21 Mar

One Year on… A Reflection

As I started writing this I realised that, in fact, it would be impossible to write an adequate blog post on the whole year. This then is more of a summary, a review – a kind of diary into what did happen. There is more to be written here – and more time to give this. But – we need to start somewhere, and so to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, lets start at the beginning.

This, I hope, will be a more optimistic piece – after all – we have soft sunlight here in Cumbria right now, vaccinations are going well (so far) – and I haven’t watched any government briefings for ooh, at least a week.

What has this last year given us then?

The beginning – preparedness – how were we prepared for what is probably the first national crisis that any of us have led schools through? When it became clear that the virus was spreading – as Italy suffered and went into lockdown suddenly we were all paying attention – well the public health messages were all about hygiene and that phrase ‘social distancing’. And, well we were, quite honestly found lacking. It turns out that many of our policies and risk assessments were not really written for a pandemic of this nature. (Why they were written is another question.) Government-level communication was too big of a juggernaut to respond to our questions and concerns mid-March, and schools found out about closures along with everyone else. From then on we were running to catch up. And of course suddenly everyone was talking about social distancing.

Once it became clear thought that schools were closing for a while – and that lockdown was the way we were heading well then schools could start to support their communities better. By April we were settled into Co-operation – school leaders showing a previously unknown level of comradeship and peer-support throughout this crisis. For me, here in Northern Cumbria, it can often feel isolating, but the machine that is School Support kicked in and school leaders worked together magnificently. We planned hubs, we identified vulnerable children (and staff) – we volunteered, we cheered one another up and we listened to what others were going through. But mostly we marvelled at how much life had changed in such a short time. The support from our Local Authority was astounding – and as an Academy Head Teacher the irony of this is not lost on me. By the end of April it seemed very clear that everyone was experiencing this very differently – and each school needed different things.

Of course in the background of April, May and June teachers across the country were transferring their skills to online teaching – a process many of us are just starting to feel comfortable with. Often with some pupils in school as well, meaning staff were juggling parallel plans – and we became more familiar with this as time went on. Parents were adjusting to juggling their own family life and everybody was suddenly more acquainted with the twists and turns of school curriculum than they had ever wanted to be. Meanwhile schools were embroiled in an ‘access’ panic – whereby the government and school leaders were at odds over the provision of tech – it turns out that large swathes of the country did not have good internet access (who knew?) and the online provision of easily accessibly lessons and content was sapping teachers morale and time.

In support the Government funded the set up of Oak Academy – which, regardless of the political or pedagogical wrangling managed to galvanise the profession and provide some much needed sequential learning that was accessible. They are still wrangling with the organisation of physical devices but some progress has been made: we have had sim cards, some data free academic websites and my school did get two chromebooks. Of course by this time there were other cracks showing in the school leadership systems – most notably the constant and often downwright confusing communications from Government. And, whilst changes to testing regimes, risk assessment, guidance for online provision, Ofsted (don’t ask) were all passed on to schools almost daily, and usually at unsociable hours, schools supported their communities as much as they could. It should be mentioned here that system-level communication has improved, but press briefings prior to any official announcements just seem the ultimate act of disrespect. Unions and government began to look at just how safe schools could be, a topic that is still the point of much debate now.

The summer is an interesting time to look back on. Like many schools we welcomed limited year groups back in July, but the stress and anxiety for school staff was palapable, and whilst we concentrated on providing for all of our pupils many of us were beginning to see the personal toll the pandemic would take first-hand.

This huge part of school life is one that I think we are still not learning from – following on from a full opening in September schools are still not supported for covid-related staff absences and are not offered support to provide more staff (which would help provide smaller classs sizes, provision of PPA and sharing of the workload) – this in turn leads overwork and burn out for school staff which will ultimately hurt pupils.

Other changes for school staff involved openness – schools were sharing much more with each other, both internally and with parents. Communication had to be very open as we had to find ways to talk to those who may be ‘hard to reach’ – social media came into its own and WhatsApp groups replaced the morning coffee.

Our school, like many others, began to look outside more. Being in such stunning and inspirational surroundings this is something we can do more of – and outdoor education (not just education in the outdoors) needs to flourish in the future.

All of this – these societal changes – the working from home, the online element of schooling and the emotional toll of ‘keeping up appearances’ means that many of us may not have been at our best this past year. We may not have made all of the best choices – or given ourselves enough time to learn from these choices. And we are not looking back objectively or clear-eyed just yet, we are not yet in a position to collecitvely breath out and survey the landscape. The changes and the education priority shifting we can do post-pandemic is something else to reflect on.

22 Jan

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.

06 Jan

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?

03 Jan

What will 2019 bring?

