School & Library Visits
Authors, travelling around schools, see stuff – stuff that inspectors would never see or even bother to look for, because inspectors are looking for what they want to see.
I keep seeing the Green, Amber and Red colours of testing software printouts. This software works out where to put the most resources to achieve the best test results. That sounds like a reasonable proposition, but in truth it confirms that the current education system is structurally designed to promote failure. Test results are all that matter. The education and-life chances of the children in the system come second. The “customer” – the child being educated – has been taken out of the equation.
If your child is in the green area then you are doing the right thing. You are helping them with homework, encouraging them to read and providing them with a full and diverse cultural feed. They will learn to read despite being at school.
If your child is in the amber areas, then it is worthwhile for the school to put effort into raising your child’s reading levels one or two grades. You can do this easily at home by reading to them in bed every night and showing some interest in their homework and schooling. The school can feel confident that if they invest time and resources in this group, they will bring their overall target levels up. The education system has such a distorted view, nothing else matters but the levels.
If your child is in the red area, you probably don’t care, and neither do the school. They know that it will take a huge effort to raise these children up just one grade, that will not have any effect on the school’s overall performance. These are the children that are doomed to illiteracy – they will cost the country a fortune over their lifetimes in social and medical care, prison and welfare. But that does not matter because because meeting reading level targets are more important.
The chances are that red area children have no books at home. The amber area children may have up to ten. The green area children could have over 200!
Before arriving at school, green children can have heard over 30 million more words spoken than a child in the red area, who may never have sung a nursery rhyme at home, had a book read to them at bedtime, used a knife or fork and my well have not learned to use the toilet.
Children’s centres were supposed to help with early years intervention. But children have to leave the centres to go to school and start learning to read. If the stats say it’s not worth schools bothering with children who need too much time spent on them, then it’s not worth spending the time on them.
The recent report of Britain’s failing literacy standards bears all this out. After 14 years of the Literacy Strategy and the National Curriculum someone needs to hang their head in shame and admit they got it all wrong. After 14 years, literacy should be at 99% of all school leavers.
So where has it gone wrong? Literacy has been redefined as the ability to decode text. That is not literacy – that is a boring, wet, grey, Wednesday afternoon lesson. Literacy is the ability to read. How have we forgotten that?
Reading is the one core skill. Without being able to read, forget about writing and “‘rithmetic”. No child should ever be allowed to fall behind in reading skills. That should be the core statement of education. If children can’t read, don’t progress them onto subjects they don’t have a cat in hell’s chance of understanding.
And how do we promote reading? The cryingly, simple, obvious solution is to read books! Hundred’s of them and if children don’t hear books read to them at home, they need to hear them read in school. Thanks to targets, there is no time for telling stories in school anymore. The key to reading is not phonetics or any other fashionable system, the key is story.
Human beings are hard-wired to listen to an learn from stories. Politicians know this – they tell enough of them. Advertisers know this – story is their trade. Religions know this – Faith is just the believing of a great story. So why has education forgotten and ignored the very keystone on which it is built?
It is story that draws the child closer and closer to the text, they marvel that those squiggly marks make up words that mean something, words that tell fantastic tales and explain fantastic concepts. Once the connection is made, nothing will stop a child wanting to learn to read so they can do that amazing, magic trick themselves.
Teacher education is such that a whole new generation has been taught nothing about children’s books or how to read them to their children. How are we going to convert them back to story-time?
Learning to read is the hardest job anyone will ever do in their entire lives. To condemn a child to the red area is to write them off, to mark them out as the detritus of society.
How many times have I heard teachers say, “But what can I do? Targets have to be met.” Forget about striking over pensions – we’re all in the same boat there, so teacher’s won’t get any sympathy from the public over that, but how about striking for the right to teach?
And how about hauling parents in and reminding them that they have responsibilities too? School is not a child-minding service, it’s a partnership of Family, Child and School – giving the child the best opportunities in life and preparing them to make the most of their talents so they can contribute to society. When did we ever stop wanting better for our children? What happened that all responsibility has been outsourced to over-stretched schools?
The real test of education is the number of happy, fulfilled adults that have benefitted from their time at school. The target should be adults that behave, that understand the difference between right and wrong, that have the confidence to rely on their own resources, that contribute to life and society, adults who cherish the next generation and help them on their way in the hope that they will help in return when we get older.
The education system that does not work for its “customer’s” best interests is broken and those in charge of setting the targets are as guilty as the red area children will be, when they grow up and appear before the magistrates in the dock.
I had a great day in a school yesterday – I’ll tell you more later. I was reading them one of my Ricky Rocket stories in which there is a lot of… well… let’s call it bottom burping! Every time I milk that story, I think, “Oh dear! How have I stooped so low. But then today, National Poetry day, I thought about the problem and decided to stand up for what I believe in and and write a poem that concisely expresses my feelings on the subject. And here it is:
What makes me laugh
If I want a cheap laugh,
and not pay money,
farting is free
and terribly funny!
Yesterday I visited Lydbrook Primary School, here in the Forest of Dean. It was once a village school that took children up to school leaving age – Lydbrook was a mining village and many of the children went to work underground or in other manual trades.
One of the teaching blocks has this fabulous sign carved from the local forest stone, announcing that Manual Instruction was taught inside. That would be carpentry and metalwork as well as cooking and other skills.
How many children yearn for a building like that at school, these days? Somewhere to make something, create something and learn a real skill. A classroom where there are no written explanations or reflections, no written exams, coursework or measurable outcomes, other than the the finished object speaking for itself – just manual instruction – the passing on of skills and craft attitudes that matter in the real world those children will grow up to live in.
