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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.

Inside Finland’s Miracle

Tim Paramour

This week I had the privilege of travelling to Finland to find out what makes their world-beating education system tick- and what the UK could learn from their achievements.

As Finland slides into view, Paavo Piik, an Estonian theatre director I’m working with, smiles and gestures towards the coastline. “There it is,” he says, “the promised land!” To teachers all over the world, Finland has become a byword for getting it right in education. I’m exhausted after two back-to-back early mornings but that doesn’t dampen my excitement as our ferry approaches the end of its two-hour crossing from Tallinn and Helsinki takes shape in front of us. I’m halfway through my final term as deputy head at an inner London primary school and since I started teaching in the British system twelve years ago, and throughout all the frustrations that has involved, I’ve always wanted to come and see this…

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7 Principles for a Better Primary School Accountability Framework

Tim Paramour

The politicians currently dictating what happens in our schools have got it into their heads that they can raise standards just by making statutory tests harder. There is no evidence for this. They say we need to improve our position in global comparison tables such as those produced by PISA or the OECD. This would probably be a good thing to do: if our 18-year-olds were as good at passing tests as 18-year-olds in Finland, it would mean we were getting something right, even if it wasn’t the whole story. But even if you believe that improving our global ranking should be the sole aim of education policy in this country, then we are still going about it in completely the wrong way, and in completely the opposite direction to a country like Finland.

I’m a big believer that if you’re going to point out a problem, you will be able to do so far more convincingly if you can simultaneously offer a…

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A Brexity Christmas Carol Part 2 – The First of the Three Spirits

The Brexity old miser Brexiteezer Scrooge has been visited by Zac Goldsmith and warned of a visitation by three spirits who will seek to save his soul. To go back and read the first part of “A Brexity Christmas Carol” please click here

Scrooge went to bed and set his alarm for 7am. Just because the lazy foreigners he employed wanted to waste a perfectly good working day, he wasn’t going to let an opportunity for a bit of quiet work in a deserted office pass him by.

He was quite sure now that the incident with Zac Goldsmith was some strange hallucination; a flight of fancy brought about by a rogue piece of meat infected with some sort of foreign bacteria. Nonetheless, he felt a certain sense of unease as he lay in his bed, still wrapped in his dressing gown and wearing one of the promotional floppy St. George’s flag hats his pub had given away to its customers during England’s characteristically imperious display in the European football championships. He was unable to sleep and kept turning anxiously to watch as the big digital clock display beside his bed flickered inexorably toward 1am. When the hour came, Scrooge breathed out.
“There,” he whispered to himself, “nothing happened, did it?”
“Nothing at all,” replied a familiar-sounding voice. And there, standing by the open window, through which a bitter gust of wind was billowing into the room, stood Victoria Wood.
Scrooge jumped from his bed in terror. “What?! How did you…”
“Well don’t look so surprised,” Wood interrupted, “Zac Goldsmith told you I’d be coming, didn’t he?”
“He…”
“You know Zac Goldsmith would actually be faintly shagable if he weren’t such a self-absorbed, jumped-up little prick. Anyway, come on Misery Guts. We’re going.”
“Going?” Scrooge replied, “going where?”
“The past,” she replied.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, your past to be precise,” and she gestured towards the window.
“But Spirit, I cannot go out there. I am but mortal, and liable to fall.”
“Then take my hand,” Wood said, not unkindly and, as Scrooge placed his hand in hers, he found they were no longer in his draughty bedroom, but in a school room. The walls were bare, the individual desks wooden and rickety.
“I know this place,” Scrooge murmured, as he watched a class of children working silently on a grammar exercise, just as children in a school should and just as they had started to again thanks to that brilliant Mr. Gove. “They seem unsurprised by our presence.”
“They can’t see us,” Victoria Wood replied.
“This is my school,” Scrooge said as it suddenly come flooding back to him.
“You remember it?”
“Remember it? Oh, but Spirit, I could walk these corridors blindfold. But it’s impossible. It was sold off by Margaret Thatcher in the 80s. I built one of my pubs on the old playing field.”
“This is 1952,” Wood said, “Margaret Roberts hasn’t even entered parliament yet.”

