People-focused school leadership…

 

“What is the single most important thing for a company? Is it the building? Is it the stock? Is it the turnover? It’s the people, investment in people.” DAVID BRENT

 

Although spoken by character in a television sitcom, the sentiments expressed by David Brent in relation to what makes an organisation tick are the same sentiments that I share in relation to a school. As a serving headteacher it has been a philosophy of mine which has grown, adapted and strengthened. People.Investment in people. For me, it is the most important thing to do and to get right in a school.

For schools are surely all about people. Schools are about, first and foremost, the young people who attend each day; the children who are there to motivate, inspire, challenge and engage. Schools are about the staff, from the teachers to the support team; from the administrator to the caretaker; from the ancillary helpers to the kitchen staff – irrespective of which contract they’re given, each has a key role in the running of the school and in the lives of the learners. Schools are about the parents who are such key partners in the education of the children. And schools are about community. Recognising that and building on the unique and individual community strengths that surround a school is critical in securing continued improvement. Relationships are everything.

Perhaps the word which would best describe this core philosophy is teamship. Developing a sense of teamship is vital, which brings with it ownership by all partners; personal investments of time, effort, professional practice and CPD; and common goals centered around a common vision that is understood by everyone. I am reminded of the famous story of an encounter President John F Kennedy is said to have had when visiting NASA HQ. He had been talking to scientists, astronauts, the experts charged with putting together the plan to deliver on his bold objective that America should be the first nation to land a man on the moon. As he left, he saw a cleaner, with a mop, and asked him – though it must have seemed pretty obvious – what he did. The reply came: “Sir, I am here to help put a man on the moon.” I find this story inspiring: the cleaner knew the overall vision, and he had a sense of partnership and of belonging to that vision, because it was being taken forward all around him. Most importantly, he knew that to be successful the people heading moonwards needed to work in an efficient, spotless environment, and his job was to be part of the cleaning team that created it. My message to any school community is this: “whatever your job title, whatever your role, you are here to enable this school to be the best it can be so that all learners are pushed, extended, encouraged and expected to be better learners than they presently are.”

 

“If we are together nothing is impossible. If we are divided all will fail.” WINSTON CHURCHILL

 

My first priority was, and remains, to foster positive relationships with all partners – and I use the word “partner” rather than “stakeholder” because that surely better demonstrates the personal investiture that school leaders should look to build with people. People skills are crucial here: in my job I begin every morning by standing outside the school and welcoming every parent and pupil who passes me. I stand not in the corner of the playground nor on the steps by the railings. I stand on the corner of the pavement – a strategic spot where I know that everyone hasto pass me. I shake the hands of parents, I know them by first name, and I smile as I speak to each child. Its not a gimmick – and it is without doubt the best thing I do each day because it sets the right tone, it creates the right mood and it makes the school personal.  Of course there has been the odd call or letter or complaint during my tenure in headship, but I’m certain that my early morning routine captures 99% of issues early and allows me to “nip them in the bud” before they escalate into anything more serious. Parents feel they can talk informally, and it’s the same strategy which I believe helps to build and maintain a positive reputation in the wider community. This is something that I suggest school leaders should seek to establish quickly – it is, as Keith Grint would describe, part of the “art of leadership.” Similarly one should seek to get to know their entirestaff team as quickly as possible. Most days in my schools, because I am in early, the caretaker, administrator and support staff are often the first people I see. All have a crucial, specific, role within the school. But they also have a wider role: if you build up a rapport with them they reciprocate ten fold – the influence they have on how everyone else operates is tangible. These people matter so much to the mood, morale and performance of a school. They don’t just do their jobs; they make the team tick.

Of course, teamship alone does not make a good school. Teamship alone does not guarantee good quality learning. Strategyand leadershipare also required, and when these two philosophies are placed alongside teamship, I believe that a school is in a strong position to move forward successfully.

Strategy is founded upon a strong vision which has a clear objective. An ability to think and plan strategically is a skillset worth practicing. Good teams excel at devising strategy. Good teams excel at implementing strategy. You can have all the talent and ambitions you need, but without clear strategy from the top of the school and throughout, the ambition will not be fulfilled. That is why one of the most crucial tasks in school leadership is to sit down with the staff, pupils and parents, and re-examine the school’s vision from time to time. From there, especially in the first throes of a new headship, the early strategy would be to watch, take-in, intervene and change only where absolutely necessary, and get under the skin of the school. Making this strategy explicit is vital and allows all partners to be invited to share in casting a critical, reflective and observant eye over everything.

Another strategy to keep at the forefront is to focus attention on all aspects of the school environment. It may sound like a small detail, but having had experience of working in a large school requiring urgent improvement, I have seen first hand that raising expectations for displays, cleanliness, tidiness and organisation has an incredible, and rapid, impact on levels of pride and care amongst all stakeholders which contributes massively (and positively) to improvements in standards.

Beyond that, the strategy will come from continuous school self review – the operational objectives, the action planning, the mindsets and philosophies that underpin the direction will all form the strategic approach, as will looking to build in the wider goals of Government, governors and policy-makers, and the financial budget delegated to the school. And everyone will be part of that – communication will be part of the strategy, as will developing that all important teamship I have already talked of.

The third prong to this approach is to provide and develop leadership within the organisation. This is an important concept for me, and interweaves through, with a strong connectedness, my philosophies of teamship and strategy. It is the agent that binds my approach. It’s about being clear with all partners about your beliefs; it’s about building a vision; it’s about realizing the wider goals to which you are part; and it’s about bringing people with you. The best people. And helping to make them better through appraisal, through coaching, through CPD and through expectation. Never be afraid of helping people become better at something than you are and avoid obsession with control. Authority is different to control; delegation is different to control. That, for what its worth, is what I truly believe.

My leadership tries to emulate this: recent examples would be developing leadership in EYFS through the Manx Step into Quality Programme, or giving a TLR3 to staff members to lead a development of inclusive practice through the IQM Award. I have seen for myself how school leadership is a dialogue, a continuous and relentless self-evaluation, and a desire to grow those around you: staff and pupils. We are all learners, after all.

