Last night, 4.6.16, a visit to the Chichester Festival Theatre for the second night of Ross, a Terence Rattigan play about TE Lawrence, did a bit of gap filling, in knowledge, as a result of the programme notes filling in some previously unknown details, and in understanding a little more, that 100 years ago, political meddling in the Middle East and a plan to divide the region between Britain and France had been agreed two years previously, meant that the 1916-18 Arab uprising was, at best a diversion, at worst a betrayal.
T E "Lawrence" was, in fact T E Champion, one of the illegitimate sons of Sir Thomas Champion, who ran away with the children's governess to Oxford and set up home there, having four boys. Cruelty from a domineering mother had a profound effect on T E, creating a confused child, who ran away to join the army at 17, but was brought back, became a university undergraduate and developed a significant interest in Middle East archaeology. In 1914, he was employed as a map maker, then drafted into the Arab Bureau, based in Cairo. His exploits are the stuff of legend, with a fair sprinkling of myth.
The play, with an excellent cast, led by Joseph Feinnes, showed the person inside the character, from his outward inner confidence, the deep understanding of the locality and the people, well beyond other peers, the maverick behaviour that isolated him from others, then his disintegration, following torture and probable rape at the hands of Turkish captors, designed to break his will.
The play also shows the need for inner peace after the Middle Eastern exploits, resulting in his enlisting in the RAF, seeking to be just a recruit and a "number", rather than a famous celebrity. If this play doesn't get five star reviews, I'd be very surprised.
It reminded me that there is a range of needs in each of us, and that family is the starting point for our security, with, for many children, school being a close second in providing stability.
My gran liked to knit, as did many in her generation. She was a professional seamstress, working in a local department store doing any necessary alterations of dresses. Living through two world wars, she was very much a make do and mender. Being the daughter of fishing boat owners, she could knit socks on round needles and also effect almost invisible darns to pull together holes that might appear. Clothes were literally made to last, with careful husbandry. Pride in her ability was sometimes tempered in my self-aware mid-1960s teenage self.
My arms were sometimes put to good use while she indulged in the unravelling of an old jumper that would, in time be recycled into another pattern, to enjoy several more years of wear.
Holes, gaps and cavities was the title of one of the Nuffield Primary Science 5-13 scheme, which was a sort of bible for Primary science for the first half of my teaching career. Practical, but with clear structure, supporting both experienced and inexperienced teachers, they were also easy to read, and, as such, they were accessible and could be translated into very effective classroom practice. The scheme covered multiple subjects, so that, over the course of a Primary career, there were opportunities to cover a range of topics, but also to revisit some at a different level, as there were additional challenging books for more able or older learners. It provided structure, in a readable way, so that teachers could develop scientific knowledge and skill.
Creating an understandable structure underpins any organisation, especially a school, where communication is a key aspect of the whole. Organising a school to ensure that there are no holes, gaps or cavities takes a great deal of strategic thinking and, even when you think you have succeeded, holes appear where teachers get sick, resources are not where they should be when required, or a roof develops a leak. These are distractions, and can often be easily remedied, but, should they become persistent, with distraction becoming a norm, then it is easy to fall into a reactive way of working.
Strategic thinking requires quality, dedicated thinking time, across the whole organisation, if it is to function effectively. This might be more easily available to senior leaders, where the budget allows non-teaching time, but, quite often, it needs to be bought in specially to provide cover. As it embeds a cost, as it does all time in school, it needs to be used efficiently, with clearly articulated outcomes to justify the money spent.
Some may see this time as a luxury, but, without strategic thinking providing a coherent direction of travel, it is possible for the organisation to rapidly become dysfunctional, as individuals do their own thing. This was articulated as a characteristic of the curriculum before 1987, when the first National Curriculum was introduced. When the school where I was deputy head at the time audited the existing provision against the new expectation, we had a 95%+ correspondence, so were enabled to carry on with a few tweaks. Time was not wasted in reinventing what we already had.
Strategic thinking, well ordered, organised and communicated, provides the essential foundation from which to build the edifice that eventually becomes the working model of the school. If this is founded on clear evidence, from internal and external auditing, there is likely to be greater acceptance of development and action plans. Keeping colleagues in the thinking loop is a very useful, if sometimes time-consuming activity.
In contrast, the past few years have seen what can only be described as an earthquake in education, with a tsunami of initiatives from the Government that has required detailed scrutiny, reordering and subsequent readjustment of systems and structures. In the welter of change, it is quite possible that there will be a few holes, gaps or even, in some case, cavities that become evident in working practice.
