The summer birthday doom

summer birthday partyThere are many fantastic advantages to the summer birthday, assuming the British weather gives us half a chance. Parties out in the open, days out, barbecues, light evenings, what more could we ask for? Well, quite a lot, it seems.

In the news today, the plight of the summer-born child was highlighted, with statistics confirming what teachers have known for a long time: the average summer-born pupil will spend their school years playing catch-up. Of course there will always be super-smart August-born children and winter-born strugglers, but, if taken as an average, a child is many times more likely to do well at school and in their exams (SATS and GCSE’s) if their birthday falls in September or October. And the effect even spreads as far as sport. Premier League footballers and Olympic athletes are more likely to be winter-born too. Interestingly, summer-born students do better at A Level than winter-borns, but that can be explained by the fact that only the “terriers” among the summer-borns are still on the traditional academic highway by that point. Clearly the lost year has a profound impact on many children for many years, and can shape their life experiences and chances.

So what can be done about this phenomenon? Are our summer-born children doomed to under-achieve for their whole lives? Should they just give up now and be content with their lot? Or should we try somehow to level up the playing field so that all our children, their parents and their teachers can expect the best outcomes, regardless of birth dates?

One possible solution is the practice of delayed or part-time entry, an option that is open to parents right up until the date that their child reaches compulsory school age, which can be up to a whole year. This can help greatly when a child is just not ready to cope with the demands of school life and just needs time to “be” before they are thrown in to the world of rule and convention. The downside is that, once they do join the class full-time, they are put in with children who are not only older than them, but have also been used to school routines for up to a year longer, and have made friendships already. The summer-born child is now quite possibly at a double disadvantage.

So how about going further? Well there’s the possibility of admission out the normal age group. This is not something that is well known, well publicised or easily offered but it is out there. The current advice from the DfE states that “Children born in the summer term, however, are not required to start school until a full year after the point at which they could first have been admitted – the point at which other children in their age range are beginning year 1. Should the parent wish their child to be admitted to reception, rather than year one, at this point, they may request that they are admitted out of their normal age group. Paragraph 2.17A of the code requires that, in any circumstance where a parent requests their child is admitted out of their normal age group, the admission authority must make a decision on the basis of the circumstances of the case and in the best interests of the child concerned.” So school leaders and LEA’s will need to be convinced of the benefits to the child, and they will not always agree. There have been cases where the Head of a school has been happy to accommodate the admission but the LEA has decided against. An extremely frustrating outcome for parents, especially when it seems that the people closest to the child are of one opinion and the people furthest are of another. But at least it’s a possibility, worth fighting for.

But if, as has happened for decades, we assume that the majority of summer-born children will end up with their own age year group, like it or lump it, how can we make their school experience less “catch-up” and more “positive”? The fairest way, in my opinion, would be to make the targets, hurdles, exams and grades age-specific rather than year-specific. There are independent schools and grammar schools that have tailored their admission exams so that the child’s performance is graded taking into account their age in months rather than which school year they happen to be in. Yes, it’s still stressful to take an exam, but at least children are only compared with others who have had the same length of life-time to develop and mature. If this is possible on a small, local scale, it oughsolutions to help summer born children to thrive at schoolt to be possible on a larger national scale, if planned, researched and resourced properly.

There are those who would argue that the resources just could not be found, that it would take away from the current provisions to support strugglers. But isn’t there a chance that many of those strugglers would not need that extra help if they were in an age appropriate class with age appropriate targets sitting age appropriate exams?


47 is the not so magic number…

No one in teaching should look forward to their 47th birthday. Especially if they’re female. Anecdotal evidence shows that the most likely kind of teacher to need help from their union caseworker is the “older female”, and by that I mean 47+. The most alarming pattern is being replicated in school after school, where experienced teachers, who have done a good job for many years, achieving good results for the children in their care, are suddenly finding themselves on the wrong end of a numerical target, or receiving an R.I. in their observation.  Suddenly all their tricks of the trade are considered out dated or unacceptable, they are side lined, their contribution and wisdom no longer worth heeding. They gradually lose confidence that they can do the job they’ve done perfectly well for so long, and that loss of self-confidence, coupled with the bombardment of new initiatives, targets and methods, turns an experienced wise owl into a bewildered and exhausted shell of a person. Now that many schools have adopted a pay and performance management policy that links performance with “capability” procedures, a teacher can find themselves frighteningly quickly on “informal support”, which is the start of the slippery slope. The speed of demise is often the most shocking aspect.

