Thursday, 19 November 2015

Why a mixed Pre-Prep in a Girls-Only School?

Girls-only education offers fantastic benefits for girls aged 7 – 18, specifically because it avoids gender bias of several kinds which work against them in mixed junior or senior school classrooms:
·       * Choice of lessons, specialities and topics perceived as ‘boys choices’ such as mathematics, sciences, football etc. In co-ed settings girls will tend to opt away from these.

·       * Lessons pitched to less linguistic learners (as boys tend to be) and potential disruption from more physical learners (as boys are as they reach aged 9 – 10).

·      *  Confidence being encouraged in louder and more physical children (often boys) and less attention given to the quiet diligent learner (usually girls), who may chose not to participate.

These are all reasons why many girls older will perform far better within the single sex arena once they are working independently.

However this is completely turned on its head for younger pupils (aged 2 -7) for whom developing confidence and learning strategies are vitally important. In these foundation years girls will need to develop resilient strategies for dealing with all social and learning situations to empower them to develop the best independent learning techniques in the next phase.  

In these younger years, when they still have the support of classroom assistants and very experiential learning programmes, and are supported both socially and academically, all the girls and boys are entitled to a safe environment where they can explore activities and knowledge across the whole learning range. In co-ed settings girls are still likely to mix more naturally with other girls, but the stereotypical gender bias is not so strong, and thus they are likely to have opportunities at their disposal to work in construction, messy play and physical activities, because there is an interest among the class which may not be evident in a girls-only setting. Girls also typically prefer to work towards praise from the teacher, and can develop an antipathy to managing on their own. In a mixed class they will experience a more robust learning model from the boys – which can help to shape their confidence. An ironic twist is that there may be an offer of more traditional boys’ activities which are available to girls, such as martial arts and rugby – which in a girls-only setting, may have been perceived as not suitable for them.

In summary, my view which is supported by the early year’s framework, is that a good pre-prep school should offer all-round activities and exposure for all children, to give them the best possible basic skills for learning and for developing confidence. By mixing with boys at this stage girls will get the very best of both worlds. Beyond the education I also believe that a caring setting that shares family values would wish to consider young families holistically and to understand that modern life and all of its transport and logistical difficulties, requires a little kindness and support for parents who are managing very young children. 

Friday, 6 November 2015

What is the role of the Head? When should I contact the Head?

The Head is the lead professional in the school.

Heads are accountable for the educational, social, and financial outcomes of the school. They are effectively the chief executives of a large and complex organisation and will have overall responsibility for the leadership and vision, staffing and managing the school, and for budgets and financial security. Heads work for the governing body, and will have been appointed for their expertise in the educational field, and an aptitude for seeing a whole organisation which needs to be guided and steered to success in a host of ways. A good Head will understand the cogs that need to turn in order to create a successful learning environment for all pupils, and will know that the daily expertise for financial management and smooth running of the school needs to be delegated into the safe hands of competent, confident trusted senior colleagues whom they will oversee and meet with regularly. The school is an educational establishment, but it is in fact a business which has successful education at its core. Decision making, critical thinking, wise judgement and leadership are the backbone of a good Headship – not presence at every event or rapid agreement to the latest idea or things that work in other schools, nor trying to please themselves or other individual stakeholders.

Heads are expected to manage all staff indirectly or directly, including developing teaching and other responsibilities, maintaining effective systems and planning into the future. They need to ensure that there is adequate challenge and experience for the succession of new leaders in the school in every department. Many schools will employ hundreds of people even though the teaching staff may be relatively small, and the Head is effectively the face of the employer.  

Children are of course central to the Head's mission, and it is likely that many hours will be spent reviewing pupil progress, teaching plans and child welfare with the director of studies and the teachers, and visiting classes, doing weekly learning walks and talking to children. This also extends to seeing children who have excelled in any way so they can be praised and congratulated personally (and also those who need a sterner word).

