Critical incident:
5 yo picks strawberries, puts them in a bowl, takes them out one by one and either eats them or shares them with me. Some are left for a while, and then she requests a knife, which she uses to chop the rest up. They are left in the bowl, and eventually (when they are inedibly squashy), she returns to them and feeds them (at my suggestion) to the garden chickens.


It is an idyllic scene in a garden in June. The child is engaged, her 2yo little sister too (see the drawing below), and there are plenty of opportunities for maths and science and language development  – a real “understanding of the world,” if we remove that term from the curriculum straight-jacket.  It would be very tempting to say that “every child should have the chance to pick strawberries.”


That’s the phrase that needs unravelling: it brings with it assumptions about class, expectations, entitlement and the unattended questions about who decides on  a child’s experiences.


This is all taking place in a lawned, private garden with chickens. We may not be talking an estate, but equally the incident is not one on a subsistence farm; we are talking, in current property terms, about a dwelling firmly in the middle classes. So the expectation itself that this is a valuable experience is already close to the idea of comfortable living. The “gaze about the multiplicity of who a child might be and how she might understand her world” (MacNaughton 2005:143) has been blinkered from the start by an unexplored attitude about the normalcy of middle class in the UK.


The “should” is itself therefore problematic. The work of Tina Miller on fathers (see previous blog post) suggests that just as fathering is part of/arises from  a set of views about “embodied selves and structural histories,”  (Miller 2010:38) so too do the practices of Northern-European childhoods. The “should” that may suggest fathers behave in certain ways also acts in a number of ways in the case of children. Proposals of “what children need” pepper Early Education books, and it is right that we have inspiration, leadership, direction – but the “should” is sometimes unexplored, and very often uncontested.  A child “should” be outside because of the tradition of children (particularly boys) being outside to play:

Let the amusements of a child be as much as possible out of doors; let him spend the greater part of every day in the open air; let him exert himself as much as he please, his feelings will tell him when to restand when to begin again; let him be what Nature intended him to be–a happy, laughing, joyous child. Do not let him be always poring over books (1878: 179)

This “nursery inheritance” (cf Brooker 2005: 117ff) brings with it a moral imperative that is likewise unchallenged.  When we talk about entitlement – and we should – what are we using as a yardstick? Do we see strawberry picking as valuable experiential learning about healthy eating? Or as another step in the induction into the middle class? Or an understanding of life processes? Or a replication of a dimly remembered rural past?

Who decides?

Let’s suppose this experience is viewed by someone – well-meaning and powerful – as a key experience for children. On what basis have they decided this? How do they implement it?

  • Is this the practitioner who sees a child enjoying strawberries and thinks about replicating this next year?
  • Is it the parent (or grandparent) who enjoys the time with a child and thinks “this is worth doing”?
  • What would it be like if the Secretary of State were to see the strawberry incident and say

“Every child should have the opportunity to pick and eat strawberries”?

This is not so far-fetched, even though the vision of government-regulated (and measured) strawberry-picking is a reductio ad absurdum.

How does a new project get off the ground? What criteria decide that this or that phonics scheme, or behaviour management approach “works” – and works for whom? This appears to be at the heart of a new book out of the IoE, which I look forward to reading.

To go back to the strawberries, we might ask (and in particular ask our students to enquire of their own experiences)

  • what makes this valuable?
  • what criteria do I use to give this value?
  • how do I communicate its value to the child, to the child’s parents, to managers and policy makers?

How am I an effective advocate for children, not just someone who sees a bandwagon and jumps on it?


Brooker, L (2005) “Learning to be a Child: cultural diversity and early years ideology”  in N Yelland (ed) Critical Issues in Early Childhood Education. Maidenhead, Open University Press.

Chavasse, P  (1878, 13th Ed) Advice to a Mother on the Management of her Children. Birmingham. available online

Mac Naugton, G (2005) Doing Foucault in Early Childhood Studies. Abingdon:Routledge

Miller, T (2010) Making Sense of Fatherhood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wyse, D et al (2015) Exploring Education and Childhood: From current certainties to new visions. Abingdon:Routledge

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Fatherhood I

One of the joys of the team here at the moment is the real energy there is towards research. and looking outwards to more fluid forms of communication such as blogging.
Mat Tobin, for example, has recently blogged on why picturebooks matter, and it’s our shared interest here that has made us gravitate to each other on a shared project around fatherhood and children’s picturebooks.

