Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Reception life for me.


So, I spent the day in Reception. After not spending an awful lot of time down there in the last two terms, I thought it was time to right that wrong. Plus, having read Bold Beginnings, I figured I should get down there quick before they’re forced to do anything else other than play.

Over the day my time was split between the four classes. The children were, I was told, incredibly excited about my visit due to some of them not even realizing they had a headteacher. I gave the Reception team carte blanche with my timetable just so long as they protected my hour’s lunchtime in order for me to catch up with my emails, check that the rest of the school was surviving without me, and, have my nap.

I had made sure I was dressed for the occasion. Gone were the Saville Row suits and silk ties…the thought of my herringbone weave being stained with snot, playdough, paint and glue was too much. Instead, chinos, jumper, sensible shoes and knee pads. I looked, and felt, every part the early years practitioner.

As I arrived so were the children entering the classroom. In they skipped, taking off their coats and tapping their name on the whiteboard register to confirm their attendance before selecting their lunch. Then, after dismissing their parents, and catching up with their friends, they promptly busied themselves with the range of activities already out at the tables. I crouched down next to a little girl who had picked up a felt tip and was writing an ‘X’ on the piece of paper that covered her entire table. Impressed that she was that far through the alphabet already, I thought I’d use this opportunity to get her to explain to me what she was learning. ‘What are you doing?’ I asked. She looked at me like I was an absolute buffoon for being unable to grasp such a simple act. ‘I’m marking my treasure on the map.’ She announced. I stood up and looked again at the giant piece of paper and, sure enough, it was a massive map onto which she was marking an ‘X’ just under a palm tree.

A moment later and we were all sat in a circle counting pennies to buy a range of pirate merchandise. I was slightly concerned that the teacher had an unhealthy obsession with seafaring burglars but quickly realized that the term’s topic was pirates. So, when it was my time to buy an eye-patch, I turned to the child next to me and bellowed ‘Ahoy there me hearties, that patch there, it be worth 5 pennies now pay up or I’ll make ye walk the plank so I will!’ After the tears subsided I was put in charge of the till and told to simply collect the cash in exchange for the goods.

Hesitantly, at first, the children queued up to buy the merch. Some counted out their pennies as carefully as my old Mum counts out her coupons at Lidl. Some preferred to exchange their handful of pennies for fewer coins with the equivalent value. One child tried to exchange a cutlass for a compass, resulting in me throwing him out the shop saying that this wasn’t a pawn shop and if he thought those items were worth the same amount he was a ship’s fool. He seemed to find this hilarious and spent the next ten minutes trying to repeat this exchange, much to my annoyance and my other customers’ glee.

Then, it was to the next class where everyone was reading. We went through our phonics – with actions – and recognized some matching words. I took a smaller group of boys out to investigate some nonsense words using our blending skills. I’ve never seen children so delighted to put a collection of ‘real’ words inside a pirate’s treasure chest. I was a bit cross to have to put the word SEF in the dustbin. I tried to explain to them that this was a very important word and formed the backbone of the school’s development plan. But, they just laughed and said I was being a funny man.

When I returned to the class there was a little group of children exploring the icebergs at the back of the room that contained a pirate’s lost treasure. The group were delighted with the opportunity to play around with the icy blocks: slipping them out of their hand and back into the tub; smashing them together in attempt to release the treasure; rubbing them with their fingers to make little craters; holding them for as long as they could before their hands froze. And all the time they were talking to each other and sharing their thoughts:

‘Our teacher must have drilled little holes in them and pushed the treasure inside.’

‘It’s hard but it melts into water bits when you smash it.’

‘The ice is white because that’s the colour inside the freezer.’

‘You make the ice by putting bowls of water into the cold oven.’

I resisted the urge to ‘correct’ every little misconception they spouted. Instead, I kept asking follow-on questions that encouraged them to take their thinking to the next step, forcing them to evaluate the logic in what they were saying. And, when they could see it might not be logical at all, they happily changed their original conceits without a moment’s doubt. I was so proud I immediately made them sign life-long agreements to never sign up to edu-twitter.

After lunch I was back in class where it was super-fine-motor-time. How quickly can you fill a container using nothing but a bowlful of ink and a pipette? Some of these children will have knuckles the size of hams the way they were showing off their pincer skills. Then it was time for the special guest: Old Pirate Tom. A bit of hot-seating that would help the children use their question words. As I squeezed into one of their tiny chairs, waved my hook around and tried to remember what accent a pirate has, I was bombarded with ‘what’ ‘when’ ‘how’ ‘why’ and ‘who’ questions that put my improvisation skills to the test. Now, it’s not for me to tell you how convincing my portrayal of a pirate was, but, needless to say, there’s a group of children who, every time they go out to sea, will never forget the teachings of Old Pirate Tom: may Neptune bless his soul, and may he one day be reunited with his left hand, as the shark who took it be banished to the darkest depths of hell.

