‘I’ve got thoughts and secrets and bloody life inside me that he doesn’t know is there’

It’s hard to wake up after half term. My daughter is tired; she gurns, claims to ‘hate school’, ‘hate porridge’ and ‘hate babies’ (a dig at her brother). I lose my temper before we leave the house. Alas we don’t live in a utopia where all adults are kind and reasonable, all children go to bed early and school is fascinating.

Any parent knows that children become more difficult when they are unhappy. Any teacher knows that the children lined up in front of them are not necessarily having a wonderful time in their lesson, or outside of it. I have taught many children who sometimes seemed seriously unhappy, and I don’t think it was only because of my teaching. The tragedy is that the unhappiest children are often the ones who get punished, excluded from class and, potentially, excluded from school.

The last thing an over-worked teacher needs is a pupil who constantly disrupts the lesson with their phone or their rudeness. Teachers impose sanctions, follow their school’s discipline policy. But punishment doesn’t usually work unless someone also talks to the student: acknowledges them as a thinking, feeling, human – even a little.

When a child is excluded, that is likely to be only the start of their suffering. Barnardo’s “is calling for the Government to urgently increase high-quality support for excluded children, to ensure they stay in full-time education.” Research published by them last week states, “‘alternative provision’ for excluded children is at breaking point. Forty-seven of the councils across England which responded revealed they had no vacant spaces in state pupil referral units as of 1 July 2018 (PRUs). Even where there is space, there is a postcode lottery in terms of the quality of education they will receive.” (Barnardo’s, 2018.) Excluded children could find no place to go, be taught for only a short time each day, or be taught badly.

Exclusion can be the point when a child gets involved in violence. Sarah Jones, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime said “Professionals talk about the ‘PRU to prison pipeline’. The system is failing these young people.” (Barnardo’s, 2018.) Today, “tributes have been paid to two teenagers who were fatally stabbed on the streets of London within 24 hours.” (The Guardian, 2018.) According to government statistics, knife crime increased by 6% between 2010 and 2017. In the year ending March 2018, “there were 21,044 disposals given for possession of a knife or offensive weapon. Juveniles (aged 10-17) were the offenders in 21% of cases.” (House of Commons Library, 2018.) Children are killing each other on the streets.

Ofsted’s new focus on behaviour – Amanda Spielman’s preference for a “tough stance” (TES, 2018) – is not likely to help the most disruptive children while they are still in school. There is always a reason why a child does not co-operate. If a child is unhappy, addressing how they feel is more useful than a detention. Few teachers have much time to talk to their students. The Government recognise the benefits of school counselling, “what teachers and support staff say is that they often don’t have either the time or the expertise to help children and young people when they begin to show signs of distress. Studies show that school staff can appreciate the availability of a professionally qualified counsellor…” (DfE, 2016.) In the same document they recognise that, in 2016, only 62% of schools offered counselling services and comment, “we do not underestimate the difficulties” of funding. An increased focus on providing good quality counselling for disruptive children would make more sense than an increased focus on ‘behaviour’.

Children also misbehave because they don’t want to do the work. The work might be boring, it might be too difficult, it might not have any relevance to the child’s own life. It’s a tricky problem. It doesn’t help that teachers have very little time for individual students, or that students are locked into narrow schemes of assessment.

Another flaw with taking a “tough stance” is that children exist in the present. Threat of punishment – and ultimate threat of exclusion – may not deter a child from rudeness, violence, constant texting or bullying as they pass through each stage of their school’s discipline policy. A child will not realise what exclusion could mean for their future. A girl I taught (famous for her extravagant rudeness to teachers) told me she was hoping to get a place at the local pupil referral unit, because they ‘let you go out for a fag’.

Teachers are struggling desperately. And many – like me – have quit. According to the Guardian, in 2017, “Almost a quarter of the teachers who have qualified since 2011 have already left the profession” (Guardian, 2017.) Of course teachers need to deal with students who make it hard to get through a lesson: for the sake of the rest of the class and their own mental health.

But is a “tough stance” really the best way to deal with the most difficult kids? Difficult students are also people, probably unhappy people: people whose lives could be severely affected if they are treated as a failure or a problem. If they end up excluded, their lives could be completely ruined – even over.



‘At best, he learns how to avoid punishment.’

