Image

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.

Image

Why I fear for our curriculum

Art palette

One of the things that we’ve done really well across our trust has been the curriculum. And now I fear for it because Ofsted want to get their hands on it. With their relentless pursuit over the years of teaching, outcomes, standards and compliance, the curriculum has been left alone by and large. This has meant that we have been able to quietly get on with taking risks, being innovative and by and large enjoying ourselves. Stealth is a wonderful thing.

What I’ve learnt more than anything is that Ofsted crave consistency. They love similarity and sameness. Conformity is King. In lessons and books and on the walls they want to see that everyone is doing the same thing. The fact that it might lack excitement or flair is neither here nor there. So long as everyone is doing the same. As we know, as soon as they find someone – anyone – doing something different, then all bets are off.

During an inspection for example, you find yourself having to justify why it is that Class 4A do not use their teaching assistant in quite the same way as in 4B. You find yourself caught up in a mindless argument about why it was that a TA thought it was right to remain in a chair for a few minutes longer than the one across the corridor.

Ofsted would hate having to operate within the commercial sector. Heaven forbid if they found themselves in silicon valley or the land of the dot.commers. Any new or established tech company craves originality and adaptability – they actively encourage employees to think differently and to apply new approaches and ways of thinking to solve problems. But in teaching, when you get the call, it’s all about conformity; being the same, day-in, day-out, regardless of whether it best suits the needs of the children.

In a recent inspection in one of our schools, teaching and learning was on the cusp of being judged outstanding at the end of day one. We pushed for it but on day two the team appeared to make it their mission to find examples of where the teaching in one class was not identical to the teaching in the other. They found something eventually and so we were doomed. As a result, we were saddled in the inspection report with ‘pupils may not make as much progress as they could.’ Correct: they ‘may’ not, but then they ‘might’. The point is no-one knows so why even bother writing it?

It’s lazy inspecting: Any one of us can go into a school, pick up two different books from two different teachers, see that one has slightly fewer gap tasks per week than the other and smugly conclude that one is better than the other. Still far too often the inspection process is based on the principle that the ‘exception proves the rule’.

It is no surprise that schools are reluctant to move away from tried-and-tested methods for fear of getting caught off-piste. Across out trust, every teacher is undertaking a year-long piece of action research looking at marginal gains. Each classroom is a living research centre in which teachers are pioneering new ways of working. The teacher’s pedagogical palette is therefore rich and varied, each with their own blank canvas. As with all art, we don’t want our paintings to all look the same.

But the minute we get the Ofsted call, all that goes out the window. It has to because at best we’d do well to get an RI. Even if as leaders we proclaim that staff are to carry on as normal, teachers are human after all and in times of stress we revert back to our default position. Better to be seen to play it safe and do it well – and  to not stand out – than get caught doing something risky and wrong. It’s about safety in numbers as no-one wants to be singled out for letting the side down.

So this is why I fear so much for the curriculum. Ours is very risky. It’s risky because it’s based on children’s interests and takes the principles of EYFS right through to Year 6. It’s like Marmite. When people visit our school they either love it or hate it. They ask me how do we measure it and I say I don’t know. I tell them that from experience when I come across something that’s hard to measure, it’s probably a good thing to do. Take growth mindset for example.

Our curriculum is full of elements that we can’t measure and quantify, such as entrepreneurship, critical thinking, meta-learning and play. I have no idea what ‘expected’ looks like in Year 4 or whether or not a Year 5 pupil is making better than expected progress in his ability to think critically. But I’m pretty sure that for Ofsted I’m now going to have to.

When done right, the curriculum is so deeply embedded into the life and soul of the school that it becomes almost impossible to find. At best, all you can do is scratch the surface if you are only popping into school for a day. Anyone who says you can is wrong and has obviously never spent years trialling, refining and crafting a worthwhile curriculum.

A truly great curriculum can’t be boxed up and quantified unless of course the type of curriculum you offer is the boxed-up and quantifiable type. The kind that is formulaic, churned out year after year, is utilitarian and based on what the teachers want to tell the students as opposed to what they want (and need) to learn. In the words of the song (Panic by the Smiths), ‘it means nothing to me about my life’. QCA anyone?

