When is a teacher’s view on your child’s deferral NOT their view? What could GTCS do about this?

  1. Introduction

Maree Todd, Minister for Children and Young People, believes that Councils can be trusted to act in children’s best interests regarding Deferral: https://twitter.com/IainGrayMSP/status/1131238873244295168

I beg to differ. Councils control what teachers are allowed to tell parents and teachers are too scared to disagree with their managers. This article demonstrates how the culture of fear prevented a headteacher from telling us the truth about our son’s much-needed deferral. Apologies that this article is not shorter: substantial quotes are necessary to demonstrate that the problems are real, and serious. 

2. Summary: Fear In Scottish Education -The Worst Censorship is Self-Censorship

  • Our son began school in 2013 aged 4 only because we were told by the headteacher that the nursery was full. This wasn’t true.
  • We learned that several staff, including the Headteacher, agreed with us that: (1) our son would have benefitted from another year of nursery and (2) would benefit from a return to nursery from Primary 1
  • Nobody told us – we found out by accident via Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act. We were repeatedly told he was fine in school
  • Many teachers don’t feel free to share their honest professional opinion with parents – e.g. that Deferral is in their child’s best interests.
  • Teachers have a double professional duty – (1) professionalism and (2) to employers
  • Councils require teachers to follow council priorities and policies, often finance-based
  • Every funded deferral carries a cost for the local authority – the teacher’s employer.
  • This can create situations of Conflict of Interest e.g. around Deferral – tell parents or not?
  • Any teacher seen to go against management or criticise the council will likely be disciplined. So teachers go against their professional view and do as told – this is often why GIRFEC isn’t followed
  • Councils overly rely on the views of senior teachers who fall into line, and exclude contrary views
  • The GTCS Standards don’t specify which duty takes precedence if there is a Conflict of Interest – employer or professionalism?
  • Teachers need an overriding duty of professionalism, like other professions. They need to know that they must speak out if they are required to go against their professional view
  • Teachers are currently not held accountable for breaching the Standards when they are acting as Council management wants them to do
  • This amplifies the problem: senior management know there is no real accountability. Matters then become more difficult and dangerous for those teachers who continue to do the right thing
  • Fitness to Teach is not working when Councils and Headteachers back each other up. It is wrongly assumed the professionals must be telling the truth
  • Effective policing of the Standards by GTCS is needed, especially for those in management positions. This will protect teachers who act professionally from bullying management

Parents need to know when teachers believe children need Deferral

Those who would bully or scare teachers into misleading parents MUST be held accountable

3. Our developing concerns about trust in the system

TPS blogged about what happened when we tried to defer our December-born 4-year-old in 2013. You can find much of the detail at 

https://takingparentsseriously.wordpress.com/2020/08/07/can-parents-believe-what-they-are-told-by-schools-and-councils/ and at 

https://takingparentsseriously.wordpress.com/2020/02/24/unready-at-four-ready-at-seven/ where I concluded:

It’s wrong that school nursery staff are not free to tell parents their professional opinion that deferral would be in the best interests of their child. It’s wrong that headteachers and school staff are told by council staff what they can tell parents and what they can’t.

When your child’s nursery teacher says your child is ready for school, how do you know that is their honest opinion? Are they free to say what they think? How do you know it’s not what they’ve been told to say, whether to save money or because there’s a shortage of nursery spaces or because “policy”? How do you know school is in your child’s best interests? How do you know they are likely to thrive and not just “cope”? Will the system treat your child like an individual?”

I’ve been told many stories by other parents and professionals about what is allowed to be said, for example:

  • A social worker and a headteacher believed a child ought to be deferred. Council officials (who, of course, didn’t know the child) overruled them both.
  • A nursery teacher thought a child should be deferred but was so scared of openly telling the parents that they left the information in the child’s tray.
  • A nursery teacher was “hauled over the coals” by their headteacher for telling parents their opinion that the child would benefit from a deferral.
  • An independent playgroup leader was pressured by the local Primary school Headteacher to not support a deferral application for an end of December and premature child.

4. Raised concerns during Scottish Government consultation

At a Scottish Government “Engage for Ed” conference in 2016, I raised the issue of Head/teachers being honest with parents, specifically when their managers in Local Authority Education Departments don’t want the parents to receive the information. The two headteachers at my table were shocked at the idea. They said they have to do what their managers want, because “they pay your wages”.

Shortly afterwards, I wrote to the SG facilitator:

I was astonished when the headteacher from ******** explained that a headteacher is expected to investigate a complaint against themselves. If a person is of the calibre to be a head, then they ought to have the gumption to tell their managers in the council that such a course of action is a ridiculous waste of everyone’s time. I was disappointed when she replied that headteachers can’t refuse because the bosses pay their salaries. No wonder parents often don’t trust the system.

In contrast, two headteachers at the end were very supportive of my points. One said that, in her opinion, November and December children are often not ready to start school aged 4. In such cases, she tells the parents that she recommends deferral. She works in *********, who, as per the attached article, are very against deferral. I put *********’s position to her and she replied that she simply ignores the council and does what she thinks is best for the child. She looked in her 50s to me and is obviously not scared of the system, nor is she looking for more promotions. She understands her role and has the guts to perform it properly.

This is exactly what I was trying to get at – those two conversations could not have exemplified better the points I was making. Heads must realise that part of their job may be to talk back to education officials and to go their own way at times. They should be the child’s person in the council, not the council’s person in the school, when there are conflicts of interest. If they did so, it would empower them and their staff. Problems and issues can be better dealt with when they are aired in the open. More children’s needs would be met and lives would improve. 

The GTC Standards must enshrine that school leaders’ ultimate responsibility is to their professional integrity (i.e. the children) and not their employer. The alternative is that council officials will garner ever more power and headteachers will be reduced to administrative yes-men. And, not surprisingly, parents will be very frustrated. Ultimately, children suffer.  

A Headteacher, about to retire, has confirmed publicly that his employing council has asked him to go against his professional views. He thinks the same will have happened to many Headteachers.

This is the crucial issue facing the system: parents think they can trust Headteachers but they can’t. How can they be held accountable? How can they be truly free to make the best decisions according to their professional judgement? No tinkering with the system will improve it unless people can trust the system, and the people in it. The system is rotten to the core if headteachers must do what they’re told by councils and are too scared (or thinking of their next promotion) to act with integrity and honesty.”

5. Basis for our concerns in our experiences

These are sweeping claims I made to the SG facilitator, so personal experience in relation to our son’s deferral will illustrate my point. Part of the communication with the council is recorded here: 

https://takingparentsseriously.wordpress.com/2020/08/07/can-parents-believe-what-they-are-told-by-schools-and-councils/

On 26.11.13, we met with our son’s headteacher to discuss our request to remove him from Primary 1 and return him to the school nursery (he only began school because we were – incorrectly – told by her that the nursery was full). The headteacher did her best to reassure us, but we still felt his needs were best served by a return to the nursery. We did a Subject Access Request to obtain the notes she used during our meeting.

In January 2014 we received the version on the left (below), printed by an Education Officer. Much later, we discovered that another copy, the one on the right – with the Headteacher’s handwriting at the top – had been materially altered. Comparing them, we saw that on p.2, comments from the PSW and the PE teacher had been changed in a way that fundamentally changed what they were saying. Both staff had believed our son would have benefitted from an additional year of nursery. The Headteacher’s changes (in breach of Data Protection legislation) were an attempt to deny us this highly relevant information.

