Monthly Archives: February 2014

Dyslexia: does it really exist?

Dyslexia is an umbrella term given to those with difficulties in reading most commonly. The NHS estimates that around 4-8 per cent of children have some form of dyslexia.

However, as this is an umbrella term, academics from Yale and Durham Universities are now suggesting that millions of children are being wrongly diagnosed as dyslexic as they found that the condition itself might not actually exist at all.

The same academics are now calling for the term ‘dyslexia’ to be abandoned because it is unscientific and lacks any meaning. They claim resources are being wasted by putting youngsters through diagnostic tests and say the umbrella term is used too readily for children who often display vastly different reading problems.

In the book The Dyslexia Debate, Professor Julian Elliott, a former teacher of children with learning difficulties, said more focus should be put on helping children to read, rather than finding a label for their difficulty. The author, a professor of education at Durham University, said: “Parents are being woefully misled about the value of a dyslexia diagnosis. In every country, and in every language, a significant proportion of children struggle to master the skill of reading and some will continue to find it difficult throughout their childhood and into adulthood. Typically, we search for a diagnostic label when we encounter problems because we believe that this will point to the best form of treatment. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the parents and teachers of children with reading difficulties believe that if the child is diagnosed as dyslexic, clear ways to help them will result.
“Research in this field clearly demonstrates that this is a grave misunderstanding.”

The authors found that symptoms in one person leading to a diagnosis of dyslexia are often absent in another person similarly diagnosed. Therefore a typical education invention for one pupil may not help another who has also been diagnosed with dyslexia.

While the researchers do not question the existence of the real, sometimes complex, problems some people have with reading, they are critical of the term “dyslexia” because it is too imprecise. They suggest the key task for professionals is to spot reading difficulties early in any child and intervene as quickly as possible rather than search for a questionable diagnosis.

Children are diagnosed with dyslexia for a range of reasons including those whose difficulty in reading is unexpected, those who show a discrepancy between reading and listening comprehension or pupils who do not make meaningful progress in reading even when provided with high-quality support.

Dr Gay Keegan, District Senior Educational Psychologist for Hampshire County Council, said: “As an applied educational psychologist I do not find the term ‘dyslexia’ helpful since there appears to be no unifying identifying characteristics, prognosis or response to interventions which all people with ‘dyslexia’ share. So, rather than considering a single entity, I find it helpful to consider different reasons for reading difficulties, using a functional analysis rather than looking for a label. My approach involves assessing what the child can do and what they find difficult, assessing and enhancing their learning opportunities and measuring their response to well-delivered, evidenced-based interventions over time.”

However charities have challenged their assessment claiming that the term is important and should not be dropped.
Dr John Rack, head of research, development and policy, for Dyslexia Action insisted the term retained a scientific and educational value. He said: “We don’t buy the argument that it is wasteful to try to understand the different reasons why different people struggle. And for very many, those reasons fall into a consistent and recognisable pattern that it is helpful to call dyslexia. Helpful for individuals because it makes sense out of past struggles and helpful for teachers who can plan the way they teach to overcome or find ways around the particular blocks that are there.”

This almost reminds me of the ASD versus Attachment Disorder scenario, although the difference in that case is in fact the symptoms for ASD and Attachment Disorder are considered rather similar. I can see where the academics are coming from in this case, because Dyslexia as a term in itself doesn’t really describe anything, because there are so many different forms. Where I disagree though is dropping the name. Instead of dropping it, why can you not have subforms of dyslexia and give those separate names and have Dyslexia as the overall term, in a way not too dissimilar to ASD, as that in itself has many different forms for different areas of the spectrum? That way all of this confusion could be managed a little bit easier.

British teachers behind Chinese counterparts?

It is a very well documented fact that China, along with a lot of Asian countries, rank very highly in the Pisa rankings, and are deemed the strongest education system in the world. Education Minister Liz Truss goes further to say that Chinese teachers are ‘more effective’ than their British counterparts and their methods must be brought back to what she describes as ‘stagnated’ schools in the UK.

Liz Truss the “Shanghai method” should be brought into to improve Britain’s schools and excuses should not be made for falling behind the levels of the “East”.

The education minister is visiting the Chinese city’s schools after they were marked out as the most successful in the world in a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Shanghai students topped the rankings in a series of reading, maths and science tests administered by the organisation. The UK ranked 26th.

Fifty maths teachers have already been to Shanghai to study the methods that have brought Shanghai students three years ahead of their British counterparts and have seen results improve back in their classrooms in the UK, Miss Truss said.

