Thank you teachers!

A huge thank you to teachers, teaching assistants, and all school staff for how you have risen to the challenges of an extraordinary year.

2020 has been the most challenging year for as all as we have coped with the COVID-19 pandemic. As a parent, and a teacher who now works with schools in the cultural sector, I have watched with admiration at how teachers have risen to this challenge.

First, schools coped with staff shortages as colleagues became ill or had to isolate. Suddenly lock-down was upon us and teachers across the land had to get to grips with remote teaching and learning. Many parents tackling home learning gained a new-found appreciation of what teaching entails!

With incredible speed, teachers got to grips with setting work remotely and learning how to use MS Teams, Zoom, or Google Meet to work with colleagues and teach. Phrases like “virtual lesson”, “zoom bomb”, and “you’re still on mute” became part of everyday language.

Not that schools ever closed (no, Daily Fail, they really didn’t). Heads kept their schools open for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. Even as much of the nation’s workforce was furloughed, teachers not only kept going but upped their game. Many had to juggle teaching in school, setting work for pupils at home, looking after their own children, and keeping an eye out for the needs of elderly or vulnerable family members, friends, or neighbours.

Those teaching children in assessment years also had to provide, not only teacher assessed grades, but individual rankings of pupils in every subject. As it turned out, these grades would become the results for many pupils as the ‘Ofqual algorithm’ turned out not to be fit for purpose.

Following that gargantuan effort, the start of the new academic year required teachers to meet a whole new set of challenges. I’m pretty certain that there are few people in the DfE who would have the first clue how to organise 30 five year olds (or 15 year olds) to sanitise or wash their hands many times a day – but you did! Despite ever-changing guidance from the Secretary of State, often contradictory, confusing, and at short notice, schools dealt with it all, kept everyone safe, and enabled children to learn.

No sooner was there some semblance of normality than lockdown 2 was upon us. Again, schools kept going. Whatever Tier we were in, the schools were open, juggling ‘burst bubbles’ of children and staff isolating following positive tests, but still ensuring lessons went ahead and work kept being set.

Finally, at the end of the year, when teachers might have taken a moment from editing the KS1 virtual nativity play to look forward to a well-earned Christmas break, schools received an unwelcome present. No, not Nick Gibb “allowing” an Inset day before Christmas. Not Gavin Williamson’s threat of a Christmas court case for Greenwich council. No, the seasonal double whammy, delivered to school leaders in the now traditional manner of rumours on social media and a leak to the press, is that there will be a staggered start in January, so that schools can roll out their new responsibility for Covid testing!

So, as it seems that the thanks all teachers and school staff deserve for their unwaveringly fantastic work in 2020 is unlikely to come from either the press or Mr Williamson, let me say as a parent and, frankly awe-stuck colleague:

“Thank you!”

Holidays and Health 3: Why Teachers need a Summer Holiday

A few years ago I wrote a post about the impact of the summer holiday on my health called Holidays and Health. I followed this up with a second post in 2018, Holidays and Health Revisited, after my move to museum education, where I showed that my health seemed to be better over the summer, even though I was working running a Summer school for part of the time. I concluded that teachers might need the six-week summer holiday for the sake of their health.

This year there was some discussion about whether there should be a long summer holiday. Some argued that children had already missed a lot of school time and that a shorter holiday would be an opportunity to ‘catch up’. Proponents of this view Often didn’t seem to take into consideration that schools had not closed, remaining open to children of key workers, and teachers had worked harder than ever.

This made me think about my old blog post and whether my two year comparison might have been a fluke. I decided to gather data from my Fitbit over the last two years. In 2019 I had been working part time in a secondary school and part time in the Education team at The Bodleian Libraries. This had included a writing school for young writers (14-18) from local state schools during the summer holiday. 2020 started with a similar pattern, but in the spring I moved to working full time for the University, splitting my time between the education teams at the Bodleian and the Museum of Natural History. A planned summer school was converted to the virtual Six Legs of Summer resource, but we did work with children at summer school run by a local community association who wanted to help local parents and carers get kids ready for school in September.

My resting heart rate over Summer

As the graph shows, it looks like the 2018 graph wasn’t a fluke. My resting heart rate has remained lower that when I worked full time in school and does not seem to vary much across the holiday period. Perhaps significantly, it is lower than at any point during any point in the summer of 2017.

