With the broken backs and the pac a macs…

I teach at the school attended by Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera and the reason I make that clear from the start is that ‘We Could Send Letters’ was the song to which I first properly listened to the lyrics, a song probably written when he was there. Indeed, in many ways, the album ‘High Land Hard Rain’, followed closely by ‘Rattlesnakes’, ‘Swoon’, perhaps the first Smiths album, saw the beginning of a love affair with words. It seems strange that I reflect on the fact that my life long love of words does not originate in a lifetime of reading great books but I suspect it’s true.

Before that I’d mostly listened to my parents’ music and, believe me, I thank them for that. Endless country albums, Elvis, Buddy Holly. Latterly Simon and Garfunkel. Flicking through piles of LPs, listening to everything; in the process inadvertently developing a wide ranging knowledge of music. LPs meant you pretty much had to listen to every song. However, while we decry the lack of attention span and awareness of great music in our young people, we have collectively ruined music for them. Young people don’t listen to albums any more. They choose only their favourite songs to download. Why listen to a whole album? But we criticise them for that even though it wasn’t a teenager who invented the iPod.

And their experience of TV and cinema is similar. Download only the programmes and movies you want to see; no more sitting through boring ‘black and white’ snorefests on afternoon TV. Those advances in technology have provided such a plethora of choices that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between the good and the bad; all choices are merely choices. But we criticise young people for that even though it wasn’t a teenager who invented Netflix.

So perhaps school needs to be a place with fewer choices. Not ‘no choices’ but fewer and of greater quality. Like sending a reluctant reader to the library without your assistance or advice, kids don’t always have the knowledge or experience to make the best choices for themselves. Like my parents’ collection of LPs, perhaps we should parachute them into an environment filled with greatness; the best books, the best music, the best movies, the best art, the best everything. Maybe then, their choices will always be good ones.

Roddy Frame wrote those wonderful songs when he was teenager in East Kilbride, walking the corridors of my workplace (although that’s technically a lie as we’ve moved in to a new building but bear with me). Listening to his lyrics now merely confirms the greatness of his work. I’d like to think hearing them when I did changed me forever, along with the records I inherited. Passing on the best of the past so that our young people can appreciate their present and cope with their future should be the goal of education.

School should be a place where the only choices available are not merely good ones but great ones.

‘And now the only chance that we could take
Is the chance that someone else won’t make it all come true.’

Coming Soon. The Pupil Equity Fund. Let’s Not Waste It.

‘From April this year £120m will be provided through the Attainment Scotland Fund directly to Headteachers to use for additional staffing or resources they consider will help reduce the poverty related attainment gap.’

Scotland is rightly ashamed of the gap between rich and poor in our country, especially when it appears in our schools. If we are to believe that education is a right, then we need to be aware that those who grow up in poverty are already facing massive disadvantage before they even turn up at our doors. It is hoped that the Pupil Equity Fund – coming to a school near you from April of this year – will begin to reverse that trend. That the money is going directly to schools might cause some people to sit up and take notice, but it is incumbent on all of us to have a say on what might be done with it. 

It is impressive that this bold move is being made, even though tackling the problem was how the First Minister asked to be judged. However, we must be wary of wasting it. It is a big commitment and there may be a danger of it being frittered away on hasty decisions and poorly researched plans.

So let us hope that schools don’t rush into spending their money, that they have a plan in place before they start. It would appear to me that most of this money should be used to help all children to access the curriculum in the very early stages of school. Education opens doors for people; those that start significantly further behind need a leg up. They need support to develop the literacy skills of which they have been deprived before starting school. It would seem to me then a sensible approach to move heaven and earth to tackle inequality from there.

Strong Literacy skills allow children to access the curriculum. Without them, many struggle in school and, unchecked, those issues are exacerbated as they move through the system. Secondary school, especially, becomes a hellish nightmare, where everything seems a challenge.  So it would make sense to address those issues,  providing whatever it takes – extra support, resources, time, getting parents involved- to bring them up to the level needed to deal with the learning required in the rest of their schooling.

