How our own education shapes us

This week I’ve come across the educational biographies of two influential thinkers in the educational world. One, Laura McInerney has just been appointed to the board of the Teacher Development Trust, a promising organisation committed to ensuring high quality professional development for teachers. The other, Sir Ken Robinson, was recently interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island discs.

 

I found both biographies fascinating, irrespective of my own thoughts about each subject’s educational ideas, and thought I’d share them. It is always interesting to find out more about the educational background of prominent people who influence the thinking of others in the educational world. It is even more interesting to consider how their experiences may have led them to their current thinking.  It is also worth noting that, despite his widely publicized thoughts about creativity in schools, Sir Ken Robinson has never worked in one as a teacher (or otherwise) from what I can tell. 

 

Laura McInerney’s schooling biography 

Sir Ken Robinson’s Desert Island Discs interview (this link worked at the time of posting but depending on when you read it you may have to go to the DID archives instead).

 

Further reading:

Educational blogger, Alex Quigley has written a few posts about Sir Ken Robinson and it’s been interesting to see the steady change of his views from disciple to healthy skeptic

 

 

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Whatever I think I am, that’s what I’m not*

Perception is an interesting thing.  Some time ago I undertook a 360 degree diagnostic as part of a course that I’m on.  I assessed myself against the criteria and asked a variety of my colleagues to do the same, anonymously and online.  I received feedback from people I line managed, others more senior than me, people I worked closely along side and others who had interacted with me in a wider sense.

 

As can happen in schools, time passed quickly and I only got around to looking at the results today.  I downloaded them with detached curiosity and discovered something interesting – My colleagues perceive me to be a much better leader than I see myself. This is true of people who work closely with me as well as those who have more intermittent contact. On almost all of the 20ish competencies (apologies for the management speak)  my initial self assessment was lower than the average (mean to be precise- I’m a maths teacher) given by my colleagues.  The one notable exception, somewhat ironically I thought, was self awareness.  On that measure I graded myself on the highest rating but everybody else disagreed, so I clearly don’t know my bum from my elbow.

 

 This afternoon I got wondering about this disparity. For the record, I’m not a person given to false modesty and my respondents didn’t see my self assessment scores anyway.  Also, I deliberately choose a variety of people who I knew would tell the truth as they saw it, rather than being overly nice for fear of hurting my feelings. I deliberately included direct reports who have disagreed with me and my decisions in the past.  In my mind, I know that there are things that I am good at but I’m also aware that I’m only really at the start of my leadership journey and have lots more to learn. I’ve made mistakes and I’m sure I’ll make more, hopefully different ones,  in the future.  My immediate thought was that this diagnostic is not a measure of my actual effectiveness. It’s something subtly different, other’s perception of my effectiveness and leadership skills.  I could actually talk complete rubbish but perhaps if I do it confidently enough my colleagues may believe that I’m better than I am. Who knows?

 

Its always nice to know that you are respected but actually in the (not too distant) past I’ve had feedback from colleagues  that wasn’t quite as glowing. When I first managed a department some of my staff told me that I was dismissive and I was mortified. I realized that it was something to do with my fairly brief/terse/direct email style and decided to communicate more in person to counteract it.  I’ve also been told that I can come across as being too relaxed in certain situations so it appears that I am not taking them seriously enough.  This is almost the direct opposite of what is actually happening inside, in such situations, I’m often so nervous that I have terrible stomach cramps and I’ve been unable to eat breakfast and  but I must overcompensate without realising. 

 

In conclusion, perception is an important part of leadership and our own idea of who we are may not be entirely what others see or experience, for all sorts of reasons.  I think that 360 reviews or less formal ways of finding out what others in our organisation think of us, our vision, values and impact are a useful and essential way to bridge that gap . It’s important for those we work with and lead to know that we actually value their opinions and that if there is anything that is a major issue, that we will act upon it. It’s also useful to see whether what we see as our core values are actually apparent to everybody else.  If they are not then perhaps they aren’t quite as core as we think?   Interestingly, although the actual scores differed two things that are key for me as a leader  and that I hope permeate my daily practice and this blog were also identifies as my strong areas by my colleagues- learning focus and developing others- so maybe I can tell my bum and my elbow apart after all.

