A piece of cake

The football season is now in full swing. As I stood on the touchline at the weekend watching my son play I asked the dad next to me how his week was at work. ‘Oh, the usual – same as it always is. Boring.’ I sensed already that the conversation was over but he then turned and asked me how mine was. ‘Oh, the usual – I stood in front of 400 kids and scoffed 16 cakes.’ As you do.

For a minute I thought it might have been the same dad who I told last season that I went to work one day dressed up as a medieval knight. Or as a smelly tramp. Come to think of it, it probably was the same man because he looked at me out the corner of his eye and walked off. I know now why nobody stands next to me anymore.

You have to be a teacher to really understand it. Trying to explain to non-teacher friends what you do is very difficult. Take the Medieval Day for example.  I could probably name 3 or 4 of my friends who would pay good money to be able to hire a costume and play at being a knight in armour for the day. Throw in a marquee, a medieval feast and a big battle and for some it’s a dream-come-true. But for the staff at VPA, it’s all in a day’s work. I sometimes have to pinch myself that I’m actually getting paid to do these things. Remember Dara at the TES Awards’ Ceremony? ‘It’s amazing they do any work in that school.’

This is why our curriculum is so Real, Immersive and Purposeful.  School really is the best party in town. Staff are not afraid to well and truly ‘Let RIP’ so the children are entranced and captivated by all that goes on around them. The opening Learning Challenge of the year always kicks off with the ‘Big Adventure’ and the hook of all hooks – the ‘Grand Day Out’. This year though, the trip alone wasn’t enough. Michelle Harrison, our Reception teacher and DT leader wanted to take it a step further and integrate – quite obviously – a trip on a fleet of vintage double-decker busses with baking a cake. Not necessarily the first cross-curricular link that comes to mind.

And so the inaugural ‘Bake Off’ was born.  And what a success it was too.  Pupils spent the week immersed in all things to do with cakes (quite literally). Each class had to use TASC wheels to research, design, create, bake and ice a cake of their own based on their ‘Grand Day Out’. They then had to ‘pitch’ it during the assembly prior to tasting. So we had cakes designed around  the Tudor Oak House, Moseley Bog, the local fire station,  a remembrance memorial and Bourneville to name a few. We had (failed) sparklers going off, drummers and even a minute silence. Our Business Manager tried to slip in a ringer but we saw through his guise and disqualified him for being slightly not in the under-11 category (even though it was by far the best cake).

Although the finished products were fabulous and flavoursome (cheese aside), the learning that took place before and after was amazing. I was invited to join 6M’s class at the end of their maths lesson following the judging. They confidently informed me of the mean, median, mode and range of the scores and how their learning had all been linked to their Grand Day Out. Their TASC wheels and CoRT 1 activities were perceptively completed and it was very difficult to have to choose one overall winner (thanks Mrs Mullaney).

A brilliant week in all, made to look so easy by the staff. And I haven’t even mentioned the sponsored Mini with the winning ‘Grand Day Out’ design on the roof.  So even though no-one talks to me any more at football matches, it’s great being a teacher.  Especially when you get to have your cake and eat it.

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.