When did we lose our authority over our kids?

At the tail end of Friday I heard some of my colleagues discuss meeting up in the pub for a few drinks after work. My plans were rather different: pick up the kid from after school club, then home. I managed to get through dinner, homework and bedtime before collapsing into bed myself and sleeping for an unheard of 13 hours.

So what made my week so exhausting? I work as a learning support assistant though I do also teach EAL English to a few students who are refugees from Syria. This involves developing the curriculum, lesson planning and preparing an end of term 1 assessment for them, so one could say there is something of the teacher’s workload in my busy week. Still, I haven’t had to mark mountains of homework so that alone doesn’t go far enough towards explaining my fatigue.

Maybe it’s because we are approaching half term but I do get the sense that behaviour has got a lot worse over the last week. I had to break up two fights in the corridor in the space of two days and on the last period on Friday, at the start of my enrichment club, a girl came into my classroom, said a few angry words to a boy there, punched him in the stomach and then strutted out before I had a chance to stop her getting away. I later had to try to sift through class photos on the SIMS system before I identified her and gave her a “red card” for “reckless behaviour” which will add 10 behaviour points to the 60 or so she had already, no big deal for her.

All week long, navigating a path to classrooms between each lesson has proved to be something of an obstacle course. Hordes of children moving about in a chaotic manner, sometimes just stopping in the middle of the staircase for a chat, sometimes having raging arguments, laughing or being rowdy – this is no orderly procession from class to class. Fighting my way through these hordes to get to my classroom has become something of a daily struggle. Yesterday after period 3, I finally reached the top floor, turned right towards my classroom only to hear a girl shouting out to another “I’m going to punch you for this”. I remonstrated with “this is not appropriate language to use at school” but the girl simply ignored me and walked off.

I also noticed something else which gave me pause for thought. Twice this week, I have been accused by students of being rude to them, both times in nearly identical circumstances. This is what happened. I was trying to make my way up the back staircase to go to my next lesson but got held up by a group of girls having a heated conversation on the half landing. I said to them in a stern voice “go to your classrooms now please”, when this had no effect I then raised my voice and said “get moving to your class now” and when that still had no effect I literally had to shout at them to “go on, get moving now”. What did I then get for my troubles? A pained, injured expression on their faces and the accusation that I had been rude to them.

When did it become ok for students to talk back at teachers and accuse them of being rude? When did we lose our authority over our children? Looking back at my years at school, I don’t think I could ever have spoken to my teachers the way these kids were talking to me. If a teacher had told me to go to my classroom, I would have obeyed. I don’t think I ever witnessed chairs being upended or threats of physical violence, something of a daily occurrence in my school. Let’s not forget, this is a school rated as “good” by Ofsted. I dread to think what goes on in the ones that require improvement.

I am not so old that I ever experienced corporal punishment in school but there was always an element of respectful fear of teachers, particularly senior staff. Both of my headmistresses, Mlle Dutouquet in primary and Miss Rudland in secondary were what one would call battleaxes. Rather strict and stern individuals you didn’t ever want to get on the wrong side of. If you happened to pass them in the corridor, you would unconsciously make yourself as inconspicuous as possible. You did not want that eagle eye to fall on you.

Now I don’t want to come across as a traditionalist who views the past through gilded lenses. The kind of schools where teachers could behave like tyrants, ordering children about and imposing harsh punishments for misdemeanours obviously have no place in our modern world. Yet I do wonder if our efforts to empower children and to give them a voice have taken matters to the other extreme. Their empowerment has come at the expense of our authority. There is a happy medium somewhere but I have not seen it in any of the schools I have worked in, except perhaps the independent prep school I was with last year.

It is in this context that I am intrigued by the reports I read about Michaela free school in Wembley, the marmite school that has sharply divided opinion. Its head is Katharine Birbalsingh, the darling of the Tories and a champion of Michael Gove’s educational reforms. This on its own is enough to raise the hackles of the left leaning educational establishment. As I don’t belong to any of the two main political tribes of this country, I am not particularly bothered by the political hue of this school’s leadership. What interests me is what they seem to be achieving in terms of behaviour and educational attainment. I am told that students at Michaela walk the corridors in silence between lessons and that they are able to pack up their belongings, get to the next lesson and be ready to learn all in the space of 2 minutes. I hear that teachers are free to teach without having to constantly keep on top of behaviour management. I hear that they teach the children about gratitude and kindness. I’m intrigued.

On an impulse last week, I sent an email to the vice principal of my school who is also my line manager. I attached a link to Tom Benett’s blog about his visit to Michaela and asked whether anyone from our school had been to visit. If there were any plans to do so in the pipeline, please could I hitch a ride? When I next met up with her, she asked me about Michaela in a way that indicated she had never heard of this school before. I was surprised. I forgot that not everyone is in my twitter bubble. The long and short of it is that she would be happy for me to visit Michaela as part of my CPD though I did suggest that she accompany me there, as I feel it is important for a member of the leadership to see if there are any lessons we can learn from Michaela.

