What happened to quality of life?


It all started with a phone call during half term week. It was Alex ringing from Plymouth to tell me he had had a panic attack. At first I couldn’t quite get my head around this … the boy who is so horizontal he is nearly comatose? The boy who has avoided many a confrontation by just not doing things he thinks are pointless (registration in sixth form being a key example!)? All is well now but during our conversations it became apparent that multiple departments had set multiple pieces of coursework all with a due date within 2 weeks. The sheer impossibility of the task facing him had tipped Alex over into not coping. But what really threw me was when Alex mentioned that several housemates had been struggling with stress and anxiety for some months and indeed some were on anti-depressants.

In all walks of life there seems to be an assumption that there is always a possibility of “more for less”. Zero hours contracts allow workers to be seen as units of work rather than people, requiring a living wage is seen as an unreasonable demand. The message from the world of work seems to be that you can always do more and therefore be more efficient. Whilst this is unacceptable for adults – we now appear to extending this message into schools.

The new National Curriculum being introduced in September expects final year primary pupils (Aged 10/11) to hit many targets which are currently part of the Secondary curriculum. In maths this will include multiplication and division of fractions as well as algebra for all. Whilst we already teach beyond this for children who are ready, this will be the expected standard and those who cannot meet it will be deemed to not be “secondary ready” – in other words to have failed. But worse than this, with the goalposts constantly changing (look at the GCSE/A Level scenario in recent years) – we risk setting up a situation where it is not possible for the majority to succeed.

Putting Alex’s student house into context, around 1/3 of a house full of intelligent, high functioning young adults are being put under sufficient pressure to affect their mental health. We risk beginning this process much earlier when there is even greater vulnerability. All children should be challenged and fulfilled – but that level of challenge needs to be individual to the child – not arbitrarily set by central government.


Convenient Labels?

One of my jobs this morning was to make sure I know exactly which children in my class are in receipt of Pupil Premium money as I need to be able to explain what I am doing to secure accelerated progress for these children, to “close the gap” – in reality to show value for money! For those who don’t know, Pupil Premium is extra money – currently £900 per year – given to schools for any child whose is in one of three defined groups. Children who are in care or “looked after”, children of services families and, by far the largest group, children where the family has met the criteria for receipt of Free School Meals at any time in the last 6 years. The current qualification criteria for FSM is to be in receipt of Job Seekers Allowance or Income Support. Pupil Premium is lauded by this Government as one of its headline policies.

Yet as I sat making my lists this morning, I thought about the pressure on schools to improve achievement for these children and I found myself cynically discounting this windfall as the archetypal sticking plaster approach. It is well established that children cannot begin to learn unless their physical and emotional needs are met first. Literacy and maths are not your top priority if you are scared or hungry. It seems to me that whilst crowing about the extra they are providing for these children in a school setting, the implementation of policies such as housing benefit caps and bedroom tax is resulting in the home lives of many of these children being increasingly chaotic. A lack of social housing makes them reliant on privately rented property and yet the announcement that the rent element of universal credit will be paid direct to claimants has resulted in many private landlords refusing to entertain letting to this group of people. Families are being displaced, with the loss of relationships and support which have been established over many years. In addition, many of the support services for these families, including everything from health to social care, are being reduced in response to financial cuts. The resulting rise in the qualification thresholds means that fewer families receive the help they need and those that do have to wait significantly longer.

Fuelled by the media through reality series such as Benefit Street and sensationalist headlines, there is a tendency to tar everyone in receipt of benefits, who does not, or cannot work, as a “scrounger”. But in parallel we label the children of these families as “deprived”. There is no acknowledgement that there is any link between the state of the two groups but those children go home at the end of the school day. Depriving the parents ultimately deprives the child. Many of the families who are portrayed as feckless are actually chronically disorganised. They may have grown up in care or simply have never experienced good parenting. Where those families cannot provide the basics for their children the children will not be able to learn effectively. Worse still they may well grow up to repeat the cycle.

There will always be those who abuse the system and the focus on this group will inevitably support the views of those who consider the benefits system to be broken. But what about the the families they don’t show. The families who have simply fallen on hard times (not so unusual in the current economic climate) and have taken advantage of the “safety net” we all pay into. The families where genuine health problems (not always physical and not always visible) prevent someone working.

If the money is to genuinely impact the lives of these children it needs to be targeted differently, but I suspect that this would be far too risky. It could be misread as “going soft” on the “scroungers”. Heaven forbid…


Dear Mr Hunt

Dear Mr Hunt,

As a Primary teacher who left the IT industry to teach 5 years ago, it was with great interest that I read the latest proposals for licensing of teachers with a suggestion that they should be re-licensed every 5 years. Although, as is often the case, details are few, I see that the emphasis is on teachers constantly updating their subject knowledge and skills. There is a suggestion that assessment every 5 years would be by peers and one presumes senior management both within the school and from other schools.

I am sure you are aware that teachers already undergo formal observations at least three times a year by their own senior management team and many schools encourage peer observations as a form of professional development with many teachers visiting other schools to observe colleagues. In addition to this, schools also carry out learning walks several times a year which may include additional members of the school team such as governors.

