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Chasing the ace

ace bet business cardThis year, the annual SSAT national conference has a timely and uplifting theme: Pure imagination. Taking place over two days at the ICC in Birmingham, I was delighted to be invited to kick off the conference with a nine-minute talk. This is what I said:

Imagine if, after all this time we’ve been chasing the wrong ace. And imagine if the ace we should have been chasing is so powerful that if we were able to play it, it would trump everything. What if I told you that we all hold that ace, but do so in a deck that’s been shuffled so many times – often beyond our control – that we’ve lost sight of it. We no longer know it’s there.

Flip it

Before I share with you what I believe that ace to be, imagine if as leaders we could flip the system. We need to take back control of the agenda as system leaders and define for ourselves what we mean by sustainable school improvement. We need a system that operates from within – an inside-out approach – where schools and their community work together to decide what their core purpose is and how best to evaluate this. We no longer need to rely on being told what is best for our pupils from forces beyond our schools.

Can you imagine if we could look at our schools through a different set of lenses that enabled us to perceive our schools in a better way. Our beliefs are simply perceptions of reality, and so by wearing these lenses it allows us to see clearly what we believe to be right and proper, regardless of whatever somebody else may think from outside the organisation. For too long, we’ve been forced to look at our schools through the lens of an external regulator, and as a result, our perception of reality has been skewed. It’s time to recalibrate.

Imagine if we really could transform our schools by flipping the system and that we could do so in a way that is wholesome, values-led and worthwhile, without giving two hoots about Ofsted. I wrote a book about this once and in it I concluded that the best leaders understand the need to wear a number of very different lenses. I’m going to share one of them briefly with you now.

Wear the right lens

It’s called the telescopic lens, and is perhaps the most important one of them all, for this is the lens that will help you reveal the ace. I would put it to you that we’ve all been looking at our schools through a telescope for a number of years, but unfortunately through the wrong end. As a result, we’ve been reduced to seeing our world through a narrow hole and are focusing on the wrong things. We are not seeing the big picture.

Flip the lens around, and your perception of reality changes. When used correctly, a whole new vista opens up. As with any telescope, if you use it indoors in confined spaces when things are too close up, reality will look blurred. Your perception will become distorted. A wise leader knows this and so strives always to climb high and scans not only the distant horizon, but also penetrates deep into the surrounding local community a lot closer to home.

And it is here where we’ll find the elusive ace. As a headteacher for almost two decades, I was sick of being judged as to how good I was based solely on my ability year-on-year to eke out an extra half of a percentage point here or there. There must be a better way.

Thankfully, I believe that there is, and although it starts from deep within our schools, the solution lies out there in the heart of our school communities.

The ace, revealed

It is called social capital, and this, colleagues, is your ace. By increasing the amount of social capital (or resources) each of our family members own, in so doing we increase their power and agency. The more social capital a parent has, the more connections they make and their sense of belonging within the community increases. They become more advantaged.

More importantly, they become less disadvantaged. This is important, as it now gives them a much-needed foot onto the social ladder so that they can make better choices and appear more desirable to trade with. For many of our parents – especially those new to the country, seeking asylum and unable to speak English – this represents a huge step. The problem we find in a number of schools though, especially in more deprived areas, is that quite often, parents don’t even have a ladder to climb in the first place. Therein, lies the challenge.

Imagine the difference it would make having families that engage meaningfully with the school? Not just participate and take part – things such as assemblies and school productions, but deep, meaningful engagement at an emotional and intrinsic level.

Imagine what you could do as a teacher, if every child came to school highly motivated and wanting to learn, who were supported and encouraged at home by family members, who valued the importance of education and bought in to the school’s vision.

Imagine if these families themselves then became released from the poverty trap because your school increased their social capital. Imagine if these parents were then able to get jobs as a result of greater self-esteem, confidence, power and agency. Imagine how this would impact on the children that come to your school.

Social breakdown?

But it’s not that simple. According to a recent New Policy Institute report, one in five of the population are living in poverty. This is a shocking and damning statistic. This means that at any one time, six children in a typical classroom are living in poverty. Just think about that.