 

* The title for this post was probably influenced by Rachael Stevens’ excellent blog post about differentiation but I’m also an Arctic Monkey’s fan so maybe it was influenced by them.

 

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True beliefs trump fad worship

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about values and ethos. It’s been a month where recent announcements have led to whole cohorts of children being entered for exams and then withdrawn again. I don’t want to write specifically regarding early entries, as I feel much has been written about those subjects and there is no real ground for me to cover. See Kev Bartle  and John Tomsett  for well written and considered blog posts offering differing views on that topic from a school leader’s point of view.

Instead, as a result of this and other more personal events, I’ve been increasingly pondering the ‘why’ of what we do as school leaders. As time passes I realise that, for me, I must keep returning to my own ethos and aims for being in education. If I do not know what they are, as a leader, how can I ask others to follow me? How can I prevent myself ricocheting from fad to fad? How can I have any credibility and command respect? Anecdotal reports of teachers working in schools doing pointless tick box admin exercises and changing policies or practices on a whim based upon Ofsted pronouncements are sadly commonplace. They smack of Heads  and leadership teams who have lost sight of their core purpose or who never really had one in the first place, except perhaps to further their own career.

My personal driver  is to improve educational outcomes for all, irrespective of background or ability. I believe that every local school should be a good school and that all children within a school deserve a great education, irrespective of who they draw on the teacher lottery. Sure, it’s easy to get lost in the day to day but, ultimately, I must come back to this and it needs to inform my professional decisions. As a leader, I cannot fully realise this goal without inspiring others. Thus my thinking has evolved to ensure that I try my best to make it as easy as possible to enable staff in my care to deliver these excellent educational outcomes for students. Teaching is a demanding job and my experience so far is that the majority of teachers want to do it well (although some may lack the tools). I need to have high expectations of my staff but, as they are educated professionals, I must also trust them and listen to what they have to say, and not request foolishness that makes an already difficult job needlessly harder.

Recently, I was asked at interview to explain my ethos and professional influences so far. I was then probed on it for half an hour. I thought this a little odd at the time, as did the other candidates, but with the ever-changing educational landscape I understand it is essential.  Leadership teams in any organization must have a clear and shared vision which underpins everything they do. Otherwise they can be pulled in all directions and become ineffective. In recruitment, understanding a leaders’ core purpose can help to predict how they will interact with staff and students. On the other side of the table, a candidate talking to a Head with a very clear vision and core beliefs that permeate the organisation can quickly work out whether they would be happy working there.

Leaders in education must keep returning to their core purpose. Michael Gove, love him or hate him, is a conviction politician. He is almost evangelical in his zeal to raise standards, although his methods may not be to everybody’s taste.

For me, teaching and learning is the heart of driving up outcomes and achieving my own aims as outlined previously. There are short-term fixes, which are sometimes necessary, but ultimately for sustained improvement we must ensure that children are taught well and learn. I don’t particularly care how, that’s up to individual teachers’ professional judgement. It’s the job of senior leaders to create conditions for this to happen, not prescribe the minutiae of how it should be done. Effective teaching ought to lead to the obvious by-products of improved results and positive inspection reports from Ofsted. If it doesn’t, then I have to ask myself what are league tables and Ofsted measuring and why should we give them any credence?

So finally, I am challenging myself to remain true to my core beliefs. There will always be difficult decisions to make, but if a decision was right for students last week why is it suddenly not so this week? Honesty with ourselves, our staff and our students goes along way and reputation for  integrity is hard won but can be easily thrown away. The communities we work with can handle mistakes and temporary failure (on the way to greater things)  if we gain and maintain their trust and they know we are trying to do the right thing.

The death of teachmeets?

Teach meets started as an informal gathering of teachers, hoping to share ideas and learn from each other. They we free and informal and for teachers, by teachers. Some presentations were good, some were bad, some useful some less so but they were democratic and practitioner- led. They were the antidote to conferences and courses that cost £100s of pounds ( themselves and in cover) often led by people whose job it seems at times it to make money from our educational system.

