Speaking and Listening to Each Other

2016 may have aged my soul by 20 years.

If experience is linked to maturity, and maturity is a state of being, my inner self turned 70 this year, not 50.
  I’m not merely referring to politics, profoundly affecting though they have been.
  Although my personal challenges this year have far surpassed the thrilling charity walk through gales, snow, ice, fog and rain in the Icelandic ‘summer’ I undertook with a dear friend when I turned 40, my life-changing experiences in the last few months haven’t been limited to my own self. Many of them have come from listening to the stories of other parents whose children’s lives are imperilled by cancer.
  Twenty-something chronological years ago, when the Adult Basic Skills curriculum was being examined, devised and revised, speaking and listening was an element of English literacy poorly understood and easily disregarded in the classroom.
  Older colleagues may need to forgive me for saying so, and please understand I am not at all critical of the monumental effort that went into taking literacy out of the realms of the woolly but well-intentioned volunteers and into a serious and effective professional structure.
  But honestly, little research went into developing the Adult Core Curriculum (a set of staged standards for teaching and learning basic skills that mirror the curriculum for children); plenty of experience, but no actual science. In fact, scientist friends reading this blog will be startled, I think, by how little formal research underpins the whole field of pedagogy – but that’s another story for a different day.
  I recall well-respected ‘thinking heads’ expressing the view that if you couldn’t speak or listen at basic (entry) levels as an adult, there was very little a basic skills class could do for you.
  With the introduction of Functional Skills assessments, ‘speaking and listening’ took a step up to recognition as one third of the core literacy skills needed for negotiating daily life successfully.
  But – and again, colleagues forgive me for saying so – there was almost no understanding of or training available in how to teach the speaking & listening skills that we were assessing.
  I’m not saying that the destruction of western democracy and social order we may or may not be experiencing has anything at all to do with our lack of evidence-based pedagogy in basic communication skills, any more than I am suggesting that David Bowie held the universe together…
  But in my puny 50 years of consciousness I have seen some extraordinary speech acts that made a profound difference when they were heard, and as life is pretty challenging for all of us right now, I think speaking and listening are meta skills worth examining.
  Earlier this year, I watched the re-examination and development of Functional Skills standards from the chair next to my daughter’s hospital bed, too frozen by her experiences to contribute at all.
  I did have time to think; time to listen to other people; and time to reflect on how poorly understood we all seem to be.
  Here are some speaking and listening skills that although not mentioned in any curriculum, I believe we could improve on:
  Apologising and, perhaps much harder, accepting an apology with grace. I don’t mean using the ubiquitous two words ‘I’m sorry’ – or not on their own. Some of us overuse those words to the extent that their meaning has softened and jellied into meaninglessness. We all know a true apology when we hear it. And following on from that, expressing and accepting forgiveness is an alarmingly underrated life skill.
  Giving and – my personal demon – taking comfort when life cuts like a knife. So many people avoid saying anything to those who clearly need comforting because they don’t have the words, or the skill to put words together in a sequence that will actually help. The truth is we are awfully bad at imagining what it’s like in someone else’s shoes, so finding the right words is hard. It’s also the time when you are most likely to express a hidden prejudice or a myth you believed true until the instant the words leave your mouth. And you can’t take them back!
  As for taking comfort – we don’t make it easy for people, because taking comfort makes us vulnerable, and vulnerability is terrifying. Most of my tears this year have been as a result of people being nice to me; that’s not exactly encouraging to the person trying to give comfort, is it?
  Offering and accepting real, genuine, effective help. This is incredibly difficult from either end, by the way. Some people are fantastic at offering help, and have become my role models. I have a lot to learn before I can level up.
  Giving praise; and hearing praise and believing it. (Why is the listening part of these skill pairs always so much more of a challenge?)
  We British have an idea of praise as a Pygmalion paradigm, by which I mean we think it supercilious, condescending and patronising, even when it is at its most constructive. But praise is constructive – it builds, lifts and progresses while criticism tends to destruct, destroy and halt progress. Sometimes we need to criticise, but often praise works so much better.
  Speaking of which, challenging injustice; and stopping oneself when found to be in the wrong, without anger or rancour, are life skills that we urgently need to improve on.
  And speaking of rancour, we seem to be struggling en masse to express emotions outside of the limited range of happiness, anger, love or hate. It’s difficult to hear the emotions of others without judgement too. Some things I’ve felt recently include shame, fear, joy, relief, sorrow, silliness, shock, caution, anxiety, delight, embarrassment, affection, peacefulness, serenity and calm. Why does telling you this feel a little like exposing my underwear? I’ve experienced emotions this year I don’t have a name for, and am no better at expressing them than anyone else I know.
  One skill that is obviously challenging to all of us in 2016 is explaining or hearing an unpopular point of view. We hate to listen to those we don’t agree with, and they hate to listen to us. It’s never been easier to hide behind a wall of frustration, flinging names and judgements that distance us from each other at any apparent affront; and it’s never been more important not to act this way.
  Progress is made when people learn, and people learn by communicating. For however many of the next 50 years I am allowed on this Earth, and whatever happens to life as we know it without David Bowie, I promise myself to strive to improve my own speaking and listening skills.
  Perhaps while doing so I can work on describing what it is that makes each one a skill – what exactly is it that we can learn to do better? If I find out, I will add speaking and listening to the short list of things I can teach well.
  In the meantime, here is David Bowie expressing his hope for the world along with Bing Crosby. Thanks to my friend Annabel for her timely Facebook post of this video. She always lifts my spirits.

