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18 Jun 2013


Special Educational Needs


We at The Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants have five SEN experts and they are now our busiest advisors. We have experienced a 40% rise in the number of parental enquiries concerning children with needs that range from severe mental and physical disability to, far more common, mild dyslexia. What all the enquiries have in common is a sense that provision for the child in question will take a lot of tracking down, fighting for and that, somehow, the parents need to make a strong case for the help the child unquestionably needs.


The ‘right’ school


This is not new and, of course, the situation is infinitely better than it was. We now have complex and brilliant strategies for assisting in most types of special needs and many parents testify to the huge beneficial changes the right school has made to their child. However, finding the ‘right school’, getting a place there and funding it remain problems for many and we spend much time assisting parents with the nuts and bolts aspects of applying and pursuing – along with finding the best possible school in the first place.


“When Thou Art Clobbered, Thou Shallt Be Further Clobbered”


Ours is a – albeit modestly priced – fee-paying service. We only exist because local authorities – mindful of penny-counting rather than providing life chances – make parents fight so hard for their children. This is on the time-honoured principle of “When Thou Art Clobbered, Thou Shallt Be Further Clobbered” – in other words, it isn’t enough to have a child whose needs are so much greater, time-consuming, exhausting and career-closing than the average, you also have to fight to get them what is theirs by right in a civilised modern society.


Tell us about your local authority


Our SEN service is rushed off its feet. And some local authorities are known to us as far more mean and obstructive than others. We are compiling a league table of the most and least helpful authorities. Tell us about yours – in confidence, anonymously if you prefer. Email


11 Jun 2013


Mr Gove’s ideas for English and Eng Lit GCSEs


It could be worse on the English front. The aims are the right ones – they emphasise the need for pupils to be able to read, write and evaluate text coherently. They require the reading of ‘high-quality, challenging texts’. We lament the death of coursework – such a happy innovation back in the 1980s – controlled assessment seemed a decent compromise and now we’ll be back with all the inequalities inherent in a single final exam. Woe to the hay fever sufferers – we thought we’d been able to forget all that. We don’t applaud the inclusion of a spoken English component only to say that it won’t carry any weight in the assessment. How many teachers will give it class time when it won’t count? But, as we said, it could be worse.




The Eng Lit, though, is disastrous. What is the purpose of reading literature at school? Let us be very, very clear about this. The purpose of reading literature at school is to create a desire to read more literature. The purpose of reading Shakespeare at school is to make pupils want to read it, speak it, see it enacted, perform it, discuss it and relish it. The purpose of reading novels is to create the yen for more novels, different novels, older, newer, shorter, wilder, funnier, scarier, gentler, wittier, more gripping, more challenging, more moving novels. The purpose of reading poetry is to excite and delight, fascinate, touch and inspire. The imagination, the senses, the mind must be stimulated by being introduced to ideas, places, people, experiences not available to us in our own lives. Literature takes us to other worlds and helps us to look more deeply into our own.


So what is Gove giving us? A whole Shakespeare. We applaud. Far too often bemused pupils were expected to write intelligently about Lady Macbeth on the strength of the ‘unsex me here’ speech and the sleep-walking scene. Much can be done with imaginative teaching to make this a thrilling and memorable experience. ‘A selection of Romantic poetry’. Hm. ‘At least one nineteenth century novel’. Hm. ‘A selection of poetry since 1850’. And ‘British fiction or drama since the first world war’.


Grab ’em


We are mystified and saddened. The purpose of reading literature at this age is to inculcate a liking for the stuff. True, The Eve of St Agnes or So We’ll Go No More a-Roving might grab a few of the more naturally literary-minded teenagers but why not give them Auden? Larkin? Ted Hughes? Armitage? Really grab them with brilliantly crafted poems in something more like their own language? Grab them and then see how they want to explore other, older poems. Why a nineteenth century novel? All this means is that Silas Marner and A Christmas Carol – the shortest – will sell out and a few schools will spend three terms ploughing through – and killing off – Great Expectations.


The last two categories allow more scope and are less depressing. But there is an awful lot in the whole list. It reads not unlike an A level course.


And all to be assessed via a final examination.


There will be few heads of English who don’t take to bed early tonight with a towel and a hot water bottle wrapped round their temples.


11 Jun 2013


What Did History Ever Do For Me?


