I'll get back into the more meaty blog posts soon, I promise. I'm almost getting the hang of this baby malarky!
In the meantime, here is a round up of some of the news stories making the rounds this week and last week...
Miss school for a week, you’ll be fined; miss it for a year, you’ll be fine?
“Education is the engine of our economy, it is the foundation of our culture, and it's an essential preparation for adult life”
That was Nick Gibb, the Schools’ Minister, way, way back in 2015 (or three ministers ago, if that’s easier). It seems a far cry from the current educational policies of the incumbent government who seem to view the important position of Secretary of State for Education as a bit of a stepping stone to other, grander things. Possibly as a result of this, things seem to have slipped a little since then.
I came across a news article about a 12-year-old boy who had not been to school for over a year! There really isn’t much to this story - a kid with behavioural issues was permanently excluded from his school and his parents aren’t happy that the local council are yet to find a replacement school.
I want to be very clear here, I am judging neither the schools nor the parents for this. I don’t work at the school, you probably don’t work at the school. Maybe the kid was an absolute demon, kicking, biting, scratching and writing obscenities on the wall in his own faeces (I’ve seen it happen); maybe he was a misunderstood diamond-in-the-rough who just needed a John Keating from Dead Poets Society touch. We don’t know so we can’t comment.
What we do know is that the boy’s father (or at least, his mother’s ‘partner’, again, not judging; just sticking with the facts) has gone on record saying that young Riley needs a ‘special school.’ The special school he is referring to would be a Pupil Referral Unit - a school with a lower intake, trained staff (and more of them) and appropriate resources for children with particular education needs.
Not an unreasonable request, I have had to send two children to a PRU in my time and it was absolutely the best thing for them.
So what’s the problem? Are there no PRUs in Stoke-on-Trent?
Well, yes… and no. There is one pupil referral unit in Stoke-on-Trent. One. It serves 17 secondary schools, all with roughly 1,000 pupils. That’s 17,000 children potentially served by one PRU. And the current number of children on roll at Merit? 4. How come so few? Well, Merit is a short-stay unit, intended to bridge the gap between one school and the next, to find the right educational environment for the child. That’s great but what happens when a child, like Riley Roberts, seems unsuitable for the available mainstream schools? What happens then?
Well, we know what happens then: he doesn’t go to school.
Surely there’s another option though? There was. Reach used to be a PRU with 120 permanent places, dedicated to turning young people’s lives around and reigniting a love of education. They were really good at it, too. They achieved national recognition for their successes. Great! Send Riley there! Wonderful idea, and I applaud your enthusiasm but there’s a problem.
Reach has been temporarily closed after being taken over by a multi-academy trust (Alpha Academies) who are deciding whether or not to withdraw its funding. You see, children who need support are expensive and not a great investment. Bottom line: the bottom line doesn’t look so good for the CEOs of academies to cater to children who might not succeed academically. After all, the current Minister for Education, Kit Halthouse, has told us all not to accept ‘mediocrity.
To get some clarity on the issue of difficult children needing extra funding in a world where ‘extra funding’ is becoming an increasingly taboo phrase, I sent our education minister an email. I’ll leave it in the show notes and let you know if he replies…
A follow-up my bit about school lunches…
Remember I said I had contacted a nutritionist/dietician about just how nutritious a lunch you can make for roughly £12 a week? If you don’t, then you should probably pause this episode and go listen to the last one. You’re missing out!
Anyway, the nutritionist/dietician got back to me suggesting that I look at the NHS website. Basically, they didn’t want to help. Some people!
Luckily, a news article from The Mirror (via Wales Online) popped up on my feed the other day and guess what they were discussing!
The article details some of the ‘heartbreaking’ packed lunches schools (not just in Wales) have seen. These included day-old Happy Meals (never was a lunch so ironically titled); a solitary pork pie, and a can of shandy.
But there’s more… one kid arrived with a bag of Monster Munch (okay, no big deal), a whole pack of ginger biscuits (I guess he could save some for after school?) and… wait for it… a can of Red Bull. When questioned about this, the child’s mother explained that he had been up all night on his X-Box and needed a little pick-me-up. Alas, I don’t know the child’s exact age but these are all stories from Primary school teachers, so it was definitely under 12.
The funniest one though was the child who was told to pack their own lunch. They turned up to school with a can of dark fruits cider thinking it was a soft drink!
Sadly though, in amongst all this jollity, there is real tragedy. One child reportedly turned up for school with no lunch and no money to buy a lunch, and they told their teacher that they had water on their cereal because ‘mum needed the milk for her coffee.’
Now, I am not here to judge, and please don’t think that I am, but I grew up in Cornwall, which is a famously deprived area. We didn’t have much money but I was never left without food. If anyone had to go without milk, it was my mum. And that was after she had watered it down to make it go further.
