Relevance and Engagement are not Embellishments.

Most of my work in school over the past ten years or so has been about making the curriculum relevant and engaging to children. Those words are not very trendy at the moment. Sometimes it seems that the ‘resilience/grit’ agenda has been hijacked by people who think that those qualities are simply about tolerating boredom. They are sadly misguided. Boredom is a negative state in which learning does not take place. That’s not to say we should avoid boredom at all costs – children who are bored on a Sunday afternoon might well find something useful to do. And being in a state of mindful inactivity is a healthy thing to be. But being bored in class does not lead to learning.

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Instead, we should be aiming for engaged confusion. This state, rather than outright happiness is the optimal condition for learning. The puzzled frown is not the same as the blank yawn. This state of engagement – an almost fog like state where you are working at the edges of your ability and focused on a goal or problem, but can’t quite yet see how you will get there – is highly stimulating for the mind and the memory. So how do we do it? How do we lure children into this state of readiness for learning? I would argue that we make it relevant.

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The word relevance has been much maligned and misunderstood in recent years – some simplify it so much that all children would ever learn in a ‘relevant’ curriculum is that which is linked to the experiences they have already had. This really limits children, especially if they have had narrowed life experiences. It is this kind of use of the word ‘relevant’ that leads some to dismiss the idea as epitomising a culture of “low expectations”. But if we view the word differently – if we see relevance as a means by which we bring curriculum content to life – finding the connections that make the knowledge relevant to a child, then we have a different animal altogether; one that seeks to make connections, to universalise that which is particular and open up a pathway to enticing children into that which is unfamiliar or new. This is what I’ve been trying to do for years in building curriculum models in schools that capture hearts and intellect. This is about giving children a reason to learn. For example…

Imagine you have to teach Latin. You can either stand and deliver. Drill and test. Or you can set your classroom up as a Celtic village facing a Roman army. The chief wants to negotiate and assimilate. In order to do so, he is going to have to learn to speak their language. Which of these two options will children find most enticing? The outcome will be the same. The motivation is entirely different.

I was reminded of the need to think intelligently and in connected ways when I was lucky enough to visit Brussels last week with Independent Thinking. The International Schools system is fascinating when considering the purpose and structure of schooling. They sit outside of government policies and education acts because they are entirely independent of the countries in which they are situated. They serve the parent body and a transient population of ‘third culture’ children. They are hugely successful, following mostly the IB route of education through which children progress through the Primary Years Programme, the Middle Years Programme (without sitting any externally set tests) and finally onto IB. At the International School of Brussels, working in partnership with other schools, they’ve written their own curriculum – The Common Ground. It’s completely fascinating – you can view it here. Taking three strands (seen as a triple helix), every aspect of the curriculum is viewed through the three ‘c’s – Conceptual understanding, Character, and Competence – what we might think of as knowledge/understanding, personal attributes and skills. But in addition, there is a strong thread of conscience – an emphasis on community and global connectedness, responsibility and ethics. It is no wonder that so many of these International students are articulate, thoughtful and confident – you should see their mini UN conventions.

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Our politicians in the UK are constantly telling us we should be more like independent schools. Some of the most successful independent schools in the world are the International Schools. But you don’t often see uniforms. And testing is rare below the age of 16. How might we emulate their success?

To do so, we have to stop teaching to tests, to Ofsted priorities, to government policies. We need to become globally minded and think about what children need to be effective citizens in the future. Children in these schools study the Theory of Knowledge. They understand how countries are interdependent on each other. They examine concepts like democracy, population migration, climate. They develop as whole learners. And we can do this. We can teach without selling our souls. (shameless plug here – if you want to know how, come along to this!) We need to think really differently about the content of what we teach. What if:-

1. In English we only taught texts that said something about how to make the world a better place (perhaps by showing it at its worst and figuring out what to do about it).

2. In Maths we told children what the formula they’re learning is actually used for by real people in real life?

3. In Science, we looked at how innovations are used for good and bad purposes and encouraged ‘what if’ questions from children -“What if the nuclear bomb had never been invented?” “What if we invented a cure for cancer – how much would it cost? What would the implications be for population control?” “How might science make life in a refugee camp more bearable?” Hard questions that have no straightforward solutions can be powerful motivators for pupils to engage with the nitty gritty of knowledge.

4. In Languages, we set up situations where the children in a fiction have no choice but to communicate in a foreign language? They have been captured in WW2 Germany. They are delivering information to the French Resistance?

5. In Geography they have to set up an emergency aid chain of supply to an earthquake zone, plot the route and design packs of survival materials?

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I could go on. Engagement, relevance, big questions…. these are not embellishments to learning. They are routes to learning and it’s time we reclaimed that language and focused on making our lessons capable of changing the world. Anything less is, well….boring.

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Saying Nothing Loudly : Ofsted on Behaviour.

