Category Archives: policy

The unbearable blindness of being: on data use from conception and beyond

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Photo credit: Penny Rabiger

There has been a public outcry recently about the idea of baseline tests for Reception-age children in English schools. Children seem to be increasingly reduced to data points. In general, we seem to be having a gradual realisation that all is not well with how data is being used about us, as seen with the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook debacle this week.

I have been thinking a lot about statistics, data and childhood from my own experience as a parent and thought it might be an interesting exercise to do a chronological walk through of some of the insights I have had. My basic understanding is that we use statistics and data to make all sorts of decisions, often guided by professionals, that sometimes seem to make no sense at all and at worst make us conform in a way that is simply wrong.

Conception and birth

If you know anything about conception and birth, you will know that statistical information guides so much of the experience in the Western world. Given my childhood experience, this started with my attention being drawn to the stark statistics around divorce. Since one in three marriages end in divorce I made a grim decision that whatever I do with regards relationships and family, I should never embark on anything that I can’t sustain alone should my relationship not succeed.

I was lucky enough to not have to think about the stats around being pregnant post-40 or have any particular difficulty getting pregnant, which would mean the heartache, angst and combined prayer and number crunching involved in IVF or similar assistance with getting pregnant and staying pregnant to term. But what I did experience with my second pregnancy was alarming enough.

In Israel, where I lived at the time, there are quite a large number of tests carried out during pregnancy, with the option of doing more should you wish to. I had all of the usual ultrasounds, and a blood test to determine the likelihood of certain genetic issues. I won’t go into all of the intimate details but from the get go, I wasn’t entirely sure that the calculation of what week I was in during pregnancy was correct. This became more acute when I had the blood test for common genetic disorders, which was cross-referenced with the latest ultrasound scan – and I was subsequently called to do a further blood test and finally to speak with a specialist at the genetic abnormalities clinic. All I knew before going into the appointment was that they had deemed the statistical chance of me having a baby with genetic abnormalities to be higher than average and they recommended amniocentesis. If you don’t know what this is (and I didn’t and had to quickly read up on it at the time), the basic information you need to know is that a trained medical professional will insert a long syringe through the abdomen into the womb and extract a tiny amount of amniotic fluid so that they can do analysis on the genetic make-up of the developing fetus.

What has all of this got to do with statistics? So here goes. The information that you glean about amniocentesis contains two sets of stats that you need to weigh up before you go ahead. One is the level of accuracy of the outcomes of the test, and two is the likelihood that you will miscarry as a result of infection or disturbance to the pregnancy. These were two scenarios I was going to be asked to consider when attending the consultation with the specialist. But a third, pivotal variable struck me. Was their original data on the likelihood of my unborn fetus having some kind of birth defect correct in the first place? And if it was, did it have any bearing on the statistical analysis they had presented me with?

I went into the meeting alone. My heart was pounding and I listened as best I could as they repeated that they advise amniocentesis and that the stats show that the situation doesn’t look great. I was determined to get to the bottom of how they make these calculations. I didn’t profess to know much about statistics, genetics or even pregnancy at this stage, but I knew that it was important to unpick the evidence and reassemble it so that I could make an informed decision.

They agreed to walk me through the methodology and that’s when the light went on. I asked questions and we ended up agreeing that a lot of it hinged on the calculation of the age of the fetus. My instinct was that the fetus I was carrying was in fact older than they had assumed by possibly up to two weeks. I had proof for this and asked the specialist if she could do some modelling based on the fetus’ age being one week and two weeks older. She disappeared for about 15 minutes and returned with a new spreadsheet, while I sat biting my nails waiting. Lo and behold, the statistical evidence showing that I should be having amniocentesis and that the baby could be born with genetic birth defects suddenly reduced and there I was again, safely within the ‘normal’ risk band.

I can’t really convey the drama of this experience but while it was happening, I felt like my life (more importantly that of my unborn child) absolutely hinged on getting this right. Imagine if I hadn’t questioned the statistics, hadn’t tried to understand where the evidence had come from and hadn’t insisted on interleafing it with contextual and qualitative personal evidence.

My daughter was born healthy, thank goodness. She arrived what was assumed to be a month early, jaundiced, but otherwise fully developed and not in need of specialist care other than invasive daily heel-prick tests for haemoglobin levels for two weeks. That made me think that I was probably right about the pregnancy being further along than assumed and that she wasn’t really that premature at all. We will never know.

Birth and the first year

The politics of childbirth needs a blog post in its own right – it’s nearly 13 years since I last gave birth and I am still psyching myself up for that one. There is much written about it based on research and real-life experiences of millions of women worldwide. It’s a statistical minefield combined with variables such as shift changes, risk management and more. One thing that I hear time and again, and was tripped up by myself, is the use of statistical tables to place newborns into percentiles. You only have to spend time with the people who have had babies at a similar time to you, to hear the competitive edge of statistics, measurements, milestones and comparisons being flung about right into their second and third year and beyond. “The baby’s in the 95th percentile!” (There’s always problematic gender-related subtext in there too – massive equals good, strong if it’s a boy, and nagging worry if it’s a girl that she might be obese, into childhood and adulthood).

There’s nothing wrong with this in itself and knowing ‘what’s normal’ is something we all find useful when trying to benchmark and make decisions accordingly – especially when you have no prior experience of a fragile newborn. But what I see time and again with new parents I know is this scenario:

  • Baby is born, the couple tells everyone two key pieces of statistical information – how long it took and the baby’s birth weight
  • The health visitor visits you at home and tells you the baby has lost too much weight after the birth and is now in x percentile
  • Health visitor says the baby probably ‘isn’t getting enough milk’ and that you should supplement with formula to hurry along replacing the lost weight
  • You are alarmed. You didn’t know babies lost weight after birth and it doesn’t sound good
  • You feel frustrated, the baby seems to be feeding constantly and the health visitor is now describing a path were your baby is in danger of slipping into the wrong percentile – perhaps this isn’t normal and you should speed them along as suggested
  • You acquiesce and start to bottle-feed between breast-feeding, which is a shame as you are just getting the hang of it. You are feeling a little inadequate and worried that your insistence on breast is best is naïve even though your NCT class said the statistics tell us this
  • Complications start, your baby seems to want bottle-feeding more than from source, fusses on the breast and does seem to sleep better and feeds less frequently when you bottle-feed – and baby is now climbing up the percentile charts again
  • A new statistic is born – not everyone can breast-feed and it is shown to be better to switch to bottle if the baby is ‘not thriving’ i.e. not staying within the percentiles that the health workers are using to benchmark your baby with

Faced with this information that my baby was shrinking, I was anxious but also wanted to know the facts. Where does the information come from for these percentiles? What about qualitative and family-specific information that we can cross reference with? What about the fact that the baby seems happy enough – or in my case not happy all the time but demand-feeding frequently and eventually became huge. Many health workers will supplement explanations like the baby is ‘lazy’, has a ‘weak latch onto the breast’, needs to be woken and fed and not demand-fed. We followed this waking and feeding advice and ended up with a huge, well-fed baby who had massive sleep issues potentially exacerbated because we were interfering with her sleep patterns to stuff her with mummy milk at every opportunity. Afterall, the percentiles were what we were trying to comply with.

If you scratch the surface, you can see where a lot of the data we use with regards babies, is deeply flawed. In this case, much of the percentile charts that are used, can come from the United States where babies are born bigger and are more likely to be bottle fed, or from WHO statistics or indeed locally produced versions.  What about common-sense factors like the physical make-up of each of you as the parents, your parents’ experience of you as a newborn, and so on. And what about time? Who says that these percentiles are accurate in terms of the time it takes to regain the weight lost by the baby after the birth and the time it takes to move up the already flawed charts?

One of the major factors that disturbs me with childbirth, newborn growth and later into schooling is how much of this is directly related to the health visitor, medical practitioner and education practitioners’ own performance management, and the statistical evidence that is provided as evidence of them doing a good job themselves?

Schooling and beyond

It’s no secret that our education system has become increasingly informed and driven by data. And like the health worker, educational professionals’ performance management dictates what is deemed success, more often than the practitioners’ own professional judgement. Evidence-informed decisions around what works are useful. But we haven’t really answered the question about what ‘what works’ actually means. In its most reductive sense it means, what gets them passing the tests and getting the set of qualifications that will best position them to earn well in adulthood.

Let’s start with choosing a school and the way in which many parents use publicly available evidence and data to do this. I wrote previously about this in my post about choosing a secondary school here. It is clear that the statistical evidence that parents use when choosing a primary or secondary school is deeply flawed in many ways.  Let’s look at each in turn:

Ofsted results – this is  a snapshot in time and the numerical result is usually where most parents start and finish. Delving into the last two or three reports is probably more useful, and then cross referencing the areas for improvement and quizzing the SLT about it when you visit the school might yield a much clearer picture. The truth is that most Outstanding and some Good rated schools haven’t had an Ofsted inspection for anywhere between 3 and 10 years. The leadership might well have changed at least once since the last inspection, or it might have stayed the same and potentially stagnated – and who knows what Ofsted would rate the school as today? At best, it’s a guide as to how well the school was able to get itself to the place where they were graded as such on that specific day in time and that is it.

League tables – it has been written about recently by Education Datalab that many selective schools are propped up by an entire army of private tutors. I believe that if we look into it, we might see that many Outstanding-rated primary and secondary schools are similarly reliant on parent-funded tutoring and extra-curricular activity to support a proportion of children reaching higher standards in their SATs, and GCSEs, as well as to keep them in top sets throughout their secondary education. It’s worth understanding if this is the case, that any decision you make will potentially require a financial investment if the levels of achievement aren’t being gained actually within the school day. Can you know this from looking at league tables?

Another thing about league tables is obviously the background information about cohort, intake, whether exam specs changed that year. League tables are based on one year of test and exam information. Who is to say that the school is able to repeat this year on year, and how are you able to know whether your child will be one of the successful top performers? And the key question is always, at what cost? Not just to your pocket but to your child’s own experience of learning as joyful and broad rather than stressful and narrowly channelled to SATs and GCSE success from the get-go. You only have to look at what is happening from year 7 and 8 in schools now as schools move to a 3 and 4 year GCSE pathway to ensure they get the results and hold their place in the league tables.

