Play’s the Thing – Even in Key Stage 2

Tim Paramour

In October 2013 around 400 pupils arrived at their primary school in North London to find that a UFO had crashed into their playground. The object, which appeared to be some sort of spacecraft marked with what looked like an alien language, had ripped up pieces of tarmac and was now wedged firmly in the ground. The whole area was cordoned off and a local police officer guarded the scene with a grave look on his face. A man dressed in a radiation suit was apparently searching for evidence. Astonished, the pupils were led inside the building and asked to write what they thought the best explanation for what was happening.

For some of the children, well-versed in the conventions of science-fiction and fantasy, this was an opportunity for their imaginations to let rip: to bring the excitement and drama that had hitherto existed only in stories into the…

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The Mr Spock Fallacy

There is nothing illogical about fun, humour and forming good human relationships- and there’s nothing cool about being bad at maths.

I haven’t watched Channel 4’s Countdown since it was presented by Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman. Apparently one of the presenters is now someone called Rachel Riley and all I know about her is that she wrote this rather marvelous article in this week’s TES. Maths has an image problem in British culture. Perpetuating this problem is a national sin many otherwise very clever people frequently end up committing usually, I suspect, without really thinking about it. For most of us, our own experiences of maths lessons at school were such that we see learning the subject as a totally different process to learning more creative or expressive skills such as speaking, writing, drawing or debating. Perhaps because of the way these other disciplines are traditionally tested (and the knock-on effect this has on the way they are taught), many people have come to commit what I call the “Mr Spock Fallacy” in their attitudes to maths and I will need to explain this in more detail.

In the original series of Star Trek, Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise had two main confidants: Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (an endearingly flawed, emotional character who for many people was the most relatable character on the show) and Mr Spock: an extra-terrestrial from the planet Vulcan. In Star Trek, one of the characteristics of Vulcans that distinguishes them from humans is their devotion to logic above all else. Yet the conclusions Star Trek drew about what prizing logic would mean are very strange. For  a start, Mr Spock is almost completely humourless. It’s repeatedly suggested that this is because humour is somehow “illogical.” Is it? Humour must have evolved for a reason, it seems to enhance the quality of our lives and many of the best jokes require clever sleights of logical thinking in order to be understood. Mr Spock rarely shows affection to other people, he rarely seems to want to have fun and often appears visibly annoyed by the frivolity of his crewmates when they engage in such things. Again, no convincing reason is ever offered as to why these dispositions should follow from a commitment to being logical.

This perception reflects a problematic bias many of us have if we grow up in the UK. You may have been familiar with the characters I’ve discussed for years and never thought to question those assumptions about Mr Spock before. I know I didn’t for a very long time, growing up watching Star Trek reruns avidly on BBC2. This is because the depiction of Mr Spock in Star Trek conforms to the story we have told ourselves repeatedly about being logical, mathematical or scientific and so no part of our brain usually feels the need to challenge it. We have come to instinctively associate being logical with being cold, unimaginative and serious and we have cast creativity, enjoyment and expression as being somehow illogical. To say you are “rubbish at maths” is like saying “I’m more like Dr McCoy than Mr Spock.” Of course all of this ignores the fact that Dr McCoy is a doctor and would have had to study maths and science extensively just to be accepted into Starfleet Medical! But the serious point is a significant one: creativity, imagination, making jokes, having fun and expressing our love for one another are entirely logical. To succeed in maths is merely to better-understand the world in which they rightly (and logically) flourish.

The challenge for educators is to break down the associations we’ve built up between maths and seriousness/coldness (as opposed to between arts subject and fun/imagination.) Some ways to do this are:

  • using role play in maths to demonstrate how it can support creative or imaginative enterprises such as starting a small business, measuring up and building something you’ve designed or planning a fundraising event.
  • encouraging pupils to have a debate in maths about a controversial topic using statistics in a rigorous, meaningful way to support their arguments.
  • Providing pupils with open-ended questions that lead them to aesthetically-pleasing mathematical conclusions such as producing a golden spiral, using geometry to create satisfying shapes or finding equations that can be plotted as lines on a four-quadrant coordinate grid to form a particular image.
  • Exploring the way maths occurs in nature (this is a fun place to start.)
  • Prioritising the sort of open-ended discussion that has sometimes been the preserve of arts subjects in the past by requiring pupils to explain their methods, assess one another’s conclusions, find a faster way to a given answer or testing the hypothesis of another learner.
  • Bringing more fun to maths lessons with resources about topics that interest pupils, competitive games and open-ended problem solving tasks.

