Doing the Tudors

It was interesting to talk to some teachers about the work I’ve been preparing around traditional tales for Outdoor Classroom Day, and something of a challenge to find a set of stories that linked with “Doing the Tudors” and “Doing the Romans” to then tell the children. Given the school I was working in, the Romans proved easier than I’d thought: with Akeman Street on the doorstep of Combe village, we pondered what Roman life was like off the roads, away from the imposed civilisation of the invaders. Yes, there were wolves.
For the Tudors, I went for a story that had a version known in the time of Elizabeth I: The Three Heads of the Well. I started from this version, and cut and reshaped and simplified. It helped that the school had a real well…and the three heads that provided me with their magic (‘weirded me” as the language of one version goes) through the day were maybe Katharine Briggs, Terry Jones and Alastair Daniel.  Actually there were more: Adrienne Duggan, the ever-at-my shoulder Mat, the inspirational Neil Phillip… and more – see below…

But back to Doing the Tudors, the point of this post. The “Doing” of topics is always an uneasy business, with that sense of finality, of completion, a dusting of hands and a walking away. I fell into this language myself (I don’t  think I noticed the children or staff using it), and was conscious of how it brought with it another meaning: finished but maybe superficially, as in “We did Oxford yesterday; is this Stonehenge?” Layers of detail and meaning lost.  Having just gone back to my first postgrad research in Tudor history through reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell, I was well aware of the complexities of “doing” and “finishing off” the Tudors. I know Year 6 had not been discussing the gaps in extant correspondence in this archive or that, of course, but if I thought my “doing” laid bare a “been there, done that” assumption, I need not have worried.

I had chickened out of telling the story with the death of the Queen at the end of The Three Heads, and softened the part about the King’s bribe to the cobbler to take the horrid step-sister away. Some of this was about brevity and tellability, and some of my choices, I reckoned, were about taste.  The children were not to be fooled, and although they enjoyed the story, I was soon in a discussion about what a “real Tudor” would make of the way it concluded. They wanted – in their words – a (they said “the“) “cruel ending.” Beheadings or divorce would have been in order. They appreciated the cruel (step)sister going off with the cobbler – but didn’t see that there was a bad ending somehow in her having to work for a living. Such is the power of storytelling and literature in the curriculum – but note to self: a Roald Dahl ending with blood and shame would have been truer to the earlier versions and maybe pleased my young audience more. Those children had Done the Tudors well.

Alongside what help I and my tutelary spirits could be for “doing the Tudors” or whatever, there were two other magic presences in this day’s work: Jackie Morris and Rob Macfarlane, artist and wordsmith of the great The Lost Words, whose work I shared with every group. It was wonderful to read the short acrostic for Ivy, (“the real high flyer… you call me ground-cover; I say sky wire”) and see the Reception class lap it up, and the “top Juniors” appreciate their understanding of an acrostic. Best of all, as the younger children went back to their room, one of them pointed to the ivy on the school wall, and another said “I say sky wire.” That really surpassed all the messages I could hope to give about links between language and literature and environment. We couldn’t have said we’d “done” language and the environment any more than I have “done” the Tudors, but that five year old knew a nature metaphor when he saw it.

Importance and Binary Opposites

The presentation on What Children Shouldn’t Read for the Reading Spree didn’t go too badly, and reflecting on what did (and didn’t) get heard has been interesting. A few messages went astray both from me and from other presenters, although the “reviews” to listen to are, of course, the people who were actually there, and caught nuances more than the powerpoint slides Twitterers want to argue with. Responses on social media have been thoughtful (and certainly less spittle-flecked) than they were following the first one, at least.  However, reading them does bring me back to Kieran Egan, whose Teaching as Storytelling was a key element of my 20 or so minute ramble. He asks

  • What is most important about the topic?
  • Why should it matter to children?
  • What is affectively engaging about it?

and then  follows this with the challenge to find binary opposites/pairs:

  • What powerful binary opposites best catch the importance of the topic?

Big questions when we look at storytelling and curriculum.   I suggest that they are different for teachers than they are for children. In What Not to Read I suggested we might ask “How do we look at books when we are educators?” and the same is true of how we look at the whole phenomenon of the outdoor curriculum and outdoor storytelling in particular – and in many ways, looking at curriculum is closer than using Egan’s probing questions as being essentially about storytelling.

There are tensions, binaries around ecocriticism and curriculum. Am I storytelling outdoors as a part of the Green Agenda?  How do I deal with a tension around book sharing and how we might orally present traditional tales – there are, for example, practical issues around books and outdoors (as we discovered in a session last year when it poured with rain)?  Teachers’ binaries will be concerned with these curricular issues; children-as-audience will be concerned with, as Egan puts it “the human adventure that began in magic and myth…” and they might be concerned with good and evil, danger and escape (Roald Dahl’s Goldilocks is a wonderful skewing of these concerns with his “delinquent little tot” and her fate at the hands of Baby Bear) or with destruction and redemption (I think at once of a beautiful and politically charged book I have discussed before: Michael Foreman’s A Child’s Garden).

