Engaging with parents: making time for what makes a difference

In recent months I’ve been thinking about what really makes a difference at school. Inspired by a post by @leadinglearner, I wrote this post In January on ‘brass tacks’. At the same time I have also been trying to improve my organisation and time management. My recent posts on this include getting to grips with email and achieving a better work-life balance. 

One of my ‘brass tacks’ was about parental engagement. I believe that supportive and engaged parents and carers are key to children being successful and happy. Through tracking the goals that I had completed each day and those which were unresolved (originally as part of a technique to detach from work at the end of the day), I came to realise that the thing most likely to derail my carefully scheduled plans was an interaction with a parent. The meeting about a behaviour issue that overruns, the referral from a Head of Year, or the unexpected phone call or email that reveals an important issue, can all suddenly take precedence. This is, of course quite right, but it got me thinking why I wasn’t building more interaction with parents and carers into my schedule in the first place?

I took a look at my calendar and decided Thursdays would be a good day. We already calendar most parents’ afternoons / evenings on a Thursday. It’s also the day for Governors’ meetings so when there isn’t one the time already feels like a bit of a gift. For me it’s a good day too because I’m not teaching first or last thing and have no regular morning meetings. This means I am likely to be free at the times most parents are too – before and after the school day.

So, I have reserved these times (but clearly not just these times) for parents. Where I can, I am arranging meetings then. So far I’ve scheduled discussions about attendance, a behaviour concern, and a matter referred to be by a colleague. When I’m not doing this, I use the time to contact parents about their children’s achievements, either by phone or email. I use this as an extension to ‘Feelgood Friday’ when each week we encourage each teacher to make at least one positive call home. I contact parents about things I’ve seen that have impressed me. This is also something I can include in our school ‘pupil premium first approach. I edit the newsletter which goes out on a Friday, so I can also alert parents to look out for it when their child gets a mention. For example, this week I called home with news of students who had produced impressive ‘six word stories’ in tutor time for World Book Day. Sometimes these calls lead to wider conversations. It’s good to have a talk with a parent when the initial cause hasn’t been something that has gone wrong.

I have recently read Sir Tim Brighouse’s ‘Five time expenditures’*, the first being ‘sit on the wall, not on the fence’ – heads who make sure they are around at the start and end of the school day to be available to parents. Far fewer parents come into our secondary phase regularly, compared with the primary, but I think I might just try being around in reception at the start of the day when I can.

Comments are always welcome and I’d value any suggestions for working with parents & carers, particularly those who find it more difficult to engage with us.

*In How Successful Head Teachers Survive and Thrive by Professor Tim Brighouse, RM  Education, 2007.

My year of Blogging

The end of November marks my first year of blogging. It’s something I’d been meaning to start for a while, but hadn’t my gaged to start – nothing worse than a blank white screen.

What gave me the push I needed was a visit to school from Mary Myatt and particularly the training she gave on objective lesson observation feedback. You can read that first post here: Lesson observation feedback. I notice that I opened by saying that it was a contentious issue. We are getting used to feedback without grades now but having since had an Ofsted inspection, it’s clear that not everybody has had the same training Mary gave our staff!

I’ve found the process of blogging very helpful. Sometimes it’s been a useful way of organising my own thinking, at other times it’s been a record of the work I’m doing at school, and occasionally it been an opportunity to share something close to my heart (this post is an example: Supporting refugee children). For all those reasons I’d recommend starting a blog to any teacher. At the very least you create a record you can refer to later, or use it as a way to clarify your reflections. The best part however is that what you write may help others. 

Clear differences have emerged in which posts others read. To date the top five topics are:

  1. Workload
  2. Ofsted
  3. Wellbeing
  4. Pupil Premium
  5. Inspiration

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but as I write this in the last hours of November 2015, finding a few moments to mark my blogging anniversary (and looking at all the unfinished draft posts & ideas), I don’t find it surprising that workload is the top topic – with almost twice as many views as anything else!

I hope what I have written over the past year has been helpful to others. Thanks for your support everyone who has read this blog, but especially those who retweeted, favourited, or reblogged. An extra thank you to those of you who took the time to comment – I really appreciate it and you have made me try to comment more on the blogs I read. To return to where I started, a little feedback helps us all to improve!

Here’s to the next year of blogging.

Clearing: a place where the sun can shine through

Like colleagues all over the country, I’ve been with students receiving their A Level and BTEC results today. For all there is the relief that the wait is finally over, for many jubilation that they got the grades they need for their dream course at university, and for some disappointment that they didn’t quite make it.

Well done to all those who found what they wanted in those envelopes, but this post is for those who are entering UCAS clearing, their families and the teachers who are helping them.

It may seem that a door has closed in your face, but really clearing opens up a wealth of opportunities. I gained my university place through clearing and, looking back, it was one of the best things that could have happened. I ended up going to a University I had originally applied for, just on a different course. I got to spend my time studying a subject I still love, I had a fantastic three years at what’s now called a ‘Russell Group’ university, made great friends, met a wonderful woman who later became my wife. I went on to gain a PhD and a career in a fabulously rewarding profession.

