I’m a school in special measures. Stubborn, me. Went ‘special’ almost ten years ago, and we’re still special, see:- Continue reading “I’m a School in Special Measures.”
I’m a school in special measures. Stubborn, me. Went ‘special’ almost ten years ago, and we’re still special, see:- Continue reading “I’m a School in Special Measures.”
Look, I have a confession. I have, from time to time, stood in front of an unruly class and wondered what on earth I’m going to do to get them to do what I need them to do. I know what some might say – why should they do what you want them to do? But that way madness lies. Perhaps those moments of weakness have made me a bad teacher, but I’d hazard a guess that we all have had them. Or the class that nothing seemed to work for. Or the kid. So I imagine that many teachers woke up this morning thinking that the new report from Ofsted would be a step forward – an offer of help and support perhaps? Of course not.
Based on surveys of teachers and parents (many of whom seemed to think that a] low level disruption from other people’s children was a problem holding their child back and b] it was not being carried out by their child), the report came to some disappointing conclusions:-
1. If headteachers stand out in corridors and are less friendly then disruption will stop.
2. Teachers are too soft.
Let’s pop those points under the microscope shall we?
1. Visible Heads.
I think it is important for a headteacher to be a highly visible and active presence in a school – of course it is. It helps children to build relationships with the captain of the ship and that’s an important thing. It’s also good to have them around if things kick off. But doing so in a manner that is designed to purely show kids who is boss is doomed to failure. And being a presence counts for nothing if the systems in place are not fit for purpose. At my last school, staff constantly raised concerns at meetings about low level disruption in class. I’ll come to our own culpability in this shortly, but let’s shine a light on processes and procedures here. The response was “most of the children in the school behave impeccably”. This was true. But the ones who didn’t were really making it difficult for lessons to flow. So a solution was introduced. A tiered warning system. This is how it worked for me…
C1 – verbal warning for small misdemeanours like not having equipment or entering the room rowdily or chatting at the start of the lesson. On average, I’d say that 10-15 pupils in each class would have had this warning if all teachers followed the procedure.
C2 – second warning – a note in the planner. I won’t go into the farce that is trying to get a note in planner that is repeatedly ‘forgotten’. Assuming it’s there, and kids being kids and trying to be consistent with all, a C2 could be issued to six kids or more. And it’s important to issue it, no matter how tricky, because consistency is important, right? So that’s 12 minutes I then had to find at the end of each lesson to write in planners. And I taught at opposite ends of the school. And I started to wonder which routine was most important – being there on time to greet pupils and have an orderly start or adhering to school policy. By the end of the day, I’d spent an hour writing in planners. And had missed an hour of lessons or duty to be able to do it.
C3 – Detention. Maybe one child a day. Usually one who has just necked one of those concentrated Robinson’s fruit drinks or a Monster can of madness. Might the Ofsted report have considered the impact of sugar on this issue? Of course not. Might they have suggested that parents had a responsibility to make sure that their children were not so high on sugar and additives that it’s sometimes a miracle we can keep them from throwing themselves out of the window? Of course not. So detention is issued. And for some children that means booking an appointment six months in advance. For many kids, school days have been extended forever. Perhaps they tolerate detentions as the price they pay for having a good time for the rest of the day. Or perhaps they don’t mind because they don’t actually want to go home. So at the end of the day, I rushed from my lesson (assuming I hadn’t just had to spend 12 minutes writing in planners) in order to try to catch whoever had a detention before they legged it. I’d take them to the inevitable meeting with me. And on the way I’d try to make a phone call to the parent of the kid I’d be seeing the following day. All while also trying to call back all the parents who had left messages to enquire or complain about the note I wrote in their child’s planner. It was frankly, a pain in the arse and the temptation to just not write the note, or issue the detention was overwhelming. But we mustn’t give in, right, or there will be chaos? Except things don’t get better, because at the end of the day, detentions just don’t work.