Resting heart rate is only one measure of health and these results are from only one individual. It would be interesting to see wider research in this area. Nevertheless, this data does seem to support my original view that teachers need a lengthy summer break in order to experience a positive impact on their health.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not the length of the holiday that’s the issue, but what happens in term time that requires six weeks to recover!

Coronavirus, cool heads and ‘reopening’ schools

Much is being said and written at the moment about whether schools in England should ‘reopen’ on 1 June. Of course, the question isn’t actually about whether they should open or close because they are already open to vulnerable children of key workers. The real debate is about the conditions and timescale for the safe extension of opening to include more children. There are no plans to extend school opening on 1 June in other devolved regions of the UK.

Unfortunately, the discussion has not been helped by some sections of the media, with the Daily Mail taking the lead, attacking teachers. This could make the issue appear polarised but it is far more nuanced and, in my opinion, with two issues at heart: is the government’s guidance based on the best science available? Secondly, have plans drawn sufficiently from the wealth experience of teachers doing the job.

In reducing the issue to those two issues, I am not discounting other points that have frequently been raised, I just don’t think they are real points of contention. I don’t think there is any doubt that teachers want to teach. All the teachers I hear or read want to teach. I don’t think there is any doubt that parents want their children in school and learning. I think we all care about children, especially vulnerable children, and understand the dangers of missing education. The thing is, we know that teaching and learning needs to happen in a safe environment.

Is the guidance based on the best science?

The problem here is that COVID-19 is new, our understanding of it is developing at a rapid pace, and many scientific results in the media are unreviewed pre-prints. That said, there are several points of certainty:

  • There is no vaccine for Coronavirus. Protection therefore relies on limiting transmission through social distancing and the use of PPE
  • There is no treatment for Coronavirus itself. Current treatments involve supporting organ systems while an individual’s immune system fights the virus.
  • The average value of R in for the UK is less than 1, but closer to 1 than 0, and varies considerably between different areas and contexts. This means the number of infections will reduce, but slowly.
  • In comparison to other countries, the spread of Coronavirus in the UK (also US and Canada) is atypical. There have been many more deaths and a much slower decline in the UK than elsewhere. This means we should be highly cautious about using other countries as models for extending school opening. For example, Denmark has been given as a model, but has had hundreds of deaths rather than tens of thousands, and a lower R value when schools reopened.
  • There is consistent evidence that young children are less at risk of serious illness or death from Coronavirus. However a 30x increase in a previously-rare inflammatory condition which has led to a number of child deaths globally is a cause for concern.
  • There is mixed evidence on how infectious children are. Some studies indicate they spread the disease less than adults, others that they do so equally.

It is consideration of this evidence that has led the British Medical Association to endorse the stance taken by the National Education Union that insufficient regard has been made of the available evidence and that the timescale for extending pupil numbers in school is too rapid.

Do plans draw sufficiently on the experience of teachers?

The government says that it’s guidance has been drawn up in consultation with school leaders. As is sadly so often the case, it is not clear who these leaders are or how they came to be chosen as consultants. This has led many to the suspicion that they are an echo chamber of the favoured few whose views already chime with those in office. Without more information it is impossible to comment, but certainly the despairing reaction to the drip-feed DfE guidance from so many school leaders suggests that the consultation was not wide enough.

School leaders, teachers and other school staff have already worked incredibly hard. They have simultaneously adopted new ways of working within school, got to grips with a new world of remote working, and implemented other aspects of the response such as free school meals vouchers and the disappearance of the Easter holiday. They were already planning how their schools could be open to more pupils before any government announcement, with the benefit of full understanding of their context and in the light of their experience in school since March. While some of the DfE guidance will be helpful (if late), much of it seems unnecessarily constraining and not to take sufficient regard of the wide variety in school accommodation and contexts that exists.

I do wonder if the top-down model that government seems to be applying is simply inadequate in current circumstances. We have seen that central government perception of the the threat posed by Coronavirus, for supply of PPE, and of the needs of vulnerable groups, such as care homes, was at huge variance with the view of those working in health care. As a result, those on the ground had to act to address deficits in central planning and response. Hospital managers sourced PPE and ventilator parts from alternative sources, medical teams worked out new protocols, and volunteer community groups arose spontaneously in local neighbourhoods to support those in isolation.

