Some thoughts on, ‘When the Adults Change, Everything Changes’ by @PivotalPaul

I have come to a frightening conclusion.  I am the decisive element in the classroom.”  (Ginott, H., 1972).

I am just lucky, it seems, to be teaching in a school that employs many of the very, very good strategies laid out in this book (I can say they’re very, very good because I have first-hand experience of them) as my school existed before the book and @PivotalPaul has never had anything to do with my school.  The uncanniness was such that I had to DM him on Twitter and check.  We call the strategies different things but the parallels are strong.  What are the chances?  Or is it, maybe, actually all just common sense?  It feels like it might be … I wonder if @PivotalPaul would agree?

It’s certainly true to say that part of my enjoyment of the book – and I did really enjoy it – was because I found the strategies very familiar and relatable, though not always the underlying reasons given for the strategies.  I agree, for example, that public humiliation is a terrible behaviour management strategy.  Terrible because it’s cruel, even maybe emotionally abusive, and not, as suggested in the book, because it simply fuels a child’s fame and reputation… like some children enjoy being publicly humiliated.  I would strongly argue that even if a child appears to be revelling in the infamy they may gain from a very public reprimand, it still wouldn’t be true to say we shouldn’t do it because they’re gaining from it.  I don’t think it’s very likely that they are genuinely enjoying that notoriety – they’ve got to find some way of dealing with the humiliation – and, even if they are, that shouldn’t be the reason we don’t do it.  Nor would I advocate the ‘names on the board’, ‘good list / bad list’, approach, whatever visuals are used to represent the binary or graduated system being employed (smiley / sad faces; a rainbow; a league table etc.), but are we really suggesting that use of white, grey and black clouds has any dubious racial connotations.  Surely not!  Last time I checked, most of us would be more pleased at the sight of a fluffy white cloud than a towering grey one and it certainly isn’t because we are racist!  Furthermore, in places, the book seems to assume a widespread cynicism and jadedness within the profession, which i found jarring and at odds with the overall message of the book – positive relationships, restorativeness, and compassion. Depending on your school, what’s going on for you outside of school, the world, the weather, whatever, I know there can be lessons, days, weeks, terms and years where teaching is really, really, really hard… but I’m yet to find a teacher that didn’t go into it, stay in it, or even leave it for reasons that are good and right.  My experience of the profession is that teachers are open minded and resilient in the face of turbulence and change, and persevere in spite of it.  Ultimately, teaching is a vocation and leaving it if it isn’t right for you (or isn’t right for you any more) is as good for the students as staying if it is right for you.

None of this – not the fact my school already uses lots of the strategies or my concerns about some of the rationale for the strategies – means that I didn’t have any takeaways from the book though.  I did!  In fact, loads!!!  The book is bursting at the seams with great ideas, well explained in no nonsense and no jargon language, with lots of supporting anecdotes.  I particularly valued the bullet point summaries at the end of each chapter.  These could easily be put together into a list that would make it easier to keep reminding yourself once you’re back inside that black box without having to re-read or try to find specific bits of the book.  I have made myself a list of things from the book that I’d like to try and to work on, as well as new perspectives on existing strategies, ready for this new academic year.  It was good to consider some familiar ideas from a different perspective as well as ways of developing and adding to the repertoire.

It never takes me long to turn any issue around to my favourite topic; inclusion.  It is barely explicitly mentioned in this book and that is a good thing, in my opinion.  Good behaviour management is only good behaviour management if it is good for everybody – there shouldn’t need to be an alternative to make it work for some children.  The strategies in the book are all strongly founded in relationships, being reliable and consistent, being kind, being human and recognising that the kids are only human too, so fallible, and subject to having to deal with life like we all are.  Every school has children that have been labelled, either explicitly or tacitly, as ‘difficult’… maybe they have additional needs or behaviour that’s challenging… and anyone who has experienced success when working them will know that it is all about relationships, being hyper aware of your body language, consistency and reliability, kindness and understanding.  But being kind and reliable and pleased to see the children that you have chosen to work with (you chose to be a teacher and they didn’t choose to be a student!) is not an SEN provision and it is not a behaviour management technique!  This is just how we should be striving to be.  Just because we get away with letting those things slip with more resilient students does not mean that it is okay to become complacent about it.  It doesn’t mean its okay to be distant, short tempered, inconsistent and unkind.  In short, if we can get it right for the least able, most vulnerable children (and this book would be a great place to start!) we are going to be getting it right for everyone else as well.

As the author himself acknowledges, the strategies in this book work best (or just work at all) if done at a whole school level and with 100% opt in from staff.  A tall order!  I imagine that being the only person in the school, or one of a few, that are implementing these strategies would be very frustrating, and probably pretty confusing for the students too.  In fact, as @PivotalPaul acknowledges very clearly, it can be just as frustrating if everyone is on the same page and just one or two are not subscribing to the principles set out in the book.  This book either really, really is, or really, really isn’t, (depends whether or not you think a person can change!) a book for teachers who strongly believe that children should leave any social, emotional or mental health issues they have at the door, be seen and not heard, do as I say because I say so, and be increasingly sanctioned until they comply if they don’t.  As I’m typing that last sentence I’m struggling to believe that any teacher would be reading and saying, yep; that’s me.  However, my personal experience is that this is what some teachers seem to be doing.

