Why academia?

In twenty years of interviewing teachers, I have never appointed one who didn’t have a passion for their subject.  It is generally that passion for a subject, combined with a commitment to working with young people, that has brought them in to the profession.

And there’s “the rub” in terms of teaching apprenticeships.  Whatever commitment someone may have to training as a teacher, they are surely selling their students short if they have not first taken the time to immerse themselves in a subject and absorb ‘the best that has been thought and said’.

There are already a range of effective routes in to teaching that support people who did not go to university at age 18.  For example a former colleague began as a school cleaner, then progressed through lunch supervisor, to TA and HLTA, and now she is completing her Maths degree part time with the Open University, after which she plans to do School Direct.  What is noticeable about that route is that it is slow and steady, and demands subject knowledge, yet (while the Open University still flourishes) it is accessible financially to all comers with the academic commitment to learn and then teach their subject.  A path similar to this may be what the government is now calling an apprenticeship, but if so why the announcement?

If I understand the difference correctly, it is that schools pay apprentice teachers from the beginning, and with budget constraints as they are, I would anticipate that those people will therefore have to be teaching classes.  From the beginning, with their subject knowledge and maybe their age only just in advance of their former school mates.  This is not like doing a BEd, based at a university and sent out for placements to work with classes timetabled to a qualified teacher.  It would be more like School Direct, with the apprentice earning their way by teaching an allocated timetable.  Inevitably these apprentice teachers will not be going in to Eton or St Paul’s.  They will be concentrated in areas which find it difficult to recruit teachers – areas of disadvantage.  Once qualified, they can apply for jobs in leafier areas, so I anticipate that each generation of children in those schools will act as the guinea pigs for a new generation of rookie apprentice teachers.   This is in complete contrast to Teach First, which has worked hard to bring in the most highly educated to teach for social mobility.  It is also in contrast to the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) for social mobility, which names classes after their teacher’s alma mater to raise aspirations.

In addition there is an issue for the young people themselves which further affects social mobility, summarised neatly by Laura McInerney:

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So apart from reducing the national burden of student debt, what problem is the government trying to solve with the apprenticeship route?

The recruitment and retention crisis; the school budget crisis; and the perceived snobbery of the establishment against apprenticeships.  On the first and second: put money in to school budgets to pay teachers decently and also build up morale, maybe start by sending out messages to everyone that teachers are exceptional, and that being a teacher is an aspirational profession?  On the third – get the independent sector to lead on teacher apprenticeships and we will follow.


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Where are we with inclusion in 2017?

Inclusion in 2017: Panel with Kenny Frederick @kennygfrederick , Dave Whitaker @davewhitaker246 and Keziah Featherstone @BLC_Head at the Wellington/Telegraph Education Festival 22nd June 2017

Three minutes on inclusion and I have too much to say. I asked a friend whose 15 year old child has special needs and is in a mainstream school. Her perspective on Inclusion in 2017 is that students with special needs all get lumped together in secondary schools. Children with dyslexia, autism, SEMH and other needs are all in a class with children with cognitive difficulties and teachers are focused on simplifying everything, expecting the worst. Even in mixed attainment classes, the “SEN kids” are sat together. Teacher expectations sink to rock bottom as soon as a child is labelled as “special needs”.

We know that there’s a problem with setting and high stakes accountability – poor behaviour in “sink sets”, unacceptable levels of fixed-term exclusions of children with special needs and parents or schools moving children on for “home education” or to attend alternative provision.

There is a skills gap and a communication gap. Can secondary teachers, teaching hundreds of children a week, really engage with a list of twenty recommendations in an educational psychologist’s report, or with mystifying Education, Health and Care Plans? Even if they do, where and when do they learn the skills to put into practice what the professionals advise?

There is quite a movement now for “inclusion units”. I like Paul Dix’s analogy that setting up a unit is like putting a fifth lane on a motorway – when you build them, they get filled up. Nothing moves forwards.

Secondary schools are too busy telling students what they can’t do. We need to focus on what students can do, and on what they might do with the right teaching.

The most important thing that every secondary school must do is re-position their Learning Support department. Our Learning Support departments should be the most expert teachers in the school, training others, engaged with professionals like education and clinical pyschologists and speech and language therapists, working in partnership with special schools to share expertise. We need our Learning Support departments to have sky-high expectations, modelled by the SENCO. Over the years I have seen the remarkable success of students with SEN, for example a student with a statement going to Kings to read Radiography; or the student who grew from hiding under tables in Y7 to succeeding on a Level 3 Animal Care course in Sixth Form; or the agoraphobic student whose love of music, fostered by a teacher who played the guitar, led to further study and playing guitar in pub performances. One thing unites all these success stories: adults who care, who go slightly above and beyond, who consider what is possible and commit to making a difference.

