Dear Santa… I’m writing again for Christmas 2017.

Dear Santa,

You may recall that I wrote to you last year with my wish list of educational gifts. I’m writing again this year with an update, even though some of my year 10 class tell me you don’t exist (don’t worry’ they’ll grow out of it).

You’ll notice that many of the things I asked for last year are still on my list. I’m not saying it’s your fault I didn’t get them last year and perhaps you think I wasn’t fully appreciative of the fidget spinners you left instead, but if you could see your way to one or two of these it would be really helpful.

A 25th Hour. I know you must be able to manipulate time, how else do you deliver all those presents in one night? All I’m asking is for 60 more minutes each day to help me fit it all in. I’ve tried to get the better of email, I’ve tried to plan for tomorrow, to plan for peak times, and do workload impact assessments, but it’s no good: there just aren’t enough hours in the day!

Invisible goal posts. Many children respond well to sporting analogies and I’d like a way to help explain how the new GCSE grades work. We could play a match where we know that there are goalposts, but aren’t allowed to know exactly where they are. Players can take shots at the end of the field and then, after the final whistle has blown, we can reveal where the goalposts were (adjusting them to allow only a few player’s attempts to count) and only then reveal the final score. If that isn’t possible, may I have the game I hear some schools are playing called ‘invent the goalposts’ where they just make them up. They’re not real, but they offer the illusion of comfort. Failing that, how about a unicorn?

A new Progress 8 coefficient. Yes, I know I get a brand new one each year, but it just doesn’t seem to be working properly. What I’d really like is a progress measure that measures progress and doesn’t get caught up in whether a school has got enough pupils doing particular qualifications.

A basket. Last year I asked for a bucket, but since then baskets seem to be the in thing, and it seems that in English schools nowadays, everyone has to have their baskets (or buckets) full. The trouble is, I can’t seem to find one I want. It’s called the ‘Really useful qualifications that help individual students fulfil their career aspirations, progress in life and become productive, responsible citizens within an egalitarian compassionate society‘ basket of qualifications. If you could help with my search for this, that would be fantastic.

An understanding of the delegated SEND budget. Sorry, but I still don’t get this. I have tried to understand how this funding works, but however hard I think about it, it doesn’t seem to make sense. The bible was of some help: Jesus apparently fed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes. This seems to equate closely to the funding model, but even in this example there is no explanation of what to do when more people turn up, undergo a lengthy assessment process, have their needs identified in an EHCP, and then the school receives additional funding of… well, nothing.

A self-help guide to being a better teacher. I really need this because there just isn’t anyone who has advice on this. Literally whole minutes can go by with complete silence from the DFE, Ofsted, Ofqual, external advisors, politicians of every hue, think tanks, pressure groups, parents, pundits in the media, taxi drivers, and the lady behind me in the queue in Sainsbury’s telling me how to do my job better.

A ticket to Shanghai. I’ve been hearing a lot about how well pupils do in Shanghai, particularly in maths, so I’d like to take a trip there. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring back some useful things: some resources and teaching methods yes, but also generous non contact time, a millennia-old appreciation of the value of learning, consistently high parental engagement, and an ingrained universal cultural respect for the status of teachers, which also make up the full package.

Mousetrap. You know, the board game with lots of plastic bits that my Mum said would only get lost. This maybe doesn’t have much to do with education, but I put it on my Christmas list each Year through the 1970s. Thought I’d give it another go.

Thanks Santa, I’ll leave a mince pie, a nip of single malt, and a carrot for Rudolf by the fireplace as usual.

Merry Christmas,

Rodger

What’s on your list to Santa?

Picture credit: www.freepik.com

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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.

What I won’t be doing this holiday.

Inspired by Amjad Ali’s post I will not be doing… . here are some things I won’t be doing in the half-term break.

