The future’s bright, the future’s Cumbrian!

I had the pleasure this week of attending a fantastic conference full of great speakers and big names in Education. Not the first time I‘ve done this of course, but this one was different in that it occurred on my doorstep. My Cumbrian doorstep.

The reality here is that since leaving London I have travelled hundreds of miles to hear the latest thoughts in Education, to be inspired and or discuss the latest policy and find out what impact it will have. Having our own conference such as #northernlights in Carlisle really was a revelation.

Why such a big deal I hear you ask? Well, it’s simple really, here in the North of England we often feel talked at. We feel like the poor cousin of the geographical family; not independent like Scotland, or central like London – and we are sometimes catapulted into the news because we are not quite as successful as we would like to be. We get tired of hearing about negative news stories and often struggle to see beyond our borders because, well, we work so damn hard!

So a huge thank you to all of those speakers who came this week to Carlisle to share positive messages, to allow dialogue where the North of England was put on centre stage and to put context into our challenges and successes. I won’t name all of the speakers here, but they know who they are, and they know the positive vibes and the buzz that was at the University of Cumbria. It was a great mix of local experts – nearby academics – CEO’s of successful academy chains and education experts! It means much to know that we are not alone, that despite any political differences at the end of the day we all want our children to have a world class Education.

I came away buzzing about the success of some of our Cumbrian schools – happy to share my own experiences and looking forward to shaping local thinking in the future. I thought hard about the future for Education in general and glad that, for once, it was Cumbrian colleagues that I was speaking to, Colleagues who I could easily catch up with again, whose schools I could visit and who are in a position to share resources and ideas. Because this is really what it’s all about – I make use of twitter and of Skype, but the chance to talk positively about changes and success on your doorstep really is inspirational. The chance to look at challenges honestly, to talk about retention and recruitment in a way that takes into account our context. To hear policy makers and influencers discuss what is actually important for our area and to help us make the changes needed.

A huge thank you to Michael Merrick who got this ball rolling, and everyone else who took the idea and ran with it. The University of Cumbria was a fantastic host and I know many people gave their time to making it succes. Here’s to being the change!

Teacher Resilience – what’s changed?

I was really surprised last week to read that over half of teachers, who trained when I did, would not be in the profession anymore. (From the Teachers Pay and Conditions report 2018-2019).   https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-teachers-pay-and-conditions I don’t know why I was so shocked – truth is that these messages about teacher recruitment and retention have been in the news for a long time. Like anything though it took a framing of it through my own experience to really see the challenge this could pose. 

Then I saw the article in The Independent regarding the intention of teachers to stay in the classroom https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/teachers-recruitment-shortages-mental-health-nqts-trainees-workload-a8779966.html   – over half of teachers do not plan to stay in the classroom due to mental health issues. And, aside from the catch-all headline, (Mental Health issues could mean such a wide variety of things that it is almost meaningless), it made me think about Teacher resilience, and a few of my experiences once I became a Head Teacher. 

Google ‘teacher resilience’ and you get a mixture of ideas, advice and scare stories. There are books and self-help manuals designed to empower teachers, to offer advice such as ‘look after yourself’ and ‘tell empowering stories’ in order to help build a teacher’s resilience. They explain how meditation and mindfulness have supported teachers as well as pupils. They offer how to solve the problem, but I was wondering how we got here in the first place, and is it new?

I have just finished reading the excellent ‘The Coddling of the American Mind: How bad ideas and good intentions are setting up a generation for failure.’ By Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff and it got me thinking about teacher resilience. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36556202-the-coddling-of-the-american-mind

We are all complicit in creating a very complicated, high stakes environment in our schools. Schools are obviously agents of control; they have to offer safe places and they have to ensure discipline in both the pupils and staff. Decisions made in school literally have life changing effects and with this comes accountability and a sense of responsibility. The opportunity for teachers to build their own resilience is obviously limited, and is mapped out by the resilience and strength of character that they bring with them. But this has always been the case and teachers have always navigated a moral pathway which means tough decisions, tough thinking and challenging the educational management at times. Consequences of ‘bad’ decisions have always been the debate of much soul searching in the profession. So has anything changed? Are teachers changing?