Why did the Headteacher remove this highly relevant information? The council later told us that, in the two months it took for us to receive our data, the staff had changed their minds and the Headteacher didn’t want to confuse us by giving us the previous information. This is not a valid exemption under Data Protection legislation. In any case, council officials knew we both have Law degrees and I’m a secondary teacher: it wasn’t about “confusing” us, it was about controlling us by denying us our son’s highly relevant information. They wrote:

“Mrs ****** discussed your concerns with the Quality Improvement Manager *******, and e-mailed a copy of the original note to ****[QIM]. Mrs ***** later [2 months later] clarified with the two staff members that they felt ****** was making good progress and did not think that ****** should be taken out of Primary 1, and Mrs ****** therefore amended the document to avoid confusion. I am satisfied that it was appropriate for Mrs ****** to have sought advice, and that it was appropriate in her role as Headteacher to query the comments made, and to make the changes to ensure clarity”.

Our MSP wrote to the Deputy Chief Executive on 06.02.14:

“By mid-November they had seen enough to feel sure that he was not ready for school, but given the importance of the issue they sought advice from others. They have had written observations from ******’s qualified swimming and exercise coaches, and from the Kumon teacher who carried out an English assessment on *****. They also sought the opinions of adults who knew ****** well, including a retired primary school deputy headteacher. The view was absolutely consistent; that ****** was not ready for school and would benefit from another year in nursery.”

On 03.03.14, the Deputy Chief Executive replied:

“I note your comment in relation to the views of various individuals, including a pupil support worker and a PE teacher, and a retired Deputy Head Teacher. I cannot agree, however, that these would outweigh the professional opinion of the Head Teacher of ****** Primary School.”

It is disturbing that the Council has the view that the Headteacher’s opinion is so important that no other opinion matters. Contrary opinions might confuse parents, therefore can be hidden. This is a disgraceful undermining of Parental Engagement. Our response was clear, from 22.03.14:

“The second issue does not require a response but is an observation I would like you to consider carefully. I would characterise the position expressed in your letter that the opinion of the Headteacher should be allowed to drown out any other professional views as being a classic example of professional arrogance. When it comes to matters affecting my children the headteacher may not parse, edit, revise or in any way interfere with the opinions of other professionals. I am more than capable of hearing all the opinions, seeing all the evidence, and forming a conclusion on my own, without the headteacher deciding what I may or may not be told. This is my right as a parent and I flatly do not accept anyone’s interference. The school’s desire to present a united front does not trump a parent’s right to have all of the information necessary to make decisions…

In my opinion this was a breach of the Parental Involvement (Scotland) Act 2006. Under this legislation the local authority is required to provide me with the information I need to make choices about my child’s education.”

6. What did the Headteacher actually think? 

But was that actually the Headteacher’s opinion? Did she really think our son was making good progress in P1 and should not be removed? And did she agree with an Education Officer, who wrote on 19.12.13 that:

the only option open to the council at this point is for ****** to stay in Primary 1”?

We later accessed an email written by the Headteacher, to the Education Officer, after we met with her on 26.11.13. During that meeting she had again told us the nursery was full and tried to reassure us about our son continuing in Primary 1. Why did she tell her bosses – but not us, the parents:

although I still believe that ****** is happy in school, and we are meeting his needs – I am also sure that he would benefit from another year in nursery”?

7. To recap

  • two of our son’s school staff believed he would have benefitted from an additional year of nursery.
  • The Headteacher also thought he would benefit from a return to the nursery, but didn’t tell us.
  • Why would a Headteacher delete comments made by other staff, that she agreed with and that accorded with the parents’ views?
  • Why would a Headteacher hide such information from parents?

8. More examples of the headteacher being guided by Officials on what to tell us:

  1. On 09.01.14, following the Child Planning Meeting, the Headteacher wrote to her bosses:

“You will see from the Minute that school believes that it can support all of ******’s needs going forward at present in P1, with the support of any multi agency work necessary. I left dad with this message, and that he now has to accept that or think about what his next step would be. I am not sure what that might be.”

  1. On 13.01.14, when we stated our intention to withdraw our son from Primary 1 following a Child Planning Meeting, the Headteacher wrote to her bosses:

can you give me some guidance on my next step please?”

  1. On 20.01.14, after we had withdrawn our son from Primary 1, we were informed that he wouldn’t be permitted in Wraparound during the school day because he had a place in P1. We believe they were trying to force us to return our son to the nursery by preventing us from accessing alternative childcare. On 21.01.14, the Headteacher wrote to her bosses:

Mrs ***** has been in touch to let us know she doesn’t need wraparound today as the childminder [is] having *******(!)

9. Conflict of Interest

So can parents trust that they are receiving honest information and opinions from school and council staff regarding Deferral? If the staff who know your child believe they would benefit from Deferral, will you be told?

I believe the answers to the above questions lie in the conflict of interest faced by teachers, as both professionals and as Council employees. Ultimately, if a Council wants to save money by denying Deferrals, they will find ways to pressure teachers to fall in line. But is that an acceptable course of action? Does it meet the profession’s standards?

10. General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS)

Standard for Leadership & Management – excerpts 

“Professionalism also implies the need to ask critical questions of educational policies and practices and to examine our attitudes and beliefs.”

On Integrity:

“Demonstrating openness, honesty, courage and wisdom.
Critically examining personal and professional attitudes and beliefs and challenging assumptions and professional practice.
Critically examining the connections between personal and professional attitudes and beliefs, values and practices to effect improvement and, when appropriate, bring about transformative change in practice.

On Trust & Respect, it says:

“Acting and behaving in ways that develop a culture of trust and respect through, for example, being trusting and respectful of others within the school, and with all those involved in influencing the lives of learners in and beyond the learning community.”

On the Key Purpose of Head Teachers, it states:

The Head Teacher acts as the leading professional in a school and as an officer in the local authority. The Head Teacher also plays a pivotal role within the broader children’s services network.

I could go on, but they’re online and public:

http://www.gtcs.org.uk/professional-standards/professional-standards.aspx

11. Conflict of Interest, the  culture of Fear – GTCS’ role?

This Key Purpose is very troublesome and indicates dual responsibilities that can easily be in conflict with each other. In our experience as parents, the council had priorities that did not align with ours. Perhaps money, perhaps policy, I don’t know – certainly not GIRFEC. We believed our son ought to be deferred and, when this didn’t happen, returned to the nursery from Primary 1 once it became clear he wasn’t coping at school.

As we saw above, we discovered by accident that the Headteacher agreed with us. But our data, received via a Subject Access Request, made it clear that she was following instructions from the Council not to assist us, in fact to actively hinder us.

In the current economic climate, local authorities have difficult decisions to make. It is also within the bounds of possibility (read: likely) that any headteacher who rocks the boat is likely to find their career progress stalled, if not reversed.

So where a (Head)teacher’s professionalism is in conflict with their duty to their employer, which duty should they follow?

Should they obey the employer and fail the child?

Or do their best for the child and face potential disciplinary action or maybe just good old-fashioned victimisation?

Other professions have considered this issue carefully, e.g. http://www.journalonline.co.uk/Magazine/59-6/1014113.aspx.

I don’t believe teaching is unique in that Local Authorities’ priorities and those of teachers and children are always aligned, so that there isn’t even the possibility of a conflict of interest.