Overall, though, I found this book an enjoyable and impactful read and would recommend it to all teachers in all types of schools.  Read it.  Take everything you can from it.  Then give it to your leadership team.

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NO EXCUSES

Maybe I’m jumping on the bandwagon a bit here, but I read the recent blog posts about the ‘no excuses culture’ concept (here and here) with great interest as I myself work in a no excuses school and realised, perhaps for the first time, that it is an idea that is open to interpretation. I found myself fluctuating between agreement and opposition almost sentence by sentence in some sections, and again in the comments sections of both posts, and I would like to contribute my own thoughts on the matter. I work in a no excuses school but this post represents my personal interpretation of that concept; all views are entirely my own (with significant reference/response to the aforementioned posts and heavily drawing on personal experience from my own context).

First and foremost, I absolutely believe that the no excuses concept is right for the students, the school community, and for the future of society – we are educating our students academically and also preparing them for adult life; an important aspect of that is teaching them to take responsibility for their actions. This aspect of their learning, like all other aspects of their learning, has to be done within the parameters of their being children and in the process of gaining life experience, developing the cognitive capacity to function in adult society and, of course, within the parameters of us all being only human. This doesn’t mean that ‘no excuses’ should be implemented on a scale of reasonableness where some excuses are more excusable than others. In fact, the very opposite – it means that there has to be absolute clarity of what the phrase means and how it applies to individual experiences… and all within the context of a school being a safe and supportive environment for the young people it is nurturing to adulthood.

There is, I believe, a significant difference between an ‘excuse’ and a ‘reason’.

excuse /ik’sju:z/
Seek to lessen the blame attaching to a fault or offence.

reason /’ri:z(e)n/
A cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event.

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/browse/english/

Yes, we want our students to take responsibility for their actions – intentional or accidental – and to realise how their choices impact others as well as their own future. We don’t, however, want them to feel guilty about things that were out of their control, and we don’t want them to become so fearful of taking responsibility for their actions that they become dishonest and deceptive in order to avoid the consequences. The culture of a school, therefore, is instrumental in the successful implementation of the ‘no excuses’ approach. In a school community built on the common values of trust and fairness, where adults are reliable and supportive and the behaviour management system is based on correction as opposed to punishment, and where relationships are strong (another argument for smaller schools), a consistent approach can be achieved by taking each situation on an individual basis –  one-size-fits-one systems – and students can feel safe to take responsibility for their mistakes as they learn how to function appropriately in society. Having no pen because you didn’t bother to check your bag that morning (and even though you had ample time to go to the resource shop and whatever other safety nets are in place) is a learning experience and students will need to be supported to understand the impact of that choice they made and be intrinsically motivated – not guilted or frightened – to make better choices in the future. No excuses, but a learning process. Oh, and they will need a pen. A house fire, I would say, is a reason and not an excuse for not having proper equipment and/or uniform. Conversely, though, I would say that the ‘no excuses’ concept can still be applied. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything wrong to be knocked down by the things that life throws at you… we want our students to be resilient enough to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and keep going. No excuses, but having learnt that we should all support one another in times of need.

For me, as a teacher and INCo, there is another layer of meaning I take from the ‘no excuses’ mantra; there are no excuses for low expectation. The genuine reasons there might be for a school to operate in a certain way, implement specific support, access outside agencies, or take innovative approaches to reaching out to their community both within and beyond the school gate, too often become excuses for having low expectations of students or certain groups/individuals within the school. There are lots of reasons to be creative, unique and aspirational (perhaps where others wouldn’t be)… there are no excuses for expecting someone to be any less than the best that they can be. We are a no excuses school because we don’t let any of the reasons we do things become excuses for low expectations.

So, as I see it, the no excuses concept is straightforward; we take responsibility for our actions, whether intentional or accidental, and we learn from those experiences. We do what we say we are going to do and we do it because it is the right thing to do. We aim to give 100% every day and we never give up.

We do our best.

No excuses.

God damn it, you’ve got to be kind…

If I could go back in time, what behaviour management advice would I give to my NQT self?

Behaviour management, to me, is the thing that sets the school teacher apart from all the many and various other imparters of information. The rest – tutors, lecturers, instructors and so on – do not, or rarely, experience the same combination of circumstantial factors that the school teacher does. To be significantly outnumbered by students who have not been given the choice as to whether they’d like to be there or not (although, one would hope, they had since been persuaded to fully opt in to their education!) and, what’s more, they’re children… it could seem like the odds are stacked against you! I’m confident that the perceived ‘main thing’ that teachers do is, well… teach! In reality, no teaching will be effective until that behaviour is being managed. I don’t even mean the management of bad behaviour. Just the management of human behaviour… of human children behaviour! Effective behaviour management is crucial. And it would be much more straight forward, especially for those just starting out in the profession, if there was an acknowledged and 100% effective way of doing it… but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I have blogged about behaviour management before (click here). About the importance of the behaviour management policy in ensuring social inclusion for the most vulnerable learners… and I stand by that; it’s important. However, with little notable difference between the policies of schools rated good/outstanding for behaviour by Ofsted and those rated inadequate/RI, and pockets of exceptional behaviour management in failing schools and examples of ineffective behaviour management – or, at least, practice that is open to debate – in those deemed to be successful; clearly it is neither the behaviour management policy nor the judgement of Ofsted that is the be all and end all of effectively managing behaviour.