Chinese students are taught maths in both small and large classes and complicated core arithmetic is introduced at a much earlier age than in the UK. She added that teachers in China “follow up” with their children more than they do in Britain making sure that each child fully understands any concept they are struggling with.

She said that German and Polish teachers had already incorporated methods from schools in the Far East into their lessons and curriculums while Britain’s performance in maths had instead “stagnated” over the last fifteen years.
Speaking on BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme she said: “What we see is very effective teaching methodology going on and that is what we are interested in learning about while we are over here, because it seems that the Shanghai teaching methodology uses resources much more effectively and also focuses on the core arithmetic that children need to have from an early age. So we see very high levels of verbalisation of maths, very high levels of specialist maths teaching in primary schools as well as in secondary schools.”

Her comments come as the influential Brookings Institute at Harvard University poured doubts on the OECD results arguing that the fact the children of migrants in Shanghai are forced to attend school in their home provinces skewed the results. However the Education Minister said that Britain was “kidding ourselves” if we accept this as an explanation for China’s better performance and that she had seen for herself that children were understanding complicated concepts at an earlier age than British children. She said: “What this visit is about is deepening that relationship to make sure we can learn even more about the positive attitude and the positive culture towards maths in China. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that there is somehow an explanation for that very high performance that isn’t about what’s going on in those schools – because I have seen it for myself, I have seen the very high quality teaching that is taking place I have seen that children are understanding concepts at an earlier age than they are in England. What I want to do is learn from that really good practice so that we can apply it in England, because at the moment we have stagnated in terms of our maths performance for the past 15 years while other countries like Germany or Poland have been learning from the East. They have been taking those lessons back, they have been improving their teaching standards and their curriculum – we need to do that too, we cant spend our time trying to explain away differences instead we should be looking at what these countries are doing successfully and apply it to our own country.”

Here’s my question in response to that: If you are recognising that the so-called ‘Shanghai method’ is so effective, then why is Michael Gove being allowed to tinker with the maths curriculum, which still does not even consider the method? Does this mean that there is further evidence that Gove’s plan isn’t so perfect after all? So should the next election be won by the Tories as opposed to a coalition government, will the curriculum be changed again to reflect this method? I agree that we should be looking to other education systems around the world and comparing notes to inform and improve our own education system, but as it stands you can’t have it both ways. It’s great that the first step has been realised (ie recognising the need for improving), but the actual improving stage hasn’t really happened, and it’s unlikely to happen with this new curriculum.

How apraxia got my son suspended from school

Now before any of you get worried, no I don’t have a son myself as of yet. But this article by Princeton psychologist Michael Graziano in the Aeon Magazine was quite a shocking one. This was sent to me by a friend from across the pond in the States. The article was entitled ‘An inconvenient child’ with the subtitle ‘My six-year-old son was removed from school as a danger to others. His crime? A disability you could find in any classroom.’ This is how it reads;

A few months ago, my son, who is in second grade, went on a field trip. As the class assembled in the parking lot, a new child joined in. He had metal leg braces and difficulty walking. Nobody quite knew how to talk to him and so he was left by himself at the edge of the crowd. But my son seemed drawn to him. As the little boy in braces began to struggle up the steps of the bus, my son went over to help and then sat beside him. Throughout the bus ride, they talked together. According to the teachers, that new little boy soon seemed like the happiest child in the group. One of the most sociable children in the class had made friends with him, and that goes a long way towards building self-esteem when you feel isolated and anxious.

I’m very proud of what my son did. He showed compassion. He was still a new pupil himself, and he had suffered bullying related to a disability of his own. The way he was treated at his previous school was so horrible that he might easily have decided to pay it back rather than forward. But kids can be amazingly smart about how to treat one another. After all, it wasn’t the children who bullied him at his old school. It was the adults.

Our son’s movement problem emerged slowly – so slowly that we didn’t notice at first. When he was five, he moved more like a three-year-old. He was happy and chatty, but he had difficulty writing, drawing, cutting, pasting, and sitting straight and still in a chair. Milk tended to spill an awful lot in his vicinity. His kindergarten teacher at his elementary school noted these difficulties, but the school decided he was in the normal range and didn’t require any extra support.

