Homework

It was with delight that I received a letter from my children’s school explaining their new approach to homework – that the only thing children would be expected to do at home would be to read, enjoy and talk about books.  The whooping and dancing were not reflective of a neglectful approach to parenting.  Not that I am NEVER guilty of that.  My daughter no longer gives me letters that have to be returned to school; she just holds them for me to read, hands me a pen to sign on the line and whips it away before I can accidentally recycle it or write a shopping list on it.  (That I recycle and write shopping lists must surely be seen as evidence that I TRY not to neglect either the planet or my children.)

My response to the homework policy was as a professional working in education who sees this issue from both sides.  And on neither side do I see it working.

Professor John Hattie is a highly respected researcher in education, who has been described as “possibly the world’s most influential education academic” by the Times Educational Supplement. He has spent years studying what influences learning, analysing studies from around the world, covering 80 million students.  His Visible Learning approach, which encourages teachers to use the approaches that actually make a difference, has been adopted by schools around the world and many here in Scotland.

Within this it is interesting to discover that, contrary to the firmly held beliefs of parents and teachers alike, homework has little impact until children are of secondary school age.  While schools have embraced the rest of Hattie’s work, many have been nervous about acting on this.  Why is this?  I think the answer might be us – parents.

I have been interested in parents’ responses to this change in our school.  Many are delighted to feel they are being given some time to enjoy their children after school. Some are relieved to no longer have to battle through activities that their children resist with passion.  Other however, have concerns about the potential risks of leaving homework altogether.  They see homework as a key pillar of education and are worried that removing it will leave the whole endeavour less safe as a result.  This can be even more the case for parents worried that their children are not keeping up with their peers.

It strikes me as being a bit like the case for antibiotics from your GP.  When my children are really ill, I desperately want them to be better and go to the GP hopeful that there will be some magic medicine to achieve this.  However, the doctor knows that most of the illnesses she sees wont be affected by antibiotics.  Indeed giving them may be counterproductive, building resistance for when they are really needed.  So my GP does not respond to my pleading eyes and write a prescription to make ME feel better.  She trusts her professional knowledge instead and rises to her responsibility to do what is best for my child.  And although it feels disappointing at the time, I trust the training and ongoing study of my GP and know that she will be there to continue to support us and change her approach if necessary.

I have heard that there are some GPs who do prescribe more freely, perhaps because it is easier, but I believe that this is lessening as the evidence becomes more widely known and public opinion changes accordingly.

Similarly with homework, we parents want our children to have the best opportunities to learn and develop with a view to becoming the best they can be.  Just like wanting our children to be well, this is a positive attitude.  However, when considering the means to achieve it we need to trust the professionals tasked with knowing this.  While our gut feeling might be that more work must be better and that we have a responsibility to help with this, the evidence does not back this up, at primary school.  Indeed, my experience as a parent is that homework takes time away from enjoying activities together, adds pressure to family life and doesn’t actually influence my children’s learning.

My children tend to find their homework straightforward and I used to be a teacher, so it’s not difficult for me to help them when they don’t.  Yet, still I find it a stress.  How much more difficult must it be then for children who are struggling and whose parents haven’t been trained to teach them, not to mention those who have other pressures in life that must take precedence over ‘rainbow writing’.  To be putting families under this pressure when it DOES NOT WORK, is wrong.

As a professional, often working with children who are finding school particularly difficult, I frequently have to reassure parents and talk them out of their plans to hire tutors and buy all sorts of well marketed products to save their child from going under.  Ironically, it is often the pressure of doing more and more of what they find difficult that leaves them feeling like they are drowning.  Most teachers I speak to agree with me on this and will tell parents to leave it if children are struggling or  are finding it too stressful.  Yet few have the confidence to stop giving homework altogether.  Our schools need confident, well informed leaders to make such a grand change.

Now, just like the GP, the well-trained teacher will be able to assess and respond to individual situations according to their need.  For some children, in some circumstances, doing some work at home might well be helpful.  However, giving everyone homework to tackle that would be like giving my children antibiotics every time they have a sore throat just in case it is tonsillitis, without even looking in their mouths.

As an aside, I wonder if part of the issue here is the gradual erosion of trust in public sector workers that has taken place over the last few decades.  New Public Management approaches encouraged the questioning of public sector professionals and made them answerable to their service users.  And while I don’t disagree with this in principle – I think I should be answerable to the people I work with and often tell parents it is their job to ask questions – I do wonder if an unfortunate side effect has been to make the public forget just how much training and expertise a professional has.

