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Teacher wellbeing and the golden thread

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When I first started as a teacher I became fascinated by organisational culture. So much so that I spent several years researching the impact it had on school effectiveness as part of my M.Ed. I tried to unpick the component parts of a school’s culture to see if there was any one particular element or force that was more conducive to securing change than others. I came at it from the premise that ‘understanding the culture of a school is a prerequisite to making the school more effective.’ (Deal, 1988).

Broken cultures

I recall one particular 1993 booklet called ‘Transforming the Dinosaurs’ by the Think Tank Demos. It opens rather portentously with the line, ‘There is anxiety in the land’, and goes on to ridicule Britain’s recent failures in cricket, rugby, football and tennis. We were a laughing stock, claimed the author: ‘The critics did not expect Britain to win all the races but they did expect us at least to be able to run them’. We even failed to start the Grand National that year, exposing us to further ridicule on the world stage with yet another national failure. (Any resemblance to the current political shambles is entirely coincidental.)

According to Demos, the reason for these failures was simple. Our cultures were broken. Not just as a nation, but also ‘the individual cultures of the institutions which make it up.’ It was somebody else’s problem therefore. (Again, any resemblance etc…) The problem it seemed, was that in 1993 we’d failed to create a ‘learning society’, and that our organisational cultures had been allowed to stagnate. Like the dinosaurs, organisations were becoming extinct because we’d failed to respond to rapid change. We had nobody else to blame but ourselves.

Actually, that wasn’t entirely true. It was apparently us teachers that were at fault and the piece pulls no punches when pointing the finger:

Teachers have little understanding of the thinking and skills currently needed in the real world, let alone those that will be needed in the 21st century… Too many teachers are cut off from the world in which their students will live and work.

I’ll leave that one there. Here’s another:

Teachers do not understand how business operates and, in particular, the emphasis they put on team work… They do not emphasise the need to learn how to learn.

And if that’s not enough for you:

Schools continue to over-emphasise the performance of children as individuals, not their ability to work successfully and creatively in teams.

It gets worse:

After a hundred years or so of compulsory formal education, schools are still failing to provide the school leavers we need.

The author’s solution to fixing the broken cultures was cunningly simple. Namely, that, ‘we should insist that every teacher should work in one or two private sector jobs before the age of 40, ideally in their 30s.’ The government then chipped in by rolling out a National Curriculum and an Office for Standards of Education. Problem solved; cultures rebooted.

Fast forward 25 years or so and many would argue that very little has changed. We still can’t agree on the purpose of education or how best to hold it to account. It’s not surprising therefore that we find it so hard to change anything on a national scale. Perhaps our cultures are still broken and until we know how to fix them, nothing will ever change, especially when it comes to wellbeing.

When a school seeks to become powerfully effective it does so by creating a climate or culture in which the range of values is high and commitment to those values translates into motivation.   (Murgatroyd, 1993)

Golden threads and circles

I spoke about this recently at ASCL’s annual conference at the ICC in Birmingham. The theme was Connected Leadership. I suggested that as leaders we need to be aware of the golden thread that binds together our school cultures. It was based on a paper written in 2011 by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in the Harvard Business Review.

The thread is made up of two main strands:

1. Core ideology – our values and mission or purpose
2. An envisioned future – a goal plus a vision statement

The wisest leaders are mindful all the time, that as with most threads it can be difficult to see. If it unwinds though, and we fail to spot it, the whole thing can eventually unravel and fall apart. Most importantly, the research makes clear that without a compelling and engaging core ideology – known and shared by all – any attempts at affecting change are likely to prove ineffective. It all boils down to starting always with the ‘why’ at the centre of Simon Sinek’s golden circle.

Changing cultures

When I revisit the literature that I reviewed almost a quarter of a century ago, much of what we mean by ‘culture’ remains true today. Essentially, the term culture is an attempt at trying to define and bring to life the richness and vitality of the sum of all the actions, rituals and routines of a group of people who are living, breathing and working together in an organisation over a period of time. It’s ‘the way we do things around here’ or ‘that which keeps the herd heading west’.

There seems almost to be a tacit acceptance that we have to put up with our cultures; that we have to accept that they cannot be changed and either we put up or shut up. This of course is a short-sighted view. Cultures most definitely can be changed, and as a school leader you are in a very privileged position to be able to do so.

