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

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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.

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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

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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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OFSTED: Little boxes made of ticky-tacky

There is a song that my Dad used to sing to me, the lyrics of which went something like this,
‘Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky. Little boxes on the hillside and they all look just the same…’

Prefabs

I enjoyed this song as a child, but in more recent years, I have found myself humming it to myself quite often in a symbolic, secretive way.

Those lyrics have resonance that I could never have imagined or understood as a child; much like another of my favourite childhood songs, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ the playful, colour-referenced lyrics obscured the grey clouds of true meaning.

‘Little boxes’ I now know, is a reference to cheaply-built, post-war United States housing stock. Comprising mostly plywood and plasterboard – they may have been cheaply built, but they looked just fine. Their lack of material substance was well-concealed, a bit like a repertory theatre play-set. They sold the dream but kept their lack of substance hidden behind colourful, seductive exteriors.

prefab4

But what, may you ask, has this got to do with education? In recent years the parallels, particularly in reference to the ‘boxes’ and ‘all being the same’ themes, seemed uncannily applicable to what has been happening in the world of education, and certainly here in England.

Over the years something unfortunate has been happening in schools. An insidious, creeping trend like a blanket of fog slowly creeping ashore from the ocean. A trend so sinisterly innocuous that us teachers allowed it become absorbed and accepted almost without question. In fact, some actually even view it as a positive thing:

Conformity. Or perhaps, Orthodoxy; pernicious as it is. George Orwell noted in Nineteen Eighty-Four :

“Orthodoxy means not thinking–not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

This is the antithesis of good teaching practice. No class; no collection of students is the same, so how can a uniform pedagogic strategy fit satisfactorily into every teacher’s daily delivery?

sheep

Unfortunately, in the case of teachers, we really must conform. No-one wants, or expects us to be much different from the teacher next door, or even the teacher in the next county. A box-ticking accountability structure has grown up around this goal which is now so huge and unwieldy that it must surely topple at some point? I have several theories as to WHY this has happened, but there is no hyperbole at all in categorically stating that it HAS happened.
This tendency to insist on conformity manifests itself in many areas, but their shape is always square: and I think OFSTED are to blame.

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On my own blog some months ago, I wrote about a favourite and much-loved and admired teacher from my first year at secondary school. Mr Graham was an excellent teacher, a gifted teacher. He had the invisible ability to instil self-belief in his pupils, whilst at the same time fostering a love of learning. His lessons were a higgledy-piggledy hotch-potch of questions, discussion, writing, and teacher talk – apparently sticking to no pre-planned ideas or scheme. But we all did well in those classes. Mr Graham was the very antithesis of a box-ticking culture. You couldn’t have put him in a box if you’d tried; and he was much-respected as much because of his idiosyncrasies as in spite of them. In today’s culture, I surmised, he wouldn’t have ticked many boxes either. He’d have almost certainly been branded as ‘requiring improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ simply because of this modern preference for style over substance.

In order to check that we are all conforming to our modern ideal, or meeting a ‘set’ standard, teachers are usually subject to their schools’ own, regular, internal scrutiny, in addition to the spectre of actual OFSTED inspections. This monitoring of teachers comes in a variety of unwelcome forms. The list often includes such things as ‘book scrutinies’, which ensure that your marking is conforming to everyone else’s and ‘environment scrutinies’, which are similar, but this time purport to ensure displays conform. Then there are ‘learning walks’, which are usually something like mini-observations with a whole variety of boxes to be ticked.

I return to Orwell:

“For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?”

How, indeed, do we know that Ofsted works? How do we know that present teaching methods improve on past ones? How do we know that the demands on teachers, and the oppressive observations imposed and impressed upon us by OFSTED are right? No. I thought not.

Lesson observations are the big, bad boss of all scrutinies, and are now a major source of stress, dread and discomfort for many teachers. A typical lesson observation will take the form of one, or sometimes two members of the senior leadership team sitting in a class with a criteria checklist. Teachers are then graded on a 1 (‘outstanding’) to 4 (‘inadequate’) scale based on how many boxes they tick successfully. Unfortunately, at least in my personal experience, the requirements of this checklist are so bewildering as to render it almost impossible to fulfil all of the requirements.

Teacher observation

What all of these ‘scrutinies’ have in common is tick-lists. The more boxes you tick, the more successful you are perceived as being. So, for example: if every teacher has their interactive whiteboard switched on, has the pupils working in groups, there isn’t too much teacher talk, and the lessons follow a set ‘3 part’ format of starter, development and plenary session, then this is all to the good. This all comes under the umbrella of ‘School Quality Control’ – very little screams conformity more than the factory production line term ‘quality control’.

In fact – and I must stress that this also applies to my very recent experience – the more ‘entertaining’ a lesson is, the more favourably it is viewed . I often refer to these lessons as ‘bells and whistles lessons’. A straight teacher-led grammar lesson would never cut it. I’d hardly be able to tick a single box that way. Instead, I, and many teachers, feel a bizarre obligation to put on some kind of a show, when being observed. This could include the following: card sorts, interactive work, group work, use of new technologies, a variety of tasks and limited use of ‘teacher talk’, or ‘teacher-led’ activities.

All this despite much recent evidence strongly disputing whether pupils actually learn better this way. Professor Robert Coe, Director of Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, has somewhat led the way in all this. His research highlights some very interesting findings around the validity (or otherwise) of lesson observations. This is from a BBC news report (13th September 2013):

‘Professor Coe suggested that ratings given to lessons by observers could be “influenced by spurious confounds”. These included the charisma and confidence of the teacher, the subject matter being taught, students’ behaviour in the classroom’. Professor Coe noted the following:

“If you sit in a classroom, everyone thinks they can judge how good the lesson is – but can you really?
Quite a lot of research says that you can’t.”