Teachers are better trained and more knowledgeable now than they have ever been.  It amazes me how much they are expected to know and that they achieve this with calm professionalism, occasionally seeking advice from others like myself when they discover there is more they need to know.

If you as a parent feel strongly that your child needs more input on a particular area, of course you can do whatever you feel will help them.  Or better still, talk to your school about your concerns.  In my experience of working with lots of headteachers in lots of schools, I find that the ones most ready to stand up for their principles are also the ones most open to listening to parents and taking their concerns seriously.  The best schools develop not from a ‘them and us’ approach between parents and staff but from parents listening to and supporting their teachers, knowing that they will be listened to and supported in return.

If your school is changing its policy on homework, or anything else, find out why and if you find teachers studying what works best and being brave enough to do it despite cultural norms, congratulate yourself on your luck.  You’ve got a good team.

Our school policy is not to do no homework at all.  It is to focus on reading.  This reflects the national Reading Challenge that has been launched in Scotland, which recognises the importance of reading as a building block for all educational achievement.  The school has also been quite explicit about parents spending time with their children enjoying and talking about books.  So it is not the ‘reading homework’ that I remember of robotically reading a page of words then wondering why Janet wasn’t yet bored with John.  This is about doing what many parents do anyway – cuddling in, reading stories and developing language and literacy skills in a safe and comforting environment.  It also encourages us to keep this going beyond the early years.  My 11 year old, competent reader still enjoys being read to at night, and this allows her to enjoy books that would be more difficult for her to appreciate on her own.  (I am loving Little Women but good luck to anyone trying to read Treasure Island aloud – sentences so long you must surely develop a diver’s breathing capacity in the process.)

I am glad our school leaders are being brave in this.  I don’t want my children to be in a school – or a GP practice- where decisions are made my majority rule.  I want them to be cared for by professionals who know their field and have the confidence to stand up for what’s right. And I intend to stand by them while they do.

 

 

 

 

A Year Wiser

I love the app in Facebook that gives me snapshot of this day in time over the last few years.  The captured moments trace the shadow of my family’s story.   Photographs reveal chubbiness lost from children’s cheeks.  Long-since forgotten stories come to life and prove Virginia Woolf right that “one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later”.   I love this gift from Facebook – the expansion of my memories in the light of today.  I know what matters in a way I didn’t then and I know better what to treasure on the road ahead.

Over the last few weeks the memories popping up are less about family and more focused on my own personal growing up, my political awakening, which arose from last year’s campaign for Independence.   As I look at the younger me, I feel the same twinge of regret as I do seeing pictures of my round-faced children.  There was such innocence and such hope, a fearlessness and a sense of possibility.  There was a readiness to jump and an expectation of flight or at least being caught.

My son has just started school and his excitement, sharing what he’s learned each day, mirrors what I went through last year.   I was learning incredible things and proudly showing them to my Facebook family and hoping they’d approve. The reaction was quite like that in our car journeys home from school.  Some did not mind if I was right or wrong but encouraged my sharing.  Some were excited to discover something new for themselves and some thought I was naïve and no doubt annoying at times.

My teachers encouraged me regardless.  They came from throughout Scotland and beyond.   They were well-studied and patient scholars who analysed, reported, blogged and spoke.  Many had been stating their case for years without giving up.  Some took on a new role of examining the evidence on offer and making sure we had all the evidence.  Without them and without social media, I am not sure there would have been much of an argument.

Like many, I once saw Independence as a slightly eccentric ideal, a nationalism that was almost endearing as long as it wasn’t really an option.  I grew nervous watching more and more people getting behind the idea and became too scared to find it charming any more.  I began reading posts furtively, clicking links then extending that with my own study, still not sure who to trust.  As the scaremongering in the media became more blatant and I dared to believe the evidence I was gathering, I finally saw that the eccentric dream was in fact a vision of hope and it was well within reach, if only we had the confidence to say Yes.

I look at that younger self now with the same feelings of pride and protection as I have for my children.  And as with my children, I realise that I now know more.  But I also realise that some of the more I know doesn’t help.  Some of the experiences of growing up make you less confident and fear distracts you from the truth.  The last year has changed me.  I went through a grief that blindsided me last September and I have never been quite the same since.

