Back to school… again…

Sunday 7 March 2021

The covid lateral flow test – nobody mentioned that on my PGCE course!

Our esteemed PM hails tomorrow’s return to school as a positive move back to normal life,

It is because of the determination of every person in this country that we can start moving closer to a sense of normality — and it is right that getting our young people back into the classroom is a first step.”

Boris Johnson March 2021

I must confess, however, to a slight hesitation in sharing his optimism. But maybe that’s a good thing, because back in September I was bursting with excitement about the re-opening of schools and honour at contributing to the rebuilding of education and well-being for our young people. And I was very wrong. In fact I was breathtakingly naive and foolish. Within days, the Autumn term of 2020 turned into a living nightmare. The devastation and disruption of endless cases of covid and the requirement for staff and pupils to isolate repeatedly was on a scale none of us had anticipated. Classes were sent home. In some weeks staff absence resulted in year groups being sent home. Desperate to reduce bubbles and pupil contacts, we lost PE lessons, we lost lessons in Science labs and pupils literally spent 5 hours a day confined to the same room for all subjects. If they were in school at all. The Education Policy Unit in their report, ‘School attendance and lost schooling across England since full reopening‘ , found that across the country Secondary school attendance dropped from 95% to between 80% and 90% in many areas, with the worst hit seeing figures fall as low as 71%. Is that education? Is that inspiration for life-long learning? Is that back to normal?

Well for 2021, it probably is. Tomorrow we re-open with all the same restrictions and curricular compromises but we throw in several thousand tests and policing the latest DFE brainwave, the mandate that teenagers wear face masks from 9 until 3! There is a difference of course, we now have a vaccine and daily we hear the rapidly ramping-up figures trumpeted by the Government as a symbol of national pride and achievement. But is the vaccine is for school staff or any other front line workers not in a health-care setting? No it is not. The jabs are currently triumphantly wrapping a halo of safety around a population of stay-at-home locked-down adults who are not required to mix with thousands of pupils, or shoppers, or members of the public in Mr Johnson’s ‘back to normal’ world.

But hearing some of the comments from pupils last week, makes our profession push aside the hurt and anger, at being forgotten by central government,

“The testing? I am a bit worried- do I have to do it in front of other people?”

” I just feel anxious about the thought of being sent home again!”

I’ve given up on the exams – I know I am going to fail them all”

Yes let’s hope, even pray, that I am wrong to be worried and that we do, after a hectic week of testing, actually manage to stay open this time and restore some much needed stability into the live of of young people. Even better, that we take away the ‘track and trace’ and the distraction of masks and actually are allowed to get back to our job of educating. Because I don’t worry so much about the loss of a bit of Shakespeare or the fact that we may have to do some after school revision of trigonometry. My worry is that if schools are not freed up to get back to our version of normal that some of our teenagers will soon lose all confidence, trust and hope in the future.

Anyway, time for me to get back to practicalities. School uniform, Sunday night ironing and topping up the dinner money for Small Boy. Good luck next week to all our wonderful schools and the amazing work they do…

Good week: happy mum!

Friday 29 January 2020

Well cheers to us this evening! I am feeling super proud of my trio of teens. This has been a good week…

In a corner of the North East, my Eldest makes it through her first set of University exams. She doesn’t get the results for a few weeks but, frankly, I couldn’t care less about any scores. I find it blooming incredible that, despite being left to study Medicine from a laptop in her Uni room and having no face to face teaching or learning for 11 months, she gets her nose to the grindstone, grapples with huge quantities of complicated new knowledge and revises and prepares like an absolute trooper. Simply astounding!

Back home, Prom-dress daughter faces her EPQ presentation. The stresses of Lockdown aside, my middle child has flourished academically at sixth-form. These days, I’ll be frank, we all struggle to keep up with her! I marvel at the reams of research, as I agree to read her final epic of an essay. Tentatively, I suggest the occasional comma but, if truth be told, the sophistication of the arguments and the complexity of the ideas are beyond me and I mostly just content myself with being happily in awe! She has loved writing this piece of work but standing up to present it and face questions from a panel of students and tutors? Alas, for my shy, quiet girl, that is a terrifying thought. Her only option, to control those nerves, is preparation. She gets tips from college, from her dad and from one of my fabulous friends and grafts away, using the advice to get ready. And come Thursday morning, just as I am starting a live lesson from the lounge, I hear her bravest ‘game face’ voice from upstairs launching into her presentation. Yes, I’ll confess to a little tear and know I couldn’t feel any prouder.