He went as far as to say that schools inspectors are basing their verdicts on evaluation methods which may be completely unreliable.

Meanwhile, in the very teeth of all this, many teachers have been trying their very best to continue as normal. Many knowing that their techniques were different to the practitioner next door, yet both equally worthy. Only when being watched did the panic of conformity and the need for sameness and orthodoxy occur. “What questions will you ask?” and, “how will you prove learning is happening?” Such questions are passed on through classrooms like dominoes or Chinese Whispers, “I hear they particularly like to see this ..” “psst! Don’t forget to establish that they know nothing to begin with…it’s easy to show progress then!”

Whether it is all true or not. Or whether some of what OFSTED are said to be looking for is nothing more than Chinese whispers and rumour, no matter. The fact remains that the blame for much of this is to be lain squarely at their feet. Reading historic (and even some more recent!) reports of OFSTED inspections, it is clear that they did have a preference for certain styles of teaching, and lesson structures. Inevitably, it was these methods that teachers were then encouraged to adopt. An OFSTED orthodoxy has prevailed. This may well have suited some teachers, but many more – myself included – found it nigh-on impossible to completely alter a trusted and successful way of doing things. Because a teacher may choose not to deliver their lesson in a particular style, or weren’t prepared to adopt a certain lesson structure, they could be marked down, or deemed to be ‘inadequate’. Thus the careers of many highly skilled teachers were put in very real jeopardy.

Then, in summer 2012, something astonishing happened. It looked like things had finally begun to change when Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of schools said this:

“OFSTED should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end.”

(Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools. Speech to RSA, summer 2012)

All of this was reinforced more recently by Michael Cladingbowl, National Director, Schools, who cited the following anecdote, obviously in the hope of further stressing and emphasising OFSTED’s new position on the matter:

‘I was speaking to a colleague today, one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors. He reminded me it is all about outcomes and that it does work both ways. In a classroom he was in recently, a teacher produced, literally, an all-singing, all-dancing lesson. There was music, comedy, costumes, games, ‘thinking hats’, and all with clear objectives on the whiteboard. He recorded a teaching quality grade of inadequate. Not because of the ‘performance’ on the day but because students’ graffiti-strewn books hadn’t been marked for six months and work was shoddy or incomplete. In contrast, he graded teaching as outstanding in a classroom where students sat reading in silence because of the exceptional quality of students’ work and the teacher’s marking in exercise books. He told both teachers what his conclusions were.’
(Michael Cladingbowl, National Director, Schools, ‘Why do Ofsted inspectors observe individual lessons and how do they evaluate teaching in schools?’)

With all the latest guidelines and statements, it looks like OFSTED are now back-peddling furiously. But it could be too little, too late. For many, the damage is now done.

Personally, I’m standing on a precipice watching myself falling. There is literally nothing I can do. I argue, send emails, meet with the bosses and wave the new guidelines about. Still the old ways prevail. For a minnow like me to suggest to my school’s senior leadership team that they should now disregard all they’ve been told before is a bit like trying to instruct a devout religious convert to completely abandon their faith.

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In order to be able to judge all schools in the country equally OFSTED needed to encourage systems of conformity. This is the point at which conformity became the desirable entity. The holy grail. Any vast organisation needs this. After all, it would be very confusing if every branch of McDonalds adopted its own menu, layout, uniform and logo. But is this really how teachers and schools want to be judged? Surely the results will out, ultimately? It is how well the pupils’ succeed that matters. Currently we seem to have embraced a system, albeit unwittingly, which makes our inspector’s lives simpler. This formulaic practice, I’m utterly convinced, exists only for that purpose. It’s like we’ve been sleepwalking, unquestioningly, into membership of a religious cult, or something akin.

The reality of life is, I think, that no-one really wants to be put in a box. We encourage behavioural conformity in pupils, but make provision for their academic differences and value their idiosyncrasies in personality. For way too long now, teachers and schools have been pushed into a particular mould. The wind of change is in the air now, I think. It seems that OFSTED are beginning to realise that their bluff has been called. Much like a spouse breaking free of a controlling relationship, no amount of “I didn’t mean to make you feel that way” and “I’ll change, give me another chance” will really alter the way that teachers feel now.

*This blog was written for Forum journal summer special issue: ‘Teachers Reclaiming Teaching’ and is my own original version of the text.
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Falling Down

I wrote the following 5 weeks after falling and breaking both of my legs. Apologies if this blog appears a bit self-indulgent, but at the time I wrote it I think found it to be quite cathartic. It’s now 4 months since I fell, and, following 2 operations and a total of 10 weeks in plaster, I’m now finally back on two legs and just about managing to get about under my own steam.

‘(About 5pm, Saturday 5th April)
“Mummy, I want to go upstairs and watch ‘Jelly on a Plate'”
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve recounted this over the last few weeks..
“My little boy (2) likes to sit on the bed and watch his favourite songs on the iPad” I always say,
“He asked me if we could go upstairs and watch…”

We’d only gone up the first three stairs when I realised his drink of water was downstairs. Crucially (as it turns out) I wasn’t sure exactly where it was.
“Let’s get your water before we go upstairs” I said – it really is almost unbearably mundane.
“Okay!” My little boy said cheerfully, and trotted off.
He KNEW where his drink was. I could have stayed where I was on the stairs, at this point he was heading confidently towards the dining room…
Instead, I heard myself saying, “where is your water..?…”

That’s the point where everything changed, suddenly and completely. That very second. Most accidents, I guess, seem to occur at moments of mundane normality. If it weren’t for the re telling and rerunning in my head, over and over again, innumerable times over the last 5 weeks, I would, no doubt, by now have forgotten that any of these events ever took place.