Things are about to get personal.

Because it is personal. Perhaps more so than any other aspect of being a teacher – pedagogy, management and teamwork, pastoral – none are affected by personality so much as behaviour management. Because, yeah; a strong behaviour management policy and an overall effective (according to Ofsted… not necessarily my favourite measure of success!) school are an essential basis, but there will always be diversity and disparity in how staff approach that. This isn’t, in my opinion, a problem. Surely the students deserve and benefit from having a varied experience across their school day. And, just like neither the Ofsted outcome nor the policy are, in isolation, the ‘answer’, neither is homogeneity of approach; the students will move on to live in a diverse and complex society. Any school will have their share of the “don’t smile ‘til Christmas” crew, the matey and jovial types, and everything in between… does effective behaviour management exist at one point on that spectrum and nowhere else? I don’t believe it does. So, are the issues and complexities of behaviour management (if we assume a strong behaviour management policy and a set of shared values) actually the issues and complexities of trying to strike a balance between expectation and your own personality, personal values and interpretation of that expectation? A delicate balancing act between consistency and individuality? Between parity and variety? Finding this balance – your own personal behaviour management sweet spot – in which learning can take place is, to me, the great skill of being a school teacher. The thing that sets it apart from other, similar, roles. But it’s also the thing that makes it really, really hard.

Behaviour Venn

Which brings me back to my original question: if I could go back in time, what behaviour management advice would I give to my NQT self?

Somewhere in the overlapping space between the context, the shared values of society and my own personality, exists my behaviour management style. This isn’t about a piece of policy or an idea in a head… this is about managing behaviour when faced with the stark reality of the job; the room full of children. It is how I meet expectation whilst staying true to my own identity and values. It’s how I strive to strike a balance between consistency and variety for the students I teach. It’s what I wish I could tell my NQT self because it’s what I tell myself now, every day. Because I don’t necessarily think I’m achieving it… on a good day I hope I get close! But, generally, this list represents my aspiration as a manager of the behaviour of children. It’s the rule book i’ve given myself for setting the scene for learning in my classroom and it’s the self-administered mental admonishment I give myself when I get it wrong. These are the guidelines that exist in the space between expectation and my personality… it isn’t going to be the same for everyone but everyone, I think, will have their own version (and I’d love to hear them!). Not ‘behaviour management in the black box’, but ‘behaviour management in my black box’… here it is; my advice to my NQT and current behaviour manager self:

My Behaviour Management Top Ten

BE CLEAR          –          BE CONSISTENT          –          BE IN CONTROL          –          BE KIND

Top Ten

  1. Be crystal clear.
    Lead with their name. Ensure that you’ve got their attention before you start imparting your wisdom or giving your instruction. Don’t use sarcasm, idiom, rhetoric or so on… say what you mean. Don’t use ‘please’ unless it’s a plea; use ‘thank you’ for expectations. Say why you’re doing something. If you can’t think of a reason why, then don’t do it.
  2. Draw your line and stick to it.
    Children make mistakes in the grey area between the line you have drawn and the line you enforce. Once you’ve said something is going to happen it has to happen… so be careful what you say! No idle, excessive, unrealistic or non-intended ‘threats’…. Give clear, fair, REAL, causes and effects. If you say ‘no talking’ and then allow a bit of whispering as long as they’re getting on with it, and then on another day say ‘no talking’ and actually want them not to talk at all… how are they supposed to know the difference? If they talk in the second instance then that error is yours, not theirs. If they’re allowed to talk a bit, say so! If they’re not, enforce it. If you create a grey area between the instruction and the reality of the situation they will make mistakes within that uncertain space. And it will be your fault. And, what’s more, you’ve made yourself unreliable.
  3. Know when to not stick to it.
    I’m reminded of a kid I used to teach, he was in year 8 at the time, who was the archetypal ‘class clown’, nothing bothered him, right old pain in the neck. Without the support of a strong behaviour management superstructure within that school… I had exhausted everything in my repertoire. I kept him back at the end of the lesson. He was not bothered. I gave detentions. He was not bothered. And then I informed him that I would ring home and speak to his dad. In an instant the tone of the situation had changed. He was crying, he was on his knees with hands clasped, imploring me – voice catching on each sob – not to ring his father. He’d behave himself. He was sorry. I didn’t know what his father might do if caught in the wrong mood. In that instant every interaction I’d ever had with that child flashed across my mind: the cocky swagger as he showed off a black eye or bruised lip and claimed that we should see the state of the other boy; that nothing could bother or hurt him – he was untouchable – he was devoid of remorse or self-care; that, despite all this, he had the most amazing attendance… he never missed an opportunity to be in school, no matter how badly it seemed to be going.
    I had drawn my line.
    I did not stick to it.
  4. Don’t get into a dialogue.
    If the student has some say in what is happening then yes; have a conversation about it. If they don’t – if you, as the adult, have decided that things need to happen a certain way (silence in a test, safety in the classroom, non-optional tasks/homework, treatment of the other students et cetera)… then allowing a dialogue is giving them the false impression that they have some control. It’s undermining your own position of authority and it’s creating a grey area in which mistakes can be made. That isn’t fair.
  5. Never back a child into a corner.
    The get out clause. No matter what’s happened, or how far a situation has escalated, there should always be a ‘way out’ for the child; there should always be the opportunity of a positive choice they can make in order to take back control and move on from the situation. This doesn’t mean that they ‘get away with it’… this means that they learn from it. Tell them that their behaviour is unacceptable and that the resultant sanction isn’t going to go anywhere. But also tell them what their options are for moving forward in a positive way. And, what’s more, once the sanction has been completed the slate is wiped clean.
  6. Give them a range of options (all of which you are happy with).
    Being in control isn’t the same as being controlling. You’ve got to be in control; they’re young, there’s loads of them, and you’re responsible for their safety and well-being. But, within this, they also need to learn to be autonomous, independent and self-regulating. They can still have choice… genuine choice… just make sure all the options are acceptable to you!
  7. Winning an argument with an angry and upset child is NOT winning.
    In spite of best endeavours you will sometimes end up in a heated confrontation with a student; they’re only human and you’re only human. It will – hopefully rarely – happen. Remind yourself; who in this situation has the power and control? Who is the most vulnerable? Who is feeling the most distress and fear? Approaching this situation with kindness and compassion, putting whatever the issue is to one side for the moment, is not backing down and it isn’t giving in – the best outcome is the one where the child has learnt something valuable that’s going to serve them well as they grow into adults… and not that people will dominate and control them but that people will help and guide them to the right outcome. In a high intensity situation the rational thought processes are by-passed in favour of a more primal ‘fight or flight’ mechanism – no one is in the right frame of mind to learn at that point. De-escalate the situation. Be the reassuring, safe, trustworthy adult. Deal with the problematic behaviour when your message might actually go in. And when it does – and you still have the trust and respect of that child – then you have won.
  8. They can only be as trustworthy as you trust them to be.
    Children learn in the gap between what they can already do and the opportunities they have to try something new. So take risks; the bigger the risk, the bigger the learning opportunity… and sometimes it will go wrong, but that in itself is part of the learning process (for you as well as the student!). Send the naughty kid on an errand, give the least able a position of responsibility, give the notorious bully a caring role. And then be there when they’ve proven that they’re better than anyone, even themselves, ever thought they could be… or to dust them down and set them off again if needs be.
  9. Remember; you’re pretending.
    The moment you lose your temper is the moment you lose control and, for their safety and your own sanity, you must be in control (not controlling!). Give the response that teaches them how their actions can make those around them feel; are you angry? Or are you disappointed? Annoyed? Inconvenienced? Emotionally hurt?
  10. THE GOLDEN RULE: Unconditional Positive Regard.
    When they’re problematic, make mistakes, don’t know something or don’t approach something in the way that they should, you… YOU… are the person that is there to pull them through. You’re the adult. You chose to be there. You work for them. On that basis, is there… should there be… anything they can do that changes that? If you aren’t there for them… why are you there? Show them how you want them to behave. Be their champion!

