A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Governor training session where the leader asked the assembled group to reflect on three words that summarised the responsibilities of a Governing Body. My own suggestion was strategy, resources and finance; to be party to the overall thinking of the school, to be involved in the discussion about the effective use of money and also an overview of the school spending.
During that event and afterwards, the notion has remained with me, in that other events have brought the words to the fore.
I attended the National Education Trust (NET) annual lecture, where their recent book was also launched; Self-improving Schools, The Journey to Excellence, edited by Roy Blatchford and Rebecca Clark. All journeys require some forethought and planning if they are to be successful. Sometimes specific resources are needs and money might also need to be allocated to ensure success.
Primary Rocks Live was last weekend. It was an opportunity to listen to a range of speakers, the majority of whom shared some aspect of journeying, with underpinning plans and forethought.
That event was prefaced by the Government announcing the White Paper on educational reform.
I signed off on final practice trainees, who will now go onto be good teachers.
Thinking for yourself is an important aspect of being human. Each of us is unique, living our own personal journeys. Our ability to deal with issues as they arise is likely to be determined by prior experiences from which some transferable skill can be derived. Sometimes life allows us to be proactive in determining a course of action. At other times, it is our reactive abilities that are put to the test. To wonder what someone else would do might take up significant time when a rapid decision is needed. To that end, our decisions are autonomous.
As a teacher and as a head, planning the forward direction of either the class or the school required some analysis of the current situation, the forward need and reflection on perhaps several alternative courses of action, dependent on the availability of teacher or other resources, or the attendant cost. Sometimes it was a case of making do and mending, especially in the early days of my classroom career, where charity shops provided class library books, the seashore or woodland trips provided maths resources. These events predated the Local Management of Schools, from which time the whole school budget was allocated to the school to make strategic decisions. From a budget of a few thousand, heads were responsible for budgets of several hundred thousand or more. It made strategic thinking much clearer, with, in the case of my own school, the opportunity, with a rising roll, to better equip the school to offer a wider range of facilities that enhanced the learning and teaching opportunities.
Within this budgeting, I was able to allocate, with some certainty, budgets to subjects, based on the subject manager determining essential and desirable needs. In this way, a level of responsible, planned autonomy was embedded in middle leaders.
School development plans, within which subject leader plans were carefully articulated, to ensure a coherent, holistic approach, were created for three years, with a one year detailed plan. This enabled regular evaluation, within strategic thinking, that refined the direction of travel.
In other words, Governors, head and teachers were able to create a realistic plan for the school, which they knew well, including the community views and the needs of individual children. We kept in the black for the whole time I was head and were judged to be a good school.
Currently 85% of Primary Schools and 75% of Secondary Schools are deemed to be good or better, which, in my simple calculation, means that 15% of Primary and 25% of Secondary schools are less than good. These schools are likely to have very specific reasons for their lack of achievement.
Just a few might be;
Community; Higher than average turbulence, a transient population, perhaps with English as an Additional Language, if a higher immigrant population.
Community issues impacting on school. The sheer volume of need can sometimes overwhelm schools; poverty leading to hunger, clothing needs or overcrowded housing where privacy is at a premium.
Staffing; poor recruitment and retention, at all levels, leading to lack of consistency in underlying approaches, curriculum and behaviour, that puts additional pressures on teachers. It can also mean that a “tribal memory” is not built, upon which new entrants can build. Retaining staff with their embedded expertise is an essential element in school development, if internal mentoring and development is to have impact.
Building and resources; some older buildings have poor fabric and may, in themselves create significant distractions from the day to day teaching. It’s hard to teach and learn if the ceilings fall, or the windows are rotting. Resources may be old, unstable and unreliable, so diminishing opportunity or wasting staff time. They may be poorly stored, so become inaccessible.
Schools in more challenging situations may well need additional support, for the head and Governors, the teachers and support staff, as well as for members of the community. They require a level of joined up thinking that is based on very good local awareness. Their situations are often quite unique, so require unique solutions to problems that arise. They may require rapid responses to situations that can flare up very quickly. They need a head who can coordinate the necessary support rapidly and efficiently, in order to restore equilibrium.
Working within a good local authority, such as Hampshire, may well have coloured my thinking, but there were a number of occasions, as a head, that I was pleased to be a part of that organisation, as, often out of the blue, events happened that caught everyone by surprise, examples:-
A staffing issue requiring County Personnel advice to handle efficiently and legally.
An excluded child, whose parent complained to Governors, then the LA, then the Department for Children, families and Schools, causing several layers of tribunals.
The death of a teacher, followed by the death of my first wife.
Admin Officer, whose parent was taken seriously ill on a foreign holiday, requiring a month away from school.
Each of these could have caused the school to malfunction, but the rapid availability of legal, personnel, finance and bereavement advice, meant that a modicum of equilibrium was always maintained. Of course, many other essential functions were available at the end of a phone call.
Schools operate within often fluid human situations, most out of their control. Life can affect everyone, from the lowest to the highest. No-one is immune from events.
For this reason, I am against the thrust of the current Education White Paper. It offers much disruption, with the potential for huge levels of distraction from the main purposes of educating the children in each school, to achieve a limited goal.
Education thrives within a stable environment, where there is a high calibre, collegiate staffroom in every establishment, clarity in curriculum and pedagogy, working within budgetary constraints, but which allow for most major strategic decisions to be made. Economies of scale, embedded in a high functioning LA, may not be able to be replicated within a MAT. Locally, one only has to look at unitary authorities, to recognise that the loss of scale put significant pressure on the school system. Hampshire has supported some functions of Southampton, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.
High quality teachers are essential. Working as a Link Tutor for Winchester University, I know that, on an annual basis, a couple of hundred high grade trainees graduate. With a School Direct connection, a local TSA produces ten a year. Next year, 18 are required within the TSA, but the cap on recruitment means that ten have been recruited. I am still waiting to hear about Uni recruitment. An idea of supply and demand is an essential underpinning of the system as a whole.
CPD comes up as a regular issue. This could be addressed with a simple requirement that a minimum of 20 hours self-study is required, with evidence. This is a model that currently applies to the legal profession.
Sometimes money is the answer to a problem. It may be that, to encourage staff to an area a premium is paid. This has been a long standing issue in London. If this is needed in specific areas, then available money, allocated to reorganisation of the whole system could be used to pump-prime improvement and create the necessary stability.
Sometimes, too, it is necessary to tackle thorny issues. From the point where children transferred to a Junior or Secondary school with defined levels of achievement, where the receiving school chose to ignore the earlier outcomes, there was often a defined dip in performance at years 3, 7 and 8. It was argued that a level 3 in infants was different from the Junior or Secondary context. In a climate where every school has their own system of assessment, it is highly likely that this situation will persist, with more testing on transfer.
Far from enhancing the life chances of children, I am afraid that the current trend in overview proposals is likely to condemn several years’ worth of children to an unstable system, which could, over a relatively short period, implode, if direction is unclear, school managements become more insecure through corporate decisions, the supply of high quality teachers cannot be guaranteed, building fabric and resources receive limited upgrade and improvement and finances limit the scope for enhancement, or even replacement.
If this becomes a reality, we have to remember who pushed the button; blame the Government, the ministers and their advisors. I do wonder how many of them have ever run a school, or even been in a classroom.
Schools need room to manoeuvre, at all levels. Thinking like the corporate chief may not allow for that.