I’m not sure what happened. People kept asking me, they still keep asking me, even now. I just don’t know. The only thing I can surmise is that I maybe thought I was at the bottom of the stairs, and stepped forward as such. Either that, or I simply slipped, through a momentary lapse of concentration.

Either way, I fell. One thing that I was aware of was that I didn’t seem to put up any defence. I’m almost certain that I didn’t put my hands out to break my fall. I seemed to just crash straight down.

Not being the most lightweight of people, I’m afraid the results of this were fairly catastrophic, and I knew it at the time.

I landed with both legs under me, what my partner describes as a kind of twisted, grotesque kneeling.

“My ankle!” I heard myself saying.

In truth, I’d felt at least one crack. I knew I’d done some serious damage.

The events that followed were like some kind of nightmarish vision. It was like a Salvador Dali painting. Everything swirled and melted.

My partner was insisting on straightening my legs for me. “No!” I begged,
“Please leave me..”
But he was insistent. Prising my legs out from under me, I yelled, cried, screamed and protested. He lay my legs on a large, cushion.
It was a bit like the feeling when you’ve had far too much to drink and just want to be left alone.
Meanwhile, my daughter, who less than a minute before had been happily watching her long-awaited download of ‘Frozen’, began screaming.

The screaming — I couldn’t bear the screaming. It melded with the melting, bending visions in my head. The pounding in my skull, the overwhelming nausea, the sweaty clammy-ness. My little boy began screaming too. I wanted to comfort them…but I also wanted to pass out.

But the worst thing was the pain. The pain – particularly in my right leg – was indescribable. I don’t even know how I could begin to explain.

Meanwhile, through the swirling, melting mix of screaming, sweat, nausea and pain, I was aware of my partner phoning an ambulance…then ringing my parents.

I was petrified that someone would bump the cushion where my legs lay. Such was the level of pain, the thought of someone even tapping the cushion was unbearable. I couldn’t move my legs..and I didn’t dare.
I lay with my upper torso resting on the stairs I had fallen down. I was half on my side and the stairs dug into my ribs, exacerbating my discomfort.
Then a phone call. The ambulance was delayed. I had to speak to them. Somehow I needed to muster an explanation that conveyed that they must come…as quickly as possible.

My parents arrived and took the children to their house.

Eventually, some paramedics arrived. No ambulance, yet, but at least someone had come. This meant pain relief: gas and air — laughing gas. Thank God.’

Twitter was such a great help to me during the 4 weeks that I was in hospital and I had so many kind messages of support. In fact, it’s continued to be an invaluable source of support throughout this whole, unpleasant experience. Thank you to all.

Please follow me on Twitter @cazzypot

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School leaders, take note… (In light of the updated handbook for Ofsted Inspectors.)

‘Leadership is key in any school. We need to look at what’s being asked of teachers and assess the effectiveness.’
(Sean Harford – Ofsted’s National Director for Schools Policy and ITE, and Regional Director, East of England)

Tomorrow, (31st July 2014) Ofsted HQ are due to release an updated version of their handbook for inspectors. I imagine this is partly because of ambiguities in earlier editions that led to the unfortunate proliferation of out-dated (sometimes damaging) ideals. Hopefully, the clarity of this new guidance should halt such bad practice among inspectors. I think the clued-up school leader needs to pay heed to this new handbook, as the ramifications could prove significant for us all.

Sean Harford (@HarfordSean) the new National Director for Schools Policy, has shared some key quotes and information from the updated handbook on Twitter. It is this information that has enabled me to put this post together.

It’s an open secret that many schools try, in their day to day practice, to mirror what they think Ofsted will want to see. After all, a good or outstanding rating from Ofsted is coveted by schools as the ultimate measure of success. If leadership teams choose to emulate updated Ofsted good practice, I think it’s just possible that the old methods of judging teaching could (and should!) finally disappear for good.

The Inspectors’ handbook will say this:

‘Inspectors should not grade the quality of teaching in individual lesson observations, learning walks or equivalent activities’

As Ofsted (officially) no longer grade individual lessons, it may prove difficult for schools to justify continuing with this process. Indeed, a visiting inspector could now query how it is possible for schools to accurately grade teachers based on evidence from a single observation — or even a series of observations.

Instead, they may expect schools to show evidence of the cumulative effects of individual teachers. They might expect leaders to have taken account of a number of factors before forming an opinion: books, results, displays, behaviour, data etc, all might play a part. Perhaps then, it may now be acceptable for schools to apply an overall grade for teaching and learning — but always based on evidence gathered over a significant period of time.

School leaders should now realise that lesson observations are only a tiny part of the whole picture. They aren’t even a truthful part. As so often cited, observations are a major source of stress and anxiety for teachers. This anxiety can manifest as symptoms akin to stage fright. The career-damaging stakes are often so high, that it’s possible the teacher being observed may under-perform – or at least behave differently to normal.

During observations and learning walks, it’s common for school leaders to express a preference for the equipment they’d like to see in use, or teaching methods they’d like to see employed. It’s important to carefully consider the effectiveness of these. What works well for one, may not necessarily work for all. The updated handbook has clearly been written with such thoughts in mind:

‘Ofsted does not favour any particular teaching style and inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style.’

and

‘Inspectors should not expect to see periods of pupils working on their own, or in groups, in all lessons, and should not make the assumption that this is always necessary, desirable or even effective…’

and also:

‘Not all aspects of learning, eg, pupils’ engagement, interest, concentration, determination, resilience and independence may be seen or should expect to be seen in a single observation.’

