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.