TESS Article 2 – Classrooms with limits

 I’ve been working on a draft for my next TESS article.  I’d welcome comments and suggestions for improvement:  

One of the best parts of my job is that I get to observe the learning and teaching process in all of our schools. One of the things that I’ve been struck by during my visits is how necessity is the mother of invention – particularly where the organisation of learning comes into play. 

East Lothian has many 2/3-teacher schools, which necessitates the “dreaded”  (by parents) composite class. In such a situation the teacher might have three or four different year groups represented in the same class.  There is no alternative so the teacher accepts the responsibility to organise learning in such a way that every pupil in the class gains access to the curriculum and makes progress.

Contrast this with the secondary school where it is possible to split a single year group into discrete “ability” groups and give responsibility for each group to a single teacher.

The logic of  “ability” setting appears to be compelling.  It’s surely easier for the teacher to teach one “ability” level in a class. The pupils in a set have access to a curriculum that is tailored to their “ability”. Pupils in a set are working with children of the same “ability” and the confidence of pupils of lower “ability” is not compromised being in presence of higher “ability” peers. Lastly schools can focus their support staff on lower “ability” groups. Of course all of the above depend upon the premise that we can actually make accurate judgements about children’s “ability” and that each set is a homogeneous group, which requires no further differentiation.

The second reason for setting is that most parents, who express a preference, prefer setting – in fact huge concerns can arise if their child is not in a set appropriate to their expectations, i.e. at least one above where they actually are.

The final and  unspoken reason- for “ability” setting is the reality that pupils of lower “ability” are those who are likely to disrupt classes and the learning of others – by removing them from the presence of those who “want to learn” the teachers are able to make progress with the curriculum. Finally, the HMIe themselves have actively promoted setting since 1996 as the preferred mode of organising learning.

It’s a brave secondary Head Teacher then who even thinks of challenging such overwhelming forces in favour of “ability” setting – especially where the scale of the school makes it easy to facilitate.

Yet the small school Head Teacher faces no such pressure and although they might look to emulate some of the setting models from larger schools the prime modus operandi is the use of groups characterised by careful planning, differentiation and personalisation.

I spoke to such a group of pupils in a P5 – P7 class and asked them if they saw any disadvantages of being in such a class – they saw none! Yet when I asked them what the advantages were I got a long list, which included:  “You get to hear things that you’ve done before but didn’t perhaps understand the first time”; “You get to help other people in the class who are doing new things”; “You get to know people of different ages”; and “You get to see what you will be doing next year” – wow – talk about metacognition!

In the summer I was fortunate enough to listen to Norman Kunc – who enjoys (as opposed to suffers from) cerebral palsy – and has the most challenging views about how schools unwittingly erode and prevent children from having any sense of belonging to the education system they experience.

Kunc used Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and pointed out that modern society values mastery over belonging – yet in Maslow’s hierarchy mastery cannot be achieved unless the “need” for belonging is first fulfilled.  The result is that young people are disengaged from the learning process and seek out other groups with whom they can form allegiance and fulfil their need to belong.

I’m not decrying setting in all circumstances – but I do have to question the unwitting impact, artificial limits and fixed expectations which extensive setting places upon children particularly in the early years of secondary school.

As a former secondary Head Teacher – who allowed setting in Maths and English – I only wish I had had the courage of my convictions to explore alternative and more positive ways of organising learning.

School Visits 2

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post I intend to make three school visits each week in the coming session.

The focus of my visits are: leadership; self-evaluation and learning tasks.

At our Quality Improvement Group meeting this afternoon I was asked what I was looking for in relation to the last of these points of focus.