So, Michaela school, I hope you are still welcoming visitors because I want to come and see for myself how you do the things you do. If you’ve managed to crack the behaviour thing, then I want to learn how you do it. Make no mistake. Behaviour is the single most important issue in education today. We need to sort it out for the children’s sake but also for our own sanity. Maybe then I won’t have to come home at the end of the week feeling as low as I did last Friday.

Wading ever so slightly into the grammar school debate

I have just completed my first week as a Learning Support Assistant at an inner London secondary academy. I took the job to gain experience in the state education sector before applying for teacher training. Prior to that, I had worked for a term as a teaching assistant at an independent prep school. It will come as no surprise if I say that my current school feels a million miles removed from my previous one.

The first and most obvious difference is in the pupil intake. This is a school with a very high percentage of children on free school meals and over 50% of them with English as an additional language. I had the opportunity to observe the new intake of year 7 students during their induction process. Comprehensive is the word that springs to mind when I think of these year 7s. At one end of the spectrum, a handful of very bright and engaged students immediately stood out. There was a solid number of students who seemed to be working within the expectations for their year group but also a fair few that seemed to be struggling with their reading and writing. Add to this mix a couple of students recently arrived in the country (one of them a Syrian refugee) with little or no English. And to complete the picture, the new intake also included a few disruptive students with serious behavioural issues.

Academies and free schools have been at the forefront of the government’s educational policies for the last few years and there have been some notable success stories, in London schools particularly. My school could be considered one of these successes. Rated “good” by Ofsted, it has a dedicated and motivated leadership and there is a palpable ethos of aspiration. Although budgets are always tight, the pupil premium accompanying a large number of the students has meant the school has been able to invest in a significant number of specialist and support staff, myself included. The school itself is housed in a state-of-the-art newly built campus. There are also some tremendously talented and inspirational teachers, the backbone surely of any good school.

The acid test for me, however, is this. My son currently attends the local state primary but before too long we will need to think about secondary schools for him. Would I want my own son to go to this school? The answer to that is a definite no. And the reason for that is a relatively simple one. Because the school is comprehensive, because there is no element of selection and because the school happens to be in a poorer part of the city, it is likely that my son would have to share his classroom with some very troubled and disruptive students. For me, that is the deal breaker. I have repeatedly observed lessons being derailed by poor behaviour. I have also noticed how, over time, the disruptive students exert a pull over others who would otherwise behave, and encourage them to misbehave too. To clarify things, although I have worked in an official capacity at this school for only a week, I also volunteered there last year for half a term. So I do know what I am talking about.

When it comes to the grammar school debate, I can understand many of the arguments against them. I can see that they do very little for social mobility and that they have a negative effect on the neighbouring schools by creaming off the most talented, effectively turning them into secondary moderns. I understand all this and yet, as a mother myself, I have sympathy for those other parents crying out for a grammar school to open in their area so they don’t have to send their precious child to a school like mine. They want an element of selection so their child can be in a classroom with pupils that will exert an upward pull on them, not a downward one.

And that element of selection is already there, though not officially so. Schools in expensive areas, such as the one in leafy Surrey that I volunteered at briefly, are comprehensive in name only. Other schools deal with the problem by aggressively streaming or setting the students in most subjects. An Ofsted Outstanding school I know of assesses the students at the start of the year and then separates them into seven ability groups. That is surely a grammar school system by the back door.

Let’s have a bit more honesty in the debate and talk about the real issue, which is that of poor behaviour and how that can damage the educational chances of others. I don’t pretend to have the answers. I don’t think opening more grammar schools is the solution either. As for my son’s choice of secondary school, well we’re the lucky ones. If need be, we can afford to go private or move to a better catchment area. Others are not so lucky.

School tests should be welcomed, not reviled

It’s May and school tests are in full swing all around me. I work as an assistant in a year 3 class at a London prep school and we are quite familiar with testing. Every week there are spelling, mental arithmetic and problem solving tests. This week is a little different however. In addition to the usual tests, the children have done assessment papers in maths and in creative writing. All these tests and assessments are used to check how well the children are learning and to spot any areas of weakness that can be improved. This is a great help to the teachers in writing their end of year reports for each child.

Although the class size is comparatively small and the teacher has gotten to know his pupils very well, tests are still necessary to get a more detailed picture of how much each child has learned. Despite knowing the children really well, the class teacher still gets a surprise or two when marking the tests. “Robert”, the boy who clowns around in class to hide his academic insecurities, has done surprisingly well in quite a difficult test. Confident and cocky “Percy” who usually sails through all his tests has found this particular one quite challenging.

Yesterday I was asked by the class teacher to pore through the test data for one particular pupil and to make a note of all the tests where that child scored below a certain mark, and then to list the topics of each of these tests in order to try to identify any pattern. With this information, the teacher hopes to get a better understanding of where the child is struggling and to be able to devise appropriate strategies for him.

Without all this test data the teacher would have to rely mainly on his own observation of the children in class, an imperfect way of assessing how much they are learning. Even with the best intentions in the world, teachers can fall into the trap of bias. It is human nature to make mental judgements about people and all subsequent assessment can easily fall prey to the influence of these initial judgements. This article by Daisy Christodolou explains teacher bias very well. Interestingly, it is children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are most likely to be affected negatively by it.