So many binaries to disentangle, when the challenge from Egan is to find the  “binary opposites” that “best catch the importance of the topic” (my emphasis).   This is no small task when selecting books or stories for an outdoor audience; a huge task for teacher or school when considering why they might want to do storytelling and the practical considerations that arise from this plan. Why do we teach how we do?  What prevents us from running on the free rein of professional expertise and creativity?


To end with an esprit d’escalier thought about presentations and co-presenters at the Reading Spree, I will take a wide-angle lens view, and ask another of Egan’s questions:

  • What content most dramatically embodies the primary opposites?

This Saturday it was for me testimony from Simon from Whitby – of children in his school who had never been to the beach – and Nicki – a librarian on a TA’s salary, buying library stock from her own pocket.

I went the next day (Sunday) to a panel discussion hosted by members of the Blackfriars congregation about the impacts of poverty and austerity on the educational experiences of children in Oxford. The feelings of the three speakers (and including my Maggie), all in various roles in education, around the squeezed budgets of public services suggests to me the final and most obvious binary: funding and austerity. Life chances are enhanced by things like decent libraries and book provision (and excellent library provision and staffing such as evidenced here) in towns and schools: refusing to answer calls for better staffing and book stock is an ideological choice, to cut public funding and cut taxation.

Cut after cut and cut as politicians tear one another apart and us along with them. There’s a binary for starters.



Some twenty years ago I used to “do pottery” at the local FE college. Two hours on a Monday evening and a kebab on the way home.  Today, courtesy of a birthday present (thank you, Lizzie), I was back – same room, probably some of the same tools, same mistakes of misplaced omnipotence and self-criticism.  Different tutor, still good: thank you Activate Learning, and thank you, Graham, for your skills as a tutor.

Tutor intro.  Tour, health and safety. “No running with scissors” was not mentioned – but beware the dangerous chemicals and the clay dust.   And then into the task. A demo which showed how very easy it was.

First attempt. IMG_0084 Dismal. In trying to make something small, I had something fiddly, and the techniques I hoped to use needed to be applied more delicately and with a more practised hand. A small pot became a pile of used clay and my ambition took a bash. Been here before.

Second go:  The longer attempt and really (with a lunch break) the work of the day, 11:00-3:30, went a little better.   A larger piece, but it still took a long time and I had to unguess shortcuts, to keep the pace, to refine and design. I watched smooth surfaces appear for other people when my effort looked like something the Beaker People would have looked at and said whatever their language had for “Meh.”

The work later in the afternoon was not without challenge but did allow a certain amount of “distract and redirect” as I used slip to decorate the misshapen vase. Plans and designs revised, the learner supported and encouraged – and forgiven, if that’s the right word – for assumptions and wrong turns.

What went right. Well, it wasn’t perfect, and I hesitate to think how I would have felt if it were being marked, and certainly on such an initial piece of learning and creation. Would I have tried harder?   Paid more attention?  Worried more? I am reminded of Margaret Donaldson’s warning (in Children’s Minds) that

” …if an activity is rewarded by an external prize or token…it is less likely to be enjoyed.”

and the next point might be (for me and the pottery) that I might have decided, given the freely chosen nature of activity, not to participate. Not everyone is the same: for some, the medal for Salsa or the position in the running club league is an important factor: but this is not universal. I am brought to consider pedagogy and curriculum because of my engagement as a learner.


I wonder if every teacher/educationalist should be asked to go back to something and try to think about their learning.   The “There is Only Knowledge” team might find that no amount of knowledge organisers substitute for the feeling of clay, or the knack of smoothing a wet joint into place, and the “Experience is Everything” crew might find something too, about where clay comes from, how its history has been so close to human development, how art and colour and chemistry work together. We might find common ground; we might learn something important. So too might the pigeon-fancying behaviourists (particularly watching themselves when things go wrong) and the “It’s All About Self-regulation” group, watching how as adults we motivate and self-regulate (and help others to regulate) with breaks for a drink, chatting, swearing….  And my contention would be that when we observe our own learning we are acutely aware of the humanity of the learner. This isn’t a suggestion that everyone should take up dancing or running, or pottery, but perhaps that we might have a richer professional development experience if all CPD – or a large part of it – were directed to reflection on how we learn, and then ask how we might apply those insights to our own pedagogy.  We would have to be bold and committed for this to work as trainers or learners: genuine reflection is hard.

Observing ourselves as learners is not easy – but it has an important advantage over 4D8ACABD-AE50-4B68-BF32-406F01ED4ABCwatching our students or being observed by our leaders, and that is that we are less free to persuade ourselves “the children really love it” (or “won’t notice” in the case of baseline assessment) or “the students lap it up.”  We are certainly much less able to disentangle ourselves from the learner’s impatience, or the sense of a desire to build the perfect pot (the photos show I didn’t quite manage this) – even the sense of envy or discouragement at the gorgeous things other people produce.  And in Higher Education we might look again at our modes of assessment: writing at the same time as our students are on the essay treadmill we put them on is a revelation!

I want to conclude with praise for the kinds of tutors who work as my tutor did today: a judicious mix of direct “do-it-like-this” instruction, demonstration, leaving us to try, and advice. It seems to me the best way to respond to the humanity of the learner is by listening, responding but never letting go of the role of instructor where it is necessary. There are times when each of these is needed, and it is the professional educator (not the politician, I would contend, but that is by-the-by) who is best placed to find the way to teach. Top tips too easily become high horses (if that turn of phrase works) and teachers are better than that. As Donaldson concludes (and I will too), we have to keep trying

to help our children meet the demands we impose on them

and to do that, a deficit model of the child  learner is simply not enough:

…we must not call them stupid. We must rather call ourselves indifferent or afraid.




It’s a spring day as March comes to its “out like a lamb” ending. The sun is shining and I’m out on Warneford Meadow, treading through tufty grass, and along paths worn by commuters. It is our local Green and a valuable space, with a rich and (I suspect) growing biodiversity.   I am one of a number of visitors, human and non-human – and as I trot down one of the paths I see a bunch of magpies. The Opies record the rhyme as:

One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a wedding
Four for a death.

Lots of other versions are on record, testimony to the respect  people (maybe) had for these striking birds as messengers.  The Boke of Saint Albans has, in its lists of the Compaynys of beestys and fowlys has a tiding of [mag]pies (but beware: I’m not sure I trust a list with  Superfluyte of Nonnys or Noonpacience of Wyves)…

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten a surprise you must not to miss.

(It received a boost by being the theme tune for the Thames TV production of Magpie, ITV’s Blue Peter Rival, when perhaps other customs and rhymes have fallen by the wayside – but that began when  I was the key audience: a long time ago, now.)

Back to Warneford Meadow as I slog over a possible Roman settlement and try not to think about the Quis Est Iste Qui Venit of such a run.   Nine magpies, then as I approach it’s four then seven and then just one. What do we make of portents whose mobility makes the I Ching look solid?  Well, of course, we don’t, in general; it’s a bit of mind play while I run.

I remember that as I qualified as a teacher, the National Curriculum was just coming in, and the course leader was ending his goodbye speech to the PGCE with “May you live in interesting times.”  He did not foresee where we might be today: if we were only contending with conflicting views about curriculum that would be enough, but we have Schoolsweek announcing scandal upon scandal, Unionist bands and racists openly on the streets in London vying for publicity (and no, they don’t get links) with crowds and crowds of people with more politeness and less threatened violence, a Parliamentary struggle the likes of which I have never seen before… These are interesting times, but not in a good way. There are no signs or portents to match all of this rubbish.

And while I trundle my sixty-something way and wonder about what the list of magpie numbers might portend (I really did get the one above the other week), part of my mind is wondering: instead of nines and sevens am I just seeing magpie after magpie after magpie? Sorrow and sorrow and sorrow?  I don’t think I have ever felt gloomier about the state of my country and my profession.

So instead of corvid fortune telling, I will end with part of my play list for running:

Nina Simone whose version of Billy Taylor’s anthem to Freedom has been a lifesaver this winter.

And while we’re at it, her singing of Randy Newman’s great hymn to compassion.

Sod the magpies, stuff the omens: this is what we need.

A Contrarian Questions…

It’s International Women’s Day, or Woman’s Day – there are lots of hashtags on Twitter for it. I have put my contrarian hat on and just have some questions (I’m not going to attempt to answer them, and I have attempted not to load them with commentary – well, not too much). No, they’re not the boring and boorish stuff from eejits asking why there isn’t a Men’s Day (apparently there is, but come on, chaps) nor it is about the pay gap in Education, although probably it should be: it’s just questions arising from having been in professional contexts all my working life where women have been prominent leaders and thinkers and managers, notably in Primary and Early Years education and then in Higher Education in a School of Ed.  I am not commenting here on opportunities for women to lead, or anything like this: I simply  celebrate my time being taught and managed by women who have inspired me.

Last year, very probably my final year in full-time employment, I had a male line manager for the first time since I was a student. It was a nice experience – Roger is a splendid manager, a lovely guy – at a difficult time, so this isn’t a moan about blokes as managers but it does lead me to my first question:

Was it me, or why did I never see having a woman as my boss as an issue?

I learned so much from having a series of headteachers to shape me professionally: Sr Anna in Esh Laude, Leslie Grundy and Elaine Smith at Grandpont. In very different ways they were thoughtful and mindful of my need to learn my trade. When I was a headteacher, I had advisers like Julie Fisher and inspirational figures like Rosemary Peacocke to nudge me, and writers like Tina Bruce and Kathy Sylva.  My next question then:

Should we prepare men coming into Primary and Early Years for some ethos-shocks, or, building on my previous question, might professional development for educators simply take female mentorship and leadership as read? Do men really need their hands holding because they might get told to do something by … a woman?