The campaign had instilled in me such confidence in Scotland that I couldn’t quite believe we hadn’t been brave enough to say Yes.  I felt angry at the machine, fuelled by lies and fear, that stole my country’s future.  I was angry at the individuals who had carelessly given away our chance.  I, who had argued vociferously during the campaign that the referendum would not split the country, was feeling completely divided from those who had voted No.  I genuinely felt something had broken inside me.  It would have been very easy to allow bitterness and cynicism to grow.

This experience was perhaps my adolescence.  I retained my childlike vulnerability but had to step into experiences that hurt.  Just as adolescence is a time of becoming something new, so was my post-referendum experience.   I had to work hard to apply principles I had often written and spoken about but perhaps not had to really exercise much – grace, kindness, patience, openness and above all, bravery, to keep believing.

As often happens, out of the grief came strength.    Gradually I returned to seeing people as more than the choice they happened to make on one day.  My anger at those who manipulated the debate has died down.   What remains from my experience is realism about how a country might change direction and a realisation that change is inevitable regardless of how people vote.  Grassroots movements involving people from all sides have led to campaigns and direct action, supporting for example, food banks and abandoned refugees.

I think the maturity gained over the last year has not been just for me but for the country.  We are older and wiser post referendum.  We all understand that things are not as simple as we first thought.  Many who felt strongly against Independence last year, voted SNP in May, emphasising the importance of social justice at the heart of politics in Scotland.  Those passionate for Independence see that we cannot force people to believe.  We must patiently demonstrate the evidence that backs our case.  The way ahead is perhaps not the simple fork in the road that we faced last year, but a winding path, with options along the way that can lead us eventually to the destination we all want – a positive Scotland that serves people well.  So as my Facebook memories appear this week, I feel the same emotions but they are expanded with the wisdom of experience.

My heart aches for what was but as with my children, it is warmed by the possibilities in what lies ahead.

Did the SNP sabotage politics for the UK?

I woke up this morning to the news that the SNP had won Scotland’s Westminster seats by a landslide and I felt proud.

I felt proud that I had been part of this movement.  I felt proud that so many people around me had refused to believe the lies that had surrounded us.  They took a chance and voted for what they believed in.  We were Brave, voting for ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’.  We were Kind, accepting that social justice might cost us something in the short-term but that we could pull together and we could make it work.  We had to make it work.  I love being brave and kind.  I think they are the only 2 things we really need to be.  The whole country was being brave and kind together.  It felt good.

Then I felt sad.  Really, really sad.  Because the 56 seats that the SNP had won for Scotland, our landslide, was irrelevant in the face of the UK as a whole.  Our votes had not led to the left-of-centre, progressive coalition we all hoped for.  Instead, it looked like we were facing another 5 years of right-wing rule and austerity being ramped up a notch.  We were careering headlong into a new dawn quite different from the one we went to bed dreaming of.  Destination: the State as we know it being consigned to history, survival of the richest.

It confused me then that our ‘brave and kind’ were being twisted into naive and destructive.  They said it was our fault that things were heading in the direction they were.  Apparently by trying to steer one way, we had hit some kind of black ice and shot off in the opposite direction.  If only we had just kept driving slowly and quietly to the right we would never have actually got there.

Somehow, the left-wing party, which has stood up against austerity and for many principles of social justice, is responsible for the right-wing Conservatives being in power. I was really confused by this since fewer than 15% of people in Scotland voted for the Conservatives and if anything they are actually probably feeling a bit under-represented today, having only one of 58 seats in Scotland.

Anyway, it was suggested that I might be missing the cultural effect of ‘nationalism’, in which Scotland holding a referendum about independence last year led to a rise in English nationalism.  This, I was assured, led to more Tory and UKIP votes, effectively cancelling ours out (and some). I have been thinking about this a lot today and trying work out of there is any truth in it. While I am not denying this phenomenon completely, I do have a couple of issues with it and I would really like my friends who are not nationalists (in the currently used sense of wanting Scottish independence) to let me know your thoughts on them, particularly if you voted SNP last night.

Firstly, as far as I can see, there was a rise in English nationalism well before the Scottish Referendum. While I see that in the time of the Scottish referendum this might have increased further, I would argue that this resulted from manipulation of the English perception of what was happening in Scotland, by those who wanted a shift to the right in England.

