Dear Tristram

You seem like such a nice young chap that I’m sure you will be pleased that teachers are taking the time to let you know how they feel and suggest ways that you can excel in your job. Some of us hope you will be able to take notice of our suggestions in a Labour government at the next election.

Tristram, we are desperate and you can make a difference. As a historian, I am sure you will understand only too well the cause of our desperation – we are constantly under attack, besieged and invaded.

What is it about teachers that makes politicians want to meddle in our working lives, play with our conditions of service and denigrate pretty much everything we do? In recent weeks we have been labelled variously as “lazy” and “enemies of promise” by the person who is essentially the ultimate line manager – the Secretary of State (SoS). It’s hardly motivating but more than that, it’s simply not true. Why is teaching uniquely disparaged in this way? YOU can change this by using the language of encouragement and by giving credit where credit’s due.

And then there’s the military arm of the DfE – Ofsted. The bullies and boot boys sent at the behest of the SoS – despite denials to the contrary. Every week Sir Michael Wilshaw finds that we are failing in some way – first the black kids, then the poor kids, then the bright kids, then the not-so-bright kids. I’m not sure how we continue to function as a society when our teaching force seems, according to the Wilshaw world view, to fail just about every cohort. How do we fill the colleges and universities? Then there are the inspections, which are a con trick causing widespread anxiety and often misery. I have blogged separately about the two experiences I had of Ofsted last year – one as a teacher and one as a Governor (yes, I’m that lazy I give up my time to be a Governor at a primary school with which I have no personal connection)which had identical threads. In both cases, the schools were not allowed to be adjudged as anything better than good because of one small element of a whole raft of data. This seems to me to beg the question “What are they doing in schools?” If nothing they see or hear at the school can change their judgement then what is the point? And please don’t think I’m against being accountable. I’m not, but what I would like – and here is where YOU come in – is an honest process that doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t and which doesn’t viciously and deliberately look for fault – witness the fact that some schools had Ofsted inspections in the week we broke up for Christmas when we were all on our knees.

I’m not sure if politicians understand the notion of stability and how important that is in schools. They plainly don’t understand how much time, effort, thought and energy it takes to put together a curriculum, schemes of work, resources and lesson plans. If they did, they would surely not change the curriculum every five minutes. Lots of the changes are good and some overdue but schools can’t make changes in five minutes – well not if you want quality. Politicians plainly don’t understand how much effort we put into working out what is best for each of our pupils. If they did then they would not announce key changes AFTER the start of term and PART WAY THROUGH the course. This year we had rule changes on re-sits that threw our school into days of soul searching and discussion. In the end, we decided to do what we thought was best for the pupils and take the hit, if necessary. Well, guess what…all but four of our November entrants gained at least a C grade. Just think, if we said only the first attempt at the driving test counted we’d have fabulously uncrowded roads for those of who manage to pass first time. (Not me, I might but I’ve managed 31 years of trouble free driving.) YOU could behave in a more measured way considering the impact of your pronouncements on the people at the sharp end. Year in and year out teachers are working like the clappers to make the bloody unworkable workable!! It needs to stop.

Teacher licences … what is that I hear? The clunk of the barrel being scraped! We all have QTS which others have pointed out is, in effect, a licence. We are scrutinised constantly, through performance management, Ofsted, data, learning walks, book scrutinies, parents, governors. Exactly how much monitoring does one profession require? Have you thought about the bureaucracy you would create? Paperwork, files of evidence, and rafts of consultants making money hand over fist- shelled out by the tax-payer – visiting schools to do the granting of licences. And if this is such a fab idea why aren’t we having it for police officers, doctors, lawyers, barristers and fire-fighters? YOU could decide that this is a bit of a nightmare idea and come up with something better. For example that teaching is a degree and qualified profession and that all schools of all varieties must have a fully qualified workforce.

And that brings me to academies and free schools – enough already. Academies had the grain of a moral purpose when they started out – if you overlook the truly appalling PFI caper where public bodies like schools and hospitals are put in hock for donkey’s years because we’re afraid to put taxes up a bit. Academies were originally designed to be in areas of deprivation and to show their pupils what is possible and thus raise their aspirations. They were about ensuring our young people are educated in buildings that don’t leak or crumble on a daily basis. Of course, academies and now Free Schools – except they’re not-are actually about the privatisation of education. Selling our children’s futures to those with their own agenda – generally a faith one – lining the pockets of the sharks and the shrewd – many of them prominent Tory supporters and financers. YOU could put a stop to this and bring the schools back in to public “ownership” overseen by – let me think about this – local authorities!

YOU could decide not to mess with our conditions of service – longer days, fewer holidays to mention but two elements. Anyone who has been in a school for any length of time knows that in week six everyone is tired, focus is harder to maintain, tempers are frayed for both staff and pupils. Working days may seem short but when do politicians think the planning and marking gets done? And the various meetings? And the extra-curricula stuff. If the hours and holidays are so fantastic how come there hasn’t been a stampede to join the profession? Puzzling.

I have other ideas but that’s enough to be going on with. Except one last thing – perhaps it would be a good idea to talk to actual real teachers – a whole variety of them and not just ones in London. Venture to the North West, for example and see what teachers think, feel, need, want and have to offer. Aim to be SoS who isn’t autocratic, self-aggrandising and creating an education system based on your own experience but who wants to work in partnership with the profession.

