Green shoots of school improvement:Learning from and with the vulnerable

Our background – why did we have so many?

In a world where education is now about market forces, and please I am not an economist, but my understanding is that market forces involve winners and losers and that the players are in competition. If we now believe that the free market and competition are the key to school improvement; it makes absolute sense for a head teacher to do their upmost to attract applications from the brightest and best of the cohort of students in an area. While working hard to minimise the number of applications of the weakest and most vulnerable.  Remember my first experience of schooling where the only school in the area had not attempted this and was therefore the sink school. The most vulnerable students take the longest to achieve and have the longest journeys to travel. They are less likely to succeed and therefore the least “wanted” in this system. While some head teachers might deny this, and avoid overt methods of detraction. It is happening on a daily basis. We don’t go around saying this as heads, but the market forces generate these impacts.  In a world where we can now be fired swiftly and frequently, why would we make our life harder, or the route to school success, longer? In my last section I argue that at the very least a buffer for the vulnerable needs to be placed around this market force system.

The school I inherited had never been Ofsted good, and existed within a catchment where the grammar school system continued to operate by default. The academy that had once been a grammar, tested pupils and maintained a reputation for selecting and receiving the brightest pupils. The house prices close to this school were considerably higher than across the tracks.  Thus the top end of pupil was creamed off and funnelled into this school. This is not unusual for county schools in a white working class area and the school and head were great. This meant if you weren’t considered successful at primary or you were low ability, your default position was to attend our school. We took far more second and third choices than comparison schools.

This left our intake heavily skewed towards the lower ability and middle group of students with a very, very small top end. When you unpick what are labelled our middle band, the majority only just reached the national average levels on entry. When you track data, nationally it is recognised that these are the hardest students to cross the magic C grade at GCSE.  To compound this situation there were too many places available to students within the locality, the area didn’t need all its schools. This meant that an already competitive situation was made worse, so that all schools were competing for student places and the competition left some schools over -subscribed while others like mine were under.



What happens when you aren’t a full school?

Where a school is under subscribed it is obliged to take every child that does not have a school place in the area, and the school does not have the right to refuse them. For my school it meant that a substantial proportion of poorly behaved students, either jumped to us prior to exclusion from another school. Or came to us post an exclusion. We had no choice but to take them. Within the County a system existed to apportion students within the areas, and there was some sharing but the buffer for a full school in rejecting or limiting the number of these students was dependent on whether you were full or not. In our school we had no buffer to receiving these students so significant numbers came to us in all year groups.

Initially on arrival the school had been granted an additional budget recognising the needs of these students and their ability to consume time and therefore resources, however over the first three years this budget disappeared. The available places in the area increased substantially, and numbers of students in the school dropped further. Our relative figure of applications compared to other schools increased but our actual number decreased.  Schools are funded on numbers of students attending therefore if you are not full as a school, you are not fully funded. Depressing, a market system needs sink holes, the losers, we were one of them but so were our most needy in society were losers to.

How our success with vulnerable students increased the numbers attending the school.

Our restorative justice system also began to work which increased our problem as our reputation for dealing with the most difficult students increased and more came to us. We became faced with significant numbers of these challenging students and families. Initially the school had received an additional budget in recognition of the proportion of challenging students that attended the school. However, as the austerity measures came this budget disappeared. The new Government also changed the definition of Special needs children squeezing out those presenting behaviour problems, as Special Need and again reducing the budget going to schools with substantial numbers of these children. Like everywhere else in the school we were left with little money to invest in this problem.

As a learning school we watched and worked with the students and families closely. It became clear that the most vulnerable were not able to cope in the mainstream, changing teachers, and expectations. Seeing different teachers each on an hour by hour basis was difficult for many of our students. Their basic literacy and ability to interact socially was exceptionally weak and couldn’t accommodate the timetable demands. At times with very little money to differentiate and support individual needs, a school can feel like a factory system, pushing students through a one size fit’s all curriculum. This is always the cheapest option but the least helpful for those with the most specialisms including gifted and vulnerable. These students were not going to make it through unless significant provision was put in place, this required additional staff, resources and time. The vulnerable consume resources.


How did we support the most vulnerable students with their behaviour?

Initially I met my twenty worst offenders at the start of my headship with their Parents. In order to get them to meet me at the beginning I informed them that I would not allow them into school until the meeting took place. These were, notoriously parents who refused to work with the school. This was exceptionally risky as no court of law would have backed my decision and if any of them had called me on this I would have had to of backed down. But they didn’t and I needed to send a warning signal to parents and students that their behaviour must change. At these meetings I outlined the behaviours that the child was representing on a daily basis. Most children’ files are twenty pages long these files had two to three arch files of listed poor behaviour. We then gave the families every opportunity to explore with us all the support that we could put in place to help. At the end we agreed an action plan involving all of us. Lastly I made it clear that if their behaviours did not change than I would exclude, and I would exclude as many as necessary to support the whole school change in behaviour. As a new Head you have an opportunity to exclude heavily if necessary as long as it has impact, but this can’t continue year on year. *

Over the course of the next 6 months we lost half of the students. Within the next year and half the new behaviour system kicked in and the extreme instances began to reduce, however the most vulnerable and poorly behaved students were still huge in number and consumed our beleaguered resources. Within it classroom a third of the students were volatile. Our deficit and small intakes were having a continued impact on our finances. Worst of all receiving so many of these students consumed our time and resources due to the nature of their needs and their difficulties mainstream just wasn’t going to work and we needed an alternative.

