SSAT National English Conference

SSAT English Conference – Friday 7th February, 2014 at Hilton Kensington Olympia. 

The 5:27am train from Liverpool to London Euston is a strange beast. It doesn’t really get full until it hits the commuter-belt of Milton Keynes. In fact, it is almost deserted as it pulls out of Liverpool’s Lime Street station and I’m willing to bet I’m the only passenger who is taking her early morning coffee with a generous side-helping of A Level Literature essays….

So, why was I up and London-bound at such an unearthly hour? To attend the SSAT’s annual English Conference.

I was alerted to the conference by my Deputy Head prior to Christmas. At the moment there seems to be a dearth of courses run by training companies promising enlightenment about all things ‘new curriculum’. This seemed different; not only would there be a discussion about curriculum design, but also a chance to attend some practical workshops delivered by outstanding English practitioners and a keynote from Ofsted’s National Lead for English and Literacy, Patricia Metham. It’s difficult to get out of school in the run up to exams, so if I was going to miss my classes for a day then I wanted it to be for a worthy cause. I’m heartily glad I was allowed to attend.

And I don’t regret the early start*.

The day began with a keynote speech from Patricia Metham, HMI & Lead for English and Literacy. I appreciated the clear distinction between English and Literacy. She pointed out that too often, the two are seen as synonymous. So, what is literacy? It is a set of non-negotiable skills; it is NOT the sole preserve of the English department and it should be a focus across the school.” So that’s everyone told then!

It was reassuring to hear that Ofsted’s main question is always: “what is the impact on students’ learning?” I felt that this gave me a good standpoint from which to review my own department’s practices. Metham kept coming back to key questions: “where is the evidence?” and “what is the impact?” I can feel my departmental self-evaluation becoming a lot more focused!

And so we moved onto the subject of school libraries. Ah yes, the ‘library’ which is all too often a glorified computer room with books. Or possibly worse, as Patricia Metham anecdotally shared from one school’s inspection: “the room you get sent to if you’re in trouble.” The school library should be at the heart of a school’s drive to improve literacy. She said Ofsted will ask:

  • Do you have a school library?
  • Where is it?
  • Who is responsible for it?
  • How is it used?
  • What works well?

And then, something which might install equal parts joy and dread into the hearts of many English teachers, Ms Metham said:

“I want to put any school without a library in special measures immediately… but unfortunately I am just not allowed to.”

All in all, I found the speech to be full of thought-provoking ideas. I appreciated the insight into the Ofsted Inspector’s focuses and priorities. In short, reading matters, writing matters and speaking and listening matters. Build them in to your curriculum in a balanced way and whatever you do, be able to evidence its impact on your students.

Next, I opted for the workshop on Outstanding English Subject Inspections, delivered by Emma Speed from Belvedere Academy in Liverpool. Emma spoke candidly about the subject inspection process, from the initial receiving of the letter to the final judgement conversation. Her delivery was warm and humorous. It was good to hear from someone who had been through the process and survived. As someone who is currently an Acting Curriculum Leader, it also gave me a few ideas about what we need to do to ensure that not only are we are inspection-ready, but that we are moving forward as a department. No time to stand still!

My second workshop was Raising achievement at KS4 level and how to use data effectively to improve performance. Delivered by Tom Street, the Director of Achievement for English at Harris Chafford Hundred Academy in Essex. Tom talked us through the many measures his team have in place to deliver excellent results. (And when I say excellent, I mean it: 100% A*-C in GCSE English last year.) At times, his outlook seemed to run contrary to much of what Patricia Metham had said, particularly when she warned against too much teaching-to-the-test in KS3. However it was hard to argue against the rigour and single-mindedness of Tom’s approach and the resulting outcomes for his pupils.

After lunch, we were treated to a presentation from Fiona Banks of Shakespeare’s Globe. It looked at ways of creatively teaching Shakespeare to ensure that students “have Shakespeare’s words in their mouths and their bodies.” (Fiona was supported by a professional actor who led the practical activities but whose name I have, regrettably, not noted. She was fantastic.)

I’ll admit to some initial scepticism, given the limitations that a classroom environment can potentially bring to teaching drama. These were completely unfounded; Fiona’s approach was tailored specifically to classroom-friendly activities which still felt much more appropriately ‘theatrical’ than your usual written analysis. I will be taking back these ideas to my department and hope to build them in to our future programmes of study. And let’s be honest, channelling one’s inner ‘luvvie’ is always fun. We English teachers are often frustrated thespians, after all. (No? Oh. Just me then!)

Next up was Tom Middlehurst, Head of Research at SSAT and former English teacher, who gave a presentation entitled: “Principled Curriculum Design.” I’ll admit that this is where my worries lie at the moment. How do I translate the new national curriculum and GCSE proposals into that innovative and appropriate curriculum Patricia Metham spoke of? Tom asked us to describe the landscape for a Head of English at the moment. The answers were poignantly revealing but reassuring, because yes it does feel uncertain and stormy out there for all of us. So it is important we get this bit right.