There are many more examples and please feel free to leave your own suggestions in the comments. Of course, all of the above rely on the solid teaching of basic mathematical principles so they can be applied. This will often mean learning by rote, working independently and demonstrating understanding through measurable assessments with right and wrong answers. But if we want to create a generation of competent mathematicians and improve our national conversation about STEM subjects in general, we need to challenge some of our assumptions about how different types of subjects should be taught and assessed. Of course the problem affects both sexes but, in my experience, it is a bigger problems for girls than for boys. I believe addressing this problem effectively would be a great way to promote gender equality and yield more female scientists and engineers in the future.

Just as learning to write well requires a rigorous body of knowledge about spelling, grammar and punctuation, learning to do maths well requires a body of knowledge about place value, calculation and mathematical notation. But just as learning to write then lends itself to poetry, persuasion and storytelling, maths lends itself to hypothesizing, debating and exploring possibilities. Being rubbish at maths is no more something to be proud of than being rubbish at writing. If you’re creative, imaginative and free-thinking, your ability to express those attributes can only be enhanced by being good at maths.

We must challenge the Mr Spock Fallacy in ourselves and others. Being bad at maths doesn’t make you more fun or more of a “people person.” It just makes you bad at maths. It’s highly illogical, Jim.

After the Flood: The Future of School Funding

I was recently asked why I hadn’t written anything on the school funding crisis, given that it is the biggest emergency currently facing Britain’s schools. I guess there are two reasons: the first is that even resolving that immediate emergency isn’t going to save our schools unless we solve the other problems too (most obviously the teacher exodus and an assessment system that simply doesn’t work.) The second is that it is almost too obvious to write about: it should go without saying that, if we want good schools for our children, we have to pay for them. I fear the time to avert crisis has passed so, rather than howling at the moon, I want to consider how best we should look to rebuild from here in the future.

Schools face a real terms cut in budgets of 8% on average by 2019-20. That may not sound like a lot until you understand that schools tend to spend upward of 80% of their budget on staffing alone. Unless you expect a school to cut its budget on absolutely everything else by 40%, this means staff redundancies at a time when many schools already feel understaffed in the face of some of the challenges they face. Cuts to other local authority services, especially in areas such as Childrens Services and family support, mean that schools are having to take on a wider range of functions to support their most vulnerable families. At the same time staff costs are increasing and added burdens like the apprenticeship levy are eating away even further at the budget.

Most schools cannot address these sorts of cuts without significantly reducing the strength of provision to their learners. The “low-hanging fruits” of efficiency savings are already picked. The government’s response is simply to deny that school’s budgets are being cut at all and point to their spending on wasteful vanity projects such as selective free schools as evidence that they are investing properly in education. By the time there is any realistic of a political sea change, schools will be standing in a landscape transformed. With such tremendous pressures on their budgets and the communities they serve, there is simply no way our schools can compete with more successful countries in the OECD’s international rankings in the way the government hoped. When the next set of PISA tables are published in 2019 it will be clear that the agenda begun by Gove and continued by Theresa May’s government has failed and that schools are deteriorating. At this point campaigners and opponents of government policy must be ready to take advantage of public demand for a new approach and new investment. The old world has fallen. We must now turn our attention to how we can best rebuild our education system when the flood waters start to subside.

Something we must acknowledge is that when education was more generously-funded a decade ago, money wasn’t always well-spent. ICT systems were often installed in schools without appropriate training or technical support needed for them to make a sustained impact. Additional adults were sometimes appointed as “solutions” to difficult pupils or groups and, while some of these individuals were worth their weight in gold, the contribution of others was sometimes more questionable. The government frequently published detailed, prescriptive documents that did little for schools than increase their administrative burden and which must have made someone a small fortune in printing costs. Teacher training in England and Wales was atrocious. The content of the PGCE course was concerned more with learning acronyms and the names of strategy documents than with pedagogy. Teachers with vast gaps in their subject knowledge or even a lack of proficient English were sometimes waved through with little additional support. In-service training was mostly composed of isolated courses completely disconnected from teachers’ classroom practice. There is so much that can cause disagreement in education: to what extent should children be segregated by ability? What should be the balance struck between different subjects? How much priority should be given to language and STEM subjects over sport, practical skills and creative arts? But there is surely one point on which almost everyone can agree: good education needs good teachers. In future, that’s where the investment needs to be.