The educational direction of the school, underpinned by research and experience, as well as deep knowledge of the learning in each classroom, is firmly under the direction of the Head. They will be supported by a leadership team for educational aspects - often someone in charge of academics, someone with pastoral responsibilities and perhaps someone with responsibility for particular age groups such as nursery or sixth form. These people will meet regularly, often formally, and more than once a week, to share issues and to make decisions. Outcomes will also be discussed and at each meeting the key questions, “What is best for the children?” and, “What might enhance the learning?” are asked and considered. Parental concerns or individual pupils may well be discussed, but the team has a responsibility to all children in the school, and will seek to understand the widest possible picture.  

As the lead teacher of the school Heads will usually take assemblies and give a strong lead in behaviour management. In a faith school, alongside the chaplain, the Head will be a faith leader, and will give witness to those beliefs valued by the school. Often they will be central to any services and groups in this role.

Heads also manage staff, including performance management, quality assurance and disciplinary or capability issues. The Head will have a team led by the Bursar (or financial controller or similar title) who run financial, administrative and estates management, and a team of support staff and maintenance workers as well as contract staff for catering and cleaning. The Head will also oversee and evaluate the work of these non-teaching groups through regular briefings and updates. Any building work, planning, facilities and contract changes are likely also to fall under this purview and it is vital that the Head be fully up to date with anything that spends the budget provided by parents’ fees, to ensure that everything is of reasonable educational merit and will work for the best advantage of all pupils. Independent Schools are charitable foundations and so the achievement of the schools’ charitable aims and its public benefit also fall under the remit of the Head.

Thus the Head's day is likely to be filled with regular meetings regarding the various aspects of running a school as well as dealing with queries from stakeholders within the school. It is important that a Head is able to build relationships of trust with all they work with, and to be able to delegate tasks, ensure that everything is properly completed in line with school policy, and ensure that nothing slips between the cracks. Often there are offsite meetings with Professional Bodies (GSA, CISC, IAPS, ISI) which they are expected to attend in order to remain within those organisations. In addition there are regular formal internal meetings with a series of Governors’ committees in each area that enable a constant and accurate report to the entire Governing body. Sadly, the days of knocking on the Head’s door and finding them free to see someone on an ad-hoc basis are gone.

On occasion an issue that is raised to a member of the leadership team (or the Head’s PA) by a parent, staff member or child is sufficiently concerning to be brought immediately to the Head, who will investigate and act as appropriate, and within very clear regulatory guidelines. In cases of difficulty the Governors' advice may be sought, but also professional bodies that schools belong to such as GSA, IAPS and many others. Child protection is key and at any one time the Head will be dealing with a number of painful and complex cases with the child protection officer of the school and external agencies. All of these are likely to fill the gaps in a very busy schedule.

Heads will also contend with hundreds of emails each day, which require precise attention and response or redirection if the school is to remain at the cutting edge of educational success. If you send an email to the Head it is probably best to send it via the Head’s PA so that it can either be forwarded to the Head or passed to someone who is available at shorter notice or more suitable to answer you. Do not be too surprised if the reply to a concern or query therefore comes from another respondent: the Head and PA will always make sure that the person best suited to answer is the person who does so. This is not to push items away but to ensure that the organisation has leadership in depth and that everything is not channelled via the Head, which would impede reasonable decision making, proper accountability and certainly delay prompt action. Similarly, most Heads will welcome feedback, but are unlikely to make sweeping changes to systems that already suit the schools’ way of working and match the aims of what is best and expected for the children, despite the fact that it inconveniences or disappoints one or two parents who have an opinion about how something ought to run to suit them or their children (or mirrors something seen as appropriate in another school). The PA will also be trained to know when it is the best time to consider particular requests, as questions about lunch or uniform are unlikely to be useful topics raised in the midst of long booked strategic planning for pupil safeguarding or building developments, all of which may be fully timetabled into the Head’s diary. Typically a Head will have a week’s calendar ahead fully booked, so only the most urgent issues will be able to be fitted in sooner. Critical issues such as teacher conduct, child protection or safety should be brought immediately to the Head’s attention via the PA, and urgent Academic or Pastoral concerns should be taken immediately to the pastoral/academic deputies or assistant heads or director of studies/head of department as appropriate, who will deal with these, involving the Head as necessary.

Heads are also expected to read, review and analyse educational research and literature to allow progress and improvement. This is used to shape the academic vision through short and long term plans and changes in the school, and will form part of the agenda for weekly meeting with teaching staff which allow educational ideas to come to fruition, and then to be properly evaluated and adapted.

