Exams: Use the motivation, lose the stress

With the 2018 summer exam season almost upon us, teachers are looking to balance ways to motivate our students to perform at their best, with awareness of how to avoid damaging stress or anxiety. Parents and carers also want their children to succeed, but may be worried by the pressure placed upon them.

This year, this can seem even more of a challenge than before. In the new norm-referenced GCSEs, there is an increased focus on terminal examinations but we do not know with any real certainty where grade boundaries will be set. Students who previously would have been able to ‘bank’ a proportion of marks from centre-assessed components, coursework, or modular exams, must now pitch all their effort into a few summer weeks. These new assessments, and uncertainty around them, are likely to add to anxiety among teachers. We need to be especially careful not to project our own worries and concerns onto our students.

Here, I have extended previous posts on exams that were based on an exercise I developed through teaching psychology, to produce this guide to maximising motivation while beating exam stress. I have also included further links to helpful information at the end.


Ten tips to beat exam stress

  1. Get organised. Make sure you know what exams you have for each subject and which topics are covered in each paper. Get to know which kind of questions to expect for each subject and paper. Make sure you know when each exam starts and where it will be. Your school should give you a list – stick a copy up at home or transfer the information to a family calendar.
  2. Manage your time. Your time is precious, so make the best use of it. Draw up a revision timetable to help you do this, breaking up your revision into manageable chunks. Many people like to plan in terms of an hour – 50 minutes of revision and a ten-minute break. Make sure you build in breaks between sessions to maintain your effectiveness. You might find it helpful to set a timer with an alarm to help you stick to your schedule. Block out any time on your calendar when you have to do other things, including some time when you can step away from revision and re-engage with friends and family (see No.8).
  3. Stay in control by sticking to your plan. Use it to review what you have already achieved and what you need to do next. It’s a good idea to spend the first few minutes of each revision session reviewing what you covered in the last one.
  4. Create the right environment. Work somewhere that is light, has enough space, and is distraction-free. Visual input from TV, screens & social media will just distract you, so it all needs to be switched off and put away while you revise. You may feel that listening to music is OK, or even helpful, but some research suggests that this can also reduce the effectiveness of revision. If finding a place to revise at home is difficult, ask your teachers about what school can do to help.
  5. Boost your confidence. Use a revision journal to record your progress. Recall things that have gone well in the past and the areas you have covered in your schedule. Make a note of things which you were unclear about but now understand. A journal is a good way to note any questions for your teacher the next time you have a lesson. You can also use it visualise your success.
  6. Eat healthily and stay hydrated. Build proper meal breaks into your schedule and time for exercise, even if it’s just going for a walk. Don’t forget to drink to stay hydrated while you revise. Avoid ‘energy’ drinks: they may give the illusion of alertness but actually impair your performance. People may say they help, but ask yourself why you never see an advert saying ‘Drink Red Bull: it helps you revise.’ It’s because it doesn’t and making such a claim in an advert would break the law.
  7. Get enough sleep; don’t stay up late revising; a tired brain does not work well, either at the time, or the next morning. ‘Energy’ drinks or tablets are not a substitute for sleep.
  8. Friends & family. Let them know you have exams and need to revise. Keep in touch during those breaks you planned into your revision, but be strict with yourself about keeping revision time for revision.
  9. Avoid life changes. Stay on course with your revision. It’s quite normal to find that things you don’t have to revise become suddenly interesting, but avoid distractions and stay on track. Now is not the time to start a new relationship or plan to run away to the circus (however tempting that may seem).
  10. Understand your body and the signals it sends you. Recognise that signs of exam nerves like ‘butterflies in the stomach’ a dry mouth, or sweaty palms are nothing to worry about. They are just symptoms telling you that your body is preparing for action. Actors sometime use a technique to tackle stage fright. They tell themselves that these feelings are of excitement, rather than fear. You might try the same for exams – they are a chance for you to perform, to show the examiner what you have learned.

Helpful Links

Many organisations provide advice on revision, preparing for exams, and tackling exam stress. Here are some of the most accessible:

  • Students can get more help and advice on student life in general, including advice on taking exams, from the Student Minds website
  • These pages from the Mind website include a handy downloadable PDF document.
  • The Teen Mental Health website has more information about the stress response, the ‘myth of evil stress’ and a range of strategies for healthy stress management.
  • Parents and carers can find advice about supporting their children through exams on this area of the NHS Choices website

I hope you found this post useful – feel free to use and adapt it as you wish. If you know of other useful resources, or have your own advice, please let me know with a comment.

