The Frantic Curriculum

I attended a curriculum meeting at my children’s primary school recently. It was presented be a couple of school leaders and it soon became clear that the new (2014) National Curriculum had made them frantic.

The frantic was subtle at first. Just undertones of frantic like an out-of-tune bassoon at the back of an orchestra. Little dissatisfied notes like ‘I don’t know why they put that statement in there…’ and the like.

By the end of the meeting, the whole wind section was off with comments like ‘Gove didn’t know what he was doing’ and ‘ this bit is just too hard.’

Personlly, I quite like the 2014 curriculum. I included it in 4 posts I wrote some time ago about the broad and balanced curriculum I think school should follow. At the time I categorised these into 4 strands:

But I was clear then, and I’m still clear now that the National Curriculum is not the only determiner of what should be taught in schools. Education is broader than that.

And I think that part of the growing sense of frantic in UK education is because teachers can’t see past the National Curriculum. This is certainly true of what I heard at the meeting at my children’s school.

Aside from the fact that most people don’t like change, so change in itself can be a frantic event, there is the issue that some parts of the curriculum are genuinely harder.

This means if you’ve been teaching in one year group for a while and it happens to be a year group with some significant changes, the likelihood is that you’ll need to look at your subject knowledge. This is fine, if schools recognise the need and calmly set about training teachers in the right areas. But I can see that where schools don’t put time and energy into developing the subject knowledge of their staff, then the curriculum will be just one more thing tipping teachers over the edge.

Don’t panic; sweep.

While researching my previous post, I came across another Michael Ende quote that encapsulates much of how I feel leadership has gone wrong in UK Education to make it all go so frantic.

I haven’t even read the book it’s from yet, though I now feel I need to.

Here it is:

“…it’s like this. Sometimes, when you’ve a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is and feel sure you’ll never get it swept. And then you start to hurry. You work faster and faster and every time you look up there seems to be just as much left to sweep as before, and you try even harder, and you panic, and in the end you’re out of breath and have to stop–and still the street stretches away in front of you. That’s not the way to do it.

You must never think of the whole street at once, understand? You must only concentrate on the next step, the next breath, the next stroke of the broom, and the next, and the next. Nothing else.

That way you enjoy your work, which is important, because then you make a good job of it. And that’s how it ought to be.

Michael Ende, Momo, 1973

School leaders have the responsibility to ensure their teachers are great, because great teachers make an amazing difference to children’s lives.

But many of our school leaders no longer inspire greatness. Instead, they measure how much sweeping* has been done, encouraging teachers to focus on how much sweeping* they have failed to do, rather than enjoying the act of sweeping*.

Since changing jobs in September, I’ve been able to enjoy teaching again. Of course, this may be because I’ve moved to the independent sector, I’m not sure, but this I do know:

  • there are less formal lesson observations.
  • there is more reporting to parents
  • pupil progress meetings do not exist.
  • there are more parents evenings and generally I have 100% attendance at each one.
  • There is one yearly, formal assessment.
  • There are no SATs or Year 1 phonics screening tests.

In short I am being measured less and the bottom line is that if parents are happy, the school gets paid and can continue functioning. The outcome of this is that I enjoy my job. Every day.

*of course, in this instance sweeping is a metaphor for teaching.

The Servant of the Nothing

The Nothing from the Neverending Story
The Nothing, actually looking a bit like a something

On Tuesday, I quoted Gmork, the evil servant of the Nothing from the Neverending story.

Of course, when the film-makers tried to depict author Michael Ende’s ‘Nothing’ they had to choose ‘something’ to show it. So they chose stormy clouds. It looked quite effective. In 1984.

In Michael Ende’s original story, the Nothing was more sinister than storm clouds. It was an emptiness that signified the death of ideas and dreams. It was madness to look at it. It was a hole in the soul, best described by one of Michael Ende’s fantasy creatures, a bark troll:

“You don’t feel a thing. There’s just something missing. And once it gets hold of you, something more is missing every day. Soon there won’t be anything left of us.”

