Marks Hold Meaning

I have my review copy of Sue Cowley’s Ultimate Guide to Mark Making in the Early Years with me, its new-print smell still strong. 124F0083-02B4-4930-AEEE-3EA73BAD0FEE
Thank you, Sue, and thank you Macmillan/
Bloomsbury/Featherstone for the copy: I hope I do this book justice.

Sue is engaging here with a number of the subjects she is well known for on Twitter. She is not unprepared, I suspect, for the to-and-fro tussles around the issues she discusses such as self-regulation and phonological awareness. We might debate quite how we have come to such spasms of controversy that I am mentally listing people who will engage with the ideas she presents (and how professionally they will do so), from secondary mansplainers to single-issue advocates. Nick Gibb was in prophetic mode when he foresaw this debate when arguing about power and curriculum with David Blunkett: what he either didn’t see or chose not to discuss was the potentially poisonous nature of such debate. Sue enters into these times of trial more willingly than I – and she doesn’t shy away from them in the Ultimate Guide, either, so these reflections will attempt to look seriously at Sue’s book, but without drawing down on her the πειρασμός of the curriculum wars.

To the book.

One of the things Sue states in the introduction is that this book is not about getting children to ‘meet targets,’ nor is it about how to please OfSTED inspectors, local authority advisers or the DfE.  Given how hard it is to discern the mind of any of these – and certainly impossible to discern a hive mind for all three together – this is an important point. She is aiming directly at effective practice, at people who will read it, in her words, so that it will help you trust in your professional judgement. This means that, for example, the fine motor activities for eye/hand coordination are not a scheme of work, a set of practices that the disempowered practitioner must follow, but things that might be of use; similarly, a Reception class might typically (her word) spend  20 minutes on literacy/phonics per day – but key to effective practice might also be having an eye to children who are absent. There is a fluidity to the suggestions in the book, which is both a guide a resource bank. Ideas that are simple and straightfoward – like developing dexterity by playing with hole punches and paper, or thinking about regulatng noise even in nursery areas – can sometimes be overlooked. This is a rich book of ideas.  Some people might like this; for others, either hesitant or hard-line (or both: not all rigorous practice stems from confidence) this will mean they might want to ponder: What works, and why? Why is this section before that in this book?

This is no bad thing.

However, I wouldn’t want to give the impression of a wish-washy book. I don’t think Sue does wishy-washy. When I was a new-ish teacher, the Bright Ideas books were a big thing: landscape format double-pages with time saving ideas, things to dig you out of a hole, some things you hadn’t thought of to make a display really shine. They fell from favour a little because they were scattergram ideas, rather than anything systematic. Because the ideas were good, I used them as a teacher and head teacher – just with the proviso that you can’t start on page 1 and move through to the end.  To give a sense of direction in a book like this is absolutely vital, and one strength of this book is that it moves between the might-and-could-and-trust-your-judgment approach and a structure rooted in an understanding of how children learn. Not everything works for everybody, despite what some people in education want to say, and a Ten Top Tips approach would have been destructive of the need for genuine professional reflection.

Starting from a discussion on who leads the learning (her quick response around what child-centred pedagogy is immediately followed by a page of coloured boxed on Finding a Balance), Sue takes us through developing talk, the physicality of starting to make marks (some great ideas here) through self-regulation (see below) as far as moving from letters to words and words to sentences. This (to my mind) really sensible structure not only gives shape to the text, but also allows Sue and her practitioner-readers to focus on particular practices or pinch points: I love (and will be pointing my students next semester towards) the motor skills section and then the glorious Mucky Activities; the genuine attempts at involvement of parents/carers likewise are deserving of attention.  There are basic ideas, quirky ideas, points to stop and think, thinks to love, to debate  – yes, always the challenge to reflect.

So the Ultimate Guide isn’t an all-or-nothing Programme, but a series of practice-based discussions around some areas that need serious consideration. This gives me a bit of leeway to question some things. Edite, a child whose writing of her name we see all through the Early Years in the section on marks holding meaning gives us a brilliant display of handwriting that develops, but given the lovely section that follows (the graffiti wall – which reminds me of the boy I taught who learned to write his name on the shed wall in letters taller than he was), I might have wanted more of Edite’s Story. More links between the discussion on motivations and Edite’s reasons for her name writing might have been illuminating- but perhaps that would have been another book?

