The lost Jedi

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Like a TIE Fighter making the jump to light speed, the new Ofsted corporate strategy plan has blasted into the edu-stratosphere. The old strategy – whatever it was – has been erased and replaced by this sleek new document that is, I suppose, intended to be a physical manifestation of the ‘new hope’ crusade led by Sean Harford and Amanda Spielman. They are education’s answer to Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker (or the Emperor and Darth Vader according to your point of view).

Bits of it even read like a job-description for a Jedi Knight: All Padawans considering application must be guided by the principle that they are a force for improvement and enjoy wearing brown cloaks. The ability to lift sunken spacecrafts out of lakes is desirable but not essential.

It’s one-page summary is a punchy affair. For example, Ofsted’s strategic approach can be described in just three words: Intelligent, Responsible and Focused.  BOOM! Got that? Ofsted ain’t messing about here boys and girls, these Bothans mean business. And as well as being guided by the magical Ofsted force they’ve got some pretty clear core values too: Independence, Accountability, Transparency, something about kids. These guys are facing into the wind and firing up the light sabres of judgement and nothing’s gonna stop them. I like it. They’ve even got priority workstreams and I haven’t a freakin’ clue what one of those is but I want one in my school development plan and I want it now!

As you explore these streams you see that the strategy plan is a very measured affair. This is a new, broad and balanced Ofsted. Less, ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far away from the real world’ and more, ‘one small step for the educators, one giant leap for the inspectors.’ Ofsted are focusing on their own validity; they want their reports to support as much as they judge. They even want to understand the consequence of their actions whilst championing children at every turn.

This is solid stuff.

Except for the fact that it lacks any solid foundations.

Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t know what Ofsted are trying to achieve with this strategy. They haven’t thought to state a goal. Oh I know that I’m just a simple-minded headteacher working in the primary sector and that being Ofsted ain’t like dusting crops. But, I always thought having a clear aim was kind of the point of a strategic plan.

Let’s ask a few people a really simple question: What are you up to?

General Tarkin, Death Star commander: Just trying to blow up some planets.

Mothma, the leader of the rebel alliance: Just trying to blow up the Death Star.

Jabba the Hut, fat worm: Just trying to get this bikini clad girl to dance for me.

Princess Leia, one-time chained dancer of Jabba the Hut: Just trying to strangle this misogynistic slug.

Jar-Jar Binks, absolutely no idea: Just trying to destroy a franchise.

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted chief inspector: Just trying to work out some evaluation metrics around our system measures and accountability measures.

Now let me ask YOU a question, dear reader: which one of these answers do you understand the least?

While some of you are still googling ‘evaluation metrics’ let me clarify for everyone else that in the competition for coming up with a succinct goal, Ofsted are trailing behind Jar-Jar Binks! And Ofsted…that’s not cool.

Come on Ofsted, put some light into that sabre. Just tell us what you want to achieve! It can’t be that hard to put into words, surely? I’ll try and help. Feel free to pick from any of the following:

  1. We want all our judgements to be accurate.
  2. We want our advice to improve things for schools when we decide things aren’t good enough.
  3. We want to see better outcomes the year after we’ve visited a school.
  4. We want to see professionals strengthened not crushed.
  5. We want to be welcomed.

I’m sure your strategy plan will help you achieve one, if not all, of these ambitions. And why would you not want to achieve them. They sound pretty good to me. If you could say just one of those things with honesty and integrity you’d be a really positive force for good: raising standards and improving lives.

But without a clear goal, written in large font at the top of your plan, you’re nothing more than a lost Jedi. You wield great power and influence but nobody knows what you want. OK, so we know what you stand for and how you want to go about your business, but, seriously, what is your business? And how will we know when you’ve done it?

I can’t believe you don’t have a single tangible goal that you’re all working on down at Ofsted HQ. I mean, if I don’t put a clear and measurable goal on top of my SDP your Lead Inspector would run me out of space. So why don’t you follow suit? I can’t believe it’s because you don’t want to be judged yourself. So, I’ll put it down to the fact that you couldn’t fit it on your strategy plan without it going over a single page of A4: we’ve all been there. I understand.

