Saturday, 16 February 2019

The keynote speech that never was - Part 1

Thanks to a spectacular cold front and the inability of Basingstoke council to properly grit their roads, the keynote speech I'd planned to deliver at Southern Rocks 2019 never got to be aired. And now the event's been put off for the rest of this year, it never will. The best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

Here is my attempt to reimagine that frosty February morning. On this weekend, the gritters were out in full force and, as the snow plough chugged wilfully by, I climbed up the steps with clicker in hand...

Hi! Well this is mildly terrifying [nervous giggle]. Giving a speech like this is definitely out of my comfort zone. I'm going to have to imagine I'm giving an overlong assembly - one that is being delivered to some slightly overgrown teenagers [stifles another nervous giggle].

When I agreed to speak today, no one told me that this wasn't in fact a 'key note', but an 'energiser'. Well, sorry, but at this point in the term, I'm not sure I have any 'energy' for myself, let alone the energy to 'energise' you lot.

[Reveals picture of a studious owl on a perch labelled 'At the start of the year' and a second picture of a frazzled owl labelled 'At the end of the year'.]

I know you'll have all seen this meme before, but whoever made it got one thing wrong. Teachers don't just look like this second owl at the end of the year, but at the end of each term. 

In fact, at the end of each half term. 

In fact, pretty much at the end of each day.

Because teaching is bloody hard work, isn't it? According to the latest DfE research, secondary school teachers work for 53 hours a week,  Primary and middle leaders for 55 hours a week, senior leaders a pretty ridiculous 60 hours each week, and Secondary school senior leaders - like me poor, old frazzled me - a whopping 62 hours on average every single week in term time.

And it's not like those hours are spent dossing. 

No, we're on-call every minute of every day.  We're attempting to educate children who, for a whole plethora of reasons, don't always want to be educated. 

We're dealing with young people in crisis because our NHS and support services are criminally underfunded. We're managing our own every-shrinking budgets, making desperate decisions about what can be cut back still further, whilst simultaneously being held accountable by the press and the government for pretty much all of society's ills.

[Reveals stats about teacher mental health and the percentage of teachers thinking of leaving the profession]

Is it any wonder then that we've found ourselves in this state? In fact, why the hell are any of us even teachers at all? And not just any teachers, but teachers sitting at an education conference on a Saturday?!

And yet... we are. You are. And as the world continues to turn on its axis, people continue to teach. 

In fact, some of us come from whole families of teachers!

[Reveals family tree through her paternal line: grandad Sam, grandma Alice, mum Roz, dad Peter, and sister Alison are all labelled 'Teacher']

What on earth is going on in families like mine...? 

Well, like the good, research-informed practitioner I aspire to be, I decided to investigate. What will now follow I like to think of as part family history, part action research...

And it all starts with my slightly dotty grandma called Alice...

[Reveals photo of an elderly woman with grey, bobbed hair. On her head is a slightly lopsided mortar board (the type worn at a graduation ceremony).]

My gran was the sort of old woman who doesn't fully understand the concept of 'being a vegetarian'. If you are vegetarian, you'll know what I mean... That's right, the kind who serves you 'vegetarian' soup with the pieces of chicken mostly scooped out.

She was also the kind of woman who would post you envelopes packed full of assorted newspaper clippings 'because she thought you'd like them'. Here [gestures to photo] she's just nicked my mortar board at my Masters degree graduation ceremony.

Growing up, she'd always seemed old, a bit mad, and - quiet honestly - a bit like Yoda. You know what I mean: brilliantly wrinkly, and hairy, and a tendency to speak as if every word conveyed a really deep meaning - even if you weren't quite sure what that meaning was.

I had always known my gran was, like me, a teacher. A Headteacher, in fact, as she frequently reminded me.

On telling her that I'd been appointed as Head of English at the age of 26 - something I'd thought was an impressive accomplishment - she gleefully replied that she was running a school single-handedly at the age of 21.

[Reveals a black and white photo of a much younger Alice. She is standing against a brick wall, wearing a checked blouse buttoned up to the neck. Her arms are behind her back and she is beaming.]

When Alice became a Headteacher it was the start of the second World War. Her boyfriend, my future grandpa, had left her at home to become a tank engineer. Determined not to marry in case she became a war widow, she instead had to find a new role for herself beyond wife and mother. 