I didn’t know any of that when I opened my A level results envelope in 1985, but what seemed like a bit of a disappointment led to a world of opportunity. Right now colleges are clamouring for you to be a student next month. My advice to you is to see clearing as the opportunity it is – a place where the sun can shine through.

Practical Science – It’s Place in the Whole School Curriculum

Ofqual and Practical Science
I recently went on a learning walk, taking in several year 11 science classes. About half were engaged in practical work. In my subsequent discussion with our Head of Science, we got talking about the decision by Ofqual to remove practicals from GCSE science assessment. His response was that his team “would keep on doing practicals, no matter what.” At the same time he expressed a concern that there were some secondary schools where less and less time was given to practicals.

In the media, it seems that there are opposing views on the Ofqual decision. Many scientific organisations have condemned the removal of practical assessment but it also seems clear that the majority of science teachers who responded to the consultation were in favour of it. What does this tell us about the place of science within the whole school curriculum?

What’s the point of doing science?
Please comment if you think I’m wrong here (or right!), but I think most science teachers love practical science but loathe ISAs. These assessments have undergone several iterations but are now generally regarded as cumbersome, overly long, formulaic and an organisational nightmare. It’s therefore unsurprising that few science teachers are mourning their demise. But the ISA is not the only way to assess practical skills, or students’ understanding of scientific investigation.

Science teachers such as Alom Shaha (writing in the Guardian here ) point to evidence that practicals may be largely ineffective in embedding knowledge. It’s certainly true that direct instruction works, but I believe carrying out practical research is essential if pupils are to understand what science is, as well as what scientists have done.

Objectivity, Replicability, and Paradigms
One way of summarising the key features of science is it’s attempt to be objective, the importance of replicability and the building of paradigms.

We cannot teach objectivity by showing students how to answer questions, but not how to ask them, by telling them about hypotheses or models, but not how to test them. Nor is it achieved by a reliance on the word of a teacher (however expert) or a text. Furthermore, it attempting to be objective, students learn that researchers themselves are variables that need to be taken into account.

Replicability is a cornerstone of science. Any research should be reported in a manner that allows others to verify its reliability be repeating it. Students should learn to both to verify what others have done, and design and report their own investigations in a way that can be replicated.

Science is not a static body of knowledge from the past, nor is it a set of hurdles that students must overcome before they can contribute themselves. It is an ongoing search for the truth that proposes explanations, then tests them by trying to knock them down, within overarching and continually developing paradigms. To learn science is to become an active part in this process.

More questions than answers
This leaves me with some questions about the place of science, and practical science, in the curriculum.

1. What are we seeking to achieve through practical science? This should drive the curriculum, not assessment.

2. What should be the balance of teaching practical skills and an understanding of scientific research?

3. How do our aims for science fit into our school values and what we aim for students to achieve at school overall?

Perhaps in the context of these questions, the Ofqual decision, whether we agree with it or not, can be seen as an opportunity. I welcome your comments.


Why I Do What I Do – Remembering My Grandfather

One hundred years ago, on 7th January 1915 my grandfather Alexander Caseby enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery. He had left school (many of his teachers having already joined up to fight in the war) and got a job as postman. Every day he passed a recruitment poster at Leuchars Junction in Fife for ‘Kitchener’s 100,000’. Although not yet the required age of 19, he felt ‘haunted’ by this poster. On the third attempt, he enlisted in the New Year, just short of his 18th birthday by allowing a confusion between his birthdate of 19th January and his age to go uncorrected.

What has this to do with me being a teacher? I suppose it’s because I have a sense of legacy. I’m aware that previous generations had a much tougher life that I have had, with fewer options available to them. My grandfather spent his youth on the battlefields of Loos, ‘Wipers’ and The Somme being shot at and gassed. He came away with his life and a metal plate in his head. I spent mine having a fantastic time at university and came away with a degree in Zoology!

I know that I have benefitted from a good education and the choices it afforded me because previous generations were determined that their children would have opportunities they didn’t. They worked hard within families for the sake of their own children, but also collectively within society to build a state education system for every child. I know many teachers with a similar family experiences – I’ve worked in school leadership teams where most colleagues were the first generation in their family to go to university.

We know that this work isn’t finished. There are still far too many children in families living in poverty, or on the edge of it for whom education can be a ticket to better opportunities, but it’s a struggle. I feel proud that in teaching in one school, in one part of our country, I am part of a national network of dedicated professionals committed to a common cause. I’m also proud to be continuing a legacy passed on by previous generations.

This morning, 7th January 2015, I’ll be teaching A level psychology, helping my teenage students prepare for their mock exams next week, the next stepping-stone towards their goals and aspirations. I’ll also be thinking about my Grandad, the teenage Gunner 70412 Caseby, A. I’ll give thanks for family and remembering that the opportunities I had, and my students have, were hard-won by previous generations.