Exam periods are not only a source of stress for young people, but how your teen responds can set the mood for the whole household. During the pandemic, my kids were working towards their GCSEs and A Levels respectively, only to have them replaced by teacher assessed grades. This year, while one is coming towards the end of her second year at university, the other child is preparing for A Levels. Of course, for their school cohort, these will be their first public exams and the stakes feel higher than usual.
As a parent, here are some ways you can help your child during this seminal moment:
Remember, their experience is gospel
As parents, we have the benefit of hindsight, but if there’s something I have had drummed into me by my children, validating their experiences is the most supportive thing you can do. Even if you know this too will pass, understanding that the first few times you experience something, it feels huge and you need to be allowed to fully feel whatever it is that you feel. This is why for example young people report as the most lonely of any age group – when you get to my age, you know what periods of loneliness and isolation feel like, and you know what you can do to mitigate them. But to young people, this is a terrible new sensation and it can feel like this will be the rest of your life! Yes, it can be reassuring to have a parent tell you that in the grand scheme of things, things will be okay, but there are ways to do this without dismissing their real feelings of anxiety, doom, panic, comparison with peers and a lack of self-confidence. Think: what can you say that reflects back what they feel and also reassures them? Consider asking your child what they would find reassuring and then say that.
Ask what they need
Giving advice and helping with exam preparation practicalities can be brilliant, but only if they are receptive at the time that you give advice. Also, what worked for you, back in ancient times, may not feel relevant or helpful. So ask them first what they need right now. Perhaps you can suggest that when they feel ready, you can help them plan a realistic revision timetable, or maybe they would like some help with devising revision techniques, or maybe to join you on a trip to buy some nice flash cards, coloured pens and other stationery to help get prepared. Give them a written list of things you could help them with and let them know exact times of the day, evening and weekends when you will be available to help. When they are ready, they can book you in for whatever it is that they want your support with.
Feed and water them
It sounds obvious, but making sure that your child is eating well and is hydrated makes revision go more smoothly and can help keep them well throughout the exam period. Healthy snacks and drinks can help with concentration and staying power, and can also make your child associate pleasure with learning. If I see my child working hard, I will bring them a nice pint glass with a drink, some ice and a straw, a plate of chopped fruits, and a handful of nuts and quietly slide them into view by way of quietly saying “I see you, and applaud your efforts”. If I’m on my way home from work, I might pick up something they particularly like as a treat and surprise them as a reward for keeping on track with their work or as a commiseration if things aren’t going too well.
Go there, even if it feels counterintuitive
Young people can feel immense pressure to perform and aim for high grades. They can also be extremely fearful of failure and of disappointing their teachers and family. Dismissing this as nonsense or adding to the stress by nagging or pushing them to work harder are never good strategies. In my household we say, ‘Let’s go there and see how it feels’. By this I mean, we will talk through what the options are in different scenarios. ‘You don’t make the grades you need for your next step, what are your options? Can you appeal? Can you re-take? Are there other pathways that interest you?’
Having a plan B is important, and visualising yourself having not made the grade but still having options is empowering too. Allowing your child to imagine the feelings of shame, disappointment, upset and jealousy of peers who have aced their exams in a safe space as just one option, is cathartic. It is also an opportunity for you to show that you will walk with them, whatever happens.
Collective social responsibility
Remember that your child is not alone in their efforts to study and reach their goals. Their friends will be having their own experiences and homelife dynamics. Create a collaborative study space and invite them to host study sessions as a group, or perhaps they can all go and work together at the library nearby. Remind them of the advantages of working together, preparing revision materials and testing each other as well as the fact that not every child has a space at home to study. Modelling to your child the collective social responsibility we have, empathy for others and the benefits of social interaction rather than competitive self-absorption is crucial, especially in an often individualistic society.
There are so many wonderful technology tricks and apps that are readily available and either free or that the school will subscribe to:
Plan a realistic revision timetable using the calendar attached to your child’s school email account, or if you have Gmail, set up a shared one so you can help them stay motivated and make sure they build in breaks, time with friends and rest time. You can also use software like Notion or Trello and create a basic project plan or a to-do list with Todoist. My favourite is Asana, not least because you get galloping unicorns if you complete a string of tasks!
Digital flashcards apps like Quizlet are great for revision. You can also find lots of revision sets already created that you can adapt. Children in the same class can make the workload manageable if they divide up different topics and create shared revision sets for all to benefit from.
Online learning platforms, lessons and explainers are things that some schools will subscribe to like Hegarty Maths for example. But there is a lot that is free and publicly available. If your child is confused by something or perhaps missed the class when that topic was being taught, catching up online can be a great relief.
Timers setting an alarm to start and finish a revision session is a good idea. Taking breaks and building in down time can all be managed on a smart phone.
Background sounds using apps like Spotify for music can help. You can download pre-made study music or create your own playlist. There are apps like Rain Rain with a huge range of white noise from crackling fires, to freight trains or waterfalls which can really help with concentration and mood. These can be useful for helping wind down before bed or if your child experiences anxiety-related sleep disturbance and needs soothing in the night.
Time lapse video might sound bizarre but one of my children uses this as a motivator. They will film themselves studying on time-lapse or slow mode and then it creates a speeded up short version later. The longer they study, the more satisfying the video as you see, perhaps the sun go down in the background, or people passing by through the window and so on. Even though she’s a young adult and manages her own time away from home, we occasionally receive one of these via WhatsApp and it’s a nice way to elicit coos of encouragement from her parents and sibling.
The final advice is take care of yourself too. As a parent, you need to be rested, calm, centred and present during this challenging time so build in space for your own nutrition, exercise, off-loading onto listening ears outside the home and so on. And take your own advice, when the going gets tough know that this too will pass!
In light of Oxford University Press’ #positiveaboutnumbers campaign, I have been inspired to share my own journey about maths anxiety and the impact it had on me growing up. As a child, I struggled with maths, as did everyone in my family it seemed. There was no-one to turn to at home – it was clear from the way my mum counted on her fingers, and whenever maths was mentioned shuddered audibly “urgh, not maths, I can’t do maths”, that she would be no help at all.
As I progressed through nursery and infant school, I wanted to like maths and remember feeling the incredible awe and excitement of being able to count to higher and higher numbers. The feeling was similar to taking off the stabilisers on a bike when I could count up in 2s and then in 5s at faster and faster speeds. But in primary school, when it came to subtraction and the dreaded division, I was lost again. My maths teacher once wrote in my report that I was the only child he knew who was so bad at anything mathematical that I couldn’t even draw a straight line with a ruler, let alone plot a line on a chart. The humiliation started to set in for real with times tables. I could get some of them – the 2s, 5s, 10s and some of the 3s, 4s and 11 times tables were just about in my control but to this day I still don’t have adequate command of all of them. I felt crushed as little gold and silver stars appeared on the reward charts in class next to everyone except me. It was only in my 40s when my own children started learning them, that they showed me the finger technique for learning the 9 times table and was delighted!
Playing the shame game
The growing feeling of shame and anxiety only increased as I progressed through to secondary school. In my first year at my new secondary school, the huge gap in my knowledge and mastery already firmly in place, I was naively determined to have a fresh start. But this soon unravelled. Our teacher liked to play a game with the whole class, it was meant to be a fun challenge. She would invite us to jump up onto our feet, take our places behind our desks and off she would go with some mental arithmetic for us. When we lost count, she instructed us, we should sit down. The last one standing was the winner. My heart was beating hard when she started with, “2 times 3, plus 3 take away 1”. My fists were screwed up by my sides, I am keeping up, I can do it….divided by 4 times 9, plus 17…” I sit down. There’s a snicker from the other children in the class as they carry on standing. What seems like hours pass until another girl sits down, then a span of time when a cluster more sit. And it continues until there are three, then two standing. The teacher stops. “What did you get?” she asks one of the two last students standing. “142” the penultimate one says. “And you?” she turns to the last one. “168”. Well done both of you. It was “142”. You win.
The next week, we did it again. I sat down after the first two questions “9 times 8, plus two..”, the class snickered. The teacher shot me a disapproving look. I am the class clown, fidgety and disruptive in her lessons. I don’t know my 9 times tables or my 8 times tables, what can I do? I think to myself. That afternoon, I go home determined to learn them but they just won’t stick.