My year 3 class is not alone in getting tested this week. Throughout the country, year 2 and year 6 children are doing their SATs tests. There has been an outcry against these tests in certain quarters, with some parents going as far as stopping their children from going to school in a protest “strike”. My son is in year 2 and he too will be sitting SATs tests next week at his school. I initially had misgivings about the tests. Now I welcome them and here’s why.

My son is a bright boy and doing well at school. His teachers are satisfied that he is achieving what he needs to for his age and are not, in my observation, particularly motivated to stretch him any further. I suspect he could be doing a lot better. Out of curiosity, last week I downloaded sample SATs papers and sat him down at home to do them. He scored to level 2a (the top end of what is expected for his age) but struggled a bit in the level 3 paper. We went through this paper together and I made a note of the main areas of difficulty.

Every day for the past week, we have practised together for no more than 20 minutes some of the level 3 types of questions. Yesterday, my son made my day when he exclaimed: “I really enjoy these maths questions now!”. He has noticed that he finds maths a lot easier now and I no longer hear him say he is rubbish at it. In the space of one week, he has improved noticeably. I will give him another level 3 paper at the weekend and I suspect that this time, he will find himself much more capable of doing it. We have achieved all this progress in the space of one week because of a test. This supposedly stressful test has boosted my son’s confidence. It allowed us to identify his areas of difficulty and to target them successfully.

If this kind of improvement can be achieved with other pupils at the national level through testing, then we should be welcoming SATs tests, not reviling them. In fact, I would go further and say there should be more frequent testing in schools. It should become a normal, common thing to do. The more often children have tests, the more familiar they become with the process and the less likely they are to be stressed by them. A one-off big test can loom high in some sensitive children’s minds but a low threat, high challenge set of regular tests would be a less scary proposition. There is a further advantage to testing. Research has shown that tests are a better way of retaining knowledge than studying. By giving regular tests, we can help ensure that whatever the children learn gets remembered and not forgotten. Win win all round.

It’s not so bad but there’s still lots to do

In January this year, I decided I wanted to get into teaching. The first step in becoming a teacher is gaining relevant experience in schools. With this in mind, I started volunteering in a secondary academy in London at the start of February. I also visited two other schools for a day of observation, as well as volunteered with the charity IntoUniversity, one evening a week, helping secondary school children with their homework.

It’s fair to say I have learned a lot in the last two months. What has struck me though is the utter disparity between what I have observed in the schools I have been to, and what I read in the newspapers (ok, in the Guardian) about the dire state of education in this country. First of all, a disclaimer. I know that having visited three secondary schools in London does not qualify me to make a judgement on the overall picture of education in the country. All I am doing is sharing my experience in schools so far and noting that it does not seem to bear any relation to what is described in some of the “our education system is in crisis” articles I read in the Guardian (particularly in the secret teacher column).

So what are my impressions so far?

Academies versus local authority run schools

Two of the schools I have volunteered at are academies and one of them is a comprehensive run by its local authority. The comprehensive school seems to me to have a more traditional ethos, a more established feel to it whereas both of the academies, different as they are, seem to be in the process of establishing their culture and defining who and what they are. That’s not to say though that one is any worse than the other. A common thread in all three schools is the dedicated teachers I saw working with the core purpose of improving the minds of their students. I have heard lots of claims in recent days about academies being cynical market driven institutions – the labour leader has gone as far as to claim that academisation is asset stripping the education system –  but what I have seen of academies bears no relation to that.

I’m not sure forcing well performing schools into becoming academies is a particularly good idea and the whole government policy smacks of dogmatic fervour. By the same token I don’t feel that converting schools to academies is going to cause as much doom as some people are claiming.

The teaching profession in crisis

The story goes like this. Teachers are overworked, underpaid and leaving the profession in droves. What I have observed goes like this. Teachers are very busy and work long hours. The more experienced teachers tend to be able to organise their time effectively so that they don’t have to take schoolwork home with them. It’s not an easy job and some people struggle with it while others seem to thrive. Yes there is a teacher shortage, particularly in stem subjects and languages, but this has just as much to do with population growth and the setting up of new schools which has meant there is a need for a lot more teachers than before and those needs have not adequately been matched up with the number of people being trained as teachers. This problem is being addressed – there are lots of incentives to encourage graduates into teaching – but it will take time to get the desired effect.

The other thing that often gets forgotten in this whole debate is this: teaching is a privilege. It may be hard work, challenging, stressful but it is a privilege. I have only spent two months in a school but already I have got to know the personalities of some of the children and begun to build a rapport with them. When I said goodbye to everyone on the last day of term, I felt a pang. I’m going to miss those kids. It has been a privilege to work with them.

Closing the attainment gap

One of the reasons I wanted to get into teaching was that I wanted to “do my bit” towards closing the attainment gap between poor children and their wealthier counterparts. This is the big challenge in education. How do you raise standards? How do you make sure that someone off an estate in Peckham has just as much chance of going to a good university as someone at a private school? These are the big questions which should be on our minds, not the merits or demerits of academies.

From what I have experienced in schools so far, there is still a long way to go before we are even near to closing that attainment gap. There is so much work to be done. I am not an expert educator yet but here are the three key areas that I would tackle.

