Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Worth striking for? & Working in the Public Sector (Re-posts)

I am re-posting two pieces I wrote in June this year, because they are relevant to the strikes we have seen today over Public Sector workers' pensions. My husband has recently left teaching to run his own business - a move from the public to the private sector. He is happier being his own boss, but our income is lower and there is no pension assurance. He is not alone in leaving the teaching profession. I recently heard that the average length of a teaching career is now just 5 years. Can we really imagine 67 year old teachers in some of the difficult classroom situations which exist in our country today? What about the rising number of people who find themselves unemployed - especially the young? What do they think of people in good, reasonably well-paid jobs - with what will still be a 'good' pension scheme (relatively) - striking today? With everybody feeling the pinch, and the current state of the economy, is it really the time for strikes? I think our whole mindset about work needs to shift, as these posts show ....

"Worth Striking For" (June 2011):

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 above 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.

"Working in the Public Sector" (June 2011):

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?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

A Very Tasty Chinese Lesson

Having lived overseas, which provides the perfect opportunity for children to learn another language, I have been keen to build on those foundations. It is so much easier for children to learn a second language when they are young. In my opinion, even the Government's new scheme to introduce a second language at Key Stage 2, misses the key learning window for language development. This needs to start much younger. A challenge for me here has been creating a second language environment within our home. We do this by having a native Chinese speaker come to work with the boys once a week. She is wonderful, and through games, competitions and various activities, the boys scarcely realise how much they are learning, they are having so much fun. Today we had decided to have a practical Chinese lesson with this lady - making Chinese vegetable spring rolls. As they worked, she reinforced the language they have been learning, numbers and colours, as well as introducing the names of vegetables and cooking verbs. At the end of the morning, we had a very tasty plate of spring rolls to enjoy as well! More Chinese cookery lessons are planned for the future ...

Invisible Science

Measuring an oil molecule was the highlight of a second day of science workshops at Stoke's museums with our Home Education Group. Using scientific calculators and mathematical formulae, the children were shown how to calculate the size of an invisible molecule by measuring a visible drop and then watching what happened when that drop was placed into water. Led by an enthusiastic scientist, there was nothing patronising about this activity, and it was great to see the children (aged 6-13) engaging with the material at their own level. Later, they helped to isolate a molecule, and learned about measuring microwaves and radioactivity.

The afternoon of practical experimentation followed a morning of learning about health in the Potteries in the Victorian era, including exploring the health hazards in a mock-up city slum, hearing about the importance of the development of the toilet and sewers, and visiting a Victorian doctor's surgery.

These activities are offered FREE, but sadly few schools take up the opportunity, and the funding of such initiatives is soon to end. It struck me that Stoke schoolchildren particularly could learn so much about their local history here, but of course, schools follow a National Curriculum, with little opportunity to appreciate the local treasures on their doorstep. This is a pity, both for the children, and for the community around them which has so much to offer.

Power House

My husband doesn't work on a Tuesday, so was fortunate enough to take the boys on a home educators' trip to Ironbridge Power Station. He writes:

"Children had a go at turning things, pressing things and playing with the equipment in the education centre at the power station. Then we were given a talk about the history of electricity - from its discovery way back in time to how Michael Faraday was able to harness the power of magnets to produce electricity. The engineer then talked about the processes involved in the coal powered station from the import of low sulphur coal from Russia to the supply of electricity to the national grid.

The cooling towers that we can see at a distance may seem quite ugly and uninteresting, but when you are at the power station the sheer scale of the place grabs your interest. The boys could have learnt these things at school but by the next day they would have forgotten. Instead, the trip created the experience needed to have an interest in electromagnetism. Coincidently but not unusually, my eldest son and I had read about Michael Faraday recently. It is often surprising how things come together in home education in ways you could not have planned for. Our reading was no doubt reinforced by actually doing the same experiment Faraday did, and seeing the practical application of this on a huge scale.

You could learn all about power stations in the classroom, or from books - but how much better to have actually seen all this! All I can say is I look forward to more trips like this!"

One of our objectives in home education is for our boys to see different people at work in different environments, and thus to understand the range of work opportunities open to them in the future, and to stir their interest. In primary schools, most children see mostly women teachers - We want our boys to see many different people working in many different jobs, and to understand what those different roles may entail. We believe this will enable them to discover what they truly want to do in the future, and to make good choices - rather than drifting through the school system unsure of where they are headed. Today's trip exposed them to a very different working environment and to a particular type of engineering opportunity. Conversation this evening has focussed on energy sources, oil supplies and renewable energy for the future.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Redefining our Direction

As a home-educating parent, I am sure it is normal to go through periods of frustration and disillusionment, when we wonder if what we are doing is alright, or if our children are achieving enough. In our achievement oriented culture, it can be difficult to redefine our priorities, to look at the positive gains in broader terms, character development, for example, or family relationships, rather than just a focus on academic success. There are days when the local primary school suddenly seems a very appealing option! These are usually times when I myself feel tired or overwhelmed, and as though I am not on top of things. It is in fact, at times like this, that I begin to realise what home education is really all about - and it is not about me being in control the whole time! The boys surprise me by doing things altogether unexpected, which actually tick the boxes in my head, though not in the way I might have planned it.

