Category Archives: schools

A 9 year old’s view on Nigeria, education and everything else

We are in the car, the three of us. The children are quiet in the rear seat. It is 11am and the BBC radio 2 news is on. Michelle Obama has delivered a radio address to draw attention to the plight of the kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria. Naturally the event is on the news bulletin.

Mum is this true?” asks my daughter.

What?” I say absent-mindedly.

Some girls have been kidnapped. Is this true?

Once more she has caught me off guard. I know how this is going to unravel. She is going to bombard me with questions. In between her feelings are going to change from being worried, concerned and a little bit frightened to being upset and finally she will become determined and offer a solution or two.

Yes” I reply with hesitation. The truth is that she has not been aware of the situation that is being going on for three weeks now. Is this a good time  for us to talk about it. But we are in the car. I am driving and she is sitting in the back. This is not the ideal set up for introducing my daughter to a complex issue, which involves history, tradition, religion, poverty and inevitably lack of education.

Apparently the news has alerted her. “Are there kidnappers for real?

Yes” I attempt to reply, but before I actually mutter a word she moves on to the next question.

Has such an incident ever happened in England?

I can see now that she is nervous and uncomfortable. 200 school girls have been abducted on their way to school. She can relate to them. She probably thinks that this may as well happen to her.

I try to reassure her. No, this has never happened in this country. This event took place in Nigeria a country in Africa. A militant group, who believe that people and particularly girls should not attend school kidnapped the girls. They think that learning is a sin.

Mum, will my sister get kidnapped?” asks my son, his voice slightly trembled.

I reassured him that no such thing is going to happen to his sister. “In this country we value education,” I add.

My daughter is now really engaged. She has a strong learning ethos. It is simply inconceivable to her that girls will be abducted simply because they go to school.

“Mum I am really upset. No, I am frustrated. I so wish to have a meeting with them. Explain why we should learn and grow our brains. Explain that what they have done is unacceptable. And have they thought about the poor parents?”

We talk about how the parents may feel and the she asks the obvious question “Are the girls alive?”

“I do not know,” I say.

“How are they going to find the girls?”

I say that a lot of countries, the UK included, have offered their help. It is now a global team-work effort that takes place. Satellites are monitoring the vast Nigerian forests in the hope of pinpointing the location of the girls. Once the location has been identified, trained people will find the girls, free them and hopefully capture some of the criminals.

Apparently she is not satisfied with the plan. “Is that all?” she says and then adds “but this may take ages”

“I am sure that they try some other things as well. But I really do not know. When we get home we can read the news and find out more” I offer.

And then she simply asks, “What can we do to help the girls?”

To this question I have no convincing answer.

One thing is for sure, celebrity involvement and twitter hash tags may raise awareness, but can certainly no help these girls.

I asked my daughter if they had discussed this incident at school. It turns out that they hadn’t.

Our car conversation reminded me once more how children are wired to be socially sensitive about issues affecting the world. This particular incident offers so many opportunities for discussion and reflection. It was a disappointment that it had not been discussed at school.

But it also made me realise my responsibility as a parent to engage my children with social issues. At home, it is our priority to engage the children in discussions and listening to their views. But we do not tend to use current affairs as our starting point. Raising socially aware citizens is not rocket science, but requires providing opportunities for discussing current affairs and engaging with the children’s views and opinions. They need to be aware of the inequalities in the modern world, see cause and effect and be able to express their views, propose solutions and strategies.

So what should our next topic be? European Parliament Elections?

Let’s talk about sex

I have been watching BBC3’s Tough Young Teachers with great interest.
To the layman it must have been an educating experience. An insight into a secondary school environment, albeit a particular one, with the focus on what goes on behind the scenes of our children’s learning.

But as a mother of two primary school children, I was really shocked to find out that the teaching of sex education was left to two unqualified teachers, barely out of university with no relevant training in the subject of sex and relationships education. The two tough young teachers were as clueless and embarrassed as their students. I cannot help but wonder, is this an accurate portrayal of teaching sex and relationships education in England?

Currently sex education is not compulsory. However many schools (primary and secondary) include the topic in their PSHE curriculum, but according to OFSTED the provision is patchy. Which to some degree explains the bleak picture that the statistics reveal:

  • The UK has the highest teenage birthand abortion rates in Western Europe with rates of teenage births to be five times those in the Netherlands, double those in France and more than twice those in Germany. Albeit according latest figures the number of teenage pregnancies is decreasing year on year
  • Violence in teenage relationships is increasing
  • A “page 3” culture prevails in many parts of the society and shapes cultures and attitudes towards women
  • An increased sexualisation of children

The picture painted by the statistics makes me anxious. Obviously sex and relationships education urgently needs a shake up. But with limited budget and ever increasing pressures is designing a modern, age-appropriate and effective curriculum a priority for schools? Will head teachers be able to put in the time and resources required? Or will the curriculum be set just to ticking yet another box?