In Finland, that beacon of effective education in Europe, all teachers have the equivalent of a masters qualification. They pursue tailored programmes of professional development throughout their careers so they feel able to teach all the necessary aspects of a rich, varied curriculum- including using those expensive ICT systems in a way that will actually benefit learners. Finnish teachers are well-remunerated for their work and as a consequence their best and brightest young adults are often motivated to pursue a career in teaching.

This is an ideal we should all be able to get behind. This government isn’t spending enough on education and a rough couple of years lie ahead for our schools. The last Labour government spent more generously but not always on the right priorities. When the pendulum swings again and the debate on education moves into its next stage, let’s make sure the arguments we’re making are smarter than ever before. Public support for more investment in schools should be easily obtained, but we must ensure we argue for investment in the right priorities, and this time build a system that can’t be torn down so easily.

Inclusion Confusion

Should we stop talking about “behavioural needs” in primary schools?

Inclusion is something of a sacred cow in British education nowadays and this piece will divide opinion considerably. Before I begin, I think I need to state a few things clearly. The basic principle behind the Inclusion agenda is noble and good. When my parents were children, their peers with physical disabilities were often educated in separate institutions because many mainstream schools couldn’t meet their needs. A consensus has emerged since then that barriers to children attending mainstream schools should be removed and this is right. Huge progress has been made on making schools accessible to disabled people (though more work can and must be done.)

During my career I have had the privilege to help children with serious physical and other disabilities flourish at primary school. I fear for the future of the provision that facilitated this given the significant real-terms cuts to school funding currently being undertaken by the government. However, my experience has also convinced me that we have spread the “inclusion” net slightly too widely. At some point we have to distinguish between people’s needs and their choices- and that includes children.

I believe that it has been unhelpful to describe behavioural difficulties as “behavioural needs” because it has blurred the distinction between someone’s needs and their choices. Especially in primary school, when these issues can most easily be turned around, staff have been encouraged to use the language of Special Educational Needs to tackle these difficulties and this hasn’t always been appropriate. Parts of the Inclusion agenda, especially in the way it is applied to learners with behavioural difficulties, are used by the right to justify under-funding in education and by the left to avoid facing up to some difficult realities. This is causing some members of the public to lose faith in comprehensive education altogether. The alarming lack of resistance to new grammar schools we are currently seeing is one consequence. For the sake of our children, both sides of the political divide need to come to a realistic settlement.

Working in primary schools in and around London for eleven years was an enormous privilege. Even now, despite the awful assessments overshadowing Year 6, the experience children in an English state primary school have now is so much better than what most British adults were subjected to themselves: more rigorous, more fun and more effective. Most primary school teachers I have worked with are incredibly good at managing pupil behaviour. Imagine trying to keep control in a room full of the same 30 adults all day, every day for a year. Doing that with children isn’t easier- it’s actually considerably harder. But they do it. Day in, day out, your children’s teachers successfully command their domains, justly and benevolently for the most part.

Sometimes, however, a child arrives at school who routinely behaves in a way that undermines the learning of other pupils, even after all conventional means to address the problem have been exhausted. I’m not talking about children who are usually a bit cheeky or behave badly as part of a particular group. I’m talking about the tiny minority who simply can’t handle being in a mainstream school without resorting to violence or other equally disruptive behaviour. In eleven years in three schools I can think of thirteen such children out of well over a thousand and, if that’s representative, we’re talking about just over 1%. Often but not always as a consequence of their family background (addiction, cultural misunderstandings, poverty, domestic violence, you name it), turning them around in a mainstream school is an expensive, time-consuming, disruptive endeavour that is often, sadly, highly unlikely to succeed even for that child, let alone for the other children from whom the teacher’s energy is diverted. For the other learners in the school, it can be very damaging. The boundaries set by schools and parents are one of the most important things children have. If they see these being constantly undermined, it erodes their confidence and can have a detrimental impact on their behaviour. This is me, a waffly edu-blogger, describing what the guy down the pub calls a “bad influence.” It’s an awful thing to say, and it sounds like I’m writing children off (I’m not) but we must see the bigger picture. For public consent in an inclusive education agenda to be maintained, we have to convince the majority of helpful, supportive parents that it isn’t going to negatively impact their own children. This is something we have sometimes failed to do and the result is public opinion swinging towards the cruel crudity of selective education.