The following year, he started first grade at the same school. In November 2012, we met with the first-grade teacher, who told us that our son’s writing was a useless scribble compared with the other children’s. He was at the bottom of the class. We were taken aback. Poor writing can have an impact on reading and on math. Why hadn’t the teacher told us earlier? During math homework, our son seemed so anxious about the effort of forming each digit that he couldn’t think about the question itself. And yet, apparently, he didn’t qualify for any school occupational therapy to help with his writing.

A worse surprise followed a couple of months later (this is, among other things, a story of escalating shocks). At the start of 2013, my wife requested a meeting with the teacher to follow up on our son’s classroom progress. We were braced for bad news, but we couldn’t have prepared ourselves for what the teacher had to say. She brushed aside our concerns about writing and reading and math, and informed my wife that, for almost a month, since before the holiday break, our son had been ‘touching himself inappropriately’ in class.

The teacher’s description was vague. She seemed extremely uncomfortable talking about the issue. When pressed, she explained that he never put his hands in his pants. He never opened his pants. He never exposed any part of his privates. According to the description, he seemed to be rocking rhythmically in his chair, or rocking when lying on the rug during story time, and the rocking was bumping his groin area.

It happens that my wife and I are both psychologists, and this description of our son’s behaviour worried us a great deal. First, six-year-olds just don’t engage in behaviour with a sexual intent. Secondly, repetitive rocking is a classic hallmark of anxiety in children: the physical motion is self-soothing. It ought to go without saying that any child who engages in strange or extreme repetitive behaviour should get help right away. But the school did not offer help. We were told that it was our responsibility to make our son stop misbehaving.

Very worried, my wife and I got to work. Immediately after that January meeting, we found private therapy for our son. We brought him to weekly occupational therapy for his movement problems and weekly psychotherapy to help him adjust to the stresses of the classroom. The movement therapist found that he had significant muscle weakness and co-ordination difficulties. The psychotherapist diagnosed him with school-specific anxiety. He saw himself as the dummy of the class because he couldn’t even write his own name. When we brought him to school, he would cringe away from the staff and refuse to say hello. The repetitive rocking in the classroom was almost certainly a classic self-soothing strategy triggered by his anxiety about writing. The rocking movements in turn might have been affected by his co‑ordination problems.

While we were busily making arrangements to help our boy, his school embarked on a campaign of its own. Our son used to attend an after-school programme run by the YMCA, where his teachers always spoke highly of him. Without our consent, someone from the school contacted the staff of the YMCA programme to tell them about his classroom difficulties. This person apparently labelled his problem as sexualised behaviour and speculated that his parents might be abusing him. The first we heard about this was when the after-school staff told us about it.

At around the same time, somebody at the school took our son out of class and interrogated him about his family. This person apparently told him that he couldn’t let anyone know about the conversation, and indeed we found out about this second secret rendezvous only when he began to act it out in play. Unsurprisingly, the emotional conflict of being asked questions concerning something that he was, in his words, ‘not supposed to talk about’ caused him a considerable amount of distress.

The fact that the school was pursuing its suspicions in strange and secretive ways raised questions of its own. But we couldn’t help a grain of doubt. Was the school right? Was his problem simply a pattern of willful and highly inappropriate behaviour? It seems significant that nobody outside the school ever reported any of our son’s strange ‘sexual’ misbehaviour. He didn’t do it at home. He was well‑behaved at the after-school programme, at which he was said to be a delight. He had a group piano class every week and never behaved the way the school described. He had play dates with other children and was always his usual sociable, friendly self. His movement therapist and his psychotherapist never saw the misbehaviour. Nobody but the adults at the school ever saw sexually motivated behaviour in our six-year-old boy. We believe the school was looking at a childhood disability and interpreting it in a thoughtless and stigmatising way.

As I said, this is a story of escalating shocks. The next one came on 28 February 2013. The teacher emailed my wife to schedule a one-on-one meeting. At the last moment, I decided to come too, and it was lucky that I did. The meeting turned out to be an ambush.

The school principal came down to the lobby and led us to a room where we found an entire panel facing us: the learning consultant, the teacher, the nurse, the school counsellor. The principal sat us down and told us that our six-year-old son was masturbating in class. This masturbation took the form of abnormal movements as he sat by himself in his chair or on the carpet during story time. Everyone found it disturbing to look at. It was our responsibility to stop him. The principal also informed us that she had called the State of New Jersey Child Protection and Permanency services to report our family for investigation, since she suspected that our son might be the victim of sexual abuse himself.