Michael Gove wants the history curriculum to reflect a coherent, continuous, chronological “story of these islands”. 40% of his new GCSE curriculum will be about our native history. Historians of all cultural and political standpoints are waving their mark books in a frenzy of objections and, once again, we have to ponder not just what we teach our schoolchildren about history, nor how but why?


The English, the English, the English Are Best


Many of us can recall that history was once about “England” – Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror and Harold the doomed King on the Bayeux tapestry of which there was a copy in each classroom. It went on to be about the Tudors – as nothing much happened in between – Henry’s six wives were of especial importance – and then there was Queen Victoria and some wars and history stopped. It was vaguely ‘linear’ with lacunae.


Then it all changed and we acknowledged that history depended on who and where you were – whether you were Caesar or Caradog, a patrician or a peasant when the Romans invaded. There grew a sense that ‘our’ view of the coming of age of the world was not necessarily the only one and matters such as the British Empire were rather more complicated than less sceptical ages believed. History became less insular and thematic.


Why teach it at all?


So what history we taught and how we taught it have changed beyond recognition in our lifetime but why do we teach it at all? There has always been a moral aspect to this – Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – in Santayana’s dourly reverberant words. History, then, is good for us and probably attracts more pedagogical debate than any other subject. There are plenty of moralistic history zealots who argue endlessly about whether we should start from now and work backwards, whether it is defensible to jump about history eg the causes of the first world war to the Chartists, to the abolition of the slave trade to Henry’s wives and back again. There are those who feel history must be ‘relevant’ and explain our democracy or our capitalistic society to those who have inherited it. Others feel, on the contrary, that pupils know all this by osmosis and that they need to understand feudalism. Mr Gove, however, clearly knows what type of history is good for us.


But why teach it all? If we accept that history is good for us – it is broadening, enlightening and wonderfully explanatory of so much we do, perforce, inherit – then surely the job of primary and junior history teachers is simply to make it gripping and memorable? Everyone likes a story. Most people – of all ages – like exploring. History must be about stories – from whatever standpoint they are told. Enjoyable, interesting, explanatory and exploratory. History at KSs 3 and 4 can, of course, be more challenging and the selection of what can or should be taught is a genuine dilemma. At A level, one has to imagine that students are already hooked so what is taught matters less and the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions matter more.




But this is sophistry. The point, surely, is to get them there because, whatever else history might be, it is pleasurable. Witness the extraordinary success of Hilary Mantel’s recent historical novels, witness the huge number of popular history and historical fiction books published each year, witness the endless history programmes on our TVs every night of the week, witness history tours and battle re-enactments. We all love stories and, as any teacher knows, we learn when we enjoy. And stories help us learn to think for ourselves.


Let us simplify the question. Not what should we teach but why? And the answer is to introduce every schoolchild to the sheer pleasure and excitement of exploring the past. If Mr Gove’s innovations can slip the noose of pedagogy and dogma, he might one day take the credit for enthusing a generation.


07 Jun 2013


On Your Knees, Avoid the Fees


I gave a talk recently to a bunch of young professional parents in west London. I was talking about education generally and, more specifically, schools and how to get into them. Some attendees were a little smug. “We’re OK, actually,” one said. “Mine are both in the church school now.” Another vouchsafed, “we realised early and joined the local church. Thank goodness – I got them all in to St….’s School that way. Phew!”


You Might Even Like It


No priest is so naïve as to imagine that the eager-faced parents who turn up to church with Dorcas in buggy and Oscar in sling have suddenly seen any light other than the one over the porch at St Ofsted’s. But, if it’s a way of getting them, in she’s not going to cavil and, you never know, one of them might actually find they like it even after the precious – free – school places have been secured.


The situation is starkest when it comes to London senior schools. Senior C of E and RC schools are now hugely over-subscribed and the results – in most cases – indicate why this is so. But is this because church-goers are cleverer than non-church-goers? I doubt whether anyone would argue that. It is more that parents with nous, know-how and foresight – who know how to play the system – are drawn to such schools because of the high standards, good discipline and sound teaching and then make a strong and committed parent body which insists on high standards, good discipline and sound teaching.