What structures help these adults? Communication and understanding of the children rather than of a labelled need; rock solid behaviour management enforced by senior staff; mixed attainment classes and groups; use of research to identify quality interventions for literacy and numeracy – the Education Endowment Foundation’s work; work with the Educational Psychologist & Speech and Language Therapist to develop practice that works for all children and train teachers in it; quality first teaching by trained and informed teachers supported by expert teaching assistants and a strong pastoral system; partnership working with families.

An inclusion 2017 checklist – how does your school measure up?

1.Are your expectations of children with SEN sky high?

2.Do you have the expertise in school, for example a Lead Teacher for Autism or a bought-in service from a Speech and Language Therapist, to meet all your students’ needs?

3.Is your Learning Support department a well-spring of best practice for all teachers?

4.Are children with special needs positioned carefully in classes where they can best learn? Or dumped in sink sets?

5.Do teachers know how best to teach all their learners?

6.Have teachers stopped talking about special needs, to talk about the children themselves?

7.Do you work hand in hand with parents?

Is this too much to ask of teachers? What about the high achievers? The school I worked in that did this sent 115 students to Russell Group universities in 2015. We need to stop thinking about what we CAN’T do and start thinking about what we CAN do.

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Why would a headteacher blog?

I have a confession to make.  Perhaps it’s because my son’s favourite poem is Ozymandius, which he sporadically speaks by heart at the dinner table; or maybe it’s that my previous head came from a Greek Cypriot background and so was determined to avoid hubris, but I am deeply reluctant to blog about being a headteacher.

Miss Wilsey’s invitation to do this, DM-ed just a term in, sent me running behind the sofa. 

Then as people who itch to write do, I realised that I could write about that feeling, and it’s important I do.  Because headship is not the perfect hair-sprayed, Shellac-nailed, patent high-heeled vision that people expect it to be.  

Throughout a few years of headship interviews which looking back, defined that era of my life and left me distraught at times,  I got some great feedback on my imperfections. I was told that I should not have emphasised the fact that I was a mother, that my language was too informal, that I “would not take people with me”, that I lacked a vibrant prayer life.  I would like to say that this feedback was transformational and that I studied with Professor Higgins, put my children into care, read “How To Win Friends and Influence People” and took holy orders to find the superhead within, but luckily I kept calm. I instead listened to Jill Berry, Ann Colgan and Angela Doherty, three amazing women who live in the real world of what headship is all about. And armoured with Shellac and Bobbi Brown, I finally got a great headship in a school which would never expect a woman to hobble in wearing patent high heels to fulfil the female head stereotype. A relief, as they were ready in my cupboard but I can’t really wear them.

There have been many mistakes in my transition phase and first term or so of headship, and yet I am still able to go to work every day and lead, even with unpolished nails and flat shoes that are sometimes a tad muddy from the school field.  I’m in an environment where there is no pomposity, we are a community that  values every child and connects with the world beyond our school gates.  Our Co-operative values include equality and solidarity, so why would we claim to be better than other schools? We just do the best we can for the children in our care.

My prayer life is flourishing, my language is (mostly) suitably formal and staff have not revolted (yet). I am still a mother, and I talk about it. In my new school our wider families are part of our community, “growing up together” as a colleague put it recently. 

We are not super heroes. But we are here.

Read more headteacher blogs at https://thehopefulheadteacher.blog/2017/01/12/talking-heads-weekly-insight/

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Who wants more secondary moderns?

My son failed the 11+. If I’m honest, the grammar school was near the bottom of my six choices as I am committed to comprehensive education. The school’s website promised that no additional preparation was needed and I took them at their word.  He was upset after the test. He had met boys there who had been out of their primary schools for up to three weeks, taking practice papers after years of specific tuition.  I would want to see evidence of the children who get in with no additional preparation, cited by Tim Leunig at ResearchED – I have never met one.  Not when you look into it properly.

If I’m really honest I was making a political point, but even as a grammar cynic, I was shocked by the reality of selection.  Selection deemed our child, the son of two Oxford graduates, to be secondary modern material at age 11. Because you can dress this up any way you want to, and May has certainly attempted to do this in her speech, but a return to selection at 11 separates most children away from grammar school opportunities and expectations.

