Always will.

Glass, Shattered, Window, DestructionTen years ago, I was just finishing the most terrifying, exhilarating, exhausting and arguably the most successful year of my life as an educator.

I’ve spoken about it before, but not for a while, and a few things have happened this week (like the message from D) to make me want to look back at it.

Briefly:  I worked in a primary school at a time when everything was controlled by THEM – the curriculum, the standards, the targets, the methods.  As educators we were under stupid amounts of pressure to conform and jump through all THEIR hoops.  The alternative was Special Measures.

Ours was a smallish school and – as sometimes happens – in that particular year, we were struggling with an above average number of, um, challenging pupils.  The reasons for the challenges weren’t hard to fathom – parents in prison, parents who had died or were seriously ill, parents with substance abuse issues, violent and abusive siblings and step-parents, family break-ups, history of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.  Those are just the bits I can remember.  There was also peer influence and imitation; children would pick up on the behaviour of others and copy it.

Run Riot, Anarchy, City, Urban, GraffitiEvery class in the 7-11 age group had a few hard-core rebels and several who copied their behaviour.  Teachers felt their standards slipping as they struggled to deal with daily disruption.  Some were refusing to teach certain children or to have X and Y in the same class.  Exclusion of these youngsters wasn’t an option.  It was frowned upon by THEM, and anyway, we wanted to help these kids.

As a senior management team, we pondered long and hard on how we could organise classes for the next academic year.  No combinations worked.

Until I had my crazy/wonderful idea.

I opted to teach a mixed-age class of just 16 pupils, containing every one of the challenging children and a few others who had their own issues and difficulties, despite not being disruptive.  My conditions were that the National Curriculum would not be followed, testing would be optional – and then only at the very end of the year, targets would be replaced by frequent ‘look how far you’ve come’ reviews, the education would be holistic, with a different programme of study for each individual based on their personal circumstances and emotional needs as well as the educational ones.

Luckily, I had a brave, supportive head teacher and some brilliant, visionary and courageous support staff.  I was also able to buy in help from a very talented play therapist/counsellor.  Annoyingly, the local authority insisted on adding in its Behaviour Support Team, who tried to get me to run the class along the lines of Pavlov’s dogs or Skinner’s rats.  Not helpful.

My curriculum was, very broadly:  Term 1 – learn to tolerate and begin to like yourself.   Term 2 – like and take some responsibility for yourself and begin to tolerate one or two others, so you can manage to work in a very small group.  Term 3 – take responsibility for your own behaviour and actions and begin to tolerate and work with larger groups and the whole class.

Girl, Boys, Children, DevelopmentEach of the 16 who stayed at the school (such families travel around a fair bit, so some moved away) went on to rejoin a normal mainstream class the next year.  All of them opted to take part in the end of year tests and did as well or better than expected.  In the final term they did a whole class project and cooperated as well as any group I’ve ever taught.

Obviously the hardest bit – so hard I still have to fight back tears as I remember – was to get these lovely young people to tolerate and, later, like themselves.  Once that was achieved, the rest flowed relatively easily.

As I mentioned earlier, several synchronicities have turned up recently, drawing me back to 2007.  Some will have to wait for another post, but I will mention D.

He was one of the oldest in that class – an intelligent, painfully sensitive, deeply troubled young lad who somehow transformed during the year from having always been the class weirdo to becoming an excellent and much admired role model for the younger boys in our group.

Last night – as he does from time to time – he messaged me.  Said he hoped I was doing OK.  We chatted briefly.  I told him what was happening in my life; he told me a little about his.  Then we signed off.

“Thanks for remembering me,” I said.

“Always will,” came the reply.

I’ll always remember him, too, and the rest of the class who taught me that once you can like yourself, there are no limits to what you can do.





Danny Reading



Not Danny – but somewhat similar… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may remember Danny – he of the decimals and so forth.  He’s an after-school tutoring student of mine.  Coming up for twelve, still with speech difficulties and, shall we say, selective about what he gives his attention to…

I no longer teach him maths.  Reading has become the priority for our one hour a week together, since – he tells me – he is a ‘7.2’.  I’ve no idea what a 7.2 is, although I have a nasty suspicion that it could be his reading age, as tested by the special needs department.

To begin with, the reading books supplied by school looked promising – clean, attractively covered and illustrated and with easy words but age-appropriate content.  Week by week he unwillingly stumbled his way through them (“Have we DOT to do dis?”).  There was no discernible improvement.

Then the books changed.  Suddenly I was being presented with slim volumes of scantily worded and colourfully illustrated tales of ‘Ned the Greedy Dragon’, ‘Timmy the Flying Goat’ and their ilk.

“Seriously, Danny?” I remonstrated as yet another infant picture reader was dumped on the table.  “The school gave you this as your reading book?”

“I doze it myself,” he smirked conspiratorially, “I doze it ‘tos its easy!”

There followed a short but pointed lecture from me on the short-sightedness of this strategy and the difficulties that would accrue should he – as seemed more than possible – leave school without basic reading skills.

I didn’t feel I was getting through.
Danny, after all, has had seven long years to perfect his reading-avoidance strategies.  He wears them with pride.

Fortunately I know Danny well.  As I’ve discovered through our years together, motivation is everything with him.  A memory was stirring somewhere in my mind.  I recalled beginning to write a simplified version of Life: A Player’s Guide aimed at 9-12 year olds.  A short rummage around my PC’s hard drive revealed it: Coran and the Cosmic Computer Game.

English: Monitor "My Computer" icon ...
Would this story of avatar creation and computer coding in a sci-fi location be of interest to Danny?  I strongly suspected that it would.  I was also confident that he would be able to grasp – and relish – the analogy being drawn to Life.  Would the words be beyond his reading skills?  Well they were quite a way ahead of Timmy the Goat et al.  On the other had, if he were sufficiently motivated…

It was certainly worth a try.
IMG_20150529_085051 (1)First I drew up a grid, so that polysyllabic words could be written out, broken down into their constituent phonemes and blends.  (See right.)  Then I printed page 1 of the story:


Coran and the Cosmic Computer Game

 A brand new game! Coran was grinning to himself so much that he kept almost bursting into giggles. This was exciting. In fact it was more than exciting.

 He collected his pass and headed for the programming suite. That was where he would meet the programmer who would help him build his avatar and enter The Game.

He looked at the pass. It said he needed to go to Station 4. He headed across to the terminal and was greeted by a tall figure who sat the keyboard.

 “So, it’s nearly your birth-day, Coran,” said the Tall One, with a nod of his head.   “About time for you to do some choosing.”

“Hmm,” said Coran, thinking hard.

 Up where Coran lives, birth-days are not the same as birthdays here. A birth-day there means exactly what it says – the day you will be born!  Now that may seem odd to you, because Coran is already alive, or he couldn’t be saying, “Hmm,” – could he?

 What it means is that Coran is about to be born as a new character in a cosmic computer game. First he needs to select his avatar, which involves making loads of choices, then he will be ready to start playing The Game.

 Coran was trying to decide what sort of character he wanted to be in this game. He’d played it many times before, but this game was so mind-blowingly huge that each attempt could be completely different from all the ones before.

 “Nothing too easy,” he told the Tall One. “I want a real challenge this time. The last game was utterly boring.”

The Tall One smiled to himself and began to type the code on his machine.

“So you want a big challenge, huh?”

