Friday, 21 February 2020

I have never met a bad Ofsted inspector

It is interesting that under the new Ofsted framework the dominant message has been curriculum, curriculum and curriculum. Everybody is obsessed with curriculum. Even my own grandma and pet guinea pigs are obsessed by curriculum. They squeak about it often.  In fact, if you are a curriculum leader you have another worry to add to the list of many worries. Occasionally, I’d jump out of bed and worry that I neglecting my students if there isn’t scope for Welsh folk songs played on a harp. Or, if I haven’t enough northern poetry. Then, I start panicking that I haven’t placed any scope for the Spartan short stories.  

Whilst the new curriculum might be invigorating and uplifting for some, it does have its problems. The amount of work it is creating for people. The irony of things is that a new curriculum should be about freeing and empowering yet it has realistically added to people’s workload. I am seeing people making lovely curriculum paths (using pretty colours and dual coding – get them!) and revamping the whole curriculum. The amount of work is phenomenal and the attention to detail is sublime.

However, teaching is a job where there are no limits. No limits on time spent. No limits on activity. No limits on preparation. It is a job that can take over your life, unless you control it. And, sadly, all new ideas in education make work. They might be the best intentioned and brilliant ideas, but they will create loads of work for teachers and even more work for curriculum leaders as they steady a ship. In the past fifteen years, I have seen two dramatic changes in the exam system and one big change of the curriculum. I think my first words to all NQTs will be: ‘We do it like this now, but in five years we will be doing it differently.’

The problem we now have with the curriculum emphasis is the change in dynamics in leadership in schools. The curriculum leader is now even more important than before. Inspections will no longer be about prepared spreadsheets or PowerPoints by an SLT member charged with improving ‘X’ and ‘Y’ but they will be about a curriculum leader talking the talk and the department walking the walk. SLT will get the feedback, but it is largely in the curriculum leader’s hands. This is a HUGE change. A huge change that nobody is really talking about.

I have been part of Ofsted meetings before and they have been largely safe environments. Often, the discussion has been about the performance of SLT and how supported I was. We’d talk about teaching and learning, but largely it was about systems with a sprinkle of data. Now, the meetings have the curriculum leader at the head of the inspection process. What - I have to present things? Ummm, isn’t this your job? Right, so it’s now my job. What was that? So, an inspection outcome is largely based on what I say! Hang on. Your job is now my job! Of course, I am going to get that reflected in my pay. What? Where are you going? Come back here.  Oh, hello inspector

Of course, it makes sense to talk to be the people implementing and designing a curriculum. That’s only healthy. But, when I took on the role of curriculum leader, I never took on this part of the role. I knew I’d meet Ofsted inspectors and I’d have to justify choices, but this is something completely different. Now, I am not scared of Ofsted and Ofsted inspectors. I have met a lot of nice ones. They often are nice people. Their intention is good. I am not suspicious of them and I feel we need to be judged. I have never felt that an outcome from an inspection was unjustified; it was generally a fair process. But, this change in focus and emphasis has placed more emphasis on the curriculum leader. They are really paramount to the whole process now.

The problem we have now is the notion of ‘curriculum’. Do SLT know what a good curriculum looks like in your subject? Will they know that I have placed too much emphasis on Shakespeare and not enough emphasis on modern literature? Will they spot the development of a strand across the years unless I draw a pretty diagram for them? Will they spot what I missing from my curriculum? This is the problem. I have never rated a judgement by an inspector unless it is by an English specialist. That’s not to say that a non-specialist cannot judge, but an English specialist would understand the subtly and complexity of what I was doing in a lesson. The same goes for me watching a PE lesson. I wouldn’t spot the nuances. When the emphasis is now on curriculum leaders and curriculum, who is there within schools to support and monitor curriculum leaders? Going back to what I said before. Who is telling curriculum leaders enough is enough? Teaching is a job where there are no limits. Who is looking out for a very important cog in the system?

What does a good one look like? The key issue for curriculum leader is what a good one looks like. With a new look on curriculum, we still don’t know what a good curriculum looks like. Some have opted for the ‘skimmed off an undergraduate’s shelf’ look and others have gone for a chronological approach starting with caveman or cavewoman drawings. A select few have lit a few scented candles and gone for the themed approach. Which one is the best approach? Nobody knows. There are so many different approaches. Now, Ofsted cannot and shouldn’t promote a set model because there are so many different contexts; however, some suggestions of what a good and bad curriculum would be helpful. Yes, we have the National Curriculum, but like Mystic Meg and her crystal ball you can interpret in so many different ways it is unbelievable. Leave things so vague so anything can be interpreted from it.  At the moment, there is nothing. Zilch. As with all new changes in education, we are starting from scratch. Oh, how in five years’ time we will laugh and look back on this time when we were scraping around in the dust.

So things are tough for curriculum leaders at the moment. They are creating / revising their curriculum not knowing what a good or bad one looks like. They have nobody in the school with the knowledge and experience to help them. They have no outside agencies to help them thanks to government cuts and political distancing from English teaching bodies. That’s why curriculum leaders need more respect, support and kudos. Respect the curriculum leaders and save the world. They are the Wonder Women and Wonder Men. They are achieving the impossible in zero time and with zero resources. That’s why they need more support across the board.  

With that in mind, press play on the ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ trailer.

Throw that Lasso of Truth.

Bat away those bullet.

Jump into the invisible aeroplane.

Greatness is not what you think.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

If you tolerate this then your NQTs will be next - tribalism in education

This week I buried my grandfather. A very special man. If I am honest, he is the person who has had the biggest impact on my thinking and ideas. He was and still is my role model. He was grand in so many ways. One key thing he taught me was the power of talk and discussing an idea.  

I have become a bit annoyed with Twitter at the moment and that is because there is a real problem with issues being polarised. A complex issue is being simply polarised into two extremes. Over the years we have seen things polarised in terms in knowledge, skills, progressive and trad. Rather than have an exploration of an idea, we have things reduced to right and wrong categories. 

The latest casualty of this has been ‘isolation booths’. Instead of having a discussion about it and testing ideas out we get instant polarisation of the topic. We have phrases like ‘ban’ and ‘blanket ban’ banded about with glee in tweets, talks and conversations. Words like this offer no variations or room to think. You are either with us or against us. Ban it or support it! 

So when people have drawn the ‘clear lines’ in the sand, they start wheeling evidence. That polarisation is then supported by evidence from the extreme ends of the issue. The time when a student had to memorise the complete works of Charles Dickens by a misguided teacher. The time when a student was criminally locked in a room for a whole day. These bits of evidence are catnip to newspapers and politicians. They love them because they take the issue to its extreme angle and in some sort of backwards thinking it is assumed that these extreme examples are common practice. The examples cited are never the norm. Yet, the norm is never explored, because of the tabloid-bait examples are emotive and more compelling for an argument. Plus, if there is more than one example of the problem, it then is a pattern and, therefore, it is rife in our schools. Where are the national studies? 

Then, you add emotion to your polarised argument. You make someone seem like a victim or the villain. In the knowledge debate, the knowledge people were viewed as Gradgrind figures and the children were losing all sense of fun and creativity of their life. Polarisation of an idea needs victims, villains, winners and losers. Each one a bundle of emotions. The knowledge debate had teachers vilified and seen as tyrants and students seen as prisoners in a dreary system. There weren’t various shades of grey but clear views of black and white on the issue. There wasn’t a thought about all the different types of teacher. No it was ‘Knowledge Villain’ or ‘Creativity Freedom Fighter’.  

Once the polarised argument has its victim and its villain, it is now time to form your tribe. You are either with us or you are a vile human being. Yes, you are so bad you don’t deserve to breathe oxygen or teach. It does get this vile. They’ll then get a bit personal and like a cult. I wouldn’t want you to teach my child. I asked my cat and they said they wouldn’t want to be fed by you. It helps if you use the tribe title as an insult. Oh, shut up you trad! 

The problem with this tribal element is that a lot of us don’t fit at either ends of the argument. We tend to be the funny middle. We might agree with one bit of argument, but then we are against another bit. We can’t sit in either group. When issues are polarised, most of us are isolated and left out. We are neglected. There’s an assumption you are for or against an idea in education, which leaves a lot of us in a difficult place. 

An issue or an idea needs exploring, but it needs to be done intelligently and not emotionally. We aren’t doing serious concepts in education justice if we polarise things from the beginning. We need to talk, discuss, argue, convince and explain. At the moment, there is an assumption by many that something is clearly wrong from the start so there isn’t a healthy exploration of ideas. It puts us in a difficult situation where to explore an idea is to seem to be attacking the polarised idea. It is hard to deal with things because any questions or discussion is seen as attacking. 

I think education Twitter needs to take a long hard look at itself and ask itself questions. A complex issue doesn’t have a simple solution. It is complex for a reason. A complex solution is needed, yet I am not hearing people talking, writing and blogging about complex solutions.  All I am seeing tribes and posturing on one side or another. No one side it right. 

Let’s not make Twitter polarised and read like the tabloids. It should be our education symposium. A place to bounce and mould ideas. Discuss the issue rather than emote the issue. Leave the emotions to Facebook or the tabloids. Emotions get in the way of dealing with the issue. 

Thanks for reading,