The consultation describes a “more challenging and targeted curriculum” for the pupils selected for grammar provision. (p28)  May’s claims that children could transfer at age 14 don’t stack up – would children leave the grammar to go to the “non selective” school age 14 to free up a place? I doubt it. And if the secondary modern pupils have studied a less challenging curriculum in KS3, they will not be able to catch up.  I also worry about movement to grammar at age 16.  Is it not really important that a range of Sixth Forms continues?  Teachers are attracted to schools where they can teach A Level. If we move towards large grammar-only sixth forms, there would be a knock on effect for 11 – 16 provision in the other schools.  One achievement of Gove’s era was the expansion of an academic curriculum for all.  Selection would end that, according to May’s own documents.

Thankfully my son has the highest of target grades in his comprehensive and his university dreams remain intact as most of their Y13 go on to Russell Group universities.

Comprehensives work because we have high expectations for all students.

A comprehensive I worked in ran a (tiny) RCT recently, as we educated one twin while his brother went to the grammar school an hour away.  The twin who came to our comprehensive scored a grade HIGHER in every one of his GCSEs than the twin selected for grammar education.  Without high expectations, a school is lost. And what better way to lower expectations than to tell parents and teachers and the students themselves that their school is for those who failed a selection test?  Or for teachers at a grammar to assume that their “least able” are only likely to get a B, but that’s probably enough.  Because selection encourages a fixed mindset in the students selected and their teachers, as much as in the students who were not selected and theirs.

So look for those comprehensive schools with students who go on to a range of universities and apprenticeships, which have the highest expectations for your child and all their friends. And if there are areas without such schools, politicians should look across the globe to research what works and why.  Kent tells us that grammars are not the answer  and that the green paper does not “set out plans for schools that work for everyone”.   MPs, Headteachers, Ofsted, Teach First, Teaching unions and even Policy Exchange agree. I would like to remind Ms May that it is Gove, not she, who has advised us not to listen to experts, and recommend that she starts listening.

Please respond to the consultation and make your voice heard.  I found this very difficult to do.  Questions that seemed to miss the point included

“How can we support existing non-selective schools to become selective?”

“Are these the right conditions to ensure that selective schools improve the quality of non-selective places?”

I think I found a good answer for this one, though: “Are there other conditions that we should consider as requirements for new or expanding selective schools, and existing non-selective schools becoming selective?”

My answer: A non-selective school should only be allowed to convert to become selective if it has a partner secondary modern lined up to be selective of those children who don’t pass. ONLY joint bids should be sanctioned or this will be very messy.

If an Academy chain plans this, they would need approval from governors, parents and teachers at both schools.

And I suspect that, like the grammar pupils selected without any additional preparation, such schools will be as rare as hen’s teeth and so this particular episode of “Yes Minister” could be brought to a close.

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What bad decisions have you made ?

“Can you give me an example of a bad decision you’ve made? What would you now do differently?” My interview for headship stalled, as I pondered some stinkers from over the years, and wondered which was least worst, while offering the best opportunities to show how unlikely I am to do this. Ever. Again.

A better question that I have asked myself since is why did I make those decisions? Sub-questions: who/what influenced me? What was my rationale for change, or for not changing? Who opposed the bad decisions? What prevented me from listening to them?  We have to work in the best interest of our students, so there is an imperative for me to make the right decisions, to “do no harm”.

Most importantly: how can I and my fellow senior leaders take responsibility for making better decisions in the future? What do we need to do differently, not with reference to that decision which is long past, but when making all future decisions?

Firstly, we need access to the best evidence available so we can be informed; but we also need to go further and engage with that evidence so that (HT @fullonlearning ) we are not simply implementing the what of recommended practice; but are also getting the context right with the how, who and why.  In addition to the Education Endowment Foundation ‘s excellent and growing research base, used in 2014 by 54% of secondary senior leaders and just 11% of secondary classroom teachers, there is also Evidence for the the Frontline which enables teachers to pose their own questions to researchers.  In this way research can directly affect classroom practice and does not rely on school leaders catching up with a wide range of subject specific research that might be beyond their understanding.

There is a threat to this best evidence, however, as seen by the 73% of school leaders who learn from what works in other schools – many more than the 54% who use the Toolkit.  The best example of learning from other schools that I am familiar with is PiXL Group, dissected thoroughly by Tom Sherrington in this blog.  The PiXL phenomenon has taken learning from other schools, with member schools faithfully following the PiXL way, to such a large scale that the Secretary of State has had to change education policy to cope with effects of mass numbers of retakes or iGCSE entries.  Does PiXL – learning from other schools – offer the best evidence to support our decision making?

