And still we rise 

‘And still we rise’ was the theme for #WomenEd’s third Unconference and we heard from two Northern powerhouses doing exactly that.
Counsellor and cabinet member, Jackie Drayton, our first keynote speaker inspired us all with her story as did Doncaster’s Chief Executive, Jo Miller; part of the only female elected leadership team in the UK.
Some themes emerged between these two female leaders which included strong role models and community activism. The stories spoke of women who understand their communities, are invested in the people they serve and want a better life for the next generation. Jackie Drayton reminded me that it is this type of campaigning, often unpaid, which can be the trigger for change in a society.
Both women talked about being influenced by those who did not have the privilege of being born into the advantage which supports success and scaffolds individuals when they falter. A school system wanting to improve social mobility is a worthwhile desire but how should this be done?
I was criticised earlier in the week for tweeting ‘Draconian behaviour policies are the new brain gym’ alluding to the ‘No excuses’ ethos taken from the US Charter schools and plonked into communities around the UK by a number of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). Like some sort of educational colonialism.
This is the opposite of community activism. Rather than building a culture change from within, an imported system is being imposed on schools which has no appreciation of context. The defence of Charter schools is that schools are in chaos, parents and communities are judged negatively and need to be told what to do. 
Lately, there has been a school which has hit the news for implementing a very strict policy but it is the community activism which comes from this which interests me. Some parents felt strongly enough to hold meetings, write to their MP and campaign for what they feel is wrong for their children in the local school. Granted some of the community might welcome a new system wanting what they believe will create better results for the next generation but creating conflict in a community is divisive and not a positive outcome.
How much more productive would it be I wonder for new systems to embrace the community rather than criticise it? The efforts shown in recent news by parent activists appealing against discrimination and unfair rules could have been channeled into improving the school from the ground up.
Jo Miller talked about context and making an impact with what you have through connection and collaboration. The time is over, she told us, for command and control. But I wonder in this new educational landscape if in certain areas of the country, at least, the latter is more the case.
In a community, Trusts should be finding the activists and encouraging a school to rise up from their own ashes not from the ashes of a system who communicate their values as ‘be like us’ rather than ‘let’s see what we can become together’.

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Gonna read 10 sonnets

A theme tends to emerge when there’s a plan to tidy the house with the family. I start a Twitter spat and the kids watch ‘just one more’ YouTube clip of LD shadow lady. By the end of the morning we’re all bleary eyed, the house looks like it’s been burgled and the dog is so desperate to go for a walk he’s got the lead in his mouth.

To my spat…

I saw a tweet advising teachers to read ten sonnets to improve their ‘mental schema’ before teaching a sonnet. 

I responded ‘don’t mean to be rude but isn’t this obvious?’ which invited some agreement from tweeters creating #statethebleedinobvious but more surprisingly to me a lot of people who I respect defending this tweet. ‘This does need saying’ I was told ‘new teachers don’t know this stuff, what if they studied English language?’. 

But this missed my point. I wasn’t saying teachers should know everything (polymaths are rare) my criticism was the assumption that teachers wouldn’t do this. I could teach a sonnet tomorrow but if I were asked to teach Henry V I’d need to polish up my knowledge as it’s been a while since I read it. The point is that I would do this because I’m a teacher and it’s my profession – it’s what teachers do.

To defend encouraging teachers to research a topic before teaching it seems so ‘bleedin obvious’ it’s bewildering. I’m not keen on medical comparisons but it seems to work here. A general practitioner cannot know about every ailment but if they’re unsure they would look it up or refer on to a specialist. Would it seem strange to ask a doctor to read up about athlete’s foot before prescribing talc? Yes it would; of course she would do that, it’s what doctors do.

Is this becoming an educational system of unbearable control creating learned helplessness? Having to control every little thing and then having prove that someone’s done it? (which is the next step; there are schools who expect teachers to hand in their lesson plans).

For teachers this seems to be, ‘read 10 sonnets then you can teach a sonnet’. Or, we’ve planned all your lessons and here’s a text book. You just need to deliver with those 10 sonnets I asked you to read.
In my mind, teaching isn’t like that. Yes, it might be useful for teachers to plan together and I’ve done that all my professional life but I then tweak it and make it my own. I have always gone to the teacher who knows the most about certain subjects if I’m stuck but I find out, ask and reflect as part of my planning and this is how professionals work: experienced or inexperienced ones.

