Magical Education

There’s a lot of talk of magic in education. Usually the word is used as a metaphor for the spirit of a particular school, but when I talk about magical education I mean it literally, because as well as being an educator, I am a magician. Magic is a great hobby and wonderful entertainment, but it also has huge utility in 21st century education. Here are some of the ways magic can be used educationally.

Sleight of hand tricks like a basic coin vanish teach fine motor skills, and the co-ordination of movement builds cross-lateral connections in the brain. Once children have mastered the trick itself, they can reinforce these connections by building in an accompanying patter. Talking while performing encourages linguistic thinking and builds social skills – tricks are always more successful if you can establish a rapport with your audience, not least because it makes the misdirection so much more effective. The cups and balls involve a similar blend of dexterity, cross-lateral thinking and communication. Both tricks can be performed with everyday objects and are great starter tricks for children in Key Stage 1.

Magic can work wonders with a child’s confidence. Take a simple but reliable self-working trick like Harry Barron’s classic “The Kick”. It’s easy to learn, it requires no previous skill or knowledge and it’s great with any audience. The thrill a child gets from performing it successful can have a transformative effect. Children in Key Stage 2 can usually crack it pretty easily.

Sequencing is really important for self-working tricks. One of my favourites is Aldo Colombini’s “Contact Colours”. It’s quite a complex sequence to learn, which means you have to practice. The pay-off you get from performing it successful makes the effort worthwhile.

Memory is important too. When I am performing I might have four decks of cards in my pockets, all set up for different tricks. They all look identical, but if I try to do a particular trick with the wrong one, I will be in trouble pretty quickly. Of course sometimes I will do just that, at which point resilience and quick thinking come into play. The great Tommy Cooper made a whole career out of comedy magic after he noticed that his failed tricks got more of a laugh than his successful ones.

The entertainment of magic lies in the willing participation of the audience in a deception, and we can use that to help keep our children safe. In the digital world, deception is all around. If children understand how easy it is to fish for information, they will protect it much more carefully. In my Key Stage 3 sessions I demonstrate to children just how easily they can be deceived if they let their guard down. It’s a powerful message that teaches them to challenge what they are told and to spot the signs of deceit.

To enquire about a school show or a private lesson, or just to talk tricks, please contact me.

What is the right age to consider boarding school?

A generation or two ago, children going to boarding school did so at the age of seven or eight and anything else was the exception. No longer. Boarding schools today offer much greater flexibility over both the point of entry and the style of boarding (full time, weekly, part-time or flexi-boarding). This is a good thing for children, but as so often in education it it gives parents a difficult decision to make. The only right answer is what’s right for your child in the circumstances. So how do you make the decision?

Your first concern has to be for your child’s wellbeing, but bear in mind that boarding can actually have a positive impact on this. If you are so busy that you cannot spend quality time with your child during the week they may well relish the stability that boarding offers. If you live in a busy city, think of how your child might benefit from spending time in a rural environment with plenty of space to play and grow. You cannot expect a child to understand that simply by having it explained to them; you need to involve them in the decision-making process. In my experience children who feel they have played a part in choosing their school are much more likely to thrive there.

It is often best to introduce a child to the idea of boarding without putting any sense of time on the decision. If you can, find a couple of schools that you like and take your child to see them on the basis that they might go there one day rather than in a specific timeframe. You can do this when they are quite young. At nine or ten most children will give you a clear indication of whether boarding is something they might be happy doing now or later. Your child will soon tell you if they like the school. If they do, ask about doing a taster day first before trying an overnight visit (unless your child is keen to go straight to an overnight stay – if that happens, they are probably going to be fine boarding). Most prep schools will be happy to offer this service, and by the time you have done it you will know for certain whether you have found the right school. This is not to say that your child will not find things difficult at some point once they start, but if the school is right you will know that the staff will help your child when they are finding things hard. Remember that they can be just as difficult at home.

Of course it may be that you are not able to visit schools yourself, and this is when the services of a schools placement agency can be invaluable. A good one will take the time to get to know you and your child and will be able to advise you knowledgeably on the right school for you. You should listen to their advice with an open mind. They know the schools intimately and they know which ones will get the best from your child. It is in their interest to help you find a school where your child will be happy and successful. Once the agency has made the introductions, the school may well be able to help find ways for your child to get to know them before starting.

