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Pin the tail on the donkey

It has been a long time coming, and finally this week we got to see what the deal was. It will be discussed, debated and consulted on in the coming months before they finally deliver the will of the people later this year.

It has divided the nation. On social media it has created all sorts of uncertainties and anxieties about what it looks like. For many of us, ‘no Ofsted’ is better than a ‘bad Ofsted’ and I have to say I’m in the leave camp. I shall remain so until I receive the necessary assurances over the coming months that the final agreement represents a good deal for the British people, children included. I fear not.

A flawed process

I loved my time as an Ofsted inspector. There, I said it. I took part in almost 50 inspections whilst serving as a headteacher. I’ve also been on the receiving end of them as a chair of governors and CEO. I enjoyed the Ofsted annual training and found it particularly useful when applying it to my own schools; I knew the rules of engagement.

When on inspection, I was always made to feel welcome by fellow heads in the knowledge that I was a serving headteacher. Lead inspectors also seemed pleased to learn that they had a serving head on their team, especially when it came to assigning someone the job of inspecting early years, community cohesion, SMSC or doing a book scrutiny. (For some reason, no-body wanted to do these.)

But although being a serving head may have been a good thing, it also brought with it many problems, not least the leaving of personal baggage at the school gate. This was drummed into us by Ofsted – not just to those of us working as heads but everyone, SIPs and consultants included.

Leaving the baggage at the gate is very hard. As humans, our default position when having to make difficult decisions is often to rely on gut instinct. Our behaviours are determined by our own values and what we believe is right, and so we dig in. Ofsted call it ‘professional opinion’ and it provides inspectors with the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card and leaves the likes of you and I completely out on a limb.

A belief is simply one person’s perception of reality. It’s neither right nor wrong. That, in a nutshell, is at best what inspection is: One person’s perception of the reality of a situation at a given moment in time. As humans, we all have different beliefs and so it is highly likely that another person may perceive the reality of the situation in a school completely differently, especially when hanging on dearly to their baggage.

Once we’ve become aware of the things around us (intuition) we then make sense of it all and come to a conclusion or judgement. This is what makes us human and what ultimately renders the current high-stakes inspection system useless. It is no more reliable than pinning a tail on a donkey.

We are only human

Human beings always make mistakes and sometimes get things wrong. I understand and embrace this entirely. I’m very mindful of this when working in schools. When a new academy joins the trust in special measures, we all take great care not to judge the school too soon. We watch, we observe, we dive deep, we linger longer. And then we do it all over again.

Of course, if there are safeguarding or compliance issues that need addressing we’ll tackle that immediately. But getting to grips with how well pupils learn as a result of the things that teachers do is a highly complex process that only reveals itself over a period of time. It cannot be done in a matter of weeks, and certainly not in one or two days, however expert or well-intentioned the individual claims to be.

So why do we continue to kid ourselves that we can still turn up at a school and judge accurately what is going on? And even if we could, what is it about Ofsted inspectors that allow them to be able to do it, when us mere mortals cannot? Has the training for inspectors improved so much since I last trained that it now provides them with such sorcery? If so, why isn’t it available to all of us, as I for one would love to know their secret. 

A little but woolly

When it comes to making changes to Ofsted, I’ve always been cautious about what we wish for. The moving away from data to a focus on curriculum may appear seductive but it’s not. We must not be lulled into a false sense of security. As flawed as it was, at least with data, you kind of knew where you stood. You knew what was coming and where the battle lines were drawn.

Now though, with the focus being on the curriculum, all bets are off.  Who knows what an inspector will be looking for when judging the quality of education. How on earth am I going to get that onto a spreadsheet or a graph? Cue massive swathes of workload for all our leaders.

That said, I hated arguing over worthless data and am glad to see the back of it being used as the yardstick. Not everyone is though. I listened on my way to work to an interview on the radio mid-week with Amanda Spielman.

She was as passionate and articulate as ever. She is by far the best HMCI in my lifetime. But when she outlined the reasons for why she wanted to move away from performance data and focus instead on the curriculum, the interviewer cut her off and said, ‘Well forgive me, Amanda Spielman, but doesn’t that sound a little bit woolly?’ There was a brief moment of silence and I suspect for a split second she knew she had a point.

That’s what I call talent

The fact that Ofsted will now be asking inspectors to evaluate the impact of the curriculum worries me deeply. I have many questions, mainly around an inspector’s credentials.

How many inspectors out there have ever designed a curriculum from scratch? How many have ever worked in a school as a leader on curriculum intent and then successfully implemented it? How many of them have then had to evaluate its impact within the context of everything else that goes on in a school? How many inspectors understand deeply the learning sequences in each subject and the relationship with the cognitive domain, relational learning and associated behaviours in the context of challenging schools?

Can they look us in the eye and say, yes? If they can’t, then the system remains as flawed as it ever was.

Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt: They turn up in a school they know nothing about. How will they even begin to scratch the surface of what a really powerful curriculum looks like in such a short time? How will they possibly get an understanding of the extent to which ‘pupils successfully learn the curriculum’ and that ‘delivery is equitable for all groups’? Not just in one subject, but expert enough to be able to do so in the core subjects, art, music, PE? 

Good luck with that one, I say. You may as well just pass them the donkey.

Any human being that can do that, alongside everything else that they have to look for, whilst under great pressure, all the while ensuring that every judgement they make is objective and consistent with every single other judgement made by every other inspector at every other school, week in, week out, is one talented individual. 

If I was still inspecting, the best I could probably do is take a stab in the dark, hope for the best and then leg it. They’ll never see me again.

Ofsted must also remember that as an employer they have a duty of care to their workforce. To send them out on such a mission, one that is fundamentally impossible to do with the time and resources available to them, is unfair.

Ditch the grades

Which leads us to the farce that is the grading of a school. That lovely little exercise where an inspector takes your life’s work, and after a few frantic hours wondering round your school like an extra out of Birdbox, eventually takes a punt and plucks out a number based on nothing more than an urge, a whim or a fancy. How’s that for your well-being?

In a low-stakes system, where inspection is more to do with school improvement and development; where inspection reports highlight the things schools do well and need to improve; where any areas of non-compliance or safeguarding are made clear; where inspectors really do ‘do good as they go’, then I can live with that, not least because that’s what most intelligent school systems do in the world.

