Principal’s Round-up – 27th November 2020

I am not altogether sure where I have found the time to write this week. After 32 years working in schools I can honestly say I cannot remember a more complicated and changeable week! Whilst challenges are exciting, I am aware that colleagues are almost on their knees with the increased workload of setting remote learning activities alongside their normal teaching load. I also know that there are increasing problems with complex behaviours being exhibited by students, and this is causing additional stress. I am listening. I am doing my best to improve the conditions in which we work. From 7th December there will be changes to the organisation of the school day that will enable a great deal more ownership of personal spaces and faculty areas will return. Whilst compromises will have to be made around corridor supervision, we can strengthen the covid-secure arrangements whilst at the same time also reduce workload. The standards that we were all proud of have been dented somewhat, not least by sheer professional exhaustion and the abundance of supply teachers who do not know the students and their families well. The new arrangements will help us restore the ‘gold standard’ by continuing to support each other. 

I know that your efforts are worth it. They are essential. I watch with dismay the broadcasts almost daily that send ill-conceived messages about tenuous scientific advancements and misleading information. If it were not for the outstanding education that our students receive in Science, Humanities and English we would be developing a new generation of poorly informed citizens who are prepared to believe all that they are told. The quality we see in this school’s curriculum is the precursor to the kind of work we need to inspire the next generation. The approach we take in teaching children about the efficacy of information, and developing the ability to gain knowledge and problem solve is more important than ever. Our co-operative approach is promoting social learning that is crafting citizens of the future who hopefully will make a better job of running things than my generation. 

Despite the challenges of this week, we must not lose sight of the success stories that remind us why we remain committed to our profession. My father encouraged me to always walk looking up at the world, and not at my feet!  We were congratulated by the LA this week for our low EHE numbers. I understand that we are the lowest in Devon. This shows the confidence parents have in us, which has been built over time by dedicated colleagues who understand the importance of building relationships with families. Another measure of confidence is the high attendance exhibited by the student body and the engagement with the period 6 catch up teaching. These are things we should be proud of. 

I learnt with pride that Y8 students,Molly Hunt and Rebecca Boyd, have been selected for the Devon U14 hockey team. Y13 student, Joe Crosher has just received a distinction grade in Performing Repertoire for his CTec.  His grade was unique and very well deserved  especially as he completed most of the unit over Google Meet during lockdown. Joe’s talent, skill, work ethic and resilience resulted in some fantastic performance work but also a deep understanding of the theory behind the work of Bob Dylan, Bertolt Brecht and the genre of Political Theatre……if you happen to have not heard The Ballad of Bristol  (in particular) please encourage Joe to share with you!

It is this kind of resilience and innovation that we should remember from these stories. Sometimes I feel we spend a disproportionate amount of time focussing on delving around in reasons and explanations for confusion and problems rather than taking a stance of hope and positivity. Overthinking and over-discussing can drag us down. Focusing on resilience takes us forward. It is almost as if this is an old fashioned term, but we need it more than ever. Resilience is what gives people the psychological strength to cope with stress and hardship. It is the mental reservoir of strength that people are able to call on in times of need to carry them through without falling apart. Resilience is at the very heart of well being. It is about recognising that you have to fight a battle more than once in order to win it.

We also need each other. The way everyone responded to the days we were sending students home because of the confirmed Covid cases was heartwarming. People came together with no fuss or complaint. Things went smoothly because we truly lived up to our values that day. The high levels of anxiety were mitigated by the sense of togetherness that is a part of this school.

So when I reflect on the week, I can convey messages of hope, as well as difficulty . I value greatly the people that bring solutions rather than problems. This is a measure of resilience and the courage to act. 

I hope you all have time to recharge over the weekend. I shall be treating my relative freedoms of Tier 1 next week with some caution. I hope you all do too.

