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Principal’s Round-up

Principal’s Round-up – 20th April 2018

Posted: 20 April 2018

As we start a new term we know that new stresses and pressures lie ahead. The plethora of DfE announcements that must be read and digested in the holiday (I’m sure they do this on purpose!) ready for implementation post haste, along with the regular day to day difficulties, can sometimes cloud our view of the joy of teaching. It is at these times we need to pull together. We must pull in the same direction, not against each other. We must be ready to debate ideas and then make compromises in order to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number. This may be a little totalitarian for some, but it is a philosophy that works well in times of austerity. At Tavistock College, pulling together is what we are good at. I was able to bask in the pride of having our school recognised by two separate visitors already this week as a wonderful and joyful place to be. And the feedback from the SKRUM organisers and the Sports Tour Leaders about our students has been superb. That’s just one week.

Sometimes people say there is too much change. Change is inevitable in a reflective school. We will never run out of things to improve! This term we have the new GDPR to prepare for that will inevitably lead to changes in day to day work. However, we are well on track with early implementation. We have started to improve CPD again through a re-imagined approach introduced by James Stroud at our staff meeting this week. The outcome from the collective discussions will be fed into the staff development plan for 2018-9. This will allow for more structured whole school development while still allow for a degree of ownership and creativity.

The final push for Y11 and Y13 has begun following the second PPE exam series. Barry has been anxious to get on with the data analysis. Whilst the data absolutely matters, a conversation with a colleague this week made me reflect upon the foolishness of causal links that seem to be made in education between data sets to explain underperformance. The ‘truth’ of the failing school descriptor changes like the wind. It was only a few years ago people were losing their jobs over 5A*-C metric disasters and now this is obsolete and ‘old hat’. No-one is interested in this anymore. Progress measures (with scant regard for their foundations) reign. The colleague I was speaking to said ‘But, if we don’t measure things, how on Earth can we ever know if we are successful?’

I found myself reflecting then on the time I spent in Finland in 2007. I was part of a group from SW England who were sponsored by the SSAT to go and investigate why Finland’s schools were so successful. Finish Education is highly regarded in the world largely because of their sustained position in the international PISA league table. Some of the reasons for the tiny Nordic nation’s staggering record of educational success, a phenomenon that has inspired, baffled and even irked many of England’s parents and educators, I explore below. What our study party found was not what we were sent to find. Our report was never published. We did not discover easily portable and stunning methods of assessment, or fundamentally different pedagogical strategies. What we found is this.

1. In Finland the Government works on a collective. In terms of outcomes, they work on the SYSTEM not a small unit of aggregation, the SCHOOL, or even worse, the STUDENT. They look at National data over the years to see an improving picture. There are no school league tables.
2. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators.
3. There are no mandated standardised tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Not until sixteen will students have the option to sit for a district-wide exam to be used for comparative purposes, and then only if the classroom teacher agrees to participate. Most do, out of curiosity. Results are not publicised.
4. Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than UK teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build the curriculum and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter.
5. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. Finns say they are not in a hurry. They believe children learn better when they are ready and are well socialised.
6. It’s almost unheard of for a child to show up hungry or homeless. Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidised day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socialising. In addition, the state subsidises parents, paying them around 220 euros per month for every child until 17.
7. Many schools are small enough so that teachers know every student. If one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else. They seem to relish the challenges. Nearly 30 % of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school.
8. Sifting and sorting children into so-called ability groupings was eliminated in the 1990s. All children—clever or less so—are taught in the same classrooms, with lots of special teacher help available to make sure no child really is left behind.
9. A mid-sized school receives 47,000 euros a year in positive discrimination money to hire aides and special education teachers, who are paid slightly higher salaries than classroom teachers because of their required sixth year of university training and the demands of their jobs.
10. The inspectorate (Ofsted equivalent) closed its doors in the early 1990s, turning accountability and inspection over to teachers and principals. Teachers are trusted to have their our own motivation to succeed. It is a fundamental belief that their incentives come from within.

In the UK, which has muddled along in the middle to bottom of the PISA tables for the past two decades, government officials of all political colours have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into schools. In recent years, they have drawn from behind private-sector ideas, produced a data-driven curriculum, school by school competition, and other methods to measure teachers and schools. This philosophy that would not fly in Finland. If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect. In Finland they believe they know much more about the children than tests can tell them. Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. Equality must matter here too. Regardless of the political climate, we will continue to offer the most suitable curriculum to students, not narrow it in order to hit a target. We will continue to put effort into relationship and the human element of education, such as engaging in programmes like HumanUtopia and building on student voice and our Houses that provide a sense of belonging. We will continue to invest in Quality First Teaching and not make excuses or blame children for the way they are. We will continue to invest in co-operative teaching and professional development.

