I know what I like and I like What I know. (genre booklists for Y5/6)

I’ve been thinking a lot about genre and how this can sometimes support young readers in making book choices. Understanding the conventions can add a security in choice, a bit “if you like this, you might like that”

As a child I was very much addicted to Sci-Fi. It was what I read, Tripods, Doctor Who novels into John Wyndham then onto Philip K Dick and then Asimov. Knowing those books led me to read more. Finding an Author that was mine was a gateway to further reading.

With that in mind I started to compile some lists for children in our school. In our curriculum we ensure a range of texts are read to classes both in diversity but also in genre. The hope is to expose children to different authors and genres so that they can find their “author”, their “genre”, the books that sing to them.

I chose these books because I love them. This has given me a route to discuss the books with children. Talking about books is almost as important as reading about them. The books are on display, with other by the authors. Being a passionate reader is a little bit like collecting football stickers or Pokémon. “I gotta read ‘em all”

Here are the Book lists so far… these lists are genre starters not end points.

Science-Fiction

Horror/Scary

Real Life

Historical Fiction

Adventures

Animal fiction

Fantasy

Genre Defiers

Mystery and Thrillers…

Hope they are useful…

It’s the same old song…a neverending story!

“Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel

Windmills of your mind.

EduTwitter is a merry-go-round, an ever spinning waltzer churning round and round.

Month after month the the same people spin out their never-ending mantras. If you don’t agree with them you are the enemy, you hate teachers.

Pens, haircuts, uniform, silent corridors, exclusion on and on. Trotted out at regular intervals to keep their twitter stock high. Unmet needs used as a punchline to their approving audience.

If you disagree, you are slapped down, if you dare to criticise you are shaming schools. Dissenting voices from the one true way are turned into pariahs.

The problem is I disagree with most of it. I am the enemy. …

Some children do have unmet needs, I see it every day with our pupils with communication and interaction difficulties.

Some schools do have ridiculous, expensive uniform policies , which despite their arguments bear little relation to the world of work.

Not wanting silent corridors does not mean that all is chaos and there are no standards.

Some schools do exclude too easily (I’ve seen it happen in our local secondary school when it was academised.) exclusion is thrown around as a threat for often quite minor misdemeanours.

I also get there is a difference between secondary and primary.

I’ve also seen a wide range of successful schools, many that I’ve nicked ideas from and some that I’ve hated.

I visited @chrisdysonHt’s school, it was great but I wouldn’t want to replicate it. It was its own unique phenomenon, powered by the force of nature that is Chris. Our school is very different and that’s OK.

We’re stuck in a loop and we’ll never agree, fact is dig a little deeper and our differences are often rather less than they seem. Cut the sides and the hyperbole and we’re not really that far apart even though sometimes people try to make it a chasm.

SATs Madness/Sadness

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Looking at twitter today and seeing the SATs madness in full effect. Threads of links to activities all for prepping the kids for those tests in the middle of May. Panic strikes, they are happening. They are not going to be cancelled. AAAAAAARRRRRGGGHHH!!!

Why do we do this to children?

Tweets about piles of SATs papers being sent home for children to practice, links to the best revision books, booster classes in full effect in some cases two or three a week.

What is wrong with us?

After the last two years we know that kids may not be where we would want them to be, yet we seem happy to define ourselves against a set of tests. This year is an opportunity for honesty. Just keep teaching using the tests as a measure of where the children are. A litmus test on the impact of the pandemic in our schools. We will all be at different points. That’s OK.

Except that’s not what is happening. For a range of reasons, the pressure is building,

Systemic fear, Ofsted are on the way, internal MAT pressures, Local Authority pressures, our own pride. For a host of reasons, we are all about to jump through the SATS burning hoops. We are a profession driven by accountability and we’re willing to sacrifice the truth for a better test score.

Will the stuff stick? Probably not.

Will it over-inflate where our pupils are at and what they can do? Probably yes.

Will it help us get it right for the children next year and the year after? Definitely not.

Will it create even more distrust in SATs from secondary colleagues? Completely.

I’m not anti- doing the SATs. For the first time I felt they may actually give us something useful, a measure of impact of the last two years. They won’t show us that though. In our panic we’ve decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater and stepped back onto the accountability treadmill.

Just don’t tell me you’re doing it for the children, because the last thing they need is practice SATs and booster classes. What they need is teaching, lots of teaching that doesn’t stop in May.

If we learnt one thing last year when there was no SATs, its that children were more ready for secondary and that pupils didn’t drop off after the arbitrary line.

