Wednesday, 24 June 2015

It's just what we do...

“By schools, for schools” is a mantra deeply ingrained in my educational psyche and may be familiar to some of you as the tagline for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) over the years.  It is a phrase that keeps coming back to me in this time of change, trepidation and hope as education policy shifts once again and we find ourselves in the midst of an extraordinary power game.  Above all else, we can see the fear culture that has been patiently building in the background coming to the fore and gripping many of us.  We hear of changes in “powers”, of “orders”, “letters direct from the Secretary of State”, “no right of appeal”, etc, etc. 

Well, well. Strong language. Sure to stir up emotions. All in the name of ‘raising standards’.  All pretty heart-breaking, really. In the meanwhile, lists of ‘coasting’ schools are made public (a bit of naming and shaming always helps, does it?) while leadership teams across the country spend hours of their time trying to work out if they could be next, devoid of any clear definitions of what would make them ‘coast’.  While the fear spreads, paralysis sets in and the system-wide spirit of innovation, inquiry and self-improvement is in danger of gradually fading. Survival becomes the priority, avoiding the shame of failing your community becomes the goal, the potential of losing your job a reality. 

We are in danger of many schools behaving in that weird way we often do when we are being observed teaching and having a bit of a wobbly day because our confidence has taken flight. We over-think, over-plan, trip on our words, misplace our resources, crow-bar in the things that will tick the right boxes, produce document after document to justify the efficacy of our teaching.  Above all else, we confuse the students with our obsessive control on what they are doing, learning or saying.  Worst of all, in our hearts we know that at best it was a mediocre lesson and that they were definitely short-changed. We stop listening to ourselves and don’t want to hear what others have to say.  Imagine if everyone in the school behaved that way.  What a miserable experience of education for the learners.  How dreadful if most schools were like that.

So, ‘by schools, for schools’ is of course, an apt, handy and obvious phrase to keep in mind.  I’ll be bold and say that we have moved on enormously from the days of being isolationist and competitive with the ‘school up the road’ and venture so far as to say that there is a stronger collegiality that has built up through both necessity and a deeper understanding of being in this whole business of education together. For every bad ‘takeover’, there is a story of great partnership.  We know that this has not always been the case but it is where we have hope.  It is our greatest weapon against the fear that threatens to grip us.  Allow me to reminisce...

In the mid-noughties, I stepped out of school for three years and worked for SSAT as part of a team that facilitated school improvement programmes.  One of these was commissioned by the DfE to tackle, wait for it, ‘coasting’ schools.  They were defined from their overall results over a three-year period, their contextual value-added and meeting suggested targets from RAISE and FFT data.  These schools received a letter.  It told them that they had been identified as being ready to benefit from some support in order to improve outcomes for their students.  It offered them a modest amount of additional funding, exploratory conferences, peer-to-peer support, and a network of schools who were there to share their improvement journeys and solutions.  I spent a lot of time phoning schools to follow up the letter, convincing them that there wasn’t a catch and that this was all about support and opportunity, not a telling off. For many, the naming of the underperformance elephant in the room was a relief. They were ready for change but hadn’t known where to go, knowing only that their local authority didn’t think they were good enough and that they were part of a limited and often static network.

The programme was called ‘Raising Achievement Transforming Learning’. There were ‘mentor’ schools and headteachers, all of whom had been asked to contribute because they had done what the programme said on the tin and the vast majority were still in post. School leaders and teachers mingled, shared and connected across geographical boundaries and very often with their ‘competitors’ in the same authority. The good and the great of the education world spoke at conferences and seminars, making research accessible and practical. The strategies shared, the innovations trialled and undertaken, the partnerships forged, the sheer creativity that erupted from these connections were often breathtaking.  For most, results improved, for some, dramatically.  The changes made in many of those schools were not just quick fixes but bold new directions that invigorated the learning experience for both students and teachers. Data became a tool for analysis, not merely a measurement, the curriculum was an exciting place to motivate and capture the imagination of students.  It seemed to work for most of the schools. The energy was wondrous. A very different approach to school improvement than the current one, then, in spirit, language and ethos. A lot of schools even thought it was… (sssshhhh) enjoyable.

Nothing is perfect, even with hindsight, and we live in times of austerity. It is never useful to idealise or to try to replicate what has passed. However, my wistful reminiscing has made me smile with optimism. As much as thoughtfully-worded letters and the promise of a supportive, creative community inspired those despairing school leaders, it was a domain devised and created to help ‘by schools for schools’ become a reality for them that made the difference.  We are in a much better place now, aren’t we? So much peer-to-peer and school-to-school support happens because that is how we do things now, the exchange of ideas and innovation has become organic and system-led, our collegiality as a profession is arguably the best it has ever been, we communicate endlessly in person and using all the media available to us. We understand our own data and are knowledgeable enough to critically analyse external measures. We have created a friendly community with the shared aim of making education the best it can be, there is innovation, creativity and bold-thinking all around us. We don’t really need to create networks and opportunities for professional learning in quite the same way we used to. By schools, for schools. It’s just what we do.

In the unfriendly era of shaming lists, feared letters, the dread of unwanted ‘takeovers’ from unknown quantities, the pressure to play it safe, it is this community we have grown that will keep the paralysis of fear at bay. One of the biggest lessons I learned a decade ago working with those schools is that sometimes, the hand of friendship needs to be extended to those who need it most.  Often they are the ones who have already begun to retreat into themselves, ready to do only what they think will please everyone and make them go away. The successful, thriving schools, leaders and teachers who are confident and popular, share wonderful insights, appear to be at the cutting edge of innovative thinking and mingling in all the right places can be scary, too.  If we are going to continue to make schools the key agents of change and not the ‘fear’ regime of policy makers, we need to remember those who are already losing sleep, offer our support and have the humility to remember that yes, “we are all in it together”. Let’s just try to do it before the letter arrives.  Let’s show them who really has the power to make the difference.

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