School Visits and Avoiding Risk

I wrote on Wednesday some thoughts about taking children to London. On the general principle of taking children on visits, I’m asking: do we do it enough?

I had been amused a couple of weeks earlier by a good friend of mine who told me of a school visit that would probably make the papers these days. Some 25 years ago, his rather eccentric history teacher took his group to London, told the students when to meet him and proceeded to spend the rest of the day in the pub. Meanwhile, my friend wandered round London with a couple of others (including now-education minister Matthew Hancock) for the day, having a great time and learning loads. In fact my friend described it as being a formative – even inspiring – experience, but one that his mother was not best pleased about when she found out how the teacher had ‘managed’ the visit.

I’m sure many of us of a certain generation can remember teachers of that ilk: risk takers who liked to explode things, leave students unsupervised and drink heavily during the day. We may look back with a misty-eyed view of ‘that didn’t do me any harm‘ and wish for a return of the days when ‘risk assessment’ meant arriving somewhere and saying “oh, that’ll be alright.”

And I’m sure many of us in schools have attempted to plan a visit, only to become mired in unrealistic amounts of process and paperwork. Unfortunately a few, much-publicised fatalities on school visits have pushed many schools into reducing risk to zero and not taking children on visits at all.

These approaches do not benefit our children. Neither dangerous visits with absent teachers, nor risk-averse schools with absent visits will give children the inspiration, understanding and experience of the world that will really benefit them in future life.

I’ve tried to get round this by using the risk assessment process as the visit planning process also. Previously, the risk assessment was something you had to *do* after the visit was organised, not it’s just something that you plan for as you plan the trip, just as you would any other lesson. So alongside the hope for learning, you make a note of any likely risks and write down any necessary interventions to make to help students avoid the risks. This has helped me simplify the processes to a single one, saving time and also (I think) making a better visit.

Maybe it doesn’t sound quite as fun as spending the whole day in the pub, whilst the students wander around London, but it makes for a safer visit, keeping the inspiration for the students and keeping down the paperwork for the teacher.

Raising Standards with Technology

On Monday, when I wrote about Chromebooks being the ideal device for the UK classroom, I was hinting at wider issue about technology spending in education: wastage.

We waste a lot of money in UK schools on technology.

The EEF teacher toolkit is quite clear: spend your money on training teachers to give effective feedback. That is the best way to raise standards in your school.

You should purchase technology if it supports teachers giving effective feedback. If it doesn’t, don’t buy it. If you have any spare money left over, then maybe, you can spend some money on technology.

Raising Standards with technology is easy:

  • dont spend too much of your money on it;
  • don’t be distracted by it;
  • don’t waste time with it;

We have great resources in our schools – they are called teachers – if they are helped significantly by technology then buy it for them, but don’t make technology a barrier to their teaching.

Taking children to That London

Looking through the Gates of Buckingham Palace

Looking through the Gates of Buckingham Palace

I love my home city: Birmingham.

But I love London too, and whenever I go there, I can’t help feeling just a little parochial. It’s a great privilege to be able to take children to London and something that I’ve enjoyed doing over many years. Back when the O2 Arena was known as the Millenium Dome, I brought children down to experience what all the fuss was about.

London is so amazing, that you don’t even have to go into anything. A tube pass is all you need and you can spend the day boggled by Buckingham Palace, awed by the Houses of Parliament and stunned by the Tower of London.

I brought 6 children to BETT this year and aside from the ideas they’’ll be taking back to school council for future technology spending, they really enjoyed the whole travelling to and being in London.

Some of the group had not been on a train before (Birmingham is a very spread out city by English standards: the car and the bus reign supreme), but by the time we had finished the day we had travelled on ten trains.

Some of the groups had not seen a Palace Guardsmen in real life before, nor Big Ben, nor walked down the Mall. We did all those things as well as our visit to the technology show known as BETT.

