Monthly Archives: October 2013

Half-term heroes

I do enjoy my annual visit to watch our choir and band perform at the Southport Music Festival. It is a quintessentially English affair in the Baptist Church with tea, biscuits and lashings of eccentricity. The choir sang beautifully and the band’s eclectic mix of ‘Smoke on the Water’ and ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ competed with the fiddlers of the Southport String Ensemble. You can’t beat live music and you can’t beat the enthusiasm of young people, their parents and our music teachers sacrificing their Friday night [especially the one before a half-term holiday].

The festival itself has a personal link for my family; 60 plus years ago, my dad took the steam train down from Manchester to sing as a boy soprano at the festival and was awarded first prize. It was a great achievement for a working class boy to mix with the musical elite in the Southport, Crosby and Alderley Edge music festivals, huge events in post war Britain and to win them all! He was born just before the war began and he belongs to a world that many have now forgotten. Walking across the road to school, he was accompanied by Billy, the Manchester terrier, who slept underneath his desk and obviously inspired him to become the only boy in his year to pass his 11+ and achieve his scholarship to the boy’s grammar school. He excelled there, passing his exams and making the most of the opportunities his teachers afforded him on the rugby field, athletics track and of course, the Gilbert and Sullivan musicals! His father, a miner, died when he was 13 of TB, and his mum, crippled with polio struggled to support her family but my dad aspired to study economics and to teach and raised the necessary funds by working by day and supplementing his cash with night club singing and soccer expenses. Married at 18 with a very handsome baby boy, times weren’t always rock ‘n’ roll for the young couple but they coped and he became a teacher at a secondary modern school in Ashton-u-lyne [where Mrs Gaskell went, a little later!].

Why am I relating such a personal tale on our school blog-I’ll come clean! Students and staff have been asked to nominate their heroes for November 1st and I’m sneaking mine in first! I followed my ‘hero’ into teaching and to say that my dad loved his job would be a gross understatement-he was a truly vocational teacher, never interested in promotion or leadership, simply happiest giving his own time to coach his school soccer and athletic teams, running Stockport Boys U19’s and imbuing the boys with a love of the outdoors at the annual year 7 camp at Edale. My personal hero and my teaching inspiration!

Our staff-room notice board has the names of staff and students who we have nominated from our own school and Miss Heaton nominated all of her staff. And why not! They also give so much of their own time freely and during the week before the holiday and during it, I spotted after school revision, after school clubs, sporting fixtures, bag-packing to raise money for the Berlin trip, the music festival, holiday catch-ups and when I was in my office on the first Monday of the holiday, I had a phone call from a colleague working on their subject review, an email message from a teacher planning lessons and discussing a resource I had sent round and saw loads of young scientists arriving for their holiday science lessons.

Dedicated teachers aren’t of course unique to Meols Cop. I know many parents enjoy ‘Educating Yorkshire’ and who couldn’t have been moved by the efforts their teachers were putting in on behalf of often recalcitrant students and in the final episode when the young lad who stammered, was supported in finding his voice. Moving stuff and typical of many schools and many teachers and support staff who are not bound by set hours and days. Super teachers go beyond planning lessons and teaching them and the vocational teacher of Mr Chips, Dead Poet’s Society and my Dad, still exists and is prevalent at most schools, despite what you may read in some papers!

Having sung the praise of teachers why then is there a concern that schools often fail their students? It would be easy to say [and true] that the curriculum doesn’t always fit everyone but despite there being a wealth of research and ideas about what constitutes desirable teaching and structures and systems needed to support great learning; students still don’t always engage with their teachers and their learning doesn’t make the progress that it should. Mr Gove has been critical of universities and academics for not making their research relevant enough to capture the minds of teachers and to support their use of it in delivering better teaching. To be honest, teachers are often sceptical of the work of ‘academics’ who they see as being far removed from the realities of the classroom but the universities are experts at helping teachers consider the best research methods-a bit of give and take on both sides is needed and we need to open our eyes far more to the real benefits appropriate and focused research can bring to schools.

