Archive for July, 2011

New Blog launch: M.S. in the family: a community perspective.

Launched a new blog – called M.S in the family. I’ve already had some international and local responses. A few hiccups with the new Mr. Site platform (the links are much more difficult to do than WordPress) – it will be of interest to all those with disabilities and M.S. and especially parents with M.S. and their children. There is a fair smattering of politics in it and what I hope is an interesting post on an anti-cuts meeting with relevance to disabilities. Check it out sign the guest book  and wish me luck! Here is the link again:



Disabled People Fight Back against the Cuts. Campaign Meeting Dial House Chester tonight.

WEDNESDAY 27TH JULY, 6PM at DIAL HOUSE, HAMILTON PLACE, CHESTER. Union reps, carers and supporters of people with disabilities also welcome. Try to get your union to send a rep of you can. Also parents of children with disabilities. There will be at least one child at the meeting, it is early evening so if you don’t have a babysitter, bring your child along with some toys or something to do. No creche though but between us we’ll manage!: Too many disabled people are living in fear of coalition government cuts which threaten our independence, our care and our benefits. Government proposals will mean: …* the abolition of non-means tested benefits like Incapacity Benefit from April 2012 * the abolition of Disability Living Allowance from 2013 * strict policing of all benefit claims by privatised medical services (ATOS) who view all disabled people as potential criminals * cuts to support services from local authorities * cuts to housing provision * privatisation of the NHS. And all this is accompanied by a wave of attacks in the media. Government ministers try to smear disabled people claiming their rights as welfare cheats or drug addicts. It is time for disabled people themselves to make their voices heard in opposition to the cuts. There will be a meeting in Chester to start a campaign of protest here: WEDNESDAY 27TH JULY, 6PM at DIAL HOUSE, HAMILTON PLACE, CHESTER ALL DISABLED PEOPLE IN AND AROUND CHESTER ARE WELCOME TO COME AND HELP. ALSO CARERS. PERSONAL ASSISTANTS, PARENTS AND SUPPORTER

Shorefields Secondary Anti-academy Protest hits Chester.

Arriving at the University of Chester around 11.30 a.m this morning, the passengers on the  double decker bus from Shorefields Secondary School filed out and assembled. Yet another protest against the drive to make their school an academy.  I listened to many different voices – most of them said the same thing: “There was no consultation” and “Not one person wanted this”. What we are seeing now in our society, one protestor said – is ‘institutionalised corruption’. Children, parents, trade unionists,  teachers and classroom assistants showed a united front and had brought with them a petition which they handed over the to the Vice Chancellor of the University of Chester via the reception desk of the University.

Shorefields Liverpool comes to Chester. Anti-academy protest. University of Chester. Photograph Frances Laing.

NUT Banner. Shorefields Anti-academy protest University of Chester. Photograph Frances Laing.

Parents told me something about the school. A school with good Ofsted ratings. A school particularly reliant on community support, a community school – with double the national average of children with Special Educational Needs and five times the national average for free school meals.

A school where price rises for essentials like school uniform are a difficult challenge for many, especially those with more than one child at the school. Under the new academy regime I was told a blazer would cost £40 and an outdoor p.e. kit shirt alone would cost £25.  

Protests have been covered extensively in the Liverpool Echo and the Liver press, but this time protestors were on a ‘Day Out’ in the style of the playwright Willy Russell, to show Cestrians what the academies story really is and how Chester University is at the forefront of the push to privatise our schools.

I was told the protests have seen five resignations by governors at the school.

Shorefields Anti-academy protest comes to Chester. Photograph Frances Laing.

One of the major funding issues with special educational needs was that in contrast to a local authority school – in an academy special educational needs funding is not ring fenced. Therefore if the school finances go down, there is no financial back up for this provision.

Shorefields Anti Academy protest outside University of Chester. Photograph Frances Laing.

University of Chester officials attempted to stage-manage the protest in PR terms leaving the majority of protestors in an empty hall – with all the banners propped up against the tables.