If these students were evenly spread in the system of schools would it have made a difference? Yes, I think so. I believe all schools have various tipping points, and how many really vulnerable poorly behaved students they can cope with is one of them. If they are designed and funded as a mainstream school, there is no recognition of the consumption of resources. Great staff can manage two or three exceptionally vulnerable just in each classroom, but when this becomes a third and beyond, there isn’t enough of a member of staff to go around. At times these were the figures my teams were having to cope with. Even through restorative justice countered behaviour for our most extreme this wasn’t enough. Sending them from one class to another was not working.

How did we improve the situation and manage such a significant number of these students?

Our alternative arrived in a small package, a mathematician and autistic individual who was exceptional with the most vulnerable and poorly behaved students. On walking into my office, my Deputy and I would not let her leave until we had persuaded her that we were the school to fulfil her dreams of making a difference to the most vulnerable! A very silly idea!

She was amazing. Autistic herself, I found her one of the hardest human beings I have ever had to communicate with. Her social graces non- existent, and her ability to say exactly what she was thinking at any time, constant. Whilst a refreshing change at time this had the ability to alienate her with staff. Her ability to nurture staff was not in her skill set.  She was impossibly stubborn and like her students she consumed our resources but the impact was substantial.

Within the school she set out a programme of change that supported the most vulnerable to exclusion. We ran 6 , 8,9 and 11 weeks programmes of with drawl from mainstream, to project based learning . All students covered emotional literacy and were assigned a mentor. This teacher recruited a team around her of support workers. Ingeniously she also invited and received a number of voluntary teachers from within the school. Who came to the programme to teach projects and or literacy and numeracy, this included the leadership team. The programme required parents to attend both the introduction and the graduation and to stay in daily contact with the team, these were the parents that were our hardest to reach and the task was mammoth in the beginning. If we were going to support these students we had to support their parents also if the changes were to be substantive and long lasting.

Over the 4 years that this programme existed it had a phenomenal impact in reducing the numbers of students who were excluded and it began to breed its own success where we saw ex-students return to support other younger students who were facing the same challenges. While we did not rescue all we moved from 4 of the 8 on the first programme making it through school with us, to 5 or 6 in each cohort. When I unpick what really made a difference the crucial element seems to be the ability for the team to build trust with these students so that they genuinely began to trust that we would listen to them and support them. They needed consistency more than anyone. Post this programme the door of communication was always open. The teacher told all of us the programme would never be a magic wand to cure all but if students are talking with us we stand a chance of supporting them through their future mistakes and successes.

A further advantage of this programme was that when we sadly had to ask a student to depart the school after the Change programme had failed to have significant impact on their behaviour. Our body of evidence of school support and our strong relationship with the families meant that our exclusions were never challenged. In fact, the County behaviour team remarked on the way our parents shook our hands and recognised the significant work that had gone in, even though their child was being permanently excluded.

What did I learn from this special programme?

Adults that have experienced similar issues often work best with troubled children. This teacher had lived a number of the experiences of the students and had a deep insight into what they were experiencing. More than that she had taken the journey in altering her behaviour in order to exist and more than that succeed, in environments that she found ultimately challenging.  While not all were autistic many displayed the debilitating outcomes that this condition can bring on an individual. Extreme anger, an inability to express one- self which compounds the anger, an inability to read social situations, a feeling of isolation and at times hopelessness.

Alongside our lead I have learnt that if you want to bring the most disengaged parents on swiftly then recruiting from within their parent body is also exceptionally helpful. We were so lucky to recruit a wonderful parent who had been a psychiatric nurse. She became our key counsellor on the programme. As a member of the local community who had experienced a significant amount of challenge in her life, she could make the connection with the hardest to reach parents that we often failed to.  She also created a beautiful balance between the Leads hard line and her ability to empathise.

As an autistic person the Lead was clear that boundaries were not for her area, she wanted clear, hard and fast rules and this over time worked with the students. However, I would not bend on the consequences having flexibility and this worked. For our most vulnerable they needed a really rigid regime to work with, but if they were unable to meet that regime in the beginning we need to consider all the circumstances surrounding that situation before deciding on a consequence. Interestingly but perhaps unsurprisingly many of our success stories chose the armed forces, police and or services with strict regulations as a career, they needed a strong regime to support them.

Through- out all of our work, fear was never an influencing force, however utter determination and very strong follow through had to be core. These students needed to know we meant what we said.


Special people – the use of student role models within the school to transform behaviour

In a school where learning rests at the heart of all that you do then in seeking out your role models for others to aspire to, you are not just looking for those that began as a success and remained as a success. Actually some of the most inspiring and transformative role models are those that made a journey. You need to generate the “if they can do it, so might I” mentality. In changing the behaviour and ethos of a school role models are essential. Students are always far more ready to learn from their peers than they are from an adult. Those older students that can be matched carefully to an individual with a similar set of issues that they have themselves experienced and conquered are invaluable.  I have outlined just 3 out of the numerous role models that we capitalised on.

