The trouble with shared spaces – a small step towards #BYOD.

… is that nobody takes responsibility for them.

There I’ve said it. It’s a fact we all know: one that my wife would echo back to me with a wry smile on her face; one that was proved time and time again when I lived in shared accommodation as a student…

It’s a fact that has irritated me somewhat during the previous academic year. My school is blessed with an abundance of space. We were one that was previously two-form entry and is now only one – so we have spare classrooms. And like all people we have expanded into them. Many of the classrooms have become shared spaces. Messy spaces. Disorganised spaces. Under-used spaces.

So this year I resolved to make more space-owners. I’ve assigned many of the previously troublesome shared spaces to individuals in the hope that they would become tidier, more organised and more purposeful. Already these rooms have started to look wonderful as the people in question have started to enact their vision of them and I’m sure they’ll continue to look great when the children start back on Thursday.

Then I came to the ICT cabinet.

With 2 years of dust, assorted wires, some Wii controllers, an empty drinks carton, 3 spiders and some defunct equipment –  it was truly a mess. The picture shows the empty cabinet, its broken perspex frontage the victim of one too many footballs hitting it.

It was truly a testament to the problem of a shared space. Nobody really owns the hall. People just use it. Assemblies, games lessons, rehersals, choir, even Indian dance lessons (Yes, David Cameron – Indian Dance!). What this means is that over time, people plug and unplug their own devices, leave bits and bobs and because it looks a complex birds nest of wires, the cleaners never clean it.

Here’s some of the stuff I found in the cabinet.

So a new resolution for this cabinet. Only 3 wires – a network cable, a video cable and an audio cable. From now on people can bring their own device and plug that in.

Just like rooms, devices get looked after by their owners. And maybe a bit of Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) here will end up with BYOD everywhere and for everyone in the school – staff and students alike.


Perfect combinations: Kilhoman and Ignatian Examen

The first day of the new academic year coincided with the rare treat of going out with my wife for food. A very pleasant Thai meal at our local – Sabai Sabai.

But the night was yet young, and like many dynamic couples we opted next to go for Ignatian Examen. A walk up to our friend Sam’s house where he led us through an hour of the Awareness Examen. There’s nothing quite like wrapping up an evening like a Jesuit.

But the night was yet young. I felt energised after the reflection and meditation that Sam had led us through. So on return home I poured myself a glass of Kilhoman (2006).  It’s peaty-ness is unlike the others that I love: Ardbeg, which is like drinking soil; Ardbeg Corryvreckan which is like drinking soil put through a blender with a spot of cream and Lagavullin 16 yrs which, for me is the smoking jacket of Islay malts – relaxed, confident and smooth. No Kilhoman is zingy, like the first crackling of a fire. It tastes like the lighting of the fire on Bonfire night – sparky, with anticipation and the faintest hint of cordite. It’s a drink to match the energising feeling following a good Examen.

I drank it whilst making the sandwiches for the morning and listening to a Podcast from Hack Education. So all in all: time with my wife, Thai food, Examen, Kilhoman and education podcast. Perfect.

Making my school website ‘legal’

One of the many hats I wear is school website developer. It’s been a bit of a hobby really. The hobby started like this:

Some time ago I had a really gifted student in my Year 6 children and I had literally run out of curriculum to teach her. So I said, in about March of the year, “go off and learn HTML so we can make a school website.” A week later she came back with a basic school website and I was so shamed by the quality of it, I decided I should learn a bit of HTML too.

Things have come full circle now in a way. Having gone through three different iterations I found that the website has got bigger and bigger and more difficult for me to manage. Mercifully the afore-mentioned student came back, now at secondary school and looking for a bit of work that wasn’t just a paper-round. She now spends 2 hours a week updating our school website and me, it was a hat I could stop wearing.

Or so I thought.

A few months ago a tweet from Kevin Maclauchlan made me aware that some changes in legislation were coming about. No longer could school websites be the hobby of some enthusiastic tech geek like myself, but they had to contain certain information. Very specific information in fact. You can read it for yourself at the UK Government’s legislation website.

So we get to work. I say ‘we’ because it was very much a joint effort between myself and my ‘web developer’. She did all the design work and all the other work. I wrote her some emails. Mainly.

And this is what we came up with.

It’s not much, but it is a start – something to build on over the next few months. I realise that there are things to improve, but at least we’ve got a platform from which to improve them.