Returning one final time to the Demos booklet, the central argument is that cultures can – and must – be changed if we are to continue to innovate. They suggest that culture can be changed in four ways.

Coercion – where organisations are forced to change as a result of a takeover or external intervention
Contagion – where individuals from outside move in to bring in a new culture
Coaching – where organisations choose to bring in outside experts to help it change
Learning – where the organisation becomes self-evolving and knows how to adapt through the creation of a ‘learning organisation’

Clearly, the fourth option is the most desirable way and it is here, within the confines of the learning organisation, where we’ve seen the biggest shift since the 1990s in our understanding of what makes for a powerful school culture.

That shift can be found in the emergence of a new thread, one that is fundamental to the effectiveness of a school culture. I mentioned it briefly earlier in regard to staff wellbeing. It is astonishing looking back at the definitions of organisational culture in the 90s that very little emphasis was placed on the importance of  mental health and wellbeing. This is hardly surprising given that TQM (or Total Quality Management) was all the rage and that leaders were meant to be trying to find ways of getting more out by putting less in. Staff wellbeing was on nobody’s agenda.

Nowadays, if you want to do a quick organisational culture health check, forget all the fancy leadership research and theory. Simply talk to a few teachers about their mental health and wellbeing and you’ll soon get a feel for what the culture in the school is like.

The motivated school

One of the ways that we can build great cultures in our schools – ensuring that wellbeing and mental health remain centre stage throughout – is by focussing relentlessly on the 3Bs of believe, belong and behave. If you build everything around these, you are more likely to create a culture that allows you to fulfil your mission in a way that promotes high levels of wellbeing and motivation. It’s what Andy Buck calls ‘discretionary effort’.

Inspired by Alan McLean’s book ‘The Motivated School’, I’ve basically taken his 3As (affiliation, agency and autonomy) and made them my own by shamelessly nudging them one place up the alphabet and thereby claiming them as mine.

BELIEVE: This is about staff believing in you and your team as authentic leaders with high levels of integrity. Staff also need to believe in the vision and core purpose of the school. More importantly, they also need to believe in themselves and to ditch any limiting beliefs that are holding them back, instead feeling empowered. It is your job as leader to make this happen, remembering always that a belief is simply one person’s perception of reality. Change the reality, and you change the belief.

BELONG: This is about your staff knowing their place in the organisation; that they are heard, valued, consulted, listened to and that they have real influence on how the school grows and develops organically (as a learning organisation). Nobody wants to come to work if they feel they don’t belong, so schools need to engage and motivate staff so that they always feel they are making a difference. Co-invention and consensus are key.

BEHAVE: If you can create a culture where staff feel they do believe and belong, the chances are you’ll get the behaviours you desire consistent with your values. Vision will show the staff the way, but it’s your values that will show them how to behave in order to get there. If you have no values, then you have no vision. More importantly, if you have no values (or core ideology), your staff will not know how they are to behave when it comes to doing the right thing. This is at the very heart of good leadership.

Never before has the wellbeing of the teaching profession been so important. There is indeed anxiety in the land and we as leaders must do all we can to address it in our schools. There is no job more demanding or complex than teaching children, especially during times of turbulence, austerity and uncertainty.

Greater funding, better pensions, shorter hours, less accountability, more pay, are all very nice. But put me in a school that I believe in, where I can thrive in a culture where I feel I belong, with a compelling set of core values that help me and my team behave with integrity and compassion, and I’ll guarantee you that I will become the best version of myself I could possibly be.

 

Note: The author attributed to writing the Demos piece is Professor Sir Douglas Hague, a British economist who became one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest and trusted advisers as a member of the No. 10 Policy Unit. He occasionally wrote speeches for her. You can download a free PDF version of Transforming the Dinosaurs: How Organisations Learn here

You can also learn more about culture and school effectiveness in my book The Art of Standing Out available at Amazon

Additional references (cited in M.Ed research):

Deal, T. 1988, The Symbolism of Effective Schools, in Westoby, A. (Ed), Culture and Power in Educational Organisations, Ch 12. 

