What English schools will be like 10 years from now

It’s a funny in-between existence, being a school librarian. You’re a semi-detatched member of staff in many ways. A bit like being a governess in a Bronte novel, not quite upstairs but definitely not part of the servants’ hall – you get to sit in a corner, occupied with your metaphorical sewing, and hear a lot of what’s going on, and draw your own conclusions.

It’s generally best not to take sides, at least in public. Not to say anything that could be regarded as political. Social media is fraught with dangers. You observe the harried, basically decent and well meaning professionals around you with a mixture of pity, rage and growing despair. You realise how impossible the demands placed upon them are, how inadequate the resources available. I have seen three or four good people burn out over the last 10 years and need lengthy periods of sick leave. Sometimes they don’t return, sometimes they do but you feel they are only just managing.

I’ve been working with someone this week who is fantastically professional and good at her job, but so overwhelmed that she didn’t realise the school had £600 worth of commission vouchers to spend from previous book fairs. I’ve had to email an overdue letter to the school administrator to print out because there was only one person who could put toner in the school printer and they weren’t around. And the schools I’m working in are pretty good – in fact one was rated outstanding in the last Ofsted inspection.

I don’t think things can carry on as they are, and I’m sure many of my colleagues would agree with that statement. I do what I can, when I can, try to switch off, not to take too much work home, and not burn out. I also work vast amounts of unpaid overtime. None of this is at all unusual. Quite the reverse, in fact.

And here, quite simply, is where I think state education in this country is heading if the Tories win the next election.

The migrants are going home. That seems certain. We will need armies of English people to do their jobs, and it will suit the Government very well if those people are not very well educated. They are not just pushing through education cuts to save money. They want people who aren’t well-informed and won’t rock the boat. In 10 years time, ordinary working class kids will get a part-time education in classes of up to 120, learning literacy and numeracy by rote on-line. The software to facilitate this will be written by large multinational corporations, removing the need for experienced and qualified staff, at least in theory. That is just as well, because anyone who enjoys teaching and wants to do it well will find it soul-crushing to work in such a system, rapidly burn out and go elsewhere. This is already happening. Even those who stick around are likely to lose their jobs because, once experienced, they will be replaced by cheaper NQTs.

Academy chains are the ideal vehicle for this type of industrialised education. They are outside LEA scrutiny and will find it straightforward to replicate their soul-destroying formula, providing the basics at minimal cost and with minimal interference. There will be notable exceptions, places of innovation and passion, but most of these will be the preserve of the middle classes.

The only hope of escape will be top-up classes in everything else – science, arts, drama, basically anything other than the 3Rs. These will all be chargeable to parents. There may be some patchy scholarship-type provision financed by charities. But for most kids, that will be an impossible dream. As will a university education.

Anyone aspiring to a decent secondary education will have to get into a grammar school or go private. Kids don’t need GCSEs to empty bed pans or pick potatoes and strawberries. So why pay for them? Libraries and school trips will only give them ideas above their station. Special needs children will either have sharp-elbowed and determined parents or end up in institutions.

Far-fetched? I wish it was. But all the signs are already there. I can’t see any other way that the current trajectory of educational provision can end. I’m just glad that my kids are old enough to miss the worst of what is to come – although, as it happens, they could both well end up as teachers. And I hope to God I’m wrong, but unless young people wake up to what is happening and get out and agitate, protest and vote, I don’t hold out very much hope for the future.

 

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Labour’s Education Dogma

The Labour Party’s new proposal to fund universal free school meals by charging VAT on school fees shows that the triumph of populist ideology over common sense is not limited to right-wing parties. I normally have a lot of respect for Angela Rayner but this piece of Corbynite dogma is both unfair and ineffective.

Not everyone who sends their child to a private school is a wealthy oligarch. The collapse of mental health services for children and the hollowing out of support staff by repeated rounds of education cuts mean that state schools are intolerable for a growing number of pupils. Even a special needs diagnosis is no longer a guarantee of the daily support that allows a vulnerable child to feel safe and confident in a pressured school environment. Many parents on modest incomes make huge sacrifices reluctantly to send such children to independent schools. They see their child falling apart and who can blame them?