You see, the ‘nationalism’ that grew in Scotland last year had nothing to do with ethnicity or blood lines.  It was a ‘civic’ nationalism, a voluntary attachment to the country, by those of varied descent, in recognition of a shared ideology. In essence, it was the sense that we believed in a socially-just type of government and although we sensed that there were a lot of us, indeed possibly even a majority, we didn’t seem to be being governed in that way.

I am not denying that there will be some traditional nationalists within Scotland, and some with fairly unpleasant ways of displaying that, as there are on all sides. Let’s not get distracted by them though. I am more interested in the additional 75,000+ SNP members since September’s referendum – a new breed of party activists, drawn together by frustration at feeling unrepresented in Westminster and desiring a more progressive style of government. Independence is only an issue because it seems to be the sole means to that end.

Today we have a literal map demonstrating that we weren’t imagining things.  The gap between north and south came into sharp focus in last night’s results. Social Media is full of pictures of political maps showing Scotland almost entirely yellow, while England is mostly blue with small patches of red. I’m not sure I like these maps though because they reflect the flaws in the first past the post system and don’t really represent the true variance in how people voted.

However a little analysis of the data shows that they are actually not entirely unrepresentative.  In Scotland, votes for left-of-centre parties (SNP, Labour and Green) total 75.6% of the total.  Votes for right-of-centre parties (Conservatives and UKIP) contributed 16.5% of the vote. Scotland definitely voted LEFT.  In England, votes for the Conservative and UKIP made up 55.1% of the vote, while votes for Labour and Greens totalled 31.6% of the vote.  The gap isn’t as wide but England definitely voted RIGHT.

This is the point.  It’s not about accents or surnames, whether you can pronounce Milngavie or eat a deep-fried Mars Bar.  It’s about having different ideas of how a country should be run.  Very different ideas. It’s not that one is right and the other wrong necessarily but that one is being silenced while the other always wins.  It doesn’t matter what we vote.  We don’t influence the result.  Every seat but 3 in Scotland belong to a party whose manifesto was clearly left-wing.  We got a right-wing government.

For those blaming our choices for the blue dawn this morning, I want to make this clear, EVEN IF EVERYONE IN SCOTLAND HAD VOTED LABOUR (TWICE) THEY STILL WOULDN’T HAVE WON.  (I also say this as a comfort to those who hesitated and wondered if they should vote tactically or from the heart then nervously crossed SNP.)

This has long been the pattern of politics in Scotland but the referendum was partly responsible for a change.  It woke us up.  People got involved.  Social Media got involved.  The YES side kept telling us that this was what could happen.

Independence had some logic but it also involved a big leap of faith.  Too many ‘facts’ kept changing for us to keep track of what was true.   Also, most of us actually quite liked England and being part of the UK.  We hadn’t fallen out of love.  We had just noticed we weren’t being treated the way we wanted to be.  Then they promised things would be different if we stayed.  We hoped there might be another way to the place we hoped to go.  We voted NO.

But the promises seemed to change and the rhetoric changed subtly then not so subtly from love to what has felt recently, a lot like hate.  So while I don’t really hold with the argument that we caused a rise in English Nationalism, I do actually think that events of recent months have probably fanned the flames of Scottish Nationalism – the civic kind.  We still don’t hate anyone but it has become clear that we are just not heading in the same direction.  The patronising rhetoric, bordering on racism, from the Conservatives, and Labour jumping on the bandwagon, eventually becoming almost indistinguishable from the Tories – where else were left-leaning voters meant to put their cross?

This is why Independence still feels to me like the way ahead.  I cannot see another way.  There has been a political Tsunami sweep through Scotland but by the time it reached London it was a slightly unsettling wave machine that might soon be turned off.  I don’t know where else to turn with the energy I feel for changing politics.

I guess as a committed YES voter since the referendum (although not at the start of that campaign), I might be expected to interpret things that way.  So I genuinely wonder what my friends who don’t support independence feel about things now.

For those who have a right-of-centre ideology, I understand you probably felt better represented in Westminster anyway. But the others – especially those who said NO in September but still chose SNP yesterday (thank you), what do you see as they way ahead?  How do you see your ideology being represented in the UK as whole?

I really hope that the Strong Voice we are sending south speak up boldly and that they are heard.  I have seen first-hand the commitment and enthusiasm of some of these people and if anyone can do it, they can.  But the question is, with politics as it is today, can they?