Back to school

 

person holding black backpack

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A few years ago I was at a briefing in which all teachers were told to look out for a new pupil from another country who had not been in school for a long time.

We weren’t told much more than that. Enough was left unsaid to know there was a lot more going on. Look out for really did mean look out for.

I first saw the pupil in the corridor outside my classroom during lesson changeover time. Most of the other children had gone and she was standing on her own staring at her timetable and looking worried. I was about to go and help but another teacher got to her first.

This teacher, a big bald bloke who barked everything he said, had clearly missed the briefing. He snatched the timetable out of the girl’s hand and, in a loud voice said something like “Hurry up! You’re late! Are you new? Give me that.” He loomed over her, while he studied the timetable then barked. “Right! You’ve got Art. It’s down that corridor. Do you know where that is?” The girl stood there looking bewildered. Just at that moment a boy walked past. The teacher put his arm to stop him. “This girl is new and doesn’t know where Art is. Take her please!”

Throughout the whole exchange I was tense but at the end of it, to my surprise, I saw the girl was smiling. A moment later she was off down the corridor with the boy the teacher had accosted just ahead of her.

Thinking about it later, I wondered whether the reason the girl looked happy was because what had happened in the corridor was actually precisely what she needed after a long period of instability. The teacher hadn’t been unkind, just brusque and a bit distracted. He’d not treated her as a victim or done anything that made her feel different to any other child at the school. The girl might well have been reassured by how properly everything worked too. Here she was in a uniform with a bag full of books, a timetable that told her where to be and a teacher to get her to the right place at the right time. Whatever hardships she’d endured in the past she was now in a school, exactly where she belonged.

I think there are lessons here for schools considering how to deal with pupils returning after lockdown. While it is of course important that we are proactive and alert in looking out for and dealing with safeguarding issues, we should remember what most of our pupils will appreciate most will be a return to relative normality as quickly as possible.

They will want calm, organised adults who know where their classrooms are, when lunch is and what they should do on days they have PE. They will want teachers who praise and cajole, teaching them about Romans and equations and erosion. They will want books and lessons and annoying homework to moan about. Most will not want or need to feel weird by spending lots of time doing activities that aren’t about learning or being asked constantly if they are feeling OK. They will want adults to have made Plans and to Be In Charge.

While we must be alert for trauma and anxiety, and have processes to identify and deal with them we should not assume all our pupils have been traumatised. Most will have been no worse than bored and will be most anxious about the work they’ve missed. Pupils, parents and teachers want to go back to school, not to a retreat, hospital, clinic or anything else.

Let’s get back to school. It’s what we know. It’s what we’ve missed.

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Leaving ceremony

person holding white flowers in clear glass vase

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3.30pm on the last Friday before the summer holiday in the staffroom.

Small bottles of warm Stella and glasses of wine if you get there early, plastic cups for the latecomers. Secret bingo cards for buzzwords and a sweepstake on how long this will go on. Most hope not much more than half an hour. The holidays have begun and this isn’t really part of the holiday.

We’re saying goodbye to Mrs Naylor first. She’s been here forty years. Began as an NQT. Deputy Head for two decades. She taught the grandparents of children who come here now. She’s seen ten Heads come and go. While she’s worked here the school’s had three different names, been in two different buildings and everything from In Measures to Outstanding.

Once – back way before anyone who still works at the school was here –  she faced down an angry man who came to the school with a cricket bat while the then Head, not a bad man but a weak man, cowered in his office.

She’d be mortified if anyone but her knew that although she didn’t so much as flinch, after it was over she had to change her knickers.

She looks different to how she did at twenty three. She’s heavier and more lined. But those flint grey eyes are the same, always looking and working out and appraising and considering and thinking ‘what is the most pressing problem here and how do I solve it?’

Everyone knows Mrs Naylor.

She’s literally saved some lives and enriched thousands and thousands more.

She’s always been here. It is her school.

How to mark a working life like her’s?

In a just world she’d walk out from to find the whole local community packing the corridors she knows so well. There’d be a brass band and a parade. The Queen would present her with a medal.

But instead there is just this; flowers, vouchers, supermarket champagne, some gardening gloves and a well thought out ten minute speech. It never crosses her mind perhaps she deserved more and if someone had arranged so much as a party she’d be cross people had made a fuss.

Pritesh, the Head of Maths, is retiring too. Decent bloke. Competent if a bit uninspired. He gets a card and an engraved pen. He’s crying a bit and only a few people know why. It’s because it feels something of a miracle he is here at all. Ten years ago he had cancer and for a long time, even with all the brutal chemo, it was touch and go. He’s been in remission five years and although he knows nothing in life is for sure he has reason to hope to see his grandchildren through school and beyond.

There is joy in his future when for a long time Pritesh didn’t really think they’d be a future for him at all.