Look, I have a confession. I have, from time to time, stood in front of an unruly class and wondered what on earth I’m going to do to get them to do what I need them to do. I know what some might say – why should they do what you want them to do? But that way madness lies. Perhaps those moments of weakness have made me a bad teacher, but I’d hazard a guess that we all have had them. Or the class that nothing seemed to work for. Or the kid. So I imagine that many teachers woke up this morning thinking that the new report from Ofsted would be a step forward – an offer of help and support perhaps? Of course not.

Based on surveys of teachers and parents (many of whom seemed to think that a] low level disruption from other people’s children was a problem holding their child back and b] it was not being carried out by their child), the report came to some disappointing conclusions:-

1. If headteachers stand out in corridors and are less friendly then disruption will stop.

2. Teachers are too soft.

Let’s pop those points under the microscope shall we?

1. Visible Heads.

I think it is important for a headteacher to be a highly visible and active presence in a school – of course it is. It helps children to build relationships with the captain of the ship and that’s an important thing. It’s also good to have them around if things kick off. But doing so in a manner that is designed to purely show kids who is boss is doomed to failure. And being a presence counts for nothing if the systems in place are not fit for purpose. At my last school, staff constantly raised concerns at meetings about low level disruption in class. I’ll come to our own culpability in this shortly, but let’s shine a light on processes and procedures here. The response was “most of the children in the school behave impeccably”. This was true. But the ones who didn’t were really making it difficult for lessons to flow. So a solution was introduced. A tiered warning system. This is how it worked for me…

C1 – verbal warning for small misdemeanours like not having equipment or entering the room rowdily or chatting at the start of the lesson. On average, I’d say that 10-15 pupils in each class would have had this warning if all teachers followed the procedure.

C2 – second warning – a note in the planner. I won’t go into the farce that is trying to get a note in planner that is repeatedly ‘forgotten’. Assuming it’s there, and kids being kids and trying to be consistent with all, a C2 could be issued to six kids or more. And it’s important to issue it, no matter how tricky, because consistency is important, right? So that’s 12 minutes I then had to find at the end of each lesson to write in planners. And I taught at opposite ends of the school. And I started to wonder which routine was most important – being there on time to greet pupils and have an orderly start or adhering to school policy. By the end of the day, I’d spent an hour writing in planners. And had missed an hour of lessons or duty to be able to do it.

C3 – Detention. Maybe one child a day. Usually one who has just necked one of those concentrated Robinson’s fruit drinks or a Monster can of madness. Might the Ofsted report have considered the impact of sugar on this issue? Of course not. Might they have suggested that parents had a responsibility to make sure that their children were not so high on sugar and additives that it’s sometimes a miracle we can keep them from throwing themselves out of the window? Of course not. So detention is issued. And for some children that means booking an appointment six months in advance. For many kids, school days have been extended forever. Perhaps they tolerate detentions as the price they pay for having a good time for the rest of the day. Or perhaps they don’t mind because they don’t actually want to go home. So at the end of the day, I rushed from my lesson (assuming I hadn’t just had to spend 12 minutes writing in planners) in order to try to catch whoever had a detention before they legged it. I’d take them to the inevitable meeting with me. And on the way I’d try to make a phone call to the parent of the kid I’d be seeing the following day. All while also trying to call back all the parents who had left messages to enquire or complain about the note I wrote in their child’s planner. It was frankly, a pain in the arse and the temptation to just not write the note, or issue the detention was overwhelming. But we mustn’t give in, right, or there will be chaos? Except things don’t get better, because at the end of the day, detentions just don’t work.

C4 – Removal from the class. Hit the ‘On Call’ button. Ten minutes later, if you’re lucky, a harassed person arrives at your door with a string of kids behind them. There isn’t actually anywhere to take a child when they are On Called except your office. And only a nutter would leave a child unattended in their office. I hit the button twice in my career. I regretted it both times. The lesson was almost over by the time they went, but then I had to log it on the system – a procedure so complex that it would be easier to take over the management of the CERN Hadron Collider. Then I have to schedule a detention, call the parents and …. well you’ve got it. I might as well have stuck with C3 because there is no consequence for a C4 that doesn’t just involve more work for the teacher.

All in all, it’s an utterly unworkable system in which nothing is achieved. But that’s not to say that I think headteachers should suddenly start kicking kids out. Or turning into Judge Dread. Because that kid who told you to ‘fuck off’ found his Dad hanging in a garage. The one who is constantly tapping on the table is in pain with her IBS and the tapping is a subconscious distraction from the pain. And when a Head hears these tales, they use their judgement to decide what to do. Compassion is important. It matters and these problems need to be handled on a child by child, day by day basis.

In zero tolerance schools like KIPP in the US, there is a hugely disproportionate rate of exclusions for children with SEN or from ethnic minorities. Too often our schools don’t take any account of the complex needs of our children – either in terms of their cognition and socialisation or their home culture. We need to attend more to this – throwing children out of school is a failure of the system. It should never be rejoiced as I’ve seen some unscrupulous senior managers in Academies do, or be seen as anything but a very last resort. And for those children who simply cannot cope in mainstream education, we need to properly fund alternative provisions so that they are all entitled to the quality of education and support that is offered at places like Springwell in Barnsley.