Heads' professional, legal and ethical responsibilities are laid down in professional standards regulations and Heads are accountable for all that happens in the school. Therefore monitoring, evaluating and critical thinking are part of each Head’s week too, as ensuring success, consistency and rigour in the school is a key professional  expectation.  The Head usually joins in with parent committee meetings when possible and will be involved in marketing, writing articles and attending courses in addition to local educational initiatives with maintained schools and feeder schools. Many Heads like to meet and/or tour prospective parents and to visit any establishments that sends children to the school. If the Head is widely known and respected they will be expected to serve on other governing bodies as educationalists, and offer consultancy and assorted wisdom and support to other Heads and professionals including recruitment and wider training and quality assurance.

Beyond this Heads always enjoy seeing their own pupils on the sports field and in the theatre and concert arena wherever and whenever possible. If you are lucky you may catch a glimpse of this rare creature as they escape from their office early or late in the day to greet pupils and parents, partly because they remember how much they liked teaching in the first place. It may be reassuring to see the Head and to have a chance to catch them and chat, but it is worth remembering that when they are not seen it is likely they are working on behalf of you and your children to their fullest ability.

In their ‘free time’ Heads eat lunch (usually while preparing for the next meeting…).

Thursday, 15 October 2015

What does a school expect from homework?

I am often asked about the purpose of homework at Prep level, and more specifically why it cannot just be completed at school?

These are very good questions. Family life is on the one hand so precious that it is a nuisance if it is marred by a daily battle over ‘school’ work, however, if children wait until their GCSE years to study beyond the classroom clearly there will be some fundamental issues with their ability to succeed.

A balance is needed, and this is what schools try to address, always understanding that some children will not have been able to manage the work for a variety of reasons or circumstances, that some will have had a great deal of help and support and that others will have simply got on and done it, sometimes well and sometimes perfunctorily. This means that teachers are setting work every day that has to be stimulating but well defined, challenging but independently manageable, meaningful practice without too many twists, not too dull or repetitive, allows for proper learning and retaining, not essential for the next lesson for those who will not be able to complete it, progressive for those who need stretching and extendible for those who have further interests and enthusiasm. On the other hand the homework diet cannot all be cakes and treats, sometimes it may seem very routine, too easy or too hard, over long or unpalatable, but that too is part of preparing for life.

Naturally this is a complex (and for a teacher a rather exhausting) set of variables, and whereas some children thrive on exercises and assignments, others find their enthusiasm wanes when faced with work to complete on their own. Learning homework is often viewed as no homework by children and often by parents, and increasingly, as it is fitted around external clubs, lessons and events, reading is confined to the last few minutes before bed – never a very good time to do anything that requires thinking!

I am all too familiar with the headache of homework sessions. I remember my frazzled mother standing over the table where my siblings and I were pretending to work each evening, and I regularly supervise my niece and nephews in their efforts to wriggle away from the mountain of things they bring home. However, I also see how the routines help to create an atmosphere and a system that works for them, and how well the children can work when they are settled. Independence is very important, so training children to have those study skills and the resilience and perseverance needed to complete activities will pay dividends in the future. Learning homework may well need help, and I am a big fan of using non-fiction books to help with information gathering, and these can be read together if there is time, to help to broaden the subject at hand.

On some occasions every child will say they don’t know how to do the work in front of them, and sometimes this might even be genuine! My advice would be to put a note on the bottom to the teacher, saying just that, and stop. Confusion of methods and frustration at mum and dad turning into teachers is not conducive to happy family life, and the teachers are there to help. If your child is too overwrought or too tired to work well then you should stop. Put a note in the book or wherever the school has asked for you to communicate, and go and do something relaxing. If the purpose of homework is to develop good work habits then consider carefully what those might be (I suggest a few below), and if what is happening is not reinforcing those positive skills then there is little point continuing until you want to throw the whole lot into the bin and turn to strong drink too!