We work well with Edge Hill but Mr Gove and other national reports/research are currently pushing schools to become far more involved in their own research on a micro scale. Meols Cop teachers will try out new ideas-they are bombarded with them-but there is often too little time for us to stop and consider how much impact on learning our tactics are having. If our teaching methods aren’t working-we shouldn’t use them and should work out which methods are the best for supporting individual learners, specific cohorts of learners and different classes. This term each teacher has been asked to consider undertaking a small piece of measurable research on one aspect of their teaching whilst a group of 12 teachers will begin a deeper piece of collaborative research in conjunction with the National Teacher Enquiry Network. On Tuesday we will begin our first sessions and colleagues will be paired up to plan an enquiry question for one of their classes, decide on how they can measure if their chosen teaching strategy has had an impact on learning, will plan a lesson together and will then observe and support each other teaching the lesson.

The research then will continue on Wednesday, after school when volunteers will look at a couple of chapters of a key educational book and one blog and discuss together the messages that the ideas can have for our learning and teaching at Meols Cop. There is a so much available from across the world for us to learn from-my holiday reading has been ‘Leverage Leadership’, an account of school leadership from the USA and ‘Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn’ by two Australian educational researchers. We MUST provide the very best learning for our students and accept the fact that to seek the best means looking in far more detail at our own practice and opening our minds to what the rest of the schools and academic research in the whole world can teach Meols Cop. Bring it on!

Do actions speak louder than words?

It isn’t difficult for those who have met me or who have heard me speak to work out that I am from the capital of Northern England-the smart end of the Ship Canal! And yes, most students and staff know that I favour the red half of Manchester and for older readers when I say the magical names of Best, Law and Charlton, they will know how, as a young soccer fan, it would have been easy for me to have been seduced by their skills and personalities. Only a few know that my true allegiance lies not with the United of Old Trafford but with the United of Ewen Fields-Hyde United! My beloved Hyde FC [note the dropping of United as we are sponsored by Manchester City!] where my Dad and I are season ticket holders, ply their trade in the Football Conference, along with Southport FC. It is a great achievement for a club like Hyde with its small population and even smaller budget to rub shoulders with some of the fallen giants of football-Luton, Wrexham etc. Not surprisingly the Tigers are struggling to roar and yesterday lost their 11th match on the bounce! They play a lovely style of flowing football but have forgotten how to score-in fact they scored their first goal in 7 games yesterday- the fact that it was an own goal by a Luton defender hardly matters!

Some dads may well remember playing with me or against me in my many years at Ferryside Lane representing Southport Amateurs as a player, secretary, manager and chairman of the club. Undoubtedly they will have marvelled at my ability to spread Charlton like passes around the pitch whilst having the energy to maintain a constant stream of helpful advice to opposition players, spectators and of course, my favourite target, the referee! The ability to speak well for a chosen purpose and the ability to listen well are key life skills transcending different hobbies, jobs and human relationships. Not everyone always realises that speaking and listening are key literacy skills, probably thinking that literacy equates to reading and writing. On ‘No Pens Day’ this week, the students learned in many lessons without writing in lots of schools across the country. It takes a fair bit of planning on the teacher’s behalf to organise lessons without a written element and strangely the students often think that they haven’t achieved anything unless they have written a side about the topic. Not so!

I have mentioned in previous blogs that our focus on supporting the students to talk about their learning and to discuss their progress in specific language is a key element in driving our attainment and progress levels upwards. We discussed peer critique with year 7 parents and explained our methods in a magazine for other schools to read about. However it isn’t enough for ‘Super Students’ to just be able to speak and listen to each other and staff about their learning, they need to think meta cognitively and transfer the skills they learn in one lesson to when they are applicable in another lesson. Actions, based on thought are ‘louder’ than words when it comes to learning at a high level. For instance during an observation of an English lesson with a scientist, we noticed that the students were producing some really lovely pieces of writing based on the scaffolds and support the teacher and TAs were giving. The science teacher, during our feedback, was bemoaning the fact that the same students when asked to write in her science lessons produced inferior written work than they were obviously capable of. As teachers we have discussed a whole range of literacy strategies to ensure that this doesn’t happen but the stumbling block is often the difficulty we all have [not just teenagers] in transferring skills and realising when a learned skill, in this case literacy, can be used elsewhere to maximise the quality of the learning end product.

