More on handwriting

Test – The blog-post How important is handwriting? has generated some interesting comments which I thought I’d share here.

One follower wrote, “There is little opportunity to develop motor skills right from the start and yet we expect children to be able to write earlier and earlier. That’s another thing that draws me towards Montessori education, children are taught sounds and then phonics etc. but actually writing with a pencil and paper is introduced a little later, instead the children have fine motor activities and mark-making, using a moveable alphabet to practice with. They’re also taught cursive from the beginning, much more difficult to switch letters because they’re all a different shape.”

The same follower sent the following link on developing fine and gross motor skills in the early years:

One comment via twitter “Great article but many children find the ‘lead in flick’ confusing and this slows down .”

I’m not sure I agree with this last comment, I think that teaching lead-in entry strokes from the very beginning avoids reversing letters and also leads to children being able to write more quickly in the long-run.

Please do keep sharing your thoughts.

How important is handwriting?

So, just how important is handwriting?

My own handwriting is pretty poor and in fact, I got a stark reminder of this a couple of years ago when I bumped into a teacher who taught me in the first year of infant school and reminded me that the one thing she remembered about me was how scruffy my handwriting was!

Some people would argue that it’s more important for children to get all of their ideas on paper, without worrying about how neat it is.

Some people would argue that in a digital world, it’s better to teach children to touch-type than to write. I’m not sure that I have found a single school that has got handwriting ‘right’ yet.

But, when you look at the criteria for what our children are judged on in primary schools, handwriting is right up there.

The National Curriculum states that by the end of primary school, “Pupils should be taught to:

 – write legibly, fluently and with increasing speed by:

  • choosing which shape of a letter to use when given choices and deciding whether or not to join specific letters
  • choosing the writing implement that is best suited for a task.”

“Pupils should continue to practice handwriting and be encouraged to increase the speed of it, so that problems with forming letters do not get in the way of their writing down what they want to say.  They should be clear about what standard of handwriting is appropriate for a particular task, for example, quick notes or a final handwritten version.  they should also be taught to use an unjoined style, for example, for labelling a diagram or data, writing an email address, or for algebra and capital letters, for example, for filling a form.”

And in the consultation document for the performance descriptors against which children will be assessed in the future (KS1-KS2_Performance_descriptors_consultation (2))

To be working at ‘national standard’, children at the end of Year 2 (seven year-olds) need to demonstrate that: 

  • They hold a pencil comfortably and correctly.
  • Their handwriting is legible with almost all lower case letters, capital letters and digits accurately and consistently formed and of the correct size, orientation and relationship to one another.
  • Words are almost always appropriately and consistently spaced in relation to the size of the letters.
  • Some diagonal and horizontal strokes are used to join letters.

And at the end of primary school, to be working at National Standard, eleven year-olds must demonstrate:

  • Legible, fluent handwriting is usually maintained when writing at efficient speed. This includes appropriate choice of letter shape; whether or not to join letters; and writing implement.

So, whether we like it or not, children are being judged on the neatness of their handwriting.  And, when looking at children’s’ work, whether as a parent, teacher, inspector, or anyone else, first impressions count and it can be challenging to see beyond untidy handwriting, even if the content of the writing is amazing.

So, why do so many children still leave primary school with poor handwriting?

Schools will generally have a handwriting ‘policy’, with some adopting a specific font, or style of writing.  This may be dictated by a published handwriting ‘scheme’.  I once asked a well-renowned English consultant which was the best handwriting scheme.  He said that it did not matter which one a school used as long as they chose one, and used it consistently and well throughout the whole school.  And I agree.  But I think a lot of published schemes overcomplicate things.

I found this link which I think simplifies the teaching of handwriting and I would recommend it to anyone involved in children, writing and the teaching of writing at all.  It’s just 13 minutes long and I’m confident will transform the teaching of handwriting in your school or to your children as a parent.

One of the schools I have worked with showed the video to their teachers and within a fortnight, there was a significant difference in the quality of children’s handwriting across the whole school.

