It is worth speculating on the nature of curriculum. What is it? Who owns it – and by owning I suppose I’m asking “In whose gift are the decisions about it?”

As I’ve pointed out before (notably in the chapter on curriculum in Themes and Debates), while play is a key factor in a child’s learning and development, it does not take place independent of other learning; the provision of good quality experiences (in the home or in another setting) takes account of play as an enriching experience, so that adult-led experiences go hand-in-hand with the learning that arises from the children themselves and their play. Adults make choices about when and how to intervene – and this should be done sensitively and with an understanding of a the individual child’s needs and intentions.

So does this mean that play as a self-chosen activity is actually a myth? That the child is not really the free agent we fool ourselves into envisioning?

I think it depends on what is meant by play, a phenomenon every childhood practitioner might say they recognise but which actually carries a multitude of meanings so that it is really a series of interlocking experiences and intentions rather than one thing that is either here or not here. Maybe the same is true of curriculum.

“Ownership” is therefore a crucial issue for both – but maybe that isn’t  the right word. Is the problem embedded in the notion of control? Does anyone really need to “own” – as in possess and control – complexity? If play is a set of actions that involve emotion, competence, imagination, freedom, how can we say it gets owned? Or rather, if we own it, do we ruin it? A wise monk once said the Magnificat is a great, wild horse that we tame into being a farmyard pony: perhaps if we seek to limit play – Golden Time, and “Now you’ve done your work you can go and play,” and “This is an activity the grown-ups think is fun” – we take the edge off its imaginative, creative possibilities. The children may not have limitless freedom – but in play, their possible worlds are expanded and expanding, and we can limit this only when we are clear when and why we should.

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A Thousand and One Things

September is here. Nearly.

I seem to have avoided those panic articles this year (maybe they didn’t happen) about getting your child ready for school, although this from PACEY comes up as (nearly) my top hit. I’m glad I found it. It’s worth a read at a number of levels: straightforward and very much from a settling-in approach rather than a “ties-and-PE-kit” way of thinking about school, it’s something parents might find useful, and, because it’s not from School A or Class 1 it’s general enough to be useful for a wide range of people.

Your child doesn’t need to be able to read, write or do sums before they start school. Children start school with a wide range of abilities and their teacher will be skilled at helping children progress at their own level.

Chat with your child abut starting school.

Try not to make comments such as “I hated school…”

Don’t over-hype school…

Do you know exactly where to take your child and at what time?

It’s a good idea to keep the first few weekends quiet…

Plenty in here, and if the informal language stumbles just a bit, at least it is informal; it sounds like advice, not regulation, even on hand washing and bedtimes.

I would suggest that a good F1 (Reception) or Y1 teacher might take some time to turn this round:

Do my expectations for last June make this September’s parents nervous? Have I remembered that Primrose (or Sendak, or Busy Bees)  Class this year are an academic year younger than the children I said a tearful-and-relieved goodbye to just six weeks ago? That some of the parents didn’t make it to the Open Evening? Are all parents aware of the pressures on our day, and the best ways of getting in touch with me? Am I (somewhere) aware of a voice saying “That’s enough settling in”? What is my answer? And the NQT way of doing this? Well, look at your school, look at all the new faces, and take those first few days to recognise what it is to be a New Starter, however old you are…

… and do remember that the statement about Summer-borns is one that can’t be emphasised too much:

Summer-born children in particular, who start school soon after turning four,  may need extra sensitivity and flexibility to help them settle in.

Read PACEY’s guidelines, or read your own school guide for new parents, and turn it on yourself, not to beat yourself into a nervous pulp, but just to remember to take care of yourself, to take time, to be the skilled teacher the children (and the parents and the school) need.

Gavin and Errol and Sophie and Sushma and David and Kate and Robert and Alison may be starting school (glad to see PACEY still cite this classic)  – but so, in a sense, are their parents. And so, as you receive them, are you, dear colleague. Have a wonderful year.