I would love to take a whole class to London every year, but finances and time do not allow. Wouldn’t it be great though if every child had that opportunity, so they could find out all about their capital city, see the building in real life that they only normally see on Doctor Who and walk the same streets of those who make the decisions that shape their lives.

Yet many children in Birmingham never even travel to Birmingham City Centre, let alone London – is this an issue schools should address?

Here’s one for the small teachmeet

I had a few small pangs of regret when I missed Teachmeet BETT this year. It was the teachmeet at BETT a few years ago which inspired me to run a  teachmeet in Birmingham, and I know other have been likewise inspired.

Friday’s event was surely a great feat of organisation, and credit must go to all the organisers, volunteers and sponsors who helped out.

However I am getting increasingly wary of events. There are 13 teachers in my school and only one, aside from myself, is connected in any way with teachers from other schools. The question I come back to is how can I inspire my teachers to find their own great CPD, their own networks and maintain their own learning journey? My teachers are FAB. They do an amazing job in their classrooms. Yet they have been to huge conferences and been wowed by amazing speakers and I have even foisted a teachmeet upon them, yet they still won’t engage in these events of their own accord.

My reasoning now is that these CPD events have always been too big: I need to engage my staff in smaller groups, maybe even 1:1 relationships, for them to really move on with their own CPD.

Aside from my own staff, I am concerned with who speaks at teachmeets. When an event is massive, you have to have really good speakers – and there were some brilliant speakers at this year’s teachmeet BETT. But there must also be a place for teachers to develop their public speaking in smaller groups – and a small teachmeet is perfect for this. A teachmeet is away from the school-enforced CPD demands and devoid of any performance management overtones and so is a brilliant way for people to learn about presenting their ideas and sharing their best practice.

It’s short notice, but I’m still hoping to help someone run a teachmeet in Birmingham on National Teachmeet Day on 6th Feb – if anyone wants to get a few folk together at their school in the 2nd city, let me know and I’ll lend a hand.

Chromebooks: the ideal device for the UK classroom

On Thursday at BETT, I spoke on the Google stand with the slightly contentiously titled talk, Chromebooks: the ideal device for the UK classroom.

Now I have to be clear: I think there is no ideal device for a classroom. In fact, I think the ideal classroom has multiple different devices: a mixed economy, or a device-agnostic approach as some like to call it.

Having said that, I believe the UK classroom is in a peculiar situation at the moment, and it’s a situation which lends itself to Chromebooks. Let me explain below, but first here are my slides:

The situation is this:

1. We live in austerity times. Less money has been paid into the education sector in recent years and while this may not have affected school budgets directly, it has affected central services. Schools find it harder now than ever to find speech therapists, social support, education psychologists, behaviour support, specialist subject support, and so on. This means that schools have to make a choice: invest in external support, or maintain internal staffing levels.

2. Not many people know it, but we have a growing bank of great research for what really works. The EEF teacher toolkit has listed some great research for the interventions that really make a difference in schools. What surprises me is that so few teachers know about it or pay much attention to it – at #tmBETT14 recently, when Oliver Quinlan spoke about it, I saw several tweets from people who hadn’t heard of it before. A second surprise is that digital technology is so far down the list – the consequence of this is that you’re far better off investing your resources in training your teachers to give effective feedback than your are investing in technology.

3. We have lots of change, so let’s keep what we can the same. Curricula are changing. Assessment regimes are changing. Teacher standards and performance management have changed. Entire schooling structures are changing with free schools and academy chains. This means we should keep what we can the same – why invest in radically different technology, when our teachers have already had so much change to deal with?

So summing this up: we don’t have much money; spending what we have on technology is probably a waste; changing things puts additional stress on to our teachers.

This is where Chromebooks come in

  • they are cheap. At under £200 each, a class set costs £6000 and support costs are less than £600 a year. The money you save on such a cheap solution can go into funding the interventions that actually make a difference.

  • teachers don’t have to learn anything to use them. Since Chromebooks just do the web – and everyone knows how to use that – learning to use them is not a huge CPD piece.