But, the truth still remains: I find your lack of goals disturbing.

I love it when a plan comes together (The secret of my SDP success: part 2)

a team

Halfway through a recent subject leader SDP planning session, one of my middle leaders declared: ‘This is so basic!’ Then, as if remembering I was in earshot, she sheepishly apologised and said that her comment had come out wrong. I quickly reassured her that I did not take this comment as an insult, in fact, what she had said was kind of the point:

School Development Planning should be basic.

Over the years I have toyed around with the format of action planning. I remember when the SDP was twenty, or so, pages long. It was colour-coded. It referenced every syllable of the Ofsted Inspection Handbook. Instead of English, it was written in a weird kind of edu-code that only I and a Lead Inspector would understand. There were multiple boxes, all filled in with an ever-diminishing font.

The whole thing took half the year to write and it impossible to manage. Therefore, you had to write a condensed version that you would use with staff. You also had to have a one-page version that would be ready to email Ofsted after their initial phone call. Governors demanded that you write a ‘child friendly’ version under the pretence that children could understand and, not at all, so they could work out what you were talking about during meetings.

The whole process was unwieldly and did not help anyone with the day to day strategic running of the school. It treated school improvement like some lofty endeavour, resulting in an SDP that read like the aloof and pompous autobiography of Michael Gove. It certainly wasn’t basic.

So, one day, I decided that my SDP had to grow up.

The first step was stripping back all of the nonsense. It was actually whilst listening to Alastair Campbell talk about the strategy and tactics that New Labour used in the run up to the 1997 election where I experienced my first SDP epiphany.

Read more about that here.

(Assuming you have)

So, now that I was armed with my aims, strategies and tactics, I was ready to plan.

In my opinion, the ‘whole school’ development plan should be a relatively generic beast. Because, let’s face it, we’re all after the same thing, aren’t we?

AIMS

  1. Children to achieve really, really, REALLY well.
  2. Teaching to be tip-top.
  3. Everyone to be nice and respectful to each other as well-rounded human beings.
  4. Leaders to make a positive difference.

What else is there?

Those have been, pretty much, my SDP aims for the last three years over two schools. And guess what? They fit. So far, they’ve worked too. (Although I’ve only been in the second school for nine days so we should probably hold fire on that judgement.)

Now, the strategies have varied. They have to as they are shaped by the context of the school. But, each and every one of them, has been a single sentence. A clear line that has joined up all the tactics so that everyone in the school can view the hard work, that goes into school improvement, within a shared and united approach: we are all in this together. (Damn you Cameron for ruining that phrase for eternity!)

But what about the written plan? You can’t just have a few sentences (maybe some clip-art?) on a single piece of paper…can you?

No. Of course you can’t. I may be a revolutionary maverick when it comes to school development planning but, even the A-Team wrote down their plans in Microsoft Word so that they could refer back to the tactics and hold each other accountable for the success of the over-arching strategy. They just didn’t film that bit every week. Plus, Murdoch kept changing the bloody font to jokerman which really got on BA’s baracus. The ruddy clown.

No, for each tactic, you need something written down to help guide your workflow throughout the year. I still found it hard to work out how to map out each tactic’s progress throughout the year. Using traditional formats of actions plans I ran the risk of simply splitting up a tactic into smaller components and dressing them up as standalone tactics.

Take target setting. No sooner had I decided that setting targets was an essential tactic – within the strategy of robust use of assessment information – than I had written lots of target setting-esque tactics:

  • Whole school targets are set, with governors, based on external data.
  • Teachers’ targets are based on internal data and prior attainment.
  • Progress meetings are held to review progress against targets.
  • Support interventions are put in place where necessary.
  • Target review forms part of performance management.

I was getting in a mess. I tried to organise my tactics based on the time of the year. But, I found that this just caused repetition. And I hate repetition. I was writing the same thing in Term 4 than I had in Term 2. It was repetitive. And I hate repetition.

Then I had my second epiphany.

