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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Maria Popova’s blog BrainPickings often has some gems, like this on Oliver Sacks or this, citing Annie Dillard and Seneca. This particular one, however, has such resonance as I mark the final essays of final-year undergraduates, I’m just going to link to it and then go back to marking.

It is a digest of a speech made by Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson at Kenyon College graduations – sorry: commencement – in 1990, and is full of such timely wisdom, I am simply linking to the 2013 blog post here. Read it, smile, take it to heart. There are few better.

Thanks for posting it, Maria.

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Party Time?

From hearing David Blunkett’s try at silencing criticism by calling those who questioned him “cynics,” to the wobbles, Herschisms and Grammarian Gwynne of Michael Gove, I know I have a long tradition of passive-aggressive sniping, but I don’t – I really don’t – want to be thought of as part of the blobby problem that Nick G sees us belonging to.

And today feels different why?

Because of this article in TES: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/stop-after-test-parties-nicky-morgan-tells-primaries and the verbiage round it.

Nicky Morgan is quoted thus:

“It’s the same when we get to the end of primary. I don’t want to see after-test parties being held. I want it to be something that children take as part of their schooling.”

The tone is magisterial, rather than visionary. She walks into Miss Trunchbull’s office and sits down at the desk with “I don’t want to see after-test parties being held.” But she has a point:  to normalise these tests would require them to have less fuss made about them, from teachers praising their children’s mindfulness training, to parents and schools celebrating the end of the tests, a bit of a cooler attitude might  help the children. The multicoloured ticker tape that floated idly past my office window today – I suppose after someone’s final undergraduate exam- is not a way to make children take the tests without stress. We are only a step away from parents giving fivers for good results.   Parties are out, then. So far, so good.

“I want it to be something that children take as part of their schooling.”


Now what this seems to me to imply is not that children should not celebrate, nor even that they should take these tests in their stride, but that children should just accept that testing is part of schooling, that the stats-sticky fingers of government can and will come and test them. And this is where the problems begin.

I am caught here between the two (or more) arguments, and I don’t think I’m alone. Are tests there to provide quality-assurance testing like an MOT for schools, or are they there to help teachers, parents and children with the children’s learning?

“Ms Morgan said she would be speaking to headteacher representatives and teachers to explore how best to assess seven-year-olds in the future. More rigorous assessments were “really important” to measure the progress pupils were making in primary school and to hold schools to account, she said.”

So who, at heart, is the audience for test results? If I can find an answer to that I might know which argument to follow. Is testing to become a normal part of school – more rigorous, too – whether children learn from it or no, simply to hold schools to account? Is it there because governments have so little trust in teacher assessment that the rigmarole of national tests is the only way to make sure Miss Honey doesn’t favour Hortensia? Are tests the pike-sergeant way of keeping teachers on the (important) task of -erm – teaching?

I am not helped by the way this article changes tack and looks to Mary Bousted at the end:

“We support the government’s commitments to help schools enable more children to achieve expected standards of English and maths at primary school,” she said. “But continual testing is not the answer…”

What really is the argument about testing here?  What is it that raises standards? What does measuring progress do for the individual child? Or should we see children en masse as the product that needs testing? Are tests so important for whatever this purpose is that they should become part of a school’s way of doing things, no more stressful than sharing assembly (yes, I know sharing assembly is not without teacher stress, children over-worrying, parents over-investing: that’s why I chose the example)? It’s hard to tell what is being proposed or opposed here: there are so many voices in this short article, no wonder we are all confused. So here’s a naive plea:

Where is there a clear, single-purpose rationale for the tests? 




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Management Wishlist

A quick list of things we might expect from a manager?

It might include

  • Self organisation,
  • Timely and clear communication,
  • Ability to decide, defer, prioritise,
  • Ability to delegate and avoid blame when delegation doesn’t work…

These are a few of my favourite things – whether I see them in myself or not.

But what about softer skills, the things that just won’t make it into staff appraisal forms, or applications for promotion or advancement?

Things like

  • Being around;
  • GSOH;
  • Generosity of time
  • Co-construction of solutions;
  • Modelling good behaviours?

