"Foot in Mouth" Disease

I had a wonderful visit to Longniddry Primary School this morning. The first part of my visit was spent with Headteacher Ann McLanachan – what a wumman! Her enthusaism, knowledge and energy are something to behold. However, to only recognise these qualities would be to seriously undervalue her true ability to empower her staff – a true model of distributed leadership at its best. I'm pleased to report that Ann will be leading a support programme aimed at the teaching of S1 pupils in our schools based upon all the Learning Team work she has been leading over the last couple of years. There remains a need for us for to match the learning experiences children are having in primary schools with what they might receive in secondary schools. Shirley Clarke told a story yesterday of an new enthusiastic pupil who went up to a secondary school teacher in England and asked what the learning intentions were for the lessons. The teacher told him to mind his own business and that “his” intentions were that he (the pupil) should sit down and shut up! Of course I'm sure this wouldn't happen in East Lothian but there does remain something of a challenge for us to ensure that experiences dovetail.

After my chat with Ann, Depute Helen Gillanders took me round the school – what a pleasure – I even got to teach a few bits and pieces. Anyway – to foot in mouth disease – over coffee Helen suggested that if things didn't work out for me in this job “You could always go back and pick up your chalk”, i.e. go back to teaching. Of course as a former PE teacher this didn't quite capture what I would do – and before I could stop the words escaping from my mouth I'd uttered the immortal words – “No I'd have to pick up my balls!!!!” Ooooh the embarrassment!

What are people looking for in a blog?

I spoke this morning to our
SSDN/Glow mentors

During coffee I spoke to three people who had read my blog – each had a different opinion. One – who had accessed my blog when it was mainly a reference to what I was doing on a day-to-day basis – hadn't liked it and wondered if I had just been trying to justify my position. Another person said they had enjoyed reading that diary fromat but that my more recent posts were too in-depth and he didn't have the time to properly engage so had stopped reading them. The third person said something about the length of posts and didn't like it when they were too long or had too many links – yet I've spoken to others who appreciate the links and get something from following them up.

The conclusion? – I reckon it's up to the blogger to write in a way where they are getting something from the process – as I now say in my strapline this is now a “Learning Blog”, i.e. “Where I've been; where I am; and where I'm going” For me my blog provides a sort of strategic map – I really appreciate it when people comment but I'd still get value from my blog even if no-one was to be reading it. The judgement about the value of any blog for other people will always be in the eye of the beholder.

Vision – Glow/SSDN in East Lothian?

I've been asked to speak to our Glow/SSDN mentors tomorrow morning. What topic have I been asked to speak about? “My Vision”

A 30 minute chat about my vision for Glow/SSDN in East Lothian.

I think I'll try to cover the following bullet points:

  1. Strategic overview – what is we are trying to do? – multiple metaphors
  2. The planning process
  3. Learning and Teaching Policy – engaging learners and teachers
  4. 5Cs – consistency; continuity; collegiality; creativity; collective responsibility
  5. Cluster approach
  6. Systems thinking – all initiatives are connected – stepping stones
  7. Fire-aim-fire
  8. Reflection-in-action – blogging
  9. Non-deficit model – having faith in people
  10. No model of best practice
  11. Removing obstacles/removing excuses
  12. Avoiding Masterclass Handshake
  13. Mentors as Critical Friends
  14. Dependency – to independence
  15. Reversed hierarchies
  16. Community of learners
  17. Mutual benefit
  18. Extreme Learning/Connected Learning – an example
  19. Tipping point – an epidemic – connectors (SSDN mentors)
  20. Local action – global influence

Here's the
podcast of the presentation

Extreme Learning? – Hyper Learning? – Connected Learning? – what's in a name?

I was browsing through some exc-el blogs yesterday when I came across Barry Smith's reflections on
Extreme Learning. Barry expresses some concern about the term we are using and I have to admit to being slightly unsure of the term myself. Will it put people off? – although children might like the term how will colleagues and parents react?

In some ways the term does capture what we are seeking to do, i.e. it is outwith the norm of many pupils' learning experiences. There is also something in the notion of recognising that it it is extreme and that if we could just get teachers to move towards the
principles which underpin extreme learning – without necessarily adopting it in the form it is currently taking then it will have been a success.

Does a name matter? – is perhaps the most obvious question? Well over the last couple of weeks I would suggest that it does. There are many teachers, headteachers, parents and others with an interest in education who are having difficulty coming to terms with what “A Curriculum for Excellence” actually means. They understand the capacities but it is still too abstract for many who prefer dealing with concrete entities. In this sense Extreme Learning – or whatever we eventually decide to call it – has an important role to play in translating the abstract into the concrete.