It’s not actually the fault of the schools. In some local authorities, a school, especially a primary school, is pretty much hung out to dry when it gets an unusually disruptive pupil. Permanent exclusions are often made almost impossible because there is simply nowhere else for the pupil to go. Academy chains are often much more willing and able to exclude, but then the pupils end up back in a local authority school and we’re back where we started. It can be extremely detrimental during an Ofsted inspection to have recent exclusions on your record. All of this means there is often, in reality, no ultimate sanction at all. We got nothing- and those troubled children know it. I’ve seen the moment some children in Key Stage 2 realise that the school’s rules are actually enforced by nothing but good will. At this point they systematically prod those boundaries, displaying their fragility for all the other children to see.

Draconian punishments and harsh discipline don’t help either. The vast majority of primary children thrive much better when the rules in their class are agreed with a friendly, approachable teacher who shows patience towards their mistakes. Anyone who worked with me knows that, despite the authoritarian tone of this piece, I always preferred gentle persuasion to scary strictness as a teacher. The problem is that sometimes a pupil comes along utterly committed to undermining this structure. They need to be given chances to change and adapt and the school should do everything it can to support that, involving its Special Educational Needs team for a period of time if appropriate. However, everyone in the school must know that, at some point, that child will be held accountable for their choices if they don’t change. Maybe one day we can find a utopian alternative to that inconvenient reality, but I think we need to park our ideals for a moment and get real: protecting the needs of the many matters more than accommodating the poor choices of one or two.

What am I proposing instead then? What should we be doing that we aren’t at present? Some local authorities, but an ever-decreasing number, operate Pupil Referral Units (PRUs.) These provide an education to the children in the area with the most challenging behaviour. They take only the most extreme cases (rightly) but usually only once they are at secondary school, by which time the problems are much harder to resolve. Pupils typically attend sessions at these institutions as visitors when problems are starting to spiral out of control in their mainstream school. If the problems persist they become permanent attendees, although in many cases they remain officially registered at the mainstream school they came from. Once effectively excluded and doing lessons at the PRU, these students are usually given targets and a roadmap back into mainstream education.

What is needed is at least one adequately-funded version of the PRU in every local authority. It needs to work with schools to identify problems quickly- even at the age of five if necessary. It needs to work hand in glove with social services to support the family and the child together. It needs to bring children in quickly but make it easy and appealing for its pupils to get back into mainstream education- so long as they start adhering to some very basic norms (respect for others, non-violence etc.) More than anything, it needs to be generously-funded and equipped to accommodate all the children who require it and to attract skilled leaders and staff. Most controversially, perhaps, referring a child to the unit must be possible without parental consent- the decision to exclude a disruptive pupil is about much more than that one child. Far from writing these children off, we should throw the kitchen sink at helping them out- all of society will benefit if we do. Meanwhile, the vast majority of children can feel safer and learn with fewer disruptions in mainstream schools. And let’s be honest here- once they’d seen one of their classmates packed off to the PRU, they might just have a renewed respect for the very reasonable boundaries in their classrooms and playgrounds.

Children value fairness more than anything else. When they see someone sabotaging their learning, they don’t think it’s fair. When they see someone getting away with doing horrible things they would never do, they rightly wonder why. Their parents wonder why as well. In order to rebuild public trust in the Inclusion Agenda, we must ensure children understand that they are ultimately accountable for their own choices. For the right, that is going to mean paying more than you might want to on supporting vulnerable families. For the left, it’s going to mean revisiting what we really mean when we talk about “Inclusion.” We can strive to accommodate every child’s needs in mainstream schools. That doesn’t mean we should tolerate all their choices.