Instead of viewing these tactics as individual actions I began to see them as sequences of the same tactic. Each tactic, I realised, had three main phases:

For the tactic to be operational it needs to be set up properly (compliance phase). Once it has, you can put it into action (implementation phase). Finally, information will be gathered that will allow you to know whether the tactic has been effective (review phase).

Let’s take all those target-setting bits and pieces from earlier and see them in the context of a single tactic spread out over three phases:

Tactic Compliance Implementation Review
Target setting focuses on children reaching the expected standard in RWM combined. Targets are set based on prior attainment and the SDP’s goals for end of key stage achievement.

Targets are shared with staff and governors.

Targets form part of teachers’ appraisal.

Leaders and teachers review termly data packs against initial targets.

Adjustments to provision are made to ensure that targets are met.

Support is identified if groups of pupils seem at risk of not meeting targets.

Support for teachers is identified if pupils are not making sufficient gains in their learning.

Teaching profile is updated to reflect on-going performance of teachers.

·Targets are reviewed, and taken into account, when judging the effectiveness of teachers’ and leaders’ performance.

The three phases, (and everything that happens within them) flow into each other. You cannot, for example, expect adjustments to provision to be made if the targets haven’t been shared. You cannot take the outcome of targets into consideration during a teacher’s appraisal if they have not been offered support if they were ever at risk of not meeting them.

These phases allow a narrative for each tactic to be created. A simple and linear path that can be easily followed as the year progresses. Obviously, you will have selected some success indicators for each tactic and this will enable you to review each phase.  If your success indicators start flashing red you can look back to see which phase was not carried out effectively? Did you not set the tactic up well enough during the compliance phase? Or has the implementation not been robust enough? Finally, you should be able to determine if this tactic is a vital part of your school improvement strategy or, realise that it is a low performer and never to be repeated?

An added bonus to this plan is that it is concise. Just as one middle leader was praising its simplicity, another middle leader was surprised to find that her new plan took up a single side of A4 in comparison to the four page opus from last year. Much of the actual content was the same but it had been streamlined and stripped down to its essentials. It was a simple set of tactics (all with their own journey mapped out across the three phases) that were united under a single strategy which ‘should’ achieve the overall aim.

So, if you have an unwieldy action plan and no one else can help, and, if you can find them, maybe you should hire The A-team…who won’t mind you using the same format as me because, let’s face it, they just love it when a plan comes together.

Postscript

A few people have contacted me saying that they wish they could see what a entire SDP would look like using the format discussed in this post. Well, don’t say I never give you nothing. Here’s one from a couple of years ago. I think (hope) I’ve deleted any specific ‘my school’ stuff on it. I’m sure you won’t just copy it but feel free to do with it what you will…although pass this format off as your own for cash and I WILL find you.

Enjoy! X

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B9C7hqTjwQO2ZnNoMHkwblpJYUE/view?usp=sharing

 

Wish you were here – @theprimaryhead in Cuba

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Whilst holidaying in Cuba I stumbled across a primary school. Obviously, I went in (thinking that if I took enough pictures I could get the trip paid for by my employer claiming that the whole holiday was in fact ‘professional development’) where I was met by the school’s Headteacher. The children were on holiday but I was welcome to look around if I had any money to donate as the school didn’t have enough money for pencils. ‘Welcome to my world’ I laughed in slow English as I patted her on the back and got her to pose for a selfie.

Cubans value education enormously. You can tell from the fact that whenever you’re in a taxi the driver will excitedly point out any school or university that you pass with levels of patriotic pride generally reserved for national monuments, of which Cuba, let me tell you, is not short of (you can barely move for statues and murals of men with beards – if you don’t know your communist history you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a national hipster convention.) Some drivers asked if I wanted to stop so I could take a photo of these beacons of education and, to show respect, I said I’d love to-as long as the photo could be taken with me sitting in the driving seat of their classic American car with the school, university, whatever, in the background.