 “Definitely,” announced Coran. “My character will  have…”

The title was slow going.  By the end of the second sentence, though, he was reading most words without asking me to lay them out for him on the phoneme grid.  By the end he was barely stumbling on anything.  There were about three words in the whole passage I had to read for him.
He regarded me with wide eyes as he finished.  “I dort it was doin’ to tate me about a hour to read dat,” he said.
“Me too,” I admitted, and we both smiled broadly.
“Dan I read the next bit next time?” he asked.

As I mentioned, with Danny, motivation is everything.  I strongly suspect this is also true of so many of the so-called disaffected or learning-disabled students languishing in our schools.


A Raw Nerve


Wasn’t intending at all to write about this today, but here goes…

It’s not my normal style, and I’m not posting this story to gain pity or settle old scores, merely to show that once any system is ruled by fear, it is ruined.  In my very long career in the education system, I watched that happen, and it has continued apace since I left six and a half years ago.

I was just told by a friend on Facebook of a horrible incident from her childhood.  She’d been in an excellent school where all the children were learning well and very happy, yet a sour, vindictive school inspector came in, found the one child with mild learning difficulties, reduced him to jelly and verbally trashed the teacher, who went home and committed suicide.

Inspectors – like all manner of ‘experts’ – are people who swan into a setting for about 20 minutes and believe they have the knowledge and ability to sum the situation up and make life-changing judgements.

They don’t.

Let me tell you my inspector story – mild by comparison, but the raw nerve that was touched by my friend’s memory.

I posted once about a very special and experimental class I taught. The link to the original post is here.  The children were in a mainstream school but between them they had a huge range of problems and life circumstances which would reduce almost anyone to a gibbering mess.  Several had been on the brink of permanent exclusion because their behaviour was so extreme.

Well they made massive progress, and the following year I returned to teaching a ‘normal’ class of 10 and 11 year olds – except that this normal class contained a large proportion of the children I’d been working with the year before.

There was Shaun whose dad had died a year or two back after years of alcoholism, Daniel whose dad had just come out of prison and was now back to running a crack house, Isla who had just been moved from her long-term foster-carers and was being rehoused almost every week, Carly whose dad had terminal cancer, Sam who had suffered severe physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a teenage brother and various step parents… and those are just the ones that spring to mind.

By and large, we got along just fine.  Plenty of learning took place and although I often had to make allowances for these damaged and traumatised kids, who had a shorter fuse than most, with help from my brilliant learning support team, I was able to achieve my targets and they were making progress – in the ways our leaders required, as well as socially and emotionally (which to me was far more important).

Then we discovered that we were to be inspected by an OFSTED team.

An urgent class discussion took place.
“We really need to show these people how far you’ve come,” I told them. “That means while they’re here, it would really help if you could stay in your chairs, not have any arguments with each other or freak out if you feel a bit challenged.  I promise I’ll support you all and it won’t last long.”

Shaun gave an agonised scream.  “Can’t do it Miss,” he bellowed.  “I know I’ll get stressed out just ‘cos they’re here and then I’ll lose it big time and you’ll get in trouble.  I can’t handle it!”

That started an avalanche of worries and tears.  In each case it was the same.  They were terrified that they would let me, the class and the school down.  Day to day living was enough of a challenge for many of them.  This was a step too far.

My wonderful teaching assistants and I reassured them, praised them, reminded them how far they’d come and declared our absolute confidence that they could manage this.

The inspector arrived.  A roundish, well-heeled lady with a posh accent.  As she walked in, the children were immersed in the activity I’d set.  All was calm; all were bright.  True, Sam waited for the first opportunity when her gaze was averted and crawled under his table, where he remained trembling but otherwise immobile for the rest of the lesson, but this went quite unnoticed and no one showed any inclination to draw it to her attention.  The kids covered for him beautifully and kept him well concealed.

Children answered her questions politely and participated with enthusiasm and exemplary behaviour.

The blanket and pillow in the reading corner that doubled as a bed for anyone who hadn't been able to sleep the night before.

The blanket and pillow in the reading corner that doubled as a bed for anyone who hadn’t been able to sleep the night before.

When she’d left, we dusted Sam down and told the children how proud we were of them and how wonderfully they had behaved.  I was bursting with pride when I headed off to lunch that day.

After school, though, I had my feedback session with the inspector.

“Come in dear,” she smiled.  “Yes, a perfectly adequate lesson.  No problems and I could see learning taking place.  But…”  she looked slightly reproachful,  “I mean they’re a very well-behaved, good natured class, aren’t they dear?  I do feel you could have pushed them a bit harder – given them more challenge.”

There was the briefest of pauses where I could have responded.  I considered it.  I think the reason I didn’t was the same as Sam’s or Shaun’s.  The fear and stress and anxiety had been so overwhelming that I didn’t trust myself to say a word, for fear of letting the school, the class and everyone down.  If she believed that my class were well-behaved, then that was all I needed.  Yet I’d be lying if I said that her pronouncement on my lesson – ‘average’ – didn’t sting.

I feel no animosity towards the posh inspector.  She was simply doing her job.  Was she adequate?  Who am I to say?

The next day I told the class how impressed she’d been with their work and behaviour.  That was all they needed to know.  And I began planning my exit from the English state education system.


Pavlov’s Danny

English: A St. Louis-style pizza in its delive...

Regular readers of this blog may already be familiar with Danny, a ten year old boy I tutor in maths.  You may recall how, by the  judicious use of a few mini pizzas, Danny was finally able to work with decimals without hyperventilating at the very mention of them.

This week it was time to do some revision and to move him further in his studies.

By now, I reasoned (correctly, as it turned out) Danny should be able to work with printed pictures of pizza.  He had reached a stage where the pictures alone had him salivating as effectively as Mr Pavlov’s little bell did for his canine subjects.

We had images of  stacks of ten pizza delivery boxes to represent tens, whole pizza images to represent units and tenths and hundredths cut from a spare one of these.  As long as there was something to remind him of the pizza experience, Danny was able to pick up or identify 31.34 pizzas.  Even 20.25, 1.72 and 3.06 were well within his grasp.

From here we moved to an image of three boys eating pizza in front of the TV.  I had written down how much pizza each had consumed and asked Danny to rank them in order of  who had eaten the most.  He poured over the numbers with the most intense concentration.

“Tim dot the least,” he announced, “‘Tos he only dot 1.23 pizzas.  Then it’s Ed, ‘tos he had 3.6 and – oh I wish I was Sam! He’s dot 23.6 pizzas!”

We tried several similar questions.  He didn’t make a single mistake.  For Danny, motivation is everything.  Numbers don’t motivate him.  In fact they often terrify him.  Pizzas, however, are benign and desirable.  It’s important, in Danny’s mind, to know who has the most.  He comes from a large family.  To him, this is a survival skill.

Half way down the sheet, he noticed that the questions changed.  No comforting tales of pizza-snacking friends – just a request to order a set of 5 decimal numbers from smallest to largest.  The kind of question he’ll be asked to do battle with in the SATs tests in a few short weeks.

He glanced at me in panic.

“What’s these?” he asked.

“They’re still decimals, Danny,” I reassured him.  “Just think of them like pizzas.  Every time you see decimals, just think pizza, OK?”

“Right,” he said, relaxing instantly.

To my amazement and delight, he continued to order the numbers correctly.  I showered him with praise as he sorted out this group:    14.8             18.4             41.8             4.18             81.4.

“You know we’re doing these sums at sdool at the moment,”  he said thoughtfully, as he munched on the chocolate biscuit I’d given him as a reward.  “And I’m no dood at it.”

“Do you think you might do better tomorrow if you think of them as pizzas?” I wondered.

“Yes, I’m sure I tould do it then,” he smiled.

