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.

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.

The education technology divorce

Who actually makes the education technology decisions in schools?

My authority runs a bus to BETT, the main trade show for education technology in the UK. I have to say I’m rather nervous about getting on the bus, because of who else might be on it. Having travelled to BETT a few times before and bumped into many attendees as I travel, I’m convinced that the majority of attendees from my part of the country are technicians and network managers. I haven’t met many teachers who go to BETT.

So who will make the decisions about future technology purchasing? Network managers or teachers?

I have to say at this point that I have a marvellous technician who works for me at my school. He is always on the look out to develop best practice and is keen to learn new stuff, not just to stick with what he already knows. But I’ve spoken to several teachers who have complained about their technicians or network managers – they complain that the network manager sets the rules about how to use the IT system. They decide what children can or can’t do. They decide the kind of software and hardware that children use.

My fear is that in many schools the technician, or the network manager, has become a barrier to good teaching. The expectation is that technology will be used across the curriculum, and from 2014 a new Computing Curriculum will come into place. Is there an teacher in each school who is ready for this? Ready to make decisions on how best to make it work for our children?

Education technology works best when the technology serves the education: when the tech makes the lessons better. This means that teachers and technicians need to work in partnership, but ultimately it is teachers who need to be empowered to make the decisions about how best to use technology to make a difference for their children. Without that a divide will develop that will result in teachers divorcing the technology from their teaching.

What AfL is for

Rob Coe recently posted an interesting essay about how AfL might well be over-rated.

I broadly agree. And of course I’m in no position to argue against him – my experience only relates to the impact of AfL on 12 teachers in a small primary school of around 240 children. However, my experience of AfL has been really positive and I’ll explain why…

Everyone knows that there are only 4 things that improve teaching, and one of them is subject knowledge; the purpose of AfL is to increase subject knowledge.

Teachers have curriculum strengths and weaknesses – this is particularly apparent in the upper reaches of primary school, where the required qualification in English and maths for a teacher is a ‘C’ grade at GCSE. There are significant numbers of children at this level who may be working close to that level, hence the teacher’s subject knowledge may simply be not high enough to meet the needs of the students.

This is where AfL comes in. Assessing the children closely against rigorous banks of knowledge statements such as those found in the APP materials for English and maths, means the teacher discovers holes in their own subject knowledge – they find out what their students can do, they can see the next steps and they can determine whether they have the subject knowledge to teach those steps. At this point, if they don’t have the subject knowledge, it’s either time to panic, or seek help from their senior colleagues.

It is exactly at this point that things go wrong – senior colleagues (in other schools, I might add) are often keen to tick the AfL box rather than address the underlying problem. Unfortunately it is far easier to make things look like AfL is happening than to actually increase the subject knowledge in your staff – this involves a level of skill and compassion that is beyond many senior leaders in our education system. In this culture, rather than seeking the improvement they need, teachers who need to develop their own subject knowledge will develop all sorts of strategies to conceal it. In fact one of those strategies is writing the letters WALT and WILF on your whiteboard – a point that Professer Coe alludes to.

It is the culture of the school that makes a difference here. In my school we are all learners and my headteacher repeatedly reinforces a ‘no blame’ culture. Only yesterday, my year 6 teacher (whom I line manage) was teaching me what modal verbs are. Similarly we are all happy to educate each other so that we increase each other’s subject knowledge. We have found systems such as APP and Incerts (an online assessment system based on the old National Curriculum) really useful because they have helped us identify what we are good at teaching and which areas we still don’t know much about. We use them as assessment for learning, but really that means increasing our own subject knowledge so we can teach better.

Sales is the opposite of teaching

Recently I’ve been trying to organise to get some school children into BETT – the biggest UK education technology trade show. The complexity of the process has set me reflecting on one of my ‘pub theories’ that I’ve believed for many years: Sales is the opposite of teaching.

My first argument is that in the job that I had before I became a teacher I had two roles: selling computers and training people to use them. I was brilliant at the training bit, especially with the children, but I didn’t sell a single computer. The former convinced me to go into teaching, as I loved and it and seemed to be good at it. However the latter, convinced that I would never be a salesman. Hence sales is the opposite of the teaching.