GCSE results – even if you feel comfortable with the different lines of reporting on secondary schools and delve into things like value added, are you able to discern what this actually means in terms of the qualitative journey of individuals within the school? Are you cross-referencing with exclusion levels, levels of deprivation, in-year movement of students, outcomes for different marginalised groups, what the outcomes are for all children – especially those of different socio-economic backgrounds to your own? Do you even care? Can you have any impact on this – by perhaps becoming a school governor?

The big question for me with all of the available data is not just what are my child’s chances of reaching their potential at the school of our choosing, but also what are the issues on a societal level that affect the school population and what can we do to help counter them for the good of all children at the school? Aside from this, I can see clearly that the data that people are relying on is too simplistic to be useful. This is especially so if the information is not cross-referenced with qualitative evidence only gleaned by visiting the school, getting involved in the local community and making a subjective guess-timate based on your knowledge of your own child now and what they might be like in years to come.

Data which informs and data which makes us conform

The problem with data is how we use it, and how it uses us. In many cases, use of data is a quick, lazy way to make decisions. Yet cross-referencing data with qualitative information is difficult to do if this is not available. We need to rely on our own enquiring minds, imagination and pushing the boundaries of what we think is true because it is fed to us by the media and political agendas. Data is useful, but extremely dangerous when not used to just to inform, but instead creates a systematic evidence base to make us conform for potentially the wrong reasons as explored in this post.

In the case of the newborn, our decisions can be narrowed down to a choice to hurry our baby along to the detriment of our own freedom of choice on feeding and submitting to a choice of pace that is dictated by statistics,  or a health visitors’ success-ranking criteria, rather than the facts before us.  In the case of choosing a school, I believe that data use and school choice can make us stunningly narrow-minded, selfish and irresponsible. Choosing the best for our child doesn’t often include a moral decision to ensure that through sending our child to their local school we can essentially be part of ensuring the success of the school for all its students.

Increasingly, we see a situation where data was once useful and ‘that which can be measured can be deemed important’, can quickly creep to ‘only that which can be measured is deemed important’ in decisions we take regarding childhood and education.

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Why be a governor?

BEST SCHOOL

This Saturday, the inimitable Raj Unsworth and I ran a session on thinking like a governor at the BAMEed Network conference in London. The session was aimed at anyone thinking about school governance, but in addition, was aimed at anyone thinking about BAME representation on school governing boards.

It is true of many governing bodies that they are made up of the usual ‘pale, male and stale’ volunteers. We shouldn’t overlook the great contribution governing bodies can make, whatever their make-up. However, to better reflect diversity in general or the school community and/or that of our country as a whole, if you are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background, this is your chance to help change this just by taking your rightful place around the table. Of course, you should not be expected to represent and speak for all BAME people, so watch out for this. If you aren’t BAME and have an awareness of and a commitment to addressing any of the issues that affect BAME students, staff and community members, I can’t urge you enough to be vocal, challenging and insistent about this as a governor. This is an excellent way to recognise and unabashedly use your white privilege for the common good. If you feel you don’t know much about the issues, but would like to know more, just do some Googling and start getting yourself educated! Following the @BAMEedNetwork might be a good place to start.

Raj, with her rich experience of over 20 years can give the low-down on the intricacies of being a governor at an academy or a multi-academy trust and this is probably worth setting out in a separate piece rather than trying to cram it all in here. This piece will cover school governance in general and what you might like to consider if you are exploring whether you should become a governor.

Why be a governor?

If you already work in education, you might think that volunteering as a school governor might be counter-intuitive and that if you are going to volunteer it should be time spent elsewhere. However, there are many benefits to you becoming a governor.

Firstly, for your own professional development, school governance, in any phase or type of school or academy is a fascinating opportunity to come out of your comfort zone, up your game as a professional and to see things from a different angle.  You will see that there is more than one way to skin a cat, whether you choose to volunteer in a school like your own, or one that is wildly different.

You can see what your own school looks like from a strategic perspective, or see another school that is similar, or indeed completely different from your own place of work. Whether you are a governor in your place of work or in a different school, you can gain the opportunity to set the strategic direction of the school, shape the school development plan and see how these play out in practice.

You can get a chance to take on leadership roles in manageable chunks, for example by chairing one of the committees and practising ensuring that the aims, progress and outcomes of the committee are addressed well.

Let’s look more closely about the pros and cons of being a governor at your own school or in another school.

Being a staff governor at your own school: pros and cons

Being a staff governor at your own school is one of two particularly challenging roles on the governing body. The other is that of parent governor and I will cover that later on. It is a challenge because you have to keep front of mind at all times that you are a representative from the staff but you are not a representative of the staff. You are not a union rep, you are not there to champion the grumbles and needs of the staff body, and nor are you there to report back to the rest of the staff about what came to pass in the meetings. All minutes are freely available, so any staff member that is interested, can read these after each meeting.

Many staff members may feel quite intimidated by being a staff governor at their own school for the simple reason that you are exposed to situations where you may disagree with your boss, the headteacher, and you will need to speak out if you do. A huge part of effective governance is knowing how to challenge and question things with the aim of ensuring real rigour in decision-making, and to support the school to do the right things for the right reasons.

Finally, being a staff governor means you have a strange insider-outsider status which means that at some points during meetings, committees and decision-making, you might actually be asked to leave the room as there will be a conflict of interest or a certain level of confidentiality that needs protecting. If your school’s governing body is not very effective, you may also find it demoralising to see in more detail some of the school’s weaknesses and struggles to address these well at a strategic level beyond the day to day operational activities you know more closely.

One of the pros is simply the flipside of the issue raised above: a different relationship with the headteacher. If you are looking for an opportunity to show your leadership skills and demonstrate your disciplined integrity in this tricky role, this is your chance. If you have respect for your headteacher and they are able to model how the relationship with the governing body works, this can be really good training for a time when you might be a headteacher yourself.  And if you wanted to see how a school development plan is put together and monitored throughout the year, you will have a unique perspective of both the strategic and the operational machinations that go into setting and executing the school development plan’s aims.

Being a parent governor at your child’s school: pros and cons

If you don’t have children, skip on to the next section! As mentioned above, this is a difficult one to pull off without either using your child’s experience as your only frame of reference, or being so hell bent on not doing that, that you end up not being able to find a way to address issues your child is facing at school for fear of being seen as pulling rank as a governor. Being a parent governor means trying to hold in mind all children at the school, and trying to banish from your mind your own child, their friends and specific little faces that are familiar to you. Being a representative from the parent body, but not a representative of the parents is one that the whole school community invariably struggles with. Your child’s friends’ parents will say things to you as a governor, expecting you to “sort it out”. Teachers who don’t understand the nuanced position of a parent governor can be just downright weird with you. There can even be repercussions on your children if you are seen to be too challenging or your children can be favoured if you do a good job for the school in your parent governor role. I found being a parent governor excruciatingly difficult myself and am in a much happier place being a governor at a school with which I have no personal history or affiliation.

The big advantage of being a parent governor is that you are already embedded in the school culture and it is easy to see how the values, the aims of the school development plan, policies and decisions play out in practice. You are immersed in information that helps you, such as letters home, parents evenings, how the school feels and responds to key events, behaviour issues, even snow days. You know the teachers, the parents on the school gates, and the way the school works. This is all something that is really hard to get a feel for if you don’t make time to explore all of this.

One double-edge sword of being a governor at your child’s school is related to The Guilt. You know The Guilt. It’s that feeling we all have as working parents, especially as teachers who are parents, that we are not there enough for our children, and often spend more time celebrating other people’s children’s magical moments and milestones more than we do with our own. Well, being a parent governor can either exacerbate this feeling or can in fact alleviate it. Ideally, your workplace will give you time and flexibility to be a governor because it is such great CPD. Where better to spend that time than at the school where your child learns? You can get even more of a feel for it, you can feel you are helping to make it even better for your own and all the children there, and you can get another perspective on what is behind some of the rhythms, routines and culture of the school.

Being a local authority or community governor: pros and cons

Whether a school is a local authority school or an academy, it needs to be the focal point of the community. Being a governor from the local community is a way to support this, and also a way to declare your commitment to your own community.

A lot of multi academy trusts will have some success at attracting ‘career governors’, local business people keen to bolster their CVs, and cash in their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) hours by supporting a school. Their skills and experience are useful indeed to schools, but someone with up-to-date education experience can be much appreciated as well.  Being a trustee of an academy can give you valuable exposure to the charity sector and it operates differently to a maintained school governing body. It’s worth reading up on the roles and responsibilities of being a trustee or governor at an academy or a multi academy trust as these are different from those of maintained schools, which people often don’t realise until things get difficult.

As mentioned above, having no link to your own workplace or children’s school can be a very positive thing. And if you are thinking about being altruistic and not being suspected of having any ulterior motives or interests, this is one way to make that really clear!

As a teacher, you can think about what you want to gain from your governor experience and direct your choice of school accordingly. You might want to choose a school that is similar to the one you work in, so you can get a different view on some of the challenges and how they are addressed. You might want to broaden your frame of reference and deliberately choose a school which is a different phase, intake, demographic, size. If you work in a secondary school, being a governor at a primary feeder school can be really informative and worthwhile. If you care about SEND children, you might want to choose to work in a special school to understand some of the issues and successes there. Or perhaps a Pupil Referral Unit or Alternative Provision setting could be stimulating and useful. You might want to choose a school that is in difficulty rather than an outstanding school, so you can really commit yourself to making an impact. You will certainly get feedback on this if the school undergoes any kind of Ofsted monitoring or inspection. Similarly, if your school is struggling, it could be useful to see what it looks like from a different viewpoint (although there’s no guarantee that the governance is outstanding, especially if the school hasn’t been inspected for a while)

Wherever you land, as a governor at a school where you have no prior connection, you can happily get stuck into seeing the world from the other side of the table. You will be exposed to HR, finance, strategic planning and examples of practice – good and bad – that are great for you to learn from and for your professional development. You might even find yourself chairing a committee that hones your skills in a particular area of the school’s development. You could even find yourself part of the recruitment panel for a new headteacher or, less uplifting but equally eye opening, a serious HR issue. You could be there when an Ofsted inspection happens. If you ever want to step up to headship, what a great experience to see these processes from the other side of the table first. You will also be exposed to governor colleagues from the world of business, local councillors, and more, who could be handy to know and could differ from your usual social and professional group. All good social capital to help you on your way professionally.

