Thursday, 29 August 2013

Happy #SLT CAMPing

It's the middle of the summer holiday and I'm sat perched over my laptop with my credit card details to hand, periodically refreshing my web page in anticipation...

You would be forgiven for thinking that I was in a furtive online bidding war for a rare shabby-chic antique or trying to obtain sought-after tickets for a highly-acclaimed festival / concert / other cultural event. No, I was attempting to secure the opportunity to spend a weekend in November at a Youth Hostel in Dorking with 40 strangers at an unconference for senior leaders.

I can appreciate why this may seem like a bizarre thing to want to do. November is notorious for being the bleakest month in the educational calendar: the fresh start to the academic year, filled with high expectations and promise, is a hazy memory (as is the holiday tan and shiny new back-to-school stationery), and the Christmas break is distant on the horizon with only a back-breaking quantity of mock exam marking and dark and depressing commutes in the interim. Booking a mini break somewhere with a spa and a log-burning fire may have been more sensible. Instead, I'll be heading down the M25 after period 5 on a Friday 15th November to share a weekend, and a room, with teachers I have never met before for some voluntary, self-led CPD.

I was chuffed to snaffle one of the golden SLT Camp tickets. And, from the speed at which they sold out, so were other similarly motivated senior leaders across the country. So, what's the reason for this enthusiasm? Why am I, and 39 others, willing to sacrifice precious free-time and money for this unusual residential unconference?

It's an exciting prospect for many reasons: the privilege of being able to meet and share ideas with progressive educators; the chance to benefit from some intensive collaboration; the opportunity to learn from, and with, like-minded school leaders; the space and time away from habit and routine to properly reflect, think and plan.

Looking through the delegate list, schedule and pre-SLT Camp challenges, I'm excited by the potential of this unconference. The design of it is quite unique; the programme being completely bespoke, tailored to attendees' interests, motivations and expertise.

I'll be shattered by the middle of November but I've no doubt that I'll be refueled, refreshed and energised by what promises to be a truly absorbing and engaging weekend of professional learning and, dare I say it, fun. Not quite a spa break, but for an education junkie, perhaps the intellectual equivalent. 

Thanks to @mrlockyer and @MissFindlater for the idea and organisation. I'm pleased to be part of the first cohort of this innovative venture.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

People not percentages

I've heard, on more occasion, that the moment a teacher starts to see their pupils as percentages they should leave the profession. I suspect that using that criterion on A Level or GCSE results day would lead to many schools being unable to staff the timetable in September and with the vast majority bereft of a leadership team. 

I, for one, spent the beginning of this week constructing a mental percentage scale, ranging from outrage through to disappointment, relief, joy, to sheer exultation on the basis of anticipated GCSE results. I also admit to having made decisions on intervention based on how many pupils will benefit and the likelihood of outcomes in percentage terms.

While I wholly agree that teaching is all about the nurturing of individual talent and not the progress of a cohort by external benchmarks, the harsh reality is that the success of a school in the current educational climate rests on a matter of digits. Yes, it's possible to foster a culture of care, educational enjoyment and innovation, but without the data to prove that your ethos and pedagogy delivers hard and fast results, there is the real and absolute fear of the 'must do better' stamp blemishing your school's reputation and potentially its revenue as 'consumers' flock to neighbouring gold-standard providers.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against accountability measures. Any institution should be required to prove and evidence their worth, success and value in real terms. I'm just not comfortable with the limited, crude and faceless means by which these judgements occur.

The School's Data Dashboard is just one example. This readily accessible tool allows prospective parents, inspectors or any other interested parties to make a snap judgement about a school on the basis of a single year's GCSE results against national levels and in comparison with other 'similar schools'. It's a one dimensional view; one that gives no indication of the school's context, catchment or results history to be able to make an informed opinion. Clicking on the comparable schools for my own institution makes me wonder about the means by which schools were grouped together; using KS2 prior attainment may be a fair measure on which to compare pupil achievement but the lack of contextual indicators does make the picture quite limiting. We have an incredibly strong department that annually secures that best pass rates across the county and yet their quintile placing would suggest that achievement is substandard.

Furthermore, should the fact that as a school in Cambridgeshire we receive £600 less a year than the national average in basic funding per pupil, making us the worst funded county in the country, be included? If 'similar schools' in London, for instance, have thousands of pounds more per pupil, should this be reflected in the dashboard in a true Compare-the-Market-style value for money benchmark?