One of the other keys to handwriting is correct pencil grip for children.  Again, this is something that many schools do not get quite right.  I found this lovely example of how some schools tackle this – in this document – Stages of Pencil Grip Development – there are 4 drawings of the different stages of pencil grip development.  These can be used to create a display in a classroom, with children’s names on the display depending on which stage of development they are at.  As they progress, their name moves to the next stage.  This gives the adults working with the children a clear reminder of the children they need to work with and also, a clear reminder of what the next step should be.  I really like this.

The other tip for improving handwriting is to raise its profile.  Give it a focus.  Make it the big drive across the whole school for a half-term.  Mention it in every assembly, in every newsletter, make it the focus of rewards that are given out, have handwriting competitions with prizes.

And the best thing about all this – no budget needed at all – except for the prizes of course!

Click here More on handwriting to read some responses to this post.


Is innovation always the right innovation?

Schools, and for that matter, other organisations too, spend a lot of time solving problems. But a lot of this time is wasted because they are solving the wrong problems!

In an article in The Times “Desperate schools seek governors they can beam in“, the school governor one stop shop (SGOSS – who are a fantastic organisation whom I have used to recruit several school governors), talk about the lack of professional governors in rural schools.

They have suggested an innovative approach in using video conferencing to allow more professional people who might be based in inner London to participate in school governing body meetings in rural, geographically challenging areas.

This is most definitely a great way to get more people involved in meetings and to avoid the syndrome of having just the small handful of regulars around the table.

But, is it not important to make sure that governors represent and know the school community well?  That even if our governors are busy people, that physically attending the meeting at least gets them in the school building every few months?

Or does this matter?

Or are we solving the wrong problem?  Is the current system of school governance fit for purpose?

Can we really expect so much of and give such a high level of responsibility to volunteers, who of course give an incredible amount of time, but in the current world of new curricular, new models of assessment, Ofsted frameworks, etc, where teachers can barely keep up, can a volunteer governor truly fulfil their role of holding the school to account; of being challenging yet supporting?

Is it time for a rethink?  Are paid governors the way forwards?  Are governors needed at all?  Is there a better way? – A greater level of local authority involvement?

I’d be really interested in hearing your comments.

Converting from Secondary to Primary

I’ve been asked to lead a session for Secondary teachers who are moving into Primary teaching.

They have started the new term (Jan 2015) with their own primary classes, having only taught in Secondary schools in the past.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the tips that you would pass on, but thought I would post some of the things that I’ll be sharing here – just simple ideas – nothing too technical, these are the first things that came to my mind.

I’m also interested in hearing whether any of these ideas are used in Secondary schools and whether there really is a difference between the Primary and Secondary sectors, or is good teaching good teaching wherever you are?

I’ll add something new to the list each day until I run out of ideas!  (Click on the links for further info)

Clear out the clutter!

On Page 19 of the Times today, there is a report on how local authorities, including Norfolk and Newham in east London, have commissioned Elizabeth Jarman, an independent consultant, to help ‘declutter’ school classrooms and nurseries to make them calmer environments.

Instead of being a riot of colour, classrooms are being transformed with the use of neutral tones, to calm children down and improve their behaviour and attainment.

This is absolutely what I have been promoting for years.  If children can arrive into a calm, focussed, purposeful environment, then their learning will also be calm, focussed and purposeful.

Too often, schools as a whole and individual classrooms are cluttered and full of all sorts of unnecessary ‘stuff’.  First impressions really matter and whether that is a parent arriving in the main reception of a school, or a child arriving in the classroom for the start of the school day, it is important that they feel that the school is in control, that they are not distracted and that their brain is not over-stimulated by the wrong things.

Think about your last visit to a school – were there boxes in the corridors, coats on floors, piles of children’s work in classrooms, half-dead plants, uncared for fish tanks, things stuck on windows, or marks on the windows where sellotape had been used on them at some point in the distant past, computer cables trailing down the walls?

If not all of them, I bet there were some.

Is this what you see when you walk into the very best work environments? – Think of the Apple Store, or any other high-performing offices that you’ve either worked in or visited. – The clutter, or lack of care wouldn’t exist, because they value the environment, they want to give the impression that they care – both for their employees, but for their clients and for the work they do as well.

So, time to transform our classrooms to show that we as teachers care – because we do (if you are a teacher reading this who doesn’t care, then you are in the wrong job!).

Schools often complain that they do not have enough storage.  I would argue that this isn’t always the case, but instead that we try to store too much!

