Teachers Who Save You.

I was really good at school until I hit Year 9. Something snapped in Year 9. Maybe it was the pressure of the abuse I was in my third year of enduring from my piano teacher. Maybe it was hormonal. Maybe it was the bullying – ironically, I was bullied at school because I played the piano and some of the other kids thought it was too posh. Maybe it was that a combination of all those things had made me withdrawn, sulky and uncommunicative at home. Whatever it was, I changed.

I went from doing my homework to not bothering. I went from silently enduring bullying to fighting back. I went from smiling to scowling. I pretty much hated the world and everything in it. I only really loved music.

To my teachers, I had everything. Compared to many of the other kids in my class, I was lucky. We lived in a nice house, my parents cared about my education and about me. I was clever. But I was horrid. Suddenly, bolt-out-of-the blue, horrid. I co-ordinated a mean little stunt on our English teacher who had a habit of a) spitting when he talked and b) losing his temper. Five minutes into the lesson, our umbrellas went up. Having won the grudging respect of the bullies through fighting, losing and fighting some more, I started hanging around on their estate – Stoops estate in Burnley where the writer of Shameless, Paul Abbott, grew up. They sniffed glue. I drank litres of cider. We’d throw up on the streets then I’d walk home, sneak up to my room and sleep.

“I love you, but I don’t like you!” said my Mum in exasperation. I didn’t care. I didn’t like myself either. Home life deteriorated to the point that I barely spoke to or saw my parents. If I wasn’t locked in my room, I was locked in my head. My Mum got so worried she took some eyeshadow powder I’d spilt in my bin down to the chemist to see if they could analyse it. She thought I must be on drugs. I wasn’t and they couldn’t.

But I still went to piano lessons. I learned to play sliding down on my stool so his hands couldn’t reach into my pants. But I still went. It didn’t cross my mind to ask for a different teacher, so I endured. Then a miracle happened.

Mrs Bowling, our bouncy, but strict music teacher, took me to one side.

“I hope you’re going to take this for O Level,” she said.

She got me to play. Told me my posture was shocking. She rang my parents. She told them I was really talented at music, but that I must find a different piano teacher. I needed to do grades, she told them, and whatever this man had been doing, he’d got me doing it all in a very odd position. So almost overnight, my life changed.

I didn’t change that much. But I had somewhere to go. The Music room was like a church for me – a haven. This adult didn’t ask me awkward questions. She knew I was getting into trouble a lot but she didn’t mention it. She ran me to the hospital after one particularly vicious fight, but all she said was “don’t do that again!” She played music to me. Rachmaninov, Mozart, Parry. I was glad. She took me to the Halle – I’d never even been to Manchester before. She saved me.

It took me years to straighten out. Even after the bullying had stopped and the hormones calmed down, I was like the ball in a pinball machine. Unpredictable, little self regulation, prone to huge ups and downs. I didn’t tell my parents about my piano teacher – didn’t tell anyone at all – until I was 30 and of course they were devastated, but by then, I was better.

So you see, when people tell me I’m a troll for wanting to protect children like me; that I don’t live in the real world; that I’m soft – I don’t give a Figaro. Because I know, every child needs a champion. To all adult eyes, I had it all – a loving family and every advantage. In most schools now I would have been excluded for fighting. But I wasn’t. I was given a chance – one human being – that’s all it took. Sometimes what’s on the surface is nothing more than a symptom of something terrible beneath. I know it’s hard, but let’s never lose our compassion. Let’s keep looking for that thing – that one thing that will capture a child’s interest and imagination. Let’s not give up.

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I’m a School in Special Measures.

I’m a school in special measures. Stubborn, me. Went ‘special’ almost ten years ago, and we’re still special, see:-

  • We lost 30% of our staff after Ofsted and have never really replaced them. We’re not allowed an NQT. Our funds are drained by supply. The ones who stayed are heroes. They wear the tarnish and carry on doing their best.
  • Our intake fell after Ofsted came. Those who could afford to bus kids elsewhere did. Those who couldn’t/wouldn’t stayed. The buses aren’t free. We’ve become a school for those with no choices or for those who don’t care about choices or for those who can’t afford choices.
  • Our roll fell while other local schools’ numbers went up. Their funding went up with their new bus paying pupils whose parents joined the PTA. Ours went down. So when they wanted to ‘turn their schools around’ by off rolling/excluding, guess who had spaces for those kids? You don’t get funding for taking kids in Yr11. Just sayin’
  • They said we should join a MAT but MATs don’t seem interested in me.
  • Our children’s learning is improving in spite of everything but they’re in a rank ordering game. Comparative outcomes puts them at the bottom of the tree. They are moving forward on an platform of superglue.
  • They bring heads in. They move them on. They bring consultants in. They move them on. Pay offs bring our funding down. But at least it looks like SOMETHING IS BEING DONE.

