“O this learning, what a thing it is!”

In honour of Shakespeare I found appropriate quotes for my grandchildren.  They are my treasures, full of life, fun, personality and potential.  But what are their prospects?

Thankfully, they are too young for school yet.  They are busy enjoying whatever experiences their family can offer.  They are soaking up knowledge, developing skills, growing in understanding, and learning a rich vocabulary, as they play.  They don’t have a target in sight except to have as much fun as they can with people they love and trust.

“O this learning, what a thing it is!”

With all the furore in UK over proposals to turn all schools into academies over the next few years, I do worry for their future.

I am so concerned that I wrote to my MP and we continue to have a very rational debate about the issue.  But it is always on my mind.  That and the educational methods employed these days.

While wallowing in the peace of Kew gardens, I observed the various stages of development of the different trees and wished that one day we could have a Minister for Education who truly understands child development.

As the bard said~

“No profit grows where no pleasure is taken In brief, sir, study what you most affect”

But sadly we often seem to be saddled with pompous people who, as in the present case, have never studied either education or child development.  And, as the bard knew~

“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool”

As Shakespeare knew, it is so much easier to tell teachers what to do, than to train, gain experience, develop your skills, complete further study and work night and day for the good of your pupils~

It is a good divine that follows his own instructions I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.”

I believe that each and every person, of whatever age and ability, has the right to an education which equips them with the knowledge, skills and understanding they need, to discover and learn from the past, to experience, explore and enjoy the present fully, and to enrich the future.

For this they need stimulating experiences and active learning to trigger their interest;. They need a variety of ways to express themselves (poetry, art, music, drama). And they need enthusiastic, knowledgeable facilitators/teachers/mentors/carers to work alongside them, enabling their learning.

They do not need arbitrary targets to aim for, endless tick sheets and multiple choice questions to answer, and pointless tests at the end of every learning opportunity.  Having watched my older grandchildren doing homework I can say that these methods kill any potential excitement in learning and discovering.

What was, What is, and What will be!  3 Trees on the same day, all beautiful, all allowed to develop at their own pace.  Would that children were!  Shakespeare knew it, even Solomon knew it!  Pete Seeger, the influential folk singer and activist of the 60s paraphrased Solomon’s words from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 in his song released by the Byrds in 1965 ~ Turn, Turn, Turn.  You can hear the song by clicking on ‘when they are ready’ at the end of this post!

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven”


I believe children need to learn about the past, enjoy the present, and enrich the future and they will ~ given the opportunities ~ when they are ready!

Food for thought


Sitting round the boiler
In the old school room
We sewed as we sang
“Flow gently sweet Afton…”
Stoking memories for the future
Solid fuel for our fires
Sited next to the cattle market Early lessons in fatality
Like lambs to the slaughter, we.
Filtered by failure, our futures foretold
“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

I wonder where they are now

I wonder where they are now

Weekly Photo Challenge ~ Threshold

On the threshold of the new millennium

On the threshold of the new millennium

Rest not! Life is sweeping by; go and dare before you die. Something mighty and sublime, leave behind to conquer time. — Goethe

The prompt in the Weekly Photo Challenge this week is the word ‘threshold’. Looking through my photos this one of the tile frieze made at the end of 1999 for the year 2000 leapt out at me. It is hard to imagine today just what a big deal it was being on the threshold of a new millennium. There were all sorts of apocalyptic warnings about power failures, planes falling out of the sky, systems not being able to cope etc. No-one really new what would happen at midnight on 31st December 1999 and what the new millennium would mean for civilisation. So I wanted to mark the occasion with something very special and permanent for my school.

St Thomas More School was a huge part of my life. In the early 1970’s I watched the new school building rise in the middle of an open field that had once been farmland and an orchard. There was an ancient hedgerow all around the site and just one magnificent old oak tree in what would be the playing field. When it was opened in 1975, I was having my third child so was not available for teaching. But, as I drove past the school every day, I vowed that one day I would work there.

I got my wish in 1984 when my youngest child was ready to start school. I was offered a job and jumped at the chance. The next decade was a time of great blessing as I worked in virtually every class, teaching all age groups, then became deputy Head. In 1994 the original Headteacher was due to retire and, to my surprise, I was offered his job. He had been such an inspirational Head that the school was a joy to work in. Taking on his role, I tried to emulate him while making my own mark and bringing my own vision for the school into being.