While reading about Octopus behaviour, I was reminded of my daughter. Peter Godfrey-Smith relates ‘famous octopus anecdotes…of escape and thievery’ (Other Minds, 2016, p. 55). For instance, a certain octopus, when fed with thawed-out squid (‘second-rate food’), waited for the scientist who had fed it to walk back past the tank: “It had not eaten it’s squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously…the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching [the scientist] all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.” (Other Minds, p. 57). I recognised, in that octopus, rebellion against rules imposed by an alien being who has no empathy at all for its dislike of thawed-out squid.

My daughter rebels against rules she does not like. While being made to eat vegetables, she is much more likely to pick her nose, interrupt and wander away from the table. She responds better if rules make sense to her – talking about scurvy helps with vegetables. (If an octopus did understand why they were being kept in a tank and fed tasteless squid, I doubt they would agree to it.) We should only impose rules on children if we have a clear reason; rules always work better when the child understands the reason and agrees on the rules they have to follow.

The recent Ofsted reforms to school inspection include an increased focus on behaviour: “The other major change involves looking at behaviour and pupil attitudes in a single category, signalling a more critical view to how schools deal with classroom behaviour.” (Guardian, 2018.) Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector, said in June at the Wellington College Festival of Education that she believes in a “tough stance on behaviour”. She added, “I think it’s entirely appropriate to use sanctions, such as writing lines, ‘community service’ in the school grounds – such as picking up litter – and school detentions…where they are part of a school’s behaviour policy, they’ll have our full support.” (TES, 2018.) Spielman’s view of discipline is hierarchical. She comes from the world of business; she has never taught real children.

Surely we should be looking at why many children don’t co-operate at school rather than ramping up the punishment. As a teacher I was aware that there was always a reason why a child did not co-operate. Non-cooperation was common among those who felt that the system had nothing to offer them. Teaching bottom set GCSE, for example, to students predicted E’s, forcing them to read Dickens when they had no idea what quarter of the words meant, punishing them for not co-operating, felt worse than futile. Punishing those students only proved to them that school was against them, that the GCSE was an impossible struggle and (possibly) that they themselves were deficient. It would have been more useful to find a way to study with which the students wanted to cooperate: to read something they could understand; to sort out their basic grammar; to talk about the relevance of English to application forms or constructing arguments in real life. Instead I had to slog through termly assessments toward the GCSE and to enforce the school’s discipline policy when students did not behave. I watched two or three individuals become increasingly cynical. I don’t think a “tough stance” would have helped them.

Being “tough” on those who won’t fall into line doesn’t work. Good behaviour should flow naturally from the work of pupils and teachers, who agree on the value of the work. This is particularly the case in primary school. Younger children’s natural curiosity is strong, easier to harness; it is tragic to imagine children at primary school becoming cynical because of tough discipline.

John Dewey saw good behaviour as a natural aspect of cooperation between pupils and their teacher. Dewey was adamant that pupils and teachers should agree on the purpose of activities: “there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active cooperation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying.” (Experience and Education, Dewey, 1938, p.67.) He argued that when pupils and teachers are in agreement, pupils regulate their own behaviour: “control of individual actions is effected by the whole situation in which individuals are involved, in which they share and of which they are co-operative or interacting parts.” (Experience and Education, p. 53.)

Dewey thought cooperation with the teacher was especially effective with younger children. It did not need explanation: it worked because the children know they are not being controlled. Children, he said, are more sensitive to “the signs and symptoms” of dictation and control than adults, They “learn the difference when playing with one another.” (Experience and Education, p. 55.) There must be rules in a school, but – as in children’s own games – rules work when children want to follow them.

The danger of this new Ofsted ‘behaviour and pupil attitudes’ category is that it implicitly encourages harsher punishment, obedience of the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ variety. Students who are not co-operating in school might be made more passive by punishment; they might be made more resentful. Neither is useful for their education, or the education of their classmates – excessive discipline could create a cynical culture. Pupils must be enthusiastic about what they are learning; even if they don’t love the subject, they need to see the purpose.

Bertrand Russell, like Dewey, saw very little use for punishment in education. (He includes “speaking harshly” as punishment.) Russell argues that a child’s natural curiosity and desire to fit in with a group should be used to encourage good behaviour. He saw Victorian methods of discipline as damaging:

“To win the genuine affection of children is a joy as great as any that life has to offer. Our grandfathers did not know of this joy…They taught children that it was their ‘duty’ to love parents, and proceeded to make this duty almost impossible of performance…Consequently human relations remained stark and harsh and cruel. Punishment was part of this whole conception.” (On Education, 1926, p. 117.)