C4 – Removal from the class. Hit the ‘On Call’ button. Ten minutes later, if you’re lucky, a harassed person arrives at your door with a string of kids behind them. There isn’t actually anywhere to take a child when they are On Called except your office. And only a nutter would leave a child unattended in their office. I hit the button twice in my career. I regretted it both times. The lesson was almost over by the time they went, but then I had to log it on the system – a procedure so complex that it would be easier to take over the management of the CERN Hadron Collider. Then I have to schedule a detention, call the parents and …. well you’ve got it. I might as well have stuck with C3 because there is no consequence for a C4 that doesn’t just involve more work for the teacher.
All in all, it’s an utterly unworkable system in which nothing is achieved. But that’s not to say that I think headteachers should suddenly start kicking kids out. Or turning into Judge Dread. Because that kid who told you to ‘fuck off’ found his Dad hanging in a garage. The one who is constantly tapping on the table is in pain with her IBS and the tapping is a subconscious distraction from the pain. And when a Head hears these tales, they use their judgement to decide what to do. Compassion is important. It matters and these problems need to be handled on a child by child, day by day basis.
In zero tolerance schools like KIPP in the US, there is a hugely disproportionate rate of exclusions for children with SEN or from ethnic minorities. Too often our schools don’t take any account of the complex needs of our children – either in terms of their cognition and socialisation or their home culture. We need to attend more to this – throwing children out of school is a failure of the system. It should never be rejoiced as I’ve seen some unscrupulous senior managers in Academies do, or be seen as anything but a very last resort. And for those children who simply cannot cope in mainstream education, we need to properly fund alternative provisions so that they are all entitled to the quality of education and support that is offered at places like Springwell in Barnsley.
But those are the high level disrupters and this report focuses on the low level. What of them? Are teachers too soft?
2. “Teachers – grow a pair!” (an extract that didn’t quite make its way into the report, but was there in the subtext).
There were several references in the report to informality and even dress, making a very bold assumption that informality breeds contempt. Where is the evidence for this? I work a lot in International Schools, where children rarely wear uniform. Sometimes they call members of staff by their first names, especially in High School. And here, in sixth form colleges and FE colleges, it is routine to be on first name terms with tutors and not to have uniform. And yet standards of behaviour in these settings are excellent. There is a clear difference between open, friendly and informal relationships between staff and pupils and poor consistency and expectations. The report has really confused these two things and there is a strong flavour that personal preference is over-riding evidence in this matter.
Children need boundaries. They need to know that you are trying to be fair and consistent (and they’re pretty good at recognising that fairness is not always the same as treating everyone in exactly the same way). But whether or not their uniform (or yours) impacts on those issues is unproven. It’s a silly correlation. I wish the report had spent more time asking the following questions:-
1. What impact is diet having on behaviour? What could we do to ensure that parents don’t give their children cash to go to the shop on the way to school?
2. To what extent are we feeding a culture of low respect and tolerance for each other, by placing far more emphasis on exam results than personal character?
3. To what extent do politicians, Ofsted and the media shape the opinions of parents? And in belittling and blaming the profession, do they create a lack of respect for the profession in parents’ minds that then gets passed onto their children? I’ve had, on more than one occasion, a parent demand that their child be excused from a detention for spurious reasons and had to deal with some fairly rude and dismissive comments about getting a ‘real’ job and knowing what ‘hard work looks like’. This attitude comes directly from our media and it is fed by politicians. Sort your own houses out first.
4. When we teachers blame each other for not following the system and letting the team down, how often do we think whether or not it is just harder for some people than others. People who don’t have their own classrooms, or are teaching subjects where it’s just not practical to have planners out on desks. You’re in a field for example. Is consistency really the better option, or should we find solutions at departmental levels?
5. We should be teaching lessons worth behaving for. Too many of us think that resilience is about enduring boredom. It’s not. And there are very few adolescents who can tolerate sitting and listening for 5 hours or more without needing to move about and talk.
It always depresses me when complex problems – and don’t get me wrong, this is a problem – when complex problems are met with simplistic solutions. When they are used as an excuse to push forward a favourite ideology. When they are used to avoid looking at bigger questions.
