Facing the front or facing reality?

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Well now we know what will work when schools fully reopen. Gavin Williamson has spoken and I am sure that we are all relieved by that, or perhaps not.   I certainly  harbour a few reservations and thought that I might see if anyone else had similar feelings.

Essentially, Mr Williamson wants pupils facing forward, presumably in rows, and he even comes up with the radical concept that they should be “paying attention”. I am sure teachers across the land are wishing that they had thought of that

My initial  reservation is why he is not actually doing his real job rather than being an education adviser. That real job is to support the system and help it to work.  It is not to tell teachers how to lay out classrooms unless there are overwhelming health reasons for so doing.

The support for the system  would normally involve tasks like ensuring effective planning so that there was an adequate supply of teachers for all sectors, stages and subjects. It would involve ensuring an equitable and adequate distribution of funding and resources to ensure that all schools could meet the needs of the young people and families whom they serve. It would also involve ensuring that we had decent school buildings across the country so that every child and every teacher was in a classroom fit for purpose and equipped for learning in the 21st Century. Despite recent promises, which may or may not be less vacuous than so many other promises that have been made, successive Secretaries of Education in England have failed to deliver on all of these basic tasks. One wonders if they might have done better in these core tasks if they weren’t investing so much time and energy in telling teachers how to do their job.

Whatever the answer to that question, Mr Williamson is not being held to account for his failures and the failures of his department and these failures are both long-term and short-term. One might have thought that, before he began to pontificate on pedagogy, he might have found the odd minute to ensure that schools had clear guidance on how to manage the complex challenges that they are facing. Oddly that seems to me to more aligned with his role, particularly when the challenges were so intense.

Laura McInerey, https://lauramcinerney.com, who has been a beacon of common sense and clarity throughout the current crisis – and any other time as well! – summed up what schools faced brilliantly in a recent RSA discussion, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGOhWDGtwfY. Paraphrasing her, schools in England closed at short notice and reopened two days later as child care facilities for the children of key workers and for the most vulnerable children, a food factory responsible for ensuring that no child went hungry, with a voucher scheme that might be generously described as chaotic, and as an online centre for learning. Presumably Mr Williamson was too taken up with his research into school effectiveness and teaching approaches to provide either the recognition or support that schools needed to deliver on the untenable demands he, and his government, were making of them.

One can only assume that the strategy was to get people facing anywhere as long as they were facing away from the reality of what was going on in schools

Yet, remarkably amidst all of this chaos, many schools rallied, got on with it and went the extra miles and distinguished themselves quietly in serving their communities. Heads were innovative, imaginative and often out of pocket. School Business Leaders wrought miracles. Staff in all roles pitched in and they made a difference for families and communities. Unfortunately, appreciation does not seem to have been the Secretary of State’s priority. Of course, he said thanks, but it often seemed as hypocritical as when he and his colleagues clapped for the carers whom they were leaving under-funded and under-equipped to save lives.

Having got the hollow “thank yous” out of the way,  Mr Williamson could then get on with harassing schools into a partial reopening so well planned that it collapsed almost instantly. The Prime Minister made schools his cause celebre during Prime Minister’s Question Time demanding to know Keir Starmer’s position on it. Starmer clearly had not received the memo about facing the front and insisted on facing reality and kept mithering on that any further developments would work better if there was more listening and meaningful consultation with the people responsible for delivering on the PM’s plans.

Why on earth would we do that? If the government really aligned with the education unions or other bodies, they would lose the possibility of blaming them for any failure. It fits so well with the culture of “never apologise, never explain”.

Whatever one thinks of Mr Williamson’s advice, and I will turn to that in my next blog, we need to face the reality of what is going on. We have a government in England which does not see itself as accountable, but is utterly determined to hold schools accountable. It will apparently tell us how to teach, which evidence we should follow and how we should manage our schools. Everyone has to face the front, listen and take on the messages. Heaven forfend that we demand that Mr Williamson does his real job effectively, supportively and collaboratively.