Here are three key ideas that I think are having a bearing on current teachers,  both new and experienced:

  1. increased scrutiny in social media

This is the comparison trap – the idea that schools, teachers and headteachers are constantly compared and often criticised in public with no thought that this may be taken personally. Traditional media has always enjoyed a good school story, but now with stories shared so rapidly and with unfettered public comments these can be exceptionally brutal, and, crucially, taken as personal criticism. Headteachers especially fall into this as the school as often pictured as an extension of themselves. It also means that trainee teachers and new teachers are told what works and can be ‘jumped on’ for trying something new- or very often not trying enough. As social media is very often the support network for many in the first place this ca be particularly jarring, especially as you cannot be as honest as you would like due to privacy concerns. There can be mantra of teacher as a martyr or the constant comparison of hours worked. This can lead to an echo chamber of positivity which probably does not compare to your current experience. 

  1. less risk taking when training

Haidt and Lukianoff speak of the chance for our youth to ‘dose themselves in fear’ – obviously I do not mean that teachers literally risk safety. But the increased in school-based training, with one or two school bases (or one MAT) which are often similar in policy and setting reduce the ‘experimentation’ or risk that teachers would take and see. When your training is reduced to policies and ideas that the school has already tried, tested and insist upon your chance to try your own ideas and take part in something new is reduced and so is your time to make mistakes and to reflect on these. After all a trainee teacher should be encouraged to try out ideas that may not work and so experience both the consequences of this and the support prior to their own teacher post. 

  1. prescriptive teaching materials 

Haidt and Lukianoff speak of the allowing children to solve their own problems – to experience ‘play’ without an adult around. Again, in some respects, this can be applied to the early experiences of teaching. There can be an over reliance of senior leaders ‘handing down’ planning, teaching sequences and even scripts to teachers. Whilst they have a use in the classroom, particularly as time savers or if you are teaching an area that is not your expertise, they can lower the challenge threshold for teachers and lead to unrealistic expectations of what every lesson should look like. Or, they can come to believe that what they are doing is not of a high enough standard and so doubt their own ability. To some extent this is also linked to comparing yourself and to risk-taking, particularly in primary where some schools have a very prescriptive ‘non-negotiables’ and others leave it to the teachers to fine tune the details.  There are policies of course, such as a behaviour policy across the school, which are very useful and necessary but teaching materials which do not take into account the personality of the teacher or the context of the class can cause more problems than they solve. 

The answer to these problems are not easy of course, they require some relaxing of expectations for our new teachers and, to some extent, a dose of realism in the classroom. We need to recognise that our job is just that, that teaching is not always perfect and that teachers will make mistakes. Trainees should be encouraged to experiment with teaching sequences and resources, and to have fun with it. Not every lesson needs to be a singing and dancing extravaganza. We need a recognition that just because it has worked somewhere does not mean it will work for you and, crucially, that’s okay. 

New Ofsted Framework – a small school perspective.

I want to start this by stating that I think the proposed framework is incredibly positive and the emphasis on workload and evidence base has the chance to really make a difference for many teachers. Many will be warmed by the focus on a wider curriculum and the related insistence that an inspection should not cause an increase in workload.

There is some of it that does give me a cause for concern however. The biggest of this is the ’on-site’ preparation. This is where the school would be notified by 10AM the previous day of the inspection, but the inspectors would be on site for a half-day preparation on the day they call. The list of items they cover during this prep time is very similar to the current phone call, (school development plan, maps, staff list etc) with a few differences – wifi, single central register. And of course they expect to be able to speak to school leaders – and they will need space to do this. This is immediately problematic. There really is no small school in the land that will have random space, and spare staff, to be able to do this at such short notice. In a school where the headteacher is teaching and where there may be no business manager working (they may not even check the answer machine until lunchtime!) this is going to really make people anxious. It means for those expecting Ofsted there will always need to be ‘a plan’ in place just in case – a cost incurred and extra work already taking place. And, they haven’t even begun the ‘formal’ part of the inspection yet. This seems to be a step backward in a time where we look to using technology to save time and resources. The email / secure portal for sharing documents seems to work fine and the use of phones means that if the headteacher is off-site they can still get pertinent information.