Free Schools


Free schools have been set up on the same basic idea – parents with aspirations, principles and know-how should be able to run schools as good as the church schools. The scheme appeals to those with shared interests eg a language or a faith. But, of course, it takes a lot more to run a successful school than high ideals. Legislation, for one thing, has to be adhered to and there’s a lot of it. Premises are hard to find. There is nothing simple about running a school – especially when parents invest their hopes, their time and their children in it. And shared interests can rapidly become conflict zones.


So – On Your Knees, Avoid the Fees? If you can remember getting any kind of pleasure from intoning All Things Bright and Beautiful when you were 6 or get a religious frisson from a Tintoretto altarpiece when you’re away this summer, go for it. If you can’t…..


03 Jun 2013


Fat children


You’ve stopped even noticing it. If there’s a school near you with shops nearby, chances are that at lunchtimes and at school chuck-out time, there’ll be groups of children – pre-teens and teens – hunched over polystyrene trays of sausage-in-batter-‘n’-chips – slurp, slurp. It could be kebab, it could be chicken ‘n’ fries or burger ‘n’ bun. Whatever it is, it’ll contain half the day’s recommended calorie content. It might be the only hot food they get that day or, more likely, there’ll be a meal later at home which they’ll eat too.


And now, in some parts of the country, up to 35% of our children are clinically obese. The rate for the whole country is one fifth. Many of these children are too fat to play sport with any pleasure or success, they often look and feel uncomfortable, they won’t be able to get the kind of clothes they like and they won’t, for the most part, feel too good about themselves. More seriously, they have a high risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and of dying young.


Cheap ‘n’ cheerful


So – what, if anything, can be done? Do we blame the fast food shops? They certainly are out to lure in this easy prey. They close in round school gates in bright, inviting clusters. Chicken ‘n’ fries and as much ketchup as you can squirt for a quid a time is quite a draw. Some few listen to the nutritionists’ messages and reduce the amount of the unsaturated fat they cook in which helps. Most do it cheap and cheerful – why wouldn’t they?


Ban the bun?


One area in which the rates for child obesity is especially high is Salford where the council is proposing that fast food shops near schools should not be allowed to open before 5.00pm. But this will affect employment and what will the children eat? They – and, quite possibly, their parents – depend on this stuff.


Something must be done. Yes, easy to say, but scrimping on feeding children properly is very false economy when we all pay for their massive health care needs a few decades down the line. And no civilised society should be content to see the health of its children neglected and ignored in this way.


Yes, Minister?


We need to think of this – if you’ll excuse the expression – in the round. School farms and kitchen gardens fulfil a multitude of needs – they feed, they provide exercise, they teach all kinds of practical knowledge and they can lead to qualifications. They could be one small part of an answer to a huge and urgent problem. Fast, cheap food near schools is also part of it. Is there a government minister with responsibility for the health of our schoolchildren who could take this on?


12 May 2013


Don’t teach it, test it!


So our 11-year-olds are to be tested on grammar – adverbs, connectives, punctuation etc. The sample questions released by the Dept of Education make one weep:



Complete the sentences below using either ‘I’ or ‘me’.


I wanted my mum to watch ____ in the school play.

After we went cycling, Emma and ____ were very tired.

The teacher asked Tim and ____ to collect the books.


The answers are all to be put in in tick boxes so are dead easy to mark. A computer could – and probably will – do it.


What is the point of this? Will it help children write coherently, clearly and expressively? Will it teach the construction of an argument, the description of a scene, the depiction of a character? No – of course it won’t but it will be quick and easy to mark so it will provide a measure – data – with which to clobber schools. It has absolutely not the slightest educational value.


Questions like the one above which assume that we all speak in the same ‘correct’ way, measure nothing other than class and dialect. There are, of course, plenty of capable teachers who would, themselves, get the answers to these questions – especially the last two – ‘wrong’.


Get the 11-year-olds to describe a picture, to argue a case, to write a lively dialogue if you want to assess their English and have it read and marked by a competent person who would give credit for expression, vitality and clarity – as well as for accuracy of spelling, grammar and punctuation. Then you might have a measure that means something.


01 May 2013


“Tutoring” is not a dirty word!


Knocking tutors is in the air – yay! Let’s all ridicule parents who get their spoiled kids packaged and processed – probably on top of paying private school fees!


