A good week for an inspection?

This week could be a good week to be inspected by Ofsted. That is, if the lead inspector is Welsh.

Some time in the not too distant past my school was inspected at around the same time that the Six Nations Rugby tournament was on. Our lead inspector was Welsh and it was in one of those years that Wales won the Grand Slam.

I remember that at the start of the inspection we had proverbially shot ourselves in the proverbial foot. Although we knew we were doing a good job and had the evidence to prove it, we had toned the achievement section of our self-evaluation from ‘good’ down to ‘satisfactory’. It is not a wise idea to be self-deprecating in these documents. The first thing the lead inspector said was – “so as a leadership team you claim to have moved the school’s achievement from ‘good’ to ‘satisfactory’. I that’s true it would mean that you have inadequate leadership, so I must put you into a category.”

We spent the next two days proving that our achievement was actually ‘good’ and as a consequence came out with an overall outcome of ‘good’.

The point of me saying all that, was that our inspector had given us a chance to get right what we had got wrong in our self-evaluation. I have spoken to other school leaders who have told me that their inspectors would never have given them such a chance. Our inspector was fair to us, generous even, some might claim, in giving us that chance. Was this because he was a nice guy? Is it because all Welsh people are nice? Or was he in a more positive mood because Wales were winning in the rugby at that time? Or could it even be that actually most Ofsted inspectors are actually pretty fair people?

Looking back over the Ofsted inspections I’ve been through – eight in total – I have to say that most of my experiences have been pretty fair. I’ve been praised for good stuff and criticised for under-performance. There are one or two disappointments – like the time when I saw the inspector coming to watch my outdoor PE lesson, but it was a grizzly day – he just stopped in the corridor for a minute or two and then moved on. Or the time when Ofsted came a-calling in the penultimate week of the Summer term. I was teaching Year 6 at the time and my plans revolved around perfecting the Leaver’s Production. Neither the inspection or the Production went particularly well for me that year.

Back to the inspection in question and I happen to know that the lead inspector wrote up his report over the same weekend that Wales won the Grand Slam. He wrote words in his report such as ‘blistering pace’ to describe one particularly good lesson. His report was particularly effusive I thought – colourful even. Did this partly result from his positive mood caused by Wales winning? It could well have contributed something. Yet, he was also fair with his criticisms and gave us good guidance on how to improve the school.

We have to face facts – Ofsted inspectors are individuals not robots. They have real lives with ups and downs just like the rest of us. Some of them will even have favoured teaching styles that they prefer to see. Catch them on a bad week and you might have to work harder to convince them of the job you are doing. But the inspection system is still in the main doing a good job, a far better job than the other main accountability measure – league tables. All league tables do is make schools turn the assessment system into a game to be won or lost, rather than use it for individual students to measure their success.

If you get the call this week, good luck and remember to stay positive. I even hope your inspector is Welsh.

It’s all about the curriculum, isn’t it?

If you’ve spent much time reading the educational news over the last few days you would have seen and heard lots of debate and discussion around the curriculum. The DfE’s consultation on the new programmes of study is out. It is important yes. But it is not the main thing.

What we teach has a significant impact on our young people, but I would argue that it is not as important as who teaches it. Evidence presented to parliament back in 2012 shows the importance of having the best teachers in front of children, and conversely the negative impact of the weakest teachers. We all remember the best teachers, not the idiosyncracies of the curriculum they were teaching.

Yet the people who make money from education – publishers, advisors, subject experts – they all have a vested interest in the curriculum. And so we hear more debate about the nature of the curriculum, not the quality of teachers who teach it.

The teacher standards that became law in 2012 are an incredibly ambition document. Personally, if I had been under those standards when I started teaching I wouldn’t have made it through my NQT year – it was a few years before I became better than ‘satisfactory’. However, now, the old ‘satisfactory’ means ‘requires improvement’. Newly Qualified Teachers aiming to pass this year can’t do it unless they’re ‘good’. The standards are a real statement of intent – “we want the best teachers in this country.”

This means that the processes within schools have to be really good at developing teachers. Performance management, CPD, monitoring all have to contribute to developing our competence. And with Ofsted now looking at performance management when they inspect schools, headteachers now have two reasons to make sure their performance management processes are working.

So here’s what I suggest if you’re in school leadership: put the new programmes of study in your staff room and collect a school response to the DfE consultation. Don’t rush out and spend a load of money on the latest materials to teach the curriculum. Remember, the effectiveness of your teachers is governed by their own confidence, their motivation, their pedagogy and their subject knowledge. Will Ofsted be most concerned by us rigorously sticking to every clause of the new curriculum, or will they be more impressed by amazing teaching.