  1. Wearing a watch. Just for a week, time isn’t the boss of me.
  2. Hearing the phrase ‘roger, Rodger’ over a walkie-talkie (I sometimes think of changing my surname to ‘Over’).
  3. Missing lunch. That may add a bit to my waistline, but I can’t believe that the ‘run off my feet: no time to eat’ diet is actually good for me.
  4. Wearing grooves in the A418 driving back and forth to Oxford. I barely have to steer anymore.
  5. Wearing a lanyard telling people who I am.
  6. Shaving. I know, I’m such a slob. But my face enjoys the rest.
  7. Wearing a natty fluorescent tabard  between 11.10am and 11.35am.
  8. Doing anything strategic.
  9. Responding to bells.
  10. Wasting my Netflix subscription. On which note…bye!

    Holidays and Health

    Image: pixabay

    I have written a number of posts about things teachers can do to stay well in the face of the demands of the job (which you can find in these posts about wellbeing), but I haven’t previously considered school holidays. 

    Are school holidays good for our health?OK, that might seem like a daft question! Like most teachers, I believe that school holidays are good for my health. Much as I love teaching, they are a chance to relax, recharge and spend time with friends and family. That’s got to be good for me.

    This year, thanks to a Christmas present of an fitness tracker, I have been able to look at some quantitative evidence to back up my subjective feeling.  One of the things it measures is resting heart rate. Generally, the lower our resting heart rate the better (although clearly zero isn’t something to aim for). I have quite a slow heart beat. I’d like to claim that this is because of a rigorous athletic regime, but it is in fact something I’ve been fortunate to inherit.

    “It seems to have taken all six weeks of the Summer break for my resting heart rate to recover.”

    This graph shows my average resting heart rate from the start of 2017 to the last week of the school Summer holiday.

    As you can see, we weren’t long into the spring term before my resting heart rate rose, and it stayed high for the rest of the academic year. What interests me though is that it seems to have taken all six weeks of the Summer break for my resting heart rate to come down to the point it was at the start of the year. I did try to get all the school work I needed to do completed in the first two weeks of the holiday, but the recovery seems to start pretty much from the end of term. 

    The graph also seems to indicate dips in testing heart rate for half term breaks in spring and Summer, and for the Easter holiday at the start of April, but it doesn’t recover to the original 52bpm it was in January. My heart, it seems, needs those six weeks!

    I appreciate that a study of one person doesn’t mean much in the wider scheme of things, but doctors agree that it is worth each of us keeping an eye on our resting heart rate. This is because several studies, including this one by Nauman et al (2011) of over 29,000 participants, show that increases over time are a significant risk indicator for coronary heart disease. It occurs to me that many teachers now wear fitness trackers (if my own school is any indication) and it would be possible to collate data from these devices. You don’t need one of course: you can measure your resting heart rate by taking your pulse at the same time each day, ideally just before you get up in the morning.

    Heart rate and Ofsted? Just for a bit of fun, see if you can tell when Ofsted were in, just by looking at the graph. If you give me your guess as a comment below, I’ll tell you if you’re right!

    Lessons from a Ransomware Attack

    This isn’t my usual kind of blog. It’s about how our school responded to a ransomware attack and what we learned. As it turns out, not everyone talks about this so malware attacks on schools may be more of a problem than many of us realise. 

    We first noticed attack on The morning of 17th July when we found that several documents on our fileserver were encypted. It seemed at first that only some files on one server were affected, then it became apparent that files on another were also encrypted. We decided to shut down all our servers to halt any spread of an infection. This of course meant that the school had no ICT facility: teachers had no acesss to lesson resources, and there was no access to our information management system.

    Our excellent ICT team identified the ramsomware as ‘.Aleta’ and discovered that the infection had occurred at around 6.30am on the previous Saturday, 15th July on a server used by all the schools in our academy group, despite our use of security software. The finance serWe later learned from the police that this type of malware is most frequently spread by remote desktop access protocols.  Our ICT team worked all that day and the next to wipe the system clean and restore files from a full backup made on Friday 14th July. As a result we were only without ICT for a day, although some facilities were only restored on the second day. 

