My long journey into teaching and an ode to my parents

My teenage mother
My teenage mother

During the heated grammar school debate a few months ago, I read a few excellent blogs such as this one, from teachers who were the first in their own families to go to university and how their bright and intelligent mothers had been denied the opportunity to better themselves because of a poor education in secondary moderns. That got me thinking about my own mother and her legacy to me, and I have finally got around to writing my thoughts about it.

I wasn’t the first generation in my family to go to university. My mother was. It was all the more remarkable because of the difficult circumstances of her early life. She grew up in Damascus, Syria, at a time in the early sixties, when women were not generally expected to get a university education. Her father died when she was two, leaving her widowed mother virtually penniless with five children to care for. Her mother eventually remarried but her new husband was not interested in bringing up or funding some other man’s children. And so my mum and her siblings were left to mostly fend for themselves and times were often very hard. She told me once how she would wear two skirts on top of one another in order to fatten her skinny frame up.

In spite of all this, my mum did well at school while having to overcome the handicap of being forced, as a left hander, to write with her right hand. She was also very politically engaged from an early age. Those years in the late fifties and early sixties were full of political turbulence in Syria. This was the time of the disastrous political union between Syria and Egypt and my mum was a vocal opponent of the union, sometimes openly disagreeing with her teachers at school who toed the party line. Somehow, and now I wish she were here today so that I could ask her for more details, she got offered a place to study commerce at Damascus University. Going to university was how she met my father.

He was not a student at the university. In fact, when they got married, my mum was the one with the degree, not my dad. He was from Saudi Arabia but had a Syrian mother and had grown up in Damascus until his late teens when his father had summoned him back to his home town of Medina to help with the family shop keeping business. This did not work out very well and after a falling out, my dad headed to the coastal city of Jeddah to seek his own fortune. As luck would have it, the newly established Ministry of Foreign Affairs was looking for some recruits. My dad sat the civil service exam, passed and entered the diplomatic service.

His first posting was to Franco’s Spain in the early sixties. In Spain, he lodged with a landlady who taught him about social etiquette, dallied with Spanish girlfriends and learned to speak the language fluently. My grandmother was not happy. On every visit home, she tried to pressure him into marrying, putting forward as a candidate the next door neighbour’s daughter. My father was having none of it but as his posting in Spain came to an end and he had to return to Saudi Arabia, he knew that his mother would continue her insistent nagging about him getting married unless he did something about it. He decided to give in gracefully but find a bride of his own choosing.

With this in mind, he said his goodbyes to all his friends in Spain, packed his belongings into his smart new car, and decided to drive down to Syria in one last road trip as a bachelor. On arriving in Damascus, he sought out an old school friend of his and asked if he knew any nice girls he could be introduced to. This old school friend happened to be at university with my mother and immediately thought of her. My father promptly turned up at the university and my mother was pointed out to him from afar. He obviously liked what he saw because he soon presented himself to my grandmother as a suitor for her hand. Now it was my mother’s turn to have none of it. She wasn’t about to give herself to an unknown, uncouth Saudi Arabian. She initially refused to come out of her room to meet him but eventually deigned to do so. One look at him and the rest, as they say, is history.

Following her marriage (in a hand-me-down dress from her older sister’s wedding), my mother left Syria and started her new life as the wife of a diplomat. There was no opportunity for her to find a job and develop a career. In any case, she soon fell pregnant with the first of her four children, each one born in a different country. While my mother settled into a life of domesticity, my father’s star was rising rapidly. He obtained a degree in politics, a master in international relations and even started a PhD at Oxford University though he never had the chance to complete it. He steadily moved up the ranks of the civil service and, two years or so before his untimely death, was made a deputy minister of foreign affairs.