Murgatroyd, S. 1993, Implementing Total Quality Management in the School: Challenges and Opportunity in School Organisation, 13, 3: 269-281.

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Ofsted and the arts: Glass half-full or half-empty?

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Earlier this month I was invited to attend a consultation session with Sean Harford, Ofsted’s Director of Education, on behalf of Arts Council England. In this post I explain why – for now – I’m prepared to give Ofsted the benefit of the doubt.

About 20 of us attended the session from across the education, arts and culture sector, held at the Museum of London. I was invited primarily in my role as chair of a local bridge organisation (Arts Connect) responsible for delivering the arts and culture offer in the west midlands region. Our trust schools have also recently all been awarded Artsmark and I joined a number of other heads in a similar position.

In the past, I’ve not always found Ofsted consultations to be particularly edifying. You tend to leave feeling that it was a done deal and that minds had already been made up, regardless of what was said. This time however, it felt different. Ofsted genuinely appeared to be listening, so much so that we ran out of time because Harford only managed to get through a handful of the slides.

Not to worry though, as most of us that were there had seen the slide deck before and so welcomed the opportunity to use the time instead to ask questions. Harford was very willing to answer them, even though at times it was difficult to discern whether his responses were the official party line or his own. (I took the view that whilst on duty, all views expressed are those of your employer.)

Yes, at times, it got heated. Frustrations were shared from both sides of the camp. Us, regarding the accountability pressures and the inevitable ‘what gets measured gets taught’. Them, regarding schools narrowing the curriculum and teaching to tests.

The usual suspects all raised their ugly heads:  Ebacc, grading, hothousing, off-rolling, exempt schools and inspector quality assurance. At one point – when unpacking the rationale behind the proposed PD and behaviour judgement – Harford conceded with a wry smile that, ‘We’ll probably end up having an argument about it but don’t worry, we’ve got time.’

A number of other concerns were raised as well, several of which are summarised below. You may find them useful when completing your response to the #EIF2019 consultation that closes on 5th April.

Workload: It seems that the DfE have at last realised that the single biggest risk to the profession is not funding but workload. There is a real fear from government that the issue is driving teachers away and so the inspection framework needs to be mindful of this. The irony wasn’t lost on the group that the single biggest drain on workload and retention is of course Ofsted.

Outcomes: Ofsted are determined to ensure that only schools with a broad and full curriculum can be judged outstanding. In essence it becomes a limiting judgement and will mean that high-performing schools that don’t provide for this (as opposed to ‘offer’) may no longer be outstanding, even though their outcomes remain stellar.

Arts pupil premium: There was a strong view that an arts pupil premium grant should be introduced so that schools could use it to remove barriers e.g. music provision etc. Some of those around the table were understandably keen to see this happen (as providers of arts/cultural services). With this in mind, the much-maligned definition of ‘cultural capital’ was also discussed and why it has any place at all in an inspection framework.

More outstanding schools: There is a possibility that the current 20% of schools graded outstanding may actually increase. Schools that previously were penalised because outcomes weren’t where they needed to be can now attain the highest grade if their curriculum has sufficient depth and impact. The new challenge for school leaders, is how best to go about proving this. Harford confirmed that there are no quotas in place or desire to maintain the normal distribution curve.

Exempt schools: Outstanding schools will continue to remain exempt from inspection unless there is a change in the law. There is currently no political will to remove the top grade and so the status quo remains. It was clear that Harford (and the heads, to be fair) remains frustrated by this but that his hands are tied.

Double-edged sword: Ofsted are convinced that their inspectors will not be influenced by data and that headteachers need to be encouraged ‘to tell their story’ and to trust inspectors to talk to pupils, see the school in action and come to the right conclusion. This is the trade-off: That by ditching data (and workload), inspectors instead will go with their gut. I feel like I’m a turkey voting for Christmas on this one and so we must be careful what we wish for. According to Harford (and nobody disagreed with this), ‘If the curriculum is right, the school will do okay.’ The issue here of course is the extent to which we can be convinced that we can trust inspectors to get this right in a few hours. At least with data, we knew where we stood.