The bell sounded and the children filed out into the playground, but one boy stayed behind, keen to finish his work.
“That boy, Spirit,” Scrooge said in wonderment, “that’s me! And that’s my old teacher, Captain Archer.”
“A soldier, wasn’t he?”
“Most men of his age were. He’d fought in both world wars. A hero.”
Captain Archer stood beside Scrooge’s younger self, stiff as a board but smiling kindly.
“Don’t you want to go and play with the other children, Scrooge?” the teacher asked.
The boy shook his head awkwardly, “I want to get this finished,” he replied.
“Is there a problem with some of the other boys?” Archer asked.
Scrooge watched himself and felt a stirring of emotion he rarely felt at his age. “Such a lonely child.” He murmured.
“He’s only seven years old and he lives in an austere world,” Victoria Wood said, “but it’s going to get better. The NHS is only a few years old. From here onward, Britain enters a whole new phase of its history as it emerges from the carnage of two world wars. Social attitudes will relax and a whole new attitude to society will spread throughout the country, demanding support for the vulnerable and security for everyone in old age. The bullying you were suffering then would never be tolerated in schools now. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to get away with most of the jokes I told in 1952.”
Scrooge grunted, “you forgot to mention the uncontrolled mass immigration making us feel like foreigners in our own country.” He looked over to the portrait of Winston Churchill behind Captain Archer’s desk, “he’d never have let it come to this.”
“I don’t know about that,” Victoria Wood replied, “in 1946 he made a speech in Zurich calling for a United States of Europe. Across the channel now, the first countries are making plans to form the European Coal and Steel Community, the organisation that will one day become the EU. Our Prime Minister Mr Churchill is very supportive. The whole continent is scarred by war. For these people a united Europe is a utopian dream, not an unwanted burden.”
Scrooge looked back over to his younger self, avoiding his teacher’s questions about his plans for Christmas. He’d had enough.
“Show me a happier Christmas, spirit.”
“Gladly,” Victoria Wood replied and took Scrooge’s hand again.

An instant later they found themselves outside a large red-brick building in an industrial part of a large city. Everywhere he looked there were passers-by with big hair, flared trousers and garments striped or chequered with inadvisable combinations of orange and brown. The building in front of him was festooned with Christmas decorations and from within the sound of “Merry Christmas Everybody” was audible. Following Victoria Wood into the building, Scrooge realised where he was. This was Fezziwig’s Brewery.
“This is Fezziwig’s Christmas Party! This is the year I became the regional manager” Scrooge said excitedly and quickly spotted himself, thirty years old and still with a full head of thick black hair. “Why oh why, when I still had so much hair on my head, did I insist on that awful mullet?” he asked Victoria Wood in wonderment, and then something else caught his eye: it was his old employer. “And there’s dear old Fezziwig himself! Bless his heart- it’s Fezziwig alive again!”
“It’s 1975,” Victoria Wood replied. “Britain has just voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EEC.”
“Yes,” Scrooge replied, “I voted to remain myself. But we just wanted a trading and customs union, not all these damn regulations.”
“It was always perfectly clear about its aims. These are hard times for Britain: our empire has disintegrated and we’re struggling to understand our place in a changed world. After frequent power cuts, a three-day week and rolling strikes, European commentators have started referring to us as the ‘sick man of Europe.’ But all of that will slowly start to change.”
“That’s quite enough work for today, folks,” Fezziwig called out to his staff. “These aren’t the easiest times for a business this size but the brewery has had a pretty good year all-in-all and it’s time to celebrate!”
“Such a gentle soul,” Scrooge remarked. “Too gentle for the world we live in now. Fezziwig’s Brewery went bust in the noughties and all its branches got turned into high-end flats and trendy gastropubs.”
Scrooge’s younger self was deep in conversation with a young woman.
“Belle,” the name caught in Scrooge’s throat.
“She was French, wasn’t she?” Wood asked him.
“She was. Such a beautiful, funny…oh Spirit, show me no more.”
But in an instant the party and the brewery had disappeared. In its place was Albert Square in central Manchester. Decorations adorned an impressive Christmas tree in the centre of the square and Scrooge’s younger self was sitting with Belle, both warmly wrapped up in hats, scarves and gloves.
“It’s a job with the Guardian,” Belle was saying, “it’s an opportunity I really want to take. Can’t you start your own business from Manchester?” Her breath was visible in the cold December air.
“No,” Scrooge’s younger self replied, “It must be in London. Our projected profits would be 25% greater.”
“Bloody London,” the elder Scrooge growled, “bloody Guardian.”
“Then I don’t know what else to say,” Belle said softly.
“We said we’d get married,” the younger Scrooge replied, “And get a mortgage on a property. We always said that.”
“We said that when we were both poor, and contented to be so until we found a means to combine our happiness and good fortune. But you are a man changed, Brexiteezer.”
“But I’ve found a wonderful semi-detached house in Whetstone,” the younger Scrooge protested. “It has a long lease, a garage and a half-convincing mock-Tudor frontage.”
“I’m sorry, Brexiteezer, it’s over.”
“Take me home, Spirit!” Scrooge exclaimed, realising he had tears in his eyes, “Why do you delight in tormenting me?”

