Tag Archives: policy

BAMEed Network Conference 2018: Habits of Highly Effective People

BAMEed

When we were setting the agenda and theme for this year’s BAMEed Network annual conference, I have to admit that the idea of a theme of the habits of highly effective people felt like it could stray into contentious territory.  I don’t buy into the ideology that promotes a view that hard work breaks all barriers if you just put your mind to it. I do believe that our world is inherently racist, our institutions are structurally racist and that many white people, when faced with challenge on this are prone to being fragile and defensive, often crying out the case for colour-blindness instead of taking responsibility and committing themselves to join the call to be agents of change. We will need to all work extremely hard as a society to make meaningful changes for people of colour, Gypsy, Traveller and Roma people, the working classes, women, people with disabilities, LGBT people and the many marginalised people in general. We will need to understand that these changes need to take place, not out of pity or do-goodery which creates further ‘othering’ people of colour. Change needs to happen for the good of us all.

One of the strong themes of the day was to explore the reasons why diversity and anti-racist practice, in all its forms, is good for everyone. After all, diversity is actually good for business. In our increasingly materialistic and managerialist world, employers in all sectors and business people alike should be aware of the impact of ignoring the issues. It might seem cynical to overlook real human experience in favour of putting the business case for equality, but it might also be a good way to make people start to engage with the issues. Where you can’t first change people’s attitudes, perhaps you can change their actions.

A healthy workforce is a happy workforce

Mental health and wellbeing is a good place to start.  The evidence is there, cumulative exposure to racial discrimination has incremental negative long-term effects on the mental health of ethnic minority people in our country. Studies that examine exposure to racial discrimination at one point in time may underestimate the contribution of racism to poor health.

I think what is hard for people to understand is that when we refer to racial discrimination it is not confined to outrageous and obvious racist abuse, it is confined to these small acts, daily reminders, constant and seemingly subtle markers of territory which white people are prone to do.  White people too are victims of constant, deep and consistent conditioning that we will need to work hard to free ourselves from.

A person who is consistently made to feel that they do not belong, that they are not fully British, or they are Brit(ish) as Afua Hirsch so powerfully explains in her recent book of the same title, is exhausting. The impact on health, both mental and physical, is tangible and has been researched, written, documented and spoken about extensively. The incidents of micro-aggressions and denying people of colour an equal place in shared spaces is imperceptible to most white people’s consciousness. As a Jew, I know these micro-aggressions all too well but as a secular, white Jew, I can choose to expose my ‘otherness’ and don’t wear it as obviously as many marginalised people do.

The ‘innocent act’ of taking an interest in someone’s heritage is a prime example and in many accounts I have heard, it involves this simple but powerful way to show someone their right to be fully British is under question:

Q: “Where are you from?”
A: “London/Birmingham/Dorset/[insert any part of the UK]”
Q: “Yes, but where are you from? Where is your family from originally?”

Diverse teams are 35% more productive

Diversity in the workplace doesn’t mean having a bingo card full-house of ‘minorities’ or marginalised groups. What it does mean is diversity of thought. If you have a diverse group of people they will differ in the way they approach situations, think things through, perceive challenges, view the issues, come to solutions, work together, articulate themselves, network and collaborate. This leads to higher rates of productivity in all sectors and of course profitability in the private sector, according to a recent McKinsey study. You can’t have diversity of thought if everyone in your organisation has the more or less the same background and experience.

The best way to ensure diversity is to change recruitment practices. Too many employers say that they struggle to recruit a diverse workforce because the diverse candidates just don’t apply. Anyone who attended his workshop or has spoken to him, will know that Roger Kline’s work with the NHS is a fascinating insight into how simple changes in practice make a huge difference. The interesting fact is that while you can’t oblige people to believe this is the right thing to do morally, simple target-setting can certainly be a huge motivator for people to reach the levels of diversity, and therefore productivity, that workplaces should strive to achieve. It’s a two-pronged attack of targets and educating managers that works best of course. It’s not enough to believe, you need the tools and sometimes the carrot and stick approach to make change happen.

But Roger’s work shows that it doesn’t just stop with getting the team in. It also extends to treating people well.  His research shows that it is 1.56 times more likely that BAME staff will enter the formal disciplinary process than white colleagues, while in London it is twice as likely. We see this also with punishment and exclusion of our students in schools. We should learn from Kline and colleagues on what works and what doesn’t in promoting equality for our staff members and our children.

