“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.

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A life in the week of….

This job continues to be a roller coaster. Last week was no exception:

Monday: Met with two students whom I am currently mentoring as part of our intervention programme. They are both delightful but at risk of under-achieving. We discussed how last week had gone and agreed some priorities for the week ahead. I still smile at times with the role of senior management mentoring. I remember evaluating an intervention programme a few years ago to see the impact that had been made by various forms of mentoring. Outcomes – form tutors most effective, SMT least effective. mmm. This was followed later by a meeting with the chair of governors to agree the agenda for next week’s governing body meeting. Developing the relationship with governors is one of the challenges for a new head but I am pleased that already there are a number of developments and initiatives that have been created through our governors.

Tuesday: We had a photographer in school all day to update the images we have available as part of the redesign of our website. We have launched a new parent site, but the school site has been in need of an overhaul and so I was pleased to see this move on. Lots of activities were taking place and we finished the day with some personal shots that I hope are not too cheesy! In the space in between was another meeting with a governor with a focus on assessment, updates from the business manager and a difficult meeting. Staff meetings at the end of the day were set up to allow different task groups to develop action research work that is feeding into our school development plan.

Wednesday: Another meting with a governor, this time with a focus upon marketing and promotion. We discussed the core messages we have been promoting and further strategies to communicate with parents and other partners. These kind of meetings are the best, when the challenge and the support operate together so that by the end of the meeting everyone feels that we have moved to new ground. I said farewell to a member of staff who is leaving us as a teaching assistant to start training as a teacher. A fine compliment to the teachers who work here and have shown what a great job it can be. We also had an athlete in school, promoting sporting activity and encouraging the students to commit themselves to success. A lovely day with a really positive feel – especially when I ended it at as a parent at my own child’s parents’ evening.

Thursday: Lesson visits and some further meetings, looking at progress with performance management and our IT infrastructure. The day ended with a staff meeting for the nursery. As a principal I have the honour of the responsibility for a nursery of over 14 staff and more than a hundred children on roll. It was a late night but again a great day.

Friday: The day began with a presentation to a group of year nine students who were interested in choosing performing arts subjects for GCSE. It was another opportunity to talk to students about what they want to achieve and how they want to get there. The best part of the job.

A week with plenty of variety, ending on Friday night with a treat of going to the comedy festival. Time to start thinking of winding down.

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….

#Nurture14/15

A year of some frustration, of celebration, and of moving on to new things. Pretty much like most other teachers then.

The best moments of 2014 include the following:

1. Seeing the first year group successfully develop through the year seven curriculum that I had instigated. The congratulations must go to the team of dedicated staff who have worked incredibly hard over the past two years to bring to life the principles we established when our key stage three was first discussed. We had seen students coming to our key stage four lacking the skills and understanding that we wanted to have in place to ensure success and aspiration. We planned and put in place something that suited our need. I was lucky to have a group of people who wanted to be part of planning an alternative approach. Watching the students develop through the first year of the project and embark with confidence on the second year, and seeing their excitement about learning compared to the students who joined us from their traditional route in years nine and ten have left me in no doubt that we have done well for our students.

2. Teaching Latin. As part of the approach embraced by our key stage three team, I took the opportunity to take more risks in my own classroom and set challenges for my students throughout each project. Not only did students demonstrate that extended writing and confident use of technical terminology was an expectation by all students at all times, they also embraced new challenges. The work we undertook arising from our class text of “Aquila” led to conjugation of Latin verbs, exploration of the evolution of language and whole class teaching of new vocabulary. I loved it, the students loved it and it lasted.

3. Moving to my first headship. Whilst sad to leave the developments at my previous school, I had felt for quite some time that I needed to establish myself in a role where I could be confident that leadership decisions were ones about which I could feel wholly committed. I believe it is essential to build a consultative and open approach to school development and am keen to develop this further. Involvement of all staff in moving a school on? Absolutely. Expensive management consultants? No thank you.

4. Moments of collective support. It is clear that the staff at my new school have faced a challenge over the past couple of years. To see support from each other to each other developing over the last half term is testament to their willingness to move things forward and also I hope something to which I have been able to contribute. I do not want to be in a school where SLT are not trusted. It is an area into which I have put a lot of effort and I am committed to it continuing.

Wishes for 2015:

1. The end of the free school programme. Poisonous and underhand. Opaque and partial. This strategy has led to local instabilities, but more significantly, a national blurring of educational priorities where structures and organisation are seen as more important than good teaching. A desperate situation now exists for education and we need to re-establish a grip.

2. A thorough review of the effectiveness of examination boards. The perception that teachers were the root of the problem in “gaming the system” led to a shift of focus away from the alarming inaccuracies and incompetence of examining boards. I have never had such little faith that any of my students will have accurate results. Having also seen specific students’ examination papers from last summer, I can not see how the poor organisation and lack of effective checking can continue to be tolerated.

3. Developing the professional respect towards teachers. Teachers taking control of their classrooms. Teachers allowed to teach and develop without the creative manacles of unimaginative monitoring and checking approaches.

4. Clarity soon about the GCSE and A level regime. I have got a school full of children who will embark upon them. They do not deserve to be let down by poor implementation.

5. Proper accountability for MATs and academies. It’s chaos out (t)here and too many leaders have taken the golden shilling rather than stand up for their students and staff. Reading the EFA on the Cambridgeshire school made me want to weep.

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.