Let it Go – Achieving a better work-life balance.

I wrote my original post about using Brandon Smit’s self-regulatory technique to improve work-life balance in January 2016. I then updated it at with some reflections after trying it out for a couple of months. In short, I’d really recommend giving it a go.

Last year I wrote a post, Getting the Better of Email, about my attempt to deal with email more efficiently (it’s going quite well, thanks for asking). In that post I also mentioned planning my day in 15 minute chunks so that when the unexpected occurs, it only derails what I had planned for a few of these chunks.
The problem is, what to do with the work that gets derailed? I have to reschedule it and sometimes that will have to be for another day. I often find however that it’s thoughts about this planned-but-unfinished work that intrude into my downtime or prevent me from getting to sleep.

I recently came across this research paper by Brandon W. Smit,  reported in the British Psychology Society Research Digest here that looks at the effectiveness of a simple technique for dealing with this type of difficulty in ‘detaching’ from work.

Smit asked workers to create plans of where, when and how to resolve goals they had not yet completed at work. Adapting this for teachers this could be:

“I’ll go into work tomorrow and after morning staff briefing I’ll collate the data I need so that I can complete the CPD evaluation requested for the Governors’ meeting.”

He found that for a subset of his participants, those high in job involvement (sounds like teachers to me), this simple planning technique increased their ability to detach from work when at home to a statistically significant extent.

Putting this together with my previous post, I’m going to start the New Year by using the following elements to try and make a clearer work-life boundary:

  • Segment work tasks into 15-minute blocks, or multiples of them.
  • Define clear goals for each of these work blocks.
  • At the end of the day take stock of the goals I have successfully met and any that remain incomplete.
  • Use Smit’s suggested planning technique to decide when, where and how I’ll deal with unresolved goals.

February 2016 Update

I’ve been using this idea for about six weeks now and it really does seem to make a difference. Ending my working day by reviewing what I have achieved and writing a single-sentence plan on how I’ll deal with incomplete tasks or unresolved issues does seem to allow me to detach more from work so family time can be family time. I’m also sleeping better – I no longer lie awake thinking about work issues and the number of times I wake up in the night with work thoughts has reduced to only two occasions in the six week period. It’s also helped me be better organised and more able to prioritise.

The technique doesn’t, of course, reduce the workload, so it hasn’t stopped the fatigue that comes at the end of a hard day! Nevertheless, I’ve found that using this simple exercise each day has made a real improvement in my work-life balance.

As ever, I welcome your thoughts and comments. If you decide to give this a go, it would be good to hear how it works out for you.


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.

Getting the better of email

I posted this originally at the start of November 2015 and then updated the post at the end of the month with some thoughts on how the strategy was working – see the end of the piece.

I recently read this article by Kevin Kruse writing in Forbes magazine on dealing with email: How millionaires manage their email. Now, I chose to be a teacher, so obviously I don’t have any interest in becoming a millionaire, and I’m not a subscriber to Forbes (thanks to Maryanne Baumgarten, @mabaumgarten, for tweeting the article). Nevertheless, I get a mountain of email each day and I’ve been trying to find a way of dealing with it more effectively. This seemed as good a place as any to start.

The author had reviewed the email habits of business millionaires and concluded that there were five basic rules to using it productively.

  1. Unsubscribe from newsletters.
  2. Turn off all notifications.
  3. Think twice before forwarding or copying others in.
  4. Keep emails short.
  5. Process email in three 20-minute periods a day using the ‘four Ds’: delete, delegate, do, defer.

So, after the half-term holiday, I thought I would give it a go. Here’s how I’m doing after a week:

1. Unsubscribe from newsletters. Not sure about this – I like having information pushed to me rather than having to search for it. I find some newsletters invaluable, such as the weekly ‘schools news’ from the LA. On the other hand I do find I delete or archive some others after a glance because the content replicates what I’ve seen before, so I need to be more selective. Some ‘newsletters’, though are just disguised adverts – out they go!

2. Turn of all notifications. Yes yes! Still there’s that temptation – what if I miss something? I’ve decided I’m more likely to miss something important by being distracted by email than by having to look each time my inbox pings.

3. Think twice about forwarding and copying others in. “Sorry for the mass email”. It may be worse saying you know you’re copying in 200 people who don’t need to know, then still doing it, than just doing it! Mail groups save the sender a bit of time but most systems are now predictive and it doesn’t take long to put the few names I actually want. When copying in, I am trying to be more discerning, finding the balance between who needs to be in the loop and reducing the email load I create for others.