The sections on motivation and self-regulation are interesting, and worth some discussion on their own. Sue takes a light-touch approach to a difficult topic that is currently quite controversial, and a different book would have had more room to discuss the issues she presents – but again, this would have been a different book, and with a different audience.  Her advice is solidly part of the “nursery inheritance,” emphasising that the dance of inculturation is slow, and suggesting that our own impulse control may need some time for reflection. Nevertheless, she is quite firm: Success at writing is inextricably linked to behaviour… And where a child cannot use language effectively, school becomes a daily trial by literacy.  Trial by literacy. Ouch: that is an uncomfortable phrase, and well worth pondering.   In this context I might also have wanted Sue to present the developmental continua of writing with a bit more of a health warning for nervous practitioners wedded to their milestones – but actually any misgivings about atypical development are set aside time after time by real-life considerations of children with a range of additional needs.

Any quibbles I have are minor. I know Sue will be prepared for the battles that purists, only-one-way merchants and the secondary mansplainers will want to join with her. There are a good number of reasons why this is a book to be proud of, Sue – and why I shall be suggesting a range of people I talk to should buy it.


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.



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!

Language Play

Overheard on the bus, a four-year-old explaining patiently to his mum:

Only dogs are allowed to catch a cat.
And cat is allowed to catch a mouse.

The “play” here is at a number of levels. I really appreciated the repetition, but most of all the slightly ponderous cadences and pulses. I could  have looked at David Crystal’s eye-opening book Language Play, which makes a plea for language enrichment precisely through valuing children’s (and adults’) play with their language.  I could have looked more seriously at Bruner, whose book on Child Language I explored for myself this semester as part of the Brookes module on Practice and Pedagogy. I was drawn instead to a book that suggested to me ages ago (wrongly) that this was what Education research had to look like: the detailed transcripts in Martin et al’s 1976 Understanding Children Talking, and I was reminded of Jason and his life-story poem “I wish I was a raindrop.”  I am struck by what he plays with here in terms of rhythm and structure:

I wish I was a raindrop, a raindrop, a raindrop
I wish I was a raindrop and lived in a cloud
And it would be all warm, all warm, all warm,
And it would be all warm and we’d have a nice cup of tea.

(NB: there are four more verses to this).

I am struck by the rhetorical rhythm the boy on the bus gave to his Dogs and Cats pronouncement, which gave it authority. Martin et al call this “bardic,” which I wouldn’t want to lose as a concept.

The ideas expressed are influenced by the hidden demands of the mode.

and it’s this hiddenness that requires play. We could not teach Jason how to make a poem like this (very like “I’m walking like a Robot” and “Poor Jenny sits a weeping”) but we can allow him room to try out the various structures. As adults we introduce, repeat, maybe reinforce – but it is the child’s playful exploration that makes the creative leap.

Martin et al ask big questions of language, but I’ll end with the challenge of literature:

Are our novelists, poets and dramatists reaching back into their earlier days and, with the added skills of literacy, exploring and extending those same frameworks through which as children they talked out their fantasies?

Vocation I: thoughts in a bleak time.

A first thought on what makes me do what I do – or rather to voice something much deeper than curmudgeonly impatience at the world of work we face as the new year starts.

It comes in response to a sense that the world around me has changed so much, so quickly and in such ways, that I seem to have fallen out of it, to misuse Tolkien’s phrase about the fall of Gandalf. Higher Education is subject to market scrutiny and handed over to hugely paid leaders and  people frankly unsuitable not because of past misdemeanours but because of attitudes that seem at their heart a monstrous parody of past views of class and merit.  Early Years is again subject to the kind of battlegrounds I thought we had left bloodied but unbowed. Literacy will get some bits of funding to make hubs but schools continue to be short of money to do the everyday job which really would improve social mobility. It is acceptable for the pedagogologues who enjoy the attention to characterise children as “in need of a good slap” (this post so disgusted me I can only link to it obliquely: why give such stuff the satisfaction of hits?) and a young person who seeks inclusion as  a “functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six.” This is painfully and angrily expounded in the heartfelt blog “Troglodytes in the chocolate factory: the disabled child as rhetoric linked here.  So to go back to that sense in fantasy – in Le Guin’s Earthsea, in Garner’s Elidor, in the elves in Tolkien’s Middle Earth – the glory has departed, my time seems to be past.

And if this gloom and doom were all there was, any sense of vocation would seem lost. What is the point – other than the salary – of going in tomorrow? I sound like Fungus the Bogeyman, rather than Elrond.

And what can I say to my students? Dispassionately I can observe we have been here before. Personally I can go back – as I did in a previous blog post – to the teachers and leaders who inspired me or spurred me on. I look at them with gratitude.

What about the longer view, however?  I find my answers – and I don’t presume to say they are anybody else’s – in literature, especially in the heady punch of Alan Garner and the clear waters of children’s literature. As Cooper works to “unriddle” the world,” Garner too talks about the truth of story. His despair at the collapse of the culture of the Man in Boneland captures it in mythic form:

I have a Story.

