Another tweet-and-a-half and no more, instead of a longer post.

Rosemary Roberts once described nursery as “plenty of interesting things to do and plenty of people to do them with,” if I recall her correctly. And here we are at the tail end of summer, working frantically (this brief post is by way of respite!) to make sure that Monday goes as smoothly as possible.

University: interesting things to study and people to study with. Monday: enrolment and induction.

Talks are organised, classes (for some postgrads) set up, their photocopying done: all that is in place. So what else is there? How do we ensure that people joining us feel “held” (to use the phrase a credit-entry year three student used last year)?

What are the messages from nursery?
Is there nothing like milk and cookies and a rest?

Well, there are and there aren’t.

I think the key is that staff understand what transition is. They get the importance of the rite of passage, and the dominance of the institution. They know your change into a student on this course or that is a reinvention, at one level, and that this may not be instant – maybe that it should not be instant.

A concept of transition trajectories lets us acknowledge that successful transitions may take time, that children [read: students] deal differently with transitions and that prior experience needs to be take into account.

Janet Moyles: Beginning Teaching, Beginning Learning

University can be an institution larger and more impersonal than you may be used to – but it is staffed by real people, who are contactable, people with whom you can communicate, who care (dare I say it?) about you and your learning.

Next week will bewilder and alienate, just as it does when you are two and go into a massive room full of busy, bigger children and adults you don’t know. Do what one of my granddaughters did this week just gone: find something to do that you like, make sure you can find coffee and books and a computer, or someone who looks like they will be OK.  Attachments are important; place is important; activity is important. Transitions are key: just remember amid the forms and room changes and institutional hiccups that your tutors know this and are there to support you.

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The future of Nursery Schools: Tuesday morning’s adjournment debate in Parliament

This is a very, very quick post to push on Julian Grenier’s plea that people should write to their MPs about the future of the Nursery School.

This is the link to his blog: http://juliangrenier.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/the-future-of-nursery-schools-tuesday.html?m=1 which contains all you need, from suggested text through to the “Contact Your MP” link.


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Expect scuffles

The short but clever blog post from Gareth E Rees http://www.unofficialbritain.com/the-united-kingdom-of-the-remembered-dead/ raises some interesting questions about public landscape and memory, using the insights of memorials.

I won’t spoil the impact by citing the neat ending, much as I’d like to share it, but the notion of memory is an important one. “Jodie” and “Duncan” – or Mrs A, Mr B, Chris and Deb, Ena, whoever – being remembered brings with it a certain appropriation, Gareth maintains. He may be right: I sit on a bench in this park and know that the view was appreciated by someone else.

Of course, I don’t mind that. Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe series of books are meditations on her house and its history, and are built on just this point, for example.

The bigger questions around landscape and myth, however, that I’ve explored before, impinge here, particularly when we think of landscapes as mutable. Can we alter this view, when Fred loved it so much? And more particularly, can we acknowledge the manes, lares et penates of previous inhabitants?

There is a bench I know that overlooks an old gravel pit and a railway siding. In the misty moisty, mornings of September it is beautiful: quiet, with grebes, mallards, the occasional plop of a fish or the silent flight of a heron. The bench has a commemoration on it.  The commemoration does not, I presume, remember when the gravel pit was in full operation, or when a local railway line ran through what is now the park. It remembers Mrs X “who loved this spot” for much the same reasons as many people do now. Her ghost, if you like, resonates with current feeling.

Another ghost, perhaps, of the Neolithic marsh dwellers of South Oxford, or the Normans who built their Grand Pont across the wetland might want to contest her view, our view. Where does our conservation stop? Whom do we recognise? Where does conservation of a nineteenth or twentieth century landscape become a matter of public interest? How do we represent landscape as mutable without laying in open to any and every change – or recognise that change is not always bad?

And can [children's] literature represent this mutability and beauty at one and the same time?

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A personal post to acknowledge the repulsive skirmishes around what Malorie Blackman may or may not have said about diversity and representation in children’s literature.

Her point that there is “a very significant message that goes out when you cannot see yourself at all in the books you are reading” is what I’m thinking about. Wise words, and I want to explore three examples of books: “classic” books, modern children’s books and modern children’s picture story books. I’m going to make this post confessional, rather than dispassionate.

When I as a white, middle-aged man read Narnia, for example, I can “be” (in the sense that I strongly identify with) at least eight human children. When I was a boy, reading Dawn Treader I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was Eustace, and from C S Lewis I understood that this was not a good person to identify with (There were all sorts of reasons I couldn’t possibly do more than hero-worship Peter, but apart from Lucy, I think I found the posh and very familial Pevensey children a bit difficult; Lucy was most like an only child, and I got that).  I also thought some of the animals were closer to my aspirations, especially in Prince Caspian: Reepicheep, for example, was a bit over-the-top, and Bulgy Bears sucked their paws, &c., &c.  But the children were posher than me, had brothers and sisters and a lifestyle that left me cold, by and large. I loved the Narnian Chronicles, but Lewis’ judgmental attitude gave me a very clear message about how far I had to go to be a Narnia child. Getting to be an undergraduate at Lewis’ old college, Magdalen, was probably it.