If school leaders express a preference for a particular teaching style or technique, they may be at odds with what works best for individual class teachers, and, in turn, their pupils. It’s now possible that leaders who ignore this guidance could also find themselves at odds with what Ofsted are now expecting to see.

It’s time for school leaders to allow their teachers flexibility: to let teachers make their own decisions about what to teach, and how. If there are any competency issues surrounding a particular teacher, a good leader will already be aware of these, and support systems will be in place. A perennial issue is that of teachers who are struggling to manage behaviour. Here, such support systems are crucial. A good leadership team will be providing consistent back up and ensuring that their school’s behaviour policy is up to date and being followed to the letter. Whatever the concerns may be, it’s unlikely that a snapshot lesson observation is required to spot these.

The new handbook neatly surmises successful practice thus:

‘Do teachers command the respect of their classes, set out clear expectations for pupils’ behaviour in line with the direction set by school leaders, start and finish lessons on time, and manage teaching resources effectively?’

This is the skeleton —the bare bones of all teaching. On this the flesh of a whole host of successful lessons can be hung. Beyond these simple guidelines, perhaps there is nothing much else worth looking for? In the end, the results of the pupils will tell their own story.

School leaders: please stop grading individual, snap-shot, lessons. Instead, look at the bigger picture — the whole picture, when judging the quality of teaching and learning. After all, Michaelangelo’s iconic masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel would look far less impressive if we only ever focused in on Adam’s big toe.

Please follow me on Twitter: @cazzypot

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Michael Gove and the Bitter Pills of Education Reform

Party Faithful Attend The Annual Conservative Party Conference I actually began writing this post as soon as I heard the news that Michael Gove was to be replaced as Secretary of State for Education. However, it has taken me rather longer than I expected to get back into the swing of writing, and I know that many bloggers have now beaten me to it. Nonetheless, here is my take on the legacy of Gove (with apologies if it seems somewhat skewed towards my subject of secondary English).

So, what chains did Michael Gove forge in post as SoS that may have lasting impact on the future of our education system?

*Please note that this is simply my take on the matter, and, as ever, all comments and opinions are welcome

. • He knew that there was exam dumbing down, and he dealt with it.

This was a hugely unpopular stance, at the time. Prior to the reforms, some educationalists were (and some still are) suggesting that teaching was improving year on year and kids were simply getting brighter. In fact, it is now widely accepted that exam boards were deliberately making courses easier. The course with the reputation for being the easiest naturally proved the more popular. The inflated grades supplied kudos for teacher, school and pupils in one fell swoop – not to mention extra business for the boards. Exams Reformation of this system was crucial, and well-overdue, and time was of the essence. The unfortunate casualties of this were the single cohort of kids who had their GCSEs re-graded (mostly down graded) At least their results are now (more) honest?

Sadly, in all this exam reform, I think Gove missed an opportunity to sort the key problem I allude to above: multiple exam boards. I think multiple boards will always equal an unfortunate element of competition. As things stand, there is still an opportunity for boards to ‘suggest’ set-texts which may be slightly shorter, or simpler than others on the list. It doesn’t take long for schools to suss out which course is the easiest.

• He introduced performance related pay.

This is is a huge error of judgement (to say the very least). The administration of PRP relies heavily on the opinions of school managers. Over the years I’ve encountered many managers who hold a whole plethora of bizarre views about what equates to good teaching and learning. These managers, and other managers like them, will be the reasoners, and the ultimate deciders of who will qualify for a pay rise. Enough said, I think.

• He agreed with the phrase ‘the blob’ to describe the vocal majority of the teaching profession.

Toby Young When Toby Young used this phrase, there is no doubt it was extremely inflammatory. But it did seem to fit, somehow, with the educational establishment that I seem to have been kicking against for most of the 19 years of my teaching career (see above). I’ve lost count of the confrontations I’ve had with managers (and also with fellow teachers), over a huge variety of opinions and initiatives: group work, independent learning, the economic impact of interactive whiteboards, the subjectivity of levels, the myth that is VAK etc etc.. the list is endless. I can’t even begin to outline here the struggles I’ve had with the accepted lesson observation process (see previous blogs for more detail). In all cases, without exception, I’ve felt like I was in the minority. The ‘blob’ (for the want of a better term) were, and still are, the controlling majority.

• He championed classic literature. Of Mice and Men

Despite the best efforts of some tabloids and large sections of social media to suggest that there is now to be some kind of a cull of quality texts taking place, and in spite of the outrage that well-loved texts are now to be replaced with dusty old British tomes that no-one in their right mind would want to read, I do believe the contrary to be the case. I think that Gove has recognised and attempted to address something that was happening all too often – that the simplest, shortest text that fulfilled the exam board’s criteria was often chosen for study. In addition to this, it was handy if there was a feature film version of the book available. Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is the obvious unfortunate casualty of this. An excellent book, which became overused simply because it ticked so many boxes.

 

•He allowed the appointment of unqualified teachers.

dead-poets-society-04A manoeuvre that left many of us long-qualified teachers feeling more than a little baffled and bemused. What status did our teaching qualification have now? As one of life’s cynics, it is very difficult to view this as anything other than a money-saving move. Whilst I’m doing my best to avoid parroting the ‘you wouldn’t allow an unqualified surgeon to operate on you’ line, I do find this particular turn of events extremely difficult to accept. On the job training programmes, such as those operated by Teach First, are a different ball game entirely. It was through my own teaching practice experience that I learnt most about the job. In teaching, theory is no substitute for tangible practice, I think.

• He removed levels.

A wise move.