Finally, there are leafleting events, marches and stands appearing in cities and towns up and down the country this weekend in order to challenge school cuts. I hope to see many of you in Tavistock on Saturday helping to spread this message. It’s a 10.30 start in Bedford Square.

Have a lovely weekend.

Principal’s Round-up – 23rd March 2018

Posted: 23 March 2018

Ever felt like a fraud at work? As if at any moment, everyone else is going to realise that you’ve bluffed your way to your current position? This phenomenon is known as the impostor syndrome, and even those who are at the top of their professional game feel it. Emma Watson recently admitted that she’s uncomfortable receiving praise because she feels like an impostor. I was reminded about this when I was speaking to a friend recently. Despite her amazing success in the medical world, she focusses largely on the small issues that really drag her self-esteem down dramatically. This is also how some of our Y11 students are feeling as they progress through their PPEs for the second time this year. And if we do not recognise the potential damaging effect it might be having, we run the risk of underachievement.

Research into impostor syndrome shows that it is characterised by feelings of anxiety – thinking that you are not as talented as others believe, that your success is down to luck and that one day soon your lack of ability is going to be exposed in front of everyone. We don’t know exactly what causes it, but the pressures of perfectionism, ever increasing social comparisons and a fear of failure all contribute. Having run workshops in many schools, we have seen that these worries are experienced by students up and down the country. A survey found that female students are far less likely to describe themselves as “brave” compared to their male peers, with another survey finding that girls and young women feel less confident about entering the workplace. Although it is arguably more prominent in women and girls, it is worth noting that recent research does suggest that this mindset is found in both genders. So how can we help our students overcome impostor syndrome and realise their potential?

Attribute successes to internal factors
How someone explains their successes can impact on how they will think, feel and behave in the future. Psychologists call this our explanatory style. For example, a student who attributes a good exam grade to external factors, such as “it was an easy exam” or “I got lucky”, is unlikely to take much confidence from the result (as it is detached from them).Whereas if we can encourage students to attribute some of their success to internal factors, such as “I revised lots” and “I reacted calmly after the first difficult question”, then they will feel a greater sense of control and certainty when faced with similar situations in the future.

Discourage comparisons with others
Research suggests that the environment that teachers create can significantly impact on whether a student views an exam as an opportunity to see how much they have learned or as an opportunity to compare and contrast themselves with their peers. When it comes to motivation, the former is more stable and the latter far more stressful. As Olympic legend Sir Steve Redgrave once said: “Not everyone can be an Olympic gold medallist, not everyone can be the best in their field. It’s all about personal bests. I admire people that can push themselves and drive themselves to get the highest level they can possibly be.”

Remind them they are a work in progress
If students know that they are a work in progress and not the finished product, it reduces some of the pressures associated with impostor syndrome. We know that the teenage brain works differently to adults. In their adolescent years, the brain goes through a range of changes. One of these is called synaptic pruning, which describes how brain cells form, connect and strengthen during the teenage years, and partly explains why adolescents have a different view on risk, self-control and peer pressure (to name but a few). Because the brain is constantly changing and developing, mistakes and setbacks are simply part of the trial and error process that is inevitable at this stage of development. If students can accept this truth, then their setbacks are not seen as proof that they are an impostor, but rather that they are an on-going project. This will provide a more stable foundation to learn from.

Teach them to fail better
There is a concern among some that millennials have been wrapped in cotton wool, meaning they have less experience of failures. As a result, when they then experience disappointments, they have a narrower experience base to draw from on how to respond. There is growing evidence to suggest that if framed correctly, failure can help develop key psychological characteristics, such as motivation, resilience, empathy and metacognition. We do not necessarily want them to fail more, but it would be prudent to teach them how to fail better. Tips include seeking out and using feedback, reflecting on what they did well and what they would also do differently next time, as well as actively taking a step back so that they can see the bigger picture. Once equipped with the ability to fail better, it will be easier to overcome impostor syndrome.