For Alice, the working class daughter of a coal miner, this meant the space and time to continue with her education and to step into shoes that might otherwise have been filled by a man. After teacher training college she quickly found herself promoted to the leadership of a tiny two-form village Primary school.

When the war ended, Alice and Sam finally married. Alice resigned her post, and three children swiftly followed. 

What Alice was left with was the role of educator and professional stamped indelibly onto her own sense of self. It remained a valued part of the way she saw herself. Her identity.

When I look back now, I see her gentle teasing of me when I was promoted for what it was: a deep and justified pride in her own achievements. 

The newspaper clippings too I now recognise as symbols of her continued interest in the politically charged world of education. They were nearly always stories about changes to government policy, reviews of new educational books, or celebratory stories of school trips or charity work.

From Alice - as a woman especially - I've learned to celebrate my status as an educated professional and the knowledge, status, and freedom that affords me. 

Dammit, I've learned to own the fact I go to conferences on a Saturday because I value my own professional development! [A couple of audience members cheer and there is embarrassed laughter]

Which leads me to the man Alice married: Sam.

[Reveals black and white photo of Sam on a motorbike, smiling]

In my mind, Sam looked on teaching the same way he looked on going off to war.  

No, not in the way you might think if you've just attempted to teach Year 9. On a Friday. Lesson 5. On a windy day. [Pauses for dramatic effect]

No, Sam looked on teaching in the same way he looked on being in the armed forces because he saw it as a way to serve his community. 

[Reveals black and white postcard of an imposing red brick Victorian hospital building]

Sam was the Headteacher at the Royal Liverpool Children's Hospital in Heswall on the Wirral. There he led a small team of staff who educated children with chronic illnesses, disabilities, as well as those staying in hospital for short stints after operations.

Whilst there he also set up a charity which provided free computers - then a cutting edge technology - for children with disabilities to improve accessibility to education when they returned home from hospital. For this work, many years after he had retired, he received an OBE from the Queen. 

Not at all big shoes to fill, thanks grandad.

To be clear, when I say my grandad saw teaching as 'service', I don't mean that he saw himself as some kind of martyr. He really enjoyed teaching and he wasn't a particularly religious man: I don't think he saw himself as being called by some higher being to be a teacher. 

What he did have was as strong sense of purpose. For him there was a clear sense that his work was doing something worthwhile - something that was for the good of others - and that was somehow, inherently 'right'.

Like Sam, I don't think I will ever see teaching as 'just a job'. No, to me it really is a vocation. It feels 'right'. 

The final line in the first ever blog I wrote was 'A life in teaching is a life well-lived' and I stand by that statement. If we can be proud that in infinite little ways every day we make the worlds of others slightly bigger and brighter then it perhaps will no longer be so confusing why whole families choose to teach.

And whole families, in my case is the correct phrase because Sam and Alice gave birth to Peter. Yep, another bloody Headteacher.

[Reveals photos of a hippyish looking man with long hair, thick glasses, and a beard.] 

To be continued.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

An open letter to Peter Thomas (Chair of the National Association of Teachers of English)

Dear Peter,

Many thanks for responding to my tweets about your recent article in the NATE magazine in which you offered your thoughts on @Team_English1 and subsequently allowing the article itself to be shared free of copyright.

As you’ve made it clear you’re not yet fully conversant in the social mores of Twitter, I’ve decided to write to you in a traditional form you’ll hopefully feel more at home with: the letter. I’d draw your attention to the fact that, on your advice to “Try quoting some other parts [of your article]”, I’ve done exactly that.

So why, given that many of us would agree with some of your critiques, have members of Team English been left “howling” (to use your preferred verb)? Well, for a start, there was a failure to complete basic fact checking – such as the names of the teachers you had directly referred to. Although I am tempted to retain the monikers you’ve rechristened “Nikki Noopuddles” and “X Curtis” with purely for my own amusement, this feels demonstrative of a wider failure to engage with the real people at the heart of your piece. (It’s Carlin and Chris in case you were wondering.)

You characterise English teachers who ask for help and support as “weak” or unsuited to the job of teaching stating, “limited professional or academic confidence may reflect the nature of recruitment”. You then go on to assert that “Many of the Team English pleas for assistance indicate some very basic teacher needs and anxieties, and a lack of autonomous confidence in subject knowledge and pedagogy that might make some wince.” My first reaction was ‘thank God you weren’t my NQT mentor’. Or Head of English. Or, colleague, for that matter.

