I’ve now visited four bookshops as part of the new feature on independent bookstores on the books and publishing website, ACHUKA.
Each one has been extremely good, but in different ways. The excellence of the shops has been no surprise, since these first few subjects of the monthly feature were self-selected by reputation. And anyway, in the harsh trading environment of the contemporary high street, any independent bookshop not playing at the top of its game is unlikely to survive.
In the same period of time I have been inside several different schools – one, the Judith Kerr free school as a visitor, the others as a supply teacher.
When I was working full-time as a deputy-head, at least one day of the week was spent in class, and this was invariably the best and most rewarding part of the job. I enjoyed other aspects too, and most of those things that brought me the greatest satisfaction involved direct contact with the children. Although I am glad not to have to think up a new story or a new angle each Sunday evening, I used to enjoy the storytelling aspect of taking assemblies, and hardly ever had recourse to those books that give teachers readymade themes. Some of the things I tried didn’t work out so well, usually because I would over-egg the moral or topical allusion. There were many favourites that I used over and over again, such as retelling Isaac Singer’s wonderful short story, A Fool’s Paradise. (I couldn’t resist using this one more time just recently, as an end of session story with a Y4 class, and they were enraptured. There is always one line that children find entertaining: “A dead man cannot kill himself.”)
Going into school as a supply teacher you don’t get to take assembly. You do get contact with the children. And you quickly learn that children’s natures, while being infinitely varied, fall into certain discernible types. In any class of 30 children there will be examples of each of these archetypes. It is rare, if you have worked in schools for many years, to think to yourself, “Well I’ve never come across anyone quite like you before.”
But whilst I haven’t been surprised by the similarity of children from school to school, I have been surprised by the variation in mood and atmosphere within different schools and the way in which this is transferred to the atmosphere within the classroom.
I was fortunate to work for over 23 years in a successful and happy school with fantastic staff camaraderie. None of the schools I have been in so far has had anything like the laughter decibel level of the school I left in the summer. But one in particular has been very similar in other ways.
The office staff are efficient and welcoming. Teachers have thought carefully about the sessions to be covered by a supply teacher and clear instructions have been left, with smartboard files open on the computer where appropriate, or details of how to find them on the network.
Children are friendly and cheerful. They have well-established routines. The classrooms are bright and motivating. Only a very small number of children (1 or 2 in a class of 30) are, for whatever reason, not fully compliant. Meltdowns are rare, with the result that the class is easily managed and the learning planned for the day or half-day is readily completed.
There have been good aspects to the other schools I have worked in. Above all, support staff have been splendid, often bearing the burden of having to deal with the emotional flare-ups and heightened behaviour that seem to spontaneously erupt, completely out of proportion to the petty catalysts that prompt them.
I do not include in the above description children who have autism or other identified needs that clearly explain their outbursts. Nor do I include children whose home background is particularly unsettling. Any one school and any one class will have different numbers of these. Some schools do have challenging levels of SEND/EBN on roll, but the important point to make here is that these children should be known and identified and highlighted to supply and cover teachers so that appropriate allowances can be made.
I am talking about children whose individual and collective behaviour has become unbalanced as the result of a general negativity in the school. The word unbalanced is perhaps too strong. They have not become unmanageable, but the relationship between children and staff has become adversarial. In essence, behaviour management in such a school takes more effort and is more tiring, which in itself makes staff more tired, and more negative.
I am not a great fan of the cloud system of behaviour management popular in many schools. [This is where all the children’s names begin in the sunshine, and then, following a warning, are moved to a white cloud, a grey cloud, and finally a thundercloud in response to various unwanted behaviours] From a supply teacher’s point of view I am inclined not to make use of it, especially with KS2 children, many of whom are all too knowing and willing to play the game, happy to go through the gamut of caution and cloud movement until they are on the brink of a storm cloud sanction, when they suddenly become compliant — until the next session.
When children are kept properly busy and occupied, attention-seeking behaviour (which is what most often prompts a teacher’s use of the cloud system) will automatically diminish. One of the most common mistakes student teachers make on their early school placements is to dwell too greatly on negative behaviour even while children are settling for the start of the lesson, thereby interrupting proceedings and almost inviting further disruption. Continuing negative behaviour cannot be ignored but very often if you swing into the start of the session and introduce it in an engaging way, the attention-seeking fidgeter or noise-maker will tune in as well – then, at an opportune movement you can give them a well done for _not_ needing to be told to stop whatever it was they were doing.
I don’t like the cloud system and other similar classroom behaviour management systems because, except when all teachers in a school have had expert training in how to apply them and all teachers apply them in the same way, instead of a means of enforcing high expectations (I have been in a school where it IS used well, with just this result) it can have the opposite effect of sanctioning low-level disruption that never results in any form of sanction.
Another thing I enjoyed about deputy-headship was mentoring NQTs and supporting students on teaching practice placement. In the New Year, I’m hoping to do some Placement Tutoring for the University. I think it’s important that I continue – on a necessarily infrequent basis – testing myself in different classroom situations. One of the things the teaching profession has far too many of is people who have had no recent classroom experience (sometimes for decades) telling teachers that they are not doing an adequate job.
Teaching as infrequently as I do now, and as I did even as deputy-head, means I can never claim to be anything like the teacher I was in my thirties/forties, but it means I can continue to experience at first-hand the challenges that any individual confronts the moment those 30 children come through the classroom door.