Image: Wikimedia

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“I don’t know”: being certain about uncertainty.

‘Confusion is not an ignoble condition.’

Brian Friel, Translations.

I recently read an paper on about the persistence of ‘brain myths’, even among those trained in neurology, by Adrian Furnham. This included several myths about child development and learning. It’s well worth being aware of current research on this field, including those widely-held assumptions which are not supported by evidence. The myths and misconceptions explored in the study were derived from the books Great Myths of the Brain by Christian Jarrett and Great Myths of Brain Development by Stephen Hupp & Jeremy Jewell. Some of the more prevalent included:

  • Adults can usually tell if a child is lying
  • Girls are more likely to have clinical depression than boys
  • Dyslexia’s defining feature is letter reversal
  • Right-brained people are more creative than left-brained people
  • The brain is essentially a computer
  • We only use 10% of our brains

The proportion of participants believing these misconceptions to be true was independent of age, gender and education, including education in psychology. This tendency is therefore something that educators clearly need to be aware of, irrespective of experience or training. I know that I have a tendency to think that I can tell when someone is telling porkies, even when I’ve read the research contradicts this belief.

Are we happier to be wrong than to be uncertain?

One other thing that struck me about the study was the comment by the authors that participants were clearly reluctant to respond ‘don’t know’ in answer to questions, preferring instead to chose a response from the other available options (Definitely True, Probably True, Probably False, Definitely False). The participants in the study may have not wanted to appear ignorant of the topic in question, even if the alternative is to risk being wrong, or they may have been trying to ‘help’ the researchers to collect positive results by opting for a definite answer.

I wonder if we have a tendency to do that outside of the confines of psychology experiments? How often on Edutwitter do we see someone tweet “Interesting question. You know, I’m really not sure”? Most contributions, it seems to me, are firm statements of position in a debate and declarations of certainty.

Confidence in Uncertainty

I’d like to suggest that we we should be more confident about being uncertain. There Are three main reasons for this:

1. I think being comfortable with uncertainty is entirely consistent with reflective pedagogy. If we were certain of everything, then we wouldn’t ever need to ask questions, but we grow as teachers by asking ourselves, ‘How can I improve that?’, ‘Next time I teach that, how can I make it better?’, or ‘Several pupils dropped marks on that question, how can I address that?’. In striving to improve in this way, we acknowledge that accepting that we don’t know it all helps us to become better teachers.

2. We will become better models for our students. This is also something we encourage in our students: to question, try things out and experiment. If we expect these learning behaviours from them, it makes sense for us to model them in our own professional learning. When I first trained as a teacher, I used to worry that a student would ask a question I couldn’t answer. I later came to realise that I didn’t always have to be the ‘expert’, and later still that when they did, this was a fantastic opportunity to model learning. I should say that to foster this type of ‘don’t know’, as a spur to further investigation, we have to create an safe atmosphere of trust where students won’t feel they have to give the ‘don’t knows’ that really means ‘I’m afraid of looking silly / getting it wrong’.

3. We will become better informed and so make better decisions. A danger of being reluctant to say we don’t know is that we are more likely to make mistakes, as as the participants frequently did in the study mentioned above. Being able to say we don’t know when we are unsure, makes us less susceptible to social influence and prompts us to gather more information. In terms of debate, a willingness to be open to ideas, including minority views, enables us to make better decisions, whether or not we come to accept those views.

So, if you see me expressing uncertainty, on Twitter or elsewhere, please bear with me: I just think the path to knowing is sometimes through admitting that I am unsure.

Image: Max Pixel http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Matter-Note-Duplicate-Request-Question-Mark-2110767

Other posts on psychology and teaching: https://casebyscasebook.wordpress.com/category/psychology/

‘Trad’ v. ‘Prog’ Education? Let’s get past this false dichotomy.

