Posts Tagged ‘children’

As I feel the need to stand on my soap box and get something off my chest this week I apologise in advance for  my work-related rant and won’t be at all offended should you wish to click away now…

picture courtesy of Anxiety UK

picture courtesy of Anxiety UK

So, two weeks back into term time and already I have signed a petition to remove the Secretary of State for Education. I don’t add my name to anything lightly but I really do think it’s time for Gove to go. His unrealistic and ever changing demands on teachers is creating an exhausted, de-motivated and de-moralised staffroom; the delivery of our national curriculum with its incessant assessing puts unnecessary pressure on students, creating stressed and apathetic pupils. Do children actually enjoy school these days? Ask a few – I did – and they looked at me as if I’m barmy. As far as many of them are concerned, it’s a place to meet their friends – what goes on in classes is just a damn nuisance.

To maintain league table positions, schools have to chase grades. Targets are imposed on students and it is up to the staff to make sure these targets are met, never mind the anxiety felt by hard working children who aspire to, but sometimes fall short of, their aspirational targets. The government recently implemented performance related pay for teachers. In any other profession or line of work (except perhaps the front line of the health service) I’d say this is more than acceptable – in the corporate world it is probably essential. But teaching?  Where we are dealing with the lives and minds of young people? I don’t think so.

Some kids, however hard they work, however much they try, however much guidance they receive from dedicated teachers just aren’t going to reach that magical A-C banding which means that staff, not fulfilling their quota of ‘passes’ will find their pay packets lacking. This system is just crying out to be abused by unscrupulous heads of department who could cream off top students for their own classrooms thus ensuring a constant flow of suitable, remunerative grades.

A-C grades at GCSE (exams taken at age 16) are the keys to moving onto further education and eventually university. Grades convert to points which in turn, convert to cash for funding. It is not unusual nowadays for many top level students to achieve ten A or A* grades at GCSE, which is great for the students and for the school coffers but how does this happen? Are that many students good at everything? In my dim and distant past people generally leant towards either maths/science or English and the arts with only the odd few who were more than competent at everything. What can this possibly mean? Are we breeding a race of super students now who are as good at creative writing and art as they are maths and physics? Who can turn their hands to practical subjects and still be ace at computing and chemistry? No of course we aren’t. Our national curriculum is tailored to ensure that kids jump through hoops with the drained direction of their dedicated teachers.

When they’re not taking exams, pupils are being constantly assessed. I’m sure this has always been the case – just not so obviously to the students as it is now. The students are shown a framework for success criteria and in some cases, the mark scheme, before they even open a book and assessments are churned out in every year group, from ages 11-16, sometimes as close together as one every three weeks in one subject alone. Multiply that by the number of subjects on the timetable and you have one hell of a lot of assessments not to mention BORING BORING BORING.

To what end? Where’s the learning? More importantly, as far as I’m concerned, where’s the fun? It seems to me that we are only teaching them to pass a test, to excel in assessments and that any actual knowledge they may acquire is a happy additional benefit. I wonder if this is all a government ploy to create a generation of analysts… because that’s what they are learning – to analyse, not to create. Short sighted, in my opinion. Eventually, without creators, there will be nothing left to analyse. Rather like when our government got rid of all the manufacturing industries. They really don’t think things through, do they?

During my schooldays which, incidentally, I loved, we were afforded the opportunity (and the time), in English classes, to spend whole lessons discussing books plays and poems around set texts. We were taught to love Shakespeare and poetry before we had to start picking it to bits: we were given a lifelong love of literature which is why I get so exasperated with our older students who think that reading seven novels about an irritating little bespectacled wizard is sufficient recreational reading material for a potential A* student. (I ranted controversially once before about Harry Potter, which you can read here if you’re interested).

My Art lessons were peppered with visits to galleries and History to museums while Geography offered field trips which included wading around in the River Dart and getting lost on an unknown fell in the Lake District. We survived without need for all the health and safety legislation required now to take groups of students anywhere remotely interesting.

(Actually a colleague and I did manage to evade the red tape once and take a group of our students to the theatre. This trip is probably worth a post in its own right, as it turned out).