Russell’s idea could be applied to a school in which students are told to value their education, then made to write lines, sit detention and pick up rubbish, if they do not sufficiently value (what the school calls) education: thus making the ‘duty almost impossible of performance’.

As a teacher I found harsh punishment usually unhelpful. I avoided it where possible, though I was bound by my contract to follow the school’s discipline policy. As a parent, I am more emotionally involved and more prone to shouting – then regretting it. Both in school, and at home, it is better to explain rules; to rely on voluntary co-operation; to be flexible. If punishment is ever needed, the milder the better.

‘I am dealing with people and not with things.’

My daughter’s teacher had a quiet word after school about how she gets upset and declares, ‘I can’t do’ Maths. As we walked away, my daughter covered her ears, shut her eyes and half shouted, ‘I know what you were talking about!’ Her teacher only wants to help. It is especially important just now as they head for the SATS at the end of Year Two. That’s when the Government start putting children into categories. Parents won’t necessarily know these SATS results, but we will know if our children are above or below the ‘expected standard’. And the results are used again at the end of Year Six: “to measure the school’s progress score.” (gov.uk.)

Children notice. They notice their own level and each other’s. Though results are not directly given, children start putting themselves into categories. Hence they might believe they are deficient in some way. If they feel deficient, they are likely to be passive and bored, burdened by the compulsion to memorise. For those children, school will become (at best) a drag.

Paulo Freire was “known for his adult literacy programs in impoverished communities and for his classic early text: Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” (Oxford Research Encyclopedias.)  Freire noticed that the opinion of teachers becomes internalised by students. He worked in South America in the 1960’s alongside radical Christians, believers in liberation theology, teaching peasants to read in order to “raise consciousness, understand their own oppression and recognise that you don’t have to be passive and oppressed.” (Noam Chomsky, 2013.) Freire explains the effect of a teacher’s opinion on a person: “They call themselves ignorant and say the ‘professor’ is the one who has the knowledge and to whom they should listen.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970, p. 37.)

British schoolchildren may not be oppressed to the same degree as peasants in 1960’s Brazil. But our test-based system does not inspire many with curiosity; we do not teach children to be critical, to think for themselves. “Passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with searching and enquiring and pursuing topics that engage us and excite us.” (Chomsky, 2012.)

Each six or seven year-old achieves a certain amount at the end of Year Two depending on their ability or interest, but also depending on their level of disadvantage and how they feel that day. The situation is particularly bad for poor children (who are often hungry at school nowadays) and tired children. It could be bad for a girl who expects to fail in Maths. They are given a level, which will then colour their experience for the following four years: ‘everyone at my table is bad at Maths’; ‘the ones who could do it went out into the hall.’ The results of the SATS taken at the end of Year Six stay with children right up until GCSEs.

This week Ofsted, in their great beneficence, decided to stop using test results as one of the four main areas of inspection. They have noticed the problem: “the new quality section would focus on the curriculum taught within a school, rewarding those that offer pupils a broad range of subjects.” (Guardian, 2018) How visionary! But our education system is still entirely based on testing: SATS at the end of years Two and Six; GCSE preparation begins at 14; most schools I have worked in also test throughout Key Stage Three.

Ofsted’s Chief Inspector has never been a teacher! “She previously spent more than 15 years in strategy consulting, finance and investment at KPMG, Kleinwort Benson, Mercer Management Consulting and Nomura International.” (gov.uk.) My guess is, she doesn’t really understand how continual testing manacles teachers. Teachers cannot waste much school time on the curiosity of an individual student, the class or themselves.

In independent schools (I briefly worked in one) it is possible to offer a varied curriculum that allows children to work beyond the test, to study subjects that have no connection with the test, to take part in enriching extra-curricular activities: to learn for the sake of it. Sussex House, a top prep-school for Eton (londonpreprep.com) lists “Architectural Modelling”, “Mandarin” and “Jazz Ensemble” among their activities (Sussex House). In independent schools there are smaller classes; teachers with a higher level of education tend to be employed because the pay is much better; teachers have a decent amount of preparation time. It’s not fair!

If ‘quality of education’ is going to be offered in state schools, teachers must be freed from the constraints of constant testing. I want to stress that the teachers I know do their best to protect children from the worst effects of tests, but they still have to prepare them for the racecourse.