And so to Small Boy. It’s a first GCSE music performance for my son, also over the electronic ether. It’s a piece of film music that he has found and taught himself. And it is beautiful. I do love film music and having the romantic and evocative melodies filling the house over the last few weeks has been wonderful – at times, as my talented boy adds rich chords and plays around with the tempo, it has felt like having little bit of my dad back. But, above all, the reason I feel most pleased with my youngest child is that, like his sisters, he puts the work in. Yes, he practises that lovely piece to perfection. And, as he tunes in looking a little green but emerges all smiles from the recording, let’s hope he realises; that’s what gets results!

And thus, the week ends. There’s a bottle of Malbec for me, a gift from my boss for helping him out with a piece of work. I fill a glass and sink onto the sofa feeling tired but calm and happy. Kids! They can be such a worry, but at least in this rare moment I feel confident that mine are going to be okay; inwardly strong, resilient and ready …. for life? Hey, I am sure it will be a different story next week but, for now, I raise my glass,

To you teens – top efforts this week!”

Home for the hols…

Tuesday  22 December 2020

One of the most shocking stories, in a weekend of dramatic news, is the closure of the Dover-Calais crossing which leave thousands of lorries and passengers stranded, for days, on British motorways. Closer to home, with Christmas only days away, it also fuels fears of food shortages on our supermarket shelves. Amidst reports of ‘panic-buying,  I contemplate the best time to brave the aisles for the annual yuletide shop. Someone else has other worries on their mind,

“Gosh – could it lead to an avocado shortage? That would be terrible!”  exclaims my Eldest.

I reel around. Prom-dress daughter splutters on her coffee. Small Boy is frozen, his cereal spoon midway to his mouth, then turns to stare too. My lovely daughter, just smiles at us all,

What? I’ve just got a great new recipe for smashed avocado and chilli…”

Yes, my first-born is back from University for the holidays!

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this first home-return. Several decades ago, I recall being an utter pain and, more currently, several witty articles warn parents to ‘brace’. But my girl has been an absolute delight. The old adage says that ‘education broadens the mind‘. Whilst some may challenge this, the recent interesting study by Jessika Golle of the University of Tübingen, in Germany, finding that it was not that University broadens minds, rather that work ‘narrows them‘, my daughter is noticeably more open minded…and not only in terms of her culinary choices! Her views on environmental issues, mental health and well-being, the value of money and so many more issues have all developed and deepened since she left our homestead 3 months ago. 

She also brings a refreshing independence into the house, which supports, rather than challenges my weariness and working hours. I arrive home to meals on the table. She does all her own washing.  She encourages the other two to be a little more self-sufficient. And all requests, to do any activity or meet anyone, are delivered with a courtesy and respect I find astonishing. Don’t get me wrong, we have always been close, but towards the end of Summer, she was clearly ready to strike out and make her own way in the world. And occasionally this lead to friction and resentment at having to follow someone else’s rules. Teenage brains are, after all, programmed to rebel in the important quest for independence (Blakemore et al)

So, whilst I steeled myself for a bumpy ride with student vacation number one, it has been a joy. My daughter seems completely at ease with herself and all of us. Is it meeting new people? Is it having a clear sense of purpose once more after the long months of Lockdown? Is it a reflection of her happiness with life? I am not sure. What I do know is that she lights up the day and that her visit is a huge boost for everyone in the house. The odd crazy food request… a quirk we can all accommodate!

With a smile, I add ‘avocados’ to my lengthy shopping list, accept my Eldest’s cheery offer to come with me and we head out together to re-stock the cupboards

Let’s hope those horrendously caught up in the chaos and gridlock at Dover make it home for Christmas too…

Feeling Grinchy…

Friday 6 November 2020

I have no doubt that people will be able to have as normal a Christmas as possible..”

Boris Johnson November 2020

Oh do ‘Shut up!’

