Sunday, 26 February 2017

A different take on learning journals?

Way back in the Summer of 2012, I decided to work with a couple of colleagues to investigate different ways of allowing children interpret their learning in a high-quality, creative way.  I have always been a little bit hesitant about the "one size fits all" approach to recording work seen in many schools - but also fully understand the need for consistency and high expectations regarding the quality of pupil work seen in books. 

We needed high-quality exercise books demonstrating high-quality outcomes (Ofsted) but we strongly felt that we wanted evidence of independent expression and thinking produced without fear of making a mistake.

Having previously worked with a teacher from a local accredited “thinking school”, we had already trained the staff in the use of Dr David Hyerle's Thinking Maps and how to use these from Year R - 6.  We felt that there were likely to be good opportunities for children to independently use these in the learning journals.  We also looked into mind-mapping and worked with our Principal Graham Chisnell (@Chizkent - who uses mind mapping regularly as part of his work) to share with staff and children how this approach can be used to creatively organise thinking.

We also researched current use of learning journals and the expression of thinking in a range of settings. This including a visiting Kingsdown and Ringwould Primary School to meet with their Deputy Head who had introduced the use of Thinking Maps and De Bono’s Thinking Hats across the school. I went with three colleagues to visit King’s Park School in Boscombe and Broadstone First School in Poole to see a range of innovative practice in action. I also used research from to develop ideas.  

I then led a trial in Year 4 and 6 using this new book that we call our “Learning Journal”. I set up my class with a set of high-quality A5 learning journals – the sort with plain paper of a suitable thickness and quality to make the children feel that they were recording in a book that was just a little bit more special than other exercise books. Unfortunately, cost implications stopped us from buying A4 books for all children. It was decided that from the start this would be a “free space” where children could demonstrate independent thinking, collaboration, reflection, enquiry, and evaluation of a range of topics across the curriculum.   The only expectation was that at all times when using the book, children produced work that reflected the highest standards of writing and drawing. As the teacher, I regularly enforced this with the children and they certainly rose to the challenge. Children were to be completely free to use any pen/pencil they wish; encouraged to use colour and pictorial approaches as appropriate. Teachers made the conscious decision not mark the journals in the traditional sense out of respect for the quality and ongoing nature of the work produced. Regular feedback was given in different ways to ensure all children understood how to develop their thinking to the next level.

I set up my class with a set of high-quality A5 learning journals (purchased from Ryman's) – the sort with plain paper of a suitable thickness  (140gsm) and quality to make the children feel that they were recording in a book that was just a little bit more special than other exercise books. 

As teachers, we had to ensure that we gave children the time needed to produce the quality of work that we were expecting.  The children got faster as they got used to their preferred ways of working.  They soon began applying this approach at other time - asking to work in their science book in this way - or learning their spellings creatively using a range of colour as appropriate.  Great for more visual learners.

How are they used?

Here are some of the ways children at Warden House have used their learning journals:

  Learning evaluations
  Mind mapping
  Planning for extended writing– E.g. using flow maps, storyboards, language through colour strategies
  Thinking maps, including allowing children’s variations of these.
  Organising thinking / key questions when listening to or readung a story/text – usually responding to a given focus/question(s)
  Using alongside reading to respond in guided reading or independent reading sessions

Some examples of learning journals used in Year 6

 The following examples are from a mixture of 12 children - boys and girls and all ability ranges:

Thursday, 15 September 2016

How is the role of the Head Teacher Developing in the 21st Century School?

How is the role of the Head Teacher Developing in the 21st Century School?

Since graduating from university in the year 2000, I have been privileged to work under 9 different head teachers across a range of different settings - some for a matter of weeks - others for several years. Each one has been a fantastic professional in their own right with different strengths and weaknesses. The position of head teacher is increasingly unique in today's society and is one in which public perception has barely shifted over the past 100 years. Head teachers are usually held in high esteem by the communities of the schools in which they serve – placed on a pedestal; looked up to; sometimes revered; often feared. Most people have a clear image in their head of the persona that a Head Teacher should project - the aura- and there can often be high levels of consternation – and often offence caused when the person in question doesn't live up to that billing.

A Changing Role in a Changing Climate:
It's clear that the traditional role of the Head Teacher is one that is becoming more and more endangered with each passing general election. Some may argue that that it is a good thing. A government agenda of forced acadamisation – of large numbers of schools run by one “Super Head” with Heads of Schools underneath them is one that is becoming increasingly common. This subtle change in title seeks to undermine the role of the head teacher in the eyes of many. One could argue however that something has to change. A national lack of suitable candidates for headship has been evident for quite some time. It's not surprising really given the incredible pressures placed on the role from relentless government changes and tougher and tougher inspection regimes. One bad cohort, or one unlucky appointment and potentially your job could be at risk. Head teachers are not in the same league as football managers. There is no seven figure severance package and a new job waiting three months down the line. They often have families to support, bills to pay and have their lives to live. It's clear that for too many good people, the pressures associated with the role have often been too much.