 

“Bravery is knowing that school leadership is not all about you” DAVE HARRIS

 

My belief is that good school leadership is people focused and community centered: inclusive and relentlessly passionate about developing teamship. As Dave Harris says, to do this is brave but ultimately it is right. And the best leaders do this with a thought-out strategy and strong, inspirational leadership.

 

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Making Your Mark…

After assuming a new headship, it can still take some time before your decisions and priorities start to filter through and effect change at a whole school level. Is there any way of speeding this up so that you can start making your mark, without distancing or alienating your staff in the process?

As an experienced Headteacher I’ve overseen many whole-school changes. It’s a process that is far from easy, and by no means do I suggest that I have all the answers. However, for those new to headship, I would offer the following principles as useful starting points in helping you bring about change in as quick and efficient a way as possible.

  1. Operate with a genuine purpose

A new headship often calls for brave leadership. One way of doing this is to appear to sit back initially. However, far from doing nothing, this time is spent watching, observing and noticing. It is so important not to go in like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Take a considered approach based on what you see, and fit this to your own philosophy of education. Make every change matter – if you operate with a genuine purpose, rather than changing for the sake of change, you will bring people with you and that becomes a more powerful catalyst for school improvement.

  1. Collaboration – we are all in this together.

Schools are about people; first and foremost, the young people who attend each day – but they’re also about the staff, from the teachers to the support team; from the administrator to the caretaker; from the ancillary helpers to the kitchen staff – each has a key role in the running of the school and in the lives of the learners. Schools are about parents who are such key partners in the education of the children. And schools are about community. Recognising this and building on the unique and individual community strengths that surround a school is critical in securing continued improvement. Relationships are everything. Getting this right will mean you can affect change quickly without distancing or alienating staff in the process.

  1. Establish a clear direction of travel

Work with the school community to articulate a shared vision – be clear about the steer you’re putting on that as a leader, but use this as an opportunity to build a shared sense of ownership and buy-in. Experience tells me it is far easier to affect whole school change if everyone has a sense of clarity about what is changing, why it is changing and how it will be achieved. Let your team see that you trust them to have their say and then to deliver.

  1. A relentless focus on communication

A strategy for good communication is built on you knowing your purpose, building relationships and establishing a clear direction of travel. If you want to affect whole school change quickly, you need to have everyone on-side and singing from the same song sheet. Simple things such as active listening, being consistent with your messages and taking feedback are really important to try to get right… but remember that communication can alwaysbe better. Never think you’ve cracked it.

  1. Develop others

Be clear with all partners about your beliefs; build a vision; realzie the wider goals to which you are part; and bring people with you. The best people. And help to make them better through appraisal, through coaching, through CPD and through expectation. Never be afraid of helping people become better at something than you. Integrity, trust and belief – it’s infectious, and once you have that it grows quickly in others. And that’s a powerful place from which to build for lasting changes in your school.

#EduTwitter: The best CPD available?

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I often see it said on tweets that pop up on my timeline that #EduTwitter is the best CPD available to teachers. I’m fairly sure I’ve written similar sentiments in some of my own tweets.

It’s certainly true that at its very best the #EduTwitter community can be informative, supportive, positive and can help shape thinking and challenge ideas. From a personal perspective, a recent example of this occurred one Sunday night when I was preparing a report for my Governing Body. It occurred to me that there could be a better way of producing and presenting the report, but I needed some inspiration and ideas from which to work. I put out a tweet asking what others did and I had some wonderful replies from many experienced headteachers / tweeters such as @HoldHeadUpHigh @Fluffyhead28 and @AnniPoole. Where else could one tap into such a rich vein of experience with that sort of speed, efficiency and expertise? Several tweeters went on to email me copies of their report formats and I’m very grateful to people like @d_manby who took the time to do so. Not all in the #EduTwitter community are teachers; tweeters from the world of school governance such as @5Naureen and @mm684 also took the time to offer me their thoughts – further evidence of the broad church of experience and expertise that awaits those who venture into the land of #EduTwitter.

The range of conversations is exceptional and there is always something for everyone. Becoming an active contributor to Twitter chats is a great way to join in with topical debate or focussed discussion on an agreed topic. #UKEdChat from @ukedchat on a Thursday evening is a great place to start. There is also the wonderful #PrimaryRocks chat on a Monday evening which has introduced me to some excellent tweeters such as @MrTRoach, @simonkidwell, @Mr_A_Tennant, @johnbryantHT, @f33lthesun, @Elsie2110, @KarlDuke8, @MrsLamprecht, @gazneedle, @MrsSetto, @head_claybrooke, @Glazgow, @Paul_Steenkamp, @kateowbridge, @mini_lebowski, @etaknipsa, @AaronWanford, @MissSDoherty, @Parky_teaches, @bryngoodman, @goodman_ang, @RobGoffee, @MrHeadPrimary and @WalkingHead65. I recommend all these people as essentials on your follow list.

Sometimes Twitter extends into ‘real life’ with some tweeters taking the time to DM or email directly, extending the conversation and sharing resources. I’m grateful to people like @MrPranPatel, @ShaunDellenty, and @AlisonMPeacock who have done this for me. I try to do the same whenever people ask. The #BrewEd movement – the brainchild of @MrEFinch and @darynsimon – and conferences such as #PrimaryRocksLive enable you to take the ‘best CPD available’ concept further and I’ve been privileged to hear some fantastic speakers – funny, witty, clever, challenging, thought-provoking and totally engaging. This list is far from exhaustive but I’m lucky to be able to say I’ve enjoyed listening to @keran77, @ClareSealy, @MrGPrimary, @Positivteacha, @mrlockyer, @AlisonKriel, @ModernCassie, @jonnywalker_edu, and @rondelle10_b. Hats off to all of the tweeters who are also prepared to present live. In some cases, where you may not be able to attend, you can watch a live broadcast via periscope- such as the time I really wanted to listen to @RogersHistory speak at #BrewEdBrighton.