Dan makes a short speech. He is moving with his family to Devon for the good life by the beach. His eyes keep meeting Amy’s. There are deep oceans in those looks. For years they called each ‘work husband and wife’, but stopped making that joke a couple of years ago, when the night after the first day of a conference they crossed a line.

It never happened again and the weirdness didn’t last that long.

Amy loves her husband and she loves her children. But the next day as she’s packing the car with all the camping stuff she suddenly and clearly thinks “if I’d met Dan first I’d have married him.”

They send each other a couple of texts and then slip from each other’s lives forever. That’s for the best.

Nicola doesn’t speak for long either. She’s done her stint as Head of Department and got the Assistant Head job she wanted at the school down the road. Although she wears shiny suits and was always very keen people notice her achievements she goes with warm wishes. In her rush to get somewhere she was never cruel.

Nick is last. He’s worked here two years and only gets a couple of sentences from the Head. He’s off to teach internationally in Thailand and can’t wait to get out of the stuffy staffroom to the pub and his real goodbye party, which will go on to the early hours of the morning. It is incomprehensible to him that one day he will be giving a retirement speech. But one day he will.

It is all over and everyone goes. Pritesh hangs back just a moment. Looks around. Goes to the kitchen area to get his mug but changes his mind and leaves it there hanging on the tree.

“It all turned out OK,” he thinks as he walks out for the last time. “In the end.”

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Five principles for effective school communication

 

black rotary telephone on white surface

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Last year my wife went on a training course about public speaking. The trainer was scathing about ‘I said all my key points’ as an indicator of success.

‘It doesn’t matter if you said it,’ he told the delegates, ‘if it hasn’t landed then you’ve wasted everyone’s time.’

His point was that effective communication isn’t pitching information at an audience and that the right measure of success is action; persuading people of the need to do something, motivating them to do it and being clear about when.

There are important insights here for schools, which have become more visible and important during this pandemic shut-down period when communication has become more important than it has ever been.

Even in the most stable of times schools are enormously complicated organisms comprising huge numbers of diverse groups and individuals, which need to get vast amounts of information out on an almost constant cycle. I am not sure this is often done that well. This post, divided into five principles is just the beginning of my thinking on how this could be done a bit better. If only by me.

I’d welcome comments, criticism and suggestions on things I’ve overlooked or not considered.

  1. The right information.

The right information means making sure what we say is accurate. As truthy as this sounds, it is still something surprisingly easy to get wrong. It is quite easy to send out the wrong information. This can happen when a school isn’t clear about its own policies and procedures, or if it doesn’t follow its own policies and procedures in practice. For example, if a uniform policy says no dangly ear-rings but this is rule is never enforced, then the policy is incorrect information. This causes lots of logistical problems, arguments, undermines the credibility of the school as a whole and makes people understandably less attentive.

Information sent out by a school has to be accurate. If it isn’t accurate don’t send it.

Key questions to consider:

  • Is this right?
  • Is what happens in the school actually what this information says happens in the school?

 

  1. To the right people.

While accuracy is necessary it is not sufficient.

Everyone doesn’t need to know everything.

If we tried we’d soon become overwhelmed and slow to act on the things actually relevent to us. Administration staff do not need to know TLAC strategies. Teachers do not need to know how to send whole-school text messages. Misunderstanding this can be unintentionally disrespectful, as support staff made to sit through involved sessions which have absolutely nothing to do with their job will freely tell you.

This principle also applies to pupils and parents, who are as busy as we are; the parent of a Year 7 child does not need to know about Y11 mock examination procedures, just as the parent of a Y11 does not need to know about the Y7 choir. When schools send all information to all parents, the result again is overload, which often means the parent disengaging with school communication and missing the stuff they really needed to pay attention to.

This is absolutely not to say that there aren’t some messages it is important everyone hears – all in the building regardless of their role needs to know, for example, what the school’s vision and overall priorities are, or how parking arrangements have changed over the summer. But not thinking deliberately about the difference between an ‘everyone’ message and messages that should really be bespoke muddies the waters and undermines all communication.

Key questions to consider:

  • Does everyone need this information?
  • Why are we sending out this information?
  • Who needs this information?

 

  1. At the right time.

We are all, teachers, pupils, parents, support and administration staff, very busy. While important, publishing a calendar at the beginning of the year isn’t really good enough. It is reasonable for people to expect some reminders and foreshadowing of what’s coming up. It is as important to consider the best time to give information as it is to consider to who it should be given to.

Doing this well means knowing a school inside out. It means knowing not only when the Christmas Production is but when rehearsals for it should begin. It means knowing when Options evening takes place, when Y9 should be told this is, when they should be reminded and what they should be told about next steps afterwards.

