Eyes Wide Shut

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After a rather busy year that was my first year in headship I feel that I have reached a turning point in my outlook on education. It feels a bit like an epiphany with the clouds of educational fuzz parting as a singular beam of light illuminates the true path to educational success. Over the year, one word has repeatedly entered my subconscious and this word is now at the centre of everything I do. It has given me a clarity that I have never experienced so far and has become a filter through which everything else must pass through. The only problem I have is that I can’t tell if through my experiences over the last year with Ofsted, HMI etc whether my eyes have truly been opened or if I have been brain-washed.

Oh, the word is ‘achievement’, sorry probably should have cleared that up at the start. Although at times I feel so stupid that this word has not always been at the forefront of my brain-I imagine many of you didn’t even have to get half-way through the first paragraph before you thought ‘the boy’s talking about achievement’. Some of you may even have spurted out your holiday Pina Coladas in disgust thinking ‘the idiot’s a Head and he’s only just started thinking about achievement; find out where he works and acadamise the damn place now, put the poor children out of their misery’.

I know, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But before you judge me too harshly, I haven’t not been thinking about achievement but I haven’t always linked everything and I mean everything back to it. I now believe that everything a school does can only be judged successful if judged through academic achievement:

Teaching, behaviour management, your relationship with pupils, your relationship with other staff members, marking, marking all your books, marking all your books every night, planning, getting the right resources, the way you deal with bullying, the way you promote anti-racism/anti-sexism/anti-homophobic views and behaviours, using your data, setting targets, effective child-protection procedures, effective governance, reward systems, assembly themes, after school clubs, the use of pupil-premium monies, the use of all school monies, leadership structures, use of support staff, use of child-mentors…

All of this, if done effectively, will impact on achievement (that bit I’ve always known) but my epiphany/brain-washed bit is that all those elements should be judged through achievement too. Oh and that everyone else in your organisation MUST believe that this is why they do all of the above as well as they can.

We don’t develop a good relationship with our class because we enjoy working with children: we do it because it will have a positive impact on achievement. We don’t challenge racist/sexist/homophobic views just because they are morally abhorrent: we do it because it will ensure a right to equality and ambition which in turn will impact positively on the achievement for as many pupils as possible. We don’t sit down with a pile of books and mark them because it’s part of the job description: we do it because if the school’s policy is effective it will allow us to support achievement.

I could go on but I think you get the point.

Achievement is not just the marker by which we measure how well a school happens to be doing: it is the reason why we turn up. It is the reason why working in schools is so hard. It should be the reason why working in schools is so rewarding. Too often ‘soft’ successes that provide no actual evidence of success are seen as being adequate in themselves and I think that this should change. It is not good enough that a child is happy in your class unless you are capitalising on that happiness to further their chances later on. It is not good enough that you have worked your magic on an angry/violent child if you are not then pushing that child to achieve. You should not feel proud of your achievement as a teacher if all you have done is create a happy, caring and safe environment and convinced yourself that this is enough…it isn’t!

I know…I sound like a monster. I sound like my Ofsted inspector. What have I become?

I think I’ve become a better Head (I hope I have otherwise the last year was a monumental waste of time). I still passionately believe in enjoying teaching and working with children and still believe in creative freedoms and that working in schools can be fun for everyone. But I’m moving away from thinking that some perceived successes cannot be judged or measured. I think that if you hold a pupil’s academic achievement as your ultimate goal you will not rest until you can link everything we work so hard in putting in place to achievement.

So, if you’re reading this thinking ’well it took him a year but bless him, the kid’s on the right path now’ thank you very much. If you’re reading it thinking ‘we need to take him out, he no longer has a soul’ please help me have another epiphany.

Levels are dead…long live the Levels.

ImageIn a recent local authority meeting for ‘locally maintained Head Teachers’ we were asked by our local leaders to partake in what was essentially a massive brain storm session. Like an excruciating episode of the Apprentice, where a team has got to the end of day one and still hasn’t got a new revolutionary design for a toilet, our leaders were equipping us with post-its and marker pens and putting us into small groups to try and work out, please dear god have an answer for the question: what is good about being a locally maintained school?

As we desperately begun searching for the unique selling point that would prevent them from being told ‘you’re fired’ by central government it became clear that apart from moral, social, philosophical, personal and political reasons (and what good are they in the boardroom?) there aren’t any. In reality this is a quite a good thing because it signifies that local schools have been working together quite happily to improve the quality and consistency for all pupils within the area. The matter of whether you’re a free school, academy, federation, faith school, LA maintained school doesn’t really come into it: when you get professionals trying to improve things for their schools they often recognise the need to collaborate and often don’t let technicalities get in the way. But the more this was discussed and liked by everyone in the room the less it looked like there was a clear ‘model’ for LA schools.

But then the DfE confirmed that they are getting rid of the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress and (as Gove wants us all to be free thinking and innovative)…it will not be replaced. This has caused a huge level of debate on twitter and there are some very interesting and contrary thoughts about it. One thought that has not been explored but surely has been considered by Local Authority Leaders and Directors of services is that this could be a chance to save the local authority’s bacon: Over-hauling levels could be the pig’s ear that the LA could spin into its very own silk purse.

Ultimately, what really matters is the progress and the achievement within a particular discipline to a particular expected standard. That is never going to go away. The biggest issue with this is consistency in terms of accuracy of judgement. Anyone who has ever taken part in a staff meeting or inset on ‘benchmarking’ writing levels knows how difficult it is to attain consistency across a single table of teachers let alone a school’s worth. No matter what you agree on by the end of the day, in a year’s time some teachers will still be led by their own personal judgements on what constitutes a true level. Monitoring helps iron out the inconsistencies but it still occurs-especially during transition periods (you know that bit in Term 2 where you see that no one has made progress and some pupils have gone backwards?). And that’s just in a single school: imagine the variation across the country.

Whatever system you choose, you are still going to have this issue. Standardised testing is meant to put a big sticky plaster over this as it levels out the playing field. Now we can clearly measure progress from KS1 to KS2. Not really…we can measure how one adult judged a pupil’s writing against how a different adult judged the same pupil’s writing  (well, two pieces of writing completed within 45 minutes) four years later.

We could have more standardised testing. Yearly SATS that do not rely on personal interpretations of level descriptors but instead, give scores within each element of reading, writing and maths; which in turn track the levels of achievement for each child. This has already been introduced in the Y1 phonics screening and the Y6 SPAG tests so why not stretch across the entire school. Easy. No margin of error and with a pass score everyone can understand.

I don’t really fancy this idea but then I do quite like curriculum level descriptors. They provide a structure of progression that allows us (teachers, pupils and parents) to see what areas of reading, writing and maths need to be developed through quality teaching and learning.

The problem is not with how we assess but when. This is where local authorities could really challenge the status quo and perhaps develop a more robust way of measuring pupil progress and achievement and therefore the performance of its schools.

What about, doing away with end of Key Stage tests? Pasi Sahlberg, an educationalist from Finland (one of the world’s top performing countries in terms of standards of education) said that too often standardised tests were seen as ‘end points’ used to judge the final score at the end of a particular phase in a child’s educational career. Instead they should be seen as a ‘check point’ throughout a longer journey.

So why not assess pupils at certain times in their life as opposed to certain times during the school calendar. Age appropriate assessment could allow us to see if the pupil is achieving as well as their peers of a similar age. This would either mean testing pupils on their birthdays (oh alright the day after, honestly, you Liberals!) or ensuring that we accurately match level descriptors and developments with age expectations rather than end of year expectations. This would allow us to track progress fairly and in relation to every pupil in any school-it would be a far better form of standardisation than getting a cohort of pupils to sit the same test at the same hour on the same date. So don’t throw away your level descriptors just yet but get ready for a new assessment timetable and tell the unions we may need to boycott SATs for the next two years.

It would need a bit of careful thinking, a lot of professional trust and a significant amount of communication between schools. These are all things that a local authority could organise and provide and if applied across a whole city could support consistency as well. It would also move us away from the obsession of reinventing the wheel in terms of finding the next approach to assessment and chasing fads to prove tiny bits of short lasting impact. Responsible assessment followed by appropriate and effective input all sewn up by the language of ‘age’ that everyone understands. By giving schools the ‘freedom of choice’ Michael Gove may have unwittingly provided local authorities with a unique opportunity to start an educational revolution and in doing so, cement their place on the educational landscape.