Prevent Radicalism

As someone intricately involved in the provision of English classes and with a deeply embedded interest in women’s rights and experiences, I am bemused by the announcement today of £20m to fund English classes for women. Muslim women in rhetoric, but in practice, women.

But first, I want to talk about being human. Bear with me as I walk down Route A1 Obvious.

Humans live in groups. Groups rely on structure. We all place our faith and trust into the hands of leaders in whatever structure best suits at the time, and sometimes that works out well for most people. Sometimes we make mistakes.

Some of the most infamous mistakes include Stalin; Hitler; P. W. Botha; …. fill in your own blanks. Some may be more recent.

My father-in-law tells us of his friends in America who say they hate Obama. He finds this surprising and worrying not so much because of what he thinks of the US President, but because of his understanding of the word hate. To a wealthy American citizen, political hatred may be a relatively benign concept, compared to someone who has lived through both the height and the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and who is descended from a German Jewish refugee from the Nazi regime.

No matter how much these particular American friends ‘hate’ their current leader, they are not going to resort to violence and bloodshed to oust him from his seat.

When do humans tip over the edge of unease and dislike into the territory of action and hate? What flips the switch? Can you imagine it happening to you?

I suspect you can’t. You’re a good person, right?

Do you think you have violence living inside you, biding time, waiting for the right circumstances to emerge? I think you do.

Do you think you could succumb to fear, frustration or anger and do something you never imagined to save yourself or those you love? You could.

Do you think you would do as you are told, follow rules you don’t agree with, because when you weigh up the options it’s the safest choice to make? You would. Of course you would. You probably do this already.

Do you think you would stand by while your neighbour was sent to the gas chamber; report your colleague to a committee in order to save your own job; close your ears to screaming in the street for fear you will be the next person screaming; accept a grown man calling you master? I don’t know you, but in the right circumstances, you would. Much as I hate the idea, I would too.

What I’m trying to say is that we all have the potential to be both Malala, and the man who shot her. All of us. Without exception. There but for the grace of God, or Fate, or the chance development of our beliefs and consciences, go we.

What has that got to do with English classes for Muslim women?

It is true that there are women living in Britain who don’t speak English, or Welsh or Gallic, despite the number of years they have been here. Some of them are Muslim; some of them were born in predominantly Muslim countries and practice other religions, or no religion; some have no connection to the Muslim faith whatsoever. Some of them struggle to attend classes because their husbands (or mother-in-laws) make it difficult for them to do so. Others don’t attend classes or integrate into a local community out of fear.

On the flip side of the coin, some (many? almost all?) local communities won’t encourage people who don’t speak English to integrate out of sheer social awkwardness, not to mention fear.

In order to provide services for groups of people like these, who are otherwise hard-to-reach, in a political climate which focuses attention on them, we use short term government funding as a mechanism for engagement.

There are two routes to this end. One is to listen to the development workers, community activists and service providers who have already found a way to reach the target group, and to Go Large. Put national funding behind a tried and trusted local initiative, provide training opportunities and monitor successful engagement over the term of the funding. Use the outcomes to inform policy from that point onwards.

For example, an incredibly successful way to reach isolated women (of any race or religion, including women who identify as Muslim) is through Family Language classes held in the schools their children attend.

The other route is to use generalised fear to promote your own political ends.

To use your loud political voice to link concepts that have nothing to do with one another in one breath, and pretend that’s not what you meant in the next.

…while he [David Cameron] accepted there was no “causal connection” between poor English and extremism, a better grasp would make communities “more resilient” to threats of radicalisation from so-called Islamic State – or Daesh.”  BBC News 

“I’m not saying there’s some sort of causal connection between not speaking English and becoming an extremist – of course not, that would be a ridiculous thing to say,” [Cameron] continued.   BBC News 

Okay then.

I’m trying to imagine how the mechanism for funding such a programme would work. There is no means under British law to fund a state programme for adults that only allows access to people of a certain religion, and I only had to listen to Cameron’s BBC interview once to establish that he didn’t intend to fund classes for Muslim women at all. He does state categorically that we will be funding classes for women, though. Presumably a whole new suite of Skills Funding Agency rules will apply.

