Too much of a good thing?

Social media and I have been on a break for one reason or another this past six months. This has included Twitter and blogging which I love dearly but thought it best to rest from since there are only so many hours in the day and with increasing demands from both work and home, something had to give. The respite has been an interesting time for me as it has allowed me to reflect on a world that I had immersed myself in so willingly and has given me the opportunity for perspective.

Having time away from the cut and thrust of the EduTwitter showcase has taught me a few things. Firstly, all the world’s a stage and Twitter is a most definite example of this. Heroes and villains, protagonists and antagonists, self-publicists and cheerleaders, egos and politics all hard at work every day. Those waiting for the next shocking headline to drop a Donald Trump-style emotional hand grenade into the ether giving them another bandwagon to take their popularity for a ride on. There’s also a more admirable, hardworking side of Twitter, one filled with altruism and teamwork, sharing and networking for the greater good. This aspect of social media, whilst filled with debate and different perspectives is one which is based on the premise of developing understanding and quite often gets overlooked among the many spectacular sparring matches of the EduTwitter A listers. I personally have a great deal to thank these worker-bees for, I’ve learned such a great deal more than I had in my entire career pre-Twitter, developed so much of my own practice and the practice of others because of the brilliant work people have shared freely and bravely. Today I thank those people and the light bringers who have shone the spotlight on the fantastic network of talented individuals who simply want to make education better.

The second thing that I’ve noticed from being somewhat removed from Twitter is that you become more selective. You don’t get as bogged down with the “banter” as the kids would call it and you just take away the good stuff, the core. You can see the benefits of both sides of an argument (or the many sides) and you look for the facts rather than swaying to the side of the most popular Tweeter, let’s face it we all have our favourites, don’t we?! You look beyond the magic beans and the plugs for the next book, the genuine individuals put most of their content in blogs anyway and tend to display their own merits through interesting and purposeful work rather than discrediting other individuals with catty, sarcastic comments. In cutting out the partisan, I’ve saved myself so much time and energy. It’s also given me the impetus to learn more, more about aspects of research I wouldn’t necessarily warm to or that offer a perspective contrary to my own personal biases. In taking out the heat of the debate, I’m more willing to take notice of the content and take the piece on face-value, applying critique fairly without prejudice.

Having a healthy distance from debate has opened up the opportunity to put ideas and research into my own classroom practice, to conduct my own evidence-based enquiry. It’s been refreshing to see what has worked and what hasn’t. I have probably thought about my own classroom practice more in the last few years than I ever have and education-based social media has been the catalyst to this. It’s also been a gateway into a new network of like-minds, people who want to develop their own practice and to move their schools forward in a similar direction to the one which we are moving in. This has been the most rewarding kind of collaboration. From working with these brilliant people, who are just quietly getting on and doing the job and in conducting my own evidence-based research I’m coming to the conclusion that too much of anything is not good for anyone. The most effective and integrity-ran schools seem to take the best aspects of research from all ends of the spectrum and see how it looks/works in their environment. They see what works for them and what needs to be tweaked in order for it to work. They don’t subscribe to a doctrine, they don’t profess to be progressive or traditional, they just do what they think is right for their children. There are schools who put their foot firmly in one camp or another, they have my admiration and respect too. They’ve chosen a vision which they believe will work for their students in their setting and they passionately implement it. Perhaps what makes these schools effective is the same characteristic which makes their non-labelled peers effective, their commitment to a collective approach. Teamwork. The highest functioning teams in any aspect of business, sport or public-sector work are those who “row together” for a common purpose.

Controversially, I’m beginning to think this whole progressive-traditional debate to education is damaging. Furthermore, it seems to be a small, quite vocal sector of educationalists that share a mutually exclusive, you’re either in or you’re out attitude which appears to have the ear of the “higher powers” in government. Having recently read Susan Cain’s Quiet, I feel that the author raises some very salient points about how introverts get overlooked. If we apply this logic to what we see on our timelines, there is a whole demographic of people whose contributions are not shared or not considered. Often, these will be the people who feel that they are not one or the other, these will be the people who see the merits of both philosophies and who will take the best aspects of practice from both to use in their own teaching. Due to the nature of my age and experience, I was a product of a secondary school education and a significant majority of my teaching career that focussed mainly on methods championing a progressive philosophy. Thankfully, my own education was not from a prescriptive era and I did experience a rich tapestry of philosophies and approaches to learning. The danger of our education system is that we swing from one end of the spectrum to the other depending on which camp is in favour. An approach which has primarily favoured a progressive approach for the last twenty or so years has been detrimental to the education of our children. So the traditionalists have been jumping for joy with the recent U-turn over the last few years. Their celebrations are somewhat naïve and also incredibly premature because a move towards an education system solely based on a traditional philosophy will be equally as damaging to the next generation. When policy is played out blindly as the next thing to do in schools and doctrine is applied without consideration, critique or a reasoned implementation, the progressives will be waiting for the bell to ring and change to come yet again. At the end of it all is yet another generation (or number of generations) who are at the whim of a petty argument, not a debate with the intent to understand and make things better, an argument with winners and losers. An argument where not every voice is heard and vital perspectives are not considered because they are the view of the quiet ones, the introverts.

The reality is that there are merits to both philosophies that children can benefit from. Students in my classes have most certainly benefitted from direct instruction, and solo deliberate practice which I have implemented with much vigour and enthusiasm this year. Equally, they have had success from their receipt of teaching methods more akin to progressive methodologies. A picture which I’m sure mirrors classrooms throughout the country, no labels here please.

In the successful Scandinavian countries which we revere and admire so much, the prog-trad debate is insignificant and education is a-political since the purpose of education was agreed by all parties who have subscribed to support teachers in delivering the best for the children. Perhaps we should take note of their lead and not let the debate be dominated by the progressive versus traditional philosophies, it should be focussed on enabling teachers to use evidence to inform what works in their own classrooms and in giving them the freedom as professionals to use what is best rather than have a particular philosophy forced upon them. Steak is one of my favourite dishes but if it was the only meal I ate it would not only lose its appeal but its abundance would create a deficiency in other areas, whether traditional approaches are your steak or your chips, too much of them can be hazardous to your health, furthermore too much time on social media could have the same effect!

Light bringers and Christmas crackers

I still feel relatively new to Twitter. Currently navigating my way through my second year on the social media phenomena, I am constantly in awe at the daily enlightenment and joy it brings. I must admit that even though there have been countless tweets and blogs which have inspired and influenced my practice as a professional, that I have also found in equal measure tweeters queueing to rain on one anothers’ parades in grand fashion. There’s a lot of people who spew out venom under the guise of debate I’m sad to say. So with it being Christmas and all, I thought I’d sprinkle a bit of love across the blogosphere by sharing a few thank yous to some absolute stars who have both educated and inspired me. Some will be well-known to you, some maybe not so well known but all are worth your time and interest. I’ve taken the liberty of linking you to their Twitter pages, blogs, books etc just in case I’m telling you anything you didn’t already know. So here are my chips with lashings of salt and vinegar, unashamedly laid bare for you to sample, appreciate or pee on – the choice is yours but I personally cannot begin to express the gratitude to which I owe these people who have given me a view through different eyes. 

Martin Robinson (@Trivium21c)

Martin is the reason I decided to discover Twitter after he visited our school roughly a couple of years ago. His work, Trivium 21c was instrumental in a shift in my own personal view of education. Through his book, blogs and conversations I began to realise that our school was not a lone voice in educational philosophy. Martin quietly encouraged me to pursue other avenues and perspectives, in doing so I feel I’ve developed both as a teacher and a leader. My curiousity was sparked and my eyes opened, thanks to Martin there’s no going back.

Debra Kidd (@debrakidd)

Like Martin, Debra was one of the first educationalists I came across. I’m happy to say that I feel I hit jackpot! Teaching: notes from the front line is one of the most emotive books I have read about the current state of education and the need for (r)evolution. Her work was timely as we are in the midst of huge change within education. Debra’s words are a health warning, advice to all that we need to make the right decisions for the right reasons. A self-confessed progressive, Debra is always happy to debate our purpose as educators, she’s a passionate advocate for change as well as a tremendous speaker and activist. Her work alongside Emma Hardy to develop and grow the Northern Rocks movement is a lesson in determination to us all. The now yearly event is quickly becoming the stuff of legend. It embodies everything that Debra is: quirky, fun, thought provoking, witty and purposeful but above all a voice for the classroom teacher. Debra shines a light on the great work that teachers do, she passes it on. Debra is one of the light bringers.

