Tag Archives: Leadership

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!

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Collective punishment: it doesn’t work but still it happens

punishment-letter
As part of a group detention, students were asked to write a letter on why it is necessary to follow the teacher’s instruction. My child wrote this.

Collective punishment might feel good to you at the time, but it is always wrong

I am not sure I need to add more than is already clearly and respectfully explained in the letter above. Collective punishment is as much a punishment for those that behave themselves as it is for those that don’t. Only, it seems perverse to me that those that have done nothing to deserve it, are punished twice. They are taught that there is no reason to behave well and that if a teacher doesn’t recognise and even disrespects their efforts to follow the rules, these students eventually may say……pfff! What’s the point?

I have given group punishment. I have been that teacher. It was many years ago but when I think about it, I can still feel the ghost of sheer desperation and the feeling of vindictive hatred towards those that had wrecked my well-intended, well-planned lesson. Sooner or later I must have realised it was wrong. Or perhaps I just got better at managing behaviour in class and seeing who was misbehaving.

A couple of weeks ago, it happened in my Year 9 child’s school for the umpteenth time this term and she texted me to say she couldn’t face yet another group detention after school, having missed lunch just days before for one from a different teacher. I called the school livid but also determined to come with the suggestion that they help the offending teachers to understand why it is a stupid technique and to help them find other ways to get the students to behave. As it turned out, the way the school has responded is spot on. They will work with the teachers in question, have deployed more mentors for the class in question, will reissue the school behaviour policy, which disallows group punishment and will also meet with the well-behaved students in the class and discuss with them what they see going wrong so they can learn from their perspective too.

Collective punishment doesn’t make any sense

If you are ever tempted to deploy this as a technique, here is a short film about how ridiculous it is. And if that is not enough, here is a list of some of the reasons not to do it:

  • It makes you look weak and too lazy to get to the bottom of who is misbehaving
  • It probably isn’t allowed by the school behaviour policy so you are not only breaking  the rules yourself but also breaking the contract that each child and teacher have signed up to in the school
  • It demotivates well-behaved students and discourages them from behaving well and makes you feel horrible about yourself as the teacher
  • It doesn’t make sense – we don’t close entire roads because some people drink and drive or shut down libraries because some people damage the books
  • There are better ways

If you need other ways to punish those that misbehave, here are some people with a few ideas:

Learning Spy  deploys an approach which involves gradually releasing students until the right person can be identified and dealt with.
Larry Ferlazzo, in The Happy School, advocates a gentle approach that happens more discreetly than the public display of anger and disappointment in front of the whole class that often takes place.
Playworks advocates 6 ways teachers can build a collaborative contract with their students so that collective punishment such as withholding break-time doesn’t have to be an option.

When it comes to behaviour management, the one that needs to change is probably you

Behaviour management actually requires change of behaviour from you as the adult first and foremost. Pivotal Education is one organisation I know of that has built their entire, very successful, training business around this basic theory – and it works. See this simple but effective explanation of how adult behaviour is the biggest influencer of student behaviour. Most impactful, especially in such financially straitened times, is just considering the real costs of not sorting your own behaviour first.

pivotal
Source: Pivotal Education

An example from one of the masters

There is a Spanish teacher at the school who commands respect from all students and who we often hear about over the dinner table. This teacher seems to know a key fact about each student and uses it to draw out of them a level of engagement and concentration that is stunning. One boy can’t sit still and often loses concentration. He is a great artist. The teacher asks him to summarise the key points of the lesson in a series of drawings which can be distributed to the other students at the end of the lesson to complement their own notes. He is riveted and gets stuck in. His own understanding has increased and he is proving to be a great student where, in other classes, he is disruptive and disengaged.

One student always shouts out inane things that cross his mind, and sometimes he shouts answers to questions without permission and over the top of other students when they have been given permission to speak. His role is given to him at the start of the lesson. He is given a vocabulary list of phrases and words in Spanish like “how interesting” and “ridiculous” and he must make remarks appropriately using these words when class mates are speaking. It’s fun, it keeps others on their toes. They want to get things right because it’s hilarious making him interact with them. He is bristling with concentration, not wanting to miss an opportunity to shout out.