How do they fit into “successful co-ordination, support, supervision, management and/or mentoring of others  in relation to teaching and learning”?

Plenty of things that people really like don’t get valued by systems.

How do we nurture these, how do we value them? What price the time for a coffee?


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Pigs and more nonsense, briefly.

Again, little more than a tweet, but this came into my twitter feed from Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry 1790-1810.

Then hold not Swine in such disdain,
Since ‘tis by them you have your gain;
But learn to treat them with respect,
Lest they should grunt at your neglect:

It seems to me to be part of the disquiet in my previous blog post – but also, perhaps, part of a Network  “mad as hell” moment which may be leading to the “school tests strike” today (which I want to return to when I am in calmer waters after marking). It is also extremely relevant to the research meeting about visual sources and children’s understandings of history that I am going to now.

More later.

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More Nonsense in a Minute

Dave Aldridge has released an interesting blog post  I want to respond to or at least use as a springboard for a personal rant.  Where Dave asks “What, then, will become of the proposed LEA chains?” I guess he is dealing with that uncomfortable truth that the big businesses behind academies  will – or may – not want to take on smaller schools, rural areas, some of the seemingly insoluble issues that lead to “poor quality pupils.” [NB: the website of the original report seems to have been taken down]   That the state provides the “safety net” (I’m not sure of this shorthand metaphor) seems eminently reasonable; if the government has decided not to be the major player in what was a national initiative, well, we, the electorate, voted them in, sort of. Today it seems “we, the people” voted for a string of idiocies.

I join Dave Aldridge in his disquiet. However, I would be more sanguine about this if it weren’t for the dreadful other things we are seeing from this government at the moment: high-handed bullying around dodgy dealings on the NHS; rich people making decisions about their taxes that takes money from public services – and then covering it up; the opposition of the current government to taking in refugee children under the “Dubs Amendment.” This Kindertransport moment (the PM says it isn’t) is where I give up. If, as the Secretary of State for Education has said, this is a “broadly Christian country” (a phrase I believe she used to justify her position at the time in opposing equality in marriage, presumably based in part on a reading of Leviticus 20:13 or Romans 1:27), then where is our broadly Christian Government going to stand on Deuteronomy 10:18, 19, where God “takes no bribe…and executes justice for the fatherless and loves the stranger,” or the vilifications of the prophet Amos (e.g. Ch 8) against those who trample on the needy, eager to resume their unfair trading?  And if the mention of Amos makes anyone think this is all a bit Amos Starkadder, then 2 Corinthians 8 is a more human take. Be kind: it seems that kindness – the recognition that we are all the same kind, all human, all with needs and talents and joys and disasters – is exactly what is being written out of our lives systematically.

So this is my Catiline question (I know I am not alone in using it) : Quousque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra? How long will you abuse our patience? If “accuracy is for snake-oil pussies,” if High Street tycoons can make a packet and then walk away, it is as if the last election entitles only to attend feeding time at a pool of crocodiles.




Yes, it goes without saying that these views do not necessarily represent an official position by my employers.

And yes, I know Cicero would not necessarily approve of my use of his phrase in this argument.

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Amoris Laetitia

I tend to keep my religion off these pages, at least explicitly. The recent restating of Catholic teaching on the family in Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love; I’m sure the echoes of Alex Comfort must not have been forgotten when the title was chosen), however, does fall, a bit, into the trap of both romanticising and problematising family life.  It recognises, it’s true,  the big difficulties of families subject to violence, disruption &c, but the “healthy dose of self-criticism” Francis urges really looks at reconciling extremes, not at helping the everyday. It does, however, acknowledge that

“At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families.”

The argument in my youth was that a celibate clergy were free precisely to guide and judge at a distance; it’s as if, by asking married lay people their opinions and experiences (however wobbly that process was), Catholic theology has woken up to the weaknesses of this approach. Who, as they say, knew?

