Image

Live from the 15:17 to Newport

apple-campus

I’ve never done a live blog post before. I usually craft them several days in advance. But not this one; to mark the occasion of my 60th post this one is coming to you ‘live’.

The fact that you are reading this means that it’s uploaded okay, but as I type I’m hurtling south on a rickety Arriva Train through Wales from Ludlow on the 15.17 to Newport. From there I have a quick five-minute platform dash to jump the train to Paddington and the Heathrow Express to Terminal 5.

It’s then early to bed before I board the noon flight to Austin, USA. The 10-hour flight gets me in mid-afternoon Texan time tomorrow (Sunday) so I have the evening free – jet lag permitting – to explore what the city has to offer.

As state capitals go, Austin is the self-proclaimed ‘live music capital of the world’. One of my favourite ensembles performed there several times last week and it would have been lovely if it coincided with my visit. Never mind though, I’ve got tickets for May. (Google ‘Brassneck’.)

According to Austin’s own tourist board website it’s also a city that prides itself on embracing alternative cultures, hence the ubiquitous bumper stickers that I’m determined to search out that read ‘Keep Austin Weird’. It sounds like my kinda place, although we have been warned to not be too concerned at the fact that almost everyone carries guns (which at home I don’t) and wears huge cowboy hats (which I do). Most importantly though – and apropos to nothing – it’s the state that bears the name of the opening chapter (‘The Texan’) of probably the greatest book ever written, Catch-22.

But here’s to the point of this post – Austin is also known as ‘Silicon Hill’ on account of the many technology companies that are based there. In the 1990s, more than 400 high-tech companies, including IBM, Dell, Motorola, and of course Texas Instruments, made the city their home.

Apple have recently moved in as well, opening a brand new ‘flagship’ store in northside Domain and it is to here that I shall be first heading.

During the next week or so, I’m joining a number of UK colleagues on an international leadership study visit organised and led jointly by Apple and SSAT.

The main aim of the trip is to ‘give education leaders unique insight into the work of one of the world’s most successful organisations and learn leadership lessons to apply to their school context.’ When I was first invited to take part, I didn’t need a great deal of time to think about it. It was an opportunity to good to miss for an old hack like me.

The 15-strong delegation meets up in Austin on Monday morning, kicking off with a session called ‘Engaging with Intention’. We then have the honour of visiting the Eanes School District that, according to Apple, will ‘raise your expectations for technology and the role it can play in your schools’. We then debrief before flying up to silicon valley and spending the next three nights in California where hopefully I can bag a load of Apple freebies.

I love California. I’ve had the privilege of going there a number of times and have driven up and across most of the state, including San Francisco to LA and down to San Diego and across to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and up to Yosemite. I’ve never been to Cupertino (San Jose) though, a short drive from San Francisco, so I’m looking forward to this, despite it being strictly for business. Even more so as we are based at Apple Park, the international headquarters of Apple Inc. It only opened last year and is the fifth most expensive building in the world coming in at a cool $5 billion.

Known as the ‘spaceship campus’ the new HQ replaces the previous ‘One Infinite Loop’. With almost 15,000 employees based there, the 175-acre site, is impressive indeed. And although it may seem extravagant at five billion, in real terms this knocks barely 2% off the company’s gargantuan annual cash reserves. By means of comparison, to a small SME in the UK worth £100k (10-50 employees), this would be the equivalent of building a new office for only £2,000.

Sessions for the rest of the visit look like this, spread across two days:

Why mobility matters (understanding the role of a leader in a rapidly changing environment)

The importance of culture (how Apple make it stick and lessons to be learned in education)

Managing change (discovering how Apple approach the complexities of change)

Implicit Promise (intriguingly billed as a ‘special session’ with Apple University)

Apple in enterprise (how as leaders we should approach rapid transformation)

Productivity with Apple (reducing workload and saving time with tech)

Evidence and impact (how to measure your vision for learning, impact and teaching.

Elements of learning and leadership (what Apple have learned about innovation and change)

I shall remain as cynical and optimistic as ever as we get to grips with each of these, using a number of diagnostic digital leadership tools developed exclusively by Apple.

Finally, on day four, we wrap the whole thing up in a strategy session identifying how best to work through specific tasks, formulating actions and next steps for back in our schools. It’s then the San Jose to LHR redeye on Thursday, hopefully arriving in time for tea on Friday evening, 25 hours of flying time later.