Change always begins with me

There is a place though to consider what measures each of us can take to promote change, point out inequality where it is taking place and to position ourselves as best as we can to mitigate the effects of structural and inherent racism in our society.

For me as a white person, I know that I have a moral responsibility to keep reading, learning, listening and educating myself so that I can open doors, send the elevator back down, and share my privilege where I can. As Peggy McIntosh so rightly points out, white people have a ‘knapsack of privileges’ which we are encouraged to not even recognise or see as inherent to the experience of ‘whiteness’ and white privilege. She says, “As a white person, I realised I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage…I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious”. I was pleased that this year, our conference included more white delegates than ever. We are yet to be blessed with ‘the great white male’ among their number. Next year, our conference will be in Brighton on 15th June and I hope that we can do better on this front.

My fears of even a hint of victim-blaming or ‘just try harder’ message coming across in our choice of theme transpired to be unfounded of course. One workshop I attended, further helped me reconcile my original worry.  Issy Dhan’s session explored how we can make our work and achievements more visible in the workplace. He was sensitive to the fact that culturally, especially those not socialised and conditioned in the way our white, British, male colleagues may have been, can find the whole concept of potential immodesty, extroversion and trumpet-blowing hard to stomach. However, some simple processes and actions can go a long way to helping make ourselves more visible as credible people in the workplace and the knock-on effect can be to raise the profile of our perceived minority group, whether we like it or not.

One great and relevant piece of advice came from one of the participants in this particular workshop. She said that where your workplace still isn’t convinced of your strength and worth, consider making your impact outside of the workplace. Get involved in things you can lead, organise, be active in. Show your professional abilities and leadership qualities. Blogging, writing for professional publications and getting involved in movements like the BAMEed Network are prime examples. We’d be delighted to see your blog on the event and to hear what impact it had on you. We are looking for more regional leads who can ensure that across the country we are making change happen. Just get in touch, we’re waiting to hear from you.

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

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Photo credit: Penny Rabiger

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

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

Conception and birth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birth and the first year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schooling and beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Data which informs and data which makes us conform

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

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

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

Why be a governor?

BEST SCHOOL

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

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

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

Why be a governor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being a local authority or community governor: pros and cons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you become a governor?

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

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

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

Good luck!

Leadership: the good, the bad and the ugly

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

When leadership is only tactical, we are all doomed

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

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

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

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

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

 

Leadership is not about hierarchical structures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The thrusting male model of leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collective punishment doesn’t make any sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Source: Pivotal Education

An example from one of the masters

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

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

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

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

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

From the inside, a hamster wheel looks like a career ladder: sabbatical year for teachers

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Image: http://www.catexpert.co.uk/

The College of Teaching is really going to start taking shape now and I am hoping that one of the things they will consider will be a sabbatical year as a way to prevent teacher burn-out.

I was a teacher for over ten years and I took a sabbatical year once in my penultimate year of teaching. The decade in which I taught was filled with probably familiar personal milestones for many teachers today. I was at the peak of juggling the demands of my professional life and the responsibilities and developments of my personal life. I completed my PGCE, taught for 4 years and then graduated from my M.ed, which had involved action research and lots of late nights reading voraciously and writing, on top of my full time teaching timetable. Shortly afterwards I was married and a year later had our first child. In Israel, where I taught, it is accepted practice that a mother returns to work after 12 weeks of statutory maternity pay. By the time I was mother of two a couple of years later, I was working full time, supplementing my salary with tutoring dyslexic students and exhausted from sleepless nights which are part and parcel of having small children.  Adding together the long working hours and the cycles of lesson preparation and marking that happens out of school – you may not know this, but the weekend in Israel consists of Saturday as school runs Sunday to Friday – I was wondering how long I can sustain this intense lifestyle. My sabbatical year was a godsend.

How does a sabbatical year work?

The sabbatical year is part of an expectation of ongoing professional development for teachers and has been going for a long time in Israel. In 1962, the government approved the sabbatical year for all teachers as a way to prevent burn out and retain teachers within the profession. It was also seen as a good idea to strengthen teachers’ professional identity by encouraging them to take time out to study, recharge and reconnect with their profession.

