Social mobility… is school the only solution?

As I was prostrate in the bath the other night (which is where I do most of my thinking I must admit) and pontificating about the wonderment that are  our children one question occurred to me… ‘What are we doing?’

That particular day I had spent the morning analysing nursery data, trying to project outcomes for children who had been on the planet for little over 1000 days and I was trying to map gaps in attainment  in their reading, writing and maths skills to ensure I was rapidly closing the gap in their understanding thus further promoting social mobility. I was there with graphs, birthdates, data charts, expectation graphs and much more to try and fit a unique child into a norm referenced data tracking system.

It occurred to me that we are working in a complete oxymoronic system where we are promoting mastery in all subjects, depths of application and analysis where we can manipulate and apply information in unique and creative ways whilst our education system is in line with the industrial revolution. Where children are sorted by the number of days they have been alive, entering the system at one end and exiting with the presumption that we are all the same and should be achieving and behaving in a way which is ‘normal’.

It makes me wonder where the unique child is actually taken into account. As human beings we have varying genetics, parenting, nutrition, interests or passions which are the golden thread which align any person’s core values which are bestowed onto us by our parents and families. One thing that is apparent now is that if you were born in poverty, in a socioeconomically deprived estate, with a single mother, some social care issues and a deprivation of resilience and optimism, the government are now stating that you have to make more progress and at a more rapid rate than someone of the same age who has been brought up in the comfort of affluence with a stable home life, excellent nutrition and 3 long haul holidays a year to exotic and historic locations. Working in one of the most deprived wards in the country I did ponder as to how realistic that expectation is?

I’m not suggesting that we should not be aspirational for all children, aspiration is what we do. We want to make a difference in the lives of our children; why else would you be a Headteacher? The question I am asking is that how much can schools actually do? In the school I work in we have over 400 wonderfully unique children. We work hard to ensure they achieve their maximum potential. How much however can we influence their core values?

I am currently lucky enough to be part of the SCHOOLS NorthEast Healthy MindEd commission where were are debating in detail the mental health of young people and how it is felt that the mental health of our young people is in decline. Is it so mysterious as to why young people are feeling vulnerable and under pressure?  If it’s not from exam stress, applications to redbrick universities, social media or ‘thinspiration’ web pages it’s from attachment disorder, poverty, identity, bereavement, bullying, parental separation, domestic violence, debt, drugs… the list goes on.

The government are quite rightly attempting to bring parity to society to suggest that whatever your background you should have the tools to choose your life and career. The question I ask is that in targeting schools and schools alone are the government missing the key issue? Have they correctly identified the missing ‘tools’? There has been a decline in social care, sure start centres are closing, peri-natal support is decreasing, health visitors are less and less involved, poverty is on the rise and there appears to be a deficit in the ability to parent effectively to ensure children feel safe and secure and able to take on the challenges of being a young person in the 21st century. How are school leaders and their staff suddenly qualified to solve all of these issues. We are experts in merely education.

Maybe the government needs to look more broadly at the issue as to why children from socially economically deprived areas do not necessarily socially mobilise? If they looked closely would they actually discover that they are not taught well in good schools, or would they discover that despite excellent teaching and pastoral care; without intervention into the wider aspect of parenting, poverty and mental ill health in our more deprived communities; the children have very little for the excellent schooling to stick to. Their resilience, optimism and core drivers (which are affected almost entirely by preschool experiences and parenting) which enables children to feel safe and ready to learn are lacking.

The question the government maybe should be asking isn’t how much more should schools be doing to solve the social mobility issue, it is how differently can the government support socioeconomically deprived areas in their parenting to ensure children come to school resilient and life ready, excited for all the curriculum has to offer thus enabling educationalist to do what they are trained to do and educate. With this embedded one outcome must be that the mental health of children and their families are improved and that children are more able to and achieve their maximum potentials, whatever these may be.

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I want to deliver more than just good results for my school

This week’s Talking Head comes from Craig Knowles, Acting Head Teacher at Hetton School. The Secondary School in Sunderland has gone through a vast change over the past two years and for Mr Knowles, like many other Heads, there is an importance of achieving more for the school, and its pupils, than just good results. Find out how Hetton School is achieving just this…    

I know that this is a sentiment shared by every Headteacher, but how realistic is it with current accountability systems? Of course the answer is that it comes down to the strength of our moral purpose.

The last two years at my school have been tough in terms of headline results and this has felt worse because they have been hard to explain (or make excuses for). As a school, teaching and learning has improved, CPD is better directed and more effective than ever, the curriculum is more personalised to individual needs than previously, and we have a great new building – so why were results a disappointment? This was the dilemma that I was faced with when taking over as an Acting Headteacher. How could I address this at the same time as doing what I know to be morally right? I’m not certain we have found the answer, but the ‘Learn to Achieve’ strategy we have introduced is an answer that has started us in the right direction.