The argument that you must tell them the obvious seems corrosive; that schools don’t give teachers time to develop their subject knowledge might be a valid concern but I can’t see how telling them to do it will help. if we take that level of autonomy away then we are no longer teachers. 

This belief system plays to the lowest common denominator. It is similar to how the ‘no excuses’ culture in schools feeds the narrative that chaos is ripping up our schools and unless we keep a micro managed behaviour system comprising silent corridors, blackened out windows and rows of compliant students who should not be heard only seen schools cannot function. It’s a deficit model driven by cynicism and a belief that children won’t behave without these structures in place. We are now taking a similar line with teachers; unless they are told to study they won’t. 

It is not a coincidence I place students and teachers together – we are not only infantilising our children with a level of suffocating control because we don’t believe that they can succeed without it, we are doing the same to our teachers. Teaching is not a profession if you have to tell an English teacher to read some sonnets before they teach one. It eradicates any autonomy they might have had and is deeply patronising. 

Footnote 

In the maelstrom of the Twitter spat I was sarcastic to Alex Quigley and upset him. I’m more concerned by this than anything else I’ve done on Twitter. Sorry Alex.

Free training on writing and public speaking

Have you ever thought about publishing an article or speaking publicly? Maybe you want to build your network?

The London Leadership Strategy (LLS), host of Whole School SEND, have come up with a wonderful opportunity to increase the exposure of SEND professionals and families. Responding to feedback, the team decided that a free training programme should be offered to encourage advocates to write or speak about their experiences and expertise. You may have thought about blogging before but wondered who would want to hear from you? Perhaps you feel nervous about your strategies being made public? It’s likely you’re incredibly busy and sharing your skills is the last thing on your mind…

I would encourage you to sign up for SEND Advocates. There is wonderful work happening in SEND but due to the modest nature of many teachers and carers, these experiences are not shared. Collaboration and communication is vital and in a time where mainstream exclusions for students with SEND are on the increase it is more important than ever to hear from those living it and for experts who see successes in their school to share them. We need a supportive and informed community of advocates shouting from the rooftops that SEND provision can be effective, can be high quality and can be so rewarding, so that teachers to see SEND as a career choice.

I am supporting SEND Advocates and think it is a brilliant idea from the LLS team who are committed to inclusion and listening to as many professionals and families as possible. Well done to them for hearing the voices of those in SEND and offering such an opportunity. Please sign up. Learning how to write or speak publicly are great skills and I hope you may begin to feel confident enough to have your experiences heard in a wider arena.

SEND Advocates is a year’s programme and comprises four conferences across the country. These will offer professional development and opportunities to network. It is free but teachers will need permission from their school to attend. Whole School SEND also welcome applications from parents and other family members.

The first conference is on 9th October in London with the wonderful TES, features editor, Jon Severs.

Three others are planned across the country between December and March on building networks, policy and public speaking. I’m speaking at the ‘Communities of Practice’ event, which will be about building your network; to include my nightmares as well as my positive experiences. Simon Knight, Director and Anita Kerwin-Nye, Chair of Whole School SEND will also be contributors.

It you’re interested, you can email natasha@londonleadershipstrategy.com or fill in the EOI form  by 15th September.

Hope to see you on the course!
http://www.wholeschoolsend.com/content/developing-send-advocates

Spelling technique #1

Logical phonetic, visual sequencing, rules, auditory, motor?

The analysis of spelling errors.

I can’t claim any of these ideas I’m giving you as my own, but I don’t know exactly whose they are.  I’ve picked up many pieces of paper during my time in teaching and have a mishmash of spelling advice.  The three spelling names I can tell you though, are: Cynthia Klein, Violet Brand and Joan Walton – all of whom I use an awful lot.  So, forgive me if I am using an idea which is not appropriately cited – if you feel I’ve plagiarised please let me know. 

I asked you to collect some spelling errors from one of your students to write them in a column with the correct spelling next to them. Now I’d like you to have five more columns numbered 1-5 (sheet given in Driver Youth Trust training).

1.  Logical Phonetic alternatives ‘hart’ for ‘heart’
2.  Visual sequencing error ‘dose’ for ‘does’, ‘flim’ for ‘film’
3.  Rule orientated errors ‘jock’ for ‘joke’
4.  Auditory perceptual errors ‘sramble’ for ‘scramble’
5.  Motor integration/syllable problems ‘rember’ for ‘remember’

Look through your student’s spelling errors and tick which column you think each mistake should fit into.  Is there a pattern emerging? Are there more of one than the other? 

