On holiday

School's out for Spring Hols.

The Blackboard Diaries will return on the 13th April.

How not to announce bad news

The teacher stood up in the Science office and told his colleagues he had something he felt he needed to tell them.

He said that he had heard a rumour that three teachers in the department were going to be made redundant. Instantly, the Head of Department reacted angrily saying it was an “inappropriate” thing for him to say and asking him to step outside the office to speak with her.

At the end of the school day, the Headteacher's secretary turned up at the office. She was visibly upset. She had to give each member of the department a letter which informed them that three of them were going to be made redundant. Each of them should begin to prepare to reinterview for their jobs.

The Head of Department wasn't there. The Headteacher didn't put in an appearance. Apparently, the original plan had been to send the letters home but the rumour had forced the school to act faster.

The redundancies were inevitable. The school's roll is shrinking and the smaller budget cannot support the current number of staff. And yet this is a painful process which should have been have been handled thoughtfully.

As an aside, this department must now spend the run-up to GCSEs working together while also competing with each other for their jobs.

The Ofsted Charade

Today we faked some more documents.

We've been worrying about Ofsted for a while. Our deputy head of department has begun altering the minutes from our previous department meetings. The aim is to show that we talk a lot about all the things that we should.

At the centre of this game is the legendary "Ofsted Folder". This is the vast pile of paperwork with which we will overwhelm the inspectors. Early on in the year, a comprehensive list was made of all the documents we needed and hours have been spent on compiling them.

This time wasted on beautiful paperwork creation should be spent on improving the education we provide. An example - all the time spent on crafting a beautiful Special Needs Policy could have been invested in actually improving our Special Needs provision. Certain paperwork is obviously necessary. Most of this, however, is paperwork for paperwork's sake.

No-one at school deserves the blame for this. The school's reputation depends on them playing the game.

Classroom Democracy

A version of this post was published on Liberal Conspiracy.

A combative response to this piece can be found at Scenes from the Battleground.

Imagine a system whose entire purpose is to serve a group of people. Imagine that this same system excludes that group of people from holding any power. Such is the relationship between the British Education System and its students.

No school in the UK has any obligation to listen to its students. The representative bodies which exist are rarely more than symbolic. A very small number of students are allowed to express their feelings on the running of the school but there is no process for using their feedback. The purpose is primarily to reward these students' good performance with an honorary title (prefect, monitor etc.) and give them extra material for university applications. Student power is not the aim.

It is inconceivable that any other public service or business would entirely ignore the views of their key stakeholders. This failure to listen is to waste countless opportunities to improve. It is also entirely at odds with the way our society has come to recognize and respect the rights of children. Michael Gove talks about enabling children to be “the authors of their own life story.” For that to be the case, they need a degree of influence over the place where that story begins.

Students should have the chance to feedback on the teaching they receive. While they may not have an in-depth understanding of pedagogy, they have a knowledge that no expert has; they know what works for them. At the end of each week, students could rate the activities that they had undertaken in class. Teachers would then be able to look through the responses and get a clear idea of the actual experience of those they teach. Some students would not take the process seriously or might base ratings on their personal opinions of that teacher rather than the merits of the activities. Yet the vast majority would respect this opportunity to have a say. Some teachers would be sceptical but most would find the information fascinating and useful.

Students should have input into what they study. Clearly there are core skills which students need to acquire, whether they wish to or not. Yet they could decide on how they gained these skills. In English, why not give students a vote on the texts that they are to study? Give them a brief introduction to each and then allow them to make the choice. In History, students could select the period they study. The fact that they made the decision is likely to boost their engagement with the subject.

