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

#TLAB13: Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted School

4am on a Saturday morning & my alarm is going off.

What would get me up at this unearthly time? Why, the inaugural Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference at Berkhamsted School of course!

The conference was organised by Nick Dennis, Deputy at Berkhamsted (@nickdennis) and publicised on Twitter. The power of the educational network on Twitter means that come 9am on a chilly Saturday morning, around 200 educators who had travelled from the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States were gathered in the theatre to listen to the first of the day’s keynote speakers.

I’m going to do a separate post about the various sessions I attended, each of which have made me reflect on my teaching, but wanted to reflect on the day overall as well.

A massive thanks goes to Nick and the staff and students at Berkhamsted for hosting such a fantastic event. To those who gave up their time to be workshop leaders, thank you. A special mention to David Didau (@LearningSpy) Rosie McColl (@rosiemccoll) and Daisy Christodolou (@daisychristo) whose sessions I attended and found both incredibly useful and thought-provoking.

The three keynote speakers: Alistair Smith (@alatalite) Bill Lucas (@eed_net) and Bill Rankin (@rankinw) also deserve a mention. You all made me think, re-think and reflect on both my own teaching and my school’s direction and purpose.

Equally valuable was the chance to meet, chat and learn with and from fellow educators. In a time when education is undergoing a massive transformation and morale can, at times, feel low it was a pleasure to meet everyone and realise what a passionate and committed bunch we are. And yes, there were moments of contention and disagreement when views were shared which some didn’t agree with. But that’s what made the day so interesting. We all come with different experiences and realities and we bring a variety of perspectives to every issue.  The one thing I believe we all had in common was a desire to become better at what we do. Admirable on our day off, no?

Finally it was, as always, a pleasure to catch up with Kristian Still (@KristianStill) Vice Principal at The Wellington Academy, fellow mischief-maker, almost-heckler and force-of-nature.

#ukedchat – a year or so on and I’m still a fan!

I blogged in August 2010 about the weekly #ukedchat discussions that happen every Thursday on Twitter between 8 – 9pm.

https://dailydenouement.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/ukedchat/

A year on and I’m more enamoured than ever with the whole #ukedchat ‘thing’.

Why? Well, for a start I have now got professional contacts from all over the UK who provide me with advice, support and inspiration on a daily and weekly basis. Sometimes I think there is a tendency for teachers to become quite inward-looking. We get very caught up in “this is how we do it here” and “our focus is this”… #ukedchat takes you out of your own classroom and gives you a privileged insight into hundreds of other schools, methods, pedagogies etc.

It’s free. It’s fun. It’s fantastic.

Join us?

Twitter for Teachers

This feels almost like a 12-step confessional: my name is Clare, I’m a teacher and I’m addicted to Twitter.

Well, addicted isn’t exactly true, but I do use Twitter increasingly to aid my professional development and practice. To non-tweeting colleagues that seems strange. They don’t ‘get’ Twitter and they don’t understand how or why I use it.

I’ve blogged before about my participation in the weekly twitter discussion #ukedchat  https://dailydenouement.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/ukedchat/ (if you wish to read it again!) but today I’m thinking more generally about the myriad uses I find it has to help me on a daily basis.

Take today for example: I’m looking for inspiration to update the corridor displays in our new English block. At 11:41am I logged into my Twitter account and wrote:

“#engchat #ukedchat Our English dept is in desperate need of beautifying (just moved bldgs) Seeking corridor display ideas. All ideas welcome!”

For the rest of the day I’ve been receiving tweets from a variety of English teachers and other subject specialists with some great ideas for displays. The very generous @daveterron even went so far as to send me some quotations and display documents via DropBox. Fantastic support!

Where else but Twitter would I have received this wide-ranging and prompt support? If you teach but don’t tweet, you should!

This weekend I’ve contributed to a discussion with English subject colleagues about the new GCSE spec, I’ve commented on a great linoit for @tomhenzley’s Year 4 class, I’ve read some excellent articles which were sent via links on Twitter and I’ve shared some thoughts about why the careers service shouldn’t be cut with Andy Burnham, MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Education (@andyburnhammp on Twitter.)

Twitter connects me with other people who share my interests. It makes me reflect on my work. It makes me better at what I do.

If you still need convincing as to the value of Twitter, perhaps this article by Lucy Tobin (@lucytobin) will help: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/may/09/twitter-teachers-forum

To tweet or not to tweet? There really should be no question.

New Year Resolutions Update #1: Phoning Home

Yesterday I made four phone calls home to the parents of pupils who had made positive starts to their English lessons. It was an absolute joy to speak to their parents and share a good news story.

All week I’d been keeping a note of pupils who had made good contributions to class discussions, settled in well or produced excellent work. In my free period yesterday I made the calls. When I made this resolution for the new academic year I hoped I would find the time to keep it. Hearing the pleasure, pride and (in one case!) relief in the parents’ voices when I shared my news, I’m more determined than ever to keep it up.

One Mum said “I was worried for a moment then; I thought it must have been something bad.” That’s what I want to change. I don’t think communication with parents focuses on the ‘good’ often enough, certainly not from a subject-specific point at secondary level. I’m hoping to change that.

I’ll be sharing my good news story with my department as term progresses to encourage them to do similar. In the meantime, I’ll just bask a little in remembering the warm, fuzzy feeling I got after I’d made the calls. It brightened up a very hectic Friday, hopefully for those families as well as for me!

Wackoidal: the new education buzz word?

On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Michael Gove was invited to discuss the twenty-four free schools opening this month. The free schools are a Conservative invention: centrally funded, outside of local authority control and run by anyone who wants to run one. Except those with “wackoidal theories” of course; Mr Gove isn’t keen on them.

Wackoidal. [1] As education buzz words go, this one appears at first glance somewhat bizarre. However, if one considers its source…

The “fairy godfather of the free schools,” as Marr so delightfully called him, has certainly not endeared himself to many teachers since taking up his post as Secretary of State for Education. Why? Well I’d argue it’s down to his own wackoidal theories which, unfortunately, he has the power to turn into policy that have done for him.

Let’s recap on the Gove revolution to date. There was the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future programme, described by one High Court judge as “an abuse of power.” Then there was the ending of the Education Maintenance Allowance which helped pupils afford to stay in post-16 education. Not forgetting, of course, the subsequent U-turn on EMA. The introduction of the English Baccalaureate was another headline grabber from Mr Gove and his coalition pals. Having blamed Labour and their league tables for squeezing the “fun and enjoyment” out of education, all of a sudden here was Mr Gove saddling us with yet another measure to meet. (I’m glossing over hikes in university fees and cuts to public sector pensions as I don’t think I can place the blame for those wackoidal theories entirely at Mr Gove’s door!)

And what of Free Schools?

I’m all for raising standards, giving pupils the skills and experiences they need to succeed in our 21st century world. And yes, like many a teacher, I’ve played the ‘if only I was in charge’ day-dreaming game. But are free schools really the answer? The schools, twenty four opening this month and 280 more applying to open, are free to teach broadly what they want and their teachers don’t have to be trained as teachers. I watched Jamie Oliver’s Dream School experiment on Channel 4: some of the experts made fantastic teachers, others not so much. I’m not saying a teacher’s training gives them a divine right to teach, in fact I find I rely heavily on skills I learned in my previous career in my own classroom. However surely some training is better than none?

Andrew Marr questioned the Education Secretary on what would stop free schools going down ideological routes, giving creationism or Islamic fundamentalism as examples. Apparently we shouldn’t worry; MI5 are being used to check the backgrounds of those who apply to set up a free school and Mr Gove promises to root out those with “wackoidal theories.” So that’s ok then.

Marr probed further, asking Gove about his recent ‘defeat’ at the hands of coalition partner Nick Clegg on the issue of schools being run on a profit-making basis. We’re safe “for the moment” was his attempt at reassurance, but Gove admitted to being a “pragmatist not an ideologue” when it comes to the profit argument, which says to me that the idea is sure to be mooted again in the not-too-distant future.

Personally I think the idea that companies may be allowed to make a profit from running a school is one of the most dangerous and highly ‘wackoidal’ theories to date, but what do I know, I’m only a teacher. If I ran my own school I wouldn’t be looking to make a profit. But that’s not going to happen… or is it? Really Actually Free School 281? Now, where did I put that application form.

[1] Wackoidal (adj.) is likely to make it into the OED in its next round of inclusions, given the flurry of interest its use in this interview has sparked, and will no doubt make its way into one of my A Level English Language lessons on language change and the formation of new words. So for that and that alone, Mr Gove, I thank you.

Written for the Huffington Post UK.

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/clare-sarson/wackoidal-the-new-education-buzzword_b_949105.html

Too Old for Musical Chairs?

During the #ukedchat session on Thursday 19th August (subject: Classroom Management Tips) someone mentioned using music as a ‘settler’ when pupils enter the classroom. The way it works is that a song is played whilst the pupils enter the room and they then have until the end of the song to get themselves sat down, bags and equipment sorted and ready to learn.

I like this idea: it seems simple and workable.

Fussy classes who take time to settle can be very difficult to manage and I find this sort of disruption has the potential to eat into a 50 minute lesson in a very frustrating way.

So, I’ve been trying to come up with a suitably random playlist of songs with a literary theme to use at the beginning of my lessons this year. So far I have the following:

  • Paperback Writer – The Beatles
  • Wuthering Heights – Kate Bush
  • Books and Letters – The Morning Light
  • Newspapers – Dan Vaillancourt
  • Every Day I Write the Book – Elvis Costello
  • Read It In Books – The Teardrop Explodes
  • Lucy – the Divine Comedy (lyrics are a Wordsworth poem)
  • Reader Meet Author – Morrissey
  • Books Written for Girls – Camera Obscura
  • News of the World – The Jam
  • Books from Boxes – Maximo Park
  • Wake Up Boo – The Boo Radleys
  • The Writer – Ellie Goulding
  • Mr Writer – The Stereophonics
  • Speech Therapy – Speech Debelle

I’d love to hear anyone’s suggestions for any other songs I should include. Oh, and I’ll let you know if the tactic works as a classroom management tool as the term progresses!

#ukedchat

If someone had told me this time last year that I’d be spending time in the hols ‘talking shop’ with a group of strangers via a micro-blogging site more frequently associated with celebrity gossip, I’d have laughed at them.

Fast forward to 2010 and welcome to the world of #ukedchat!

So, what is ukedchat?

Between 8-9pm on a Thursday evening a group of people who have teaching/education in common gather for a natter on Twitter. The topic is decided by a democratic poll, again publicised on Twitter, and the discussion is moderated by volunteers.

What do we talk about? Well, tonight’s topic is:  “How can we make our classrooms a more inclusive learning environment? (Are ‘tech tools’ the answer?)” In previous weeks we’ve reflected on what went well in the last year, how to maximise the use of technology in the classroom, how to share best practice etc etc.

Why is it so good? It is genuine support and professional development. It’s cross-phase and for me, that’s exciting; I don’t think we work enough with our primary colleagues. People work in schools and colleges all over the UK and beyond. I’m able to actively network with fellow professionals in a way that I truly don’t believe I would otherwise in the proverbial million years!

It’s worth staying in for…

But hey, it’s Twitter and on a smartphone or Netbook or iPad, who says you actually have to stay in for it!

So if you’re interested in education, then come and join us – search for #ukedchat on Twitter and get contributing.