Very often in books in which children have adventures, the parents are absent, and in some the very absence of the parent exacerbates the crisis (I’m thinking of Sendak’s Outside Over There, particularly, but there’s the gentler story of Joe’s Cafe – and  for older children we might consider the death of Torak’s father, and in YA fiction Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls or the complexities of Dacid Almond’s Billy Dean).

So just to kick me off on this (next stop looking in detail at Tina Miller on Fatherhood and exploring her ideas of the masculinisation of the home !), I’m posing three questions:

  • Why do parents have to be absent for a “good” story?
  • Are weak parents a substitute for absent parents?
  • What about the unlikeable parent – the buffoon, the bully?



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Laudato Si’

The full text of Pope Francis’ encyclical, via L’Osservatore Romano, is to be found here (if it didn’t break the Internet, it certainly made the Vatican website crash), and since on my Office Door I have the words from Caedmon’s angel Sing Me Frumsceaft, I thought I’d also add one for the Pope’s prayers with which he ends the encyclical:

A prayer for our earth
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

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Using visual methodology to look at childhood.

“Childhood,” that fluid concept that may (or may not) include infancy and may (or may not) embrace young people up to 18, gets looked at using all sorts of research tools which may (or may not – I’ll stop doing this now) provide valid data. Aries’ own use of visual material has been criticised for its subjectivity in selection and judgment, and I’m sure the four pictures I used in my research presentation could likewise be pulled apart.

What I attempted to do at our Faculty Research Conference was to look at a similar event – children playing outdoors – through different media: a four year old’s drawing; an historical photograph; children’s book illustration.

The child’s drawing I have already discussed.

This was the photograph I chose

Cowgate Nursery

Cowgate Nursery

– a substitute for the one I really wanted, from Margaret MacMillan’s passionate plea for Early Childhood provision from 1923, for which I couldn’t get a clear enough reproduction. My only real points here were about how we are unaware, by and large of how “participatory and collaborative” (Pink, 2001:58-9)  this is, and if there might be here (Burke, 2001: 117) a “possibility of idealisation” – positive or negative? Is this an ideal – an example of what schools often label “Best Practice”? Or maybe a plea for more of these institutions? Or part of a study of the urban poor – and in contrast to what?

The heart of what I presented was around Michael Foreman’s reflection on his time in Gaza

The first children play in the shadow of the vine

A Child’s Garden


and Roberto Innocenti’s moving and ambiguous story of a young German child’s encounter with the Holocaust.

The girl discovers the camp

Rose Blanche


I looked at composition to some extent (what is Innocenti’s girl staring at in horror?), and at the symbolism both illustrators managed to use (e.g. the notion of the vine as the symbol of a flourishing Israel at peace), but all I was really able to do in 15 mins was to suggest that for all three sets of images context is important, and that for the illustrations all this becomes much more complex; in an analysis of illustrations in children’s literature context includes, it seems to me:

  • Narrative (what comes before and after the single image)
  • Intertextuality (reference in word and image to other works)
  • Multiple readership and multiple views

I think I crammed a lot more into 15 mins than this precis suggests – and here are the articles and  books I used to help me on my way.

Anning, A and Ring, K (2004) Making Sense of Children’s Drawings. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Burke, P (2001) Eyewitnessing: the use of images as historical evidence. London: Reaktion Books

Foreman, M (2009) A Child’s Garden. London: Walker Books

Foreman, M (2009) Picture Books and the Environment: a lifelong concern in J Harding et al (eds) Deep into Nature: Ecology, Environment and Children’s Literature. IBBY/NCRCL Papers 15. Lichfield: Pied Piper Publishing

Innocenti, R and McEwan, I (1985) Rose Blanche. London: Red Fox

Pink, S (2001) Doing Visual Ethnography. London: Sage

Pink, S (2008) “Analysing Visual Experience” in M Pickering (ed) Research Methods for Cultural Studies. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Rose, G (2001) Visual Methodologies. London: Sage

Rose, G (2014) On the relation between ‘visual research methods’ and contemporary visual culture. The Sociological Review, Vol. 62, 24–46

Sipe, L. (1998). “How Picture Books Work: A Semiotically Framed Theory of Text-Picture Relationships.” Children’s Literature in Education 29(2): 97-108.

