Tag Archives: teaching

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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Summer time and the living ain’t easy

kick

I want to remind you, because it matters to me. I want to remind myself because thankfully, I am worlds away from where I was once, and sometimes, even I too forget what it can be like.

Students, teachers and parents/carers, bound by the rhythm of the academic year, all know the feeling leading up to the summer holidays. The absolute, bone-aching, itchy-eyed crawl through the end of year obligations and celebrations, the various milestones and rites of passage, the last logistics and then the deafening silence that ensues when it’s finally here and we can kick into a different gear for the greater part of six weeks.

“Have a great summer!” we say as we wave goodbye to the school gates, the students and staff members. Forgetting that for many, the summer is protracted period of chaos, uncertainty, hunger, vulnerability, emotional upheaval and even physical wounds. It is the wrenching away from a number of guaranteed hours of structure, predictability and protection that the school day can provide.

I’m sitting beside a river, looking at my own children, as we horse about in the south of France, where we have been for nearly two weeks. This year, we let them bring a friend each, since they are 12 and 15, knowing this would make it even more fun an experience.  We’ve done a home-swap and took the train here, so the costs are pretty modest all in all. They have little idea how lucky they are.

I keep thinking back to my own experience of summer holidays at their age. My dad saw us once a year, for two weeks, during the summer holidays. He would pull us away from our friends and familiar surroundings, rent a cottage in Dorset to be near his own research interests and community, which would give him some company and structure to the days. While he was at the library, we would spend the time roaming the fields and nearby villages, hanging around. We were getting to know “Uncle Dad” as I used to think of him. If you added up all the two week slots I had spent with him by the time I was 12, it amounts to just under six months. Seeing my dad once a year was meant to be a treat, and in a way it was because we got away from London and from our mum during that time, but it also was a painful experience. This short two-week window was a chance for the three of us children to be reminded of several things:

  • His lifestyle in America was completely different to ours. He had a young wife, no kids, a great job, ate out lots, had what seemed to us a massive circle of friends and colleagues. He even had hobbies and leisure time – we were on free school meals, my mum constantly worried about running out of money. She had no support network, social life or love life other than what could be packed into those two weeks and around her job as a teacher. She lived like a battalion commander under constant enemy fire
  • He disapproved of us. His visit inevitably began with the ritual end of year report reading and I always got a talking to from my dad. While away with him, we children squabbled, acting out the angst and frustration from our fraught home life, which he knew nothing of. He just thought we were brattish kids. We had a short window of time to prove ourselves worthy of his love and the experience was humiliating, like an annual two-week Sisyphean mountain
  • We were not lovable – if we were, he wouldn’t have gone so far away and moved abroad. If we were, he wouldn’t spend time with us once a year and then hand us back to cope alone with the horrors of our daily lives, board the plane home and not see us again for another 351 days

During the summer holidays, my mum was more stressed about money than usual. She was often on part-time or contract work which didn’t include payment in the summer holidays. This meant that we were left to our own devices much of the time while she went into a sort of exhausted, low-cost limbo. It being the 70s and early 80s, over-scheduling, playschemes and expensive childcare weren’t really a thing yet. Playing in the streets and roaming were. That was fun and exciting and there was a whole pack of us neighbourhood kids that would play for hours on end or go off on our bikes to the parks and the heath. Smoking fags, trespassing, dodging weirdos and paedophiles was just a part of life and looking back now I see that we were in real peril many, many times.

My mum was lonely, isolated, struggling with mental illness and a complete lack of interest, imagination, or support from those around her. She was prone to violent outbursts and we would bear the brunt of these with vicious beatings, afterwards, being locked in our rooms for sometimes a whole day and overnight, howling to be released. Or if we ran away from her grasping hands, having the contents of our rooms emptied onto the floor and ripped and trampled underfoot, being denied food, affection, an apology or even acknowledgement that that had just happened.

Term-time gave some day-time reprieve from the enemy at home (even if it was also pretty miserable for me, being in detention, in the corridor or in disgrace a lot of the school day). The summer meant always being in a cortisol-fuelled state of high alert.  I remember feeling exhausted at the end of August, and a sort of soul-deep, secret, soiled state of being. No-one knew what we endured. Not even our friends, their parents, teachers – or our own dad. The long school-shirt sleeves and knee-high socks of the autumn term covered the bruises.