Student number 1, came through a regular route into our year 10-year group at the end of a Summer term. He was a student from an ex grammar whose behaviour had led to him being at huge risk of permanent exclusion. He had been working with the local authority to calm his behaviour.

His Mum arrived with three of his six younger male siblings in tow, to a meeting to discuss his behaviours. During the meeting I restrained my PA from imploding at the comment the Mum made that she had done her bit for society by having 7 boys all living off the state. Mum seemed relatively honest and upfront, about the issues and what I really liked about the student was so was he.

We made the decision as a group that he would repeat year 10, a tough decision for him as he was street wise and mature, but a necessity. Fortunately, he was small so he would not stand out. He was placed on a heavy monitoring and support with the change programme. Over the year and half, A came close to exploding on several occasions. His sense of injustice was huge and if a teacher failed to follow the behaviour policy or not listen to him. Explosions were always close to hand. Like a previous student mentioned he has the innate ability to argue the hind leg off a donkey. Slowly we built his trust and slowly we were able to help him to see two sides of the story. The restorative justice system was so supportive here in using reason and understanding to change behaviour. This was an intelligent angry boy who needed both. In year 10 he took the opportunity given to him to attend a cadet school as one of the first cohort of students. He blossomed under the regime and became a great role model for other. This student became an advocate for restorative justice and the school, and after training he was used as a mediator with a number of students who came to us with significant issues. An essential ally to the new school system who acted as advocate for late entry year 9’s and 10’s, it was fabulous to watch him succeed.

Student E came from a well- known family in the local area, she had an older sister who had failed the system and was heading in the same direction. Her Dad was a single Parent who was passionate about his children but lacked the capacity to support them in education. He was frustrated and often aggressive and this aggression had been mirrored in his offspring. This student’s temper was exceptional, and her move to violence swift and regular. She was struggling to read and communicate. The change programme, took this individual under their wing, the harsh but clear regime had significant impact on her. She thrived with the rules. The emotional literacy gave her time, and an opportunity to talk out her anger.

The additional literacy suddenly opened up her world to communication. She blossomed and in seeing her do this, her Parent came onside and began to trust us. Her change gave her younger siblings opportunity and the family succeeded within the education system. She became one of our strongest role models after training. A huge support to female students experiencing similar problems. Advised never to deal with problems alone but to bring them to us, she became trusted and respected in the school community.

Student B had significant but high functioning autism and at key stage 3 he had a frustrated and torrid experience, constantly rubbing up against teachers and combatting everything. We have discovered that autistic students once set on a path way can’t get off of the train of thought and this can be particularly damaging in behaviour. For example at the beginning of a conflict situation a teacher steps away from the behaviour system and does something not within the code (perfectly admissible) but not in the code. The student then can’t let go of this, and is angry and behaves poorly. The teacher is then trying to address the poor behaviour which escalates, but the student is still stuck in the thought process of the initial incident and can’t get off this train! Disaster in motion!

I think this student experienced this situation regularly. He never backed down and would often tell a very different story to the one the teacher was portraying. Mum was supportive of both the school and her son, but often and understandably felt torn.

Over the summer holidays in year 9 this student alone made the decision to change his response and behaviours. We did very little. He worked incredibly hard at the change and supressed his anger and emotion, it worked. With no more exploding events, he began to get onto a pathway of praise and this praise kept the pathway going. Having approached him on several occasions to express how pleased I was to see the transformation and how inspired we all were. He agreed to support other autistic children after training; in helping them to make the same leaps with a significant degree of success. He knew more than we did as to how to help.

Special people on the increase are we ready?

There is a significant amount of evidence that the number of students now coming through with defined special needs particularly in autism and ADHD is on the increase and this is absolutely the case in the school I was head of. We always received above the average challenging behaviour but in the last 7 years this behaviour is changing it is very rarely sheer defiance.

Alongside this we are seeing an increase in identified mental health issues, depression, anxiety, paranoia etc. At the same time the public funds are shrinking for support for these individuals and with services shutting in ancillary support services ie educational psychologists are a disappearing breed. More and more of the support needed for these students is being channelled into schools.

If you consider that the pressure to support this growing need is being funnelled into sink schools, who often are not full and therefore are without the funds to support the students. The situation is worrying and seems to be a reverse of what I always thought our state was for. Fund and support the most vulnerable.

My learning: Building trust through time and consistency is key to supporting special people. Currently our system funnels these students into schools with the least funds to support them. Students who have successfully turned around their learning and behaviour can act as superb role models for younger students.

*The then new Government swiftly introduced a new procedure, any permanently excluded child’s education is now the responsibility and ownership of the school. Therefore, as a full school I could exclude a child, they entered my school where we had no choice to take them in year 10, 14, we would work with them for a year or so, giving them significant support, they wouldn’t make it through, due a significant incident and I would have to permanently exclude. Their results would become part of how the school was judged and the funding for a county placement became the responsibility of my school to pay. Please note these placements for excluded pupils are very expensive. We were very lucky in our county these enforcements of payment were not put into practice I believe they realised the impossible situation that sink schools faced!

*Please note every couple of years we hear about the armed forces arriving to control our students and sort out the behaviour of the school. For those students in chaotic situations at home, shouting and aggression are the last thing you want to bring to the table. Actually I keep my faith in guilt, the power of silence and the power of internal guilt are exceptional motivators for accepting one’s poor behaviour and moving it forward.