Narrowing the curriculum: There was lots of discussion around curriculum narrowing. Quite what this means is difficult to determine as each individual school context (and improvement journey) is different. Narrowing compared to what? A hosepipe or the channel tunnel? Both are fit-for-purpose. Is it to do with core knowledge, skills or breadth of coverage? Academies are not required to teach the national curriculum, and so by choosing not to do so, does that make the curriculum narrower? What was made clear was that primary schools that only teach art, music and PE etc. once the SATs are over will have to think again, even if across the course of the year the pupils receive a broad and rich curriculum.

The three-legged stool: Inspectors will look at your school as if it were a stool with three legs, typically made up of curriculum, teaching and outcomes. If all three are broadly of similar length the stool won’t fall over. But if one of them is too short (the curriculum for example), the stool is likely to topple when sat on. Ofsted accept that too many schools with wobbly stools are being judged outstanding due to the over-reliance of only one or two legs.

Since attending the session, the existence of Ofsted’s subject curriculum groups have emerged. In a recent blog post by Sean Harford himself, he refers to the five groups – history, MFL, English, mathematics and science. The aim of the groups are to help Ofsted ‘think through the issues at hand’.

Despite my reservations around Ofsted’s need to do such a thing, for the sake of balance and fairness, I can’t help but feel that an opportunity was lost to incorporate a sixth when we attended the session. This can either mean that Ofsted already has a strong grasp of the concepts related to the arts and that they don’t need help to think them through. Or, that they simply have no plans to think them through at all. Either is a rock or a hard place.

Despite this oversight, I remain cautiously optimistic about the future direction of travel. (Or is it optimistically cautious? Probably a bit of both). Don’t get me wrong, there’s still much to dislike about the proposals. There are a number of ‘deals on the table’ that need to be removed before we can even begin to take it seriously: Ditch the grading, get rid of EBacc, don’t extend to two days, scrap the ridiculous ‘on-site no-notice’ notion, to name but a few. Then we can talk.

That said, for now at this very early stage, I am willing to let Ofsted continue to kick the can down the road. Spring has sprung, the weather is warm and today I’m feeling good. I am prepared to give the inspectorate the benefit of the doubt, especially if they really are genuine about the consultation and that we see real and tangible improvements to the final version.

If we don’t, and the status quo prevails, Ofsted will have lost all credibility and we may as well all pack up and go home.

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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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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.

SSAT stage

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.’

SSAT pic

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.

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Why it’s time we all grasp the Ofsted nettle

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Following the publication of the recent Public Accounts Committee findings, Amanda Spielman finds she suddenly has an awful lot to do. And it might just sting.

There is no doubt that Amanda Spielman knows she’s in a job. As Her Majesties Chief Inspector, she is very welcome to her in-tray. It currently looks something like this:

#1: Write to the Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) with thoughts on the main risks to schools’ effectiveness along with ‘the systemic causes of poor performance, including the impact of funding pressures’.

Many an academic would dedicate several years’ research on this. Ms Spielman has until next month.

No sooner has she fired this one off, she then has these four to deal with:

#2: Correct the misreporting in the 2017-18 Ofsted annual report 

#3: Write a report on the rationale for exempting outstanding schools from inspection

#4: Write another report on how Ofsted can gather better evidence, including from parents

#5: Write a further report on the most appropriate model for school inspection, ensuring all alternative models are evaluated, including costs and benefits

These are all due by December. Not December 2019, but the one at the end of this term. If she had planned to consult widely, then she will be disappointed.

Once these reports are duly dispatched, Ms Spielman then needs to swiftly turn her attention to explaining to MPs why turnover of inspectors is high and to account for the discrepancy between actual numbers of HMI and those budgeted for. It’s not due until next April, presumably because March has been designated ‘full’ in MP’s diaries.

The reason for HMCIs sudden additional workload is in response to the damming recommendations in the recently published PAC report. When you read it, it does appear as if Ofsted have had a bit of a mild ticking off. To an outsider reading the report – someone perhaps who has never heard of Ofsted or HMI – it may all seem rather odd, especially for an established century-old organisation funded to the tune of £151m.

You would not be forgiven for asking why it is not in a much healthier position given the number and urgency of the recommendations. This is a very good question, one Ms Spielman may struggle to answer.