I shared our vision of ‘Beyond Outstanding’ in the first blog of the term and our ‘Super Teacher’ quiz aiming to show how colleagues can contribute to outstanding learning across the school, has proved popular with other schools. ‘More than just an Ofsted lesson’ is applicable to our students too-to be Super Students they have to think beyond a decent assessment score or set of progress grades. This week we will begin our consultation with them and they will be thinking about what we are doing well as a school and how we can be even better if….and completing their own Super Student quiz to help them to think hard about their own learning strength and weaknesses. You can see one section of the quiz here;
Thinking about learning
Do you use skills you have learned in some lessons in other lessons? 5
When you have to use your literacy skills in lessons other than English, do you think back to how you should make the best use your literacy skills to help your learning become even better? 5
Same for numeracy-do you use the skills you learn in maths equally as well in other subjects? 5
Do you always answer the written feedback in your books in detail and remember to use the advice given? 5
When peer assessing, do you always FISH and give specific advice? 5
Do you take self and peer assessment seriously and want your classmates to achieve well in their learning? 5
Obviously it’s a quick quiz and the follow-up will allow the students to focus on key areas in more detail. Allied to this will be our Flight Path idea which will allow the students in different lessons to track their progress and explain the impact intervention by themselves or by the teacher has had when their plane has taken a nose-dive! Many schools use the notion of a Flight Path tracker, often with staff only to track progress against targets or when used with the students, it tends to be a graph without much explanation. We will be expecting ‘black box’ explanations to show on parent’s evenings and I hope that rather than the teacher explaining progress to mums, dads and carers, we will be able to let students explain their flight path to progress.

Our teachers have been busy speaking and listening too and have since inset day, devised subject specific skills and characteristics of great learning and teaching that should guarantee the very best learning for our students and offer clear guidelines for our peer observers to look out for in lessons during observations. They also discussed a recent report on outstanding teaching and tried to match where we are as a school against it and what we need to do to be even better. This week our TAs also had their own quiz-bet you guessed-Super Teaching Assistants! This looked at all of the things that they do which contribute to great learning and ensured that adults and students are all involved in making sure that actions speak louder than words.
“Learning is the whole business of a school: it deserves to be at the forefront of the minds and conversations of everyone” Tim Brighouse

Don’t look back in anger…..

2 admissions. Yes I was 56 last Wednesday [or was it Tuesday!] and yes I did pop in to Birkdale for a quick drink on Friday night to celebrate with a mate, exactly 10 years younger! I bumped into 3 different groups of ex-students who I taught 30 years ago and in some cases have taught their children. They all knew me as a history teacher and a couple know me in my current role. Occasions like these help me to recall so many happy memories as a classroom teacher, raise some important questions about our own school and what is important and obviously to reflect on when it will be time to move on and close the Meols Cop concluding personal chapter.

My thoughts on the final question are for my ears only so back to my night out in sophisticated Birkdale! My friend, who isn’t a teacher, asked me if I had been watching ‘Educating Yorkshire’ and what I thought about Mr Mitchell the Headteacher. Before I could express an educational opinion, he told me his first thought was that the head “should get a shave” This would have resonated with the year 7 students who I visited earlier in the day with potential parents, who told me that a positive aspect to teachers was that “they were always smart”. First appearances are important and I wouldn’t dream of representing Meols Cop unshaven and without my smart suit and silk tie. Perhaps it is a generation thing and I know that much is made of uniform and respectful behaviour in schools, although I’m sure that everyone knows I believe strongly that if we are teaching well and engaging with our students, that good behaviour and respect will follow. Does it make a difference to actual learning if the teacher is unshaven, has an earring, sports a visible tattoo or if the students have their shirts out, tie half-mast or blazer off-I’ll tell you when I retire what I really think!

