When we was Phab!

It’s good to get away. Not just to get away from the hustle and bustle from your own environment but also to have an opportunity to meet other like-minded (or not) people from your profession. At a time in the academic of year where the promises of Autumn seem to be at their most fragile and you feel success is balanced on a knife’s edge, it’s good to get away and realise that…you are not alone.

It was the annual Phab (that’s Primary Heads Association of Bristol to you) conference in Chepstow. A day and a half of Heads and Deputies talking, laughing, eating, drinking, singing (partly due to the drinking) thinking, supporting each other, reflecting and looking forward.

Listening and talking to other Heads about their schools, achievements and struggles. Not only do you realise that there are situations that are way more challenging than yours but more importantly you find yourself able to offer support and advice. This in turn is reciprocated and suddenly you have an idea you can take back and a person you can go to after the conference to ask for help. I believe they call this ‘networking’. I prefer to call it ‘chatting with a purpose’ and is a good example of why I love being Phab.

Our highly esteemed Chair @overton66 had started the main proceedings on Friday with the statement: ‘I know we seem to say this every year but it really does feel like we are living in uncertain and exciting times in education’. He’s not wrong. The landscape of education is changing more rapidly than Phab’s resident in-house band’s set list. (Current name: ‘The 4Heads’ although I’m leaning towards ‘The Phab 4’.)

The big movers and shakers of Bristol LA have changed, there are many different school models across the city, and partnerships are popping up here there and everywhere; all this against a backdrop of a never endingly changing national picture of expectations from Whitehall. The goal posts are not so much as changing, as more disappearing leaving schools to put down their own jumpers for goalposts and hope for the best.

How awful!

But as Gus Hedges, the smooth talking Chief Executive of GlobeLink from ‘Drop The Dead Donkey’, always said: ‘’Problems are just the pregnant mothers of solutions.’’

Our new LA leaders were also there at the start and made it very clear to us that as the redefining of what it means to be a school in Bristol gets underway, it will be done with us not to us. If that’s not an incentive to get involved then I don’t know what is as I genuinely think they meant it.

Then, to get us inspired, we had the pleasure of working with Mick Waters. In just over an hour he had gone through:

  • What was important in a child’s experience of schooling.

  • The danger of PISA.

  • The damaging role politics has played in education.

  • The shifting sands of assessment data.

  • The false prophets behind Gove’s ‘freedoms’.

  • What the new national curriculum has left out.

  • The rich educational, cross curricular, mind expanding opportunities of a 6 minute video of a man dancing with people around the globe.

I think it is also safe to say that pretty much everyone in the room agreed with his every word. I did. This did occasionally lead me to think ‘Oh goodness, I have become conditioned by Ofsted? – Do I only care about data and things that can be measured? Am I ruining the lives of my children?’ (Luckily, I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t, I don’t, and I’m not.) But I recognised that as a city we have a chance to address all those issues and build a stronger and richer experience for our children.

Then it all got terribly exciting. I mean we started thinking about where Bristol could go. How we, as an educational city, could write its own mandate for what we will give the children that grow up under our watch. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? I think we’ll do it, I genuinely do. But for it to work we are going to need an almost Herculean effort from the LA. Because after we’d all decided what it was we were going to put in place so our children could succeed and be fully prepared for a life of contributing to their world fuelled by a love of learning and life; we would have to have a guarantee that no one could come and dismantle it. It would be a bit like a fixed mortgage. We would need the LA to buffer any national changes or additional crazy expectations that came from Whitehall in order to win votes or to be seen to be addressing society’s ills in the eyes of the media/public – they would have to stand up to national government and say: ‘No, we can’t do that at the moment, we’re busy.’

Imagine that?

Imagine working in a world where you were in control of the goalposts. Imagine a whole city working together to give the same experiences and entitlements for every single child. Imagine raising standards in every single area of the widest curriculum? Imagine being able to do this and know you were making a difference? Imagine that the best ideas, the ones that the professionals deemed to be important, were valued and respected and given the time and freedom to succeed.