If we really want to hammer elitism in education, it would make more sense to tackle the scandal of elite public schools being able to tax-dodge by defining themselves as charities and, of course, to call our Teresa May’s obsession with grammar schools for the divisive vanity project it is.

But I don’t just have issues with that side of this policy. I’m not sure free school meals for all are the best way to improve outcomes across the board either. Many of the children who would be entitled to them don’t like school meals, don’t want them and don’t need them. When the Liberal Democrats introduced the policy for KS1 children alone many schools struggled to upgrade their kitchens and recruit staff for the growing numbers – a situation that labour shortages post-Brexit is unlikely to make any easier.

It is undoubtedly true that far too many children arrive at school too hungry to behave themselves and concentrate in lessons. But a more effective way to help them would be to fund a nationwide network of breakfast clubs. That would help children who haven’t eaten properly since their free school meal the day before. Schools that have introduced breakfast clubs have seen significant increases in attendance and improvement in the behaviour and learning of their most disadvantaged children. They are an incentive for parents with otherwise chaotic lifestyles to get their kids into school, and can be introduced quickly and easily as part of wraparound care provision.

If Labour really want to tackle deprivation and its impact on children’s learning chances, this would meet the goal far more effectively than school dinners for the middle classes.

 

The library as alternative playground

The school library can be seen as one of the only spaces in a school which is truly free — the space that is not ‘home’ or a ‘classroom’, and which can be without academic, sporting, or family expectations…….School libraries have long been a place of refuge from the playground for many students.

Kay Oddone, Scootle Lounge

When I was doing my A-levels, I did not feel at all comfortable in the rough, loud environment of the Sixth Form Common Room. Instead I turned to the library as an alternative space to relax and socialise, and made some wonderful literary discoveries and lasting friendships in the process.

Kay Oddone’s point above pinpoints a very important feature of a good school library. Our schools are highly stressful environments where kids are pushed through a frantic schedule and one-size-fits-all initiatives. I can only speak for primary schools in the UK, but I’ve seen many children who struggle socially due to introversion, special educational needs or simply the need to chill out in a relaxed and safely supervised space.

Sadly, this is something I find it increasingly difficult to provide, even though I am that vanishingly rare phenomenon, the salaried primary school librarian. Here are a few of the barriers I face:

  • PART TIME LIBRARIANS I work across three different schools, so none of them have a full-time provision. In fact children have to be discouraged or even banned from the library when I’m not around, due to the technical difficulties of them borrowing and returning books without using the right procedure. I simply don’t have time to sort out a pile of little post-it notes on my desk or search for a title a child insists they have returned. All my time goes on class sessions – sometimes up to six a day.
  • SAFEGUARDING In some ways this is the most intractable issue. It makes it impossible to employ unsupervised pupil librarians. In one school I am not allowed to open the library informally over lunchtime and breaks without a second member of staff being present at all times. I do not feel I can pull already overloaded teachers or TAs out of their much needed lunch breaks, so the doors stay closed.
  • LACK OF TIME I can only run one lunchtime club per school per week. A number of the children who would benefit and would love to come have clashes with other activities, such as swimming. It is very difficult for them to get my individual attention at any time. Schools are run like airports these days, at 100% capacity. There’s no down-time, and it’s never acceptable (for understandable reasons) for children to spend even a couple of minutes without staff knowing exactly where they are.
  • UNSUITABLE ACCOMMODATION Libraries, where they exist at all in primary schools, are often in open areas where privacy and a calm atmosphere are impossible to provide. There can be an element of wanting to impress visitors and inspectors with a beautiful library. In one case this has led to money being lavished on a lovely one in the reception area of the school, but less than 50% of the children are borrowing books. One reason for this is that there is almost always small group work or other activity going on in the library space.

I could go on, but the general picture is clear. Just having a library is not enough – there has to be a shift in the school’s culture that will accommodate a library. All these problems are ultimately based on a scarcity of resources, and one result of that is that there is no slack, no emptiness, no down time in the system any more. I cannot tie up staff to man a library unless I can guarantee children will come in and use it. I cannot insist that the lunchtime staff, who already have too much to do, go out of their way to identify children who would enjoy lunchtime in the library. Schools are incredibly regimented these days for all kinds of reasons – safeguarding, curricular demands, staffing shortages – the list goes on. And making children into confident readers takes time. All the schools I work in want me there and go out of their way to make me welcome. However, that doesn’t entirely dispel the suspicion that sometimes they don’t quite know what to do with me.