And finally: well, I continue to work with the School of Education at Brookes, and count its previous and current heads as friends, as well as delighting in working with a strong body of women as well as men. I also work with The Slade Nursery where Carol the head is an inspiration and the staff are a joy. I know umpteen reasons why people press for men to work in Early Years but my last question is

In pressing for men in Early Years are we in danger of seeing the thousands of competent, exciting (female) professionals who are already making a difference to children and families seem somehow lesser mortals?

I said I had a contrarian hat on.


Time for a job: Horror Stories

Three interview questions and their follow-up (all coming from time working as a teacher, a governor, a Head and most recently in ITT in Higher Education) and then some thoughts.

  1. “Tell us a bit about why you want to be a teacher.” Warm-up question to start the relationship, to get the candidate talking and the panel listening. A sound check for the interview. Except the candidate froze, and grinned nervously and said “Don’t know really.”
  2. “In which situations do you feel most confident? In which situations do you feel least confident and why?”  This is a bit of a cheat, and I must acknowledge my source: Margaret Edgington’s The Foundation Stage Teacher in Action. The candidate  is asked to show their self-reflection on the spot. The best one began “That’s a really deep question,” thus buying herself vital time to muster the argument.
  3. From a job interview: “We have a lot of people in all sorts of roles in this school: tell us a bit about how you understand teamwork.”  “Well, as teacher, I see myself as in charge…” And the pens of the interviewers started.

Number one was painful. A half an hour slot for an interview and despite everything we tried, questions were knocked back by increasingly long and embarrassing silences and that dreaded response. Don’t know really.  Except she did know, of course; what she couldn’t do was overcome her panic and start talking. I’ve seen panic in interviews in other cases, but this was extreme. At the end of ten minutes we wrapped up.

It spurred me on to getting PGCE students to ask each other questions in a sort of interview game: four students in a group with four envelopes. A opens her/his envelope and turns to B and asks an interview-type question B hasn’t seen and B has to answer it. B then does the same to C…  A bit of a giggle – but it impresses on people preparing for interviews that fluency is key. Not gobbiness, but fluency. Rifle quickly through your mental index cards of stories and start with “Well, there was one time when I was in the art base when I was a TA and….”

Number two is there so that I can advertise whole sets of questions around teamwork and curriculum that Edgington poses. They’re not exclusive to early years, and this one – and the third, around team work – might, with a bit of adaptation, come up anywhere. But others might include “How do you know if the children in your class are making progress?” or (this one more or less straight from Edgington, p9) “Can you tell us how you have enabled/could enable a ‘hard to reach’ family to become involved with their children’s learning?”  Ask any of these in the interview practice game and a panic starts: but think about the job description you will have had, think about why the question is there. At heart the panel want to know What do you know about record keeping and can you do it? or Have you worked with families before and what’s your vision? The important self-reflective element here is not about to ask the candidate “sell yourself down the river;” the panel wants to know whether you have a real understanding that will sustain you when things go wrong.

What is an interview for? Partly it’s to make sure you are able to put flesh on the bones of your personal statement; partly because you are entering a profession where oral communication is key not just between you and the children, but between you and the TAs, you and the parents, the teacher in the parallel class, the governor linked to your class, the Speech and Language Therapist who visits…  And there are some things that are easier teased out by conversation than reading. And this brings me to

Number three. Ouch.  This was a tricky one, and having started from there the candidate argued herself into an authoritarian corner from which she would not emerge. The knack again is maybe to ask “What is this question really about?”  Maybe your predecessor was immeasurably crap at this and they are looking for a good person to lead the micro-team of the class; maybe there is a recalcitrant resident of the staff room who the Head is hoping you might be the spur to their re-enagegemnt with the school project (and if the Head is hoping for this from an NQT they are either very stupid or very brave); maybe… maybe…. Even with the big hint in the question about “a lot of people in all sorts of roles in this school,” you are unlikely to know exactly what prompts this question, so you have to ask yourself ” Where are my skills? Do I have a story to tell here?” This is where the conversation element of an interview comes into its own. A personal statement that talks about your good team work can now be used as the way into a conversation about attitudes, maybe even your sense of humour.

GSOH: right, a last horror story, even if only a light one. A candidate who wrote “I have a good sense of humour” in an application was once challenged simply at interview with “Tell us a joke, then.” Really? Really?

What on earth is an interview for?  Well, the first reason might be that some things on the job description and person specification are very hard to assess on paper or on line. Just like in your reading of the school website and the last OfSTED inspection, this can only take the panel so far. “Drilling down” is a phrase I’ve heard too much, but that is really what the conversational element is/should be about: details, anecdotes, further information.  The second reason gets people into serious hot water: face to face interviews tell us what you’re like and (dare I write it?) “whether you’ll fit in.”  I must state that I hate this second one, but there it sits, potentially discriminatory, dangerously non-inclusive, menacing an appointments panel from the boundaries between the Head’s responsibility to build and manage an effective team and a possibly illegal unconscious bias for or against this or that person.  Good interviewers are at least aware of the baggage they bring; good interview panels work to mimimise the effects of the baggage.