But those are the high level disrupters and this report focuses on the low level. What of them? Are teachers too soft?

2. “Teachers – grow a pair!” (an extract that didn’t quite make its way into the report, but was there in the subtext).

There were several references in the report to informality and even dress, making a very bold assumption that informality breeds contempt. Where is the evidence for this? I work a lot in International Schools, where children rarely wear uniform. Sometimes they call members of staff by their first names, especially in High School. And here, in sixth form colleges and FE colleges, it is routine to be on first name terms with tutors and not to have uniform. And yet standards of behaviour in these settings are excellent. There is a clear difference between open, friendly and informal relationships between staff and pupils and poor consistency and expectations. The report has really confused these two things and there is a strong flavour that personal preference is over-riding evidence in this matter.

Children need boundaries. They need to know that you are trying to be fair and consistent (and they’re pretty good at recognising that fairness is not always the same as treating everyone in exactly the same way). But whether or not their uniform (or yours) impacts on those issues is unproven. It’s a silly correlation. I wish the report had spent more time asking the following questions:-

1. What impact is diet having on behaviour? What could we do to ensure that parents don’t give their children cash to go to the shop on the way to school?

2. To what extent are we feeding a culture of low respect and tolerance for each other, by placing far more emphasis on exam results than personal character?

3. To what extent do politicians, Ofsted and the media shape the opinions of parents? And in belittling and blaming the profession, do they create a lack of respect for the profession in parents’ minds that then gets passed onto their children? I’ve had, on more than one occasion, a parent demand that their child be excused from a detention for spurious reasons and had to deal with some fairly rude and dismissive comments about getting a ‘real’ job and knowing what ‘hard work looks like’. This attitude comes directly from our media and it is fed by politicians. Sort your own houses out first.

4. When we teachers blame each other for not following the system and letting the team down, how often do we think whether or not it is just harder for some people than others. People who don’t have their own classrooms, or are teaching subjects where it’s just not practical to have planners out on desks. You’re in a field for example. Is consistency really the better option, or should we find solutions at departmental levels?

5. We should be teaching lessons worth behaving for. Too many of us think that resilience is about enduring boredom. It’s not. And there are very few adolescents who can tolerate sitting and listening for 5 hours or more without needing to move about and talk.

It always depresses me when complex problems – and don’t get me wrong, this is a problem – when complex problems are met with simplistic solutions. When they are used as an excuse to push forward a favourite ideology. When they are used to avoid looking at bigger questions.

This year, Harvard university published a report’Making Caring Common’ which examined why it was that children were placing their own needs ahead of others and why their ability to empathise was falling. The answers were complex, but in a nutshell, we, as a society are not prioritising empathy, respect and care as we raise our young. It is absent from our curriculum. We press for individual achievement and personal happiness above community responsibility. Is it really any wonder then that we are finding this lack of respect and empathy in our classrooms? Surely, instead of blaming Heads, teachers and children, we should start to look at ourselves as a society and ask some serious questions about how we educate our young.

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On Scottish Independence

I don’t usually blog out of the sphere of education, but just this once, I feel compelled. I have no Scottish blood in me, but am married to a proud Scot and so our children are potentially facing a future of having a dual nationality. We live in England and have no vote, but we’ve been following the debate with great interest and excitement.

Our marriage works like this. I am hasty and impulsive. My husband is careful and considerate. Had we lived in Scotland, I would have been running down the street with blue stripes painted on my face shouting “Yes” and he would have sat patiently waiting for me to run out breath before asking lots of what if and why questions. We work together well as a team – I think his care and attention has probably saved my life on more than one occasion. And right up until this week, he’s veered towards the No campaign. He doesn’t like unknowns. And despite the fact that he can never bring himself to support England in any sporting event, he’s had a strong feeling that the Union is better together. At least he did. But now he’s asking different kinds of questions. After astonishingly flawed ‘Better Together’ campaigning and shocking coverage by the BBC, we’re both starting to talk about the following:-

1. There is oil. It’s a matter of how much, but when it runs out….

2. We’ll need alternative forms of energy. Eventually the whole world will run out of oil. What then? Hydroelectricity, wind power? Come to Scotland.

3. Some scientists predict that water will be the commodity deemed most precious in the future. There is a lot of water in Scotland.

4. Could 1-3 explain why politicians in Westminster (in the drought prone South East of England) are so desperately running around, scaremongering Scots into believing that their economy is doomed without England?

5. If Scotland was committing economic suicide; if they are the over subsidised parasites who should count themselves lucky to have such a benevolent system of governance – a view that the BBC seems to have given priority to – then why are the English not waving goodbye and hastily erecting immigration borders? We don’t seem to be that fond of ‘scroungers’ as a rule. Yet we’re begging them to stay. My considerate husband is wondering what Scotland has that England is desperate not to lose.