A friend of mine, having recently completed his NPQH, has been scouring the job pages looking for a Head Teacher role that would be a big enough change from his current position as a non-teaching Deputy of a large two-form entry primary school. Problems that have presented themselves include a lack of genuine Head Teacher jobs in the local area that would provide the step-up that he needs. Jobs such as Head of School roles within local federations are of little interest, as quite often they pay less than traditional head teacher jobs – and insist that overall autonomy still rests with an executive Head teacher who may visit the school one or two days per week. On paper, that is not much of a change from his current role as a non-teaching deputy so there is little incentive to want to move on. Rates of pay as a head teacher of a small village school would see him take a pay cut from his current role - and a large increase in workload due to the lack of personnel and financial clout that usually comes within the small-school environment. Quite often these schools are at risk of being swallowed up by larger academy chains as they are becoming increasingly financially unviable given the pending collapse of many local authorities.

I have recently met with one ex-colleague who has progressed to the role of Principal within a local academy chain. Although experiences were initially positive, increased top-slicing of the school budget, coupled with a blanket ban on external CPD and a very limited resource budget led to a range of problems. Teacher recruitment has been a significant problem for her – so much so that she spent all of term 6 teaching full time in a very challenging year 6 class – as well as having to run a vibrant one form entry primary school in a socially deprived area.

Her passionate, yet inexperienced staff were at times crying to get out and visit other schools and broaden their experiences, yet were stifled by a chain that insisted on one way of doing things. As principal, she saw middle leadership opportunities for her staff diminish, as, for example, one teacher was appointed as literacy coordinator for the nine schools across the chain with the expectation that the policy, curriculum and practice across all schools in the chain was identical. At times the literacy coordinator (who was teaching full-time in Folkestone) would be expected to deliver an after school staff meeting in Dartford one week and then a similar meeting in Tenterden the next. A cynic would say that the academy chain had developed a great way of saving money, as hardly any staff across their schools would be able to demonstrate impact across a range of schools needed to earn an upper pay scale award. The work life balance of this literacy coordinator cannot have been particularly good.

Someone once said, “Leaders and managers are fundamentally different; managers, it is said, do things right, but leaders do the right things.” To be a Principal in this academy chain, you had to follow your directions from your executive as best as you could, however quite often when this wasn't the right thing for your school, there was little or no autonomy to change – at least without seeking prior authorisation from on high and having to spend a great deal of time seeking permission. You were expected to be more of a manager than a leader and implement the policies of your chain. It's hard to do the right things if you are bound by regulations and rules from a bureaucrat with no classroom experience who only visits your school once or twice a term. As a leader, your wings are well and truly clipped – and that in my opinion is a shame for the profession.

After attending a local deputies meeting presentation given by my Principal on action research strategies, I decided to complete a “Diamond 9” based around what I felt at the time were the top nine roles and responsibilities of a head teacher. I then ranked these, with the most important at the top of the diamond and the others progressing downwards. By reflecting on my choices – I have discovered that there are certain working conditions that – should I choose to move into headship – I would find very restrictive.  To be unable to have complete autonomy over how I would choose to lead learning in my school would be something that I would find very hard to tolerate - especially if I disagreed with the policies being dictated from on high.

So – What have I learnt about effective Head Teachers over the past year? I have tried to summarise my reflections and thoughts below in no particular order:

The best Head teachers are the ones who have a clear, well-articulated set of values for their school. To quote Jim Collins, “Great leaders embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will.” This is level 5 leadership!

They carefully and relentlessly recruit excellent staff- and take steps to move on those who do not fit the best interests of the school. You can’t achieve great things without great people!

They delegate exceptionally well – and trust those in their teams, giving them the freedom and autonomy to do their jobs. Trust is vital as if staff feel trusted, then they will feel comfortable and supported enough to push themselves as far as possible in all areas of their professional lives.

They are visible and accessible to all members of staff – and value the role and the professionalism of all employees – whether they be the deputy or a part time cleaner. To quote Bryant H McGill, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” The best headteachers that I have known always have time to listen to their staff – regardless of how busy or pressured they may be feeling. That openness says a lot to staff and allows them to feel valued and supported.

Simplicity rules. I love the Woody Guthrie quote, Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.” I try to bare this in mind every time I work on introducing something new to our staff at Warden House. The best Headteachers that I have worked with

School-wide discipline – and consistency in approach - is essential. When you combine a culture of discipline and consistency of approach with an ethic of “entrepreneurship”, - in other words the freedom to try new things grounded in research - you are more likely to achieve great results. A school where all members of staff are actively researching ways of improving their practice is an exciting and progressive place to be.