You may find that a school you like can offer a summer term start. If so, it is well worth considering. The lighter evenings and warmer weather of a British summer are fantastic for chilldren, and there is always plenty to look forward to in the summer term. Many families in my own school find a summer term start to be an excellent way of settling in, especially for younger boarders. If we can possibly accommodate them, we do.

To summarise, if boarding is going to be a possibility it is a good idea to consider it seriously at a reasonably early age. Nine or ten is not too early, and some do it at eight. You and your child may not actually choose the boarding option at that point, but early exposure to the opportunities offered by boarding will allow you to make an informed decision together. It will also make the transition very much easier when the right moment comes.

This post was first written for William Clarence Education.

Choosing a school for a child with SEN

Choosing a school for a child who needs additional help is not easy. I should know. As a parent I have had to do it myself and in my professional life I have met hundreds of parents in the same position. The choice can appear baffling, but if you approach it rationally you can maximise your chance of finding the best school for your child.

From the start, be open-minded. You need a school where your child will be both supported and challenged, where they will be happy and where they can thrive. Remember that you are choosing for them, not you. Make every effort to understand as much as you can about your child’s difficulties. A formal diagnosis from an educational psychologist helps, but diagnosing specific learning difficulties in young children can be problematic. Whether or not you have a diagnosis, the important thing is to understand what it is that your child finds difficult and how it affects them. A good way to do this is to be alert to frustration. What is your child doing when they get frustrated? Is there a pattern? Don’t just rely only on the evidence of your own eyes: consult others. They will have a more dispassionate view of your child, so they might well spot things that you miss. This may mean hearing things about your child that you find difficult at first, but remember that it is only by understanding their difficulty you can start to make things better for them.

Try to find schools that will be sympathetic towards your child. Cast your net wide. Many London parents assume that there must be sufficient choice in the capital (which is not entirely true), and thus miss out on the opportunities available at a huge range of outstanding inclusive schools beyond the M25. Think about where you might gather informed opinion. There are several excellent guides available. A good school placement agency may be able to help, or perhaps you know other parents in a similar position. For specific difficulties there are organisations from whom you can seek advice. The Council for the Registration of Schools Teaching Dyslexic Pupils (CReSTeD) maintains an excellent online register of accredited schools, for example. Your aim at this stage is to make a shortlist of schools to visit. Even if you have a favourite, comparison is important.

When you visit, try to work out the extent to which support for those who learn differently is integrated into the culture of the school. The very best schools don’t just have excellent individual support, they have classroom staff who differentiate effectively for individuals. Look at where the learning support department is located: is it on the fringes or at the heart of the school? Is the SENCo highly regarded? What is the pastoral care like? Will the staff be able to nurture your child’s potentially fragile self-esteem?

You need to be honest with the school. Tell them what you know about your child’s difficulties, and what you don’t know. Schools will be honest about their ability to support specific issues; if they say they are not able to cope with your child’s needs, they are almost certainly right. Look instead for somewhere that wants to know your child, that has or is prepared to develop the expertise to support them.

Once you have narrowed your shortlist down, try to involve your child in the final choice. If you can get your child to an open day, or better still a taster day, you will soon find out whether they actually like it. There is no escaping the fact that school is especially hard for children with specific learning difficulties, so an environment in which they feel valued and supported is especially important. In my experience, children are exceptionally good judges of this.

Forget any misconceptions you may have about academic standards in more inclusive schools. They may not head the league tables, but the standards of teaching and learning you will find in schools with an enlightened attitude to SEN are second to none. Teachers in such schools understand differentiation better than anyone, and they have to teach imaginatively.

Finally, remember that the workplace of the 21st century demands people who can think divergently and overcome problems in creative and imaginative ways. Children with SEN can do that; they have been doing it all their lives. The best school for your child is the one that empowers them to be themselves. I hope you find it.

This article first appeared in the Angels and Urchins Schools Guide 2018.

Too Much Information!

Wearable activity trackers have become steadily more mainstream and more popular over the last few years, so much so that an increasing number of children are wearing them. Used well, the data they provide can be invaluable in developing a healthy lifestyle and in promoting fitness. The trouble is that the data is very rarely used well, in fact the way it is presented can be positively harmful. Young, impressionable minds are particularly susceptible to obsessive behaviour in pursuit of arbitrary goals. I know of teenagers who will go to bed early because their trackers say they should and so miss out on events that would be beneficial to them. Parents of teenagers long for that level of control! Meanwhile a colleague of mine stopped wearing her tracker when she found herself going out for a walk late at night instead of going to bed just because she was a little short of her 10,000 steps. Not only was she losing sleep, she was putting herself at risk. Fortunately she is sensible enough to realise it and to do something about it.

I have a tracker myself, a Garmin Forerunner 235, and it has its uses. An hour into meetings it buzzes and tells me to move. Sometimes I wish it would tell everyone else in the meeting to move, but perhaps you have to upgrade for that. Last year I set myself a challenge to run 1,000 miles in the calendar year, and my tracker proved invaluable in keeping me up to the necessary weekly mileage. However, I learned the hard way that I had to be careful with statistics. One evening in June I pushed too hard for a personal best on a favourite route, pulled a hamstring and put myself off the road for three weeks. It was the only time I fell behind the target mileage all year. Had I stuck to a more comfortable pace I would have finished much sooner. I discovered that I started running better in the winter, not because of the cooler weather (the mud counteracted that effect), but because I started wearing long-sleeved tops which stopped me from looking at my wrist quite so often.

In preparing this article I did what I often do when I have to think about something: I went for a run. I ran 9.51 kilometres in 0:57:12 at an average pace of 6:01/km, climbing 163 metres, burning 1,132 calories at an average heart rate of 150 beats per minute and an average cadence of 166 steps per minute, amassing something called a “suffer score” of 76. That is just the start: dig a little deeper and I can see exactly what pace I was doing where and how all this data compares with the other times I have run this route, not to mention when those runs were. I even know what shoes I was wearing, and exactly how many miles I have done in them since first taking them out of the box. It will apparently take me 29 hours to recover, by which time it will be 10.51pm, the temperature will be 2° and there will be a 5% chance of precipitation. “T – M – I”, as my Year 8 girls might put it, and they would be quite right. It is quite possible to become dangerously obsessive about any of those statistics. Fortunately at 43 years old I know that none of them are likely to get any better. I am just glad to be out on my feet and to be able to experience the view of the Blackmore Vale from the top of Hambledon Hill. The impressionable teenager with a thirst for statistics and a tracker for a birthday present may not see it in quite the same way.

There is another problem. Every piece of information about my run is easily available on social media. The most basic analysis of my profile will reveal where I live, what I look like, where I am likely to be at 5pm on a Saturday, which direction I might be travelling, whether I am likely to be with anyone else and what I am likely to be wearing. I am 185cm and 91 kilograms so that does not bother me too much, but I would not want anyone to have that information about my children.

In any case, children are generally so active that trackers are entirely superfluous. Accurate statistics for an average level of activity are hard to find because children cannot generally wear trackers for sports activities at school, but pupils in my school average over 12,000 steps per day even without counting games and PE lessons. The record in my sample was a Year 6 boy who amassed 24,976 steps before 8pm, though admittedly he wore his tracker for cross-country which had taken place that day. It appears that the only time he stopped was to play the games that rewarded him for moving so much.

In short, we need to be careful. Responsible, well-meaning parents hear about a perceived problem – childhood inactivity – and are responding to it without examining whether it is actually a problem for their individual child. The solution that many of them are choosing is so engaging and so detailed that it presents unforeseen risks of obsessive behaviour and overwork, and it also contributes to another quite different problem of online safety. None of this is intentional; it is simply the result of a 21st century phenomenon. For the first time in history, we have too much information.

Human beings have evolved to operate in the absence of sufficient information. We make judgements and solve problems. We experiment and ask questions. We develop creative ways of finding out what we need to know. We evaluate information, considering its reliability and relevance. Children have an instinct to do this, as anyone who has ever been asked “Why?” by a five year old will know. Education should develop this instinct, applying it both to theoretical and real-life situations so that children are able to face the uncertainties of the future with confidence. Giving them arbitrary targets and excessive data merely teaches them to obey blindly, the very last thing they should be doing.

The American sociologist William Bruce Cameron famously wrote that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” The latter clause has always seemed to me to be indisputable, but the exponential growth of data that we are now experiencing has made the first clause more relevant than ever. For data to be useful it has to be selected carefully and used wisely. In the information age the task of selecting and analysing it becomes significantly more difficult. Parents and teachers have a responsibility to teach children to use data well, to be selective and to protect their privacy. Above all, we need to remember that statistics are meant to work for us and not vice versa. Being human still comes first. Sometimes it is best just to run free, and to watch the sun go down over the hills.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of Attain, the IAPS magazine.