Primary Musings

thoughts of an every day teacher

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Road School: a review

road-schoolIt’s rare to find a book about education that is completely unique, but Sue Cowley’s Road School is. Part travel guide, part memoir, part schooling discourse, it is a tale of one family’s journey through Europe and China in search of an alternative educational experience for their children.

Funny and self-deprecating, the book is a heart-warming glimpse into life on the road with this lovable family. Dad, Frank, quickly became a favourite character. His grumpy nature made for an entertaining read, particularly when you realised the only things that put a smile back on his face were spreadsheets, beer and the nights he didn’t have to share a bedroom with his kids! Plus, anyone who’s ever taken children on an educational trip will find Alfie and Edith’s joy at the seagull eating the pigeon, while they were supposed to be appreciating St Mark’s Basilica, both hilarious and instantly recognisable!

As well as being entertaining, Cowley raises some important questions about the forms and purposes of education. Reading about her children visiting Anne Frank’s house, seeing The Last Supper in person and being exposed to new places, cultures and ideas, it’s not hard to see Cowley’s point that education is much broader than the classroom. The book is also very practical. Each section ends with a summary of what the family learned in that particular country and some ideas about how to maximise the educational opportunities that come with travel.My favourite tip came from the China section: “There is no point in visiting another country and getting cross because people don’t behave in the same way that people do back home.”

All the way through the book, I kept thinking about the lasting memories that Alfie and Edith would have from their trip. There is something about travel that has a significant impact on you. When I was growing up, Ski Sunday would come on the TV and every week, without fail, my Dad would say, “I’ve been there.” We teased him mercilessly, of course, but his trip as a teenager had made him feel connected. He was proud to belong to a world bigger than his own country and has been to many other places since then. Likewise, my own travels have broadened my thinking and forced me into more nuanced understandings of people from different cultures.

Forging a strong, personal affinity with other places seems like one of the most powerful antidotes we have against the current climate of nationalism and sweeping generalisations. We need to come face to face with the humanity of those who are different to us because we’ve been to where they are, talked to them, seen the amazing things they have offered the world. In Road School, Cowley offers people the opportunity to do this with and for their children. I hope they take her up on it.


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Injecting hope: ‘Teaching: notes from the front line,’ by Dr Debra Kidd

notes from the front lineDebra Kidd argues that we are in need of a revolution in education and her book has certainly been revolutionary for me. I read it at particularly difficult, discouraging point in my career and it inspired me to keep going, and to fight for what I believe in as a teacher. There are lots of reasons you should read it too, but here are the main ones that inspired me.

Firstly, this book made me feel understood. Whether it is lesson observations focused on compliance with school policies rather than teacher quality, the unreliability of OFSTED judgements, the utter waste of time that is writing LOs, or the fiasco that is PRP, reading this book felt like chatting with a wise friend who can validate your frustrations, and remind you that you are not crazy after all! The passionate, articulate writing style of this author and teacher proves that she really does appreciate what life is like in the classroom. The things happening to our children, our teachers and our education system really do matter. However, this is no mere emotional rant (such as I might provide for long-suffering family and friends!) The book is well-researched and academically rigorous, interrogating some of the common assertions that accompany current debates around teaching. (See, for example, the discussion of PISA tests and the marketisation of education, pp. 45-49).

It’s is not all doom and gloom though! While the challenges and pressures are real, Kidd also dares to ask some profound questions and presents a compelling alternative for how education could be. She argues that most of the time, we tell children that the point of school is so they can get a good job when they’re older; but is this the highest goal of education, or even a possibility for all children in our economy? Kidd asks instead:

How might education be received by children if the long term promise was not employment but a fulfilling life? And if that promise was not held as a long term goal but started now – our fulfilling life started in the here and now? What if our society accepted that while not everyone might be able to earn, they still might love to learn? What if the goal was to be wise? (p.33)

She goes on to suggest that we can help children

 build an image of a future in which work may not be the ultimate goal, but merely a means to funding a more fulfilling life. Let them explore that this life might contain sport, art and cultural visits, charity work, community projects and family time. Let them see that happy and fulfilling futures are possible separate from work, so that we remove the stigma from certain jobs and roles. You are not a loser if you end up working in Morrisions. Is that anti-aspirational or hopeful? (p38-39).

For me, it is hugely hopeful. It offers the possibility that we could shape our society so our children are offered wide horizons, and are valued intrinsically, rather than for their ability to become consumers and tax-payers. We can seek the very best education for them because they are worth it, not because they will eventually pay us back for it. Then perhaps we can start to offer some powerful counter-narratives, not just to those people who work in Tesco, or empty bins for a living, (both of whom we really need to make our society work, by the way) but also to the disaffected and disillusioned people who decide to participate in terrorism, or rioting, for whom capitalism no longer cuts it.

The thought that we could change our society is heady stuff; a beautiful dream of a world that might actually be different. But is it realistic? Kidd seems to think so and what is more, she believes that it is ordinary teachers, like you and me, who can begin to make it happen.

The best part about this book is that Kidd does not just identify problems, or outline a new vision for education, she gives practical suggestions on how to get there. Each chapter ends with some penetrating one-liners or questions to provoke thinking about how teachers can make a difference in the classroom right now. Phrases such as make it matter; offer narratives of hope for the future; be your authentic teacher self; “I own my own classroom and will teach as I see fit” rang in my head and gave me the resilience and courage I needed to see out my last few weeks in a difficult situation. They have also given me a renewed sense of purpose and hope to take into my new school. I can, and will, make a difference to children’s lives, in spite of the system.

In all honesty, it is probably easier to act in the ways Kidd suggests are necessary if you know your senior management will support you, but it is possible even if they don’t. How classroom teachers work with less than supportive SMTs is a whole different issue, but the quote that stuck with me was this:

Never do anything that is not in the best interests of the children. Others may disagree but if you argue from positions of integrity, rather than self-interest, you have a chance of making a difference (p.75).

It is a lot easier to disagree (professionally), if you know you are doing it for the right reasons and you know what you are doing is right for your children.

Reading this book was a powerful experience for me. I could have quoted the whole thing to you, but instead I will highly recommend it to every teacher, particularly, those in need of some fresh inspiration and encouragement. We don’t have to stay disillusioned and dismayed:

We can hope and share hopefulness. We are kings of our own classrooms and, most of the time, no one else is watching. Be yourself and do what you know is right (p.119).

You can follow Debra Kidd on Twitter @debrakidd or read her blog

Click on the picture above to find her book on Amazon. Go on, you won’t regret it!