Since liberation from the National Strategies in which the state knew best about education and told us how to do it, there has been immense growth in sharing of personal experience and expertise; and ensuing enlightening arguments over competing groupthink in education (HT Twitter).  Yet the state continues to get in the way of evidence-engaged practice.  Some of the best evidence is ignored by the majority of schools on the basis of ministerial or inspectorate announcements, for example the evidence on mixed ability teaching being more effective than setting/streaming.  The DfE is implementing the Y7 SATs resit policy despite clear evidence that far from helping children catch up, repeating a year of school sets children back even further behind their peers by a whole term.  I realise that pupils are not exactly repeating Year 6, but in effect a Y7 resit group would need to repeat Y6 study to focus on passing KS2 SATs, so academically they would be.

Meanwhile sharing I see via Twitter can rely on little evidence and can make assertions about effective practice that are not even clearly evidenced by results or impact shared from the tweeter’s own classroom, never mind the broader evidence base.  Having eagerly adopted and shared resources for “outstanding teaching” for many years, I then as eagerly adopted ungraded lesson observation, reminding me that a pinch of salt is as useful a Twitter tool as the DM.

In my current school we benefit from dozens and dozens of evidence-engaged practitioners who have completed Teach First, Teaching Leaders, Future Leaders, NPQML/SL and/or Masters study; and have taken other opportunities to learn from experts via our links, for example with Learnus, the National Education Trust and a range of ITT providers (we are a specialist teacher training partner with UCL/IoE).  Our teachers run and attend subject specialist networks across the Local Authority; and many have completed the Excellent Teaching coaching programme to engage further with research and bring this in to their day to day classroom practice.

How have I managed to make any bad decisions, as a listening leader surrounded by these experts? I did struggle at first to answer the headship interview question, but luckily it was asked during a practice interview with the amazing School Improvement Officer from our LA, who works closely with us and so was able to come up with a great (terrible) example.  Suppressing my instinctive response that the bad decision had nothing to do with me, I took responsibility and my answer was about evidence.  Had we researched further and weighed the available evidence properly, we would not have made that decision.  Or, better, I could have stopped the decision using the cold hard facts.  As school leaders we need to make learning from the Toolkit and other evidence higher priority than learning from other schools.  The evidence is out there. We have a duty to engage with it, rather than simply joining the PiXL gold rush on the off-chance that we may strike gold.


Image from Shutterstock


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When is it worth resitting?

Michael Gove famously resat his driving test six times before passing it on his seventh attempt.  The driving test is a good example of a test that is worth retaking, because passing it gives you immense freedom, and I applaud Gove for his resilience.

I would also advocate retaking Maths and English GCSEs between the ages of 15 and 16, because it opens doors in the future if you can achieve that magic hurdle at a time when you are best primed to pass it: apprenticeships, university, swathes of jobs.  Sadly Gove ignored lessons he might have learnt during his seven goes at the driving test and ruled that only a student’s first attempt at a GCSE should count in the schools’ League Tables.  For girls at a school I know well, that led to a decline in the rate of 5+ GCSE  A*-C grades including English and Maths from 88% to 74%.  That is a lot of girls destined to vie for teachers’ attention in the Post 16 retake classes, forced to try again aged 17 and 18 (whether or not they want to achieve the qualification by then).

In my life I once failed a test.  That was the Ofsted online assessment, which I failed in 2015 in the same week that I received glowing reports from HMI and passed my sign off inspection after two years of expensive training.  There was no right of appeal, no chance to see my marked script and no feedback other than that I was unable to synthesise information.  There is an annual opportunity to resit, but I see no point in doing this – when will I ever be better able to meet Ofsted’s expectations than in the week I qualified?  Without my marked script, how can I learn from my mistakes and improve?  I will never again inspect for Ofsted.

How would I feel, I wonder, if I were forced to retake that test? Watching colleagues move on with their lives while I focus, with increasing mystification, on meeting the rules of an assessment that has already defined me as a failure.  You might argue that I should show resilience and knuckle down to it; but I have been able to decide that it is better for me professionally to move on to headship without the distraction of 18 days out of school a year to inspect.  I can look ahead, redefine myself and move on.  It is humiliating to fail, and you question your worth as a human being.  You have to be aiming at a bigger end goal that is really worth it to put yourself through a resit, to work for it again so that you do better on a second or subsequent attempt.

Add in to the resit mix pre-puberty, a new big school with new rules and hundreds of new students with lots of different teachers, none of whom have any expertise in the test you need to resit, and you have a perfect storm.  I can’t begin to imagine how I will organise these resits as a school leader in the second year of root and branch curriculum reform in key stages 3 to 5, but my bemusement is not the issue.  How to justify this to parents? To the students themselves? To the teachers?  All of them know that this resit has no significance for the young people, and that what matters instead from Year 7 is steps towards GCSE success.  Can we justify the resit as a stepping stone to GCSE success?  Politicians are trying to, but they have not been in our English Year 7 classrooms recently to see the brilliant teaching of a scheme of work on “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time”, with students writing quality literary analysis and challenging stereotypes, whatever their KS2 SATS result.  Fast forward to next year: will there be some resit classes in which students do not move on to the exciting secondary curriculum, but repeat a curriculum that failed them in KS2?  What happens if they fail again?  Because, as Tom Sherrington pointed out for GCSEs, there will always be failures in the KS2 tests.  A national scaling system will be used to award KS2 SATS scores, which means that a proportion of children will be below average and will therefore fail, however amazing their teachers are and however hard they work.

