Tag Archives: schools

Say what you mean and mean what you say: jargonising the education system

roadman
SMS exchange with the teen 2017

The year ahead needs a jargon buster

I attended a Year 10 “Year Ahead” meeting this week. The thing that struck me most strongly was the extent to which we have systematised, bureaucratised and jargonised the education of our children. I sat through a well-meaning PowerPoint presentation intended to demystify the new system of GCSEs for parents. I work in the education sector and felt like I was having to apply my learned edu-speak skills as they reeled off jargon to the group of parents hunkered down in their seats in the dark auditorium: SLT, Key Stage 4, A*-C, expected grade, 1-9, pastoral, learning objectives, Progress 8, Attainment 8, APS, EBACC, minus scores, buckets, and target achievement ratio…god help us…The school might have supplied us with a jargon buster, like this one put together by Lord Grey School in Milton Keynes or this one put together by the Dudley Governors Association.

When lingo is laminated

I also attended a training session for school leaders this week, which was fascinating and uplifting in equal measures. It was so good to see the passion, commitment, drive and enthusiasm of a group of senior leaders dedicated to their own professional development as well as to playing their part in the collaborative challenge and support of others around the country.

One of the exercises of the day had us working in groups, using laminated lingo cards, to build a learning model. This is where the cogs started whirring for me as an insider-outsider. This is where I rekindled my anthropologist and researcher training to be the participant observer and to examine what appeared to be unfolding. The group leaned in, silently considered the words written on the cards and started to work together to build a ‘learning model’. I’m thinking to myself, what the heck is a learning model anyway? They discussed, arranged the cards on the table, discussed again and slid certain ones from here to there. Learning, reflection, modelling, pace, behaviour, assessment, marking, ethos, culture, transition, key stages, critical thinking…

With each pause for discussion and each slide around of the cards on the table, I could feel my discomfort as I thought I might be slipping in and out of the ‘inner circle’ of pedagogical language.  So much terminology, but what does it all mean? The training facilitator moved from table to table, and eventually came round to ours and said, “So, taking pace for example, what is your definition of this? Have you come to an agreed definition?” We all hesitated for a moment, realising that we had not had any discussion of the meaning of any of these words at all. “The word pace, what do we mean by this? In what context? Pace of a lesson? Pace of the curriculum across the year? Pace of transition? Transition, what does that mean to you? Transition between key stages? Transition between activities within the lesson? Transition between lessons?”

One of the things I wondered out loud was, if we as educators, haven’t discussed and defined among ourselves what the language means, what the learning model is and what the purpose and intention of what we are doing might be, isn’t it about time this happened? And if we have discussed it in our schools in the staff room, have we ever done this exercise with the children in the classroom? Shouldn’t we be starting from common agreed language and principles?

Jargon is everywhere

It is of course useful to capture concepts into phrases, words and ideas that are commonly understood. This is how we make sense of the world and this is how language develops and becomes useful, and at times entertaining. I love some of the teen-lingo I learn from my kids. It is most certainly ‘fit for purpose’. In answer to “can you pick up some milk on your way home?” gets the response, “no, that is loooonnnnng”. Or “He looks nice” gets, “eww, he’s moist/crusty/clapped”

The world of work is full of the most ridiculous lingo you ever heard. Here are some favourites I have really and truly heard used:

“What does good look like in this space?”

“We should roadmap that issue”

“In the technology space, that’s really not my sandpit to play in”

“Yes but do we have the bandwidth to take this on?”

“Let’s kick that into the long grass”


Workplace woes

Without getting all existential and “emo” about it, the linear and limited experience of education and its bureaucratised jargonisation of language is just a continuation of the central problem we have with education in general. There is no agreement on what schooling is actually for in the first place. And I don’t mean the level of discussion we see on Twitter with false dichotomies between ‘Trad’ and ‘Prog’ approaches to learning. We have a model that was put in place to serve the need for a skilled and compliant workforce but we aren’t actually serving the workforce very well, it turns out. My overwhelming sense from the Year Ahead meeting and even from my day with inspiring senior leaders from schools across the country, is that the purpose of education is ultimately to get students to pass exams so they can move on to the next stage, pass more exams and then move into the workplace and ‘succeed’.

Now, I work in ‘the workplace’ and after the educators are done with them, I receive what are described as ‘bright graduates’ into roles that on paper they are qualified to take on. What I see as the most important thing needed to make these young people fit for the workplace is to unlearn the culture of schooling, to let go of punitive and hierarchical structures, and of linear progression. Success in the workplace involves the ability to think critically, to problem solve, to tie together previous knowledge and experiences with research into possible knowledge and understanding – and to push this through a critical lens again to shake out any bias, habit, laziness, fear or clinging to get to the right way forward. You need skills to influence, bring on side, provide evidence and build trust with your colleagues. And most of all, you need to build a shared language with those you are working with, which should be revisited and revised so you don’t fall into assumptions and jargon that become meaningless. I am a great believer in stopping once in a while and going round the table to see what each person believes just happened in any given meeting, for example. But more than this, we need to stop and ask ourselves what just happened to our education system and are we all speaking the same language that can get us where we need to go?

I have had children moving through schools in this country since 2007 and there have been so many changes, initiatives, systems, methods, acronyms in the last decade. I think that something went off in my brain in that darkened room this week and I reached saturation point at that very moment. I clapped my hands over my mouth just to stop myself screaming. I just don’t believe anyone knows what is really going on any more and I certainly am struggling to believe in the education system as it is now. From now on, I am encouraging my children to see their school experience as a social experiment. There is as much to learn from good practice as there is from bad, and there is so much to learn about the way our society is structured through the micro-climate of a school and the office. There is much to be learned from the language we use and the meaning we attribute to it. It’s not all doom and gloom. Language is fun and in the meantime, we can always amuse ourselves and play bullshit bingo.

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When is a teacher a salesperson?

self-help graphic
From the Ten Commandments for the ethical salesperson

 

Teaching is selling

I was chatting to a headteacher at an event I had organised recently and I can’t even remember what we were talking about exactly, but he said to me: “So basically you are a saleswoman”. I backtracked and said, “Well, in a way I am, but not that kind of saleswoman, not the slimy car salesman type. I see myself as just spreading the gospel of a good thing”.

Salesperson isn’t usually used as a compliment. I felt slightly shamed by what he had insinuated but our conversation took an unexpected turn for the better. He nudged me jovially, leaned in, and confessed, “before I got myself into all this” he said, gesticulating to the room heaving with long-serving, high achieving headteachers from across the country, “I was what you might call a travelling salesman – and I loved it”.