But not here. We ignore the research and instead carry on regardless with grades as if our schools are nothing more than a pack of Top Trumps.

If Ofsted really do care about our well-being and workload then they’ll convince the government to change the law and ditch the grades, especially in a high-stakes system that can make or break communities and people’s careers. To shrug this off by conceding that human error is acceptable collateral damage is simply not good enough.

Grading is unhelpful, unnecessary and serves no purpose. It is toxic and has got to stop. The government will claim that it’s what parents want, but they are wrong. Parents in the leafier suburbs may be able to choose to drive their child 20 miles or so to the nearest outstanding school, but not round here.

In fact I can’t remember a parent ever choosing to send a child to any of our schools in the West Midlands on the back of an inspection judgement. Even when in special measures, parents still send their kids to their local school because they have no alternative as all the schools are full (the nearest outstanding one especially).

The people’s vote

I hope that when you do respond to the consultation, you’ll make it clear that whilst we are happy to be inspected with rigour, the grades aren’t helpful and only add to the pressure and stress. It contradicts entirely the rationale behind caring about teacher well-being. You might also like to mention the following:

  • That expecting a headteacher to be available at the drop of a hat to meet with an inspector as part of the ‘pre-inspection’ meeting is condescending. Heads don’t just sit in their offices all day idly awaiting a call from Ofsted. They have schools to run and children to teach.
  • Book scrutinies are pointless. They tell you nothing in isolation and the amount of stress and workload required to make a case to an inspector in half an hour is just not worth the effort. Again, you are better off passing them the donkey.
  • It is impossible to judge curriculum impact during an inspection. Any attempt at claiming to be able to do so suggests a lack of understanding as to how the curriculum works. It’s taken us 7 years to build and construct ours. It’s highly complex and takes about 18 months to introduce and implement in a new school so that staff and pupils understand it. Deep impact will come through after about 3-5 years. I simply don’t have the words to be able to articulate it to a stranger in such a short time.

Open goal

So as pleased as I am about the general direction of travel and all-round culture-shift coming out of Ofsted since Spielman took the reigns, they have missed a massive open goal.

Ofsted claim to listen to research but they evidently don’t, choosing instead to be selective when it suits. When the new framework lands in September, it’ll remain in place for several years to come (or until the next HMCI). We are unlikely to have an opportunity as good as this for some time to finally get it right, after almost 30 years of trying. Let’s not blow it.

The rhetoric of claiming to be mindful of teacher well-being and workload counts for nothing if at the end of the process schools are graded, using criteria that are as watertight as the open goal net.

All the worthy intentions coming out of Ofsted will be rendered meaningless if we continue the charade of kidding ourselves we can pin the tail on the donkey.

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It all comes down to one thing: Trust

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As teachers up and down the country are bracing themselves for the inevitable bout of ‘flu that will take hold the minute they wake up on Saturday morning, let’s celebrate the fact that 2018 has been another cracking year.

Regardless of whether you believe this to be true or not, let me assure you that each and every one of you has made a difference to the lives of the young people that you teach, in ways that you could never imagine.

I see it all the time as I walk around schools. I don’t need to look at a set of books or pore over a spreadsheet to know that a teacher is making a difference. And not just with one child, but with every single one of them in their class.

I watch closely as teachers engage meaningfully with their pupils, noting all the time the respect, trust and admiration that flows between the two. At this time of year especially, I see also anxious and nervous children who are so excited about Christmas, but deep-down are dreading being away from their teacher.

As much as they may love their parents or carers, they know that at school they are guaranteed unconditional care, fairness, attention, support, structure, discipline, consistency and above all, a real sense of belief. Belief in themselves and belief in their teacher.

Change your beliefs

Beliefs are simply perceptions of reality. It is often said that, ‘we are what we believe’. This is a good thing because it means that if we change our beliefs then we can change reality. This is why it is so important to have a clear and meaningful set of values that help guide us on how to behave in order to make continual changes to reality.

Steve Jobs, during his early days as CEO at Apple, was a genius at changing people’s perceptions of reality by getting them to believe that anything was possible. He understood that reality was malleable, and in so doing became expert at using RDFs. A Reality Distortion Field is a phrase first coined in 1981 to describe Jobs’s uncanny ability to make other people believe in the possibility of completing very difficult tasks.

For you and me, our reality distortion field is most likely operating right now. It is through this field that we project the reality of who we are to the world in regard to our strengths, limiting beliefs, doubts, fears etc. We see the world through an RDF. It’s no surprise therefore, that on occasions our perception of reality can be distorted. This is why vision and values can sometimes help guide us.

Stick to your values

Apple have always had a very clear and compelling vision, underpinned by a set of behaviours expected of all staff. I was lucky enough to visit Apple HQ in California in April and saw it for myself. What it also did was to drive home the following point: That having a clear vision is pointless without a clear set of values to show people how to behave in order to achieve it. Quite simply: No values, no vision.

Take a company involved in shipping, for example. They have a compelling vision for excellence, but if their values are non-existent or poorly aligned, it counts for nothing. This will be evident when facing a difficult decision around missing a key shipping deadline because of concerns around quality. Staff from a values-based company would behave as expected by pulling the consignment because of the lack of high quality or precision. They would not fear reprisals from management, even though the firm may lose the contract. On the other hand, a local competitor may behave differently and ship it out, because they don’t value quality over quantity. For them, it’s about meeting deadlines on time and at whatever cost.

In order for our multi-academy trust to achieve its vision, we have a clear set of values that help us do the right thing. In short, our Trust is built on trust. The Latin word for ‘trust’ is fides – as in ‘to confide’ or bona fide (of good faith). We built our entire Trust on this belief, that if we are to become the best version of ourselves, we can only do so through high levels of trust.

Make them stick

You may not be aware, but Fides was also the ancient Goddess of trust. Her temple on the Capitol in Rome was where the Senate of the Roman Empire signed, sealed and stored all of their treaties and laws of the land. The deity Fides was their custodian and moral guardian of all that they believed at the time to be right and proper. As role models go, she is a formidable figure.

We use the acronym FIDES to help us remember the behaviours that we expect of all our adults and young people. Rather than go straight in with a googled set of abstract nouns (more often than not laminated and then displayed for all to see in the main entrance), we started first with the behaviours. Once we’d agreed on these, we then thought about the most appropriate abstract noun for each one.