I think the lesson from that experience should be that when planning a progressive easing of lockdown, both for schools and in other contexts, planning by central government departments will be much more effective, and safer for us all, if it starts with a lot more listening.

A way forward?

It is good that all parties are currently on discussion, although as yet the government does not not seem to have altered its stance on any point.

It seems to me that there are numerous points of obvious compromise and that agreement is possible. For example, the wording on PPE could be adjusted to give schools more discretion to use it. The commitment to ‘only when safe to do so’ could be reinforced by removing the dates for latter phases and making it clear that next steps will be taken in the light of evidence gathered. Heads who plan to use rota systems should be listened to (they have good reasons), and, in my view, whole school return cannot be considered until there are agreed plans in place to make that safe.

Lastly, while it’s good that so many people are talking about the importance of education, the welfare of children, and the benefits to families, the loudest voices in the media do not seem to be those of parents and carers, still less those of children themselves. We can only arrive at a solution by listening to the needs of families (not just a lone quote supporting an editorial stance), and our care for children must include a consideration of their hopes and concerns.

Why do we get sick in our holiday?

It’s the half term break and my Twitter feed is full of the usual story: teachers falling ill as their long awaited holiday starts. Is this just coincidence, people get sick all the time, so some will in their holiday, or is this a real effect? Are teachers actually more likely to become ill during the break from school? More importantly, if it is real, what can we do to prevent it?

Leisure Sickness

This term ‘leisure sickness’ has been coined by Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets to describe the widespread anecdotal experience of becoming ill when we have a holiday. This isn’t a condition formally recognised in medicine but while there isn’t a straightforward mechanism to explain a link, we do know that illness can be induced by the effects of stress. It’s not the holiday itself that makes us ill, but the impact of stress in the run up to the holiday on our immune system.

Stress and Illness

In 1984 Janice Keicolt-Glaser demonstrated a link between exam-related stress in medical students and reduced immune function. Sheldon Cohen then demonstrated that people who reported stressful events in their life were more likely to become infected when intentionally exposed to cold viruses using nasal drops and were also more likely to develop clinical cold symptoms. Cohen’s research later showed that a range of chronic stressors (ie persisting for a month or more) increased our susceptibility to the common cold. The most significant stressors investigated in this study were those related to work.

So there is good evidence that chronic stress can impair immune function and increase susceptibility to infectious disease, but what about teaching? In a study of almost 300 US teachers, Dworkin et al (1990) found that illness increased proportionally to job stress. This supports the idea that workplace stress in schools contributes to teachers becoming ill.

Since a half-term is typically 6-8 weeks, workplace stress for teachers typically persists for over a month at a time, falling into Cohen’s definition of ‘chronic’. This is enough time for our immune system to become impaired do that we become more susceptible to infection. Add to this the incubation period for most cold viruses, and that’s the right timescale for teachers to begin coughing and sneezing just as their holiday starts!

What can we do?

The good news is that research indicates that there are several things we can do to reduce our chances of becoming ill.

1. Looking after our work-life balance during term-time rather than waiting for down-time in the holiday. We need to balance the demands of work with our health needs all the time. Easier said than done! Significant steps include being able to switch off from work and getting enough quality sleep.

2. Looking after our health. This includes making time for exercise, eating healthily, and avoiding things which have an adverse impact on our ability such as smoking. Cohen’s research shows that all these have a protective function. Initiatives like Teacher 5 a day can be a big help here.

3. Looking after each other. There is good research evidence that social support can provide protection against the effects of stress. If we all take some time to look out for each other, perhaps especially towards the end of term, we will all fare better. Those in leadership positions may have a special role to play: Dworkin’s study found that there was significantly less stress-related illness among teachers with a supportive School Principal.

You might also be interested in my posts on holidays and health which explore differences in resting heart rate during term-time and holidays.

Image: Pixabay

Adventures in Whole Class Feedback: Planning for Feedback

I have been interested in the claims made for whole class feedback for some while, but have had some reservations. I have always seen formative assessment as a central element of teaching and learning, and providing written (as well as verbal) feedback as crucial to helping children understand what they have done well and what they need to do to improve further. I also quite like marking and enjoy both the immediate reaction of children to seeing their hard work appreciated, and their longer term journey of progress over time.