And it doesn’t have to be this way. Whatever reservations one might have, the Scottish and Welsh governments have tried to work with schools, set reasonable targets and give due recognition to the need to plan properly and prepare thoroughly. These are difficult times and all governments make mistakes, but the risk of error is always reduced when they are clear about their role and deliver on it.

What is the role of an Inspectorate during lockdown?

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What should Ofsted and Education Scotland be doing in the current crisis?

I have been asking questions about why we are not learning from the experience of lockdown. My concern was that we tended to collect anecdotes, usually ones that confirm our existing views on education, but what I wasn’t seeing was any systematic effort to collect evidence about what was happening for young people. Should that not be a priority? Should the organisations charged with protecting the interests of children and young people be trying to establish how well these interests  are being served while many schools are closed? Is that not the role of an Inspectorate?

What is the point of inspection anyway?

 I have long argued that inspection should have two purposes.

One is to assess whether young people are achieving all that they can in schools, regardless of how they are being educated. In other words, the prime purpose is not to enforce particular policies and pedagogical practices, but to see the impact of the practices that schools are deploying. It may be that they would offer advice on the basis of what they observe, but that would be an outcome of the inspection. There would be no assumption that practice should be dictated.

If ensuring the best possible outcomes for children is indeed the prime purpose, why is no effort being made to do that during lockdown?

The second purpose, at least in my view, is to offer advice to government based on collating inspection findings. Education Scotland has tended to do that well by publishing a summary of the findings of their inspection programme. The approach is based on the format – “this is what we have seen, these are reasonable conclusions to draw from these observations”.

The process that they have is very clear – the criteria used in inspection are public through the “How good is our school?” documents, individual reports are published and the summary report is also published. The Ofsted model seems to be a little different.

If you broadly agree with these two purposes, it would lead to the next question.

How can an Inspectorate advise Government on a return to school if they haven’t made any effort to take stock of children’s experience over the last seven weeks or so?

 Let me be clear from the outset. I am not suggesting that taking stock would be an easy task, but it would be reassuring to know that it had been considered. I am suggesting that inspection is on behalf of children and 7 weeks is a long time for the task of inspection to be deferred.

Does anyone know how many young people have been attending schools? Does anyone know how many are vulnerable children and how many are children of key workers? What efforts have been made to establish what sort of experience they have been having in schools? Have any efforts been made to monitor the take-up of available resources? Have there been any attempts to engage with other agencies supporting families to try to establish what sort of experiences children are having at home?

I am not assuming that the answer to all of these questions in “no” or “nothing”, I am simply making the point that I don’t know what the answers are and the questions are not being publicly discussed.

I also remain convinced that if anyone has a responsibility to ask and seek answers to these questions, it is the national inspectorate. I would love to be reassured that responsibility is being fulfilled.

One thing is clear, the Westminster Government desperately needs advice on how any reopening of schools should be managed. Clearly a whole range of people involved in education think that their current proposals are unworkable. What are Ofsted telling them, not just about feasibility, but about what can be achieved with and for children? An Inspectorate should be stating clearly – “On the basis of what we have seen in practice, and what we know of the experience of young people during lockdown, here is what we think can be done”. Is this happening? Are they being asked? What does this tell us about the role of inspection?

Don’t these organisations have other priorities at the moment?

 Education Scotland, which is an inspection and development agency, have provided support for schools and I am sure that many people will welcome that. I am concerned that an inspection agency should never finish up in the position of inspecting their own advice, far less the use of their own materials, so I am a bit more equivocal about that sort of contribution. Maybe staff have been furloughed, although I doubt that, and capacity has been reduced. Ultimately though, the question must really be should they have other priorities.

It has been suggested that Ofsted should be harrying schools who are not rigorous enough in enforcing distance learning. That is a good example of the issue implied earlier, that inspection in England has become more about enforcement than investigation. In both countries, there has been a tendency for inspection to become a means of informing parental choice. I understand that, but ultimately it is a counsel of despair. It accepts that there will always be relatively poor choices for children.