What a relief that would be.

Things are getting better – aren’t they?

So, this jobs thing where loads of people now have jobs and the jobless total is down and we can all start cheering. Hurrah! ( posh cheer)

I offer a case study. This is Andrew’s story.

Andrew has had a tough few years. He has mainly worked in the hospitality industry and had a long term job in an Italian restaurant run by a character from Dickens who thought that good employment practice meant running your staff into the ground. Example: start for the lunch time shift at 10a.m. Clearing up, setting up and generally prepping. In theory this should finish by 2. Well, except for when clients walk in 5 minutes before close or linger over coffee for a couple of hours after close. So, finish for 3 with a 30 minute walk home and then get back again for 5 o’clock for the teatime/evening shift. Do that for 6 days a week for just above minimum wage.

A prospect presented itself in Glasgow but, in truth, there was no prospect. He returned home with empty pockets to a mum and step-dad who were willing to help. Andrew’s plan was to take copies of his CV round the town. His mum’s plan was anything but that. The humiliation was more than she could bear for him.

Over time, Andrew had some temporary work and spent time improving himself. He re-took his GCSE English and got a B grade, got level 2 numeracy – 1 mark off a C in the GCSE. He went to college part time and gained a level 3 qualification in supporting teaching and learning. He also took work as what he called a dinner Lady-man in a local school. It was only an hour and a quarter a day but it was a little bit of money earned. The school also let him work as a classroom volunteer to gain experience – he’s still doing it. He got a suit (courtesy of mum) for interviews but despite many applications, interviews were thin on the ground.

While he was at college and working as a volunteer and a dinner Lady-man he claimed Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) which, because of the deduction for his dinner time work amounted to £40 per week. Andrew is lucky because his family looks after him so the state has no other cost – like housing benefit -where Andrew is concerned. For this he suffered what can only be described as a campaign of harassment. At a moment’s notice he would be pulled away to attend something or other at the behest of the Job Centre. It mattered not that he had a commitment – albeit a small one – of an hour and a quarter a day. On occasion he was pulled away to attend a two day training – losing 2 days dinner time work and potentially aggravating the school. He turned up but the trainers didn’t because it was snowing. It would be re-arranged he was told. That was two years ago and he’s still waiting.

Then there was the matter of the missing form. One day, Andrew received a letter telling him that his JSA had been stopped four days previously. He made immediate enquiries. It seems he had not returned a form that had been sent to him. He explained he had received no form so they said they would send another but ti would be second class post and it might take ten days. He waited. No form. He discovered that you can’t get the form at the Job Centre and his mum discovered that you can’t get one online – must be the only government form you can’t get online! Eventually he phoned again – same old story. Still no form arrived. By now, three forms have, apparently, been lost in the post. Andrew’s mum is rather surprised – they’ve never lost post on such an unprecedented scale. No wonder she hasn’t heard from the lottery – the letter has obviously been lost in the post and she is, in fact, a millionaire!

Wearily, he phoned again and explained. No problem said the lady – turns out she can do the form over the phone with him. Then, it was stopped again from before the date of the letter he received. The reason this time was a misunderstanding about signing on while the JSA was stopped – and this despite him spending the best part of a day in the job centre trying to sort this out.
Andrew got a job. It was a crap job, but it was a job and he allowed himself to do a bit of planning. Unfortunately, Andrew got a very serious infection which meant he could not work temporarily as he would risk losing his leg! The job involved walking all day and he had cellulitis. He tried but his brother had to go and pick him up. The employer said he wasn’t reliable.

Andrew went back to being a Dinner Lady-man refused to sign up for JSA. He couldn’t face the perpetual bombardment. He got a couple of days a week work cash in hand and that with his dinner Lady-man work gives him just enough money to get by – because his mum is paying the bills. Neither of them like this but what can you do?

But soft! What is this? It turns out that Andrew is a success story. The unemployment figures are down because more people are getting jobs. Andrew isn’t on the jobless total. Erm…Andrew hasn’t got a proper job but he doesn’t appear on anybody’s figures. His mum’s friend has two sons in a similar position. That’s three in just one story.

So how many more are there like Andrew: living at home being supported, maybe doing a bit of work or a bit of cash in hand? How many are there on zero hours contracts and too disheartened or unable to sign on? How many are there who have just given up and live meagre lives with their families scratching a bit of cash here and there?

In fact, how many people who have disappeared off the employment figures are not, in fact, employed? And how many people who pay taxes to support those who are in need are also supporting /propping up a family member? Paying twice. It’s yet another great con trick.

Should I stay or should I go?

I’ve been quite exercised recently about the various discussions about the length and purpose of a teaching career, including the post from @secretteacher. This is not least because I am wrestling with a BIG decision – should I stay or should I go. Let us consider…

BBC 3’s “Tough Young Teachers” has thrown new entrants and their career paths into the spotlight. Now I didn’t know much about Teach First before this last week or so because it hasn’t really crossed my path. I’ve watched the first two episodes with great interest. Six weeks then chuck them in a classroom – actually, I think it’s cruel for both the young teachers and the kids. I don’t care how bright a young thing a body is or how bloody clever or how posh the school/university they attended, it’s like chucking Christians to lions!