    We warned the schools in our Multi-Academy Company and other local schools. We weren’t using email, so we did it the old fashioned way, by phone. It was quite hard to talk to a human being at some schools!  We reported the incident to Thames Valley Police who also urged us to report it to Action Fraud, who coordinate with the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau. In reporting this attack, I learned from the police that not everyone does so, or chooses to report the details to Action Fraud. I can only speculate as to why this is – perhaps they don’t want adverse publicity, or to indicate that there may have been a vulnerability in their systems. Presumably a proportion of victims pay, or why would such attacks continue?  It seemed to us that adding our small piece of the jigsaw to the database of such attacks was the only way we could help tackle them. Action Fraud told me that the perpetrators would undoubtedly be based overseas and there was little chance of bringing them to justice in the short term, but thanked us because every piece of additional information helps build a picture of this type of criminal activity, providing insights into how to counter it. Reporting the details of the crime also enabled the police to give us specific advice on how to deal with it. We didn’t need this help because we had a recent backup we could use to restore our system, but the police do have a database which can be used to decrypt many files affected by such attacks.

    We did not contact the authors of the malware and we certainly didn’t pay a ransom, nor would we. Quite apart from the obvious moral argument about paying criminals and so helping fund and encourage their further activities, to do so seemed foolish in the extreme, We didn’t open any of the ‘ransom’ files placed on our network, but found screenshots of the instructions they contained on the internet. We weren’t asked for a specific amount but told that the fee, in bitcoin, would depend on how soon we responded. In exchange for payment, we would be sent a file to unlock the encrypted files. Deliberately launching an executable file sent by criminals didn’t sound like a good idea!

      

    Lessons we learned

    1. This is what a critical incident plan is for! It’s essential to have a plan in place to cover the network going down – for example hard copy contact details for pupils, so you can contact home, and of the timetable so you know where everyone should be. Think about how often you access school information on a computer – how would you get that same information without a network?
    2. It pays to back up your network. For our school, a regular backup protocol meant that we could restore our systems and suffered only minimal loss of data. For teachers, the message is to also back up your own files, and keep the copy away from the network and the school premises. We all know this, but do we all do it?
    3. Remote access is used by many schools and can be a real help to staff. Remote Desktop Protocols are a known chink in the armour of network security, however, so how confident are you that you are protected? It’s worth checking.
    4. If it happens, it’s really worth reporting it. It helps tackle this kind of fraud, assists others, and also allows you to access help and support.
    5. We were fortunate in having a team with the expertise to deal with this situation. Are your IT team prepared? Is there any training you need to provide?

    I hope that this doesn’t happen to your school and there’s no reason to think schools are particularly being targeted (who would think schools have money?!). It’s best to be prepared though, so I also hope this account of our experience will help others. I’d be interested to hear from other schools who have had similar experiences.

      Action Fraud can be contacted on 0300 123 2040 or via their website www.actionfraud.police.uk which also has a wealth of up to date information on Fraud and cybercrime.

      Workable Wellbeing 3

      Last Sunday, the #SLTchat topic was wellbeing, hosted by @ottleyoconnor, a topic this Twitter discussion forum has addressed before. The irony of teachers tweeting about work-life balance on a Sunday evening notwithstanding, I have always found theses discussions really useful and they have inspired these earlier posts on wellbeing.

      Workable wellbeing

      Workable wellbeing 2

      Returning to wellbeing seems more relevant than ever. What struck me about the discussion was the number of participants writing about modelling wellbeing for others. This had been mentioned previously, but it seemed to me that it was a dominant theme of the most recent forum. @pickleholic, @issydhan, @chrisedwardsuk, and @AsstHead_Jones, among others, all stressed the importance of school leaders modelling behaviours that foster positive wellbeing.

