The witterings of a primary school teacher who is still learning the ropes

Simon’s Blog Has Moved!

Thanks for calling by!

I’ve moved my blog to a new address.  Please go to to read the posts below, as well as lots of new ones.

I’ll see you there!

Simon (@simcloughlin)

Friday 2nd March was a momentous day for education in Northern Ireland, as it marked the date of the first ever TeachMeet in the province.  I had been reading about its development for a while and followed this closely.  Having initially offered my services as a live interpreter for those outside of Northern Ireland, I eventually ended up presenting at the event!  As I live in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England, getting to Belfast by 6.30pm on a Friday evening would have been a bit of a trek, so I presented live via Elluminate.

Before I move onto what I presented, I would like to thank the whole team behind TeachMeet Belfast for the opportunity to present, in particular Dáithí Murray (@dmurray742) and Barry Corrigan (@MrMalcontent), who have found themselves a gig as Northern Ireland’s very own Ant and Dec!  TeachMeets are great and I have attended several here in the North East, as well as at BETT, so it’s great to know that Northern Ireland is also benefitting!

When I was wondering what to present, it was suggested to me that I talk about when I was abducted by aliens.  There’s a blog post here about it, but this is what happened on the night:

As I was making everything up as I went along, with small prompts from the photos I’d uploaded to Elluminate half an hour before the event, I didn’t have a professional-looking Prezi or presentation of any description like everyone else.  However, I did decide to make one after the event, so that my presentation could be shared.  Here’s a Prezi with the photos and hostage video:

I’m really looking forward to the next TeachMeet in Northern Ireland and hope that they’ll still invite the ex-pats back to present!

For more information on TeachMeet Belfast, click here.

Everyone’s An Expert

Earlier this week, I was publicly chastised by someone for being a teacher.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Recently, this person has made a lot of unprovoked attacks on me, claiming that because I’m now a teacher, I’ve lost my personality and I live in my own little bubble.  You couldn’t make this stuff up.  Anyway, this got me thinking about one of the many problems encountered by those working in the education sector – everyone’s been through it, so everyone’s an expert.

Most people start their lives in a hospital.  In addition to my 2-day stay in the maternity ward at Craigavon Area Hospital in February 1987, I spend one hour of my Wednesday evening watching ‘One Born Every Minute.’ Despite this, I feel that I have absolutely no right to make comment about or pass judgement on the decisions of midwives and other medical staff.  Yet as soon as someone in education does something slightly different to the norm, everyone has an opinion, as they feel they know all there is to know!

One thing that I was pulled up on was my supposed overuse of self-praise.  By this, all I can interpret is that this person, who follows me on Twitter, has interpreted my sharing of good practice and good ideas as self-praise.  What if people never shared the things that have gone well?  Maybe we should adopt the Gove model of working and only highlight the things that have gone wrong?  I use Twitter for my own professional development.  From time to time, I find that I help people with theirs.  I love the Twitter community of educational professionals because it is, on the whole, positive.  People celebrate what goes well in their own classrooms and share these successes with the world, so that together we can implement these good ideas elsewhere, not just restricting them to one classroom.

Another criticism I faced is that I am supposedly teaching my children too much about technology and not enough about the basics.  How someone who does not spend any time in my classroom can come to this conclusion is beyond me, yet the cold, hard facts are that I can give my class access to a computer each for one hour per week.  Obviously, I use a set of laptops at other times of the week in other lessons, but children may have to share.  In contrast to the one hour of ICT per week, I teach a minimum of 6 hours of maths and a minimum of 6 hours of literacy.  Not enough about the basics? Not the case – more to do with a mis-informed viewpoint.

