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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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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.

Firm Foundations

A guest post by @claireupton, EYFS leader @VicParkAcademy

I come from a long line of construction workers  – men who believed in hard work, getting it right first time, and who took a pride in their craftsmanship.  I firmly believe that as teachers and teaching assistants we are also builders, working hard to form strong and sturdy children who are well equipped to withstand the elements of adult life. Staff at Victoria Park Academy work hard to be master craftsmen in our construction of a meaningful and purposeful education for the children who come to our school.   What is particularly special at Victoria Park Academy is the way in which we view children as co-workers, supplying them with their own tools to help them to succeed in education and beyond.  We equip them to become the best that they can be.

Any building should be based upon firm foundations. Architects and builders understand the need for strong footholds. Even very young children know that a tower built with wooden blocks will fall if the blocks at the bottom are too small.  This concept applies to education also. As we are all aware, reading is a fundamental skill in achieving well at school and beyond, and as such it lies deep within the foundations of what is a sound education. Being able to read well is a vital skill in allowing other aspects of learning to be possible, in allowing the acquisition of knowledge to become a real possibility. Having taught GCSE English for many years, I understand from experience just how valuable reading skills are.  Much of my teaching time at key stage three and four was spent ‘spoonfeeding’ information to students who were not equipped with the necessary skills to extract information from texts themselves.  Had my students been more independent readers there would have been more time for the stuff that really extends our thinking –  debate and exploration.

I recently asked a sample of students across years 1-6 within our school to complete a short questionnaire concerning their reading habits and attitudes towards reading .  Their answers show an encouragingly positive attitude towards reading, with only 6% saying they would be embarrassed to be seen reading out of class.  However, there is still work to be done in securing a sound and enduring love of reading in our children.  This is where RM books can be extremely useful in supporting our more reluctant readers.  By allowing the children to choose their own RM books to read, we are giving them control and responsibility for their learning.   By asking individual children to feedback the information that they have found out from their reading to their peers, we are giving their reading a concrete purpose.  When asked whether they read books to find out information, 83% of children responded yes.  This shows that our children already understand that books are a source of knowledge, and RM books can help us to build upon that understanding.  By giving children ownership and responsibility for bringing the information they have found out from their independent reading into class, we are supporting them in being responsible for their own learning, and affording them an element of control over the learning that takes place within the classroom. In this respect RM books can be an effective tool in helping us to build strong and capable readers well placed for their next stage of education.

And as my father, his father, and his father before him knew only too well,  good tools are the key to  a good job!