  1. Discipline: little or no effective teaching can take place in a disruptive classroom. Behaviour management using consistent and clear rules and sanctions should be one of the pillars of an education system. This should not be up to individual teachers to enforce but something that is embraced at all levels of the school.
  2. High expectations: you cannot achieve great things without high expectations. Be ambitious about what you want your students to do. As Tom Sherrington describes brilliantly in this post, pitch it up, aim high, expect excellence.
  3. Expert teachers: this one is a little more difficult to do but is nevertheless critical to raising the standard of education. Teachers must be experts in their field, they must have great depth and breadth of knowledge. I have been struck by the lack of mastery of the English language displayed by my son’s primary teachers over the last few years (in an Outstanding school no less). Letters to parents are often littered with spelling or grammatical errors, apostrophes in the wrong place and poor punctuation. Even the executive head of the school shows poor use of language in his yearly letter to the students. In the secondary schools too, I have noticed some teachers use very simplistic language to explain things to their students. For example, in a recent history lesson I heard a teacher ask this question “Was King John a good or a bad king?” when there was an opportunity to use much more sophisticated language than that.

So these are my first impressions based on my experience so far. Next term I start working as a teaching assistant in a prep school. It will be interesting to see how things are done in the independent sector and to compare.

My first forays into education

As you may or may not know, I am planning to train as a teacher. The process of becoming a teacher starts with obtaining relevant school experience, usually on a voluntary basis. With this in mind I set to work contacting as many local secondary schools as I could to ask for a volunteering placement. These placements are particularly hard to obtain in secondary schools (primary schools tend to need more hands on help) and therefore it was not surprising that my initial efforts yielded little response. I persevered and by the time I had contacted about 20 schools I finally got a positive response from two of them.

Then came the potentially time consuming process of obtaining DBS clearance (to check if I have any criminal convictions) which, thankfully for me, took only a week. It took a bit longer for the teachers to decide on a timetable for me and then half-term came along and delayed things a bit more but I finally started two weeks ago at a school, working 3 days a week.

The school is a recently set up academy housed in modern facilities with a high intake of children on pupil premium and for whom English is a second language. This is a fabulous opportunity for me to see first hand how an inner London school takes on the challenge of educating children from more disadvantaged backgrounds. How would I, privileged and privately educated, fit into such an environment? In my first week I was asked by a student if I was American which rather surprised me until I realised that a posh English accent sounds about as foreign to some students as an American one. In the staff room, I was put at my ease by the other teachers who have all been friendly and inclusive. I had been mindful not to disturb anyone, having heard how busy and overworked teachers are, but they have made time to chat to me about the profession and share insights with me.

So… is teaching what I really want to do and would I be any good at it? Two weeks into this experience and the preliminary answer to these questions is yes, I think so. I am still figuring things out, standing at the back of the class and not always sure of what I should be doing. Some of the children are happy to get help while others show their displeasure at my approach and one particular student covers up his book to stop me seeing his work altogether. However, when I have managed to actually help (which I hope will happen more often with time), it has felt tremendously rewarding.

One challenge for me is to be able to gather enough about the subject of the lesson to be able to contribute positively. This is not so much an issue in French lessons but history is such a wide subject that unless I have prepared with some reading about the particular period being studied, I can be as blank as the students I am supposed to be helping. I am not always sure about the correct answers to a question or what exactly it is that the teacher is looking for. For example, yesterday I got confused by a question on the board which said “How did the Africans trade?” when what was meant by the question was “What did the Africans trade?”. I only worked it out when another perplexed student put their hand up and the teacher replied with “salt, spices and books”. I may sound a bit pedantic but it seems to me that accurate language is critical. How many times have students done poorly in an exam because they have failed to properly read the question? By the same token, questions need to be absolutely clear and unambiguous in their language. I still remember several instances where my son returned home with some homework which I read over and over again without understanding what was being asked. I had to guess the teacher’s meaning by asking my son about what he had done in school that week and working out the most likely option.

Disruptive behaviour is a big issue and I have witnessed how this can totally derail a lesson but interestingly I have seen the same students behave very well in other lessons. Children can smell weakness in adults like vampires can smell blood. They will push the boundaries whenever they can. I have been fortunate enough to be able to observe three history teachers with varying degrees of experience ranging from the head of the department to a newly qualified teacher. Unsurprisingly the NQT has had the most problems with behaviour management. What has been interesting for me is reflecting through my observation on where he might be going wrong (such as body language, use of his voice, pace of the lesson, not following through with sanctions). What’s more, it has been interesting to see how senior staff have been supporting him and the different strategies that have been tried out from one day to the next. I’m sure he’ll nail it fairly soon and it will have been hugely instructive for me to witness the process.

This week I was given the opportunity to visit another school in the more affluent outer suburbs of London as part of the government’s School Experience Programme. I spent a full day there observing a total of five history lessons ranging from year 7 to year 12 students. I was struck by the difference in culture from one school to another. I noticed that the students in this Ofsted Outstanding school had a higher level of literacy than the ones at the school where I am working. This enabled the teachers to pack a lot more into each lesson and the pace was noticeably faster.

