“Your feet will not touch the ground.” By Siobhan Horisk

Hackney New Primary School opened in September 2015 with our first two classes of Reception aged children. I secured the job as headteacher in December 2014, and 18 months later we are coming to the end of our first year.

Prior to the school opening I had a glorious period from April to September of planning what was essentially an imaginary school. We had a big blank canvas and could discuss, design and dream about every aspect with a level of uninterrupted care and focus impossible to achieve in a ‘real’ school. I met prospective parents and staff members and my skills of persuasion developed tremendously.

That time was invaluable, not least for reinforcing my absolute respect for class teachers and how exhausting their job is. Being outside of a school for the first time in my career and yet still working long days, I have never had so much energy or head space for other things as I did between April and September last year. Good teachers are giving thousands of feedback points every day, and multi-tasking beyond belief. The learning and wellbeing of the children they teach occupies their headspace until last thing and night and from the get-go in the morning.

“Good Luck!” said my pre-opening OFSTED inspector, “Your feet will not touch the ground.” I smiled to myself, wondering what on earth there could be to do for just two classes – it’s just one year group, right?

“Ha!” I think to myself now. Getting the considerable machine that is a school moving is much more than just managing teaching and learning for two classes.

Simple things like our dishwasher didn’t work. The bicycle storage didn’t come for several weeks which meant carrying 25 little bikes in and out of the playground at the start and end of every day. Builders lingered for about six weeks, and whilst all schools have experienced the trauma of this, to have several of these things not working for us every day was a lot to handle.

In a new, small school, there are few supernumerary people. I found myself doing everything from mopping up urine puddles, hauling deliveries of paper upstairs, lesson observations and staff training to doing school tours and press interviews. In a half an hour I could go from assembling flat pack furniture to presenting to LA or DfE colleagues.

As a new headteacher, of a new school, with a new team, you are completely unproven. Everyone is watching you and tuning in to your every move. You have no sooner reassured them when external bodies are in to scrutinise what you have achieved.

Although our team has some brilliant people on board, in an entirely new team individuals need time to figure out their place in the team – and the joy and trouble with 50 little children starting school for the first time is that they don’t really allow you that time. We needed the best and the brave to take the plunge and put themselves forward to promote their planning ideas, initiate solutions to logistics, and continue to persuade parents that they had made the right choice.

Thankfully they did. Finding great teachers is increasingly like panning for gold; you need to gently agitate the gravel in the pan to get your gold.

Similarly, new parents don’t have other parents to induct them to school life and as nearly all our children are first born there was a much greater amount of communication required.

Like childbirth, I think the memory of these challenges will fade with time. The life of the school has been and continues to be glittered with wonderful moments and the school is blossoming.

My cherished memories are many and so far include our first assembly when I looked at 50 children, from 50 families, and a team of people who, with me, have jumped on board this crazy train and together we were gathered as a vibrant school family. There the children all were in their new school uniforms, and it hit me once more what a privilege it is to have their education and this school in my care. Our teachers are remarkable; and it is my further privilege to witness their heartfelt pride in the progress and achievements of the children they teach.

At the heart of my personal ambition here is being part of something distinctive and something better. More than excellent provision of the core primary curriculum, children have daily, specialist music input and the first year has been pre-instrumental development of their musicality. You should see our music lessons… really! In September the children begin on string instruments including violins, violas, cellos and mini bass.

We believe passionately that time in the outdoors facilitates a different kind of learning and development and makes a tremendous contribution to children’s wellbeing. Children go to a real forest for a real ‘Forest School’ experience once a week, all year round. The daily anecdotes of their forest school adventures sing about the strong contribution this is making to their development and wellbeing. And they love learning.

A colleague visited recently and described the children as ‘so happy and so spirited’ and this was the ultimate compliment for our curious, excited, wondrous bunch and the best acknowledgement of all that our teaching team have done with them at school over this year. Of course, there are always the ‘even better ifs’ and as a living thing the school has great days, good days and some of ‘those days.’

I have been very fortunate to have met a group of visionary and committed founders. It is this vision and unparalleled commitment that has led Hackney New Primary School to be something distinctive. The school was conceived by them; together we have brought it to life and are nurturing its development closely.