We came up with five: loyalty, tenacity, kindness, courage and brilliance. Every day, we ask ourselves as we go home, ‘What have I done today that was courageous, brilliant and kind?’ I guarantee that no matter how bad a day you might have believed it to be, it was not that bad. As a teacher or leader, it’s almost impossible to go an entire day without doing any of these. You’ve probably also been extremely tenacious (not giving up on a child) and courageous (trying something new or dealing with a setback) but just haven’t found the time to reflect on it and know so.

A formula for success

Those five words though are unhelpful on their own. To someone new to the organisation, what does it mean to be tenacious? How does a young child demonstrate loyalty or courage? This is where FIDES helps us. I had the privilege of working with a cross-party group of staff to unpack all of this. It took us about a year. We wrote it all down and published it in a booklet called, ‘Trust Us: Making our Values Happen’. The children then followed this up with their own version called, ‘Trust Us Too’. You can watch a short video that they made here. The children themselves explain what FIDES means to them far better than I can.

As a Trust, our five core values are:

Focus on family
Insist on excellence
Do good as you go
Embrace innovation
Seize success

That’s it. As a teacher, if you do nothing else but demonstrate these behaviours day-in, day-out, then you will have done a brilliant job. This is why when I walk around any of our schools I can tell clearly when someone is making a difference. They live and breathe our values. For me F + I + D + E + S = a truly great school. It’s a sure-fire formula for success.

Follow the star

The beauty about values is that you don’t have to justify them to anyone outside the organisation. They will always stand the test of time and hopefully still be there long after you’ve gone. Above all, they are to be nurtured for their own sake. They are our north star and show us the way, especially during difficult times or when under pressure.

I hope your school has a north star burning bright; a compelling set of values that you believe in. If it does, then chances are you have a strong sense of purpose and self-worth. You buy-in to what it is your school is trying to achieve and understand clearly where you belong in the scheme of things. You feel valued and believe in both yourself and the moral purpose of the school leaders. Trust and integrity run deep.

If your school does not have a clear set of values or perhaps you don’t feel this way, then make it your new year’s resolution to try and put that right. You’ll certainly be doing good as you go. As a teacher with a clear moral compass, you owe it to yourself, to your colleagues and, above all to the young people and communities that you serve. Trust me.

 

(You can read more about this in my book, The Art of Standing Out, available from Amazon.)

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Chasing the ace

ace bet business cardThis year, the annual SSAT national conference has a timely and uplifting theme: Pure imagination. Taking place over two days at the ICC in Birmingham, I was delighted to be invited to kick off the conference with a nine-minute talk. This is what I said:

Imagine if, after all this time we’ve been chasing the wrong ace. And imagine if the ace we should have been chasing is so powerful that if we were able to play it, it would trump everything. What if I told you that we all hold that ace, but do so in a deck that’s been shuffled so many times – often beyond our control – that we’ve lost sight of it. We no longer know it’s there.

Flip it

Before I share with you what I believe that ace to be, imagine if as leaders we could flip the system. We need to take back control of the agenda as system leaders and define for ourselves what we mean by sustainable school improvement. We need a system that operates from within – an inside-out approach – where schools and their community work together to decide what their core purpose is and how best to evaluate this. We no longer need to rely on being told what is best for our pupils from forces beyond our schools.

Can you imagine if we could look at our schools through a different set of lenses that enabled us to perceive our schools in a better way. Our beliefs are simply perceptions of reality, and so by wearing these lenses it allows us to see clearly what we believe to be right and proper, regardless of whatever somebody else may think from outside the organisation. For too long, we’ve been forced to look at our schools through the lens of an external regulator, and as a result, our perception of reality has been skewed. It’s time to recalibrate.

Imagine if we really could transform our schools by flipping the system and that we could do so in a way that is wholesome, values-led and worthwhile, without giving two hoots about Ofsted. I wrote a book about this once and in it I concluded that the best leaders understand the need to wear a number of very different lenses. I’m going to share one of them briefly with you now.

Wear the right lens

It’s called the telescopic lens, and is perhaps the most important one of them all, for this is the lens that will help you reveal the ace. I would put it to you that we’ve all been looking at our schools through a telescope for a number of years, but unfortunately through the wrong end. As a result, we’ve been reduced to seeing our world through a narrow hole and are focusing on the wrong things. We are not seeing the big picture.

Flip the lens around, and your perception of reality changes. When used correctly, a whole new vista opens up. As with any telescope, if you use it indoors in confined spaces when things are too close up, reality will look blurred. Your perception will become distorted. A wise leader knows this and so strives always to climb high and scans not only the distant horizon, but also penetrates deep into the surrounding local community a lot closer to home.

And it is here where we’ll find the elusive ace. As a headteacher for almost two decades, I was sick of being judged as to how good I was based solely on my ability year-on-year to eke out an extra half of a percentage point here or there. There must be a better way.

Thankfully, I believe that there is, and although it starts from deep within our schools, the solution lies out there in the heart of our school communities.

The ace, revealed

It is called social capital, and this, colleagues, is your ace. By increasing the amount of social capital (or resources) each of our family members own, in so doing we increase their power and agency. The more social capital a parent has, the more connections they make and their sense of belonging within the community increases. They become more advantaged.

More importantly, they become less disadvantaged. This is important, as it now gives them a much-needed foot onto the social ladder so that they can make better choices and appear more desirable to trade with. For many of our parents – especially those new to the country, seeking asylum and unable to speak English – this represents a huge step. The problem we find in a number of schools though, especially in more deprived areas, is that quite often, parents don’t even have a ladder to climb in the first place. Therein, lies the challenge.

Imagine the difference it would make having families that engage meaningfully with the school? Not just participate and take part – things such as assemblies and school productions, but deep, meaningful engagement at an emotional and intrinsic level.

Imagine what you could do as a teacher, if every child came to school highly motivated and wanting to learn, who were supported and encouraged at home by family members, who valued the importance of education and bought in to the school’s vision.

Imagine if these families themselves then became released from the poverty trap because your school increased their social capital. Imagine if these parents were then able to get jobs as a result of greater self-esteem, confidence, power and agency. Imagine how this would impact on the children that come to your school.

Social breakdown?

