Exam periods are not only a source of stress for young people, but how your teen responds can set the mood for the whole household. During the pandemic, my kids were working towards their GCSEs and A Levels respectively, only to have them replaced by teacher assessed grades. This year, while one is coming towards the end of her second year at university, the other child is preparing for A Levels. Of course, for their school cohort, these will be their first public exams and the stakes feel higher than usual.
As a parent, here are some ways you can help your child during this seminal moment:
Remember, their experience is gospel
As parents, we have the benefit of hindsight, but if there’s something I have had drummed into me by my children, validating their experiences is the most supportive thing you can do. Even if you know this too will pass, understanding that the first few times you experience something, it feels huge and you need to be allowed to fully feel whatever it is that you feel. This is why for example young people report as the most lonely of any age group – when you get to my age, you know what periods of loneliness and isolation feel like, and you know what you can do to mitigate them. But to young people, this is a terrible new sensation and it can feel like this will be the rest of your life! Yes, it can be reassuring to have a parent tell you that in the grand scheme of things, things will be okay, but there are ways to do this without dismissing their real feelings of anxiety, doom, panic, comparison with peers and a lack of self-confidence. Think: what can you say that reflects back what they feel and also reassures them? Consider asking your child what they would find reassuring and then say that.
Ask what they need
Giving advice and helping with exam preparation practicalities can be brilliant, but only if they are receptive at the time that you give advice. Also, what worked for you, back in ancient times, may not feel relevant or helpful. So ask them first what they need right now. Perhaps you can suggest that when they feel ready, you can help them plan a realistic revision timetable, or maybe they would like some help with devising revision techniques, or maybe to join you on a trip to buy some nice flash cards, coloured pens and other stationery to help get prepared. Give them a written list of things you could help them with and let them know exact times of the day, evening and weekends when you will be available to help. When they are ready, they can book you in for whatever it is that they want your support with.
Feed and water them
It sounds obvious, but making sure that your child is eating well and is hydrated makes revision go more smoothly and can help keep them well throughout the exam period. Healthy snacks and drinks can help with concentration and staying power, and can also make your child associate pleasure with learning. If I see my child working hard, I will bring them a nice pint glass with a drink, some ice and a straw, a plate of chopped fruits, and a handful of nuts and quietly slide them into view by way of quietly saying “I see you, and applaud your efforts”. If I’m on my way home from work, I might pick up something they particularly like as a treat and surprise them as a reward for keeping on track with their work or as a commiseration if things aren’t going too well.
Go there, even if it feels counterintuitive
Young people can feel immense pressure to perform and aim for high grades. They can also be extremely fearful of failure and of disappointing their teachers and family. Dismissing this as nonsense or adding to the stress by nagging or pushing them to work harder are never good strategies. In my household we say, ‘Let’s go there and see how it feels’. By this I mean, we will talk through what the options are in different scenarios. ‘You don’t make the grades you need for your next step, what are your options? Can you appeal? Can you re-take? Are there other pathways that interest you?’
Having a plan B is important, and visualising yourself having not made the grade but still having options is empowering too. Allowing your child to imagine the feelings of shame, disappointment, upset and jealousy of peers who have aced their exams in a safe space as just one option, is cathartic. It is also an opportunity for you to show that you will walk with them, whatever happens.
Collective social responsibility
Remember that your child is not alone in their efforts to study and reach their goals. Their friends will be having their own experiences and homelife dynamics. Create a collaborative study space and invite them to host study sessions as a group, or perhaps they can all go and work together at the library nearby. Remind them of the advantages of working together, preparing revision materials and testing each other as well as the fact that not every child has a space at home to study. Modelling to your child the collective social responsibility we have, empathy for others and the benefits of social interaction rather than competitive self-absorption is crucial, especially in an often individualistic society.
There are so many wonderful technology tricks and apps that are readily available and either free or that the school will subscribe to:
Plan a realistic revision timetable using the calendar attached to your child’s school email account, or if you have Gmail, set up a shared one so you can help them stay motivated and make sure they build in breaks, time with friends and rest time. You can also use software like Notion or Trello and create a basic project plan or a to-do list with Todoist. My favourite is Asana, not least because you get galloping unicorns if you complete a string of tasks!
Digital flashcards apps like Quizlet are great for revision. You can also find lots of revision sets already created that you can adapt. Children in the same class can make the workload manageable if they divide up different topics and create shared revision sets for all to benefit from.
Online learning platforms, lessons and explainers are things that some schools will subscribe to like Hegarty Maths for example. But there is a lot that is free and publicly available. If your child is confused by something or perhaps missed the class when that topic was being taught, catching up online can be a great relief.
Timers setting an alarm to start and finish a revision session is a good idea. Taking breaks and building in down time can all be managed on a smart phone.
Background sounds using apps like Spotify for music can help. You can download pre-made study music or create your own playlist. There are apps like Rain Rain with a huge range of white noise from crackling fires, to freight trains or waterfalls which can really help with concentration and mood. These can be useful for helping wind down before bed or if your child experiences anxiety-related sleep disturbance and needs soothing in the night.
Stop motion video might sound bizarre but one of my children uses this as a motivator. They will film themselves studying on stop-motion or slow mode and then it creates a speeded up short version later. The longer they study, the more satisfying the video as you see, perhaps the sun go down in the background, or people passing by through the window and so on. Even though she’s a young adult and manages her own time away from home, we occasionally receive one of these via WhatsApp and it’s a nice way to elicit coos of encouragement from her parents and sibling.
The final advice is take care of yourself too. As a parent, you need to be rested, calm, centred and present during this challenging time so build in space for your own nutrition, exercise, off-loading onto listening ears outside the home and so on. And take your own advice, when the going gets tough know that this too will pass!
Kindness is a buzzword we hear a lot nowadays. It takes its place alongside mindfulness, the search for happiness, and other misappropriated concepts that have been borrowed from spiritual traditions and co-opted, reduced and repackaged by the self-improvement industry. Hang on though, what sort of cynical or heartless sub-human would have a pop at kindness when our world seems to be so tragically unkind? The kindness agenda does indeed seem attractive when acts of kindness can be used to counterbalance the efforts of some individuals who spend time cyber-bullying, tormenting, racially abusing and parading their cruelties to others so openly on social media for example.
The glaring flaw of the kindness agenda seems to be that acts of kindness are in danger of being selective, almost transactional and certainly fleeting moments meted out to people we deem worthy of our attention at a given time. Furthermore, they seem to be more about us than the recipients of the kind acts. The feeling of warmth we gain from acting kindly somehow doesn’t equate to the same level of relief from hardship or misfortune that can be gained from someone on the receiving end of an act of kindness. In fact it has been proven that being kind makes us healthier, but doesn’t have the same impact on those subjected to our kindness.
In fact, what I am driving at is not even about the act of kindness in itself. What I am trying to get to is deepening the motivation, and the impact, behind it. Even shifting the agenda from kindness to compassion is a step closer to something that has much more impactful value than kindness can ever have.Let’s take a closer look:
/ˈkʌɪn(d)nəs/ the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate
/kəmˈpaʃ(ə)n/ sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others
Even through putting these two definitions side by side, you should be able to see a shift from something that is more performative to something that contains a further step of ‘putting oneself in another’s shoes’. You are moving from a way of acting to a way of thinking about others.
