When FE Lecturer, Jonny Kay, found himself furloughed during the school closures that resulted from the 2020-21 COVID-19 pandemic, he happily took on the majority of childcare for his daughter and excitedly awaited his second ‘lockdown baby’.  With more time to reflect on his professional expertise, he decided to write a book!

2020 was an enormously challenging year for everyone in education and probably the most challenging in a generation. This is a fact. It’s also generally accepted that you could probably remove ‘in education’ from that sentence and it would still ring true. Covid, uncertainty exams and assessments, lockdown(s), social distancing, masks, food shortages, shortages in general – it was some year.

In addition to these challenges, during the first lockdown, my wife (Steph) and I faced entertaining, home schooling and safeguarding the happiness of a very bubbly 3-year-old girl. Nancy Kay is a phenomenal concentration of happiness, chaos and life, but the relative challenges extended to her also and lockdown was tough on poor Nancy.

Thinking of myself as a fairly reflective practitioner and person, I surveyed our landscape and the landscape of pandemic Britain, the seemingly unending vagueness and an uncertain future and thought to myself, ‘this is the perfect time to have another baby!’

And so, like many others, we had ‘a lockdown baby’. 

For context, I was knee deep in GCSE and Functional Skills English and maths TAG submissions as Head of English and maths at an FE College. My pregnant wife, a Year 6 teacher, was educating 30 students remotely, collating the whole-school approach to remote learning and providing planning for others throughout her school, all whilst attempting to home school our little girl as we shielded long into the summer due to my wife’s pregnancy and Nancy’s existing medical conditions.

Having been fortunate enough to work with some truly gifted teachers and leaders over the years, I’ve been given some great advice and strategies. Having implemented them as best I could, there are people out there who occasionally turn to me for advice from time to time. As a result, over the summer, I received lots of emails, texts and phone calls, as well as many messages via Twitter and LinkedIn (as well as those who used these platforms to send out generic requests) asking to discuss the uncertainty around TAGs and what 2020/21 would bring. It was at this stage, I first thought about writing a book and Improving Maths and English in FE: A Practical Guide was born. I wanted to provide something that would help people; that could be used for people to sense check, compare and contrast their own experiences and hopefully inform best practice and support leaders, teachers and young people. Lofty ambitions, yes, but shoot for the stars and all that.

I’d thought about this for some time, having started in FE in 2017 (moving from Secondary). Throughout my time in FE, I was always struck by how little literature there was to support FE English and maths (or FE research in general – a ‘paucity’ of research, to quote a government whitepaper) and this continued as I started researching for the book. This again gave me the impetus to write the book – I might be contributing something new.

The book did, of course, have its challenges. Balancing home-schooling, supporting my pregnant wife, completing the TAG process and my day job and dealing with everything that came as a result of the pandemic. When I was first given the brief for this blog, I was asked to talk about how I balanced the writing of the book with childcare – the logistics, as well as the emotional challenges. I was very tempted to put ‘My wife is amazing’, but was told more than 4 words would be needed. So I’ll just say this, my wife was, and is, amazing and did more than you can imagine to help me with the book. She proof read, discussed, rejected and objected to some elements (not all – Steph, I say again, you did not read Chapters 7-10 because you said you were too tired) as well as championing and praising others. 

In between, she home-schooled Nancy as best she could and I managed to teach Nancy how to count to 12. This remains one of my proudest moments. 

Against this backdrop, I wanted to make sure that the book would support and guide those who needed it and so spoke to people across the sector as well as the many mentors I have had across Hartlepool College and Newcastle College as well as friends and family.

It was this process that not only helped the book, but it helped me to become a better teacher and leader. Distilling their advice, my own take on it, and the advice of many others (the books of Jamie Thom, Jennifer Webb, Emma Turner, David Didau, Sam Strickland, Edward Watson and Bradley Busch, Barnaby Lennon and a host of others), I began to see the areas of my own practice which required sharpening. More than that, I actually knew how to sharpen them. There remain many areas for improvement, but I know the what and where, and am more aware of how to develop.

It also helped me be a better dad. I began communicating much more clearly, developed more patience (I am known for my lack of patience) and made sure that time spent with my daughter was more meaningful. It can be so easy, especially during lockdown, to pop Frozen on and point everyone at screen – I moved away from this. The paints came out, crayons were re-discovered, we drew, we baked, we made dens in the garden and we hid from Steph under great landscapes under sheets in the kitchen (propped by the titanic columns created by a couple of chairs).

(We also dozed off around 7pm on some nights, after this excitement, and drank too much over a few more nights, but that’s for another blog)Writing the book was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, but it was worth it. The book came out in early June of this year and, like everything else I do, is for Steph, Nancy and our lockdown baby, Maggie. Hopefully, they agree it was worth it. The book was recently nominated for the UK Literacy Association Book of the Year and is available from all good book retailers, including Waterstones (here) and Amazon (here).