29 Oct

Tech will save us… Right?

person using black and silver laptop computer
How the small school can be supported by Ed Tech

Earlier this month government announced that the expectations for remote education are to be statutory. These expectations cover a multitude of scenarios and can be found in their guidance for full opening.

The National Association of Small Schools are offering advice in their newsletter for schools who are exploring their home-school provision, and I wrote this to support that.

Extract from government guidance.
So, where do you start?
  • Do an audit of what subscription services you pay for.
    • this might prove surprising – especially if teachers have had a bit of freedom in the past to sign up for specific services. Have a good look at what you are getting for your money.
  • Make use of the curriculum-linked services available.
    • Not to everyone’s taste I know, but check your long term curriculum plan – are some things covered within Oak Academy? Or BBC services? Can teachers make loose links now within planning which, if needed, can be tightened and shared with parents?
  • Provide training for parents in your expectations, and what services they can use from home.
    • For example, if you use Google Classroom do some online workshops with parents. They don’t need to take long, or be particularly technical, but they will provide parents with a bit of familiarity.
  • Don’ t overload yourself! There is no point in purchasing every subscription just in case, develop the technical know how with what you have.

Finding the Right Service

It can be tricky to find services and support – every school has a different context. Start by thinking what you need the tech to do – for example something that can be used both at school and home – a way for parents and teachers to communicate, something to share files or something to allow real-time online lessons. Services such as Google G Suite, Microsoft 360, cover everything, including video chat and online apps. Some, such as Showbie and Tapestry allow for interaction between home and school and sharing files.

Asking schools in similar situations to yourself can be helpful as well – especially if you have local expertise and people who are willing to help train staff.

It should be said that I am a big fan of Google G Suite for Education – for a small school it really does provide everything you need.

Communication is Key

And luckily tech can help here – whether it is messaging families, or staying in touch during a lockdown. Social media can be a great way to get in touch with parents – just try not to use your own personal account. Creating groups for each class can mean the teacher can share updates in one go – and choosing a service carefully will also mean that you can share it with parents in advance. Linking to key updates on Facebook, creating a dedicated space on the school website and text messages reminding parents of where resources can be found are some ways that communication can help.

Put your provision on paper…

You need to be clear about what you can offer – no point in saying there will be daily maths and literacy lessons if your teachers have no access to the internet at home. Aim for weekly contact, and then some sessions, such as reading, which give a bit of connection with the teacher,

Ensure that parents and governors are all aware and make staff expectations reasonable. Small schools, with mixed age classes, particular need to ensure they are realistic – teaching online can be tricky and in some cases providing workbooks for classes may make life much easier.

Increase engagement

Finally, consider that families may find it tricky to keep engagement going – even if they do have the devices and the internet connection needed.

  • Have a set contact time each day – whether for answering / replying to emails of for video chats. A routine will be beneficial for staff and pupils and will help parents to manage expectations.
  • Share information in different formats – e.g. weekly overviews can be sent via Google Classroom and put on the website in PDF format.
  • Continue with school routines – e.g. whole school assemblies that follow the same format. Virtual meetings for groups like the School Council.
  • Create teacher videos, or record the online lessons – this will mean they can be watched at any time.
  • Train your pupils – for example our older children are using Google Classroom habitually now so that if they need to use it at home it’s familiar. Some classes watch a bit of Oak Academy, or use apps available at home, so that they will understand their use if they are at home.

Do you have any top tips or questions? Please let us know in the comments!



24 Oct

We are missing an opportunity to truly transform digital education…

And, it should be said, it is not the schools at fault here.

As a primary school practitioner I am incredibly proud of how schools transformed their provision when the March lockdown got. Schools across the country adapted creatively, often on a shoestring budget, to develop some kind of online space and distanced learning for their pupils.

We saw schools develop online assemblies, inviting in the community just as the would in person. Schools that were open and made use of streaming lessons, or engaging with content already out there. Partnerships with providers (often local) to share resources such as video, or virtual walks. Secondary schools developed online timetables, desperately trying to ensure that teachers were not spread too thinly.

Add to that the communication tools school were using – linking schools with parents became so important and schools adapted quickly: Google Classroom, Showbie, Tapestry amongst many apps and platforms adopted by schools and shared with parents.

And all of this was achieved whilst still providing Free a School Meals and upporting the children of key workers on site.

Of course schools are now much better prepared: they have held training sessions with parents explaining how such platforms work; provided staff training; led lessons with pupils helping them to use the technology appropriately; invested in support from professionals. But we are fighting a losing battle simply because the divide was already too big and there’s no central support to this.

Let us begin with the good news, the government did pledge support for schools in setting up an online platform if they didn’t already have one. This was helpful, and it was backed up by a small amount of money. Probably not enough for a larger school with complex needs and staff training, but it was a start.

Government also started offering devices and 4G routers for ‘disadvantaged’ families – this scheme has been dogged in criticism mainly because it wasn’t particularly timely (I received devices two weeks before the end of term) – and there wasn’t enough.


So, why is it a problem?

