Friday, 26 December 2014

Nurture 2014/15

Five positives from 2014

1.      I felt like a good teacher (at least some of the time).
I’d like to think it’s rare I toot my own teaching horn, so to speak, but I aced ‘Of Mice and Men’ with Year 11 this year. The kids loved it. Their resulting work was INCREDIBLE. And I managed to share some teaching ideas on my blog that other teachers seemed to like too. Bonus. It’s those moments when everything comes together in some gloriously exciting recipe of discovery that make this job EXCITING. And that have the power to sustain you through other days when nothing seems to go right or inspiration fails to materialise and an hour feels like a day…

2.      I turned 30.
I think this one’s at least partially related to number one. I am officially long in the tooth. I have grey hair. I am onto my third GCSE specification (not including the million and one revision to this one). And that brings with it a surprising amount of experience and comfort. Most of the time I feel like I know what I’m doing – or at least the parameters of what is expected. I definitely know who my friends are. As cheesy as it sounds, I know myself a whole lot better too.

3.      I found/am finding the NPQSL course hard – in a good way.
I suspect I wasn’t the only one to leave the first NPQSL session going ‘Woah, what have I got myself into?’; talk of 50 hours study time to a stressed out HoF was never going to be an easy sell. But, as it turned out, the work load hasn’t been the only difficult aspect of the course. It’s held a mirror up to the bits of me I don’t like and challenged me to think about how to address them. I like it because I’ve found it difficult, which surely means it will ultimately be worthwhile – like all the really good learning any of us do.

 4.      I started to write again.
I was an angsty teenage writer of short stories and poems, but hadn't written anything for enjoyment since Uni. However, this Easter I wrote my first blog post when my dad retired from his job as Head teacher and have managed to post on a nearly monthly basis since then. It’s been really great to get posted on the Oxfam site and to get my slightly deranged outpouring of devotion for ‘Lord of the Flies’ included in the ‘Pursued by a Bear’ online magazine. Zoning out for an hour to write a blog has been a great way of emptying my head.

5.      I got married to my best friend.
Enough said.
Five wishes for 2015

1.      For Ofsted to realise (finally) how brilliant my school is.
This is a big one for me; I am immensely proud of the teachers and students where I work and want recognition for them. Exam results alone do not a whole school make: when the big ‘O’ do arrive I’ll be very happy to peer through the magnifying glass to analyse our faults – there is no area for improvement we aren’t keenly aware of – but I will also have my arsenal of evidence ready to show them how much progress we have already made and exactly where we are heading.

2.      To be kind to my house.
We’re lucky enough to live in a lovely semi with views of sheep, high ceilings and a brick fire place. But, I don’t think our house feels lucky sometimes to have us as its guardians. It needs its damp course looking at. We don’t have a blue recycling bin. The loft has become a dumping ground for the unneeded and broken. The problem is that with demanding jobs, putting aside time for our little house is increasingly difficult. In 2015 I’d like to do something about that.

3.      To create a new GCSE course I can be excited about teaching.
I've made it out of the other side of the change curve in relation to the removal of tiers of entry, move to 100% exam etc. and am determined to embrace the new specs with open arms. Our students deserve a course that their teachers want to teach. For us, this is going to be mean exciting, fresh new texts and a new, more integrated way of delivering the course. We're only at the embryonic stage, but I'm excited for our plans to be brought to fruition ready for their September 2015 start.

4.      To cook proper food more often
Too often this year I've slipped into the habit of frozen things and takeaway menus and have been left feeling icky by it. I'm looking forward to opening up a couple of new cook books and making my occasional visits to our fab oriental super market more regular occurrences.

5.      For my two best mates to have fantastic weddings.
I'm looking forward to being the drunken bridesmaid this year rather than the overwhelmed bride: two of my brilliant friends get wed to their brilliant (and long-suffering) boyfriends this year. And that is just lovely.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Setting: what works for the wilting ones?