Whatever happens, perhaps we will look back and say that this was the moment. Along with the First Minster’s Reading Challenge, there is a clear desire to improve the life chances of the most vulnerable and deprived in Scotland. Regardless of our political affiliations it would be shameful to have wasted it. Money will be coming to your school, or your child’s school. Have a say in how it’s spent. Get involved in the discussions. It’s our moral duty to do so. Whether it is a success or a failure, this may well be the moment that changed everything. If we want a more equitable society, let us make sure we do the right thing.

#4countries Post-Brexit.

When it was created back in 2011, part of the thinking behind Pedagoo was the belief  that if you put a group of teachers in a room and allowed them the time and space to discuss all things education, then great things can happen. Put them in a nice room? Even better. Treat them like intelligent professionals? Fantastic. I’ve just returned from a weekend at the Norton House Hotel where I spent two days with 25 educators from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. And, yes, great things did happen. Seven hours of sessions on Saturday, four on Sunday, ram-packed with intelligent conversation, searching for common ground.

And it went on through dinner and breakfast. Other than a set of bullet points for discussion there was no plan, no agenda. We found a path through the complexities of each of the four education systems and began to discover a way forward. It was a challenging and exhausting experience – by five thirty on Saturday I was out for the count – but hugely rewarding and wonderfully invigorating. While recognising the blocks to progress, what was fascinating to find out was the huge ambition and focused determination to overcome those barriers.

As we began, what was striking was that after the initial moans and groans about our respective education systems, the pride and joy we felt about the job we do every day in our communities shone through in every conversation. We started in our own countries, developing themes for debate and recognising areas for development, and as we moved into mixed groups, the room came alive. We probed and pushed, explained and extrapolated. There was serious debate and loads of laughter. But we began to focus on the things that we may learn from each other in post-Brexit Britain. Whether we feel that the UK is on its last legs or at the beginning of a new, golden age, we can still share the vision we have for our children.

In my group, when asked ‘From what you’ve heard about the context, if you could move to any of the other countries, which one would you move to?’, every single person knew that they would stay where they were. For what better way of changing things for the better than working hard to enhance our own communities. The (very) real David Cameron reminded us of Debra Kidd’s line from ‘Notes from the Front Line’: “it is pedagogical activism that will prove to be the butterfly wing of change” .

Sitting at dinner on Friday night, slightly nervous, none of us really knew what to expect. By Sunday, we left with greater resolve and determination to go back to our schools with a rebooted energy to continue to fight to enhance the life of the children we serve.

I left with a greater understanding of the difficult issues teachers from other UK countries have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. However, there were also wonderfully inspiring tales of hope and aspiration from everywhere; a determination to succeed against difficult odds because we all understood why it was important. It was an honour to be invited to the #4countries conference; an honour to meet such inspirational people, people I can now call friends. No matter our political futures, we understand that education exists to allow the children we teach to become empathetic global citizens; to strive to be the best that they can be. They will need to be.

The Higher English Folio and Equal Writes.

There won’t be an English teacher in Scotland out there who isn’t currently stressing over the marking of written Folio essays for both Higher and National 5 classes. A pile which never seems to shrink; another pupil who’d like you to take another look; the demoralising realisation that deadline day is fast approaching. Indeed, over the course of my eighteen years in teaching the assessment of writing in the senior phase has changed several times, arguably not in a good way. I would argue that, at a time when equity in education is so much in focus,  the way we assess writing now has never been so unfair.office-594132__340

The new exam system is now in its third year and, while this might surprise some,  I have been mostly pleased with it. Teaching Don Paterson poetry has been a joy; spending time with Hamlet has been fantastic. The rest has been a chore. Time seems to be constrained; deep learning, at times,  rare. However, the writing folio – one creative piece and one functional piece of  a maximum of thirteen hundred words each – is externally assessed by the SQA and is worth thirty percent of the final grade. So, a good grade for Folio can take you much of the way to a pass.