I’m a school in special measures. Stubborn, me. We went special almost ten years ago and we’re still special. Do you see?

 

Exclusions

Lord Adonis has caused quite a stir this weekend with his statement that “We must tackle the cancer of school expulsions – 1000s are excluded for a period of time each school day. Schools should be forbidden from expelling pupils, unless they have broken the law – many young lives are going completely off the rails because of this.”

If Lord Adonis had ever taught through this hideously long term, he would have thought twice about the timing of this announcement. While he has a valid point, it entirely ignores the exhaustion that the profession feels at this time of year. It’s frustrating enough when you’re tired, stressed out, giving it your all at the chalk face and dealing with a 6ft 2″ angry/distressed man-boy squaring up to you in the classroom, without some Lord telling you what to do.

But we also have to take a deep breath and look at what’s going on around us. And yes, I have been there, believe me. I once had my shoulder severely bruised by one teenage boy who pushed me against the door in his attempt to leg it out of my classroom. He was autistic, in care, distressed and I was in his way. He was excluded for three days then we sat down, had a restorative conversation and carried on as we were. I didn’t really want to see him again to be honest, but I also understood that we were the best chance he had of at least a semi-decent life. So, he made it through school and into college and we did our best by him.

I get that it’s hard. And when teachers are tired and stressed, their capacity to empathise with others is depleted. There’s really only so much you can give. But even so, many understand that the figures tell a very worrying story. Most will understand that Adonis, whatever his flaws, does have a point. 35 children are permanently excluded from school every single day. Overwhelmingly, they are boys with SEND. Overwhelmingly, they are from chaotic and disadvantaged homes. Disproportionately, they are black. And without doubt, if they are excluded, they are more likely to end up in prison. Excluded children are not only more likely to end up turning to crime, they are more likely to be poor, to be sick, to die early. They are more likely to become parents of disadvantaged and disturbed children and the cycle continues.

I heard, the other day of a school that had stopped using the words “challenging behaviour” and instead spoke of “distressed behaviour” and it made me wonder. Is the rise in exclusions linked to rises in mental health problems? Is it linked to rises in child poverty? Are these two things tied together? Are permanent exclusions a symptom of a wider malaise in our society?

And what of the off rolling, the illegal exclusions? A report by the IPPR suggests that the real figure of exclusions could be five times higher than the official figures and that because these are ‘unofficial’ exclusions, they are often untracked – children simply disappear.

I have great sympathy with the teachers who feel outraged by Adonis’ suggestion that we take exclusions lightly. Most don’t. For most they are a last resort. But there are a rising number of schools who use exclusions as an effective means by which to ‘turn a school around.’  This trend is worrying and it’s quite right that attention should be drawn to it. Ofsted should take into consideration the means by which a school has managed to ‘improve’ – I had one teacher contact me by DM to say that on his first day in post, a new head gathered the staff together and promised to “change the demographic of the school.” They were left in little doubt about what that meant.

Are there some circumstances in which children should automatically be excluded? I think so, yes. Pulling a knife, rare as it is, would be one of those examples. But the fact is, most excluded children have not pulled or carried a knife. Their behaviour has been different. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that some simply cannot cope in mainstream education. There is no doubt that mainstream education with its increasing pressure on exam results, is not serving the needs of many of our children very well at all. So what needs to be done?

  • Money needs to be put in place to increase alternative provision so that there are high quality places available for the children who cannot cope in mainstream education.
  • Money needs to be put in place to ensure there is adequate support in mainstream schooling. That includes more TAs, SEND specialists and counsellors. The cost of this is a fraction of the ongoing, life long costs of poor health and crime.
  • Government need to tackle the underlying social conditions that are leading to this situation – poverty causes stress. Stress impacts on behaviour. Remove the cause of the stress.
  • Schools need to ensure that the children they exclude have somewhere else to go. They need to be partners in transitional arrangements.
  • Teacher workload needs to be addressed so that we don’t have a system where stressed and overloaded adults are in charge of stressed and overloaded children. It’s a powder keg.
  • Kindness and compassion need to always take priority over the accountability measures of a school. No head who is committed to inclusive practice should be punished for it. I’ve known three head teachers this year sacked by Academy CEOs for exactly this ‘crime’.

So, Lord Adonis, while I think you have a point, perhaps you could use your voice and influence, not only to turn the gaze on schools, but also onto the policies that are placing teachers and pupils in impossible situations. Perhaps you could take time to look at the bigger picture? And in the meantime, perhaps we teachers can take a deep breath and see these children anew. Not as destructive forces hell bent on ruining us. But on children in the process of being destroyed who need, more than anything else, our help.

 

And now good news for reading!!