Styles, M. and Salisbury., M.  (2012). Children’s Picturebooks: the art of visual storytelling London, Laurence King.

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Ancient Darkness and other landscapes

Sitting at the end of a hectic day in the prestigious John Henry Brookes building at work, having handed in the exam paperwork and completed another piece of documentation for the treadmill of quality assurance, I am looking forward to immersing myself, after tea, in the final book of Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, the wintry denouement (perhaps) of the hero Torak’s six-book confrontation with the evils of his Neolithic northern European world. I have loved these books – and may  come back to them after they’re finished for further exploration and comment.

It is in some ways a perfect escape from the worries of my present work: a young man pits himself against cold, and dark and the fear of death. The trivial round, the common task is not a quest. Torak’s Neolithic Scandinavia is as far as I could get from my life as an academic: I am not young, not a hunter in the antiqua silva, but sitting with a coffee in front of me, having had too much screen time, thinking not about arrow heads and tracking in the forest but about deadlines, learning outcomes, emails. It would be foolish to see me as having a part in this story, however attractive the three main characters are. It would be self-aggrandising, too, to envisage my struggling to make sense  of quality assurance as the lone battler against the dragon, or whatever. I don’t want to do that: Beowulf, Frodo and Torak did not have to prepare a report for Faculty Executive, any more than I have to find Grendel’s mere, or Mordor, or the Mountain of Ghosts.

Instead, spare a brief thought today for a little-remembered medieval saint: St William of York. He is an ideal for me today. Essentially an administrator born with a whole box of silver spoons, William gets all sorts of political and ecclesiastical preferment which are often not quite the gift one might expect. However, he is reported as undertaking them with a singularly assiduous charity. The darkness he fought was against the temptations of what today we would call class and background, against the uncharitable fight for power which denies the underdog.

I can’t see a children’s story in something so unheroic, any more than I can see any kind of ripping yarn in chairing a meeting or filling in a tedious pro forma.  But I do feel like some of what I have done today has been at least useful. Maybe I’m admitting that traditional tales of the outdoors quest are all very well, but they can only stand as an allegory for the everyday lives we live, or which we are preparing students and children for.

I’m not sure whether Torak and his wolf pack brother would understand any of that, of course, but it raises any number of questions for me:

  • Why do we need physical range in a narrative? Why does the sea journey or the vast forest appeal?
  • And what does landscape add in terms of danger?






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Reimagining Spirituality

Sometimes blogging takes off. In this case, Lindsay Jordan, a fellow academic and doctoral student’s reflection on the philosophy of education – sometimes hers, sometimes more generally – produces some really worthwhile stuff.  Go and have a look: she makes a good case, for instance, here, around holistic views of higher education.

And this is why it was worth paying attention when Lindsay tweeted Jonathan Rowson’s report for the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce on spirituality. It is a really good report. It says to me that the spirituality component of our Masters’ module on Children’s Imaginative Worlds should be asked to read, mark and inwardly digest it as a matter of course, and that it is a really useful document for the Undergraduate work on Spirituality that I’ve discussed before, e.g. here and here, where I start from Rowson’s blog.