Consistency and selective cherry-picking is an accelerator. Great schools and head teachers do not jump on all of the latest bandwagons or chase after fads. They determine what the issue is; research a range of solutions and then decide on the best course of action for the job in hand. The best heads that I have known have the courage of their convictions and an unshakable focus on the desired outcomes and then choose the best tools to enable them to reach that goal.

I love the hierarchy below by Jim Collins that ranks the skills of the different types of leader/manager in organisations of all different types and sizes. It's interesting to analyse the traits of leaders and managers that you have worked for or with and to place them at a certain level. It raises the question of how easy it would be to “up-level” a leader on the scale. Is it even possible to move a level one leader to a level five leader?

Taken from Jim Collins: Good to Great

Personally, I am now at the stage in my career where I need to make a decision about whether or not I want to pursue a career in headship. After moving from a class teacher to the role of non-teaching Assistant Principal this year, I feel more ready than ever to grasp the nettle and start to explore the NPQH and to fill in the gaps that are missing from my professional armoury. I am going to give it a go. It's been great to have the support of my current school Principal, Graham Chisnell whose wise words have given me the final push that I needed to make the choice to step forward and begin the journey. He eloquently says in his blog on the subject:

The post of headteacher affords you great honour and with this, the ability to make a genuine difference in supporting others when times are hard and celebrating when times are great.  The ride is energising, inspiring, challenging and exhausting; but it is a ride worth taking. Maybe, just maybe, Vic Goddard is right when he writes that this is indeed the best job in the world. If you are aspiring for headship, my advice is believe in yourself, take a deep breath and dive in.”

Thursday, 10 September 2015

A New Take on Redesigning the School Curriculum...

Getting Started...

Back in September 2014, as a school Warden House were in a really exciting position.We had just finished a really successful academic year and had gained the best SATs results in KS1 and KS2 that we had ever had.  SEN and Disadvantaged children had made amazing progress and standards in English and Maths were high for all groups of children.  These results were a culmination of years of incredible hard work across the school focusing on making sure as many children as possible left KS2 attaining as highly as they possibly can.  Ofsted agreed when they appeared in December and left us with a fantastic "Outstanding" judgement.

Part of what works so well at Warden House is that the desire to make learning as "Irresistible" as possible is firmly embedded in all staff across the school.  As a result, there are pockets of truly inspirational learning in all year groups.  School values are referred to with great regularity and teachers are getting more skillful at bringing these into focus during lessons and through topics of work. This culminates with some really creative outcomes for children and some high quality learning in some areas of the curriculum.  The problem was that it was not consistent in all subjects and all year groups - all of the time.  If we wanted to succeed in making sure that our curriculum was truly outstanding, then we needed to develop systems to ensure that this outstanding practice was embedded a little more consistently throughout the school.

Back in 2012/13 we undertook a school-wide leadership project with national leadership adviser Nick Hind.  This focused on developing a true "school curriculum" that fitted our children and locality.  There were many successes from this project, and many key messages.  The most important of which - in my eyes at least - was doing less - better.  There were some fantastic creative and collaborative projects across the school - but these stood in isolation and have not been built on in the year following the culmination of the project.  It was clear to me that we needed to refocus our focus on curriculum as a school in order to improve still further.

Bacon Sarnies 

After various discussions at SLT level - and through meeting with Anne Marie, our Deputy Head to talk through the issues that currently existed, we approached the Principal and put forward a possible solution.  With his agreement, Anne Marie and I took over joint responsibility for coordinating the development and assessment of the curriculum across the school.  Meeting offsite in Anne Marie's kitchen over a raft of bacon sandwiches and cups of coffee, we came up with a clear action plan that we felt would take the school forward.  We went right back to basics- looking at a range of research and practice at a range of local, national and international schools before deciding on what we felt was the right path for us at Warden House.

Developing Medium Term Topic Planning

During our initial planning meeting, it became clear that one of the key problems that we had a school was that we did not really have a clear '2014' school curriculum that ensured progression in skills, knowledge and understanding for all, year on year.  We had decided as a school to use a model curriculum provided by Chris Quigley however, other than dividing up and agreeing content year on year in the summer term of 2014, teachers were not yet working with the skills that underpinned this content.  One problem that we found didn't work for us with the Chris Quigley curriculum was that the objectives (or Milestones as Chris Quigley calls them) took place over 2 years.  For example, Milestone 3 covered year 5 and 6 and was expected to last two years,  This didn't quite work for us insofar as we felt that the sheer amount of Milestones that existed across two year groups was too much.  They needed structure.  We felt we needed to segregate these Milestones and split them across year 5 and 6 so as to ensure that they were going to be taught and revisited as needed at the correct times.