Students should contribute to the code of discipline that they have to abide by. To many this notion seems irresponsible. Surely, if given the opportunity, students would seek to dismantle the rules that restrict them? It is well-established, however, that most students are content in a calm and well-structured environment. They dislike chaos and recognize that a clear system of well-enforced rules is the best way to achieve this. Students also have a very well-developed sense of fairness; even well-behaved students respond very badly to perceived injustice. By opening up a dialogue, school authorities would be able to gain an understanding about what is seen as unfair and then judge these concerns. More than anything else, it is inconsistency that undermines discipline. When one teacher enforces a rule and another doesn't, students are left confused and frustrated. Listening to students would give a precise picture of the consistency with which rules were being applied.

Such a transferral of power would improve the service that schools provide. As significantly, school would cease to be only a place students attend and become an institution that they own.

A minor act of arson

The lesson was going very smoothly.

Students were getting on with their work and I was moving around, offering help.

Then I heard a yelp. Two boys had leapt to their feet and were desperately jumping up and down. They were putting out a fire.

I was surprised by my calmness. Without raising my voice, I asked the two students to leave the classroom. Speaking to them outside it turned out that they had set fire to some string with a lighter. They admitted that the prank had been more explosive than they had expected. They accepted the inevitable trip to the headteacher's office with good grace.

Two teenage boys enjoying a mini-rebellion. I'd obviously rather they'd have chosen someone else's class.

Big Brother isn't really watching

It's understandable that teachers dislike lesson observations.

Being closely scrutinized in your workplace would be unappealing to most people. In addition, I think teachers value their independence; they like being left to teach in their own way.

But when the educational success of a large group of students depends on you, it's only right that you get checked up on.

A good teacher who prepares lessons with care has nothing to fear from observations. Actually, they should be enthusiastic. An experienced observer can give you ways to improve that you would not pick up on yourself. The only teachers who should be concerned are the idle or the useless and that's kind of the point.

At my school fully-qualified teachers get observed twice a term (that's less than 1% of their lessons). It's not enough. More observations would create more opportunities for development while leaving less room for bad teachers to hide.

I know such a proposal would be met with groans in every staffroom. Yet teachers should see it as a compliment - observations are an endorsement of the importance of the job teachers do.

How to beat the "rush it off" mentality

Most students seek to get work done as quickly as they can.

After all, they've done all the teacher asked of them. Teachers are often happy to settle for this as well. If all of a difficult set are completing the tasks you are setting, it's easy to feel like you're winning.

But is there any value in a page full of rushed and barely considered answers? Carried out in haste, even the perfectly designed learning activity becomes pointless.

The challenge therefore is not just to get students to complete work; it's to get them to produce their best. In asking for this, you are demanding a drastic shift in habits.

The answer comes in high expectations relentlessly applied. If a student rushes something off, make them do it again. They will be annoyed and many will do their best to talk themselves out of it it. But stick to your guns. Do this enough times and suddenly the message is out; mediocre will no longer do.

In your own small way, you are helping to give them an attitude which will serve them well.

No budget? No problem

A fellow teacher was tasked with organizing a series of events for World Book Day.

The budget? £0

This struck me as completely unreasonable. How could the school expect something impressive and yet offer no financial support? Yet it is hard to blame SLT. The school's financial position is dire and they have a responsibility to mind the pennies.

This teacher has pulled it off. There's an author coming in, there's a book swap event, an opportunity for students to create their own bookmarks and much more.

I don't tell this story to suggest that the cuts won't hurt. There are parts of education where the loss of money will be felt and students will suffer. This story, however, is a wonderful example of someone who was not dissuaded and who focused on what could be achieved. It would have been easy for him to decide the task was unworkable. Instead, he made it work and students are going to gain.

Inspiring what you can do with nothing.

The Poetry Surprise

I was expecting it to be a disaster.

Bottom set Year 10 and Romantic Poetry did not seem likely to mix well. The early responses were not good.

"Why do we need to look at this? I'm not going to be a poet when I'm older."
or, more simply,
"This is bullshit"

Yet they are enjoying themselves. They like the puzzle of teasing out a poem's meanings. They enjoy picking out the different techniques. Some are even starting to appreciate the imagery.