My mum the housewife, with me (far right) and my sister
My mum the housewife, with me (far right) and my sister

On the face of it, my mother was a conventional stay-at-home housewife but her keen mind was constantly whirring. She taught herself French in our posting in Geneva and then English when we came to London. She read avidly in both of these languages as well as her native Arabic. She followed the news and discussed politics with my dad when he came home from work. But then, as the years went on, things changed. Her children grew up and didn’t need her so much anymore and dad’s work took him away from home far too often to summits and meetings all around the world. All alone in her big house in Riyadh, she got lonely and drifted into depression. When my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 55, she nursed him with utter dedication until the day he died, but then her depression deepened even more. Just over a year later, she died suddenly of an aneurism, a much loved, deeply intelligent but lonely and diminished woman.

How does my mother’s story relate with my decision to enter teaching in my mid-forties? Let me explain.

I am an extremely lucky person. I grew up with loving and supportive parents who encouraged me to make my mark in the world. I was educated at a select private school for girls and went to a Russell Group university. One of my dad’s proudest moments was when I graduated with an MBA. The world was my oyster when I started working as a business consultant. I had grown up watching Joan Collins strut her stuff in shoulder pads on Dynasty, and I pictured myself walking into board rooms and making power deals. The reality was rather different. There were no power deals in board rooms. The work was sometimes interesting, often dull, and all around me were alpha males in suits who were massively better than me at self-promotion. By the time my parents passed away, I knew the business world wasn’t for me and I eventually jacked it in and decided to re-train as a reflexologist and aromatherapist. I wanted to do something that involved daily positive interaction with other human beings and I wanted to feel useful. For a few years, I eked out a living as a complementary therapist. I think I was good at it and it was satisfying though not hugely challenging.

Then my own little thunderbolt happened. I met and married a wonderful man and welcomed my son into the world. Following in my mother’s footsteps, I dedicated myself to my family. We bought an old house that was a bit of a wreck and I spent hours meticulously planning the refurbishment. I immersed myself in happy domesticity but after my son started school, I found myself at a bit of a loose end. I started thinking about resurrecting my complementary therapy career but kept putting it off for inexplicable reasons. A new Netflix membership two years ago saw me lounge on the sofa for hours on end watching one episode after another of popular drama series. Throughout, the memory of my mother kept nudging my mind, reminding me what happens when an intelligent and educated woman wastes her talents away. I don’t think I was depressed but I did lose a lot of my self confidence. I applied for a part time job in the administration of a newly set up local primary school but didn’t even get an interview. I had been so thoroughly de-skilled that even my BA, my MBA and my business experience couldn’t get my foot through the door.

So what saved me? Well, the first nudge I got into teaching was when I found out my son had been placed in the middle ability group in his class. Outrageous! How could my bright and clever son ever be considered to be of middling ability? Why were they streaming five year olds in the first place? Why hadn’t I been told of this? I had never before in my life encountered streaming in practice. The closest I ever came was when, as a teenager, we were divided into 4 “teaching groups” for maths. I hadn’t expected or ever thought that young children in year 1 would be judged on their ability and separated in this way. I was galvanised by outrage. Following a meeting with the deputy head of my son’s school, I scoured the internet for all the information I could find about ability grouping. I bought Carol Dweck’s book on mindset and Alison Peacock’s “Learning without limits”. I encountered blog after interesting blog about education and I read and read and read. I decided to do some extra tutoring with my son at home, and found great satisfaction in seeing his rapid progress once I took his education into my hands.

Then last year, at Christmas, I turned 45. The clock was ticking and I was no closer to finding a way to make my mark on the world. Next day, I happened to read an article about the crisis in teacher recruitment and how there was a particular shortage in secondary teachers. The day after that, I saw an advert on TV encouraging people to get into teaching. Could this be something for me? I sought advice from my husband and siblings and was surprised to find it uniformly positive. “You’d be a great teacher”, they told me, “fantastic idea”, “go for it”. I set about trying to arrange some school experience by volunteering, which was easier said than done. My first day at the inner city academy where I now work was scary and nerve racking. This was a world away from the girls’ school I had attended. I stuck with it though. It has been incredibly challenging at times but I have stuck with it and I know I will go the distance. The alternative, as my mother’s story keeps reminding me, is far scarier.

