That Was Then

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the College of Teaching. I wouldn’t have received the mentoring, support, stimulation to develop my teaching, or the confidence to engage with others on a broader platform had I not committed to the College all those years ago, when I became an NQT. I’m now part of a profession which has grown and grown in status and professionalism since the early days of the College. Teachers voices are heard and respected, of course they are. Views are sought about professional development, examinations and assessment and curriculum. Of course they are.

Teaching has changed a lot since 2015.

Before then, once you qualified and did your NQT year, you were pretty much at the mercy of your school for the rest of your development. Some were great with CPD, others not so. Teacher Standards were pretty fixed, either you did something or you didn’t and schools didn’t always know the best way to engage you, or the best experiences to offer in support of you, if you weren’t quite there yet. You got your annual appraisal and a set of targets, but there wasn’t as much joined-up thinking as there is now about how one year’s experience can form the basis of the next year’s progression.

And it seemed to change in 2015.

That was when the momentum began to build for the College of Teaching, when its core purposes, membership, structure and reach began to be debated. Teachers began to get together to plan a long term strategy for the profession as a whole – the profession I now belong to and benefit from. Those teachers were careful to build slowly, to develop the College from some central principles about keeping teachers at the helm, drawing in advice and support from wider professional influences and making sure that teachers developed research literacy so that they could look objectively and systematically at classroom practices.

Since those early days in 2015, teaching has developed a long-term career structure, so that once you find your feet in your first job, you have a clear view of your next stages of development. You’re encouraged to network, read and research, carry on with the enthusiasms that brought you into teaching in the first place. If I want to stretch myself further, I now know that the College can connect me with mentors, offer me guidance on what to study, recommend appropriate CPD a or put me in touch with another teacher who has structured some research on an issue I want to look into. At least I know that my intentions as a teacher are matched and supported by a professional body which, like me, wants to ensure that all pupils are enabled, challenged, supported and valued.

Having been a teacher for over 10 years now, I’m considering applying to be a Fellow of the College of Teaching. It’ll take a while. I’ll need to take on some new projects and extend my role and influence as a teacher. But I’m ready for this and I know that the College will guide me to structure a programme that meets the needs of my pupils and school, local teacher partnerships and local community. And I know I can continue to develop as a teacher – I don’t want the next 10 years to be the same as the last. And in that time, I know I’ll have lots of expertise to ‘pay back ‘ into teaching, and the College, of course, makes sure that I’ll do that in order to support the next generation of teachers.

A teacher, 2028
Currently a pupil, in 2015

A-Z of NQT induction

This September, our NQTs are arriving full of trepidation, yes, but also full of up-to-date subject knowledge, recent experience of other settings and a new, but possibly fragile, commitment to teaching— let’s make sure our school provision and induction arrangements value these new starters and their qualities.

Time and again we hear of widely varying NQT experiences, from those who have joined departments or schools with active and effective support protocols and CPD practices, to those who have been treated neglectfully by the people or systems around them. What can we do to make sure we don’t throw away all the potential NQTs offer?

The A – Z of NQT induction

A address issues as they arise – a little guidance and advice, offered regularly from the sidelines, is more likely to be accepted as a normal and constructive part of the relationship between NQT and team leader, than a once in a while focus on a serious problem which might have more emotional strain attached. Also, allow time for messages to sink in, and review regularly through informal chats as well as formal meetings.

B book appointments in advance – make regular discussions part of the mentoring process. Doing this allows time to talk and for the NQT to mull over some ideas, raise an issue, or respond to a target, before the scheduled appointment. Committing to a time and place sends a message that this time is important. Also, in your own ‘schedule’, build in time to allow for the unexpected.

C class management induction – support and guidance, and clarity of expectations for all parties, will never be wasted here. With each new recruit, you’ll need a different balance of each. Beware the honeymoon period. Keep an ear to the ground and check with your NQT and other colleagues – is your new recruit coping OK after the start of term dust has settled? Were you aware of any issues from the training period? Better to follow up sooner rather than later. Chat to key form tutors to see if any informal feedback has been offered by pupils.  Make sure the NQT is fully aware of the school’s systems as well as the extent of their own responsibility.