Or…. is he going to use the Family Language classes, or other, similar initiatives we already run, after all? This sounds familiar:

The language lessons will be targeted at “specific communities” identified by a review into segregation that is being conducted by Louise Casey, head of the government’s “troubled families” unit.

They will take place in homes, schools and community facilities, with travel and childcare costs – described as “some of the greatest barriers to participation” – being covered. An existing scheme is said to have helped more than 30,000 adults. BBC News 

Prevent is the government’s attempt to stop individuals from turning their disassociation with the predominant culture and rule of law into hate and action.

I’ve done the training for those working in Education, and got a certificate to prove it. It was all very reasonable. It asks us to uphold and instil ‘British values’ in our lives and in our work. That sounds concerning to a liberal mindset, until you learn what ‘British Values’ are:

  • Democracy
  • The rule of law
  • Individual liberty
  • Mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs

So far, so good, yes?

It asks us to look for and report activity or people who seem to be at risk of radicalisation, or who appear to be in danger of radicalising others. Assuming we all keep upholding the ‘British Values’ above, it is about keeping people in this country, and our armed services overseas, safe from harm.

Laudable. I want desperately to live in a community that is safe, mutually respectful and tolerant. Somewhere you can talk about ‘hating’ the government and not really mean it – or be able to say it without being reported to a committee, at least.

But – wait a moment.

What if my perception of democracy, liberty and respect differs from yours? What if we listen too closely to David Cameron’s rhetoric, and single out Muslim families from the rest of the British community over and over again? What if, over time and without our noticing, the fear engendered by more frequent terror attacks and openly expressed bigotry flips us into acts of hate without our even noticing we have travelled along that awful path?

I want to take the ‘Prevent’ strategy and turn it over. In Britain, we do uphold democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect and tolerance for all different faiths and beliefs – as long as these don’t contradict the preceding values – and we should demand this of our political representatives too

I don’t want to resort to the term ‘slippery slope’, but I have lived lived through State-sanctioned bigotry and intolerance, and I implore you to beware of ideas that sound innocuous in principle, but are dangerous in practice. It is so, so, so easy to fall down the rabbit hole of political fear and subsequent hate.

I will be doing all I can to teach people about British values. I’ll teach people how to register to vote; write to their MPs; respectfully challenge other’s points of view; read and listen critically and with an open mind; how to volunteer; how to reach out to newcomers; how to share ideas and resources; and how to communicate with people whose first language isn’t English, who may look and dress differently and who may need help integrating themselves and their families into a bewildering culture striving for equality.

I will look for and challenge any threat to British values as I understand them, and that may include reporting an individual who I think needs support in order not to cause harm.

I report you, David Cameron. I want to prevent radicalism, and I report you.

Social Media and Adult Literacy

Do you remember learning to read?


Infants love stories. Mostly they like to hear the sound of your voice, rising and falling in intonation like waves in a sea of belonging to an adult, a family, a village, a culture.

Eventually the sounds become words, and the words in the story take on an importance of their own. Meaning, concepts, socialisation, all imbibed without awareness through lexicon and form: “Once upon a time”; “One day”; “When the world was new”; “And they all lived happily ever after.”  These phrases bear both the wealth of centuries of meaning, and no substance at all. They thrill and satisfy audiences because of their status as part of the art form of storytelling, and as children become literate, they are delighted to recognise the words in print and to use them in their own writing.

Storytelling isn’t just for children, but sometimes we like to pretend it is. We carefully divide our fiction (written and oral) into age related categories, and feel a bit strange inside if we read too far outside of them. Sitting in a doctor’s surgery, faced with a choice of a beautifully illustrated and poetically written story for babies, and a trashy magazine that mostly offends you but is written for adults, which are you more likely to pick up to pass the time?

Learning anything requires motivation. It’s bloody hard work to gain a new skill, and literacy is a particularly complex one with none of the immediate rewards of food, shelter, safety or society that other new skills provide. Many young children are motivated to learn to read stories because they love them. They like to imagine themselves in the place of the protagonist and think about how they would react in the same circumstances. Each story is novel and exciting to a child. They are a very useful socialisation tool, and can be quickly satisfying. That’s what children’s reading schemes aim to do – build technical literacy skills while keeping young minds motivated enough to want to find out for themselves how the story ends.

In reality, reading scheme stories are so contrived, they don’t fool even the most naive new readers as to their purpose. With the notable exception of Dr Seuss (who didn’t write a reading scheme per se, but whose imaginative books are designed to introduce and provide support for phonic skills), schemes try hard and unsuccessfully to engage. They fail to do so because their primary aim is to introduce new sounds, words and sentence structures in context. Many children who struggle through the inanities of Janet and John or Mrs Redhat without complaint do so in pursuit of approval. Teacher/mum/dad/nanny/granny/tutor/sitter/sister/pet rabbit really wants them to get through this damn boring book before tea time, and they know they can’t go out to play before it’s done; so they do what it takes, and read the turgid thing as quickly as they can – or draw the process out to maintain parental attention.