Collective social responsibility
There is, to my mind, a stage beyond either of these two, which we seem to have lost sight of and which should really guide all human interaction, especially in these strange times we find ourselves in recently. This is known as collective social responsibility.
Collective social responsibility is not just a way of acting; or even just a way of thinking – it is a way of being which includes a depth of thinking we can’t take for granted from kindness or compassion alone. Through collective social responsibility, we see our relationship with society and the environment as an opportunity to create shared value and we act upon that shared value in a way which is inclusive and promotes the wellbeing of all as collectively valued. It is something that requires broad knowledge and specific interest. It is ever evolving and iterative. It doesn’t set people on a continuum based on value judgements and a meritocratic hierarchy of the deserving and the undeserving.
I am an adult who grew up during the selfish era of Thatcherism. Since 2010 we have seen the rise of policy that seems to be aimed at benefiting the few and not the many. On this backdrop, I am keenly aware of how much the agenda of individualism, self-efficacy and so-called meritocracy guides many people of my generation’s world view. Kindness fits into this, and is a moment of performative softening, from time to time, of what could be seen as a ruthless focus on individual needs and goals.
Let me illustrate how being kind can be differentiated from collective social responsibility and how an act of kindness can be contextualised within a wider collective social responsibility agenda. It could be seen as a kind act to stand and give up your seat for someone else on a bus, because they are elderly or struggling with heavy shopping and have asked you to, either verbally or non-verbally. It is compassionate to be able to see that someone standing near you seems to be uncomfortable and could use your seat and for you to beckon them into your seat. For me, collective social responsibility would be, as an able-bodied person to make sure I sit upstairs ensuring that the seats on the bus downstairs are free for those that need them most. It is for me to explain this rationale to my children as many times as is needed, so that they understand their collective social responsibility to get out of the way, to climb the stairs of the bus even if they would rather stand by the door for the five stops they need to travel than suffer the faff of climbing the stairs. It is not enough for me to instruct them to give up their seat, I must contextualise this and frame it as collective social responsibility. It is that same collective social responsibility that is lacking when we enact a first-come, first-served attitude to the accessible area on the bus, or when a parent sits their child on a seat that could be taken by a vulnerable or frail person instead of putting that child on their lap.
It goes deeper still for me. Kindness could be perceived as a blanket of niceness, that can be delivered in the guise of treating people politely. Collective social responsibility can be about redressing imbalance of resources, power and privilege in simple ways that come from a place of consciousness and conscience. Which is why I become agitated when people divert discussions around social activism, anti-racism and so on, with the suggestion that we just all need to be kinder to one another.
In the context of being a parent of school-aged children, I was sometimes really struck by other parents’ lack of kindness or compassion towards each other, and certainly of the complete lack of collective social responsibility. They were not pointedly unkind as such, just completely unimaginative about other parents’ experiences, needs and life situations. As a parent governor, for example, it is important to try to see the perspective of all families and to try to champion the needs of those who might be least heard or seen, not just to protect and champion the needs of your own child. I would assert that as parents (regardless of whether we are on the governing board or not) that are part of a school community, we should all push ourselves to operate in this way and to enact our collective social responsibility to others in the school community wherever we can.
As the child of a single-parent family myself, I was very aware of the lack of collective social responsibility enacted by others towards my mum. She was so isolated coping with even some of the seemingly simple parts of the parenting malarky that after a while she just gave up trying to do it all alone. So with this in mind, when my children were at primary school, my partner and I talked about how we could enact our collective social responsibility towards those that don’t have our privilege and level of stability, and those that could use a practical additional pair of hands now and again. We had our struggles with stress, money, and as renters suffered some injustices and difficulties around feeling insecure as tenants. Not everything was smooth, stable or safe in our own lives, but we knew that there were compassionate acts we could easily undertake, rooted in our deep sense of collective social responsibility, that made us both want to extend ourselves a little in support of other parents that could benefit from that. I’msurethere were also many times when Iwas as ignorant and indifferent toopportunities where I could have been kind, compassionate or acted as a socially responsible person to other parents. This isn’t about judgement but about trainingoneself to see more clearly when possible.
So, how does that manifest itself? Tapping a parent on the shoulder in the playground and offering to collect their child on the way to school some mornings so they could get off to work sometimes a little earlier or a little calmer – we all know how fraught those school runs can be at times. (And aren’t these moments all the more difficult when you don’t have a partner or another adult to confess your anxiety to about being shouty or terse on the school run?) Or maybe offering to have their child overnight at the weekend so they can get out and not have to think about what time they get in and the expense of a babysitter. A small shift in our routine for us can make a huge difference for someone else, for their child, and even in the long run for the community as a whole. Imagine the power if this was hard-wired into all of us in a school community. Think of the impact on school lateness and absence for example if all parents took it upon themselves to see that all children got to school on time and if we found ways to share the school run as our collective social responsibility…
So, next time you think of something kind or compassionate to do for someone else, please don’t think I am trying to stop you from reaching out and being kind. I’m not. However, if we can find a way to contextualise another person’s experience within the social, societal, and collective, imagine to what extent our actions may lead to something closer to social justice than a feel-good act that has more benefit for the giver than its impact on the wider social good.
The following post is a summary of a keynote presentation I gave to open a wider INSET day on closing the gaps at a secondary school in the south west of England. The stated aims of the session was to unpack what cultural capital means and to challenge some of the assumptions about cultural capital as it is often being deployed in schools.
How do I come to stand before you?
I am not an expert in cultural capital. I do see myself as someone who can challenge and support effectively, and this is my aim with this piece. Many of my experiences, from being the only free school meals child in my class at grammar school, teaching in primary and secondary schools in Jerusalem, returning to work in a start up environment in the UK after 12 years away, I have experienced the dissonance of feeling that my set of cultural norms and values, base knowledge and experiences, even my language and gestures are at odds with the norm. I have also been able to see the patchwork of cultural references and knowledge as useful in my survival toolkit in many situations.
My activism work with The BAMEed Network and lately the Haringey BAME Achievement Group, being Chair of governors at a Tottenham primary school and on a multi-academy trust board in Greenwich has also informed and fed my fascination with this notion of cultural capital.
Who are you?
Ask yourself: who am I? What do I bring to the table? Why? Where do I get it? What parts am I proud of? What parts are seen as valuable to others and why? Does this change depending on what context you are in at the time? Would you give a different set of responses to colleagues around the table at an INSET day compared with the one you might give to friends over a meal out or at a job interview?
What is cultural capital to you?
In schools we use this term freely, but do we know what it means and where it comes from? What do you think you bring in terms of your cultural capital to the students you teach? Have you built in anything around what they bring to you as a teacher?
What is cultural capital, actually?
In his “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction” (1977), Pierre Bourdieu coined the term Cultural Capital. He was interested in French education system in the 1960s, which saw itself as purely meritocratic – the belief that offering the same opportunities to all students was the same as creating equal opportunities for all students. Bourdieu wanted to explore why, despite this, working class students consistently had worse outcomes than their more privileged peers. This led to his understanding that some students come with a set of culturally valued experiences and prior knowledge which give them access to the curriculum more readily.
