Rebels, Robots, Respect and Responsibility. (What is good Behaviour?)

I left for work a little late one day this week and was amazed to drive through the centre of our village at 8:25. Everywhere, there were flourescent jacketed marshalls all along the road to the local secondary school. I have to say I was a little bit horrified. It was not a picture of trust and responsibility, but one of compliance. It was all a little bit 1984 for me! It felt like a police state, where pupils behaved because of threat of sanction rather than choice.  Don’t get me wrong I am a firm believer in  high standards of behaviour. I do however believe that truly outstanding behaviour comes from pupils.

Then last night whilst visiting a friend whose son attends the school, we ended up talking about the behaviour code used by the school. (they started it not me.) This was very much in the context of their son, and how he was constantly kicking against the rules in place. He is 16, from my experience you kick quite a lot against rules at that age. I know I did. I was a black suede winkle-pickers with buckles and skinny tie wearing, hair back-combing (a-la Robert Smith lead singer of The Cure), ear-piercing, coffee drinking, Camus reading (I was trying to be an intellectual, In reality I was more like Adrian Mole), rebel without a cause .  These were all little victories, minor points of rebellion that had no real impact on anybody but me and that was in a positive way. It was my way of controlling bits of me, defining myself and saying ‘So What?’ to the man.  (The man being my Dad, my school house master, and my ever so scary Nan).  When I look back however, nobody really picked me up on it, I was a good kid, I worked hard, wanted to learn, I was responsible and made my own choices. These other bits of rebellion didn’t really effect anything apart from me so ‘the man’ didn’t bother. Yet in my friend’s son’s school I would have spent all my time in isolation. Yet I was never rude , almost always did my homework and was the first to volunteer.

Our conversation turned back to the rules. The first thing that struck me is how many rules there were. Uniform  rules, corridor rules, class rules, communication rules, movement rules, lining up rules, the list felt endless. The school has a zero tolerance approach, everything was challenged.  We also discussed the schools isolation and detention policy, alongside expulsion. Firstly it struck me as an incredibly negative approach to behaviour. Behaviour through sanction and compliance rather than responsibility. It also  struck me as creating multiple points of conflict between staff and pupils. I don’t see what is wrong with a little bit of rebellion. Being teenage is partly  about understanding yourself and creating your identity if we prevent that through a model of strict conformity, do we not create the need for other forms of rebellion in that search for control over your own life?

In my experience the staff-pupil relationships are the key to behaviour. I have seen amazing teachers solve complex behaviour challenges, through developing strong trust based relationships.  The key question that came to me is are we teaching good behaviour or are we forcing compliance. What worries me is what happens when we remove the scrutiny. Are we actually creating a group for whom the right choices aren’t embedded. If we strip individuality away are we creating an even more anonymous body where there is no responsibility for action. The lack of respect and trust  for pupils is what bothers me the most

So the question is what is it that we want from behavior in our schools. Do we want robots? (I hope not!) Do we want rebels? (A little bit) Most importantly we want pupils who have responsibility for their actions and choices, and make them in a secure moral framework. Therefore if we look at our behaviour systems, we should question what they achieve. A discipline without responsibility will need constant vigilance. Discipline driven by pupils is almost self-regulating. I know which is easier for staff to manage.

I have included a quote from our Ofsted about behaviour in our school. I say our because all of us, pupils, staff and parents make the school work. I contemplated not putting it in, as I didn’t want this to be a look at how good we are blog, but I do think they articulate what I believe should be the approach to behaviour in school. Ultimately it comes down to  what our expectations of young people are. I think they can be brilliant, creative, caring, generous, hard-working and will with the right support make the right choices. I trust and believe in children in my school and they repay that in spades.

‘The behaviour of pupils is outstanding. What marks it out as being beyond good is how considerate pupils are towards each other and how they remind each other of how to behave without having to be prompted by adults. This does not just happen by chance. Teachers have worked hard to create an ethos in the classroom where mutual respect, tolerance and cooperation are very much the order of the day.’ Ofsted 2016

I have also included an article from the Guardian written by my 17-year-old niece. She is a rebel, she is also an articulate, creative, shy and talented individual. Her parents are also the best people I know, warm, giving, passionate and caring. They were always rebels and still are. We need to be careful our education system doesn’t strip away the rebel.


Much more than Phonics.

Contentious title ahoy!

You’re here now. I’ve at least got you to click the link.  The plan was to get people looking in and then extoll on the virtues of picture books and why they are an under-used and misunderstood medium, that in the rush to decode and read,  we miss as a key tool in developing understanding.