Tell me your Story, said the other.

The world was full, and the people hunted, and the sun was young. Then two people of the Crow held each other, and the Stone Spirit wept and the sun moved its face. Then came cold, and the herds went. The Hunter and the people followed them and the world was empty; but the Bull stayed. And every night of winter he comes above the hills, watching to see that there is life; and the Stone Spirit looks to send out eagles from its head to feed the stars.

And because the Crow flesh brought the cold they stayed to dance and cut and sing in Ludcruck to make new the Bull and the beasts on the wall of the sky cave above the waters for the time when all will be again, with the Hunter striding. But if we do not dance and cut and sing and make the beasts new on the sky wall the Stone Spirit will not send eagles.

And who is it that you hold? said the other.

No one. She and the child went to the ice. No one is left to hold. No child to teach. I am alone. After me, no one will give my flesh to the sky, take my bones to the nooks of the dead. The sun will not come back. The Stone Spirit will not send eagles. The world will end.

That is a true Story, said the other.

Garner (and Cooper, and Pullman) are explicit about how storytelling takes you back to the universal, a window into truth.”  This particular storytelling shows a man, The Man, despairing as his world closes around him: some hope is also coming, however, as we read on, but it is longer term than we could possibly imagine.
If fantasy provides a heady mix of images and hopes and fears, I would also choose the clear stream of children’s literature because – well, at one level the lampoon of adult nostalgia that is Moomipappa is enough to prick any bubble of self importance and regret.


It is worth speculating on the nature of curriculum. What is it? Who owns it – and by owning I suppose I’m asking “In whose gift are the decisions about it?”

As I’ve pointed out before (notably in the chapter on curriculum in Themes and Debates), while play is a key factor in a child’s learning and development, it does not take place independent of other learning; the provision of good quality experiences (in the home or in another setting) takes account of play as an enriching experience, so that adult-led experiences go hand-in-hand with the learning that arises from the children themselves and their play. Adults make choices about when and how to intervene – and this should be done sensitively and with an understanding of a the individual child’s needs and intentions.

So does this mean that play as a self-chosen activity is actually a myth? That the child is not really the free agent we fool ourselves into envisioning?

I think it depends on what is meant by play, a phenomenon every childhood practitioner might say they recognise but which actually carries a multitude of meanings so that it is really a series of interlocking experiences and intentions rather than one thing that is either here or not here. Maybe the same is true of curriculum.

“Ownership” is therefore a crucial issue for both – but maybe that isn’t  the right word. Is the problem embedded in the notion of control? Does anyone really need to “own” – as in possess and control – complexity? If play is a set of actions that involve emotion, competence, imagination, freedom, how can we say it gets owned? Or rather, if we own it, do we ruin it? A wise monk once said the Magnificat is a great, wild horse that we tame into being a farmyard pony: perhaps if we seek to limit play – Golden Time, and “Now you’ve done your work you can go and play,” and “This is an activity the grown-ups think is fun” – we take the edge off its imaginative, creative possibilities. The children may not have limitless freedom – but in play, their possible worlds are expanded and expanding, and we can limit this only when we are clear when and why we should.

EPPSE and beyond

October’s report on pre-school and early home learning effects on A-level outcomes (DFE-RR472A) has some heartening things to say for us who are struggling as Children’s Centres are closing, reshaping or simply looking gloomily at their money being taken away. Lasting impact to AS level; lasting impact beyond that for young people whose background is more problematic.

I’m going to put up part of the executive summary, partly for my students (yes, you: now look up the full text, linked above), but also because it never hurts to keep saying these things:

• There are continuing effects of pre-school at age 17. EPPSE students who had attended any pre-school were more likely to enter AS-level exams (mostly taken at age 17) than those who had not. In addition, if they attended a high quality pre-school they were twice as likely as those who hadn’t attended pre-school to take AS-levels.
• However, for most students the pre-school effect had disappeared by the time they took A-levels (generally at age 18) as there were no continuing effects of pre-school at entry to A-level exams or on the grades students achieved in them.
• Separate analysis for the Sutton Trust (Sammons, Toth and Sylva, 2015) showed that there is lasting impact of pre-school for the specific sub-group of disadvantaged young people who were classed as ‘high achievers’ at the end of primary school.
Home learning environment
• The quality of the home learning environment EPPSE students experienced before they attended school does have a continuing effect at ages 17 and 18. EPPSE students who experienced a good early HLE were more likely to enter AS-levels, A-levels, and have higher attainment in terms of KS5 point scores.

And beyond? Well, the implications for how we and the Higher Education students with whom we engage see the role of Early Childhood is a start: coming into the sector “to make a difference” really does seem to work.