The phrase cultural capital refers to the tastes, manners, skills and credentials that are sometimes earned, but more often received from your family environment, are particular to your social class and social interactions with others in daily life. If we accept the notion of cultural capital uncritically, we will be unable to see how inequality is created from the get-go. The cycle is such that if you have the ‘accepted’ cultural capital, you are more likely to have wealth, and if you are wealthy, you are more likely to have greater cultural capital.
According to Bourdieu, cultural capital manifests itself in a number of ways:
The Embodied State – this is the knowledge that is acquired consciously and inherited passively through socialisation, through our culture and tradition. It is not something that can be inherited like physical assets but it is certainly impressed on our character and way of thinking, which in turn leads us to seek out and become more open to similar cultural influences.
The Objectified State – this is how cultural capital manifests itself into material, physical objects such as property that are indicators of social class – for example the clothes you wear, the food you eat, your car, and which can also extend into the way you walk, stand, talk and so on.
The Institutionalised State – this is the way in which society measures social capital – for example doctoral degree has more perceived capital than a expertise in a handicraft or being streetwise. I can’t help wondering which one has more actual worth in time of need – being able to stay alive, or having a high degree of philosophical knowledge.
We know what is valued, but why?
This picture is a great example of differing cultural capital. To me, it is the sorting hat from the Harry Potter movies. To my partner, who although he has a PhD, is an associate professor at a London university, came to the UK in 2007 and therefore on sighting this in my presentation slides said “oh my, is that a pile of poo?” Our cultural capital differs on the matter of the sorting hat.
If I ask you to do a quick sorting activity, how would you rank the following?
Universities: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Berlin University, Harvard, Exeter University, Oxford, Brighton University, Durham University
You can play this game and find out so much about how our minds work, what we are socialised to believe and how assumptions around cultural capital come into play. Trying this out on a room of over 100 teachers, I saw that they had no problem setting to work on the task. A few asked for more criteria but on the whole we generally agreed that the supermarkets could be ranked on a scale with Lidl and Aldi at one end of the scale and Waitrose at the other. Interestingly, if you compare the same basket of items from Lidl and Waitrose, the costs will be wildly different, but the actual quality and even source of many of the products will be identical or equal in comparison. Go figure.
The same with the university exercise. For many employers, overseas university equals assumed lower quality, unknown, impossible to perceive as valuable to the same degree as a UK one. Many people immigrating to this country with degrees in medicine, teaching, and so on, are told they need to re-qualify without any exploration of what they actually learned on their courses and whether this maps onto the requirements for the job. This can be further divided into racial assumptions – we are happy with teachers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand taking up teaching posts, but if your teaching degree is from Delhi, Cameroon or Nigeria, objections being raised are far more likely.
The Ofsted framework
The Ofsted framework states that no institution can be rated good unless its curriculum gives “all pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils…the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.”
The schools inspection handbook has linked cultural capital to the national curriculum, introduced by Michael Gove, in setting out “the essential knowledge pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said”.
The best that has been thought and said. We are judged as schools on this. But do we really understand what it is, and what is the best that has been thought and said? This is a place to pause and think again about the uncritical engagement with the term and concept of cultural capital. This is especially vital as the new framework has such a clear focus on curriculum. We are going to have to make decisive value judgements about what is the best that has been thought and said. We are going to have to decide what the things are that every child should learn in our school, in each discipline, across the curriculum as a whole. We are going to have to decide what counts as ‘knowledge’. (If there was ever a time to start understanding the importance of decolonising the curriculum, it is now – more on this later).
Year 1 Acorns; Brer Rabbit tales; continents; English civil war; jungles; Machu Picchu; Mexico; AA Milne; musical pitch; Henry Moore
Year 2 Tap dancing; Louis Pasteur; rabies; mosques; Hansel and Gretel; Atlantic Ocean; extinct animals and fish; Great Wall of China; dinosaur bones; Roald Amundsen
I have so many questions. How do you define what is essential knowledge? Should you define and dictate what knowledge is before you start? What is culture and what is the cultural capital that is valuable to children in your school? Is your school’s culture different to another school’s culture? How do you define that? What is included and what is excluded? Who decides?
Things that personally slowly dawned on me as someone of Jewish heritage growing up in the UK were things like, ‘how come the only thing we learn about Jews is the Holocaust and Shakespeare’s Shylock?’ Later in life, my own cultural experience of this when compared with Israeli Jewish cultural representation was fascinating. The experience you have of your self-worth as a Jew in Israel is radically different to that of a child growing up Jewish in the UK secular school system. Many of my esteemed colleagues, my own partner and children, all of whom have immigrated to this country often share similar experiences of the dissonance between their learned self-worth and what self-worth they are now afforded by those around them.
Bourdieu’s work should help us to see that compulsory education was created as one big sorting hat, designed to divide along clear lines – sorting the workers from the owners of the means of production and those that are used as the means of production.
What do you notice from just these few topics listed as essential knowledge for children in the early years of their education? There are no women (unless you count Hansel’s sister Gretel of course). To me it seems like the memories of a very specific, white, middle class experience of a 1970s childhood. And who was a child in the 1970s? Well I was, and despite the free school meals status and Jewish heritage, much of this is deliciously familiar and often subtly useful. But more significant is that the people in power and determining education policy now are largely from white, middle class backgrounds firmly rooted in that era either as 1970s parents, 1970s children or the children of those that had 1970s middle class, white, childhoods.
Back to the sorting hat
Let’s relate this concept of cultural capital back to our education system as a whole. What has changed since the industrial revolution?
Let’s acknowledge again that our compulsory education system was designed to be a sorting hat channeling children to be either the owners of the means of production, or the workers earning the wealth for the ruling classes. Therefore, there had to be a dividing line. Not much has changed today. The British education system is the most divisive in the world. Thanks to the education reforms of the last decade, it is now the most fragmented in the world.
Cultural capital and wealth go hand in hand now as much as they did during the industrial revolution. The harsh truth is that 7% of children are privately educated and they hold 94% of all elite jobs (judges, CEOs of FTSE 100 companies, the cabinet). A person from an underprivileged background with a 1st from Oxbridge is not as likely to hold one of these elite jobs as someone who has any class of degree from any university and who is from a privileged background.
Even if we have thought through carefully what is the ‘right’ cultural capital to give our children so they have a fighting chance of the achieving the goals that we see as important to ‘success’, the part of cultural capital which we cannot give young people are networks, the sense of entitlement and the wealth that gives privileged young people a place at the front of the queue. More than this, without a critical examination of cultural capital, and the curriculum, we are constantly communicating to groups of young people that they are not entitled, that their cultural capital is neither culture nor capital. We do this through a myriad of ways.
With this in mind, let’s consider what we are portraying to students with some of favourite edu-lingo terminology. We often talk about these buzz words, alongside discussions about gaps for certain groups, cultural capital and curriculum, as if we know what they mean.
Aspiration – is this about financial wealth or is it about aspiring to have the embodied, objectified and institutional states that are deemed worthy?
Mini case- study: a headteacher at a school in coastal Essex told me it took him years to realise that they were labelling students as lacking in aspiration because they preferred to take on apprenticeships with their family members and stay in the same postcode than leave family, guaranteed work, property ownership, good quality of life and education for their children in exchange for a university degree, at a time of the highest post-graduate unemployment rates, £50k debt and isolation from support networks and family. There is no logic to selling this to young people, unless you absolutely believe that gaining the ruling classes’ cultural capital is worth such a huge gamble not only financially but also at the expense of your own cultural, social and societal values.
