This week I had the fabulous privilege of delivering a session at the ASCL conference with Peter Hyman, Head of School 21 in Newham. Peter and I had never met before but after being thrown together by the conference organisers, we had a chat on the phone and a meeting at Highbury Grove which was a great opportunity to exchange ideas. Peter was keen for the session to be a two-way exchange with plenty of audience engagement rather than two separate presentations with Powerpoint slides; an attempt to model oracy in action with a ‘talking points’ stimulus for discussion. He suggested we presented five talking points each – five provocations – for the audience to discuss before we then outlined our thoughts on each one. It sounded good to me and worked well.
All 10 talking points were presented at once so that people would pick the topics that caught their attention. We then took it turns to lead the discussion, take questions and offer a bit of challenge to each other. The initial discussion was so lively, someone from the next-door seminar room came through to ask us to keep the noise down. We took this as a good sign. We then took requests for points to explore and meandered our way through the list.
Here are my talking points alongside some of the issues we wanted to explore – even if we didn’t quite manage to cover them all.
We need formal recognition of more than exam results to tell us who our students are and what they’ve achieved. This was my cue to promote the National Baccalaureate for England . Every time I explain the Nat Bacc, it sounds obvious that this is where we should be heading. If all learners were expected to complete the full Bacc, it would motivate them to engage in a range of non-examined activities and schools would devote the necessary time and resources to it. Exams are important but standing alone they are not enough.
CPD should be built-in to the routine fabric of teachers’ working lives. This was one of the provocations that we didn’t have time to explore in the hour. Our built-in CPD has given us a great deal; tacking on CPD through a few INSET days and scattered twilights isn’t good enough.
If you are grading lessons, you don’t know what you’re doing. We only come to this towards the end; it seemed to provoke some quite defensive responses from people who are now grading. It seems that some people working in academy chains are required to report on the quality of teaching to their overlords using lesson grades; that’s their excuse. It’s a control device; nothing more. In my view, grading lessons demeans our profession – because it is based on such a misguided idea of what can be observed in a one-off lesson with any accuracy. Graders are deluded. It’s a battle that needs to be won if we are going to move forward as a profession. (See Delusional Voodoo.)
Character can’t be taught but it can be engineered. This was about the need to create specific opportunities within schools that allow students to develop character in different ways. This underpins our commitment to Outdoor Education, music instruments for all and our determination to develop a strong strand of rhetoric in our curriculum. Resilience Days or lessons are never going to work but if you provide high status, sustained opportunities with intrinsic value where they can develop resilience and other qualities, it can have an impact.
Accountability-driven SLT cultures still dominate and they are killing us. In my view, there are still too many SLT practices shaped in response to external accountability pressure that have a negative impact on teaching and learning. Too many control mechanisms exist that are designed to satisfy the need to show that things are improving that don’t actually support the process of improvement. Grading book scrutinies, grading lessons and numerous other top-down control devices are killing the spirit of professionalism, damage the high-trust culture that teachers seek and run counter to evidence about effective teaching and leadership. Peter’s school has very flat leadership structures; there are several teams where no one person is in charge – it’s a challenge to the orthodoxy of hierarchy.
And here are Peter’s: (I hope I do them justice…)
There is no secondary curriculum, merely a set of exam specifications. Peter’s view is that we should get rid of GCSEs and allow the curriculum to be more varied. He says that aside from Maths and English and maybe one or two others, the KS4 curriculum shouldn’t be geared towards exams at all. To illustrate his position, he talked about Maths vs Drama. Why is it OK that 100% of students take maths but only 7% take drama. Why shouldn’t everyone do drama? Or, at least, a lot more than 7%. It’s squeezed out by the GCSEs-as-curriculum framework we’re forced to operate in.
We need to rebalance the development of head, heart and hand in schools. Peter’s school has numerous structures that give students time to explore heart and hand on an equal footing. His Y10s take a whole GCSE’s worth of time to engage in coaching groups; small groups of 12 who meet weekly to develop oracy, resolve problems, discuss social issues and so on. They all make things – linking to the beautiful work theme. It’s not about diminishing the value of knowledge; it is about elevating the important of emotional and practical elements of learning. Project-based learning can be structured to deliver deep knowledge as well as heart/hand learning. School 21’s Cold War through Clay unit was a good example; a collaboration between an art teacher and history teacher each determined to ensure their subject was delivered thoroughly with superb outcomes.
Speaking matters as much as reading and writing. School 21 has a strong focus on oracy. It is driven through every aspect of school life from assemblies to lessons. Some key ideas: oracy should have a real purpose – audiences should be authentic; speaking is a pedagogy – not a bolt-on activity; being able to participate in meaningful discussion in class matters at least as much as having the skill and confidence to give public speeches. There are lots of forms of oracy that teachers need to be trained to use in their teaching.
Learning would be transformed if we removed chairs, tables and exercise books from classrooms. Yes, there are tables and chairs and exercise books at School 21. However, Peter feels that our goal should be to lift the work out of the books into a form that has purpose, authenticity; that can be shown, celebrated, exhibited. Languages can be taught in drama studios – lived and communicated; other subjects can be explored in myriad ways beyond the conformity of rows of desks and writing in books. It’s not an either or – it’s a question of balance. Some of the time it is good to change the setting and change the outputs so that students experience different forms of learning and aim for their work to take different forms. No Mr Gibb, it isn’t all about sitting in rows; at least not all of the time.
The purpose of school is to create beautiful work. Alongside oracy, School 21’s USP is their focus on creating beautiful work. Peter’s view is that a good test of whether students’ work is good is whether you are surprised that someone of that age could produce work of a certain standard. His party piece for visitors is to show them work on display and whether it was produced by students in Year 7, 8 or 9. The punchline is ‘you’re all wrong; it’s Year 2’. This requires focusing on fewer in-depth projects where work is re-drafted and crafted until is it exceptional. Craftsmanship is something that Peter feels is missing from our notion of learning all too often.
I have to say that Peter is an absolutely inspirational person to work with. He projects deep conviction about the things he believes matter and it is clear that he is putting them into practice in his school. Although I certainly have a more traditional disposition in my ideas about teaching, his ideas are a healthy challenge to the standard-issue delivery of the curriculum that is common in most schools. At HGS, our challenge is to scale up some of Peter’s ideas and to implement them in a school that is currently working in a different way. It’s easier to start small and to start fresh but we can still achieve a great deal if we build up steadily. We have our Rhetoric Roadmap and I’m exploring a plan for ensuring our curriculum delivers at least one piece of beautiful work per subject per year as a way of ensuring all of our students have the Austin’s Butterfly excellence experience.
Thanks to Peter and everyone who came to our session. I learned a great deal – I hope you did too.