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University here we come…

It was interesting, in February this year, to reflect on transition to University. We need to look again at study skills and differentiation; that, at any rate, was my message from the spring. So with that in mind, I read one of the umpteen student-facing advice articles in the papers today: this is a representative one from the Guardian. This one – on what to say (or not to say) in a Clearing ‘phone call – was interesting, but gave no clue as to what, as a tutor I might sound like. Here we are all en masse anyway. What do we look like?

It’s been interesting to reflect on the kinds of conversations I’ve had today. They are, after all, part of the transition commerce, part of our “selling” ourselves to one another, the over-confident young woman (trying not to cry?), the breezy young man who tells me today is “scary.” And me: potential rescuer? someone you could work with? academic Pandarus? just another teacher telling you teachery things? And never mind about selling me: what about selling my course – even Higher Education as a project? Part of the transition, after all, is to believe (or at least to want to start to believe) that this going to be something worth doing for three or more years. I won’t start the hare of “worth” here.

A huge number of applicants – as I suppose will be bound to happen in Clearing – tell me that “Exams and me never really got on.” It’s therefore a delicate balance between telling them that

  • everything will be all right
  • exams are not always the best way to predict how someone will do at university and
  • you will still have hard work ahead.

I am faced, too, with the incessant drone on social media about “A Level Results Aren’t Everything.” I know they’re not – and I recognise (even when I don’t remember my B B D from 1975) that they feel like they’re everything. But they are something. At the very least, they are a punctum at the end of two years’ study; they might feel like a judgement on fourteen years of schooling. Might a student come to Education Studies with a fundamental question “Fourteen Years: what was that all about?”  I am back at my talk in May on Why Education?


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Pangur Ban

The White Cat and the Monk by Bogart and Smith

The White Cat and the Monk by Bogart and Smith

This is a charming book. I have loved  the poem – or at least the translation – for years. This picture – and the following ones – are a romanticised idea of medieval scholarship; the margins of texts (and texts themselves) attest to cold, cramp, poor light – and Church, and music, and beauty… I guess the closest  I ever came to this image of a scholar when young was sitting in Pusey House library one Corpus Christi, with the chapel organ and sweet incense wafting through the gothic reading room.

Perhaps a better model of a scholar is M R James, who even as an undergraduate undertook detailed study of MSS, and whose palaeographic works were my sourcebooks as a young graduate student. Painstaking. Silent, except for a cough, a creak of a floorboard, or sounds from a group outside in the sunshine. As a graduate student, a kid in a medieval sweet shop, ferreting around in dodgy catalogues felt as if James was at my shoulder. In reality, I was much more like Adam, David Lodge’s anxious protagonist in The British Museum is Falling Down, juggling family, scholarly activity and a hope against hope to continue doing so as a job. The book was instrumental in my first leaving academia: this wasn’t a life for me. It took working in libraries and then teaching (both of which I loved) to bring me back, not quite full circle.

And so when a student came to me to think about a career as an academic, what was I to say? What do I do? I have written about what I do when people think the University isn’t working – that is, when undergraduates are not about – and tomorrow I return to work, a good month or so before any undergrads arrive, except by email.  What is in store?

The job is not well delineated: fiction fictionalises, job descriptions hardly give detail (ah, yes, there’s something that needs doing tomorrow). This  post, however, from Ana Canhoto, is a really good indicator of what many academics’ life is like: no gothic beauty (except, for me, what the bus takes me past every day) and not much MS textual analysis. I did hit a vein of gold in my research on Friday (not helped by my cat, Ziggy, who wouldn’t be allowed in the Bodleian) but tomorrow is meetings, timetables, and NSS score analysis.

So would I want Pangur Ban and a cell to work in? Or do I really relish the ringing ‘phone, the dripping emails, the knock on the door and “Can I have a word?”  I think, in some way, I do; at least they are part payment for the task I love: teaching, or as someone once described it, “showing off for money.”


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Lost Boys?

Save the Children have published a report that needs some serious consideration.  THE LOST BOYS: How boys are falling behind in their early years is linked here, and worth a read.  The gender gap in attainment is well documented, and has been a serious problem since well before I was a Head. Ch 4 in particular (p17ff), probably needs to be read by a whole pile of educators, not just the concerned Early Years specialists.  And of course I’d like the Brookes EY Pathway students next year on the PGCE to pick it up and read it (and understand it, and act on it); I’d like our MA students to read it too.  So this brief post has to be read with the understanding that this is in many ways just a minor carp at the language of the report.