A Recurring Question

I really value Twitter as a source of information, learning resources and educational debate. In particular forums like #SLTchat on Sunday evenings have been hugely helpful in my development as a school leader because it’s such an accessible way to connect with a wide community of colleagues. I’ve been inspired, gained an insight into solutions and ways of working, and been given pointers to useful resources and contacts. The debate itself has helped my own thinking, and I hope others have found my own contributions useful. I believe in the value of partnership see this as a way of collaborating with a wider group of colleagues.

As many others have commented however, Edutwitter isn’t always a pleasant place. I’m fortunate never to have been caught up in any acrimony myself, but I’ve witnessed plenty of it. I appreciate that people hold strongly-held views, but it has often struck me as somewhat worrying that a few educators who must be either directly or indirectly involved in teaching children how to behave responsibly online don’t always manage that themselves.

One question that seems to involve more than it’s fair share of venom is the debate about ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ pedagogy. I’ve put those terms in inverted commas because (takes deep breath an pauses to put on tin hat) I have to say I don’t really understand how they apply to everyday teaching in schools. I know it’s a debate (often an argument and sometimes just an undignified brawl) that has been going on since before I was born, but it has always seemed distant from the day-to-day reality of how most teachers work. I’m now on my 50s, so surely, as far as those active in the profession are concerned, my own education must represent what is traditional – anybody who was at school during an earlier period than me is likely to be retired.

My own old-fashioned education

When I think back to my early education, what I recall seems to bear all the hallmarks of progressive teaching. Bear in mind this was ILEA in the late 60s / early 70s. Memory is a capricious entity, but I think there were actually kaftans. Here’s what I recall of my early primary (broadly what we’d now call KS1) education:

  • Making models using stickle bricks.
  • Being told by the headteacher, on a visit to the class, that I should stop playing with stickle bricks and do some writing.
  • Reading. Lots of reading. Reading myself. Being read to by the teacher. The Iron Man by Ted Hughes stands out. It must have been recently published.
  • Tie-dying t-shirts, which we then wore (I told you it was the 70s).
  • Drawing rainbow colours on a page in pencil, covering it in black wax crayon, then creating a picture by scraping the wax off, revealing the colour underneath.
  • Everyone in class being given sticker book about the 1972 Munich Olympics.
  • Picking apart owl pellets to discover the bones of small mammals inside (where do you find owl pellets in Ealing?!)
  • Doing bomb drills where we all went behind an grassy mound behind the school.
  • Doing a magic trick in class. I can’t remember why, or the actual trick but I had a matchbox with matches in up my sleeve which would rattle when I shook an empty match box in my hand, fooling onlookers that it was full. It must have been about the matches disappearing then reappearing.
  • Going to the hall to see a play about pirates. I seem to think this was linked to a book, possibly a reading scheme.
  • Making clay pots which the teacher fired in the kiln (a primary school with its own kiln!)
  • Doing a class survey about what jobs people wanted to do when they grew up and drawing a bar chart. Most of us wanted to be astronauts.
  • Having a Japanese class meal as part of a project. I remember seaweed.
  • Waiting, sitting cross-legged with the rest of the class in the ‘television room’ watching a clock count down before the start of an schools’ programme (Picture Box?). No way to record TV – classes had to catch it live!

That’s about it. Whatever your perspective, And granted that I may now only recall the fun stuff, I think you’ll agree that from the list above, my early school learning, and what must be by now the most ‘traditional’ education experienced by anyone still teaching, was very ‘progressive’; the very stuff of the Plowden report.

Perhaps this is the root of my views on the trad / prog dichotomy: I just don’t think it’s helpful. In my experience, both as a pupil and a teacher, is that good teachers apply a variety of strategies, some of which might be labelled ‘traditional’, some ‘progressive’. They are not only reflective about their practice, but keen to share and learn from others. They understand that the same technique or strategy will not be the best fit for every child or class and become adept at matching their teaching to pupils needs.

Some Help from Aristotle

So where does that leave the debate? Perhaps a way forward lies in looking to the past and one of the great teachers in Western philosophy: Aristotle and the concept of phronesis. Aristotle believed that we all seek to flourish, physically, emotionally, socially, and cognitively. We do this through exercising virtues such as generosity, industriousness, wit and bravery. Aristotle didn’t view these virtues as dipoles, for example bravery or cowardice, industriousness or laziness, but rather developed the doctrine of the mean. He taught that each characteristic had two forms of vice, one of deficiency, the other of excess. Virtue lies between these extremes.