This year, Harvard university published a report’Making Caring Common’ which examined why it was that children were placing their own needs ahead of others and why their ability to empathise was falling. The answers were complex, but in a nutshell, we, as a society are not prioritising empathy, respect and care as we raise our young. It is absent from our curriculum. We press for individual achievement and personal happiness above community responsibility. Is it really any wonder then that we are finding this lack of respect and empathy in our classrooms? Surely, instead of blaming Heads, teachers and children, we should start to look at ourselves as a society and ask some serious questions about how we educate our young.
I liked Mike Cladingbowl, National Director for Reform at Ofsted and was very glad of the chance to meet with him last Friday. For a start he bought the biscuits himself. He also has the kind of naughty little twinkle in his eye that makes you think he would be good company in the pub. And there is something of the bruiser about him too. I think if I were in a street fight (I’m from Burnley and live in Oldham, so it’s not that unlikely), I’d quite like him to have my back. I’d rather not be fighting him though. He’s convivial and generous, but no idiot and I had the clear impression that if he wants something to happen, it will happen. This, of course can be problematic for someone who doesn’t listen, have empathy or accept advice (a recently departed Secretary of State springs to mind), but here I think we have that rare person who is principled, determined, tough and humble enough to listen and to consider what he hears. Our meeting was scheduled to last for 90 minutes. He stayed for close to three hours and they had to throw him out of the room in the end. You could not have had a bigger contrast between that encounter and the earlier one we had at the DfE with Liz Truss.
There were two strands to the conversation. Mike was keen to clarify the latest thinking from Ofsted and to clear up some myths. This meant that he talked quite a lot and was keen to ensure that we had the information that we needed. The second strand was for us to put forward our concerns and observations about the impact that Ofsted had on our schools and on our behaviours in schools and to ask questions about how changes to the curriculum and assessment structures would impact on the inspection process. My colleagues have already blogged about much of this – @cherylkd and @jordyjax have covered the impact on SEN and PRUs more specifically and @leadinglearner’s thorough post outlines the reactions to worries about the impact of this year’s GCSE grades on school inspections really well. So I’ll just give headlines and my own thoughts in response to what was said on the day. Most of you will already know that:-
1. Inspectors will no longer grade individual lessons.
My Facebook timeline is going to be free of all those little “I got Outstanding” posts that are understandably full of relief but also, unfortunately, ensure that we end up colluding in the system we say we deplore by feeding the monster. This unreliable grading system, that for years has set teachers up in competition with each other and which has given some less scrupulous management teams sticks to beat staff with, has gone. But Ofsted will still judge the impact of teaching on learning. This in many ways casts an even brighter searchlight onto data and it is important to bear in mind that in terms of numbers and figures, we are now looking merely at KS to KS progress measured by raw scores. There is, as Stephen Tierney points out, a clear distinction being made between attainment data and assessment evidence. And this evidence will never be found on a spreadsheet and not always in a child’s book. Learning doesn’t happen in books. It happens in heads. The worry about how Ofsted will know that children are learning in the absence of levels is already leading many schools to throw ridiculous expectations at staff in terms of recording children’s work in books and insisting upon unsustainable marking expectations – in some cases triple marking, or insisting that books are thoroughly marked every week. For a secondary school Humanities teacher with potentially 300-400 pupils, this is clearly impossible. Even in primary, a marking load like this is unsustainable. Mike was very sympathetic and was clear. An inspection team will not only look at children’s books to assess their progress. They will …. wait for it …. talk to children. If you are clear about what you want them to learn and they are able to articulate the fact that they are learning it, then you have evidence. Out of the mouths of the babes will come your inspection grade. And yes, of course work in books is important – Mike spoke of wanting to see evidence that children are taking pride in their work – that they pay attention to it and do it to the best of their ability. In my experience, this happens when they care about and enjoy what they are doing. Keep a scrap book for their ideas to be scribbled in. Keep a portfolio for best work. That’s my tip by the way, not Ofsted guidance! But most of all, make sure they know what they can do, why they are doing it and what they need to do to get better.