At a personal level, the passage in which Rowson discusses “the myriad addictions of apparently normal behaviour and [how] what passes for everyday consciousness begins to look like a low-level psychopathology” hits me almost with the force of a passage of Lectio Divina. Perhaps I have to follow the instruction with which the report ends, where Richard Rohr exhorts us  to “live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”

And this is where my own argument falters, and I have not yet worked out how to allow this holistic view of spirituality to develop my (sometimes uncomfortable) position as a member of a faith community teaching spirituality in a secular university. Perhaps, perhaps, it is time to move to a teaching of spirituality that is more open to (respectful) conflict and less eclectic, that allows, as one Muslim student remarked recently, “allows me to really re-evaluate what I believe – not so that I come to disbelieve it, but so that I know what I believe and I believe it stronger.” But does that mean that the academic demands are “best answered through practice rather than theory”? That the module looks at practising spirituality rather than examine it theoretically? Bonaventure, the great Franciscan theologian who recieved his doctorate at the same time as Thomas Aquinas is clear:

“…if you want to understand how this happens, ask it of grace, not of learning; ask it of desire, not of attentive reading; ask it of the betrothed, not of the teacher; ask it of God, not of humanity; ask it of darkness, not of radiance.”

Is this an anti-intellectual stance, or one that is simply demanding learning though practice? And what are its implications for the mixed community of a secular UK university?


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Are we lacking in stories about real kids?

Abigail makes a good point in Like a Real Life where she asks “why are children’s picture books hardly ever about children?” She raises the issue of anthropomorphism in a slightly different way: are real children really “soooo thirty years ago”?

I suspect I have an answer of some sorts, but before we go that way, I’d like to echo the idea that Like a Real Life explores: there are good books with animals standing in for humans, and there may well be some decline in humans as main characters – although I think a really effective bit of time-sampling would be needed to make this claim securely (just to play Devil’s Advocate, for example, I  might cite Charlie and Lola, and the great Bear Hunt itself).

But no: alongside Charlie and Lola, as Like a Real Life suggests, are the Julia Donaldson brigade, great stories, massively well marketed and brilliantly produced, with frogs, and mice.

Where I think the animal stories succeed is in blurring limitations of time, space and culture.  That’s not to say they are bad because of this, but that Room on the Broom, for example, may be “about” sibling rivalry or how people learn to get along but is not boundaried by portrayals of a period of time, class, ethnicity &c., as (perhaps) the work of Mary Hoffman or Shirkey Hughes might be. This might, the cynic in me argues, come  down to marketing, although you could argue (see my post on Diversity) that this is a weakness: that a frog cannot ever really stand  in for  a marginsalised child, for example. If this comes down to identification then we have to develop a much more acute sense of what is being signified by this mouse, that badger, good and bad wolves, so that we can “leave in the magic, leave in the bizarre and the adventure” and still let the children be in on the game.

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Maintained Nursery Schools

Killing any birds with any number of stones is not easy in election time. This blog post, short though it is, maybe is over-ambitious.

This information is intended largely for the enlightenment of my own students (do I own students?) as their write their assignments for Early Years in the UK Context – but since it is of wider significance, and came to me as a personal communication from my MP, I thought it could go here for more public perusal.

Letter from SOS to Rt Hon A Smith

These are politically senstive times, so I will present it without commentary, except to say that the letter in response to my own letter to Andrew Smith, who took up the matter with Nicky Morgan: the date is explained in other correspondence by the letter from the Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan in Sept not reaching Andrew Smith until this month.

Do use the reply facility if you wish.


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Fattening a Pig

My father-in-law, Donald, was a Master Joiner who spent a lot of his working life on farms in the vale of York. He was (although this is by-the-way) witty, well read, but not a “success” at school; whatever that means, we are not talking about a father-in-law who was an educationalist. He was, however, a man much given to pithy comments, and when SATs first came in, he once said “You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it.” According to Don, testing, whatever other soundbites might suggest, does not automatically improve standards.

So here I am, on an unreasonably sunny morning, procrastinating about my Easter email backlog and pondering what might be said about tests. I see the opposition to baseline testing is back, from Early Education and others, and from the Unions – and I gather that Tristram Hunt has said he is always ready to “listen to professionals but…”

And today the proposal to re-test children who fail SATs at KS2 is interesting: the language alone is worth a re-read. Look first at the Telegraph‘s report:

Children who fail their primary school leaving exams in English and maths will be made to retake the tests in their first year of secondary school under Conservative plans to ensure there is “zero-tolerance of failure and mediocrity”

Is “failure” at the heart of SATs, then? And are KS2 SATs to be seen as “leaving exams”?