When he left, I sat down to prepare next week’s lesson.  It would be yet another attempt to encourage him to learn his multiplication bonds.  ‘If only,’ I mused, ‘I could find a way of motivating him to do that.’

Well, it’s far from perfect, but maybe this will help…Danny's maths sheet


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A Child with autistic spectrum perception in a neuro-typical school – help, please


EXPERT (Photo credit: Pete Prodoehl)

It’s no coincidence, of course, that within a week, two people had asked me questions about children with autistic spectrum perception coping in mainstream schools. It was clearly something I needed to give attention to.

The first was a parent, asking my opinion about her daughter, a ten-year-old I see for a couple of hours a week.

This thoughtful, caring and highly intuitive mum was at her wit’s end, as another ‘expert’, who had spent all of twenty minutes assessing her child, sat her down and talked at her about the girl’s needs, beginning with, “Is there anything in particular that you wanted to say, or are you happy just to let me explain my findings?  I’m afraid we don’t have very long.”

The implication – that 20 minutes of advice from an expert was more relevant and worthy of discussion than ten years of maternal care and understanding –  was not lost on the parent.  She bit her tongue, listened as the standard strategies and suggestions were trotted out, and silently despaired.  I’ve seen this happen to families more times than I can count.

Hot on the heels of this was an enquiry from a friend who is working in a school where a young teacher is trying to balance the needs of a class of lively six-year-olds and one little boy on the autistic spectrum.  He’s yet to be ‘seen’ by the expert, but the teacher is in need of strategies and ideas to help him cope within the classroom – preferably in such a way that his screaming fits and throwing of anything he can lay his hands on can be reduced.

Forest School 032

Forest School

I’ve never met this child, and was told only that he enjoyed the class forest school sessions, loved nature and since his personal teaching assistant had left was being given round the clock one-to-one attention by a wide range of staff – including teachers giving up their lunch hours – to ensure that he was always supervised.  My friend also mentioned that he’d had to be dragged, kicking and screaming to school that Monday.

And this is where the help comes in.

Yes, I came up with a few thoughts, off the top of my head, which I’ll copy below.  I have a fair bit of personal experience and have read many books on the subject, but would never call myself an expert.   That title I’d reserve for the parents and the people on the spectrum who have lived with this amazing, different and non-typical way of being on a daily basis, year after year.

If any of you reading this and can add further insights and suggestions (bearing in mind, of course, the needs of the rest of the children in the class), please comment and add your ideas.  I promise they’ll be passed on.

Here – for what they’re worth, are the thoughts I had, in no particular order:

Familiarity, to a child on the spectrum, is like a life raft in a sea of change, so the current situation with constantly changing minders is the worst possible for him.  Given that presumably nothing can be done about that, he needs as many things as possible to stay the same – either the room he’s cared for in, or a folder/box of his own equipment or activities (preferably his favourite colour and/or texture – he’s bound to have very strong preferences – but failing that, a Thomas the Tank Engine cover almost always works!)

If he doesn’t already have one, a visual timetable will help him to make some sense of his days, as long as every adult works through it with him at every change in his day.  It needs to be geared to his particular circumstances.

Cash in on his affinity with nature in every way possible – a feely box with bark, leaves, moss etc. to touch and talk about; a set of twigs or pebbles to count, sort or order in various ways; picture books about the natural world to share and perhaps a bird feeder outside the window, which he could fill and watch.  

I’ve noticed that these kids often have a link to crystals.  It would be worth seeing if a small bag of tumbled stones can be used to calm him when he’s out of control.  A lad I taught used to tell me that he could feel certain crystals vibrating in his hand.  He had an aventurine that always helped him to feel calmer if something had upset him.

Check with Mum whether there’s a particular object/texture/picture/sound that calms him at home.  Maybe school could have something similar to offer when he’s at the throwing stage.  

Perhaps a peaceful sunset or polar poster could be put at his eye level for him to lose himself in.

I’d strongly suggest that staff don’t discourage flapping, rocking or repetitive actions.  These may not be neuro-typical behaviours, but they are exactly what these children need to get themselves back under control.  Screaming and headbanging are less easy to deal with, but cushions help in both cases – to smother the noise (though not the child, of course!) and to protect the head.

The apparently unprovoked Monday morning tantrum could have been a response to the change from the weekend routine or a complaint about the chaos of having this many-carers system at school, but children on the spectrum are invariably very sensitive to the moods and feelings of others – to the point of telepathy, so he could easily be acting out some tension he has sensed in the household.

If outdoors works for him, get him outdoors!  I know from bitter experience teaching on the Essex coast, with winds straight from Siberia, how unpleasant that might be for his minder, but it may help him to gain control of himself.    

I presume someone has checked whether strip lighting affects him?  Some hypersensitive kids get an unbearable strobing effect from them.  They can also be strongly affected by smells, sounds, textures and the pattern of light and shadow, which the rest of us would barely notice.  So get all his carers to avoid perfume, for example.  Again, his mum could probably advise you.

I realise these are only a few ‘first aid’ measures, and don’t even scratch the surface of the deeper needs of a person who perceives in this way.  

Maybe they’ll help slightly.  Maybe you have something to add…

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Why some children don’t get numbers

This post is strictly for educators and parents with children who hate maths.  No esoteric stuff this time…

When I was a teacher, for some reason I always used to be given the top set for maths – year after year.  (I’m not going to get into the ‘Is streaming children for maths a good idea?’ debate, by the way; just saying that’s the way it was.)

Well I enjoyed working with the school’s brightest and best very much, but then one year, the head teacher told me he’d like me to work with the lowest set.  That got me really excited!

I always loved a challenge.  I spent most of the summer holidays pouring through the finished maths books of my new group, trying to work out why a bunch of hard-working and well-intentioned 10 and 11 year olds had apparently failed to understand the very basics of number, while their classmates had made such excellent progress.

Finally, I had it.  There was one simple step that this group of youngsters had somehow missed – and this was the key that would help them to understand.  It goes something like this:

In English, we have 26 letters:         a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z       which we use to make words.

The words can be one or more letters long:        a  my  box  daft  every  garden  quickly  unlikely  difficult…

In maths, we have 9 digits:        1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  and one gap-filler  0               which we use to make numbers.

The numbers can be one or more digits long:                 3    27    154    2013    53196   100481…

So how was I to get that message across to a bunch of kids who by now were approaching some kind of number phobia? They were happy to work with numbers up to about 20.  From 40 onwards they got somewhat panicky, and if a teacher tried to introduce three- or four-digit numbers, they’d start shaking and ask to go to the toilet.

Close-up of a bucket full of midi-sized Hama b...

My solution was to give each child an abacus.  The ones in educational catalogues were hugely expensive, coloured to appeal to 3 year olds and far too big to fit on their tables.  I paced around the local shopping centre for a while and ended up with a couple of packs of self-hardening clay, a bargain tub of those little fusible plastic beads and a stiff yard broom.  The bristles made sturdy but flexible and non-dangerous abacus sticks.  I set four of them into a little strip of clay and cut them off at exactly the height of 9 beads.  That way, the children would be able to make the numbers 1 to 9 on the ‘unit’ stick, but would be forced to take them off and start again on the ‘tens’ stick when they wanted to show the number 10.

These are my updated versions - note boy and girl-friendly versions to help children feel relaxed.

These are my updated versions – note boy- and girl-friendly versions to help children feel relaxed around numbers.

The picture shows how I now make them for individual students, using a loop of wire, with beads safely trapped into the abacus.  There are, of course, only 9 beads on each wire.

We spent many days ‘building’ numbers from 1 to 99 on the abacuses and writing down the equivalent number.  Suddenly the 4 in 46 was understood as ‘four tens’ and the purpose of the zero in 20 was clear.

