Edition 56

6 July 2007   






Yet again we are being exhorted by the government to teach respect. I have no quarrel with that. Nobody has. I don’t mind if it’s part of social education, emotional intelligence, religious education, PE, English Literature – a bit of Jayne Austin perhaps – or any other subject. As far as I’m concerned teaching respect, good manners and consideration for others can be introduced into any aspect of the curriculum, at any time, in any way. It can be as cross-curricular as it gets.


But this is not actually the best way to teach these virtues. The best way, by far, is both more simple and more difficult. It is to ensure that whenever a situation demands respect all pupils are immediately required to show some. That means stopping conversations when the teacher enters the room, not disrupting lessons, not being rude, not being aggressive, not pushing in the corridor. 


And is it too much to expect that it might also mean holding doors open for each other, not dropping litter, and, who knows, thanking your teacher for an interesting lesson.




I despair that anyone thinks that changing the name of the Department for Education, or even reorganising its functions, will make any difference to anybody apart from the signwriter and the person who organises the stationery.


Families are more important than schools. They should have their own department – not too grand since we want families to be responsible enough to look after themselves for the most part.


But education is rather important too. There is just the small matter that it is a great driving force in the advancement of humanity. I think that deserves a department of its own.


I’ll happily go along with a cross-curricular respect agenda – see above – but cross-curricular government departments which try to embrace widely differing functions, with respect, no thanks.


DCSF: Department for Children, Schools and Families




See essay 




Coming soon - we hope






I didn’t ask to see the qualifications or certificates of the person who knocked on my door the other day. He may have had vocational qualifications - NVQs or even something else. He may have had good GCSEs or he could have been to university. I should have asked, to satisfy my curiosity.


He didn’t need any qualifications to knock on my door – just some initiative and a good line in sales patter – communication skills you could say. He didn’t need any qualifications to give me a price for the job he was offering to do. Nor did he need a qualification in hedge trimming to set to work on my hedge at the agreed, very reasonable price.


The health and safety part of the job may not have been quite up to standard. I didn’t look too closely. But the hedge trimming was excellent. My person was a skilled practitioner in the art, as was his mate. Everything level at the top and the sides, and the whole job done in twenty-five minutes – and it’s a long hedge. They both cracked on with the job and I noticed my man had some sweat on his face when he had finished.


The moral of the story? We all know what it is. We don’t require paper qualifications, thank goodness, for every job that needs to be done and every small business that people set up.  Initiative, enterprise and plenty of hard graft are sometimes the best qualifications to make one’s way in the world and achieve success. It’s a message we should constantly remember whenever we get carried away with the idea that more and more young people doing college courses is always a good thing.





REPORT ON: Tony Blair

TERM: 1997 - 2007



Edition 57

20 July 2007  






Politicians like talking about skills. Our new prime minister, particularly, has often delivered homilies on the subject: the country needs skills, the success of our economy depends on our skills, young people must have skills - this is why they should stay in education until they are eighteen.


No one will argue about the need for skills. In a complex, technological world, where everyone is competing with everyone else, people need skills for two fundamental reasons. One is that skills are necessary to help us, as individuals, make our way in the world – we need skills for the jobs we do and skills to cope with everyday living.


The other reason we need them is because they contribute to the lives of everyone. They enable us to provide services and goods for each other and give us levels of comfort, prosperity and health which, at their best, can only be described as miraculous.


But lectures about skills from politicians and others should contain more than simplistic sound bites if we are to devise sensible educational policies. A number of important questions need to be addressed. For example: what precisely are the skills which individuals and society require and where is the best place to develop them?


Is it at college or university, or is it in the workplace? Is it, as is often the case, a mix of the two and, if so, what sort of balance should there be?


Most people would agree that the best way to learn any job is by doing it. This applies to just about everything whether it is plumbing, heart surgery, catering, accountancy, hairdressing, bricklaying, playing a musical instrument, repairing cars or teaching in a classroom. Skills are acquired, developed and honed in the day to day process of practising what we know and finding solutions for the steady flow of new problems with which we are regularly confronted.