Standardisation in Schools- What did Lord Nash really mean?

Since we haven’t really got an Opposition at the moment, I thought I’d make a few observations about a speech made today by a Conservative education minister. Sometimes, if you want something done well, you have to do it yourself.

Lord Nash is a Conservative peer and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools. He is also the founder of a charity called Future, which runs academy schools. He and his wife have donated £300,000 to the Conservative Party. A lot of people wonder why all this doesn’t add up to a political conflict of interest but the government say it doesn’t and I have no specific legal basis on which to argue with them. He is co-chair of governors at Pimlico Academy, a primary school in central London that made headlines a few years ago when they appointed an unqualified teacher as their head (she resigned after four weeks in the job.)

Today Lord Nash was speaking at the Challenge Partners National Conference in London about a number of issues including the chronic shortage of teachers in the education system. For a profession still angered by some of the perceived “anti-teacher rhetoric” of Michael Gove, many of his comments will seem somewhat provocative. At one point he insisted that in education there is “the tendency to give people the benefit of the doubt too often.” This comment will receive a hollow laugh from most teachers I know, held rigidly accountable through flawed assessments over whose outcomes they have only partial control and an inspection regime against which they have no right of appeal. What jumped out at me even more, however, was a comment he made slightly later: “I think too often teachers have confused their individuality with their professionalism.” Standardisation, he said, was important.

I haven’t heard many people say that standardisation doesn’t matter at all in schools. Clearly what pupils learn one year must build on what they’ve learnt in previous years. Clearly schools need consistent policies on certain aspects of pupil behaviour expectations that the whole staff strive to follow. Ideally, we should have standardised measures that allow us to compare and monitor school performance in a fair and even-handed way. I’d be surprised if Lord Nash really believes there are many teachers who dispute these basic requirements of the education system, even less that they “mistake” these things with attacks on their “professionalism” when they’re done well.

Another strange aspect of the context in which these remarks were made is that, at least on the face of things, Nash seems have been broadly supportive of a monumental erosion in standardisation across schools in ways that I think would concern the public more than anything merely pedagogical. As the academies and free schools agenda that he helped pioneer has reshaped the landscape of England’s schools, systems for financial accountability have diversified greatly, and the result has been a number of high-profile scandals involving the misuse of funds, disproportionately prevalent in these new types of school. Systems of governance have also become far less standardised, with local and parental voices often significantly weakened as chains like Nash’s seize control of local educational assets from democratically constituted governing bodies. Admissions, too, have become much less standardised during his government’s time in office- and will become even more so if new grammar schools are approved.

Even when it comes to the curriculum, we’re often told that the advantage of academisation is the “freedom” it gives academies over what is learnt in schools (we’re never told why local authority schools couldn’t simply be given this freedom too.) I’m all for giving schools more freedom over the curriculum (beyond some basic expectations, especially regarding maths and English) but clearly this isn’t an example of standardisation. The plot thickens- where is this standardisation that teachers are apparently “mistaking” for an attack on their professionalism?

If Nash isn’t talking about standardisation in terms of how schools are governed and he’s not talking about what is being taught in them, I can only assume the one thing he wants to standardise above all others is how content is being taught. This is where, surely we can agree, there is room for said standardisation to conflict with a teacher’s professionalism. Teachers in Finland are required to follow a school curriculum, which draws on a national framework- in both cases these are significantly shorter than the equivalent documents than in the UK. But, whoever you speak to in Finland, at school or government level, they seem to agree that the famous success of their system is mostly down to the way teachers have been empowered and freed up precisely in the matter of how content is taught. Exceptionally good teacher training and teacher autonomy is the order of the day- not detailed, prescriptive, minute-by minute teaching strategies imposed from above. Most teachers I know feel they have been most successful when they have been able to adopt their own individual style- to bring some of who they are outside the classroom into it. Learning and teaching is primarily about a relationship, and ignoring the indivduals in that relationship is an odd thing to do.

All of this leads one to an uncomfortable suspicion about what Lord Nash really meant when he made his speech. Standardisation over how the curriculum is taught in institutions such as his is controlled by bodies over which powerful individuals such as Lord Nash himself have significant control. It seems, therefore, that what he is actually doing is seeking to take control over matters that should be decided by teachers and democratically-appointed school governors, and hand those decisions to unelected figures such as himself. This is worrying, and it runs contrary to what we think we know about how schools improve. If I have misunderstood Lord Nash’s intentions, then I would be more than happy to hear him clarify his remarks.