After a few weeks of this maths game, I had noticed that while it was going on, the clever, confident ones were whispering to themselves, looking up at the ceiling or off to one side as they calculated. The next lesson, I stood up with everyone else as usual and decided to save face by play acting. I stood tapping out imaginary sums with my fingers on my thigh, eyes upward, mouth muttering quietly pretending to be concentrating, in command, keeping up. The plan was to sit down later on in the rank and file and avoid being seen as stupid yet again. But getting carried away with my oscar-winning performance meant it was too late when I realised I was one of the two still standing at the end. The teacher narrows her eyes at me suspiciously and asks, “Well, Penny, what did you get?” My heart sinks, the tears welling in my eyes…”Um….” The teacher insists, “Yes? We’re waiting…” I panic, “I forgot!” The teacher pushes me again, “You must know around about, was it above 100? Closer to 10? Well?” I look at my feet and the class erupts with laughter. The tears are cold on my hot cheeks. I am sent out and reprimanded for being disruptive and disrespectful.
The next week, we stand. The teacher starts, “ 7 times 12…” I sit down immediately, glaring at the teacher, angrily. They snicker. Every week for the rest of the year, we stand, she starts, I sit. Some days she sends me out to stand in the corridor in disgrace.
Making the grade
And so continued my soul crushing relationship with maths. Everyone in my family was struggling. My brother did his O’ levels, and got a U in maths. Three years later my sister got 10 O’levels all As and Bs – and a U in maths. The following year, I took my O’levels and got a U in maths. But something in me was determined to break the family curse. I went on to college for my A’ levels and decided to do maths again while I was there. I was at a Further Education college and in my class were people my age and also adults, trying to return to the education they weren’t able to complete when they were my age. I found this inspiring but also it made me ever more determined. Imagine if I’m still here in my 20s, 30s 50s trying to get this cursed maths pass! My teacher was kind and empathetic to us all. I felt a glimmer of hope at last. August came round, the brown envelope arrived. Again, a U. My heart felt crushed when I opened it with the results in. My teacher said, “not to worry, one more shot next year and you’re there”
The following year was the first year of the new GCSE exams that replaced O level, I was studying for the final year of my A levels, and had a weekend and holiday job that earned me enough money to get a private tutor for maths. I was entered into a GCSE paper for which the highest grade I could score was a C. My new private tutor was a taxi driver by day, but loved maths and had been tutoring a friend of mine for his A level, so he came recommended. I went to his house every week and he would puff away on his filterless cigarettes and walk me through the things I found impossible with such patience and in such a matter of fact way. The exam came and I felt I had at least some control, that I knew what to do, even if I wasn’t sure if my calculations were correct. I still had to count out numbers on my fingers and use techniques to add and subtract, and work around the dreaded times tables and division with methods that were long-winded and time-consuming. But I finished the paper, and I felt less out of control than usual. The long wait ensued and when the date came around, and the brown envelope arrived, I was amazed and delighted to have scored my C! I am the only one in my family with a maths GCSE. My parents were teachers, my brother is a composer for films and my sister works in documentary film. They have all had to duck and dive around the question of the missing maths qualification, but they are hugely successful in their own ways.
If you can’t do it, teach it…
Fast forward nearly a decade and I was now training to be a primary school teacher. The programme I did was focussed heavily on our own development as people as well as on the craft of teaching itself. In the second term, as we started to teach in the classroom for 2 days a week, we were asked to confront something in childhood that we felt had held us back and that perhaps could have been supported better by our teachers. I decided that it was time to tackle my maths problem. With coaching from one of my tutors, I was encouraged to teach maths to year 3 for a term. I was terrified that they would find out that I don’t know my times tables, and that I can barely add and subtract. But I did it, and I actually enjoyed it! I created resources and curriculum ideas that worked and that had enough in them to stretch the maths wizards and engaged those less confident.
Later in my teaching career, I moved to work in a secondary school and specialised in teaching English instead. As part of my training, we did a course on learning difficulties including dyslexia and dyscalculia. The consultant leading the course had expertise in diagnosing and supporting pupils with a range of difficulties and disabilities. She got us all to do part of a test for dyscalculia and dyslexia so we would know how the children are diagnosed. And the end of the session, she approached me and asked me how I was feeling. She asked about my sense of direction, my knowledge of times tables and other key mathematical functions and techniques. She told me that it was pretty clear that I am dyscalculic and that this is why I couldn’t retain my times tables. This was also why while I wanted to like maths, and indeed some parts of more abstract maths I could really run with, like algebra for example, there were parts that would always confuse and baffle me.
It was quite affirming to get this actual diagnosis. I was able to understand which parts of mathematical thinking I struggle with, and this facilitated me to develop techniques to deploy mathematical reasoning in my daily life, rather than avoiding it altogether. I will never be confident that I have the right answers when I have to use maths, but I know which parts I will need to double check and get another pair of eyes on and I feel confident to ask for this as an adult in the workplace without feeling childish and ashamed.
Breaking the family curse
My children often describe themselves as hating maths, despite my attempts to lightheartedly engage them in the beauty of maths through things like Numberjacks on YouTube when they were small, and other workbooks and fun games I found. I thought this might mitigate any creeping infection of the family maths issue that had started with my own mum’s lack of confidence and negative attitude to maths. My children are both girls and themselves attribute some of their lack of confidence to the boys in their class that are quick, vocal and withering to others. “I know, I know the answer, it’s eeeeeeeasy! You’re so slow and stupid!” they would shout out as my daughters plodded through. Unlike me, my girls have made their way to the top set in secondary school, but their lack of confidence and general distrust of maths did not diminished even so. This term my youngest, who is in year 9 said “my teacher thinks I might be dyscalculic but I’m still going to stay in the top set and I’m doing statistics GCSE next year. I won’t let it get in my way”. My oldest has just completed her GCSEs and summed up by saying, “I will always be rubbish at maths, but one thing I am really happy about is that I finally started to enjoy it, and I am even a little sad that I won’t ever be doing it again!”
I’m pleased that across a generation, we may still not be a family of maths wizards or super confident, but to know that this generation has managed to overcome the soul-crushing feeling of incompetence and the panic, gives me some comfort. And who knows, maybe the next generation might not even know that it’s possible not to feel positive about numbers. It is also great to see an organisation like Oxford University Press sharing their insights and resources to support those struggling with issues that I experienced. You can find their latest toolkit here
I gave a presentation at a session on Pupil Voice alongside Joe Pardoe from School 21, chaired by Ed Finch at the NEU Celebrating Education conference on Saturday 30th March 2019.
I knew that Joe Pardoe would most likely be outlining the fabulous work done at School 21 on pupil voice and so I wanted to take the conversation to a different direction and to try and ask some provocative questions of the attendees. The following is an overview of my presentation.
As educators, we need to ask ourselves some challenging questions about the voices that are heard in our schools.
Children and adults need to see a range of people and voices. The curriculum needs to reflect a diverse range of voices, and that includes a diverse range of speaking styles and opportunities. We might need to practise switching from Shakespeare to slangspeak and back again, depending on the situation. (But should we be switching Shakespeare into slangspeak? Probably not.)
Children need to experience a diverse range of speaking styles and opportunities, and they need time for reflection and discussion that is built into the school day. This is exactly the sort of thing that is the golden thread that runs through School 21’s head, heart and hand curriculum for example.
There’s a lot of emphasis on teaching children vocabulary (or more cynically, teaching year 6 children the vocabulary we think will come up on the SATs paper, or technical terminology we think is needed for GCSE exams). But what about engaging children in etymology, and exploring where words come from, as part of our curriculum, and how they got there in the first place. You’d be surprised how many every day words and phrases have come into our language as a result of our colonial past, for example, let alone the myriad migrations to Great Britain over the centuries. (If you want to know more about this, I highly recommend the Our Migration Story resource put together by the Runnymede Trust here). We desperately need to decolonise the curriculum!
Diversity is good for business We know from the McKinsey Report that diversity works & is good for business – so ensuring there are diverse voices being heard within the staff team, from our clients, the children, and from the local community, will lead to a more productive and happier school. The McKinsey Report found that diverse teams make better decisions, are more productive and the more diverse the voices included in the decision-making process the better. That includes a range of voices from the shop floor right up to senior management – which is why we need to include children’s voices in schools’ decision-making around policy and practice where appropriate.
Lack of diversity is dangerous – seat belts and space suits Up until far too recently, women and children were suffering massive injuries or dying in car accidents despite wearing seat belts. This is directly related to the fact that the people designing these seat belts were men, testing them on themselves, and not considering others outside their own assumed “neutral” position, not realising that women and children would also be using these seat belts while not being the same height and weight to benefit from the design.