Change is in the air

I have been following the bitter arguments on Twitter between educational traditionalists and progressives with interest lately. A lot of the anger has come about as a result of the event last weekend held at Michaela school to promote their new book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”. There was a very memorable moment in the debate where Michaela head, Katharine Birbalsingh, made an impassioned speech about reclaiming authority and discipline in our schools. I won’t paraphrase it too much, best listen to it here.

The speech, which was not everybody’s cup of tea, struck a real chord with me because I am witnessing on a daily basis what happens to a school when respect for teachers is lost and behaviour gets out of hand. It isn’t pretty. Actually, it’s tragic and I feel desperately sorry for the students at my school who are unlikely to get much of an education at the end of their time here. I feel particularly frustrated because the school I work in is new – it opened only 4 years ago. The leadership had a perfect opportunity to start something from scratch and embed the right kind of culture in that first year where there was only one year group to contend with, but that precious opportunity was squandered away. Instead, we have a set of year 10s who behave with impunity because they know they can get away with it, and in turn they set a poor example for all the other year groups.

Our head’s big mantra, as far as I can tell, is grit. Yes he wants the students at his school to do well academically, but more importantly, he wants them to show grit and resilience. A lot of what he says to us on inset days could be lifted straight out of “Educating Ruby”, a book I found incredibly disheartening in its approach to education. The main message, if you have not read it, is that there are some things more important to learn at school than the academic curriculum. It’s alright that the mythical Ruby in the book leaves school without any A-C GCSEs because she has learnt something else more valuable: grit and resilience. Such skills, we are to infer, will allow her to make the most of her lot in life (i.e. she will probably stay poor but she will be a more contented poor).

This kind of message, I believe, stems from a defeatist attitude to education born out of decades of low achievement in schools. So the paradigm gets shifted. Instead of focussing on academic results when it’s frankly clear that these are just not going to improve for a large chunk of the school population, we shift our measures of success to more intangible things that all sound good in theory: creativity, problem solving skills, grit etc…

But what happens when a school like Michaela comes along which unashamedly says the opposite? Poor children can achieve, they can do as well if not better than privately educated children, if only we have the right culture of discipline and high expectations. What happens if, as is becoming increasingly clear, such a school manages to demonstrate that this can actually be done in practice? How will others react to this? Some, like me, are curious to find out more, to see what can be learned from the Michaela experiment.

I don’t have any axe to grind or any record to defend though. I think it may be a lot different for teachers and school leaders who have invested a lot of their time and effort doing the progressive thing and have not been able to show the same degree of success. How difficult must it be for them to see a school doing everything they have been taught to believe is wrong and regressive, actually helping the most disadvantaged children get on in life. This is where the concept of the sunken cost fallacy comes into play. Too much has been invested in a course of action to turn back and change course, even when the evidence is there for all to see. So instead of greeting the new approach with curiosity and interest, far too often the reaction is to denigrate, to accuse, to attack.

I am watching the battle of ideas raging on with great interest. What must it be like for teachers who entered the profession a decade or so ago, when the orthodoxy was all about progressive education (as evidenced in Andrew Old’s recent blog) to be confronted with the complete opposite? Human beings are generally a conservative lot (with a small c). We don’t generally like to be jolted out of our comfort zone. And we certainly don’t like to be told that what we have been doing for the last ten years or so, what we have toiled at with the best of intentions, was actually the wrong thing to do. It’s little surprise that the reaction of many is one of anger.