Care why, try hard

Guest post by Lisa Worgan, Director of Curriculum Innovation @VicAcademies

“Where are we going? How are we going to get there? And why are we doing this? Because if people don’t care, they won’t try as hard…”

@DavidBreashears, film-maker and climber, Inspiring Leadership conference, Birmingham ICC, 2016

The week of the Inspiring Leadership conference was an interesting moment on reflection in both my role and in life more generally. I spent much time thinking about what drives people to make a difference in the world around them and why this is ever more important in the world we live in today.

My thoughts started with a particularly interesting meeting with a group of children from one of our Trust primary schools. I was probing them around what felt important in their learning and how engaged they were in it. The responses that I got from these children were astonishing. They told me about how much difference they felt they had made in their last term’s Learning Challenge (called ‘Catastrophes) and that they had realised that ‘catastrophe’ wasn’t just about massive world disasters.

They had realised that families in their own school and community were going though catastrophe every day of their lives. That they didn’t have money to feed their families, or means to get clean and washed. And so these children researched and planned how they could help, working alongside the food bank to generate over £500, and using this to purchase a large amount of personal items to help families accessing the food and resource.

These children passionately articulated the difference they had made to their community, to how much they had learnt, but actually the pride they had in what they had achieved.

Children who care about the world are the future of this world. A world where not everyone is kind hearted and wants to make a difference. A world where children, adults and family go through suffering every day.

I continued to reflect on this during the conference whilst listening to author and humanitarian, Zainab Salbi tell her story of growing up in Iraq in a world of oppression and suffering and how she used this experience to motivate her. She knew that she wanted to change the world for women all around who were struggling in difficult circumstances and has spent so much time since planning opportunities for helping them to do this.

But much deeper than this, she has  taken the time to understand why this was important for her do this – how her own personal story has helped her go on to clearly help her make a difference.

And then, at the exact same time as I sat listening to the inspiring Zainab, the news of the death of Jo Cox, MP came through over the news feed. A woman who spent her short life being incredibly clear about her ‘why’. Her actions through speeches in Parliament and campaigns in constituencies and her active charity work demonstrated a very clear cause – to allow immigration to have a positive effect on communities. Jo believed in a better world and fought for it every day.

Our children are the future leaders of our world. We can help them be the kind of people who care and want to make a difference. Taking the time to plan for having a clear purpose in learning and helping them know why they are doing something can really change the meaning for children in our classrooms. This is about finding an ‘authentic’ real rather than ‘pretend’ real too – allowing children to really plan an event to bring communities together or to fundraise to buy that piece of rainforest.

Whatever it is, the learning should actually make an impact and not be falsified to feel real but be created to feel like this rather than actually existing in the world.

By creating a curriculum full of these learning experiences, we are helping children make the world a better place and giving them the learning process that shows that they have the power to change the world, but only if they care why and try hard…

@LisaWorgan

Seizing the Agenda – musings from Whole Education conference 2015

Guest post by @LisaWorgan, Director of Curriculum Innovation

After two days of reflecting on the future of education for our young people, I sat on a packed train waiting to leave London Paddington. As the clock ticked past the departure time, my thoughts were with Sir Tim Brighouse’s call to action: we must find the ‘gaps in the hedges’ in education. We must innovate, to test things out in adverse circumstances.

And as I reflected on how we are doing this at Victoria Academies Trust, the announcement came over the tannoy that the train I was sat on was cancelled and we must all get off. A metaphor, if I do say so myself, for how education policy can be the biggest stifler of the innovative spirit in our schools where we are putting our young people first.

Having recently joined the team at Victoria Academies Trust, I do feel that I now am able to really create opportunities that start as an idea and become an innovation. And the beauty of being part of an academy means that we truly can put our children and their futures first.

Take our work on social enterprise; exactly what I had been asked to share at the Whole Education conference, as part of the workshop on ‘Unleashing the Curriculum Designer in us all’. Our approach to developing social enterprise skills in the curriculum, running our own social enterprise (Ballot Street Spice) and weaving these two aspects together through our new mini challenges in our wider NICER curriculum are very unique aspects in a school – especially a primary school.