How do you build your confidence when you are starting out?

Don’t assume that because you work in education and perhaps ‘know how to do meetings’, you know it all. I would recommend that you go to your local authority governor induction, specific training sessions and any termly governors briefings meetings. They are usually very good – and even if they are awful, they are so eye opening and anthropologically enlightening! I have been to some briefings that felt like I was in a Mike Leigh film just by virtue of the range of people there and their behaviour. Others have left me so impressed with how the local authority is addressing issues that affect the local community and doing heroic efforts to do what is best for those in their care.

Make sure the school gives you a thorough induction too. Again, even if you are a staff governor or a parent governor, a good school induction will give you the information you need and will set the scene for the modus operandi you need to adhere to. A good Chair of Governors will do this themselves and might also match you with a more experienced governor as a buddy for a time.

Join Twitter or Facebook school governor groups.  Read online, especially when you get the papers for the upcoming meeting. Go through the agenda and papers carefully and note any questions or thoughts you have. Have a look online at the National Governance Association resources or on The Key for School Governors or The School Bus website. Ask your school if they have a subscription to any of these, and if they don’t, do a free trial in the first instance.  Don’t be afraid to ask the school to invest in subscription if you think it is worthwhile. I am of course biased, but I can’t really imagine not having access to The Key.

How do you become a governor?

There are several ways to become a governor. If you want to be parent governor, this needs to be by election. Ask the headteacher or Chair of Governors when the next vacancy is coming up and express your interest in standing for election. If you are not choosing the parent or staff governor route, I would recommend doing some research into your local schools and doing your own process of exploring the pros and cons to help you decide whether you become a staff, parent or community governor. My favoured method, once you have decided, is to send an email to the school you would like to volunteer at, with your CV and a cover letter of why you are interested in becoming a governor at the school. Follow up with a call if they don’t come back to you.  A good governing body will interview you and will want to find out more, although many have a ‘bums on seats’ approach and will be so flattered and amazed that they will snap you up, no questions asked! Once you are a governor and have found your confidence, if that was the case when you started, you can always take it on to sort out how governors are recruited, the type of skills auditing that happens and ensure that the selection and training of governors is tip top.

There are also organisations that have a specific mission to recruit and sometimes train governors. The School Governors One-Stop Shop (SGOSS) and Inspiring Governance both have match-making services. You can also contact your local authority Governor Services department and offer yourself up there.

I’d be delighted to hear any further comments you might have that might be useful to others, or if you spot things that I might have missed or misrepresented here. Just add them into the comments section, or drop me a line and I will incorporate them if I can. If you do decide to become a governor, let me know. And if you need any support and I can help at all, similarly, get in touch!

Good luck!

Say what you mean and mean what you say: jargonising the education system

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SMS exchange with the teen 2017

The year ahead needs a jargon buster

I attended a Year 10 “Year Ahead” meeting this week. The thing that struck me most strongly was the extent to which we have systematised, bureaucratised and jargonised the education of our children. I sat through a well-meaning PowerPoint presentation intended to demystify the new system of GCSEs for parents. I work in the education sector and felt like I was having to apply my learned edu-speak skills as they reeled off jargon to the group of parents hunkered down in their seats in the dark auditorium: SLT, Key Stage 4, A*-C, expected grade, 1-9, pastoral, learning objectives, Progress 8, Attainment 8, APS, EBACC, minus scores, buckets, and target achievement ratio…god help us…The school might have supplied us with a jargon buster, like this one put together by Lord Grey School in Milton Keynes or this one put together by the Dudley Governors Association.

When lingo is laminated

I also attended a training session for school leaders this week, which was fascinating and uplifting in equal measures. It was so good to see the passion, commitment, drive and enthusiasm of a group of senior leaders dedicated to their own professional development as well as to playing their part in the collaborative challenge and support of others around the country.

One of the exercises of the day had us working in groups, using laminated lingo cards, to build a learning model. This is where the cogs started whirring for me as an insider-outsider. This is where I rekindled my anthropologist and researcher training to be the participant observer and to examine what appeared to be unfolding. The group leaned in, silently considered the words written on the cards and started to work together to build a ‘learning model’. I’m thinking to myself, what the heck is a learning model anyway? They discussed, arranged the cards on the table, discussed again and slid certain ones from here to there. Learning, reflection, modelling, pace, behaviour, assessment, marking, ethos, culture, transition, key stages, critical thinking…

With each pause for discussion and each slide around of the cards on the table, I could feel my discomfort as I thought I might be slipping in and out of the ‘inner circle’ of pedagogical language.  So much terminology, but what does it all mean? The training facilitator moved from table to table, and eventually came round to ours and said, “So, taking pace for example, what is your definition of this? Have you come to an agreed definition?” We all hesitated for a moment, realising that we had not had any discussion of the meaning of any of these words at all. “The word pace, what do we mean by this? In what context? Pace of a lesson? Pace of the curriculum across the year? Pace of transition? Transition, what does that mean to you? Transition between key stages? Transition between activities within the lesson? Transition between lessons?”

One of the things I wondered out loud was, if we as educators, haven’t discussed and defined among ourselves what the language means, what the learning model is and what the purpose and intention of what we are doing might be, isn’t it about time this happened? And if we have discussed it in our schools in the staff room, have we ever done this exercise with the children in the classroom? Shouldn’t we be starting from common agreed language and principles?

Jargon is everywhere

It is of course useful to capture concepts into phrases, words and ideas that are commonly understood. This is how we make sense of the world and this is how language develops and becomes useful, and at times entertaining. I love some of the teen-lingo I learn from my kids. It is most certainly ‘fit for purpose’. In answer to “can you pick up some milk on your way home?” gets the response, “no, that is loooonnnnng”. Or “He looks nice” gets, “eww, he’s moist/crusty/clapped”

The world of work is full of the most ridiculous lingo you ever heard. Here are some favourites I have really and truly heard used:

“What does good look like in this space?”

“We should roadmap that issue”

“In the technology space, that’s really not my sandpit to play in”

“Yes but do we have the bandwidth to take this on?”

“Let’s kick that into the long grass”


Workplace woes

Without getting all existential and “emo” about it, the linear and limited experience of education and its bureaucratised jargonisation of language is just a continuation of the central problem we have with education in general. There is no agreement on what schooling is actually for in the first place. And I don’t mean the level of discussion we see on Twitter with false dichotomies between ‘Trad’ and ‘Prog’ approaches to learning. We have a model that was put in place to serve the need for a skilled and compliant workforce but we aren’t actually serving the workforce very well, it turns out. My overwhelming sense from the Year Ahead meeting and even from my day with inspiring senior leaders from schools across the country, is that the purpose of education is ultimately to get students to pass exams so they can move on to the next stage, pass more exams and then move into the workplace and ‘succeed’.

Now, I work in ‘the workplace’ and after the educators are done with them, I receive what are described as ‘bright graduates’ into roles that on paper they are qualified to take on. What I see as the most important thing needed to make these young people fit for the workplace is to unlearn the culture of schooling, to let go of punitive and hierarchical structures, and of linear progression. Success in the workplace involves the ability to think critically, to problem solve, to tie together previous knowledge and experiences with research into possible knowledge and understanding – and to push this through a critical lens again to shake out any bias, habit, laziness, fear or clinging to get to the right way forward. You need skills to influence, bring on side, provide evidence and build trust with your colleagues. And most of all, you need to build a shared language with those you are working with, which should be revisited and revised so you don’t fall into assumptions and jargon that become meaningless. I am a great believer in stopping once in a while and going round the table to see what each person believes just happened in any given meeting, for example. But more than this, we need to stop and ask ourselves what just happened to our education system and are we all speaking the same language that can get us where we need to go?

I have had children moving through schools in this country since 2007 and there have been so many changes, initiatives, systems, methods, acronyms in the last decade. I think that something went off in my brain in that darkened room this week and I reached saturation point at that very moment. I clapped my hands over my mouth just to stop myself screaming. I just don’t believe anyone knows what is really going on any more and I certainly am struggling to believe in the education system as it is now. From now on, I am encouraging my children to see their school experience as a social experiment. There is as much to learn from good practice as there is from bad, and there is so much to learn about the way our society is structured through the micro-climate of a school and the office. There is much to be learned from the language we use and the meaning we attribute to it. It’s not all doom and gloom. Language is fun and in the meantime, we can always amuse ourselves and play bullshit bingo.

Leadership: the good, the bad and the ugly

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This week I had a chance to reflect on leadership from several angles and I have found myself increasingly rattled. The most obvious reason I am thinking about leadership is that we just had a general election.  The same week, I attended the Inspiring Leadership annual conference in Birmingham.  And finally, this has made me reflect on what matters to me as a leader in the workplace.

When leadership is only tactical, we are all doomed

It’s the saddest reflection of our society that many people have been put off from voting because they believe that politicians are not really concerned about the good of the people. Politicians are concerned about power, tactical manoeuvring, short-term gains and winning votes from specific, high-value sections of society for their own individual needs. Our public services, education, social care, the NHS have all been cynically sacrificed as a result. These tactics also don’t seem to have done Theresa May any favours at all, despite her arrogant conviction that she would glide through easily: the snap election of 2017 is characterised by May’s tactical manoeuvring seriously backfiring on her. If that kind of behaviour happened in a school, surely the headteacher would be forced to resign, but there is a special blend of (often white), privileged, self-righteous leadership which gives license to some people to keep on ploughing ahead, regardless.

When this kind of behaviour happens in any organisation, it can tear people apart while the king pin is somehow allowed to stride forth, visibly naked in his/her emperor’s new clothes, crunching underfoot the bare bones of the very people who s/he sacrificed along the way. The tactics are dressed up as being for the good of progress within the organisation. Heads must roll for it to look like there is change.