Social mobility – this goes hand in hand with aspiration and seems to mean moving away from and turning your back on where you’re from. You can see more about my thoughts on this in one of my first blog posts way back when here
Disengaged – what does this mean? Have you asked students themselves what they need? Do they feel valued as the people who are going to be running the show one day?
Mini case study one: People often get irritated with examples from Finland, so I will temper this with a UK one too! Young people I have heard speaking about their education in Finland see education as a great privilege and see their teachers as preparing them to be the rightful future leaders and shapers of tomorrow. The only time we seem to hear about young people in our country are the jumping-for-joy photographs on results day, derisory articles about them skipping school to moan about the environment, and polar opposite tropes of evil-gang-youth and a snowflake generation. Disengagement might just be a function of self-preservation with messages like these.
Mini case study two: Inspire Partnership MAT is a group of primary schools in areas of high deprivation in SE London and Kent. The Junior Leadership Team is a group of children of all ages that takes an active part in all aspects of school life. When I met them recently at one school in Medway, we heard about their work looking at feedback and marking across the school. They were able to identify a gap in consistency in one year group’s books and when investigated more closely, it transpired that this was a year group with newly qualified teachers – they realised that these teachers needed a bit more support from the senior leadership team to ensure that the children had more effective feedback and marking. How great is that for showing the children their worth, engaging them and ensuring that they not only are heard, but also understand the intricacies of learning and teaching in its wider context.
Context – No education takes place without context. We desperately need to decolonise our curriculum. We need to question Black History Month vs history which includes Black history in this country every day. I would also add that while it is of course important for children from diverse backgrounds to see themselves in the curriculum and in the teaching staff, it is vital for white children to see people of colour as holders of power and influence lest we believe the pervading post-colonialist narrative of what is commonly accepted as “the essential knowledge pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said”.
The value of education – That Essex case study says it all. We do need more critical thinking skills from an early age though, rather than leaping straight to more vocational education as the answer to the students who we see as not understanding “the value of education” as it is first served up to them. We can revisit the streetwise vs. PhD question here again too – which one is more likely to keep you alive? Teenagers always ask how will what I’m learning help me in life? Do we ever discuss with children why they are learning what they learn?
Parental engagement – this is another favourite term when we are thinking about cultural capital and “closing gaps”. There are some really crude assumptions made around how parents engage in and therefore we assume, value, their children’s education.
Mini case study: A headteacher of school with 98% Bengali parents once gave a fascinating case study at a NCSL conference that I will never forget. He explained that he and staff were tearing their hair out trying to get parents into the school. It was only when he actually spoke to students about their families, that he understood that their parents would never speak directly to a teacher as this was seen as disrespectful and interfering. They trusted the teachers to educate their children. The bridging from assumptions and cultural bias took a long time, involved careful dialogue, and ensuring that a more suitable method of interaction and involvement was pursued. The headteacher set up an internet cafe at the weekends, where parents could come in and see what their children had been up to via a parent-school communication platform that many schools use to engage parents that are working or otherwise unable to come into school frequently.
Role models – Again, schools often only start thinking about this when we have “students from visibly diverse backgrounds”. But have you considered carefully who are the role models among your staff, the texts you use, your library books, the pictures on the walls. To put it blandly, does your science lab feature all white men on posters? Are all your senior leaders and decision makers from the same kind of background?
It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it
Policies aren’t just pieces of paper – What is valued as cultural capital is communicated beyond the curriculum and it’s important to consider what your policies actually communicate. For example, “extreme hair” policies often class Black children’s hair as extreme for just the way it grows out of their heads. Think carefully about blanket bans on certain styles and cuts or more subtle expectations about what ‘professional’ looks like for staff.
If you have considered what your staff team looks like and discovered that all the powerful positions taken up by white middle class men, do you need to revisit your recruitment policies?
Decolonise the curriculum – We need to go beyond the ‘dead white men’ curriculum choices but also be wary of falling into the trap of thinking you have diversity nailed without seeing that all the diverse texts you have chosen feature people of colour as oppressed, weak, underdogs, deviants or exotic for example.
When and how do you engage with parents? Look carefully at the assumptions you make about so called disengaged parents. Please assume this: ALL parents want the BEST for their children. No-one wants their child to fail or have a bad time at school.
Do you ask parents (and students) what they want, when and how? I have sat through so many parents evenings that are full of acronyms and edu-speak that even to me as an educationalist are impenetrable and serve to distance me from feeling included. For most of us parents, we are happy to trust you with the education of our children if you can respond positively and honestly to the question, “Do you like my child? Do you see their potential?”
Supplementary schools – You can’t do everything, especially in our over-scheduled school day, but one clear way to value cultural capital that is broader than the scope of what school can offer, is to give space, time and honour to typically marginalised experiences by inviting supplementary schools to operate on your premises after hours as part of the educational offer. The knock-on effect can be incredible for your students’ feeling of self-worth, engagement and celebration of cultural capital.
What’s your strategy? You have to be strategic. Do you have an achievement strategy that is about what YOU are going to change and not about interventions that extend the child’s already extended day? You can see a good example in the Haringey BAME achievement strategy
Over to you
Cultural capital is “the cultural knowledge that serves as currency that helps us navigate culture and alters our experiences and the opportunities available to us”.
What can you take away from this? What will you do next?
In light of Oxford University Press’ #positiveaboutnumbers campaign, I have been inspired to share my own journey about maths anxiety and the impact it had on me growing up. As a child, I struggled with maths, as did everyone in my family it seemed. There was no-one to turn to at home – it was clear from the way my mum counted on her fingers, and whenever maths was mentioned shuddered audibly “urgh, not maths, I can’t do maths”, that she would be no help at all.
As I progressed through nursery and infant school, I wanted to like maths and remember feeling the incredible awe and excitement of being able to count to higher and higher numbers. The feeling was similar to taking off the stabilisers on a bike when I could count up in 2s and then in 5s at faster and faster speeds. But in primary school, when it came to subtraction and the dreaded division, I was lost again. My maths teacher once wrote in my report that I was the only child he knew who was so bad at anything mathematical that I couldn’t even draw a straight line with a ruler, let alone plot a line on a chart. The humiliation started to set in for real with times tables. I could get some of them – the 2s, 5s, 10s and some of the 3s, 4s and 11 times tables were just about in my control but to this day I still don’t have adequate command of all of them. I felt crushed as little gold and silver stars appeared on the reward charts in class next to everyone except me. It was only in my 40s when my own children started learning them, that they showed me the finger technique for learning the 9 times table and was delighted!