I guess the ultimate issue with quality assuring practice involving the academic achievement of pupils is that people are hard to compare. And that is why the system resorts to comparing quantifiable numbers and statistics. I don't have a problem with this if the method of awarding these numbers is fair and consistent.

The furore of last summer's exam results was well publicised with media saturation and court cases to fuel the fire of the injustice. Consoling English teacher colleagues who had worked tirelessly to support the cohort and were exasperated by a plummet in achievement was disheartening. However, all is relatively quiet this year. Aside from the brief mention of Gove's crackdown on standards, a fall in 'C' grades and tougher Science exams, most broadcasts and publications have reverted back to teenage-mid-drift-baring leaps of joy. Tomorrow's headlines will move onto more pressing political issues.

I, however, will continue to feel unease, a sense of injustice and a touch of guilt for the individual pupils who failed to achieve the all important 'C' grade. For some disappointed youngsters, it may have always been somewhat out of their academical grasp with caring teachers optimistically estimating that 'C' in the naive hope that a flurry of dedicated revision / private tutor / prevailing wind may be enough to secure it. For others, a lack of motivation, effort and commitment will have resulted in a fair and representative 'D' grade. However, there are a number of others for whom the phrase 'you get the grade that you deserve' doesn't ring true. 

It's those dedicated and hardworking youngsters who I know fit the exam board's specification 'C' grade descriptor, and whose controlled assessments and exam responses will have demonstrated the requisite level 2 skills, who have been cheated of their grade. The ones that needed that 'C' to be accepted onto their chosen course of study and are now having to renegotiate their place and re-sit their GCSE. The look of dismay and panic on those pupils' faces, while their peers rejoice with fluttering envelopes around them, stays with me.Why should their achievement and success be sacrificed for political goals? 

A recent article showed the average number of children that past or present Education Ministers to have had to be zero. I wonder whether this goes some way to explain the apparent lack of compassion and perspective in the regime for tougher standards. While having your own children should not be an essential requirement for the position, it would help. The thought of your own offspring suffering as a cause of educational reform adds another dimension to decision making, I would think. 

The current Catch 22 scenario in which schools are required to make progress to achieve Key Performance Indicators and appease inspectors while Ofqual are not allowing standards to rise is absurd. As is the notion that our standard of education is only going to get better if we deflate the achievement of C/D borderline pupils. There is something quite sadistic about setting out to squeeze the attainment of a specific group; like the sour-faced colleague who I'm sure we have all come across in our teaching careers who takes joy in being a 'harsh marker' rather than actually awarding the marks that pupils deserve. These people should not be allowed to toy with pupils' achievement and futures for the pursuit of personal agendas or ambitions.

Meanwhile the raft of dedicated and caring teaching professionals are desperate to secure progress for their pupils. Multiple re-sits and dual entries are indicators of the levels of desperation. It's not that these teachers and schools are attempting to cheat the system and I doubt that it's because they are truly trying to find an 'easy' way - the vast majority of us have integrity and just want an awarding process that is transparent, fair and equitable. 

Teachers have lost their faith, and their conviction. I know a number of very capable colleagues who no longer have any confidence in predicting a 'C' and who falter at awarding a Band 3 mark in fear of being inaccurate. Breeding this kind of anxiety and uncertainty is not healthy and does not benefit anyone, least of all pupils. 

While as a school we are celebrating record-breaking results and are extremely proud of the achievements of our pupils ('sheer exultation' on the scale, thankfully), I can't help but think of the individuals across the country who have been denied their deserved 'C' as a result of this Govian paradox of raising standards through cracking down on achievement. 

Educational policy needs to think about people more than percentages. 

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Blogging dichotomies

Audience and purpose

As an English teacher I've noticed the concept of audience and purpose in regards to written text change dramatically over recent years. Existing notions of public vs. private, functional vs. creative have blended together in a post-modern flurry of online social media communication. The fact that GCSE English Language papers are increasingly asking pupils to write a blog entry is a sign of the times: blogging has become a part of functional English.

Rather than snub this development, I embrace it: it's an exciting evolution of language in which millions of people are publishing their ruminations, expertise and rants live for the world to read, engage with and respond to. However, while I've been happy to digest others' blogs and encourage my pupils to write their own entries with zeal, humour and interest, it's been a field that I have been cautious to enter. As with other forms of social media, I'm happier tracing others' activities and thoughts rather than deigning to clutter cyber space with my own news feed.

