Hope FM interview (4 August 2015)

Hope FM interview (4 August 2015)

I spoke alongside Nigel Hedges on Hope FM about the way education has changed over the past 50 years and how to keep children’s minds active during the summer holidays.

A transcript of the interview is below (starting at 0:53).

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Host: I’ve got Dr Steve Curran on the line and we’re talking about keeping children’s minds active. I also have with me in the studio Nigel Hedges. Good morning Nigel…good morning Stephen.

SC: Good morning, and good morning to you Nigel as well.

NH: Hello again Stephen.

Host: What is it about keeping children’s minds active? Do you mean to say that they can’t stay active in the school holidays by themselves?

SC: What do you think Nigel on that one?

NH: You’re the expert, I’ll defer to your knowledge. But. I’ll make my comments when I get the opportunity.

SC: Well I think, obviously, when children are spending seven or eight hours a day in active education, then suddenly all of that goes and there is all this space and time. I always remember when I was a child, that long summer holiday. It seems, to us as adults, it doesn’t seem very long at all, but to a child, every day stretches out. I’m sure that Nigel’s found with his own children that sooner or later they will say to you “I’m bored”. They need things to do and they want to be staying active. I think a lot of keeping children active in the summer is taking them to do things that are educational as well as enjoyable. Like going to the see castles and going to historic sites. Because that often really enlivens children’s interests and keeps them wanting to know things. There’s two kinds of education really, there’s learning processes and structures, and all those kinds of things. Then there is also acquiring knowledge really, which I think is so important for children. Many children are stuck in front of computers now, which is a real problem, I think. 

NH: I think Stephen, if I can interrupt there, you use exactly the right word there. The word ‘boredom’. I can remember my kids when they were early teens, just teens, saying, “Dad, I’m bored”. And I’d say, “Well, when I went to Grammar School when I was 11, that was the last time I was bored. I’ve been self-employed for 35 years. I dream of being bored. Believe me, it’s a total luxury. But then, of course, with kids if they’re bored they generally tend to do things that you don’t want them to do. So, I’m a great believer in keeping them off-balance and surprising them with stuff. So today, perhaps when you say taking them to a castle, unless there are arms and legs lying all over the place and blood and gore all over the walls, I suppose you’ve almost got to entrap them. But, certainly keeping them stimulated in the summer period, which like you say, to a lot of parents drag on for an interminably long time.

SC: I agree with you. Quite often children are taken up with the blood and gore and all those kinds of things. Which, of course, are not the sort of things we want to concentrate on. But, the thing they find that really, really engages children is stories. If they can hear the stories of kings and the stories of the past, that’s what’s engaging. That’s what’s really interesting. I was always fascinated by stories. I think that’s what we all respond to, isn’t it? I mean one of the things I think, Nigel, as well as trying get children engaged early in reading activities. The fact is that we are all fascinated by stories. The way we access them, of course, many people like to watch films and they like stories being told to them, rather than engaging with a book, which is hard work. It’s a habit that is hard to inculcate. I think, you know, we have to train children quite early and I think primary school is the place to do it. It’s very hard to turn children around in their teens who fail to read, or not reading a lot, or only read to get information. I think there are a lot of people going to university now, the only time they ever read anything is when they want to get something from a book. That’s not learning to read for pleasure and learning to read in a way that broadens your educational vista’s and your overall understanding of the world, which you can only really gain from. 

Host: Can I just say. I was a teacher, for many years… I was in a primary school and I had a boy who couldn’t read at all and his mother was quite worried about it. I got him engaged with history. It happened to be history. It could have been trucks, it could have been anything, it doesn’t matter. But because he wanted to learn more about that, therefore he learned to read, and it made a huge difference. I am convinced that most children have something that they really love, and if you can get them into that, then they will probably want to carry on and know more about it. It may be a sort of generalisation, which I am sure it is. On the whole, I found boys like books which are factual and girls like books which are stories. 

NH: My wife and I still have the same argument today.

Host: Well there you are then, you see. This carries on. 

SC: I think there is some truth in that. You’re right. If you can find anything that the child is engaging with. Even if they love trains or love cars or whatever they are interested in. If you can find something which will engage them and then they will read about that, that is a starting point. I think that’s really good idea. Yes. 

Host: We’re talking to Dr Stephen Curran here and we’ve also got Nigel Hedges who’s with me in the studio. They’ve had a great conversation already and Nigel I’m going to hand over to you, because you were just chatting to [Steve]. 