I also went on a tour of ‘real Cuban life’. You know the drill, where you see real Cubans off their maracas on white rum, smoking cigars and dancing the Rumba. Actually, this tour was a little different. It mainly consisted of walking into ‘quota’ shops to see everyday Cubans queueing up to spend their government issued tokens that entitled them to their weekly allowance of flour, eggs, meat, butter and fruit. As I took a selfie of me, posing with a confused looking elder standing in front of the shop’s counter, I was asked by my Guide if there are such places in England. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘We’re a rich capitalist democracy. We have food banks instead.’

As we continued along the tour I found out that my Guide was in fact a teacher himself. Well, he was, but he gave it up as he found he could make more money as a tour guide than he could as a teacher at the university. ‘It also became frustrating,’ he said. ‘The government expected more and more from teachers but they refused to give us any more resources or money to achieve their demands.’ He continued to explain how he could not afford to live in the main part of the city, where the university was, meaning he had to spend hours traveling to work, sometimes by horse and cart, to teach an ever-expanding curriculum in order to hit an impossibly high set of targets. ‘Welcome to my world’ I laughed in normal English (he was a professor in English and throughout our tour kept on correcting my appalling diction and frequent misuse of the formal vernacular) as I patted him on the back and took a photo of him next to an Instagramily decrepit building that was ‘so’ Cuba.

I asked him about the curriculum. Children learn a lot about Cuban history and the Cuban way of life. This is very important. Through direct instruction they are taught exactly what the government wish them to learn. I asked my Guide if children could question the information that they were presented with by their teacher. ‘Everyone has freedom of thought,’ he explained. ‘But this does not equate to freedom of expression.’ A child asking questions or showing curiosity that may prod the expected norms or challenge the natural (national) order of thinking is not something that you would see in a traditional Cuban classroom. It’s not ‘not allowed’ but it is unlikely it would occur as it would be perceived as getting in the way of the teacher’s knowledge and, therefore, the truth. ‘There are signs that this is changing though in higher education as more young people are asking more questions that challenge the status quo.’ He asked me about education in this country. Four hours later he said that although he still didn’t understand what a progressive teacher was, he did understand that they were a threat to national security.

Cuba has changed much in recent years. Since 2008, Cubans can now run their own businesses, travel more freely, own a mobile phone and stay in hotels. These changes have come as the country has battled with its economic sovereignty and it is likely that, after 2018, the country will see more economic and social changes that will alter the Cuban way of life immeasurably. Some, mainly the older generations, do not yet have Cuban-Fever over this prospect. You can’t blame them. They’ve already gone through one bloody revolution and are satisfied with the circumstances they now find themselves in. The younger generations however want more freedoms, a wider set of life-experiences, the opportunity to question the world they live in so that they may improve it for future generations, and, the ability to face-time whenever they want.

I shook my Guide’s hand and, as we posed together for a final selfie in front of a statue depicting Ernest Hemmingway propping up a bar dribbling strawberry daiquiri all over his beard, I wondered, out loud, whether Cuba might one day be as great as Great Britain. The Guide patted me on the back and said ‘Eres un hombre inglés muy divertido’. I smiled at the compliment and he continued. ‘Yes, there may be some similarities between our two countries,’ he said. ‘Both our governments may value education but not its educators; many of our schools may be so under-funded that they are forced to beg for pencils; teacher retention – due to a combination of increased workload, higher expectations and unaffordable housing – may be at an all-time low. But, at least in Cuba, our country is widening its economic trade borders and making it easier for its people to travel to other countries. At least we are starting to move away from the tight grip of a knowledge only curriculum delivered through robust direct instruction, as we recognise that this can lead to unquestioning indoctrination. And, I think you’ll find, my government has been openly critical about the abhorrent views and policies of a certain world leader that threaten the peace and democracy of the entire planet.’ After that he paused, waiting for a reply. So, as I had done throughout all my time in Cuba when I found myself in a tight spot, I smiled and told him that I was awfully sorry but that I didn’t speak any Spanish.

As we parted, he gifted me a copy of Fidel Castro’s 1953 four-hour speech and eventual manifesto. I haven’t read it yet but it’s got one heck of a snappy title: History will absolve me.

Fingers crossed.