Final point about the interview: what do you do with “Do you have any questions?” As I said in the previous post, a positive answer is better than a weak one, but you might want to know about the school’s support for NQTs, or whether parallel classes plan together, or all sorts of stuff that show you’re interested in them.

I can’t say it enough: this is a two-way process.




To talk about Mindfulness I want to start with Thich Nhat Hahn. Here he is working – except he says it isn’t work – on calligraphy that conveys his central messages. As he says:

Breathe and enjoy the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Breathe and enjoy this wonderful moment.

I’ll stop there and do just that before I continue.





In preparing a class on spirituality for the Education Studies students at Brookes, I have a number of choices about how to approach mindfulness.

In terms of resources, there is the possibility of using words from Thich Nhat Hanh himself and the wonderful music and Nature graphics in the Great Bell Chant.   There have been times when turning the lights back on after showing those 7 mins to students has felt really quite a disruption to a sense of quiet: it is (for me and for some of them) a moving little bit of film.

The universal dharma door
is already open.
The sound of the rising tide
is heard clearly…

(3 mins ff)

and I will probably need to weave these in with this cute and thought-provoking footage from a school in Ireland.

But here I find myself in a bit of a quandary. There seems to me to be something of a divergence of expectations here. Quite what does Mindfulness (or spirituality in general) do in schools? Let’s look at what the children say, speaking of their jars full of sequins and other glittery materials that exemplify their minds – shaken and busy with ideas and feelings:

“Your jar is like your heart and there’s loads of stuff inside it….”

“Your mind is so busy it can’t think of a load of things…”

“…and then when you leave it to settle you take a deep breath and then it all goes to the bottom.”

Lovely stuff, and drawing on a similar story from Thich Nhat Hanh about watching apple juice settle.   I would hope that the children are the better in some way from practising this.

The clip goes on, however, to present the children’s acts of kindness and what they are thankful for. They are personal, domestic things – making breakfast, giving mum some peace, feeding the dog; being thankful for food, presents, a warm house. So with one short clip (we have to admit it is short, edited, &c.) we move from mindfulness through kindness and gratitude.

These are interesting values and practices for schools to promote. The way they are presented is that mindfulness makes you think more clearly, acts of kindness earn the approbation of adults, and we can be grateful for what adults provide. Of course, the converse might be things we want to avoid – chaotic thinking from ungrateful, unkind children (or adults), but is this really mindfulness, or a new, maybe more accessible and acceptable catechism? Christian children all must be/Mild obedient, good as He, as the Christmas hymn goes.  This is less than the commodification of spirituality that many are wary of, but it could be its schoolification.

So in terms of practice, how might we look at Mindfulness in schools? I think we might take a lesson from Forest Schools. An initiative is seen and adopted faithfully by some, with minor alterations by others, and a dilution takes place until a school calls the weekly visit to the pond at the end of the school field by a name that might also be used by a wide-ranging, risk-taking experience some miles from the classroom. Similarly, a teacher might be a committed follower of the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, or they might be involved in some kind of sitting mediation themselves, or following a course of guidance on mindful meditation. I suppose That Candle Thing sits somewhere around this marker – and the original project for that was a largely improvised activity.  Or they might have read a book on the subject, or seen a bit of mindfulness practice as part of their Initial Teacher Education or some CPD and think that this is something they might spread more widely. I find I am thinking “Think Raisins:” the quick introduction to mindfulness many have experienced as CPD in schools where people contemplate a raisin. Is this enough to think about how one might adapt a practice to school life?

I’m not arguing for regulation and accreditation but for a recognition of foundational ideas and texts. Here – although Buddhist meditation can’t really have a foundation text from the 1970s (can it?) – I would want to refer back to The Miracle of Mindfulness. Not all books on mindfulness will acknowledge the source, something I find a bit disturbing, but here are some of the things Thich Nhat Hanh has to say, first about what mindfulness does and then what we do about or with it.

I like to walk alone on country paths, rice plants and wild grasses on both sides, putting each foot down on the earth in mindfulness, knowing that I walk on the wondrous earth. In such moments, existence is a miraculous and mysterious reality.

People usually consider walking on water or on thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or on thin air, but to walk on earth.

and then, more practically

Your breath should be light, even and flowing, like a thin stream of water running through the sand. Your breath should be very quiet, so quiet that the person sitting next to you cannot hear it… To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds… Each time we find ourselves dispersed an find it difficult to gain control of ourselves by different means, the method of watching the breath should always be used.


And of course there’s much more.

Is this what the children are doing? Should their eyes be open or shut? Does it matter and if so why?  Do the foundation texts need to be in play? And is this spirituality?  Well, it will depend (cop-out phrase coming) on what we mean by spirituality. Is it about making sense of self and our relationship with others, in ways that Ursula King or Andrew Wright might recognise? Is it about transcendence, devotion? What are its links to communities of faith?