But it’s not that simple. According to a recent New Policy Institute report, one in five of the population are living in poverty. This is a shocking and damning statistic. This means that at any one time, six children in a typical classroom are living in poverty. Just think about that.

Quite rightly, Amanda Spielman has raised some serious concerns earlier this week, about the lack of support children are getting from home and are coming to school overweight and unprepared for learning. This is nothing new. Only five years ago, Sir Michael Wilshaw made similar claims. We were on the verge of ‘social breakdown,’ he said. And yet here we are in 2018 saying the same thing all over again.

Nothing has changed, and it’s only going to get worse. We need to act now.

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The lost generation

These parents it seems have become a lost generation and they need our help. For many of them they are socially immobile. We perhaps only need to take such decisive action the once; the next generation I believe are all accounted for, as we have them safely tucked up in our schools. We know that these young people are well-placed to become future changemakers. Their social mobility is, by and large, locked in and assured, providing of course we are able to release the social capital for their parents.

But for our very youngest children, those starting out in primary school especially, in times of great uncertainty and austerity, never before has there been such an urgent need for schools to step up and stand out as the key driver for social change.

So here is my challenge to you: Imagine if our children came to school loaded with social capital. Mums, dads, aunties, uncles, all massively in credit and willing and able to exchange resources with each other, especially trading it up for cultural capital.

Grasp the nettle

Research has shown time and time again that when it comes to increasing a child’s life chances at school, it’s often what goes on outside the classroom in the local community and family home that has the greatest impact. Yes, I accept that a lot of this is beyond our control. But that must not detract us from trying.

It takes a bold leader to grasp this nettle and goes against all that we perceive to be true as we become entangled with an inspection framework that often detracts us from doing the right things. To many of us, our logical brain tells us that the only ace worth chasing is the one to do with inspection judgements. After all, it’s often only by wearing the right Ofsted badge that we are guaranteed a job.

But thankfully colleagues, when it comes to making bold and imaginative decisions, logic doesn’t always come into it. As a certain Albert Einstein once said, ‘Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.’

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Thanks to Andrea Stephens (@andream656) and Paul Foster (@pjf_paul) for the pics.

You can read more about my thoughts on social capital in a previous post here. I’ll be following this up in the new year with some practical examples of how schools can release social capital.

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No. 5022: A true war horse story

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Posted at 11am on 11th November 2011

As birthdays go, it was probably no different to the previous few. It began at sunrise with a mug of muddy coffee or beef tea, perhaps even a biscuit. The day would be spent in the company of friends, many of whom he’d gotten to know exceptionally well. And then of course, there were the war horses, all of whom were under his guard as a soldier serving in the Army Veterinary Corps. (74th Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery, ‘B’ Battery, to be precise.)

Turning 31 was probably something Sergeant Frederick George Anderson never thought he’d see, grateful as ever to still be alive. His brother-in-law, Private George Holtum never made it to his 21st. He was killed-in-action a year earlier on the battlefield of The Somme, one of the many who fell fighting and whose graves are not known.

As my great-grandfather went to bed on that birthday evening in 1917, he probably did so blissfully unaware that in the morning he would find himself in the middle of one of the seminal events in military history – the Battle of Cambrai, the world’s first ever full-on tank battle. According to a commemorative article in the Telegraph last year, “tanks had been used in battle before, but Cambrai was the first time that they were put to work so mob-handed.”

The battle of Cambrai

Taking place in a woods just outside the sleepy town of Cambrai in north-east France, the Allied objective was always to take the enemy by surprise and advance on a vital supply point on the German Hindenburg Line. The well-established German strategy of occupying high ground meant they were confident of there being no attack from the British. Besides, the trenches were too wide to get across and the horses certainly couldn’t penetrate the ribbons of razor-sharp barbed wire.

It seemed as if it was stalemate. With Christmas closing in, everyone assumed they were in for a long, hard winter.

And then, at 6.20am on the morning of 20th November 1917, the day after Sgt Anderson’s birthday, the allies executed a spectacular surprise attack on the German lines, overwhelming them with never-seen-before ‘shock-and-awe’ tactics by rolling in over 470 thirty-ton tanks. If you’ve ever watched War Horse, you’ll know the type I mean – huge rearing beasts that gobble up everything in their wake.

One delighted soldier in particular – having seen for the first time what the Mark IV combat tanks could do up close and personal – said, “the enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains. The tanks appeared to have busted through!”

The ruinous sight must have been terrifying, so much so that thousands of startled German infantry scrambled out of their trenches in the mist at dawn on that chilly November morning. Bewildered soldiers were caught completely off guard. Records show that, according to one German officer:

“At about 9am, retreating infantrymen gave us an account of swarms of tanks – so many that it was impossible to stop them. A little later the tank monsters came creeping to the ridge to the south of the village. Not one of us had seen such a beast before.”

According to German Field Marshall Prince Rupprecht, it was the only time the Allies achieved a complete surprise attack.

A tide of iron

The Germans were quickly overwhelmed. The barrage of tanks crushed through the barbed wire, and by deploying an ingenious technique, they were able to cross the deep trenches with relative ease. The Battle of Cambrai, or the ‘Tide of Iron’ as it was to be known was in full flow. And despite all the new technology, the success of the attack partly came down to the use of good old-fashioned logs. The British had finally worked out how to get the heavy tanks to cross the trenches without falling in or being gobbled up by mud. According to one soldier, George Coppard:

“The tanks – looking like giant toads –  became visible against the skyline. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly bound logs and brushwood, which they dropped into the wide German trenches, then crossed over them.”

tankAs simple as it was genius, it also became apparent that the pace of the attack was to be their downfall. So fast were the tanks moving, and so quickly were they dispersing the fleeing German soldiers, it left those British troops at the rear vulnerable to side-on counterattack with no tanks to protect them.

One of those would have been my mum’s granddad and his war horses.

As the scattered German troops regrouped, they launched a scathing attack on the British troops at the rear, including the war horses, who by now would be shell-shocked and quivering with fear at the carnage that surrounded them.

As tempted as he may have been to run for shelter, Sergeant Anderson stood firm. He knew that his one and only objective was to stay with the horses to protect them, despite the torrential shelling and carnage. Without the war horses, the officers would not be able to communicate and the heavy artillery would remain abandoned in the 20 inch mud. The advance would be over. The war would be lost.

And all for what?