I am told that by the time middle class children (for want of a better term) start school, they will have learned about 12,000 words whereas the more socially disadvantaged children will have only learned about 5,000. This word deficit has significant implications for learning. In Daniel Willingham’s book “Why children don’t like school” which I am currently reading, he explains how inefficient our working memory is for thinking and how dependent we are on being able to retrieve information from our long-term memory in order to work things out. In effect, the more knowledge you have stored in your long-term memory, the more you are able to learn new concepts. If you come to school with half as many words stored in your brain as others, chances are you will learn a lot more slowly. Before long, you will find the gap between you and the others has grown as they speed ahead of you in their learning. It’s terribly unfair! This is why there is such a big focus on improving literacy in schools. At my son’s primary school reading is the holy grail. And I have noticed too in the secondary academy where I volunteer how children are encouraged to read whenever possible, not just in English lessons.

Having been to a higher achieving school within a more affluent constituency, would that be a preferable environment for me to work in? Not one bit! I was glad to make my way back to the multi-cultural neighbourhood that is my home and the next day I looked forward to seeing the familiar faces of the students I had grown rather fond of.

My journey into education

Earlier this year I decided I wanted to get into teaching. This wasn’t a sudden decision but something I had been mulling over for some time. I was put on the path to teaching, I believe, through my experiences last year when I found out my son was placed in the middle ability stream at his primary school. This momentous event dominated my thoughts for months as I tried to understand how my bright and knowledge hungry child had been deemed “average” at his Ofsted Outstanding school and then as I battled to get him promoted to the higher ability work which I knew he was capable of doing.

I spent weeks railing at a system that was so obviously disadvantaging my child. Why had nobody told me that the children would be assessed in the first week of school and then placed into ability groups? I had attended all the parent briefings, been given handouts about what to expect during the next school year, but not a hint was given that something so important was going to happen. If my child was going to be assessed in that first week on how well he could read, write or count, I surely had the right to know about it so that I could help prepare him. We had spent our summer holiday in ignorant bliss, me reading Harry Potter to him every evening but not expecting him to read to me. I knew my boy was bright and I knew that once he was in school he would catch on to whatever was being taught so I had no real incentives to badger him into doing school work during the holiday.

The next shock was the reaction from his teacher when I let her know that my son was finding the work he was given too easy and that he thought he could tackle the more challenging work of the higher ability tables. “Really”, she said to my son sounding surprised, “well, if you want to have an extra challenge, just put your hand up and ask.” To say I went home that day feeling frustrated would be an understatement. We spent the next few weeks reading more intensively and practising writing at home. If my son had to prove he was worthy of “promotion” then that was what we were going to do. Within two weeks he started to read fluently and to write much more legibly. The improvement was so stark, the teacher could not fail to notice. But my son stayed stuck where he was.

I looked jealously at the other “favoured” children and my eagle eye could not detect any special gift in them that stood them apart from my son. The unfairness of it had me tossing and turning at night. I could not accept this status quo. I would not. Another meeting with the class teacher did not yield any result so I resolved to see the deputy head about it. I am half ashamed to say that I was by this stage so emotional about this matter that, try as I might, I could not help shedding tears during that meeting. How could an outstanding school, a school that prided itself on its platinum standard of education, impose a ceiling on my son’s achievements in this way? And her response had me confounded. We can’t teach all the children at the same level, she said, there are some in that class that can still barely even write their own names.

Well, I did not succeed in getting my son moved up to the top ability stream but my accusations that a ceiling was being placed on his attainment had hit a nerve. The upshot of the meeting was that my son was given the higher ability work even though he stayed on the same middle table as before. It was not what I wanted but I had to accept this compromise. And then, at the start of the summer term, two children who had sat in the higher stream tables left the school and the sudden vacancy meant that my son could finally be moved up. The happiness on his face when he came home and told me the news shows just how much he cared about being put in a lower ability table than all his friends. It mattered. Those proponents of streaming do not know just how crushing to a child’s self worth it can be to feel they are not as clever as others in the class. It is an incredibly stigmatising thing to do to a child. Something else happened too. Soon after he was moved up to a higher stream table, the standard of his work improved significantly. This may have been pure coincidence but it could also be that, once he was surrounded by children doing more challenging work, he was motivated and inspired to match what they were doing. Success breeds success, isn’t that how the saying goes?

So, job done, at this point I should have just heaved a sigh of relief and moved on. Not so. I kept asking myself, what about the other children, the ones whose mothers didn’t have the chutzpah to make a fuss like I did? How many other children out there were underachieving because of low expectations? I needed to read up about this. I googled “ability streaming” and found several interesting articles that led me to purchase some books on the subject. I started reading book after book and blog after blog on education. There are a multitude of them. This led me further than just the subject of grouping by ability. I read about mindset in Carol Dweck’s seminal book. I delved into the current debate between proponents of a progressive versus a traditional education. I found out about cognitive science and the latest research on how the mind retains information. I wanted to read about the latest efforts to raise the standard of those who are failing in education. What are the successful schools doing that others are not doing? There is, I found out, a vibrant community of deeply committed teachers grappling with these issues. I felt invigorated.

