12 February 2016

Piercing the gloom

I always say, if asked, that the most difficult months in a school are November and February. I don’t know why I’ve always found this time of year so bleak; perhaps it’s the circadian rhythms and the short days which affect me. This winter, we’ve weathered more storms with alphabetical names than you can wave a stick at, but now we’re beginning to glimpse those tantalising signs that spring really might be around the corner. And, in the big wide world of national education, could we be turning a corner too?

Some 15 years ago I decided at this time of year to enter the word ‘fun’ into the search box on the DfE website: the answer returned gloomily ‘not found’. I did the same again last month and found a plethora of articles. Good Green Fun, ran the first; Winter Sports: Stay Safe on the Slopes ran the next, followed by my personal favourite, Frances the Firefly: Guidance for teaching pupils about the dangers of fire. I’m so relieved to see that the DfE is at last finding the meaning of fun and can only hope that, one day in the near future, OFSTED will too. Wouldn’t that be a legacy for any Secretary of State for Education? OFSTED no longer thought of as responsible for making teachers’ lives miserable but as recognising that education should include, somewhere and somehow, the notion and celebration of fun.

I remarked to a class of 13-year-olds to whom, poor souls, I teach Latin that, having last year moved the exams for their year group from the summer to the Easter term, we could have fun with some real Latin literature once the exams are behind us. One of their number observed drily (and it’s probably not the observation you are expecting) that his prep school headmaster had banned fun. Even allowing for 13-year-old rhetoric, I’m still glad that I’m not that particular headmaster.

Stephen Winkley, one of my many and great mentors, used to say, whenever we were dealing with something difficult at school, “Remember, it’s supposed to be fun.” It’s important to be reminded of that: education should be fun. And thanks to Duncan Fowler-Watt, February at Bryanston is precisely that. As always on the weekend before half term, the A3 Festival (which some might think is an unnecessary indulgence) pierces the gloom and illuminates with its glorious mash-up of art, music, drama, fashion, and sheer fun. This is not something which just happens, of course: it takes enormous drive and dedication from Duncan to inspire a whole year group to acts of creativity they would never before have dared…or thought themselves capable of. As he and I stood together on the steps of the terrace last Saturday break time (with the governors watching on, having adjourned a sub-committee meeting for this very purpose) the A3 year group, in marvellous fancy dress, performed the conga, in the teeth of Storm Imogen, around the round pond. "I love this moment," Duncan confided in me, "It's pure joy."

Measure that, Mr Gradgrind; put that in your league tables, you schools who think, in your heart of hearts, whatever you say in your propaganda, that examinations and grades are the only things that truly matter. The good which comes from such creativity and teamwork is, in my view, simply incalculable and will, I know, encourage this generation of Bryanstonians on to more exciting things still. They will never forget their A3 Festival weekend, whether they were Scooby Doo, a fried egg, or the 12 apostles who ate their last supper at breakfast that morning. And, of course, the torch passes on. Each D, C and B pupil will take their own inspiration and look forward to making their A3 Festival the best one ever. It’s how things should be.

It’s through relishing life’s moments of fun and joy, properly and fully, without the feeling that such emotions are somehow not valid, or a waste of our serious purpose and time, that we learn to weather life’s toughest challenges. All the more reason to make sure there are always plenty of moments of pure joy.

Have a joyful and fun-filled half term!

9 February 2016

Keep talking, keep listening, keep learning

We're delighted to welcome back Bryanston's Deputy Head Academic, Dr David James, as he takes a look at the benefits of lesson observations in his latest guest post.

Excellent teaching is not just about the outcomes for pupils, it is also about how teachers themselves learn and develop. Just as we encourage pupils to reflect on their strengths and on the areas of weakness they could improve, it is important that we, as teachers, do the same. Lesson observations, whether by an inspector or a colleague, provide a vital part in this process and, if approached in the right way, could be seen as the teacher’s equivalent of a Bryanston correction period, helping both the observer and the observed deepen their understanding of their own teaching styles and subject.

When inspectors go into schools a core part of the process is lesson observation: typically, when I inspect a school, I will see about 10-15 lessons and assess whether they are a 1 (excellent), 2 (good), 3 (sound), 4 (unsatisfactory). For a school to gain an excellent in quality of teaching (which is what Bryanston recently achieved) they must have a high proportion of lessons graded as excellent. Putting all those lesson observation forms together at the end of the inspection is an illuminating experience: it reveals, quite clearly and categorically, whether the school puts teaching and learning right at the heart of everything it does. It might surprise you to learn that some schools do not: without clear leadership they have drifted away from this core duty. Inspections are a necessary corrective, a vital part of a process that, hopefully, can help schools to rediscover the transformative impact inspiring teaching can have on young people. Inspections are dangerous when the fear of being inspected leads school policy (this is perhaps more evident in the maintained sector, which is inspected by Ofsted).

No teacher wants to hear that they are anything less than brilliant: in fact, rather a lot of teachers would like to see themselves as a combination of Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society and Mr Chips (perhaps there are some chemistry teachers who rather like Walter White from Breaking Bad, but they won’t own up to it). An excellent school encourages debate about teaching and learning. In such schools, teachers talk about pedagogy, rather than complain about the children they teach; a significant proportion of staff are actively interested in learning about their own profession: they read (and write blogs), they try new things, they are open-minded about new strategies, they reflect on the lessons they have taught, and plan future lessons accordingly; and they like sharing ideas. Crucially, they want to learn.

And they like learning from each other. Bryanston is currently involved in a process of lesson study: we have agreed on key areas upon which we want to improve, and we try to focus on these areas when we watch other colleagues teach. We encourage each other to visit unfamiliar subjects, so that we can really learn something new. Such lesson studies need only be for 10 or 15 minutes, and the conversations afterwards can be very focused, or part of a wider discussion. This can be exhilarating: English teachers need to be reminded about the poetry of mathematics; science teachers need to lose themselves in the intensity of Shakespeare’s language; history teachers can only benefit from understanding a little more about economics, but it is also fascinating to hear why a teacher taught that subject in that way.

The aim is to embed an ongoing culture of professional dialogue so that all teachers learn from each other. If we can do that, then inspections, vital though they are, will also become an opportunity for learning, rather than something to be tolerated (or feared). The ultimate aim of all schools, and all school systems, is to view inspections - and inspectors - as critical friends, professional equals who engage in discussion. That happens when a school really is excellent (it happened to us in Bryanston), and when inspectors do not seek to reduce a school to something utilitarian and measurable, but instead treat a school as a complex organisation that needs to be understood on its own terms. The challenge for all those involved in running schools, and to those who want to see them get better, is simple: keep talking, keep listening, keep learning.