That’s fair enough, I think. It works, skills are built and eventually whole new worlds of excitement and learning are opened up to the children who struggle through. Perhaps we can’t expect the authors of these little books to make the stories more exciting, because excitement comes through conflict, jeopardy and breaking social norms. It is not up to educators – an arm of that slippery octopus, the political state – to excite our children in these ways. Is it?

Leaving that area of debate aside, my point is that while children tolerate reading schemes in order to get to the good stuff, what actually motivates them to learn to read is quite different, and very individual. An increasingly strong motivation for many is the social nature of online computer games – Club Penguin, Moshi-Monsters, Poptropica, FunBrain, Neopets, and for the particularly socially aware, a vocabulary building site that donates food to the hungry on children’s behalf, Free Rice. In a world in which we don’t allow our children into the streets to play with each other, these websites do provide the immediate reward of society, and you need to be able to read in order to utilise them. Biff, Chip and Kipper become tolerable companions if they will help you to interact with your peers online, and children are not stupid – they can see the link between the skills reading schemes provide and their own online success.

Adults who haven’t yet learned to read are not stupid, either. In fact, they tend to be more canny and resourceful than most, negotiating a text-heavy world with finesse and success, despite their apparent ‘disability’. Whether they never went to school or struggled against teaching methods that did not suit them, the adult illiterate have rich, full and exciting lives, informed opinions, fine-honed survival skills and the wisdom of experience. They have interests, families, friends and connections. They know people, they know life, and they take a full part in it. And unlike children, they know uncountable stories, both true and imagined.

To learn to read as an adult, you need to do as much of the boring skill-building stuff as you do at the age of six; and you need even more motivation to keep doing it. After all, you’ve managed pretty well in life up to now as you are. Our brains shy away from hard work without sufficient incentive. Adult educators ask their students, ‘what is it you want to learn to read?’, and having seen other people do it, most will say ‘a book’. So teachers come away thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be great if I helped so-and-so to read a book? He would be so motivated!‘.

But you know what? Reading scheme books aimed at adults are no more motivating in themselves than the ones aimed at children. Sure, they cover adult-ish situations – gardening, interacting with neighbours, planning a party – gripping stuff. Not!

Maps, place names, food labels and signs are the first things that motivate adult learners to read. After that, they want information that is truly important to them. To be able to read phone texts from the family, and text them back! To look up what to do about their grandson’s autism, their wife’s Alzheimers, their own heart disease, their daughter’s eviction notice! To read poetry about grief and to understand that they are not alone in what they feel; to read messages of condolence, and to be able to write a few words of thanks in exchange – what better inducement to learn to read is there than that?

And as for stories – well, adults hear plenty from real life, and they mainly involve conflict, jeopardy and breaking social norms. Reading little books that don’t include these things must leave them with a sense of disappointment. Imagine struggling to read all the words and all the sentences in a book, hoping to feel the magic that others experience when they describe reading. I know I would feel let down at the end of the adult equivalent of an Oxford Reading Tree book.

Online – by way of comparison – what a wealth of reading material there is available. Dynasty, politics, sex, health, wealth, murder, cute animals, humour, philosophy, religion, hate and intrigue, beautifully illustrated, with accessible font, instant support and human interaction – and that’s just on Facebook.

Since Jane Austen’s time, novels have given us a true insight into the secret inner world of other human beings, and that is a treasure you do not find in the spoken story. Your friend might tell you about her friend whose children were removed from their home, with detail and emotion and verve. But you get no insight into how the mother truly feels in the way you might if you read an article about it, or a short story, a novel or a poem. To get to the point in which you can do this with ease, you have to do a lot of work. Social media sites can help to bridge the gap between learning the basics (the alphabet, phonics, sight words, using context, automatising these skills) and revealing the treasure that fluency brings.

Social media and digital, mobile technology provides the high interest, instantly rewarding motivational platform for literacy for adults that the social online games I mentioned above provide for children.

I’ll talk more about how in future posts. In the meantime, you may find these web posts of interest:

Phonics Screening Check evaluation report

What the modern world has forgotten about children and learning

This Is What Happens When A Kid Leaves Traditional Education

Blended Learning

I am wary of buzzwords. They tend to replace complex ideas with cardboard cut-out opinion. Used too frequently, they empty of meaning, like signposts to places that no longer exist. Even when we do have a shared understanding of jargon, we tend to use it to appease and mollify our superiors, like we do when we put ‘health and safety’ on every team meeting agenda, and yet have nothing to discuss. Ever.

