The Fallacy…(Teachers in disadvantaged aren’t as good)

I’m fed up.

I’m sick and tired of the trotted out narrative.

Talk again of £10000 payments to people to work in disadvantaged areas.

Head of Ofsted doubling down that the system isn’t biased but is jut ‘fair’ when it looks at disadvantaged schools, even though significantly more disadvantaged schools are in category.

The ongoing narrative that teachers who work in disadvantaged schools are somehow worse teachers is an utter fallacy. Equally, if you are a school in a disadvantaged area, you know the challenges you have to overcome to even get to the start-line.

Not sure where this blog is going, think it will probably be a waffle that may or may not get to a point.

Let me clarify. I’ve spent most of my career working in schools with significant disadvantage. I haven’t worked in those schools because of some misguided hero complex about helping the poor people.

My first job came about after a desperate look for a position, I sent out scattershot applications to schools on Teesside to try and get my first job (I’m not from the North East, I’d never been to the North East.) The reason wasn’t some evangelical mission to help the poor northerners, it wasn’t a quest to give back to society, it was a simple fact that a girl I had just started seeing at Leicester University had got a job in Stockton on Tees. (we’re still together 28 later with two grown up boys)

If I’m honest I knew little about the area or the school where I started my career. The school (Marton Grove) was in the middle of the Grove Hill council estate in Middlesbrough. For a southern quite naive lad lad this was quite an eye-opener. I got my first true understanding the impact of poverty and deprivation can have on children. The teaching staff were amazing, truly committed and passionate but what was most amazing was the sense of community and how the school was valued. The head, Mr Gent, was a great head, he believed in the power of great teachers and teaching and created a school where that could happen. I was there four years and genuinely I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my teaching career. It was hard, there were challenges but what got us through was the amazing sense of team.

After four years an opportunity came up and I moved to a school that had just gone into special measures. It wasn’t because I was a special teacher, more that the school was desperate and I fancied a change. Archibald Primary School is a school that will be forever in my heart. It was situated in a hugely deprived area of Middlesbrough between the Whinny Banks (Whinny Bronx) and the Newport estates. My first day driving into school I saw two children driving a milk float down the street being chased by a rather overweight milkman. 25 minutes later those two children walked into my Year 4 class. The school wasn’t in a great place. The class I had, had had twenty-seven different teachers in the past two terms, not one had stuck it out. If I’m honest the first three months were nightmarish, the new head was getting things in place but things take time to bed in. I had some truly terrible days, I had to evacuate the class on more than one occasion. Each day though I’d walk back in the class and try again, slowly, little by little things improved, not because of great teaching but mainly due to the fact I just kept coming back. The most important thing I bought to the job was a stubborn pig-headedness. What made a difference was the children began to trust me, we became a little tribe. I took that class on into year 5 and then on again into year 6.

Did they need me to be a great teacher?…not particularly. Did they need me to be their teacher?…absolutely yes.

At the end of year 6 the children did pretty well in their SATS (we were the 5th most improved school in the country,,,its much easier to improve when previous results were rubbish). I was there for seven years and they were utterly joyous. The staff team were amazing, I have never laughed so much in a job as I did there or been in a staffroom that has sworn as much. We had each others backs, we were a team. The teachers were amazing, teaching was a small part of the job, the care for the young people in the school was extraordinary. I was there 7 years at the end of that time the school got an outstanding Ofsted report. A group of teachers never deserved it more. Were we great teachers, well some were, but what made the difference is that everyone of them was ‘bothered’

Fast forward 14 years to my current school. I’ve been there 7 years. I feel we have that team in school. Big difference is they are much better teachers than I ever was. As a school we are in a good place. The past year has demanded so much more than teaching and this wonderful group of people let no-one down. They truly are bothered.

The school has moved from RI to good and then another good. Did the school need ‘outstanding’ teachers flown in? No. Did we need teachers with a disadvantaged saviour complex. No.

In fact apart from a couple of retirements this is the same group of teachers. They all are people that are committed to the school and give a stuff about the community and the families of our school. Parent’s trust them, parents listen to them. In our community a lot of that comes from the understanding that you are genuinely bothered.

I think my point is, schools in disadvantaged areas probably don’t need mega teachers bused in. I’d pretty much guess, most of them have a lot of the teachers they need, teachers that are bothered, teachers that are there for the right reasons, teachers who are there because they are bothered.