It also means being aware of the emotional charge of the school and being flexible sometimes. It might (or might not) be wise to change the timing of a planned full curriculum audit if a global pandemic forces a school site to close for four months to most pupils. On occasions such as these, any changes should also be communicated clearly so people do not spend time on work that isn’t a priority.

Key questions to consider:

  • When is the right time to send this information?
  • When is the right time to send reminders?
  • Is it still the right time to send out this information?
  • Do we need to send out information that something has changed?

 

  1. In the right way.

An advantage to 21st century ways of working is there are many ways to send out information. Old style letters – either posted or given to pupils to take home –  are now supplemented by websites, text messages, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and apps such as Milk and MyEd. Each of these delivery methods has advantages and limitations. Sometimes these can be combined really effectively – for example putting an important letter for all pupils on the website can be well supported by sending a whole school text message that just reads “there is a very important letter about X on the front page of the website. Please read it carefully.”

Schools should be pragmatic. If we know a family has limited internet access or data on phones, then it is courteous and respectful to call them. If a family struggles with literacy it might be appropriate to ask them to come in for face-to-face meeting where a message can be given verbally. If a family is not fluent in English it would be rude not to provide translation.

Key questions to consider:

  • What options are there for sending this out?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of each?
  • Does this information need to go out more than one way?
  • Who will struggle to access this information? What are we doing about this?

 

  1. In the right style.

It is annoying when schools communicate as if they are legal firms, businesses or anything else when they are not any of these things. Messages should clearly come from a school and be kind, clear and concise. This is easier to do and less affected if the school has a strong sense of identity, values and purpose, but even the most visionary settings might benefit from some agreed stylistic rules – for example whether children at the school are considered ‘pupils’ or ‘students’.

While some consistency is helpful too much consistency probably isn’t. The tone of a Twitter account may well –and probably should – be noticeably different to the tone of a letter inviting a young person to an award ceremony. This isn’t an issue as long as style and choice of language is deliberate and thought through.

Key questions to consider:

  • Is it clear?
  • Does it sound like us?
  • Is it respectful?
  • How would you react to receiving this message?

So there we are.

Five principles: The right information, to the right people, at the right time, in the right way, in the right style.

What have I missed?

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Who will benefit from autumn exams?

crop student preparing homework in park

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There was always going to be an autumn exam series this year.

Unhappy with what you got? Feel your grades are incorrect? Then prove it by sitting the exams you expected to when you began the course. Go ahead and right what once went wrong! Your future is in your hands!

But ultimately there will be a very limited number of children for whom sitting these exams will be worthwhile.

The most obvious group for who sitting these exams might be a good bet will be those who achieve less than a four in Maths and English.

For these young people, who will have to take these exams anyway in the future, the October exam series is a free hit – if they get a four then they are freed of the burden of extra study and classes while they pursue post-16 course. If they don’t then they are in no worse position than they were before. Clearly, for those willing and able to spend time preparing, sitting these exams is a good idea.

Beyond these pupils it is quite difficult to identify groups for whom sitting exams will be worth it.

The primary purpose of GCSE qualifications  – which is of course a different thing to  the subject content itself – is to act as a passport for further stud,y and by October pupils will already be on their post-16 courses. By the autumn any damage has already been done. For some pupils studying ‘A’ levels a working gap year before reapplying to colleges and sixth forms might be a possibility but this is not a traditional or established option for 16 year olds and, given uncertainty around the economy, this would almost certainly be an unwise bet for a child to make even if they were allowed to.

For some pupils, particularly those who have worked very hard and feel their grades are the result of an injustice, sitting exams and getting better grades could be cathartic. This is very laudable. I understand and have great sympathy with this motivation and a child choosing to do this will get all the help I can realistically give. But I also think this decision to be one that should be very clearly thought through. Pupils preparing for or studying post-16 courses would probably be wise to place their efforts on these courses and being distracted by sitting a raft of exams could actually result in them limiting their learning on courses which could eventually make their GCSEs irrelevant. “A” levels and other demanding level 3 qualifications are not really designed to be studied at the same time as GCSEs.

Unfair GCSE grades will be a bitter pill to swallow, but a brilliant set of post 16 grades is probably the best way of showing the procedure was inaccurate.

All this said, there may be some pupils who may benefit from resitting one or two subjects that they know they’re really good at and feel particularly disappointed about. There is something deeply personally impressive about such decisions and I will try not to be too much of a wet blanket about requests for support from pupils in this position. However, these pupils will also need to understand that if they want to do exams in the autumn this is absolutely not the same as if they were doing these exams in a regular year.

They will have been out of formal education for months. They will not have been taught the last parts of courses, which would have been likely to involve considerable emphasis on exam technique. It is also important to emphasise the risk of taking exams and ending up with the same, or an even worse calculated grade. While this may have no practical impact, the effect on self-esteem and confidence could be very marked. The schools these pupils attended will feel a very strong moral obligation to make sure these children do not fight this battle on their own and this will involve allocating resources scant even in the most normal of times.