So what might be the alternatives? – in a much earlier
blog entry I described how we had considered ACE projects and Exc-el Projects. However, in the course of working with colleagues over the last two weeks it has become apparent that one of the key features of the approach is the fact that the learner is required to make
connections in their own mind between topics, issues, areas of knowledge which are all too often considered as being discrete in the school curriculum.

If this connectivsm is a key feature perhaps we should higlight this within the approach's title? – how about Hyperlearning of Connected Learning? I liked Hyperlearning as it has connotations of hyperlinks and that it is an enhanced form of learning. I did a quick search for Hyperlearning this morning and – no surprises – found that
Lewis. J. Perelman had already coined the term – interestingly in a context which matches what we are attempting to achieve. The only problem I foresee with this term is that parents could see it as contributing to hyper-kids.

Connected Learning also has real strengths and I like the concepts which underpin

It looks like our next meeting of all those who have expressed an interest in Extreme Learning (or whichever term we decide) will take place on the 25th October 4.00-6.00 – probably in the Marine Hotel , North Berwick. Invitations will be going out to all those who attended the first meeting on the 13th Sept. Perhaps we can can agree on a term at that meeting? If you want to come along and missed the first meeting you would be most welcome.

Quality Assurance Versus Quality Improvement

We recently sent out a paper to our schools called “Achieving Excellence.” The original Achieving Excellence paper was devised five years ago and set out how the authority would go about its review of schools. A key principle of the process was the notion of the authority providing “support and challenge”. The new version has moved away from the “support and challenge” to “support and validate” – we reckon that the jobs provides enough of a challenge – in fact to be a professional means that the challenge comes from within!

We believe that the key to school improvement is rigorous self-evaluation. If such a process can be developed then the role of the authority become very clear i.e. the validation of the school’s own judgements.

What’s been interesting in this process is how people are still locked into certain perspectives – no matter how many times one might try to demonstrate that a new outlook pervades the system.

As I’ve explored elsewhere the local authority is obliged to develop school review procedures and has to “review the quality of education which the school provides” Standards in Scotland’s Scools Act 2000. Many other authorities have gone for a quality assurance procedure, i.e. check the end point. My own philosophy is directly opposed to this point of view , i.e. it’s too late to find out that the widgets coming off the line are faulty – we need to move quality control into the hands of the practitioners – move things “upstream” In such a perspective the judgement of the practitioner is vital in the cycle of improvement – the role of the local authority in such a system becomes self-evident – we need to validate internal judgements.

What has been interesting in reading responses to the paper -which suggests such things as Quality Improvement Officer visits to classrooms; discussions with teachers and pupils; attendance at senior management team meetings are seen by some as being “inspectorial”. I need to keep reminding myself that people’s opinions have been shaped by what they know – their experience. It’s going to take some time to convince people that what we are seeking to do is to create new model – a model of partnership – where we trust schools and they trust us. To that end the role of Quality Improvement Officer is identical to the critical friend:

A critical friend is someone who:

  • has a license to help’
  • is external to the situation
  • builds and maintains a relationship of trust
  • brings a breadth and depth of relevant knowledge and experience, to a specific situation which he or she seeks to understand
  • establishes, and adheres to, clear foci and boundaries for the task in hand
  • balances friendship and critique, through personal support and professional challenge
  • motivates and reassures
  • is facilitative rather than directive, operating particularly through asking questions and providing feedback
  • has a well developed understanding of the complexities of change processes;
  • is an advocate for the success of the work
  • is concerned for the outcomes and effectiveness of the work, and its effect on a whole range of people
  • seeks to enable those he or she works with to become more self-sufficient and skilled at self improvement
  • from a transactional analysis viewpoint, seeks to operate with adult-adult relationships
  • can be viewed as an educational connoisseur and critic.

The overall aim of a critical friendship is to support improvement through empowerment, by demonstrating a positive regard for people, and providing an informed critique of processes and practices.
Sue Swaffield 2003

It’s not surprising that some of the words in the document “achieving excellence” have put the “willies” up some folk, e.g. “moderator”, “monitor” – maybe we need to explore new words if “old” words carry such negative connotations from what people have known in the past.

Sacking teachers

Peter Peacock has announced a plan to make it easier to
“sack” underperforming teachers.

Of all the teachers I've worked with in my career (perhaps 400) I think I've only come across three or four teachers who I thought should be sacked. Without exception they didn't like children and seemed to go out of their way to make children's lives a misery. I've been driven ever since to ensure that such behaviour cannot be tolerated and would do everything in my power to ensure that such people have no part to play in the profession. Sure there have been other teachers who have maybe chanced their arm or put in minimal effort but that is often the consequence of ineffective management i.e. it can be changed.

As for other teachers who might be underperforming I have always had great faith that – if they want to improve – it can be done. The problem sometimes occurs when the teacher doesn't recognise that their practice has become stale or not that children are disengaged from the learning process – due to their teacher's approach to the teaching process. I think that's why I believe so strongly in gathering pupil opinion about the teaching process and encouraging individual teachers to use that feedback to enhance their practice.

We are incredibly fortunate in East Lothian that our teachers want to do their best for children in their care. I am constantly bowled over by the quality of teaching in our classrooms – if we can just create and sustain a culture where people can share their enthusiasm and expertise with their colleagues.

Last point – I was speaking to a Headteacher colleague from another authority at the weekend who told me about some teachers in her school who just wanted to teach the same way as they had been teaching for the last twenty years and to keep teaching that way for the next twenty. I don't see this as a “sacking” issue but it does highlight the challenge we face to persuade some teachers that the lives of so many children will be compromised by such a self-centred approach. The challenge for Headteachers and local authorities is to work out strategies which will engage and enthuse such teachers – in much the same way as we attempt to engage and enthuse our pupils, whilst maintaining and developing confidence.

Getting it Right

In one of my schools visits I came across a new initiative to improve pupil behaviour.

It came about through a discussion with pupils about how the school could be improved. The thing which kept coming up was that those children who got their heads down and just got on with their work didn't feel they got the recognition they believed they deserved.

This is often a common theme in schools and I recal how pupils at my previous school responded in an HMIe survey that they weren't treated fairly. The inspectors investigated this and found that it was a response to the excellent work which was going on in the school to include vulnerable children – however, it did promote a feeling amongst other pupils that such children received a disproportionate amount of teachers' time.

Anyway – this school has established a “Getting it right” programme. The scheme – which is similar to many reward type initiatives I've seen in other schools – involves the teacher allocating a star/sticker to each pupil who has adhered to basic classroom rules throughout the week. The system aims to target low level disruption e.g. repeatedly talking when the teacher's talking, constantly forgetting homework, interfering with other pupils, not lining up properly – i.e. all the minor things which wear teachers out. In most cases every child gets a sticker which is posted on a noticeboard in the classroom.

Now here comes the difference with other similar systems I've seen previously – where a child doesn't get a star the headteacher speaks to the teacher to get more information. If it starts to happen regularly the headteacher phones the parents to inform them and speak about the low level disruption it is causing and impact it will be having upon the individual and the others in the class. The parents have all responded positively to this early contact and this has led to dramatic improvements in children's behaviour. All too often schools only contact parents when a serious breach of discipline has taken place. By lowering the threshold of what is unacceptable behaviour a significant change has taken place in classrooms.

I think schools are getting better and better at handling pupils with severe behavioural problems – but I would fully support any school who set out to involve parents in such a positive manner about behaviour which would previously have escaped under the radar. I know this next term may upset some people but perhaps we do need to “train” children about what is “unacceptable” and what “acceptable” behaviour – and our response needs to be consistent – at school and at home.

On reflection this post links with yesterday's – is this a trend?

Conditions for Entry

In one of my earlier posts where I was exploring the
private school model I described how private schools are able to place conditions of entry on pupils and parents choosing to send their child to that school. I reckon this is one of the most powerful advantages which private schools have over public service schools (I prefer this term to state schools).

In my experience as a teacher, headteacher and now member of the directorate, parents in our schools are exceptionally keen to support their child. However, I wonder if there might be any mileage/benefit in meeting with parents/guardians/carers and their child prior to the child entering the school. In what would would be very private admission meeting the parents and the school representative could outline their expectations, intentions and concerns. An outcome of this meeting would be a much clearer understanding of how the parents can support their child's education and the school, whilst the school would be able to explain what it would do to support their child over the next four to six years.

I don't think there would be many parents who would object to such a meeting taking place – however, some parents might be intimidated by the apparent formality of the meeting so alternative strategies and venues might have to be explored.

But what would happen where parents refuse to participate in such a meeting – an extreme response might be “It's your job to educate my kid, we live in the catchment area, so get on with it”. Now I would have to say that such a response would set my alarm bells ringing. Just what we would do in such circumstances is open to conjecture but I suppose I might have role to play as Head of Education. However, I think we would have to approach such a response in a very understanding and supportive manner – “schools have changed” would have to be our underlying message.

The bottom line is that it would add value to the admission process – by establishing an unamibiguous understanding of how the partnership between school, child and parents would operate. It might also enable the school to put suitable support mechanisms in place for parents who have particular concerns about their child or how they might communicate with the school.

Just a thought?

Extreme Learning – making progress

Extreme Learning Wiki is taking shape. A number of people have already signed on as members.

None of the following elements are in anything like their final form but they might stimulate some ideas? Please add your own thoughts on the wiki.

  1. Technology
  2. Participant Information
  3. How to choose a research topic
  4. Parental Information
  5. The role of the teacher
  6. Models of Participation
  7. Research skills
  8. Presentation
  9. Form of Assessment and who assesses?
  10. What do we assess?
  11. Evaluation