Narinia is problematic in its depiction of race, and even in sixties Essex I found that puzzling. I got the notion of the allegory, I suppose, but why are all these Calormenes either bad or good-looking?  I’m not arguing for a children’s edition of Said’s Orientalism,  but it was what I lacked:  someone to talk me through the puzzles of identity that these engrossing stories threw up for me.

As a young teacher I joined (for a while) the enthusiasm for Roald Dahl, but even then (late eighties, early nineties) I found I had to Bowdlerise his texts, getting rid, for example, of the casual side-swipes about foreigners. Like Lewis, he was “of his time,” but there was a difference here: colleagues liked the things he did (as did I) but didn’t seem to think there was much of a problem with his depictions of race, or class – and anyway it was softened by Quentin Blake’s illustrations. There were, at any rate, some clashes around what status Dahl should have; I edited as I read aloud.

In terms of identification, I confess I didn’t pay much attention to how bad so many of the women were; when they were bad, they were so mythologically bad they seemed unreal, and there were good strong female characters, too, and atrocious men like Mr Twit. My class were not slow to point out how my beard made me look like Mr Twit.  Is there, however, a challenge to identity in the books of his I read with the children?  I think it came – and came positively – in Revolting Rhymes. By turning the stories around (Cinderella rejecting the psychopathic Prince; Red Riding Hood being nastier than we had exected), the chidren were invited to think again about the messages of traditional tales. I remember an uncomfortable afternoon retelling, with my Reception Class, the ending of Rumplestiltskin: why would the miller’s daughter want to marry the king? I think, in the end (and in Roald Dahl fashion) they got the goblin to steal the king away…

In young children’s picture books, identification is an important part of the business of becoming a reader. While race can be sidestepped by anthropomorphic animals (I have in front of me Mr Wolf’s Pancakes by Jan Fearnely and Emily Gravett’s Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears) or by pure fantasy (Shaun Tan’s books, or Raymond Briggs’ Fungus the Bogeyman), many books have got representations of children and childhood in them that demand “real” children.  Ian Whybrow’s Harry, with his dinosaurs, engages boys in narrative while playing with a reader’s understanding of technical names for dinosaurs: we have some identification possible here.

Of course, there are other kinds of representation too: my own thinking about representation of landscape might also extend into why we sell the pre-mechanised farm as an ideal, or why do we sell the countryside as wallpaper for delighted town-dwellers or a place where we can have adventures away from parents. Misrepresentation, coming, sometimes from hidden “should” statements; we should be out in the countryisde, and farmers should keep their farms pretty, small-scale. &c.  In the case of how we create possible worlds in the imagination, the “should” I’m unearthing might be a warning.

Here, for me,  is the difficulty with diversity of representation. Blackman, as children’s laureate, highlights a problem about how race, gender, sexuality are avoided by failure to represent characters from different groups. She is quite right to do so. However, she is also a first-class author; those of us who consume children’s literature (teachers, parents, children – even down to academic study [the least important group for an author to consider]) also know – as doubtless she does – the perils of depicting people specifically so that readers can identify with them.  This worst kind of didacticism leads to clumsy storytelling, tokenism, writing from outside an author’s genuine understanding or empathy. This is as much of a turn-off from leading a child to identify with – or be challenged by – a character as ignoring the issue and writing about the Pevensey children in a different guise. We need diverse books; we also need publishers and creative writing tutors to nurture those writers and illustrators who can deliver writers who can produce characters we can identify with.

So, although it doesn’t really connect with the above, a last bit of confessional self-disclosure.

I was Mole in Wind in the Willows, and learned it was OK:

  • not to be cool;
  • to be inspired by my wittier, more able friends;
  • to have a part to play.

But I also learned a lot more from children’s literature; that’s probably why I’m still here.


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Hold the Front Page – reflection on yesterday’s Sun

Pages like this are not new. They are part of the Heavy Artillery of the Red T ops in the battle for readers.  The small storm (which now seems to have passed over the Sun to cloud the skies of Richard Dawkins) around yesterday’s front page is illustrative of the ways in which people – I ‘d include myself – find a sudden burst of righteous anger when faced with insensitive idiocy.

