Category Archives: policy

Colour-blindness, cats and cucumbers, and cycling

Image result for Unconscious bias
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

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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.

 

 

 

Social media: handle with care

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love my social media. I use Twitter and Linked In professionally and I keep my relatives and friends up to date with my family life through Facebook. And yes, I am starting to explore the wonders of blogging through WordPress. Twitter, in particular, has given me so much. It has opened my eyes, broadened my horizons and provided a reach I never imagined possible. There are times when it’s a bit weird – although still on the spectrum of not unpleasant – like when someone approaches me at a conference and says, “Excuse me but are you @Penny_Ten? Amazing to meet you, I’ve been following you for ages!”

But there have been times when it has got messy. Two examples stay with me and make me feel extremely uncomfortable. The first is what I can now jokingly refer to as my ‘claim to fame’ of having been hounded 24 solid hours by one of our finest and most prolific Twitter edu-trolls. Among other things he called me a liar and anti-Semitic. I feel proud that I didn’t buckle under his attempts to humiliate me until he finally skulked away and blocked me. But it was traumatic and degrading. While it was happening, several of my Twitter allies were direct messaging me, encouraging me to keep to my cordial, outwardly calm stance. But my boss was far from happy the following Monday and I really wondered if the whole very public episode might somehow undermine me professionally. Teacher Toolkit writes about his own similar experience and captures well that awful sense of being emotionally violated by his attacker.

The second occasion was when a long-time LinkedIn professional contact of mine suddenly went creepy on me and started propositioning me in the most unwholesome and inappropriate of ways. I told him in no uncertain terms that he was completely out of order and disconnected from him on LinkedIn immediately. I admit that I had stereotypical assumptions about him as he was married, a practising Christian and much older than me. It took me by surprise and made me realise that you never really can tell.

So you see while it would be hypocritical of me to ban my children from enjoying the modern privileges of online life, I am keenly aware that it has real dangers for all of us. Some of these dangers are concerned with other people’s malicious intent to harm us and others are more connected with the relentless nature of being constantly available and always in communication with the outside world. It is my job to make sure that my children know how to be safe. As parents and as teachers we can’t keep children safe all the time and in every situation. What we can do is set boundaries that are age-appropriate, equip them with sound and constantly evolving understanding and hope for the best. Grim and extreme as their example is, Breck Bednar’s parents explain this all too well in the article in the Guardian this weekend. Breck was a 14 year old boy who loved gaming and who was groomed online and murdered in 2014.

When one thing leads to another

I have two daughters aged 13 and 10. Like most young people of their age group, they are pretty active online. My youngest is an avid Minecrafter often joining shared servers to play and chat with a combination of school chums – and people she has no idea who they are. She also uses WhatsApp to communicate with her friends and family. The oldest, like many 14-17 year old girls has two popular Instagram accounts. One has over 2k followers and contains pretty good street photography, the other account seems to be mainly selfies and other such stuff. She invests much time in maintaining them both. She also has Snapchat, WhatsApp and Skype. They both know the rules and understand why we have them – no pictures of you in your school uniform, no sharing your full name, details about where you live, go to school, where you hang out with people with those you don’t know personally. We found watching this short film on Thinkyouknow.com was really useful in helping all of us to get gain a basic understanding of how quickly and simply things can get complicated.

I was quite impressed with my oldest’s use of Skype. Especially since our own family experience of it was excruciating weekly meet ups with the grandparents abroad which mainly consists of various combinations of each side saying “I can’t see/hear you, can you see/hear us?” and then it usually ends up with one of us on the phone directing granny and grandpa on how to switch on the mic or the webcam. We would watch their pixelated looming faces peering into the screen or hear someone bump their head on the desk and swear as they returned from wiggling some cable or other to solve the issue. The kids would invariably slip away unimpressed using the commotion for cover. But no, my oldest daughter uses Skype to do her homework with a friend and for general chit chats.