So here goes:


What is the purpose of my classroom visits? – to focus our attention upon the  selection of challenging and appropriate learning tasks by teachers in the learning and teaching process.
Why is this important?  – where children are required to undertake challenging and appropriate learning tasks the quality of their learning is significantly enhanced.
During my visits I’ll be asking:
· teachers to describe the learning task that they have set the class for that lesson.
· teachers to describe how this lesson connects with previous lessons and future lessons.
· children to tell me about their involvement in the setting of learning tasks
· children to tell me what they are doing and what they need to do to be successful in relation to the task.
During my visits I’ll be looking at:
· the level of pupil engagement in the learning task – at all ability levels within the class.
· the quality of children’s work.
· the information provided to children about the task
· the information provided to children about what a successful performance would look like.
Who will I visit?
· I would like to visit classes at random – rather than being directed to specific teachers.  On my arrival in school I will discuss with the Head Teacher which classrooms it will be appropriate for me to visit.
How many classrooms will I visit during my time in school?

· At least two – I will remain in each class for at least 20 minutes.

What feedback will I provide?

· I will write to the Head Teacher with feedback about my visit.

What will I do at the end of the year?

· I will complete a report on visits to schools and reflect upon the issues and good practice that have observed over the course of the year.

Corporate Parenting


A teacher said to me last week that we (in education) seem to have to play, more and more, the role of parents as well as educators.  I had to point out to this person that that is exactly what we have to do – especially for some of the most vulnerable children in our communities. 

One of the duties I have as Head of Education is to ensure that we meet the educational needs of Looked After and Acccommodated Children.  The duties are set out in Through care and after care

1.1 Local authorities have a duty to prepare young people for ceasing to be looked after (“throughcare”) and to provide advice, guidance and assistance for young people who have ceased to be looked after over school age (“aftercare”).

There are around 11,000 children and young people looked after by local authorities in Scotland, of whom about 1,500 are over 15 years old. About 1,200 young people aged 16 or over cease to be looked after each year.

The concept of corporate parenting is set out in Looked After Children and Young People: We Can and Must Do Better:

1.4 Local authorities have a role as corporate parents to these young people, particularly those who cannot return to their families. This means that the local authority should look after these children as any other parents would look after their own children.

1.5 The role of corporate parent is not restricted to the social work department of the local authority but applies to all departments and agencies, who should recognise their own responsibility to promote the welfare of looked after young people and ensure that their needs are adequately addressed by each department.

We have named contacts in each of our schools who have responsibility for tracking and being the link for other services in relation to Looked After and Accommodated Children but I’m not convinced that our commitment extends much beyond that.

The reality in schools that such children are often some of the most challenging to educate.  Without a significant mind shift – mine included – I don’t think we will properly take on our corporate role as parents.

I wonder of there would be anything to be gained from meeting all of our secondary age Looked After and Accommodated Children with a view to gaining their perspective on how education has fulfilled its parenting role and how it might get better?

How do we avoid teacher burnout?

How can some teachers work in the same school for forty years and leave the job as enthused as they were on their first day, whilst others in the same situation feel completely burntout and exhausted?

The signs of burnout tend to be more mental than physical. They can include feelings of:

  • Frustration and powerlessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Being drained of emotional energy
  • Detachment, withdrawal, isolation
  • Being trapped
  • Having failed at what you’re doing
  • Irritability
  • Sadness
  • Cynicism (people act out of selfishness and nothing can be done about it)

I recently came acros a couple of interesting articles  Burnout: Signs, Symptoms, and Prevention and Understanding and Preventing Teacher Burnout.

I believe we all have a duty to be more aware of this debilitating emotional and physical state.

Over the next few weeks I’ll return to this theme with a view to exploring possible solutions.

Diplomatic Skills – is “win win” really possible?

Diplomatic – skilled at dealing with sensitive matters or people 

I spoke to two head teachers today about how they deal with potentially difficult situations with parents. It was interesting that they both almost used exactly the same words: “If you feel you need to “win” you’ve actually lost” Their point was that we need to be sensitive about parental concerns and use a set of very sophisticated skills to allay their fears/concerns but also explain what it is we are trying to do.  However, both pointed out that these skills do not come naturally to all people but need to be learned.

In this respect I’ll never forget the lessons I learned from Ron McDonald, former depute head teacher at Earlston High School. I would see parents go into his room raging and leave with a smile on their face having been treated with courtesy, empathy and understanding.  Yet Ron was no walkover and made his own points clearly but without any pomposity or superiority which so often upsets parents.