During the first day alone, the British lost 4,000 of their own men. Fighting was especially fierce around Bourlon Ridge (just before the woods) to the west of Cambrai. The British were squeezed back by German counter-attacks and were left exposed, despite the advancing tanks by now being almost five miles ahead.

Eventually, after a few days the Germans pushed the British back – advancing tanks and all – and by the end of the campaign almost three weeks later, the Allies were all but back where they started. According to official records, the British suffered 47,596 casualties, equivalent to almost 6% of the total number of war losses in just 18 days. The Germans lost a similar amount.

In the time it’s taken you to finish reading this post, the number of deaths on both sides would already have been in double figures. That’s almost one death every 30 seconds. And all, seemingly for nothing.

I can’t begin to comprehend how terrifying it must have been for my great-granddad when he woke up that fateful morning of 20th November 1917. The deafening noise alone would render most folk to jelly. He certainly wouldn’t have known that the war had less than a year to go when he first caught site of those monstrous tanks as they rolled in, guns blazing.

Like his friends that toasted his birthday the night before, their first and only priority was to protect the precious war horses, including the many that were poisoned, shell-shocked, lame, crippled, dead.

Oh, to be able to charge their glasses one final time. Tonight though, only empty chairs and empty tables.

War Horse

As a sergeant in the AVC (the ‘Royal’ would come later when the war ended), my great-granddad would have been one of the 27,000 or so soldiers who looked after and treated the horses. Horses were considered so valuable to the cause that if a soldier’s horse was killed he was required to cut off a hoof and bring it back to his commanding officer to prove that the two had simply not been separated.

At the start of the war, the British Army had 25,000 horses. By time the war ended, in total, around one million horses were sent into battle. Casualties were catastrophic, equivalent to losing one horse for every two men. Only 65,000 horses came back.

Luckily, so too did my great-granddad. I’m not exactly sure when he finally arrived home. War records show that the 74th Brigade went on from the Battle of Cambrai to fight in The Somme and a number of other battles during 1918. On the day of the Armistice they were somewhere near Maubeuge and ordered to the Rhine to cross the German frontier a month later. They remained there for Christmas, before finally beginning to return to England on 20th February 1919. All were home by 29th April, almost six months after the armistice.

I can’t imagine what the scene must have been like as Frederick Anderson arrived back home in Folkestone, a mile or so from where I was to be born some half a century later. His brother-in-law wouldn’t have been with him even though they both lived in the same street. If you’ve ever seen the end of the film or the amazing musical adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book, you’ll know what I mean. The scene would have been as sombre as it would have been joyful.

Not forgotten

No. 5022 Sergt. F.G. Anderson, R.A.V.C was awarded the Military Medal ‘for exceptional gallantry in remaining with the horses under his charge while under heavy shell fire on 22nd November 1917’. He received his first of a number of medals following church parade outside the church hut at Digbate Camp. It took place on Sunday 25th May 1919 at 10.15am. It would have been a lovely day, as according to met office records the south-east of England was in the grip of a prolonged drought. For my great-granddad, anything but mud.

No. 80038 Pte. G.A. Holtum remains in an unnamed grave and is listed on the register at Thiepval Memorial in the Somme region in France. His name appears alongside 72,336 other young men who also died somewhere in battle and for whom there is no known resting place.

And finally, what of the 476 tanks? Only one survived. Nicknamed ‘Deborah’, she roared into action at 06.20 before shortly being hit by five German shells. She was commandeered by 2nd Lieutenant Frank Heap from Blackpool who skilfully managed to steer the stricken tank into a ditch. Four of the six crew were killed instantly. There the tank remained abandoned for eight decades, buried as landfill some six feet down, until finally unearthed in 1998. Deborah now stands proudly centre-stage and all alone at the centenary memorial museum in Flesquieres, just outside Cambrai.

#ArmisticeDay100

With the story over, I feel compelled to try and make a banal comparison to ‘lessons learned in leadership’ or make some other crass or tenuous link. Why else would I write a blog so unlike anything else that I’ve posted before without bringing it round to the usual fodder? Besides, this is a professional account and not one for indulging in family folklore. You don’t subscribe to my blog so that you can read about my relatives, and – quite frankly – why should you?

But today is different, because if it wasn’t for all our great-grandads and mums who sacrificed so much for us all, then there most likely would be no post. Heaven forbid, if the enemy had achieved their objective and killed my great-grandad, I might not even be here now. I hope this post does him justice.

So on a personal note, thank you Sergeant Frederick George Anderson for coming back alive. Above all, thank you to all the thousands of others who were lucky enough to do the same.

To those that did not – just like the horses, Deborah’s crew, George Amos Holtum and thousands of others – this post is for you.

x

FGA Horse

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A girl like Daisy

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Today is a sad day. One of our children will get told this afternoon by a social worker that she’s being moved away to a new foster carer.

As I type at 10am on a Friday morning, she knows nothing about this. But when she leaves school to break up for half term, she won’t be returning again. She won’t get to say goodbye to her teachers. She won’t get to say goodbye to her friends.

Into the blue again

Let’s call her Daisy. It’s an appropriate name because every child loves playing with daisies. Everyone knows a Daisy and most likely you’ve taught one just like her. Daisy chains are made the world over and young children love nothing more than making one for a grown up or friend. For me, daisies are always a welcome sign that the dark nights are over and spring is in the air, along with the much anticipated smell of the first cut of fresh grass.

But not in Daisy’s case. Today, her world will be over. Her chain will be broken once again as she becomes a lost link in a society that continues to abandon her.

Daisy is 8 years old. Without going in to too much detail, she was taken away from her parents two years ago for crimes done unto her that are unimaginable. She was removed into care and more recently lived with a local foster family who no longer feel they can look after her. As a result, this afternoon Daisy will be moved to a town 30 miles away with no going back.

Under the rocks and stones

The teachers and support staff at the school are in bits. They know they can’t do or say anything for Daisy because it must remain confidential until the social worker takes her to one side this afternoon and whisks her away. They want to give her a teddy but can’t, although I’m sure they’ll manage to slip it by her on the way out.

It is desperately sad and brings into stark focus the reality of the job that teachers and support staff deal with on a daily basis. At times like this, you don’t give two hoots about league tables, SATs results, pupil progress, Ofsted etc. All that matters is the wellbeing of a young child. Failing to hit targets doesn’t particularly bother me in the least. But when it comes to failing a child, it really hits home.