We sat stunned. We had spent a year asking the school for help for our child and the principal’s very first response was to report us to a state agency for possible child abuse. She hadn’t talked to us first. She hadn’t attempted to gather even the most basic facts about the case – for example, that our son had a movement problem. She didn’t know that he was in private psychotherapy to help him with the stress he felt about going to school. She didn’t know that his repetitive movements in the classroom had been diagnosed as symptoms of acute classroom anxiety, and that it was probably brought on by a writing difficulty that the school was failing to address. She didn’t know any of this.

His teacher, on the other hand, was quite certain that our son didn’t have school anxiety. After all, she explained, she never saw him cry. How could he be anxious?

Last summer, the head of pediatric neurology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia diagnosed my son with apraxia, sometimes termed dyspraxia or developmental co-ordination disorder. This condition has been called ‘the hidden disability’, because it is so easily overlooked. People look at apraxia sufferers and see a clumsy child who won’t try hard enough, a child who must not be very bright because he can’t keep up in math and reading, or a disobedient child who won’t stop moving in weird ways and bumping into people. Anyone with a disability knows about stigma. The problem might be worse in apraxia because so few people can see the obstacle.

Movement disorders are not entirely new to me. I’m a professor of neuroscience myself, and I’ve worked extensively on how the brain controls movement. My wife is also a neuroscientist and has a degree in psychiatry. You might think we would be excellently qualified to pick up our son’s problems pretty early on, but in fact it took us a while to fully understand. Apraxia is a complicated disorder with many different shades and symptoms. Its signature is difficulty in co‑ordinating movements and learning new sequences of motions. Actions that come automatically to the rest of us are difficult to master. It’s easy to think that an apraxic child is simply being defiant or lazy for not tying his shoes, but a task like that can take years of hard practice to learn. It’s an exhausting and never-ending process of practising basic movement skills.

What causes it? No one really knows. The scientific literature has paid close attention to a region of the brain called the Supplementary Motor Area (SMA), which is thought to play a role in co‑ordinating complex movement sequences. Another brain area that might be related is the posterior parietal cortex, involved in spatial processing. It is not known how much of apraxia can be blamed on malfunctions of these brain areas. Another possibility is that the white matter, the cabling in the brain that connects different regions, develops incorrectly. Perhaps there are many causes and many types of apraxia.

To add to the confusion, there are the so-called ‘co-morbidities’, or additional disorders. The condition is often accompanied by attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The line between those two can be extremely difficult to spot. An apraxic child might wiggle and shift in his seat, and if you didn’t know better he might look hyperactive or inattentive. He might also feel stressed if he can’t perform in the classroom, which is likely to manifest as hyperactivity and inattention.

There are more puzzling associations, too. Children with apraxia also have an elevated risk of autism, dyslexia, and sensory processing disorders. Why these deficits tend to come together, nobody knows. Our son has some sensory processing issues, especially sensing his body in space. Thankfully for him, that seems to be the only extra problem on his plate.

There is, of course, no cure for apraxia, but if it is noticed early and handled responsibly, schools can help to manage it with occupational and physical therapy. Systematic daily exercises, overseen by experts, can help to develop strength, co‑ordination, writing and many other skills. An apraxic child might never become Joshua Bell on the violin, but he can learn to manage quite well. The biggest challenge of childhood apraxia might be the stigma that so commonly comes with it, rather than the disorder itself.

Childhood apraxia is now a part of my family and my work. My interest in it is understandable. But why should you pay any attention? Simply put, because apraxia is extremely common. It is also probably under-diagnosed. One in 15 or 20 children are estimated to have it, which is about one in every classroom. If you work with children, some of them probably have it, whether or not anyone has noticed yet. And the way you respond to them will have an enormous influence on the trajectory of their lives.

After the surprise meeting with the school principal, we waited for a state investigator to inspect our home for signs of child abuse. A formal state investigation puts a family under incredible stress. Parents are left at the mercy of their worst fears. Children can get taken away. Schools are, of course, entirely within their rights to call an investigation at their own discretion, but it seems to me that this step should not be taken lightly. At that surprise meeting, we faced a roomful of people talking nonsense about the supposed sex acts of a six-year-old. Nobody in the system was telling them to slow down or to talk to the parents before triggering an investigation. No one seemed to know anything about child behaviour, certainly not enough to make the diagnoses they were making. A horrible idea had taken hold of them and they were running with it. We felt utterly powerless.

Our son’s psychotherapist wrote a letter to the school to tell them about his classroom anxiety. Our son’s pediatrician also wrote a letter to the school telling them that he saw no medical evidence of any abuse. These experts asked the school to intervene with a step-by-step behavioural plan to help our son’s classroom difficulties. Under federal law, he was entitled to what’s called a 504 plan, in reference to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is meant to ensure that disabled children have full access to education, but the school refused.