The writing is assessed using a marking grid which every teacher and pupil can access during the writing process. So far, so fair. But not really. It would be difficult to argue that the external assessment is unfair; perhaps there is an argument there but that’s for another day. The real problems become clear, however, when we consider the preparation and support given. The SQA guideline suggests ‘reasonable assistance’. It also says this;

‘Assessors should not provide specific advice on how to re-phrase or improve responses, or provide model answers specific to the candidate’s task. It is not acceptable for the assessor to provide key ideas, to provide a structure or plan, to suggest specific wording or to correct errors in spelling and/or punctuation. This would go beyond reasonable assistance.’

Those who can, rush straight to their tutors for help. And yes, despite the above advice, tutors do. Parents often insist upon it. Those who can afford it get more help. those who can’t, struggle on. Different approaches are followed all over the country. It’s a system which, while appearing to be equal in terms of assessment is, in fact, anything but.

So perhaps, if we are to assess writing more fairly, it needs to return to the final exam. Why the hell not? It might re-emphasise our need to teach writing properly. Our whole curriculum was supposed to be a move away from our traditional exam system but it doesn’t appear to have worked. What was intended to be an attempt to narrow the gap appears to me to be exacerbating it. Let’s face up to that and do something about it.

What do we mean by ‘Educational Aspiration’?

Here’s the full version of my article in TES Scotland 17th February 2017

Reading J. D. Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is a humbling experience. His beautiful memoir of a crushingly challenging upbringing and the aftermath of fraught family connections rang a few bells and brought me back to thinking of the lives of the children I teach. Returning to school after the Christmas break, I was reminded that there are those in my classroom who will not have had the same happy holiday as everyone else. There are those who, while being asked to raise money and bring in donations for the local Food Bank, will have had to turn that very Food Bank for Christmas dinner.

Vance’s thesis throughout the book is that poverty is generational. He grew up in communities where having a job is rare and barely surviving was normal. His parents and their parents and their parents were mired in a system which, they were convinced, was not for them; a system which lies when it says that hard work pays off in the long run; where Grandparents worked themselves to death just to keep afloat, and aspiration was survival, and avoiding homelessness and starvation. It is no wonder that the poverty gap is widening with showing no sign of reversing that trend. Throwing money and resources at the problem will fix nothing.

There is also an endemic perception that education is for others. The poor don’t go to University; you certainly don’t see many lawyers and doctors coming from poor backgrounds. There are few role models to change that, no heroes returning to transform their community. And perhaps that’s an area worthy of focus. If we are to convince those in poverty that education truly can be transformative then wouldn’t it be good if we showed them that too? Perhaps ensure they visit a University at a younger age than sixteen; match them with a mentor for a term to discuss the life of a Uni student and the possibilities which could be open to them.

To what should be our great shame, some children, having lived their lives in poverty, begin school already behind their peers in so many ways. Our system often fails to overcome those barriers and these kids leave school twelve years later still behind their peers, but with deep-rooted resentment of a system which has failed them. Oh yes, we comfort ourselves by creating qualifications for them so that we can repeat, year after year, ‘at least she’ll leave school with something’. A line which should shame us.

In his book, J.D. Vance overcame horrific odds to reach University and succeed. He realises that there were significant adults who consistently told him and reminded him that aspiration was transformational; who never lowered the bar but raised it and helped him get there. If education is to be for all, then let it be for all. For all time.

Believe it or not, there are good things happening in schools

Here’s the full version of my article in TES Scotland 20th January 2017

 

And, woe, we did revel in the Pisa disaster. We’re rubbish and getting worse. CfE has failed. We were happy to see bandied about, in this very magazine, phrases such as ‘all time low’ and ‘plunged’.