The curriculum, in Primary, can appear to have regressed to a largely Maths and English based core, with lip service paid to science as a practical subject, possibly MFL, PE and music. History, Geography, Art, Design Technology could all be argued to have been somewhat sidelined. This, to me, runs somewhat counter to the accompanying “knowledge agenda”, with maths and English lessons having to invent knowledge contexts for activity. And yet, a rich curriculum, offering opportunity across all areas would provide a stronger base from which to develop. In this case, less is not more.
The “do less but better” idea is seductive, especially to an experienced teacher, who will already have an established repertoire of skills from which to draw to add value to the slim core. In the hands of the less experienced, the slim core can become the whole, so further diminishing the value offered. However, if “do less but better” meant embedding drafting and redrafting ideas, creating higher quality outcomes and more secure expectation baselines, then it could be of benefit. This was the case in 1987, as a result of the National Writing Project and judicious use of level descriptors.
Assessment conversations, across schools, have been made a little more difficult with the removal of a national (if flawed by time) language of description. Levels died. Interestingly, although the number system changed, GCSE grading didn’t, so there remains a commonality of language among those colleagues within their subjects.
Progress? To understand where children currently are in their learning has become more complex, with some systems articulating them as “emerging, expected or exceeding”. It is sometimes hard to understand the nuanced difference between each category, as different interpretations are put on each, as in “They can’t be at “expected” until they have completed the year programme of study”. If a teacher doesn’t cover the curriculum, children can’t be operating at or above expected… Equally, a teacher who is more focused on their delivery may well exclude thinking about learners and their progress. Yet both, to be effective, must go together.
This has come to the fore this week, with the publication of conversion tables for the KS1 SATs, which appear to demonstrate that "pass marks" have been determined for "expected" achievement. In Maths, 37+ marks out of 60 gives a standardised score of 100+. In reading, 22+ out of 40 is the "standard". SPaG is 25 out of 40. Forgive me for being a little cynical, but, to me, this means that children, even those achieving the "pass mark" or better, apart from those with 100%, will have some kind of "gap". If this gap is not noted, to be addressed afterwards, it may remain a gap. This was one of the reasons why people argued against the previous "levels" system, that children could be awarded a "grade", but still have gaps. Even where schools have developed Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), children will transition with areas either uncovered (teacher issue), or as an insecure aspect of their understanding. This, to me, is where quality tracking takes place, rather than the usual descriptor of tracking as pure data.
SEND can appear to be in "freefall", with significant aspects of the system regularly reported as at best over-stretched, leaving vulnerable learners even more vulnerable.
Phonics is less an argument between pro and anti phonics, with accusations of being "phonics deniers"; rather it is often more between systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) as opposed to analytic phonics. It sometimes feels as if it gets in the way of discussions about a decline in reading for enjoyment.
School and pre-school places? Can appear at times to be “Promises, promises; what crisis?” I wonder how many settings are really geared up to offer thirty hours per child?
ITE and “teacher shortage”/crisis? Classrooms need a teacher to lead them. In the absence of a teacher, classes may well grow in size. The seeming lack of coordination in teacher supply is a dereliction of strategic management. One local TSA, asked to provide 18 trainees across the alliance, plus a few more since, has been allowed to take ten, a shortfall that could have impact in a year's time locally.
Schools need leadership and, it would appear that here is a shortage of applicants. If a school has no head and no teachers, it can’t really be a school in 2016. How many schools can an executive head really seek to have overview as headTEACHER and, once the role is established, across a number of schools, who will have the skills to take over the whole?
CPD is likely always to be something of a poor relation in the system, as it relies, to a large extent on internal funding, which, as it is 80%+ spent on staffing, often leaves little for training. However, it is a significant element in retention.
Talking at teachers, talking down at teachers, adopting a telling approach to people who have intelligence and who are employed to think is demeaning and belittling. Instead of working with the system and the professionals, a “we know best” approach is leaving the whole vulnerable.
I’d argue that, in it’s current state, education could be creating significant cavities, that will become evident over the next few years. Government may also have created the conditions for the “perfect storm”, by disabling aspects of the system.
I wonder whose “fault” it will be. It won’t be enough to say “darn it”, but I hope they are good at unravelling and reworking the wool, before the fabric frays and is unusable.
Perhaps it needs a TE Lawrence (Champion), to take better control of the troops on the ground and blow authority. Current national leadership can often appear like first world war generals, directing troops from a distance, with very limited local knowledge. It's interesting though, that if difficulty happens, the worst that can happen to a politician is to be voted out, or to step down.
Meanwhile, the troops have to get on with the daily battles. Thankfully, some significant leaders are emerging.