It is also important to note that the pupils most likely to benefit from this autumn series will be those advantaged by technology and parental support. Once again, depressingly, we see another example of this crisis hitting the least privileged hardest.

None of this is to say I think the autumn exam series is a mistake. It is another least worst option.

Some pupils wishing to sit exams should be supported to do so but these exams are no panacea.

This extraodinary exam series is not a reason to dimiss or downplay the concerns and upset of those whose grades aren’t right.

Things are still unfair and –  while there might not be anything anyone can do about this, – we should not pretend all can be made well by these arrangements.

 

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Just google it.

laistrygonians

Just last week I saw a conversation on twitter in which people were discussing the old chestnut about whether teaching pupils knowledge was as important as it used to be now everyone can just google everything.

I’m not going to go into the well understood technical fallacies of such thinking and, instead, want to write something more personal.

My favourite poem for a very long time has been Ithaka by C P Cavafy. For as long as I can remember it’s been up on the wall of my classroom or office and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve shared it with a new Y7 class or with Y11 leavers.

It’s about not getting so hung up on wanting to reach a destination that you forget to appreciate the journey, and it reminds us when we do get somewhere it usually doesn’t feel quite the way we thought it would. Achieving an ideal is rarely as satisfying as what we imagined and the pursuit of a dream at the expense of everything else can make its realisation feel strangely hollow – a little like that weird anticlimactic feel experienced on the first day of the summer holidays.

I understand this part of the poem really well. That’s the part I’ve always emphasised when I’ve spoken to others about it.

But there are lines in the poem that – for a long time – made less sense to me.

Here they are:

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.”

I have known these lines off by heart for a long time and sort of got them but didn’t really get them.

Intellectually I always knew they meant to be wary of our fears but I didn’t feel this in my heart the same way I did the rest of the poem until just recently when I was talking to someone who I’d just met about my daughter who has Williams’ Syndrome.

The person was delightfully interested and curious. They wanted to know more. They didn’t go weird, or say anything remotely hurtful or insensitive.

And afterwards those lines about Laistryonians, Cyclops and wild Poseidon popped back into my consciousness and stopped me in my tracks.

I realised then that the internal anxiety I carry about how others would react to my daughter at the moment is not borne out by what I have experienced externally, at least so far.

In over two years – ever since her diagnosis – only one person has said something upsetting to me.

Every other person has reacted entirely appropriately, respectfully and kindly; the most common reaction by far has been a sort of shrug and a comment along the lines of “well everyone’s different aren’t they?”

But despite this still I carried my monsters.

Still my soul set up internal anxiety in front of me, made me wonder and worry about what people really thought, made me wonder if all the wonderful people I’d talked about Bessie with were really just good actors when of course I know they are not. It made me adopt what I’d heard others have said about other people as things that had happened to me.

So I will banish the Laistryonians, Cyclops and Poseidon. I will not bring them along inside my soul. I will not let them make me jump at shadows or move me to anger or make me slower to smile. I will not let them fill me with dread or stop me enjoying all the stuff about my life that make it joyous. Those angry beasts will not ruin my journey.

None of this – of course – is to say that life’s troubles are all imaginary. I am no fool and know that the years ahead will bring difficulty, as they do for us all. I am not naive or myopic and will not dismiss what others have experienced.

Just because something has not happened to me does not mean it hasn’t happened to someone else.

But I don’t think Ithaka really means any of that at all.

I think what it is really saying is that the things that damage us most, the things that really have the power to bring us to our knees and to despair are not external slings and arrows. Any ill-considered or unkind comment someone might make does not have the power to hurt me unless I let it.

I could not have learned any of this from google.

I had to have Ithaka always somewhere in mind, like a waiting prism, ready for the light of new experience to ajust and transform it into something brand new.

 

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(Don’t) Mind the Gap!

 

Mind-The-Gap

For those who have developed detailed, joined up curriculum Covid19 feels particularly badly timed.

The idea knowledge would be progressively and iteratively moved to long term memory and then built upon later has had a hole blown in it.

It’s tempting to conceptualise curriculum as a house of cards with everything collapsing if one is removed from a lower level.

This certainly seems to be what the government think.

The plan appears to be a programme of aggressive intervention to shove the cards back into the gaps, through extended opening hours, tutors and weekend and summer school. The aim, if I haven’t misunderstood, is all pupils catch up on what they have missed so when schools return to normal they can just carry on as if the whole of the last few months were nothing but a bad dream.

It won’t work.

The first error is in believing the curriculum we write is digested evenly and uniformly by the pupils exposed to it.