A hot drink had been laid on by the University of Chester but these seasoned   protestors clearly had no intention of being bought out by tea and biscuits (come to think of it, in fact there weren’t even any biscuits). With a polystyrene cup of University tea  in hand I heard how  pro-academy forces-that-be had been slowly chipping away at the school’s reputation. A school that had been described as ‘good’ by Ofsted.

Shorefields Anti-Academy Protest University of Chester. Photograph Frances Laing.

 Afterwards I accompanied protestors on the coach from the University of Chester to Chester Cathedral. (They had asked the Bishop of Chester to meet them to discuss their concerns).

Shorefields community clearly cares about itself and Shorefields butties were shared on board. Here was a community which was together. Not some theoretical kind of Cameron-esque big society but a real, big-hearted community in action.

Our own Chester city chiefs like to make a show of offering hospitality to visitors and each bus load of visitors can access a tour guide. 

In contrast – the Shorefields Anti-Academy Protestors coach featured a police escort up front courtesy of Cheshire West and Chester Council.  

Protestors kept their sense of humour, I had lost mine, I was just ashamed of our city at that point. The official reception seemed so shabby.  It seemed our University never had any intention of listening to these parents, teachers and children – it was just seeing pound signs – just wanted them to shut up and go away. And seldom if ever do we hear about any of these things in our own local press.

Shorefields Anti-academy protest police escort. Photograph Frances Laing.

Undeterred, protestors left their double decker bus and headed confidently for Chester Town Hall Square steps singing a cleverly crafted anti-academy cover version of  “We’re all going on a summer holiday”. It was a day to remember…and I felt privileged to be there.

Shorefields Anti-Academy protest heads for Chester City Centre. Photograph Frances Laing.

Local union officials stood ready to greet protestors on the Town Hall steps together with a spokesperson from the National Union of Teachers.

 I believe the protest made the national news. 

Shorefields Anti-academy Protestors Chester Town Hall. Photograph by Frances Laing.

Shorefields Anti-Academy Protest hits Chester Tomorrow.

As yet, not many local people in Chester are aware of the involvement of the University of Chester in the drive to create Academy schools.

Since the University of Chester has been instrumental in propping up a pro-academy infrastructure in terms of, I believe, finance and training – protestors from Shorefields School are taking their protest to the streets of our city tomorrow. The final arrangements for the protest against Shorefields being taken over by Chester University are as follows:

Because of the difficulties involved in marching across Chester protestors will hand a petition in at the University between 11.30 and 12.00.

They will then travel across town by coach to give a petition to the Bishop of Chester at the Cathedral at approximately 12.30.

Parents, friends, trade unionists and anyone else wishing to support the protest are welcome to attend and show their solidarity. Judging from local press coverage – the community in and around Shorefields have campaigned long and hard against being turned into an academy. It seems vital to support this protest and hear what people on the ground have to say about it. Who knows, your school might be next:

See also: Protest at Shorefields to stop the school being turned into an academy 

And: Why we oppose academies (A briefing from the anti-academies alliance).

Coalition government annual school report, 2011. Part One.

Battle-fatigued is the phrase Special Educational Needs blogger Guerilla Mum Ellen Powers uses (she is currently sadly missing in action from her SEN blog). Come back Ellen – we need you. As I approach the end of term and contemplate a parents evening with my daughter’s soon-to-be Year 2 teacher – battle fatigued is how I feel too. There are some good things about our school. Our current headmistress who has been in post for a year – is one of them. But right now my over-riding feeling is – is there really any point going to a parent’s evening at all? It seems to me that despite the lip service paid the coalition government doesn’t really want parents to be involved in their children’s education – or in any discussion about what schools should look like.

According to this government parents can be tolerated as long as they confine themselves to the fund-raising clause in the PTA constitution and never mind about discussions on how their children are to be educated. We don’t need a discussion about it, we know what we are doing thank you very much. The problem is, they really, really don’t.