Here is an excerpt of what I wrote to GTCS in an anonymous survey over a year ago. I hadn’t thought I would make it public so apologies for the tone:

If GTCs is going to be a regulatory body then it needs to properly investigate complaints. We complained about the headteacher [our child’s], yet our complaint was thrown out without us having SEEN their evidence [the school and council], nor having had the chance to rebut it. This falls short of basic legal protections. So people THINK there is accountability when in fact there is not. Fitness to Teach needs to be a robust legal procedure, or nothing at all. A wishy-washy half way house is worse than nothing because it creates the illusion that accountability is possible. Will there come a day when a headteacher will be disciplined by GTCs for misleading parents, when that is what their employer has wanted them to do? When we were falsely told twice by the headteacher that the nursery was full, the local health visitor was told the same thing, but by Pupil Placement. And, strangely enough, the local authority where I live had one of the lowest rate of “discretionary” deferrals in the country i.e. those children born between mid-Aug to December. The evidence suggests the council WANTED deferrals to be denied, by whatever means. Of course they were going to back up the headteacher during our Fitness to Teach complaint. 

Will GTCs emphasise to teachers that their overriding duty is to children first, and employers last? Headteachers said directly to me at the Engage [for Ed] event with John Swinney in November 2016 that they have to do what their bosses want, even where it goes against their own professional opinions. They were acting like administrative clerks, not reflective practitioners. They were falling far short of the Standards for Leadership & Management. How will THEY be held to account for failing those children? At our child’s previous school, several parents complained during an ES inspection 3 years ago yet the report was still excellent. 

How are parent voices to be REALLY heard? How are children’s needs to be met? How can senior staff be held accountable when neither GTCs nor ES appear to have the inclination to judge against “professionals like themselves”? How can junior staff follow their professional duty when those above are failing in theirs? Staff giving honest opinions to parents are being disciplined by bosses for going against “policy”. The education system needs to get a grip on itself and see that the culture of compliance, and a false sense that everything is fine are undermining the very foundations of our education system. I know several children whose lives have been harmed by these attitudes.

12. Conclusion

As both parent and teacher, I would dearly love GTCS – our Regulator – to consider the obvious:

If local authority officers (usually Headteachers who have been promoted) – who put pressure on teachers to go against their professional duties – were properly disciplined by GTCs (and SPSO), then the culture would improve, if only because they would know they’re more likely to get caught. That would protect those teachers who want to do their best for their pupils but who, right now, are too scared of their employers to do so.

Local Authorities are independent of central government. If a Council backs up a teacher under investigation by GTCS or SPSO – say, to save money – there is virtually no chance of accountability. GTCS is therefore in the best position in Scotland to improve the culture within education.

Reading the Standards as a teacher and as a parent breaks my heart, because they are not enforced. I am anonymous because I am scared of consequences to me personally for speaking out on this sensitive issue.

The culture of fear is real. As an example of this fear and bullying, I came across this story recently of an outstanding Headteacher who was ousted in a disgraceful manner yet I don’t believe anybody at senior level within the council was ever held responsible for faking a bad HMIe report about her. https://www.scotsman.com/news/headteacher-forced-out-of-job-by-bogus-inspection-1-1488402.

Teachers need an overriding GTCS duty to the pupils and effective policing of the standards for those in authority. This will help and protect teachers to act like professionals.

  • Parents need to know when teachers believe children need Deferral – Councils can’t be trusted
  • Those who mislead parents and prevent their Engagement need to be held accountable
  • Those who would bully or scare teachers into misleading parents need to be held accountable

A teacher’s view is not a teacher’s view when they’re more worried about their managers than the children they serve

Need help with deferral? Not sure if your wee one is coping in P1 having started aged 4? Deferral Support Scotland on Facebook can provide help and support. See also @givetimescot on Twitter. Both supported by Taking Parents Seriously.

Can Parents Believe What They Are Told By Schools And Councils?

This article is part of a much longer chain of events but it focuses on the misinformation that prevented us from deferring our December-born son in 2013. It’s quite detailed because it quotes from correspondence between us and the council, in order to demonstrate the level of misinformation that occurs.

When filling his School Application Form in December 2012, we thought he would be ready for school as his language was excellent. By the time our serious concerns had developed during 2013, we had forgotten the role Pupil Placement plays, so we wrote about our serious concerns to the Headteacher of the Primary School and Nursery during the summer holiday:

Our son, **********, is due to start Primary 1 in August. We have had increasing concerns over a long time about his readiness for school and have recently had unprompted comment from qualified people that supports our view. His birthday is December so he is only 4 and his behaviour, level of personal development and motor skills in particular are causing us some worry about his readiness for school. He still often wets himself and his eating is more like a toddler than a schoolchild. This is all in spite of our very best efforts.

We are concerned that if he starts school so far behind most of his class he will may feel inferior. He often says that he’s not good at things like drawing, and he knows that many of his friends are far ahead of him. We don’t have long-term concerns, we’re sure he’ll progress fine in time, but we’d like to discuss whether it will be in his best interests to start school in August, and if so, what steps can be taken at home and at school to provide him with enough support.

We would like to speak to the appropriate staff in the school about this. I don’t know whether this would be the headteacher, another senior teacher or his Primary 1 teacher and I would be happy to be guided. I think that any conversation would probably benefit from the input of one of his nursery teachers – he attended the ****** nursery.

I appreciate the difficulty in trying to arrange this during the holidays. We had been telling ourselves that everything would be fine, but if anything his behaviour has deteriorated, and having confirmation from others makes us sure that we need to address this now.”

On 16 August 2013 we both met with the Headteacher and with the Nursery Principal Teacher. The Headteacher told us the nursery was full. We then offered to pay. She replied that we could apply to defer if we wanted, but that the nursery was full. Solely for that reason, we decided to try him in Primary 1 as the least disruptive option. I came home from that meeting and cut the tags off his new school uniform – I’d kept them on, in case we would be returning them.

School did not go well.  Most of his story has been documented here:

https://takingparentsseriously.wordpress.com/2020/02/24/my-four-year-old-started-primary-one-but-wasnt-ready/ and

\https://takingparentsseriously.wordpress.com/2020/02/24/unready-at-four-ready-at-seven/

By early November, we had decided that the risk of staying in P1 was higher than the risk of removing him back to nursery. However, other parents had casually told us they’d had the chance to defer up until the end of June, but hadn’t, so we couldn’t understand how the nursery had suddenly become full during summer 2013. We therefore opted to find out anonymously whether the nursery was really full.

Here’s the reply on 5.11.13 from customer services to our anonymous email:

Thanks for emailing pupil placement regarding nursery places, at the moment there are 2 PM places at ******”

Armed with this information, we emailed the Headteacher on 20.11.13:

The only reason that we didn’t defer ****** in August was that you told us there was no reasonable nursery provision, and we were concerned about the potential social upheaval of taking him away from ****** Primary entirely for a year.But we now think that, on balance, the risk of leaving him to continue is in the long term greater than the risk of deferring”  

We also began to wonder how the nursery had spaces in November, when it had been full in August. We sent the following email to Customer Services on 23.11.13– this time using our own names:

Sir/ Madam,

I have a question about nursery provision at ******* Primary School, that I would prefer to ask of the council rather than the school itself. Just before the start of term in August we made an enquiry about enrolling our child in the nursery pre-school year and were told that it was full. However, I have since heard that there are at least two afternoon spaces available. I’d be grateful if you could tell me if the nursery was full at the start of term and, if so, whether and when places have become available due to people leaving.”

Unfortunately, we did not receive a reply until after meeting with the Headteacher on 26.11.13. The reply, received on 27.11.13 (after the Headteacher had had the opportunity to apprise them of the below conversation on 26.11.13), stated:

At the start of Session 2013/14 all places were allocated at ******** Primary School Nursery Class. Places do become available during the year due to places being given up. Presently we have places available in the afternoon.”

