I teach, therefore I am.
This week I started as Head of English at the East London Science School. The school holds many attractions for me – not least the chance to create and run my own department – but the primary appeal is the school’s vision of creating an environment which inspires students, from all backgrounds and of all abilities, to make outstanding academic progress.
For a long time, I was convinced that this was the norm; I’ve always been confident about having high expectations for my students and presumed that this was true of all other teachers and schools. I’ve even expressed concerns about neglect of the ‘whole student’, based on the assumption that everyone in education would be pushing for high academic standards and teaching challenging academic content. This hasn’t all been a result of wide eyed naivety; I’ve been lucky enough to know a great number of teachers who do follow and promote this model. Over the last year, however, it has become apparent to me that there is very much a difference between an individual teacher (or even a collective of teachers) having high expectations for their students, and a school which has a culture of high expectations.
The Ofsted report in June of this year on ‘The most able students’ compounded a concern that I’d had for a while about the realities of our expectations for our students. Simply put – there are numbers of students in our state education system who are not fulfilling their academic potential. Of course there are complexities and problems with this assessment, which have been explored with characteristic insight and eloquence by Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) in his post ‘The Anatomy of High Expectations’. In fact his evaluation is so perfect that I won’t expand on it, except to pick up on a point which he makes about how non-selective schools could take up the challenge of matching his school: ‘let’s see what it would take to match that challenge; let’s get as close as possible to setting our expectations just as high’. This sparked my interest as it picks up on the part of the Ofsted report which I found most thought provoking:
‘Leaders in our secondary schools have not done enough to create a culture of scholastic excellence, where the highest achievement in academic work is recognised as vitally important. ‘
The implications of this are, of course, wider than the ‘most able’ students. All our students should be working within a culture that celebrates high academic achievement. Yet, in my experience, this is sadly lacking in many schools where in particular the pressure of GCSE outcomes leads to a short-term ‘intervention culture’. John Tomsett (@johntomsett) described the problems of ‘intervention’ with poetic clarity in his recent blog post. His description of ‘learned helplessness’ reminded me of the time a student of mine, when confronted with truanting my lessons, said: “Sorry. But you’ll be doing those extra class things won’t you, so I can just go to one of them.” The tragedy was that I did run those extra classes, at the expense of offering other academic opportunities.
In my own time as a student, the teachers at my (grammar) school spent their non-teaching time running debate and rhetoric clubs, a school magazine, extra language classes and trips to the theatre and museums. It was also common for students to set up their own clubs and societies, charity projects and creative performances or make demands for extra reading because that was the culture which had been created. Conversely, as a teacher in the comprehensive system, I have seen these kind of academic opportunities vanish in the face of non-teaching time being increasingly occupied by demands to produce intervention lists; collar students into coming to extra revision and run endless re-sits. The consequences for both students and teachers are disastrous. Even the most well-meaning and hard-working teacher has time constrictions and if the pressure is on to run ‘intervention’ sessions or extra revision classes for targeted students this results in abandonment of the valuable long-term clubs and projects. The KS3 cohort, meanwhile are left to drift, with lessons even getting ditched or covered in the run up to GCSEs to allow for extra revision. The impact of this ‘gaming’ also has long term effects on our A-Level students; a problem which Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) recently reflected on in his blog post ‘Making the Learning Leap’ :
‘The problem is that with each intervention and support mechanism, with the tacit understanding that students won’t be allowed to fail, students become less prepared for the expectations of greater independent study at KS5.’
Consequently the message to students across the school is that education is about last minute fixes and spoon feeding by teachers.
This isn’t the intention but it is the consequence and it needs to change. The difficulty is that there is no short cut to creating a vibrant whole school culture of high expectations; you can’t just SAY you have expectations or rely on a few trooper teachers to do it. Like any policy that genuinely works in education it has to run deep and be meaningful. I discussed this with a fellow teacher and school peer of mine; basically if it simply gets reduced to an A4 laminated poster to be stuck up in every classroom, it’s not going to work.
I am a firm believer in the comprehensive system, this is by no means an ode to grammar or independent schools, but for it to work we have to be honest about the problems within. At this weekend’s ‘researchED 2013’ conference Laura McInerney (@miss_mcinerney) spoke about finding the ‘touchpaper problems’ of education and how thinking about these as a community was about pushing ourselves to be at the ‘edge of practice’. For me, evaluating why our students are not achieving as highly as they should and working to provide an environment which addresses this, is an ‘edge of practice’ concept.
So I’m feeling rather lucky and extremely excited to be starting at a school, which from the outset is based on creating a whole school culture of high expectations. I get to be part of a rare educational opportunity where, safe from the pressures of external examinations for a few years, we are able to design a school that aims to ‘match the challenge’ provided by the UK’s most academically successful schools.
We’ve already made a great start planning and devising policies, projects and curriculum which support this aim. In preparation for my role as Head of English, I have spent every spare moment immersed in the process of researching and developing a suitably demanding curriculum for English. It’s been a rewarding, engaging and challenging adventure and it has only just begun. I look forward to blogging more on the experience so far as the term unfolds. Right now, I just can’t wait for our students to step through the door on Monday and start a journey which I hope will take them beyond even the highest of expectations.