Some tweeters have helped me grow my Personal Learning Network (PLN) – @PaulGarvey4 and @deputygrocott are keen advocates of that and can help point you in the direction of fabulous people to follow. Some tweeters share really inspirational and positive messages from their work which encourage you to look again at your own practice and your own settings. School leaders @chrisdysonHT and @smithsmm are great examples. Teachers who take the time to share photographs of their learning environments, resources and latest initiatives such as @MissKhan__, @rachelanneashl1 and @Misterbodd are also well worth following.

For those who have a particular passion or interest, there are plenty of tweeters who have specific campaigns and foci: for reading/literacy see @Mr_K_Teacher and @redgierob, for wellbeing see @AdrianBethune, for inclusion see @iqmaward, and for SEND it is well worth giving @gdmorewood a follow. There are many other examples – just dig around and see what is out there.

Above all else, #EduTwitter is a friendly community of people who are there because of their interest and passion in education. The benefits of joining in and networking cannot be overstated – it’s a great way to extend your thinking and add another bow to your CPD. Occasionally it strays into the silly and daft – and the lighthearted moments are the perfect antidote to the stresses and heavy workload that teaching carries. People like @grahamandre and @drewpovey – serious heavyweights with important work such as championing gender neutrality and multi-sector leadership – are great at generating a good balance and involving people in fun such as music challenges and / or inspirational messages and videos.

I cannot finish this blog pass without mentioning @gainshillcrest – a school account which showcases just how important the fun factor is in education! Don’t believe me? Just check out @JungleMaster14 and you’ll see what I mean!

There are plenty of hashtags which are worth exploring, too. I like #PrimaryPicBookClub, #UKEdChat, #whyiloveteaching, #FollowFollowBack, #teacher5oclockclub, #FFEd, #PrimaryRocks, #FundayFriday, #FunPalace, #LookAfterLaxey, #LaxeySchoolCares, #EduTwitter, #SLTChat, #BrewEd, and #IQMAward.

In addtion to tweets and hashtags, you can also find many tweeters who blog or contribute written artcles to magazines and educational publications. Check out bios for links to personal blog pages: my own can be found at maximheadteacher.wordpress.com

Its really not possible to namecheck everyone I enjoy following on Twitter, but I conclude by thanking all of those I’ve referenced in this blog for making me a better educationalist. And I encourage all of you yet to venture into #EduTwitter land to do so. That is where the journey really begins!

Politics, Policy and Paradigms: why the SATs debate is more complex than you think…

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The recent announcement by Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn that an incoming Labour Government would scrap SATs in schools has opened debate within the teaching profession.

I should state from the outset that I make this offering from the fortunate position of not being directly affected by the SATs conversation. As a Manxman working in an Isle of Man federation of schools, I am governed by a different Parliament and work in an education system that rejected SATs testing long ago. I humbly submit that this gives my words a less emotive starting point.

Social media, in particular, has been a fascinating platform to observe with teachers from all phases, sectors and career stages offering their thoughts on SATs. As is the case whenever we imagine a major top-down, nationally imposed, non-negotiable change which has to be implemented (in the curriculum at an educational institution which affects the learning in the organization) it is reasonable to expect that different stakeholders will hold different views. It is not the ‘change’ itself which leads to these differences in views, but the stakeholder’s differing worldviews. And with an agenda for such worldviews to be deepened, challenged or reshaped, educational research begins from and exists within a range of differing paradigms.

Parking the unresolved issue of SATs, let us try to consider a change within a primary school setting that requires significant workforce, resource and curriculum remodeling so that levels of intervention are personalized and individualized much more for different groups of learners. Let us also imagine four people, one from each of the following paradigms – positivism, interpretivism, critical research, constructivism – discussing this change and the issues that it presents for them. For each person I will identify a likely research question and will explain how their research question would be enacted:

Positivist

Positivists often begin from a hypothesis which is to be tested. In this case a positivist may take the view of learning and learners as being something which would benefit from close levels of intervention, and may wish to research the extent to which this intervention has upon learning. The underlying ontological assumption of this positivist may well be that learning occurs when information or knowledge is transmitted to a learner from a teacher. A suitable research question may seek to examine the links between levels of intervention (resources, teacher input, curriculum delivery) and learner outcomes to support their hypothesis. It is likely that such research would seek to be large-scale, so that generalizations could be drawn.

A likely research question for the positivist in response to my scenario may be:

“To what extent do teaching assistants impact on pupil learning in primary classrooms when deployed to pupils 1:1?”

This question fits within the positivist paradigm because it implies that impact is measurable through the inclusion of the word ‘extent.’ The implication carries that if it is measurable it is observable and empirical. The likely design frame would be experimental, working with quantitative data, perhaps making use of a randomized controlled trail, which would act, as some like Carole Torgerson suggest, as “an evaluative method used…to establish whether or not an [educational] intervention is effective.”

Interpretivist

An interpretivist may, when discussing the change scenario above, present a view that learning is inextricably linked to an individual’s confidence and self-esteem; raise these aspects of a learner’s learning dispositions, and you find the find the key to learning progress is presented. If the nationally imposed change brought about more dedicated one-to-one support for lower-attaining pupils from poor socio-economic backgrounds from a teaching assistant, an interpretivist may be of the view that such support drawing on a learner’s cultural background will help to boost their confidence, self-esteem and independence as learners. The emphasis on recognizing that learners should be encouraged to make sense of learning in the light of their own personal circumstances represents an ontological and epistemological position that examines how people make sense of their situation, the problems they may face and how they overcome them.

A likely research question for the interpretivist in response to my scenario may be:

“How is the learning of low-attaining pupils (from a low socio-economic background) affected by teaching assistants?”

This question, as opposed to the positivist’s, centres the pupils as the focus, and recognises that they are active in the learning process rather than simply being taught by teaching assistants.

The interpretivist may opt for an ethnographic design-frame, within a limited scope and scale. It is likely to be small-scale exploratory research which focuses many of its conclusions on the back of discussions with teaching assistants and pupils, perhaps in just one setting. The interpretivist’s research will be looking at how people make sense of their world: in this case, interviews and classroom observations could be used to establish the sense made of their world by the teaching assistants, and the teachers, parents and learners they worked with. The likely subjectivity of any interpretations of data collected in this way also help to position this within the interpretivist paradigm. The interpretivist would be interested in how the relationships between the teaching assistant, teacher and learner all impact on the rate of progress / learning of the pupil and support the interpretivists ontological position that the role of each individual potentially impacts, and that is inextricably linked to the epistemological favouring of the ‘observational,’ i.e. qualitative research using questions and exploring individual perceptions in order to give rise to conclusions.

Critical Theorist

Renowned educational researcher Nathaniel Gage postulates that critical theorists imply research ‘should be looking at the relationship of schools and teaching to society – the political and economic foundations of our constructions of knowledge, curriculum and teaching.’ In looking to change or shape structure, a critical theorist is likely to want their research carried out in such a way as to provide knowledge that is directly relevant to the struggle of some oppressed or marginalised group.

The ‘critical’ researcher is likely to begin from a general theoretical or political perspective about the role of the teaching assistants in schools, and this will shape both the key areas of the research to be examined and how it is implemented. One possibility is that the critical researcher might be interested in the way the deployment of support staff in schools is decided upon and to which pupils they are assigned to help. Their focus would be on the school, its management and groups of pupils just as much as on the teaching assistants and their interventions. Particular emphasis may be given to how and why some pupils qualify for more support than others.  They may consider how institutional arrangements are structured in such a way as to appease stakeholders who accept the arrangements, even though these may discriminate against some groups of pupils who are deemed exempt from access to as much teaching assistant support as others.

When studying for my Masters degree I learned that ‘the model of society that ‘critical’ researchers adopt involves evaluations and not just factual claims: some group is described as oppressed, or as suffering inequity or injustice, and these words clearly indicate that the situation is judged undesirable or unacceptable. The kinds of research questions asked reflect these evaluations’ (Open University.) Given this, a likely research question for the critical theorist in response to my scenario may be:

“How do policy-makers current views to target intervention at pupils who are either low-attaining or gifted learners affect the life chances of middle-attaining pupils who are often left unsupported, and where do current views that this is acceptable practice come from?”

Qualitative methods are likely to be the main resource. The study would probably focus on a relatively small number of cases, so that detailed data could be obtained to facilitate understanding the complexities of policy-maker perspectives and activities, and how these change over time. The data is likely to include questionnaires and interviews and researchers will spend time ‘digging deeper’ to explore issues.

Constructionist

Usually, constructionism is associated with qualitative data but this depends very much on which version is taken up in research. If the nationally imposed change requires a more personalized approach to interventions, a constructionist may wish to look at learner – resource interaction and could be interested in teaching assistant interaction to help improve the learners’ engagement with the resources and understanding of the resources which would be necessary for learners cognitive development. In this instance, a cognitive constructionist may ask the question: ‘Do scaffolds to improve interaction between pupils and learning resources lead to higher levels of achievement and improved understanding? The researcher may devise an experimental design with control groups and intervention groups and assess the improvements in individual children’s learning using pre and post assessments that allow them to generalise across the groups. Researchers from a constructionist paradigm would have approached this research across schools, and looked to undertake case studies of learners and teaching assistants within schools, in order to evaluate how individual teaching assistants implemented the scaffolding intervention, and the consequences of this for what was made available to learn.

Social constructionists might be interested in developing the talk between pupils to enable the development of intersubjectivity and focus on the way the teacher assistant scaffolds children’s learning and enables them to engage with the worksheet, etc. The question might be:

“Can pedagogic strategies be developed that improve the quality and productivity of talk in classrooms?”

In this scenario, the researcher may seek to look at ways in which teaching assistant talk around a particular learning resource impacts on pupil’s engagement and interaction so that pupils are prompted to think, articulate understanding and discuss key concepts. The focus would be the impact of the intervention on pupil’s talk – and again this may be measured using pre and post assessments, drawing on evidence from recordings and observations of the interventions and the children’s discussions.

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So where does any of this get us in terms of the current assessment debate centred around SATs? In my blog I’ve used the imaginary scenario of nationally imposed change relating to teaching assistants as a means by which to demonstrate that, if nothing else,  the differing worldviews of different stakeholders means that there will be very distinct lines drawn in any such debate – and with SATs, as is the case in my imagined scenario above, the challenge is seeking to find common ground and consensus. Stephen Ball’s suggestion that research should not necessarily lead to some kind of proof or truth, but instead should concern ‘complexity, uncertainty and doubt’ (a recurring theme in his works,) has prompted me to consider the ‘fluid’ nature of educational research in both response and outcome. Try to recognize where you fit within the four positions outlined above and ask yourself why you feel any compatibility with one model, and, if like me that isn’t immediately obvious then it may be worth reflecting why the words of Jeremy Corbyn are only the beginning of an as yet unknown journey – and certainly not the magic bullet answer he seemed to promise.

 

 

Risk it for a biscuit…

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It was October and I was standing on the roof of a high rise building in the middle of Shanghai. Flight after flight of stairs interspersed with several elevator journeys had brought me to the summit, and the rooftop on which I now stood served as a primary school playground for hundreds of pupils. As I made my way to the edge of the building I was amazed to find that the only barrier between me and the pavement – 16 stories down – was a small wall, waist height at most. I peered over the edge and can still recall that instant feeling of danger and dizziness washing over my entire body. I stepped back and turned to the Chinese headteacher whose school I was visiting.

“Nobody has ever fallen off” he cheerfully explained.

Perhaps even more remarkable was the fact that all of the children were all unsupervised before my host and I arrived. Even in the relative safety of a large outdoor space at ground level of a neighbouring school, the lack of playtime supervision was a recurring feature of the Chinese school system.

“The children know what to do if they require any assistance.” It was said to me as though my questions about health and safety and first aid had been asked by someone being deliberately daft.