Playing the shame game
The growing feeling of shame and anxiety only increased as I progressed through to secondary school. In my first year at my new secondary school, the huge gap in my knowledge and mastery already firmly in place, I was naively determined to have a fresh start. But this soon unravelled. Our teacher liked to play a game with the whole class, it was meant to be a fun challenge. She would invite us to jump up onto our feet, take our places behind our desks and off she would go with some mental arithmetic for us. When we lost count, she instructed us, we should sit down. The last one standing was the winner. My heart was beating hard when she started with, “2 times 3, plus 3 take away 1”. My fists were screwed up by my sides, I am keeping up, I can do it….divided by 4 times 9, plus 17…” I sit down. There’s a snicker from the other children in the class as they carry on standing. What seems like hours pass until another girl sits down, then a span of time when a cluster more sit. And it continues until there are three, then two standing. The teacher stops. “What did you get?” she asks one of the two last students standing. “142” the penultimate one says. “And you?” she turns to the last one. “168”. Well done both of you. It was “142”. You win.
The next week, we did it again. I sat down after the first two questions “9 times 8, plus two..”, the class snickered. The teacher shot me a disapproving look. I am the class clown, fidgety and disruptive in her lessons. I don’t know my 9 times tables or my 8 times tables, what can I do? I think to myself. That afternoon, I go home determined to learn them but they just won’t stick.
After a few weeks of this maths game, I had noticed that while it was going on, the clever, confident ones were whispering to themselves, looking up at the ceiling or off to one side as they calculated. The next lesson, I stood up with everyone else as usual and decided to save face by play acting. I stood tapping out imaginary sums with my fingers on my thigh, eyes upward, mouth muttering quietly pretending to be concentrating, in command, keeping up. The plan was to sit down later on in the rank and file and avoid being seen as stupid yet again. But getting carried away with my oscar-winning performance meant it was too late when I realised I was one of the two still standing at the end. The teacher narrows her eyes at me suspiciously and asks, “Well, Penny, what did you get?” My heart sinks, the tears welling in my eyes…”Um….” The teacher insists, “Yes? We’re waiting…” I panic, “I forgot!” The teacher pushes me again, “You must know around about, was it above 100? Closer to 10? Well?” I look at my feet and the class erupts with laughter. The tears are cold on my hot cheeks. I am sent out and reprimanded for being disruptive and disrespectful.
The next week, we stand. The teacher starts, “ 7 times 12…” I sit down immediately, glaring at the teacher, angrily. They snicker. Every week for the rest of the year, we stand, she starts, I sit. Some days she sends me out to stand in the corridor in disgrace.
Making the grade
And so continued my soul crushing relationship with maths. Everyone in my family was struggling. My brother did his O’ levels, and got a U in maths. Three years later my sister got 10 O’levels all As and Bs – and a U in maths. The following year, I took my O’levels and got a U in maths. But something in me was determined to break the family curse. I went on to college for my A’ levels and decided to do maths again while I was there. I was at a Further Education college and in my class were people my age and also adults, trying to return to the education they weren’t able to complete when they were my age. I found this inspiring but also it made me ever more determined. Imagine if I’m still here in my 20s, 30s 50s trying to get this cursed maths pass! My teacher was kind and empathetic to us all. I felt a glimmer of hope at last. August came round, the brown envelope arrived. Again, a U. My heart felt crushed when I opened it with the results in. My teacher said, “not to worry, one more shot next year and you’re there”
The following year was the first year of the new GCSE exams that replaced O level, I was studying for the final year of my A levels, and had a weekend and holiday job that earned me enough money to get a private tutor for maths. I was entered into a GCSE paper for which the highest grade I could score was a C. My new private tutor was a taxi driver by day, but loved maths and had been tutoring a friend of mine for his A level, so he came recommended. I went to his house every week and he would puff away on his filterless cigarettes and walk me through the things I found impossible with such patience and in such a matter of fact way. The exam came and I felt I had at least some control, that I knew what to do, even if I wasn’t sure if my calculations were correct. I still had to count out numbers on my fingers and use techniques to add and subtract, and work around the dreaded times tables and division with methods that were long-winded and time-consuming. But I finished the paper, and I felt less out of control than usual. The long wait ensued and when the date came around, and the brown envelope arrived, I was amazed and delighted to have scored my C! I am the only one in my family with a maths GCSE. My parents were teachers, my brother is a composer for films and my sister works in documentary film. They have all had to duck and dive around the question of the missing maths qualification, but they are hugely successful in their own ways.
If you can’t do it, teach it…
Fast forward nearly a decade and I was now training to be a primary school teacher. The programme I did was focussed heavily on our own development as people as well as on the craft of teaching itself. In the second term, as we started to teach in the classroom for 2 days a week, we were asked to confront something in childhood that we felt had held us back and that perhaps could have been supported better by our teachers. I decided that it was time to tackle my maths problem. With coaching from one of my tutors, I was encouraged to teach maths to year 3 for a term. I was terrified that they would find out that I don’t know my times tables, and that I can barely add and subtract. But I did it, and I actually enjoyed it! I created resources and curriculum ideas that worked and that had enough in them to stretch the maths wizards and engaged those less confident.
Later in my teaching career, I moved to work in a secondary school and specialised in teaching English instead. As part of my training, we did a course on learning difficulties including dyslexia and dyscalculia. The consultant leading the course had expertise in diagnosing and supporting pupils with a range of difficulties and disabilities. She got us all to do part of a test for dyscalculia and dyslexia so we would know how the children are diagnosed. And the end of the session, she approached me and asked me how I was feeling. She asked about my sense of direction, my knowledge of times tables and other key mathematical functions and techniques. She told me that it was pretty clear that I am dyscalculic and that this is why I couldn’t retain my times tables. This was also why while I wanted to like maths, and indeed some parts of more abstract maths I could really run with, like algebra for example, there were parts that would always confuse and baffle me.
It was quite affirming to get this actual diagnosis. I was able to understand which parts of mathematical thinking I struggle with, and this facilitated me to develop techniques to deploy mathematical reasoning in my daily life, rather than avoiding it altogether. I will never be confident that I have the right answers when I have to use maths, but I know which parts I will need to double check and get another pair of eyes on and I feel confident to ask for this as an adult in the workplace without feeling childish and ashamed.
Breaking the family curse
My children often describe themselves as hating maths, despite my attempts to lightheartedly engage them in the beauty of maths through things like Numberjacks on YouTube when they were small, and other workbooks and fun games I found. I thought this might mitigate any creeping infection of the family maths issue that had started with my own mum’s lack of confidence and negative attitude to maths. My children are both girls and themselves attribute some of their lack of confidence to the boys in their class that are quick, vocal and withering to others. “I know, I know the answer, it’s eeeeeeeasy! You’re so slow and stupid!” they would shout out as my daughters plodded through. Unlike me, my girls have made their way to the top set in secondary school, but their lack of confidence and general distrust of maths did not diminished even so. This term my youngest, who is in year 9 said “my teacher thinks I might be dyscalculic but I’m still going to stay in the top set and I’m doing statistics GCSE next year. I won’t let it get in my way”. My oldest has just completed her GCSEs and summed up by saying, “I will always be rubbish at maths, but one thing I am really happy about is that I finally started to enjoy it, and I am even a little sad that I won’t ever be doing it again!”
I’m pleased that across a generation, we may still not be a family of maths wizards or super confident, but to know that this generation has managed to overcome the soul-crushing feeling of incompetence and the panic, gives me some comfort. And who knows, maybe the next generation might not even know that it’s possible not to feel positive about numbers. It is also great to see an organisation like Oxford University Press sharing their insights and resources to support those struggling with issues that I experienced. You can find their latest toolkit here
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.
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!