In frustration, we went over the head of the school to ask the district administration for what is called a Child Study Team, or CST. A study team convenes, tests the child, and arrives at recommendations. That type of evaluation takes up to 90 days. We were very happy that the district was willing to set this process in motion. However, we also thought our son needed immediate help for his anxiety in the classroom.

On 21 March 2013, at 10 am, the New Jersey inspector visited the school to tell the principal that our family had been cleared. No abuse was taking place in our home. The school’s response, to our astonishment, was to suspend our son.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. When a child’s home is under state investigation, he cannot legally be suspended from school because that would force him into a potentially abusive family life. Once the family is cleared, the school is free to exclude the child. For the month that we were officially under investigation, our son remained in school. Within two hours of the inspector informing the principal that our family was cleared, she abruptly changed tack. Instead of accusing us of abusing our son, she now accused our son of sexually assaulting other children. The principal called me at work shortly after lunch that day and told me to collect my son.

We received a formal suspension letter a short while later. It contained only a vague account of what our son had done. It neglected to mention that we had the right to protest the decision at a hearing, and it gave no end-date to the suspension. The nearest thing to a ray of hope it contained was the claim that re-admission would require clearance from a child psychiatrist. Here was something we could work with. As soon as we could, we took our son to a psychiatrist, a well-respected one who had practised in the Princeton area for 30 years and who worked extensively with the school district.

The psychiatrist quickly discovered just what had been going on immediately before our son was pulled from the lunchroom. Apparently, he had been playing zombies. He was not alone: it was a common game among the first-graders. During the game, our son had embraced another child. That’s the only clear description we ever received of our son’s ‘bad behaviour’. As the psychiatrist laconically wrote: ‘I never regarded this conduct as sexually predatory as apparently school staff do.’ He cleared our son and recommended that he be readmitted to school. But the principal refused.

My wife said to me: ‘I feel like I’m in the wrong movie.’ The school was manufacturing a sex scandal around our six-year-old son. He didn’t know what was going on except that he was excluded from his friends in school. He thought he was being punished for breaking the rules, but of course he didn’t know what the rules were, because there weren’t any.

Throughout the suspension, we kept trying to meet the district and work with them toward a resolution. We were especially eager to move forward with the CST evaluation that we had requested. However, when the district sent us a formal letter outlining its plans for the study, it emerged that the team they had appointed included no physical therapist, no occupational therapist, and nobody who could assess or help our son with his movement disability. On the other hand, it did include the principal who had kicked him out of school in the first place.

This seemed like a bad sign.

The district insisted that they would not consider letting our son back to school until the CST had met. This condition, which was unambiguous and made in writing, also turned out to be illegal: parents have a legal right to refuse a CST without retribution from the school. Our son’s constitutional right of education had been denied. As a last resort, we took the district to court.

In the court documentation, the district accused our son of being ‘sexually assaultive’ and us of being ‘unco‑operative with the process.’ The principal’s written testimony included a set of classroom notes about our child to show how he wilfully misbehaved. Strangely enough, the school had given us an alternative version of this document about a month earlier, which we still had. The notes are attributed to a young classroom aide and detail her observations of our son in class over a period of two days (19 and 20 February 2013). The version that was submitted to court as sworn testimony offers a noticeably different account, including several additional sentences that make our son’s conduct sound wilful and sexual. It looks to me very much as though somebody in the district was willing to lie in court and falsify documents in order to damage a child.

According to the written testimony of the principal, the psychiatrist supported her claim that our son was sexually assaultive and a danger to others. Fortunately, we were able to show this testimony to the psychiatrist himself. When he read it, he was so disturbed that he wrote a letter rebutting it, specifically noting that he thought our child was not sexually assaultive, not a danger to others, and should never have been suspended from school.

It was two very tense days before the judge gave a written ruling. She ruled against the school in every respect. She noted that no expert on the part of the district had adequately evaluated our son. Several outside experts had made clear diagnoses and recommendations, but the school ignored them. The school provided no help or intervention for a child in distress, choosing instead to illegally suspend him. The school had not shown that our son was a danger to anybody. For his own psychological health, the judge ordered our son to be sent to a different school in the district. The district was to provide a formal 504 plan to help him with his classroom difficulties.