I’ve just got off the phone with the headteacher. They are frantically trying to halt proceedings, at least to ensure a proper school-to-school transition so that Daisy remains with her friends as she settles into her new home. With the clock ticking, and an inadequate children’s services, we are not holding our breath.

Letting the days go by

As we approach half term (and for some of you, it’s coming to a close), spare a thought for Daisy next week. She is all alone. She has no brothers or sisters, aunties or uncles, mum or dad. From today, she no longer has any friends, a school or home. Nothing whatsoever, other than the teddy bear that one of the staff can hopefully sneak into her book bag as she walks out the door one final time.

And as Daisy starts her life all over again, standing lost in the playground on her first day in a new school, in a new town, with new carers, Daisy won’t be alone. There will be hundreds of girls like Daisy (and boys) all over the country in similar positions, rejected, abandoned, moved on.

Daisy won’t know it, but she’ll have more people gunning for her than she could ever dare to imagine.

Having had the privilege of working in so many brilliant schools, what I find re-assuring is that I am confident that Daisy will be in expert hands the minute she walks into school. Her new teacher will welcome her with a big smile and embrace her into the warmth of the classroom. As you read this, it may even be you.

Hopefully, if it is, you won’t bat an eyelid about where Daisy is in regard to ‘expected’ or ‘greater depth’ or whether she’s a ‘rapid grasper’ or a ‘pupil premium’. These are all meaningless labels for a child like Daisy, but then you know that already.

Same as it ever was

I’m not entirely sure why I find myself typing this now on a Friday morning. I guess I ought to be doing more important stuff like writing the annual report for the trust accountants or filling forms out for new funding. There’s also a DfE return that I’ve got to send off showing how much value I’ve added as an NLE.

But all that can wait. It seems so unimportant now. I suppose in some small way this is a silent protest in tribute to all the other Daisys that are out there, whilst at the same time serving as a sad testimony to the many children that society continues to fail.

It is not the first time that this has happened and it won’t be the last. Nothing ever really seems to change and it’s hard to apportion blame other than to the abusive parents. But by then of course it’s too late, the damage is already done.

Once in a lifetime

A little part of me hopes that one day, perhaps 20 or 30 years from now, Daisy will stumble across this post, show it to her husband and grown-up kids, and say, “I was like that once. That could have been me.” Daisy will then smile and think back to her time at school and exclaim, “But look at me now! I’ve got a lovely family, a great job, a beautiful house, and all because my teachers never once gave up on me.”

Deluded? Quite possibly. But all the while there are children out there like Daisy, we must never give up.

 

[Postscript. School has now finished for half-term. The children have gone home, except for Daisy, who sits in a room wondering what comes next. The social worker is late and has failed to turn up.]

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A boy like Jermaine

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If you’ve ever had to deal with an angry pupil during a lesson, you’ll know how important it is to have a rapid-response system in place that quickly de-escalates the situation.

In most cases, this will likely involve a member of SLT removing the child from the classroom for time-out in order to calm the child down in a quiet space so that they can return to learning as quickly as possible.

Like me, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is standard fare. Surely this is what most schools do, day-in, day-out?  But apparently not, according to an article in this week’s Schools Week.

The state of play

The headline goes like this:

‘Isolation rooms: How swathes of schools are removing pupils from their classrooms’

I’m not entirely sure what constitutes a swathe, but the report claims that some schools are dealing with inappropriate behaviour by – and brace yourselves – actually removing children from class and taking them somewhere else in order to deal with the situation. In some cases, schools are even using the room as part of ‘an escalating set of disciplinary measures.’

Schools Week have found this out because they made a FoI request to the 90 largest academy trusts asking them if they use isolation rooms. I should state that I am somewhat at a disadvantage here as I haven’t seen the request, but I assume they defined; (a) what they meant by an ‘isolation room’; (b) what the thresholds were for removal, and; (c) for how long they were used.

If by ‘isolation room’, they mean some kind of ‘lonely mildewed concrete silo’ (to quote from Tom Bennett’s tweet on the subject), then yes, they are abhorrent, should be banned and as Paul Dix rightly says, they are the ‘bleakest sign of an institution giving up’.

Any school that routinely and systematically rounds up its most difficult-to-teach pupils and holds them in a designated room should be challenged.

I’m not sure whether the reporter ever set foot in a school to see how they work. This is perhaps why it seems they have completely mis-read the room. Because in the vast majority of schools – primary especially – the so-called ‘isolation room’ is not used as such, and certainly not in swathes.

Despite it’s provocative headline, the article itself even appears to self-contradict, conceding that ‘many trusts told Schools Week the rooms also allow for supportive conversations without disrupting lessons for other pupils.’

So here in fact is the real headline, the one that should have been reported: ‘How swathes of schools are expertly managing behaviour in the classrooms’.

Granted, some schools are not, and yes, these need to be addressed. Let’s not forget though that the representative sample of those 48 trusts that confirmed they do ‘isolate’ can’t be any more than about 5% of all schools overall. And of those that did respond, their definition of an ‘isolation room’ is likely to be varied.

What would you do?

Being able to manage challenging behaviour effectively is the ultimate hallmark of a really great teacher. No matter how good you might think you are at planning, marking and teaching a class, the moment a child kicks off, everything else counts for nothing.

By ‘kicking off’, I mean violent, red-mist-descending rage, and not the continual low-level disruptions of a bored learner. I’m referring to behaviour that is entirely uncontrollable and likely to compromise the safety of everyone in the room.

Let’s assume it happens during a lesson or an assembly full of parents. What do you do? Do you ignore it and allow the child to continue to trash the room, throw chairs, be abusive, damage property, injure themselves and others and hope it goes away? Or do you deal with it? Do you use everything that you learnt from your priceless Bill Rogers training and de-escalate the situation, or do you turn a blind eye? Do you fear that by removing them to a room you’ll be accused of using Draconian measures, or do you stand by what you believe is right?

Let’s imagine the same thing happened to one of your own children, or a nephew or niece, on a Saturday morning. You find yourself in Asda or in the kitchen at home and your four year-old goes into a right old tantrum.

