Primary Musings

thoughts of an every day teacher

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Why we don’t need mental health first aid training.


Teresa May has announced this morning that her plans for mental health care include mental health first aid training for primary and secondary schools.

I can’t speak for secondary schools, but let me tell you that in primary schools, we already know our children inside out. We spend all day, every day with the same group of children and are well placed to spot any changes in behaviour or attitude. We know if children are especially irritable, or tired or more emotional than usual. We mostly know if there’s been a bereavement or breakdown in the family. We’re very aware of how to spot possible signs of abuse or domestic violence.

Because of this, we are already giving the maximum amount of pastoral support we can offer. At my school we have a brilliant team, including the SLT, SENCo, and two other support workers who are there to offer advice to staff, support to parents and work tirelessly with children to help take care of their mental health. In addition, everything we do is underpinned by our school values, which we explicitly teach to our children, helping them to nurture relationships, develop resilience and reflect on what is important to them. All vital for promoting good mental health.

If a mental health problem can be solved in school, we’re already on it.

Some things can be solved by a teacher or TA understanding you, supporting your parents and giving you a bit of extra attention. But some things definitely cannot. It’s very frustrating to see children in front of you all day who have complex needs that you don’t have the time or resources or expertise to meet. What we really need is adequate funding for access to counsellors, clinical psychologists and CAMHS, so that when a child is bereaved, severely traumatised, self-harming or has chaotic attachment, we can get them access to the specialists they need.

To continue the medical metaphor, we already have first aid kits in school, but what some children need is open heart surgery. I didn’t hear Teresa May offering to pay for that. Did you?



In which I ask, why?


I am not someone who just accepts the status quo and goes along with things. I am a thinker and a questioner and although I am not loud or pushy, I certainly have opinions and things to say. (I realise I am probably hard work to manage for this reason!) I ask “Why?” a lot, and right now, that question is screaming loudly in my mind around two particular educational issues. One is children’s behaviour and the other is the curriculum/SATs.

Obviously, children should behave themselves in school. It’s extremely frustrating trying to teach a class who are all talking at once, or who can’t co-operate, or be kind to each other. It’s demoralising for you and creates a bad social and learning environment for them.

However, in managing children’s behaviour, we must dig deep enough to ask about the approaches we use, because no approach is value-neutral. Exactly what are we shaping our children towards? Is it compliance to an external set of rules, or is it understanding social co-operation and developing their own self-regulation skills?

Very tight behaviour structures look great in the short term. They make you look good because your class is silent. Arms are folded, backs are straight and instructions are automatically followed to the letter. But my worry is, what happens when those structures are taken away? What happens in a less structured environment like a school trip, or the playground? What happens when the children have a different teacher, or when they leave the school? What happens in a safeguarding situation where an adult should not be obeyed? Have these children learned to be independent, to manage themselves and their own behaviour? Have they learned that sometimes you are allowed to say no, and should be respected when you do? When you’re teaching independence, self-regulation and self-respect, things can get a little messy because children (and adults) will make mistakes. But if you never allow any room for mistakes, you will never allow any room for learning either.

Secondly, I often hear that we must be rigid with children’s behaviour, because we can’t possibly miss two minutes of learning time. Again, I have to ask, why? Clearly, no one  wants the frustration of having to spend the first half hour of every afternoon sorting out lunchtime issues, we’ve all been there! But if taking two minutes to chat to a child about their interests, or reassure them about something, is going to impact so heavily on the curriculum, and therefore results, then perhaps it is the curriculum that is at fault.

The pressure of performing for SATs reverberates throughout the whole school as we try to cram more and more knowledge into children’s heads. We run booster groups and after school revision clubs. We endlessly blog and read and think and stress about how to get better results. It’s not surprising due to the high stakes nature of the tests. No one wants to lose their job over a bad set of data. But again, we must ask the question, what are we shaping our children towards? Is this the best we have to offer them? Why do we spend all our time and energy pulling them out of the river, as it were, instead of questioning what’s happening up stream?

