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Principal’s Round-up

Principal’s Round-up – 6th March 2020

Posted: 10 March 2020

This week I have been completing the teaching and learning reviews with other members of the senior team. We have much to celebrate from the work we have seen. The concept of performance being linked to teams rather than individuals is accelerating the level of collaborative responsibility and support. Much progress has been made with extended writing where ideas are developed and refined, and teachers are generally really getting to grips with making memory constructs explicit. The best faculties are operating a peer coaching model where staff exhibit weaker practices, these are being identified more readily and colleagues are taking the lead in professional development. The main push to improve engagement, participation and the rate at which students learn will now come from paying more attention at developing independence in carefully crafted pedagogical practices.

There has been some debate recently in school, but also in wider society about the ‘value’ of certain subjects compared to others. This is an interesting debate, but not one that I tend to engage in, especially as the root of many traditionally defined subjects in the curriculum is similar. All knowledge has its worth and place at the table. If we had to divide subjects at all, I suppose we could align the body of knowledge that defines a subject as a starting point. Some are built upon an ontology suggesting there are absolutes and determining behaviours (physical science, mathematics, geography, history for example) and there are those which explore the introspective world of thoughts and feelings which are therefore self determining (philosophy, ethics, creative subjects for example). But nothing is black and white, as studies in literature and music would span both worlds. We could end up disagreeing over all of them if we had the time. Frost’s poem, Fire and Ice which famously depicts alternative ends of the world is probably true on both counts, it just depends on how you look at it. Shouldn’t we open our minds to both ways of thinking to avoid unconscious bias in our planning?

And much if this is the same when we talk about another hotly debated topic in education, that of consistency. What should we be consistent about and when should be inconsistent? It’s a difficult question to answer when you get under the skin of it. Often in schools we are required to be consistent about what can be easily measured. This, of course, allows apparatchiks working from afar to easily make comparisons and hang some of us out to dry. Throughout my career, I have worked with many school leaders who espouse a need for consistency across a school – be it around homework, behaviour or teaching – as if having a lack thereof means doing a disservice to our students. Of course, consistency is not all bad: there has to be a strong degree of uniformity to maintain boundaries at a school. However, the endeavour to get everyone teaching in the same way risks crippling two of the most important traits of any good teacher: their personality and their ability to build relationships. Obviously, we would never advocate name-calling as a punishment for not completing homework, but the history teacher who called me an “oaf” was the same teacher who once showed my timeline to the whole class as an example of excellent work. Had he robotically given me a merit point instead of this, I think I would have laughed. It wasn’t in his nature to smile and give lots of merit points, and he didn’t need to. He achieved objectives in his own way. The genuine way he praised my work still resonates with me.

If there is any kind of consistency for which a school should advocate, it should be for the consistency of an individual teacher rather than consistency between teachers. My English teacher gave everyone a second chance for homework and my geography teacher never chased anyone’s homework. We knew what to expect and we were treated equally: another trait of a strong teacher.

Whether this focus on consistency is motivated by the irrational need to micro-manage staff, or the misguided belief that students will somehow benefit from all teachers doing their job in the same way, my experiences both as a pupil and as a teacher indicate that teachers need the freedom to be individuals.

When my maths teacher wanted us to be quiet, he’d scratch his fingernails against the blackboard. My art teacher was notorious for giving detentions for the slightest whisper, and my chemistry teacher taught us ionic bonding with nothing but a cup of coffee in her left hand and a board marker in her right. Had these teachers all been completely consistent with one another, I don’t think I’d still remember them.

Let’s not deny our pupils the cognitive and social benefits they will likely receive by interacting with various adult personalities, all of which are genuine. We owe it to young people to be inconsistent.

Principal’s Round-up – 14th February 2020

Posted: 14 February 2020

As we move through the academic year it is important to pause amongst the busy nature of the day and consider how far we have come since September. It is the time in the term when middle leaders should be reflecting on their improvement plans. In all things we are looking for progress rather than perfection. But progress nonetheless. To assist with this, we began the second teaching and learning review this week. Priorities for this year are to reduce underachievement for boys and for students with SEND, to keep challenge and expectations high for all students, to maintain the ‘bottom line’ strategies, particularly in under-performing subjects, that have accelerated previous cohorts. Strategies we introduced to enhance the ‘bottom line’ have been used widely but are not yet consistently applied. These include retrieval starters and spaced learning. How effectively these strategies are being used will form part of the review. We must ensure with the highest level of challenge for all students in end point tasks and ensure learning is adapted to meet the different needs of our students. We do this through effective scaffolding techniques, and we capture their effectiveness in class plans. These will be examined in the reviews in the lesson visits. Early indications are showing that where teachers are experimenting and developing ideas in the frameworks provided, students’ engagement and focus in lessons is improving. However, there are some lessons where older and outdated strategies have not yet been abandoned. What we are working on is rooted in research, and known to make a difference. We are not the kind of school, nor will we ever be that grabs ‘low hanging fruit’ as ideas for improvement just because someone says it works.

Of course, the DfE supports the notion of an evidence informed profession. For us, this is most welcome. Often schools spend precious time having solutions to problems presented in CPD time from external ‘experts’ and yet more hours working out these ideas only to find that the strategies did not lead to outcomes they wanted. This still happens despite the plethora of research pieces at our fingertips. Fiona Anbury-Smith suggests that it is all about our cognitive bias: what is going on inside our own heads affecting how we look at the world. I’ve included a list in the first article which is adapted from Hattie and Hamilton (2019) which explains the main types of bias we have. Consider the example of anecdotal fallacy. This is the tendency to take anecdotal information from some ‘high performing’ school at face value and give it the same status as more rigorously researched ideas when making judgements about effectiveness. That is, if it is working in one school, LA, MAT we must do it as we do not want to be left out. This behaviour misses the important step of examining exactly why it is a strategy that is working elsewhere. Context matters, and so does research and adaptive practice. Copying, and trying to shoe-horn strategies from an alternative theoretical perspective, certainly does not. Taking evidence-based ideas and personalising them (like the new action research team are doing with memory strategies) is the best approach. I would encourage you to read the article that follows on cognitive bias and discuss it.

