Thursday, 26 June 2014

Laurie Lee remembered.



This month marks the centenary of the birth of the author and poet Laurie Lee.  He is best known for his book ‘Cider with Rosie’ which made famous his rural childhood growing up in Gloucestershire in the years after the First World War. He was for many years a fixture on schools’ reading lists, in both the UK and further a field. However, although firmly rooted in the English countryside, he is also inextricably linked to Spain.

I first read ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ in my mid 20s. It is the sequel to ‘Cider with Rosie’ and continues the story of Laurie Lee as he leaves home at 19 to walk to London, and then to travel to Spain. It is one of my favourite books and one that I have read many times over the years since first discovering it.


Lee writes in a flowing hand that richly describes the varied landscapes he travels through on foot, as he wanders around a Spain rapidly descending into civil war. He records his journey across an increasingly fragmented nation, from the scorched plains of Castilla and Leon to the pre-package holiday, fishing villages of Andalucia. His prose sparkles with rich images, recording the austere and at times brutal lives of many Spaniards in the 1930s. Whether they are farmers attempting to coax a harvest from the barren soil to inhabitants of crumbling medieval cities struggling to earn a living, all are observed by the young writer and at that time, musician. With just his battered violin he busks his way round a country almost unrecognisable to the modern traveller.

Along the way he meets a cast of characters that includes: beggars, smugglers, eccentrics and even exiled poets. All of these come alive on the page through Lee’s vivid descriptions. Critics have over the years have accused him of embellishing or even fabricating some events. Yes it is romantic and at times the soft focus filter is definitely on, but the grinding poverty and violence of this era are never glossed over. With a 30 year gap between his journey and putting pen to paper, surely memory can only go so far.

For me the second installment of his life was more compelling than his more famous work. It’s a book I know that I will return to again in the future. So for all travellers, actual or armchair, grab a copy of this book and raise a glass of rioja to Laurie on the 26th June.

This blog post was written by Andy Mackay (IGCSE English Language & Literature tutor at Blackhen Education).

Details of all our courses can be found on our website:

Monday, 23 June 2014

Learning phonics

How to help your child learn phonics.

Why do we use phonics?
Phonics is one way of teaching young children to read. It is a very important step in the process of learning to read, particularly for children aged 5-7 yrs.


What are phonics?
Phonics are the different sounds that each individual letter makes. In school children are taught to recognise:

i) The sounds that each letter makes.

ii) The sounds that different combinations of letters make; such as 'ch' and 'sh'.

iii) How to blend these sounds together to make a word.

There are 44 phonic sounds.

How can you as a parent help?
  • Use phonic cards with your child to identify the different sounds. You can make these yourself or buy a set of cards.(see link below).
  • When you read with your child, highlight the different sounds.
  • Encourage your child to 'sound out' words they are not sure of, blending the sounds together.
  • Aim to read with your child everyday.

There are lots of lovely resources available to help parents teach their child phonics. Here are a few that we at Blackhen Education recommend:





Details of all our online English courses for children aged 6-14yrs, & IGCSE English Language and English Literature can be found on our website:

Monday, 16 June 2014

6 Fab Children's Books For World Cup Fever.

6 Fab Children’s Books for World Cup fever!

The World Cup 2014 has started. A great opportunity for your child to pick up a book and read about the World Cup.
There are lots of lovely books available on the World Cup, for all different ages, fiction and non-fiction.

So we have come up with Blackhen Education’s favourite 6 reads for World Cup Fever. Three books for fiction and three books for non – fiction.


  ‘Keeper’ by Mal Peet. A novel for young adults.

A journalist (Faustino) interviews the world’s best goalkeeper, El Gato (The Cat). He tells Faustino that he is coached by a ghost, known as ‘the keeper’.

  ‘Misfits in fouls,friends & football’ by Charlie Merrick.

‘I play for North Star Galaxy and this is the story of our first season. I don’t know how it’s going to end, but I hope it will be at the World Cup finals’. Charlie has to prove his team deserve a place in the tournament – even though they are kind of rubbish!'

’The World of Norm- May need rebooting’ by Jonathan Mere.

If you loved Diary of a Wimpy Kid, you’ll love this!

