Nine go to Ofsted

Today I went to a meeting with Mike Cladingbowl at the Ofsted office in Birmingham. There were nine of us Twitter teachers present, and a very pleasant meeting it was too. Mike was a warm and welcoming host and the M&S biscuits were delicious!

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The meeting began with introductions from us all, although even these sparked conversation, interjection and discussion. This very much set the tone for the next three hours. There was no fixed agenda, but we were all given opportunity to have our say, and ask any pressing questions.

I tried as best as I could to make detailed notes – where possible verbatim – especially around issues that most interested or concerned me. I soon began to regret grabbing one of my daughter’s tiny note books on the way out of the door!

I’ll try my best to outline here some of the discussion points which I felt were most interesting and relevant. Unless made clear, these are the responses given by Mike Cladingbowl:

Regarding the centralising of inspector training from 2015:
ISPs haven’t done a bad job, necessarily. In the main, the inspection grades fall in the right ball park. However, some weak inspectors have hidden behind the framework and even gone into schools with pre-determined grades in mind. These tend to be the same inspectors who also work as paid consultants, offering advice and training to schools.

Regarding the ‘outstanding’ rating:
At present, there are no plans to remove the ‘outstanding’ rating. (I asked if there should perhaps just be two ratings ‘good enough’, or ‘not good enough’) it’s very important to remember that being good enough (as opposed to not good enough) is key.

Regarding preparing kids for the future:
‘How are you making sure your kids have got aspirations beyond where you live?’ Is an important question to ask. Not, ‘How are you serving your local community?’. The point here being, that it’s important to see the bigger picture and thereby encourage aspirations

Primary v/s Secondary:
(Here, Mike expressed some strong views about standards in secondary education which were endorsed by many colleagues around the table) Literacy standards (in particular) tend to fall once a child starts secondary school. “Local secondary schools give kids stuff to do that they can already do, simple as that.”

The language of inspectors:
Inspectors must move from saying “Why didn’t you…?” to “Why did you do it like that?”, “What impact is that having?”, “What is the reasoning…?”
For example, if an inspector is in a school where learning objectives are never used, they should be asking why that is and listening to the response. A lack of learning objectives is not necessarily a bad thing.

Regarding schools who are not following the new framework:
There will be a ‘time lag’ for schools to catch up with the new criteria. If you look at the new inspection handbook regarding teaching, inspectors will now want to know why something is done. The narrative around why schools do stuff needs to be more than, “because that’s what Ofsted want”. The most important question should be, “Why are we doing this?”

On leadership:
Leaders should lead by example and teach: show that they can still do it.

Regarding consistency:
(This issue was raised several times during the meeting.)
No one likes an inspector, but the people who complain the most are those who get the worst judgement. Inspection is an art, not a science. We need to move away from quality assurance of inspection reports and focus on the inspectors themselves. There must now be less reliance on guidance and more reliance on training. The relationship with inspectors will be improved by moving training in-house (centralising). But, inspection grade boundaries are so broad, it’s quite hard to get it wrong. There are some pretty glaring weaknesses in schools that need improvement. The data PLUS the ears and eyes of experienced inspectors makes it very difficult to get wrong.

I was particularly keen to raise the issue of the ‘Ofsted culture’, I made the point that schools are constantly trying to do what they think Ofsted want, and asked how on earth this could be stopped. This was the response:

By changing behaviour and habits. The new framework that is due to start on 1st September 2015 should mean that eight out of ten schools will no longer have routine inspections. For schools rated as ‘good’ or better, there will be NO full inspection. Instead, a HMI will visit every three years for a chat. They may talk to parents and pupils, they may look at books and data. SMT will be required to show inspectors that the kids are doing well. The only reason a full inspection would be triggered is if there had been drastic changes. When school management feel less pressure to be constantly ‘Ofsted ready’ then the culture will change.

I’m cautiously optimistic about this. It certainly does seem possible that SMT will feel less threatened by this. And in turn, perhaps, there will be less ‘Ofsted stress’ passed on to chalk face staff.

I would like to thank Mike Cladingbowl for a very interesting and open meeting. I thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to hear his views, and to share my own. It was also great to meet other teachers from a variety of backgrounds and discuss how the issue of Ofsted affects them.

Please have your say about the important changes to the inspection process by completing the consultation document: here

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Ofsted Clarification for Schools: Spread the Word!

Ofsted-strip

I am delighted to see that Ofsted have produced a clarification for schools document. At last, it seems, Ofsted have accepted their responsibly to offer some guidance for schools regarding what Ofsted do/do not expect to see. As much of the madness in schools stems from Chinese whispers about ‘what Ofsted want..’, I think a myth-buster was long overdue. I did hope that all schools would have been sent the document as a matter of course. However, it seems that schools will only be able to see it if they look on the Ofsted website.

Amongst other welcome information, the document clarifies the myths about marking, lesson observations, data: in fact a lot of the issues for which the refrain “Ofsted will expect to see…” should (hopefully!) now be rendered defunct.

I emailed the link to the document to myself at work, and first thing on Monday morning I printed several copies off. I then asked our centre manager if I could have a few minutes of ‘any other business’ at the end of our Monday staff meeting.

Towards the end of the meeting, a more senior boss – our area manager – popped in to join us. When we came to ‘AOB’ and I handed out copies of the clarification document, the centre manager advised me that they’d already seen it, “This is the updated guidance for inspectors, yes? We’ve already discussed that”.
The (more senior) area manager then said this,

“We were inspected three days before that came out, and everyone was graded”

Now, this inspection was in May. I may be getting confused, but I’m certain that inspectors shouldn’t have been grading lessons for a long time before that?