NH: Yes, we were… Dr Stephen Curran and myself had a chat about keeping kids mentally active during the summer holidays. I know that many schools and people who advise on education and are we delivering what we need to deliver in the right way now for the best results. We’ve been talking about 5 terms years and breaking up the long gap of the school holidays. Dr Curran is firmly convinced that kids brains turn to mush and they need stimulation and activity to keep them sharp for when they rejoin in September. We were just covering, on the phone there, about the documentary that’s on TV tonight about the 5 Chinese teachers that have come over to an English school. They are feeding back on what they found. I know that when I was a school governor locally, we found that at one point we had at least 64% of children were deemed to have special needs in every class. Whilst, obviously, discipline can’t be enforced in any way that would now see you arrested as they were in my day, it’s holding attention and getting people to face the front and listen, and listen to the teacher. I’m sure Dr Curran has many, many views on that. But, certainly the Chinese teacher’s opinions on how children present themselves in a learning environment and how they want to apply themselves and get the best from it. I think there’s many areas of light and shade. 

SC: Well, I think that’s true. One of the problems I think that teachers have in this country. The expectation of children in this country is that when you stand in front of the class, you are going to do a song and dance act. That somehow they are there to be entertained and not to be taught. That expectation is very much in our culture now. I often have to say to children, I did when I was teaching in the state system for many years, “I’m your teacher, I’m not here to do a dance routine, or to entertain you. I’m here to educate you. Some of that is hard work. It’s not always going to be entertaining and fascinating. Sometimes, you have to get your head down and work”. I think when you have got a fundamental disrespect for that, which I think the Chinese teachers have found. They have probably got a malleable situation where children are much more eager to learn. Whereas here children treat education as a right, rather than a privilege. Now many countries still believe it’s a tremendous privilege to be educated. I think that is very hard to change that attitude in our society. 

Host: Is it that the Chinese teachers have come, and it’s a secondary school that they are working with. You mentioned earlier on that it should be perhaps that we look at primary schools to make sure that they are in the right set before they come up to secondary schools, or is it the home?

SC: Well, there is the problem with attitude in our society towards education, and I think sometimes people in the home (not all parents, most parents I think are very supportive), but obviously if children bring with them attitudes which are quite negative towards education, you’re on a bad footing straight away. I do believe that starting children well in primary school, ensuring that you really put the planks of all the fundamental basics in place in reading, writing and arithmetic, the old-fashioned three, means that you are going to have more chance of controlling them in the secondary schools because they are not coming to you with fundamental issues and problems. Children often act up when they don’t understand something, and they’re not really engaged with the process, because they can’t read or their maths is so appalling that the teacher can’t really work with them. I think, often, that is the problem.  

NH: Stephen, you mentioned about getting all the planks correct. I know we talked about a lot of educationists feel that learning by rote is completely the wrong way of doing it. They shouldn’t regurgitate it parrot fashion. Yet, I remember having to stand on my desk at primary school (a health and safety issue working at height I guess now), seven eights are fifty six. I mean I was on my desk until I got that right. Missed my bus home. Missed the episode of Crossroads that I wanted to watch. Knew that particularly important combination of numbers from that point onwards. Certainly my Grammar School, I speak at the Old Boys dinners each year. The first year I did it I actually said, I was very, very priviledged to go this fabulous school. I had a scholarship. It didn’t cost me anything. It was a boarding school. Luckily I was in the A-Stream. But, it was very robust teaching that actually gave you no option to coast or hide or bunk off. You had to know it, and there were sanctions. We had testimonials every two weeks delivered by the Head Teacher. Scores on all your subjects. And if you had a low score or zero you got the cane. So you knew, I’ve got to work, I’ve got to do my homework. I’ve got to get 20 out of 20 for this, or there are consequences. Now, obviously that’s taken out the equation of education now. Quite rightly so. But, where are the consequences of your actions, or indeed your inactions? Like my son, I berated him for 13 years of taking the line of least resistance in education until he did a Young Enterprise scheme and he had his lightbulb moment. It got him working for JP Morgan, who put him in charge of the next year Enterprise scheme as an advisor. He was coming back to me saying, “These kids, they just don’t do the work. I ask them to write the stuff, or get the report or bring that receipt in, and they haven’t done the photograph, and that”. I said, “But Oli, that was you. That was you for 13 years, with your handbrake on” and he was going, “Oh, gosh dad you’re right”. Lightbulb moment. The fact that JP Morgan are giving him £20k-£30k a year in his early 20’s to do what he does and do it well, that helped focus his attention, because there was the reward. But it really was a lightbulb moment, after 13 years of coasting. 