A little bit of DT mixed into the curriculum doesn’t satisfy practically-minded children. All those essays and written coursework that the art, drama and sports department now require, only serve to put those, who are naturally suited to the subject, off pursuing them.
Haven’t we had enough of political correctness forcing children to be square pegs in round holes for the sake of neat accounting? Will education ever come again to accept that one academic size does not fit all? Will we ever be grown-up enough to accept that we are not all wired-up the same way? We knew it once and built classrooms for Manual Instruction.
Now that a bit of history has passed under the bridge, I can see what happened. The grammar schools gave extraordinary chances to working-class children. Those who got to Oxford and Cambridge soon came to run the country as leaders of the Labour Party, lording it over the Swinging Sixties, when almost anyone could do anything and and almost anything seemed possible.
So how did those ungrateful, mean-minded politicians repay the help and belief they were given by previous generations, that worked so hard to give them a bright, new future? They closed down the grammar schools, that got them where they were, and pulled up all the ladders to advancement behind them, protecting their new-found wealth and position from any new upstarts who might come up from below and take away what had been given them in a spirit of hope and generosity. Then they invented political correctness to put fear into those who might criticise them.
Rather than generally reducing children’s prospects, by creating the comprehensive schools that sought to promote the mean, wouldn’t it have been wonderful if they had followed in their public-spirited forefathers’ steps and addressed the abysmal state of secondary modern schools instead, turning them into first class academies of technology, creativity and craft, that stood on a level with the grammar schools, the two cultures working side by side?
Wait a minute – that still sounds like a good idea to me!
Tommy Donbavand, the author of Scream Street and Fangs, was due to visit libraries in Derby on Monday as part of the Summer Reading Challenge but sadly he is not going to be well enough, so I’ve agreed to take over and visit in his place. I’m not sure my books are quite as scary as Tommy’s but I’ll do my best.
I’ll be at Sinfin at 10.30 – Blagreaves Library 1-2pm and Spondon at 3.30 see you there!
In the meantime let’s all hope he gets better soon and gets back to thrilling us with his hairy, scary stories!
If you can’t get enough of Tommy’s zaniness, here’s a video of him shooting an apple off a small child’s head!
I thought I’d lost my faithful Swiss Army pocket knife when I checked into security at Birmingham airport. Normally I put it in my suitcase, but this time it was still in my pocket! I was allowed to go and buy a jiffy bag and stamps and post it back to myself. It would have been a sad day if I’d had to hand it over forever.
However, the temporary loss of my penknife did not impact on my visit to Jersey in the Channel Islands. The plane stops at Guernsey first, where I visited schools in 2010. You can see my trip videos here, and here, and here.
I was met by Linne, from the Young Readers’ Department of Jersey Library, who generously showed me around the island a bit. It’s full of castles and lovely beaches and romantic, wooded valleys that are very evident from the air as you come into land.
As a strategic island, it bears the marks of warfare over the centuries, with castles and fortresses, napoloeonic martelloi towers and a good deal of concrete gun emplacements from when the Nazis occupied the island in WW2.
I had a lovely time in the library, which had really gone to town with the Creepy House Theme. There was a creepy house – or garden shed! – a ghost train and a creepy queueing system as there are about 1000 children doing the Summer Reading Challenge in St Helier alone! The Children’s library is a very busy place over the summer!
I told scary stories and showed how to draw the Pizza Man and Frankatstein’s Monster and all the children did wonderful drawings.
Many thanks, again, for a great trip and I hope I’ll be able to come back again one day.
I’m off to Jersey today to tell stories in Jersey Library in St Helier tomorrow, Wednesday. It’s part of the Summer Reading Challenge, so I might tell you a scary Story! If you are around, why not come along! We’ll be doing some drawing too.
I visited Malmesbury in Wiltshire today and told stories in the Town Hall as part of the carnival and The Summer Reading Challenge. I had a great time and everyone did fantastic drawings of the Pizza Man.
I was very taken by the Norman Abbey, which had the most fabulous carved Doorway entrance, which has succumbed quite a bit by the ravages of time.It looks like there are a lot of bible stories and historical stories carved on there. It seem the King Athelstan, the Grandson of one of my heroes, Alfred the Great, is buried there. Alfred fought off the Vikings to establish the first instantiation of England. Athelstan fought them back and united the country to become what we call England to day, so we can say he was the first King of all England, but I would say that Alfred the Great was the the first true King of the English.
Malmesbury is a very pretty and very old town that seems to be built on a bit of a hill that must have originally been chosen for its defensive properties. Well worth a visit if you are n the area.
I was childishly pleased when I came up with the series title, Little Horrors. They’re horror stories for small children, whom we often call little horrors themselves. Actually there’s no horror in them at all, just the suggestion. They are meant to be funny with moments of doubt… Shiver with fear.. shake with laughter, as the series slogan goes!
I love reading these stories to Key Stage 1 children. Some hug each other, some pose and pretend they aren’t scared, some burst into tears, but most laugh and join in with the noises and actions. Sadly the publishers, Orchard Books decided not to reprint. But that gave me the opportunity to bring the stories back to life again.
Online, print-on-demand publishing is an amazing thing. The first book in the series, The Swamp Man in now available in old fashioned print and as an ebook for the iPad. When I discovered the Open Dyslexic Font, I made it available as a Dyslexic font edition on the ipad too. The type is weighted so the letters behave themselves and sit on the line and the page colour is cream.
If you would like a signed copy of the Swamp Man, then click here
The Swamp Man – Little Horrors book.