Here are my top-tips for a calm, purposeful classroom.

  • Nothing stuck on glass – clear away anything that is stuck on any internal or external windows in your classroom.  Let in as much natural light as possible.  Once you’ve taken everything down, the windows might need a clean.  If the cleaners are too busy for this, you might need to do it yourself – a pain, but it will be worth it.
  • Nothing on window sills – again, to let in as much natural light as possible, also inevitably, every time the blinds or curtains are shut, whatever is on the window sills gets knocked over!
  • Clear out the book box – get rid of anything that is ripped, tatty or drawn on, make sure all the books are facing the right way and are the right way up.  Here, quality is more important than quantity.  Use a set list of core books for each year group – there is a great one produced by the CLPE – and stick to these books in each classroom.  Make sure the books have plastic jackets on them to protect them and last longer.  I’ve seen too many book boxes crammed with books where children cannot browse through them because there are too many there.
  • Introduce a clear desk policy – Tidy away at the end of every session, so that when children arrive back after assembly, after break, or after lunch, they arrive to clear desks, ready to focus again on their learning – think of this as an adult, how do you feel when you arrive to a desk of paperwork and marking, compared to when you arrive to it being clear?
  • Let children focus on what is being taught – After school one day, go and sit in one of the children’s chairs.  Look at your classroom from a child’s perspective.  Look at the whiteboard where most of the teacher input happens.  What is around the whiteboard that stops the children focussing on you as a teacher, or on the whiteboard where you are demonstrating what the children should be learning?  I am sure there will be posters, resources, sets of trays, piles of unmarked work – clear it away so that the children can have a sharp focus on the whiteboard, or wherever it is that the majority of the teaching happens.
  • Surface displays – Use the tops of low-level cupboards and tray units for good quality, 3-D displays.  If they are left empty, they will get piled up with books, paper and all sorts of other items.
  • Take shelves down – If your shelves are getting cluttered with ‘stuff’, be radical.  Take them down! – Is all that ‘stuff’ really needed?
  • Remove furniture – Get rid of anything that is unnecessary – although get the site-supervisor / school leaders’ permission first!
  • Cups – The bane of my life! – Make sure cups, plates and any other eating or drinking vessels are returned to the staffroom/kitchen, not lingering in classrooms
  • Plants – get rid of any dead (or half-dead plants).  Your classroom will be better without them.  But for the very best solution, your school should make an investment in this area.  There are companies where you can hire plants – they will visit monthly and water them and maintain them – and replace them if they are not thriving.  You can have matching plant pots throughout the school to match the school colours.  This is definitely a worthwhile investment and sets an excellent impression throughout the whole school.  And don’t settle for artificial plants – children should be exposed to the real, living things.
  • Temperature – Too many classrooms are too hot.  Get a thermometer for the classroom wall – I’ve used the type you can get for baby’s bedrooms – to show the ideal temperature.  Radiators can then be turned down (first) and then windows opened (second!) to get to a comfortable level.

A key to this is that it isn’t about teachers and school adults working harder, or doing more.  Train the children to follow good habits – appoint monitors – children to look after the book box, children to check the temperature, children to clear window sills, etc.  This will empower them, not detract from anything else they are doing.

School leaders must also lead by example – what does the headteacher’s office look like?  What does the main reception area look like?  What about the room where parents are taken for meetings?  If a parent is irate, are they encouraged into a room that will help them to calm and engage in conversation, or a room that will support their fury?

If as a teacher, you are a lone-warrior and the school as a whole does not lead you in your mission and your head’s office does reflect a seen from the school jumble sale, please don’t let this put you off.  It will not only be the children who benefit from a clearer classroom, but I can guarantee that you will feel better too.

Please do though remember, that I am not promoting dull and uninspiring classrooms – I still want to see role-play corners that reflect the children’s topic/project (all the way up to Year 6 in a Primary School) – and also rich, stimulating book corners that invite children in and encourage a love of reading.

I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions on this below.  It would be great if teachers sent their before and after photographs to and I’ll post them here.

Please follow us to hear more…


E-readers ‘damage sleep and health,’ doctors warn

This report appears on the BBC website today –

If you curl up under the duvet with an e-book for a bedtime read then you are damaging your sleep and maybe your health, US doctors have warned.