I know things have moved on substantially since I was at school – of course they have and facilities these days are fantastic. Just what is the point of it all if the learning is secondary to the testing? I wonder if, a few years down the line, our students will remember anything about their schooling or whether their memories will be of one long assessment – and how sad if that is the case.

Hopefully equilibrium will be restored next week but in the meantime, should you feel inclined to sign the Remove Gove from Office petition, you can do so here and if you’d like to read my poem on ‘Free Range Children,’ just click here.

Phew, that feels better…

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I love this time of year: crisp mornings giving way to the last vestiges of summer; condensation on the car windscreen a tell-tale sign of how chilly the nights are becoming. Hedgerows around here are heavy with rosehips and blackberries; feisty little spiked green balls concealing chestnuts hang low on the trees, or lay scattered, empty beneath, where squirrels have had first pickings. Yesterday I sat outside to read, the early autumn sunshine unseasonably warm. It put me in mind of harvest festivals.

Before the age of eleven I attended a tiny Church of England primary school where one of the best celebrations on the school calendar was the annual Harvest Festival. I think I preferred this even to the Nativity, (possibly because, due to an untimely attack of the mumps, I never got to dress up as an angel. God moves in mysterious ways).

Whether it was made more of back in those days, or whether it was because we were a rural community surrounded by farmland, Harvest Festival meant something to us. We spent time rehearsing harvest hymns, understanding the sentiment of ‘ploughing the fields and scattering the good seed on the land.’ We may not have, as children, appreciated ‘all good gifts around us’ but our village certainly had them in abundance. We were all encouraged to bring something in for our harvest table, which would later be transferred to the church up the road for the Sunday service and then distributed to elderly folks in the community.

I don’t think my sister and I, or any of the other children for that matter, were aware that there were needy folk in our village; we assumed it was just a nice gesture, and we’d rush home to tell Mum and Nanna that it was time to make our harvest baskets.  pyo-mushroom-basket[1]

Nanna, my maternal grandmother (who lived with us), and Mum would help us create beautiful little baskets of fruit and vegetables to take in. We’d start with a cardboard mushroom punnet, cover it with crepe paper in autumnal colours and finish off with a contrasting zigzag around the edge. Next, we’d scrunch up some newspaper to put in the bottom before layering with some dried autumn leaves. On top of this, we would lay our vegetables: a few carrots, potatoes, beans; perhaps some apples or plums – anything to make a colourful arrangement – maybe a sprig of redcurrants to finish off, with a curling strand of ivy around the handle.

There was no competition – the girls at school tended to go the basket route while the boys favoured a box, jars of homemade jam, new laid eggs or simply an armful of one produce or another. The bakery always donated a loaf, in the shape of a wheat sheaf which formed the centre of the display. The trestle table creaked under the weight of our offerings.

photo from Pinterest

photo from Pinterest

One year, I remember, our harvest table looked a bit odd. Someone had added, in amongst the home-grown produce, a Fray Bentos pie. It sat menacingly, like an alien spacecraft, nestled amongst the corncobs and rhubarb. My sister, even more than me, was as outraged as any eight year old can be. The metal monstrosity had ruined our rural tableau of plenty.  Harvest Festival would never be the same again.

the offending pie

the offending pie

And it isn’t. While my sister and I cannot think back to that time without hilarious reference to that pie, which for us has overshadowed those old Cider with Rosie moments of harvest baskets, the Festival is now a time to remind ourselves that even in affluent, leafy, stockbroker-belt Surrey, there are families struggling to make ends meet. Some children, in this day and age, are coming to school hungry, not just because they missed their breakfast, but because they had no evening meal the night before, either. We are actively encouraging our students to bring a tin to school for our hectic local food bank. Someone, back in the day, had some foresight, after all, with that Fray Bentos pie.

Kind of brings the meaning of Harvest home, doesn’t it?

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Unusually for a household which includes family under the age of twenty-five, we have no game consoles.  My son had a play station when he was younger but preferred the great outdoors and often played by himself while his friends were attached to a handset.  I feel the affectionate use of the term Sofa Loafer when alluding to him may well have given some people the impression that all he does is lounge around watching Top Gear repeats on television. While he does do a fair bit of this, once he comes in from work, he is also multi-tasking. His laptop is constantly open so he’s either writing, researching, communicating or networking.  Or eating, come to think of it, sometimes all at once: impressive, eh?