I am seeing Escher’s infinite staircase winding upwards, when I should be seeing stepping stones like the beautiful ones I crossed today near Box Hill.


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Why include?

The school I attended from age 7 to 17 was not inclusive.  My class consisted of girls from Surrey whose parents could afford it, who had passed a challenging entrance test.

Each year there was a roll call of where every single one of last year’s Upper Sixth leavers had gone. Oxford, Cambridge etc etc.  My friend’s name was read out as having “got engaged” and there was apparently a sharp intake of breath.  We are now doctors, lawyers, teachers, a theatre producer, accountants, mothers, wives.

Educational nirvana.

But there was the girl who struggled because her dad was an alcoholic and she didn’t know where to go for help.  And the girl who was asked to leave, who burnt down one of her next schools.  There were some eating disorders, and other mental health issues which weren’t discussed.  Sadly two of my Year 4 class of 25 or so girls died by the age of 40.  Because “life” (as a landlord I once worked for used to say frequently) “is not a bowl of roses.”  And however much you bundle up privilege in a classroom together and pull up the drawbridge, you cannot prevent life from storming the ramparts.  Maybe because my brother is autistic, I always knew that there was more to life than perfect crocodiles of girls from a Madeline book.  But others were not so lucky, and years of trying to fit in to the perfect stereotype took their toll.

Inclusion benefits everyone.  Teachers learn how to teach properly, because we are aware that not everyone just “gets it”.  In learning to differentiate for the child who has specific learning difficulties, we help the child who is particularly able, because we think beyond the text book and adapt our teaching so all children learn.  Meanwhile children learn tolerance and respect because they see examples every day of children achieving despite barriers they face, so children learn not to judge or make assumptions.  They learn to hope.  And they learn how to learn with a range of people, and how to work with them.  In life, we are rarely surrounded by “like-minded people”.  In the neighbourhood, the extended family, our kids’ football club or the local park or swimming pool – even in most workplaces, surely; we have to deal with difference every day.

The main argument against inclusion cites poor behaviour disrupting learning.  In my experience, bad behaviour can disrupt the learning of students across the socio-economic and ability spectrums.  Before blaming individual children or their needs, we need to acknowledge that school leadership are responsible for behaviour management.  If school leaders have not set up their systems properly learning will be interrupted – whatever the IQ of the class, the admissions criteria or the fees charged to the parents.  Conversely, if the systems are strong all children will benefit and be able to learn.

Another argument against inclusion is that the curriculum has to be “dumbed down” to include all children.  Anyone making this argument has not kept up to date with recent curriculum and assessment changes.  All our students are reading and analysing Dickens, Steinbeck and Shakespeare. In Year 7 and 8. And 90% of Y7 pupils will need to take all ebacc subjects.  The more able will be sorted and sifted as never before into Grade 9s to Grade 5s by the means of long written examinations.  Which will also be taken by the less able, with their range of needs; and retaken by these students until they are 19: relentless retakes until they hit a national benchmark of the top X% of entrants to the exam nationally.  Rest assured, educationalist, no one will avoid the academic curriculum.

There is a better argument against inclusion around work-life balance; with teachers having a sense of failure because they are unable to meet the needs of some children who are in their classes, despite intense amounts of work trying.  What is the best way for leaders to manage this?  Surely not to position inclusion as someone else’s problem and petition for a segregated school?  In my mainstream secondary school our approach has been to build expertise amongst staff and develop a team of professionals in the Learning Support team who can provide advice, answers and team-working so that teachers can be excited by what is possible rather than discouraged by what will never be.

Arguments against inclusion have to recognise the reality for children with SEN and their families.  A few of our parents and carers want to move their children to more specialist provision. But their wishes, supported by recommendations from a range of professionals at annual review, are being over-ruled by the local SEN Panel whose hands are tied by shrinking budgets and a lack of specialist places.  This means that we have to stay positive, we have to do slightly more to support our teachers and students, and get more inclusive, not less.