The proposed new curriculum model to help us provide a KS3 curriculum that is not narrowed, has been approved by our Academy Committee. The model we will be adopting gives a little more time to EBacc subjects and the Creative Arts into Y9, but still allows students to begin their 4 options. There is also still full compliance with the compulsory elements of the National Curriculum with all students participating in Physical Education, Religious Studies and PSHE over their time a school. The model will be explained and questions answered in the staff meeting on 2nd March.

Work this half term has been focussed and purposeful, and we now all deserve a break. I hope you all have a restful half term, and I look forward to picking up the reins again after the holiday.


Principal’s Round-up – 31st January 2020

Posted: 31 January 2020

After my mother died (some 14 years ago) I found a poem in her personal possessions that she had cut from a newspaper. It was about the joy of having a daughter and the difference it makes to a mother’s life. It was very moving and rather poignant. There were so many unsaid words. She had never read that to me or even shared it. We weren’t, after all, a demonstrative family. We had to imagine affection, never discussed our feelings, and certainly under achievement wasn’t an option. But we knew we were loved. Actions speak louder than words and we focused a lot on our common interests and attributes, much less on our differences and needs. These were considered selfish, and serving society was preferable to seeking self-centred goals. Both of my parents were excellent role models and afforded me a very positive and resilient outlook on life. But then my parents and grandparents lived through the second world war. They saw the destruction of Plymouth and both my parents, who were children at the time, spent years away from their families whilst evacuated to Cornwall. They believed all the propaganda that was easy to espouse given the circumstances, and never questioned the wisdom of the politicians that told them the stories of the time. I really hope we have moved forward from this kind of unquestioning conditioning. Feeling things but not speaking is not always the best way.
It is now 75 years since the liberations of remaining death and extermination camps that were set up in Nazi occupied regions of Europe, and we are all reminded again of the dangers of persuasive propaganda. I watched a harrowing programme about the survivors from BergenBelsen describing the unimaginable traumas they suffered and subhuman conditions they were forced to live in. How could these death camps have ever been supported or controlled? German people in the early 20th Century were not bad people. Why did the Nazi party rise to power and win landslide victories in political elections? We know that in fact many Germans joined the Nazi party not because they hated Jews, but out of a hope for restored patriotism, a sense of economic anxiety from forced austerity, and a wish to preserve their religious values. Some joined for raw political opportunism or even ignorance. As we move through difficult political and economic times in this country and imagine what our new ‘freedoms’ will be from today, we must learn the lessons from history. We must never stop teaching the events of the holocaust to our children, despite objections from some people. I am still haunted by the famous statement explaining that the holocaust did not start with the gas chambers. Rather, it started with politicians dividing people into ‘us and them’. It started with intolerance and hate speech and the cessation of the ability to care.
With the presidential-styled system of leadership we seem to be attracted to, comes the acceptance of ‘fake news’ and the encouragement of prejudice and bigotry. There is a risk of the worst kind of disrespect and enforced discrimination rising in the minds of young people. Hatred (and therefore fear) is still alive in some communities and it is up to us, along with the next generation to stamp it out. We cannot allow the views and behaviour of a few individuals in our town and school to determine the conditions for others. There is hope that this will not happen while we continue to pay attention to developing tolerance in our curriculum and while we have young people like our youth parliament candidates and others who know it’s not all about them but the change they make in the world.
It was the highlight of the school year last week with the much anticipated Sports Personality of the Year awards evening. Shaun has written a full report of the event, but I was delighted to see so many young people rewarded for the tireless effort they make to improve their sporting performance. It was not just about the winners, but a chance to hear stories of success and I was amazed by the breadth of participation in so many different sporting areas. The overall winner, Jenny Green, gave a fabulous speech and won this, not because she herself is a high achieving sportsperson, but because of the impact she has made on others including the work she has undertaken with Y11 to re-engage them and help them succeed. Well done to everyone who made the event so special, and of course to everyone who turned up to celebrate with us.
It is the time of year when the PPEs are upon us again. Y11 and Y13 are turning their attention now to their exams and the revision sessions all HoFs are leading.
We must all continue to work hard to meet the objectives in the Academy Improvement Plan. We certainly will not achieve them by simply wishing for it. To support this onward development, I will be undertaking the second teaching and learning review starting in the week beginning 10th February. As ever, the focus is on learning over time rather than individual lesson observations. We leave these to the appraisal process as this is where individual improvements are made. The teaching and learning review process is not designed to ‘see learning happening’ as we all know that this is impossible. Learning is invisible and individual. However, I will be looking at adjustments made for students in class plans and how they are realised, and I will be examining the intent in curriculum planning being implemented through the agreed strategies. Having a tick-list of expectations will never be good enough here. It is about the impact of intentions and the quality of the teaching, not a reductionist list of tasks. The framework is in place, but it is up to you to bring it alive. Success, ultimately, is about meeting the needs of your students and removing barriers that restrict their progress. It requires joint enterprise; holding each other to account for quality not colluding with under-performance in someone who has lower standards. Simply, if you do not care about the progress in someone else’s class as well as your own, we have no hope of improving together. Genuine improvement requires hard work and determination with a ‘can do’ attitude every day. I am looking forward to seeing the improvements made by HoFs since the last review in late October.
Have a lovely weekend