To pare down the conversation and cut to the point, we found ourselves discussing with great interest and agreement that teaching is basically selling. Here are some thoughts on the basics of really sound sales skills based on my decade as an English teacher and a decade in consultative sales in the education sector, in my roles as Director of Business Development at The Key for School Leaders, as a consultant helping two small education businesses grow and develop, and as Head of Membership at Challenge Partners.

Believe in your product

One of the key ingredients for failure in any profession is being half-hearted or lacking in belief in yourself and in what you are doing. The best teachers are really convinced that what they have to offer is really worth knowing. Those that have great passion and enthusiasm for what they teach, and genuinely want others to share in their joy, are the ones that usually at least get the attention, respect, and often loyal commitment of their students.

Likewise, I only became interested in business development out of necessity. I started at The Key as Research Team Leader, working with a team of researchers tasked with swiftly, accurately and succinctly answering questions from school leaders on anything that concerned their school. The service was a hit, schools were feeding back that this was a game changer, freeing up their time, reducing their anxiety and ensuring that they were doing what they needed to be doing. And then the financial crash happened and the DfE decided they couldn’t roll out nationally as planned. We had two choices: fold or find a way.

My absolute conviction that what we were doing could change the way school leaders worked led me to take on the role of business development and start to spread the gospel. My enthusiasm was boundless. We went from a few hundred schools that received the service for free to 60,000 school leaders with paid membership across the country over the course of the next 5 years.

Know your market and be an expert

Belief isn’t enough of course. You have to know who you are dealing with. You have to be an expert in your subject. You have to keep refreshing your knowledge. And you have to find a way to make sure that you can communicate to your market, based on your intimate knowledge of what their needs are, where their heads are at, and how you can reach them.

I care passionately about education. I steep myself in reading, thinking, listening, connecting, and getting involved in the sector as a school governor, through events and TeachMeets and the like. I can be passionate and well-informed about a number of key issues. I am seen as someone who understands and empathises with the frontline sector folk.

A teacher who is clued up about how their subject connects with their students’ worlds and can articulate that, is onto a winner. And I’m not talking about convincing students that they really will need to use Pythagoras’ Theorum in their daily lives one day, especially if they ever have to move a sofa up a narrow staircase.  Being able to play back your peripheral knowledge to your students and being able to pitch at the right level, is essential for teachers.

In my roles to date, being clear about what schools will prioritise based on ever-changing Ofsted criteria, funding streams, times of year, demographics, local politics, or any number of factors is paramount. Working that into my discussions with my clients can help them trust me and know that I understand where they are coming from.

 Know your client group and listen carefully

Basic knowledge about your students’ lives, the things that might be pulling them this way or that, being savvy about forces such as poverty, pressures on gender expectations and your own unconscious bias can be a massive advantage when thinking about your target audience.

As teachers and as salespeople, we have a natural tendency to want to launch in with our message of enthusiastic good news. Worse still, salespeople and teachers alike often find themselves in the oppressive world of targets, box ticking and trying to get to the end point from the minute they start their day. Lest these things start to dictate unsavoury behaviours, asking questions and listening carefully is time worth taking. Greeting each child as they enter the classroom is a great way to show you are human, but actually listening to them when you ask how they are, is even better. Making connections, following up, replaying and reaching out is hard to find time for, but can actually get you further along towards your end goal than you would imagine.


Know your competitors and treat them with respect

Something I really believe in is knowing your competitors inside out. I also believe that you shouldn’t politely avoid them but should rather make efforts to connect, be in the same space and interact comfortably. Moreover, I believe that you can never get anywhere or earn the respect of others through dissing your opposition or competition.

If you know your competitors, what they do well, where you are similar and where you differ, it is possible to articulate this in a respectful and engaging way.

Kids always try it on and will compare you with other teachers. How many times have you heard them say words to the effect of “Miss never gives us homework like you do! They are much nicer than you”? Or perhaps they complain about another teacher saying you are much nicer because of x, y or z reason. What do you say in response? Can you say something that shows that you actually know what your colleague is trying achieve and what is important to them rather than skirting around the issues or god forbid agreeing that they are a moron compared with you?

Or what about those students that are more interested in other things rather than in what you think is important? How can you be inquisitive, give respect to things that matter to your students rather than defaulting to the generation-gap trap of poo-pooing their passions?

When I worked at The Key, we didn’t really have any genuine competitors until one set themselves up to aggressively mimic what we did and deliberately target our members by offering to undercut us by 50%. Legend goes that their CEO was so determined to bring us down that he used to spit on the floor every time he had to mention our name. I made it my business to always go over and say a friendly hello to their sales team at their conference stands and congratulate them on their latest small landgrab. If asked about them, it was easy for me to set out the differences around quality, methodology, capacity and so on without ever saying a disrespectful word about them.

Recently as part of my work with Challenge Partners, I was invited to a seminar of organisations that offer peer review. Instead of the usual circus of pitches behind closed doors, each organisation was asked to speak about their model in a roomful of heads and in front of their perceived ‘competitors’ for business. What was delightful was the chance to hear more about these different models and to see the virtues and differences between them. Everyone was so passionate about their belief in peer review as a way to create meaningful and impactful collaboration, it was fascinating!

Solve problems, remove barriers

Consultative sales is really all about this. Putting together the points I made earlier, the ‘sales pitch’ really isn’t one at all. It is a discussion, which starts with you listening, and genuinely trying to see if what you have to offer will work for the other person. You can only know this by listening, knowing the market, understanding needs and so on. What are the simple things you can do to remove barriers? Can you move on the price, or perhaps add value without shifting on price? Are there economies of scale or a trial before there’s a commitment in full?

Students also need this level of barrier removal. You can’t know what these barriers are without listening, understanding, thinking creatively.


Have clear expectations for timelines and next steps

Some of the best teachers fall down on not being clear on what they want, when they want it by, in what format, how often, and for what purpose. It doesn’t take much to set these out and clarity can make for much better engagement and achievement in the long run. It’s not enough to just say it once either. It needs to be communicated in several ways at different intervals.

Same goes for sales. It’s easy to get carried away with the excitement of a prospective new member of your organisation without having properly set out the timelines and next steps of your discussion or negotiation.  If you get this wrong, excitement can lead swiftly to disappointment on all sides.