Looking back, the most charitable interpretation I can put on the whole experience is that maybe when large bureaucracies start moving in one direction, they reach a point when they can no longer resist their own momentum. Someone at the school made a bad judgment about our son, the system clanked into motion and from then on there was no stopping it. It certainly felt like we were caught in a machine that had no guilt about telling lies, no inhibitions about destroying children and families. And as far as we could see, there was no reason for any of it other than carelessness and arrogance and, in the end, self-protection. It served no function except, perhaps, to save the district some money on movement therapy. When the judge asked what could possibly justify the open-ended suspension of a first-grader from school, the district declared that our son presented ‘a danger to others’ – including a danger to the adults at the school. By this stage, our son was six years and eight months old.

It is only fair to point out that we also encountered several true heroes who cared about children and tried hard to help our son. We were particularly impressed by the staff at his new school, who made it their business to give our son a warm and supportive experience. In May 2013, on the order of the court, our son was enrolled in Riverside elementary school in Princeton, New Jersey. From his first day at the new school, the teachers, the principal and the psychologist reported to us that he was a delight to have – funny, sociable, kind, gentle, and eager to do well. He loved turtles, platypuses, and Harry Potter. He made friends easily. His behaviour was not disruptive to the classroom. Nothing he did was a danger to himself or to anyone else. Nobody ever saw any ‘sexual’ misbehaviour. He was, however, observed to rock in anxiety in his chair when he was tasked with a writing assignment. The psychologist was able to help by talking to him and by instituting a reward system for good class work. Within a few days, the rocking stopped.

I wish I could say that the move to the new school magically solved everything. But that is not the case. A year later, he still has lingering trust issues with school and teachers, and significant anxiety in the classroom. It takes a long time to recover from stigma and rejection. That’s why children’s disabilities ought to be handled with great care and compassion. My wife and I have degrees in neuroscience, psychiatry, and psychology. We have the means and the leverage to go to experts and to the courts. But even with all that leverage, we still barely saved our son from a system that couldn’t grasp the disability it was dealing with. How many families and children get ground up by that system? If our experience is any guide, parents should be vigilant, and if something doesn’t seem right, always stand up for your child.

I want to add another message to what Mr Graziano is saying here, and this is to the schools. If you see something that doesn’t seem right, don’t just immediately assume that the child is a danger to others and cast them aside like an old pair of trousers you’ve grown out of. Your role is to do everything you can to nurture and develop the child’s full potential and give them the future that they deserve. Yes I understand that this may not be possible in all mainstream schools but catastrophic errors like this school made simply cannot happen. This particular child in question could have his social development severely hampered by this experience, and I have to say fair play to his parents, who happened to be in the right profession to deal with this, for standing up for their child. Not everyone has the knowledge and expertise to do this, and if you’re one of those, find someone who does. It’ll massively help!

Longer school days? Board says no …

One of the many features of our Education Cannibal Michael Gove’s plans were to cut school holidays and make the school days longer, describing the current hours as ‘a relic of an era when children were expected to also work in fields.’

Well, the School Teachers Review Body (STRB) which was set up to advise the government on teacher pay and conditions, has published a report which rejected these proposals as unnecessary as teachers already work well beyond their hours.

Chair of the STRB Patricia Hodgson states, ‘We endorse the current provisions of 195 working days and 1265 hours. We note that teachers currently work additional hours beyond directed classroom sessions and there is already flexibility for heads to deploy teachers according to the needs of their pupils.’

The report highlighted concerns that attempts to extend school hours could kill off the culture of after-school clubs. It found that “Teachers who currently run after-school activities on a voluntary basis might not do so if working hours were extended. This would mean that in future, schools would have to pay for work that is currently undertaken by teachers on a goodwill basis without extra payment and a likely consequence would be that many schools would have to stop providing these activities due to lack of funding.’

Another problem I can see with increasing the working hours comes the time for planning. Teachers are heavily prescribed as it is, which has resulted in the need for Planning, Preparation and Assessment (PPA) time. In order for these extra hours to be accommodated, more PPA time will be needed to cover it.

The report’s findings perhaps unsurprisingly have been welcomed by the unions. General Secretary of the NUT Christine Blower said, ‘The STRB has delivered Michael Gove a huge blow by rebuffing his recommendations for further attacks on teachers’ conditions and pay. Michael Gove sought to persuade the STRB that the teachers’ contract undermined professionalism and that the provisions were over-prescriptive. He failed on all counts.’