A team from Harvard Medical School compared reading paper books and light-emitting e-readers before sleep.  They found it took longer to nod off with an e-reader, which led to poorer quality sleep and being more tired the next morning.

Experts said people should minimise light-exposure in the evening.

It reports that “…blue light, the wavelength common in smartphones, tablets and LED lighting, is able to disrupt the body clock.  Blue light in the evening can slow or prevent the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.”

So, is this the first blog-post to encourage readers not to read blogs? – I guess it is – well at least to not read electronic devices before going to sleep, but instead, replace them with real books!

But more interesting for me is whether children are reading e-devices, tablets, etc. directly before bed and whether this is impacting on children’s learning and their well-being in general.

Lead researcher Prof Charles Czeisler told the BBC News website: “The light emitted by most e-readers is shining directly into the eyes of the reader, whereas from a printed book or the original Kindle, the reader is only exposed to reflected light from the pages of the book.”

He said disrupting sleep in turn affected health.  “We should be advising people to minimise their [light-emitting e-reader] use in the evening, particularly teenagers who are a group that are using their phones and tablets late in to the evening.”

I’d be really interested for readers to comment below on whether you let your children read electronic devices before bed, or whether they are only allowed real books.  Equally as interesting and I think more important would be to comment on whether your children always do read or are read to before bed.

I recently reviewed the teaching of reading in a school where children’s reading levels were below age-related expectations and was told that they asked children to read at home three times per week.  I told them that this had to change immediately to an expectation that children would read every day.

If we expect three times per week, it might happen once or twice; if we expect every day, hopefully it will happen 4 or 5 times.

I like to ask the children, “When is a good time to read?”  In a school I worked in recently, this was a regular question in our assemblies.  The children learnt to respond, “Anytime!” Accompanied with a list of suggestions from the children for when it was good to read.  They would suggest:

  • When you first wake up
  • Before you go to sleep
  • As soon as you get home from school
  • In the bath
  • Before the television is switched on.
  • and so on.

This was in one of the most deprived areas in the UK and resulted in some excellent outcomes.  Changing exceptions and believing really does make a difference.

In a previous blog, I spoke about bedtime routines.  I feel strongly that bedtime stories are an important part of this and that this should be from birth (even pre-birth) onwards.  Ideally, the story should be read to your child, not necessarily always by the same parent (although I know this is not always possible, dependent on family situations), and if your child is old enough, this can be followed by the chance for your child to read to themselves for 10 minutes or so every night.

Before becoming a teacher, I took for granted that all children had a bedtime story every night, but I now know they don’t.  So teachers everywhere, this is what I urge you to promote and parents everywhere, this is what I urge you to do (apologies to those who already do this naturally).

I also thought it would be interesting to know what people are reading to their children and for this to act as a guide to other parents. – So have created this page – “What I read to my children today” – please comment and contribute each time you read to your own children.




Hyperactivity in pre-school children

There is an interesting report in the Guardian this morning (P1 &4) – or click here for the online version – “ADHD drugs increasingly prescribed to treat hyperactivity in pre-schoolers”.

It reports that more than a fifth of educational psychologists say they know of pre-school children who are being given medication in order to treat hyperactivity even though guidelines recommend other methods should be tried first.

136 educational psychologist were surveyed.  The survey, found there was an “intolerance of difference”, so children not conforming to the norm were increasingly being seen as having something wrong with them.

What is the norm?  When does ‘not conforming to the norm’ become developing a personality, or being creative?

I’ve always tried to avoid the use of the term, ‘normal child’.  I’m not sure ‘normal children’ exist – and would we want them to?

I am in no way condoning bad behaviour – when I teach, or lead a school, I have the highest expectations of children.  But are we trying to produce robots, who do not challenge and do not push boundaries?

I am not an expert in parenting (although I am a parent!), but I do know that consistency is key with children – clear, understandable rules and boundaries are necessary – but so are the rewards and sanctions that go with them.  Children will always break rules, but they need them.  They need to know what will happen as a result of breaking them, but also what will happen if they follow them.