And, of course, it was bad. To think that there are less of our children reaching competent levels of literacy is unacceptable. However, the hyperbole of such language doesn’t help. Political outrage merely gets in the way; politicians merely get in the way. Pisa tells a story but a very narrow one and one which ignores the great things happening in all our schools.

As an English teacher, it is my life’s work to improve the literacy of every child who walks though may door. When I read about drops in standards, whatever that may mean, it hurts. Literacy is a human right. The ability to read and write should be a minimum expectation of every kid who goes to school. And most do. The misleading media attention on Pisa is an unfair reflection of what is happening in our schools and deflects from the majority who are achieving so much.

In the fortunate position of visiting schools on an annual basis, the wonderful things occurring never fail to amaze me. In my own school, in the last weeks before Christmas, I’ve watched children involved in debating to a very high standard, a jazz band, a ceilidh band, a concert band, a choir; I’ve read about their successes in football, rugby, netball. They are building rockets in the engineering club, coding, producing incredible art, winning creative writing competitions with poetry which would make you cry. They are, for the most part, polite and eloquent and funny and interesting and challenging.

Those things are happening in schools all over the country. However, that’s not in the news. Instead our children read and hear stories that they are struggling with literacy and numeracy and science. Yes, they read those too. Of course, we could turn this into a political debate on the merits of CfE; we can point fingers and blame. If there are barriers to literacy and numeracy inadvertently created by the curriculum, then they need to be overcome. If things need to change then they need to be changed. I’ll be at the front of the queue with the wrecking ball. But I won’t stand by and let the great work that’s happening in schools be ignored. I’m no apologist for CfE – any more. I was in the past – and see the flaws. So let’s speak up for the successes and tackle the failures; let’s collaborate and share the good things and challenge and dismiss the rubbish. We owe it to ourselves; we owe to our children.

Reading for Pleasure- A Passport to Everywhere

The sight of a brown box, just delivered, slammed down on the hall rug might not sound special or appealing but it was the most glorious thing that has happened in my professional life. Almost two years in production, I could now stop telling people that I had a book coming out. And, perhaps, that moment was the most nerve-wracking of all. The anticipation as I breathed in, found some scissors and began to open the box, slowly and carefully, for my first sight of ‘How to Teach – Reading for Pleasure’. My words in print. My book.

As long as I remember I’ve been in awe of books. The covers, the spines, the very feel of them; the remarkable nature of words and stories captured inside. Like many of you, no doubt, I loved having them and seeing them on my shelf. Before University, working in factories and shops, I longed to be able to afford more; to fill up my shelves with the complete works of Hemingway or Roth or Updike. It was never a status symbol; they never made me feel clever; I wanted them around me because they were aesthetically pleasing as well as filled with memories. Like a long curated record collection, nothing says more about you than your books.

So what brought me to this point? Why would I write a book about reading for pleasure? There are other books on the subject. And, as a classroom teacher, I’m not convinced that this thing called ‘pleasure’ is my main focus. I want kids to read and read well because literacy is the benchmark for their place in society. I want them to be readers because good readers succeed in life. I am convinced of that. But what I wanted to achieve in writing this book was both a tale of my reading life and a series of, hopefully, relevant strategies which would allow the children in my classes to begin to develop the habits of a reader.

imageAnd I’m really proud of it. I wanted to capture my own approach to reading, perhaps with a touch of humour and a wee bit of memoir. Either way, I think I’ve achieved that. Every strategy in the book has been successful in  my classroom at some point: no, I don’t use all of them all of the time. I use them when necessary and when I’d like to inject a little bit of enthusiasm for reading. It, for the most part, works successfully for most kids.


But holding your own book in your hands? That’s a moment which will stay with me for a long time. The new book smell, the untouched pages, the sight of my name on the front: the proud tears. In  my initial communication with Phil Beadle, who so kindly made this all possible, I said that I wanted to write something of which I was very proud. I’ve done that. Books come and go but our words, in print, last a lifetime. Almost two years after I began, I have a book out. And it’s a wonderful feeling.