Not the moment to move on mobiles

A recent announcement about the DfE Consultation on Behaviour indicated that Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, was minded to require schools to ban mobile phones. This is a view he has expressed on several occasions in recent months.

Regular readers of this blog will recall that, a few years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on this subject. At the time I was a Deputy Head with responsibility for behaviour at a large secondary school. We decided to ban the use of mobile phones during the school day, and I wrote about our reasons, including academic research findings, our early progress, and the positive impact of the ban for students’ attention, behaviour and wellbeing.

You might then think that I would be in favour of this move by Mr Williamson. I am not, for two reasons.

Firstly, I believe that this should be a decision for individual schools. Back in 2016, we took the decision for specific reasons and had clear, measurable objectives related to our own improvement plan. Just because a strategy is right for one school does not mean it must be a priority for all.

Secondly, it hardly seems be a priority at this time. Schools have had the most extraordinary 18 months, have implemented entirely new ways of working, and are now contending with rising case numbers, increased staff absence, and a mix of in-class and remote teaching. This is all happening in the face of confused guidance from the DfE and a complete lack of clarity about the next academic year.

Decisions over mobile phones, and other such issues, are for schools to make, to choose if, when and how they should be implemented in their particular context. Right now, most schools have other priorities. At a time when clarity from the DfE would be welcome, perhaps Mr Williamson should consider his own.

‘Do earwigs really eat your brains?’ and other pressing questions.

An interview for the University of Oxford Environmental Sustainability Group about my schools outreach work with the HOPE for the Future project at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford:

https://sustainability.admin.ox.ac.uk/article/talking-biodiversity-with-hope-for-the-future-project#/

You might also be interested in the Insect Investigators Summer School we are running in August 2021, and the online resources we produced for young people at home.

First published 24 July 2021

Picture credit: Barry R Dean CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Lost for natural words?

Galium aparine.
Image credit: Eveline Simak CC-BY-SA 2.0

What would you call this plant? For gardeners it might be a weed, for naturalists, a wildflower, and to botanists it’s Galium aparine. For our ancestors, it was an important natural resource: edible, medicinal, useful as animal fodder, and important in cheese production.

For generations of children, though, it has simply been a source of fun. The stems, leaves and seeds are covered in tiny hooks. These evolved because they assist seed dispersal when they become caught in animal fur. This means that the plant will also easily stick to clothing leading to games and pranks that young children love.

Surface of G. Aparine fruit.
Image credit: Stefan Lefnaer CC-BY-SA 4.0

For these reasons, G. aparine has a host of common names. You may know it as ‘goosegrass’, ‘cleavers’, ‘stickybob(s)’, ‘sticky willy’, ‘hitchhikers’, or perhaps ‘Velcro plant’. It has also been called ‘bedstraw’ because it was once used as a mattress filling. It has many other names, and that’s just in English. The plant is known to many cultures because it has a widespread distribution across Europe, North Africa and Asia. It is also found in North America and has become naturalised in Central and South America, and many other parts of the world.

Despite its long social history, our connection to this plant might be becoming lost to modern children. I hope that the wonderful names for this plant are not disappearing as one of the ‘lost words’ described by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris in their wonderful book of the same name.

In my work for the HOPE For the Future project at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford, I visit schools for ‘Insect Discovery Days’, helping them to discover new things about insects and their importance in ecosystems. While we frequently find children who are a fount of knowledge on this topic, when we begin to explore local green spaces, especially in urban areas, I find that children are disconnected from nature and may not have words to describe even common plants and animals that they find.

To my surprise, this happened recently when children were lost for words to name this common plant. There was a lot of new growth across the ground in a wooded area and it began to stick to children’s socks and trousers, as we explored the copse. Some children found that it then stuck to the arms of their coats as they tried to pick it off, much to their delight.

For many of the group this seemed to be a new experience. When we began to discuss it, it became clear that most children did not have a name for the plant. When I asked them what they would call it, I had one response of ‘sticky bobs’, but most children responded with adjectives like ‘sticky’ or ‘prickly’ rather than common nouns.

I responded with some names I knew it by and explained how the tiny hooks made it stick to clothes. We also found some aphids feeding on it.

I was glad to have introduced them to part of the natural world (anof course, the insects we were there to study) as well as a little of its folklore, but remained disconcerted that this information, such an intrinsic part of my own generation’s childhood, was so new to them.

Fortunately, that school has a well planned and protected wildlife area and are partners in a community orchard – especially welcome in an urban setting. Perhaps, as we all emerge from the restrictions of lockdown, we can take some time to reconnect with nature, and help children share in the simple delight that previous generations found in the natural world around them.

Things to look forward to in Summer Term 2021

I’ve been writing these ‘start of term’ posts for a while now. This time, more than ever before, it feels like we’ll all be looking forward to making the most of what summer has to offer as we emerge not just from winter, but from over a year of tackling Covid.

Times remain difficult and much that would normally happen this term must be postponed, or happen in a different way. Nevertheless, I hope that there is still a lot to look forward to.

