Moving to Remote Working

I have a new-found respect for my ancient laptop, having just moved to home working as part of efforts to limit the transmission of COVID-19.

I work in the Education team at The Bodleian, the library of the University of Oxford. We work with visiting schools, teaching about the collections and exhibitions. Like many organisations, in response to government guidance the library has closed to visitors (although online services remain available) and all staff who can have moved to remote home working.

Much of my last day at work was spent preparing for this. With a background in school teaching, I had not had much experience of this (schools generally like you to be with the pupils you’re teaching) but I brought my chunky laptop to work to set it up.

There are a plethora of tools to assist remote working, but the team chose to use those most readily available. To some extent this was determined by those acceptable for use within the university, but that did have the advantage of support from the ICT services team. I think this is an important point. There is almost too much advice on what tools to use, with plenty of opinion on which are the best. What matters, particularly when quick set up is needed, is those which are available and for which you have good support. So while the options we chose – MS Teams – was good for a team used to using Outlook and Microsoft Office applications, for a group used to using, say, Google applications it would be better to choose tools which integrated with that suite.

Old but still got it!

Given the age of my Toshiba 660 laptop, it’s obsolete operating system, limited RAM, and hard drive already bursting at the seams, I approached setting up with some trepidation, concerned that it would no longer be supported, or might just fall over under the strain! In the end I need not have worried. For the record (and to make me seem much more tech-savvy than I actually am) the process involved:

  • Installing Cisco AnyConnect Client (fortunately there was one available for Windows 7)
  • Connecting to a VPN
  • Mapping network drives I would need to access
  • Connecting using the appropriate security credentials
  • Downloading and installing Microsoft Teams and linking with the relevant work teams

That went very well at work. Admittedly, at one point I began to doubt that I knew how to spell my own name, let alone All the passwords I had to juggle (no, DON’T use just one!) and I did have to make one call to a very calm and collected IT services engineer (thank you) but generally it was much more straightforward than I had feared.

A pity, then, that when I got home nothing worked! I remapped the drives on the advice of colleagues who had similar problems, but it turned out to be an issue with the VPN pathway. When I sorted that it all came to life. Well, apart from having to reinstall the MS Teams app the first time I tried to use it. After that it worked like a dream; admittedly a slightly flaky dream where things judder a bit occasionally and there’s a slight delay in most actions, but things worked acceptably.

I didn’t find the MS Teams layout particularly intuitive at first, but once I got the hang of it, everything seemed to do what it was meant to, so we’re happily messaging and even doing video team meetings (sorry about the neon running top colleagues). I like the way it integrates with other MS features like outlook calendars, contacts and OneDrive.

I have to say though, what I’m most pleased about is the performance of my nine year old laptop, on its second battery, with it’s ten year old operating system and Office 2007 applications. It makes you wonder whether the shiny new hardware and expensive upgrades that are pushed at us are really worth it. A bit like me, there may be newer, slimmer models available, but there’s life in the old dog yet!

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.

How schools can help tackle knives

I wrote this post in February 2018, then updated it in April to include information about the Home Office #KnifeFree campaign launched in March. This new UK-wide anti-knife campaign picks up on many of the themes of the Scottish No Knives, Better Lives campaign, which I mentioned in the original post, and forms part of the governments forthcoming Serious Violence Strategy.

Knives and Children

This post is about a difficult topic: knives and children. Often thought of as an issue for schools in urban areas, the last couple of years have seen an upsurge in knife carrying and knife crime among children and young people across England and Wales, with knife crime increasing by 21% overall in 2017, despite increases in sentencing. In part, this has been driven by ‘County lines’ operations by drug gangs seeking to recruit children outside of large cities. As a 2017 National Crime Agency report describes, ‘County lines’ is characterised, among other features, by the exploitation of children and vulnerable people and the use of violence, with 85% of police forces reporting drug transportation and knife carrying being synonymous. The Children’s Society has more information about County lines on their website and have also produced a guide for parents who are worried that their children might be being criminally exploited.

Prompted by a lack of publicly available demographic information about those who died from knife attacks, The Guardian newspaper ran a Beyond the Blade campaign throughout last year. This collected both figures on knife crime and collected individual stories of those affected by its effects. As it turned out, 39 children and teenagers killed during the campaign, the worst year in 40 years. For each of these young lives lost there is a poignant story of a lost future and a family left to grieve.

Positive news from Scotland

In contrast to the worrying upward trend in knife crime reported in England and Wales, the Figures in Scotland are in decline, with no deaths of young people due to knife attacks in 2017. Scotland has a national approach to knife crime which addresses it as a social policy issue, rather than just a criminal justice issue, and attempts to address root causes. This approach was originally adopted in response to a 2005 UN report identifying Scotland as the most violent country in the developed world. The Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) has adopted a public health approach where the police, health, social services & education work together to address the issue by tackling the causal factors. Scotland also has a national knife crime information website: No knives, better lives. It provides information for young people, as well as separate sections for parents and practitioners, and allows conversations to start and information to be given, both anonymously. It’s well worth giving it a look, whether or not you live in Scotland.

This approach has had considerable success. During 2006 – 2011, 40 children and teenagers were killed in Scotland, but during 2011 – 2016 this number had reduced to just 8. Incidents of individuals carrying knives dropped by two thirds in same period.

Initially, policing and prosecution led the approach with harder sentencing and more stop-and-search, although less than 2% found with knife. The VRU did not stop there however. The police mapped all the gangs. Those at risk of prosecution were invited to a meeting which started by warning gang members that if thy continued would be convicted and go to prison, but then went on to educate. Police officers spoke about the injuries they saw and bereaved mother spoke about the loss of her son to a stabbing. The gang members were then offeredhelp – education, employment, housing. VRU is state funded, not charities competing for funding.

I think the positive impact of the national, collaborative approach taken in Scotland offers a model for the future in the rest of the UK. We haven’t yet got a national strategy, but we can make a start where we are by using the same elements:

  • Education about the impact of knife use and the penalties under law
  • A strong stance on prevention
  • Lines of communication and approach for children and young people
  • Collaborative work to provide real alternatives and a way out for those involved

What about schools?

So, what does this mean for those of us working in schools who have seen an increase in knife carrying and maybe violence among young people, perhaps as a result of ‘county lines’ linked activity? These are my thoughts on what is important:

1. Recognise that the behaviours we see are part of a bigger picture. It may also be the result of exploitation (whether or not the young people recognise it). The solution to such behaviour is far likely to come from a coordinated multi-agency approach, involving police, schools, social services and other parties. Schools can play a key role in working with others to help children understand the risks associated with knives.

2. Take a strong stance on safety. Of course there is a very real safety issue here, and I’m certainly not proposing that knife carrying is tolerated because those doing it may be exploited and/or afraid. The Scottish model shows us, however, that a strong legal stance is unlikely to work on its own, but is successful when combined with education and real initiatives to provide young people with a way out. Schools also need to think about how seriously they take the safety of pupils and staff: there are many institutions that would permanently exclude a pupil for possession of a knife, but are reluctant to use metal detectors (wands or knife arches) for fear of how this will be perceived. The DFE has recently updated the guidance on Searching, screening and confiscation with a particular emphasis on tackling bullying. This new guidance confirms the legal right of schools to use metal detectors without the need for consent from parents or pupils, and to refuse entry to those who do not comply.

3. Work with others, not in isolation. When a crisis hits a community, it can be tempting for everyone to hunker down in their own silos. This can sometimes lead to a blame game which solves nothing and hinders the communication and cooperation between education, police, social services, and the community which are vital to success. Schools also need to work with each other, recognising that issues affect whole communities, rather than just individual ‘problem’ schools. Teachers in particular can play a vital role in picking up early warning signs – even in helping to map involvement within a community – and communicating these to other agencies.

4. Help provide a way out to a better life. Distraction from drug-related and or gang activities can be useful, but there is a lot of evidence to indicate that once children are entangled financially, this is unlikely to be successful. The VRU project went as far as rehoming people when necessary. Local projects may not have the facility to do this, but schools can play a big part in providing alternatives through education and training, even for youngsters who may be the most challenging.

I also think it’s high time that teachers and school leaders started discussing this nationally. I suspect that the problems that have emerged for schools in Oxford, where I work, are being mirrored in towns and cities across the country – anywhere in easy reach of a big city by rail or road. Some great work is emerging in tackling knives, drugs and gang culture. There needs to be a way of sharing this.

April 2018 Update – #KnifeFree Campaign

In March, the Home Office launched a new anti-knife campaign called #KnifeFree, using advertising on social media and digital channels and the new KnifeFree website. This campaign draws on the Scottish No Knives, Better Lives format to tackle misconceptions about knife carrying and to provide routes to advice and further help. In particular, it uses real-life stories of young people who have made the choice not to carry knives to explore the consequences of carrying a knife, and to inspire young people to make the positive choice not to. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd has announced that this campaign will form part of the governments forthcoming Serious Violence Strategy.

I think that this campaign to raise awareness of the consequences of knife carrying is a welcome step towards tackling the issue. The successes of the approach in Scotland have been achieved through an integrated approach. Advertising campaigns and websites formed only one part of this and I believe that the rest of the UK will need to adopt a similarly collaborative approach between services, at both national and local level, if it is to achieve the same success in reducing the number of deaths, injuries, and violent crime among young people.