To develop this further, we planned a series of staff meetings to allow teachers to gain ownership of the real "content" of the curriculum Milestones.  This was done by asking staff to physically cut up and organise the Milestones from each subject  into terms across the school year.  Once that was complete, (and with great support from Adam and Jane -two of our other Senior Leaders at Warden House) we painstakingly adapted the paper copies that staff had worked so hard on into digital format to produce what is our Whole School Warden House Curriculum.  Teachers were given additional release time out of class to work together to agree the curriculum structure for each year.  Below is some examples of the finished document.  It is a large piece of work - representing curriculum coverage for each of the six terms of the school year for each year group from Yr 1-6.  Here is an example page taken from Year 5, term 4 and shows the level of detail included.

Science planning was a little different as each science topic would need to include in teacher's planning the correct investigative milestones alongside the relevant scientific content.  
(These were recorded on a separate sheet at the beginning of each academic year and would be referred to, repeated and built on in each unit as appropriate).

Developing Our Short Term Planning

It was all very well having this detailed curriculum structure in place; teachers needed to know how to use the skills and apply them and build on them in their day to day teaching.  Since working with Nick Hind in 2012 - we had undertaken a lot of thematic curriculum work as a school and developed some really exciting whole school and year group projects such as Oracy weeks, Alien Invasions, Pirate weeks, Tea Room Projects etc.that have really brought the curriculum to life for our children.   In spite of that, however, a lot of what was happening day to day in classrooms was rooted in the old QCA schemes of work from years ago and needed to be developed.

As part of the Nick Hind project, I had been fortunate enough to visit some exceptional schools outside of Kent who had an innovative approach to curriculum design.  One school in particular - Broadstone First School in Poole - had developed a simple yet high quality way of planning topics within their new curriculum..  

As a senior team, we really liked the rationale behind this method of planning to developed our own version based on what we felt was important for teachers to consider when planning thematic units of work for use with their children.  We also felt that this title sheet would be perfect for sharing with parents and children at the start of each new topic.

To help focus teacher's thinking, Anne Marie and I led several staff meetings firstly introducing the new format and then reviewing teachers initial efforts.  We also led SLT reviews of curriculum planning followed by  a staff meeting where staff fed back to each other on the pros and cons of their initial efforts.  This was a very powerful model to use and led to some tangible improvements in work produced and in teacher understanding of the way forward.  To support staff further, our principal also produced a prompt sheet designed to guide the thinking of teachers when planning topics (particularly useful for new teachers).  As a result, term 6 2015 saw the initial results uploaded onto our school website and shared with parents and the wider community.   The second half of the school year saw each year group using the new way of planning work and the quality of work in books and other outcomes showed a tangible improvement on what had happened previously.  

The impact of the was verified by an in depth governor monitoring visit in term 5, where governors met with SLT to share the curriculum development journey so far.  They then visited every class to look at work and interview children about their topic work across the school.  Their findings showed that children were thoroughly engaged in their work, could demonstrate deep learning and had produced some very high-quality outcomes from the topics undertaken.  It was heartening to be part of this review and to see first hand the initial impact of what we had put in place.



But how to assess all of this?!  In July 2015, I was lucky enough to attend a conference in London on the subject of developing a "Mastery" curriculum.  Throughout the day we interrogated what we felt "Mastery" actually means - it turns out no one is really sure yet(!) Graham (our Principal) and I had a really good opportunity to discuss and develop what we felt Mastery means for us as a school.  Based on one of the DFE's conflicting definitions of mastery, we came to the conclusion (I think!) that children who have mastered the curriculum are our top performing children - those achieving highly within (old) level 5/6 at the end of KS2 - or achieving around 85% on a SATs paper at the end of year 6.

On that course, the day started by watching the video below by Tim Oakes.  Tim worked alongside Michael Gove in developing the new curriculum and assessment systems and - like it or not- his thinking underpins where we are going as a profession in this area in the immediate future.

Following the course, we met as an SLT and discussed where to go next.  It was clear that the main curriculum for our foundation subjects was mostly in place and being used well, however we had not got a consistent system in place for English and Maths.  This past year had seen Year 2 and Year 6 working on the older curriculum and the other years had begun to embrace the new.   The whole school had remained using levels to assess all subjects -a conscious decision made due to a lack of any other system out there that could enable us to track progress in as much details as levels and APS. However, with National assessment systems moving away from levels, we needed to bite the bullet and develop a system of our own that would enable us to move forward.