What was interesting about this piece is that it closed by saying that, when a child has an item of lunch confiscated for being contraband, they are given a free school meal worth £2.20. So the article is clearly out of date already, with school meals now costing £2.40 per day. Despite this, the date of the article is October 5th, 2022. And this was from a Senior Reporter over at The Mirror Group.
You see, it goes to show, you need to check your sources, people. While I don’t doubt that these stories are true, the validity of the claims are somewhat dubious given that the reporter can’t even get the basics right.
I did a bit of digging and it seems that children only need around 600 calories for lunch. This can be achieved with a serving of pasta salad (500g of pasta can be bought for 35p and various vegetables can be bought for less than £1.50, add half a can of tuna or some chicken for around £2.45 for four tins, and that comes to around £5 for the whole week!).
It’s not impossible to provide a nutritious lunch for your child on a budget. It takes a little bit of time but, honestly, once they’re around 8-years-old, they can be taught how to prepare a simple meal. Come on now, are we not catastrophising just a little bit? That one kid brought in a left-over Happy Meal. That means that the family had enough disposable income for a Happy Meal, and they aren’t cheap. In fact, they cost more than the £2.40 lunch at school.
It’s all too easy to blame everything on a government who have a track record of seeming to bolster the rich but remember what the Zen Masters would say: you can only change that which you can control. You can’t control the government, especially the current one which nobody voted for publicly. You can change what you put in your child’s lunch box.
Exams: the equitable choice?
Finally this episode, the validity of Independent Schools’ results has come under fire since the re-introduction of externally-marked exams. According to schoolsweek.com, several private schools (which Google Docs auto-corrected to pirate schools) are currently under investigation for maladministration in the shape of over-inflated teacher assessments.
This should come as no surprise though and I’m sure it’s not just independent schools who are guilty of the practice. I’m sick of saying it: end of year results act as both the measure of a school’s success and the target for which they aspire, and they can’t be both! It’s like when Michael Gove said that he wanted all children to be above average; it just can’t happen.
But it is still the benchmark so, in the absence of externally marked and successfully moderated formal exams, teacher assessments were open to fuzzier interpretations of the rules.
Independent schools have been caught ‘cheating’ the system because, now that exams are back on, their results have fallen and, being viewed as the schools of the rich-and-therefore-enemy-of-the-common-man, they fell under more scrutiny.
The truth is that most schools saw their results drop after COVID because of course they did! These children had missed a lot of school and their teachers, who are human and subject to unconscious bias (I wrote a whole blog post on it, you should check it out!) were assessing their progress.
Curiously, in 2021, the chief of Ofqual praised teacher assessment, calling it better and ‘more accurate’ than exams. Fast forward a year and the chief regulator of Ofqual is now saying he is ‘incredibly glad’ they could reinstate exams. Make up your mind!
And that’s my round up of the news these past two weeks. Oh, just one more very quick thing, noticed at the Labour Party Conference recently, the shadow education minister commented that the current curriculum was too academically-focused and, if elected, Labour would introduce more creativity into the classroom. That’s great, Bridget, but I think you meant re-introduce? Give education a decade and it will repeat itself!
Have I missed anything drastic? Have I got my views completely wrong? Do you love or hate anything I’ve said? Don’t be shy! Leave a comment or drop me an email or tweet. I’d be happy to hear your opinion.
A couple of books…
This episode, I will be reviewing and offering my opinion of a couple of books. One for you as an adult and educator, and one for children for you to recommend or avoid.
15 Minutes to Happiness
This book by Richard Nicholls is an easy read (a lot of it can be skimmed, to be honest) but that doesn’t lessen its usefulness. There are chapters on loving yourself; being grateful; and happy thinking, and there are practical tips and exercises to do to help you to feel better about life in general.
A couple of things that really stuck out for me were his advice on CBT (that’s Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and Emotional Literacy. I’ll discuss the emotional literacy bit first.
In the book, Nicholls suggests that happiness is not a destination, it’s a journey. One that requires us to be sad some of the time because without understanding what it feels like to be unhappy, how can we hope to recognise happiness? Furthermore, recognising that even happy people have bad days can be a great comfort to us when we experience one ourselves. Why am I telling you this? Well, chances are, if you are listening to this podcast or reading the blog, you are a teacher and you have had bad days. The children in your class will also have bad days. Now, speaking as a Primary teacher, I have found that the default way to deal with these times of distress is to ‘put a smile on your face.’ I have heard it said to children and staff alike and I hate it. I think it is incredibly damaging. And 15 Minutes to Happiness seems to agree.