I insisted that they were forbidden to use the other two sticks, until they were completely begging me to allow them to make ‘hundreds numbers’.
“Nah,” I grinned.  “You don’t like big numbers, remember?”
“We do!” they insisted.  “We can manage it,  We promise.  It’ll be easy!”
“Well, if you’re sure…” I said, looking suitably doubtful and working hard to suppress a triumphant grin.

Within weeks, these children were working confidently with three- and four-digit numbers; not just building and writing them, but using them in calculations.

The next stage was to turn the abacuses round and use them to show decimals. Instead of labelling our four sticks as Thousands, Hundreds, Tens and Units, we now had Units, Tenths, Hundredths and Thousandths.  There was a clear decimal point marked between the whole numbers and the decimals and I showed them how, in this looking-glass world, zeros had to be used as gap-markers from the left, not the right.  Otherwise, they were in familiar territory.

By the end of term, the class was happily creating numbers to four decimal places, and comments like, “I get maths now!” and even, “Actually, I LIKE maths!” were heard around the room.

Now, to my great delight, I’ve been asked to work with Simeon: 14 years old, great at English, clueless at numbers.  Here we go again!

The Curse of the Question Mark

Ideology Icon

Danny, despite his speech difficulties, has an interesting turn of phrase.  He’s just 10, and yesterday we had our first tutoring session of the new school year together.

“So what’s been going on in your life over the summer?” I asked.
“Dood stuff!” he announced, proudly. “I had my birthday, and I dot a digital damera and I’m detting a laptop soon!”

He must have noticed my raised eyebrows. I know his family’s financial situation isn’t great.
“The laptop’s from a jarity,” he explained. “I don’t know what ‘slexia is, but my mum wrote to them and they’re divving me a laptop so I can do my homewort.”
“Well that’s brilliant, Danny,” I enthused.  “Aren’t you a lucky boy!”

Lucky isn’t really the word that springs to mind when you first come across Danny.  The youngest in his year group, he does daily battle with all aspects of academic study at school.  Words appear to fly around the page and refuse to lodge in his memory; numbers resist all attempts to become bonded or otherwise related to one another.  Several speech sounds remain stubbornly inaccessible to him, despite years of therapy, and his tendency to writhe, fiddle, daydream or mumble his way through the interminable school day must have driven many a teacher to distraction.

Despite all this, Danny remains a cheerful child with a gift for optimism and humour.  He’s one of the many special young people who have so much to share with those of us who are willing to embrace different ways of learning and being.

“Do you really not know what dyslexia is, Danny?” I asked, despite my personal aversion to the term.  “Would you like me to explain it to you?”

‘Explain’ is one of his trigger words.  I should have remembered.

“No,” he replied hastily, “I thint I remember now.  It means I darn’t learn properly.”

Well that set off one of my own triggers!  I drew a quick cartoon brain.  I drew two dots and a straight line representing stimulus and response between two points in a neurotypical brain.  Then I drew the response to a stimulus in his brain – all manner of weird and wonderful connections firing off simultaneously and the resulting wavy synaptic line that connected them all in new and exciting ways.

“You learn DIFFERENTLY Dan,” I told him, as I traced the routes on my drawing with my finger, “and if the teacher wants a quick answer, that’s difficult for you.  On the other hand, if she wants an original answer – one that no one else would think of – then yours is the perfect brain for that.”

He looked slightly hopeful but sceptical.

Mario Kart DS Bundle

“What are you like at computer games?” I asked.
“Brilliant!” he grinned. “I’m the best in the family. I tan beat everyone.”

Several minutes of sound-effect laden role play followed as he demonstrated his prowess at Mario with an imaginary DS.

“I’m not surprised,” I told him.  “Your brain is perfect for that.  It can keep track of all the different things going on at once – the number of lives and energy levels, the route you need to take, dangerous enemies and obstacles…  All those bits of your brain that work at once can handle that far better than most ordinary people.”

Danny seemed happy with that, so we turned to some of the work I’d prepared – the gentlest of introductions to algebra, such as

9 + ? = 13   or  15 – ? = 10

Danny stared balefully at the page for a moment, then rose in his seat, peering down at it with great disdain.

“Dwestion Marts!” he announced with gravitas.  “My arch enemy!  I hate you, Dwestion Marts!  You never reveal what you are hiding!  Durse you to hell forever!”

And that’s the way it goes – a typical weekly session with Danny, the boy who can’t perhaps answer the question, but has penetrated to the heart of its intrinsic essence with a clarity the rest of us can only gasp at.

How utterly dull our world would be without the likes of Danny.

The Inspiral

Day 95 - English test

Day 95 – English test (Photo credit: LShave)

It’s my anniversary!

I’ve just realised that exactly five years ago, I turned my back on the state education system, where I’d worked for many decades, and walked out into the daylight of a new, uncertain but exciting future.

My last few years as a teacher were very tough.  Trying to balance the increasingly crazy demands of our political masters, trying to do justice to the needs of the wonderful children I taught, trying to achieve the grades expected of us by the education authority and – worst of all – trying to maintain my role within senior management in a system I neither trusted nor believed in, all took their toll.  My stress levels were rising.

In my small amounts of spare time, I did the two things that have always helped me the most: I visualised the  situation I wanted and I wrote.  In fact, I combined the two – and came up with the beginnings of a screenplay for a dramatization about my dream school.

This morning I decided (this being the anniversary) to take it out and have another look.

Maybe the ‘Inspiral’ would work – better than the current system, anyway.  Maybe some of the ideas could be used or adapted.

Feel free to dip into it and let me know what you think …


The Inspiral – screenplay

A modern, stainless steel, salad and sandwich bar interior.  Michael is serving.  It is almost empty.  Hayes enters, selects a smoothie from the chill cabinet, pays and sits at a table.  Almost at once, Lisa comes in from a door at the back of the café.  She heads straight towards Hayes, smiling confidently.

Lisa:             Mr Hayes, yes?

Hayes half stands, smiles and motions her to sit down. He peers at her name badge.

Hayes:          Mrs Dawlish…….Inspirer?

Lisa:            A tough label to live up to, Mr Hayes, but we are all ready for a challenge here. And the name’s Lisa.  Finish your drink, please.  I’ll have one too, and join you.  That way, I can answer any questions you have before we start the tour.

She goes to the counter. 

Lisa:             Orange juice, please, Michael.

Lisa hands over a memory stick. Hayes watches as Michael links it to his computer, taps a key and returns the stick with her drink.  As she returns, Hayes opens his mouth to ask a question.

Lisa:           (laughing) What is the stick for?  As you’ll have noticed, the café shares our building. It was planned that way.  We have a symbiotic relationship – both help the other to get along. 

It’s an ethically run, wholefood, organic business.  It is a commercial concern, but most of their business is evenings and weekends.  They open for breakfast and weekday lunches principally for us, so although they take normal customers, like yourself, they make most of their breakfast money from the Inspiral. 

All staff and pupils have one of these.  (She indicates her stick.)  It links to our account on the café computer.  Most of us pay by direct debit; so do the majority of parents.  So, for example, you might want your child to have breakfast and lunch here each day, and you’d agree a weekly amount with the manager here.  They’d make sure your child was well fed each day.  The stick holds information on allergies or preferences, making it easy for even the smallest kids to have a meal that suits them.

If they qualify for free school meals, the education office pays the bill and the child has a stick, like everyone else, so nobody’s any the wiser!

Hayes:        (nodding) And it helps you, because you don’t have to organise dinners or deal with the money for them.