 

MLS and the Capita connection

I visited Peters Educational Booksellers at their huge warehouse in Birmingham yesterday – an absolute feast for anyone who loves to be let loose in what may well be the country’s largest children’s bookshop. I was interested and impressed to talk to them about the ways that they are increasingly taking the burden of book selection and processing off the shoulders of school staff, which can only be a good business move in these days of vanishing school librarians. They employ ten librarians who read and review every single book that comes in. I think they’re doing a great job at a reasonable price, and they’re nice, helpful people too.

I did, however, pick up one piece of information that worried me. For some time I’ve noticed a decline in the quality of service and technical support offered by Micro Librarian Systems. It’s still a good product of its type, probably the national brand leader, but they seem far more interested in flogging Reading Cloud to me, which would bump our sub up to an unaffordable £700 p.a. per site, than providing reliable day-to-day support on anything that isn’t sales-focussed.

Last year it took us literally months to import student data onto our system via SIMS, which should have been a straightforward process, and one we were paying a fee for. I also hit a brick wall when I tried to negotiate a joined-up cataloguing solution across our three school sites. I appreciate that in the case of pupil data there are safeguarding issues, so fair enough, but an integrated book catalogue would have saved us considerable amounts of time and money.

If MLS move to Reading Cloud being their default offering – something they publicly deny but which seems increasingly likely, my Trust will be faced with a formidable annual subscription of around £2K . I do not see how that can be sustainable in the current political climate.

I mentioned all this to a well-informed person in the industry who told me that Capita have recently taken over MLS, and suddenly a lot of things made sense.

Frankly, I wouldn’t want Capita anywhere near my organisation. They have a worrying record of screwing up outsourced data management contracts. Beloved by Tory state-shrinkers everywhere, their record over the last few years has included NHS IT disasters, the notorious outsourcing Barnet Council and links with ATOS. They already control the SIMS system used by many schools to manage their pupil data, and they are involved with Home Office deportations.

Some time ago it was reported that the Home Office were putting pressure on schools to inform on pupils whose parents might be illegal immigrants. Many parents refused to co-operate. If Capita are already running SIMS, whether the parents or teachers are on board is a moot point.

So information on the books borrowed by the children at the three diverse schools where I work is now directly linked to a company that helps to implement illegal and inhumane deportation policies, sometimes affecting people who have built productive lives and family relationships here lasting decades, and find themselves plonked in Singapore without a penny to their name. No doubt their “management solutions” also facilitate the decimation of public libraries in Barnet and elsewhere.

I don’t think I feel particularly comfortable with that. At the moment, short of recruiting an army of volunteers filling in index cards, I don’t see what option I have other than to continue with MLS until we decide they are unaffordable. But I can’t help hoping another serious player in school library hosting comes on the scene soon, and that hopefully they have a better track record on ethics.

Perhaps Peters could look into it.

Life in the kid-lit bubble

Every now and then someone will bemoan the difficulty of getting published if you happen not to be a celebrity. This week The Guardian have pointed out their proliferation in the field of children’s books, and lamented the way it restricts opportunities for talented mere mortals to get a look-in.

There is certainly some justification for this complaint, although I doubt very much whether the 1950s or 1960s were a golden age completely devoid of this kind of thing. Children have always loved long, crushingly formulaic series of books and seem to need such repetition to build up reading stamina. We may not have called Enid Blyton or The Chalet School brands, but undoubtedly that’s what they were.

There’s also the point that some celebrity writers are genuinely talented people; if you are already a famous stand-up comedian you’re likely to be extravert, good with words, and in tune with children’s sense of humour. So good luck to David Walliams. Some people are just good at more than one thing. Annoying if you’re plugging away at the day job, but undoubtedly true. I draw the line at George Galloway, however.