Could this be a gap in the hedge? I certainly think so! Perhaps more of our education for children should help develop these skills so as to help prepare our children for their futures and tomorrow’s world, whatever this may hold. Friday of the conference saw a room full of people discussing and believing in exactly this, so there is definitely a body of thinking that has a power in schools to see more of this work happening.

And so although I had to repack all my items, get off the train, change platforms, wait for another train, and arrive home much later than I had planned, I left feeling that any challenge that we come across isn’t going to derail our journey as innovators. Yes, there is adversity and challenge and barriers that feel like they get in the way. But actually overcoming these challenges often produces the kind of results that are right for both us and our learners – for the futures that we all face together. To harp back to Sir Tim once again; we may be moving into a fourth age in education. A time for innovations and partnerships. And that is what I plan for my work within the Trust to hold at the forefront.

Why we need to slow things down

Not far from where I live lies the Shropshire town of Ludlow. It’s known for many things – food, medieval architecture, a castle to name but three. But what many people don’t know is that it is the UK’s first Cittaslow town. Cittaslow is a movement that originated in Italy as a rally cry against all things fast-produced. It has since evolved into a cultural trend known as the ‘slow movement’.

This trend has now crossed over into education. Last weekend, the Sunday Times ran an article in which it claims that more and more schools are turning to ‘slow education’ in the belief that deep understanding cannot be achieved by rushing. To quote from the article:

“The movement is a new approach to learning inspired by a book called In Praise of Slow by Carl Honoré, a Canadian journalist. Slow education’s academic guru is the British-born Maurice Holt, emeritus professor of education at the University of Colorado Denver. In Britain it is promoted by Mike Grenier, an English teacher and housemaster at Eton College. Its backers believe that how children learn is as important as tests and targets.”

The notion of teaching children how best to learn is a controversial one and there are many protagonists out there who take the view that it’s a wasteful fancy. As a headteacher I have grappled with this very conundrum for many years. Getting the balance right between traditional instructional teaching methods and a more progressive child-led approach is incredibly difficult. Not surprisingly, ex-HMCI Sir Chris Woodhead wades in expressing his concern in the article that the slow education movement’s approach (quite often it seems with an over-reliance on project-based learning) is a throwback to the 1970s and is an attack on the government’s agenda to raise standards. As a result, concludes Mr. Woodhead, we have created a generation of children (of which I am one) with gaping holes in their factual knowledge.

The challenge for the slow education movement is to get the balance right between the need to raise standards and being held accountable whilst at the same time removing the stress and pressures of hot-housing and testing. Can we create a system that has both? Can high stakes and league tables sit alongside creativity and nurture? We need to find a way that promotes the values of a slow education but at the same time provide opportunities that – according to Mr. Woodhead – allow students to submit to a body of external knowledge.

The Slow Education movement’s website acknowledges this but feels that we’ve already crossed the divide:

“Are you a teacher or head of a school who feels testing has gone too far? Do you wonder about life after levels? We within the Slow Education movement believe we are at a critical moment. There is a need to reclaim the importance of quality, creative teaching which enables students to think independently and cope with the challenges of life today.”

It’s certainly a worthwhile call to arms. However, as much as I subscribe to their underlying principles, I can’t help but think that in order to enable students to ‘cope with the challenges of life today’ then they need to be able to operate effectively within a frenetic and fast-paced environment. It’s a double-edge sword.

Three ways then to slow things down in your school:

1. Project-based learning. Often much-maligned but when used effectively and is purposeful and based on a child’s interests it allows pupils to engage in deep learning. I’ve written about PBL in a previous blog in which I emphasised the fact that PBL needs to promote critical thinking. Most importantly, it’s essential that learners acquire and apply relevant new knowledge. Where it goes wrong is when children have not been taught to think independently and so PBL simply serves as an activity to keep pupils busy. So yes, if delivered incorrectly, it serves no purpose and I can see why Woodhead raises concerns. However, providing PBL sits within a whole-school framework and is planned for meticulously ensuring that it promotes a broad and balanced curriculum, then as a tool for sustained school improvement, it’s highly recommended.