 So what?

 The current crisis has shown very clearly how important schools are. Should we not be reflecting that by offering them the inspection system that they deserve, one characterised by curiosity, rather than certainty, which is genuinely focussed on inspection and not enforcement? Do they not deserve a natonal system of monitoring and evaluation which looks after the best interests of children at all times?

When did it become THE science?

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I think that it is pretty incontestable that, throughout the Covid-19 crisis, our government, along with most others – goodness knows what is going on in Brazil! – have been resolutely following “the science”. We know this because they keep telling us. We also know that following “the science” is a really good thing to be doing. We know this because it is an unquestioning assumption every time a politician stands up flanked by some real scientists. We know it even when the scientists look close to mortified when “the science” apparently suggests that a good internal bleaching might be the very thing to save our lungs from the ravages of Coronavirus. We know it because it does sound better than “we are making this up as we go along” or “I used to go to measles parties when I was a child and it never did me any harm” or even “we’ve just decided this might be a good idea”.

This means that it is worth asking the question “when did it become THE science?”. When were we reduced to only one set of scientific views? When did it stop being the Sciences? When did scientific debate free itself from any scintilla of controversy?


The associated questions


There are other associated questions. If we are all following a science so clear and uncontradictable that it merits the definite article, why does it seem to be taking different countries in different directions? Apparently, Sweden is also following THE science, but it is not leading the Swedes into lockdown. It seems to have led a number of countries into different strategies. The “test, trace, isolate” appears to have been a popular result of following the science and appears to have been quite effective. Meanwhile, in Britain we seem to have been stumbling towards that, not as a means of containing the virus, but as a means of ending lockdown. For us it appears not so much a strategy for prevention of initial spread, but of preventing a second wave.

It is also interesting that the gold standard of “the science” has allowed the UK to vacillate wildly in policy. It permitted the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the visit of Atletico Madrid and a fair collection of fans, the odd rugby match and open airports before it insisted on quarantine. It flirted with herd immunity when we were only dealing with a version of the flu and that’s not really that much of a threat. One might have hoped that the beacon light of the science might have been more akin to the pillar of fire leading Moses and his people to the Promised Land with a limited number of deviations.

It would seem that there is no such thing as THE science. This is hardly surprising when we are dealing with a new virus. One would expect the science to be evolving. One would expect there to be different views between scientists from different disciplines and with different experiences, and that is exactly what we have seen. There is no such thing as THE science, and we should stop being patronised by the idea that there is. The concept is a fig leaf.


Why claim the science?


It is an interesting choice of a fig leaf for a government whose calling card was the rejection of “experts”. Notably, in education expertise existed only to be derided and rejected, unless the views of the expert in question sat comfortably with the policy that the government wished to adopt. Look across the UK and you will find the different nations adopting different gurus. One has to question whether these gurus drove the development of policy or provided a post-hoc justification for it.

It is interesting the Scotland has a panel of international educational experts, but when you look at the membership it is hard to imagine them fighting like cats in a sack over fundamental positions.

That’s what we do too often; we buttress adopted positions and evolve a jargon to justify the approach that we take.


Some questions about “evidence-based practice

A current favourite for me is the phrase “evidence-based practice” as if that provided a clear policy direction, as if all the real evidence pointed us in a particular direction in terms of pedagogy. I imagine that the advocates of learning styles and VAK thought that they were at the cutting edge of evidence-based practice. I certainly remember conferences where theory, observations and experiences were trotted out that justified a good solid burst of brain gym before we worked out how to respond to multiple and varied intelligences. Much of that evidence has been contradicted, but isn’t that the way with evidence? We are perfectly used to a court situation where there is evidence for the prosecution and for the defence. We accept the concept of balancing evidence, of engaging with it, of filtering it in the context of justice, but in educational debate, too often, we wield it as a bludgeon to end debate. We champion schools like Michaela(https://mcsbrent.co.uk/about-us/), but don’t talk about Newlands Junior College (https://www.insider.co.uk/news/jim-mccolls-newlands-junior-college-11052387) or we attempt to recreate Newlands and dismiss the achievements of Michaela. Like the politicians presenting THE science, we present THE evidence. If it is worth questioning the first concept, should we not also be questioning the second?

Are we refusing to learn from lockdown?

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I keep seeing observations about what we should be learning from lockdown. I have even been involved in discussions about it and all of them appear to have one thing in common – no one seems to have changed the views that they had before they went into whatever form of quarantine they are currently enjoying/enduring. All of which makes “are we refusing to learn from Lockdown?” a fairly pressing question.

How is this playing out in education?

 My focus is on education where no one seems to be collecting evidence in any balanced and coherent way. What we seem to be doing is collecting supportive anecdotes and confirmatory observations. Everyone’s views seem to be being reinforced, rather than challenged through lockdown. We seem to be in tribes, progressives, traditionalists, techies, whatever and the most important thing appears to be supporting that tribe.

I was part of a really good conversation with a group of generally “progressive”, educational trainers, writers and thinkers. The meeting involved a number of colleagues from other countries or, other systems. There was a very helpful exchange of information. I am sure that everyone involved emerged better informed than we were when the meeting started. Nonetheless, the rough summary of the meeting tended to focus on points that would have been made as a result of a conversation between the same group of participants before, during and, I suspect, after the ravages of Coronavirus have passed, even if only temporarily!

That might be because these colleagues were right before the current situation and were having their views justifiably confirmed by their experience. It could also be partly due to the tendency that many of us have to look first for confirmation, rather than contradiction. It might also involve an element of using the lens of opinion to examine the narrative of what is happening.

Is it only the “progessives”?

 Whatever is happening with my colleagues, it seems to be echoed by a whole range of others. Even a casual visit to Twitter will make clear that people involved in Educational Technology are finding that it is the lifeline for those attempting to learn at home. Indeed, it is such a lifeline that we need to be doing more through educational technology once lockdown is over, because, after all, things will never go back to the way they were. We will all need to do things differently in the new post-Corona world.

Oddly enough, more traditional colleagues are finding their position absolutely reinforced by what is currently happening. Some are convinced that the need for school uniform remains vital in the home and that successful learning will be dependent on the donning of a blazer or, at the very least, a tie. Others seem equally clear that the disciplinary systems of school will need to be an essential element in home education. Presumably all of these views are being reinforced through the lockdown experience, at least for those who hold them.

The same is true for approaches to instruction where the need for direct teaching is being continually reinforced by what is apparently happening in homes across the land. All of this makes me question how we know all of this.

Do we have evidence?

 In my last blog – “Why are we talking about reopening schools?” – I talked about reports, that I had heard from contacts in Home-start, of really positive experiences that some families were having through lockdown. An argument could be built on this that young people and their families might be putting a greater value on learning, that their well-being was likely to be enhanced and they were likely to be better disposed to learning on their return to school. I am pretty sure that, if one were to make such an argument it would be rebutted very quickly by those who are hearing different reports of the lockdown experience. Undoubtedly these reports are there to be made. The massive increase in referrals to Women’s Aid and the increasing incidences of domestic abuse make clear that there is a huge variety of experiences for our young people.

A valid question?

 I think that this validates my question. Why are we not trying to learn systematically from lockdown? Is it impossible for us to have any research that might capture the anecdotes and observations in some more careful way that might translate them into useful evidence? Why is this not the subject of much wider discussion?

I am sure that part of the reason is that too many of us are overly infatuated by certainty. Arguments seem to be for winning, rather than a means of exploring ideas and learning. Too often we seem afraid of curiosity.