Teachers wanted to listen to professionals who still taught and who taught kids like ours. In schools like ours. With timetables like ours. We were tired of hearing the latest eduguru tell us stuff that wasn’t directly applicable in our classrooms. We were tired of going to conferences and hearing the same key- note speakers put minutely different spins on the same message. We were tired of missing our classes to go on courses that didn’t really impact our teaching.

The first time I went to a TM it was a breath of fresh air, teachers who had given up heir personal time to develop professionally, you could feel the energy and good will in the room. I felt invigorated but even then I noticed some signs that the honey moon couldn’t last. A few presentations were barely masked pitches for educational services. Commercial companies had caught wind of teach meets and seen it as a new way to market. Some we probably worried that teachers would stop going to traditional paid for conferences and decided to jump on the teach meet bandwagon.

Now I wonder if we as a profession are allowing teach meets to become the very things that we railed against? As a causal and fairly novice observer (attender of 2 teachmeets and observer pf others via Twitter) some TMs are starting to look depressingly the same, the same star presenters, often superbloggers plugging their forthcoming books, the same keynote speakers ( now starting to migrate from the laid for conference circuit) and in some cases even the same audiences.

Today I note that Osiris, an educational course provider has, out of the goodness of its heart supposedly started a website where people can

This isn’t what the revolution was meant to be? Was it?

The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime

“Britain was a society run mostly by cliques and groups of friends who had first met at public schools and Oxbridge.  Public school education remained the key for anyone hoping to make a career in the City, the civil service or the higher echelons of the army. Schools such as Eaton, Harrow and Winchester might educate only some 5 per cent of the population but the still provided the majority of political leaders, including many of the cabinet” – A History of Modern Britan. A.Marr

The above describes a Britain of the past, 1945, to be exact.  Mired in tradition and social inequity and trying to create a new identity in the aftermath of two recent, devastating wars.  However, as I sit writing this post in a Britain 70+ years later, I wonder just how much has really changed?

This post is my response to the #blogsync initiative, with this month’s title considering a universal educational panacea.  Firstly, I must state that I do not believe in panaceas of any kind.  By eradicating some problems you may unwittingly create new ones and the cure for today’s diseases can have no knowledge of how to combat the diseases of tomorrow which have yet to mutate or be created.   However, upon pondering the wider title it, occurred to me that my career in education so far has been driven by my desire to help bring about one particular element of educational change that I wish to see in my lifetime.  I want to see the link between socio- economic background and educational outcomes destroyed and banished to history.

When I was at school Afro-Caribbean boys were the kings of underachievement, now White working class boys vie for

their crowns (and in many areas have dethroned them).  It’s easy to become side tracked by issues of race and sex but the main unifier for these and other underperforming groups in nearly any school is poverty (and  lack of opportunity, perceived or real).  In general , the English school system fails poor children and has done so for quite some time.  Schools in poorer areas tend to have worse educational outcomes than those in wealthier locales, and poor pupils in leafy, suburban high performing schools tend to do worse than their more affluent peers. I wish to see this change.  I want all students to have access to a high quality education, not just those whose parents can afford to give them one either by sending them to a private school or by hiring a tutor to supplement what happens at school or  by moving into  the expensive catchment areas of ‘better’ state schools.

I would like to live in an England where the terms Free School Meal, Not in Education Employment of Training  become meaningless as ways to categorise our children because our high aspirations for all result in every student being challenged, pushed and inspired to achieve and exceed during their 11 (possibly soon to be 13) years of compulsory state education.

“More generally, there was a belief that public schools had contributed to the failures of leadership in the thirties and right up to the early defeats of the war.  When the Tory Minister R.A. Butler took on the job of education during the war, he contemplated abolishing them and folding them into a single state school system”- A History of Modern Britain. A. Marr.

When I read the above I couldn’t quite believe what I had read.  It seems almost unthinkable now that public schools would ever be abolished, the best are seen as the gold standard for education and their old boys and (less commonly) old girls dominate the higher reaches of our political and judicial systems .  I don’t feel that private schools themselves are the problem but I do look forward to a world where everybody in our society has a vested and personal interest in ensuring that every single school delivers a high quality education to all children in it’s care.  Most people only tend to take notice of such things if there is a possibility that it might affect their families directly…

Here I would like to state that I have no opposition to public schools in principle, they provide a service that people are willing to pay for and often do it well.  My grandparents saved to send my youngest aunt to a good private school after they saw how the disaster that was 70s state education had failed their two other children. She did well and became the first in our family to attend university.  10 years later, I became the second but only after my parents had fought long and hard to get me into a state grammar school several miles from our home in another educational authority.  I have benefitted from the English state system but as I look around at family members and peers from a similar working class, background to mine, I realise that I was the exception and not the norm.  I feel that the link between socio-economic background and educational outcomes can only be broken when every single school in England becomes one where all teachers deliver a high quality education to all children.