Lisa:            Exactly!  Also the sticks double as an alarm, so that if a child wandered towards the café exit, they’d be noticed.  We have our own access, over there.

She indicates the stainless steel door she previously came through. At that precise moment, it opens, and a 9 year old girl (Callie) with fair, wispy hair emerges, carefully retrieving her stick from a USB keyhole.

Callie:           Hello, Mr Michael.

She reaches up to hand the stick to Michael.

Michael:       (smiling) Hi, Callie.  How are you this morning?  Your usual?

Callie:           Yes please, and I’m very tired ‘cos my stupid Mum came in at 3 o’clock this morning and woke me up. (Conspiratorially) Drunk again.  She’s such a idiot!

Michael:       Poor old Callie.  You don’t have it easy, do you?

Callie takes her stick, a fruit juice and a granola yogurt.

Callie:          (emphatically) You’re right about that.

She goes to sit down a few tables from Hayes and Lisa, then spots Lisa.

Callie:           Oh, hello, Mrs Dawlish!  I didn’t know you was here.  Sorry I’m late.

Lisa:            (smiling gently) Don’t you worry about that, treasure – not your fault.  Enjoy your breakfast.

Lisa and Hayes finish their drinks in silence, as Callie devours her breakfast eagerly.

Callie:           Mmm, that was yummy!  I’ll go and start now, Mrs Dawlish.

Lisa:             Okay, Callie.  I’ll be in soon.  Have you got your programme for today yet?

Callie:          Miss Alleppo said I have to eat first, then sleep, then she’ll do my programme.

Lisa:             Miss Alleppo is a wise lady.  Sleep well, sweetheart.

The adults watch Callie use her stick to go back through the door at the rear of the building, then Lisa leads Hayes to the front door of the shop.

Lisa:            We could have gone with Callie, but I want you to see the Inspiral from the front entrance.  You’ll love it.

They walk out and along the pavement to the next building.  Rainbow lettering above the door reads ‘Inspiral’.  The doorway is unusual – modern, but with a hint of Arabian Nights about it.

Lisa hands Hayes a memory stick.

Lisa:            Yours is a skeleton stick – it will take you to any room as long as you’re preceded by someone with access.  Callie, you see, will only be able to enter the quiet room at the moment.  When she’s caught up on her sleep, she’ll have today’s programme made up.  All the children have a personalised learning programme.  The stick holds the information and lets them into the right rooms at the right times.  Computers are networked, of course, so staff know which children they are expecting at any time.

They enter the building.  They are at the start of a long corridor which curves gradually to the right and slightly upwards.  It is the beginning of a long spiral which will finally reach the assembly room at the top of the building. Doorways can be seen to the sides.  All doors are closed.  The corridor is softly lit but colourful, with exuberant children’s work on an underwater theme decorating the walls.

Hayes:          It’s very impressive, Mrs Dawlish.  Beautiful!

Callie, clutching a blanket, appears from a room to the left and opens a doorway a little further along the hall.  A fragment of New Age music drifts from the room as the door opens.  There is soft pinkish glow from the room, then Callie goes in and the door hisses shut.

Hayes:          I’d love to see that room…

Lisa:             Later – I promise.  Now – the grand tour!

She indicates the first door, inserts her stick and checks a small screen above the USB lock.

Lisa:             Right, the main meeting room is free.  Come in and see.

The room is brightly decorated with the rainbow colours.  There are wall hangings, paintings by children and posters showing parents reading, playing with or cuddling their children.  Soft chairs, rugs and cushions are scattered around in a rough circle.  On side tables are cups and plates, biscuits, a kettle, candles and phials of essential oils.  There are storage trays for paper and art/ craft materials.

Lisa:            This is where parent support groups, professionals’ meetings, talks from practitioners and so on happen.  We’re quite lucky to find it empty.

Hayes:          So who supports the parents?  Who runs these ‘groups’?

Lisa:            It can be anyone on the staff, really – sometimes pastoral staff work with a group of parents who have asked for help; sometimes a teacher will run a workshop in art or maths or something; sometimes the school nurse or educational psychologist offer to run a group. 

We also have a group of parents who come in once a week to make resources for the school and have a chat together.  It’s good to have a room that’s just for them.  They feel at home here; they can make a coffee or burn aromatherapy oils – it really helps them to feel comfortable with us.

Hayes:          Yes, I suppose so.  I always dread my daughter’s parents’ evenings.   (As they leave the room and Lisa heads for the next door)  Listen, Mrs – Lisa – I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I’m not going to get much of a feel for the Inspiral by walking in and out of rooms.  I want to understand how it works; how it’s different to an ordinary school; how it feels to be a child working here.  Is there any way you could show me that?

Lisa smiles and opens the next door.  They are in a green classroom.  It is a maths lesson.  Two adults are working with groups of children.  The remaining children are engaged in measuring and recording tasks in small groups.  They are drawing shapes, then cutting them out.  One group are building a structure with their shapes.  A few children look up and wave at Lisa, the rest are too engrossed to notice.  There are about 25 children.  There is an obviously wide age range from 6 to 10 but most look about 8 years old.

Lisa:            Pick a child, Mr Hayes – any child!  Ask them to tell you about their experience here.  They’ll be happy to oblige.

Hayes:        (glancing at her uncertainly) They all look so busy.  Er, could I bother that boy? (points at the largest child)

Lisa:            Of course.  Andy, this is Mr Hayes.  He’d like to know how it feels to be part of the Inspiral.  Could you tell him about what you do here?

Andy:        (standing up and approaching confidently) Sure.  Pleased to meet you.

He sits with Hayes at a side table.  Lisa wanders off to see what others are doing.

Andy:           I came here when it opened.  It’s the coolest school I’ve ever been to.  They find you classes where you can do the work and so you get better at things really quickly.  I started in Orange Maths and now I’m in Grass Green!

Hayes:         I’m afraid I don’t know what that means, Andy.  How do they decide which classes you’re in?

Andy:          (voiceover as scene shifts to flashback of the day he started at the school)       Right.  Well, the day I came, Mr Davis talked to my mum and me about what I was like at school before.


Deputy head’s office.  Mr Davis, Andy and his mother sit round a table.  Andy looks angry and is scribbling on a sheet of paper with a red crayon.

Mrs Slater:         …a bit, sort of, insecure really, I think.  Trouble is, he doesn’t ask for help, you see.

Mr Davis:          Okay.  So, Andy, tell me what school is like for you.

Andy:                 (focussing on scribbling, which becomes more agitated)  Crap!

Mrs Slater:        Andy!

Mr Davis:          No, that’s fine, Mrs Slater.  Give me a bit of detail, here, Andy – which bits are okay; which bits are bad?  Try to tell me how you feel about it. (Makes notes as Andy talks)

Andy:                Hate maths – it sucks.  Art and that’s okay.  Don’t mind writing – I’m pretty good at that.  I can do gymnastics but ball games are pathetic (glances up angrily) and people get so wound up about them!  What’s so great about kicking a ball into a stupid net?  I like computers and gaming and that.  Enough detail?

Mr Davis:         That really helps me to get an idea of you as a person.  That was brilliant, Andy – well done for explaining so clearly.

Andy smiles slightly as he draws on the paper.  His drawing is calmer now – doodling thoughtfully.

Mr Davis:          You didn’t mention break times and lunch times.  How do you like them?

Andy:                 I like food! (All laugh)  But the breaks go on a bit; they’re quite boring.

Mrs Slater:        He’s rather a loner, really, Mr Davis.  He doesn’t have any real friends, you see.