There is promise – I reckon young Nick will make it despite his like tiresome use of the word “like”. He has presence in the classroom and seems to care about the kids. Claudenia might. Meryl – God help her. Here’s the thing, though, ultimately they’ll all be alright but probably not in teaching.

What I hadn’t realised about Teach First is that of you can hang out the two years and then want out, the organisation will organise interviews for you at top notch companies. I gleaned this from a colleague who, in a previous post, trained and mentored Teach First graduates one of whom told her she didn’t realise children like the ones in the school existed and she didn’t know how to talk to them. Of six TFers my colleague trained only two remain in teaching and one of them abroad.

This outrages me. Teaching shouldn’t be a stepping stone to a better, brighter more highly paid career somewhere else. Let me re-phrase that: our children should not be the stones that are stepped on to allow bright young things to gain entry to prestigious companies and jobs. Ever. Full stop.

At the other end of the scale, consider those forced out of the profession before they are ready- almost exclusively it seems older, more experienced teachers. There has been much mention of this on Twitter recently and it’s happened to a couple of my friends – one was deemed outstanding by The Forces of Darkness (Ofsted) for both her teaching and her responsibility as designated safeguarding officer. One, who had given outstanding service to her school over many years, was deliberately marginalised, and often ignored by the Head, as younger senior staff were appointed. What is that all about? Don’t we need a mix of young and older? Of old blood and new blood? Of wise old heads and bright young things? Of course we do. You can learn a lot of things in six weeks but no amount of fast tracking will give you that vital ingredient – experience.

An adjunct of this is the question of how long people should stay in teaching before they bail out for something else. Well how bizarre. Such a thought had never entered my mind – perhaps I’m just unimaginative. Would a person set off on their career path thinking, “I’ll do this teaching lark for a bit and then I’ll go and be a high court judge”? I can understand that many teachers will not want to remain in the profession forever: things change, life happens, it’s not for everyone, and some can’t cope. But it almost sounds as if teaching is something we jog along at until something better/more attractive comes along. ? I actually encountered someone once on a torture day, more usually called an interview, who planned to get a promotion for a couple of years and then go off to something more lucrative. I was livid.

How would this work in other professions? Would we expect – or be happy about – a highly trained and experienced doctor suddenly deciding to go and do something else? Do dentists and lawyers routinely just practise for a couple of years, fill their pockets and then go and re-train? In fact, why is there no equivalent of Teach First in any of these other professions?
Teaching, like these other professions, is not something to be taken lightly. Surely our young people deserve teachers who take the job seriously for the long term.

The other side of this coin is those who start off doing other things and then decide they want to enter teaching, invariably so they can make a difference. Sigh! I marvel at the ease with which they manage not only to make this transition but rise through the ranks. One example that springs to mind is working for Government to teaching assistant to teacher to deputy head in the space of something like 8 years. This is by no means unique – “I was in banking until five years ago and now I’m acting head” trilled one of the participants on my Masters course. Would that work the other way round “I’m a deputy head but I’d like to work for the Government” “I’m a teacher but I’d like to be a bank manager”? I suspect not.

And so to my BIG decision – how long I should stay in the profession. I’ve been wrestling with it for a while. You see, I really should be retiring (gulp!) but I can’t bring myself to go! I love my job. It’s a noble profession, a privilege and a joy. It’s not for the faint-hearted and it shouldn’t be for the chancers. I’ve seen and pitied those who count down the days to retirement – there I said the word! One colleague stood up on the first day of term – a training day – to display his T-shirt printed with the number of days he had to go until he retired at the end of the year!! But I don’t feel like that. I’m working with a great bunch of bright young middle leaders who work hard, bring fresh ideas and focused commitment and who value what my experience can add to the mix.

I love my teaching and I’m very successful at pushing my GCSE classes to be successful. My current Year 11 have all made a minimum of 3 levels of progress and all have Cs and above – one has an A*, several have As – achieved at the end of year 10. Of my last two C/D borderline groups, containing the bedraggled, the recently arrived and the disaffected, 80% attained C+ grades – best in the school. How can I chuck that all in?

I’m still interested. At the end of last term I attended a seminar given by David Didau on the perfect KS3 English Curriculum. My two colleagues and I are still discussing the ideas and how we can adapt them for our context. I’m all over Twitter bookmarking blogs with interesting ideas we can use as starting points. It fascinates me.

So what to do? Luckily, I’m healthy, full of energy and ideas, love my job and am successful. I thought about going this summer but somehow this seems a tad too soon.

Maybe next year.

Lives of Quiet Desperation

This is D’s story.

D had a troubled childhood being farmed out by her mother to various relatives until at age 7 she was retrieved by her mother who subsequently re-married. D was adopted by the new husband and her surname was changed to his – not that she had any say in it. D’s stepfather abused her. When she got to age 17 she told the police but did not stand up well to questioning and ended up sectioned. Nothing happened because stepdad denied it. D believes now that her mother might have known what was going on and is even more puzzled that her mother continues to live with husband.

Needless to say, D did not do well at school.