Hello Babies...

This is the advice I would give to my NQT self because it is the advice I give to myself now, every day. My personal behaviour management manifesto for fairness.

What’s yours?

In search of silence…

We don’t need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’t’s; we need books, time and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but once upon a time lasts forever.

PHILIP PULLMAN

Silence; It’s a hot topic at my school – rationalising it, achieving and maintaining it – and, probably as a result, I am increasingly aware of both the value and the absence of it, in education and in general. It is a peculiar thing, really; the most intangible of abstract concepts, disappearing as soon as its existence is stated… it is impossible to know for sure what it contains for anyone other than yourself. It is the absence of something as opposed to a ‘thing’ in its own right, and yet it can hold and communicate so much. It is a void full of possiblies and possibilities… a resource so potentially readily available and yet, seemingly, so difficult to grasp. So, shhhhhhh; here are my thoughts on our use of silence as a tool in education.

It is, first and foremost, a practicality. With narrow corridors, split breaks and lunches, and a number of ‘open’ classrooms (with an entire wall missing and, therefore, open to the corridor), it just makes sense to have silent corridors. Silence in general, actually; it is our natural state. And it’s a practicality; for the avoidance of disturbing the learning of others, and for the assurance of swift transition between lessons… It just makes sense. I am most aware and reflective about it when I am not at my own school. The normal sounds, the hustle and bustle, of a secondary school corridor have become a bit alien to me; alarming even. I’ve come to associate those noise levels with two things; the lively discussion of learning in classrooms, and the chatter and general hubbub of the students’ break and lunch times. For me, now, it has no place on the corridors where the learning of others can be affected. It has no place at times of transition when every minute wasted represents learning lost. And it is, first and foremost, a practicality. But it is the little things, when done with consistency and continuity that sneak up on you with surprise benefits. And, for the sake of a few minutes apiece at a few key points throughout the day, the impact of silence stretches far beyond any practical raison d’être.

Silence creates a purposeful environment. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong end of the stick here, don’t be fooled; our students are noisy. And, like all children, they mess about, shout and carry on, and move unnecessarily fast and without due care and attention. This is fine. There is, however, a clear distinction between the places and times of learning and those of socialising and recreation. The community hub of our academy, the heartspace, is alive with children being children; a thoroughfare through the middle of the building; all of the children’s lockers are located here; there’s usually a lot of toast about. My office is right in the middle of it and believe me, it is far from silent. Directly adjoining the heartspace we also have the iBase – a learning commons where the children can read, work, research, discuss, set up clubs and societies et cetera; the yard – where (for reasons I will never fully understand) they run around, seemingly at random; and the staff room… actually, this space is usually pretty quiet. It’s kind of a balcony overlooking the heartspace (though I’m not tall enough to see over the wall) but you are much more likely to find staff in the heartspace itself, munching a slice of toast. The rest of the school though – the classrooms and corridors – are places of purpose and determination. Aspiration and ambition. There’s no time or reason for idle chit chat; there’s an important job to be done and no time to lose!!!

