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.

11 Feb

The Farce of KS2 Writing Moderation….

I have moderated writing assessments at Key Stage 2 for at least 7 years – I’ve always jumped at the chance because:

a) it’s great for your school to be certain

b) it makes sense to keep up with the changes and expectations

c) I always enjoy the chance to support other schools.

And it does feel like you’re supporting schools, across the four different Local Authorities I have worked it is clear that no one wants to catch others out and no one wants to put teachers in an awkward situations.

Through the years I have seen it all; the obsession with semi colons; the specific genre types; the ‘work in other books’ phase; endless conversations about independence. When moderating there can be a kind of defeatist, ‘us against them’ atmosphere, but we are usually aiming high, usually looking to get the best from our pupils. It’s never felt quite as pointless as it does now. It’s never felt as if we are just trying to get as many children to pass a line that keeps moving. And it is pointless, and really, kind ofembarrassing.

We are now at the point where ‘independent’ has gone out of the window. Spellings from a set list (so get them up in your classroom folks!) – handwriting can be evidenced elsewhere (so let’s do some special writing in your handwriting book…). Dictionaries encouraged and no specific guidance on number of pieces or type needed. So no writing in science…

Add to this the ‘particular weakness’ – presumably designed for specific SEN – but will now be used by any SLT under pressure to get results up. We are now at peak pointless moderators.

Let’s face it – writing results are only going to go up under this system and moderators are looking complicit. A system of teacher assessments moderating by teachers?! What could go wrong?

Let’s be clear that is going wrong.

Results will go up. Children will be writing more and more using a tick list that stressed out teachers are giving them: lists of words, different characters, the odd passive phrasing, punctuation all in place. Use a dictionary, ask a friend. edit work with an adult next to you and so on. All of it makes a mockery of reaching the expected standard. It’s not even the pupils who suffer – it is our professionalism which is confined to the bin next to ‘independent work’ and ‘author style’. Oh, and secondary schools of course, who will receive a set of identikit writers who have all reached a set ‘standard’, but have a particular weakness (with handwriting gets my money) need a dictionary to spell anything and fully expect the teacher to edit all punctuation errors.

21 Jan

Why I’m a Chartered College mentor.

I thought I would write this post whilst the launch day of the Chartered Teacher scheme was still fresh on my mind.

For those who don’t know, the Chartered College of Teaching was launched last year – with  the aim of giving teachers support, development and a voice. This has,obviously, not been without controversy -isn’t everything controversial these days? Regardless they have started down the path to that aim. Local hubs, conferences and of course their journal ‘Impact‘ – all of which create a space for teachers to read, share and then critique for themselves peer reviewed reports and other, hopefully evidence based, practice. Of course it is early days, and one thing we can agree on is that we are still all learning about what we want from our College.

Becoming a Chartered Teacher

The Chartered Teacher qualification then is about expert teachers in the classroom. It’s about recognising continuing professional development and giving teachers the chance to take ownership of their own expertise. On their site it says that they want to raise the profile of teachers and to support them to acquire the expertise necessary to maintain excellence in teaching.

This appeals to me. Fact is we don’t, as a profession, reward those who stay in the classroom. Continuing professional development is too often about leadership. Looking for excellence in classroom practice; exploring the impact and why it works is vital work. It is already done by those schools who know, but schools are not always the best at supporting teachers. And schools, especially in rural areas, become isolated. Workload is an issue; retention is an issue; we are still being kicked around the political landscape whilst government never really address our position. It makes sense then for us to do something ourselves. Something that supports classroom teachers – gives us pride and professionalism – and supports the development of excellent practice in the classroom.

But…

Of course there will be issues. It is a pilot. At the training day in London on Saturday, 20th Jan, this was discussed. We don’t want the first cohort to feel like guinea pigs, or to feel like their year ‘doesn’t really count’ – hence the amount of work that has gone in to the preparation for what the course contains. They talk about an element of subject, or stage, specialism and assessed pieces of work; the need for training for mentors. And the training indeed, part of being a mentor has meant that we have taken part in a series of four webinars and online discussion connected to these. Webinars with excellent speakers and vital discussion around such subjects as what we can bring to already experienced colleagues, how we as mentors can continue our professional developement and how (or if?) challenge can improve teacher practice. We also had sessions at the launch discussing expectations and aims. It has all felt very rigorous, thoroughly planned and exciting.

So, why am I mentor?

I firmly believe that we have to be the change we want to see.

I’ve spent many years bemoaning the lack of professionalism afforded to us by government, despairing when senior leaders demanded seemingly repetitive and beaurocratic tasks because it was demanded of them. As a class teacher I constantly looked for ways to improve my practice; disappointed by the disjointed training or the constantly political messages from union training. As a head teacher I despair at the messages w dare given from numerous sources and the way this adds to workload – how our teachers are not trusted and how a government change-of-mind can ruin my holiday and destroy my workload.

I’ve learnt that teachers need support, that we as a profession need to provide that support and that nothing improves your own practice than working with and mentoring colleagues!

We know this might not be perfect, but then it is never perfect and if we don’t just get started with it then it will be the next generation of school teachers (and our pupils) who suffer.

Find out more. 

05 Aug

A Digital Divide in Schools?

Is there a divide with educational technology in schools?