If you can’t see it, you can’t be it – role models for children and adults A lot of people like to say that Black children need to see Black role models in schools. I do agree with this adage that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. But I also strongly believe that white people, those people that are traditionally used to holding positions of power in our society, need to see people of colour in positions of power and authority too. We are socialised to believe that the logical leader is a straight white man. We can’t unlearn this without ensuring that we all have experienced role models that aren’t white and male.
There are ways that you can ensure that you challenge your own biases, and the simple first step would be to join the activity of grassroots organisations like the BAMEed Network, WomenEd and LGBTEd.
We are all so conditioned to accept the white man in charge that we become immune to, or at least tolerant of, incompetence when it is plain to see. How many times have you waited for someone to step up, and then wondered why they are in charge when they are obviously completely under-skilled and overconfident? This short explanation shows just why incompetent men fail their way to the top and what we can do to stop being complicit in this.
We need to change the narrative about what a leader looks like. We need to change the narrative about what people in power look like. We need to change the narrative around who gets to be heard. We are peddling a narrative that “neutral” is white and male. Have you ever tried to buy a plaster? What colour are they? “Skin” colour? Whose? Back to those seat belts and space suits, the lack of plasters, make up, hair care products, lack of understanding by healthcare professionals and more…
We need to give opportunities for children to identify what they have in common and what is different, to look at different possibilities for identity and to identify with people who are the same and different. One way to do this is through the excellent resource produced by the Finnish organisation, Lyfta. You can see a short clip here that explains how this is used at Aureus School in Didcot, for example.
Politicise them. When do children learn about politics except if they do Politics A level or if we absolutely have to, for example when there’s a general election or we need to explain to them about Brexit (not that any of us know much about that except that it is an absolute ominshambles). Schools like The London Academy of Excellence in Tottenham oblige their students to spend a compulsory half day a week on social activism and community work as part of the curriculum.
Socialisation and stereotyping should be explained and unpacked for students at as early an age as possible, and should be revisited regularly.
Enquiry-led models of learning like the Finnish phenomenon-based learning, or the Canadian Spirals of Inquiry can help students to understand about making choices and taking informed risks.
When we speak to our students, what do they hear? When we include or exclude things in the curriculum, what does that communicate? When we talk about pupil voice and we talk about the curriculum, we need to understand how inherent bias works too. Bringing Black role models for Black children is important but it isn’t enough. Teaching all children about stereotyping and prejudice is one step, but it doesn’t take away the damage that is done by implicit bias i.e. what is communicated to people of colour, for example, in explicit and implicit ways throughout their lifetime. The Doll Test is a painful and real expression of how strongly these messages are heard and internalised by children from a very young age. You can watch it here
This is one of the many pictures from the newspapers on the children’s climate change march that happened recently. The condescending attitudes to children who went on strike and marched for climate change by the media, by some adults, and among them educators, was mind blowing and yet a true reflection of our disdain of young people and youth in general.
Compare ours with social attitudes to youth and childhood in Finland and you will see a country whose youth are consistently told that they are the next leaders, that the weight of responsibility to learn today what is needed to run the world of tomorrow lies with them.
In our system, education is about numbers and letters, not even whole sentences any more.
Try taking the questions I posed at the beginning and conduct a one-day exercise using them as an audit tool at school.
Check your own bias! Be honest about where your own starting point is and think about how you build your own curriculum of learning to get to a point where you can start to implement some changes, and for the right reasons. You might find the resources on the BAMEed Network website useful.
Think about recruitment practice in your school, especially to senior leadership positions and put in a plan of action to ensure that there is diverse representation at every level in your school.
Sign up to Lyfta and the British Council training for free. You can find out more about that here
Join BAMEed, WomenEd, LGBTEd and take action. Develop your own voice on this, be heard and amplify the voices of others that need to be heard loud and clear.
As someone who has spent the last decade working with school leaders, including working closely with Local Authorities, Multi Academy Trusts, and the more recently invented partnerships for school improvement, the inaugural Association of Education Parterships (AEPA) event was like a weird edu-geek version of ‘who would you invite to your dream dinner party?’ It seemed that practically everyone who was anyone in the ‘collaborative working’ landscape was there. The general ambiance of the morning as people arrived, was of bristling collective excitement, curiosity, and an urge to get stuck in to share and learn together – so different from the tangible edge of competition and rivalry often experienced at other events where groups such as LAs, TSAs and MATs will come together.
The glue that is essential to place-centred thinking
The day consisted of a good balance of presentations with time to discuss in smaller groups, share and suggest. To kick off, former education secretary Estelle Morris, whose inimitable combination of passion and commitment has kept her at the centre of all things education, reminded us of the importance of place when thinking about how the education sector should be organised. She likened education partnerships to “the glue that helps schools serve collectively the needs of the children in their area rather than just compete on market principles”. That glue is often stretched to its limits with the introduction of MATs and TSAs, which can still be isolated, or can be operating across so wide an area as to not have much understanding of the localities in which they operate. Baroness Morris didn’t compromise her challenge to us in the room, when she insisted that although we have a collective responsibility to every child in our locality no matter the structures within which we work, our education system apparently doesn’t allow for this to happen effectively. Her impassioned voice spoke to a captivated room, “locality matters, geography matters. Yet we are building a school system that has no recognition of locality”.
Next up was Christine Gilbert, who also has decades-long sector experience ranging from headteacher to head of Ofsted, and more recently has been using her expertise and the obvious fire in her belly to help numerous local area partnerships get off the ground. Building on the theme of place, she commented that “education is the single best regeneration strategy for any locality or community”. Ask any estate agent, and I am sure they will agree. If you want to buy a cheap property anywhere in the country, start by finding out where the schools in Special Measures are.
Going beyond the land of nice
The core work for education partnerships, according to Gilbert is to make connections, gather intelligence, and to provide support and challenge, successfully “going beyond the land of nice”. Most importantly, their role should be to provide brokerage using local practitioners as well as setting in motion mechanisms to monitor, evaluate and evidence progress. We have many ways in which schools are scrutinised and monitored as individual institutions (and these are increasing with Ofsted, MAT inspections and Regional Schools’ Commissioner scrutiny), but any form of follow-on brokerage of support is often non-existent or weak at best. Also worth noting is that we don’t yet have a mechanism for measuring the effectiveness and impact of education partnerships like the ones that have been springing up across the country since the coalition government introduced a barrage of reforms from Early Years to HE, creating the most fragmented system we have ever had – and with this, the concept of a school-led system with no blueprint.
Christine Gilbert’s extensive experience and unfaltering belief in the power of moral purpose tells her that partnerships should be able to make an impact without distraction. They need collective moral purpose, a vision for the locality and need to shift the accountability mindset so that it is no longer top down, but instead comprised of lateral partnerships which can be recognised and evaluated. She took us through four models of school improvement partnerships, noting how the world has changed since she was a teacher in the days pre-Ofsted and league tables.
It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it
One of the consistent themes for the day, was that each partnership and locality needs to find the model that works for them. In doing this, they also need to ensure that they focus on solvable problems. So it was useful to see some models set out clearly in brief later in the session. There does need to be a balance between working it out as you go along, the danger of re-inventing the wheel and being able to learn from each other. Allowing time for the process is vital when designing local partnership working. But the double-edged sword for these organisations can also be the temptation to waste valuable time getting their ducks in a row. Worse still, there might be a tendency to get bogged down by deciding on structures before really considering what the problem is that they are trying to solve and understanding where there might be examples of practice and success that could be adapted and drawn upon. In terms of the lifetime of a child in the school system, just considering the time it takes to go from concept to a mature school-led partnership which is delivering measurable impact, already makes my hair stand on end.
There was certainly a huge appetite arising from discussion during the day for a mechanism to share what works in a coherent yet rapid way. There have been reports from ADCS and the Isos Partnership outlining what works in terms of local partnerships, but many people expressed a desire to get beyond models of partnership that are thrust upon us, or that involve the often quoted feeling that “partnership working is the temporary suspension of mutual loathing in pursuit of funding”.
Part of this desire for sharing might involve an intelligent way to explore and capture impact. Our education system relies heavily on highly problematic snapshot-in-time data such as exam results or Ofsted inspection reports, which can have a sinister side-effect of driving behaviours to get results. There have been stark realisations about the indicators we use to judge a school, such as schools which are doing well in terms of results, but that are not financially viable as institutions, and suddenly finding themselves in dire straits.