So, dear reader, although I don’t expect any sympathy from you, I am going to be working hard whilst I’m out there in the sun. Don’t forget as well that I’m losing a week of my holiday also, and whilst it’s a great opportunity on my part, I am going to miss being with my family. (And if any of my two boys are reading this, “Get back to your GCSE/A-level revision now! You’ve got exams in a few weeks!”)

Whether I get to blog whilst I’m out there depends on how much free time we get as I’m going to be awfully busy. I guess I can’t blame the dodgy Wi-fi for lack of posts, being in silicon valley. (Heck, the hotel even has its own robotic butler (called Botlr) that delivers to your room via your smart phone!). And, I’m going to miss the Champions’ League second leg as well on Tuesday lunchtime, so I hope you appreciate the sacrifices I’m making for the cause.

(16.07, Abergavenny Station, two minutes ahead of schedule.)

aberg

So here’s to the ultimate Catch-22: Assuming I get no freebies, if I come home with a ton of over-priced Apple goodies, I’m screwed for being a sucker and paying over the odds, and if don’t, then I’m screwed because my kids will kill me as I assured them that me and Tim Cook ‘are like that’.

Anyway, I’ll worry about that later. Next stop Cwmbran, so I’d better start packing away as Newport is looming and I have only 3 minutes at the station to get the connection so I need to be lively. Despite having only one bar of 4G, I’m going to hit ‘publish’ now and hope for the best. Here goes…

 

(PS The guard has just told me someone has cut through the power on the Swansea – Newport line and all trains are cancelled. So I guess I really am screwed, good and proper.)

.

How do you continue to innovate?

A guest post by @LisaWorgan

When I first started my post with Victoria Academies Trust, I was given an interesting job title: Director of Curriculum Innovation. In some ways this filled me with excitement and enthusiasm; I would be responsible for working with the 5 schools in the Trust to ensure that their learning is real, immersive, and purposeful. Having spent time with all of these schools so far this academic year, it is clear that all of them are fulfilling many of these aspects in variety of engaging ways, and our plans to continue to build on this are becoming ever clearer.

And so then I come to the second part of my job title; Innovation. And this is the bit that continues to raise questions in my thoughts…

  • Question 1: When a school is already undertaking a number of innovative practices, is it right to continue to ask them to try new developments?
  • Question 2: Is innovation actually about new things, or is it about really deepening practice to solve problems?
  • Question 3: How much should innovation be led, or is it about giving space for teachers to lead their own practice and therefore bring about innovation?

All of these questions have led to thoughts around how we find opportunities for developed leadership and giving the space for innovation for teachers within our Trust to become expert in their practice. Now it’s a question of how we do this! Luckily, we have found a friend who is an expert in just this…

Zoe Elder from Clevedon Learning Trust is passionate about Action Research. She kindly invited me to a group that she was facilitating from Weston Super Mare Excellence cluster. On a chilly January afternoon, I arrived at a quaint, but slightly dated, beachfront hotel to meet a group of teacher’s part way through their journey of innovation. From a number of different schools, the teacher’s in the room were relatively new in their practice, but all had been identified by their schools are future leaders, quality practitioners, and with a thirst for developing their own innovations.

Each teacher had identified their own Action Research question; something that they wanted to really delve into to make a difference in their classroom – whether that be for all children or an identified particular group. Being a very open group, the teachers kindly allowed me to question their ideas, discuss what they were really looking to get to the bottom of, and generally to be a little challenging!

What was refreshing and enjoyable that session (alongside the yummy piece of cake!) was that the innovations that these teachers were exploring (whether this be mind-set in the classroom, confidence through child led developments, or changing the status of being ‘learning ready’) were not being led by anyone other than what those teachers felt were important. The likelihood is that they are also identifying aspects that would be important to all teachers in their school; and thereby setting up the pilot for an innovation that has the potential to change whole school practice in time.

Bringing me back to what my role in Curriculum Innovation should therefore be…part of this needs to be not only sharing innovative practice or supporting teachers to undertake this (where this time and space can be useful from the day to day of the classroom) but to create opportunities for them to lead innovative practice.

