Month: September 2016


The British government has produced a Green Paper detailing new ideas for education.  There are proposals such as universities only being able to charge more fees if they set up schools, new obligations for independent schools in order to keep their charitable status, but the big news is the return of selection in the form of allowing grammar schools to open or expand and encouraging them to do so with 50 million pounds of public money.

I have always been of the opinion that a good school is a good school and I am uninterested in the structures and systems. There are good and bad things about all schools but in the end it does seem to be the teaching and leadership that count the most.  However, I am uncomfortable with selection, as this is the best way to make some schools succeed and some schools fail.  Your intake is the best measure of how successful your school will be.  This would probably place me as an opponent of grammar schools but actually I am not, simply because I am more against the hypocrisy of the whole debate on selection.

Selection is rampant in children’s lives.  It always has been.  It might even have something to do with evolution as we naturally rank other human beings in so many facets of life.  We select in sports teams, swimming galas, maths Olympiads, debate teams, eisteddfods, head boy/head girl, chamber choirs, beauty in beauty pageants, plays, ballet, sometimes even the school council.  Schools select streams of ability and set.  Even the ones that say they don’t still select by questioning, gender, race and even age.  We want to say our school systems are fair but they are not.  In reality adults select children and children select children and these decisions can have profound effects on our lives.

The BRIT school of performing arts in Croydon selects by attitude.  This is close to selection by mindset.  What is the difference between selecting via an examination where only your paper is seen and an interview where you are on show?  Which is the fairest?  And if we didn’t select for the Brit would we have got Adele and Amy Winehouse and the host of other successful alumni from the school?  People may argue that selection on musical ability is different to selection on academic ability.  My question is why?  Why is one OK and the other not?  The main argument is that we want to allow our most gifted musicians the best possible facilities and opportunities and the Brit certainly does this.  If you go to the West End theatres and look in the programmes you will certainly see performers who originated from the Brit and the Sylvia Young schools.  But surely that is the same argument for grammar schools, to allow our most academically gifted students the best possible path to academic excellence as it is not only advantageous for them but also to us as a nation.  

The next point that people may say is that eleven is too young for academic selection.  But we allow auditions way below eleven for many television shows.  Why is it OK to select by acting ability at eight but not OK to select by academic ability at eleven?  If you are going to select by ability when is the opportune time?  Is eleven just a problem because of the historical compulsion element of selection from the 1944 Butler Act?  In some ways it makes perfect sense because almost all children change schools at the age of eleven, so that would be the most sensible time to select.

I still think a fully comprehensive system is the ideal but let’s not kid ourselves.  We have a lot of selection in and out of school and the most important thing we can tell children is that the systems are not fair, adults make mistakes and not to base any of our opinions of ourselves or others on what happened to us for the short time we were in school.


I am now teaching guitar to Year 5.  I am a little hesitant as the guitars we have are quite big and the Year 5’s are quite small.  I would prefer to be doing ukulele which is a much more appropriate instrument for Year 5 but we have 30 guitars and no ukuleles, so guitars it is.

I have put the guitars around the edges of the room and this is working out well as I tried it out today and 28 children successfully got their guitar and put it back in the correct places without any trouble.  I have seated the children in four rows of seven according to their house (we use a house system in school) with any left-handers on the very left of the room as the teacher faces it so their arms don’t whack each other if they are sitting next to a right-hander.  The front row collect guitars from the front of the room, the back collect them from the back and the two rows in the middle collect their guitars from the sides.  The left-handed guitars are kept at the front and are labeled with an L so we know that these strings have been reversed.

Before we started playing we did aural, singing, rhythms and some theoretical work including knowing which part of the guitar was which, so we have some technical vocabulary in common use.  We then got the guitars and did some strumming to the beat.  Nothing difficult – just holding the guitars correctly and strumming in four in a bar.  We then had a go at picking a tune and we tried “Hot Cross Buns”.  This was quite difficult for some of the children as it required using the fourth finger and for beginners this can be troublesome.  The reason is that we barely use the little finger in everyday life and it needs strengthening over quite a long period of time.  Music teachers often forget this and wonder why children find it so hard but if you think back to when you were learning, I am sure you had the same difficulties.  And if you didn’t you need to know you are in a very select minority!  “Hot Cross Buns” is a good song to keep playing over many weeks as by repeating the exercise you will strengthen the little finger.  And you are not going to strengthen it by not using it!  However, in retrospect, as it was the first lesson it might have been best to start with a tune using two notes.

We haven’t learned any chords yet but I will probably move onto an easy four string chord of G where you only need to put your third finger on the third fret of the little E string.  This will probably be enough content for two or three weeks and then we will move onto D which is much more complicated for youngish children.

Guitars can definitely be done in Year 5 but if you are starting an instrumental program from scratch I would advise you to use ukuleles first.  If I was to put an age on it, I would do ukes in Year 4 and guitars in Year 6 or Year 7.  But there are no hard and fast rules, and I am looking forward to seeing what the children can manage in the future.