We met with the Headteacher on 26.11.13, during which meeting she again stated that the nursery was full. My husband replied that she currently had 2 free afternoon spaces. There was a very long pause, after which she replied: “I’ll have to look into that, then”. I have handwritten notes of this, taken during the meeting. One of my biggest regrets is not covertly recording this conversation: my husband had said to me at the last moment before the meeting: “Professionals don’t do that sort of thing.”

We then, unsurprisingly, began to wonder if the nursery had really been full in August, as the Headteacher had told us on 16.08.13, so we submitted a FOI. We received an initial reply on 21.02.14 which stated that, in August, the nursery had had FIVE unallocated spaces. We referred to it here: https://takingparentsseriously.wordpress.com/2014/02/22/were-we-lied-to/

We also received a reply, from the Deputy Chief Executive, on 10.04.14:

In fact there were 59 morning places allocated by 16 August and 34 afternoon places, therefore places were available both morning and afternoon. When you contacted Pupil Placement on 27 November 2013 the position had changed, as is often the case with nursery numbers, and all 60 morning places had been allocated by that date. You were not advised that all these allocations were made in August.

To summarize thus far:

  • The Headteacher told us verbally on 16.08.13 that the nursery was currently definitely full.
  • Pupil Placement emailed us (not knowing it was us) on 05.11.13 that there were currently 2 PM places.
  • The Headteacher told us verbally on 26.11.13 that the nursery was currently definitely full.
  • Pupil Placement emailed us on 27.11.13 (knowing it was us) that the nursery had been full in August but that there were currently spaces. This was, of course, after 26.11.13,when we told the Headteacher we knew there were currently afternoon spaces.
  • In an FOI response on 21.02.14, we learned that in August, there had been 5 free places in the nursery.
  • The Deputy Chief Executive wrote on 10.04.14 that the nursery had not been full in August and that we had not been told it was full.

We stated to the Council several times that we had been told the nursery was full by the Headteacher:

  1. On 20.11.13 by the email above to the Headteacher:

The only reason that we didn’t defer ****** in August was that you told us there was no reasonable nursery provision,and we were concerned about the potential social upheaval of taking him away from ****** Primary entirely for a year. But we now think that, on balance, the risk of leaving him to continue is in the long term greater than the risk of deferring”

  1. On 29.11.13 we wrote to the Headteacher and an Education Officer:

Shortly before the start of term in August we met with Mrs **** and Mrs ****** to discuss our concerns and the possibility of a deferral. While we were completely comfortable with the reassurances given to us about how the school would look after ****** and help him, we would still have wished to defer him had the ****** Primary Nursery not been completely full.On balance we felt that the risks involved in moving him to an entirely new nursery for a year were greater than the risks of enrolling him in P1 at that stage”.

  1. On 19.12.13 we emailed an Education Officer, copying the Headteacher:

The only reason we did not press the issue of ******’s deferral in August was because we were told that the nursery was full.”

Our repeated assertions that the Headteacher told us the nursery was full were never contradicted by anybody. Until:

On 03.03.14 the Deputy Chief Executive wrote to our MSP, who was assisting us. The Depute Chief Executive wrote:

“I have noted some points of factual accuracy below.

Your constituents were not informed by the Head Teacher of ****** Primary School or the Council’s Pupil Placement team that a space would not be available for their son should they choose to exercise their right to defer entry into Primary 1”.

Our immediate reaction to this complete volte face in an informal email to a friend, was:

Wow. I can’t believe the headteacher is just flat-out lying. I’m fairly sure I can prove she is lying, so I’m sending a complaint to the GTCS tomorrow. I wasn’t sure about doing it, but now I am. She told us, in so many words, that the nursery was full. Twice. I remember well the look of surprise at the November meeting when I told her I’d already checked and there were two places.”

We responded to the Deputy Chief Executive on 22.03.14:

There is one matter that needs to be urgently addressed, and some others of lesser importance.

I am extremely concerned at the implication that my wife and I gave incorrect information to an MSP, and I cannot let it pass. My wife is a teacher of RME in ********* and I am  *********** leading a ***** team. There is an important matter of reputation involved here and therefore I must press you for clarification.

To say that we “were not informed by the Head Teacher of ***** Primary School or the Council’s Pupil Placement team that a space would not be available for their son should they choose to exercise their right to defer entry into Primary 1” is both wrong and insulting.

At a meeting my wife and I had with Mrs ****** on 16 August 2013 she explicitly and unequivocally told me that the nursery was full. This statement was the sole and exclusive reason why we sent our son to school and did not defer his entry.

I was told by ********* on 27 November 2013 that all places had been allocated at the nursery at the start of term, which lends credence to our understanding from the August meeting…

******** (HT) again said the nursery was full in a meeting with my wife and me on 26 November 2013. I had checked prior to the meeting whether there was capacity in the nursery and had been told that there was, so I was able to correct her at the time. It’s highly unlikely Mrs ******* has forgotten this moment.”

The Deputy Chief Executive responded on 10.04.14:

With regard to your meeting with the Head Teacher of ********  Primary School on 16 August 2013 you state that you were informed by Mrs ***** that the nursery was full. I can confirm that Mrs ****** would not have been in a position to answer that query without reference to Pupil Placement. Mrs ***** made no enquiry regarding allocated places to Pupil Placement immediately prior to or following your meeting with her. There is no record of any communication from you to Pupil Placement regarding nursery places in August: they would have provided you with this information if requested…

I am satisfied that the Head Teacher did not provide you with any information that was erroneous or that she was not in a position to provide. I am satisfied that the Pupil Placement Team provided you with accurate information at the time of your enquiry on 27 November 2013 and that this does not support the inference you have drawn on nursery place availability for August 2013… You have now completed the Council’s Complaints Procedure.

Meantime, I spoke with the Health Visitor on 16.04.14. I was incredibly upset about the breach of trust and, when I told her about being misled into thinking the nursery was full, she replied:

I was told when trying to get another wee girl … I’m not sticking up for them, but I do know that there was another child that I was dealing with, who I wanted to go to nursery and they wasn’t in for nursery, and I did get told they were full… This wasn’t just with the teacher, this was with Pupil Placement as well.”

I begged the Health Visitor to come forward, because her experience being told by Pupil Placement that the nursery was full would have corroborated ours. I pointed out that, as NHS staff, she would be safe from bullying by the Council. Regrettably, she wouldn’t agree to do so.

Neither the Headteacher nor the Council has been held accountable in any way for repeatedly misinforming us that the nursery was full, and thus causing our son to begin Primary 1 against our wishes and against his best interests.

Professionals have a duty to report inappropriate behaviour by other professionals – why are many so reluctant to call this out? By not holding colleagues to account, they allow misinformation and potentially damaging behaviour to continue. Silence is a choice, not an omission.

We did complain to GTCS, about this and other matters. Although we provided the above (substantial) evidence to GTCS in our complaint, they did not progress the matter to a Fitness to Teach panel as they did not consider the matter serious enough. We were not afforded access to the Council’s evidence before our complaint was thrown out.

After this decision, we received the Council and Headteacher’s evidence to GTCS by Subject Access Request. Nowhere in her evidence did the Headteacher state whether or not she told us the nursery was full.

This is troubling because it means that GTCS doesn’t consider misleading parents regarding fundamental information to be an issue worth investigating. Which means Education officials will continue to mislead parents, because they know they won’t be held accountable for it. And that will lead some children to be harmed. But I’ll blog later about the GTCS issues in more detail.