In Deal we are very lucky to be able to work closely with 10 local primary schools in order to share practice and ideas.  Our English and Maths teams visited colleagues from many of these local schools to interrogate their curriculum and assessment systems for the core subjects.  Their findings were startling.  Each school had developed its own completely different system for planning and assessing maths and English.  There were pros and cons to many of the systems that we saw, however it soon became clear that nothing that was in use in our link schools was suitable for what we wanted at Warden House.  We eventually came round in a full circle and settled on the Chris Quigley resources that we had taken on for the foundation subjects.  Even that wasn't quite right for us, so we adapted his materials to fit what we wanted as a school.

We also developed a crude system to convert from levels to the new end of year expectations and decided on language to use as a school when assessing attainment.  We settled on "Basic"  "Advancing"  and "Deep" as these terms were closely linked to the Chris Quigley resources that we were using.  We consulted with OTrack who provide our current assessment system online and they agreed to adapt our tracking sheets to fit the new language and criteria.  We also decided to "plus" level each stage to enable a 6 point scale that is similar to the NC points system that we were used to using.  This is the (very crude) conversion table used to help us get a broad picture of where each child is as a starting point for tracking progress within this new curriculum model:

Reading, Writing and Maths

Here is a detailed PDF containing guidance for teachers regarding the new initial materials that we have produced for teaching and assessing reading, writing and maths.  It feels like quite an achievement to have got all of this completed and ready to roll for the start of the new school year coming up and staff trained in their use.  The challenge ahead is to monitor the roll-out during terms 1 and 2 and to support all teachers in getting to grips with how it will work.  

We have asked teachers to experiment with the resources and their use initially during term 1 and to feed back any teething problems and successes - we will then look to refine their use as the year progresses.  There will be a need for more regular moderation of judgments throughout the year - particularly in writing - but this can only be a good thing. The removal of attaching a level to a piece of work should allow teachers to focus purely on the learning and in giving children clear advice on what they need to do next to improve their work.

Next steps...Subject Leadership and Beyond...

The nature of this project has needed a very top-down approach towards curriculum development.  Staff have been heavily involved in certain aspects of the work, however subject leaders have taken a back seat whilst we have developed this comprehensive whole school approach to curriculum planning and assessment.  We started the ball rolling with regards to the development of the role of a subject leader in term 5 and have given all teachers the opportunity to potentially change the areas of the curriculum that they are currently responsible for.  This next school year, we will be developing the understanding of subject leaders in how to take an active role in the development and monitoring of standards within their subject following an agreed timetable.  It is exciting times for us once again at Warden House in this ever changing profession.  

I wonder what things will look like this time next year?  Are we doing less - better? And have we made things simple (in the eyes of Woody Guthrie (See below))? 

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Work life balance... Where to start?

Rather ironically, this post begins during the half term break and has been inspired by an email sent to our SLT by The Boss based on something read on twitter.  The title caught my attention, so I decided to park the report writing for ten minutes and have a read.  What followed was an article that captured my interest and struck a chord like few had managed before.

The link to the article by @shaun_allison is below and should probably be read first before reading on...

Before I start this post, I want to make one thing clear: I consider myself to be luckier than most to be in my current role.  From what I hear from colleagues at other local schools, many teachers have far more "pressure" and external stresses placed upon them than I do.  I enjoy my job and deeply value the professional relationships and friendships that I have developed with many of my colleagues.  I feel genuinely lucky to work in a school where there is such a positive feeling of comradery and unique set of relationships between staff and pupils.  Nevertheless, what I read above impacted on an emotional as well as a professional level and that doesn't happen too often.  Because of that reaction, I have decided to explore further the issue of work / life balance in schools in the 21st Century.

As much as I love my job, I often wonder (extremely naively I am sure) when the pressures and pace of work will start to slow down?  The problem is that, as a passionate professional, I am my own worst enemy in this regard.  In a vibrant, fluid school system like the one that I work in today, nothing is ever perfect - nor can it be.  If something is not working correctly, or an area of our practice needs developing then straight away my brain is working towards coming up with a solution as to what can be done to put the issue right.  More often than not, that will end up with me quite happily taking on an extra task / responsibility that may not fit exactly into my current job description. Ping - extra work!  Something else to do - and work that I have quite often created for myself.  I am my own worst enemy.....!

A good analogy currently for starting each new school term would go something like this:  Starting a new term feels very much like attempting to jump onto an already accelerating treadmill and being asked to learn to juggle at the same time, whilst simultaneously feeling that you are somehow being internally and externally judged on the quality of the juggling by those around you; who may also be judging the quality of your jogging as well!  (Then they might just notch the speed up a level or set the incline up by a few percent, or make you jog 20 miles when at first you were only expecting to complete 10!)  If as teachers we feel like this, then something has to give somewhere, surely?  Can we do our core jobs properly if it doesn't?  Can we be truly reflective practitioners who have time to analyse our lessons, learn from our mistakes, have the time and energy to undertake self-directed CDP?  We could of course withdraw into ourselves; become introverted and work to rule as suggested by many of the largest teaching Unions today.  I have seen the various union literature - for example:

However well-intentioned the unions might be, for me at least, I couldn't ever function in that way.  The principle is sound, however making the sort of blanket decrees that are stated here, would at times be counterproductive.  What would be far better would be for individual schools to conduct their own audits of current practices in line with the recommendations, consult with staff and then draw up and regularly review their own Work / Life Balance Policy Statement that could be used to guide thinking and practice.  If this was reviewed regularly and staff opinions were audited, there could well be an impact.