Due mainly to the quality of the staff and their outstanding teamwork, the school became a strong and successful community, ‘an oasis of excellence’, appreciated by staff, pupils and parents alike.

In 1999, as the new millennium approached, the staff wanted to mark the year 2000 with a special feature. We wanted the whole school community to be involved in creating something totally unique and meaningful. We came up with the idea of making a large tile frieze. Each year group was asked to brainstorm their favourite lessons, subjects, or topics, and represent their ideas on paper.

Reception class, the youngest children were just 4 or 5 years old and had only just started school. They had their photographs taken in their shiny new uniforms, so that was their contribution.

The Year 1 class had helped to build a pond and were raising ducklings which they had hatched from eggs in an incubator, so they drew pictures of that. I have a wonderful memory of the day the ducklings hatched out ~ the local policeman had called up to the school on a social visit and he watched as the first duckling struggled to crack open the shell. When it finally succeeded and out popped this beautiful and perfect little bundle of yellow feathers, he was overwhelmed by emotion and had tears in his eyes.

In Year 2 the 7 year olds made their first Holy Communion as it was a Catholic school so they drew a chalice and host. Being the most significant event in the year, that was their contribution.

Year 3 was the first year of juniors and the children enjoyed learning about Vikings and the Human Body, so they drew lovely longboats and skeletons.

In Year 4 things got much more subject focussed so Maths was represented by a calculator and mathematical symbols.

In Year 5, Music, Dance and Art were the main features, so a pot of paint and a brush was drawn. Science too was represented by the planets.

By Year 6 the children were getting ready to move on to secondary school. In order to give them a taste of independence and adventure, it was our tradition to take the class away to Shropshire for a week to stay in a Youth Hostel. Here, in the Ironbridge Gorge, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, we had a wonderful time. We visited the Iron Museum, The Jackfield Tile Museum, Blist’s Hill Reconstructed Village, River Severn Museum and of course the first Iron Bridge ever built. We also had amazing night hikes, midnight feasts and parties. Altogether it was an incredible opportunity for fun and learning. So naturally the Ironbridge at Coalbrookdale was the emblem of Year 6.

The staff gathered all these pictures and images together and chose the ones that would be painted on to the tiles. The Year 5 teacher, ABW, a wonderfully creative artist and teacher, took on the challenge of putting all the ideas together and creating a design on tracing paper which could be transferred onto numbered ‘green’ tiles. It was agreed that we would go to Jackfield Tile Museum to create the finished work.

A representative group of staff, parents and children spent a weekend at the Youth Hostel and were each given a small area of the tile frieze to paint. ABW had done a magnificent job scaling all the children’s artwork up or down so that the frieze would reflect the life of the school. It was agreed that the year 2000 would go at the top, as well as the 4 trees, oak, ash, poplar and beech, which were the school emblem. In the top corners would be tiles depicting the Ironbridge itself. The children’s artwork would go around the edge, and at the centre would be the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove surrounded by flames.

We painted the tiles in coloured glaze. I will never forget the atmosphere in that studio at Jackfield as we worked on the frieze. There was a stillness and peace in the room which was truly sacramental. While we worked, the Spirit moved in that place and heaven happened.

When we finished, the tiles were left at the Jackfield tile Museum to be fired. A couple of weeks later they were collected and set into a frame made by the reception class teacher’s husband.

Bishop Mervyn Alexander of Clifton RIP came in the year 2000 to celebrate the school’s 25th anniversary and he blessed the tile frieze.

Although most of the staff who worked at the school have retired or moved on now, the frieze is still there in the school hall. And with it is a little piece of all of us who made it.

Story – Haiku

He said “you can’t make

a silk purse from a sow’s ear”

His meaning was clear

This post is inspired by the haiku heights prompt for today ~ “Story”

This was the comment made about me at the age of 10 by the Headmaster of the school I was expecting to go to when me moved across the country for my father’s job.  I had missed a lot of school due to illness so was way behind others of my age.  I also had a Geordie accent which he equated with being uneducated.  These factors led him to believe I was stupid and not worth educating!  My determined parents decided to move me somewhere else thank goodness!

His words have stayed with me always and inspired me to become a teacher.  Eventually I became a Headteacher.   My aim was to value every child, to educate them to the best of their ability, and to develop in them self confidence and high self esteem so that whatever their talents they could go out into the world prepared to lead full, rewarding and satisfying lives.

