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.

There once was a dream that was Birmingham

There once was a dream that was Birmingham.

It was a city where children from different communities would be welcomed. A place where different cultures, languages and faiths would be celebrated. It was a place where people of every different colour and creed would rub along in friendship.

In Birmingham schools, all children would achieve, no matter what their social background or their ability. Schools would work together in a learning gestalt, where in collaboration the sum of the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts. Tolerance would meet opportunity; diversity would meet purpose; together Birmingham would be great.

But then great people left: important leaders who had held the vision. Following this, private companies became involved with public services and decisions became based on bonuses, not benefits. Rather than addressing the ignorance of each other to benefit Birmingham, ignorance was abused to win bonuses. New leaders put reputation ahead of risk. Opportunity was stunted by blame; purpose was replaced with excuse; diversity was withered by predatory capitalism.

The dream still exists. But it is close to becoming a nightmare. So Brummies: rise up. Express hope where there was none; stand up when you feel cowed.

Together we can make this city great again.

Developing Digital Literacies. #2: yearn to be literate

Having been challenged by Steve Wheeler that maybe primary schools do have a role to play in digital literacy, I’m now thinking about what we actually do at my school to encourage, or even teach digital literacy.

2. Yearn to be literate.

A few years ago I was a rather jaded IT co-ordinator. I had fallen out of love with an area of the curriculum that I once thought could change the world. The reasons were many and varied: underfunding; cynicism amongst IT technicians; the monolithic nature of IT services within my city; a disillusionment amongst fellow teachers about the impact of IT; the lure of senior management.

And then I heard Ewan McIntosh speak at a conference.

He showed a simple visualisation of his contacts – there were about 6000 at the time and about a quarter were teachers. Yet nearly all links to the teachers looked different on the visualisation from everyone else because they did not contact him – they only listened.

The teachers were either too busy or too scared to talk. Too busy or too scared to do any kind of two-way communication. Too busy or too scared to be literate. His point was that just at the time when students were grappling with growing social media, teachers were shying away from it – choosing to be illiterate in an area where their influence could be really beneficial to society.

It was at that point that I started yearning to be digitally literate with ‘new stuff’ like Twitter. I got an account and started tweeting. I followed some key people from whom I heard about something called the Google Teacher Academy. I applied and, by the miracle of telekinesis, I got in. I carried on communicating, debating in education, growing my digital literacy. I started to blog. I made some videos.

This rubbed off onto my school. We now have a team of Year 6 who make videos each week. Children in Key Stage 2 create wikis and websites. Children set up email groups and email each other about things that interest them. And for those of you thinking standards, standards, standards – our children have ‘outstanding achievement’ in English and maths – so it’s not as if we drop the essentials just to do the fun stuff.

Nor can I say that it has been all ups. Sometimes I have lost my ‘yearning’. Like a few days ago when I posted this. Sometimes I question whether it is all worth it – let’s just teach spelling, punctuation, grammar, reading and maths I say to myself – after all, that’s all we are measured on. I suppose we all have our moments of doubt. But then I remember (or someone reminds me) that the children deserve more than that.

You have to believe that being digitally literate is important for yourself to make it appear anywhere on the priority list at school. I started to believe it was important and I believe this has impacted my school in the long run too.

There’s nothing quite like teaching

Sometimes when I’m reading an education blog I notice that comparisons happen between teaching and other jobs or professions. It goes something like this:

“Teachers may be treated like this, but you wouldn’t treat an airline pilot that way…”

Or

“Doctors have this, but teachers only have that…”

I’m sure I’ve done it myself. My wife is a GP and I’ve often found myself musing on the ‘what if’ teaching was like medicine.

But the thing is, there’s nothing quite like teaching.

It really is unique.

Yes, many people are involved in education to some extent – either as parents or in the workplace – but teaching is unique. No one else goes to work with the sole purpose of just teaching: expanding students brains; giving them knowledge; providing opportunities to practise new skills and become better people.

No else experiences that ‘gets it’ moment – the instant when you perceive that the student has just made a significant leap in their learning, increasing their knowledge or gaining new understanding. It’s a magical thing and we get the joy of seeing it happen every day – not just every once in a while. Think about it – in some professions they never have that moment.

There are other things to do. I read somewhere that the only profession with more interactions per hour than teaching is air traffic control. Oh, I’ve just done it. I’ve made the comparison with another profession. That’s the sign that I need to stop.

Teachers: you are amazing.

There’s no need to compare yourselves with other careers or professions – you are unique. Be proud of it.

The Importance of Motivation

In an ideal world all students would skip happily into schools determined to extract every ounce of knowledge from their able teachers. But it’s not an ideal world and that’s why motivation is important.

Like many, I have marvelled at Sugata Mitra’s success at enabling children to learn to use computers and the internet without even needing to know English. His ‘Minimally Invasive Education’ success in that area had proven results, however I struggle to see how it would translate to my context. If I were to setup a ‘Hole in the Wall’ in the Grosvenor Shopping Centre in Northfield to reach the 40% of the local community who don’t have a home computer nor internet access, I’m not sure if I would have the same results. The fact is that we have free internet access already in our local libraries and yet this service is not oversubscribed with people desperate to gain the benefits of becoming computer or internet literate.