Be trustworthy

This is a big one for me. Having been brought up by basically unreliable and unpredictable adults, I have a special wariness of people who are flaky, who over-promise and under-deliver. I especially can’t abide by professionals or personal acquaintances who say they were swamped and that’s why they didn’t do what they said they were going to do. It seems to be a big feature of the education sector that people will just not be there when they have asked to schedule a call with you, or are half an hour late when they have asked you to come and meet them. As well as setting out next steps clearly, I always make sure I am true to my word. If I say I can move on price, I will. If I say I will call you at 2pm on Tuesday, I will.
Children need to be able to trust adults. They need to know that you will do what you said you would do. They need to know that if you set them homework, you can be trusted to take it in and mark it. They need to know that you will behave in a way that earns their trust and they also need to know you will be trusting of them.


Be warm and friendly but keep clear boundaries and don’t be a walkover

When I started teaching, I was told that I should start like a closed fist and only unfurl gradually and on my own terms. “Don’t smile ‘til Christmas” is what is said in this country, I believe. We often mistake being warm and friendly with a lack of boundaries. It is possible, desirable, essential even, to be warm and friendly to the people that we want to trust us, respect us and learn from us.

The same goes with sales. Warmth that is genuine and being friendly even if your service is ultimately rejected as not appropriate, is really important. If you have followed the steps of true consultative sales as set out here, there will be no change in your warmth and ability to be friendly, whether what you are offering is taken up or not. On the other hand, people can take the mickey and ask for a level of flexibility that just isn’t realistic. Don’t be afraid to say no because you worry you might lose the sale. Just explain why in a friendly way. You might be surprised that you don’t lose the sale after all.

While being friendly, one has to keep those clear boundaries.


Love what you do and do what you love

I have always had one rule about work. I love what I do and do what I love. If I find things to be otherwise, it’s time to move on.  I am genuinely passionate about the organisations I have worked with and feel completely at home sharing my passion, engaging others in dialogue and seeing if they might benefit from them too. There will always be targets, ideals, peaks in workload and even days that are simply crappy. But it’s important to me to work with my colleagues to build the right culture so that these things don’t become central drivers.

As a teacher, you can find that your initial passion can become swallowed up by the demands of the job. Where you can, join together with colleagues in your school to make sure the culture is one you believe in and that makes you feel happy and alive at least most of the time. Make sure that you aspire to being surrounded by staff and students that love what they do and do what they love.

Colour-blindness, cats and cucumbers, and cycling

Image result for Unconscious bias
From Margie Warell

Why is my curriculum white vs. why, is my curriculum white?

I was telling a friend of mine about the BAMEed Network and was surprised by her reaction when we started talking about a podcast I had listened to called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ She suddenly sounded really annoyed as she said, “you know, we don’t need this pitying, dumbing down of the world on our behalf, thank you. Of course the curriculum is white, this is England. I don’t mind adding a black or Asian philosopher into the mix but it’s not representative and it is artificial if there’s more than one or two isn’t it?”

I wasn’t sure how to react. She said, “All you are doing with this BAME thing is segregating and categorising people – I don’t want to be seen as a brown woman when I walk into a room or representing brown people or women when I am on the school governing body. I just want to be me”. I love my friend, we often holiday together as families, we feel so at home together but we are completely opposed in terms of politics and many aspects of our world views. But we can talk about things and trust each other completely. We also don’t try and change each other’s minds about things. We find the middle ground. Still, I said to her, “colour-blindness, that’s not actually real you know?” She was resolute. It would be for her.

Test yourself if you dare

It gave me pause for thought though. I am not trying to segregate the world, I am trying hard to be aware of my unconscious bias. I start from the standpoint that we are so culturally socialised by certain viewpoints that it is unrealistic to pretend to be colour-blind or neutral. I have been challenging myself recently by trying out some of the Harvard University unconscious bias tests available online. If you are brave you will give them a go too. It makes me squirm but it reminds me that this difficulty exists and the key is to be aware and to not deny or enact the consequence of your initial unconscious bias.

My husband and I keep comparing our results with great curiosity and some mirth. We are such opposites in some ways too. His experience starts as an Israeli-Iraqi Jew brought up in Jerusalem, where he is seen as mixed race and a second class citizen alongside the Ashkenazic, European Jews. He is an immigrant to this country since the early 2000s and that makes him feel an affinity with certain populations more than others. He sees how ethnic minority students, and staff members, are treated differently in his workplace, a university setting, and it makes him incredibly frustrated. Having spent over a decade living in Israel myself, being constantly reminded that I am a foreigner, I know how he feels to some extent. Back in England now, in my relative position of white privilege, but still sometimes finding it hard to assimilate back in, my experience sometimes feels so extreme that it feels disingenuous to do anything but recognise that the way we see the world and are seen by it differs depending on many factors.

Three popular internet things that make you wonder

Every day, things I see online make me think more about this. Three very different ones have made me think. The first is the story of a five year old white American boy who wanted to get his hair shaved short like his black American best friend so that their teacher “wouldn’t be able to tell them apart”. This is a stark reminder of the fact that we don’t seem to be born looking for differences and aware of skin colour that much. It is culturally constructed over time and is a part of our education. You can’t culturally un-construct it just by declaring yourself colour blind. All culturally constructed notions are deeply engrained.

Secondly, the news interview where a white man is speaking to the camera and in marches his small daughter, shortly followed by his other child in a baby walker. They are pursued by a woman who rushes in on all fours grabs them both and hustles them out of the room, returning briefly, still on her knees to shut the door. The assumption online was that this was his wife. Others speculated that it could be the childminder. There was backlash against presumed racially charged assumptions that the woman was a childminder and not the children’s mother and the white man’s wife – she was Korean. She was his wife.

Thirdly, isn’t it human, – and animal – ancient, learned behaviour to break the world up into categories of like me, not like me, threat and non-threat. You only have to see what happens to a cat when someone puts a cucumber behind it. Why would a domestic cat that has never seen a snake, have it so engrained in their ancient cat-bias, so as to be afraid of a vegetable that has only a vaguely snake-like appearance, is completely inanimate but seems to have sneaked up on them? Could this be true also for us human folk? Does it go that far back?

Cycling and gender-biased aggression

On a personal note, as a cyclist in London, I am now clocking up 45 minutes each way on my commute to and from work. I have always been bothered by the amount of abuse I get, although my cycling style is pretty mellow and non-confrontational. I have cycled for years and a while back now, I complained to my husband that as a woman, I get called all sorts of vile names and people can be unduly aggressive towards me. He said he never got any abuse and put it down to the fact that I can be bloody-minded and belligerent with my opinions so I am probably the same on the roads. One evening, we went out together locally and I suggested we cycle there together. On the way, I asked him if he would be willing to do an experiment with me, and to cycle some distance behind me and watch what happened. Sure enough, he was shocked by the different treatment I got compared to what he has been accustomed to. I had the usual array of cars beeping, or deliberately overtaking dangerously close and shouting as they passed, making me jump. There was also unwanted interaction with swearing pedestrians, heads down in their phones while they were weaving between the cars pausing for a moment in traffic, and from other (male) cyclists even.