Below are misspellings from a 10 year old with relatively good phonic knowledge (too good possibly) but likely to have poor visual memory. 

Under the UK’s current criteria for dyslexia she does not qualify, were it still the ‘discrepancy model’ she probably would have.   

Let’s look at some of the errors:
Stretches        streches         1

Really              relly                1 (if you use e as ee) 3 (as rule) – I’d probably say 3

Gym                jim                   1

Suit                 sute                 1

Spoken           spocken          3 (as with relly, o can be the long vowel (1) but student should know ck rule)

Saturday         satterday         1

Pool                 pole                 3

This student has a mixture of 1, easy to remediate and probably quite usual for her age and 3 is a lack of phonic rules.  I’d ensure her phonic knowledge of certain rules was more secure for 3.  With 1, I am less concerned, word exposure, lots of reading and development should sort this out. 

Please remember this is less of a science and more of an instinct.  I don’t have the answers but by analysing spelling and looking for patterns, it makes support more precise in helping a student to improve spellings by using the correct strategy.

Natural Wastage 

Another Drive Youth Trust blog I thought you might be interested in. TAs and redundancies.
The cuts in schools are deep. Despite the government’s reassurance that funding is higher than ever, all headteachers in the state sector will tell you that there is a financial crisis with some schools warning they may have to make up to 20 staff redundant.

A small study on Twitter showed a higher percentage in both primary and secondary schools making Teaching Assistants (TAs) redundant. Interestingly, however, many schools said they were using ‘natural wastage’. This is when a member of staff leaves but no one hired to take over. In a previous school the headteacher warned staff in September that any member of staff leaving would not be replaced unless absolutely necessary.
Where does this leave our SEND learners? They may be negatively affected in a number of ways: larger class sizes, fewer TAs, a lack of interventions by experienced, specialist staff and less supervision around break times and lunchtimes. Such cuts may make negligible marks on a typically developing student but those with greater needs, in conjunction with more stressed and overworked staff may mean difficulties for a school who has not thought through their provision properly.
It may not all be bad news; Education Consultant Anita Devi says she has led TA redundancies as a SEN senior leader and through planning and sensitivity, cuts were strategic and the effects of SEND learners minimal. Are some schools cutting TAs as a first choice with little thought of its impact however? Is it a false economy or a wasted opportunity? Are we expecting an already overstretched teaching staff to take on more work? Is there capacity in an emergency? Schools require flexibility for intensive support of a student in the short term which would then be slowly reduced as things got better. Such slack in the system allows cover for illness and unforeseen circumstances.
Inclusion is not all about the money, much is linked to the culture of the school. Well thought through deployment of TAs, efficient systems and an inclusive provision is what works (see our free Drive for Literacy toolkit as an example); money does however fund provision which allows the required resources to be successful.
A systematic and thought out process in schools which won’t negatively affect our SEND learners is vital: do we value them as much as our other students? This small survey showed redundancies of TAs and natural wastage is happening in times of cuts. While this may not always be a bad thing as Anita Devi highlights, it should be part of a thorough decision- making process. SEND is suffering in mainstream schools, we know this through exclusion data, an increase in students with SEN being home educated and the appalling lack of progress students make in school. Learners with difficulties must not be affected disproportionately because they deserve better and good provision saves time, energy and cost in the long run.
Natural wastage seems an unsavoury phrase but a fitting one if the worst-case scenario emerges from it.

All schools are equal but some are more equal than others

I recently attended the Festival of Education at Wellington College and heard Amanda Spielman give a keynote.

I wrote this for The Driver Youth Trust.

Amanda Spielman, OFSTED’s new leader gave a rousing talk at the Festival of Education last week. She listed ways in which schools were gaming the system:  allowing students with EAL to take a GCSE in their first language rather than French, putting learners through the computer driving course to bump up league tables and teaching exam content five years before year 11 GCSEs. What she said made sense; let’s think of the students more and fixing the data less. Let’s give children a broad and balanced curriculum, rich in knowledge rather than one narrowly focussing on skills required to pass exams. Teachers across the country will be cheering her along every step of the way.

Amanda Spielman set out her stall and I was on the whole nodding in agreement.  Until she delved into the realm of SEND, that is. She said,

‘If you are putting more resources into providing exam scribes than in teaching your strugglers to read and write…you are probably doing your child a disservice’.

This was an attack on SEND teachers across the country showing a lack of knowledge in how schools run. Firstly, literacy teaching and scribes go hand in hand. A child who is struggling to read and write will have many interventions thrown at them through their school life but also, if they haven’t reached a standardised score of 85 by the time they are taking exams, then arrangements must be provided. This is stated in law under the Equality Act (2010).