D met a man and lived with him for 12 years. She had two daughters with him. He was not nice to D and regularly beat her. One girl bears a scar from the hot pie her father threw at her when she was 18 months old. Finally, D ended up in a refuge with the girls and the man ended up in prison for twelve months.

In the refuge D made a friend who introduced her to a nice young man. He had a job; he was earning money. He was kind and calm. Best of all he was not violent. D was up front – she wasn’t using contraception. The nice man didn’t bother either and D soon fell pregnant. D thought life would be good. The nice man would move in, the baby would be born, they would manage.

The nice young man was unprepared for two little girls who had witnessed and experienced violence so he didn’t move in. He kept a separate place to escape to. The baby arrived – a boy. They developed a life that worked for them and were reasonably happy.

D’s girls were difficult especially the youngest one but gradually things improved. Then they got worse. Daughter one went to college but then got pregnant. D has a two bedroomed house with her two girls, the toddler boy and now the new baby girl. The nice man found it even harder to cope.

Life continued although the nice man lost not one but two jobs. They managed but the relationship was under increasing strain. Daughter number two suddenly decided to live with a relative. D thought she would be back. She wasn’t. She threatened to report her mum to the social if she didn’t stop claiming benefit for her so the relative could have it. This upset D – not the money but the betrayal.

D lost benefit. Then daughter two became pregnant with a little boy who will be born soon with no arms and maybe something wrong with his feet. D has tried to support her but the daughter is prickly and headstrong. She has rejected D. D is worried.

D came under pressure from the powers that be to be ready for work when the little boy went to school. So she went to college to improve her qualifications. When the little boy reached five he went to school. He is very good – above average – at maths and quite good – average – for English and literacy. D got a job for sixteen hours a day. She delivered leaflets which involved early starts and, sometimes late finishes. She was not paid for all travelling time and had to walk all day up drives and down drives no matter the weather or the number of vicious dogs. D is someone’s success story – another one off the books.

D would like a better job but she knows no-one will employ her because she doesn’t have many skills or qualifications. So she feels defeated and her confidence is rock bottom.

Life jogged on and then D found herself in rent arrears. When the baby girl was born, the housing people put her down as a dependent of D…but she wasn’t. The baby girl was her granddaughter and D told them this from the very beginning. Still, they’d made a wrong calculation but D had to pay the money back. D appealed. No, it was the housing’s fault but D had to pay.

D had a catalogue so she could buy things and she managed this. But then came the nice man’s lost job; daughter two’s departure, repaying the rent arrears in addition to her contribution to the rent – £38.50 a week – plus council tax – £79 a month. Plus, the little boy was not eligible for free meals because his mum worked for 16 hours a week – £14 a week for dinners and £25 for a term’s worth of milk. Then D was laid off her job – no leaflets to deliver. Ah, a zero hours contract. The £60 a month she had agreed to repay the catalogue was the last straw. Her total weekly income was now £134 a week in working family tax credits and child benefit. This week she paid her council tax and the little boy’s milk and dinner bill. She’s got £100 to come from the job but she doesn’t dare take it because if the work starts again she will have to work a week in hand again. D’s head aches.

D can’t sleep and this morning she overslept, there was no electricity – meter ran out- and the little boy was late for school. When the nice lady at the school asked D if she was alright she burst into tears. The ladies at the school took her in, made her tea, listened to her, mopped her up and arranged for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau to contact her and for a food parcel to be delivered that evening. A food parcel.

The little boy has a non-genetic grandma who knew things weren’t perfect but had no idea of the extent of the problems because D doesn’t want – or know how – to ask for help. And anyway, she can’t afford help. She phoned a family member who offered to lend her money. But D can’t repay a loan. By a stroke of luck the grandma heard this story. The grandma went to the cashpoint and took out money. Then, while the little boy went to his dad’s, she went and fetched D and listened to her story and mopped her tears. Together they have made a little plan to start putting things right. Grandma is setting up direct debits. Grandma is appalled that D could work so hard, try so hard and continually be defeated by things she largely can’t control. She is a female Lennie – the best laid plans o’ mice and men gang aft agley – as Rabbie Burns might have said at this point.

A little girl passed around and not heard. A little girl who did not do well at school. Two little girls living with violence and not doing well at school. A little boy doing very well at school – fingers crossed. A toddler girl – who knows? An as yet unborn disabled baby boy.

These are the children we teach – watching their parents endure lives of quiet desperation every day while they go on to repeat those lives of quiet desperation . I am humbled. This story unfolded in my family. Today.

On the plus side, we are paying off the deficit, the bankers are still getting their bonuses and Iain Duncan Smith is still in a job.

My #Nurture 13/14

I’ve come to this a bit late as a) it took me a bit of time to work it out and b) I’ve been away for a few days. So now I’m making up for lost time with my contribution. I’m mindful of Old Andrew’s strictures about not mentioning family and only ten words for each and then I decided to ignore them. Here goes:

 

The 13

1. My son AJ achieved a Level 3 in supporting teaching and learning to add to his English grade B GCSE and Level 2 Numeracy so he is now suitably qualified for TA posts. If only the numerous applications already made had resulted in an interview.

2. My exam results this year were great. My Year 11 group – C/D borderliners with a mix of the disinterested, the dispossessed, the downright bone idle and the late arrivals did themselves proud when 80% of them got the magic C+. It may not sound like much bit believe me it was massive. My year 10 early entry were amazing – 100% C+, with one A* and several As. See, they can achieve early!