Green shoots of school improvement – engaging parents

All communities need to trust their school and head teacher. This is hard to achieve when a school has never received a recognised good in any inspection. If we were going to turn this school around, we needed to engage our parents in their child’s education. To begin with this meant establishing trust. Trust is formed from honesty. Our parents had to feel good or bad news, we were going to be honest and open about what was happening in the school. To encourage them as much as possible to engage in the school life, their child’s learning and the school community as whole.

Building trust

Being honest in the first couple of years was exceptionally difficult. Not pussy footing away from discussing supply teachers, a recruitment crisis, the poor quality of a minority of maths and majority of science teaching was never easy. It must have been incredibly hard for our Parents to hear. I think for some, the honesty was disorientating. “ Was it a good thing that this head was admitting to poor quality teaching in Science?”  My message was always, “if we are honest about all the problems, than we have no- where to hide and therefore we have to solve them”. Also how could I be demanding honesty from my students for their errors and mistakes if I was going to hide behind a smoke screen of bluster?

In creating honesty, we could begin to lay the foundations of trust a key ingredient to school improvement. We needed parents to trust us enough to let us know of problems at home, or in school. We had to nurture assurance, that if they shared problems actions would take place. For too long both student and parent had been pushing issues under the carpet and not bringing them to the forefront in school. They had no faith in the system. This lack of trust presented as a despair and disassociation. We needed to hear their issues.

Parental engagement at the outset – the problem and the message

The scale of the problem can be seen in many of the inspections that occurred under my headship. The first being a term into the school where the school was labelled as failing with a notice to improve. This was actually a huge relief for the interim governing body, as the notice to improve recognised the capacity of the leadership to deliver change for the better. We could have been in special measures where the leadership is stripped from the school and the HMI direct the changes needed. After each inspection we offered Parents an opportunity to attend a school meeting with the Governors and leadership team, to hear about how we were going to improve on these judgements for their child.  More than offering, we actively encouraged parents to attend as is their right. At the outset the number of parents that took us up on the offer was below 10 out of a parent body with 1000 students. Heart breaking.

This poor attendance was also reflected in the initial parents evening at the school where attendance hovered at sixth percent in some years. How much was this our timing? Our welcome? Their perception that the school would always fail, or that their voice was considered irrelevant? I don’t know, but this rate of parental engagement would never move the school forward. We had to do something.

My messaging from the outset to my Parents was: “you know your child and we are getting to know your child. We are not outstanding, but we are a learning school. If you think something has gone wrong or you have a concern with how we are proceeding in the school. Come in, ring or email, tell us. Don’t let it go, we will listen and we will do our best to sort it out with you.” It took time for this message to filter into to Parents and also to staff. We had to work hard also to change the method of communication for Parents. Phones were out and emails in! While many staff never returned to the limited number of offices that were available in the school so phone calls would take time to reach them and or get lost. Our response to Parents emailing was rapid as all staff carried their laptops at almost all times. This speed of communication helped to grow parent confidence.

Strategies to break the lack of engagement – getting Parents into school

To improve the school, we needed our Parents to feel part of the school community. To succeed the school couldn’t exist as an aloof institution. It needed to welcome parents with open arms and more importantly empower then to be part of the decision making process in the school’s future.  We set about doing this in several ways:

You said we did: Parents were proactively encouraged to come into the school to work with students and to model and explore learning. We were looking to create an atmosphere that is often found in primaries. We actively sort to source support workers from the local community and parents. We encouraged parents to visit new types of learning classes that were taking place in Building Learning Power and English and Humanities lessons. We ran year group parent meetings half termly with events designed to support the Parent in understanding and helping their child in their next stage of learning. Where issues were raised at these meetings our weekly newsletter published You said, we did in response to concerns. We set up weekly mentor sessions for parents struggling to get their child into school. Created joint workshops with parents and students on safe us of the internet, drugs awareness and resilience to etc. We encouraged Parents to attend lessons where students were struggling and or misbehaving and to support them in their learning. This last example was exceptionally powerful. Students were told that if they didn’t change their ways their parents were willing to attend the school and visit lessons with them to support the change in behaviour. It had immediate impact!

In a small minority of students who found Maths particularly hard and where we recognised that the “ I can’t do maths” attitude came from home and was learnt behaviour. Mums in particular were willing to come to with drawl lessons and support their child and complete the same work as them. In doing so they showed their child that they found the work hard, and that they needed to have resilience which they may not have used in the past to conquer their fears and open up to the learning. Actually as a Parent it is really powerful for your child to see you tackle something you don’t find naturally easy and to learn through sheer grit and determination. Learning with them, making mistakes in front of them is fantastic role modelling for your child. It removes that myth that learning is a gift that some receive and others don’t!

Giving Parents a powerful voice in the future learning at the school.

I believed it was important for our Parents to have a voice in the decision making of the school. But in giving parents a voice I needed to make sure that it would be heard and more than that really considered and acted upon. Student and Parents voice groups can be very enthusiastic at first, but if this voice is merely pandered to and doesn’t have the real power to influence, then the momentum and belief soon disappear from the group and the voice is lost. So what would be appropriate, and meaningful, what part of learning did they take a huge an obvious part in? Homework.