2. Learning in Depth. As a concept it’s very simple: To ensure that over the course of a child’s time in a school, no other pupil in the world is more expert about a specific body of knowledge than that child. Children in Reception are assigned a specific topic, such as ‘Pirates’, ‘Submarine World’, ‘Insects’ to name but a few. They then spend the next seven years mastering all that there is to know about the concept. The pupils lead the learning and have total control about their lines of enquiry. Once per term we run LiD days where children spend the day in mixed age classes (all the ‘Amphibians’ learn together from age 5 to 11). Facilitated by a teacher or teaching assistant, the pupils apply all their research, enquiry and thinking skills to master their learning and to take on the mantle of the expert. The fact that pupils have seven years to remain interested, inspired and enthused requires a slow pace with ample resilience, perseverance and determination on the learner’s part. It also requires excellent teachers who are able to take on the role of coach. Most importantly, pupils’ work is not assessed by a teacher and the only feedback they receive is from their peers through critique. Finally, for it to work well, pupils must be taught how to think, assess their work and that of their peers and to think actively in a social context. All of this needs to operate within an experiential and immersive curriculum that is sufficiently tight to ensure breadth, balance and rigour whilst at the same time being loose enough to allow for creativity and adaptability. You can learn more about Learning in Depth by watching its creator Professor Kieran Egan explain it here.

3. Ditch timetables. We seem to have a national obsession in primary schools with blocking learning into manageable bite-sized chunks so that we can create timetables to keep management and Ofsted happy. Remember those ridiculous calculations that we had to do for Ofsted back in the 1990s to show how many minutes of history or geography we were teaching per week? Woe betide any school that was a minute short. Numeracy and literacy hours didn’t help matters either. I understand that we have to stop learning at certain points during the day to eat and to go home. But other than that, leave them be. If your class are on task, in a state of flow and fully immersed in their learning then let them get on with it. It’s only managers that love timetables. Leaders don’t. So be bold and do away with them and go for a flexible timetable approach instead.

How social enterprise can spice up your school

It shouldn’t take you too long to read this post. A little over four minutes should do it. That’s precisely how long I had to make my pitch at a recent RSA Engage speed-networking event.  Hosted at the impressive Impact Hub in Birmingham, the eight fellows invited to pitch had four minutes each to get their product across to the audience before rounding it off with three ‘asks’. I spoke about Ballot Street Spice our primary school social enterprise that we run as a community interest company – described recently in the Independent as an ‘online curry business’. It’s not quite at that level yet, but who knows, one day we may be delivering to a house near you.

IMG_0965

Here, pretty much word-for-word, is what I said:

“Tackling social mobility has been a passion of mine ever since I became a headteacher 16 years ago. In fact it’s one of the reasons why I first became a teacher. I love the challenge of working in multicultural communities where I can make a real difference to transforming the life chances of the families we serve. I started out in Liverpool as a rookie teacher soon after the Toxteth riots in a city ravaged by strikes and militancy. In London as a headteacher, never a day went by without there being some headline or other referring to an ‘immigration crisis’.  And at Victoria Park Academy in Ballot Street, Smethwick – my current school – we are reminded daily of the devastating effects of the Birmingham riots as we view from the school the poignant memorial in Victoria Park that commemorates the lives of the three local young men killed in the Birmingham riots.

So it’s tough raising standards. We were once a failing school in special measures. We are now outstanding and listed by the government as being one of the Top 100 schools in England. But I’ve realised that we can’t carry on improving our school by continuing to incrementally increase our test results. This is not what marks our school out for success. Instead, we need to do more to transform the life chances of our children and families. And that’s where social enterprise comes in as a solution to the problem of how we tackle social mobility.

Traditional methods of parental engagement no longer work. A more radical approach is needed which is why we set up our own social enterprise: Ballot Street Spice.