And it was idiotic, wasn’t it? I’m not imagining it when I see the picture of a young boy with mark on his chest being described as having a “mark of Satan” and think “This is cruel on so many levels”?  If we discount at the first filtering of idiocy the notion that this is mark of Satan – I must dust off my copy of Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic before I go down that route too far – we are left with a child accidentally or on purpose marked (possibly a burn, possibly a pressure mark – and speculation is with the end of a hairdryer) and the picture  found by or sent to a newspaper. The Independent has a good line in its discussion:

“…the silly season ceased to exist a long time ago. In the information age there is never a shortage of news. Least of all now, as the world is transfixed by the horrific events in Gaza.”

The next line of idiocy – it feels like mounds of rubbish in some intellectual rubbish dump – is the defence that the parents thought it funny. Parents have a right to find their children funny, from child A (yes, a real person, now an adult) getting dressed entirely in Thomas the Tank Engine stickers to child B (another real person, still quite small) arguing about bed time by pointing out that her partner in crime, the cat, is allowed to stay up. Parents are also allowed to be delighted or exasperated by their children, to be worried by them, entertained and challenged. Go into  Twitter and find adoptive dad Nick King to hear the stories, or find his blog.

What parents can’t do is mark or hurt their children, find it funny and publicise it. It may be, of course, that this isn’t what happened – there are all sorts of explanations possible and You’ve Been Framed type publicity at least provides a precedent  - but we should be wary of such images for a number of reasons, and here are two:

Children’s rights are sometime seen as a left-wing or woolly liberal excuse for getting children off the hook when they have done something wrong. Given the context of this particular picture, in which a demonic mark and abduction by aliens are mooted as possible, the Sun commodifies the child to an extent where the rational has gone out of the window. It’s exploitative. This is what children’s rights are about: protection children from mindless exploitation.

Images of children are themselves highly emotive. This can be positive – fond memories, key moments, assessment opportunities – but it could also be traumatic (as in the images from Syria and Gaza, which may or may not stir the viewer into action or at least sympathy) for the child or for others. We are bombarded with images of children suffering; in what way does this image lighten that load or seek to do good?

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How to graduate

Four years ago I speculated on graduation from the point of view of the rising trend of graduation for young children, which to my mind confuses progression and graduation. This too makes for a good read, although from a different angle.

But a number of issues around students not able to graduate (because they have not fulfilled the requirements of the programme or because they have not turned up) lead to me look again at just what is graduation. At Brookes, for example, there exists a persistent myth embedded in the language of the ceremony about whether you are a BA (or whatever) without the ceremony – in other words, is our ceremony a conferment of degrees? This leads me to wonder about really what comes down to two themes:

What if we look at the language of the ceremony? Are we really addressing graduands who become graduates?

What about the ritual? What is conferred, what is received? Is there a quasi-sacramental element here?

In other words, is it possible to look at a graduation ceremony through the eyes of a liturgist?

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The Importance of Telling the Story

We’re back from the Gambia again. No volcanoes – at least, not of the physical kind – and the experience was on the whole extremely positive. The conversation over coffee goes something like this:

Colleague: So, how was Africa?

Me: Good: one the best, in fact.

Colleague: How come?

Me: Well, a lower number of students helped, and fewer pressures on my time meant I could be there for them when we met up at the end of the day. 

And then comes the tricky part: do I launch into more detail, praising (justifiably) Gambia-Extra for their skills at organising us a great stay,  into travellers’ tales of bush taxis or pedagogy or a nice dinner at the incredibly swanky Ngala Lodge? Do I go into what I think Eric Berne calls the “Ain’t it Awful?” game of saying how hard it was? And at heart, how do I talk about the students’ learning and achievement (mindful of Jock Coats’ timely and thoughtful piece here), or explore in just a few pencil-sketch strokes the experience of all of the week?

Cora Player

I have to wonder about why I have these conversations. They are part of the social interaction of any workplace, of course, but in some ways they are advocacy. Telling the story of encountering the crocodiles might suggest to a colleague that it would be interesting to come next year; similarly the Cora Player (right) whose music was so enchanting might attract someone. But it is also possible that the challenges of pedagogy, or the conversations I had about additional provision for children on the autistic spectrum might lead a colleague to think about how different school life is in other countries.

This isn’t to say I preach from a position of superiority or even deeper knowledge. I love to hear the stories from others: similarities, differences; ways in which East Africa faces similar challenges; the ways in which a school in the UK supports or links with a school in the Gambia. I like to hear because I realise how little I know or understand. One thing I learn every time I go the Gambia is that my own view is too narrow: Global Citizenship isn’t just something for students; it’s about me as a learner, too.



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How do we dare?

This is what I asked last year when I recorded my trepidation about marks, especially for final-semester students who were due to graduate. It seemed a huge responsibility, and still does.