We have started this in small steps. Across the Trust we now have 6 Social Enterprise leaders, mostly TA’s, who are leading innovations in their school – more about those another time. And we have identified 3 more teachers who are going to start their own Research projects in their own practice that they feel will be interesting innovations for the future. But in discussions with Zoe, we are interested to explore how this model of teacher led innovation, through Action Research could take place for all teachers. Much more on this to be discussed, developed and decided. But through this journey I am intrigued to find out if teacher led innovation can continue to feed our forward moving practice in schools – and hopefully not leave me without a role to play!

The Art of Standing Out is available for pre-order on Amazon and is due for publication in July 2016 https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Standing-Out-Transforming-school-outstanding-beyond/dp/1909717835/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1461066639&sr=8-1&keywords=andrew+morrish+standing+out

Now that’s what I call quite good

A bit of a lazy post this one, so please forgive me. Feel free to walk away now. However, in the highly likely event that you have not read a single post of mine throughout the year, you may wish to read on.

What follows is a handy pocket-sized summary of my top 10 posts throughout the 2014-15 academic year. To add a bit of tension I’ve ranked them below in order of ‘popularity’, with the least popular one first. I understand entirely therefore if you want to skip straight to the end.

  1. A formula for success

In which I introduced readers to C = v2+s+d+r+2p which I recklessly claimed to be the formula for effective change. To labour the point, I referred to a previous post on the importance of having a compelling vision. It’s also the only time I’m likely to name check the SAS in a blog post.

  1. Do the right thing

This was my first post of the academic year and sadly largely overlooked. I reflected on the challenge that lay ahead when taking on our first sponsored special measures school. I referred to the importance of leadership and quoted John Maxwell: “The pessimist complains about the wind, the optimist expects the wind to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”

  1. The imitation game; tackling social mobility

This was my first attempt at reviewing a recently published government report. It will probably be my last. Tackling social mobility has been a passion of mine for a while now and I tried to reconcile the findings of the report (called Cracking the Code) with my own practice.

  1. How social enterprise can spice up your school

This post got the most retweets on Twitter most likely because the blog referred to an article about the school in the Guardian. It was a great piece (the article and not the post) that does justice to the crucial role social enterprise can make in schools.

  1. Making the pupil premium count

I am quietly confident that this post will continue to climb the top 10 as it’s still out there, being my most recent post. I reflect on my session speaking at the Sunday Times Festival of Education and suggest five ways to spend your pupil premium wisely.

  1. The importance of having a good door monitor

In which I get a little bit political and express concern at the announcement to send in so-called Super Heads to turn round failing schools. It was written post-general election and was a reflection on Nicky Morgan’s first major announcement.

  1. The most bonkers thing you’ve heard in a while

Probably the most cathartic and enjoyable post to write just because of the sheer daftness of the situation we found ourselves in. It still rankles now. Not surprisingly, Twitter seemed to enjoy it.

  1. Cutting out the middleman

Despite having just finished the two-day Ofsted selection process to move across to a central contract, I tried to do myself out of a job by suggesting we for cut Ofsted out altogether. I make the case that peer review is the way ahead, in conjunction with a lighter touch inspection regime.

  1. Why we are not on-track with assessment without levels

This is perhaps the one post, that had I written today as opposed to back then in December (a lifetime away in education), I’d have written it differently. At times aloof and slightly overcautious I put forward a view that I suggest represented an undersurge of opinion. I have no idea if ‘undersurge’ is actually a real word, but it feels right to use it to describe the views at the time.

  1. Why we need to slow things down

I am as surprised as you are that this post made it to number one. I suspect it was because it opened with reference to fine dining and Michelin Star restaurants. I am grateful to those of you that hung in there and made it to the end. If you did, you would have learned about the three things that I believe schools need to do to reclaim the moral purpose of education.

So there we are. The top ten. Granted, I only posted ten throughout the year so hardly difficult to make the cut. I am reminded of a quote by Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) when he was talking about PowerPoint slides: ‘They are a bit like children. No matter how ugly they are, you’ll think they’re beautiful if they’re yours’. Blog posts are no different.

Have belief in your vision

One thing I’ve learnt during my time as a headteacher is that compromise is king. Back in the day as a new headteacher I naively always saw compromise as a weakness – that staff would see me as being a lame and indecisive leader if I didn’t insist on doing things my way. I felt it was incumbent on me for example, to show my authority by laying down a vision – a road map – that would lead staff unto the Promised Land. It was always the one thing that every headship interview panel looked for and that as a prospective new head, you sensed that you would either live or die by your vision. It became the Holy Grail.