Mary Bousted of the ATL adds, ‘We are relieved the STRB has sensibly resisted pressure from Michael Gove to increase teachers’ formal working hours and has also decided to protect the existing limits on what teachers are expected to do in their own time.’

All this isn’t to say the STRB completely rejected everything that Gove proposed. The STRB agreed with proposals from Gove to remove regulations restricting teachers from conducting tasks such as bulk photocopying and filing. They also agreed that schools should be given greater flexibility to give headteachers large salaries. Make of these what you will …

The Department for Education claim to accept the conclusions and key recommendations from the report, subject to public consultation. Anyone else reckon this is their way of saying ‘we want to tell the public the STRB are wrong and we want to do this and that and make things better’?

Happy Valentine’s Day Everyone!

Well as I’m sure you’re all aware today is the 14th of February, which is Valentine’s Day. So today is all about the history of Valentine’s Day, and finishing with some Shakespeare and a song by Meatloaf.

Valentine’s Day, or as it is more formally known, Saint Valentine’s Day, is celebrated on 14th February each year. The Valentines that are commemorated or two Italian saints, Valentin or Valentnus, who share the saint’s day of 14th February. The date is now when lovers declare their love by sending each other gifts and romantic cards. There’s nothing especially romantic about the lives of the two original Valentines, they were both martyred for their faith, in Ad 197 and AD 269 respectively.

The early tradition of Valentine’s Day was that it was the date that birds began to choose their mates, only later did the romance extend to the human population. The first reference in print to Valentine’s Day is found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The parlement of foules [The Parliament of Fowls], circa 1381:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

[For this was Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird of every kind comes to this place to choose his mate.]

How the date of 14th February was selected isn’t known. It may relate to the approximate date first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, which Chaucer’s poem was written to honour. The couple were both 14 at the time of the engagement, which took place on 2nd May 1381, not on 14th February. The betrothal of young lovers sounds promising as a romantic story bit, in fact it wasn’t. The marriage was purely a political contract between Anne’s brother, King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia and the English government – the partners were unlikely to have met prior to the marriage.

The earliest known romantic valentine verse was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife in the 15th century:

Je suis desja d’amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée

[I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine]

Since then there have been several poems written by several different poets, some more famous than others, but here is one that I quite enjoy, despite not being a fan of Shakespeare. This is his Love Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! And as promised, I’ll leave you with some Meatloaf!

College of Teaching plan

I’m sure a lot of people have heard of professional, non-political bodies such as the Royal College of Nursing etc, but a notable absence among the lists which, in my opinion, needs to be addressed is that of a College of Teachers.

Well the BBC have hinted that this may actually be happening, and plans are under way. The idea is that this College of Teaching is to set out responsibilities such as setting the standards (a political buzzword) and sharing research. Membership of the group would be voluntary and thus play no role in disciplinary hearings or the setting of pay. The only condition is that members need to have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), which means that those unqualified teachers who are employed by free schools and academies can’t join it in the conventional sense, but they could join as an ‘associate’ member, which acts a bit like a stepping stone to becoming a member, but not actually becoming a full member. The proposal is that you cannot be an ‘associate’ member for more than 3 years (interestingly enough time to get a degree and become a fully qualified teacher, not at all dropping hints).

The blueprint for an independent, professional body for teaching has been produced by a commission set up by the Prince’s Teaching Institute. The commission included head teachers, teachers, academy providers, academics and teachers’ unions. The teaching institute, which has the Prince of Wales as president, has been acting as broker for talks about setting up a professional body since September 2012.

The college would be designed to be funded by membership subscriptions, which the college says could range between £30 to £130 per year. This would cover anticipated running costs of £11m to £14m per year.

Chris Pope, chairman of the commission and co-director of the Prince’s Teaching Institute, says: “The breadth of technical, intellectual and personal capabilities that we expect from teachers is extraordinary. Yet teaching remains a major profession with no independent body to set standards for the profession.”

Russell Hobby, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, backed the plan for a college. “If teachers want professional respect and freedom from interference, they need a body like this to strengthen their voice,” he said.

Christine Blower, leader of the National Union of Teachers, warned that membership costs could concern teachers. And she argued that it will “need to show that it can contribute positively to the professional discourse, in particular at a time when the government’s attacks on teachers and education are causing teachers to leave the profession”.

Mary Bousted, head of the ATL teachers’ union, welcomed the idea of a college but said it needed to support teachers rather than government policy. “For the college to achieve its aims, it must get buy-in from the profession and prove itself to reflect teachers’ professional aims and concerns.”