Yes, understanding and getting to know the new curriculum will help, but it’s not the main thing.

What are schools really for?

In a previous post I quoted the research that shows that schools contribute around 20% to the achievement of any particular student. The other 80% comes from a student’s family and community.

This opens up a question then – what are schools really for?

Should we

see them as ‘education-only’, with the intention to do that 20% really brilliantly?

Or should we

see schools as a vehicle to break into that 80% – to break into families and communities, making school’s not just about education, but about social services, family support, better parenting, medical aid and so on…

For those of us who would like to see schools treated as the former, it is depressing when government and media make decrees as if schools are the panacea for all society’s problems.

Policies such as judging schools with league tables, or judging SMSC (Social, Moral, Spiritual and Cultural education) in Ofsted, are both methods to try to force schools to break into that magic 80% of achievement that is actually held within the student’s community. Similarly fads such as SEAL, P4C, VAK learning styles and the like, whilst they can have their own educational merit, can also be used to force teachers into educating into that same 80%, when perhaps their efforts would be better served focussing on the 20%.

Myself, I’d like to be able to that 20% really, really well, without working in the fear that I am actually being judged on the entire 100% of a student’s life chances.

Really making a difference – The radical-progressive.

I’ve written before about the radical train.

It gives this notion that we’re all somewhere on the train, under bridges, over bridges, whether we be progressives, conservatives or traditionalists… Except, that is, for the radicals who are busy laying the tracks two miles down the line.

And the problem then is, which radical do you follow? The progressives, who are in the engine room, have to make that choice – make the wrong choice and they’ll be hurtling down the wrong tracks. And as everyone knows, trains aren’t that easy to turn round.

Personally, I’ve often tended towards the radical. I like to have ideas – lots of them and then hope some people will shoot down my tracks. I don’t get too worried if they don’t though, because I’m busy having more ideas.

However, I recognise that being that way doesn’t actually get anything done. At times I have to force myself into the progressive, and even the conservative and traditionalist, because each have value in my organisation. Each is important in getting stuff done. Getting stuff done well. Getting stuff done right and safely.

Today I met two people who I would call “radical progressive”. Right at the moment I think these kind of people are the best. They kind see tracks that are off in the future, they are happy to lay a few tracks of their own, but they also have the determination to make their trains go down their tracks. They make me want to be on their trains.

The first person was a teacher called Nadine from a school near mine. Nadine, like me, has an interest in developing her more able learners – her gifted and talented students. She also believes, like me, that a gifted and talented approach to teaching, applied in the right ways can benefit all learners. Fantastic.

Last year I had set up some gifted and talented network meetings following the death of our Local Authority led network. We planned three meetings, cancelled one and at the last meeting there were about 6 people there. For me it was one of those tracks that I had laid and nobody really wanted to go down. Fine.

And then I met Nadine. Like me, she has started a network, but unlike me, she has made a plan for how that network should run. She hasn’t opened it up every school, but limited it to just a few and she has placed an onus on each school to contribute a learning activity to the rest of the schools in the network. She has laid some tracks and driven her train down them – a radical progressive.

And then I met Daniel Harvey. Find him on Twitter at Danielharvey9. Like me, he wanted to get a network of teachers together to meet face to face and share good practice –  a teachmeet – Teachmeet Brum in fact. I had previously organised a Teachmeet back in 2011 – the first Teachmeet Brum which you can read about on Oliver Quinlan’s blog.

The thing is, after that teachmeet, I had a failed attempt at organising a teachmeet and then helped out at another teachmeet but didn’t do a very good job at it – not so many people attended and I had begun to think, oh well, there go some more clean bright tracks into the overgrown, weed-infested place where train tracks go to rust away their latter years.

Not so perhaps. Daniel Harvey has a plan. There are a cluster of primary schools attached to his secondary school. He has a supportive leadership team. He has a passion to improve practice and see positive outcomes for his students – one of the great things about this teachmeet was that his students actually presented – and they did a fantastic job. In short, we can have more teachmeets in Birmingham, because Daniel is a radical progressive – he lays tracks yes, but he is also driving his train down them.

Thanks Nadine. Thanks Daniel. You’ve reminded me to be determined. My own train is a small one-form entry primary school, but I must drive it down some of those radical tracks and not be completely overtaken by the numbers game demanded by league tables and Ofsted.

And I hope neither of you mind if I hop on the back of your train once in a while.

The mediocrity of facilitation

The late, great Frank Zappa

I’m always a little mithered by the word ‘facilitation’ being used in an educational context.