This brings to mind something that I witnessed when I was a mere slip of a girl during my gap year when I worked at the Handicapped Children’s House in Riyadh. My parents lived there at the time and managed to help me secure a job as a teaching assistant in the Early Childhood Program (ECP), working with 3-5 year old disabled children. I had playgroups and one-to-one sessions where mostly I was told to play ball games to help their motor skills and sing lots of cheesy songs. One month into the job, the American head, a lovely lady named Dr. Ann Gerard, announced her retirement and the appointment of a new head, who was Saudi Arabian and who had recently returned from the USA with two masters in special education. The new head soon started making some changes. She introduced us to the Portage development scale and how we could use it to assess the development of our pupils to set appropriate goals for them. I remember being delighted at the prospect of doing something new and meaningful, something a little bit more directed than ball games and songs. But my colleagues were not so happy.

They wasted no time in showing their hostility to the new regime. I was shocked at the level of antagonism and resentment towards the new head, just because she had the temerity to change the way they had comfortably been doing their work for years. At every opportunity they tried to sabotage what she was doing and they made her life hell, to the point where she resigned from the job two years later (after I had left). Interestingly though, when I caught up with my old colleagues a few years later, they were happily using all the new techniques she had introduced.

I think that was my first real insight into the human condition and for this reason, I have not been all that surprised at the reaction of the progressives to the resurgence of traditional teaching. I have been quite energised by it actually because to me, it shows that it has hit a nerve: change is in the air and the low expectations of progressivism inexorably on their way out.

A reminder that I’m not so young anymore

I was supporting a student in a year 7 English lesson today and we were given a new poem to study entitled “Hurricane hits England”. The poem, by Grace Nichols, was inspired by the great hurricane that hit our shores back in 1987.

As the teacher introduced the poem, she talked to the students about the 1987 hurricane and showed that famous footage of Michael Fish doing the weather forecast and assuring the viewers that there was no hurricane on the way. I laughed in remembrance and then found myself startled when I heard the teacher say that she was born shortly after this event. That made me sit up. How could it be that a grown up professional, a teacher for God’s sake, was too young to have even been alive in 1987?

Well of course, do the maths and it’s entirely possible. On an intellectual level, I have naturally been aware that I am older than many of the teachers in the school but I never felt it at the gut level like I did today. One of the challenges going into teaching at the ripe old age of 45 is the knowledge that I will most probably have to be taught or mentored by people who are a good deal younger than me.

There are two sides to this coin. On the one hand, I need to be atuned to the fact that, regardless of age, my colleagues will know a lot more about the business of teaching than I do and that I will have to listen to their advice carefully. On the other hand, I clearly have a great deal of experience under my belt and already have formed my own (not intractable) views on educational matters. I will have to chart a course between genuinely opening my mind to new ideas and sticking to my guns when what is being spouted at me seems nonsensical. But most of all, I will have to learn real humility because teaching as a profession involves a daily admission that you still have a lot to learn yourself.

Going back to today’s lesson. The hurricane was being described as if it were a historical event beyond living memory and so of course I had to say out loud that I remembered it very well. All eyes turned to me. “How did I feel?”, “was I frightened?”, they asked with interest. There, my moment of fame came to a sad end as I had to admit the disappointing truth: I slept right through it.

 

What’s this education lark all about?

I had my first teacher training interview last Friday. I’m not sure how I came across or whether I shall be invited back for the next stage in the recruitment process. One thing I was asked to do was to give a 5 minute presentation on a topic of my choice and after some deliberation, I decided to talk about my vision for education. I figured it was important to explain why I wanted to be a teacher and what kind of teacher I wanted to be. If my vision didn’t square with theirs, then we would not be a good fit either way.

I’m sharing here some of what I said. Maybe you can have a better inkling than me whether it went down well or not. In any case, I found it a useful exercise to put into words what I believe education is about and what it should look like. It went a little like this…

Let me start by saying that education is very precious to me. It allowed me to be more thoughtful, analytical and philosophical. It opened many doors for me and I want to be able to pass that gift on to my students and help open doors for them too. I’ve seen the various educational debates that are raging at the moment between the “traditionalists” who emphasize a knowledge-led curriculum versus the “progressives” who want to focus more on creative thinking and problem solving skills. And I have to confess to being baffled by this dichotomy on offer. Why do we have to choose between one or the other?