SC: One of the things I do every year, Nigel, is I go to Pakistan. I’m involved in a charity there and we set up schools and help set up schools in that country. The children there are very eager to learn because there is no fallback in their society. If you don’t have an education, you don’t have everything. No-one’s going to give you anything. The government isn’t going to give you anything. They are more likely to take it away from you. There’s no back up. There’s no benefits system. If you don’t work, you starve. As simple as that. Now, I’m not advocating it. But, there are not good conditions. However, conversely when you are in a society when the consequences for not doing something are not that bad, there are options. If you don’t work, someone somewhere will help out. 

NH: Well, I suppose we sort of spoil our children. You want the best for them. I suppose you say you buy them a really expensive iPhone, they lose it, so you buy them another one. My day, my dad said, “I bought you one, you lost it, I’m not getting you another one”. He made me pay for my own 21st present and I still have it, because I had to pay for it. 

SC: I think living in a more affluent society with more rights, privileges can make people unaware of the fact that the children in this country are a very tiny proportion of the world of children. Most of the children in the world don’t have privileges. 

NH: Do you think now paying substantial amounts for University Education. Do you think that is a lightbulb moment for younger people who are serious about study. 

SC: I think it is in a way. I can understand people it is very difficult, and all the rest of it. But, the truth is across the world, in most countries people have to pay for their education, even much lower down. Of course you do tend to value things more that you pay for. 

Host: One of the problems with it, of course, is that until you earn so much, you don’t have to pay it back anyway. So, in one sense it is free. But, the other thing, Nigel mentioned the thing that’s on tonight about the Chinese teachers. One of them was talking on the radio this morning and saying, the point is that in their society, older people are respected, therefore teachers are respected. Now if you are not respecting the people that are teaching you, it starts thinking, “what is the point of listening to what they are saying”. 

SC: There is, of course, in the west a cult of the youth, that at a certain point you are put out to grass and you’ve got nothing more useful to say. There is a lack of respect for, perhaps, the wisdom of those who have been through things. The cult of the young and the beautiful is something which is very prevalent. I think that does affect children, of course and their attitudes, to knowledge, to understanding, to their view of the world. Going back to something else what Nigel was saying about teaching by rote. I think there is a lot of caricaturing of those in the more progressive wing of education that nothing should ever be done that way. I think that’s not true. I do believe that certain fundamental things like learning your times tables. Doesn’t matter how you do it. Providing that in the end, if a child knows those, those are the fundamental building blocks for all maths. I’ve heard some people say, “we don’t need times table at all, they can use a calculator”.  

NH: What happens when your batteries run out? 

Host: Even so, the point is, if you know your tables, that answer comes much quicker than fiddling with a calculator. They’ve proved that with other things as well. But, when I was teaching, I went through that stage. The idea was that people learnt about the fact that 2 + 2 + 2 + 2, so it would come that way. Sadly, some people never grasp that, it takes ages to get that. Whereeas if they learnt it by rote, they would know it whatever. 

SC: I believe, you know, you should be able to say ‘seven eights are fifty six’ and that’s it. 

Host: Can we also say ‘five sixes are thirty’, because we have only said ‘seven eights are fifty six’? 

NH: Stop it, I’m looking for a desk to stand on. I’ve regressed… you know, we’d have 2-3 hours homework a night, 3-4 hours every weekend and massive projects every summer. My kids went to the same primary school as I went to. They went to the same school that I went to, it was a Comprehensive when they got there. At the age of 15, to have a project set for my son. Do a poster. Well, I do a poster, but I also do a 5 page essay on why you selected the artists and materials that you did – the science side of things. It’s amazing the jump in one generation. I know Steve, we discussed how you advised the Government and Government committees and frustrations you’ve had there with people reinventing the wheel time after time. Discarding something that seemed to work well, generation after generation. Bearing in mind that we only have an hour left, what were your thoughts on that, Stephen.

SC: Well, I think that’s true. We were talking about times tables there. I have heard from some experts, and they will remain nameless, that this is a worst activity. I am glad to say that now in the National Curriculum, children are supposed to know their times tables up to 12, by the time they get to the end of year 4. Well, I would like it to be even in year 3. But, I was very pleased that finally that plank was put back, because there were many people who were totally against it, and said it was the worse activity. I am a great believer that unless children have the fundamental rules of adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing early on in their primary education, they will struggle later on. There are so many things that you can do with children up to 11, in terms of their education, that you can’t do with a 13 and 14 year-old who might be more rebellious and certainly more disillusioned if they haven’t learnt these things earlier on. Children become very shameful and guilty very easily at 13 and 14, and don’t want to expose their lack of knowledge. I’ve often worked with children at 16 who still can’t know their times tables and can’t do their maths GCSEs.

NH: Well, I suppose you could say, how are you going to fully engage with Countdown on TV and beat Jonny Vegas and Lee Mack if you don’t know your 75 times table. That’s my weakest point. So, have some ambition to actually be able to do the numbers game in Countdown.