Last week I was able to bring you good news in relation to group work in terms of our performance in PISA tests (for 15 year olds). And now, other international comparison tests (PIRLS – for 9/10 year olds) tell us that we’re doing pretty well in reading too. – around 8th out of 50. So let’s give our teachers a really lovely big pat on the back. And now let’s be really careful about jumping to conclusions. The good news is:-

  • We improved our scores by 7 marks in five years – from 552 to 559 an increase of around 1.25%.
  • More significantly, we narrowed the gap between the lower achieving pupils and the higher achieving ones.
  • And we made progress on closing the gap on gender differences with boys improving.

This is really heartening. And in addition, our pupils do really well at inference from fictional texts, though less well on extraction of information from non fiction texts. So, after cracking open the champagne and giving teachers a pay rise, what conclusions are the government making from this outcome?

Well, they are demonstrating that they too are better at making inferences than drawing out facts. Nick Gibb was keen to point out that this was the first cohort of children to have taken the phonics test and that therefore the improvement was an endorsement of the phonics check. But wait…this cohort of children achieved only a 58% pass rate in their Phonics Check in 2012. In 2017 it was 81%. Can we expect a rise of 23% in the next PIRLS test? It seems unlikely. And an analysis of the results conducted by Oxford university found only a moderate correlation of 0.52 between the two – that’s without taking statistical variance of the results into account. Of course, it’s also important to consider that correlation is not cause. The correlation simply suggests that on the whole, children who did well in one test, tended to do well in another. And vice versa. Not that one test CAUSED the results in the other. In fact the report concluded that  “while the average PIRLS scores of the lowest performing pupils in England have increased since 2011, it appears too hasty to claim that these improvements are attributable to policy changes.”

Nevertheless, it would seem churlish not to accept that surely SSP teaching has played a part in this improvement. This cohort are the first to have truly been impacted by the introduction of SSP in 2007 by the previous Labour government. Credit where it’s due.

And the performance in inference skills suggest that schools are doing well on ensuring children are reading fiction and developing comprehension and analysis skills.

However, the enjoyment of reading for both boys and girls was lower than the average for the countries taking part, and much more so for boys. This supports the findings too of the Clackmannanshire report into early reading that found that although SSP led to boys improved reading outcomes, they nevertheless reported lower levels of enjoyment of reading than the girls in  spite of their accelerated success. A tendency for boys’ enjoyment of reading to be not only lower but to reduce between the ages of 11 and 16 is problematic. This is a worry, particularly when we consider recent IoE data that showed that children who read for pleasure between the ages of 11 and 16 know 26% more vocabulary and tend to do better at GCSE. It may be that although we are teaching children to read well, the fact that they don’t enjoy reading is ultimately impacting on outcomes further down the line.

Interestingly, the correlation between books at home and performance in PIRLS was far stronger than the correlation between the introduction of the phonics check and the PIRLS reading result. Clearly there are complexly inter-related social, cultural and economic factors at play here and again, correlation is not necessarily cause.

So in short, what are our headlines? Lots will depend on your point of view. But for me, I’d say:-

  • Phonics seems to be impacting. Just make sure you keep it short, sweet, interactive and fun so they don’t get put off reading.
  • Focus on reading for pleasure and see how books can be brought into and kept in the home. Second hand book sales at school? Swaps? Gifts?
  • Consider information retrieval as this is one of our weaker areas. Are we allowing children to read enough non fiction and pull information out of texts? This can be done in really imaginative and creative ways – doesn’t have to be a comprehension worksheet.

But most of all, let’s just take a moment to say, well done primary teachers. Well done pupils. In spite of everything – you’re making a difference.

 

Some Good News for Group Work?

You may not know it, because our media didn’t report it: nor did our ministers shout it from the rooftops, but we did rather well in the PISA international comparison tests on Collaborative Problem Solving. Of the 32 OECD nations, we were somewhere between 8th and 12th place (there’s always a 5% margin of error in the marks, so we can’t be certain exactly where, though that doesn’t stop people plonking us randomly on a slot between the two). We did pretty well in Science too (@15th of 70), though Maths and Literacy were lower – broadly in line with the OECD average. And all were way higher than our score for well being which was one of the lowest. So why is no-one celebrating this good news about collaborative problem-solving?

Perhaps it doesn’t fit in with government policy and ideology – we only have to look at what has happened to the place of soft skills in our curriculum to see they are simply not a priority and have not been for some time. Look at these extracts from speeches from Michael Gove and Nick Gibb between 2013 and 2017:-

These ‘child-centred’ approaches to teaching focus on eliciting and developing ethereal and often poorly-defined skills in pupils. Teacher focus is turned away from ensuring all pupils are taught the core of academic knowledge that they need, and instead teachers attempt to inculcate creativity and problem-solving… We know from decades of research – and most recently from the boom in understanding the workings and limits of human cognition – that this view is deeply misguided.