Tom Bennett (@tombennett71)

Tom’s probably at the opposite end of the spectrum to Debra when we consider the progressive versus traditional debate but nonetheless an exceptionally brilliant character. His achievements in changing political views of our education system are simply astounding. Tom has united academics, teachers and politicians through the omniscient being that is ResearchEd. Charming and articulate, Tom always manages to get his point across with inimitable humour and candour. Despite his countless achievements, Tom has maintained his humility and pays much attention to sharing the work of others. He has been dubbed our leading behaviour tsar for his work influencing policy and practice on a very grand scale, ResearchEd spans continents and he’s a fan of Duran Duran too so Tom’s a rock star in my book! 

Sean Harford (@HarfordSean)

Again, another character who has been instrumental in the sea shift which is currently being enacted in the educational climate. Sean’s activity both on social media and in the public sphere has been ground breaking. He has dispelled many myths about Ofsted policies in practice and clarified many messages that can sometimes be lost in translation. Sean has empowered teachers. His reputation as the voice of reason is well-deserved, he listens to those at the chalkface and is working tirelessly to evolve and reinvent Ofsted making it no longer something which schools fear but a body willing to listen and work with teachers. Anyone having been through inspections recently should have noticed the shift in the way they are conducted, with diligence, intelligence and a dialogue. I think that Sean has been a huge catalyst in this change in attitude that a lot of schools have experienced and for that teachers across the country are eternally grateful. 

Joe Kirby (@joe_kirby)

I have a lot to thank my Marmite pals at Michaela for. Whether you love of hate them, Katharine Birbalsingh and the team have certainly added spice to the recipe of educational debate. I’ve had some highly intellectually stimulating experiences and met many great people thanks to the events that the Tiger Teachers have organised. I’ve written about Michaela previously here and here (with another one in the pipeline), there is a lot to be admired in their teamwork, unrelenting drive and articulate presentation of their beliefs as well as much to be learned from their approach. It seems to be working for them and I wish them every success. Joe however gets a personal mention because despite our differences in belief about how education should be delivered, I can’t help but find myself agreeing with almost every word that he writes. He is excellent at what he does and I find his blogs influencing my everyday practice in the classroom. The CPD I’ve received as a result of reading his words has undoubtedly added value to my teaching and the practice of those around me. Joe is a very kind and caring man, he takes time to listen to different perspectives and is a great sounding board for ideas. He is a leader within a very controversial school but primarily he is a teacher. His blogs do more than tip their hat to the work within the classroom, they celebrate, enrich and influence it on an exponential scale. 

Rhian Davies (@_rhi_rhi)

If I look at people who have influenced my own practice Rhian and her colleagues at Marple Hall are definitely up there. As someone who is passionate about mathematical education, I felt like I got lucky when I met Rhian. I learned more about pedagogy from one day at Marple Hall than I have done in all the subject specific CPD I had experienced in my career. I came across Rhian through Twitter as I was particularly astounded by her work as an advocate for the sharing of good practice of our subject. I got myself an invite (or maybe I invited myself over) and the rest is history. It is through Rhian that I met the wonderful Ana Martinez and discovered TeachMeets  (no I hadn’t been living under a rock). I have so much to thank those lovely ladies for. Beyond that, I’ve found myself two new friends which is a blessing in itself. 

Chris Hunt (@chuculchethhigh)

A great headteacher who is out there just quietly getting on with doing a fantastic job, Chris is a breath of fresh air. Our school prides itself on taking the moral and ethical path to achieve the best education for our students. This is the right thing to do but sometimes it can make the journey lonely so meeting Chris felt like coming home. He is a beacon of constant support and encouragement, a great source of counsel. Chris has a completely can do attitude which is infectious. I have many things to thank him for in my own personal growth. Both Chris and his leadership team are dynamic and person-centred, there is an overwhelming sense of team which emanates from everything the school does and that comes from the top. If you cut Chris in half you’d find Culcheth running through him and as a result of that the school is a great place to be. Like they say, headteachers make the weather and the sun always shines in Warrington! 

Hannah Wilson (@Miss_Wilsey)

When we talk about light bringers Hannah is one of those people who just radiate. She spends almost all of her time on social media sharing good practice, building teachers up and spreading a positive message. Her relentless optimism and determination has ensured that the WomenEd movement is really gathering momentum, truly something to admire. All of this done whilst continuing to work as a senior leader and now as a head! Well done Hannah, you are an inspiration to us all. 

Jill Berry (@jillberry102)

Wow, if I get started about Dr Jill perhaps I won’t be able to stop! Jill’s probably the single biggest reason I thought about writing this (lengthy) blog (I apologise profusely but you can see I’ve been suitably inspired). Jill came across me or rather my blog about 18 months ago and it’s only then I began to learn about the woman she is. Having had a remarkable career teaching across phases and sectors, Jill spends her time now spreading good practice and developing future leaders in such a way that they have a strong moral purpose. Jill is how the light gets in, she is a ball of energy and positivity. She looks for the spots of excellence, leaving no stone unturned which often means she discovers little-known pockets of brilliance. Most recently, her book Making the Leap has inspired and given me the confidence (along with Mary Myatt, my own headteacher Sam Gorse, Chris Hunt and David Jones of Meols Cop High School) to one day lead a school. It won’t be for a while yet but Jill (among others) has shown me that a brave person can lead a successful school in a person-centred way. Jill is a sage, she’s an inspiration and I could never tire of hearing what she has to say. 

Mary Myatt  (@MaryMyatt)

Alongside Jill, Mary has had the biggest impact on me as a female senior leader in education. Mary is like chicken soup for the soul. She is the light bringer, just being in her presence is an uplifting experience. Through High Challenge Low Threat and most recently Hopeful Schools, Mary proves that there is another way to leadership than countless systems and bureaucracy. When I read her words I feel energised and committed to being a better leader. Her kind and caring nature come through every page of her writing. Mary is playful and intelligent, sophisticated yet fun. Most of all, Mary is a quietly determined driving force in the future of educational leadership. Her words are a source of timely brilliance and lesson for us all. 

John Tomsett (@johntomsett)

I’m not going to lie, John is one of my eduheroes so he had a great deal to live up to when I first heard him speak at last year’s Michaela debate. True to form, John didn’t disappoint, his behaviour only further proved why his is such a remarkable man. The work that John does both inside his school and on a much wider scale is one of servitude. His school and the children they teach, the research arm of Huntington and his work on social media ensure evidence based practice along with the kind and caring ethos with which it is delivered spreads far and wide. I watched John and Alex as an educational Morecambe and Wise at last year’s Northern Rocks. They introduced me to the notion of a premortem which is one of the best ideas I have been shown in my teaching career and thankfully something I use in my everyday strategic practice as a leader. John is another voice that reminds headteachers and SLTs to lead their schools in a person-centred way. He is a beacon of hope

Daisy Christodoulou (@daisychristo)

My last thank you has got to go to Daisy. Have you ever come across someone who just blows you away instantly because they’re so brilliant yet completely unassuming? Well that’s Daisy. She’s a gem. Her work, her blogs and her talks are so insightful, so thought out and so well researched that they make absolute sense. Beyond her own writing, Daisy shares the best research from around the world. She is incredibly well-read and passionate about passing on the best of what is out there. Daisy has set me on a path that I would have never ever considered before and I’m a much better teacher for the journey. Surprisingly enough, I started out as a cynic but with such compelling arguments I had no choice but to rethink my opinion on many things, especially the knowledge versus skills debate. Daisy has thoroughly convinced me and thousands like me to consider another perspective. Through her blogs, research and beautifully written book Seven Myths (which I wrote about here) Daisy is changing education as we know it. Having met her on a number of occasions now I can undoubtedly say that Daisy is as kind-hearted as she is brilliant. She has a good soul and the unique attribute of being able to make everyone’s contributions feel worthwhile. She listens, she encourages and she supports even when she may not share your opinion. Despite what critics would describe as relative inexperience in the profession, she provides unrivalled insight into the most significant aspects of education. Her work on curriculum and assessment will influence the policy and practice of generations to come. She has given new voice to the likes of E. D. Hirsch Jr and has encouraged a different approach that is very much called for, which in itself is somewhat amazing. I am excited about what lies ahead for Daisy, her new book which is out very soon and the debate which will follow.  

I’m lucky to have been inspired by so many great people in the last two years thanks to the power of social media but I have also been privileged to work with some truly magnificent teachers and leaders. There are too many to mention and I can never thank those people enough for the impact that they have had on my outlook and who I am as a teacher. This blog has given me the opportunity to consider just how important we are as role models, not just to the students we teach but also to the colleagues we work with. I’m lucky to work under great leadership in an environment that inspires but I know it’s not the case for everyone. For this reason it’s important that we are the light bringers. This blog has been an opportunity to look back and see how far I’ve come in my own professional growth and who has helped me along the way. It fills me with excitement to consider the opportunities that lie ahead in 2017 to further my own learning as well as the chance to support and encourage others in their own voyage of discovery.

Finding an antidote for Michaela’s Marmite effect

I’m not a fan of Marmite, I find the horrible tar-like gloop somewhat repulsive. And, among friends I’m not afraid to air my views about the substance vociferously. I’m sure that for every Marmite hater like myself there’s an equal number of passionate yeast lovers loudly sharing their support for the brown jar of doom to whoever will listen. Love it or hate it, there’s no room for indifference. Michaela is a bit like Marmite, there appears to be no room for inbetween. I’ve written about my previous experiences of Michaela events here and my thoughts on their approach to a good education here, today I turn my attentions to their attitude towards publicity, their book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers and its launch event which I was lucky enough to attend. 

I’m a cynic, a sceptic. I don’t feel 100% comfortable with the Michaela way so events like last weekend are a chance to challenge my views. After their last event at City Hall I was much more open to listening to the perspective of Katharine and the team since I felt that Debating Michaela offered a balanced argument, an event which presented an image of Michaela that was a far cry from portrayal many opponents of Michaela would have the internet believe. The team were approachable, willing to listen to other perspectives and not at all cult-like! I enjoyed it so much that as soon as Tiger Teachers was publicised I booked my ticket and excitedly waited for the big day to arrive. 

On the day visitors were greeted with an incredibly warm welcome from the team just as before with the vivacious Barry Smith and the enchanting Joe Kirby (among others) on the door setting the audience up for the day. The hospitality was probably the only similarity that this and their previous event shared for this was a book launch not a debate. The presenters, though eloquent in their rhetoric gave the Michaela view through and through, passionate and unequivocal in their completely biased traditional approach to education. My niavely constructed preconception from the previous event meant that I was in danger of being disappointed. Balanced this wouldn’t be, propaganda perhaps? However, I’d travelled two hundred miles to hear what the team had to say so the least I could do was listen. 

I’d be lying if I said that the day didn’t unsettle me, it completely took me out of my comfort zone. There were speeches which annoyed me, ideas that I vehemently disagreed with, snippets which challenged my thinking and soundbites which I hate to admit that I found myself agreeing with. The most discomforting aspect of the day though was the kind of purgatory I experienced between the two worlds of reality and virtuality. Physically, I was in a room of proponents of the traditional approach to education which at times felt like an evangelical meeting of the Church of St Katharine Birbalsingh. Contrary to this, my Twitter timeline was going wild with mockery and disdain for the event that was being streamed live.

And then came the closing of the gates and the grape crushing….

I was sad to read that Michaela had closed its doors to visitors but not surprised. Obviously the anti-Michaela rants that I was seeing on my timeline were the tip of a very vicious iceberg. The behaviour of certain individuals toward the school and its staff was saddening. Michaela has been completely divisive and even from someone who is willing to hear Katharine and the team out, I can see the part that they themselves have played in tugging on the tail of a tiger. However, there is no justification for the treatment the school, its children and staff have received from some desperate individuals wanting to highlight the “evils” of Michaela. Grapegate as it is known has become a case in point, I’m guessing that what meant is not necessarily what was said but the justification and retaliation that followed, really? Guys, it’s time to build a bridge and get other it! Yes some students in schools will protest if you ask them to pick food or rubbish up but it doesn’t make them horrible, it makes them human. And surely it’s our job to get students to understand why it’s appropriate to keep standards high not just comply to instruction? Katherine’s right though, we are who we continually practice to be. It’s important to consider that when we’re engaging in any interaction: professionally, publically and personally. 

Purpose is important

I look at Katharine and the team and ask myself what is your purpose, is your purpose now different from in the beginning and do you all share the same ethos, purpose, vision and values? More increasingly I’m concerned that Michaela may be losing its way. At first, what struck me about the school and in particular Katharine was the passionate belief that they were doing something different from the norm because the children of the district needed something different than what our current system was giving them. There was a strong moral purpose to what they were doing which you could appreciate whether you agreed or disagreed with its delivery. There was a lot of sense in what Michaela had to say. My concerned is that this is being lost in the media furore which surrounds the school. A lot of this created by what is said on interviews and in newspaper articles. Sadly the fame that Michaela is finding may be its undoing. Anecdotally, support for the Michaela way appears to be dwindling on social media and it’s critics becoming more vociferous, coupled with some statements from the Michaela camp being hard to defend. Katharine had significant support from many a classroom teacher but in building her school at the expense of the reputation of every other child and school in Britain she may have just bitten the hand that was feeding her. What is being lost is the sense of balance and understanding. Find me a school where the headteacher doesn’t think their students are brilliant and their staff are devoted to doing the best job they can? This will be the reality for almost every single headteacher out there, many quietly getting on, doing their daily best, wanting success for their school but never at the detriment of any other school or colleague because we know that the job is hard enough. As a leader, I’ve often found that a few foolishly chosen words can undo any amount of good work you do. I’ve learned that when something is said that shouldn’t have been it’s better to hold your hands up and admit wrongdoing than to try and justify it. Embarrassing at first but better in the long run. 

If the team at Michaela want to make their school a success (which I’m sure it will be) then perhaps it’s time to fly under the radar for a while and let the students’ actions put paid to the critics? If the motivation for Michaela is fame then the school is certainly on that track but there is always a price to pay and who is going to pay for the infamy of the Tiger Teachers? If the desire of the team is to influence policy and practice then surely it is better to win over your sceptics than to cause a divide? To what end will having two distinct camps serve our education system? There is lots of great stuff going on at Michaela as there is in every other school in the country. Surely it is much more productive to take the best bits for one another to improve education for everyone than taking a with us or against us approach? It’s important to appreciate all sides of an argument before forming a conclusion. It is also very useful to bare in mind that ethos, pathos and logos are important components in rhetoric, when trying to deliver your case remember you’ve got to win hearts as well as minds. 

What exactly is a good education? 

With the next Michaela event less than a week away I thought this timely. During the autumn half term break I observed a fellow teacher describe the practice that goes on at the controversial Michaela School in London as sickening and damaging to children. Michaela (and all who sail in her) certainly seems to have a divisive effect among educators, you’re either for or against, part of the cult or desperate to liberate the world from its absurdity. I’m one of the few in the middle. The practices at Michaela don’t sit well with my own philosophy of education but to dismiss their approaches without taking the time to understand how and why would also be at odds with my beliefs, personally I think it important to consider a situation from every angle. I’ve always been keen to understand why, that curiosity has never left me (I’m certain it drove my teachers to distraction) and is one of the reasons that I attended the last Michaela debate (which I wrote about here). Upon meeting a number of its the staff, I found that they were no different from any other teachers I had met. They weren’t the draconian figures critics would have us imagine, they were intelligent people who cared passionately about children and were doing what they felt was best for the community which they served. I guess that’s why I felt the scathing tweets one teacher receieved in response to her show of pride in the school and its students were a little unjust. Aside from that, to behave in an unkind and undignified manner is not really the behaviour we should be promoting in our profession. Ever curious, I attempted to engage in a debate as to how these harsh criticisms of the school had been reached. Sadly to no avail. I was described as “misguided” and stealthily blocked.

Maybe I am misguided? Maybe I should dismiss Michaela for the cult that it is? Or perhaps it is important to draw my own conclusions from an informed position? After all, the concept of dissoi logoi encourages us to make decisions based on careful consideration of all points of view. I’m humble enough to know that I don’t have the answers as to what makes a good education, there are far more intelligent people out there who’ve devoted their life to this question and still not found the silver bullet. I have had my own experience of education though, both as a student and a teacher and I’m under no illusion that my viewpoint will have been skewed by this.

My education was a good one. I was taught well enough to go on to further and then higher study as well as being cared for sincerely by dedicated teams of teachers in both my primary and secondary schools.

 But what if they could have done better?

You see, I was the FSM/PP child. Today I wear that badge like a badge of honour but at school it was more like a mark of shame. My mum worked three jobs to keep us above the bread line and I always felt less of a person when other children would make reference to the grey estate (the council estate where I lived and where my parents, sister and niece still do). Of the 137 students in my year group that left in 1995, a significant number of us went on to study A levels, many continued on to university – a number even going to Russell Group institutions. None to Oxbridge. I’m sure there were many reasons for this. However, in retrospect and with experience on my side, I can confidently say that our lack of knowledge inhibited our opportunities. Somewhere along the line the school made choices, perhaps they made excuses for us because we came from tough backgrounds with low aspirations. The truth is we didn’t know what to aspire to because no one had ever shown us what was out there. It would never have entered my thinking to consider a university like Oxford or Cambridge because they were just for posh people. There was a decision somewhere in the curriculum to teach Daz 4 Zoe rather than Dickens and to teach me enough to go on to study A levels rather than excel in them. 

As a teacher I did the same. Jemma, a brilliantly talented student from a tough background with a tendency to be lazy, was a prime example of this. Jemma was from the same estate as my mum and dad, she was the oldest of three and had to care for her siblings whilst her mum went out to work. Her attendance was not great. She did have a lot on her plate but most of the time she chose not to come in because she knew she was bright enough to get by. Rather than stretching Jemma, we made excuses for her not wanting her or the school results to fail, we continually saved her throughout. Extra classes, coursework catch-up sessions (often after deadlines had passed), staff even did home visits to prepare her for GCSEs in the hope that she would pass. She did, with 8 As and 2 A*s under her belt she went off to a local sixth form college, certain that she was on the path to a better life we felt Jemma was a success story. A few years later whilst out shopping, I came across Jemma working on a till in a discount shop. Making conversation I asked how her further study was going as I had just assumed that university was the natural progression. Jemma swiftly corrected me. She hadn’t gone to university, she hadn’t even completed her A levels. Her reasons? A levels were too hard, there was too much knowledge she didn’t have; stuff she’d missed through absence and stuff that had been deemed redundant on superficial curricula geared to passing tests rather than the promotion deep and long-term learning. Effort had been an issue, she’d become so accustomed to teachers saving her at the last minute that the practices of dedication and determination were alien to her. So when it was her sole responsibility to organise her learning and workload she was completely inept and gave up. She chose the easy option because that’s what we’d taught her to do and the education we’d given her didn’t prepare her beyond the test. We should have been tougher on Jemma (and others like her), we should have expected more and we should have taught her better. 

Many private and grammar schools have programmes of study which go beyond the demands of GCSE and A level specifications, the examinations being almost incidental. They prepare academic students for further study and foster necessary attributes to succeed in these types of environment. This isn’t saying that all students are catered for brilliantly and it certainly isn’t a call for more grammar schools, it’s merely an observation and from which a number of questions:

  1. What can state schools learn from the private sector to increase the social mobility of the working classes? 
  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of a traditional approach to education and what can we learn from this? 
  3. How can we develop better programmes of study so that we teach the best of what has been to develop more learned, articulate and confident young people?
  4. Can we obtain a best of both approach that serves the vast majority of children in our care, giving them a life of opportunity?
  5. Can a single school offer a curriculum that caters for the needs of all students offering them the opportunity to follow the path which suits them best or do we need different schools for different paths? And if we do, who decides the path of a child, at what point is this decision made and how is it made? 
  6. Can we ever achieve equity in education? 

I’m not professing to have answers but I think that it is worthwhile for any school leader or teacher to consider the questions. When entertaining the notion of how can I make things better we do make things better simply by reflecting and improving the provision in our own classroom, department, school etc. It is difficult to do this when you only look from a single, blinkered perspective.

Often we are blinkered by the constraints of time, external pressure and our position within an organisation. How often do you hear the academic year being compared to a treadmill? And we all know what happens if you try to look left or right when we’re pounding away on that treadmill! So it’s important to press the stop button and take stock of everything else around us as we might be missing out on something much better in our efforts to get to the finish line. 

If I hadn’t have changed schools during my career I would still consider that I was doing what was the best for the children I taught without a second thought. I’d have always made excuses for Jemma because she had a tough life and I’d still continue to make sure those students passed the test to continue onto A levels rather than having a deep and broad knowledge from which true understanding could grow. Listening to the likes of Daisy Christodoulou, Carl Hendrick and Andrew Old in the same forum as Debra Kidd, John Tomsett and David Cameron has given me a more rounded view of education. A fresh perspective doesn’t mean I’ve gone to the dark side of the traditional approach, far from it, but I do see the merits of its philosophy. My experience means that I’ll give my next Jemma a pen when she doesn’t have one but I’ll expect her to bring that pen to every lesson, it means that there’ll be a consequence if she doesn’t do her homework or have equipment, it means that I’ll expect her to copy up work she’s missed because she couldn’t be bothered and it means that I’ll expect more of her than just passing a test because I’m not developing her personal accountability if I don’t have high expectations of her. Tough love in a no excuses culture. A lot like they’re doing at Michaela I presume, they’re just doing it in a different way. Whether their approach is right or wrong only time will tell but conclusions can only be drawn from an informed perspective not from a position of ignorance. Surely a good education is one that opens the door of opportunity not one that perpetuates the cycle of getting what we’ve always got? If we want to develop social mobility we need to expect more from working-class children and give them the tools to exceed expectations. We need to equip our students to excel in any context. Surely this is what a good education is about? 

Easyschool – why some headteachers apply a budget airline logic and why teachers should question it

It’s half term and I’m off on my hols again, desperate to grab some sunshine and wind down for a week so that I can approach November feeling fully refreshed and with the gusto I expect from myself. I don’t find this difficult, I love my job and feel as though I’m working for a purpose under a headteacher I admire and respect. I am also very fortunate to shoehorn a break away at every opportunity, I’m truly blessed. 

Our holidays are generally done on a bit of a shoestring budget so we fly with budget airlines. In the UK our cheap and cheerful companies offer low-cost flights, often coupled with below par service with the attitude it’s cheap so what do you expect?  Yesterday as we queued for a flight that had been delayed by two hours there was the usual frenzy of passengers trying to stuff their handbags into their hand luggage to follow the strict one piece of hand luggage per customer rule. There was no compromise on this restriction on the airline’s behalf despite the delay. No admission of their failings along the way and no understanding of individual circumstances of their customers, just adherence to policy. Watching the chaos created by a lack of consideration and a willing acceptance from its customers, I began to think about some schools and the teachers within them. 

“That’s just the way it is. You triple mark because that’s the school policy.” A friend of mine conceded. “The children from around this area have it difficult so they are going to behave badly, the headteacher has told us that we can’t expect anything else.” Was the acceptance from a colleague in a school in one of the most deprived areas of the North West. She’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever watched and sadly is considering leaving the profession because she is so exhausted with the workload and the demands of continual challenging behaviour from her students. What is clear is that staff don’t question the headteacher or the SLT, similarly they don’t debate the purpose or benefit to what they do, they just accept it. A large number of teachers do not know any different than what they are told and although the direction of travel feels wrong, they are too afraid to question it much like the customers on the budget airline. 

This is why it is so important to cultivate headteachers with integrity and ones who are brave enough to question what they read and what they are told. It’s refreshing to see that more figureheads like Jill Berry, Mary Myatt and John Tomsett are prominent in delivering this message to school leaders. They encourage us to be stoic and nurture brave senior leadership teams by reminding them that they are not alone. John, in the way he leads his school, Mary and Jill in their writing from experience, all send a powerful message that it is ok to question oneself as well as others. Mary, through her brilliant book High Challenge, Low Threat (a must read available here) delivers a mantra of actively seeking advice and being receptive to feedback whilst encouraging a culture of evidence based practice rather than a data driven environment. Jill in her many brilliant blogs and forthcoming book Making the Leap acknowledges the importance of listening to middle leaders and of senior leadership teams who create a culture of champions and challengers. Unfortunately, some SLTs have not heard or listened to the messages that these great leaders convey. This is when a culture of ignorance and fear prevail. 

Going back to economy airlines. We flew with a Scandinavian budget company a few years ago. The flight was cheaper than its UK equivalent yet the service was so much better. No frantic squeezing of handbags into holdalls, free food and beverages and a focus on what the airline could do to make their customers happier. They still operated on the “budget” model but a positive experience and customer satisfaction outweighed the desire to create more profit. If I had never experienced this company I’d probably never question the service that we accept from our budget UK equivalent. Pretty much like if I had never experienced the spectrum of schools out there I wouldn’t question triple marking or perhaps I’d accept poor behaviour.

Less than a mile from the school where triple marking is king and where poor behaviour is the norm, is a school in a much more deprived area of the same borough. This school has a greater number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds so you’d expect behaviour and conditions to be far worse. Surprisingly they’re not. They’re actually a world away from those accepted by their neighbouring school. The difference? The headteacher. She refuses to accept that poor behaviour is ok as she wants the best for her students and staff, she knows that the only way to do this is by changing a culture, by exposing them to the opportunity of what could be. This headteacher is not afraid to make difficult decisions, to challenge or raise the bar but everything is done at the right time, with the right people for the right reasons. Actively, she encourages feedback from staff and students, she welcomes personal challenge and debate and she always puts her community first. Every decision is driven by the community which the school serves and her staff play a huge part in influencing this. The result, sustainable improvement, happy students and staff and a school with an identity which they are proud of. Headteachers have a choice where to put their energies, whether that be into squeezing every ounce of energy out of staff through ridiculous policies and systems or by putting them at the heart of the school and recognising their expertise. Even in similar contexts with very similar settings, the outcomes can be completely different as a result of the way in which the school is led. I count my blessings every day to work in a school which is led well where staff and students are happy and as a result of which they work hard and generally do well. Equally, it is important that teachers in schools which make unreasonable demands question the procedures and ethos within or at least try another environment before they accept this as the norm or become disillusioned with the profession. For those headteachers reading this, we’re all working on a very tight budget in the state sector so it’s for you to decide whether to implement systems which create compliance but don’t actually achieve anything or whether you want to develop a staff body who are empowered and wake up wanting to hop on board.

 

Conversation with a purpose – my take on our first Leadership Dialogues 

Meetings can be a drag, a real bore. Let’s face it, in the world of education and schools we have lots of meetings. The higher up the leadership ladder you go, the more meetings you attend, the more time they take up and the less time you have to spend on doing the work! Although meetings are a necessary evil they can be tiresome, irrelevant and a waste of time. We can all be guilty of having wasteful meetings, the ones which chip away at the minutes where we arrive home cursing the lost hours that we’ll never get back. This is why purposeful collaboration is so important. We’re all busy people so if there’s no purpose to a meeting or there isn’t going to be a useful outcome then we should be brave and have the bottle to knock it on its head. I work in an environment where purposeful collaboration is paramount and impact versus effort drives everything we do so I wanted to make sure I put together something special before I approached our Headteacher with the idea.

Senior leaders regularly attend network meetings which are influenced by their school’s geography, often schools with little in common are put together like one big dysfunctional family and as the analogy suggests, the relationships can add little value to any of the schools involved. This isn’t always the case but often the minimal impact is overshadowed by the time consumed. 

I decided to do something a little differently and with the backing of our Headteacher and some other great leaders we have set the wheels in motion. Increasingly, more teachers are creating opportunities to share practice through events like #TeachMeet and various other school-led collaborations. What is sometimes missing is the opportunity for senior leadership teams to share in an open environment. Where conversations about strengths and areas for development are honest and which result in enhanced understanding, reassurance and purposeful support. At the back end of Summer Term I approached our Headteacher with this idea. And so Leadership Dialogues was born.

On 29th September colleagues from a number of schools across the North West came together to discuss issues in their schools and share ideas to support one another as we moved through our foci for the year ahead. What was different about this gathering was the transparency and openness with which people spoke. The tone had been set with words of welcome and the philosophy behind how we lead our school. Progress 8 had just been securely released to schools so the discussion that had been planned went a little off track, another variation from the norm of meetings with extensive and rigid agendas. For many schools, the Progress 8 score they were expecting and the one that they actually achieved were quite different so the opportunity to share thoughts and feelings around this was reassuring at a time when it was needed the most. The vulnerability that all of us felt could be shared because it felt safe to do so, it also meant that other areas that we were working on could be discussed in earnest. David Jones of Meols Cop High School shared his experience, his reassuring and humble approach helped add to an already uplifted room, kindly offering the expertise of his school along the way. The leadership team from Marple Hall gave their insight into using data effectively, we were able to add our own approaches to data into the mix as well. This meant that everyone left with lots of ideas to consider, things that we may not have thought about in our own setting or in the isolation of our local authorities.

At the end of the discussions everyone left with a collective feeling of we can do this along with some concrete ideas of how. A welcome refrain from the that’s another three hours of my life I’ll never get back feeling that meetings can sometimes leave you with. There were visits booked, expertise offered and further collaborations planned before our next gathering sometime in December. There was a point to our collective and there has been action as a result of it. 

We’re planning to hold another session nearer to Christmas which Lisa Edwards at the Maharishi School in Lancashire has very kindly offered to host. It’s not too late to join in and share support with other senior leadership teams who are passionate about education. If you’d like to know more then follow the link to our previous bolg here and if you’d like to be part then get in touch through the contact pages and we’ll add you to the list. We’re hoping that together we can grow a strong network of purposeful collaboration and support. 

Leadership – getting the message right almost before we start

This is probably a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted but I have been meaning to write this blog since before the start of term and have finally gotten around to it just in time for appraisal season. 

More so than ever I believe that headteachers and their leadership teams create the climate in a school, the strengths and weaknesses of the head are often the strengths and weaknesses of the school. This is why it is vital to get the message right from day one, in fact before that first INSET day which sets the tone for the rest of the academic year. 

The biggest factor which influences the year ahead for a great deal of existing staff happens in the middle of the summer holidays, the behaviour from leadership teams regarding examination results days. This is where a headteacher can either unite their teams or alienate staff for the thirty nine weeks that follow. I’m fortunate in having lots of friends who work across many schools so I get to taste what it’s like in a number of settings for teachers at all stages of their career. I have found that results days can either be done very well or very badly with no room for in-between. They either create a culture of trust and teamwork or one of mistrust, blame and paranoia. In managing this day poorly, headteachers fail to realise that the ripple effect which has been created will then set the tone for the rest of the year and beyond. I’ve known of schools who won’t give examination information to teachers who have come in on results days until the students are coming through the doors and of schools who don’t give members of their own leadership team the details until the ship has sailed. These practices seem ludicrous yet they do take place. How difficult must it be for teachers who have come into work in their holidays to support the students and the school not knowing when to counsel and when to celebrate with individual children? How easily could this awkwardness be avoided if they were forewarned? How must it feel for that member of SLT being asked questions which they don’t know the answers to? How sad is it that they are made to feel inferior to the other colleagues on the leadership team which they are part of? And as a headteacher, are you telling your staff that you value their professional integrity or that they cannot be trusted?

Trust is vital. 

Instantly, those whom I have struck a nerve with will jump to the excuse of the teachers post all over social media defence. Being someone who uses a great deal of social networking sites both professionally and privately, I have never seen anyone break an embargo or be unprofessional about a school’s exam performance. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen but is it not the responsibility of the headteacher to challenge those individuals privately rather than treat the majority (who are doing the right thing) with contempt? This in itself sends a resounding message to staff and we haven’t even got to the start of term! 

The opposite of this approach is the scenario where everyone is included, information is shared and professionalism is championed. Where the atmosphere is buoyant irrespective of the result because there is a feeling that everyone is equal, everyone has tried their best and we’re all in it together. It’s an environment where we can all improve irrespective of who we are. This mentality creates a results day that is all about the students (as it should be), where success is celebrated and disappointment is dealt with sensitively. It’s not about competition between individual teachers or departments or the quest to tick a performance management box, it’s about the students and the school. The positive atmosphere ensures that staff act in an emotionally diligent way and that students who don’t achieve the necessary grades get the right advice in an reassuring environment. I’m lucky to work in a school like this, where people come first. And thankfully, there are lots of schools like us. One local headteacher, whom I have the utmost respect and admiration for, brought an ice cream van into school on results day to set the mood. It was a chance to say well done to students and staff, thank them for all of their hard work, and for those who didn’t achieve as well as expected it made the bitterness of disappointment taste a little sweeter. This type of behaviour is indicative of the way he leads the school. The complement of staff in school on results day was almost at full capacity (they didn’t have prewarning of the Icey Van),  as was ours which is impressive in the middle of August on a non-compulsory attendance day. The schools where little trust was apparent had very few teachers in. How must the students who were receiving their results felt when it appeared that no one cared? As I said, the headteacher creates the climate. 
For many classroom teachers and heads of department the night before results day is a sleepless one, as is the night before the first INSET day of the year. This is why the messages given on that day are so vital. Does your school spend hours publicly scrutinising examination results with a table of shame projected for all to see? If at the same time you’re a senior leader who complains about how league tables have destroyed education then shame on you. It is important to celebrate success but not at the detriment of the self-esteem of everyone else in the room. You’re also giving a clear message that exam results are all that matters. 

This year, there was very little public focus on the performance of individual departments from our SLT. The emphasis of our Headteacher’s message was on thanking everyone for their hard work and that quality first wave teaching and high expectation makes the difference. This was supported by a focus on developing students’ personal accountability, acknowledging that staff could not work any harder but that we need to encourage our students to be more responsible for their own learning. It is our job to help children develop the tools required to be good learners. The rest of the day was given over to our triad development, departments and individual class teaching preparation. This gave a clear message that teaching and teamwork are what matters and that our expectation was that of a commitment from everyone to focus on improving their own practice. No one left feeling superior or inferior but there was an absolute sense of clarity and unity amongst the staff. This has resulted in the most focussed and organised start to the year that I’ve seen. 

The message from our Headteacher was reiterated within departments and across teams. Its simplicity key to its delivery. That doesn’t mean that the accountability of individual staff and departments was ignored, it meant it was just that, particular to the individual so would be addressed privately with them. Because of the climate created staff are reflective enough to identify areas for development themselves and come to us with suggestions for improvement. Those who struggle to self-reflect actively ask for help and feedback. Professionalism is appreciated and as a result the majority accept responsibility rather than look for excuses and try to pass the buck. This is a result of the environment they are in. Headteachers make the weather. 

At this time of year there’s an easy way to see what type of school you have nurtured as we come to the annual review of performance (which in itself if a ridiculous notion). When you sit down as an appraiser with your appraisee listen (truly listen) to the conversation. If it is filled with the notion of a top down you must do better and bottom up it wasn’t my fault rather than a bottom up  I’ve thought about this and this is how I think we can get better then perhaps you need to look at the climate you’ve created. And it’s not just headteachers and senior leadership teams who need to reflect but middle leaders too. 

It is too late to start the year again but it’s not too late to create the right atmosphere within appraisal and performance management. Listen with the intention of hearing and remember that we set the weather so if we don’t like what we see then it’s highly likely we’ve had a part to play in it. Only by being congruent in our words and actions can we create the best environment for our school community.

A busman’s day away and a lesson in humility 

They say that travel broadens the mind. Perhaps being exposed to different cultures and ways of being helps us to realise that we’re a tiny drop in the ocean of life. Perhaps it gives us the opportunity to reflect on our own lives through different eyes. Either way, it’s most certainly good for the soul. Summer holidays are the time when most teachers switch off, escape the country and try to forget about school for at least a couple of weeks in an effort to recharge the batteries. This is a very sensible decision to take, teaching in Britain is hard, there’s no doubt about that and by the end of the school year educators are exhausted. Like many teachers, I struggle to relax so we’ve realised that if we force the issue by going on holiday at the beginning of the summer I have no choice but to succumb to recuperation mode. 

This year’s destination: Indochina, namely Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Today I visited a primary school across the road from our hotel and a secondary school just a short tuk tuk journey away. Children in Cambodia only attend school part-time, either 8am until noon or 1pm until 5pm (one student informed me that they do attend 6 days a week though). 

Whilst travelling into Siem Reap on Monday our tour guide explained that state education in Cambodia is generally of a very poor standard. Teachers are paid badly, barely enough to survive and support their income through work as private tutors. He described normal classroom practice to be teachers writing lists of what students needed to learn rather than actually teaching them stuff. The only way students learn anything more than superficial subject knowledge is by employing the services of their teachers privately. Herein lies the filtering system for the haves and the have nots in Cambodia, most families cannot afford a private tutor so students fall behind and fail the tests. State schooling is free and available to all but many households can’t stump up the cash needed for uniforms and stationery, another factor which influences attendance. Unless students are from wealthy families, education for young people over here is extremely limited as are life chances and social mobility. Allegedly sixty five percent of state educated children in Cambodia drop out of school before they are 14. Of the students who stay on until they are 18 only about 10% go on to higher education so the class divide remains. Imagine a year group in your school, say Year 9, a group of roughly 200 students. Picture the faces of these children and imagine that only 70 of them return after summer for Year 10. Of those 70 only 7 will stay on to pursue higher education. Now some might say that the gap between those that have and those who have not in Britain is also vast but here you can clearly see that the spectrum is much more extreme.

When Natalie Scott writes about her experiences teaching children in the refugee camps of Calais she is talking from experience, her efforts and the work of those like her are truly humbling. Unless we see the deprivation firsthand we don’t conceive what it must be like. It’s hard to imagine children missing out on an education because for us in the UK it’s a given. Only by seeing it for yourself do the stories actually sink in. 

What was overwhelmingly obvious from both the primary and secondary schools I observed was the sense of responsibility for education. In England, external pressures have made it such that teachers have taken the responsibility of learning away from our children, many students are passive recipients of a diet they neither choose nor desire. The children I had the pleasure of watching were acutely aware of their place in the learning experience, in fact, they realise that their success or failure was entirely down to them. Minimal input from teachers meant that students have to have a desire to learn, be inquisitive and independently find out more about their subjects otherwise they don’t survive school. There is a value in education and learning. 

The teachers were much as they had been described to me, Gradgrindian figures who stood at the front and commanded respect. When present in the classroom, their sense of authority demanded silence and complete attention from class sizes of 50 plus. We walked past many basic rooms filled to bursting with students copying relentlessly from a board and teachers sat reading at their desks oblivious to their audience. The respect that students had for them was taken for granted, it was expected and it was given abundantly. Education is a valued commodity here and teachers are the sacred gatekeepers. 

Learning in Asian countries is centred on knowledge, the ability to remember and recall. The teaching in the schools I observed was very traditional, technology didn’t play a part in classroom practice. The buildings resembled blocks of council flats circa 1960 and were not welcoming whatsoever. 

What is beautiful was the vibrancy we saw in the students, their desire, their sense of purpose, their excitement. Despite the dark and depressing surroundings they were happy and desperate to learn. Adjacent classrooms were in stark contrast to one another, those who had a teacher overseeing them were deadly silent, workhouses of relentless copying with unsupervised areas being noisy and filled with personality, chaos among the calm. After overcoming their initial nervousness, students flocked to talk to us and talk about their studies, taking great pride in their work. It was an incredibly humbling experience. 

My biggest take away from my visits to these schools was to always count my blessings. Students in developed countries would benefit from seeing firsthand how bad others have got it, as would some teachers.Maybe considering class sizes of 50+ the next time they are tempted to moan about teaching a whole form group would encourage us not to share our protestations. It may be worth thinking about pay and conditions too, imagine what life would be like if we had to supplement our income by tutoring in the evenings just to survive or teach in temperatues of up to 40°C? Whilst the teachers in Cambodia took the respect they were given for granted, it was the children who were the most insightful, they knew the power of a good education and they realised that learning is the key to opportunity. I will go back to the UK better for meeting them and hopefully by seeing the world through different eyes take a tiny amount if their humility with me.  

Public services: the importance of being earnest

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This is my dad, Papa Leonard. He is a cutie, bless him and adores me which is why I can convince him to pose for pictures like this. He suffers with Alzheimer’s among a list of medical complaints too many to mention. It’s been really tough in the Leonard household of late, hence my lack of blogging and presence on social media. Personally, I’ve found it hard to stay buoyant, those of you who have met me will know that positivity is not something I struggle with and being sad is an unknown entity in a lot of respects. It’s been much harder for my parents though. Both in their late seventies, they have spent a lot of time in and out of hospital recently, I guess this blog is a reflection of what they have been going through in the last five months. It is also an opportunity to share what I have learnt from my experience with the NHS and the various agencies involved in their care. My interactions with the multi-agencies supporting them has taught me some valuable lessons which I can apply to my practice in school to make sure the most vulnerable students in my care do not get overlooked, something which can happen all-to-easily in education as in any public service. This blog is a plea, it’s a plea to anyone involved in the public sector not to forget those who need us the most, to be unrelenting in fighting for their rights, to be rigorous in making and following up referrals, to never give up.

