The End of THAT School Year: Cheers!

Perhaps, like me, you set off in September with grand plans to do new, innovative and exciting things for your children, classes and schools. But then a pandemic came, stopped us in our tracks and we were given a weekend to reinvent our very existence.

The shackles of the National Curriculum, SATs and Ofsted fell off; schools and teachers were able to truly put well-being at the heart of their work. In the face of fear and uncertainty, our profession responded to the call, served families and communities and provided the thread which kept people together.

The Government provided daily guidance to schools, much of which was baffling, ambiguous and ill-thought out. Politicians made decisions about zoos and cinemas before they made plans for children. Then they pretended to reward teachers with a pay rise which was first announced months before the pandemic.

Most school years are like marathons. This year has been an ultrathon. In the dark. With under-prepared legs and an upside down map. If, like me, you crawled over the finish line feeling exhausted and ever so slightly cynical, know that you make a tremendous difference to children’s lives.

Know that your influence is immeasurable.

For you will be remembered many years after Gavin Williamson has been forgotten.

@bladon_steve

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The Poverty Promise

On the last day of 2019….

You might or might not recall that, back in 2001, Tony Blair, pledged to erradicate childhood poverty in the UK by 2020. His ambition had cross party support and was eventually enshrined in law, in the Child Poverty Act 2010. The number of children living in poverty officially reduced by over three quarters of a million between 1998 and 2012.

The Child Poverty Act was abolished in 2016. Since that time, the Government has no longer had to set targets to reduce child poverty.

We’re now just a day away from 2020 and whether you talk about relative, absolute or persistent poverty, the reality is that the number of disadvantaged children is increasing at an alarming rate. There were officially 4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2017-18. That’s 30% of all children (but considerably higher amongst large families, in ethnic minorities or in lone parent families)! Overall, child poverty is predicted to rise to 5.2 million by 2022.

The Trussell Trust, which runs two thirds of the UK’s 2000+ foodbanks, distributed over 800,000 food parcels between April and September 2019 (a 23% year on year increase). Over 300,000 of these went to children. The demand for emergency food supplies at Christmas and New Year has risen by 73% over 5 years.

This is life in the world’s sixth largest economy, twenty years into a new millennium.

@bladon_steve

31st December 2019

20 Years/9 Lessons

2nd September 2019

The first day of a new school year and, for the first time in my career, I won’t be there. So instead of being at work, I’m just thinking about work. Here I present the meandering reflections of an invalid headteacher.

I’ve now completed 20 years in the teaching profession. In that time, I’ve worked in four schools, three towns and two counties. I’ve taught children living in some of the country’s poorest council wards and I’ve led schools in radically contrasting settings. I’ve worked in Church schools and community primary schools, teaching children of all faiths and none. I’ve led a school in which most pupils had English as an additional language and another where the 11+ determines who goes to a Grammar School and who doesn’t. I’ve been through five OFSTED inspections and served as Headteacher of schools with Outstanding, Good and Requires Improvement labels.

And what have I learned?