It turns out these students aren't close-minded. I was close to making the mistake of deciding that they wouldn't "get" poetry before I'd given them a chance. I tried to come up with fun ways into the poems and they surprised me by actually giving it a go.

Technology working and not working

A year ago, no-one at my school know what an eportal was.

Now they are at the centre of the school's behaviour policy. Eportal is a web system that tracks student behaviour. A student does something good and they get a positive eportal. A student does something bad and they get a negative eportal. Simple.

It's a fine example of new techonology improving things. Previously, behaviour was logged haphazardly, in different ways by different teachers or, in many cases, not at all. This easy-to-use system has vastly improved the way students' progress is tracked. A form tutor or head of year need only glance at a student's eportal profile to see all their eportals, each accompanied by a short report. Parents have also been very impressed by how comprehensive a picture the system provides.

It hasn't, however, been all good. Eportal also contains an alerts page. It is meant to be an easy way of giving staff useful information. For example, an alert can be issued if a student is being sent home for illness and their teachers will see it. The alerts page has, however, become an excellent way of passing the buck.

Here are few recent entries:

“Y10 students seen smoking outside the gym.”

“Y11 students running around corridors during break.”

"Students throwing litter in playground."

Teachers put these alerts up and then put their feet up, pleased that they have “responded” to the trouble. As a rule, most teacher then read the alerts, shake their head and do nothing. Logging an alert has become a useless substitute for action

The lesson? New technology may be very exciting but it only actually helps if you work out its correct role.

The thin line between ambitious and ridiculous

In the eyes of others, all my department's hard work is reduced to the number of students who get a C in their English GCSE.

The percentage of students securing at least 5 A-Cs (including Maths and English) is crucial in determining the school's standing in the league tables. A drop or even just a lack of progress will hit the number of applications. And Ofsted will be upset.

Our Headteacher has been set stern targets for this year and teachers are grumbling. The general view is that he's picking these numbers without any understanding of reality.

There is a tricky balance here. For targets to be meaningful and motivational, they have to be achievable. Yet there is also a need for ambition. If your notion of achievable is based on what has been done before then the school won't get any better. There is scope for being bold. Staff will inevitably feel pushed and under pressure; I'm afraid that's sort of the point.

Your homework is . . . nothing

I read a piece of research the other day that confirmed something I'd long thought.

It was a meta-study looking at the factors which impact on attainment. Bottom of the list was the setting of regular homework. This came as no suprise to me. I've long seen the setting of homework as an exercise in futility.

I do think there's something to be said for reading homework (planning a post on this sometime soon). Written homework, however, never works. A couple of students do it well. The same students who really didn't need to do any extra work. Most rush off something very poor. A good number don't do it, setting off a tedious cycle of sanctions to get the work done, inevitably to a poor standard. At the end of the process, a lot of effort has been expended and some paper filled but very little gained.

If students are taught well, there isn't much need for them to be taking written work home. Most teachers are setting it out of tradition rather than for any particular aim.

How not to allocate scarce resources

A personalised timetable is one of those cunning euphemisms that education specialises in.

For the uninitiated, it gives a sense of a learning being carefully designed to meet the needs of students. In reality, it's a way of schools being able to keep on roll students who they haven't been able to expel.

Students who get personalised timetables are those who've proved themselves so disruptive that the school decides they can't be kept in normal lessons. A personalised timetable has fewer lessons than a normal one. The school is pretty pleased about this as it keeps these kids off-site for much of the time. Someone else's issue.

They are, however, entitled to tuition in all of the core subjects. Our English department is therefore obliged to provide every member of this dream team with 1-1 tuition for two days each week.

So whereas the brightest and most determined students struggle to get the help and support they patently deserve, we offer it to those who have shown zero interest in their education. It's unproductive and it's unfair.

An unhelpful intervention

The boy was sitting at the bottom of the staircase. He was sobbing into his hands. A crowd of teachers were doing their best to persuade him to get up.