The above deals hints at structural reform, which is the preserve of politicians.

  • What can we do?
  • What can you do?
  • What can I do?

Well since I entered teaching, I have chosen to work particular types of schools with pupils from particular types of backgrounds. Students in leafy suburbs don’t need me and people like me. Their parents get them tutors, irrespective of the quality of teaching they receive.  I want to deliver an outstanding education to and improve the life chances of students whose parents don’t have connections and who want the best for them but aren’t sure how to go about it. Children who could have been me,  my childhood friends or my family.

Although we don’t like to admit it, teachers are middle class professionals. With national pay scales meaning that many of us (yes even NQTs) who teach in various areas around the country earn more than many of the parents of the students that we teach.

We can help our students by not making poverty an excuse.  So what if they are poor? We can still expect them to treat each other with respect? So what if their parents didn’t go to university? They can still aim for top grades and work hard in class? So what if they don’t have a desk at home? They can revise in the library after school.  Mollycoddling our less affluent students may make things easy in the short run but they won’t thank us in in the future when they have rubbish qualifications and can’t get into college or find a job. We can help then to smash through the wall, or climb over it rather than continually banging their head on it or seeing it as an insurmountable object.

In our daily interactions, we can provide them with the social capital that their more affluent peers absorb from their surrounds by osmosis.  Yes I know there is a syllabus to get through, but 10 minutes discussing the myth of Narcissus and exploring the origins of the word narcissist with the young girl who keeps checking her foundation in her make up mirror is 10 mins which adds to levelling the playing field between students from different cultural backgrounds.  Social capital is dismissed by elitist and irrelevant by some, usually those who have quite a bit of it themselves. It is elitist and for that reason shouldn’t be dismissed, we need to help our students to become fluent in the language of the elite so that they can move in and out of their worlds with confidence. That is the type of thing that will make working class children feel good about themselves and more comfortable applying for elite universities and will mean that the gate keepers to these institutions see them as equals and allow them in.

For those of us with responsibilities over other educational professionals we can keep be aware of good practice that helps all of our children to achieve and make sure that we don’t implement policies things that put poorer children at disadvantage on a departmental or school level. The Sutton Trust and Education Endowment Fund are excellent sources of information for research and good practice in this area.

So what educational change do I wish to see? I want hard work and effort to be the thing that determines pupils educational outcomes not where they live or how wealthy their parents are. I want all of our children to compete on a level educational playing field.

What’s the point of OFSTED?

The above is the rather blunt question I  that  posed recently during an occasional  focus/ discussion group that I attend with other educational professionals at the DfE.  It was posed to a civil servant who was part of the team who advises Michael Gove and was part of a wider discussion about the direction of travel of the current government.

Although it sounded a little blunt, I was actually generally interested.  In my mind there is sometimes some confusion as to whether OFSTED is about school improvement or accountability.  It’s clear that many teachers and schools feel and fear its accountability role but OFSTED itself often wades into the school improvement pool with reports collating best practice in various areas.

The response from the civil servant was very clear and unequivocal “Accountability”. Before going on to outline that school improvement was intended to be more devolved and localised falling into the remit of local partnerships, alliance and teaching schools.

“If, it’s about accountability,” I mused aloud “why do we carry on with the high pressure lesson observations when actually we all know that OFSTED tend to look at the data, make a judgment re what it is telling them and then find the evidence around the school to support the conclusion to which they have already come?”

So far so predictable but it was the response of one of my fellow attendees that made me stop, reflect and write this post.

OFSTED look at lessons to validate the judgements of the senior leadership teams.  It’s not really about the teachers its about whether they agree with what SLT have said about the quality of their schools.

