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.

 

 

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.

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.

The Great Grammar School Distraction of 2016

The recent debate about the proposed grammar school expansion is interesting but it’s just another distraction from the real issues that affect education.

These issues are

  1. the quality and quantity of teachers available to teach.
  2. The growing emphasis on the performance of schools over the performance of students, therefore increasing the amount of gaming that is in the system and consequently increasing the amount of dishonesty amongst teachers and children.

If grammar schools were to address either of these issues, then they would be a good thing. But the impact of grammar schools would be peripheral and indirect at best.

It’s interesting how three years ago a crisis of a lack of headteachers, was responded to by introducing a new curriculum and how a year ago the crisis in teacher recruitment was met by radical changes in how children are assessed. Then in June the Public Account Committee reported that ministers have no plans to address the recruitment crisis. No. Instead they would like to expand grammar schools.

Two of my children go to a grammar school. They are both thriving. They are thriving because the school is full of great teachers. The great teachers go there because grammar schools find it easier to recruit because they have higher performing students from more aspirational families. And far fewer behaviour problems. However they are still vulnerable to bad teachers. My son had one last year for a few months in his computing lessons and he actually went backwards. It’s the teacher that makes the difference to the child.

I have no problem with grammar schools. But every child in this country deserves great teachers. If we restructure to more grammar schools does that then mean that some children get the best teachers and the rest will just have to get by?

No. We don’t fix these issues by restructuring the school system, it has to be more direct than that and focus on the teachers themselves: what make teachers great? And what keeps them great without burning out?

Don’t wait for the incompatible wish to come true.

Waiting for the right kind of magic?
Waiting for the right kind of magic?

In his book Necessary Endings, which I found so helpful in making the decision to leave my previous job, Henry Cloud explains that one of the reasons people get stuck and can’t move beyond something is that they believe that an incompatible wish will come true. They believe that a contradiction that can never happen will, as if by magic, somehow happen.

As I read his list of ‘incompatible wishes’ I realised that I had done the same. I believed that I wanted to be the highest performer in the school but also wanted more time at home with my family.

It had been explained to me that as the deputy headteacher I should be the second best teacher in the school, after the headteacher that is. As the headteacher didn’t teach however, then by definition this meant I should be the best teacher in the school. Now there are some things that I think I am particularly good at and I know that that there are others aspects of my teaching at which I’m not so strong, for example my own written presentation and therefore my teaching of handwriting.

It became clear as I worked harder and harder to try to address the issues where I wasn’t ‘the best’, I was doing the opposite of the other part of my incompatible wish, namely spending more time with my family.

Reading the section on incompatible wishes was incredibly releasing. It released me into making a choice – between being the best performer in the school and spending more time with my family. I stopped being stuck. I recognised the incompatible wish – that contradiction I had thought to be possible – and chose the latter: the necessary ending that meant I could spend more time with my family.

What I learned from ungraded lesson observations

After 4 years in my role as deputy headteacher, grading every lesson I observed, I finally moved to ungraded lessons this term. I’d like to explain the context of my school here, but for various reasons, not least the brevity of this post, I’m going to limit this post to the things I learned; the ‘why move to ungraded lessons’ can wait for another time.

  1. Teachers talked to me more about their weaknesses. We might dress it up in management-speak ‘areas for development’ but let’s face it, we all have weaknesses. And for the first time in forever teachers were able to talk to me about them. “Maths is not my strong point,” said one teacher, honestly. “No, I find teaching the less able children really hard,” said another. This helps me help the teachers. It means that pride we can adopt based on our last observation is put to one side. We can let it go.
  2. Teachers were more experimental. Previously on a ‘round of observations’, I wouldn’t have seen anything other than quite formulaic: introduction-main activity-plenary lessons. But in this round I saw split introductions where teachers introduced a harder topic for more able children after they had already sent the other groups to the main activity and I saw a lesson which the teacher extended by 20 minutes just because she thought it was going well.
  3. Mistakes were celebrated. I saw a lesson that completely bombed – the teacher and the children knew it. The pitch was all wrong and far too challenging for each group. When I went in later that day the children all told me ‘FAIL – First Attempt In Learning’. They had a laugh about it and went on to having better pitched lessons for the rest of the week.
  4. I noticed things that I hadn’t noticed before. For example in one year group in which I really rate the teacher because she engages the children so well, I noticed a couple of misconceptions that she was teaching the children. They were minor examples of misteaching but would involved some reteaching by another teacher higher up the school at some later date.
  5. There are still some teachers who want to be graded. Some prefer the contentment of knowing that their last lesson was ‘outstanding’. I found it hard to stop myself from confirming an ‘official’ grading and one occasion (slapped wrist, Steve) I did so. Must remind myself to be more determined to remain unjudgemental next time…

Raising Standards at #BETT_2014

It’s easy to get blinded by the shiny when you visit BETT. Acres upon acres of fantastic equipment, software and services feast your eyes. Eager young sales-people yearn to catch your attention. Each one wants to show you how their product will change your school.

I know I’ve been blinded by the shiny in the past. I’ve come across products that I’m convinced will make that one amazing difference to my students. But when I’ve invested the cash, actually they haven’t. Staff and students have been disappointed instead.

The problem with technology is that with every failure, a significant number of staff within a school are disenfranchised. Education, which is essentially a simple process involving teacher and student, is sometimes not served by extra layers of technology. And when technology becomes a barrier certain teachers are put off, sometimes for good.

