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.

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Opening a values driven school

‘Opening a values driven school’ by Luke Sparkes

Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford opened with 112 Year 7 students on 4th September 2012 and will rise to its full capacity of 720 students by September 2018. As a start-up, we had to do everything from scratch. Every staff member, system and policy had to be recruited or written. But it was also a chance to craft a school culture that has the highest standards.

Our academy is heavily oversubscribed. By the end of last year, students from the Class of 2020 (now Year 8) had made over 17 months’ progress in reading in a 9 month period, and the Class of 2019 (now Year 9) had made 31 months’ progress in a 21 month period. In January 2014, we became the first secondary free school to be judged outstanding in every category by Ofsted: ‘In this academy, only excellence will do’.

Starting a school is hard work and there are many challenges; however, growing a school is not as demanding as trying to turn a school around. For example, it is much easier to establish a strong school culture with just one year group and a small, newly appointed staff. We have made a strong start, but fully acknowledge that we are a young school with a lot to learn and that our first set of exam results will be the real measure of our success.

At Trinity, we have tried to take the best ideas from academies, schools, the independent sector and abroad. No individual element of our practice is revolutionary. Our core values of hard work, trust and fairness permeate all that we do. From the moment a student arrives at Dixons Trinity, we ask them to live these values. We also focus on three key drivers: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose (Dan Pink, ‘Drive’).

Image via @gapingvoid.

Image via @gapingvoid.

Mastery is the urge to get better at things that matter made manifest through our commitment to Practice (Doug Lemov, ‘Teach Like a Champion’). We practise key techniques collectively as a staff twice every week during Morning Meetings and engineer more tailored Practice during one to one coaching sessions. We have also adapted ‘the cycle of highly effective teaching’ developed by Achievement First and introduced ‘data days’ to ensure that evidence about learning is used to adjust instruction to better meet student needs.

For our students, mastery means trying to get better at every little thing every day. The message at Trinity is that ALL students are going to university. Teachers talk to students about ‘climbing the mountain to university’ by working hard and taking steps towards the goal each day. Our proportion of Pupil Premium students is high, and over 50% of students live in the five most deprived wards in Bradford, one of the UK’s most significant areas of socio-economic challenge. Our priority is to raise aspirations, encourage young people to have a growth mindset, and to progress onto higher education. We continuously expose students to university.

Autonomy is the drive to direct our own lives; at Trinity 100% of students present an exhibition of their Stretch Project at the end of each assessment cycle. In addition to their more traditional curriculum, Stretch Projects allow students to explore an area of interest within a given theme. We aim to develop students’ autonomy and grow their love of learning. Teachers are free to teach as they want as long as students learn and make progress. However, we do expect a few core strategies to be embraced by every teacher in every lesson; for example, a ‘no hands-up’ rule to ensure all questions are targeted and all students are engaged.

Purpose is the drive to connect to a cause larger than ourselves. Those who have visited the school have recognised that our structures liberate teachers to teach and students to learn – because students know why we do things, they buy into them. To keep motivation that lasts, we focus on two important questions. First, we ask a big question to orient our life toward greater purpose – what’s my sentence? In one sentence we state what lasting impression we want to leave on the world. Then we keep asking a small question for day-to-day motivation – was I better today than yesterday?

Starting a brand new school has taught me about the importance of keeping things simple. We established the school around a few concrete ideas that were not radical and everything we have done since has built on those first principles. It’s not the strategies that matter, but the way they fit together and the fact that everybody does them. We all share a common drive to make our school the best that it can be. We keep things simple; if we say it, we mean it and it happens.

Luke Sparkes is Principal, Dixons Trinity Academy, Bradford