Scene returns to Hayes and Andy in classroom

Andy:            I could have died when she said that!  Anyway, next I was sent to a classroom to mess about with some art work, while they sorted out my stick and talked it through with Mum.

Hayes:         Sorted out your stick?

Andy:           Yeah. (Shows his memory stick) This.  It’s not like my old school, where if you were in Year 5, you’d do all your lessons there and you’d do the same stuff as everyone else your age.  They worked out which classes would be best for me in English, maths, science and IT.  Then I got put in with people who needed the same lessons as me.  It doesn’t matter about our age.  Like in here, I’m one of the oldest, but Carla – that girl over there – she’s only 6, but she can do this stuff really well.  Look at her model – it rules!

Hayes:         Doesn’t it bother you, working with little kids?

Andy:           Seemed a bit weird at first, but we don’t think about it now.  It’s just a relief not to be the class thicko.  It’s good in IT, too, because I’m in indigo class for that and we can get on and do really cool stuff, without having to waste time with kids who are, like, ‘what does the mouse do?’ and that.

Hayes:         Yes, I can see the advantages, certainly.  You said you’d moved maths classes. Is that because they got it wrong the first time?

Andy:           Well I always thought I was totally useless at maths.  I really didn’t think I could do, like, anything in it.  But the orange class, the stuff was so simple.  I kind of liked it – being the first one to get it, instead of the last!  But after a few weeks, the teacher said she thought I’d enjoy a bit of a challenge…


Scene changes to a different classroom:  Andy is standing with Miss Bowles

Miss Bowles:   So you have two choices, Andy.  You can move to yellow class, where the work is a little faster and more advanced, but still quite easy for you, or you can go straight to green.  I think you would cope fine there, but I don’t want you to feel freaked out!  It’s your choice.


Scene returns to classroom with Hayes

Hayes:           (Surprised) Seriously?  They gave you the choice of which class you joined?

Andy:            Yeah.  Sweet, isn’t it?  They say it’s me that’s got to do the work, and somewhere there’s a class that suits everyone.  If it’s too hard, I’ll feel stressed out and thick; if it’s too easy, I’d get bored and fed up.  So the trick is to find the class that I enjoy working in.

Hayes:         So what did you do – go to yellow or green?

Andy:           (grins) Well I still didn’t have much confidence, so I went to yellow, but it was a bit boring, to be honest, so after half a term I went to see Mr Davis – you know, my learning tutor – and chatted it through with him.  He was, like, really smiling and said he was very glad my confidence had gone up.  I really love this maths class!  Never thought I’d say that – ever!

Hayes:         Well I’d better let you get back to it!  Thanks, Andy.  It’s been really interesting chatting to you.

Andy:           No problem.  See ya.  (Returns to his table and continues task.)

Lisa, who has been working with some of the children, drifts back to join Hayes.

Lisa:            Shall we move on?

Hayes:         Certainly.  Remarkable boy, that.

Lisa:            (smiles) He’s happy, Mr Hayes – they all are.  That’s the remarkable thing!

Hayes:         Well that little girl – Candy? – She didn’t seem at all happy.

Lisa:            Callie.  We do our best to support parents, Mr Hayes, but to be frank; it can sometimes be them who mess up the children’s lives.  Quite a few of our youngsters are going through parental problems: divorce, separations, addictions, absences for various reasons… and that makes life very tough.

Hayes:         Well I’m sure it does, but sadly, that’s going on everywhere.

Lisa:            Yes, of course.  But we feel it’s unrealistic to expect children going through major life changes to ‘pull themselves together’ and get on with school life as if nothing’s happening.  In schools where they do that, you end up with bullying, violence or disaffection; worse – you end up with children who don’t trust others and start to believe that the whole world is an unreliable place.

Hayes:        (laughs bitterly) Are you trying to tell me it’s not?

Lisa:            I’m trying to tell you it needn’t be.  We’re trying to ‘be the change’.

They walk on together, passing closed classroom doors with glass panels, showing various maths activities taking place. They also pass staff rooms, offices etc.  Hayes has his hands in his pockets and is deep in thought.  Lisa glances at him once and leaves him to think as they walk.  She stops by a door marked STARS.

Lisa:            Are you ready for more yet?

Hayes:         Sorry?  More?

Lisa:            More of what we do.  Or would you rather think a bit longer?  There’s a lot to take in.

Hayes:         No, no.  I’m fine.  I’d like to see some more – maybe meet some more children?

Lisa:             There will be some along soon.  I think you’ll like this.

She opens the door to a small, round room.  Drapes hang from the ceiling, making that, too, seem rounded.  There is a very soft light.  As Lisa flicks a switch, points of coloured light are projected onto the walls and drapes.  The effect is magical.  Soft, vaguely Celtic music begins to play.  Lisa motions towards some floor cushions, but finds a chair from the side when Hayes looks uncomfortable.  He sits uncertainly on the chair.

Hayes:         And what’s the purpose of this?

Lisa:            Well, as I said, children don’t always have a great time at home.  This room is an escape for them, somewhere for them to be at peace for a while.

A soft knock at the door and a woman (Sophie Farmer) puts her head round.

Sophie:        Sorry, Lisa, is it okay for our group to use the room?

Lisa:            Of course.  Mr Hayes would like to watch a session.  Is that okay with you and the children?

(Sophie enters with 5 children of various ages)

Sophie:        Fine with me.  Boys and girls, do you mind if this visitor sits in with us today?

Toby:           Yep.  He can stay, but he’ll have to get down on the floor.

Lucy:           Yes, he will.  Cos if he falls asleep he might fall off that chair!

Callie:          He’s that man who was in the cafe!  You can sit next to me, Mister.

Hayes:         (climbing down rather stiffly) Thank you, Callie.  Did you sleep well?

Callie:          Not really.  So I’ve come to Stars because that’s really relaxin’.

Lisa:            I’ll leave you to it, then.  Toby, would you bring Mr Hayes to my room when Stars is over?

Toby:           Yep.  No problem, Miss.

Lisa smiles.  The children settle themselves onto cushions.  Some sit and others lay down.  Sophie leads a guided meditation.  The children – and eventually Hayes – relax and lay motionless as it develops.

Sophie:        That’s right.  Get good and comfortable.  Take some slow, deep breaths.  Breathe in… and out.  Breathe in… and out.  Breathe in lots of peace and calmness, and breathe out all the fusses and bothers.  Keep breathing now and each time you breathe in, feel yourself filling up with calm.  When you breathe out, let all the tensions and wriggles go.  Settle deep into the cushions…  Feel like you’re melting into them.  Let your eyelids get heavy and close your eyes.  Keep breathing in… and out…

Now imagine you’re sitting or lying in a beautiful palace, made of crystal, with stars shining through the pure crystal walls…

No harm can come to you here.  You’re totally safe…

You’re watching the stars twinkling far above you… They look so beautiful…  As they shine through the crystals, the stars shine in different colours.  You see deep red stars shining low in the sky…  A little higher up, there are lovely bright orange stars glowing like tiny lanterns…  Above them, you notice some little yellow stars; just like miniature suns …  It’s so peaceful and beautiful here…  Now, still higher in the sky are some green stars…  They look so very calm and lovely…  Over them are ice blue stars – cold and clear and bright…  Now imagine looking to almost the highest point in the sky…  here you see the indigo stars – deep purple blue, mysterious stars twinkling up above you…  Then, right at the very top of the sky, you see some violet stars…  Their colour is a red-purple…deep and warm.  Stay quite still and breathe in the beauty of these amazing stars….

