‘You only sing when you are winning’

Malvern under 14 and under 15 rugby teams descended on Colwyn Bay for a rugby festival over the bank holiday weekend. As seventy of us wearing Hawaiian shirts sheltered in a café from the inevitable Welsh rain, I felt immensely proud of the culture that our club was trying to develop. The coaches held a players’ court to highlight their good play and to gently poke fun at the players’ foibles:

  • Jack and Greg were given Ribena and a round of applause with their meal to replace the blood lost in bravely making a last ditch tackle.
  • Louis and Rory (scrum halves) were made to sit with the coaches and clear away tables as they had tried to referee games by talking to/over the referee.
  • Johnny and Will were nominated by their teams as players of the tournament – they had to be waited on, rightly so, by Louis and Rory.
  • The family Watson were made to be half hourly speaking clocks as they had, once again, been late for the first match! Half hourly announcements kept us on ‘track’ and meant the owners could shut the café on time!

And so much more. The ethos and culture of a good rugby team is started from an early age where the referee is referred to as ‘Sir’ and brave tackling, skill and commitment are appreciated and at the end of the game all are ‘clapped off’ whatever the score. The next day, as we waited for the rain to reduce, each changing room started a chorus of singing with ‘Delilah’, ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ and the Welsh national anthem being the Welsh team’s songs. This made the Malvern boys’ efforts to do the 1812 overture (the theme for the ‘Lone Ranger’ for less sophisticated, older readers), seem inadequate as they can never remember the lyrics, but was another example of what we in schools would describe as the ‘hidden curriculum’ of a rugby club.

I genuinely believe my son, Louis, is benefitting from playing at Malvern with these friendly, committed people and a set of standards that he is expected to adhere to. If you take this analogy into an outstanding school, what is the culture you will see, would expect to see? And, crucially, will this culture be allowed to develop and evolve amidst the plethora of school data driven targets and key performance indicators that are used to judge the teaching profession?

Schools exist to educate students; this is my simple key mantra that I have started every education application I have ever submitted with. The following are some of the key principles I have adhered to when trying to get the feel of a school, one I may want to work in; the elements of the hidden curriculum if you will:

My preference is for headteachers to be people who still teach. I still believe that to know the names of my students and how they learn is essential to working alongside colleagues. Every school has reports and registers to complete and all who work in schools should know how to follow their own school systems.

  • Reception staff are a key indicator of the culture; are they friendly, do they welcome you to the school, answer the telephone promptly?
  • How many staff support the after school evening events? I would suggest that supporting colleagues has never been so important as in this current judgement driven era; there is a real danger we forget the important aspects of the school, the students!

Do children hold doors open, run in the playground, and play are subjective observations difficult to quantify in an inspection report but essential for someone who wants to work in a school. A good school has a positive sound, a ‘hum’ of young people.

  • Do staff smile? Do they have time to smile, greet and welcome a stranger?
  • What are the student toilets like?
  • Is art work and displays of current work respected? – an indicator of appreciation and celebration.

I am pleased that Ofsted is changing its headline judgement from the simplistic ‘behaviour and attendance’ to the more ‘wordy’ but rounded ‘personal development, behaviour and welfare of learners’. The personal development of our students is essential in providing balanced, articulate citizens who have the resilience to cope with our demanding world. However, I do fear in this data led inspection world, this key definition will be diluted into a clumsy attempt to meet the Ofsted requirements of the promotion of ‘British culture’, ‘Britishness’ or concern about how many exclusions a school has had! Simplistically, how can an inspection make a satisfactory judgement of the soul of school in a one day ‘snapshot’ and to be fair to the inspectors, data is evidence that can be quantified and crucial, longstanding, misleading judgements may then be formed, which can label a school unfavourably.

The general election result was greeted with fear of loss of employment by those in the performing arts department but my attitude is that we have never needed our creative arts departments more. The ethos, culture and wellbeing of all those creative staff who work in schools, providing the soul of a school, now have to become even more central to school development. Teachers may combust in trying to understand five sub levels, raw scores and other data garbage. Progress is not only a sub level but a teenager appearing in the school play or producing a piece of reflective art or simply reading an acclaimed book. Schools exist to educate students is the mantra I and many need to revisit, including Ofsted, and we should keep this at the core of all we do!

Oh, and the rugby tour – we came a deserved second to Wrexham U15 – the best singers by far and as Mark our excellent coach stated, “they committed to their singing and their rugby” – the best team with the most developed ethos, perhaps a key to our national rugby team approaching the World Cup.


BLINK: The way forward with department reviews?


In September, after years of successful departmental whole school reviews, I decided we needed to alter our current review system.  Like many schools, we prided ourselves on being a school where intense, lengthy, robust self-review of teaching and learning occurred, with talented, hard-working staff observed, praised and, where necessary, challenged.

We designed a four-year published programme of reviews.  A key report with inevitable action points was published after each review.  My concern, and – crucially – the concern of the staff is that this can be too lengthy a process and if the department is successful or causing concern this needed celebrating or addressing immediately.  The key message for me is that staff want to be observed, not judged, and one of my greatest pleasures is being in lessons, supporting and, at times, developing staff.  I have yet to meet a teacher who starts their career simply wanting to do a ‘satisfactory’ job!  The joy of watching and assisting a NQT to blossom into leading a department and beyond is a source of great pride.  If you create the opportunity, the right staffroom, the right school, this can occur and staff can thrive.