Finally, I was asked to support a group of children (who were far less tired than I was at this time of day) in preparing their pirate paper for their treasure map. It took a surprisingly long time to convince them to scrunch up their perfectly good piece of paper and tear along the edges. But, they got over any reservations once they began washing the paper in tea to make it well and truly aged. I used this time to chat to them about what they would put on their treasure map. The usual stuff: beaches, blue sea, palm trees, coconut trees, mountains, grass, a trail, an X, some dolphins, a turtle, a mermaid, a bottle of rum, a car, a treehouse and a collection of telegraph poles that could be connected to a satellite, so Mummy could still watch Emmerdale. (Didn’t think of that did you Robert Louis Stevenson?)

And so ended my day in Reception.

But what did I learn?

Well, I learnt that not a minute is wasted.  I had, after all, only experienced a mere fraction of the opportunities that are available to the children throughout the day. Every single activity that was planned (and there were lots) was grounded in their topic and designed to help them develop a practical skill or learn a little bit more about the world. The adults were focused, at all times, on capturing and stretching the children’s learning. Observations were being made continuously and were cross-referenced by the outcomes laid out in the EYFS framework and Development Matters. Specific needs were met. Children benefitted from direct teaching that explored the concepts and ideas that were then taken further as the day continued.

It was playful. It was purposeful. But, above all, it was bold piratey.

Headship: a multicoloured trip to the lav

It has been two terms since taking on a new headship. For anyone interested in knowing what it’s like, taking on a new school, I can only describe it like this:

It is like looking through a kaleidoscope whilst trying to find the toilet during the middle of the night.

A new school is so exciting. As you explore each nook of the building, cranny of the curriculum; as you dive into the data and ponder the provision, you begin to see its potential. Enjoy this moment for it is the most luxurious time of your tenure. Nothing is, yet, your fault. You flit between experiencing what the school has to offer and evaluating its effectiveness. As you do so, you begin to make two lists: things that you’ll protect and things that you’ll change.

The school opens up to you. It lets you know what it’s about in big and bold colours. Each day, as your understanding develops, the kaleidoscope shifts slightly, and a multitude of epiphanies are reflected back at you, indicating all the possibilities that could be available.

It is immensely liberating. Although be careful not to get too giddy. You must carefully pass on your ideas to the new people who surround you, and, know when to take their counsel. You must nurture these new relationships in order for you to ring the necessary changes whilst enshrining what is scared. New Heads be warned: kill a sacred cow at your peril. (Kill a false prophet by all means but make sure you, and everyone else, knows the difference between the two!)

I can’t decide what I like the most: realising that you need to completely change something wholesale, or, knowing that all something needs is a little tweak. Either way, it’s the being able to enlighten everyone to your way of thinking that’s the real buzz. Do it right and they’ll either be grateful that you’ve overhauled something that was causing them gyp, or, they’ll be pleased that you’ve recognised what works but given it a little polish. Those early quick wins set you up for the long game. It’s a positive and energising period of your leadership – and hopefully others will think so too.

But, then again, finding yourself in a new school is sometimes just plain weird. They do things differently round ‘ere. It’s sort of the same but, then again, totally different. There will be times when you know what needs doing but acting upon it, in the way that you would normally, just doesn’t cut it. Their systems are different. Their procedures, although based on the same fundamentals of logic and necessity, are odd. What used to take you five minutes is now taking up a whole afternoon.

Being in a new school is like being in a strange alternative version of your previous reality. It’s like overhearing a conversation and wondering why you can’t understand a third of it before realising they’re speaking in Welsh. It’s like that dream where you’re in your house (but it’s not your house) with your friends (but they’re all friends from different times in your life and they shouldn’t really know each other) and they’re asking you questions (but no matter how loudly you scream they can’t hear).

Or, it’s like going to the toilet in the dark: you know there’s a light switch somewhere on the wall but you can’t locate it; you know there are some steps on the way to the loo but you can’t remember how many; there’s a big chest of drawers on the landing but you can’t see it so you reach out with your arm and tentatively pat the air hoping your hand finds it before your groin; you basically end up moving an inch at a time like a soldier walking across no-man’s land.