As a wise man advised me when I considered this post: if you have ideas about what makes great teaching and if you are passionate about the contribution education makes then surely this is the ultimate job. He was right. ‘Put your hat in the ring’ he said. I did, and 18 months later I would recommend it to anyone else passionate about the contribution education makes.

Do it. Find a great team of governors or founders and with them, create something great.

Siobhan Horisk is founding headteacher of Hackney New Primary School and a NET Associate.

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Affordable leadership for a small secondary school by Melanie Saunders

Does size matter?

Having spent some time looking at how a small secondary school can afford to deliver a curriculum which is both compliant and engaging in the current trying financial conditions, the thing that becomes most apparent isn’t the cost of staffing the curriculum. It’s the cost of leading it.

There is a reluctance to break away from the usual pattern of subject leaders and pastoral structures which has been deployed in secondary schools of all sizes for a generation, and despite the pressure this places on the budget of a small school.

Does a 600 place secondary school really need to retain the lines of accountability and leadership structures of a 1,500 place secondary school, or might it learn from the far slimmer structure of similar sized primary schools? Secondary schools typically spend around a third of their staffing budget on leadership at all levels. Primary schools about half of that.

To take one example: the lowest funded four-form entry secondary school in Hampshire receives an annual budget of £2,895,000. On the basis that 75% of this is spent on staffing, the staffing budget would amount to £2,171.250. Zero based budgeting suggests that a compliant curriculum with limited options for 600 pupils can be delivered for little more than half this amount. This draws into question the proportion of staff spend that is devoted to activities other than teaching.

The leadership model for a secondary school has remained largely unchanged since the establishment of comprehensive schools in the 1960s, although even this model was fundamentally taken from the way in which public schools were run. This design requires a headmaster/headmistress who appoints deputies to whom responsibilities can be devolved. Schools then establish their preferred pastoral system led by house or year heads, and a series of academic subject leaders.

Even if this remained the most sensible model for a school today of 1,500 students, is it sustainable, or desirable, for a school a third of that size? Since the core responsibility of a school is to ensure the highest quality learning and teaching, this raises four questions for a headteacher to consider:

  • How much leadership do my teachers need?
  • What sort of leadership will improve pupil outcomes?
  • What, exactly, are middle leaders leading?
  • What leadership structure represents best value for money?

 

How is headteacher time spent?

The National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers describe the role of headship in 144 words:

Headteachers occupy an influential position in society and shape the teaching profession. They are the lead professionals and significant role models within the communities they serve. The values and ambitions of headteachers determine the achievements of schools. They are accountable for the education of current and future generations of children. Their leadership has a decisive impact on the quality of teaching and pupils’ achievements in the nation’s classrooms. Headteachers lead by example the professional conduct and practice of teachers in a way that minimises unnecessary workload and leaves room for high quality continuous professional development for staff. They secure a climate for the exemplary behaviour of pupils. They set standards and expectations for high academic standards within and beyond their own schools, recognising differences and respecting cultural diversity within contemporary Britain. Headteachers, together with those responsible for governance, are the guardians of the nation’s schools. (January 2015)

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-standards-of-excellence-for-headteachers

The leadership of headteachers is demonstrably the defining factor in school success, notably because he/she determines the priorities and the focus for all the teaching and non-teaching staff in the school, and ensures that the outcomes achieved by pupils is the thing of paramount importance. Clearly, based upon the description above, the headteacher is going to need help in translating that vision into reality and ensuring that practice is consistent. Does this, however, require a team of heads of department and a team of pastoral heads?

In December 2012 the National College for School Leadership published ‘Review of the School Leadership Landscape’ which concluded that the three top concerns for school leaders were:

  • Finance
  • Ofsted
  • Pupil outcomes

However, the same review concluded that the three top skills school leaders said they needed were:

  • Strategies for closing attainment gaps
  • Leading curriculum change
  • Modelling excellence in leading teaching and learning

https://www.ioe.ac.uk/Review_of_School_Leadership_landscape_2012_Dec.pdf

There is a mismatch here which suggests that school leaders need to spend more of their time doing the things they know make the biggest difference, and less time on the things they worry most about.

