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Principal’s Round-up

Principal’s Round-up – 17th January 2020

Posted: 20 January 2020

After 32 years in education I still get surprised, delighted, disappointed and confused

in close succession most days by the myriad of different experiences that are thrown at us. However, not a day goes by at Tavistock College where we don’t laugh and chat together, or look to each other for help. That is the joy of working in schools, particularly this one. There is simply no other environment like it. When we come together like we did on the training day on 6th January, we were learning collectively in a great act of solidarity. It is vital we share these experiences, not just so that we can continue to reflect upon and deepen our understanding of what is required of us, but because private ownership of knowledge is isolating and encourages over specialisation and secrecy. We don’t subscribe to working in secret or by segregating people. This works against our values – most importantly the values of openness and honesty. It is also cowardly. Instead we will be open and support each other.

In this framework, multi-disciplinary knowledge matters. It is essential so that we can understand each other’s point of view. It is simply wrong to just follow the crowd by accumulating and promoting ideas from other schools and planting them here. Ted Wragg talked about this in the 1980s and I still subscribe to that perspective today. He suggested that it is less than helpful to collect petals from lots of flowers and try to stick them together and call it effective. So it is in education. Our own context and expertise must be recognised. Anyone who does not understand this and tries to force us into a narrow specialist curriculum or approach is quite simply wrong. It mitigates against our values of self-help, self-responsibility and equality. We will find our own path together, and it will be a good one.

When I spoke on the training day on the 6th, I explained that it was going to be a challenging term. Learning from each other will continue to be critical. It is both easy and useful (for some) to blame schools for all of society’s ills. Obesity, drug abuse, social media, radicalisation, and knife crime to name just a few. Ed Darrell, writing in TES explains that because everyone has been through schooling, the average adult tends to assume that the failings they faced in the classroom in 1985 are what their children are experiencing in 2020. It has been a deliberate policy to make the public sector, especially schools, a convenient political football. But there is a mood that the profession now has the opportunity to take some kind of ownership and change the narrative. As the teachers supply is dwindling, those left can shape the future. External change cannot start though without internal improvement so lets grasp that and look forward to what we can do for ourselves. To quote Dowell “ be brave, be nice, and reject work that does not improve the lot of your students and their outcomes”.

Our pressures rest on three things this term. Firstly, we need to prepare to show to ofsted our strengths and demonstrate that our areas for development are improving rapidly. Secondly, we need to improve outcomes as Y11 are not yet making the progress expected, and, thirdly, we have to do this on a shoe string. We will achieve all of this not through ‘mock-sted’ approaches but by peer coaching where it is needed and by ‘sticking to the knitting’. This means continuing to work hard to meet school expectations whilst abandoning the things that do not add value. Stick to the work achieved through challenging EPTs, short marking and rigorous personalisation set in class plans. I see lots of attempts at challenge but the weakest is when extension tasks are used. This is, in essence unfair in intention. Extension work is based upon judgements and assumptions about the capabilities of students, and is often biased towards poor behaviour. And students always live up to expectations when they are low! Extension work is great for self-regulated and motivated students. It is disastrous for those who are not. They see it as extra work, and it also has the power to lower the self-esteem of the demotivated. Much better is to teach to the top. Expectations are never then capped. Teachers should have the highest expectations and provide scaffolds to allow students to achieve these.

So, simply, always cater explicitly for HPAs and foster the ethos of high standards and aspiration.

To achieve what I am suggesting will not be easy. But then you are not walking this path alone. We have invested in coaching programmes and coaching expertise to help. I will always look at the impact of approaches, not determine for you how things may be done. Unanimity is not the same as collective responsibility. Similarly participation is no substitute for democratic control. I was pleased to read the vast majority of the MAT voice surveys.  Staff, parents and student feedback was very positive on the whole and improved even from last years.

I look forward to an annual highlight, the Sports Personality of the Year event next week. There are some amazing success stories to share.

Have a restful weekend.