There has been a link made between the re-licensing process undergone by doctors and the legal profession, but they do not have in place the ongoing checks which have been built up within the teaching profession. Perhaps as part of your proposals for re-licensing you could consider whether these existing judgements can be fed into the new process, or adapted to do so, rather than adding yet another layer of observation. Equally if the effectiveness of teaching is being judged in this way then where is the requirement for teaching to be judged through observation by OFSTED as well? Could the re-licensing judgement be used to inform OFSTED as to teaching quality in a school allowing them to continue to look at other issues within the school such as behaviour, leadership and management?

All teachers will welcome the chance to update skills and subject knowledge, however there has been a significant reduction in access to these over the last few years as school budgets have been squeezed. Every piece of training carries the overhead not only of the cost of that training but of cover for the teacher undergoing the training. I note that you have mentioned the intention to abandon INSET days. I spent last Monday on INSET, the whole day was spent in meetings about the curriculum, assessment and school policies. These matters are also dealt with in depth with a staff meeting each week – I await more detail about when these matters will be addressed within the school day when all staff in my school are fully occupied with their main teaching, assessment and planning role between 8 and 5:30 and often at home afterwards.

I often feel that many of the announcements made focus heavily on Secondary education and often there is no consideration of how they will be applied to Primary teaching. For example, as a Primary teacher I teach 11 subjects, how will you assess my subject knowledge for re-licensing?

As a lifelong Labour supporter I am glad to see detail emerging of policies and am fully aware of the art of politics in point scoring and winning public opinion. However, I would emphasise that in order the policy to be successful, you need to also win over teacher opinion. In the 5 years I have been teaching, there have been an incredible amount of changes to teaching, 4 OFSTED frameworks and a new curriculum to name just two. Continual change takes time and energy to implement. Where the changes build a better education system all teachers will support it, but political tinkering takes away the drive to achieve the supposed goal to provide the best input we can for all children.
I would be interested in seeing your response to my thoughts – something your predecessor never had the courtesy to do.

Yours sincerely.

Sue Parkes


on how in the blink of an eye your world can change

I think we are all guilty of this. Of focusing on what is wrong with our lives rather than what is right or at best taking what is right for granted. We need to notice what we have in case it is suddenly taken away. A sobering thought.


Suppose you are lolling about in the post Christmas blur that is the days before everything gets back to ‘normal’.  You are considering taking down the tree, eating the last of the chocolates, reflecting on the parties and the presents, thinking about times gone by and looking forward to the New Year.  Minor squabbles, because everyone has been at home together, the change from routine, all conspire to make the start of the year that little bit more irritating than usual. That was my family last week.

In all the time we spend together, how often do we actually appreciate what we have?  How often do we take the mundane, the trivial and the downright ordinariness of life for granted.  I do, all the time.  I have a great life. It is true that with a bit more money and a bit less stress, with a nicer climate and another…

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My New Year’s Resolution

Today was my equivalent of limbo! That day in school where I have a chance to address my priorities for the term rather than have priorities imposed upon me. Monday is an INSET day and despite popular perception this does not mean that I prepare for the children arriving on Tuesday. In reality it will be a day of meetings, and of tasks set by those above me, many of which I am currently in blissful ignorance of.

The tasks today included setting targets for progress for the next term and planning lessons to engage them on the subject of Space – our topic this term. The former is very much a focus in education at the moment and the latter is the reason I wanted to teach in the first place. In the quiet of my empty classroom today it occurred to me that I need to make sure I keep both in mind. With a constant rhetoric about increasing attainment and progress, it would be all too easy to begin to see children as a set of figures and forget all about those elements of learning which can’t be measured on a spreadsheet such as enthusiasm and resilience. Equally a spreadsheet cannot tell the whole story about factors which may affect a child’s learning. It cannot communicate their difficult home life, or their low self esteem.

I am starting this term determined to focus on the wonderful moments where a connection is made and a child can see a way forward. I want to remember to take pleasure from their amazement in the world and all its wonders. Most of all, I must not lose sight of their progress as people.


Decisions, Decisions.

As Christmas preparations have come and gone, I have to admit to something on my conscience. With a manic series of assessments at school to finish off the year, I found myself relying very heavily upon a certain online retailer beginning with A. I cannot for one minute claim ignorance about the wilful tax avoidance of this retailer and have even been known to rant on this very subject and yet when the pressure to purchase to a deadline built up – I crumbled.

Whilst not particularly proud of this inability to put my money where my not inconsiderable mouth is, it did lead me to consider why it is such a temptation. Initially I considered it to be purely economic but having looked around and compared prices – this has proved to be less of a factor than I had led myself to believe. The final verdict has in fact been heavily weighted towards the ease with which I can purchase from this particular site. With details saved it really does come down to a few clicks to purchase.

My New Year’s resolution is to at least force myself to consider an alternative for each purchase which I could quite easily automatically source from the easy option. If I can make use of other sites I will. At the very least it will make me aware of other suppliers and slightly less of a hypocrite.