To put this into context let me give you a bit of back story. Dad has been living with his Alzheimer’s for four years now. He has also been having regular routine procedures for tumours in his bladder for a number of years. He is overweight and of a generation who weren’t informed about looking after their bodies for which he is paying the price in his old age. He isn’t educated and though not daft, he is ill-informed and ignorant in many respects. My mum has cared for my dad for as long as I can remember, despite their marriage being less-than-perfect, she has always been his carer. She herself has undergone treatment for bladder cancer but has generally been fit and healthy so, with help from my sister and I has been able to meet his needs. That was up until the beginning of this year when dad started to become incontinent about the same time my mum was diagnosed with having breast cancer. Having to try to continue looking after dad whilst undergoing diagnosis, surgery and treatment was almost insurmountable for mum. They were now both vulnerable adults and needed help that my sister and I could not provide comprehensively whilst trying to maintain our own family and work lives. We were a family in crisis, something which I experience the other side of on a daily basis in my role but never quite understood until it happened to me and mine. There is a futility that families feel which is difficult to empathise with when we are acting in our roles as professionals. Family units are complex and unique things, no two being the same, so formulaic approaches are destined for failure. Evident either in catastrophic fashion or in smaller fatal flaws which mean that some needs will always remain unmet. At the time that mum was preparing to go into hospital to undergo surgery we involved social services as well as the adult mental health and later life memory service to see what support my parents could access. This was in March and happened to coincide with a deterioration in my dad’s condition, he was getting more forgetful and increasingly verbally aggressive in his behaviour towards my mum. An entourage of professionals descended on us as a family, one social worker for my mum, one for my dad (they couldn’t have the same one), a representative from the later life and memory service, a community health nurse. They recommended a change of medication to make my dad more docile and an input of care since he refused to go into a respite centre. The whole experience was overwhelming for my sister and I, for my vulnerable parents it simply blew their minds. These people were full of promises and proposals, non of which came to fruition without constant chasing from both Dawn and myself. They were good in their intentions but lacking in substance and there was no joined up thinking or communication between them following that initial meeting. Had mum and dad been in a situation where they did not have family to act for them I think that they would have been forgotten.

Running alongside dad’s issues was mum’s treatment for the tumour in her breast. Her journey with St Helens & Whiston NHS hospitals together with the Macmillan Nurse team could not have been further from that which we were experiencing with social services. From her initial consultation and diagnosis, the communication, care and treatment was exceptional. She received her own designated nurse Gaynor who kept continual contact with her (and us) explaining and reassuring throughout the treatment and beyond. She was mum’s advocate, she made sure that what needed to happen happened. When anything was not quite right, she fixed it. Gaynor was a voice for my mum, with the hospital, with social services and with her GP. Even though mum was vulnerable, nothing was missed, everything was checked and double checked to ensure she received the best possible care. I will never be able to thank Gaynor and mum’s surgeon Miss Kiernan as well as the rest of the team for the care and compassion they showed her. Their attention meant that she never felt alone or overwhelmed.

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This has taught me a lot about the acute side of our jobs, the pastoral care that we give our students and their families when they are in crisis. Yes we are dealing with an increasing demand of issues and yes it sometimes feels like it will never end. However we need to remember that these people are at a point where sometimes we are their only hope and it is our responsibility to be their advocates, to chase the social workers, CAMHS and other agencies; to be tenacious and not let them be forgotten. Even when their situations die down it is our duty to remind them that we care. This is hard when our budgets are being cut left, right and centre but it is us that make the difference. Dad got rushed into A&E in the early hours of Wednesday morning, thankfully he is ok now. However, he was suffering symptoms that were the same as we’d shared with his GP on Friday, she didn’t think they were severe enough – the A&E doctor did. The doctor did inform us that the medication which was in dad’s blister packs, a million and one tablets which look like Smarties, did not contain his Alzheimer’s medication. In fact he had not been receiving his medication for the past four months since the multi-agency mafia had made their changes, they actioned their decision only in part, the part which removed his existing meds. Dad’s community nurse didn’t visit like he’d promised that he would and no one followed up to see if these vulnerable adults were ok. They were forgotten, no one cared enough to be their advocate.

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I’ve not written this piece for sympathy, every one has tough times (although feel free to play the Leonard family a tune on a tiny violin if you do so wish). Instead I want to share the lesson. In our job we have a choice, to make people feel cared for and that they have a voice or to make them feel like they don’t matter. My parents are fortunate, they have two daughters but some people are living without any family or friends to care for them. Our students and their families can be in similar situations, I want to be a Gaynor in my role and will endeavour to do so. Vulnerable people need to have a voice and sometimes we are the only one they have so let’s make sure we speak for them with conviction and see our promises through.

Middle leadership: if I could turn back time

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Last year I wrote a blog about advice I’d give to my NQT self, apparently it was a pretty sensible set of points. I decided to take a look back at the blog this morning to consider my thoughts a year on. Thankfully I agree with what I wrote with last year but thought it might be interesting to consider the advice I’d share with my newly promoted middle leader self. I was fortunate in some respects to become Second in Department and then Head of Department in very quick succession. In other respects though I was probably not mature or experienced enough to do the role justice in the beginning. One day I went from being an excellent classroom teacher to a middle manager with little or no guidance other than watching how my HOD had done things from a distance. Very quickly I learned what a brilliant leader he was. I only wished there would have been more of an opportunity to observe him more closely. As senior leaders our role is not only to grow our own talent but also to develop our staff by encouraging them to shadow great HODs and HOYs before they take the leap onto the ladder of school leadership. Line managing a department or faculty is not the same as running it daily. SLT have a sanitised view of what goes on but this allows for a more objective perspective. Currently, I’m having to step into the role of HOD a little more, I’m lucky to be working with a department who have distributed leadership and are happy to pick up a lot of the slack but knowing what I know now, how am I going to do things differently? What mistakes did I make then which I’m hoping to avoid now? How am I going to develop a better team than the one which I had an absolutely fabulous time leading some ten years ago? Well here are my top tips to my 26 year old self:

1. Do it for the right reasons at the right time – ask challenging questions of yourself like “Am I ready? Am I good enough yet? Why do I want this? What impact am I going to have on the students and the school?” If you’re not reflective enough to ask this of yourself then find someone who will act as a critical friend to help you answer these questions. A senior or middle leader is maybe your best option in school or a mentor outside of school. If you ask someone close to you then they are likely to tell you what you want to hear rather than what is an honest observation of you at that particular time.

2. Above everything you’ve got to be all about your team – if you’re not into teamwork then being a HOD/HOY is not for you. Some people make excellent classroom teachers but aren’t suited to leading a team – and that’s ok. If this describes you then maybe the HOD role isn’t the best way to develop your career path.

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3. Love the ones you’re with – my ex HOD said on his leaving speech “These students are all someone’s son or daughter, they are all God’s children and we’ve got to love them all because it might be the only love they get.” His sentiments hit home as I realised he’d done the same with his team. Your team are like your family and, at times they will drive you to distraction but you must love them all the time because, like the children we teach, the care they get from you might be the only kindness they receive. Whatever you give will come back ten fold so invest time in them, get to know them.

4. Be up to date with your subject grammar – your team will look to you as the font of all knowledge,  it’s ok not to know everything but they have to have faith in your competency to lead and knowing your stuff goes a long way especially with highly intelligent practitioners.

5. Be a good classroom teacher – you can’t talk the talk if you don’t walk the walk. Subject knowledge goes some way into gaining credibility with your team but your practice inside the classroom will give you much more respect with students, staff and the wider community. When you’re asking your team to try something new, don’t ask them to do anything you wouldn’t be prepared to do yourself.

6. Let go of the need to be the best – I was always highly competitive (and I still am if truth be told), I strived to be the best teacher in the department which was fine as a classroom teacher. However, everything is relative. There’s no satisfaction in being the best of a bad bunch so instead of trying to beat everyone else in the results or popularity rankings (or whatever you use as a benchmark), focus your efforts on helping everyone to develop so that they are as good if not better than you. Everyone should be continually striving to get better no matter where they are in their career or how good they are deemed to be, it’s your job as HOD to facilitate their continual growth.

7. Be organised – look at long term deadlines/requirements and start planning well in advance as these things will creep up on you sooner than you think! We always tell students to be prepared but very often in teaching we end up being lastminute.com which leads to getting stressed, making mistakes and the wheels falling off. Despite all the planning in the world, the job of a middle leader (especially heads of year) is largely reactive so allow some “response time” into your day for fire fighting or working with students/staff who may need a little bit of you that you hadn’t planned for.

