Keynote presentation for Lancaster, Morecambe & District Primary School Headteachers

19/03/21

Unlocking Learning Beyond the Lockdown Conference

Hello colleagues thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you at the end of what has been an uplifting and positive event. 

It comes at a time when there is much uncertainty but also at time of opportunity. There are moments when the tectonic plates in education appear to edge slightly and what seemed settled and certain becomes unclear. I believe primary education is at a moment when those plates are shifting. An education thinker who influenced me greatly was Christian Schiller. I will explain shortly who he was, but I remember him pointing out that

‘Change is continuous, but it is not regular. Sometimes it is slow, and we fail to perceive it, sometimes it is quick, and we call it a revolution. In this country a slow tempo is generally preferred, and educational institutions tend to move forward in the manner of the worm. The head stretches gropingly forward, a ripple runs down the four part of the body, and the remainder rest undisturbed. Then the full part begins slowly to follow the head, the ripple extends further and further towards the tail comma and finally the whole body of the worm draws itself up to the head. So, in the schools of this country there are always some stretching forward, others beginning to follow, and many resting undisturbed until in time the ripple reaches them also and they draw themselves up to the head. ‘

Schiller wrote this in 1955 and he clearly had not been affected by the National Literacy Strategy or the Govian attack on course work or grade inflation. But, he was challenging an orthodoxy at the time that was based on children being taught basic skills with the occasional creative task. It was built around the need for a proportion of children to be sent to a Grammar school while the others, like me, went to the other schools. 

It appears to me that there are quite a few government ministers who would like the country to revert back to this approach. That is why whatever curriculum we deliver we need to ensure that children in our care achieve the highest standards possible in literacy, oracy and numeracy. To me that is a fundamental right and an expectation that parents and carers have when they send their children into our care. But it isn’t the sole right because I believe children should be provided with an interesting, relevant and purposeful range of activities including those for literacy, oracy and numeracy. I prefer these activities to be integrated and linked as much as possible to their existing context so that they stretch from what they know first-hand to stuff that is more conceptual. That’s my philosophy. 

We need to accept that primary school teachers cannot have the same level of subject knowledge as their secondary counterparts and we should stop hammering them for not being able to achieve the impossible. This is corrosive so let’s stop it. We obviously need a broad range of primary experts, but this cannot be held by each and every primary school teacher.

I often hear educationalists say that the national assessment system shouldn’t affect the quality and type of curriculum provided in primary schools. They say that a great curriculum will deliver the outcomes required to attain highly in the various primary assessments. This may be true in some settings and contexts, but this is not what I see. If this were true why do thousands of parents in Trafford, Stockport, Manchester and Cheshire spend a fortune on private tuition to enable their children to sit and pass 11 plus and entrance exams? It is rubbish and we should treat it as such. The government has made no apology for explaining why the children sit various assessments in your schools and that is simply to judge your school. It enables them to govern the curriculum without really trying. The national accountability system is unfit for purpose. If you want to know more about my views on this then you’ll need to invite me back.

But let’s get back to Schiller. He was right in his observations about the worm and what is heartening is that you appear to be school leaders that are close to the head of the worm but not at its tip. Change is being accepted, modified, and controlled but not in a rushed way. But are we being radical enough? I believe you have a clear sense of what a good primary curriculum looks like and what it shouldn’t look like. 

In a previous life I was responsible for developing school inspection Frameworks for Ofsted. I recall an HMI chatting to me about what the curriculum was meant to deliver and why I needed to keep an eye on this because without care and attention it can be used as a political weapon. Let’s be under no illusion, there is political dogma at play in all of this. Whether that is about the preference for tutoring over mentoring, knowledge over skills, synthetic phonics over analytic phonics or Ofsted’s understanding of curriculum design. This is about constraint and power so if you want to keep to your principles you will need to be agile and clear about your philosophy and ensure that others, including your governors and staff understand it, fully and comprehensively. I am surprised by the lack of clarity on this matter when teachers apply for a post at a new school.

When I was considering applying for headship I was at a school in Stockport. It was the late 80s and teacher strike action was in full flow. My mind was just about coping with the additional challenges, so I was a bit dumbfounded when after applying for a headship in the town the senior adviser strolled up and asked me what my philosophy of education was? To be honest I had never viewed it in that way and although I knew what sort of school I wanted to lead and what and how the children would and should learn I had never seen it as philosophy.