And here’s the thing: I was once a servant of the Nothing. I think I might have done school leadership well at one point. But then someone pointed out that my action plans needed more measurable targets. And so I chose the easy things to measure – the half termly progress numbers that are actually meaningless. Then I heard that someone else was using non-negotiables in the school, and instead of saying “well that’s a doomed approach,” I decided I could set even more non-negotiables.

My actions plans were SMART. There was no room for original thought. My teachers could all look forward to being compliant. I had contributed to the death of ideas and dreams, replacing them with, well, nothing much.

As a person that depends on creativity for my own motivation, I had actually caused more more damage to myself than anyone else, but for all those teachers who remember the staff meetings with me standing up and sharing another new document, probably packed full of non-negotiables – I’m sorry.

I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’m sure there are leadership teams out there who’ve replaced inspiration for measurement, contributing to taking dreams away rather than building them up.

The Empress of Fantasia has the last grain of sand in her hand and is about to hand it over to Bastien.
The Empress hands over the last grain of Fantasia

But there’s still time to come back. After all, Fantasia was rebuilt with only a grain of sand and some imagination. We can surely do the same with the UK education system and bring it back from the Nothing.

 

 

How do you measure eternity?

Why are teachers so frantic? One reason is that they went into teaching for one thing, and discovered it was something else. Edward Burton got me thinking about this in his comment on a previous post about the measurement community, which you should really go and read.

Meanwhile, a Henry Adams quote, though usually taken out of context, comes to mind:

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where their influence stops.”

Henry Adams 1938-1918.

Whether you take that positively, or negatively (as it was first written), it is the fact that measuring eternity is a very hard thing to do.

And surely here’s the problem.

Teachers go into teaching expecting to positively affect children’s lives. They want to teach them so that they can have better futures. But when they get into teaching they find that they are measured half termly on arbitrary progress numbers that have more to do with performance than learning. They find they are given a raft of non-negotiables that they have to comply with. As Edward Burton points out:

Things which are easy to see are easier to measure.

And so managers measure the easy stuff and forget that the true measure of a child’s education is what that child is doing in twenty years time, or the kind of person they are forty years from now, or their impact on eternity.

And you can’t measure that stuff.

It’s no wonder that we’re frantic. Desperately trying to meet goals that we don’t believe in. Desperately trying to prove that we’re doing a good job. Distraught at our lack of perfection. Frantic.

 

Goals, Roles, Processes, Relationships.

  1. Goals
  2. Roles
  3. Processes
  4. Relationships

In that order. Don’t forget the sequence.

It’s basic leadership theory. You can learn about it easily by doing the NPQH or pretty much any other leadership course. But putting that theory into practise is a little harder.

When something goes wrong in schools it’s normally because somebody didn’t follow that order.

Maybe they put relationships as their top priority and forgot that the school is there for something – it should have a goal.

Or maybe they defined the goal brilliantly but then didn’t define roles too well, so that the conscientious teachers went above and beyond their duty and ended up burning out and growing bitter.

I think the problem I’ve seen and experienced first hand recently is that we have become a ‘process-led education system’. In my previous post I asserted that too many non-negotiables take away any sense of control a teacher has. They then lose hope. Non-negotiables are an example of a process-led system. Setting non-negotiables says: this is how we do things. Now do them. Setting them without a goal and without defining roles is a symptom of a ‘frantic’ leadership team. They have become too busy to explain their actions or to think carefully about who is best suited to carry out them. And relationships: well, forget those.

If we are to get back to a collective emotional state that is calm and purposeful, without being frantic (my first post on this subject), then leadership teams are going to have to be brave and set their goals first, then define their roles for achieving the goals, then the processes by which the different roles can be fulfilled and finally work on the relationships so that everyone can get on and work positively with each other.

Easy really.

The Curse of the Non-Negotiable

Gmork and his infinite wisdom
“Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger.”

Aside from the lyrical tones of Limahl singing the title track of the 1984 film ‘the Neverending Story‘, one of the memorable parts of the film is the villain: Gmork. This evil wolf fiend is allied to the mysterious ‘Nothing’ that is sweeping the land and threatening to destroy all of idyllic Fantasia.

Watching it recently, I was struck by something Gmork says as he reveals his evil intentions (as all decent villains do) towards the end of the movie.