I am not proposing we abolish all tests. We just need to recognise their limitations: they are a measure of what a person has committed to memory and how well they can prove it. They are probably most useful in factual subjects; I have found GCSE and A-level English examinations unreliable measures of a student’s understanding or ability to think for themselves. But that’s a conversation for another day.

In primary school, at least, children could be encouraged to discover for themselves within a framework set by their teacher or school. Bruce Alberts (Editor-in-Chief of ‘Science’) is involved in improving the teaching of Maths and Science in American schools. He argues that encouraging children to discover and to think is far superior to making them learn lists of information. I will quote him at length:

“Inquiry-based science curricula for children ages 5 to 13 have been undergoing
development and refinement… These curricula require that students engage in active investigations, while a teacher serves as a coach to guide them to an understanding of one of many topics. This approach takes advantage of the natural curiosity of young people…can be highly effective in increasing a student’s reasoning and problem-solving skills. In addition, because communication is emphasized, inquiry-based science teaching has been shown to increase reading and writing abilities.”  (Science, 2008.)

I can imagine an equivalent English class in which seven-year-olds were allowed to read (with help if needed) from a selection of books and discuss them with one another in a seminar. There would be no worksheet and no judgement.

There is so much tests don’t measure: thought, curiosity, joy, hunger. Most teachers know that.

‘moanday, tearsday…’

Knowing my daughter’s education was beyond my control felt odd when she first started in reception. After two years I’m used to that – most of the time. Apart from when she has to read an eye-wateringly dull book; or when I ask ‘what did you do at school today?’ – ‘I can’t remember. Nothing can I have a snack?’

Who is in control? It’s complicated. First Blair’s government – in 2002 – then Gove – in 2010 – with the introduction of academies and free schools, altered everything. I will identify who pulls which strings and ask whether we want our children to be their puppets.

Teachers in maintained schools are weak. A teacher is constantly observed and managed, pressured to meet targets. Almost all the content at my daughter’s maintained school is set by those at the Department for Education who write the National Curriculum, though teachers work late at home and on weekends to prepare their own resources. Boring reading books teachers dutifully issue exist because they are useful for measuring how near, or far, a child is from the Government’s ‘expected level’, not because the stories engender a love of reading.

How much power does a teacher at an academy or free school have? Let’s look at how these institutions are run (the same rules apply to both). Academies, like private schools, don’t have to follow the National Curriculum. There are only some stipulations: “Academies must teach a broad and balanced curriculum including English, Maths and Science. They must also teach religious education.” (gov.co.uk).

Academies and free schools benefit from extra funding: up to ten percent more, which used to be held back by local authorities for provision of extra services (BBC, 2016). This is part of the reason for the explosion of academies in recent years: “At January 2017, 68.8 per cent of secondary pupils and 24.3 per cent of primary pupils in England were attending academies.” (House of Commons Library, 2017).

The Government describes academies as “publicly funded independent schools.” (gov.co.uk). The structure of their governance mimics that of a business. ‘Members’, at the top of the hierarchy, are like shareholders without the profit:  “shareholders, like members, have a real interest in the success of a company…members will judge ‘success’ against how much the trustees are doing to achieve the charitable objects of the charity.” (National Governance Association, 2018). The government recommend there should be at least five members, but there can be as few as three, (RSA, 2017).

Beneath members are ‘trustees’ who run the academy, like school governors,  though they have additional responsibilities, such as finance and admissions. The trustees are not supposed to be the same people as the members, but this does happen (Schoolsweek, 2017).

In multi-academy trusts, ‘local governing bodies’ are delegated responsibilities by trustees. LGBs can control one or more academies.

Overseeing all these academies, supposedly, are regional schools commissioners. Though, when they were set up to take over this responsibility from the Department for Education a leaked document revealed how little power they actually have: “ministers are advised that plans to devolve oversight to new regional schools commissioners will expose how little sway the department has over existing free schools and academy schools in England.” (Guardian, 2014).

In academies teachers work under an iron rod. The control exerted over teachers in maintained schools is frail by comparison! When a school becomes an academy, there is no longer the requirement for a teacher governor (or trustee in the new jargon) (NUT). Decisions are made by trustees who may have no experience, many of whom are appointed by the academy trust or its sponsors.

Academies do not have to honour statutory teachers’ pay and conditions. Teachers could have very little sick pay; they might be required to be in the building for long hours; even heads have been ‘ordered to leave’ with little warning, (Guardian, 2017).  Respect for teachers, the acknowledgement that they care about their students and usually do more than their contracted hours, is gone.