I thought ‘blended learning’ would be much the same. Somebody, somewhere high up in the chain of command, must have been persuaded that it was the most efficient way to cut costs.


Blended learning means we get more teacher hours for free, Mr Bond

This view – okay, prejudice – could easily be reinforced by the requirement of the Skills Funding Agency (they who pay organisations to deliver lifelong learning – remember that buzzword?) to record the proportion of online teaching delivered within every accredited course. The SFA are guiding us towards 10% as a reasonable minimum proportion of ‘online learning’ per course.

Well, I am not too proud to admit that my first impressions were entirely wrong. If blended learning were to get down on one knee and propose to me a second time, Mr Darcy wouldn’t stand a chance. Allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love the internet in teaching adult learners.

First of all, the obvious: knowledge. If anybody knows about a thing, it’s on the internet. If anyone has done something even once, it’s on the internet. There’s no hierarchy, no one is in control of what’s shared and what isn’t, and no one will stop you from learning if that’s what you want to do. In fact, people are incredibly generous about sharing their knowledge on the internet. Whatever topic it is you are trying to teach your group of learners, somebody somewhere will have made a video tutorial and posted it for free for you to use:

How to peel a banana with your feet

How to extract your own DNA

Using the Pythagorean theory in real life

The knuckle trick for remembering the number of days in a month (really useful!)

Second, and less obvious perhaps, is beauty. The internet is beautiful! Artistry abounds. Some of it is made specifically to share in this space, and some of it is people capturing the beauty they see around them, in landscapes, in people, in dreams and in life. The things that are shared there are visual, aesthetic and often profound. How much more engaging is an item that combines music, artistry and information than to listen to a lecturer droning on in a smelly classroom?

It’s almost impossible to capture what I mean by this, so here is a random selection of internet links to fuel your own contemplation:

Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir

A timelapse journey around the world

Portraits of people from 1 to 100

A maths graphing game designed to show the creativity of mathematics

A photographic essay about women imprisoned in Afghanistan

Stories from ordinary people about good fathers

Classic art animated hauntingly

The first 21 days in the life of a bee

A poorly animated song about punctuation for adults combining annoying music with respect for intelligence (!)

So, teacher, it doesn’t all have to come from you. In fact, you hardly need to teach at all any more. Use the flipped classroom approach (I know, more jargon) and you will be amazed by how much progress your whole class makes.


Here’s how it works: You tell your class what they are going to be learning about next time you see them; send them all the fascinating, creative and beautifully produced resources you can find in advance; when they come to class, ask them what they still don’t understand (and the chances are uncannily high that these will be the same learning goals you have on your lesson plan); show them a video; and give them an exercise someone else designed to discuss and tackle in small groups. All you have to do is walk around the class supporting people when they get stuck.

It works! It really works!

Well, this is the internet, and you have long since run out of concentration. When I began this blog post (about a year ago… *rolls eyes at self*) I hoped to be able to convince the teaching professionals in my audience that blended learning is Important. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun, but I find I have barely conveyed the smallest portion of what I wanted to say. Rather than doom myself to continual silence, poorly placed quotes from Pride and Prejudice, and no audience at all, I will publish and be damned – well, not damned actually, but open to comments, challenges, thoughts and to listen, until I return to the topic again.

“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Observing English and maths in other adult classes

In England, Ofsted expects all adult education classes to be enriched by a focus on basic English and maths skills. Literacy and numeracy learning opportunities can easily be found in any subject. Observers make their judgements based on how adult learners are challenged by their teachers to improve these life affirming skills.

It’s hard to imagine how you could learn anything as an adult without using or improving literacy. Even the school of hard knocks inevitably involves communication skills, and if you’ve learned something from being knocked about, you have almost certainly broadened your repertoire of numerical knowledge and understanding too.

Adult education teachers are privileged to hold a position within their communities that includes the power to effect change. Learners look upon the teacher as a leader with knowledge to impart – knowledge and wisdom they have often paid good money to benefit from. If you follow the pound, you’ll also find a proportion of tax payers’ money to be accounted for. The transfer of skill, knowledge and understanding from teacher to adult learner can have immediate and very long-lasting effects on both individuals and communities.

So we agree, don’t we, that Ofsted are within their rights to expect adult educators to do their very best to improve the life chances of all those they teach?

The current Ofsted inspection framework that focuses on enrichment of teaching and learning through embedding English and maths skills in everything – from sexy Samba, through novelty cake decorating, to business Chinese – is both reasonable and laudable.

Woah! ~ ducks the rotten eggs ~

Yes, reasonable, laudable, and what’s more, perfectly achievable.

Here’s how:

1) Understand why it’s important

Why do teachers work in adult ed? To earn money? No. The unpaid prep time and the physical, emotional and intellectual toll is way disproportionate to the monetary gain.