Anyway, when I pointed out that this document is clarification for schools, and is only a few days old, the staff then all agreed that they hadn’t seen it.
“Of particular interest…” I ventured “…is the bit about grading teachers”
Our area manager looked up. I looked straight at him:
“I think schools might now be at odds with what Ofsted are expecting to see, if they persist in grading lessons – especially by using the old Ofsted criteria”
It was like fate, I could hardly believe it. There, I had an opportunity to say aloud to one of the most senior bosses, what I have spent months, and months saying on my blog.

To cap it all, on leaving our centre, the area manager in question approached me and asked me if he could take a copy of the clarification document with him. I can’t quite work out why, but this made me ridiculously happy. I’ve now arranged to meet with him on the first Monday after half term to discuss the matter of lesson observations, and at least open a dialogue on the matter.

For the seventy-plus percent of us that are still subject to graded lesson observations – and all the associated box-ticking, accountability, subjective nonsense – I think this clarification document offers us our best chance yet of forcing some change.

Please don’t make an assumption that this document has been seen by everyone – it’s extremely unlikely it has. Let’s now make it our business to ensure that all bosses and teaching staff see it: email it, print it off and hand out, pin it to your staff room notice board, put it on the school website, add the subject to your meeting agenda, talk about it in casual conversation…any way you can, just make sure everyone is made aware.

Here is the link again: Ofsted Inspections – clarification for schools
Spread the word!

*update 24/10/14: Sean Harford has tonight informed me that he believes the DfE have emailed the document to all schools…It remains to be seen if the information will filter through to classroom staff – let’s hope it does.

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A Trip Too Far?

An English Trip to Shakespeare’s Birthplace

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For the last fourteen years I have taught English to secondary-aged pupils at a Pupil Referral Unit in the Midlands. Many of these students are vulnerable and complex, some are in care, and a large number have severe behavioural difficulties. All of this means that we must be especially cautious when choosing a location for school trip. Notwithstanding the risks, last summer I made the decision to take a KS3 group to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace, in Stratford-upon-Avon.

This was as part of an English topic we were doing on the theme of ‘Performance’. We’d already studied The Globe Theatre, in context, and learned about some of its fascinating history. More importantly, perhaps, we’d looked at extracts from some of Shakespeare’s plays and also studied plot synopses and analysed a selection of quotes.

Now, I must confess that I was dreading this trip. As the day approached, I began to question what on earth I thought I was doing, arranging to take a group of potential delinquents to such a precious, historic place. I even made a special visit to the house prior to our trip, to forewarn them and discuss the risk-assessment aspect with the staff. En route to work on the M5 on the morning of the trip, I honestly considered continuing my journey south for hot dogs on the beach in Devon. At least I’d have been spared the shame of becoming headline news for allowing a bunch of highly unpredictable kids to wreak havoc at Shakespeare’s treasured childhood home!

Thankfully (and to my great relief!) my fears turned out to be totally unfounded. To my surprise and absolute delight, the pupils were completely and utterly transfixed for the entire day.

Paired-up and armed with clipboards and cameras, they took some wonderful photographs and made intelligent notes. They asked pertinent questions of the excellent staff, and joined in enthusiastically with the brilliant performances and songs in the yard outside. Here, they were encouraged to sing traditional Elizabethan songs ‘in the round’. Soon after this, several of them were given lines to say, and wooden swords to join in with a fight scene. A substantial crowd gathered to watch their performances, and the delight of the kids was palpable.

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Inside the house, they seemed to particularly enjoy hearing about Shakespeare’s father’s glove-making business, and visiting the room where the goods were actually made and sold. They were agog on visiting the bedroom area and learning that the female offspring generally slept on the floor! They were also very impressed with the kitchen and seemed fascinated to learn how the food was prepared – particularly the tiny bread rolls being cooked on a flat plate above the open fire. For all of us, I think, the sun literally shone on every single aspect of the day.

But the moments that resonate, perhaps even more so – especially in light of the new curriculum and its fairly hefty Shakespearean requirement, occurred in the preliminary exhibition, before we’d even entered the main house. Here, there is more of a focus on Shakespeare’s works, rather than the minutiae of Elizabethan life. Amongst many other things, the pupils were able to study a scale model of The Globe – which also detailed the surrounding area. They were delighted to see an early original volume of the complete works of Shakespeare, carefully preserved in a glass case.

They were also very impressed with a life-size model of the man himself, seated at a small wooden desk, with a quill pen in hand. Meanwhile, screens were showing scenes from renowned adaptations of some of the plays and speakers played other well-known excerpts. At one point, a booming voice was reciting ‘The Seven Ages of Man’. “Miss, Miss!” shouted a year 7 girl. “It’s ‘All The World’s a Stage!’” A few minutes later a cackling female voice began, “When shall we three meet again…” “Oh, Miss! I know that!” one of my most damaged and disaffected boys exclaimed immediately “…It’s the witches from Macbeth!”

It seems to me that the earlier pupils are given access to Shakespeare’s works, the better. The extraordinary timelessness of Shakespeare’s writing is already obvious: the perennial human conditions of love, war, money, rivalry, parenting, jealousy and death never change. Couple this with Shakespeare’s wonderful storylines and the children’s own youthful, creative imagination, and the texts come alive. Indeed, as the popularity of Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’, and JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series have more recently proven, fantasy, fairy tales, the eternal battle between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are no barrier to young minds – quite the contrary. Indeed, as the youngster noted, the man said: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…”.