I’d very much value any comments on this blog about this school website legislation, especially if you’ve seen any fantastic examples that already contain all the information specified in the new legislation.


Langennith, Surfers and Whisky

It had been 28 years since I’d last visited the Gower and as I drove along the peninsular I wondered how much had changed. It was perhaps hard to think these thoughts as I dodged the surfers in their tiny, battered Peugeots hurtling down the country lanes… But when I got there it was like nothing had changed. Rhossili Bay was still at its magnificent best – amazing sand, great views, so big that you’d need a city worth of people to make it feel busy.

I was amazed at how undeveloped the place was. My idyllic childhood holidays were right there, ready to be re-lived. And now bringing my own family, they could be.

But why? Why was it still relatively undisturbed? It’s true that the road into Langennith was narrow and windy – it would deter some caravans I’m sure. But the natural holiday resources are all there for some big company to come along and commercialise it all. The beach is amazing. There are waves and mile after mile of sand. The dunes are pretty good too – probably enough for a golf course if you were that way inclined. There’s history too – hints of long-gone abbeys and iron-age hill forts around the place.

And then it hit me: the surfers. So near to Swansea, Rhossili Bay is a major surfing beach and I’m sure many hundreds career down the winding roads to catch a few waves whenever they can. I’m not a surfer, but I could see in the way they drive that waves are the only things that matter – they didn’t want to waste a single valuable second away from the sea. And good on them too – I’m sure they are the main reason why that part of the Gower is so undisturbed.

Meanwhile back at the Kings Head in Langennith I was amazed to see the whisky selection at the bar. Three rows deep and in alphabetic order it’s the best collection I’ve ever seen, and that includes the bars I visited earlier this year on Islay.

If you ask for it, they hand you a well-thumbed list, including tasting notes. I tried the Penderyn – a Welsh whisky that I hadn’t tried before. It was light and floral, with a honeyish feel to it – perfect for a Summer’s evening. Then I saw that the list had Port Ellen on it – a drink I learned about in Islay and still haven’t sampled. Unfortunately they had run out – so I’ll still have to wait a little longer. So I tried the peated Penderyn instead and I was a little disappointed. I guess firstly because I associated peated whisky more with winter months – so while it is my favourite kind, I had made a poor choice on this occasion. Secondly I thought it tried a little too hard – I felt the peatedness was a little forced and it detracted from the original Penderyn that I had so enjoyed initially.

Langennith for me has now transcended legend. It was a place that I looked back on with fond memories of idyllic beach holidays. It is still that idyllic place, but now it has whisky too.

Spam? Yes I remember Spam!

It’s not often that SPAM gets through the filtering applied by Gmail. In fact it’s so infrequent that I’ve forgotten what it looks like. It used to be the case, on my old email account that I’d have at least 2 or 3 spam emails each day. In those days my trained eyes would spot the Spam through the tell-tail signs and wearily move it to the Spam folder. It was an automatic process – one that I did mindlessly. My brain would tell me, “Oh that’s Spam,” and I would remove it.

Today I received Spam for the first time in ages and it surprised me. For the briefest moment I thought it was real. That’s not because it looks real. The grammar and capitalisation is terrible and there’s a key spelling mistake that gave it away at the end (and made me laugh out loud I should add):

error code5199AA 

your attention is highly needed to update your account, due to error code5199AA. failure to comply to this instruction will result to account termination click here 

singed management.

Now, you’d have to be extremely naive not to realise that was Spam, but it’s been so long since I’d received Spam that I feel my guards are down. There really are people out there trying to get you and it’s important to read each email from an unknown person with filter applied – do you really want to click here? Can you be absolutely sure that link isn’t going to take you somewhere horrible? (I have taken the hyperlink out of this post just to make sure nobody clicks it).

It made me realise too that in all my recent efforts to get students aware of the dangers inherent in online identity and social media – those friends who aren’t really friends – not keeping too much of your private self in a public space, and all that – I’m not sure if I haven’t forgotten the whole Spam issue. And if the email systems that we use in schools are so perfect and filtered that students never see Spam am I really helping them?

Rising Stars – A company that make me want to get back into the classroom

The amount of my teaching varies. Sometimes I’m in class a lot, sometimes I’m not.