We have one Year 13 with a place at Harvard and fourteen with Oxbridge interviews this year. 111 leavers went to Russell Group universities in 2015.  Our inclusive approach is not holding anyone back.  We celebrate the students who went to study Hair and Beauty or Construction, Animal Care or Medicine.   I would love to go back to my old school and challenge the stereotypes by reading out my inclusive comprehensive’s roll call.


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How do we manage stress?

“All we can do is show you the door – you have to walk through it.”
(The Matrix)

On the face of it, S and I are very different.  She is Asian, from a postcode that indicates a “disadvantaged” background.   I am White and grew up in leafy surrey, in a detached home with an enormous garden.  She attends her local mixed state comprehensive – “bog standard”, if you will, and proud of its inclusivity. I went to an independent girls’ school.  The school cost money, which meant that girls whose parents lost their jobs had to leave.  S’s parents did not go to university. My parents both went to Oxford, as did my granny. My grandpa went to Cambridge.

Yet some 25 years after my own interview at Oxford, S is going for an interview in the same subject at the same college next week.  And on Friday lunchtime she was shivering with stress in the playground at the prospect.  Mrs Enright (en route to berate some Year 8s) was drafted in to help, and we went to my warm office to see if I could help.

S explained that feedback from her mock interviews was that she knows her stuff, but she was too nervous, so that her personality did not come across.  Knowing that she needs to be more relaxed is not helping, because, “It’s Oxford, Miss – I would feel so bad if I am rejected.”

“What do you want to do after university?” “PhD.” “Well – Oxford has been around for 100s of years – it is not going anywhere.  You can study there at any point in your life.”  S brightened a little at this thought.  “I could do my Masters there…” 

But she still looked downhearted.  “Are you under pressure to get in?” (As a third generation Oxbridge applicant, I know what this feels like.) “Yes, my parents are so excited about their daughter having an Oxford interview. I don’t want to let them down.”

Cue some standard teacher comments about the other great universities she will likely get in to if she doesn’t get a place at Oxford. Neither of us is convinced.  Though the reality is that these universities are likely to be better in many ways.

“I worry that I didn’t do very well in the PAT.  I would like to know how I did – am I a strong candidate or not?” “S, you have been invited for interviews at two colleges already – they really want you. You are a strong candidate.”

S looks unconvinced.  “I just can’t help being nervous.” 

We have worked hard with this year group since I joined the school when they were Year 8.  S, it turns out, was one of the main characters in our student created play in the round “Greenford Heroes”, with a cast of 240 Year 8s, which is performed to an audience of hundreds.  “That was a really brave thing to do, S, you took a main role in front of everyone. That shows you have confidence.  You are still that person.

“I am just really stressed.”

“What do you do to manage stress?” “Nothing. Everyone jokes that I am always so stressed.  I’m the most stressed person in the year group.  It’s the thing everyone knows about me.”  

And I realise that whilst we have taught our students their subjects to a high level; given them confidence to speak out to a range of audiences, from Greenford Heroes to debating against Eton; supported them to engage in a range of enrichment opportunities such as summer schools; and fostered independent reading and scholarship; we have done nothing to teach them how to manage stress.

Mrs Enright’s doorknob lesson on stress management.

  1. www.calm.com 2 minute meditation
  2. Make a playlist of your favourite music to play on your way to interview – in S’s case, this is ROCK
  3. Sleep, and eat nutritiously
  4. Know that your parents always boast about you, whatever happens in your life!
  5. Act like Adam – a student also going for interview next week, who is more worried about his History coursework than the interview, which he sees as just another small step in life.

Go and walk through that door, S. You are ready.

S is one of fourteen of our Y13 students invited for Oxbridge interviews this year.  And we have just heard the excellent news that a Y13 has been accepted to Harvard.  Please don’t believe what you read about comprehensive schools.


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SEN Reforms: the picture in my mainstream school in Autumn 2014 reposted for #TLT15

Reaching out to Parents and Carers

We are all teachers of Special Educational Needs. Did you realise? That’s the message from the 2014 Code of Practice. Check out para 6.37 which speaks of teaching “differentiated for individual pupils” as the “first step” for those with needs.

Of course special needs no longer include behaviour, with BESD becoming SEMH (social, emotional and mental health). This is an important rethink that will help schools focus on the underlying needs. Across the country SENCOs, like Father Christmas, are removing naughty children from their lists.

And we’ll no longer be taking “Action” and certainly no more “Action Plus”, which always sounded more a flu medicine than a description of needs. Learners who are identified as needing SEN support will be labelled “SEN Support”, remarkable clarity given how jargon usually floats in education like dead skin cells in the bath.

We have spent many years and destroyed rainforests making “statements” about what children find difficult. Now we are asked to have a Plan so that they no longer do. The Plan replaces the statement and supports a young person from age 0 to 25, ensuring joint working between Education and Health and Care services, with parents/carers able to commission services themselves using a personal budget where needed.

Assess – Plan – Do – Review is the mantra for all work with young people on the register, whether they’re on SEN Support or they have an Education, Health and Care Plan. This work is co-ordinated by a qualified SENCO, but is the responsibility of all school staff. And it is led by parents, and the young people themselves as they grow up.

The new code requires full involvement of parents and demands proper training for teachers so they are equipped to identify needs. I once saw a parent and child marched over to the SENCO at parents’ evening by a teacher saying, “I’ve tried everything, she must have special needs.” The student in question was in Y11.
The code sets out primary and secondary schools’ duty to assess students, and also aims to enforce early identification, before children start school, with use of a two-year-old progress check. If students’ needs become evident later when they are at school, identification starts with staff and parental observations and data which highlights who is struggling to make progress. Schools will have a range of assessment approaches for different needs – for example we use reading tests and LUCID screening software as an initial check for writing and reading difficulties, followed up by detailed assessment of dyslexia needs by a qualified assessor where appropriate.
Parents and carers are the best people to understand and plan for meeting the needs of their children. The new Plans are drawn up and reviewed annually based on the views of parents and of the young people themselves as they grow up. As schools we have to use this ‘Person Centred Planning’ at the heart of our work for the best chance of success. It was difficult to satisfy the autistic student who demanded a classroom built of chocolate cake, but we tried. When parents listen to their children, particularly as they grow into teenagers, they appreciate them as young people with an independent future ahead.

External professionals such as psychologists are fonts of knowledge and ideas, but we have all found ourselves thumbing through their twenty pages of advice wondering how we can fit it in during Period 5 (Textiles). If we did, no student would have their beanie hat finished and ready to wear until 2021. SENCOs have traditionally translated expert reports for teachers to use in classroom practice, but written guidance has its limitations. As anyone knows who spent the summer holidays building IKEA shelves.

Roles were created in my school for Lead Teachers for Autism and for Nurture. Talented subject specialist teachers, they have developed expertise in Autism and Nurture. When we are planning for meeting students’ needs in lessons, we defer to them. They can make sense of how to turn the Snartblarrt plans into a beautiful set of evenly spaced shelves.

We have taken more account of parents’ views by launching an Autistic Spectrum Condition Parents and Carers’ Forum. The provision we plan in school now has better support from home. “I’ve never been to anything like that before, it was really good,” said one mother as she left the first Forum, a review which we plan to put in lights over the door.
Every Local Authority has to publish a Local Offer online, which should also help schools identify resources and plan provision. Parents can look more broadly at everything that’s available and will no longer have to rely on dated websites that link to ghost services.
Did you know that even when a student has support or is withdrawn from your classroom for intervention, you remain responsible for that student’s progress in your subject? Time to barricade the door and ensure they benefit from your sparkling classroom.

However, most teacher training devotes little time to meeting special needs. As a school getting ready for the new Code, we asked ourselves how could we empower teachers and build their confidence for quality first teaching?

Our Higher Level Teaching Assistants specialise in Maths, Science or English and are full members of those departments. As expert subject teachers, our Lead Teachers are on a mission to change the practice of all staff through training and modelling expert techniques, to bring written guidance alive in every classroom. Achievement Workers focus on all aspects of learning and pastoral support, and give support in lessons and advise teachers as they know the students so well and see them in a range of subjects.

As we work, we must remember that parents’ advice about what to do and how to do it is often the most relevant.

Since September 2014 we have a duty to have three structured conversations a year with young people with special educational needs and their parents/carers. The guidelines are clear that in secondary schools, Form Tutors are the people who need to lead these conversations. This means that all our staff need to develop expertise on the needs of children in their forms.

Teachers also need training this term to gain the skills to communicate effectively with parents/carers in discussion; and to keep a record of the outcomes, action and support agreed so they can give this to parents. Schools also have to provide an annual written report on their child’s progress to parents and carers of children with special needs.

All schools have systems for reviewing student progress with parents, we now need to make sure we include a focus on students’ needs. Schools have to publish SEN Information Reports online and update them regularly to review the effectiveness of their provision overall.
If this sounds daunting, be reassured that as a teacher you have always worked to know your students, to assess, plan for and meet their needs, then review how well it went and adapt accordingly. Getting parents more involved and developing your expertise in a range of special educational needs will have a positive impact in all your classrooms, for all your learners. And do let me know if you have any bright ideas on how to build a classroom out of chocolate cake.

Form Tutors: are you ready to have structured conversations with SEN learners, setting goals and reviewing progress?

