29 Aug '14

News What Every Parent Needs to Know review a maddening primary school primer

Toby Young and Miranda Thomas's book has a nicey, twee tone, but this hides an agenda that is deeply reactionaryMiranda Thomas is a teacher and Toby Young is the founder of one of the earliest free schools (which are not bound by the national curriculum). Young used to be a professional contrarian, made famous by his book How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. But in this puzzler of a book, the tone of Young's usual voice aggressive, confident, annoying, fun is inaudible; instead, the writing is twee, sometimes unbearably so. "Try not to burst into tears when you drop them off on their first day. Crying can be contagious and you don't want to set off the other parents!" Yet Young's rebarbative tone is more than merely absent, it creates a palpable silence: this book is certainly full of opinions, yet they are not delivered as such. Instead, they are delivered as facts kind, gentle facts. And this makes it completely maddening.The central point is that the national curriculum has changed, for reasons that are entirely good it is "not nearly as 'Victorian' as some of Michael Gove's opponents suggest" and parents need to know how to navigate it. Unfortunately, for the authors and, of course, us, nobody really knows what the new one will look like, it being "a much shorter document than its predecessor, leaving more room for teachers to put their own stamp on it". A primary school teacher friend of mine described it all a bit more bluntly with the last lot, they had a huge number of targets and rules and stupid testing, but at least those rules were written down and anyone could consult them. Now, they are just as rulebound, without the rules; it creates, in the kindest possible reading, the tyranny of guesswork. (I personally think it's to draw power upwards: when teachers can apply "their own stamp", what it really means is that they don't have open access to the criteria by which they'll be judged. They'll know their stamp is wrong when Ofsted and, by extension, the secretary of state says so.) Suffering this lack of clarity, the book relies on an awful lot of "this will probably mean " and "things probably won't change very much". "In our experience, most teachers are keen on festivals and anniversaries," they say breezily in the section on history teaching in year 2. What is that experience? Thomas is a physics teacher. The authors have nine children between them from their respective relationships, which is a lot of shagging, but it's not a very large sample; and the curriculum has changed anyway, which was what the book was supposed to be all about. Never mind which festivals? Anniversaries of what? It's not unlike those school-gate conversations in which you hang about, thinking you might pick up something you need to know. You look back from the sky and see the conversation has ended. You know nothing. Did you zone out, or did they simply say nothing? Continue reading...

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