Parental Panic


Yes – it is ridiculous and pointless – and maybe should be criminal – to ‘tutor’ two or three year-olds -above all in, heaven help us! elocution! And, yes, we at The GSGAS spend much time de-panicking parents who are convinced they’ve ruined their child’s entire life by not getting them into Cramskull Towers. “If only we’d had her tutored like everyone else!”


Hardly a crime


But there is another side to this. It is not a crime to try for a place at an academically selective school at 11+. Pupils in prep schools are literally being ‘prepped’ for this. But at least half the children who go to senior independent schools come from the state sector. It is not the state sector’s job to give their pupils practice in the timed comprehension, reasoning or mathematical tests that will decide the places at 11+. Not unreasonably, parents feel it is only fair to give their children some practice in these things before the exams. The schools may say it isn’t needed but while they assess candidates and offer places based on these criteria, they can hardly complain if state school parents want to give their children a decent chance against prep school children.


It isn’t a question of trying to buy advantage in the majority of cases. Tutoring isn’t the exclusive province of Knightsbridge and Mayfair though there is an extraordinary preponderance of companies offering any number and kinds of educational support for children, many of whom should be left to develop without interference – and without 24/7 access to screens and keyboards.


Plugging gaps


11+ preparation accounts for a sizeable chunk of tutoring. But most of the rest is done by teachers – often retired or part-time – who help those at state schools who, for whatever reason, are struggling with a particular subject. Classes are large, mixed-ability and busy. A quiet or unconfident pupil may find it impossible to get answers to mathematical or scientific queries in class. In English, a pupil might have been away and missed several of the poems he needs to understand for his GCSE. The teacher is too busy to take him for one-to-one sessions to help him catch up. Perhaps a student simply finds a core subject hard to grasp. A few sessions with a teacher all to himself when he can ask questions, be slowly taken through the basics or have targeted practice on the things he struggles with can make all the difference.




Many pupils find the business of expressing themselves coherently on paper a real challenge. This is especially true of those who speak a language other than English at home but can be true of anyone – particularly if they have not had enough practice at handwriting their essays. Help and guidance in essential skills such as these can make all the difference in public exams. Most tutors will tell you that the one thing they work on more than anything else is confidence-building.


30 Apr 2013


Teaching Assistants


When I was at primary school in the 1950s and 1960s there weren’t any Teaching Assistants. My school had 3 classes in each year. The “A stream” class, in which I was, had 48 children. All managed by one teacher. Looking back, I can’t imagine how it was done but I recall rulers rapping knuckles and the occasional caning in the playground.


On the other hand, in those days there were few, if any, children in the A stream with the kinds of special educational needs who now get support from a TA. They were consigned to the smallest class – the C stream. But there was no training given and no-one in those days had heard of dyslexia, dyspraxia or the ASD spectrum. Although, of course, they must have been as prevalent then as they are now. I recall children being described as ‘slow’, ‘a bit simple’ or ‘ESN’ but this was accepted as a given – something that couldn’t be helped. Also, of course, few children spoke any language other than English at home.


TAs arrived in the early 1990s – partly precipitated by the increasing inclusion of children with learning difficulties in the mainstream classes. They facilitate inclusiveness and participation and are part of one of the great shifts for the good in society since my primary school days. We are – at least officially but, I think, socially too – a far more tolerant, accepting and open society than we were.


So I take issue with the Chief Inspector for Schools in England, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who, this week, criticised schools for spending money on TAs instead of teachers, saying good-quality teaching was the best way to raise standards. About that there is no argument and any regular readers of this blog will know that we have risked our necks in criticising calamitous teaching before this – see Q and A below.


The figures come as a surprise. A Dept of Education census of the school workforce, taken in November 2012 shows a significant rise in the number of TAs in England’s schools. The number of full-time equivalent TAs has increased threefold from 79,000 in spring 2000 to 232,300 in November 2012, – an increase of 12,500 (5.7%) between November 2011 and 2012.


We see this as a sign of the value placed on these people and the work they do. Ideally, all those who teach children in our schools would be highly qualified in their discipline and be dedicated, widely trained and qualified teachers. But we don’t – especially now – live in an ideal world and TAs are not substitute teachers in many of the roles they play. The huge expansion in the school population that is happening now makes it imperative that more teachers are trained and put into classrooms. But that does not mean that we should under-value – or under-employ – the TAs.



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