Still, I suppose that is what this blog is for, isn’t it? At least  I hope it is. I mean to change something for the better. (I hope.)

The battle-fatigued bit comes from looking back at many of the past years events. In our family we kicked off last year’s school summer holidays in style (sarcasm). A warning letter from the school governors floated through our letterbox – which accused me of  two incidents of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ at the school and threatened to ban me (and by implication my daughter) from the school grounds should another such ‘incident’ occur. From experience I know that ‘disciplinary’ letters such as this (solicitors or redundancy notices for example) – by accident or design – are timed to land on the recipient’s mat on a Friday (thus spoiling the recipient’s weekend) or just before the holidays. But knowing that didn’t help much at the time and I was left to worry about this letter for six weeks. I just couldn’t work out what the ‘inappropriate’ behaviour had been and neither could my Other Half (who had been there at the time).

So, when the holidays were over in the very first week of the new term of school – I made use of my rights as a parent to examine my daughter’s file. I found a letter in it which had never been sent, and therefore never received(we had not had an opportunity to respond to it). The letter was signed by a previous head and accused me of ‘inappropriate’ behaviour at my daughter’s parent’s evening in reception year, said that someone had expressed concern about the welfare of my child on that evening. If I hadn’t requested to look at the file, I would never have found that letter. I eventually gained a written apology from the school. The letter should never have been written.

I had thought back to what had actually happened that very first parent’s evening at school. My daughter was four. I remembered it quite clearly and my husband was there too. It was around the time our parental exemption to the early years foundation stage was rejected. It had been a horrible, horrible process – and I had become aware of the magnitude of the damage that English government policy was doing to children – I had just watched Fergus Andersen’s video “Too Much too Soon”. On the way to the school in the local nursery I’d seen a poster to collect money for the troops in Afghanistan and both things just set me off – it was all, well to use a word differently – just inappropriate. The worst thing was, I felt there was nothing, nothing I could do about any of it. And there was such an urgency to it. So much happens in the early years and it is over so quickly.

In fact I hardly spoke at all at that parents evening. The reason was that I spent most of it in floods of tears and couldn’t get a word out. I remember quite quietly through the tears saying three words ‘leave her alone’ (meaning my daughter – meaning leave her to be, play, without the constant measuring and target-setting – meaning leave all the children alone) and that was pretty much all I said. My daughter (being four) cried too – (we are very close and she started because I was crying probably). I remember carrying her out – we were both in tears. The previous head (who no doubt was no friend of mine due to the fact that we were the only parents in England to apply for a parental exemption for our child to the EYFS targets) – there must have been a complaint about this and someone had written a letter about it which was never sent. A complaint.  Despite seeing a parent and child in tears at the school, no-one offered us any assistance at the time and there was no phone call the next day to even check we were okay. And someone was concerned about my child’s welfare? Nothing was said about what had happened afterwards at school and at the time no assistance or discussion was offered at all. I put it down to embarrassment at the time.

There were other dimensions to this too and I believe the other reason why I had been so upset is that on some subliminal level I knew that something else was wrong. Several months later I discovered that my daughter had been bullied at school on many occasions in reception year – (see previous posts) – she was bullied in Year One too. Incident number two of alleged inappropriate behaviour it turned out  had been me practising an anti-bullying technique with my daughter at the school gate: (“stop don’t do that” – in a loud voice). It has been a long, long road. But there are no more tears now.

No more tears – not least because last summer holidays both myself and my daughter signed up to a black belt martial arts programme. We’ve both been training for a year now. There are a lot of stereotypes around about martial arts. Good martial arts schools come with a code of conduct that is way beyond any disciplinary code children might learn in school, as far as I’m concerned. Still not sure I’ll ever measure up to it, but it is something to strive for. I’ve had a rude awakening realising some of the behaviour that some children get way with in (and out of) school, that’s for sure.

No more tears, because the growing movement of people who really care about young children’s education (and want to discuss the content and direction of it)  is getting stronger by the minute. Part Two of the Coalition Government Annual School Report follows as soon as I can.

