Parallel Universes

I have just returned from a lovely overnight stay in a country house spa hotel to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. It was everything I could have wished for, particularly the relaxation of not having a child around. I padded around in my complementary bathrobe and slippers, helped myself to drinks and magazines, reading them in a suspended swinging chair. I swam in a large and peaceful pool, luxuriated in the jacuzzi and managed a few minutes in the steam room. Everywhere I went, people spoke in hushed quiet tones. Mobile phones were not allowed. As I lay back on my deck chair, I breathed in the sweet smelling air and relaxed totally for the first time in months.

This has been a tough, bruising year for me. Actually, a tough couple of years. And I’m a bit tired now. There have been highs and lows, wonderful children that have found a place in my heart, challenges and achievements. Teaching is rather a mixed bag, bringing deeply fulfilling moments for every dark, horrendous day. But I’m tired.

Just last week, I had to deal with stroppy, rude, disrespectful teenagers who refused to put their mobile phones away when I asked them to. On Friday, I had to supervise two boys who for various reasons had been excluded from their classes, only to spend that time on laptops playing rather dubious video games that seemed to involve lots of killing. When I castigated them for the language they used, one of them responded “That’s how we talk where we come from miss. You know, we get lots of stabbings here.” My enduring memory of last month was trying to restrain a child who in a fit of anger was throwing heavy items around and then banging his head on the table. And for everyone of these extreme situations, I have encountered plenty of the low level, but equally soul sapping stuff. “Shut up”, “racist”, “pig”, not to mention regular instances of the F word seem to have become everyday language in some quarters. Not to mention total contempt and disrespect for the adults (until they ‘earn the respect’). The quiet peaceful world of my hotel spa and its clientele seems a million miles away. They could be parallel universes.

I know it’s easy to stereotype, and that not all children are in gangs or have special needs, but inner London can be quite grim. There just seems to be so much deprivation, so much disfunction. Children have been exposed to so much brutalising behaviour that the possibility of turning them into polite, functional members of society seems ever so slim. Yet it can be done. Anyone visiting Michaela school can be in no doubt that, in the right circumstances, those angry, anti-social children can be turned into beacons of civility. I’m told it’s not just Michaela, but that other schools are also achieving fantastic behaviour and culture. I’m sure that must be true, but my experience, which now runs to over a dozen schools (thanks to a stint doing supply work), tells me otherwise.

So I’m glad Amanda Spielman has focused on behaviour in her recent speech at the Education Festival. Ofsted is to add a separate judgement for behaviour in future inspections, and will take measures to ensure they get an accurate picture – not the sanitised version that is often presented by savvy school leaders. If you ship out disruptive children for a school trip on inspection days, Ofsted are going to be on to you (I hope). Every school can manage to show off a well behaved class during an inspection. But what about NQTs, new and supply teachers? Are they getting the behaviour? What is it like at transitions? What will students say about the behaviour, when asked in anonymous questionnaires? There are numerous ways of sussing out the behaviour in a school and Ofsted seems to be determined to get to the truth. This is long overdue.

In the meantime, I’m hanging in there, but compromises have been made. I’ve accepted a job next September, with shorter hours, less responsibility and less pay, but the plus side for me is that the behaviour I observed on interview day is good (it has to be said the catchment is affluent middle class), and my son will no longer need to languish in before and after school care. I’ll also have more time and energy to devote to my side project, Learning For Memory. September 2019 will be my crunch time. I’ll have to enrol on a teacher training course then or have to go through the palaver of sitting my professional skills test again (which I don’t fancy doing). Will I bite the bullet and do it? Maybe a year working in a good (not in Ofsted terms) school will help convince me to go for it. At the moment, much as I love working with children, much as I love the act of teaching, the profession of teaching is not one I want to join.

When will they catch up?

It is a given that teachers in schools today must differentiate to accomodate the different learning needs of their students. The Teachers’ Standards, by which all teachers new and old are held to account, state quite clearly that teachers must:

5. Adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils
– know when and how to differentiate appropriately, using approaches which enable pupils to be taught effectively
– have a secure understanding of how a range of factors can inhibit pupils’ ability to learn, and how best to overcome these
– demonstrate an awareness of the physical, social and intellectual development of children, and know how to adapt teaching to support pupils’ education at different stages of development
– have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs; those of high ability; those with English as an additional language; those with disabilities; and be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.