I did become alarmed recently though when I heard her laughing and chatting away with someone new in her room late one night. When I enquired casually who it was, and she said a name I didn’t know, I asked her where she knew them from. I wasn’t expecting her to say they ‘met’ on Instagram and then one thing led to another. I felt my stomach lurch when she said that. And I saw the look of panic and then defensive defiance on her face when she realised that this was not cool. You see it’s one thing to like each other’s pictures and quite another to start messaging each other when you don’t know each other. But to give out your Skype details and to start actually talking intimately is quite another ball game. The one advantage with seeing someone on Skype though is that you can fairly accurately gauge whether they are who they say they are. Unless they are posing and grooming you to meet their older friends. It has been known. My take on it was to explain that we are all feeling our way on this, and it is better to keep the communication channels open rather than force my daughter underground and into deception and concealing her activity. We talked for a long time about why there may be dangers and how to be careful about these. But I am still jittery and know that we all need to stay alert.

Social media or anti-social media?

Earlier this week the NSPCC chief executive, Peter Wanless, warned of a nation of deeply unhappy children, due to “the pressure to keep up with friends and have the perfect life online … adding to the sadness that many young people feel on a daily basis”. And this is something that has also had mixed impact on us as a family. My youngest was a little isolated socially until we managed to get her a smart phone on Freecycle and suddenly she was meeting up with her classmates at weekends and chatting with them after school during the week. It was as if the floodgates were opened and her social life took off. My oldest also has a varied social life but actually getting up and going out gradually became less of a priority. Until we had a very dramatic incident which shook her out of it.

I am not sure I will be able to convey the force of the drama clearly here but it went like this: over a period of weeks, she had been on her phone what seemed like constantly. She was putting herself under pressure to build up her Instagram following, and she was chatting to school friends as well as some of her friends from our previous life abroad. Evenings and weekends would be spent getting homework quickly out of the way and then endless screen time. TV on so she could keep up with Dr Who discussions later, WhatsApp pinging, thumbs scrolling and pumping ‘like’ on photos so others would ‘like’ hers. It was relentless. And we regularly intervened, nagged and set boundaries. We gently placed her phone in a drawer overnight and switched off the Wifi at 7.30pm.

One Friday we could see yet again she had no plans to meet anyone real face to face or do anything meaningful over the weekend. The next day we tried to help her find someone to meet with, offered to spend the day out together and eventually in desperation, established a no-screens-until-evening rule – and it was hell. Our mature, reasonable, sensible girl was simply like a raging addict. By the Sunday, she wouldn’t even get up, wash, eat, establish eye contact. We did everything we could to get her to move on to something else. By Sunday night she was like an empty shell. On Monday morning she announced she was ill. I was outraged and quite alarmed and felt I had to put my foot down. I insisted she get out of bed, wash and go to school. She was morose, floppy, glazed. But I was determined that she would go and get off the blinking screens. Off she went, still protesting, but she went. Dad and the youngest left for work and school. She must have been waiting and watching nearby and saw her chance. She didn’t know that I was planning to work from home that morning before I had to go to a meeting and so when she crept back in, she nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw me there glaring at her. She turned and fled and for a while we had no idea where she was.

The long and the short of it is that it all came to a head, and we ended up that evening having a three hour, very intense and deep discussion about what it is to be a teenager nowadays. She was distraught, bursting forth hearty wails and gasping tears. She had reached an extremely dark and painful place. It was frightening for me to see her like that but it was important to unpack, together, how the intensity of feeling had been fuelled by this relentless online interaction and screen time. I could see how it had become mesmerizing, sucking up her energy and how she just couldn’t get herself to disconnect and to meet with some of her offline real-people friends, face to face. She challenged me about my use of social media and whether I needed to rein myself in a little too and then she came up with the idea of writing down and committing to everything we had discussed. So was born the “A Healthy Use of the Phone” contract we have hanging on our pinboard and that we are all bound to as a family.

contract

As parents, as teachers, as people who live in a digital age, we need to help each other to honour healthy use of the Internet and social media. We need to stay alert to the wonders and the potentially addictive nature of this tool. We need to do this regularly and especially when things are going well. In honour of the memory of Breck Bednar, next week I plan to sit down with my children and watch the harrowing documentary about him on BBC3 called Murder Games. I’m not looking forward to it but I feel we must.

