Heads held high? – hopes for 2016

Over a year in post now and nearly every day has been an adventure. I waited for quite some time before becoming a head, with five years as a deputy in an inner city school and ten as a vice principal in a large secondary.

The last year has given me the chance to take risks and I have not had to feel like I have to succumb to the fear of OFSTED. Two inspections with strong outcomes in just over a year for different aspects of our provision mean that we can continue to get on with it.

Developing excellent practice must mean enabling all within the school. I am still seeing a small number of heads who insist on purple pen, who insist on leading through a culture of fear and most depressingly, heads who take satisfaction in accepting inflated rates of pay after academisation and yet create only a bubble of self importance.

As heads we need to ensure that teachers have the freedom to develop learning that is thorough and inspirational. This just can not be done within cultures of “consistency” or “accountability” as most of the time this means a grey and safe and dull diet for all.

The last year has been spent developing a curriculum and learning that leads students to be successful learners. This is through a combination of clear skills and knowledge. The sterility of prose descriptors can only be tackled through exemplification and we have been busy developing portfolios of work that shows what students should be expected to produce when starting new projects or tasks. For this, Daisy Christodoulou has been a helpful voice, though I don’t buy into a complete facts, facts, facts curriculum.

I do not get the assessment models in some schools that have stood still and pretended that the curriculum has remained the same. Nor where they start year seven students on GCSE assessment grades. It is reductive and based solely upon the fear of “demonstrating” to others where students are. Weaker teachers may welcome it as it provides a ladder of assessment, but we have had our fill of learning ladders.

I hope that in my school we allow students to learn in depth, to explore ideas and to become thoroughly confident with knowledge and concepts. They don’t need practice in GCSE grades.

We make mistakes all the time, but that is what I want. Teachers and students who are willing to test out ideas, get them wrong and then revisit and get it right.

There is so much to be excited about and so much to lead upon that I have become more impatient with heads who take the route of least resistance to OFSTED, by focusing upon “accountability” rather than real learning.

I hope that heads look to the lead of many who blog, who tweet and who share their approaches for learning. I have learnt so much from them. I hope that the proportion of heads who have looked for quick personal wins hang their heads, but then more importantly, change their ways and do something really good for students and teachers.

Working with parents

It was a good opportunity to meet with parents at parents’ evenings this week. The interface between school and home is such an important area for developing relationships and I have been putting a lot of effort into this aspect over the last few months. We are redeveloping our website, have already launched a new portal for parents, redesigned the reporting system and I present a weekly update to parents on the news at the school and upcoming events.

Responses from parents have been positive so far, but there still remains a number of the hard to reach. One of the most effective strategies has been the unremitting commitment of our staff of our intervention team to contact parents in the build up to parents’ evenings so that at the last parents’ evening we had nearly a full house. Great news.

In November I held a forum with parents to hear their views and to be able to include them in the consultation on the the school action plan. I was pleased also to meet with individual parents but finding ways to continue the dialogue now that I am no longer new remains important.

Two way dialogue via our website and portal is the next challenge, as well as investing more energy on the parents who need encouraging to be actively involved in the partnership – this includes the wary, the nervous and also the challenging!

“It’s all about the student, stupid”

If a student shows you their book, full of errors at the beginning, but becoming more controlled, sophisticated and with those errors corrected, would you be pleased? What if there were no teacher comments or evidence of marking in front of you? Is that poor? Is successful learning judged by thoughtful intervention or hours of teacher comments?

I am working this through with colleagues at the moment, partly in response to the demands in some schools by SLT for evidence of teacher impact being judged through the weight of marking. Book not marked in the last three pages? Not acceptable. No evidence of “two stars and a wish”? Not acceptable.

This grinds teachers down. It grinds them down in only the way that SLT with little imagination know how. The focus is unfortunately not upon what the student can do and what they have shown they can develop, but how many comments, targets, pointers or recipes for chutney can be found in the teacher’s distinctive purple pen.

More schools need an approach that is much more smart and is built upon interventionist and planned feedback, rather than a tyranny of ticks and targets.

OFSTED admissions

Sean Harford’s response to Tom Sherrington’s criticism of OFSTED inspections has resulted in this refreshing admission about inspectors:

the weakest ones have been guilty of using the published data as a safety net for not making fully-rounded, professional judgements based on the school’s own information, work in books/folders over time, progress seen across year groups/classes, the attitudes to learning of pupils, improvements to teaching following focused CPD etc.

I said in “That was the term that was” that my view of OFSTED was that they were variable in their approach. I have seen very recently a critical OFSTED report on a school I know based upon this very approach – a focus upon one set of data that has then prevented getting a really thorough view of provision at the school.

I do not think that the removal of what was seen as “preferred styles of teaching” led by bloggers such as @oldandrewuk has helped resolve the situation. What has seemed to emerge is a removal of the ‘safety net’ that so many OFSTED inspectors relied upon and as a result a number seem to be making it up as they go along.