. By its very definition homework is completed at home and requires parent and student interaction in order to support the child in finding the time, location, resources and will power to deliver on a deadline and deliver well. This seemed an ideal opportunity to really involve Parents in shaping the system.

Homework had not been my immediate priority but as we began to improve sections of the school a very small but persistent voice of Parents were vocalising dissatisfaction.  In order to identify the extent of the problem we researched the data, we collected the books of students, the thoughts of the teaching staff and opened up a forum to discuss with parents the issues. Out of the potential seven hundred and fifty (not sixth form, as their independent learning was their responsibility) children whose Parents were invited to discuss homework, this offer was given at a pm, am and mid- day slot. Seventeen parents attended our first meeting. On our Ofsted forms returned at every inspection and our internal parent questionnaire this was reported in as the most problematic of issues within the school.

Prior to the parent meeting, we researched the problem thoroughly. We discovered a disaster area.  What I fear most from any systemic failure in the school was happening with homework, the system had moved into a catch 22 – situation and was undermining itself in all directions. Homework was spiralling out of control. To explain; at the start of the year homework was being set. From the off students were failing in significant proportions to complete the work even in the first week. This was at a rate of over fifty percent of students in each class. The teacher could be faced with a five period day, where over fifteen pupils in each of the five classes taught, failed to complete homework resulting in seventy five students with missing work. Times this missing work by five- for the days of the week- and the chase down became impossible.

The week after when the homework was due, the students who had completed homework, witnessed that significant numbers of students weren’t handing in work with no or very little consequence.  They went and home to their parents to complain and rightly so. “ Why did they have to complete work others didn’t?” They then fought hard not to complete their next set of homework, which put the proactive parents in a battle situation.

The next week, even less and then less were completing the work being set. Eventually the teacher would give up on setting homework or would set tasks that had little worth in the progress of learning as no one could rely on them to be completed. This meant they became meaningless. Marking become pointless. So even if the child was still completing homework in this system and the parents were battling at home for them to continue to do so, there was very little feedback. This is incredibly frustrating to the learner. The whole process was a disaster!

On entering the meeting with my seventeen pro- active parents predominantly from key stage I wanted to ask about what I believed were the seeds of a solution right at the beginning of the scenario; why were fifty percent of children not completing the task from the outset? What was happening? How could we support parents to make sure that all completed it?

Rightly I walked into a lynching mob! However, having grown accustomed to being lynched I had place my SLT in strategic positions in group tables. I had learnt that a lynch mob rarely is able to articulate all their problems and can be dominated by one or two vocal members. If you know as a Head you are about to be massacred for an incredibly awful system, (I was rightly on a number of occasions, and it is probably one of worse experiences when you know there is no defence) front it, as it is the only decent thing left to you and hear the justified rants. However structure and welcome the feedback with support from your SLT to take the first round of discussion and angst in small groups. Then use them to provide a summary of the feedback first, before a more open discussion. This distils the facts and removes some of the heat.

In answer to my questions I was reminded that homework has several assumptions to it. In particular, there are the resources ICT parent support, the room and the time within the day to complete it. From the evidence a number of parents gave me. many households lacked these basics, they did not have reception area space, and bedrooms were shared areas with other siblings. They also lacked the resources, parental understanding and educational support and or ICT. Many had a computer but one for the whole family. The significant number of shift workers and or single parents holding down jobs with significant hours or two jobs also meant that at adult was not around at the times when this work could be completed.

As we discussed further we found the system had been in such decline for a significant amount of time, many students particularly boys were pulling a fast one on their Parents by not filling in their diaries and then telling them they had none. Because the system was in collapse with no chase down they believed it and after a couple of weeks it was true! Also the fight had been really hard for parents and if you were rushing out the door to work and or returning late it was impossible to track.

I was able to share with them our research, we didn’t hide anything shameful, though much of it was. I then presented six examples of different homework strategies I had used in the past and or from case studies of other schools and a homework task for them. Tis was too decide what we all believed should be the purpose of homework because this would define which strategy would benefit us most. I also asked them to ask around as to any other models out there that I had missed. They all loved the primary system unfortunately this was reliant on one teacher teaching the majority of the lessons and this could not operate a secondary system with one student experiencing a number of teachers.

The next meeting ten days later over sixty parents arrived. The word was out, we were living the message I had been giving to Parents. “I am not hiding anything, I really want to work with you and in this case we need your ideas and solutions.” We continued our work but this time focusing on the solution we all wanted. We agreed that homework should be about supporting students to develop the skills to learn away from a teacher and independently and that this work could be to consolidate on previous learning, build on learning and or enrich learning that had taken place in the classroom. At its max when we totalled the number of attendees in the second round of meetings am, pm and lunchtime we achieved one hundred and fifty parents. This was representative of a 1/3rd of the students in the school. Unheard of in the school’s history.

After much discussion the parents decided on a system that focused in key stage 3 on the core subjects of Math, English, Science with the addition of MFL. Homework was published on Monday via email, web, and through hard copy via a student’s tutor group. Parents wanted every media method so they absolutely knew what was set. It was to be returned the next Monday hard copy via a set of postage boxes and marked within a two- week turnaround. Any child who hadn’t completed their homework was text within 24 hours, and rewards were issued to those students that completed homework. No child was allowed to attend reward trips and enrichment unless they were completing homework. We also differentiated this system three ways which was effective in getting meaningful work to students. We ran homework clubs for SEND students and others that felt they needed support, parents could attend.