And the language is a bit hard. The report warns, for example, that

The use of ‘falling behind at five’ and its variations denote children not working securely in the components of Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) in communication and language during their Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) in their Reception year. We know that some children will be four during the EYFSP assessment, but refer to five-year olds for conciseness.

In other words this report seems to take as a given that whatever the government sets as targets is right and proper, and that the boys are “falling behind. ” The boys and their teachers are at fault, not the targets. We have, it seems, to accept this: it is our sole curriculum-based measure,  after all, even though the choice of referring to five year olds instead of four and five “for conciseness” begins to raise the hackles.  The report also states that

Over the past ten years we have allowed nearly a million five-year-old boys to start primary school behind, making it harder for them to ever catch up.

And again, I query this language.

What is it that allows us to say Level n or Indicator i actually is a justifiable position to take? I am fully in favour of the suggestion that (p18)

we must invest in the best early years provision, led by early years teachers and supported by skilled staff at all levels, particularly in the most deprived areas

but does this commit those members of staff – and those of us involved in their formation – to seeing these levels and indicators as a true or realistic way of looking at learning?

And if we don’t use government indicators, how do we persuade government(s) to take the predicament seriously?

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Vygotsky at the seaside

“What a child can do with the help of an adult or more experienced peer.”

Child A (I guess about two yo) does not show a sign of enjoying the seaside. He is in the (fairly calm) sea, carried by an adult whom I assume is his father. Perhaps he is unused to his father’s closeness but this seems unlikely: the child is clinging tight to his father, arms round his father’s next, legs tight round his father’s waist. Perhaps he does not like the noise, the movement of the water, all the people, the sun, or all of these. Patents his father’s eagerness is also a factor. None of this will I ever know. He is howling as his father takes him deeper into the sea (still not so deep that the boy’s feet are wet). The father is bobbing up and down as he stands in the water, so that the boy is closer to the waves, and smoking, and talking, I lose sight of them as I swim.

When next I see them, after maybe a quarter of an hour, Child A is back from the sea, hair wet, father wetter, both of them laughing, the father running water with his hand over the boy’s back.

Child B is maybe six yo. She runs into the sea with an older child – again I’ll assume a relationship and say this is her elder brother – who goes deeper than she can comfortably go on foot, given her height. Older child (maybe ten? ) comes back for her, splashes her and runs back into the sea, beyond her reach. She pursues him, laughing. He splashes her, she splashes him back. He come back to within her reach as if to allow himself to be splashed. Their bodies are tense, attentive, they keep their way on each other (as far as the splashing allows): it is a contest, of sorts.

But what might Child B be learning? Or practising?

There are, of course, huge limitations to this sort of ad hoc observation, but consider the two examples. In the first, there is a clear pedagogic intention of the kind we might think of as “join the club.” This is the game that’s being played, and I expect the father hopes the boy will get used to the water. It rather looks like this, and it rather looks like the boy has a nice time and the dad “succeeds.” The second was more chaotic, and I just wonder how many learning events and opportunities remain unseen because an observing adult is looking for purpose, especially adult purpose. What does a child learn from the kind of play that is a fight, a skirmish ?????

Lave and Wenger in Daniel’s Introduction to Vygotsky propose that

Conventional explanations view learning as a process by which the learner internalizes knowledge, whether discovered, transmitted from others or experienced in interaction with others…too easily construed as an problematic process of absorbing the given.

I suspect that this kind of rough-and-ready model suggests that neither child A nor child B (nor their more experienced peers) is actually involved in any teaching or learning.

However, I would suggest that Lace and Wenger’s discussion of social practice (Daniels p145, 147 etc)  is important.

If participation in social practice is the fundamental form of learning, we require a more fully worked-out view of the social world…We think it important to consider how shared cultural systems…are interrelated, in general and as they help to coconstitute learning in communities of practice.