“The children can manage their own independence in this space” was their matter of fact – it’s common sense, surely – reply.

Now, let me be clear: I’m not advocating quite such a cavalier approach to playtimes in my schools. If nothing else, the huge safety nets which swung out from lower stories at a number of the schools I visited reminded me that Shanghai didn’t really want children hurtling to their demise, either deliberately or accidentally. But nonetheless, my time on the rooftop playground is something that I often think about.

As autumn dies we skip forward to May – the cusp of summer – and a lovely early evening of sunshine in Shropshire. I’m stood outside my little cottage accommodation looking over a huge playing field in the grounds of a residential centre where 300 children from all over Britain are mixing and mingling and having fun together. These children are all enjoying an educational ‘residential’ – most are like the pupils I’ve brought: Year 6’s who have looked forward to this special treat for many years – mine regard it as the highlight of their time in my schools. But there is a smattering of younger pupils and some schools, like mine, are visiting from beyond the UK.

It’s ‘downtime’ – that moment between finishing dinner and the planned evening activity. Some children are kicking a football about. Some sit and chat whilst others run around playing chase and tag and hide & seek. Others are mooching about and a fair few are heading back to their dorms to read or rest or prepare for their next adventure. As for the teachers accompanying these children on their residentials, they too are relaxed and most are not to be seen. They’ve gone back to their rooms to have a cup of tea, phone home, or simply indulge in a few moments of peace and quiet. Some, like me, are just stood outside taking it all in. A football lands at my feet and I kick it back up to where a makeshift pitch hosts the match.

It was in this moment that I realised it was just like being in Shanghai – hundreds of children happily managing their own independence. If a child fell or tripped or banged into someone else, 99% of the time they dusted themselves down and got on with it. ‘Fights’ or arguments were virtually none existent – the culture of mixing together and getting on with each other hung magnificently in the invisible ethos that surrounded the whole place. And when something did go wrong the children knew what to do: they knew where to go to get help, and they knew how to respond appropriately. And all of this happened without a duty rota of two teachers out on ‘supervision.’

I am now convinced that schools not only have a duty to teach children to manage their own independence but that the best way to do it is to rip up all of the old-skool thinking that causes us to merely pay lip service to it rather than truly deliver it. And this isn’t easy because so much of it is entrenched in good intentions and ‘health and safety.’

At my school we have made progress. But my ultimate goal remains: unsupervised playtimes.

I’ve been upfront about it, but there is still the hearts and minds battle to be won with my staff. We have now got it down to just one member of staff on duty, but I want to go further. Staff outside do not prevent an accident. If an accident is going to happen, it is going to happen. Staff outside can inhibit risk – “get down off there…. stop running by the trees… go and play with that ball over there…” before the children have chance to experience that risk and assess the situation dynamically for themselves. My view is that we can go much further with teaching our pupils how to look after each other, how to manage their own independence and how to risk-assess for themselves.

We have embarked on a programme of teaching risk assessment throughout the school, starting in EYFS. It’s a risk assessment that doesn’t rely on paper and pencil: it’s about thinking, looking, discussing and deciding. By the time children are in Year 6 they are contributing to the risk assessment documents for offsite trips – sometimes taking responsibility for compiling them in their entirety. We’ve shown the children how to do things safely: this is how to use the climbing frame, this is how to climb a tree, this is how to break your fall... Far from encouraging unnecessary risk we are acknowledging that children like to – and need to – experience it. So if they’re going to do it, let’s enable it rather than make it covert and mischievous – the latter being a perfect ingredient for increasing the likelihood of an accident.

Alongside this is a first aid programme for our pupils delivered by St John Ambulance; on-site Forest School experience where firelighting and safe knife use is taught; woodwork club delivered by a local joinery firm allowing the children to use ‘real’ equipment such as nail guns and industry standard saws; and a nurturing of our ‘family’ ethos where we all genuinely look out for each other. This leads to a culture of sensible risk taking and a deep sense of understanding about what risk is: which pupils just don’t get if we continually ‘supervise’ the hell out of them.

The children are shown where to go to get help and what to do in an emergency. And before anyone suggests that this is about being slack and giving the teachers a bit of a skive, think again. Firstly, it’s almost counter-intuitive to do this. Teachers have been finding it difficult to ‘step back.’ And secondly, remember that ethos I described in Shropshire? If we get this right, I’m convinced the approach will mean we will find teachers naturally popping in and out at playtimes in a way that a rigid duty timetable doesn’t promote. I intend to end ‘fixed’ playtimes too to help engender this fluidity even more.

So it’s really not about teachers having more time for more biscuits in the staff room. It’s a massive amount of work to set this up, to risk assess it fully and to enable it to help in a way that is safe and appropriate. Much more work actually than keeping the status quo of supervised breaks. But if the children managing their own independence and managing their own risk does come at the cost of an extra biscuit or two, so be it. We really do owe it to the children to skill them up in this way, and at my schools we really are going to risk it for a biscuit.

Encouraging innovation…

“Listen to anyone with an original idea, no matter how absurd it may sound at first. If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.”
– William McKnight
Businessman, philanthropist (1887-1978)

If there is one thing I have come to realise in headship it is that you can’t do it all by yourself.  Surrounding yourself with the very best people is a start – but getting the very best from the very best requires an atmosphere and culture of trust to develop.

As the new calendar year dawned and the Spring Term commenced I gathered the staff together from both of my schools to introduce my Innovation Recognition Scheme which I intended to roll out across the federation.

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I used the meeting to talk earnestly to my team about our federation and all we had achieved since its inception just 18 months ago. In that time we had redeveloped our senior leadership structure, aligned some core policies and procedures, collaborated across the school on pupil learning opportunities and staff projects and set up a steering group of staff from both schools to help with the logistics and organisation of the federation.