Nevertheless, while I may like marking, I don’t always like the time it takes. As I write the same comment on the fourteenth piece of work from a class, I find myself thinking that this probably wasn’t the best use of my time. As Anthony Radice wrote in this post Whole Class Feedback: A Winner All Round, it’s important for teachers to consider what else we could be doing with the time we spend in close marking like this, and whether other activities, such as planning or creating resources, might be more useful in helping pupils make progress.

With all this in mind, I agreed with my line manager that development of whole class feedback would be an objective for my performance review this year. I’ll be developing my practice in class and feeding back to the departmental team.

When and what to mark

I have decided to focus on year 8 as I have three mixed ability computing classes in this year group.

There are several types of task that these classes do:

  1. Work in class which will be directed to an element of a unit, for example editing sound files in a unit on podcasts, or the use of subroutines in a unit on algorithms.
  2. Half-termly Homework. In computing pupils choose a task for each half of each term. This is an individual project they work on for several weeks. Examples include designing a website on a theme, or designing a revision resource for a topic. Pupils work on different tasks.
  3. Discrete homework. These are shorter homework tasks, taking a few minutes, for example reinforcing key vocabulary, or a quiz on PEGI game ratings. They are set one lesson for completion by the next. The tasks may be differentiated, but everyone is doing the same thing.

I think some of this work lends itself more to whole class feedback. In class we are usually all working towards the same goals. It’s easy for me to pick up on good examples and also to spot errors or misconceptions. In class it makes sense to give verbal feedback to the class (as well as taking opportunities to talk to individuals. The written feedback is for myself: picking up on what happens in the lesson to better inform my teaching.

Pupils put a lot of work into the half-termly homework and I think they deserve some individual feedback from me. What I’m aiming to work on is making that feedback truly individual. Rather than repeating comments on common themes, though, I intend to note these and address them as feedback to the class.

The discrete homework tasks are usually self-marking tasks such as quizzes, so my focus is usually in picking up on what the scores mean, such as a misunderstanding of a particular concept. Often I will revisit this on teaching, rather than give specific feedback on the homework, but I’ll see if doing so is more effective.

So, that sets the scene for what I plan to do:

  • Continue to use verbal in-lesson feedback as I do already, but keep better track myself of how it informs my teaching.
  • Restrict individual feedback for the truly individual elements of homework projects and add whole class feedback of common learning points.
  • Give whole class feedback a try for discrete tasks, where previously I might have just revisited the learning in the course of a lesson.

I’ll make sure to feedback how We get on!

Image: publicdomainpictures.net

Teacher Holidays & Health Revisited

Could it really be that, even on summer holiday, school teachers experience more stress than educators in other roles who work through August?

Last year I wrote a post Holidays and Health, about the impact of the six-week Summer holiday on my health. I had been using a Fitbit heart rate monitor and I showed that it took the whole of the six-week holiday period for my resting heart rate to return to the level it had been before the start of the year.

Since then, a lot has changed in my professional life. Throughout the Summer I have worked as an Education Officer at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I’ve written about not missing the long summer break because my new role isn’t subject to the same ridiculous pressures that teachers are often subjected to. In my post Summertime and the living is easy? I speculate that it is a combination of relentless pace, too few opportunities to collaborate, and lack of control over the education agenda, that result in teachers needing to recover from the school year, no matter how much they love teaching.

I knew I felt better this Summer, but I wondered whether there was a measurable physiological difference between this year and last. During the Summer term this year I did outreach work with KS2 & KS3 classes, visiting a range of primary and secondary schools, usually working with a class for a day. During the school Summer holiday, we did outreach work with a charity that organises holidays for children from economically disadvantaged families in cities, and we ran a week-long summer school at the museum and other university facilities. I only took the last week in August as holiday. In addition to my Museum role, I also started teaching part time at a secondary school close to my home. How did this compare with 2017?

As this graph shows there was a real difference:

My resting heart rate was much more stable this year, and was lower over the period I worked over the summer than it had been when I was on holiday from school last year. It very much looks like I was under less stress working through this summer, than I was by being on holiday from school last summer!

I appreciate that in the general scheme of things one measure on one individual is hardly going to be statistically significant, but when the individual is me, I hope nobody will argue with me feeling it’s important. I do think this is food for thought for all of us in education. Could it really be that even on holiday in the summer, a school teacher experiences more effects of stress than an educator in another role who works through the holiday? If that is the case, something is wrong.