Now, when you are ready, imagine yourself choosing your favourite star.  It can be any colour you choose.  Hold it in your mind’s eye, when you have chosen it.  Inside your thoughts, keep linking to your special star.  As you watch it, it moves closer to you.  You can see its colour really clearly now.  It’s getting brighter and brighter.  Breathe in the light from your star.  It’s still getting closer and closer.  You can feel it shining just in front of you… until it flows into you…right through your skin… and the whole of your body is lit up like starlight.  Feel your star colour filling every part of you with beautiful, brilliant light.  You feel it shining out of you.  Let it shine all around you – onto your friends, onto the room and right out to anyone you want to send light to.  This light is so strong, it can reach anyone in the world – even people who have left the world.  Your starlight can travel for millions of miles, and you decide where it flows……..

Now…very gradually…your light grows fainter and paler, until it’s back inside your body.  Feel it there…your own secret starlight.  You can make it grow bigger any time you like.  You can keep it inside you, or send it back into space.  It’s your choice.  Whatever you do, though, this will always be your special star, and you can call it and ask it to grow anytime you like… Sometimes, when you need to feel brave, your star will be there to light you up and make you strong and bright…

…Very gradually now, be aware of the rest of the stars, shining through the walls of the palace.  Remember how calm and peaceful it is here.  Remember this palace is in your mind, so you can come to it any time you like…

Now slowly be aware of your breathing again.  Make your breaths a little deeper… in…and out…in…and out.  Slowly feel your body on the cushions.  Feel your legs and your back… Feel your arms and your body… Lastly feel your neck and your head… and in your own time… open your eyes and sit up.

Well done, everybody.

The children gradually stretch and move, muttering and murmuring cheerfully and

contentedly.  Hayes opens his eyes, looking rather bemused.

Sophie:        Okay everybody?

Children:      Yes, Miss/ fine/ yep/ yawn etc.

Hayes:         Yes, thank you, Miss, um – that was very relaxing.  Remarkable.

Callie:          Told you!  I said it was, didn’t I?

Hayes:         You did, Callie.  You were right.  Um… What happens now?

Toby:           Usually we have a sit around here for a bit and let our bodies and brains come back properly, then we go to break.  I’m gonna take you to Miss Dawlish, though, ‘cos she said to.

Sophie:        Well remembered, Toby.  Your brain’s back already!  Nice to meet you Mr Hayes.

Hayes:         Yes, you too.  Thank you again.  Right, young Toby – lead the way!

Toby:          (unlocking the door) Yep.  This way, Mr Hay.

They walk down the corridor together.

Hayes:         That was great, wasn’t it?  Are the words always the same?

Toby:           Oh no.  They’re never the same.  Sometimes we get fireworks, or waterfalls or we go through the woods into our own special garden – that’s one of my best ones!  It’s called Stars, but we don’t always do about stars.  She might’ve did that ‘cos you were new. (Pause)  She did that bit about reaching people who’d left the earth for me, you know, special!  That’s ‘cos me mum went to Heaven, so she did that bit special for me.  I liked that.

Hayes:         Well my Mum’s in Heaven, too, Toby.  So I especially liked that bit as well.

Toby:           Is she?  Whoa.  I wonder if she knew.  She’s dead clever, that Miss Farmer.  This is Miss Dawlish’s room. (knocks)

Lisa:            (opening door and smiling) Ah – well done, Toby.

Toby:           ‘Ere he is, Miss.  You know what?  His Mum’s in Heaven with mine!

Lisa:            (glances quickly at Hayes and smiles) How lovely, Toby.  Perhaps they’re friends.

Toby:           Yep.  I s’pect so.  Cheers, Miss.  Cheers, Mr Hay. (He leaves.)

Lisa:            Was that all right for you, Mr Hayes.  I hope Toby wasn’t making you feel uncomfortable.

Hayes:         Oh, not at all.  He told me about his mother, and, it just seemed appropriate to tell him about mine.  He’s so – at ease with it, somehow.  Remarkable.

Lisa:            He is now, yes.  He can be rather direct, though.  Some people find that rather hard to cope with.  Death is not a taboo, here, you see.  But in some places, it still is.

Hayes:         Very true.  A good thing.  (Quietly) Nothing worse than feeling you can never talk about a thing like that.

Lisa:            I know.  It was making that discovery, years ago, that made me determined that death would always be discussed openly in my classes – and now, my school.

Hayes:         So you teach the Christian version, do you? Going to Heaven and so on?

Lisa:            No.  We respect the family’s views and beliefs.  If they tell us someone’s gone to Heaven, or become an angel or whatever, we accept that.  The only time I question is when a child seems very unhappy at being told that there’s nothing after death.  Then I ask if they really believe that.  They usually can’t bear to – it’s just too sad.  I always ask them what they think happens.  You get some really beautiful answers to that question.

Hayes:         Yes, I’m sure you do.

Lisa:            Anyway, let’s get on.  I thought you would like to see how the children’s programmes are planned.

Hayes:         I would.  That lad in the maths class was explaining it to me, but I found it rather confusing.

Lisa:            Of course.  Well in a traditional school, children are usually grouped by age.  Some schools stream the year groups for certain lessons, but there is, obviously, a wide ability spread, which can lead to boredom for the ablest children and distress, or even disaffection for the least able.

Hayes:         But surely a good teacher can differentiate?

Lisa:            Well of course, and they do.  However there will always be children getting the thin end of the wedge.  Oh, those schools are crawling with advisory teachers admonishing staff to pay attention to special needs, gifted and talented, boy readers, girl mathematicians, those just below the average – you name it, they want a focus on it.  Even the most brilliant teacher can’t focus on every child every second.  Add to that the feelings of the kids who believe they’re not getting enough attention or help or being stretched enough, and life is difficult for everyone.  We think our system works better.  It’s as simple as that.

Hayes:         Okay – explain your system.

As Lisa speaks, there is footage of the classes and systems she is describing.


Lisa:            At present, the school has children aged from 6 to 11.  Most have been sent here by the local authority because they were ‘difficult to place’ in traditional settings.  The main problems are behaviour and social or emotional difficulties.

Word is getting around now, though, and many parents are asking for places here.  I think the amazing building sways quite a few of them!

In the mornings, every class is running maths or literacy – English – at the same time.  We plan very carefully, so that broadly the same topics are being covered, but in a range of levels, from very basic to advanced – curriculum levels W to 5.  If the school was working on ‘time’ one week, the level W class would be counting round a clock and learning to recognise o’clocks; the level 5 class would be solving complicated travel problems using bus and train timetables, or calculating flight times to different time zones.  We keep to the same topics so that if a child moves classes during the year – and they often do – they will still cover the same subject areas.

The class the children attend depends partly on their ability and partly on their perception of their ability.  Remember, many of our kids have emotional problems, which usually means their self-esteem is very low.  They need to experience success before they can make progress, so we tend to start them in an unchallenging setting and let them realise they could cope with more.


Scene returns to Lisa’s office.

That’s what happened to Andy – the boy you met this morning.

Hayes:         Yes, that’s right.  He was telling me all about that.  He did seem very proud of himself.  I gathered from what he said that he was rather difficult when he moved here.

Lisa:            Well the last school found him very challenging, but we made him an individualised programme, based on his strengths and needs. (She presses some buttons on the computer and turns the screen towards Hayes.) See – his maths is still low for his age, but he’s working two levels above where he was when he joined us just over a year ago.  He’s in a class at the ‘expected’ (hate that expression!) level for English and above average in IT.  If you look at his afternoons, you can see that we’ve blocked in a fairly intensive pastoral programme for social skills; he isn’t good at mixing with children his age, despite being very good with younger children and adults.  He’s not ready to cope with competitive sports, so he is doing a gym-based fitness programme for PE and we’ve chosen a topic group that plays to his strengths – here (points to screen).