When our federation was first mooted, my SLT and I visited some federated schools in the UK to see them in action and to learn as much as possible in advance of our own foray into this space. It seemed very much to me that we had managed to reach a similar state to these federations in a relatively short period of time and mirrored a lot of what we had seen as “advantages” of the model: joint staff meetings, inter-school moderation, linking up of activities, developing policy, greater opportunity to maximize resources across the schools and achieving more from our budgets. Now, the opportunity was there to embed and consolidate this state of affairs – and although I recognised the value and importance of that, for me, it was not enough. I didn’t want to be just “another federation.”

We are the only federation of schools in the Isle of Man: that’s exciting and that is a real opportunity.  I felt that in order to take maximum advantage of this opportunity I needed to let the staff know, that whilst I had never thought they’d really been on, the shackles were well and truly off.

Those who have ready my musings on Twitter and in my other blogs will know that I have advocated for a long time a different approach to the notion of school improvement. School improvement doesn’t just happen because something is on the school improvement plan. It happens when staff chat over a cup of coffee in the staff room about something they’re keen to try, when staff read about something interesting and decide to explore it further in their own practice, when staff visit other schools and settings to observe and reflect on what is going on. In short, it happens when staff try something different.

My message to my staff was simple. I wanted to encourage innovation – encourage things that are completely new, completely different. And I wanted to encourage that innovation against the backdrop of opportunity that federation allowed.

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I urged my staff to take a risk. After all, what is the worst thing that could happen? It doesn’t work? Well, fine, we’ve still learned something and that is useful in its own right. And in trying something new and taking a risk, drop something else that isn’t working for you or isn’t contributing to children’s learning. The Innovation Recognition Scheme is not about increasing workload. Or trying to squeeze more from my staff – its about getting them to think outside of the box and find better ways of working and helping children to learn.

To that end, I made clear that there was no set format or structure for how an innovation was to be planned. Some staff might produce an action plan, some a drawing or diagram. Others may scribble their thoughts on the back of an envelope – it doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that they can demonstrate they have given it some thought and feel motivated to give it a go. I promised that if the staff could present their ideas in a way that was clear and logical they would be given the green-light to proceed.

I offered a couple of examples of ideas that I had had. This was tricky and I thought long and hard about whether or not to share example ideas. I didn’t want to appear so vague so as to confuse everybody (“well what sort of ideas does he want!?”) but nor did I want to frame those ideas in a boxed-off way and pigeonhole expectations into a certain direction. In the end I suggested:

  • Staff taking PPA on the other site to which they normally worked, for no other reason than establishing a regular presence in the other building, developing rapport with their sister-site colleagues and maybe absorbing the positives from the other school in a really relaxed and informal way
  • Cross-school interphase moderation in the years when the school is not selected for external moderation by the authority
  • Establishing a federation pupil voice body with a focus on learning – learning detectives in lessons and feeding back to teachers…
  • Staff swap day / week – go and work on the other site for a day or a week
  • Developing a student produced community newsletter with pupils from both schools and published for the wider community

None of my “suggestions” were fleshed out ideas and none carried a list of possible outcomes and impacts. They were simply provided as stimulus to inspire the staff team – if nothing else, to inspire them to think of bigger, better and more innovative ideas than mine! In fact, when I reflect back on my list of ideas I’m disappointed at how small and ordinary they appear.

Since launching the Recognition Scheme several ideas (really good ideas!) have already started to come streaming in – and staff appear energized and eager to give things a go. Part of the appeal has been the explicit reassurance that the initiative is not timebound. There is no expectation that everyone will have a new idea by Monday and will have given it a go by the end of term. Innovation doesn’t work like that and ideas aren’t sought for the sake of ideas. When an idea comes along – be it today or in two years time – it needs to come from insight and experience. Taking away a time pressure has definitely contributed to the sense that this is part of a shifting culture rather than a quick sprint change of no real substance.

The next step is to begin giving the go-ahead to these ideas and letting them take shape. After all, I don’t want to be surrounded by sheep in my federation. I’d much rather be surrounded by rabbits!

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
– John Steinbeck
Author (1902-68)

 

Manage your Emails to Cut Down your Workload

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Email – once a revolutionary communications technology, now an everyday tool that often exacerbates, rather than solves the issues it was meant to help with. Far from enabling effective leadership, email can instead shackle you to your desk at work (leaving you less visible and ironically more remote) while also intruding on your private and home life, thanks to mobile devices.

How many of us leave our email clients permanently switched on? We might be in the middle of something important, but for many of us, that tell-tale ‘ping’ will divert our attention away from the task at hand and straight to our inboxes. Email can become all-consuming – but only if we let it.

The first step in redressing the balance and regaining control over your email habits is to get the culture right at school. As a leader, that starts with you setting the right example. Not emailing late into the night is a good place to start. Draft those emails if you feel so inclined – but delay pressing ‘send’ until 8am the following morning.

The way you prioritize your inbox will help hugely with tackling an email backlog. At my school we include one of five simple codes in the subject lines of our internal emails: ‘FYI’, ‘ACT’, ‘REQ’, ‘URG’ or ‘REP’. If, for example, I’m emailing a copy of the school newsletter, my subject line would read ‘FYI school newsletter’. This way, when it appears in a colleague’s inbox they can tell instantly that it’s a non-urgent email that doesn’t require a reply.

If I’m sending an email that requires someone to do something upon receiving it, I’ll use the ‘ACT’ code for ‘action’: ‘ACT Mrs Jones telephoned, please call her back 861373’. That example also illustrates how some messages can be written straight into the subject line. ‘REQ’ meanwhile prefaces requests, ‘URG’ is for priority messages and ‘REP’ indicates a reply will be needed. An inbox full of coded subjects makes prioritizing them a doddle.

Other steps include emailing only those you’re actually ‘speaking’ to. Emails will often be sent to a whole list of people who have been ‘copied in for information only’, which can be confusing. Am I supposed to reply? Is someone else going to? Cut the confusion by cutting your recipients list.

Finally, don’t become a slave to email. Choose specific points in the day to check and deal with your email rather than leaving your client open the whole time. This will help you to stay focused on other tasks and sort your emails only when you’re ready.

