There’s no such thing as a free lunch

When Nick Clegg announced that soon all children aged between 4 and 7 (Reception to Year 2) will be getting a free lunch, everybody should have been pleased.

My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their classmates every day,” declared Nick, pleased with himself. And we should be pleased too. An initiative that will cost £400 per child generously funded by our benevolent government. There’s nothing wrong with a free lunch. Everyone is happy.

Not in my school office.

The first response of the administrator there was to roll her eyes and cry, “Oh no!”

You see, Pupil Premium funding is a significant part of the budget at my school. Pupil Premium funding is calculated based on census returns that indicate how many families have qualified for free schools meals. However, to qualify for a free school meal, a form must be filled in.

This form is a constant battle for the administrators in our school office. Some families decide they don’t need free school meals, even though they qualify – maybe their child can’t stand school dinners, or they’re just too proud, or they simply didn’t know about it. Every year we have families who could qualify for free school meals but don’t. The battle is one of convincing and supporting families who do qualify to actually fill their forms in. When this is done, the family benefits directly by qualifying for free school meals, and indirectly because the school is funded an extra £900 per child.

Imagine the family who was on that cusp of not being too bothered about filling their form in. Now they don’t need to – this is going to be a bigger battle for our school administrators and if we lose, our children will miss out.

So I’m mainly thinking now about the strategies we are going to need to convince families that they really ought to fill their form in. But a small, cynical part of me – the part that has watched too much ‘Yes Minister’ – is wondering if this is a deliberate money saving ploy – pumping £400 per pupil into schools in the hope it may cut down on the amount spent on Pupil Premium funding.

Why we should teach spelling

The recent introduction of the spelling, punctuation and grammar test into schools in England has perhaps sharpened our focus on spelling somewhat.

We have always taught spellings, but it became abundantly clear from the results last year that we need to be doing a better job at it, especially in Key Stage Two. In Early Years and Key Stage One, the letters and sounds programme had been reaping big dividends – now to translate that success into the junior part of the school.

And yes, national tests are important – we do need to do well in those to make the school look good… But on the wider debate, we had had some discussion about whether children really need spellings. With spell checkers, these days, surely a child just needs to get close, they don’t need to be 100%? At least, this was one musing that had been debated in what is euphemistically called ongoing professional dialogue.

Then earlier this week I saw a brief anecdote that told my why children need spellings. A few children had been invited with myself to the new Library of Birmingham to take over their twitter account for a few hours. They lent us two of their iPads and we wondered around the building photographing and tweeting about what we saw.

One child had taken a photograph from the 3rd floor terrace and wanted to tweet it out to the four and half thousand followers of the new Library along with the caption “view from the 3rd floor terrace.” However, being unsure how to spell terrace, he started the second syllable of the word with an “i”: “terri…” Immediately the iPad’s predictive text spelt out “terrorist” for the child. How helpful. Fortunately he could see something was wrong and asked me to help. Woe betide us should we tweet out a photo saying “view from the 3rd floor terrorist” from the second city’s new show-piece library…

So. Spelling is important. Let’s teach it really, really well.

“I want them from one!”

“From seven?” her tone was incredulous, scandalized even. “I want them from one.”

I was telling a member of my school’s nursery staff about the report this week that some educationalists had suggested that we start formal schooling at seven rather than five. Our nursery staff had just finished this year’s home visits where they visit the home of each child attending the nursery to establish initial needs and make a non-threatening link with each family. One or two of the visits they made were particularly eye-opening about the different ways that people live.

I have written before that my school draws families from a community with a range of different expectations of education – some are aspirational, others neutral, a few are quite anti. I can concede that for a good percentage, starting school at 7 could have no discernible impact. However, given that many of our children start Nursery at 3 with a developmental delay of eighteen months, it would be a frightening prospect to see how delayed these children are by the time they are 7.

You see, at my school, and I suspect many other schools, nursery is a big catch-up job. In nursery we desperately try to cram some language and some maths into children who have had a poor diet at home. Whereas middle class households would be giving their children a great start – a language rich environment with positive affirmation, many of our children don’t get that. Nursery helps them catch up. Are we really saying that if we didn’t start school until 7, this problem would be sorted? For all our families?

I think that report misses two huge issues: we’re not Finland and the definition of formal education.

We’re Not Finland

Our education system is often unfavourably compared with the Finnish system. But I don’t think the comparison is fair without comparing the two countries. Firstly there is huge difference in population size. Secondly there is a far wider gap between rich and poor in the UK than in Finland. Thirdly there is much less cultural diversity in Finland. Fourthly there is far less of a legacy of conflict in Finland (unless of course you’re Karelian).