  1. All children need great teachers. Great teachers care, empathise, enthuse, innovate, inspire and listen. Schools should be places of greatness.
  2. We sometimes forget what greatness is. Thanks to Ofsted, the only adjectives which really matter are ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’. Neither of those are the same as ‘Great’. Good schools are supposed to aspire to become outstanding. Outstanding schools aren’t necessarily great.
  3. We are short changing children from a very young age. The accepted definition of ‘performance’ has changed profoundly in the last twenty years. Officially, performance is solely data now. Forget what you know about child development; your context doesn’t matter either. Your son or daughter or pupils can flourish in so many ways but Heaven forbid they shouldn’t pass a phonics test in Yr1 or a SPAG test in Yr6. “We’re all looking forward to the new Yr4 times table test!”, said no teacher ever. Tests tell us nothing yet they just keep coming.
  4. It’s 2019. A previous Government had pledged to eradicate childhood poverty by 2020. But childhood poverty isn’t going away. It’s increasing. 4.1 million children were officially living in poverty in 2017/18.
  5. Children’s needs are changing rapidly. Mental health issues have become prevalent, even amongst the very youngest of children. In schools, we are faced with issues we’ve never seen before, relating to anxiety, trauma, depression and even suicidal thoughts. A growing number of children are feeling sad, confused, lonely and desperate. Waiting times for services to help us with these complex issues are dangerously long.
  6. Our education system is a political tool.
    Successive Governments ignore the vast expertise of teachers and school leaders. Instead, ministers and civil servants determine our curriculum, our priorities and our testing arrangements. They shape inspection regimes and decide the definition of acceptable performance. League tables and data help to sell houses; they help to illustrate the difference between the rich, the poor, the North and the South.
  7. There is no money. There was money.
    (“Education! Education! Education!”). At least a third of all secondary schools and 10% of primaries are in the red. A great many more are heading that way. Local authorities reduced their spending on schools and children’s services by £700 million last year. Now, the Government has just announced a boost of £7.1billion. We will welcome the money, if it emerges, but this will take 3 or 4 years to deliver and it follows 13 years of no net growth of per pupil spending.
  8. We still have a Victorian education system. We know more than we’ve ever known about the brain and about how children learn. Technology can answer any question we ask in less than a second. Nursery children know how to swipe right long before they have the core strength to sit up and hold a pencil. Interactive screens and tablets have replaced blackboards and slate but, by and large, our schools and our systems aren’t as modern as the world we are preparing our children for.
  9. Education was once a reputable profession; teachers were respected and trusted. Now, schools and teachers are often derided in the press and insulted on social media. Knife crime? Hate crime? Obesity? Tooth decay? Disaffected youth? It’s schools’ fault. When the profession voices legitimate concerns about violence, conditions, funding or pay, we are ridiculed and our concerns dismissed.

Despite all of the challenges within the profession, there is always hope. Recent announcements about funding, SEND provision and teacher retention are certainly encouraging and welcome.

If you’re a teacher, a leader, a teaching assistant or member of support staff, stick with it. Education is THE most important profession and children need you. Be great! If you’re a parent, or if you just have an interest in education, you need to know that this country’s schools are full of dedicated teachers, support staff and leaders who are trying their absolute best for your children. In the UK, we have some of the finest teachers, leaders and teaching practice in the world. Read inspection reports carefully; ignore performance tables. Make you own informed decisions. Support your local schools and know that they are working tirelessly for your children.

Make a difference.

@bladon_steve

The Way Back to School

As helpful as it is for ministers, journalists and TV presenters to offer their wisdom and opinions on education, I can’t help but think we need a plan.

This is what my national plan would look like for the entire education sector. If any of you knows anybody important, please tell them:

1.The current school year should be extended until the end of December. This should apply from pre-school to higher education.

2. In the autumn term, children should return to their current year groups. After a prolonged absence for many, children would be returning to familiar teachers, classmates and routines.

3. The autumn could be used to focus on well-being, to support children with their whole development. It should be used to consolidate prior learning and reignite children’s interest in learning. It shouldn’t be about ‘catching up’ with ‘missed’ phonics/times tables/spelling patterns.

4. At a local level, schools should be able to plan their provision in a way which is practically achievable (rooms, staff, distancing) and which keeps everyone safe. This could well be a blend of remote learning at home and part-time attendance at school. It should reflect the local context in relation to Covid19.

5. Transition should be delayed. This is not the right time for new children to start Nursery or Reception and the moves from KS1 to KS2 and primary to secondary will be harder than ever. Transition needs to be better than ever.

6. The next school year should begin in January 2021. It would be a shortened year. Statutory assessments would be abandoned. The absence of testing would create many more teaching weeks.

7. OFSTED inspections should be suspended indefinitely, other than those called in response to safeguarding concerns. Schools and leaders will need all their energy and expertise  to meet children’s immediate needs. Those awaiting inspection will have to compromise their priorities in order to satisfy the current inspection framework.

8. Schools should be given permission to postpone or modify their school improvement plans. New and as yet unknown issues will emerge in the months ahead. These will shape and influence our priorities as schools.

9. We need bespoke services and infrastructures to support all of our children. Before the pandemic, one in three children were living in poverty and mental health was becoming a crisis of its own.

10. We don’t need attempts at quick fixes, such as summer catch up programmes. We need immediate and long term investments to make our schools the best places they can be.  Our children deserve the best and they need it more than ever.