Edition 41

15 September 2006 






The recent, well-publicised letter to the Daily Telegraph on the state of modern childhood raises many familiar issues. As a subject for academic enquiry the nature of childhood is a vast and complex area, and also very fascinating. It is still the received wisdom that the whole notion of childhood is relatively modern and that for most of history children have been seen as young adults. Whether this is entirely accurate is perhaps open to question but what is certain is that many children in the past have never had the sort of childhood which is the norm in western society today.

We now consider childhood to be a unique and precious stage in human development and it is rightly believed that a happy and fulfilled childhood will help us become well-rounded, well-adjusted adults. If children are becoming miserable or, worse still, clinically depressed, then clearly we need to look at what may be the causes. The letter to the Telegraph proposes that parents and policy makers should be encouraged to start talking about ways of improving children's well-being.

No one would disagree with that but it is to be hoped that the discussion will involve rigorous analysis and not over-simplistic assertions. I very much doubt, for example, the implications in the letter that junk food and the primary school curriculum are two of the contributory factors in the undermining of childhood. Sweets and crisps have been consumed by children for as long as they have been available and as for them knuckling down and doing a bit of hard work at school, this in itself will not affect their capacity to play when they get home. It only becomes a problem when parents decide they need to do an excessive amount of extra studying.

Many of us, however, will share the general concern which is expressed in the letter. It does seem that some important elements of childhood have been lost in modern society. Most of the children I know appear to be contented enough and their parents clearly want the best for them while they are young. But what seem to be diminished are those childlike qualities of innocence, wonder and total absorption in imaginative and creative activities - there is plenty of absorption in screen-based games, and much debate about whether this has any lasting effect on children, but I share the view that it is too sedentary, too solitary and insufficiently challenging. There also seems to be less play in childhood, less adventure, less excitement, less living in a different world, less chasing around and less messing about as it used to be called. Somehow childhood seems less carefree than it was a few decades ago.

If this assessment of the situation is correct what has brought it about and who should be held responsible? Establishing cause and effect is never easy in matters of human behaviour but it is at least worth suggesting some possible contributory factors. It does not matter that they have mostly been heard before, they need to be repeated regularly and given serious consideration.

The list is long. Too much materialism and consumerism which puts pressure on parents to work long hours in order to buy new things for the home and new toys, clothes and gadgets for their children at the expense of giving them time. Too much sitting in front of a screen, too much exposure to violence and sexual content in television programmes, too much peer pressure, too great a rush to grow up, not enough play - and not enough space to play in - not enough exercise and not enough contact with the natural world.

And who is responsible for this? The answer, quite simply, is parents, schools and all of us. What can we do about it? With more determination than we have shown in recent years we can do a lot. Parents can insist that their children spend less time sitting in front of a screen and they can stop buying them the latest electronic gadgetry and designer label clothing. They can restrict their television and DVD viewing. They can take their children to the park much more often and play football, cricket and catching games with them. They can set aside one evening a week for card games, Cluedo, dominoes, chess or something similar. They can encourage their children to make model boats and planes and spend time making cakes and biscuits with them. And instead of flying off for holidays abroad they can visit the countryside, do some long hikes and allow some time for a bit of exploring.

Schools can and should do more. They can do much more physical education and they can allow playing fields to be used in the evenings and at the weekends. They should certainly not reduce the emphasis on teaching basic skills but should ensure that alongside this there are plenty of opportunities for creative activities and plenty of time to study the natural world which is always an endless source of fascination for young children. Teachers should be much bolder in raising the issues which affect their pupils' childhood. They should do much more explaining to their pupils, and their parents, that childhood is a precious time which should not be wasted on computer games or looking round the shops to find the latest fashion accessories.

And what can we all do? We can complain to television companies about unsuitable material, we can write to celebrities and suggest their lifestyles are not good role models for children, we can insist that housing developments include large expanses of open space. Above all we can set an example through the lives we lead and the things we say especially when we are in the company of young children. If we talk less to them about their new possessions and more to them about the games they play with their friends and the models they enjoy making, they will begin to understand what is important in their lives and slowly they will begin to recover some of their lost childhood.