Prep them a little around how the tests work. Then let what will be, be. Ultimately for the children an honest set of results will be more helpful to them.

SATs are the most important they’ve ever been this year for the children but not in the way we imagine.

My Twitter Relationship is on the Rocks

When I first started tweeting in 2015 it was done as a shout out to have a voice. There was a lot of frustration. As a head of a small coastal primary, the world of education was happening to me, and I was literally voiceless.

In retrospect I wish I’d given myself a better name, @smithsmm is a rubbish twitter name. I could have been @CoastyHead or @Rantyhead.

 Twitter allowed me to do two things, firstly share my passion for picture books. #PicturebookPage has literally hundreds of books posted on the hashtag. Secondly to have a voice on education, to challenge, discuss and learn from others. It was exciting and clandestine.

There were moments where I would be swarmed on by Dementors, I learnt very quickly to not talk phonics on Twitter mainly because you’d be launched on by secondary Maths’s teachers who’ve taught nobody to read but know how to do it better than anybody else. I remember very early on being attacked for mentioning picture books, this was by some very prominent #edutwitter voices and then their followers, I invited them to come, and I’d explain them to them, I held my own, but the experience left me shaken. I almost walked away at that point. The same people 7 years later still do the same thing, regularly shouting down others and belittling them.

I avoided challenging; I kept my head down. I found some like-minded people; some people were massively supportive. I enjoyed talking with them.

 I started to have confidence in my voice, enthused by this I decided to blog.

Now let’s be clear I’m not a writer, the anxiety of writing stuff and putting it out has often been overwhelming. Every time I write I am swamped by imposter syndrome. However, I persevered. I wrote things and no-one read them and that was OK. Writing was ultimately for me. 

I enjoyed writing, I enjoyed twitter. I got opportunities. I was asked to write some pieces for the TES (never thought that would happen). I presented at Learning First and ended up between Michael Tidd (a twitter superstar) and Dame Alison Peacock. I had some jokes, more importantly I felt like I had a voice. I met some good people.

I rolled with it, I found my tribes, I muted then blocked some of the voices. I got to do more stuff, including a keynote at @PrimaryRocks1 with @ChrisDysonHT.

Twitter was a good place and a nice part of my life. Then March 2020 hit. Twitter was a saviour in the early days of the pandemic, however…

The last two years have led to a life that has been increasingly lived online. I sit back and look at how in some-ways my online life has begun to dominate my real life and I realise I need to “Get Busy Living”

Twitter is for me is no longer a torrid love affair.

This isn’t a goodbye but it is a see you around. A re-balance. More time looking up and less time looking down.

Riding choppy waters.

The true test of where you are comes not on the days of languid sunshine, when the birds arc lazily overhead, cooling wind brushes across the glistening white crests and you skim along without a care in the world. Whilst we should be grateful for those days, those days when everything works and all the bits seem to fit together, those days of glorious tranquility. In my experience of almost eight years being a head, those days are more than not in the minority, recently they seem a rarity.

The true tests come on the days of biting cold, and howling gales. You know those days by the ominous black clouds swirling angrily overhead. The true test comes when you realise that after hours of work there are pieces of the jigsaw missing and the box is empty. The true tests don’t just come alone, they arrive with their mates ready for a ruckus. Those are the days when you find out where you are.

This week is one of those weeks…A perfect storm. A week where you batten down the hatches, aim your bow into the waves and crash on. Not easy but when you step back and look, school is running like you’re sailing in the calmest blue ocean.

This term is going to be one of those terms…a perfect storm largely ignored from the outside, COVID is over after all. The waves crashing against schools are relentless. There is no supply, there is no money. I am so proud of the team stepping into the breach without complaint doing all they can to help keep school open.

Staff absence/ lack of capacity (when you have 12 High needs pupils in a one form entry mainstream primary school any staff illness is a challenge) has crashed upon our good ship relentlessly. Not really the New Year we wanted…we had such plans. Thing is, it is what it is, this is the reality rather than the dream. Tomorrow I will be caretaker and teacher and dinner supervisor and many other jobs in-between.

This blog is a thankyou to the commitment of our brilliant staff…

That the children haven’t noticed, that the education hasn’t suffered, that school still feels like a well-oiled machine is testament to their sheer, utter bloody-minded commitment  to doing a good job.

So thankyou and once more into the breach dear friends…then it’s the weekend. Hopefully the weather will turn, the clouds will clear and we’ll have a sunny updraft. If not we’ll keep riding the storm.

Those who are absent take care, look after yourself, don’t rush back. We miss you but we want you properly better.