I guess it is a milestone in my story!


Xerox inspired Haiku

Hope you don’t mind if I sneak in 2 days worth of haiku as I missed yesterday!  So my open prompt comes today when ~ I heard my first cuckoo!

Loud and clear cuckoo
sings, summer’s early warning.
Nesting birds beware


Xerox inspired ~ Before I retired from my job in education, I was linked with Kianja Primary School in Nyanza Province, near Kisumu in Kenya.  The first time I went there I was amazed to see classes of up to 80 children in what were effectively large mud huts with no windows or doors ~ and no resources!  The teacher was using water to write on a wall to illustrate his lesson.  Sometimes teachers would take lessons outside under a huge mango tree.  The children were bright, keen, polite, well-behaved, friendly ~ and learning!

They had no electricity so a xerox machine would have been of no use to them.

Water on mud walls

left a lasting impression.

One teaching resource


African children

Learn in tribal village school

Under mango tree

Russian Odyssey Part 3 ~ October 1995

This is the day we had been waiting for; the chance to go into our partner schools.  Natalya’s husband arrived to pick me up.  He is a sculptor and artist.  He was obviously very successful ‘pre-perestroika’ as he has a car.  All the vehicles we saw in Sochi seem incredibly old, and made a dreadful noise.  They gave off clouds of smelly blue smoke.  However, the Lada got us to our destination.  The school was in the middle of a dense urban development of high-rise flats.  The area was quite run down with pot-holed roads and rusted metal lying around.

In Russia at that time, the schools were not named but numbered according to how close to the centre of the town or city they were situated.  So school number 1 would be very close to the centre.  Our school was School Number 15 as it was some way out.  Some of my colleagues had much further to travel with schools numbered in 30s and 40s.

School No. 15 was an experimental school.  The Director (Headteacher) and staff were ‘Methodists’ educationally speaking.  They followed the Leonid Zankov (1901-1977) model and were influenced by sociologist, Tarasov.  These were progressive approaches involving the integration of subjects and the development of the whole child.  My interest was stimulated by the fact that Zankov was a colleague of Lev Vygotsky who studied the relationship between teaching, learning and child development.  Vygotsky’s theory on the ‘zone of proximal development’ was to be the basis of the 4 year study I would work on with Natalya in our two schools.  As Zankov was the first to test Vygotsky’s theories in the Russian classrooms in the 1970’s and 80’s, this was very exciting for me.

The method was based on the development of the 3 aspects of a child’s psyche, Intellect, Will and Emotions.

Intellect ~ development involves not only the acquisition of knowledge, but also various kinds of cognitive activities, such as logical thinking, observation, memory, and imagination.

Will ~ is described as the ability to set goals and motivate oneself to achieve them. Will grows out of wishes and desires, and develops as the child achieves his or her goals.

Emotions ~ enable learning where children feel safe and cared for.  In the classroom situation, good teacher/pupil relationships were essential.

In the classroom Zankov’s theories required teachers to focus on:~

  • Teaching at an optimal level of difficulty
  • Emphasizing theoretical knowledge
  • Proceeding at a rapid pace
  • Developing students’ awareness of the learning process
  • The purposeful, systematic development of each student

On the surface the classes reminded me of the “Montessori” classrooms of the sixties in Britain.  However, I was soon to learn that it was far more radical than this.

Inside the school I was welcomed by a student of the ‘method’ from the university, and a lecturer who trained the student teachers in the ‘method’.  We were joined by Valentina, an incredibly dignified lady who had adapted Zankov’s theories and devised the ‘method’ for the schools in this area.

I was taken to the Director’s office to be faced with a table, beautifully set and groaning under the weight of a feast.  I ate pancakes with yoghurt and drank very strong coffee.  After this I was taken on a tour of the school.

The first stop was the medical room which reminded me of a Chinese Chemist’s!  I wasn’t far off the mark as I was greeted by a meditating acupuncturist in what looked like transparent pyjamas and bare feet.  This charming man stopped meditating as soon as I walked in and offered to fix my ‘aura’.  I accepted gratefully and was led to a bed where everyone watched as he manipulated the bones in my arms, hands, legs, and spine.  He was horrified by the tension in my neck and treated this very efficiently, just like my chiropractor at home.  He then taught me how to relax by pressing on various pressure points.  As he pressed on one in my thigh, he looked worried and said I had a problem with my liver.  This could have been due to all the vodka I had consumed to get me through our welcome meal, or it could be long term damage from my gallstone operation.  Either way I was impressed.

