Saturday, 28 March 2020

Book Review: 'Crater Lake' by Jennifer Killick

You, or your child, may want to exercise caution when choosing to read this book.

Let's take the context first: it's a year 6 residential that goes very wrong. If a year 6 child reads this this year they are going to be super upset that because of COVID-19 they are most likely going to miss their summer residential. However, if a year 5 child reads this they will most likely want to avoid next year's residential like the plague. Simultaneously, Montmorency school's outward bound trip to Crater Lake is the stuff of nightmares and dreams come true.

Do you really want a distraught year 6 or a petrified year 5 on your hands?

Secondly, the events are pretty horrifyingly terrible - if this stuff really ever happened there would be no school trips ever again. There would be no amount of risk assessing that could convince a teacher to put children in such danger - forget risk assessing, teachers would need to be succession planning. However, the almost-nonchalant approach to averting crisis that the main character, Lance, takes, is most certainly likely to make any upper key stage 2 reader supremely confident in his or her own ability to casually battle parasitic aliens.

Do you really want to be scared out of ever running a residential again? Do you really want to give a child the confidence to take insanity-level risks?

I'm going to suppose the answers to the above questions are all affirmative and go on with this review.

'Crater Lake' is not one of those books where you wait around for ages for something to happen. Killick makes short work of introducing the characters - after a few pages you feel like you've been at school with the kids for 6 years and it's not long before their coach hits a bloodstained crazy dude who warns them not to go to Crater Lake. Inevitably the tropey evil assistant head pushes on with the visit and the children arrive at the world's weirdest outdoor residential centre.

With bags of humour (seriously) and never a dull moment, Lance guides his friends and the reader on a textbook how-to-evade-crazy-evil-non-humans mission to save year 6 and get out of the place. And this book has heart too: as the friends work together, they discover even more about each other than they ever knew before. As the plot thickens, their insecurities fade and as they trust each other in defeating their enemy together, they trust each other with their life stories. Sounds cheesy, but it isn't - in amongst the sci-fi horror there are brilliant moments of realism that all school children of a certain age will easily identify with.

I would suggest that anyone who wants to tear their way through a rip-roaring adventure story should read this book, but I have an even more specific recommendation: for reluctant readers who are fans of roleplay computer games and action movies, this might just be the book that turns them on to reading forever. Just as Point Horror and Goosebumps recruited swathes of cool kids to reading in the 90s, Jennifer Killick's latest novel could do the same in the 2020s - here's to hoping!

Book Review: 'Talking To The Moon' by S.E. Durrant

A mystery novel for children who don't like mystery novels. Usually, children's books which centre around some sort of mystery to be solved are full of high adventure and often verge on being scary - not for everyone. But 'Talking To The Moon' is different: it takes a family drama, one which many children will relate to and adds a dash of the unknown, enough to keep any reader pondering throughout the book.

Iris is living with her grandma, Mimi, whilst her dad deals with a damp problem in her bedroom at home. She's glad to be out of the house as the two-year-old twins make life very stressful. She loves living with her zany grandma, even if she doesn't really like having to go swimming with her in the sea. However, Iris begins to notice that her grandma's changing behaviour isn't just down to her quirkiness, although she doesn't like to admit it.

The story follows Iris as she tries to discover more about Coral, the girl who is in the photo on the mantlepiece. Joined by her neighbour, the annoying Mason, and in a sequence of happenstance, Iris learns more about what happened to the gap-toothed, red-haired girl who looks just like her.

S.E. Durrant certainly has carved out a style of her own - the simply-written prose, split down into short alluringly-titled chunks, perfectly encapsulates the thought-processes and story-telling ability of a bright child. Characterised by plenty of incidental detail, life for Iris is painted with precision in this compelling but gentle story.

And although this book would be great for children who are sensitive to high jinks escapades of derring-do, it certainly doesn't pull any emotional punches. Once again, S.E. Durrant has written a story full of heart, mind and soul. The pain Iris feels as she navigates family life with a mum who always seems busy and stressed, younger siblings who are never quiet, a lack of meaningful friendships (apart from the one she is trying hard to stop from becoming a friendship) and a grandma who is displaying all the signs of Dementia, is well-communicated, albeit in a sensitive and often humourous way.