Do you ignore it or do you remove them from the situation by perhaps taking them to the car or to their bedroom to calm down? Do you then leave them in the room all day on their own or do you remain with them for 20 to 30 minutes until they calm down and then allow them to go back?

And remember this, no matter how stressful, humiliating or challenging this situation may be, think yourself lucky that you don’t have another 29 young children to have to deal with, protect and look after.

So being a teacher when a child becomes angry is tough, which is why all the best schools have a well-managed intervention strategy that skilfully and sensitively removes the child from the situation and takes them to a designated room, regardless of whatever it might be called.

What I’ve noticed in the most challenging schools, particularly those in special measures, is that this system is either completely missing, or in place, but badly managed. What you tend to find are either empty classrooms, because almost every ‘naughty’ child has been removed so that someone else has to worry about them. Or, you get the complete opposite extreme where the pupils aren’t ever removed, instead resulting in unsafe lessons descending into chaos.

In turn, this leads to teacher burnout and illness and up steps an inexperienced supply teacher, and so the vicious circle continues.

A boy like Jermaine

I always remember a Year 2 boy – we’ll call him Jermaine, although that’s not his real name. I had recently become headteacher of a school in special measures and Jermaine was a child in desperate need of help.

There are loads of Jermaines up and down the country, including children that have witnessed all manner of atrocities from war-torn corners of the world. I’m sure you’ve taught one and know exactly what I mean.

Jermaine’s  home circumstances were horrendous; his single mum couldn’t control him and was in bits, his brothers were involved in local gangs, drugs and violence. He was exposed to watching all sorts of X-rated TV at home and his dad was in prison.

So it was entirely understandable that at certain points during the day, with no warning whatsoever, Jermaine would occasionally lose control and become unmanageable.

This is where the system kicks in. And by ‘system’ I mean senior leaders, led by the headteacher entering the classroom and supporting the teacher by removing the child to avoid further injury or distress to all concerned.

We’d do it always in pairs, my deputy and I, using team de-escalation techniques that we’d been trained in. We’d practiced the drill many times and so intuitively we set to work removing Jermaine to a designated room because we knew we’d never be able to reason with him all the while there was an audience. Besides, the other children were scared because Jermaine’s language was so abusive.

So off we all three go to the room. We’d get him almost there and then he’d spy an open door and would see his chance. He’d bolt, we’d lose him and so we start all over again. Eventually, we manage to get him to the room, Jermaine’s rage and anger at boiling point.

We won’t exclude him because he is safer at school than at home. In the past, fixed-term exclusions simply didn’t work for Jermaine, even though they did for others.

At this point, the risk of injury to himself and others has passed. Jermaine is still fuming, but at least he’s decided to curl up and lie on the carpet, gathering the over-stuffed cushions tightly into his chest. This is a good sign as we’ve seen this behaviour before; we are almost there.

On cue, we then leave him with two of our highly skilled teaching assistants, one of whom starts to read him a story whilst the other passes post-it notes to and fro for half an hour or so as he won’t talk.

Invariably, Jermaine starts to get hungry and is getting bored. He wants to be back with his friends. By now, a tearful mum has arrived and is grateful that we aren’t going to exclude her son. All the while, reams of forms have been filled in and filed and ongoing referrals made.

Jermaine wants to go back into class now, but first understands there will be a consequence for his actions, as there always has been and always will be. He acknowledges that what he did was wrong, is deeply sorry and says he won’t do it again.

Jermaine knows he still needs lots of help making the right choices. We didn’t know it then, but by the time Jermaine made it to Year 6, he’d turned himself around.

After a period of reflection and redirection, Jermaine is successfully re-integrated back into class. I go back in with him so that the rest of the children are reassured that it’s been dealt with as well as it has always been. Children crave consistency.

I linger for a few seconds, see that he’s on task, and then slip out unnoticed.

A reason for being

As I walk back to my office, smiling as I go, I reflect that these are the moments that will always stay with me. These are one of those ‘sliding door’ episodes, where for one of your flock, you know you are saving lives.

Above all, you know that you are making a real difference to the life-chances of a troubled young boy and his family. You remind yourself that this is why you trained to teach, and that this is why you love your job.

The school is quiet. Nobody, other than the classteacher, deputy and the TA have any idea what’s just happened. That’s the way it should be. I enter my office, close the door and take a moment to compose myself, feeling guilty as always because I know Jermaine’s teacher can’t do that. She still has a class to teach and must carry on, ever the professional.

As the adrenalin ebbs, my pulse starts to drop and the dryness in my throat disappears. I begin to feel calm again. A cup of sweet tea has magically appeared on my desk, along with a custard cream.

As I munch, I think about how effective the room is that we have on standby, should we need to remove pupils, and that despite its use being rare, I’m glad we have it.

Reverie over and back to work. Game face on, the phone rings and a parent of a child in Year 6 tells me I can stick my *******  school up my **** and so it begins, all over again.

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The best investment you’ll ever make (Part 1)

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With child poverty at record highs, if schools really are serious about transforming the life chances of young people then they need to unlock social capital. In this the first of two blogs, we unpack the different types of ‘capital’ and the challenges schools face.

I am currently reading a book called ‘Teaching with Poverty in Mind’. The American author, Eric Jensen, asks two key questions: ‘What does being poor do to kids’ brains?’ and, ‘What can schools do about it?’ More importantly, the book attempts to demonstrate how schools can improve academic achievement of economically disadvantaged pupils at the same time as preparing them for ‘life readiness’. It certainly is a challenging brief.

According to a 2016 New Policy Institute report, one in five of the population in the UK are living in poverty. In Scotland alone the situation is even worse, with one in four. This means that in a typical classroom of 30 pupils, at least six children will be living in poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report published last week in Scotland pulls no punches. The situation will not get any better it claims, unless political leaders take “the decisive steps needed to make the transformational change required.

This is nothing new. We’ve known this for years. For example, in a 2006 Audit Commission report, researchers concluded that if school leaders were serious about transforming communities, schools have to become far more proactive at releasing social capital, especially in the most deprived parts of the country. This is often why it is more challenging transforming a school in a deprived community (with low levels of social capital) compared with one that is not. Ofsted, please take note.

What is poverty?