Looking at the work you can usually see that the purpose is one or more of the following:
1.     To reinforce work that has been taught and needs practising in order to increase speed and accuracy or remember and retain the skills and knowledge – this work may not be very exciting!
2.     To enhance knowledge and understanding by extending something taught, or providing resources for further or richer understanding – this may be quite open ended and time consuming.
3.     To allow time to reflect on concepts or topics, or just to finish an extended piece of work – this may require proper consideration of presentation and a bit of thinking and reflection time beforehand and again at the end.
4.     To develop independent skills and good life long work habits which include perseverance, meta cognition (coming to a realisation which work styles work best for herself), self-motivation, time management, determination, pride in presentation and content, and satisfaction with completion.

You can help by:
  • ·        Providing a regular place where work can be completed undisturbed, with good light, plenty of space and a reasonable time limit
  • ·        Providing a routine time, probably after a light snack and a chance to move around after the rigours of a very busy school day
  • ·        Helping to signal that homework is not a punishment and can be rewarded!
  • ·        Offering advice, but not too much assistance
  • ·        Helping to prioritise what needs to be done (I recommend doing the horrid bit first, taking a moment for praise and then moving on to complete the rest)
  • ·        Trying to keep the evenings as uncluttered with extra events as possible.
  • ·        Limiting out of school clubs to weekends when possible.
  • ·        Making sure siblings are not too distracting, and when your child has good habits, allowing her to work away from others or away from your direct supervision, so that she knows that you trust her developing work habits.
  • ·        A quick check at the end that everything is done, sufficient high standards have been retained and that the bag is repacked with everything required for the next day

Of course all of this assumes that your child has organised her belongings and has all of the things she needs to just to get on – but that is a different type of hurdle.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

How Should I Read a School Report

At this time of year parents tell me they become anxious about what might be contained within the school report, so I thought it useful to write a blog outlining what the school creates these reports for:

First of all they are a summary of progress throughout the year. Schools and teachers are encouraged by professional bodies, such as IAPS, to give this information as factually as possible, so that the written report is a completed round-up of what has been done (not what needs to be discussed; that should take place at other times in the year). That is why so many school reports include tick boxes.  Secondly they may, and most do, include a short passage written by the teachers to help to clarify any points that may not be absolutely clear in the facts given, such as the efforts your children have made, and any circumstances or learning behaviours worth commenting on. In some, as in ours, there is a chart outlining learning behaviour, because it is far more relevant to know how well your child listens in class, or can follow instructions, than what she can remember later, or can currently achieve in tests. Learning behaviour is an area which I consider to be the most essential, as truly great teaching can only go so far in raising attainment of pupils who cannot listen, settle, work together (or alone) or use their own common sense (for example to write the date and turn the page as they are expected to do every day). 

Most schools will now include targets on their reports, and these are usually chosen in line with a weakness or an area that needs to be developed, and can be worked on at home too – most have an element of learning behaviour in them that spills over into home life, such as insecurity and subsequent over-checking, or not being expected to organise her own things. Constructive criticism is important for improvement, so it is not necessary to feel defensive or over-protective (which is entirely natural) but to think about how the target can be realistically met. Teachers try to be helpful to you and your child, so if they think that your child needs to take more responsibility for her work, or to try harder, then they say so to enable you to help make this happen. If you feel this needs the teacher’s support, or you are not sure what is meant in the report, then follow it up with the new teacher in September, but do wait for the settling in period to be over so that the new teacher has started to build a good personal relationship with your child first.

Test results will be included in many reports too, and these should always be read in conjunction with the rest of the report, because they cannot stand or fall on their own. It should also be remembered that tests tend to be independent working, in a silent room, without help deciphering the questions or encouraging the answers, so children who need this regular support or reassurance will struggle. The good news is that with familiarisation this tends to improve, and practice does help – although too much practice, under forced conditions can also create pressure and anxiety, which are the enemies of success. It is also true to say that with Prep age children a good day or a bad day can make all the difference, so exam results should only be used to help create a pattern over years, not in the short term, and it is helpful to take a longer term view before having a panic about a few marks either way. It is worth remembering that no two tests will ever be entirely the same too, even if they are standardised, and that is why there is a reasonable margin of a few points up or down that is not considered significant. 