Don’t get me wrong about this – people are entitled to have their opinions.  I have opinions about a myriad of things that I really have no right to have an opinion on, so therefore I keep these opinions to myself.  What I don’t do is attack those who, whether one wants to admit it or not, know what they are doing and are the people trained to do a highly-skilled and difficult job.  I was hurt and angry by some of the comments made to me recently, but decided not to get into an argument about it, as that would serve no purpose.  The person in question will make comments about me writing this blog post, but this blog is for those interested in education and what I do in my classroom. Don’t like it? Then go read something else.

Teachers up and down this country and even further afield are doing an amazing job, serving the children they teach extremely well and giving them the best start in life.  They do it because they care, not for self-promotion.  They share because they want children outside of their classrooms to experience great learning opportunities, not to get praise heaped on them by their peers.  To those teachers who shout from the rooftops about the great things they’re doing in classrooms, keep it up – you’re doing a great job and I salute you, even if others don’t.

The Google Teacher Academy is coming back to the UK in April 2012. I would love to be a Google Certified Teacher, so here is my application video to be one of the 50 teachers chosen from all over the world to attend the Academy. Fingers crossed!

For quite a few days now, I’ve been meaning to sit down and read the recently-published National Curriculum Review.  I’m not going to explain what it is or why it exists, as I’ll assume you know this.  To read the report in full, click here.

I’ve decided to blog about some of my initial thoughts.  These are by no means my only thoughts, just the ones I came up with as I worked my way through the document.  I will no doubt have more thoughts, and I will probably revise some of these thoughts following tonight’s #ukedchat session.

I apologise to any secondary colleagues reading this, as it is mainly focused on the impact the review would have on primary education.  Here goes…


3.14 The National Curriculum should remain a combination of core and foundation subjects. We believe that it should specify the detail of essential knowledge in core subjects but focus on a more limited set of significant expectations for a range of foundation subjects, i.e. drawing a clear distinction between core and foundation subjects. In this way, all pupils would be able to access a core of essential knowledge, but schools would not be overloaded by prescription. To summarise:

  • core subjects should be specified for each key stage through detailed Programmes of Study and Attainment Targets. We recommend that further non-statutory advice on the interpretation of the Programmes of Study and Attainment Targets should be made available. 
  • foundation subjects should be specified for each relevant key stage through significant but refined and condensed specifications.

Whilst I like the idea of the National Curriculum being stripped back, what constitutes ‘essential knowledge’?  Who is it that decides this?  I would argue that a firm grounding in arts-based subjects and a good grounding of English grammar are essential knowledge, but others who have more power than me might be inclined to think that being able to conjugate Latin verbs is essential.  The review states that schools won’t be overloaded with prescription, but having read the whole review and its focus on ‘knowledge’, I struggle to believe this.


3.16  There should also be annual reporting to parents for both core and foundation subjects.

Reporting for individual subjects will mean a return to subject-based teaching.  Is this the beginning of the end for the cross-curricular creative curriculum?


3.21 The local curriculum should also provide opportunities for schools to innovate and to develop particular curricular interests or specialisms insofar as they decide they are appropriate.

Is this a move towards all schools having a specialism?  Could all schools in a local area be asked to choose their specialism, with parents choosing which school they want their child to go to, based on the specialism?  Can an approach like this guarantee a breadth of rigorous coverage of all subjects?


Option 2 – Reclassification of subjects/topics which remain statutory (i.e. moving them from the National to the Basic Curriculum)

I agree that D&T and ICT should be reclassified into the basic curriculum, with a less-prescriptive focus on attainment.  However, for this to work, they should be embedded across all subjects.  Is this compatible with the inevitable shift towards subject-based teaching that I feel will arise if the recommendations of this review are carried through?


4.13 It is worth noting at this point that the optimum age at which to introduce modern foreign language teaching remains a contested matter that requires careful consideration of evidence; this is not yet fully resolved and we therefore present modern foreign languages in lower Key Stage 2 as a query at Figure 3 at the end of this chapter. However, we do believe because of its importance that it should be included in the National Curriculum at upper Key Stage 2, which represents a change to the existing arrangements.