Sources:
Think You Know is an excellent resource on safe use of the Internet for young people, parents and teachers http://thinkyouknow.co.uk/

Bad Blogging by Teacher Toolkit http://www.teachertoolkit.me/2015/11/08/bad-blogging/

Guardian newspaper article on Breck Bednar http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/23/breck-bednar-murder-online-grooming-gaming-lorin-lafave

Murder Games: The Life and Death of Breck Bednar http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03cgtx5

Daze Digital short piece on girl Instagrammers http://www.dazeddigital.com/photography/article/28682/1/hit-follow-on-these-teen-photographers-taking-over-instagram

Guardian article about the online pressures of social media making children unhappy http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/07/online-pressures-unhappy-children-cyberbullying

 

‘When Governments ask for the World’

This week I was lucky enough to attend the Annual Trustees’ Lecture at the Arts and Media School, Islington. It’s always a treat. Last year was delivered by the stimulating and entertaining Grayson Perry and this year it was by the highly sensible and eternally affable Tim Brighouse.IMG_2004

Tim Brighouse delivered his lecture ‘When Governments ask for the World’, which you can also read here in full.

One of the most striking things he pointed out was just how education has changed through the ages – and how the power has shifted from the classroom practitioners to the Secretary of State for Education who has more and more powers over increasing levels of detail in the classroom. I have attempted to summarise it below

Five Ages of Education

Age Years Assumptions Powers of the secretary of state
Trust and Optimism 1944 -1968 1)     Central government’s role was to set the general policy guidelines only; the detail and most power should be left to local government which was closer to the people and therefore better able to understand their needs.

2)     Political freedom, moral freedom, social justice resonated with politicians from all parties. Education was a ‘good thing’ and we needed more of it. Schools were built; Colleges of Further Education, Teacher Training Colleges, Colleges of Advanced Technology – later turned into Polytechnics (and ultimately Universities) – were created and run by LEAs. Local Authorities also created a Youth Service, Adult Education Centres, Teachers Centres and Outdoor Pursuit Centres for residential trips as they also founded a network of public libraries and youth employment services (later called the Careers Service).

3)     It was not for governments to interfere in matters best left to professionals. In education ‘matters best left to the professionals’ meant what should be taught and how it should be taught

 Three:

1)     Removing air-raid shelters

2)     Securing a sufficient supply of suitably qualified teachers

3)     Rationing scarce capital resources for new buildings

Doubt and Disillusion 1968-1980 1)     Pupils weren’t being taught properly or the right things

2)      ‘Education isn’t working’ theme

3)     Central Government – at least in England if not in the other parts of the UK – was determined to act

Five
Markets and Managerialism 1980-2015 1)     ‘Choice’ (for parents), ‘diversity’ (of provision and types of school) ‘autonomy’ (for schools) and ‘accountability’ (by schools and local authorities).

2)     A belief in market forces and competition as a means of finding a solution to most problems.

3)     Seeing now the words ‘Equity’ and ‘Equality’ and they demanded regulation by the state since market forces, though never publicly acknowledged, couldn’t be relied upon to deliver those ideals.

4)     Markets and competition tend to produce winners and losers – sometimes more of the latter than the former. So we have managerialism by the state.

Forty
Confusion 2015-2020 1)     No national agreement on what the purpose of education is.

2)     Disproportionate focus on Literacy and Mathematics with little mention Music, Art, Drama, Dance or outdoor education or residential.

3)     Fragmentation of the system.

Over 2,000 and very little accountability. It extends to the Secretary of State defining in detail what shall be taught, how it should be taught and when it should be taught in England. This approach is not replicated in Wales Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Ambition and Partnerships 2020 – 1)     An accountability system where achievement as well as attainment is assessed, where there is an overt attempt to assess the progress of children in terms of their health and well-being, how they are able to be team players especially in solving inter-disciplinary problems which are the hallmark of the modern world, and how they are intelligent rather than how in intelligent they are.

2)     Access to schools would need to be fair rather than the competitive scramble it is now.

3)     A shared language of school improvement.