I have a load of other reasons for why Chromebooks are an amazing device for school but right there were my main two: they are cheap and they are easy. That means all staff in school can spend their time getting on with their main business, which is educating our children.

Save time on data and spend it on teaching

I really believe that efficient data analysis that takes the minimum amount of time helps everyone.

It always depresses me when the calculator comes out for working out averages on a set of data.

Yet there is such a focus on getting the data right, that sometimes double-checking it all can take over. Yes, the system might be inefficient, but it works and gets the right answers… Our children deserve better than that. The skilled teachers in our schools are there for doing skilled teaching: they shouldn’t be wasting their time on inefficient processes.

And here is where I make my admission: I use inefficient processes. I am comfortable with spreadsheets, so I use them – I do all my number crunching and contextual analysis in spreadsheets. Yet I have a super-powerful management information system in school. I know that it could do all the number crunching I need and more. But I’m not comfortable with it. One day, I will grow up. I just know it. And on that day, I will understand databases and be able to use them to make data work even better for my in school.

But for now I’ll have to be content with my countifs and my vlookups.

I’m speaking at #WeTweetEd at BETT this Thursday. Come along and contribute to the discussion on using data as best as we possibly can.

Good data processes have an impact on teaching and learning.

You can make really efficient data processes within school that don’t actually do anything.

Some senior leaders would laugh if you came into one of our pupil progress meetings. We hold them three times each year. In each meeting the headteacher, deputy and teacher come together to talk about each child’s progress in reading, writing and maths.

Much of the discussion arises from numbers on a sheet, but it is focused on the barriers each child faces and how, as a team, we might overcome those barriers. Sometimes that might involve a conversation between a senior leader and a parent; sometimes bringing in external professionals; sometimes the tweaking of some classroom practice.

I get the impression that at some schools, senior leaders are so concerned about the ‘big picture’ of what the data shows them, that they forget about the details. But the details are called children. And a school where children are just numbers on a sheet of paper is no school at all.

I have to admit, sometimes I can get a little task focused when I’m creating my latest uber-sheet: in this one, I tell myself, the data process will be so efficient it will hardly detract from our time at all.

It’s important to remember, that each number crunched, each set averaged, is just another tool to help teachers with their job: teaching.

I’m speaking at WeTweeted at BETT this Thursday – it would be great to have you there to contribute your thoughts on data too.

Good data requires a good person more than a good process

I’m speaking for a few minutes at WeTweetEd #5 at BETT on Thursday. The subject is on data, and I’m essentially going to say three things:

  1. Processes on data are only any good if they have an impact on teaching and learning.

  2. Efficient data analysis that takes the minimum amount of time helps everyone.

  3. Moderation should be treated as data’s beautiful bride, and not its jilted lover.

However, for now I’m going muse on this thought: it is more important to have a person in your school who is a good with data, than a good process for handling data.

The reason for this is that the amount of data we have to process each year increases. RAISEOnline gets larger and the emphasis on what kind of data is important changes.

Recent changes to curricula – EYFS, National Curriculm; and also to Special Educational Needs, means that new systems have had to be developed on an almost yearly basis. Yet the core process remains pretty constant:

  1. teachers assess where their children are at;

  2. we give these assessments numbers;

  3. we use maths to analyse the numbers so we can maintain a big picture of what is going on

  4. we target school resources appropriately, both at a classroom and a whole school level.

However because of almost yearly changes to the context of most school schools, the numbers change. And the contextual data changes. So a person is needed to manage these changes and make them work for each school.

I’ll give you an example:

In our last Ofsted we knew our school was good and we had the data to prove it. Even better, the teaching in the classrooms was so good it was almost irrefutable.

Almost.

The Ofsted inspector was looking for numbers that we didn’t quite have. Instead of in-year numbers, he wanted numbers that showed progress of the last year (i.e. from February to February instead of September to July).