On the other hand some of this proposed framework could, potentially, benefit the small school. The emphasis on a triangulation of evidence – ‘ connect lesson observation to other evidence: discussions with curriculum leaders, teachers and pupils, and work scrutiny’ could work very well in an environment for one leader is directly responsible for many elements of accountability. The chance to have a conversation, talking through how impact can be seen and how decisions are taken could be very beneficial.

Likewise for the focus on curriculum-level work scrutiny and on not taking a random sample of work. In a school where the curriculum is planned across 2, or even 4, years a holistic approach to the evidence in books and the ‘long view’ could work with a small school and give school leaders the chance to demonstrate impact over time. Of course small schools will need to put a bit of time into the long view themselves – including thinking about evidence, how long they keep curriculum evidence for and how they ensure their curriculum is incremental across different year groups. Schools will need a strong stomach not to start evidencing every little detail in ever subject, and Ofsted will need to take some responsibility and ensure they do not give the impression that this is needed.

The proof of any of these changes will be in the first crop of inspections that take place. And some will demand greater changes: I think they should cut out a one-word grade altogether (and much has been written on this topic) as well as ensure that they observe all schools and ‘outstanding’ schools are not exempt. But for a step toward recognising that they have been responsible for many of the workload-inducing practice over the years this Ofsted framework is a good start.

Getting your child started online.

Children will be online. There really is no way to avoid it. And, as they get online they will need an account or a profile for games, apps and even just for browsing on some sites. Then, as they get older, social media. To support this it’s a good idea to model the use of the internet and to support your child whilst they get used to managing their own accounts and their own online presence. But where to start?

Usernames

We talk about usernames in school. We discuss how you don’t want to give any personal information away in your name. You need a username that is not offensive and is simple.

Many people choose their first name and some numbers, or a nickname and children need to be warned of the danger of this. First names can be problematic. Not only can they identify you easily if names are spelt in an unusual way but they also give a sense of familiarity which may mean some children find it difficult to remember they are talking to strangers. A child may say they want to use their real name so they can find their friends. Some platforms offer the chance to let contacts know your real name separately – make sure you talk to your child about this before they do it. We always suggest that children only add as ‘friends’ those contacts that they know in real life.

Email addresses

To start with use a family email address so you can keep track of account registrations and any other agreements that go with it.

Schools may use email addresses for children for internal mail to get them used to the process of usernames / passwords etc. – and so as a family sharing email addresses is a good way to introduce your child to this. It also allows you to model use and to introduce the child to email etiquette. Staying in touch with far-flung relatives maybe or just emailing thank-you notes at birthdays. Most social media sites have a minmum age for sign up and so use this as a rule of thumb for email addressses too.

Friends

Always start with the premise that children should know their online friends in real life. Encourage this and talk to children about what they use to talk to friends and how they act online.

However, as we know, meeting people out of your bubble is a big plus of the internet and so, as they get older, the need to understand not to give too much information away. In a lesson we did once we found that children were pretty savvy about their own address, real name and family but not so good with their school. Children would give details out about where school was, or how they get to school particularly if it was another child they were speaking to. There has to be a fine line with trust and looking after your information. So use this a a discussion point. Do they really need to know how you got to school this morning?

Finally use these conversations as a way to set boundaries – once children are managing their own accounts or setting up their own games they will inevitably find themselves being advertised to. Being savvy about adverts and about what you can and can’t download is a big subject, but if you are able to be open about this early on it will hopefully prevent future problems.

And don’t forget there is lots of help online with specific apps, platforms and games. You can take a look here for more information.

My career has been driven by Government Initiatives.

Funny, I had a bit of a revelation today. Tidying out turned up my old CPD folder. One which I kept throughout my career, up to this latest job. ( I have to say I found this very helpful when job hunting and whatnot, but that’s not the point of this post!)

Looking though my folder, organised by ‘theme’ – e.g. photo evidence, letters and articles, reports; I realised that everything I had done in terms of pushing my career forward, or trying something new, had been dictated by the government of the time. Even my Local Authority position, which was partly inspired by a big push into spending on IT, was all about money – and where schools were allowed to spend.