“Write about what you did in your summer holidays” was always the task we started the year with. Or “write down your resolutions for the new academic year”. Every year, I composed a jolly recollection of the time we did brass rubbings in the village church or a walk we went on all together, with my dad. Every year, I could almost taste the feeling of hope and thought I could turn over a new leaf, knuckle down, be a better me. I would last a few weeks and then succumb to the deeply ingrained sense that I was the vile, unworthy, rotten-to-the-core child that had been drilled into me over the course of the year by school and my mum and finished off over the summer by my dad in his own desperate, unconscious way. The cycle began again and I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t hold my tongue, the gap widened and I didn’t understand the work and had no-one at home to work through it with me.

When I was a teacher, I made sure I was sensitive to the possibility that this sort of experience was the case for some of my students, some of their parents, some of my colleagues. I knew that at least a proportion of them would be struggling over the summer and that their return to school wouldn’t be with a glow of bronzed skin, relaxed shoulders and tales of exotic climes. I knew that they would hunker down and brace themselves for the self-satisfied tales of trips with the family and the inevitable setting of assignments and declarations of what their well-rested and re-charged selves could achieve in the year ahead.

My plea to you as teachers, as parents, as people, is to remember this. Be sensitive. Think of a way to reach out and hold tight those for whom it was summer time and the living ain’t easy.

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!

Treading the line between compliance and creativity

alma

Last week I went to a screening of ‘Most Likely to Succeed’, the Sundance nominated film about what education could be. The star of the film is High Tech High in San Diego (featured here), a place where teachers have the freedom to shape projects that culminate in public exhibitions. The film itself was interesting although sitting next to my anthropologist/social work lecturer/documentary film maker/husband, was a little distracting as he texted me his critique of the film and how it was made.

I was also doing a pretty good job of distracting myself with the plethora of emotional reactions I seemed to be going through watching the film. You can’t do anything much in life without recognising who you are and how this affects your experience. I am a mother of a 14 year old and an 11 year old, was educated in the 1970s and 1980s in London at a hippy primary school and then a girls grammar school that took me on despite my failing the entrance exam. I did an anthropology degree, have a PGCE that specialised in alternative education and a Masters degree in Education. I taught English for over ten years in Jerusalem in the 1990s and early 2000s in democratic and alternative schools. I helped set up, and worked at, The Key for 8 years, supporting school leaders and governors to run their schools. Now I work for the school-led charity, Challenge Partners. I am a long-suffering school governor too. It would be safe to say I live and breathe education. So clearly, my viewing experience was coloured by my life so far and as I watched, I also listened to my own thoughts and reactions.

As a teacher

I taught in three schools that were really like the one in the film and as part of my teacher training, visited several others across Israel. It made me nostalgic and excited to see it again on screen in Hi Tech High, and to remember that wonderful time. We had complete freedom to decide what we taught and how. The curriculum was designed by each teacher, there was no monitoring of their classroom, homework or lesson plans. We wrote our own tests and decided when, what and how frequently to test the children. There were national GCSE equivalent tests at the end of year 12. The kids usually did well. It was the most incredible experience. It made me a passionate, hard working, dedicated, curious and committed teacher. I wanted each child to thrive and shine, I loved my subject and my classes were vibrant, varied and the children were, on the whole, enthusiastic learners. It wasn’t without its challenges and difficulties but we worked these through, the general tone was one of exploration, dialogue, understanding and practical solutions. The school was a happy and purposeful place.

On the other hand, I sometimes look back at my teaching experience as I do on my neglectful parents during my 1970s childhood entirely devoid of any health and safety awareness. The amount of times we could have died as we lolled about in the back of my mum’s Morris Traveller without seatbelts, or ran about the streets playing unattended sometimes laughing off the passing paedophile’s pathetic attempts to lure us into his car, or hopping over the tube rails for a dare. If I hadn’t been streetwise and vigilant, it could have been tragic indeed. And if I hadn’t been the massively enthusiastic and reflective practitioner I was, I could have just done not very much with my students and coasted my way through the years. I found that some of the children at the schools where I taught really suffered from the amount of freedom they had. It was their parents who had wanted this for themselves as children, and were living vicariously through their children by giving them relief from the oppressive discipline they hated in their own childhood. With such permissive parents, lacking in clear boundaries, some children were really ill equipped to deal with freedom of this kind and it was exhausting trying to meet their needs.

As a mother

I felt remorse, guilt and anxiety – why don’t my children have this kind of education? Why have I been so passive about sending them along with the herd to normal schools? Have they missed out and been compromised by restrictive educational experience that has increasingly been narrowed by the obsessive managerialist measurement culture? Or have they been strengthened by having to eke out creative, autonomous, and alternative educational experiences despite being on the factory line of bog standard English education?