How can we develop as a profession if any admittance of a lack of confidence or even anxiety are met with a physical shudder? Surely, the role of a Subject Association is to share subject-specific expertise and pedagogy, not to look down its nose at teachers who are actively seeking it out? The idea that any teacher should have “autonomous confidence” in every aspect of their subject knowledge and practice throughout their career is a damaging one, in my opinion, that stifles professional development and dialogue.

Such elitist attitudes pull up the drawbridge to high quality professional development at a time when our profession needs it the most. When I hear statements like the one you made in a tweet that “My background is in a more academically robust community of speciality enthusiasts” I want to say ‘Good-o for you’. If academic rigour in subject expertise is confined to a niche community within teaching how on earth are we going to improve the teaching available to every child in every school?

As a side note, the news that I am not considered a ‘speciality enthusiast’ will come as news to my long-suffering husband. You’d also better warn the publishers of Mark Roberts and Chris Curtis they’re not considered ‘academically rigorous’ – and ResearchEd of the same about Rebecca Foster and Sarah Barker, for that matter.

In your article you criticise the “formulaic approach” being shared by members of TE but this implication of a homogenous ‘Team English pedagogy’ belies the 18,000 individual contexts, ideas, and perspectives that make up this online community. Be assured that there are many heated disagreements about aspects of practice.

Similarly, your comments about the variable quality of resources and advice on offer demonstrate a lack of understanding of the nature of the online world. Of course the resources are of variable quality: it’s a mark of the wonderful, diverse nature of the Team English demographic. It’s also one of the reasons LitDrive has tentatively introduced a star rating system. But I passionately believe that judgement-free, peer-to-peer sharing is vital if we are going to stimulate dialogue about what constitutes that very quality we are seeking. The moment we metaphorically close our classroom doors through fear of judgement it is immensely hard to prize them open again.

So, why did we not all swoon at your ‘compliments’ or, as you have continually argued, the “favourable publicity” for Team English? Well, because they were buried alongside sweeping accusations such as “There is very little in all this to suggest a wider or deeper concern with English as a humane discipline with substantial roots and flourishing fruits”. Whilst beautifully figurative, I find this quite simply insulting. One glance at the programme for the 2018 National Conference would see that this is not the case, with sessions exploring curriculum, grammar, rhyme, ‘building a culture of academic tenacity’, authorial purpose, and values and diversity.

You suggested by tweet that it would be “Better to direct outrage against those who undermine or damage the values I think we share.” The values I share with Team English are a belief in open sharing, support, and professional challenge. Whilst I cannot – and must not – infer intention from your article alone, the snobbery, denigrating tone, and lack of dialogue with those you have written about to me do not reflect these values. I’d also suggest that the characterisation of female teachers as ‘howling’ with “sensitivities” has more than a whiff of misogyny to it.

My desire in writing this letter is not to further division; I really do care about the future of NATE. There is very clearly a space for a professional association with a “coherent, regulated editorial function” which you rightly state Team English does not have as a group of disparate individuals. However, in order to function effectively I do believe NATE needs to reflect on how – in 2018 and beyond – it can best engage with the community of teachers it supposedly represents.

You state “subject associations are able to speak to other agencies on behalf of English”. Well, no, I’m sorry, they can’t when they no longer have the trust, ear, or financial support of English teachers. For example, I am curious as to how many main scale classroom practitioners from state schools have the luxury of attending the annual NATE conference. Just one day this year cost £200. It’s probably worth pointing out that a day at the Team English National Conference cost a tenner.

I hope that a more productive relationship between NATE and Team English can emerge over the coming academic year. Another offer has been made for NATE to be represented at the Team English National Conference and I for one will still be making a beeline to any stand or sessions you may choose to run.

Yours sincerely,

Caroline Spalding

English teacher

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Ofsted: crucial – even life-changing – but, fundamentally, unimportant

Requires improvement
Requires improvement

The Ofsted ratings of the three schools I have worked in read somewhat like the fates of Henry VIII’s wives - admittedly, if one of them hadn’t made her infamous trip down the aisle and, of course, if the outcome was an Ofsted judgement and not a decapitated head.

However, having now worked in schools in every category, I am aware that an undesired judgement can feel like an amputation of sorts. Indeed, I have been through an inspection where it certainly felt like the school was being slowly severed, limb from limb.