Creating a sense of membership
From my perhaps unique perspective as someone involved in creating a sense of membership for organisations I have worked with, one thing that many partnership organisations fail at are the more commercial and therefore assumed “not us” aspects of successful partnership working. By this I mean creating a business model that recognises the organisation as financially sustainable i.e. charging its members means thereby being transparent on how it intends to be accountable to its members. This also includes ensuring that your key central team members aren’t only ex-headteachers and educationalists, but also people who have proven expertise in marketing, creating a sense of membership, communicating complex messages simply and so on. Even after you have been through a forensic process of setting up your organisational structures, identifying your stakeholders and articulating what the problems are that you seek to solve, if you can’t get your message across in a timely and concise manner, none of this will matter. I would even go so far as to suggest that a successful partnership team would include those that understand enough organisational psychology to help you gauge who your early adopters, next wave joiners and eternal island-dwellers will be so you don’t lose valuable energy in brow-beating resentment wondering why you can’t get everyone on board with your brilliant new partnership idea. If you get all of this right, you will create a partnership which is based on mutual moral purpose, is not based on the usual deficit model of scrutiny and finger-pointing, and that will encourage self-referrals from schools looking to actively seek valuable support.
Dreaming big, but true to my own Virgo nature and thinking practically, it seemed that people in the room were looking for two tangible developments from AEPA. One would be a repository of resources to help partnerships in their various stages from conception to delivery, ranging from case studies of what works to examples of partner organisations or suites of services that might be valuable to schools. Another was the idea of a peer-review between partnerships that is formally structured and potentially even managed logistically by AEPA – and which could help colleagues to learn from, challenge and support each other in their endeavours. Having been at The Key from its journey from start up to grown up and seeing such a valuable resource change the way schools learn and grow from each other, makes me believe that this is not only a good idea, but also entirely possible to create. Secondly, my more recent experience at Challenge Partners tells me that robust peer review, that is equal measure challenge and support, and that is done with and not done to, is an essential ingredient to a genuinely school-led system. If there’s a way to make these two practical tools get going sooner, rather than later, the AEPA could quickly jettison itself from a place to get together periodically, to a game-changer in the business of local partnership working.
There has been a public outcry recently about the idea of baseline tests for Reception-age children in English schools. Children seem to be increasingly reduced to data points. In general, we seem to be having a gradual realisation that all is not well with how data is being used about us, as seen with the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook debacle this week.
I have been thinking a lot about statistics, data and childhood from my own experience as a parent and thought it might be an interesting exercise to do a chronological walk through of some of the insights I have had. My basic understanding is that we use statistics and data to make all sorts of decisions, often guided by professionals, that sometimes seem to make no sense at all and at worst make us conform in a way that is simply wrong.
Conception and birth
If you know anything about conception and birth, you will know that statistical information guides so much of the experience in the Western world. Given my childhood experience, this started with my attention being drawn to the stark statistics around divorce. Since one in three marriages end in divorce I made a grim decision that whatever I do with regards relationships and family, I should never embark on anything that I can’t sustain alone should my relationship not succeed.
I was lucky enough to not have to think about the stats around being pregnant post-40 or have any particular difficulty getting pregnant, which would mean the heartache, angst and combined prayer and number crunching involved in IVF or similar assistance with getting pregnant and staying pregnant to term. But what I did experience with my second pregnancy was alarming enough.
In Israel, where I lived at the time, there are quite a large number of tests carried out during pregnancy, with the option of doing more should you wish to. I had all of the usual ultrasounds, and a blood test to determine the likelihood of certain genetic issues. I won’t go into all of the intimate details but from the get go, I wasn’t entirely sure that the calculation of what week I was in during pregnancy was correct. This became more acute when I had the blood test for common genetic disorders, which was cross-referenced with the latest ultrasound scan – and I was subsequently called to do a further blood test and finally to speak with a specialist at the genetic abnormalities clinic. All I knew before going into the appointment was that they had deemed the statistical chance of me having a baby with genetic abnormalities to be higher than average and they recommended amniocentesis. If you don’t know what this is (and I didn’t and had to quickly read up on it at the time), the basic information you need to know is that a trained medical professional will insert a long syringe through the abdomen into the womb and extract a tiny amount of amniotic fluid so that they can do analysis on the genetic make-up of the developing fetus.
What has all of this got to do with statistics? So here goes. The information that you glean about amniocentesis contains two sets of stats that you need to weigh up before you go ahead. One is the level of accuracy of the outcomes of the test, and two is the likelihood that you will miscarry as a result of infection or disturbance to the pregnancy. These were two scenarios I was going to be asked to consider when attending the consultation with the specialist. But a third, pivotal variable struck me. Was their original data on the likelihood of my unborn fetus having some kind of birth defect correct in the first place? And if it was, did it have any bearing on the statistical analysis they had presented me with?
I went into the meeting alone. My heart was pounding and I listened as best I could as they repeated that they advise amniocentesis and that the stats show that the situation doesn’t look great. I was determined to get to the bottom of how they make these calculations. I didn’t profess to know much about statistics, genetics or even pregnancy at this stage, but I knew that it was important to unpick the evidence and reassemble it so that I could make an informed decision.
They agreed to walk me through the methodology and that’s when the light went on. I asked questions and we ended up agreeing that a lot of it hinged on the calculation of the age of the fetus. My instinct was that the fetus I was carrying was in fact older than they had assumed by possibly up to two weeks. I had proof for this and asked the specialist if she could do some modelling based on the fetus’ age being one week and two weeks older. She disappeared for about 15 minutes and returned with a new spreadsheet, while I sat biting my nails waiting. Lo and behold, the statistical evidence showing that I should be having amniocentesis and that the baby could be born with genetic birth defects suddenly reduced and there I was again, safely within the ‘normal’ risk band.
I can’t really convey the drama of this experience but while it was happening, I felt like my life (more importantly that of my unborn child) absolutely hinged on getting this right. Imagine if I hadn’t questioned the statistics, hadn’t tried to understand where the evidence had come from and hadn’t insisted on interleafing it with contextual and qualitative personal evidence.
My daughter was born healthy, thank goodness. She arrived what was assumed to be a month early, jaundiced, but otherwise fully developed and not in need of specialist care other than invasive daily heel-prick tests for haemoglobin levels for two weeks. That made me think that I was probably right about the pregnancy being further along than assumed and that she wasn’t really that premature at all. We will never know.
Birth and the first year
The politics of childbirth needs a blog post in its own right – it’s nearly 13 years since I last gave birth and I am still psyching myself up for that one. There is much written about it based on research and real-life experiences of millions of women worldwide. It’s a statistical minefield combined with variables such as shift changes, risk management and more. One thing that I hear time and again, and was tripped up by myself, is the use of statistical tables to place newborns into percentiles. You only have to spend time with the people who have had babies at a similar time to you, to hear the competitive edge of statistics, measurements, milestones and comparisons being flung about right into their second and third year and beyond. “The baby’s in the 95th percentile!” (There’s always problematic gender-related subtext in there too – massive equals good, strong if it’s a boy, and nagging worry if it’s a girl that she might be obese, into childhood and adulthood).
There’s nothing wrong with this in itself and knowing ‘what’s normal’ is something we all find useful when trying to benchmark and make decisions accordingly – especially when you have no prior experience of a fragile newborn. But what I see time and again with new parents I know is this scenario:
Baby is born, the couple tells everyone two key pieces of statistical information – how long it took and the baby’s birth weight
The health visitor visits you at home and tells you the baby has lost too much weight after the birth and is now in x percentile
Health visitor says the baby probably ‘isn’t getting enough milk’ and that you should supplement with formula to hurry along replacing the lost weight
You are alarmed. You didn’t know babies lost weight after birth and it doesn’t sound good
You feel frustrated, the baby seems to be feeding constantly and the health visitor is now describing a path were your baby is in danger of slipping into the wrong percentile – perhaps this isn’t normal and you should speed them along as suggested
You acquiesce and start to bottle-feed between breast-feeding, which is a shame as you are just getting the hang of it. You are feeling a little inadequate and worried that your insistence on breast is best is naïve even though your NCT class said the statistics tell us this
Complications start, your baby seems to want bottle-feeding more than from source, fusses on the breast and does seem to sleep better and feeds less frequently when you bottle-feed – and baby is now climbing up the percentile charts again
A new statistic is born – not everyone can breast-feed and it is shown to be better to switch to bottle if the baby is ‘not thriving’ i.e. not staying within the percentiles that the health workers are using to benchmark your baby with
Faced with this information that my baby was shrinking, I was anxious but also wanted to know the facts. Where does the information come from for these percentiles? What about qualitative and family-specific information that we can cross reference with? What about the fact that the baby seems happy enough – or in my case not happy all the time but demand-feeding frequently and eventually became huge. Many health workers will supplement explanations like the baby is ‘lazy’, has a ‘weak latch onto the breast’, needs to be woken and fed and not demand-fed. We followed this waking and feeding advice and ended up with a huge, well-fed baby who had massive sleep issues potentially exacerbated because we were interfering with her sleep patterns to stuff her with mummy milk at every opportunity. Afterall, the percentiles were what we were trying to comply with.