It took me 6 hours and quite a bit of jiggering around with formulae to make the spreadsheet do what I wanted it to: the 363 calculations that would generate the 363 numbers the Ofsted inspector required. I learnt a lot about ‘countif’ functions that night. Without that spreadsheet, though, it would have taken a lot longer, probably 3 days, and we wouldn’t have got the data done in time.

Now Ofsted is an extreme example, but with changes and more changes to how we assess things, the tweaks that are needed to keep data processes working in a school could grind a school to a halt without the right person in place.

Don’t use Facebook: it’s naughty and bad.

I’ve been at two meetings this week in which contrasting views on the usefulness of Facebook were shared.

In the first, I was sharing with my Key Stage 2 staff the growing demands on school websites and how it is becoming increasingly necessary for schools to broadcast what they do.

For example, a year by year curriculum is now required on a school website so that parents can find out what they can expect their children to be taught. As this curriculum can be tweaked from year to year, I was arguing that rather than place this on a static website,  updates could be made on something like a Facebook page (or indeed a Google + page, or a blog, or a Google site).

In order that staff can begin experimenting with this, I have opened up staff access to Facebook and other social media within my school. I have had Facebook open on my own computer for a few years so that I can manage the whole school Facebook page; by opening it to the teachers also, I’m hoping that some may start using a class Facebook page to begin broadcasting what they do.

Personally I’ve found that having a presence on Facebook as a school has been quite useful. It means that there is a common starting point in discussions with parents about Facebook and also, in the odd occasion that a child or a parent complains about inappropriate Facebook use, I can address the issue by taking screenshots of what has happened. Recently I’ve also discovered that Facebook are quite prompt in acting on information concerning inappropriate use, especially from under-age users. I found two children using Facebook each other, told Facebook that they were under-age, and Facebook removed their profiles.

I digress. In my second meeting that I referred to, Facebook came up in a more negative context. A headteacher had had negative experiences with Facebook and urged others to consider asking their staff not to use Facebook.

How strange for me. On the one hand I had urged staff to use Facebook to help them broadcast their class news. On other hand I was being urged to ask my staff to stop using Facebook.

I suppose where you fall on this divide will depend on your views on how to educate children for e-safety. But that’s another post, for another time.

Your Ofsted experience depends on your inspector

Today Ofsted tweeted the following quote from Michael Wilshaw:

@Ofstednews: Sir Michael reiterates Ofsted guidance – “we do not, let me repeat, not, have any preferred teaching style” #neec2014

However, this is not the experience of many. I’ve seen various tweets and posts from disgruntled teachers who have experienced an inspector that does have a preferred teaching style.

Whilst I’ve not had any negative experiences of that myself in recent years (I feel I’ve been lucky to experience some fair and highly effective inspectors in my own school), that can not be said for everyone.

My children’s school were recently inspected, and while the school came out as ‘Good’ there were a couple of references to (I think) certain teachers that are negative. One quote in the report is this:

In a few lessons, teachers’ explanations are too long and limits the time pupils have to get on with their own work and find things out for themselves.

Aside from the bad grammar, I also think this is contradictory to Wilshaw’s stance. What is this inspector saying here? Children can only learn if they find things out for themselves? Are long teacher explanations inappropriate?

I think the inspector is missing the point – long explanations are only inappropriate if they are (1) boring or (2) lack accuracy and if this is the case, the inspector should say so. The first indicates a need to develop pedagogy, the second indicates a need to improve subject knowledge.

By not being specific, the inspector is allowing teachers to go under the misapprehension that long talks are always bad; and short talks with plenty of time for children to find things out for themselves are always good.

Furthermore I think I know the teacher that the inspector is referring to and he is legend. He’s one of those older teachers who has given his all to teaching for many years and has lots of interesting life experiences to share. My children love having him teach them; they always remember his lessons; they come home with the same spark in their eyes that he has when he teaches.

I don’t think inspectors have the right to take this away from my children.