Due to the air quality of central London, I have taken to wearing a pollution filter mask while cycling in recent months. It has been quite cold so with the mask, gloves, helmet and all my waterproof gear on, you can’t tell if I am a woman or a man or even what colour I am. It’s amazing. It’s as if I have been granted a completely new status. No-one bothers me at all. Bingo.  I can see why it would be amazing to reach a place where we don’t automatically treat people in certain ways based on deep seated and learned bias.

Dare you consider, how might unconscious bias affect your relationships at school?

Let’s assume then that unconscious bias does exist. How might this affect your relationship with your students and other staff members? Here are some all-you-can-eat, food for thought observations I have heard played back to me by school staff I have spoken to:

Have you noticed that BAME staff members tend to be in charge of certain subjects and the further up the hierarchy you go, the whiter it gets? Any BAME senior leaders that do make it in schools tend to be in charge of discipline or PE. What’s that about?

Why is it, in some schools, that the majority of kids that are in detention at the end of the day are black? Why do teachers of all races treat black children’s misdemeanours differently?

Why is it that schools which serve predominantly BAME areas, in parts of London for example, often deploy a military style discipline regime and refer to this as being appropriate for “these kinds” of students? The claim is that they are entrenching bias towards certain groups being subordinate to the ruling middle classes rather than promoting a socially mobile, lifelong learner expectation for children of ethnic minority backgrounds.

What about the teachers who are surprised when their Chinese heritage students educated in this country are not maths whizzes, when the black kid can’t run and their white working class boys love to read?

What of the Asian British pupil who wrote that he lived in a terrorist (terraced) house, and then ended up facing an investigation by police?

Why is it that more ethnic minority people get university degrees than white people in Britain and yet in the workplace they will be still more likely to be unemployed and paid less?

What about assessment, what elements of that is geared towards certain socio-economic and ethnic biases? What about the recent Year 6 SATs test and the dodo question for example?

Can you join me in learning more?

Please ask yourself these questions, try the Harvard online tests and let’s start to discuss what this makes us feel, what we could do differently and where the issues might lie. We will be holding a BAMEed Network conference on all aspects of unconscious bias on June 3rd. If you have ideas for what other issues should be covered, let us know and make sure you are there on the day!

Don’t treat marketing and PR as an occasional necessary evil, be wicked at it from the get-go

 

marketing-cycle

Source: Simon Hepburn 

It was the level of marketing and PR that surrounds secondary school choices that got me interested in this area in general with regards schools. It might sound entirely bonkers to admit that a school with a seemingly poor reputation caught my attention and ended up being the one my children attend today. Doing what every parent does when they don’t know better, I asked other parents about schools in the area. One school nobody seemed to mention, but that was a stone’s throw from my home, always got the same response when I asked about it. People seemed to think it was a bit rubbish – but when pressed, no-one could say why and not one of the people who had an opinion on the school had visited it, knew anyone who went there or had even read anything about it. Me being me, I had to investigate. Since then, the school has invested time and energetic enthusiasm into their PR and marketing, and its reputation is starting to match that of the actual magic that happens every day at the school. I tell people, get your oldest in now, because all too soon, it’s going to be oversubscribed. Turns out the other local school that parents told me they just “knew” was amazing and a first choice, and whose headteacher blogs about incessantly, is about to take a reputational nose-dive since the latest Ofsted visit, as the hype might not live up to the reality.

When we talk about PR and marketing with regards schools, there seems to be a level of distrust and even disgust from many, as if this is solely the realm of the private sector, the commercial and the corporate. However, savvy schools are realising that this area is absolutely vital not only if you want to keep pupil intake high, but also if you want to have some control over the story that is being told about your school. Providing you can back up your claims with substance and it’s not all puff, when times are good, your reputation will be good – people will want to come to the school, existing students and their parents, and staff members will be well-informed about all the great things that are happening, and they will feel proud and justified by their choice to be part of the school community. When things go wrong, the proverbial dog mess hits the whirring blades of the media circus fan, this good stuff you’ve been consistently broadcasting could just be what people remember despite anyone’s best efforts to pervert the course of justice.

Good marketing covers several bases that shouldn’t be ignored, especially in the complex and challenging education landscape today. Here are some of them:

  1. Your school can be seen as the first choice school if you articulate and market what your unique selling points are and keep making sure these are firmly grounded in the experience of the school community
  2. In a landscape of increased competition, and where the new shiny ideas such as academies, free schools and now grammar schools catch parents’ eyes, building networks and partnerships with others across the sector and with local business that benefit students and staff alike, can make your school stand out too
  3. Promoting good news stories regularly and consistently can stand you in good stead when things do go wrong or the going gets tough. Ongoing reputation management leads to robust damage limitation
  4. Good reputation with the local community and across the sector can lead to excellent partnerships, some of which can support alternative revenue streams, which in turn can help the school when flat cash is at a premium. Future partnerships can also create future opportunities for your students in universities, local business and beyond
  5. A school that is clearly a great place to work and to study will draw not only parents to send their children there, but will also be attractive to teachers. If you can articulate and broadcast widely the culture, ethos, CPD opportunities, and the high-quality education to be gained there, you can recruit and retain staff as well as families wanting to send their children to the school

The importance of marketing and PR really shouldn’t be overlooked. Traditional marketing for schools has been all about profile-raising for the purpose of successful recruitment and retention of both students and staff. Marketing is about improving and maximising brand opportunities. Taking this a step further and savvy marketing can mean future-proofing your school as mentioned above, and ensuring that your school is a first choice school for the surrounding area. The ninja marketers will also be mitigating some of the pressures in these financially straitened times, and will be using marketing for resources and income-generation through building meaningful networks and partnerships that benefit the school for years to come.

Links and resources for further reading:

If you are interested in learning more, Simon Hepburn from Marketing for Schools has many resources and opinion pieces from his many years’ experience on his website here

There is a good overview written by Simon called, How does your school stand out from the crowd, in SMT Magazine here. This sets out the cycle of marketing and PR  shown above that schools should embark on and helps you think about who in your school should be building the skills and expertise and making time for such a role.

Janet Murray gives useful advice on ‘How to link up with journalists on social media without feeling like a crazy stalker’ here. Her website contains all sorts of other useful links, articles and blog posts.