Given the propensity that some educationalists have to suggest that Shakespeare is ‘boring’, ‘not relevant’ to their lives, or simply ‘too difficult´ for certain young people to master, I think accounts of experiences such as this should at least go some way towards demonstrating how flawed such thinking is. The pupils clearly loved being there. There is no doubt that our trip enhanced and added an extra dimension to the work we were doing in class and hopefully breathed extra energy and life into their fledgling Shakespeare studies. This particular group were clearly delighted to have gained further (tangible) knowledge and understanding about the man and his works. As for their future studies, I can only hope that experiences like this will make them feel excited about, rather than daunted by, any future encounters with Shakespeare’s work.

*Images taken by the children on the day

This blog was written for the Innovate My School website.

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Tough Love

Last week I finally returned to work. After nearly six months off, I at last felt emotionally and physically able. I was also feeling a bit isolated from the world of teaching, and anxious to be ‘back among it’

I still believe I was right to return. My legs haven’t given me too much trouble, and I’ve tried to avoid the worst of the morning traffic by setting off for work at a dark, obscenely early time. So far the plan’s working – I arrive at school early enough to drink coffee and do a bit of leisurely planning.

In addition to all this, we have a new staff team. There is only me, my job share partner one TA and the centre manager left from our team last year. The rest have been moved on to other centres, and a couple have found new jobs.

The new team are supportive, friendly and welcoming, they have all done their very best to help me to ease back in. They are also all acutely aware that the kids view me as a ‘newbie’ and I’m grateful that they go out of their way to set them straight!

Sadly, they are also angry and exasperated. For the first day or so I could tell they were wary of sharing their concerns with me. It’s understandable: they didn’t know me very well, and clearly weren’t sure what position I would take.

The source of their concern became apparent to me on Tuesday – my first full day of teaching. In the second lesson of the day, I reprimanded a girl for sucking her thumb and being generally rude and dismissive towards me. In response to this, she pushed her desk out of the way and stamped out of class, shouting, “fuck this shit” and banging the door behind her.

For this, I wanted every second of that lesson back, plus a full apology and possibly a meeting with her mother. I did not want her returned to the lesson (or any of my lessons) until the matter was fully resolved. She was returned to class soon after. Nothing else happened.

Later that same morning, I had another English lesson. From the beginning of the lesson, it was clear that two particular boys were uncooperative (to say the least). In fact, they wouldn’t even sit down. When they did finally sit, they persisted in talking over me, laughing, swearing and generally being obnoxious in the extreme. I used our ‘on call’ system and a deputy came and removed one of the boys. After a short while she returned with him, pronouncing him, ‘ready to work’. In fact, he was anything but. Between them, the boys managed to destroy the entire lesson.

I kept the boys in at lunchtime and managed to get a minimal amount of completed work from both of them. However, I wanted the matter to be followed up. I wanted there to be a further sanction (whatever form it might take) in order to be crystal clear that such conduct is entirely unacceptable. Nothing further happened.

Yesterday, I taught a girl who, despite being very able, chose to write a completely inappropriate poem. I wanted her to stay in with me after school until she had completed the task to a standard that was acceptable. She refused, and was allowed to go home. I was advised to fill in an incident report. So far, nothing further has happened.

This morning, I asked to meet with our centre manager, I told the manager in question that I was concerned about the discipline systems. By way of a lead in, I asked her what would happen now I had written an incident report on that particular girl. I was assured that it would be followed up. I mentioned my current vulnerability – I talked about the months of rehab that I’ve had on my legs, I said that could all be undone with a single kick, or a desk being flung. I was advised that if children are misbehaving I should continue to remove them by using the on call system. I asked about pupils being returned to class, despite not being ready to work, I was advised to use the system and get them out again. I asked about further sanctions, and, alarmingly, was told that for two of the pupils in question there is no mileage in informing the parents. I asked about detentions and was told that we wouldn’t get permission. When I ventured that we don’t need permission for detentions the baffling response was, “I’m fully aware of that, thank you”. Right.

The concluding blow for me was being told that “this is the nature of the kids we work with” and “I don’t want you to take any more time off, but if you have to…”

This week has proven to me the importance of strong leadership. In our setting, we are all highly skilled at behaviour management, but we need to be able to punish kids who are persistently disruptive or behave dangerously. Without a hierarchy of sanctions in place, we are utterly impotent. This is why the team is angry. Now they are aware of my stance, they tell me, “we aren’t allowed to discipline the kids”

As one of my colleagues said yesterday afternoon, these kids need discipline and boundaries above all else. He’s right. It is their behaviour that has got them removed from mainstream school. Our purpose, our single raison d’être, is to break the cycle of inappropriate conduct and return these kids to mainstream education. Appeasement, reasoning and rewards will only get you so far with the toughest nuts. They need strong guidance, and firm boundaries – tough love. As for me, I don’t need any more time off work, what I need is simply what we all need: to know that when we fall, when things don’t go well, someone will be there to help us sort it out. Without this guarantee, life is hard for us all.

Please follow me on Twitter: @cazzypot

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You Can Go Your Own Way. OR : recording progress is a matter for you, and you alone.

Below is a quote from the most recent statement from the DfE, regarding the impending demise of national curriculum levels:

“We accepted the Expert Panel’s recommendation to remove level descriptors from the national curriculum and not replace them. This is because we agreed that levels have become too abstract, do not give parents meaningful information about how their child is performing, nor give pupils information about how to improve. Levels have detracted from real feedback and schools have found it difficult to apply them consistently — the criteria are ambiguous and require teachers to decide how to weigh a huge array of factors. Beyond the tests at key stage two and GCSEs at key stage four, it will be for schools to decide how they assess pupils’ progress.”