Reports are written by teachers, checked across year groups, results and scores moderated and verified, then forwarded to the senior leadership team for checking, reading and signing. This takes the average teacher most of the Summer term, including the half term break, and then many evenings until the end of term, because they cannot be written in the normal course of their school and teaching duties. These written records are precious. They give as accurate as possible a snapshot of your child as can be written by a group of professionals working together over many hours of careful consideration.

If you feel the report does not entirely describe to you the child you know and love, that may be a good sign, because it means they have an independent persona from the child-to-parent one you see at home, which is just what they will need to develop in order to become fully and successfully themselves.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Why are my child's grades lower than expected?

In my work as a Head Teacher I often encounter parents who are nonplussed that their child's teacher does not see the standard of work at school they can see at home or with a private tutor. Sometimes they are concerned that assessment or test results or term grades are much lower than they had come to expect given the standard of classwork, and the fact that their child has seemed to be getting on well during the weeks leading up to a test. This week I encountered this with some old friends, rather than parents at my school, who were absolutely panic-stricken by their child's below average results in maths, reported to them at both parents evenings this year and now expected on the reports after a bad test result.

Teachers are expected to communicate factual information to parents, in order to clarify what children can do in the classroom unaided. They do use value judgements to choose what to teach, and to differentiate work according what they have seen, and they will always use formative assessment (assessment of what the child is doing and learning as they go, all the time, in every lesson) to make those decisions and choices. However, when they report results to parents they are expected to be more summative, to give concrete examples of what the child can do by herself or in team activities, but without the teacher's constant intervention. What a child can do independently is rarely the same as what she can achieve with a willing hand beside her, pointing out errors, managing the speed and accuracy of work, and encouraging focus.

In a class lesson teachers will be on hand to challenge, support and cajole. In a test situation this constant supervision is withdrawn and naturally the child will increasingly have to show that she can cope alone. Often therefore the grades can seem lower than expected, particularly for younger children, and the challenge for all teachers to create a match between children’s natural ability and their independent test results. This is not an easy feat as it means developing independence, resilience and concentration, all of which can be damaged or delayed by the knee jerk solutions generally applied in a crisis, such as providing a tutor or helping more with homework and classwork. I do like to remind parents that the moment their child needs to peak, to show her best test results, is usually GCSE, and although other tests can be important they are generally signposts on the way showing a snapshot of progress (on the day) rather than final, and often not just indicative of things such as quality of teaching or proper expectations.

So, this week I was talking to my lovely friends, seeking my advice regarding their daughter Sara (not her real name), and wondering, with palpable anxiety, whether they should make a complaint to their school (thankfully not my school and so not to me). They explained that their daughter could not to do at school the maths she could easily do at home during homework. Mum explained that she really knows what her daughter can do because she sits with her every day without fail whilst homework is being completed; even doing extra at weekends and in the holidays, and Sara’s maths is excellent. Much to their consternation the teacher apparently disagrees.

I asked Mum to talk me through what happens at home, and then to outline what the school says. Firstly, she told me, she and Sara sit together quietly at the dining room table for homework, usually after a snack and a drink and catch up on the day. Mum always checks the homework diary so that she can see that Sara is doing the correct page, and turns to it for her if she has not found it easily. From the maths book, Mum points to the question her daughter has to do, and makes her read it aloud. If Sara reads it correctly she is praised. If she reads it incorrectly Mum fills in the missing words. Sara will then tell Mum what type of sum she thinks it is. If she is wrong, Mum assured me she doesn't ever tell her what to do, she says no, have another go. Then, mum tells me, her daughter works out what to do again and then if she has chosen the right method, she does the number work effectively by herself. If she gets it wrong, mum assures me she doesn't help or give the answers, she just tells her daughter to have another go. Her daughter always gets full marks for homework, and Mum was adamant that she had not helped her to get them right.

According to the school however, Sara is below average in maths, has difficulty in class even finding the right page in lessons and waits to be invited to start work rather than getting on by herself. She tends to check with the teacher whether she is on the right page even after instructions, because she isn't confident and she needs constant praise and reassurance. She rarely scores more than half marks by herself and constantly asks the teacher for help, often before she has made an attempt of her own. She does not see her own mistakes and is not good at self-checking. She is easily distracted by her classmates and spends a lot of time pointing to errors in their work, or commenting on their behaviour. She cries when she does badly and says she hates maths. Her teacher thinks that Sara is not reaching her potential and has said so. Mum and Dad cannot understand how things have gone wrong, and are convinced that the problem must therefore be the teacher, who cannot see how talented their daughter is. They are just about to go to see the Head to ask for a better teacher next year.