I think it started from way before I ever thought I’d become a teacher. I had an excellent lecturer on my BEng Electrical Engineering course who loathed the word ‘facilitate’. I don’t remember much about him – it’s been twenty years and I’ve not needed much of the content of my electrical engineering degree in my career as a primary school teacher. There was another thing though – he was a keen Frank Zappa fan who wore blue denim every day. On the day Frank Zappa died he changed to black denim and never returned to the blue. And he didn’t like the word ‘facilitate’.

I’ve heard teachers say that they are not actually teachers, but facilitators. They ‘facilitate learning’. This worries me somewhat. I think teachers can facilitate group work – children getting on with each other – they facilitate behaviour. But I don’t think learning can be facilitated. It has to be taught.

Good teachers, who have misnamed themselves ‘facilitators’, must work alongside children until the point where they get stuck. Then they teach something. But that isn’t facilitation. It’s teaching.

I saw this in practice on Tuesday when I interviewed for the post of inclusion leader within my school. As part of the process, the candidates had to teach two children they had never met before, both with statements of special educational need. I’m always wary of forming hard and fast judgements on such a snapshot of an activity – learning doesn’t often happen in snapshots, but over the course of time and in the context of the relationship between teacher and student. However the activity did demonstrate the dangers of facilitation and the great benefit of teaching.

One of the candidates guided the children through an activity where the children formed sentences from pre-printed words on a laminated sentence board. By the end of the activity, both children had both spoken and written a mainly accurate sentence. The children were engaged, but there was no clear evidence that they had definitely learnt something new. It could have been that the children just practised something they could already do quite well.

By contrast, another candidate, who turned out to be the successful one, did a far more uncomfortable activity. They played a game where the task was to make a model of a picture on card out of plasticine. The children then had to guess what the other model was by asking questions. However they got stuck. There was an uncomfortable moment where it was clear that neither of the children had the expressive language to either ask the most appropriate question, or to describe their shapes. At this point the teacher had to step in and teach the children. She modelled some language that the children had clearly not used before and made the children use it. After the teacher’s input, the children were able to try speaking in sentences and using more accurate words – but it took the teacher’s input to get there – no amount of facilitation would have helped.

My belief is that a facilitator can help children practice what they already know and can possibly help children work co-operatively on a project using what they already know, but they cannot teach children knew stuff. Learning is the process where children gain the knowledge of knew stuff. Teaching begets learning.

The final part of facilitation that makes me nervous is its place in the distributed leadership spectrum. This is a blog post for another time, really, but suffice to say that leadership can be distributed not enough, just right or too much. Some words that would help describe this are:

Instruct – Consult –  Delegate – Facilitate – Neglect

Facilitation is just a little too close to neglect for my liking.

Teaching is great. Great teachers make great schools and a great education system. Teachers who think they should facilitate as their top priority only lead to a mediocre education system, and we all know what Frank Zappa said about that:

“Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system.”

[Image courtesy of http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2966259]

Moral Purpose

What is the new fad in school leadership? What is the phrase that will be top dollar in jargon bingo? Will it be ‘whole school A4L’ or ‘Personalised learning‘? Will school leaders be asking their staff to ‘think outside of the box’ or engage in ‘blue sky thinking’?

Nope. None of the above. The phrase that I can guarantee you hearing from your school leaders over the next few months is ‘moral purpose‘.

I remember many years ago being in a school where we had significant staff training about assemblies. One of the phrases that came up over and over again was ‘awe and wonder’. It seemed that somebody from up on high, maybe even the government, had decided that schools were the best place for children to experience awe and wonder. Therefore a mandate had been issued to headteachers who were to engender this experience within their schools. Assemblies were the target. A week or so after our training, I remember the headteacher starting an assembly by lighting a candle. He had never done this before. He then told the children that they were experiencing awe and wonder. I could immediately see his logic. If the children knew they were experiencing awe and wonder they could tell the imminent Ofsted inspectors all about it. Hmmm.

Now it seems that moral purpose is the thing we will all be working towards. It seems that many people in education are concerned that school leaders have being sucked into something called game theory. A bit like those badminton players at the Olympics who played within the rules, yet against the spirit of the game, to achieve what they thought would be the best outcome… So school leaders, it is thought, may be ‘playing the game’ of education.

It’s as though getting your school higher up the league table is more important than the outcomes for individual children. It’s almost as if achieving the top grade in Ofsted is more important than children being able to independently achieve the top grade possible for each of them in each subject they study. Of course many people would argue that these things are synonymous. A high league table position means that all children achieve their full potential. Or does it show that the leaders within those schools are merely good at ‘playing the game’? Some people have even suggested that there may be cheating going on.