It is December 2013, half way through our GCSE English Language mock exam, and something is wrong. First at the front, but then to the sides of the sports hall, students begin to slowly wilt.
Their hands slowly slip forward on the exam desk. Their shoulders slightly droop. Their heads hang, woefully slack, wearing leaden expressions. And then – with a barely audible sigh - their exam papers close… and not even my best 'meaningful stares' will see them opened again.
OK, so I dramatise, but one of the important ‘stories’ that came out of our exam analysis from last year was a clear group of Year 11 students who had simply ‘given up’ in that exam. They had been beaten by the relentless two hours and fifteen minutes that is AQA’s ENG1 slog. Not because they lacked ability – in nearly all cases teachers felt they were academically capable of their aspirational GCSE target – but because they did not have the *thing* that keeps us working right up to the invigilator’s final cry. Namely: confidence, aspiration and a feeling of self-worth.
On closer investigation these were identified as the ‘set 4’ students. In our larger than average comp we set students at GCSE into five numerical ability groups on each side of the year group, with two set 3s running broadly as our traditional ‘C grade groups’.
Set 4 in this year group predominantly contained students with D grade GCSE targets. As a result, for the most part they'd been overlooked by our raft of interventions, had seen their more able counterparts ‘moved up’ into set 3, and, crucially, they’d understood throughout the GCSE course that they were  ‘set 4 of 5’: not the least able, but not much point in trying all the same.
With the heart-wrenching image of the 'wilted ones' firmly in my mind, it became clear: ‘set 4’ must die.
Whilst pondering how I could make this happen through my usual comfort blanket of the shiny graph*, I was also pondering a second conundrum: setting. Bringing to a head a year of trad/prog debate, at 2.11pm on Wednesday 3rd June The Guardian had reported that Gove 2.0, Nicky Morgan, was likely to insist on setting for all. By 7.52pm this would be a claim she would strenuously deny but for many pro-setters this was to be a rallying cry. Within my own school, and indeed within my Faculty, there were many voices clammering for the introduction of setting at Key Stage 3, something my own pedagogical biases instantly had me baulking at.
So, what to do. Well, with a few words of encouragement from my Head and admittedly in part as a stalling tactic, I decided to go on a fact-finding mission to two of the highest achieving schools in our LA ‘benchmark group’.
It should be noted at this point that we simply don’t do this enough. Just pick up the phone and visit each other. The two HoF I approached welcomed me with open arms and their pride and professionalism reminded me once more that we truly are in this together, regardless of the competition so many toxic educational changes try to foster.
But, did this help? Er, no. Whilst one school used wholly mixed ability groups throughout KS3 and 4, the other rigidly set in year group. So, where did they leave us?
Right back where we started: with the 'wilting ones'. What those visits gave me the confidence to do was consider what was right for those students. For our students.
It seemed clear that our ‘set 4’ students needed to feel a sense of aspiration that would only be created if they were alongside other students gaining higher grades. They needed to be in a group with students in set 3, even set 2. And, crucially, they needed to not be called blinking 'set 4'! Why not do as form groups do and name the classes after their teachers? After all, aren’t we quick to call them ‘our’ kids? Let them see our pride in them and let us celebrate that sense of responsibility.
But, I was quick to be reminded, what about our most able students? And our students for whom securing a GCSE passing grade would be our raison d’etre? Again, driven by the needs of our students, as Faculty, we agreed that there were students in these broad groups for whom a true mixed ability model would not best serve them. But never, we concurred, must these choices be driven by behaviour only need.
Thus was borne a new model of grouping: 10HT JHU; 10HT CSPA; 10HT ABL; 10HT SFR… With a bit of knowledge about our Faculty you might be able to identify the teacher, but I challenge you, spot if you can find the ‘set 4’ student in that lot.
And the acid test? Last year, creative writing controlled assessment marks on average were 6/6/5, a high D grade. This year, 6/6/7, a secure C grade.

The true test? A lovely Year 10 student’s horrified reaction when I praised him for meeting his D grade target.

*shiny graph