If nothing beats work experience for learning skills why are we stopping our young people from going out to work at 16, or better still at 15?  It makes no sense whatsoever. They should be encouraged to find work if this is what they want to do. They have had eleven years in the classroom and quite understandably that is enough for some of them. What possible arguments can be made against young people finding a job at sixteen and then being given the opportunity for specialist training at a later stage?


Not only will they acquire useful skills when they start work, they will be in situations where they can develop personal qualities which may not always have been obvious at school. They will have to learn about courtesy, reliability, willingness and hard work. They will also have to learn about responsibility and using initiative. Some may find that using their initiative appeals to them – so much so that they decide to set up businesses of their own. Good luck to them if they do. We need young entrepreneurs. 


The direction of policy for post-16 education and training should be revisited. More funding should be channelled into work-based schemes, proper apprenticeships and lifelong learning credits. We must stop throwing vast amounts of public money at the system we already have.


The work ethic is good for all of us. It is folly to prevent our younger members of society discovering what this ethic means.


See Edition 46 for National Lunacy Strategy




The power of the human imagination is immense. That we can feel sadness and fear just by turning the pages of a book and looking at some print is astonishing. But it happens, and it’s great when it does.


Maybe, though, it’s a little extreme to have Childline on emergency standby just in case the time has come for our hero of the past few years to part company with us permanently.





Still slow, I’m afraid. Asda and Tesco will be selling copies at huge discounts, I’m sure, and probably opening at midnight on the day of publication.


See Notebook for a summary





Here’s hoping summer will be leased for the school holidays, even if this year the weather has given us a shorter date than usual.


“And summer’s lease hath all too short a date”


See this week’s essay






This essay first appeared in 2001. Note, Dec. 2018: no apologies for the gender stereotypes you'll come across!



The rush of heightened pleasure, the fleeting glimpse of heaven. Who else apart from pupils and their teachers have such feelings at the end of a working day? One particular working day that is: the last day of the summer term when the bell goes for the final time; when schoolbags are empty of homework, when fulsome goodbyes and expressions of goodwill trip off the tongue with uncommon profusion.


Not as strong as other passions maybe but the sweet anticipation that comes with the start of the summer holidays and the prospect of a silver sea stretching towards the far horizon still feels good. It could be, of course, that those two impish companions, pain and pleasure, are more responsible for this annual infusion of bliss than just sweet anticipation. Like running a marathon, climbing a mountain or listening to an opera one of the best things about school, sometimes, is when the experience comes to an end and the pain is no longer felt.


So what do pain-free and carefree teachers get up to during these idyllic weeks of cloudless skies and cooling breeze? What mischief can they find to occupy their idle minds? Some of their acquaintances may even be incautious enough to inquire how they will manage to fill their time. And there are others, possibly not of their acquaintance, who may still murmur the old mantra that teachers have far too many holidays and ought to try doing some real work. Let those who murmur try a stint on the front line themselves, I say.


As for the pupils how do they cope with the long summer holidays? After all, their parents inform us each September that they begin to suffer premature boredom halfway through the holiday and from then on are eagerly awaiting the first day of the new school year. But that is a tale told by parents, remember.


And how do they, the parents, adjust to this annual interruption of their routine? How do some of them manage this serious invasion of their daytime space? What do their children get up to during their long release from captivity and what should they be getting up to? 


But let’s return to teachers. The first priority for teachers on holiday is to uncoil gently but steadily. Switch off from everything to do with work. There is probably more uncoiling to do in teaching than there is in most jobs and for some it takes longer than others. Fortunately there is no shortage of tasks to divert them. A whole year of weekends and evenings marking books, planning lessons, making assessments and reading managerial initiatives means that teachers will have a list of domestic tasks to complete as long as a school development plan.