Because people who have no hopes are easy to control; and whoever has the control… has the power!

 – Gmork, The NeverEnding Story, 1984

Non-negotiables are the Gmork of the education world.

They start off with all the best intentions…

Let’s have a whole school policy for homework. We’ll include some non-negotiables that everyone ‘must’ do. That way we’ll have a bottom line for the minimum amount of work each teacher will have to mark.

Hang on.

We need some non-negotiables for how we introduce lessons, otherwise children will be confused by different teachers.

We definitely need one for marking. Let’s all mark in green. We must write two positive comments and one improvement comment.

What about how we communicate with parents? Teachers must definitely update their class’ webpage every week.

And so it goes on.

There are many problems with this approach, not least the effort needed to monitor and manage all the non-negotiables that have been assigned to staff. But I think the biggest problem is that they dehumanise teachers. They reduces educators to a set of parameters and commands defined by senior management, when each teacher can bring so much more to their classroom.

Of course the corollary to Gmork’s assertion is that when you lose control, you lose hope. And surely a hope for the future is one of the main reasons to work in education.

Non-negotiables are one of the causes behind education becoming ‘frantic‘ – the theme for my current run of blog posts. Of course there’s a reason for school leadership teams to overdo their non-negotiables. But that’s another story, to be told another time.

Frantic

Frantic: distraught with fear, anxiety, or other emotion.State education in the UK is frantic.

Frantic. Look at its synonyms: panic-stricken, panic-struck, panicky, beside oneself, at one’s wits’ end, berserk, distraught, overwrought, worked up, agitated, distressed.

It is a description of an emotional state that everyone experiences. Sometimes life, or work, becomes so intense that the frantic feeling is unavoidable. But to have such an extreme word characterising day-to-day life in an education system cannot be a good thing.

I left the state education system a term ago. After 19 years in it, I moved over to the ‘darkside’ – the independent sector. From that new vantage point I could look back and see how frantic I had become responding to the ever more frantic requirements of the system. Since then I’ve had a few interactions with the state system that have confirmed my diagnosis. Some of these interactions have been with former colleagues and some with teachers from the schools my children attend.

I see it in the eyes. They are too wide. Or too sleepy. Or full of tears.

And people have seen the change in me. “You look really well,” and “the weight has gone from your shoulders,” are both comments I have received on more than one occasion in recent weeks.

I think there are a range of reasons for this collective emotional state of ‘frantic’, which I hope to explore over future posts. And if you’re feeling ‘distraught with fear or anxiety’ over our Education system or your role in it, I hope to point to some solutions.

Learning not to schwa

Perhaps the biggest challenge for me since starting my new job has not been the step change from leadership to teacher, nor the move from state to independent sector, but the move from Junior to Infant (or Prep to Pre-Prep as we would say in my school). And in this move teaching phonics has been the single biggest difference.

The principle of teaching phonics is simple enough: teach phonics well and children will read. They can use their phonic knowledge to decipher, sound out and blend words, becoming increasingly fluent. When I started teaching twenty years ago (admittedly in Year 4) I remember hearing readers and teaching them to look for contextual clues in the pictures or the sentences they had previously read. Not so anymore: phonics is king.

And I thought I had a pretty good grasp of phonics myself, until a teaching assistant pointed out that I sometimes ‘schwa’ my letter sounds. Schwa may be a word you have not come across before. Mr Thorne (my go-to Youtuber for all my phonics teaching) gives a pretty good explanation of the schwa here. If you watch the video you ‘ll see that obviously learning where a sound is a schwa is really important. But I was adding schwas to letters I shouldn’t have been.

For example when I said the sound for the letter ‘S’ I would sometimes say ‘suh’ not ‘ssss’. Or I would say ‘huh’ instead of the breathy ‘hhh’ for the ‘H’.

As I write this, the school leader in me is screaming ‘Teacher Standards’, because as everyone knows a good working knowledge of phonics teaching is part of the 2014 UK Government Teacher Standards document, teachers should:

if teaching early reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics

Well. I’m working on it.