After 7 years of being a stay-at-home mum, it was time for me to get back to work. But what to do? I could resurrect my career as a reflexologist and aromatherapist. I was good at it and it was satisfying to be able to help alleviate my clients’ aches and pains. Something held me back though. I wanted more intellectual challenge. The news talked about a chronic teacher shortage and the adverts on TV invited people to get into teaching. Intrigued, I registered online and got the pack. It said bursaries were available for people like me with good degrees. I could train directly in a school and be working as a qualified teacher within a year, which is appealing as I am already 45 years old. I talked to family and friends. Everyone without exception was encouraging. The decision was made. I’m going to be a teacher!

It’s time for schools to embrace “learning without limits”

This morning I greeted fellow mums in the playground after an absence of 6 weeks and when asked about how our summer holidays went gave the obligatory “great thanks” when really the truth is slightly more nuanced than that. Yes we did have some fun days out (the most bizarre yet successful was going plane spotting at Heathrow – how much more small budget can you get?) and yes we did have an exciting trip abroad. Spending so much time with my son was overwhelmingly a joy although this was tempered by having to accept the loss of my freedom for six weeks, something that got harder to bear towards the latter parts of the holiday. However, there was also another aspect to the holiday which was not quite so pleasant.

Having learnt to my cost that children get assessed during the first week of school and then sorted into three ability bands, I knew how vital it was that my son start school well prepared for this assessment. Our previous summer holiday had been spent carefree and academia free but it meant that my son started school with very poor reading and writing skills. I knew what a quick and able learner he is, so I assumed that once he started school he would quickly get back into his groove. Unfortunately, that is not how schools operate nowadays. He was judged on the level he presented rather than on his potential for learning and consequently sorted into the “middle” ability stream. This meant he was given work which he often found too easy while he watched his friends being given more challenging tasks than him. I cannot begin to explain how crushing and stigmatising it is for a child to feel less worthy than others in his class, especially when both he and I knew he was capable of a lot more than the teacher gave him credit for.

There ensued for us a stressful year in which we struggled to get the school and his teacher to move him up to the higher level stream, which eventually happened in the summer term and then only because vacancies had been created by two children in the class leaving the school. Earlier in the year we had put in some effort at home to improve my son’s reading and writing, which it did very quickly giving truth to my own assessment of his ability to learn. If the class was based on meritocracy, then surely this would have been the point at which the teacher took note of this significant improvement and rewarded it. Nothing of the sort happened. While in theory there ought to be fluidity between each ability band, with children moving up or down easily from week to week or month to month, in practice the children mostly remain in the same ability group they start with.

This is not just my own observation of the workings of my son’s classroom. The lack of movement between ability streams has been documented in various studies, notably one by Brian Jackson (“Streaming: An Education System in Miniature”, 1964). Examining patterns of achievement in reading as they evolved up to age 11, Jackson found that the Bs never caught up with the As, or the Cs with the Bs and that indeed, the gaps between them widened over time. Although transfer between streams remained a theoretical possibility, it rarely occurred in practice. For most, the original placement (usually around the age of 7) was final.

You can understand then why I felt galvanised into making sure my son, who will soon turn 7, does well in the first week’s assessment. At the start of the holiday, I purchased various literacy and maths exercise books and promised myself that we would devote 10 minutes each day to maintaining and improving his levels of learning. This was easier said than done. My son naturally rebelled against this regimen. He would much rather play Minecraft or build intricate railways or go outside to play than to sit and do “boring” work. There were days when I literally pulled my hair out trying to get him to sit and concentrate for a few minutes. I often had to bribe him with money or treats in order to get him to co-operate. The holidays ended with a mixed bag of results. His reading is very fluent now, his vocabulary is excellent and his writing is hit and miss depending on his mood. With maths I hit a brick wall of resistance from him. I hope and pray that I have done enough to save him from “relegation”.

Walking home from the school run, I got chatting to another mum. I confessed to her that I had tried to get my son to work in the holidays to improve his chances at school and she replied that she too had tried to get her older son in particular to do some work in the holidays. She told me how last year, he had caught chicken pox in the first week of school and had missed the “assessment”. As a result he was placed in the same ability group as he had been in the previous year. Her protests to the school about this were to no avail. He was not even given the chance to “prove himself”. Consequently, she had spent precious money on Kumon lessons to help him with his maths. She told me her son, who is summer born and thus around 10 months younger than the older children in the class, has always had a struggle to catch up because of the streaming system. She too hoped that the confidence he had gained from the Kumon classes would help him start year 5 on a better footing.

By now you will have guessed that our experience during the last school year has prompted me to read up a lot on the subject of streaming in education. You would be right. On a gut level I knew the system was wrong but I did not have viable alternatives to present. I remember distinctly a conversation I had with the deputy headmistress of the school in which she said to me that they had to group by ability because there were children in that class who could still barely write their own names. I had no answer for that. Now I do. It’s called “learning without limits” and it is a simple yet powerful concept. Let me hasten to add that this is not a pie in the sky theory but a method of teaching that is being used in certain schools around the country to great success. These schools do not stream by ability and yet many are judged by Ofsted to be “outstanding” and do well in the academic league tables. This gives lie to the charge often made that mixed ability teaching results in a dumbing down of standards. Not so. Instead, the approach is characterised by a recognition that our children’s ability to learn is limitless and that no ceiling should be put on a child’s attainments through the arbitrariness of ability banding.