Another Year Over (A Pandemic Review)

So, we sit on the cusp of a New Year, I’d love to say its without trepidation but let’s be honest the next few months are going to be a logistical challenge for us all.

Today however is always a good day to look back. I sit here with a certain sense of pride. My school has definitely come out of the last couple of years in a stronger place than it went into it.

We entered autumn 2019 in not a great place, even though we had had a good Ofsted, morale however was at rock bottom, a significant restructure (due to financial challenges) had hit really hard.

On a personal level I was questioning my own position and whether I could do this job. We limped through the Autumn term in a post Ofsted daze, we never celebrated the success the restructure tarnished what should have been a launch point. School felt joyless and as a head I felt the most isolated I had ever felt. I questioned myself and my ability to lead. The personal impact of restructure had definitely damaged me. School had lost its mojo. I was about to jack it in.

Then March 2020 hit. Now this doesn’t sound like a great place for a school or a leader to be entering into what has proved to be the most challenging period we have all faced in our lives.

I remember sitting listening to the announcement that schools would close. I remember reading the guidance. The next day I went into school a new me. I may not have been the leader school wanted at that point, but I was the one it needed.  By Lunchtime on the Thursday, we had a plan, we were organised we were clear. Timetables, guidance, actions, communication to parents. Done. Initially our home-learning offer focused more on well-being, the extraordinary weather really helped that. People were scared but they just cracked on, clarity was everything. Food was sorted, well-being checks, home learning packs, key worker hub. Then we just got on. When the children returned in June 20 again clarity was key, clear actions and planning. I remember walking staff through the days in every detail, no question was too small. I would use the word meticulous; every detail was explored. Staff were ready. The Summer was great, numbers were initially low then as weeks passed confidence grew and more and more children returned. We had 7 of 9-year groups open by the end of the Summer and the systems were like clockwork. I must mention our Trust who have been utterly phenomenal throughout, their support has been top-notch.

Autumn 20 came, and the first half-term was brilliant then COVID hit school in full effect in the second half-term. The impact in school was very much a reflection of the virus in the community, Whitby was slammed after half-term following the influx of tourist during the October break. At one point we had 11 staff and numerous children infected (including myself). Four bubbles were closed yet this wasn’t an “outbreak”. This however did allow us to get our online learning in place.

January 21 came, and school was closed after a day. We were however ready. We had devices for families to make sure all could connect, at our expense. (not DfE ones they eventually arrived at the end of March 21). I personally worked with families to make sure they could get online, generally the kids were savvier than the parents. Our Year 6 teacher led the way with this, and the development of teaching and pedagogy was amazing. Sitting in some of the live lessons it was brilliant to see skilled professionals doing an outstanding job.

 The keyworker hub was busy, but school was on it. SEND pupils were in, the opening of a Communication and Interaction, had given not only capacity but also expertise the children needed.

March 21 came, and we just cracked on. Focus switched to catch-up and school priorities. The pandemic had created middle-leaders in school in a way that had been really difficult before it. I now had a staff that were itching to get on. Lessons learnt from online teaching became part of teaching, there was a consistency of approach. As a school we suddenly knew what we were about.

While not normal Summer 21 was a joyous time. Children on the whole had come back brilliantly, routines, systems had done us huge favours. Stamina and friendships were challenges. School had momentum. Middle leaders were making a difference. More importantly I was driving it again, I had my mojo back. We left in the summer with a buzz and that continued in Autumn 21. Clear plans and actions, everybody pushing together.

We had a slight COVID wobble around half-term otherwise school was in a great place and most certainly stronger than before. A few visitors came and could not believe the focus, the behaviour and the quality of what was going on.

Which brings us too now…

None-of us know the turns the next term will take. It is going to be a logistical challenge to keep schools open. I know from my side in our school there is a will to make that happen.

Whether we can will depend on factors outside of our control. Supply has been virtually impossible in Whitby and will continue to be so. Staff have been magnificent stepping into gaps and generally being amazing. They have not let anyone down

I have to look forward with optimism, despite the enormous challenges thrown our way we have come through stronger and more of a team than we ever were. It will be hard, there will be moments, but we’ve had it so far and we’ve got this.

A (late) very merry Christmas
And a happy new year,
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

 John Lennon 1971

The Ridiculous

Today I have 8 staff off… 8. We’re a 1 form entry school. That we’ve managed to run school so far this week and it feel relatively normal has been a minor miracle and partly due to some incredibly flexible staff and that despite all this school is in a good place.

My supply budget is shot. It wasn’t very big.

I have staff (double jabbed) who are properly poorly, (not a bad cold) can’t move, fatigued, can’t get out of bed poorly, three are already beyond the 10 days and are just too ill to work.