By resources, I assume Spielman means training and TAs.  TAs are deployed to scribe for learners when they cannot show their knowledge to the best of their ability, not at the same time as teaching them to read and write but in tandem. By year 11, scribes are used for GCSEs and TAs are given a memory aid and brief training to ensure they are familiar with the rules.

Examples of students who require scribes (names have been changed):

Timothy has cerebral palsy. While he can read and spell in the above average range Timothy does not have the stamina or speed to write for lengthy periods. Timothy is doing A’Levels.  During his GCSEs he became frustrated with his scribes as they couldn’t write fast enough for him. The school provided and trained him in speech recognition software so he could scribe for himself. It was a perfect fit for Timothy and he got the grades required for university where he will continue to scribe using Dragon Naturally Speaking (if Timothy was doing his GCSEs he would now lose spelling marks for using a scribe despite the fact he can spell perfectly well).

Sandra is from a large family, all of whom have a range of special educational needs. Sandra says ‘I’m the lucky one, I just have dyslexia.’ It is severe however, and despite many interventions and specialist 1:1 instruction, Sandra’s literacy has improved but in no way reflects her attainment levels. Her spelling and decoding scores are within the lowest 10% of the population.  Sandra is predicted Cs and Bs in her GCSEs however and uses a reader and a scribe. She will lose spelling marks in her GCSEs for having a scribe.

Lee is a looked after child. His literacy scores are low enough to require both a reader and a scribe. He came to the school following a very troubled background and remembers more swings in back gardens than he does schools. Moved from local authority to local authority, care home to care home, the gaps in his schooling are huge. There is no diagnosis of dyslexia, lack of education is thought the cause. The school put in literacy 1:1 sessions for him but the lack of time from when he began this school to his GCSEs still mean that while he has made massive progress, he is eligible for a reader and a scribe. Lee will lose SPAG marks in his GCSEs.

To blame the school system for what is a legal requirement for learners with SEND is irritating. There are so many, more pressing injustices to highlight. Earlier in the day, I listened to Vic Goddard giving a talk on ‘The Inclusive School’. He told us the school down the road has an unofficial, ‘no SEND policy’ and encourages parents of children with SEND to go to Vic’s school instead where they ‘can better meet your child’s needs’. Let’s guess which school got the ‘outstanding’ grade shall we?

I heard NASEN’s CEO, Dr Adam Boddison, tell of a school who got an ‘outstanding’ judgement despite not having a SENCO (a legal requirement).  OFSTED knew this. He showed us damning figures on permanent exclusions of learners with SEND; home education for students with SEND is on the rise. The alarming picture shows that students with learning difficulties are not managing in the mainstream and schools such as Passmore’s get no acknowledgement for embracing these children.

The system is failing many learners with SEND in mainstream schools and there is no accountability. When Amanda Spielman spoke so eloquently of gaming in schools but ignored our SEND students, other than to take away their reasonable adjustments which are there by law, I can’t help feeling this neglected sector of society, those with the least resources available to them, are again hidden from policy maker’s eyes (highlighted in DYT’s  ‘Through the Looking Glass’ report). Something which gets in the way of ‘standards’ and platitudes. It is much easier for the narrative to be ‘teach the SEND out of them and cure them with literacy lessons’. SEND students are not going anywhere, we need to stop ignoring them and give them the tools to succeed. OFSTED must give schools incentives to value all learners and reward those who do inclusion well, not punish them or criticise them for giving children scribes.

If teachers feel embattled, as Hugh Dennis acknowledged when opening the Festival, then mainstream SEND ones are lying half dead in the bunkers. Told SEND doesn’t exist, expected to show impossible progress or accused of ‘dysteachia’ (the term coined by a few private tutors to explain why some students can’t read and write); it is always the teachers’ fault.

Let’s give ALL children a broad and balanced curriculum, rich in knowledge rather than one narrowly focussed on skills required to pass exams. But let’s not forget that OFSTED played a part in creating this culture. Like Benjamin in Animal Farm, I am sceptical. Will these shiny new promises amount to a significant shift in values for schools? Or will teachers just be beaten with a different stick? This new positive OFSTED would no longer be judging teachers on ‘how’ they teach, granted, but would they instead be inspecting ‘what’ they teach?

It seems at present that ‘Schools are all equal, but some are more equal than others’.