3. Part of my role at school is to line manage IT both curriculum and “back office” i.e. the network people. I don’t know a massive amount about It- although I’ve learnt a lot – but I do know how to enable and empower the people I line manage so that they can get on with their jobs and feel great about it. The tecchies love me. 

4. I worked with Terrific T (subject of another blog) and she enriched my life despite being the most exasperating pupil I’ve ever had! Fingers crossed for her grade next week.

5. I’ve been working with a fabulous group of young, brilliant AHTs who are also Faculty leaders. They re-generate me and have worked wonders within the school as a whole.

6. I found Twitter – finally. A couple of years ago my mate Jim said to me, “Get on Twitter, you’ll love it.” I had a couple of false starts but this year I used some of the time on holiday in Spain when everyone else was having a siesta to sort myself out – I even went as far as adding a photo to my profile. I hate my photos as I always look crap in them. Actually, it has recently dawned on me that that is because I actually look crap! Anyway, Jim was right – I do love Twitter. In fact, I’ve become a bit obsessed! Trial and error led me to a few good people to follow mainly, but not exclusively, in the education community. Here are people who seem to have something interesting to say and/or who make me laugh. My interest in lots of facets of education has been piqued and I feel re-invigorated. I’ve crazily saved stuff so that I can bore my colleagues endlessly at SLT meetings. I can’t do loads of the stuff like do a thing that says find out here with a link – oh maybe that’s blogs –  or put those little pictures in. I even had to look up FF when someone did one for me! Still,  I’m jogging along and will surely get better.

7. I met someone I follow on Twitter – David Didau, The Learning Spy – when I went to his presentation on the Perfect English Curriculum with two colleagues. it was great and we are still talking and thinking about how we can use and adapt his ideas to improve our own KS3 curriculum. 

8. Thrillingly I finally got brave enough to do a blog and my first effort seemed to be well received. My second hasn’t been noticed and we’ll soon see about this this one. Scarily, the first one brought new followers so now I’m worried that I need to keep posting stuff to vindicate their interest. Good job I like a good rant!.

9.Our new school building should have a mention here. The first sod was cut just over a year ago and since then we have had little outdoor space and no school hall but we have managed. We moved in on the last day of the Christmas term! And yes, it was that bad. I think it may be worth a blog of its own! It is a beautiful building but unfortunately, lots of bits of it are not fit for purpose. it’s also arguable as to whether it’s a school for the future!!

10.Loving my job has to feature here. I’ve been doing this for a long time now – when I look at Twitter I feel I may be like something from the Dark Ages compared to what seem to be the bright young things on there! But the thing is, I still love it. I still feel enlivened by it. I still feel full of enthusiasm and curiosity and a desire to keep learning about this craft of ours. I feel privileged every day that I am a teacher and I’m not prepared to let Gove and his Forces of Darkness spoil that for me!

11. I’ve paid off my mortgage! In December I made the last payment and it’s still sinking in. I think it will hit home in January when my outgoings suddenly halve! I thought I would never get there as I have had lots of ups and downs and loss along the way.

12. Our town’s first Literacy and Ideas Festival has to have a mention here. It was great. I made it my business to attend as many events as possible because it is so important to have some positive things for our town which has been going through quite a rough patch. I saw Carol Ann Duffy, Gyles Brandreth, Ikram Butt and Kevin Kennedy – quite something for a little northern mill town.

13. I’m A Director and Company Secretary of our local semi-professional Rugby League Club. We are a member owned co-operative and have a hard  four year slog, but this season we gained promotion and lifted our first trophy for 91 years!!!!! We are all so thrilled and excited and have silenced the critics and malcontents. Not only that but our ground hosted a sold out Rugby League World Cup game and we strengthened our historic link with Fiji. I so want to be a Fijian!

And now for the 14! I’m not faffing around with that be a better wife/mother/grandmother/friend caper. I just am. I do my best and mostly I’m crap at it all so no point wasting space and breath on it.

 

My 14 – in no particular order

1. Do my best to make the new building work for everybody- no easy task but essential. Some areas have gained greatly and some have lost hugely we need to look for equilibrium.

2. Working with colleagues to design a new curriculum for KS3 will be hard work but exciting and worthwhile. It’s long overdue..

3. Working with my Assessment focus Group to design new assessments now we have no levels is a priority and links with number 2. Exciting.

4. Working out how to deal with the new accountability measures without putting undue pressure on the staff while keeping us off Ofsted’s radar is a must!. Enough said!

5. Continuing to work with our bright young Assistant Heads before they inevitably move on to Deputy Headships – sigh.

6. Oh alright then – I want to lose weight. I’ve been saying this for about three years but I really need to do this.

7. Fervently hoping for the demise of Gove and his right hand man Wilshaw. I’m fed up being governed by whim: Gove wakes with a bright idea, by breakfast it’s in the news and by tea-time it’s a new policy to be implemented with immediate effect. Enough already. it’s no way to run anything let alone an education system. I’m fed up with being told weekly that we’re failing some group of pupils or another as though we’re some amorphous mass of hopelessness. Enough of that too. Generally, teachers are doing a good job in very difficult circumstances and would do an even better one if they all just went away. My teachers never had to put up with all this and they turned out people like me – well educated (degree and masters) hard working – (5 days absence in the last 23 years due to shingles – exactly!) and committed – (working every day to better the lives and chances of my pupils) What more could anyone want?.