The good: A clear strategy is good for everyone. A strategy needs to be firmly based on evidence and that evidence should be gathered from all levels within the organisation itself as well as from immediate stakeholders and beyond, into the local, national and global picture. Strategy can never be about individual personal gain and protecting the power for the top dogs.

The bad: When there is a lack of transparency on how the evidence has been gained to inform the strategy, or strategy-making happens behind closed doors, there is a direct disconnect between the top dogs and the actual people tasked with delivering the strategy.

The ugly: Top dogs who use the strategy of the organisation to forward their own tactical gains are unethical and are blurring the lines between what serves their own interests and what is good for those they serve.

 

Leadership is not about hierarchical structures

The biggest mistake we make in organisations is to think that the only leaders are those that are at the top of the pyramid in terms of pay scale and rank. In fact, I can say with great conviction that many leaders can feel at their weakest in terms of actual leadership, influence and impact when they are at the very top. They are removed from the heart of their organisation and as a result are often extremely poor decision makers, left to throw their weight about with superficial displays of strength and loud declarations.

I actively encourage all of my colleagues to consider themselves leaders, whatever their age, stage or rank. True leadership can come from any level within an organisation and should evolve from a person being first and foremost a great listener, highly attuned and focused on their own thoughts and motivations, those of others around them and on what it is that needs to be done, but also clearly able to see this within the context of the wider mission of the organisation as a whole. We don’t give enough time to leaders like this to drive us forward in an organisation.

Take the example of a flock of geese flying in their V-formation. The goose leading the way at any one time knows that they are there for as long as they have the strength and stamina, the clarity of vision and the inner compass to be breaking the headwinds in tight formation with their fowl friends. But they also know that when they need to take a moment, or when they might be losing their way, another bird in the flock will glide forward and allow that first goose to hang back. They aren’t ejected from the flock in disgrace, managed out, unfairly dismissed, put ‘on capability’ as schools like to call it. The forwards momentum continues and the one at the front needs those flanking them to be agile, attuned and be feeding information forward to help propel them all towards their destination.

I have said to colleagues, no matter how junior, “you have challenging questions to us all and you have emerging answers, you have a strong opinion and seem to know what needs to be done. Just lead and we will follow”. And yet people can deliberately hold back, perhaps wanting answers to only come from the Big Cheese.  I am confident enough of my own leadership that I am also ready to be led by my colleagues, and yet the conditioning many won’t question in themselves, doesn’t let them glide forth to the tip of the V-formation and lead us towards a warm current they know is there. Better, it seems, to sit back, grumble, criticise and say I told you so. I would like to change this dynamic wherever it occurs. I want to build something else.

The good: The Big Cheese should use real leadership skills to clear the way for good ideas, evidence-informed answers and innovative problem-solving by embracing solutions and a strategy that can come from anywhere within the organisation. Think, Google’s Hack Days, and the proud employee who thought up the ‘Like’ button.

The bad: Some organisations have a “Director of Innovation” who insists that all new ideas need to come through them to be ratified and rolled out, if deemed worthy. The further you get from the coalface, the less easy it can be to see creative ways forward. Couldn’t this be seen as an innovative, patriarchal and patronising idea? That as someone at the top, you can essentially become the battery farm owner of others’ innovation, boxing ideas up and getting them ready to be marketed so as to protect your own leadership position.

The ugly: A Big Cheese might say things like this: “I decide what you do and when you do it, and I can change my mind any time”. Being overly directive and engaging in micromanagement is the ugliest form of so-called leadership. This widely misguided version of leading by example is often what separates a leader from a bureaucratic managerialist. Thinking being a leader means wielding power over others is wrong.

From the mouth of babes and straight into their long-term consciousness

My oldest daughter said indignantly over dinner tonight, “what are we to do if those that are in power are focusing on the wrong things?” She told us a story of her frustration at being punished for descending the wrong staircase at the end of the school day. She was duly barked at, made to climb back up and circumvent the whole school to reach the correct route back to where she had been moments earlier. “I was already on the bottom step! Why are they focusing on this, while kids are bunking off school, smoking at break-times or intimidating others in the toilets? Using the wrong staircase by mistake isn’t going to ruin my life chances or threaten others’ chances of success. But those other things, that are happening right under their noses, they have no plan for”.

This isn’t leadership, this is control. Having an up staircase and a down one makes sense when it is part of a coherent plan to help students move through the school between lessons in a safe and orderly fashion. These kinds of logistics can indeed make for a calm and purposeful learning environment. But to enforce these rules at 4pm after the majority of students have already sped out of the school gates and are halfway home seems petty and demoralising. To focus on these for the purpose of control rather than giving answers to the critical issues that impact negatively on the whole school population’s sense of well-being is worth re-evaluating.

The good: Keeping the main thing the main thing is important. We all need good frameworks and collective agreement on central issues that affect us. These things can be done well so that the entire population of your organisation understands the importance of what you have put in place.

The bad: Creating a set of rules to abide by can be important, but when it replaces human generosity of spirit and basic common sense, or worse still, is dressed up to be the raison d’etre, vision and ethos of the organisation, this is bad. Think zero-tolerance environments and their track record of a good understanding of where tackling mental health issues begins and deploying no-compromise disciplinary methods ends.

The ugly:  What we do now are the examples that are set to others and the ones that others are likely to replicate. We can shout at a child on a staircase or intimidate our colleagues to show our hierarchical position of strength. And this is what our legacy will be, this will be replicated.

 

The thrusting male model of leadership

As leaders of complex organisations, it is too easy to compartmentalise separately the ideals of leadership and the actual day to day behaviours of a leader. The presenters at Inspiring Leadership gave endless quotes from books about leadership, people were tweeting and scribbling notes. All the while I had a growing sense that I am tired of the “thrusting (white) male” model of leadership that we are forced to endure. I find the Inspiring Leadership conference so uplifting and such an inspiration on the one hand, but on the other, I sat through it enraged.

White male, after white male, presenting their philosophy of what good leadership looks like. The competitive sports analogies, the direct comparison between the journey of the sportsman and that of people tasked with leading a child moving through a journey of development and discovery, just doesn’t work for me the way it is told here. The professional sportsman’s journey started to look like a big bundle of anticipation, control, discipline and brute force towards a 3-minute climax on national TV worth millions of dollars, viewers, fans and expectations. It sounded like the leadership journey was so base and primal, so rooted in domination – of the self, the body and mind, and of others – that it made me rail against it. We have all experienced it over the years in the workplace. Leaders who are excited by such descriptions of leadership but that in their own dealings with people are so lacking in self-awareness that they can’t see how poor they are as leaders and what a raw deal they are delivering for those they lead.

And tying this back to the issues that WomenEd and BAMEed are working hard to address, this thrusting male model is arrogantly and wilfully unaware of what it feels like to be anything other than a white heterosexual man. The words of wisdom on the slide that summarised the All Blacks coach’s speech at Inspiring Leadership: “No Dickheads” was born of the same thrusting male symbolism. Dickheads. The tip of a male phallus.

In amongst the debris of the day’s impressions, I picked out some hints that resonated with many but could have been developed more clearly instead of the usual predictable fare.

The good:  The concept of transparent vulnerability as a great strength that was mentioned briefly in one of the speeches, is spot on. If we spend less time pretending we can cover over our weaknesses and more time being at one with them and harnessing the strengths of others, we all win. That is leadership, and leadership starts with harnessing our own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of others.  For example, Peter Hyman, headteacher of School 21, is known to interview potential new members of staff with questions that start with “I am not very good at X, how would you help with this in your role at our school?”

The good: Spiderman said, “with great power, comes great responsibility”. The thrill of this seems to motivate those that are conditioned by society to be confident of their own thrusting male-ness and be a reason why perhaps others are perceived as unworthy. We are socialised to have a fixed view of what a leader looks like. Being 10% braver as per the WomenEd campaign and unpacking unconscious bias as per the message of BAMEed, can go some way to address this.

The good: Wonder Woman said, “If the prospect of living in a world where trying to respect the basic rights of those around you and valuing each other simply because we exist are such daunting, impossible tasks that only a superhero born of royalty can address them, then what sort of world are we left with? And what sort of world do you want to live in?”

Colour-blindness, cats and cucumbers, and cycling

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From Margie Warell

Why is my curriculum white vs. why, is my curriculum white?

I was telling a friend of mine about the BAMEed Network and was surprised by her reaction when we started talking about a podcast I had listened to called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ She suddenly sounded really annoyed as she said, “you know, we don’t need this pitying, dumbing down of the world on our behalf, thank you. Of course the curriculum is white, this is England. I don’t mind adding a black or Asian philosopher into the mix but it’s not representative and it is artificial if there’s more than one or two isn’t it?”

I wasn’t sure how to react. She said, “All you are doing with this BAME thing is segregating and categorising people – I don’t want to be seen as a brown woman when I walk into a room or representing brown people or women when I am on the school governing body. I just want to be me”. I love my friend, we often holiday together as families, we feel so at home together but we are completely opposed in terms of politics and many aspects of our world views. But we can talk about things and trust each other completely. We also don’t try and change each other’s minds about things. We find the middle ground. Still, I said to her, “colour-blindness, that’s not actually real you know?” She was resolute. It would be for her.

Test yourself if you dare

It gave me pause for thought though. I am not trying to segregate the world, I am trying hard to be aware of my unconscious bias. I start from the standpoint that we are so culturally socialised by certain viewpoints that it is unrealistic to pretend to be colour-blind or neutral. I have been challenging myself recently by trying out some of the Harvard University unconscious bias tests available online. If you are brave you will give them a go too. It makes me squirm but it reminds me that this difficulty exists and the key is to be aware and to not deny or enact the consequence of your initial unconscious bias.

My husband and I keep comparing our results with great curiosity and some mirth. We are such opposites in some ways too. His experience starts as an Israeli-Iraqi Jew brought up in Jerusalem, where he is seen as mixed race and a second class citizen alongside the Ashkenazic, European Jews. He is an immigrant to this country since the early 2000s and that makes him feel an affinity with certain populations more than others. He sees how ethnic minority students, and staff members, are treated differently in his workplace, a university setting, and it makes him incredibly frustrated. Having spent over a decade living in Israel myself, being constantly reminded that I am a foreigner, I know how he feels to some extent. Back in England now, in my relative position of white privilege, but still sometimes finding it hard to assimilate back in, my experience sometimes feels so extreme that it feels disingenuous to do anything but recognise that the way we see the world and are seen by it differs depending on many factors.