Since I wrote my last REFLECTIONS ON DEPUTY HEADSHIP there have been several interesting educational news stories, not least the controversial ‘paper’ by Donald Cummings, which I have written about separately here: https://www.achuka.co.uk/blog/gove-advisers-thesis-modest-title-disguises-inflammatory-ideas-politics-the-guardian/ – so won’t add to those comments now.
The Discovery Montessori Free School has been closed, and the National Audit Office has released data that shows the costs of establishing free schools is much higher than previously reported. And the DfE’s own figures show that free schools are not opening in areas of the greatest shortage of school places. Indeed, most are failing to reach their own predicted numbers. That’s bad management, bad planning and bad use of public money. But how can it not be?
Even more depressing is the cynical closure of the Montessori school, which smacks of a political move that is meant to say to the public “You can have faith in free schools because where they are found to be wanting we will close them down.” So what of the £6m that we are told will have been spent on establishing the free school in the first place? And let’s consider for a moment the grounds on which this school has been closed.
The school was one of the first free schools to open, in September 2011. It was not inspected until May this year, when it was found to be Inadequate. The first Section 8 report was completed in September. The Inspection team visited in the second week of the new school year. It was reported that the current head teacher accepted that the improvement plan — which appears to have been drawn up without any outside support (“The school has been unsuccessful in securing an external improvement partner”) — was not ‘fit for purpose’ and had agreed to stand down. Indeed, this was all that was reported. No other judgment referring to progress or standards at the school is included in this perfunctory Section 8 report.
Which means that the second Section 8 report, carried out on the 12 November, and with an ‘interim head teacher’ in place, had given the school just two months to demonstrate improvement.
Certainly there is much in the the three reports to indicate that the school was not ‘performing’ well. But there are other extracts that suggest the school’s Montessori philosophy might have been at loggerheads with Ofsted’s expectations, and if that is the case what a commentary on the whole philosophy of ‘free schools’.
However bad this Montessori school may have been, having been happy to fund its establishment is it not ludicrous for Michael Gove to close it down after just two years, only six months after the initial inspection, and before the school’s governing body had been given a realistic opportunity to execute and implement an improvement plan.
“Montessori schools… believe that each child is an individual and should be encouraged to work at the pace that is right for him or her. There are no grades or tests. Children are never in competition with each other.”
From the first Ofsted inspection report: “Pupils enjoy school and several told inspectors they preferred this school to their previous one. Pupils are polite and cooperative. They relate well to one another and show initiative. Some step in spontaneously to try and mediate when others find it hard to manage their own behaviour.”
And the final Section 8 report included this observation: “Behaviour around the school is calm. However, a small number of children become inattentive during lessons. This is not always noticed, or acted on in a timely manner, by the teachers and teaching assistants. In one case, a pupil left a classroom to go to the toilet, did not return to the classroom and was later found helping the cook prepare lunch. Relationships between pupils are positive and they value their friendships. Pupils told inspectors they enjoy the new after-school mathematics club. Pupils’ attendance rates are above average.”
These extracts don’t read to me like a description of a school that requires immediate closure. Even the story about the pupil who leaves class to help the cook prepare lunch has something endearingly Montessori-like about it.
A battle-scarred statement by the school’s founder, Andrew Snowdon, leaves us in no doubt that he believes the closure was politically driven: “Serious issues with government implementation and lack of understanding of 6 -12 Montessori education and poor governance all played their part. At the end of the day the new regime declared the main aim was to pass SATs and [was] therefore an affront to the principles of Montessori education. One day the UK may be ready but sadly not now.”
The Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector 2012/13 received widespread coverage, principally for the variation in achievement between local authorities and between schools which it highlighted in the end section of Key Statistics and the extrapolation that currently (unless they live in central London) children have only a 50/50 chance of attending a ‘good’ school.
What caught my eye was this list of ‘myths’ that some schools (more usually school leadership teams) hold about what constitutes an outstanding lesson:
■■ Pace – A belief that the faster the lesson, the
better the learning. While pace is important – pupils
may lose concentration in a slow lesson – teachers
concentrate too often on the pace of the activity
rather than the amount of learning.
■■ The number of activities – Some teachers believe
that the more activities they can cram into the
lesson, the more effective it will be. This is often
counterproductive, as activities are changed so
often that pupils do not complete tasks and
learning is not consolidated or extended.
■■ Over-detailed and bureaucratic lesson plans
– Excessive detail within these plans can cause
teachers to lose sight of the central focus on pupils’
■■ An inflexible approach to planning lessons –
Some school policies insist that all lesson plans
should always follow the same structure, no matter
what is being taught. The key consideration should
be the development of pupils’ learning rather than
sticking rigidly to a format.
■■ Constant review of learning in lessons – In
lessons observed, significant periods of time were
spent by teachers on getting pupils to articulate
their learning before they had completed enough
work. Indeed, inspectors observed lessons where
pupils were asked to self- or peer-assess work
before they had been able to complete more than
a sentence or two.
This is valuable ammunition for classteachers who find themselves under undue pressure to adhere to an overly formulaic teaching style.
There are different ways of being outstanding it seems. Maybe not the Montessori way, eh?
I have no association with the Montessori Organisation and no connection with the Discovery School. Free schools interest me only from the point of view that they appeared to provide the possibility of establishing different educational models compared with the status quo. I suppose the notion that public funds would be allowed to drive alternative educational philosophies was always likely to be challenged. Hopefully, other free schools will have senior management teams confident enough in their own school and their own values to be able to challenge Ofsted’s notions of progress.