Quite rightly, Amanda Spielman has raised some serious concerns earlier this week, about the lack of support children are getting from home and are coming to school overweight and unprepared for learning. This is nothing new. Only five years ago, Sir Michael Wilshaw made similar claims. We were on the verge of ‘social breakdown,’ he said. And yet here we are in 2018 saying the same thing all over again.

Nothing has changed, and it’s only going to get worse. We need to act now.

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The lost generation

These parents it seems have become a lost generation and they need our help. For many of them they are socially immobile. We perhaps only need to take such decisive action the once; the next generation I believe are all accounted for, as we have them safely tucked up in our schools. We know that these young people are well-placed to become future changemakers. Their social mobility is, by and large, locked in and assured, providing of course we are able to release the social capital for their parents.

But for our very youngest children, those starting out in primary school especially, in times of great uncertainty and austerity, never before has there been such an urgent need for schools to step up and stand out as the key driver for social change.

So here is my challenge to you: Imagine if our children came to school loaded with social capital. Mums, dads, aunties, uncles, all massively in credit and willing and able to exchange resources with each other, especially trading it up for cultural capital.

Grasp the nettle

Research has shown time and time again that when it comes to increasing a child’s life chances at school, it’s often what goes on outside the classroom in the local community and family home that has the greatest impact. Yes, I accept that a lot of this is beyond our control. But that must not detract us from trying.

It takes a bold leader to grasp this nettle and goes against all that we perceive to be true as we become entangled with an inspection framework that often detracts us from doing the right things. To many of us, our logical brain tells us that the only ace worth chasing is the one to do with inspection judgements. After all, it’s often only by wearing the right Ofsted badge that we are guaranteed a job.

But thankfully colleagues, when it comes to making bold and imaginative decisions, logic doesn’t always come into it. As a certain Albert Einstein once said, ‘Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.’

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Thanks to Andrea Stephens (@andream656) and Paul Foster (@pjf_paul) for the pics.

You can read more about my thoughts on social capital in a previous post here. I’ll be following this up in the new year with some practical examples of how schools can release social capital.

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A girl like Daisy

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Today is a sad day. One of our children will get told this afternoon by a social worker that she’s being moved away to a new foster carer.

As I type at 10am on a Friday morning, she knows nothing about this. But when she leaves school to break up for half term, she won’t be returning again. She won’t get to say goodbye to her teachers. She won’t get to say goodbye to her friends.

Into the blue again

Let’s call her Daisy. It’s an appropriate name because every child loves playing with daisies. Everyone knows a Daisy and most likely you’ve taught one just like her. Daisy chains are made the world over and young children love nothing more than making one for a grown up or friend. For me, daisies are always a welcome sign that the dark nights are over and spring is in the air, along with the much anticipated smell of the first cut of fresh grass.

But not in Daisy’s case. Today, her world will be over. Her chain will be broken once again as she becomes a lost link in a society that continues to abandon her.

Daisy is 8 years old. Without going in to too much detail, she was taken away from her parents two years ago for crimes done unto her that are unimaginable. She was removed into care and more recently lived with a local foster family who no longer feel they can look after her. As a result, this afternoon Daisy will be moved to a town 30 miles away with no going back.

Under the rocks and stones

The teachers and support staff at the school are in bits. They know they can’t do or say anything for Daisy because it must remain confidential until the social worker takes her to one side this afternoon and whisks her away. They want to give her a teddy but can’t, although I’m sure they’ll manage to slip it by her on the way out.

It is desperately sad and brings into stark focus the reality of the job that teachers and support staff deal with on a daily basis. At times like this, you don’t give two hoots about league tables, SATs results, pupil progress, Ofsted etc. All that matters is the wellbeing of a young child. Failing to hit targets doesn’t particularly bother me in the least. But when it comes to failing a child, it really hits home.

I’ve just got off the phone with the headteacher. They are frantically trying to halt proceedings, at least to ensure a proper school-to-school transition so that Daisy remains with her friends as she settles into her new home. With the clock ticking, and an inadequate children’s services, we are not holding our breath.