Principal’s Round-up – 20th December 2019

Posted: 20 December 2019

It was Franklin D Roosevelt in 1933 who coined the phrase ‘’the first 100 days’’. Lucy Winkett suggests that politics in this country has taken on this American benchmark as a useful way to discuss the impact of an elected government. If this is to be the case, this is week 1. In our divided society we do not seem to want to wait much longer to judge impact – we have, after all, seen 3 general elections in 5 years. But for now we will move from campaigning to governing. All parties put social justice, if not education directly, at the heart of their campaigns. Now is the time when we will see what comes to fruition.

Basil Bernstein (1970) asserted that “education cannot compensate for society”. Recently I read with dismay about the increasing gap that exists between the wealthiest and poorest in our society. It now exceeds the US, which takes some doing. The richest earn 130 times more than the poorest. In Scandinavia it averages 29 times. Education cannot be held Principal’s round up Research Special responsible for this or be accountable for a solution. However, before we get too downhearted we must remember that government is not an end in itself. Governing is only a means to an end- the end goal requires us to define of the kind of society, community or school we want to have. Just as influential as the hard wiring of any system and policy are the less tangible expressions of who we are, the stories we use to guide us and the faith we have in our founding values and beliefs.

We can for example address inequalities by firming up ‘character.’ This means we can look beyond excuses, and seek solutions. We might be working in an unsupportive and non-socially aware political framework, but we are still free thinkers. Free to behave ethically and in the common good. Part of that requires us to be hopeful and reject despondency. We should not generalise, rather we should pay attention to research to guide us to believe that we still have the liberty to try to achieve well. I have included many research summaries in this week’s Fortnightly Focus. This is to stimulate thought on our freedoms to guide us to understand how self-determining we can really be in challenging times. Andreas Schleicher (Director for Education and Skills at OECD) suggests that one of the reasons we get stuck in educational thinking in the UK is because our thinking is framed by so many myths unsupported by research. Some of these are:
1. The poor will always do less well at school. That is not true. The 10% most disadvantaged 15 year olds in Shanghai performed better on the PISA maths test than the 10% wealthiest American students.
2. Smaller classes mean better results. That is not true. In fact whenever high performing education systems have to make a choice between a small class or better teaching, they go for the latter. Singapore has a staff-student ratio of 12:1 which is more favourable than in the UK. But Singapore has much larger exam classes (of 35-36) than the UK. Teachers in the UK have little time for anything other than teaching whist the larger class sizes in Singapore allows teachers to spend more time with their colleagues to co-plan and to observe each other.
3. More time spent learning always means better results. That is not true. Study hours in Finland are little more than half what students in UAE spend, but in Finland students learn a lot in little time while in UAE they learn very little in a lot of time.
4. The EBACC subjects are the subjects that will restore education to the standard of the past. This is not true. We do not live in the past. Creative subjects are the key to enabling success in all workplaces. By 2025 it is anticipated that 40% of jobs will be in the creative industries.

While we debate the merits of the en vogue curriculum models favoured by Ofsted, I would like to suggest that it is creativity that must be nurtured at all costs. The world around us is rapidly being directed by algorithms. Humans have the ability to build cars that can make their own decisions, apps that can simulate human emotions, programmes that can synthesise diagnoses to replace GPs and robots that can make their own decisions to kill during warfare. The industrial revolution replaced human brawn; the technological revolution is replacing brain. But it has yet to reach or replace human imagination and creativity. Young people are growing up in a world and in an education system that isolates them. Social media has a lot to answer for. It promotes everyone’s ‘perfect’ life and is destructive to young people’s mental health. The Arts are the antidote. Through the Arts, there is no failure, only iterative steps to success. The Arts promote team work, eye contact, good body language, confidence, laughter and an undeniable sense of what it takes to be human.

We saw evidence in this point at the wonderful Merrymistinselsantasticmas show and Carol concert, where we were joined by members of the community who really care about this school. Fantastic examples of solidarity, co-construction and cooperative approaches to creating something new were fostered by those who took part.

But the kind of resilience required to achieve what I have described does not come from rigour and enforced compliance. Successful organisations never follow like sheep. If full obedience

is required, there will always be those of us who will rebel. To go our own way we will also require enhanced links with the community to help us carry the burden, and it will require even more effort and hours of work. We must never stand still and be happy with where we are. Instead we should remain ambitious, industrious and reflective. The secret to excellence is knowing when things are going wrong and taking personal responsibility to rectify them.

