Archive | September 2015

The School Walk: community building at its best.

We had our school walk yesterday. It’s an event that has been occurring for decades in the school’s history, and something that really astounded and amazed me when I started working there last year. You just don’t hear about school walks happening anymore. When I was at school we did a walk when I was in year 8, but that was it. It was never run again after that year. The other local school, which I had friends at, used to do one too, but they don’t anymore.

I can see why schools are no longer willing to arrange them. They must be a health and safety nightmare for those at the top of the leadership hierarchy, and I must admit I used every opportunity yesterday to pull our Business Manager’s leg, asking him how his nerves were holding up each time I saw him. One of my former colleagues even tweeted me to say he “didn’t believe schools were still allowed to do things like that”.

So at 9.30 yesterday morning we set off marching across the Yorkshire Wolds, 500 students in high spirits, laughing, joking, and singing. Year 11 are allowed to do the walk in fancy dress, and to give them credit they had really made an effort. There were sumo wrestlers, NASA pilots, Teletubbies, and cave-girls, amongst myriad other colourful and eye-catching creations. Each house had nominated a charity that they would raise money for and the Y11s had to commit to raising a minimum amount in order to come in fancy dress. They had really gone to town.

Although we moved off in year groups, half a mile into the walk the groups were starting to mingle, as faster walkers moved up to the front and slower ones fell back. As we crossed wold after wold, skirting the local country pile, the sun beamed down, and gradually fancy-dress headwear gave way as teenage bonces began to sweat.  Five miles into the walk, we stopped at a quaint little village hall for tea and cakes (the interior walls were all painted with murals of idyllic pastoral scenes, which somehow reminded me of The Darling Buds of May). The students had donated cakes and biscuits to be sold to raise money for the Macmillan coffee morning event, and our Head of MFL was doing a roaring trade as I arrived with our NQT.

Again we formed up and moved off in groups, year 7 leading the way. Another 3 miles in we stopped for lunch at a beautiful little Wolds village that oozed a Mediaeval ambience with its large central green and houses laid out well back in a pretty square. By this time all that was left to do was gently amble the 7 miles back, gradually descending back down onto the plains of the Ouse and Humber.

By the time we arrived back at school most of us were exhausted but in great spirits. We laughed about the pain in our feet and legs and everyone agreed it was a great day. The cynical educator might worry that the students had each lost five hours of learning yesterday, equating to nearly 2,500 learning hours in total. But to my mind, the fundraising and the community spirit that an event like this creates is more than worth that sacrifice. Everyone that took part has memories of a great day, and for our students they will remember this well after they’ve left us and moved onto other phases in their lives. More schools should carry out similar events, and stop the school walk from becoming a thing of the past.

Sharing the Burden; literacy and the new year 7s.

It’s always interesting watching the new year 7s settling in; most of them still carry that innocence, naïveté and curiosity which characterises much younger children, and they’re yet to become burdened by much of the troubles that are caused by teenage hormones and peer pressure. As an English teacher it’s lovely to say their faces in rapture as you read them a story (mine were listening enthralled to the tale of Romulus and Remus yesterday) or to see the excitement and anticipation when they are told about a task that they are really enthusiastic about.

Each year the same conversations happen in English departments about the new year 7s. When the KS2 data first comes through in the summer term we roll our eyes in despair at the number receiving level 5s in reading and writing, convinced that there is witchcraft afoot and that the numbers have been “massaged”. When the students come through the door in September our doubts are confirmed when we are faced with students who have very high scores but are practically unable to string a sentence together or answer a question intelligibly. Then we mark their books and our worst fears are confirmed – that student with the high level can’t use capital letters; this one doesn’t know how to use apostrophes; another can’t write in anything other than simple sentences. There genuinely is a mismatch between the KS2 data and the eager, expectant faces that we see shining in front of us in the first days of the new academic year.

And yet these students genuinely did achieve these results, and even if they didn’t the reality is that that’s what we’ll be judged on. We all know that they are trained up to passing the exam – we do the same thing with our year 11s – and that they’ve just had the best part of six months with very little structured learning (i.e. since the SATs finished), so we’ve got to find a way to get them back up to speed and make back lots of ground very quickly. I’ve worked in various systems that have attempted to achieve this. These have included: a one-off fortnightly literacy lesson where students were taught in forms but divided into ability groups and given work sheets appropriate to their level with different literacy activities (didn’t work); a weekly literacy lesson where students were given whole class instruction to remind them of different literacy skills (didn’t work); fortnightly library lessons where students read for an hour (didn’t work); weekly library sessions where students read for half the lesson and complete activities for the other half (didn’t work).

I’m convinced that the problem with all these activities is that they are “bolt-on” prescriptions that delegate the problem to the English department and therefore don’t address the true issue, this being that all secondary teachers should be teaching reading and writing all the time through their own subjects. Reading and communication skills should be taught by everybody; we should all be expecting our students to write at length (the best way to develop and deepen our students’ thinking) and we should all be using challenging texts to deliver information about our subjects, as well as designing activities that teach our students to read actively and reflectively. Lastly, every teacher should be marking students work by assessing not only what they know but how they communicate what they know and then building time into lessons for students to correct and improve their work.

It is inevitable that in the time that elapses between KS2 SATs and starting secondary school that many of our new year 7s become sloppy in their reading and communication. However, these skills haven’t disappeared; they are just lying dormant waiting to be rekindled. It is only through making every teacher a teacher of literacy that these students (and those in other year groups) will become really effective readers and communicators.

The Problem with Progressivism: reflections on “Progressively Worse” by Robert Peal.

Reading “Progressively Worse”, I found myself nodding my head and gnashing my teeth in equal measure. This is the book I’ve been waiting to read for 10 years, confirming and providing evidence for much of what I have thought about education in this country generally and about my own experiences in particular. It covers topics that I have frequently discussed with like-minded colleagues and hotly debated with those who defend and prescribe “progressive” methods and ideas in the classroom.

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 deals with “History”; in it Peal charts the rise of Progressivism from 1960-2010, showing how the focus on child-centred approaches has led to the erosion of the role of the teacher and the rise and acceptance of unruly behaviour in state schools. Consequently, levels of literacy have barely changed since WW2, and social inequality has been perpetuated by the belief that a good moral and academic education is the preserve of an elite and not something we should expect to be attainable for the majority. Ironically, this has been repeatedly reinforced by a cultural elite of progressive educationists who have controlled teacher training courses and government quangos. These academics (often with no direct experience of state education) have inculcated generations of student teachers in the progressive philosophy of education that champions the work of thinkers who expound ideas that children are innately good and will learn and improve organically if provided with the right environment. Successive Education Ministers of both main parties have failed to change this simply because of the overwhelming number of these people who hold powerful and influential positions and who have become guardians of the progressive education movement and the tools by which this hegemony of ideas continues to pervade the classroom, failing successive generations of students in a deplorable and unforgivable cycle of failure.

Part 2 deals with “Pedagogy”, and bases much of its discussion on the work of Daniel Willingham and John Hattie, whose works everybody in education must by now be familiar with. Hattie’s seminal “Visible Learning” unarguably demonstrated that there is no mystery to teaching effectively; there are strategies that improve student progress and learning and strategies that don’t. Among the most effective is “direct instruction”, the very thing that puts the teacher in charge of the classroom and the learning, and that teachers have been dissuaded from using for decades due to the fact it’s deemed as authoritarian, boring and alienating.