Firstly let’s get the viewpoint stuff out-of-the-way. Children need to develop a toolkit which gives them access to reading. Phonics is a vital part of that, the sooner children can decode the sooner they can access the joy of reading.  It is however,  just that a tool for developing Reading. Having had a son who can’t do phonics (still can’t, even though I have been told on twitter that is impossible) I am also dubious of it being seen as a panacea for all ills, but that is an argument for another day. What I am sure of though is that Reading is much more than phonics. The joy of discovery on turning a page. The sitting on the edge of your seat as your nerves rattle at the unforeseen twist. The discovery of the unknown that makes you look at things in a different way. That is Reading!

The big issue I see with reading currently is the move from decoding to higher level reading. I have come across countless children who through good phonics teaching can  decode almost everything they come across, but they cannot use that ability to access meaning. Equally in the past I have been guilty of the arms race that happens sometimes in primary reading. The bigger, fatter book is given as it is more challenging, regardless of whether the child can access meaning. Parents have exacerbated this with, “this book is too easy.” Unfortunately this didn’t and still doesn’t lead to real readers, but to surface skimmers who want to change their book every day. Not children who want to read and explore, these will be the first to put the book down when nobody is encouraging them to read. Without meaning reading is a pointless exercise.

Mrs Cole The book that made me see it differently in 1997

In Primary we have to create readers, real readers, readers who can’t put a book down. I was guilty of failing pupils. I was creating pupils that could answer and pass a reading test in a surface fashion, but actually didn’t care for Reading.  Then I had my epiphany, the scales fell from my eyes so to speak. I was team-teaching with another teacher and they were using “I’ll take you to Mrs Cole” by Nigel Gray and Michael Foreman. Their understanding not just of the text, but the illustration, the use of colour, the breaking up of the narrative, was frankly astounding. I challenge anyone to read the opening lines of the text to children (make sure they don’t see the cover)

‘When my mum came in from work and I hadn’t got the table laid, she said,

“If you can’t do what you’re told I’ll take you to Mrs Cole.’

and then get them to describe her and not be amazed at what their children come up with. That teacher’s knowledge of the text allowed those pupils to dig deeper and deeper into the text, by text I mean the combined impact of illustration and writing. I also discovered there was way more to picture books than I had ever realised up to that point. I had read text and used the pictures a bit to illustrate the story. Not really realising in many cases the pictures were the story.

So began, a now almost 20 year obsession with children’s picture books. Wonderful, amazing, creative, challenging, funny, heart-breaking, tragic, unbelievable,  fabulous picture books. They are not just a vital stepping stone into higher level reading. They are the missing link. They can develop in all Learners the ability to explore, notice, question, predict, summarise, theorise and analyse.

This brings me to a bugbear. Picture book are often dismissed as being for younger children. They’re not! They are written off as easy. They’re not! There are some stunning picture books out there. Many offer us more than first appears. Unfortunately some are hard to find, they don’t often appear in WHSmith’s or  Waterstones. Even if they do, they are often snaffled up immediately by picture-book obsessives like me.

IMG_0169 Many challenge issues. Just look at  The Arrival by Shaun Tan (not a word in sight), The Journey by Francesca Sanna and The Island by Armin Greder . All tackle the issue of immigration, outsiders, and human rights. All are amazing and thought-provoking.  All allow the reader to explore and interpret at a higher level. All are powerful, and uncompromising in delivering their message. I would use all in Upper KS2, or with the Island KS3.

On  twitter I have been posting book recommendations, I am up-to 47.  The aim is to blog them time allowing,  with ideas on how to use them and themes, this is a work in progress, but there are already some fantastic book bloggers out there who share reviews and ideas.

This does all point to a key issue for schools with regards to the development of Reading in schools and that is to truly develop higher level reading we need teachers who know, and understand the books they are using. Passion for the the material also helps. Using a book you love, really rubs off on pupils. Using amazing books in our classrooms is vital. Passionate readers, inspire readers.

A few weeks ago I was in a lesson where a class were exploring “Snow” by Ted Hughes. The understanding and expertise of the teacher, led to astounding progress in understanding for the pupils in that class. The skill of the questioning and development of understanding could only be done due to the in-depth knowledge and understanding of the text that was held by the teacher. That is not to say that interpretation was imposed,  the pupils very much explored the meaning and the questioning challenged the understanding. It was phenomenal teaching. I have equally seen poor reading sessions mainly due to lack of teacher text knowledge has led surface questioning and skimming.
Talk about books is equally key. We have to talk about them, challenge thinking, explore themes and ideas, see the bigger picture. This is key for higher level reading, for learners to develop critical thinking around texts. We have to discuss, passive reading will not develop  readers abilities to comprehend a text, neither will throwing down some comprehension questions. We have to teach children to be readers.  Silent reading while nice, in my experience in school, is often a chance for pupils to switch off, especially if they have not got that love of reading. Every second truly does count.