In fact, it wasn’t even worth applying for headteacher posts unless you had a ready-made vision to trot out. Unfortunately, when I took up my first headship we didn’t have Google so I really had to make one up. I remember coming across a story from an American Principal bemoaning the agonies of trying to come up with a vision: ‘Years ago, if I declared I had a vision I would have been locked up. Nowadays I can’t get a job without one’.

All of us have a vision of what we believe education stands for. We may not know it, but we do, and we do for one very simple reason: That we all possess a set of values and beliefs that make us who we are. These values and beliefs provide us with our goals and moral purpose that drives us day in, day out. We were born with these and it’s often very difficult to change them as they were shaped by our formative years. So strong are these values that without knowing it we try to create emotional conditions that enable us to be in the right mood or state of mind that allow such beliefs to flourish. Our beliefs are usually located at a deep sub-conscious level serving primarily to determine how we behave. It’s this behaviour of course that then determines our results and if we want to change the results, then we need to change the way we behave.

All of this leads us back to our beliefs and that if we want to change the way we behave then we need to change our beliefs. This is not easy, although it can be done especially when we consider that most of our beliefs are ones we hold about ourselves. As individuals we hold the key. Gandhi once said that ‘If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have had it at the beginning…’  The challenge for leaders therefore appears to be to try and convince staff to change their beliefs – their own self-perception of what they are good at – so that vision and goals become a reality. It all sounds rather Machiavellian but at its core it’s about developing in staff a growth mindset.

This is where compromise comes in, as the above task can be rather like an immovable force colliding with an unmovable object – something’s got to give. It is the real art of leadership to be able to manage this process in order to assimilate the values and beliefs of an entire staff into a vision that meets the needs of a diverse and dynamic organisation. This has always been a bit of a conundrum for heads taking up new posts. What happens if your shiny brand new vision doesn’t fit in with the values and beliefs of the staff? Do you change your vision or do you change their beliefs? I’m certainly not going to change my vision, so this is where I’ve learnt to compromise.

Teachers and educators are very passionate and principled people. We all have deep-seated beliefs about what education stands for and quite rightly so. You only have to take a look at Twitter to see for yourself. Entire timelines and blogs are devoted to extolling the virtues of humanism, cognitivism, constructivism and any other –ism you can think of. By and large each and every one of these has a place in school as they are well-established, tried-and-tested versions of learning theory. It’s quite likely that in any one school, most of these bases are covered by members of staff whose beliefs and values are firmly planted in a particular camp, myself included.

So how is it possible to assert a vision that accommodates such a wide spectrum of beliefs? How in a school would we ever agree on what good learning and teaching looks like? How for example would we gain consensus on how best to teach creativity, meta-cognition, emotional awareness and critical thinking if the head’s vision was built around the acquisition of core knowledge? As a young teacher I believed strongly that my job was to teach knowledge – to instruct pupils on the content of a prescribed programme of study. I started teaching at the same time the new national curriculum was introduced so you can imagine how pleased I was. As far as I was concerned, any attempt at teaching the soft skills that allowed children to become critical thinkers denigrated the true purpose of education. I wanted to teach, to impart knowledge, to be the sage on the stage.

As an NQT I was influenced – among others – by the work of Jerome Bruner whom I liked very much and who wrote a book in 1960 called ‘The Process of Education’ (long before I trained as a teacher, I might add). Bruner said that ‘you can teach anything to anyone in an intellectually honest manner by translating it courteously for them.’  In other words, no matter how complex or difficult the content being taught, providing it was skilfully differentiated, the children would be able learn it regardless of age or ability. I was very clear on how instruction worked in my lessons and how each lesson built on the knowledge acquired previously.

I no longer have this belief. It has evolved over the years and even more so since Gove began imposing his own beliefs on the national curriculum. In many ways this reminded me even more of the need to compromise, which brings me back to the purpose of this post. Namely, that the real art of leadership is to know which bits are worth keeping and to then blend them into some kind of approach that works in your school.  It really is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts – a bit like trying to get a tune out of a room full of random instruments that when performed together sound like a musical masterpiece.