So how does it work? It is not within my scope here to give the details but I will give a flavour of what this kind of teaching is about. For more depth on the subject, please do read Dame Alison Peocock’s book “Creating Learning without Limits”. I heartily recommend it. Here’s a fabulous quote from it:

By offering a choice of work at different levels, it became possible to challenge and extend the learning of all children, without predetermining what any individual in the class might be capable of achieving and without communicating messages of differential worth or undermining children’s belief in their own capabilities.”

The teachers at Alison’s school routinely presented the children with a range of tasks at different levels of difficulty. The children were trusted to choose their own level of work and to change their minds if they discovered that their original choice of work was either too easy or too difficult. To my mind, this is what I would call equal opportunity teaching. Each child has the same opportunity as the next to learn at the level they feel is right for them in contrast to a system where the teacher is all powerful and her judgement, often fallible, can make or break the child’s opportunities for learning.

I know there are others, like me, who believe that streaming in schools, particularly primary schools, is wrong. I hope enough of us can get together to effect change in our schools so that children are not unfairly stigmatised from an early age.

A school trip to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra

Yesterday I accompanied my six year old son on a school trip to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. It was an experience. Let me share some of the highlights.

Five mums, including myself, had volunteered to join the class on this trip. Having gone on a school trip the previous year, I was not keen to volunteer again. My son, however, was rather persistent in his nagging. His burning wish to have his mum be one of the grown ups on the trip finally wore me down, together with a memory of something similar that happened to me when I was a child.

I remember that we were going on a school outing to Hyde Park and the teacher had asked for some parents to volunteer to come with us. Without my mother’s knowledge I put her name down as one of the volunteer parents. It had irked me for a long time that my parents did not conform to the norms of parenthood as exhibited by the others in my class. For starters, they never attended parents meetings. “Why should we?”, my dad would ask. “We know you are doing well”. It seemed to them that parents should only get involved if there were a problem and since end of term reports consistently showed me getting good grades and positive comments, they felt there was no need for them to traipse all the way over from Acton, where we lived, to South Kensington only be told what they already knew.

So when the teacher asked for parents to join us on the trip, something in me could not resist volunteering my own mother. But how to convince her to actually do it? I decided I would tell her that the teacher urgently needed to meet with her to discuss a problem I was having at school. “Problem? What kind of problem?” asked my mum. I would not say but kept insisting it was very important and urgent. My mum dutifully turned up at the appointed day for this urgent meeting. Being of diminutive stature, she was wearing high heels and looking smart, as she would for a meeting. Imagine her surprise when she realised she had been roped in to a school trip in wet and muddy weather! She gamely trooped along with her high heels in the mud, trying to ignore the bemused looks from others at her lack of sensible footwear. Poor mum!

Fast forward to this week and of course I gave in to my son and said I would go. Yesterday morning, we all trooped into the classroom and each parent was given a sheet with the names of the children assigned to their group. I was considered a novice (not having volunteered for previous expeditions this year) and was thus given an easy group of children including my son. That was a relief! There was a slight hiccup when the teacher realised that one extra parent had turned up and she had to diplomatically tell him that he couldn’t accompany us as there were not enough tickets. She escorted him out of the classroom and shortly after that, the school secretary came in and called the name of the boy whose father had just been ejected. It seemed the child would not be allowed to go on the trip if the father could not go too. What a shame, I thought, poor boy to be taken out of the class like that. Fortunately, someone must have spoken to the parents and convinced them to change their minds as the boy was returned to the classroom at the very last minute.

We had a quick briefing from the teacher. We would be going shortly, she explained, taking the train to Clapham Junction and then Waterloo. We would be having lunch as soon as we arrived at the Festival Hall, which seemed a bit early in my view. But I had underestimated how challenging it is to shepherd thirty children all the way to Waterloo.

We had barely got round the corner from the school before we stopped. A young girl at the front of our convoy was crying and saying she had hurt herself on her face though I could not see a single scratch on her. It took five minutes to get the Teaching Assistant (who was also the designated first aider) to come to the front and check her out. As I suspected, there was nothing wrong with her and, once she had calmed down a bit, we got going again. Stopping and starting, stopping and starting, we eventually made it to the Royal Festival Hall, by which time it was nearly midday. It really does take all morning to herd a classroom of children from West Norwood to Waterloo!

We sat down on the floor in a corner of the Royal Festival Hall and had our lunch. Having learned from previous experience, I had packed our own lunch rather than eat the school one. Who in their right minds thinks that six year old children, with their wobbly teeth, would enjoy eating baguette sandwiches? Crusty bread is quite a challenge for children of that age. One of my son’s friends lost a tooth biting into the baguette and then dropped the tooth over the banister down to the lower level. There followed a fruitless search for the missing tooth. Then of course, we had to do the various toilet expeditions in a theatre teeming with hundreds of other small children. Finally, after what seemed an age, we went into the auditorium and took our seats.