Play’s the Thing – Even in Key Stage 2

In October 2013 around 400 pupils arrived at their primary school in North London to find that a UFO had crashed into their playground. The object, which appeared to be some sort of spacecraft marked with what looked like an alien language, had ripped up pieces of tarmac and was now wedged firmly in the ground. The whole area was cordoned off and a local police officer guarded the scene with a grave look on his face. A man dressed in a radiation suit was apparently searching for evidence. Astonished, the pupils were led inside the building and asked to write what they thought the best explanation for what was happening.

For some of the children, well-versed in the conventions of science-fiction and fantasy, this was an opportunity for their imaginations to let rip: to bring the excitement and drama that had hitherto existed only in stories into the real world. For others, whose horizons barely stretched beyond their own neighbourhoods and in whose families  books and stories were not a significant presence, it was a rare opportunity to imagine and engage with new possibilities, above and beyond the everyday. For some of the older children, there was almost a philosophical exercise taking place as they grappled with matters of skepticism, doubt, evidence and explanation. When you can’t believe your eyes, how else can you try to account for what is taking place? To most of the pupils in Year 6 there was no doubt this must be some sort of elaborate hoax. And the fact that the teachers seemed neither to share their suspicion nor to be as concerned as you would expect adults to be in such a situation suggested that they were “in on it.” For those who spent the day intent on proving the lie, the learning was as powerful as for those who preferred to embrace the silliness.

In reality the spaceship had been built by the father of one of the pupils, positioned in the playground with fake rubble around it and a local police officer (a tremendously good sport) had agreed to come along at drop-off time to add a sense of authenticity to the scene.

I can already hear the retorts of the trolls and reactionary keyboard warriors: why were the school’s staff wasting time on this sort of frivolous nonsense when the children were supposed to be doing real learning? The problem with advocating the “importance of play” in education is that it is a position so easily misrepresented and twisted into straw men by those who wish to defend a dry and joyless vision of “rigour.” In the case of the UFO visit, the member of staff who led the project was one of the most rigorous people I’ve ever known, most of whose time was spent relentlessly drilling the copious amounts of maths and English knowledge pupils in Year 6 need to excel in national tests. Anyone who has ever tried to teach children (or anyone else) anything recognises that learning cannot always be entirely abstract.

For play to have become such a ubiquitous part of childhood in almost any human  culture (except, perhaps tellingly, when serious trauma or abuse has taken place) suggests it must have offered some sort of selection advantage to our ancestors. The simplest explanation seems to be that playing evolved as learning behaviour. We are not the only animal that exhibits it after all. Playing involves mimicking the behaviour of adults, imagining new possibilities, inventing and sticking to rules and testing one’s own limits and abilities. In short, it is the very means through which children practise the skills you need to thrive as a human being.

Playing is, of course, something that most children will do of their own accord and for this reason many will argue it should be kept for their “free time,” and that what happens in school should deal with the “other stuff” they need to learn to succeed in a modern society (even though it’s far from clear that’s what the primary national curriculum offers.) I am sympathetic to this insofar as I believe children should be taught to read, write and do maths whether they want to or not. As adults they will not thank us if they have been deprived of the advantages this obviously provides. But surely, if playing is the very means our species evolved through which children can learn and develop, it is only logical that we incorporate it into what we want them to learn at school.

It is hard to argue with the proposition that we learn better when presented with a concrete experience of something. You would struggle to teach someone how to drive a car entirely by telling them about cars: they need the real experience of pushing the pedals, turning the wheel and watching the road around them. Role play serves the same function in primary school. Trying to teach children how to calculate change from a £20 note in the abstract is trickier than you would think if you’ve never tried to do it. Yet give almost any child in Key Stage 2 a stall to run or a shop to manage, even in a make-believe context, and it’s remarkable how quickly the concept comes into focus for them.