‘Learn to Achieve’ is my school’s adaptation of Professor Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset work. Our aim as a school is to build a growth mindset in our young people, avoiding the fixed mindset that can trap them into a premature plateau and therefore cause them to fall short of their unknowable potential. Our end game is that students have a desire to learn, embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from feedback and find inspiration in the success of others. Easier said than done!

We started small, trying to create curiosity in our students through posters placed throughout the school with the word ‘Yet’ or with phrases like ‘Embrace failure’.  We expanded to our use of language in the classroom like, “I love the risk you took in…” and “Nearly – what would you do differently next time?” Reflecting after a term, we were already seeing a difference in the willingness of students to have another go at a piece of work that they would have previously given up on – displaying the type of resilience that not only makes a difference in their school lives, but forms a bedrock for a positive mental approach to the rest of their adult lives.

To say it has been transformational is disingenuous (yet!), but the approach has created a positivity around learning, and has the potential to have impact throughout our school community. We have encountered resistance from some unhappy parents and staff, but the passion we have for our ‘Learn to Achieve’ philosophy has overcome these attitudes.

You might ask the question – “so what?” and you’d be right. Unless it has a demonstrable impact then why shout about it? Our students are not all bursting with a desire to learn every lesson yet, but they are a lot closer than they were. Pupil and staff surveys show positive changes. Governors are on board, and if our KS4 results are anything to go by, there has been an impact in outcomes too.

This term we are building on our staff’s use of language by changing the way students speak to each other about their work. We are deliberately creating obstacles to challenge our students and all our policies and practices have been altered to reflect the new language. Lastly we are attempting to change the aspirations of the community for our young people through events and community work.

I don’t yet know how our philosophy will be interpreted by those outside our community, but I do know that it feels right and feels like we are delivering more than just good results.

Do you want to write the next Talking Heads blog? Contact Nicola Chapman, Marketing and Communications Officer at SCHOOLS NorthEast, to find out more: n.chapman@schoolsnortheast.com 

Articulating messy thoughts

Anyone that knows me will tell you when asked the question ‘what is Mike’s passion?’ that the answer will, without a doubt, be looked after children and mental health. These issues are very close to my heart for several reasons, but mainly because I’ve lived with, cared for and worked with these children for many years now. No amount of professional training or qualifications shape my work as much as my own lived and shared experiences within my home. I am grateful for these unique experiences and I have been fortunate enough to experience the remarkable aspects of their being, but also witness these children falling into vulnerable and challenging spaces.

In my opinion, part of the issue in dealing with the challenge of mental health in our children is that we sometimes fail to recognise that the difficulties a child may be experiencing is often situational. Chemical imbalance, ‘lack of resilience’ and ‘emotionally sensitive’ are all phrases I hear used regularly. Of course there are children who may fall into these categories and neurotransmitters certainly play a part but there is a bigger picture here. Life is anything but linear and in my own experiences, situations have played a huge role in my own mental health. Often plunging me into mental illness or pushing my towards over functioning. This is the same for our children.

We all know that a child’s formative years are crucial. We also know that the children who are placed in the care system have experienced much trauma during and after these early years in their development. We know what comes next, but I ask you to just take a minute to contemplate this part of their lives…

That child goes into a new home, with new care givers. Often this may not be long term. They then go into school where the system expects them to function at the same level as other children their age. Then there’s also the lack of therapeutic input much of the time because of funding, provision or their age. We just accept that this is the case without really giving it due consideration. I have often questioned in my training and work why it is that we don’t pause to think on this more. Because here is the reality.

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Reasons to be angry

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Colin Lofthouse, Head Teacher at Rickleton Primary School

It is not often as a jobbing Head Teacher that you get to talk to those who are actually devising and enacting education policy at the heart of government. But what is great about SCHOOLS NorthEast is that if you go along to their events, the calibre of their speakers means that you can get this chance.

And so it was at the White British Working Class conference at the Riverside stadium Chester Le Street. The morning began with Professor Stephen Gorard of Durham University, who gave an eye opening warning about the use of poor quality educational research that is used to sell interventions and justify education policy.

After lunch, the tone changed and we heard from Kate Chisholm, Headteacher of Skerne Park Primary Academy, a fantastic school in an area of huge deprivation in Darlington. It was uplifting to hear an impassioned description of the challenges she and her staff face in helping raise the aspirations of the pupils and community the school serves. The work they do to help the pupils realise their potential and be a successful against the pernicious effects of deprivation was great to hear. What came across strongly was the moral purpose, which underpins everything the school does.

