What do schools aspire to?

By May 30, 2015 Education No Comments

Aspiration is one of the key elements of any school (just look at their prospectuses and websites!) but after listening to World Champions Mark Foster and Katy Sexton – as described in yesterday’s brief blog – here, it has been placed at the forefront of my mind. The wonderful day looked at the personal stories of both of these champions, the trials and traumas, as well as their successes and, as I said in the blog, left everyone inspired. However, the difficulty in comparing the setting of aspirations in swimming and education is that performance is so easily measured in swimming. This, in turn, means competitors are easy to compare and rank; you’re either faster, or not, you won the medal or you did not.

Despite what some people pretend and promote, this is not the case in education. Irrespective of league tables, exam performance does not tell you everything about a school; pastoral support, teacher passion, the learning environment, extra-curricular activities, community engagement, etc are all subjective matters that cannot be measured accurately – despite what any inspectors might think! We all know that academic performance doesn’t tell you everything anyway. Funnily enough in Bucks there is still the 11+ system, where the ‘top students’ get creamed off for grammar schools at the end of primary school and it is these grammar schools that tend to top the county’s performance tables every year – shocking! Even Raiseonline, and other measures, that try to; measure progress, account for contexts and so create equity of information are often challenged (not my intention in this piece) and still don’t tell the full story of any school.

However, the greater problem was perfectly summed up by Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green during a meeting I was present at in April (written about here),

“Instead of measuring what we value,

have we got stuck in valuing what we can easily measure?”

I fear the answer to Sir Al’s question is yes.

I see the endemic flaw is created from the aspiration(s) a school claims to have – as well as those that go unpublished. Notwithstanding this, like so many others I know it doesn’t have to be this way and it’s about time we started saying so. In fact I would go so far as to say that if we are to create the society to which so many people say we want then we need to look at our aspirations and start changing what we measure, and soon.

Perhaps I overstate the case? Maybe I have fallen prey to hyperbole? As we know from many commentators, this is what ‘The Blob’ is prone to do!

Obviously I don’t think I have – you will undoubtedly judge for yourself!

Well, let’s start with why I see the aspirations of schools as such a problem? Please don’t misunderstand; I think aspiration is vital – personally and organisationally. I will use this post to examine the different aspects I have seen and heard schools state that they aspire to; then challenge the issue with each as I perceive it.

Whilst this is a purely personal response, I want to try to avoid simply ranting (but can’t promise, I am passionate about this and increasingly so) and so will end with what I see as the clear solution – though this will be a challenge to us all.

In no particular order

  • Exam success – beyond the issues of pressure and stress potentially leading to depression and potential mental illnesses, which I spoke of previously (here), one serious issue here is the marginalisation of so many children. League table positions, irrespective of the basis for them, leads to children – who will not make the difference to the targeted percentage, being omitted from receiving resources. Some children do receive support, if they are in a ‘category’ which receives focus; SEN, ethnicity, white boys, etc, etc, but this is an unacceptable situation in 2015.

However, resources are scarce and depending on how far away the child is from the being part of the necessary target group, they will be (quietly) dropped from support and intervention groups. Anyone who taught in secondary schools in the early to mid 2000s will recall C/D borderline groups being created, which – with top sets already in operation, left others floundering in bottom/ sink forgotten groups of children. Perhaps you think it’s better in this decade of the 21st Century? Well, try these facts for size, from Michael Wilshaw in 2013:

– The top performing (level 5) children in primary school fail to achieve the expected standards at GCSE.

– State schools still fail to get children to top universities.

– Ofsted reports that poor white children do worst at school.

– Only 20% pupils on free school meals achieve level 5 in English & Maths compared to 40% from wealthier backgrounds.

Perhaps the greatest travesty amongst all of this, in primary and secondary schools, is the narrowing of the curriculum that occurs to ensure grades are achieved. Teachers of the creative arts will readily tell people of the marginalisation of their subjects. In primary schools children look forward to the post SATs ‘fun curriculum’ they are often promised, for the final half a term of their primary school lives (here). Hardly the ‘Festival of the Mind’, my fellow ITL associate Dave Keeling proposes education (and life) should be.