In addition to this, schools have now been given the opportunity to design their own methods of recording progress. Thus, in theory, nobody can argue with whatever assessment methods a school puts in place as their own, bespoke system. The simpler the better, I’d suggest. I must add that I think this is an enormous kick in the teeth for OFSTED, who now won’t be able to rely on standardised national systems of judgement, they’ll simply have to trust the schools. Ofsted-strip Sadly, it seems that many schools have not made the most of this golden opportunity, and a sizeable number have persisted with levels. I’ve also noted a number of educationalists now referring to there being ‘a vacuum’ where levels once were. Schools have a tendency, I think, to be more than a bit obsessed with the whole comparative process. Teachers are compared with one another against what is considered to be ‘good’, and unique traits are quashed. Schools are also compared with each another via league tables. Worse still, now and again, OFSTED barge in and double check that they are meeting a nationally accepted set of standardisation criteria. Even the structure of individual lessons is subject to standardisation. Very frustrating.

•He insisted that economic background shouldn’t be a barrier to learning.

I’ve worked with disadvantaged kids for the majority of my teaching career. There is no doubt that their circumstances can often hold them back, and prevent them fulfilling their potential. This has got nothing whatsoever to do with inherent natural intelligence, simply that a young-person’s social background often seems to cap their future progress. Sad to say, I have also encountered many teachers who don’t expect those kids to do well, who simply expect them to under-achieve. Academic achievement often ends up being fairly low down on the list of priorities. If a senior minister puts this subject under the spotlight, and encourages a culture of high academic expectations, then this is only to be welcomed, surely? 200168451-001

The behaviour issue often goes hand in hand with the above. Some kids just can’t see the point of learning. For them, school is little more than a social gathering place. Status can be won through rebellion and misbehaviour. This behaviour issue is something else that Gove regularly sought to highlight. Bravo. I still maintain that poor behaviour is the single biggest barrier to learning in the country.

There are several other policies and reforms that I could have discussed: the KS1 phonics test, academies and free schools, the new curriculum, per-se, and the History row, for example. All just as relevant, but I have less direct personal experience of some of these.

Gove was a bolshy, argumentative Secretary of State, who had an unfortunate knack of rubbing people up the wrong way. Whilst always giving the impression of being 100% devoted to the cause, he did adopt something of a ‘bull in a china shop’ method. This approach inevitably alienated him from a lot of people whose support he really could have done with. But the education bull really did need to be taken by the horns, of that there can be no doubt. NICKY-MORGAN-MP-facebook It’s the widespread lack of support for Gove – and his apparent lack of concern over this lack of support, that I think has lost him his job. I can only hope that the positive aspects of education reform – reforms that were so badly needed – continue under his successor, Nicky Morgan. However, it is difficult not to view her appointment as a somewhat obvious attempt to pour soothing oil on troubled waters. With an election looming, such a polarising figure as Gove could be potential poison. I only hope that Nicky Morgan’s function is to sugar coat the bitter pills of education reform…rather than handing out the usual pick ‘n’ mix of placebos.

Please follow me on Twitter: @cazzypot

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WW1 History at Cannock Chase: Tackeroo – The Sound of Silence

Cannock Chase is a mixed area of countryside in the county of Staffordshire, England. The area has been designated as the Cannock Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is also very proud of its long association with the military.

Restored hut

Restored hut

At the Marquis Drive visitor area (Hednesford, Near Cannock, WS12 4PW) an original wooden war hut has been faithfully reconstructed and is now used as a base for educational talks and visits about this military life. The area has the feel of a large municipal park now, with a cafe, children’s playground and plenty of leafy, open spaces. But this vast site was once home to a huge WW2 air force base, where thousands of pilots were trained for service.

image (2)

Only a mile or so away lies the peaceful Tackeroo Camp Site, a stress relieving elixir of tall pine trees, mud, grass, birdsong, bees and butterflies. Watching the sleepy, sinking sun It’s hard to imagine this space ever being less than tranquil.

Today, cyclists whiz through, people pitch tents and park caravans or camper vans. From foraged sticks and broken branches, camp fires are lit at dusk. A sense of communing with nature and wildlife abounds. Upon leaving, everything is respectfully left as it was before except for the burnt-out cinders of a fire or two. The environment looks for all the world to be one of nature’s reclaimed spaces. Everything is as it was intended to be: indigenous trees, birds, insects, squirrels, wild flowers, grass, moss and herds of deer too.

image (5)

But interspersed with this wildlife are several large concrete pads. These patches of concrete, of various sizes, shapes and states of repair are telling. Oddly, they don’t seem to detract from the environment at all. On the contrary, they suit our 21st century purpose very well, offering useful hard-standing for touring caravans and camper vans and also somewhere to park the car. Children run, skip and cycle on these surfaces. No-one seems to question their original purpose, or how long they’ve been there for. They now have a new lease of life – a second wind. Nature is doing its very best to reclaim this ground and grass is slowly creeping through the cracks that age, wear and neglect have caused. The once-hard edges are now softened by a creeping carpet of green.

But exactly a century ago these concrete patches provided the flooring, footings and foundations for myriad wooden military buildings, the roofs and walls of which have long-since gone. They tell a tale of a Tackeroo history far removed from its current soothing state. The site formed part of a huge, bustling training ground for First World War Soldiers.

image

In the autumn of 1914, work began on the construction of two huge military camps at Cannock Chase. The Earl of Lichfield had given permission for this part of his land to be transformed into one of the camps eventually to be known as ‘Rugeley Camp’. The sister camp, – to be given the name ‘Brocton Camp’ – was also constructed nearby. There being no existing amenities on either site, everything had to be constructed from scratch..including the water supply, sewage systems and the roads…before work could begin on the huts and other structures.