Principal’s Round-up – 13th November 2020

This week saw us commemorate Armistice Day with a very reduced remembrance event, unlike in previous years. With poppies up and down the country and moving and lavish displays on some buildings, we are all aware that in November the nation marks the gruesome wars that have scarred our past and present. Last Sunday, over 3000 bells rang out across the United Kingdom with half muffled tolls… the sound of a slow march to help us remember those who lost their lives. The act of remembrance is important in schools and should always be embraced. It sometimes seems to me that war is still too easy a thing to talk about. Luckily most people do not experience war outside of what we see on the news or in films. Few people actually share a collective memory of the 20th century wars. To many they can seem nationalistic and romantic, promoting the idea of the good guys versus the bad guys. War is really much more complex than this. Whilst we remember those who bravely gave their lives in conflict, we must also remember everyone else who is affected. The words ‘lest we forget’ may ring hollow when we see how war continues and holds us in its grip in so many places. We really have yet to learn the lessons from the fallen. In modern war we hear stories of collateral damage and loss of assets – actually, these are power stations, schools, hospitals, roads and homes. People’s loss of loved ones – children and parents. 1000s of lives are still being lost as victims of modern warfare. People are making perilous journeys across land and sea to protect their families, to flee from famine and persecution. We no longer speak of terror in the trenches but continue to experience inhumane conditions everywhere. War de-humanises people. What fools we are to make war a computer game for our children and to allow it to be glorified on social media. In remembrance, we commit to making the world a better place. Wars do not start with someone deciding to bomb a country. They start with actions and words. Words are some of the most powerful weapons we have. Words can be used to create conflict, unrest and hate. Or they can be used for good, for creating peace and conciliation. Messages for us all.

The first teaching and learning review this year was also a very different event, relying on work scrutiny and remote learning checks, student voice and parental feedback. There were strengths and areas that need acceleration, not last in the area of feedback that has suffered due to the nature of teacher movement around the site. However, a review can only really dictate the ‘bottom line’. I understand that teaching is a very personal business and so one student might rate you and another might hate you. It is idiosyncratic, subjective and it is all about personalities and getting the best fit. Being effective is elastic but relationship-effects between teachers and students play a huge part However, getting a consensus on what being a good or effective teacher is can be extremely hard and we cannot rely on Ofsted inspectors, what Sarah’s mum says, or the twitterings of social media.

There is no formula, but there are some pointers in the research showing us what traits or approaches are most likely to be effective. The research that is out there on effective teaching tends to mix together what effective teaching looks like and what qualities an effective teacher has. Barak Rosenshine’s (2012) Principles of Instruction have certainly got a lot of attention in recent years .His work largely underpins our Teaching and Learning policy. He presents 10 research-based principles from cognitive science, studies of master teachers and the research on cognitive support to help students learn complex tasks. His research focused on learning instruction, teacher performance, and achievement. Working with Norma Furst, he identified five characteristics of teacher behaviour which have served as a framework for research on teacher performance. These are: clarity of exposition, enthusiasm, task orientation, varied approaches, and opportunities to learn. The 10 principles are all based around the model of explicit instruction:

  1. Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning.
  2. Present new material in small steps with student practice after each step.
  3. Ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students.
  4. Provide models.
  5. Guide students’ practice.
  6. Check for student understanding.
  7. Obtain a high success rate.
  8. Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.
  9. Require and monitor independent practice.
  10. Engage students in weekly and monthly review.

A 2014 Sutton Trust report, ‘What makes great teaching? (Coe et al, 2014) identifies six common components that constitute good quality teaching. In order of effectiveness, they are:

  1. Pedagogical content knowledge – teachers who have a deep knowledge of their subject (strong evidence of impact on outcomes).
  2. Quality of instruction – effective teaching and assessment methods (strong evidence of impact).
  3. Classroom climate – creating a classroom that encourages students to recognise their self-worth (little evidence of impact).
  4. Classroom management – a teacher’s ability to make use of lesson time and resources (moderate evidence of impact. Resources have the least impact).
  5. Teacher beliefs – why teachers adopt particular practices and the purposes they aim for (some evidence of impact).
  6. Professional behaviours – how teachers reflect on their own development, supporting colleagues, and engaging with parents (some evidence of impact).

When you compare the two reports, it is clear why we focus on cognitive tools rather than behaviourist approaches that pay scant attention to the constructivist nature of learning.

The feedback from the teaching and learning review is ready to be shared in Faculties As in all things, the greatest joy in our work will be achieved not through indulging each other or colluding in excuses and self- pity but through seeking to succeed at the highest level. Tim Brighouse calls us to adopt an attitude of unwarranted optimism. Now is the time to review this approach.