This isn’t going far enough.  Why are we waiting until Year 5 to include MFL in the curriculum?  I do have a bias towards this subject, as it is a specialism and a passion, yet there is no reason why it shouldn’t be included in the National Curriculum from Year 3, or even at Key Stage 1.  Many schools who are already teaching MFL do so from Year 3 onwards, why not embrace this and continue this good practice?


Figure 3: The arts, at Key Stage 4, would combine art and music but also other aspects of the arts (e.g. dance and drama).

Dance and drama would be a welcome addition to the curriculum before Key Stage 4.  Are they covered enough in the English and PE curricula?  The use of drama before KS4 would also feed into the proposals to increase the use of oral skills to aid learning.


5.5 For these reasons, we recommend that the present Key Stage 2 should be split to form two new key stages, each of two years’ duration. To avoid renumbering of established key stages, the new provision could be known as ‘Lower Key Stage 2’ and ‘Upper Key Stage 2’.

5.6 Programmes of Study would describe the subject matter to be taught and Attainment Targets (where specified) would describe the learning outcomes expected at the end of Year 2, Year 4 and Year 6. At the end of Year 2 and Year 4, schools would report to parents on the basis of statutory teacher assessment. External testing at the end of Year 6 would continue, as recommended by Lord Bew.

I agree that splitting KS2 is a good idea, yet don’t most schools do this already, even if the National Curriculum doesn’t dictate that it should be?  This is a necessary step in order to maintain pace in all four years.  However, I can’t help but fear that the “statutory teacher assessment” in Year 4 would become yet another way for schools to be ranked and children to be pressured into performing like exam monkeys.


6.5 However, it is also important to recognise that some jurisdictions (Singapore, Hong Kong) do not organise their curriculum specifications year-by-year, but do have prescribed/approved textbooks.

Textbooks next? Maybe I’ve looked up the National Curriculum Review from 1940 by mistake.


6.12 We recommend that schools should be required to publish their schemes of work for scrutiny by both parents and inspectors.

Once again, parents are lauded as experts.  Are doctors obliged to publish their decisions for patient treatment for scrutiny by patients’ families and then advised to act on this non-expert opinion?  This is another attempt to completely devalue our professional judgement and ability to do our job by insinuating that those who are not trained to teach have the right to judge the quality of our work.


Chapter 7

Knowledge isn’t always key.  What about skills?  Are we heading down the route of producing exam-passing monkeys?


8.3 We have concerns…about the ways in which ‘levels’ are currently used to judge pupil progress, and their consequences. Indeed, we believe that this may actually inhibit the overall performance of our system and undermine learning. For this reason, we suggest a new approach to judging progression that we believe to be, in principle, more educationally sound.

Surely any replacement for levels will just become the new ‘levels’ by which we judge children?


8.4 We are concerned by the ways in which England’s current assessment system 

encourages a process of differentiating learners through the award of ‘levels’, to the extent
that pupils come to label themselves in these terms.

I share these concerns, but any replacement will still ‘label’ children.  I fear that this is an aspect of our system that we will never be able to fully eradicate.


8.14 For example, ‘holding the group together’ is a key feature in Singapore, where around one quarter of children enter primary school with no experience of formal pre-school settings. These children are frequently assigned to special classes of between five and eight pupils, and are taught by highly skilled and qualified specialist staff with the aim of bringing them up to a level of understanding which enables them to be re-integrated into mainstream groups as quickly as possible, giving a more even spread of attainment in teaching groups.

Lovely idea, but in these times of extreme budget cuts and support staff disappearing from schools, who will run these groups?  Will they be led by teachers?  Will there be extra funding for these teachers, or will these groups mean that other class sizes will increase due to a shortage of staff?


8.17 We have therefore opted to recommend an approach to pupil progression that emphasises ‘high expectations for all’ – a characteristic of many high-performing jurisdictions. This conveys necessary teacher commitment to both aspiration and inclusion, and implies the specific set of fundamental achievements that all pupils should attain.