8. Helping AJ to find a job which will enable him to have his independence and self-respect back will be a challenge but after nearly 4 years of limited employment it is vital.

9. Watching the re-generation of my town and seeing it grow and flourish.

10. Improving my Spanish and not copping out because I’m tired!

11. Finishing the bloody mystery blanket! This is a knitting project I started 3 years ago but have yet to finish because of time and the inability to do Swiss darning! How hard can it be?

12. Working to ensure my rugby team don’t get relegated after all the hard work last season. It won’t be easy but we will leave no stone unturned in the quest.

13. Taking more exercise by doing more walking and dusting off the bike I haven’t seen for the last two years! And when I try and excuse myself I will think of Tim Taylor and his inspiring, humbling blog and get my carcass into gear.

14. Weaning us all off ready meals and having more home cooked ones instead. Started that one already. Well done me!

 

So there it is. It will be interesting to see what I manage over the next 12 months.

 

The Tale of Terrific T or How teachers work for the benefit of all their pupils.

There are those (they know who they are Mr Gove) who think that teachers lack aspiration for their pupils with the inference that they don’t really care about them or their progress or their future: that we are enemies of promise and do no more than go through the motions. Well, that got me thinking. Mainly I thought that such people have never set foot in a school and have no idea how they operate because what I see every day gives the lie to this view.

Let us consider the example of T who arrived at our school not so much trailing clouds of glory more hounds of havoc! She arrived with us some time into Year 10 via a school which had run out of steam with her and a managed move that didn’t work for her – more an issue with the school than T as far as I can work out. At the time I was acting Head of Community – vertical pastoral system – and she pitched up in my community.

She arrived with nothing – no controlled assessments in any subject and little in the way of any data or academic record. It soon became clear why this might be for T has a remarkable way of dodging anything that seems like… well school work! She is a lively, bright, intuitive individual, a mass of contradictions and loved by all who have come into contact with her. She exasperates, infuriates and charms by turns and utterly beguiles most people who encounter her. She brings out the best in me and also, I’m chagrined to say, at times, the worst.

She is a rebel without a cause yet is always immaculate – her uniform is pristine and always correctly worn – unusual for a rebel! She often wears white frilly ankle socks and almost always her black patent Kickers. This footwear is not on the school approved list, nor is wearing your coat in the building but T does not concern herself with such matters…and manages to get away with it. She is constantly arriving at my office at the start of a lesson to give numerous reasons why she isn’t going to the lesson – right up to the moment when I tell her that I’ll walk her there. She tells me on a regular basis that she hates me – when I’m busy thwarting her -and yet arrived at my office one day with a handmade Christmas card – resplendent with glitter – that she had made for me. And thus you have a glimpse of her inherent contradictions.

My initial encounters with her were pastoral and usually when she pitched up at the medical room, which she did at some point every day – sometimes more than once. She has an extensive range of complaints starting with headaches which assailed her every day. They were so severe they caused her to frown and squint in a not-quite-convincing way. I dealt with a headache situation practically every day and agreed with her mum that we wouldn’t be sending her home for this condition. I told her frankly that if she had such terrible headaches she should see her doctor to be examined for a possible brain tumour! She just looked at me in a pitying sort of way.

When she’d exhausted headaches she moved on to throwing up although none of us has ever seen any physical evidence of this. Then she got more adventurous and moved on to thrush, shin splints, appendicitis and, most recently, a burst appendix.

Throughout this, I spent most of my time coaxing her back to lessons and trying to sort out ways for her to make up some of the lost ground. It was akin to trying to hold back the tide.  At the start of T’s Year 11 a Non-teaching Head of Community started in post – Mr R – who had huge experience of working with young people, particularly difficult customers. With my help and support, he spent inordinate numbers of hours dealing with T and her daily dramas which were worsening now as the pressure was really hotting up. T had nothing to show for her years of being in school that would go on a certificate. In some ways, it’s a shame that these bits of paper have become so important because she has many skills that make her special and interesting and employable. She is feisty, savvy and very, very shrewd. She’s also very caring and supportive of pupils who are weak and struggling. And she can correctly weigh a human up in about 10 seconds.

T’s default position is any and all of: “I can’t do that. I don’t understand that. You what?” Usually accompanied by putting her head on the desk in a dramatic fashion. At our first meeting she declared vehemently, “I can’t read, you know.” She maintained this stance when she found herself re-grouped in to my English group in Year 11: “Don’t ask me to read out loud. I can’t do it.” Interesting because when she sat in on my Year 10 group to act as a TA – a strategy to get her involved, raise her self-esteem and realise she can do anything she puts her mind to – I asked her if she wouldn’t mind just reading Bassanio in Act 1 scene 3 of Merchant of Venice so the Year 10s wold understand it. She did it without demur. We gave her some lessons with a Year 8 group and she quickly spotted a major issue while working with a pupil with visual problems, which she was quick to share with the teacher and the class. “Miss, she can’t read this,” declared T. “Miss, you’re gonna have to do this bigger for her.” And finally, “Miss, you’ll have to move her, she can’t see from here.” Of course the teacher had all this in hand but T cared enough to want more action.