'Talking To The Moon' is a great book for developing empathy and for introducing children to literary realism. Given that there are plenty of children's books which fall into a similar category it could also act as a great gateway to a whole range of excellent books. Anyone who has read and enjoyed 'Running On Empty' and/or 'Little Bits of Sky' will definitely enjoy this, as will anyone who loves titles such as 'Wonder', 'The Boy At The Back Of The Class', 'Bubble Boy' or 'Goldfish Boy' (especially seeing as in this one you get a female protagonist!). Perfecct for children in UKS2 and KS3.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Book Review: 'After The War' by Tom Palmer

Tom Palmer's latest run of war-themed stories continues with 'After The War: From Auschwitz to Ambleside' -  a story focusing in on three Polish teenagers who are brought to the safety of the Lake District for recuperation after Europe is liberated in 1945.

The story follows Yossi and his friends Mordecai and Leo as they arrive on the Calgarth Estate beside Lake Windemere and begin to attempt, with the help of a multitude of kind heroes, to rebuild their shattered lives. As they gain in strength and trust they have to make decisions about what to do and where to go next. Yossi lives in hope that the Red Cross will find his father yet life inevitably must move on whilst the search continues.

In this heartwarming tale of true and beautiful friendship, Tom Palmer communicates to a young audience with crystal-clear clarity the atrocities and the fall-out of war. As seen before in his books, he doesn't avoid the harsh realities, nor does he glorify them or play them down. Instead, he says just the right amount for the intended readership - a real skill. And, given the publisher Barrington Stoke's mission to provide credible, yet easy-to-read books for less confident readers, it is remarkable that a book written in a more simplistic style than others in its category has emotional depth beyond that of its peers.

In fact, perhaps the low use of complex language is all a technique to help us to understand Yossi. Here is a teenager who speaks no English, yet finds himself in the middle of the English countryside. Here is a teenager whose life has been devastated and dominated by cruelty beyond words. The narration of the story only serves to help us to know and love the character as he finds the meaning to life once more, as he learns to express himself to those around him and as he finds and understands himself once more.

With lots of World War Two references, particularly to warplanes, and the trademark sport references (I was pleased to read Yossi's celebration of the bicycle), this is exactly what I wanted from a new Tom Palmer novel. A tale of hope, friendship and altruism that is all too relevant in the current times we are living through.

After the War: From Auschwitz to Ambleside will publish on 7 May 2020 in Barrington Stoke’s middle-grade Conkers series.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Why We Cancelled Our School Residential

Written before the announcement that schools will close to children other than those of key workers. I have also just heard that the council made the call to close the residential centre this afternoon, too.

And what if a child begins to display symptoms of COVID-19 in the middle of the night? I asked myself as I added to my risk assessment for our very imminent residential visit. I’d already imagined a scenario in which we didn’t have enough staff or children on the morning we were due to leave to make the visit viable.

At first the night time scenario seemed like the worst thing that could happen. But then I began to consider what would happen if a child or member of staff began to show symptoms during the day.
A member of staff would have to contact me, wherever I was: down a cave, climbing a gully, trekking though the Dales. Mobile phone reception isn’t exactly forthcoming out in the wilds of North Yorkshire.

I’d have to contact the school – with the same complications as above - who would then need to contact parents. Then what would happen? Would we ask parents to come and collect? Or should I ask the member of staff who had brought a car to take them home? But what if it was more than one child? Should I actually be taking the school minibus so that I could return poorly children to school as quickly as possible?

And what if it was members of staff who came down with something? Would we be left with insufficient ratios to really safeguard the children on an outward bound adventure holiday? Would we call on other staff from school to join us? But what if school had begun to experience staff absences? I didn’t even consider what might have to happen if I – the one who had spent endless hours planning the visit – got ill. Did anyone else know enough about the ins and outs of the residential to be able to run it in my absence?