So Amoris Laetitia carries a lot of burdens: what in shorthand we might call theologically sound messages need to take into account very explicitly what I keep referring to as the dura et aspera of shopping with children, childcare, telly, finding school uniform… As I write a five-year-old comes in to talk about Narnia and a three-year-old interrupts to tell me she is the pink Powerpuff girl. Nuff said.

This post from last year makes two points about family: that even everyday parenthood is (for many people unexpectedly) very hard work and often unrewarding; that what we could do with –  not just within Catholicism – is the guidance (and warning) of those who have tried it and nevertheless want to support young families.

It’s almost as if the injunctions of Paul to Timothy that the presiding elder should be able to manage their (OK, his) family and be the husband of one wife has some wisdom after all; leadership needs to include mentorship, and family is no exception.

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This is a really neat overview on YouTube of my favourite module, “my” Outdoor Learning module. It can serve as a version of the fictionalised examples I have picked up over the years that I present below. As I burble on in the video, I raise the question about where does the passion and interest lie in being outdoors.  We whet the appetite in Year 1 in the module Introduction to the Study of Education, pick it up in Year 2 with this module, and some will go on to a final year placement in Forest Schools or maybe do a dissertation around the outdoors. I’m never sure quite what to make of the student evaluation questions about “challenge,” however: U70124 is a popular module, whatever that means, and the eager student will doubtless go beyond the procedural, the basic literature (however valuable) – but we sit, perhaps ambiguously, between the placement modules and the theoretical. What do we mean by challenge, then? Is there a difference between academic challenge and physical challenge? Between physical challenge and overcoming resistance?

Here’s one student: she joins the module with a (largely unacknowledged) antipathy towards sustained reading. She is not alone in finding essay writing an awkward mixture of thinking out her opinions based on class input and “finding the right quotes” for the essay.

And here’s another: she is a solid practitioner who finds the academic stuff hard, but equally finds that the alternative perspectives she meets uncomfortable. There are real points in the outdoor learning module where she finds herself thinking “I would never do that with my children.” At heart she is here to make her setting better.

And in the rule of three, here is the last: a good student, an experienced EY worker, she is nonetheless convinced by voices from her past that a stick on the floor is dirty, that sitting in the floor is unpleasant. Even being in the little wood here is several steps into an unknown.

Are their challenges the same? Are engaging with effective reading, linking theory to practice, overcoming tactile defensive system all fundamentally about overcoming some resistance? And what does their tutor do – what do I do – to help them face their challenges, to see the threshold idea as something to be welcomed ?

U70124 2009

I confess I find myself hampered by my big question from the YouTube video, around where the “passion and interest lie.” So often we talk about passion, about well-being, or (worse) “allowing children to be children.” These ideas – sometimes surrounded by metaphor or given authority simply the power of the slogan – may well have power in the advocacy that student 2 may need, but are well-nigh fatal to the thinking and engagement required by student 1.  And while this is familiar territory to me as an academic, where does this leave student 3? How do I look at student well-being and challenge on all three levels? It’s as if I need a set of resources or an approach that will

  • encourage engaged reading
  • improve practice
  • support challenge without acting as Mother-Hen.

Oh, wait: that’s probably my job: to develop a package  (a class, a module) that enables as well as challenges; where reading is expected, opinions are welcomed, and even den-building in a muddy wood has its place. Maybe that “place” (metaphorically) also has to make the discomfort of changing minds acceptable to students. A tall order: the students aren’t the only people who have a challenge in the module on Outdoor Learning.




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The landscape of the Dad

Patriarchs live in deserts. On what modern readers might see as the positive side, they produce water for the thirsty, food for the hungry, and field forty years’ worth of “Can we go back?” and “Are we nearly there?” The Patriarch Moses and God work together on this one: Dayenu.

They also act in a (euphemism alert) risky way – Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac [an interesting blog post here] is not a model for parenthood easily adopted.