I attended a Year 10 “Year Ahead” meeting this week. The thing that struck me most strongly was the extent to which we have systematised, bureaucratised and jargonised the education of our children. I sat through a well-meaning PowerPoint presentation intended to demystify the new system of GCSEs for parents. I work in the education sector and felt like I was having to apply my learned edu-speak skills as they reeled off jargon to the group of parents hunkered down in their seats in the dark auditorium: SLT, Key Stage 4, A*-C, expected grade, 1-9, pastoral, learning objectives, Progress 8, Attainment 8, APS, EBACC, minus scores, buckets, and target achievement ratio…god help us…The school might have supplied us with a jargon buster, like this one put together by Lord Grey School in Milton Keynes or this one put together by the Dudley Governors Association.
When lingo is laminated
I also attended a training session for school leaders this week, which was fascinating and uplifting in equal measures. It was so good to see the passion, commitment, drive and enthusiasm of a group of senior leaders dedicated to their own professional development as well as to playing their part in the collaborative challenge and support of others around the country.
One of the exercises of the day had us working in groups, using laminated lingo cards, to build a learning model. This is where the cogs started whirring for me as an insider-outsider. This is where I rekindled my anthropologist and researcher training to be the participant observer and to examine what appeared to be unfolding. The group leaned in, silently considered the words written on the cards and started to work together to build a ‘learning model’. I’m thinking to myself, what the heck is a learning model anyway? They discussed, arranged the cards on the table, discussed again and slid certain ones from here to there. Learning, reflection, modelling, pace, behaviour, assessment, marking, ethos, culture, transition, key stages, critical thinking…
With each pause for discussion and each slide around of the cards on the table, I could feel my discomfort as I thought I might be slipping in and out of the ‘inner circle’ of pedagogical language. So much terminology, but what does it all mean? The training facilitator moved from table to table, and eventually came round to ours and said, “So, taking pace for example, what is your definition of this? Have you come to an agreed definition?” We all hesitated for a moment, realising that we had not had any discussion of the meaning of any of these words at all. “The word pace, what do we mean by this? In what context? Pace of a lesson? Pace of the curriculum across the year? Pace of transition? Transition, what does that mean to you? Transition between key stages? Transition between activities within the lesson? Transition between lessons?”
One of the things I wondered out loud was, if we as educators, haven’t discussed and defined among ourselves what the language means, what the learning model is and what the purpose and intention of what we are doing might be, isn’t it about time this happened? And if we have discussed it in our schools in the staff room, have we ever done this exercise with the children in the classroom? Shouldn’t we be starting from common agreed language and principles?
Jargon is everywhere
It is of course useful to capture concepts into phrases, words and ideas that are commonly understood. This is how we make sense of the world and this is how language develops and becomes useful, and at times entertaining. I love some of the teen-lingo I learn from my kids. It is most certainly ‘fit for purpose’. In answer to “can you pick up some milk on your way home?” gets the response, “no, that is loooonnnnng”. Or “He looks nice” gets, “eww, he’s moist/crusty/clapped”
The world of work is full of the most ridiculous lingo you ever heard. Here are some favourites I have really and truly heard used:
“What does good look like in this space?”
“We should roadmap that issue”
“In the technology space, that’s really not my sandpit to play in”
“Yes but do we have the bandwidth to take this on?”
“Let’s kick that into the long grass”
Without getting all existential and “emo” about it, the linear and limited experience of education and its bureaucratised jargonisation of language is just a continuation of the central problem we have with education in general. There is no agreement on what schooling is actually for in the first place. And I don’t mean the level of discussion we see on Twitter with false dichotomies between ‘Trad’ and ‘Prog’ approaches to learning. We have a model that was put in place to serve the need for a skilled and compliant workforce but we aren’t actually serving the workforce very well, it turns out. My overwhelming sense from the Year Ahead meeting and even from my day with inspiring senior leaders from schools across the country, is that the purpose of education is ultimately to get students to pass exams so they can move on to the next stage, pass more exams and then move into the workplace and ‘succeed’.
Now, I work in ‘the workplace’ and after the educators are done with them, I receive what are described as ‘bright graduates’ into roles that on paper they are qualified to take on. What I see as the most important thing needed to make these young people fit for the workplace is to unlearn the culture of schooling, to let go of punitive and hierarchical structures, and of linear progression. Success in the workplace involves the ability to think critically, to problem solve, to tie together previous knowledge and experiences with research into possible knowledge and understanding – and to push this through a critical lens again to shake out any bias, habit, laziness, fear or clinging to get to the right way forward. You need skills to influence, bring on side, provide evidence and build trust with your colleagues. And most of all, you need to build a shared language with those you are working with, which should be revisited and revised so you don’t fall into assumptions and jargon that become meaningless. I am a great believer in stopping once in a while and going round the table to see what each person believes just happened in any given meeting, for example. But more than this, we need to stop and ask ourselves what just happened to our education system and are we all speaking the same language that can get us where we need to go?
I have had children moving through schools in this country since 2007 and there have been so many changes, initiatives, systems, methods, acronyms in the last decade. I think that something went off in my brain in that darkened room this week and I reached saturation point at that very moment. I clapped my hands over my mouth just to stop myself screaming. I just don’t believe anyone knows what is really going on any more and I certainly am struggling to believe in the education system as it is now. From now on, I am encouraging my children to see their school experience as a social experiment. There is as much to learn from good practice as there is from bad, and there is so much to learn about the way our society is structured through the micro-climate of a school and the office. There is much to be learned from the language we use and the meaning we attribute to it. It’s not all doom and gloom. Language is fun and in the meantime, we can always amuse ourselves and play bullshit bingo.
I want to remind you, because it matters to me. I want to remind myself because thankfully, I am worlds away from where I was once, and sometimes, even I too forget what it can be like.
Students, teachers and parents/carers, bound by the rhythm of the academic year, all know the feeling leading up to the summer holidays. The absolute, bone-aching, itchy-eyed crawl through the end of year obligations and celebrations, the various milestones and rites of passage, the last logistics and then the deafening silence that ensues when it’s finally here and we can kick into a different gear for the greater part of six weeks.
“Have a great summer!” we say as we wave goodbye to the school gates, the students and staff members. Forgetting that for many, the summer is protracted period of chaos, uncertainty, hunger, vulnerability, emotional upheaval and even physical wounds. It is the wrenching away from a number of guaranteed hours of structure, predictability and protection that the school day can provide.
I’m sitting beside a river, looking at my own children, as we horse about in the south of France, where we have been for nearly two weeks. This year, we let them bring a friend each, since they are 12 and 15, knowing this would make it even more fun an experience. We’ve done a home-swap and took the train here, so the costs are pretty modest all in all. They have little idea how lucky they are. I keep thinking back to my own experience of summer holidays at their age.
Please do note while reading this post, that I am aware that there are of course two (and more) sides to every story. My parents made the decisions they did with the resources, understanding and urgency of their situations at the time. Neither of them acted out of malice or any intention to do other than what they felt they could given the circumstances. My father was forced to live abroad after his marriage to my mother broke down, he lost his job and wanted to provide what he could for his family. What I outline here, is from my child’s-eye view of what it felt like at the time. I spell it out in such viceral detail because I want you, as teachers, working with young people and colleagues, to know that some of your students and fellow teachers might be indeed spending their summer having similar experiences and the associated feelings and behaviour that might stem from this later.