We know that high stakes accountability measures are ineffective for judging the quality of schools and teaching. We know that they are next to meaningless for the children and that secondary schools and private schools pay little to no attention to the results.  We know that they provoke huge anxiety and poor mental health in lots of children (and teachers). We know that they narrow the curriculum and kill off a love for writing.

It’s time for the collective voice of the profession to stand up and say no, this isn’t right and we’re not doing it any more, before many more of us vote with our feet.


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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.


Playing the game

I have been a teacher for nearly eleven years. I love working with children. I love seeing light bulbs go on and little characters develop. I love how as teachers we are always looking for ways to develop and refine our practice because we want the best for our children.

But a lot of the self improvement recently seems to be motivated by SATs results and curriculum changes. We’ve  become focused on getting better at helping children to jump through hoops that get higher and higher due to the consequences of a set of bad results. ‘No excuses’ becomes important not because it’s right for the children, but because it buys us a few more minutes in which to teach them some more useless grammatical terminology. Independent thought and collaboration fall by the wayside, because you don’t need them for rote learning.

If I’m honest, I’m tired. I’m tired of ‘playing the game’ because ‘we have to.’ I’m tired of colluding in things I know aren’t right for the children.  I’m tired of having to shoe-horn fronted adverbials and subordinating conjunctions into children’s writing to tick a box. I’m tired of hearing about what the DfE wants and being judged on how well I follow rules that I never agreed with in the first place.

And I wonder how long I can exist in a system that I fundamentally disagree with. In truth, I’m not sure.


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Choose Education

Choose Education.
Choose baby Mozart and toddler yoga and after school tuition.
Choose cursive handwriting for four-year-olds.
Choose rote-learning and synthetic phonics.
Choose a narrow curriculum and ineffectual grammatical terminology.
Choose compliance and non-critical thinking.
Choose quantitative social indicators, SATs results, data analysis and homogenised student populations.
Choose pupil premium and linear progress.
Choose memorisation, competition and league tables.
Choose the smallest definition of success.
Choose your values.
Choose collaboration.
Choose museums and art galleries and theatres.
Choose real understanding.
Choose drama and books and empathy.
Choose to see beyond a number on a spreadsheet.
Choose discussion and interest and intrinsic motivation.
Choose science experiments, problem solving and creativity.
Choose wide parameters and eye-opening experiences.
Choose diversity.
Choose to veer away from the mind-numbing, soul-destroying commodification of the human race.
Choose human flourishing.
Choose your future.
Choose education.

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Everyone’s a winner

Dear Justine,

You might have been hearing that teachers are pretty demoralised at the moment. I’m not going to lie to you, the pressure to get better and better results with less and less resources, in a nation where education, health and social care are all at breaking point, is pretty tough.

But as I know you are responsible employers, who care about the mental health of your staff, I’ve been thinking up some ways you could encourage our profession.

    • Cancel student loans for every teacher who has been teaching for more than five years. A golden ‘thank you’ for staying in a tough profession would be really welcome, and might be a nice draw for people considering leaving.
    • Push the pause button on SATs until the inquiry into primary assessment is complete. No one’s education will be ruined if they don’t sit a SATs test, and teachers are quite capable of doing their own assessments anyway. Once you’ve got it properly sorted and put assessment back in its box, let talk again.
    • Stop announcing education policy in the press. Talk directly to us, instead of through journalists.
    • Please, oh please, send Nick Gibb on a managing change course. Even if you completely agree with all the changes made in education over the last few years (I don’t) you have to admit they’ve been handled in a shambolic manner.
    • Talk to real teachers. No, not just the ones who want to kiss your ass further their own careers by agreeing with you. Talk to the real teachers actually doing the job. You must know some of them. Or some of your friends must. Ask them what they need to help their children succeed in the classroom. Then really try to do it.
    • Think through the impact of your policies on the people who will actually have to implement them. It would be so nice if we could stop expending energy fighting the next ill-thought-through policy announced in the papers, so we can actually get on with our jobs.
    • Stop the ‘there’s no problem here’ approach to education stories in the news. I’m tired of DfE spokespeople constantly denying there are any issues in the press. Perhaps the official line could be ‘we’re working with teachers and unions to solve these problems.’ It would at least make us feel you’re taking our concerns seriously.
    • Raise the status of the profession in the press. You could tweet or publish regular success stories, or thank yous to those working in education. Again, not just those who want to kiss your ass  further their own careers by agreeing with you, but those ordinary teachers who are committed to children, sometimes really difficult to work with children, day in, day out.
    • Fight for us in the budget. Be on our side, take your job to support and fight for our children seriously. Persuade your colleagues that we need enough resources to do our jobs properly. And while you’re at it, push for CAMHS to be funded properly. It’s shameful and heartbreaking that children in great need have to wait 18 months to access the help they need.

