Sunday, 28 April 2013


Behaviour is, probably, one of the most talked about elements of school life in every community. I think it even trumps discussions about opportunities, academic progress or facilities. Certainly, in school, it takes up significantly more time and staff resource than any other aspect.

And (or should that be but) it is also a minefield for any school. One of the biggest problems is that behaviour is, with limits, a subjective thing. As an example, there are some people who feel that learning can only take place in a classroom if there is quiet work, with the students all getting on with their work whereas other people feel that learning only really happens when students are collaborating and there is chatter and a buzz in the room. There are things that everyone would agree is good / poor behaviour (throwing chairs, swearing at teachers, talking over a teacher,etc...), but so much is rooted in the values each individual brings into school.

That is why schools are so good at helping young people become more tolerant - having to accept that other people have different views than you, and react to things differently to you, is one of the most important aspects of comprehensive education in my mind.

So a lot of school time is taken in managing other people's expectations (& their reaction to others who hold different expectations). For some young people, unfortunately, tolerance and respect are not common experiences and this can lead to a lack of understanding when in school. If you live with tolerance, you become a tolerant person, whereas if you live with hate and fear, you learn to become hateful and fearful. This will always lead to conflict whenever to bring groups of people together.

And it is the school's responsibility to deal with this. All the best educational theories suggest strongly that praise and reward is a much stronger motivator than discipline and fear. The school needs to model the behaviour and attitude we are asking the students to exhibit! Yes, the 'scary' teacher, who gets the students to do their work and we all probably remember from our school days, gets results, but to what end? What behaviour is that teacher exhibiting? All that happens is that the poor behaviour comes out elsewhere (usually in the playground...). And worse, because the student feels it is perfectly ok to behave in an intimidating and threatening way because a teacher does! One of the things I am most proud of about Sandymoor is that the students respect and trust all the staff.

So how do we do it, then? Well, we do it the harder way! In simple terms, we work, at Sandymoor, on the principle of praise in public, reprimand in private. Telling off a student shouldn't be done in front of others - all that does is humiliate the young person being told off. And it isn't just a telling off either. We don't assume that the student who has done something wrong knows that they've done something wrong! More often than not, the 'poor' behaviour is, in fact, behaviour that the young person feels is acceptable within their 'out of school' life.

We take the time to explain why the behaviour was wrong and work with the individuals involved to understand what triggered the behaviour too. Punishments are also explained and are proportionate to the behaviour. We punish poor behaviour, regardless of what led to it, because the young people need to understand that there are consequences to all our actions. As an example, it is wrong to kick another student and whenever we are told that has happened, the person who kicked will be dealt with according to our behaviour policy. But we will also look into why the kick was inflicted in the first place. It could well have been provoked and if so, the person who was kicked will also find themselves having a discussion about their behaviour.

The biggest problem, however, is with 'third parties' - other students who, maybe, only saw part of an incident but have an opinion on what happened. And this account will also be coloured by that individual's personal opinions, history and background and this may well lead to misconceptions and misinterpretations. So we also ensure that we deal with these issues too.

Schools are always going to have incidents where students get into conflict. It's important to deal with each incident individually and on their own merits. And to be consistent in approach at each time to. And that is what is at the heart of our approach.


Sunday, 7 April 2013

How do we know we're doing things right? (Part 2)

How can we make such a bold claim, then, for our students and how do we know that we can do it?

There is another, potentially more important, measure of how well a school is doing and this is called Progress. As you will know, I have taught in a wide variety of different schools, including highly selective ones. In these schools, they will always achieve significantly closer to 100% on the EBacc measure, and will always achieve 100% on the 5+ A* - C measure, but that is not surprising because they are starting with a very bright group of students.

The absolute minimum progress that Ofsted look for, from every student, is called three levels of progress in five years. I order to understand this, I will give a very brief overview of the (current) national curriculum:

As soon as students start school, in Primary school, they are following the National Curriculum. The idea is that knowledge is hierarchical, so a student can learn something at a certain level, but develop their understanding of that topic at a higher level later on. The National Curriculum states that every topic taught can be accessed at one of 8 levels. So, students move from Primary to Secondary School having shown that they can understand and explain what they have been taught at a certain level. For most students ending Primary School, this will be around level 3, 4 or 5.

One of the problems is that there is no direct link between national curriculum levels and GCSE grades; the National Curriculum levels were only ever designed to measure attainment up to the end of Key Stage 3 (or Year 9). However, a level 8 is often considered to be approximately a grade B at GCSE.