Well, as I’ve been allowed to see some of the results of his research, I have to say that I think it probably is fairly impressive and it’s why I’m giving him a bit of free publicity.

With a passionate interest in WW2 history, his ultimate goal is to become a battlefield tour guide, but for now he has been working towards producing a book, containing anecdotes, historical facts and old photographs related to the American 101st Airborne division’s time in England, when they were billeted in Wiltshire before the D Day jump into Normandy on 6th June, 1944. His manuscript is almost ready for editing and he has sourced a publisher.  He has created a Facebook page where you can keep up to date with his progress, but his personal D Day is for it to be ready in 2014, in time for the 70th anniversary.

This year he’ll be escorting a very important person to Normandy for the celebrations – an American veteran who he met during his trip to America two years ago and who is now retracing his steps in Europe during a two and a half week stay on this side of the pond.  He and his travelling companion will be staying with us and revisiting his billet site (as well as Stonehenge, at his request), before the ferry journey across to France, from where he will travel on to Belgium and Holland, meeting up with other friends there.

While I am delighted at the prospect of this visit, my main concern at the moment is locating some Anglo-American bunting. This is most definitely an occasion for putting out the flags.

I’ll leave you with a few pictures from Normandy, a place now of tranquillity and historical interest, but whose inhabitants and the landscape saw some of the fiercest fighting of World War Two.

Utah Beach, late afternoon, now a peaceful place for a stroll

Utah Beach, late afternoon, now a peaceful place for a stroll

The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer where over 9,000 graves face west, towards home

The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer where over 9,000 graves face west, towards home

Stained glass window at a delightful little church in Angoville au Plain commemorating the Airborne

Stained glass window at a delightful little church in Angoville au Plain commemorating the Airborne

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Having only just discovered Sir Ken Robinson, I realise I’m behind the times as he gave this talk in 2006, but I want to spread his word. So, apologies if you are already familiar with his sound sense, and if you’re not, I urge you to watch this short video.

http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

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Earlier this week I was sorting out a pile of papers and files in the room we ambitiously call our office. It is the smallest bedroom and contains a bookcase and a desk, where we all dump stuff which gets forgotten about until one of us (me) has a tidy up and throws most of it away. I found the following poem, amongst a lot of school-related detritus, which I remember scribbling down a couple of years ago during a never-ending invigilation session. The inspiration came from something my son once said to me when he was at school, about feeling like a battery chicken. Having spent last term with our students doing wall to wall assessments, and who are now preparing for next term and wall to wall exams, I think this posting is probably timely. Especially in light of the recent vote of no confidence awarded to our Minister for Education.

                

I want my child to be free range

To experience a host of new things

I want him to learn for his interest

Not have the state clip his wings.

Some kids refuse to be moulded –

They’ve seen the warning signs –

They’re doomed to fail,

They’re proper pests

Fidgeting, chatting and larking about…

…While the battery chicks sit their tests.

But these kids have something

That the others lack

A sense of singularity –

They refuse to follow the pack.

Light distraction’s healthy

A joke or two just fine

Children learn in many ways

Not sitting exams all the time.

Let’s not bother quite so much

About levels and being graded,

Mock exams; the marking, the testing,

Leaves teachers feeling jaded.

Name, rank and number, our fathers gave

In order for us to be free

But our kids aren’t allowed to think for themselves

With this processing for bureaucracy.

Assessing and checking and following graphs

And measuring year upon year

The homogenisation of eager young minds

Keeps the education dept open, I fear.

A – C grades win big prizes

Not only for students – the schools!

Our kids are used as pawns in a game –

Inflate the league tables –

That’s rules!

We teach them how to pass

Any number of things

But are they learning for life?

Or is it all gone in an instant,

As soon as the papers are sent

To AQA, Ed Excel – whatever

To run through a scanner,

Be multiple-choiced

A 25% chance of success.

Oh, let our children be free range!

Please give them a looser rein

To be individuals,

Unique, thoughtful beings

Not churned out to be all the same.

picture from techcentral.ie

picture from techcentral.ie

Cynical… me? 

 © jennypellett 2013

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