The Key for school leaders and NASBM (National Association of School Business Managers) have produced these useful slides called Why marketing matters to schools and their School Business Manager Toolkit also has some information on marketing your school successfully.

 

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.

 

Everyone judges parents

fish

Picture credit: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/505458758156210756/

 

While I am writing this, I can hear my neighbour screaming at her kids again. She and her partner have three kids – two teenagers and a ten year old. She rants, screams, swears at them and humiliates them. It makes my heart ache but I feel powerless to do much except stay vigilant. I guess it reminds me of my own experience growing up and I often catch myself at home standing motionless, listening, my inner-child self paralysed in poised readiness for fight or flight. When I come to, back in my adult self again, I realise I am just getting myself ready to calmly pop over and ask if I can help out at all – especially when the shouting escalates and I fear there might ensue physical violence. I try not to judge. I don’t know what demons they are battling there or how precarious their situation is. But I can’t be indifferent either to the fact that these children are getting a very raw deal. They are being damaged. I need to find a non-judgemental way to extend some kind of support.

 

People are quick to judge when things go wrong

There have been a few dramatic stories in the news lately where parents’ ability to care for their children have been called into question. The parents of the child that fell into the gorilla enclosure in the USA were immediately investigated for neglect and poor parenting; the parents that left their son behind in the forest as a punishment in Japan were heavily criticised for their drastic and draconian way to show their anger with their son for behaving badly; and the parents whose toddler was tragically snatched by an alligator while they were holidaying in Disney World sparked consternation that they could be so stupid as to let him paddle in an area renowned for the deadly beasts. People are quick to judge when things go wrong but parenting is a complex operation and it must be the only high impact, high risk and high responsibility role that we need no qualification at all to undertake. You can’t work with children without training and a DBS check. And yet to be a parent, not only is there no training, there is also not much support out there either formal or informal.

 

Do parents support each other enough?

Parents here can be awful to each other. It seems that the only time they work together is when they have a common enemy in the school. I have seen some really nasty rivalry and complete inability to show any solidarity or support for each other. Parents just seem to lack any imagination about how to relate to other parents. Having been brought up by a single parent with mental health issues who was completely unsupported by her own family, friends or neighbours, I have made it my business to extend support to other parents at my children’s school. Especially the single parents. Since there are two of us, my partner and I have always tried to make sure we extended offers of help with the school run, babysitting and sleepovers to free up those lone parents to have a bit of space and breathing room. It is nothing for us and can mean a lot to a parent that is juggling work, childcare and any hope of a social life.

When we were living in Israel, it was taken for granted that parents would look out for each other. It is customary for the school teacher to give parents a list of all of the children in the class, their parents’ names, phone numbers and their address. Every parent will then scan the list and make contact with others that live nearby. We’d find each other and work out who will do the pick ups and drop offs on which days. That’s just the way it works. Imagine my surprise when we moved here, my child starting reception didn’t get the list sent home and I heard my first reference to ‘data protection’ and ‘privacy’ when I asked about it at the school. Imagine my bafflement when on the first INSET day of the year there was no provision for the children and instead 300 children’s families were forced to each take a day off work to care for their child. It took me three years to convince fellow parents that we could actually each only take a day off work during half term if five families shared the care of four other classmates. That was the best half term break ever, with a small group of delighted children hanging out all week together with a different parent each day, at a park, a gallery, an outing somewhere different each day of the week. Why don’t we support each other more as parents when we are often struggling with the same issues?

 

Do schools support parents?

Some schools can have an extremely judgemental attitude towards parents.  Many schools’ attitude to parents seems to be that they are a nuisance whether their children behave well or not.  A lot of the school communications and processes are defensive and designed to keep parents at arm’s length on the one hand and also to berate them for not being involved enough in their child’s education on the other hand. As parents who are both in demanding full time employment, my partner and I have found that the school’s invitations to be involved during school hours was really difficult for us. I find that the role that parents and teachers play in bringing up a child together is hugely important and yet, I have only once heard a teacher in this country say anything from the heart to this effect. She started the parents evening by talking about my child in a loud and enthusiastic voice “I LOVE A_____! I really love her!” This is what every parent wants to hear. They want to know that you love and care for their child. And once that is established, the parent will work with the teacher wholeheartedly. Once this is established, a parent will be ready to hear about the things that aren’t going so well, and they will work with the teacher to help create an atmosphere of mutual respect in the classroom. There is no home-school agreement on branded school paper sent home in a brown envelope that can replace this.

When I worked as a year 7 form tutor at a secondary school, I had a wonderful line manager and mentor who coached me on how to work with parents. She insisted all form tutors hold an evening meeting with the parents of the children in their class before the start of term. She scripted my opening speech for me and made me work on it until I owned it. The basic stance was that I am about to receive their children and spend more time each day with them during the week than they will. I would need their support and guidance to understand their child and draw out the best from them, and I would need them to support and respect my judgement as a teacher. We would need to communicate clearly, regularly and responsibly with each other. We would need to work together to raise their child. It made a real difference saying this loud and clear and to their faces.

 

Parents and teachers need to model tolerance

This week’s Secret Teacher article is a clear example of this judgemental and unimaginative stance towards parents. It doesn’t take a genius to see why parents might have sent their children with inappropriate contraband and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to have had a discussion with the children about why the rules for the trip are what they are. They might even appreciate them if you explain your rationale to both parents and children. I really believe that if this ground work is done at the start as I was asked to do as a teacher, and is maintained throughout, it should be easier to guide parents as to what is appropriate beyond sending a list of instructions home every so often. After all, parents and teachers alike are educators and we must model this at all times. We should also model tolerance to difference and be lifelong learners open to learning from parents as well as learning about parenting that differs from what we know. This doesn’t mean we need to compromise on what we believe to be true or stand by when children are being damaged or are damaging others. It means we need to make more effort to do the right thing for those in our care and at times to extend our care beyond our own charges.

A teacher in life and after death

Painting by mumPainting by Sigrid Rabiger c.1960

 

Last Friday I went to Southwark Cathedral for a thanksgiving service put on by Kings College London and the London and South East Committee of Anatomists. Hundreds of medical and healthcare science students benefit from hands-on experiences with real human bodies. Each year, a number of generous and public-spirited people donate their bodies for the benefit of medical education, training and research*. In August, one of those to donate their body was my mum.

When it became clear that she was dying, finding solace in the practical, I decided to familiarise myself with the paperwork in the folder marked “after my death” so that I would make sensible choices when the time came. I had learnt over the last few roller coaster years of acting on her behalf that being informed was essential to good decision-making. It was a bit of a surprise to see that on August 27th 2008 my mum signed and sent off papers to donate her body to medical science. It was lucky I found this when I did as there is a short window in which you have to arrange for the collection of the body so that it can be prepared for its use by medical students for the next 3-5 years.