In 2010 Gove rushed the Academies Bill through parliament using a procedure that some claim is usually reserved for anti-terror laws, (BBC, 2010). By 2016, nearly a third of the teachers who joined in 2010 had left; Schools cannot recruit enough teachers (NUT, quoting DfE figures).  It isn’t surprising that so many teachers are desperate to escape.

The problem with academies is that they are extremely hierarchical – essentially mini-oligarchies. Members and trustees lay down the law and they are answerable to almost nobody; unless their school fails an Ofsted inspection, but by then damage has been done. Mary Bousted (General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers) commented this year: “Since 2010 the government has spent at least £149.6m on the setup costs and capital funding for 66 free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools in England that have either closed, partially closed or failed to open at all.” She suggests that the £149.6 million could have been better spent, (Guardian, 2018). (A salient point given the protest of hundreds of headteachers at Westminster on Friday, BBC, 2018.)

Academies have led to corruption. There have been several cases of members bending the rules for their own benefit: Ian Cleland, chief executive and founding member of the Academies Transformation Trust, oversaw the disappearance of millions from the trust’s reserves over four years, was put on temporary leave, then used his powers to sack the chairman and have himself re-instated, (Schoolsweek, 2017).

I am an escapee. I have worked in both a free school and a recently converted academy. In the free school, I was conscious of the incompetence of trustees. They didn’t think there needed to be a head of English, so I began with no scheme of work. The experienced head could influence decisions, but was ultimately subordinate to trustees and members.

There is some hope in co-operative schools. Championed at one stage by Conservative, Francis Maude, and now Angela Rayner in her speech last week at Labour Party Conference: “And where parents and staff want to go further in launching and leading their own schools, our own movement already has an answer: co-operative schools.” (Labour.org.uk, 2018). Co-operatives provide a way for teachers and parents to take more control of schools.

Mervyn Wilson (Principal of the Co-operative College) wrote one of four essays in a collection commissioned in 2013 on the subject: “Today’s generation of co-operative schools…provide opportunities for new models of ownership involvement and community engagement, and an alternative to the rapid development of the top-down command and control chains.” (Making it Mutual, 2013).

Greater involvement of teachers in running schools is badly needed.  Maybe a new kind of management would help teachers dread Moanday less. If I were involved, I would have something to say about reading books.





‘Does it guess easy? It must have a competition with us, my preciouss!’

What is creativity and how do you acquire it? Is it innate, learned, or is there magic juice you can squeeze on a child’s eyelids to engender it? My daughter likes to make things up, she talks a lot. People have called her creative; but her fluency with words comes from knowing a lot of stories.

There is a battle going on over creativity among those who control British education. Broadly speaking some (such as Sir Ken Robinson and Guy Claxton) believe we must favour teaching, or enabling, creativity itself – allowing children the space to create. Whereas others (Michael Gove, Daisy Christodoulou) think it is vital that children commit detailed knowledge of subjects to memory.

To pin down what these powerful people mean by creativity, let’s use the definition agreed on by Claxton and Christodoulou in this revealing debate, ‘Traditional education kills creativity’: creativity is “being able to come up with a fresh idea when you need one.” Such ability is certainly useful to an adult or child in any situation. Good. So, how do children get to be like that?

The battle is largely over how children become creative. A dominant view since the 1960’s has been that retaining knowledge is lesser than, and separate from, creativity. The idea is expressed in the pyramids of Maslow and Dale, which are used on PGCSE courses. Maslow sees “creative activities” as one of the highest human needs. Dale describes listening to a lecture, and reading, as “passive”; he claims little is retained from these methods. Maslow and Dale’s pyramids have been attacked by those who think the emphasis of education must be on learning knowledge. Paul Kirschner (Professor at the Open University of the Netherlands) points out that the two pyramids are based on “no empirical data.” He says, “They are something we believe and not something we know.” (YouTube, 2014)

The 2007 English National Curriculum focused on skills and processes rather than specific knowledge. Then, in 2014, the Government overhauled the curriculum, so that the focus was instead on knowledge: “the new curriculum…concentrates on “the essential knowledge and skills every child should have” (BBC, 2014) The overhaul was down to Gove, who wanted “access to knowledge” to be the focus of education, (GOV.UK, 2014).