This was a hugely administrative task and had a huge time burden for support staff. Over time we trained our year nines  with one admin task a year to collate the work that had come in and identify who hadn’t completed the tasks set. This was overseen by an admin. The accuracy of collating seven hundred pieces of work *3 caused us some issues, however the system had improved dramatically. Yet even at its best it still wasn’t good enough. Although we had moved from less than thirty percent regularly completing tasks to sixty- five, we still had just over a one third of our Parents and students still not completing homework. If we had taken the stick approach this would have meant over two hundred detentions per night to collate and manage, we would have been back to square one in the hall.

My final solution to this problem came from a visit to an independent school where I witnessed students staying for two hours after the time my students left to carry on with class work and then going into PREP where their homework was supervised prior to them going to their boarding activities or off home if day borders. The parents of these independent students didn’t have to worry about homework, independent learning took place in school. We moved to this system and the sigh of relief in the parent community was extensive. Now everyone completed homework through an extended day.

Communicate again, and again and again

In the second year of my arrival we introduced a weekly newsletter to Parents outlining what was coming up in the calendar and events that were about to or had taken place, with key messages for year groups and departments. As a parent, I knew that knowing what was going on and keeping up with the calendar of your child’s school was difficult so regular reminders were important. It also gave me an opportunity to communicate our ethos and values within the new school. This is back to the mantra strategy, if you are going to change people values say it once, twice and keep on saying it in every form of communication possible.

On setting this up we initially asked for parents emails and received less than 100, by the time almost all parent communicated via this process and were sent their newsletter. The accountability of this document was really helpful to me. I wanted to give our parents every opportunity to engage with the school and keep abreast of key events and learning. It was also excellent as back when a harassed parent complained the reason for the lateness in payment, latest to pick up at an event, etc. as we would always refer them to the newsletter. If they read it they would have been up to date. I had a similar weekly newsletter for staff that had the same effect on holding staff to account.

Did we get all Parent’s engaging?

No, but we were excellent at getting our hard to reach Parents into the school. Also using the student voice to engage our parents in effective and meaningful discussion on assessment and report writing, diversity, autism and the behaviour policy within the school. Therefore, feedback led to meaningful changes to our policies and working practice.  We never achieved a Parent Teacher Association (PTA) programme for fundraising, but we were able to always fill our Governing body with Parents, and our parent evening numbers increased to closer to national standards. At best I would save for the majority we moved from apathy to increasingly pro-active in our Parent base. Only in our student voice groups and hard to reach parents did we see real passion.

My Learning: A successful child has Parent and School working together. In order to achieve this Parents and School need to trust each other.  In a failing school trust begins with honesty about where you are as a school and what problems you face.

If you are using parent voice use it wisely, and make sure it is a task that parents can have impact on. Don’t ever listen and ignore.



Returning to the chalk face from the magic wand of headship


Having failed the auspices of headship in our new education landscape. At the age of 44 my family have faced the very real threat of losing our home. So having begun the recovery from depression, I have this year looked around to try to begin to salvage some resemblance of a career. Despite my utmost depressed efforts. I continue to return again and again to teaching. Having discovered at forty four that I still enjoy being with children and continuing to learn, I made a small decision to ask the local schools in my area if I could help? Madly, and very bravely a head was kind enough to take me up on the offer.

So I returned to a school fallen from Outstanding to Requiring improvement and entered a timetable that offered me fourteen classes and 6 different subjects in a twenty -five period timetable, for eight weeks till the end of term. This timetable provided none of the joys of primary, to get to know a class in detail yet potentially in the later years at the expense of the subject pedagogy. Or the secondary curriculum, which affords you little knowledge of the individual, verses significant knowledge of the curriculum. More classes less subject requirements.

Eight weeks back in the classroom has afforded me the following joys. pain and learning:



–          Primary students have passion and joy and a love of learning that you don’t have to ignite just continue to allow the embers to burn.

–          Yes, if you really believe they are going to do something students will, but my arrogance, risk taking and the “ok fire me” was needed at times to move my belief to their action.

–          Bloody hell I have been working with significantly below average intakes for so long. Oh my god, we have expected so much from them and achieved. My god if you expect the same degree of movement from an above average child the outcomes can be immense” How the hell do you produce a C from these children?

–          Teachers remain dedicated, resilient and with the best interest at heart.

–          Learning is equally as significant if not more so when you learn with students. Yes, Andrew if you hadn’t guessed I can’t sit in the traditional camp.

–          Thank god I continued to teach throughout my headship because the world of student learning has changed and their receptors are different. If you are in denial you are missing such an amazing ability of students to receive information on so may levels.


–          As a head teacher I walked into a classroom and children behaved. I used to say to them, “I have no magic wand, you just chose to behave.” This is easy to say and painful to live.

–          How to manage students outside of the mainstream system but living within it.

–          To watch the damage one or two vulnerable children without secure and stable management can have on a system

–          Death by advice.

–          The disconnect between a scheme and the now defunct map of learning which I believe is one significant part of assessment. Random schemes continue with no understanding of what learning looks like.