By this time the doctor had a queue of children waiting outside his room.  He allowed me to watch as he treated children for all manner of problems with aromatherapy, massage and chiropractic.  This was definitely alternative medicine with a capital A and would lead to court cases for assault in Britain.  But the most alarming thing was that the doctor mixed up his own medicines and even injections, which he gave to children, “to help them leave their parents and settle into school without any problem”.  I could not help but worry that these children are being sedated from the age of 2.

There were 273 children at the school aged between 2 and 10.  The school is open from 7am and most children stay until 7pm.  However, they can stay until 9pm if their parents work unusual shifts; or they can leave early if parents are at home.  The young children slept for 2 or 3 hours in the afternoon.  All of the children were given 4 meals a day of very nutritious food from a detailed menu plan.  All of this was free as the government was very concerned about the poor health of the population generally at this time, and the children particularly.

The children had a wide variety of opportunities in the school.  There was a qualified gymnast to develop the children physically.  I watched two of his lessons which reminded me of drill at the Victorian school in Blists Hill.  There was a trained musician who taught the children to listen and speak through song, dance and drama.  And there were students from the University on teaching practice working with classes.  During the day I saw an integrated curriculum that was intended to develop art, language, music, and nature study.

Some lessons were heavily teacher led.  For example The Butterfly lesson:

The teacher started by demonstrating how to “splatter paint” on a folded piece of paper.  She then allowed the children to choose their own colours and do the same.  She then demonstrated how to cut out a butterfly shape.  The children had a stencil in front of them which they drew round.  They then cut out the shape.  Finally they drew around the butterfly shape and cut it out of their painted paper.  The finished object was very professional.  All the children finished at the same time and placed their butterfly on a perfect paper flower they had made earlier.  They then sat on the carpet and the teacher talked about the life cycle of butterflies.  She showed them photographs of butterflies and told them their names.  The children then sang a song about a butterfly and acted out a little play.

During all this time the ‘nurse’ sat and watched every move the children made.  She clearly had a different role to our nursery nurses as she did not help the children with their work, or take any active part in the lesson.  I assumed that she did the setting up of materials and she may have done the clearing away.

The children all produced an attractive finished butterfly but I was alarmed to be told that these pictures would now be given to a psychologist to analyse for any mental health problems.  One butterfly was shown to me and the Head said, “you can see this child has psychological problems because of the colours she has used.”  It looked perfectly ok to me and I did wonder if they were being over-analytical.

The children did not take their artwork home until the end of the year, which runs from January to December.  Much of their work is stuck into an individual record book.  I looked through many of these books and they were all exactly the same, lots of Origami, scraps of material made into pictures, and cut out ducks, trees and animals.  There was no evidence of children expressing their own imagination or creativity

Newspaper photograph of me joining in a dance class at School number 15

Typical classroom in the kindergarten

Exquisite scenery painted by Head’s husband for a play in school hall

Wonderfully painted little wooden chairs every child had one.

A wonderful interactive maths lesson

Children stop lessons to do physical exercises every so often.

Small group hard at work

Relaxed children working on a collaborative project

Haiku Heights prompt ~ Starve

Girls chat on smart phones

As babies sit in puschairs

Starved of attention.

I notice these days as I wander about that everyone seems to be on the phone chatting.  Of course smart phones are wonderful in emergencies or for generally keeping in touch when  away from home.  But the one time I get really upset is when I see a young mum or dad with a precious baby in a pram, or a toddler pottering alongside them, being IGNORED!  This time before children start school is so special and it will never come back.  I wish I could say to the parents or carers, “Please put the phone away and talk to the child!”   I would say that conversation is one of the most basic needs that every child has a right to.  It stimulates interest in their surroundings; develops their relationships; makes them feel safe, loved and cared for; promotes curiosity; and opens the way to learning.  Tone of voice used, making eye contact and paying attention to the child are really important factors in encouraging his or her self confidence and self esteem.  Conversation also increases the child’s vocabulary and their speaking and listening skills, which are vital first steps towards learning.

So please do yourself and your child a favour “TURN OFF YOUR PHONE & TALK TO YOUR CHILD!”