There is an expectation that teachers will undertake CPD activities outside of their school hours throughout the normal working year to help strengthen their subject knowledge and also to support them to hone and develop their teaching methodology. I would usually do at least one evening class a week at one of the teacher training centres. An Israeli teacher’s pay is determined by their level of education and so each course helps you accrue “points”. These points, the different leadership roles you might take on and the number of years you have taught then inform your salary rate. The direct result being, the more you learn as a professional and the better you are able to use that back at school, the more valuable you become. Cynics would say that teachers could just attend courses to bolster their salary, but you have to pass the courses you attend and they are usually very interactive. So unless you sit there with earplugs in chanting nah nah nah nah, you will learn and your learning should inform and improve your teaching.

The sabbatical year gives you time to step off the hamster wheel of teaching and invest some time into a dedicated time for study and reflection.

How is it funded?

During the sabbatical year, a teacher is paid about 66% of their salary which they draw from a fund to which they have contributed 4% of their salary over the previous 6 years. The education department match-funds this. Of course, if you don’t want to take the sabbatical year, you can just defer it to another year or you can even take the money and continue working so you can also view it as a savings scheme. You can read more about this here

How can a teacher afford a pay cut?

You are able to teach on a part-time basis while on sabbatical. I took the opportunity to support a struggling English department at another school one day a week and it was a great insight into how another school operated. It also gave me quite a lot of professional confidence that I could deploy some good practice in another school and contribute to the improvement of their department overall. This in turn boosted my professional network and reputation. And of course, it helped supplement my income a little.

What can you study on sabbatical year?

To qualify for the sabbatical funding, you need to study at least 15 hours a week. We were offered a vast choice of courses and were encouraged to find courses ourselves too. We were required to think of three broad categories of courses: something that builds on my current professional interest, something that broadens my horizons and something for my physical and mental well-being.  Gym membership or Tai Chi classes for example, were a completely acceptable way to spend a couple of hours a week.

What did I do?

Aside from working one day a week at another school and continuing to give some private lessons in the evening, I decided to take a two-term diploma in conflict resolution, knowing it could be helpful as a tool in the classroom or beyond. I also took a 12-week course in graphic design, imagining myself perhaps writing my own materials in a more professional way or even illustrating that children’s book I had often thought about. And as a wild card, I did a year’s qualification as a Doula (or birth coach). This was a golden opportunity to explore a possible career fall-back plan if teaching ever got too much. Oh, and I clocked in and out of the gym at least once a week, doing yoga, Pilates and other classes, finally taking care of that niggling lower back ache that had been bothering me for years.

I passed all of my courses and had the incredible experience of supporting 5 couples through their births as part of my Doula course. I was able to charge my clients the going rate and therefore recoup some of what I spent on the course (as only the official education department courses are funded or subsidised). I am still planning to do a refresher and become registered as a Doula as my next career move when I am in my dotage and it was an amazing experience which perhaps I will write about more fully one day.

How can the government afford it?

I couldn’t find anything online about how the government affords the scheme but I can only assume that matched against the cost of high attrition rates of teachers and the fact that this scheme has been going since the 1960s, one can only assume that it must pay off. I did find the results of a research piece which says that findings indicate that a sabbatical in conjunction with a professional training programme had great impact on strengthening the teachers’ professional image, and reducing their feelings of job burnout and intentions to leave their workplace or profession


What did it do for me professionally?

Having a year to do something different, to recharge, and learn new things is definitely empowering. The fact that it is encouraged and is not seen as a sign of weakness or that your enthusiasm for the profession is waning to take a year out, is a great thing. Being able to spend time in another school, as I said earlier, was also a great experience. Just stepping off the great hamster wheel of school life was so refreshing.

I recommend a sabbatical year for teachers in this country but…

…this is on several conditions:

  • I think it is important that this is a whole year and not a one month or six week offer as was trialled in England in 2001 and as is available in places like New Zealand. You can read the English DfES (as it was called then) report here
  • It shouldn’t be made into the usual highly-monitored surveillance and hoop-jumping exercise that is so often the case in this country. If we want to professionalise the profession, then trusting the professionals is a first big step. If you give people the space they will usually make good use of it
  • It should be simple to administer and not a bureaucratic and expensive nightmare. Teachers should be automatically enrolled and if at the end of the 6th year they decide to take the money and run, so be it. This is the only point at which they should be able to opt out
  • The sabbatical should be the grand festive climax of an ongoing expectation that teachers should be given space and adequate time for continuing professional development that is high quality and impactful as far as the teachers themselves are concerned. Short courses and INSETs are notorious for being often centred on fad topics and not adequate in length or quality to have a lasting impact on the teacher or the school
  • It would be great if as part of the salary-supplementing ideas teachers were paid to undertake research, supply teaching or other interesting and much-needed activities to support the profession as a whole
  • There should be a limit on the amount of paid work you can undertake during a sabbatical year and a minimum expectation regarding professional development hours per week so that you don’t just work yourself into the ground when you are meant to be recharging

I would love to hear other people’s ideas of how to make this work and I wonder to what extent it is on the agenda at all with the College of Teaching, the DfE or fellow people of the teaching profession in general.

 

 

 

 

Joining the grammar school debate

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Grammar school class photo in 1981

 

Weighing in on the grammar school debate

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

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

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

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

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

What does this choice mean in practice?

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

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

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

Do structures make a difference?

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

Does selection make a difference?

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

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

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

Is education necessarily better in grammar schools?

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

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

Do disadvantaged students benefit from grammar schools?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now for the personal story

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

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

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

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

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

 

SATs – what raising the bar means for a summer-born child

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Image courtesy of Chris O’Brian – The Roanoke Times

So, it’s SATs week soon. We went away on holiday over the Easter break and when we got back, I heard my youngest daughter utter the horrific words I never thought I would hear from a child of mine: “Mummy,  I can’t sleep. I’m scared of SATs. I think I am going to fail at everything”.

I can’t imagine where this has come from. Certainly not from us at home. I find it hard to believe it is coming from the school either. Their attitude seems to be that the bar has been set so ridiculously high that everyone is just committed to muddling through, trying their best, teachers and pupils alike. The Year 6 teachers at her school remind me of myself faced with an IKEA three-door wardrobe to assemble – just working their way through the vague outline of what needs to be done, trying to make sure they have all of the components accounted for and hoping that what takes shape is going to work.

Perhaps it has come from other children’s families, putting pressure on them. That’s always a possibility. I wrote in a previous post about choosing a secondary school that parental anxiety around their children’s schooling sometimes reaches unnecessary life and death proportions.

It was clear to me what to say to my child. “These tests are the only time in your schooling where the results have absolutely no meaning for your life. They do not define you. They do not give you access to the next level of schooling”. (It’s true to say that most secondary schools don’t even use SATs as a baseline but prefer to spend the first few weeks of Year 7 testing their new cohort themselves. If anything they are a test for the school, and are designed to monitor their teachers). I continued, “SATs are your gift to the school, do your best and you will be able to show some of what you have learned and how well you are able to pass a test”.

I was delighted when Sparky Teaching produced this nice letter and poster to send to Year 6 children and their families. It does feel a little hypocritical though that schools might circulate them as I am not convinced I understand to what extent schools are in fact producing this level of anxiety and passing it on through their students.

But I am aware that there are many factors that statistically might have an impact on my own child. Of course, she has professional dad and mum who have a PhD and an M.Ed respectively and I can be pushy when I need to. We have books and go to museums and are lucky to live in a city with easy access to all sorts of cultural experiences. But also, she immigrated at the age of two with no spoken English (so officially should have been classed as EAL and bi-lingual although she never was given any special support for this). She was premature, summer-born and has dyslexia – only becoming a fluent reader at the end of Year 5 and still struggling with writing.

Compared with my oldest child who was born at the end of September, it seems that the biggest impact of all of this list is the fact that my youngest is summer-born. She was in such a rush to be born, that she is now a whole school year younger than most of her classmates. She is three years younger than her sister and yet only two school years behind her. And I’m pretty sure that the ‘dyslexia’ is probably more visible because she is essentially bravely tackling things that others have had more time to grasp. We had to send her to Reception at the age of 4 and because our local school had a January intake, she had 6 months of Reception before she started Year 1. That’s quite a rush-job. And now, the goalposts have shifted drastically and where a couple of years ago my oldest was in Year 6 and was seen as rather special with her SATs results, what was then way above average is now pretty much the baseline expectation from all children. So much more of it relies on their memories for facts too.