An example of this was when I recently decided to take them about 40 minutes drive (longer because we got lost!) to a drama workshop, which had been organised by a specialist drama teacher for home educated children of all ages. The boys didn't want to go, but I had booked and paid for it, so I pulled them away from a game with their friends, and off we went. Well, they didn't really engage with the activity very well, although what was on offer was fine, and it was a long way to go. I thought it would be a good idea to take the opportunity to try something new, but the boys just weren't up for it at all. When we got back, they were anxious to get back to their game with their friends, and I realised that what they were doing was making a spy movie, acting their own story out in costume, whilst my eldest son directed and filmed it. This was being done with great delight and enthusiasm, and all on their own initiative. What a lot of time and effort I had wasted getting them to go along with my agenda - what I thought best - to achieve no better objective than that which they were achieving themselves.

When I feel a little disillusioned, I find it helps enormously to revisit some of my books on Home Education, to find inspiration and encouragement, and to remind myself why we have made the decision to home educate. Thus week, I have been re-reading "For the Children's Sake" which focuses on the ideas of educationalist Charlotte Mason. In the first two chapters, two particularly important points are emphasized:
1) The importance for children of free play, without adult interference, and
2) The importance of exposing children to great story and literature.

Our boys seldom say, "I am bored". They do not look to be entertained, but are great at making their own games and playing together. Sure, they have their quarrels, but it is easy for children in our culture to lose their ability to play creatively. This is because so much of their time is adult directed - at school, and at after school clubs. We must remember to leave time for that most important of a child's learning activities - free, creative, uninterrupted, inventive play.

My reading also reminded me of the importance of reading to children ... Reading engaging, captivating, intelligent books; books which would perhaps be beyond their own reading ability but which, nevertheless, provide wonderful food for the imagination. So mush of what is on offer to the children of today is rubbish - what Charlotte Mason would call "Twaddle". It patronises children and fails to recognise their capabilities. Mason encourages the art of 'narration' in young children, that is encouraging them to retell the stories they hear in their own words.

I have one son who is very reluctant to narrate. Having redefined the objective of reading great literature, such as that outlined in the Ambleside Online curriculum, I read "The Story of Dick Whittington and his Cat" to him and his younger brother, then asked him to narrate it. I admit I was frustrated by his reluctance, then I had a bright idea. rather than getting annoyed, which is easy to do, believe me, I suggested they re-enact the story with some Lego men or soft toys. "Ooh, yes, can we get the puppet theatre out?" he asked. Well, an hour later, I was treated to a performance of Dick Whittington utilising a selection of puppets, soft toys and props found around the home. Two birds with one stone - free play and great story. Two things to remember.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Scouting for Boys

My eldest son - who will soon be 10 - has come rather late to scouting, expressing a wish to join a local cub pack with only six months until he will be due to graduate to scouts. Nevertheless, I was pleased as I have been encouraging him in this direction for some time with no joy. Having attended the group for several weeks, he decided to proceed with his investiture, after thoroughly questioning the meaning of the promise, and in particular, what exactly his duty to the Queen might entail. He returned home with several badges to sew on to his new jumper, as well as a pack explaining the opportunities available in scouting, and the cub badge work. He immediately set about reading this manual and ticking off badges already attained, as well as those he might work towards, with great aplomb, announcing this could be his new homeschool curriculum. And there is indeed an array of learning opportunities within this book for a small boy with initiative and time on his hands. So far, he has studied ordnance survey maps, the Highway Code, a little astronomy and World Faiths - with a particular interest in Diwali. We have discussed environmental issues, and issues of poverty. He has interviewed a local friend about his life, and times when he had to try his best. And he has undertaken woodwork projects with my Dad, making a fine toolbox and nesting box. I think his objective is to get as many cub badges as he can in the shortest possible space of time! And with such productivity, long may it continue!

Little Scientists

Yesterday we went to The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent to take part in 4 science workshops with our local Home Education Group. This was a wonderful, FREE opportunity for the children to become little scientists for the day, with a range of varied activities imaginatively presented by engaging staff.

I took my older 2 boys (aged 8 and 9) and we travelled up by train and bus, which turned out to be reasonable and straightforward. We were welcomed and given a brief orientation of the Museum before being ushered into our first session, all about beetles. The main activity involved the children using a key to identify a selection of beetles, and then drawing their favourite using careful observation skills.

We were then moved down to the archaeology lab to learn about microfossils. The task the children were given was to look at rock samples from the Kent coast and to search for microfossils from a particular time period to determine whether it would be worth mining the area for oil reserves. Our little scientists loved dressing in their lab coats and using the precision microscopes to conduct their survey. It was amazing to see the shapes and detail which emerged beneath the lenses, and many microfossils were spotted and aged using an identification chart. It is so important for young people to be exposed to people working in varied professions and to have the opportunity to try their hand at different tasks. One of my sons was much more taken with this line of work than the other. Asked whether they would like to pore over hundreds of samples like this for weeks and weeks in order to provide sufficient evidence to an oil company, the children were divided in their enthusiasm!

After lunch, our third workshop involved the children pretending to be curators at the museum. They were issued with digital cameras and told to go round the galleries photographing their favourite exhibits - items they liked or which grabbed their attention. They had then to narrow their choice down to three, then to their very favourite exhibit and to think about why it appealed to them, whether it would appeal to a wider audience and, ultimately, whether it would be worth the museum's investment. It was interesting to see what varied selections the children came up with, and encouraging to hear them discussing and arguing their item's appeal.

Finally, it was back downstairs for our last session on our Active Planet, learning about volcanoes and earthquakes with a geologist. The children enjoyed working together to construct a huge puzzle of the continental plates, and likening the Earth to a creme egg!

It was interesting for the staff involved to work with home educated children, and they commented on their ability to work under their own initiative, to ask good questions and to figure things out for themselves. We have several days of science activities booked with Stoke's museums over the next few months, and I wholeheartedly recommend them!