Differentiation can take many forms. It could be that some pupils are given extra scaffolding to complete a task. It could involve the teacher amending the question asked of a particular pupil, taking into account their level of attainment. Quite often also, differentiation takes the form of giving a different range of tasks to a class. Worksheets can be simplified to enable lower attaining students to access the work. And I’m sure we have all seen the Powerpoint slides with tiered tasks, usually three different iterations that are easy, average or difficult, masked under some euphemism or other.

Beyond that of course, there is differentiation in the form of grouping by ‘ability’, either setting by subject or streaming. This can take place as early as Reception year – that is four year olds going on five. I have observed first hand how setting works in Reception, and the experience has troubled me. The past few weeks and months, one question above all others has nagged at me and it is this: ‘When will they catch up?’

You see, these four or five year olds were put into different groups for their daily phonics lesson, based on their ‘ability’. Except of course, this has nothing to do with ability. Some children will have had the benefit of going to nursery (particularly the autumn born ones) and will have been exposed to phonics beforehand. Other children will have arrived in Reception having never been exposed to letters and their sounds. The problem is compounded when some of these children come from families where English is not the first language spoken, the EAL children. Right from day one, therefore, we are confronted with significant differences in attainment, and we know this gap will get wider and wider as these children progress through school (I read some stats about this somewhere, some time ago but forget where – maybe someone can remind me).

Phonics is the main building block of literacy in those early years, so having different phonics lessons means effectively that, right from day one, children are being given a different curriculum from one another. The differences are striking. I was given the lowest group, and tasked with teaching them the phase 2 sounds (basically all the individual letter sounds). I was told to focus on a particular letter each lesson (starting with s, a, t, p, n), to sing the letter song, name some words that start with that letter (e.g. ‘a for apple’) and get them to air draw the letter (or draw it on each other’s backs with their index finger, which I found did not work particularly well). I tried getting them to practise writing the letter of the day on their mini whiteboards, but was told off because apparently the children were not developmentally ready for this. Finally, we would attempt to decode some simple CVC words (consonant, vowel, consonant).

At the other end of the scale, the ‘higher’ children experienced very different phonics lessons. As a cover teacher, I would occasionally teach them when the main class teacher was absent. These children were learning digraphs, split digraphs and tricky words. On their mini whiteboards (yes, they got to have them), they would write sentences using the digraph sound of the day. So when we look at how different the curricula are, we should not be surprised at the big differences in outcome. In a way, through our actions, we are ensuring that the gap not only remains but that it widens. And as I practised the split digraph sound a_e with the ‘highers’, my thoughts turned to the ‘lowers’ who had yet to be exposed to such sounds. How were they ever going to catch up? The truth is, there was no expectation that they would.

This saddens me. Actually, it angers me. Those ‘lower ability’ children are not born with learning deficiencies (at least none of the ones I had the privilege to teach). They are just as capable of learning as the others. They just haven’t had the same start in life that others had. They haven’t actually been taught what the others know. By labelling them as ‘low ability’ and giving them a simplified curriculum, we are denying them the opportunity to catch up. If they are behind their peers, the solution is not to give them less to learn but the opposite. For example, if everyone else is having one daily phonics lesson, then these children should have two. Ideally, they should be exposed to the same curriculum as everyone else, and then given extra intervention sessions to help them master what the others have already mastered. You do not close the attainment gap by giving the ones falling behind easier work. The logic of that is irrefutable surely? So why isn’t it happening across all our schools?

Resurrection

It’s been a while, but I’ve decided to resurrect this old blog. This website has been mothballed for over a year, following some rather threatening behaviour documented in this post by Andrew Old. The time has come though, to shake the cobwebs and bring this site back to life. I have been blogging in the meantime on historylover.uk, but increasingly I’ve felt much of what I want to write about would not fall under the umbrella of ‘History Lover’, so I’ve come back here, to my old blogging home.

There has been much water under the bridge since my last blog post on here. My circumstances and outlook have changed considerably; for one thing I am no longer training to be a teacher. For another, I have switched from secondary to primary. At the moment, I am content to work in a TA or cover supervisor role, and to put teacher training on the back burner. Quality of life and family time are trumping the desire to move up into a position of more responsibility. This may not always be the case though, so I’m keeping my powder dry.

I plan to use this blog to share my reflections on education in general, and to switch to ‘History Lover’ only when my subject matter is history specific. This means that I will be blogging on two separate sites, but it will hopefully make better sense this way. My next blog, entitled ‘When will they catch up?’, will discuss differentiation and how it often has the unintended consequence of widening the attainment gap.

It’s good to be back!