I have a office and a desk. Sometimes I have a classroom and a group of children. The constant is the desk, not the classroom and I often miss the whole teaching a class thing – taking a class of children in September, teaching them a varied and interested curriculum, watching them develop and grow over a year, forging positive bonds with their parents and all that.

However recently the thing that has made me miss teaching more than anything has been Rising Stars, or more specifically, 3 things that Rising Stars sell:

  1. Writing maps – these are the kind of open-ended resource I love. They’re a picture prompts for story writing – full of images that can prompt discussion around vocabulary and story ideas. They’re just the thing for children who are struggling to unleash their imagination or when I’m finding my own imagination is petrifying with tiredness towards the end of each term. You could conceivably base much of a term’s work on one map, depending on how much detail you want to put in to each map.
  2. Challenge Cards – more open ended resources. A picture or a saying on a card to stimulate discussion with guidance and vocabulary on the back to help the teacher. The longer I teach, the more I am convinced that much of education is is giving children more words to describe things with. Some people criticise excessive verbosity, but just because you have a load of words doesn’t mean you need to use them in every situation.
  3. Dockside – Teaching mainly older primary children, I have always struggled with motivating those older children who are behind in their reading. The thing is that many of the books that help them learn to read have concepts and themes that are too infantile to motivate these 9, 10 and 11 year olds. These books are set to the six stages of phonics as decreed by the government as THE WAY THAT CHILDREN LEARN TO READ (which is another debate, for another time). But even better they have the kind of themes that you get in Eastenders – really engaging for older children. We’ve already had great reports coming back from our Year 5 class who are trialling them at the moment.

And guess what. In September I am teaching. 3 days a week. I have a lot of other things to do in the remaining 2 days like being Senco, ICT coordinator, maths leader, performance management responsibilities and all that. But I’m excited about the teaching and it’s partly down to the fact that I’ll finally be able to use these great resources from Rising Stars.

Chromebooks – they’re all about battery life

Last week pretty much all the work in Year 6 was done using Chromebooks.

Year 6 were documenting our school’s sports week, that we dubbed unofficially the Pagalympics. You can read about what happened at our school blog – – all the posts written there by children.

The idea of the week was that the rest of the school would engage in fun-filled workshops themed around the Olympics – some making puppets for the Olympic torch relay, which passed through Birmingham at the weekend, others making videos about the Olympic mascots, yet more taking part in a Decathlon – learning different events and competing against each other. Meanwhile, Year 6 were the journalists – it was there to job to find out what each group was doing, what the participants were learning and so on.

During the week the Year 6 children used the WordPress interface on the school’s self-hosted blog to write about what happened . They interviewed people about the events straight into Aviary – which contains a cloud-based audio editor. They uploaded audio into Audioboo and embedded this content into their posts. They took pictures, uploaded them to Picasa and embedded them into the blog. Somee made videos of what happened, which they edited in Camtasia.

Of these things only the video editing was done with no use of the Chromebooks. Everything else was done using Chromebooks in some way – using the Chromebooks internal microphone to record straight into Aviary or uploading pictures using the SD card slot.

The children learnt a lot from the week – one of the main things being the limitations of the current wifi system. The access points, scattered around the school would only allow three or four Chromebooks to get on with audio editing – anymore and the bandwidth would run out and nothing would happen. They also learned that they could only work so far onto the field before they couldn’t access the internet anymore. “You’ve got to write your blog this side of the big tree” one child told me.

That’s partly why I’m in the process of upgrading our wifi to a much faster system using Meraki – a cloud-based wifi management system that should increase the bandwidth of our access points by tenfold.

However the reason that the week worked above all was the battery life of the Chromebooks. It seems a minor consideration, but the fact that they last for 8 hours means that they last for a full school day –  a child can take a Chromebook in arm, walk about all over the school, use it whenever they notice something interesting and it never runs out.

I think this has got to be the overriding USP for primary schools with these kinds of devices, whether they be iPads, Android tablets, Chromebooks or whatever. They must last a full day. I know colleagues have had the same experience with iPads – whatever you make them do, they last all day and you just can’t beat that. All teachers know that one of the biggest drains on lesson time is sharpening the pencils – people develop all sorts of systems for it – monitors, electric sharpeners and the like – having sharpened pencils makes such a difference to lessons where drawing or writing happens. Similarly for tech-devices – having to charge them at dinner time is just a no go.