One of the heads today used a phrase I’ve never heard before “spread breadcrumbs on the water and pan loaves will come floating back” in other words go out of your way to help, support and understand and to resolve problems – no matter how small they might seem – and you will be rewarded ten fold.  I recall watching a former colleague from my dim and distant past who adopted a quite different approach – “I am the expert” – he used to say – “if I give way to them and show weakness they will never be away from the door and walking all over us”. He was my superior and I could never get it across to him that he was making his job (and mine) even harder as parents knew he wouldn’t listen or take their concerns seriously – the outcome –  tension, poor relationships and stress within the school and the community.

I reckon I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have had a mentor like Ron McDonald – but what if you’ve never been lucky enough to see how it can be done?  If all you’ve ever known is an overly assertive and, ironically, defensive approach then how do you change your practice? In my chats today we thought that conflict resolution would be a really useful topic to explore at one of our head teacher conferences.

Promoting good behaviour – a tipping point

If learners aren’t paying attention they can’t learn. If they are being distracted by others in the class they can’t learn. It follows that for learning to take place then there must be a purposeful and focused environment in the classroom.

I was talking with a couple of colleagues this week about classroom behaviour and how it sits with our commitment to treat all learners with “Unconditional Positive Regard”. From a personal point of view there is nothing more important than classroom behaviour which supports effective learning. I don’t see any conflict between our commitment to unconditional positive regard and tackling bad bahaviour. In fact I think for us to ignore bad behaviour lets all children down – including those who are misbehaving.

There are many factors which play a part in encouraging good behaviour – e.g. an appropriate curriculum; good planning; enthusiastic teaching; appropriate pace of learning; effective assessment; reward systems; clear expectations; consistent application of these expectations in the classroom;  and the consistent application of expectations across a whole school.

It is the last of these points which I think is the most important. I remember when we went through a difficult time with a particular year group at Dunbar Grammar School. The tipping point came at a principal teachers meeting where we agreed to implement a totally consistent approach with this year group regarding our expectations and sanctions. As a senior management team we set out to support the staff in a variety of ways. Part of that was to adopt a zero tolerance approach towards low level classroom disruption – we used the human rights act as a lever with the pupils by explaining that the rights of an individual pupil – who wishes to disrupt a lesson – do not take precedence over the rights the majority who wish to learn.  However, the thing that made the biggest impact was the fact that all members of staff “bought in” to what we were doing – when things are applied consistently across a whole school it does make a real difference.

As a consequence I ended up excluding some pupils for very minor misdemeanors – such as answering back to a teacher. These exclusions were often only for a half day with the pupil returning the next day. The most important thing was the readmission meeting which involved the parents or carers. The result was a significant transformation in pupil behaviour – and the subsequent quality of learning. 

I’ve never been in favour of long term exclusions – they should not be used as punishments. However, we do need to drop our tolerance threshhold regarding low level disruption – there’s a really interesting section in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point” where he described how New York tackled violence in their subway by adopting a zero tolerance approach – the effects were remarkable.


Inclusion = liking children

Following on from my posts about
Children need to be liked and
Being positive about inclusion have set me to thinking that this is perhaps the key to the inclusion agenda. In my experience where a teacher, or a school for that matter, adopt an “Unconditional Positive Regard” for children, then the inclusion responsibility is effectively discharged. Whereas, if the relationship is characterised as being “transactional” , i.e. you do something for me and I’ll do something for you” then inclusion will not happen. For those who are worried that this sounds like children can just do as they please, I would repeat that I’ve never been soft on discipline – if fact I tihnk we should use short-term exclusions much more frequently (half to two days) for very minor events i.e. lower our tolerance threshold for poor behaviour, whilst always wanting to our best for the individual child.

Chief Officers’ Group – couple of presentations to start the meeting – the first was on Healthy Respect (Improving the sexual health of young people) – I was interested to learn that drop-in services are much more effective than just providing information. We currently don’t have any such services within any of our schools – in one of my previous schools we had such a service which provided C-cards (access to condoms) – teenage pregnancies in the area dropped significantly. I understand the reservations of many people and groups about such easy access to condoms but the facts are difficult to dispute.