Teacher workload is obviously big news with the politicians at the moment with the 2015 General Election only a few months away.  Only this week, Ed Milliband has tried to repair relations with the teaching profession by proposing a full review into current working conditions and government attitudes towards teachers: 

The Tories have done the same.   In reality, nothing seems likely to change - only public perception of the issue.  Schools currently have it within their power to address this conundrum themselves - but of course that leaves a lot to chance and the willingness of governing bodies and head teachers to recognise the importance of work / life balance and the incredible difficulty of implementing what most in the profession genuinely want.

In trying to grasp this thorny topic, I wondered how best to start?  My various answers to my wife when she asks if I've got much work to this weekend / evening go something like this, "How much time have you got?!" or "How long is that piece of string?!"  or "The Usual...." It's then that the guilt starts...

In 2010 we were "monitored" as a school by the LEA (a Mocksted! I hate that term...) who bought in an external consultant - Nick Hind- as a lead inspector.  Many things did not go well during the inspection, however the one main point that we were left with as a school was to investigate ways of doing less.  This advice felt like a huge relief at the time, and is recalled readily by most teachers as the one piece of advice that sticks in their minds. At the time of that inspection, the whole staff team were working so hard, there felt like there was no capacity for doing anything else!  The inspection team observed that every member of staff was working incredibly hard at that time, but just not in a smart way.  They encouraged us to think outside of the box and to live and breathe the mantra "less is more".  We should look at what we were doing that had a measurable impact on pupil standards - and keep it, whilst at the same time identifying all that we did that did not have such a measurable impact - and ditch it.  

Simple advice you would think, but in practice, so hard to do! 

This was a real minefield! When examining workload intensive tasks currently in place, to a certain group of people, a particular task would have great value and a clear reason for being in place. Another group wouldn't see the point and feel resentment for carrying it out.  There is always a fear that if you stop doing something, you will at some point down the line be challenged by somebody for why you are not doing it.  Many current practices in school often stem from a lot of hard work from individuals and teams and have an emotional element of ownership attached to them.  The conversations were frustrating and non-productive.  A different approach is probably needed. Maybe going back to basics- or even back to the beginning...

In trying to come up with a solution, I have regularly wondered what it would be like to freeze time and start again.  If our school was setting up as a new school - a blank slate with no systems, procedures or policies, then what would we want to put in place that would have the greatest impact on children's learning and then staff well-being? I find it an exciting thing to consider, especially when I think about what I would want to get rid of and add in!  I wonder what style of curriculum I would want to include? What planning expectations? What assessment systems?  Timetables? What marking and feedback expectations?  What reporting formats and how often should these be completed?/  What SEN documentation?  Subject Action plans?  Monitoring programs? CPD Records....(I could go on!) Which of these would really make an impact in an "Outstanding" school.  The answer I'm sure is subjective and I would get a different set of answers from every teacher within my school - let alone from teachers from school to school across the country or even internationally.   What systems I come up with would be different from my Principal and Deputy Principal and in turn different to nearly every other member of the school community.  People place differing levels of value on different things depending on their own personalities, preferences and teaching styles.  

Interestingly, when setting up tasks in a classroom, we don't expect our children to always work in exactly the same way. We have high expectations and clearly stated outcomes and success criteria for them.   Should we not expect the same from our teachers?  This happens sometimes, but not with enough regularity. Is there room for a more personalized approach, where appropriate, for our staff to tasks such as planning, marking, reporting, CPD etc without compromising the integrity of the school and standards in the classroom?  It's certainly an age-old conundrum.  If that freedom is given, then how do we ensure that standards are maintained? How do we qualify performance so as to challenge underperformance by a teacher?  There's no easy answer.  Our school has made some headway with this and our personalised CPD program introduced 18 months ago has been highly effective, and praised by Ofsted. It is tied closely to our appraisal cycle and is genuinely working well. In other areas, we have battled hard to create a more uniform and consistent approach across the school where things were disjointed and ineffectual before. 

Anyway, now I come to the main point of this post; the one linked to the article linked to at the top of the screen "Life Without Lesson Observations".  Every term or so in the majority of schools across the land ,SLTs will decree the news that "Lesson Observations are about to take place".  Instantly, for the majority of teaching professionals the levels of stress go through the roof.  Cue hours of work preparing the "perfect lesson". As Shaun Allison alludes to so brilliantly in his blog, teachers suddenly change their practice with the belief that the observer will be expecting to see something new / different.  The personality of the teacher quite often changes in that 30 minute observation as they move out of their comfort zone and end up doing things that they would not usually do.

