Joy! Literally, Joy!

I’ve seen this on Twitter:

I really believe that if you want to raise literacy standards in schools, you need to train all staff on the following: Nouns, Adjectives, Verbs, Adverbs, Simple sentences, Compound sentences, Complex sentences. 7 basic things that impact so much.

I’ve not replied. I know there’s no point. I’m losing an ideological battle against a maelstrom of analytical ideology. I’ll probably start too many of my sentences with “I” this time.
As a child I was read to endlessly. And sung to. Our house was filled with books. When Mrs Jackson read us Roald Dahl’s “Danny the Champion of the World” when I was in Year 4 I was captivated. There was a world in a book that I could relate to, lose myself in, dream of. A world so like my own and yet more exciting and fantastic than mine could ever likely be. After it had been read to me at school I asked my Mum to read it to me, then I read it myself. Then I read lots of other books. From an obsession with sticker albums, atlases and encyclopedias the world of fiction became something worth engaging with, rather than it just being done to me. It was the same with “You Tell Me” by Roger McGough & Michael Rosen. And the Mr. Men books. And The Magic Faraway Tree series, and countless story books that I’m now sharing with my children. Books were exciting, reading was exciting. I have become an adult who has started too many sentences here with the same word, but who has held an otherwise acceptably high standard of literacy for as long as I can remember.

Nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs. I did those at primary school. I don’t remember specifically talking about simple, compound and complex sentences. I knew what they were though when we were ‘introduced’ to them at secondary school. I was using them already without knowing. My writing was good, or so my teachers and peers told me – without drowning the joy I found in the written word.

I wouldn’t argue that the those of us who have to teach literacy to children need to know about the seven basic things mentioned above, but where is the love? Where is the joy? Why isn’t it seen as important that staff need to communicate the joy of books and a love of reading? This isn’t a case of “Well obviously, that goes without saying!” because it doesn’t. Reading for pleasure is an afterthought, an add-on if there’s time to fit it in. How many Year 6 children in the country are read a story to daily? Nowhere near enough. During a recent observation I was told that, in an otherwise Outstanding guided reading lesson, the group who I had allowed to ‘read for pleasure’ were not being given a specific reason to ‘read for pleasure’ and thus the lesson was marked down to Good. I argued that giving purpose to pleasure stopped it being a pleasure, but it didn’t wash.

Currently I’m teaching Years 5 & 6 and I have made a point of reading to them as much as I can. They are excited and transfixed. The more able readers are able to enjoy a text for its own sake, and the less able readers are accessing a book they would presently have no chance of doing so for themselves. They are being exposed to text types, phrasing, emotions, vocabulary, dramatic devices, characters, general knowledge and so much more. And they don’t even realise it. The horror – how can you learn anything unless you’re told in minutiae what it is you’re learning and why?
You can analyse things as much as you like, break them down to gradable zeros and ones until you’re contradicting your own rules, but children and adults alike respond better and learn more when they are enjoying what they do. Until we make joy a central part of literacy (and all education for that matter) we’ll continue to have pupils who go dead behind the eyes when they think of reading and writing, and teachers will have to keep fighting to force feed stuff that would be gobbled down if there was some love shown for it.

I’m a teacher. I know I need to know those seven basic things. I also know that they are nothing if my pupils don’t feel excitement when they pick up a book or a pen. I wish the people in charge, and those who meekly follow their dogma whilst pretending to have minds of their own, would know this too.

Joy. Literally, joy!

Three Things About Ofsted

  • The best thing about Ofsted is that, regardless of the outcome, people generally come together and support each other. I know that at some schools it’s dog-eat-dog but whenever I’ve been involved in a visit the glow of being part of a team inspires in its immediate burning and isn’t something that fades with any immediacy. Beyond the staff, the messages of encouragement from parents, governors, ex-colleagues, friends, other schools, my children’s teachers, and family are all so important and must be remembered weeks down the line when you’re feeling sad, alone and despondent. They mean an enormous amount.
  • This was probably the ‘best’ Ofsted I’ve ever experienced. From the off it felt like the inspectors were on our side and the stress during the visit was much less than in previous years. Gone was the confrontational nit-picking and in its place a seemingly genuine desire to highlight our strengths and give us constructive pointers for the future. It’s not a perfect regime by any means and I’m sure that if our school had previously been less than ‘Good’ it might have been a different experience, but if this is what the new inspection regime is like across the board, then well done Ofsted.
  • Better than previous inspections it may have been, but the words “I’ve just received a phone call…”, with the characteristic trail off of voice and the apologetic expression, still causes the stomach to churn and the butterflies to swirl. You still find yourself analysing minutiae to cover all bases (I found myself rearranging my bathroom at home, on autopilot, because the inspectors might mark us down for my stepson’s hair dye being left within reach of the children!) and there’s still an empty feeling as you eventually lay your head on the pillow the night before. And then there’s the feeling of being an underdog in the cup final, and for me at least the massive loss of appetite and the extra nausea that that causes when still more questions are asked and more demands made . When it’s over there is relief even before you know the verdict, because what is done is done and it’s over for now. All you can do is wait, and feel somehow hollow. Better than previous inspections it may have been, but I’m still glad I’ve not got to go through that again for a while.