One day ‘Blink’ reviews of all our departments in one term was our ambitious aim.  Therefore, we started a rolling programme of fourteen days of ‘Blink’ reviews.  The target was to being to ‘take the temperature’ of all the departments in a snapshot, a blink, which meant I or a member of the SLT saw everyone teach at least once.  This may have been for only fifteen minutes but I was in a 123 lessons. With senior leadership assistance, that meant 250+ non-judgemental lessons were recorded.

Time spent in lessons is always a pleasure and is never wasted time and, for our staff, a clear message was hopefully reinforced: teaching and learning at our school is the most important thing, and progress of the learning of students in every lesson is the priority.

I believe we developed a format of the reviews that was mostly successful as:

  • Early publication of schedule of the reviews and crucially never cancelling or postponing a review. I can still remember, as an NQT, my nervousness at my first observation, only for it to be postponed and the ensuing incorrect feeling that the ’extra’ preparation had been wasted due to this cancellation.
  • Each lesson observation being recorded on the following ‘Blink Review Observation Form’. It’s based on a Questions/ Favourites / Feelings model outlined here by @murphiegirl which she had had found to be very effective in walk-throughs conducted as a SLE. We adapted the form to suit the format of our ‘Blinks’ as outlined below.

Blink observation form

  • All departments knew that on the review day we would each be in at least three lessons during any one hour in larger departments and would be focussing on students’ work and the effectiveness of teacher questioning. Therefore, no observation should be a surprise in this review process.
  • A two page report with suggestions written and discussed with the department would be published within a week.

Reflecting, a term later on, that oft-used teacher feedback ‘what went well’ (WWW) in the ‘Blink’ Reviews was:

  • As a headteacher who prides himself on being active and not office-bound, it was lovely to totally immerse myself in the classroom with a clear sharp, focus; not interrupting the learning but assisting the process. Working with every teacher has meant the initiation and continuation of crucial dialogue, prompted by the ‘Teacher’s comments’ section on the observation form.  An understandable criticism of observation, during a stressful ‘Ofsted’, is that the ‘snapshot’ observation does not see the whole lesson, the whole learning process and key moments of the observation are missed by only recording a partial observation.  Therefore, in allowing the teacher to reflect on what was seen and make a responsive comment has been a significant change to some traditional observation and meant the process has been more ‘done with’ than ‘done to’, focussing on ‘this is how you could improve and build on strengths’.
  • A further bonus has been that the ‘Blink’ review will mirror the new  ‘Ofsted’ framework, which is likely to be one day ‘snapshots’ of schools with walk-through of lessons becoming the norm.  As I feel a major part of my job is protecting the school, preparing the school for inspection, this process is therefore invaluable.  Observation should mirror how we are judged.
  • It was agreed by all that despite the brevity of observation, the observations were accurate and helped move the department/individual teacher forward. Staff liked the feeling that they were all going to be observed and were clear about the process.
  • A huge amount of valuable information was provided about our school; it reflected to what extent our ethos and culture were embedded.

However, reflecting on how it could be ‘even better if’ (EBI), it was clear that the support of a colleague, head of department or teaching buddy would have greatly assisted the observation process.  Where the observed teacher was taken to see another teacher to discuss or observe key findings, for example, someone who was perhaps using group work effectively or whose marking was being responded to, the practice was developed more rapidly, than when feedback was purely a conversation. As with teaching, modelling plays a key part. Effective observation is a skill that I feel I have learnt through training and through hours spent in classrooms (yes, I am an Ofsted inspector) so to share what we are looking for is simply good practice that can go awry if senior staff are not trained or are not consistent in their approach to observation and are not very sensitive to teachers’ feelings about being observed.  A good ‘Blink’ review will capture the essence of the class and the teacher.  A poor review will be perceived as rushed and will be a wasted opportunity.  Successful feedback, that has impact, is essential for staff as well as students is the obvious message that sometimes can be too easily forgotten.

Nevertheless, with even the most reluctant teacher, we have opened the classroom doors and been to every area of the school.  The next stage perhaps, is for departments to buddy up and after key training, follow up the ‘Blink’ reviews by being paired with other departments to peer ‘Blink’ review.  English paired with science, for instance, will produce some interesting observations and get two sides of our large school conversing with hopefully a new focus, a fresh pair of eyes.

The development of this aim could be the focus of my next blog – I will get teachers out of classrooms discussing learning and the methods required to be a great teacher.

And yes, Ray, I will continue dreaming.

Nothing new

After years of reading all things educational and some dabbling at writing, I became one of the weekly SecEd’s anonymous Headteacher bloggers.  I have now decided, after twelve years of headship, it is time to ‘come out’, and celebrate my fabulous school.

neil blog shakes

Moreover, after years of shamelessly lifting some of the excellent material so generously provided by key educational influences such as Geoff Barton (@RealGeoffBarton), John Tomsett (@johntomsett), Tom Sherrington (@headteacherguru) and Laura McInerney (@miss_mcinerney), I think it is time for yet another white, British, 50 year old (sorry!) to make a monthly comment on the ‘wacky world’ of education thereby providing me with some much needed reflection and others the opportunity to comment.

To give my blog a title, I have paraphrased Ray, my lovable Geordie ex-NASUWT rep (now retired) who started most meetings with the inevitable challenge: “There’s nothing new in education, Neil, but I won’t stop you dreaming.”!