them and where they have the Common Entrance Exam, the tests are very different, encouraging a level of independent and creative thinking in children.

I absolutely believe that we, as parents, are colluding in a system of abuse if we don’t stand up and speak out about such inconsistency and conflict of interest. That’s not to say we should all boycott – that’s a matter of personal choice, made between each parent and each child. But we should certainly question the habit of teaching to the test, the narrowing of the curriculum, the belief that the performance in one test is transferable to another to be sat in five years’ time and to any suggestion at all, that failure to perform in a test will lead to a punishment. That is not acceptable under any circumstances.

On a final note, in response to the parents who have said to me “but what does your child think?” in all honesty it’s not been easy. He would do well. He’s starting to dislike school, but he’s compliant enough to endure it and pass the tests. We’ve discussed it at length and he feels guilty that his friends will be taking tests that he doesn’t have to do. He thinks it won’t be fair for him to eat the sweets they get as a reward and he’s worried his teacher will dislike him for it.  While I have pointed out to him that every one of his friends and their parents have the choice to do what we’re doing, these concerns made me question our decision. No-one really wants to put their child in a position where they’ll feel guilty or bad. It would be easier for him to sit the tests. But then he said – “but sometimes you have to do what you think is right, even if it seems a bit scary. So it’s ok.” And I think that’s true of all of us. Standing moaning in the playground to one another will never change the world. Teachers on their own won’t change it – they’re too compromised and when they strike they’re demonised. Parents are the only group with the power to make a difference. It’s time we used that power.


The Fuss about Academies

If you’re not steeped in education speak, you may have felt nonplussed by the news last week that all schools were to become Academies. You may be aware of people who feel very unhappy about it and others who don’t see the problem. What seems to be lacking in the debate is clear information for parents. As usual.

Like any school, there are good and bad academies. Born out of New Labour, the academy programme was introduced to ‘rescue’ failing schools. The idea was that by bringing in fresh management, often new buildings, and freedom to innovate, schools might turn themselves around. It’s a bit of a myth that academies gain control of the land and buildings when they take them over, or that they are a form of privatisation, free to make a profit. It is written into their contracts that they only have the lease of the land and buildings – usually for 100 years; that they must use those facilities for educational purposes and that they should not make a profit. These measures should protect schools from being sold off or turned into money making exercises. Should. But, there are many ways to turn being an academy sponsor to your advantage of course – I’ll outline a few of these later.

There are two kinds of academy – converter and forced. Converters choose to become academies. In the early days of this government, there were some tempting financial incentives to do so and many secondary schools in particular took up the offer. When Nicky Morgan presents rosy statistics about academies, she usually selects them from the group of converter academies. In most cases, these schools were looking for ways to improve and sought academisation as a way of gaining a degree of autonomy and some financial means to push forward improvement.

The other type of academy, however, is one that has been forced to leave local authority control and be taken over by a sponsor. For the remaining schools – 89% of primary schools and 41% of secondary schools –  who had not chosen to become an academy, they will now be forced to. This is upsetting a lot of Headteachers for many reasons. Firstly, they argue that as a “good” or “outstanding” school already, there is no need for them to convert – what they are doing now is working. They argue that the time, legal costs and energy it will take to convert will take them and their staff away from focusing on what matters – teaching and learning. To put this into context, it costs around £25,000 per school to convert. All of this money goes on legal fees and the time taken to do this for a senior leader is considerable. The total estimated cost for forced academisation is £500,000,000 – equivalent to 20,000 teachers at a time where there is a desperate shortage of teachers. For many teachers and parents the issue here is not whether academies can be good or bad, but whether the outcomes justify the cost.

Furthermore, research suggests that schools forced to become academies do not improve. In fact in many cases, they become worse. This research prompted the Education Select Committee in Parliament to ask the government to desist from exaggerating the benefits of academies last year. In addition, the education watchdog, Ofsted has warned that leading academy chains are failing young people and not offering the improvements they promised. Further concerns have been raised about the salaries of CEOs of academy chains – while the sponsors cannot post profits, there is no limit on the pay they can offer their executives. The head of the Harris chain, for example, earns £400,000 per year – far, far more than an equivalent head of Education in a Local Authority. And there have been a number of unsavoury claims of academy leaders profiting from their position.

