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.

I, teacher

Whatever doesn’t get you sacked…only makes you stronger.

There may be some (many) NQTs out there who found the Autumn terms tough. Even the most naturally gifted teacher or bright-eyed bushy-tailed young Buck can find the reality of being an actual full time teacher really hard. That’s partly because it is. Teaching is an incredibly hard job and it’s only in your first proper term that you realise how sheltered you were from the day-in day-out pressures of the job whilst you were training. But it’s also because you haven’t been doing it for that long. So before you spend the final night of your holidays not sleeping as you worry about whether you will be able to jump back onto the merry-go-round or worry that you are just not cut out for this profession read this. Here I dig deep into my memory archives and share with you some of the most incompetent parts of my NQT year. Why? Because I guarantee you have not done anything this bad and it turned out alright for me so you will be fine.

When I graduated and became a teacher they had literally just introduced those English, Maths and ICT tests you had to do in order to get your qualified teaching status. Now as I am not a great auditory learner I didn’t quite get the full message during the lecture where they explained it. All I came away from it thinking was: ‘I’ve got three years to do them’.

So I happily applied for a job, got the interview and got the job. I taught happily for about two months before the Head called me into her office where the Chair of Governors was also waiting. She had received a call from the council saying that there was an unqualified teacher employed as a qualified teacher working in the school. Now, it was a small school so she only had four people to really choose from: the deputy, the SENCO, the Early Years leader and the NQT (I’m pretty sure I was the only one she bothered bringing into her office). What she now had to do was to decide whether I was committing fraud on purpose or just an idiot. Thankfully it didn’t take me too long to convince them of the latter but it was a rather intense meeting where I was facing the very real possibility of losing my job. I apologised, had my pay docked until I had paid back the difference to the local authority and promptly took the tests (and passed). I carried on teaching there for four years.

After I was a proper qualified teacher (by then I even had the certificate to prove it) I settled into the rhythms of teaching. One morning I woke up and I looked up at my skylight and thought: ’Gosh, it’s incredibly light out there.’ At that exact moment I heard the flat buzzer go off – who on earth could that be so early? I stumbled out of bed to answer the buzzer and as I opened my bedroom door I saw that my flatmate had beaten me to it. The voice at the other end was asking if I was in, my flatmate replied that of course I wasn’t in because I was at work….no I wasn’t the voice replied. I looked at my watch and saw that it was 9:50am. By this point I was beginning to work out why it was so light in my bedroom and the voice was explaining to my house mate that she was the Deputy Head, I wasn’t in work so if I was in fact here I should put some trousers on and meet her downstairs quickly.

Again I had to explain to my Head that I was simply an idiot who had slept through his alarm. I practically had to give a blood test and urine test to prove to everyone else that I wasn’t hung-over. They amusingly presented me with an alarm clock the next day and I had to bribe my class with watching a video on Friday afternoon if they vowed not to tell their parents. I carried on teaching there for four years.

I took my class to a local bookshop (for some reason? I actually can’t remember-perhaps an author was there). I had asked one of the parents to come with us and it was she who informed me on the way back that some of the children had taken some gift cards from the store. I asked them to empty their pockets and after I had counted them all up I told the children that collectively they had stolen £450 from the store. I hadn’t done a proper telling off before so I went to town on them. There were tears, I may have mentioned criminal records and I got the parents in and demanded that the children write apology letters to the manager. Afterwards, I inspected the gift cards and saw that they weren’t actually vouchers but promo cards – never mind I thought trying to sound convincing, in principle they stole and I was right to tell them off. I rang the store manager who didn’t seem to mind saying that they get taken all the time and are worthless and there was no need for me to return them. Finally my Head called me in as the parent volunteer had spoken to her and raised the point that I hadn’t sent out any letters about the trip and therefore hadn’t got any parent’s permission. ‘I know it’s a local visit,’ she said, ‘But you still have to tell the parents you’re taking their child on a bloody trip!’ I carried on teaching there for four years.

So there are just three appalling examples of my ineptness during my first year of teaching – I haven’t even mentioned my teaching which when I look back now was pretty appalling. I spent my first year as a teacher caught between feeling elated that I was doing this job followed by daily waves of panic, thinking I was out of my depth. Why have I written this?  Because if there are any new or newish teachers out there who are feeling out of their depth or worried that they have made mistakes that will haunt them forever; you can now relax because you’re not THIS much of an idiot. So get a good night’s sleep and take on Term 3 with confidence and gusto; just for goodness sake…set you alarm.

How many pupils does it take to get inadequate?


I’ve just had an HMI visit. It wasn’t an official 6 weeks after Ofsted visit; it was one out of the three support visits that any requires improvement school is entitled to before the next full inspection.