In fact, the marketing of children’s books is becoming ever more inventive (some would say desperate). This week I received 100 sample chapters of a new book for KS2, and the offer of a possible free copy if I agreed to post pictures of “happy children receiving the books” on social media. Chatterbooks is colonised by publishers offering creative craft kits for school and library book groups, and if you don’t tweet your pictures and appreciation you will probably be overlooked next time around. Whether we like such strategies or find them exploitative and creepy, there is undoubtedly a thriving and growing market in children’s books and a vast selection of beautiful ones around.

So all is well. Not quite. If all you ever do is follow the feeds of leading lights in children’s literature, you may get that impression. Anyone can be sucked into an online bubble and such bubbles soon inflate with indignation at the thought of their denizens’ ideals not being universally accepted. Some people would call such communities elites. Elites are not necessarily defined by vast wealth and sojourns at Davos. They can be driven by idealism, creativity and education. That doesn’t make them bad. But it does make them risky.

So I welcomed it when bookseller Leilah Skelton weighed into the kid-lit celebrity debate, pointing out the reality of book availability, selection and purchase opportunities for the majority of children in Britain today and their parents. “Can you imagine the only access to physical books being a Tesco chart?” she tweeted. “That’s a reality in more places than you’d think.” No wonder parents fall back on the known quantity of celebrity. Children devour books fast if they like them, and for many people £6.99 is not a trivial amount of money.

If we care at all about children’s reading opportunities we already know about the decline of libraries, book reviews in the press and trained librarians even where libraries for children exist. Leilah is absolutely right to identify these as the cultural changes feeding into the celebrity fixation. In fact, she doesn’t go far enough. Even in school libraries, there’s little money for anything other than donations and of course this only entrenches social inequality. Even if, as happened with one of my schools, you manage to stock a library with high quality titles, it will be a long time before Star Wars and Disney stop dominating your children’s book choices. Because that’s what entertainment means to them. They recognise what they see on screens.

Is the solution to ban the cheap and cheerful stuff? That’s likely to leave many of your children unmoored and overwhelmed with choice. The older they get, the more likely they are to walk out of the library completely rather than try to navigate it. That’s not because they are stupid, it’s because it’s not a place they are used to being in. If you put me in a shop filled with fishing tackle or motorcycle accessories I’d feel the same way. Over time, if you get the chance to work with them in small groups and resist the continual drip-drip encroachment of musical instrument storage, intervention groups, Y3 forgetting to tell you they’re out doing the Romans this week and losing Y5 and Y6 to SATS cramming for half the year, you will build up the trust to the point where they might try something unfamiliar. Opening the library is a great start. Eternal vigilance and a thick skin is useful if you want it to survive for long enough to make a meaningful impact on reading culture in the school.

There will probably always be wonderful children’s books around for those lucky enough to have access to them. But they are the tip of a huge iceberg of deprivation. In our little ivory towers we mustn’t lose sight of that. And we mustn’t despair either.

 

The importance of analytical reading

We all know how important it is to read to kids, and to start young. But the way we read is important, and more subtle than we might think, argues Bill Murphy in this excellent article. They are not just passive containers for stories. They need to engage in dialogue with adults about them, and that is how they learn.

If pushed, I think most of us would agree that such close shared reading builds empathy. Kids need to be able to imagine a situation from another person’s point of view, to walk in the skin of someone unlike themselves. Incidentally, we don’t grow out of this and it’s tempting not to move out of our comfort zones, as I recently discovered when I went to see Moonlight. Realising how unmoored I felt by an all-black cast gave me new insight into the importance of diversity in children’s books – how does a four-year old black girl feel when she’s confronted with the overwhelmingly white world of Princess Poppy?

Empathy has to be good, right? Well, yes and no. How many of the people who were moved by the photograph of little Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on shore went on to vote for politicians who denied asylum to unaccompanied Syrian child refugees? Emotional intelligence is rather different. It includes analytical skills, looking at the whole picture, at evidence, possible strategies, problems and outcomes. It means asking not just, “Do you think the duck feels sad?” but also, “The fox seems nice. Do you think the duck should believe him? Why not?”

In my work in school libraries, I involve children in these conversations all the time and their perceptiveness frequently surprises me. A good story is full of fork-in-the-road moments, all of which have consequences. And picture books abound in clues that, if decoded, yield vital background information. When we read to a child, we are inviting them to decode that information and theorise about where it could be taking us. Yes, empathy is involved; we can all feel sorry for the little ladybird that doesn’t fit in because she has no spots, or the little girl desperate for a kitten who ends up taking home a gorilla from the zoo. But why doesn’t it work out to keep the gorilla as a pet? Seeing the way he trashes a suburban kitchen, and why the gorilla isn’t happy, carries highly significant life lessons.