Of these issues, I think the most significant is the difference between rich and poor. The poorer you are the more you need a state education system. The disparity between rich and poor means the education system needs to be better for poorer families. This has underpinned the DfE’s logic behind Pupil Premium Funding (although it is still far too small per child to be really effective). I think taking away schooling for 5-7 year olds from our poorer families would be disastrous

Definition of Formal Education

There is this notion that at the moment children hit five and are immediately sitting in rows with packets of learning being stuffed into their mouths. The reality is far from that. One of the strengths of our system is the individuality of our teachers. Some are formal, some not so much, but all are great and passionate about making a difference for their students. This individuality comes from the autonomy given to schools. We have an education system where each school can serve its local community as it sees fit, within the legal bounds of the national curriculum and the various education acts – but these are far less prescriptive than in many countries.

Are we saying that 5 year olds can never work formally, even for a few minutes? Are we saying that fourteen year olds can never play? When the word formal is being used, do they mean didactic? Do they mean fixed scaffold? Do they mean sitting in rows? I can’t stand these sort of debates where a vague word is used designed to convey some negative image into the readers mind – it just undermines the skill of teachers to determine for themselves how best they should teach.

For my nursery staff, they know they can make a big difference to many of the children that come through the doors. Imagine what they could do if they started when the child was one.

Developing Digital Literacies. #4: have a safe place to experiment.

Having been challenged by Steve Wheeler that maybe primary schools do have a role to play in digital literacy, I’m now thinking about what we actually do at my school to encourage, or even teach digital literacy.

4. Have a safe area to experiment.

Schools are safe places to make mistakes. As the behaviour co-ordinator, I have several incidents throughout the year were children make mistakes and then I try to teach them ways to avoid the making that mistake again. Examples include: using an angry tone of voice; responding violently or aggressively to a stressful incident; using inappropriate language. If an eight year old can be taught to respond to stress without using violence, then that will help them immensely when they are older – the violence a 14 year old or a twenty year old could perpetrate is potentially a lot more harmful than that of an eight year old.

Surely the same is true of online communication.

When children at my school email each other insults, it gives me a chance to talk to them about losing their temper online. We use Google Apps at my school and the system is set so that children can only contact other members of the school – any mistakes are kept within the school online environment, just as mistakes on the playground are kept within the school. This means I can educate children about the dangers of losing their temper when their fingers are near a keyboard; or taking a playground grudge online – such things are recorded. I would far rather children make these mistakes using Google Drive and Gmail within the protection my school’s domain than when they’re older on Facebook and Twitter, or indeed on a public Google Drive or Gmail account.

There are many other alternative safe places to Google Apps that schools can use – Edmodo, Frog and J2E are just some examples that I have flirted with in the past.

Developing Digital Literacies. #3: have a specialist

Having been challenged by Steve Wheeler that maybe primary schools do have a role to play in digital literacy, I’m now thinking about what we actually do at my school to encourage, or even teach digital literacy.

3. Have a specialist.

During my first module on the Mathematics Specialist Teacher programme (MAST) at Edge Hill university I learned some of the things that drove the need to have some maths specialists in primary schools. Firstly there is a prevailing attitude in the UK that it is OK to be be bad at maths. Secondly many primary teachers do not have more than a GCSE grade C in maths. What they were saying was that each school needs to have someone on the team to be both an advocate for maths and a developer of teachers, so that maths teaching is improved.

Surely it is the same for IT (sorry – computing) specialists?

Does every school expect all its staff to be experts in digital literacy? What about just being interested in digital literacy? Or as I posted previously, do all teachers yearn to be digitally literate? Maybe a starting point is for every school to have one person interested in this area.

Certainly it helps to have a digitally literate member of the leadership team. I have spoken to many headteachers who are fearful of Facebook and other social media because of the potential damage it can cause. They hear scare stories about professionals who have brought their organisation into disrepute by misusing Facebook, like this one, and their first response is to lock it down – have nothing to do with it – if it doesn’t come into school, it can’t get us.

This is where the specialist comes in. A specialist can convince the rest of the team that digital stuff can be used positively. They can make the team more productive and more effective. That person can quell the fears and quash the myths that build up around social media. They can be advocate and developer.

Developing Digital Literacies. #2: yearn to be literate

Having been challenged by Steve Wheeler that maybe primary schools do have a role to play in digital literacy, I’m now thinking about what we actually do at my school to encourage, or even teach digital literacy.

2. Yearn to be literate.

A few years ago I was a rather jaded IT co-ordinator. I had fallen out of love with an area of the curriculum that I once thought could change the world. The reasons were many and varied: underfunding; cynicism amongst IT technicians; the monolithic nature of IT services within my city; a disillusionment amongst fellow teachers about the impact of IT; the lure of senior management.

And then I heard Ewan McIntosh speak at a conference.

He showed a simple visualisation of his contacts – there were about 6000 at the time and about a quarter were teachers. Yet nearly all links to the teachers looked different on the visualisation from everyone else because they did not contact him – they only listened.

The teachers were either too busy or too scared to talk. Too busy or too scared to do any kind of two-way communication. Too busy or too scared to be literate. His point was that just at the time when students were grappling with growing social media, teachers were shying away from it – choosing to be illiterate in an area where their influence could be really beneficial to society.

It was at that point that I started yearning to be digitally literate with ‘new stuff’ like Twitter. I got an account and started tweeting. I followed some key people from whom I heard about something called the Google Teacher Academy. I applied and, by the miracle of telekinesis, I got in. I carried on communicating, debating in education, growing my digital literacy. I started to blog. I made some videos.

This rubbed off onto my school. We now have a team of Year 6 who make videos each week. Children in Key Stage 2 create wikis and websites. Children set up email groups and email each other about things that interest them. And for those of you thinking standards, standards, standards – our children have ‘outstanding achievement’ in English and maths – so it’s not as if we drop the essentials just to do the fun stuff.

Nor can I say that it has been all ups. Sometimes I have lost my ‘yearning’. Like a few days ago when I posted this. Sometimes I question whether it is all worth it – let’s just teach spelling, punctuation, grammar, reading and maths I say to myself – after all, that’s all we are measured on. I suppose we all have our moments of doubt. But then I remember (or someone reminds me) that the children deserve more than that.

You have to believe that being digitally literate is important for yourself to make it appear anywhere on the priority list at school. I started to believe it was important and I believe this has impacted my school in the long run too.

Developing Digital Literacies. #1: Be out there

Having been challenged by Steve Wheeler that maybe primary schools do have a role to play in digital literacy, I’m now thinking about what we actually do at my school to encourage, or even teach digital literacy.

1. Being Out There.

Schools have got to have an online presence. Aside from the legal requirement, by being online you show your online parents that you care. A study by Weber Shandwick shows that company bosses who use social media are 10% more likely to be seen as open, honest and respectful. If this is true for business, surely it is true in education too.

The legal requirement, I hear you ask? Yes, there is now a comprehensive list of things that are required to be published online, including the school prospectus, how school spends the pupil premium funding and how school spends the new sports funding. A more comprehensive list can be found here.

In my own experience having a Facebook page for my school has drastically cut down the number of cyber-bullying incidents that were happening two to three years ago. Instead of it being a regular distraction to the business of school, there is at most one incident per year – just on a time-saving basis this has been worth it, but add to it the negative impact on learning and the emotional hurt of cyber-bullying and I would say that having a Facebook Page for a school is a must. I would direct you to my school’s Facebook page, except that I know of a better one – my colleague Chris Talbot at Broadmeadow Junior School has a better one than mine.

Of course in small schools, managing an online presence can be painful and time consuming, or expensive. You’re already spinning thirty seven plates and now you have a website and social media to think of too. Myself I’ve cut down the time and expense by using ifttt.com. Using this service I write one post on Google+ and it automatically posts to Twitter and Facebook, so instead of having to write something in three places, I can write in just one.

Schools that are being digitally literate are encouraging their students to be digitally literate too. It’s a role modelling thing. Take Lyndon Green Junior school for example. Their Twitter stream is full of content that it must help their students and parents improve their digital literacy.

So be out there. Be online. Be on social media. If professionals at schools can’t do it safely, how can we expect our communities to do likewise?

Digital literacies and the bottom line

There’s a bottom line in teaching – the things we must absolutely teach, no matter what. I’m questioning whether digital literacies should be part of it.

Here’s my story:

I know the theory of digital natives has been discredited, but if it did exist, I would be one. I am out of the age range for it: at 41 I have not lived in a world where computers have been ubiquitous all my life.

And yet they have been ubiquitous for me.

My father, a mathematician at Birmingham University, showed my a computer when I was five – a punch card machine in the maths department. We had a BBC Micro in the house soon after. An Acorn Archimedes by the time I was a teenager. In my first job when I was eighteen I  used Apple Macs in one department, PCs in another and Sun workstations in the third.

When it came to teaching, using computers just seemed natural and I was often frustrated at the lack of resources for teaching computing. If only we had more computers, we could do better ICT teaching and give our children better life chances… That’s what I thought. And I still do – having the best equipment and being taught how to use it has to be a good thing.

I’m also sold on the argument that most of the jobs we are preparing our children for don’t exist today – that was certainly true of my schooling. Computers were limited in my education, yet my peers from school days include web designers, Microsoft and Google employees and even a guy who designs mobile phone networks for entire countries.