I agree with Christodoulou who argues that, rather than being separate, knowledge and creativity are intertwined: you can’t be creative without large amounts of knowledge stored in your long-term memory, (Christodoulou, Seven Myths About Education, 2014, p. 21). My daughter’s so-called ‘creativity’, her ability to make things up, comes from the stories I (the ex-English teacher) have read to her, stuff she reads herself and films. After I read aloud the chapter of The Hobbit about Gollum, she began making up riddles, and begging me to make up riddles for her to solve. What you absorb and remember becomes your thoughts; where else could thought come from?

If someone were to fill my daughter’s mind with Mathematics, she might become creative with numbers. In reality, she often can’t recognise a two digit number. I feel her confusion like a cold draught, a reminder of my own threadbare knowledge.

Those who react with horror to Christodoulou’s arguments have belittled her approach as Gradgrindian. But I am not convinced that Dickens would approve of jettisoning facts from education. In his great biography, Peter Ackroyd has described Dickens’ conventional education of his own children: “There is no sense in which Dickens brought up his own children to be “rebels” against the system which he himself so consistently attacked.” (Ackroyd, Dickens, 1999, p. 612). Dickens even published factual work for children: ‘A Child’s History of England’ (1853). The problem with Gradgrind is not his knowledge, but his cruelty and that he serves a system rather than individual children.

Ackroyd repeatedly refers to Dickens’ belief in the power of children’s intelligence and the importance of childhood memories in adult life. Dickens wrote, “it would be difficult to overstate the intensity and accuracy of an intelligent child’s observation.” (Ackroyd, p. 16); Scrooge remembers his childhood reading as a source of redemptive meaning when confronted with the Ghost of Christmas Past.

What is dangerous (and Gradgrindian) about our current education system is the concern for data over individuals. Individual children are judged according to where the Curriculum expects them to be. Success is a graph that climbs gradually upward. Teachers are made to judge children according to their data; the success of their own teaching by students’ performance in continuous tests. Children’s idiosyncrasies and the unreliability of data is ignored.

Individuals have natural proclivities; I am no psychologist, I believe this to be true based on my experience of teaching. During my PGCE an academic argued in a lecture that anyone one could have been Mozart given the correct environment; she was laughed at by the audience. A child with ability in a certain subject is limited by the National Curriculum because all must be more or less close to “the expected standard” (GOV.UK). The expectation is far too low for many and too high for others.

If teachers were allowed to forget the ‘expected standard’ and the next test for more than ten minutes, they might notice immense potential that is wasted. Think of how much Hebrew an average Jewish girl might learn for a Bat Mitzvah; how many languages any child can pick up if they need to; how quickly children are able to work technology without being taught. John Taylor Gatto concludes, “after thirty years in the public school trenches..genius is as common as dirt.” (Weapons of Mass Instruction, 2009, p. 23).

We put fences up, keep children in pens of expected learning, and do not recognise when they could go further. My daughter has just been sent home with some level 12 reading books: not as bad as level 9, but, still, dry as dust compared with The Hobbit. I worry that the tediousness of the school books will erode her natural enjoyment of reading.

The business model that has been fashionable for some time in the public sector makes no sense in schools. Teachers are hooked on so-called progress. We count our data as if it were gold coins, forgetting that targets are set by people in an office somewhere: targets do not necessarily make sense for individuals. We tend to forget that our numbers may falsify, limit or simply be irrelevant.








‘How the hell do you hope to get a job when you never listen to anythin’?’

For two years, my daughter and I have been painfully climbing the Oxford Reading Tree (reading books used in 80% of UK primary schools). I agree that readers designed to improve literacy step by step are needed; but I wonder why the pace has to be so unbearably slow.

Before the summer holidays we were on level 9: not as mind-numbing as levels 1-5 but, still, not riveting. Then, through boredom over the summer, she was forced into reading whatever was around. I’m not suggesting I have an unusual child, but, when no one would read to her on a long afternoon in our TV-less living room, she started reading real books to herself. Of course it was hard at first, and she guessed a lot, but – as children do – she got better fast. I’m sure many would. Now the world is open to her in small print – illustrated encyclopedias; novels with proper characters who think; even at one point in a cafe, an article in the Guardian about boa constrictors escaping into London streets and eating pigeons. More intriguing than “Wilma’s mum came round. She wanted to take everyone swimming.” (Super Dog, Level 9)