Online narcissism 

For me, the whole process of blogging feels rather indulgent. 

As a mum of two small children with a demanding day job (and with a teething baby, night job too) carving out time to craft my musings seems like a wasted opportunity. The time could be better spent attacking my to-do list or the washing up, catching up on sleep or talking to my husband. Do all of those bloggers out there have the same commitments, responsibilities and sense of guilt? Does my attitude reveal a short-term ism that I encourage colleagues to resist? 

I'm also acutely aware of the risk of appearing self-absorbed and arrogant, assuming that the rest of the world wide web would somehow be interested in my ruminations and social commentary; concerned that faceless readers may judge my posts to be vacuous, cliched or unsubstantiated. What has made me so bothered about others' views?

Guilt versus confidence

While I like to believe that I am a strong-minded and confident leader, the art of blogging feels somehow too brash and assertive. The blogs that I follow are littered with bold opinions and unequivocal stances on education policy and practice. My colleagues would vouch that I am far from shy when expressing my views at work, I've also published books and journal articles packed with personal opinion, so I'm curious as to why the act of blogging makes me feel so vulnerable. 

I'm sure that my position as a woman and my role as a full-time working parent has influenced my hesitation. The current tussle between whether to postpone this entry in favour of tidying the toys strewn around me; the ongoing inner conflict around investing time and energy into better educating other peoples' children instead of spending more time with my own; the day to day balancing act, at home and at work, between humility and conviction, discipline and compassion. 

Ultimately, the contradictions and challenges are what have encouraged me to embark, albeit tentatively, on my own blog. Not because I'm cocky enough to presume that other educational leaders will necessarily enjoy or benefit from my potentially anodyne posts, but because the reasons that I find it hard to blog are the ones that mean that I should give it a go. 

Shaping leadership

Blogging gives the time and space to digest, formulate and make sense of thoughts and ideas. This time is precious but essential for educational leaders. With the tirade of strategies and directives and an abundance of fabulous ideas and networking opportunities it's easily to become saturated by others' views and opinions. To lose sight of what you think and stand for. Yes, this could be a private pursuit but who knows, my humble contributions could be of some interest to others... 

My own leadership style has been enriched by the differing views and experiences that I have been exposed to and benefited from during my career to date; strong men and women have shaped me as a leader. 

The title of my blog is inspired by recent influences and comments that have helped me to reflect on the kind of school leader I am, and aspire to be, and the values that I hold dear. To me, 'Hearts and Minds' sums up the substance of education. In context, this phrase was recently used by a colleague to justify the importance of staff buying into a whole school initiative. To me, the idiom goes beyond rhetoric. Education is about inspiring, enriching and caring for the whole school community - staff and pupils. Tapping into motivations, thoughts and feelings and nurturing intellect is an essential quality for all successful leaders. 

Fusing contradictory leadership styles

Fluffy and formidable are adjectives that colleagues at my current school have used to describe my leadership style. While 'fluffy' would be seen as a pejorative term by the Margaret Thatcher and Hilary Devey school of leadership, it's a label that I'm proud of. With a male heavy senior leadership team, my relentless focus on staff morale, collegiality and well being has earned me the affectionate epithet. 

I was allegedly described as 'formidable' by a highly regarded and much-respected colleague. I'm hoping that she used it in reference to my power and rigour; in the 'inspiring awe, admiration and wonder' sense, rather than in reference to my ability to arouse fear, dread or alarm. Either way, the choice of description and the chosen title of my blog indicates opposing yet complementary aspects of my role as a senior leader, and the potential tension in attempting to achieve my ambition. 

While others out there may dispute the existence of emotional intelligence, I would argue that it forms that basis of what good leaders do. The ability to to perceive, understand, harness and manage emotions while driving forward a relentless vision for improvement. This is likely to be a theme of my blog. With responsibility for professional development and a passion for high quality collaborative CPD, hearts, minds and a bit of 'fluff' will no doubt feature. 

So there... my first blog entry is complete (and longer than anticipated). The wife and mother in me regrets the time that could have been spent clearing small-child-debris; the leader in me is proud for having the confidence to dip my toe into the world of educational blogging.