SC: Actually the children I teach in our centre, we teach them table up to 20. Many of them know them up to 20. They become more numerate and more quick with numbers. But, going back to the subject today of summer. You can improve children’s maths by asking to calculate the change when they go to shops. Do these kinds of activities will help with their maths and their figure work as well.

Host: I’m talking to Dr Stephen Curran about keeping children’s minds active in the school holidays. I’ve also got Nigel Hedges with me as well, chipping in and asking about things.

NH: Colour commentator, I think is the phrase. The guy who knows nothing. No qualifications. Just a natural feel.

Host: Ok. Stephen, before we come back to Nigel, ’cause there’s a couple of things he wants to ask you. We are talking about keeping children’s minds active in the school holidays. We’ve talked about castles. Some children will hate castles. We’ve talked about doing change. Some children will hate maths. I think the school holidays should be a time when they actually enjoy doing what they are doing. What else can they do to keep their minds active.

SC: Well, I think lots of fun activities are great. Creating holiday logs, or creating a paste book, for younger children I think, that’s always good. Of course, there is nothing wrong with going onto the computer and researching something and making a book or finding out about things. All those things are good. I think reading, giving a child a Kindle, or tablets are often things they love having, they are often using them for other things. If we can encourage children to read on the tablet, that would be great. I don’t know if Nigel has done that with his youngsters at all.

NH: They are nearly 30 now. Even if they had been available, I wouldn’t have bought them for them… of course, you’ve got cars that have screens in headrests now. I come from the i-spy generation when you had to spy something out of a car window and know what letter of the alphabet it began with.

SC: Well, I don’t think that’s a bad idea either. Fun games like that are really good.

NH: We were chatting about the National Grid for Learning under a previous administration, there were computers piled into schools. Yet, at that point, I think the school I was at, only about half of the staff could actually operate a computer. When they broke, or froze, then that was the end of that. We spent a hundred thousand Pounds on a computer suite and yet we had no record of how the children were actually using the computers, let alone what they were learning. I had to take the school through two Ofsted inspections. I know that a lot of people feel that children are very stressed by being tested. But, I have to say, I think that if they know it all and know that they are going to get 100%, they love doing tests.

SC: I’ve got no real objections. I think there is a bit of a ‘nandy pandy’ kind of attitude towards testing. People in this country are against doing tests, but they ought to go to some of the other countries and see how many tests they do there. It’s far, far more. As I say, I remember being regularly tested at school.

NH: Well, the teachers got to know if you know it. If you don’t know it, then I would expect a really good teacher will go back to you and explain it to you again or give you extra tuition. I mean, there seemed to be a theory that you didn’t mark incorrect spelling and just let it slide. I’m an engraver. If I didn’t found out that words need to be spelt correctly, I’d be trashing thousands of Pounds of jewellery every week. I’ve still got three dictionary’s to help me.

SC: I am often correcting everything. Often if you are working with children. I teach story writing quite a lot of the period in the centre that we have, and one of the things we do is we work quite a lot in Year 3 and 4 on their spelling, their grammar, their syntax. Because it’s really hard for children to write stories and to write successful stories if they don’t have any tools to do it with. You are right, it’s not good to have a complete mess, where a child has no idea of spelling and no idea of the structure of a sentence. So, I think it’s a good idea for parents in the summer, perhaps, to get children to write stories, get them to write up things and to go through it and correct it with them.

NH: I’ve been quite fortunate to be given opportunities to write for magazines. In fact one trade magazine I wrote to them and said, ‘look this is a really boring magazine’. They said, ‘if you think you can do better, why don’t you write something’ and they ended up paying me for a couple of years to write for them. You can have the imagination in your head, but if you haven’t got the tools and the words and they won’t come out of the end of your fingers, you are not going to be able to produce anything.

SC: No, it’s balance. Going back to the computer thing and tablets. I have no objection to those things, but I believe that they should never replace. I mean, I’m not really in favour of calculators in schools, for instance, in primary schools. In Singapore, they use scientific calculators only, in primary schools. In the upper end, in Year 6, they are allowed to use them on very specific things. They then become very valuable, as a tool. But, they are a very bad crutch. The attitude that children should use calculators in primary school, ordinary calculators, they often become a crutch for children that are struggle with their tables and other calculations. That is a very negative use of those things. I would just take them all out really. They are great in secondary school, because they are a tool, which you need. You’ve got to have the fundamentals of numeracy in place before you go onto a calculator. I think we were talking a moment ago about percentages. You can only really understand percentages if you can understand how to multiply fractions. Just going straight onto a calculator is useless unless you’ve got some idea of why it works that way.