Some lessons I’ve taken from this sorry tale are:

  • The weight of evidence does show that the Council told us the nursery was full, in order to prevent us from deferring our son. It does so on the balance of probabilities, and I also think, beyond reasonable doubt.
  • Even when other professionals can corroborate what happened, they will usually not stick up for parents against colleagues. Don’t count on them.
  • The word of parents is not believed against the word of “professionals”, even when the parents are also professionals. Parental evidence is not given parity to that of Officials.
  • You cannot trust council officials – including Headteachers – not to deliberately mislead you, then deny it.
  • If you want to be able to prove something was said, you’ll need to think carefully how you’ll be able to prove it, should you need to. 
  • Councils deliberately and repeatedly misinform parents, in order to prevent parents from taking decisions that the Council doesn’t want them to take. Fighting for your children’s rights is difficult enough when you have accurate information. It’s impossible without it.

I’ll blog later about how school staff are directed by Education Officials in what they’re allowed to tell parents, and what they can’t.

There is also a serious conflict of interest because teachers and headteachers have a double professional duty – to act as professionals, but also to act as Council employees. I believe those two duties are often in conflict, as in our case. Again, I’ll blog on these issues later.

Conclusion

I finish with some key questions:

  1. What else is being done, in this Council and elsewhere, to prevent deferral of Aug-Dec children? I’ve assisted parents from all over Scotland who have been misled about their right to defer their children, including some families who have been prevented from obtaining much-needed deferrals. When deferral is denied unreasonably, there is a potential for children to be harmed.
  2. Professionals have a duty to report inappropriate behaviour by other professionals – why are they often so reluctant to call this out? By failing to do so, they allow misinformation and potentially damaging behaviour to continue.

Councils can’t be trusted to Get It Right For Every Child

Funded nursery must be guaranteed for all four-year-olds who are deferred

My Four-Year-Old Started Primary One But Wasn’t Ready

Children in Scotland can start school from four-and-a-half years old. For many this is too young as they develop at different rates, particularly before they reach the age of 7. This video shows the effects of trying to formally educate children who aren’t developmentally ready:

This video of our December-born four-year-old when he was two months into Primary 1 shows the effects of trying to formally educate children who aren’t developmentally ready. You can see for yourself his physical aversion and distress, and that forcing a child to do this will only make them hate school and believe that they are stupid.

We withdrew him from Primary One after five months and enrolled him to re-start in Primary One in a different school the following year. Within two days of leaving school, he was far calmer and more himself. You can read more of his story here:  https://takingparentsseriously.wordpress.com/2020/02/24/unready-at-four-ready-at-seven/ 

Within four years of this video, in Primary Three, he had read the entire Harry Potter series, twice, by himself. He’s now a smart, well-achieving child with no learning disabilities, the only problem he had was that he was too young for school. It wasn’t school or homework that got him reading (though the school in which he re-started Primary One in 2014 is superb). He did no homework for the first 4 years of school after re-starting. It was books that he loved, and the fact that he was ready.

He is now eleven years old and in Primary Six. He is well-placed in this year group instead of the older one. He achieves well academically but is in no way ahead of the class. Though of above average height, he is only the fifth tallest in his class, despite being the oldest by two months. He is far from the most mature in his class, nor is he the most resilient. He doesn’t stand out in any way as being older. He is not treated differently by his peers for being older and he is looking forward to being the oldest pupil in the school next session.

They say hindsight is 20-20 vision, and we take great relief in being confident that he has benefitted from being in the younger year group right through his schooling so far.  We have no doubts that he would have struggled with the higher expectations of the older year group all along. When I look at Primary Seven, I see older children – I don’t see his peers. It strikes us as crazy that under the current system he ought to be going to secondary school this August.

Being in the lower year group means he is more capable, confident and therefore more successful than he would have been in the older year group. He doesn’t particularly like primary school (like his father and grandfather) but I’m certain he would have continue to hate it if higher demands had been made of him.

I’m a secondary school teacher, and I’ve seen enough in my own classrooms to be confident this means he is more likely to achieve grades that match his potential in his exams and to continue into S5 and S6. I’ve heard local authorities say that deferral increases the risk of a pupil leaving early in December of S4, but we’re sure he’s more likely to continue into S5 and S6 than he would have been if he’d stayed in his age group as it would have been a struggle for him all the way through, not to mention the impact that it would have had on his mental health.

He struggled with the demands of school aged four, as the video shows. The decision to remove him from Primary One was, in the end, a marginal one for us. Six years later, it has turned out to be the best decision we have ever made.

Taking Parents Seriously supports Give Them Time, a campaign for a child-centred, consistent and transparent approach to funding deferred school starts across Scotland. Please follow them at https://twitter.com/GiveTimeScot or go to their website to find out more: https://givethemtime.org .

Deferral Support Scotland is a Facebook closed group set up to provide members with the opportunity to discuss issues relating to the deferral of children, providing support and sharing advice: https://en-gb.facebook.com/groups/168…

Video originally published by Give Them Time as:

Four-year-old struggling with homework – he wasn’t ready for school

Unready At Four, Ready At Seven

My son has always been a great talker and confident so – although he was born in December and only four when due to start school –  we assumed he’d be ready for it. He wasn’t, and we faced huge resistance in doing what was best for him. So much so that we wrote a blog to make other parents aware of their rights in relation to deferral.

When we filled in our little boy’s school form in December 2012, he showed no signs of wanting to read or write, but we assumed it would come. The nursery assured us he would be ready by August. However, as summer arrived and he was actively resisting any efforts to put pen to paper, we became increasingly concerned.

He attended a sports activity club over the summer holidays and we were shocked to hear his behaviour was causing concern. He was running into other children, was overly physical and was touching, pushing and attempting to lick or bite. He was shouting out, unable or unwilling to stand still, rolling around, crawling around. He found it difficult to follow three step instructions.

Our son is a sweet, gentle boy, and we had never had feedback like this from anyone. On reflection, the school nursery was free-play and this was the first time he had had to follow activity instructions for four hours, and do many things he didn’t want to do. We now see he lacked the emotional maturity, the resilience and the motor skills.

Although it was July, we decided to defer him and arranged a meeting with school, in August. We assumed that, with all the evidence we had provided showing he wasn’t ready for school, that even a last-minute deferral would not be a problem. After all, how can every child’s school readiness be accurately predicted nine months in advance? But the school told us that the nursery was full, and purely on that basis, we decided to try him at school. We were reluctant to put him into another nursery, away from his friends, difficult to get to.

kids-1005842_1920He didn’t take well to school. He had frequent tantrums in the mornings and had to be carried into the building. He was very reluctant to do homework, squirmed and couldn’t sit still. He was “reading” the books from memory because when the words were written on paper, he couldn’t read them. He got frustrated and angry. He began hitting his friends, something he’d never done before. He refused to show off his Learner’s Journal to an aunt in October, saying: “I’m hiding it. It’s rubbish.” This sweet little boy, bright and talkative, was already so aware that he lagged behind others, that he felt badly about his work. He still wasn’t even five.  I felt we were losing him, that his personality was changing.

However, he was apparently behaving well in school. They didn’t recognise the issues and so refused to accept what was happening at home. We now believe that he was doing his best to behave in school but all the pent-up frustration and anger was coming out at home. A common phenomenon, but ignored by them. As a teacher myself, I know this well.

We decided in the November to remove him from school and return him to the nursery. We were again told the nursery was full – except we had managed to find out that it wasn’t -. It never had been. The school and council tried to reassure us over the next two months that they would meet his needs in school and that he would receive additional outside help if required. They told us our only option was to keep him in school or to home educate, that returning him to nursery was not an option. However we were still convinced that a return to the nursery setting, where his best friends still were, that he continued to attend for wraparound, with the emphasis on play and lack of formal learning, was in his best interests. We had a complete difference of opinion from the school and council, and each side was determined to get its own way.