Chris Keates, leader of the NASUWT teachers’ union, warned of “diverse and often contradictory ambitions for the college”. She questioned “the credibility of a college created in an environment where teaching has become an effectively deregulated profession as a result of the policies of the secretary of state”.

So we’re back to this old chestnut again, should our education be governed by politics? Well if the last century or so has proved anything with it’s succession of Education Acts, The Great Education Debate and more recently the Academies Act among others, it’s that our current education is for the government, not for our children. Successive governments constantly tinker with the education system like supercharging an old banger of a car in the vague hope that they find something that improves it, which is potentially risking the future prospects of our children, and thus potentially damaging the economy, which is broken enough as it is.

I would love to see an age where education is governed by the people who dedicate their lives to it, whether it be teachers or headteachers or even possibly unions. Politics may have become intertwined with education in recent times, but there is no reason for it to continue that way if it is not working. We can see our education system slipping down the PISA ranking system whilst countries perhaps even less economically developed as we are are creeping ahead of us like the tortoise in the hare and tortoise story.

We’re going on a Gove Hunt

Just thought I’d bring your attention to this, I thought this was hilarious!

Education, Teaching, Technology

Michael Rosen has written an open letter to Michael Gove this week (http://bit.ly/wOR2vl). Rosen is critical of Gove’s policy and approaches, I think it’s fair to say he’s not Gove’s biggest fan.  Rosen’s classic children’s book casts the bear in the role of the scary monster, but what if we were to face our modern day demons and go on a Gove hunt….

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The row over the Head of Ofsted role

One story that has gripped the national headlines of late has been the dispute over the non-renewal of Labour Baroness Morgan’s role as Head of Ofsted by Michael Gove.

It is not yet known who will take over the role, but nonetheless a row has still broken out.

Baroness Morgan claims that she was a victim of a ‘determined effort from Number 10’ to appoint more Tories into the top political jobs. From the outside, this may not seem so surprising, given that we have a Liberal-conservative coalition government at this present time.

Another argument that has arisen from this comes from David Laws. He argues that actually, the inspectorate shouldn’t in fact be political at all, as it is supposed to be an independent organisation. He too argues that Baroness Morgan’s removal was politically minded. A source close to him said: “The decision to get rid of Sally Morgan had absolutely nothing to do with her abilities, or even education policy, and everything to do with Michael Gove’s desire to get his own people on board. David Laws is absolutely determined not to let Michael Gove undermine the independence of this vital part of the education system.”

Of course, Michael Gove is desperate now to try and defend his decision. He argues that the decision to remove Baroness Morgan was entirely his and had absolutely nothing to do with Number 10. He told the Andrew Marr Show: “I think she’s done a really good job. I think that she and the chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw are a fantastic team. But one of the things I feel – and across government – is that from time to time you need to refresh the person who is in charge of an organisation.”

On top of that, he adds that Baroness Morgan had come to the end of her three-year term as Ofsted chairwoman and it was good corporate practice not to automatically reappoint people – a different person could come in with a “new perspective” and make sure there were “tough questions asked”.

Mr Gove pointed out that he had appointed Baroness Morgan in the first place, knowing she was Labour, adding: “It’s also the case that we’ve recently appointed a former Labour special advisor Simon Stevens to head the NHS. Now when we come to appoint the new head of Ofsted I will appoint, and we will appoint, on merit.”

Here is something that I reckon he’s hoping that we will not notice. One thing he did not do was rule out the possibility of Tory donor Theodore Agnew as the next in line for the job. Of course it would be wrong to rule out a suitable candidate based on their political allegiances, but it does look suspect when a Tory is the only real reported candidate to replace Baroness Morgan. I bet Gove’s hoping that another candidate who isn’t a Tory announces themselves as a candidate to take over.

So what Mr Gove that a former labour special advisor is now the head of the NHS? What about the non-tories who were removed from bodies such as the Arts Council and Charity Commission and replaced with … you guessed it … tories? There is no way of avoiding the fact that it does look very suspect from the outside.

Harriet Harman takes the argument even further. Ms Harman claims that there was a trend that women in senior authoritative posts were losing their positions and being replaced by men. Gove hit back by saying the Tories have had a female prime minister, and had appointed these women to senior positions in the first place, including Baroness Morgan.

I’m all for the idea of Ofsted not being political at all, in fact I think education as a whole should not be political at all. Stories like this for me really provide clear arguments why. Why should a politician decide what the needs for our children are?