That is what it should mean to be in education.

Having the chance to instigate it?

That is what it means to be Phab.

How the mighty have fallen

It happens to the best of us I suppose. You reach a point where if you allow yourself to stop, take a breath and reflect on the situation you’re in, you immediately feel like climbing under a table, breathing into a brown paper bag and perhaps, should the urge take you, quietly vomiting into a shoe. This is why you shouldn’t stop of course. Just keep on going. Just relentlessly chug away like a demented robot who has overridden its self-destruct button happily busying itself unaware of course that it’s about to burn out.

But, because I am not a robot and neither are you, we all occasionally stop and that can often seem like a huge mistake.

Today, I read a reference someone had written for me, about me, for when I applied for my current job. Now, before you start to worry, I don’t make it a habit of reading my own references. I don’t take them home on a Friday, pour myself a glass of wine and regale myself with how great I am. (That would be madness and besides, I have a blog for that.) No, I had in fact been asked to provide a reference for an old colleague and I thought before I start, I should read a successful one (well I got the job didn’t I?) to look at the basic structure of the thing and steal some sentence openers otherwise I was in danger of starting every line with the words ‘And another thing they do well…’

As I read my own reference two feelings began to emerge. One was that I appeared to be the most amazing Deputy the world has ever seen and the second was that I sort of remembered who this person was but felt it certainly wasn’t the current ‘me’.

Again, don’t worry: I know I wasn’t the most amazing Deputy in the world. But I was pretty good. And reading back this distillation of my four year stint I kept thinking: ‘Wow, I did a lot and I did it well.’ Then, thinking about my current job and everything that I’m in the middle of doing I couldn’t help but think: ‘What the hell happened to me?’

How did this cool, calm and collected leader who went from one success to another turn into this husk who seems to be staggering to life raft to life raft narrowly missing open mouthed sharks, sea snakes and floating pieces of excrement?

I do not know.

Then I read my reference again. And as a little treat, I read it again. Then it began to dawn on me. Reading back all of my achievements I began thinking back to those times and how I felt when I was actually there doing it. In retrospect, it all went so smoothly; at the time though, well that’s a different tale.

I remembered all the frustrations and challenges that were part and parcel of success. I remembered the feelings of self doubt on the journeys home, the conversations with the Head saying: ‘What the hell are we doing? Nothing’s working, I mean nothing we are doing is bloody working!’ Because when you’re in the thick of it the dream you had that started the ball rolling, always seems far, far away. Like when you dream you’re running a race and the closer you get to the finishing line the further away it gets. (I’ve never actually had that dream, but I’m sure more sporty people have and the metaphor sort of fits so I’ll ‘run’ with it.)

When you look back though, the success that you achieved for your school tower over the stress and torment it took to get there. So, I realised I hadn’t changed, I hadn’t gone from hero to zero: I’m just doing what everyone else is doing: fighting on. And sometimes it is a fight and sometimes it feels like you’re losing. But we all know it’s going to be worth it – whatever it is you’re personally fighting for, whatever it is that is keeping you from sleeping, you know that your hard work, determination and belief will win in the end. And when the next person writes your reference they’ll focus on everything you achieved and the way in which you refused to be ground down when it got tough.  Hopefully they’ll miss out the bit where they found you underneath the table being sick into a shoe and jabbering on about sea snakes otherwise you’re really stuffed.

So keep going and when you do stop and it feels like it’s all too much, just remember: this ain’t the first time and if you keep doing your job, it won’t be the last.


Keep calm and carry on.

It’s only a game so put up a real big fight.

Big Break theme tune. circa (probably 90s when Saturday entertainment was at its lowest – then again I watched ‘Take Me Out’ last night and nearly wept myself into a dry husk)

The world of education spins at a relentless pace. Being inside the world of education can occasionally feel like you’re in a washing machine that is refusing to stop: swirling around getting bashed about and tangled up with whatever washload of edubabble that has been put in the drum with you; outside beyond the glass it all looks lovely and calm but before you can see what they’re actually doing out there you’re whisked away again as Gove’s trouser leg tightens its grip around your neck.