Principal’s Round-up – 23rd October 2020

Well, we made it to half term! We have laughed, cried and held each other up over the last 7 weeks. I have to start with some endings, and that is never easy. Yesterday we had our final ceremony for George Mudge with the planting of his apple tree in the orchard. We have a bench arriving soon and anyone who wants to reflect upon the lessons George taught us can now spend some time doing just that, looking at his favourite view. One of those lessons was the need to be more compassionate in this busy world we inhabit. The care shown to George has been a measure of the man…. I hope that we can all remember to show that to the living. Writing our thoughts in a book of condolence is important. How often do we say those words to the people around us when they are still with us?

As we approach half term, there are some sad and some exciting events taking place. Today we are saying goodbye to a much loved colleague, Sylvia Preece. There is a tribute to her on the next page. Sylvia asked for as little fuss as possible, but 24 years is a long time to serve a school and she deserves a few words at the very least! Sylv has been a remarkable colleague and we will miss her greatly. Victoria Bartlett is leaving us for a short while as she starts her maternity leave. We are sending her off with our very best wishes and look forward to seeing her again soon. There are two long-awaited weddings taking place in the holiday: Hannah Holbourn and Niall Murphy are getting married …but not to each other. Congratulations to both of them.

Working in schools is hard. Sometimes it is very hard. At the moment it is extremely hard. For schools with significant numbers of disadvantaged students (we have 36% of our school community) it is harder still. Occasionally working in schools with its constant and biased media criticism and ill thought-out political interference, it can feel like a battle against all odds. But it’s a battle worth having. And we have done exceptionally well this half term. Teachers, Assistant Teachers and all other staff are the ones who cannot give up: they are the ones who that must pick up the pieces when everyone else has gone. When the budgets of support services are cut, forcing them to retreat, schools are still there. Because they have to be. Even when school budgets are slashed, those that work in schools will not withdraw. Instead we shoulder the burden. To let children down is simply not an option.

We provide the vital calm in society’s storm. Intolerant views and ‘hard line’ doctrines abound at the moment in the public discourse over our work for Black History Month has been felt recently in school. Stridency seems to be in vogue politically, and this filters down through families and in the community. Compromise, subtlety and ambiguity are perceived as weak. Battle lines are being drawn, even in education, between ‘hard’ choices.(‘grammar schools are the only solution to mediocrity’ versus ‘grammar schools represent the return to a totally divided and elitist past’). Ann Mroz describes how, in whichever ‘side’ you are on in these societal hard choices, you are encouraged to ‘gaze in horror; feel the fury; feel the righteousness. It becomes good to know your arguments are not only evidentially right but also morally superior’.

But moral superiority does not entertain doubt. Without doubt, there is reluctant change and precious little improvement. Moral superiority does not seek answers to questions it hasn’t asked. This is all part of our newly intolerant age, and it will not help us mend the holes in our arguments and imperfections. It is against this intolerance we must now rage. The very thing we have worked so hard with young people to put right. We will fail to help them create a better world if we do not encourage them to embrace other peoples’ points of view. And we must do the same. Responses to parental criticism should not be defensive and conversations about impact in teaching rather than efforts made should not be dismissed. Sometimes workload can be reduced by embracing change. Student voice is not to be feared – it is a valuable developmental tool. This week, for example, my student voice group told me how much they value the relationships that they have with staff but that some teachers are slow to respond to disruptive behaviour and that they needed to be stricter over some issues. The two stances are not ‘hard’ opposites of each other – there is some middle ground.

Let us then pursue debate. Let us encourage discussion and opportunities to create. Let us shun the intolerant and closed minded approaches, and reach out to finding middle ground solutions by examining all the evidence. Let us celebrate the compromises that enable everyone to benefit. This is how we will grow as a school, and how we will regain the energy to cope with extremely challenging times in schools.

I hope that you all find the time to rest over half term. We certainly need to recharge our batteries.


Principal’s Round-up – 25th September 2020

It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of our dearly loved colleague George Mudge. George joined Tavistock College around 30 years ago as a ‘county cleaner’. He very quickly became part of the Tavistock family and was quite a character. There is not a member of staff who, today as we come to terms with our loss, has not got a funny ‘George’ tale to tell. It was only two days ago that he was helping me rescue a bird trapped in the Refectory. This was done in his own unique style, and using his own inimitable language!

