Thanks but no thanks.

Thank-You-word-cloud

I have chatted to three other headteachers recently about a particular issue concerning leadership that irks me: giving thanks.

Now, forgive me for saying, but I think I’m actually quite a nice boss. I’m fair, honest, open, understanding and (for the most part and when I’m not being hilarious) calm. I have only shouted once in my career as a leader and felt like such an idiot afterwards vowed never to again. I don’t publicly or privately humiliate people and I never confront someone out in the open but if a challenging conversation is needed it is done sensitively in the privacy of a closed office.

I also tend to let people have their way. You want to go home early because your partner has booked a long weekend away for your birthday and he didn’t realise you were a teacher and can’t have time off mid-term? Alright. As long as you can get cover for your class sorted go for it, have a nice time. You’re going to find it difficult to get the Term 3 data in on time because it coincided with your cousin’s birthday and it’s been a busy term. Oh, ok, well as long as it’s done before the end of term that should be fine, I don’t mind spending my holiday reviewing it and I’m not reporting it to governors after half term anyway so yeah, don’t worry. Your reports are not going to be in on time? Well, I suppose I haven’t finished writing all of my comments on everyone else’s yet so if I don’t get yours until Monday that shouldn’t really be a problem, I’ll just rush them off in the morning, no worries.

You see? Quite reasonable. I don’t get cross, I don’t look disappointed. I just very quickly and rationally weigh up the pros and cons and think – if I can accommodate this will it be a real problem? Over the years I have granted such ad-hoc requests to pretty much every member of staff so I feel the balance and order across the school is at a constant equilibrium: there isn’t one particular member of staff who is ‘always’ making such requests (otherwise that would warrant one of those chats in a private office).

I don’t know if I am too lenient or more lenient that other headteachers. All I know is that I don’t like confrontation; as long as stuff does get done pretty much on time everything will be alright; as long as staff are independent and responsible for keeping themselves in the loop the school will carry on successfully; and I’m human. We all need a bit of leniency from time to time don’t we? From the mundane requests to work from home because a fridge is being delivered to the exceptional: going way above and beyond the standard number of days for compassionate leave because, well, it was clear they needed it. I see this as being an effective leader for the people and for the school, after all, look after the one and the other will be taken care of too.

There is also another, slightly more ‘senior leader’ aspect to me being the most gracious and wonderful leader in the history of schooling: I’m a banker. No, that isn’t a typo, I am a banker. I store all these requests that I grant, with a smile and a ‘don’t worry’, in my mental bank of back scratchers. For I know there will come a time when I request something that will require them to go the extra mile or will put them out of their comfort zone and I don’t mind doing that if I can back it up with past favours. This isn’t blackmail; I don’t get my little black book out and say ‘On the 14th May you asked if you could not come into celebration assembly because you wanted to book your travel insurance and I agreed; therefore you will stay here tonight until midnight or until all the children have been set up with individual blogging accounts.’ No, it’s more a case of getting everyone to accept that at times we rely on the kindness of others.

So what is it that irks me? Well it came to my attention recently that there is a perception, from some staff, that I don’t appreciate them and never say thanks or well done. I was genuinely surprised by this. I (honestly) think, that as well as being a very ‘human’ and compassionate headteacher, I actually praise staff all the time. I do so in staff meetings, in newsletters, in person and through the act of supplying them with more buffets a year than your typical wedding planners. And yet, there is still this perception that I don’t thank people. Interestingly, all the other headteachers said the same and commented that ‘no staff ever think management thank them enough.’ I find this simultaneously interesting, worrying and if I’m honest, bloody annoying.

What I find interesting is how far from the mark I have obviously been when it comes to how individuals want to be thanked. Clearly, being nice, accommodating, jolly, smiley, never getting publicly cross, creating a pleasant work environment and thanking people when they deserve it and doing all of this consistently for everyone, isn’t enough. Some people want more and this is also what I find worrying because I don’t know if I could ever satisfy their collective thirst for praise. Actually I can quench a collective thirst, it’s all the individual perceptions of how I should thank people that I’ll never be able to manage. It’s easy for them as all they have to worry about is one person: me. They all know what I want and how I work and my expectations. As for me? I’m expected to know and respond to every single employees personal preferences concerning how they want to be treated. My overall consistency isn’t good enough because it doesn’t tick all of everyone’s boxes. This, then adds to my annoyance. Not because I’m ungrateful or I feel undervalued but for the simple reason that it seems like the deck is not stacked in my favour.

No person in the entire school is as scrutinised and judged as me. Everyone will comment on my behaviour, choice of words, mood, facial expression and condemn me the moment any inconsistency arises and yet I am also expected to accept every single one of their inconsistencies and understand the hidden, personal backstory as to why they have acted or spoken the way they have or else risk being branded as ‘insensitive’. This seems not just unfair (and hey, I know I get paid more and it’s my job so I should just quit moaning) but more importantly it seems impossible. There is also, as one of the headtechers pointed out, the very real fact that we do not get thanked regularly by everyone (yes I know, and I refer you to the previous bracket concerning pay and job description and me getting over it) but shouldn’t staff feel some responsibility for the well-being of their headteacher just a little bit? I however, don’t expect thanks for just doing my job, so how much thanks should teachers expect for just doing theirs?

