Head Teachers – making an impact

We held our first Head Teachers East Lothian Head Teachers’ Conference of the session at Musselburgh Racecourse this afternoon.

This was the first of five conferences which will take place over the session and adopted a new format following feedback from HTs last year. Each conference has a particular theme and has two distinct parts, the morning session will involve presentations whilst the afternoon offers a range of workshops run by Head Teachers for Head Teachers.

Today’s theme was “Making and Impact Upon your Community”. I led off the morning with an hour and half slot on how HTs make an impact upon their community. Contrary to the popular focus I concentrated on what the leader does – as opposed to the distributed leadership model. You can access my powerpoint here – although it really served as prompt for me, so I don’t know what sort of sense people can make of it in isolation. I was followed by our District HMIe Phil Denning who spoke – with real ethusiasm, insight and knowledge – about HGIOS3. People responded very well to Phil’s encouragement to engage actively in the self-evaluation process which linked nicely with our own self-evaluation and validation model that we are developing in East Lothian.

The afternoon offered four workshops – people could choose two – Creating and Positive Ethos; Developing links with parents; managing people; and Development Planning. Two Head Teachers had volunteered to lead each of the sessions.

The feedback from the day has been very positive and I’m already looking forward to our next conference on the 7th November where the  theme is to be “managing resources”.

Political Scrutiny

We had our second Policy, Performance and Review Panel (PPRP) Meeting of the session this afternoon.

The panel is made up of elected members who are not part of the political administration. It’s their job to publically scrutinise the work of the department.

I was delighted that they have agreed to focus upon our Standards and Quality Report. At future meetings we will present our self-evaluation of the various performance indicators. The Panel will examine our practice, review our evidence and validate (or otherwise) our own evaluation. It’s only by this kind of public scrutiny that we can really show that we are committed to providing an improving and high quality service.

The other advantage of this approach is that it will demonstrate to schools that we are subject to (and welcome) the same kind of validation process that our Quality Improvement Team provide for schools’ Standards and Quality Reports.

The first step on a journey to excellence?

The dilemma “Would you sacrifice occasionally excellent for consistently good?”  has stimulated a fascinating variety of responses.

The motivation for creating this dilemma was a conversation I’d had with someone who had said that they would tolerate weak teaching as long as it was counter-balanced by excellent teaching in the same school.

I think it’s fair to say that when you present this dilemma to teachers they invariably believe that weak teachers can be improved by getting them to learn from, and work with excellent teachers – through a form of osmosis between one teacher to another. However, when you speak to parents the answer is almost always the reverse – “I don’t want my child taught by that teacher”.

Everything in Scottish Education is geared up to promote excellence; Journey to Excellence; A Curriculum for Excellence; Building Excellence; Centres of Excellence; Teachers for Excellence; Targeting Excellence and just Excellence

The Scottish Government summarise this as follows:

Scottish education is well-regarded and respected all over the world. But there is no room for complacency – every school should be excellent.

I am personally committed to this goal but I’d like to dig a little deeper into what we mean by excellence and complacency.

Richard Elmore, in his book School Reform from Inside Out: Policy, Practice and Performance suggests that most reform strategies are based on what he describes as the “true believers” who are already motivated and whose commitment is galvanised by concentrating them into small groups who reinforce each other – the bad news, as Elmore points out, is that these small groups of self-selected reformers apparently seldom influence their peers.

From his analysis of research Elmore suggest that the proportion of teachers who are committted to ambitious and challenging practice is roughly 25% of the population and that this % can decline considerably if the climate for reform is weak. There are two issues which jump out for me from Elmore’s work – relying upon self-selecting groups of teachers is not conducive to success; and the critical mass of a school will not be affected if you only rely on the already committed.

Elmore goes on to assert that:

“Every school can point to its energetic, engaged, and effective teachers; many students can recall at least one teacher who inspired them in engagement in learning and love of knowledge. We regularly honor and deify these pedagigical geniuses. But these exceptions prove the rule”.

For me this can sometimes be the source of complacency, i.e. we do have exceptional and excellent teachers in all our schools but they are perhaps there by default as opposed to any consequence of the training or development which can successfully influence other less exceptional teachers.

There exists significant research to demonstrate the impact that good teaching makes on children’s achievement.  To summarise some of the findings of such research it is generally accepted that if a child has a weak teacher for one year it can take up to 18 months for them to make up the deficit. If a child has a weak teacher for two years in a row it can take up to three years to recover and if the child has a weak teacher for three years in a row the child might never fully recover the ground that has been lost.

Primary school or Elementary school  Head Teachers around the world, regardless of whether they are aware if this research,  often try to ensure that children are not exposed to weak teachers for more than one year at any one time. They will therefore place a weak teacher between two stronger teachers to ensure that their negative impact is lessened -see Sanders and Rivers, Using student progress to evaluate teachers and Does teacher quality matter? for more information.

In the secondary school environment Head Teachers and other managers will often place weak teachers with lower ability groups in the knowledge that parents of such children are less likely to complain about the teacher. 

My point here is that all too often in education – worldwide – we conspire to “protect” children from the impact of a weak teacher. Perhaps the first step we need to take on our “Journey to Excellence” is to work together to ensure that no teacher could ever be descibed as being weak.

I believe that such a goal would have a much more transformational effect on children’s education than the ambitious, yet probably unrealistic goal, that everyone should be excellent. Speaking as a parent I would comfortably describe any school as being “excellent” if there were to be no teacher in the school who I did not want to teach my child.

Would you sacrifice occasionally excellent for consistently good?

I’d welcome your opinion in relation to this very hypothetical situation:

Imagine you are the Head Teacher of a school with 40 teachers.  In that school there are 10 excellent teachers, 20 very good or good teachers, and 10 weak teachers. 

Excellence = teachers who enable all children to consistently achieve and attain well beyond what might be predicted; the children develop a realistic confidence in their abilities which is matched by their achievements and approach to learning; children are often inspired to continue their learning beyond the classroom situation.

Very good or good = teachers who enable children to consistently achieve and attain beyond what might be predicted; children become confident learners and respond well to the encouragement of their teacher; children make sound educational progress and a have good platform for future learning..

Weak = teachers whose children consistently and significantly underachieve and underattain in relation to what might be predicted; children will often regress in their attitude to learning and attainment; their own confidence is diminished; and their future educational progress is undermined by the experience.

Your Leadership Dilemma

In this imaginary scenario you have the opportunity to transfer 20 teachers from your school and replace them with 20 good teachers – you can only transfer the ten excellent teachers and the ten weak teachers -would you take up the offer of the transfers?

Outdoor Education Team Challenge

We entered a team in the East Lothian Outdoor Education Team Challenge this afternoon – which replicated the events they hold for students with staff teams

Great fun was had by all and many thanks to the OE Team, Liz Brookes, Bill Stephen, Alastair Seagroatt, assisted by the Ranger Service and Dave Hapgood.

What fabulous resource they are for everyone in the authority.

The winners were Dunbar Grammar School – well done (choke, choke)

Dunbar Grammar - the winners Keep your end up!! Local Hero- Alastair Seagroatt Susan McNaught Poetry in motionMusselburgh Grammar School Ross High School Dunbar Grammar School Preston Lodge 1 Preston Lodge 2 John Muir Hoose Mavaericks East Lothian - Outdoor Education Teem Challange Learning support!! Fidra

Being prepared to be “unprepared”

One of the challenges which teachers face if they are going to involve pupils in co-creating the curriculum is how it fits with the traditional ideas about lesson planning.

Good planning is often regarded as a prerequisite for “good” teaching – that logic therefore leads one to believe that “more” planning results in even better teaching. The result can be lessons which are planned down to the last detail – the problem, however, is that this often leads to the teacher taking total control and leaving nothing to chance.

In a way this takes me back to when I used to teach dance as a PE teacher.

Of all the subjects, courses or activities that I’ve ever taught, dance is the one which has provided me with the most satisfaction. When I lectured at PE College I used to see students teaching a dance which they had taken an inordinate amount of time to create. They had chosen the music, identified the theme, created the steps and worked out the choreography. As I watched lesson after lesson I saw kids – particularly boys turned off and failing.

When I returned to schools, after three years, I vowed to try out a much more open and inclusive aproach. I would therefore go into a class with a box of CDs and start with a blank sheet.  We picked the music together, worked out the theme, then in pairs and groups started to work out the steps. It was my job to knit this all together and give it some shape.  At appropriate times I would introduce some ideas which the pupils would try out and use. The quality would be shaped by demonstrating what people were doing – it came from the class. As we went on I would further develop the pupils’ movement vocabulary as and when necessary.

The results – if I say so myself – were remarkable  and can still raise the hairs on the back of my neck. It was an exceptionally challenging yet exciting way to teach which really extended and tested my ability as a teacher.

I realise that such an approach can’t be used in every lesson – but I do believe that the type of planning that we engage in should enable us to give over some of the responsibility for what we do in class over to the learners. The reality is that we (teachers) are conditioned to take charge.

I’m not suggesting here that teachers walk into a lesson with no idea about what they are going to do and make it up on the spot – but I am suggesting that they plan lessons which can take on a shape that takes account of the pupils knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm for learning.


Even teachers who don’t engage in regular formal lesson preparation – and there are-some – will often, ironically, conform to the “control” method – where they are the sole drivers of the learning process.

Assistant Teachers – “two brains are always better than one”.

I was in Cockenzie Primary School this week and watched a P7 Maths class.  The class was a top set but was made up of three differentiated groups. Each of the groups knew the level that they were working towards and understood what they had to do to make progress.

I was very impressed by the effective use of assistant teachers in the class.  Education has often used pupils within class to assist the teaching process through what used to be called pupil teachers or monitors.

In Cockenzie, when the teacher was working with one specific group the other groups had a nominated “assistant teacher” – it was this person’s job to help the others in the goup who might be having difficulty.  The assistant teacher role was rotated on a daily basis.  When I asked pupils what they thought of this they all said they really enjoyed being the “teacher” – it didn’t seem to matter that they might not be the best in the group – as one of them said:

“Two brains are always better than one” – now that’s what I call teaching!

Active ACE Fridays

Innerwick Primary School are leading the way in exploring alternative curriculum models.

Check out  Head Teacher Angus McCrury’s blog for more information. All East Lothian schools run an asymmetric week which means that the pupils finish on Fridays at 12.30pm.

I’ll let Angus explain it further:

We have decided to abandon the traditional Friday routine which was. Finish stuff that you couldn’t do/wouldn’t do Monday-Thursday. Go to assembly to listen to the HT drone on about schools rules and other boring stuff, go on to Golden time which was always cut short in order to get lunches out onto the buses before they went away without half the kids. (happens often).

What we have moved to is ACtivE ACE Friday.
What is this all about, I don’t really know as it is evolving every week into a bigger and more successful animal. The children are all here, with no absences so far. They are brought to the school hall put into groups and set 4 challenges or tasks, these have to be completed with the help of a member of staff and parent volunteers.

I’m excited by this innovation and will be very interested to find out what impact it has upon children’s attitude to school and the quality of their learning at other times in the week.

Using the coaching model in the classroom

I was out in Humbie Primary school yesterday afternoon.

Humbie have embraced the active learning approach for early years which have seen the introduction of pre-school approaches into early years of primary.

The school are now exploring the use of the coaching in the learning and teaching process. Some of the teachers in the school were exposed to the GROW model and now want to extend the active involvement of learners into the upper primary school.

One of the lessons I observed was one of a series which had been planned by the teacher in conjunction with the pupils using the GROW approach.  The topic was the body.  Here’s an example of how the GROW model was being used in relation to the heart:

Goals: What do we want to find out? – How does your heart work?; is the heart soft or hard?

Reality: What do we know/have already? – We have a model of a heart; Sara knows an experiement; Our teacher knows an experiment.

Options: What might we do? Loook at a model of the heart; research; interview a doctor; use stethescopes.

Will do/Wrap up: What will we do? – We’ll do all of the things we identified under options.

The teacher had generated the entire topic through this form of dialogue with the pupils.  In this way they had co-created the curriculum and were actively engaged in, and responsible for, it’s success.

It is the quality of this dialogue that makes this approach so successful – with the teacher being a partner in the learning process – as opposed to the director.

This was experimentation in action and I gave out one of my “Permission to Learn” cards for the first time as the teacher was worried about taking risks.

If you are interested in trying out the approach in your own classrooms I suggest you contact the school.

Contextualising Learning and Teaching – what if?

We held our first Leadership Development Network meeting this evening at North Berwick.

The aim of these meetings is to give people who are not in promoted positions the opportunity to meet me, share ideas and express their opinions.

If today’s meeting was anything to go by they are going to prove exceptionally useful in helping us to continue to shape our strategy.

One of the points the points to emerge in the course of the 75 minutes is that teachers feel there is lack of subject specific CPD in East Lothian. Generic learning and teaching sessions suffer from not being connected to what teachers want or need. They would like the opportunity to learn from other practitioners where the learning and teaching process is placed within a disciplinary context.

I expressed my fear that this would just push everybody back into their “subject” boxes at a time when we should be trying to break down these barriers. I was also worried that this might reassert the divide between primary staff and subject specific secondary staff – but an idea emerged as we spoke.

What if we used one of our in-service days as an authority wide learning and teaching conference day?

What if we identified seven themes – numeracy, literacy and languages, health, science, expressive arts, social studies and technologies?

What if each of these themes was a separate conference, held at different venues, to which any teacher working with children 3-18 could attend?

What if each conference had its own organising group who put together a programme which had whole group and optional sessions?

What if there were a steering group that tried to give some coherence to the various conferences?

What if the teachers could opt to attend themes outwith their own subject area?

What if primary teachers could opt into sessions forussed on how to deliver a higher SQA topic?

What if secondary teachers could opt into how to teach reading?

What if there were some cross-cutting themes which toook place in every conference?

All of those present this evening thought that this would be a very workable and valuable event.

The power behind this idea, and Professor Lindsay Paterson would approve of this, is that is contextualises learning in relation to a subject discipline.

What do you think?