But he was already back in his bedroom. Victoria Wood had gone and he was alone once again.

Click here to read the third part of the story: “The Second Spirit.”

Where in the World Are We? – What the PISA rankings tell us about the state of UK education.

This week saw the publication of the latest PISA rankings: a league table of different countries’ education systems which is compiled every three years by the OECD. The tables compare the scores achieved by sample groups of 15-year-olds from each country who sit tests in reading, maths and science. The general consensus across most of the media, from the BBC to the Telegraph is that the rankings show the UK “falling behind the rest of the World.” Is this fair? The answer, I’m afraid, is a definite, resounding “sort of.”

The main headlines are that the UK has improved its position considerably in the science table (from 21st three years ago to 15th in the most recent rankings), improved slightly in reading (from 23rd to 21st) and dropped slightly in maths (down from 26th to 27th). The UK students’ average scores in the tests were actually remarkably similar to three years ago so all these movements are affected more by other countries’ relative performances than by a decline or improvement in our own standards. They’re not actually bad results and they’re all above the OECD average. The overall conclusion one can draw about the education our young people are receiving is probably the same as the conclusion one would have drawn 3, 6 and 9 years ago: education in the UK is ok.

These rankings are subject to several criticisms, not least that many supposedly-higher performing countries and administrations are able to effectively cheat by excluding lower-performing students from the tests. There are also questions to be asked about how the culture and economy of a given country feed into the rankings. Does an inherently more egalitarian country where education is more widely-valued such as Finland (or, in a very different way, Singapore) simply have a much better chance of succeeding than its more unequal rivals such as the UK and the USA? If so one could question the notion that PISA rankings are assessing education systems at all (rather than entire societies and their attitudes.) There is also, of course, a debate to be had about whether the narrow subject focus of the tests is sufficient to encapsulate all or even most of what constitutes good education.

Nonetheless, the Tory government has made improving the UK’s performance in these rankings the cornerstone of its educational agenda. In so doing they gave themselves a luxury they would never grant to teachers or schools: the right to choose the way their own success should be measured. And still they appear to be falling short. Schools have been closed and rebranded, the curriculum and exam syllabuses have been torn up and replaced with a narrower, more knowledge-based alternative and all this upheaval has brought about an unprecedented crisis in teacher retention and recruitment. And the signs are that it simply hasn’t been worth it: the government is not fulfilling its own stated aims. Young learners have had their opportunities to engage in sport, art, music, drama and practical, vocational skills curtailed on the altar of a vision of “academic rigour” that simply hasn’t materialised.

To make matters worse, the direction of travel being taken from here doesn’t offer any cause for optimism either. PISA’s own director of education Andreas Schleicher warned earlier this year that an increased focus on setting and selection (the apparent core of the government’s agenda since Theresa May entered Downing Street in July) can only be to the detriment of its position in the rankings.

So the overall message the country should take from these PISA rankings is mixed but their verdict on our government and their education policy is pretty unambiguous: to use Ofsted’s terminology, they have been served with a seriously damning Notice to Improve.