This means a number of things for schools. We need teachers to teach understanding. To do that they have to know the text expertly. To truly dig deep with learners, teachers have to truly understand the text they are using.  This takes time, something which for all  teachers is a rarity.  Picture books are a way in. High quality picture books allow us to explore deeply relatively quickly.

To develop higher level reading schools must make it a priority, and give staff the time and abilities to be experts.



Grrrrrr!  Twitter has been well angsty this week!

I have been on twitter for a month, and currently have very mixed feeling about it. I feel it is an amazing platform for discussion, sharing and support. It is also great at challenging viewpoint and making me reflect on my practice. Conversely I also find it incredibly stressful, get really frustrated at trying to explain my views in 140 characters. It only ever comes across as glib and surface. This I feel creates tension and hardened position, everything is a headline. I guess that’s the point.

Most people I’ve come across are passionate, and driven  and there-in lies the problem. I am unwittingly in the middle of many arguments. Not because I am a fence-sitter, but because 23 years, 5 different schools, LA lead literacy teacher, local authority advisory experience, tells me it’s not clean-cut.

What I find most frustrating is people who with an evangelical zeal deem to tell me how to run my school. Thing is that is none of their damn business. People who know nothing of the context and history of my school, make snap judgements based on DfE published data, and tell me how I can be like this school or that school if I do this or do that.  Simply I don’t want to be like this school or that school. That is not to say that we don’t use models of good practice, but they have to fit into our overall aims for what we are trying to achieve for the children of our school.

I have had aggressive Synthetic Phonics proponents, criticise my school and me, saying they’ll come back in two years to  look at our data. Like I give a stuff! What right do they have to be so judgemental. Give me Ofsted any day, the busted myths were true for us by the way.  Fact is I think phonics are important, decoding is an important toolkit for pupils, but equally I know phonics is not reading. Phonics can allow access to reading, but when I have parents say their child ‘hates’ reading because of the phonics based texts, you have to question the approach of what you are doing. I think real books and real reading are essential for the development of readers. That is why we set up our ‘bedtime reading library,’ a collection of brilliant books, not phonic based, but amazing texts to be shared to develop parents reading with children. This has had real impact for us and has got families loving reading.  I also believe picture books are the most under-used resources in primary schools, they are the key into higher level reading. (The under-used missing link.) That is why in my own evangelical way I have been sharing amazing books on twitter, currently up-to number 45. My reason is purely because I think more people should see them. I suppose we all have our cause.

The other argument I’ve found myself in the middle of is the ‘traditional’ vs ‘progressive’ argument.  I would say if it works and the children learn then go for it. I have seen inspirational ‘traditional’ lessons and astounding ‘progressive’ lessons, the key to both was  that the pupils were the winners, due to the expertise of the teaching. Personally I am probably a bit of a ‘progressive.’ I used to have long hair, I have a hipster-ish penchant for facial hair.  Teaching at my school varies  between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ at different points depending on the aim of the learning, most staff don’t even think in those terms. We reflect and discuss choices and consider the impact on learning. If it works, go for it! This approach is adaptive to the class needs.

Then we have the whole use of film argument that has blown up following @tombennett71 article. Actually I agree with the article , not how it has been reported in the press. The key word was ‘some’ and it was about making every minute count. A film used well can have real impact. The writing produced by my Year 6 after using a Literacy Shed film was amazing.  For my pupils part of that is about experience and ensuring they have the experiences which allow them access to learning. we are developing our use of  talk, (external studies show that pupils in our geographical area come in significantly national in their ability to talk.) great books,  reasoning in Maths, investigative Science and most importantly purpose for learning.

We seem too keen to tell each other what to do, and how to do it, rather than look at the merits of what Twitter can offer us. It has great power, #primaryrocks showed that. I am excited by #readingrocks, definately my sort of thing.  Equally I have been able to ask questions of people with real expertise in their fields. If you love what you do great, but respect others who feel and believe differently to you.

My concern with all this is that from twitter we seem like a very divided profession, scrabbling around to get our own way, rather than supporting and learning from each other. It tells me that the idea of a school-led system is still some distance away as we continue to draw battle-lines rather than supporting each other in getting it right for our pupils.

Maybe #Learningfirst will give us a way forward, but only if we focus on pupils rather than ideologies.