8. Network both inside and outside of your school and setting – you are now in a key position of influence so it is important to work cohesively with other teachers, from ITTs to SLT and beyond. Listen to ideas and share yours sparingly, only say something if what you’ve got to say has been thought out, people are much more likely to value it then. Look at the brilliant work that other people are doing in other departments and other schools, see what could work for you and your team. TeachMeets and Twitter are great starting points to look outside of your own bubble. Unfortunately, ten years ago social media was more about sharing cat videos than resources and subject knowledge so this is one piece of advice that my 26 year old self couldn’t use but you can take advantage of it so get networking and save reinventing the wheel for someone else!

9. Don’t react – at times people will be horrible, they will be emotional, they will tell you things which will upset you for all sorts of reasons but the worst thing you can do is respond reactively. Learn to listen without offering advice straight away, instead give yourself time to consider all perspectives before responding. One of the best leaders I have worked with simply listened when I came to him with an issue, problem or rant. Every so often he would chuck in a reassuring or calming word which would bring me to a more emotionally relaxed place in that instant, he would then bring the conversation to a close saying “Leave it with me”, before the end of that school day he would have returned offering wise and well-thought out words. I was also in a much better place to listen to them and respond effectively rather than emotionally. I have learned that not reacting is best for everyone involved, thanks PB!
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10. Be a presence – get into classrooms and assemblies. It’s important to show the students and the staff that you are leading the team. Bobbing into classrooms informally will build a confidence in you so that when formal lesson observation time comes staff don’t feel threatened. Encourage teachers (both within the department and across the school) to go into each other’s lessons, including yours. This creates an open and empathetic environment. You’ll get a much more honest view of teaching within your department by nipping in and out of classes than formal lesson observations and learning walks.

11. Think about pedagogy – so many brilliant teachers can’t explain how they do it because it just comes natural to them, chances are that you’ve been a brilliant teacher and that’s one of the reasons why you’ve been promoted. As a middle leader you are a driving force in the teaching and learning of the school (HOYs you’re not excluded from this in fact you’re vital to it) so you need to start breaking down both how your subject is taught and how effective classroom practice can be modelled. You are no longer just teaching students, you are developing your staff which in itself is a mixed ability group. If you’re struggling to convey what it is that you do which works then think about sequencing. Don’t be afraid of enlisting the help of others who do this well (it’s good for their development too). There should be a conversation about teaching and learning every day and it’s your job to stoke the fire. Every departmental meeting should focus on moving teaching forward (remember we all should be striving to get better) not an information dissemination exercise. Think of other ways to get the protocols out to the team. Make opportunities for informal conversations about teaching to take place. Coffee and cake time once a week, bulletins, sending resources around are a great starting point to ensure continual focus on the important stuff.

12. Talk about the children as though they are your own – this sounds like a no brainer but in the hectic juggling of plates we sometimes forget why we are all here, the students. How you talk about them is important too, it models how you expect your team to talk and think about them. The advice offered at number 3 needs to be practiced by all teachers, they need to care for every child especially the difficult ones. Your team will only do it if they see you leading by example.

13. Be a filter/umbrella – I’ve heard many great leaders talk about this, Jill Berry has some very wise words on this matter if you want to learn from an excellent leader. You will be party to information and conversations that classroom teachers won’t have access to. Your job is to sift out needs to be shared and what doesn’t, sharing everything is not the way to go! Equally, learn to keep counsel, some things teachers tell you need to be shared and others don’t, decide which do and only share them with the people who need to know when the time is right. Being a good listener without it going any further will gain you credibility with your team and the wider school community. Loose lips and all that!

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14. Checklists are your friend particularly if you’re disorganised – this isn’t an endorsement of a system based approach to running a team because we are dealing with people and that simply won’t work. The point that I’m trying to make is that if you’re more of a creative cat than an organised ostrich then a good checklist can help you manage your own time better. Harry Fletcher-Wood has written a super little book on checklists which has some great ideas for middle leaders, go on, treat yourself and put it on your summer reading list.

15. Learn from the best – who are the leaders which provide you with inspiration and why? I consider myself blessed to have had someone brilliant who I could learn from along the way both inside and outside the educational setting. In my first school I had brilliant heads of department and experienced some amazing senior leadership. In my current school I’ve been even more fortunate seeing it modelled right from the top down which has helped me grow into a better leader myself. Beyond my own school experience,  reading the work of people like John Tomsett, Mary Myatt, Jill Berry and Debra Kidd have helped me decide just what type of leader I want to be.

16. Always be humble, take responsibility and learn from your mistakes – everything you do will influence others therefore it is vital that you lead with integrity and humility. If you make a mistake, hold your hands up and admit to it, you’ll earn respect that way. Don’t blame anyone in your team if ultimately it was your responsibility as you’ll only create a blame culture. If someone makes a mistake it’s much better to have a private conversation and see what you can both learn from it than publically apportion blame, this will never win you respect. It’s ok to make mistakes providing we learn from them and prevent their reoccurrence. If there’s a success then celebrate it but remember that it’s a team effort now so everyone has had a part to play in it however big or small. Always celebrate thoughtfully and never at the cost of any other person or department, remember those that you pass on the way up will also see you on the way down!

17. You are always learning – don’t ever think that you know everything because if you get to that point then chances are you’re deluded and heading for a fall! Every day should be a learning opportunity as you’re in prime position with staff and students. If your team see you listening to the students, the NQTs and the more seasoned members of staff who are in their latter years, then they will follow suit. I’ve found the most insight comes from those who have been there and got the t-shirt yet often they get written off as being past their sell-by date. There is no better CPD than experience so don’t take it for granted. Also, the most honest people you will work with are the kids, they haven’t learned to filter yet so listen to them.

18. Try to think like a senior leader – what a crazy notion, not yet wet behind the ears as a middle leader and I’m suggesting that you think like SLT, ridiculous! Most of the mistakes I made were because I didn’t consider the bigger picture only taking into account my own agendas. If you put yourself in the shoes of the people who are leading the school then you’re more than likely to make the right decisions and get the outcome you want. Work closely with your SLT line manager (and the rest of the senior leadership team) as they are the ones who will fight your corner in meetings. It’s also a good idea to learn what it’s like for SLT before you start thinking you can do their job!

19. Lead by example – your team will be created in your image so be what you want to see! I’ve recently written about this in my post on academies and school leadership here, I firmly believe that our teams are a mirror of who we are so you need to ask yourself what kind of team do I want to lead? Trust and integrity are vital, as is kindness and determination if you want a team to succeed. Communication, a strong work ethic together with patience and understanding are key components of effective teams. You can’t get any of these if you don’t start with yourself. You’ve got to walk the walk. Build trust and be authentic, if you don’t put every effort into this then when times are tough they’ll feel a hundred times harder. Be kind and understanding with everyone because we are all human beings first and foremost. Try to understand that not everyone will want to work in the way (or as hard) as you do and that’s ok providing they get the job done well. You can challenge underperformance providing you are effective and work hard, if you’re not doing your bit then you’re not being authentic and you have no place to judge. If you communicate well then people are under no illusions as to expectations, vision or process. Have a clear vision for your team and communicate it clearly and regularly. You will need bags of patience as well as optimism and determination in abundance, you are now not only an advocate for all the students in the school but for your subject/year group and its staff. This will be hard at times but you’ve always got to be the radiator. Everything you do will be infectious, you’ve got to ask whether you want it to be like laughter or some disgusting disease.

20. Look after yourself – you are important especially to your family and loved ones so don’t forget to keep your own well-being at the forefront of your thoughts. Equally, you’re not going to be any use to anyone ill or exhausted so self preservation is vital. The one thing middle leaders don’t do well is put their needs first. I’m not saying be selfish, quite the opposite, I’m merely saying it’s important to maintain a work/life balance. Make sure you have a cut off time and don’t go past it. Take time to do the things which make you happy. Don’t cut corners in your personal life as your family and friends are the ones who are there for you no matter what. Take time to recharge your batteries by having some quiet time. Reward yourself by organising treats, you’ve worked hard for your money so do something of value with it. And enjoy what you’re doing, if you don’t then don’t do it. Life is too short and chances are you’re not doing anyone any favours by simply going through the motions!

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Being a middle leader is the hardest role in a school but it’s also the most rewarding, there’s no better feeling than leading a team to success so take pleasure in every part of it, the good and the bad. This isn’t an exhaustive list, far from it and there many great blogs out there from the likes of Emma Kell and Lisa Pettifer (to mention but a few) on this topic so please look around to continue to learn from the best. Every bit of advice I gave to my NQT self stood true for me as a middle leader and now as a senior leader. It’s always good to reflect on who you were and how far you’ve come because only then can you realise the potential just what you can be.