We finally withdrew him from school in late January, against the wishes of the school and council. We were threatened with legal action, and were denied a nursery place or even the chance to pay for wraparound care within the nursery during school hours. After a five week stand-off, he was granted the nursery place, but the council began to insist we had never been told the nursery was full.

sapling-1038840_1920Within a couple of days of leaving school and going to a childminder, our son’s behaviour at home dramatically improved. The tantrums were now a couple a fortnight, not several per week. The hitting stopped. He was clearly relieved not to have to read or write. He fitted back into nursery very well, and within a few weeks, it was as if he had never been a school child. His personality returned. I said to my husband, “It feels like we’ve got him back.” We had been expecting longer-term benefits by removing him from school. Neither of us had looked for such an instant improvement, especially since in January, he had shown some signs of beginning to settle better at school, and in the end, our decision to remove him had been a marginal one.

When he re-started Primary 1 (at a different school) aged 5 years 8 months, he still wasn’t keen to do reading and writing, but there was a marked improvement on the year before. There wasn’t the same reluctance to do homework. His progress was much better, and in line with what we would expect. His PIPS scores were far higher. He was more confident, and not so small compared to the other pupils. He was a normal P1. But I would have started him later, if I could, because he would have been perfectly happy not to be in school. The lack of desire to read, the happiness and absorption when playing, the desire to be out climbing, all told me he could easily have waited longer. He still fairly often said he didn’t like school.

He is now in P2, and in early October we noticed a further change in him. He now voluntarily tries to read when he doesn’t have to. I caught him trying to read one night at 11pm and was just so delighted he was reading that I couldn’t give him a row. He enjoys the formal side of learning in a way he didn’t before. His teacher noticed this too, and said his writing has recently got smaller, showing better fine motor control. It’s not a coincidence that he is approaching his seventh birthday.

parent-929940_1920aI am so grateful, to ourselves I guess, that we took the action we did. However, I wonder if starting school aged five rather than seven means he is less likely to enjoy reading when he is 11, or have lower comprehension skills, as studies suggest. He’s a sensitive wee boy and I wonder if his long-term resilience and emotional stability would have been better served by a later start. I would rather he had been begging to learn to read. But we did everything we could, and his current school is fantastic.

My overall experience is of a system weighted in favour of schools and, more importantly, in favour of councils. Many councils appear to have a policy against deferral. Each deferral means the council has to fund an additional year of nursery A place comes in at approx. £1,700 per child.

Parents who want to defer, particularly for children older than January-births, are fighting against the system. In our case, we weren’t even fighting with accurate information – we were repeatedly told things that weren’t true. Policy appears to trump individual considerations, to the point where parents are sidelined and ignored. If parents disagree and insist on taking their own decision, they are labelled as “difficult.”

My guess is that many parents of August-December children don’t even know that deferral is a serious option and a legal right. It is only the additional year of nursery which is discretionary. Even if they do, it’s wrong that councils can deny them a nursery place and thereby force their child into school. It’s wrong that if a child is denied a nursery place, then they are denied continuity, with their friends, even where nurseries have space. It’s wrong that some people can afford to defer, but others can’t. It’s wrong that school nursery staff are not free to tell parents their professional opinion that deferral would be in the best interests of their child. It’s wrong that headteachers and school staff are told by council staff what they can tell parents and what they can’t.

lego-932781_1920When your child’s nursery teacher says your child is ready for school, how do you know that is their honest opinion? Are they free to say what they think? How do you know it’s not what they’ve been told to say, whether to save money or because there’s a shortage of nursery spaces or because “policy”? How do you know school is in your child’s best interests? How do you know they are likely to thrive and not just “cope”? Will the system treat    your child like an individual?

Originally published in 2015 for Upstart.scot as https://www.upstart.scot/unready-at-four-ready-at-seven/

More four years olds starting school, and huge differences across Scotland

We’ve been hearing from lots of parents who have been misled about their rights to defer school entry, or been put under pressure not to do it. Anecdotally, some councils have had a crackdown on deferrals, while Edinburgh has been public about theirs. The information on some council websites is flatly wrong. So I decided to find out what’s really going on across the country.

An academic helpfully pointed me toward a report that the Scottish Government publishes each year on the numbers of children in each year group in Scottish schools, split by their age on 28th February of the following year. If a child is older than its normal age on that date, then it’s very likely because their entry to school was deferred. This means that we have a decent figure for the deferral rate across the country.

Scotland_Administrative_Map_2009

There are a couple of small caveats to that – if a pupil repeats a year then they would be older than normal for their year group, and often children from other countries go into a year group behind their age. But these numbers are very small and only slightly affect the figures. I know this because I’ve checked the data on progression for four years for the P1 and S1 cohorts of 2010. For this blog is the home of the dork: Age profile of 2010 P1 and S1 cohorts, 2010 to 2013(web)

I contacted the Scottish Government and asked if this data could be broken down by local authority, and they duly and very helpfully responded – for which, many, many thanks. Here you can download full tables for what I worked up from the data: Deferral rate by local authority 2001-2013 (web).

Bear in mind that the deferral rate for any given year covers the kids who were deferred from the previous year.

What the figures showed was astonishing. Here are some highlights:

  • A child in Shetland is five times more likely to be deferred than a child in North Lanarkshire.
  • If there had been the same level of deferrals this year as seven years ago, and if those children had all been given funded nursery places, it would have cost Scottish councils an additional £1.4 million.
  • The deferral rate across Scotland has been falling for seven years, although there’s a slight increase this year due to more girls being deferred.
  • In some councils, in the past seven years, the deferral rate has halved.
  • If there was the same rate of deferrals now as at their peak, there would have been around 900 more children in Scotland deferred this year.
  • For boys, the deferral rate has fallen for each of the past seven years, from 11.95% to 9.79%. If it were the same rate today as it was at the peak, over 600 more boys would have been deferred this year.
  • The council with the highest overall deferral rate this year is Orkney, where over 20% of all P1 pupils this year were deferred.
  • The council with the lowest deferral rate this year is North Lanarkshire, where less than 4% of pupils were deferred.
  • Variation in deferral rates seems to be closely aligned with the old Regional Council areas – Strathclyde and Central are the lowest, with the Islands, Highland and Tayside running at about twice their rate of deferrals.

Why are there fewer deferrals?

There are a few possible factors. The two main ones would be the economic downturn, and council policy and practice.

The economic downturn may have meant that families were struggling more with childcare costs, and so fewer could afford deferral. This is possible, and the fall in the rate of deferrals does start just at the turn in the economy. It should be remembered that January and February-born children have a right to an additional funded year in nursery, and those born September to December being able to get a funded place if the council agrees, which in practice they usually do. But of course, this only covers a small proportion of the total childcare costs for most children, and many families cannot access a funded place at all. So economic factors could well play a part.

Can that really explain it all though? And if it is a big factor, wouldn’t it show up most in the areas suffering most from the downturn?

The local authorities with the biggest falls in deferral levels are Aberdeenshire, Clackmannanshire, Aberdeen City, Inverclyde, Edinburgh, North Lanarkshire and Eilean Siar, who are all down over a third from their own peaks. Councils where deferrals haven’t fallen much, or have recently increased, start with South Lanarkshire, South Ayrshire, Perth & Kinross, Argyll & Bute, East Lothian, East Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, North Ayrshire and Falkirk. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of pattern here, certainly not one that can be explained by economic factors. If there’s any sort of pattern it’s that the bigger percentage falls have generally come in some of the areas with the highest historic rates of deferral, while smaller falls (or even increases) have come where rates were already low.