I can’t help agreeing with Michael Rosen when he says “…the test system is narrowing education. Children are spending far too much time just doing tests and rehearsals for the tests. And we should remember that the tests can only test the testable. Whole areas of experience and learning are not included in what an ‘education for the test’ covers. Think of investigation, invention (creativity), interpretation (coming up with various conclusions for things), discussion, co-operation, compassion. These vital ways of learning are getting squeezed out of the curriculum.
And remember – at the end of the day, the tests are not there to help our children. They are there to test whether the teachers have taught the stuff that’s in the test – some of which is useless anyway.”

We will keep reinforcing the messages of encouragement and try to play down the importance of these tests. I do feel for my youngest daughter though, that on top of everything that she has been grappling with, the bar has been raised during her SATs year and this isn’t really helpful at all for a child who has been fighting hard to keep up from the first day of school. When the school year ends, she will be happy to celebrate her birthday, the last of her peers to turn 11 before we send her off to secondary school.

 

 

 

 

‘When Governments ask for the World’

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

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

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

Five Ages of Education

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

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

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

 Three:

1)     Removing air-raid shelters

2)     Securing a sufficient supply of suitably qualified teachers

3)     Rationing scarce capital resources for new buildings

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

2)      ‘Education isn’t working’ theme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3)     Fragmentation of the system.

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

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

3)     A shared language of school improvement.

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

Four things for schools to consider when thinking about social mobility

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Beware the American Dream
Many organisations working with young people seem to sell students something similar to The American Dream – all you need to do is work hard and want it badly enough, and you too can reach the highest heights. This is reinforced by media depictions of ordinary people’s quick ascent to fame and fortune. TV channels are flooded with shows pitting people against each other, the promise of celebrity and copious wealth within pirouetting distance. Many a student buys into these myths (and a surprising number of intelligent adults too). The American Dream crumbles before their very eyes when you start to unpack the odds for them. I can’t tell you how many times we have helped our participants understand that becoming a premier league footballer – even if it’s your biggest dream – might not be a viable option especially considering you aren’t even in the first team at school and aren’t training more than a couple of times a month. But it goes beyond explaining the odds. Knowledge is power and there are things young people need from their education that isn’t covered by the American Dream. (A few TV channels might also like to take on the challenge of educating the masses on this too). My vision would be to ensure that no child leaves school without a clear understanding of themselves as a member of and a product of society, and without questioning what they want to be going forward – and how they might make that happen. We should want our young to be aspirational and reach for the sky and I don’t believe debunking the American Dream will demotivate them, but will rather empower them.

When grades aren’t enough
Social mobility pundits are seemingly preoccupied with making everyone middle class. To achieve this aim schools, and a plethora of education charities aimed at improving students’ university applications, can be seen to push some students to get into a top university and seemingly to urge them to denounce their background and become a banker or lawyer. It might be controversial to say this but attending an elite university without adequate support is tantamount to sponsoring a life of feeling inadequate, developing imposter syndrome and being left caught between a rock and a hard place. I know this all too well, being the only one in my single-parent, free-school-meals-eligible family with a degree. There is also the danger of giving young people messages that their often aspirational and supportive family are inadequate losers. You can see where this leads – you don’t fit in anywhere in the end. ‘Posh kids’ have social and cultural capital that comes with rubbing shoulders with an array of professional people. Schools do their utmost to try to address this with high expectations for all, free music tuition, debating, rowing, fencing and more. But what of the fact that middle class students will have access to culture, professional contacts and support throughout their journey in life? Again, packing off a young person to an elite university having helped them gain great grades at GCSE and A level, taught them violin and rowing is a start but it doesn’t plug the gap of social and cultural capital. Whose connections do students tap into for job opportunities and to fund an internship? What more can we do to narrow the gap on these life-long inequalities of opportunity?

Metacognition, political and social awareness and self-knowledge in bucket loads
It’s troubling that there isn’t the space and time in schools to ask the question not of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ but ‘who are you, what are your interests and skills, where are you willing to invest your effort? What kind of lifestyle are you after? Do you know anything about the people that have that lifestyle? Are your preconceptions even close to the truth?’ My husband always wanted to be an academic. He has worked hard and now he is one It’s a far cry from his 1980s style dream. In fact, he says he has read that there is a direct parallel between academia and drugs cartels. Apparently even the salary is about the same too. And you might be surprised that in neither profession is it very high for anyone but the very top dogs.