Teachers should be grateful for this backlog. Not only do they have the satisfaction of knowing that their sacrificial weekends have shaped yet another cohort of upstanding future citizens, they have also been provided with plenty to keep them occupied in the first few weeks of the summer holiday. Cleaning, weeding, sandpapering, wood treating, hammer drilling, wallpaper pasting, are waiting with their therapies. And if there is a just a little bit of stress involved in any of these tasks, and if occasionally there is heard a whisper of some earthy Anglo-Saxon – the “sort of language that will not be tolerated in this school” – as there often is when wrestling with the plumbing, then so much the better.


The backlog cleared teachers can start to be normal again and try connecting with the real world. They can give time to their families, pursue their interests, take a holiday abroad, read some good books, have a day out, entertain friends, watch some television and prepare some interesting meals to eat in a leisurely way.


They should allow themselves to follow the example of many of their pupils and not fill every unforgiving minute. They should take time to enjoy the peace of their home and their garden and they should try to find other places of real peace in the town or in the countryside: a park, a church, a canal, a forest. They should take some time to stand and stare –  at flowers, birds, insects,  landscapes, buildings. All this will lift the soul and put things in perspective.


They should do as little preparation as possible for the new school year, no more than is needed to ensure a smooth start for the first week. But what they can do is some wider reading to catch up with debates and developments in their own subject or in the world of education generally. Teachers should keep themselves informed so they can participate usefully in discussions which affect them. Holidays provide an opportunity to do this.


What about parents? What does the summer holiday hold for them? An increase in stress levels, more raised voices and confrontations, weeks to be endured. Or a chance to do interesting things with their children, to enjoy their company, to encourage their developing interests, to teach them new skills, to allow them more freedom and responsibility, to give them a greater feeling for what family life can mean away from the relentless demands of work and school. 


Where both parents or adults in the family are working, which is quite normal, holidays should be staggered to enable at least one parent to be at home to supervise their children. They don’t need to watch their every move, but they need to be there until an age is reached when they can be left safely on their own.


Parents should let their children wind down in the holiday just as their teachers do. They should let them be idle for some of the time if they choose to be, which many of them will not. But because there is less pressure of time than there is in a normal school week they should also insist that they help, from an early age, with cooking, cleaning, decorating and anything else they can manage. While they are helping they can be shown various ways of doing things and be given useful information so that in this way they can acquire important life skills which are too often neglected and which teachers cannot hope to impart.


A good idea is for parents to give their children bigger jobs to do as well, for payment. Cleaning the car, tidying the garage, painting the fence – to give them a sense of responsibility and some extra pocket money. When they are old enough these industrious and entrepreneurial young people can be encouraged to take holiday jobs as shop assistants, waiters or deckchair attendants where they will encounter for the first time the world of work and the assortment of adults who inhabit this forbidding territory.


More leisurely family meals can be taken during the summer holiday where everyone is obliged to gather and where anything and everything can be discussed – from the latest in cool, to the game that’s just been played in the park, to the meaning of life, or indeed its unfairness. Some energetic hikes can be organised, even with teenagers, which last a whole day and take in steep climbs, streams, moorland and woods with just a few stops for food and drink.


Outings are an essential part of childhood and parents must give their children plenty of them.  Days out to the countryside, the seaside or the city as well as to theme parks, historic buildings and museums. Never has there been so much imaginative provision to attract children and entertain and enlighten them. Full use should be made of what is on offer.


The going away holiday should be taken as well. Where funds are limited this is not so easy but short holidays at a caravan park or in a tent are inexpensive and more exciting for children than holidays abroad in those vast, white hotels. Give it a go. It will be a memorable experience and one for the whole family to cherish.


Needless to say what parents should not encourage during the long summer holiday, and when necessary not permit, is day and night television, video and computer. Nor should they allow excessive mooching, nor moaning, nor unnecessary shopping, nor hanging around on the streets, nor  being late home nor pressure from friends to do this that or the other.


But playing with friends at the right time and in the right place is something for which plenty of time should be found. Having abundant time to play is one of the most delicious treats of all for most children in the summer holidays.


Playing with brothers and sisters, with old friends and new, or sometimes quietly by oneself; playing outside in the fresh air and the wider spaces. Playing plenty of sporting, active games which use up physical energy: two-a-side football or cricket, throwing, catching and chasing, roller-blading, skateboarding, biking, scootering, tennis. These are games for children of any age, or, for that matter, adults of any age.