The new teacher standards demand more. Honesty and integrity are explicitly referred to. High standards of behaviour both in and outside of school are implied in the preamble. For teachers to achieve this, leaders need a sense of ‘moral purpose’.

Now I’ve got a whole load of mixed feelings about the word ‘purpose’ and even more about the word ‘moral’. There are lot of assumptions blithely made about shared morals that I’m not entirely sure are true. I’ll need a few more posts and conversations with folk to crystallise my own thoughts on the subject.

However I am sure that it will become an important phrase, having heard the likes of Mick Waters, Tim Brighouse, John West-Burnham and Steve Munby all mention ‘Moral Purpose’ in separate addresses in recent weeks. Perhaps all those ‘keynoters’ are using the phrase because Michael Gove used it back in April.

Does anyone have any school leaders who are quick off the mark and have already begun a new mantra of ‘moral leadership’? Does anyone think it’s important? What morals should we subsribe to anyway?

Using Google Calendars to organise my school

One of the things that I found a real bind when I became a deputy headteacher was organising the school’s rotas and timetables. No school can operate in chaos – several spaces have to be shared (despite my negativity towards shared spaces) – and so timetables have to exist to make sure that we don’t get two classes turning up to the same hall all togged up in their PE kits, and then one class having to turn back.

For a couple of years now I’ve been using Google Calendars to help me organise the school. It look like this.

The main calendars for our school – PPA, Main Hall, Small Hall, PPA, Visits and Vistors

Now that might look like a big mess, but what is important is that none of the colours overlap. That means no two classes are in the same place at the same time. There: chaos averted.

It starts by me sharing a Google Doc with all the staff to ask them when they want to use their various spaces. I then place their classes on the various calendars to give them their best wishes as much as possible. Where classes occur, I normally talk to the teacher to find a second best option. Once all that’s done, the calendars are ready to be checked – no overlaps means perfection – no clashes.

I’m aware that computer screens are not everyone’s first choice for reading information, so I then print out the calendars (how dreadfully old-fashioned!). Despite the advances in recent iterations of Google Docs, I still prefer Microsoft Word for the print medium…

The “Main Hall” Calendar

…so I use Jing to cut and paste each calendar into a Microsoft Word document. I can then display the calendars on a noticeboard in the staffroom.

But it is not over there. Oh No. As you’ll notice from the “Main Hall” calendar, there are many times during the week when the Main Hall is used. And it just might be that some teacher wants to use the Main Hall for an additional session. Can they do this without asking me directly? Yes! Because I have setup each of these calendars as a ‘resource calendar’. This means that when you add an event to your own calendar, you see a list of ‘rooms’ that you can do that event in. If the room is already booked then it won’t appear on the list – so teachers when planning their week know instantly if they can use the room they want to or if they have to make other arrangements.

The trouble with shared spaces – a small step towards #BYOD.

… is that nobody takes responsibility for them.

There I’ve said it. It’s a fact we all know: one that my wife would echo back to me with a wry smile on her face; one that was proved time and time again when I lived in shared accommodation as a student…

It’s a fact that has irritated me somewhat during the previous academic year. My school is blessed with an abundance of space. We were one that was previously two-form entry and is now only one – so we have spare classrooms. And like all people we have expanded into them. Many of the classrooms have become shared spaces. Messy spaces. Disorganised spaces. Under-used spaces.

So this year I resolved to make more space-owners. I’ve assigned many of the previously troublesome shared spaces to individuals in the hope that they would become tidier, more organised and more purposeful. Already these rooms have started to look wonderful as the people in question have started to enact their vision of them and I’m sure they’ll continue to look great when the children start back on Thursday.

Then I came to the ICT cabinet.

With 2 years of dust, assorted wires, some Wii controllers, an empty drinks carton, 3 spiders and some defunct equipment –  it was truly a mess. The picture shows the empty cabinet, its broken perspex frontage the victim of one too many footballs hitting it.

It was truly a testament to the problem of a shared space. Nobody really owns the hall. People just use it. Assemblies, games lessons, rehersals, choir, even Indian dance lessons (Yes, David Cameron – Indian Dance!). What this means is that over time, people plug and unplug their own devices, leave bits and bobs and because it looks a complex birds nest of wires, the cleaners never clean it.

Here’s some of the stuff I found in the cabinet.

So a new resolution for this cabinet. Only 3 wires – a network cable, a video cable and an audio cable. From now on people can bring their own device and plug that in.

Just like rooms, devices get looked after by their owners. And maybe a bit of Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) here will end up with BYOD everywhere and for everyone in the school – staff and students alike.