For more than half a century, people have been arriving in Smethwick from all corners of the world. In our school alone we speak over 40 different languages. You can read more about this in tomorrow’s Independent and how we are one of only five Ashoka Changemaker schools in the UK and 130 in the world. We wanted to try to capture the rich and vibrant tapestry of cultures, languages and traditions that exist on our doorstep, many of whom go back several generations. It is through our social enterprise that we want to bring people together and share their spice stories before they are lost.

Through a successful crowdfunding campaign and Heritage Lottery bid we are about to produce an oral history of Smethwick as told through spice stories of ancient hand-me-down recipes and blends. So together as a community, we grow, harvest, roast, grind and blend the spices by hand to make original blends and recipes as chosen by the children. By buying our products you are not only helping to preserve the art of spice blending, but also helping us create employment for the local community as well as providing real and purposeful learning opportunities for our students. This is what makes our social enterprise like no other in the UK.

As a school, we cannot use taxpayers’ money to invest in our enterprise so we are entirely dependent on income from sales or in kind. We have no funding stream to promote or market our social enterprise other than through social media and word of mouth. But it is not cash that we are after. Instead, we have three simple asks where we want your help:

  1. Are you a partner organisation who would be interested in working with Ballot Street from a CSR or business partnership perspective?
  2. Are you aware of potential stockists or retailers or any other local sales opportunities in the local area?
  3. Can you help with any PR opportunities, contacts in the catering world, food bloggers who could help us tell our story?

To find out more, please find us on Instagram or Facebook or follow @TheSpiceAcademy on Twitter. Better still, come out to Ballot Street and see for yourself what we have achieved in the past twelve months . When you do, you’ll be greeted in the main entrance by a quote from Walt Disney – ‘If you can dream it, you can do it. Now go out and change the world.’ We know our children can dream it. We know our children can do it. But if we want to really and truly step up as changemakers and change the world, we need your help. Please join us and be a part of our remarkable story.”

A job for the TA-team

On Monday morning we began our week with a round of applause. Granted, it was a mild one at that, but the intentions were well founded. It was simply our little way during morning briefing of celebrating National Teaching Assistant Day and thanking our team of teaching assistants. As a multicultural school – more than 40 different languages are spoken by the children – we rely on a large team of TAs, many of whom are bilingual to support the learning of our pupils. They do a fantastic job and without them we know that we would not have achieved 100% expected progress in both English and Maths in this year’s SATs.

So to celebrate National Teaching Assistant Day, here are 5 reasons why TAs are a good thing:

One | They close the attainment gap. When deployed effectively, a TA who is well trained with excellent subject knowledge can definitely close the attainment gap when working with a targeted group of pupils. Providing the work is pitched at the correct level and the TA is able to work with the intervention group over a period of time, real learning gains can be made. The cynics may point to the fact that it’s impossible to align the gains with the TA and it’s most likely a cumulative result of good teaching in the classroom. But I disagree. Of course, good teaching helps, but high quality small group intervention does make a difference be it with an EAL, SEN or more able group. The influential Sutton Trust report of 2011 ranks the impact of TAs almost bottom when compared with all other improvement strategies. But this is more likely a reflection of the lack of management and effective training and deployment of the TA than their ability to exercise influence.

As an Ofsted inspector I so often observe lessons where a TA just sits there for the first 20 minutes and then passively patrols the class looking busy. Of course standards are not going to improve. In our school, we now have an inverse attainment gap where the disadvantaged pupils outperform their peers. We know that when well deployed, TAs do make a difference.

Two | They are integral to the staff team. During the last ten years or so the number of TAs in schools has more than doubled. The National Agreement had a lot to do with this and lorry loads of TAs were shipped in to carry out the list of admin duties that teachers were banned from doing. As a result, we created a workforce expert at using pritt sticks, double mounting and climbing chairs. The focus was entirely on assisting the teacher rather than learning. Thankfully we have now moved away from this with the very best schools deploying TAs to support the learning of small groups of pupils.