In all the schools I’ve worked in what I’ve seen make the difference is great leadership, ultimately brave leadership that creates an environment and culture where the teachers are valued and can do their job. Does Ofsted help that happen?. In my experience…No.

Personally, I see many prospective leaders shy away from those schools, due to the systemic pressures. (it truly is a Catch 22) and sometimes the leaders who step up are not the leaders the schools needs. They are about them and their reputation rather than the school and I’ve seen this destroy a school more than once.

Teachers in disadvantaged schools are not worse teachers, in fact I’d go as far as to say they are often, extraordinary and utterly amazing. What is needed is a system that supports those teachers rather than the constant denigration of them. The narrative needs to change, we need to appreciate the brilliance we have in our most challenging schools rather than constantly sticking the boot in and chipping away at how they see and value themselves.

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The Special Relationship #FierceKindness

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There is something indefinably special about primary education when it really sings. We all know it, we all know that thing that truly makes the biggest difference in our classrooms yet it sometimes feels like a dirty word. A word that because it can’t be quantified, or bottled, or packaged, or sold often is dismissed. Yet even though it’s pushed into a dark corner with a blanket over it’s head in our hearts we all know that in the primary classroom it’s the thing that makes the biggest difference.

Relationships

The greatest thing about primary education is the relationship between a class-teacher and their class. It’s impossible to quantify the power of this relationship yet we all know that it truly makes a difference. The problem is we’re talking about voodoo it’s not something you can teach a person to have with a class. You can help people to be better teachers but you can’t magic a relationship.

Wandering our school I realise how lucky our children are. In every class you can feel that relationship. It’s like a frisson in the air, an electricity. There is tangible aliveness to the classes. The classes are like tribes, their routines and systems are second nature and at the centre of that is the beautiful communication from the teacher, both said and unsaid.

I’m struck by how reward systems are largely unused, equally most of the time our behaviour system while displayed prominently in every room is largely redundant, it’s there but it’s rarely needed. (when I first came to the school it was a lifeline). The class teacher’s disappointment is stronger than any sanction for most children.

Watching and listening in our classes the first thing that strikes is the level of expectation in the rooms. I listened to a year 5 have a discussion with their teacher about a piece of writing, ( I’d read the writing, it was great) and the teacher was absolutely fierce with the critique. I have to say I was worried so I spoke to the child after and her response was fascinating and truly summed up what our classrooms are about, she said:

“I know the work’s good, I know my teacher thinks that this work is good, I’ve tried my best but I want to get better, working with the teacher means I know how I can get better.”

She didn’t want stars or points, she just wanted to improve. That conversation worked in the context of a class where there was explicit trust between the pupil and the teacher. It was truly fierce but sat behind it was a confidence and security in the relationships in that classroom. #FierceKindness

Fact is great relationships in our primary classrooms are the thing that is not only a fundamental part of why primary education is special, but they can also move mountains. Sat at the core of them is security, trust, honesty and that sense of tribe.

There is craft and wild magic in the best primary classrooms you can feel it. I’m not sure however that we can ever truly capture it, bottle and sell it. That doesn’t mean however that we shouldn’t value it.

Beware false prophets, silver bullets and the curse of the FAD

Five life lessons learned from 35 years of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”

Everyday the twitter-sphere is alive with the next how to teach better bit of advice. Edu-books galore wash across the market. Approaches are lauded and followers proclaim almost to the point of religious fervour, that this book or that book or this person or that person has the answer. The problem with books is invariably they tell us what they think the research tells us from their perspective. This is almost inevitably through a lens.

It’s odd having been in this 27 years to see this repeating pattern this years prophets are next years back-trackers furiously proclaiming that you just haven’t done it right or speedily repackaging to get aboard the next edu-goldrush.

Personally, I think research has real value, questioning what we do, exploring what works, honing our practice but lets pause for a minute. The moment someone proclaims this is the way you should do it we have already lost. The moment research is packaged and sold as an answer we’ve already lost the point of the research.

At the moment the research is being used to stop new research. The best research opens up exploration of new channels and ideas. In education it’s being used to stifle, close down and control rather than open up.

We’ve all got VAK horror stories, lets remember that we were told this is what the science said at that point. Personally, I found the literacy and numeracy hour structures much more damaging to good teaching. Sadly we all lack the time to properly be research-informed, school leaders will jump on the bandwagon and a research idea becomes a lesson tick-list at the drop of a hat. Ideas become display requirements, retrieval becomes a timed expectation.