Another participant then added something along the lines of

Yes the data is one source of evidence but they are really just looking at different ones to see if they argee with what the leadership team are saying

I may little slow but at that moment something clicked into place for me.  They were entirely correct. OFSTED is about the SLT, the fear and pressure that teachers feel is very real but it comes from their management teams not the inspectors.  How do I know this? because we recently went through a review by an oranisation called the Challenge Partners and the classroom teacher felt no pressure at all, because they weren’t put under any.  Some people came into their lessons and gave them feedback and behind the scenes there were lots of meetings with senior leaders and various TLR holders to justify what we as a school said about ourselves. That was it.

In schools OFSTED has become the bogey man but it need not be that way.  Leaders need to make it clear that actually we are the ones being judged not teachers. Still not sure? Well when teachers are observed do the best ones put any pressure on their students? No- because it wouldn’t be fair to do so as they aren’t really the ones being judged.

Placing the classroom back at the centre of the (leadership) universe

This blog post could be considered a response or maybe even a companion piece to one written by Christopher Waugh (@edutronic_net), a teacher  and thought-provoking educational blogger.  Chris’s article was about the need to evaluate and constantly improve what happens in the classroom in order to improve outcomes for students.

The bit that stood out for me as a school leader was

Let’s face reality. As teachers, we are at the front-line. We work for our students. We are paid by the taxpayer. Everyone else in the chain; the support staff, the SMT, the Headmaster, ofsted, ofqual, the examining board, the Department for Education and the politicians work for us, to support US to do a better job in ensuring the best possible outcomes for our students. If any of these agents are getting in the way of this, we must work to mitigate their impact. This is our responsibility and our gift. Impertinent as it may seem, my internal monologue when engaging with those support agencies is “Your work is designed to support mine – how effective are you at this?

I whole heatedly agree with what Chris says and want to rephrase it from the point of view of a school leader…

As school leaders, we are paid by the tax payer to ensure excellent outcomes for people’s children. However we can not do this alone. We have to inspire, enable and coordinate many people in a chain including  support staff, teaching staff, parents and outside agencies to work to together in order to achieve the best for every student in our school.  It is our duty, our responsibility, our privilege. Everybody in the chain is important but the class teacher is our foot soldier, our infantry- nothing great can happen if we do not give them space and support them. My internal monologue as a school leader needs to be

 “My work is designed to support and enable yours- how can I enable you and provide the structures to allow you to be as effective as can be?”

Many school leaders, including myself at times, get caught in the monitoring and accountability cycle.  These things have their place. it is important to be aware of where your team, department, school, authority, country is but only so that you can build on that and become better.  Accountability should never be an end in itself, nor should it get in the way of the main thing- creating conditions for long term excellent learning.

Teacher quality is the number one driver for improvement in schools. It is followed by the quality of leadership.  As leaders we need to remember that we are there to allow teachers to do their job well and to provide the resources and tools for them to do it better.

If we are not sure what this involves- as a start we could try asking our staff.  If they don’t know then we could look at everything that we do and consider “How does this impact on teaching and learning? How will this help my staff to become better educators?”

I am new to senior leadership and still run a department but I intend to look at everything through this prism.  The most obvious thing for me was meetings.  I came out of many meetings  that I chaired feeling disappointed and depleted and unable to say how the past 30 min- 1 hour would have any impact on students, so I changed them.

I decided that every meeting with my department  would have a teaching and learning focus, decided by them. I used my informal learning walks to identify strengths of every teacher and then approached individuals privately to lead a session regarding that strength on a weekly basis.  This had a dual effect of sharing good practice whilst letting staff know that I valued them. At the end of last term our final meeting was a reflection and “Thank you” session that I amended from an idea that Tom Sherrington (@headteacherguru) had tweeted.

Reflection meeting

Meetings had gone from a dreary, pointless habit done in the same way that had always been done to a dynamic exchange of ideas which directly impacted on teacher’s work in their classrooms. We will be changing the format again this term to suit our changing needs.

The positive feedback from staff ( 9 teachers generated 30 diff post-it notes in about 7 mins) suggested that I had done my job and I will continue to find ways to ensure those I am responsible for and equipped to do theirs in increasingly better ways.