In teaching, I promote the ‘2 positives for every negative’ approach.  If a child is doing something wrong, praise 2 others before addressing the negative behaviour.  This certainly makes you feel better as an adult, but also promotes the right type of behaviour for a child.  Do we get the balance right in all circumstances with our children? Is there a common approach, consistency – do parents, schools, pre-schools, or whoever has access to our children, have the same expectations and language?

We also need to engage children.  How many children are seen as ‘hyperactive’ or ‘badly behaved’ because they are bored and under-stimulated?  Let’s make sure we give children something to do and that what we do give them excites them and engages them.

I am not saying that doing this is the answer for all hyperactive children, or that there is no such thing as hyperactivity – I am not medically qualified to say this.  But I am saying that a few simple steps could support and enhance the upbringing of any child, hyperactive or not.

So, my top-tips:

  1. Set clear boundaries – and stick to them
  2. Establish clear rewards for doing the right thing
  3. Have clear, appropriate sanctions – nothing major – the focus has to be on the positive
  4. Issue the reward / sanction instantly – not hanging over to later in the day, or the next day
  5. Every day is a fresh start – no holding grudges for something that happened yesterday
  6. Limit (not ban) screen time
  7. An outdoor activity every day – even if it’s cold or raining – “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.
  8. Quality sleep – set bedtime routines (children and adults!)
  9. Good diet – balanced meals, 5+ fruit & veg per day
  10. Calm music in the background – not TV noise in the background

Sir Ken Robinson has an interesting comment on ADHD in this video clip – the whole video is superb and well worth watching, with the ADHD reference coming at 3 minutes 37.

Oh and by the way, I certainly do not always get it right with my own children – but they are ‘OK’ – are they ‘normal’?  Well, as mentioned above, what is the norm?  They are fun to be with, engaged, creative, inquisitive and sparky – this is very different to being hyperactive – And I like the way they are!


Schools cannot be expected to do everything

On P.62 of today’s The Mail on Sunday, it is reported that Ministers have backed a campaign that calls for first aid to be added to the school curriculum. Schools minister David Laws says the skills should be taught as a compulsory part of Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) lessons. 

Mr Laws says: “Liberal Democrats are clear that all schools should teach PSHE, and that we would expect that to include first aid.

Health minister, Earl Howe also joined in, saying: “First aid is a highly valuable, potentially lifesaving skill and I encourage schools to teach pupils first aid through their PSHE lessons.

I couldn’t agree more that first aid is highly valuable and learning it has certainly helped me to help others over the years.  But growing up, at school-age, I learnt basic first aid as a member of the Cubs and Scouts – it stood me in good stead.

Let’s not ask schools to do everything – we are setting them up to fail – but let’s ask schools to create effective partnerships, to signpost to organisations who are better equipped to support in giving the children some of the other skills they need in life.

So, rather than taking on more work, let’s encourage schools to make contact with other organisations – click here for some suggestions – and then to support children and families in attending a rich range of non-school activities.

Please do not interpret this as an expectation for schools to teach a limited, Maths and English only curriculum – this is certainly not an approach I agree with – but an expectation to create an opportunity for children to develop beyond the already rich, creative, enquiry-based curriculum that schools should already offer – an offer that gets squashed by trying to squeeze too much into it.


Education Jargon

Everyone in education is guilty of it – I sit in some meetings and after 20 years involved in teaching and school leadership, I can just about survive and navigate my way through the acronyms, abbreviations and terminology.

But, having recently moved to work in schools in a new Local Authority, it was clear that even after a fair stint in the profession, there was now a whole raft of new terms and phrases to learn.

For someone arriving with ‘experience’, it’s also awkward to ask for an explanation!

I’m sure many of you will empathise with this situation.  Be it as a teacher in an SEN (Special Educational Needs) review, a parent at a parents’ evening, a governor reading through a headteachers’ report, or anyone reading a school website, or school newsletter – or like me, a headteacher arriving in a new local authority!

I would plea to everyone in education to attempt to use less ‘teacher-talk’, especially when speaking to parents, but I think it’s too engrained in the culture of schools.  I will though plea – for teachers to just be aware, and attempt to use this language less.  But for those where it is confusing, I’ve started to compile this helpful guide, Education Jargon Explained.

I would love your input into this, please send in your suggestions for inclusion / improvements to the explanations and together, we’ll build a comprehensive guide to help everyone involved in schools in any way.