While I recognise they are still  talking about something other than Mondello beach, does this give us a clue with what the children are doing? They are apprentices, actively exploring a set of social practices and expectations: what to do at the seaside; what fun can be had in this situation; who you can trust. This goes beyond skills and concepts, but nevertheless mirrors that kind of learning: even in wild, playful splashing, there is a community to join.

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Mother of the Nation, Father of Europe.

Apparently Andrea Leadsom, who was (until a few minutes ago) aspiring to lead the Conservative Party and thus – without election – to become PM, has apologised for her remarks about her rival. The withdrawal/apology/wriggling about what she said can be set aside: the clip of her saying it (unless it is an out-and-out fake) and this transcript are quite clear that aunties may be all very well but as a mother, she has real and immediate investment.

“Yes. So really carefully because I don’t know Theresa really well, but I’m sure she will be really sad that she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea’s got children, Theresa hasn’t’ – do you know what I mean? Because I think that would be really horrible. But genuinely I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country. A tangible stake. She possibl[y] has nieces nephews, lots of people. But I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next. So it really keeps you focused on what are you really saying because what it means is you don’t want a downturn – but then ‘never mind let’s look to the ten years hence it will all be fine’. But my children will be starting their lives in that next ten years so I have a real stake in the next year.”

It could almost be that she sought to be a PM who was Mother of the Nation. When Margaret Thatcher did it (falling tone of voice, slight stoop, eye contact) she sometimes managed it well, and the shock to our systems when she roared was all the more stirring/off putting because of it (Ciceronian inflection, voice at the back of the mouth, chin up). This, then, is one of the models of Motherhood: Mother-Knows-Best-But-God-help-you-when-it’s-bedtime.

Leadsom has (or had) a subtler version of it: biological parenthood gives a person a surer motive for investment in the future. So first off,  I want to give a shout out for people committed to the immediate and future wellbeing of children and young people: stepparents, for example; fosterers; people without childcare responsibilities for all sorts of reasons; people who have lost children; colleague teachers and academics I know; social workers and medics; good-hearted and generous celibates.  I don’t think I am in any way better as a father of six than I might have been with other choices- and who knows what I might have been if I’d taken another path – but I want to challenge the fundamental idiocy of the idea that parenthood per se qualifies you to talk about the future. Even as Mother of the Nation, we have, of course, Elizabeth I as a model…

But on a different tack, today is the Feast of St Benedict, called (for the last few centuries) the Father of Europe, and used – perhaps at the height of the European project – by Paul VI as a beacon of peace, a sign of stability in difficult times:

ma allora questa fuga era motivata dalla decadenza della società, dalla depressione morale e culturale d’un mondo, che non offriva più allo spirito possibilità di coscienza, di sviluppo, di conversazione ; occorreva un rifugio per ritrovare sicurezza, calma, studio, preghiera, lavoro, amicizia, fiducia.

I paraphrase this:

[Benedict’s] flight sprang from the decadence of society, the moral and cultural downturn [the Italian is more expressive] of a world that no longer offered to the spirit opportunities for mindful development and discussion; it needed a refuge in which to rediscover security and calm, study, prayer, work, friendship, trust.

In the moral and emotional depressione that accompanies these post-Brexit weeks, I am pretty sure Andrea Leadsom does not wish to be Mother of Europe, However she, her rival Theresa May, and the scuffling wannabes in Labour (no more edifying than the Conservative scramble) might well consider the values exemplified by Benedict, and above all (Ch4):

Not to give way to anger.
Not to nurse a grudge.
Not to entertain deceit in one’s heart.
Not to give a false peace.
Not to forsake charity.
Not to swear, for fear of perjuring oneself.
To utter truth from heart and mouth.
Not to return evil for evil.

and in this most disrupted and unsettling time – days, weeks, months, years – we might well need – or need to be –  leaders who keep the peace. As Benedict decrees of the Cellarer (one of my favourite chapters [31]), ut nemo perturbetur neque contristetur in domo Dei. Keeping us from getting “distracted or upset in the house of God” or the house of Caesar is a tall order.

Except I am not sure whether mere passivity is what is required now. Work and prayer, ora et labora with the pro viso:

Hunc ergo zelum ferventissimo amore exerceant monachi, id est ut honore se invicem præveniant [Ch 72]

Therefore this is the zeal which monastics should practise with the utmost fervour: to try to be first in respecting one another…


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“Are you on holiday now?”