If you scratch the surface, you can see where a lot of the data we use with regards babies, is deeply flawed. In this case, much of the percentile charts that are used, can come from the United States where babies are born bigger and are more likely to be bottle fed, or from WHO statistics or indeed locally produced versions. What about common-sense factors like the physical make-up of each of you as the parents, your parents’ experience of you as a newborn, and so on. And what about time? Who says that these percentiles are accurate in terms of the time it takes to regain the weight lost by the baby after the birth and the time it takes to move up the already flawed charts?
One of the major factors that disturbs me with childbirth, newborn growth and later into schooling is how much of this is directly related to the health visitor, medical practitioner and education practitioners’ own performance management, and the statistical evidence that is provided as evidence of them doing a good job themselves?
Schooling and beyond
It’s no secret that our education system has become increasingly informed and driven by data. And like the health worker, educational professionals’ performance management dictates what is deemed success, more often than the practitioners’ own professional judgement. Evidence-informed decisions around what works are useful. But we haven’t really answered the question about what ‘what works’ actually means. In its most reductive sense it means, what gets them passing the tests and getting the set of qualifications that will best position them to earn well in adulthood.
Let’s start with choosing a school and the way in which many parents use publicly available evidence and data to do this. I wrote previously about this in my post about choosing a secondary school here. It is clear that the statistical evidence that parents use when choosing a primary or secondary school is deeply flawed in many ways. Let’s look at each in turn:
Ofsted results – this is a snapshot in time and the numerical result is usually where most parents start and finish. Delving into the last two or three reports is probably more useful, and then cross referencing the areas for improvement and quizzing the SLT about it when you visit the school might yield a much clearer picture. The truth is that most Outstanding and some Good rated schools haven’t had an Ofsted inspection for anywhere between 3 and 10 years. The leadership might well have changed at least once since the last inspection, or it might have stayed the same and potentially stagnated – and who knows what Ofsted would rate the school as today? At best, it’s a guide as to how well the school was able to get itself to the place where they were graded as such on that specific day in time and that is it.
League tables – it has been written about recently by Education Datalab that many selective schools are propped up by an entire army of private tutors. I believe that if we look into it, we might see that many Outstanding-rated primary and secondary schools are similarly reliant on parent-funded tutoring and extra-curricular activity to support a proportion of children reaching higher standards in their SATs, and GCSEs, as well as to keep them in top sets throughout their secondary education. It’s worth understanding if this is the case, that any decision you make will potentially require a financial investment if the levels of achievement aren’t being gained actually within the school day. Can you know this from looking at league tables?
Another thing about league tables is obviously the background information about cohort, intake, whether exam specs changed that year. League tables are based on one year of test and exam information. Who is to say that the school is able to repeat this year on year, and how are you able to know whether your child will be one of the successful top performers? And the key question is always, at what cost? Not just to your pocket but to your child’s own experience of learning as joyful and broad rather than stressful and narrowly channelled to SATs and GCSE success from the get-go. You only have to look at what is happening from year 7 and 8 in schools now as schools move to a 3 and 4 year GCSE pathway to ensure they get the results and hold their place in the league tables.
GCSE results – even if you feel comfortable with the different lines of reporting on secondary schools and delve into things like value added, are you able to discern what this actually means in terms of the qualitative journey of individuals within the school? Are you cross-referencing with exclusion levels, levels of deprivation, in-year movement of students, outcomes for different marginalised groups, what the outcomes are for all children – especially those of different socio-economic backgrounds to your own? Do you even care? Can you have any impact on this – by perhaps becoming a school governor?
The big question for me with all of the available data is not just what are my child’s chances of reaching their potential at the school of our choosing, but also what are the issues on a societal level that affect the school population and what can we do to help counter them for the good of all children at the school? Aside from this, I can see clearly that the data that people are relying on is too simplistic to be useful. This is especially so if the information is not cross-referenced with qualitative evidence only gleaned by visiting the school, getting involved in the local community and making a subjective guess-timate based on your knowledge of your own child now and what they might be like in years to come.
Data which informs and data which makes us conform
The problem with data is how we use it, and how it uses us. In many cases, use of data is a quick, lazy way to make decisions. Yet cross-referencing data with qualitative information is difficult to do if this is not available. We need to rely on our own enquiring minds, imagination and pushing the boundaries of what we think is true because it is fed to us by the media and political agendas. Data is useful, but extremely dangerous when not used to just to inform, but instead creates a systematic evidence base to make us conform for potentially the wrong reasons as explored in this post.
In the case of the newborn, our decisions can be narrowed down to a choice to hurry our baby along to the detriment of our own freedom of choice on feeding and submitting to a choice of pace that is dictated by statistics, or a health visitors’ success-ranking criteria, rather than the facts before us. In the case of choosing a school, I believe that data use and school choice can make us stunningly narrow-minded, selfish and irresponsible. Choosing the best for our child doesn’t often include a moral decision to ensure that through sending our child to their local school we can essentially be part of ensuring the success of the school for all its students.
Increasingly, we see a situation where data was once useful and ‘that which can be measured can be deemed important’, can quickly creep to ‘only that which can be measured is deemed important’ in decisions we take regarding childhood and education.
I attended a Year 10 “Year Ahead” meeting this week. The thing that struck me most strongly was the extent to which we have systematised, bureaucratised and jargonised the education of our children. I sat through a well-meaning PowerPoint presentation intended to demystify the new system of GCSEs for parents. I work in the education sector and felt like I was having to apply my learned edu-speak skills as they reeled off jargon to the group of parents hunkered down in their seats in the dark auditorium: SLT, Key Stage 4, A*-C, expected grade, 1-9, pastoral, learning objectives, Progress 8, Attainment 8, APS, EBACC, minus scores, buckets, and target achievement ratio…god help us…The school might have supplied us with a jargon buster, like this one put together by Lord Grey School in Milton Keynes or this one put together by the Dudley Governors Association.
When lingo is laminated
I also attended a training session for school leaders this week, which was fascinating and uplifting in equal measures. It was so good to see the passion, commitment, drive and enthusiasm of a group of senior leaders dedicated to their own professional development as well as to playing their part in the collaborative challenge and support of others around the country.
One of the exercises of the day had us working in groups, using laminated lingo cards, to build a learning model. This is where the cogs started whirring for me as an insider-outsider. This is where I rekindled my anthropologist and researcher training to be the participant observer and to examine what appeared to be unfolding. The group leaned in, silently considered the words written on the cards and started to work together to build a ‘learning model’. I’m thinking to myself, what the heck is a learning model anyway? They discussed, arranged the cards on the table, discussed again and slid certain ones from here to there. Learning, reflection, modelling, pace, behaviour, assessment, marking, ethos, culture, transition, key stages, critical thinking…
With each pause for discussion and each slide around of the cards on the table, I could feel my discomfort as I thought I might be slipping in and out of the ‘inner circle’ of pedagogical language. So much terminology, but what does it all mean? The training facilitator moved from table to table, and eventually came round to ours and said, “So, taking pace for example, what is your definition of this? Have you come to an agreed definition?” We all hesitated for a moment, realising that we had not had any discussion of the meaning of any of these words at all. “The word pace, what do we mean by this? In what context? Pace of a lesson? Pace of the curriculum across the year? Pace of transition? Transition, what does that mean to you? Transition between key stages? Transition between activities within the lesson? Transition between lessons?”
One of the things I wondered out loud was, if we as educators, haven’t discussed and defined among ourselves what the language means, what the learning model is and what the purpose and intention of what we are doing might be, isn’t it about time this happened? And if we have discussed it in our schools in the staff room, have we ever done this exercise with the children in the classroom? Shouldn’t we be starting from common agreed language and principles?