As I read the book, I was constantly reminded of a member of an SLT where I worked several years ago. This person was often given a platform to speak to the whole staff (over a hundred teachers, many in the very early years of their careers) who would constantly reiterate two crazy ideas: one, if you experienced bad behaviour in the classroom it was your own fault for not making lessons engaging or entertaining enough; second, that no teacher was a teacher of a subject; rather, we were all teachers of children. In the first couple of years these ideas used to confuse me; as I became more established, they enraged me. As a teacher of an academic subject (English), there invariably has to be lots of reading and writing involved, which is often just plain hard work. Was it right then for me to expect students to kick off when asked to do these things? Of course not. The second idea I actually found quite insulting. The implication was that anybody could teach any subject because we are all teaching the same skill sets anyway. What rubbish. How can a teacher of English be expected to do a good job of developing enthusiastic and expert geographers, historians, mathematicians or scientists? It just isn’t feasible. I’ve no doubt most of us could hobble through the curricula of other departments. But to do it well and do it justice? I don’t think so. At best, we’d deliver a mediocre course that kids liked; at worst they’d be taught incompetently and put off the subject for life.

This person was a complete advocate of the progressive methods which are so derided in Peal’s book. A firm believer in a permissive and tolerant approach to discipline and pedagogy, this SLT member wreaked havoc and contributed to a legacy that radically lowered standards. I remember one incident where I’d asked for SLT support in a lesson where a Year 11 student refused to do any work and repeatedly told me to “fuck off”. This member of SLT came down (my heart sank as I saw their arrival) and begged and pleaded with the lad to go with them, was told to “fuck off” several times themselves, then proceeded to say to me that I should leave the student be as he wasn’t doing any harm and it was nearly lunchtime anyway. I don’t believe anything ever happened about this incident (needless to say the school is now in special measures and its results threaten to plummet below the government’s floor standards).

Other incidents from my experience came to mind as I read the book. A more positive one is the way I’ve taught my year 10s this year. I started as HoD at a new school last September (2014). When I started I dutifully rearranged the classroom into groups of four. My year 10 group is a very large group with lots of big and boisterous but bright boys in it. For the first term the lessons were ok, but whole class discussions and silent reading and writing tasks were difficult to run effectively due to the fact that students were constantly facing (and therefore distracting) each other. After Christmas, I rearranged the desks into “herringbone” shaped groups of four, and by February half term these groups had morphed into rows formed along the “herringbone” shape. The effect on student participation and concentration was immediate and prolific. Instead of wasting time reminding students of what they ought to be doing, I was spending virtually the whole of the lesson conducting lively debate and discussion or supporting individual students as they got on with the task at hand. Coupled with quality written and verbal feedback, the students made great progress. For me the evidence of the success of this return to a traditional approach was evidenced in two ways: firstly, in a class of 33 students, 14 achieved an A or A* in their summer mock exam; secondly, in an end of year survey, 40% of Y10 students reported that they felt that their progress and the way they had been thoroughly prepared for assessments were positive parts of their experiences this year (the responses were unprompted and completely open-ended).

My only issue with the book is Peal’s unswerving support for the Academies and Free-schools programmes. He sees these as silver bullets that can rapidly improve the life chances of individuals and move schools away from the grip of progressive educationists. I think this is misguided; education really should remain in state hands. There is no evidence to show that the Academies programme has worked; in fact recent reports in the media and from Ofsted show that generally academies do no better than state schools. Peal does pick some examples that buck the trend, especially Wilshaw’s former project, Mossbourne Academy, which really is a shining example of a traditional approach working wonders, but this is an anomaly rather than the norm. Instead of the relentless privatisation of schools, the way to save education is to ensure that schools are ensuring that they deliver education using pedagogy that is effective and evidence-based, something that I think the new Ofsted frameworks are moving towards under the leadership of Michael Wilshaw, who has repeatedly stated that Ofsted inspectors must not seek to find particular methods in the classroom providing that what they see works.

So, despite Peal’s pro-privatisation approach, I whole-heartedly recommend this book to all educators. I only wish I’d had it to hand in the first years of my career when I was constantly railed in observations for the lack of “kinaesthetic” activities in my  lessons or the bad behaviour that arose from the fact that I expected kids to work hard and to read and write at length. After reading Progressively Worse, I feel refreshed, invigorated and empowered. As a teacher, I’m now in a stronger and more confident position to argue for pedagogy that works, not pedagogy that conforms to some misguided romantic philosophical ideal of what childhood should be. The book should be compulsory reading for all student teachers and should be on the staff CPD bookshelf of every school.