So what happens next? Well, lots of older teachers are swapping higher paid, higher responsibility roles for mainstream teaching ones. They sacrifice their responsibility pay, and often their upper pay spine pay for a quieter life. Some go further and drop their hours. They hope that, by stepping out of the firing line, they may be spared some of the flack. And this does work for many. They appreciate the head-space they have now gained to concentrate on the core role of teaching, even if they’ve got less money in the bank each month, and of course in their pension pot. However, it can backfire, and sometimes so gradually they don’t even notice for a term or two.

In order to avoid ever going through such upset and humiliation again, they set to with the planning and copious in-depth marking to such an extent that they’re spending as much time or more on school work than they did when they were full time. And that’s just to stand still and achieve what this year’s targets and demands require. Every term, every year it’s that bit more difficult. How can this be sustainable?

These are not the kind of teachers that the government or Ofsted would have you think. Not the “read-the-paper-while-the-pupils-copy-page-37-into-their-exercise-books” kind of teacher. (Do they even exist at all?) These are the fun, practical, no-nonsense, get-things-done teachers who are fantastic to have on trips and residentials, who put on great class assemblies and after-school activities or special events, who have inspired so many children with their own-brand methods, who put in the extra time with a child who has fallen behind – not because of the box-ticking, but because they want that child to catch up and do well. They are being driven out in large numbers and their loss is an absolute tragedy. Think of a good teacher from your school days – it’s likely to be one of these kind; the box-ticking, hoop-jumping types are just too beige to stay in the long-term memory, after all.

We should be cherishing these teachers and finding ways of letting them continue to light up children’s education, even if their faces don’t fit the one-size “ideal”. Who says teachers should all do it the same anyway? Where on earth did that come from? My mother, long since retired, taught for 35 years and said she came back into fashion every 7 years. “I just wait for my turn to be fashionable again,” she would laugh. In those days, you could hang on for your turn to come around again. You didn’t have to bend with the wind – as long as your results stayed true. I think it was called respecting colleagues’ professionalism. Another thing that’s gone well out of fashion…

Workload Challenge – the results!

Workload Challenge Feb 15Workload Challenge Feb 15

Today came the long awaited results of the government’s Workload Challenge. Issued back in October, it attracted thousands of responses from serving teachers and head teachers mostly giving the same message. What’s causing the mind-numbing workload overload? Why, policies (from Ofsted as well as the DfE) heralded from on high, trickling down through to School Leaders, fizzing further along and down the line to teachers, of course. A heady cocktail of headline grabbing, ambitious, vote winning (?) targets imposed on schools to show the general public that politicians are the only people to be trusted with ensuring the educational advancement of our children. Implicit in this is the message that schools (and teachers), if left alone, would pay no heed to the progress of their pupils and would spend all day playing rounders and showing episodes of Friends dubbed into German.

And so to Nicky Morgan’s response. How to counter and address this very obvious complaint from hoards of exhausted teachers across the country? The approach is four-fold:

  1. Most importantly a pledge never again to instigate government or Ofsted reform part way through a school year or course duration, unless “absolutely necessary”.
  2. More guidance from Ofsted to make it clear exactly what they’re looking for in order to dispel any myths or folklore being put about within schools.
  3. More training for School Leaders, to promote and encourage good practice when dealing with staff and workload.
  4. A twice yearly survey of teachers’ workload to keep better tabs on the amount and its effect.

On the surface these points seem useful, but it is all laced with a large helping of doubt and distrust. The phrase “absolutely necessary” will have caused more than the odd groan among many in the profession. Who will decide the “absolute-ness” of the necessity? What will be the criteria, and will it be so subjective that the pledge won’t be worth the keyboard it was written on? And then the guidance from Ofsted: all well and good, but we all know that it is the judgement of the inspection team that you are given that it all rests on, and how can you trust that they all sing from the same guidance sheet? Training for School Leaders is a good idea, if the School Leaders actually take the training – if they are not so swamped by their own workload and pressures that they can’t extricate themselves from their desks. And another survey in two year’s time could end up feeling like a repeat performance, a Groundhog Day, purely to provide teachers with a regular means of venting their frustrations.