It is very important to accept that you are angry, sad, tired, frustrated… and to learn how to deal with those emotions; to recognise that you feel that way for a reason and that it doesn’t make you a bad person, or worse, a failure. Even more importantly, we need to teach the children the same thing.
Linked to this, and to a growing number of tweets I receive about being in a toxic school environment, is the story Nicholls tells about an old man and a dog:
Once, a young boy walked past an old man sitting on his porch with his dog. The dog was grumbling and fidgeting a lot.
‘Why is the dog miserable?’ asked the boy.
‘Because he’s lying on a nail,’ the old man replies.
‘Why doesn’t he move?’ the boy asks.
‘Because it isn’t painful enough,’ the old man replies.
I think we can all relate to this story at some point in our lives. I have to admit, it made me think of a couple of previous school jobs where I probably should have moved on a lot sooner than I did. I was having a bad time and other people could see it. But it wasn’t uncomfortable enough for me to do anything about it. Had I acted sooner, I may have found a better school. I may have been able to resolve the issues while they were small. Who knows? But I like the simplicity of the story and I think it is one that would be great for a class discussion.
The other thing I liked about the book was the discussion around CBT. I’ll cut to the chase with this one. After explaining what the process entails, Nicholls introduces the ABC of CBT (which made me smile because it rhymes and I am a child). They are: Activity, Belief, Consequence. The idea is that an activity (the example in the book is a woman being afraid that her boss is going to shout at her) leads to a belief (in the book, the lady believes that, if her boss is shouting at her it must be because she is not very good at her job), which leads to a consequence (the lady avoids her boss, resulting in her not meeting deadlines).
The example in the book isn’t the best because office work is a little far removed for me as a teacher but I could draw parallels. To this day, if anyone says to me ‘can we have a chat’, ‘can I have a word’ or ‘we need to talk’, I get cold shivers and immediately assume I have done something wrong. Most of the time, it is something completely benal and I will have spent the whole day worrying over nothing. But I can recognise the activity - ‘can I have a word?’ - the belief ‘ I have done something wrong - and the consequence - I am sick with worry and my teaching is affected for the whole day.
The solution? Thought Stopping. Replacing the negative thoughts with positive alternatives. Instead of jumping to inadequacies on my part, I should acknowledge the negative thought (because it’s there, there’s no point ignoring it) but replace it with a positive one. Maybe they want to talk to me about something to do with a school trip or a staff meeting. Maybe they want to tell me that I’ve been selected for some new SLT position! Maybe they just want to ask if such-and-such a child has seemed a little off these past few days. Importantly, if I can’t think of a legitimate reason for them to be cross or disappointed with me, then there probably isn’t one and I should relax.
This, I found, was pretty powerful stuff and thinking about it led me to question why I jumped to the negatives as quickly as I did.
So that’s a book for you as an adult. Not just an educator, but a grown human who lives in the real world. It’s 15 Minutes to Happiness and you can buy it wherever books are sold. If you want a copy for free, stick around.
One for the class now, I would say 7- to 9-year olds, which is interesting but I’ll explain why in a minute. This is a celebrity first-time book, so you know what that means? Yes, it means we automatically shudder at the content before even opening the cover.
I am not a fan of celebrity-authored books for children. I think they are pulpy, rushed-out vanity projects. Frustratingly, the ones I have read (including, on a dare from a 10-year-old, Zoey Suggs’ first offering) turn out to be entertaining. But then I discover that, despite the size and the pomp of the celebrity name on the cover, much of the story was written by someone else. A quote/unquote real author. And such is the case with Max Magic.
It was ‘written’ by irritating television presenter, magician, and comedian (wikipedia’s words, not mine… except for ‘irritating’, that was me)... but it was also written by actual-author, Tom Easton. I have contacted Tom to see what the balance of content was… we’ll see if I get a reply.
The story is pretty straightforward: a boy likes performing magic tricks and one day he opens a chest that gives him real magic powers. He and his friends have to learn how to use teamwork, cunning and a little bit of real magic to save his family from financial ruin at the hands of local mobsters (called, lord help us, the Crayfish Twins). It’s exactly what you would expect.
But does that make it bad? More specifically, does it make it a bad book for children? I’ve fallen into this trap when I read David Walliams’s books. I think most kids would enjoy this book. The chapters aren’t long; the vocabulary isn’t challenging; the characters are generic. Put simply, it can be read with very little effort. As a way to pass the time, it’s fine. As a challenging read… perhaps not.