This isn’t true. Even in the most stable of times pupils, being humans, will have great variability in what they have learned. A child experiencing a severe headache on some random Tuesday will not have learned as much from lessons on that day than a child feeling on top of their game. A teacher who hasn’t slept after a horrible argument with their girlfriend probably won’t have taught their lessons as well as they would have if they’d been serene and well rested. We could go on and on with more examples but the point is the same – curriculum coverage is always uneven and gaps are inevitable.

This is not new. It is something we have always had to work with.

Of course, shutdown has exaggerated this – for many pupils exponentially. Differences in knowledge between different pupils might be greater than it has ever been in modern times. It is highly probable that some children will actually be ahead of where they would have been if they’d been in school every day. The most privileged may have benefited from near one-to-one support from an educated furloughed parent able to provide hours of one-to-one support. Others will have had private tutoring over Zoom. Others who attend schools in which bad behaviour is common may have found the lack of distraction and ability to focus a boon.

Some children will have learned different things to what is on their school’s curriculum. Some will have done work from BBC bitesize or Oak National. Others will have done projects with their parents on things that interest them both. These children may look like they are behind but in some areas will actually be ahead.

All this said there are probably more pupils who’ve learned much less – it is likely many will have done nothing academic at all and will have actually regressed as they naturally forget what they learned in school before they stopped attending.

Pupils who have experienced lockdown very differently attend the same schools and will go back into lessons with each other.

How are their schools and teachers supposed to meet such diverse need?

One option would be a raft of ‘diagnostic’ tests and exams for pupils when they return. The purpose of these would be to forensically ‘find the gaps’ in each individual child’s knowledge. These ‘gaps’ could then be recorded on complicated spreadsheets, which would then be used to develop a series of ‘interventions’ which would – Boris and Gavin approved – run after school, on the weekend or in the holidays.

Systemically we are very used to this approach. We know this old beast well. At its heart it is the scaling up of the same approach many schools have used with Y11 ever since we put performance management on steroids.

We know the damaging effects of this already; exhausted staff, exhausted children, the ritualistic and often heart breaking struggle to compel those furthest behind to do work they’ve spent years avoiding. We also know how addictive this lens becomes – when we look obsessively for gaps pretty soon they are all we see.

Nonetheless this might, might, be all worth it if the final outcome was a great leap forward that – even if some resented it at the time – led to the elimination of the loss of learning experienced by our Covid Kids and headed off worries raised by people like Laura McInereny about grade deflation over the next few years.

If things were as simple as this I think we could teachers on board. People are happy to make sacrifices if they seem worth it. It is tempting to throw ourselves in and swallow the heroic imagery – a year or more of struggle and strife, of data and long hours, of midnight oil and marking tests, then a finally an emergence into the sunny gratitude of a nation whose children we have saved from ignorance.

I would like this fantasy to be true.

But I’d also like a coffee table sized pet triceratops.

You can’t always get what you want.

We already know this approach doesn’t work don’t we? Wanting something is not the same as being able to have it.

We know how hard it is to actually work out what ‘gaps’ a child has from tests that can only ever be samples of vast domains. We know even if we correctly work out what a pupil doesn’t know our ability to do anything about it is limited. It is hard enough to convince our hardest to reach children to come to school at all and we already know any programme of extra intervention usually results in those already ahead putting even greater distances between them and those furthest behind.

All of this is before we even consider how we get past the fact most schools are doing interventions before school, at lunch, after school and at holiday and weekends already for Y11.

Who will staff extra interventions given our staff are doing them already?

So what should we do?

It is interesting to see a curious and perhaps surprising alignment between clever and reflective people who in the past may have considered themselves divided by fundamental educational philosophy. The most sensible view is when pupils do return they will need to come as they are and that it is probably impossible to do much about these pernicious ‘gaps’ until we have children back in classrooms with us.

We will need to check that they are OK. We will need to support them in readjusting to routines and rules and timetables and regular bedtimes. We will need to be firm but gentle and avoid panicked knee-jerk responses that do nothing but declare to our pupils that “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY OH MY WORD YOU KNOW NOTHING OH DEAR OH NO!”

This isn’t to say there is no place for extended hours, weekend or holiday school – I absolutely think these will be important. But when these work best the impact will be to demonstrate to our children we are ready for them and to show them how to be ready for us. Anything grander is impossible – the idea that it is even possible to meaningfully ‘catch up’ on months of expert guided purposeful work in a week in August is just silly.

When our pupils do return we should not overstate or overdramatise the scale of the task before us. Firstly, as I began this post by saying, there always were gaps. We do not work in laboratories and what we have saved to our shared areas was always much greater than what was in our pupils heads. Adjusting probably will involve the winnowing of some curricula, which might well turn out to be a helpful corrective to recent years in which the largely helpful focus on curriculum has also led to overwork and over complication. It’s possible that more attention on less done well as opposed to more covered superficially will actually be a net positive of all this awfulness.