6. The ‘No’ campaign has pissed him off. From the Prime Minister who seemed to do his research on “how to talk to Scottish people” by watching Billy Connolly and Kevin Bridges DVDs to the bully boy tactics of using business to do your dirty work. As our government leaned on the Spanish and any business open to manipulation to force the result they wanted, the shape of his mouth started to shift from an O to an E. He has watched in dismay as the arguments he would have mounted have been replaced by “How Effing Dare You!” Asda, a multi-national American owned company can’t cope with supplying groceries to a smaller nation? Really? Well, we’ll have to buy our Irn Bru from Tesco. Bullying won’t work. Have you ever listened to the words of ‘Flower of Scotland?”

7. The BBC has covered the whole issue so badly that they have driven hoards of Scots into thinking they’d be better off without them and that independence might be one way to get rid. The fact that the loss of the BBC was mounted as a negative by the No campaign made my husband snort with derision. “Scotland might get a national weather forecast if they were independent” he noted as once again the weatherman said “we” were in for weather that clearly only referred to the South of England.

Still, he wavers. Because he has been a Scot living in England for most of his life now. His wife is English (though to be honest, if they go independent I might start a campaign to move the border south to Watford). His sons were born here, educated here and definitely feel British. He feels sad that it may have come to this. But one thing is certain, the debate has exposed how very patronising the English government has been. It has exposed woefully inadequate understanding in our media. It has exposed the folly of being unprepared for how a passionate people who love their country might respond to negative “you’ll never be able to pull it off” campaigning. If the ‘Better Together’ campaign had looked at this from the angle of we need you as much as you need us, we might not be seeing such a close race. Instead, the campaign focused on “you are better off with us and would be idiots to leave”. Red rag tactics. It’s not called Scotland the Brave for nothing.

So on Thursday, we’ll pull out the sofa bed, snuggle up and watch the results come in with mixed feelings. And whatever the outcome, good on you Scotland for making politics feel as fresh, exciting and relevant as it has ever felt in my lifetime.

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Finger Clickin’ Good…

I’m not afraid of a twitter scrap – or any scrap to be honest – but you have to think carefully before you take on people who you a) respect and b) suspect are cleverer than you are. And so I’m not sure if I was foolish to question the defence of the practice of finger clicking as a collective show of approval by Harry Fletcher Wood and Laura McInerney. But I did, and now I have to explain my concerns as some of the twitterarsy joined in with complaints that my concerns were ‘ridiculous’. Perhaps they are. But here they are:-

Before I start, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you may want to read this really interesting account of a visit to King Solomon Academy in London by David Didau. When I first read it I thought it just sounded weird and cultish but then someone tweeted a link to a video clip (which I can no longer find, so please supply if you have it) and I have to say it looked very sweet. When a child says something or does something admirable, the rest of the class clicks their fingers softly in approval. It looks like a little cloud of butterflies as their hands lift into the air and they, well, click. I was almost seduced – what harm could it do? But then, I’ve tried to train myself to look beyond what is sweet in my teaching and to ask “Why?” and “What could possibly go wrong?”

Culture is a complex adaptive system – an eco system of sorts, in which each element is more than the sum of its parts and in which there is constant emergence and growth. We’re not talking chaos theory here – I’m not suggesting that those soft little butterfly clicks are causing havoc in the Caribbean right now, but that we need to think really carefully about how cultures grow, read each other and inter-relate. In KIPP schools, where clicking originated, and there, at KSA, there is a strong drive towards developing a micro-culture within the school with the power to over-ride the external culture of the child. Within this culture, there is a strong drive towards group identity and belonging. Shared missions and goals. For these schools, the goal is to get to University. And there is no excuse for being poor. The results are impressive, and as David’s blog suggests, the buy in to this micro culture is universal.

It’s hard to argue against a drive towards this goal (well, actually it’s not, but that’s for another blog) – or at least to argue against schools who try to create purposeful climates and shared belonging for their pupils. Most strive for it. But there are some difficulties with making this so pervasive that normal human signals, signs and gestures are reprogrammed to create shared identity.

Firstly, in multi-cultural schools, such as these, children are already assimilating a minority culture into a majority set of norms and values. Navigating this is tricky and understanding the similarities and differences of those cultures is essential in securing future stability. The work of balancing different cultural needs, values and signs can be stressful for children. So there may be temporary relief in being drawn into a new, inclusive micro-culture in your school. It could be so attractive that it becomes necessary to you. And leaving that culture – moving on into a world in which no-one understands your clicking for example can lead to a feeling of isolation. You know that feeling when no-one gets you? Well multiply that by 100 when you arrive at your destination – never doubted – University, clutching your examination results and you try to fit in. What children need, is not simply to be driven to the door, but to be helped to understand how the world on the other side operates. People on the other side of that door tend not to click (unless they are highly impatient and want to get your attention – imagine the cultural gaffes; there’s a comedy sketch in there somewhere).