To be fair, I was listening to the audio book which was read by Stephen ‘I’m-so-crazy-I-am’ Mulhern, so it was a rather painful experience. Perhaps, had I had the time to sit and read it, I would have enjoyed it more. Although, there are stereotypes galore. There is the girl who loves school and is reluctant to miss any. There is the slightly gormless boy who is funny in a silly way and good at sport. There is the girl-who-would-have-been-called-a-tomboy-in-the-90s to act as the gender opposite of the main character. Sigh. There is the bully. There are the adult bullies who are subverted by the group of plucky children. There are the slightly distant older siblings of the protagonist. There are the well-meaning-but-distracted-by-money-worries parents who are saved by the pluck group of children. There’s the dog who can magically talk to the protagonist but only the protagonist. There’s the wise-woman gran who offers advice in riddle form… it’s nothing you haven’t read a hundred times before.
But what’s so ‘interesting’ about it being good for 7- - 9-year-olds? Well, the main character is clearly in Secondary school (although he and his friends behave like Primary school children, and the story is clearly aimed at a younger audience, with its constant reference to bullies and school being a chore). There’s nothing wrong with this, but I was told by a publisher that that sort of age mismatch was a bad idea. For me, it definitely made the characters seem more childish and silly… and not in a good way.
There are puns. Lots of puns. They aren’t all bad (Telekinesis? Doesn’t he play for Greece?) but they are prolific and far too many of them are old jokes written as dialogue, which is a shame because the first chapter is a pretty good example of introducing characters.
On that point, how well does the book lend itself to being a learning resource? Well, apart from magic not being part of any curriculum topic that I can think of, it would be a good book to use for a lesson on reporting verbs in speech. Because, as far as I can recall, and I was looking for them, the only one ever used is ‘said.’ Nothing wrong with ‘said’, it has its place. But I think, if you gave the children a copy of some of the dialogue and challenged them to ‘fix’ the reporting verbs so that they worked harder for the story, then you would have a very pleasant hour with a lot of good work to show for it. Maybe even an instant display and you know how much I like that!
Anyway, that’s Max Magic, the first in what I fear will be a whole series of books from Stephen ‘I’m an irritating D-list Celebrity cling-on’ Mulhern. And Tom Easton. It’s available now for the low, low price of £3.99 but would you like it for free?
Of course you would. And so it is time, once again, for me to extol the virtues of the #notsponsored BorrowBox app! It couldn’t be simpler. Download the app. Input your library details. Borrow ebooks and audiobooks for free. That’s how I manage to read a book a week and not go bankrupt. Honestly, you owe it to yourself to do this. Even better, you can stream your phone’s audio to a speaker and use it as the end of the day book. You don’t even have to read it. For free.
From the archives…
Speaking of not being sponsored, it’s time to revisit a blog post that I think deserves a little more love. This one is all the way from June 2021 and is called ‘Who Wants Something that’s Free?’ You can head over to www.mrmsmusings.com to find it for yourself.
In this short-but-sweet blog post, I explain how to play a maths game I invented called ‘Battle Dice’ (I’m working on an app version). It’s dead simple and I really shouldn’t be giving it away for free but I just can’t help myself, it’s such a good game!
I was about to explain the whole thing to you but then I realised… if I did that, you’d have no reason to check out the post! Foolish Carl. Instead, I’ll see if I can tease you with enough information to want to seek it out for yourself.
Let’s see… it’s a great game to encourage rapid recall of multiplication skills that doesn’t require children sitting in front of a screen. That’s right, we’re talking physical objects and actual human interaction. All you need is a standard deck of cards and some 6-sided dice (six is ideal but you can play with two). Failing that, two sets of 0-9 cards and a home-made spinner (paper clip and pencil).
The children take it in turns to try to create the highest possible product based on the battle cards they hold. The highest (or lowest, your choice) product wins and knocks a point off of the opponent’s battle dice (oh, the kids roll the dice to see how many hit points each of their players has).
I have used this game with children who are weak in their times tables, who are unwilling to practise their times tables, or who are simply not in the mood to learn. It has always been popular. There are rules for modifying scores when a face card comes up and there are even additional rules for a joker. There is an official playmat that I would be happy to send to you, you just have to ask!
One more thing…
I have just completed my second set of 100% personalised maths challenge papers. So there is now a Year 4 and a Year 5 set. These are 20-mark maths reasoning papers based on the National Curriculum. The twist? Your child’s name is in the questions. These are unique, full-colour papers, with answers, that are custom-made for your child. Their name and a friend’s name (or a pet, it doesn’t matter).
I would love to have some feedback on these, so I am offering free copies to the first 20 people who ask for them. This could be one person requesting all 20 papers, I’ll customise them to whatever names you want; gendered or gender-free pronouns are all automatically updated.
Interested in the concept but want to be able to use and reuse the papers? That’s possible. I’ve written them so that they are dynamically updated with different numbers each time they are downloaded to print. Send me a message and we can talk about trialling and licensing. I’ve got to keep the lights on somehow!