Part of the motivation for my move back to England in 2007 after over 10 years living and teaching abroad, was to try to be closer to my mum and to extend some support for her. This wasn’t easy as my mum has been a very troubled person since her adolescence and by then was elderly, isolated and suffering from various health issues which inevitably also impacted on her already fragile mental health. I and my little family did our best and my siblings provided what support they could from abroad. But over time, her health failed to the extent that she had a massive stroke in January 2014 and ended up needing 24 hour nursing care.  A year and a half later – 7 years after she signed those papers – she slowly and gently faded away. I was there close by, watching over her, so grateful that after such an awful life of suffering and brutality she could be granted such a peaceful, forgiving and gentle passage to whatever lay beyond this world. By some strange coincidence, her body was donated the very same date that she signed those papers, 27th August 2015 – my 45th birthday no less.

Because Southwark Cathedral was so packed with families, I found myself sitting  in amongst the Kings College London choir, while they belted out the most heavenly and uplifting sounds. My eyes were fixed on their open mouths and the organist’s back, in these regal surroundings. The ceremony was non-religious and highly mindful of how people of all and no religion approach life and death. And the title of ‘thanksgiving’ went far beyond my expectations.

First up was a student physiotherapist. The irony didn’t escape me considering how central physiotherapists have been in my life with my disabled knee that I have been struggling with since I ruptured my ACL. Immediately I was struck by the passion with which this student described her love of learning, and the genuine gratitude she felt: “thank you for animating the transient, mortal, human body into a timeless gift – that of scientific learning and medical teaching. It is invaluable”.

She went on, “as the canvas is to the artist, the body is to the physiotherapists and it is with huge respect and thanks I can honestly say how enriching it has been to navigate my learning in this visual and tangible way”. You will understand if you read on why this reference to the artist warmed my heart.

She said, “Your loved ones donated their body to our medical curriculum, and they became our silent teachers”.

Rather than describe the ceremony in blow by blow detail, I wanted to find a way to express here how my mum, a parent who in many ways had failed me as a role model and a teacher, also inspired me to become a teacher myself and has even helped me positively shape my parenting too. I was so awestruck by the fact that this trip into the unknown at Southwark Cathedral helped me continue trying to make sense of so much that I am still grappling with.

I believe that everyone is a teacher and you can learn from everyone. One of the things I know about learning from other people is that you often have to separate people out into segments of their person to understand them and to gain from them what they are there to teach you. What I mean by this can be illustrated by my experience of my mum. She had a childhood filled with horrific abuse and mistreatment. She escaped her family to art school and by the early 1960s had been hanging out with a bohemian crowd of fellow artists. Our family home was filled with paintings by her from this era and today my siblings and I have her bold and vibrant paintings in our own homes. By the time I came along, she was broken. Two failed marriages behind her,  she found herself a single parent of two small children and pregnant with me, trying to hold her demons at bay and build a life for herself and her children. It must have been the most awful of times and while she essentially replicated the abuse, neglect and mistreatment on her own children, we somehow were always able to see beyond, to the person she would have liked to have been. We were always able to see her own small-child self battling the demons that had seized her. We were able to see her as the raging adult, fragile and let down by those that should have protected her, somewhere in the fire and brimstone.

By some miracle, while we were small children, my mum built herself a career. It was survival. She had been a stay at home mum until my older brother was five but with my dad gone, she had to work. She built on her knowledge as an artist and taught. In the 1970s, she taught basket weaving and sculpture at nursing homes, what were then called ‘handicapped centres’, and in a unit for school-phobic children. She brought home materials and we all learned to paint, draw, weave, do macramé, plaster-casting, sculpting, lino prints, the works. When she taught us, the irritable, quick to be triggered, lashing out hands, would diminish. She would connect for a moment and her voice and eyes would soften.

Through my early secondary school years in the 1980s my mum trained to be an art therapist at evening school while working and running the family home during the day. She started working at a centre for autistic children and later at a special school, and became hooked. She read voraciously, she became involved in what would now be deemed as action-research, constantly thinking about and writing about art as therapy. She found the personal and professional relationships extremely challenging and often felt alienated and misunderstood by her colleagues. But she was real and intense and absolutely committed to her work with the children as a teacher.

Fast forward to 2014. She has had the stroke, is in intensive care, then rehab for months and we are faced with £1,000 a week nursing home costs. We need to clear out her house and sell it to foot the bill. She has always been a hoarder and this was the most visceral and ghastly of tasks. I can only liken it to an archaeological dig – perhaps somewhere like Pompeii – each find throwing up images of a life lived and a disaster that had dashed away the possibilities somehow. Each room contained layers of a life holed up in the same house since the 1960s.

In one room she stored her art teacher and art therapy days. Piles and piles of powder paints, papers, work books and guide books, felt tip pens, huge pots of paintbrushes, reams of cane, lino cutting tools, and other dried out, dust encrusted items. On one side of the room, stacked haphazardly from floor to ceiling were makeshift portfolios filled with children’s drawings, each picture dated and labelled in her spidery semi-legible handwriting. Alongside them were albums of photos of the same works, also labelled and dated, bursting at the seams. She was carrying out a decades-long study, building up her evidence, complemented by her reading and illegible writing. Every wall, table, chair, surface of the house was filled with papers and books on child psychology, psychotherapy and art. She was a teacher, a student, a researcher, living and breathing her profession. It was painful to dispose of all of it.

I’m recalling this incredible labour of love of hers. As the choir is singing the painfully beautiful John Taverner’s Funeral Ikos I am thinking of my mum as the ‘silent teacher’ and as a parent. As both parent and teacher myself I have come to realise that one gives so much of oneself but that this giving is often done essentially out of necessity and not always from choice. As both parent and teacher you can be driven to give above and beyond because you are passionately trying to do the right thing. And similarly, you can be pushed to even going against what your principled mind truly believes in, because you are at the edge of your capacity to cope as a person. My mum, as a parent and as a teacher was often so unable to help others on so many occasions, including her own children, because she was so helpless herself. She was operating at the edge of and beyond her capacity so much of the time. And yet, as a teacher and as a parent, I know that she was so committed and fighting to stay committed all along. She loved the children she worked with and she loved her own children despite the inherited demons that led her to commit crimes against them.