Three popular internet things that make you wonder

Every day, things I see online make me think more about this. Three very different ones have made me think. The first is the story of a five year old white American boy who wanted to get his hair shaved short like his black American best friend so that their teacher “wouldn’t be able to tell them apart”. This is a stark reminder of the fact that we don’t seem to be born looking for differences and aware of skin colour that much. It is culturally constructed over time and is a part of our education. You can’t culturally un-construct it just by declaring yourself colour blind. All culturally constructed notions are deeply engrained.

Secondly, the news interview where a white man is speaking to the camera and in marches his small daughter, shortly followed by his other child in a baby walker. They are pursued by a woman who rushes in on all fours grabs them both and hustles them out of the room, returning briefly, still on her knees to shut the door. The assumption online was that this was his wife. Others speculated that it could be the childminder. There was backlash against presumed racially charged assumptions that the woman was a childminder and not the children’s mother and the white man’s wife – she was Korean. She was his wife.

Thirdly, isn’t it human, – and animal – ancient, learned behaviour to break the world up into categories of like me, not like me, threat and non-threat. You only have to see what happens to a cat when someone puts a cucumber behind it. Why would a domestic cat that has never seen a snake, have it so engrained in their ancient cat-bias, so as to be afraid of a vegetable that has only a vaguely snake-like appearance, is completely inanimate but seems to have sneaked up on them? Could this be true also for us human folk? Does it go that far back?

Cycling and gender-biased aggression

On a personal note, as a cyclist in London, I am now clocking up 45 minutes each way on my commute to and from work. I have always been bothered by the amount of abuse I get, although my cycling style is pretty mellow and non-confrontational. I have cycled for years and a while back now, I complained to my husband that as a woman, I get called all sorts of vile names and people can be unduly aggressive towards me. He said he never got any abuse and put it down to the fact that I can be bloody-minded and belligerent with my opinions so I am probably the same on the roads. One evening, we went out together locally and I suggested we cycle there together. On the way, I asked him if he would be willing to do an experiment with me, and to cycle some distance behind me and watch what happened. Sure enough, he was shocked by the different treatment I got compared to what he has been accustomed to. I had the usual array of cars beeping, or deliberately overtaking dangerously close and shouting as they passed, making me jump. There was also unwanted interaction with swearing pedestrians, heads down in their phones while they were weaving between the cars pausing for a moment in traffic, and from other (male) cyclists even.

Due to the air quality of central London, I have taken to wearing a pollution filter mask while cycling in recent months. It has been quite cold so with the mask, gloves, helmet and all my waterproof gear on, you can’t tell if I am a woman or a man or even what colour I am. It’s amazing. It’s as if I have been granted a completely new status. No-one bothers me at all. Bingo.  I can see why it would be amazing to reach a place where we don’t automatically treat people in certain ways based on deep seated and learned bias.

Dare you consider, how might unconscious bias affect your relationships at school?

Let’s assume then that unconscious bias does exist. How might this affect your relationship with your students and other staff members? Here are some all-you-can-eat, food for thought observations I have heard played back to me by school staff I have spoken to:

Have you noticed that BAME staff members tend to be in charge of certain subjects and the further up the hierarchy you go, the whiter it gets? Any BAME senior leaders that do make it in schools tend to be in charge of discipline or PE. What’s that about?

Why is it, in some schools, that the majority of kids that are in detention at the end of the day are black? Why do teachers of all races treat black children’s misdemeanours differently?

Why is it that schools which serve predominantly BAME areas, in parts of London for example, often deploy a military style discipline regime and refer to this as being appropriate for “these kinds” of students? The claim is that they are entrenching bias towards certain groups being subordinate to the ruling middle classes rather than promoting a socially mobile, lifelong learner expectation for children of ethnic minority backgrounds.

What about the teachers who are surprised when their Chinese heritage students educated in this country are not maths whizzes, when the black kid can’t run and their white working class boys love to read?

What of the Asian British pupil who wrote that he lived in a terrorist (terraced) house, and then ended up facing an investigation by police?

Why is it that more ethnic minority people get university degrees than white people in Britain and yet in the workplace they will be still more likely to be unemployed and paid less?

What about assessment, what elements of that is geared towards certain socio-economic and ethnic biases? What about the recent Year 6 SATs test and the dodo question for example?

Can you join me in learning more?

Please ask yourself these questions, try the Harvard online tests and let’s start to discuss what this makes us feel, what we could do differently and where the issues might lie. We will be holding a BAMEed Network conference on all aspects of unconscious bias on June 3rd. If you have ideas for what other issues should be covered, let us know and make sure you are there on the day!

Treading the line between compliance and creativity

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Last week I went to a screening of ‘Most Likely to Succeed’, the Sundance nominated film about what education could be. The star of the film is High Tech High in San Diego (featured here), a place where teachers have the freedom to shape projects that culminate in public exhibitions. The film itself was interesting although sitting next to my anthropologist/social work lecturer/documentary film maker/husband, was a little distracting as he texted me his critique of the film and how it was made.

I was also doing a pretty good job of distracting myself with the plethora of emotional reactions I seemed to be going through watching the film. You can’t do anything much in life without recognising who you are and how this affects your experience. I am a mother of a 14 year old and an 11 year old, was educated in the 1970s and 1980s in London at a hippy primary school and then a girls grammar school that took me on despite my failing the entrance exam. I did an anthropology degree, have a PGCE that specialised in alternative education and a Masters degree in Education. I taught English for over ten years in Jerusalem in the 1990s and early 2000s in democratic and alternative schools. I helped set up, and worked at, The Key for 8 years, supporting school leaders and governors to run their schools. Now I work for the school-led charity, Challenge Partners. I am a long-suffering school governor too. It would be safe to say I live and breathe education. So clearly, my viewing experience was coloured by my life so far and as I watched, I also listened to my own thoughts and reactions.

As a teacher

I taught in three schools that were really like the one in the film and as part of my teacher training, visited several others across Israel. It made me nostalgic and excited to see it again on screen in Hi Tech High, and to remember that wonderful time. We had complete freedom to decide what we taught and how. The curriculum was designed by each teacher, there was no monitoring of their classroom, homework or lesson plans. We wrote our own tests and decided when, what and how frequently to test the children. There were national GCSE equivalent tests at the end of year 12. The kids usually did well. It was the most incredible experience. It made me a passionate, hard working, dedicated, curious and committed teacher. I wanted each child to thrive and shine, I loved my subject and my classes were vibrant, varied and the children were, on the whole, enthusiastic learners. It wasn’t without its challenges and difficulties but we worked these through, the general tone was one of exploration, dialogue, understanding and practical solutions. The school was a happy and purposeful place.

On the other hand, I sometimes look back at my teaching experience as I do on my neglectful parents during my 1970s childhood entirely devoid of any health and safety awareness. The amount of times we could have died as we lolled about in the back of my mum’s Morris Traveller without seatbelts, or ran about the streets playing unattended sometimes laughing off the passing paedophile’s pathetic attempts to lure us into his car, or hopping over the tube rails for a dare. If I hadn’t been streetwise and vigilant, it could have been tragic indeed. And if I hadn’t been the massively enthusiastic and reflective practitioner I was, I could have just done not very much with my students and coasted my way through the years. I found that some of the children at the schools where I taught really suffered from the amount of freedom they had. It was their parents who had wanted this for themselves as children, and were living vicariously through their children by giving them relief from the oppressive discipline they hated in their own childhood. With such permissive parents, lacking in clear boundaries, some children were really ill equipped to deal with freedom of this kind and it was exhausting trying to meet their needs.

As a mother

I felt remorse, guilt and anxiety – why don’t my children have this kind of education? Why have I been so passive about sending them along with the herd to normal schools? Have they missed out and been compromised by restrictive educational experience that has increasingly been narrowed by the obsessive managerialist measurement culture? Or have they been strengthened by having to eke out creative, autonomous, and alternative educational experiences despite being on the factory line of bog standard English education?

I felt defensiveness and derision – I didn’t have to decide whether to send my own children to the schools where I taught in the end, although I agonized over it, because we moved to England when the oldest reached reception age. There seemed no choice except to go to the local primary school and hope for the best. What is shown in the film is all very well but if this school happened in this country, it would be only a very certain kind of parent that sent their kid there. It would be swamped by anxious yummy mummies and would fall foul to the fate of many of the free schools of its ilk. It was my experience of my hippy local primary school in the 1970s where we learnt Beatles songs, carpet weaving and were left to self-directed learning from laminated cards in Learning Lab boxes that led to my failing the 11+ and spending my entire secondary education gasping to barely keep up.

As a working person

Throughout my career at management and director level, when I interview people for roles in my team, I sometimes find the more impressive the grades on their CVs are, the more lacking in creativity and unable to cope with autonomy they are. The Hi Tech High model of team work gives importance to going through a process and not just to the output, respect is given to exploration, for taking the time, and this really appeals to me. We seem to be racing people through life, meting out the stages of development they need to reach from birth to graduation and ticking them off to satisfy our own need for measurement, league tables, evidence of productivity and the like. We have a generation of young people in their early careers that are restlessly running on underdeveloped tip toes before they have developed the stability needed when they hastily learned to walk.

My conclusion will always be the same. I am ever the relativist in my outlook. There’s room for everything and a one-size-fits-all approach never works. I would love there to be room for such freedom and depth of thought and experience for all children. I believe that some schools do manage to build in some pockets of exploration and autonomy while marching along to the exhausting demands of the system as a whole.

By way of example, while we were watching this film, my youngest was away for the week at a wonderful life-changing experience through her school. Fifteen Yr 7 to Yr 9 children were sent away to a writers’ retreat of incredible calibre in Shropshire. It’s especially amazing that she was chosen as the school has recognised that she is an articulate and enthusiastic writer and that her SATS scores and dyslexia shouldn’t be allowed to be an impediment to this. “I wish my school was always like that”, she repeated over and over for the coming weeks. What she loved was the freedom and structure that interplayed so well. The autonomy mixed with clear guidance from professional writers. They cooked their own meals and went for country walks. They were able to steep themselves in a project day after day, after day, were encouraged to focus on depth, to make mistakes, and to be treated as writers by writers. It’s not the first experience of this kind they have had at the school, and it won’t be the last. So instead of beating myself up for not banding together with fellow parents and creating a free school that provides the North London version of Hi Tech High for my children, I think I will continue to support my local comp that treads a confident line between compliance and creativity.