8.22 Specific provision for pupils with learning difficulties is important – with the aim, 

wherever possible, of enabling them to continue to progress with their cohort and peers. … There was no desire to halt the move towards inclusion, but it was thought unhelpful to assess and measure progress of some children with SEND against current criteria (National Curriculum Levels and Performance scales)…there is a need for something more flexible that recognises and assesses individual progress; that assessment should focus on successes rather than being grounded in failure; and a teacher’s narrative judgement should be used in assessments of a pupil’s progress.

This would work well in theory in primary schools and up to KS3, but what happens at GCSE level?  Would there be a different exam for those with SEND?  This would really exclude them once they enter the job market.


8.26 Reporting, according to our suggested model, could be based on a ‘ready to progress’ measure broken down into key areas of subjects.

What happens when a child is deemed ‘not ready to progress’?  Are they kept back a year?  Are they given extra tuition?  By whom?


8.27 Performance tables could be constructed on the basis of the proportions of pupils in 

any cohort having reached the ‘ready to progress’ level at the end of the key stage (i.e. every
two years, if our earlier recommendations are accepted).

So there we go, performance tables will be published at the end of Year 4.  The most-tested children in the world go up another notch in the assessment stakes.


I look forward to seeing what happens as a result of this review.  As I see it, there is a complete shift away from creativity and a creative, cross-curricular curriculum.  The Cambridge Review was paid lip service, with the focus being on knowledge and the ability of children to prove their knowledge every two years.  So if you’re planning on having children soon, rest assured that by the time they leave school, they will be able to recite dates and facts like a walking Wikipedia.  I sense a certain shift towards Victorian educational values.

As a teacher, I know that I am very careful with what I put on my Facebook profile.  I know that only my friends can see what I post, yet sometimes I worry that with the plethora of changes that Facebook insists upon throwing at us to keep us on our toes, my privacy settings may change without me knowing.  Before I know it, little Jimmy from Year 6 has seen all the photos I posted of my recent night out and has shown them to all his mates.

Most teachers I know have made sure that their privacy settings are at the most secure possible.  With the introduction of the timeline feature on Facebook, I worried that some of my privacy settings might have changed.  As all of my friends are my friends on Facebook, I couldn’t get anyone I know to check how my profile looks to non-friends, so I put out a tweet asking someone to help.  As it turned out, lots of teachers offered to help with this and asked if their profile could be checked in return.

In response to this, I have set up a Google Doc for people to say that they would like their Facebook privacy settings to be checked.  This relies on others’ goodwill in checking the profiles of others, so please do take a second to check someone else’s if you would like yours to be checked.  The comments section should be used to say what is visible, so that people are aware of what can be seen.  The format of this document may change as time goes on, depending on feedback and the uptake!

To go to the document, click HERE.


Skype In My Classroom

Over the summer, I read Kevin McLaughlin’s blog post about using Skype in his classroom to connect with a museum in Egypt when his class were learning about the Ancient Egyptians.  I was truly inspired by this and knew that I had to get Skype installed on my school laptop so that I could use this valuable resource to really bring learning to life for the children in my class.  Without delay, I sent an email to my Local Authority IT Services and asked for it to be installed on my laptop.  Shortly afterwards, I received a reply:

“For security reasons we will not be able to install Skype on schools Pc’s [sic].”

I’m not one to take “no” for an answer, and I’m certainly not one to take “no” for an answer when the excuse is so vague.  So off I went in pursuit of why this posed a security risk.  While I waited for a response, I started a Twitter hashtag to find out who else is using Skype in schools and where they are.  The #skypeinschools hashtag proved to be extremely popular and I received lots of responses from all over the world about where and how people were using Skype in school.  The reason I started this hashtag was to have a bank of evidence of how schools in other Local Authorities are using Skype to enhance learning, but thankfully I didn’t need to use this, as my Headteacher convinced the powers-that-be that having Skype was necessary.  We were granted access on a trial basis, and so Skype was finally installed!