After some discussion of “a world after levels” and the new Progress 8 and Attainment 8 measures, Tom spoke about Dylan Willam’s approach to ‘principled’ curriculum design. I felt this was as good a checklist as any to apply to curriculum planning:

  • Balanced
  • Rigorous
  • Coherent
  • Vertically Integrated
  • Appropriate
  • Focused
  • Relevant

I particularly like the idea of how to achieve focus. William advises asking what are the ’10 big ideas’ in your subject? Once you have decided on them, then build your curriculum around them. If it’s not related to one of those ten ideas, then it doesn’t need to be there. I’ll be going away and looking at this in more detail. (William has written a pamphlet for the SSAT on the subject. Worth a look, I’d say.)

There was a chance to have a chat to all of the speakers and workshop leaders in a series of round table discussions at the end of the day. All-in-all, it was a great chance to meet with other practitioners and get some fantastic ideas.

What will I take away from the day?

  • Departmental focus: I am planning a half-term departmental review based around the Belvedere subject inspection presentation: where are we now and what do we need to do?
  • GCSE focus: My Head Teacher and I have already discussed many of the ideas in the Harris Academy presentation. Time to make some changes, methinks!
  • School libraries matter: a great message to be able to take back to my school with the “but-Ofsted-said-so” seal of approval!
  • Curriculum design: I will be discussing this with the department and seeing what we feel the ’10 big ideas’ are. From there, we will begin to plan for our new curriculum.
  • Creative approaches to Shakespeare: Year 9 are about to start Shakespeare post half-term so I will be disseminating some of the activity ideas presented by The Globe to the department.
  • Renewed enthusiasm: it’s always good to be reminded of my passion for English.

My head was filled with ideas and questions and, despite the inevitable tiredness caused by my early start, I left feeling invigorated by the challenges ahead. It’s an exciting time to be a teacher of English. Daunting, yes, but exciting too. As Patricia Metham said: “with freedom comes accountability” and I am looking forward to being  a part of that.

Thanks to all at Team SSAT for organising and to the presenters for giving up your time. I certainly hope to attend future conferences.

(* Well, I don’t regret it much anyway!)

Alastair Smith at #TLAB13: Beware the Ofsted Whisperers

Alastair Smith opened the inaugural #TLAB13 with his keynote speech entitled: 50,000 chunks: how we become ‘experts’ and what it might mean for our conference today. 

I’ve posted a link to the presentation which Alastair has uploaded on to his website. I’m not going to attempt to re-hash the presentation, but rather discuss what I personally took from it.

Starting with a call to arms to identify the expert schools amongst the audience, Smith was both challenging and entertaining.

Beware the Ofsted Whisperers

Beware the Ofsted Whisperers

He cautioned us, as a profession, to beware the ‘Ofsted whisperers’ as: “Ofsted chasing will reduce us to the mean, turn our profession into a trade and make us all vulnerable to the industry of second guessers…” Having recently sat through some (no doubt expensive) training which was designed to teach me about the new Ofsted framework and yet taught me nothing I couldn’t (and indeed pretty much had already) read myself, I found myself nodding in agreement.

Citing an example of a school who had gone from special measures to outstanding under the guidance of an inspirational leader, Smith spoke eloquently about how it isn’t all about Ofsted. There is an Ofsted 1 and a ‘real’ 1 – I think I know which kind of outstanding I’d like to be a part of.

So how does a school become truly expert, truly outstanding in its day-to-day life?

The following characteristics of an ‘expert school’ were offered:

  • Have a School Development Plan
  • Seen School Development Plan
  • Feel you have contributed to School Development Plan
  • Senior Staff Member responsible for Teaching and Learning
  • Teaching and Learning number one priority within the School Development Plan
  • Within Teaching and Learning Priority there are identified strategies
  • CPD priorities built around these strategies
  • Regular whole school dialogue around these strategies
  • Lesson observation (including peer observation) built around these strategies
  • Agreed strategies revisited consistently and over time
  • There is shared lesson planning utilising strategies and data
  • Staff are accountable for students results
  • Involvement of students in understanding processes of learning

Given that the audience were comprised of, in my opinion, predominantly forward-thinking educators, it was surprising how few people remained standing once the entire list was read out.

So, once all of that expert practice is in place, what else is needed to make the Ofsted 1 a real 1?

Alastair Smith suggests that a school needs core purpose, clarity, coherence, consistency and community. Music to my ears. Too often I worry we suffer from initiative-itis… we’re guilty of adopting the ‘Dangerous Deputy’ approach. We say ‘I fancy giving that a go’ and jump on the latest faddy bandwagon without really considering what value or impact it will have.

If we are clear and consistent in our approach, if the whole school community knows what our core purpose is and works together to achieve it then positive and lasting change will happen.

I’m not a school leader, but I aspire to be one. I am currently leading a department and so much of what Alastair Smith said resonated with me.

Define and Enshrine What Works
Define and Enshrine What Works

I need to now think about the strengths we have as a department and how we can embed this. I also need to think about where we can improve, look at what other departments or schools are doing and make that a part of our daily routines. As Alastair said, the rhetoric of marginal gains is all well and good but the basics need to be in place first: “you still need to get the bike up the hill.”

Expertise requires dedicated practice. It requires simple, clear and coherent messages which everyone can get behind.

We owe it to our students to be expert teachers in expert schools. No matter what is going on with education at a political level, we can be agents of change.

That’s a call to arms. That’s a reason to get out of bed… even on a Saturday morning.

http://www.alistairsmithlearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/TLA-Berkhamsted.pdf