 

 

Joining the grammar school debate

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Grammar school class photo in 1981

 

Weighing in on the grammar school debate

It seems that everyone has a story about their experience of grammar schools, be it going to one, or not going to one. It is a charged subject and we oldies love to draw on our own childhoods on this, as we often do so many topics around education and childhood. But this is one area that has changed so much since we were young, that we need to be really careful not to make up our minds, or heaven help us, make policy, based on our own frame of reference from the past.

That said, I will talk about my own grammar school experience later as a way to illustrate just how life has changed. First though, let’s look at some of what is being debated.

There have always been grammar schools, so what’s changed?

Prime Minister Theresa May has apparently decided to challenge the notion that she is a safe pair of hands bringing us stability and status quo in uncertain times. She has, almost out of the blue, decided to lift the ban on new grammar schools being opened. May has said that it is a good idea, for the sake of choice and to ensure that the brightest children are not held back, that we expand grammar schools so that in every area in the country families have better access to a wide range of schools, including grammar schools.

May points out that at present, there is a certain level of social selection around secondary schools as those that can afford to live in the posh postcode areas will have access to the better schools. This might be true, but will grammar schools change anything around that? And doesn’t going back to an 11 plus means that schools will be either selective grammar schools or secondary moderns? Or if the idea is that every school can be selective, how will that work exactly?

What does this choice mean in practice?

In some areas of the country, especially those that are more rural or sparsely populated, there is little or no choice of secondary schools because there are just very few schools in the area at all. However, in areas like London, the choice debate is highly relevant. And we need to make sure we aren’t making national policy based on a narrow, London-and-the-south-east-centric frame of reference.

In my catchment area for example, there are schools in three boroughs we can access within walking distance or that are a short bus ride away. We have a pick of academies, and maintained schools, faith schools for all the major religions, schools with different specialisms in arts, media, languages, tech and more, single-sex and mixed schools, grammar schools, schools with and without sixth forms. There are also plenty of different special schools catering for a wide spectrum of needs, and even three pupil referral units. There are schools with over 2,000 students and others with only 600. So chucking in a new grammar school wouldn’t make much difference would it? Most schools do really well by their students, are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted and cater for all kinds of vocational and academic interests and abilities. But there isn’t this choice everywhere in the country.

But when does choice become social segregation? I want my children to rub shoulders with the real population of the area in which they live. But I also know that with streaming, they are already experiencing a form of segregation for much of the school day in many subjects. I wouldn’t want to segregate them completely, no matter how bright I thought they were, from other children from all walks of life. Many parents however, really don’t want that. They want their children to be sheltered from the potentially distracting influences that might be experienced by fraternising with families that are not “like us”. Is that what some of us really mean when we talk about choice?

Do structures make a difference?

We already know that there is no evidence at all that structures make any difference to how well children achieve or to closing the gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those that are not. We have seen the government insist that the academisation programme is what will ultimately improve education for all, despite all the evidence showing clearly that the structure and governance of a school makes little or no difference to the outcomes for children that go there. What does make a difference is the teaching and the leadership in those schools –and resources. We know this and yet, it is a massive elephant that we don’t seem to be able to acknowledge in terms of the way policy setting goes. We are told we are pressing ahead, regardless.

Does selection make a difference?

The OECD has stated categorically that in countries in Europe, such as Germany and Switzerland, where selection has been widely used, these schools were not more likely to produce high-achieving students. The OECD education expert, Andreas Schleicher, said that access to selective schools was often unfairly biased towards wealthier families – and that contradicts the aim of stretching the most talented that Theresa May highlights as central to her call for new grammar schools.

What is needed, Schleicher says, is greater meritocracy in the school system. In fact, he goes on to say that what we call academic selection in this country, is actually selection by social background.

Back in the day, the 11 plus may well have identified the more academically inclined or brighter students because it tested a particular way of thinking and learning that could be built upon and stretched. Nowadays, with a huge army of private tutors and an entire shadow education sector that is thriving, the 11 plus does become something that more parents with money can push their children through regardless of their actual academic ability – or ‘talent’ as May likes to refer to it as.

Is education necessarily better in grammar schools?

This to me is just like the conjecture that private schools provide a better standard of education. We need to be really careful with this assumption as it is known that many private schools survive well on reputation, a host of private tutors after school, and in-built high expectations rather than having better teaching or a superior curriculum (as do some state schools, indeed).

Grammars, like private schools, will find it easier to attract and retain teachers and are likely to therefore have more experienced teachers. It’s hard enough to attract and retain teachers in the state sector but imagine what it would be like if there were more secondary moderns struggling to recruit well-qualified staff who will be motivated to stay in the profession.

Do disadvantaged students benefit from grammar schools?

This is where the romanticism of days gone by comes into play for many. The original tenet for grammar schools was indeed to provide equal opportunity for highly academic education for children from deprived backgrounds. And they did for a while but only for those that were accepted to grammar schools.

The DfE asserts that grammar schools provide a good education for their disadvantaged pupils, and that they want more pupils from lower-income backgrounds to benefit from this.

But what about the students from deprived backgrounds who don’t go to grammar school? In the old system, the sorting sheep from goats at age 11 is understood by many to have achieved its aim by releasing potential and it created in some cases a mobile population of young people from deprived backgrounds. But it also had dire consequences for many children, not least those who did not pass the 11 plus exam and were relegated to the secondary modern and to social segregation from their peers they had known from primary school. The psychological and motivational fall out of such an experience has been talked about at length recently.

There seems to be consensus that the picture would be different nowadays. But there really isn’t a level playing field on entry for grammars and successive studies have shown that poorer pupils are generally much less likely to get places in grammar schools.

According to the Sutton Trust for example, only 3% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, when in selective areas the average proportion of free school meal pupils is 18%.

However, Theresa May is emphatic that anyone criticising the lack of social mobility of grammar schools also has to face up to the inequalities in other ways of admitting pupils. And this is where she brings in the notion of a sort of postcode social apartheid caused by the system of catchment areas deciding school places. You only have to look at some of the successful comprehensive schools’ catchment areas and house prices to see how this social segregation plays out already in some parts of the country. But on the flip side, there are schools with extremely high intake of FSM children in deprived areas that do incredibly well by all their students.

And now for the personal story

I went to a top girls’ grammar school. How I got there is a bizarre thing indeed. We had a pretty gruelling home life and as a result we each reacted differently at school. My older brother was an angry and disruptive student at one local comprehensive, and my bright, quiet and well-behaved older sister opted for the other local comprehensive when her turn came.  When I reached the final year of primary school I was adamant that I didn’t want to be under the shadow of either of my siblings. A friend from my class was taking the 11 plus so I went along too. We got the afternoon off school and watched Bollywood movies at her house and drank Ribena in milk to celebrate. I didn’t really think much about it after that as the whole exam was completely baffling to me.

It was a real surprise to learn a few weeks later that I had gained a place although little did I know that I had in fact failed the 11 plus because my ability in maths was so poor. My mum only told me this humiliating fact a couple of years later, in a rage, when it was clear that things weren’t great for me at the school. The headteacher had decided to take me and another girl who had just moved from Yorkshire as her experimental students. I was the only one on free school meals, having to trot up to the till at lunchtime and present my while the others stared in curiosity. I hated every single moment at the school, feeling like an imposter with the well-off girls who were there. I had no resources or support at home for the academic level expected of me and the already significant gap between myself and my peers widened over time. There was no pupil premium to encourage extra support and the school did not feel any particular responsibility for whether I succeeded or not. They repeatedly told me that they had taught the material and it was up to me to try harder to make up the widening gap.

I left just before my 16th birthday with 5 O Levels and a CSE. After burning my books in the back garden, I enrolled to an FE college where I took my A Levels. I also re-took my maths O level each year until I passed it with the help of a maths tutor funded entirely by my own Saturday job money. I left home at 17, took a year out so I could work and fund the rent of my sub-let room in a shared council flat where I lived with two blokes in their 20s. I finally went off to university to read Social Anthropology against all the odds at the end of that “gap” year. I am where I am today because of a combination of stubbornness and luck, and not because of the wonderful opportunity that grammar school provided me with.

My brother had already followed a similar path to me but skipped university in favour of an apprenticeship at a recording studio and today is a successful professional composer for films. My sister did really well at her comprehensive, got 10 great O Levels and 4 A Levels and gained a place at Cambridge, where a combination of imposter syndrome and a series of awful life experiences meant that she never could complete her course. She is happy and successful now but like for all of us, it has taken time and effort to get where we are.

The grammar school issue now is often described as divisive. There seems to me to be a real divide between people when it comes to their child’s education. We all want the best for our children but for some more than others, there seems to be a real passion for equality of opportunity that stops us from wanting to buy our children a place at the front of the line at the expense of those that cannot afford it. I still come back to the same place whenever these issues are up for debate. What we really need to do is invest our time, money and passion into ensuring that every local school is a brilliant place to work and to learn in. That within each school there is the expertise and resources to cater for all kinds of children from every walk of life. What an exciting place it could be to have at the heart of every local community, a well-resourced, vibrant place of education with many pathways to happy, successful and fruitful adult lives.

 

Killing off parent governors isn’t necessarily going to make school governance more professional

BEST SCHOOL

Nicky Morgan recently declared that being a parent is not enough to be a governor. This was following the announcement that parent governors are to be dropped from all school governing bodies in favour of professionals with the “right skills”.

Having been a parent governor for 6 years I must say that I agree that it is not enough to be a parent if you want to benefit a school governing body. You need relevant skills and you need time. You also need a commitment to spend time constantly updating and honing your skills so they are relevant and useful to the school you wish to support. In fact, I would say this is the most critical aspect of being any kind of governor. And it is the probably the area where many governing bodies are completely lacking. But as a parent governor, you need a level of mental agility and brutal self-reflection that, in my experience, most people just don’t possess and don’t know is necessary.

