Articulation of faith

The end of term last Friday saw the usual reflection – and communication of that reflection – and the subsequent considered thanksgiving that good friends and colleagues offer each other. It is for me one of the best times of the year, alongside Christmas – a time when I can think of the people I have served with and in a short message (fitting inside a card, or the back of a postcard) try and communicate what I actually feel about their contribution. I wish I could do it more, actually, and as I write I am conscious of many people I would have loved to spend more time writing to. I have 6 weeks to rectify that, as it happens!

I myself was the happy recipient of a number of these cards, from adults and children, and they were deeply moving this year. What moved me more than anything was the refrain found in at least 5 of the cards I received from adults that they were grateful that I “had believed in them.” I was genuinely surprised, because it raised all sorts of questions about my leadership style. I have consciously said once this year to a single teacher that “I believed in her” – and there was no mention of that made in any card! But somehow these five generous-hearted people were impacted; apparently, many of the things that I wind up thinking, saying and doing somehow convey that faith in people that I hope I would convey. But what is perplexing, and what bears analysis, is the actions that lead to that. And what was also really sobering is that I have never felt that about any of the leaders that I have served. I am thinking of the 5 headteachers I have served under and perhaps only one – Jean Williams, who employed me as an NQT over 20 years ago – came close to articulating that. Talking to a friend at church about this idea, we agreed that we had never served a vicar or pastor who said that they believed in us. In all the sermons we hear, we rarely are taught that God trusts or believes in us – we are always urged to trust him, to believe in him, and yet, in sending Jesus to earth, God has made some startling assertions: you are worth bothering about; I know what you are going through; you are worth dying for; you are beloved; I trust you to obey me. These assertions are summed up in the banner that Clover class at Christ the Sower have as their class virtue – that we trust God, yes, but that he also trusts us, in His covenant, in His provision and in His love.

So what is it that we do as leaders that inspires adults to the extent that they get the message that we believe in them? For two people at Christ the Sower this summer, this belief in them has (seemingly, and among other factors) changed their life course from career uncertainty to being willing to train as teachers. Our loss, unfortunately, but some lucky children’s gain. I think it is important that we try and articulate this faith we have in people and, without wanting to create a strategy for it, at least know how we can increase it, and what factors might threaten it.

Here are some ideas – open to discussion, certainly, and not expounded fully, but they might be pointers:

  • Communicate often, and personally, using the language of the heart as well as the mind
  • Accept unreservedly
  • Support first, ask questions afterwards
  • Separate out the person from their actions always
  • Praise whenever possible, and if possible, when impossible as well (possibly)…
  • Make people feel glad they came and worked here (that involves communication, acceptance and smiling a lot)
  • Change the organisation to fit around what they have to offer
  • Model the kind of work ethic you want
  • Articulate the vision you hold and encourage people to join it as partners: describe the reality of the “now” but place your hope in a preferred future with them in it!
  • Notice things, especially moods, changes of approach, new strategies tried…
  • Giving them a job (this really helps, I suppose, in fostering belief in a person!)

There will be more, and perhaps these are not the “deepest” bit of thinking. But I wanted to start the conversation.

A colleague of mine who fosters children said to me a couple of years ago – I don’t tell children “I love you” – because how many people have said that in the past and gone on to abuse them? – but I say “I believe in you.” It puts a bit of your trust and faith in them to work, and gives them something to live up to.

A year to give thanks for

We have, at last, come to the end of one of the most exhausting years any of us can remember. The sense of relief at the end of it has been palpable. It has also led to some children finding the pressures all too tricky – I have had to exclude two in the last three days, for others’ safety and contentment. I have written here about the wonderful children and fantastic staff who have left today.

It has also been exhausting for a couple of other reasons – one was the work we put into getting a successful outcome for the SIAMS inspection. We are an outstanding church school and that really counts for something today. I was glad to put that effort in, and appreciated the work done by teachers and leaders to enable us to be the kind of school that could be judged in this way. It doesn’t mean that I believe in the SIAMS process – I don’t, at all – but it is managed well and is fair to schools.

OFSTED, on the other hand, though there have been some marginal improvements, is still fundamentally onerous and adversarial for far too many schools. For an inspection system, it fills far too much time and space in people’s heads, and, despite repeated calls for it not to do this, it still is a pressure organ for the state’s view of education. It determines school policy, rather than simply inspecting it. It seeks to lead school improvement instead of trailing behind and looking at what has been achieved. If it does not intend to do these things then it should stop being in hock to every new initiative that the DfE launches and take a more independent view.

In my view, it should be closed down completely and replaced with a peer-review system (for instance the excellent Challenge Partners or the NAHT’s Instead). As an inspection system, OFSTED has transformed education principally by scaring people, not through the medium of encouragement, and as we have found today, it is love, rather than the whip, that pushes forward the most long lasting improvements.

But overall, it has been a good year for us, and the changes we face in senior staffing, in employing newly qualified teachers for September, in refocusing our efforts towards teaching and learning and teacher development – all of these will make a difference in the year to come. We don’t really have enough money to do all these things, but we have been blessed by the generosity of our Local Authority’s top-up SEN funding to support some of our neediest children, and this local encouragement is really to be given thanks for.

I hope to write more over the coming week, but for now, I really want to express my gratitude for those teachers and teaching assistants, parents and families who have poured themselves out sacrificially for their children this year and who have loved their children, their friends, their colleagues and the school enough for this to count for something. I finish with a quote from a mum who has seen two children go right through the school and whose youngest has just finished today in Year 6:

We have seen staff come and go and changes to the school. There is however one thread that weaves its way through the school and that is love. Whether it is a love of learning, a love of adventure, a love of exploration, of each other, of the arts, of culture – it definitely is love.  So we thank you from the bottom of our hearts because without love, nothing will grow.

Amen to that.

Does art make children powerful?

Last night we were treated to a complete surprise by Marsh, who do risk analysis and insurance for schools (they were touting for business, kindly, which is why we ended up on their amply-funded hook at one of the best freebies I have ever received). We were invited to the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition for a private viewing for two hours – one of the best ways to spend an evening that I know. We were amply supplied with as much drink as we could cope with, and canapes that tasted like meals in themselves. I have never been to the Summer Exhibition before, but will eagerly go again. It was, I gather, slightly different from the newcomers’ exhibition that it was designed for in the 18th century, and had some well established artists – ones I know about and noticed were Yinka Shonabare, Anselm Kiefer, Norman Ackroyd (his stunning view of the Stour was on view) and the print collective known as Pine Feroda, who have taught me most of what I have learnt about woodcut. Tons of other stuff, of course, too numerous to mention – well over 1000 pieces of art over 8 galleries or so.

The title of this blog comes from a piece by Bob and Roberta Smith, illustrated above:  Art makes children powerful. I found that it was a useful title to guide my thinking about art as a social tool rather than craft only, and as a medium of empowerment rather as a means of decoration. Of all the things that were on display in the Summer Exhibition, only a handful were decorative merely. Virtually everything had an expressive power – and I stayed mainly in the two printmaking galleries – combined with fantastic skill and execution.

It got me thinking – do we, as teachers, use art as a means of empowerment? Perhaps we do. Every time we teach skills to children, we empower them, and each time we ensure that children get to record the way they see the world, we do likewise. However, skills and vision are both needed to become artists, and often we (in the spirit of Picasso who said that the struggle for children is to remain artists as they grow) encourage children to see without giving them the context of what “seeing” looks like. The skills of artistic interpretation depend on seeing the world in a particular way, so interpreting the metaphors through which children see the world in any case.

So yes, art makes children powerful, provided that we teach them the accurate execution of skills, and through our own sight, through literature and story, science, scale and sense, teach children the many ways that they can see the world.

Malaguzzi taught that children have 100 languages. Many of those are the way they interpret the world. If we can act as facilitator-translators for them, and enlarge their view of the world and everything in it, we are empowering them, and this art will make them more powerful.


Curriculum matters

For a variety of reasons, all good, some timely, I have been thinking about curriculum in schools over the last week or so. Both the last two posts have had a curriculum focus (the CCT one incidentally, because it is actually the curriculum – the irresistible curriculum – that will attract learners to the teaching we offer), and they were written immediately before the first of a series of Milton Keynes Improvement Partner events called IP Essentials. (Nothing to do, incidentally, with the IP Essentials that Wiley publish to advance the public understanding of intellectual property). I went to the first of these sessions on Thursday morning and found it really useful. Alison Talbot led it, and it was principally an insight into the way that Amanda Spielman and her new emphasis on curriculum is being translated into day-to-day practice in inspections. Some of the stories that came from participants for whom curriculum was the main focus of their recent inspection bordered on the scary, but they were a useful reminder that if we want to take a broad and balanced curriculum seriously, then we need to find ways to assess that curriculum properly and show progress in it. This has implications for teacher time, for curricular leadership at Christ the Sower and for a holistic way of showing both attainment and progress for children from different groups (SEN, pupil premium, EAL, etc). This will have to be a major effort for teachers this year if we are to take it seriously, and we must. It also has some implications for planning, in order that we teach enough material in each term, in each year group, to assess in each subject. The way we have approached RE assessment is a start, but it also means that our planning will have to start “with the end in mind.”

In Thursday’s course, there were some more-or-less hopeless definitions of curriculum given us, presumably to wind us up deliberately, but it was the wider referencing of important documentation that I found most helpful, so this blog actually exists to signpost the main three documents that arose from the morning’s discussion – two directly, and one that I started hunting for online during a less convincing part of the course.

This latter was Michael Young’s paper in Arquivo (Portugal) entitled: What are schools for? Young (from the IoE) argues that in every generation, we need to redefine this question. It is a different question than “what should we teach in schools?” but it comes to the same conclusion: they provide the intellectual content and skills for children that neither parents nor the community can provide. Young’s conclusion is:

Although answers to the question «what are schools for?» will inevitably express tensions and conflicts of interests within the wider society, nevertheless educational policy makers, practising teachers and educational researchers need to address the distinctive purposes of schools…. (secondly) there is a link between the emancipatory hopes associated with the expansion of schooling and the opportunity that schools provide for learners to acquire «powerful knowledge» that they rarely have access to at home. Third, I introduce the concept of knowledge differentiation as a principled way of distinguishing between school and non-school knowledge. Contemporary forms of accountability are tending to weaken the boundaries between school and non-school knowledge on the grounds that they inhibit a more accessible and more economically relevant curriculum. I have drawn on Basil Bernstein’s analysis to suggest that to follow this path may be to deny the conditions for acquiring powerful knowledge to the very pupils who are already disadvantaged by their social circumstances. Resolving this tension between political demands and educational realities is, I would argue, one of the major educational questions of our time.

This is one of the best counterarguments to the prevailing supposition that we are just facilitators of general knowledge, and that there is a requirement to allow parents to be the chief educators. That might be the case in societies or cultures where parents and the communities are highly knowledgeable about everything (name me one!). I have made this case in the past – for parents to be the main educators of their children, but I have not for one minute implied a dumbing down of the teacher role. Indeed, my (mostly unspoken) assumption is that teachers in many countries (UK included) are dumbed down quite enough! Thus it seems to me that Young’s concept of knowledge differentiation, a principled distinction, is critical here:

  1. We respect and honour the knowledge that the community and the family has, and seek to find ways to extend and emplace that as critical elements for the basis upon which children learn. This has to be real common knowledge (we cannot give any place to cultural wrong assumptions just because they come from an ethnic group we do not want to offend). This has to be the basis of all we do, lest we bring our own wrong assumptions and points of view into the mix simply because we have (or increasingly have not) been to a university to learn our teaching craft.
  2. We strive as hard as we can to educate our teachers in the fulness of the cultural and “received wisdom” of previous generations AND in the skills they need in pedagogy AND in a strong, skilled and principled (read Borgmann’s Power Failure for this) awareness of the technological demands of today’s society. These are true IP essentials! These are the things that all teachers must have as their own intellectual property!
  3. With this separation of these two areas, we can build on a proper understanding of what our role is, of what the parents’ role is vis à vis our taught curriculum, and how they can truly help us should they choose to, without for a moment trespassing on the authority of parents as the chief educators of their children.

You can see why this paper of Young’s is so helpful.

The second paper – one that Alison brought to our attention – was a UNESCO document called What makes a quality curriculum? The principal author is Philip Stabback from Education Works (Australia).

The paper is based on a UNESCO attempt to define a curriculum for Iraqi schools, who do probably need a level of re-education. However, the authors are really principled about the basis of it, insisting that all children matter and all are to be valued equally – and this is placed right at the start of the curricular process. In addition is a properly content-driven, well-defined curriculum, organised properly so that learning is effective, combined with the most recent research on how children actually learn. We are in a position now to know more about this than ever before, so this is a timely piece of research for school leaders to know about:

However, I have some reservations. There is no place in the UNESCO world for Religious Education within the curriculum. This is a grave error (especially in Iraq!!). Using Young’s model of knowledge differentiation, we would therefore imagine that UNESCO wants any religious knowledge to be taught by families and the community. Well, Iraq has seen how well that one worked out. As has Northern Ireland. And most catholic countries in Europe. And Turkey. It is really not a good idea. RE has to be rooted in the taught curriculum, common to all in a national community, taught by professional teachers who themselves are well taught in RE (yes, I can see the problem you are imagining already…).

The second reservation is that their view of all children being equal really refers to a differentiated approach to learning, so that all needs are met. This is good and pragmatic, but it does not, in my view, place enough emphasis on the intrinsic uniqueness and value as a created human as I would wish. I can’t expect UNESCO to think like this, but as a Christian educator, we have to state it over and over again: every single child is of undefinable and immense value to the loving God who made them. No exceptions.

The third piece of writing is another piece by Michael Young from the IoE, brought to our attention by Alison, entitled The Curriculum and the Entitlement to Knowledge. It is unpublished, but represents an edited talk at a Cambridge Assessment seminar three years ago. It is again a strong attack on the “situational knowledge” advanced by many, and a plea for there to be an accepted understanding of what powerful knowledge is and what it could mean in our curricula.

I am not going to go into it fully, except that it puts me in mind of a comment by Tom Wright in an essay entitled How the Bible Reads the Modern World. There, he presents a view of knowledge that informs our pedagogic work, showing children what knowledge is for: ‘In the Bible, we find a vocation to human knowing that is always relational…. responsible….. fully attentive to the person or thing that is known, and yet always bringing it to the larger world of narrative, imagination, metaphor and art that enables us to know things more fully than merely as a list of facts or a string of formulas.’ Whilst content is important, we also must realize that the ‘knowing subject has a vocation in relation to the known. Knowing about the world is supposed to be part of the work of bringing the creator’s wise ordering into the world, thus enabling the world and its various parts to flourish.’ Where knowledge within Enlightenment thought leads to the knower standing outside that which is known, the knowing that is rooted in God’s wisdom ‘sees the object of study not as an isolated entity to be exploited or manipulated, but as part of a much larger world of interlocking connections and mutual relationships.’ Finally, Wright contends, we never know in isolation. Knowledge embraces both boldness and humility – we are unafraid to say what we know, but we ‘always covet other angles of vision.’

This is a fuller definition of knowledge that we need to explore. It shows that knowledge has a purpose under the hand of God, not just for that advancement of humanity’s own understanding of itself.

More to come, but my thanks to Alison Talbot for opening up this subject so well on Thursday.



Restoring the imagination to teaching

Yesterday evening, 70 or so teachers and leaders from Milton Keynes and further afield met at St Paul’s Catholic School in Leadenhall for a regional launch of the Chartered College of Teaching. Dame Alison Peacock, who is the CEO of the college, was there with a small team, and there were folk from the LA and some heads, who like me, are committed to making the college a meaningful part of the lives of teachers.

It was all very – and I mean this in the best possible way – homely. It had the feeling – and I have seen Alison engender this often – of being a family affair. It was an evening of empowerment of teachers as leaders and policy makers and changers of lives. For me, it restored the imagination, dusted off the professional fatigue and enabled us to emerge into a place of sunlight where more things were possible than when we had gone in. I had come to it straight after watching a fantastic Y6 rehearsal of The Amazing Adventures of Superstan which was almost the perfect prelude to the evening at St Paul’s – placing children, their experiences and development, their courage and rising to a challenge, right in front of me so I could not forget – as we all sometimes do – that teaching is for and about them.

Alison spoke for just under an hour, punctuated with such hilarity as this (as an illustration of an irresistible curriculum!) and in the process took us to a place where the Chartered College of Teaching was the most natural and purposeful next step in our lives as teachers.

Maxine Low, executive head at Brooklands Farm Primary School in Broughton introduced Alison – reminding us of the CCT’s purpose in providing a developmental continuum for teachers throughout their careers; in enabling and fostering partnerships across the educational landscape; and providing tools and a voice for teachers to share and build together, through linking research, CPD and individual teachers in a principled way.

Alison began by reiterating that in a time of political change such as ours is, the answer lies with us to achieve amazing things in an environment which is more accepting and encouraging than it has been for a while. She challenged teachers to engage with evidence-informed practice, because the research gave us courage, backing up our desire to try out new things with some evidence that it has worked elsewhere. We have to build trust in this way, not only among and between ourselves and our children in our schools, but learning to gain it from those who seek to control us. We are still subject to policy announcements, made for a range of not very good reasons on the steps of No 10, but policy must really come from us, from what we know and what we have learnt, and not based on some politician’s idea of what worked when he (and it usually is a he) went to school. If we want a great, self-improving system, we need to listen to teachers, to trust children, build a high degree of self-regulation and adapt the way we work so that we generate what we desire. It means we need to take seriously child development and all its research, modern pedagogy and the huge mountain of learning that stands behind it, lest we limit our own capacity for learning and for change.

Alison quoted the work of Paul Browning on the factors that build trust:

  • admitting mistakes
  • offering trust to others
  • actively listening
  • providing affirmation
  • being genuinely consultative
  • being visible
  • having a consistent demeanour
  • coaching and mentoring staff
  • offering care and concern
  • keeping confidences

I felt straightaway, as it happens, that there is plenty of learning here for me!

Partnership and collaboration are buzz words that are just very hard to do. Showing us a video from Wroxham School on learning from learning partners, Alison used children as a model for partnership. The video demonstrated: helping each other and looking for clues that help might be needed; looking for support when stuck; helping each other get around problems; discussing methods of achieving something; exploring different approaches to the same problem; demonstrating kindness. This, maintained Alison, is what it should feel like among and between schools, and in staffrooms. Competitiveness as a result of hyper-accountability has been destructive. However, when we seek to learn from each other, we needed to root that in the kind of school we aimed to be, otherwise we are just adding on more and more stuff, without letting the unnecessary or out-of-date wither and be replaced. Developing such partnerships requires support and it was one of the reasons the CCT existed. In building partnerships, listening becomes really critical, and has been at the heart of the approach that the CCT has taken since it began at the start of the year.

Using the imagination that led to the creation of Wroxham School’s music garden, Alison challenged us in the area of empowering teachers’ agency. This I found really inspiring, in trying to find ways of allowing teachers’ ideas to flourish, and it began to seed in me the start of an idea of having a fund where teachers’ ideas for the renewal of the school could be brought into practice. This will have to wriggle around in my mind over the summer, I think, especially given our budgetary constraints at the moment.

An inclusive pedagogy was an essential to the thinking of the CCT and Alison argued that we cannot get away from this. This video of Ian Wright meeting his former teacher shows the impact of inclusive approaches! We all have a real moral imperative to ensure that every single child is “unlabelled” when it comes to the opportunity that they have when it comes to accessing all the learning that they need. But she realised that the obstacles to this were often large, and that the obstacles lay in the teacher understanding of how to teach those with ASD, or what works best for weak readers in KS3, or whatever – and it was here that the CCT could play an effective role, working with subject associations, royal colleges, SEN bodies, etc, to create an online bank of easily-accessible resources in all media, so that teachers would not have to go on lengthy courses but be able quickly to find what they needed.

We need, today, an irresistible curriculum! This is vital, and a source of much of my concern around the way the curriculum looks at the moment. All sorts of ideas flowed into my mind straight away, whether or not we have the opportunity to build anything on the scale of Alison’s Celtic roundhouse at Wroxham. |The key message is that teachers need to be confident about curriculum design.

In the interests of brevity, I will summarise the rest of the talk in a single paragraph, but that doesn’t mean it was not just as informative and inspiring to those who had met together: Alison discussed the need for a proper dialogue about assessment, something that the CCT has already put into practice in a series of 9 conferences on the subject since an inaugural one at Sheffield Hallam University in May. We needed to learn from each other, because nobody has a system that is really working as perfectly as we would like. For that reason, we need more and more to resist labels for children – this can create a huge sense of optimism (again an excellent clip of two Y6 children discussing their progress helped us see this) and allow learning space that we had not permitted to be there before – as well as for schools. There is a danger in being labelled that we lose optimism or gain complacency. We need, therefore, a degree of professional courage to explain what we are doing and why. We need to trust the evidence, trust our efforts, trust our children, and have a clear understanding of the impact that we are making on the lives of many.

There are other issues to think about: whether we embrace school membership of the CCT, how we engage with the conferences that the CCT put on, and how we take this forward in Milton Keynes and the surrounding district. I made a few contacts and will be interested to see how it all progresses. I will also look for opportunities to write for the CCT. It is a great and well-planned program that Alison and her team have created, and in that very act, she has created enough trust to fascinate teachers into joining her.

Right now I am off to a morning looking to how the MK school improvement team can help us. It will be interesting to see what rubbed off from last night….


The substance of education

Courtesy of GOV.UK

I have been encouraged by what I am hearing from the speeches of Amanda Spielman, the Chief Inspector of Schools. In a speech to the Telegraph Festival of Education at Wellington College last week, she has re-made the case for a substantive content to the school curriculum, placing the content of what is taught as central to the planning of the curriculum. The application of rigorous skills to well-reasoned and thoughtful cultural, historical, linguistic, mathematical and scientific content can only be a benefit to all schools, and for that, a much richer quality of teacher is required than is generally available to school leaders. That this is available not just to wealthy schools but to those serving the poorest children has been proven times without number.

Spielman argues that within the reportage of OFSTED there is a huge amount of data, both published and in note form, about the effectiveness of the curriculum across a range of schools, which is not used nor considered. The stream of reports we used to get from OFSTED about different subjects has dried up as the reports themselves have had less detail in them. Spielman wants to launch more curricular research within the OFSTED team and this can only be a good thing. This is what she says about the heart, the substance, of what we teach:

One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum. To understand the substance of education we have to understand the objectives. Yes, education does have to prepare young people to succeed in life and make their contribution in the labour market. But to reduce education down to this kind of functionalist level is rather wretched. Because education should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation. Ultimately, it is about leaving the world a better place than we found it.

Broadening minds, enriching communities, advancing civilisation.

This seems to be a wholly worthwhile approach to take to the substance of the curriculum. Broadening minds is to do with personal cognitive growth into excellence; enriching communities reminds us that we do not learn for ourselves alone but that the social learning that we do together in schools also has the potential to make communities think differently about themselves; advancing civilisation reminds us of the huge cultural and educational heritage that we as educators pass on from generation to generation so that the fullness of children’s inheritance can be made known to them.

It echoes White and Reiss’ Aims Based Curriculum approach, but also “makes do” with the content of the existing 2014 national curriculum (Spielman again: “We have a full and coherent national curriculum and it seems to me a huge waste not to use it properly”). Whether this is an adequate starting point I do not know. I do recognise that in subjects other than English and maths within the 2014 Primary Curriculum, there is an enormous potential for creative use of the relatively weakly defined curricular content which could flower into something very full and very meaningful. Our own curriculum has consistently sought to ensure that the intellectual rigour inherent in the study of each subject is given its own space, yet it is a hard graft when English and maths have striven so hard to occupy the centre ground.

This speech though, is all very encouraging because it places teaching and learning and the content of what is taught ahead of fear-driven and artificial approaches to assessment. The fact that OFSTED have been partly responsible for that fear and that artificiality is not lost on some commentators, though this piece by John Dunford of Whole Education in the TES gives a better historical perspective, holding out the hope that teachers can again become proper curricular planners, not just deliverers of content.

Provisional pleasure

It’s been a couple of weeks since I have posted anything here – this has largely been due to the run-up to our SIAMS inspection (Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools) which took place last Thursday. The result is still confidential, but we are really pleased with the outcome, and feel that it is a vindication of all the work we have done to embed and deepen the life of Jesus into our school and into our relationships within the school. And it was thorough – we did feel at times as though we were crawling around in a petri dish under 40x magnification! Knowing the companionship of each other and of the Holy Spirit was really important on the day, so that we were able to live out what we believed, not just meet the requirements of an inspection schedule.

Thursday’s inspection did force us to stop and look at the glory of what has been achieved. We can easily, in schools, stop looking at the amazing, and instead just focus on the gap between what we have achieved and what we desired. Staying optimistic can be hard, especially when it comes to assessment or pupil progress. Some of the things said in the feedback were moving and insightful, giving us the confidence that things we had worked hard to achieve, but which were more “felt” than observed, could in fact be seen and noticed to an inspectorial eye. I will say more once the result is out, in a couple of weeks, hopefully, and certainly before the end of term, but the outcome represents for me personally one of the strong intentions I had for the school this year.

Blessing families

Yesterday I experienced something moving and lovely. It was as joyous as anything I have heard or seen since I have been at Christ the Sower, and it represented for me a first-fruit fulfilment of something I longed to achieve at my school back in Shropshire in 2010-11, but was never able to. Back then I was googling for information to help families get writing with their children and through a Family Reading Association in the US I chanced upon a copy of Art Kelly’s wonderful study of writing with families in Las Vegas, Nevada, which is nearly the most exciting book as I have read on writing (not perhaps as inspiring as Choice Words and Opening Minds by Peter Johnston, but close).

Well yesterday afternoon, thanks to Kaajal Mushtaq and Tracey Feil, I got to attend one of our new Family Time workshops. These began just before the half term holiday, and to sit in and observe one, to talk to the children and the parents about the experience of attending and then to see the tender and careful way that Tracey and Kaajal worked with the families was a delight. It felt still like the very beginning of something good, rather than the well-developed finished product, but still a fantastic event. The idea has come from Kaajal’s project for her NPQSL course, trying to meld the features of Talk for Writing with her ongoing work with community and families. Kelly’s work has been a jumping off point, but the work is designed to fit with the way that we are going about the teaching of writing, and the responses that our families have made to that work.

What I saw was a group of 19 people – 9 parents with 10 children, sitting at tables in Cherry Hall (our upstairs hall near the Children’s Centre), richly engaged in talking to each other – children and parents – about what they liked about writing. The session had been in play for 20 minutes when I went in and everyone was just starting to write simple acrostics based on the first names of the children and adults, before finding things in the hall that began with each word and making simple stories from the words that they collected. Really simple, but absorbing for all concerned.

This sharing of language together was just the beginning of the main event. Families last week had been asked to bring along a matchbox with a small treasured object in it to talk and write about. And they had. There was a 2 groszy piece from Poland, a little elastic hair band, some coins, and other “valuables”.

Tracey introduced the session by sharing Paul Fleischmann’s Matchbox Diary, a wonderful book of the recording of memories, where each matchbox contains an object representing a slice of life, a story or a person or event. It has huge power and Tracey asked the parents and children together to write a short piece of writing about the object, to be tied up with red ribbon and replaced carefully in the matchbox that they had brought with them. Really simple, and profound. At this point there was a rich purpose provided, and parents in particular approached the task with some reverence and care.

At the end of the session, Tracey and Kaajal gave out more matchboxes, this time for the other family member to find an object and place it in and write about it. I will be going back next week just to see what happened.

Art Kelly begins with 11 founding principles for his “Family Scribe Groups,” and they are worth repeating here, as they might provide future guidance and “covering” to the efforts of Family Time (which I really hope grows and develops):

  1. Remember that participants are families
  2. Focus on families and facilitate the sharing of family experiences
  3. Recognize families as teachers: “parents and grandparents have knowledge far more expansive than any classroom teacher could ever pretend to offer”)
  4. Appreciate that kids are people too. “They have opinions and ideas: what they believe matters.”
  5. Let families shape your project’s focus: “deal with lived experiences and knowledge gained from family life”
  6. Create an accepting environment: this was done beautifully by Kaajal and Tracey yesterday, one of the real strong points of what I saw.
  7. Give voice to the voiceless: watch out for those who may find it hard to express their voice at home and give an opportunity in the group, so get to the point where the work is published!
  8. Give writing importance: “in a Family Scribe Group, writing is a revered activity, a treasured experience – anything but basic”
  9. Measure success outside of given standards: rate self-perception as writers, opportunities to write about how they feel as writers.
  10. Honor native languages: this is a critical issue, as it gives honor to languages that our culture might dishonor through implicit racism or lack of interest. All languages are precious to God, and are the way we express depth in our lives.
  11. Balance mind and heart: FSGs strike a balance between the intellectual and the emotional…. and this is what I saw and experienced. Kelly’s work explains why I found it so chest-tightening to see children and their mums and dads writing together.

Everything I saw yesterday pointed to one end – of getting children and their families writing together; it was great. Perhaps in the future, the focus might move from the writing as an end to writing as a means, so that a deepening family life and awareness of family within community might be part of the outcomes. I am looking forward to what is created as the families begin to share with each other and a sense of togetherness for all the participants is created.

Diving into deep pools….

Every year we have contrived metaphors for our School Development Plan, and the review day that necessarily accompanies it. A week past Friday, about 40 of us, teachers, some TAs, staff from Allsorts, the office team and governors got together to think about the budget, and the constraints it places on our action (and our personal response to that); about the successes we have experienced this year and the impact that has had on our values and virtues as a school; and about the direction for the future, both in the broad (the areas of endeavour) and the focussed (improving teaching and learning).

Last year the metaphors were Changing Gear and “setting out on a voyage to the unknown” – this year we settled on the idea of interconnected pools – inspired by the cenotes and cave systems of the Yucatan Peninsula – where all our efforts lead to depth, and all of them, at depth, are interconnected and connected to God as the source of life.

When planning this, it seemed better to me that we thought of pools rather than distinct “core priorities” – it may also mean that our SDP is less wordy, and thus clearer in focus. So, here are the main points of the “broad” priorities that we have set for the school this year:

The more focussed part of the day concerned the quality of teaching and learning, and we will know a lot more about that once we have analysed the impact of teacher development targets this year. That will wait for another post, to follow.

A (new) gardening perspective (Part 1)

In their 2011 book, Gardens of Democracy, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer argue for a change in mindset to the US economy, its democratic processes and thus its civic life. They suggest that this is best done by shifting from what they call the machinebrain to a gardenbrain in our thinking. The fundamental difference is in how we exert influence: a machinebrain sets up a system and then allows that system to function, more or less effectively, but is unwilling to interfere with the system that it has set up because it attributes certain power to the machine (and therefore, presumably, authority) and hence accepts its unchanging role in society, the economy or government. It thinks in terms of self-regulation, and believes that “the markets” or “the democratic system” will sort themselves out because they are the systems we have set up.

The gardenbrain, on the other hand, sees everything as open to being tended. It accepts stewardship rather than self-regulation, and therefore sees that gardeners, rather than a system, have the controlling hand. It accepts complexity rather than simplification of economic and political models, and sees things as interrelated in that complexity. It accepts a large ecosystem with a wide number of “players” rather than a model where everyone has to fit their lives, thinking, work, etc. around a self-regulating system.

I came across their work through reading Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, which in turn I discovered through George Monbiot’s review of it in the Guardian in April. Raworth has written one of the most exciting books I have read since I discovered Wendell Berry and I have read her work with a growing sense of alarm, joy, deep stimulation and relief. Apart from anything else she restores the importance of the household economy to its proper place. She applies the gardenbrain metaphor of Liu and Hanauer to a concept of economic gardening which accepts that we are tending an evolving, interconnected economic society which is on such a global scale that

“gives added importance to novel initiatives, from new business models to complementary currencies and open-source design. Far from being mere fringe activities, these experiments are at the cutting edge – or rather, the evolving edge – of economic transformation towards the distributive and regenerative dynamics that we need” (p158)

This is not the place to review Kate Raworth’s book, and I will need to read it again before I even absorb the power of what she is proposing (it is reviewed here and here and here, besides George Monbiot’s review mentioned above), but I am grateful to her for referencing Liu and Hanauer’s work because it has begun to spark in me a complete review about the work I do as a headteacher.

They write:

To be a gardener is not to let nature take its course; it is to tend….Gardeners don’t make plants grow but they do create conditions where plants can thrive and they do make judgments about what should and shouldn’t be in the garden. (Gardens of Democracy, Sasquatch Books, 2011, p11, p87)

Humans, it is said, originated in a garden. Perhaps that is why we understand so intuitively what it takes to become great gardeners. Find the right ground and cast the seed. Fertilize, water and weed. Know the difference between blight and bounty. Adapt to changing weather and seasons. Turn the soil. That is how a fruitful economy grows. (The Machine and the Garden, NY Times, July 2012)

There is much here to contemplate in my own leading of a school, and as I do, regret also arises, for missed opportunities, for lack of clarity of purpose in my own work, and in a concern that a failure to lead by example, above all, in missed opportunities to take the courage to teach, has led to plants – children and teachers – not growing in the way that I intended. I have exalted autonomy for teachers as a public good for the school without tending to their needs more carefully. I have tried to maximise teacher’s impact without giving careful thought to my own.

All that is about to change, and I will begin some sort of extended meditation over the coming months on my role, how I deploy myself, what I spend time on, and how I nurture – and intervene (a posh word for interfere, sorry) where necessary – with teachers and children. It will mean being more public in school and less public with colleagues. Kate Raworth says that “economic gardeners must get stuck in, nurturing, selecting, repotting, grafting, pruning and weeding the plants as they grow and mature.” (p158) All of these lovely present participles have got direct application to the work that is coming up at Christ the Sower.

Before Easter, I signed myself off work for three days because of the accumulation of stress, exhaustion, bad sleep patterns and over work. It was always going to happen, given the way I have gone about things, but it took me by surprise even so. I tried to come back on days 4 and 5, but failed both times. In 36 years of work I have never been away from work for more than a day at a time. What finally really worried me was that I was getting bad/slow at decision making and needed to get out of the way so that those who needed to make the decisions could get on and do so. A number of things about the future were sorted out in my mind during those three days, and in subsequent conversations with those who looked to support me, I began to evaluate some of what my personal impact has been and where I have actually made a difference when I have been at my best.

We are thinking and musing as a leadership team about our annual gathering of teaching staff and governors that is taking place a week on Friday (26th May). We have a model for how we will deepen our work – in fact depth will be a key concept in what we talk about – and there is an excitement about us as we approach it. However, a rootedness in who we are and what we can realistically achieve has underpinned all our discussions. It means finding ourselves as a school in God again, looking at the new uncertainty of the educational landscape, with assessment, funding, governance models all under scrutiny and pressure, and knowing that He is able to lead us and protect us. It means taking on His yoke, I suspect, and walking at His pace as we tend to one another. It also means being rightly yoked together as leaders who lead, but who share that work more equably – in this matter I have probably failed my co-leaders this year by not taking my fair share of the load – so that those who follow grow in confidence to be the leaders that they in turn are called to be to their children.

More to follow, doubtless.