Why do we have schools at all?

I have had the privilege of interviewing many candidates for secondary teaching jobs over the past 20 years or so, and on more than one occasion it has been the answer to my first question that has helped those of us on the panel make our final decision.

We’ll hear fantastic answers to questions about assessment, skills, what makes a good lesson and brilliant insights into teaching and learning. There will be cleverly prepared responses to searching questions about targets and data and, of course, the inevitable promises about commitment to after-school activities. People will have a question to ask at the appropriate moment and they’ll be ready with a compliment about what a lovely school it is. All good stuff.

But the question that invariably seems to throw people, the one that they seem least prepared for, yet for me is absolutely fundamental and is the one I always ask first: why do we bother to teach your subject in school?

Perhaps I feel this is so important because my own subject is modern foreign languages and this was a question put to me on more than one occasion. Although able (I hope!) to justify it with reasoned argument, my first response to the question “Why do we have to learn French, Sir?” was often “Well, why do you have to learn anything in school?”

It is not such a flippant answer, however, and my experience of seeing some very well qualified and talented teachers flounder over this question in interviews is at best interesting and at worst quite a concern. It is not altogether a surprise, though, for it is so rarely asked.

The equivalent question for a headteacher at interview is, I suppose, “Why do we bother to have schools at all?” I have to say, I have never been asked that question and I am not even sure how often I have actually reflected on it. I wonder how often anyone really considers it at that most basic level, but I would like to suggest that now is the time.

It is a question that needs to be asked frankly and openly across our communities and it is most certainly not a question for teachers and politicians to answer alone. Parents, employees and, of course, young people in particular need to share their views. We are in a time of considerable upheaval. It seems that education always is, I know, but this time there is a harder edge.

Comments are always being made about comparative standards, budgets are extremely tight, schools are changing radically across the country, and not always for the best of reasons. Jobs are hard to find, crime appears to be on the increase. Unless we return to this fundamental question, we run the risk of failing more young people. And unless we in schools can be absolutely clear as to our purpose, we will continue to be seen by some as second rate. We will end up yet again paying lip service to initiatives, and playing the game of improvement rather than actually tackling the problems.

I am not suggesting for a minute that schools are no longer required. In fact, I am confident that such a debate would result in the conclusion that they have never been so needed.

And I don’t doubt that each and every one of us could pretty quickly draw up a list of the purpose of schools. Here are just three random ones: keeping young people off the streets, plugging the gaps left by poor parenting, ensuring youngsters get as many qualifications as possible regardless of their real value so they can compete with their peers and make our school look good …

I hope I may be forgiven for playing devil’s advocate in an effort to stimulate debate, but the truth is that all of those issues have played their part to a lesser or greater degree, and for very understandable reasons. But I doubt we feel comfortable with any of them.

The issue is, of course, priorities. Initiatives such as the 21st Century Schools programme and other more recent developments address only certain aspects. One of the great things about Wales is that we are the size where a debate of this nature could really happen, and happen right across the country.

We need to listen to what our society expects and needs from its schools. By asking this most fundamental of all questions in education, which we quite simply do not currently do, we could come up with some radical suggestions and solutions. And as we develop a new curriculum in Wales now is surely the right time to ask.

John Kendall (@RiscaCCS_Head) is the Head Teacher at RCCS

This is an edited versions of an article that first appeared in TES Cymru in 2011

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First Day at School- how we do things a bit differently.

We have only Y7 in on the first day of the new school year. And any admin, explanation of school rules, giving out new books, or worst of all copying timetables into homework diaries is absolutely banned! That’s no way to embark on a five year course of study. We roll up our sleeves and get on with learning!

We’ve taken this approach for a few years now and it seems to go down well with teachers and pupils alike. As a small school with a four form entry we can do this, but I’m not sure how it might work in a larger school.

After the usual Assembly from the head, which is about challenge and learning, as well as a reassurance of what to do if things go wrong, pupils work in their form groups and in small groups for the rest of the day doing a number of workshops- but no timetabled lessons. These include getting logged on with a user name and password into our systems (ok, we’ll admit that is an admin task..!) and a hands-on session on how work will be marked and assessed at our school. That’s really important as we get a consistent approach from the start. And then my favourite part which is the skills roundabout!