It would be fair to say that many parents want to become school governors for two reasons: they want to give something back to the school which their child attends; and they want to have some kind of influence over the direction of the school so that their child (and of course other children) will get the best education they can. This has been loosely referred to as supporting and challenging the school. But it is very telling that although they are meant to be looking out for the interests of all children at the school, a parent’s interest is naturally very personal to their own child’s daily life at the school and will usually end as their child leaves the school. To prove my point I can say that I sat through countless governing body meetings where parent governors pushed their own agendas, referred to their own children by name in the meetings time and again with comments such as “but my A__ loves the school meals/is always saying they are not allowed to drink in class” or “I know that L__ always complains that other children are holding him back when he is so bright/wouldn’t want there to be more play equipment in the playground as he likes the space for football”.

Parent governors are meant to be representatives from the parent body and not representatives of the parent body and this also seems to encourage the myopic view of the world through one’s own experience. I personally found it really difficult to get a view on what every segment of the school population was experiencing, needed, or would benefit from, especially since we, the governing body, were a pretty uniform bunch of predominantly white, middle-class professionals and most of us were parents. (The school had a habit of simply bumping people over from parent governor to community governor when their term ran out, so long as their child was still at the school. This meant that around 2/3 of the governing body were parents at one point).

This is where the mental agility and brutal self-reflection comes in to play. If you are not able to constantly question yourself, your motives and interests as a governor, and most especially as a parent governor (and as a staff governor, another role on the governing body that requires a zen-like level of self-awareness and mental gymnastics), you are almost certainly doing the school a disservice. If you are not committed to ensuring that the school gets the best of what you have to offer as a governor by attending training, reading a lot, staying up to speed with changes in legislation and demands, being part of an online community via Twitter such as #UKGovChat you should not be a governor at all. This is confusing, and it will probably annoy some people that I say this, because the defence against pushing governors that I always heard is that they are volunteers and are giving their professional skills, for which they would usually be paid pretty handsomely, for free. Bums on seats, be grateful and all that. It must be noted too that while London schools are inundated, there are schools where it is nearly impossible to get a full set of governors either from the parent body or from members of the local community. There just aren’t many people that fit the bill or who can afford the time. Only last year the DfE gave £1m to help schools recruit high-calibre governors and SGOSS will tell you that if you are from London, you will wait for months to find a governing body to join, where in other areas of the country it’s impossible to fill places.

I think that some of the rationale for abandoning the system of elected parent governors in favour of searching for people with the relevant professional skills (whatever those may be exactly) is to avoid a situation where being a parent is the only contribution you have to the school. We shouldn’t forget that the PTA is a good place for people with and without so-called professional skills, who can use their motivation, time and passion to have a massive positive and very visible impact on the school.

One of the things I tried to insist we adopted at the school where I was a governor was a skills-based approach. I wanted to force us to consider what these “professional skills” were that the school needed. If we don’t want to be looking for people who are just replicas of ourselves and therefore assume they are the right people, we need to clearly define what the skills are we need. I requested that we carry out a skills and knowledge audit and that we then matched the existing people we had already on the governing body with relevant courses, reading materials and resources to ensure that they had the basic skills we had decided were essential. We should also make sure the right people are on the right committees within the governing body too. Where we still had gaps, we could search for the right people to fill those knowledge and skills gaps. Based on the skills and knowledge audit, how important would it be to know if governors had not seen the school development plan, or were not clear how the governing body’s activities fit into this? How telling would it be if we discovered that our Chair of governors had not attended any training on being a Chair or didn’t the fill out the skills audit at all? How useful would it be to know that most people had not attended the LA induction and that there was no school-based induction? I have written about the importance of induction and orientation in a previous post. Furthermore, isn’t it right that any self-evaluation, challenge and support should start with the governing body’s own fitness for purpose?

My point is that I agree that being a parent isn’t enough but killing off parent governors isn’t necessarily going to make school governance more professional. Having a governing body made up of only professional people isn’t enough either. To be a governor these days, you really have to know your stuff and that includes being aware of just how much you don’t know. You have to start with the basics of being clear on why you want to do it, and you have to commit yourself to constantly honing your knowledge and making it clear where you can add value to the governing body as a whole for the benefit of the school, and according to the priorities set out in the school development plan. Times are rapidly changing. This is no mean feat.

 

 

Life Without Levels: a parent’s perspective

Clipboard

Spending life on the peripheries of the education system has been my lot since returning to the UK and quitting the classroom. Since leaving teaching nearly 9 years ago, I have worked in organisations that support schools and I have done a couple of stints as a school governor. I could get my head around the data as a governor and in my professional life – but the way children are monitored and levels are set on an individual level has always baffled me as a parent.

My first experience of how children’s progress is measured was at my first primary school parents’ evening where the teacher reported in on my oldest child’s progress midway through the year. My daughter was in Reception class, had only been in the country for 6 months and was learning English quickly, her thick Israeli accent gradually disappearing. (We still fondly remember a rowdy boy she was playing with who shoved her, and her saying sternly: “You want I will do dis to you? So don’t you do dis to me!”)

That evening, the Reception class teacher sat opposite me, gave me a nonplussed look, turning the corners of her mouth down and shrugging said, “Yeah, she’s alright really, no complaints”. I must have given away my bafflement at this statement and after a pause where she seemed to be thinking of something else to say, she added, “Yeah, no complaints at all.” I think she expected me to be pleased. Having been a teacher myself, and being naturally empathetic, I imagined that she had had a really stressful few months, settling in these small creatures, many of whom had never been in a nursery setting or school before. I knew my daughter was polite, well-behaved and wanted to do well at school. But my jaw dropped and I asked if she could give me some more detail on what she was doing well at, where she might need some more support and so on. Nothing. Trying to help, I asked where she was as compared with her peers. “Oh no, we don’t really do that. Compared to the start of the year, she has made progress and is reaching the expected milestones”. Apparently, what these milestones were, belonged strictly to the professionals and were not something parents needed to know. Unless there was a problem I guess and then perhaps there would be…complaints.

Weirdly, the next parents’ evening that same year was a complete contrast and we were handed a booklet with descriptors and little blobs against different levels of achievement for various milestones of development. It made me want to go back to the other suddenly more sensible continuum of ‘complete pain in the arse’ to ‘no complaints really’. Again, on trying to make sense of it all, we were told these were the new national curriculum levels and this was really only useful to the teacher, however, the Early Years department thought it would be good to share them with parents. I must say, at this point I did make an appointment to talk it through with the headteacher. She thanked me for letting her know that I was confused and agreed that the teacher had some work to do on her communication skills. But I shouldn’t really bother myself with detail. They will inform me if there’s a problem.

Meanwhile, in the world of the Children’s Centre, my youngest was having a wonderful time and the staff seemed engrossed in gathering tons of paperwork on every child’s progress on about 10 different aspects of their development. Every week we had a report on what our youngest daughter did, said, ate, how long she napped, things she liked and didn’t like. It definitely helped ease my guilt at being a full-time working mum, knowing all that had been going on at nursery. Once a term we had an amazing array of descriptions, documentation, photographs and observations sent home to us in a personal folder. We didn’t even have that much depth of evidence for our own understanding of the kids as their parents. It was phenomenal and probably a bit much. I wondered if they spent more time with their noses in their clipboards than they did establishing eye contact with the kids. The staff agreed it was all a bit knackering but that they were obliged by government to keep to this level of detail.

Later on in primary school, we started to hear about national curriculum (NC) levels and each child was ranked against these for every subject – either below, at or above expected NC levels. I once questioned one teacher, who was super-pleased (relieved even) that the kids in his class had reached the expected NC level across the board, if that was a high enough standard considering how bright they all seemed to be.

My youngest, since discovered to be dyslexic, was having trouble with reading and the little writing she did was backwards and with no vowels. I spoke with the teacher about it, and she said she had never seen anything like it before. I reminded her that my children are Israeli. They write backwards and with no vowels in Israel and at Hebrew school at the weekend. I asked if there was any special support she might receive since she was both EAL and apparently dyslexic. I was told no, as she was functioning just below NC levels and they reckoned they could just about get her to expected NC levels by the end of the year. We waited and did our best to support her. She is a bright kid and loved listening to us reading to her and to audio books so her spoken language was extremely advanced and rich for her age.

The following year, we were told she was still nearly at NC levels and so no extra help was offered. She still couldn’t read or write and by Year 4 was actually sobbing at night about being thick and not being able to keep up with her clever peers. And yet, the reports came home, the parents’ evenings were spent having the teacher say that she was at NC levels so there was nothing really to worry about. Just a bit more practice at home.

The most deflating parents’ evening was the one where the teacher proudly said to me about my oldest, “She’s a level 4” to which I found myself wide-eyed saying: “No, sorry, her name is N___ and she has reached a level 4”. And all the time, throughout their time at primary school, the message was that they were to achieve such and such levels of progress but at least now, it was also against their own expected levels of achievement and not just against the national average, which for many, was still pretty low in terms of expectations.

Fast forward to parents’ evenings for daughters now in Year 8 and Year 6. The teachers are floundering. They are obviously lost between levels as they were and so-called life without levels, which, as far as I can tell is life with different names for the same thing. Year 8 parents evening: “She’s a level 6 in old money but now she is a…. which would be now classed as….well it’s all a bit complicated because they made us change the system, we’re not allowed to use levels any more. But we sort of are, we’re just calling it by another name really…” My eyes glaze over.

Because we moved to a different area, the younger child is at a different primary school that has recognised that she is dyslexic and is giving her plenty of support. It was going well at the termly meeting this week when they were discussing what she can do, and what progress she has made. Then I sit blinking at the teacher and the SENCO as they discuss between them “She’s a W3a I think” says the teacher. “Oh hang on, which is a…what? What a level 4 would have been?” asks the SENCO, taking notes. She turns to me “there’s a new system you see, have you heard about life without levels?” The teacher adds, “We’re all just finding our way with it and actually, what would have been a really high standard, a level 5, for the end of year 6 in previous years, is now the basic standard expected for all, so they’ve raised the bar and it’s pretty impossible to get there”.