(National Curriculum and Assessment from September 2014: Information for Schools DfE)

As of the start of the new academic year in September 2014, national curriculum levels are officially gone. This news has, understandably, done little more than offer an additional source of anxiety for many leadership teams. Schools simply aren’t used to being told they can do things for themselves.

Unsurprisingly, then, the removal of levels has left many in school leadership staring into an empty assessment abyss. I’d like to offer here a few suggestions for traits that successful assessment schemes may have in common.

I would suggest they link strongly to the NC programmes of study for the particular subject. I also think the actual language of the NC should be quoted, wherever possible, to evidence progress. Additionally, I would strongly advocate the use of termly (or at least yearly) in-house tests to ensure the accuracy of records. These could be devised by middle managers – subject leaders, coordinators or department heads, in consultation with the class teachers. I would even go so far as to suggest there might be a place for different subjects to devise their own assessment system because one size does not fit all. The logistics of this is something that subject leaders may wish to plan in conjunction with each other.

I think it’s important that simple, no-nonsense, easy to decipher phraseology be used when recording and reporting. For example, ‘has met end of term (or year) expectations’, ‘is exceeding..’ or ‘has not met…’.

Not all pupils will meet the mark, but levels were often rightly criticised for offering a means of shielding the (sometimes) harsh reality from parents.

As for Ofsted inspections, I think schools should simply show inspectors what they are doing, and explain why it works for them. It’s important for schools be honest about any enhancements that may need to be made – after all, systems do evolve.

It’s not Ofsted’s place to be critiquing the means to the end. As someone once astutely said, Ofsted should be hygiene inspectors, not restaurant food critics. Indeed, the following confirmation came through to me, as a tweet:

‘Correct, (the assessment system) is up to schools, as long as their systems are effective.’ (David Brown HMI)

Thus, from now on it will be acceptable for schools to present Ofsted with a fait accompli of how they are recording progress. If schools aim for transparency of approach, simplicity and honesty, it’s hard to see how anyone could ever find fault.

To summarise: in developing a system, school leaders should take the time to seek advice and shop around to see what other schools are doing. But they should also remember that the freedom is now there for them to design their own, unique system. I think we should all feel obligated to test that theory to breaking point. Schools really must now be brave enough to to go their own way.

Please follow me on Twitter: @cazzypot

* This blog was written for the NAHT Edge website. (@NAHTEdge)

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The Secret Recipe of Learning? Learn Potion N°9

I was listening to Daisy Christodoulou on Radio 4 on Mon 16th Sept, as part of ‘The Educators’ series of programmes. Here, she was talking about the importance of knowing information to achieve mastery of a subject. In order to illustrate the importance of prior knowledge, she used the example of chess players – who must memorise certain tried and tested moves and techniques before they truly master the game.

It’s a generalisation, I know, but the problem with the curriculum in recent years is that skills and creativity have sometimes been prioritised over the pursuit of knowledge. The argument that Daisy makes is that you must have a strong foundation of knowledge before you can apply creativity and skills successfully.

But what really makes for true learning, and how it might it be possible to achieve this?

In a recent article on the Brain Pickings site, Maria Popova uses the oft-maligned term ‘grit’ to describe one possible key to the learning process. She also notes that,

‘Creative history brims with embodied examples of why the secret of genius is doggedness rather than “god”-given talent..’

Examples given include Mozart, E.B White and Tchaikovsky.

In the same piece, American academic Angela Duckworth also makes some very interesting observations on this theme,

‘The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students…learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help..low-performing students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.’

I wonder if we should stop mentioning ‘grit’, and start using the less contentious term ‘character’? Whichever your preference, it seems possible that having the will-power and sheer determination to succeed could be one key to deep learning and expertise.

Undoubtably, to be successful at a subject requires hard work and practise. But not just any old practise: we need quality practise. As outlined by Daniel Goleman in his book, ‘Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence’,

‘Hours and hours of practice are necessary for great performance, but not sufficient. How experts in any domain pay attention while practicing makes a crucial difference. For instance, (a) much-cited study of violinists…showed the top tier had practiced more than 10,000 hours…’

He goes on to stress that the quality and precision of the feedback that we receive is vital during the practise stage,

‘Ideally that feedback comes from someone with an expert eye and so every world-class sports champion has a coach. If you practice without such feedback, you don’t get to the top ranks.’

http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0062114867/braipick0d-21

Thus, the secret of true mastery might be twofold: dedication combined with expert feedback. This process can be seen in action on the TV show ‘Strictly come Dancing’ – where an amateur practises (hard) under the tuition of an experienced professional. I also thought of ‘Rocky Balboa’- the character in the 70’s boxing movie, who improves exponentially once back under the wing of his cantankerous coach. Of course, the idea of practise combined with tailored, explicit feedback could equally be applied to English and Maths, or any other classroom subject, for that matter.

The ‘OK plateau’, is also worthy of consideration. This is the term used by Joshua Foer. In his book, ‘Maximize Your Potential’He cited studies carried out by psychologists in the 1960’s, which identified three key stages in the ‘acquisition of new skills’ process. Firstly, “The cognitive phase” in which ‘we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing.’ Following on from this, a middle phase – termed the “associative stage”. Here, we’re ‘making fewer errors, and gradually getting better.’ Lastly, comes the “autonomous phase”. This is the dangerous one, and a stage that is probably familiar to us all, if we’re honest, where we, ‘move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.’