Jargon is everywhere
It is of course useful to capture concepts into phrases, words and ideas that are commonly understood. This is how we make sense of the world and this is how language develops and becomes useful, and at times entertaining. I love some of the teen-lingo I learn from my kids. It is most certainly ‘fit for purpose’. In answer to “can you pick up some milk on your way home?” gets the response, “no, that is loooonnnnng”. Or “He looks nice” gets, “eww, he’s moist/crusty/clapped”
The world of work is full of the most ridiculous lingo you ever heard. Here are some favourites I have really and truly heard used:
“What does good look like in this space?”
“We should roadmap that issue”
“In the technology space, that’s really not my sandpit to play in”
“Yes but do we have the bandwidth to take this on?”
“Let’s kick that into the long grass”
Without getting all existential and “emo” about it, the linear and limited experience of education and its bureaucratised jargonisation of language is just a continuation of the central problem we have with education in general. There is no agreement on what schooling is actually for in the first place. And I don’t mean the level of discussion we see on Twitter with false dichotomies between ‘Trad’ and ‘Prog’ approaches to learning. We have a model that was put in place to serve the need for a skilled and compliant workforce but we aren’t actually serving the workforce very well, it turns out. My overwhelming sense from the Year Ahead meeting and even from my day with inspiring senior leaders from schools across the country, is that the purpose of education is ultimately to get students to pass exams so they can move on to the next stage, pass more exams and then move into the workplace and ‘succeed’.
Now, I work in ‘the workplace’ and after the educators are done with them, I receive what are described as ‘bright graduates’ into roles that on paper they are qualified to take on. What I see as the most important thing needed to make these young people fit for the workplace is to unlearn the culture of schooling, to let go of punitive and hierarchical structures, and of linear progression. Success in the workplace involves the ability to think critically, to problem solve, to tie together previous knowledge and experiences with research into possible knowledge and understanding – and to push this through a critical lens again to shake out any bias, habit, laziness, fear or clinging to get to the right way forward. You need skills to influence, bring on side, provide evidence and build trust with your colleagues. And most of all, you need to build a shared language with those you are working with, which should be revisited and revised so you don’t fall into assumptions and jargon that become meaningless. I am a great believer in stopping once in a while and going round the table to see what each person believes just happened in any given meeting, for example. But more than this, we need to stop and ask ourselves what just happened to our education system and are we all speaking the same language that can get us where we need to go?
I have had children moving through schools in this country since 2007 and there have been so many changes, initiatives, systems, methods, acronyms in the last decade. I think that something went off in my brain in that darkened room this week and I reached saturation point at that very moment. I clapped my hands over my mouth just to stop myself screaming. I just don’t believe anyone knows what is really going on any more and I certainly am struggling to believe in the education system as it is now. From now on, I am encouraging my children to see their school experience as a social experiment. There is as much to learn from good practice as there is from bad, and there is so much to learn about the way our society is structured through the micro-climate of a school and the office. There is much to be learned from the language we use and the meaning we attribute to it. It’s not all doom and gloom. Language is fun and in the meantime, we can always amuse ourselves and play bullshit bingo.
Why is my curriculum white vs. why, is my curriculum white?
I was telling a friend of mine about the BAMEed Network and was surprised by her reaction when we started talking about a podcast I had listened to called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ She suddenly sounded really annoyed as she said, “you know, we don’t need this pitying, dumbing down of the world on our behalf, thank you. Of course the curriculum is white, this is England. I don’t mind adding a black or Asian philosopher into the mix but it’s not representative and it is artificial if there’s more than one or two isn’t it?”
I wasn’t sure how to react. She said, “All you are doing with this BAME thing is segregating and categorising people – I don’t want to be seen as a brown woman when I walk into a room or representing brown people or women when I am on the school governing body. I just want to be me”. I love my friend, we often holiday together as families, we feel so at home together but we are completely opposed in terms of politics and many aspects of our world views. But we can talk about things and trust each other completely. We also don’t try and change each other’s minds about things. We find the middle ground. Still, I said to her, “colour-blindness, that’s not actually real you know?” She was resolute. It would be for her.
Test yourself if you dare
It gave me pause for thought though. I am not trying to segregate the world, I am trying hard to be aware of my unconscious bias. I start from the standpoint that we are so culturally socialised by certain viewpoints that it is unrealistic to pretend to be colour-blind or neutral. I have been challenging myself recently by trying out some of the Harvard University unconscious bias tests available online. If you are brave you will give them a go too. It makes me squirm but it reminds me that this difficulty exists and the key is to be aware and to not deny or enact the consequence of your initial unconscious bias.
My husband and I keep comparing our results with great curiosity and some mirth. We are such opposites in some ways too. His experience starts as an Israeli-Iraqi Jew brought up in Jerusalem, where he is seen as mixed race and a second class citizen alongside the Ashkenazic, European Jews. He is an immigrant to this country since the early 2000s and that makes him feel an affinity with certain populations more than others. He sees how ethnic minority students, and staff members, are treated differently in his workplace, a university setting, and it makes him incredibly frustrated. Having spent over a decade living in Israel myself, being constantly reminded that I am a foreigner, I know how he feels to some extent. Back in England now, in my relative position of white privilege, but still sometimes finding it hard to assimilate back in, my experience sometimes feels so extreme that it feels disingenuous to do anything but recognise that the way we see the world and are seen by it differs depending on many factors.
Three popular internet things that make you wonder
Every day, things I see online make me think more about this. Three very different ones have made me think. The first is the story of a five year old white American boy who wanted to get his hair shaved short like his black American best friend so that their teacher “wouldn’t be able to tell them apart”. This is a stark reminder of the fact that we don’t seem to be born looking for differences and aware of skin colour that much. It is culturally constructed over time and is a part of our education. You can’t culturally un-construct it just by declaring yourself colour blind. All culturally constructed notions are deeply engrained.
Secondly, the news interview where a white man is speaking to the camera and in marches his small daughter, shortly followed by his other child in a baby walker. They are pursued by a woman who rushes in on all fours grabs them both and hustles them out of the room, returning briefly, still on her knees to shut the door. The assumption online was that this was his wife. Others speculated that it could be the childminder. There was backlash against presumed racially charged assumptions that the woman was a childminder and not the children’s mother and the white man’s wife – she was Korean. She was his wife.
Thirdly, isn’t it human, – and animal – ancient, learned behaviour to break the world up into categories of like me, not like me, threat and non-threat. You only have to see what happens to a cat when someone puts a cucumber behind it. Why would a domestic cat that has never seen a snake, have it so engrained in their ancient cat-bias, so as to be afraid of a vegetable that has only a vaguely snake-like appearance, is completely inanimate but seems to have sneaked up on them? Could this be true also for us human folk? Does it go that far back?
Cycling and gender-biased aggression
On a personal note, as a cyclist in London, I am now clocking up 45 minutes each way on my commute to and from work. I have always been bothered by the amount of abuse I get, although my cycling style is pretty mellow and non-confrontational. I have cycled for years and a while back now, I complained to my husband that as a woman, I get called all sorts of vile names and people can be unduly aggressive towards me. He said he never got any abuse and put it down to the fact that I can be bloody-minded and belligerent with my opinions so I am probably the same on the roads. One evening, we went out together locally and I suggested we cycle there together. On the way, I asked him if he would be willing to do an experiment with me, and to cycle some distance behind me and watch what happened. Sure enough, he was shocked by the different treatment I got compared to what he has been accustomed to. I had the usual array of cars beeping, or deliberately overtaking dangerously close and shouting as they passed, making me jump. There was also unwanted interaction with swearing pedestrians, heads down in their phones while they were weaving between the cars pausing for a moment in traffic, and from other (male) cyclists even.
Due to the air quality of central London, I have taken to wearing a pollution filter mask while cycling in recent months. It has been quite cold so with the mask, gloves, helmet and all my waterproof gear on, you can’t tell if I am a woman or a man or even what colour I am. It’s amazing. It’s as if I have been granted a completely new status. No-one bothers me at all. Bingo. I can see why it would be amazing to reach a place where we don’t automatically treat people in certain ways based on deep seated and learned bias.
Dare you consider, how might unconscious bias affect your relationships at school?
Let’s assume then that unconscious bias does exist. How might this affect your relationship with your students and other staff members? Here are some all-you-can-eat, food for thought observations I have heard played back to me by school staff I have spoken to:
Please ask yourself these questions, try the Harvard online tests and let’s start to discuss what this makes us feel, what we could do differently and where the issues might lie. We will be holding a BAMEed Network conference on all aspects of unconscious bias on June 3rd. If you have ideas for what other issues should be covered, let us know and make sure you are there on the day!