I think I am in favour of giving children a chance to have another go at an assessment task. It may even be (although I am less convinced about this) that a child might do better in a different environment. What is really quite disturbing in the language used by the Telegraph is the shorthand which makes SATs the ultimate arbiter of a child’s success – so much so that they will take them again if necessary.

Of course, this isn’t really what the proposal would be like: children would be allowed to have further teaching that would improve their skills in basic maths and English, and their NuSATs (my neologism) would test how well they were managing to catch up. The BBC have a different take on this:

The test resit plan from the Conservatives, which would be implemented next year, is aimed at making sure that pupils have not already fallen too far behind at the beginning of secondary school.

Pupils who did not get good grades in the Sats tests taken by 11-year-olds in primary school would have to retake a test during their first year after moving up to secondary school.

So let’s hear from the SoS herself:

“If they don’t achieve the required level when they leave Primary School, then in year 7, their first year at Secondary School, they would take slimmed-down tests in English and Maths. They could take these either in the spring term or the summer term.”

and I hope this link to her BBC interview remains stable, since her ipsissima verba are mostly reasonable, not strident, well worth listening to and pondering. It seems to me a wholesome ambition that young people should move from Primary schooling with a strategy in place for all the support they need to make a success of Secondary (I have been marking undergraduate year 1 assignments recently and might comment on English at entry to University at some point – but not today). I am not sure she has really explained here what will happen to make sure the children reach what she calls the “required levels,” and I worry that this may mean that Secondary schools are asked to use what she calls “catch-up money” to brumm children who are “behind” up to a standard that may not really be sustainable but which has got them through their NuSATs. There is a slight unease as I hear her move into what view OfSTED and the DfE might take as they look at “whether the school is letting those children down by not getting them to the required standard…there could be an intervention (NB the word is first used by the Beeb’s interviewer), it could be that other head teachers could come in or offer advice…”

And we are back at what has always seemed to me the main reason for SATs: to assess, not children, but the effectiveness of the school.

So if the pig being weighed is not the child, can we apply my father-in-law’s dictum to systems? Can we over evaluate schools? Is the over-testing of system likely to cause irreparable damage to the system? While I acknowledge they say little about school systems, to finish, here are some YouTube clips in which stretching and stress are used to test materials  from a webbing manufacturer, and from a Lab Test on Stainless Steel.

They are testing products to destruction.  Absit omen.


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Evaluation stumble

Last week I wrote a Moodle Book.

If you don’t know what that is, well, the way I used it, it’s a sequence of pages in a tool on the Brookes Virtual Learning Environment that has allowed me to set up a series of reading activities with videos and questions to ponder around curricular documents from England, Wales, NI and Scotland. Simpler than the bells and whistles of things like Adobe Connect, although I’m sure my version is basic even for the Moodle Book.

I am sort of proud of it, although Sue Cowley’s blog on making raised beds for her allotment was very apt when I read it on Friday. I got better over time.

And on Monday morning – tomorrow as I type – students will go and have a look, maybe dip into a page or two and say “meh,” I should imagine. They may persevere: it’s info needed for the assignment turned into a self-study tool from possibly the dullest class of the whole year.

My problem, really, is the Start-Stop-Carry On activity I gave them when we last met. High-tech stuff, this: a piece of A5 paper with the words Start, Stop and (you guessed it) Carry on, inviting students to say what they felt needed to be done about their module, by adding (‘Start’) or removing (‘Stop’) elements. An ad hoc evaluation.

And the the thing that came out loud and clear was “Stop Doing All This Online Stuff.”

Stop-Start-Carry On becomes Stop Nick in His Tracks.  I’ve done this new one for Monday because I’ve said I would, but the students were all-but unanimous in wanting face-to-face sessions where they could.   This could be because I suck at online learning environments; it could be because of the hidden conservatism of the students. Whatever the reason, I feel I have to ask:

What do we do with evaluation that goes against the grain?

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