Chagall, Abraham ready to sacrifice his Son dv 1960-6

Chagall, Abraham ready to sacrifice his Son dv 1960-6

Dads live somewhere else. As Mat Tobin has recently explored with Keith Negley in response to his wonderful book Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too), they might live with a landscape that is a  “metaphor for frustration,” or in a cityscape that is created from block colours, but it seems to me that it is often rooted, in young children’s books, in a recognisable reality. It might not always be a positive thing to have your dad in the quotidianum  – think of the dad in Antony Browne’s Zoo, or Lauren’s Child’s Clarice Bean and her grumpy absentee  – but they are at least the common-or-garden dad. Even the fantastic, crazy world of classic Babar has Celesteville, and French family life is lived out in a gentle satire. It’s as if a dad cannot be a dad without reference to the everyday.

So the landscape of the Patriarch, even when geographically locatable, is in many ways the landscape of myth and legend (I have discussed legend-landscapes before), and the landscape of the dad is emotionally, socially (and geographically? I’m beginning to doubt this – see below) rooted in the recognisable. What might the exceptions be to this? A v quick list for me (as much as anyone) to think about:

  • Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo’s Child, Cave Baby and Stick Man;
  • Tove Janson’s Moominpapa (passim);
  • The dads in the Ahlbergs’ Happy Families books;
  • Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox.

What these all have in common is that the application of dadness to these fantastic contexts require an understanding of the everyday dad to interpret the fantastic –   “Interpretation calls upon the interpreter to render explicit a work’s meaning today. ” (Palmer, R (1969) Hermeneutics. Evanston: Northwest University Press. p 245).  We read these dads into their story party because of their relationship to the other dads we know.  Celesteville could be suburban France (or suburban European anywhere), the Gruffalo’s Child has an everyday dad-daughter relationship at its heart, and so on.

And so back to Keith Negley’s Tough Guys – and little more than to post anyone reading this to the significance of Keith Negley’s first response to Mat’s question about exploring masculinity: for Negley the project is in part for his own son (and iteratively for his own father?) and portraying in a positive way the emotional vulnerability the author-illustrator has “struggled with.” The last endpapers of Tough Guys – sampled by Mat here – show men in caring adult (dad or quasi-dad?) roles [the clever self-subversion being that it is the boys who are the superheroes: a real surprise to me]. The dads are Everyman dads, although they are unsited, depicted on a white background, they are doing the everyday stuff, playing with the boys. The interpreting reader brings to these vignettes the living room, the park, the garden.

The landscape of the dad, the everydayness of the relationships can therefore be aspirational – how a dad “ought” to be, or critical –  how a dad “ought not” to be; but in either sense there must be something in the relationship that shows we are in the world of the dad, not the desert of the Patriarch.





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Transitions into HE

“What’s on my mind?”, asks WordPress whenever I start a post. How to work with students is always on my mind at work, whether it’s the ex_CACHE Year 1 student talking about time management or the final semester over-deliverer. This research report from MMU, published by QAA has given me a lot of think about: as University admissions seeks for more and more diversity in its intake, it is ever more essential that we don’t just plonk the new students in the middle of the quad, so to speak, and say “There you are: Uni!”

The perceptions of learning and teaching in pre-University experiences crystallise for me in the table which talks about dependency:

Answers always provided;very short cycles of input,testing and feedback; all resources provided; monitoring system provides motivation and nudges; daily contact with same staff member; activity is always directed; some structured activities (for example, writing frames)

and contrasts it with how things might be in HE:

Students find answers for themselves; some resources provided, students expected to find more resources; students expected to largely find their own motivation;contact with same staff member weekly or less; activity required is essentially undirected (for example, lecture) .

This is about challenge and independence (something the report acknowledges) and I would be among the first to say that Year 1 in HE becomes all but useless if challenge and independence are minimised – but how do we increase them while teaching the “survival skills” that getting through Year 1 requires? And what about getting on in subsequent years?

A first thought: this is partly about expectation (again, the report is right to look at this, and the vignettes/quotations from the students are fascinating), but also, I think, about how  the study skills debate gets clouded by the issues of mental health and wellbeing. They are both vital components in success – but it can’t be that HE tutors become welded to their students, any more than students are told “just cope.” Perhaps as school/college-based learning has changed, HE Y1 provision now needs to look (again and again, and more seriously) at differentiation?



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