Take my first role – which was PE and School Sports Coordinator. Completely driven by the money that was going into school sports. This meant, of course, that schools had to evidence the spending and the impact (remember the survey and older SSCO colleagues?) – and they needed someone to do this. My folder also contains the ‘evidence’ of my next role – extended school coordinator. Again, using clubs, afterschool clubs, out of hours (I think that was my title!) all as ways to engage the whole school community. I was in London then, and there was a lot of local focus on the family- family kitchen cookery classes, English classes, etc. I’m sure the Head Teacher at the time thought these things were needed, but the fact is I only did it because money was available and school were being rewarded for doing such things. If there hadn’t been money I don’t think the school would have provided these services. Was this a choice of that school then? Would we have scraped together the money?

Reports are also a big part of my CPD folder, as Assessment Lead for a few years, I put a few in my folder and the change over the years is startling. I reported to governors, SLT and our SIP at the time. It started with a look at the whole school trends, three years trends, cohort strengths etc. But then in a few years it moves into groups – and a focus on just a small percentage of children for each cohort — and each year the number of these groups increase, and the detail I go into bcomes more specific, and arguably, more useless. The time taken probably increased too – but I don’t remember!

It doesn’t just follow the money of course, in all this I have attended courses for hockey, cricket FA Coaching (sports, of course! )- but also book corner training, and the seemingly obligatory ‘outstanding teaching courses’ (I attended a few of them.. take that as you will!). There were also the interactive whiteboards training (government put a lot of mone into this of course – see this report for more info) and the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment – which I don’t think we ever used). These type of initiatives can all be linked to government drives though, and it makes me wonder if I, as a new teacher looking for opportunities would have made those career choices if there wasn’t this big push on sports / IT and assesment practises.

This has all made me think, if, as a Headteacher, I can now effectively lead my school in a direction that the school community wants to go in? Even if it is not attached to a government idea, or funding pool? This is why our profession needs an independent body that can advise and protect schools and teachers from the whims of whichever government happens to be in power. Hopefully the Chartered College can do this, but I wonder how many teachers have had their careers shaped by Government whims?

What Parents need to know about Videogames.

Many children are now settling down with new games consoles or new games following Christmas. For some parents this can be a whole new world, and a bit of a confusing one! After all video are big business – millions of pounds and thousands of employees. Here a few things to be aware of, and a few links that will guide you for further reading.

Surviving Mars

there is a massive variety of games… it is, after all, not just for kids!

The stats around who plays and what they play make for interesting reading. Average age; 35 – and 45% of US gamers are women.

Find out about the games, spend a bit of time exploring the store of the platform you are using. Lots of websites are out there for suggestions, and ask around for recommendations. Depending on the age of your children there are lots of multiplayer games and I recommend you set aside time to try and play yourself. Start with Lego, or Rayman! Good sites to check out include: this round up from CNET and co-optimus.com.

And… read the ratings! All games come with age ratings, it can be harder to see these on digital downloads so make yourself aware. For example a rating such as a PEGI 12 will mean there may be violence, usually against fantasy characters and mild swearing. A rating of PEGI 7 is not that different from a PEGI 3, but you may find some peril or mild fighting. You can find out more about the ratings here: https://videostandards.org.uk/RatingBoard/pegi-info.html#pegi-controls

you are always online, unless you specifically request not to be… parental controls need to be used.

This works also for mobile platforms such as the Switch and the PsVita and you need to ensure you are aware of these settings. Big games often require updates once bought, and for this the games console will want to be online. Create a master account, or parent account, on the console first as this will allow you to keep an eye on parental controls, report any issues and check any purchases. Don’t let your children create an account which doesn’t have their real age.

They can be more about the social side of things than the actual game.

Recent games, such as Fortnite, which is based on team battles often involve lots of talking, working together and general ‘hanging out’ – be aware of this and talk to your child about who they are talking to and how they ‘play’ together. Minecraft or Terraria also create virtual worlds which allow players to meet and to work together cooperatively. This is good social interaction, developing language and game skills and a good opportunity to take about esafety, be involved.

Limit screen time and have breaks!

There is some evidence that screen time at a young age should be limited, but there is little firm evidence for older children. Still, be vigilant as with anything, encourage breaks, such as you would have with TV and Film. Talk about what they are doing, especially if they seem to get angry at games. What do they enjoy about playing? Will they try a different kind of game instead of the same one over?

Finally enjoy them! There is a world of experience in games, and some which will definitely tax your problem solving skills as well as silly games which will encourage the whole family to have fun!