The 50% drop out rate of pupils from KIPP who make it to college is well publicised. In fact in 2012, the schools secured a $3.6 million grant to find out why. The reasons will be complex of course – but given the financial support, the academic level of qualification and so on, KIPP kids should be better equipped than most FSM kids to see it through. I suspect that one element of this research will discover that not feeling that one fitted in was a key factor. School cannot be a pure sanctuary for kids – lovely as this sounds – it’s a passing place; a ceremonial preparation for life. If we rewrite the codes and cultures of life, I worry that we simply create children who miss the old ways, who struggle to understand how others communicate their approval/feelings/routines and who fall out of step.

The other concern centres more around the impact of the body on the mind. Embodied cognition is a relatively new field of study and new discoveries are coming along all the time. But what is clear is that children become incredibly adept at reading other’s gestures in order to decide whether or not they are to be trusted (Hattie and Yates, 2014), and in order to better understand what is being said (Goldin-Meadows et al 2005, 2013). Add to that the findings of Masson Bub and Newton-Taylor (2008) and Glenberg (2008) in which the body is seen to react and prime to verbal cues even in abstract sentences (for example the words ‘delegated the responsibility’ led to the muscles in the hand priming themselves for a gesture of giving) then we have to carefully consider the wisdom of reprogramming the gestural codes we have established over millennia. If we accept the research that children will quickly and subconsciously read and respond to minute gestures and that these gestures create strong physiological responses, then should we be creating small numbers of children who carry completely different physical and psychological codes? What misunderstanding might occur? Who knows.

It might all be fine. Sweet. But we don’t know. And so for now, just to be on the safe side, I’ll stick to smiles and nods and applause.

Trailer:- Next week’s blog. “Hey You, Poor Person. I am Here to Save you From Yourself.” Or something similar.

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What should we do about ITT?

I’m not sure about the word training. I trained my toddlers to use a potty. And we’re about to get a puppy and I’ll have to train that to do things as well. Not to eat my kids’ homework and so on. But why do we use the word training for teachers? It connotes compliance and technical competency in simple actions. But surely we want a profession that questions, thrives, grows and lives with complexity? Is training really the right word?

In the light of the Carter review there are many people considering what the best course of action for teacher training is now. Some have argued that teachers should just learn on the job. Like they do in MacDonalds. Others that the focus for the PGCE should be 90% subject specific (ignoring primary and special education almost entirely). Dominic Cummings has collated an excellent blog with many wise and thoughtful contributions from across the profession and this is well worth a read. But I think we’re missing a trick in simply asking what we should do with the current model. I think we need to go right back to basics. We need to ask what would need to be done in order to ensure that we have a profession that is:-

1. Knowledgeable

2. Respected

3. Autonomous

4. Trusted

Mere ‘training’ will not meet these goals on its own. Like Alison Peacock, I think that we need to rethink the notion of qualified so that once we are given QTS status, this simply marks the beginning of our professional journey and that this is something that continues for life. I think, like Tristram Hunt, that being ‘qualified’ should be a bare minimum requirement for all teachers and that this qualification should mark a level of competency that runs way beyond a subject specialism to knowledge about children, psychology, behaviour, assessment, pedagogy and curriculum design. I believe that teaching is every bit as complex and important as medicine. And a darned sight more important than law. And it should therefore carry the same status. And so, I would argue that three things need to be done:-

1. More time allocated to the qualifying period.

Rather than arguing about the benefits of this or that route, I think all should be subsumed into one university based, two year Masters course. It is nigh on impossible to cover all that needs to be covered in a one year PGCE, hence arguments about where emphasis should be placed. Some of the most successful courses are those that take the UG route for primary teachers – the B.Ed. It used to be the case that most of these courses were 4 years long, but tuition fees put many students off applying so they reduced to 3. What if the fourth year led to a Master’s qualification? Certainly, many of my former fourth year students at MMU were writing at Masters level for their undergraduate dissertation.

For Post Grad routes, I’d argue the case that we need a two year qualifying course with a third year in situ as an NQT. Why? Because anything less leads to less secure knowledge of subject specific content; of understanding of pedagogy and of a range of contrasting settings which allow the profession to see the range of provision available. Such a two year course might look like this:-

 

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But of course, this would be expensive, right? Well, yes. But the NHS fund university education for their future employees in a lot of areas. It’s considered an investment. What might the wider cost benefits be? Well, we know that the impact of a highly effective teacher on not only the educational outcomes of a child are significant, but, as Dylan Wiliam frequently points out, there is also an impact on the future health and wealth of the child (Levin et al 2007, Hanushek and Wossmann, 2010) – i.e. a future saving of public funds. In addition, what are the costs to the public purse of the high turnover of teaching staff that we have at present? Our current “get ‘em young, burn ‘em out and replace” policy cannot be sustained. Because sooner or later those burned out teachers will start to talk to others thinking of entering the profession and what we need more than anything right now is positive discourse.