Then, having taken on the maths co-ordinator job at a school I spoke to salesman (who happens to now work for Scholastic) about some products he had. The products seemed nice, but I was new to the role and unsure what to do to get them purchased, or even the process of how I should decide whether to purchase them or not. I went away from the meeting thinking I had put it on the back burner, but was most bemused when the products turned up the next week – apparently I had agreed to purchase them. The headteacher was tremendously put out at having to fork out the money for these items and told me so in no uncertain terms. I had not understood the language of sales. Therefore sales is the opposite of teaching.

And then there’s BETT. The British Education Training and Technology Show.

On its website it declares quite firmly that it is a trade show, and therefore not open to under 18s. Presumably this means it is for sales people and grown ups who work in schools.

I have found it inordinately hard to get a small group of children into BETT to speak for just 20 minutes on a stand. 6 children require 66 sheets of paper, 14 days notice, 12 passports photos, 6 birth certificates, not to mention the additional paper work that is required for a normal school visit. Seriously it easier to organise a class visit to Paraguay.

But then, I’m a teacher, I don’t understand how these trade shows and sales people work. I guess the idea is that the tax payer pays money to schools; the schools pay money to sales people; and the sales people get rich. Whereas the way teaching works is: the tax payer pays money to schools; the schools pay money to teachers; and the teachers give of their own abilities and resources to teach children so that they can improve themselves and society.

Maybe it’s just me, but at BETT I sometimes feel like I’m the prey for a vast wake of circling buzzards, all waiting for me to give up my free will and give in to their crowing. And having bumped into (sometimes) slightly inebriated salespeople after BETT, there’s a kind of predatory, triumphal air about them. Maybe they know too that sales is the opposite of teaching.

Dutch Apple Cake

Dutch Apple Cake
Mmm! Tasty!

One of my family’s favourite things of recent months has been Dutch Apple Cake. You can see it there. Tasty!

There’s nothing quite like eating home-grown apples. It is a quintessentially English experience. I guess that’s why this recipe is slightly strange – you don’t associate apples with The Netherlands so much. And the apples do taste so good, ensconced as they are in a light cushion of cake and topped with a slightly caramelised layer of cinnamon.

Simple to make, the entire family can get involved, so we are all experts in our house at making the cake. Except for my youngest daughter. She’s just an expert in licking the spoon.

The Cake Table
The Cake making table in action

It’s an easy recipe to find too. You just Google ‘Dutch Apple Cake’ and there it is. Choose the one that says easy. Or you could click this link.

What is blocking your blogging?

I’m not very good with New Year’s resolutions. Like many, I have the tendency to make them and break them within the same week. New Year’s blogging resolutions are no exception. In the past I have decided that I’ll write this much or that much each week and have invariably failed before January is out.

This year however, partly spurred on by a conversation with Oliver Quinlan, I’ve decided to do things slightly differently: I’m going to worry about quality less.

I have realised that one of things that is blocking my blogging, aside from being over-tired and over-busy, is the desire to write the perfect post. I want to put it all together – educational theory with my experience and make it really up-to-date. I want it to be critically acclaimed so loads of people tweet it or re-blog it.

And I’ve realised that I’ve been blogging for the wrong reasons.

Oliver pointed out that there seem to be less people just writing about what they do: their day-in, day-out experience. And I agree, or maybe I choose not to read those people who are blogging about the normal stuff. Either way, for me the realisation is that I’m trying to blog like an educational theorist, when I’m actually I’m just a Deputy Head, trying my best and I need to write about that.

For me, the process of blogging is more important than the outcome. Writing gives me valuable time and space for reflection. The implication being that the audience I am writing for is mainly me – but that’s OK, especially if doing that helps me be a better Deputy Head.

So no longer will fear of failure staunch my blogging flow. I’m going to write. It might not be perfect, but I’m going to write.

Gove Week

Gove Week: I reckon the requirements for the foundation subjects in the new primary curriculum (2014) can be taught in just one week. Find out how I’ve got to this by reading on…

I’ve begun a process of curriculum planning with my staff this week. Two things have coincided to make this happen. Firstly there is a new curriculum which is mandatory for all state schools, commencing in 2014. Secondly we were getting a little tired of some of our old topics – they needed freshening up: both to maintain engagement for the children and the teachers.