Over the last fortnight failure has not been high on my observations round the college. We celebrated Science and Engineering week in a spectacular way starting with a fun evening for Y4 and 5 children organised by the Science Faculty, followed by special assemblies all week based on the theme of ‘fire and ice’. I wasn’t overly comfortable with the use of liquid nitrogen in the hall, but the least said about that the better! The students were certainly impressed. We also (despite the rain) had a visit from the Royal Navy who demonstrated their ‘race to the line’ rocket cars for Y7. The Year 12 Music students at Tavistock College organised a charity concert in aid of SKRUM. A large supportive audience watched, listened and joined in as students from year 7 through to 13 entertained with an eclectic mix of musical performances; from Year 11 Music GCSE examination compositions to solo covers of popular songs, from the college’s ever present Jazz Band and VOX showing off its new members to the final performance from the exiting Year 13s. The evening was sewn together with triple bill performances from the Year 12 organisers, compared by them and met with rapturous rounds of applause. The concert raise £150 for SKRUM which supports young people in Swaziland as they battle with the highest rates of the HIV/AIDS infection in the world. Our SKRUM Ambassadors are in London this week promoting the work and meeting key personnel.

Next week we look forward to the Easter service with Y10 and Y5 Catalyst students and reflect on a busy but productive term. Thank you as always for your exceptionally hard work in difficult financial circumstances. Without you all pulling together we would not be making the improvements we now see across the college in terms of quality teaching and learning and fantastic recruitment.

Have a lovely weekend

Principal’s Round-up – 9th March 2018

Posted: 9 March 2018

The snow caused excitement last week, with adverse weather forecasts and reduced transport causing us to close the college. This was a difficult decision to make, but one that ensured the health and safety of staff and students. However, the downside of this closure has meant that we have been playing catch-up this week with additional meetings (due to them being postponed), extra revision classes for Y11 and the additional Progress Evening on 19th March for Y11 which clashes somewhat with the planned evening football match in aid of SKRUM. Thank you to all of you who came into school on the closure days in order to help with other work that needed to be undertaken. As I look out the window now, the poor weather seems like a bad dream.

The pressure is really on for Y11 and Y13 now. Their attitude is superb, with revision classes being well attended in the evenings and additional work being undertaken. We need to continue to focus on underperforming micro-cohorts and ensure that their progress is maintained. Our attention must also be on learning in other year groups so that we do not overwhelm ourselves …and we won’t go far wrong by returning our efforts to the development of thinking skills.

Thinking skills are highly prized in all walks of life. Critical thinking and problem solving are the aspects of these skills that accelerate HPAs – a key area of development for us. So, which strategies are known to work? Steve Burnage suggests that, in school, we should pay attention to three important strands of thinking: problem solving (the ability to find solutions); reasoning (the ability to weigh up balanced arguments); and making decisions (the ability to act based on thinking).

To meet the critical thinking elements of each of the three areas above, Burnage posits that there are four key areas:
• Understanding perspectives: Consider this familiar image. Some will first see the vase, others will first see two faces. Whichever you see, you are correct; yet whichever you don’t see is also correct. Thinking critically is about being able to understand the different perspectives and to accept the validity of each.
• Evaluating evidence: Evidence is data on which we base our judgements. Gathering and evaluating evidence is an important feature of critical thinking. But, we sometimes make the mistake of asking students to evaluate something with little or no evidence, or, worse, based on emotion. In addition, learners need to be discouraged from dismissing evidence that conflicts with pre-existing views.
• Using non-routine problems: A routine problem can be solved using methods familiar to learners by repeating previously learned methods in a step by step fashion. Non-routine problems are those where there is no predictable, well-rehearsed approach.
• Looking for deep structure: This refers to ideas that go beyond specific examples. Surface structure refers to the particulars of an example meant to illustrate deep structure. For example, understanding how to structure a response to a specific exam questions in a subject is surface knowledge. Being able to take the main focus of the features that generally make up the structure of a good exam answer and apply this to all questions in all subjects evidences deep knowledge.

Critical thinking skills develop learners’ ability to learn more in all subjects. The best way to equip learners with such skills is to teach them explicitly as opposed to simply expecting them to develop while you are teaching another subject. Here are some ideas:
• Begin always with a question.
• Create a foundation or schema (see last Fortnight Focus).
• Use an academic peer group.
• Reconstruct text.
• Explore misconceptions in thinking (dialogic teaching or try Thinking Maps)
• Speak with a sketch.
• Use information fluency or literacy – develop a critical view of information sources.

Lots to think about! I have included the revised ‘Top Ten Tips’ for HPAs in this edition. Please use these in your class plans and in lessons to ensure we are consistent.

Finally, some staff have been discussing CPD and disaggregated time. Barbara has included this week the revised disaggregated time programme. We will use the staff voice meeting in April to co-construct the next year’s programme.

Have a lovely weekend