So I intend to spend the summer holidays reflecting on ways that I can show appreciation in the hope that people will value it. In doing so I have some questions to consider:

• How much may I have to change my perception in what to give thanks for?

• Do I care that some people don’t think I thank enough?

• What difference would a little more acknowledgement make – even for things that I don’t personally feel warrant it?

• To what extent should my staff accept my inconsistencies and quirks?

• What will I do if I change and I thank more but in a year’s time get told that I hardly ever say thank you?

Moderation – one size fits no one

Image

What do you get when a particular process is one person’s main job? A highly skilled professional with a wealth of knowledge and understanding? An individual who is blinkered by their preferred systems? I know which one I’d prefer but then again sometimes life is like a box of chocolates from Lidl: what you see ain’t always what you get.

I recently experienced a moderation morning. I was genuinely surprised at how archaic this system seemed in the light of all the changes coming in next year. I would have thought the moderators would have been interested in how schools were making their judgements rather than dictate the use of rather stale and soon to be outdated ways of assessing. I don’t mind a system and rigour – that is very much welcomed, but to mask an individual’s preference through artificial officialdom is a bit weak.

There were some frustrating suggestions about what we should be using in order to make judgements with no acknowledgement of our systems. Well, no that’s unfair. They did acknowledge our systems but they pretty much wanted us to use theirs.

Before that discussion got too heated however, there was the ongoing battle about when should you judge a child to be at a certain level? Consistency over time is key, we all know that, but if a child is capable and has demonstrated it, how long must we wait before we nail our colours to the mast?

Whilst I appreciate that a child using a full stop for the first time in their entire life does not mean they are suddenly writing at Level 2B but the ‘we must see at least one hundred pieces of writing including twenty examples of cross-curricular writing before we commit to a level’ theory really gets my Gove. Why? Simple: I trust my teachers; I have faith in my senior leaders who moderate with my teachers; I am not an idiot.

Let me explain:

I hate it when I flick through children’s books and see that a child is working ‘pretty much’ consistently at a particular level and yet when I look at data they are assessed at a level behind. When I ask the teacher why this is so, the response I normally get is based around the child’s failure to consistently do one teeny-tiny element of a level descriptor. The handwriting isn’t always joined; they missed a full stop last week; they haven’t used an exclamation mark in a month. I believe that this single-minded obsession with fulfilling every single descriptor stunts progress. If you committed to assessing at the ‘higher’ level then when you plan for that child not only will you still be getting them to use an exclamation mark in every sentence but you will also be focussing on more appropriate next steps. By not doing this, by keeping that child down, you’re showing low expectations that will only result in low standards. Be brave…challenge the child and challenge yourself. Don’t be irresponsible but if you ‘think’ a child is a 2A pretty much most of the time just crack on and say it: I won’t mind, the child won’t mind and, after your performance management, you won’t mind either.

This is what I encourage my teachers to do because I believe it gives a more accurate picture of a child’s ability. I also have a leadership team who moderate children’s work and I trust them to know that a teacher isn’t going insane and up-levelling everyone. We therefore create an accurate and consistent picture of progress and achievement across the school.

Oh and as I said earlier: I am not an idiot! I don’t want every Year 2 child achieving 2A and level 3 plus…because I know that will be impossible to replicate with Level 4s and 5s when they’re in Year 6 and I gots to show progress don’t I! No, I don’t want assessments too high to make us look good now or too low to make us look good later; I just want accurate data.

But on the day of moderation, if we don’t have multiple sources of evidence, including the use of test resources from 2007, evidence of ‘current level’ work in at least 5 pieces of writing and if we haven’t used their assessment descriptors we get penalised. Never mind that our systems have been checked and approved by my local schools cluster, my governors, the local authority and HMI. Apparently the lone moderator who has not changed their ways since 1998 outranks all these people; who knew?

So ok, we’ll play ball. Not enough evidence. Fine. I’ll put that lad down to a 2C. Not a problem. Why is this not a problem? Because I know that within three weeks I’ll have the evidence to say he’s a 2B.

Oh, apparently that is a problem. I can’t do that because the moderator would be very surprised if the boy had made any further progress in that time. (This boy, if you remember, had written at a 2b level but not enough times to please the moderator so he was lowered to a 2c.) So even though the moderator understands that he has written at 2b meaning technically, by my understanding, he doesn’t have to ‘make’ any more progress they still wouldn’t expect me to say he’s a 2B in a month’s time when I’ll have the evidence to prove it. I genuinely don’t get this argument. I mean, what do they think we’re going to be doing from now until the summer? Of course he’s going to do more writing and of course my teachers are going to assess it and, when they do, I’ll make sure they use your ancient system and of course when he comes out as a 2B (again) I will be sending that level off to the local authority. To suggest otherwise is a nonsense as it stems from bureaucracy rather than allowing educators to do their job.