Letting the days go by

As we approach half term (and for some of you, it’s coming to a close), spare a thought for Daisy next week. She is all alone. She has no brothers or sisters, aunties or uncles, mum or dad. From today, she no longer has any friends, a school or home. Nothing whatsoever, other than the teddy bear that one of the staff can hopefully sneak into her book bag as she walks out the door one final time.

And as Daisy starts her life all over again, standing lost in the playground on her first day in a new school, in a new town, with new carers, Daisy won’t be alone. There will be hundreds of girls like Daisy (and boys) all over the country in similar positions, rejected, abandoned, moved on.

Daisy won’t know it, but she’ll have more people gunning for her than she could ever dare to imagine.

Having had the privilege of working in so many brilliant schools, what I find re-assuring is that I am confident that Daisy will be in expert hands the minute she walks into school. Her new teacher will welcome her with a big smile and embrace her into the warmth of the classroom. As you read this, it may even be you.

Hopefully, if it is, you won’t bat an eyelid about where Daisy is in regard to ‘expected’ or ‘greater depth’ or whether she’s a ‘rapid grasper’ or a ‘pupil premium’. These are all meaningless labels for a child like Daisy, but then you know that already.

Same as it ever was

I’m not entirely sure why I find myself typing this now on a Friday morning. I guess I ought to be doing more important stuff like writing the annual report for the trust accountants or filling forms out for new funding. There’s also a DfE return that I’ve got to send off showing how much value I’ve added as an NLE.

But all that can wait. It seems so unimportant now. I suppose in some small way this is a silent protest in tribute to all the other Daisys that are out there, whilst at the same time serving as a sad testimony to the many children that society continues to fail.

It is not the first time that this has happened and it won’t be the last. Nothing ever really seems to change and it’s hard to apportion blame other than to the abusive parents. But by then of course it’s too late, the damage is already done.

Once in a lifetime

A little part of me hopes that one day, perhaps 20 or 30 years from now, Daisy will stumble across this post, show it to her husband and grown-up kids, and say, “I was like that once. That could have been me.” Daisy will then smile and think back to her time at school and exclaim, “But look at me now! I’ve got a lovely family, a great job, a beautiful house, and all because my teachers never once gave up on me.”

Deluded? Quite possibly. But all the while there are children out there like Daisy, we must never give up.

 

[Postscript. School has now finished for half-term. The children have gone home, except for Daisy, who sits in a room wondering what comes next. The social worker is late and has failed to turn up.]

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Hands up for Ofsted!

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There will come a time when we’ll all look back and ask ourselves, how on earth did we allow it to go on for so long? Ofsted have been around now for over a quarter of a century and still the debate rages on about their role.

There can’t be many organisations who, during a 25-year period, have changed their ‘product’ quite as much as Ofsted. Apple iPhones come to mind as do premier league clubs and their football kits. But with Ofsted, despite the continued conveyor belt of new-and-improved frameworks, it’s still the same old beast. One of these days, I like to think the inspectorate will finally get it right. I’m reminded of Trigger’s old broom, the same one he’s had for years with 17 new heads and 14 new handles.

What we need though is a new broom, one that we get to sweep ourselves. Unfortunately, Ofsted remain as resolute as ever, despite not seeming to be able to agree for longer than two or three years at a time as to what our schools should look like. We do though; the best school leaders know exactly what a great school looks like, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to count.

I’ve worked with and met dozens of brilliant leaders across the country who are so expert at education that I feel unfit at times to tie their boots. People who have a track record to die for, who have created fabulous learning environments for children from all four corners of the world. Teachers and leaders, that day-in-day-out, continue to transform the lives of young people in the toughest of communities.

These people give their lives to the job and represent the most creative, passionate and inspirational people I know.

So here’s something controversial. Why not just let these people have a go at evaluating how good our schools are, perhaps through an accredited national peer-review model? Why not trust them to visit our schools and tell it how it is? We learn this weekend, following a FOI request, that Ofsted would rather fast-track 25 rookie inspectors to go into our schools on a short inspection than reach out to experienced school leaders who can tell how good a school is with their eyes closed. I know who I’d rather have in one of my schools.