Some schools have been happy to convert to academy status and their parent body and children are happy too. They have found partners and sponsors who share their ethos and values and who offer valuable expertise. The RSA chain of academies are committed, for example, to broadening out the curriculum offer for children and ensuring they have access to Arts and Creativity as well as academic programmes. There are many other chains and sponsors with strong altruistic values. But as a parent, you have little choice as to which one to choose. Some are already highly experienced in education, some are couch groups, some have no prior connections with education whatsoever. Chains tend to target a geographical area, so your choices of sponsor become a post code lottery. Curriculum freedoms mean that some may offer exciting, broad learning experiences, but equally they may result in schools narrowing their offer to only that which is tested.

One of the biggest concerns raised from the announcement last week was the changes to Qualified Teacher Status. At the moment, if your child attends a local authority school, they must be taught by a qualified teacher. This rule does not apply to academies. In fact the teacher need not even had a degree. One academy in Leeds last year advertised for two mathematics teachers – their job descriptions did not even demand an A Level in Maths. Of course, unqualified teachers are cheap. But they are also likely to be transient and ill equipped for the demands of a classroom. The reality of unqualified teachers in state schools is far removed from the idyll in some of our leading public schools, where Olympians and experienced academics will visit the school to coach the students. In the state sector, the unqualified tend to be just that. Unqualified.

Even trainee teachers with degrees who would normally have undergone rigorous training either in a university or through a school based organisation, will not have QTS conferred upon them until their Headteacher decides to do so. Moving a teacher from non-qualified to qualified pay scales is very expensive. It will be tempting for senior leaders to defer offering qualified status to their staff in the face of cuts and financial challenges in schools. This is a grey area and a worrying one.

It would be far too simplistic to say that all academies are bad or good. But it’s not too radical to say that this policy is worrying. It removes choice for parents, who up to now may have had the choice of an academy, a locally run school, a church school or other. It claims to offer headteachers autonomy, but in fact is forcing them into a decision few want to make. The hunt for a good sponsor or the work of starting up from scratch a MAT partnership of your own is daunting for heads, and diverting of their attention. As a policy it seems to have little evidence to support it in terms of what the Secretary of State claims it will offer. And it seems to completely miss the key issues facing the education system at the moment – namely a chronic shortage of teachers and cuts to funding resulting in higher class sizes and reduced resources. And what if the school coverts to an academy and then fails? The proposals suggest that the schools will fall under the control of the Secretary of State. That might be alright if you’re based in London. But a parent with concerns in Newcastle is a long way from the DfE.

Most of all, parents of children with special educational needs have additional cause for concern. A recent report found that academies were far more likely to exclude children with SEN than local schools – often illegally – and that some were guilty of modes of selection that meant they were not fully complying with entrance procedures. This is still a matter for concern.

As a parent, I’m worried about what will happen to my local school – the one I would automatically have sent my child too at the age of 11. It is currently the only secondary in the area under local authority control. As a teacher who has worked in some wonderful academies with great vision and leadership, and yet who has seen others crush their staff and pupils with bureaucracy and ideology, I know how patchy and unreliable the outcome could be. It worries me. It should worry you.




It Won’t Happen to Me

I’m keen that this isn’t my blog, but one where parents feel they can share their experiences and concerns. So I’m delighted that Nancy Gedge contributed this for the second post. Thanks so much Nancy.

It’s always someone else…

Now that my eldest child is 15 and nearing the end of his school days, I don’t find myself thinking about his babyhood very often. It’s strange, but somehow the teenager I see before me, the one who is always hungry and hates his spots seems to bear no relation to the babe I held in my arms, the firstborn I waited for all those years ago. Together we have travelled a road through time that has not only changed him, but me. As well as asking myself where he went, I find myself wondering what happened to her too.