Teachers teach because they want to help others.

What’s the most effective and far-reaching method of helping others? Improve their literacy and numeracy. If you are sceptical of the impact of literacy on people’s lives, read the resource made available by the National Literacy Trust, found here: http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/research/nlt_research/243_literacy_changes_lives_an_advocacy_resource

But it isn’t illiteracy that you can combat in a Pilates class or a gardening project, so why is it important that you try to help people in these settings?

Well, show me the man or woman who can’t improve an aspect of reading, writing, speaking, listening, numeracy or technological literacy, and I will show you a myth.

Because we all live in a rapidly changing community that is both expanding (through the number of people in it) and contracting (through the ability to make connections with even the most far flung members), and that means we can never stop learning. It means grandparents need to understand how to engage their great-grandchildren. Parents need to learn how to help their children negotiate relationships and resources that weren’t available when they were young. Employers have to learn what their employees need, and vice versa. Professionals and carers have to learn to access not only the most up to date research in their fields, but how the comprehension of such knowledge affects the opinions and mindsets of those they work with. It’s all change, change, change, and literacy – the means by which we access all of the above – is not static either.

So what? So a teacher, using community resources to engage a group of people, has the means, the opportunity and the skill set to help people learn and improve those vital skills.

2) Understand how to do it

As observers, people working in quality assurance, or those with a passion to effect change in adult learning, our role is to support teachers from the bottom up. Here’s how:

A) Self audit – how are your own English and maths skills? Can you challenge yourself to improve? How? You can improve, of course, and actively doing so will help you to engage with the teachers you oversee.

B) Observe the teacher’s skills – does he appear to need support with any aspect of literacy, numeracy or ICT? Does she challenge herself to improve these skills when an opportunity arises? If you can’t tell from the lesson, make this one of the questions you ask when giving initial feedback. If a support need is identified, it’s your responsibility to ensure the need is addressed. Be creative about how this can happen.

C) Explore how English and maths skills have been embedded into planning and tracking. Is it part of the initial assessment? For example, in a language course, does the teacher enquire as to the learners’ own strengths in English grammar and sentence structure?In a woodworking course, does the tutor ask whether either metric or imperial measurements will be a challenge? Has the teacher done an audit of the English and maths skills that arise in the scheme of work, and if so, how have these skills been addressed in other planning? When looking at tracking, have any individual goals been set that address any of these needs?

D) In the lesson you observe, has every opportunity to include English and maths (and other enrichment strands) been taken? Consider both planned opportunities and those that occur naturally. If a teacher doesn’t know something, does he have the confidence to ask for help from other learners or promise to find out? Is this promise followed up? Is she able to constructively criticise performance of maths and English skills? For example, if a discussion takes place, can the teacher pick out the good discussion skills and praise them, as well as telling learners what they could do to improve?

E) Don’t look for a complex masterpiece. The small challenges are often the most effective. Look for little things, like:

  • Spelling – when a spelling is given, is there any enrichment surrounding it, like exploring the spelling rule it illustrates/breaks; examining the spelling history of that word; looking the word up online or in a dictionary?
  • Speaking – are learners challenged to ask questions, and to phrase their questions well? Does the teacher explore what a good question is, or challenge learners to improve their ability to question?
  • Measures, shape and space – are learners challenged to compare units of measurement outside of their comfort zone? If some work in metric and others in imperial, do they collaborate to check each other’s conversions?
  • Data – is data considered critically? Are learners challenged to compare statistics, to explore what kind of average is being used and why, to discuss what data could be telling us beside what is most obvious? Is bias explored?
  • Punctuation – are learners challenged to present written answers so that their meaning is clear? Is the effect of a capital letter for a proper noun discussed, or using a semi-colon to join two complete clauses together rather than a comma?
  • Reading – are learners challenged to detect bias in an article? To compare different texts on the same topic, and to discuss whether and why they have a preference for one over another?

Become expert in looking for the minor successes and praise them over criticising the gaps.

F) F is for feedback – how do you give it? Here are some suggestions for what NOT to say:

  • Where is your English and maths enrichment strand?
  • You’d better learn what a semi-colon is before the next lesson.
  • You do realise you got that maths sum wrong, don’t you?
  • All the learners in your class are professionals, so I can see why you didn’t include any English or maths in your lesson.

Instead, focus on what went well and why – how do you, as an observer, know? What effect did covering an aspect of listening in a Pilates class have on the learners, for example?

Conversely, what opportunities were missed? And what effect did this have on the learners? What could the tutor do to improve his or her:

  • personal skills
  • planning
  • teaching
  • learning?

3) Share the good practice

Let’s imagine you found a teacher whose English and maths enrichment was outstanding.