Subject teachers: are you expert in the full range of special educational needs, and able to differentiate with confidence for all your students?

Are you clear how you are reaching out to parents and putting them at the heart of your reforms?

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Maternity works #womenED

At the WomenED Naureen @5N_Afzal  reflected on the number of women she had heard saying they’d lost confidence to apply for promotions to educational leadership when they had had a family.  She said that amongst her peer group of female friends – high ranking professionals in a range of careers – this had not happened, and asked,”What do you think is causing this loss of confidence? Is it something about education?”  Jo Penn @JaPenn56 said that it had not happened to her or her friends, and she works in education.

The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.  I think that Jo Penn’s maternity leave just pre-dated Blair’s education3 and the National Strategies, and happened in the early years of Ofsted. (Correct me if I have this wrong, Jo?)

In 2001 I got pregnant in the long shadow of Ofsted, League Tables and a crunching drive for  “school improvement”.  As a middle leader, I was also responsible for cross-curricular ICT, the main improvement target set in the previous inspection; and for two A Level subjects and many GCSE classes.  My main sensation was one of guilt. How could I leave my colleagues and students in the lurch?  Though reassured when my sister-in-law reminded me that having a child is a basic human right, I could see myself disappearing – the powerhouse who had taken on new responsibilities every year and had been on a traditional route for Assistant Headship was suddenly a mini-roundabout.  Not speaking metaphorically here: I was described as a “powerhouse” pre pregnancy. And a “mini-roundabout” when pregnant.  In schools working exceptionally long hours to take on more and more responsibilities gets you promotion.  Maybe when your managers no longer see you in that light, and can no longer load on additional responsibilities, your leadership potential evaporates? In my experience, progression in education is less about expertise (which is unaffected by having a baby) and more about being perceived as a powerhouse.  This presents problems for a range of people-for example those wanting work life balance or caring for parents or siblings-and means that schools could be missing out on a generation of great leaders.

My son was three months old when I rushed back, keen to pick up the pieces and make people forget I had ever been away.  Reasons underlying my managers’ panic at the news of my pregnancy became apparent: I realised that you can’t properly cover a teacher who goes on maternity leave.  It is even trickier to cover middle leaders, especially in small schools.  This was the worst part of my life, and it was all my fault.  But was I able to make it up to my employers and work my way back in to dynamic future leader mode?  I didn’t think so.  Before my maternity leave I used to arrive at 7am and power through strategic plans.  After it I rushed in at 8:25, having managed the ‘no earlier than 8am’ childminder drop-off.  Rather than face the guilt and the pressure of returning from maternity a second time, I found a new job when I wanted to have a second child.  By this point my confidence had gone.  It took me six years working 0.8 (and a third baby) before I regained the will to apply for an Assistant Headship.

A feminist headteacher was all it took to turn my life around. Taking over from a female Head whose SLT was predominantly male, he has appointed four female AHTs and a female DHT in the past five years, including me twice.  But now I need to take the next step to headship.  And to do that I need to find the feminist Governing Body that is prepared to defy the statistics.  It took being in the WomenEd environment and the powerful presentation by Future Leaders to make me appreciate the odds stacked against me.  Whilst one in six men become Headteacher in primary schools,  only one women in one hundred and nine do in secondary schools (one in 38 men). Every application I make, a male applicant has a three times better chance of being appointed.

Yet despite this uninspiring statistic, Allison Moise-Dixon and Rimah Hasim told two wonderfully different stories of their routes to headship.  They gave confidence that having a family need not hold you back.  They both described excellent support from Future Leaders, and that is what I took from the day: we are not alone.  These women do not blog and barely tweet – when would they find the time?  But they are all around us, proving it’s possible every day.  And Naureen’s question made me realise that out there in the real world there are millions of women forging ahead with their careers, maybe because they were unaffected by teacher guilt, so they never lost confidence?  And the real breakthrough came on the way home: it was only perceptions of me that changed in 2000. I am still here.  I always was and always will be a powerhouse.

All of us: men and women, can do so much to change our language, our expectations and our perceptions.  I am currently managing a HOD on maternity leave and our Literacy Co-ordinator, who has just returned from maternity leave.  What am I doing? Properly scheduling keeping in touch meetings for those on maternity; challenging assumptions made by colleagues; and reminding everyone that having a family is one of the best bits of professional development a teacher and school leader can have.   Most importantly, I am taking these women and their career ambitions seriously.  I am ensuring that performance appraisal is done thoroughly, whilst encouraging them to take their next professional steps alongside their new family responsibility.  Because they too are powerhouses, and the few years of having small children is a brief moment in their 46 year career.

The past is a foreign country.

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