My dad saw us once a year, for two weeks, during the summer holidays. He would come over from America, rent a cottage in Dorset where he had research interests and some sense of community, and which would give him a little company and structure to the days – he probably wasn’t aware that this left us feeling completely exposed, pulled away from our friends and familiar surroundings and unsure of what the rules and expectations were from an authority figure we hardly knew. We were getting to know “Uncle Dad” as I used to think of him. If you added up all the two-week slots I had spent with him by the time I was 12, it amounts to just under six months. Seeing my dad once a year was meant to be a treat, and in a way it was because we got away from London and from our mum during that time, but it also was a painful experience. This short two-week window was a chance for the three of us children to be reminded of several things:
His lifestyle in America was completely different to ours. He had a new wife, no kids, a great job, ate out, had what seemed to us a massive circle of friends and colleagues. He even had hobbies and leisure time – we were on free school meals, my mum constantly worried about running out of money. She had no support network, social life or love life other than what could be packed into those two weeks and around her job as a teacher. She lived like a battalion commander under constant enemy fire
It felt like he disapproved of us. His visit inevitably began with the ritual end of year report reading and I felt like I always got a talking to from my dad. (He tells me now that this talking to, was really him saying, ‘get everything you can from your education and you will be set up for life’, but at the time, it felt like I was being berated as I found the whole experience of school torturously difficult). While away with him, we children squabbled, acting out the angst and frustration from our fraught home life, which he knew nothing of. He must have thought we were argumentative and violent kids that needed better boundaries. We had a short window of time to prove ourselves worthy of his love and the experience was humiliating, like an annual two-week Sisyphean mountain
We believed we were not lovable – if we were, the child’s-eye logic said he wouldn’t have gone so far away and moved abroad, right? If we were, he wouldn’t spend time with us once a year and then hand us back to cope alone with the horrors of our daily lives, board the plane home and not see us again for another 351 days
During the summer holidays, my mum was more stressed about money than usual. She was often on part-time or contract work which didn’t include payment in the summer holidays. This meant that we were left to our own devices much of the time while she went into a sort of exhausted, low-cost limbo. It being the 70s and early 80s, over-scheduling, playschemes and expensive childcare weren’t really a thing yet. Playing in the streets and roaming were. That was fun and exciting and there was a whole pack of us neighbourhood kids that would play for hours on end or go off on our bikes to the parks and the heath. Smoking fags, trespassing, dodging weirdos and paedophiles was just a part of life and looking back now I see that we were in real peril many, many times.
My mum was lonely, isolated, struggling with mental illness and a complete lack of interest, imagination, or support from those around her. She was prone to violent outbursts and we would bear the brunt of these with vicious beatings, afterwards, being locked in our rooms for sometimes a whole day and overnight, howling to be released. Or if we ran away from her grasping hands, having the contents of our rooms emptied onto the floor and ripped and trampled underfoot, being denied food, affection, an apology or even acknowledgement that that had just happened.
Term-time gave some day-time reprieve from the enemy at home (even if it was also pretty miserable for me, being in detention, in the corridor or in disgrace a lot of the school day). The summer meant always being in a cortisol-fuelled state of high alert. I remember feeling exhausted at the end of August, and a sort of soul-deep, secret, soiled state of being. No-one knew what we endured. Not even our friends, their parents, teachers – or our own dad. The long school-shirt sleeves and knee-high socks of the autumn term covered the bruises.
“Write about what you did in your summer holidays” was always the task we started the year with. Or “write down your resolutions for the new academic year”. Every year, I composed a jolly recollection of the time we did brass rubbings in the village church or a walk we went on all together, with my dad. Every year, I could almost taste the feeling of hope and thought I could turn over a new leaf, knuckle down, be a better me. I would last a few weeks and then succumb to the deeply ingrained sense that I was the vile, unworthy, rotten-to-the-core child that had been drilled into me over the course of the year by school and my mum and finished off over the summer by my dad in his own unconscious way. The cycle began again and I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t hold my tongue, the gap widened and I didn’t understand the work and had no-one at home to work through it with me.
When I was a teacher, I made sure I was sensitive to the possibility that this sort of experience was the case for some of my students, some of their parents, some of my colleagues. I knew that at least a proportion of them would be struggling over the summer and that their return to school wouldn’t be with a glow of bronzed skin, relaxed shoulders and tales of exotic climes. I knew that they would hunker down and brace themselves for the self-satisfied tales of trips with the family and the inevitable setting of assignments and declarations of what their well-rested and re-charged selves could achieve in the year ahead.
My plea to you as teachers, as parents, as people, is to remember this. Be sensitive. Think of a way to reach out and hold tight those for whom it was summer time and the living ain’t easy.
Last week I went to a screening of ‘Most Likely to Succeed’, the Sundance nominated film about what education could be. The star of the film is High Tech High in San Diego (featured here), a place where teachers have the freedom to shape projects that culminate in public exhibitions. The film itself was interesting although sitting next to my anthropologist/social work lecturer/documentary film maker/husband, was a little distracting as he texted me his critique of the film and how it was made.
I was also doing a pretty good job of distracting myself with the plethora of emotional reactions I seemed to be going through watching the film. You can’t do anything much in life without recognising who you are and how this affects your experience. I am a mother of a 14 year old and an 11 year old, was educated in the 1970s and 1980s in London at a hippy primary school and then a girls grammar school that took me on despite my failing the entrance exam. I did an anthropology degree, have a PGCE that specialised in alternative education and a Masters degree in Education. I taught English for over ten years in Jerusalem in the 1990s and early 2000s in democratic and alternative schools. I helped set up, and worked at, The Key for 8 years, supporting school leaders and governors to run their schools. Now I work for the school-led charity, Challenge Partners. I am a long-suffering school governor too. It would be safe to say I live and breathe education. So clearly, my viewing experience was coloured by my life so far and as I watched, I also listened to my own thoughts and reactions.
As a teacher
I taught in three schools that were really like the one in the film and as part of my teacher training, visited several others across Israel. It made me nostalgic and excited to see it again on screen in Hi Tech High, and to remember that wonderful time. We had complete freedom to decide what we taught and how. The curriculum was designed by each teacher, there was no monitoring of their classroom, homework or lesson plans. We wrote our own tests and decided when, what and how frequently to test the children. There were national GCSE equivalent tests at the end of year 12. The kids usually did well. It was the most incredible experience. It made me a passionate, hard working, dedicated, curious and committed teacher. I wanted each child to thrive and shine, I loved my subject and my classes were vibrant, varied and the children were, on the whole, enthusiastic learners. It wasn’t without its challenges and difficulties but we worked these through, the general tone was one of exploration, dialogue, understanding and practical solutions. The school was a happy and purposeful place.