One thing I learnt on my PGCE (and then re-learnt, the hard way, as an NQT) is that the first few moments of a lesson matter. Like, really matter. Be at your door, greet the students, have a task ready… set the pace, tone, and expectation on arrival. But what if they arrived at your door already ready? Calm, quiet, and clear as to what the expectations are because that’s what they experience from classroom to classroom and everywhere in between? Isn’t that the ideal starting point for learning? The ideal starting point for behaviour for learning? For me, an important aspect of being a teacher is scaffolding success for the students; creating systems that enable and facilitate them to ‘get it right’… and silent corridors are one way of doing this. They’re less likely to be late because there’s no temptation to stop for a chat. They’re less likely to speak out of turn, or not turn their learning behaviour back on quick enough, because there’s been no change of parameters in the transition between lessons. They’re more likely to be able to get ‘on task’ as soon as they arrive because they were never ‘off task’ in the between time; the purposefulness of the learning environment has been maintained.

Walking, side by side with your friends (and enemies!), in silence takes self-discipline. Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, even when no one is watching, takes integrity. Giving 100% of your effort day in and day out takes determination and drive. These are not simply the personal qualities required to make a successful transition from period three to period four; these are the personal qualities required for success in general. They are transferable skills.

Silence creates a reflective environment. I sometimes wonder what the children are thinking about while they walk, silently, to their next lesson. Maybe they’re processing some new learning or beginning to plan a recently set homework. Maybe they’re reflecting on how their day is going; have they taken another step on their journey up the mountain to university (or a real alternative), a top job and a great life? Or, maybe their mind is completely empty at those times… complete peace, stillness and serenity; a tabula rasa for the next lesson. I cannot remember the last time there wasn’t a kind of fragmented and randomly ordered ‘to do’ list doing a spin cycle in my brain. They could be thinking about what they’re having for tea that night or what’s going to be on the telly, and that’s fine; ultimately, I don’t think it really matters, the point is that they can.

For a teacher, an average day probably consists of sharing a lot of information that they already know and remaining within a consistent theme, e.g. geography/maths/art, interspersed with the odd bit of PPA. For a student, an average day consists of a relentless bombardment of new information on a range of different, and often completely unrelated, topics; it is a lot to take in and they don’t even get PPA! Well designed and planned social and recreational areas/times should provide students with the opportunity to unwind; to sit and chat with friends, read, run around at random… but do they provide an opportunity for private, personal reflection? Certainly, if I saw a child just sat staring into space I would strive to intervene! Where are their friends?! What club or activity might they like?! Has something happened at home?! These social and recreational times are important and need to be preserved … but when can the children reflect? When can they take a moment to let their brain process and sort all of that new information they have received? In moments of peace, like when we dream, our minds can wander from one thing to another and, even when our thoughts seem unrelated to the reality of what is important, begin to organise and prepare for whatever might happen next. I don’t know what the students are thinking about as they walk, silently, to their next lesson, but I do know this; they are free from the sounds and experiences of the classroom and also those of their break and lunchtimes… their mind is free to meander, and that is important.

Silence creates a safer environment. I was recently at one of those kinds of meetings that SENCo’s find themselves at frequently and was asked, by an educational psychologist, whether my school had a ‘safe space’ for vulnerable children. I suppose we don’t; there is no designated area for vulnerable students… and the assumption that we should have one raises a number of issues for me. What would having a ‘safe space’ for vulnerable students imply? That the rest of the school isn’t safe? That the rest of the students don’t require safety? Are they immune to vulnerability or just not entitled to protection from it? Or, do they need to reach a certain level of criticality before anything is done to help; until then they’re just coping? All children are vulnerable simply by virtue of being children. All children require and deserve to be safe; the whole school has to be a safe space for them. As well as the least vulnerable children being entitled to safety, the most vulnerable children are entitled to choice. They shouldn’t have to be segregated to experience safety and they shouldn’t be denied access to the social spaces and learning facilities of their school and community either. They shouldn’t be made to feel like the only way they can ‘belong’ is by being subject to conditions. This is the received wisdom of accepted segregation as a form of equality. It’s what perpetuates inequality in adult society. It’s not fair. And I haven’t gone off topic, I promise… the natural state of silence is a major contributor in providing a safer school for all students.

Achieving and maintaining silence requires presence. We collect our students after morning starters, break and lunch and escort them to lessons. Every time. We stand at our classroom doors to supervise the corridor and receive our next class between lessons. Every time. We share break time with the students and we eat with the students. Every time. The students are supervised and supported in every instance and this, perhaps counterintuitively, facilitates their independence and autonomy. Students who may be vulnerable to bullying, those who struggle to manage their own behaviour, those who struggle to manage their time and belongings, are not segregated for their own or anyone else’s safety and they don’t have their developmental and social opportunities hindered by 1:1 support between lessons; they simply do what all of the students do. And the less vulnerable children? Unaffected; unless, of course there’s a problem – a fall, a seizure or hypo, a behaviour incident. These sorts of incident can be picked up quickly on a silent and supervised corridor. A school designed to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and least able children is a school that can meet the needs of all of its children; intrinsically and inclusively. That’s equality.