Some mindfulness practices – sitting quiet, listening to your breathing, trying to just be rather than plan dinner or think great thoughts, or fight feelings of inadequacy (yes, this is me, in meditation) – can be seen as practices arising from spiritual traditions in East and West. In that sense they are part of spirituality. They differ from some (largely Western) attempts to define spirituality in that they do seem, in their purest forms, to lack a goal. Sitting to sit, washing the dishes to wash the dishes: someone who sits in meditation may find clearer water in which to view their past and present (and maybe their future), but they are chasing a bird to put salt on its tail if they think meditation will automatically give that. Sometimes when I sit it’s like sitting on a block of ice, and I am desperate to finish, or I spend all my time chasing what I should have said, how I might have looked.  I certainly am not “better” when I get up. It is not Penicillin or Novocaine.

Martin Laird’s books are a good way to see some synergy between the goal-orientated or biography-centred definitions of, say, Wright or King and the goalless sitting of Zen. His (Christian, monastic) perspective looks at the therapeutic outcomes of silence in which arises an awareness of our own psychological states:

The specific focus of this book [Into the Silent Land] will be on the practical struggles many of use face when we try to be silent – the inner chaos going on in our heads, like some wild cocktail party of which we find ourselves the embarrassed host. Often, however, we are not even aware of how utterly dominating this inner noise is until we try to enter through the doorway of silence.

Just sitting, for me, needs my eyes to be open: to sit where I am and see things come and go, rather than plunge myself into the interior cinema of deadlines or wishful thinking or regrets. I’ve written about this before when reflecting on birdsong in the morning. It also needs me to see the things that worry me as the “weather on the mountain:” not me, just the stuff that swirls about me (this is another image from Martin Laird).


Back to the classroom – both the compulsory-age children’s rooms and the HE classroom I’m preparing for.   Although it’s a lot to ask, I think I would expect spirituality in an educational context to encompass three or more aspects:

  • Awareness of self and others
  • Compassionate attitudes
  • Practices that encourage these two.

Compassion and spirituality are sometimes artificially linked: Christian warrior monks, for example, in the twelfth century had compassion for some and not others, and coupled this with intense religious practice from Cistercian roots and combat to the death. Similar attitudes might be seen in religious groups today. Nevertheless, in general, spirituality is linked often to the awareness of others we might describe as compassion. It’s a tall order to “get schools” to do this work, but it has been represented in OfSTED guidance and in local curriculum materials. It is there in germ in the aims and objectives of Oxford Brookes and other Higher Education organisations – although I have critiqued this before.  Compassionate attitudes, spirituality, real vision and purpose: they might be enunciated but not embodied. Children are wild, students are on their ‘phones, teachers and lecturers are overworked or grumpy, systems prop up systems rather than support users. It is, as I say, a tall order.

If a bit of quiet sitting does form competent, reflective, self-aware compassionate students (and staff???), I’m happy. If a lot of quiet sitting is needed, well, maybe schools and Universities need to think this through and ask what the role of education is. If sitting quiet and sparkly jars help, then fine, whether they have the backing of a training group or no. If, however, sitting and the rest is tokenistic and without wider ripples into school, then I don’t see the point.

So while my class for the  Values and Religion in Schools module will have mention of mindfulness, will look at the SACRE on spirituality, and at thinkers like Wright, and Eaude, will mention outdoors and wellbeing and read some Thich Nhat Hanh, I do not see piecemeal adoption of spiritual practices as a cure-all, any more than I think a bit of woodland exploration will save the world. But it’s a start.





I had the privilege of working for a short time with Jane Lane, a tireless campaigner (forgive the cliche) against racist attitudes of all shapes and sizes in Early Years.   It is her thoughts I want to reflect on very briefly here.

We were sat one rainy evening in a café working through some documents I think Jane wanted some feedback on, and I can’t remember what sparked it, but Jane looked up from the papers we were reading and she gave us all a warning about words to do with water: floods, and influx were already words that warned of an uncontrollable situation, and therefore carried with them negative connotations. She then said “It’s like ‘They’ and ‘Them.” We looked at her, and she went on to say “If someone talks about immigrant children as “they” you know we’re facing a lot of trouble.”

It’s the lumping of people together that, to a greater or lesser extent depending on context, denies their personhood. That’s why when @elly_chapple today on Twitter described inclusion being about humanity, I was back in that rainy café. Inclusion is a problematic term, or at least one we have been asked to ponder at the start of Brookes ITT Inclusion week (#obuinc19), because it is multifaceted, moveable according to who we are talking to or about, evolving (we’d hope) as our capacities and reflective practice change. The head teacher who has staff wellbeing to think about; the teacher whose relationship with the parents hangs on That Tone of Voice when she meets them at the end of a day; the TA whose time is punctuated by demands for all sorts of expertise; the child herself.  And this is (so far) one child who needs to be included in the educational project of the school, or the county or whatever; inclusion also has to look at the system-drivers and system-users for Child A who has a hearing loss; for Child B who has foetal alcohol syndrome and is in the Looked-After system; for Child C on the Autistic spectrum… and the temptation is to reach for the They. “Yes we are proud of our inclusive ethos in the school,” says the head, beaming with good intentions. “They are well catered for.” And no doubt the needs are well met within the system.

