Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Working in the Public Sector

Our school system should be good at producing public sector workers. Successful pupils can become successful graduates, and work in the public sector could provide a comfortable next step into another institution. Institutions do not like innovators, free thinkers ... not really. They like you to toe the party line.

It could be easy to slip into, it's 'something to do' ... but if work in the public sector is viewed as a sentence one must suffer until rewarded with a nice pension in one's later years, then haven't we rather lost the plot? Public sector workers are known for their griping and moaning (ask anyone married to a teacher!) but, actually, they have a pretty good deal, or they have had up to now. We have to face the fact that the days of 'jobs for life' are gone. Gone too are the days when we knew we could retire at 60 or 65, gone is the assurance of a good pension. Are these really the things in which our security lies?

Do you work in a job you hate day after day holding out for that great pension you've been promised one day? Do you dream of a comfortable retirement? What would you do with that retirement anyway? You'd probably soon get bored of doing nothing!!

I think we need to completely change this way of thinking. Teach because you love it. Nurse because you love it! Be a policeman or a fireman because that is what you most want to be! Perhaps do it for a few years, then do something else. See yourself as a verb not as a noun, able to change with the circumstances, move with the times. Why not work til you're 68, or 75, as long as you're doing something you're able to, something you enjoy. Be a portfolio worker - a bit of this, a bit of that. Make your own work. Use your gifts, skills, initiative, wheel and deal a little. Don't be stuck in a rut, doing something which makes you miserable, especially not for the promise of retirement at 65 and a fat pension. What then when the promises evaporate? Where does your security lie?

Worth striking for?

There are a number of issues in education I believe it would be worth teachers striking over:

1) The unquestioned authority of Ofsted which stops headteachers and teachers, through fear, doing what they truly feel would be best for the pupils in their care.

2) The SATs tests and the resultant 'teaching to pass tests' by which schools can prove they are 'successful'.

3) The autonomy teachers should have as professionals to make their own assessments and to make the right decisions for the pupils in their care without distant Government interference.

4) The teaching responsibility given to Cover Supervisors and Teaching Assistants which undermines teachers' professionalism, and exploits support staff.

5) The Health and Safety restrictions which mean teachers are too afraid to take risks, restricting educational opportunity and the broad and balanced curriculum.

6) The obsession with CRB checks, which do little to protect children, but put walls around schools and prevent good people in the community from being more involved with childrens' education.

7) Poor behaviour in classrooms and the lack of authority given to teachers and schools to be able to deal with this effectively, to the detriment of many pupils' education.

8) The disproportionate investment in 'average' pupils, to push their grades high enough to make their school appear more successful, without similar investment in very able or failing pupils.

Union representatives are talking on television this week about how their actions are for the sake of the children and their education. Why do the issues listed here not push teachers to the picket lines? It is not the teachers' pay scale or a handsome pension scheme which will attract good teachers, rather good teachers will leave the profession because of their frustrations with the list above. Or, they will keep teaching because they love it, because they truly enjoy being with children, because they believe they can make a difference, because they have found their vocation.

Teachers are striking this week in their own self-interest. I think they've picked the wrong issue.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Letter Formation

I had noticed that, when my middle son (8) was writing, he formed his letters awkwardly and his writing didn't flow. As we were abroad until he was 5, he started school in England at the beginning of Year 1, so had obviously missed some of the foundation work on letter formation which children presumably do in the reception year. It seems no-one picked up on his problem. In fact, his teacher always used to tell me what beautiful handwriting he had - "The best handwriting in Year 1" - and, as he is such a careful and conscientious worker, he continued to work at his writing, but with incorrect formation, which became a habit.

As we have this week started on the Kumon programme, I had high hopes this would be a means of breaking these habits and helping him with his writing. One of Kumon's principles is to give children an easy starting point and work on their concentration and study habits before the difficulty of the work increases. My middle son's starter sheets therefore involve a lot of letter tracing and word formation. He complained this was too easy, but I was pleased as I hoped to iron out his problems.

As I closely observed him working, which is another principle of Kumon, I noticed it was not all bad news. It seemed to be a particular family of letters, those starting with a downward stroke - like l - which were causing problems. Many other letters, including those which begin with a 'c' formation were fine. I pointed this out to my son, who was at first discouraged. "But that's the way I write them," he protested. I told him he would find his writing much easier if we could correct this habit and form the letters correctly. On his third day of Kumon, after he had finished the set work, I asked him to write the letter 'l' from top to bottom repeatedly. If he was shoddy or careless, or if he wrote it in the old way (bottom to top), he had to do another line. He only did about 3 lines before he managed a whole row of correct 'l's. I left it at that for the day, but my plan was to work through the troublesome letters in the same way - one each day - t, r, m, n, k, h, b, i, j, p, f.