We already know there is a huge digital divide – we know that there are families who don’t use the internet. We know pupils who only have access to a phone (and this is often for a few distracting games) and we know families who share one device. The Office of National Statistics also backs up the divide as increasingly affecting those with lower income.

In simple terms of actually having an internet connection connectivity (and availability) varies massively across the country – and a city-centric approach to online education is not helpful. You can check parliamentary data on this issue here. But compare these two images here for different experiences of connectivity.



And it is not as simple as ‘devices and access’ – families may lack confidence with the technology or there may be space issues, especially if a family member is working from home. A sibling may also need access. Cambridge University is really leading the way in this research:

For adults facing digital exclusion, the challenges of social distancing are many. Our research with New Horizons, a one-to-one coaching programme for people experiencing financial issues in the East of England, reveals that digital exclusion creates additional problems for people already experiencing poverty: putting together a CV, applying for jobs, managing and keeping track of money, and applying for Universal Credit are just some of the essential activities made that much harder for the digitally excluded. 

https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/digitaldivide
But what can be done?


In the first instance we need an admission that all is not as rosy and equal as the government is suggesting. Postcode connectivity, deprivation and access to services all make digital education a tricky concept for school communities.

Secondly the government need to make good on promises – and not just pandemic linked ones either. (Just give the schools the damn laptops you have already purchased!) The connectivity issue has been debated in parliament for years, and for rural areas often comes up in general elections. Less talking, more doing, please!


Finally, remove the pressure from schools to have an ‘online offering’ for all. This map just piles more anxiety on families and children who are unable to take part. Acknowledge that schools may need to deliver paper work packs, or loan equipment out – and fund us properly to do it.

The pandemic has highlighted more than ever the inequalities and digital exclusion in our society – let’s use this as a force for good!

03 Oct

Covid Secure Pupil Voice

white book in white table near yellow wall

Prompted by a comment from one of my pupils recently ‘ we never see them anymore really though…’

Primary schools pride themselves on developing pupil leadership; encouraging children to get out of their comfort zone and allowing them to have a say in areas of school life. If your school is anything like mine currently then our pupil ‘bubbbles’ are actively hindering this process as the children are not allowed to mix like they would do – they can’t walk freely around school to look for ‘tidy rooms’ – the older children can no longer lead clubs for the younger children and they can’t meet with different members of staff.

Thinking about this there are several ways in which children can still collaborate around school.

Begin by considering the worth in giving the children ownership over some of the changes in school. Not only by explaining the reasoning behind strucutral changes, or timetable changes, but also in asking them if they can think of anything that may improve it. As an example our older children developed their own way of running the school tuck shop in a covid secure manner.

There will be other areas of school life however that the children will be missing – and it is these that I have been thinking about over the last few weeks – how can we keep collaboration and community at the centre of our schools?

For the School Council
  • a display area where pupils can leave notes / ideas and suggestions for each other form other classes or bubbles. The school council will have to get in the habit of checking, and responding – and removing notes which have been resolved.
  • An online book (or even just an online collaborative document) – which will allow the school council to keep the minutes of their meetings, and hare them with the rest of the school. I love Book Creator – but a google doc would work just as well.
  • Their own webspace to update with what the impact they are having.
  • Use of google forms (or similar) to guage the feeling from the children regualrly – or even just a quick check in box or ‘worry box’.
Playground Leaders

If your playground leaders are anything like ours then their favourite part is creating new games and playing these games with the younger children. Of course they may still be able to be outside with their younger classmates – but we want do discourage them from getting too close!

  • creating videos of their new games which staff can then share with the younger children and then record the children playing them. In fact, creating videos of sports games (or inventing new games) is a great wet PE lesson.
  • Managing a rota for the sharing of PE equipment to ensure that it is safe.

Cross Bubble Collaboration

Reading buddies and maths game afternoons are an area that has ground to a halt in the ‘new normal’. Of course children can still share challenges and ideas virtually – through online games or online documents to collaborate on. You can record the older children reading their favourite stories or poems to share with the younger children. Older children could lead an assembly (socially distanced…) – or could record their assembly.

I will add to this as ideas develop – and please do add your thoughts and comments below.

03 Nov

How I Use Whole-Class Reading

Context first: this is a mixed age Y5/Y6 class.

I tried whole class reading instead of a guided reading carousel last year after a bit of a dip in the KS2 reading last year. And it worked, our children were more confident with the SATS questions, and they talk with great pride about the books they read. For some of the children this is the first time they’ve read whole books. 

Why whole class?

An analysis of test results – as well as the use of standardised tests across the school revealed some common themes.

  • phrasing of some of the questions – e.g. the ’find and copy one word’ or ‘find and copy a phrase which shows..’
  • struggling to scan – running out of time
  • Vocabulary (an oldie, but common theme)
With this in mind, and with a very wide range of needs within the class, I couldn’t help thinking that the carousel style of guided reading was not giving the children enough exposure to ‘good’ reading, we weren’t discussing author choice enough, or answering questions with enough depth. I started by looking at many of the people who have tried this method before me.