I think this also show us that we need to keep an eye on our health. I’ve found the NHS Five Ways to Wellbeing a useful way to do this. The five strands are shown in this image from Wales NHS.

I have particularly enjoyed Martyn Reah’s work to encourage us all (in a profession which puts others first) to look after ourselves through #teacher5aday. With so many of us now wearing fitness trackers, these could be another way that we can not only monitor the ‘Be Active’ element, but also gain an insight general health and wellbeing.

Summertime and the living is easy?

School has broken up for Summer but I’m on the bus to work.

School has broken up for Summer but I’m on the bus to work. That’s because this year included a momentous change for me. After over 25 years of teaching in secondary schools, I left to work as education officer at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I’m still teaching children, but visiting different schools, rather than working in one. You can read more about this here.

This Summer, we’re working with a charity that organises holidays for children. We’ll also be running our own summer school.

Not surprisingly, there are many differences between my old job and my new one, but as I read all the end-of-term posts by teachers on social media, the long school holiday, which is no longer part of my terms and conditions, is uppermost in my mind. Not because I’m missing it, but because I’m not.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to start moaning about teachers getting long holidays! That struggle to the end of term is all too resonant in my memory, together with that weird paradox whereby the number of tasks you have to complete seems to multiply exponentially as the time left to do them dwindles. I know that teachers absolutely need the Summer holiday, and so do the children they teach. What I’m wondering is why education is run in such a way that teachers need at least six weeks every summer to recover from the academic year?

From the perspective of my recent job change, I think there are three main reasons.

1. Relentless pace

This won’t be a surprise to any teacher, but the pace of work – by which I mean that there is often too much to do in the available time – inevitably means that teachers end up using their evenings, weekends, and ‘holidays’ to work – planning and assessing. We do this because we want to do a good job and do the best for the children in our care, but the danger is that we end up chasing the horizon, too frazzled to be effective and on our knees by the end of term.

In my new role, I find that my team leader insists that the work we plan is sustainable. My line manager is concerned that we build in enough time for admin tasks in our schedule, that outreach visits are timed so as not to exhaust us, and that sufficient priority is given to reflective evaluation. Staff are encouraged to take a proper lunch break and we were recently reminded to set ‘out of office’ messages on email when we aren’t at work.

The result of this is that I’m s much more effective teacher, the children have a much better learning experience, and the next day (after spending quality time with my family) I have the energy to do it all over again!

2. Too few opportunities to collaborate

One consequence of that unremitting pace, is that there is too little time to hone our practice. I believe the best way to do this is through collaboration. As Robert John Meehan says:

The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.

We can spend so much time trying to stay on top of the work, that collaboration and improvement get squeezed out. Worse still, we can come to resent meetings as a distraction rather than fantastic opportunities to create better ways of working.

Each week, there is a wider team meeting and a specific project meeting. Both are opportunities for colleagues to share updates on projects, encompassing both strategic and operational elements. There have been several occasions where input from others has been significant in moving the project I work on forward, both through ideas and practical assistance. I hope that on occasion I have been able to help others.

3. Lack of control

I believe that one of the key sources of stress within the teaching profession is lack of control. Teachers are given a lot of personal authority in their classes, but often it seems that it’s everyone else and their dog telling us how and what we should be teaching! This can leave some wondering why, when they were appointed for their individual expertise and creativity, they are then treated like programmable automatons. For schools the challenge is to achieve a consistency of pupil experience without stamping out the individuality of teachers. I think the answer is supported autonomy, creating conditions where teachers can thrive. Others have written eloquently about this topic, including this recent blog post by John Tomsett on solving the recruitment & retention crisis.

in my new role I and my colleague have experienced this by being given freedom, within the objectives and budget of the project, to plan and implement outreach days. That doesn’t mean our work isn’t open to collaborative input, evaluation and constructive criticism, but it does mean that we have ownership of it.

The result of addressing these three elements, ensuring workload is manageable, that there is effective collaboration, and that team members experience supported autonomy, is that the project is proving very successful, with significantly positive pupil outcomes and excellent feedback from participating schools, and that I’m happy on my bus ride into work, looking forward to the day ahead. Even during the school holidays.

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

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.