Image courtesy of Chris O’Brian – The Roanoke Times
So, it’s SATs week soon. We went away on holiday over the Easter break and when we got back, I heard my youngest daughter utter the horrific words I never thought I would hear from a child of mine: “Mummy, I can’t sleep. I’m scared of SATs. I think I am going to fail at everything”.
I can’t imagine where this has come from. Certainly not from us at home. I find it hard to believe it is coming from the school either. Their attitude seems to be that the bar has been set so ridiculously high that everyone is just committed to muddling through, trying their best, teachers and pupils alike. The Year 6 teachers at her school remind me of myself faced with an IKEA three-door wardrobe to assemble – just working their way through the vague outline of what needs to be done, trying to make sure they have all of the components accounted for and hoping that what takes shape is going to work.
Perhaps it has come from other children’s families, putting pressure on them. That’s always a possibility. I wrote in a previous post about choosing a secondary school that parental anxiety around their children’s schooling sometimes reaches unnecessary life and death proportions.
It was clear to me what to say to my child. “These tests are the only time in your schooling where the results have absolutely no meaning for your life. They do not define you. They do not give you access to the next level of schooling”. (It’s true to say that most secondary schools don’t even use SATs as a baseline but prefer to spend the first few weeks of Year 7 testing their new cohort themselves. If anything they are a test for the school, and are designed to monitor their teachers). I continued, “SATs are your gift to the school, do your best and you will be able to show some of what you have learned and how well you are able to pass a test”.
I was delighted when Sparky Teaching produced this nice letter and poster to send to Year 6 children and their families. It does feel a little hypocritical though that schools might circulate them as I am not convinced I understand to what extent schools are in fact producing this level of anxiety and passing it on through their students.
But I am aware that there are many factors that statistically might have an impact on my own child. Of course, she has professional dad and mum who have a PhD and an M.Ed respectively and I can be pushy when I need to. We have books and go to museums and are lucky to live in a city with easy access to all sorts of cultural experiences. But also, she immigrated at the age of two with no spoken English (so officially should have been classed as EAL and bi-lingual although she never was given any special support for this). She was premature, summer-born and has dyslexia – only becoming a fluent reader at the end of Year 5 and still struggling with writing.
Compared with my oldest child who was born at the end of September, it seems that the biggest impact of all of this list is the fact that my youngest is summer-born. She was in such a rush to be born, that she is now a whole school year younger than most of her classmates. She is three years younger than her sister and yet only two school years behind her. And I’m pretty sure that the ‘dyslexia’ is probably more visible because she is essentially bravely tackling things that others have had more time to grasp. We had to send her to Reception at the age of 4 and because our local school had a January intake, she had 6 months of Reception before she started Year 1. That’s quite a rush-job. And now, the goalposts have shifted drastically and where a couple of years ago my oldest was in Year 6 and was seen as rather special with her SATs results, what was then way above average is now pretty much the baseline expectation from all children. So much more of it relies on their memories for facts too.
I can’t help agreeing with Michael Rosen when he says “…the test system is narrowing education. Children are spending far too much time just doing tests and rehearsals for the tests. And we should remember that the tests can only test the testable. Whole areas of experience and learning are not included in what an ‘education for the test’ covers. Think of investigation, invention (creativity), interpretation (coming up with various conclusions for things), discussion, co-operation, compassion. These vital ways of learning are getting squeezed out of the curriculum. And remember – at the end of the day, the tests are not there to help our children. They are there to test whether the teachers have taught the stuff that’s in the test – some of which is useless anyway.”
We will keep reinforcing the messages of encouragement and try to play down the importance of these tests. I do feel for my youngest daughter though, that on top of everything that she has been grappling with, the bar has been raised during her SATs year and this isn’t really helpful at all for a child who has been fighting hard to keep up from the first day of school. When the school year ends, she will be happy to celebrate her birthday, the last of her peers to turn 11 before we send her off to secondary school.
Spending life on the peripheries of the education system has been my lot since returning to the UK and quitting the classroom. Since leaving teaching nearly 9 years ago, I have worked in organisations that support schools and I have done a couple of stints as a school governor. I could get my head around the data as a governor and in my professional life – but the way children are monitored and levels are set on an individual level has always baffled me as a parent.
My first experience of how children’s progress is measured was at my first primary school parents’ evening where the teacher reported in on my oldest child’s progress midway through the year. My daughter was in Reception class, had only been in the country for 6 months and was learning English quickly, her thick Israeli accent gradually disappearing. (We still fondly remember a rowdy boy she was playing with who shoved her, and her saying sternly: “You want I will do dis to you? So don’t you do dis to me!”)
That evening, the Reception class teacher sat opposite me, gave me a nonplussed look, turning the corners of her mouth down and shrugging said, “Yeah, she’s alright really, no complaints”. I must have given away my bafflement at this statement and after a pause where she seemed to be thinking of something else to say, she added, “Yeah, no complaints at all.” I think she expected me to be pleased. Having been a teacher myself, and being naturally empathetic, I imagined that she had had a really stressful few months, settling in these small creatures, many of whom had never been in a nursery setting or school before. I knew my daughter was polite, well-behaved and wanted to do well at school. But my jaw dropped and I asked if she could give me some more detail on what she was doing well at, where she might need some more support and so on. Nothing. Trying to help, I asked where she was as compared with her peers. “Oh no, we don’t really do that. Compared to the start of the year, she has made progress and is reaching the expected milestones”. Apparently, what these milestones were, belonged strictly to the professionals and were not something parents needed to know. Unless there was a problem I guess and then perhaps there would be…complaints.
Weirdly, the next parents’ evening that same year was a complete contrast and we were handed a booklet with descriptors and little blobs against different levels of achievement for various milestones of development. It made me want to go back to the other suddenly more sensible continuum of ‘complete pain in the arse’ to ‘no complaints really’. Again, on trying to make sense of it all, we were told these were the new national curriculum levels and this was really only useful to the teacher, however, the Early Years department thought it would be good to share them with parents. I must say, at this point I did make an appointment to talk it through with the headteacher. She thanked me for letting her know that I was confused and agreed that the teacher had some work to do on her communication skills. But I shouldn’t really bother myself with detail. They will inform me if there’s a problem.
Meanwhile, in the world of the Children’s Centre, my youngest was having a wonderful time and the staff seemed engrossed in gathering tons of paperwork on every child’s progress on about 10 different aspects of their development. Every week we had a report on what our youngest daughter did, said, ate, how long she napped, things she liked and didn’t like. It definitely helped ease my guilt at being a full-time working mum, knowing all that had been going on at nursery. Once a term we had an amazing array of descriptions, documentation, photographs and observations sent home to us in a personal folder. We didn’t even have that much depth of evidence for our own understanding of the kids as their parents. It was phenomenal and probably a bit much. I wondered if they spent more time with their noses in their clipboards than they did establishing eye contact with the kids. The staff agreed it was all a bit knackering but that they were obliged by government to keep to this level of detail.
Later on in primary school, we started to hear about national curriculum (NC) levels and each child was ranked against these for every subject – either below, at or above expected NC levels. I once questioned one teacher, who was super-pleased (relieved even) that the kids in his class had reached the expected NC level across the board, if that was a high enough standard considering how bright they all seemed to be.
My youngest, since discovered to be dyslexic, was having trouble with reading and the little writing she did was backwards and with no vowels. I spoke with the teacher about it, and she said she had never seen anything like it before. I reminded her that my children are Israeli. They write backwards and with no vowels in Israel and at Hebrew school at the weekend. I asked if there was any special support she might receive since she was both EAL and apparently dyslexic. I was told no, as she was functioning just below NC levels and they reckoned they could just about get her to expected NC levels by the end of the year. We waited and did our best to support her. She is a bright kid and loved listening to us reading to her and to audio books so her spoken language was extremely advanced and rich for her age.
The following year, we were told she was still nearly at NC levels and so no extra help was offered. She still couldn’t read or write and by Year 4 was actually sobbing at night about being thick and not being able to keep up with her clever peers. And yet, the reports came home, the parents’ evenings were spent having the teacher say that she was at NC levels so there was nothing really to worry about. Just a bit more practice at home.
The most deflating parents’ evening was the one where the teacher proudly said to me about my oldest, “She’s a level 4” to which I found myself wide-eyed saying: “No, sorry, her name is N___ and she has reached a level 4”. And all the time, throughout their time at primary school, the message was that they were to achieve such and such levels of progress but at least now, it was also against their own expected levels of achievement and not just against the national average, which for many, was still pretty low in terms of expectations.