He could see I was a tad stumped so he pushed a book into my hand and told me to read it. It was ‘Christian Schiller in his own words’. I threw the book on to my desk and thought I’d get round to it some time. I took it on holiday with me. I thought it was only about 120 pages so it wouldn’t take long to read, and I could say that I had read something intellectual instead of the lightweight stuff I normally read on holiday. Anyway, the book was probably the most influential read of my working life cos it accurately conveyed what my philosophy was and why, without realising it, I had been such an advocate for ‘a broad range of worthwhile curricular opportunities that cater for the interests, aptitudes and particular needs of pupils and ensure progression in pupils’ learning’ and why social justice was at the heart of my work. It made me reflect on why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place and cleared my thinking so that I got a better sense of what was right.

Schiller was appointed to the government’s inspector of schools in 1924. This was HMI to you and me. He was 29 years of age and had spent more years as a soldier than as a teacher. 

After a year’s induction based at the board of education’s London headquarters Schiller was posted to Liverpool where he spent the next 12 years through a period of economic depression in an area of considerable deprivation. Liverpool was in the middle of the general strike and Schiller was visiting one of the many dockside infant schools where ragged children, silent, hungry and regimented crowded 60, 70 or even more to a class in grim dirty buildings. He noted that it was difficult to make contact with individual children. A 5 year old girl shrank back as if he was going to hit her, but he sat down by her and gradually coaxed out of her that her family lived in one room, and that as the eldest of three children she had the task of buying the family breakfast. His interest and admiration dispelled her listlessness. Asked to do some pretend shopping she calculated the change correctly every time. When asked to record this he looked at the sums on her slate, they were all wrong. 

This small incident has stuck with me for many years. in effect what has happened is the child understands how to use money she can use it in a real-life situation but as soon as she’s asked to record it she cannot. She has a clear knowledge of the value of money, has good mental calculation and is enthusiastic because she can see that it as a skill that will be essential in later life. Sadly, I see many children like this child today. They may not be quite as impoverished, but many are not able to rely on good, decent healthy and regular food as much as they used to, but we have become obsessed with recording everything to prove the children know it. It isn’t good enough for teachers to assess what children know, understand and can do any more. This can only be proved through a test. Really!

What is most worrying is that for many children the range of ‘worthwhile curricular opportunities’ are affected by the national assessment system. You might be fighting a rear-guard action to preserve what you believe to be a good curriculum, but I would urge you to look seriously at the time being devoted by teachers in early years, Year 1, Year 2 and Year 6 to national assessment activities. Are all of these ‘curricular opportunities interesting, develop aptitude and support particular needs and really ensure progression? Once you’ve undertaken that task then reflect on what is stopping your school from making the experience of learning even more enjoyable, exciting and interesting? And how can you shift this for the benefit of the pupils?

In 1946 Schiller was promoted to become the first staff inspector for junior education. Despite the title of his post, many of his insights were based on his acute observations of younger children in nursery and infant classes. Indeed, he remarked in a speech to trainee teachers in 1948 that ‘the best preparation for teaching juniors is experience of infants.’ His observations convinced him of the fundamental importance of imagination, creativity and relevance. He said in a talk he gave in 1945 that a good Junior School conceives of primary education, not as a preparation for something to follow, that is a fulfilment of a stage of development. He went on to say that ‘in a good Junior School we might expect to find that the children are expressing their powers in language, in movement, in music, in painting, and in making things, that is to say, as artists that the children are not only interested but show that peculiar absorption which comes when activities exactly meet their immediate needs.’ I believe that the Ofsted Framework of September 2003 was more akin to this understanding of curriculum development than todays. 

I have a son-in-law who is a successful headteacher of a three-form entry primary school in Stockport. My other son-in-law and our middle daughter are middle leaders in primary schools and our eldest is a part time Year 3 teacher. I have seen their commitment and ability to adapt first-hand and I am in awe of their achievements. I have to admit that, I am unsure whether I would have had the skillset to lead a large primary through the pandemic. The profession has been amazing. But, the secret garden of the primary school curriculum has been opened up more to parents and I believe some are pretty shocked at what their children are expected to learn.  A good example is an article written by Elaine Glaser, a Guardian journalist who was reflecting on her home school experiences. She says, that in normal times her cheery 8 year old would grunt ‘ok’ when asked how school was today. But home schooling is revealing what my children actually do all day. And the discovery has come as a shock’. She explains how the language of learning has become very technical and she is horrified at the ‘highly technical grammar that has been foisted on primary pupils’. She observes that as far as she understands this learning is not developed further when children enter secondary education. It may however help them explain to each other why a particular phrase was used in a set text or could help learning MFL easier, that is if we can get enough people to teach MFL. That’s another story.

