Absolution from absolutes!

Right, all this sneering is just getting beyond a joke. Latest is a piece sneering at ideas that marking in red pen may be off putting because there is no research to back it up. Well, I haven’t marked in red pen for very many years because I came across this theory and thought about it and it seems entirely reasonable to me that children might feel demotivated or daunted by seeing lots of red pen all over their work. I’m not too keen on it on my work! I’ve also been taken with the notion that it’s probably not a good idea to highlight every error where work is weak. Imagine not being the sharpest button, working really hard on a piece of work and then getting it back splattered in red. You might conclude that there’s not much point putting in the effort. So for years I’ve also been selective about what I point out and what I leave until another day. And -horrible confession here – I’ve even written assessment policies including these ideas. The current one suggests – I’ll use that word again – suggests that using a colour other than red might be a good idea and asks that staff are selective and considered in highlighting errors.

I can’t see what’s wrong with this and given that today’s blogger is adamant that it doesn’t matter what colour you mark in, I must be right. I can’t quite see why the subject is worthy of a blog or getting hot under the collar.

But it’s like a lot of other things. Do you do traditional stuff or are you that now dread thing a progressive – which seems to be characterised by doing crazy things like group work or peer assessment. Why does the debate seem so often to be reduced to binary opposites? I do a lot of traditional things: I tell my classes things – often, I have my desks in rows, I have seating plans, I write in the board and rarely use an inter-active whiteboard, I even insist that homework is done. But I do other things too: I often use pair and group work, I sometimes ask pupils to think things through before I get involved, I often use peer assessment – successfully with some groups and not so successfully with others.

I think knowledge is important and so are skills. In fact, I have looked up the word skill several times since starting to read the debates on Twitter because there seems to be such a clamour that knowledge is the only thing and skills are so yesterday and I was afraid I had
mis-remembered the meaning of the word. Well I haven’t. A skill is the ability to do something well according to the online dictionary. Well isn’t the end result of knowledge that you can do things well? Like maybe hold your own in a debate, express your ideas well in an essay, be able to solve a difficult equation, develop your own ideas, climb a mountain? Or am I missing something?

Education is a constantly evolving and changing sphere of work. When schools first started children sat in rows, learnt things by heart, were drilled, and learnt dates and kings and things. They were also beaten for getting it wrong, ridiculed and made to feel stupid. The wheel turned and stopped at more unstructured practices – projects and do-it-yourself stuff, apparently. And now the wheel creaks round again.

Like a lot of people – possibly most – I do what I think works and it seems to do just that.

On Not Making It

Recently, I responded in a rather exasperated fashion to an article about someone who having tired of a career in business picked up a phone and was immediately accepted on a teacher training scheme starting forthwith. He then made Headship in what seemed like very short order. My point was that I am heartily sick of people who come late to the profession and make accelerated progress. Someone tweeted me to ask why the time taken to get to headship mattered and I decided I better think it through and record a response – which would take more than 140 characters.

Truthfully, it is part personal and part a wider concern about the profession as a whole.

I have dedicated my entire working life – apart from teenage weekend and holiday jobs – to education. After a shaky start and some crushing life experiences I forged ahead and created what turned out to be a good career for myself. I have always taken it seriously and given of my best. I have worked long hard hours studying, thinking, embracing – and often moving away from – ideas, strategies, theories and so forth. I have followed, lead, been in front of the game, spotted what’s coming next and basically done all in my power to ensure the success of my school and both its and my pupils. I have encouraged, mentored, coached, supported, cajoled and soothed colleagues many of whom have looked to me for advice and who have then gone on to promotion and great success.

And I have been successful – not perfect, sometimes wrong but overall, successful.

In my previous school, my work was central to most of what happened in the school. I set up assessment systems from nothing. I worked with colleagues to devise early versions of self-evaluation, pupil tracking and pastoral systems to deal with poor behaviour amongst other things. I worked with a colleague to devise and present Inset to the whole school community when our Asian heritage students revealed the full horror of their daily experiences. This included setting up the reporting and recording of incidents and communicating outcomes to pupils. I set up an anti-bullying council. I could go on. My pupils always performed better than the departmental average and in the days when we had KS3 Sats, my group had the best value-added in the school by some margin.

In my current school I have done many of the same things starting with putting assessment in place where it existed in very dubious, inconsistent, fragmented form. The first Ofsted six months after my arrival saw me in 4 meetings with Inspectors including one with the lead – an HMI – who told me that my work had saved the school from going in to a category. My pupils achieve well. I have two Year 11 groups. In one all pupils have a C+ and 80% have B+ in English language achieved mainly in Year 10 and some in November. My other group arrived with me in September from a variety of other groups all with Ds at best and all now have a C or better.

I took professional development seriously and went to courses without number. Some were great, some rubbish and lots were in-between but I always took something good from each one and took it back to school to use. I qualified when degrees were not required but realised that times had changed and to progress further I would need one so I signed up with the OU and gained a 2.1 BA Honours – all while working full time and raising my sons. I did the NPQH – first in the school to do so – and then followed that up with a Masters in Educational Leadership with a dissertation that achieved a first. This was thrilling for someone who never imagined she could get one degree let alone two!

I have never boasted about these achievements – although I accept you could argue this could be read as a boast – because I just thought they were the things you did if you wanted to be successful and to aspire to the highest posts. I don’t think I’m particularly special but I have buckets of experience and I’m very knowledgeable about my craft – possibly even an expert, although I would hesitate to attach such a label. Others, however, have repeatedly confirmed my quality. I attended several leadership courses and presenters invariably commented that they could not believe I was not already a deputy head. When I did the NPQH my tutor – a highly regarded former head who knew nothing about me other than what I presented on the weekend course – told me she was amazed that I was not already a head and that it would be a tragedy if I did not become one.

Well, I’m not one. I’m not even a deputy. I’m an assistant head and have been for the best part of 15 years. It’s not that I haven’t tried. I must have made in excess of 50 applications and managed no more than 10 interviews – if that. I took every scrap of input and advice I could lay my hands on, including some very good coaching on writing applications and dealing with interviews from a Leadership College consultant. I spent time on every letter. I researched every school. In short, I took it seriously – very seriously. I thought I was good enough to be a deputy and so did my last Head. “I’ve just written a reference for a colleague at my previous school,” he told me. “He’s not as good as you mind,” he finished. The school was an odd one, there was no gap for a deputy and he never considered making one! My current Head also thinks I am good enough and there was an opportunity recently but I am at the end of my career now and it’s time for the bright young things I work with to have their day.

In the end I stopped applying because every attempt eroded my confidence a little further and I eventually thought it a pointless exercise. Do I think it a tragedy that I didn’t make it to deputy or Head? No. I’ve done well and achieved a lot but perhaps you’ll excuse me if I’m rather galled that late entrants – generally as far as I can see who’ve made a killing in some other sphere – have damascene conversions that lead them to teaching and then, in VERY short order, Headship. I don’t hear too much about Heads – or other teachers – who have made the trip the other way into a new realm and had meteoric success.

And that brings me to the concern for the profession. Would we be happy to have a junior doctor make it to consultant in a couple of years? Would it be OK to have a pilot who came out of training and made it to captain in a couple of years? Would we feel secure with a Chief Fire Officer/Constable who was promoted two or three years in to the job? I suspect not, it’s not that there won’t always be precocious talent – there will. But however good, clever, talented you are, there’s no substitute for experience. In the end it’s the experience and the deep understanding of all aspects and nuances of the job that inspire confidence and respect. It’s the one thing that can’t be fast tracked.