If you found this interesting, you might want to explore this timeline dating back as far as http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/timeline.html  600 A.D

If you are serious you have to go hunting

Binoculars

The Festival of Education list of speakers is out

The  initial list of speakers proposed for the Festival of Education 2016 is out. There are some great names there and I’m really excited to be going again this year, as I have every year since it started. As I scrolled down the faces, it really stood out how many of them were white and male (not to mention that five of them are called Andrew/Andy!) I pointed out this white and male bias on Twitter and was met with the inevitable flurry of likes and retweets and a couple of push backs.

The main thrust of the small amount of resistance I received to my pointing out that there is an imbalance seemed to be that this was a self-selecting group. To become a speaker there relied in part on people putting themselves forward. 300 people did, and none of them were turned away. I think I understood my Twitter colleagues as saying that if people don’t put themselves forward that aren’t predominantly white and male, then they are just making the balance the way it is. It was hard to explain myself in little 140 character snippets so I want to set out what I feel needs to be said here.

Who should speak?

As a teacher in the classroom and later in my professional life as a leader running meetings, I was always aware that everyone in a group should have a voice. It’s easy to get this wrong and through good intentions to crush those that are naturally outspoken and enthusiastic and swoop down and ask someone what they think while they quietly die inside from having all eyes on them. But we do have a responsibility to make sure every voice is heard and to find a way that works for everyone to have those voices included in the debate.

These days I often take part in meetings and discussions in my day to day life. I know that I have no problem speaking up most of the time. In fact, I know that I have a duty to be very attentive to how much of the group’s time is taken up by my own voice. It was a breath of fresh air to be in a management meeting recently where we discussed exactly this and decided how we would ensure that everyone has space, time and the awareness of their colleagues to help get this balance right so we can make good decisions together. It can make people who are outspoken feel just as anxious as those who are not, if the balance isn’t right. No-one wants to feel they are contributing too much or too little. The best environments are where everyone takes equal responsibility to get the balance right and it is recognised that there are certain inbuilt imbalances that need to be watched for carefully and which can change depending on the issue at hand. If we want to get this right, we have to hunt out these imbalances and actively address them. If you are serious, you will whether that’s in a small meeting or you are scanning the proposed list of speakers for a major event.

The problem with self-selection

Self-selection on the face of it seems like a wonderfully fair and open way to organise an event. It clearly invites people who think they have something of worth to say, to have a platform to say it. You might ask what the problem is. You are guaranteed to get some really enthusiastic, responsible people coming forward who will consider carefully what they are going to say, how and why – lest they make fools of themselves in front of everyone who is anyone in education – because everyone who is anyone tends to rock up to the Festival of Education. (If you haven’t been, imagine an extremely civilised education equivalent of the Glastonbury Festival – without the mud, the terrifying toilets, the noise, the drugs etc).

To my mind, while this self-selection is a good way to get some initial ideas for willing presenters, if it was the only way of selecting speakers, it would be lazy and the same as standing in front of a class and saying, “if you know the answer, shout now”. I must point out that because this shout out for speakers by the Festival of Education was done on Twitter, it is like standing in the furthest corner of the classroom whispering or texting a couple of people saying, “if you know the answer, shout now”. Most educationalists are not on Twitter. Hard as it is to comprehend this fact, I have to keep reminding myself of this daily. And many educationalists that are on Twitter and who blog have ample platform to say what they think.

I know this isn’t the only way that the Festival of Education organisers are looking for speakers, so this is not an attack or an accusation. So again, if you are serious, you need to go hunting using a wider method than shouting out on social media.

Event organisation and programme management is a serious business

I have quite a bit of experience of event organisation. This is from all angles as a delegate, an exhibitor/sponsor and as an organiser thinking through balanced programmes for events. It’s not easy. You need to do a lot of research and talking to people to find the right speakers and to get the right balance that reflects the sector you are operating in and the issues you know for a fact need to be covered. You need to include known names and people that will pull in an audience in the first place or no one will come, but you also have a unique opportunity to bring in some people that are perhaps lesser-known and have much to say that could be of benefit to the community you know will be present at your event. And you will need to work hard to find these people, to describe what they are going to say and why others need to hear it.