Stringent covid -19 restrictions are imposed nationally across England for the second time this year. Tier 1 residents, after 5 minutes of social isolation, flood media channels with their motivational messages, cheery Dunkirk spirit and ‘top tips‘ for ‘surviving lockdown‘. I am sure they are well intentioned, but for this North West mum, after months and months of this misery… I’m just not feeling it.

What am feeling, driving home to a radio coverage of the PM bumbling his way through a Press Conference, is growing fury. The Home Nation plan to ‘Save Christmas‘ finally tips me over the edge! Oh do stop central Government treating us all like 5 years old? Rules. Nursery Rhyme slogans. The Naughty Step of Tier 3. And now, if am am a ‘good girl’ Papa C will still bring me presents? It is simplistic. It is patronising. It is, quite frankly, an insult to suggest that so many weeks of; rudderless leadership, emotional hardship and at times sheer despair can be balanced out by the chance to pull a few crackers with the in-laws on Christmas Day.

At work, this week we send a further 5 cohorts of pupils home. Around 200 young people, completely devastated, faces etched in panic and often close to tears

Please no, Miss. This is the third time I’ve been sent home this term!”

My mocks … what about my mocks?

“I was off for the last 2 weeks I’ve only been back a day”

“Miss, I’ve has Covid already!”

Next week, to reduce pupil bubbles, we shall cancel PE lessons …

What am I supposed to say? (I shriek at the radio)

Hey, your education’s in ruins but don’t worry, we’ll all be able to have a fine Christmas dinner together!’

What is an appropriate response to the frantic parents who call, in ever increasing numbers, weighed down with concerns about their children’s anxieties and well being?

Oh never mind any of that. Ho ho ho! Santa Claus is coming to Town’

What utter crap!

Or am I wrong? Christmas is a great thing after all and usually my favourite time of the year. Perhaps some twinkly lights and a few glasses of egg nog is just what we do need in these grim times. Let’s face it, without a festive fortnight, the months ahead look relentlessly bleak. In the unforgettable lament of C.S Lewis’ Lucy Pevensie,

Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!” “How awful!”

Source: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Perhaps a better response is to ease up on Christmas … and just turn the radio off!

Lockdown week 11: Decision Time?

Saturday 6 June 2020

Week 11 demands that I go into work three times. On the downside, it’s a return to early alarm calls and commuting; by Friday I actually have to put fuel in the car for the first time since April! On the upside, I escape my four walls and … someone else prepares my lunch!

My pros and cons aside however, one thing is certain, schools are only going to get busier over the next few weeks. We can probably stumble on until the end of July in the current conditions but, with the prospect of a new academic year in September, someone at some point is going to have to decide, ‘Is our aim to educate or socially distance?’, because schools cannot do both effectively.

At the start of June 2020, UK Primary schools were allowed to open to three year groups. In High Schools and Colleges, pupils from Years 10 and 12 will be permitted to return to school from June 15th. There are strict social-distancing guidelines in place which have required school leaders and Governors to work around the clock preparing lengthy risk assessments. For pupils and parents, smaller class sizes result in most children only skipping through the school gates on a part-time basis and continuing with their home-learning otherwise. And in terms of up-scaling pupil numbers, it is a model with many flaws; easier to solve if we are happy to operate as a Youth Club with restricted clusters and the cleanest hand ever seen, but far more daunting if our aim is education.

Without a substantial investment in recruitment, it is difficult to understand how schools can spread staff across both face-to-face teaching and high quality home-learning. Essentially, if only half the pupils can be fitted ‘in school’ on any day …. where are the other half? What are they doing? And who is supporting their learning? They could be ‘live-streaming the lesson‘ I hear you cry. Well, again, even with the substantial investment needed to gear all schools and homes up for such an arrangement, it leaves the question,

Why are half of us, buttoned into school shirts, perched on disinfected chairs and working at 2m spaced desks whilst others apparently get the same education from their kitchens?’

I would argue that it is because they do not get this. I would argue that there is no substitute for the real classroom experience. Amongst many different educational theorists, my current favourite is the controversial Professor Michael Young, advocate of ‘powerful knowledge’. I do believe that learners are entitled to lessons built around the amazing ideas and concepts you would rarely encounter in everyday life or outside an place of learning. I do agree with Professor Young, that such a knowledge based curriculum equips more pupils with the cultural capital needed to move up, not merely on, in life and hence helps to bridge the shameful socio-economic chasms that divide our educational system. You might expect therefore that I would be content to see a diet of facts and figures served up to pupils on some static powerpoint, equally suited to home- or class-based learning. But you would be wrong.