But we must not understate either. There is an issue. Children have missed a lot and ‘catching up’ will not happen in the first half term. It will be slow and uneven, happen in classrooms and won’t be recorded on documents. It may take years. It will mean lots of what Dylan Wiliam and Harry Fletcher-Wood have always called ‘responsive teaching’.

And even if you’ve never heard of Dylan or Harry you probably know how to do that.

So close the spreadsheet. Don’t try to analyse what you really know you can’t.

Let the children come as they are.

This will take a long time but we will manage.

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Summer School

 

adult blur books close up

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An episode of Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast series examines why sports team owners and managements appear to behave irrationally.

Gladwell looks at why elite teams spend so much money replacing their best players when there is more evidence results will improve if less is spent on replacing the weakest players.

How odd!

Why would a team spend more money on something that has less impact when they could spend less money on things that have more impact?

The answer is fascinating. Confusion lies in the erroneous assumption all sports team managers want is to win games. It turns out that very rich people do not just buy sports teams to make them successful – they also want to show off to other very rich people about having the best players on the planet as part of their squad, and the manager as an employee of the owner must take this into account when making decisions about who to buy and sell.

The lesson here is the reasons people do things are not always the same reasons they say they do things and what looks irrational often isn’t.

I have been thinking about this lesson in light of Boris Johnson’s recent gesticulations about some sort of ‘massive school catch up’ over the summer. On the face of it his motivation appears to be to help pupils who have fallen behind learn the things they have missed out on.  This looks like it dovetails neatly with understandable anxiety around how school shutdown will disproportionally effect our most disadvantaged children.

But given the logistical and legal obstacles, the most likely outcome of Johnson’s vague grandstanding will be a handful of voluntary sessions held over the summer by teachers on the Leadership pay-scale and some volunteers, attended mainly by motivated pupils who have learned as much remotely as it is reasonable to expect them to have done.

This will not help those furthest behind their peers catch up.

Firstly a lot of the pupils who have fallen behind most will be those who have chosen not to engage in the remote learning provided by their school or other providers. These pupils are not likely to attend a Summer School voluntarily and making this compulsory is likely to be impossible. Even if such provision was made compulsory it is likely a large proportion of those pupils compelled to attend would do so resentfully, making teaching and learning very challenging.

There are of course disadvantaged pupils who want to to access work set by their schools but have not been able to do so because they lack the facilities. These are the pupils let down by the government’s failure to honour promises about laptops and internet. They will attend voluntary sessions, but the idea that this will be anywhere near sufficient for them to catch up on the months of learning they have missed is ludicrous.

The most likely effect will be a widening attainment gap.

So why bother with providing anything over the summer at all?

To understand this I think it worth returning to Gladwell and consider the alternative motivations government may have.  Given the stripping of funding from the poorest parts of society over the last decade I don’t think it is unfair to suspect closing an attainment gap is not it’s priority.

Perhaps it is more likely the government cares more about appearing to be concerned about the plight of our most vulnerable children than it does about the actual plight of our most vulnerable children.

This would be logical – there is plenty of political mileage in looking like you are bothered about something even if you aren’t, and it is a lot easier to do than actually changing things. A handful of ‘Summer School’ sessions run in August you don’t have to pay any extra for are enough to trumpet about, and a lot cheaper than tackling the systemic reasons some groups remain wealthy and others remain poor.

None of this is shocking or really revelatory.

I am an adult and no longer expect politicians to be genuine all the time.

I get how hard it is to operate effectively while retaining pristine principles and I will do my very best to make sure anything I provide is as high impact and meaningful as I can make it.

But this does not mean I won’t be frustrated and cross if I am right and find myself made to organise and run something inherently tokenistic and ineffective to meet the political aims of a government I believe has little real interest in the community I work for.

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What the Game Boy can teach us about getting work to pupils.

 

gameboy

Genpui Yokoi is most famous for developing the original Game Boy, which was designed to operate on established, readily available technology already well understood by both engineers and customers. He coupled what he described as “withered technology” with “lateral thinking”, which involved finding new ways to use what already existed rather than looking to operate on the cutting edge.

Yokoi defined his approach clearly in saying “The Nintendo way of adapting technology is not to look for the state of the art but to utilize mature technology that can be mass-produced cheaply.”

The principle of using well established technology in creative ways has lots to recommend it. Yokoi felt when engineers and game designers focused on progressing technologically, the design of the game often suffered. Operating with familiar platforms freed up brain-space to allow them to be much more creative with gameplay while the older technology was cheaper and reassuringly familiar to consumers.