So why am I writing about this? Because I’m sitting in my office thinking about how I will get my own beliefs, values and vision to resonate with the staff of the school that we are about to sponsor in a few weeks time. The school is in special measures and we have a training day organised for the first day back and I am trying to capture my vision and values all in one or two slides. I’m even going as far as trying to see if I can capture my vision in 140 characters or less. (#Tweetyourvision. No mean feat let me tell you.) We are also going to come up with a teaching and learning policy, complete with 10 non-negotiables. I have no idea what these might look like as I want them to come from the staff. But with the right vision in place, and with a set of beliefs that are aligned, or at least in the process of being aligned, the art of compromise should be so much easier.

Whether we ever agree in September on how best to teach anything to anyone remains to be seen. With there likely to be as many different values and beliefs among the staff as there are musicians in a full symphony orchestra, the odds of getting a tune out of us all at first may appear remote. However, the likelihood of success is increased significantly if we can ensure that we all have the same piece of music in front of us. Having this played out as the soundtrack to your vision is music to anyone’s ears and perhaps something we shouldn’t compromise on after all.

Why less is more

I have always liked to think that I have my finger firmly on the pulse of all things educational. However, these past few weeks I have found it rather difficult keeping tabs on the numerous blog posts on Ofsted’s latest proposals to improve the inspection process. If you’ve never heard of Mike Cladingbowl before, you have now. I actually applaud the way Ofsted seem to be engaging with social media in an attempt at clarifying and consulting. It does feel like we are all being given a chance to chip in, especially when Ofsted refer to the influence certain uber-bloggers are having on shaping their thinking. If we want to aspire to developing a world-class education system then we need an inspection system to match. Openness and integrity must be at its core.

There’s nothing though like the imminent publication of a couple of influential Think Tank reports to sharpen the mind. It’s understandable therefore that Ofsted are indulging in a spot of kite-flying to gauge the opinions of the masses, especially with a general election looming. Only this weekend we read of Ofsted’s plans to create a new blueprint for inspecting good schools and how this might incorporate the intelligent ACSL response. Ofsted’s National Director of Schools  accepts that the current inspection regime stifles innovation, with schools too often ‘awash with squadrons of inspectors.’ Instead what we need is ‘constructive and expert professional dialogue.’

All well and good but is anything likely to change in time for the general election? Unlikely. So what to do in the meantime when the squadrons descend into school? Well certainly, we don’t need inspectors bombarding classrooms with what feels like a lightning attack within the first few hours of an inspection. If ultimately what inspectors are looking for is evidence of learning, then strangely enough, piling into lessons to watch a teacher may not be the most obvious starting point. Less is more and it needs to start with the classroom.

I’ve always believed that any valid system of inspecting schools must be based on observing lessons. As a head of a school previously in special measures I have practically dragged inspectors kicking and screaming into lessons to see learning in action. If nothing else it might make them forget the fact that RAISEonline is a sea of blue. I’ve seen teachers reduced almost to tears because an inspector didn’t come and see them teach. So why as an inspector (and indeed as a headteacher) am I beginning to wonder whether observing lessons is all that it’s cracked up to be?

For years I’ve gone into classrooms, firstly as a rookie teacher learning the ropes, then as a subject leader, appraiser, headteacher and finally as  an Ofsted inspector. It’s such a privilege to be able to spend time in lessons and to observe the art of teaching. I like to think that I was good at it (observing that is, and not teaching) and had a pretty good grasp of what good teaching looked like. Nowadays of course we don’t look at teaching anymore and haven’t for a while in fact. The focus – quite rightly – is on the learning, with the shift moving away from the adult as a performer to the child as a learner.

But that’s the problem. I genuinely believe that deep down I don’t actually know what learning looks like. There, I’ve said it. I’m talking proper full-on embedded-for-life learning, not just the ‘look Miss I’ve finished’ type that involves simply writing the WALT and completing a worksheet. And even if I did know what ‘full-on learning’ looks like for a child, I’m not sure that I can judge how much learning has taken place across a whole class of 30 children all with very different starting points and styles within just 20 minutes. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure if children actually learn anything in a lesson. In much the same way as when exercising, the muscle doesn’t appear there and then, the same applies when learning during a lesson. The real benefits (i.e. learning gains) are only evident a few weeks later. We all accept that these learning gains are a direct result of teaching during a lesson or sequence of lessons, so can teaching – and the associated learning – ever be evaluated during a single lesson observation?