It can be even more difficult to get speakers that are actually good at speaking publicly. Some people have great experience and probably much to say, but they aren’t great at speaking. And others can be very entertaining or very well known, but don’t really have anything new, interesting or relevant to say any more. There were some grumbles last year at the Festival of Education that one extremely well-known education speaker was flown in at vast expense and was frankly a bit ‘meh’.

I went to two events on social mobility recently – one had a panel of young white, entrepreneurial, middle class, mainly men who spoke of their experience of trying to create a more socially mobile environment for students through the various charities and social enterprises they had set up. They were really enthusiastic, obviously wanted to make a change for the better and were consciously able to use their place of privilege in society to do so. But I felt a bit like they had a very them-and-us view of the world and that they ticked off a great list of boxes, almost saying, “it’s okay guys, we’ve got this”. I wanted more enquiry, more challenge. The other event I attended had a panel that was well-balanced with regards age, social class, race, experience, and included people from education, business, social care and other sectors. It also included people young and older people who felt they had been able to be socially mobile and those that felt they had not. I felt truly stimulated and that I had learned a lot from the second panel. My eyes were opened and I was left feeling uplifted but also thinking about some really uncomfortable truths about my own society and my place in it in relation to others. That, for me, is a good balanced panel and a good experience.

After finding this balance, a good event organiser must almost choreograph the dance of themes, issues, ideas, take-aways and calls for action that will take place on the stage in front of participants. Furthermore, a good event often needs to be both accessible to anyone with a passing interest and simultaneously stimulating to people who have been living and breathing the issues for years. If you are serious, you need then to both go hunting and to choreograph what you bring into the mix.

Social responsibility and amazing opportunity

There are so many situations where we have a social responsibility to be self-aware and aware of the context within which we are operating. I mentioned it earlier, in some situations I speak loudly and often. Therefore, I need to be aware of those that don’t and listen out for them. I need to know when I can speak up for others and I need to know when to shut up. As a parent governor for example, I had to perform the excruciatingly difficult balancing act of being a representative from the parent body but not a representative of the parent body. I had to look out for the interests of all children and that included my children but my frame of reference should never be through my children but rather all children belonging to the school community.

I often tie myself in knots with these kinds of levels of awareness. I feel the same awareness about my class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, my age and more. I don’t always get it right. In fact, a lot of the time, I feel that we are all trampling about stepping on each other just by virtue of our attempts to not do precisely that. And so I feel that the organisers of the Festival of Education are going to face the same difficult task of making way for the many voices, issues, interests and debates that need to be heard. And they have a social responsibility and an amazing opportunity to make this as balanced, fair, interesting, challenging and inclusive as possible. To the organisers I say, you made a good start with the initial self-selection but I know you are serious, so happy hunting!

 

 

Living the dream: what the heck is social mobility anyway?

After I left The Key I worked briefly with a social enterprise whose perhaps audacious goal is to try to guarantee social mobility for the young people on its four-year programmes. My role was to get them up and running to sell their programmes more effectively to schools and to help them inject more clarity into what schools might need by way of evidence that these programmes do indeed work. It certainly got me exercised about the whole concept of social mobility and in my previous blog post I look at how schools might start thinking about their own engagement with issues of social mobility. The first of many questions to consider though is always the big one: what the heck is social mobility anyway?

The fact is, when you delve just below the surface, the whole concept of social mobility is problematic – for some to move up, others must move aside and make room. And yet some organisations working with young people from deprived backgrounds, schools included, might be tempted to think it starts with telling students that, as Lawrence Samuel put it The American Dream: A Cultural History, anyone can, “through dedication and with a can-do spirit, climb the ladder of success.” We might therefore feel justified in telling our students that anyone can be anything they want in life, they just need to want it badly enough, keep their noses clean and work for it. And there is some truth in this but it’s never that simple, is it?