And when Mitra quotes Arthur C Clarke in his Ted Talk on the subject, “any teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should be,” I worry about how he is interpreted by his listeners. Can everything be taught by a computer in a wall? Can anything be taught by a computer in a wall in the UK?

I think motivation is the key that turns the engine of education.

In India, where Sugata Mitra’s seminal work took place, there is a national poverty target of 23.9% by 2015. They are not on track to meet it. This means that more than 1 in 4 families live in extreme poverty. For children this means hunger, dirty water, poor sanitation and quite probably living amongst the freely roaming dogs and chickens. For a family, a single educated child can mean wealth beyond all previous comprehension. Therefore the motivation for education is extremely high.

In the UK, the situation sounds similar. One in four children are living in poverty, claims the research. But surely this is a different kind of poverty. In the UK poor children can still expect food, housing, clean water and a free(ish) education. In the UK the electricity supply is pretty reliable, whereas in India even middle-class folk can’t expect to have a 24 hour supply of electricity.

So it would stand to reason that the motivation for education in the UK is not quite so strong as in India. Not all students skip into my school determined to extract every ounce of knowledge from their teachers.

And it is for this reason that schools need some way of motivating their students to learn. Please hear me right: what I am not saying is that we need a new National Curriculum subject entitled “motivation.” But I am saying that motivation is an important issue that needs addressing in any school. How we do it is another question, for another day.

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.

The Purpose of Education is Hope

Contributing to this year’s Purpos/ed 500 word campaign.

Education is how a society maintains and improves itself. Yet, while education is a relatively straightforward process, that very definition causes problems for discussing its purpose. Depending on whether you have a traditionalist or a progressive perspective, you will either place more emphasis on educating for the maintenance of past standards or educating for a brighter future. Add that to the various cultures, sub-cultures and expectations that exist within a modern multi-cultural society and there exists a vast complexity of purposes for education.

That’s my cap-doffing to the broader debate.

In my own setting there are roughly three groups that we educate, each with their own perceptions on what education is for:

  1. Education for success – these families believe that the school system will give their children opportunities. Despite limited success at higher education themselves, they want that for their children.
  2. Education for happiness – these families just want their children to be happy. Often with negative experiences of their own time at school, they want their children to feel safe and content within school. Success is often linked with celebrity and being able to get the latest DVD before it is out at the cinema.
  3. Education for hardship – these families want their children to be able to survive. They tell their children ”if someone hits you, hit back harder”. They often see school as that annoying place that phones the social worker too often. Sometimes there is illiteracy in the family.

While each of these groups have radically different expectations of society, and therefore the purpose of education, they do have one thing in common – they all need hope.

I am aware that for some, the word ‘hope’ has negative connotations. They think of ‘hopes dashed’ and this leads them to regret. However this is not ‘hope’ as in the aspirations you may have had, but the Hope that things can be better, or at least as good as they once were.

So how does this translate into teaching? The obvious answer is to start a new core subject of the National Curriculum and start running ‘Hope classes’. I’m joking.

Group 1 –  they need so much knowledge at the end of primary school that they can fly into secondary school and perhaps become the first in their families to go to university. Good teaching helps these children love their learning.

Group 2 - good teaching again leads to happiness. The families are surprised at how their child can be both happy and doing well in reading, writing and mathematics. They start to believe that maybe their child can learn enough at primary not just to ‘get through’ secondary school, but to do well there.

Group 3 – good teaching brings success for the child. The family is (in the main) proud of this success and begins to gain a faith in a previously-despised school system.

In each of these groups good teaching produces hope. Hope that things can be better than they were.

So, when I’m stuck I remember: bring Hope – teach well.

What’s being abused here – the teachers or the data?

I was surprised to see the report on the BBC a few days ago about teachers being abused online. Surprised for two reasons – firstly the headline statement read that over 4 in 10 teachers had been abused online by pupils or parents and secondly that I had contributed to the NASUWT online survey which generated the results.

The email I received from the NASUWT

I was pleased to receive the email, because we’ve begun to have some highly positive experiences with Facebook at my school. I wanted to share them.

We had encountered some unpleasant Facebook incidents some two years ago and so had decided to set up our own Facebook page. It may be just good luck, but it seems that merely having a Facebook presence has deterred any pupils or parents from saying anything inappropriate. Both pupils and parents refer to the page to find out what’s going in school – maybe that has ameliorated their language on the platform.

Anyway – I know that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, so I was hoping by contributing to a big online survey about social networking that a growing number of schools who are using Facebook positively might be discovered and reported on. Nope. Not this time. There was nowhere to record number of times abused = 0. There was nowhere to record positive statements about social networking sites.

It seems that just by filling in the survey I was recording that I had definitely been abused online by either parents or pupils or both.