The construction of the Rugeley Camp, including the Tackeroo area and its immediate surroundings, was completed in less than a year. Water supplies and sewage disposal pipes were installed, roads and rails were laid down, barracks and shower blocks all built. As the site would go on to train and accommodate 20,000 soldiers, at any one time, the infrastructure demands were immense. The camp site paths – now used by cyclists and walkers – were once railway lines. These railways brought in artillery munitions to be housed in a huge purpose-built storage building in what now is the centre of the camp site.

Munitions shed fondations

Munitions shed fondations

The concrete foundations of the main munitions storage shed can still be found in the centre of the camp site.This covers a large area and certainly would have provided plenty of storage space. Today it is quite something to walk on the huge concrete slab which was once the floor of this munitions hut and contemplate in the mind’s eye the vast stash of ammunition and tools of warfare that must have been stored there.

Tackeroo Drainage

Tackeroo Drainage

I have tried to muster a hazy, incomplete, mental picture of rows of shelves weighed down with bullets, bombs and guns – the tools of war. On the eastern side of the campsite, the concrete foundations of several shower blocks still remain to be seen. Indeed the drainage channels and holes are still clearly visible, if one takes the time to look. The visible minor roads which once ran between the storage sheds in the area are in daily use, as tracks on the site.

Old "Bomb Hole"

Old “Bomb Hole”

On the southern edge of Tackeroo site is an area comprising several large, sloping craters. The undulating landscape makes it very popular with stunt-cyclists and dare-devil children who refer to the area as ‘The Bomb Holes’. I haven’t been able to ascertain if bomb or grenade practice may have been the cause of this unusual landscape, but one imagines it is entirely possible. Practice trenches are also still in evidence nearby.

The Rugeley camp, alone, housed and trained upwards of 250,000 soldiers during the time it was operational – an almost unimaginably large number of young men. New recruits were sent here to train from all over Great Britain and also from all corners of The Commonwealth. This included regiments from as far afield as Australia, Canada and New Zealand: all these young men shipped thousands of miles from home to train in an alien environment before being moved on to fight real battles, on yet more alien shores.

Soldiers at Brocton Camp

Soldiers at Brocton Camp

Theories about where the name ‘Tackeroo’ originated from are explored on the Cannock Chase History website. “It is possible,” they suggest “ that the modern place-name ‘tackeroo’ stems from the New-Zealand Maori word takarewa, an intransitive verb meaning ‘to be kept awake’, perhaps in reference to the constant noise which must have been present in this busy army base.” Alternatively, there is another theory, along similar lines: “(‘Tackeroo’)…possibly from the related word tutakarerewa a stative verb meaning ‘to be alert, unsettled, apprehensive’, which again would quite aptly describe the situation in which the young volunteers must have suddenly found themselves.

It seems so tragically ironic that the name of ‘Tackeroo’ could have derived from the polar opposite of the peaceful, natural haven that the site presents as now. It is quite disturbing to imagine that the homesick young men – who were perturbed enough already by the unfamiliar surroundings and noise at Tackeroo – would probably have had no idea of the hellish environment that awaited them on the next stage of their journey. Once fully trained, presumably they were to be shipped, like cannon fodder, to fight (and quite probably die) in the disease-ridden discomfort of trenches of The Somme, or similar.

Battle of the Somme 1916

Battle of the Somme 1916

But what became of the camp after the war was finally over and the buildings no longer had any purpose? Staffordshire Past Track reveals this:

‘Following the war, the camps became akin to ghost towns, the rows of huts stood empty in an unaccustomed quiet, disturbed only by the sighing breeze swinging a loose door or rattling a window…’

An evocative description, but actually the huts were not left there to deteriorate for very long, many of them eventually finding new homes: ‘Gradually, at the request of Lord Lichfield, the huts were sold off and were transported..by horse and cart..’ Post-war, the buildings were moved to other locations to be re-built and re-used for new purposes. A fine example of early recycling.

It would be inconceivable to end this piece without mention of one interesting piece of information that I stumbled across while researching this blog. It would appear that the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings author, and Birmingham resident, JRR Tolkien, himself, trained at Rugeley camp before participating in real trench warfare.

Hobbit House

Hobbit House

In The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide: Chronology by Christina Scull and Wayne G Hammond, we are informed that ‘ 19th October 1915: the 13th Battalion moved to the Rugeley Camp …and yet Tolkien was evidently at Rugeley Camp at a slightly earlier date. It may be that he was in an advance party..’ I know that his home of Sarehole Mill was the inspiration for his wonderful landscape creations, but as the Tackeroo landscape currently stands, one could easily imagine it now providing a perfect setting in which a hobbit would feel at home.

Please follow me on Twitter: @cazzypot

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Ofsted – carrying on regardless

You may be aware that I recently had a mishap. For those of you who don’t already know the details, six weeks ago I fell down the stairs. Despite only falling down the last three stairs, I managed to break both legs: one fracture to my left ankle and four fractures to my right leg – including a broken heel. Having spent four (long) weeks in hospital, I am, thankfully, back at home now. I have a comfortable bedroom in our lounge, and am managing a lot better than I expected to (with a LOT of help from my long-suffering partner!) The main benefit of being back home is that I can spend time with my children (aged two and seven). We can read books, sing songs…and of course there are the many wonders on ‘Netflix Kids’ to explore! Although I still can’t put any weight on either leg, I am looking forward to having at least one of my plasters off soon, hopefully then I can begin some form of physiotherapy, and perhaps begin using crutches to mobilise.

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Still, they do say that every cloud has a silver lining. In my case, I’m afraid I couldn’t help but think of this almost two weeks ago when my job share partner sent me a text message to tell me that Ofsted were coming in the next day.

That evening I spoke to my job share partner, and surmised that the staff were in the throes of the planning and preparation panic that only a visit from OFSTED can inspire. Although I felt a pang of guilt, to say I was pleased to be well out of it may just be an understatement. The only thing I could do was offer a few words of moral support and encouragement. Late that night I sent a final text message to my colleague:

“I’ll be thinking of you…Remember: they shouldn’t be giving you a grade!”