Our students are all young – we only have years 7 to 9 currently – and I’m happy to acknowledge that how we do things will need to change as they get older; we already have a slightly different approach for year 9 compared to the younger year groups. But it can be done with real consideration of their needs as children and young people; educational and personal. To me, at 11, 12 and 13, even 14 and 15, years old… they’re just kids. They need and deserve our support on their learning curve to adulthood and, if we aren’t willing to put that in place, then maybe we are going to have to segregate the most vulnerable, escort them to lessons, and just hope for the best for the rest.

Maintaining a natural state of silence isn’t easy. I mean, it isn’t difficult as such, but it does mean doing the little things… maybe some boring or inconvenient things… lesson after lesson, day after day, week after week.   But it is the little things, when done with consistency and continuity, that sneak up on you with surprise benefits. And, for the sake of a few minutes apiece at a few key points throughout the day, the impact of silence stretches so much further than simply being a practicality.

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TA, or not TA?

That is the question. And it’s a rhetorical question; there are no teaching assistants at my school. And it is, by far, the thing I find myself explaining, justifying and, well, actively defending most often. TA’s, understandably, are a controversial and emotive subject. Not least because they’ve been the victims of some (vaguely) damning research over the last few years, but also, when you’re talking about TA’s you’re really talking about the education and well-being of our most vulnerable learners; you’re talking about people’s jobs/careers/vocations; and you’re raising a question about the role expectations and responsibilities of teachers. It’s important. So it’s important that we get it right. The decision to be a no-TA school wasn’t taken on the basis of a personal vendetta against classroom support staff, nor is it because we don’t have students who would receive that kind of support if they went to a different school; we do. We simply forgot to employ any, and now… only joking. It is, as always, a decision made as a result of considering the needs of the students – all of the students – and putting systems and structures in place that meet those needs. So here it is; why my school has no TA’s and what we do instead – a treatise.

Why my school has no TA’s;

  • There was some research…
    It seems a little unreasonable to go ahead without mentioning the Education Endowment Foundation/Sutton Trust research on the same topic. TA’s are high cost, low impact; that’s the headline…but, other than that, the whole thing’s just a little bit hazy. The vast differences in the roles and responsibilities between the primary, secondary and special education sectors, and even within those sectors, means that any research conducted is difficult to generalise. If it succeeded in achieving anything it is that it made schools reconsider how their TA’s were being deployed and, where it looked like the problems pointed out in the research might apply, implement changes in order to make improvements. I don’t intend this to be (another) analysis, critique or protestations of the EEF research; that’s been done to death. I’ve included links to the research, my favourite analysis of it, and some other responses to it, in the READ section above. I’ve covered the points that I feel apply to my own setting – a mainstream secondary school – in the bullet point below.
  • Equality in education means equal quality of education for all students…
    And equal quality of education means equal access to qualified teachers, subject specialists, resources, materials, and educational experiences for all students. Whether it is a TA sat with a student/small group within the classroom, or individuals/small groups being withdrawn for extra literacy, numeracy or nurture with a non-teacher, this is reducing that/those student(s) access to qualified, specialist staff and, as such, it is not truly inclusive; it is a form of internal segregation. In order to ensure equal quality of education, the most vulnerable learners will need MORE access to qualified, specialist staff, not less.  If we are to avoid diminishing the value of teacher training and continuing professional development, we have to concede and accept that TA’s, by their very nature, do not have that training and specialism. What is it that a teacher can offer (to testify to their training and justify their pay packet) that a TA cannot? And don’t our vulnerable learners need that thing too? In fact, more of it? The EEF research alludes to this when they say that sometimes, maybe, there might be situations where the presence of a TA might possibly be actively detrimental to a student’s academic progress and development. That a lack of understanding of how knowledge is acquired and how children develop might lead to deskilling or even the TA doing the work for them. I’ve seen this happening.
    I know that lots of TA’s now do undertake training (HLTA or similar, or training in a specific intervention), have degrees that give them a specialism, or work with the most instead of least able… I still think that all students should have equal access to fully qualified, specialist teachers. And I know that some TA’s are just really, really good at what they do and are genuinely adding value to that students learning experience; these TA’s are teachers. Undervalued, underpaid teachers. If you’re teaching you’re a teacher – whether it’s a class, a group, or one twelve year old with learning difficulties – and you should be acknowledged as such. Of course, if a person with those skills is happy with their situation – maybe they don’t want to train/qualify, and they’re happy with their salary – that’s fine, but because of the low expectation for qualification and experience at application/interview, finding these amazing people is pot luck and a punt I’m not willing to take.
  • Equality in education means equal quality of experience for all students…
    School isn’t just about an academic education, it should also prepare students for adulthood and be an enjoyable overall experience. There are two points here; 1) how do we ensure our most vulnerable learners are as prepared as possible for adult life? and 2) how do we ensure that their school days are a happy memory when they achieve that?
    First things first; our lowest ability, most vulnerable learners need to become independent, autonomous and resilient adults. The first challenge with each new year 7 cohort is to convince those students who have had a TA that, when we speak, we mean them too. Even an instruction as simple as ‘everyone open your book’ is, more often than not, ‘everyone open your book; [insert name], open your book’. They are the victims of classroom level internal segregation and low expectation… they have learnt that ‘whole class’, or ‘everyone’, doesn’t mean them; they’re not expected to be able to do it. I’m not saying that we should just leave them to fend for themselves, of course not, but how that support is given is due a rethink. Remember; their TA is not going to be with them in the team meeting when they’re 24; their TA is not going to be with them on the platform when the train’s cancelled and the Tannoy crackles into life. Their TA probably isn’t even going to be with them in every lesson they go to in a normal school day.
    Second things second; I’m going to be blunt here. It is hard enough being a teenager. It is one giant social/emotional/behavioural learning curve. Making (and retaining!) friendships, being part of a crowd, learning right from wrong… is hard enough as it is and even more of a challenge if you have an additional need. The last thing you need is to spend the best part of each day hanging out with some middle aged woman. Okay, I’m generalising (not all TA’s are middle aged women) and being pejorative… as always… but I’m sticking to my guns on this one. Of course, we want our students to behave because they’re motivated to learn. We want them to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do… but, ultimately, they are learning. They’re going to pass notes, whisper, take a 2 minute daydream, throw a paper aeroplane, and learn the hard way that this will get them into trouble (or, even better, it will prevent themselves or others from being the best that they can be!)… and, sometimes, they might just get away with it. Being with a TA blocks access to these normal social/emotional/behavioural learning opportunities. Little clockwork oranges, being forced to do right instead of being able to choose right from wrong.