So this BETT I get to do a short talk myself. I’m on at the leader’s summit talking about raising standards. If you’re there at 1:15 on Friday January 24th you can catch what I’m going to say, which is essentially the story of using technology well to raise standards. I’m concerned about the amount of money that gets spent on technology without this focus and my story is one of success with limited budgets, where children achieve even in deprived circumstances. I’ve entitled my talk Raising Standards with technology: How to make the most of Pupil Premium Funding, but I guess I could have entitled it Raising Standards in Austerity Times.

Hopefully see you there!

How to be good SMT

I’m no expert at leadership, and so I read @oldandrewuk’s post, How to be a Bad SMT, with a wry smile and a deep sense of sadness. Firstly – it caricature’s the very worst extremes of leadership in our schools; secondly many teachers experience much of what the blogger says on a daily basis.

My counter-list isn’t as comprehensive as the post which inspired this one. That’s more down to my lack of experience in leadership than the ease we Brits we find in being critical.

How to improve teaching and learning

  1. Judge teaching based on the teacher standards, not on Ofsted criteria – this implies an emphasis on the long-term: on lessons sequences over one-off lessons; on consistency over flashiness; on substance over style.

  2. Release staff to teach to their strengths rather than to conform to one single style – the strength of our education system is in the individuality and autonomy of teachers.

  3. Never use the word ‘delivery’. While the postal service is incredibly valued, teachers aren’t posties. Don’t dumb down teaching with the word ‘delivery’.

  4. Take the Teacher Standards statement “demonstrate a critical understanding of developments in the subject and curriculum areas, and promote the value of scholarship” seriously – this means allowing teachers to research good and outstanding teaching for themselves, rather than reducing it to a checklist.

  5. Allow teachers to take part in non-judgemental peer review. This may involve self-sacrifice as you may have to cover lessons yourself to allow teachers to collaborate with each other.

  6. Don’t call yourself SMT: call yourself SLT. It might seem to be mere semantics, but if you call yourself ‘management’ than you will only ever focus on doing things right; whereas if you call yourself leadership you focus on doing the right things. Even better, leadership teams may even learn to do the right things right.

How to improve behaviour

  1. Make sure transitions are your top priority. Be high profile at any point that children are moving into classrooms, or from one classroom to another.

  2. Allow teachers to contribute to the shared behaviour policy. Be aware that adjustments may need to be made depending on the age of the children – sanctions for 3 year olds may not always apply to 16 year olds.

  3. Take your responsibilities set in the behaviour policy seriously – don’t shy away from speaking to parents or reinforcing sanctions that teachers have enacted.

  4. Be prepared to shout occasionally. It’s not ideal, but if you don’t, your teachers will have to, and that’s worse.

  5. Respect the teachers who want to sort out the behaviour within their own classrooms, but offer support even if they don’t want to.

  6. Exclude when all other sanctions have run out – a clear, consistent message helps teachers, children and parents alike.

How to improve morale

  1. Be consistent in relationships, especially with middle leaders, who are still learning a new set of skills and will make a whole load of mistakes.

  2. Be self sacrificial – do an extra cover for  in your department at least once a half-term.

  3. Take the lion’s share of assemblies and playground duties.

  4. Listen to staff. When they suggest that a new initiative might be too much, consider what they say and remember that the main thing is your teachers’ teaching. If the initiative won’t help, don’t introduce it. Even better release staff to design and introduce the initiatives that they want to happen.

  5. Don’t go straight to your office each morning, but spend some time in your colleague’s classrooms first. Follow up at the end of the day if teachers are having a tough time.

  6. Smile.

  7. Apologise when you’ve made a mistake, or even if you’ve been a bit grumpy.

Now I’m not saying I’m God’s gift to leadership. I can honestly say that I have made at least three of the mistakes that are on oldandrewuk’s list in the last six weeks. But neither is the list above pie in the sky – I have done every one of them in the last 6 week’s also.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch

When Nick Clegg announced that soon all children aged between 4 and 7 (Reception to Year 2) will be getting a free lunch, everybody should have been pleased.

My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their classmates every day,” declared Nick, pleased with himself. And we should be pleased too. An initiative that will cost £400 per child generously funded by our benevolent government. There’s nothing wrong with a free lunch. Everyone is happy.

Not in my school office.

The first response of the administrator there was to roll her eyes and cry, “Oh no!”

You see, Pupil Premium funding is a significant part of the budget at my school. Pupil Premium funding is calculated based on census returns that indicate how many families have qualified for free schools meals. However, to qualify for a free school meal, a form must be filled in.

This form is a constant battle for the administrators in our school office. Some families decide they don’t need free school meals, even though they qualify – maybe their child can’t stand school dinners, or they’re just too proud, or they simply didn’t know about it. Every year we have families who could qualify for free school meals but don’t. The battle is one of convincing and supporting families who do qualify to actually fill their forms in. When this is done, the family benefits directly by qualifying for free school meals, and indirectly because the school is funded an extra £900 per child.

Imagine the family who was on that cusp of not being too bothered about filling their form in. Now they don’t need to – this is going to be a bigger battle for our school administrators and if we lose, our children will miss out.

So I’m mainly thinking now about the strategies we are going to need to convince families that they really ought to fill their form in. But a small, cynical part of me – the part that has watched too much ‘Yes Minister’ – is wondering if this is a deliberate money saving ploy – pumping £400 per pupil into schools in the hope it may cut down on the amount spent on Pupil Premium funding.