It all seems as if the regulator has lost its way and is in need of a major reboot. This isn’t necessarily the fault of Ofsted; it can only work within its prescribed remit. That said, Ofsted appears to be slowly turning into one of the behemoths of the High Street, akin to a Woolworths or a British Home Stores that failed to adopt more modern ways-of-working in response to an ever-evolving landscape.

Unlike Ofsted, Woolies was a bit of a national institution. At the time of its demise many people were angry that such an established and well-respected company was allowed to go down the pan. As tempting as it may be to wish the same fate on Ofsted, we mustn’t.

In much the same way as supporters rally round an ailing local football team to prevent the administrator from stepping in, we must do the same for Ofsted. Whether we like it or not, a national regulator is here to stay. With that being so, the challenge that we now face is, what should it look like and why?

Accountability is essential in any successful ecosystem. The issue as I see it is that the school ecosystem has largely become unrecognisable compared to a decade ago. Even a high-tech social media company would struggle to keep pace, given the rate of continual change.

Add to the mix the fact that we can no longer agree on who is accountable to whom and why, it becomes blatantly clear that we need to take drastic action. I cannot remember a time when the DfE and HMI have been so divided.

What we need therefore is a moratorium. We need to pause and take a long hard look at the current landscape. Only then can we make a considered and collective response.

Rather than rush through a load of knee-jerk reports, Ms Spielman needs to be given time and scope to consult widely on what an intelligent, holistic and purposeful accountability system looks like in the modern age. Above all, it needs to be fit-for-purpose and take into account different contexts.

Schools are far more complex than they were a quarter of a century ago when Ofsted was born. We need to create a model that is intelligent enough to take this into account. A one-size-fits-all approach is too simplistic and lacking ambition.

To really understand the situation, Ms Spielman needs to talk to you and me, the children that you teach, the staff that you work with, the parents and communities that you serve. Her team need to sit down with governors, trustees, unions, professional associations and the finest researchers, both at home and abroad.

If Ofsted really do see itself as being a research body of note, then it needs to embrace and acknowledge all of the international research that is already out there in regard to the most successful systems of inspection and intelligent accountability.

It then needs to align this with the many levers and forces that impact on schools, many of which are beyond their control: Funding, poverty, recruitment, testing, workload and mental health, to name but a few.

Most importantly, once this has all been completed, the chief inspector then needs to tell the secretary of state exactly how it is, without fear or favour, a phrase much loved by the inspectorate.

I’ve got a lot of time for Ms Spielman. I want her to stay and see the job through. She needs to be given the freedom to make the changes that are required, root and branch. I suggest she starts by writing to MPs asking them to use some of the £44m that would be saved on school inspections to set up a year-long national task group. Once established their remit will be to design a contemporary accountability system that will see us in to 2020 and beyond.

In the meantime, whilst we continue to consult and debate on the matter, we have more than enough expertise in our schools to keep the inspection process ticking over. The system won’t come crushing down around our ears.

Between us, we can ensure our children remain safe without the need for grades or high stakes. The RSC budget alone is in excess of £30m so we have the cash as well. On top of that we can add the remaining £100m or so in Ofsted’s budget.

A small senior team of HMIs can continue to provide oversight and quality assurance. It surely can’t do any worse than the existing arrangement given the damming comments by the chair of the committee: ‘If the level of inspection continues … its credibility will evaporate’. I’m sure this is something that Ms Spielman would not want to happen on her watch.

The task though is huge, which is perhaps why over the years nobody has ever really wanted to grasp the nettle. It must be incredibly frustrating for HMCI that the matter has never been tackled before by previous incumbents. Instead, it’s been allowed to continue to a point that may now be beyond the point of no return.

With Ofsted seemingly stranded at a very large crossroads, the time is now right to act. We may never get another opportunity like this again. Ofsted in its current format is in urgent need of reshaping, rebranding, call it what you will. It cannot be allowed to continue to drift.

If the Public Accounts Committee really are committed to ‘providing the level of independent assurance about the quality of education that schools and parents need’ then ministers must realise that unless radical changes are made to the way we scrutinise our schools, the future of Ofsted – and indeed the integrity of the inspectorate –  remain in considerable doubt.

 

The Art of Standing Out by Andrew Morrish is available to buy here