Then there is the problem of monitoring progress over a single school year - 3 levels in 5 years means that students will not always progress a whole level in any given year. So the concept of sub-levels was created. Each full level can be broken down into three sub-levels. So, for example, a level 4c would indicate that a student is only just accessing the material at a level 4, a 4b would indicate a stronger understanding and a level 4a would indicate the strongest level of understanding at level 4. If a student, then, progresses at a rate of 2 sub-levels per year, they will more than progress the minimum required 3 levels in their 5 years.

Every Secondary School gets the Key Stage 2 results from the Primary Schools and so can develop this to monitor student progress. The problem is that these come to schools as whole levels - if we get a student who has, say, a level 4 in English, there is no knowledge as to how secure that knowledge is & the student could have just passed at that level, or only just missed out on the next. This is why most schools then do some form of further testing on entry.

At Sandymoor, we use an internationally acknowledged test, developed by the University of Durham, called MidYIS, to do our further testing. The benefit of this is that, apart from it being recognised as one of the best of its kind of test, it is also a well regarded measure of natural 'potential'. Combining this with the Key Stage 2 data, we build a very strong picture of every individual student's ability to succeed academically. Alongside this, we also screen every student on entry for a wide range of potential learning difficulties.

We then measure progress using a set of national test questions (for those who want to know, this is called 'testbase') which enables us to ensure our judgement of a student's progress is accurate and valid.

On this measure, we have virtually all of our students making 2 sub-levels of progress in just two terms, meaning that our students are on track to significantly exceed the minimum progress requirements!


How do we know we're doing things right? (Part 1)

One of the questions I regularly get asked is how do I know that we're doing great things? (& ok, maybe not in those words, but that's how I interpret it!). And I can see where people are coming from. Sandymoor is a brand new school, and so we don't have any exam results or Ofsted inspections for people to look at. However, there are two fundamental flaws in that line of questioning, in my opinion:

First off, exam results and league tables can be manipulated and don't ever tell the whole story. There are many, many ways a school can (& so many do) manipulate their statistics to help massage their exam results and position in league tables. All of them perfectly legal and above board, but not necessarily focused on the individual students. Unfortunately, it is tricky to explain quickly because the exam system and how league tables are calculated are so complex, but here goes ...

If we start with the basics. Schools are judged, for most league tables, in a number of ways, but the simplest is the percentage of students who achieve 5 or more GCSEs at a grade C or above. And this sounds simple enough, but a school looking to get the best on this measure would/could play a joker, by having students sit equivalent qualifications. As an example, a school could get a group of students to sit a BTEC in IT, which is worth the same as 2 GCSEs, which is pretty much entirely gained through a portfolio of work developed over the course. And then if some of the same students sat a similar qualification in, say, Business (also worth 2 GCSEs), they only then have to sit and pass one GCSE exam to have gained the 5+ measure for the school. So a school could, with very little effort, score even 100% on this measure, but have a significant number of students who don't have either a significant range or quality of qualifications.

So a tougher measure is the percentage of students who have 5 or more GCSEs, including English and Maths. This would, at least, ensure that the students are sitting GCSEs in the essential subjects, but could still result in 'filling up' the count with potentially inappropriate qualifications.

Maybe the toughest measure, then, is based around the controversial introduction of the English Baccalaureate (or EBacc for short). Now, this isn't (currently) a separate qualification, but is an indication that a minimum group of qualifications; at least a grade C in English, Maths, the Sciences, History or Geography and a language. Some statistics suggest that as few as 15% of students achieve this measure, although other research has shown that as many as 30% of students in mainstream secondary schools achieve it - a lot depends upon how the school curriculum is devised.

Next time you see a school publicising it's exam results, have a close look at which measure they are using ....

So how will this look at Sandymoor? Well, we are committed to the principal that students will sit exams when they are ready for them, rather than just because they are at a certain point in their school life. We are committing ourselves to ensuring that every student will leave Sandymoor with above a C in their English and Maths GCSEs and ideally at least 6 other equivalent qualifications. Every student will also have the ability to follow a full EBacc set of qualifications, if that is appropriate to them. We have Spanish as part of our compulsory 'Foundation' (the first two years at Sandymoor), and in fact the Foundation curriculum is designed specifically to ensure that every student has the basics required to go on and succeed in all the EBacc exams.