But inclusion has to go beyond the system. It has to go beyond the number-crunching to the needs – and not just the shortcomings and deficiencies – of the children or their families. It has to embrace, as Elly says, their humanity. It’s therefore not about coping with (or solving) problems, but meeting the child and the family (and those they come into contact with) where they are.  Maybe it’s about a smile, a good word as well as a “Can I see you about…”  It’s certainly about seeing the child in focus as part of a wider set of societal expectations, but also seeing them as an individual, and definitely not as “one of Them.” Think how many of us might  have been excluded at one time or another by being part of “Them;” think how fragile the right not to be seen like that can seem to some sectors of society here or elsewhere.

To those who work with the complexities of atypical development, critical social need or physical or sensory challenge this is probably self-evident. I’m just not convinced that the children and families always hear this, always are aware that they are not They.

Passport to a Rant

I find myself really torn by the recent DfE initiative around enriching children’s childhoods. img_0772I love the idea of children being outside; I am unhappy when schools are elbowed into making sure children do this, that or the other outside the school day. We are told – and it already seems a bit defensive to highlight this in the web page that launches it  – that the initiative is “backed by the Scouts, Girlguiding and National Trust.” This is part of the introduction from the webpage:

The list of activities is intended to support parents and schools in introducing children to a wide variety of experiences and fulfilling activities like flying a kite, learning something new about the local area or putting on a performance.

The list of activities was inspired by the Education Secretary’s visit to St Werburgh’s Primary School, in Bristol, where every child is encouraged to take part in a list of tasks and experiences, with key achievements for each school year to tick off. The list will be sent to schools in January for teachers to adapt to meet the needs of their pupils and local communities, helping young people to build their personal skills and qualities during the school day and at home.

And here is the draft passport, downloadable and by and large unobjectionable as a set of things to do. Already some of my impatience at yet another thing for schools to do is partly mitigated: this is to “support parents and schools,” not just to be a tick list for schools, and it is adaptable, so that (to some extent – see below) issues of physical or economic challenge can be got round (I am choosing that awful phrase on purpose). Ah but look carefully at that last sentence.

The list will be sent to schools in January for teachers to adapt to meet the needs of their pupils and local communities, helping young people to build their personal skills and qualities during the school day and at home.

It will be for teachers to do this: schools are (yet again) seen as the managers of the deficit home life or at best the recorders and by extension legislators of parental attitudes and activities. The organisation Every Child Should (that title raises my hackles, but let that pass) take the line that “particularly with the demise of universal youth work provision and Surestart” schools are now the “only remaining point of universal access.” In other words because of all the cuts, teachers: work harder! Schools stump up the funds! This is where my – and their – disquiet is worth hearing:

Great to introduce a bucket list for 11 year old but is this just another thing for schools to be held to account for? Austerity. Little extras. And yep – these are all significant issues and to pretend a passport can fix these challenges is at best foolish and at worse insulting.

While they then do suggest a passport is an effective model, they do so with a set of very worthwhile pro viso warnings about affordability, inclusivity and partnership. Let me propose a couple of scenarios here to illustrate where the passport model might not be a good way forward:

In case one mum is a teacher and dad is an office worker. They have two primary age children. Hard working (remember the “hard-working families” guff from a few years back?) but if they feel to some extent time poor they are not at a critical point. They build snowpeople [sic] when they can, read books, play on IPads, go camping.

In case two, again a “hard-working family” with two primary age children, and with dad on nights, mum works in a local supermarket: they box-and-cox childcare as best they can. This is much more like real time poverty, but there is still time for a kick-about in the park, and swimming club on Wednesdays, most weeks: and sometimes a bit of belt-tightenng to afford it.

Family one are already doing this stuff, and the school are being asked to do what? Manage these things? Supervise them? Require parents to record them? I recall the Oxford Reading Spree conversation about teachers keeping children in to “do reading” if the Home-School Reading Record was not showing reading at home: are we now looking at compulsory After-School Guiding if the record is not kept up to date? Family two likewise might be able to take on suggestions about starry nights or planning a meal, but really do not need school breathing down their necks any more: there is already enough pressure around finding the approved shoes for school, doing the increasingly involved homework (“make an Egyptian irrigation system”), find the money for trips… My point here really is to ask what does this passport have to do with them?

When the NCB endorses the passport their Chief Executive writes

We welcome this effort to immerse children and young people in activities that can build their confidence, develop their curiosity and support their growth beyond academic attainment…

But none of the endorsements seem to see the relevance of this element of control on the lives of these families. Let’s face it: as proposed by the National Trust (whose suggestions for “Things to do” form the basis of the Passport) these activities are interesting, free from immediate curriculum constraints (until we get to writing about it in class: note the SoS for Education seeing the “relevance to the curriculum”), and might encourage a bit more engagement with world beyond the immediate, technology dominated life of today. They are a bit culturally biased, a bit lacking in context, a bit wistful for a childhood past (I love the adventure into Ladybird Land with “post a letter” – although “play in the garden while Daddy reads the paper” was strangely absent), but we are reminded this is adaptable. The parasites are already creating forms for you to use. When Action for Children suggest more face-to-face time in their Build Sound Minds campaign (and God knows we need to think about families’ mental health), I worry the resource creators are already licking their lips at some kind of target-driven initiative that makes quality parent-child time into a Couch to FiveK plan. Yes, that’ll work, I’m sure.