The second presentation was on transition of children with additional support for learning needs to adult services. Apparently this is a very difficult transition – there seemed to be a proliferation of groups trying to sort this out – which set me to thinking – is there any way we can manage to tackle problems in a more action focused manner as opposed to setting up yet another group?

The main agenda item was the Changing Children’s Services Fund – followed by a reflction on our INtegrated Children’s Services Plan – we have received feedback from the Scottish Executive who want more detail – this will make the document over 200 pages? I’m a bit worried about this – a few years ago the HMIe judged school effectiveness by measuring the weight of the development plan – I wonder of the Exec’ might be better to spend their time reflecting upon impact – rather than the plan?

I had hoped to get out to visit a school but a number of issues hit my desk. Out to North Berwick High School for a meeting about pupil support – Sheila Ainslie chaired the meeting – Sheila uses the
solution focussed approach in much of her work and I was mightily impressed with how she managed the meeting.

Back to the office for a communications group meeting which reflects upon communications issues in the department. There is understandable concern about any changes in accommodation when we finally settle on our restructuring process. Nothing unsettles people more than moving desks. We hope to engage all staff in this dialogue – we will probably need some movement but we’d like people to work out the solutions rather than imposing any masterplan.

Being positive about inclusion

Schools are on the mid-term break yesterday and today so not as much e-mail traffic as usual. I spent most of this morning working with Derek Haywood, School Business Manager, trying to finalise the budgets for primary and secondary schools.

Worked on SELS from 11.00-1.00 this system will allow us to actively engage pupils in providing feedback on the school exeperience. We are going to put the student data onto the system for schools which should make it much easier to implement the on-line questionnaires.

2.00-4.00 Met with Alan Ross, Sheila Ainslie and Raymy Boyle to consider how we can develop our cluster approach to integration. We discussed the twin challenges of promoting a culture of inclusion and the structures and processes necessary to enable it to be effective.

TFT number 3

In the course of the conversation I was struck by the following question ” Can a teacher, or for that matter a school, really live up to an inclusive culture if they don’t try to adopt a
positive perspective towards children, such as that I described on Friday, i.e. unconditional positive regard? – I think it’s almost impossible to do so without such a perspective. If we are overly influenced by the likeability of a child, or their commitment to the education process we can’t really be successful in changing their behaviour (we’ll just want to get them out!) I thought the section in the Educational Psychology service section of the website relating to motivation and
Maslow’s motivation theory to be very relevant to this debate.

Children need to be liked

Following on from yesterday’s post and my conversation with Ewan MacIntosh I'm going to experiment with offering a little more of my own thoughts and feelings about education. I intend to start each daily entry with a “thought for the day”

TFTD Number 1

Children need to be liked

Do pupils need to feel that their teacher “likes” them for them to be motivated in class? I think the answer to the question is undoubtedly yes. I remember earlier in my career a teacher who used to comment as certain pupils came into the staff base “I don’t like him” or “I don’t like her” I used to challenge that teacher by asking how could they teach that child with that sort of attitude? I think pupils pick up a vibe if a teacher “cares” about them, which they equate to “like”.In my experience all of the best teachers I have come into contact with have created a classroom where pupils feel they are “liked”. Perhaps we should think of appropriating the psychotherapy term “unconditional positive regard” for the teaching process. What do you think?


SELMAS conference at Stirling Management centre, SELMAS stands for Scottish Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society. The theme of the conference was “Opportunities and Challenges for Educational Leadership at a Time of Change”

A variety of speakers including Peter Peacock, Minister of Education and Young People, Professor Brian Boyd, University of Strathclyde and Professor John MacBeath, University of Cambridge.

It was an interesting day with each speaker making a number of important and thought provoking points.

I was asked to join the Leader’s Panel at the end of the day with the role to reflect on issues arising from the conference which seemed most pertinent to my own leadership role.