If only he hadn't fallen asleep in History! And if only he'd done his punishment exercise! And if only he could go biking instead of playing stupid football! Except Norm can't go biking. Why not? BECAUSE HIS BIKE'S BEEN STOLEN, THAT'S WHY! Nightmare? It's worse than that... IT'S AN ABSO-FLIPPING-LUTE DISASTER!’ (

Non - Fiction:

  ‘The Story of the World Cup’ by Richard Brassey.

A great read for all ages. Full of football facts and history of the tournament.

  ‘My Country: Brazil’ by Annabel Savery.

A child introduces you to Brazil and talks about the weather, climate, landscape, home, pastimes, school and more!

 ‘Wicked World Cup’ by Michael Coleman.

‘Up - to – minute guide, packed with enough fantastic footie facts to fill a  stadium’. (

  So pick up a book & enjoy a good read!

Details of all our recommended reading lists can be found on our website:  Or contact us at:

Monday, 9 June 2014

Shall We Dance, Mr. Gove?

Last week Ofqual (the UK Qualifications watchdog) announced that some of the so called ‘soft’ subjects would be abolished from the GCSE timetable. Amongst them, Performing Arts.

Ever since I was a child, I have always loved any kind of Performing Art. I grew up watching Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly films, attended Ballet & Tap lessons, and desperately tried to emulate Margot Fonteyn or Ginger Rogers ( both on a good day!).

I took part in school plays and dabbled in amateur dramatics at the age of 14.
When I was older, I went on to study for a B.Ed. (Hons) in Education & Dance at what is now the University of Brighton.

After leaving college, I started teaching Dance to Asian & Afro-Caribbean children in inner city Leicester. It was the era of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the newly arrived ‘breakdancing’ and ‘body popping’.

I taught Dance & Drama for 20yrs in various secondary schools around the UK.
This would involve organising dance clubs, drama clubs, arts festivals and workshops. Not to mention the good old school productions: Bugsy Malone, Grease, The Little Shop of Horrors and Dracula Spectacular.

Dozens of children were involved in these productions, at all levels. Whether it was acting, dancing, singing, or backstage. Yes, the obvious candidates took part; children that were destined for a future in the arts. But there were also children that could not fit in, children that struggled with the academic subjects, children that were often thrown out of lessons because of their behavior and children that usually had no interest in school. These students were finally given an opportunity to shine, to have a sense of achievement and also to enjoy part of their school life.

I taught both subjects at GCSE level and later became an A ‘Level examiner for Drama & Theatre Arts for Edexcel.

What did I learn from all of this? That the Arts are vital for a well - rounded curriculum, at any level. That the curriculum cannot just consist of academic or ‘rigorous’ subjects. I learnt that children of all ages gain a great deal from the Arts:

1)    Confidence
2)    Interpersonal /communication skills
3)    Self-discipline
4)    Self-expression/Creativity
5)    Concentration skills.

These skills are as vital today as they were when I first started teaching in 1984.
To quote Brian Lightman, General Secretary of the Association of School & College Leaders

‘Core subjects are important but they are not enough. To compete successfully we need quality GCSE & A ‘Level subjects which have equal status in the eyes of employers.
We need finally to let go of this toxic discourse about ‘soft’ and ‘rigorous’ subjects. In a global economy we need young people who have all kinds of skills in a range of disciplines’.

If we neglect the Performing Arts or even drop them from the GCSE timetable, where will our actors, dancers and directors of the future come from? We will have no Benedict Cumberbatches, no Darcy Bussells and no Ken Loaches.

 I now run Blackhen Education - An English Classroom Online.

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Wednesday, 4 June 2014

To Kill or not to Kill a Mockingbird?

In the last ten days two stories have loomed large in the world of Literature. One was the announcement that two titans from the world of 20th century Literature, namely ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, were amongst a number of texts to be dropped from the English Literature syllabus of several exam boards in the UK. The other was the death of writer and Civil Rights campaigner, Maya Angelou. The two events were met with many column inches, both in the press and on the Net. However, the responses were very different. The former story garnered a general intake of breath and then an angry outcry from many. The latter produced an outpouring of sadness and a sense that one of America’s great voices in Literature, had passed.