For example, bravery is a virtue. A deficiency of bravery leads to the vice of cowardice, and an excess of it leads to the vice of empty bravado or rashness. According to Aristotle, bravery is not the absence of cowardice but rather the virtuous mean between cowardice and rashness. Phronesis is the practical wisdom that allows us to discern the mean in any particular circumstance, in this case where bravery lies between cowardice and rashness.

What if we thought about our approach to teaching as an Aristotlean virtue? I believe this reveals the trad / prog debate as a false dichotomy. It could take an eternity to agree exactly what a ‘virtuous mean’ of pedagogy looks like, but for the sake of argument, or perhaps phronesis, let’s say teaching takes place in a structured environment where teachers use evidence-based strategies, and their knowledge of individual pupils to plan challenging learning. They set clear boundaries and expectations, using these to create an atmosphere where children are confident to try, where failure is recognised as a valuable part of learning and where successes are celebrated.

I think our extremes of deficiency and excess now become not ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ but perhaps what concerns traditionalists about progressive ideas, and what concerns progressive about the traditional approach. One way of thinking about this might be the degree of structure. An excess of structure (let’s call this “constrained”), leads to a rigid one-size-fits-all approach, is focussed on summative assessment, and offers little room for empiricism or experimentation. On the other hand, a deficit of structure (perhaps we could call this “facile”) leads to a lack of pace and challenge, vague objectives and insufficient consideration of assessment criteria, and an unsettling absence of focus.

What I’m trying to say here is not ‘Traditional? Progressive? You’re ALL wrong!’ I believe that both perspectives have much to offer and that the role of the teacher is phronesis: to use our knowledge, understanding and experience to craft the best lessons that we can, drawing on all the tools at our disposal to strike the balance needed for a virtuous mean. Let’s just call that virtuous mean ‘teaching’.

As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Let me know if it’s safe to take my tin hat off now.

Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Want to improve academic performance? Look to PE.

There is much debate among teachers and academic researchers about factors which influence cognitive functioning and academic attainment. Nature or nurture, traditional or progressive methods (whatever they mean), growth mindset, direct instruction – everyone has a view. If possible, there is even more debate about the quality of evidence supporting each claim.

In this context, it is perhaps surprising that one area that recent research shows has a positive impact on cognitive performance, and even exam results, is often ignored: physical exercise. A review article on the exercise effects on the brain and cognition published in 2008 in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, concluded that research across cognitive neuroscience and medical disciplines indicated that physical exercise can lead to increased physical and mental health throughout life (Holman, Erickson and Kramer, 2008). A review of 79 studies in this area by Chang et al (2012) concluded that exercise has specific positive effects on cognitive performance both during the exercise period and afterwards, even after a delay.

Cognitive effects in school age children

The majority is studies featured in these reviews featured older adults rather than children, with many focusing on mitigation of the effects of ageing in a medical context. In considering the educational effects of physical activity on school age children, numerous studies, including a paper by Dave Ellemberg & Mathilde St-Louis-Deschênes (2010) published in Psychology of Exercise and Sport, show significant positive outcomes. This study of 7 year old and 10 year old boys, compared the effect of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on reaction time and choice tests with 30 minutes of watching TV. The results showed a significant positive effect of both measures, but especially the choice tests – the measure most resembling a school task.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has not summarised research on physical activity in its Teaching and Learning Toolkit, but does include physical development approaches in their Early Years Toolkit, with the focus primarily on growth and physical development. The EEF concludes that there is, as yet, little high quality research into the educational effects physical activity, but notes that the costs are low and that there is some evidence that young children learn better after physical activity. They recommend that early years settings consider if active play and physical exercise are integrated into each day.

How much physical activity is needed to have an effect?

Research shows that to have a positive effect on cognitive performance (as well as a range of health benefits), periods of exercise do not need to be long but they need to be repeated regularly, and an at least moderate level of aerobic activity needs to be achieved. In a review of over 850 studies, Strong et al (2005) recommended 60 minutes a day of varied, age-appropriate aerobic exercise was effective, and in their review Keays & Allison (1995) found that a similar period 3-5 times a week was effective for Canadian school children. In a large-scale study of Californian elementary school students, Carlson et al (2015) found that just 30 minutes a day had a positive impact on learning through increased attention and reduced off-task behaviour. They proposed that this could be achieved through a mix of classroom exercise breaks and extending opportunities for physical activity during existing school recess. The research team made several recommendations for implementing a programme in schools (see the reading list below).