Once we reach a certain level of accomplishment – the final ‘autonomous’ stage – it seems possible that we settle for being ‘good enough’ at something, our skills enable us to work on a kind of ‘autopilot’ that actually serves the purpose of preventing us from getting any better. Foer goes on to note,

‘What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very highly focused routine… top achievers…develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage… by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance…they stay in the “cognitive stage.”’

If we are to ensure that our pupils do not hit the ‘coasting’, or ‘good enough’ stage, it seems we should ensure we are pushing them to achieve more. I can think of several ways we could consciously do this. For instance, by deliberately throwing in new vocabulary, offering immediate feedback, or encouraging pupils to take risks and worry less about making mistakes (- then ensuring we correct them!).

It’s probably worthwhile that we ensure our own subject knowledge hasn’t ‘plateaued’. As teachers, If we discourage autopilot in our students, we should also avoid it in our own practice?

The importance of memorisation has been the subject of much recent debate. There can be no doubt that the ability to effectively memorise information forms a large part of the learning process. I’m referring here to the process of installing information into the long-term memory for future use – low-stakes quizzes and quick-fire questioning can be a very useful in aiding this process. Some argue that by focusing on memory we are simply conditioning students to pass tests, rather than helping them to achieve deep subject knowledge. However, I think we generally now accept that the internet has fatally wounded the coursework system, and, whilst exam conditions are undoubtably stressful and sometimes unpleasant, the process does at least require students to demonstrate that they’ve understood and learnt enough that they can call it to mind when it matters most.

I particularly like this quote (and quote within the quote) from Peter C Brown from his book, ‘Make it Stick’,

‘Nonwithstanding the pitfalls of standardised testing, what we really ought to ask is how to do better at building knowledge and creativity, for without knowledge you don’t have the foundation for the higher-level skills of analysis. As the psychologist Robert Stenberg and 2 colleagues put it,

“One cannot apply what one knows in a practical manner, if one does not know anything to apply”

‘Make It Stick’ Peter C Brown

I’m struggling to think of a better conclusion than that. Maybe learning is no great mystery, after all:
Take some grit and determination; add plenty of knowledge; apply lots of quality feedback; take care to avoid the bland-taste of complacency; test regularly and – above all – keep on the boil.

Perhaps it is this simple formula that offers the true alchemy of (lasting) learning?

Please follow me on Twitter: @cazzypot

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Successful Behaviour Techniques : the Key to Teaching in PRUs

For the last 12 years, I have taught English at a large, city-wide PRU — or pupil referral unit. In our case, the PRU operates as a number of small centres spread around the city.

Our PRU is for pupils who are permanently excluded from mainstream school. Most of them are in this situation because of the impact their behaviour was having on themselves and others. Academic ability is not usually a particular issue, although some have fallen behind their peers because of the disrupted lives they lead.

Many of the young people we work with are the victims of poverty and chaos. Some are in the care of the local authority, or are well-known to social services. Most live in deprived areas where they may have been exposed to criminal activity, and some are known to be involved with gangs. Weekly, we see parents who will openly admit that they are struggling to cope with their offspring. In several cases, we know there are drug and/or alcohol issues within the family. Some of the children are dirty and/or underfed, and some of the parents are illiterate.

Our centre accommodates the most challenging of these pupils from year 6 and above. These are the kids that the other behavioural PRUs struggle to manage. As a result of this we usually have groups of no more than 6 pupils at a time —with a teaching assistant always present.

Some pupils have a statement for special educational needs, often for behaviour. Many have been diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). I know this is a hotly debated issue, but I remain utterly convinced that this condition is over-diagnosed. So often I’ve seen ADHD being used to justify the behaviour of the child. This can mean that we don’t get to the root of the poor behaviour and the conduct doesn’t improve.

Improving behaviour is absolutely central to what we do. We must encourage the kids to modify and improve their conduct if we are to break the damaging cycle of poor behaviour. Without good behaviour – there is no education. It is that crucial. We operate a system of certificates, stickers and phone calls home to reward good behaviour and work. We also keep pupils in at break times, as a sanction. We rarely exclude pupils, although there have been some exceptions.

PRUs are usually short-term education providers, with pupils attending for periods of between 6 weeks and a term. However, because of a lack of suitable provision elsewhere, or a shortage of appropriate places, many of our pupils stay with us much longer. Some are awaiting long-term provision at an SEN school, but the plan is usually to get the majority of pupils to a point where they are fit and able to return to mainstream school. Academically, therefore, we expect them to achieve as much as they would at mainstream school. It would certainly be counter-productive to the whole process were they to fall behind their peers during their time with us.

Thus, the second key challenge for us is to try to ensure that the kids are producing work at the level they should be — without resorting to dumbing-down or gimmicks. We follow the national curriculum, and try to ensure that the topics covered are commensurate with what the mainstream schools are delivering. After all, if the kids in mainstream school are studying the finer details of Macbeth or Oliver Twist, it’s an absolute travesty if our kids aren’t too.

Social and economic deprivation is a sad fact of life for most of our pupils. As I mentioned above, many of these kids are raised in circumstances that make their lives difficult from the outset. Educational achievement is so often low down on the list of priorities. I think the role of PRUs is to break down the barriers to learning, and try to put education back at the top of the agenda. Is there a more effective passport out of poverty than educational achievement? I don’t think there is.

It’s very important that each teacher develops their own methods for dealing with challenging behaviour, but I would like to share here a few examples of behaviour management techniques that have proved successful for me.

 We should always remember we are their teachers: not their friends, councillors, family, social workers or any other group. It’s important not to stray too far from the brief.
 Respect works both ways. It’s very important to give the same respect to the pupils that you want them to extend to you. It’s also advisable to apologise if you’re in the wrong.
 It isn’t a bad idea to show the pupils that you’re human. If you make a mistake, or something goes wrong, be prepared to admit it.
 Our Voice is arguably our greatest tool. I would suggest keeping the volume low and the tone light. Do try not to shout. Silence also has its place, I would strongly advise never to talk until the whole class is listening; just wait.
 Don’t ever make a threat that you’re not fully prepared to carry-out.
 Very few kids, in my experience, want to miss their social time. A few minutes shaved off a break or lunch time is sometimes all it takes to effectively make a point.
 Perhaps it goes without saying, but always have high expectations. Know what each child is capable of and consider asking them do work again if it is below standard. Behaviour, also – make it clear that you expect the best.
 Be consistent. I know it’s not always easy, but once pupils can see that you stand firm on standards, sanctions and rewards, they’ll be much more likely to respond positively.
 Don’t be defeated. I know this is sometimes easier said than done, but do try to keep persevering — even with the most challenging pupils. It’s here where supportive colleagues and effective senior leaders can hopefully have a real impact.

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*This blog post was written for the September 2014 edition of UKEd Magazine:

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Mark Rogers (Chief Exec of Birmingham City Council) Responds to my Blog ‘Notes on a Scandal’

I’m delighted that Mark Rogers, Chief Executive at Birmingham City Council, has taken the time to comment on my latest blog, ‘Notes on a Scandal’. For those who may not have read it, the blog deals with the (sometimes) systematic grooming and abuse of children in local authority care. It is highly likely that this has been happening for decades in Birmingham – thus suggesting that places such as Rotherham are by no means isolated cases.
I hope that interest from such a senior figure as this signals intent to investigate these matters further.

The following is Mr Rogers’ response, which I thought warranted posting as a separate blog in its own right:

Rotherham has reminded me of many issues, of which three recur frequently.

Firstly, we so so rarely consider sufficiently the deeper questions the deeper reasons for these things happening – ie why (not how) is abuse too often ignored, misunderstood or condoned? And I don’t just mean amongst professionals; this is a societal question. Which may be why it’s easier to focus on blaming professionals and the systems in which they work – a whole lot simpler than tackling human motivations and behaviour. But we are going to have to face up – as we are starting to do with another of the endemic abuses, namely domestic violence – to the reality that the long term solutions to CSE don’t lie solely (or even largely) with the constant chastisement and reformation of the various professions (appropriate though that may be at times). It seems to me that the failings of public services are the symptom not the cause of a wider societal malaise – but, of course, it’s easier to tackle professional failure than societal dysfunction.

Secondly, we really aren’t yet comfortable as a society in dealing with with our own ignorance and fears about ethnic and/or religious differences. For some (possibly many) the fear of causing offence is greater than the fear of tackling a difficult issues or situation.

Thirdly, when it comes to professionals (I include myself in that category as a qualified, if “resting”, teacher) we just haven’t paid enough attention to the importance of selection by values – and, therefore, attitudes and behaviours. My teacher training gave me some sufficient initial technical competences, along with some basic knowledge and understanding of child development and psychology, to let me loose in the classroom. But my recruitment to the PGCE course – and every teaching job I ever subsequently secured – never once seriously addressed the matter of my values. Oh yes, lots of psychometrics over the years, but no formal “values-based recruitment”. We should not, therefore, be surprised that some children’s services professionals do not have empathy with children.

These are the deeper issues in my view that need attention. And when we don’t, then how can we be surprised that abuse continues.’

Whilst not necessarily being in full agreement with all points, I thank Mr Rogers for this lengthy and considered response. As with fellow bloggers who recently met with senior figures at Ofsted, one of the excellent side-effects of being a blogger is that it sometimes gives us the opportunity to share opinions, views and dialogue with senior people who we may never otherwise reasonably expect to encounter.

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Notes on a Scandal

Should we protect vulnerable children in care? This, essentially, was the question being posed by Michael Gove on Friday 13th September 2013,

To intervene or not to intervene? That is the question..When children are suffering, we need to act..there is a direct responsibility to protect vulnerable children.’

For reasons I’ll probably never understand, It took a lot longer than you may expect to reach that conclusion.

Fourteen years ago, in the year 2000 I started a teaching job working in one of the most difficult areas of Birmingham, teaching some of the city’s most challenging young people, many of whom were to be children in local authority care. These children were no longer resident with their families for a variety of reasons – although abuse and neglect were often the root cause. They had been removed from their home environment for their own protection, because it had been deemed unsafe. Therefore, you would hope, they were now in a safer place.

However, as was noted by Mr Gove in September, the reality for many was (and is) somewhat different,

Those rescued from neglectful homes, and who have not found stable, loving families to care for them, should find security and support in children’s homes where they can enjoy a fresh start. But not all do. As we have been learning, through a series of horrific court cases, there are young people who were promised security in care who have been terribly exploited.’

Birmingham is the largest authority in the country. Huge and unwieldy, its Social Services department often struggles to cope. Indeed, it has been found wanting on several occasions. It also had – and still has – a huge population of children in care. More often than not, these are a desperate, disparate, displaced population of sad and damaged children. For some, teachers and other education staff are the only consistent figures in their lives. A couple of weeks into starting my new job I was sent less than a mile up the road to a children’s home to teach some children who were new to the area, and had no school place.

The children’s home in question was a Victorian, red-brick, Dickensian throwback of a building, precariously clinging to the edge of the busy ring road. I had no idea what to expect as I drove through the gateway to the car park. But that was the day I learned that the system was wrong. That day I learned that our ‘care system’ was anything but. That was the day that I first learned that children were being exploited under the very noses of authority and the authorities couldn’t – or didn’t – do anything about it.