2. Universities need to have credibility if they are to take responsibility for a Master’s level profession.

As in any workplace, some workers are better informed than others about their practice. Universities are no different. It seems to me that there has been an element of confusion over the years about what makes a good ITT tutor. I would argue that there are three components necessary to good practice:-

1. Relevant and recent teaching experience (perhaps all ITT tutors should be partnered with schools and work in one for a day each week?)

2. Knowledge of recent research and a minimum of a Master’s qualification. Some tutors I know still talk of VAK learners – because this was all the rage when they were last in the classroom and they have not considered the importance of keeping up to date. There needs to be closer alignment of university educational research departments and ITT provision, ideally with the ITT tutors engaging directly with research.

3. Close working relationships and partnerships with schools. This is something that many universities do well, but the input into professional training should extend beyond students into CPD. Too many universities are slow to pick up on this strand or they completely price themselves out of the market. This should be a professional partnership that opens up, for example, Athens access to partner schools and their teachers.

3. Schools (like hospitals) should have a professional duty to contribute to the training of the next generation of teachers.

When I worked at MMU, we had to beg schools to take our students. Some did not get placed until the day they were due to start their placement causing stress all round. And we had to rely heavily on stalwart schools to take on extras. In my opinion, no school should be allowed a Good or Outstanding grade from Ofsted if they shirk their responsibility to train the next generation of teachers – a pool that they are reliant on for their future success. It is a common misconception that “University based routes” do not provide on the job training – they do. But the problems they face in placing students undermines the quality of that on the job experience.

I realise that these are just thoughts, but they are what I believe is necessary to ensure the outcomes I outline at the beginning of this post. We cannot have an ITT system, as we do at present where there are deemed to be First, Second and Steerage class routes into the profession. The public need to have confidence in the quality and integrity of the profession. To do that, there needs to be the same demanding high level of challenge in all routes.

Finally, as I mentioned at the beginning, qualification is just the beginning. In her essay on a Royal College of Teaching, Alison Peacock outlines a membership progression of this professional body that would begin with Asssociates (on qualification) and end with Fellows for those teachers who have demonstrated a contribution to the profession in terms of practice and research that is both nationally and internationally recognised. Such high aspirations for the profession are to be welcomed and I really believe that when we have this level of quality in the system, we will no longer speak of training – we will talk about teacher development.

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Another Day Out…At Ofsted.

I liked Mike Cladingbowl, National Director for Reform at Ofsted and was very glad of the chance to meet with him last Friday. For a start he bought the biscuits himself. He also has the kind of naughty little twinkle in his eye that makes you think he would be good company in the pub. And there is something of the bruiser about him too. I think if I were in a street fight (I’m from Burnley and live in Oldham, so it’s not that unlikely), I’d quite like him to have my back. I’d rather not be fighting him though. He’s convivial and generous, but no idiot and I had the clear impression that if he wants something to happen, it will happen. This, of course can be problematic for someone who doesn’t listen, have empathy or accept advice (a recently departed Secretary of State springs to mind), but here I think we have that rare person who is principled, determined, tough and humble enough to listen and to consider what he hears. Our meeting was scheduled to last for 90 minutes. He stayed for close to three hours and they had to throw him out of the room in the end. You could not have had a bigger contrast between that encounter and the earlier one we had at the DfE with Liz Truss.

There were two strands to the conversation. Mike was keen to clarify the latest thinking from Ofsted and to clear up some myths. This meant that he talked quite a lot and was keen to ensure that we had the information that we needed. The second strand was for us to put forward our concerns and observations about the impact that Ofsted had on our schools and on our behaviours in schools and to ask questions about how changes to the curriculum and assessment structures would impact on the inspection process. My colleagues have already blogged about much of this – @cherylkd and @jordyjax have covered the impact on SEN and PRUs more specifically and @leadinglearner’s thorough post outlines the reactions to worries about the impact of this year’s GCSE grades on school inspections really well. So I’ll just give headlines and my own thoughts in response to what was said on the day. Most of you will already know that:-