This article first appeared in PSM Magazine and online at https://www.primaryleaders.com/staff-management/leadership-development/manage-your-emails-to-cut-down-your-workload

Is Your School’s Monitoring and Assessment Data Actually Useful?

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Schools are now awash with monitoring, testing and performance data – but are your staff able to access the details they need to see in a way that’s intelligible?

I like ownership. It means that something is yours, and that gives you control. And yet what often see in schools is that the tracking and monitoring of progress, attainment and performance seems to be done for someone else.

The SLT need it, the inspectorate want it, the LA require it – all reasons I’ve heard for inputting data into a system and pressing ‘send’.

Of course, there may well be some legitimacy in that reasoning – but I’d argue that tracking and monitoring in this way only gives ownership of the data to others, when what I’d like to see is ownership of the data resting firmly with teachers.

When the teachers own data, it becomes more meaningful and ultimately more useful to them. As schools become increasingly data rich, how that data’s being used is much more important than the fact it’s being collected in the first place. And who better than to make use of it than teachers and learners? Ownership, you see, is vital.

System design

Systems for tracking and monitoring must be simple to use, easy to make sense of and not overly cumbersome. There’s nothing more frustrating, or pointless, than tracking systems which encourage duplication or fail to give teachers the information they value most. We’ve worked hard at my schools to devise systems which highlight at a glance the global issues for a class and specific matters relating to individual children.

In my schools we also encourage our teachers to react to their data – to track and monitor the data for themselves, so that it’s able to inform their planning and provision. Half-termly pupil progress reviews help to unpack the information collected and ensure that no child is missed. Our senior leaders expect the teachers to take the lead at these meetings – they’re not grand inquisitions, so much as opportunities for reflection and forward thinking.

I was once introduced to an impressive chair of governors who bore all the traits of a leader who knew what mattered most about their school. Not the numbers or pie-charts churned out to demonstrate impact, nor the paperwork or inevitable meetings – what mattered was that the children were seen as people.

Learning conversations

Influenced by this encounter, I introduced a running log of ‘learning conversations’ at my school. I’d previously noticed how often teachers would discuss pupils in their own time, over a coffee in the staffroom or in the corridor after the end of the school day. I now encourage senior leaders who have had such conversations to electronically log them after the event, briefly describing the nature of the discussion and any outcomes. The log aims to capture the essence of learning conversations in all their forms, be it a structured meeting or a quick catch-up over coffee.

It’s akin to a real-time representation of the dialogue that’s constantly happening across the school, which all staff can access via a secure log in and use as a basis for professional judgments on how far they’ve moved learning forward. In essence, I want to help them access the monitoring details they need to see most, in a way that makes sense.

This article first appeared in PSM Magazine and online at https://www.primaryleaders.com/attainment-and-assessment/make-sure-your-schools-monitoring-and-assessment-data-is-actually-useful

Our house, is a very, very, very fine house…

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Say what you like about Hogwarts but it’s difficult to deny its ‘old school’ charm struck a chord with millions of avid readers both young and old. Amongst the many effects of Harry Potter in our education system was the revival, or re-emergence, in the state sector at least, of that gloriously stereotypical mainstay of public education: houses.

Having been fortunate enough to spend a career working across a rich variety of settings, centres and schools – both private and state led – I have seen many examples of the house system; and many examples of both the best – and the most pointless – systems and what they do or don’t achieve.

In schools, the many primaries I have visited in the Isle of Man and the U.K. have almost all had a house system of sorts up their tunic-laden sleeves. The most effective schools with the most effective house systems use this to promote teamship, comradery, community and healthy competition. When it works, it works because it fits the school and is well understood by pupils, staff, parents and all other partners. I won’t knock that.

However, the more common picture in my experience is one of ancient house systems that are largely, or completely, ignored, save for sports day. A few schools throw in ‘team points’ or similar which results in a termly cup being presented to no-one in particular other than a band of wildly cheering children, wildly cheering because they don’t know what else to do when ‘blue’ is called out at the front of assembly.

We had a house system at my school. But it achieved so little of what it set out to do. A rethink was called for. House Avada Kedavra!

What we do is regularly suspend the normal timetable and vertically group the whole school. By regularly I mean every couple of terms or so. There is not a rigid timetable. The groupings of children from EYFS through to Year 6 work across a series of ‘workshops’ over 2 or 3 days around an agreed theme. The benefits of collaboration, the sense of togetherness, and the ‘team spirit’ are focussed through the lens of learning. Through this approach the purported benefits of house systems become more real and vivid.

Over the years we have tweaked and refined the theme-days concept – ever evaluating, ever improving – but one thing is certain. The vertical grouping across the school brings the children together in a remarkable way. It is one of those things that isn’t instantly articulated; rather it is sensed, felt… a palpable joy and magic. The coming together of family.

We’ve held theme-days around local celebrations (such as our parish lighthouse reaching the ripe old age of 100), curriculum areas like art, R.E and science, whole-school trips and outings; and cultural and world events. Can we factor in competition? You bet! Can we foster leadership in our children? Just wait til you see our juniors supporting the infants in their learning. Can we achieve through teamwork, team spirit and collaboration? Look at some of the outcomes which are often greater than the sum of their parts.

We do theme-days properly and we do them justice. I say ‘we’ but of course I refer to my fabulous teachers and support staff who think, deliberate, plan and lead these fantastic learning experiences. The credit is theirs.

But here’s the thing: why does this work better at achieving all of the above than a house system? It’s because all partners in the school, from myself through to the staff and the parents and pupils, all believe in it, understand it, value it and treat it seriously. That’s our magic wand. There is no evidence of the ‘tokenistic’ so akin to the occasionally dusted off house system that lurks in so many schools.

I finish where I started. I’m not knocking the house system that works: merely observing that in most cases in state primaries it doesn’t. Not really. Not truly. Not hand on heart. And I don’t advocate my school’s approach is for everyone. My advocacy is for things that relate and matter and work for you. For your setting.