The answer of course is no. Ofsted know this only too well and have issued several rally cries to this effect during the past few weeks. Inspectors have known for a while that we are not to judge teaching during a lesson ‘unless circumstances are exceptional’ (whatever they may be). Nowhere in the inspection framework will you find guidance or criteria for grading a lesson. I don’t have a problem with this. I understand the difference between grading teaching and a lesson. I think it’s right that we don’t judge a teacher when we’ve only been with them for 20 minutes. So what then is the point of observing lessons during an inspection when the evidence that we are looking for can most likely be found elsewhere?

If the sole purpose of observing a lesson is to verify what learning and teaching are like over time, then unless we’ve had opportunities of finding this out beforehand, what is the point of going in if we have no proxies against which to verify? Apart from RAISEonline and a set of joining instructions, I have very little information on how, when and where learning takes place in a school prior to an inspection.

When inspection teams do arrive at a school we seem to be obsessed with getting into classrooms within the first five minutes of the inspection starting. To the untrained eye, it may appear to be a bit of a scramble. I find myself barely in a school half an hour before I’m required to make a judgement on what teaching and learning are like over time having sat in the back of a lesson for a few minutes. I suppose I could take the easy way out and go with what RAISEonline is showing but I simply won’t allow this to obscure my judgement. If I did, then what is the point of even visiting the school in the first place? Invariably I leave the EF teaching box blank due to a lack of evidence but I know this may displease the lead inspector who by this stage may be doubting my credentials.

So whilst we wait for the Think Tanks to arrive, here is what I would like to do. It’s remarkably simple. On day one, I want to sit in a room with samples of children’s books (or whatever else the school chooses to send me that best captures learning – coursework, profiles, devices, learning journals and so on). Leave me alone, immersed in the books, and within an hour or so I will know how well pupils learn. I will be able to evaluate progress, attainment, challenge, resilience, creativity, curriculum coverage, marking and feedback. The list goes on. I can then have a look at the teachers’ own assessment data to corroborate it. If the teachers’ assessments match what’s in the books then I’m pretty confident at being able to come to a view as to what teaching (and learning) is like over time. Senior leaders can then join the discussion so that together we can come to an agreement on what the narrative is telling us. In short, we let the books tell the story of the school. Indeed, the best schools will already have done this and can then show me their own similar evaluations, confirming at the same time that leadership and management are both strong. The remainder of day one can then be spent talking to children about their books and walking around school with them looking at their displays and learning walls. It doesn’t take long to determine how confident and effective a child is at learning by spending time with them. All of this will provide me with invaluable evidence to confirm what I’ve seen in books and on the walls throughout the school.

With this in place, day two can then be used proportionately to spend time observing lessons to verify what’s been seen in books and from discussions with learners and leaders. I no longer need to ask the head to show me where the best teaching is as I now already know. When I’m in the classroom the teacher should know what the outcomes in their books are telling me so any judgement on teaching will not come as a shock as it won’t be based on performance whilst I’m in the room. It will also make clear the difference between judging teaching over time based on learning as opposed to the teacher’s performance in the lesson. Most importantly though, it takes away the pressure on the teacher to ‘showcase’ or get out the bells and whistles.

So whilst Ofsted appear to be in a conciliatory mood, let’s use this time to have intelligent discussions about the purpose of inspection and the role lesson observations can play. If during this period we happen to agree upon a definition of learning and what it looks like in a classroom, even better. Ofsted’s obsession with observing lessons is miss-placed in an organisation conceived almost a quarter of a century ago. A lot has changed since then and we’ve all become a lot more sophisticated about how we go about coming to professional opinions about how good our schools are. We certainly need a lot less sledgehammer. We want to be subtle but at the same time obvious. The novelist and poet Oliver Goldsmith got it just about right. “Subtlety may deceive you. Integrity never will.”