Another perspective

 There is a wonderful quote in Johnathan Rowson’s article, “Cultural Indigestion”

“…. the ambient pressure to choose a tribe and say “yay” or “nay” to the issue of the day is the problem that obstructs meaningful progress. We are building division within people that is culturally muted, while amplifying the divisions between people that are reinforced on a daily basis. Broadcast media selects guests with opposing views to get “both sides” of an issue, as if they were coins. Oppositional identities, in which we define who we are by what we are against, become the defining characters in public debate. We are rarely allowed to be curious but disinterested. Instead we must pick a side: Are you left or right, atheist or believer, with us or against us? This kind of ambient divisiveness is part of what Rowan Williams calls “the meta-crisis” of our times; namely how ecological, economic, social, and political crises are compounded by the limited and harmful ways we encounter, conceive, experience, and discuss them

(Williams, 2016).[xxxviii]

In terms of learning from lockdown, perhaps we need to break from our tribes and unite in an effort to learn

Why are we talking about re-opening schools?

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“Why are we talking about reopening schools?” might seem like an odd question, but it is an important one and one that doesn’t seem to be being asked often enough during the current crisis.

I never tire of using the comment that “purpose is not simply a target that an organisation aims to achieve, it is an organisation’s reason for being” and with good reason. We need absolute clarity of purpose, before we consider reopening schools.

If the purpose is to get back to normal that would dictate how we go about the reopening of schools. We need to reopen as normal, and “old normal” at that. If the purpose is to enable more people to return to work, that would have different implications for what we do. If the purpose is to reduce inequality and make sure that disadvantage does not increase as a result of school closures, that would have an impact on how we organised the reopening.

Getting back to “normal”?

The first purpose, returning to normal, is unlikely to be fulfilled as we are continually being assured that we will be returning to a “new normal”. We are continually being shown an adapted normal – the same classrooms that children left with the desks more widely spaced. In effect, the old normal adapted as little as possible. There is no effort to look at different approaches. The only question appears to be “how far can we restore what we were doing before this all started?” and the answer is likely to involve part time education and, therefore, disrupted child care and, most likely, a very limited impact on inequality.  It will involve huge issues about what we do in playgrounds, in corridors and in other shared spaces.  It will also involve us in seriously thinking through how we go about ensuring an effective return. There will be issues of adaptation for young people who have been isolated for weeks. There will be issues about starting points. How will we know what has been happening with children during lockdown?

This is a massive question in itself and brooks many others. As far as I am aware, there is very little being done to gather anything resembling evidence about the experience that young people are currently having. I have no sense at all of a structured, strategic approach to this, which sits at odds with the regular claims that government actions are informed by evidence.  Notable exceptions include some very good work by the Children’s Parliament to track the experience of children.

Anecdotes and Evidence

In short, there is a lot of anecdote, but very little collated evidence. Even the anecdotes are often contradictory and surprising. Much of what we hear focuses on the widening of the gap between rich and poor and highlights the negative impact of lockdown.  In contrast, a local branch of Home-Start has been reporting that families that they are working with are responding well to the lockdown. They have been engaging with their children through arts, crafts, stories and constructive play.  Their diet has improved as more food is being prepared at home.  I have never heard any other conversations about this in the media or social media, although it seems likely that the same patterns will be being repeated elsewhere, but not everywhere.

I intend to follow this article up with another looking at the whole question of what we are learning from the experience that we are undergoing, but for now I hope that it is enough to mark the fact that we need to know what we are building on in education and there is a massive risk that we won’t unless we get curious about the range of responses to lockdown and organised in the way that we satisfy that curiosity.

All of this suggests that we are not going to be able to move quickly to achieving our first purpose.

Supporting other people to return to work?

If the purpose is, primarily, the second one, effectively to provide childcare, with the bonus possibility of a bit of education thrown in, so that more people can get back to work, then we can think differently about what we do with our schools. We don’t need schools filled with teachers. We can deploy youth workers, always assuming that we can find some. We can work with Third Sector organisations. We might be able to deploy childminders who may not be able to continue with their established arrangements. All of this might help to create a model that might be sustainable through the summer without placing undue, and unsustainable demands on teachers. I am not suggesting for a moment that I am offering a panacea, but some divergence in thinking might unlock some of the horrible dichotomies that we have allowed ourselves to become trapped in.