Fast forward to parents’ evenings for daughters now in Year 8 and Year 6. The teachers are floundering. They are obviously lost between levels as they were and so-called life without levels, which, as far as I can tell is life with different names for the same thing. Year 8 parents evening: “She’s a level 6 in old money but now she is a…. which would be now classed as….well it’s all a bit complicated because they made us change the system, we’re not allowed to use levels any more. But we sort of are, we’re just calling it by another name really…” My eyes glaze over.
Because we moved to a different area, the younger child is at a different primary school that has recognised that she is dyslexic and is giving her plenty of support. It was going well at the termly meeting this week when they were discussing what she can do, and what progress she has made. Then I sit blinking at the teacher and the SENCO as they discuss between them “She’s a W3a I think” says the teacher. “Oh hang on, which is a…what? What a level 4 would have been?” asks the SENCO, taking notes. She turns to me “there’s a new system you see, have you heard about life without levels?” The teacher adds, “We’re all just finding our way with it and actually, what would have been a really high standard, a level 5, for the end of year 6 in previous years, is now the basic standard expected for all, so they’ve raised the bar and it’s pretty impossible to get there”.
And all the while, I just want to shriek: are the children in your class making progress? Are they being challenged? Do they tell you when they don’t understand and need some help? Would what is happening in your class be good enough if they were your child? And most of all, are they HAPPY?!
Beware the American Dream
Many organisations working with young people seem to sell students something similar to The American Dream – all you need to do is work hard and want it badly enough, and you too can reach the highest heights. This is reinforced by media depictions of ordinary people’s quick ascent to fame and fortune. TV channels are flooded with shows pitting people against each other, the promise of celebrity and copious wealth within pirouetting distance. Many a student buys into these myths (and a surprising number of intelligent adults too). The American Dream crumbles before their very eyes when you start to unpack the odds for them. I can’t tell you how many times we have helped our participants understand that becoming a premier league footballer – even if it’s your biggest dream – might not be a viable option especially considering you aren’t even in the first team at school and aren’t training more than a couple of times a month. But it goes beyond explaining the odds. Knowledge is power and there are things young people need from their education that isn’t covered by the American Dream. (A few TV channels might also like to take on the challenge of educating the masses on this too). My vision would be to ensure that no child leaves school without a clear understanding of themselves as a member of and a product of society, and without questioning what they want to be going forward – and how they might make that happen. We should want our young to be aspirational and reach for the sky and I don’t believe debunking the American Dream will demotivate them, but will rather empower them.
When grades aren’t enough Social mobility pundits are seemingly preoccupied with making everyone middle class. To achieve this aim schools, and a plethora of education charities aimed at improving students’ university applications, can be seen to push some students to get into a top university and seemingly to urge them to denounce their background and become a banker or lawyer. It might be controversial to say this but attending an elite university without adequate support is tantamount to sponsoring a life of feeling inadequate, developing imposter syndrome and being left caught between a rock and a hard place. I know this all too well, being the only one in my single-parent, free-school-meals-eligible family with a degree. There is also the danger of giving young people messages that their often aspirational and supportive family are inadequate losers. You can see where this leads – you don’t fit in anywhere in the end. ‘Posh kids’ have social and cultural capital that comes with rubbing shoulders with an array of professional people. Schools do their utmost to try to address this with high expectations for all, free music tuition, debating, rowing, fencing and more. But what of the fact that middle class students will have access to culture, professional contacts and support throughout their journey in life? Again, packing off a young person to an elite university having helped them gain great grades at GCSE and A level, taught them violin and rowing is a start but it doesn’t plug the gap of social and cultural capital. Whose connections do students tap into for job opportunities and to fund an internship? What more can we do to narrow the gap on these life-long inequalities of opportunity?
Metacognition, political and social awareness and self-knowledge in bucket loads It’s troubling that there isn’t the space and time in schools to ask the question not of ‘what do you want to bewhen you grow up’ but ‘who are you, what are your interests and skills, where are you willing to invest your effort? What kind of lifestyle are you after? Do you know anything about the people that have that lifestyle? Are your preconceptions even close to the truth?’ My husband always wanted to be an academic. He has worked hard and now he is one It’s a far cry from his 1980s style dream. In fact, he says he has read that there is a direct parallel between academia and drugs cartels. Apparently even the salary is about the same too. And you might be surprised that in neither profession is it very high for anyone but the very top dogs.
In the 1990s, a teacher studying for my Masters in education, I took my whole class on a journey of exploration into the (now discredited) world of Learning Styles. This year-long action research project culminated in my class substantially improving their achievement across the board. The take-away lesson for me, regardless of whether or not there is any substance to Learning Styles, was that my students became engaged in understanding for themselves how they learn (metacognition). Each developed techniques to concentrate, engage, relate to and retain what they learned, giving them ownership of their learning and making them masters of their own choices. They could harness this and use it wherever and however they chose, not just in my English class. The results were stunning.
We should be similarly committed to fearlessly educate our young about social mobility itself and how inequality is intricately woven into the tapestry of everyday life. Just as young men and women need to know about homophobia, racism and feminism, so too do we need to help young people to understand the simple facts about class differences in society.
And as mentioned above, there needs to be space and time for young people to unearth their own personal story, their roots, feelings, and assumptions about themselves not just within a classroom and a school, but as a family member and as a member of wider society and even the global community. This intertwined story of ourselves as both social and personal beings, and as products of and actors in society is one that is not easy to unpick but unlocking it as a concept can be the key to achieving real, enduring success.
Sustainable solutions should be the only solutions We’ve all heard about schools kettling groups of borderline students into the A*- C safety zone or punting the pupil premium on interventions that make low-level disruption, serial absenteeism and exclusion rates disappear in a puff of lavender-scented smoke for the prized Ofsted outstanding. We assume that means that students are getting a high quality education and gaining the grades they need to go on to the next stage of their journey in life. But how many school leaders have the longitudinal vision to say, hand on heart, that they are pledging public funds to kick-starting their most disadvantaged students’ journey on the path towards being socially mobile and successful no matter their backgrounds? When our education system is so dominated by politicians whose concerns are short-term and, well, political, are school leaders really able to see beyond their place on the league tables? Some believe schools and universities should be held accountable for what happens to their students once they have graduated and entered the world of work as a way to enforce a longer-term vision. But I like to think that some school leaders, regardless of the ever-changing trends and official requirements, are keenly committed to making sure that as many of the young people in their care as possible get everything they need to be successful in life, whether that be as a core part of the curriculum, an extra level of support from public services or bought-in opportunities that otherwise would never come their way.
There is a glut of organisations operating under the banner of social mobility. My visits to nearly 40 London schools recently has got me thinking about services schools buy in and about charities, social enterprises and businesses. I have spent some time over the summer reviewing the services available and there is a veritable mosaic of ideas, methods, outcomes and claims – not to mention groovy branded jackets, highly designed logos and flashy websites. I have heard from many school leaders that they are suffering from ‘interventionitis’ and are unsure of how the many external services actually integrate, duplicate or make sense in their own school. The collapse of Kids Company has made this all the more relevant. There have been some insightful pieces on this issue highlighting that a ‘good idea’ will result in a charity in response. I am the last to advocate for privatisation of the education sector, but I do believe that unlike a business model, charities often don’t check if their offer is commercially viable, responds to a market-tested need, or is duplicates something existing. Charities aren’t even really required to guarantee their offer is high quality, particularly in their experimental start-up stage. They need to identify potential donors, compete for funds and persuade schools to take them on. And schools will be interested because they are already working their socks off for their students, every little helps, and the charity offers services for free – surely there is nothing to lose. And yet, there is so much to lose. Some of the charities working to help deprived young people, work with only a handful at a time and are not necessarily going to survive if their funding dries up. And most worrying is that they may see that demand exceeds capacity and they could end up in hot water, unable to sustain their activity or scale up according to demand. What happens then?
I personally like the social enterprise model – it has to be self-sustaining as a business but has social responsibility firmly at its heart rather than the often distasteful for-profit mantra of ‘return for share-holders’. To know they are spending public money wisely, schools will want to see regular impact reports, a contract and to hold the organisation to account for the quality and completion of the work as described.
I would appeal to all schools to think carefully about what they can do to help guarantee success, for life, for their students. Schools should do their due diligence and be certain that whatever they choose for their students, whether it be paid for or free, that it really delivers the outcomes it says it does, that it puts the schools’ and the students’ long-term interests at its core and that it has a solid past and an equally promising future.