Steady, measurable, progress looks better on a school’s graphs. If one student’s stagnation due to computer game addiction makes the data look bad, so could a giant leap made by another out of boredom. I was a secondary school English teacher for eight years. (‘Can you explain to me please, Miss Glickstein, how you have added value to this learner?’) ‘Value Added’ measures the progress of each student from one test to another. It is a way of organising and of reading data, which feeds Ofsted and national figures, so schools can be compared: “Someone who is clever to start with is compared with other clever children – so the result does not depend on how well they do in outright terms, but how much they have improved, whatever their ability.” (BBC, 2004)  The idea is that all students should progress gradually upwards on a trajectory that fits how clever they are deemed to be. And what is the point of the comparison? All UK governments are desperate to show they are dealing with failing schools and teachers: that education is working.

What I have never understood is why teachers and parents passively accept the standards by which we test schoolchildren from the age of six. As if the standards were handed down to Kenneth Baker on a stone tablet by God himself and every child’s ability has been accurately judged by the system!

We dumbly study our graphs, believing they are fact. When SATS began, we had obviously forgotten Dickens’ vitriolic caricature of Gradgrind, industrialist turned MP, whose mania for facts is based on a belief that England requires children raised only on fact and measured at every point – “…a rule and a pair of scales…ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to.” (Hard Times, 1854).

If the pace of study is too slow, many become excruciatingly bored. I have seen it happen a lot. A boy in Year Seven, for instance, who was reading ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ was recorded as having read nothing. (The system recorded numbers of words read using an app on the kids’ phones that tracked their progress through books on the system.) The books and science magazines this boy liked weren’t on the system and so he registered as disengaged. He had none of the glory and prizes awarded to those who clocked up the most words. His mum felt sorry for him: she typed a list of what he had read and brought it to me at parents’ evening hoping I could change his record. But the system only recognised books that were on it. I was forced to look into the boy’s face and explain, ‘you can’t necessarily measure yourself by what school reports say.’ By the end of Year Seven he had thrown a chair at another boy and been temporarily excluded from class.

The intense daily frustration of children stuck learning too little too slowly is only one of the problems our system does not recognise. We must question whether we want a uniform national curriculum at all. Look up John Taylor Gatto. (New York City Teacher of the Year on three occasions. He quit teaching on the OP ED page of the Wall Street Journal in 1991 while still New York State Teacher of the Year, claiming that he was no longer willing to hurt children.) Gatto convincingly argues that American education is deliberately designed and used to “dumb people down, to demoralise them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them if they don’t conform.” (Weapons of Mass Instruction, 2009) In my experience, the motives of those in charge are not so clear cut, but it is strange that we are willing to accept what our children have to study unquestioningly.

It has ever been the case that education is defined by those in charge, who may or may not believe that children should be taught to think for themselves. Orwell, two years after he worked as a teacher, imagined a teacher who manages to do just this in A Clergyman’s Daughter: “Quite quickly and easily Dorothy broke them in to the habit of thinking for themselves”. Only – poor Dorothy! – she soon understands the depressing reality: “No job is more fascinating than teaching if you have a free hand at it. Nor did Dorothy know, as yet, that that ‘if’ is one of the biggest ‘ifs’ in the world.” (A Clergyman’s Daughter, 1935) We can never assume that a steadily climbing graph illustrates the nation’s children moving towards an end that we, personally, agree is valid.

Teachers have limited freedom. They are not encouraged to design their own curricula, nor to vary the work each child does. Differentiation usually means varying the same task for different students, not choosing tasks to suit individuals, because everyone is prepared for the same tests. (Though some poor souls are condemned to the Foundation tier.)

Teachers imprison children with tests and judgements from an extremely early age. Many teachers hate doing it: they become cynical, unhappy; children learn to adapt to the system or live a life of frustration. Teachers ought to be free to respond to individuals; boys and girls should be encouraged to think from the outset about what the purpose of their education is. My daughter has asked if they will let her choose reading books from home in future; I’m not sure it’s up to her teacher.






‘The system will still need you to compose symphonies’

I listen to music with my daughter on YouTube and Spotify; she likes YouTube because of the videos. I choose the songs. Often I choose music by written and, or, performed by women: Patti Smith, Nina Simone, Eliza Carthy, The Chordettes, 4 Non Blondes, the Be Good Tanyas, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Sandy Denny, Aretha Franklin. (Click on the links and have a party!)

Part of the point of this has been to let her listen to music, but to avoid inappropriately adult lyrics. Also to let her look at different hues, shapes and styles of women: people she can admire who aren’t stick thin and gyrating in their underwear. An inoculation against the MTV effect.