Through donating her body in this way, we were being denied closure and the opportunity to bury her body – perhaps just as we may never have closure and bury what we went through in childhood. However, it was clear to me that my mum had chosen this option with clarity of mind and because of her conviction about the importance of learning, passing on learning to others and supporting our beloved NHS.  In amongst the constant chaos and unpredictable sanity, my mum made a clear, principled and generous decision that embodied her political, spiritual and moral beliefs and I am extremely proud of her for doing so. American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “the only gift is a portion of thyself” and I know with complete certainty that this is what she did her best to give in her life as a parent and a teacher, and again in her death as a “silent teacher”.

In memory of Sigrid Alison Rabiger 02.05.1934 – 26.08.2015, artist, parent, teacherMum drawing

*If you are interested in finding out more about donating your body to medical science there is a good article from The Guardian here or click here for the Royal College of Surgeons site

On authenticity as a teacher, a parent and elsewhere

authenticity

 

Authenticity and teaching

As a teacher, I had ideas about what a good teacher-student relationship should be. I was lucky that my teacher training course included masses of time and discussion on the philosophical and deeply personal questions of what education is, why we ourselves want to be teachers and what models there were in the world. We read about and visited all sorts of schools – those working to a democratic model, or to an experimental choice-based one, to systems with rigid rote learning.

I had some woeful examples of teachers as a student myself and the thing that fired my enthusiasm for being a teacher in the first place was a need to ensure that I could reach into hearts and minds and touch them positively, no matter how much other adults may have let them down. I wanted to be someone who would be respected because I had earned it by being respectful myself, and that could inspire young people because I was constantly learning and discovering things myself. I had to prove to myself as much as anyone else that I could be authentic, and that I could keep clear and healthy boundaries while inspiring, instructing and sometimes compelling students to learn and grow. I learned so much about being a good leader as a teacher, and of course I made some awful, embarrassing mistakes finding my way. The mistakes most often happened when I was trying to hide who I was in that moment – that I was confused or simply unprepared, that I was trying to grab control and respect rather than doing what I needed to do to be in control and to gain respect.

But the thing I learned the most was that authenticity isn’t even a choice. A teacher is absolutely transparent to their class from the moment they set foot in the classroom and any attempt to be something you are not, will backfire on you. This self-awareness can be your biggest impediment and greatest source of empowerment.

Authenticity and parenting

It’s kind of obvious but so easy to try to avoid facing up to, that parenting is leadership. Although you spend much of your waking life under the watchful eye of your offspring or the children you have decided to bring into your life through adoption, fostering or caring for, you can easily kid yourself (pardon the pun) that you can hide who you really are.

Before my children were born I had all sorts of ideas about how I would parent them. Again, my own parents were not good role models. In fact they were appalling. As a result, becoming a parent myself was not a simple or obvious choice. I came at it with an attitude that it would probably stir up all sorts of pain and challenge for me and that I would need to work hard to separate my own childhood from that of my children. I couldn’t fix my childhood through my own children’s lives but I would do my best to make sure that I was as truthful about this as possible with myself and with my partner.

When children are little, we can believe the illusion that we are omnipotent leaders by adopting the “do as I say” rule. Later, as the babies and toddlers become children and young adults, for some parents it expands to “do as I say, don’t do as I do”. The Modern Brits are world famous for their systems and processes for everything. I became keenly aware of these bureaucratic techniques when I moved back to England 9 years ago – the naughty step, time out, five minute warnings, rigid bath and bedtime routines, reward and punishment charts and more.  The beautiful thing I am learning now, being the parent of a teenager and a pre-teen is that authenticity can have its  very own calming effect and can diffuse potentially explosive situations better than any of these techniques. Authenticity can also teach compassion, empathy, and that to err and to fail is painful but part of learning and growing.

This all makes me sound either holier than thou or like I am a bumbling idiot over-sharing my vulnerability with all and sundry. Actually, as a teacher, I earned the title of “firm but fair” from my students and my kids often refer to me the same way. I do believe we should try to model self-discipline, diligence, reliability, hard work, courage, empathy, generosity and all of the good stuff. But over time, I have learnt humility in the form of being able to apologise (agonising as it feels before you do it), reconsidering my position because I have listened and really heard what my child is saying to me, and other useful lessons of authenticity. I have learned to say that the way that I spoke or acted was absolutely unacceptable and that I am really sorry and ashamed. And I have learnt to say that I am struggling and need some space to try and work through the inner conflict that is making me want to lash out or close down inwards.

Authenticity in the workplace

I’m getting used to my new place of work and the people that I work with. I’ve only been there for six months. It’s quite an extraordinary workplace culture and I have written a little about this in a previous post. One thing that it demands is great authenticity. Like teaching and parenting, working in an open-plan office and alongside a small team of bright people doing great things means you are constantly visible to each other.

I have thought a lot about how you can be a leader in an organisation which is quite flat in its hierarchy. Unsurprisingly, the conclusion I have reached is that authenticity is essential. Part of this authenticity I realise, especially as a woman prone to at times doubting her abilities,  means being really clear on where you absolutely do have the skills, experience and confidence to lead your colleagues no matter their status.  Alongside this it’s important to not lose sight of where you will need challenge, support, affirmation or understanding from colleagues and where you must give these things unconditionally in order to encourage authenticity from others. It also means you need to be clear that at any point, and from any colleague no matter their age, experience or standing, you are going to learn and grow.

Authenticity online

Authenticity online has got to be the most complicated feat of all. It’s the place where you can have a massive impact and yet can be completely unaware of how your words are being read and what meaning, right or wrong, is being read into them. It is also a place where what you say can be misinterpreted or can ruffle feathers even if you don’t intend it to.

I use several platforms on social media. I use Facebook for friends and family although I find it is most useful as a repository for photos and a place to go when I can’t sleep. I like Twitter as a way to stay up to date with education sector developments and discussions. I am starting to develop my voice as a blogger and without the constraints of 140 characters, it’s probably the place I can be most authentically me. Part of my need for authenticity is accepting the dangers inherent in social media. I know that every so often, something will misfire, be misread, be badly worded by me, will strike a disharmonious chord to someone else’s ears. But like teaching, aiming to connect, share, resonate, inspire, enthuse and be authentic can be so rewarding for those touched by it, yourself included.

I bumped into an old work colleague on the Underground recently. I haven’t seen him for probably 4 years but we are Facebook friends, watching each other’s children growing up and hitting ‘like’ on each other’s posts occasionally. I was so stunned when, after we chatted a bit, he said that he wanted to thank me for my authenticity and openness on Facebook. I had posted quite a bit about my journey as a carer for my mother through the decline of her mental and physical health which culminated in her having a massive stroke and becoming completely dependent day and night for all her physical needs. In writing about it, I felt it was important for those close to me to know what I was experiencing and it was therapeutic for me to write even a few sentences about it. But I also felt that it was important to others who might have been through something similar or might go through it sometime in the future to know that it is okay to speak about it with authenticity and to reach out for some support.