1. Inspectors will no longer grade individual lessons.

My Facebook timeline is going to be free of all those little “I got Outstanding” posts that are understandably full of relief but also, unfortunately, ensure that we end up colluding in the system we say we deplore by feeding the monster. This unreliable grading system, that for years has set teachers up in competition with each other and which has given some less scrupulous management teams sticks to beat staff with, has gone. But Ofsted will still judge the impact of teaching on learning. This in many ways casts an even brighter searchlight onto data and it is important to bear in mind that in terms of numbers and figures, we are now looking merely at KS to KS progress measured by raw scores. There is, as Stephen Tierney points out, a clear distinction being made between attainment data and assessment evidence. And this evidence will never be found on a spreadsheet and not always in a child’s book. Learning doesn’t happen in books. It happens in heads. The worry about how Ofsted will know that children are learning in the absence of levels is already leading many schools to throw ridiculous expectations at staff in terms of recording children’s work in books and insisting upon unsustainable marking expectations – in some cases triple marking, or insisting that books are thoroughly marked every week. For a secondary school Humanities teacher with potentially 300-400 pupils, this is clearly impossible. Even in primary, a marking load like this is unsustainable. Mike was very sympathetic and was clear. An inspection team will not only look at children’s books to assess their progress. They will …. wait for it …. talk to children. If you are clear about what you want them to learn and they are able to articulate the fact that they are learning it, then you have evidence. Out of the mouths of the babes will come your inspection grade. And yes, of course work in books is important – Mike spoke of wanting to see evidence that children are taking pride in their work – that they pay attention to it and do it to the best of their ability. In my experience, this happens when they care about and enjoy what they are doing. Keep a scrap book for their ideas to be scribbled in. Keep a portfolio for best work. That’s my tip by the way, not Ofsted guidance! But most of all, make sure they know what they can do, why they are doing it and what they need to do to get better.

2. Schools overcomplicate the complex.

Learning is a complex process, but schools make it too complicated. Falling over themselves to second guess what Ofsted want to see, they too often lose sight of the purpose of the education they are supposed to be providing. In a nutshell, Mike was clear. Teach them stuff. Make it engaging enough to be remembered. If you do this, you have little to worry about from Ofsted. Inspectors do not get up in the morning rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of undermining the confidence of teachers. Talk to them. Tell your story. Know your children. Have a clear moral purpose. Don’t cheat and lie to please them. Love your kids. Have high expectations. Know your data. Be brave. Under the new framework, inspectors have more freedom than ever before to take your school’s context and story into account. They are not so bound to the rule book as they were, so make sure they know the narrative curve of your intake and that you have a clear vision and that you know where you’re going and how you intend to get there. And make sure that the vision is shared not only with staff, but with parents and pupils so that they can articulate why it is you do what you do.

3. Good is good.

@Cherylkd has outlined this policy well, but basically if you are good then you’ll have a light touch visit from HMI once every three years. If you want to move to Outstanding, you can call Ofsted and request a full inspection. That’s up to you. But the aim is to divert attention, time and money away to those schools who need to move towards a Good grade. And for those schools, the process is to be less punitive and more collaborative. There is a return to the support role that HMIs used to have in schools in offering advice and guidance. There will be a sustained relationship, working together towards improvement. This seems to me to be a much healthier and more collaborative approach to school improvement than we have previously seen.

4. The tests are not the curriculum.

There will be a focus on ensuring that children are getting their entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum offer. I have to say that this has been a real bug bear of mine for years – that those children, usually from deprived backgrounds, who come to school with a poverty of vocabulary and general knowledge, are invariably the ones removed from the foundation subjects (where those very things are often built) to take part in literacy and numeracy intervention classes. The gap widens. And it is a common experience as many parents of Year 6 children will know, for subjects like PE, Music, Art and the Humanities to largely disappear in the run up to SATS. It is an insanely counterproductive measure. For success in the the literacy SATS themselves often depends on having a vocabulary and level of general knowledge that allows a child to access the question. The focus on ensuring a broad curriculum will hopefully bring those practices to an end. And schools who are innovative and rigorous in their approach will find that children thrive in numeracy and literacy when they see those skills embedded and utilised in other subjects. I hasten to add here that all of this is my rant. He just said that it was vital that children access the full curriculum. But hip hip hurray anyway.

5. A good school is more than a set of results.

“Schools are a human business – it’s all about people and sometimes the relationship between inspectors and head teachers has been like having two people who instead of using language to speak to each other, try to converse in a currency.” In short, Mike’s view is that the inspection process should be about a professional dialogue between human beings who respect each other’s professional integrity. Head teachers can be very unwelcoming. They can hide behind files and data and spreadsheets (currency), avoiding dialogue and similarly inspectors can use data to avoid the meaningful conversations that might lead to an enhanced understanding of a school’s context. Talking to each other is vital – all inspectors are being retrained in this respect but a canny Head will learn to take the reigns and to tell the inspector the story of their school. There is a move towards a more narrative reporting process than a data driven one (although results will ALWAYS matter) – there is a recognition that there are stories behind results that may need to be told. Similarly, there is a story about the life of the school that moves way beyond grades. How is your school preparing children for life? How is it building moral purpose, character, experience?  In the words of Mike Cladingbowl, “I want kids to be happy and to be able to live full lives. To be able to form secure attachments and relationships. How do we put this at the heart of education? What kinds of schools do we want and what kinds of people do we want to come out of them? … We need to have conversations about the purpose of schooling, and while they are there I want them to be excited. I want them to enjoy it. You ARE allowed to have fun!”