As a caretaker, George got to know everyone. Colleagues have said over and over that they ‘only spoke to him yesterday’. That was George – going about his work in a productive and friendly way. It is utterly heart breaking to think that we will never again see his cleaning trolley rumbling along, or hear his broad Devonshire accent resonating through the corridors.

Despite his hard life spent caring for his parents and more latterly his sister at home, George never forgot to be kind. There is a lesson in this for all of us. Never demonstrative and never egotistical, George would help with anything you asked of him and he was so incredibly compassionate with our children who struggle, particularly physically.

Linda Coe was his closest colleague. She told me this morning “I only had to ask George once for something and he would do it. He always had a smile on his face and time for everybody. He was a dear colleague who was so supportive of me. I do not know what I will do without him. He was my mainstay.” She added “ Who is going to go and collect the dead rats on site now….and throw them at me!” That was George. She went on to describe his love of nature and his turkey farming. He was certainly a country boy at heart. Maybe that’s why we would lose him in the run up to Christmas? The least said about that the better.

George was very proud of his work. He loved his job and he loved Tavistock College. We loved him. To lose a man like that at only 57, has rocked this school today. Simply, George was our friend. The condolences have rolled in from Governors, ex-colleagues and others. We appreciate them all. His passing is not only a loss to the school but also a loss to the world .We cannot support each other in the way we normally would, but we can still remind ourselves that we are not alone, even in our most difficult times and most challenging days. Whilst many of you have seen it before, I would like to share this.

The man doesn’t know that there is a snake underneath. The woman doesn’t know that there is a stone crushing the man. The woman thinks: “I am going to fall! And I can’t climb because the snake is going to bite me! Why can’t the man use a little more strength and pull me up!” The man thinks: “I am in so much pain! Yet I’m still pulling you as much as I can! Why don’t you try and climb a little harder?”

The moral is— you can’t see the pressure the other person is under, and the other person can’t see the pain you’re in. This is life. We should try to understand each other. Learn to think differently, perhaps more clearly and communicate better. A little thought and patience goes a long way.

We are all pushing hard for success. George’s passing reminds us that empathy, kindness and compassion must also be part of our  journey together.

Principal’s Round-up – 3rd July 2020

Over the last term we have been using GSuite applications to attempt to assess the progress being made in online and remote learning across year groups. This has proven to be a blunt tool, but gives us a starting point for catch up planning that must be produced for children before September. Of course, for us simply catching up will not be good enough. Whichever plans we bring to life in September will inevitably be structured with the aim to accelerate learning. This is going to form a significant part of the Academy Improvement Plan which is currently under construction. To complement any one of our plans, yesterday we at last received a comprehensive set of guidance materials from the DfE to support full school opening.

The PM has made his position clear: schools need to open to all students in September and students must be taught (at KS4 and 5 at least) the whole curriculum. It is our job now to get on with this and ensure we meet the objectives. The DfE document states:

“Returning to school is vital for children’s education and for their wellbeing. Time out of school is detrimental for children’s cognitive and academic development, particularly for disadvantaged children. This impact can affect both current levels of learning and children’s future ability to learn, and therefore we need to ensure all pupils can return to school sooner rather than later.”

I completely agree with this statement. The DfE have explained that for the vast majority of children, the benefits of being back in school far outweigh the very low risk from coronavirus. As a result, we can plan for all students to return and start to reverse the enormous costs of missed education. This will be an important move back towards normal life for many children and families.

There are five areas to focus on in our September return plan:

  1. Actions to minimise risk – this will entail a review of our risk assessments in place for partial opening. We will need to follow the control guidance and reduce risks further. Hand washing and social distancing in year teams will form a part of this.
    2. School operations – we have guidance on transport to implement, alongside giving consideration to the timetable, staggered breaks and avoiding contact between students. We know that attendance recording and tracking returns to normal, along with sanctions for non compliance. Uniform will return. This will help maintain standards and normality.
    3. Curriculum, behaviour and pastoral support – this includes adjusting the examined curriculum in light of the new examination proposals, ensuring we are clear about new behaviour expectations, and returning to full compliance with SEND support. There will be an expectation that the new SRE programme will be introduced alongside new safeguarding expectations . This training will take place in professional development in September.
    4. Assessment and accountability – Ofsted may drop into schools in the autumn term to consider the ways plans are working, but the full inspection process will not start again until January. There is a promise that the outcomes for 2020 will not be used for any accountability measure, so when we are next inspected conversations will centre around 2019 outcomes. That does not work in our favour given all indicators showed a positive progress measure for 2020! There is a consultation on exams and how they may function taking place until 16th July. Please take part. I sent the link in briefing notes today.
    5. Contingency plans -these must be in place to protect students’ learning should a local lockdown be enforced, or the school be closed to a year group if we had multiple diagnosed cases of coronavirus. This will involve improving our remote learning offer and having it on standby.

All of this sounds challenging, but it is not really. We are never cowed under pressure at Tavistock College because we know we can solve any problem thrown our way. Between all of us, we have all the attributes and abilities to see off any threat. What we have learned over the last few months about schools is who the real heroes are, and which roles in the education system are, frankly, redundant. Non-productive workers have been exposed.

So while the changes ahead are challenging, it would be wrong to say they are stressful. Stress is a term that is bandied about quite a bit. Just as not all children have fallen behind as some have clearly

accelerated in different directions, then we must recognise that not all stress is bad. Jared Cooney Horvath indicates that good stress versus bad stress is differentiated by three factors: duration, intensity and interpretation. We have choices about how we manage stress: a determination to overcome, rather than to give in. This is learned behaviour, and it is what we should actively teach children. If the factors causing the stress are intense, then learning techniques such as deep breathing and muscle tension release will burn off the stress hormones (such as cortisol)  that have flooded the brain such and prevented rational thinking. Time should be given for this, not avoided. Better that than subsequent actions that have consequences being excused because ‘I was stressed’. Stress is hard to justify if there is a way of avoiding it.

Stress is also about interpretation.  Horvath encourages us to differentiate between ‘feelings’ and ‘emotions’. They are not the same thing. Emotions are driven by hormones and are hard wired and create physical sensations – things like a racing heart and tingly skin. Feelings are weaker as these are simply mental interpretations of emotions and we have absolute control over them. Horveth explains that the human body can only respond with a limited number of chemicals, and so the number of emotions we can have is limited (joy, surprise, fear, anger and so on) However, seeing that there is no limit to the ways in which we can interpret physical sensations, the number of feelings we can have is infinite (embarrassment, confidence, justice and so on).  Whenever we select a feeling this choice is fed back to the brain and the body chemicals change accordingly.

This all matters because stress is a feeling, not an emotion. Stress (and all the pros and cons that go with it) is, by and large, a choice. Beyond the immediate threat response, most stress is activated after an individual interprets an event or emotion as stressful. Stress regulation techniques target the mind for this reason. They aim to change how an individual interprets a situation, shutting down the feedback mechanism . So, to be resilient (rather than giving in), we should think how we are interpreting events before we consider we are stressed.

Another part of the last three months has been the rise of surprisingly kind actions and gifts that have magically fallen into our laps. Firstly we have been given a beautiful grand piano from governor Tim Randell. It is very special, and Lily Randell is keen to continue to play it. It will be kept in the Hall. Earlier in the year Mrs Barker kindly funded an art workshop for students and earlier in the week generously made a very large donation to us that will be used to upgrade our IT equipment to a very high standard. The knock on effects are not just the improvement of facilities for students but staff computers can be upgraded. I am tremendously grateful to these people for their support and cannot thank them enough for what they have done to improve the learning environment at Tavistock College.

As we come to the end of another busy week, try to enjoy some time away from work at the weekend

Principal’s Round-up – 19th June 2020

It has been an exciting week. We have welcomed back a high proportion of Y12 and Y10 students over the last 5 days, and absorbed many more key worker children than we had previously seen. Our well laid plans have not failed us, colleagues have all pulled together and the systems we have in place are working well. In so many ways it is an utter relief to be doing what we planned for since we shut. The degree of collaboration and creativity matches few other organisations in these times. I know that should we be asked to take other year groups back, then we are certainly ready.