Authenticity as myself

I think as I become older (and I’m feeling this now especially as I have been through some quite gruelling life experiences yet again in the last couple of years) I have come to realise that I cannot be anyone but myself. Of course, I am committed as ever to lifelong learning, to growing and developing as a person, as a parent, as a professional. But with age, I have realised that this is it. The me that I am is work in progress, nimble and agile, but I am also like a great static cliff hammered by seas and the elements. I have taken a shape that is unique and recognisable and if people want to come closer explore the subtleties, I can do nothing but stand still.

On empathy and viewing education through a lens of childhood

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Image source: https://atmanco.com/blog/working-environment/importance-of-empathy-in-your-organization/

I read an article this weekend about Why You Should Have More Empathy and it got me thinking about our society and how managerialist culture, the obsession with productivity and outputs, measurement and data can really mean empathy and a place for human beings’ emotional investment takes a huge hit. It was later in the weekend that Alison Peacock tweeted “Leadership that views primary education through the lens of childhood is essential if we are to provide optimum learning for all” and I realised that this is completely connected to my earlier thoughts about empathy.

Somehow, we have created an education system where the child, at every stage in their childhood development, seems to be invisible in the setting of education policy. We are hell bent on trying to define where they should end up, what level they are at as compared with where they should be, what part of productivity in the capitalist machine they should take. And we are using our children’s learning as a way to measure their teachers’ success in instilling in their students the latest fad of what a good curriculum should look like. Through a lack of empathy we are dehumanising our children, their parents and their teachers in favour of an apparently more superior, logical and linear thinking, data and measurement.

To illustrate my point, I was flicking through my Year 8 daughter’s English workbook after she had shown me some really interesting homework she was doing on comparing two poems that show panic and confusion in very different ways. “I need to write more” she said, looking glum. “Looks good to me, you have argued your points well and there seems to be every inch of each poem covered” I responded – I try not to get involved, but I was an English teacher for a decade, I think I recognise good work when I see it. As I was turning the pages of her workbook, my eye rested on one of those little “Oral feedback given” stamps and then on the next page in red pen: “You need to write another paragraph – how can you maintain a level 7 if you don’t write more?!” Argh. There it is again.

It made me think about how an injection of empathy could impact on situations I have experienced lately connected with education. One example is around SATs again. My youngest is in year 6 and I have written recently about her experience as I see it. I watched the “Kids Strike” with interest last week. The parents’ slogan of “Let Kids be Kids” is catchy but not very clear. What I would hope they are trying to say is that kids generally love to learn, and if done well, they can even quite enjoy the challenge of a test or two along the way so long as they understand that this is a good way to see whether what they have learnt has stuck. If it hasn’t, their teachers can then ask, is that across the whole class? This might indicate that there might be a problem with the teaching, the curriculum, the planning over time for the whole class and it could help the teachers to think again. Or there might be a problem for individual children within the class, indicating the same issues may have affected a handful of children alongside other factors that might be getting in the way of their learning. Again, so useful to know to make sure the right things happen next.

But how did these parents of Year 2 children get to such a place that they felt they had to take this radical action and stage a strike? How did the conflict of empathy vs. rigid policy play out such that they had to make a stand based on their own empathic understanding of what is right for their children over and above what government thinks is right for children. I think in part it might be because at no point was there any thought put in, when orders were passed top-down regarding the Year 2 SATs test, into the feelings that would be stirred up in the headteachers, teachers, children and their parents. Perhaps a little step by step, empathetic, easing in would have gone a long way. It’s so telling that almost as an afterthought a template letter has been adopted and circulated this Friday by some headteachers nationwide, telling kids that they are awesome whatever the outcome and to relax and take it easy, ahead of the Year 6 SATs next week. Empathy yes, but so late in the process it’s almost ridiculous.

Another example this week was that I had my first experience of feeling so exercised by a situation unfolding in my older daughter’s secondary school that I felt I had to go and speak with the headteacher. For context, it takes a lot for me to go into school and say what I think is not going well and I make sure I write an email at least twice a year to the school thanking them and outlining what I think has gone well. I asked a couple of headteacher acquaintances for their advice on how to go about this and the answers were pretty much the same: go immediately and speak to the school. A couple mentioned following the school’s complaints procedure so I thought I would check this out online and try to be a good citizen. It irked me to think about this as a complaint though. I am not a consumer, receiving bad service here. I am a parent, who through listening to their child and discussing this situation, has realised that for the school to grow and learn, I really must feed this back. My daughter, who is so empathetic it is sometimes paralysing for her, was worried about the teacher getting told off, and of making her feel bad. She could see why this teacher had behaved the way she did and that the teacher obviously had a difficult conflict of interests that she was wrestling with.

The school complaints procedure is the most classic example of British, managerialist, bureaucratic and unempathetic prose written. It immediately starts with almost legalistic jargon mentioning statutory duty, with an array of numbered clauses down the margins. It would make even the meekest parent bristle ready for a fight. I would love to see something that starts perhaps like this: “We take care and pride in our school and our relationship with the children and parents in our school community. We recognise that we may not always get this right, and we appreciate your feedback and support to help our school be a place of true learning and growth. Therefore, we have written this guide to help you through what we perceive to be a fair and correct way to register a complaint, suggest a change, give some feedback or request a greater understanding of what we do at the school…..”

I practice what I preach in the workplace. Managerialist culture can fail to recognise the importance of the emotional life of your fellow colleagues and yet this failure is the very thing that can hold back effectiveness and quality of work. I feel it is my duty to act with empathy with the people I work alongside. It is such a strong and relevant ‘tool’ to begin with when setting a vision, working towards targets and goals and when leading and supporting other colleagues. Always the first thing on my mind when setting out the strategy of how we will get from here to there, is who are the people, what do I want them to feel, how will I communicate this to them? And in the current education sector, I do feel that unless we can find a way to disentangle the short-term political gains from the long-term educational aims, we are forever going to be locked into this politicised, marketised, unempathetic and managerialist attitude. The representation of logical thinking, measurement and data as inherently superior to emotional and intuitive reasoning can lead to the more extreme and rigid forms of managerialism we are seeing in the education sector and many other workplaces. We need a more humanised, responsive and relationship-based practice at the heart of what we do in order to succeed.

 

 

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.