From their breakfast club, to their ‘stage not age’ curriculum, to their pastoral support, that sees staff scooping up children and eating with them in their offices and classrooms, just to help them feel looked after and a little bit special during the day. Here is a school that has crystal clear moral purpose. They have a principled and committed leader who has a plan based on evidence of what works for its pupils and it is enacted by a similarly principled staff, driven to act with commitment towards the same, shared goal. I suspect it is like this in most good schools across the country.

What followed was somewhat different.

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Competition or Collaboration – The Perfect Dichotomy

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Jon Tait, Deputy Head at Acklam Grange School

Outside of education you’d think that schools would be open to sharing practice, helping each other and identifying what works best for the young people of our country. We are all working to a common goal of better equipping the young people in our care, giving them the very best life opportunities possible, irrespective of their postcode. So naturally, collaboration would be an obvious choice. Find what works and share it. Let other schools and young people benefit from your experience, together with seeking advice and inspiration from others who may have solved the very problems that you are dealing with.

 

But anyone inside of education knows only too well that it doesn’t always pan out like this. With the backdrop of a league table driven educational landscape, the question on many people’s lips when faced with the possibility of local collaboration is ‘Why should I help the very school that we are fighting to get ahead of in the local league tables’? If you put it in a sporting context where league tables and competition are a hallmark of its very existence, you wouldn’t expect Middlesbrough Football Club to be providing coaches and expert training methods to Sunderland in a bid to help them fight off relegation when they are both fighting to be above one another.

But this goes against the very reason that we all came into education – to help and support people to be the best version of themselves that they can be. We all want to help each other and share our great ideas that can really make a difference with young people, but to what cost if it gives your neighbouring competition an advantage? In a competitive market of fighting for the same bums on seats, falling budgets and a more business-like approach than we’ve ever witnessed before in education, every competitive advantage you may hold might be worth clinging onto.

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What NPQH doesn’t teach you

school-network-4The role of a Head Teacher is rich and varied. I would say that it is the best job in the world but you have to be prepared for a role that is complex, eventful, uncertain and memorable. My last week was one such week:

Sunday night (5.00-8.00pm)

Three hours of Twitter to support the Association of School & College Leaders (ASCL) campaign to highlight concerns about education funding. Search #WhatWouldYouCut for details.

Monday
I usually aim to get in to school each day before 7.30am to do some work before everyone else arrives; this sets me up for the day. As usual, my plans are waylaid as three different members of staff, who also arrive early, catch me ‘for only 2 mins’. I enjoy the fact that people will drop in and talk about things that are on their mind.

8.45am:
I start the weekly Staff Briefing where I get the chance to thank people for key aspects from the previous week and go through the week ahead. It is also a great way to provide a timely reminder of key practices.

The briefing always finishes with birthday cards for those staff with a birthday that particular week and a bottle of wine for the staff Star of the Week, nominated anonymously for a random act of kindness. The recipient was a Business Studies teacher who came into school on her day off to support her colleagues as we had an exam board moderator in school. This is a great way to share small stories that influence the culture of the school.

11.30am
Meet Tyne Tees reporter/cameraman to do a piece on concerns about the National Funding Formula (NFF).

12.30am
Teach a lesson with one of my Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) groups – it’s always great to spend time in class with the students. Best part of the week!

Lunchtime
I always do the dinner queue as this enables me to memorise as many names as possible … but also causes delays in letting students through. I need to do better. New best part of the week!

After school
I accompany two girls’ football teams to another school for a tournament – this takes me back to my days as a PE teacher. This is now the best part of the week!

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How do we equip youngsters today to cope with the often quite pernicious effect of “fake news”?

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Kieran McLaughlin, Headmaster at Durham School

FACT! LIE! Sad! We can barely open our internet browsers these days without being swamped by rival factions claiming territory over the truth in the news. Diametrically opposed viewpoints argue their case with vociferous energy, castigate their enemies and fight for airtime on conventional news websites or the pages of social media outlets. We seem to be living in a world of confusion and combativeness, and it isn’t likely to change soon.

 

How do we equip youngsters today to cope with the often quite pernicious effect of “fake news”? Up to now, when we were faced with rumours or scare stories, it was relatively easy to combat them. Newspapers were the august records of the day; anything reported in The Times could be said to be authoritative and, whilst the relationship between the tabloid press and the truth could be a little more tangential, there was a journalistic pride felt in writing the history of the future. Television too would be studiously impartial, balancing both sides of an argument to an almost paranoid degree.