4. Keep emails short. I found myself writing an email this week and as it got longer, thinking ‘I should write this as an attachment’. If it’s a document others need to consider, I realise it’s easier for all of it’s an attachment. What I find harder is the balance between brevity and courtesy. I like to put a proper salutation. If I haven’t been in touch with someone for a while, I’ll enquire how they are. I’ll then add the main content and sign off with, for example, ‘best wishes’. When I receive emails that don’t include these courtesies, I can feel a bit miffed. But of course, that won’t be the sender’s intention: they are a busy person and the shorter email is just more efficient. If it’s an answer to something I’ve asked, then I’ve got what I wanted. The balance I try to strike is include the courtesies first, but then subsequent emails in a thread can just follow on without salutations, etc, as in a conversation. One caveat: there’s a special place in hell for people who abbreviate ‘best wishes’ to ‘bests’.

Process emails in 20 minute periods. This one is fun! I’m trying to do it in three 15-minute blocks each day because my colleague @nickjohnrose has been encouraging me to use a time management system of dividing the day into 15 minute segments (this is a variation of the ‘Pomodoro Technique‘ invented by Framcesco Cirillo).  I enjoy dispensing with a full inbox in this time and the ‘four Ds’ seem to be working quite well. The problem is that when I need to write an email to someone, I find myself checking what’s in my inbox – too easy to get caught up! I have also found myself checking my email in an almost involuntary way – I may have an addiction that will prove harder to shake.

One issue is the expectations of colleagues. Up to know I have given the impression that I may respond at various times across the day and am frequently checking mail. They therefore send me messages with this assumption. I haven’t formally declared what I’m trying to do, and why, but perhaps it’s only fair that I do.
November 2015 Update

I’ve given it another couple of weeks and despite a few days when my email discipline fell apart, the new approach seems to be making a real positive difference. I did share with colleagues what I was doing and it was received well, with several giving encouragement and support. Consequently, I find I can usually deal with daily email in three sessions, freeing up time for other work. I think it has also made me procrastinate less – I don’t put things off (well, less than I did) but deal with them there and then, or decide it’s not a priority.

So, I’d  recommend giving this a try if you’re finding that email is occupying too much of your life. As ever comments are always welcome. I’d also be interested to hear how you deal with email.

Creative Arts – Their Place in the Whole School Curriculum

we have had a couple of arts-based school trips this week. Year 11 went to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford to research for their GCSE Art project work and the music department ran a trip to see ‘Stomp’ at the New Theatre, Oxford, on Friday night. Next week, nearly 200 students will take part in performing arts workshops run by international group Gen Verde. These will culminate in a public concert in a 1,000- seat auditorium.

Why are we doing all this?  It’s not going to have a direct impact on our English & Maths results. It certainly doesn’t make a jot of difference as far as the EBacc is concerned. Nevertheless, we do it because it’s important.

Arts provide a way for pupils to express themselves and fulfill their creative potential. A curriculum missing the arts cannot represent all that pupils are capable of expressing or achieving, nor can it prepare them to take up their role in society. Who would want to live in a society bereft of art, literature, theatre or music? It’s important therefore that we don’t view arts in school as an extra; a ‘desirable’ but not an ‘essential’. We know that children can be mathematicians and musicians, scientists and sculptors, astronomers and actors – they shouldn’t be forced to choose. The arts should not be in competition with maths, science or any other subject. An appreciation of the arts, and opportunities to explore our creativity enable us to be better writers, mathematicians, scientists, historians, etc. In short, the arts enable us to be better people, because artistic creativity is part of what it means to be human.

If we need to be pragmatic, the arts are also a major contributor to the UK economy. In 2013, the Arts Council reported that the Arts and culture industry had an annual turnover of £12.4 billion, bringing nearly £6 billion of gross added value into the UK economy (you can read the report here). Earlier this year, the Department for Culture media & sport estimated that the wider creative arts, media and entertainments industry accounted for 1.7 million jobs and was worth £76.9 billion a year to our economy (read more here).

So arts in education allow students to develop their creativity and reach their full potential as whole individuals, they enrich society and enable us all to lead more fulfilled lives, and they form a key part of our economy. Their absence from the the EBacc makes a mockery of the concept. It’s an omission that schools must address: The Arts may have missed out at the DfE, but we can’t let them be missing from the experience of the children we teach.

I welcome your comments. I’d also like to hear how schools integrate arts into the curriculum.

I’ve also written about the place of practical science in the whole school curriculum here.

Don’t Call It Appraisal – Building Better Performance Development

No, we don’t call it appraisal, and we try not to use ‘performance management’ either. One  of my responsibilities at school is to organise the annual performance reviews for teaching staff. We take he view that the primary purpose of this exercise should be developmental – we aren’t just measuring how well teachers do their job but learning what works best and using objectives to develop our practice as teachers in order to secure better outcomes for children. We also use reviews as a great opportunity to say thank you to colleagues for their hard work and commitment over the past year.