When I started teaching 12 years ago, I already had some inkling of the crucial nature of Ofsted to teachers. My parents were both senior leaders in local schools and I still remember the glint in my dad’s eye when he told me that his school had been awarded Outstanding for ‘Teaching and Learning’. It was clear that of all of the judgements that led to that overall ‘1’, he held that one as being the true mark of success. I also remember the crushing blow of RI almost immediately before his retirement.

I’d be lying if I said that my own first school’s Outstanding rating didn’t influence my decision to apply there. Sure, it was an easy commute and its status as a comp with a relatively average intake appealed to my socialist sensibilities, but I also remember feeling impressed by that branded Ofsted logo and the idea that surely I would be working there with THE BEST.

As it turned out, my department was led by the brilliant Chris Hildrew and I ended up working with a whole host of other talented teachers who indelibly left their mark on the na├»ve trainee that rocked up at their door. There was even an English Ofsted ‘good practice’ inspection on assessment during the 4 years I was employed there.

But I’m a lot more cynical nowadays about whether excellent teaching plus a solid school leadership team will always lead to the ultimate Ofsted accolade. You don’t have to look very far to see examples where A + B doesn’t always result in C. Fast forward to a very different Ofsted framework and the school in question is ‘Good’ whilst others – like my dad’s – are struggling. But the particularities of the most recent framework are for another blog entirely.

What that Outstanding badge did give every single member of staff was confidence, space, and respect. Confidence in their own abilities, space to develop their practice free from outside meddling, and the respect from others to support meaningful collaboration.

I left that school with the belief that I was a good teacher with the power to work anywhere and be successful. On future dark days, this confidence – almost arrogance – would sustain me.

And so ambitious 24-year-old me leapt to a new school for a promoted post. Looking back, it’s no wonder it instantly felt like ‘home’ given that it had just transferred to a new PFI build literally based on the blueprints of my first school. Ah, the unexpected joy of commodification.

My second school was in an ex-mining community: 98% white British with roughly a third of students qualifying for the Pupil Premium. Its humongous size (1800 on roll when I first joined) coupled with entrenched lack of aspiration in some areas of the local community meant that school improvement was like trying to reroute a cruise liner.

As a semi-rural school, recruitment and retention also added to the feeling of being permanently under the cosh. Having enough applicants to create a genuine shortlist became a thing of distant memory as we began to look to more creative ways of growing teachers internally without them being pinched by the local ‘Outstanding’ SCITT hub.

With one ‘Satisfactory’ under its belt it was not a great surprise that a ‘Requires improvement’ followed shortly after a new Head had been appointed.

As RI grew teeth and the ‘haves and the have nots’ became more sharply delineated so the scrutiny, pressure, and self-doubt grew. Having been promoted to Head of English I felt keenly the pressure to improve results quickly. Green shoots – like a three year trend of improvement at A*-C% in English and top 25% A Level results – gave us some small hope that we’d be given the time we needed to see our headline figures emerge from a consistent flatline. But we always knew that a third ‘3’ was going to be a difficult pitch and the inspection, when it came, was brutal.

It wouldn’t be fair to go into details about the inspection itself - and I’m not sure that I’m ready to pick open that particular wound - but I will say that it doesn’t matter if your individual gradings read 2, 3, 3, 4, 4: you are ‘Inadequate’ overall and to the world at large.

The leaders and teachers at this school cared just as deeply and worked just as hard as in my first. I’m also going to stick my neck out and say that there were aspects of practice that were just as effective, if not more so. With a legacy of ten years of 3s under its belt what there indelibly wasn’t was the confidence of those who have tasted Outstanding or the space to create a plan for improvement free of the whims of external forces.

There was also a serious lack of respect from others. For to work in a school in Special Measures, or even one branded as ‘requiring improvement’, is to be subject to patronising attitudes and pre-judgement. It is to be seen consistently as the poor relation. It is to have little or no autonomy to plot your own course based on the needs of your school community.

I strongly suspect that it is often not the actual working in the school itself that makes it so tough for teachers and school leaders at schools like these, but instead this persistent, exhausting denigration.

As part of my work with Teacher Reference Group, just a week after receiving our ‘4’, I met Sean Harford at the DfE.