Read this week's essay for an alternative view on the purpose of universities.






One of the requirements of the course for my teaching assistants is to keep a diary. Last year some of these were a particularly good read and contained all sorts of insights into the daily routine of working with children. There was one kept by an assistant in one of the more challenging schools which had some riveting entries - it was action-packed from start to finish.

I once kept a diary for a year and, as I well recall, it was when I had rather a lively class. Here are a few extracts:


21st September


Admonishments for the quality, or lack of it, in their English which I marked over the weekend - too many copying mistakes and sentences without full stops and generally too much carelessness. Pointed out that English books were supposed to contain good English...


6th October


A very pleasant harvest service in which the choir and readers performed well, as did our invited speaker. I think I enjoy harvest as much as any other service perhaps because of the additional sensory experience of inhaling the sweet smell of fruit and vegetables mixed together. I suppose you could get this sensation at any greengrocer's but it's having it in the school hall that makes it more telling....

It would be D. who swung his PE bag too high and knocked the shade off the strip light in the corridor - which needless to say the caretaker was not too happy about...


12th October (visit to Goblin Combe)


We saw our oaks and beech and ash and hazel and yew and many more, and were constantly showered by falling leaves just beginning to show their autumn hues. We found the seeds and berries to go with the trees and many more besides. The fungi were not so evident as in previous years but we did indulge in puffing a few puffballs as there was a big clump of them and we saw the remains of some attractive coloured toadstools. We looked in the bark of an oak tree and under the beech leaves for little creatures and found a few, and we turned over the hart’s-tongue fern to see the spores. I pointed out the bryony berries, the woody nightshade, the old man's beard and the willowherb, and the children discovered their own particular treasures which were far more interesting and absorbing than anything I mentioned.


4th November


Assistant Director of Education paid a surprise visit and I was able to chat to him for a few minutes. Hope that my little contribution about teachers being bombarded with new ideas sunk in.

Not perhaps a vintage year, but the diary as a whole is interesting to look back on to see how I was teaching at the time. I'm pleased to see I was scrupulous about their English as not everyone was at the time. It was along time ago, 1982, probably when progressive ideas in primary education had just about reached their peak. I notice elsewhere in the diary that I dabbled in some group work which must have been a bit of a strain as it's never been my favourite teaching style.






Is the debate on higher education as rigorous as it should be? Over the past few years rhetoric and passion have been plentiful on the subject of student funding but on the wider issue of the purpose of universities there has been a lack of serious discussion.

Why do we need so many students studying for degrees and why do degrees take so long to complete? Why do students need to migrate to towns and cities in different parts of the country? How exactly does a university education benefit the individual and, more importantly, how does it benefit society as a whole?

These sorts of questions are seldom asked simply because, for many young people, going to university has become the thing to do. It is a journey willingly embarked upon in ever increasing numbers; the train to 'uni' is the one to catch.

Three commonly held myths about the purpose of a university education need to be challenged. The first is that it provides an opportunity to enter the hallowed groves of academe and drink from purer fountains than those which dispense draught lager in the college bar. Such an opportunity does, of course, exist. Universities remain great centres of learning and academic excellence. Undoubtedly there will be some students who immerse themselves fully in their subjects and pursue them with all the intellectual energy they can muster.

But is it really necessary to follow a three-year course at university to acquire knowledge of high quality? Short courses can serve this purpose equally well as can distance learning which is now more convenient than ever. There has never been so much knowledge available from so many accessible sources: the internet, specialist TV channels, and, still around in their millions, books. Studying for a degree is not the only way to pursue knowledge.

We should also be realistic and accept that for many students this is not actually their prime concern. They are motivated more by the desire to gain a qualification which will help them in the jobs market than by any pure love of learning.

The second myth which needs challenging is that going to university provides unique opportunities for personal development and preparation for life. It is the best way to gain independence and to become socially and emotionally mature. Away from home young people can take responsibility for looking after themselves in a safe environment in the company of their peers. What could be better?

Becoming more responsible at home, perhaps? Helping prepare a few meals and doing some household chores. But if that proves to be too much of a strain there is no reason why young people shouldn't find rented accommodation nearby and gain their independence in this way. As for a social life it can be just as satisfying in one's home town as it is elsewhere. Most local communities provide plenty of opportunities for sporting and recreational activities so it isn't necessary to go to university to find them.

Finally there is the myth that having vast numbers of people educated at university brings great benefits to society as a whole. I am not persuaded. Of course we need the best brains available to become doctors, engineers and research scientists and we need them to be qualified in what they do. In the operating theatre we want surgeons to know their anatomy and when we drive over a bridge we want the architects and engineers to have designed it so that it doesn't collapse.

But what are the benefits to society of vast numbers of graduates whose subject areas may be interesting but which have no practical use? It is no doubt enormously fascinating to study ancient Chinese history in great depth - many of us would welcome the chance to do so - but at the end of the day it is a self-indulgent pursuit.

Like everyone else I want to keep our universities as centres of excellence which serve society in every way possible and which also pursue knowledge for its own sake. But that doesn't mean that half of all our eighteen year olds should be leaving home to attend courses which seem to cover increasingly esoteric subjects.

Instead, universities should have a dual purpose. On the one hand they must continue to attract the most able students who will be committed to high academic attainment. Some of these students will acquire specialist skills which will benefit all of us and some will preserve standards of academic excellence in areas of knowledge which may have limited practical use but which enrich our lives through their intrinsic interest.

On the other hand, and complementing this role, universities must encourage lifelong learning among every age group and offer high quality residential and non-residential short courses paid for through a system of learning credits available to everyone.

This is the sort of balanced provision we need in higher education. Too many myths have been allowed to take hold about the purpose of universities and they need to be challenged.




Edition 42

29 September 2006 






The debate about lost childhood proceeds, as, of course, it should. Quite rightly the discussion has moved in a different direction, to a consideration of the most serious causes of deep and lasting unhappiness in children. And when we look at these, some of the other issues, such as spending too much time on computer games, are trivial by comparison.

In many parts of the world the stark truth is that millions of children are losing their childhood because they are dying - from malnutrition, dysentery, aids and a general shortage of medical provision. There is no choice about the sort of childhood they will have and nor is there any choice for the millions of children in the world who live in the most appalling conditions of poverty and squalor.

Although it is nothing like the desperate struggle for survival which exists elsewhere, poverty continues to blight the daily lives of children in our own country, and damage their childhood. And to this can be added many other causes of unhappiness and psychological harm which, sadly, are all too familiar: violence, neglect, abuse, lack of love, parental conflict, serious illness and bullying.

Reflecting on the enormity of this sort of lost childhood should not stop us considering the other issues in the debate such as our materialistic culture or the decline of imaginative play. But it should put these issues into perspective, and it should perhaps shame us into doing much more for those children who are being damaged and rather less for those who are overindulged.


See Edition 41 for the first headline on Lost Childhood.




The subject of school dinners continues to provide us with us good entertainment. It's a spectacle to whet the appetite - pun intended - of all those who enjoy a contest between good and evil, the forces of light -fruit and veg - and the forces of darkness - those nasty, sugary, fatty, unwholesome substances which wreak havoc inside our bodies. In the hot dinners contest it's Jamie Oliver versus fish and chips; in the struggle to control the lunch box it's nanny state - carrots and apples - versus irresponsible parents - crisps and biscuits.


I know which side I'm on. Darkness, I'm afraid. In my little Eden it's a chocolate digestive which leads me into temptation not a Golden Delicious.

No doubt there will shortly be a knock on the door from the food police and, craving forgiveness, I will be forced to confess my pitiful lack of self-control. Before they arrive, however, I must try to find a hiding place for my most recently acquired, satanic text - "The Rotherham Mums' Guide to Good Nutrition".




Why are young people made to wear a uniform in order to attend a place of learning? It is very strange. How can it possibly help their capacity to learn, or the attitudes and values they are encouraged to develop, or, dare one say, the respect they should have for the education they receive? Schools should be about a higher purpose than inculcating a primitive spirit of tribal loyalty into their pupils which is what the advocates of uniforms seem to want.


And if this higher purpose were to include the goal of uniformly high standards of learning, and uniformly high standards of behaviour, this would be a lot better for all our pupils than worrying about how they are dressed.




This week's essay is the same as that which was used in Edition 41.




Edition 43

13 October 2006 






It is unbelievable that such a discredited system of assessment as coursework should have been permitted for such a long time when its deficiencies have been all too obvious. Parental assistance has been one such deficiency. There is nothing wrong with parents helping their children with schoolwork - it's all to the good that they should take an interest. But when an assignment contributes to a national qualification it is common sense that the opportunity and temptation for well-educated parents to give any sort of help should be removed. Nor is there anything wrong with pupils helping each other with their work but clearly not when it is part of an assessment. As for the internet, of course it should be used for research, but if it is just a way of obtaining a model answer then its use can only be described as cheating.

In any assessment the most basic validity to establish must be that it is entirely the student's own work. If there is any doubt about this then the process is flawed from the start. Given that the whole subject of valid assessment is difficult enough at the best of times it has been complete folly to cloud what is actually the simplest aspect to deal with.

In their search for alternatives to traditional exams too many teachers have supported a system which has been far too easy to take advantage of. It has brought no credit to the profession that they have done so. There are many possibilities for different methods of assessment, some of which are finally being discussed, and it is now time for schools to reject coursework altogether and come up with something which will be fair and valid for all their pupils.




I need no exhortations from the presenters of Autumn Watch to get outside and savour the delights of autumn. It's always been my favourite season and for as long as I can remember I've been swishing through leaves, gazing at berries and searching for fungi. With its pageant of colour, its distinctive scents and its bountiful harvest it is, for me, the most magical time of year.

Pupils of all ages should be taken outside in the autumn. They should collect some acorns and beech nuts and experience the excitement of discovering a glossy horse chestnut inside a green shell. They should find some flame-coloured leaves, look for some toadstools and learn about different seeds and berries. They should do some detailed paintings of wild rose hips and bolder pictures of trees in all their glory, and if they feel inspired they should write a poem. It's been done before, many times, but there is no reason why it shouldn't be done again - many times.

And, just to add some extra interest, especially for Year 10s who may not be so keen on trekking through damp woods, would it not be possible for our secondary pupils to accompany some classes from their local primary schools and help with the supervision? And wouldn't this be of great benefit to both age groups and contribute to what would certainly be an enriching shared experience?


See Notebook for an account of an autumn visit.




Whoever thought up the idea of plenary sessions at the end of a lesson wasn't much of a teacher. If a lesson is going well it is sensible to keep it going right until the bell goes. Anything which needs reinforcing can be done at the beginning of the next lesson which is by far the best time to do this.

If the lesson is not going well then the sensible thing to do is to get to the bell by any means possible and just say:

'Close your books, please. Line up by the door. We'll have another look at this next time.'

The perfect plenary.




See Edition 41






Taking my class to Goblin Combe in the autumn was an annual event for many years. It's a beautiful place, full of interest for anyone and full of excitement for children. It is especially attractive at this time of year. This is an extract from a diary I once kept - quite a long time ago it must be said.


12th October (visit to Goblin Combe)


We saw our oaks and beech and ash and hazel and yew and many more, and were constantly showered by falling leaves just beginning to show their autumn hues. We found the seeds and berries to go with the trees and many more besides. The fungi were not so evident as in previous years but we did indulge in puffing a few puffballs as there was a big clump of them and we saw the remains of some attractive coloured toadstools. We looked in the bark of an oak tree and under the beech leaves for little creatures and found a few, and we turned over the hart’s-tongue fern to see the spores. I pointed out the bryony berries, the woody nightshade, the old man's beard and the willowherb, and the children discovered their own particular treasures which were far more interesting and absorbing than anything I mentioned.