I have the worst school attendance I’ve had since I’ve been here (8 years) yet at 93% so far this term I know it’s better than a lot of schools.

We are so very far from normal. COVID is still around.

Yet in England the world churns on as though nothing is happening.

Ofsted are back, not as a force for good or improvement but as a dark anti-hero wielding it’s sword as Damocles. It’s been locked in a closet for two years and doesn’t seem to have any awareness of what has happened. I’ve seen heads more worried by Ofsted than they’ve ever been. At the moment so much stuff is being done in the name of “Ofsted”. Now you can be all sanctimonious and say “don’t do stuff for Ofsted” but actually there is significant self preservation both for heads and school staff by jumping through the hoops.

If you’re a small primary the workload on staff is immense. Yet from reports it seem Ofsted are jumping on every inconsistency and there is no account taken for the sterling work of the past two years.

Meanwhile other services seem to have disappeared with schools picking up the increasing slack. Mental Health, speech and language, early help, social care all running beyond capacity. Don’t start me on SEND.

Everyday is a fresh challenge. I’ll be honest I’ve become much better at compartmentalising it and not losing sight of the job. It has however never been harder.

We have MPs blaming schools and wanting to enshrine in Law that it will be much more difficult for schools to close. I don’t actually disagree that kids should be in school, but the rhethoric stings when the actual government they are part of has done practically nothing to keep schools open. Ventilation/CO2 monitors anyone? Masks in secondary anyone or anywhere in England for that matter. Any mitigations? Nope! There is no surprise that attendance is so poor, we have 40000 cases a day and have become blasé to 200 people dying.

Exams and SATs are all going ahead, yet they will be far from fair. Personally it saddens me to feel those pressures returning in KS2. I know and I’m sure many other primaries would agree that we saw a much better deal for year 6 and in many ways children much more ready for secondary by not having SATs. We didn’t have a post SATs drop off the class had a broader curriculum offer. We’re not a school that over preps or spends loads of time, we trust the work we’ve done, this year we know there will be gaps however.

So I sit here at 5 in the morning laughing at it all.

I am “The RIDICULOUS!”

Who knows ultimately what will be the toll of all this. I’m glad I’m laughing, though it does feel like that slightly manic deranged laugh. Anyway time to put the makeup on and head into work.

Fever Dreams (wide awake at 2 am)

My head is fizzing!

I’m sat here at 2 in the morning. Sleep is evading me. My head is full and I’m just fed up.

I’m fed up with the Department for Education playing the hard man. I fed up with a DfE that consistently wants to work against the profession rather than with it. I’m fed up at the lack of professional trust. Playing to their audience with a narrative of feckless lazy teachers who they need to act tough on.

I’m tired of Ofsted and their increasingly detached arrogance and lack of perspective. Their unrealistic drive for perfection, their desperation to reestablish themselves. Ofsted more than ever in my career are dictating what schools do. As Paul Watson put it, they are literally “the tail wagging the dog.” Anybody who says don’t do it for Ofsted hasn’t looked at the framework or what’s happening in schools.

I’m sick of research being used as a blunt weapon rather than a nuanced tool. With one size fits all generalities hurled across sectors without real evidence to suggest it works beyond its original domains.

I’m angry at the destructive high stakes accountability systems that do not create improvement and in some cases are truly damaging.

I’m jaded by the constant fight to get support for the children that need it. SEND is in crisis. Mental health support for young people is practically non-existent. I tear my lack of hair out at at the increasing vacuum that is early help and social care. I find ourselves stretched thinner and thinner trying to paper over the ever-widening gaps.

Yet, I’m still in love with my job, the day today in the building, working with our teachers. The commitment and the passion they have for improving what we do. Their relentless energy to get it right for the children in their care.

I still marvel at the skill and expertise of the staff in our school. Utterly brilliant. They make me proud every day.

I still get a buzz from seeing children so excited by their learning that they almost explode just trying to get it out when you sit with them

I still laugh from the joy of sitting having lunch with year 3, them telling me the worst jokes in the world most without even coming close to a punchline.

I adore the warmth and trust of the relationships in our school. They are in the most unscientific terms…magical.

I’m proud of how we’ve supported our community and equally how they support us. We are in the truest sense a community school. We are their school.

The everyday positives still outweigh the negatives. I’m lucky to have got my buzz and my drive back (it was definitely waning a couple of years ago)

I am grateful to work for a trust that is committed to us, supports us and trusts us. I know we are very lucky on that count.

Time to close my eyes, breath out, switch off. Increasingly I feel voiceless in the system. I keep my head down and crack on.