What would give these points a more positive feel and greater gravitas? Perhaps if the pledge was a straightforward pledge with no caveat? If the Ofsted guidance and SLT training were followed by checks to ensure that they were being actively implemented in schools? If the next survey in two years time was clearly being used as a deadline, a benchmark for when workload is expected to be significantly improved?

Now that really would feel like teachers were being listened to and valued.

An end to the bog-standarders and coasters!

See, hear, coasting teachers and head teachers who want nothing more than to watch day time telly on a tablet while the children sit and copy from the board! No more will be tolerated! Expect to see a this morning itvgaggle of super teachers and leaders swooping in to take over your classes and schools and show you how to teach properly! And privatize you for good measure! Serves you all right for such laziness and coastiness!

It’s difficult, you could say impossible, to find staff who “coast”, in my experience. Is it even possible these days? We are observed to within an inch of our lives, we are set targets and reviewed, we have marking scrutinees, and on and on… It’s rather astonishing that, in the current “live your job” atmosphere, that we are able to think at all about things other than teaching (like family, hobbies, life even). Yet here we are, up for vilification yet again.

I think they’ve picked the wrong battle this time. Targetting teachers is easy, we’ve always been cannon fodder and no one really blinks an eye. Targetting Heads and SLT’s – a different and dangerous matter. These are the people who implement (or force us all to implement) the decrees from on high. To alienate them is not adviseable. It’s not the first time either – the new GCSE league tables, with all the unfavourable comparisons to last year’s results, made many Heads absolutely furious. superheroes

And of course, the obvious clincher with this is the notion of the army of super teachers and Heads who are to be parachuted in. A colleague of mine saw a group of Heads recently at an event, many of whom she hadn’t seen in a while. What struck her was how “grey and exhausted” they looked. Who are these people, where will they all come from, and will there be enough of them? I rather think not…

War on illiteracy and innumeracy

This weekend we have heard from Ed Sec Nicky Morgan that,
“We will expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novNicky Morganel. They should be able to write a short story with accurate punctuation, spelling and grammar…”
She wants us to be in the top 5 countries in the world instead of 23rd, and she’s going all guns blazing. Once that election has been won, this is what’s in store.
There’s penalties too: if a school fails to achieve these heady heights with all its pupils two years in a row it will be pulled up for its failings by being paired with outstanding schools, and having outstanding staff parachuted in for peer training and mentoring.
So, an ambitious idea with measurable success criteria. Big scary carrot. And a “bit of a nasty” for those that don’t get there. Big spiky stick.
But of course, behind all these new ambitions and dramatic statements on how to improve the lot of the ordinary state school pupil once they’ve gone out into the big wide world, there will be buckets, nay shed loads, of change to swallow, at a time when teachers in all sectors have had incredible amounts of the stuff to cope within the last 5 years. Many are at their wits’ end and most are just craving the assurance that, just for a while, they’ll be left alone for a term or two to bed-in the changes that have already been decreed.
These are the people who will deliver the ambitions of the politicians. The vast majority are hard-working, dedicated individuals who don’t need a carrot or a stick, big, scary, spiky or any shape. Just give them the time and space to be creative and inspiring and they will deliver the maximum it is possible to with their pupils.

Endure one school inspection – get another absolutely free!

Today we read that, in order to ensure better reliability and more consistent judgements among their inspectors, Ofsted will be conducting 2 “shorter” inspections with 2 different inspectors at the same school on the same day. Ofsted explains “Reliability of the short inspection methodology will be tested during the pilots by two [HMIs] independently inspecting the same school on the same day and comparing the judgements.”

Yes they’re choosing schools to be part of their pilot scheme – I wonder how you are chosen? Oh lucky lucky day for those “smiled upon” schools. Staggering to think that, in order to get their act together and sort out their weak inspectors, more of our colleagues have to go through the mill – twice! It would be nice to think that those being given a double whammy might get some juicy reward. A crate of creme eggs, a spa day all round, or perhaps, just perhaps, a couple of extra years being left alone? No, silly idea.