Finally, when the teacher is telling them a story or explaining and uses the word that means “but”, the class must catch him and call out “pero means but”! It’s hardly surprising that most of the class wants to do GCSE Spanish and he doesn’t ever encounter behaviour problems.

This might seem like an energy-intensive method to engage a class but it seems to work and I bet he will never give collective punishment in his life.

This podcast from Pivotal Education took place as a result of this post http://www.pivotalpodcast.com/whole-class-punishment-a-student-speaks-out-pp153/

A letter to future you: strength-based leadership and development

letter writing Alma

Picture taken by Penny Rabiger

The tree of hope and a letter to future you

At the start of term, I used to get my new intake of Year 7 students to do two things: I would create a tree of hope on the display board and give every child a cut out leaf. They and I would write messages of hope and wishes for the coming year to ourselves on the leaves. These were sometimes declarations of intentions to work hard, do homework, listen, or to respect others. Whatever they were, they were deliberately intended to be for all to see. These leaves would stay pinned to the tree throughout the year for the class to refer back to and browse whenever seemed appropriate. There was great learning to be had through referring back and reflecting on what was written.

The second thing I would do is to get my students to write a letter to their future selves.  We would spend some time imagining and discussing what we thought the coming year at school would mean, what they would need to achieve, learn, understand, overcome, and conquer. It’s also important to use this time to help students understand their own strengths and the opportunities, support and challenge they should expect during the year to help them make sure their ideas of what might happen to them are grounded in reality.

Each student would then write themselves a private letter, seal it up and hand it over to me for safekeeping. And I would do the same. As part of the ceremonies for the end of the year, we would open the letters and the children would laugh at how innocent and naïve they were, or gasp at how well their wishes for their future selves had been fulfilled or not. I liked this exercise as it created the feeling of a full circle and it challenged the children to connect deeply with themselves as individuals and as learners – trying to imagine what lay ahead of them and how they would respond to new things, react to challenges, overcome difficulty and seize opportunities. I am a firm believer in the idea that learning is as much about process, self-awareness and personal development as it is about the acquisition of knowledge.

Investing in strengths

It’s time for performance reviews at my workplace and I often feel like objective-setting can be a form of letter to one’s future self. It certainly should be done on the same backdrop of self-awareness as well as taking a realistic view of the needs and aims of the organisation where you work and what opportunities for development and growth there are within it.

There is much evidence to show that at school and at work we are all too often encouraged to invest time and effort on the things that we are clearly not skilled at or interested in and not enough time developing and building on areas of strength and interest. Of course we should not be subscribing to the view that we should only occupy our time and effort on things we think we are good at – some things are important to get to grips with, whether you like them and are good at them or not. One example I am really proud of is that I did my maths O Level/GCSE three times and got two U grades before I got the prized C grade. I even got a Saturday job to pay for my own private tutor the third time. I didn’t know it then, but dyscalculia made this hard for me. My determination made me the only member of my family to get maths GCSE and to go on to get a BA and and MA. My strength may not have been in maths but somehow even at that age, I could see that maths GCSE was a ticket to the future that I needed. Coming from a low-income, single-parent family and with a mother who had significant mental health challenges, I really wasn’t going to give up on it!

The Strengths Finder tool

This is why I really like Strengths Finder as a great way to connect people to their own leading strengths and to help them understand how they can build on these at work and in their out-of-work lives too. I have previously been asked to do Myers Briggs and other personality tests at work and felt that these were akin to horoscopes. It was hard to unravel how to share and implement what they described. I also feel that people need to take confident ownership of their own strengths, make these clearly known in the workplace and find opportunities not only to hone their skills but also to use them for the maximum benefit of the organisation where they work.