The more open approach is absolutely necessary, but to expect that our OFSTED colleagues could adapt to the new regime is perhaps as hopeful as expecting that all dogs will behave when off the leash. Some schools have been bitten and some have just been lucky to have a cuddly wet nose….

Without the rain there would be no rainbow.

0c1cc4199f461edfdab6a9dc208d97150678004aI have had a fantastic first half term as principal with the opportunity to shape and define the future for my school. It was always going to be a challenge, arriving half way through a term, where routines had been established, priorities shared and expectations in place.

There are, however, a significant number of issues that I have been able to already establish as a focus for my work and the direction of the school. There had been a break in the presence of a full-time substantive principal at the school for well over a year. With the previous principal not having been in school for a lengthy period of time, there has been difficult challenges for the school to face. A leadership team that was not complete and had also been faced with other long term absences meant that capacity was seriously stretched and clarity of direction had been difficult to communicate and embed.

I was really grateful for the welcome I received from my new colleagues, but had little time to establish new procedures before OFSTED arrived (read here) and then started to really be able to collect in my own evidence about the circumstances of the school and how we needed to move on. I moved my office to the heart of the school and made some other minor adjustments which were quick fixes but also were greeted positively by students and staff. The leadership team did need some restructuring as in the pressure of the previous twelve months the team had taken a collective role in leading the school, but with us now back at full capacity, we needed to have clear accountability and leadership. Clear agendas and communication were essential to re-establish an open approach to leadership as also was my decision to hold on to the development groups established by the senior team at the end of the previous academic year in order to demonstrate my confidence in them to all staff.

Ending the term with a celebration of students’ achievements, a musical concert and a warm atmosphere at the staff gathering on the Friday has left me with a glow.

I have tried to stick to the principles I outlined in “Moving On” and although I have a lot to do over the next week before we start the new term, I have some satisfaction in being able to stick to my principles. This has been such a refreshing change after what has been at times in my past a rather frustrating existence as a senior leader with a lot of the accountability but not control of the direction.

I asked a number of middle leaders to take responsibility for key areas of the college’s work and this has also helped to bring consistency to the college. Another challenge has also been to redraw the areas of responsibility for the governing body so that communication and accountability were also more clear. There will be lots more to achieve next term and there are still some problems where I am looking at a number of potential solutions, but nevertheless I am looking forward to it.

I would have liked to have changed a small number of ways that I have approached challenges this term. I think there was room for more significant culture shifts in some areas, but also a need to lay more ground work before doing others. However, I am learning and changing my practice as I go.

Roll on next term.

That was the term that was

OFSTED came and went and we have got on with the business of education. I have always found OFSTED teams to be a variable bunch, some individuals excellent, challenging me to consider how we can best improve our provision, others with whom I have enjoyed debate and disagreement and some unfortunately who have their own agenda and a need to prove themselves.
I don’t disagree with the need for external moderation and challenge of a senior team’s judgement and provision, but the current system does remain flawed.
However, the system is as it is and at present we need to work with the teams who are guests in our school. If we are ill prepared for a rigorous debate and assessment then we do our staff and students no favours at all.

Responsibility and Mocksteds

So, having had our own OFSTED experience last week (and I am awaiting the soft fall of the draft into my inbox tomorrow) we now need to consider how to ensure that we continue to move forward in the school and across our partnership.

I believe it is vital that senior leadership teams face challenging questions from their peers so that we can always ensure that we are not becoming complacent, lacking in direction, or heading off to disaster. A partnership between a group of schools can be the best and most supportive way to approach this and I am very much looking forward to developing the partnership so that we can support each other. Tough questions from senior leaders to senior leaders, with the aim of seeking improvement.

The threat for senior leaders is that the spectre of OFSTED leads to a fear and thus a preparation for that means that school improvement activities become a rehearsal of the event itself, rather than more effective self-evaluation. This is where Mocksteds can be suggested as the “best preparation” for senior leaders to have to prepare their schools.

It’s not. Mocksteds are the best preparation for senior leaders to pretend to be OFSTED inspectors. That’s not our job. We should welcome external accountability, but should not ape those for our own approaches to leadership and management.

This is the issue that those that promote Mocksteds miss – OFSTED do not lead and manage schools. We do.

We need to build trust and ensure that in every classroom and for every student, the focus is upon developing knowledge, skills and understanding. That approach is not best served by OFSTED style learning walks and lesson observations, however well we believe we are accurate in our judgements. Instead it is best served through systems that allow growth and support for staff, systems that encourage risk taking and involvement and that celebrate new directions and even mistakes!

For senior teams to use an inspection model to support school development is questionable.

Classroom teachers work hard. They need senior teams to find ways to support their work. We don’t need Mocksteds that put classroom teachers under further pressure. It feels that using them is instead an abdication of our responsibility as senior leaders.