Here’s the funny thing: If NLEs or experienced school leaders were given the reins it probably wouldn’t be any better than Ofsted. Any system that relies on people’s opinions will always be flawed. But with no grades, or high stakes, at least the system will be authentic, kind, purposeful, relevant and humane. I can just about live with that. I’m sure you can too.

So who out there really and truly believes that Ofsted in its current form adds value? By value, I mean thirty million pounds a year worth of value. I’m talking value that makes a real difference to the children in the classroom. We all know of teachers who are highly proficient at appearing to be discharging a duty i.e. teaching. But does it lead to anything? Does it add value? Are the children learning anything? Possibly not. So as much as Ofsted fulfil a mechanistic role that requires them to spend a few hours in a school in order to assign a series of numbers from 1-4, does it make a difference?

If we abolished Ofsted tomorrow would parents be bothered? I have yet to meet any prospective parent who has decided to send their child to any one of my schools because of the Ofsted grade. By and large, parents simply don’t do this. All they want is a school that is close to home and that their children are safe, happy and cared for.

In my 12 years as head of Victoria Park Academy in the West Midlands, I have never shown a parent round who was thinking of attending the school and was comparing it with another. If there was a vacancy, they were in, regardless of the Ofsted grade.

Even the DfE’s own data confirms that less than one-third of parents take an Ofsted report into account when choosing a school. Almost three-quarters of them instead rely on gut feeling based on visiting the school. In a 2014 survey by NASUWT, only 39% of parents were persuaded by the latest Ofsted report when choosing their child’s school. Location came top, with two-thirds listing this as their main priority. Interestingly, in the same survey, the school’s league-table position was in the bottom five with only 21% of parents being swayed.

Even worse from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in 2012: On a scale of 1-10 (10 being high), parents were asked which from a list of 15 factors influenced their decision when choosing a new school. Once again, location was ranked top (a mean score of 7.2). Ofsted only managed 11th with a score of 5.5.

So it seems that those people whose well-earned taxes are paying for the Ofsted reports clearly don’t read them. Neither it seems, do teachers when deciding where to work.

In a highly scientific Twitter poll earlier this week, I asked: ‘When applying for a new post, what most influences you when choosing where to work?’ As with parents, location came out top at 48%. Next came pay/promotion (38%), with the Ofsted report/grade coming last at only 5%. I am concluding from this, that for a whopping 95% of you, Ofsted add nothing of value when choosing a school.

So, if neither parents or teachers care much for Ofsted’s view, why do we need them? In this week’s Guardian, I once again made the claim that Ofsted need to scrap the grades. Given that the majority of schools are all G2 anyway, what’s the point? It tells parents nothing; there is a world of difference between a G2 that is barely RI and a G2 that is knocking on the door of outstanding.

Once again, what is the point? Being good means nothing. As I said in the article, I can live with Ofsted separating the 4s from the rest, based on accountability measures and safeguarding etc. It’s only right and proper that these schools get picked up by HMI.

But as for the rest of the schools, please, please for once, trust those that lead them and give them the credit they deserve. Have faith, that as a profession we can continue to build world-class schools, without the need for a national inspectorate.

If we scrapped inspections tomorrow, would the whole house of cards come crashing down around us? Would standards go into meltdown? Of course not. Who knows, we might just be able to cope without Ofsted. Now wouldn’t that be controversial?

(With thanks to @Mktadvice4schls for signposting the surveys referred to above.)

The Imitation Game: Tackling Social Mobility

Finding the time to read governmental reports is something I’m not good at. So I made a big effort over the break to get to grips with one that I’ve been carrying around with me since its publication last Autumn. It’s called Cracking the code: how schools can improve social mobility. Produced by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission it paints a bleak picture in terms of the life chances of those children who are disadvantaged. As a white British, free-school meal, summer-born boy myself who grew up on a council estate in a coastal town, I read with interest that I should at worse be in prison and at best living in Benefits Street. The fact that I’m able to write this now should merit much mirth and mayhem. Continue reading

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.