Does this improve attainment?

The short answer is yes. An influential study by Trudeau and Shepard (2008) argued that sacrificing PE time from the timetable would not improve academic performance whereas increasing time devoted to PE would produce numerous health and behavioural benefits whilst not hindering academic outcomes. In a study as part of the large-scale Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, Booth et al found that regular physical exercise in 11-16 year olds in fact produced significant increases in attainment in English, Maths and Science, and especially for girls in Science. This study indicates that devoting a little more time each day for exercise, even if this is rescheduled from other subjects, would have a measurable positive impact on grades in academic subjects.

What can schools do?

Despite the finding of such studies, PE remains a subject that is sometimes reduced in the face of other curriculum demands. There is considerable evidence to support the introduction of daily physical exercise into the school day. This could be as little as 30 minutes per day. It could be achieved through a mixture of existing break time activity and additional scheduled time, but the evidence points to the greatest impact when children are led by a trained adult. Given the benefits that regular physical activity can provide across all subjects, there are several points school leaders should consider if they want to implement this:

  • Duration of physical activity – at least 30 minutes a day, each day
  • Type of activity – at least moderate aerobic activity, age-appropriate and varied from session to session
  • Implementation – can be achieved through a mixture of existing PE lessons, physical activity breaks within the existing curriculum, and opportunities for activity at break and lunchtime
  • Staffing – Staff members leading physical activity do not need to be specialists (unless a particular activity demands it), but they do need to be trained. Your PE specialists can play a valuable role

I don’t believe that for most schools, increasing physical activity in school would not require wholesale readjustment of the curriculum or the school day. Relatively minor adjustments, but involving all teachers, have the potential to achieve real measurable benefits.

Update, March 2018

I wrote this piece in January 2018. In February the Youth Sport Trust published a report on PE Provision in Secondary Schools. Worryingly, this report revealed a continuing decline in the time allocated to physical education in UK secondary schools. I have written about the implications of this decline here.

Useful Reading

This isn’t intended as a comprehensive bibliography, but as a useful resource for those who want to read further. I have only include publications that are available without a licence or payment. Some are under Creative Commons licences. If you know of interesting studies I have missed, please let me know.

Associations between objectively measured physical activity and academic attainment in adolescents from a UK cohort. Booth, J.N. et al (2003) British Journal of Sports Medicine 48:3.

Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Charles H. Hillman, Kirk I. Erickson, and Arthur F. Kramer (2008) Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9:58-65.

EEF Early Years Toolkit – summarises research into the impact of early years approaches, including physical activity.

Implementing 10-minute classroom physical activity breaks in California elementary schools. Jessica Engelberg et al. Presentation based on the California elementary school study.

In Praise of Partnership

I have been privileged to work with many colleagues from other schools who are committed to the benefits of collaborative working. As a result, Both I and the schools I represented have benefitted from several partnerships over the years.

“The most valuable resource that teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.” Robert John Meehan

This is one of my favourite educational quotes. I believe that teachers flourish by working collaboratively and that this collaboration is most powerful when not restricted to a single school. Achieving this isn’t always easy to sustain in a changing educational landscape. A few years ago I ran a conference workshop on partnership working. It was well-attended, but there was a wide range of experience within the group. There were leaders from schools in successful partnerships but in areas facing falling rolls and finding themselves competing for pupils with partner schools in the local area. Others were keen to work in partnership, but felt isolated either by geography, or because other local schools had their own priorities. Some were exploring how existing partnerships could work when member schools were now becoming members of different academy groups or sponsors. Perhaps it has always been true that when schools work together it is in a state of ‘coopertition’, but the concerns expressed in the workshop, by colleagues interested in partnership, seemed to underline new challenges.

I have been privileged to work with many colleagues from other schools who are committed to the benefits of collaborative working. As a result, Both I and the schools I represented have benefitted from several partnerships over the years. This post is about some of the benefits from partnerships I have been involved in over the last couple of years.