  • taught herself how to calculate probability, because she realised she’d never learned and it was coming up in discussion amongst her learners
  • added some questions to her initial assessment to establish who might need extra support with certain aspects of her course
  • used the answer to those questions to encourage her learners to set challenging learning goals
  • looked through her scheme of work to make sure she was going to cover each goal
  • planned a fun activity for learners to collaborate on an aspect of maths
  • discussed the activity afterwards and showed learners where to find more help
  • struggled to explain the definition of a word, so used an online dictionary to look it up on the electronic whiteboard
  • praised learners for specific improvements in English and challenged them to keep improving in further specific ways
  • ensured learners tracked their learning by making notes on what they achieved, or by ticking off a goal and setting a new one

In other words, she blew you away with her super ninja enrichment skills.ninja

What do you do with all that fabulous good practice? Clone her? Maybe not, but here are some suggestions:

  • record an interview where you ask the teacher to explain what she did and why
  • photograph the activity and write up a case study about it
  • interview the learners and ask for their permission to share their insights
  • Encourage the teacher to share her scheme of work, her lesson plans and/or her resources on an open forum
  • ask her to speak at a tutor meeting or conference
  • publish her achievement in a newsletter, a blog, a book of good practice or using social media (with her permission)

I hope I’ve convinced you that English and maths as an enrichment strand throughout adult education is reasonable, laudable and achievable. If you agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your point of view.

Putting a Spell on You

To spell is a curse we English speakers cast upon ourselves, while a spell is powerful magic, stored in a collection of words that interact to change the world in miraculous and disturbing ways.


Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble

Wingardium Leviosa

Of course, we science-fixated, sophisticated adults living in the West don’t believe in all that ‘mumbo jumbo’. We roll our eyes at the idea that mere words affect the world we live in.

Except that they do. Words frame our thoughts, desires, emotions and connections. We are so reliant upon language as to be unable to interact in society without it.

I lost my voice for several months once, and it was the most profound experience I’ve ever had; but I still had language in my mind to frame the thoughts I couldn’t express aloud. When there is something in your mind but no word to explain it, trouble chases your thoughts endlessly. We give words to victims of trauma to explain the emotions they experience, and merely naming them – setting them in a context that other people have experienced too – sets them free.

Words hold our ideas in a tissue thin membrane of ‘common knowledge’. They bounce between us, gathering dust and changing shape until they are unrecognisable to their origins. They pull our attention with them, so that we understand the world in this way, rather than that.

Take  ‘the West’, for example. Putting any thought into that concept exposes the phrase as the misnomer it is. Which of us, exactly, live in the West? West of whom? West of where? Do I, living in wintry and docile Cambridge in England, share any values or experiences at all with Joe Soap on the hot streets of Phoenix, Arizona? Do we have more in common than either of us do with Mpho Mphumelanga in the broken farmlands of Botswana?

When I used the phrase ‘mumbo jumbo’, I looked up its origins on Wikipedia. We use the term to connote meaningless nonsense, but it is derived from a wholly meaningful cultural experience that must have had a profound effect on the people involved. It’s a fascinating, horrible story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mumbo_jumbo_(phrase)

I believe in magic. I believe in the magic of words, anyway. I believe that the words we use can change the way we think; and if we change the way we think, we change the way we act.

 Take the word ‘consent’. It’s a beautiful word. Gentle, accessible, easy to spell. The consonants flow around the simple vowel sounds peacefully. It’s a word you can say repeatedly without flinching at all. Very different to rape. There’s a harsh sounding word, if ever there was one.

 My daughter would like to educate her generation about consent.

 She can see the difficulty her peers have with sexual coercion, sexual violence, revenge pornography, intoxication, emotional and physical abuse. Whether this is worse than any other generation has experienced is unknowable, because of the hidden nature of these crimes in times past; but they are certainly more visible, more public now. People are suffering, and much of their suffering is made profoundly worse by it being published. ‘Shared’. Did you read the Wikipedia entry I gave you above? The woman who was selected to be stripped and beaten in public by the Maamajomboo would likely empathise with the girl whose assault was filmed and posted on the internet.

 But to educate children with such frightening power in their hands in the gross and subtle dangers of abuse, humiliation and violence is a task we have proven unequal to.

How much more effective it would be, to teach what it means to give and obtain consent. To teach that if you do not have the conscious and untainted-by-psychotropic-substances active agreement of each party involved, what you are about to do is wrong.

 With similar reasoning, I would dearly like to discard the bleak term ‘domestic violence’ in favour of the eminently more positive ‘domestic safety’.

 Domestic violence is something to flee. It is meant to encompass a range of aggressive behaviours that the phrase is not robust enough to hold. Almost no one believes themselves a victim of domestic violence. They may live with an emotionally and physically abusive tyrant, but that doesn’t mean they are one of those weak and pathetic victims they’ve seen on the telly, does it?