2. Schools overcomplicate the complex.
Learning is a complex process, but schools make it too complicated. Falling over themselves to second guess what Ofsted want to see, they too often lose sight of the purpose of the education they are supposed to be providing. In a nutshell, Mike was clear. Teach them stuff. Make it engaging enough to be remembered. If you do this, you have little to worry about from Ofsted. Inspectors do not get up in the morning rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of undermining the confidence of teachers. Talk to them. Tell your story. Know your children. Have a clear moral purpose. Don’t cheat and lie to please them. Love your kids. Have high expectations. Know your data. Be brave. Under the new framework, inspectors have more freedom than ever before to take your school’s context and story into account. They are not so bound to the rule book as they were, so make sure they know the narrative curve of your intake and that you have a clear vision and that you know where you’re going and how you intend to get there. And make sure that the vision is shared not only with staff, but with parents and pupils so that they can articulate why it is you do what you do.
3. Good is good.
@Cherylkd has outlined this policy well, but basically if you are good then you’ll have a light touch visit from HMI once every three years. If you want to move to Outstanding, you can call Ofsted and request a full inspection. That’s up to you. But the aim is to divert attention, time and money away to those schools who need to move towards a Good grade. And for those schools, the process is to be less punitive and more collaborative. There is a return to the support role that HMIs used to have in schools in offering advice and guidance. There will be a sustained relationship, working together towards improvement. This seems to me to be a much healthier and more collaborative approach to school improvement than we have previously seen.
4. The tests are not the curriculum.
There will be a focus on ensuring that children are getting their entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum offer. I have to say that this has been a real bug bear of mine for years – that those children, usually from deprived backgrounds, who come to school with a poverty of vocabulary and general knowledge, are invariably the ones removed from the foundation subjects (where those very things are often built) to take part in literacy and numeracy intervention classes. The gap widens. And it is a common experience as many parents of Year 6 children will know, for subjects like PE, Music, Art and the Humanities to largely disappear in the run up to SATS. It is an insanely counterproductive measure. For success in the the literacy SATS themselves often depends on having a vocabulary and level of general knowledge that allows a child to access the question. The focus on ensuring a broad curriculum will hopefully bring those practices to an end. And schools who are innovative and rigorous in their approach will find that children thrive in numeracy and literacy when they see those skills embedded and utilised in other subjects. I hasten to add here that all of this is my rant. He just said that it was vital that children access the full curriculum. But hip hip hurray anyway.
5. A good school is more than a set of results.
“Schools are a human business – it’s all about people and sometimes the relationship between inspectors and head teachers has been like having two people who instead of using language to speak to each other, try to converse in a currency.” In short, Mike’s view is that the inspection process should be about a professional dialogue between human beings who respect each other’s professional integrity. Head teachers can be very unwelcoming. They can hide behind files and data and spreadsheets (currency), avoiding dialogue and similarly inspectors can use data to avoid the meaningful conversations that might lead to an enhanced understanding of a school’s context. Talking to each other is vital – all inspectors are being retrained in this respect but a canny Head will learn to take the reigns and to tell the inspector the story of their school. There is a move towards a more narrative reporting process than a data driven one (although results will ALWAYS matter) – there is a recognition that there are stories behind results that may need to be told. Similarly, there is a story about the life of the school that moves way beyond grades. How is your school preparing children for life? How is it building moral purpose, character, experience? In the words of Mike Cladingbowl, “I want kids to be happy and to be able to live full lives. To be able to form secure attachments and relationships. How do we put this at the heart of education? What kinds of schools do we want and what kinds of people do we want to come out of them? … We need to have conversations about the purpose of schooling, and while they are there I want them to be excited. I want them to enjoy it. You ARE allowed to have fun!”
In the next few months, as the academic year progresses, there will be a number of stakeholder events hosted by Ofsted. They will be for teachers, senior leaders, parents and pupils. They will be about generating a conversation about what we want from our education system. This really excites me. I genuinely feel that we are moving towards a more open and collaborative period in which, yes, of course expectations will be high, but there will also be more professional trust and interaction. This can only be a good thing, and I was very grateful to be part of one of the groups hearing these thoughts for the first time. Thanks to Mike and his team for making the time to talk to us.