In our most recent Ofsted inspection during December 2014, for the first time, Ofsted did not provide gradings for lessons, but instead only provided formative feedback based on what they had seen.  For me, that instantly relieved the stress of knowing that the minute an inspector appeared in my room, my children and I had to learn and perform to the highest level - or else!  It made the experience almost, dare I say it, enjoyable, and professionally far more useful

When receiving formal feedback from a lesson observation, it is almost a cliched comment that teachers only focus on the grade that they are given.  It's human nature - we want to know how successful (or not) we have been.  That focus however, prevents us from truly listening to the key messages from the observer and more often than not, powerful professional dialogue does not take place.  With Ofsted now not giving grades as routine, should more schools not be following suit?  

By taking away the formal gradings, as Allison's school have done, the fog of fear has been lifted from each teacher and the professional discussions surrounding teaching and learning have been able to take place with the teacher feeling comfortable, in control and valued.  By providing this "time without fear" for professional discussions, schools would instantly start to remove one of the key elements of teacher stress, and one thing that in the minds of most teachers adds more to their work / life unbalance than anything else.  A school basing its entire way of working around this non-judgmental approach to professional discourse would surely find itself with happier, fresher staff who felt empowered to take control of their own learning and development with increased rigour.  A good starting point may be for leadership teams to consider their key values in relation to their monitoring and staff evaluation procedures and take it from there.

Many schools (including my own) have added a peer mentoring / lesson study approach on top of more formal monitoring - thus, with the best intentions further increasing teacher workload.  That seems to be the problem; good, valuable strategies are gleaned and brought in, but they add to the current working procedures, not replace, refine or necessarily improve outcomes- mostly because of the additional pressures that they add.  Teachers don't often have time to see the value and in most cases assimilate what had been learnt, or even engage with the process properly. To that end the bravery of Shaun Allison's school in moving away from the more formal monitoring is to be commended.

To conclude, the comment that stuck out from Shaun Allison was this: "Our teachers no longer talk about ‘what they need to do to be outstanding’, but instead they are talking about how students learn and how their teaching can support this.  This has been a very significant and welcome shift in the culture of the school........ Like many schools, we used to do marking walks.  Leaders would sample student books from each teacher and then make a 1-4 judgement about the teacher on a range of criteria e.g. books marked regularly; feedback is formative; students respond to feedback etc.  We have changed this now.  Teachers in each department now bring along their books, the whole department has a look at them and then the team identifies strengths and areas for development – with no grading.  It’s now far more of a developmental and collaborative process."

For Shaun's school, they seem to have taken the time to fully evaluate their procedures and why they do them.  As a result, the clarity of understanding and reasoning behind this fundamental change in practice is clear to see. This approach, coupled with ensuring a school-wide level of understanding and ownership of the changed procedures will I am sure have a far more profound effect on teachers' practice than the 'old' cycle of formal lesson monitoring.  I wonder how many other schools will be brave enough to follow suit and give "time without fear" to their teachers in order for them to develop their practice and ultimately succeed in improving standards in teaching and learning in their classrooms?  The benefits for all may be too great to ignore for too much longer.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Getting Started With This Blogging Mission- an Introspective Point of View

For those of you that don't know me, let me introduce myself.  I am currently employed as a year six teacher, maths team leader and senior teacher at the "newly outstanding" (& ever so slightly irresistible) Warden House Primary School in the seaside town of Deal in Kent. I've had the privilege of working at Warden House for over 6 years now and each of those six years has been challenging and enjoyable and frustrating and rewarding all in equal measure.  The positives and happy times come from working with a genuinely fantastic and inspiring set of children and staff; they also spring from working for a boss who genuinely distributes leadership and encourages staff to take risks in the right way.  The negatives stem from the current state of the profession itself, from the spectre of the big "O"  (but, interestingly not from the big "O" itself) and the full set of perceived pressures that we as teachers and leaders inflict upon ourselves and others (guilty as charged on this one) and the lack of TIME in general for so many things...(more on that in another post).

As I start on this blogging mission, a few thoughts spring to mind.  I wonder how blogging will impact on me as a professional?  Many bloggers that I follow online regularly state that they blog for themselves first and their audience second.  I think this is likely to be true for me.  Hopefully this blog will provide a useful insight into my role at Warden House.  It may help you (or should that be me?) gain a deeper understanding of some of the pedagogy and ideals behind who I am as a professional. Maybe it will help me to get some things off my chest?  Maybe organise my thinking with greater clarity? Maybe create world peace?  Cure Ebola?  Unsink the Titanic?  Who knows...? (Well, it would be great if it did the last three!) As I start typing, I guess that this could be a cathartic, affirming and interesting journey.  I am quietly looking forward to it. 