I’ll be honest the teachers in my school are better teachers for being research informed, what they are not however is automatons with precise lesson structures to deliver. They are all individuals, they are all teachers, with experience and nous to make the decisions ( * a good teacher knows that each class is different on each day of the year too, so many external things influence learning and the research has yet to deal with effective learning when a spider falls off the ceiling onto someone’s book and the after effects of the trauma on learning etc)and choices in their classrooms. We talk and discuss, we hone, we develop. What makes their classrooms great is them and the more I may impose something the less I see of them.

Finally, I want to mention a teacher of ours who is retiring after 39 years working at our school. She is an utterly magnificent classroom teacher. The way she gets children working and the way they learn in her room is astounding. Is she research informed?… a little. Does she know what good teaching is?…undoubtedly. The answers are really in our classrooms.

The true answers to great teaching lie with our teachers. Problem is do they have the time and the trust to find their holy grail or will we force them to choose poorly?

*Thanks Kate you are so right

Life thru a lens… A curriculum led by stories and questions…musing

The first question we should be asking of our curriculum is why? Why do we want children to learn that?

I’ve seen loads of great curriculum resources shared on twitter many of which have made me question and think. I’ve also seen some that have made me flinch many of these being delivered in schools, full of fact without purpose or reason. Children learning piles of fact, knowledge organisers seen as the end of the learning not the start, knowing without reason. Curriculum for the head but not for the heart.

I want our curriculum to do more. A curriculum that gives children the knowledge and then the room to think. A curriculum that encourages children to view the facts through a range of perspectives. The more I think about curriculum the more I want it to do. I want the young people that leave our school to be questioning, curious and thoughtful. I want them to take evidence and apply their knowledge. We run the risk of over-stuffing our curriculum and not really getting to the point of it, a curriculum where loads is learnt but little is signified. A curriculum without soul.

Curriculum isn’t just facts it’s the lifeblood of how we teach the young people in our school to be people. What kind of young people do we want our school to produce

A great curriculum is one that is full of stories. Story in my opinion should run through a curriculum. Curriculum is a narrative, both in its small stories but also in its huge sweeping arcs. Story is threaded through our curriculum but the curriculum isn’t completely set in stone, a curriculum requires flexibility to embrace the world around it, history is important not because they know the past but because it truly helps children think about the now.

A curriculum should also be one that asks young people to think deeply about the things they know and apply that knowledge to their understanding. A great curriculum is about perspectives it’s about how we ask children to think about what they know, its about creating a lens to look at what they’ve learnt but also to look at the world around them. Curriculum isn’t black and white, its about creating nuance and seeing the stories within the facts.

Increasingly I’ve seen curriculum that ask children to be timid receivers of knowledge, to take our word for it, not to question but to regurgitate it like some overstuffed baby-bird.

If you looked at what we teach ( the knowledge ) it’s pretty similar to everyone else, it is however only the start. We look for the stories hidden in the facts, the perspectives with which to explore. Key Questions lead our thinking and provide angle they ultimately bring the purpose increasingly they don’t have one answer. Key threads run through our curriculum and these are broader than the curriculum area they are about the things we think are important for our young people.

It’s not perfect and it’s very much an ongoing work in progress, but when it works it truly sings.

Sat listening to children discuss a question and argue their point sums up what we’re trying to do.

Sorry for the waffling…I’m not sure what I’m getting at but just that curriculum needs to be needs to be more not less and we need a reason for it being.

Is there room for a maverick in our school team?

Watching the England versus Austria friendly yesterday I was struck by the fact that Jack Grealish was playing. As a Villa supporter that made me really happy. Grealish is part of that longline of mercurial talents that normally an England team doesn’t find room for, (Le Tissier, McMannaman, Merson etc) a player who is considered too much of a risk, they may provide you with brilliance but at other points they may not. Instead watching the national team we’ve often ended up watching a load of meat and potatoes players who have way more caps. Safety first. Sadly this may well be the case when we hit the tournament next week but yesterday Grealish played. The best team mangers will build a team around that talent, the worst leave them on the bench.

I was struck by the comparison to schools, increasingly there is is no room for the Mavericks in our schools the risk takers, those teachers in our schools who we remember. There is increasingly no room for the cavalier teacher, flamboyant and exciting. The one that carries a child on that educational rollercoaster. They are either to big a risk or we increasingly seem to be beating the maverick out of them with an homogenised educational soup. Educational gruel.

As school leader I want a Jack Grealish or two, a teacher who makes things happen and gets the audience to their feet.

Surely schools are a team game and we need a full squad..