It seems that at the moment we are confronted daily with the awful consequences of people determined to maintain a coherent ideological position in face of all reasonable evidence. Too much reliance on feelings can lead into dark places, and the idea that you only have to believe something badly enough and find others who feel likewise to construct your own perfectly valid reality. I wonder if the large numbers of young children who don’t get exposed regularly to language and conceptual development through reading are contributing to the problem.

There is far too much passive consumption of entertainment. Cinema and TV can be wonderful but the emotional beats are frequently heightened and signposted in letters a hundred feet high. Ambiguity is rare, and far too many children are watching without any accompanying person to help them interpret what they are seeing through loving, open-ended discussion. The school day is crammed and even schools with libraries struggle to fit in every class for even one story time a week. After years of austerity, the effect of neglected maintenance is becoming all to apparent in the decline of roads and the built environment around us. The neglect of our children’s inner world and analytical faculties may not show up right away, but we ignore it at our own risk.

These books are made for walking

When I became a school librarian I had lovely visions of introducing children to wonderful, life-enhancing books (I still do, as it happens). Later I modified this somewhat – to getting kids reading anything, almost, that they were prepared to read, including Minecraft manuals, comics and anthologies of the world’s 1,000 grossest fart jokes.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer, gruelling amount of time I would spend trying to get overdue books back.

Almost every school library, I am sure, starts off with a strict zero-tolerance policy on overdue books. That four year old crying in the corner because every other child in the class brought back their picture book and he didn’t? Tough, he doesn’t get another one. Of course, such intentions get the corners chipped off them after the first few weeks. To do otherwise would probably be inhuman. There is always the very real risk that the child you are denying further library books to is the one in greatest need of them. So I am fairly confident that most good librarians quietly write off a proportion of their stock as unrecoverable.

Teaching staff, being busy and distracted people, are often the very ones to undermine the policies they advocate. This week I had to reschedule several classes as a colleague was unavailable to take them. In each case, despite emails and visits to remind them, either the teachers or the parents seemed baffled by the change and slightly put out that they’d been expected to return their books on a different day. So we had classes of 30 where only four children were technically allowed to have a book over half term. It begs the question of why they are coming into the library in the first place. So I caved, and allowed them a second book.

Eventually, unless you have superhuman patience, you will make it clear that you are really rather cross with a persistent non-returner. At this point one of two things might happen. If the child is smallish, and the library in an open area, they will start nervously and surreptitiously replacing books on shelves when you aren’t around. The presence of a large, expensive box marked BOOK RETURNS will do nothing to alleviate this problem. There will be an escalation of reminders over the next few weeks, culminating in tears, indignant protests from parents, and quite possibly the child’s permanent reluctance to come anywhere near the library in future.

But the alternative is perhaps even more depressing and time-consuming. It tends to happen with older kids who don’t actually like reading very much. The appeal of the library for them lies in its potential as the arena for a power struggle. The time you once imagined spending introducing Philip Pullman or Frank Cotterell Boyce to their next fans will probably go instead on repeating, ad nauseam, that you know perfectly well the book you have just been presented with by said child, claiming, “Look, Miss, it’s me book, I’m bringing it back, now can I have another one?” is the one you saw them pick up off the table two minutes ago. An outburst of indignation will follow, as it always does. Eventually they will escalate the situation by returning library books stolen from other borrowers. They will relish the thought of blameless Perfect Peters suffering from your cruel and heartless overdue notices, as just revenge for your unreasonable insistence that they return their own. Such characters are more interested in wearing you down that learning about the basics of database management.

In an ideal world, every school would have a full-time librarian and there would be time to do all the fun bits of the job as well as the administration. Or you could even have different people to do each bit. There are some people who excel at the nit-picking, plastic covering and label-sticking. They’re doing a great job. I should know, I used to be one of them myself. Sometimes I think nostalgically of those days.

Then some completely unexpected, lovely thing will happen and it will all seem worth the effort again.