Edition 44

27 October 2006 







It is a sad reflection on schools and teachers that more and more pupils seem to be switching off science. If teachers can't make this, of all subjects, interesting and exciting they should consider a career change - accountancy or local government, perhaps. Science towers above every other branch of knowledge in its capacity to inspire awe, wonder and sometimes disbelief. Whether it is the science of the physical and natural world, or the science which has been harnessed by humankind to produce technology, it is a source of constant fascination. There should be no pupil, from reception to Year 11, who fails to be excited by the vastness of the universe, the mystery of unseen atoms and molecules, the miracle of our own bodies, or the magic of an aeroplane lifting into the sky. Every grain of scientific knowledge is a jewel and it is up to teachers to put over this knowledge with passion and commitment using all their skills and the many resources which are available to them.

If new ideas about GCSE course content help to make science more relevant and interesting for young people that can only be a good thing. Arguably science and technology have made a greater contribution to humanity than any other form of intellectual endeavour and this contribution needs to be understood by all our future citizens to enable them to make informed decisions about the great issues of the day. For too long too many pupils have been lured away from science by subjects which have more appeal. These young people should be reminded that without science there would, after all, be no such thing as media studies.




A disturbing discovery has been made in the world of primary education. Someone, it seems, has discovered that lessons don't always go according to plan. Apparently there are occasions when pupils don't fully grasp the content of what has been so meticulously prepared on the laptop. This is, of course, most inconsiderate of them, and hugely disruptive, but it does appear to be happening and teachers are being advised to be alert to the phenomenon. Lesson plans may have to be modified, so it is said, if teachers are unlucky enough to encounter an outbreak of this cerebral malfunction.

The DFES and QCA have apologised for any inconvenience this will cause and acknowledge that dealing with one of these outbreaks may require a shift in priorities. It may be necessary, just occasionally, and regrettable though it would be, for the immediate needs of pupils in a learning situation to be given a higher priority than meeting a list of aims and objectives set out on a planning sheet. In a joint statement they said: "We understand the concern and disappointment which dedicated teachers will feel about not being able to fully implement the plans they have so painstakingly prepared. We appreciate they will be very upset at having to amend their lesson plans according to the learning needs of their pupils but are confident this will not occur too often. Funds have been made available to carry out research into this hitherto unknown area of classroom management."

Are there any more disturbing discoveries to be made out there in the real world of education? Let's hope there are for everybody's sake.




Read this week's essay on the subject of lesson plans.






I've made it. A few laps behind everyone else but I've finally arrived. I'm now smart board trained and confess to feeling just a smidgen of smugness about this latest little achievement. It was a couple of years ago when I saw some six year olds using a smart board with all the confidence of professional hackers that I first thought it was time to get to know one. And now I have.

It's an impressive piece of wizardry and undoubtedly a very useful aid. Whenever I see them used in schools they clearly engage everyone's attention and motivate children to take an active part in the learning process. There's probably nothing they can't do - including a virtual somersault.

As someone with chalk dust in his lungs from writing on a blackboard I couldn't resist doing a line of italic handwriting - just with my finger, of course. All the old skills came back in an instant and there they were, perfect italic joins crying out to be copied into a handwriting book. It would be a neat little irony indeed that such an advanced piece of technology were found to be just the right tool to teach something as old tech as handwriting.

I'm sure using my smart board will add a bit of zing to our sessions, although so far there has been a fair amount of this without it. My aim is to use it regularly with my students so that I become familiar with what it has to offer. I'm not planning to have too many conversations with it but I expect every now and then I shall have to remind it that it is my servant and not my master and that it must never believe it is indispensable. I shall have to say that, like everybody else, I have managed to survive without one for rather a long time.




This essay is the same as that which appeared in Edition 27.