If headteachers dealt with their number one worry by employing the expertise they need to manage financial planning in the form of a Business Manager, either of their own or across their MAT, they would be able to focus on their number one priority: closing attainment gaps. This might prompt a different approach to leadership and one which has the potential to address their second biggest worry: Ofsted success.

Although some approaches to pedagogy are demonstrably better suited for some types of learning, leadership of learning and modelling the best teaching is not, on the whole, subject specific – as is demonstrated by the approach to learning taken in large, successful primary schools. Good teachers respond flexibly to the needs of their learners and apply a variety of approaches and methodologies. Schools might want to review the role and impact of subject heads and consider whether the administrative aspects of this role could be carried out more comprehensively and less expensively than by paying a leadership premium.

The aspects of the role concerned with teacher performance and pupil progress are the stuff of leadership, but many subject areas in small schools have only one team member, and some are only managing themselves. Should the powerhouse of middle leadership reside in a large number of small fiefdoms, or in two or three senior teaching and learning leads informed by subject specific knowledge from leading teachers in classrooms?

Pastoral leadership often focusses on the management of behaviour and school leaders recognise that poor behaviour is frequently generated by poor teaching and inadequate learning. Less variation and inconsistency between subject expectations and the quality of teaching has the potential to improve behaviour and make intervention less frequent, thus reducing the need for several pastoral leads.

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Is it possible, therefore, to consider that the approach to leadership, particularly in a small school, might move:

From a model which provides a clear hierarchy but ties up significant resource in middle leadership, where middle leaders in singleton departments with no staff responsibilities have little influence on the quality of teaching and learning across the school and limited access to subject debate or the sharing of pedagogical practice. A model where tackling inconsistency and mission creep is an on-going struggle.

To a model where the headteacher and his/her deputies focus all staff on the quality of pedagogy through the work of two or three highly skilled teaching and learning leads, thereby ensuring that teaching, learning and assessment inform good behaviour and progress for all students and groups of students. A model where leading teachers advise on and promulgate subject specific pedagogy but the whole school is responsible for consistent and pupil-focussed practice.

What sort of leadership can your school afford?

Melanie Saunders was recently Head of Education Strategy for Hampshire County Council and is now an independent consultant.

Thoughts on lesson observations #6 | Subject leader without portfolio

As a Special school we organise our approach to lesson observation on fairly traditional lines. They are generally conducted by the Senior Leadership Team and Subject Leaders, with a focus on staff appraisal and the monitoring of subject based learning, supplemented with peer to peer observations for particular purposes.

Recently I relinquished my role as a subject leader. I no longer have a responsibility for the monitoring and evaluation of a particular subject and yet as a Deputy Headteacher I still have responsibility for monitoring and evaluating this aspect of the school’s work. I am also mindful that not observing lessons on a regular basis would leave me at risk of being further removed from the reality of classroom practice.

So as a school we took the decision to reflect on the areas where formal observation is less likely to occur and consider how best to evaluate the quality of what takes place. We created a subject leader without portfolio.

In our 4- 18 context there are a wide range of areas of learning which are not subject specific but are still significant priorities for individual children’s development. These are not necessarily areas such as behaviour or the pupils’ social interaction skills, which form part of more formal observations within the classroom, but rather things such as: how adults support transitions between one location within the school and another during unstructured times; how teachers reduce the amount of adult intervention when encouraging pupils to work with a greater degree of independence outside of the classroom; or how we evaluate variances in approaches to supported social interactions during play, when pupils are supported by a wider range of less familiar staff.

So as we begin exploring this approach, here are a few examples of areas which may need further investigation.

Extension activities

This is part of the week where children are expected to work with a greater degree of independence on tasks which have been successfully completed 1:1 or within carefully structured subject based lessons. The expectation is that they will demonstrate an ability to generalise their learning without necessarily being directly supported by an adult. The importance of this time in the week is that it helps to reduce the risks of dependency upon the adult and introduces a wider range of resources, materials and expectations around the learned concept or skill.