The decision to drop a range of American literary texts was apparently at the behest of the current British Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. The head of the OCR examining board’s review committee Paul Dodd, said that Mr. Gove wished that schools in England should concentrate on British literature from now on. In addition, it was reported that he had a particular dislike for ‘Of Mice & Men’ and was concerned that so many British school children studied it (close to 90% according to recent figures). So is this the end for Lennie, George, Atticus and Boo?

Is there time to teach ‘additional texts?’

Mr. Gove has now hit back against his critics, claiming that he hasn’t requested they be dropped nor in fact hates Steinbeck’s book. What ever the real truth is, the new reading lists for the British exam boards of OCR, AQA and EDUQAS (formerly WJEC) do not list Steinbeck, Lee or in fact any American writers. The Secretary of State for Education has stated in an open letter to the British newspaper ‘The Telegraph’ that ‘schools are free to teach these texts in addition to the proscribed ones’. However, with time being a major factor for English teachers, it is highly unlikely that most schools will find neither the time nor the inclination to do so. Schools these days live or die by their exam results, so quite simply if children are not going to be examined on a text, they won’t study it. Results are the name of the game in the UK classroom of 2014.

                           Why should children study these books?

From my personal experience both ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ pack a punch. In Steinbeck’s story, we see the bleak and at times brutal world of rural America during the Great Depression. Though a short text, with only six chapters, it manages to both tell an engaging tale but also to deal with a number of important themes. These range from the casual racism of the farm workers directed towards the long suffering black stable hand Crooks, to the fear that any of the men could lose their job if they incur the wrath of their boss or his arrogant, bully of a son.

Kids enjoy this story!

This text is taught in so many schools for good reason. It is quite simply a brilliant story that in my experience has never failed to interest and usually entrance, the students who are reading it. From the first pages where there is open mockery of the hapless and slow-witted Lennie, to the final page, where on more than one occasion, a student has burst in to tears at the powerful and dramatic dénouement. Kids enjoy this story! What’s more they care about the characters and the issues raised. As a teacher I can only echo the remarks of many in the press and on the Net last week, that regardless of ability this is a story that engages students. It may not be George Elliot’s ‘Middle March’ or Jane Austin’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (two favourites of Mr. Gove apparently), but for a 15 year old at an inner city school, this tale of poverty, violence and murder from 1930s America resonates much more for them.

Atticus, the single father and liberal lawyer is surely 
a great role model for today’s teenagers.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a similarly loved story. The tale of Scout and Jem and their inspirational father Atticus, in the southern town of Maycomb in the 1930s, operates on a very similar level to Steinbeck’s tale. An apparent slow-burning story that gradually builds to an exciting climax, has again drawn in nearly all that I have taught the text to. It has the obvious messages of fairness and justice, but also the message that following one’s beliefs is more important than being popular. Surely this is so important in an age of vacuous celebrity, where teenagers need to see that looking and sounding like everyone else is not necessary a good thing, particularly if what the ‘herd’ espouses is wrong. Atticus, the single father and liberal lawyer is surely a great role model for today’s teenagers. Here is a man who not only uses his brain to defend the innocent but who is also willing to put his life on the line (by spending the night before the trial outside the jail to protect the innocent Tom Robinson from a lynch mob). His strength comes not from being a muscle-bound, ex-special forces, tough guy with a gun, but a softly spoken man that believes in right and wrong.

Should Education be a politics free-zone?

So is it right that a politician can decide what book children can study and teachers can teach? At the moment we are in a situation where people are still arguing about what was actually said. Surely education needs to be free from political interference, be it actual or inferred. These two books, considered classics by many, should be judged first and foremost on their merits and not on the nationality of those that penned them. They were written in the English language, have engaged and educated generations of British school children and are in the opinion of this teacher, needed more today than ever.

So how do the alleged literary preferences of a British minister relate to the highly esteemed Maya Angelou? Well for one, the first part of her series of autobiographical books ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ will also lose its current place on the English Literature list. Secondly, Maya Angelou once said that any book that gets a child reading and engaged is a good book. I for one wouldn’t disagree.

#IGCSE #English #ToKillaMockingBird 

This post has been written by Andy Mackay (IGCSE English tutor at Blackhen Education).

Details of our IGCSE English courses can be found on our website: