Saturday, 12 January 2013

Collecting badges

We've had a bit of bother getting the badges we want to issue to students and the story is rapidly approaching a Homer-esk tragi-comedy! Well over a month ago, last term (& last year!) I ordered a set of badges from an online badge supplier (who I will refrain from naming, because we still need to talk to the about missing orders...!). Looking to increase the Student Voice element and to help our students gain experience of being responsible for aspects of school life, we invited applications for student responsibility posts. A Head Girl & Boy, Deputies, Form & House Captains and Prefects. Glittery, enamelled badges were duly ordered to be presented to the successful candidates as soon as possible. A parcel arrived, but damaged & badges were missing. The company were duly informed and promised to send replacements. Time passed and the end of term loomed, with no sign of the replacements. Over the break, a parcel did arrive but it only included badges that had been missed from the original order, not the replacements and still our students don't have their badges. We are hopeful, however, that this will be resolved soon & badges will be handed out, with appropriate hand shakes and clapping of hands in an assembly.

But on a more serious note, thinking about the whole process got me thinking about 'badge collection' in more general terms. You see it everywhere - websites, email footers and letters all with a string of logos along the bottom, saying that we've got this award, or that. We're good at investing in people (whatever that means), or do a certain amount of arty activities, so have an artsmark, and the collecting continues! One email I received the other day had seven different badges along the bottom of the email, shouting that the organisation was good at inclusion, healthy eating, investing in people, etc. . . . . Am I impressed?

Where does this desire to collect badges come from, then? We would probably all agree that from our childhood. Collect stickers from our primary school teacher - 'Can I have a gold star, please, Miss!?'. But where does it end? Should I give out gold stars to my staff when they do things well? Or do I expect that they want to do their best, because doing a good job and the satisfaction gained from doing so is reward in itself? (Although I do believe in saying think you and rewarding excellence. I write personal letters to people thanking them for going the extra mile. The quiet, unpublic thank you.)

The trouble is, there's an element where badge collecting can be harmful and it's the current examination system. We put our young people under enormous stresses, jumping through hoop after hoop in the chase for more and yet more GCSEs. Whilst the press bemoan the dumbing down and whinge about how easy they are to get. But I do think that GCSEs have become little more than badge collecting. What on earth does it show when a young person collects 10, 11 or 12 of them? Seriously, what does it really show? That they have the perseverance to learn an inordinate number of facts and regurgitate these in the appropriate manner in the marathon that is the summer exams. Hour after hour sitting in a intimidating room, either too cold or too hot & if you suffer from hay fever it's even worse.

In 1972, the school leaving age was raised to 16 and O-levels (& CSEs) were the national record of school achievement. A national school leaving certificate, if you want. And less than 7% went on to university. Now, however, the age at which a young person has to stay on in education or training is being raised to 18. And over 45% of young people go on to university.

Maybe GCSEs have outlived their purpose, therefore. They are no longer a leaving certificate, marking the point in a person's life where they leave school. And in a school they are so wasteful of time. Think about this: the current 'standard' model is for a GCSE to be a two year, 6 term course. But the whole of the last term is written off with first revision / cramming / exam practice then the actual exam itself. And there's coursework (or Controlled Assessments), which will easily eat up 4 - 6 weeks of time out of effective learning. That's another 1/2 a term. That amounts to 25% of the total course length spent on demonstrating what you've learnt. A full quarter of the time wasted.

I'm not sure I have the answer, but something has to be done about this. Can we justify wasting so much of our students' precious time? Let alone put them under so much pressure? I am putting the details to our plans for what our post-14 curriculum will look like and, in keeping with everything else we're doing, it will be a fresh approach to education! If we start with the assumption that our students will stay with us to 18, we can look at a 4 or 5 year pathway to higher education, with the compulsory exams diluted in their impact. And that is where we are looking here at Sandymoor.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Reflection on the new year to come

Walking the dogs the other day, chatting about the Christmas holidays about to end & all our children, usually unwilling to agree on anything as a matter of principle, were unanimous about their intense desire not to go back to school. And that got me thinking ...

So, I've been a Headteacher (or Principal, as it's a Free School / Academy) for 'only' a term (not including the 6 months prior to opening), but I have been teaching for over 20 years. And I can say with certainty that I still absolutely love my job. Yes, there are times when it's hard & I feel overwhelmed, but on balance, I really do think I have one of the best jobs in the world. It is such a shame that the vast majority (if not the entirety) of young people under the age of 16 are today bordering on clinical depression thinking about the school run tomorrow.

I've heard and read a lot about the discontinuity that is the difference between a young persons' life outside of school and inside, highlighted by the immediacy of the Xbox, Internet and FaceBook. Watching my children over the last couple of weeks, I have noticed one thing - it's not about the currently popular modern technology-bashing phrase about short time spans! In fact, our two youngest have, at times, spent over 3 hours on task. Ok, it was an Xbox game (Minecraft, so no killing or blowing things up even ....!), but 3 hours, non-stop!! That's not a short attention span. And it's not even just modern technology. Over the break, we've taught the youngest to play backgammon. On a traditional board. And she will play two or three games in a row. Again, there's no short attention span there.

Reading, however, is different. I've just bought the eldest an ereader for Christmas and she's loving it. The youngest, however would, in her own words, rather "wait for the film to come out - so much easier and quicker!". And I don't blame her either. I've never read Les Miserables, but I've seen the stage show a number of times and am so excited about the film about to come out!

But back to school (& I can almost hear the national groans from households around the country). How can I, as a Head, do something to make school somewhere that my students want to be part of & enjoy like I do?

First of all, I would say that the vast majority of my students enjoy school the vast majority of the time, once they are there. In fact, it was lovely last term seeing the students coming in to school - none of them looked like they had to be forced out of bed to get to cool on time & they were not desperate to leave at the end of the school day either. This did not happen by chance. We focused, in the first term, on the personal. Seeing each student as an individual, rather than a herd. Getting to know them and understanding their individual personalities is important. In fact, I would say it's vital.

The other thing is relevance. Being an Academy, we can adapt the curriculum to make it relevant to our students. And we are. Yes, this is hard work, because it has meant that every teacher has been re-writing schemes of work to match the school. I know that I have an amazing team of staff with me, who have worked hard (& will have worked hard over the break) to bring this vision to reality, but it has also been essential. The students know that what they are being taught is relevant to them and has been crafted by teachers who care.

We also don't talk down to them. The environment is one where we encourage the students to see themselves as being in a workplace. This is the starting point of our behaviour policy too; students are held to account for their behaviour and asked to justify their actions in terms of what would be acceptable in the workplace.

And we seek to make the environment even more relevant to them, by engaging other people in our journey. Each student has a member of the local business community as a mentor to them and we bring in opportunities to reflect the students' excitement. This term, for example, we are looking to offer Sign Language lessons as an after school club, acting master-classes by a local, successful actress and links with an organisation that will develop reporting skills in a group of our students as an extra-curricular activity. The Reporters' Academy is a local organisation that has similar values to ours; giving young people real-life experiences of situations and giving them the skills to be successful.

I am excited about welcoming our students back tomorrow morning and while some may well be groaning about coming back to school, I am hopeful that once we get back into things, they will throw themselves into it all as fully as they did last term!