D departmental routines might be second nature to you, but can seem overwhelming to the new starter. Make sure key events, are flagged well in advance. When the NQT doesn’t know what they don’t know, they may easily miss an event on the calendar that seems really clearly signalled to you – repeat key dates and messages: details are easily lost in discussion.

E ebb and flow – the workload of a teacher is often irregular. Encourage your mentee to plan ahead for the busy times so as not to overload themselves.

F follow up any niggles, from your NQT, pupils, other staff, parents – misunderstandings need to be unraveled and a relationship built on finding solutions sets the tone for future development.

G go the extra mile for your NQT, if it seems appropriate. You won’t want to hold their hand and encourage them to be dependent on you – but at the same time, they are looking to you to assist them in completing their professional training – and they are entitled to your support. Part of your position is to develop others, remember.

H home life is important to all of us – be aware of any particular issues that might affect a new starter’s settling-in.

I information – make sure data, important internal documents, online forum membership details, usernames and passwords are shared. Leaving your NQT in a position of ignorance is unfair.

J jointly prepare and plan – if you’re not sure about an NQT’s confidence in the classroom, build some shared planning into your meetings. You’ll want to keep an eye on the ’quality control’ within your department/phase anyway. I’ve known Heads of Department meet NQTs each day after the last lesson to discuss outlines for the following lessons – in so doing, you’re scaffolding and modelling your expectations, and you’ll soon see when you can reduce the time needed to oversee.

K knowledge development is so important to teacher development and an expectation that the newcomer will continue to work on their subject knowledge and signature pedagogies is essential. Even in the early days, you might be discussing what the NQT might be teaching the next term or next year, and what they will need to develop in the meantime.

L listen to what the NQT doesn’t say, as much as to what they do. Did you notice that when discussing their classes, they avoided mentioning that year 10 class? Did you wonder why..?

M merge, match and mentor – coordinating a team is about finding the right combinations of individuals for specific projects. Try to match up your NQT with a suitable buddy for part of a key project.

N new developments happen all the time but NQTs don’t yet realise this. Being able to support the team through change from whatever starting point or focus they currently have is all part of steering the team in the long-term.

O observations need to be arranged, in as many forms as possible. Enable the NQT to observe other teachers in the department and around the school – they need to see what the standards and routines are. It would be unfair to judge them on these expectations without giving them these opportunities first.

P pressures come from all angles – and the newcomer can’t always separate the major from the minor – encourage some perspective through humour, shared experiences and discussion with a range of mentor figures.

Q question your NQT all the time – you’re the leader and there’s a lot about the day to day work of your team that you need to know about. Set the expectation that you’ll be asking about homework, test results, behaviour, etc – from here, it’s easier to mould and shape rather than acting retrospectively after a formal review, observation or intervention.

R reporting to your Local Authority or other senior body needs to be timely and accurate. Ensure that you’ve planned your own time in terms of observation, feedback, review, data collection, etc, so that you’re properly informed at the appropriate points in the year. Give your NQT the opportunity to address any areas of weakness in good time for new practice to become properly established and embedded, rather than just featuring as a tick-box exercise.

S share your anecdotes, disaster stories and worries – your whole team, and your NQTs in particular, need to see that mistakes can be rectified and barriers overcome.

T timing – gradually aim to increase the challenge and independence experienced by the NQT. Share your thoughts with them, and encourage them to plan their stages of development with you.

U understand that the NQT’s field of vision is not the same as yours – some NQTs can barely see to the end of the lesson, never mind the end of the day, week or term – if there are worries about their performance, you’d hope to have been alerted to this by the ITT tutors, but if this isn’t the case, you might need to contact them to ask for more information about how to support your NQT.

V variety of input – experienced mentors draw on a broad range of strategies to help the development of NQTs: other colleagues, internal INSET, external training such as through the LA, your academy group, Teaching School or other partnerships; printed materials, podcasts, videos and internet sources – knowing which to offer when is part of your getting to know your mentee.

W wishing they were different ain’t gonna make it so – once appointed, this teacher is in charge of the education of children. Make sure your interventions and supports keep this as the main focus.

X x-ray vision, 6th sense, 2nd sight, intuition, radar, call it what you will – if you get ‘that feeling’ that something’s not right, it’s best to check it out.

Y you – mentoring an NQT can be a great pleasure and privilege. It can also be draining, frustrating and time-consuming. Pass any serious concerns to your line manager and look after yourself when it comes to work-life balance and how you show your team that you’re coping.

Z zoo, zither, zinnia and zumba – we all love our treats, so a little gesture of appreciation once in a while, a little act of kindness, even something as simple as stepping in with photocopying on a really busy morning, making the coffees or leaving a Ferrero Rocher on the desk just says ‘I know what it’s like’ – and that might be all it takes to give a boost to a new starter looking for a little reassurance.

There is talk of a recruitment crisis in teaching. ‘Surely not?’ I hear you chorus… Just in case we are running short of new teachers, though, it’s best that we make the most of the ones we’ve got. Remember that an NQT is not the finished article and we owe our new colleagues a duty of care. Strong NQT provision creates the best foundation for a fulfilling and valuable career as a teacher – and isn’t that what we all want?

 

New year, new CEO, new College of Teaching

Ross McGill, known on his blog as Teacher Toolkit, produced this blog about the College of Teaching and the recent announcement of Dame Alison Peacock as CEO of the organisation.

This is the comment I added

I am a supporter of the CoT – I think there is a real need for it. I realise that not everyone thinks this, and, well, that’s fine…you don’t have to join or have anything to do with it if you don’t want to.

Ross has pointed out a lot of positives, as well as some concerns and recommendations of his own. Here are some of my thoughts.

Teachers need a voice within the media and when dealing with policy makers when those Sunday morning pronouncements and unanticipated policy changes are made. How many times do we hear of a new policy via the Sunday papers, see it commented on, recommended or rejected before we ever hear from anyone who’s spent or is spending their career in the classroom? Yes, we have the unions…we wouldn’t want to be without them in their extremely valuable role in protecting and promoting our pay and working conditions. But the profession itself should be in charge of pedagogical discussions and should have representation in policy development.

The broader the teacher base here, the better. If the CoT develops by recommending one style of teaching over another, or by closing down debate on the validity of different methods, then it’s not going to develop teaching or the teaching profession at all. But my understanding is that that’s not going to happen – one of the key aims of the CoT, as with other chartered professional bodies – is to develop, not inhibit, the knowledge base of the profession and to further career long teacher learning through improved access to research and validated experts. When I spoke to newly appointed CEO Alison Peacock last week, she made the point that teacher expertise must also be recognised and that rather than only importing ‘expert’ views into teaching practice, often seen as a ‘top down’ judgement on teachers, we should also be developing teachers’ opportunities to share their expertise and successes in rigorous ways. Regional CoT hubs and national discussion groups can enable this, and can form a reliable knowledge base from which teachers can draw in developing methods and resources.

You might not feel that you need any of this. Perhaps you work within a big MAT who really have developed extensive CPD systems, career development channels or networks of advisers? Ark and Harris, among others, have developed excellent practice. Dixons have developed training that supports and challenges teachers to develop practices that focus almost forensically on learner development. And while 60% of secondary schools are academies, not even all of these are well connected and well developed in terms of mature CPD provision. Many stand alone schools offer brilliant CPD but don’t have much chance to share their models with others. Most importantly though, and always my main focus when I think about the TEACHER at the heart of the profession, is the issue of recognition. If I’ve been a lead practitioner, or worked in an SSAT school, or undertaken TEEP, or a recognised leadership course, these are externally accredited and therefore portable qualifications.

Part of the CoT’s membership offer and chartered structure will enable a teacher to develop skills and learning in ways that their current employer might not be able to offer. It can provide access to knowledge and an academic world that many of us in rural or outlying districts find difficult. Yes, researchEd provide great events – the sort of events I personally feel teachers should be accessing – but it’s not easy for us all to get to these. They did a Leeds event, yes. That’s three hours away from me. A York event, likewise. A London event means a £113 train ticket, a 5am start, and often an overnight stay as well. We need an organisation that can bring similar events to our doorsteps, organised by local teachers, partnered with local teaching school alliances and HE institutions.

The CoT’s charter means that it can exist “in perpetuity”. It can exist beyond the lifetime of the current government, and the next and the next… It can provide a steady path for the profession whatever political changes might come. It’ll take a long time to get it fully up and running as a mature professional organisation and there’s a danger of expecting too much too soon. In reality, the CoT doesn’t really exist ‘yet’. It’s in development. It’s just moved into a new stage with the announcement of Dame Alison Peacock as CEO, with her role to commence in January 2017. It’s like announcing your pregnancy as you move into the second trimester. There’s still a long way to go and a lot of growth needs to happen.

Teachers, if they want to see this organisation succeed, need to get involved in shaping it. They need to discuss membership proposals, CPD ideas or regional needs. Chase up the links Ross has suggested here and look at the http://www.claimyourcollege.org site, the @CollofTeaching Twitter feed or the College of Teaching Facebook page. Sign up for newsletters and consultations. Think of where this could take us in years to come.

 

 

Back to the Future 2

Back to the Future 2 – tradition and modernity in London and Cumbria

See Back to the Future 1 here

I’ve written before about the ethos of my school, the practices that make it special and the values that make it an energetic learning community. Last week I visited a very different school, yet saw many of the same approaches exercised. Our school is just over 300 years old. We held special events to celebrate our tercentenary. We even commissioned commemorative mugs, a book and new school ties. The existence and longevity of ‘this school in this place’ is a big deal to us. Michaela Community School in Brent is very much a new kid on the block, with much less of a sense of establishment, but actually just as much – if not more – of a sense of ‘traditional values’.

Mine is a school that enacts its ethos, its ‘unwritten constitution’ through a number of catchphrases that permeate the culture of the days, weeks and terms. We say “No unteachable classes” – behaviour expectations are high and our pupils value the way this lets them just get on with being learners. Unlike at Michaela, we don’t have particular routines or mechanisms that staff have to follow in order to achieve this expectation, but the result needs to be achieved just the same, and we work collectively in classrooms, corridors, outside spaces, departments, leader and pastoral teams, and support staff roles to ensure this. At Michaela, all this is more explicit, and more standardised. Partly, I guess through the newness of the set-up and the need to show ‘we mean business’, but also to create a brand, a Michaela way, a new set of norms.

We say “We set the standard” – so there is a belief that uniform, manners, listening, following instructions, meeting deadlines, telling the truth, all these things are part of the education we offer. I certainly do not think we’re unique here – most teachers would agree that schooling is about more than just the exams and the grades. Michaela teachers, like many others in many schools, support these values too. As class teachers, they work with children supporting ‘resilience’, ‘character’ and ‘personal development’ in subject learning, though you’d never see a lesson named as such on the timetable or one of these traits labelled as a ‘skill’ to be learned. Within the new Ofsted framework, though, this is something that’s now commented on – I wonder if we’re all supposed to be ticking boxes and taking measurements, and how others are going about this?

Bandwagons, trendy or otherwise, have not been widely welcomed in my school. When you’ve been around for 302 years, you know that these things come and go, and eventually settle back into an established pattern, particularly in a rural community with little competition or movement between schools. We’ve dallied with some Kagan techniques, some are now well-embedded; we’ve huddled in groups in INSETs to discuss PLTS strands; the necessity of mechanistic 3-part lessons came and went, and meanders in and out of provision at different times – but the bottom line comes back to delivering lessons that enable pupils to make good progress over long periods. We concentrate on the outcomes, and allow flexibility in the means of achieving them. At Michaela, lessons are planned and structured in a certain way to reinforce the values of the organisation – lots of consistency, lots of reading, lots of facts, lots of challenge. The aim is that this method becomes a new, a rediscovered, tradition in education.

We talk about “the power of silence”, of periods of independent work in lessons where there is no talk, and full concentration is directed to extended writing or reading, of low tones in group talk and sensible queuing and moving around. At Michaela “silence is golden” and loose talk is minimised. Lunchtime chat is guided. There’s no talking allowed in corridors. I wonder how this will look in a few years time when the school is fuller, with older, more independent and potentially less pliable pupils. The Y7s and 8s currently in the school will also be its first full sixth form. They’re certainly aware of their position as the vanguard in the school – maybe that will be enough to keep them on board.

I live in the catchment area for my school and am surrounded by pupils from all year groups. We’re not called a ‘community’ school, but we are – I’m asked questions about homework while watching the rugby, and deal with enquiries about blazers while in the Post Office. Local people walk through the school grounds during the day; we’re not gated and locked in like many schools, and like Michaela is. My son went through the schools in our town, sharing peer group experiences from infants through to sixth form, and was never picked on for being a ‘teacher’s kid’. Our most powerful catchphrase is “Would it do for your child?” We think that if you wouldn’t entrust your own child to your school, your system, your colleagues, why would you expect anyone else to? We currently have 8 teachers’ kids in Y7 alone, including the headmaster’s. Many people see Michaela as strangely different; I saw the school as welcoming and ambitious and others see it as unnecessarily strict. Do Michaela staff bring their children to school with them? Will they as the year groups roll through? Maybe that’s a way to judge their eventual success. Time will tell.

College of Teaching House of Commons Reception Speech 21/01/2016

The College of Teaching will serve to unite teachers within a diverse system, enabling shared and portable standards and accredited learning to be developed.

 

It’s a privilege to be a part of that process and I firmly believe that continuing to develop and challenge teachers throughout their careers – as the College of Teaching is planning to do – will enhance the role they play in the education system.

 

I am not a loud voice within the world of education; I’m not a member of an expert panel; I’m not in senior leadership in school, nor am I a teacher within a multi-academy trust or academy chain. I don’t live in the south of England with easy access to educational events, debates or conferences. In short, I’m exactly the sort of teacher that needs the College of Teaching and who should be integral to its make up.

 

I’m a middle leader within my school, with a significant professional development remit both internally and within local schools through my role as Teaching School Coordinator.

 

I regularly see young teachers enter the profession from a range of different routes. I see them develop skills and depth of knowledge and understanding over the years, very rapidly at first; and I see them then either plateau, or I see them blossom and flourish and move into more senior positions – often taking them out of the classroom in the process.

 

There is of course a broad middle ground, too – and these are all teachers I feel are in need of the College.

 

Much of the system’s input into teacher development is front-loaded and once a certain base level of expertise is reached, many teachers are then left to tick over in the same way as they always have. I believe we are losing too much potential – the wasted years in teaching, if you will – in leaving teachers to operate in this way for perhaps thirty or more years.

 

At the national conference of ResearchEd in September last year, Schools Minister Nick Gibb told us that: “There’s never been a better time to be a teacher” – and I agree. In fact I will always agree. At all points throughout my 25 year career, there has never been a better time, in spite of the many disorientating changes I’ve seen, which have often left teachers bobbing about like corks on a turning tide.

 

Teachers that I know feel the same; there’s a huge impetus within the profession to make long-term commitments to improving our schools. The College of Teaching will provide a central focus and act as a coordinating hub for this commitment.

 

There’s an emergence of a new sense of responsibility among teachers to lead the way. The school-led system has been so successful in developing local networks, working groups, research clusters and professional development alliances that teachers are now in a much stronger position to develop the tools and strategies for self-improvement as well as school-improvement.

 

Teachers want to use this sense of self-awareness and professional responsibility to add to, and absorb, new information about educational practices to make children’s learning as effective as possible. There is currently a hole in the education system that the College of Teaching needs to fill. It offers many potential opportunities for teachers in terms of professional and career development, access to professional knowledge, mentoring, accredited courses and portable qualifications.

 

It’s exciting to think that teachers could access these benefits for themselves, independently of the school, trust or chain that they work within, enabling us to further our commitment to the education system, the teaching profession, to pupil progress and our own personal development.

 

In 2015 I made a resolution to get out of Cumbria. Not to leave, but to open myself up to the best of what was available nationally, perhaps internationally. I wanted to take back to my home county the successes of London and other regions, and of trusts and chains that don’t feature very prominently in the Cumbrian educational landscape. I live about as far away from a Free School as it’s possible to live; schools in my area form small clusters and it’s not always easy to travel between them. So last year, I made a point of getting to meetings and conferences that I wouldn’t normally have considered.

 

I found that successes in other regions often hinged on a sense of professional community between and within groups of teachers. In northern, rural, coastal and outlying areas, teachers often lack the connectedness that exists in other areas. In looking for more for the profession, I found the opportunity for this connectedness in the Claim Your College campaign and the group’s proposal for the College of Teaching.

 

The College of Teaching can offer this connectedness to all member teachers, regardless of region, school type, or phase. All teachers need this throughout their careers, to prevent the plateau research tells us can happen when teachers are not as stimulated as they could be, or as supported as they should be.

 

So what’s a teacher from the north of England to do in London on a school day, as I will be tomorrow? A gallery or two, maybe? Shopping and lunch in a trendy bistro? Actually, I’ve already made plans – because what else can a teacher from the north of England do in London on a school day, but visit a school? I shall be continuing the journey by visiting Michaela Community School in Brent to see the work they do.

 

This week last year, part of a blog I’d written was read out at the SSAT Wellcome Trust review dinner. In this blog, I’d written from the perspective of a teacher twenty years hence….

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the College of Teaching. I wouldn’t have received the mentoring, support, stimulation to develop my teaching, or the confidence to engage with others on a broader platform had I not committed to the College all those years ago, when I became an NQT.  I’m now part of a profession which has grown and grown in status and professionalism since the early days of the College. Teachers’ voices are heard and respected, of course they are. Views are sought about professional development, examinations and assessment and curriculum. Of course they are.

A number of changes have taken place since then-

  • The Claim Your College proposal was finalised and submitted – all of those involved in the Claim Your College coalition should be thanked for their tremendous hard work leading up to this point
  • Last spring, the proposal was accepted
  • Questions in the house prior to the last election enabled further discussion – I feel I should certainly offer my gratitude to Charlotte Leslie MP for all she has done to help further this cause
  • A selection committee was created and tasked with recruiting for and appointing a board of trustees
  • And after a rigorous selection process, those trustees are now in place and undertaking significant amounts of work to enable the advancement of a whole organisation.
  • As the phases of development continue, as the College takes shape and its provision for teachers becomes embedded in practice, I believe that there will come a point when teachers look back and wonder how on earth there was ever a time when we didn’t have the College of Teaching as our professional body. Thank you.

 

Back to the Future 1

Back to the Future 1 – personal reflections on my visit to Michaela Community School

What is a teacher from the north of England, living about as far from a free school as it’s possible to live, going to do when in London on a school day? Visit Michaela, of course. I wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about regarding the values and methods of this young school.

I’ve often said that I’d love to be starting my teaching career again. I’d make different choices, go down one of the newer routes that are available now to graduates looking for a career in secondary education. Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I found myself wanting to turn the clock back further. If I could start year 7 all over again, (and had the option of doing it in Brent, which I would never even have heard of when I was an 11 year old in Lincolnshire…) I’d start it at Michaela Community School.

At 11, I needed and loved structure, organisation and order. I was the kid who ran her own bedroom library and issued books to dolls and teddies, complete with tickets, a membership log and a catalogue. It mattered to me that everything slotted into its proper place, at the proper time and for the right reasons. It all added up to a type of security that I valued and enjoyed – maybe not for everybody – and it’s the same sort of security at Michaela. Expectations are super clear. Time is used efficiently, every part of the day is a learning experience and the self-control and good manners that are perpetually encouraged in each individual serve to propel the whole school through the day in a positive frame of mind.

Routines at Michaela – a school still less than two years old, remember – are solidly embedded into the running order of the school day. These have been commented on elsewhere, so I’m not going to relay every detail. The important factor from my point of view was that the routines that were most visible were actually the most useful, and they were there to enhance learning. Some routines serve to pace an ‘admin’ activity, such as when gluing a sheet into an exercise book; some serve to signal transition points in lessons, or to ensure that a short discussion returned smoothly to the main topic. With many of these routines though, came gentle reminders, quiet prompts or a clear simple gesture. It wasn’t overbearing. It really wasn’t. It was efficient and made it clear what the children needed to be doing at that point.

Gaining factual knowledge, and remembering it, feature highly at Michaela. I’m one of those people who teaches things to kids. Often not even in my own class. In fact, I don’t even have to be in a school, let alone my own school. Give me a child, and we talk about stuff, and I see my role as an adult as being about helping them learn. That might be learning, experientially, in the moment – “what would happen if you tipped that into there?” – or it might be something away from the child’s direct realm of experience – “why do grown ups go to work?” – but whatever it is, I like the child to have grown in some way as a result. I probably will have done, too. At Michaela, I explained some of the poetry of G M Hopkins to my year 8 guide, and she questioned me about the context in which he had been writing. I discussed the use of animalistic similes in chapter one of Of Mice and Men with some year 7s, and encouraged them to remember the quotations we highlighted. It was great to be able to converse with children who held in their memories a tapestry of increasing complexity, colour and intricacy, representing some important cultural milestones.

Lunchtime conversation threaded through different topics, centring on the day’s theme of ‘rumours’. I listened as the children talked through various hypothetical situations. At the point where they seemed to need more of a framework to hang their thoughts on, I introduced the word ‘verify’ to them, leading into more talk about words sharing the same origins. The Michaela staff and pupils call this ‘family lunch’ and that’s how it felt. It was like a meal we’d have at home, with adults shaping and reinforcing where needed, and children chatting and exploring ideas, asking questions, finding exceptions and then moving into a new cycle of enquiry. Ours ended up with a discussion about rumours and truth, which led to truth and narrative, and whether narrative worlds could collide.

It was when a point of speculation was reached regarding a Harry Potter/Star Wars hybrid, that the dining hall was called to order, with a simple raised hand signal, and appreciations began. A handful of children were selected to offer a simple message of gratitude to another person or group in the school community. A swift double clap reflects the whole group’s acknowledgement, and off we were in to the next. With each child, something was happening beyond surface appearances. My table had also been discussing the appreciations they might offer as they’d been eating together. One boy supported another, helping him with the vocabulary he might use. Another encouraged a friend to speak a little more loudly so that people could hear him properly. Some of the children selected were ‘first timers’ in speaking to their whole year group and this development was recognised too.

Learning really matters at Michaela, and every single minute really matters for learning. We hear a lot these days about teaching to the point of liminality, of spacing and interleaving, of working memory and long-term memory – and we also hear about deep learning and analytical thinking and  independence. I saw all of these in the many lessons I observed, and not just in the content that was being delivered, but equally in the manner in which it was organised and presented. Many of the potential pitfalls that could occur are just eliminated from the teaching equation…kids don’t lose their places when reading, as they always keep a ruler under the words, and lines are numbered to enable reading to recommence after a quick question and answer session. These are simple shortcuts, the sort that a parent might use with their children, to keep to the family to deadlines and keep the clutter organised.

I saw plenty of lessons on my visit. I was allowed to go anywhere and everywhere – thanks to headmistress Ms Katharine Birbalsingh for this. I saw two maths, two English, two French, one history and one music lesson, lunch break time in the yard and a calm and friendly mealtime. I was due to be picked up at 2, but had I been able to stay longer, I’d have been on the brink of offering to take a class or some form tutor time.

If I ever go back, I will.

Finnish Take Away – something sweet for dessert

Yes, I am a Finnophile.

I do get dewey-eyed and warm and fuzzy when discussing things I saw and heard on my visit. I was shown the good stuff, I know that, not the disadvantage, the unemployment, the underperformance and the disaffection. I know.

And I’m happy with that – I know what a world we live in. I’ve just chosen to promote the positives of the world rather than perpetuate the deficiencies.

Finland isn’t England, or the UK, I know that too. I know that the uniqueness of Finnish history and culture have brought it to a place that can’t just be emulated or reproduced here or elsewhere. And we shouldn’t be trying to do that.

In many ways, though, Finnish collective efforts and belief in betterment for all offer something of a key with which to unlock some of the complexities of our times.

locks

Simple things. Strong messages. Clear aims.

For instance, in Finnish schools, pupils serve themselves lunch. Meals are free and the food is set out in trays and they take what they need. You might think this would lead to clumsy, silly behaviour – no, I saw 7 year olds managing perfectly well. You might suggest greed or wastefulness – but no. Pupils have to eat what they take. They are encouraged to take only what they think they can eat and no more – and there are no waste bins or trays left out for them to scrape their plates into. Sure, if they want more, they can go back, butter themselves some bread – yes, 7 year old with knives, shock – or get a glass of milk, or a piece of fruit. But there is no waste – no advantage in taking more for yourself at the expense of the rest. Lessons learned early in life.

At the Education Department on the final morning of my stay, I heard another of these lessons. One of the officials told me of something she learned as a young teacher, that education was for the whole person, for the hands, the head and the heart. It’s a thought often attributed to St Francis of Assisi, and has been reworked many times. Finns speak openly and unashamedly of their beliefs and values – there is no need for “Finnish values” to be a curricular item, as they are enacted daily and upheld through discussion and decision-making on a local and national scale.

cathedral

Like many of the buildings in Helsinki, sunk into the granite base-rock of the landscape, these values seem unshakeable. I hope so.