For a start teachers should be trained to be able to talk comfortably and confidently about sex matters. They should be able to convey the message that sex education is not an embarrassing topic and engage in intelligent conversations with their class.

But I am convinced that even the best designed and delivered school-based programmes won’t have an impact, unless schools engage with their parent community.

Here is why. Research with young people shows that they want to discuss sex matters with their parents. In addition to that, parents want to talk to their children about topics related to sexual matters but they lack the vocabulary and feel uncomfortable.

If you add into the equation that inevitably the family environment shapes the attitudes of children and young people, it becomes obvious that only well informed and confident parents can support and guide their children effectively.

Sex education is indeed a sensitive issue but unlike any other subject taught in school, it can empower young people to take charge of their lives and deal with the pressures and can set the foundation for children to become confident adults.

I feel that as a matter of urgency, it is parents that need to be educated about talking to their children about sex. So what are we waiting for?

Please share any experience you have with your child talking about sex. What support do you think you would need to help you support your child?

References:

Parents as educators of sex and relationship education: The role for effective communication in British families, Health Education Journal July 1, 2013 72: 417-430

The Family Planning Association

“Stranger – Danger” and empowering children to be safe

For a couple of years an A3 poster had been decorating one of the walls in my children’s school. It had been put together by some pupils a while ago. It was placed in the KS1 area and with its vivid colours and charming children’s illustration was impossible not to catch your eye.

“Stranger Danger” it exclaimed.

If you have school aged children you have probably come across the same message. Up until recently similar posters, all with the same short but catchy message, adorned every school in the UK.

When I first saw it, I felt uncomfortable. I am trying to raise my children to be confident human beings, who can see the best in people. I do not want them to be scared of the world and I would like them to feel safe outside our house. So I felt that this message did contradict the values and attitudes I was trying to instill.

I talked to my daughter’s teacher whom I respect deeply. She had been teaching for over 25 years at the time and was known to have a down to earth approach. She shared my concern but “Stranger – Danger” was there to stay. She could not help.

I felt upset. I thought about the message again. Are all strangers dangerous? Should the children be scared of strangers or rather be equipped with the skills to differentiate between safe and dangerous situations? And more importantly should they have the vocabulary to talk about their feelings and the situation to a network of people they trust either in the family or at school? How can children know that something is not quite right after all?

And then I realized why that poster bothered me. What the “stranger – danger” approach fails to tackle is empowering the children to identify that they are in an unsafe situation and then articulate their feelings and seek help.

As I found out later, the message is also misleading and does not rely on hard data.

The statistics tell a different story about the risks to children. According to the NSPCC, over 90% of children who experienced sexual abuse, were abused by someone they knew. While more than one in three children (34%) who experienced contact sexual abuse by an adult did not tell anyone else about it. Four out of five children (82.7%) who experienced contact sexual abuse from a peer did not tell anyone else about it.

In addition 12% of under 11s, 18% of 11-17s and 24% of 18-24s had been exposed to domestic abuse between adults in their homes during childhood.

It is sad, but it is true. Children are usually abused by someone they know. Some of the victims may not realize at the time that they are being harmed and they lack the vocabulary to talk about their feelings.

So for some children a stranger may indeed be a safe person to talk – the person on the other end of the childline, the police officer, the neighbour.

Fortunately, things are beginning to change. A few months ago I took part in a training day for my job called Protective Behaviours. This programme, which now runs in many schools, aims to tackle these questions and equip the children with the skills to identify unsafe situations and people as well as with the vocabulary to talk about it to someone in their network of safe contacts. This could be anyone from a family member (not necessarily the parents) to friends or someone in school.

protective behaviours

There are two themes in Protective Behaviours:

  • We all have the right to feel safe all the time
  • We can talk with someone about anything, even if it’s awful or small

The strength of the programme is that it engages with the parents as well. Parents and carers are kept informed about what is being done in school and are provided with appropriate age-related material to continue some of the work at home if they wish.

As from September 2013 I was really pleased to see that the “stranger –danger” poster had finally been removed from the school. Instead a new bright display has been created covering a whole wall highlighting the basic principles of the “Protective Behaviours” programme. The children across year groups are being taught the basic principles of feeling safe and protecting themselves and have the opportunity to create their network of safe contacts. That is people that they feel safe with and trust that they can turn to and explain their concerns.