OXFORD EAST PARTNERSHIP

The Oxford East Partnership (OEP) is made up of eight primary schools (some of which also have nursery provision) an all-through school and a secondary school serving the same area of Oxford City. Since it’s formation, several schools have become academies, a new free primary school has joined, and one secondary has become an all-through school. Sadly a local children’s centre closed last year as the result of cuts to local authority funding. Throughout these changes, the shared rationale for the partnership has remained constant. it is summarised in the OEP Vision statement:

All schools in the Partnership will work together to secure better outcomes for all members of our community in East Oxford and Cowley by:

  • Raising achievement of all children to improve life chances
  • Engaging families
  • Promoting community engagement
  • Celebrating and embracing cultural diversity

OEP aims to serve the children and families in the local area, which contains some of the most economically disadvantaged wards in the county. It originally received funding from the local authority, but then became self-supporting. Administrative support is provided by one of the member schools. The Chair and Vice Chair are elected annually and rotate between schools, the vice chair from the previous academic year usually becoming Chair the next.

There are several areas of focus for the OEP:

Achievement of pupils. This has included several projects over the years, including adoption of the storytelling curriculum across all member schools based on training from Oxford Story Museum. This meant all schools took a similar approach to the development of writing, for a variety of purposes. There was also collaborative work on meeting the needs of more able students in mathematics (hosted at one of the secondary schools) and in English, particularly writing (hosted by the other secondary). The partnership is also a forum for addressing issues, such as school attendance, that affect the achievement of pupils.

Continuing Professional Development. The Partnership has promoted professional development in two main ways: sharing the costs of training at one school by opening CPD to other members, and organising joint CPD as a partnership which addresses common needs of the member schools. Notable successes here have been moderation of writing with the adoption of the new curriculum and assessment, and Partnership conferences, the most recent being last October. The conferences combined plenary sessions featuring keynote speakers with smaller workshops run by colleagues from member schools. In either case costs were much reduced through this collaborative approach, as opposed to sending staff out on CPD courses, and there was more scope for ongoing work between colleagues, building on these events.

Recruitment and retention of staff. This is an issue that is raised at almost every meeting! Oxford is well-served for ITT providers, but is an extremely expensive area to rent or buy in. It is therefore often difficult to recruit and especially retain teaching staff at all levels. OEP has adopted a joint approach to tackling this issue, producing a joint brochure pointing out the benefits of joining not just a new school, but a supportive partnership of schools. This is especially true for school leaders, many of whom say that the most valuable aspect of the partnership is as a forum to discuss issues that they face in school.

OXFORD CITY LEARNING

Oxford City Learning (OCL) is made up a group of seven schools in and around Oxford. The member schools were originally all secondaries, one has since become an all-through school, one now partners a primary school and another is sponsoring a free school due to open next year. Oxford Hospital School is also a member, as is an Alternative Provision College.

The work of the partnership has been wide ranging, but was founded on the premise that if Oxford had world-class Higher education, it should have world-class secondary education too. In its current form, the OCL structure consisted of three groups:

Strategy group. This is made up of the Headteachers and Principals of the member schools. As well as providing a regular discussion forum for these school leaders, it sets the strategic priorities for OCL and commissions and evaluates the work of the other groups. Principals may also coordinate joint responses to educational issues affecting the local area and emergency planning, such as the response to severe weather.

Curriculum and Standards Group. This group is made up of SLT members responsible for curriculum and assessment in each school. In recent years, the group has worked on the new curriculum, got to grips with the impact of the EBacc, life beyond levels, and new assessments at GCSE and A level.

Professional Leadership Development Group. This group is made up of SLT members responsible for CPD at the member schools, and is the group I have been involved in. This covers each career stage, from initial teacher training through to the growth of school leaders. For several years the PLDG has organised an annual ‘Hot Topics’ event where school leaders meet to address an issue the strategy group has agreed affects all members schools. Recent topics have included ensuring that vulnerable pupils make good progress, the best use of the Pupil Premium Grant, and mental health issues in schools. The group also runs an Annual OCL cohort of the Oxford Teaching Schools Alliance courses for Middle Leadership. It also works with the Oxford Education Deanery on action research projects by teachers and academic research projects run in school.