I however have to believe and I truly hope that there are better ways than this and that we can find a system that truly supports schools to be great. Rather than the deficit model we currently have.

The eternal optimist in me, that ultimately drowns out my negativity, has to believe.

Thanks, Cheers, Danke, Merci, Gracias. The power of appreciation.

It’s OK to say “Well done” and “Thankyou”

I remember sitting in a lesson observation feedback in 2009 with the head and deputy who had been in my lesson for an hour. A string of ways in which the lesson could have been improved poured forth, no conversation just targets for improving my lessons. Brow-beaten and defeated I caught the bus home, destroyed. The lesson apparently was “Outstanding” yet I had left feeling like the worst teacher on the planet.

It really is OK to say “Well done” or “Thankyou”

The nature of teaching in this country is that we never stop and smell the roses. We are constantly in a rush to improve, If you’re not improving then you’re going backwards because you can be sure everyone else is relentlessly driving on. Ever Improving, never stopping. Relentless.

“Well done” and “Thankyou”

I have seen and undoubtedly been guilty of this negative-sum game, this destructive relentless drive for improvement where staff are often the casualty. Don’t slow down…keep pushing!

“Well done”

We have a habit of not celebrating what we do. Everything is an opportunity to improve.

“Thankyou”

It can be different. saying “Well done”, enjoying the moment, focusing on the gains rather than the losses. A smile, a pat on the back, a “Thankyou.” Tiny things, but when real and meant they make the world of difference. We don’t need vainglorious acts of generosity or effusive praise, those things are almost entirely about the leader rather than the member of staff who is the focus of it. What we do need to do however is to notice and appreciate. Stop and feel the moment, rather than dive headlong forward.

It really is OK to say ” Well done” and “Thankyou”. If I’m honest I personally think it will take you further forward and faster but that’s not the point.

Addendum… I think this works just as well for children as well, not points, or stickers or dojos, just real and honest appreciation of a job well done from someone they trust and respect.

A New Years Wish List

This is the start of my eigth year as a headteacher at East Whitby.

The hopes and aspirations for this year are vital. More than any other year we have to get our plans for the upcoming year right. The seeds that are planted in September are the ones you nurture through the year. Year on year we have as a school steadily improved, not change, change, change but building on the strengths we have and most of the time pushing in the same direction. Then COVID happened. Fact is the past two years have told us we can’t control the outside, but we definitely can control the inside.

I think we all know that we can’t change the “weather.” DfE and Ofsted will do what they do but we will be ready to react accordingly to that, we’ve got sun-cream, wooly hats and umbrellas at the ready.

I do however have a few wishes for the upcoming year. Ones that we will hope to fulfil in our school.

Firstly I wish for this upcoming school year that we, as teachers, act on the principle that education is not only about the mind — but that it’s about the person. The past two years of pandemic have highlighted for me that the gaps aren’t what we do in our classrooms. I believe a school must function for the purpose of developing students as whole people, not just merely as empty minds which require regular and constant filling up of knowledge. School just is more.

Children more than ever need schools and they need them to be more. That is not saying that we don’t have to teach stuff because blatantly we do and obviously that is our core purpose, but there is so much more to what we do and we ignore that at our peril.

My wish for teachers is that we can truly focus back in our classrooms. That we can can strip away the nonsense and just get on with doing the best job in the world. As a head a huge part of my job is creating the conditions so that is the case. I will be that “crap” umbrella so my teachers can just get on with the job.

I also wish that we can get our children back to that spot where learning is a motivator in and of itself and that we embrace the joy that brings.

I hope that we can move to a place that engagement and excitement in our classrooms are not seen as the enemy. School should be a joy. Children should rush out to tell parents what they’ve learnt, personally I think it’s never been more important that that is the case. Smiles and happiness should be synonomous with school, so I also wish that we make time to have fun, to enjoy the time teachers spend with the children in their class. Great primary schools are fuelled by brilliant relationships.

Is it too much to ask that we find time to laugh? Time to breathe, and wonder, and imagine, and daydream? Time to draw and dance and sculpt and create. Time to rest as well as time to work.

What’s been lost in the past two years is more than education. We can recover the education we just need to ensure that we don’t do it at the expense of other things that are important in our schools.

To put it another way in the words of Kevin Bacon in Footloose…


“Ecclesiastes assures us… that there is a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to laugh… and a time to weep. A time to mourn… and there is a time to dance. And there was a time for this law, but not anymore. See, this is our time to dance. It is our way of celebrating life. It’s the way it was in the beginning. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s the way it should be now.”