As the old saying goes – “Better late than never”

The many ways of childhood

I spent the most part of last week observing and working with 3-4 year olds. It has been a delightful experience. Children’s creativity, resourcefulness and enquiry skills – not to mention their unlimited energy – never stop to amaze me.

So when I came across a poem written by Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia approach, on Our Reggio Emilia-Inspired Classroom Transition blog, I knew that it sums up nicely the great potential of very young children. The poem is a powerful description of what early childhood is and allows a glimpse into the way children perceive our world. Moreover, it is a reminder of a society’s collective responsibility towards those children.

No way. The hundred is there.

The child

is made of one hundred.

The child has

a hundred languages

a hundred hands

a hundred thoughts

a hundred ways of thinking

of playing, of speaking.

A hundred always a hundred

ways of listening

of marveling, of loving

a hundred joys

for singing and understanding

a hundred worlds

to discover

a hundred worlds

to invent

a hundred worlds

to dream.

The child has

a hundred languages

(and a hundred hundred hundred more)

but they steal ninety-nine.

The school and the culture

separate the head from the body.

They tell the child:

to think without hands

to do without head

to listen and not to speak

to understand without joy

to love and to marvel

only at Easter and at Christmas.

They tell the child:

to discover the world already there

and of the hundred

they steal ninety-nine.

They tell the child:

that work and play

reality and fantasy

science and imagination

sky and earth

reason and dream

are things

that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child

that the hundred is not there.

The child says:

No way. The hundred is there.

Parent View and engaging parents

It is now well accepted that parental involvement at school benefits a child’s learning and wellbeing. However, the role of parents in their children’s education as equal stakeholders has not been fully recognised.

Ofsted has been slowly involving parents in their OFSTED inspections. To that end they have developed Parent View, an online questionnaire for parents to give their views on their children’s schools.

Yesterday they launched a toolkit for schools to help them promote Parent View and engage more parents.

So this is a rather good opportunity to take a look at the platform – is it a useful tool for parents and schools or just a bureaucratic gimmick and a waste of money?

When Parent View was first launched almost two years ago, it received a cold welcome from the teacher community, while the National Union of Teachers expressed their concerns about the actual purpose of the questionnaire.

Parent View is a simple tool, where parents are asked to give their view on the following 12 questions, from ‘strongly agree’ through to ‘strongly disagree’.

  •     My child is happy at this school
  •     My child feels safe at this school
  •     My child makes good progress at this school
  •     My child is well looked after at this school
  •     My child is taught well at this school
  •     My child receives appropriate homework for their age
  •     This school ensures the pupils are well behaved
  •     This school deals effectively with bullying
  •     This school is well led and managed
  •     This school responds well to any concern I raise
  •     I receive valuable information from the school about my child’s progress
  •     I would recommend this school to another parent

These questions touch issues that really concern parents – quality of teaching and care, dealing with bullying, and ultimately creating a safe learning environment for children to learn and flourish. These are hot topics that we are all discussing in informal as well as formal settings.

The answers to those questions could potentially draw a picture of the school and the environment in which the children spend a big chunk of their day. But can this questionnaire provide an accurate and fair description of a school?

The Teacher Union claims that Parent View is open to abuse by angry parents. Although some parents may see it as an opportunity to express their anger or dissatisfaction with the school, I do not believe that they have the critical mass to skew the results.

I think the main problem is the platform’s limitations. Given that this questionnaire can only provide qualitative data, it does not really provide a context for interpretation.

In addition to that I have some issues with the actual questions. Are the parents well equipped to judge quality of teaching or appropriateness of homework? Can they really comment on school management? The answer to both questions is most probably not.

Engaging with the parents is crucial. Their feedback and insight can really benefit a school, but I cannot see how Parent View can help schools improve their teaching and provision, as it can only provide fragmented information if not of dubious credibility.

I am a firm and passionate believer of involving parents in a child’s education. Parents can provide   useful insights and support teachers. Schools ought to engage with them in meaningful ways and seek their feedback. After all, we, teachers and parents, are on the same side – we care about the children, their wellbeing and education and want the best for them.

But I don’t think Parent View provides a platform for engaging the parents and allowing them to express their views. It is a rather rushed and certainly not well-thought attempt to tick the box labelled “parental involvement”.

Parent View can only provide a superficial outlook of a school, which may well be inaccurate. This certainly defies its original purpose and the DfE’s intentions.

Have you been asked by your school to fill in the Parent View questionnaire? What are your thoughts?

Reading or playing?