So many questions. No encouraging answers. In my mind I came to the conclusion that if a child or adult developed a dry cough or a high temperature, I’d have to get them home as quickly as possible, followed swiftly by the rest of the children. If one child had it, then how many others might have been infected during the stay?

The evening after completing a risk assessment which had led me to believe that actually, this residential was quite a risk – one I was not happy to shoulder the burden of, the government upped the ante with their advice. The words ‘non-essential’ were used several times. Although I totally believe in the importance of such an experience for children living in the city, I was pretty sure it fell into the ‘non-essential’ category.

Sir, is the residential still on? I was asked by eager children the following morning. They were aware of the fragility of the chance of it going ahead. I had to give disappointingly non-committal answers – I didn’t want to cause undue upset. I was asked the same question by parents on the gate – some of whom wanted to know when they should start packing, others expressed their own concerns.
But I had found myself at a standstill. I thought I should cancel the trip, but that would risk a financial loss to the school. Should I wait for the venue to cancel, or should I go ahead? I spoke to the deputy of another school who were going to the same venue as us during the same week – he was in the same position.

I came clean with the manager of the venue: we were worried about the risks but didn’t want to lose the money – he was honest with me: they too were waiting for further guidance on school closure as to whether they were going to cancel forthcoming visits. I broached the subject of a postponement and requested potential dates for next academic year for the same cohort of children.

The happy ending to this story is that our trust’s early start date in August meant that we could find an early September slot that no other school would be able to take. All being well, the children will get to experience the great outdoors together for three days, albeit in six months’ time. We are all disappointed that although schools remain open, we won’t get our residential this year but safety comes first. A decision which puts the health and wellbeing of children and staff first is the best decision.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

School Leadership: Hard or Complex?

‘The work that school leaders do is complex.’ – Tom Rees/Ambition Institute

You can say that again!

I’ve been moving up through the hallowed ‘ranks’ of school leadership, for the past 5 or so years and my one word summary of it is that it is hard. Hard and getting harder – the increase being due to increase in responsibility that the move to a more senior position brings.

But Tom Rees’ article for Ambition Institute has made me re-evaluate my one word summary.

Perhaps it’s not so much that it’s hard, more that it is complex. Do I work hard? Yes, I’d like to think so. Do I work hard for excessive amounts of time? No, I’m quite good at managing my workload and know that downtime is essential. But is the work complex? Yes, definitely.

Checking a dictionary definition of the word ‘complex’ confirms the difference between the two words: ‘complex’ means consisting of many different and connected parts, whereas the most fitting suggestions for the word ‘hard’ are difficult to bear; causing suffering and requiring a great deal of endurance or effort.

My timetable belies the complexity: one minute coaching a middle leader, the next co-teaching with another teacher. Half a morning planning with one year group, the rest of the time spent teaching children working at greater depth in maths. A meeting with the science coordinator, an NQT meeting, lesson drop ins, overseeing proceedings in the canteen, gate duty, SLT briefing, reading with year 6 children, catching up with the lunchtime supervisors. And that’s just the regular stuff.

On top of that are the myriad other things that it is my responsibility to be involved in, most of which come with no notice: the oh-I-was-hoping-to-catch-you-about- type conversation on the stairs that turns into a half an hour conversation; the behaviour report that comes through the online system that you have to deal with; the safeguarding issues that arise; the million things you see during a school day that set the mind racing as to potential solutions – the list really could go on and on.

And there are the irregular things too. This week: taking part in business continuity planning in case of school closure.


When you put it like that – the job certainly is hard because it is complex. 


It may well be the case that no one single issue is that difficult to handle – it’s just the old thing of keeping all the plates spinning at once. With all those things spinning around in a brain-bound tornado it is difficult to deal with: the hardness comes as a result of the complexity.


At this juncture, I can offer no solutions to the problem of how hard the job can be as a result of its complexity. But I think there is some comfort to be found in the acceptance of the fact that being a school leader is complex and therefore is difficult (or hard) to do. In fact, it also points to certain logical solutions: when the job is becoming too hard, the complexity might need to be reduced. This reduction might only be temporary and probably driven by prioritisation, but it could be exactly what is needed to make the job, at least for a short time, a little less hard.