July 2016

The know zone

  • Testing times
    What do the controversial Key Stage 2 tests really mean for how schools assess children – and how the government assesses schools? Julie McCulloch looks for some answers. More
  • Bye bye benchmark?
    It is in the government’s interest, as well as the profession’s, to retain a national standard for pay and conditions, argues Sara Ford. More
  • Progress report
    As the first recommendations from the post-16 area based reviews are announced Kevin Gilmartin looks at what has happened so far. More
  • Ask a silly question...
    Children are adept at spotting the flaws in our interrogation techniques, as Carolyn Roberts knows too well. More
  • Urgent business
    Hotline advice expressed here, and in calls to us, is made in good faith to our members. Schools and colleges should always take formal HR or legal advice from their indemnified provider before acting. More
  • Moving on up...
    What are the key things that you think should be in place to ensure that pupils are ready to start secondary school? How do you help your new pupils to settle in? Is your school doing something innovative to help the transition go smoothly? Here, ASCL members share their views… More
  • Decoding the data
    Are you ready for Progress 8? David Blow looks at what this major change to accountability will mean… More
  • Building a generation of lifesavers
  • Planning for Maths and English November GCSE resits
    A student who has a grade D or below in both GCSE maths and English will need to be enrolled on a GCSE in both subjects in each academic year and is required to continue to study both of these until they achieve at least a grade C in the current GCSE or a grade 4 in the new GCSE. More
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Children are adept at spotting the flaws in our interrogation techniques, as Carolyn Roberts knows too well.

Ask a silly question...

It is a truth universally acknowledged that questioning is the answer to all our achievement needs. The biggest query of all, however, is, why – when we do it so well inside the classroom – do we do it so stupidly outside?

Back when I had my children, before the invention of broccoli, I readied myself with a course of reading. One of the books declared ‘Never ask a child a question if you don’t want the answer’. This excellent advice has led to a lifetime of irritation.

When I hear a parent ask a toddler ‘Would you like to go to bed?’ or ‘Would you like to eat this lovely cauliflower?’ I have to bang my head against a wall. The only reasonable answers a small child can make to such imbecilic questions are ‘No, thank you; you’re about to open a decent Bordeaux and I think it’d be fun to tip it over a couple of times while wiping my nose on the sofa cushions’ and ‘Are you kidding? It looks like brains and smells like the dog. Chips for me!’

My own children had limited practical options. I was ready to answer ‘Is the Labour Party fun?’ and ‘Why is that man so fat?’ but not to tangle over non-negotiables. I got the children I deserved; my son discussed abstractions without pausing for breath for 28 years and my daughter engaged with the battle instantly. She’d eat anything and sleep like the dead but dressing her was psychological warfare.

Opting largely for silence with a raised eyebrow until she was four, she steamrollered any possible questioning with stony assertions. If I asked (a legitimate question because the answer really doesn’t matter) ‘Flowery skirt or…’ her favourite phrase was ‘Think so’. As in ‘Yellow shorts, think so’. Anything else would be whipped off as fast as I’d buttoned it on. I’m still in awe of mothers of small girls who’ll wear hair slides. Or shoes.

Despite this, schools still resound with ridiculous rhetorical questions to which the only acceptable riposte is ‘sorry’. The answer to ‘Why are you late? is ‘Sorry, traffic, sir’ and not ‘Because my bed is warm and cosy and assembly is beyond dull, listen to yourselves’.

The answer to ‘Why are you talking?’ is ‘Sorry, miss, I’ll get on quietly now’ and not ‘Because this is a really juicy piece of gossip – the like of which you’ve never encountered in the entire length of your tedious life – and so please leave me alone’; to ‘Where’s your bag?’ is (breathlessly) ‘Left it on the yard – sorry, sir; can I go and get it?’ not ‘I’m way too cool to carry things and you’ll provide for my every need as per usual, dearie, shall we start?’

Question time

Occasionally, a child surprises with an actual answer. I once asked a youth ‘Why haven’t you got a pen?’ and got ‘Because I’m not gay’, which led to much ranting and reprogramming. I later encountered an American child with beautiful Southern manners but irritating even by Year 8 standards. When I asked him why he and his platoon behaved so badly for his English teacher he thought for a moment and said ‘Because she is an elderly lady and we are disobedient’, which had the advantage of being irrefutably true. Suck that up, clever clogs.

But sometimes you actually have to adjourn the interview because of corpsing.

A daily school bus had been replaced with a smart coach kitted out for long journeys. This suffered some ill-treatment and the owner wanted my head on a plate. Year 8 had had Food that day (you know what I mean).

I gathered the suspects about me, and badgered them crossly. ‘What were you doing?’

‘Fighting with soup.’

‘What hit the driver?’


‘What brought this on?’

‘We’d eaten the coffee sachets, Miss.’ ‘Don’t you sachet me, child. What poked Michael in the eye?’ ‘A wobbly sword we made with those plastic stirrer things.’

They suffered fearful punishment but someone else had to supervise it. I was too busy wetting myself laughing in the office cupboard.

‘What are you doing, Miss?’

I’m asking the questions, boy.

Loving it, just loving it.

Carolyn Roberts is Headteacher of Thomas Tallis School in Greenwich, London and she is an ASCL Council member.

Want the last word?

Last Word always welcomes contributions from members. If you’d like to share your humorous observations of school life, email Permjit Mann at leader@ascl.org.uk ASCL offers a modest honorarium.