Strengths Finder measures the presence of 34 themes or strengths. These are people’s naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behaviour that can be productively applied. We often talk about talent when speaking of students and colleagues and it is key to remember that your talents are indeed the building blocks of strengths.  Combining your talents with skills, experience and knowledge is what creates your strengths.  With Strengths Finder, the more dominant a theme is in a person, the greater the theme’s impact on that person’s behaviour and performance. The Strengths Finder test is thorough and the results are presented in such a way that they are easily shared. You are given a short summary, a longer and more in depth overview, and an action plan with suggestions of how you could be using your strengths, how others should make use of them and how to work with people with different strengths. *I have included my short summary at the end of this post to give you a feel for what it looks like. It was very affirming for me to see my strengths described in this way and to see the tangible ways in which I really do have an impact in the workplace through using these strengths. Rather than seeing them as a rather quirky part of my personality, it fell into place for me the power and value my strengths represent to my workplace and to people that know me. This can give incredible confidence and enhance one’s creativity and decision-making abilities when you know you are building on a strength that is tangibly valuable.

We have all recently completed our Strength Finder profiles at work and have started to map them out on a simple matrix of where each person’s strengths lie. We will continue to explore how we should work together around these and it will be an integral part of each new employee’s induction to do the Strength Finder test and share their results. I believe that all organisations should be moving towards strength-based leadership rather than the often humiliating and punitive methods that we can unwittingly subscribe to through performance management.

Strength-based leadership

While I find that a lot of focus in work and education can be on identifying and working on mending weaknesses, in their book of the same name, Strengths Finder writers Tom Rath and Barry Conchie describe what strength-based leadership can look like:

  • The most effective leaders are always investing in strengths. In the workplace, when an organisation’s leadership fails to focus on individuals’ strengths, the odds of an employee being engaged are a dismal 1 in 11 (9%). But when an organisation’s leadership focuses on the strengths of its employees, the odds soar to almost 3 in 4 (73%). When leaders focus on and invest in their employees’ strengths, the odds of each person being engaged goes up eightfold
  • The most effective leaders surround themselves with the right people and then maximize their team. While the best leaders are not well-rounded, the best teams are. Strong, cohesive teams have a representation of strengths in each of these four domains: executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking
  • The most effective leaders understand their followers’ needs. People follow leaders for very specific reasons. When asked, thousands of followers were able to describe exactly what they need from a leader with remarkable clarity: trust, compassion, stability, and hope

It certainly makes you think doesn’t it? So, tying this back to a letter to the ‘future you’ exercise, at work we have been thinking about giving feedback and about our performance objectives in the light of our strengths. When setting objectives you are in fact trying to future gaze and describe a snapshot in time in the future. But if you are working these around what you already know, and creating a formula of strengths + organisational goals/business need + opportunities to use and develop strengths for the benefit of the organisation, you should be able to pretty accurately describe your objectives and planned outcomes.

Similarly, if you can spend time getting students, colleagues, employees, team members, people you coach or mentor to really focus in on their strengths, understand what the aims and goals are for the coming few months to a year, and to consider how they will build on their strengths to move forward, your letters to the future you will be inspiring when you write them and delightful when you open them a year later.

 

*Strengths Insight Guide: Penny Rabiger

 

Individualization

Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Individualization theme are intrigued with the unique qualities of each person. They have a gift for figuring out how people who are different can work together productively.

Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? By nature, you derive much joy from assisting people in need. Instinctively, you are hardwired to do exactly what you said you would do. Your word is your bond. You are likely to earn the respect of many people. You even win over those who have a hard time trusting anyone. Why? You rarely disappoint them. Because of your strengths, you derive much satisfaction from doing things that benefit people. You typically work as industriously on big projects as you do on everyday chores. Driven by your talents, you are compelled to help people. You yearn to leave the world in better shape for those who will follow you years, decades, and centuries from now. It’s very likely that you help individuals acquire knowledge and gain skills. You are a fine instructor, tutor, and/or trainer.

Relator

Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Relator theme enjoy close relationships with others. They find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.

Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? It’s very likely that you are naturally open and honest about who you are, what you have done, what you can do, and what you cannot do. Your straightforward explanations and stories help listeners see you as you see yourself. You reveal your strengths and limitations. You are forthright and plainspoken. People generally seek your company and want to work with you. Many are impelled to move into action by your words and examples. By nature, you have the ability to instruct, train, or offer suggestions to people who look to you for assistance. Driven by your talents, you are determined to share your knowledge and skills with people you coach, mentor, or train. Chances are good that you are comfortable being open and honest about who you are. Often you intentionally avoid people who are less than truthful. You prefer to spend time with individuals who speak as candidly as you do about their strengths, shortcomings, hopes, disappointments, failures, or successes. Because of your strengths, you enjoy the companionship of individuals who tell you what they plan to accomplish in the coming weeks, months, or years. Once you know their goals, you can help them reach their objectives. Few things please you more than this.

Arranger

Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Arranger theme can organize, but they also have a flexibility that complements this ability. They like to figure out how all of the pieces and resources can be arranged for maximum productivity.

Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? Because of your strengths, you naturally choose to work in groups rather than do things by yourself. This preference for partnerships reflects your willingness to welcome into the team many different types of individuals. By nature, you automatically notice what people do well. You pay attention to their individual interests, too. Combining this information, you are likely to understand who should work and should not work together. You probably create partnerships where one person’s talents complement those of another person. You tend to match people to tasks they enjoy. Instinctively, you embrace a wide array of people. You honor their differences with ease. You identify specific things each one does quite well. These insights help you mix and match one person’s talents, skills, and knowledge with those of others in the group. Ultimately, you position individuals in such a way that cooperation becomes the norm rather than the exception. Driven by your talents, you are known as a reliable and dependable person. You are motivated to work diligently. You cannot rest until you have completed what you told someone you would do. Chances are good that you periodically think about what you need to upgrade or do better. What you discover may help you determine the number of things you can handle simultaneously. Perhaps you produce some of your finest results when you have more than one thing to do.

Achiever

Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Achiever theme have a great deal of stamina and work hard. They take great satisfaction from being busy and productive.

Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? Chances are good that you push yourself to meet high standards and reach important goals. Your feelings of success or failure likely hinge on the way others judge your results. Your keen awareness of people’s moods motivates you to work even harder. You want to please them. You want to earn their approval. You often just want to make them happy. Because of your strengths, you critically examine the essential elements of the current condition. You toil tirelessly to identify the basic parts of various plans, problems, opportunities, processes, or ideas. Instinctively, you ordinarily take time and exert extra effort to comprehend what you are reading. You probably refuse to rush through written material. Why? You likely intend to commit to memory as many facts and concepts as possible. It’s very likely that you exhibit the physical and mental endurance needed to continuously toil long after others have stopped working. You are hardwired to pursue goals until they are reached. When obstacles arise, you become even more determined to succeed. By nature, you likely have a reputation for being a hard worker. This explains why you tell individuals they can accomplish a lot more than they think they can. You repeatedly pressure people to excel rather than settle for mediocre results. You probably have a very difficult time associating with people who do only what is expected and who whine when they are challenged to do much more.

Connectedness

Shared Theme Description: People who are especially talented in the Connectedness theme have faith in the links between all things. They believe there are few coincidences and that almost every event has a reason.

Personalized Strengths Insights: What makes you stand out? It’s very likely that you sense you are not all alone in the world. You probably feel linked with every person and living thing. This openness explains why you invite a vast array of people to participate in conversations, activities, social events, or groups. By nature, you occasionally help people realize they are part of the human family. With your guidance, perhaps they understand that their lives are intertwined with people they will never meet. Because of your strengths, you have no doubts about being linked in some way with everything in the universe. This includes all creation and all humankind. Driven by your talents, you routinely isolate facts that link ideas, events, or people. You are especially sensitive to how one person’s optimistic or negative thoughts can affect the entire human family. This prompts you to pay close attention to what individuals and groups think and do. Chances are good that you may underscore what people have in common even though their backgrounds, experiences, languages, cultures, or interests may vary. Sometimes you facilitate dialogue between individuals. Once in a while, you create peace within groups or between people by pointing out links between them.

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.

 

 

‘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