He had run out of his lesson and come here to hide. I know him quite well. At first he ignored me in exactly the same way that he'd ignored everyone else. Finally though I persuaded him to come with me back to the department office. I assured him that no-one would be angry with him, that he could have some time to himself and then he could discuss whatever had upset him.

We walked around the corner and the Headteacher saw us. He began to scream at the boy, telling him off for wasting the time of him and his staff. Within moments, the boy was back on the floor, again in tears.

It's hard work to build trust with challenging students. It takes considerable effort and patience. It is incredibly galling when another member of staff destroys it in a moment's ignorance.

When teamwork doesn't work

I found a teacher in tears. It had nothing to do with her students.

She's a trainee and is making an impressive start in the profession. She manages behaviour well in some difficult sets and comes up with imaginative lesson ideas. So why the tears?

Two of her fellow trainees were planning lessons together and sharing resources while excluding her. The pair had also commented to her Head of Department that her lesson planning was not as organized as it should be.

Competition in any workplace is inevitable. As human beings we all like to be better than each other and every school is full of teachers desperate to begin their journey up the greasy pole.

Yet helping out and supporting your colleagues isn't optional. You are in a school to ensure students are getting an excellent education and working together with colleagues is part of making that possible. If you create an excellent resource, be excited about others wanting to use it. With so many other things to contend with, it's depressing that workmates should ever be obstacles.

The Failed Escape

It all started with a telling off.

The student had turned up late and had been informed by his form tutor that he would be have a detention that evening. He wasn't having anything of it. He stormed past her and out of the classroom door.

How he managed to get off the school premises without being seen has yet to be established. In theory it's impossible; every exit is either locked or supervised. Yet he pulled it off. One rather neat trick which is popular with some of the students is to hide at the delivery entrance and slip out behind one of the cleaners.

Panic all around. Members of senior leadership dashing around madly, desperate to establish his whereabouts. Several were ready to go and look for him.

Then he returned. Drenched. His escape plan hadn't been well thought through. He had got out and sat on a wall in the rain until, wet and cold, he returned.

Plus points for cunning. No points for long-term planning

Turn over your papers . . . NOW

I couldn't sleep the night before.

My bottom set Year 11 set were taking their English Language GCSE exam the next day. I lay there in bed worrying about what I hadn't taught them.

I was in school by 7:15 for a pre-exam breakfast. More surprisingly, a large number of my students were. The idea is to make sure they got a decent meal before the exam and to take care of any last minute concerns.

It's quite possible that none of this set will pass. They are very weak and find everything about English tough. Yet even if that does turn out to be the case, I do feel I've achieved something. These are some of the most disengaged students in the school and when I first taught them it was a battle just to get them to put pen to paper.

Now, the vast majority turn up to class and try. They get through the work. They enthusiastically ask questions. They've started to take an interest in passing. The students I started with would not have turned up at 7:15 on their exam day; several wouldn't have turned up at all. Whatever happens, this change of attitude is something I can cling onto.

We sat in my classroom waiting to go over for the hall. I'd never seen them like it, silent with anxiety. I crack a few poor jokes to lift the mood and then it's time to take them over. As I see them taking their seats in the hall, ready to do their best, I feel a little bit of pride.

The canteen: the missing part of the school food debate

My school canteen v Southern Fried Chicken. According to The Guardian, the battlelines are being drawn. Schools are going to get the freedom to offer price promotions and compete with takeaway food outlets.

Though the scale of his success may be disputed, Jamie Oliver’s campaign has ensured that school food is a political issue.

Yet there remains a major gap in this debate: the canteen itself. When students choose to hang around in the playground with a pack of crisps they are rejecting the place as much as they are the food.

Even if, as at my school, students aren’t allowed off the premises, they can bring in crisps to eat in the playground. They know that a couple of hours later they can pick something up from one of the many takeaways they pass en-route to the bus stop. The choice exists and it’s right that schools accept this.