The Golden Age – part 2

When I began teaching, Headship was like the end of a rainbow..out of reach. Partly because I had only begun teaching,  any thoughts towards becoming a Head would have been very odd considering I wasnt quite sure what was higher: a 2C or a 2A? (I actually had to ring my final school, placement mentor to find out). No, if at that stage in my career I had designs on Headship it would have been very worrying and I probably should have left the world of education there and then .  

Another reason however as to why Headship appeared to be an almost mythological state was because of the Head Teachers that were around. In my mind the Head Teachers back then were calossal. Mighty beasts that not only led their school but were the school.  I don’t want to use the word “Maverick”but these were big personalities who seemed untouchable. It was these men and women whose schools were like kingdoms.  When you heard about what this or that Head was doing in his or her school it was like listening to myths from another land. They were at once, to me, all knowing about education but only in their particular domain. I always felt that it would be impossible to become one of them…unless I killed a lion or wrestled a bear or bit the head off a snake in some weird local authority ritual.  

I later worked with one of these leaders at close hand and I was so relieved that they weren’t a disappointment. It was a tough school in a socio-economically depressed part of the city and floor standards were pretty much your wildest dreams.  (Don’t confuse that with staff low expectations however, as a pgce student once made the mistake of actually saying during a staff meeting.) This Head was, to my mind, the only possible person who could lead that school.  

Don’t get me wrong, there were some areas of weakness:  

1. Being able to actually teach (if he was taking your class you would come back at break to find that he had barely taken the register so preoccupied with trying to make the class laugh)
2. Staff communication at times was not brilliant; you found out, for example,  what year group you were teaching next year via letter in your pigeon hole after lunch on the last day… he would have left for the holidays at noon.
3. Zero respect for financial responsibility…each year came the depressing and soul destroying moment of ‘managing change’ which left many staff feeling devalued.
4. Writing a  SEF that was a complete (although at times amusing) work of fiction.  

But there were many, many, many things that cause those weaknesses to evaporate from my mind when I think about his overall contribution to that school community.  He loomed so large on the psyche of the community and committed so much of his life to bringing the community together and unifying them that he remains a significant influence on my own headship.  

I say that even though I believe his breed of Head Teacher is now extinct. For better or for worse schools are no longer led by Kings or Queens trying to protect their castle from the dragons that try to burn them down. (Wow, reading this back makes me think I should hold back on Game of thrones). These Heads have died out as Headship became more… professional?  

I don’t for one minute say that to try and take any level of professionalism away from the Heads of yesteryear… but the job itself has changed. For example:
I can’t employ, without interview, parents from the playground because they seem nice. I can’t have staff favourites (publicly) and offer them internal promotions. I can’t create an SDP priority based upon a personal indulgence. l can’t ignore what my local schools are doing or ignore their achievements over mine.  

Headship has become more transparently accountable and operating as a lone saviour is impossible. When people reminise about the “freedoms” of teaching back then (“I used to decide what my afternoon lessons would be whilst shaving”) or Headship (“Bugger the SIP, I Know what we’re doing”) l occasionally feel, not Sad, but a nostalgic longing for what I may have missed… a golden age? A time of freedoms and of a “my way or the highway” and assurity that you were right without question.

I mean will I inspire a generation of future Heads? Will they write a blog about me saying:  

1. By God he could write a SEF that cut to the chase.
2. He Knew Raise like the back of his hand.
3. I’ll say this for him, he always interviewed if there was a vacancy.
4. The man could budget reasonably well.. no one lost their job but we never managed to equip a fully working ICT suite.  

I’m certain they won’t. Even so, I hope I can be the Head for the community that I saw in that inner city school years ago. The cut corners, I can do without and the independence.  But the total commitment to a school is what drives me, and the changes that have come with the evolution of school improvement are, by me, welcomed. I embrace the partnerships we are creating with local schools in the real world and professional colleagues in the virtual world of twitter. I don’t want to be alone in this very public dashboard of educational judgements. We may not be living in a golden age of education and school leadership may have become more corporate and professionally minded but I wouldn’t necessarily change that.  

Where there are constraints, people will find freedoms through creativity.
When one school “fails” it will succeed through systems and partnerships.
Professionalism and rigid accountability are borne from a true desire to raise standards for all pupils.

As a school Leader I truly feel that we are tantalisingly close to forging education’s new golden age.