Addressing disadvantage?

If the purpose is genuinely to address disadvantage and to ensure that we don’t have increasing differences in outcomes for young people, then why would we consider bringing all young people back in, if that is deemed to be unsafe? Why would we not offer spaces to those about whom we are concerned?  I know some of the answers. There would be uproar and a cacophony of objections, which, surely, is a clear indication that, for a lot of people, this is not the purpose at all. It is certainly not the way to get the economy going and fulfil the ambitions of those for whom that is really the primary concern.

…. And the consequence?

The absence of clarity creates the inevitability of confusion.  Confusion is always likely to create conflict and conflict always bedevils coherence in establishing policy and determining action. We are only going to get clarity if we get open discussion and we will only get decisions if these discussions include fundamental questions, which usually start with why.

The Great Behaviour Debate

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Is anyone else tired of Zombie debates?

There is a raging debate on Twitter as I write about behaviour. Remarkably, it contains a fair bit of wisdom while being utterly pointless. As ever, there are clearly a lot of people who don’t believe common sense should get in the way of an argument.

The central debate seems to be about whether “behaviour”, generally, in this case, disruptive behaviour is a form of communication or, perhaps, just disruptive behaviour. There is another strand about whether behaviour should be more understood than controlled or more controlled than understood. There is advice on how to manage behaviour, which has merits, but will not be unfamiliar to aficionados of Pavlov or the work of Barbara Wodehouse, who was an enormously popular dog trainer some time back. There are heartfelt pleas for empathy and the protagonists are “full of passionate intensity” so, as Yeats would have it, “surely some revelation is at hand” – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming
– but, sadly, not. The lust for caricature and oversimplification appears to overwhelm the simple realities.
Here is my stab at some of the common sense simplicities –

No matter what motivates a student’s behaviour, we need to minimise the impact of that behaviour on other learners.

We should use all the opportunities that we have to know our students and use that knowledge to avoid behaviour becoming an issue as often as possible.

We should offer demanding, engaging and interesting experiences to learners and plan from, and for, the students that we have. Curriculum is a map; it is not a dictatorial GPS. It needs to be respected. It is not sacrosanct.

– The curriculum, regardless of its importance and beauty, is not delivered if children have failed to learn.

It helps if we don’t only see behaviour from our standpoint – “challenging behaviour” – but sometimes see it from the standpoint of the student – “distressed behaviour”.

– Understanding and indulgence are not synonyms.

– Routines and boundaries are helpful.

– Learners deserve to know what is expected of them.

– We need to recognise that some learners will need more help and support to meet these expectations.

I know that stating simplicities is also stating the obvious and that there is no “how to” here. I am just hoping that toning down the conflict, the posturing and the point scoring, might just help us get to the “how to”.

More reasons to believe …… the Northern Rocks Edit

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So farewell Northern Rocks and thank you!

Thank you for giving me the chance to meet an absolute host of positive, joyful, committed colleagues. That will be the abiding memory for me. It won’t be the excellent sessions that I attended. It won’t even be going to the very edge of incontinence with Shonette Bason-Wood – www.shonettebasonwood.com

It won’t even be the fantastic contributions from the young people who have been involved, year in and year out, nor the intensely moving personal statements from Chris Kilkenny – http://chriskilkenny.co.uk or Jaz Ampaw Farr http://jazampawfarr.com There have been so many great contributions from so many great educators. People come and give their time for nothing. Debra Kidd – http://www.debra-kidd.com and Emma Hardy – http://www.emmahardy.org.uk – deserve to be remembered for starting it and keeping it going with a huge amount of assistance from partners, friends and people who were just desperate to help. That is still not the main thing!!
It’s not even the fun that they allowed me to have. Who else would ever have let anyone, least of all me, sum up a day through the medium of a DJ set? Who knew it would work – phones in the air, dancing in the aisles, laughing, rocking, waving – that sort of working? It did and I will love these moments forever, but what I will really treasure is this …..