The performance, specially designed for Key Stage 1 children, was the story of Stan and Mabel, with a lovely score composed for it and easy songs for the children to participate in. I thought it was great. Well done to all who produced this show. Things have changed a lot since I was a child. Nothing like this was ever on offer in my day. All I remember is being trouped along to the French Institute to watch “Le Ballon Rouge” every year. But do these lucky children know how lucky they are? In the midst of the performance, I looked around to see how everyone else was enjoying it. Some children seemed to be happily singing along but quite a few looked distinctively bored and sleepy. The child in the row in front had fallen fast asleep and the mum whose group he was in was wondering whether or not to nudge him awake. I looked behind me to check on my friend’s daughter and found that she too was looking rather fatigued. On my right the TA was struggling to keep awake too. Perhaps the first day after half term was not the best day for a theatre trip. As for my son, he alternated between singing along and snuggling up to me, telling me I was the best mummy in the world and generally basking in my presence. What more could I ask for?

Not even the arduous journey back to school could dim my glow at having made my child happy. And then home, to put my feet up and have nice cup of tea.

When did school become so divisive?

Yesterday we braced ourselves for parents evening at our 6 year old son’s school. What should have been a straightforward, breezy discussion about what a good boy he is, how well he is doing, what small areas of improvement there might be for us to assist him with was marred by the big issue that has been concerning us all year: ability banding, otherwise known as streaming.

What happens is this. The children are divided into three ability groups (for convenience I will call them higher, middle and lower levels). In a classroom of 30 children they are divided into five tables, two at the higher ability level, two at the lower and one middle one. The children sit at their assigned table and are given work according to the ability level of their table. Their homework is also different according to their assigned ability level.

The idea behind this system is that it helps teachers to work more effectively with the children by tailoring lesson content to their ability. The children, supposedly, are not aware of this system as the tables they sit on tend to have cheery names of animals, flowers or trees. In reality, most children are well aware that there are tables for the clever ones and tables for the not so clever ones. According to recent research by the Institute of Education at the University of London, one in six primary school children in England are now “streamed” and this is a trend that is set to grow in the coming years as the streaming orthodoxy gains traction within decision making circles.

Yet the research by the Institute of Education found that while children placed in the top stream enjoyed significant positive benefit compared to those who had not been streamed, those in the middle and lower streams tended to do worse compared to children who were not streamed. In other words, this system benefits roughly a third of pupils but disadvantages the other two thirds. If you add to this equation the findings of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) which indicate that children from poorer backgrounds are found to be disproportionately placed in lower streams, then you begin to see that this educational system not only favours the brighter students, it also strongly favours children from wealthier households. Hardly a recipe for social cohesion! More importantly, this shows that it is not actual ability of the child that makes the difference at this stage but the parents’ ability to coach them.

Our son’s experience in the classroom mirrors these findings. The children who sit in the two lower ability tables in his class tend to be from poorer, more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and the children in the two higher tables mostly have well educated parents. My son is stuck in limbo in the middle. He is a bright, inquisitive and quick-witted boy. He is also very reserved in front of people he is not familiar with. In the critical first few weeks of school, when the teacher gets to know the children and assesses them, he failed to make much of an impression.

I was blithely unaware of the situation as of course, the school does not make it a policy to inform parents that their children are being streamed. One day, walking home from school, he happened to mention that the work he got given in class was too easy for him and that the children sitting at two other tables were doing harder work. He had also noticed that there were other tables doing super easy work. He wanted to be on the tables where the more interesting and challenging work was being given. My first reaction was to tell him that he needed to work harder on his reading, which was a bit of a struggle, so that he could impress his teacher with his improvement and get moved up to the harder work table. To be honest, up until then, I had not been one of those parents that spent long hours hot-housing their child. I read him stories at night but that was about it. I assumed, wrongly, that a bright boy would thrive in an Ofsted Outstanding school, regardless of whether I spent hours coaching him at home or not. The mistake was quickly rectified and we upped our game, practising reading and writing at home whenever possible. Within a short space of time I detected a massive improvement but this didn’t translate into a “promotion” at school.

There seems to be a lack of fluidity in the way streaming works in British primary schools. Once placed in that middle ability table, my son has not been able to move up despite our many talks with the teacher and head. To promote him would mean the “demotion” of another child. There lies the problem. The system by its very nature puts children in competition with one another. The status afforded to the children on the “clever” tables means they will resist being moved down. My son tells me that this did in fact happen to one of the children who was struggling with the higher ability work and needed to be moved down. He cried and cried and refused to change table. I don’t blame him! In the great British tradition of things, the streaming system seems to be a first past the post system.

In our case, we were told there were no “vacancies” in the higher tables but as a palliative they promised to give my son the same hard work as the top streamed children while still sitting on the middle table. It came as no surprise to us that he quickly adapted to the harder work. We have also been assured that next year all children will start again on an even playing field. Needless to say, we will be more prepared and make sure he isn’t unfairly placed in the middle again. I do wonder what effect streaming at such a young age has on the self esteem of children and on the way they perceive themselves. I noticed my son saying on more than one occasion that he wasn’t clever. This may have been an excuse for not making enough of an effort on his homework but it worried me enough that I now make it a point everyday to praise his cleverness.

My son is one of the lucky ones. He has us fighting his corner. Not all children are so fortunate. How many primary school children are being left behind because of the socio-economic backgrounds of their parents not their lack of ability?