The problem for me is that I’ve come down to Year 1 from older years. Many year 1 teachers come up to Year 1 from Reception and have taught the phonics knowledge that children learn right at the start. I’m lucky though because I have a helpful and experienced team around me who all have excellent knowledge of the Early Years curriculum and I’ve been enjoying learning off them!

Focus on where you are going, not what you’re doing.

The rather narrow Edgbaston Tunnel
The rather narrow Edgbaston Tunnel

This is the Edgbaston Tunnel. It’s on my cycle route to work. The distance between the fence and the wall isn’t very large and on my rather clunky bike there are only a few centimetres to spare on either side. It would be easy to hit the wall or the fence as I ride through it.

I’ve found that if I keep focused on the end of the tunnel – if I keep my attention straight ahead it’s fine – I can get through with no problem. However, should I look down at my hands to see how far I am from crashing into the fence, I have to screech to a halt as my bike starts to wobble. Focusing on what I’m doing does not actually help me with what I’m doing. Strange that.

In teaching it’s easy to get distracted with the mechanics of the job. Will my lesson plan cut it? Is my voice control good enough? Have I thought about every nuance of classroom management to ensure that the lesson runs as smoothly as possible?

But actually it’s more healthy to keep the focus on where you are going – where do you want the children to be by the end of the lesson / week / term / year?

Of course practice is important. If I hadn’t practised riding my bike on wide paths I wouldn’t be able to ride through the narrow path that is Edgbaston Tunnel. But now I have sufficient skill to do it, focusing on my practice doesn’t help me as much as focusing on where I’m going.

One of the great things about my new job is that there is an implicit trust that I have the skills of teaching sufficient to do the job well. Now I can focus on where I am going with the children. I think too many schools try to refocus their teachers on the minutiae of their teaching when actually their teaching would be better served by focusing on the big picture of where they are going with their students.

And for that the key question is set by the ambition of the school – do we want our students to:

  • have great individual lessons in which progress can be demonstrated by the end of them?
  • have great units of work?
  • make great progress over an academic year?
  • do really well in a test?
  • become great citizens who can contribute to society?

Teachers who then are released into seeing the big picture will only by limited by which of the above questions is closest to the ethos of their school.

What I’m enjoying about my new school is that it is definitely the kind of school where the big picture is closest to how can we make our students great citizens who can contribute to society.

TEAM: Together Everybody Achieves Mediocrity

‘There’s no I in TEAM’.

‘Together Everybody Achieves More’

These are phrases that are thrown about to justify why we need good teams in schools. However these are phrases that initially came from building effective teams in the business environment. And as I suggested in my previous post, not everything is the same between schools and business.

The essential difference is that most teachers spend most of their time working with their students, assessing (by themselves) and planning, which is often done alone, although sometimes with others. Teachers spend very little of their working day with their colleagues, which is something I suspect is different from most other work environments.

In short, while there is no I in TEAM, there is an I in TEACHING.

But to develop the picture, I think that many school leaders make the mistake of trying to over-conform their teachers to a single model of what a good teacher looks like. They set too many ‘non-negotiables’ some of which are important and some of which aren’t, but the net result is that many teachers are denied from working to their strengths because they spend so much time trying to fit the picture set out by their leaders. It’s like the Pareto Principle in reverse – trying to work so hard on the 20% that will make them into the ideal teacher, but then losing the focus on the 80% which they are actually good at.

Schools are strong when teachers are individuals. Of course, there needs to be a bottom line. But when we’ve all agreed that we need to raise standards for our students in a safe and healthy way, do we really need to mark in pink, write a post for the class webpage or ask at least 3 open-ended questions in our plenaries (those of us who do plenaries)?

And it’s true that there are educational systems where teamwork is highly valued and effective. Take Shanghai, where the maths teachers teach 3 forty minute lessons a day and have time to plan with their colleagues every day, and meet with other schools on a regular basis. There teamwork is built into the timetable. The resources are already there in the system.

In our system teachers have far more contact time with students, so there is far less time to ‘be team’. That’s why we need independent, unique and sometimes quirky individuals to be teachers. And there’s a strength in that, so long as we remember not to dumb down our teachers to the mediocre by enforcing a range of meaningless non-negotiables.