So the rate could be affected by a crackdown in some local authorities, of which we have heard a great deal lately. It costs councils money to have deferrals. Where the child is born in January or February, or where the council agrees to deferral for a child born in September to December, the council has to fund 475 hours of childcare. Edinburgh City Council say their pre-school funding is £1,550 per year. If Edinburgh had seen deferrals this year at the same level as at their peak, they’d have had 180 more children deferred – at a potential cost to them of around £280,000.

Across Scotland as a whole, the savings for councils could be up to £1.4 million.

I don’t know if that’s why councils are moving against deferrals, but it would be a meaningful incentive.

So there’s regional variation – local circumstances for local needs?

Local authorities provide education in Scotland, but it is very much a national system. Class sizes and social conditions apart, there’s very little difference between a school in Unst and one in Uddingston. Certainly, there’s very little difference in the age-appropriateness of the curriculum. Yet a boy in one is almost five times more likely to be deferred than in the other.

It’s hard to think of local circumstances that mean children from further north, or from more rural areas, would have much greater needs for deferral.

Why is there this big variation? The only meaningful work in Scotland on reasons for deferral of which I’m aware is a report for the Scottish Government from the Growing Up in Scotland series, on Early Experiences in Primary School.

This report said that “There were no significant differences in deferral by key parental socio-economic characteristics.” There are differences across the social groups on reason for sending, and some difference between discretionary and automatic deferrals. But overall, there is no evidence that could explain the regional variation found in this report.

Perhaps it’s historic, perhaps it’s cultural. But the explanation for the massive variance in deferral levels across Scotland is unlikely to be explained by educational or developmental reasons. In short, there isn’t likely to be a good reason for it.

Why does it matter?

So what does any of this matter? Well, if it’s the case that the youngest children in the year have generally lower exam results (and I’ll come to that in detail in more blogs soon), then children in areas with higher levels of deferral will have a better chance to get higher grades.

Impact on exam results

The Scottish Qualifications Agency (SQA) have very kindly supplied me with the results of Higher, Standard Grade and Int 2 exams for the past three years for a range of subjects, broken down by sex and by birth month. This allows me to look at the effect of age on exam results (and presentations for exams), and to compare deferred children with non-deferred children. I’ll do a full blog on what I find later. So far I’ve only had time to look at the Standard Grade exams from 2013, for English, Maths, Physics, Biology and History.

Let’s just take Maths for an example.

In last year’s Standard Grade Maths, the mean score achieved by all boys was 3.081. For boys born in March ‘97 – the oldest boys in their normal year group – the mean score was 3.002. Remember, lower is better – we all want 1s! For boys born in February ‘98 – the youngest in their normal year group – the mean score was 3.184. For January ’98 it was even worse, at 3.255. Comparing those younger boys with those who were deferred is even starker. Pupils born in January and February 1997 would almost all have been deferred. Those January boys scored 3.012, with the February boys getting 2.974.

Of course, I’m cherry picking the data. The girls’ results are similar, though the effect of age is a little less. The results are similar across the four other subjects, but these are not independent data – it’s mostly the same pupils sitting these exams.

Nonetheless, does anyone want to bet that we’re going to see a different pattern when I churn the numbers for the other exams and years?

For what it’s worth, the only report I’ve been able to find on the impact of birth month on exam results in Scotland was a 1994 report for the Scottish Exam Board, which the SQA very helpfully scanned and emailed to me, and which you can read here: SEB Research 4. It shows a very similar trend to the one I found, and I’ll publish full results of that soon.

And getting to the point…

Deferral levels are falling, and they vary hugely across the country. There’s no obvious educational reason for this. There’s some evidence from Scotland, and a lot from other countries, that deferral has a measurable impact on exam results. So the bottom line is that we’re probably letting the youngest kids down, increasingly, and with huge biases depending on where they will go to school.

The Limbo of the Young School Leavers

We’ve written here about school starting dates, and there’s lots more on that to come. But we received an interesting email about a problem caused by the same issue that comes at the other end of school.

“My work in education (now retired) brought me into conflict with the Education department and schools regarding a child’s leaving date. There is only one start date but two leaving dates. Any child born after the 1st October to the end of February is obliged to remain at school until the ‘winter leaving date’, about the 21st December.

This is a serious discrimination against some youngsters. This is fine for most academically minded students who will be staying on for 5th and maybe 6th year but for others, who see their pals leave on 31st May, this is a six month sentence.

Most schools do not want these youngsters and they are often viewed as a nuisance. Some are chased up for non-attendance (this is where I came in) while others are told not to come back. I have seen me getting a youngster back to school to be told on the same day (because of their behaviour) not to darken the school door again.  Of course this was never an official exclusion and neither the parent nor child would ever complain.

Some schools would have an imaginary class where the Xmas leavers would be marked ‘in attendance’ but in fact never attended because there was no class for them. This looked impressive on the school’s truancy rates.

Sadly, while the youngsters were happy not to have to go to school they were also not permitted to work and were, therefore, left in limbo land, kicking their heels and often causing trouble in their local community.”

He went on to say:

“I had to deal with children and parents who were badly affected by this ridiculous ruling and who were under threat of prosecution. On the other hand there was a lot of bending the rules by those in authority. There are strict rules about work experience and exclusions which are flagrantly disregarded both then and probably now. It should be said, however, that some schools dealt with Xmas leavers with compassion and understanding and the local college and others were starting to come on board and offer youngsters greater choice.

At the end of the day it is still discrimination. If Joe’s birthday is on 30 September he can leave school on 31 May. Whereas Jim born on 1st October is legally required to stay at school until 21st December (nearly seven months of a difference). There is a simple solution.

There is only one start date so why not have one leaving date?”

One of the two parents who write this blog is a secondary school teacher, and has had pupils in her class in exactly this position. They knew they were going to leave and weren’t going to be sitting the exam but there they were, in a Higher class, just marking time, and couldn’t be persuaded to try for the exam. This is bad for them, bad for their fellow pupils, bad for the teacher and bad for the school. This is one of those subjects in which you could do something really useful with early school leavers – they could be helped with some meaningful life skills. But put them in that Higher class and all a teacher can think about is getting them to sit still and keep quiet.

I said to our emailer that it amazed me that this was one of those problems in Scottish education that no-one has really tried to fix, to which he replied:

“At least 10 years ago there was a Government committee examining aspects of education and I wrote to them highlighting my concerns in detail. The Chair of the committee complained to my council and I got my knuckles rapped because this was not included in my council’s submissions and I should not have written on official paper. Needless to say there was no mention of this issue on the committee’s recommendations.”

Creating a new curriculum based on a new philosophy is hard. Developing the teachers to teach it is hard. Designing exams to measure pupil achievement against it is hard. Picking a date on which pupils can leave school, or giving them something constructive to do before they leave? That’s easy.

This is an issue that affects every secondary school in the country, every year. At some point could someone in power please just fix it?

Sharp-elbowed parents should help all kids, not just their own

David Laws, the Schools Minister in England, yesterday told the House of Commons Education Select Committee that:

“People sometimes do complain about sharp-elbowed parents and people who seek to invest a huge amount of money to give their young people opportunities in life.”

“But we shouldn’t complain about any parent who is doing those things, whether they are in the state sector or the private sector. To do all you can to help your child succeed in life is what we want everyone to be doing.”

I’m a sharp-elbowed parent. I know how to use my elbows to get what I want for my children, and I have the determination to use them. If I wanted to, I could use my elbows to get my kids ahead of your kids. But why on earth would I want to do that?

sharpelbows_650

My kids are already getting benefits not open to lots of others, many of which I didn’t have as a child. Our money, time and energy go into helping them in lots of ways – maths, music, drama, sports, dancing, activity weeks, literacy – all the usual middle-class gubbins.