Domestic safety is something to strive for. Everyone can agree that people have the right to safety in the domestic sphere. We can believe in our expectation of safety from all kinds of things in our own homes. It’s empowering to join others in standing up for our rights – an entirely different notion than than the isolation of being a victim. It also means that we can search for different ways to be safer. Leaving is not the only, desperate solution.

I would like to weave spells out of words and cast them upon the world. I want the cleansing poetry of consent to settle upon the foul waters of sexual abuse; the marching band of domestic safety to cheer us on to better homes and brighter futures. I want the West to take off its hat and kick off its boots and settle down to listen to the stories and wisdom of other cultures. I want the Maamajomboo to join the Big Bad Wolf in the world’s collective consciousness.

I want all the phrases to put on their best frocks, polish their shoes and snap their braces to attention. We should dance to our words, not run from them.


The Folly of the GCSE

The temptation to stick with what we know is hard to overcome in education. Innovation carries enormous risk to a generation of children, as well as an economy that relies on skilled and knowledgeable worker bees. In a country in which politicians, rather than educators, set the baseline against which we measure school success, the risk multiplies into potential shifts in government. Tinkering with education’s engine looks good, but rocking the boat too wildly while you do so is potentially political suicide.

I haven’t measured, but it is almost certainly safe to assume that all of our current politicians took a school leaving assessment at age 16. Whether this was an O’ Level or a GCSE, it was the gateway to further and higher education. An assessment at the end of compulsory education acts as a giant sieve; everyone who fails to achieve a certain level falls through the holes and into the unskilled labour market. Those who remain are graded and sent on to academia, vocational training or, increasingly rarely, semi-skilled employment.

The majority (at the very least) of the ruling class will have done well out of that sifting process. Achieving a rather arbitrary measure of success at the end of a period of compulsory schooling becomes the first step up the gangplank that leads to adult self-belief. Every step further up boosts the positive assumptions a successful 16 year-old can’t help but make. By the time that inner-child has climbed all the way to the top, it would take a very radical thinker to want to shake his or her own foundations. Challenging the assumption that a school leaving assessment is of immense value to society is to bravely pull the plank out from beneath a successful person’s feet.

When the school leaving age was 16, the General Certificate in Secondary Education was the last opportunity to enforce a mass grading. Post 16 years, schools, colleges and employers have had to compete for their market share of able youngsters. Having a broad measure against which to judge them made the process more efficient – in theory.

But compulsory school leaving age has changed. This academic year is the last one in which age 16 will mark the end of childhood; state control over how daylight hours are spent will now be extended. From September 2013, 17 will be the new 16. After that, compulsory education will be enforced until a young person turns 18.

A school leaving examination held at an age when leaving school is no longer an option seems like folly. And yet, the popularity of the GCSE at age 16 and beyond in political circles is increasing. Students in Further Education who failed to achieve the holy grail of five GCSE grades A* to C, including English and maths, are to be – I’m not quite sure of the correct verb to use here – something just short of coerced into taking their English and maths GCSE exams again.

Adults are to be offered the opportunity to study English and maths GCSEs for free, and although Functional English and maths exams were developed to fulfill the needs of adults as well as younger students, they have been given a lower standing in the hierarchy of provision for adults than the GCSE – which was developed for school children.

It’s apparent that ministers and civil servants believe employers – those great designers of educational requirements – only recognise the value of the GCSE from the range of available qualifications. Although they have complained for many years that young people leave school without the basic skills required for employment and successful life, employers still want the simplicity of that giant social sieve they know and have been through themselves.

But what employers know is not necessarily what they need.

GCSE exams test a narrow band of academic knowledge that children are expected to acquire. Young teens spend two or three years of their lives gathering the knowledge they require to remain in the successful portion of the sieve. Actually, ‘gathering’ is too active a verb; the process of learning for GCSEs makes students extraordinarily passive, as anyone currently working in post 16 education will attest to. They are trained to receive knowledge from teachers, who are judged on their students’ grade averages – there is no incentive for anyone to step outside of the framework to gain anything else.

In contrast, Functional English and maths assessments measure skills. They have been specifically developed to use the best components of other English and maths assessments within a problem solving framework. They were developed to fill the gap that employers bemoaned in GCSE provision.

The best part of Functional English and maths assessments is that they actually work. The learning that leads up to the assessment builds confidence. Learners – and particularly adult learners – feel empowered by their ability to apply the underlying skills they have learned to the real world in which they live. Functional Skills courses are not like school, and therein lies their power.

This post is a plea to all those involved in the education of both school children and adults, from policy makers to teaching assistants – all equally important, though some hold more clout than others. Don’t fall back on what you remember from your childhood as the answer to today’s ills. Every year, our nation faces new challenges. Old answers won’t do. GCSE examinations may not rock the boat, but they won’t sail the ocean, either. Let’s navigate forwards before we sail backwards.