Hayes:         (Reading from screen) Fantasia – creating and filming harmony in colour, pattern, sound and light.

Lisa:            It’s a lovely project – and every child working on it has something positive to offer.  For Andy, it’s the art work and technical wizardry, but there are musicians, quite a few dyslexic kids with wonderful spatial skills, a girl who has the makings of a brilliant director – everything, really.

Hayes:         It all sounds wonderful, but aren’t you pandering to the children, rather?  Shouldn’t they be pushed a bit more – made to confront their difficulties?

Lisa:            Read the papers, Mr Hayes!  Watch the news!  Check the statistics for secondary school truancy, exclusions, street crime, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy!  If you like what you see, keep cramming square pegs into round holes! 

If you hated the sight of blood and were terrified of needles, would you train to be a doctor?  If you were a pacifist, would you join the army?  Of course not!  Yet for decades we’ve been forcing our children into years of doing things they hate, just to watch them fail, or give up, or rebel.

No, Mr Hayes, I’ll let the children decide when they want a challenge.  Make no mistake, they’ll choose them when they’re ready.  We all love a challenge, but we like to decide what it’s going to be.  (Pause.  Apologetic) I’m sorry.  I feel quite passionate about what we do here.  I really believe we’re making a difference to the attitudes these children will grow up with.  Would you like to break for a coffee?

Hayes:         I really admire that passion.  (Hastily) I’m not patronising you.  You’re winning me over, you know.  It takes a while to adjust to having all your assumptions about education turned upside down, but what you say is making sense, and the children are living proof that it seems to work.  Forgive the probing.  I just need to understand.

Lisa:            Thank you, Mr Hayes.  I’m so glad you are taking our ideas seriously.  You see, I’ve had to fight very hard for this.  It’s turned me into a bit of a wild cat, I think!

Hayes:         Hardly that!  The coffee’s a great idea.



How to fit a class to the kids who don’t fit

image002I’ve had a good moan about the state education system in recent posts, and how it doesn’t meet the needs of growing numbers of our children.  But criticism is the easy bit.  Far harder is to say what should be done instead.

I’m certainly not claiming to have all the answers, but I thought it would be interesting to post some information about a highly experimental class I helped to set up in a very ordinary state primary school in England several years ago.

I could rabbit on for hours about those kids – the huge problems in their lives and the consequent lack of self-esteem, but I’ll let the pictures and a journal extract made at the time tell the story.

The children’s names have been changed, obviously, but every word is true.

Quick scan round the class – and my eyes settle on Jack.  He has a pinched, anxious look which makes me wonder if he’s been hit again. 

“How was the weekend?” I ask, quietly.

“Fine,” he mumbles.

Then he pushes his home-school log towards me.  A note from Mum tells me a much-loved relative died last night.

As I put my hand on his shoulder and commiserate, Laura is beside us.  She asks what has happened. 

“Come on, Jack – we’ll look at a book together, shall we?”

He allows himself to be led away, giving her a slight smile.

Sam and Carly are both busy writing messages for the ‘worry box’. (A drop box for any problems or issues individual children wanted to share with me.)

Sam’s says, ‘I got to recod a vidoo staytmet on my burfday and im a bit wurrid.’

It emerges that he is acting as a witness in the court case against his stepfather.  He’s due to spend his birthday recording his statement on video.  We chat about the nice man who came to video our class play and I agree to let him rehearse with me nearer the time.  He settles to draw a picture of himself on camera.

Meanwhile, Carly’s message is ready.  Her father has his check-up at the hospital today ‘to see if the cancer has gone’.  Shaun was watching her write.  He moves in to chat to her.  He always pitches it right.  He lost his own dad to cancer two years ago.

Then Jose approaches me.  “They found my Dad.”

“That’s great!” I say.  He’d been missing for about three months.

“Well, not really,” Jose sighs.  “He was in a right state.  They’ve shoved him in the Nut House.”

Not much you can say to that.  “At least he’s alive and safe,” I reply, lamely. 

Neither of us mentions the dreadful nightmares Jose’s been having since he vanished without trace or medication.

“Don’t worry, Miss.  I’ll take care of Jose,” Sian grins and they head for the dolls’ house.

This is not a scene from some harrowing piece of fiction.  It’s a real 15 minutes in the life of my class of 22 kids with BESD (education-speak acronym for Behavioural, Emotional or Social Difficulties).  They range from 8 to 11 years old.  Partly, they were brought together because many of them had been causing mayhem in other classes and several were heading towards permanent exclusion.  Mostly, though, they were brought together because the system was failing them and it was time to give them a school environment they could function and feel safe in.

Jack spent most of the day getting on with his work, but he’d been told that if he felt sad, he was to take himself off to his choice of zone.

image001We have ‘zones’ all round the classroom. 

There’s a thumping zone, with cushions to hit (‘Never hit anything with a face’); a scribble zone, with red and black wax crayons and piles of scrap paper (‘Draw out your anger’); a chill-out zone, with ice cream themed table cover, beautiful posters, cuddly toys, headphones and relaxing CDs; a dark cave, with a blackout curtain, where you can only feel your way around, and a rainbow cave, with crystals and sun-catchers and sparkly, shiny toys. 

image002There are floor cushions and a blanket in the discovery station (aka book corner).  They’re good for lounging on when enjoying a book, but they double as a makeshift bed for Sam, when family battles have kept him up all night, or Sian, when her Mum’s come home wasted at 2am and has climbed into bed with her to tell her about all the goings on at the nightclub.  If a child is too tired to work, I let them sleep, and the rest of the class creep around so as not to disturb them.

Most popular of all is the dolls’ house, where toy knights, princesses and wizards mix with the family dolls and any child can build an alternative reality, when their own life seems too much to cope with.

Targets and levels are kept well concealed from the class.  They have enough pressures, without these.  The emphasis is on relentless praise and encouragement.  Even sitting in your place is rewarded, and for some, it’s remarkable progress.

The curriculum revolves around a scheme called Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning. 

When working on ‘co-operating as a member of a group’, a literacy plenary involved sitting in a ‘clan’ group and letting each member read his/her ‘Celtic legend’ to the rest.  Each child then offered a positive comment to the other clan members.

A lesson on magnetism was followed by a group challenge to build a magnetic game in a set time.  First, though, they created rules to make sure the exercise would be enjoyable and successful.  (Don’t strop off; no put-downs; take a vote; listen to everyone; share the jobs, etc.)

image002Reflection is also a vital part of classroom life.  They need the looking-glass held up, to show them how they have progressed.

“How did you do?”  “How does that make you feel?”  “Could you have done that last year?”

(“No way!” grins Liam. “Would’ve been World War Three!”)

Oh there are bad days, believe me.  The effort of holding back the waves of negativity, aggression and self-hatred leave us close to breaking point at times.  It took over a term to get them to like, or at least tolerate, themselves.  Only now are we starting on tolerating others.  It is a gruelling job; not for the faint-hearted. 

Just sometimes, though, on days like today, it works.  And then, it feels wonderful.

It cost £100, along with lots of hard work from some very special people to set the classroom up.  It took a visionary head teacher to trust our wild experiment.  It took its toll on all of us – my wonderful support staff and myself as teacher – but after the year was over, every one of those children who had started with us had returned to a ‘normal’ class and was coping.  All of them had made huge progress – academically, socially and emotionally.

I’m certain that year changed their lives as much as it changed mine.

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”