And all the while, I just want to shriek: are the children in your class making progress? Are they being challenged? Do they tell you when they don’t understand and need some help? Would what is happening in your class be good enough if they were your child? And most of all, are they HAPPY?!

Choosing a secondary school: tips for parents and schools

Choose well

Living in London, we are blessed with an amazing array of schools. Theoretically, we have massive choice too – although in many areas, unless you live literally spitting distance from the school, your child will not necessarily get a place there as they are all so oversubscribed.  Many parts of the country do not have much of a choice and the ‘local’ school is really quite far away. I acknowledge this with a heavy heart and realise that because of this, my blog post may be irritating for you as it really doesn’t reflect your own experience at all. I am drawing only on my own experience here.

When we were selecting a school for our oldest a couple of years ago, it was an odd time for us. We had been living in two-bedroom rented shoe-boxes for years and had finally scraped enough money and courage/denial together to take on a mortgage and look for a place to buy. But it would have to be miles from where we were currently living, in areas we could better afford. So, having to select a school based on its proximity to our address at the time but easy enough to reach by public transport from wherever we ended up was one of the major factors in our choices. It did set me apart from my child’s classmates’ parents and it made me able to step back and see a lot from their reactions to school choice. I will outline some of this here. If I know you, you read my blog and see yourself in some of this, it may or may not be you so please don’t take offence!

Parents are extremely anxious
In fact some of them are so anxious that it is as if they have completely lost their minds. The most anxious will be positioning themselves in week 21 of their pregnancy so they are close to the ‘good schools’ and many will be visiting open days and checking out schools when their child is in Year 5. This is possibly a good idea because you feel you are ticking off some schools on your list early, but a school can change radically in the space of two years, let alone 12, so it may be a false economy.

Such is their anxiety that parents will ask each other, compare, gossip, chatter, and generally become agitated and/or defensive throughout the run up to making school choices. The people we shared a playground with were such a wonderful diverse mix from loaded bankers or TV executives with million-pound homes and yummy-mummy ladies who lunch, to unemployed young families, or key-workers living in social housing and a number of quite recent arrivals from Somalia, Turkey, Eastern Europe and other places around the globe, finding their way.  The general feeling seemed to be that this was an important choice to make and we all wanted to get it right. But the reasons for our choices need to be right for each family, their needs and particular agenda.

A tip for parents: Obviously you want to make the right decision but try not to discuss it with other parents too much. Spend time listening and learning and remember that your child will be feeling anxious too. Do your best to reduce the anxiety levels and to be upbeat. And most of all, be clear on what matters to you and don’t let another parent influence you so much that they essentially decide where your child goes to school.

A tip for schools: Many primary schools do a stunningly bad job at supporting parents at this time. Make sure you make links with local schools and provide as much information as possible for families of children in Year 6. If you haven’t heard of the Meet the Parents movement, it’s time to get involved. I have helped organise a few of these and would be glad to help you get one up and running whether you are a parent or a school teacher.

Parents tend to compare their own education to schools today
I heard a lot of parents compare their own schooling to the places that were on offer for their children. It’s easy enough to do, but a mistake in my opinion. In my case, I took a bet, took the entrance exam and ended up going to a girls’ grammar school where I was the only kid on free school meals and felt completely out of my depth. I hated every single moment there but I am not my child, it is not the 1980s and a lot of the rationale for single-sex schools – for girls especially – are completely different to the fuddy-duddy beliefs of the era I grew up in. You only have to hear someone like Vanessa Ogden from Mulberry School for Girls talk about women’s education to know how different the agenda is today. Make sure you are informed.

I taught for a period in a democratic school and the problem was similar there. Some parents who had suffered from their own overbearing parents and strict schooling would send their children to our school because this is what they would have liked for themselves. But it was often a disaster for the school and the child alike as, having had a permissive childhood lacking in boundaries, being faced with making responsible choices, having freedom and trust often left them completely unable to cope in this school environment. In many cases, a more conventional school would have better served their needs.

A tip for parents: Treat what you learn about a school as if you are a stranger from a strange land. Resist the urge to compare. Try instead to put your child’s best interests at the heart of your choice. Imagine your child there and ask your child if they could imagine themselves there. It’s not that important whether you would like to be there as the child you once were.

A tip for schools: You can’t over-emphasise what kinds of students would thrive at your school, and you would do well to set out for parents and students scenarios for the different kinds of children you serve and their different interests. Make sure there is a diverse and accurate mix of photos, case studies, stories and examples so prospective parents have a chance to ‘see’ their child at your school.

Parents usually think of their Year 6 child rather than the Year 12 child they could become
We had realised pretty quickly that walking 5 minutes to school would not be an option for us. This is because we were applying in one catchment area knowing that by the time the new school year started we were most likely going to be living in a totally different one.  There was no way around this as you can’t apply speculatively for the area you think you are going to be living in. This made it easier to realise that our small, inexperienced Year 6 child would need to get some know-how travelling on public transport and that she would not be 12 forever. Many parents limit their choices because they simply cannot imagine their child being independent, travelling on public transport or getting about without them being there too. I was amazed and delighted with how quickly our oldest took to travelling by bus, grabbing herself a snack with friends on the way home, until she is now totally confident to go anywhere so long as it features on Google Maps.

A tip for parents: You really need to let go and think about the young adult that your child will grow into during their time at school. Year 6 is a time to start letting them travel to school alone, make forays to the shops, lead the way on public transport on family outings and more. Don’t rule out a school because your child has never walked that far or taken a bus before.

A tip for schools: Make sure prospective parents know how your students get to your school, which bus routes they take, whether they cycle or walk, if there is organised transport or whether there are car pools. Reassure them that they can do it too.

Nothing is irreversible
I brought my family to England when the kids were nearly 5 and 2 and neither of them spoke English with any fluency. It was tough but it taught us all that they were able to cope. For the first 6 years, we stayed at the same primary school but moved home three times and then finally to our own home in a different area of London when the oldest went to secondary school. Because of the move, the youngest had to start Year 5 in a new primary school – it was the making of her, although she was convinced it would be awful.

They say that control freaks and perfectionists make the worst parents and if having a baby doesn’t knock any illusions of control or perfection out of you, surely the passing of the years should. But if you have somehow got to the age when you are trying to make the best decision you can about secondary schools and you’re still convinced you will get it 100% right, one thing to bear in mind is that nothing is irreversible when it comes to school choices. If the worst comes to the worst and you, the school and your child realise for whatever reasons that this wasn’t the right choice, you can always think about applying to move elsewhere.  Parents and children alike often see this as horror of horrors, disruptive, tainted with failure and negatively life-changing. I think it is really helpful to say this message loud and clear to your child from the beginning: “Sweetie, if it doesn’t work out, there are other schools that are also great. You will be fine, but if it doesn’t work out, we will think again”. In most cases people do make the right choice anyway.

A tip for parents: Take the pressure off yourself to be perfect and all-knowing. If you have done your homework, you will probably get it right, but be open and vocal about the fact that the world won’t end if it doesn’t work out. This message is also an important one where the schools you have listed are over-subscribed and you might not get your first choice. Make sure you make it known that every school on the list will be just fine and what the pros and cons are for each.

A tip for schools: If for some reason it doesn’t work out, support students and their families to move on without feeling they have failed. Children shouldn’t be made to feel they have let anyone down if they can’t make it work at your school.

Ofsted reports don’t mean a thing
Some parents only consider a school if it is rated Outstanding or Good by Ofsted. Some even spend long hours reading Ofsted reports. It can be useful to read an Ofsted report, especially the summary on where the school’s strengths are and where their areas for improvement could be. These could be things you look out for or ask questions about when you visit the school. But an Ofsted inspection is but a snapshot of a day or two in the life of a school. And that snapshot may have happened some time ago. I have visited great Outstanding schools but others where I have felt it was a tense, soulless and pressured environment and I have visited awful schools rated Requires Improvement and others that have been the most creative, aspirational, purposeful and warm places. Ofsted reports are useful as part of the picture, but mainly are unreliable as the basis for your decision.

Tips for parents: Trust your gut feeling when you visit a school. Try to get to schools that you are interested in not just for the open days and public marketing displays around choices time. Get yourself there for a Winter Fair, a school concert or other opportunity. Get to know parents of older students there. Have a look at the school website and look into the eyes of the children there.

Tips for schools: Make sure the local community has ample reason and opportunity to engage with your school. Ensure that your website is vibrant and gives an accurate reflection of the school. Talk openly about the school’s strengths and the areas that it is looking to develop

In case you are interested, these are the things that featured in my choice of secondary school in no particular order:

It can be reached easily by public transport

My partner walked in and immediately said he loved it having been previously sceptical, our child liked it and so did her younger sibling.

It is relatively small and they have a good track record with both SEND and most able children.

They are stubbornly enthusiastic about having a rich music and arts curriculum despite the squeeze on finances and time schools are experiencing for these subjects.

It felt right – I called during term-time and said I would like to visit. I went with my child and they gave us an hour and a half of their time. It was a normal school day. They didn’t have to do that. We also visited during an open day – the students were lovely and I grilled them with ‘trick questions’ like: “I bet the fact that there are more boys than girls means there’s a lot of mucking about in lessons, eh?” and “Which teachers shout the most?” They gave great answers and ones I wanted to hear.

The senior leadership team is well-liked and had been there for several years but not too many. A new headteacher takes a while to get going and one that has been there forever may leave. I was keen for at least a couple of years of stability and a strong senior team should the head move on.

The headteacher is a 6ft black woman and many of the staff members were BAME. Call me overly-political but in an inner-London school, I would like my children to be educated alongside and by the very people that they live amongst. This to me felt right.

The school talked in terms of achievements, aspirations and experiences they wanted the students to gain during their time there, but they also used words like love, passion, nurture and fun.

The school is not over-subscribed and has a reputation that is 10 years out of date, despite their best efforts to change this. I asked them outright, “why when I ask about this school, people say they don’t think it’s very good, and yet your Value Added is amazing, you have great results, a new build and a good Ofsted?”  They were honest and not at all defensive. They invited me to help change that, and I am.