Playing imaginative games as well, especially among younger children. Girls dressing up as witches and wizards or on a more practical level as nurses who tend wounds and diagnose ailments; boys in their combat uniforms, firing laser guns and creeping up on each other without being seen.  Children making dens, secret meeting places where all manner of schemes and adventures are hatched and where there is laughing and giggling, rude noises, bad language and insults.


And playing just by enjoying the company of friends, chatting about nothing while sitting on a bench or lying on the grass.


Play is one of the great treasures of childhood and there should be an abundance of it in the summer holidays. For children of school age it provides a much needed change from the demands of the classroom and it contributes vital elements to the whole natural process of growing up.


It is not something which has evolved solely to bring fun and pleasure to the carefree innocence of childhood, although that would be sufficient reason for its existence. Nor is its purpose to provide wistful adults with a fund of nostalgia on which to draw in later years. Its place in the evolution of humankind is actually to help us grow up and that is why it is important.


No doubt the way we play will change and evolve over time. Who knows, if one day as a species we no longer feel impelled to engage in mass tribal warfare amongst ourselves, we may find that the instinct for boys to play with toy weapons becomes genetically modified into something more gentle. Meanwhile, however, play as it exists at present, complete with combat uniform, helps to develop our minds, bodies, emotions and instincts for the challenges and opportunities of adult life.


All of us, children and adults, need play and leisure – to help us develop and to give us time away from work: schoolwork, paid employment, household tasks or anything which duty or conscience demands we do. We now have more time for leisure than ever before in our history but because we are so busy chasing around we sometimes barely notice the leisure we have. 


Which is why a long summer holiday is good for us and why it should be properly used. It provides the best opportunity that parents and children, along with their teachers, will ever have to bring a balance to their lives, to experiment with a different rhythm of work and leisure and to make judgements about the competing demands of work, home, family, self, ambition and contentment. The long summer holiday can help us assess priorities for children, for families and for all of us.


Clearly the holiday is more than an expanse of time solely for the purpose of leisure and play. There is plenty of work to be done and that is as it should be. Nor is there any danger in the immediate future that life on our planet will become one long summer holiday for everyone. At present we need to work to survive, both individually and collectively, and since our first fall from grace when paradise was put before us we have been programmed to do this.


Work undoubtedly brings intense personal satisfaction to many people, including most teachers. It pays the bills and buys the kids’ designer clothes but it does a lot more than this. It also brings self-esteem, recognition, respect and a different dimension to our lives and personalities. For many it brings a purpose to living.


But we cannot live by work alone. There is more to experience in life. And the lease we have on life, like summer’s lease, hath all too short a date. So far from shortening the long summer holiday, as some propose, on the dubious grounds that it adversely affects pupil performance, let us retain what we have and extend it to all occupations so that everyone can savour the pleasant glow which children and teachers experience on the last day of the summer term. Let everyone have the opportunity over an extended period of time to become aware of what life has to offer apart from work. 


Lessons do not come to an end when the final bell rings in the school corridor. New lessons begin. Teachers, parents, children, all of us – we can learn a lot from our summer holidays. Let’s enjoy them, make the most of them and hope they do not fade too soon.  





Edition 58

10 August 2007  






We are now in the second phase of exam fever. The first phase erupts in May with a quickening of the pulse when pupils aged between 7 and 18 confront obscurely worded questions on just about every aspect of human knowledge.


A period of remission follows until the second phase is reached in the middle of August when the results come out. As our favourite two impostors* stalk the land, with a bit of luck our sixteen year olds will meet with more triumph than disaster. There will be a healthy sprinkling of A stars and photo-calls of beaming students will be arranged with the local newspaper.


Alongside the celebrations there will be plenty of chatter at micro and macro levels. The former: “How did you get on? Did you get the grades you needed? That’s better than I expected.” The latter: targets not met, rising and falling standards, government policy and the state of education generally. It will be totally predictable as will be its tone – strident, worthy or well-spun, depending on who you listen to.