The ex-students I met are now in their mid to late forties and are still best of friends with people they knew at school. Sometimes they don’t see each other for a couple of years but when they do need support and friendship, it is to their old school friends that they turn. In the many years of life, 5 here at Meols Cop may seem insignificant and just a source of memories. By the time you turn 40 [or 56!] most people will have faced birth, death and moving house plus a whole range of diverse experiences including different jobs, divorces, travel, relationships and so on. The Meols Cop 40 ‘somethings’ ranged from a senior nurse, a celebrity photographer, a Southport lifeboat volunteer to another teacher. SO how important is school and education? I couldn’t begin to answer such a huge question in a short blog but it is sometimes useful to consider how desperate people in countries where education isn’t always available are to access it. They see education as the way perhaps out of poverty and to a better existence for themselves and their families. Sadly the average age of death in the poorest countries is still under 40-what price is education [or in fact life itself] there?

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
― Nelson Mandela

However much we may take education for granted in the UK, as teachers and parents, we do need to provide the necessary skills and aptitudes for 70 years of life. Many in the world of education [and out of it] believe that the government and its national curriculum and emphasis on academic examinations isn’t necessarily the best way to equip our young people for the challenges of the global economy in the 21st century world. Countries like Germany have a strong vocational element to their education system and newer economically rich countries like Singapore or established ones such as Finland, Australia and Sweden constantly look to the future in innovative teaching rather than back to grammar school type education or the independent sector. [which did provide opportunities for many people but are they the skills we need now?] As a school we do have to work within certain restraints but we do always have our mind set to providing the kind of opportunities that we think will equip our students with the best life chances. We know that our students may seek employment abroad and will change jobs [if they get one] far more often than use to be the case.

This week’s bulletin highlights our activities on European Day of Languages-we must encourage our students to look beyond our own language and culture-and introduces the next bunch of Literacy Leaders-literacy is the key to all learning! The Progress Stars are our methods of not just rewarding students but of making clear the kind of small scale tactics [marginal gains] that learners have to make to be successful at school and in life. Attention to small detail pays dividends and the well attended year 11 information evening on Thursday saw subject leaders explain to parents/carers key revision ideas, careers information and our support mechanisms that will make the difference to firstly exam success and then further educational and employment opportunities.

We are continuing to try as a school to involve ourselves with key local and national initiatives that we believe will be beneficial to learning here for both students and staff. Over the next couple of weeks we will complete our bid for Teaching School status and Miss Heaton has been discussing with other local Heads how best an alliance of schools can help each other to provide the best training and ultimately the best learning and teaching for local children. Hopefully we will be successful but if not, at least important conversations will have been had and it is expected of us by the government, after our pleasing Ofsted, that we reach out and support other schools and become part of a group of schools who will lead education across the country. It’s a bit like the Chuckle Brothers analogy I mentioned last time, ‘to me , to you’ where our ideas are going out and others are coming in.

For instance, last Saturday morning, I trekked over to a very well organised teachmeet session at Calderstones in a posh bit of Liverpool. [where Miss Heaton lives!] Teachmeets are where teachers have 5 minute slots to tell the audience about something they are doing at school that may be of interest to other colleagues. It is free and a great way to pick up ideas and along with blogs and twitter represents a newish and different way to access training. Nearly 200 teachers were there, giving up their free time to support each other. I know that our Super Teacher idea is now being used as a result of the session in other schools and I was able to bring back ideas for our staff.

On Friday, Mark Brownett was involved in a national initiative on ‘closing the gap’, looking at ideas to support the most vulnerable children in the UK. We are a strategic partner school to the Crosby teaching school alliance and this gives us the chance to work with some great primary schools [and others] outside of our area and also to be able to benefit from national research coming back into school. Similarly on Tuesday, I’m on the 6.17 train from Southport down to Milton Keynes to meet up with a new national group of schools who will be looking at interesting methods of developing professional development for all school staff and how to develop action research in the classroom. This will give our staff the chance to engage in a national learning conversation and to take excitng ideas from the best schools in the countries. We will give back too and we will join up with St Mary’s at Blackpool to audit each other’s CPD developments and to visit other great schools across the country.

I wonder what I will be doing for my 86th birthday! Will some of our young teachers and co-educators still be at Meols Cop? What will have become of our students and their dreams and aspirations? If as Mandela said, that education is the most powerful weapon to change the world, I hope that we at Meols Cop will have used it wisely to good purpose and for many more years to come. I have been inspired by many students and colleagues who have always taken their moral responsibilities for seeing education as a vocation and for making a real difference seriously. You WILL change the world!