My core conviction is that education is driven by relationships and needs inspirational teachers at the wheel. Unapologetically, passionate educators who light the fires and open teenage eyes to that wonderful wealth of knowledge: a love of literature, an appreciation of art, the beauty of mathematics. Committed motivators whose voices say,

Keep going, you can do this!’ and

Have you thought about studying this further at college?

And incredible as education is, school life is even about so much more than this: friendships, teamwork, shared experiences, the school production and growing as a person. Schools are a community; they are about being together.

So, schools and education – a precious thing indeed. Social distancing – a critical component of our fight against a global pandemic. I think we just need to decide which is our priority for the Autumn, because I an unconvinced that we can do both well…

Education – the great leveller?

Wednesday 15 May 2019

In the week when Prom-dress daughter starts her GCSEs, and half the teenage world shudders with stress and probably more than half of their parent do too, I wonder about the fairness of it all.

Education, as the ‘great leveller’ has been my lifelong passion. I’ve loved the fact that a set of top exam grades from your local comprehensive is every bit as good as the same grades from Eton or Harrow. I’ve been intoxicated by the concept of GCSE results day as the one day of true equality on the calendar, when any 16 year old who’s worked hard and aimed high is assessed on the same scale as, and can get better grades than …. even the future King of England.

Education undoubtedly was my liberator, and took me to places and opportunities, that I’d never dreamed possible. I recall on my journey to University, back in the 1980s, being too frightened to open my mouth, as the train headed south of Birmingham, for fear of my Northern accent inviting ridicule. Three years later, I was ready to take on the world! And I was grateful: for the boost of confidence and self esteem; for the privilege of 3 years with like-minded friends; for 3 years of being allowed to be myself and still fit in… and I wanted to give back. I moved into a career in Education.

But how much of a leveller is our Education system in 2019? Here’s the data; and I am, not surprised. but deeply saddened that, in 21st Century England, a well developed country, the progress of disadvantaged pupils falls so far behind that of their non-disadvantaged peers. A Progress 8 score of -0.44 suggests that across this substantial cohort of vulnerable pupils, almost half their results were one grade lower than you should expect for a pupil of the same starting point. If that was your child, and 4 of their 9 grades were lower than other children who arrived at high school with the same results, what you you think? And the actual picture is even starker than that. Research is emphatic that by the time a disadvantaged pupil reaches high school, they are already significantly behind…the gap just continues to widen throughout their school life.

So GCSE results day, “the one day of true equality on the calendar?” We could not be further from the truth! The data dispels my naive utopia and just leaves, as a bad wine on a long awaited night out, a very sour after taste. ‘Disadvantage’ predominantly indicates parental poverty, with the vast majority of the cohort drawn from the population who qualify for free school meals. The data screams out, that despite the same schooling, your family background will still be the key determinant your educational success. It’s a devastatingly far cry from the ‘cultural capital’ and social mobility we aspired to in Butler’s 1944 Education Act.

Does the over- involvement of parental affluence in education exacerbate the gap? Affluence can mean money for private tuition, money to keep your child away from a time consuming part time job, money for technology and a wealth of online revision resources, lack of financial worries so more time for home support. I don’t know if this is the reason. It’s a highly complex issue and one thing is for sure, it’s ridiculous to expect any parent not to do all they can to support their child’s education. I will certainly continue to make Prom-dress daughter ‘porridge and berry’ breakfasts until these GCSEs are over, and to head out for emergency chocolate after any tricky and tearful exam.

No, it remains the job of educators to relentlessly drive this cohort with more ambition and higher expectations. Where needed, and it clearly is needed, I’d advocate positive discrimination of time and resources too. But it’s not just a challenge for schools. Think Grenfell, media attitudes to asylum seekers, the Jeremy Kyle show, the refusal of all but a few commentators to listen to the 51% of the population who did vote for Brexit, the 51% who do not recognise Britain as a fair and prosperous land at the moment. Does our nation really care about and respect the most disadvantaged in our society? I think we could strive to do so a lot better….