For a (very cross) headmistress’s view on the things the coalition government is getting wrong, read this week’s TES article by Kenny Frederick head of a school in east London : “How to stop a bulldozer and not be crushed”.

Kenny writes: “Combine the pensions debacle with the frequent pronouncements from the education secretary about how much harder GCSEs should be, then add on the warnings that the new Ofsted framework will ‘raise the bar’ once again, the fact that secondary school floor targets are being raised to 50 per cent and the 200 plus “failing” primary schools are going to be taken over by academies and you can see what is making my blood boil…”

Nursery World headline: “Schools bribed to use phonics, M.P’s report says”. Phonics test for five and six year olds.

Nursery World publishes a piece on how schools have been ‘bribed’ to use phonics:

“In a report into overcoming the barriers to literacy, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education says that cash-strapped schools are being pushed into using synthetic phonics, because they are offered matched funding if they buy approved phonics products and training. It says that schools must buy resources from a small range of products from only one source.

The report emphasises that literacy policy should focus on instilling a love of reading to increase children’s motivation, well-being and attainment. The report, which is based on evidence from nearly 600 teachers and educationalists, says that the Government’s focus on synthetic phonics is at odds with the views of schools and education experts, who recommend a broad-ranging approach to literacy. “

In which the writer re-visits a socialist analysis of the English education system. Vgotsky at Marxism 2011.

This week I had the privilege of attending a packed seminar (around 100 people were present) with Jane Reed, NUT member at the cultural and political festival Marxism 2011. Jane introduced a seminar on “Vgotsky and how children learn”. All issues raised were relevant to the cuts in education : particularly the decimation of special needs provision and the much criticised Phonics test for five and six year olds – (the pilot alone will cost us a quarter of a million). You can obtain a recording of the session from Bookmarks bookshop.

Jane Reed speaks on "Vgotsky and how children learn". London, 2011

Speaking in an individual capacity Jane had been on strike this week. 

I’d never heard of Vgotsky before (although I’m a trained teacher in Adult Education). He was a Russian educational theorist and psychologist and his work is enjoying something of a revival right now amongst progressive teachers. It seems  highly relevant to Early Years Education and what is currently happening in the English educational system.

The session was an international one – with colleagues from the Czech Republic and Germany. Apparently the Vgotsky revival is showing itself in the States too (see the video below).
Jane’s talk focussed on the question: “What is education FOR?”. She spoke of an ideological attack which is currently taking place – which equates to an attempt to discipline teachers and students – an attack on teaching as a craft. She referred to a Department of Education quote: “students need to know their place again after 1968”.
Vgotsky wrote seven books in the 1920s and 30s in tsarist Russia and was particularly interested in children with special needs. His theories and practice are enjoying something of a revival amongst learning theorists and teachers right now –   not least because they emphasise the importance of ‘play’ AND the importance of learning in context – and the ways in which a child’s surroundings and the interactions in society and in a group –  influence how they learn.
Jane highlighted how Vgotsky’s theories and practice are directly relevant to early years education – the ‘tick-box’ system of the Early Years Foundation Stage and the Phonics Test  for five and six year olds. The much criticised Phonics Test includes ‘non-words’ – words completely taken out of context. 
There were many contributions from the floor including points made by a maths teacher, a drama teacher, and more than one special needs teacher. I spoke too briefly- I mentioned the relevance of this blog and the forthcoming Open Eye book “Dissent and the English Early Years Education System” – which I have contributed a chapter to – entitled:
 “A Parent’s  Challenge to New Labour’s Early Years Foundation Stage”. Fellow contributors to this book include Dr. Penelope Leach and Barry Sheerman, M.P.
The seminar was recorded and recordings are being made available at the Bookmarks Socialist Bookshop London. A Vgotsky study group also emerged from the seminar.
More on Vgotsky at this link: Vgotsky versus Piaget and in the videos below: