things I notice in schools

20 Jun 2015

John Tomsett: a deeper way of considering school improvement

You know the sort of book that, as you read it, it meets you half way. You recognize many of your own ideas, values, hopes and mistakes. Well 'Love over Fear'  was it, for me. John Tomsett nails it. Everything he writes is focused on the core business: great teaching, great provision for every student. ‘Make sure your school leadership team is focused upon the core business of school, improving teaching and learning.’

I’m a skimmer. I get through a lot of text. Fast. I can’t remember the last professional book I read where I didn’t skip or skim a page. I didn’t skip a sentence of ‘Love over Fear’. It’s a compelling read and beautifully written. It embraces John’s philosophy of education, autobiography, wider management theories and a sensible commentary on what it looks like in his school. Absolutely tremendous.

It’s a tough call to include significant moments of personal history. But John does this from a deep well and respect for his parents and the community where he grew up. Without ever becoming sentimental he describes the influence of both parents: his mother’s stoicism and his father’s love of the natural world and his incredible work ethic. He weaves aspects of his own story into each chapter. And some of it is hilarious. The firework fiasco. You will have to buy the book to find out what happened. 

Some gems:

The way he talks about students:

‘Fundamentally students need to feel loved and I really don’t care what anyone might think of that, to be honest, because if I know anything about teaching, I know that is true.’

On trust:

‘Trust them. Choose your moment and use the phrase, I’m going to trust you to do this, looking directly into their eyes. It works.’

On Early Years:

‘The motivations behind why I teach have changed over the years; I used to want to teach only sixth formers – now I think early years is probably the most important age group.’

On being a headteacher:

‘As a Headteacher, I have always taught. I cannot imagine a life without teaching. Teaching is still the best part of my day, bar none. My strongly held belief is that if the Headteacher is not teaching, or engaged in helping others improve their teaching, in his school, then he is missing the point. The only thing Headteachers need obsess themselves with is improving the quality of teaching, both their colleagues’ and their own.’

John’s thoughts on the primacy of the quality of relationships with students apply equally to his colleagues. And he draws on ancient wisdom and recent research to back this up – Fullan, Elder, EEF, Nuttall, Seneca and Virgil. Of course he knows this already, but very good to have his observations grounded in a wider pool of research.

It’s a big ask: to write a serious book about the principles and practicalities of leadership. John’s book is accessible, thoughtful, moving and funny in equal measure.  I predict ‘Love over Fear’ will be essential reading for every leader of learning, from headteacher to NQT, in every school.

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26 Mar 2015

Mastery - some considerations

There is a great deal of discussion about what 'mastery' means. The new national curriculum which came into effect from September 2014 is underpinned by the concept of mastery. This has a number of implications for lesson planning. The draft performance descriptors for use in key stage 1 and 2 statutory teacherassessment for 2015/2016 refer to four performance descriptors: mastery, national, working towards and below national standard.

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23 Jan 2015

Sensational SEN

Over a third of special schools received an outstanding grade in the Autumn term 2014. Writing in the Guardian, Laura McInerney was surprised that there hadn't been more publicity about this good news. It's a great article with insight into what it might be like for parents with a child in a special school and her observations from talking to heads of special schools. What is shameful is how little publicity this remarkable achievement received from politicians and officials.

 This is my take on why so many special schools have been rated as outstanding.

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18 Jan 2015

Data discussion: behind every statistic is a child

First of all the limitations of data: The figures can't tell us everything. They are usually out of date. And sometimes they are wrong. Which is why the data always, always needs a conversation around it. The main source of information for how well students are doing are in RaiseonLine. For each school there are six sections: context, absence and exclusions, prior attainment, attainment, progress and closing the gaps.  Looking at a school's RoL helps to identify some lines of enquiry - namely, where a school is getting it right and where it might need to focus additional effort and resources.

It is helpful to know the size of a school and how it compares with other schools nationally; the smaller the school or the cohort, the more important it is to handle the data with care. And even with large schools the figures can be misleading - for example, when there is a large cohort of children who arrive at different times throughout a key stage or a year, the figures are likely to be misleading. RoL provides information on the proportion of children speak English as an additional language, those with additional needs and those who have additional funding through the pupil premium.

What the attainment and progress sections enable us to do is to look at the results for the children in the school and compare these with how all other children are doing nationally.  Behind every statistic is a human being, a child. The job of RaiseonLine is to say - these are the figures for the children in your school, these are the figures for all children nationally. There might be some differences. Can you account for them?  So if, for example, your more able children than other children with the same starting points nationally, that is a cause for celebration. And how are you building on this?

I have worked in some schools recently where the attainment data for pupils and students has been above floor, but below national. The headline figures for attainment do not appear to be a cause for celebration. But when turning to the sections which show value added and progress measures these show that the children are making at least expected levels of progress, given their starting points, compared with national. In one school, in English, the attainment was in line with national but progress measures were above for all students, whatever their backgrounds and whatever their starting points. And yet the school's response was muted. They knew that attainment was good, but hadn't appreciated that the progress for all students, given their starting points was above national. As a result outcomes for this subject in this school were outstanding. This contrasts with another school, where the headline results are high, but progress for different groups of students is below national.

It would be helpful if we could have more conversations in schools about the difference between attainment and progress and how a combination of the two results in achievement. The question we should be asking is: what difference is this school making to outcomes for students, given their starting points? And that applies at school level, subject level and classroom level.


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