Imagine my surprise the very next day, when he sat down to do his Kumon, and began working through his pages for the day. Based on the remedial work we had done with the letter 'l', he was forming every single letter correctly! Of course, I was delighted and praised him for this. He was over the moon ... "I can do it!" he said, "And writing is so much easier". He flew through his work, and was so pleased with himself. "Didn't anyone tell you this at school?" I asked. "I don't think anyone noticed," he said and, of course in a class of 30 children, I am sure that is sadly true.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Sports Day: love it or hate it?

Are there certain things you imagine you would miss if your children were not in school? The mad rush to get everyone out of the door by 8.35 in the morning? Shopping for school uniforms and sewing (ironing or sticking) name tapes into everything? The gossip at the school gate? School photographs - the annual happy snap of siblings in their matching uniforms? School sports days? Were you one of those fortunate, athletic people for whom this annual event was a highlight of the school year, at which you collected a number of achievement stickers - 1st, 2nd, 3rd - and your team won the house cup repeatedly year on year? Or was this, for you, more a day to loathe, the thought of which was enough to make you feel sick, a day when you hated your sporting incompetence displayed for all to see, as you traipsed across the finishing line to the derision of your classmates? At primary school I was on 'the red team'. We were a motley crew of assorted sporting unfortunates, destined to come in last year upon dreary year. For me, and primary school was the peak of my sporting career (I did play centre on the netball team, and once ran in a hurdles race at the County sports!), sports day was an occasion to dread.

I do wonder, still, if there are things the boys miss about school, and I ask them sometimes ... I wonder, in particular, whether they miss their friends. Their responses surprise me. "I can still see my friends whenever I want," they say, "I can just invite them over". On days when I am bad tempered, I wonder if they would not rather be away from me. "Teachers have bad days too," they say. "Teachers often shout." Would they like to go back to school, I ask. A resounding "NO" from all three!

What about sports day?
This year I saw advertised on one of the Home Educators Yahoo groups I lurk on, a sports day for Home Educators in the West Midlands at a park in central Birmingham, so I asked the boys if they would like to go. "YES" from my eldest son, "NO" from the other two. So, I signed us up, figuring the younger two could decide once there whether to join in or not.

There was quite a large turn out, probably 40 or so children aged 2-13. One or two parents had taken responsibility for organising events, so the morning ran smoothly and was well thought through. The children were divided roughly by age group and ran a running race, an egg-and-spoon race (with plastic eggs, much to my middle son's disappointment!), a sack race, which was lots of fun, a welly toss, and 2 relays - one which involved moving plastic balls from one bucket to another, the second involving wet sponges and the movement of water, which was a fun idea.

My youngest son spectated, though he did participate in tossing the welly with his older brother. But my middle son joined in right from the start and the older boys seemed to enjoy the event very much. After the races, there was a bring and share picnic, and an amazing spread of food materialised from everyone's carrier bags onto a blanket on the grass. After eating, the children enjoyed running round the park together, playing various games. One of the things I always like to see at home educators' events is the way in which children of all ages, boys and girls, play together, the older ones helping the younger ones. This is one of the things other people worry home educated children miss out on without school .... socialisation. I wonder if being stuck in a classroom with 29 same-age peers is really the best socialisation we can give?

Monday, 20 June 2011

Potato Harvest

I was very glad, back in February, to hear about the Potatoes for Schools project, and that this opportunity was open to Home Educators as well as to all primary schools. Having registered online at we received our pack of resources in the post. It included a sheet of directions including the key dates for chitting, planting and harvesting, 2 large grow bags and labels, as well as several varieties of seed potatoes to be used. Duly following the schedule, we chitted and planted our potatoes back in March, and today enjoyed harvesting them. What would normally be shared between a class of 30, our three boys had to themselves and they enjoyed emptying the grow bags over our patio and hunting through the compost for potatoes. We had a fairly meagre crop - about 800g of potatoes in total. We also took the opportunity to harvest the overgrown spinach in our veg box, and it was very satisfying to come inside with our own home grown food to cook up for dinner. The elder two boys and I prepared the vegetables, and made a pie with the leftover chicken from yesterday's roast. People always say home grown vegetables taste so much better, and now we know for ourselves that this is true!

Friday, 17 June 2011

A Visit from County

It is a year since our last visit from the County Council's Home Education Officer (See Blog Archive, July 2010 "Engaging with County"), so a few days ago I received a call to arrange her visit. The man who came last year has since retired, so it was to be our first meeting with the new person in post. Anxious to make a good impression, though still quietly confident about what we are doing, the boys and I spent yesterday finishing off our outstanding art projects and assembling a display of our work for this year. It was good to do this 1) because it pushed me to get all the boys' work organised and filed reasonably well - something I needed to do before we move house in the next few weeks, and 2) because it reminds us of all the wonderful things we have done and learned this year. When we look back at it all, it is encouraging to see how much we have achieved, and I can see how much the boys have progressed since last year.