I should state now that I have a lot of time for Sean who has gone out of his way to address teachers’ concerns about Ofsted on social media thereby providing a human face to a government organisation. I’ll also state that my most recent experience of inspection was of a team taking great pains to understand the complexity of a school context far from the norm which, in my mind, is a credit to the reformed training of Inspectors. But when we met I was battered, bruised, and looking for empathy. His response?

‘Inspection isn’t an effort grade.’

And he is right, at least in part. Ofsted is not about school improvement – it is an inspectorate whose role is to judge. At best, it will award that judgement in a way that is fair, accurate, and impartial. Whether you can make such a judgement in so short a space of time again is for another post, but I will say that - like capital punishment - if future evidence proves you wrong then you will not be able to retract the sanction. It is dark humour (but horribly apt) to say that Heads will have rolled.

However, I also know that it is the profound effort of the teachers at this school that will see it move forward – now under even more intense pressure than they were before – and my friends and former colleagues don’t deserve just my respect and compassion, but that of every teacher in every school, as well as every parent and every politician.

But Special Measures is not the end of my Ofsted story.

After a year in an Associate Senior Leader position, I had applied for a substantive AHT post prior to the inspection but had not yet been interviewed. Post-Ofsted, I was heartbroken to think others might perceive me as jumping ship. I was therefore perversely proud of revealing to colleagues both my appointment and my new school’s P8 score of -0.8. This wasn’t about me copping out by seeking somewhere I’d have an easy ride.

With students hailing from 51 countries at the last count, my new school is in a very different context. To me, it’s a return home – in fact, it’s on the exact street where I bought my very first flat. We’ve got a higher than average percentage of students with EAL, SEND, and who qualify for PP. Our attainment on intake is in the lowest quintile, we’ve got a highly mobile school population, and we are all-through 3-18. It is a truly glorious place to work.

Perhaps due to the complexity of the intake, the Headteacher has had to plough a furrow that doesn’t have ‘success’ in Ofsted terms at its core. When over 40% of your school intake doesn’t have matched data, it could be argued that national performance measures aren’t necessarily the best way to measure your performance.

What removing Ofsted from the immediate eyeline of staff has fostered is a school community that has an individual identity that radiates with confidence. I wasn’t surprised to hear that students had spoken to Inspectors unprompted about their pride in their school. It is that type of place.

When we were inspected before the Easter break, I had to put my own recent memories of inspection on the back burner and allow myself to be once more the confident practitioner of inspections past. When the judgement came it was with both a sense of pride and catharsis I shed tears.

Crucially, our ‘Good’ judgement now means we also have a bit more space to continue on our path of school improvement. Having only been in post for two terms, I don’t yet feel like I’ve fully made my contribution to the school and I’m genuinely excited for what comes next. Not least because I also know that my colleagues will start to receive the more immediate respect of others that comes with shedding the shackles of RI.

To me one of the most heartening lines in our report is the recognition that ‘This is a school with much joy.’ It captures perfectly the feeling that reverberates down our corridors. But then, if I’m honest, I have never worked in a truly unhappy school and have often felt joy whether it was in the classroom or staffroom. In an age when teachers don’t seem to be staying in teaching very long I’m not sure that every teacher can say that.

So what have I learned from my relationship with Ofsted over the years? What wise words can I pass on? To teachers, I would ask hold on to the idea that:

Ofsted is utterly unimportant. Cast but a fleeting glance at the latest report. Make your decision about where to work based on the school’s culture, the children in front of you, and your faith in the Headteacher. Be prepared to work hard regardless of the school’s Ofsted grading. Focus on the school’s next steps and how you can be a vital cog in the machinery that gets it there. If you happen to chance upon an Inspector in the corridors – or, in fact, any visitor – smile, talk about what you love and why you work there, and how you’re contributing to making the school even better.

And, to Ofsted inspectors I would say:

Remember inspections, to teachers, can feel utterly crucial, life-changing even: when inspecting a school, take the time to look beyond the last report or outcomes data. Make your decisions based on the school culture, the children in front of you, and the Headteacher. Be prepared to show empathy, understanding and compassion regardless of the school’s Ofsted grading. Focus on their next steps and how your report can be a vital cog in the machinery that gets them there. If you meet a teacher in the corridors – or, in fact, any member of school staff – smile, ask them what they love about the school and why they work there, and how they’re contributing to making the school even better.