New year’s resolutions – for other people

Ofsted

It is received wisdom in the teacher world that Ofsted is not fit for purpose. Too many people have blogged much more eloquently than I to explain why; simply put – Ofsted need to scale back in a big way. They need to be mindful that everything they say becomes gospel in schools that are gunning for Good or better – that is, all schools. They need to look at the data: are results (including student progress from starting points) good? If so, why? What is that school doing well that other schools can learn from? And if results are awful, as they are in too many schools, what does that school need to do to improve, and how can it be supported to improve outcomes for all students? Other than this – do we really need anything else?

Department for Education (political influence on)

Yes, I know there is an election coming up and you want to put out enough policy ideas to make all the interest groups vote for you. But please, enough. Enough of change. I’ve spent my holiday working out how we will implement the new GCSEs and the new A-levels next September, and calling exam boards who assure me their support materials will be out “soon.” It’s not good enough. You can’t tear up KS3, 4 and 5 at the same time and expect us to just do it all without support, while doing the job we’ve always done (teaching children) as well as we’ve always done it (or better). There are not enough hours in the day. So just spend a year consolidating, supporting, reviewing, consulting. 

Headteachers

Headteachers have the greatest responsibility to build their school’s ethos and support their teachers. I’ve been blessed to have only experienced incredible Headteachers, driven by strong moral purpose, who are exceptional at what they do. The Heads I have worked for have challenged me to be better, but have also supported me without question or anger when I’ve made mistakes. I will never forget the first big mistake I made, in my first year of teaching. The Head took me into her office, asked me what I did wrong, asked what I would do if I could do it again, listened to my rubbish response, and coached me to a better one.

Students

We think we know our students, and in some ways, perhaps we do. But in other ways, we can never know them. We can never know the struggles they face, we can never know what their formative years have done to them, and we can never know their true potential. We just need to keep raising the bar. In my second year of teaching, I predicted a student in the lowest set for English a B, thinking I was being very generous. She came up to me with that grade, asking: “do you think I’ll get a B?” I replied, thinking I was being supportive: “I know you will.” She retorted: “I’m going to get an A, Miss – you’ll see.” And she did. And I did.

 Teachers

All teachers want the best for their students, but that aspiration can look different to different people. There are still teachers out there who say: “that’s really good progress for a student like that.” There are still teachers out there who say: “we can’t control their home lives, and so they won’t ever achieve what they could.” There are still teachers out there who say: “you have to understand that this child has special educational needs.” I know there are, because I’ve met them. These statements are wrong. They are wrong, and they underestimate both what the child is capable of, and the adult. We, as teachers, have enormous power to change a child’s life trajectory. Let’s stop being scared and use that power.

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Time spent on the “other” side

The Department for Education, tucked away on Great Smith Street in the aptly named “Sanctuary Buildings,” is remarkable, if for no other reason than its foliage. My abiding thought of that building is the giant plants, scaling the central atrium area and winding their way through all floors.

Spending time in this hallowed building has been my privilege, having trained with Teach First, who provide the advantage of the DfE’s ear, and who ship we self-selecting few in from time to time to discuss “issues.”

My first adventures in this building came in the Summer of 2011, when I was, again, privileged, to complete a “Summer Project” (Teach First’s kitsch name for an internship) there. My memories of those frantic two weeks are few, but stark. I remember working with some of the most incredibly dedicated and talented humans, fired by a burning desire to do good for our children. I remember they seemed to work endless hours that summer, and rarely took lunch away from their desks. I remember feeling as if their mission was my mission. I remember they seemed eager to reach out to teachers, although not entirely sure how to orchestrate this.

I remember having the same discussion with a number of civil servants, explaining I didn’t think I would ever be able to swallow my opinions and deliver a policy I disagreed with. I believe that, of those who I spoke to for career advice, 100% of them advised me to not join the civil service for this sole reason.

At that time in my early teaching career, I was such a mediocre teacher and such a (comparatively) decent administrator, such a career seemed welcoming – it felt like something I could be successful in, unlike teaching. But I’m delighted with their advice, and delighted I stuck it out in teaching.

Nonetheless, I still relish the opportunities I have been offered to enter that building and have a bit of a rant. The department’s consultations are inconceivably far-reaching, but I am lucky that through Teach First we have a say. I’m also honoured to have spoken on education with Ministers of State, although I believe firmly in the adage: “if you’ve nothing kind to say, say nothing.” And so I will move on swiftly from this particular topic.

This week, as one minute part of a consultation on the child poverty strategy, I was confronted with a government which appears to be trying desperately to make this blight on our social consciousness history. With a Minister who honestly acknowledged that, in times of austerity, we couldn’t simply throw money at the problem. And with colleagues who ranged from passionate and articulate teachers, to well-meaning and well-versed people on the peripheries of the school system, to frighteningly intelligent intellectuals whose job it is to make decisions which affect each and every one of our students.

I’m reluctant to bring politics into this blog, because I like to think the best of people, and I believe that all politicians (like all people) have good intentions. And despite the problems I have with some education policies past and present, I also temper my tendency to dismiss with the knowledge that what our country lacks is consistency; do we ever really have the chance to assess a policy, when one child’s education is steered by more than one political party across their time in school?

And of course, when tinkering with the whole system, we cannot afford to forget that there are individual lives in play. For every policy and draft and body of research and set of opinions, we have a collection of children – all hopeful, all full of potential; some succeeding against the odds, some succeeding because of the odds, and some being failed by us every single day, because the mechanism does not exist to eliminate our world’s ills with mere will. Would that we could.

That summer in 2011, I weighed making an impact on the hundred-or-so students I came into direct contact with every day with the potential to affect the educational quality of all children in the country. But in a way these are two sides of the same coin; when we work hand in hand, the micro and the macro, a picture begins to form of the certainties in each area of the country or city for students from all pockets of belonging; and what needs to be developed and what eliminated, both for these immediate students, and their children long after they have left us.

I remain ever optimistic that we, as teachers, can make a difference. I remain hopeful that we will begin to work together as a unit towards one united goal of equality in education for all. I rest assured that far more intelligent people than I are doing their best to piece together the parts which will bring the eventual day to pass, when all children will go to their local school, which will provide fantastic educational outcomes for them regardless of background.