Arrival into school

Our responsibility for learning starts the moment the child steps off the bus, ensuring that they arrive in the classroom ready to work. But beyond that transition from the informal environment to the formal one, there are many skills associated with the process of getting yourself safely and appropriately to the classroom. Can you navigate a busy environment, do you respond to spontaneous social interactions in the same way you do to expected social routines, are you able to avoid unnecessary distractions, and do you make well judged decisions about the order in which things need to be done?

These are all aspects of what we teach in the classroom, but are we evaluating as effectively the nature of these interactions as they take place elsewhere?

Play

For us, ‘play’ is a perennial concern. Not just the notion of learning through play and learning to play as elements of the taught curriculum, but the quality of what happens during break time. Here we generally have a broader range of children interacting with one another and a broader range of adults responsible for this. We are also likely to have a less generous staffing ratio than within the classroom. Yet this is a vital part of the school day in terms of developing our pupils’ capability to interact, communicate and negotiate successfully, and one which we are aware we could be doing better.

Choosing Time

This is an opportunity earned by pupils at the very end of the day to select a particular resource or activity to share with peers or use by themselves. This provides opportunities for a greater degree of self-direction and choice with regards to social interactions and the extent to which attention is sustained. Adults are often focused on supporting pupils with their personal care at this time, reducing the staff ratio and requiring a greater degree of independent participation from the children.

Although the above are areas which may appear to have less tangible impacts upon the attainment within the classroom, they are material to the creation of a culture where learning permeates the environment and where an atmosphere of calm and purposeful activity prevails. It also allows us to make informed, conscious decisions about where we may wish to increase the degree of variability and independence, ensuring that we are equipping our pupils to cope with a wider range of adults and other children responding in unexpected ways.

In taking a structured approach to the reduction of structure, we are aiming to ensure that our pupils are equipped for life beyond the school in its broadest sense.

Continuing the analogy of the surgeon and the scalpel, do we as schools need to be less focused on the major organs, and ensure that we address the patient as a whole?

Simon Knight is Deputy Head of Frank Wise School, Banbury, and a NET Associate Director.

The schools March 2015 Ofsted report is worth reading.

Open letter to the new Secretary of State for Education 9th May 2015

Dear Secretary of State,

I have had the privilege of working with many of your predecessors and their Ministers over the past 25 years. Distinguished politicians have their framed photographs on the wall in the foyer of the Department of Education, dating back to the early post‐war years. Your photo will one day join them. Your influence over hundreds of thousands of everyday lives will be significant during your term in office, and perhaps beyond.

Education has featured rarely in the national election campaign. At local level on the doorstep, voters spoke only of having a good local school – that was their proper message. The British public has also rejected the idea of politicians ‘weaponising’ the National Health Service. Might you be a pioneer and establish a parallel National Education Service, with a view to taking the detail of education practice out of the political arena? What a legacy that would be.

The distinguished brain surgeon Henry Marsh titled his recent autobiography Do no harm, a singular message he wishes to pass on to all doctors. As the new Secretary of State, please make sure the first question you ask your DfE and political advisers is: ‘Do we need a new policy in education?’ (It seems likely doesn’t it that the government will have bigger fish to fry in the coming parliament.)

There are two key areas of education policy and practice where we need your legitimate democratic leadership:

  1. Establishing a fair funding system for primary, special and secondary schools across the country
  1. Securing a sustainable stream of good entrants into the teaching profession.

Concentrate on these two pivotal issues and you will win plaudits from 25,000 headteachers, voters, and fellow politicians. If you subscribe to the self‐improving school system, you might do little else, besides being a careful and thoughtful guardian. Don’t be tempted to put your indelible stamp on the Office with further initiatives. Rather, leave in five years’ time (Theresa May is a model to follow) proud to have done no harm.

If you stray beyond the two areas above, please opt for sustaining and embedding what has been legislated for in recent times: all schools good schools; raised levels of accountability and pupils’ achievements; the new curriculum and examination arrangements; pupil premium funding.