I was ushered into the ‘Education Room’ of the children’s home. A miserable, cold, octagonal-shaped room with peeling paint and no books. My purpose, ostensibly, was to get some baseline numeracy and literacy assessments on two girls, aged fourteen and fifteen years, respectively. Two girls, who, like many teenagers, wore a look that suggested they were trying to appear older than they were. Made-up, overdressed, perfumed, hair carefully sculpted. They weren’t remotely interested in my carefully photocopied selection of assessment tests.

The girls wanted to distract me and chat. They wanted to tell me about their boyfriends, and how generous they were. They wanted to impress me with stories of how these ‘boyfriends’ had provided them with mobile phones, jewellery, condoms and make-up, how caring they were, how many gifts they showered upon them. Soon my naivety was dispelled, my smile became a bit too fixed. Inside, my blood ran cold. Something wasn’t right. I was right. Upon returning to my place of work, my (then) boss confirmed that both girls were suspected of having participated in pornographic films. The youngest ‘boyfriend’ was thought to have been in his thirties, but there were so many it was difficult to tell. Certainly, the fast-moving, secretive and identity-protecting world of kids in care made it difficult to pin anyone down, and the girls weren’t interested in naming names and pressing charges anyway.
That night I went home and cried. I remembered what being fifteen was like. I thought about how hard-done-by I felt when my Dad told me to go out and earn my pocket money, or when he took all my make-up away as punishment for some misdemeanour or another; or how upset I was when I missed the last bus home. Then I contrasted with what I’d just seen and heard. No comparison. No contest.

Over the next few years the stories just kept on coming. There was the children’s home out in the country, where the kids were meant to be kept safely away from the ‘dangers’ of the city – the place where girls were offering men oral sex for a doughnut.
Or, as Mr Gove put it in his speech,
We shielded the children from the authorities who needed to be looking out for them. An ‘out of sight, out of mind’ culture developed.”

Other cases I recall include the little 11 year old girl who looked every inch a child, yet was lured away from the children’s home that was supposed to be protecting her to the notorious ‘Newtown’ area of the city. There, she would spend her evenings in a high-rise flat, allegedly in the company of several much older men. Her biological father would often be the one who retrieved and returned her to the care home. She struggled, academically, but would still show up to school every day. Then there was the regular talk of ‘gangs’ of chip shop owners and workers, or taxi drivers who were known to be routinely targeting these girls, although, unfortunately, nothing that I ever heard about was ever pinned on them or proven.

Memorable for me was the ‘Child Protection’ review meeting I attended, where the harried social worker didn’t even know the child’s name. The child hadn’t been attending school and knew I would report on this. She almost got me excluded from the meeting on the grounds of her human rights. An irate phone-call from my manager ensured my presence at the meeting, but I sensed that nobody really cared. I honestly felt I was the only one at that meeting who really knew that girl. A poor report on her educational progress really was the very least of her issues.

Mr Gove said that it is “indefensible that almost half of children in homes are placed outside their local authority area, and more than a third over 20 miles away.” Last year I taught a girl who will now be twelve years old. She is one of identical twins, already separated by the authorities and living apart from her sister. When I last saw her, in July 2013, I was helping her to put her school books and paintings into the back of a taxi. At that time she didn’t know if she was about to be moved to Bath or Yorkshire. All she knew was that she knew nothing at all about either of those places, and certainly knew no-one there.

Shadowy darkness and secrecy will always provide good cover for criminal acts. Let’s now shine a light into the dark corners, give those who have reason to hide, nowhere to hide. We must do far more to protect these vulnerable children, and hold to account those who choose to exploit this vulnerability. One thing is certain, children who are resident in children’s homes have no reason to be ashamed. These children are already the victims of the poor choices and behaviour of the adults in their lives. Surely It’s right to do all we can to avoid them becoming victims all over again?

*I wrote this piece in September 2013. The fact that I chose not to put it on my own blog site, and instead had it published it anonymously on another website, probably goes some way towards explaining how scandals such as those now exposed in Rotherham have been allowed to happen. There is a definite culture of fear and secrecy surrounding these sensitive matters. How long can it possibly be before a similar story emerges in Birmingham, I wonder?

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School – A place where creativity can flourish

children-playing-outside-data

As a mother of two young children, nothing pleases me more than watching my children play. I love to observe the inventiveness of their young minds as they stock pretend shops with shells, stones and leaves or fashion imaginary tools from twigs. It’s fascinating to watch as they run about, assume roles or create exciting imaginary, make-believe scenarios with just minimal resources.

My daughter is now seven years of age. She is about to start in KS2 and is considered to be academically successful, although she does not yet write with a pen, or join up her letters, neither does she speak another language. But she reads well, and and her written work is legible. Her punctuation and grammar is at, what I would describe as, a ‘fledgling’ stage. She also has a tendency to spell all words as they sound – which can be problematic. There are also a lot of basic mathematical concepts that she has not yet fully grasped. For example, she does not tell the time very well, and her understanding of distance, weights and measures is limited. Although her arithmetic is quite good, she does not know her times tables. Yet despite all of this, the school report to me that she is ‘above average’ in every single area – and ‘well above average’ in a few.

Thus, she has been at school for three years, and is, apparently meeting and often exceeding their expectations.

elizabeth_5978

In the early 1540’s when the majority of the population were completely illiterate, a more fortunate child than these was also being schooled. Despite the decapitation of her mother and the absence of a father, Elizabeth I was in the process of proving what heights of academia could be possible, with the right tuition.

