“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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Wanted: a new Chief Inspector by Roy Blatchford

The quaintly named headhunters Saxton Bampfylde rang me recently about the HMCI future vacancy. I am not applying. I am quietly optimistic that a very strong field of applicants will.

Media rumours have suggested that the Secretary of State is seeking to bring in an uncompromising American leader to ‘sort the unions’. That has little credence to my way of thinking. Yet there must be some attraction to hiring someone with an international perspective who doesn’t come with a particular history, either to live up to or to put behind them.

The term of office is five years from January 2017. The job details state that HMCI will have a key role in reducing the burden of inspection and reshaping it in response to a more autonomous school system.

And the skilled interview panel certainly knows its onions: Sara Nathan, Public Appointments Assessor; Chris Wormald, DfE Permanent Secretary; David Hoare, Chair of Ofsted; and Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall.

Were I to join that panel, what might nudge me towards a particular candidate in terms of their vision for the future of the schools’ inspectorate in England? What might their Plan A and (always vital at interview) Plan B look like, mindful of a much reduced budget?

Plan A: a rejuvenated Ofsted

  1. Ofsted should say promptly to the majority of the school system: on a three-yearly basis we shall have a look at your data dashboard and other relevant local contextual details, and not disturb you if all is well. Let the nation’s schools breathe a little. If the patient looks poorly, we shall inspect for a day, with a bespoke HMI team.

With all schools, what we would be interested in is your sharing with the inspectorate excellent examples of peer to peer review, within school clusters and academy families. If you stand alone, we’d like to know how you keep yourselves wisely and skilfully under review.

  1. Ofsted should champion ‘excellence’, and leave behind any use of the relative term ‘outstanding’. The working assumption for the nation is at least ‘all schools good schools’. Let not the public purse waste more money on judging whether schools are grade 1 or grade 2. Let The Good Schools Guide or The Woodhead Gazette or The Whitby Echo pronounce locally on excellence of provision, rooted in pupils’ and parents’ honest and open views.
  1. Across the country there remains an unacceptable number of secondary schools, often renamed and rebadged, which have poorly served generations of disadvantaged families. A highly experienced and practised improvement team of HMI – working powerfully with headteachers, academy groups, revamped governing bodies, and the eight Regional Schools Commissioners – can and must squeeze the last residues of failure out of the school system.
  1. Ofsted can continue to produce high quality thematic reports on aspects of teaching and learning, curriculum and leadership. The Chief Inspector’s Annual Report, regularly a strong and accessible report on the nation’s schools, should analyse how well the self-improving system is doing.
  1. The complex business of inspecting safeguarding in schools is too important to be left to Ofsted. In common with finance, it needs to become an annual audit, led by local authorities with their democratic responsibility for all children, whether in LA schools or academies. Directors of Education remain legal ambassadors for every child in their county, borough or city.

 

Plan B: a new Schools Inspectorate 

The Ofsted brand is today strong and trusted by the public. While teachers generally think Ofsted’s business is schools, its reach is considerably more extensive: childcare of all kinds, adoption agencies, children’s homes, secure training centres, children and family court advisory services, and so on.

Politicians, civil servants and the teaching profession tirelessly debate the future of Ofsted in relation to schools. It is for the profession to demonstrate that it can be self-improving in a sustained way over the coming period. Leaders have had three decades of good practice at self-evaluation. Excellence must now be the common denominator, eminently achievable by most if not all schools given the wealth of our democracy and its sustained investment in the school system.

Nearly 25 years on from its birth in 1992, will England’s schools only be content when there is no Ofsted? Most juries would probably find in favour of revision rather than abolition. History is on the side of the inspectorate – the watchdogs and the missionaries – prevailing in some guise or another. Thus, as schools shape and deliver the self-improving system, perhaps the time is ripe for the establishing of a new, independent Schools Inspectorate which operates across all schools in the land – state and independent – and to be separate from Ofsted’s other important business.

****

The new HMCI appointment process has begun. Interviews are scheduled for April, with the nominated candidate(s) meeting the Secretary of State and the Education Select Committee through the summer term.

To all candidates, I wish bonne chance, courage, and good health. To the interview panel, I wish studied inspiration.

Roy Blatchford is Director of the National Education Trust, and formerly one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools. He was appointed CBE for services to education in the 2016 New Year Honours. 

He is co-author with Rebecca Clark of ‘Self-Improving Schools: The Journey to Excellence’ published March 2016 by John Catt.

 

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

Why do we continue to find it so difficult to cater for the most able students?

Image via @gapingvoid

Image via @gapingvoid

Ofsted has again concluded that not enough is being done to ensure that the most gifted students from non-selective secondary schools achieve their full potential[1]. This comes as no surprise to those of us who have been working in this field for a long period. The issues are well rehearsed, the danger-points well known and the solutions clear, yet we seem unable to make significant progress. Whilst some schools do really well, they remain the minority.