I picked up on a comment from Brian Boyd about the tension between leadership and collegiality. John MacBeath had expended upon this theme by reflecting upon the spectrum represented by command and consensus. This has been an area I have recently been struggling with see

I linked their comments with the idea of another possible continuum from instruction to autonomy. I repeated my concern that a leader’s over-reliance on instruction created an over-dependent culture and a limit to growth caused by the speed at which the leader could move. I mentioned the option of a fine line in terms of the leader’s judgement regarding where they should operate on that continuum. The example I used was the effect of autonomy which results in poor or negative experiences for children. The leader in these cases must be driven by a moral imperative and intervene in the situation – this is not an option – for all that it might run counter to the idea of autonomous professionals.

I then extended this into the area of distributed leadership which had been a recurring theme throughout the day by suggesting that we should try to create a community of learners. Perhaps it was a leap too far in a three minute presentation but I then linked it to the concept of social capital and the fact that people in successful organisations should be bound together by some social ties in a shared enterprise, to the metaphor of the family model for successful leadership. For me leadership is similar to effective parenthood

A “good” parent provides unconditional support – I didn’t use the word love but perhaps I should have – gives guidance, provides parameters and establishes expectations and shared values. I finished with a poem which I felt encapsulated this idea:

Take your child by the hand

And hold the future there

Keep him upright if you can

Release him if you dare

This seemed to go down OK and I sat down reasonably pleased with my performance. However, at the end of all the presentations there were questions from the floor. The first question picked up on my presentation and made a comment upon the need for schools to act as parents. This hadn’t been the thrust of my chat, as I had really been using the family metaphor to make the link between leaders and teachers, but I felt I should respond when asked to by the chair of the panel.

I started off by mentioning my experience as a Headteacher of a new community school for the past five years. I then stated that one of our members of staff had tried to encapsulate what a NewCommunitySchool was by suggesting that we should be trying to give vulnerable children the same opportunities and support as “middle class” children. I did qualify my use of the term as one of using it in context.

However, David Cameron, my predecessor as Head of Education at East Lothian took great exception to me and the subsequent speaker making mention of “middle class” as if anything less than “middle class” was inferior and sub-standard. David, quite rightly, pointed out that many “middle class” families are dysfunctional and that high expectations and principled values are not the preserve of the “middle class”.

David’s feelings were obviously echoed by the majority of people in the hall and I realised I had offended many people by using such an emotive term. I apologised if I had caused any offence and qualified myself by talking about my own father, who’s father had been a blacksmith – where education had been valued, as it has traditionally been in many such Scottish families as a means of “bettering” oneself – my father had gone onto become a very successful and outstanding family GP.

At the end of the event I have rarely felt anymore like a social leper. I had obviously offended a large number of people with my comments. Fortunately I had arranged to go for a pint with David Cameron at the end of the day to meet Jim McAlpine his new Head of Education.

As I sit here writing up my web log I am forced to reflect upon the day. Do I regret my comments? Well I think the term “Class” is an emotive term and I don’t think I should have used it. But when I think of the comments made by Peter Peacock earlier in the day I start to wonder. Peter had been making great stress on the fact that there was a very strong correlation between socio-economic deprivation and low academic attainment and subsequent social exclusion. He mentioned that the executive has plans to focus attention on such areas with additional funds to support schools in such areas. Was Peter Peacock saying anything different from me? Well – yes he was because he didn’t use the term “class”. But if we replace the word “class” by socio-economic groupings were we saying anything different?

When I first started out my career I did voluntary work in a secure list D school. I loved working with these youngsters and it broke my heart when I visited their homes on accompanied visits, that they did not enjoy the same support and opportunities as the majority of other children in Scotland, in fact quite the opposite – As a 22 yr old I remember thinking that the only way we can intervene – if I can use that word – was for education to take a more active role in their upbringing. Since that time I’ve come to realise that schools need support from other professionals to support families but I don’t think I would really go against my initial point that we MUST – at least try – to give vulnerable children the same opportunities and support as those in more supportive environments – whilst recognising that supportive environments are not the sole preserve of the “middle classes.” However, schools cannot replace families we can only support them and provide a scaffolding to enable vulnerable children to enhance their life chances.

This has been an important day for me. It’s not often one can say that!