And that’s why, despite the fact that a newer, faster Chromebook is now out (the Samsung 550), I won’t be upgrading to that model, because it only guarantees 6 hours battery life. I can imagine that some places need them – maybe when you come on to doing cloud-based video editing or 3D modelling and you need the speed, but for my purposes, battery life is the winner.

So next time your looking for shiny mobile technology, make sure you keep the battery life in the back of your mind.

The lie of “putting the children first”

It’s one of those arguments that trumps all others.
You can be in the middle of an educational debate about some issue or other when the person you’re trying to convince says: “but you’re not putting the children first.” All your other arguments are suddenly sunk, dead in the water, and you slink off knowing that you were wrong. There are barely any other arguments that are as powerful as that one; that are as strong in your hand; that beat all others. Perhaps the ultimate is the line “but, Health and Safety…” in that it might possibly outdo “but you’re not putting the children first.”

But it’s a lie.

As teachers, we shouldn’t put the children first. I’m not speaking to parents in this, nor social workers, doctors or anyone else who might have a good reason to put children first. I am speaking to teachers, and I’m including myself.

Here’s the reason: children’s learning.

If we put children first, then they will not learn as effectively as they should. Putting children first devalues our own knowledge. It would be like me saying: the child is more important than the knowledge I am going to impart to them. It says that the child is more important than the culture of which they are a part. It raises the child to the top of a pyramid that shouldn’t even exist.

So, I’m not saying that we should put the child second. The phrase “putting the child first” sounds that education is some kind of race. Nor am I saying that children aren’t important. They are. A school without children would be a conference centre. But likewise a school without teachers would be a playground. Both are important places, but not places where learning is maximised and standards are raised.

It’s ironic then that putting the child first will actually disadvantage the child. Teachers who do so will become ‘facilitators’ – desperately trying to allow the children to independently learn the outcomes they themselves have devised.

That’s not what Vygotsky intended when he talked about scaffolding – the appropriate assistance that will give the student the knowledge and confidence to move into their zone of proximal development. No, this assistance is part of the interaction between teacher and child – part of that positive relationship that has teacher as guardian of knowledge within their given socio-cultural context and child as learner of norms, rules, facts, knowledge and attitudes.

This relationship is damaged when children are put first. It is the relationship that should be put first – the nature of the the interaction between teacher and child. Some people call this teaching. Please don’t call it facilitation.



A greater stretch in mathematics? If only.

I read the letter from Michael Gove to Tim Oates about how the new National Curriculum Review would affect the Programmes of Study within Primary Schools with a great deal of anticipation, and then a growing feeling of disappointment. There are various areas that disappoint me, but the area of maths teaching is perhaps the greatest. I read:

In mathematics there will be additional stretch, with much more challenging content than in the current National Curriculum. We will expect pupils to be more proficient on arithmetic, including knowing number bonds to 20 by Year 2 and times tables up to 12 x 12 by the end of Year 4. The development of written methods – including long multiplication and division – will be given greater emphasis, and pupils will be taught more challenging content using fractions, decimals and negative numbers so that they have a more secure foundation for secondary school.

Minor Disappointments

Let me break this down then. Here are some of the minor points that disappoint me:

  1. Knowing number bonds to 20 by Year 2 – this is already the case. How can it be more stretching to maintain an expectation – surely the bar should be raised somehow.
  2. Times tables up to 12×12 by the end of year – this is a slight rise in expectation as children are currently expected to know up to 10×10, but in my experience it is not the knowing of extra times tables facts that hold back children in the latter part of primary schools, it is the lack of knowledge of corresponding division facts (which happens to be part of the current national curriculum).
  3. Greater emphasis on written methods (like long multiplication and division) – this sounds good, but it’s already in the current programme of study. Just saying something more doesn’t make it more rigorous, nor does it necessarily raise expectations. In addition, I’m all for children learning skills in school such as the skill of performing long division, but I had been under the impression that the new curriculum would be more knowledge based.
  4. Pupils will be taught more challenging content using fractions, decimals and negative numbers. Again, these are all in the current programme of study for children from the age of about 7. Whether children are taught these are up to their teachers and their schools.

So when I read the phrase “much more challenging content“, and put it next to the above examples of challenging content, I’m struggling to see the giant leaps in standards that Michael Gove would be hoping for when his new National Curriculum is implemented.