Before having children I had an academic interest in Education. I would read newspaper articles and the Times Educational Supplement. I had a job that allowed me to mingle with KS3 teachers and visit schools to talk to children or take part in astronomy workshops. But as I said, Education was just an academic subject to me. And surely I was not familiar with the nitty–gritty details of school education.

It is now that I have two children that education issues have become relevant to me. I can appreciate how education policies affect my children’s present and future. I can see how good education practices do not only support my children academically, but more crucially help them become creative, emotionally intelligent human beings.

So it really saddens me, or dare I say infuriates me, to see that the current education system is constantly pushing early formal and cognitive based learning to children as young as four years old. I am really struggling to understand what the benefits of this approach to young children are. And I am afraid I cannot.

Having spent five years in Greece and becoming familiar with their educational system, where children start learning to read at the age of six, I was horrified to find out that children in the English Reception class are subject to a strict curriculum and are taught phonics within the first couple weeks of school.

Children in Greek Reception and Year 1 work on developing soft skills through play and outdoor activities. They only learn to count to 10 and write down their own name.  The school day is also shorter starting at 8.15am and finishing at 12.15pm. To be honest with you up to a few months ago I just could not visualise a normal four and a half years old child being able to decode words, read and having weekly homework assignments.

My son is at an outstanding primary school. Their EYFS provision is excellent given the constraints of the curriculum and they encourage free unconstructive play with elements of the Reggio Emilia approach. But I see children who are not ready to cope with such a rigorous academic curriculum. What happens to those children? Research shows that they are gradually left behind and are likely to be behind when they are older. More crucially, all the children miss out on a vital part of their life. Care-free and creative childhood.

So I completely agree with Susie Steiner when arguing that Six-year-olds need to play more than they need to spell. (This Guardian article triggered today’s random thoughts on early education…)

But I am afraid the current education trend in this country dictates that playing is a waste of time and children should rush into learning their letter sounds and reading their story books from a very young age. Apparently, the cost of that approach to the children’s well-being and learning is not part of the policy makers’ equation.

Parents wanted

Friday is one of my favourite days of the week. As soon as I drop off the children at school, I go to the reception, sign myself in, wear my badge and head for the Year 6 classroom. I am a parent volunteer at my children’s school and work with a small group of gifted and talented children. I help with Maths and I am one of the thousands of parents who volunteer in British schools.

For many years schools in the UK have been welcoming parents to help teachers with art and craft projects, reading, as well as accompanying classes on trips. Parents are indeed an invaluable resource, but have teachers really taken advantage of the variety of skills and expertise modern parents possess?

As someone who spends on average 20 minutes a day on the playground, what strikes me is the variety of talent and skills at the school gates – mothers that work part time or are on career breaks, who have PhDs or masters, invaluable experience in literacy agency and creative writing, run small and innovative businesses, are former accountants and ICT specialists.  Surely schools could benefit from that expertise.

Particularly these days, with the teachers struggling to manage big classes of 30 children while at the same time teaching pupils with a wide range of abilities and skills, schools need all the help they can get. Parents can be part of the solution.

As a former astrophysicist, holding a PhD and having years of experience as a researcher and then science communicator, teaching level 6 maths to a group of Year 6 pupils is a wonderful experience. I have to confess that working with the children, watching them learn and making sense of numbers and their meaning is the highlight of my week.   I really enjoy it and have a good relationship with the class teacher. I firmly believe that many parents would feel the same. Only if the schools could think strategically about how to engage high-skilled parents and encourage them to volunteer.

So for a start here are some thoughts on how schools could establish and support a network of parent volunteers.

  • Some parents may not be aware of parent volunteer opportunities. So a Call for Parents is published in the weekly newsletter on a regular basis to remind parents that they can offer their skills to the benefit of the children.
  • Every term, class teachers send out notes to parents detailing the expertise they require to support their teaching and their pupils.
  • In the beginning of the year, schools run introductory talks about parent volunteering, explaining the benefits of parental involvement in the children’s education as well as the difference they can make in a child’s learning.
  • Schools create a registry of skills, where parents enter their skills and qualifications. Alternatively or additionally schools produce a wish list of skills and invite parents to sign up.
  • Parents may be intimidated by the prospect of being in a classroom. Provide some basic training to explain what the role of a parent volunteer is. Have in place a shadowing scheme, where interested parents are shadowing a teacher or volunteer for a day or two.
  • Last but not least, train the teachers on how to work with parent volunteers. Remember that parents do not have qualifications or experience in teaching. They probably do not know how to plan a tutoring session, so give them all the support they need.

What are your thoughts? Are you a parent volunteer? I would love to hear your experiece.