Nick Gibb 2017

 “Teachers have felt they need to organise group work in which students talk to each other rather than learn from their teacher or texts. This approach is not just constricting the initiative and talent of great teachers by diminishing the power of teaching, it also runs counter to the very best recent research on how children learn.”

Michael Gove 2014

In addition, we constantly see group work and collaborative classroom practice lambasted by the very people purporting to support evidence led practice in the classroom.

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So no wonder all those people are staring at the carpet right now, rather than celebrating our abilities in an area that employers rate highly in terms of the skill sets of their employees.

But beneath the data lies some worrying trends. Although we did well – and had more students achieving at the highest levels than even the top performing country overall – Singapore – our range of ability in this area was a matter for concern. 22% of UK children performed at the lowest level – below Level 2 and most of those children came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet at the same time, children from disadvantaged backgrounds reported how highly they valued these skills even if they had less opportunity to learn them. Why is this?

The trends in our changes to curriculum have prioritised individual learning over group learning, not only in terms of government speeches, but in terms of content. Science practicals are disappearing; Speaking and Listening in English, which used to include group discussions, no longer count towards the GCSE grade. There has been a 24% drop in Drama GCSE entries since 2010 – one of the subjects most likely to give children experience of all the soft skills that employers say they value. In fact, for many children, their access to these skills – through team sports, drama, music, collaborative youth clubs (such as cubs and brownies/scouts and guides) and so on are paid for by parents. So those who can’t afford to send Billy to Little Kickers or Stagecoach or any of the other ‘Saturday’ clubs that exist are doubly disadvantaged. They are disappearing from schools to make way for increasingly competitive testing or to cope with funding cuts, and they can’t afford to participate at an extra curricular level. To what extent were the PISA results really a reflection of middle class pastimes?

OR. Could it be that in spite of all the talk of novices, knowledge, textbooks and direct instruction, the majority of teachers remain committed to ensuring that children get access to problem solving, group work, collaborative tasks and dialogic talk? Could it be that they are looking beyond the narrow band of ‘research’ that Nick Gibb speaks of, to a broader body in which they see that dialogic talk reaps benefits in Maths, Science and English (EEF, 2017); or that collaborative learning delivers better outcomes (+5 months) than Phonics (+4).

OR could it be that what we saw was the ghost of a past pedagogy that future 15 year olds will no longer recognise?

Of course, whatever our view, good outcomes in collaboration and problem solving are dependent on good classroom management, clever use of resources, knowledge and teacher skill. Resnick and Michael’s research into effective group work and classroom talk, lays out three modes of accountability that are necessary for group work to impact well on outcomes:-

  1. The work is accountable to knowledge – i.e. the children get their facts right.
  2. The work is accountable to community – i.e. there is mutuality and shared responsibility.
  3. The work is accountable to reason – i.e. their talk is well structured and makes sense.

It seems to me that rather than scripted lessons, whole class teacher tracking and formulaic testing, we need, as a profession, to move towards a better understanding of how to use the pedagogies of group work, inquiry and problem solving to best effect.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the view that the purpose of education is to prepare children for work. But nor should it be about making them less prepared to thrive in the work place. Industry is almost united in arguing the case that they need the following skill set in order of importance in their employees. Moves towards automation are going to make this even more necessary. Any job that can be done without collaboration, critical or creative thinking, is increasingly going to be done by machines. So don’t expect this list to disappear:-

1. Ability to work in a team

2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems

3. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work

4. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization

5. Ability to autonomously obtain and process information

6. Ability to analyze quantitative data

7. Technical knowledge related to the job

8. Proficiency with computer software programs

9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports

10. Ability to influence others

(Source: Forbes, based on a survey by the NACE).

We can see straight away, a complex interplay between independence and autonomy relating to executive functions and those which are collaborative. This isn’t an either/or situation – both are deeply necessary. So how are our pedagogies ensuring that these skills emerge – that children don’t just remember stuff, but learn how to find, analyse, communicate and use information?

What we don’t want to see, is a return to some of the errors of old I saw in the early 2000s – classes set up simply for skills lessons. Pages of rubric attempting to define and measure ‘risk taking’ etc. Children colouring in sheets assessing whether they thought they were a Level 2 or a Level 5 risk taker….bored out of their minds and barely understanding what they were doing. That’s no better than rote chanting of knowledge.

Skills and knowledge sit in tandem, interdependent and changing slightly in relation to the subjects/domains they inhabit. So context is king. It’s possible to have knowledge rich, thriving environments in which students and teachers are working together to solve complex problems, question the world, use their empathy and compassion, knowledge and research skills to investigate solutions. It is possible for them to talk, articulate, debate and communicate big ideas. But all must have access to this. We simply cannot have a curriculum devoid of arts, creativity, talk and problem solving for our most disadvantaged children. It simply widens the gap.