Here’s my contribution to this year’s chatter.




  • The results from primary schools are good. If 80% of our eleven year olds are achieving a Level 4 in maths and English we ought to be pleased. Key Stage 2 SATs are demanding tests which even adults would find challenging.
  • The figure of 40% of children who are below standard is misleading. It assumes that different children are not reaching Level 4 in their maths and English when for the most part it will be the same group who are falling short in both tests.
  • National tests at the end of Key Stage 2 should be retained. They have contributed to a much needed levering up of standards in the primary sector and have motivated teachers and pupils to raise their expectations. Preparing for the tests does not dominate the primary curriculum as opponents like to claim.
  • SATs at Key Stage 1 are unnecessary as are mock SATs for other year groups which are used for the purpose of target setting. Teachers should be able to devise their own tests to assess the progress of their pupils and to ascertain the areas of learning which need to be reinforced or extended.




  • Results from secondary schools should be better. If 80% of primary pupils are achieving Level 4 in English, maths and science then the same percentage should be gaining 5 GCSEs at A to C.
  • On the subject of standards I am not persuaded they are as demanding as they ought to be. A couple of generations ago primary pupils were doing some of the maths which now appears in GCSE papers.
  • Can we not find a better system than having exams which are precisely timed? Isn’t it more important to test what candidates know rather than how quickly they can complete their answers?
  • Should we not take a more radical look at what exams are for and what secondary education is about? Up until the age of 15 one of its most essential functions must surely be to prepare young people for adult life. In which case let’s have a school certificate at aged 15 which assesses the basic skills and knowledge which everyone should have in order to make their way in the world, contribute to society and enjoy their future learning and leisure. The certificate would simply cover English language, maths, science, humanities, IT and life skills.
  • SATs at 14 and GCSEs at 16 can be dispensed with. At 15 pupils can decide whether to leave school, take a more vocational route in education, a more academic route or, best of all, a mix of the two. Qualifications along both routes can go from standard to intermediate to advanced over a period of 3 years. Exams can be taken at the end of each year as a matter of choice, not compulsion.


Overall what we need in the system is useful and rigorous assessment which contributes to pupils’ learning. What we don’t need is the feverish atmosphere which presently surrounds the whole examination business. Let’s keep chatting about how we can make some improvements.



* If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

  And treat those two impostors just the same                                              Kipling  


See the headline TRIG HAPPY in Edition 54 for the presence of primary school maths in today’s GCSE syllabus.





More on the subject of examinations. The report in the Independent (9/7/07) about production line marking is bizarre and alarming. According to the article, examiners sit together in large testing centres and aim to mark A-level English essays every six to eight minutes. In front of them is a “productivity meter” which measures their marking speed and changes from green to yellow to red if their strike rate slows down. Apparently, also, if they inadvertently make a mistake when entering a candidate’s mark into the computer program this cannot be altered if the marking viewer is closed.


One examining body, Edexcel, does not require its examiners to have read the set books but another, OCR, says this requirement is a matter of strict policy. Edexcel, we should remember, is the organisation which used its office staff as examiners two years ago when they found they were short of markers.


Despite the neat symmetry which the production line gives to the process – students sitting in large halls writing their answers, examiners sitting in large halls marking them – the whole system is hardly the best way to appreciate and enjoy English literature.





On the way. See notebook.






Should schools be places where children, like plants, are allowed to grow naturally? Or should they be places where their learning is carefully structured by adults? These are among the many fascinating questions explored by Alan Kerr in his account of the Plowden era.


To mark the fortieth anniversary of the Plowden Report he has drawn on his lifelong association with primary education to trace the progress of a whole set of ideas which had a profound effect on the classroom. The verdict he delivers on the Plowden effect is firm but fair.


This thoughtful and personal book should be read by all those with an interest in education. The issues it addresses will be relevant for as long as children learn and teachers teach.


To be published soon, price £3.50






See Edition 57 for this essay on how the summer holiday should be spent.