“That’s great news,” she replied.

M Cladingbowl

Now, I have mentioned before that teachers who engage on social media, such as Twitter, often seem to be much better informed, especially regarding the latest guidance from the DfE and Ofsted. With this in mind, sadly, it came as no surprise to hear that my colleague had no idea that Ofsted inspectors shouldn’t be grading individual lessons, or offering unsolicited feedback. Neither was she aware that any feedback given should be confidential, and only shared at the discretion of the teacher. To clarify all this I sent her a link to Michael Cladingbowl’s advice for inspectors document, in which he said:

‘Inspectors should not give an overall grade for the lesson and nor should teachers expect one. If asked, inspectors will provide feedback to individuals on what they have observed, including the evidence they have gathered about teaching. They can share the grade for the evidence gathered about teaching, or other aspects, with an individual teacher.’

And he concluded with this:

‘On average, inspectors may spend only 25 minutes or so in each lesson. It would be nonsensical to suggest that an Ofsted inspector could give a definitive validation of a teacher’s professional competency in such a short time. We are not in the business of handing out badges that say “You are an outstanding teacher” or the opposite. We leave that to others, who will use their own and other evidence to come to a conclusion. We would not expect any other professional, for example a surgeon, to be judged by peers on a single 25 minute observation of their work.’

(From ‘Why do Ofsted inspectors observe individual lessons and how do they evaluate teaching in schools?’ 21st February 2014)

The following evening, therefore, I was surprised to receive a text from my colleague, which simply read,

‘Requires Improvement’

So she had been given a grade for her lesson, after all. During a lengthy phone-call with her, the details became clear. The inspector had been in to watch 25 minutes of a Drama lesson. Afterwards, she neither offered, nor gave a grade or feedback to my colleague. But what she did do, it seems to me, completely flouted the guidelines as outlined so clearly by Michael Cladingbowl (above).

man-with-tick-box

Following the observation the Ofsted inspector met with our centre manager. During this meeting she outlined the criticisms that she had of the lesson, AND told the manager a grade for the lesson (‘requires improvement’). She then left the feedback form with the manager, who subsequently shared all of the information with my colleague.

Criticisms of the 25 minute observation included things such as:

  • Not enough separate activities, therefore not enough pace.
  • Not enough pupil talk.
  • No AFL target visible.
  • A (bizarre?) query over whether the (Drama) lesson was a Speaking and Listening task.

It goes without saying, perhaps, that my colleague was very distressed by all of this. She also felt that the criticisms were unhelpful, personal and inaccurate:

  • There were 5 activities planned, the inspector didn’t see all of these, but the pupils were apparently engaged in the activities that she did observe. Surely it is for the class teacher to determine when (and if) to move on from a task? If a particular activity is successful and pupils are learning, why be pressured to move on? Surely the days of Ofsted trying to dictate lesson content, pace and style are now gone?
  • The pupils weren’t speaking much during the part of the lesson that was watched, due to the nature of the activity. BUT spoke a lot (as planned) in the latter part of the lesson – which was after the inspector had left. As Mr Cladingbowl states, it is impossible to validate everything in a 25 minute observation. This is a perfect example of this: my colleague was criticised because the inspector didn’t happen to see evidence of something that they wanted to see, in the part of the lesson they happened to be in. How can this possibly be a valid criticism?
  • As it was a Drama lesson clearly it was a ‘Speaking and Listening’ task, by its very nature. The fact that neither this, nor the AFL target were displayed anywhere does not negate their existence, surely?

To make matters worse, our Centre Manager also went on to suggest to my colleague that she should have delivered an English lesson for the inspector, as that was, “what she wanted to see”. As she always delivers Drama in that timetable slot, my colleague queried this, asking if we, as teachers, should really feel pressured into changing what we normally do because of an inspection? In addition to this, my colleague also expressed some (probably very valid) concerns regarding the implications of this grading on her future career.

Teacher observation

Despairing, and feeling quite impotent, that same evening I decided to outline some of these events to Michael Cladingbowl, on Twitter. I have to say, his response was very swift. He asked me to message him privately with details, which I did. He then promised to follow it up personally. I don’t expect that I’ll be privy to the outcome of this, but nonetheless, I think it is of some comfort to have a point of contact with whom we can raise such issues.

Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw-1459138

There is no doubt that Sir Michael Wilshaw and Michael Cladingbowl are trying to move Ofsted in the right direction and I think most of the new guidelines for inspectors make a lot of sense. To look at teaching and learning across the whole school and focus more on results, rather than what individual teachers are doing to achieve this, is certainly to be welcomed. In line with this, many teachers are also relieved that they should no longer face criticism of the style or structure of their lessons. However, this change will only take place if each and every inspector follows their own guidelines. Every single time an inspector flouts theses rules, the credibility of OFSTED, as an organisation, is undermined just a little bit more. An army that ignores the orders of the generals is certain to be an army in disarray, and a straw house, even when built on the strongest of foundations, surely won’t stand for long?

Educating Yorkshire: teacher Matthew Burton reads to his class

I would be very interested to hear if you have been offered either a grade or feedback (or both!) by an Ofsted inspector, without requesting it. Please add your story to the comments box (below), or contact me on Twitter. Thank you.

*NB: my job share partner has read and approved this blog.

Please follow me on Twitter: @cazzypot

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Labels, are they always the answer?