 

Up and down the country the experiences of technology in schools are incredibly different. If you take part in regular twitter chats, or follow sites such as this one, it is easy to imagine that all schools have decent wifi, take on board new technology or allow teachers to experiment as they see fit. We are, however, sleep walking into a situation where pupils have radically different experiences depending on the school they attend. This is not about parental choice, it's not about a school that chooses to opt out of technology, it's about schools that cannot provide these experiences.

What divide?

Some of us take for granted cloud computing such as google in school, or work email use at home and school, reliable internet that works all over the school building, even computers that don't take a long time to turn on. The experiences of teachers up and down the country however vary widely.

However these are common examples:

  • Not replacing old computers / updating operating systems (renders their use pointless)
  • Pupils not experiencing a wide range of devices (the experience at home being completely different to school)
  • Staff email experience – no working email, not expected to use email
  • Concerns about security leading to a completely different internet experience (everything blocked)
  • No training for software, hardware and new expectations of curriculum (staff confidence and experience)

What is the impact of a widening digital gap?

It is much discussed and open to a certain level of argument, but the good use of digital technology can time save at work. Disseminating information via email (secure email) and then sharing updates with parents and the school community; electronic registers can then automatically record data, assessment data which can be picked apart and recorded, planning stored and shared on a platform that anyone can access, resources shared with all teachers. Websites which the school has control of, and can truly meet the needs of the schoo community. The list goes on, but a key point is the expectation that the professional can use technology in this way if they wish to. Sharing resources via the cloud, and then being able to collaborate on these resources has changed the way we work.

 

A growing digital divide manifests itself in other ways as well.

Internet connectivity is key to schools. To be clear I'm not talking about wireless and mobile digital devices. Instead, just basic high speed broadband. This has a huge impact on school life. Before we think about pupil resources and pedagogy think about the office. School management software, instant email communication, website management etc. Schools that can run the register completely electronically and downloading key documents from government.

Internet connectivity also impacts in the classroom – think of communication such as skype, streaming services and online resources which would not be available, or would be so slow that they are unuseable. Unreliable internet which means any online lessons could not be relied upon, or pupils rarely get the chance to experience the internet in any meaningful way. We have had days where the internet is not working and can quickly realise the impact this would have in the long term. A key aspect of online safety and curriculum experience has to mean that the internet, to some extent, can be relied upon.

Opportunity!

There is an expectation that school will offer computing and digital literacy as part of the curriuculum – this expectation has worked wonders for the provision in school – but many are completely reliant on outside advice and expertise. Not that this is always a bad thing, but any work with outside experts should be sustainable and supported by a school SLT. Staff who are able to experiment and who are secure with technology themselves can be a huge push on the provision in schools, sad to say but the attitude of the headteacher or governors can shut down potential projects instantly. Some schools still have access to all social media shutdown, without any conversation as to the learning opportunities, or put no budget towards updating computer systems which means that the technology is unuseable and off-putting before we begin.

What is your experience?

I would be very interested to hear of your experiences at school and whether or not the new curriculum has had an impact on wider technological provision in school.

 

Resources:

Prensky's 2001 paper: Digital Native, Digital Immigrants

BBC report – Sep 2014 – Digital Divide opening in UK schools

 

06 Jul

Computing in Primary – One Year On!

Inspired by a tweachcode chat idea I thought I'd review my experience of the primary computing curriculum so far.

Of course I'm aware that I am obviously more exposed; having a site like this, on twitter and regularly in contact with other teachers regarding digital technologies. Which is why I firmly believe that we cannot let the momentum die – different schools have different experiences and the teaching of the skills can be patch when you look at a wider area.

 

A few thing stand out:

  • Primary and Secondary are talking more.

I see this collaboration on social media, more dialogue and overlap. However my experience of schools is also that secondary colleagues are reaching out, and through the great CAS network they are sharing the expertise they have. Of course there is much to do, I worry that secondary won't be able to build on the work primary do as the experiences won't be similar. But it's a start.

 

  • Primary colleagues are embracing the new…

It's not easy! Assessment changes, whole curriculum shifts, SEN changes and new terminology across everything.. Primary teachers are heroes right now, yet every time I've delivered Inset, or have spoken to teachers they are taking it all in their stride. I've had enthusiastic uptake for Hour of Code, Code Club, internet safety day, paper internet classes and all sorts! Stuff that could easily be the straw that breaks the camels back for many teachers.

 

  • Money is sloshing around!

Some of it is admirable, companies linking free resources to the curriculum, (Scratch and Google Apps to name two), some of it is well intentioned, but misses the spot and some has come across a bit 'gimmicky'. However money has been thrown at it, mainly because it is a bit techy and trendy I feel. Products such as Raspberry Pi's (or the hundreds of other robots that are on the market) and 'big ideas' such as Code Club and Apps4Good. Of course some money could be misplaced – and schools do need good advice, especially when it comes to consultants and 'experts' in the field!

 

The future?

 

Is looking good, if a bit patchy. Some schools have taken this on and are developing links with their curriculum, building on knowldege already there and beginning to grow expertise in their own strength. Of course the momentum needs to be maintained – and a consistent approach is needed from primary schools. Networks such as CAS need to be shared and teachers need to be encouraged to examine what else is out there. Of course, like everything else, this takes time – something in short supply now!