So those are my ideas. I’m sure you’re listening because you realise that the biggest impact on children is the quality of their teacher. A demoralised, exhausted workforce with a high turnover rate doesn’t benefit anyone. And I know you care about that, don’t you?

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With everything seeming to bring out the worst in our country recently, it was a real pleasure to watch the BBC’s Imagine special about the making of the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony; this ceremony which had so clearly and magnificently celebrated the best of all that we can be. It was good to remember that we can come together to create something incredibly uplifting when we want to. It was a great reminder that we have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to be proud of.

To put on this amazing spectacle, director, Danny Boyle, and his team took thousands of volunteers who had never drummed, danced or acted before, and trained them to perform in front of the whole world. It had to be more than good; every timing, sound and movement had to be absolutely perfect. The reputation of the entire nation was on the line.

It was interesting to see the process by which the team took such large number of inexperienced strangers and turned them into a group of highly credible performers. As an educator, there was a lot to learn from.

Right from the outset, Danny talked about the power of a collaborative enterprise and the need to create something these people really wanted to be a part of. He recognised that this performance was going to require hard work, dedication and commitment, so creating a shared vision and purpose was really important. It provided the intrinsic motivation needed for when rehearsals got tough and people got tired.

In addition to this, the dance and drum coaches were both inspiring people who had a strong belief in their students’ abilities to learn. ‘If you give someone the right language, the belief in themselves and trust in other people,’ said the dance coach, ‘you can teach them anything.’ A powerful statement.

The learning was also made memorable. The drum coach taught the drummers the correct rhythm by associating it with a phrase – ‘play-the-drums-so-your-Mum-can-see-you-on-TV.’ It was catchy (it had rhythm and rhyme); it had a mini narrative (I’m gonna be on TV!); and it made an appeal to emotion (my Mum’s gonna to be so proud of me!) The coach knew how to make the learning stick for this group of people.

Interestingly, at one point in the run up to the ceremony, a certain Mr Jeremy Hunt had wanted the NHS scene to be axed. (In the words of Alanis Morrisette, a little too ironic, don’t you think?) Well Danny Boyle was having none of it. If his volunteer doctors and nurses couldn’t participate, he would walk away from the show. ‘We have to be inclusive,’ he said, ‘you can’t just cut them out at the end.’

I loved that even the engineers were given a new lease of life. They had to devise some solutions to get the chimneys to go up for the industrial revolution scene, and Danny talked about how crazy it was that these engineers were so dreamy – that they had all this creativity bottled up inside them, and they were just waiting to be asked to use it.

Relationships really did seem to be at the heart of this performance. It was moving to hear the coaches talking to the volunteers through headsets during the actual ceremony. They prompted, encouraged and congratulated throughout. “Remember what we learned! Group 2, go now! Smile! You can do it! I’m so proud of you!” These performers had been well-trained, but weren’t left to flounder on their own. Their coaches were alongside them the whole time. They were safe to give their all and find out what they were really made of.

The whole production team genuinely recognised the vital importance of these ordinary people. The costume director even went out of her way to make individual costumes for each one of them to make them feel special. They weren’t seen as an irritation to be put up with, or a bunch of amateurs getting in the way of the professionals.  They were made to feel like a crucial part of the process, because they were.

‘They thought they were pawns in the whole thing,’ mused Danny at the end, ‘but really, they were the kings.’