– hundreds of people turning up on a Saturday in a spirit of anticipation, desperate to learn, full of care for students and ambition for learning, loving their jobs and still wanting to do it better – that’s the ultimate Northern Rocks takeaway for me, A day that was full of reasons to believe.

More reasons to believe

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I have taken to using a slide toward the end of presentations which plays out to Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIqBuZoqAXU. I use it to recognise that, overwhelmingly, teachers, school leaders and other colleagues working with young people give me a reason to believe in a better future. I am unembarrassed by either the idealism or optimism. I praise the difference that they make and, equally importantly, the fact that, when they don’t, they persist in their efforts. It is wonderful when the idealism and optimism are reinforced by experience.

I have spent a lot of time recently working with teachers in Highland Region. They were consistently curious and enthusiastic even in the metaphorical semi-darkness of a “twilight” session. I loved the contributions that they made to discussions and the questions that they asked. I spent a day working with children in Crown Primary School in Inverness and, despite the many highlights, it was a timely reminder of how demanding teaching is.

That respect was strengthened in two sessions that I was involved in with Suzanne Zeedyk – www.suzannezeedyk.com one in Edinburgh College http://www.edinburghcollege.ac.uk – the other in Inverness College – www.inverness.uhi.ac.uk . We had two large spaces filled to overflowing with students, parents, colleagues from the NHS, social workers, foster carers, nursery nurses, teachers and more. They all wanted to be better informed about children. All were aware of the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and desperate to know what more they could do to make sure that these did not blight the lives of children in their care. One session was in the evening. The other was a Saturday morning. They had all paid to come and most were reluctant to leave.

One student made the most amazing cake!

The whole fortnight was more than impressive. It was moving, reassuring and revitalising. It gave me reasons to believe. I only hope that it did that for those who were part of it.

Exclusion: Time to change the debate?

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It has been fascinating to see the growing debate about exclusion, especially among commentators and teachers in England. It has been equally interesting to hear the concerns in Scotland that the apparent reduction in exclusions from schools is illusory and where a reduction has been achieved it has been at the expense of staff. They, it is argued, pay the price in assaults, threats and increased stress.

It is the wrong discussion.

Exclusion is a problem in England for all sorts of reasons, but one is that the system is so fragmented. Schools are more isolated. Central services are diminished. There is much less alternative provision, and far less clarity about the procedures, for dealing with young people whose behaviour is deemed uncontrollable. Despite all of this the debate seems to be all about what schools and teachers can be expected to put up with, rather than whether, or not, we have the right range of provision for young people.

Autonomy for schools too often comes at the expense of the most troubled children. In Scotland, the government is looking to maximise the power of headteachers without, it would seem, much thought as to what the implications might be for these young people. In the world of empowered schools there have to be powerful safeguards for all young people, but, as ever, the safeguards need to be strongest for the most vulnerable. There seems little indication that this is embedded in the Headteachers’ Charter.

All children should be a collective responsibility for society. That principle is at the heart of the United Nations Charter for the Rights of the Child. Perhaps we need to do more to make sure that we have the collective structures that honour that responsibility. In the whole exclusion debate that barely seems to feature.

Language matters so much. Jenn Knussen and her colleagues at Pitteuchar East Primary in Glenrothes (www.fifecirect.org.uk/pitteuchareastps) talk about the transformation that took place in the school when they stopped talking about “challenging behaviour” and started to talk about “distressed behaviour”. We might make more progress if we stopped talking about exclusion and started to talk more about appropriate provision. One thing is certain, young people have a range of needs so we have to have a spectrum of provision.

Will we get that within a fragmented system rooted in school autonomy?

The Disruptors

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Let’s disrupt the real disruptors!!!