That woman, the one who excitedly bought teeny-weeny baby socks (you know, the ones that you really buy for yourself because there is no way that you can ever get the damn things to stay on a teeny-weeny baby foot), read her baby book from cover to cover (subconsciously taking in all those lovely, fluffy photos of babies who never cry – except in an attractive way – and who never poop all the way down their legs and half way up their backs) seems like an alien creature.

You see, there’s this thing about having babies of your own, you know, the sort of real ones who keep you up til all hours wailing and generally having tummy aches or other mysterious ailments, that does a very fine job of bringing any rose-coloured preconceptions you might have had about the state of early parenthood crashing to the floor and splintering them into a thousand million little rose-coloured shards. And, as they grow, the destruction of your preconceptions continues.

The chance to go to the toilet on your own? Ha. Siblings playing happily and sharing toys nicely? Ho ho ho. A full night’s sleep? Yeah, right.

Mind you, it has to be said that the vast majority of my expectations disappeared about three days after my firstborn arrived. It’s not a very nice experience, I can tell you. There you are, recovering, and in come a load of doctors and nurses with long, long faces and clipboards with blood test results and there it is. Everything you thought you were expecting isn’t. That moment when you are told that your child doesn’t measure up to the perfect-ometer is a bit of a shocker.

The thing is, I suppose, that we all have expectations of our children. I certainly did before Down’s syndrome came along and knocked them all flying like skittles. We think, when we hold that baby in our arms that they will be the brightest and the best; they will be the next Formula 1 champion, or football star, or whatever it was we wished we had turned out to be. Being told that this will not happen, and instead they will face a future of hard graft, just to get the smallest amount of mastery over the basics, is a hard egg to swallow.

So why am I telling you this? Why am I, a primary school teacher, and ordinary working mum-of-three sharing the destruction of my hopes and dreams in such a way? Because, aside from the fact that March is all about Down’s syndrome awareness for me, I am worried.

You see, being told that your child doesn’t measure up, that they fall short of national expectations isn’t very nice. In a funny kind of way, I am thankful that we received our son’s diagnosis when he was a tiny baby, because by the time he was eleven or twelve years old, those feelings of failure, or grief and disappointment, had faded well into the background. He has never had to deal with them. But now, things are different, and not just for us, the one in however many infinitesimally small number that we were.

Because our children, even if they don’t have a learning difficulty, if they don’t get to the expected standard in Year 6, they’ll have to do all that hard graft, that learning of grammar and spelling and maths all over again in Year 7. On the face of it we might raise our eyebrows in smug self-satisfaction, look at our charming offspring, so lively, so talented, and wonder what all the fuss is about. Of course they ought to reach the expected standard. It’s expected, after all. What a silly little thing to get our knickers in a twist about.

Only the thing is, I look at my daughter. She is ten years old, and bright as a button. She is smiley and giggly, she runs around and gets tangled hair and dirty knees. She has just discovered that she can read an entire novel and enjoy it and she gets cross with maths. She is everything, in fact, that a ten year old should be. Except, according to curriculum measurements, she isn’t. Since the introduction of a new standard, she is below national expectations, and, just at the point when she should be facing secondary school with that butterfly feeling (there are Bunsen burners and art rooms that smell of mysterious concoctions, music rooms and a drama studio, a gym with ropes that go all the way up to the ceiling and a big grand piano tucked away in the corner), she will open her school report and understand that she falls short.

Will all those wonderful things be hers? The art, the cooking, the science and history? Will she have access to a broad and balanced joyful education suitable for the young person she is? Or will she have the constant dry diet of narrowness that she is already experiencing in order to justify her teacher’s continuance on the pay scale? Will she be paying the price of far off decisions made in far off Westminster?

When I write or talk about Down’s syndrome there is always the caveat that these things don’t happen to very many people (as if that somehow makes them less awful). That this knowledge of not measuring up to someone else’s scale affected us, but not so much him. But this. This one affects us all.