And now let me suggest case three: mum is full-time at home, not out of choice but because the needs of their child suggest she may be called upon when these additional needs are felt to be beyond the capabilities of the school; the out-of-school activities they need, as she once explained to me, to include “our own parking place at the local hospital.” This passport better be adaptable – and not just in terms of “work arounds” for this family, but in ways that are genuinely inclusive. Or is this child’s teacher actually going to have to say “We’ll let you off the tree climbing, of course…”

It would be easy to go along a scale in terms of severity of need and still not stray from families I have worked with: the child looked after all week by Granny; a family for whom the mother being outside the home was culturally a challenge (a challenge they were meeting); the single parent for whom a lie-in felt like a necessity and who didn’t know how to cook (one of the TAs taught her to save money by mashing potatoes rather than buy microwavable stuff)… and we aren’t yet in the serious crisis cases.

I am all in favour of schools – and families – going beyond academic attainment. I spent a large amount of time on my two modules on Outdoor Learning last semester talking about how the curriculum  is much more than a syllabus; learning is more than being filled with facts… We sat outside in the autumn sun; we lit a fire, found a badger sett…  And out of work – well, after work, and along the road from the Harcourt Hill campus, at least –  I IMG_9750-1have sat in a local copse with a couple of mates and a beer…  And this is all without mentioning my passion for exploring children’s literature and how it can represent the magic of being outdoors.

I am not (as Margaret Hodge once described me and some colleagues when we asked for developmental elements in the Foundation Stage documents) a “joyless do-gooder” who wants to deprive working class children of the opportunities I gave my own children. But I am not convinced – yet – of the passport as proposed from on high as not just another bit of target creep: codification and a plea for schools to work harder.

In the end, I guess, my rant comes down to one thing:

How joyless to see the stars at night so you can tick them off!


Up to my (shall we say?) knees with marking and just want to consider one little word. Actually it’s a word that stands for a whole set of assumptions about academic writing. Whilst.

It reminds me of the Grandma who once, in the springtime of the world, came to pick up her grandchild from Nursery. The unfortunate dialogue went something like this:

Granny: Hurry up, Mikey, we need to go.
[Mikey continues to play]
Granny: If you don’t come soon your headteacher will smack you for being naughty.
[I don’t normally intervene and certainly not to contradict a carer but I wade in]
Me: I’m sorry, Mrs S, but we don’t ever smack children; please don’t give Mikey the idea that we do.
Granny: But I’m giving you permission to smack him. Insofar as you are in charge in this establishment I am permitting you to exercise your rights in loco parentis.

Now, this isn’t about smacking or school-based discipline or home-school relationships, but voice. I can see what I did wrong there – but I still think Mikey needed to know I wasn’t going to hit him – but listen to Granny. She didn’t normally talk like this, but she changes gear massively with that Insofar. The awful phrase in loco parentis just adds to the sense that this person is claiming some kind of authority by sounding, well, as if they have some. My dreaded signal while (sorry: whilst) marking does the same. What it too often introduces – like Granny’s insofar – is a sort of strangled over-writing (I still feel much the same about the new(ish) translation of the Roman rite liturgy, if I’m honest, with its sub-Cranmerian verbosity but that is by-the-by).

When I see whilst I have to acknowledge that sometimes it does sounds better.   I suppose I could write “don’t use this:” after all, I do have a button in Grademark that just says “Avoid,” but whilst has so much hanging on it I feel I need to explain myself.  No-one (in my modules at least) will get marked down for just using whilst, or even (usually) for the occasional “you” or an odd lapse in references. My hunter instincts may be roused, but I will not routinely chase the hare. Does that metaphor work?

I could have called this blog post “please consider keeping your sentences shorter and more straightforward: you will be able to “lead your reader” more effectively if you make less use of phrases such as ‘through this research journal article  it has been discovered…'” but I don’t think it’s as catchy, even though I use that phrase (or similar) often enough when I give written feedback. What whilst says to me is “I’m drowning here: how the fuck do I make myself sound like the kind of people I’ve been reading?”

And that is a challenge that assignment feedback can hardly start on. How do we give the complex and sometimes mixed messages about how to join the writers’ club? What about the comment “missing apostrophe” or “italics not needed in Harvard”? How is a student to know where to start with all of this? Or, to make this personal, how do I take my chatty, ranty blog posts and change the voice to get an article from this idea or that?

Students, young writers be aware at least of this:

You are not joining us in an exercise of perfection, but in a struggle for clarity.