      How can we model what wellbeing looks like? Here’s my completely unscientific sample of elements grabbed from the blizzard of comment that is #SLTchat:

      • It’s ok to leave early sometimes, especially when other days have been late.
      • Touching base about family, interests, hobbies, books, films or music is normal human interaction. We’re here to get a job done but relationships are important.
      • Share the things you do to foster your own wellbeing. I hope I haven’t bored anybody about #teacher5aday or the Fitbit I got for Christmas!
      • Admit mistakes, talk about times when you got it wrong, and what you learned. OK, there’s a time and a place for this. There are many occasions where colleagues need leaders to lead, modelling calm and decisiveness, but being superhuman isn’t realistic and pretending to be can harm oneself and be off-putting to others. 
      • Ask for help. We need to be accessible to our teams, so we should model that it’s OK to ask for help. Teachers shouldn’t feel isolated and asking for help will show others that it’s ok to do the same.
      • Smile. I’m terrible for getting lost in thought, presenting a blank gaze to others in the corridor, but a smile at the right moment can be just what someone needs.
      • Make talking about mental health everyday and normal. I think this was another strong strand in the discussion, quite rightly.

      So what I have taken away from last Sunday’s #SLTchat is the need to model behaviours that lead to wellbeing. I’ll be trying to do that more at work from now on. What was my contribution to the discussion on work-life balance? Leaving the chat early to pick my son up from youth club!

        Ten things to look forward to in the Spring Term

        Christmas may be over and the New Year welcomed in. Long, warm summer days may feel a distant prospect, but don’t despair, there’s plenty to look forward to at the start of the Spring term in 2017. Here’s my top ten list:

        1. Christmas isn’t over until 6th January (twelfth night) – and this year that’s a Friday! I’ll be keeping my decorations up till then!
        2. If that isn’t enough for you, Orthodox Christmas Day this year is on Saturday 7th January.
        3. You may have just exchanged cards or greetings with friends or family you don’t see much. You could take up the opportunity of the new year to reconnect with them. Why not arrange to meet up?
        4. If you’re like me, you may have received books as Christmas presents and can look forward to reading them. I really enjoy just a few minutes of reading for pleasure at the end of each day. Why not get together with some colleagues and start a book swap in the staff room? This is just one of many ways to achieve workable wellbeing.
        5. On our return to work both pupils and colleagues will arrive with their presents from Santa. Why not exploit the entertainment value here and  play ‘Spot the new jumper/tie/shoes’, etc? (I don’t know why this is, but there seems to be an invariant rule that whenever I wear any thing new it gets noticed, but only the third time I wear it). With pupils you can use pencil cases or stationary to monitor trends in popular culture – which comes out on top, Rogue One or Fantastic Beasts?
        6. You may have to set off for work in the dark to start with, but from now on the days will be getting longer. Getting outside in daylight each day will help beat the winter blues. Even if the sky is overcast, that natural sunlight will do you good.
        7. While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the little signs that spring is on it’s way and take notice of small changes – already you may see some leaves of bulbs poking through the soil, or some buds on trees or shrubs swelling before they blossom.
        8. The start of a new year is an ideal time to commit to your own wellbeing. Why not take a look at the #Teacher5aday from @MartynReah for some ideas? You can join in with teachers all over the country. I was slow to catch on to this but found it really helpful over the past year.
        9. It’s not all cold wet misery in winter – there are plenty of feasts, festivals and holy days. Here are some dates in 2017: Burns’ Night – 25 Jan, Chinese New Year – 28 Jan, Valentine’s Day – 14 Feb, Shrove Tuesday – 28 Feb, St David’s Day – 1 Mar, both Holi and Purim are on 12 Mar, St Patrick’s Day – 17 Mar, Mothering Sunday (and the start of British Summer Time) – 26 Mar.
        10. The best thing about teaching in 2017, and every other year, is knowing that what we do makes a real positive difference to the children in our classes. For some of them, the holidays can be difficult and, although they might not always show it, they’ll have been be looking forward to the new term. Make it a good one.

        So, what are you looking forward to this Spring? Have I missed any key dates from this list? Why not share with a comment? 

        Happy New Year!