As is the way of Ofsted I don’t know how my school did in our inspection last week. I still think that that’s rotten, but so be it. It’s over for now.

A Week After Ofsted

This time last week I was halfway through a visit from Ofsted. I’d had 3-4 hours sleep the previous night and was faced with the same prospect again that night. I’d not been able to face eating and Red Bull was my friend. I was running on empty. So much rides on a ‘good’ performance these days, and it’s all based on what 2-3 people you’ve never met before and know nothing about think during 2 days in your school. They put everything under enormous scrutiny and if they don’t like what they see lives are turned upside down and careers are ended.

We’d been expecting them to visit any day but still, when we did get the call, the initial feeling was of a bowling ball in the stomach. “Here we go…” went the thought in my head, and then a sort of numb tranquility set in and I set to getting ready. In actual fact, apart from feeling physically sick from the time I found out they were coming in at 12.30 on Tuesday to their arrival at 7.45 on the Wednesday, the anticipation was worse than the inspection itself – what can you do about anything at that point? The weeks of ending every sentence with “in case Ofsted are in next week” are far worse because there is always something else you could do, always something else that you fear might be held against you.

The consequences of a bad inspection are well known and don’t really bear thinking about. You can flippantly suggest that if you’re doing your job properly you’ve got nothing to worry about but what is‘properly’ these days? The goalposts are always changing and often are placed according to an inspector’s loose personal interpretation of ever-vaguer Government policy. The feeling is that if they want to ruin you there are enough gaps in the system to have you whatever you do. Michael Gove recently dismissed the suggestion that Ofsted should be a cause of fear. He demands that teachers are held accountable and I don’t have any real issue with that, but accountable in such an arbitrary way with such grave consequences? If they don’t like what they see over that short time frame a teacher’s job, their career, can be over either through being asked to walk, or due to the unbearable stress ‘school improvement’ puts on people. What jeopardy does Michael Gove have in his job? So long as he doesn’t do something really stupid the only consequence of any incompetence is, because he’s an MP in one of the Conservative’s safest seats, a backbench job for life on £65000 a year. How would he deal with the daily threat of having to have every bit of paperwork perfect and available for inspection at 19 hours notice AND having his performance in parliament, meetings and interviews scrutinised in minutiae with the prospect of unemployment (or further continuous scrutiny of the same kind) hanging over him? I expect he’d reject the comparison, but that is the way of the politician. One rule for you…

A week on then, as the title suggests, how do I feel? Well apart from not being allowed to know how we did (it’s our hard work, it’s our school, it’s our careers, but we the staff are not entitled to know the inspectors’ judgement until the rest of the world does) I feel OK. The weekend afterwards I felt like an arm had been lopped off because there was no need to do the extra work I had been subconsciously doing to cover myself in case we got the call. What I had done was enough – perfection was not needed for a while – and I could relax with the young family I hadn’t seen for three days earlier in the week without constantly remembering other things I ought to do ”in case Ofsted are in next week”. That display could wait until Tuesday, the planning for Thursday could be done on Wednesday, the weekend was mine. This week, after school, I spent a while reading in my neglected garden and, for the first time this year, took the time to properly water the vegetables whilst listening to the birds singing and looking at the clouds. I hadn’t noticed I’d stopped doing these things for fear of Ofsted, and I was glad they were back in my life.

In its current form and under the leadership of Wilshaw and Gove that’s what Ofsted does – it looms in the ever-closer distance robbing you of perspective. It takes over your life until, if you notice it’s happened, you don’t like what you and your life have become. Too much rides on too vague a set of criteria judged in too opaque a way. The week after Ofsted I feel free – I await to see how long it is before my vegetables start wilting again.