Finally, daring you to be different in just one direction: suspend Ofsted inspections of good and outstanding schools for one year; afford headteachers the space to shape that self‐improving, self‐ regulating school system. Then go visit a hundred schools and ask their views.

I’m sure the profession, governors, pupils and parents wish you well in your new Office of State. With a little more time, I would have written you a shorter letter. Less is always more.

Yours sincerely,

Roy Blatchford, Director, National Education Trust

Thoughts on lesson observations #5 | Spot Coaching

It certainly feels like a brave new world. My colleagues and I have rightly exercised caution in the first few weeks of piloting ‘spot coaching’, but we know why we are doing this. I have also reminded them that the old way of observation was far from perfect and to remember those colleagues bruised by feedback and judgement received long after the moment had passed.   All too often I felt a quantified lesson grade distracted from any qualitative feedback, irrespective of whether the feedback was deemed to be of any use or not.

What is different now is that feedback is purposeful, developmental and (critically) nearly always provided in the heat of the lesson. However this is not at the exclusion of an extended conversation after the lesson (often better for the exchange during the lesson). Such instant feedback provides the teacher with the perfect opportunity to re-work, trial something new or embrace an opportunity to digress to deepen pupils’ thinking in the ‘here and now’.   That may require a little more courage and faith in oneself to speak up or interject when it might be safer to remain silent, but the silence is over in the ‘new world’.

We have a duty as leaders of learning to help our colleagues move their practice forward. If we worried excessively about the possible consequences of our words on others then we would never open our mouths and we would cease to lead. I held on to this very thought when recently observing Year 7 scientists researching forces at various ‘learning stations’ in a rotational group activity. The sight of one pupil’s insufficiently statically charged balloon falling to the floor as other pupils’ balloons remained steadfastly attached to the wall, resulted in much hilarity from the rest of the class.

The teacher initially joined in the laughter, but instead of capitalising on this moment she then sought to bring the class back to order and move them on. I was like a gazelle across that classroom to catch her ear and whisper that she should make much more of this event before resorting back to plan. My colleague then expertly explored why this event had just occurred with the whole class. Her skilled questioning probed their understanding of the different roles played by the relative forces involved. This even prompted some pupils to ask more searching questions on the effect of gravity on Earth and in space. It was wonderful. A productive conversation continued after the class left, during which my colleague confirmed that she would not have otherwise seized that moment.

There have been more occasions when I have intervened discretely, talking in whispers and then standing back, than not. But there have been times when I have found myself playing a more active ‘team-teach’ role.

On one occasion, enrolled as the ‘teaching assistant’ by prior arrangement with a newly qualified teacher, the successful re-working of a Year 9 technology lesson owed much to a relationship built on trust and mutual respect with all ‘distance to power’ removed. Carefully considered and sensitive use of language and action quickly established this fact with the pupils and always actively sought to build the confidence of the teacher. Here was an example of collaborative teaching without prejudice or judgement, but plenty of running commentary and feedback. My heart sank a little when I was later asked for the written feedback; I dutifully wrote up some notes of our conversation and politely explained that, ‘I don’t really complete observation reports anymore.’

On rare occasions, I have felt no compulsion to utter anything at all – the moment never arrived. Not necessarily an indication of the quality of learning observed, but rather due to a greater need to take stock and retreat for further thought and contemplation – but always with the intention of returning again soon.

I visited one colleague three times in the space of three days before I was ready to intervene. On this occasion, I was intrigued by her framing of a Year 8 science practical experiment, setting pupils up to test the hypothesis: The shape of an object determines how quickly it can move through a liquid. I returned a little later, by which time the teacher had brought the pupils back together to sum up their test findings in the context of the original hypothesis. This was my moment. I quietly put it to her that she should then swiftly challenge each individual to write their own new and improved hypothesis. She executed this supremely as evidenced by the articulacy of pupils’ findings – the justifications of their concluding thoughts post-experiment – expressed through the fine statements they composed in the last ten minutes of the lesson.

‘We are not judging them so they are now actively seeking out feedback and advice,’ said one senior colleague recently. There are few things more encouraging than when colleagues engage with others in a dialogue about their own classroom practice. ‘A paradigm shift?’ questioned another senior colleague.