As David Laws says, obviously I want my children to succeed in life. But not at the expense of someone else’s kids. Not through unfair advantages. If my kids are going to succeed it’s not going to be because I elbowed someone else’s kids out of the way.

It’s not just that it’s unethical, it’s also counter-productive. My children are going to enjoy school a lot more, and get more from it, if the pupils from the more difficult backgrounds and with less capable parents are getting what they need to be happy and successful too. If you want a selfish argument for altruism, there it is. How does it benefit the successful if the unsuccessful are marginalised, scorned and made to feel inferior?

All too often, schools roll over the top of parents who don’t speak like the teachers, don’t know the jargon, don’t have the skills and the confidence to stand up for their children. Teachers and public officials tend to come from a pretty narrow background, and they usually did well at school themselves. It’s understandable that they will find it easier to engage with the parents with whom they identify. Unfortunately though, that can mean that the children of those parents end up getting preferential treatment in comparison with the kids with parents who don’t have that background.

Birth is a lottery. Children aren’t allocated to their parents on the basis of merit. It’s my job to raise my children as well as I can, but that doesn’t mean my child is inherently more important than your child. If we see society as a ladder to be climbed, in which it is in our interests to stamp on the fingers of others so that our own children may benefit, then we won’t get a society in which those with the greatest talents and attributes have the most success; we’ll end up with a society in which the children of the best climbers are at the top, but beneath them will be a long line of people with sore fingers and bitter resentment. And in a society like that, how will those at the top treat those below them? 

If I was being harsh to David Laws I’d say that I’m not surprised that this sharp-elbowed MP who stole £40,000 from all of us – something that arguably should have seen him in prison – is a big believer in getting what you can for you and yours.

To be fair to him though, his point was that schools and public authorities should even up the score by helping the children of blunt-elbowed parents rather than standing in the way of the sharp-elbowed. Fair enough. But I wish he’d had the vision to go further and say that the sharp-elbowed parents should use their elbows for the benefit of all children and not just their own. Because when parents stand together to save a special school or prevent the closure of their much-loved local school or to transform the school grounds, they can achieve anything: for the good of everyone’s children.

Pinewood School – 16 Primary Ones Going to Polkemmet

This blog article is taken from the Save Pinewood School facebook page, with permission. Pinewood School is a special school for children with Additional Support Needs. West Lothian Council has angered parents by trying to make changes without proper consultation or taking their wishes into account. The parents’ group have won major concessions, but obviously the fight for adequate provision goes on. 

Do you or a family member/friend have a child who’s needs are likely to require a special needs school placement starting school this August? Pinewood-3131499

We need to spread awareness of this change to new parents coming into the system, and the potential issues they may face because of it. They need I be made fully aware of their choices for their children.

There will be one 8 place P1 class starting in Pinewood in August 2014. The other 16 are to be placed in Polkemmet, which as yet has no appropriate facilities for such children. WLC has also decided this is NOT an annex – these 16 children will NOT be Pinewood children.

We need to make sure that this is not a repeat of what my son & the other children placed there in 2008 experienced when he attended Polkemmet (which WAS then classed as an Annex of Pinewood school) It was hurriedly arranged by WLC as Pinewood was full then too.
SIX YEARS later, and they’re in the same position, and are doing it again, despite having closed the Polkemmet Annex a few years ago..whilst keeping the Annex at Blackburn Primary School…

A string of fairy lights and a furry blanket in a corner is NOT what our children need. This was and is not ‘Provision for sensory needs/input.’ The whole set up was grossly inadequate for our children. It CANNOT be allowed to happen again.

So – new parents need to insist that these things are in place BEFORE August, AND ask to visit and SEE what is there. I advise you NOT to accept any false promises that ‘it will all be there by the time the children start in August’. It wasn’t for my son (and believe me, – I had assurances from many council officers from the education dept that it WOULD be).

As this is a ‘temporary’ arrangement, for 1 year, until the new consultations at the end of the year are concluded, WLC will want to spend as little on it as they can get away with. Our children NEED and deserve decent facilities and opportunities. EARLY INTERVENTION DOES NOT COME CHEAP. This whole mess is due to WLC’s failings. We need to ensure that the facilities these children need ARE properly funded and put in place this time.

Head just tried to scold me for talking on school grounds

Thought I’d blog about something that just happened at the school.

I dropped Andrew off at the nursery this morning, for the first time since he was allowed back. On the way in I bumped into a mum of another P1 boy and told her that Andrew was back at nursery as we’d taken him out of school. Andrew’s former classmates haven’t been told anything about where he went – we’ve emailed the headteacher about this twice and not even had a courtesy reply – so the only way other children and parents can know is if we tell them.

Her wee boy is about the same age as Andrew so our discussion started in the playground, continued into the cloakroom, and back out into the playground again. I just stuck to the facts.

Someone grassed me up to the nursery teacher, who grassed me up to the headteacher, who accosted me at the far end of the playground as I was making my way out.

She challenged me and said that she heard I’d been talking about matters in the nursery lobby. I’m a teacher myself and I know a scolding when I see one. I didn’t want a confrontation because I’m still angry about being misled by her twice (inadvertently or otherwise), plus I’m off work with a bad cold right now, so I said she should speak to my husband (and co-blogger). I really couldn’t find all the diplomacy skills required for facing a scolding for talking to other parents about a thing that actually happened.

I must confess I got a bit sarcastic. I asked her if I was doing something illegal or if she disapproves of my morality. I couldn’t stop myself from questioning hers as she walked off.

I wonder how that conversation played out before in her head.

Parents are most likely to talk to each other when they meet at the school. This interaction is the heart of the school community. I don’t gossip, and I don’t spread rumours; I talk with other parents about things that are of common interest. Just because we’re on school property, it doesn’t give them a right to censor our discussions.

The school belongs to us all. 

Were we lied to, or were we given bad facts? And what’s the difference anyway?

On Friday we received an interesting response to a freedom of information request.

As you’ll know if you know us or have read the About section, through the first half of 2013 we had increasing concerns that our December-born son Andrew wouldn’t be ready for school. He was then four years old.locked school gates

In August when we first spoke to the school about deferral, we were told that the nursery was full, so if he was deferred, he’d have to go somewhere else. We had no reason to question this at the time.

I’m not going to say who told us that. I’m not even going to say if they are male or female. Let’s just call that person Kant.

The only reason – literally, the only reason – we allowed Andrew to start school in August was because we felt that there were greater risks in him going to an entirely new childcare environment than in starting school with his cohort. It was a marginal decision.

We watched his progress and asked others to do the same, and by November we were sure he shouldn’t be in school and went back to them about deferral.

At the November meeting Kant again told us that nursery was full. Not “I think it might be full”, not “I’d need to check, but…” Just; it’s full.

Only this time I’d done my homework and had anonymously checked availability with the council’s pupil placement team. They had told me that there were two afternoon places.

When I told Kant that, the response was surprise. Kant was in a position to know about nursery vacancies, but if Kant hadn’t, it could have been checked with one email or phone call.

This made me wonder about what Kant had said in August. So under the Freedom of Information Act I asked the council about capacity, enrolment and availability in the school nursery back then.

The answer, which we received on Friday, was that were five places; one morning and four afternoon.

So the question is this; did Kant lie to our faces?

Or did Kant say something important as fact without having checked first? Did Kant choose not to check so that it wouldn’t be a lie?

And does it really make much difference which of these is true?