Sara is very like many of the children I have taught over the years. She is a wonderful, chatty, and bright girl. She is extremely eager to please. She has natural ability, but spends a lot of time trying to gauge her success by checking with the teacher. In my opinion she doesn’t have a problem with maths at all, she has issues and growing fears about learning independently. I believe she is being held back by the mixed messages she has receives between home and school, and unfortunately her difficulties are now being reinforced at school because she has come to rely on the sort of individual support she is used to from home. She has come to believe the teacher should give her constant help. In class she cannot get on without adult intervention, she looks for constant praise or reassurance and she fears failure. This is unsurprising given the level of panic her parents are showing about her results, and the extra attention being lavished to support her. Attending to what everyone else is doing is class rather than getting on often happens more if the child is distractible (even under normal classroom conditions, which is about concentration and needs specific support) or because failing to find approval from the teacher will mean seeking it from her peers, or by pointing the weaknesses in her classmates and thereby highlighting her own good behaviour to the teacher. Neither are much help to learning. Fortunately these habits are easy to break if everyone understands that learning behaviour and steady improvement through managing the learning styles and environments are more important than the test results and the strictness of the teacher.

I have suggested that before they go into school these friends of mine try a new approach to maths homework (to all homework) and focus on independence. Settling down quietly is great. I suggested telling Sara to go and start, and then pop in to check she is working and has found the right page. That can have a reward. To master that would be a fantastic first step. The key to reward is to praise what you have seen that warrants it, not add empty or hopeful praise, that is a really mixed message. Next step is to withdraw the constant reassurance, say that they will be pleased to look when she has completed half, or three quarters. Praise or reward at that stage. Mistakes made can of course be discussed, but do it immediately after the work is all completed, not as she goes - homework isn't generally about teaching a new skill it is about rehearsing one that has been taught before, and a little more practice can iron out the problems. If not, and if Sara has got it wrong consistently and doesn't understand it is important that her teacher knows. Covering up by asking to guess again or giving the answer will simply mask a gap in her learning. That gap wont be filled before it is encountered again and will reappear as a mistake. Sorry to also add that former methods are not always what we teach in maths now, so also best to refer back to school.

Sara's parents were, I think, rather disappointed in my response and went away muttering about finding a tutor. What do you think?

K and C, I'm dedicating this blog to you and Sara. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

Why should we celebrate Feast Days 2015

Happy Feast of St Jeanne de Lestonnac to you all. This saint  opened her first school in Bordeaux in 1607, to educate girls. The Order of Company of Mary Our Lady, which she founded, opened my school, Notre Dame School Cobham, Surrey in 1937. Ever since we have been educating girls to take their place as agents for improving society. 

I believe it is time for us to remind ourselves again about the importance of Feast Days, because in these busy times, when performance and attainment are uppermost in people’s minds we fear anything that cannot be measured as productive. 

However, for me, excellent education is a holistic affair. Children need to become rounded, moral, thinking, spiritual beings in order to be fulfilled in life and to contribute to society. These dispositions do not happen by accident, and although their own families are the first best educators, it is the experiences shared in common with their peers and their role models that really help them to develop. Experiences provided schools help to shape and form an individual far more than the taught concepts. Living life and learning to manage it, with all the complexity of social interaction and the ability to understand what contributes to happiness and self-satisfaction, is far more likely to make a positive difference to success in life than an extra hour of maths and English. Balance is all important - all work and no play makes Angela not only a dull girl, but one uncomfortable in her own skin, prone to anxiety, fixated on arbitrary success criteria and made vulnerable in the relationships with friends who are also competitors.

So my school happily juggles a Feast Day, to allow for most of the usual lessons to be fitted in, but making space for the whole school to come together for a service of celebration and thanksgiving and for shared lunch where all of the age-groups mix to make new friends and ‘big’ or ‘little sisters’. Aside from the social aspects, the bigger girls are role models for the younger. Their tenderness with the youngsters is touching to see, and a valuable part of learning to be upright caring citizens.