Then came the comment that the moderator would also be surprised if any other pupils moved up a sub-level before the data deadline – in about a month’s time. Again, what do they think schools are doing in the last term? I have no idea but apparently, working really hard up to the last minute to get as many children as possible writing at age related expectations isn’t one of them. It was only a few months ago that Ofsted were expecting every child to make progress in every lesson – but now I’m being challenged over the assumption my children will make any form of progress in three and a half weeks!

What irritates me here is that I don’t think I’m being challenged educationally. I’m being challenged because the reality of the situation doesn’t fit in with the contrived nature of how moderations are carried out. It’s akin to trying to fit a strait-jacket onto an octopus. Progress is messy and awkward and relies on teachers’ professionalism to get it right. If the moderators want to come in and assess 10% of pupils in every school using their own antiquated system to get a picture of achievement across the city that is fine, but they cannot demand schools use their systems instead of or as well as their own. This will be no truer next year when the poor moderators will be unable to rely on their beloved level descriptors. What will they do? What system will they use? How will we know schools’ differing systems are being judged relatively?

There’s only one solution…moderation.

 

SATS: welcome to the circus; don‘t invite Tinker!

Image

 

SATS is for dummies, administering SATS however…well that’s a task that would tax the finest minds of MI6. Your mission, should you choose to accept it is to correctly use every single plastic bag, fold-out cardboard box, elastic band, sticky address label and registration sheet in your pack before Karla the postman comes to pick them up.

Opening the pack (not the paper-watch it Tinker) you are presented with your diagrammatical instructions. Not at first you understand, no first you have to hold the blank piece of paper under a candle and wait for the lemon juice to colour. Then, you have your instructions.

It’s simple really.

Exactly 7 ½ minutes before starting the test you and another administrator recover your skeleton keys that are hanging on a chain around your neck, insert said keys in the duplicate holes of your undercover SATS bunker and on the count of three turn your keys anti-clockwise until you hear a click. You now have access to the vault. Take out the sealed papers and like ninjas creep up to the testing room.

Upon entering make sure you mentally record the precise seating location of every child within the room – if any of them even think of moving chairs you have permission from the secretary of state to terminate their education with extreme prejudice. Then whip out your serrated jungle blade and open up that bag of papers like a cheap suit in summer. Distribute the papers in silence recording the time each paper hit the table.

Once the papers have been handed out give the children the fifteen digit code that they must copy down in mirrored handwriting before starting the clock. As you were the person who delivered, opened and distributed the papers it is obviously inappropriate for you to continue breathing the same air as the examinees so remove yourself, recording the precise time you left the room.

Using your watch, or through very precise counting, return to the exam room, again mentally recording the location of each child, and demand they put down their pencils through the medium of mime because remember, the walls have ears. Collect each paper in alphabetical order and before the top and bottom papers reach the same temperature as your palms lay them on the table in your office.

Now here comes the tricky bit. Cross reference each paper with the registration sheet provided by your government contact. Tick off each name using the code poor boy, beggar boy, naughty boy and free school meal boy. Once all the papers are accounted for, retrieve from the vault, your clear plastic bag. Insert papers in the bag and seal – unless there is a second part to the test in which case use the other clear plastic bag and seal that one instead. If using the first clear plastic bag peel off and stick on the coded label with the address of the government agent who will mark bits and pieces of your test papers. If using the second type of clear plastic do not peel off and stick on the sticker. Instead, just seal the bag and wait until more papers to arrive and then unseal the bag and put those papers and the new papers into a newer and even clearer plastic bag and seal that one and then attach the coded address label. Don’t forget that at any time you can make the flat pack cardboard box and put all the papers in any of the clear bags in the box but don’t close the box until all the papers are in all the correct clear plastic bags. Then seal the box and put this sealed box containing sealed and coded labelled bags full of papers into another plastic bag which you should then seal but not before making a note of the precise time that you sealed the bagged and boxed and bagged again papers into their final bag (or box). There may be more coded address labels to use at this point or you may find that they have all been used up. At this stage find your red telephone and ring the emergency number at control, use the phrase ‘The Gove has laid a dirty egg’ and you will be sent an encrypted email containing new sticky labels and your letter of resignation. (Be warned that control will be experiencing a high volume of calls at this time and you may experience long delays, your call is important to them).

Finally place all bags and boxes into the vault and double lock the door. You must then check the vault on an hourly basis to make sure that no tinkering or spying has been going on. The whole SATS operation will be over when you open the vault and the papers have just disappeared. At this point send a telegram to control saying:

‘SATS COMPLETE AND SENT AWAY FOR MARKING stop ALL PAPERS ACCOUNTED FOR stop RIDICULOUSLY CONVOLUTED AND COMPLICATED SYSTEM OF ADMINISTRATION COMPLETE stop PLEASE CAN WE stop’