Some will be relieved and energised after the election result last Thursday, others will be hurt and afraid. But we must remember we are not just citizens in a democracy or consumers in the market place, we are thoughtful creatures capable of remarkable creativity. The power to overcome adversity and turn it into a positive experience is what we will strive for. Notwithstanding whether or not we feel we won or lost last week, the next 100 days will be days of reckoning, and we will play our part. Thank you for your hard work this year. I sincerely hope you have a restful and relaxing holiday. You have earned it.

Principal’s Round-up – 22nd November 2019

Posted: 22 November 2019

I greatly enjoyed the Tavistock Street Pastors’ 10th anniversary event on Monday evening this week. It was inspirational to hear stories of their work, and I was moved by their humility and graciousness during the celebration. I was able to thank the School Pastors (and Prayer Pastors) on your behalf for the wonderful work that they do in school. The School Pastors, led by Roger Bird, have always been there for us at times of trouble. It seems that they appear in the right place at exactly the right time. Students value their patience, their kindness and non-judgemental approach in the support that is given when they are in difficulty. I have always felt that there are at least four pastors in school on the day they visit, and I am always surprised when there are only two! Such is their influence. The pastors have spent a great deal of time in school, providing guidance, when we have needed them. They were the first through the door when we lost Abi Smith, Ashley Tossell and Hannah Bragg. They listened, were empathetic and helped us cope. For that, I will always be grateful.

The School Pastors are just a few of the volunteers we rely upon to keep us successful. We are supported by many community groups, each with their own passion, to help us shape young lives. Most recently we have been visited by local councillors as part of Political Speed Dating, local business people as part of Careers Speed Dating and we are now seeking support to keep our library alive by recruiting a volunteer librarian. I know that this will be a successful project because of the kind of town Tavistock is. It is not right that funding in education should be so reduced that we have to rely so blatantly on the voluntary sector, but we are lucky to be part of such a committed community.

Last week, I attended two days training for school leaders in Bristol. The days were both very intensive and I have plenty of homework to complete over the next few weeks. Whilst driving home, I found myself reflecting upon the event, and how much has been afforded to us as a school since we became part of the Dartmoor Multi-Academy Trust. It is easy in all professional relationships to focus upon and remember incidences that we are dissatisfied with. This is normal. In the DMAT, however, we have a tangible voice to effect change. This is real, not nuanced. It is certainly not typical of the other MATs and federations that I worked with on Thursday and Friday. We are lucky to be led by a strong CEO and board of Trustees who make decisions based on ethical values where the interests of staff and students are considered to be of paramount importance. In our MAT we have great agency to solve our own problems. We are given encouragement to do so. We have agency to make mistakes, and to be picked up and supported by our peer colleagues. Networks are strong, and CPD is at the centre of our work. Whilst funds are limited across our family of schools we have received financial backing for middle leader training from a local NLE; we have emerging subject networks; we have access to expert health and safety, financial and safeguarding guidance; we have full backing for our ambitious plans to partially rebuild the school site. It is reassuring to be standing side by side with like-minded colleagues whilst fighting that particular battle. In short, to work in an ethical organisation that pays attention to the needs of its staff, parents and students is a privilege these days. We have ethical leadership espousing a clear vision. We should be proud to be part of this organisation.

Notwithstanding all I have said above, sometimes the pressure upon us still feels relentless. It just keeps coming at us in waves. In fact, for most people working in education life is quite exhausting. The morbid obesity of change thrown at schools in the shape of a changing Ofsted framework, examination expectations and key performance indicators can weigh us down. I’ve started to dream in statistics and marinate my waking moments in data and policy writing! In this world we need to work hard at positive thinking, and not give into ideas and conversations that are mood hoovers. We must not become people who see problems in every suggestion of a solution. Therein lies the path to negativity. Focus on how you feel on days when you think you can take on the world. Think about all the good feelings you have on those days. Energy, positivity and passion. Could this become a habit? We all have bad days, and we need to learn to notice those in others, learn how to best help ourselves and pick up others after a knock . That’s what makes life what it is – fun exciting and challenging. However tempting, try not to count the days to the holidays. You never really know how many days you have. Enjoy them all.

Have a restful weekend