Of course everything is very different for the students. Unsurprisingly, they have been very resilient, and were very keen to follow the new rules in order to gain face to face time with teachers. As I had hoped, the students who have been in school the whole time have shown real leadership, and have been excellent role models for the others returning for the first time. This will perpetuate as more students return. We have learned a lot in the last few weeks about supporting students with remote learning, and we are now better placed than ever before to work alongside learners to diagnose their needs and next steps.

I spoke recently about the genuine positivity that can be found in these new ways of working that have been thrust upon us in the COVID world. I was therefore delighted to read the report published by Hattie and Cox on the effects of school closures on students’ learning. They undertook a large national study of experiences and also compared metastudies from countries that had faced natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, floods and long educational strikes. They found that the effect size was only -0.12. Effect sizes of less than -0.3 are deemed to be negligible in their impact. -0.12 is unpredictably small, and it begs the question as to why we are spending enormous amounts of time looking at ‘catch up’ (to where?) conversations. These are being driven largely by non-educationalists and the media who actually should stay off the pitch. There have been huge assumptions made about the fact that students are behind: it is possible that students are now further ahead now than they might have been as a result of more individualised learning programmes. A change to schooling in the longer term is worthy of debate, and it must go a little further, I believe, than extending the school day. A rather simplistic and ill thought out approach.

The study by Hattie and Cox has positive messages about change, if we are minded to accept it. They refer to the lack of desire to return to the old normal. The old normal has not changed much in 50 years: • We talk a lot • We ask the questions (about facts) • We see students as recipients • We exam and make students DO things • We sort, group, differentiate • We standardise & slice the curriculum • We age group, we track, we segregate • We sit students in groups, for fixed periods of time • We use bells • We emphasise facts, facts, facts

However, their research over the last few weeks has revealed the following repeating messages. The benefits of remote learning from parents are: • Improved Independence, organisation, time- management and responsibility • More family time together • Support from staff and communication from the school • Being able to help/see what children are learning • Adapted to & enjoying online classes • Learning more about schooling and the curriculum • Reduced travel time • More engaged and task focused • Less distractions from other students • More sleep/time to rest

Student top tens are: • Working at own pace for long or short periods • Time for other interests and hobbies • Not having to get up so early • Being comfortable at home • Being able to spend time with family • Not having to travel • Can do more work – more focused • Fewer distractions • Engaging with friends • Responsibility & accountability for own learning

And teacher gains are: • Adopting new/innovative ways to teach • Development of stronger IT skills • Positive connections maintained with students • Developing self-efficiency/independence in students • Greater flexibility to create and deliver quality lessons • Increased communication/collaboration between staff • Assisted wellbeing/less stressful working at home with own children • Reduced travel time

We know these gains do not hold true for all students, particularly those who struggle with low self-regulation, who are highly dependent on teachers, live in homes that are not safe havens, or who have access to fewer educational resources and activities. In addition, some students have parents with low capacity or desire to engage them in the school work at home. This might mean we invest in better triage and differentiated time in school. It might mean more time in school for some, and less for others. It might mean the growth of online learning and independent learning delivery. Whatever, it is a time to reflect.

I doubt we ever get the chance to debate system wide change on this level. Change is challenging to many. When lives are going well, and sometimes even when they aren’t, many find themselves feeling very attached to the status quo of existence–life as we know it. It is a very human tendency to resist change as though it were possible to simply decide not to do it, or have it in our lives. Of course, the answer is not to go about changing things at random, without regard to whether they are working or not. There is a time and place for stability and the preservation of what has been gained over time. The problem comes when we become more attached to preserving the status quo than to honoring the universal givens of growth and change. For example, if we allow a situation we are in to remain stagnant simply because we are comfortable, it may be time for us to summon up the courage to challenge the status quo.

But change will come and the status quo will go, sooner or later, with our consent or without it. We may find at the end of the day that we feel considerably more empowered when we find the courage to ally ourselves with the force of change, rather than working against it.

Criticism of our profession by those who have little understanding of education is quite difficult to swallow sometimes. But we must never be cowed by it. My father once told me to never accept criticism from someone I would not trust to go to for advice. From the very outset of this crisis, schools have stepped forward to do the right thing for the students in their care and the communities they serve. We can be the commanders of our own destiny if we want it. We need to do what Fullen asserts – to ‘build back better’.  Who is ready for that?