The Text

The first hurdle was the choice of text – as it was a whole new concept for the class I thought long and hard as I wanted something that was challenging and interesting. I wanted them to feel like we were trying something new, and potentially very challenging. We went for Treasure Island – and then built around this our literacy planning and activites. This ensured it was a key part of the classroom environment. Other texts that have worked well have been Journey to the River Sea, The Railway Children and we are currently leading Secrets of the Sun King.

The Sessions

Our School has forty minutes of reading every day. Four out of five I lead the sessions. For the other session they can read what they like.
My sessions work like this… at least 20/30 mins of reading mainly led by me although as I get to know the children better I will choose them to read paragraphs at a time. Questioning varies between vocabulary or author choice of punctuation through to ‘what would you do…?’ type questions. I focus questions on specific areas so it’s not a scattergun approach. First half term it has all been vocabulary and punctuation. You really have to work on questioning; making it non-threatening, discussion style.
Then ten, twenty minutes on a task. Usually a written task, or a few questions.

The Tasks

Vocabulary work – I give them a word they follow a practised routine with it. Synonym, antonym, dictionary definition, contextual definition, type of word and ‘context’.
A couple of written questions – linked to my oral questioning. I also give them a point value so they get used to searching for evidence if needed.
Quick creative piece e.g. a diary entry, a scene we’ve not witnessed. Drawing a scene that has been described. Aim here is story understanding – anything more and I will link these to the literacy lessons.

Some Practical Points

  • I still ‘just’ read the book to them, so sometimes they are just listening and enjoying!
  • It is really important that they get their copy of the book to take home if they wish, to reread and refer to as we answer tasks, or work on linked work. Even to read on if they want.
  • Share copies of books with local schools. Create a shared document keeping a list of the class books you buy so you can share them.
  • Be inclusive – all children can be included in this. If struggling to read, encourage them to follow and listen. Rulers help.
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.

10 Apr

Why I’m not sure about a women-only NPQH.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. I’m worried this will be a step backwards for equality and understanding – a short term gain that will only fuel the misunderstandings and lack of empathy.

There have been excellent articles written (see links below) which outline some of the key reasons. The need for role models and mentors is something I constantly struggle with, although I have had excellent role models from both genders during my career. I understand how tough it can be for women who never get that ‘tap on the shoulder’ – for women who are ignored. A need for a meeting of sympathetic mothers who are struggling with the same issues; like-minded discussions around childcare and empathy at work. Or, how a female only NPQH will develop confidence, will cover the same content but will offer more female role models.

I worry we are shooting ourselves in the foot. After all female leaders will be managing men, and prospective male leaders will be managing women. Issues such as childcare and managing time need to be discussed with both genders, preferably at the same time, so reactions and experiences can be shared. Conscious and unconscious bias need to be a part of leadership discussions for both genders – again in a surrounding where dialogue can be shared, can be monitored, ensured that both genders are heard. Prospective leaders need to know the impact of decisions and need to understand these issues – these are issues that need to be in the NPQH full stop, and it is here that efforts should be maintained. We risk the view that these issues become female issues – or that women won’t discuss them with male leaders and male staff. Leadership training, much like good PSHE provision in school, should offer space for these areas. Not close them off. If this pattern is followed would the result be single-gender cohorts for all?

Of course I’m not saying that mixed gender NPQH misses out these things – it may do, of course, which is an issue in itself. More than that however there may become a perception that a female only NPQH will do ‘more’ of these issues. We will create a female-only space that is discussing things that directly affect the men we lead and the boys we teach. Women will then be forced to choose – a course which seemingly supports and challenges these, or one which doesn’t?  The offering of female role models is also problematic to me – as experiences differ vastly from one person to the next – looking for a role model which reflects to closely your own experience is, I feel, a mistake. Inspiration is needed from everywhere and we all need to recognise the challenges; not just gender, but class, geography, family etc etc that we all experience. If you narrow your world view, you narrow how far you can go in it. My most empathetic and challenging mentor was male and I credit that ‘tap in the shoulder’ that nudged me forwards to a brilliant female Head Teacher. Likewise I have seen leaders of both genders belittle and devalue their staff.

Headteachers need the confidence to speak up, in front of anyone regardless of gender, this is true. It is also true that situations occur where women feel their opinion is not valued, where we have to support one another, echo others’ thoughts and generally ‘keep an eye out’ for one another. Whilst the WomenEd 10% braver mantra goes some way to developing this, developing leaders need to meet others who handle difficult conversations differently, regardless of gender. Learn from the experience of others. Leaders will always have to tackle difficulties and leadership training should help with this. For all candidates. It may be the case that male candidates need support with this or need support to recognise any unconscious bias they may themselves be displaying. It may that we need generic bias training for all leaders – including volunteers such as governors – but I don’t think a female only NPQH will help with these broader issues. It may indeed hinder the experience of those who only draw on female voices, missing the issues that men experience as they go through the process.

I am open to convincing though – and would love to hear others’ thoughts. I don’t think we can say that men can’t have an opinion, though I haven’t seen many. We need to build a professional qualification that is fit for the future rather than echoing current mistakes. Calling out those leadership course that don’t offer a range of empathetic voices.

Links:

TES Article

Hopeful Headteacher Blog

Julie Hunter – Why a Women Only NPQH