A medium-sized disappointment

A greater disappointment is to see the phrase “more proficient in arithmetic” without any reference to algebra. As I have written before, children start learning about algebra from a very young age when they start investigating concepts such as larger and smaller. It is the concepts involved in algebra, often linked with precise language teaching, that I think are under-taught or mis-taught at primary level. Teachers shy away from this vocabulary-driven area because it doesn’t feel like maths to them – there aren’t numbers and operations written in children’s books – it doesn’t look as good as arithmetic. When children leave primary school I think they are often under-prepared for algebra – it is in this area that I was hoping for higher expectations within our new National Curriculum.

If you’re good at arithmetic you can go to the shops. Or maybe become an accountant. If you’re good at algebra you can become a rocket scientist. Not that education should just be about gaining a decent job – Gove himself says he wants “a love of education for its own sake” – but I have a feeling that for many algebra isn’t the elegant thing of beauty that I perceive it as, but is a rather lumpy, ugly thing, ringed with fire and tears.

A major disappointment

Aside from my algebra foibles, there is a further disappointment that I think will have a wider implication on maths teaching: teacher subject knowledge. No matter how detailed a Programme of Study or a National Curriculum might be, neither address this problem: we have many teachers within the primary sector who do not have sufficient subject knowledge to teach mathematics effectively. Many primary teachers only have a grade C at GCSE and have had to repeat their mathematics test required by teaching training in order to pass their course.

I have no problem with teachers teaching mathematics concepts that they’re not to sure about, so long as they know what to do when they’re stuck. There should be an expert teacher within each primary school – the maths co-ordinator or similar – who can share their knowledge and expertise when others don’t know the next steps. Too often less-skilled maths teachers don’t seek help from their more experienced colleagues, but struggle with the text of the National Curriculum and any scheme books that support it. Not knowing what to do, they either miss the tricky areas or teach it badly – characterised by repeating themselves more loudly and more slowly, a bit like the traditional Englishman abroad.

It is not a new Curriculum that is going to improve standards in mathematics. We will stretch primary mathematics only by increasing subject knowledge within our teachers.


The Purpose of Education is Hope

Contributing to this year’s Purpos/ed 500 word campaign.

Education is how a society maintains and improves itself. Yet, while education is a relatively straightforward process, that very definition causes problems for discussing its purpose. Depending on whether you have a traditionalist or a progressive perspective, you will either place more emphasis on educating for the maintenance of past standards or educating for a brighter future. Add that to the various cultures, sub-cultures and expectations that exist within a modern multi-cultural society and there exists a vast complexity of purposes for education.

That’s my cap-doffing to the broader debate.

In my own setting there are roughly three groups that we educate, each with their own perceptions on what education is for:

  1. Education for success – these families believe that the school system will give their children opportunities. Despite limited success at higher education themselves, they want that for their children.
  2. Education for happiness – these families just want their children to be happy. Often with negative experiences of their own time at school, they want their children to feel safe and content within school. Success is often linked with celebrity and being able to get the latest DVD before it is out at the cinema.
  3. Education for hardship – these families want their children to be able to survive. They tell their children “if someone hits you, hit back harder”. They often see school as that annoying place that phones the social worker too often. Sometimes there is illiteracy in the family.

While each of these groups have radically different expectations of society, and therefore the purpose of education, they do have one thing in common – they all need hope.

I am aware that for some, the word ‘hope’ has negative connotations. They think of ‘hopes dashed’ and this leads them to regret. However this is not ‘hope’ as in the aspirations you may have had, but the Hope that things can be better, or at least as good as they once were.

So how does this translate into teaching? The obvious answer is to start a new core subject of the National Curriculum and start running ‘Hope classes’. I’m joking.

Group 1 –  they need so much knowledge at the end of primary school that they can fly into secondary school and perhaps become the first in their families to go to university. Good teaching helps these children love their learning.

Group 2 – good teaching again leads to happiness. The families are surprised at how their child can be both happy and doing well in reading, writing and mathematics. They start to believe that maybe their child can learn enough at primary not just to ‘get through’ secondary school, but to do well there.

Group 3 – good teaching brings success for the child. The family is (in the main) proud of this success and begins to gain a faith in a previously-despised school system.

In each of these groups good teaching produces hope. Hope that things can be better than they were.

So, when I’m stuck I remember: bring Hope – teach well.