  • Beating neighbouring school in league tables – this is clearly an unpublished ambition, but with competition for the ‘best children’ to achieve the desired results, coupled with parents referring to league tables to compare schools better results clearly help it is understandable. The education system has been created, despite the best efforts of so many Headteachers, as a source of conflict and competition, especially over those precious resources; Ed Psych anyone?

Fine, people may think, however, the shrinking resources and finances are expected to meet greater needs, placed within a global context, we really need collaboration and co-operation to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. Why is it that what we expect of our learners in classrooms is all too often stymied in the education system as a whole? Is it right that partnerships occur despite the system and government policies, not thanks to or because of them? Where is the collective responsibility to the communities we serve?

  • A child centred environment – surely this is the basic requirement of any school? As Michael McIntyre says of books receiving praise for being a ‘page turner’, “It’s the very definition of a book!” However, ‘child-centred’? How much of a say do children have in the decoration, structure, organisation and direction of a school? How many schools who make this claim, then treat children as second class citizens? For example, in many of these schools as children are told to behave and line up sensibly in the lunch queue staff push in – clearly with a genuine need/ reason, of course! Similarly, in assembly, as children are asked to sit down and be quiet as others enter/ leave the hall, focusing on the given stimuli. Yet staff will sit and chat, again, clearly with a genuine need/ reason, of course – though ironically will stop their discussions to reinforce the expectations of silence upon the children!
  • Creating independence – given that the definition of independence is ‘autonomy’, or ‘self-government’, I would suggest the issue here is self-evident. I am not advocating anarchy, clearly there needs to be a set of rules within a school – though I prefer the rights and responsibilities approach. Every September the Internet is awash with debates between colleagues who allow children a say in the rules and those who do not, but is informing and enforcing creating independence?

Also, linked to this, is the phrase, ‘nurturing the individual’, but what happens when these individuals personalise the uniform, their hair, exercise books? Exactly! This too leads to the disenfranchisement of too many learners, who feel as if they have no stake in their school/ lives and, by extension, society. Similarly, the very nature of any creation, includes making mistakes; discovering who we truly are, our personality, humour, beliefs requires exploration and development, challenge and nurture, yet in the high pressured environment of so many schools (see above) does this really happen?

  • Discipline – I would suggest, see the above two points as evidence enough of a problem with this point. However, I still remember the session run by Fintan O’Regan that I attended at the TES Education Show in 2006, where he summed up children’s expectations around discipline in 3 steps; who is in charge? What are the rules? How will the rules be enforced? Or, as so much evidence and research shows, all children really want are teachers who are firm and fair – or at least appear fair. That is, they appreciate that different children have different needs, but ostensibly, ‘treat us fairly with consistency’ is all children ask for (are adults any different?)
  • Happy and motivated staff – this in itself is difficult as both are individual elements, trying to be achieved within an organisation as a whole. Yet many staff have the same concerns as the children they work with; ‘treat us [as individuals] fairly with consistency’. Yet a quick survey with peers beyond my school, via phone calls, Twitter DMs and emails gave me one issue above all others that grated with them, communication! Basically, I can sum up the responses as; involve us and inform us.

Again, like the children, teachers feel the pressure of exams and the need to meet expectations, rarely set in collaboration with them, but instead imposed upon them. The stress that this causes is huge, in fact a doctor recently told me that the teachers that he sees most with work related stress are those 50+. These colleagues work long hours at school to meet demands placed on them, then work a long time at home – usually late into the night and frequently then get up in the night as they can’t sleep with ideas/ worries/ issues about work. All able to be achieved as their children have grown up, so work fills the ‘vacuum’!