Firm Foundations

A guest post by @claireupton, EYFS leader @VicParkAcademy

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

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

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

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

Confessions of a Former KS2 teacher

A guest post by Claire Eades, teacher @VicParkAcademy

I have an awful confession to make: I was once an Early Years and Key Stage One detractor. Until I walked into Victoria Park four years ago, the overwhelming majority of my teaching career had been played out in upper Key Stage Two classrooms, then my spiritual home and comfort zone, where I could converse with children in my own voice and expect independence – and certainly no snotty noses (or worse). I confess that in my ghastly ignorance I looked down at the staff who took on these seemingly feral small children and I scoffed at their seemingly low expectations: the phrase “Oh but the little ones can’t do that” heard so often in training sessions and staff meetings, summed up for me all that I deplored about them. What did these people actually do? Surely they weren’t really teaching, not like the ‘proper’ teaching that I was doing?! As I write this now, I feel such shame for ever having been so arrogant and foolish, for disparaging colleagues, for being so judgemental about something of which I knew nothing. I shudder at my conceit and that of former upper Key Stage Two colleagues who shared these disgraceful thoughts. I write this blog now as one who has atoned for her sin and who is now a fully fledged convert to the joys of teaching in these phases. I want to share my experiences and my journey of discovery not only to cleanse my professional soul but also to highlight the fact that I believe that all teachers, detractors or not, should experience what I have experienced in order to become better practitioners. I also want to show that a school which embraces the ethos of creativity and a child led approach, such as Victoria Park Primary Academy, would never nurture such a warped view of teaching and learning.

Frankly, I would have cleaned the toilets at Victoria Park if that had been the only work available, so keen was I to be a part of the school. Luckily, the toilets weren’t beckoning but a Year One class was. I was terrified and horrified at the prospect of having to become one of ‘them’ but the then deputy head persuaded me to give it a trial period of a week – I think that cleverly she knew that it wouldn’t take any longer for me to change my mind. At the end of day one I said an emphatic ‘no’ but by day four I was begging for the job. How could you have been so readily converted, I hear you cry, you must have had the convictions of a weasel! It is hard to explain the turnaround but it was an enormous shock to me that I could actually enjoy the experience. The children were full of enthusiasm and energy and they brought out my own exuberance. As the term progressed, I soon realised that they would rise to any challenge put in front of them, that if the bar was raised they would meet it and that expectations could be as appropriately high as in any other setting. Their yearning to learn was infectious and they brought so much of themselves to the learning experience. My fears soon turned into dreams that maybe I was meant to teach this age group. The transformation was as thorough and sincere as it was fast. To watch a child first learn to read and write and understand mathematical concepts is a moving and privileged experience and one from which I have derived the most pleasure in my working life. To facilitate it is more rewarding and joyful than I can ever explain – these moments are why I became a teacher and I found that working in Year One afforded me so many more.

So this September, when I faced the prospect of becoming a Reception teacher – one that would have previously filled me with dread – I embraced it with open arms. I was aware that I would need to change my mindset even further in order to do the job: however, this has been made easier because working at Victoria Park has mutated my professional DNA, adapting my beliefs and practice to the environment in which I work. Across the school and the curriculum, creativity, independence and a child led approach are key. The children I guide through their learning experience are at the centre of everything and right from nursery they are equipped with the right tools with which they can build their own path. Aged 3 or 11, our children are explorers and pioneers, learning through technology, play and experience. Yes, I have sat in meetings and thought ‘The little ones can’t do that’ and can understand now why it is said so often but the atmosphere in which I work would never leave it at that. There is a ‘have a go’ approach in the school which encourages creativity in the staff and a desire to find a way that works for all the children. Risk takers aren’t derided or frowned upon, new ideas are explored and positivity is the norm. Like early years children, staff are supported and encouraged to embrace all opportunities and shape their own learning. My experiences in this phase and Year One are a reflection of the model of the school as I have explored my potential without fear or barriers and with a sense of anything being possible. My whole outlook has been framed anew.

So I say to anyone who thinks as I did, go down to the younger classes – find out what it is that they do and break down any prejudices that blind you. Open your eyes and hearts: the staff there do amazing things and deserve respect. Become a convert, a zealot even, and return to Key Stage Two, preaching and proselytizing until all ages are served as well by their teachers as the younger children are by theirs. I am lucky to work in an enlightened school that already knew this and turned it into a mission to provide children of all ages with an education that is fun, immersive, purposeful and personalised. It has played a crucial part in my professional development, making me a better teacher and, yes, a better person: I have learnt that the only little person that couldn’t do something was me and I am grateful for the chance to have done something about it.