When did you last notice your dentist suddenly stop drilling and start flicking through a pile of A4 sheets detailing every step for filling a cavity? Or a builder carefully consulting a ring binder every time he throws a shovelful of sand into his mixer? Or your hairdresser or car mechanic constantly glancing at strategically placed pieces of paper?

Why is it that teachers, uniquely it seems, are deemed to be so hopelessly incompetent that they need detailed, often repetitive instructions, commonly known as lesson plans to get them through every hour of the day? Even heart surgeons don’t have a pile of notes sitting next to their scalpels. And if they did we would be worried.

The obsession with detailed lesson plans is out of control especially in primary schools. The simple business of preparing a lesson has been elevated into an over-elaborate and unnecessary ritual.

Which is bizarre since every teacher knows the two immutable laws of lesson plans. Law one is that lessons never go according to plan. Law two is that however elegant a plan may look, this will have no bearing whatsoever on the effectiveness of the lesson.

Good lessons do not require mass-produced plans on a laptop. What they need are teachers who know their subject, are enthusiastic, can motivate their pupils and can explain things in ways which everyone is able to understand.

This is not to say that we should ever go into any lesson unprepared either mentally or in terms of the resources we need. It’s too risky. But all we need on the table beside us are a few notes jotted down in an exercise book - the scruffier the better.

If we don’t overcome this widespread planning neurosis we could soon be referring to A4 sheets in order to make a cup of tea in the staffroom. It’s time we lessened our plans.




Edition 45

10 November 2006 






The act of remembrance is an important event in the school calendar. Every pupil at this time of year, whatever their age, should take part in a solemn service and stand in silence to reflect on two of the great truths which the occasion brings to the fore. One of these is the courage of those who made the supreme sacrifice, and the other is the ugliness of war.

Thinking about the wars of the twentieth century reminds us of some of the best and worst features of humanity: courage, heroism and self-sacrifice on the one hand and suffering, brutality and disregard for life on the other. This disquieting contrast is an enduring theme of the story of our past which is not only evident in times of war but can be seen at any point in the flow of history. When our pupils look back at the past and observe how individuals and societies have behaved they see clearly what has been good and what has been bad. They see immense qualities of endurance, resourcefulness, compassion, loyalty and courage; they see advances in civilisation and great movements for democracy, equality and social reform. But, sadly, they see even more clearly, the dark side of history - the darkness of servitude, cruelty, poverty, disease, injustice and endless mass killing, all of which have blackened the story of humankind.

Most of us are understandably fascinated by the past and we relish its every detail. Indeed so extensive is our interest that history has now become a major leisure industry complete with numerous dramas and documentaries on television, epic films and popular heritage sites.

But it is important to remind ourselves that apart from this intrinsic interest history serves a greater purpose. It gives us a perspective on humanity in all its raw complexity and this is why it is an essential subject for schools to teach. If we encourage our pupils to reflect on the dark side of history, particularly, and understand the suffering of those who have passed this way before us, we help them develop their humanity. And if we can do this for them as individuals then that, of course, will be good for humanity as a whole.




Raise the school-leaving age to eighteen? No thank you, Mr Johnson, that would be folly and delusion on a grand scale. It is not the answer to anything and whoever floated the idea should take it to be buried with our nuclear waste since it is just about as dangerous.

Much, much better would be to go in the other direction and lower the school-leaving age to fifteen. Provided they find secure employment, and provided they understand they will not be receiving any state benefits, young people should be free to make their way in the real world. Hard work, especially of the physical variety, is what many of them need and if they are supervised properly they will develop their self-esteem, feel a sense of responsibility and contribute usefully to society.

If training and educational opportunities are made available to them while they are working they can continue to develop both work-skills and life-skills and if necessary acquire the qualifications they need. In the longer term, if a future government can be persuaded that lifelong learning credits are a better way of educating people than locking them away in unnatural institutions between the ages of five and twenty-one, then, at some stage, early leavers could return to the world of education and study the things they were interested in.

This is the way forward and it is time we had some imaginative leadership which looked seriously at alternatives such as this instead of always going for more of the same.






See Edition 44






See Edition 44