I’ve seen a lot written about the new curriculum, some for and much against. But one of the things that can be said for it, is there is hardly anything to it – it is quite literally paper thin in some areas. Art and design, for example, has only 2 pages describing what must be taught for both Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 – six years of a child’s education.

The consequence of this is that there are loads of gaps to fill in – you certainly can’t expect the National Curriculum 2014 to define everything that should be taught within a school, and in fact the National Curriculum says this itself in its preamble (2.2):

The school curriculum comprises all learning and other experiences that each school plans for its pupils. The national curriculum forms one part of the school curriculum.

I’ll be writing more about the curriculum planning process we are using in my school over the next few weeks, but one idea that I’ve come across is the idea of Gove Week. It was first mentioned to me by a HMI whom we use as our school improvement advisor. She said she had come across a school who were going to teach Gove’s whole history curriculum in just one week.

But I would go further. I reckon you could teach the whole thing in just one week.

When I say the whole thing I mean history, geography, art and design, design technology, music and computing. You see, the language in the curriculum is all about what pupils shall be taught – there is no expectation to what standard they might achieve. This means you could run a focused week on those 6 subjects and get the whole thing done. Taught. Covered.

The impact on schools right now is that rather than going through a convoluted process of curriculum design (like I am doing), or indeed an expensive purchasing program of buying loads of schemes and materials to fill the gaps, schools could stick with what they are already doing and aim to cover the Gove Curriculum in a single week: Gove Week.

I created a free visualiser this morning.

Visualisers are highly useful in classrooms. They turn something small, like a page of a book, or a piece of children’s work, into something big so that everyone can see it.

So when I did my banjo assembly this morning, I wanted to be able to show all 240 children the book I was using from. My point was, you see, that you only need 2 things to learn something new: practice and a good teacher, and I wanted to show that my ‘Teach Yourself Banjo’ book was a reasonable-to-moderate teacher.

Unfortunately I have no visualisers in my school, nor would a fixed visualiser in a classroom be of much use in the assembly hall.

So I logged the hall laptop into my school Google+ account and then used my personal Google+ account on my phone to video call (Google Hangout) with my school account.

The year 6 children who operate the equipment clicked ‘join this call’ when the call showed up, which meant I could sit still in ‘banjo posture’ whilst showing all the children in the Hall some of what was in my book. There was a bit of a lag in the sound, which was slightly off-putting for me, but the children could all see the music in the book, which meant I didn’t have to waste any time scanning images into slides, nor did I have to present the information to them ‘in tiny’ by holding it up in front of them.

It also only took 30 seconds from the logging in to the showing the images to the children.

So there you go: an almost-instant, kind-of-free visualiser. All you need is 2 Google+ accounts, a helpful Year 6 child, 1 laptop, 1 phone, 1 projector, 1 huge screen and an internet filter that allows Google+ and hangouts to work. No Problem.

Chromebooks after 2 and half years

So I’m coming round to the point of view that I need more Chromebooks, not less.

They have been brilliant in my school.

We have used them since September 2011 and they have been reliable and effective. Teachers have gone from a point of disaffection with old technologies to enthusiasm and trust – they know the Chromebooks will work: the only barrier is the ability of the child to remember their password.

I have 6 months left on the ‘life’ of my Chromebooks and I’ve been toying with what to go for next. But everything else is so expensive. I can get 30 Chromebooks into a classroom for around £6000 a year. With apps and technician costs, 30 iPads would be closer to £12000 and 30 PCs would be around the same.

The thing is that Chromebooks take no technician time at all – I employ a technician for half a day a week and the bulk of job is to keep the servers going for the admin staff and maintain the wifi network. And because they’re ‘just the web’, which everyone uses, they don’t take much CPD time either. I’ve had an old-school teaching assistant who has always stayed out of technology lessons tell me that she would prefer to cover a class using the Chromebooks than in the PC suite, because they just work.

Chromebooks are just there now for us. Like pencils, like exercise books. They’re part of the furniture – part of the environment that allows teachers to teach and students to learn.


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