 And through all this, we have been desperately trying to ensure she gets some qualifications. She rocked up in my English group – for those who missed a grade C in the summer and had the best chance of getting it in November. Dear reader, let us gloss over the two-weeks-into-term changes as I don’t have enough time to go into the ins and outs of them or the pros and cons of early entry. Suffice it to say that it was imperative T took the exam while the speaking and listening still counted for something – because she is good at speaking and listening.  Mr R and I worked like dogs to keep her in lessons, boost her self-esteem, re-assure her and cajole her into attempting the work. What we quickly realised was that everything about her was a smoke screen for terror. She was terrified that she would fail and she could not cope with this prospect or the loss of face she felt it would entail.

 Luckily, Mr R, his wife and one of our teaching assistants were entering the exam as my external students. We arranged for T to come to class after school with the adults to do her speaking and listening. This meant she was not having to perform with and for her peer group and she responded well. She felt more secure and less on show and the adults were kind and supportive bringing out the best in her. We also organised for her to sit the exam with the adults rather than the rest of our entrants to ensure she was calm.

 Just as well as a week before the exam T had a major meltdown. She was utterly distraught, sobbing and inconsolable like a vulnerable, small child. Mr R and I spent a long time with her soothing and reassuring and persuading her that she could do it and any grade would represent a triumph. She sat the exam and came straight to find me to tell me – with a wide grin on her face – that she had done it all, had answered every question, had written all the time. Now, we have our fingers crossed waiting for the results next week. I’ve pinned my hopes on a decent grade which we can then use to remind her that she can do it and persuade her to focus in on her other subjects for the summer.

 There is much, much more I could tell you about T but this gives you an essence of this mercurial, exasperating, winsome character.

 So, how do we wrap that up in a bit of data we can use to make judgements on her, me and the school? How do we quantify progress here? We have all – teaching and non-teaching staff – worked our fingers to the bone to get the best out of this girl. T’s an extreme example, but we work like this day in and day out with many of our pupils – the chaotic, the distressed, the abused, the suicidal. We have them all and we do our very best with them and for them because we care. And that’s hard to measure or quantify but it doesn’t mean it’s not happening

Ofsted – the view from the ground!

Someone recently suggested that Ofsted is not fit for purpose. My disquiet has been growing for some time as has my anger. The final straw was on hearing that schools were being inspected during the last week of the autumn term – the hardest term of all – at Christmas!!!!!! Thus I decided to make Ofsted- or the Forces of Darkness as I prefer to call them! – the subject of my first ever blog.

 I am the lucky recipient of not one but two Ofsted inspections this year and these experiences have shown me that it is a bankrupt – and untruthful – process. Here’s why.

 The first occurred in May at the primary school where I am vice Chair of Governors and which had been rated outstanding at the previous inspection. The school serves the most deprived ward in our deprived town – in the bottom 10% of all the indices of poverty. The Head has put a lot of energy into creating a school with high expectations and aspirations for all the children including providing experiences they might not have at home, particularly within the arts. Results are good and the previous year matched national for English and beat it in maths and for FSM pupils. All down to those “enemies of promise” – the teachers – assisted by the support staff who together enhance the lives and educational chances of the children.

 Some months prior to this anticipated visit, it transpired that the Head was worrying about the Ofsted judgement fearing the school might slip into a category and was spending many hours marrying up and analysing the many changes of schedule since our previous inspection. It turned out he was not sleeping very well. Horrified the Chair (parent with local knowledge and roots in the community) and I ( senior teacher at a local secondary school and Education speak person) instituted an Executive meeting every month where the Head and the deputy could go through anything they were concerned about and keep us up to speed generally. This seemed to have the desired effect.

 Then came the call and the school moved into full Ofsted mode. Those lazy, lazy teachers were at the school until late into the evening and the part timers were in on their non-working days without being asked or paid. The Head and Deputy were there from first light until last fuelled by Red Bull (other caffeine drinks are available!)

 On day one, the Chair and I duly pitched up for our meeting with the inspector who was at pains to tell us immediately, and at intervals throughout what was a very cordial meeting, that they were desperately trying to avoid putting the school in to a category. I was thunderstruck. How could I have failed to notice that things had become so bad??? Well, it was just this one little piece of data – our reading data showed a small drop which we stated was a blip. Try as they might, those lazy enemies of promise – the Head and Deputy – could not find sufficient data to convince the Inspectors although the SATs some 6 weeks later vindicated exactly what they were saying. In fact, for the first time ever we had 2 pupils gaining Level 6.

 I told the Inspector – all twinkly eyes and disingenuous questions – that if the school went into a category it would simply show what a bankrupt process the whole Ofsted process is and that I would demand that Sir Michael Wilshaw present himself at the school and explain how this could be. The inspector was rather taken aback. It wasn’t them – we had to understand. They had to make sure that the Readers who check their reports did not overturn the team’s judgements. The Readers, it seems, read the reports to ensure they match the data and if not then judgments are questioned and altered. But we were not to worry he cheerily soothed. I questioned why the Inspectors were in classrooms. Again he looked puzzled and I explained that since the latest framework is essentially a data driven model and the whole point of the Inspections is to make judgements about progress and attainment over time, then being in classrooms would tell them none of this. He tried valiantly to explain their presence but we were unconvinced.