I love the idea that InnovatED is going to devote a whole month to celebrating the mavericks and mayhem makers, the change agents and secret agents, the innovators and instigators and anyone not so classified who is trying to make change in education.

I think I might qualify for inclusion. I was once profiled in a series entitled The Innovators. If you are ever desperate for distraction, you can use this link http://www.agent4change.net/innovators/1861-the-innovators-27-david-cameron.html

The unfortunate truth, or even the inconvenient truth, with due respect to Al Gore, is that it is hard to make change in education and the change that we make as “innovators” is rarely disruptive. Millions watched Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about education’s fatal assault on creativity, how many changed their practice? I am not aware of an increasing wave of Leonardos breaking into the worlds of art or science after an inspirational 18 minutes on You Tube. ResearchED has blossomed into an international phenomenon with a conference itinerary that must need coordination from Jules Verne, but some of its leading lights still feel that they haven’t yet vanquished Brain Gym. Frankly, if you can’t still the twitchings of Brain Gym, wholesale educational change might be a bridge too far.

Independent Thinking is a wonderful hydra-headed force for educational change, continually reminding the world that “there is another way”, but it seems to remain “the path less travelled”

I am not dismissive of the possibility of change. Goodness knows, I have been trying to achieve it for longer than most of my handful of readers have been alive and I am with McFadden and Whitehead (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuAZTWGfQTs) in believing that “there ain’t no stopping us now, we’re on the move”. I just recognise that it takes time and that it is much easier to achieve in a context where you have power and influence. I am also convinced that change in education is more likely to translate into sustained difference when it is not overly disruptive.

Change needs traction. It has to have grip on the ground and take people forward from where they currently are. It has to respect context. As I am unduly fond of saying, successful schools adapt more than they adopt. Change should be coherent. Like a good narrative it should build on preceding chapters and be rooted in those that we seek to write. Otherwise we paint on wet walls – another image which I threaten with overwork!!

All of this begs the question, who are the real disruptors?

Step forward the ideologues with influence, the politicians with power and a lust for legacy and those in positions of executive power who prefer intervention to stability and headlines to articles.

One needs to ask how much disruption has been created by inflicting a belief that structures change practice, certalnly, in the context of England, but, undoubtedly, more widely. We have seen so many models of school organisation being imposed at worst or permitted at best, in the belief that such change would improve practice. It may be possible to find examples where that might be the case, but, at the time of writing, we are seeing fragmentation, fragility and failure on a worrying scale.

We have seen so much disruptive change in the name of school autonomy when the reality looks much more like the decentralisation of blame.

It is hard to see the current crisis in staff recruitment and retention as anything other than a disruptive failure in workforce planning buy successive governments, more concerned with “liberating the system” than actually making it work.

One also needs to ask how disruptive the current workload for school leaders and teachers is. I see so many tired and frazzled colleagues who, in William McIlvanney’s words, “madly try to dream ourselves a beach”

Don’t your retired colleagues look well?

There is a very serious point in all of this. Disruption, especially imposed, ill-considered, founded on an unjustified certainty and enforced through mechanisms of accountability and funding, will certainly bring change. Its track record on progress is a lot more questionable.

Hence my title. We really need to recognise who the real disruptors are  and question whether they are any more than the assassins of Humpty Dumpty, unable to put the pieces together again even in the configuration that they initially sought.

We can only break a system when we have thought through how we will rebuild it. When we do so we must offer the reassurance and support that allows change to feel constructive, rather than disruptive. We need to end the current love affair with iconoclasm. On the world stage that has brought  a Trump presidency and I, for one, am not sleeping any better as the Doomsday Clock is poised at two minutes to midnight. That sort of iconoclasm seeks enemies rather than allies. We can see elements of this in the current educational debate where politicians rail against “experts” and educationalist savage each other in the WWF of Twitter.

If we want progress, we need alliances and not conflicts. If we want more than change we need to disrupt the disruptors and get alongside the constructors