So despite the mass appeal of Potter and co. remember this: you don’t need to be a wizard to work the magic of community and comradery in your school, and a ‘house’ need not be your spell. You just need to believe.

Building character: why we do what we do.

On one visit to a fantastic school* I was introduced to an inspirational headteacher. He had such a clear vision which resonated through the school and manifested in the values and practices seen. The educational philosophy created was one of “learning power” and growth mindset – as the headteacher remarked “to predict what kind of world awaits our pupils once they grow-up and go out into it is laughable; the world’s best futurologists can’t make that prediction and I certainly can’t. What we need to do is equip our pupils with the skills to live in that world whatever it may be.” To that end, his school put great emphasis on developing children as learners – and this conviction served to reassure and strengthen within me my own belief that what we were doing at my school was absolutely right.

The belief in my school centres around developing learning habits. We’ve implemented a strand in our curriculum designed to instil in our pupils a growth mindset philosophy. This means we believe that everybody can learn and succeed with the right attitude. Courage, tenacity and self belief are crucial, we believe, to learning and can be developed by how we recognise and reward success. Directed effort alongside outcome is valued and children are encouraged to take risks and not fear failure. This element of the curriculum is known as our “learning: it’s up to you!” strand and is the part of our offering which focuses on the principle that there are thinking skills, learning dispositions and good habits as well as subject specific skills which we can develop in a range of contexts.

This aspect of our curriculum weaves in the development of meta-cognition and learning habits so that our children become brave (taking risks with their learning), challenge themselves (stretching their thinking and enjoying the “struggle” of learning), smile (staying positive even when learning is tricky), become honest learners, sustain effort (recognising that good learning requires resilience and perseverance), fail well (learning from mistakes) and become deeply reflective about the learning process. These habits are found at the centre of our model in recognition of their status as utterly vital components of our curriculum.

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Now that’s all well and good. But so what? Why do we believe in this at my school and what difference does our curriculum make?

We took this question one step further and asked ourselves to think about the whole Laxey School experience. If a child comes to Laxey and experiences our school, experiences our curriculum, experiences our learning and teaching philosophy and is encouraged to develop good learning habits that they choose to use through intrinsic motivation, then what sort of person will they be when they graduate from our programme? Will those pupils who have been schooled at Laxey stand out from others? And if so, how so?

If our approach is our means – then what is the ends?

We decided to map out what a Laxey pupil would ultimately become so that we could answer this question and better articulate our school’s purpose and raison d’être. Our response resulted in a model we have termed “Laxey Learners” which celebrates the growth mindset and learning power culture that is so established in the school and makes clear the outcomes it aims to produce: Laxey Learners are fit for the future; Laxey Learners are successful; Laxey Learners are compassionate; Laxey Learners are leaders; and Laxey learners are inclusive. Coming to Laxey means a commitment that no child is left behind, as we develop in them the skills to tackle the challenges of the 21st century and create tomorrow’s leaders amongst others. We believe our Laxey Learners statement is an important strand to our school that helps mark us out as clearly and identifiably inclusive in nature because it seeks to build character in everyone. In everyone. Regardless of age, stage, background, culture or gender. It accepts no excuses in its belief that every child can succeed and deserves to be taught to the very highest standard.

Our ‘Laxey Learners’ statement:

Laxey Learners are fit for the future

The development of learning habits 
drives our curriculum. As a result, children have a growth mindset and the transferrable skills and dispositions that make them fit for their future 
in a diverse world. We equip children with the 
skills to succeed: confidence, resilience, problem solving, communication, adaptability and reflection. They are brave enough to take risks. Faced with an unpredictable future, a growth mindset allows our children to see future challenges are actually opportunities to succeed.

 

Laxey Learners are successful

Our approach to schooling and our curriculum ensure that every child is challenged on a daily basis.
We believe that everyone has the potential to improve and that hard work and a positive attitude can make the impossible possible. This growth mindset approach brings success. Children succeed when they take responsibility for themselves and are accountable for their choices. This approach drives Laxey School.

 

Laxey Learners are compassionate

At Laxey we know education and school is more than just academia. Our responsibility is to develop children as global citizens, and it’s a responsibility we take very seriously. Pupil’s at Laxey School use empathy to guide their choices. Because they are compassionate they are able to look beyond themselves and consider the needs of others and the wider world.

 

Laxey Learners are leaders

At Laxey we foster leadership. Children learn to collaborate and to take responsibility for themselves and others. They make decisions and evaluate them. They identify problems and solve them. They are given genuine leadership opportunities such as a voice for change, choices in learning and decisions about school life. These experiences provide our children with the skills, knowledge and understanding which enable them to become the leaders of tomorrow.

 

Laxey Learners are inclusive

We are committed to equality and inclusion. We believe it is crucial that children develop 
the attitudes which allow them to embrace, value and celebrate difference. We ensure that our children value individuality, each person with their own unique qualities and experiences. We believe that everybody counts: everybody is important, everybody has something positive to offer and together we can embrace the exciting opportunities a diverse world offers.

 

 

Fundamentally, as a school, we believe in learning.
 We create opportunities for children to become confident, curious, creative and courageous. We don’t do something because it’s always been done. We do it because we believe it’s a better way and has a greater impact on the lives of our children. And we believe our approach results in Laxey Learners.

And finally, it is vital to stress that “Laxey Learners” is not our latest initiative that has to be delivered. It is a statement of what happens if you come to the school we already have and experience the curriculum and opportunities we already give.

It is not some target driven scheme . It is not about progress, percentages and pie-charts. Instead, it recognises that learning is messy, not linear. It recognises that attainment is unique, individual and ultimately not as important as the people we aim to become. We want people with values such as inclusivity and compassion. We want people who can find success in whatever they do – but understand that success is measured in different ways and looks different for everyone. And we want people who can go out into the world and contribute, drawing on a mindset and skillset that allows them not only to survive but to thrive. We want to build character.

And at Laxey, we think we do just that.

 

*Credit to Kensington Primary School, Manor Park, London for inspiring this project through their own work.