As well as these groups, the OCL schools also form an IYFAP Strategy Group to improve the work of the City In-Year Fair Access Panel. This meets before the panel meeting and focuses on improving the way that member schools can work together to improve outcomes for pupils and reduce exclusions. This work includes improving transition between schools (including transition of vulnerable pupils from primary school) and evaluating the effectiveness of managed moves between schools.

I hope these examples illustrate just a few of the ways in which schools, teachers, and students benefit from collaborative partnership in the local area. I would enjoy reading about other examples of successful partnership working. I believe that the key to the success of both OEP and OCL has been twofold: A commitment to a shared purpose, coupled with flexibility to see opportunity in a time of challenge. This has enabled both partnerships to continue to be effective in the midst of the break-neck pace of change we have seen in education. Adhering to a clear vision of what the partnership seeks to achieve enables it to weather this change: individuals may come and go, different types of school may emerge, and new policies and procedures may be enacted from on high, but the aims of the partnership do not. In holding on to the most valuable resource we have – each other – we can grow together, becoming more effective in meeting the needs of the families we serve.

Picture: maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com

Top of the agenda

A while ago I wrote a post, inspired by one by Stephen Tierney, about focussing daily on the things that really make a difference in school: Down to brass tacks.

That was about the day-to-day interactions that make the most difference. In this post I’m considering strategic priorities for school improvement. One of the features of working at a school which is in Special Measures is how many people come to visit us. Each one has some advice on defining our priorities. The trouble is that each one believes that their area of interest is the most important.

“Safeguarding definitely has to be at the top of your agenda. It’s absolutely imperative that children should be safe and feel safe.” No argument there.

“It’s the basics really. Literacy & numeracy; English & maths. They are the foundation of the whole curriculum. It’s crucially important that they are at the top of your agenda.” Well, quite.

“You’re a Catholic school. It’s obvious that Catholic Life should be at the very top of every agenda. After all, it’s what defines this school as distinctive.” Amen to that.

“You need to ensure that the Pupil Premium is your key priority. Look at your data. You have a high proportion of disadvantaged students: closing the gap is the key to school improvement.” The numbers are irrefutable.

“Attendance has got to be your top priority; if children aren’t in school, they aren’t learning.” Absolutely, that’s a given.

And so on. Each of these, say our visitors, must be at the top of our agenda. The trouble is, they’re not wrong. All of these factors are important to the success of students and to our journey of school improvement, but how can they all be at the top of the list? 

The fact is, we have to keep all those plates spinning at the same time, and support colleagues who are keeping their own plates spinning. The real issue isn’t so much what to put at the top of the agenda but how to coordinate a coherent approach to developing all these interlinked aspects of an effective school. In my opinion, this involves two parallel elements:

  1. refining the most important aspects of each area so that, at any point, our efforts are focussed on a few things that make the most difference.
  2. Planning across the areas of focus so that the thinking and actions of staff members are directed efficiently, so that actions in one area support those in others.

An example of this approach is our school Pupil Premium strategy for 2017-18. In a departure from the previous format, 28 separate strands have been reduced to six areas:

  • language and communication skills in Early Years & KS1; 
  • behaviour for learning; 
  • attendance; 
  • literacy, with a focus on KS3; 
  • numeracy, especially with respect to being prepared for the new KS4 curriculum; and 
  • lack of home access to resources, study support and cultural experiences.

The previous structure was unwieldy, difficult to coordinate and hard to monitor and evaluate effectively. The consolidation into just six strands (with behaviour and attendance as priorities in both primary and secondary phases) allows us to concentrate our work on those areas which we have identified as the greatest inhibitors to the progress of disadvantaged students.

Each of these areas also interlinks with other school improvement priorities, so that initiatives will work more efficiently, complementing each other and maximising the effective use of time an resources. For example, the focus on literacy in the Pupil Premium strategy sits within our values, is based on evidence-based evaluation, builds on previous whole school work, draws on expertise from the primary phase, and utilises resources developed within our inclusion department.

The next step I’m working on is to build in the milestones for each area to create a monitoring, evaluating and reporting map across the school year. This will enable better tracking of our progress, and better reporting SLT, governors, and all our visitors. I hope that this revised approach will help us keep all the plates spinning at once by integrating our different priorities. 

As always, constructive comments and suggestions are always welcome. Click the links to read my other posts about Pupil Premium and Reducing Workload.