 The following day we returned for the feedback meeting. As we arrived at the school a parent was being told by the SENCO that his children had been taken into care that day, 80 dads who had been in to school to spend an afternoon doing Fathers’ Day activities with their children were just leaving and the Head told me that a child had made a disclosure to an utterly dismayed Inspector.

 The school was judged as Good. Behaviour was judged to be Outstanding. Outstanding. There was just this small drop in reading – see the paragraph above and wonder! The Lead Inspector was at pains to emphasise that the school had not stood still. Quite the contrary, it had continued to grow, develop and improve under a Head described in the report as “inspirational”.

 That was my first go-figure experience and I am still livid about it. We are none of us self-absorbed enough to want an Outstanding judgement for our own aggrandisement – although I confess I cried when we got ours the last time round. Rather we understand the importance of such a judgement to our children and their families.

 And so to my second experience. The secondary school where I am a member of SLT is not connected with the school above but also serves a very deprived area with a high percentage of refugee and asylum seeker pupils and a highly mobile population. Between them the catchments of “my” two schools were responsible for the bulk of more than 800 referrals made to social services in just one week in May 2013.

 So, forward to September and the secondary school received the call at the start of the second week of term. As we have a two week timetable we had not yet seen the new timetable round. Some staff had yet to meet groups and most of us had not had time to get to know the pupils in front of us.

 I won’t bore you too much with the usual meetings and what transpired although I will just mention that they considered our work on assessment (my area of responsibility) to be in front of the game. They were also puzzled as to why our Pupil Premium (PP) children do better than the national average and the school gap between PP pupils and non-PP pupils is non-existent. We were at a loss to explain this really other than to say that we have high expectations of all our pupils and do not allow excuses of any kind. Rather let us look at the contentious issue of lesson observation. We don’t do a lot of these as a general rule – one for performance management and probably a Learning Walk or two – maybe. More recently a bright young assistant head has set up a teaching and learning group where members – all volunteers (about 40 at the last count) – work in trios and observe each other for their own professional development.

 Day 1 and the Inspection team went forth to observe and judge mainly in core and EBACC subjects. Six bankable outstanding teachers – the ones you would send anyone to see and know they would have an outstanding lesson to look at – were told they weren’t quite outstanding. They were very, very good– and in some cases very, very, very good – but not quite outstanding. In one case the inspector fedback that a teaching assistant (TA) had not joined the pupils in an element of the lesson which involved some chanting of the lesson content. The teacher concerned immediately accepted responsibility for not having directed the TA to do this only for the Inspector to respond that this was not the case at all and the TA should have known what was required. So he missed out on outstanding because….? Another was told that she couldn’t be sure that all pupils had completed an activity and should have asked them to put their hands up to confirm that they had! You honestly couldn’t make this up.

 Day 2 and we suddenly had a flurry of outstanding judgements from areas not previously noted for such strength, including a member of staff who had been unable to manage a judgement of good during five previous observations by a variety of people. It turns out the inspector was blown away by the sight of brown, black and white children working together. We had to check that this was indeed the Year 2013.

 At our feedback meeting the Inspectors were at pains to tell us how brilliant our pupils are and the Head’s assembly, which was, as always, lively and interactive, was envied by a fellow Head in the inspection team who lamented that he could not get away with such an assembly at his own school. But we did not merit an Outstanding for pupil behaviour.

 Overall, what we did merit was a judgement of Good. You see, there was just this small issue with a small bit of the data. Four levels of progress in English was not quite up there with the national figure – although three levels was better than national and the percentage of C+ grades had increased by more than 20% on the previous year thanks to the work of a new Head of Faculty. That was it. The difference between Good and Outstanding.

 So what part did lesson observations with all the stress involved play in that overall judgement? None. It didn’t matter what they saw in books, heard from staff, parents, pupils or Governors or what they saw in lessons. In the end what mattered was one very small element of a whole raft of data. In the end, the judgement was made before the team set foot inside the school and inspection was simply about justifying it. Oh, and pretending that Ofsted is actually about something.

 Since I started this blog – fuelled by my rage about the injustice and complete inflexibility of this process – Ofsted has updated its guidance about what they are and are not looking for in lessons and how they must not preference any particular style of teaching. (We’d had training and been told no more than 3 minutes of teacher talk – seriously?) Would that advice have made a difference in either of my experiences? I think not since the whole framework is predicated on the data. That’s it. Nothing else counts so it seems to me that Ofsted Inspections are merely an expensive con trick.

 It is all part of the current regime which – much like the Thatcher Government, only worse – seems to want to belittle, de-skill and denigrate the teaching profession for reasons I don’t understand. They want, and expect, schools to solve the ills of society and to overcome all the challenges, barriers and hurdles that children face, many of them caused by social inequality and injustice. Schools are not equipped, resourced or designed to do this but in both “my” schools this is what we strive very hard over long hours to achieve for our pupils as we recognise that education is their route out of the poverty and challenges faced by their families. We, the lazy enemies of promise.