Today’s landscape is much more complex. Perhaps the effect has been heightened through recent political events, but the partisan nature of much news reporting is too readily apparent. More worrying is the role of social media in the relaying of news events. On the positive side, outlets such as Twitter provide a literally up-to-the-minute guide to events taking place. However, no rules of journalistic balance or, in some cases, integrity apply and there is often no corroboration of the “news” event being claimed. This was seen most powerfully in the American presidential election, where the effect of sharing of bogus news stories, manipulation of statistics and the telling of downright lies is only just becoming apparent.

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Let’s get Hygge with it

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Hilary French, Headmistress at Newcastle High School for Girls

The latest Viking invasion is the antithesis of the marauding pirates of yesteryear; the modern incursion into the UK comes in true peace, in the shape of the Danish lifestyle trend, Hygge.  It is so much easier to write than to say – Hygge –pronounced Hoo ga – isn’t actually meant to be translated; instead you’re meant to ‘feel’ it.

When struggling to find an English definition, Danish people say that the English word ‘cosiness’ is closest to Hygge but this is still not enough to convey its true and fullest meaning.  Hygge is cosiness, warmth, tenderness all wrapped up with wellbeing, family and friends – all rolled into one.

Hygge is the latest buzzword to hit these shores – it was runner up in the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year for 2016 and it has inspired thousands of lifestyle and home interior trends and even more Instagram hashtags and photos.

Unlike other interior and lifestyle movements, like Feng Shui or Shaker, Hygge is a trend that I am hoping to embrace wholeheartedly – I really am struck on Hygge and how it can help us all in today’s frenetic, modern world.  It is not all about the decorative art of beautifying your home with rugs, plump cushions and candle light – it is more about searching for a feeling, reclaiming time and striving and working at happiness, improving well being and switching off.

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Helping our students be READY

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Lee Elliott, Head Teacher at Wolsingham School

The beginning of the Autumn term at Wolsingham School was no different to previous years. We, like many schools, had scheduled two days of staff training prior to the arrival of our students. However, this year staff, parents and governors started the new academic year considering one straightforward question, ‘what is the purpose of education at Wolsingham School?’ This marked the start of a new journey for staff and students at Wolsingham School, it was the first step in developing our ‘Ready’ curriculum.

The ‘Ready’ curriculum remained dormant in my mind during my time as a Deputy Headteacher and it was only when I was appointed Headteacher in 2016 that I brought the idea to life. As a parent, I appreciate the importance of academic excellence but also the development of the skills, values and character which enable children to be happy and successful.

The simple question ‘what is the purpose of education?’ threw up a remarkable number of answers and some heated debates. Answers included:

‘To ensure students are the best they can be. Providing opportunities and chances for them to face life’s next challenge’

‘To equip each individual with the transferable skills – academically, socially and holistically – for his/her future’

‘To recognise and maximise individual potential in all areas ready for life!’

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The secret art of staying in love with teaching

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Kate Chisholm, Head Teacher at Skerne Park Academy

About 6 months ago I was sat in a conference for Head Teachers about the wonderful world of Ofsted. Now anyone who knows me knows that I am mischievous with language patterns and really enjoy noticing people though their choice of language and metaphor. I was fascinated whilst walking into the venue the impact 6 little letters (Ofsted) could have on a room of highly educated, resilient and passionate people. I hung back in the entrance and watched people walk in. The closer they got to their seat, the lower their heads became, the more rounded their shoulders and, as they sat down and glanced over the literature, certain key words became word popcorn throughout the arena. “Nightmare… awful… battle… up against it… unfair… enemy…stress… murder… deceives…”. I was fascinated, especially when the key note speaker, who was an additional inspector, started their spiel with ‘what an awful time to be a Head Teacher’. I was saddened by the room’s collective acceptance that they were going to allow Ofsted and the current climate to overwhelm their emotional state and in essence spoil their whole day. What a way to live.

I then started thinking about my own school. How do we stay so positive? Because my staff are the most positive bunch of people you will ever meet. Well, it’s not by accident I must admit. I became Head at a time when the school had been through quite a bumpy journey and for the last 5 years we have layered a programme of Emotional Intelligence. I remember one of the first sessions we had – we looked at the brilliance of Ofsted. Granted initially when I started saying how excited I was by the thought of Ofsted and how I was looking forward to enabling the staff to shine, my staff really did look at me with a bemused expression.  We wrote down all of the negative assumptions associated with Ofsted and all of the positive things which could come out of the Ofsted framework. Then we went into the playground (after school) and actually burned all of the negative mind maps and collectively agreed that the only language patterns that we would associate with Ofsted were positive ones. We stuck all of our positive mind maps on the staff room wall and practised visualising how we would be when Ofsted arrived. When the did come, it was commented on by the lead inspector what lovely, happy feeling the school had and how proactive the staff were in discussions with the team. We had no panics, no tears and everyone came out of the experience feeling good about the process of the day, rigorous as it was.

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