The Feast Day for me also focuses attention on a shared celebration that touches this whole community. Unlike any other event it does not reward the success of the few, it does not rely on competition, and it is not more applicable to some than others. A Feast Day simply offers itself as a shared celebration in common with whole community, much as a birthday or Christmas celebration might in the family home. School spirit, something that translates itself through life into family spirit, community spirit, or even a willing or tireless work ethic begins here, and cannot be created by lessons alone. Character is not the result of audited academic success. Being part of a community and being able to celebrate that 'belonging' is also an essential part of personal happiness.

On other days beyond the norm, for house competitions, rehearsals, concerts, assemblies, music ensembles, sports activities and the like, children are given opportunities to contribute to the community in a way that does not simply benefit them or lead to temporary personal success. I firmly believe that understanding the contribution that one can make to the whole is an essential discipline. Work in the twenty first century is more than likely to involve collaboration, presentation, self-discipline, ability to listen, and discernment about one’s place in the group and judgement about who to imitate and follow. All of these are learned more effectively through activities and experiences beyond the classroom. For pupils that cannot be happily involved beyond the limelight, who are not trained to watch and join in on cue, who don’t know that there are strengths and rewards in being an anonymous part of a celebrating community, who do not turn up to events after hours if their parents are not going to be in the audience, who cannot feel motivated if there is no reward, life will be deeply frustrating, puzzling and hard grind. 

So happy Feast Day to you all, whenever that day may be for you. 

Thursday, 18 December 2014

What can we do to fill the days?

As we approach this Christmas Season I have rewritten a previous blog with some recommendations for what you can do to keep your children’s brains ticking over while you all enjoy yourselves during the holiday season.

In the past I have referred to maths games, listening games and reading skills. However, for real family time why not turn your thoughts to history and geography?  There are many great places for family visits, such as Hampton Court Palace, museums in London (free admission to those), and art galleries. Websites will inform you of special exhibitions and of discount events, and travelling on the train often gives you two for one offers on prices – pick up the leaflets in the station to see what is available at low cost.  

To make the experience particularly educational don’t focus on the event, instead over-involve your children in the planning. Train schedules, car parks, ticket prices, choice of visit, maps of venues and making a timetable for the day can all be worked out together. Children love to be trusted to organise events and will be proud to show you their skills. Learning experiences work best in the shape of an enjoyable experiences; counting cash and sorting change on a shopping trip is the point of learning mathematics – it is what number work is for, so gather a bag of coins to use on the day (in my family we lovingly call this the purse of gold!).

Allowing children to choose and make decisions is also developing an essential skill. Buying them books is not quite the experience that being allowed to browse and choose them is. Don’t forget the public library either, a great cheap and fruitful outing. Direct your children to the non-fiction sections of the library, children love history and will be fascinated by how other lived. I remember spending hours learning about ancient Egyptians, just for fun, during one Christmas – my poor mother had to take me back to the library every two days to swap the books as I swallowed them whole. Maps are also a great source of discussion… plan a walk using a local area map, or see if you have a local heritage trail… and keep talking as you go because discussion helps children to understand more than they will take in for themselves. There are good apps to help – I use viewranger, which has all the paths marked for my local common and lots more. And there is great joy to be found in an unfolded OS map. Even a walk in the park (walking allows for far more observation than a car journey) or around the neighbourhood can be filled with discussions about what can be seen. Can you and your children name and recognise 5 types of trees or breeds of dog? Which Christmas decorations do they like as they pass them? This is especially lovely after tea at this time of year once it is dark and lights are twinkling – and the added bonus of technology free time to talk to your children.

If you have lots of children and the possibility of childcare, try making an individual plan for a special and different day out for each child – children like few things more than a day of their parent’s undivided attention. My own mother took me to see the Tutankhamen exhibition on my own because of my Egyptian obsession and I have never forgotten the pleasure of that exhibition or the delight of a day out with her by myself. She recently admitted to me that she remembered every minute of that day, it was one of her most treasured memories too. 

So keep busy - and Christmas blessings to you all.