This is great as it involves every teacher in the school and some non-teaching staff. We all teach a ‘skill’ to a small group of people and they then have to teach it to their peers. And then on in a carousel, so everyone gets to learn lots. They also get to learn lots about learning, and get to meet many of our teachers. The skills can be anything- tying a fishing fly, how to fix a puncture, how to fold clothes for a suitcase, how to use chopsticks, how to tie a bow tie, counting from 1-10 in Russian…. I usually teach cricket umpires’ hand signals. it doesn’t matter, the weirder or stranger the skill the better!

During the process we ask the pupils to think about how they are learning and how they will teach. This is a really useful process and it is fascinating too for us to explore how the knowledge is shared so rapidly. They get to work together very quickly with people they do not know, and any first day nerves and inhibitions are soon shed. We used to talk about learning styles and VAK, but we don’t do that now, leaving the pupils to see for themselves how they are learning and to reflect on what works best for them, as well as understanding the need to be able to adapt to different forms of learning.

The day is over in a flash and the pupils go home happy and with new skills and experiences. 

Everyone says they remember their first day at school.. but I am not sure they really do. They just remember the butterflies in the stomach and the apprehension. I hope our pupils have a better memory than that, and they feel enthused for the years ahead!

As always, I’d be interested in any other approaches schools take to that all important day one.

John

John Kendall (@RiscaCCS_Head) is the Head Teacher at RCCS

Lesson observation

We really do need to start getting this right in schools.

For a long time now I have used the analogy of the medical profession. No doctor watches another to give him a score, a mark out of ten, or an assessment based on a framework which, with the best will in the world, will always be subjective. But the practice of observing- and helping-  is widespread. If I were to tackle a complicated knee operation for example it would be quite normal for me to ask a colleague for advice, to ask if I could watch him do a similar op, or to invite him into theatre to assist. If I wanted to try something a little different I would almost certainly ensure I shared my planning with a colleague and request her presence when I carried out the procedure. I would only be appreciative of the help offered, it would be non-threatening, it would improve my practice and benefit my patients. It would not matter whether the assistance came from within my hospital or whether I sought the advice from another institution. Nor would there be any issues around the status of those involved, other than the obvious advantage of greater experience being shared.

Why is it often so different for teachers?

I think the answer almost certainly lies in how observation has been done over many years. The judgemental, top down, critical ethos still exist, and while inspection still uses a one-off lesson observation as a means of making judgements about a school I suspect this will remain the case. Using lesson obs as a means of grading a teacher (because that’s what it feels like, no matter what you may say) has soured the whole process and prevented it from being one of the best bits of CPD we can access.

Few would argue that teachers should be exempt from any form of assessment themselves, as all professionals are. But I suggest rigorous work scrutiny is a far more effective way of monitoring the progress pupils make in a teacher’s class, and the data we have available is more than sufficient to enable school leaders to decide whether performance is or is not as it needs to be.

In an ideal world I would keep all lesson observations for professional development purposes only. Last week I watched a lesson with two colleagues, delivered by a third. The lesson had been planned by the three of them. I’m not going to go into detail in this blog about the nature of the pedagogy or the learning process, but I will say it was one of those lessons where the time whizzed by, the extra adults in the room were soon forgotten, the pupils were fully engaged, the learning was independent,and progress was rapid. The fact that it would be graded as ‘excellent’ in any inspection framework is irrelevant, the planning process before and the discussion process which followed was invaluable. I accept that the fact it was such a great lesson helped, but we did find fault with some aspects and that was of course the key learning for us!

So the four of us learned a huge amount in that hour. Of course there are major resource implications in all this. We were greatly helped by the fact that we have no Y11 in school and Y10 were away on work experience, so there were no cover implications. The lesson planning however was not onerous. The fact is that if we value this sort of work we need to resource it anyway.

I still hear too many horror stories about observations in some schools, and we don’t always get it right at RCCS, that’s for sure. But I also hear more and more examples of good practice, which can  only be improved when schools collaborate with others.

I’d welcome your thoughts.

John

[John Kendall is the head teacher at RCCS, @RiscaCCS_Head]

A new blog: teaching and learning

Teaching and Learning is at the heart of all we do at Risca Community Comprehensive School. This new blog is for us to share what we are doing in our classrooms with our colleagues at RCCS and with the wider community. We hope it proves useful.

We welcome all constructive comments and feedback, and look forward to learning lots along the way!


You can find our more about our school on our website or by reading our weekly school blog.