I’ve always thought it was a given that a teacher’s job was to impart knowledge and that this knowledge would underpin creativity and problem solving. Let me give you an analogy which demonstrates my point, albeit not in an educational setting. My mother taught me how to make perfect, fluffy white rice. Over the years, I have taken her recipe and added a few tweaks of my own. My expertise in cooking rice gave me the confidence to play around with the recipe, to be creative with it. I hope to teach my son, when he is a bit older, how to cook rice both the way my mum made it and with my innovations. In due course, I expect he will go forth into the world with this knowledge and try out his own permutations of it. In this way knowledge gets passed on and improved upon from generation to generation.

I guess this means that I fall more into the “knowledge-led” camp. To be honest though, I think this is all a bit of a no brainer and that we need to look beyond this debate. What do we understand by a good education? Now it is beyond the scope of my 5 minutes to answer this question in any depth but let me give you, very briefly, my perspective on what encapsulates a good education, based on what I have read and observed in schools so far.

I’ve talked already about the importance of imparting knowledge and so I won’t go much more into that. Secondly, I believe in pitching things up and setting high expectations rather than pitching things down as is so often the case. For example, I am not in favour of giving students lots of handouts rather than expecting them to write their own notes and I’m not in favour of spoon feeding them with writing frames rather than encouraging them to formulate their own sentences. I have seen Year 10 history students carelessly copy down the writing frames on the white board and then cobble them together with what is written on their handouts, resulting in often incoherent sentences that make no grammatical sense. I think all this spoon feeding derives from a sense, not overtly articulated, that the students are just not able to work at that high a level and so we have to pitch things down for them. But then this becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If you want to raise standards you have to have high expectations. You can’t do it by just making things easier. Of course that’s much harder to do and much more challenging, but nothing worthwhile is ever achieved by taking the easy road.

When I think of a good education I also think of language skills and communication. If you can’t read, write or speak properly, you haven’t been well educated, full stop. I am able to sit here before you and speak articulately about this topic precisely because of my education.

And finally we come to what is, to my mind, one of the biggest issues of the day: behaviour management. If you are constantly having to manage even low level disruption, constantly having to stop what you’re saying because someone is talking over you, then you are not going to be able to teach very well. I see behaviour and discipline rather like the first building blocks in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In order to learn, I believe you need to be in classrooms where there is good behaviour. You can have a well behaved classroom where learning doesn’t happen, but not the other way around.

Those then are my five pillars of a good education: knowledge, pitching things up, language, communication and discipline. That’s what I think teaching is about and I hope most of what I have said chimes with your outlook on education.

[At this point, I was told I had about 30 seconds left, so I decided to squeeze in one last bit of the presentation I had prepared.]

Let me finish with this little vignette.

Many teachers will have had a light bulb moment when they realise teaching is the profession for them. Although I probably had been thinking about it sub-consciously for a while, I had such a moment when I received this note from my son’s teacher.

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When I tell you this note was written by no less than the deputy head of an Ofsted Outstanding school, you may get an idea of my level of frustration, disillusionment and ultimately my conviction that someone needs to step in and raise standards. I do believe that teachers have to be well educated themselves, to be masters of their subject, in order to pass that on to their students. When I saw this note I realised that here was an opportunity for me to do something of value. Or more simply, it made me feel needed. And so here I am, raring to go. Thank you for listening.

When did we lose our authority over our kids?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wading ever so slightly into the grammar school debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School tests should be welcomed, not reviled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are my impressions so far?

Academies versus local authority run schools

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

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

The teaching profession in crisis

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

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

Closing the attainment gap

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

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

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

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

My first forays into education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My journey into education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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