None of these people were taught digital literacies, and yet all of them are fully digitally literate. In fact, I would argue that none of them were taught anything to prepare them for a particular job. They were taught by teachers who were passionate about their subjects and keen that their students would learn their subjects to the highest level possible.

It seems to me that success at a particular job is not defined by the particular subjects you have been taught, but by how well you have been taught those subjects – just the very act of learning something to a high level gives you the ability to succeed.

So I am still going to teach my students about ICT and computing. I am a primary teacher so I have the joy of teaching other stuff too. What’s more I’m going to teach them to the highest level I can so that can be as digitally literate as possible. And as good at English and maths as possible too. But as a school leader is it right for me to make all my teachers conform to my image. Surely, if I have an art specialist I should encourage them to teach their students to the highest level in art as possible. And likewise for all other teachers.

I’m not saying that we should ignore the bottom line of teaching sound grammar, punctuation, spelling, maths, reading, and so on… I’m questioning how much we put in that bottom line, including digital literacies. I wonder if by teaching to our strengths, teachers can enjoy what they do and their students can far surpass the bottom line.

My Silent Writing Collective

My family all busy writing
My family all busy writing

I was intrigued and excited to see Doug Belshaw’s Silent Writing Collective pop up on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know why the idea of sitting quietly for an hour with a laptop excites me, but it does. And it doesn’t take much Googling to discover that he’s not the only one to come up with the idea.

In fact I came up with the idea all by myself a few weeks before Doug Belshaw, but in a slightly different context. If you read my previous post you’ll have discerned that both my son and myself are rather poor at handwriting. Like me, he is in the category of handwriters who can write neatly and slowly or messily and fast. We’re both envious of those people who can write neatly and fast. Like my 8 year old daughter for example. She can do both.

So to stop both of us getting out of practice we started a ten minute diary writing session each evening with my entire family. All five of us sit down for ten minutes on a timer and write about our days. We then share our stories with each other.

While it might not sound like it, it’s been really fun, and something we all look forward to. We all have nice looking journals and decent pens to write with. And from the 4-year old (who mainly scribbles) to myself (who’s writing looks like scribbles), we have a great time

Why not have a go yourself? – start a journal; write a blog; or join one of the silent writing collectives that are out there.

On the teaching of handwriting

I’m writing this both as a parent and as a follow up to a previous post concerning roleplay in schools. You may ask what is the relationship between handwriting and roleplay? Well, I suppose I’m asking a wider question – what are schools really for?

When my son was in Reception, my wife and I were concerned about his letter formation. We told the teacher about it. She assured us it would be alright – he’s a boy after all – he just needed some time. She gave us some photocopied sheets of letters to practice at home .

When my son was in Year 1 we were concerned about his handwriting. We told the teacher about it. She told us that it was early days and he just needed some work on his hand strength and motor control.

When my son was in Year 2 we were concerned about his handwriting. We told his teachers. They told us there was still time. The important thing was getting him to write in sentences for his SATs. He was assessed at level 2B in writing, despite being level 3 in everything else. His handwriting had held him back apparently.

When my son was in Year 3, the teacher told us she was concerned about his handwriting. She implied that we hadn’t done enough as parents and we should be supporting him more at home. We too were concerned about his handwriting, but now we learnt that it was our fault, we gave him writing exercises and paid for piano lessons to build up his hand strength some more.

When my son was in Year 4, the teacher told us she was concerned about his handwriting. She put him in a small group so that during times when the rest of the class were doing something he was already good at (like reading, or maths), he could practice his handwriting. By the end of of Year 4 we were less concerned about his handwriting.

When my son was in Year 5, the teacher told us that our son was the best writer in the year group, but he did sometimes forget his capital letters and full stops. She didn’t mention his handwriting.

As parents we made the mistaken assumption that during his first years at school he would be taught handwriting.

As a teacher I know it is easy to assume that things like handwriting will just sort themselves out.

As a child educated in the 70s, I went to a school that, whilst it hadn’t completely sold itself out to ‘discovery learning’, it didn’t teach things like pencil grip or handwriting. My handwriting is pretty dire as a consequence.

In following up that post I mentioned on roleplay, my question is what are schools for? Should they ensure that children are brilliant at handwriting? Or should they make up for the lack of open-ended play that takes place in the modern home by focusing more on roleplay? Do I sound too much like Michael Gove if I suggest that schools should focus on academic skills such as handwriting, reading, mathematics, to the detriment of play?

In fact, I don’t think this is what has happened in the case of my son. I don’t think it was a war between play and academia. I think the school focused heavily on their needs to have my son perform well in various assessments – maths, reading or writing, and unfortunately handwriting is an insignificant part of the writing assessment.