The next step is to roll out our new ways of doing. Establishing a new classroom observation protocol to reflect the ‘new world’ is essential, especially if we are to safeguard colleagues from clumsy interferences from well-meaning and high spirited headteachers! More importantly, we need to build up the team of active coaches and empower as many colleagues as possible to provide high quality ‘on the spot’ feedback and frequently engage in meaningful professional dialogue.

I am left in no doubt that immediate feedback, in the same way that a tennis coach or dance instructor provides, has powerful potential as a professional development tool in teaching. Our recent work has been exhilarating. I hope never to grade a single lesson again.

Keith Grainger is Principal of Garth Hill College in Bracknell, Berkshire. He has been teaching for 23 years.  

Collection of posts on lesson observations

Here is our growing collection of posts on the subject of lesson observations from our leading thinkers.

1. The surgeon and the scalpel

2. Fanning the glowing embers.

3. The clearing fog

4. Changing the silent process of judgment.

5. Spot coaching.

6. Subject leader without portfolio.

Feel free to share your opinion of lesson observations in the comments section below.

Thoughts on lesson observation #4 | Changing the Silent Process of Judgement

Many years ago, I attended a training session for those new to mentoring PGCE students. As I saw this as recognition that I was now ready to teach the teachers, I approached this challenge with appropriate reverence and solemnity.

Part of this training included observation protocol. It included such wise advice as to make sure you did not interrupt or speak to the teacher and to sit silently in the lesson. I absorbed this guidance, never questioning what appeared to be a long established protocol. Those who had observed me as a student had always sat mutely in my class, scribbling furiously in their silent process of judgement and now it was my turn to judge.

As every English teacher knows, the greatest impact you can have on a child’s writing is when you intervene at the point of writing. Intervention after the writing is complete is not as effective and it can be soul destroying. Imagine you are 11, have written two sides of A4 for the first time in your life, only to be told after you have finished that you have done it wrong! Instead, if the teacher had paused this youngster after half a side, assessed what was written so far and offered guidance, then success would have been, if not assured, then at least a greater possibility.

So now imagine sitting opposite a colleague who is giving you feedback on a lesson, helpfully suggesting a number of things you could have done slightly differently to enrich learning. Having sat on both sides of this conversation, I have been either frustrated that  we are discussing something that is now fixed in time and I cannot improve, or feel like the old man in the Harry Enfield sketch: ‘You don’t want to do it like that, you want to do it like this…’

Wouldn’t it be better if the observer piped up in the lesson?  To have removed the shackles of silent judgement? To intervene at the point of teaching?

The tremendous benefit of having an active observer is that you are often so busy running the lesson and managing the multitude of micro-moments which all combine to make a lesson, that you miss out on opportunities for forensic analysis until the moment has passed. An active observer would be able to work with you during the lesson to highlight any tweaks that could be made to deepen pupils’ understanding, or to gently nudge learning towards excellence.

For this paradigm shift to happen there need to be some ground rules. And we are busy working on them!

You and your active observer need to establish a clear purpose for the observation and identify parameters for the active observer’s role in your lesson. Are you happy for them to interrupt you in front of the class to push the lesson in an unexpected direction? Are you brave enough to? Or would you prefer for them to wait until pupils are working to have a quick discussion about learning points? Are you comfortable enough to allow pupils to notice you are working on your own professional development and therefore improving their learning?

Essentially, this collaborative professional development in a lesson must be reinforced by discussion and reflection after the lesson. This active observation will enhance, not replace, the post-match analysis. What it will enable you to do is have a richer, deeper learning conversation about pedagogy and practice. It will replace the feeling of ‘if only you had said something at the time, and then I could have done something about it’.

Active observation is going to take some getting used to. It may mean mistakes on both sides while we find what works. But if we want to make progress, we need to challenge the status quo. After all, when you learned to drive your instructor did not sit next to you mutely watching you veer in to oncoming traffic, only to catch up later, huddled in a silver blanket by the side of the road, to consider WWW and EBI.

Kate Dutton is Assistant Principal at Garth Hill College, Bracknell, Berkshire