I’m currently working on a play about primary education in the UK and, as part of this project, I recently caught up with a group of my former Year 6 pupils, now sixteen years old, to ask them what they remembered about their year in my class. What stood out for all of them was an activity we called “Imagination Island” in which the class was divided into groups representing different “communities” on an imaginary island. They worked together in their groups to create their own flags, their own laws and even their own Gods. Each “community” had skills and resources (in the form of little paper tokens) that could be traded with the other groups using paper money. The rules of this game were set up so that the “economy” of the island fluctuated: the value of different resources varied according to supply and demand and the communities had to continually re-assess their strategy for ensuring their ongoing prosperity. While trading was going on the mood in my classroom was feverish. It reminded me of the news footage of the trading floors on Black Wednesday in 1992: representatives from different “communities” dashing back and forth to strike the best deals. They were communicating, they were negotiating, they were doing maths. And they were playing. My former pupils are right: it was the best thing I ever did as a teacher. They never forgot it, the learning was heavily reinforced and it was fun. We do things so much better when we enjoy them- that’s surely as obvious as the importance of learning to read. Incidentally, that particular group of children achieved excellent results in their SATs.

On another occasion, both my opposite number in the other Year 6 class and I were struggling to give our pupils a solid grasp of ratio. It was January and they needed to be able to crack it before the national tests in May. There was snow on the ground outside and the skies were a persistent, murky grey. We decided to tackle the problem with humour and, yes, with play. And so “Tropical Day” was born. We asked every child in Year 6 to get 50p from their parents and we bought huge quantities of different types of fruit juice. On the designated day, we encouraged everyone to come to school in “summery” clothes: t-shirts, shorts, Hawaiian shirts if they had them and we ordered some cheap and cheerful fake flower garlands to give our classrooms a tropical feel. We played Hawaiian ukulele and Caribbean steel-pan music at full volume and cranked up the heating. As the ground froze outside, the children had a cocktail-making competition (non-alcoholic of course- these guys were ten!) The children first had the freedom to experiment by mixing the different juices in different ratios and tasting the results. Once they’d found mixtures they were happy with, they had to use those ratios to produce the same drink in a larger quantities. It was fun, it was memorable and I’d bet good money that year group (my last Year 6 class before I became a deputy head) ended up retaining a better understanding of ratio than any other group I ever taught. They spent the afternoon designing promotional posters and packaging for their drinks- government education ministers and the charlatans that do their bidding would have howled with traditionalist rage.

The word “play” can be used as both a countable or an uncountable noun (if you’re not clear on what that means, you’d get at best a mediocre score on a Year 6 grammar test- just so you know) and “the school play” is a great but declining tradition in England’s primary schools. This is a more debatable issue and please don’t misunderstand me: a lot of school plays are truly dreadful. If the play itself is unchallenging for the age group involved, if low standards of singing, acting or dancing are tolerated or if rehearsals require children to sit and do nothing for large periods of time, the exercise of performing a play in a school can have questionable educational merit. Done well, however, I believe it’s one of the best experiences primary-aged children can have at school. It requires them to memorise information, co-ordinate their actions with others and speak confidently in public. Drama, music and art are too easily dismissed as “woolly” parts of the curriculum which is why in some primary schools they have all but disappeared from it. For me, this is a tragedy and we are robbing our children of what should be an important entitlement.

Children need to learn to read, write and add up. Obviously. I have literally never met anyone in an English primary school who disputes that. But they need to play just as much. That’s how they evolved to learn and to ignore it isn’t rigorous- it’s dumb. What annoys me most about the interpretation of “rigour” that dominates political thinking on education now is the way it presents “learning through play” as some sort of cop-out: the easy path to avoid the difficult realities of the curriculum. This is utter rubbish. Organising good play-based learning experiences is hard work. It requires elaborate preparation and careful execution but, unlike so much teachers are asked to do, it is worth every minute. Like anything, it isn’t always done well but where that’s case the answer is not to ban it but to improve it.

I enjoy teaching maths and grammar- so much so that my Secret Santa present at work the year before last was a mug emblazoned with the words “grammar police.” Sometimes that means learning by rote and that’s fine in those situations. The either/or is a useful myth put out by those who lack the imagination to attempt anything bolder under any circumstances. All work and no play makes Jack a “dull” boy, in both senses of the word.

Children learn by playing. They learn even better when we join in.