Queen Victoria is said to have enjoyed this description from Guiseppe in the Gondoliers of what a democratised royalty would have to do.

A busy day, with some lunacy, but not unpleasant overall.

There is no moan in this post, no link to the UCU workload survey, just an account here of what happens when the students are gone. I don’t think it’s an out-of-the-ordinary account, but it is here to give people an insight as to what the elves do when the shoemakers are asleep.

I get in (because not teaching) at about 9:00 if I have no earlier meeting. Work-related social media may well have happened on the bus, if I had signal.

Coffee follows at some point – usually at my desk.

A wander round to see anyone I need to see informally. This can be a five-minute chat or (as today) an hour of fielding issues.

Emails. One is from a student who can’t decide her module choices for next semester; several are in preparation for a meeting tomorrow; lots are from students whose results came out on Monday – and gratifyingly some are from graduating students saying thank you; two are admissions queries.

A meeting about a student with progression issues.

More coffee – usually socially, but dealing with work issues as we drink.

A meeting about revalidation paperwork – interrupted by a ‘phone call around student transfer.

Lunch: 30 mins. Again, work-related conservation.

Paperwork time: composing/restructuring course materials following the recent revalidation. Another two calls about student progression and transfer; a colleague drops by to discuss a staffing issue.

Emails. See above. Another colleague drops by about her contract.

A meeting (and some phone calls) about course materials, as above, as the Education Studies coordinators check and rewrite my proposals and their own resources.

3:30 is a scheduled meeting with a colleague about a joint paper. A quick nod at a work colleague while en route turns into a corridor meeting, and I arrive in the library at 3:40. We work until 5:55.

Emails on the bus on the way home.

and then “With a pleasure that’s emphatic/We retire to our attic/With the gratifying feeling that our duty has been done.”

Now, we might argue that a better organisation might make a better day – but this is not that post. Here, in part at least, is what happens when the students are not around.

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“It all hangs on one day”

One of my soon-to-be-ex-students remarked recently how fragile results are, all hanging on the outcome of one day. At one level he’s right: a few clicks to your results page, and it’s done.

But it struck me that this year I wanted to tell that story, the stuff I’m in the thick of now, the narrative that leads to results day. It’s much the same story in many Universities, and I’ve talked about this before, although without so much of the step-by-step story.

“When first the college rolls receive his name…” Well, it’s not quite like that – but there is a problem as to where we begin. The tutor deciding the assessment? The Programme Development team determining the learning outcomes? We’ll start in the library, and since this is a Brookes-based narrative, that means here (a bit arbitrarily). The student is working on an assignment, the last of the umpteen assessment points in his degree. It is week eight of a twelve-week semester, because he is a virtuous and well organised person. Whether or not that is the case, let’s make this a no-hiccups process: hand-in deadlines come and are met.

And then the marker, often the tutor, starts. There are twenty, thirty, sixty similar scripts to mark, decide on, comment on. A sample is checked – moderated – by another tutor, to make sure the team’s standards are being upheld.  Marks are uploaded into the massive database of marks, according to a centrally determined deadline. The wheels in the computer crunch and click (yes I know there aren’t really wheels in a computer, and to call this huge set of processes a “computer” is a bit silly) the marks, not just to record them, but to check them against the course regulations. Administrators check, double-check, produce reports, communications with wayward tutors, and the next stage – here at Brookes at any rate – is a set of decisions to be made by course leaders and managers: do we know why Student B has no marks for this module? Should Student C be asked about this or that? Decisions are made by real people, ones in general who are conscious of the delicacy of this or that letter being sent to to this or that student.

Then the Examination Committees convene. Tutors from other Universities have been recruited as External Examiners to look at standards, at decisions, at processes to ensure good order, compliance, fairness. The meeting processes all the marks it needs, and all the degree classifications, and this is fed back into the University central systems as if they were a cross between a refecting rabbit and Deep Thought from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. More rushing for paperwork follows, more checking. This part of the cycle ends here at Brookes with a meeting of all the Programme Leads with more External Examiners, a Vice-Chancellor (or similar), and lots of central administrators, ironing out any difficulties, checking any serious cases. Questions are asked, eyebrows (occasionally) raised, final decisions taken on Student Q and Student R.