According to Jensen, poverty is “a chronic and debilitating condition that results from multiple adverse synergistic risk factors and affects the mind, body and soul.” There is a tendency to assume that poverty only affects the working classes and those pupils living in cities or in large metropolitan areas. This is not the case, and Jensen’s book reminds us of all the different types of poverty, including the more familiar ‘absolute’ (day-to-day survival) and ‘relative’ (when income is below a national average). What is perhaps less familiar is the notion of ‘rural’ poverty, a concept that seems to be emerging more and more and is certainly true this side of the pond.

The issue is therefore as complex as it is ubiquitous. This is particularly why I was immediately drawn in to Jensen’s compelling narrative because he frames the entire book in the opening chapter with one stunningly simple question:

‘If life experiences can change poor kids for the worse, can’t life experiences also change them for the better?’

Pierre Bourdieu and the 3 types of capital

This is where social and cultural capital come in, which is why the question got me thinking again of the work of the influential French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. I revisited his writings last year when researching a chapter on Identity I wrote for The Working Class, edited expertly by Ian Gilbert. Bourdieu first coined the terms in the 1970s when attempting to construct a new social capital theory eventually crystallised in his classic study of French society called Distinction (1986). He even suggested that it is social and cultural capital that have the biggest influence over a child’s chances in school.

According to the theory, the more capital (or resources) a parent has in their possession, the more power and agency they have. In turn, the more advantaged they become. Social capital gives them a much-needed foot up the ladder so that they can make better choices and appear more desirable to trade with. The problem we find in a number of schools though, especially in more deprived areas, is that quite often, parents don’t even have a ladder to climb in the first place. Therein, lies the challenge.

Before we explore cultural and social capital, we need briefly to mention ‘economic’ capital. According to Bourdieu, economic capital exists very much at the interchange of the two. Economic capital is essentially the total of all the assets that an individual may own and is very often an indicator of money or wealth. However, this also includes material wealth. On the surface, a person may appear to be economically wealthy but in fact they are not. This is often applicable to the families in our schools. They may well have a car, go on holidays and have a sky sports subscription. But because their social and cultural capital are locked up, they themselves remain disadvantaged because they don’t have access to the full range of opportunities available to those with greater capital.

Social capital

Social capital concerns itself with the connections we have in our lives. The more connections we have, then the more control. It means we can make better, more informed choices as opposed to having to just about make do. (Remember Theresa May’s JAMs? Those just about managing.) A person with lots of social capital is likely to have a number of friends and acquaintances at their disposal, some of whom may be colleagues they work with, ex-alumni or community members.

However, for too many of our families, the only acquaintances a mum or dad may have are those other parents they stand with on the playground. This may well be the sum total of all they have, especially if new to the UK. That said, these parents may still be able to release social capital through family connections. Social capital in the family home is often as important as economic or financial capital, especially when strong relationships exist between family members and parents act as strong role models.

Cultural capital

Once a person has a reasonable amount of social capital to hand they can then start to trade it in for cultural capital. Cultural capital includes those assets that are non-financial such as education, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, dress and even age. All of these are known to promote social mobility. Reciprocity is essential so that people know how to bargain, compromise and live in a more tolerant and pluralistic society.

Cultural capital runs a lot deeper though than simply connecting up the friendship groups an individual may have and introducing them to new cultural experiences. Too often, cultural capital is already too ingrained for it to be influenced. Cultural capital is essentially the accumulation over a lifetime of a set of social norms such as knowledge, behaviours, values and skills that a person can access at will.

In essence, it is the extent and ease to which a person can tap into these traits that demonstrates their status or standing in society. This, according to Bourdieu, is what determines class. The more cultural capital you have, the more likely you are to be middle class or above and therefore be more advantaged. However, do not mistaken this with elitism. Regardless of class or status, cultural capital has always been the mainstay currency when passing on traditions or oral history down through the generations, be it round the campfire, on cave walls, urban music or social media.

Ethical trading

Schools are uniquely placed to tackle the problem head on. Our classrooms, school halls and playgrounds are ideal locations to serve as virtual stock exchanges or trading floors for parents reluctant or unable to build capital. Teachers play a key role as as brokers. You need to grasp this economy and make it work, ensuring as many of your parents as possible are in credit, each with a healthy balance. In terms of your time, it could well become the best investment you ever make.

As with all investments, it comes with risk. You are certainly not going to get a quick-fix return, and so any investment plan must be for the long term, five to seven years I’d say at least. As an ethical investor, I’m in. I am far more likely to want to get out of bed each morning to pursue this worthy strategy than endlessly trying to wring another half a percentage point out of next year’s progress measures. It all comes down to moral purpose.

More questions than answers

Returning to the question posed by Jensen at the start, let’s instead now plug in ‘social capital’ rather than ‘life experiences’. In so doing, we can now ask: ‘If less social capital can change poor kids for the worse, can more social capital change them for the better?’

I wish I had the answer. I suspect it is not as simple as that, not least because there is no real and clear consensus as to the extent to which the capital is a fixed or variable asset in the first place. Take you for example. Do you have any idea how much capital you have? If you wanted more tomorrow, how would you go about getting it? I can’t even answer this question for myself, so I have no idea how I’m going to attempt to answer it in regard to the communities we serve. (And we have dozens across the trust, all very different.) And as for measuring it, well it can be a bit like trying to measure the world’s largest dot.

We also need to accept that in most cases, social norms and beliefs are so deeply entrenched within our communities that the extent to which an individual has access to social capital is already a pre-determined given. Nothing we will ever do will change it.  If this is the case, are we not just wasting our time and that we’d be better off doing something else? Can we really kid ourselves that merely by bringing parents together at school we can release more capital for them? And even if we did, does it really make a difference to how well a child achieves? If the answer is no, and we can’t intervene and exercise influence, then we may as well pack up and all go home now.

But we won’t. I do genuinely believe that the answer is yes, we can release capital, not least because we know from research that one of the key characteristics of communities with high social capital is trust. If we can start to engage with our families when the children are as young as possible, then time is on our side. For those of you working in primary schools, you have a distinct advantage. As with virtually everything we do in our schools it starts and ends in early years and so where better place to start than this?

In my next blog I’ll look at practical ways in which as a trust we’ve tried (and often failed) to increase the amount of social capital available to our families. Whether or not it made a clear and tangible difference, who knows. I’ll let you decide.

 

(Thanks go to @RADY_Louise, @fullonlearning and @mngroves for nudging me in the right direction.)