In the next few months, as the academic year progresses, there will be a number of stakeholder events hosted by Ofsted. They will be for teachers, senior leaders, parents and pupils. They will be about generating a conversation about what we want from our education system. This really excites me. I genuinely feel that we are moving towards a more open and collaborative period in which, yes, of course expectations will be high, but there will also be more professional trust and interaction. This can only be a good thing, and I was very grateful to be part of one of the groups hearing these thoughts for the first time. Thanks to Mike and his team for making the time to talk to us.

 

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My Life in Books #blogsync August 2014.

They say that a child who grows up in a household full of books grows up to be a reader, but there were not many books in our house when I was very young. My Dad loved reading, but his father had burned all his books in a drunken temper not long before he met my Mum. By the time they had me, were married and had set up home, there wasn’t much money for books, so instead he told me stories. And then one day he came home with a large cardboard box. I was seven. “It’s time you became a reader” he said ” and you’ll never be lonely.”

He had spotted a pile of Enid Blyton’s in a charity shop window and bought the lot. Everything from the Famous Five to the Faraway Tree. He was right. I was never lonely again. For the next five or so years, every bit of pocket money went on Enid. I didn’t even think that there might be anyone else writing for children out there and I loved them. And then one day I fancied a change. By then, my Dad’s own bookshelves were full and so I stole his books and read under the covers until my eyes watered. They were not really books for children – Stephen King, James Herbert, Dennis Healey. I went from macaroons and ginger beer to killer rats, the occult and some fairly steamy sex. Still, it widened my horizons.

We didn’t have to study English Literature at my secondary school and growing out of Enid Blyton had left me with a bit of a gap in my life. I read a few romantic novels, devoured Sue Barton, Student Nurse books and dreamed of marrying a doctor (because of course girls couldn’t be doctors could they?) and saw reading as a means to escaping what was a fairly shitty number of teenage years. Plagued by bullying and abuse from my piano teacher, to say I was troubled would be putting things mildly and by the time I went to sixth form I was struggling to cope. I picked English Literature because after music, there was nothing else I really wanted to do. When we were asked to list the books we had read in our first lesson, I could see the distaste on my teacher’s face. “You’ve got some catching up to do,” he said, handing me Jane Austin’s Emma. And the world tipped on its axis. I loved it. I loved her. I couldn’t read enough so he fed me more. Thomas Hardy (my middle child is named after Gabriel Oak), Anne Bronte and then her slightly inferior sisters. I lapped them all up. I’d had no idea there was such beauty in the world and I thrived. Not a single book was on the syllabus. And when my clarinet teacher fondled my boobs and told me it was a breathing excercise, I packed Music in altogether assuming it was populated with nothing but dirty old men and I applied to university to study Literature.

I loved reading – all of it. The A level texts I studied became favourites – Lear, the Wife of Bath, the Ancient Mariner….but at university we had free choice on texts and I fell in love with more books and characters. Gatsby, Willy Loman, Atticus Finch attached themselves to me like limpets. But it was reading Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple that pivoted me into a love of black American women’s literature. Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison – here I was, a white girl from Burnley feeling more kinship with these abused female characters, struggling to find their voices in a world that seemed pitched against them than with anyone I’d ever read before. “And still I rise”, Angelou wrote and I realised that you did not have to carry your past like a burden. You could discard it and choose to forge forward. So I rose.

I couldn’t imagine marrying a man who didn’t read so when I met my husband and he was in the middle of Moby Dick, I envisaged a lifetime of companionable bed time reading. But it turned out that he’d been in the middle of Moby Dick for some time and it was another two years before he reached the end. It turned out he isn’t really a reader. But that’s ok because he’s happy to stare at the horizon on holiday in quiet contemplation while I devour books and our children get fed, clothed and bathed.

As I’ve gone through my adult life, I’ve carried on reading. And I enjoy most of the holiday romps that others do, but it’s the books that make you think that I love the most. Those that bring other places, lives and times to vivid reality worm their way into my heart. Barbara Kingsolver’s searing tale, The Poisonwood Bible, the story of the life of a missionary family in the Congo felt like a grenade in my mind in terms of reframing the way I viewed western attitudes towards other cultures. And other thoughtful women have brought to life other times and places in ways that have radically changed the way I view the world – Amy Tan and Hilary Mantel for example.

As I’ve become a mother and teacher, I’ve discovered a whole world of children’s literature beyond Enid. From those that have my children howling with laughter, such as little moles with poos on their heads, to the wide eyed wonder of Harry Potter, I’ve had so much pleasure from seeing them become avid readers. And in class I’ve used books as portals to worlds way beyond those that simply analyse sentence structure or the use of metaphor. Books are the means by which children engage with lives and worlds beyond their own experience. And as I know, books can heal. Every Child a Reader is not an economic aim to me; not a matter of test results and future jobs. It’s a moral crusade. For if every child is a reader, there may be no place for loneliness in the world.

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