The computers are fired up again, and a few days later, the results that have been determined by the complex interaction of assessed marks, University regulations and this series of meetings are available: we are at that “one morning” on which it all hangs. Then the final rush to graduation, and I try to scrub up well enough and learn to pronounce everyone’s names for the ceremonies, and then it’s academic dress, and bubbly and meet-the-parents…

…et ceux qui vivent encore vont commencer tout doucement à les oublier et à confondre leurs noms.  And those who are still alive begin imperceptibly to forget them, to mix up their names… [Interesting that I had misremembered  the quotation until I checked it here]. But we don’t always subside into forgetfulness, and it really is nice when you keep in touch.


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Why Education?

Well, there’s a question.
I’ve been asked to be a voice in a school at a presentation for parents:

The core purpose of the event is to help potential applicants to consider more fully what they should ask themselves as they look into the breadth, depth and format of u/g courses available in the UK; and to help parents to understand more fully what students need to be doing doing now and during summer holidays, to strengthen their applicant profile. The sessions also reinforce understanding of personal skills, traits and level of academic ability that universities are looking for.

And so I’m starting way, way back, not at the philosophy per se but at the history that brings me to be back in Dorset over 50 years after I left it.

Schooling began for me in the Reception Class in Blandford Forum, all high-up windows, and time in the sandpit and water tray. I narrowly escaped being registered as Christopher, a hazard I encountered from then on until I hit twenty, for some reason. My friend Paul was crying and I had to be brave for him, something I felt a bit unfair, since I rather wanted a quick cry, too.

Maths and I parted company the following year, when I was kept in for not learning what I would now call number bonds to twenty. Reading and I were already best friends; my mum and dad bought me the next reading book in the scheme we used –The Tip and Mitten McKee Readers – whenever I needed it. I learned to tell the time, learned to hate jigsaws, became a dreadful non-completer throughout my life (as a consequence of the 300-piece jigsaw incident), got engaged to Susan in the year above (it didn’t last)…. I had a wart on my right hand, and still find myself curling my right hand if I’m thinking of directions. My infant career ended and I moved to Blandford Junior, only to make a much bigger move quickly when we moved to Harlow in Essex, but not before learning to hate carrots and football and that I was a bit “behind” for not being able to tie my shoe laces.

And here began my interest in education. No high windows in Harlow New Town. We had books for problem solving, cuisenaire rods (which I never mastered), and the ability to go back to a water tray I had forgotten for three years. I went into the infant wing to help with reading – only to be puzzled by ITA. I learned more about unfairness, I learned some French, some pottery, misread C S Lewis, murdered the descant recorder (but I still play) and got the best school report ever:

Nicholas is a mine of useless information; if he can find a job where he can use all this stuff, his fortune will be made.

And at the end of what would now be Y6 but then was Top Juniors, we moved to Burnley, to Todmorden Road Juniors. I suppose my name is in here somewhere, but I see the school’s closed now. Two months I wouldn’t wish on anyone, despite the kindly interest of Mr Brown, my teacher, who must have seen something worth taking an interest in and who I floored by asking about Elidor. High Windows. Maths in the morning, Maths in the afternoon. Tech drawing for the boys, sewing for the girls. The cane and being beaten up after school.

So my interest in education  began from a very practical standpoint. Why is this school like this, and that school like that? Are they all aiming for the same thing?

And what I’d really like to say at this talk I’m giving is this:

If you are interested in what makes schools the bizarre mixture they are of workhouse and adventure park, or if you are interested in engaging with small, lost people who can’t tie their laces – or gnomy little lads who hide in books, or – erm – overconfident recorder players – then education is for you. It could be the mixture of theory and practice that is an Education Studies course; it could be a more profession-facing course like a BA leading to Qualified Teacher Status.  But think about why education has the power to fascinate, to engage, to challenge, and maybe think about why is still has that power over me, as I near 60. Just don’t model your UCAS statement on this blog post.

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