Even those who don’t think it’s a school’s duty to feed its students well should recognise that teachers have to deal with the results of poor diets. When I see some of my students walking to school and having a “Red Bull breakfast”, it’s unsurprising that they don’t start the day in much of a mood for work.

It is no revelation that price increases put students off food. The research cited by the Guardian suggests that a “10% increase in the price of meals triggered to a drop of between 7 and 10% in the number of students eating canteen food”. I’ve seen this in my school.

I’m sure plenty of you have just read this and felt irritated that a time of cuts to key parts of education, I’m talking about nice canteens. Yet this proposal is rooted in grim pragmatism.

The scene is probably familiar to you. Lengthy queues for food. Long tables and benches. Clinical lighting and white walls. As some schools have proven, it doesn’t take much to make this slightly more pleasant.

Introduce a system of staggered queuing. Put something up on the walls. Turn on some music. Have round tables with proper chairs. I saw this in place recently at a school and was impressed by how much more convivial it made the atmosphere.

Lunchtime at many schools is the worst time of the day for behaviour. At my school, it’s the time when fighting and bullying are most prevalent. Such lunchtime chaos is consistently carried into afternoon lessons.

Creating a place where most students want to go and have lunch will help schools to control behaviour. Perhaps some of our frenetic teenagers might even discover the pleasure of sitting down and enjoying a conversation over a meal with their friends.

Originally published on Liberal Conspiracy

Welcome to the Warzone

It was a creative writing exercise.

We'd been working on how to describe a place using all of the senses. Students wrote a description then I had to guess the place.

There had been a shopping centre, a beach and a park when a particularly vivid description came up. Raucous noise, a splattering of debris and violence all around.

I guessed a warzone. The student told me it was the playground.

Even allowing for a touch of poetic licence, the description was shocking. How students perceive their school is of huge importance. If they see professional place of learning, they are more likely to decide to learn. But if they see it as a place of total chaos then bad behaviour is the natural response.

It also reminded me that, however well I and other teachers think we know a school, there's a side of it that the students only ever really see.

Why training days shouldn't be pointless

Back at school and have survived the first day of inset.

For those of you from outside the world of education, inset days are training days. No students but lots of seminars. In my experience, they are nearly always a wasted opportunity.

The fault is on both sides. Most teachers I know turn up in a negative mindset (I'm not exempting myself from this). They expect the sessions to be useless and therefore make no effort to get anything out of them. In that sense, we can be like our worst students.

Yet management also don't make things easy. Too often the sessions are vague and uninspiring.

One very good session leader once set out her criteria for a successful session; can a teacher walk away with an idea that they can use in the classroom tomorrow? Answer yes and that's a good session. Anything else is fluff.

In a school like ours that is trying hard to turn itself around, inset days should be valuable. It wouldn't take much to make them so.

A resolution of sorts

Every teacher has students who they have written off.

They've tried everything and it just isn't working. The student doesn't care and eventually neither do you. In many ways it's a self-defence mechanism; call the student unteachable and therefore he/she's failings no longer seem the teacher's responsibility.

I've been flicking through "Never Work Harder than Your Students" by Robyn Jackson. I came across a line where it mentioned that “every single student has strengths. The best teachers find them.”

Now in many ways, this is the kind of cheesy cliched line that irritates the hell out of me. I think what a lovely feel good sentiment for someone who doesn't actually work with challenging students. Slightly reluctantly, however, I'll admit that it's true.

I started thinking about my “unteachables”. There's one boy who is constantly rude and aggressive. Yet when we talk about context, he has such an interest in history. There's a girl who cannot stay in her seat. But put her in an argument and she always holds her own.

These students do need to make changes; if their behaviour continues, it will keep harming their progress. Teachers do, however, need to remember that there are strengths. Amid all the frustration, we need to do our best to use them.