Within a week of Skype being up-and-running, my class were having their first conversation with someone far away from where we are in Newcastle: Julia Skinner, the founder of the 100 Word Challenge paid us a visit! (Not my classroom, as my projector was at the projector hospital that day):

I felt that the children in my class were starting to lose interest in doing the 100 Word Challenge each week, so Julia paid us a visit to enthuse them and to give them some real-time feedback on their work.  The result?  Almost every child entered the 100 Word Challenge that week, completing the work at home that they had started in school.  Success!  Since we Skyped with Julia, the children regularly talk about “Mrs Skinner,” as they have been able to put a face to the name they see commenting on our class blog.  This was a valuable experience and I thank Julia profusely for giving up her time to help us out.

This year, we have been taking part in the fantastic Quadblogging project run by the inspirational David Mitchell.  Two of our Quadblogging partners are in Canada and the USA.  We attempted to have a Skype conversation with our partners in Canada, however technology did let us down – the connection in Canada wasn’t strong enough to allow us to chat to each other face-to-face, however both classes were still able to type their questions and answers.

A small blip like this was not going to stop us, however! A couple of weeks ago, the @HotspurClass12 Twitter account got some feedback about our class blog from Lord Knight of Weymouth, formerly known as Jim Knight MP, who was Schools Minister under the Labour Government.  I was very excited to tell the children that someone well-known had not only been on our blog, but had also been in touch.  I emailed Lord Knight to ask if he would be interested in a Skype conversation with us, so that the children in my class could learn about the House of Lords and about how government in general works.  Although this didn’t fit in at all with anything that we’re learning about in class, I couldn’t miss an opportunity like this and I’m always striving to teach the children in my class as much about the world we live in as possible.  To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t expecting a reply, as being in government isn’t a particularly leisurely job and I wasn’t sure Lord Knight would have time to speak to a class of nine and ten year olds and their over-enthusiastic teacher, yet a couple of hours after I sent my email, a reply came back saying that he would be delighted to talk to us.

Earlier this week, we managed to find a time that suited both my class and Lord Knight, and so the Skype conversation was arranged.  The visual timetable in my classroom that day was quite unique:

In preparation for the conversation, the children had had a thinking homework of what they might like to ask Lord Knight.  They came up with some great questions, so we collated as many of the questions as possible:

(I’d love to say that a child did all the writing, hence the untidy handwriting, but the truth is that my handwriting is atrocious.)

So at 10.30am, I collected my class from singing practice and we said hello to Lord Knight:

This was an amazing learning experience for the children in my class.  A lot of them have never been to London, so having someone speak to us live from the House of Lords was a big novelty.  They asked some fantastic questions and learned lots from Lord Knight’s responses.  We were able to learn about him and his background, but also about the roles of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.  I felt that aspirations in my class were really raised by this, as some children realised that they, too, could be an important politician some day if they wanted to be.

I feel that I should share one part of the conversation that really made me laugh:

Lord Knight: Do any of you know who the Prime Minister was before David Cameron?

Child: Gordon Ramsay.

Jokes, chefs and Scottish Prime Ministers aside, teaching children about the world we live in and about the way our country is run is vital if  they are to become the next generation of voters, politicians and responsible citizens.  Experiences like this will never be forgotten by the children in my class, and I am extremely grateful that there are politicians out there willing to give up their time to help educate the decision-makers of the future.

What does the future hold for Skype in my classroom?  In just over a week, I’ll be heading to Belgium for a few days to a Comenius Contact Seminar.  I plan to set a few challenges for my class while I’m gone, and I’ll be able to appear in the classroom and see them all thanks to Skype.  I also hope to link my class with Tim Handley‘s class in the near future, as part of his Friday Conversations project.

Imagine if I had taken “no” for an answer…

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