Why are we moving so fast and why is it all so complicated? Sometimes I blame Twitter. There are days when I can’t get through a single swipe on my Twitter timeline without reading countless contradictory opinions and analysis on effective teaching methods or government initiatives. Normally I would say that this is a positive thing: free speech, the ability to argue, the opportunity to reflect. But occasionally it all seems a bit much and my poor little noggin gets confused. (This probably explains why I’ve started following @FacesPics – nothing eases my confused mind better than occasionally looking at inanimate objects that look like they’re frowning.)

The problem with Twitter being such a rich source of information and opinion is that it constantly reminds me of the million things I’m not doing or simply don’t know about: I don’t know what ‘dichotomy of teaching’ actually means! I also couldn’t honestly tell you what teaching style I prefer…I don’t think I have one: one that works? Or is that too vague?

Don’t get me wrong, I love reading everything that people put out there and it makes me think but therein lies the danger. It often makes me want to try EVERYTHING! My deputy and I had to make an agreement at the start of this year or rather I had to make a promise: any fabulous idea that I had stumbled upon I had to keep to myself. This was because our morning conversations often went like this:

Deputy: Morning, how are you?

Me: Oh fine, fine. You?

Deputy: I’m fine. So today I’m meeting with the support staff to go through how to use numicon.

Me: That’s great. I read this blog last night and I think we should be teaching maths through role play!

It just wasn’t helpful anymore. So now I still read Twitter and blogs but when my head starts swimming with ideas I close my eyes, say my safe word and find a picture of a stapler that looks like it’s laughing. And everything is OK.

Now to the game. This is a cliché isn’t it: it’s all a game. Lesson observations are a game, ofsted is a game, learning objectives are a game, PE is a-well that sort of is a game isn’t it. I don’t know why we label everything that we feel we have to do as being a game. By doing so what are we actually saying? Are we saying that we don’t value a process but are doing it anyway? If so aren’t we then removing ourselves from any accountability? (I did it, I didn’t do it well because I didn’t believe in it and therefore it hasn’t worked but that’s not my fault because if you remember I did say at the beginning that it was just a game?) Or are we becoming conditioned to feeling like we do not own our profession anymore but we lumber on because somewhere we can remember why we chose this profession in the first place.

A week doesn’t seem to go by when a new rule isn’t added to this game. Many schools are pressured/advised into doing things in a particular way or focussing on a specific element of teaching in order to show progress: mark like this, write learning objectives like this, differentiate this way, structure lessons like that, challenge pupils by doing this not that. Many of the ideas will be perfectly valid and if it genuinely helps why not but this isn’t the game is it? The game has now become the evidencing of it all. The evidence that we are required to show in order to prove that we did it…the proof, it seems, is no longer in the pudding.

For example: a senior leader and I were discussing a work scrutiny focussed on differentiation and marking. We couldn’t see clear differentiation three ways. We talked about it and started to focus on what this teacher needed to do – and then we stopped. What were we suggesting? Were we suggesting what the teacher had to do in order to meet the needs of the pupils or what the teacher needed to do so that we could see ‘differentiation’ when flicking through the books? If it was the latter than sadly, we would be playing the bloody game. And what would be the real point in that? I spoke to the teacher a couple of days later and I can honestly say that they know each and every pupil like the back of their hand and they know exactly what they need to do in order to get there. I think that is good enough for me. As I said earlier…I think I like whatever works.

I think it is time to pause the spin cycle. Ignore populist and current ideas. Put to bed systems that only demonstrate what management did during non-contact time. We must be brave and focus on what we know our pupils need; not what we are told makes a generic good school. If we do focus on what our pupils need and work hard to make sure they get it, how can we fail in becoming a good school? Then hopefully, others around us will see the value in what we’re asking them to do and will support us in doing it consistently every day. Maybe more importantly,  they won’t fear or be suspicious of our methods or involvement in their teaching.

Education: it is not a game but it is worth fighting for.