The clocks have gone forward and each day is a little longer than the one before. One thing to enjoy is more waking up and coming home from work in daylight. Longer (hopefully) sunlit days help lift our mood, so it’s a good idea to try to make some time to get outside each day; even if it’s overcast, natural sunlight will do you good.

For 2021, The Big Pedal, organised by the charity Sustrans, runs from Monday 19 April to the end of the month. This annual event challenges primary and secondary school pupils to cycle, scoot and wheelchair as many miles as they can. You can find out more, register and pick up free resources from the Big Pedal website.

If you prefer two feet to two wheels, Walk to School Week is back to it’s usual time in the calendar, spring, running from 17-21 May. You can order a classroom pack now from the Living Streets Website.

While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the many changes in the natural world as spring turns into summer. Which plants are coming into bloom? Which berries and fruits are starting to form? Which birds, bees and butterflies do you notice? Take note of these small changes and you’ll soon see that no two days are alike. You can even use an app such as iRecord to add your nature sightings to the National database. If your pupils are feeling inspired by nature, the might want to submit a poem for the Into the Green Poetry Project that I’m involved with, run by The Bodleian Libraries and Oxford Botanic Garden to celebrate 400 years of plant science in Oxford. You can download a project pack from the Bodleian’s website. The deadline for submissions is 1 July 2021.

Connecting with nature is one way to look after our mental health and ‘nature’ is the theme of UK Mental Health Awareness Week which, this year, runs from 10-17 May. You can find out more from the Mental Health Foundation who are asking us to share images, videos and sounds of nature on social media using the hashtag #ConnectWithNature.

Lockdown and travel restrictions have highlighted adverse effects of fossil fuel use including air pollution and the climate emergency. The UN World Environment Day is on Saturday 5 June and this year marks the start of the UN’s Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. This could provide a focus for learning activities about human impact and the environment. You can find out more at worldenvironmentday.global #GenerationRestoration

THERE ARE MANY FESTIVALS, HOLIDAYS AND EVENTS THIS TERM:

  • Ramadan has already started and is observed by Muslims until Eid ul-Fitr on, or near 13 May
  • Stephen Lawrence Day is on Thursday 22 April
  • St George’s Day is on Friday 23 April and this is also Shakespeare Day
  • May is topped and tailed by bank holidays, with the Early May Bank Holiday on Monday 3 May and the Spring Bank Holiday on Monday 31 May
  • Friday 7 May is the Jewish Holiday of Shavuot
  • The Christian feast of Pentecost is on Sunday 23 May
  • In the UK, Fathers’ Day is on Sunday 20 June
  • Monday 21 June marks the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year
  • Tuesday 22 June is Windrush Day which marks the anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in 1948 and celebrates the British Caribbean community
  • Tuesday 20 July is Eid ul-Adha, or greater Eid

Many of the most memorable aspects of school life usually happen during the Summer term: school trips, outdoor education, Summer concerts and productions, PTA barbecues, sports days, enrichment weeks, proms and end of year awards.

These enrich the curriculum and help build communities. This year these events will be very different, and some may not be possible at all, but schools will find ways to celebrate their own unique community and the landmark transitions for years 6, 11, and 13.

Hopefully, by the end of the summer term, teachers and pupils alike will be able to enjoy a well-earned summer break after an extraordinary school year.

Looking for a little inspiration?

I have collected educational quotes for several years. I originally put up one each Monday morning in the staffroom of the school I worked. They proved popular, so I started sharing them online as well.

In this first gallery, I have combined the quotes with my own photographs. I hope they inspire you. Please feel free to use and share them freely, but within the terms of the Creative Commons licence under which I have made them available: please attribute the images to me and do not use them for commercial purposes. Thank you.

The images used in the gallery below are all in the public domain. I have simple added the quotes.

You can find many more education quotes in my series of posts on Motivation for Mondays.

Stepping forward into growth

Half term, February 2021. Right now, many teachers are feeling exhausted by a school year has already been the hardest they have ever faced.

Teaching used to mean groups of young people learning together in a classroom, or perhaps for you that’s a lab, workshop, gym or sports field. By now, half way through the year, we would know these groups we would have established familiar learning routines and feel secure in our shared space.

This year, all that has been different. Teaching has meant juggling face-to-face and remote teaching, while often looking after children at home and worrying about older or vulnerable relatives and friends.

I hope that the half term break will be a chance for you to pause and rest. Take a moment to reflect on how much you have grown and what you have achieved. You have learned to teach in different ways. You have mastered technologies many of us hadn’t even heard off in 2019. Above all, you have enabled those children and young people in your care to continue to learn and grow, while all the time providing the reassurance of continuity and stability in hugely uncertain times.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow said that at any moment we have the choice to step forward into growth. You made that choice to grow when challenged by the most difficult of moments. That deserves to be celebrated.

If you like the quote I used here, you can find more like it in my posts on Motivation for Mondays.