All too often, being socially mobile or even being a ‘success’ seems to be equated with a rapid acquisition of huge wealth. The media often screams messages of quick ascent to fame and fortune so long as you are ‘in it to win it’. I hear it a lot from teachers, parents, youth workers and the like that young people often need a swift and intensive crash course in the actual reality that isn’t found in the ‘reality’ TV shows and celebrity lifestyles readily available to them as role models. Unpack these celebrity footballers’ and famous personalities’ lives and you see how short-lived, fraught and insecure their riches really are. In fact when you look at the statistics for these outliers, you begin to understand that many young people (and probably an equal number of older ones too) will clearly see this dream crumble before their very eyes when you start to unpack the odds for them. I can’t tell you how many times the team I worked with started conversations with their Success for Life programme participants with helping them understand that becoming a premier league footballer might not be a viable all-eggs-in-the-basket first option (especially considering you aren’t even in the first team at school and aren’t training more than a couple of times a month).

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t encourage young people to dream, to be aspirational, and to set their goals high. But our role as educators is to, well, educate. Are we clear ourselves on the way in which our society seems to reject the notion that social mobility might be determined by forces which are beyond our control? With twisted pseudo-meritocratic themes coming through loud and clear around the undeserving poor, benefits cheats and scroungers have we lost sight of the noble desire for equality of opportunity as a starting point for all our young people? And in practical terms, is there even space in the timetable for existential enquiry around politics, society, history and democracy unless they are part of the curriculum of your chosen GCSE and A level subjects?

Sussex University sociologist Peter Saunders has written extensively on social mobility and on the question of how meritocratic Britain really is. He defined an ideal meritocratic society as one where “each generation would be recruited to a different class position on the basis of individual intelligence”. And schools seem committed to this notion that intelligence is the defining factor in fixing our intellectual and professional status as adults. This is reinforced by the fact that schools are judged by academic outcomes in particular for our students from deprived backgrounds, and ‘closing the gap’ is what it is all about. It seems that we do mean well and that this is embedded in our educational and societal structures. If this is the case, schools don’t necessarily need to see beyond the confines of their contribution to a student’s future success. They are doing everything they can and in that sense, the mantra of ‘work hard and you can get anywhere you want’ does seem appropriate when you are referring to gaining the grades that buy you a ticket from school to the next stage.

But if knowledge is power then there are two things young people need from their education and we need to take responsibility for the fact that it can’t be covered by simply selling the American Dream. The first is a commitment to fearlessly educate them about social mobility itself, the divisiveness of our society and how inequality is embedded at every level. This is not to demotivate or disincentivise our young but rather to empower them to perhaps even be the agents of change. And secondly, we need to ensure young people have a chance to explore their own personal story, their roots, their feelings, and assumptions about themselves as actors not just within a classroom and a school, but as a family member and as a member of wider society and even the global community. This intertwined story of ourselves as both social and personal beings, and as products of and actors in society is one that is not easy to unpick but unlocking it as a concept can be the key to achieving real, enduring success, for life.

Four things to help students to think big:

  • Don’t ask students what they want to be when they grow up, but ask them who they are and what makes them excited. Students need to know what sparks their passions and need to build on their strengths. We spend too much time in life trying to improve things that we can’t do well, when we should be spending more time building on our strengths.
  • While we are on the subject of self-knowledge and self-worth, it’s important to make sure that students can not only look inwards and understand themselves – the personal, and the political. They need to know how to articulate what they feel, think, believe and hold dear. Students need opportunities to put across their case and promote themselves as worthy beings with much to say. They need time to develop and differentiate their world view and they need opportunities to try out these thoughts and beliefs on different audiences for different ends.
  • Make sure students know about a variety of people and their professions, from the mundane to the specialised, to the generalists and the quirky. Ensure they understand the skills sets, interests and pathways that led people into these professions. Bring these people into school, take the students out into the world, use low-cost options through social media or the Internet. Get them into the habit of asking people about their journey that led them to where they are now.
  • Help young people to understand that hard graft and dedication are essential and that good grades are your ticket to greater things, but that there is more than this that determines success. And some of that is deeply entrenched prejudice, inequality and injustice. A thorough understanding of society, the barriers and the opportunities we all face in different ways can help empower students to be the agents of change and to build a better future. How good is that?

You can see my article in Teach Secondary here http://www.teachwire.net/news/in-their-dreams-young-people-need-to-be-taught-about-social-inequality