I felt defensiveness and derision – I didn’t have to decide whether to send my own children to the schools where I taught in the end, although I agonized over it, because we moved to England when the oldest reached reception age. There seemed no choice except to go to the local primary school and hope for the best. What is shown in the film is all very well but if this school happened in this country, it would be only a very certain kind of parent that sent their kid there. It would be swamped by anxious yummy mummies and would fall foul to the fate of many of the free schools of its ilk. It was my experience of my hippy local primary school in the 1970s where we learnt Beatles songs, carpet weaving and were left to self-directed learning from laminated cards in Learning Lab boxes that led to my failing the 11+ and spending my entire secondary education gasping to barely keep up.

As a working person

Throughout my career at management and director level, when I interview people for roles in my team, I sometimes find the more impressive the grades on their CVs are, the more lacking in creativity and unable to cope with autonomy they are. The Hi Tech High model of team work gives importance to going through a process and not just to the output, respect is given to exploration, for taking the time, and this really appeals to me. We seem to be racing people through life, meting out the stages of development they need to reach from birth to graduation and ticking them off to satisfy our own need for measurement, league tables, evidence of productivity and the like. We have a generation of young people in their early careers that are restlessly running on underdeveloped tip toes before they have developed the stability needed when they hastily learned to walk.

My conclusion will always be the same. I am ever the relativist in my outlook. There’s room for everything and a one-size-fits-all approach never works. I would love there to be room for such freedom and depth of thought and experience for all children. I believe that some schools do manage to build in some pockets of exploration and autonomy while marching along to the exhausting demands of the system as a whole.

By way of example, while we were watching this film, my youngest was away for the week at a wonderful life-changing experience through her school. Fifteen Yr 7 to Yr 9 children were sent away to a writers’ retreat of incredible calibre in Shropshire. It’s especially amazing that she was chosen as the school has recognised that she is an articulate and enthusiastic writer and that her SATS scores and dyslexia shouldn’t be allowed to be an impediment to this. “I wish my school was always like that”, she repeated over and over for the coming weeks. What she loved was the freedom and structure that interplayed so well. The autonomy mixed with clear guidance from professional writers. They cooked their own meals and went for country walks. They were able to steep themselves in a project day after day, after day, were encouraged to focus on depth, to make mistakes, and to be treated as writers by writers. It’s not the first experience of this kind they have had at the school, and it won’t be the last. So instead of beating myself up for not banding together with fellow parents and creating a free school that provides the North London version of Hi Tech High for my children, I think I will continue to support my local comp that treads a confident line between compliance and creativity.

 

 

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collective punishment doesn’t make any sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

pivotal
Source: Pivotal Education

An example from one of the masters

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

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

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

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

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

What I learned from my learning styles research project back in the day 

learning
Photo by Penny Rabiger

 

In 2000, I was in my 5th year as a teacher, working in a high school in Jerusalem. I was also working towards my Masters in Education through the University of Leeds, which weirdly happened to have a department above a Toyota showroom in the industrial quarter of the city.

As part of the course, we were encouraged to carry out action research, which I absolutely loved. It was the perfect way to marry academic enquiry and actual practice and it was a great way to challenge my own thinking around what works by taking an interest in evidence-informed practice. In vogue at the time was the now much-maligned “learning styles”. Working in such a diverse school, I found it fascinating how I would reach each and every student in my classes and set about reading everything I could about de Bono’s thinking hats, multiple intelligence, learning styles and more.

My learning styles action research project

For my final research project, I decided to undertake a two-term study with one of my groups of students, examining the effect of learning styles on the class. Having studied anthropology for my BA, I knew this shouldn’t be structured as some kind of scientific laboratory project and I wanted to make sure that my ‘subjects’ were fully involved so that they could give me valuable insights into their very subjective and personal experiences as we went along. I began by explaining to my students with great excitement what I had been reading, and what I planned to do with them over the course of the rest of the academic year. They were interested. Not least because they hadn’t had such an interaction with a teacher before and it made them curious.

I set about testing each student in the class to see what their dominant learning style was and I did a test to see what my most comfortable teaching style was. Once we had all completed the test, we discussed what we thought this meant for each of us. It was so interesting to see best friends in the class suddenly realising that they were not the “same” in their favoured style of taking in and processing information and that they may need to part ways during lessons if they were to make real progress. I then went about the massive task of writing my lesson plans and homework assignments so that each and every child’s favoured style was catered for. Amazingly, I then taught an entire class of 27 kids, with each using their preferred learning style as identified by the test.