–          The real pain experienced from significant failure at the age of 11.

–          The workload and purposeless nature of the new primary teacher assessments.

–          The phenomenal drain on resources as change continues without release. This includes a continued number of teachers making the decision, that the joy of the job is now outweighed by the relentless and pointless nature of change.

–          Headship does breed arrogance; I knew this but reality hurts.

–          Teachers can be equally arrogant. Time at a school breeds familiarity and acceptance it does not breed expertise by default.



–          A scheme of work needs to have a concrete foundation where all teachers have a clear understanding of what learning looks like during and post a scheme of work.

–          The current assessment system is bonkers.

–          Why, oh why are any of us putting up with or administering the teacher’s assessments at key stage 2? We are our own worst enemies.

–          Consolidation, the labelling of a school does more damage to the strategy to change then support.

–          Students always want to succeed although sometimes this is buried within.

–          Giving our most vulnerable students the “comfy duvets” in which to hide from work, reduces their capacity to succeed.

–          Listening is key to learning for myself and others.

–          All staff are key to a school. Mid- day supervisors can minimise or maximise the disruption in classrooms the breaks are significant.

–          The foundations of a school remain the calendar and timetable.

–          Leadership leads schools to success or failure.

–          As a head you remain the lead learner. All avenues within the school should support and promote learning.






Current assumptions in our education system – teachers have the lone responsibility for educational outcomes

Teachers have the responsibility for educational outcomes.

Have you ever noticed how the woes of society, are very quickly given ownership under the auspices of education and educators? Today a teacher and leader in education will be battling the terrors of terrorism, educating students about what it means to be British, how to cope with cyber bullying and an internet explosions of abuse, including in their lessons the norms of sex, creating students resilience against mental health issues, and whatever the next concern becomes a national issue. In our current system the state and its educators seem to be the ultimate shapers of student academic and moral backgrounds. Is it just me thinking isn’t there a group of individuals equally responsible and in fact absolutely fundamental to child’s development……….the parent, the family, and family friends, a community? Before a teacher is ever introduced to a child the influence of the parent is all encompassing.

I am not considering the inheritance that a parent gives a child from their gene pool (I am aware this is incredibly dismissive and naive), but concentrating my experiences on the environmental factors that are created to support the child’s development and ability to learn. There is so much research, in so many different fields, from language acquisition and formation, and later the development of literacy, mathematical resilience and the tenacity, to problem solve and thinking outside the box, emotional literacy, the capacity to hear others and to empathise and learn from peers.

Within my experience I have seen what I believe to be one of the largest factors of influence and I do hope Carol Dweck [i]will forgive me for abusing her phrase, “the growth mind-set” and assigning it to Parents.  The parents’ growth mind-set, is powerful in influencing a child’s ability to take on challenge and to succeed in education.  If parents are regularly displaying a “I can’t do this, I was never any good at…” (Add maths and science here if it is a white working class parent.) Then their child will inevitably exhibit the same attitudes. Vice versa if a parent regularly presents a “yes we can” when tackling problems and has a school history and career, to back up this belief. Then the child stands more of a fighting chance when facing challenge in school.

Whatever your background parents and school go hand in hand in supporting a child’s education.  So why is this not acknowledged? Why do we have a system that now holds educators primarily and singularly responsible for outcomes? Is it that to admit that parents play a significant if not lead role in influencing students learning, is to apportion some accountability to us as parents?  Would this be political suicide? We seem to have moved to a society that is happy to apportion blame to adults for failure to achieve, or living off the state. Yet unable to acknowledge publically and politically that parents have a significant role to play in their child’s education. Parent Power really does matter but would acknowledging it improve our system?

Does Parent power matter?

My previous lead researcher and the author of Evidence into Practice would ask me to test my question. If I set up the hypothesis that parent power does matter. I could begin by looking at the extreme ends of the spectrum, those with no parent power as they have no parents. Our national data shows us that Looked After Children are most likely to not achieve their capacity within any education system. Without their parents, their ability to navigate successfully our education system is substantially hindered.

What about my own child? Does her experience help me to test the hypothesis? Quietly and possibly like many parent teachers, my own child has been at least an observational scientific research project and with a few tweaks. A test case for the Growth Mind set theory.  Having engaged with Dweck’s work her ideas really resonated with the experiences I was facing on the ground. And with the opportunity of the birth of my daughter, we as Parents worked hard to give her a mind set and perspective to see opportunity in all challenge, and to value the role of perseverance in achievement. Clever was a word we have always been at pains to avoid! She is like all of us in no means perfect, but combined with this manufactured attitude and a set of parents who have successfully up until this point navigated the education system. She has a hell of a lot of advantages in coming to any learning. Her parent power influence is strong. Watching her with a spark of enthusiasm for a project and the capacity to access the internet. I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that she has enough ingredients from us to potentially navigate learning herself with only minimal tweaks from an adult. She is eight and she is not a genius but I believe you could put my daughter in room with a computer and spark her curiosity and she would learn and learn well. [ii]

If I then compare the cohorts of vulnerable white working class students that I have worked with their parent power in many cases is less. Parents care immensely, many have work with shift hours, and have never made it into further and higher education. Even if they want to help they don’t know how. Their child remains at a disadvantage. If I take one of my students in this circumstance back to the same room with the same material and I spark the same curiosity, will they would move forward would they achieve the same as someone with High Parent Power?