This year I am ploughing through the first years’ work (“Early Years in the UK Context”) before I start on my second and third years’ assignments (“Young Children’s Spirituality” and “Becoming a Reader,” the “Independent Studies” in Early Childhood and Education), and feeling much the same. It may be a slog – a long list of students from  one module – but each has to be given attention, each has to be read with interest. This year, however, it has an added sharpness. This is the first year that these marks “count” towards their final degree using a Brookes home-grown version of Grade Point Average. It feels very different from the diagnostic stuff of Level 4 in the past, not because I am pressured into giving different marks – that’s not an issue – but because I am more conscious than ever how far these students have to go in their writing and reading skills.

Consider this part of a paragraph (from a previous essay, now anonymised but not otherwise edited):

I have decided to focus on the two aspects of the curriculum the first being when children are supposed to start school and the second being assessment as I believe that these are two of the differences that I found interesting when comparing both curriculums. In some respects the two curriculums are quite similar however one of the most interesting differences is that English children start serious education at 5 and Welsh children start at 7. Denmark, Greece and Hungary and Finland. These places that start later focus on the children into the people they become.

No amount of in text comments such as “Not a sentence” or “What does ‘serious education’ mean?” will do much to support the long journey to fluency as a writer. What is  needed is a revision of the expectations of school, and the expectations of tutors and students about the first year at University. I want to create more opportunities for this learning to take place, for assessment that genuinely supports students’ “learning journeys.” I want good writing to be a habit, when being caught out for failure of grammar is too often  an occupational hazard.

No, it’s not a moan about “schools these days,” or a plea to go down the line that says that harder exams make better learning as in the current debate around calculators, but just a thought: at what point do we really get to teach children and young people how to write?

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Early Years Post Doc

If we assume – I am not sure we can assume – that the advert for a nanny in New York at a sum that no post-Doc and no Early Years practitioner would dream of (current link here: not sure it’s stable)  is not a spoof, then what would it say about Early Years?
It might tell readers that these are people with more money than sense, certainly without a sense of what the market could offer (a similar person for half the salary for example). It might also indicate a willingness on the part of the family to prize academic qualification over professional qualification or experience.
It just might, however, suggest that parents who have the money to do so could think seriously about much they value the education and care of the youngest people in their family. What, really, is the price for bringing up baby? It is as if this advert, genuine or not, points back to George Monbiot’s argument about forests: how can we reduce some things to unit costs?

And yet, of course, we do.  How much can I afford in childcare? What help will the Government give me? How much does a childminder earn?

Until someone shows me otherwise, however, I think I will stick to the position I have reached: that this is not genuine, but a satirical way of criticising either the poor financing of postdoctoral study, or the even poorer salaries of EY workers – or both.

The question remains, however: is cost really reducible to a unit-by-unit cost benefit analysis, or do we have to acknowledge this is a threadbare way of “un-valuing” some things?

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I am as deep into George Monbiot’s Feral as he is in ling, or wrack, or any other dense vegetation he encounters as he travels through the book. His view of nature and landscape is only dwarfed by this vision of what might be or what might have been in the “re-wilding” of Europe, of Britain in particular:

The sward on the verge was an exuberance of colours as rich as the Lord Mayor’s Show. Here were dropping red spikes of sorrel, golden bird’s foot trefoil like Quaker bonnets, the delicate umbels of pignut, heath milkwort – some pink, some blue – red campion and cut-leaved cranesbill. Here were little white flowers of eyebright, with egg yolk on their tongues, dark figworts, which released a foxy smell when I ran my hand through them,, purple knapweed, pink and white yarrow, foxglove, mouse ear, male fern, deep cushions of bedstraw, wild raspberry, heath speedwell, hogweed and willowherb…

It is as lyrical a use of plant names as any poet might employ.

His wrath at the violation of his vision employs the poetics of the fire-and-brimstone preacher, and while he is at home with the humour of black cat spotting, and has an eye for the quirky detail when talking about beavers or woolly rhinos, he reserves a particular distaste for the “sepia-toned” conservationist who seeks to preserve rather than rewild. Monbiot hits out at the Nazi sympathies of Konrad Lorenz and the “strong suite of what might have been psychopathic traits” of Joy Adamson. This is a not a man to mince his words.

And it is this keen sense of how poor our vision of landscape is, how bound up in the artificialities of the pastoral that is the most intriguing thing for me. The imperialist and imperious “assemblage of species” that Monbiot attacks is at the heart of young children’s literature; the re-presentation of the desired, the nostalgic landscape that provides setting but also instructs the reader: this is where the narrative happens, but also this is how the outdoors should be.

Reader beware, therefore: if Red Grouse are a “key indicator” (a view challenged by Monbiot at one point), I worry that so are the small, mixed woodlands and rolling hills and small fields of the Each Peach Pear Plum, or the quiet country lanes of Joe’s Cafe, or the magnificent spread of scenery in Bear Hunt.

Addendum, Easter Tuesday

The latest in the Guardian from George Monbiot. I may come back to this.

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