I suppose one of the first things to do is to investigate why I have started on the quest of keeping a Blog... There are several reasons why I have come to this point, the first and foremost being the gentle pressure from "The Boss" who has led me towards an appraisal target this year of keeping a professional blog. It's taken a while to get started, and if I'm being honest, time and work-life balance (or should that be unbalance?!) has played a part in me putting this off. Let me explain...

Most of the Autumn term in 2014 took place against the backdrop of an impending Ofsted inspection.  As an RI school, there was certainly a lot hinging on said inspection for Warden House.  That being said, the waiting game was, for first time in my career, coupled with positive determination rather than a sense of uncertainty and impending doom.  The school was clutching on to its best ever set of SATs results and had a raft of fully embedded systems all geared towards showing itself in the best possible light. The game was definitely on, and we knew it.

From a personal point of view, recognising the additional focus year six usually has on it during inspections meant that every free second of evening time at home was spent ensuring marking was up to date; assessments were made, plans were tweaked and ready and my subject leader role and team leadership work was continuously updated and analysed to death.  I needed to make sure that I was ready and that there would be no chance that I would let the school and my colleagues down in any way....thankfully, we needn't have worried. Ofsted arrived, were rather impressed with what they saw and, in the blink of an eye, were gone again, this time leaving us in the possession of the holy grail of teachers- an overall 'Outstanding' judgement. That still hasn't sunk in yet you know- and as I said to the boss, I've still never worked in a "Good" school!

In the midst of all of this, home life has also been a real challenge over the past few months (to put it mildly!).  I have three beautiful daughters (all aged five and under) who have had the worst run of poor health over the past ten weeks. Exhaustion levels in our household are only just lifting now and my brain is now slowly defogging and rather belatedly feeling ready to begin the new year (yes, I know it's now February!)  The sense of guilt that I have had to endure working long and late when my poor wife has been stuck in for what has been literally weeks at a time dealing with illness after illness after illness (including a six day hospital stay with a poorly baby) has been difficult to endure.  But enough self pity! Back to the point, and back on track with professional thinking and reflection. So, why blog?

The answer to that question certainly isn't just down to the fact that blogging is an appraisal target and one that I begrudgingly have to meet.  If that was the only reason, then I genuinely think that I wouldn't have ever got started.  There is more to it to that, and I think the boss knew that when encouraging me to agree to start blogging as a target this year.  Let me explain.  I have been a Twitter user for some years now, (this sounds like I'm seeking therapy) and would class myself as a Twitter "consumer" rather than "producer".  I dip in and out several times a week, but have never really felt the urge to tweet regularly, unlike some of the colleagues out there both locally and nationally that I "follow" (I still think that term makes me sound like a stalker!) who tweet regularly. 

I would describe myself as a private person and, in the best British tradition, someone who instinctively doesn't like blowing their own trumpet and sharing successes and ideas publicly.  Tweeting, blogging and Face-booking (is that a verb?) is still something that feels quite alien and a little uncomfortable. Interestingly, and somewhat contradicting what I have just written, I have been responsible for setting up and jointly maintaining the school's Facebook feed, which I enjoy doing and post to regularly.  This form of micro-blogging feels just fine as it is hidden behind the banner of the school name and is not linked to me personally.  By setting up the MisterHackett Twitter handle more recently, and transferring that name to the blog, I have created an identifty that, for me, mentally separates my personal and professional identities and makes me feel much more comfortable and secure about expressing my thoughts online.  At least I'm clear about that now!

So, that's a little overview about me and where I am coming from in relation to starting a blog.  If I am being honest, I think that I have rather enjoyed this somewhat cathartic experience, however have waffled on for far too long- especially for what is supposed to have been an introductory post!  I have been inspired to continue!  Thanks to @primaryreflect @chizkent and @moorelynne1for their gentle encouragement (and inspiring and rather cracking blogs!) in pushing me to get started.

Straight away, my brain is ticking and thinking up ideas and possible themes for future posts.  I have arrived at the following ideas:

"Wrestling the school curriculum: From the Pragmatic to the Irresistible."
"Work / Life Balance in the 21st Century primary school"
"Assessing without.... what?" The blind leading the blind...
"Reflections on moving "From Good to Great". What does Jim Collins say from the business point of view that could be applied to education?

But maybe that's missing the point. I'm beginning to see that Blogging isn't about over planning, structure and preparing posts in advance.  It's about living in the moment and responding to ideas, interests and passions as they arise. Now that approach is exciting. Who knows what's coming next?

Thanks for reading.