Parent power has impact but what happens when you combine this with teacher power?

Witnessing my daughter’s early years of education, I have seen her learn with her teachers. However this year she has had the privilege of working with an outstanding teacher.  During her time at the school she made substantial progress which has rarely faltered regardless of the experience of the teacher in front of her. (That is until our current Government changed the measures against which students achieved, raising the bar significantly in primary. God bless her quote when she was informed of this in her end of year report, where she concluded, “this is ridiculous I have worked all year and some person has decided to make things harder? Why?  What was his purpose? Why should I bother if this is going to happen again and again? How can I trust this system? I know her feeling!) In her last year working with an outstanding teacher her learning isn’t great it’s supersonic and rocketing beyond all expectation, spurring more intensive and self -driven learning at home.

If I look at the impact of teaching on a student with less parent power. I know from experience with a weak teacher their progress goes backward, with an inexperienced teacher their progress is slow, and with a strong practitioner they make substantial, sustained and expected progress. This is equivalent to the progress a high parent power student will make almost regardless of the teacher in the classroom.  In low parent power schools, the influence and impact of the teacher is greatest, both positively and negatively.

What I believe and have seen time and again, is that a child with a family who has succeeded in education will succeed. The quality of the teacher will have impact but it is not the soul determinant of their success. Where teaching is poor students are resilient to it, their parental support allows them to continue to learn, and learning is created from the partnership of parent and teacher. Less input from a teacher can have greater impact. In reverse where the child has a family who might love and care immensely for the individual, but exhibit significant limitations in academic success, they have low parent power. The quality of the teacher becomes paramount. In these situations, the teacher and school do have the lead responsibility for education. They are almost the soul determinant of their success in education.



Would acknowledging parent power help to improve our system?

By not acknowledging the influence of parents and the variability of parent power I am not sure we are doing justice to both sets of students. For those that need most support from teachers, the most vulnerable, often find themselves in schools labelled as Failing and or Requiring Improvement, with falling roles, (anybody with half a mind to education tries to get the student out) and a more substantial proportion of lower ability student as opposed to the top end.  Our current system funnels the weakest into the sink and or “loosing “ school, (see the chapter on market forces in education) resulting in the weakest school, taking the students that are influenced most by the quality of the teacher and whose progress is hardest to achieve. These students need high quality teachers in order to make expected progress. Perhaps our system recognises this and actively promotes outstanding teachers and leaders to these schools? Hold on a minute currently it does the opposite, and terrifies the living daylights at of anyone considering this vocation.

For those students that come with lots of advantage and external support, national and good progress is easier to stimulate and achieve. In fact given an outstanding teacher they will achieve mind exploding supersonic progress! This is where I get really frustrated. If I follow this theory through then if I want to succeed in delivering national progress with sustained effort, or with substantive effort be bathed in the glory of exceptional progress. I will head for a school with the most advantaged in parent power.  With solid effort, in our current system I can exist in a Good or even Great school, and I can reap the rewards of the profession. I might even become complacent. There go many great teachers.

If I want to ……………………… why would someone want to work with the most disadvantaged in our current system? I have got to work really hard to help them to make national progress. If I want them to succeed, I have to maintain at outstanding performance, and then it will very rarely reach the heights of a child with educational advantaged Parents. I won’t recieve the accolades and rewards that go with this and place myself at risk. Is it career suicide? Yes, there go very few teachers.

Would the acknowledgement of Parent power improve the system?

From my perspective yes, for the high parent power child, it might introduce a greater expectation of student success and challenge schools with this advantage to achieve supersonic progress. Some do already, but can we get more in the system from out top end and middle end students?  PISA tell us we can? In fact, I think we are pushing the wrong end if we wish our Pisa results to improve. John Hattie[iii] is clear it is the top end of the curve that should have more rigour. How are high parent power schools generating supersonic progress? For the low parent power child, it would acknowledge the extra that a school and teacher in these circumstances has to achieve.

Aren’t you just talking about pupil premium students isn’t it all about money? No low income with high parent power will see students excel as with all other high parent power students. I would have described the ex- grammar in my local area as taking more of this type of student. Money can help, a low parent powered parent who has the determination and a wallet to find someone else to provide the parent power in the form of a tutor will also see their child succeed. However, is this high parent power in a different capacity?

If you acknowledge this are we just giving teachers an opportunity to lower expectations to blame parents? With no acknowledgement of how powerful parents are in student outcomes we have created a system that is using a hard stick to beat those teachers working in low powered parent schools and does little to encourage any member of staff to work in these schools. How do we attract teachers to schools where you are the sole responsibility for education and the sharp end of accountability rests with you as a teacher?

At the same time where is the challenge in our system for high parent powered schools? How do we avoid complacency and ensure they maximise the potentia

[i][i] Growth Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential? Carol Dweck 2012


[ii] This has parallels to Sugata Mitra’s work The Hole in the Wall: Self Organising Systems in Education (Kindle Single) 24 Jan 2012 – please acknowledge this trial took place in a low stakes environment. Would children who come through primary in a high stakes education system feel the same about exploratory learning? They fear failure?


[iii] John Hattie Why are so many of our teachers and schools so good TED talks 22nd Nov 2013