But if that’s the case I don’t get where the 4 in 10 teachers comes from. You see only about half the teachers in the country belong to the NASUWT. Even during the strike ballot last year less than half of those voted – I can’t imagine that more teachers would respond to an online survey than vote over striking over pension changes.

Furthermore, looking at the BBC report I can see no reference to the data of the survey, no methodology. There’s no numbers saying how many people were actually questioned (I’ve no way of knowing whether it was the online survey I took part in that generated these numbers). The BBC have previous on this. Back in August 2011, they took a report from Plymouth University by Professor Andy Phippen to claim that 35% of teachers have been bullied online. Again there’s no numbers. 35% of teachers sounds bad – but if only 20 teachers have been questioned, it’s not much of a survey.

Delving further, the Andy Phippen survey exists, but again its methodology is questionable. We finally have a number of responders – 377:

In total 377 people responded to the survey, providing a solid, broad base for the
rest of the research. (p4)

We discover that these responders have answered an online questionnaire which they were sent to via ‘teaching mailing lists’ (p3) – although that still doesn’t tell us by which criteria each mailing list was generated.

The crunch for me comes with the question that generates the 35% of teachers have been abused online. I was expecting to see some words akin to:

Have you ever been subjected to any online abuse?

But instead I see the question:

Have you or colleagues ever been subject online abuse?

Or your colleagues? Or your colleagues? What on earth does that do to the data? I work in a small Primary school. Aside from ‘my colleagues’ from other schools that I work with, I have 30 colleagues from solely my school. Given that my school could be about average (and it certainly isn’t), my one vote actually counts for 30. That means each of the 377 responders to this survey are actually answering the key question, not for themselves but for 10, 20, 30 maybe 100 or more colleagues. If we average at 30 that means that there are actually 11310 people in the survey. And 117 out of 11310 as a percentage is 1.03%

So 1% of teachers have been abused online.

Don’t get me wrong, that is still a terrible number. With nearly a million teachers in the country, that means there are over 10000 of us who’ve gone through the pain of online abuse. It’s great that the government funded Safer Internet Centre exists to provide counselling and support for those teachers and strategies to reduce online bullying in the future.

But that’s not the issue here. The issue is that bad data has been used to create a statistic that just isn’t right. Now I’ve got no way of knowing the actual number of educators who have been abused in the sample of 377. The minimum number is 117, because that is how many have been reported. It could, of course, go much higher, but the questioning in the Prof Phippen survey isn’t good enough to find that out.

At least, to give Prof Phippen some credit, his survey does actually have the sample size in it. No joy from the NASUWT survey. The press release about the survey just tells us that  42% of those responding to the survey reported online abuse.

Hang on! “Of those responding?” “Of those responding?”

Again. That could be 42% of 50 people, making the survey next to meaningless. But now think back to the survey – it was a survey of online abuse – there was no opportunity to report ‘no abuse’. And only 42% of those responding said they had been abused? In a survey where you can only say “Yes I have been.”

This quite simply is at best bad data, and at worse is plain lying. And of course the BBC and other reputable news media such as Channel 4 here, and the Independent here are completely taken in by it.

To be fair to the Independent they did interview Chris Keates to find that 1200 teachers had responded to the survey, but nobody asked about the questioning. With around 300 000 members, a response of less than 3000 is again in that ball park area to indicate that about 1% of teachers have experienced online abuse.

For the last time, online abuse of teachers is a terrible thing, but we’re not going to fix it by inaccurate data and sensationalised headlines during conference season.

Yes: schools should be fined for not teaching reading

So, the recent report on the Summer 2011 riots recommended that schools should be fined for not teaching reading. I agree.

Michael Bond, the author of the much loved Paddington Bear, was on the BBC on Monday morning. He said that the two most important things you can do with children are spending time with them and teaching them to read. He went on to say that reading must start in the home.

And for many families this is the case. Reading does start in the home. Children are exposed to books from birth. They are read to every night. They understand which way to turn the pages and which way to read the script. They may even recognise a few words.

However this is not the case for all families. For some children their first exposure to books is at school. For a sizeable minority in my school this is the case. And for many more, whilst the children still have had some exposure to books, they still enter school behind the national average for reading.

In my school we have to teach reading. Merely giving the children a home reader and hoping doesn’t work. The children have to be taught how to read from scratch.

In contrast, at the school where my own children go, less teaching of reading is needed. This is because in general the children enter the school more able to read and continue with more home support of reading as they progress through the school.

Yet funding is more or less the same. Yes, my school probably does pick slightly more special needs funding, but it is for the few children who are a long way below the national average, not those who are slightly behind. And despite that, the teaching of reading at my school really works. Where nearly 80% of the children enter the school behind the national average, less than 20% leave the school behind the national average.

We taught reading well to a lot of children.

I suspect the measure being suggested by the panel that investigated the Summer 2011 riots would suggest fining schools like us for allowing some children to leave us at a standard that is lower than the national average. But wouldn’t be great if it was a measure that rewarded schools who actually teach reading and don’t just leave it up to supportive parents.