In the 1990s, a teacher studying for my Masters in education, I took my whole class on a journey of exploration into the (now discredited) world of Learning Styles. This year-long action research project culminated in my class substantially improving their achievement across the board. The take-away lesson for me, regardless of whether or not there is any substance to Learning Styles, was that my students became engaged in understanding for themselves how they learn (metacognition). Each developed techniques to concentrate, engage, relate to and retain what they learned, giving them ownership of their learning and making them masters of their own choices. They could harness this and use it wherever and however they chose, not just in my English class. The results were stunning.

We should be similarly committed to fearlessly educate our young about social mobility itself and how inequality is intricately woven into the tapestry of everyday life. Just as young men and women need to know about homophobia, racism and feminism, so too do we need to help young people to understand the simple facts about class differences in society.

And as mentioned above, there needs to be space and time for young people to unearth their own personal story, their roots, feelings, and assumptions about themselves not just within a classroom and a school, but as a family member and as a member of wider society and even the global community. This intertwined story of ourselves as both social and personal beings, and as products of and actors in society is one that is not easy to unpick but unlocking it as a concept can be the key to achieving real, enduring success.

Sustainable solutions should be the only solutions
We’ve all heard about schools kettling groups of borderline students into the A*- C safety zone or punting the pupil premium on interventions that make low-level disruption, serial absenteeism and exclusion rates disappear in a puff of lavender-scented smoke for the prized Ofsted outstanding. We assume that means that students are getting a high quality education and gaining the grades they need to go on to the next stage of their journey in life. But how many school leaders have the longitudinal vision to say, hand on heart, that they are pledging public funds to kick-starting their most disadvantaged students’ journey on the path towards being socially mobile and successful no matter their backgrounds? When our education system is so dominated by politicians whose concerns are short-term and, well, political, are school leaders really able to see beyond their place on the league tables? Some believe schools and universities should be held accountable for what happens to their students once they have graduated and entered the world of work as a way to enforce a longer-term vision. But I like to think that some school leaders, regardless of the ever-changing trends and official requirements, are keenly committed to making sure that as many of the young people in their care as possible get everything they need to be successful in life, whether that be as a core part of the curriculum, an extra level of support from public services or bought-in opportunities that otherwise would never come their way.

There is a glut of organisations operating under the banner of social mobility. My visits to nearly 40 London schools recently has got me thinking about services schools buy in and about charities, social enterprises and businesses. I have spent some time over the summer reviewing the services available and there is a veritable mosaic of ideas, methods, outcomes and claims – not to mention groovy branded jackets, highly designed logos and flashy websites. I have heard from many school leaders that they are suffering from ‘interventionitis’ and are unsure of how the many external services actually integrate, duplicate or make sense in their own school. The collapse of Kids Company has made this all the more relevant. There have been some insightful pieces on this issue highlighting that a ‘good idea’ will result in a charity in response. I am the last to advocate for privatisation of the education sector, but I do believe that unlike a business model, charities often don’t check if their offer is commercially viable, responds to a market-tested need, or is duplicates something existing. Charities aren’t even really required to guarantee their offer is high quality, particularly in their experimental start-up stage. They need to identify potential donors, compete for funds and persuade schools to take them on. And schools will be interested because they are already working their socks off for their students, every little helps, and the charity offers services for free – surely there is nothing to lose. And yet, there is so much to lose. Some of the charities working to help deprived young people, work with only a handful at a time and are not necessarily going to survive if their funding dries up. And most worrying is that they may see that demand exceeds capacity and they could end up in hot water, unable to sustain their activity or scale up according to demand. What happens then?

I personally like the social enterprise model – it has to be self-sustaining as a business but has social responsibility firmly at its heart rather than the often distasteful for-profit mantra of ‘return for share-holders’. To know they are spending public money wisely, schools will want to see regular impact reports, a contract and to hold the organisation to account for the quality and completion of the work as described.

I would appeal to all schools to think carefully about what they can do to help guarantee success, for life, for their students. Schools should do their due diligence and be certain that whatever they choose for their students, whether it be paid for or free, that it really delivers the outcomes it says it does, that it puts the schools’ and the students’ long-term interests at its core and that it has a solid past and an equally promising future.

This post is the longer version of the article I wrote for Schools Week http://schoolsweek.co.uk/put-the-students-interests-at-your-schools-core/