 

Good Data: the inspection clincher

Wednesday 14th May was a particularly stunning day for myself. Not only did I finally teach a lesson good enough to be judged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, but the data that I produced also helped us do well in the inspection overall.

First, some context. Ofsted are the National body in the UK that inspects state-funded education. Recently (January 2012) a new inspection framework was produced that streamlined some 22 categories into only 4. Consequently, we had begun hearing some horror stories of many schools in our area moving down a category – it seemed it was harder to average out at the same grade you had previously been on. Ofsted judges schools in one of 4 ways: 1 – Outstanding, 2 – Good, 3 – Satisfactory and 4 – Inadequate.

Of course, our fears were that we would move down a category, losing our good status to take on that dreadful label – ‘satisfactory’. It was not to be. We came out as a ‘Good’ school and the report reads particularly well (I think).

So what of the data?

Well, we knew in our hearts that we do a good job for our children. The school is set in a part of Birmingham within the highest 20% of deprivation in the country. The children enter the school well below average and leave the school broadly in-line with national expectations, but how could we prove that in numbers?

It was a function and 3 Google Spreadsheets that came to the rescue.

I keep tracking sheets for reading, writing and mathematics for all students and looking at them, I could see that the children who we’ve taught for a while achieve better than those who’ve just joined us. In other words the children we teach, do well; we have a small but significant group of children who join us late and don’t make as much progress.

One of the data sheets that impressed the Ofsted inspectors

So I used my Google Spreadsheets to calculate a range of measures from current attainment in each subject, to the progress being made. The function that helped me the most was the ‘countif’ function  – I’d recommend finding out how it works if you don’t already – there’s guidance within both Excel and Google Docs.

I used the countif function to help me calculate 12 important numbers for each group – overall, boys, girls, SEND (special educational needs or disabled), FSM (free school meals) and higher achievers. This data showed that all groups who had been taught by us through the Key Stage 2 department (ages 7 to 11) were achieving at or above national expectations

In addition, a second sheet showed that in each year group, progress in reading, writing and maths was good or outstanding.

Sample of the progress data for each year group (if you’re a UK education data guru, you’ll understand what those numbers mean.

In all, I used the spreadsheets to calculate 363 separate numbers to demonstrate to Ofsted that we are still a good school.

I was helped in this process because we use an assessment system called Incerts, which fills up my spreadsheets with meaningful numbers from teacher’s assessments. Once we demonstrated that our monitoring of this assessment was effective by analysing current samples of teacher assessments in books, the inspection team were content to believe that our data did indeed demonstrate that we are doing a good job for our children.

And next time we’ll be ready to argue for ‘outstanding’.

“Leadership is like Clint Eastwood in Easy Rider”

This was a quote that got my attention today at a briefing about the new Ofsted framework. The presenter, who was quoting someone else, went on to show Eastwood dressed as a cowboy looking all stern and pointing six-shooters. “Leadership is like all guns blazing…”

 

That’s not exactly my image of leadership, but more importantly it’s not my memory of Easy Riser, in which I distinctly remember Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding around on motorbikes trying to come to terms with hallucinogens, 60s America and rednecks who didn’t like men with long hair.

 

There was a third character in the film, and for a moment I wondered if that was Clint Eastwood, but a quick Google search reminded me that was Jack Nicholson.

 

There was no Clint Eastwood in Easy Rider.

 

I hope that’s not what the quoter meant – “Leadership is being absent, or mistaken for someone else.”

 

Or maybe something more complicated was intended – some kind of character juxtaposition. I have to admit I can never get away from Clint’s “Dirty Harry” character. So joining Fonda and Hopper (and for a short while Nicholson) on their ultimately doomed journey rides Eastwood, magnums in hand, demanding “Do you think you’re lucky, punk?” of every hostile situation they face. Try as I might it’s still not a helpful image of leadership…

 

Maybe the film that had been intended was actually ‘Pale Rider’, in which Clint Eastwood plays a ‘mysterious preacher’ who saves a town. Again, mystery and preaching aren’t the first things that I would associate with good leadership.

 

So I came to a conclusion that it was just a mistake, too obscure to get at what was being meant.

 

But then maybe leadership is all of the above – it’s an amazing journey with extreme highs and terrible lows where you do meet some people who are actually out to get you. Sometimes you have to go in all guns blazing, and sometimes you have to be almost absent to allow others to develop their own leadership skills. You have to be able to preach – to share your vision – and to show the strength to be able to defend your team. And maybe a sense of mystery helps too.

 

It’s amazing where an Ofsted briefing can take you…