The landscape is familiar and yet alien. And, as exciting as all this new potential is, you need to climatize to your new environment. Giving yourself time to adjust to your new setting is an important part of making the right start. It is disconcerting. Especially when you know that if you were back in your school you would know what to do immediately. But don’t let pride stop you from asking questions, saying you don’t know, or, admitting to an LSA that you can’t remember their name or telling a parent that you don’t know how to unlock the school gate. Yes, you might look stupid, but you will come across as human.

Soon, I will be entering the second phase of a new headship. For anyone interested in knowing what it’s like, entering the second phase of new headship, I can only describe it like this:

It’s like steering a ship whilst trying to find the toilet during the middle of the night.

Welcome to the upside-down.

The Upside Down is an alternate dimension existing in parallel to the human world. It contains the same locations and infrastructure as the human world, but it is much darker, colder and obscured by an omnipresent fog.

[Stranger Things Wiki]

I hope Amanda Spielman wasn’t on Twitter this weekend. I mean, if she’s irritated by all those Headteachers’ blogs that ‘spin up levels of anxiety’ about Ofsted, she really wouldn’t have found #OfstedSongs very funny.

Thinking about it, I think it was a bit churlish for the Chief to have a pop at blogs about Ofsted. I would have thought she’d approve of such things: a singular viewpoint based on a narrow set of experiences gathered over a limited time-frame…isn’t that the original template for the inspection handbook?

Poor old Ofsted. Having to put up with a Colossus of Heads, all chomping at the bit to put the boot in, via their intergalactic blogs. About time someone had a word. I would like to offer a timid riposte, if I may? I don’t think any Headteacher, by sharing their reality of Ofsted, should be accused of ‘spin’. If it was spin, then surely they could be asked to change the content so that it was more in line with the truth. Couldn’t Ofsted, if they felt so aggrieved, complete a factual accuracy check on these blogs?

No blog about Ofsted, that I have read, could be accused of being an unwarranted scare-story. They are sometimes painful to read. But they are often Headteachers articulating their own difficulties with the Ofsted process. I think this is fair enough. Whether they are responding to personal experiences, or, sharing concerns about the known (or unknown) elements of inspection, they are still valid voices. They deserve to be heard – by educators and inspectors – so that Ofsted can evolve.

I agree with Ms Spielman when she talks about those school leaders who have become too focused on Ofsted ratings. A leader’s job is to do what is right for the school because…well, just because! I can’t think of a single decent decision that could be made to please Ofsted that would also guarantee school improvement.

  • Hastily putting up those British Values posters that you bought online…No.
  • Requiring teachers to formally respond to pupils’ responses to teachers’ feedback…Not a chance.
  • Over-aiding Y6 SATS…Nice try.
  • Inventing a progress point system that replicates levels…Dude, just follow @jpembroke already!
  • Buying in a truckload of ‘verbal feedback given’ stamps…That’s sooooo last framework.
  • Forcing staff to have mindfulness staff meetings to support their well-being…Your teachers will destroy you in the Ofsted staff questionnaire.

But these aren’t Heads who are spreading anxiety about Ofsted…they’re just poor leaders who will, most likely, be the ones who are soon bleating about staff retention problems.

So, yes: GO SPIELMAN! Do whatever you can to make sure that Ofsted is not the limit of leaders’ aspirations. But when it comes to uncomfortable blogs about Ofsted, please recognise that it’s you that must change. It’s not the fault of bloggers that, for some leaders, Ofsted dominates their world and causes them to wonder if that’s all there is to headship. That fault lies with you, your predecessors, and your team of Inspectors.

My advice would be to learn from the blogs that seem to be causing you so much pain. Engage with the Heads who are writing them. Don’t dismiss them as spook stories set in an upside-down reality where Ofsted is the ever-lurking Demogorgon. These Heads are writing chapters in the book of your legacy. Just as you should rightly celebrate those blogs that say ‘Ofsted was really positive for us’ you must also take seriously those that call out your failures.

Speaking for myself, I don’t do anything for Ofsted. Not a darn thing. I try to be an effective Head and do my best not to think about you. I consider you to be nothing more than a brief encounter. I hope, when it next happens, it will be fair, without fear and favour. But I’ll be ready if it isn’t. If needs be, I will venture down, into the dark underbelly of the Ofsted upside-down, and I will drag you back up into the light and hold you aloft for all to see.

Listening to you, and Sean Harford, I’m sure that won’t happen. Logic says that if I do what is right by my school then Ofsted will do right by me. That is something that Ofsted and I agree on. So, come on Amanda, let’s lighten up, put on some #OfstedMusic, and dance!