Tag Archives: Department for Education

An unsure start

11 Feb

locked-doorEarlier this week I read George Monbiot’s encouraging piece about rebuilding society from the ground upwards. Crammed with examples of positive initiatives that local communities had devised and implemented themselves, the piece provided a glimmer of hope showing normal people taking control and making a difference, slowly healing fractured communities and as a result building tolerance, inclusivity and empathy in their local area. A powerful legacy: what that comes down to is making the everyday world a more palatable place. And doing this breeds enthusiasm to do it more. As Monbiot puts it, “a dense, participatory culture that becomes attractive and relevant to everyone rather than mostly to socially active people with time on their hands”.

And then, then, only hours later, it’s back to the usual frustration as I read a piece about the accelerating pace of Sure Start Centre closures. Now, these are not community initiatives, but they are initiatives designed to help the community, so their closure runs in direct contradiction to the hope-filled narrative that supporting people at grassroots level will generate greater returns and build a community that people living there can be proud of.

It’s not a direct correlation, Monbiot’s concept of rebuilding society and Sure Start, but it’s close enough to be a tangible example of the consistent lack of focus from the current government on supporting people to make change within the minutiae of their lives which will be magnified to much greater change as time passes. When I lived in Walthamstow through the dizzying disorientation of a first baby, social activities organised by Sure Start provided an excuse to leave the house that I didn’t have to find the wherewithal to arrange myself; and I know that for many the organisation performed way more crucial roles than that. For people who don’t have family support in the vinicity, or an urban family to fulfil the same safety network role; for people who are struggling with trying to do the right thing in any aspect of childrearing; for those whose questions need personal not generic answers; or even for those who need to sit and nurse somewhere accepting that isn’t their own home, Sure Start was invaluable.

And now, with 350 centres closed since 2010 and a mere eight new ones opening; well, it’s clear that the support for so many adults at the start of a brand new lifestage, and children at the start of a brand new life, simply is no longer there.

This again symbolises the lack of attention to the vulnerable which is becoming the hallmark, probably the most lasting legacy, of our current government. The DfE says they are ‘committed to giving children a good start’, and claim that they are ‘investing a record £6bn in childcare per year by 2020 [which] includes extra support for disadvantaged families’, but if Sure Start is scaled back, and there is no sign of anything specific being implemented to take its place, what does this look like? The evidence – or lack of any – points to yet more empty words, and another void in communities at crucial lifestages.


Michael Gove’s phonics farce

26 Apr

On Tuesday I went to a phonics meeting at the Ls school. L2 has the misfortune to be a victim of the second year of Michael Gove’s demented Phonics Screening Check; like all schools, ours has had this ridiculous additional test foisted upon them. Thanks ‘Mike’. Now I appreciate that by the language I’m using you can probably spot I’m not the biggest fan of Gove nor indeed most of the changes he’s either introduced or trying to introduce, but in the interests of involved parenting I thought I’d best go along to find out more.

Firstly, testing tiny children – and they are tiny children – academically is a farce. They are little, and tests are stressful, no matter how nurturing the environment they take the test in. I simply cannot understand why the concept of success or failure has to be a part of education when they are in their second year of school. It’s pretty rubbish to be six and told that you’ve failed something, isn’t it. There is enough of that shenanigans later on.

And they learn in different ways at different paces. I only have the two children but even from that statistically insignificant sample (it would never stand up as quotable proof in The Day Job) I can see that this is the case. So for one child, learning to read via phonics might make perfect sense, while for the next, it’s photographic recall; for yet another, it will be sound association. Some children think in pictures, some think in words, and some think in something entirely different. So testing progress on a phonics-based system can’t possibly provide a true guide to how clearly they’re taking things in.

And in addition, surely seeing a clearly made-up word to read out will throw many little children into a state of confusion and even panic. They don’t know it, it doesn’t mean anything, but they’re expected to say it. The word isn’t real, yet have to behave as if it is. It’s a fairly sophisticated concept, isn’t it, asking a five or six year old to sound out a word via phonics to deliver a vowel and consonant combination that doesn’t actually include a meaning at the end of it?

Because yes, that is this test. And here is the heart of my objection to it. The list of words they have to read consists of a mixture of made-up and real words which they are expected to treat in the same way. On the practice sheet – I have it in front of me now – the made-up words are ‘ot’, ‘vap’, ‘osk’ and ‘ect’. I already predict L2 will be too caught-up in the make-up of an ‘ect’ – or is it ‘to ect’, who knows – to take the rest of it in. And I would argue that the English language is rich and varied enough that if Gove’s gang really must test at this stage – and it seems to be something they’re increasingly set upon – they could at least mine the set of real words available to test the same end result.

Don’t try and tell me that the children might know all the words selected – I think at this age that’s highly unlikely; and at least when they succeed in sounding out something real that they’ve never seen before, it’s a step further in vocabulary rather than just in phonics mechanics. Language isn’t mechanics, it’s beautiful, so can’t we please just use it.