What do we do instead?

  • Superstructures: staffing and timetabling…
    At key stage 3 (we only have years 7-9 currently) the students are grouped according to ability and the timetable is structured to reflect the needs and priorities of each ability group. So, groups 1 and 2 have four lessons each of English and maths every week, group 3 have five of each and group 4 have a whopping 8 of each every week. Of the 16 English and maths lessons group 4 have around 80% of them are double staffed; there are two subject specialist, or a subject specialist and an IN specialist, teachers timetabled for that lesson. There are also a small number of lessons each week that are triple staffed on the same basis. I’ll leave the specifics of how the over-timetabling and double/triple staffing actually works for a future post (this one’s getting a bit long!) but, basically, it allows for super flexibility, lots of collaboration, intervention to take place within timetabled lessons, pre-teaching/over-teaching/just taking it slow, and a more focused curriculum for lower ability learners, all with qualified teachers.
  • Superstructures: teaching, learning and assessment…
    In addition to the long term structural differentiation described above, all students are closely monitored and intervention for those that are not making expected progress is swift and pertinent. Movement between the ability groups can take place within the year as well as at transition time, targeted intervention is delivered – for all ability groups – by subject specialists within departments. Daily planning is focused on intervention and differentiation based on the most recent assessment data as well as being responsive to students’ needs within the lesson. Again, there’s too much to say for on bullet point in a post about TA’s, but that’s the gist; whole school systems that are designed for the whole school and, as such, meet the needs of all students.
  • All teachers are teachers of SEN…
    Being a truly inclusive school relies on having a truly inclusive school culture. There’s no TA’s and no withdrawal, so if they’re on your register they’re your responsibility… and the expectation for low ability students to make progress is as high as it is for everyone else; in fact, it’s higher – they’ve got further to travel. Literacy intervention is the responsibility of the English department and numeracy is the responsibility of the maths department. That leaves pastoral intervention and support for the Individual Needs department (IN); homework club, handwriting, dyslexia support, ASC, access for physical and sensory disabilities et cetera. The superstructures support teaching staff to support their vulnerable learners, but there’s no denying that some students present more of a challenge for inclusivity than others. IN strives to provide the information and back-up – Inclusion Strategies (INIS’s – similar to one-page-profiles) and Intervention Plans (INIP’s – replace IEP’s), support with planning, resources and assessing students, advice and information – that make success possible.
  • The bigger picture…
    Of course, this all sits within the wider framework of educational and societal equality at the local authority, regional and national level. Mary Warnock, in her 2005 revision of her views on SEN-D policy, suggested that there should be more, smaller schools. This would enable schools to have fairly narrow specialisms (including specialisms that would make them more suited to children with complex additional needs as well as specialisms such as sports, arts, science, computing et cetera), it would give parents more choice as to where their child goes to school, and it would enable each school to foster a more nurturing, personal overall environment. In addition, it is vital that each child is in the school that is right for them; the school that can give them the best quality of education and school experience possible. For some students this could mean a school that specialises in a particular skill they have demonstrated or are interested in – dance, computing, sports et cetera – and for others it might be a school that specialises in a particular need they have – Autism, complex learning needs, multi-sensory impairment et cetera –and provide a certain kind of environment, resources or expertise. I still firmly believe that the local school is, more often than not, the right school for the majority of children; including those with a Statement of SEN or EHCP. Being truly inclusive means having a diverse community where children learn tolerance, acceptance and to value all sorts of different people, and being open minded, flexible and willing to apply every aspect of your school policy to a wide range of abilities and needs… but this needs to be in balance with a commitment to ensuring that each child is getting equal quality of education and experience; and it may be that this can only be attained at a different school. Equality at a local authority, regional or societal level means getting a balance between these two things, and this will enable each individual school to be truly inclusive as a result.