I mention MTV because, when I worked in a boarding school – ten years ago now – that is what the girls (aged 11 – 18) played constantly in their common room. I watched with them. I remember a few particular stinkers – Britney Spears ‘Piece of Me’ and Girls Aloud ‘Can’t Speak French’. But there were thousands of videos; millions of closeups of gleaming quivering thighs and pouting parted mouths. I hated the way the younger girls drank it in with their eyes; I wasn’t surprised to hear from a parent that, after nine months at school, their twelve year old was adamant she needed a bikini wax. Kids probably watch more music online now, but I don’t imagine the demands made on female performers have changed.

Recently, I played my daughter Mama Cass, Make Your Own Kind of Music. A woman with a voice to make you cry, who proves you can be lovely and ignore modern rules about how women on TV must look. But, as I was searching for the song, the search algorithm suggested Paloma Faith’s version. The difference between the two exposes how conformist modern musicians are required to be. The video makes pathetic gestures at illustrating the meaning of the original words: a whispered voice-over at the beginning hints that the singer is unconventional; they put her in a couple of quirky outfits – sci-fi style and mardi gras. But the outfits are still skin tight, with stilettos, and Faith has a gym body. She is also advertising Skoda cars, which I guess doesn’t leave those making the video infinite room for creativity. Individuality, in the Paloma Faith video, becomes just another manufactured style – like the ready-made ‘punk’ and ‘artist’ accessories you can buy in Topshop.

My daughter (what a surprise!) spotted the Paloma Faith version and wanted that. She knew I didn’t; she could tell this was the sort of video other people in her class might recognise. And why shouldn’t she want that? It’s natural for a child to be fascinated by the big wide world, and it’s not a crime to want to fit in. Also, I want my daughter, ultimately, to decide for herself who she is. Listening to loud music as a method of scorning one’s parents is a traditional way for children to develop an identity (though maybe not at the age of six).

But it isn’t the 1990’s. We aren’t in Kansas anymore. What I found disturbing and insidious about this particular disagreement with my child was that I was in combat with an algorithm. (Not one that predicts what else you want to hear based on your data-set, but still – a mathematical program as oppose to a person.) I was not the stereotypical mother who fights a futile war against perceived corruption coming from other people. The corruption was being suggested to me, in my own home, by an algorithm.

Algorithms now shape what we watch and listen to – 60 percent of films watched on Netflix are recommended by Netflix’s own algorithm (Kevin Slavin, NPR, 2015). Kevin Slavin (Founding Chief Science and Technology Officer at The Shed, NY) argues that we’re living in a world designed for – and increasingly controlled by – algorithms: you can watch his extremely popular Ted Talk to learn about this. Slavin says we need to use algorithms in conjunction with human intelligence rather than allow them to run unchecked. He gives examples of algorithms ‘with no adult supervision’ causing all sorts of problems, such as insane prices on Amazon, stock market crashes, useless traffic control systems and worse.

I am worried about young people being shaped by algorithms rather than by other human beings. Because, as far as my limited understanding goes, algorithms create symmetrical mathematical outcomes. I don’t want my daughter to be sorted into a neat category of young people who like a certain type of thing, then pushed further along that same road along with all the other young people in the same category. Especially if that category is girls who like girly stuff. I don’t want a computer to suggest she listen to hours of sexy pop music and watch endless chick flicks starring skinny actresses with big breasts, whose acting consists of wiggling their buttocks and, or, eyebrows.

I don’t let her control the computers at the moment, but she is already under the influence of other children who are in categories, and their parents who have also been sorted by their computers.

Maybe our children will never have CD collections. Browsing, swapping compilations and stealing a friend’s CDs will no longer be normal ways to develop a personal taste. How can young people today develop their taste? A music critic for the New York Times, Ben Ratliff, recently published ‘Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now’, in which he offers ways to appreciate music in a world where we are fed playlists by algorithms – “At the very least we should try to listen better than we are being listened to.” A fair point – learning to listen carefully, with appreciation, is a way to combat the meaninglessness that can come from rivers of music, which an algorithm decides is your thing.

But discernment isn’t enough for children who might never encounter anything apart from what an algorithm spews out. I don’t have a good solution to that problem, but I  am going to hang on to my tapes, CDs and records. Because my children might one day go crazy and want to listen to music that is not at all connected to what they already like.