Today's visit went well, and was the beginning of what I hope will continue to be an interesting and profitable dialogue - in both directions. The boys love to have the opportunity to showcase their work, and to talk to an interested audience about all that they have been doing. They all spoke confidently and proudly about their work and achievements. The Education Officer was affirming and encouraging, which boosts our confidence and helps allay my doubts and fears. She was with us for 4 hours, talking not only to each boy in turn, but also to myself and my husband throughout, listening to our reasons for doing what we are doing, and also to our questions and concerns. I find this a helpful interaction as I feel if I was in need of guidance and support, there is someone who understands what we are trying to do whom I could ask for help. She had some insightful comments to make about the boys, and some helpful suggestions for ways forward, which I will be happy to take on board. In particular, she noted that we need to give our eldest son help in mastering the skills which will enable him to share with the world clearly and coherently the many great ideas that flow through his sharp little mind. The Kumon programme which all three boys will commence this month will help develop discipline and mastery of study skills. Our youngest son - our unschooled child - was noted to be especially bright and articulate.

Overall it was a positive day. My subconscious desire to achieve a Number 1 on her scale of 1-5 shows me how my schooled self is still so extrinsically and grade motivated, but we were again told we were doing an excellent job and exceeding expectations, so I feel all the hard work is affirmed and have the confidence to go on for another year. Other than that, feel completely exhausted!
Work based on 'Pilgrim's Progress'

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Art of Storytelling

My youngest son has been listening to a story CD every night recently of a wonderful puppet show we saw last year, an adaptation of "The Arabian Nights" by The Theatre of Widdershins. He has been retelling the story with great expression, and today he asked me to film his production, which he acted out with teddy bears. The language, as the lead character travels 3000 miles from the city of Baghdad to Samarkand and back again in search of his fortune, was rich and the intonation, expression and humour he used in his storytelling was wonderful.

My theory is that with such evidence of oral language development, though their writing might not be comparable with their schooled peers at present, as the boys' fine motor skills develop, what is coming out of their mouths will one day flow out of their pens. It is different at home, with more focused interaction with adults and rich conversational opportunities, to a school classroom where children's chief interaction is with their peers, and a lot of teacher speak is directional.

Solar powered boats and circuits

A nearby power station came to run these two workshops with a group of home educated children at the farm where we meet regularly. My husband took our 2 elder boys along. Here are his thoughts ...

The focus of the day was electricity. Students were asked to build simple circuits consisting of a couple of wires, a battery pack and a bulb. While, on the whole, the girls waited for instructions, the boys just got all the components out of their plastic boxes and proceeded to build complicated circuits. They tested for conductors and insulators, used buzzers, switches and motors. They made 'jitter bugs' and, again, the boys ploughed in, not waiting for instruction. Despite the different learning styles, the learning outcomes were the same. I have been aware as a secondary maths teacher that boys generally learn in an entirely different way from girls, and the traditional style of explanations from the front suits boys less. Generally it was wonderful to see a natural love of learning and discovery through learning during these workshops. The activity in the afternoon involved designing a solar powered boat using milk bottles, rubber bands, a solar panel and a motor with a propeller. This was a fantastic activity where the kids learnt so much through trial and error, building on the things that they had learnt in the morning. People got very competitive. If only schools operated like this. Sadly, broken or incomplete kits and lack of resources make activities like this rare. And often there are time constraints at school. A whole day of fun science with highly motivated kids - I'm definitely going again.

Releasing froglets

The nature notebooks have been well utilised in drawing the tadpoles we have been observing, and documenting their development into froglets. It has been fascinating to watch this process, to bring the frog lifecycle to life, and also to learn about life and death and to see why animals and birds have so many young. We brought about 20 tadpoles home, about 7 survived to become froglets, and we were able to return 3 to the pond they came from. It was really fun to watch the survivors leave the tank and hop and swim away across the pond.

Our friend also fished out some newts for the boys to observe and handle. They remembered quite a bit about newts from the workshop we did with The Newt Man at the Home Ed group last year.

Exploring the Llyn

The rather cool June weather meant our planned week's camping was upgraded to a late-deal cottage holiday on the Llyn Peninsula in West Wales, a beautiful and quiet part of the country with plenty of rugged coastline and numerous sandy beaches to explore.

The weather was kind to us and meant the boys spent lots of time outdoors playing on the beach and in the super garden at the cottage, as well as learning to boogie board. We had a day out in Snowdonia on one of the great little trains of Wales, and also a visit to Caernarfon Castle.

The boys gathered video footage of highlights of the week from which we will put together a 3 minute promotional video for a competition on 'The Best of Wales' website. Staying on a farm, the boys also got a pony ride around the garden and the chance to see newborn calves and learn a bit about cattle farming. The slurry pit was a sight of intrigue!

There was one moment where my youngest son came running in from the garden asking for his nature notebook. "I've spotted some nature," he declared and carefully sketched a number of flies which were sunbathing on the bonnet of a plastic toy ride-on!