On the other hand, I sometimes look back at my teaching experience as I do on my neglectful parents during my 1970s childhood entirely devoid of any health and safety awareness. The amount of times we could have died as we lolled about in the back of my mum’s Morris Traveller without seatbelts, or ran about the streets playing unattended sometimes laughing off the passing paedophile’s pathetic attempts to lure us into his car, or hopping over the tube rails for a dare. If I hadn’t been streetwise and vigilant, it could have been tragic indeed. And if I hadn’t been the massively enthusiastic and reflective practitioner I was, I could have just done not very much with my students and coasted my way through the years. I found that some of the children at the schools where I taught really suffered from the amount of freedom they had. It was their parents who had wanted this for themselves as children, and were living vicariously through their children by giving them relief from the oppressive discipline they hated in their own childhood. With such permissive parents, lacking in clear boundaries, some children were really ill equipped to deal with freedom of this kind and it was exhausting trying to meet their needs.
As a mother
I felt remorse, guilt and anxiety – why don’t my children have this kind of education? Why have I been so passive about sending them along with the herd to normal schools? Have they missed out and been compromised by restrictive educational experience that has increasingly been narrowed by the obsessive managerialist measurement culture? Or have they been strengthened by having to eke out creative, autonomous, and alternative educational experiences despite being on the factory line of bog standard English education?
I felt defensiveness and derision – I didn’t have to decide whether to send my own children to the schools where I taught in the end, although I agonized over it, because we moved to England when the oldest reached reception age. There seemed no choice except to go to the local primary school and hope for the best. What is shown in the film is all very well but if this school happened in this country, it would be only a very certain kind of parent that sent their kid there. It would be swamped by anxious yummy mummies and would fall foul to the fate of many of the free schools of its ilk. It was my experience of my hippy local primary school in the 1970s where we learnt Beatles songs, carpet weaving and were left to self-directed learning from laminated cards in Learning Lab boxes that led to my failing the 11+ and spending my entire secondary education gasping to barely keep up.
As a working person
Throughout my career at management and director level, when I interview people for roles in my team, I sometimes find the more impressive the grades on their CVs are, the more lacking in creativity and unable to cope with autonomy they are. The Hi Tech High model of team work gives importance to going through a process and not just to the output, respect is given to exploration, for taking the time, and this really appeals to me. We seem to be racing people through life, meting out the stages of development they need to reach from birth to graduation and ticking them off to satisfy our own need for measurement, league tables, evidence of productivity and the like. We have a generation of young people in their early careers that are restlessly running on underdeveloped tip toes before they have developed the stability needed when they hastily learned to walk.
My conclusion will always be the same. I am ever the relativist in my outlook. There’s room for everything and a one-size-fits-all approach never works. I would love there to be room for such freedom and depth of thought and experience for all children. I believe that some schools do manage to build in some pockets of exploration and autonomy while marching along to the exhausting demands of the system as a whole.
By way of example, while we were watching this film, my youngest was away for the week at a wonderful life-changing experience through her school. Fifteen Yr 7 to Yr 9 children were sent away to a writers’ retreat of incredible calibre in Shropshire. It’s especially amazing that she was chosen as the school has recognised that she is an articulate and enthusiastic writer and that her SATS scores and dyslexia shouldn’t be allowed to be an impediment to this. “I wish my school was always like that”, she repeated over and over for the coming weeks. What she loved was the freedom and structure that interplayed so well. The autonomy mixed with clear guidance from professional writers. They cooked their own meals and went for country walks. They were able to steep themselves in a project day after day, after day, were encouraged to focus on depth, to make mistakes, and to be treated as writers by writers. It’s not the first experience of this kind they have had at the school, and it won’t be the last. So instead of beating myself up for not banding together with fellow parents and creating a free school that provides the North London version of Hi Tech High for my children, I think I will continue to support my local comp that treads a confident line between compliance and creativity.
It was the level of marketing and PR that surrounds secondary school choices that got me interested in this area in general with regards schools. It might sound entirely bonkers to admit that a school with a seemingly poor reputation caught my attention and ended up being the one my children attend today. Doing what every parent does when they don’t know better, I asked other parents about schools in the area. One school nobody seemed to mention, but that was a stone’s throw from my home, always got the same response when I asked about it. People seemed to think it was a bit rubbish – but when pressed, no-one could say why and not one of the people who had an opinion on the school had visited it, knew anyone who went there or had even read anything about it. Me being me, I had to investigate. Since then, the school has invested time and energetic enthusiasm into their PR and marketing, and its reputation is starting to match that of the actual magic that happens every day at the school. I tell people, get your oldest in now, because all too soon, it’s going to be oversubscribed. Turns out the other local school that parents told me they just “knew” was amazing and a first choice, and whose headteacher blogs about incessantly, is about to take a reputational nose-dive since the latest Ofsted visit, as the hype might not live up to the reality.
When we talk about PR and marketing with regards schools, there seems to be a level of distrust and even disgust from many, as if this is solely the realm of the private sector, the commercial and the corporate. However, savvy schools are realising that this area is absolutely vital not only if you want to keep pupil intake high, but also if you want to have some control over the story that is being told about your school. Providing you can back up your claims with substance and it’s not all puff, when times are good, your reputation will be good – people will want to come to the school, existing students and their parents, and staff members will be well-informed about all the great things that are happening, and they will feel proud and justified by their choice to be part of the school community. When things go wrong, the proverbial dog mess hits the whirring blades of the media circus fan, this good stuff you’ve been consistently broadcasting could just be what people remember despite anyone’s best efforts to pervert the course of justice.
Good marketing covers several bases that shouldn’t be ignored, especially in the complex and challenging education landscape today. Here are some of them:
Your school can be seen as the first choice school if you articulate and market what your unique selling points are and keep making sure these are firmly grounded in the experience of the school community
In a landscape of increased competition, and where the new shiny ideas such as academies, free schools and now grammar schools catch parents’ eyes, building networks and partnerships with others across the sector and with local business that benefit students and staff alike, can make your school stand out too
Promoting good news stories regularly and consistently can stand you in good stead when things do go wrong or the going gets tough. Ongoing reputation management leads to robust damage limitation
Good reputation with the local community and across the sector can lead to excellent partnerships, some of which can support alternative revenue streams, which in turn can help the school when flat cash is at a premium. Future partnerships can also create future opportunities for your students in universities, local business and beyond
A school that is clearly a great place to work and to study will draw not only parents to send their children there, but will also be attractive to teachers. If you can articulate and broadcast widely the culture, ethos, CPD opportunities, and the high-quality education to be gained there, you can recruit and retain staff as well as families wanting to send their children to the school
The importance of marketing and PR really shouldn’t be overlooked. Traditional marketing for schools has been all about profile-raising for the purpose of successful recruitment and retention of both students and staff. Marketing is about improving and maximising brand opportunities. Taking this a step further and savvy marketing can mean future-proofing your school as mentioned above, and ensuring that your school is a first choice school for the surrounding area. The ninja marketers will also be mitigating some of the pressures in these financially straitened times, and will be using marketing for resources and income-generation through building meaningful networks and partnerships that benefit the school for years to come.
Links and resources for further reading:
If you are interested in learning more, Simon Hepburn from Marketing for Schools has many resources and opinion pieces from his many years’ experience on his website here
There is a good overview written by Simon called, How does your school stand out from the crowd, in SMT Magazine here. This sets out the cycle of marketing and PR shown above that schools should embark on and helps you think about who in your school should be building the skills and expertise and making time for such a role.
Janet Murray gives useful advice on ‘How to link up with journalists on social media without feeling like a crazy stalker’ here. Her website contains all sorts of other useful links, articles and blog posts.