This year I have given a lot of thought to how we can better align school priorities and the requirement to base performance reviews on the Teaching Standards with the objectives for each colleague. We have linked objectives to the standards since 2012 (using a facility within the School Aspect online management package we use), but for 2015-16 we have chosen to link a couple of objectives, which align with school priorities directly to teaching standards. 

We have three objectives for all teachers and a fourth for those with a TLR post or on the Leadership Team.

A. Promote good Progress and Outcomes by Pupils. An objective focussed on elements of this teaching standard and linked to the levels of progress of pupils in a group, the size and nature of which depends on the role of the teacher.

B. Teaching to Meet the Needs of Pupils. An objective focussed on elements of this objective and designed to improve the progress and attainment of disadvantaged pupils is a school priority. This objective is to close the gap between disadvantaged pupils (i.e. Those who receive the pupil premium) and their non- disadvantaged peers. Again, the size of the group depends on the responsibilities of the teacher.

C. A personalised CPD objective derived from the teachers self review against the teaching standards and reflection on the past school year. This may derive from the review of objectives from the previous year or from an NQT final assessment. In some cases the development area may be proposed by the reviewer.

D. A leadership objective centred on an area of responsibility dependent on the teacher’s role. St Gregory’s is a faith school and this objective aligns to one of four areas:

  • Spiritual Capital
  • Mission Integrity
  • Partnership
  • Servant Leadership

For each of these objectives we record the key actions, intended outcomes and timescale. We also agree the success criteria and evidence that will form the basis of the review. CPD requirements for fulfilling objectives are also recorded. There is an interim meeting part way through the year to check progress.

That is what we are planning for this year. I’m interested in how this compares with what other schools do and welcome any constructive comments.

Supporting Refugee Children

I wrote this post in September 2015 because I was struck by how our school experience of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK had been reported across the UK by the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights. I subsequently added an update in July 2016 following publication of the House of Lords European Union Committee report Children in Crisis: Unaccompanied Children in the EU. You can read this report here (the info graphic on p7 usefully summarises key information). Sadly, this report echoed many of the concerns of the earlier report of the Joint Select Committee. 
September 2015

Of all the students starting the new academic year with us, I was perhaps most proud that we were providing an education for some who had recently arrived from Syria. Not having been in school for up to three years because of conflict, they were pleased to be in lessons again. I just hope that they don’t have to go through some of the experiences of many of our previous students seeking refuge from conflict.

Select Committee Report
In March the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights reported some concerns on the way unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were treated by the judicial processes to establish their status. The report can be found here and a Guardian interview with the Chair, Hywel Francis MP here. Both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the Children’s Act, 2004 include a commitment to put the interests of children first, without discrimination. The committee had concerns that in several ways this commitment was not being met. These included:

  • concerns that the numbers of children and young people receiving special welfare legal aid and asylum & immigration legal aid had fallen by nearly two thirds due to cuts in legal aid funding;
  • a tendency for immigration considerations to override the commitment put the rights of the child first; 
  • a ‘culture of disbelief’ surrounding age assessments; and 
  • a tendency to grant lower forms of leave to remain rather than full asylum, meaning young people could be removed at 17


Our School Experience

Our school is a wonderfully diverse community and includes several students who are refugees. In order to support these children to re-engage with education, we have to support them in a number of ways. Unfortunately one of these has to be mitigating the impact of the Home Office judicial processes referred to in the Select Committee report. We have found that (as the committee noted), no move is usually made to remove a young person until they are 17, but judicial processes are carried out beforehand, when they are children, often with little or no English, or family members in the UK. The support we provide includes explaining the process, providing emotional support, and, when necessary, accompanying them to interviews and hearings. This is made harder because these hearings occur at a range of venues. We had one 15 year old student, for example who was required to attend three different meetings and hearings, in Cardiff, Croydon and Birmingham.


The committee called for a better support structure “to help children navigate the asylum and immigration processes” and for the government not to “return children to countries such as Afghanistan or Iraq where there are ongoing conflict or humanitarian concerns.” I have to agree. In my experience it is charities and school staff who currently provide the support, and the judicial processes do not demonstrate a commitment to the interests of the child. Children who gain Higher education places, are simultaneously denied the possibility of funding and face moves to remove them to the very conflict zones and countries mentioned in the report.


The Future

Supporting these vulnerable students is vital but much of the work we do lies out of the remit of the school, and certainly beyond the job descriptions of teachers. I’m concerned that with tight finances it may be unsustainable. It’s therefore my hope that the recommendations of the select committee are acted on by the new government.
July 2016

A recent report by the House of Lords European Union Committee has called for urgent action to improve the EU response to the refugee crisis and the unaccompanied children are treated by the immigration system within the UK. The report concludes that children face a pervasive climate of suspicion and disbelief, especially about their age, may be detained inappropriately, lack legal advice and support, and are put at risk. The report calls for a consistent approach across the EU member states, reiterates the ‘best interests of the child’ principle of the UNCRC (which, together with the Children’s Act, would apply irrespective of Brexit), and calls for all unaccompanied children to have a guardian.

I find it disturbing that over a year after the original select committee report, so little seems to have changed. It is true that the number of children seeking asylum in the UK increased by 56% in 2015, but so has national, and international, interest in the refugee crisis. As schools receive more UASCs, we may find ourselves acting as advocates in the absence of any formal provision.

I would be really interested to hear of the experiences from other schools who support refugee children, or charities who work with schools.

Evaluating CPD? Forget Trip Advisor

Like many school leaders I have been exploring a better way of monitoring the impact of INSET. I am convinced of the importance of CPD as a crucial investment in staff even in times of financial stricture. Perhaps especially in those times. That belief, however, does not cut the mustard when it comes to proving that the time, money and other resources invested in training has paid dividends in terms of pupil outcomes.

Long-term investment in CPD

Over the last few years we have shifted the balance from ‘away day’ courses to long-term training. We support colleagues through academic qualifications such as Masters degrees and professional ones such as the MLDP. This demonstrates commitment to the long-term development of colleagues, provides tangible benefits to the school and sits well within our commitment to being a community of lifelong learners.

This type of professional development is easy to evaluate. The colleague gains a recognised qualification and the action research element is always key area of the SIP, contributing for clear outcomes for pupils.



There is still a place for the INSET day. There is training that we all need to renew, such as safeguarding as well as updates on the national and local agenda which affect teachers and pupils. We also use the time for colleagues to share good practice and teaching tools they have developed. I have found it harder to evaluate the impact of this training. For many years I used staff evaluations, having colleagues rate sessions on an evaluation form. The trouble with this kind of customer satisfaction survey is that everyone may have a jolly good time, but will that have a positive impact on the experience of pupils. It also seems to be that the colleagues who are less satisfied always seem to be ones who don’t tend to fill in the ‘Even better if…’ part.

Consequently I, and those in charge of training at other schools within Oxford City Learning (a partnership of secondary schools) have become increasingly sceptical of the ‘Trip Advisor’ approach.


No Correlation

In my evaluation of our September INSET, I carried out a correlational analysis of ratings for the helpfulness of different sessions by staff members against their key learning points, and helpfulness vs. intended actions. In neither case did I find much in the way of a correlation:

Helpfulness vs. Learning, r = 0.2576​Helpfulness vs. Intentions, r = -0.1832
Neither result was statistically significant.

 The commentary from staff on learning is more useful that their ratings of helpfulness because it allows me to identify whether the intended impact of the training was achieved. By and large, this seems to have happened. Most staff commented on strategies with the groups of pupils we were focussing on: disadvantaged students, those with particular disabilities and special needs, and those who need to make rapid progress with their literacy. Learning comments also indicate that some staff made links between the separate elements of the INSET: Our school value of ‘Justice’ working through a consideration of developmental needs from ages 2 – 19 (we’re an all-through school with nursery, primary and secondary phases), to differentiating to meet the needs of particular groups of students. On the other hand some staff did not make this connection and a few questioned the relevance of some aspects of the training. This shows me that, while there is always a balance to be struck, perhaps particularly at the start of term, we need to do more to give a holistic overview prior in the introduction to training


Evaluation across the year

It’s the follow-through on the intended actions that will be the key to evaluating the impact on pupil outcomes. Further INSET will pick up on strategies to improve progress by the groups of pupils mentioned above. The session that had the highest combined rating for helpfulness, key learning and intended actions (on extended writing across the curriculum) featured a combination of research evidence, contributions from teachers from different curriculum area, demonstrations of improved pupil work and a resource pack for all teachers. This shows that teacher-led examples of successful practice, backed by resources to support their colleagues, are a winning combination. Further INSET during the year will be based on this model with differentiated choice so training is personalised.

It is actual, rather than intended, action that makes the difference, of course. We will use our usual evidence-gathering systems (learning walks, marking drops, student voice, etc) to gauge the impact of teaching actions stemming from INSET. CPD is also picked up in Performance Development (we don’t use that vile term ‘Appraisal’ urgh), with all teachers having an objective around the progress of disadvantaged pupils this year, and being able to shape a personalised CPD objective.

I’ll update this post later in the year when more of our intentions have been implemented as actions.

Helpful comments are always welcome. I’d also like to hear more about evaluation of CPD in other schools.