I dictated the day and had telephone conversations and emails with my inspector who just asked me to make sure that the day was useful to me. ‘Nothing,’ he said, ‘nothing that I see will trigger an inspection’ (except safeguarding issues such as, oh I don’t know, a child leaving your premises and being missing for an hour) ‘and nothing that I recommend needs to be obeyed-it’s just some extra help’.

Now, I could have sent him to areas of the school that I know we’ve improved with the aim of getting some validation. But in all seriousness: why waste an opportunity! No, I welcome the challenge and advice. Plus I genuinely, one hundred percent respect this particular inspector- he is painfully astute at times and his approach is purely supportive to the point that I  may be developing a serious man-crush.

It was a tough old day. He did see some ropey lessons and worse he saw them with me meaning I had to say it as I saw it (or at least how I knew he saw it) in order to make sure he didn’t back out of his agreement not to trigger a full section 5. But by the end of the day he was left assured that we were ‘on the right track’.

Lesson observations: they got more abuse on twitter than Michael Gove at an NUT rally. The main grudge seems to be: don’t judge me as a teacher based on one lesson – and if you’re talking purely ofsted that one lesson becomes 20 minutes of a lesson. I understand the frustrations felt by teachers and have written about it before with the main thrust of my argument being a good SLT should not judge the quality of teaching on an observation but through a variety of evidence.

Take my handsome challenging HMI inspector. He saw lessons that could be judged inadequate but after looking at books and planning and talking to my middle leaders he was satisfied that the lesson did not reflect the day to day quality of teaching. So I was pleased because overall he was satisfied that my claims of school improvement were not just hot air and he was pleased because I was able to come out and say a lesson was inadequate.

Inadequate. It is such a horribly loaded word that has no supporting features whatsoever. When uttered all it does is break people. But we are all going to have to grit our teeth and accept the fact that it is part of the fabric of school improvement. It hurts – no, in fact it stings. It smarts more than the public humiliation of defecating into your swimming trunks after belly-flopping off the top diving board (er…I imagine). And the immediate response is denial or trying to nonchalantly shrug it off as unimportant but you can’t accept the fact that everyone can see poo dripping down your leg as you get out of the pool someone believes that you just taught really badly.

20 minutes. That really gets on people’s nerves. Can you really judge a lesson to be inadequate after only 20 minutes? Look at it from a different perspective: in 20 minutes worth of a lesson, learning didn’t occur. Does that still sound harsh? Probably. Well get a load of this: it may be because in 20 minutes worth of lesson, learning didn’t occur for some pupils. What? I know. It’s tough. But I watched three children on the carpet (subtly) do nothing for ten minutes. They didn’t engage, they didn’t really answer any questions and then when they went off to do their work they didn’t really know what to do. I looked in their book and they were doing the same work as everyone else. Plus, the teacher didn’t go near them-they stayed with the SEN group-it’s as if those three children had gone unnoticed under the radar. But it’s only three pupils! How many pupils does it take to get inadequate? (In other words: how low are your expectations?)

In 20 minutes, that will get you an inadequate. Why? Not because three children in 20 minutes didn’t make progress at a significant rate; but because the teacher did nothing about it. Now, this is why a lesson observation should only be part of the process. Planning over time, work in books over time might show great learning over time for those pupils and all the others. If it does: great you are a good+ teacher. However, if planning over time shows you don’t cater for those pupils’ needs, if work in books show no progress or clear differentiation and assessment is either static or inaccurate then what I saw in those 20 minutes starts to take on more serious connotations.

As a school leader I try really, really hard to make sure my staff understand that lesson observations offer a snapshot: give me a way in. If they tally with planning, work in books, assessments and progress then it gives me an overall assessment of the value for money of your teaching over time. If it doesn’t tally (lesson was awful:  everything else fine; lesson was great: everything else ain’t) then it gives me somewhere to start supporting you. HMI saw that this was the case and left saying, ok I saw some not great stuff in lessons but I think those lessons were anomalies and all other evidence suggests that teaching and achievement is improving.

However this still leaves us with a conundrum: could a school get ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’ if ofsted only saw requires improvement or inadequate lessons? Truly good and better schools will have all the other evidence to suggest that they are indeed good or better. And even the best teachers can mess up a lesson or even lessons (because remember, how many pupils have to not make progress to form a poor judgement). It is also possible (in terms of probability) that in one school at one given point in time, every teacher in the school will deliver inadequate lessons (one or more pupils not making visible progress in a twenty minutes time frame) throughout the day. But if EVERYTHING else indicates the contrary, will ofsted’s overall judgement overrule this fact? Will we ever read an outstanding ofsted report that reads: ‘the inspectors observed 15 lessons over one day and all were judged to be inadequate: the quality of teaching and achievement in this school is outstanding’?

I don’t know..but it sounds like a bloody good challenge!