In my book published 1997[2] I quoted HMI reports from 1992 and 1978 which were saying just the same thing. In 2010 this remained an issue[3] and it is still one now. So whilst differing types of school structures – GM school, specialist schools, academies, free schools – may come and go, and the curriculum be regularly updated, the same problem remains.

Where we have issues in the education system generally we also – unsurprisingly – find them related to the most able. The three groups most at risk are: students from disadvantaged backgrounds, more able boys, and students in schools where able students are in a minority. Nationally, boys and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are currently the most likely to be underachieving and so able boys or more able students from disadvantaged backgrounds are merely one symptom of a more general problem. We won’t solve this aspect unless we tackle the wider issue of why these groups underachieve in our education system, whatever their ability level.

In respect of schools where ‘able’ students are in a minority, this is just short-hand for low performing schools. Where expectations are low they are low for everyone including, but not uniquely, for the most able. So again we need to tackle the wider problem and raise general expectation levels not just offer something separate for a selected group.

Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director of Schools, quoted in the Education Endowment Foundation newsletter said “While inspectors found pockets of excellence, too many of these children are not being challenged sufficiently – and thousands of highly performing primary pupils are not realising their early promise when they move to secondary school.”

This is well known territory. We know that secondary schools struggle to create challenging opportunities in the classroom and often shy away from the inquiry based learning approaches that engender this challenge in favour of more routine practice and teaching-to-the-test. This happens more frequently when teachers are teaching unfamiliar new curricula, when they are teaching subjects which are not their specialist subject, or when low level behavioural disruption is commonplace.

Equally, the temptation to ignore those who can already demonstrate mastery of the test requirement is strong in a test driven environment and leads to ‘good enough’ rather than excellence being the order of the day. It is here at the classroom level that we need to focus effort so that expectations and levels of overall classroom challenge improve. When this is done all students raise their relative levels of attainment not just the most able.

The Ofsted report highlights KS3 as a particularly troublesome area with Year 7 being an undemanding year for many more able students. Over the years secondary schools have looked at many approaches to improving continuity between primary and secondary. Maybe an important focus is therefore accurate diagnostic assessment early in the Autumn Term of the transfer year. Establishing learning needs is just as important as ‘settling in’ and for the student those early weeks are an indicator of what is to come. Lack of early demand leads to boredom – not a great way to start secondary school.

The quotes from students in this Ofsted report are also depressingly familiar and mirror those collected by NAGTY (National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth) in the 2002-2007 period and from many research studies predating that. Where students are actively involved in their learning they thrive; where it is an impersonal done-to-them experience they don’t.

Finally, careers advice and guidance. We know that one difference between middle class families and those from lower socio-economic groups is the middle class parenting style which Annette Lareau[4] calls ‘concerted cultivation’. This means they leave nothing to chance and see their role as ensuring that their children receive all to which they are entitled. By contrast those from lower socio-economic groups adopt a less interventionist approach restricting their role to care. If this is the case, then it is not a surprise to find that in the chaotic approach to careers advice and guidance which exists in our school system, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are losing out.

In this respect schools must act in loco-parentis for vulnerable groups and aspire on their behalf – remember the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – and this is best and most effectively done where they take that role of behalf of all their students. At the very least schools should be explicit in Year 7 about the fact that students from this establishment go on to a wide variety of post-school destinations including top universities, but that to have a chance of joining them students need to be prepared to work hard throughout their secondary schooling and persevere when the going is tough.

The real message from Ofsted’s recent report is that when there are problems in the education system generally, the most able students are not immune. They suffer along with everyone else. We can seek to resolve this by providing special opportunities for an identified group called the ‘most able’ but we are more likely to be successful if we expect more from all our students, and make those expectations explicit.

We need to move away from creating sheep and goats and only expecting high attainment for a small minority, and instead pitch at a higher level in all classrooms and help all of our students to have a fighting chance of securing an ambitious post-school destination.

I welcome the fact that Ofsted continues to monitor provision for high attaining students but suggest we need a new approach to tackling this issue. Ofsted sets the regulatory framework. I think it must consider whether its current approach drives mediocrity rather than excellence, and hence underachievement amongst the most able is an inevitable outcome.

Professor Deborah Eyre is a NET Leading Thinker

[1] Ofsted (2015) The most able students

[2] Eyre.D. (1997) Able Children in Ordinary Schools. London: David Fulton Publishers

[3] Eyre.D, (2010) Room at the Top. London: Policy Exchange

[4] Lareau, A. (2011) Unequal childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life. London: University of California Press