Elizabeth’s comfort with reading and writing Latin…as well as being fluent in many other languages, would suggest that she began linguistics lessons very early.. Modern studies show that the younger a child is when they learn a second language, the easier it is for them to retain other ones.’

And by the age of fourteen, under a new tutor:

the-armanda-portrait-of-queen-elizabeth-1st-by-george-gower-1344768690_b‘Ascham helped Elizabeth to perfect her classical languages through his famed method of “double translation.” For instance, he would present her with the original texts of Demosthenes or Cicero, having her turn them into English, and then translating them back into their original languages …Elizabeth spent her mornings reading from the Greek New Testament, followed by a study of classical orations, and Sophocles’ tragedies. Ascham believed that his selections would help Elizabeth to ‘gain purity of style, and from her mind derive instruction that would be of value for her to meet every contingency of life.
After noon, Elizabeth would study Cicero, and some Livy. Ascham also supplemented these famous works with St. Cyprian, and Melanchthon’s Commonplaces…’

(‘The Shaping of Elizabeth I through Childhood Events and Academic Pursuit

Vida-e-obra-de-leonardo-da-vinci-6

Born into less financially favourable circumstances than Elizabeth, Leonardo da Vinci was all-but orphaned as a child. In 1466, at the age of fourteen he was sent to be apprenticed to an artist- ‘Andrea di Cione, known as Verrocchio, whose workshop was “one of the finest in Florence’. Here, he was schooled, not only in the techniques of fine art (in which he soon surpassed his master), but also in engineering, linguistics and mathematics. Obviously a hugely talented man, but it seems that none of these skills were gained without the additional labour of academic study and strict regime.

Now, I’m not suggesting that an Elizabethan, or late-medieval method of schooling is necessarily the way we should be going about things in the modern world. but I do think it’s interesting to consider the possibility that our children may just be capable of far more than we give them credit for, or ever give them the chance to show us.

Under the current system, a varying amount of KS1 education (certainly in Reception and Y1) is devoted to play and discovery learning. Desks are usually arranged in mixed-ability groups – presumably to facilitate this. The national curriculum is followed, and there is a proportion of academic input, but I’m not certain whether it is necessarily given priority over the more ‘creative’ aspects of the curriculum, in all schools. By KS2 and above, there is undoubtably more of an academic focus – but is it enough? Some argue that it might be too much:
Sir Ken Robinson is a widely respected voice on this matter. Often opposing academic regimes, he regularly posits that our modern schools may actually be far too formal and rigid:

In Sir Ken’s ideal school, there would be no hierarchy of subjects in the curriculum and classes would not be grouped by age. Dance would be as important as maths, and children would feel free to do what they wanted, even get up and wander around in lessons..
..he would get rid of almost all school exams, suggesting that in chasing certificates we “over-school” and “under-educate”.’

( ‘How badly do we teach our children? Discuss’ Sarah Montague 13 Aug 2014 )

And he has the ear of many modern academics and educationalists on this matter. It seems that many agree with him, feeling that academic rigour, routine and testing are simply stifling to creativity.

But what, then, do we now define as creativity? Does a modern creative curriculum even allow the creative arts to flourish to their fullest degree? Leonardo da Vinci clearly was one of the most creative, innovative and imaginative people who ever lived. Elizabeth I herself was famed for her love of dancing and the arts, and the Elizabethan period itself is responsible for (almost) indisputably one of the most creative literary figures ever – William Shakespeare. But presumably we would have none of those wonderful plays if Shakespeare himself hadn’t been properly schooled in grammar and linguistics. (Indeed,, when there were no words in English to suit his purpose, he made up new ones – 2,000 in fact that are still in use today!) Elizabeth I famously loved to dance and sing outside her enforced periods of academic study, and Leonardo da Vinci did not become the truly great artist, anatomist and inventor he became, without the documented long hours of study and practise.

For my own part, I’ve become more resentful of my academically-lightweight nineteen seventies and eighties education as the years have passed. I regularly wish I’d been given more regular formal grammar and mathematical instruction. My daughter, it seems to me, is faring no better. In the example of her written work, at least, I think she may even be slightly behind where I was at her age. This despite my being utterly convinced that she is naturally more academically able than I was. For children from more deprived backgrounds than her, the stakes are even higher. Academic qualifications are generally acknowledged to be the best ticket out of poverty of all. To deny pupils this opportunity on the basis that academic study, rigour, testing and hard work are somehow cruel and unnecessary could prove to be an absolute travesty for them.

Children love to play. It is also true to say that they are naturally creative. Schools should certainly provide plenty of recreational time for children to explore and discover their creativity. Creativity is also crucial for academic study. Children need to be creative in many academic disciplines – drawing, poetry, Drama and creative writing, for example. However, this is a two sided coin in which the accurate application of creativity depends hugely on acquired knowledge and skills to successfully execute. If we teach children how to draw and write well, if we equip them with the language they need, if we impart the scientific studies of previous generations, if we teach children how to calculate and measure, then they will have truly strong foundations on which to build their academic careers. If we neglect to do this, then they will only have what their limited early life experience has taught them, to build on.

Sir Ken argues that we are doing our children a disservice by ‘over schooling’ them. Surely the opposite is actually the case? I think the purpose of schools is to educate young people in disciplines, and provide knowledge and skills in areas that they may not otherwise discover for themselves. To view learning and academic study as the enemy – the bad guy – might just be a huge mistake. It’s entirely possible that the gift of learning may just be the most valuable gift of all.

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