She makes the point that ‘knowledge’ has been incorrectly defined as ‘grammatical concepts. Children’s author Frank Cottrell-Boyce told her that having done reading and poetry sessions in primary schools for years he now hears the teacher say afterwards ‘Now class, let’s identify the wow words, connectives and metaphors that Frank is using here. He states that this is not the fault of the teacher (I would contest that). He says he sees amazing work all the time but it’s in the teeth of what they’re asked to do-they’re having to gouge moments out of the day and twist the curriculum to be able to do it.

Cottrell-Boyce makes a similar point to Schiller when he says that the value of listening is being missed. It’s a strange thing for a writer to say but I think we really overvalue writing. A lot of the writing (recording) done in the classroom is to create some physical entity that can be assessed. It has no intrinsic value apart from assessing and testing – and kids know that’.

So, what am I proposing and how do we move forward? 

Let’s be clear, If you are ensuring that all pupils are receiving a broad range of worthwhile curricular opportunities that are catering for the interests, aptitudes and particular needs of pupils and ensure successful progression in pupils’ learning then keep going. Refine it and reflect on it but just keep going!

But if your school curriculum is not as strong as this then you need to look deeply again. I would suggest that you may not be as clear as you should be about what your educational philosophy is and how you can best deliver this. There is nothing wrong with this because it is where you are, but you need to be clear about what that curriculum experience is going to be and why? 

You have been given a host of ideas today but you now need to give yourself time to reconsider where you are and what you want to change. Once you’ve got your head around this then bring your senior leaders and influential governors into this discussion. Get agreement before you do anything dramatic, please?

So that you understand that what I am saying is not just a load of baloney. Here is the curriculum statement for the Trust that I led for 6 years. 

We see the curriculum as something that embraces almost everything that a child does at an academy. It is a set of skills, knowledge, understanding and experiences with the thread of co-operative values and principles running through it. It is the mechanism through which children journey towards a better understanding of themselves and the role they can and will play in their community and society. We hope that it encourages children to be ambitious and ambassadors of a co-operative way of life.

Achieving high standards is important, whether this is in the respect and tolerance they show to each other and society in general, or in their studies and the contribution they make to academy life. We want our children to work hard, show resilience and be ready and skilled to manage whatever the world throws at them. Doing as well as they possibly can in examinations and assessments is important and we take their attainment seriously to make it as good as it can be. We know that functional skills such as reading, writing, oracy and numeracy are vitally important and are an entitlement regardless of the child’s age but, we are also clear that examination and assessment outcomes alone are by no means enough. We are committed to ensuring all of the talents and skills they have are developed to the full.

When a child leaves one of our academies they will know how to keep themselves safe and healthy. They will have a broad experience that includes academic, sporting/physical activity, dramatic, artistic, musical and most importantly, personal growth opportunities. Our academies will provide time for students to learn and enjoy their studies before and after the school day. We know that this can play a crucial role in keeping their interest and excitement. This is particularly important for some of our most vulnerable children.

We expect our young people to be community minded with a willingness to get involved and volunteer, ready for the next stages of their journey. We want them to be able to draw on a deep understanding of co-operative values and the Ways of Being Co-op to help them. They will be tolerant of others and willing to listen and appreciate the views and lifestyles that others may follow.

We acknowledge the significant role parents and carers play in our children’s development. Our academies play a crucial part in helping the child decide what they want to do with their life. We do all we can to support parents and carers so that their children have every chance to succeed. Every child is of equal value and we will always work tirelessly to support their individual needs.

We expect the curriculum at our academies to be enjoyable, rich, varied, exciting, relevant and often challenging, but above all, enormously rewarding. We know that some of our children face significant challenges but this won’t stop us giving them a top class education leading to top class outcomes.

I am wedded to this and had the expectation that academy leaders would help deliver this. I assume you are content with your curriculum statements and wedded to them and they are being delivered regularly and consistently in your classrooms. Are your governors holding you to account for the delivery of this?

What has been so refreshing is that I suspect many, if not all of you, can leave this conference with your head held high because you have a clear curricular vision and one that will ensure our children have the knowledge, skills and understanding to make sense of an inter-related and interdependent world.

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