I wrote a blog last week entitled ‘Behaviour Matters‘, in which I attempted to illustrate part of a typical working day at the PRU I teach at. A section of this blog featured the following observation, regarding the labelling of children:

‘This academic year, in particular, I have felt that certain pupils really believe that they are more powerful than the teachers and other staff that they are, ostensibly, in the charge of. These pupils are, after all, at the more extreme end of the market. They are excluded from school, know most of the tricks, and the threat of exclusion no longer applies. Also, – sometimes usefully for them – they have often had a label such as ADHD, Dyslexia or Autism applied. This they can then wield, like a shrunken head, whenever an authority figure challenges their conduct (“I can’t help it, I’ve got ADHD and I forgot my medication, right?!” etc).’

 

Several people were openly critical of these remarks. Here are a small selection of the comments made on Twitter over the last few days:

‘…it doesn’t read as a piece fighting for children to succeed to me…’

and,

‘If you’re seeing the behaviour, you’re probably not managing the autism…’
(@SENcollusion)

‘I wonder how much autism training the person has who talks ‘excuses”
(@ERA_tweet)

‘It’s a PRU. You will get behaviour like that. Need appropriate management…’
(@suzy001)

I will say from the outset, that I can see how what I said could potentially be misconstrued. Maybe my remarks could be misinterpreted as demonstrating an unfeeling attitude towards children with diagnosed conditions. It seems that some also suspect that I may be ignorant of how to best deal with these children.

It’s not my goal to alienate people, I’m really only seeking to comment and make observations. I certainly didn’t write the above with the aim of trivialising or dismissing Autism. Similarly, I would never seek to belittle pupils who genuinely struggle with their reading and writing. I also recognise that not everyone will agree with every word that I write all of the time. (I must also stress that I have also received many positive comments regarding this blog.)

With all that in mind, I decided I would write a new blog attempting to explain myself perhaps a bit more clearly.

 

I have worked extensively with adults and children with Autism, indeed, I wrote my dissertation on the subject. I also spent a considerable amount of time teaching at a ‘moderate learning difficulties’ school. Here I encountered a number of pupils who really did have certain very specific diagnosed conditions.

I must emphasise once more that a some of the pupils we encounter at the PRU do also have a specific diagnosed condition. But I believe that this applies to only a small minority, and it’s here where I take issue with the whole labelling culture.

Many of the young people I work with have led extremely traumatic lives. Some are (or have been) in local authority care. Most live in deprived areas where they may have been exposed to criminal activity, and some are involved with gangs. Many pupils have siblings who demonstrate similar behaviour. Weekly, we see parents who openly admit that they are struggling to cope. In several cases, there are drug and/or alcohol issues within the family. Some of the children are dirty and/or underfed. Some of the parents are illiterate.

When the young people (above) begin to demonstrate extreme or inappropriately disruptive behaviour, the onus is on the local authority to try to find out why. Once there is a ‘reason’ for this behaviour, then targeted help and support can be provided. In order to diagnose what condition a child has, teams of Educational Psychologists and doctors will usually swing into action – although it is tempting to suggest there is a financial motive for their actions, I do believe that most of these professionals are acting in good faith. The question they are trying to answer is ‘What is WRONG with this child?’ Because there must be SOMETHING wrong with them. In order to establish this, the health professionals have a variety of tests and diagnostic tools at their disposal. When the child ticks enough of the boxes, a diagnosis can be made. For example, if the child is struggling with reading and writing, they may get labelled with Dyslexia. If a child is struggling with extreme behaviour and hyper-activity, they could have ‘ADHD’. If a child is withdrawn and demonstrates little empathy, they may gain the label of ‘autistic’.

I know the autistic spectrum is wide, but having written on the subject, worked previously with autistic kids and read extensively on the subject, I can count on one hand the number of these PRU pupils who have demonstrated many of the typifying symptoms. Likewise, we see a number of young people who are behind their peers and below-average in reading and writing; but I have hardly come across a single child who couldn’t make at least some progress. Never have I seen a child who struggled to decode letters on a page – yet I have worked with many who have been labelled with dyslexia. ADHD is the biggest anomaly of all, I think. If (IF!) this condition really does exist, there is no doubt in my mind that it is over-diagnosed. Most worryingly, children with ADHD are usually prescribed drugs. As I hinted at in my previous blog, these drugs can then cause a further set of complications. I’ve seen kids become utterly docile – doped. I’ve also worked with kids who seem to become even wilder than they originally were. There is no doubt that dosage of these drugs is difficult to get right.

 

So, who, and with what purpose, do labels serve?

1. For the mainstream school: they are helpful as schools can then (legitimately) claim that they ‘can no longer meet the needs’ of a particular pupil. This makes permanent exclusion less of a worry.

2. For the local authority, they can then show that they have done their bit in seeking to establish root causes for conduct. They can then draft in some support to further appease.

3. For the parents, they can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that none of the issues are their fault.

4. For the pupil, they have a cast-iron ‘reason’ that they cannot improve, modify or help their conduct or the situation they find themselves in. Once the child is permanently excluded, from one school, the label makes it extremely difficult to secure a new school (see 1.) and so on..

 

None of this does very much to tackle the (real?) underlying issues that are at play here. Schools can’t do much about society and family problems. What they can do is encourage high standards and help all kids to achieve their full potential. For many of these kids, a good education really is their very best hope in life. Being in receipt of a label can often magnify the negative aspects of a child’s personality, and have a tragically stultifying effect on progress. As a teacher it is more than saddening to hear a child say, “I can’t read that because I’m dyslexic”, or, “I couldn’t help breaking that because of my ADHD”. In my experience, these labels can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of low-achievement and negative consequences, which is the polar opposite to the effect we are aiming for. As teachers, and other professionals working with children, surely our aim is to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive? The question is, in the pursuit of this aim, can labels sometimes do more harm than good?

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