As useful as it is to reflect, I think that the chance to look forward and to plan, as far as we can, is also important. Being the Head Teacher of a small primary school means that we have to be able to move with the ever-changing political and financial tide. And so, for the first time, I thought I’d try some predictions of what will, and won’t, impact our schools this year. Here goes:

Assessment

Now, in the core subjects, I don’t think this will be so controversial this year. We have had our fair share of controversy over the last few years and things are settling down now. Guidance for Key Stage 2 remains the same, and moderation procedures are left untouched too. There is some change on the horizon for Key Stage 1, it I don,t think this will bite just yet. Instead we will be busy creating our own procedures for the rest of the curriculum. Unfortunately, I think that the welcome broadening of the focus by Ofsted will mean that we will see various ways of schools looking to ‘prove progress‘ or to measure where pupils are on their curriculum continuum. Of course the result of this will be two-fold, with some of this entirely within our control. The education world taking a look at the wider curriculum in Primary is a good thing, of course, and will hopefully influence other areas of the media. However we need to keep ourself in check and ensure that this does not add to an already jammed workload.

Staffing and CPD

We are in the middle of a rise in home-grown teacher led CPD, and this is a good thing. This is not just my Twitter bubble, although I do love the hashtag led chats on twitter. But it is thanks to Multi Academy Trusts, The Chartered College and, of course, the fact that schools are feeling the pinch. Ofsted is more open than I have ever known it, and I think that teachers scrutinise DfE announcements for themselves more now. As a teacher shortage bites we need to realise how much power we have. I hope this teacher led expertise continues to grow and we don’t lose this growing confidence. Social media can be very helpful in this way. The downside to this is the opportunity for misinformation, though this is a predicament for all areas of social media now.
 
As for other areas, I think much will be about well-being, whole curriculum and ‘evidencing’ the whole school and what we do. I just hope we can keep our heads whilst we do this.
23 Aug

Starting a headship in September? Here’s advice I was given…

I will be starting my 5th year of headship in September – and I don’t need to say how quickly that time has gone. I would be being dishonest if I said that I love it – I have a mixed relationship with the job at times. It is complicated by the small school (around 80 children) in which I currently work – which means that over the last two years my teaching commitment has crept up to .6. Being so busy that I feel I am not quite functioning at my best has become the norm – I just have to be okay with that.  

I thought I would share three key pieces of advice I have been given (and you have probably been given too) over the years and see how they aged… 

  1. You must make time for yourself! An empty battery can’t power anything else. (Or variations of that theme; buckets etc.) 

To be honest this advice used to annoy me the most. I found it patronising and often felt like throwing my diary to those who said this. Why wouldn’t I want to make time for myself?! I love my life! Wouldn’t I do it if I could?! Well, it turns out I didn’t…  I moved to one of the most beautiful places in the country and barely left a square ten miles of it for a year. Then I got talking to an electrician who said to me something along the lines of ‘I’m to expensive for that, you need someone else…’. Simple advice that made me think. Am I using my time and expertise for the best here?! In a small school – was I just the most expensive painter and decorator? Was I really the best person to continually cover lunchtimes? (Note this is different to being ‘visible’ – of which I am a huge advocate). So, with the help of a brilliant governor I sat down and looked at a typical week (or so – typical is atypical to be honest). I then began to honestly review what I was actually using my time for – and then costed it. And went from there. I managed to make better use of school resources, and also made more time for the things that I amm actually good at (not many things to be fair, but I was getting tired of being a jack of all trades). This meant that I had to say right, I’m leaving at this time on a Tuesday. Wednesday afternoon is my PPA time for my class work. Coaching a teacher takes place at this time. Parent open door policies cannot apply first thing I’m afraid – and that age old one ‘Have you spoken to the class teacher? – which seemed to solve 6 out of 10 problems. Good advice which is often not acted on. Be ruthless with your time and imagine you had to pay yourself your hourly rate – are you giving the school good value for money? After all, good head teachers are hard to find!

  1. This [insert problem that has arisen that morning] won’t matter in six months. Just sort it and leave it!

It’s weird – I have a kind of ‘inverse reaction’ to the perceived seriousness of an issue. A huge police-involved safeguarding issue and I was calm as a cucumber ready to call meetings and to speak to children. Behavioural issues – acted without a thought. But, a phone call about the homework policy, or a slight off-message chat with a member of staff and I could be a wreck for hours, days even. Constantly going over the situation.. Was the policy up to date? Had I really said that?! And so on… Luckily I have some amazing Headteachers around me (and some who were not so willing to help… trust your instinct here and avoid those) and one fab one, who had the misfortune to call after one such problem arose and was almost ruthless in her dismissiveness.  I was a bit taken aback – but she was absolutely right. And that really is all to say about this. You might need someone to talk through a few issues – and it helps to have brilliant staff at school that you can use to get a perspective but really, as the Persian wise man said ‘this too shall pass’. 

  1. Always be reasonable – by taking a reasonable stance you put others in the position of being unreasonable. 

My brilliant mentor said this to me – and whilst it may sound a bit unrealistic it has kept me sane in a number of situations. It can be easy to want the upper hand in a dispute – or to just put your foot down about something because, after all, you are the head teacher! But really – is it worth it? Compromise is often harder to do, but if you can be reasonable about something then do. Whoever is causing the conflict. It can help to take a moment and consider, simply, what the reasonable thing to do would be… 

 

Other advice was handed out over the years as well – and I may look over those in the next post! Would love to hear advice you have been given, and how it worked for you.