I distinctly remember stepping back one afternoon to proudly behold my bold creation as some students were huddled in a small group, one was pacing the room, a couple had headphones on and were lying on mats on the floor and one lone student, who learned best through traditional face-the-front teacher-talk had me and her working one opposite the other.

 What actually happened was encouraging

Some amazing things started to happen. Firstly, I had been nervous about this experiment as the class was not easy to manage at the best of times. There was a small core of boys who misbehaved and some disengaged girls who were really struggling and therefore would switch off or egg the boys on to muck about and provide some distraction. But suddenly, there was a buzz of purposeful activity, the kids were arriving on time and getting stuck in, eager to receive their very personalised instructions for the lesson.

Secondly, they were all doing their homework and handing it in. Again, the personalised nature of the tasks and their knowledge of “what works for me” meant that they were now getting organised at home and trying out their newfound learning style preference without the intervention of the teacher. They were starting to take ownership.

Thirdly, their grades were improving. And the most stunning thing was that as their form tutor, I was being informed that their grades were improving across the board as was their engagement and behaviour in other classes.

I also learned that arranging every lesson in such a detailed, multi-faceted and involved way would kill me if I had to do it for every lesson and for every child. I taught English full time to Year 7 through to Year 10. This would not be realistic or sustainable.

What I learned about learning

We did a lot of talking about learning. Since these students were also my form tutor class, I had an hour a week to do what I wanted with them and we explored issues around learning a lot in discussions. I also carried out an in-depth interview with each child and recorded the interviews as part of my research evidence. I was delighted that each child seemed so much more engaged and motivated by learning and not just in my lessons, but across the board. I wanted to know why this was and asked the class what they thought were the reasons.

Reason 1: Enthusiasm
My own tangible excitement and enthusiasm for the project was contagious. The children were swept along. It also meant I had massive energy to prepare intricate and individualised lesson materials, which the children appreciated. My own conviction that this was going to work, probably made me completely focused on the elements of it that were working, and made me less anxious about any behaviour or other issues that might have escalated if I had paid any attention to them!

Reason 2: Trust
My attitude towards the students was completely trusting. I was ready to let them have some freedom and I trusted them to behave well and respect the experiment we were undertaking together. We had taken the time to talk through the evidence behind the reason for this experiment in the first place, I had trusted them to be equal partners in the process and they trusted me to be responsible and responsive to their needs. Compared with the sometimes very didactic and controlled learning experience these students were having in other classes, this was very enticing.

Reason 3: Metacognition
Recently, a study of 1,850 pupils in 30 primary schools, commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), tested a programme intended to develop pupils’ ability to think about their learning, assess their progress and set and monitor goals. In my opinion, this is the single most valuable thing about learning styles. Learning styles themselves are about as useful as knowing your horoscope and then trying to arrange the world around it. But the simple act of engaging deeply and meaningfully with yourself as a learner is absolutely vital to learning. In my in-depth interviews with the students, each of them had gone through a deep realisation that they were the masters of their own destiny as far as learning was concerned. And not in the usual blamey “it’s up to you so pull yourself together” kind of way.

It is the learning and not necessarily the style that matters

My students had been given an opportunity to think about the reasons why they found certain things interesting and other things difficult and had been pushed to think of ways to make things work better for themselves. The language had changed from “the teacher doesn’t teach in an interesting way” or “the subject is boring” or “I am not good at x” to thinking about what they needed to learn and how they could ensure that this learning stuck, allowing them to engage, encouraging greater depth and progress. One student found taking notes while listening virtually impossible. She opted instead to record the lessons and then make notes later at home when she was under less pressure. It freed her up to engage in discussion, ask questions and be fully present in lessons, knowing she had the rest recorded to refer back to. Another student found the skill of asking for further explanation, after years of pretending he knew what was going on because he was too embarrassed to appear slow. We had created a culture whereby there was no standard one-size fits all learner and different needs were acceptable. A huge part of real learning is ownership. It is thinking about thinking and knowing about knowing. It is knowing about yourself as a learner and owning that.

Even though it might be hugely embarrassing now to admit that I ever dabbled in the dark arts of learning styles, I am really grateful that I did. In a roundabout way, I discovered what I only learned a decade later to be called metacognition. It also reinforced my own belief that teaching is about relationships and that includes not only the students’ relationship to their teacher and each other in the class, but their own relationship with themselves as learners.

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

solid-wheel

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.