I’m not saying what we are doing is perfect. It’s a work in progress and will need continuous, ongoing tweaking and re-adjusting in order to ensure that we are getting it right. What’s more, every new cohort will bring a fresh set of challenges that will require us to review the systems in order to make sure true inclusion – equal quality of education – is being achieved. Ultimately, we do what is right for the individual; educationally and experientially. We do not currently have any students with complex physical or sensory need and, although I strongly believe that the systems we have in place will cater for these students’ learning needs, I realise that they may need support to access the physical environment or communication of the classroom and that this may require support. We have already discussed employing PA’s – personal assistants – to fulfill this role, but with the above described system remaining in place and no expectation of them to function as a teaching assistant, only to support safe access, personal care et cetera. Key stage 4 will bring a new set of challenges that will need to be met and we will, eventually, have a sixth form as well. I’m confident that the system we are developing will remain fit for purpose throughout, but only if we remain open minded, flexible, and focused on the individual needs of each individual child that comes on role. And that’s what true inclusion is all about.

Superstructures: SEN-D and whole school behaviour management systems

NB – this is my stream of consciousness response to this post by my colleague here at DTA and this post by a fellow SENCo in a different school. It started life in the comments sections but things got out of hand…

I’m going to start with a question: if we design a behaviour management system to ensure learners can learn and teachers can teach, and that students are supported to do the right thing and be the best that they can be, why would it be acceptable for any child to sit outside of that system? Don’t we want these same things for our SEN-D and vulnerable students? Equally, don’t our perceived non-vulnerable students also deserve our guidance, tolerance and flexibility? There should be no one above the system and no one beneath it; it has to work for everyone. And so we are back to this idea of ‘true inclusion’; a school fit for purpose for all of its students. There is no ‘children/SEN-D children’ dichotomy; there are just children. None of them arrive in our classrooms as a tabula rasa and all of them have individual needs of some kind; some more challenging, or longer term, than others. Any systems that are intrinsically exclusionary, i.e. designed in a way that means some children sit outside of it, foster a community based on internal segregation and an ‘us and them’ mentality. It implies that there are lower expectations for some students’ behaviour. It creates grey areas in which children are more likely to get things wrong and some students may feel a sense of injustice if rules apply to some and not others. It isn’t fair, and it certainly isn’t equality. In short, a fair behaviour management system treats every student the same whilst, at the same time, acknowledging that every student is an individual. Every student.

So, I have been prompted to consider how the behaviour management system in operation in my own school corresponds with my ethos on inclusion – true inclusion – and the equality revolution. Ofsted described behaviour at DTA as ‘exemplary’ and highlighted our values driven approach, rigorously upheld systems and culture of mutual respect, as the reasons behind this. Nevertheless, I often find myself explaining and justifying our behaviour management system as it is perceived to be excessively strict – the phrase ‘military boot camp’ has been used more than once – and particularly unfair on our lowest ability and most vulnerable students; but this simply isn’t true. Allow me to explain:

  • It isn’t revolutionary. We expect students to be in school and on time every day, dressed appropriately and with the right equipment, meet deadlines, work hard (on task behaviour) and be polite and respectful (including zero tolerance on answering back). That’s it!
  • It is routine based. The school day is highly structured and runs like clockwork, and this supports students – all of them – to meet our high expectations. The structures and routines have safety nets built in; there are lots of opportunities for students to be proactive and autonomous in resolving any issues that arise.
  • It is values driven. Our core values (hard work, trust and fairness) and academy drivers (mastery, autonomy and purpose) underpin every policy implemented, lesson taught and decision made. These six words (seven  words?!) are part of the common vocabulary of the academy – staff and students – and give meaning to our high expectations for both behaviour and learning.
  • We do what we say we are going to do. The line has been drawn and we stick to it. If you start bending the rules or making exceptions it creates a grey area in which students aren’t sure whether something is acceptable or not, teacher authority is undermined, and both staff and students may experience a sense of injustice if they’re working hard at something and others are ‘getting away with’ not bothering!
  • Restorative practice is an expectation. If a student fails to meet one of those basic expectations (and also fails to respond to the aforementioned ‘safety nets’ that are built into our routines and structures) they will be given a ‘correction’; a 30 minute, same day, after school detention. This isn’t a punishment but an opportunity for a student to reflect on the core values and academy drivers, and how they can move forward from the situation successfully. There is an expectation for the teacher that issued the correction to be a part of that process by ensuring that the student was given opportunity to avoid the correction, that they fully understand why the correction was issued, by discussing ways forward and by repairing their relationship with the student so that future lessons are not affected. This conversation could take place at the end of the lesson, during the correction itself or at break or lunch time… and it turns a one-size-fits-all system into something else entirely; a one-size-fits-one system.

This is what I would call a superstructure; a whole school policy/system that is suitable for the whole school, and a win for true inclusion! Talking about how behaviour is managed for our vulnerable learners is to talk about how behaviour is managed for all of our learners because the system was designed with all in mind. Accordingly, to talk about the system from a non-INCo perspective is to talk about how it works for all students, including the most vulnerable. For a succinct, honest and truly inclusive non-INCo perspective on this same topic, from another DTA insider, please click here. And, for an example of how one school is approaching inclusion from an entirely different angle, please click here. My thoughts on the latter are posted in the comments section at the bottom of the post.

And the IN department remains instrumental at the ‘safety net’ stage of the process.

So I get to keep my job.

🙂