Category Archives: School governance

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

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Photo credit: Penny Rabiger

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

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

Conception and birth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birth and the first year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schooling and beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Data which informs and data which makes us conform

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

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

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

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Why be a governor?

BEST SCHOOL

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

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

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

Why be a governor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being a local authority or community governor: pros and cons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you become a governor?

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

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

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

Good luck!

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!

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

‘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