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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Beyond Special Education

Beyond Special Education

By Simon Knight

As part of a panel at the London Festival of Education I had the opportunity to discuss the nature of transition beyond special schools for young people with special educational needs and disabilities. This addressed not just the pragmatics of a person with complex and highly individualised needs moving from one education setting to another, but also the broader issues around the opportunities available beyond education.

A statistic which I mentioned as part of the discussion was that, according to the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities (2011), 65% of those with a learning disability would like to be employed and yet only 6.8% (Department of Health 2014) are. It made me think about how much effort and financial support is being given to addressing social mobility for those from challenging economic backgrounds, through organisations such as the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, and yet how little is given to those with a learning disability. Neither group chooses to face the challenges that they do, yet as a society we seem to have only committed to support some. Hardly an example of equality of opportunity.

However there are things which can be done to try and ensure that those with a learning disability have a better chance to realise the potential that they build within themselves through their education. There are things which can be done to challenge the perceptions of a society which sees the potential in the poor more easily than it does in the disabled.

One area in particular which may have a profound effect is the extent to which Special schools feel compelled to reflect a mainstream paradigm when it comes to communicating our young people’s capability to those beyond the school. We continue to focus on the accreditation of skills and knowledge through certification, which may have limited currency within the wider communities in which we exist. I suspect many employers would find it difficult to understand the difference between Entry Level 1, 2 and 3, or potentially to know which order they go in in terms of complexity. How many employers are familiar with the successes contained within a personal progress qualification?

One area in which we can take greater responsibility within education is to critically evaluate the quality of the accreditation we use and the extent to which it is understood by those beyond school. We need to ensure that accreditation accurately captures and articulates what has been learned and achieved, rather than just determining what is to be taught. Our young people are inherently unique and that must be reflected in whatever certification they leave us with. It makes me wonder whether schools might serve their students better by creating bespoke approaches to achieving this, rather than relying on commercially available tools.

We also need to ensure that what we teach within the school setting is transferable to environments beyond the school and the supportive structures which we put in place to scaffold success. The completion of targets may provide a professional feel good factor and lead to the creation of OfSTED friendly data sets, but the acid test of what we teach is the extent to which it can be applied elsewhere. A failure to do this is to create false expectations on paper which cannot be realised beyond school and is an abdication of our professional responsibility to prepare those we work with as best we can for a rich and varied life.

A further area for consideration is the extent to which additional information is communicated to other agencies and organisations. The emergent EHCP provides a potential opportunity for the successful integration of services within the administrative processes which surround the young people we work with, but this has yet to be realised. Until those lines of communication are better constructed we need to ensure that what we know is shared in a way that is unequivocal.

This may go some way towards challenging the culture of low expectations, which can at times exist, amongst those less familiar with the capacity to astound that young people with a learning disability possess. There is a relatively new technological tool which can be used to do this utilising multimedia, demonstrated below in ‘Shane’s Wiki’ https://vimeo.com/80887952, that leaves no doubt as to the unique characteristics and capability of the young person. Making effective use of tools such as this may work to better ensure that the momentum a young person builds through their education is not lost in transition.

Sharing Shane’s Wiki from Rix Research and Media on Vimeo.

We also need to challenge the extent to which special schools and those who attend them are absent from the broader education discourse.

Whilst significant amounts of money and intellectual energy have been expended revising the legislative and administrative systems which govern special education, little has been spent on the provision itself. It seems that the young people we serve are marginalised by consecutive Secretaries of State for Education failing to speak on their behalf, when we have Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools failing to analyse the inspection outcomes of special schools, when we conflate education and social care by having the Minister responsible for special educational needs entitled ‘Children and Families Minister’. We need to ensure that people with a learning disability are politically visible.

Finally we need to challenge the preconceptions of a society which is fearful of difference and ensure that we as schools do everything we can to be active participants within our communities, bringing them into us as much as us going out into them. After all it’s not just schools which have a duty to be inclusive.

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