Then, couple this with the statistics, as shown by the BBC that many teachers leave after their first year, or even worse, never enter the profession altogether. This is linked to the mental illness suffered by many children being reflected in teachers, as reported in The Telegraph and equates with the anecdotal evidence from conversations with numerous peers that levels of staff absence in schools are increasingly high – yet are frequently not investigated, so persists and is exacerbated. Worse still, this gives the impression of a lack of care. One colleague from the north of England told me, “I hated taking time off because I couldn’t cope, I felt such a failure, but when I went back to work, all that happened was I was told I had created a lot of cover – including for my SLT. I knew I had let the children down…I never took time off like that again.” Needless to say it came as no surprise when I was told, “I left the school within a year, finding a school where I felt appreciated, valued and looked after, but my fear of failure and not being enough for the children still haunts me.”

I know this is a single example, from one person, but surely even that’s one person too many – unless you subscribe to the, ‘there will always be casualties of war’ philosophy? Except this isn’t a war! In fact this article from The Guardian only last month shares another, similar view, but from someone who left the profession. In amongst it, this phrase stood out to me, “I just got sick of being in a profession that I felt held no real status in this country.” Finland’s approach to education anyone?

I know there are other issues of ‘aspiration’, but think this list is more than enough to be going on with for now.

So, what’s my solution? It’s easy to criticise, but what aspiration do I hold?

I think we need to be more ambitious, aim higher.

In my opinion we need to actually use education to try to change the society of the future and this should be the universal ambition of every school. I am sure many people will scoff at this, either because they feel the aspirations I have listed are aimed at achieving this, or because they think it is too lofty and impossible of an ambition. However, I refer back to yesterday’s excellent Mark Foster Swim Academy and this account from the man himself, on answering a swimmer’s question as to what was his inspiration for swimming was. Mark Foster explained that when he was 10 years old Duncan Goodhew went to his swimming club and ran a swim clinic, having returned from his gold medal winning exploits in Moscow (here for those too young to recall) he went on…

“From then, my aim was to win an Olympic gold medal,… although I didn’t,

I don’t consider myself a failure…By aiming for the stars, I hit the moon.”

Mark Foster represented Britain for 23 years, winning 47 major international medals including; 6 World Championship golds, 11 European Championship golds and 2 Commonwealth Games golds, plus he broke the World record 8 times! Oh, Mark was also chosen as the flag bearer to lead out Team GB at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, so I think it’s fair to say he hit the moon – several times over and more times than N.A.S.A!

So, what is the star I think we should all aspire to? Simple, Values Education! Every school should be committed to being a values based school, not just in word; with a few posters. Schools should; live it, breathe it and fully embody it. I know it’s possible. I have visited Ledbury Primary School and seen it in action, in the classroom, playground and staffroom. As I mentioned previously (here), the school was the venue of last week’s Independent Thinking Big Day Out and is run by my fellow ITL associate, the wonderful Julie Rees. Values Education is the domain of another ITL associate Dr Neil Hawkes and is more comprehensively outlined on the ITL website.

My next blog will retell the day and what I have learnt, especially in relation to everything here, but suffice to say the entire school impressed me enough to know that this is the only way forwards for education and all of our participants; learners, teachers and parents, as well as to benefit society on the whole. In this future blog, I will explore the values (as on the tree) and how I saw them in action, not just spoken of or in some shiny, glossy prospectus. However, the fundamental problem is that which Sir Al raised, measuring them – they do not simply fit into neat boxes to be ticked off, put into tables and targets set as a consequence. But that shouldn’t matter; I think it’s too important to be fitted into tick boxes.

The Values Tree

The Values Tree

Therefore, as I ponder and plan my next blog, I think the challenge can be met in the following ways:

  1. Recognise there is an issue with what we a measure school by at present.
  1. Appreciate that the school’s stated aspirations too often reflect this.
  1. Understand that education should be preparing the future, not accepting the present.
  1. Know that it isn’t about ‘quick wins’ and success isn’t easy.
  1. Come to terms with the fact that schools need to collaborate to achieve this ambition, so start surrounding ourselves with like minded individuals who recognise the issue and share your aspiration. As Mark Foster said:

“It’s hard to soar with the eagles, when you peck with the hens!”

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