The Teaching Assistant profession are not helped by the fact that we don’t actually have an agreed name for what to call them. When I was a headteacher in London they were called Teaching Assistants, but on joining my current school in the West Midlands they were known as (and still are) LSAs or Learning Support Assistants or LSPs, Learning Support Practitioners. The aforementioned Sutton Trust report refers to them as Educational Assistants, or even – and I’ve yet to come across this term – ‘Paraprofessionals’. We also have higher level TAs, mentors and coaches, in addition to TAs who work as family support advisers. Whatever we chose to call them, a well-trained practitioner who assists with teaching and learning in and around the classroom be it academically or pastorally will always make a difference.

Three | They make pupils feel safe and secure. In the news recently was a primary academy in Derbyshire that placed 2 qualified teachers in every classroom. As a result, every child in the class achieved a Level 4 in English and maths. In terms of rapid improvement  the results are stunning, given that four years ago just over a quarter of the pupils hit the benchmark. But I can’t help wondering whether or not similar results could have been achieved with a well deployed teaching assistant. After all, at VPA we’ve shown that every single child made at least 2 whole levels’ progress and this was partly as a result of the targeted interventions of our TAs. It was also because they made the children feel safe and secure in their learning.

Children are very aware of the difference in role between a teacher and a TA  even though we go to great lengths not to overemphasise the difference. (I defy you to come into a lesson and tell the difference between the teacher and the TA.) So when a child first arrives at school from a war-torn country, starving hungry and without a word of English, that first line of support from the TA is priceless. Whether you have one teacher or two, such is the demand on their time that with every will in the world, it is impossible to provide the pastoral, social and emotional support our most disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils crave. Simply hearing an adult who speaks their own language will immediately open more doors than the best-intentioned overworked teacher. Being able to reach out to a TA , often on the quiet, is important to a young child who demands immediate attention.

Four | They help enrich the learning experience. Our TAs love dressing up. I can’t vouch for what they get up to at home, but in school it’s a common sight to a see a TA go into character and become a fairy or a pizza delivery person or a clown. Central to our NICER curriculum is the concept of immersive learning. We rely on a continual stream of imaginative hooks to capture children’s imagination. Classrooms are turned into all manner of different places with strange characters appearing through mystery doors or time portals. Enter, stage left, the Teaching Assistant. Learning outside the classroom is a key ingredient of the immersive learning experience, be it our Forest School, peace garden, chicken coop or playground. The role of the TA is key in supporting the teacher in pimping up the environment.

Likewise, when we go on trips. Take our recent annual Grand Day Out in which all 450 pupils flocked en masse to Birmingham on a fleet of vintage Red Buses. Could we have achieved this without TAs? No. How about when we chartered our own steam train on the Severn Valley Railway or a flotilla of boats on the Avon canal? Not a chance. So if a school wants an immersive, purposeful and magical curriculum, then without TAs it simply won’t happen.  

Five | They bridge the gap with parents. Parents appreciate teaching assistants. I know only too well from my days as a teacher myself that when the umpteenth parent tells me something first thing in the morning about their child’s skin condition it would go in one ear and out the other. (Still does as a headteacher for that matter.) But when it’s told to a TA it sticks: What’s told to a TA stays with a TA. And if it stays with a TA, then action is taken, the teacher is kept informed at the next appropriate moment and everyone is happy. So as a stressed out teacher, having a TA on the playground is golden.

With so many of our parents not speaking English, our bilingual TAs especially, play a key role in bridging the gap. Culturally, many of our parents find it difficult to approach teachers as they have never been to school themselves. Whenever I need to speak to a parent about a matter then one of our TAs will translate for me. This helps in several ways as it softens the blow somewhat as their presence can diffuse the situation. Our weekly INSPiRE workshops with parents simply would not happen without TAs. This allows us to build trust between the home and school so parents feel confident at speaking to any member of staff. Our parents also know that our TAs attend all staff meetings and weekly professional development meetings. They know that they deliver a whole range of intervention packages as well as before and after school clubs. They know that they teach daily phonics sessions to their children. Most importantly parents know that our TAs wipe snotty noses, provide shoulders to cry on and make their child feel special.

And so, as a headteacher and parent myself, I sleep well at night knowing that the paraprofessionals are always on duty standing guard over our children. So let’s all be upstanding for another round of applause for the unsung heroes…Teaching Assistants.