Lateral thinking with withered technology is why the GameBoy outsold more advanced handhelds such as the Atari Lynx and the Sega GameGear.

Many of us are now considering and revising the platforms we use for online learning. For some schools with affluent tech-savvy pupils and confident staff the right bet might well be live lessons using a platform such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

For other schools operating in different contexts this might be a poor choice.

Pupils who do not have access to laptops or lack the agility to quickly pivot to new platforms and brand new ways of working may find them so at sea with logistics they find themselves unable to access or properly focus on learning.

Similarly, some schools may have lots of staff who aren’t confident quickly adapting to unfamiliar technology may find a sudden shift to new apps and programmes counterproductive, with teachers spending so much time working out how to effectively use them that the work they set suffers.

Schools in such contexts might find Yokoi’s concept of “withered technology with lateral thinking” helpful. Staff in most schools, for example, are confident using PowerPoint. This, combined with the addition of a voice-over feature, might be a sensible platform that allows planners to focus on the substantive content of a recorded lesson over connection issues or working out how to use break out rooms. Using withered technology – be it paper based low-stakes worksheets, e-mail, or textbooks with email or phone support – may also allow those following up on incomplete work to focus on substantive learning rather than spending frustrating hours coaching young people on how to set themselves up on programmes and software they’d never heard of before shutdown.

Of course lateral thinking is as important as withered technology here too. Schools choosing to go with the tried and tested will need to support teachers to find new and creative methods of working within existing technology – using the voice over feature of PowerPoint might be a good example of this.

Finally, none of this means schools should not seek to induct staff and pupils in clever new platforms but this is probably best done incrementally with old methods doing the donkey work up to the point where substantive learning is able to be the focus. If we go faster than confidence can keep up then the focus will be the delivery method over the curriculum.

If we aren’t careful with all the new options available to us there is a very real risk schools may find learning increasingly accessible to only early adopters, be they children or adults.

 

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Mission to the Moon 3: The mayor of a small town.

city lisbon houses portugal

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

In the summer before starting at my school I went to Devon for a workshop led by Doug Lemov. The venue was a massive secondary that served almost three thousand pupils.

Coming from a school that had less than a thousand children that still seemed huge I couldn’t get my head round how such it all functioned. I had so many questions. How was it led? How could anyone keep track of what was going on? How did pastoral work? How did they do assemblies?

Fortuitously during one of the breaks I found myself having a coffee with the Head who was attending the workshop too. I tried to ask some of my questions but I wasn’t very articulate – what I said probably came across as something like: ‘just.. what.. how.. but..?”

The Head –as knowledgeable and wise as you’d hope of anyone with such a gargantuan job – interpreted my spluttering correctly – I just didn’t know where to start trying to understand.

“You can’t think of it as directive management,” she said, “it’s like being the mayor of a small town. I just can’t know everything that’s going on. I set the direction and then I have to step back. Quite often I wander past a big event or assembly I had no idea was going on. I have to ask teacher or child what it is. It’s actually brilliant.”

The mayor of a small town.

Well I loved that.

I think what the Head was saying was that her circumstances meant she had to operate a high trust model of management.

And after all what other choice did she really have? She had to have faith in her staff because without it the number of things she’d have to know about and make decisions on would overwhelm her. She had to trust decisions would be made correctly without her knowing a decision had ever been made. She had to trust that events would be organised that would benefit pupils in her school without always knowing an event had happened at all. She had to have faith good appointments would be made while having little or perhaps even no direct involvement in the recruitment process.

As I have argued hereand here I don’t think this approach should be the preserve of very large schools. There are all sorts of good reasons why a flatter, looser hierarchy and more autonomy may lead to better decision making.

In the recent past, especially in the Wilshaw years, this was an unfashionable view to take. Strong leadership – for whatever reason – was too hastily assumed to mean a sort of command economy. Good leaders were leaders who made all the decisions. They wrote strict policies with lots of non-negotiables. They directed leaders at lower leaders to ensure close adherence to these policies. They had lots of long meetings. They were supposed to be all-seeing and all-knowing.  In reality – of course – their omniscience and omnipotence were illusions because even in a small school it isn’t ever possible to really know even a fraction of what is going on minute-to-minute, which made many decisions actually pretty arbitrary.

It may or may not be uncharitable of me to suspect that in many places, at least to some extent, it didn’t actually matter whether control was real or not – the point became to appear to be in control.

The Covid19 crisis is exposing the flaws in prescriptive top-down management styles even further.

It just isn’t possible to know exactly what is going on with everyone, no matter how many phone-calls or Teams meetings you organise. It isn’t possible to know every decision everyone has to make given the daily flood of new information. Without resorting to extremely risky and perhaps even ethically dubious monitoring approaches management can’t know what’s going on in every online lesson. They can’t know whether a feedback policy is being closely adhered to. They can’t be sure every member of staff is working for eight hours a day and they can’t be sure this is even possible given the extra responsibilities so many of us have picked up.

A high trust model seems right to me at the moment. The role of SLTs should be a hand on the tiller – setting a clear direction and then leaving it up to others closer to the issues to work out how to chart sensible courses towards an aligned destination. We should working in the background to facilitate good decision making, whether this is providing training and technology or acting as sounding boards for subject, support and pastoral experts. We should be listening and connecting people to others who have potential solutions to common obstacles and problems.

And when we do this it is astonishing how pragmatic, creative and innovative people can be. Every day I hear about incredible work. I hear about solutions to problems I didn’t even know were problems. I catch snippets of conversation and fragments of emails I’m copied in to that reveal the true depth of just how much is going on and how effectively staff at all levels are working.

I love being the mayor of my small town.

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Mission to the Moon 2: How do we organise work during shutdown?

 

moon in the sky

Photo by Callum Hilton on Pexels.com

A few months ago I wrote a blog post on how in most circumstances the most sensible thing SLT can do when making decisions is to devolve them to the lowest possible level.

My argument was that people closest to a problem are those best placed to solve it because they have the fullest grasp of it.

I’ve been thinking about this because part of my job is to decide on an approach to remote working and learning during the shutdown period.

I’ve been thinking about how much work it is reasonable to expect people to do in these strange times.

One obstacle to adopting a consistent approach is that the circumstances of my staff and pupils are so different; one teacher may be locked down alone with a fast internet connection and the technical savvy to livestream lessons from their study, while another may be a single parent with three pre-school children and an elderly relative. Similarly one pupil may have their own bedroom and laptop while another may share an aged cracked tablet and bedroom with four siblings – developing an approach encompassing such diverse circumstances is tough.

One way to do it might be for me to send out some strict non-negotiables.

I could tell all my staff that their individual circumstances are their own problem and that they need to do what I tell them to do without making excuses.

I could do the same for pupils – I could send a letter home to all parents and carers saying something along the lines of “this is not a holiday and every hour your child doesn’t do any work means they are an hour behind!”

My colleagues would all hate me and many would probably leave. Lots of families would hate me too and perhaps some would be really upset. But I could do it. I could even double down, telling everyone leadership is tough and this is what strong looks like.

I could do this, but I am not going to.

A second way of addressing this issue might to use data. I could design a questionnaire grilling people on their individual circumstances and then put all the information on spreadsheets, which I could then use to make a central work schedule. The biggest advantage of this would be that I would have a in impressive document to show to people – “Look!” I could say. “Yellow means they are at home but doing childcare, but this could be interrupted if essential. Green means available to work – you’ll notice that Ms Kidd has an hour of availability after her children are in bed every night, so I make sure we get work to her by six. I’m keeping a record of people with lots of red.”

Of course this would give my staff no flexibility for if circumstances change, or if a child refuses to go to sleep when they are put to bed, and it would probably also make them hate me, but I could do it.

But I will not.

I won’t do it because my belief is that real life is complicated at the best of times and more complicated than it has been in living memory now. I won’t do it because I believe my staff are hardworking, committed professionals and caring people who are doing the best they can in the circumstances in which they find themselves. I will not presume to know more about these circumstances than the people living in them.

So instead we are clear about what people should be working on and ask they do their best to get this done. Where deadlines are necessary (and sometimes they are) we ask people to let us know if they can’t meet them. We meet virtually a lot. We ask that people talk to each other and not do everything over email. We ask people to proactively tell us about the obstacles they are facing so we can understand and make adjustments.

This is an approach we extend to our pupils too. When I first began thinking about distance learning I spent a lot of time trying to decide whether we’d set work to consolidate previous learning or work that introduced new material. I now realise my paradigm was wrong – what might be appropriate for a foundation group in Y7 might be entirely inappropriate for a highly achieving class in Y10, and that it would be impossible for me to know what was right for every class.

The people best placed to decide which classes do what – indeed the only people who can – are those closest to them; their teachers.

This is also why it is entirely farcical for one school to criticise the approach taken by another when all our circumstances and contexts are so different.

Instead of having a policy then, we have principles and things to consider. Instead of having directives we have suggestions and training. We don’t tell people to use BBC Bitesize or Oak National – we show them where the resources can be found and ask them to use what they think worth using. We keep oversight of this through the pleasant, collegiate conversations that are a hallmark of the way we work at my school.

We praise, challenge, share ideas and connect people working on similar problems together.

The only thing we insist on is that pupils are set work and that there is the opportunity for feedback for those pupils who want it.

It’s an approach based on trust. I think it works and hope nobody hates me.

Is it inconsistent? Well yes. But given we’re living in the most inconsistent times anyone can remember perhaps this is just as well.

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